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Techbook: Chrome

This review originally appeared on RPG.Net in September 2012, and is reprinted with permission here and in the January/February 2014 issue.

Techbook: Chrome. John Lees.
Terra/Sol Games http://www.terrasolgames.com
136pp, PDF

Does your Space Opera game need a neocyberpunk veneer? Do you enjoy the simple 2D6 Mongoose Traveller rules? If the answer to both questions above is affirmative then you would be wise to check this new offering from Terra/Sol Games.

Cyberpunk came into Traveller very late in its life and always suffered from that. It was much more grounded in golden age sensibilities in which men were real men (not augmented cyber freaks) and women were real women (not buxom faux princesses) and there were no furry creatures from Alpha Centuri (at least not in the OTU) yet the culture was changing around it with the arrival of Star Wars in the same year that it was released. Without getting too heavily into the debate whether Traveller and Star Wars share similar DNA – the point is that they grew up together and if one believes that traits are also socially acquired – Traveller adopted more Space Opera than perhaps the creators had wished for harkening back to Golden Age Science Fiction (Hugo-Greenback era). Traveller also had sensibilities that took from literature from the “Age of Sail” because of onerous travel times involved in interstellar distances. So, it is that Traveller’s DNA was a complex affair from the beginning. But, DNA doesn’t remain static – viruses enter cells and rewrite DNA and mutation spreads.

One such mutation was cyberpunk, that strange beast that roared out of the 1980s. The difference, as that genre was completely alien to Traveller’s sensibilities, it was a marginal force slowly eating away at Traveller’s philosophical underpinnings. Traveller could not ignore it for very long, as the margins were pushing their way to the centre, a phenomenal game Cyberpunk 2020 raced side-by-side with Traveller through great fanzines like Signal GK directly co-opted cyberpunk into Traveller. More traditional groups could pretend that cyberpunk did not exist but like the genre itself, it changed the DNA and that freely mingled into things like Star Wars and Hard SF thus creating a new organism than what was envisioned in 1977. Keeping abreast with literary trends, even classic Space Opera, had morphed and became something known as the New Space Opera that appropriated more directly the cyber (or chrome) and somewhat the punkish (at least, dark and conflicted heroes) into its mainstream.

Traveller (at least Mongoose Traveller) ignored the developments of New Space Opera along with the interesting questions raised by transhumanist SF for its Cybernetics supplement/book and focused more upon the Golden Age SF with cyberpunk trimmings. So, while that book was a great leap forward for Traveller by adopting a more systematic approach, it did so, in the generic way – by giving you a tool kit of options, not, basing it at all in a social science milieu. So, you could have worlds where augmentation is possible and worlds that it is not. While this approach is desirable for a supplement, Traveller has always been about combine the social sciences with the physical sciences with a bit of handwavium thrown in. Thus, the cybernetics books left gaping questions how to address cyberpunk in a mainstream Traveller universe, say, unlike Judge Dredd or Strontium Dog which had a more radical approach to cyberpunk. So, in steps Terra/Sol Games, who is a company that firmly embraces the New Space Opera and transhumanism and has an integrated history/social science approach.

Already there is a different tone in this book than the track that the Mongoose supplement takes on – for if one wants to play hardcore 1980s cyberpunk then the Mongoose supplement does a great job but if you want to take on some of the more bizarre incorporations of the introduction merging man-machine i.e. transhumanist and neocyberpunk themes then one would be wise to pick up this supplement even if you do not like the Twilight Sector back-story (passing familiarity with the major interstellar players of that milieu would enhance the product and allow you to translate it into YTU).

So, what does this supplement actually contain? First and foremost, it identifies those who augment their bodies are both the norm and deviants of the milieu. For the awakening that brought mutants to the forefront was also when human beings of Earth 2 were experimenting with human augments including the biomechanical. Thus, we get a long treatise of the different cybernetic replacements from the mundane (Golden Age SF) one-to-one replacement of a loss limb/organ to the more exotic (traditional cyberpunk) biomechanical sheaths. The rules contained within give a little more edge toward cybes (or chromers as this supplement calls them) with little or negligible impact upon one’s humanity. Thus, these rules to normalize the use of cybernetics in the Terra/Sol milieu (even though some Stellar Nations may have stringent rules against cyber modification) which is in keeping with the overall New Space Opera vibe. The rules themselves are solid and well written (and allude to as of writing an unwritten supplement entitled Mutants & AIs). It is this part that could easily be ported into any Traveller universe just like the Mongoose book, though one might ask, “is that all there is?”.

Terra/Sol resoundingly says: No. For in the next, we get into biological modification and rules there within. So, Terra/Sol Games takes the old fashioned notion of bionics and puts into a transhumanist vat and comes up with decent and excellent rules how to go further than just mere chrome into the promise of cybernetics might eventually lead into…virtually indistinguishable but augmented human beings. It was this section that impressed me more than the chrome add-ons because of where it leads.

Cyborgs. Long a staple of science fiction, but, at the same time virtually ignored in Traveller, save, maybe a passing mention. The question arose what happens when you put an organic brain in a machine – is there a ghost that resides in the machine? What does it mean to be human when your body is merely a mechanical shell keeping you safe and/or alive with only your brain (although, parts of that might already are wired into a biological computer. This is by far the strongest section, as it builds upon the excellent robot rules and those that Terra/Sol Games has done in the previous two chapters, as well as supplements such as Tinker, Spacer, Psion, Spy and posing these questions as a moral dilemma.

Then this supplement goes one step further by probing the boundaries of cygeware – cybernetics and genetic modification. And, this section is where traditional Traveller is blown away – it brings Traveller completely in line with the recent developments of Science Fiction. Just as Star Wars redefined Science Fiction on the screen (big and small), cyberpunk the boundaries of Science Fiction literature…cygeware is all about pushing the envelope further.

For these reasons, that this represents a superior book for Mongoose Traveller, it is hoped that it can get into dead tree soon (reminding you that Mongoose Traveller is not your Granddaddy’s Traveller – although, the Mongoose Cybernetics supplement allows one to play in their Dad’s game). This is a fresh, innovative and truly remarkable take on cybernetics that is thoroughly modern yet grounded in Space Opera. It also seems that Terra/Sol is outgrowing the Traveller incubator and developing into a new game in its own right. (I know that they are planning to covert the setting over to Savage Worlds but whether this is part of the shift/conversion or just creeping independence is hard to know) If your game is more Hard SF then just appropriate the parts you need or rely on the already excellent book that Mongoose put out as the motto of Terra/Sol Games is Space Opera to the power of 10 – this supplement lives up to that slogan. Buy this book, if your game is Space Opera in need of modernization (ever wonder what TL C+ is like). Do not buy this book, if you content to slough through the Golden Age classics. But, you will not know what you are missing.