Now that I’ve had the chance to see the full version of sci-fi RPG Shock: Human Contact, I’ve found it to be even more mind-blowing than I’d previously thought. At the same time, I’m actually less interested in playing it as a game — but that isn’t a bad thing.
Based on the preview we got a look at last year, I knew Human Contact was not your typical RPG. When you think, “Sci-fi RPG,” you’re probably thinking something along the lines of, “Cool, my character will be a space smuggler, always on the run from the galactic authorities. But he’s gotten involved in the fight against the Dark Viceroys, crime lords from another dimension.” Human Contact isn’t like that. It unfolds within a fairly rigid scenario, yet within that scenario you will create entire worlds, then totally screw them up (that Dark Viceroys thing, by the way? Totally mine, I’m trademarking that right now). There might even be a space smuggler involved, but probably not in the way you expect.
In Human Contact, you’re part of a society of humans far in the future, known as The Academy. If you’re familiar with Iain M. Banks’ series of novels about The Culture, it shares a lot of similarities. Imagine a society carried out to one possible extreme of liberalism, with everything positive and negative that might entail. They use nanotech to produce whatever is needed, have very few laws and respect individual freedoms absolutely. They also freely modify their own bodies, physically and genetically. In the absence of any need for real currency, reputation is the trade medium of choice.
The Academy has discovered that there are many other habitable solar systems out there, and many of those are inhabited by sentients (most of them humans who left Earth long ago). Their goal is to meet as many of them as possible. To do so, they create ships called Contactors, made up of a habitat ring that spins to create artificial gravity (matching that of the destination planet so they’re prepared), plus an engine containing an anti-matter reactor and a huge chunk of comet ice. Each Contactor is crewed by 100 Academics.
A session of Human Contact revolves around a series of “issues” (problems relevant to the characters and the players, like reproductive rights or addiction), which are then applied to the Protagonists, the characters themselves. There’s a lot of filling out grids to see where Protagonists’ issues and motives align, along with creating lists of “links” (relationships and other connections that Protagonists place value in). There are also Antagonists, NPCs played by other players to try and thwart Protagonists’ efforts to achieve their “terminus,” or main goal.
The players also create the Colony that they’ll be visiting, outlining its society, technology level, and perhaps even their evolutionary history. Then they’ll apply one or more shocks to it. A shock is a drastic change that will deeply affect the Colony. Could be simple, like a war or economic collapse. The key is that this change must be something vastly different from the world as the players themselves (not the characters) experience it. So if you make the Colony inhabited by humans who have evolved a hive mind, or who live on a wandering planet that doesn’t orbit any star, heated by geothermal energy, those would be good shocks because they’re interesting for the players to react to.
As a storytelling game, in which the goal is to create interesting scenarios and explore issues within a fictional setting, there’s not a lot of crunch, but there are some interesting sections on the tools used by Academics, and more detail about their spoken and written language than you might expect. Conflicts between characters, called scenes, are settled by a small amount of dice rolling using d10s and d4s. It’s more than a simple roll-off, however, and the other players can roll dice to affect the outcome of the scene as well. The rules are, I must say, somewhat esoteric — sometimes moreso than necessary. Using praxis and fulcra as a way to say, “two attributes exist on an axis, and if one is strong, the other will be weak,” seemed pretty obtuse, for instance.
To be completely frank, I don’t think Shock: Human Contact sounds like a ton of fun around the gaming table. As a diversion or a piece of entertainment, it all seems a bit high-minded. Everything plays out in a somewhat methodical fashion, so that even action scenes feel dry. That ‘s certainly just personal preference on my part, of course. I know there are groups that would love this game.
But that doesn’t mean, in any way, that this is a negative review, because I think an evening of Human Contact would be an amazing way to create science-fiction. By that, I mean, the game isn’t the end, it’s a means of investing a group of players into a world that they create together. You could do any number of things with such an exercise. If you have a group of creative friends, you can concoct a shared universe sf setting that you later contribute stories to. Skip the shared world — have your friends play Human Contact for a night to establish the setting for your own sf novel. Or use it to create a setting for some other RPG. You’re creating worlds and characters filled with problems and conflicts, all the stuff great stories are made from. Hell, I can easily imagine a team of script writers on a sci-fi TV show using this method to craft episodes.
What’s really interesting is Human Contact’s Rule Zero:
Everyone, everyone, everyone is a person. They’re not representatives of their people other than how they choose to be. They’re not one-night-stands, they’re not henchmen, they’re not villains or heroes. They have names, families, desires, and needs. No one is there just to help or hinder a Protagonist. If someone does evil, it’s because they think they’re doing right.
That is a very postmodernist take on RPGs (and storycrafting in general, for that matter). And as we’ve learned here at Robot Viking, postmodernism is not always greeted with open arms at an RPG session. But it sure as hell is a good way to construct deep, dynamic stories. That’s Human Contact’s greatest strength, and the one thing you can take away from a read-through of it even if you don’t sit down for a session of Contactor/Colony conflict.
There are so many rich ideas in Shock: Human Contact that it takes a while for your head to get around it all, especially if you’re not accustomed to the sort of far-future post-human sci-fi that it draws from. The book itself certainly helps you along — the design is gorgeous, and it’s filled with mostly full-color art that effectively depicts the strange future you’ll be visiting. You can purchase your own copy here.