Anthony Pryor (Fantasy Flight Games)
(Christ this one is long. Something about Tron-clones triggers my logorrhoea).
Ah, the halcyon days of the d20 boom. Brimming with potential, the d20 market eventually got clogged with a flood of substandard if not utterly wretched supplements married to a system that was already heaving under the strain of excessive rulesbloat.
There were some 3rd party supplementeers/empire builders that knew what they were doing and Fantasy Flight was certainly one of them. Now a mighty boardgame/living card game Caliph with its own very strong line of Rpgs based on both original IP and popular franchises(Star Wars and Warhammer among them), like mighty Genghis Khan, it is almost inconceivable that such a Titan could arise from such humble beginnings. And yet it was so.
Fantasy Flight once lowered itself to producing d20 supplements like a baseborn plebeian (though its paws were already firmly rooted in the boardgame business by then). The Horizon line was one of their more interesting but uneven attempts. Five mini-campaign settings, about 64 pages in length, each usually a thinly veiled ripoff of an existing IP(Grimm and Spellslinger more or less exempted). Virtual is the third one and the second-weakest in the series.
Virtual is essentially Tron d20. Players take the roles of programs that have become self-aware in the digital cyber-world that lies below the internets. Unlike its two predecessors, the d20 system is poorly implemented here, and many of its tropes make no sense in the context of the world they are meant to emulate. Horizon supplements tend to be slim and thus cannibalize as much core dnd as possible (i.e use those ghoul stats to emulate a flesh-eating radiation mutant!) but in this case the conversion process is clunky and amounts to a palette swap (it’s not a goblin it’s a super interesting cyber-virus that has the same exact stats as a goblin dur hur hur I MAEK GOOD GAEM).
Part 1: A Tron is You!
Okay. Character creation starts off fairly simple. Basically, your Race consists of two components; Heritage and Form. Heritage depends on the type of super-virus that made your once nonsentient program self-aware through its mere proximity (these government-designed super viruses also sort of take the role of BIG BAD antagonists in this setting, though they portrayed more as forces of nature then malignant Intelligences). Heritage usually gives you a +2 on one stat and a -2 on the other along with some typical racial abilities. If you like powergaming, these heritages should come as a pleasant change of pace for you, as almost all the heritages are biased in one direction and one direction only (i.e Destroyers are good at hitting, Infectors are good at social skills, Resisters are tanky, Hiders are hidey). If you are a more flavor-oriented guy, you will find them dull. I find them dull.
Next up is Form, a good idea as there is no reason programs would be restricted to humanoid shape (called User Clones). Then again, there is no reason they would have anything like shape or why a program with more code would have more Strength allowing it to manipulate heavier objects made of ones and zeroes but this is
Tron World ahem Virtual and we are supposed to turn off our brains and hope everything in program-space has some sort of code-analogy that makes sense shomehow. Sometimes it succeeds, sometimes it breaks suspension of disbelief. For example, you can pick a form with a +8 bonus on Spot checks and I am willing to believe sight has some sort of analogous quality in software but you can also pick a form with flight and what the fuck is flight if you consider every creature in Virtual is just lines of code and the world is made of code also? Perhaps the virtual world exists as a sort of emergent holographic universe? This shit is fucking with my brain.
Basically, you can choose between a user clone, midget shape, giant shape, talking animal shape and the very interesting Prototype shape, which gains a bonus or penalty on just about everything depending on the type of hardware its currently running on (in Virtual, the campaign-world consists of Servers and each Server has a quality, this comes later and it is very neatly done). Animal shapes have no hands and take a -10 to checks that involve the manipulation of objects BUT WHAT THE FUCK ARE HANDS IN PROGRAM SPACE THEY ARE SOFTWARE MY FUCKING MIND I DON’T EVEN.
Part II: In Program Space, Character Class choose You!
Next up are the character classes or programs. Programs represent the type of program your PC was before he became awakened. Virtual presents a cyberspace take on traditional classes with some interesting ideas thrown in. Powergamers will be very excited, but there are some interesting ideas here for us would be dramaturges also. You can multi-class in this game, which makes dubious sense at best.
The Antiviral is like your monk because his code tends to degrade the code of objects so they go bare-code-handed. Uh…yeah. He is also like a Paladin, only instead of detecting and smiting and becoming immune to evil/disease the antiviral gets to do that stuff to viruses, sort of the monsters/antagonists of Virtual. You also choose whether you want to heal or harm by touch(you choose once), giving you all sorts of neat powers. There is a Battle-AI class(meaning your program likely started life as either a war-simulation or a video game AI) that is essentially a beefed up fighter class with customizable class features (based on a tier system where you can sacrifice versatility for raw power) alongside the expected bonus feats. Its a mechanical improvement over the traditionally impotent fighter class in DnD 3.5, but then again almost anything is. There is also the Messenger, which is like the rogue class if if you stripped out most of the offensive capabilities and instead focused on increasing speed and gaining new ways to maneuver(flight, swimming, tunneling, incorporeality etc). This one is neat, but I must question its utility in a system that allows you to start out as a digitalised hawk wizard(uh…I mean Programmer) that originated from a military super virus.
