Saturday, May 7, 2016

The Lawnmower Man Virtual Reality Roleplaying Game (1992)

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The Lawnmower Man Virtual Reality Roleplaying Game. What is there to say about this game that you can't already glean from the title? I am convinced that if there is an RPG Hell for bad DMs and players, this is the book that Roleplaying Game Satan hands the poor, damned souls upon their arrival to that cursed shore.

Twenty-four years ago, NASA JPL engineers Barry Nakazono and David McKenzie decided that the world needed a game which combined the excitement of near future sci-fi with the ease and simplicity of aeronautic propulsion engineering. The result was the Phoenix Command rule system, which saw some success in the giant robot combat game Living Steel. It also birthed The Lawnmower Man into the world.

For the uninitiated, The Lawnmower Man is a 1992 sci-fi/late cyberpunk/maybe transhumanist movie based on the title of a Stephen King story and the content of those weird Mind's Eye experimental early CGI stoner tapes. The film is widely known for its incredibly accurate portrayal of virtual reality, computer hacking, and cyber-warfare.

The roleplaying game is no less detail-oriented, in fact this may be the most minutia-obsessed game I have ever read. Everything starts with a fairly solid core concept, then veers down a rabbit hole of endless complexity, a fractal pattern of d% tables and cross references leading to the least obvious mechanical choices. It truly feels as though the designers started playing AD&D, but decided it was not complex or "real" enough for their tastes. In fact, initial character generation follows the same 3d6 method of old-school D&D editions, and even uses the same thresholds for ability score improvement, but with a needlessly complex twist.

Ability scores, or "characteristics" as the game calls them, are broken down into two sections:

Primary Characteristics represent objectively measurable and quantifiable aspects of the character, and consist of Strength, Intelligence, Will, Health, and Agility. Each characteristic is generated by rolling 3d6, noting the total, then rolling 3d6 again and taking the higher of the two totals for each ability. 
Secondary Characteristics represent abstract elements of the character, and are composed of Charisma, Leadership, Perception, and Motivation. Secondary Characteristics use a straight 3d6 down the line, no re-rolls. My rolls for both sets of characteristics follow below.

STR: 14
INT:  15
WIL: 14 
HLT: 10 
AGI: 12 

CHA: 14
LDR: 16
PER: 13
MTV: 7

For both Primary and Secondary Characteristics, 10 is considered "average" (much like D&D), while higher scores are increasingly better, and lower scores progressively worse. The threshold of improvement is the same as in D&D. Based on these numbers, I've got a rather strong, smart, and likeable character who is a natural born leader, but who doesn't give a fuck about getting anything done. With these scores, I can also determine my Learning Roll to earn skills, by adding Intelligence and Motivation to get a 22. In order to learn a skill, I will have to roll below a 22 on a d%.
In order to determine a class, I randomly roll on yet another d% table (the game loves these) and hit an 89 to land on Scientist. This gives me a number of chances to learn science and VR related skills - note, my class does not give me skills, it just gives me the chance to learn skills. Unfortunately, I rolled high on solidly half my skill attempts, giving me a -4 penalty to Awareness, Virtual Reality, Computer Systems, and Diplomacy. I managed to roll low on Computer Programming and Project Management, as well as VR Interfacing skills, giving me a +0 (neither penalty nor bonus) to each of those. I also rolled super high on Computer Hardware and Bio-Tech, however I used a class feature to take those at a +0 level instead of -4. In other words, Biff Slackjaw, MCS is strictly okay at building computers, but borderline incompetent at using them.

I can find no reference for generating starting cash in the game in order to purchase equipment, however the authors do state that players pick whatever starting armor they want (which in turn determines how much they can carry into combat), and get one or more pieces of starting gear. As a Scientist, Biff's starting equipment is a desktop computer, and nothing else. I decided to nab him a Kevlar vest and a small pistol out of the back, though he's likely more a danger to himself than to others.

With character creation basically completed at this point, I would like to take a look at those combat mechanics. Despite knowing how to use VR interfaces, Biff is totally unskilled at VR combat - a detriment in a game focused on interacting with virtual worlds. Instead, I'm going to explore physical combat first. Biff has four combat actions he can use each turn. These actions may be spent on movement (1 Action per six feet), aiming (1 action for -4 to hit, 2 actions for -1, 3 actions for +0), shooting or attacking (1 action), or several combinations thereof. If, for example, Biff wanted to take a shot at a thug about 30 feet away in the open, he could: drop to one knee (one action), aim for two actions, and then fire. To hit the target, I'd have to roll under a 67 on a d%. Managing a 47, I score a hit on the target. I then roll a d% for hit location, getting 36, which corresponds to a shot to the abdomen. I then would make a Glancing roll on 1d10 to determine if the bullet penetrated the thug's armor. In this case, we'll say the thug is unarmored, giving me a total Glance value of 1d10+24 - this exceeds the damage threshold of Biff's pistol (21+), causing him to deal a "heavy" wound for 35 points of damage. If Biff had a weapon capable of fully automatic firing, this would be resolved for each bullet. Of course, he has a lot of weapons to choose from - the game contains no less than 86 real-world firearms, multiple cars, armored vehicles, aircraft, and explosives, each one with slightly different statlines.

Overall, The Lawnmower Man Virtual Reality Roleplaying Game may be the least playable game I have ever encountered, which is especially damning considering that I have a few games which never got past pre-release playtesting (here's looking at you, Narcissist v0.7, you beautiful, weird butterfly). All the more perplexing is that Leading Edge Games managed to fit this system not just into their own in-house Living Steel game, but also at least two additional film-licensed RPGs: Bram Stoker's Dracula and Aliens. The lifespan of the company was brief, however, and both authors have since gone back to working full time at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

Normally, I'd end this post with a link to where you can purchase the game, however The Lawnmower Man Virtual Reality Roleplaying Game is mercifully out-of-print.