The Blade Runner role-playing game markets itself as a “Neon Noir wonderland that will take your breath away.” Does it succeed? Mostly, with a few caveats. The product line comprises of either a 234-page hardcover rule book or a starter box set containing:
- a condensed rules book,
- a case file,
- a set of eight customized dice,
- four pre-generated character sheets,
- a large map of LA,
- a deck of 70 illustrated cards showing
- initiative counters,
- chase events and
- an envelope containing all the clues the players will amass during the adventure.
NOTE: photos from this review feature the starter box contents.
Finally, there is a three-panel GM screen and a set of four customized dice with another case file due out in February 2024.
The core book retails for £43.90 ($55.55), the Starter Set for £41.58 ($52.62), the GM Screen for £21.49 ($27.19) and a set of four customized dice for £16.85 ($21.32). The rule book and starter set are also available as Foundry VTT modules for £21.49 ($27.19) each. Though, disappointingly, these are not available as direct digital downloads. All are available for purchase from the Free League website.
As you’d expect from Free League the production quality is excellent with copious illustrations throughout depicting the grim and futuristic setting of the Blade Runner universe. In fact, these are some of my favorite illustrations from across their product range. The front and end papers show a map of central Los Angeles broken down into sectors, which has been left intentionally vague to encourage the Game Runner (read GM) to add their own locations. It has a nice atmospheric feeling with stark neon yellow lines depicting major roads and buildings.
A concise table of contents breaks down the book’s nine chapters. You’ll have no problems getting to the pages you need, especially when there’s a comprehensive index included in the back. Each chapter begins with an evocative two-page illustration and a short quote from the films.
Chapter One begins with a brief overview of the game followed by a short history of the Blade Runner universe. My overall impression is one favoring the look and feel of the Blade Runner 2049 film, rather than the 1982 one, however this is a good thing as the sequel introduced us to life outside the city and expanded the lore which is essential if Game Runners wish to create their own case files. This is not to say you can’t recreate the 1982 movie just that time has moved on and the 2049 movie felt more inclusive in the role humans and replicants played. The chapter depicts a graphical timeline from the 1980s up to 2037 when the game’s default timeline is set. It charts the rise of replicants and their eventual fall after the murder of their creator at the hands of a nexus-6 in 2019. The Tyrell corporation went bust following the release of the Nexus-8 replicants which went rogue, causing the “Black out”, and sending LA back to the dark ages, wiping out the internet and most electronic records. An event briefly alluded to in Blade runner 2049 and a plot device to keep the current locations of rogue N-8’s off Blade Runner’s radar. Wallace Corporation scooped by the company only to be scooped up by the Wallace corporation whose enigmatic CEO, Niander Wallace, cured world hunger before reintroducing his own Nexus-9 Replicants into the world as the benevolent, compliant saviours of humanity. His long-term goals are left vague with the Game Runner deciding if he’s a force for good or evil. Or just a narcissist egoist with a god complex. The game is set in 2037 with Nexus-9’s available as Blade Runner’s.
Creating your character
Chapter Two is creating your Blade Runner, who can be Humans and Nexus-9 replicants. You start by choosing from one of the seven archetypes available which determine your role in the game. All have key attributes and skills, a speciality and some cash. You can even roll your appearance and name randomly if you wish. A Blade Runner’s starting capabilities are determined by their “years on the force”, the more time they’ve served the more they’ll have to spend on their attributes, skills, specialities, promotion points and cash. Nexus-9 replicants have only been around for a year so they start as rookies.
Like in Free League’s other games, Blade Runner has four attributes:
Here, they have a letter denoting their level rather than a number which is how replicants were rated in the films. They range from A to D and each letter corresponds to a die type. A is a D12, B a D10, C a D8 and D a D6. Skills are handled in the same manner and when you attempt a skill check you roll the relevant attribute and skill with a result of 6 or higher on each die a success with a 10 or higher a critical (2 successes). I found this confusing. There is a disconnect between cross-referencing a letter with a number. You’ll soon get used to it, but I don’t see why they couldn’t use a numerical system in the first place. Your Health rating determines how much damage you can take, and it’s not much so don’t expect to last long in a fire fight. Replicants are hardier than their humans as counterparts. Finally, resolve is your tolerance for mental stress. Next up is your key memory, a neat idea, where you design a memory, whether it’s real, or in the case of replicants an implant which represents your personality. It can be used in game to restore stress and help you earn humanity points; a kind of experience point award for being human. I like it. Your key relationship is created in the same manner and is used by the Game Runner to create events in the game during downtime. Determine your starting cash, signature item, gear, appearance, name and address and you’re done. I found character creation to be quick and fun.
The Game System
Chapter Three describes the game system. There are twelve skills linked to your four attributes and thirteen linked to the vehicle you happen to be driving, which is a neat touch. The core mechanic is: roll your attribute and skill dice with a 6 on a die being a success. Should you be lucky enough to roll a 10 or more (only on a D10 and 12) then you score two successes. That’s it. One success is normally all you need extra successes allowing you to perform something above and beyond such as completing the task faster or scoring extra damage in combat. Should you fail, you can push your roll though there’s risk of taking health and resolving damage. Replicants can push twice and only suffer mental stress if they fail. The rules cover group skill checks to speed up play and advantage/disadvantage where you either remove the lower die or add one. Opposed rolls are uncommon outside combat and the game benefits because of it. It’s a quick, intuitive system with my only caveat the disconnect between letter and number referencing I mentioned earlier.
