03 September 2013

Engine Heart

Engine Heart, by Viral Games Publishing, is a game about robots after humans have left.

This game doesn't have an explicit setting, but one that is implied through the fiction presented, some of the rules and the random locale generation tables. The assumptions are that humans have been gone long enough for things to start falling apart and that robotics have become rather sophisticated and commonplace. It is important to note that while all of the robots have enough sapience to be considered AI, that term is reserved for particularly powerful entities that exist as more of a mainframe, rather than within a body.

The premise is that the brave robots (portrayed by the players) have begun to question the validity of their original programming. They wonder what it means to exist in a world where what they were created for is no longer relevant. These are some fairly deep existential questions, though not all robots are equally equipped to handle them. Banding together, they move around searching for spare parts, always worrying about their power, trying to not run afoul of predatory robots and AI societies run amok.

Character creation isn't difficult, but it can easily be time consuming. It is a point-based system with a number of attributes (13 of them) and a whole host of features to customize your robot. Lucikily (?) the default number of points isn't enough to build a robot superhero - each player will likely be using a small selection of features during play. That doesn't necessarily mean there won't be considerable agonizing over what features to select. To help with this process, it's best to go into it with a strong idea of what robot suffering from an existential crisis you want to play.

The system is very simple as well: roll a d10 and add modifiers; check to see if you cleared the difficulty and 10s explode (re-roll until you don't get a 10, adding all of the results). It's serviceable, easy to learn, uncomplicated, but also nothing particularly engaging about it. These may be bugs or features depending on your tastes.

Seems pretty short, and to be honest - it is. There are mechanics for surviving in this uncaring world: reprogramming, power usage and recharging, fighting and escaping, repairs, etc. However, the majority of the heavy lifting is left for the GM. Examples are provided which provide some inspiration, along with the tables that lead you through creating a random area. These are helpful along with the fiction. Consider this a warning on the fiction: it goes between cute, amusing and getting you right in the feels. If you can read about the little PageMaster without feeling a thing, you may not have a soul.

There is one more place to look for adventure ideas for a prospective GM. This game cites numerous applicable sources of inspiration, but the example which first came to mind was Wall-E. Others work remarkably well for addressing group dynamics and interacting with other social structures, Toy Story 3 is particularly good in this respect. An excellent collection of source material is presented that deals with scenarios and some of the larger questions that the robots will face - what does it mean and what are they really looking for, being two of the most relevant.

Where this game is going to work best is as a one-shot or short story arc. It allows the plight of these courageous robots to be a little more real if the stakes are high. There isn't enough mechanical depth and advancement to encourage long-term play. Though taking on the role of different groups of robots as a bigger plot unfolds in the background has some appeal.

In the end, this is a simple and endearing game of a group of robots searching for belonging and trying to survive in an uncaring world. A surprisingly poignant premise that can be appropriate for all ages and worth looking into for a short-term game.