05 July 2013

Kuro

Kuro, by 7รจme Cercle (7th Circle) and translated and distributed by Cubicle 7, is a game of supernatural horror set in a futuristic Japan.

The year is 2046 and technology has advanced significantly across the world, but particularly in Japan - a place known for always being on the cutting edge. These changes have affected all walks of life, augmented reality is commonplace, as is nanotechnology and biotechnology in many forms. This has created an even greater sense of haves and have nots in an already stratified society - at the top is the Genocracy who have attained functional immortality through technological advances. Below them is everyone else who will often mortgage their future for even the smallest taste of the biomedical implants that a Genocrat has.

Science isn't the only thing that has been changing, the geopolitics of the world have shifted as well. Japan decided to depart the Western world in favor of an Asia-centric view. This alienated their previous Western allies and the new relationship between China and Japan soured in time. A series of diplomatic blunders followed, leaving Japan facing political isolation with no real allies. As simmering regional tensions reached a boil, an massive and untimely earthquake triggered the automatic launch of nuclear weapons against Japan. One malfunctioned before reaching it's intended target. The second performed perfectly and should have struck the archipelago.

Moments before impact, it disappeared in a vast electromagnetic storm that engulfed the entire nation and massive winds whipped through the islands. What is now referred to as the "Kuro Incident" is a complete mystery, but to the outside world watching Japan face a second attack by nuclear weapons it appeared that they possessed a secret missile shield. Part of the fallout from the attack was confusion over the elections that had just been held, leaving no clear government to give a response, not that there was anything to say - the leadership of Japan had no idea what happened.

Fear of a rising Japanese military immune from any strategic reprisals resulted in major powers around the world demanding that Japan share its technology. A rising tide of nationalism and lack of leadership to issue statements and engage in diplomacy caused an escalation in rhetoric from all sides. The end result was an international blockade of Japan. That was six months ago.

The blockade still persists and the aftereffects of the Kuro Incident can still be felt. Blackouts are common and parts of Shin-Edo (renamed from Tokyo) were destroyed during the Incident. New technology has made Japan largely self-sufficient in energy and food, but the effects of the blockade can still be felt and will only get worse as time wears on. There is still no real government in place and the two factions vie with each other for position behind the scenes, waiting for a struggle to begin in earnest.

Those are not the most concerning changes to the island nation. Japan has always been a study in contradictions. New technological developments are embraced, just as old religious traditions are observed. These are ingrained in everyday life, perhaps not even understood. In the shadows of Shin-Edo, things are changing. Strange things are happening, things are being seen, a general awareness is spreading. Something happened during the Kuro Incident, perhaps was starting before it occured, but the kamikaze, the divine wind, has awoken the spirit world.

In Kuro, you take the role of a normal person in Shin-Edo that is going to have some extraordinary encounters. They are unlikely to be pleasant and will only get worse in time. The international blockade has tensions within the city high and the supernatural happenings are only stoking the embers. Technology is pervasive, but it is not necessarily a savior - just another vehicle for things that can go wrong.

The biggest selling point of Kuro is the setting. It is evocative and a fantastic read. There is extensive discussion regarding the new advances and how they have impacted everyday life, how advertisements bombard you constantly, what augmented reality means for someone on the street, developments in communication, etc. As well, Japanese culture is covered, particularly attitudes to the supernatural and society. The districts of Shin-Edo are examined in some detail, enough to give you a sense of what it is about and provide some ideas, but not exhaustive - there is plenty of room for you to make it your own.

Throughout the text, setting examples are provided that you can drop into a game, but also give an indication of the general feel of the game. For example, there are numerous pieces of personal tech and implants presented, but the lists are by no means exhaustive and there is a great deal of space to include your own ideas in these areas. Of particular interest is the occultech. This is the fusion of technology and occult techniques and one of the best takes on the subject available. It helps to drive home some of the important spiritual aspects of the setting and is one of the best takes on this type of thing out there. That is how the entire game is presented - it gives ideas and examples, but your are going to have to fill in the rest on your own. This may be a feature to some, it may be a drawback to others.

There are some small bits of setting weirdness. It is somewhat clear that the authors had an endpoint in mind (isolation of Japan, which works as an amazing backdrop for things to unfold against) and worked backwards from there. Specifically the geopolitics that get there are a little strange and bother me more than the rationally should since they are fundamentally unimportant to the setting. Still, it's there. Similarly is optical data transmission that is pervasive throughout Shin-Edo. It's a little thing, but if it requires line-of-sight, that isn't going to work out in a crowded city. Very small nitpicks and that is, in all seriousness, the entirety of the issues with the setting.

One of the best sections is the GMing advice. The ideas on how to use the game, for one-shots or a campaign, provide some good starting points, but the real magic is how to deal with horror. It is one of the best explanations of the somewhat elusive J-Horror genre that has ever been committed to writing, particularly with regard on how to evoke that one your own. It breaks down the various elements and how to implement them. If you've ever been interested in running a game like that, this reading is highly suggested.

An outline of an adventure is provided which gives a good, general feel for the setting, expectations, how to implement some of the previously given advice. It also drops the underlying metaplot square in your lap and is actually a very good starting place for a campaign. Kuro is the first of two games, the second is Kuro Tensei which takes the supernatural influences to another level. Kuro Tensei isn't supernatural horror, but supernatural action, and the metaplot leads the players in that direction.

What the scenario doesn't do is give you a lot of details. True to the rest of the book, there is a great deal of expectation for the GM to fill in the blanks. Key scenes are presented in general terms, as well as some ideas on how to proceed between them, but you will either have to build everything else extemporaneously or make it your own with some advance planning.

The mechanics are easily the weakest part of the game. They are simple (roll d6 equal to your attribute, add skill) and likely to fall into the background, but there is also little to recommend them. A small cultural note was added, the number "4" is a 0 due to the Japanese superstition regarding the number 4 (it and the word for death are virtual homonyms, leading to a similar, but much more severe treatment like the number 13 in the West). It is a neat, if small reminder of the larger cultural elements in the game.

There is an optional Botch rule presented in the game. Unless your group enjoys having frequent botches (and some do), I cannot stress how much you should avoid this rule. If you roll a majority of 4s in a single roll, it is a Critical Failure. Keep in mind that dice pools are going to range from 1 to 3, which has two effects. For starters, they are going to be extremely common - if a player wants a 3 in something, they are going to have a 1 and that is a lot of botches. Also, having 2 dice, while giving worse results overall, will have less botches than 3 dice because the only way to get a majority on 2 dice is by all of them showing that result, where as for 3 dice only two of them must have that result.

The good news is that system isn't ingrained into the setting and very easy to remove and replace with something else, if that is your preference. Mechanics aren't pervasive, even for most of the equipment, and the game is setting driven.

If you are looking for a very different setting that is dark and compelling, this is a great game to look into. Mechanics aren't a selling point or a detraction either - they are certainly serviceable. The presented setting is amazing and well worth just reading. Cultural details presented can be useful for a variety of games, as with some of the ideas presented. If you have any interest in running a horror scenario, the advice on that is worth looking into as well. If you liked anything that you read here, consider picking this game up.