'Barbarism is the natural state of mankind,' the borderer said, still staring somberly at the Cimmerian. 'Civilization is unnatural. It is a whim of circumstance. And barbarism must always ultimately triumph.'

-Robert E. Howard
Beyond The Black River

Corrupt Cliffs

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Tuesday, February 11, 2020

Altered Carbon: The RPG


I received my copy of Altered Carbon(AC) novel for Christmas several years ago. This was just before the announcement of the first season of the Netflix show. I had not heard of it before then, but it seemed like it would be a good book and up my alley, more or less. I enjoyed it well enough, although I didn't run out and read more of the series, in fact, I was not even aware of the additional books.

As details came out about the Netflix show we learned our protagonist would be played by Joel Kinnaman, who you may know from the Robocop remake. I came across Mr. Kinnaman in a crime show called "The Killing", which I HIGHLY recommend if you like these types of shows. The two main characters played by Joel Kinnaman and Mireille Enos were excellent. I am willing to give pretty much anything they are in a chance.

With the release of the TV show, AC was thrust into the forefront of sci-fi/fantasy television. It was generally well regarded, despite major differences from the book, and was certainly well regarded enough to launch a second season, albeit without Mr. Kinnaman. Another aspect of this newfound popularity, which should come across as a surprise to pretty much no one, was the announcement of the RPG back at GenCon 2019. Well we finally have the launch of the Kickstarter for the RPG associated with the IP, which currently sits at 687% funded.

What can I tell you about this world if you are unfamiliar?
  • Cyperpunk.
  • Conciousness stored digitally.
  • Death is not common, people can be transferred to new bodies.
  • Humanity exists across multiple worlds.
If you want further details I would suggest grabbing the book, checking out the Kickstarter and watching the show, but for the purposes of this, I will assume you are at least as familiar as I am with the IP; a basic understanding, but not an expert fan.

I grabbed the QuickStart and wanted to give my first impressions of the RPG and the QuickStart document.

Initially, I was curious about the company, there are a lot of RPG companies producing a lot of games, it is hard to keep track of everyone. I hadn't heard of Hunters Books (Now Hunters Entertainment), but with a quick web search I quickly found who they were and some of the other games that had published.
  • Kid's on Bikes
  • Outbreak: Undead
  • Chronicles of Exandria
  • ABC's of RPGs
I had heard of the ABCs for RPGs and Kids on Bikes, even if I didn't own them. I went and grabbed the FREE RPG day offering for Kids on Bikes and had a quick look to compared the core rules. I admit I expected to see a basic similarity between the engines running the two games, not unlike we see with the 2d20 system, Year Zero Engine or the GUMSHOE system. Initially, I thought this might be what I was seeing, but as I read a little bit it became clear that Kids on Bikes is a different system. After a little more digging and watching a few interviews I learned that this system was indeed new and developed for AC. They do have a name for it, so maybe we will see it used in other games in the future.

Once I went back and looked over the campaign a little more closely I realized they had done a pretty good basic write up talking about the new engine in the system and where it derived its ideas from. I was not surprised to see Savage Worlds listed here.


Initial Impressions of the QuickStart

Upon downloading and opening the PDF I was greeted with a typical cyberpunk cover, dark and a little sexy. Implants and neon are prevalent. As we move past that into the book we find a clean layout that is pretty easy to read, the art is nicely rendered. The part I find a little odd is the mix of rendered art and images from the TV show. I think I would have preferred strictly rendered art.

My biggest complaint about the text is the use of a plethora of icons. With time most of these will be easy to recognize, but on an initial read through it makes understanding things a little muddy.

The Basic Mechanic

Most RPGs are based on a basic mechanic used to resolve skill checks, which are then used to determine how successful a character is at an action in the game world. This is used to resolved everything from sneaking to hand to hand combat. Altered Carbon is no different. Your character rolls a die type (d12 - d4) that represents their ability in a given field, say Firearms, and try to get lower than a Target Result (TR). This means a lower die type is better than a higher die type.

Skills vs Attributes

We should note that these dice represent a character's ability in a particular skill, not the character's physical or mental ability. Generally, the attributes of a character are going to start around 20 and move up from there, 20 being low average. Further, the 10s column of the attribute is the attribute bonus, so Strength of 25 is an attribute bonus of +2.

