When I was young, Harrison Ford was in almost everything I cared about. He was in Star Wars, The Empire Strikes Back, and Raiders of the Lost Ark. Then I saw advertisements for this new movie, Blade Runner. It was Harrison Ford, with a flying car, and I heard something about androids. I knew I wanted to see it. Oddly enough, my parents weren’t planning on taking me. I didn’t get to see it until years later, when I was in high school.
When I was young, I thought this was going to be a movie about Harrison Ford as a space cop having shootouts with evil androids. When I saw it as a high schooler, with my budding cynicism in full swing, I immediately fell in love with noir detective stories. Without Blade Runner, I wouldn’t have appreciated some of the media that spoke to me later in life, like the Dresden Files.
Free League produce an RPG that I never expected to see, and never expected to be executed well, in the Alien RPG. The hidden agendas in published cinematic mode adventures and the stress die cut to the heart of what feels like an Alien story. So did Free League manage to work the same magic with Blade Runner?
I was provided with a copy of Blade Runner the Roleplaying Game by Free League, and I have received other review copies from Free League in the past. I have not had the opportunity to play or run a game with this system or setting. I had initially assumed this was going to be like the baseline rules that Free League has used for games from Tales from the Loop, to Alien, to Vaesen, and while there are some familiar elements, Blade Runner is more of a departure than any of those previous games.
I didn’t have a chance to play the game, but I did watch or rewatch Blade Runner, Blade Runner 2049, and all of the short films produced leading up to Blade Runner 2049. I also read the summary of several Blade Runner novels. I was up to my ears in Blade Runner media as I was taking notes for this review.
Blade Runner the Roleplaying Game
LEAD GAME DESIGNER Tomas Härenstam
LEAD SETTING WRITER Joe LeFavi
LEAD ARTIST Martin Grip
GRAPHIC DESIGN Christian Granath
MAPS Christian Granath
ADDITIONAL ART Gustaf Ekelund
ADDITIONAL WRITING Nils Karlén, Gareth Mugridge
TIMELINE Clara Čarija, Michael Andrews
PRE-PRESS Dan Algstrand
PROOFREADING Brandon Bowling
FEEDBACK & PLAYTESTING Marco Behrmann, Nils Karlén, Kosta Kostulas, Jonas Ferry, Kiku Pukk
Enhance, Track Right
This review is based on the PDF version of the game. The PDF is 240 pages long, including two-page endpapers with maps of Los Angeles, a credits page, a three-page table of contents, a two-page index, a blank character sheet, and a blank timeline tracker.
Much like the Alien RPG, many of the pages include artwork or images in the background, with various solid blocks of text superimposed over the images in the background. The color scheme is what you would expect from Blade Runner, with a lot of dark colors, along with splashes of light and color. In comparison to the Alien RPG, it feels like there is less “white space” on the individual pages.
I often use a PDF screen reader when taking notes, and due to the way the pages are formatted into distinct boxes, sometimes the screen reader has a difficult time reading from column to column as is intended. Also, all the background elements that have letters or numbers, such as the chapter number headers that are repeated, are formatted to be read in addition to the actual text of the PDF.
Like the Alien RPG, this makes for a visually striking book, especially with the two-page chapter opening artwork. I just wish that the formatting was a little more friendly for accessibility devices.
The Data Bearing
The book is organized into the following sections:
- Chapter 1–Fiery the Angels Fell (setting history and discussion of themes)
- Chapter 2–Your Blade Runner (character creation and archetypes)
- Chapter 3–Skills and Specialties (how to roll the dice to determine results)
- Chapter 4–Combat and Chases (specialized rules for action scenes)
- Chapter 5–A Tale of Two Cities (details on Los Angeles in this period and surrounding environs)
- Chapter 6–The Powers that Be (information on factions active in the setting)
- Chapter 7–Working the Case (details on the LAPD and standard investigation procedures)
- Chapter 8–Tools of the Trade (details on equipment, how to requisition and buy items)
- Chapter 9–Running Blade Runner (themes, adventure structure, NPCs, and random tables)
Unlike a lot of games that I have reviewed, the core book references the starter set often. This is because it contains some tools, like the initiative cards, as well as a larger map of the setting, and the introductory adventure, which the core book does not contain.
Resolving actions in the game involves rolling a Base Die for an Attribute and a Base Die for a skill. Each Attribute or Skill is ranked from A to D, which then translates into a dice range of d12 to d6. Many of the sample documents that appear in the book list Attributes and Skills by their letter code, as an “in universe” way to communicate those statistics, when they are available.
Rolling a 6 or higher counts as a success. Rolling a 10 or higher (if you have an Attribute or Skill ranked high enough to use a d10 or a d12) counts as an additional success. Characters can roll with disadvantage, adding a second die of the lowest die the character is rolling, and taking the two worst results. You can also roll with advantage, except you pick the best two results.
You can Push a roll, letting you reroll any dice that did not roll a 1, but you take stress or damage equal to the total number of 1s you have after your rerolls. You can also reference how one of your Key Memories affects a roll to gain advantage on that roll.
