RPG review – Necropunk Campaign Setting
This campaign setting is a whopping 196 pages long, 1 page front cover, 1 page editorial, 1 page of links to the galleries of the contributing artists, 1 page ToC, 2 pages of SRD, leaving us with 190 pages of content, so let’s take a look!
Full disclosure: I have read the Beta of this book and provided feedback on it and some minor editing help – I was not compensated in any way and don’t consider my verdict in any way compromised.
That being said, let’s jump into Necropunk: The first chapter introduces us to the basic tenets of Necropunk: The “Necro” in Necropunk made me anticipate a grim, gory setting – which it essentially isn’t – at least not necessarily.
Mankind has left earth and evolved, developing species-wide psychic powers, spurned by a genetic trigger left in our DNA by some progenitor (god? aliens? something sinister? -for what ends?) to activate upon achieving a certain distance from our solar system – the means of conducting these powers being uncommon and smart – human bones.
Taking a rather realistic approach to how societies handle things, the results of this discovery were catastrophic to say the least – a bone-rush began and since bones not only contained power, but also were a means of attaining wealth, forever changing how society works. Via these bones and the psychic augments at the beck and call of humanity, a renaissance of melee weapons and extreme powers that hearken to fantasy without copying genre conventions was the result.
The races of Necropunk have developed from humanity and no elves, dwarves etc. will show up – why? Since races, especially in roleplaying games, lend themselves to overly simplistic stereotyping, they would rather hamper what the setting sets out to do – in spite of appearances, the setting’s goal is not a dystopian nightmare of body horror (though you could easily make it one), but rather a setting of political intrigue, social combat and horror – the subtle type of horror that speaks to our psychological discomfort – uncanny valley-style horror. Psychological horror and tackling philosophical questions relevant to life and death and what constitutes a human are core themes of the Necropunk setting. The respective human races are quite different from one another and should still offer something diversity-wise -also thanks to rather extensive and interesting pieces of information on the respective cultures that developed. – but more on those later.
As you could probably glean from the description so far, body horror is a central theme of the setting – though not the gory, alien-type body horror, but rather the one you’re familiar with from moving mannequins, androids etc. – again, uncanny valley and subtlety are the defining themes here, not all out conflict. In a setting defined by such uncommon basic premises, why is anyone still standing and why hasn’t everything devolved into a bloody orgy of violence that consumed all mankind? Well – MAD. Mutually assured destruction. Social interaction, diplomacy etc. – these are not simple names here, but a basis for the very foundation of the logic of the setting alongside the “necro” component – essentially, what steam is for steampunk, what (magic and mundane) electricity is for Storm Bunny Studios’ stormpunk setting Rhûne, that is necromancy (or rather necrotheurgy)for Necropunk.
Which is VITAL, but different in a way you probably wouldn’t have expected, but which becomes evident in the section on classes: No magic. None. Not even the standard cop-out of scifi settings, where magic is rationalized with the sentiment of being super-science indistinguishable from technology. Instead, the setting flat-out bans casting classes – though basic advice if you DO want to introduce them is provided.
But before I get to the classes, let’s take a look at the races – i.e. the human ethnicities. Let’s start with the Ewgee (a bastardization of U.G. – united governments) , the people coming from the Coreworlds of the human expansion. Ewgee are essentially the default humans – +2 to one attribute, + 1 bonus feat, +1 skill rank. Exiles grew up on the Exile Shards, where the influence of the Ewgee grows thin and the loyalties become divided – exiles get +2 to Con and Wis as well as a bonus feat, but suffer from a tech level -1 (more on tech levels later). From deep space explorers called Welshen (after their chief theorist) now, a strict militaristic, nomadic empire has spawned – a tradition of conservative values like family, honor etc. and rigid clan structures, including a unique martial tradition called Qu’em. Their attribute bonuses are governed by clan membership and Welshen also get access to proficiency with Welshen weapons. The clans offer the following suites of attributes: +2 Int and Cha, -2 to Str;+2 Str and Wis, -2 Cha; +2 Dex and Int, -2 Wis; +2 Dex and Wis, -2 Cha; These clans also come with additional benefits and rather extensive write ups. And I know what you think – how do the Welshen stand against a massive confederacy of planets? Warriors one and all, the Ewgee have a more “normal” demographic and thus, their numbers don’t count as much.
