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Android Shadow of the Beanstalk Review

I grew up in the 80s, but I was a latecomer to cyberpunk. I loved Blade Runner, and read a few Philip K. Dick short stories, because at one point in the 80s I think 98% of all movies were adapted from one of his stories (this figure may be slightly exaggerated). But I didn’t read Gibson’s Neuromancer, and I never got into the crop of cyberpunk RPGs that I saw popping up in Dragon Magazine over the years. Shadowrun was that game that my friends learned without me when they went off to college.

In fact, what finally got me into cyberpunk was reading collections of Transmetropolitan in my late 20s. When I later picked up on a few more of the staples of cyberpunk, what struck me about Transmetropolitan was that it could be very cynical and grim about its world, and yet have some glimmers of hope in the stories. Life could be terrible and strange, but it could also still be strange and wonderful.

Having set the parameters of my primary interface into the subsystem of science fiction indexed as cyberpunk, let’s plug into the specific coordinates of my vector for this review run, the Fantasy Flight Genesys supplement Shadow of the Beanstalk, a sourcebook for playing in their Android setting.

How Much Chrome Does It Have?

This review is based on both the PDF of the product as well as the hardcover. The product is 258 pages long, with a two-page index in the back. Both formats are in full color, and there are full page pieces of art introducing each chapter, as well as several half-page images, maps, and illustrations of gear throughout the book. Like other Fantasy Flight products, the artwork is high quality, and many of the images may be familiar, as they appear in multiple product lines associated with the Android IP.

Most of the pages are shades of blue, with darker “file folder” sidebars to call out special information. A few sections, such as the section on the net, have a different color scheme, with the net pages appearing almost black, and the adversaries’ chapter being largely in golds and orange.

Three high tech criminals fly away from the scene of a crime in a hovercar, with one barely hanging on to a friend's cybernetic hand.Introduction

The introduction sets the stage for what this book is, what it details, and what else you will need for a campaign. As a supplement to the Genesys RPG, this product is assuming you will have a copy of both the core rules and at least a set of the narrative dice that Genesys utilizes (experience tells me that you may need more than one set).

Fairly early into the introduction, the book suggests that for a more detailed look at the setting, you may want to pick up a copy of the Worlds of Android art and setting book. This immediately made me wonder how “table ready” this book was going to be, but we’ll revisit that later.

The rest of the introduction outlines the core concepts of the setting. Some of this information is delivered as online articles complete with digressions from a character that is currently hacking into the site. The actual date is never mentioned, but the setting revolves around New Angeles, a mega-city in Ecuador dominated by multi-national corporations, and home to a massive space elevator that provides access to the lunar colony of Heinlein and allows for shipping to Mars.

Why is the setting called the Android setting? One of the defining aspects of future society is the invention of androids. Androids are a term used for competing technologies, fully synthetic mechanical constructs called bioroids, and genetically engineered, purpose-built clones, neither of which have full rights as citizens.

While the setting clearly has cyberpunk elements, including multi-national corporations and a world-spanning computer network, the wars, colonies on Mars and the moon, and social issues like clone and bioroid rights also remind me of science fiction stories like The Expanse series of novels.

Chapter 1: Character Creation

Character creation unfolds in a manner similar to the process outlined in the Genesys core rules, but this section addresses changes in the process. The main points of divergence are the setting specific archetypes, careers, skills, and talents, and the introduction of factions and favors.

Factions are important for the favor economy because they will determine who you owe, and who owes you. Favors are divided between small, regular, and big favors, and you can owe bigger favors to get more resources at character creation. It’s not entirely unlike Obligation in FFG’s Star Wars Edge of the Empire, except the discreet favors and their size are tracked, rather than creating an obligation score that can be triggered.

Archetypes include the following character types:

The careers specifically detailed in this book include the following:

Since Edge of the Empire is my favorite expression of FFG’s Star Wars RPGs, I’m not surprised that I really like the concept of favors and the rules surrounding them. I did find it a little ironic that the rules note that you can reskin the Animal Companion talent from the core Genesys book to account for drones, but the rules also subdivide the core Genesys computer skill into Hacking and Sysops. While I realize that in the real-world computer skills are definitely more granular than a single skill, I’m not convinced that they need to be broken out for an RPG. There are a few more details on what each skill gets used for later on in the book.