You can help other players, and instead of doubling the lowest die for Advantage, you provide an extra die equal to your relevant skill. Group action isn’t especially forgiving. When trying to search a location, only one player can roll, and when taking stealth actions, only the person with the lowest skill makes the check.
Players pick whether their character is Human or Replicant, which affects the game in different ways. For example, Replicants can push a second time and gain an additional advance to either their Strength or Agility, but they start off with fewer Chinyen (money) and Promotion points (points that can be spent for various options involving the Police department).
Players can also pick an Archetype, which bundles a starting package of what Abilities and Skills are advanced, how much starting money you have, and your specialties (little rules modifications). The Archetypes include the following:
- Cityspeaker (Human only)
- Doxie (Replicant only)
- Spinner (Human only)
Cityspeaker (people with lots of wide-ranging connections) and Spinners (crooked cops that have more criminal connections) are human only archetypes, while Doxie (Replicants made for seduction, spying, and assassination) are Replicant only.
Characters have Health and Resolve. If those numbers drop to zero, characters are Broken, which may mean something different for physical injuries than for mental strain. Weapons do a set number in points of damage, increased by the number of successes a character rolls. Close combat is an opposed check, and for any attack, getting two or more successes than an opponent counts as a critical. Critical Injuries have different tables for Human and Replicant characters.
The two major player currencies in the game are Promotion Points and Humanity. Promotion Points can be used to get gear or access to facilities, learn new specialties, or to potentially convert into Chinyen. Humanity can be used to increase skills. In some cases, whether you get Promotion Points or Humanity Points will depend on if you made the LAPD happy, or if you did something you felt was morally right, despite your job.
I like these core mechanics, and I think they work well for a noir detective story. There are some elements I’m not thrilled with. For example, while Doxie has a history as terminology within the fandom of Blade Runner, there isn’t a lot of discussion on what it means to have been created for that specific purpose. I also dislike that Replicants get a lower maximum Resolve because they are “less mentally stable.” I think it misses the point to say that Replicants were less mentally stable, repeating the excuses that anti-Replicant characters would use in the setting, rather than saying that being created as property to perform a specific purpose would impose an ongoing strain to Resolve.
Game Runner Tools
In addition to reinforcing the themes of the game, the Game Runner section spells out the assumed structure of a Case File (adventure). Case Files are broken down into Shifts, with four Shifts in a day, with the assumption that to operate at peak efficiency, a Blade Runner is going to take one of those four Shifts to rest. Case Files have Countdowns, so whenever the set number of Shifts have passed, an event occurs – meaning that it’s possible for a Case File to conclude before the PCs managed to solve the case.
Cases are broken into the following elements:
- Main Characters
- Final Confrontation
This section clarifies that the objective isn’t for PCs to solve cases, the objective is to lead to conflict that requires the PCs to make a moral decision that has a lasting impact. For example, you could argue that Deckard didn’t “solve” the case in the original Blade Runner, but when he arrived, he did have a Final Confrontation with Roy Baty. The Aftermath involved his moral dilemma in how to resolve the situation with Racheal.
The Chase rules are resolved by characters picking a maneuver they will use for the current round in the chase. There are five chase specific maneuvers, four of which are available to the pursued, and three of which are available to the pursuer. Each maneuver requires a skill check, and the resolution of those determine how far apart the parties move, and what other actions are available to the people in the chase.
Typical NPC statistics are provided for a range of characters, from law enforcement, criminals, business executives, bystanders, and hired muscle. These NPCs are presented on a compact table that rates their attributes and skills using the A through D notation, and don’t include extra abilities, like specialties.
There are a series of tables that serve as a random casefile generator, for Game Runners that want the inspiration. Tables include the following topics:
- Main NPCs
- Final Confrontation
- Mood Pieces
In addition to the main tables, there are a number of sub-tables to get deeper information, like types of evidence, locations within a sector, or general themes for the type of criminal investigation going on.
The game is set in 2037, about 12 years before the events of Blade Runner 2049, but after a lot of the lead-in events detailed in that movie, and the short films produced for the film. It’s been 20 years since the original Blade Runner, which, if you are doing the math, means that 2017 didn’t look like our 2017, it looks like the 2017 envisioned in 1983 when the original movie was released.
Los Angeles is a mega-city suffering under environmental collapse. San Diego was washed away to sea, and only a wasteland that was drained after the seawall was built remains. Las Vegas is a radioactive wasteland, and anyone that lives on the 100th floor or higher is living a much different life than the little people that must live closer to the ground.
Replicants are manufactured people that are difficult to differentiate from human beings. Replicants don’t have rights, and are purpose built to do jobs that the mega-corporations have determined are cheaper to do with manufactured people. The Nexus-6 line of Replicants were involved in a number of violent events, which caused the creation of Blade Runners, police whose only job is to “retire” illegal Replicants.
In 2020, an EMP shattered LA’s digital infrastructure, destroying many records of various Replicants on world. This allowed many of the newer Nexus-8 to go underground, and the UN banned Replicants from Earth until 2036, with the introduction of the new Nexus-9 Replicants that have been marketed as being unable to break away from their assigned duties.
