Gavriel Quiroga was really cool to send me a review copy of his game Neurocity,a dystopian nightmare RPG that has recently released following a successful Kickstarter. It’s clocking in at 126 pages for the PDF, although that includes covers, a couple pages of backer names, and a few blanks that I believe are just there for layout purposes.
NEUROCITY was pitched to me as PARANOIA meets Clive Barker, and I feel that is accurate and an understatement. All over the book I’m picking up vibes from 1984, Brave New World, Logan’s Run, Dark City, Alphaville and Blade Runner. All of these are favorites of mine, so I’m eager to see this game in action. But with that said, a warning: this is not a game for everyone.
For the sake of saving time I’m going to say this upfront: This is a Dark Game. It’s not a game you go into with the expectation to win the day and change the world. It doesn’t pack the satire like Paranoia does. It’s a setting where a character’s mental breakdown feels inevitable, and the idea of a permanent death sounds like victory. It is a game where existential dread and horrible revelations are central themes — if that doesn’t sound appealing to you in the least, I sincerely say just skip this one.
That said: as a fan of dystopian science fiction, and someone who enjoys using the lens of it to explore what it is to be human, I really dig this game. It’s a cultivated experience tailored to the genre, and will require a degree of trust and maturity between the players. If you enjoy using RPGs as a safe medium to explore darker themes and cathartic release, this is definitely worth the $6 price of admission.
Neurocity is an underground urban environment maintained by a super computer, ISAC, that has convinced its inhabitants to be a savior. Society is broken down into several castes: Alphas, Betas, Gammas, Deltas, and then the anomalies dubbed Epsilon (whom ISAC has dubbed as broken, dysfunctional members of society).
Technology in Neurocity is declining in an “involution” where the lower castes are recycling old tech and reverting to analog, while digital wonders remain for the higher ups. Only the Alphas and Betas have access to the “Intranet”; the lower castes are left placate themselves with drugs (like Soma), emotionless sex and booze. The weather aboved is simulated programming, often glitching out and unpredictable. Cyber implants are clunky, obtrusive, and often a burden.
The city enforces the belief structure of Vitalogy, which preaches order and obedience. At the core of Vitalogy’s practices is Samsara, a technological complex where everyone experiences Renewal and Rebirth. You see, everyone in Neurocity is a sterile clone. If you die, you are Renewed, given a fresh body while retaining memory. If you are found to be dysfunctional (Epsilon), though, you are sent to Samsara to be vaporized and then Rebirthed, where your clone will be re-educated and hopefully “fixed” of its issues. (Spoiler alert — each time you come back, you risk losing Personality and come off less and less human until you’re a hollow husk of yourself.)
The actual game play mechanics and character creation is pretty light — it’s a 2d6 Roll-Under System. Your stats are Technocracy, Logic, Instinct, Personality and Violence, and each are rated from 5 to 10. When you perform an action, roll against the relevant attribute. Difficulty appears as penalty to the Attribute ratings, and dice rolls should only happen when the tasks are of Medium difficulty or higher. An interesting twist here is that successful rolls of 8+ are considered outstanding, while rolling snake eyes (two ones) is considered an insufficient success. Rolling double sixes is a critical failure — but it is noted in the rules a player can only suffer such a result once per session.
There are five roles (called functions) which not only define your character’s archetype, but also their starting caste and resources. These functions are Enforcer, Cardinal (officials for the Minister of Truth), Monitor (snitches and surveillance), Techrunner (gadget hacker guru person), and Vector (a random citizen picked to perform a task for the authority).
The rules are presented with plenty of examples, and should be no more complicated than games like The Black Hack or Into the Odd. It’s not a d20 system but the attitude of OSR-adjacent is there, and welcomed. It’s not revolutionary but it’s easy to teach and doesn’t get in the way.
There is one stand out mechanic though: Tension. This is a track of the amount of stress that accumulates in play. Particularly stressful situations (like defying authority, or being under scrutiny of suspicion) call for tension checks. The player can also take a point of tension in order to re-roll a failed check.
When their tension is maxed out, any additional stress will cause a neurosis. This is supposed to be worked out and defined between the Director and Player, but the provided table has effects such as anxiety, panic attacks, depression, and full rage. Characters can burn off tension through various means: sleep, intellectual exercises, humor, inebriation, sex and even violence. Did I mention this is a dark game?
One more interesting tidbit on tension — rolling “snake eyes” while your tension is full causes you to awaken as a trancer, someone displaying psychic abilities. There’s no set list of powers to work with here — instead these manifested abilities are free-formed in the narrative and usually add a Tension point when kicked off. The examples given sound like feats that Neo in The Matrix or John Murdock in Dark City would display. Of course, our great computer ISAC considers such traits Epsilon, and will demand for them to be vaporized and rebirthed.
The real meat of this game is the setting itself — there’s enough going on here where even the Director will be discovering the world through play. The author’s intent was that a campaign wouldn’t last longer than 3 or 4 sessions. In that time the characters should go from normal citizens raising dangerous questions to the awful revelation about the truth. The best part is there isn’t one set of answers — the game actually comes with six prompts of possible origins, which provide not only backgrounds but possible endgame hooks. There’s also six different personality archetypes for ISAC, 20 random character backgrounds, and a crap ton of tables for random encounters and plot seeds scattered throughout the book.
It’s cool to see that no two games of Neurocity will be the same — this makes the incentive to play even more enticing as it’s hook is to explore these truths. But at its core, the central theme remains: the existential dread of living in a cyclic hell where death is no escape. If most cyberpunk and grimdark games push “Life is Cheap”, Neurocity welcomes you to a prison where “Living is Mandatory”.