Combat & Chases
Chapter Four is combat and chases. Combat is deadly, you might be able to take one or two hits before you’re rolling on the critical table. You can only die through critical hits, but you’ll rake them up soon enough if you’re not careful which illustrates the lethality of Blade Runner universe. Combat is handled in a concise manner with a few options to take once the guns are drawn. The chapter ends with the chase mechanics. Basically, if you or your opponent flees a chase ensues, which can be on foot, in a car or in the air. Each side chooses secretly from a list of possible actions to be revealed simultaneously. To add a random element the Game Runner selects an obstacle which can help or hinder depending on whether you are fleeing or pursuing. It works well though it’s much nicer to use the chase cards from the starter set than read out from a table.
Los Angeles (2037)
Chapter Five in the city guide to Los Angeles in 2037 and its inhabitants who haven’t been fortunate or rich enough to escape to the off-world colonies. Lifestyle is determined by how high up you live in the mega-buildings, below one hundred and you’re scum. Five hundred plus is one of the super-rich unreachable in their decadent penthouses. The city is supposedly run by the authorities and protected by the police, but make no mistake, it’s the Wallace Corporation that runs the whole show, such is their power and influence. And, as a Blade Runner, don’t ever make the mistake of accusing them of anything you’re in for a long fall. City life, culture, food, drugs, sex, and survival are covered before a brief look at LA’s sectors. These have been left intentionally vague to allow the Game Runner to expand them, though I suspect there will be a future LA sourcebook release. I would have preferred more locations to avoid improvising during the game. This chapter could have been improved with more locations and NPC’s to populate them.
Chapter Six briefly looks at the powers that be with the Wallace Corp ruling the roost and way below them the LAPD. The UN is covered though they have been relegated to a ceremonial role. There’s a look at the evolution of replicants and their miserable lot in life. A short chapter.
Chapter Seven is all about the LAPD and its divisions, internal politics and Blade Runner’s place in the scheme of things. The LAPD building towers above everyone in the city, except Wallace Corp with state-of-the-art surveillance to spy on the citizens swarming below. Esper cameras are everywhere recording everything, with all the accumulated data instantly accessible from the LAPD’s all-powerful Mainframe. A fleet of spinners sit ready for Blade Runner’s to fly across the city to work their cases, along with a vast resource of weapons, technology, and personnel. Though you’ll need clearance from Deputy Chief Holden or a handy bribe to acquire the rarer items. Wallace Corporation is covered next with their record libraries and memory labs. Want to know what implants a rogue N-8 has? Here’s the place to visit. Your street level assets are briefly discussed, your reputation on the LAPD and the mean streets, standard police procedures and how to work a crime scene.
Chapter Eight is all about gear. There are some great illustrations covering storage devices, weapons, vehicles, medicine and the LAPD’s mainframe and crime lab. You can even have a synthetic augmentation installed if you’re brave enough and can afford it. The Blade Runner’s signature weapons and spinners are beautifully illustrated in full page spreads. There is a small range of weapons and gear available for purchase outside your standard issue equipment and the chapter finishes off with civilian gear and the ubiquitous shopping kiosks, stores, cafes, clubs, and vendors scattered throughout the city.
Chapter Nine is for the GM only and addresses how to run the game. It states up front that this game is different, your investigators will be searching for clues. How you go about this and which resources you use are entirely up to you but remember you’re on the clock. A day is broken up into four shifts and a spinner can fly anywhere in one shift. The players are encouraged to split up to speed up the investigation, something most RPGs are loath to suggest. But it’s essential here if you want to finish the case before time runs out and something bad happens. Blade Runner’s can share information instantly and upload clues back to the LADP. They can also choose to withhold information to protect someone to earn humanity points which are used to increase skills or follow the letter of the law to earn promotion points which buy skill specialities, specialised equipment and can be traded-in for money. The game strikes a balance between what it means to be human and a Blade Runner with the moral ambiguity that’s brings.
There are suggested downtime events when Blade Runners are off the clock. Where they recover health and resolve, interact with key relationships or experience random encounters in the city. The chapter ends with a lacklustre case file generator. Just a series of random tables to determine the who, what, why, when, and where of a crime which feels like an afterthought. For a game that empathises investigation above all else I would have expected more, with a fully flesh out case file a welcome addition. There’s a comprehensive index and that’s it. Overall, I’d give the game an eight out of ten. Superb production quality, good writing and solid game mechanics. I would have liked more background information on city locations, NPCs, and an introductory case file for prospective Game Runners so they can run the game without too much creative effort. Otherwise, a solid game recommended for those wishing to experience a noir-themed game of criminal investigation and who wish to explore what it means to be human.