Chapter 2: Equipment and Vehicles

This section has a few more details on the favor economy but also details a slew of cyberpunk style equipment for the player characters to interact with. This chapter is also the home of the single most 90s piece of equipment I’ve ever seen, the charged crystal katana. Most of the weapons skew more towards monofilament blades, flechette guns, mass drivers, and masers.

There is a section that details various substances that may have addictive properties. There is a sidebar that discusses treating this topic with care, and being mindful both of real-world issues and any concerns players may have at the table, and I appreciated that inclusion.

Because this is a Genesys game, various pieces of equipment have hardpoints that allow for equipment to be customized in various ways. If you are familiar with cybernetics from the Star Wars RPGs, one way that cybernetics differ in this setting is that strain threshold is very important to their installation and operation. Augmentations lower strain threshold, limiting the number a character can have. Additionally, various special effects are triggered by spending strain.

The good news is that Shadow of the Beanstalk avoids old school concepts like “humanity” or “essence,” and doesn’t imply that enhanced people lose hold of their humanity with too many augments. There is just a limit to how many major augmentations a character can reasonably utilize. Unfortunately, there are still a few lines of text that imply having an altered emotional state is “creepy,” and the tone feels overly harsh and judgmental.

A cybernetically enhanced police officer drinks coffee while she locks down a computer system on a runner.Chapter 3: The Network 

Since a large portion of the setting is based on cyberpunk vibes, we have a chapter on The Network, and what it looks like to hack into various systems. This chapter gives a history of the global Network, as well as details on evocative things like God Code (programs that spontaneously write themselves in the Network), “ghosts” of runners that lost themselves while submerged in the Network, and religions that have arisen from these quirks of the virtual world.

There are also rules for hacking. This is not shocking for a cyberpunk setting. While they are a little more involved than I would like, a big benefit of how the rules work is that everything is framed in a manner similar to other aspects of the rules. ICE programs have a program strength that operates in a similar manner to character health. Icebreaker programs work in a manner similar to weapons in the “real world.” Remember earlier in the book where they split the computer skills up? If you are intruding on a system, you are using hacking. If you are defending against intruders or acting against someone entering a computer that you are “supposed” to have access to, you use sysops.

What I really appreciate is that there is a simplified version of hacking included in this chapter as well, which the GM is encouraged to use in situations where a more involved run would be cumbersome, which still gives benefits for having icebreakers and ICE installed.

Chapter 4: New Angeles and Heinlein

This section goes into more detail on the setting. While it briefly mentions a few areas outside of New Angeles, the Beanstalk, and Heinlein (the lunar colony of New Angeles), the main focus is on those core areas of the setting.

Each of the main districts of New Angeles is detailed, and each of them is essentially a small city in its own right. The various districts have information on the undercity, plaza, and penthouse levels of the area, and most of them follow a format of presenting general information, then providing a specific example location, and NPCs native to those locations, rather than giving exhaustive details on every major business and location.

In addition to the city districts on Earth, there are sections on Midway Station (the space station halfway up the space elevator that dominates the city), the Challenger Planetoid (a rock towed into geosynchronous orbit to facilitate the shuttles launched from the elevator), and Heinlein, the lunar colony that provides Earth with He-3 from its mines.

Despite mentioning the additional details in the Worlds of Android setting book, there are plenty of setting details in this chapter, with a ton of adventure hooks. There should be more than enough for multiple campaigns worth of material in what has been provided.

While I really like these details, I would much rather have a few more out of setting sidebars discussing potential issues with introducing topics like war, labor disputes, and slave labor that is a constant part of the setting with bioroids, clones, and even AI. Players may even be playing characters that don’t have full rights as people, or characters that are marginalized as being on the losing side of a war, so a little more discussion on safety would have been appreciated.

Chapter 5: Adversaries

The adversaries chapter gives a whole range of stats for security guards, drones, cyborgs, gang members, animals, and criminals that PCs might run into in the course of a game. These are organized in the standard Genesys groupings of minions, rivals, and nemeses, meaning that the NPCs work better in large groups, are fairly similar to PCs, or are more formidable than any single PC, in broad terms.

