A Review of Altered Carbon the Role Playing Game

As a fan of Netflix’s season one of Altered Carbon, my ears perked up a bit when I heard about the 2020 release of this game.  Released by Renegade Game Studios, Altered Carbon is a role playing game inspired by the streaming series based on the novels by Richard K. Morgan. 

The Setting

Altered Carbon is a fusion of settings.  It’s a cyberpunk dystopia that combines Interstellar travel with transhumanism.  Still with me?  Sounds confusing, but let me break it down as concisely as possible.  The game takes place in the late 24th century in which humanity has settled beyond the stars, on numerous worlds.  Some time during their exploration to new worlds a great alien technological discovery was made from a long forgotten race known as the Elder Civilization.  In time some of this technology was repurposed to prolong the human lifespan by allowing a device, known as Cortical Stacks that is implanted in the spine to essentially make a copy of a person’s thoughts and consciousness (known as Digital Human Freight or DHF).  These devices could then be surgically implanted into new bodies (organic or synthetic), nicknamed sleeves, allowing a person to live well beyond their years… essentially forever.  Also, in that time an oppressive government known as the Protectorate has seized control of nearly every world and rules with an iron grip.  The characters of Altered Carbon now live in this high tech dystopia.      

The Cyber-Elephant in the Room

So many of you may be asking how does a game handle a character who cannot truly die?  The answer is that characters can die if their respective DHF is too badly damaged or destroyed.  This is a real threat in the game, and a persistent one.  Also, most citizens in the world of Altered Carbon do not have the resources to buy a new sleeve, so many have to be repurposed into whatever can be provided.  The last situation would make for an interesting complication to any game.

Character Creation 

With the setting in mind, you can imagine that Character Creation is going to be robust.  Characters could be anywhere from 30+ to 200+ years old.  With age may come experiences and bonuses alike, however, there is also the risk of baggage from one’s past along with an eroding sense of humanity. 

A character is made of the following components:

  • Attributes: Strength, Perception, Empathy, Willpower, Acuity, and Intelligence, all of which can start as low as in the 20s and raise up beyond 60+.  This also governs the skill associated with that group, however, they are rated by die type (D4 to D12).  
  • Damage threshold – How much damage can be taken before wounds are applied 
  • Heath Points – Self explanatory 
  • Ego Points – This is a measure of the character’s psyche.  One side effect of being continually re-sleeved is a degrading mind.  The older the DHF the less Ego Points they have.   Ego points can be spent to learn things, along with a few other uses. 
  • Influence Points – Grants bonuses to certain skill checks when Requests are made
  • Stack Points – A culmination of a character’s life experiences.  They can be spent during character creation to improve stats and the like.
  • Tech Points – How many modifications the person can withstand 
  • Wealth Level – How much they can spend.  This starts low and can rise depending on background. 
  • Traits – These represent special abilities, and branch from seven main Trait Trees: Business & Society, Combat, Crime, Law & Government, Survival, Technology, Praxis 

The best way to explain what a character is like is to go through the process:

  • Choosing Archetypes – You start by choosing an Archetype that determines skill levels, sleeves, traits and gear. 
  • Choose a Sleeve – This determines what body your character currently inhabits and will outline what attributes are associated with said sleeve.  Sleeves will govern how strong and how perceptive a character is.  Synthetic Sleeves can have special modifications!  
  • Determine Age – The true age of the character will determine how many ego, stack and influence points are available.  
  • Character Resources – Use your stack points to readjust traits and attributes as needed
  • Pick up some Baggage – Depending on Age your character may have a lot of baggage. Some provide some favorable aspects, and some do not. 
  • Use Stack Points – Spend any remaining stack points to adjust attributes or traits 

If this weren’t enough, you can also play as the following types:

  • Artificial Intelligence (AI) –  The bad news is that there is going to be a limit to what the character can do in the physical world, but they are truly an asset in the digital world.   
  • Envoys – If you know the source material, you will know how bad-ass they are.  And yes, you can play as one.  It simply adds bonuses to your character’s stats.
  • Meths – If you don’t know the source material the Meths are the oldest, most wealthy and influential bar none.  Don’t know why you would play as one, but you can!  

Mechanics

Skill checks are simple enough.  Use the appropriate die associate with said skill and roll low!  There are of course situational, and equipment based modifiers along with the occasional bonus die, but the principle remains the same.  Additionally, there are degrees of success and failure which will impact the result of said check.Certain skills can also have something called triggered effects.  If triggered they provide little bonuses, like a boon to other rolls or a special effect.    

In terms of combat other die can come into play.  The GM for instance may add a luck die to a characters roll.  Additionally, there is a depletion die that represents equipment degradation over the course of an encounter, which can lead to equipment failure.  

It should also be noted that combat in Altered Carbon is rather chunky in its approach.  There is a great deal that a character can do, but there is an equal amount that one must keep track of.  For instance, initiative is replace by Speed Die that act as an initiative currency of sorts.  Additionally, characters have to keep in mind how far away they are from others (called zones), as it can impact certain rolls or ability to communicate.  Honestly, I could spend an entire review just talking about combat mechanics, so I’ll just leave it here.       

The Rest of the Book

It is hard to believe, but what I have described in the book thus far only encompasses about half of the material covered.  The rest of Altered Carbon covers a wide array of equipment and vehicle choices, along with adversaries, and types of campaigns.  

There are rules for playing parts of the game in a virtual environment, or having scandals and the like!  The writer’s did not skimp over anything when they made this book.  

The Good

Altered Carbon the Role Playing Game brings the robust world of the books/show into a playable format.  There is so much content that I’m uncertain if they even left any aspect out.  Also, the book is laid out nicely, and artwork is bold, eye catching, and familiar to anyone who has seen the series.  

The Bad 

There is a great deal going on with the mechanics of Altered Carbon.  The learning curve for this game can be intimidating, and rather steep even for veteran RPG players.  Now mind you this is not unplayable by any means, but it remains very dense and detailed.  The only other negative point I can think of relates to those who have not been exposed to the source material, so I would recommend watching the first season of Altered Carbon on Netflix or reading the novels. 

Overall

It may be a little complex, but I like it! From cover to cover this book is a labor of love. Altered Carbon takes the Neo-Noir setting and turns it a bit on it’s head with the DHF mechanics.  To my knowledge there hasn’t been a game to tackle transhumanism like this before, but it’s certainly a concept worth exploring. If you are a fan of the show, you will certainly get your money’s worth of this game.   

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