The name’s Davenport. I review games.
So the other day I’m sittin’ at my desk, when in barges… somethin’. Fella looked like someone crossed an ape with a shark and threw the whole works into a microwave.
“Gots a game for ya, hurr hurr,” the big goon says. He hands it over. “SLA Industries 2nd edition,” the cover says.
“SLA, huh?” I says. “I remember that one. Dark game. Made cyberpunk look like the Candyland. Kept a whole lotta secrets from the GM.”
“Not no more.”
“Oh, yeah? The origin of the Carrien?”
“Thas notta secret.”
“Nope, not no secret.”
“I’ll be darned. That’s pretty impressive. Is there anything that’s not a secret in this edition?”
“Thassa secret, hurr hurr.”
The world of SLA Industries is a bit difficult to describe, because it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense by design.
The setting is known as the “World of Progress”: A series of entire star systems owned completely by the eponymous corporation, SLA Industries. This corporation is the center of a monopolistic nightmare in which a single company owns everything: Armaments, entertainment, food production, the media, everything. Subsidiaries compete with one another, but SLA runs the whole show. And at the top of the SLA food chain sits the mysterious and disfigured Mr. Slayer, head honcho of the entire World of Progress.
Mr. Slayer rules from his headquarters on the environmental wasteland of a planet called Mort where the rain never stops, in the planet’s capital of Mort City. Mort City is surrounded by the ruins known as the Cannibal Sectors, haunted by monstrous freaks, killer robots, and, of course, cannibals. Below Mort City lurks the Deep Construct, subterranean levels of the city that shouldn’t be there, seemingly extending downward forever into increasingly distorted reality where the horrors known as Dream Entities lurk.
That’s just the beginning of the problems facing SLA Industries. Rival companies Dark Night and Thresher challenge SLA Industries in the marketplace and on the battlefield. The aliens known as the Conflict Races, previously thought extinct, have returned to renew their fight with SLA. Somewhere out in space floats the mystery of White Earth and its rule known as Bitterness, worshipped by the Shi’An Blood Cult on Mort and granting them seemingly impossible sorcerous powers.
That brings us to the player characters. Known as Operatives, these are freelance troubleshooters hired by SLA to, well, shoot troubles. Their exploits serve as fodder for reality TV shows, and accomplished Operatives can expect corporate sponsorships as well as increasing security clearance. (On the downside, because hand-to-hand combat makes for better television, SLA has imposed a costly tax on bullets.)
The tech level of the setting is awfully hard to pin down. A cyberpunk period has already come and gone, with flawed cybernetic enhancements having left many users crippled and penniless. Computers are clunky green-screen affairs, and fax machines are still in common use. Laser guns don’t exist, but powered armor does. Several methods of faster-than-light travel are in use. Artificial life forms are common. I would say the tech is very roughly in the Blade Runner range.
Overall, it’s a very odd, frequently disturbing, and seldom subtle place, and I like it a lot. True, it’s quite bleak — you are, after all, working for the Bad Guys to help stop the Worse Guys — but somehow, the setting works its way past “depressing” and on into “fascinating”.
I can’t very well review this edition of the game without addressing the previous edition of the game — specifically, “the Truth,” aka “The Writer’s Bible“. The first edition kept all manner of secrets from the GM, which is a cardinal sin in my book. Among these secrets was the infamous Truth behind the setting, which eventually came to light and which is no longer considered canon.
Well, while this edition does keep some elements of the setting a bit of a mystery, it does, at least, spill the tea on many parts of the setting that were mentioned by name but never explained in the first edition. For example, while we still don’t know the origin of Bitterness, we do, at least, know what White Earth is to some degree: A desert planet populated by horrors that defy reality. We also get the full history of topics such as DarkNight, Thresher, and the loathsome Carrien. In fact, pretty much everything left as a vague mystery in the first edition is revealed to be amazingly cool details in the second.
Is there any flaw in the setting? Well, the book does focus very strongly on Mort City, with a bit about the Cannibal Sectors thrown in for good measure. The text does describe some other Mort locations as well as some other planets, but it’s not enough to use in play without a lot of work. Space travel gets a bit of space, but only in the form of FTL travel methods. I have no idea what spacecraft look like, and space combat isn’t even mentioned.
Does it sound like I’m reaching for flaws to discuss? I am. There’s plenty of adventure material to be found within the confines of Mort City, and there’s the 2nd edition update to the Cannibal Sector 1 sourcebook if you want to go beyond the city limits. I guess if you never thought that the Seattle megaplex was enough space for Shadowrun, you might find Mort City a bit claustrophobic; otherwise, it should be plenty.
