Review: The Gaia Complex

The Gaia Complex – A Game of Flesh and Wires, by Chris Shepperson and Hansor Publishing

Joann and I have made no secret that we both really dig on Cyberpunk roleplaying games.  Earlier this year, we went and supported a rash of Kickstarters and one of these was a title that we supported for no other reason than that it was a Cyberpunk roleplaying game using a system style that we’d never heard of.  That title was The Gaia Complex by Chris Shepperson and Hansor Publishing.  With so many different roleplaying games and settings out now, it is really difficult not to see influences of other systems or settings in a new one – coming up with something completely unique is extremely difficult.  

With that said, Chris has done a fairly good job overall in his offering of giving it enough of unique twists that it does not feel like a “reproduction” in the way that a lot of the OSR titles do of early Dungeons & Dragons.  Unlike a lot of our other Kickstarters, we did not actually back at a level that would get us a hard copy of this book.  With as many as we backed, that was not possible with every one.  This, unfortunately, was one of the ones that we could not afford.  I will state, however, that if I could go back in time after reading this review somehow (someone should really invent that technology…), I would probably pick it up. You can do so at their website.

Manufacturing and Production

The first thing that I will note with regard to the production is that in my mind, one person that does the writing, the system/game design, and does their own layout and graphics work is impressive.  As Angel’s Citadel has already produced an almost 100 page Starter Kit for our setting and is hard at work on additional content, I know how much work and varied skill that requires.  Chris Shepperson does all three for all 291 pages of this product.  The amount of work that took is staggering and he is to be commended for a product that I only noticed small spelling/grammar errors with.  The layout is clean and easily readable, and though the art is not my favorite part about the book, it is not bad either (particularly the full-page splats) and does not particularly detract from the “mood” of the rest of the book.

Content

The Gaia Complex is a Cyberpunk roleplaying game about life after an extinction-level event.  Eleven large metropolises have remained as the last bastions of humanity on the planet.  The primary setting for the game is New Europe, a “single sprawling urban landscape [that] covers the vast majority of the countries formerly known as Germany, France, Belgium and Luxembourg, while also dipping into Switzerland, Poland and the Czech Republic” (The Gaia Complex, p. 9).  It offers 10 playable classes where the setting is mostly human-centric.  While The Gaia Complex does not go crazy the way other systems do, there are two additional “species” in the game: Vampires and Ferals (those who can mind-meld with animals).  The game uses a system that was created by Chris Shepperson that he calls the 12.3 System.  The entire system revolves around 12 sided dice, but not in a traditional way.  This is one of the times where I’m glad we’ve started reviewing other, non-traditional systems because it makes things easier to understand and get familiar with.

The mechanic of this game works much like Ironsworn except that instead of d10’s that determine the target number, The Gaia Complex uses d12’s.  Unlike Ironsworn, the target numbers are compared to a static number based on one’s ability rather than a rolled d6 plus static adders as in Ironsworn.  If there is time for the action or a low level of uncertainty, and they are skilled in the task, the ability is checked against a difficulty level of the action that is determined by the DM.  If the ability is equal to or greater than the target number, they “auto-pass” the check and the action occurs as desired.

If not, the player rolls 2d12 and compares the dice rolls to the characters applicable stat.  If the result is less than or equal to the stat, it results in a success.  A 12 is always a failure and could result in a critical failure (failing the test AND rolling at least one 12).  The 12.3 System also uses d3’s.  Rather than simply being an “interesting” die, or a “small number randomizer”, these are used as “fractional d12’s” which is, quite honestly, a very interesting concept.  For instance, if one looks at a d12 as a damage dice, and thinks, “That’s a bit too much damage”, you can say, “Let’s pare it back to ¾ of a d12” and roll 3d3.

There are quite a few optional rules that are included to change the feel of the game and tune it more toward the “style” of Cyberpunk game that you wish to play.  In fact, the author includes a portion at the beginning of the rules chapter that I thought was really appropriate, and mirrors my own thinking about roleplaying game systems in a lot of ways:

“…The reason for this note is to quickly explain my game design ethos. I am a huge fan of ‘roleplaying’, that is to say that I always aim to put more emphasis on actually making my players talk their way through a game by playing the part of their characters. I have run many game sessions where the dice have simply never been rolled, only using a character’s stats and skills as a reference for success and failure. However, I acknowledge that this approach is not for everyone and the age-old love of rolling dice is what makes many GMs feel in control of the action and players in control of their characters. As a result, this ruleset is designed to tow the line between a light streamlined roleplaying experience and something with a little more depth.

“The rules system used by The Gaia Complex has become known simply as 12.3 and is, at the time of publishing, unique to The Gaia Complex (but expect to see it on other stuff I write and publish in the future). The system uses a combination of 12-sided and 3-sided (or 6-sided if you don’t want to own odd shaped dice) and is relatively light in the grand scale of RPG systems. I hope you enjoy playing games using 12.3 and can’t wait to hear your thoughts and feedback regarding it.

