Posted on August 8, 2005 by Monica Valentinelli
Created by Contested Ground Studios
Review Written by Monica Valentinelli
Welcome to The City.
You will never forget The City.
But The City will forget you.
A/State is a game, designed by Contested Ground Studios, that deals with finding that soft, white light of hope in the murky depths of poverty, crime, and The City.
A/State’s setting is post-apocalyptic futurism, but with a few twists. Unlike other post-apocalyptic settings, there are a lot of unknowns. Something happened, something that ripped the fabric of modern-day reality off from civilization’s spoiled body. Technology is limited, identities are a luxury, and survival of the fittest is a way of life—not just a catch phrase. The City, assuredly a conglomeration of some things that “were”, has no name. In this place with no name, you battle against your greatest enemy—yourself.
Thematically, A/State reaches to a place that rests within all of us. It is a place that houses a faint glimmer of hope that somehow, some way or another, begs to be let out. This is not a game about combat, who gets the most stuff, or who levels up the fastest. This isn’t about redemption or loss; you can start out the game with nothing. This is a game about tension. If you make the wrong decisions, the whole society comes crashing down.
Contested Ground embedded the ideology of hope within its mechanics. As a player, you are rewarded for bringing light to those who have none through Improvement Points (IPs). A/State’s mechanics are a straightforward percentile, with modifications for different styles of play. Hit location modifiers are offered, for those who want a more exacting style of combat. Advantages and disadvantages such as age and infamy are also included; playing with these modifiers attributes to a more realistic style of play. For those GMs who like to use other systems, have fair warning. It is not so simple to “replace” A/State mechanics with D20, D6 or Unisystem because of the way a player spends his IPs. A/State’s mechanics are heavy on game balance and usefulness.
In order to play A/State, you need to have a character with a past. Character creation, although it looks intimidating, is offered in the form of answering a series of questions. In the corebook, the questions are listed as an overview to the character creation process. Truly, Contested Ground is making the point that your character’s identity is more important than the skills and attributes she is comprised of.
A/State shines because it is laid out with masterful intent. Every page, simply designed, has a purpose. Every header that is placed within a section makes logistic sense. Word conservation is impressive, and the style is similar throughout. Not a lot of art appears in the book. The art that does is computer generated. At first, this style threw me off a bit, especially since this is a low-tech setting. But the question is, what art would work for A/State? Photographs? Pen and ink? It almost seems as if no imagery would suffice in this setting other than a muddy footprint or a bullet hole.
In order to foster character concepts for both players and GMs, Contested Ground introduced signature characters from different walks of life in the chapter called “The Place.” While some may argue that this provides for an overarching storyline, others may view this as a means of fueling the game without having to think up so many characters. By providing these templates, it also gives GMs the opportunity to see how the setting interacts with characters—from Contested Ground’s eyes. Characters here, like Rembrandt Sanger, work in every imaginable profession you can think of—from cabaret artist to street healer to gang member to generator technician. These pages show the breakdown of wealth and class, for The City has both extreme poverty and ultimate riches. While wealth can be a factor in the game, if a GM decides to utilize characters that “have”, the setting and game would completely shift its focus. Instead of bringing hope to those who have none, the game would undoubtedly be about forcing the rich to look inside of themselves—to see their empty shells and be ashamed.
Like many post-apocalyptic games, supernatural creatures emerge from the shadows.
Due to a mysterious event called “The Shift”, unnatural beings (The Shifted) lurk among the living. Five types exist: drache (mesmerizing, insubstantial haze), hager (muscled 7-foot humanoids that travel in packs), lugner (who corrupt humans through careful whisperings), ubel (deadly, skeletal wraiths?), and the simil. The simil are “walking juggernauts of iron, brass, glass and stone, they tramp about The City, emitting sparks and gouts of steam.” (page 39) These beings are, at present, the only Shifted that work for humanity. Whether they are protecting or proving their own humanity (all simils have a humanlike head with recognizable features), simils are put into the most dangerous of positions—war, hazardous jobs, etc. While Contested Ground leaves the mythos open for speculation, I wonder if “The Shifted” aren’t really by-products from The City’s past.
Creatively, A/State manages to take an idea (post-apocalyptic) and forge it into something new. “Religion”, as we know it, is not addressed at length in this mythos, but it doesn’t have to be. Too often western religious ideologies are the root behind post-apocalyptic speculations. As a result, some futuristic musings exclude non-Christian traditions. A/State disregards our current society in terms of its inner workings. Instead, it seems to have created its setting in this manner, “What kind of technological advances would happen hundreds of years from now? Okay, now disaster strikes. What is left over? Speed it up another few, hundred years. What would it look like?”
Having played A/State once or twice, I can say that A/State is a game about playing the hero. Actions speak louder than words, and carelessness will be rewarded with oblivion. A/State is not about physical rebirth (or The City’s Rebuild) rather, it is about spiritual growth. It acknowledges that every person is a part of bringing hope, and it rewards players that do so—even if they bring it in the midst of so much self-pity and sorrow that the players, themselves, may not even realize what they are doing.
One of the added bonuses to playing A/State is the game support that Contested Ground offers to its fans. From printable maps and blank character sheets to fully written adventures, Contested Ground provides more than just the price of their hardcover book. In this way, their unique game is suddenly accessible. Free downloads that work with the game? Fresh material on a webzine (The Circular)? You almost wonder if Contested Ground enjoys this game more than their fans do.
A/State is an extremely playable stand-alone game that works well for short, as well as longer-term, adventures. Whether you are rescuing children, or breaking up a crime boss fight, there is lots to do in “The City.”
Also look for a|state supplements like Ghostfighter at RPGNow.com.