Threat Analysis (a.k.a. the Bestiary)
SLA Industries 2e outdoes its predecessor several times over in terms of antagonists. Some highlights…
Carnivorous pigs. That regenerate.
The feral skull-headed Carrien get an extensive entry, including their top-secret origin.
The Shi’An Cult writeup includes details on the two types of magic that they use — Ethereal Magic and Blood Magic — and stats for some of the horrors they summon from White Earth.
The book reveals the histories of rival corporations DarkNight, Thresher, and Tek Trex, and features stats for their people and equipment, including examples of Thresher’s infamous power armor.
I like the mysterious Scavs of the Cannibal Sector. They remind me a bit of the Sandpeople of Star Wars with a knack for evaluating and improving existing technology. Their writeup includes some examples of such tech.
I love the concept of Dream Entities — creatures that literally shouldn’t exist, with the terrifying ability to warp reality. If the corridor up ahead suddenly seems to stretch on forever, you’re probably being chased by a Dream Entity.
The Manchines are really freaky, and I was happy to see them written up. Imagine Terminators with the notion that being draped in rotting human flesh is an adequate disguise.
I was impressed that the book managed to make the Shivers, SLA Industries’ combination police force, national guard, and even fire department, interesting.
As generous as this collection is, noteworthy omissions include the Cannibals of the Cannibal Sectors, the Conflict Races, and the monstrous “ascended” Ebonites known as Necanthropes.
PCs come from one of nine species:
- Human: Adaptable and sociable, but not the “baseline” species (there isn’t one).
- Frother: Imagine drug-fueled Scottish berserkers, and you’ll have the right idea.
- Ebonite: A Human-like species of two variants — the Ebon and the Eban (or “Wasters”) — able to use the mystic power of the Ebb.
- Stormer 313 “Malice”: Enormously fast and strong lab-grown monstrosities.
- Stormer 711 “Xeno”: Not quite as fast and strong lab-grown monstrosities, but brighter than their “Malice” kin.
- Shaktar: Powerful, honorable warriors. Think of scaly red Klingons with Predator dreadlocks.
- Wraithen: Sneaky humanoid lizard-cats.
- Advanced Carrien: “Civilized” Carrien employed by SLA Industries.
- Neophron: Smart, charming, sophisticated bird-people.
I like the selections here. If I have any problem with it at all, it’s the fact that some of the creatures — mainly the Stormers and the Advanced Carrien — are so monstrous themselves that it’s hard to imagine them being taken aback by other monstrosities. That’s a very minor issue.
Characters have the stats of Strength, Dexterity, Knowledge, Concentration, Charisma, Cool, and Luck (for non-Ebonites) or Flux (for Ebonites). The overall PC stat range is 0-6, but each species has its own range. Again, Humans don’t represent any sort of stat baseline. Their Strength maxes out at a relatively puny 3, for example, while their mental and social maximums are 5s, and their Luck is a whopping 6.
Strength governs hand-to-hand combat and Dexterity governs ranged combat. I’m never fond of Strength governing the chance to hit (rather than the ability to cause damage), but it seems somehow fitting that brute force rules the day in a setting such as this. Strength does affect unarmed — but not armed — combat damage as well, but a Strength-based damage bonus doesn’t kick in until a Strength of 5, well above the Human maximum. That seems a tad strange, but I suppose it emphasizes just how much stronger some of these species are than Humans.
Speaking of things that feel appropriate, it’s fitting that in the media-saturated World of Progress, the PC receive Ratings Points assigned specifically to Body (Strength and Dexterity), Brains (Knowledge and Concentration), and Bravado (Charisma and Cool). These can be spent on various seemingly implausible feats. Luck, on the other hand, is spent to re-roll or improve dice rolls.
Skills are fairly general. The Melee Weapons skill, for example, covers all hand-to-hand weapons aside from long-shafted ones, which fall under the Polearms skill. Species-intrinsic skills and numerous training packages help speed skill selection along, although players do get to add a pool of points to any skills of their choice.
Also in the spirit of speeding things along, the game offers only 18 positive or negative Traits to flesh out the PCs.
Finally, all SLA Operatives get a standard set of equipment. It’s not much — armor’s not included, for example, and you really want armor — but at least you get an auto-pistol. And a lighter. And contraceptives.