“Throughout the following rules chapter you will find a number of ‘optional’ rules, which should be left out should the players and GM wish to focus more on the storytelling and social aspect of the game. I would also urge GMs to try my preferred style of gaming and simply ignore many of the rules as written in favour of sense checking and directing the action in the way that most makes sense. Most importantly is the golden rule – have fun, whether that means using every rule in the book, or ignoring them all entirely… Just enjoy playing The Gaia Complex.”

The Gaia Complex, p.63

The longer I think about it, the more I like this model.  Having a core set of rules that is a “bare minimum” to run a narrative game with “optional” rules blocks that you can stack on top of the core rules is quite the useful design philosophy.  I think this is one of the biggest things to praise about The Gaia Complex.

The next two chapters cover Core hacking and Biohacking, respectively, using one’s brain to interface with the Core systems computers in New Europe and using one’s brain to interface with the brain of another (either directly or through the Core systems computers).  The last one is a bit of a unique take and is worth noting as it’s not something I’ve seen done in other games off the top of my head.  Following these is a decently-sized chapter of gear and equipment.  Then comes 76 pages of “setting” material including two chapters worth of sociological information about the two non-human species, two chapters of material about major corporations and the larger world (with discussions on the other metropolises), and a chapter that spills the beans on the author’s vision of the secret history behind New Earth, Gaia, and Hansor Innovations. 

All of this is coupled with a chapter on running the game that includes both advice and 3 introductory “scenarios” to help a new GM get started thinking about possibilities in this game and universe.  Finally, there is a chapter with quite a few pre-made NPCs (always helpful) across several different categories, and what appears to be a solid index.  Overall, I don’t see any glaring holes in things that should have been included but weren’t and the offering stands by itself as a complete tome for a group to game with.

Critique

As always, we at Angel’s Citadel try and provide a well-rounded review of products.  Sometimes, we find products that we wouldn’t change at all.  Most of the time, there are some small things that we would likely change were we in charge of the project/product line.  The Gaia Complex is no different.  

One of the biggest things that I saw in the rules that didn’t make much sense to me surrounded the concept of Disconnect, or one’s connection to humanity that is taken away by Cyberware.  Now, the concept is one I’m quite familiar with (Essence in Shadowrun is exactly the same thing).  The thing that confused me was this: some of the gear in the equipment list had static values for amounts contributing to Disconnect.  Some of them were variable (most of these being some multiple of d3).  I could not, for the life of me, see why they were not all static.  The Maximum Disconnect value is variable by character build (even if only slightly so).  That, in my mind, satisfies the demand of differentiation by player character.  But having one install of a specific cyberarm model and another install of that SAME cyberarm model cost different Disconnects?  That doesn’t make any sense to me, so I’d change that.

The next comment I would make is that the overall story arc in the GM-only part of the book is, in a word, ambitious.  Like, REALLY ambitious.  This isn’t a bad thing, but it is something that requires a bit of handholding for new GM’s.  I probably would have spent some time talking, outside of the telling of that information, about how to think about using it in your games.  The complexity and multi-threadedness of that tale might overwhelm some newer GM’s.

Lastly, I understand the book is big.  291 pages is a lot, it really is.  Inside, however, there are 15 corporations which is a lot of variety (awesome), but each one only has about three paragraphs of information except Hansor Innovations (less awesome).  The corporations could probably use their own supplement (something like Shadowrun: Power Plays for the Sixth Edition or similar supplements for earlier editions).  The same thing could be done with the remaining metropolises.  On this one, however, I would probably try and put out enough material to do a separate softcover for each one with enough material that someone could drop a campaign there and find some support to do so.  These would top out at about 100 pages or so (this could also be done PDF only, but if The Gaia Complex becomes your “thing”, I’m kind of a paper-snob so I’d go for physical copies – perhaps offer both?).

Summary

The Gaia Complex is a Cyberpunk tabletop roleplaying game by Chris Shepperson and Hansor Publishing that was published after a successful Kickstarter this year at the beginning of March.  Using a system he has dubbed the 12.3 System, which takes influences from games like Ironsworn, Chris has put together what seems to be a solid, minimalist offering that focuses on narrative gameplay with a heavy emphasis on GM rulings.  Such a game is, quite frankly, my style of game, and I wish we had been able to pick up a hard copy of the corebook with the Kickstarter.  I recommend picking this one up, especially if you like narrative style roleplaying games, if for no other reason than to look at how the 12.3 System is set up to see if it is something you might use in your games.  It would be a worthy addition to the shelf of any fan of the genre.  Happy gaming!

  • Josh Walles

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