What d20 game would be complete without its wizard class? The Programmer is essentially a Charisma-based Wizard class that used to be spyware or malware, complete with nonsensical Vancian magic system, some contacts and the ability to create a library on a single system(that means PC or server somewhere) of your choice. The adherence to the good ole’ Vancian magic system and the necessity to sleep in this game is absurd and unjustifiable.
Because Virtual likes fucking with your brain, it also has an Intelligence-based modified Bard class(the Thinker, meaning you were a program that crunched huge amounts of data like a chess program but wait wouldn’t a chess program be a Battle-AI I DON’T EVEN), with a focus on analysis (Analyze Probability allows you to predict a target’s next course of action based on a roll, a very interesting ability for which the table is missing shame on you Fantasy Flight!). The rest of your abilities involve around providing useful bonuses to your team for fun and profit, mind-fucking semi-sentient programs and fucking around with probability.
Overall, a very interesting class, but the lack of a table for one ability makes me sad and angry and drunk (I admit the last part cannot be entirely blamed upon Virtual). We close off with the Web Crawler, based on a search engine, which resembles a tracking and perception focused ranger with full sneak attack progression and no spells.
Since all these classes are based on programs, I would encourage players to base their characters on existing software for maximum lulz, making parties of Norton, CS 1.6, Code Red II, Deep Blue and Lycos for that little bit of extra Tron-awkwardness.
I generally avoid discussions of game-balance since I usually find them tedious so if I notice anything amiss one can readily assume there is some genuine cause for concern. I made a few optimized level 1 characters to see how hard you can powergame. You can push it far but not game-breakingly far.
If we wanted a Barbarian type class we could go for a Destroyer-origin with a Titan shape, netting us a delicious +4 Str, large size, a complementary Improved Bullrush feat and 10 foot reach for the paltry cost of -2 to dex, con, cha and wis. Need a Thinker? Controller background with Prototype form for +4 to Int at the cost of -2 to Wis and Con (and you can float always). It is fairly easy to get a +4 to any Primary Requisite in this game, and the added flexibility during character creation should appeal to powergamers or character-optimization whores or whatever you call them.
Chapter III: A 4-armed energy damage dealing flying cyber-wolf is you?!?
Does the optimization wet-dream end with a drawn out groan and a cigarette after character creation? Oh ye petty-minded fools. I have not covered the feat section. The delicious delicious feat section. Basically, at the paltry cost of 1 feat called Altered form, you can select a whole plethora of game-wrecking murder feats. Does Milady find the lack of hands for her flying Cyber-dog Search Engine too annoying? Would Milady prefer an extra pair of hands so she can fight with 4 weapons at once? Would Milady like to fly for 1 minute per point of Constitution?
In addition, the Reprogram feat that allows one to trade in skill points and re-divide them at each level deserves a thematically appropriate nod. The rest is about what you’d expect, nothing really stands out, excepting a feat that allows your ranged attacks to home in on their targets, allowing you to replay that scene from Tron Legacy where they fight with thrown energized discs (e.g the entire movie).
Also some extra uses for skills, most of them ho hum, but the ability to disable the hardware of the system you are on (such as the keyboard, printer or modem) using Disable Device is kind of neat.
Chapter IV: I sent the bitch a Disc. Bitches love discs.
Like Redline, Virtual tries to do something clever with the currency system of the game. Unlike Redline, it fails. Gold pieces are replaced with RU (Resource units), which are meant to represent the amount of processing power the program can get from the system. The fact you can somehow trade these things or take them from server to server makes no sense, but the ability to exchange currency via a simple handshake feels very Tron-ish. Style over substance if you will.
Equipment is given a new property, called Quality, which takes the place of the masterwork system in normal d20. Quality is not just a property of items, but also of servers, and as a result you can’t use amazing quality items on Poor Quality servers, a very interesting concept. So, your buddy may have a +3 Excellent quality Coderipper with a Speed subroutine installed therein but since you and your buddies are going to travel towards User Bob’s shitty Poor Quality modem to steal his .txt files it turns into an inert globe until you travel to a medium of higher quality.
Equipment consists of appropriately Tron-ish assortment of Coderippers (cyberspace laser guns), Code-bombs(cyber-space handgrenades), Discus(FUCK YEAH), shock prods and a variety of rather bland armor types (it’s not full plate its Heavy Combat Armour!), with the personal Firewall standing out as by far the most interesting. Some rules are given for Personal Subroutines, the equivalent of magic items in Virtual. You can carry one per point of Con bonus, which seems fine.
It’s a pity Virtual stupidly allows you to use DnD magic items alongside them, a thematic faux pas of devastating proportions. I was sort of lukewarm about this section until I read the next part about movement and discovered they have rules for Codebikes. Ah Virtual. I am sorry I doubted you my lovely. Adjustable speed/hardness bikes and some goofy walkers are enough to assuage some of my existential hurt. Why did you not also rip-off/include rules for the solid bars lightcycles leave behind them as they travel so we can have cyberbike fights? No dinner for you Virtual.