SLA Industries 2e uses an attribute + skill mechanic in a rather unorthodox but interesting way. It’s a dice pool system… sort of. The success or failure of an action depends upon a single d10, the Success Die, plus the relevant attribute and skill scores. However, the degree of success depends upon a pool of d10s called Skill Dice equal to the skill+1, with the relevant attribute and skill added to each of the Skill Dice individually. So, for example, if a character had a relevant attribute of 3 and a skill of 2, the player would roll 1 Success Die and 3 Skill Dice, adding 5 to each die individually and comparing the totals to the difficulty to determine which rolls are successful. If the Success Die is a failure, it doesn’t matter whether the Skill Dice are successes, unless four or more Skill Dice are successful, in which case the attempt is just a basic success.
Is your head hurting? Mine was, too, when I first tried to wrap my head around this. However, I eventually came around once I realized that this mechanic has the benefits of a single-die mechanic and a success-counting dice pool mechanic: Both success/failure and level of success are highly transparent with minimal math.
A character’s initiative equals the sum of Dexterity + Concentration + 1d10 — a nice combination of quick moves and quick thinking.
For such a supposedly cinematic game, I was a bit disappointed to learn that combatants are limited to one attack per round unless on certain combat drugs.
Successes in combat always have a difficulty of 10 plus assorted modifiers. It’s important to note that attack rolls are not opposed; instead, combatants in hand-to-hand combat can either dedicate some of their combat skill dice for the round to defense for a -1 modifier to the attacker’s dice totals or else can do nothing but dodge using the Acrobatics skill, giving a -2 modifier per Acrobatics skill die. Combatants in a firefight, however, had just better take cover. Again, I don’t see that mechanic as particularly cinematic, but it is appropriately unforgiving and brutal.
As I always prefer, success levels affect damage. However, it’s not a 1-to-1 relationship between successes and increased damage. Instead:
- +1 Skill Die = +1 DMG
- +2 Skill Dice = +2 DMG or hit an arm
- +3 Skill Dice = +4 DMG or hit a leg
- +4 or more Skill Dice = +6 DMG and hit the head
While I’d prefer a more direct correlation between success levels and damage, I do appreciate the fact that this method avoids a separate roll for hit location.
Damage levels are rated in your basic Hit Points, which are based on Strength plus a species-related modifier. Damage from attacks are based on either Strength plus a possible modifier (for unarmed attacks) or d10s plus a possible modifier, with all attacks having a minimum damage level.
Speaking of damage, armor reduces it, as is my preference; however, weapons have an Armor Damage rating that affects the armor’s Resistance — essentially, the armor’s own hit points. That should keep armored-up Operatives from getting too smug.
Something between magic and psionics, the Ebb is the mysterious power wielded by the Ebonites. Ebonites invoke these powers by spending a round on mental calculations and spending a point of Flux. Ebb abilities fall under disciplines, with each level of skill giving access to two abilities. The disciplines are:
- Reality Fold
- Thermal (Blue/Red)
Of the two breeds of Ebonites, only the Ebon can use Blue Thermal and only the Eban can use Red Thermal — ice and fire powers, respectively.
The scope of some of these powers isn’t immediately obvious based upon their names alone. For example, Blast also covers light-related abilities, including the ability to see in the dark.
I’m not sure how I feel about supernatural powers being limited to a single PC species, but I like the powers themselves.
The full-color art in this book knocks it out of the park, fully capturing the high-octane darkness of the setting and staying completely consistent throughout. I can’t praise it highly enough.
The writing likewise fits the setting, conveying the oppressiveness of the World of Progress using text seasoned with a touch of wry humor, especially in the in-setting commentaries. And, as was not so much the case with its predecessor, the writing is crystal clear.
The layout is a bit on the busy side, and I caught myself backtracking a few times to verify what level of a heading I was under. I’m willing to forgive that, though, given the sheer volume of quality information provided.
Finally, like all good roleplaying books, SLA Industries includes a comprehensive and useful index.
My feelings on a game have seldom done such a 180 between editions as they have on SLA Industries. Certainly, this is a niche game with a setting that may be too dark and depressing for a lot of gamers out there… but then again, if the World of Darkness game line has proved anything, it’s that there’s a market for dark and depressing. And SLA Industries somehow manages to give dark and depressing a fun kind of “Ah, screw it! Lock and load!” attitude. It’s not for everyone, but what game is? And what it does, it does very well indeed. The GMshoe says check it out.