By far, the best entry is the teacup giraffe. Not because it’s a fearsome beast, and not just because it’s adorable. The Too Cute and Way Too Cute abilities are just too good not to enjoy.

Chapter 6: The Game Master

The Game Master chapter opens by explaining the mindset of people that live in the setting, and how that mindset changes based on the character’s position in society. It also includes advice on descriptions, the importance of social encounters and capitulation, referring to the social encounter rules in the core Genesys rules. It then wraps up with the Android Adventure Builder, a section that has several base jobs, escalations, and climaxes. While the hooks have a fairly linear outline, the escalations and climaxes can be mixed and matched with different hooks to create different adventure progressions.

I normally like a setting book to have a sample adventure, but in this case, I think the Adventure Builder is a solid toolkit for outlining what adventures should look like in the setting, with enough flexibility that it can be used multiple times. What I do think was lacking in this section was a discussion on how groups get together. Most of the hooks broadly assume PCs that are sort of outlaws, maybe mercenaries, but I would have loved to have had a few group templates to give examples of how the disparate archetypes might come to work together.

There is also some discussion on how there isn’t much discrimination based on nationality or ethnicity in the setting, with the exploration of similar topics being focused on android and clone rights, and societal stress between loonies and humans on Earth. That said, there are definitely some nationality-based stereotypes that echo in the setting, including Russian, German, and Japanese companies and neighborhoods that both feel a little too one dimensional in places, and belie the concept that only the manufactured prejudices are present in the setting.

There are a handful of paragraphs about creating micro-cultures in the setting, neighborhoods that are based on cultural backgrounds, religious affiliations, or other signifiers. There are examples of these in the setting chapter, and the book encourages players to use those as examples to make more, but three paragraphs of discussion feel really thin to fully convey the care you would have to use in creating a micro-culture based on any existing modern-day signifiers. I feel like this section would have been better served with advice on keeping these micro-cultures based on unique setting elements or exercising care and collaboration with those that understand the real-world foundations of such cultures.

Strong Signal
 While the setting draws heavily from cyberpunk tropes, it also draws broadly and allows for a wide variety of campaign styles. 

While the setting draws heavily from cyberpunk tropes, it also draws broadly and allows for a wide variety of campaign styles. The setting information is concise enough for campaigns, but evocative enough to inspire further research. In general, rules for limiting cybernetics avoid some of the pitfalls of other cyberpunk games, and the mechanics for gaining benefits give similar items in this setting a different feel than, for example, cybernetics in the FFG Star Wars games. There is some very solid advice on structuring jobs in a manner appropriate to the genre, and while the opening scenarios are very specific, the twists to be introduced later are broadly applicable. This is a deep mine for campaign material.

ICE

The only real content warning in the entire book is about addiction, but the setting has many points that could cause safety concerns, including politics, religion, class, and national origins coming into conflict. The section on creating micro-cultures introduces the concept of creating a micro-culture and is especially thin and potentially fraught. While it is great that the setting is wide open for many kinds of stories, there isn’t much time spent examining how to bring together disparate character types, or examples of what different teams of player characters may look like, beyond assuming they will be criminals doing jobs, defaulting to one of the most common cyberpunk tropes.

Qualified Recommendation — A product with lots of positive aspects, but buyers may want to understand the context of the product and what it contains before moving it ahead of other purchases.

The setting really speaks to me. It manages to be grim and dystopian without being so cynical that it doesn’t allow for some feeling of hope. It leaves room for more heroic goals, instead of painting a life of endless jobs for the sake of survival. It does fall into the same pattern that many setting books fall into, presenting the setting without diverting enough to discuss how the various parts can be used at the table.

The GM advice is solid but could be fleshed out more, and for a cyberpunk setting, there isn’t nearly enough discussion on safety and the potential problems that could come up when introducing elements of the setting at the table. Because of that, anyone bringing this to the table should know that they will be doing the safety work on their own.

What are your favorite cyberpunk settings and games? What cyberpunk media informs your enjoyment of the genre? We would love to hear about it in the comments below!

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