And then, there’s the Prime Bloodline – think religious fanaticism crossed with a penchant for eugenics under the command of an emperor called Godson. Yeah. Creepy. There are various ideologies within the bloodline described as well and rules-wise, members of the Prime Bloodline get +2 Wis and Con, -2 Int, +2 to will saves, +2 to Knowledge (Psionics) and +2 to saves versus poison. Oh, and their strange combination of matriarchal structures paired with a requirement for breeding of the chosen makes the prime bloodline’s society structure indeed unique and intimidating – for members of both sexes, subverting traditional gender roles and dichotomies – dichotomies only work on a very superficial level here and collapse in on themselves as soon as you dig deeper. In a hobby, where black and white are so clearly defined as in PFRPG, this is worth something – at least for me. As a subrace, you may also play so-called firstborn, which get +2 to an ability score of their choosing, +2 PPI (more on that later), +2 to saves versus poison and on Knowledge (Psionics)-checks. Now the latter sound powerful – but you should be aware that the Prime Bloodline is in total opposition to the world-spanning Necromancer’s Guild that is a powerful entity indeed and its members abhor Nerotech, thus serving as a balance of their slightly superior racial traits.
After this section, we are introduced to languages – and they actually go above and beyond what I’ve seen for languages, coming with alphabets, extensive notes of the respective languages (and yes, we get a number-based language as well) and beyond even that, the languages come with information on dialects that can be used/are spoken to obscure meanings and which increase the difficulty of communication – I really would have enjoyed this approach to be used in standard Pathfinder – as anyone who has e.g. ventured to rural Germany or respective areas can attest, dialects can be hardcore and make for an identity-constructing element. Alignments are less important in Necropunk – factions are more important, but before I get into handling such options, let’s get back to the PPI – the Psychic Potential Index. Average humans have a PPI of 3-5 and the value per se is determined by your starting class. Gear is made ideally from human bone, since that gear conducts human thought the best – other gear (or some particular pieces of equipment) come with a PRI – Psychic Resistance Index. A piece of necrotech usually requires one PPI to equip and qu’em styles, psychic powers etc. tap into the same resource. Thought-transmissive weapons and armor can be charged with said psychic energy as well: This excess charging has a cost of 1PPI+the item’s PRI – after being charged, the power remains as long as contact is not interrupted. And the rules are elegant: For each point of energy you invest in weapons, you deal an additional point of damage. For each point invested into an armor, you can get a DR of 1/- or + 1 AC. The cap of the max amount of energy to be invested for an item’s bonus being determined by the character. Simple and elegant – and there’s quite some potential here. Yeah, I know, I’ll put the 2 bucks in the bad pun jar.
And yes, obviously this changes the dynamics of combat – but not nearly as much as the central incision into standard Pathfinder combat – so-called combat phases. In a setting where acting at the speed of thought is possible, the combat can also be something completely different – but what are phases? Essentially, they net you extra actions. Depending on equipment/power, you can act in different phases: Wearers of e.g. golem armors can act in Phase 3, which means they receive one standard action in Phase, 1 standard action in Phase 2 and the regular full turn in Phase 1 that we know from standard combat. And believe me, that can DRASTICALLY alter the way how battles pan out – having experimented with similar systems in my own campaigns, I can attest to the efficiency of such action economy-benefitting powers. The system is concisely explained, as is the system of tech levels, which are not only dependent on your starting race and class, but which can also be raised via numerous ways.
That’s not the only innovation in Necropunk, though: We are introduced to one crucial change – Bluff, Diplomacy, Sense Motive and Intimidate are no more in Necropunk. Instead, the campaign setting introduces a mechanic for social combat – and it’s simple and elegant: Essentially, it takes the basic mechanics of how combat works and provides social analogues: The equivalent of HP would be confidence – a character gets wis mod times HD confidence – which regenerate faster than HP, with each round seeing the regeneration of wis-mod confidence, at least one. Attacks in social combat work via the social bonus (equal to the BAB) + cha-mod+ position modifiers – said formula is called SMB. Position modifiers are the result of your standing and may add a penalty or bonus of up to +8 to your check. In order to hit the opponent, the attack has to surpass the SMD of the target – which is 10 + social bonus + cha-mod+int-mod+position modifier. A total of 12 concisely presented social maneuvers are included – and can be used to make bartering, teaching etc. actually exciting and not something to be glanced over. If this section managed one thing, then it was to make me stoked about seeing implementations and further expansions of what is promising indeed – not only for Necropunk. Midgard, for example, with its Status-rules imho screams to have this one implemented/modified as well.
