02 August 2013

Double Cross: Part 1 - Review

Double Cross (technically 3rd Edition), by Shunsaku Yano/F.E.A.R and translated and distributed by Ver. Blue Amusement, is a game of supernatural action set in the not so distant future of a world very similar to our own.

The world of Double Cross is a dark reflection of ours, where things are more tense, darker, just more dangerous and where conspiracies move just outside the sight of the average person. The cause of all this is the Renegade virus.

The Renegade virus has been around for a very long time, but 20 years ago it rapidly spread over the world and infected much of humanity. It remains dormant, but a catalyst may activate it and its latent power. This event is typically one of high stress, Renegade reacting to protect its host, but this is not the only possible cause and this awakening will be a constant reminder.

Once a host has awakened, they are referred to as an Overed and the Renegade virus grants them incredible abilities. While no two Overeds are quite the same, their rough abilities have been categorized into 12 Syndromes. Each of these Syndromes represents a diverse set of abilities that an Overed may possess. Some Overeds possess only one Syndrome, these are referred to as Pure-Breeds and they have immense potential within that Syndrome. Other Overeds are Crossbreeds and have two Syndromes. Recently, a third breed has appeared, referred to as Tri-Breeds, with potential for three Syndromes, though their development in all of their Syndromes is somewhat stunted, notably in one of the three.

The greatest, but by no means only, threat facing Overeds is the Renegade virus itself. Despite awakening the true potential of its host, it also slowly takes over the Overed's mind. The more the powers of the powers of the virus are utilized, the more stress the Overed faces, the greater Renegade's influence is on its host. This is represented through Encroachment, a percentage that represents that insidious power - the higher an Overed's Encroachment, the more power Renegade grants them. If a host's Encroachment ever rises above 100% for too long, they may lose their soul permanently to Renegade and become a Gjaum.

A Gjaum may continue to appear completely normal, or their outward appearance may reflect their inhuman nature. Regardless, they become significantly more irritable, erratic and violent once they have entered this state. Unfortunately, to the best of everyone's knowledge, once you have become a Gjaum, there is no turning back.

Luckily, an Overed's relationships can help bring them back from the brink of madness and stay the descent. Referred to as a "Lois" (homage to Lois Lane), these represents a character's connection to humanity, to their soul, and are vital to prevent becoming a Gjaum. Each Lois is both has a positive and negative emotion tied to it. Some will more-or-less permanent (Lasting Lois), following the character until things go badly, while others will exist just for the particular session they are relevant in (Scenario Lois); being formed at the beginning to create some investment and background into the events, or gained during play.

If an Overed cuts their ties to a Lois, turning their back on that character, that relationship will turn into a "Titus" (in reference to Titus Andronicus). There are numerous reasons for this to happen, including betrayal, a relationship fundamentally changing, or even the death of the Lois. When it does, the now Titus no longer represents an anchor for the Overed to rely on, but they are still of one last use. The Overed may discard that Titus for a one time bonus, using up everything that is left in that relationship.

There are two primary organizations working behind the scenes in the world of Double Cross: the UGN and False Hearts.

A basic assumption is that the PCs are a part of the United Guardian Network (UGN). Born as an independent body that operates on a multi-national level, the UGN exists in the shadows and keeps the existence of Renegade a carefully shrouded secret from humanity as a whole. It was formed in response to the rise in Gjaum activity and terrorism by Overeds, to protect humanity from out of control Overeds. It also serves to research the Renegade virus, train Overeds in the use of their Syndromes, particularly infected children who are raised at UGN facilities, and oppose the False Hearts.

The False Hearts are a loosely connected network of cells that engage in a variety of activities, from base criminal enterprise, to terrorism, high level infiltration of government assets, and even more mysterious ends. They have no qualms about openly displaying their powers and no regard for human life; many Gjaums find a home within the False Hearts. There are rumors that the False Heart cells are a complex web with one cell at the center, known as Central Dogma, orchestrating complex goals through their low level actors. The only facts about the False Hearts are that actively oppose the UGN at every turn and the UGN is the only organization that can truly threaten the False Hearts.

Overeds are not the only expression of the Renegade virus in the world of Double Cross, nor are the UGN and False Hearts the by any means only organizations dealing with them. There are also the mysterious Renegade Beings, the Renegade virus itself given form, and Xenos, a faction of Renegade Beings working in the shadows. There are still many secrets to the Renegade virus, but it is alive and curious about humanity.

As much fun as the setting is, the biggest draw to Double Cross is going to be the mechanics. That is both a compliment and a warning. The mechanics, many of which have been touched on above, seem rather complicated at first blush encounter and certainly aren't for the mathematically faint of heart (basic algebra is a requirement). On the whole, the mechanics are straight forward and very direct, but this is not a "low crunch" game by any stretch of the imagination. 

