Review – Blade Runner: The Roleplaying Game

Getting the most out of a licensed roleplaying game requires two things. One is a love (or at least a familiarity with) the license. The second is whether the game can embody what’s distinctive about the license as something that’s fun as a game. The first of these I can’t help you with – you know and/or love Blade Runner, or you don’t. But the second I can. So let’s talk about how the dystopian, neo-noir masterpiece translates to the tabletop in Blade Runner: The Roleplaying Game.

The Basics

Like the protagonists of Blade Runner and Blade Runner 2049, the characters in the Blade Runner RPG are all blade runners – detectives who are members of the Rep-Detect Unit (RDU) of the Los Angeles Police Department (there technically exists a world outside of Los Angeles and southern California, but like in the movies it is not somewhere that the characters will ever go). The RDU is tasked with solving crimes related to the synthetic humans known as replicants.

The original Blade Runner was set in a time where replicants were not allowed to be on Earth at all, and the task of a blade runner was to find and ‘retire’ any who were. That would be a pretty narrow roleplaying game, and so the Blade Runner RPG uses the RDU of Blade Runner 2049 (the game is set in 2037). The most recent replicants are permitted on Earth – there are even replicants in the RDU. But older model replicants are still not permitted on earth. And there is a lot of anti-replicant sentiment. So the sort of cases that the players in a game of Blade Runner might tackle include anti-replicant hate crimes, in addition to tracking down replicants who have committed crimes.

But Blade Runner isn’t just about finding bad guys, and neither is the Blade Runner roleplaying game. It isn’t just about solving the case; it’s about what you do once you’ve solved it. Blade Runner tends to involve lots of character exploration and soul searching about things like what it means to be human and the reliability of memories.

The Core Mechanic

Rolls in Blade Runner involve two dice. Each roll of a 6+ is a success. Getting 2+ successes is a critical. Better character attributes and skills mean rolling bigger dice. Everything is rated from A to D. An A rating means rolling a d12 (a twelve-sided die). A D rating means rolling a d6 (a six-sided die). The bigger dice can take advantage of how a 10+ roll counts as two successes. Outside circumstances might grant a character advantage (roll a third die) or disadvantage (roll only one die) on a roll. Measuring the efficacy of things other than people uses these ratings as well. For example, a B-level explosion rolls 2d12 to see how much damage it deals, while a C-level explosion rolls 2d8.

A character can also push a roll. The character can re-roll any of their dice that don’t show a 1 in an effort to get more successes. The drawback is that, when that push roll is done, the character takes damage or stress for every 1 showing on the dice. This makes pushing fairly low risk when the character is skilled at the action. A character who is bad at an action risks more by pushing (because a smaller die is more likely to roll a 1), but even a character with D in an attribute and D in a skill has a slightly better than 50/50 shot of succeeding on a given roll if they’re willing to push (conveniently, the game book includes tables showing odds of success for different rolls so you don’t have to do math to know your odds).

Character Creation and Advancement

Characters are primarily defined by 4 attributes and 13 skills. The default attribute is a C, while little or no training in a skill means a D. Younger characters get more attribute boosts while older characters get more skills and specialties. Replicants have higher attributes but start with fewer promotion and chinyen points. (More on all that in a moment). Improving attributes or skills means a better rating and the better die that goes with it. A starting character can also reduce an attribute to a D in order to improve a different attribute.

The four attributes are strength, agility, intelligence, and empathy. The skills are Force, Hand-to-Hand Combat, Stamina, Mobility, Stealth, Firearms, Tech, Medical Aid, Connections, Observation, Manipulation, Insight (social perception), and Driving. Connections is more important that it might seem, because it’s not only used for things like gathering information on the streets but also for things like whether you get anything for your spent points when you’re trying to get something from RDU brass.

Specialties are freestanding, distinct abilities (despite the nomenclature, they are not specialties within a broader skill). Examples of specialties include Married to the Job (can work longer before taking stress), Cashflow (extra chinyen every case), Martial Arts (advantage on Hand-to-Hand Combat rolls), and People Person (gain a second key relationship).

Characters also have one key memory and one key relationship. The game master will weave these character elements into the story. Mechanically, interacting with a key memory or key relationship will help a character gain humanity points. For standard humans, these are the only way to gain humanity points. Replicant player characters can also gain humanity points if they fail a baseline test (a test to assess their mental stability).

I’ve mentioned three kinds of points in all of this – promotion points, humanity points, and chinyen points. Chinyen points are basically money, and are used when the character needs to buy something beyond normal expenses (for example, fancy gear off of the black market). Promotion points can buy specialties, and can also be spent to attempt to requisition something from the RDU or generate chinyen points. Promotion points are, relatively speaking, easy to come by, but they can also be lost if the characters aren’t doing their jobs well (as defined by their bosses). Humanity points are used to raise skills, and are harder to come by. Anything but raising a skill from D to C costs two or three times as many humanity points as buying a specialty costs promotion points, so expect a lot more of character advancement to come from specialties than from skill increases.

Character creation also has the concept of archetypes, which don’t much matter (as  you can tell from the way I’ve buried them down here). Each archetype has a key attribute and key skills, but these aren’t things you get from the archetype, they’re requirements to be that archetype. All that an archetype does, mechanically, is tweak starting chinyen points and give a semi-random specialty. So you can easily just do away with the archetypes, let every start with the base chinyen points, and let everyone pick one speciality. What the archetypes are useful for, however, is conveying the sorts of characters one might expect to be in the Blader Runner RPG – a forensic analyst, a cityspeaker (lots of street connections), a doxie (replicants only), enforcer (kill it until it is dead), fixer (lots of police connections), inspector (your generic detective), and skimmer (dirty cop).

