Review – Predation (Cypher System)

Have you ever thought to yourself that what’s really missing from the RPG scene is dinosaurs? Maybe cybernetically enhanced dinosaurs? Well, then have I got a book for you! Predation is the latest release for the Cypher System (the Cypher System Rulebook is required to play), which first powered the deservedly acclaimed Numenera. Of course, dinosaurs are not the only thing about Predation, but they are the core of its pitch – the player characters are members of a society of humans stranded in the late Cretaceous period, but with some technology from our future.

Another element of Predation – omnipresent even in its absence – is time travel. A corporate conglomerate (SATI) in the future funded time travel back to the Cretaceous, founding a research colony of sorts, now known as Grevakc (named after the Gre-Vakian c trials; pronounced Greh-vek). Then, after about a decade local time, time travel stropped functioning (time travel was colloquially known as commuting and, thus, the last trip back to the past is known as the Last Commute). Basically nobody knows why SATI founded Greyvac in the first place, and nobody knows why time travel stopped. Since the Last Commute, Greyvac is beset by several temporal phenomena, such as destructive time terrors and not-so-destructive time anomalies. These can leave behind relics from the future, although no one knows why. On top of that, because the colony was settled from the future, the citizenry knows that one day in their not-to-distant future, a giant asteroid will strike the Earth and wipe them all out. Predation then, is a setting where time travel is fundamental to the setting and yet time travel no longer exists.

Predation is set about a century after the Last Commute. There are some very senior citizens around who commuted, but the player characters are likely at least third generation – they were born in the Cretaceous, and so were their parents. Some parts of Grevakc remain fairly high-tech (cybernetics, in particular, seem to be both reliable and readily available – how else could you share a sensory link with your dinosaur?). But the colony’s technology was not designed to be indefinitely self-sufficient, and there is little (or no) ability for new, large-scale technological construction. In addition, there may be a lot of tech squirreled away in secret SATI bases in the wilderness.  Combine the inability to expand ‘modern’ construction with an expanding population and the fact that descendants of SATI high-ups still control the most technologically advanced areas, and you get a world where one player character has trained all their life in an advanced research lab while another wears leather-and-bone armor.

Grevakc includes several ‘larger’ cities, although only one (the ‘capital’ Kelaino, which houses around 8,000 souls) gets much in the way of detail. Most of the population resides in Laramidia, the more ‘civilized’ of the two landmasses. Life is Laramidia is fairly rough-and-tumble, perhaps with an Old West/frontier town sort of feel, in that there really isn’t much in the way of ‘the law’ around to protect folks or keep the peace. The other landmass, Appalachia, is more of a flat-out wilderness (Grevakc is located in what will someday be North America, which at the time was two distinct landmasses). SATI works to hold Grevakc together (and under its control), while trying to ‘fix’ time travel so that everyone can go ‘home’ to the future before Armageddon comes. Other factions are centered around the asteroid problem as well – either trying a different way to stop it, or welcoming it with religious fervor.

As noted above, the core mechanical bones of Predation is the Cypher System. The biggest difference is the addition of the companion system. Each player has the option to take a companion for their character (it isn’t a flat-out requirement, but I think it’s pretty clear that the author, Shanna Germain, really thinks you should), which is likely (but doesn’t have to be) a dinosaur (it might be a small mammal instead). This could range from a small raptor to a giant sauropod. The player, however, does not control the companion. Instead, another player controls the companion, and the rules treat the companion as a player character. A character can, however, test to induce their companion to behave how they want for a round (rather than how the player controlling the companion would otherwise have the companion act). It’s a little bit unclear to me how helpful the companion is supposed to be when not actively ordered about – constantly having to give orders for the companion to be useful could be grating. It seems like the success of the companion system will turn on how well all of the players can reach an equilibrium about how the companions behave by default.

Predation otherwise follows fairly standard Cypher System character creation rules. There are new skills, and a few new foci and descriptors. There are new character types, which are essentially tweaked versions of the standard four Cypher System types – Karns (Warrior), Tec (Adept; although everything in Predation is science, not magic), Pteryx (Explorer), and Osteons (Speaker). Artifacts represent certain technology from the future, although most technology doesn’t require a depletion roll (it breaks down for narrative purposes, rather than based on a die roll). Cyphers are more modified, taking the form of genetic grafts that characters received from walking through time anomalies. They modify the character until used, then go away, just like normal cyphers.

Predation, therefore, embraces the mechanics and themes of the Cypher System (maybe that seems obvious, given that Predation is coming from the publisher of the Cypher System, but I felt that the second Cypher game, The Strange, did not pull that off). The function of artifacts and cyphers feels more forced than in, say, Numenera, but the setting does embody the transient and fickle nature of the ‘treasures’ the characters find, and the themes of exploration and finding new things (where what one is exploring may well be something that a more advanced group of people left behind).

I do wish that Predation has more page count to flesh out the setting and campaign ideas (the book is about 190 pages long). Call me lazy or lacking in creativity, but I would have liked to see a bit more meat on the bones of the other towns in Grevakc, and more of a vision for how the author sees the exploration elements mingling with possible political clashes in the colony (after all, although there is exploration, it’s much more limited in geographic scope here – the characters aren’t going to spend an entire campaign always venturing over the next hill). With the characters confined to a smaller sandbox than something like Numenera, there’s more use to more detail for these sorts of towns (especially if anything but the capital is the characters’ base of operations), instead of the 1-3 interesting things the characters will see before moving on. And I would like a few more developed notions of how the three factions might play a role in a campaign. Predation does includes an introductory adventure (running about 10 pages) – the PCs are brought on to find missing dinosaur wrestlers (did I mention that there is dinosaur wrestling?), and they have been kidnapped by Edenites (that’s the religious-ish faction) hoping to extract hidden secrets from the dinosaurs’ DNA. But it’s a fairly straightforward run, rather than something illuminating of broader plot notions. I get that the book isn’t designed to deliver something a campaign, but this is one of those games where I think it would be great for a shorter campaign that basically explores the setting, running the big plot (in this case, dealing with the oncoming asteroid, possibly by figuring out what went wrong with time travel and getting out of there), and calling it a wrap, rather than an indefinite campaign of exploration.

Will Monte Cook Games indulge my desire for a detailed narrative campaign that puts a nice bow on the setting? Probably not. But in the meantime, Predation can still indulge the undeniable need for more dinosaurs in our roleplaying games.

 

Promotional consideration was provided in the form of a review copy.

 

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