Chapter V: A Programmer did it.
Next up are some procedures for navigating
the Grid Program Space. Most of the interesting stuff in Virtual comes from the possibilities of this setting. Some rough procedures have already been mentioned(1 day in program space equals 1 minute in real world User Land, nodes are one cubic mile for each megabyte of drivespace etc.). Everything is connected via Data-pathways and Hubs of differing quality, with civilizations of sentient or nonsentient programs (dreamers and sleepers) in each node. Most of your adventures will involve your players going into places they really should not be, hence your opponents will be firewalls that can be circumnavigated via skillchecks or trickery, Scanners in the form of beams of light stabbing downward and moving after the player (striking for considerable damage), and digitalised cyber-variants of the normal trips and traps one expects in your average fortress.
If you are going to make this game work, I would suggest focusing on the stylistic aspects of the setting, rather then digging deep into the metaphysics of the setting. Your playstyle will not radically differ from good ole’ 3.5, so you have to sell it stylistically. The hub/quality adds something to the unique feel of Virtual, as do these firewalls and scanners. Virtual resembles the movie it emulates; it doesn’t make sense but it looks cool doing it. If you can get that to work I think you could get a satisfying campaign out of it.
Viruses are a big thing in Virtual. As previously mentioned, all sentient programs were originally created unwittingly by super advanced military grade viruses known as Progenitor Viruses that rampage through Program Space, destroying/infecting all they manage to touch. They recommend you make them at least CR 18, and if you are lazy you can use ancient dragons or nightshades for stats or something to that effect. These malignant forces have agenda’s of their own, often unknowable or involving the triggering of global thermonuclear war in Userland, and have both minions and sentient programs that serve them willingly called Razors. Their tools of conquest are microviruses (essentially mind controlling diseases, or just diseases) and virus minions, which can take any shape but free-willed undead are particularly recommended. Nice. Alongside microviruses you also have code-eaters, which is Virtual-slang for poisons. The distinction seems arbitrary as do many things in Virtual.
Rewriting is discussed, which is like arcane spellcasting sans material components (you must purchase generic system resources for material components or foci with a gp value). Spells are now Rewrites and a handy dandy table is provided to give them more Programmy names and some conversion notes (Slay living is now Discorporate Program, Meteor Swarm is now Electron Swarm, Magic Jar is now Programmer Vessel etc.). Teleporting can only be done on the same system. Essentially, systems function like seperate planes. A few new spells are provided, consisting of some unique spells that deal with the unique aspects of the Virtual campaign world and some flavorful damage-dealing spells. Of note are a
spell program that has a percentage chance of getting the User to reboot the system, which heals everyone, gives people some of their spells back and gives a chance to dispel all magic I mean Programming on the system, and a Reformat Cluster massive damage dealing area spell. The Vancian magic system, arbitrary at the best of times, has never seemed so arbitrary as it is here.
Chapter 6: Let me tell you about my Program Space.
The end approaches. The parameters of the virtual world are described, as well as what you can do there, different zones in a single system (rough analogues for cities, wilderness, fortresses and planar gateways). Some setting history and culture is discussed with admirable brevity. Basically, Program Space consists of a vast number of interlinked systems, each with a quality rating that determines, among other things, the type of equipment you can use there and the maximum rewrite level you can use, which I thought was a neat way to distinguish it from standard DnD.
A few sample systems are provided, New York Hub vaguely resembles a cyber-version of 1920s new york, complete with specially-coded virus-drug analogues and a criminal underground, Calnet is a militarized hub with the highest population of sentient programs in Program Space. All the NPCS are bland and 2-dimensional, which is sadly not intentional. Some factions are provided, and these are good. You’ve got your fanatical User cultists, your movement that tries to prevent nuclear war, your anti-viral movement, your cabal of financial programs that manipulate real world stocks and thus gain real world power and your group that seeks to somehow contact the Users and make them aware of program space. Users are barely understood gods, their emissaries treated as Outsiders. Its sparse, but it gives you enough to work with. We end with a lukewarm list of sample NPCs for use as adversaries. Did you get excited by the list of Npcs adversaries in the DMG? Then this will thrill and shock you!
Overall, Virtual is a functional but suprisingly lacklustre attempt at a setting. It innovates but is nowhere enough to merit its existence. It is one of the few instances where a longer, more detailed supplement would have been to the game’s benefit. Perhaps I should blame the source material, but this is unfair, there is some potential for variety and lightcycle duelling in here, it just doesn’t give you the tools to build something great. As it is, its a mechanically interesting variant player handbook with a mediocre setting to try them out in. I cannot in good conscience recommend this game to anyone but a probably hypothetical cabal of diehard Tron fans.
Pros: Lots of character creation options and freedom. Campaign world has some interesting features.
Cons: Ultimately too much like garden variety DnD 3.5. Lackluster genre emulation. Boring antagonists.
Final Verdict: 5 out of 10 Digital Cyber-halbeards.