The first chunk of mechanics that anyone is going to want to dig their teeth into are the Syndromes. Most of the names are taken from a source which roughly correlates with the power set and gives it a theme; e.g. Exile was named for the Japanese god Hiruko, who was banished for his boneless appearance. Here is a list and brief description (lifted from the text) of each:
  • Angel Halo: Manipulation of light. Capable of laser attacks and illusions.
  • Balor: Controls gravity through the use of an "evil eye". Creates gravity wells to manipulate space and time.
  • Black Dog: Controls internally-produced electricity. On top of lightning attacks, cybernetic implants are also possible.
  • Bram Stoker: Uses one's blood as a weapon. Accelerated healing is also possible by manipulating blood flow.
  • Chimera: Acquire the body of a beast. Gain superhuman strength and speed by restructuring the body.
  • Exile: Controls the elasticity of the body. Use nails as sharp weapons or relocate vital organs.
  • Hanuman: Enhances the nervous system and increases speed. Capable of creating sound waves.
  • Morpheus: Creates and mutates items. Can manipulate the residual dust from creation.
  • Neumann: Enhances mental capabilities. Faster thinking and better memory are this Syndrome's weapons.
  • Orcus: Creates a special "Domain" where the use can manipulate any event that happens in created space.
  • Salamandra: Allows on to manipulate heat. Fire or extreme cold can be used for attacks or enhancing physical capabilities.
  • Solaris: Grants the ability to create chemicals. Can control people through poison and drugs.
Each Syndrome is comprised has various effects within that theme which can be purchased. There are also some common Powers that every Overed has access to, some of which they will begin with. The most important power that every Overed gets, from a setting perspective, is Warding which causes all non-Overed characters in a scene to fall unconscious and generally forget what happened.

There are three different methods for building the mechanics of a character, referred to as Quick Start, Construction and Full Scratch. Quick Start presents a pregen character that has all of the mechanics already put together. Construction takes a White Wolf style approach where you are given points to spend in the various areas. Full Scratch pins a stack of experience points to your shirt and wishes you the best of luck. The recommendation to start with Quick Start for your first few times out cannot be made strenuously enough. Syndromes and powers present some complex relationships and until you have a firm grasp of how they will interact, it's best to let someone else do the heavy lifting. 

Powers have levels associated with them, and that level can also increase in game as your Encroachment increases. This is where the algebra comes in and why it cannot be resolved by simply solving the equation - it will likely change during play. If the following makes you go cross-eyed: Perform an {Atk. Power: + {LV + 1]} ranged attack, this game may be more frustrating than fun. Perseverance may be rewarding, however.

While powers can be combined more-or-less freely to form combos, there is a limiting factor on overextending yourself: Encroachment. It will inevitably increase throughout the game, which will grant greater power, but also increase the danger of turning into a Gjaum at the end of the session. Each power has an Encroachment rate, but whenever a character enters a scene their Encroachment will also increase.

This is a clever mechanic that works out in a few ways. There is a natural limiter on how much a character can rely on showy "alpha strikes" to immediately down a foe - it's better to only use such tactics when absolutely necessary. It introduces a minimalist sense of scene composition; only the characters that need to contribute will be present, which should help reduce scene bloating and keep the action streamlined and focused. The final interesting feature is that it changes the nature of investigation scenes.

A classic situation is where the characters must find a clue to advance the plot, but what happens if they fail the roll? GUMSHOE has it's own resolution, but it generally becomes an awkward situation for everyone at the table. Double Cross works under the assumption that you are eventually going to get the clue, that is a given. The actual question is, how long will it take? Each time a character must try again, it is a new scene, which means everyone involved has their Encroachment increase.

At the end of a session, experience is given out for a variety of terribly normal, but good, things: participation, role-play, moving the plot along, helping out in and out of game, accomplishing goals, etc. There are a few interesting things in this. The first and perhaps most important: experience is given to the player, not the character. If your character dies or turns into a Gjaum, you aren't penalized for that. As well, you can have a stable of characters to call on, if appropriate. That's pretty different and certainly encourages some different styles of play.

Not only that, but the GM receives experience as well. The default assumption (which will be expanded on in a bit) is that the duties of GM will be exchanged among the participants. The major source of experience that a player directly has control of is related to their final Encroachment. As mentioned previously, Loises are used to reduce this in a process known as "Backtracking" at the end of the session. If your Encroachment is still over 100%, you become a soulless Gjaum. For experience purposes, the closer you can skirt to 100% (after Backtracking) without going over, the greater your reward will be. Even ending at or over 100% has a reward.

If your character is going to turn into a Gjaum, there are options to further reduce Encroachment at the cost of your Encroachment reward. The ultimate message here is that the greatest rewards are through playing with fire, but in the end - you will get burned. That kind of fatalism persists throughout the setting, particularly the UGN children. There aren't likely to be any happy endings, only staving off the inevitable.

Included in the book are three sessions and a couple of adventure seeds. While a little on the railroad side (there are definitely choices with consequences and branches, but a main plot to be followed in a roughly linear fashion), they provide an interesting look at the intent of how the game is to be played that isn't generally conveyed by the text. I am mostly going to attribute this to differences between the gaming cultures.

Each session of Double Cross is intended to resemble a movie or TV episode. It is largely self-contained, introducing NPCs that will appear for just that session and creating connections to the players. At the end, the plot is resolved, though there may be some loose threads to pick in later sessions. Subsequent games may have the same cast, they may not - it's all very self-contained and can present an interesting approach to having a rotating group of players and introducing plots that can show in interesting ways to completely different casts.

There is a lot to like about Double Cross. It has a setting that is amenable to writing action packed scenarios, along with a certain fatalistic romance. The mechanics support a slightly different style of play and bring the importance of relationships (as well as the inevitability of your fall) to the foreground, in addition to high powered supernatural action in many different flavors. They can be intimidating and may not be for everyone (not everything is, nor should it be), but definitely deserve a look for doing new things.

Read the report after running a game.