If you watched Blade Runner 2049, most of that will be familiar. The game adds some additional twists to this formula. For example, in 2049, it is strongly implied that Blade Runners are all Nexus-9 Replicants at this point. Because of the earlier starting date, the game retains the ability to run human Blade Runners.
The mandate for Blade Runners in the game is broadened a bit, so that they investigate crimes that involve Replicants, including crimes involving the abuse of Replicants. They are also included in investigations involving restricted technologies, meaning that they might be called in on a case involving an AI assistant, or Replicant or synthetic organs, etc.
There are also several passages that talk about senseless crimes committed by various gangs, the laziness and mental atrophy of humans that have learned to settle for what exists in modern day Los Angeles, and the decadence of people participating in sexual activities that aren’t considered mainstream. There is one passage that intimates that people’s gender identity is tied to trying to find a community in which they fit.
Other passages talk about the corruption of government and mega-corporations, but stops short of assigning that same level of corruption to the LAPD, saying instead that there are bad actors in the organization, but at the very least, Blade Runners can count on one another as their own “family,” casting them in an us against them role versus the various criminals and malefactors of the city.
When it comes to Replicant rights, this is framed as a positive that has unfortunately not been embraced by the public, but also that “terrorist” activity by Replicants crosses a line. It is also assumed that the Replicant underground is a known thing, and that the LAPD and/or the UN might be able to eradicate them, but even though Nexus-8s are pretty much illegally being alive, the powers that be don’t want the wholesale bloodshed that it would take to eliminate them.
Wherein, I Have Opinions
I have some thoughts on how all the setting information plays into the assumed story arcs of the game. I really appreciate how the Case File structure works, and I love that the assumed resolution isn’t solving the crime, but being forced into a moral dilemma, and everything leading up to that is just kind of framing where and when that dilemma happens. I think the mechanics look fun and solid, and I like having the contrast between Promotion and Humanity, which creates some friction about how you advance your character.
Unfortunately, I think the game loses a lot of focus when trying to make it more “gameable,” especially in making sure you have both Replicant and Human points of view. We know from the source material that Replicant Blade Runners aren’t going to be regarded any better than any other Replicant in the setting. We also know that because Replicants don’t have the rights that humans have, and the entire line of Nexus-8s were made illegal, the remedy is that they get “retired.”
By trying to introduce crimes that don’t involve “retiring” Replicants, and even asserting that some Replicants might be proven innocent of crimes under due process, the entire narrative regarding marginalized communities that aren’t seen as humans is blunted. The game tries to reconcile this a little bit by mentioning that Nexus-9s might be accused of a crime, and the Blade Runners may need to clear them to keep Nexus-9s from being banned as well, and I agree that’s an interesting complication, but it soft-pedals the plight of the Nexus-8s.
I also think that reinforcing the idea that the “good cops” are trapped in an “us against them” scenario, with cops only really having one another to count on, is especially bad in the modern climate. When coupled with cops who are literally framed as being able to kill a certain segment of the population, this really feels wrong. On top of that, our example Blade Runners from the movies didn’t seem to consider other cops their family. It was a lonely, soul-crushing job, which Deckard was trying to get away from, and which Joe had no real recourse to leave due to being a Replicant.
This review is based on the core rulebook, and not the starter set, which includes a sample adventure. That sample adventure might better show how to balance the setting they have carved out, and how to still maintain the very hard-hitting moral examination native to the series, but as it stands, that was made into a separate product, and we don’t get a sample adventure in the book itself. I do think that the idea of “cinematic scenarios” like the Alien RPG would catch my attention, because it wouldn’t imply slowly learning lessons about morality, while taking case after case in a system built to oppress and kill people forced to maintain it.
More Human Than Human
When the book is presenting how to make Blade Runners, and how to structure adventures, it’s exactly what I would hope for. The idea that solving the crime isn’t really the point of a case file is a great thing to reinforce, and I like any RPG that uses procedure to help progress a story. This game does that with mechanics like the countdown and the shifts mechanics. All the ingredients for a solid, rewarding Blade Runner experience are here.
Tears in Rain
Trying to make the setting broad enough to allow for a number of different options, and being a little incautious in applying cliches that you might find in a detective story, lessens the impact of this RPG as well as potentially harming the overall message that the property itself sends. It may have been better to have the ability to play humans in Deckard’s time, and Replicants in Joe’s time. As cynical as noir stories can be, applying that cynicism to marginalized communities and people that have been exploited by mega-corps and careless bureaucrats is precarious. People’s identities shouldn’t be confused with coping mechanisms.
Tenuous Recommendation–The product has positive aspects, but buyers may want to make sure the positive aspects align with their tastes before moving this up their list of what to purchase next.
I really like the game aspects of this game, and I love the tools that the game provides you to tell those techno-noir detective stories. If feels like the game is fighting itself, knowing exactly how case files should unfold, but muddying the water with a lot of the setting details.