The setting also provides easy to use variants of underwater combat for zero-g combat and ship combat and provides quite some advice on converting classes to and from Necropunk.
The Necropunk-setting hence also has a massive array of different new classes – with the respective write ups featuring social modifiers integrated into the respective classes. In order to keep this review from becoming longer than 10 pages, I’ll just give you a general impression, all right? In a setting where MAD and social interaction are themes, we need a specialist – enter the diplomat, the social razor’s edges and sledgehamemrs to rhetorically dismantle your foes. This class, like the others, is a beast in social combat (but not so much in physical combat) and comes with several racial-specific archetypes – another peculiarity of Necropunk I welcome: You for example can’t play a bureaucrat of the Necromancer’s Guild when coming from the Prime Bloodline/Firstborn or a Welshen – leaning some sense of cohesive identity to the respective organizations.
Engineers on the other hand are masters of tech and may create extremely deadly, modifiable and heavily customizable special weapons – these fellows are based on alchemists and include archetypes to play the dreaded necromancers and choose different corporations to sponsor their escapades. Magpies are perhaps one of the weirdest classes out there and honestly, would probably fit just as well into just about any other setting. Know the trope of the traumatized/insane person who may perceive some peculiarity on our existence and can glean information from it? Well, in Necropunk, when a weird person asks you whether you’d like to swallow a weird fish-like being, you may wish to think twice, for your life will be changed forever – those that do, become magpies. Eccentric one and all, these beings may perceive what is known as D’jek – essentially the flow of destiny itself. The class may cause its practitioners to develop compulsive ticks, but it also allows them to create unlikely accumulations of accidents that may prove fatal – a glorious variant loosely based on rogues and yet a completely different class that should make this setting very interesting for those not interested in the setting per se.
Medics are the non-magical healer-class from the War Journal II-supplement reskinned for Necropunk – and my criticism remains – it’s a great class, but oh so linear. I would have loved some additional choices. However, seeing that in Necropunk it replaces all the other divine healers, I think it makes for a more compelling option here – also thanks to the thematically flavored archetypes, which add quite a few intriguing options to the medic’s arsenal – and it should be noted that these guys can stand their ground in melee. Psychics are also interesting – they can not only high-jack so-called ghouls (i.e. the perished ones), disable necrotech (via the so-called Legion Lock) or hack necrotech. 12 psychic powers are provided – and make for a great starting point, but also for one that has me clamoring for more – I hope to see more psychic powers in future Necropunk supplements to further expand the class. Oh, have I mentioned the Magdaline (one of the Welshen clans) Tu’Line, who focus on telekinetic attacks and may attack foes at range? Yes – actually a telekinetic monk-like style that works without being broken – for they lose the crucial ability to use psychic hack, which allows them to get the benefits of legion locked tech. And yes, while the latter is optional, it still is probably one of those must-take psychic powers, so you’ll hear no complaints on my end.
Next up are the Qu’em – the Welshen martial artists, whose class is inspired by the monk – but wholly different at the same time: Like the monk, they eschew martial tools, armor, necrotech etc., get an AC-bonus and faster movement – but they are much more than a monk: First of all, they get bonus PPI instead of ki, using essentially the basic rules that apply to all classes in a more streamlined fashion. Furthermore, they are FAST – and I’m not talking about movement here – Qu’em act in phase two – even at first level. And that makes them lethal with a capital “l”. Also interesting design decision – they do average damage, making them extremely reliable in melee – especially since they also get their wis-bonus to atk and damage up to a maximum of their level – again, neatly balanced. Have I mentioned that these guys can also opt to take a magpie/qu’em-style archetype for an interesting evolution of traditional drunken masters?
Where the Qu’em represent the martial traditions of the Welshen, the Ewgee also get a base-class of martially inclined soldiers – the sentinels: Members of the best of the best elite units -and as such they not only get access to special elite armors, they may also requisition military gear 1/week (and exchange said gear), gaining access to superior tools. Selling is not an option, though – unless you plan on being expelled as well as hunted down for selling military gear. Since Welshen and sentinels don’t mix, advice on handling Qu’em and Sentinel in one group is provided as well. Of course, renegade mercenaries might also be an option. Stalkers are based on rogues – but are an altogether different beast: Stalkers are stone-cold killers and may mark targets somewhat akin to SGG’s Shadow Assassin-class, making them very deadly versus their chosen targets. And fitting well in with the MAD-concept of Necropunk – at 11th level access to Death Attack (and later, talents to make this possible sans studying!). further enhance this impression.