There are basically two types of tasks that a player may be called on to attempt in AC; a situational based test and an attribute-based test. Both of these require the character to roll under a given TR, the difference is where that TR comes from. In a situational test, the base TR is determined by how hard a test is. Trivial? Start with a TR of 15. In an attribute-based test, the TR comes from the attribute bonus of the test. The final TR may be modified by sleeve enhancements, physical equipment or training. These all act to increase the total TR which will make the attempt easier, by increasing the number you are trying to roll under.


Combat will take a little bit to explain, but I believe it will be a fun combat system once players are familiar with it. The combat turn is broken into 3 basic phases: Intent, Check and Resolution. Each combat turn will have a single Intent Phase, but could have multiple rounds of Check & Resolution.

During the Intent Phase players decide what they want to do in the turn and what equipment they want to use, ie I want to shoot at the escaping criminal with my pistol, or I want to fire the rocket launcher at the escaping air car. Once that is determined characters determine their Speed Dice and roll them. These are used to determine initiative order. During the Check Phase players will roll their skill checks to determine success or failure, and finally during Resolution players determine the results of their Check Phase to determine damage etc.

Speed Dice

What the heck is a Speed Die?? It is a fancy name for a pool of D6s used to control the action economy.

If you recall, attributes have an associated bonus. The bonus for perception controls how many Speed Dice a player may roll during their Intent Phase. The Speed Dice control how many actions a player gets in a round. In their simplest form each player reveals one of their Speed Dice, and initiative is resolved in the order of the die, lowest to highest. In a more complex form a player may decide to combine multiple actions into a single round, such as aiming and shooting. In these cases the players would choose two Speed Dice for their action. These are added together to get the position in the initiative order. It is also possible for players to have Speed Dice taken up outside of their regular turn order due to being stunned, or attempting saving throws to avoid damage. When this happens players simply choose one of their remaining Speed Dice and discard it. It can no longer be used this turn.

Speed Dice are an interesting idea, and could probably use a little more clarification in the QuickStart rules, but I think what I have described is at least their intent based on the rules and examples.

Degrees of Success (or Failure)

Combat also introduces Degrees of success and failure. These are used to determine how effective or ineffective an action is during the Check Phase. These will determine what you can actually do in the Resolution Phase.

This is basically the difference between the TR you are going for and the roll you make. Need a TR of 5 and roll a 2, you get 3 degrees of success, but if you roll a 7 you get 2 degrees of failure. If you roll the TR exactly, you also gain a single degree of success. Pretty simple. Characters max out at 5 degrees of success or failure.

Degree of success: Each degree of success allows a player to use one of the effects of their weapon or equipment, this will allow players to cause damage, use special features of suits, trigger special damage etc. A degree of success remains in play until the combat turn ends, so if you gain 3 degrees of success shooting with your pistol you can choose to save them for a later moment in the round.

Degree of failure: Each degree of failure can be used by your opponent as a degree of success, and these also persist across the combat turn. If your opponent is attempting to dive behind a concrete barrier for cover and fail, rolling 2 degrees of failure, when you shoot at them you could potentially use those degrees of failure as a degree of success for your attack, making it particularly devastating.

Quick Summary of Combat

So that is all very fancy and a lot of wording for a fairly basic idea.
  • Determine what you want to do. (Intent Phase)
    1. Roll the number of D6s indicated by your Perception Bonus, these are your Speed Dice
    2. Decide on the specifics of your actions based on your original intent and reveal the number of Speed Dice to support that.
  • Resolve actions from lowest to highest Speed Dice totals.
  • Make skill check and determine degree of success or failure. (Check Phase)
  • Spend degrees of success if you have them. (Resolution Phase)
  • End of your combat round.
  • If all players complete a round and there are remaining Speed Dice resolve another round of combat in this turn

Ammo and Ammo Depletion

Like many games, we don't track single shots. I am largely in favor of this concept, especially when a combat roll is framed as the outcome of a flourish or set of moves vs a single swing of a sword. In Altered Carbon, weapon tests are rolled with an additional off-color die, which essentially works like a skill die. When this die fails the weapon is exhausted at the end of the round. The QuickStart states that these are the same as the skill check used and that the TR is the capacity listed for the weapon. For the pistol they gave us stats on, it would be 6.

Certain actions cause the weapon to gain depletion points. Each depletion point reduces that TR by 1 point. So if we had 2 depletion points on our pistol, the TR would only be 4.

So what does this mean in a narrative sense? The better you are with your weapon the more efficient you are going to be with your bullets. If you had a D6 for your pistol skill, just shooting that pistol means you are not going to deplete the rounds, or at least not in any meaningful way, you will be able to keep that pistol operational for the duration of a combat. You are efficient with your bullets. If instead you are totally unskilled and have a D12, you are as likely to empty the clip in a single volley trying to achieve your goal.