Other Mechanics

Of course, Blade Runner has combat mechanics. They’re fairly straightforward. Movement and distance are abstracted into zones, with what a “zone” means depending on where the battle is taking place. Zones in a cluttered indoor environment will tend to be much smaller than zones in an uncrowded, outdoor battle (not that you get a lot of those in Blade Runner). Exactly what counts as a zone may be defined by the maps in a case file … more on that in a sec. Each round of combat each character gets to move one zone, and then take one other action. If they can succeed on a Force roll characters can even do cool things like crash through a window or flimsy wall as part of their move. Attacks are just a particular implementation of the general action rules, although close combat attacks are always opposed. One success is a hit. Two or more successes is a critical, which probably my least favorite part of the system, because (1) I don’t like critical hit tables in general; (2) it’s possible to insta-die from a single critical; and (3) inflicting and healing crits adds needless complexity to a fairly straightforward combat system.

And I think that it’s good that the combat system is fairly straightforward, because really it’s not as important for distinguishing Blade Runner as the key relationship/memory and how case files work. Because, while there is action in the Blade Runner movies, they are not action movies. If you’re looking for a cyberpunk shoot-’em-up, you’re not looking for Blade Runner (go check out Cyberpunk Red). The Blade Runner movies are fundamentally about investigations. And what thematically distinguishes the Blade Runner films (beyond the now-standard cyberpunk juxtaposition of high technology and urban decay/environmental devastation, with a helping of extreme income inequality) is their meditations on what it means to be human or a person and how that does or should affect the protagonist’s decisions. So I think that what the roleplaying game does with those elements thematically matters more than what the game does with combat.

The key relationships/memories, and case files, have basic mechanics, but they’re also a lot about how the game directs the GM to use them. Mechanically, involvement of a key relationship in a case file can earn a humanity point and involvement of a key memory can heal stress. Case files are how investigations are organized. Mechanically they have story beats that use a non-combat time unit called a shift. There are four shifts in a day, but characters start taking stress if they work more than three straight shifts. So characters are going to have downtime. And in that downtime the GM gets to start working the characters’ key relationships and memories into the case. They dream about their key memory in a way that gives them a clue about the case. Their key relationship shows up at their door needing help – maybe they’ve been set up in some way that’s related to the case. And in the end, case files are just investigations – it’s not just about solving the case, it’s also about deciding what to do with the case once it’s been cracked.

Another thing I found noteworthy about case files, from a purely gameplay perspective, is that the book more than once notes that the characters should probably split up on a regular basis. Dungeons & Dragons (and other RPG) players likely know the phrase “never split the party.” You don’t split the party in D&D because it’s a combat-focused system where encounters are scoped for a full party (and where 1-2 characters can fall prey to skill gaps or dice rolls, even if the encounter is an appropriate difficulty). You split the party in Blade Runner because it’s an investigation and the characters need to cover more ground. But there’s a more important issue with splitting the party – it means that some of the players might be sitting on their hands for an extended period of time. Personally, I find sitting and the gaming table and not playing for extended periods of time to be dreadfully unfun. So I was glad to see here that, while the party will sometimes need to be split, the characters can almost always communicate with each other while split (and thus let the other players chime in) and the book admonishes the GM to keep things moving when the party is split (including downtime) to avoid those extended hand-sitting periods.

Also, there’s a whole section on chases that’s about as long as combat, so expect those to come up. There’s gear, but it’s not that extensive. Everyone has a basic gun. Everyone has a spinner (hovercar) so they can move from place to place in the city without it being an issue. There’s the basic technology that underpins the world, and then the cutting edge stuff that will probably only come up as story points.

Final Thoughts

Blade Runner is probably more dependent on purchasing supplements – or on serious GM work – that most RPGs. Putting together a good case file is harder than building an adventure for a combat-focused game (much less a seat-of-your-pants offering like most PbtA games). There’s advice in the core book – things like making sure there are multiple clues for every plot point so that the whole investigation doesn’t come crashing down because of a single oops – but it takes experience to do well even when you have advice, and there’s only a limited page count for it here (at under 240 pages, Blade Runner is fairly slim for an RPG core book).

Also, the style  of play here really likes to use handouts – giving the players newspaper clippings or photographs to help them pick up clues. That’s really hard to do in a couple hours of pre-game prep. So I think that using published case files for Blade Runner is very attractive. On the downside, there’s no case file included in the core book. On the bright side, there is a Starter Set available that does have a case file, to include 26 full-color handouts (and a big poster of the city and custom dice and other play aids). The case file even gets points for being called Electric Dreams. I get why the case file can’t just be in the book – you can’t deliver that same experience without the player aids. But I can see some folks being a bit vexed that just getting the core book doesn’t feel like quite a complete product.

You want a licensed roleplaying game to deliver two things. You want the game to feel like the license it’s based on and you want it to do that while being a fun game. The Blade Runner Roleplaying Game delivers on both fronts. I think this is best exemplified by the emphasis that the game places on how the real question in a case file isn’t whether the player characters will be able to complete their investigation, it’s about what they do with what they’ve learned. The acknowledgement that the players are, barring almost willful incompetence, going to get to the end of the story reflects a good understanding of what this sort of roleplaying game needs to be satisfying. The point is to make it interesting, not to stymie the players. There’s your good gameplay. And it also feels very Blade Runner because pushes the focus to those existential questions that define the movies and that distinguish this setting from some other dystopian near-future setting. If you’re interested in Blade Runner (the films) I think you’ll enjoy playing Blade Runner: The Roleplaying Game. Just make sure to get a copy of the Starter Set to go with your core rulebook.

Promotional consideration was provided in the form of a review copy. Strange Assembly may receive commissions from affiliate links in this article.


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