Saturday, September 21, 2013

From Digital to Dice: Neon Burn Playtest Review

When I think of an anti-gravity racing league my mind goes back to fond memories of games such as Wipeout, F-zero, and Star Wars: Pod Racing. There are other terrestrial contributors to this futuristic, super-fast sub-genre of racing such as Extreme G, POD, and Kinetica. All of these games have one thing in common: they are all video games. Neon Burn aims at bringing the excitement and speed of a futuristic racer in to the story driven and strategic realms of traditional RPGs. This is no small feat, but from what I experienced last night, Neon Burn is definitely on the right track.

In its present iteration, the game focuses on a cooperative model based around different character classes (Such as Driver, Publicist, Coach, Pit Crew) narrating off track scenes to generate Spark. When characters do things that relate to their character’s Passions, they are rewarded with Spark. This is used to activate player abilities which can be used in these scenes or during the race to modify rolls. The type of scene also determines what else you can gain from it, whether you are Moonlighting to make some extra Credits, Buying/Selling equipment, or setting up an Afterburn, which is a special kind of tension with rivals or other events that will affect the game in future scenes or during the race.

Once you've finished framing all of your off track scenes, which is determined by a race Start Time (real world time you transition from Scenes to the Race) it’s time for the race. The game has rules to help you generate a custom track, whether random or piecemeal. The track sections have a Width (max assignable dice) and Difficulty (minimum roll to get an Even result), as well as the preferred stats for vehicles in those sections. Vehicles can give or take a number to the Driver’s dice according to their stats, and after dice are rolled they are placed in a grid based on the max Width of the Section. Higher value successes trump lower values, and same values cancel each other out completely. The game’s dice system focuses around a d6 base with (+) or (-) modifying the dice size (ex. d6 with a (-) turns in to a d4) The Driver rolls dice for the team, while others roll dice for the Field and any Rivals or Drivers that are other drivers with stats and personalities. All of the players can use their Spark to modify rolls beforehand, allow for re-rolls, cancelling a Failure, or making modifications to what stats are affected by certain roll outcomes. There are many more nuances to Neon Burn’s rules, but I have outlined the most central components of the current system.

Overall, the game has married a very free-form storytelling system with a crunchier and tactical racing system. Personally, I feel like this is a great success. Neither side of the system feels neglected, and apart from a little lack of rolling for a couple of our players, was engaging and exciting. Craig and I discussed some possible solutions for giving players in the support roles a little more to do during the race. Other than that, the system is deep and flexible. Being in an early stage of development there are some glaring imbalances, but nothing that is rooted in the core mechanics. Class attributes can be balanced through Spark cost or redesign, and the competitiveness of Rivals, Drivers, and the Field can be adjusted through giving them some default uses and pools for their own Spark or similar roll modification system.

To me, the most exciting thing about this game is how fresh the idea of a racing system is in the RPG game system space. I’m sure there have been parts of systems for races in the past, but I have never seen one that could elevate a racing experience, which in itself would be hard pressed to leave the board game realm. The system already includes rules for many different types of Leagues, whether they are stock or custom, weaponized or pacifist, and single race or a long sustained Circuit over many play sessions. Another great aspect is that the system’s core allows for the addition of source material for all types of racing-centric eras and sub-genres. Anything from Roman chariot racing, fantasy beast racing, sci-fi tank racing (suggested by one of our playtesters), or something that even resembles modern day stock car racing would be supported. Could this be the system to allow NASCAR fans to live the dream of being part of a big time stock car team? I sure hope so.

Gamers United!

Cavin “Pox” DeJordy

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