Looking back at the pistol, as I mentioned simply causing a hit doesn't accumulate a depletion point, but using some of the more specialize pistol actions, such as suppressive fire & focus fire both do. No matter how good you are, firing in these less controlled forms are going to eventually exhaust your ammunition.


It looks like equipment will be represented by a basic version of the item, which will then be able to be modified via tech points. The QuickStart has five broad categories of equipment: Weapons, Apparel, Gadgets, Vehicles, and Sleeves.


We have already briefly looked at guns in the overview of combat. The single weapon listed in the QuickStart is a pistol, but it is useful to see what the specs will look like and how tech points and it's various other attributes will work.


One of the more interesting things we see here is that armor can have a Protection stat, which is essentially a damage soak, but they can also have a Defense score, which works to make attacks against a player more difficult. I am not sure if I like this or not, generally, most systems use one or the other, allowing the hit/miss/amount of damage be an abstraction of the result of the round.

This may end up being too crunchy for my taste. On the other hand, if this simply represents two different styles of armor in the game I can see it working. For example, a flak jacket might not make me harder to hit but will reduce damage received, whereas an optical camouflage system might make me harder to hit, but not reduce the damage I take. Much like the weapons, we only get one example of a piece of armor, so it is hard to determine how Protection and Defense will work together.


The section on vehicles is a quick outline of what we can expect to see in the core rules. The entire section isn't much more than a page long. It gives us an overview of the types of specs they will have and how they might factor into an encounter. We know they will use speed dice in a similar manner to regular combat. Beyond that, we don't really learn much, no samples of what an actual vehicle will look like.


The section on sleeves is the largest part of the equipment section. We learn that upgrades to natal sleeves are expensive and rare, and this is likewise the case for a cloned sleeve. More common are synthetic sleeves, we learn that upgrading a synth sleeve is no more complex than upgrading a computer.

We are given a sample upgrade, much like we saw with the pistol and the flak armor, but this time we also get a short table of other upgrades that you might be able to apply to a sleeve. This is followed by several pages of descriptions of what each of these upgrades does.

Character Creation

It was obvious after a quick look through the book, that there were no pre-gen characters included, which I thought was odd. Even odder was the inclusion of a section on character creation. Generally, most QuickStarts I have come across didn't have a section on character creation, instead, they included some pre-gens to allow GMs and Players to jump in a start playing quickly. Still, I thought the inclusion of a character-building section instead of pre-gens was interesting and was willing to give it a go.

Unfortunately like much of the QuickStart this section really only serves as an overview of what we can expect to see in Character Creation. We can't actually build a character from the information we are given.

What is missing?

I have seen some chatter on the internet about this document and if it is actually a QuickStart guide? I have seen people wondering if this set of rules is actually playable. If you read all the way to here you will know I am pretty much in agreement. This QuickStart gives us a good feel for what the rules will look like, but they aren't really a QuickStart in the normal, "I can play this quickly."

I am sure you could play something with these rules, but in my opinion, they are lacking a fair bit. Playing these as written will be next to impossible, the GM will need to make several executive decisions. For example, we are not given any pre-gens. We are not given any opponents. We are not given an equipment list. We are not given any idea about movement. The character generation rules aren't complete.

It would have been nice to have had a short weapon, armor and equipment list like we see for the sleeve upgrades, This would have gone a long way to making the QuickStart rules an actual set of QuickStart rules, and not just an overview and teaser of the game.

However, reading over the rules and looking at the examples, we can make a few guesses on most of these things, and probably hit fairly close to the mark, still, I would have liked to have seen something more solid with a short adventure in the back.


Overall I liked the look of the book, despite a few reservations that will be fine once I am more used to the system. As an actual QuickStart set of rules I think this misses the mark by a lot, giving us a set of rules that are close to unplayable without some serious assumptions. But as an overview of what we can expect in the rules? I think this is a pretty good document. We are given a pretty thorough idea of the kinds of things the rules will contain, and a fairly strong look at skill checks and combat.

As a reader of RPGs that I will probably never play, I did in the end back this for my shelf. The QuickStart rules whet my appetite enough that I wanted to know more, and in the end that is probably the actual purpose of it. Still I would have to think a playable document would have the same effect across a wider series of players, although it does not seem to matter. When I started writing this article the Kickstarter was a couple of days in, and as I mentioned 687% funded. It is now 10 or so days in and 1001% funded.

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