The next class we are introduced would be the Wild Card – the class that more appropriately can be considered fortune-seekers, jack-of-all-trades that are all about variety, gaining multiple abilities to enhance their skills, gain feats and e.g. an eidetic memory. Another class that might be considered appropriate for settings beyond Necropunk as well. It should also be noted that each class comes with some roleplaying advice on character-inherent conflicts and tough questions – if you’re a psychic or a wunderkind, are you perhaps a supremacist? What if other people fear you for what you are? What if your professional code clashes with your own ethics?
Of course, we also get a massive array of feats – to enhance your tech level or enter overwatch-mode. And honestly – in the context of Necropunk, I think the overwatch some of you may know from the PFRPG-Strider class works MUCH better than in regular PFRPG, fitting well with the theme of stand offs, social combat mixing with physical combat etc. – why negotiate? Well, when both your ally and the enemy is in overwatch, talking it over seems so much more enticing -especially since combat in Necropunk, with its phases and advanced weaponry can turn lethal damn fast. (Plus, the requirement for automatic weapons makes in game much more sense to me than the same with bows…). Of course various feats enhancing PPI-based abilities, social combat and equipment are also provided. We also get multiple new style-feat mini-trees, with Jak Pan deserving special mentioning – available to members of the Prime Bloodline, the combat medics will love this one, as it merges surgical prowess with martial arts, allowing you to impose negative conditions on hit foes with successful heal-checks. Also rather interesting – the Sentinel’s Synchro-style, which blends teamwork feats and styles, making for a good representation of twin/synchronized fighting. Two thumbs up for that one! We also get a style for using ranged weapons in melee and one based on fencing – all in all, rather cool selection of unique options.
We also get 15 new traits to customize your character within the setting before we dive into equipment. Of course, in Necropunk GP-values would make no sense, and hence we’re introduced to the resource-system -as well as a section-by-section breakdown of the value f human bones: Hands, e.g., would be worth 5% of the 3K a full skeleton’s worth. Special materials (and their PRI) are covered – but much like e.g. Cyberpunk-settings, shopping is rather rewarding: Beyond materials, properties applied to weapons also make for massive differences – magnetic rail gun-properties, bone material (allowing for usage in higher phase orders), slag weapons, those that require a spin-up – rather cool array of options. Also interesting is the fact that specific weapons can fire different types of ammunition – from chaos rounds to slag strikes, weapons of course can also be upgraded to fire for example the deadly tombstone-rounds. Of course, grenades and a large selection of armor-types are also at your perusal – as is a rather cool idea: Applying bonuses to social maneuvers etc. depending on the outfits you wear. Yes. Clothes actually MATTER.
Another interesting component of Necropunk’s society is the existence of ghouls – part tech, part chemical concoctions, all shambling corpse-based serving class, they are the remains of the dead, reanimated to get persons posthumously out of debt. Modifying ghouls is covered as well via a rather list of modifications. Speaking of modifications:
Body modifications – they are awesome – from advanced circulatory system to the option to emit deadly sonic-damage dealing screams or graft extra arms to your body – if one wants, one can get full-blown FREAK and really push the limits of whether one can still be considered human – a great toolbox of Frankensteinish modifications indeed. Drugs with different stages of addictions and a massive array of craft-DCs for modifications are also provided in here.
And then we are introduced to the setting per se – via organizations, ships, how religions have developed (not shying away from how Christianity, Judaism etc. have developed without being condescending to any of these religions) and the new ones that have risen since we left the solar system to regions of the galaxy. Advice for DMs and players, an example location and space travel and a massive glossary of specific terms and a timeline of the setting.
Editing and formatting aren’t superb – there are some minor glitches here and there – but the emphasis is on “minor” – when compared to anything I’ve read by LRGG, this is not one but two steps in the right direction, providing a massive book that can be considered well, if not perfectly edited. Layout adheres to a unique, relatively printer-friendly full color standard with appropriately-themed, easy to read fonts and grey/black themes as well as several pieces of at times page-spanning full color artworks that have in common that they range from mind-boggling to good and are actually original pieces. The pdf comes fully bookmarked for your convenience adn comes with greyscale and color char-sheets, though both lack a SMD and CMD.
Let me for a second state in what I believe in: I believe in the fact that gamers are looking to expand their horizons – even the most conservative of our kind have taken up this hobby not only because it’s fun, but because it consciously or subconsciously expands our horizon. How many 5th graders know the difference between thaumaturgy and necromancy, know some terms from the knightly courts of old and have a conception of what a jarl is? I know I did. Gaming has not only broadened my vocabulary at an early age and prompted me to master foreign languages and invest myself into different cultures, it has guided my approach to a wide array of challenges I have faced throughout my life, maybe even provided a type of moral compass on what I consider right and what wrong. The one way to get me riled up is to demand simplification not for the sake of understanding, but for the sake of laziness – if I see terms that intrigue me, concepts I find thought-provoking, I try to look them up. And gaming is a great way to get a tiny inkling of knowledge about topics that may incite you to want to know more about them. Whether its cultures, literature, history, languages, myths – there’s a lot of lore to be discovered via gaming.
Once in a while, recent editions have made me a bit disillusioned – while Paizo has avoided the obvious books mostly (“Hey, let’s make an oriental, a psionics-book, a class-book for class z etc.”), still, once in a while, I like to have my brain teased, to get some new impulses: If you want to know what I’m talking about, think back in the days, when Planescape first brought the WEIRD, when Ravenloft started blurring the line between players and characters to evoke true fear. Gaming can touch us on a basic level and actually refine our character and there are many books that play it safe by catering to a target demographic and I won’t judge them for that – as long as they’re good, that is. But still, you once in a while want something DIFFERENT. Something that hasn’t been done before. A sense of Jamais-vu.
There you have it. Ambitious beyond anything they’ve done so far, the crew of authors and designers from Little Red Goblin Games have created a setting that dares to be different: You won’t find the standard plasma and laser guns here, no alien zoo of weird player-races that will ultimately just make gaming ridiculous. There’s no weirdly sexless b/w-mythology à la Star Wars (which NEVER made sense to me, not even as a child -and before all the SW-fans come out of the woodworks – more power to you, the franchise is just not made for me) in here – this setting is HUMAN. Decidedly, dauntingly so – from the basic premise over the absence of direct alien interventions to the bone-foundation of the tech to the price of bones, this setting explores a dystopian future that actually is not that dystopian when you think about it: All in all, no massive evil empire looms, no extraterrestrial mechanic squids seek to annihilate everything – Necropunk is about human conflicts and ultimately, what it means to be human – it’s a narrative of conflicting ideologies that are all partially right or partially wrong, a narrative of diverse traditions and mindsets and of complex questions. And of buying cool augmentations to turn yourself into a deadly engine of destruction with multiple devastating mag-rifles, of fusing your spine with a suit grown from a dead corpse into a bone-golem-like monstrosity and modifying your weapons via x add-ons and custom modifications to wade through legions of foes. Of saving the galaxy by deciphering a deadly conspiracy according to the stain of your spilled coffee and the urgings of the fish-like parasite you imbibed on a whim that can perceive the flow of fate, destiny or whatever you’d wish to call it. Necropunk is weird, yes, but not necessarily dark – nor light. It feels human – just like our own world can be defined in no absolute terms, so are there no straight answers for questions of transhumanism, morality and ethnicity. All these questions are tackled, supplemented by solid rules that almost exclusively whet one’s palate for future expansions.
This is not a rip-off of an established genre – neither of Shadowrun-like Cyberpunk, nor of Warhammer 40K’s grim vision of the future – this is something jaded guys like yours truly only see rarely: Something DIFFERENT. Something original. And for that alone, it deserves to be applauded – much more so for decisions like the social combat or the item-modifications or the fact that the PPI-mechanics serve as a unifying mechanic that offsets the perceived differences between classes and ethnicities, with the latter serving as a subconscious reminder that most of us, even in the future of Necropunk, still bleed red.
Is this book perfect? No, it does have its editing and formatting glitches here and there. But does it deserve your attention, deserve your bucks? The answer to that question, I’ll answer with a resounding “yes”. In an age where we already have covered so much ground in RPGs, dealing with serious topics in a thoroughly original context without forcing an ideology or easy answer down your throat means that this can be considered a great first step into a setting I am sure to follow – I want to know where this setting goes, what new tools, places and modules will be released in the days to come. Necropunk has come completely out of left field and if LRGG can keep this quality and perhaps even further improve it, then we’re looking at one damn fine cult-setting in the making. My final verdict will clock in at 5 stars + seal of approval.
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