Techbook: Chrome (written by John D Lees) is a book for the Traveller system designed to fit in with the Twilight Sector setting. It is published by Terra/Sol Games.
Being somewhat unfamiliar with the Twilight Sector setting, it was with some trepidation that I opened my pdf copy of Techbook: Chrome. The first thing that struck me was the font used for the titles on the front cover, being in brighter colours than the cover art itself. The text evokes the heyday of space opera, with the bright colours and blocky font used in everything from Star Wars to Star Trek. This contrasts nicely with the cover illustration, a murky image composed largely of silhouettes with glowing eyes with one robed man with a mechanical arm thrown into sharp relief in the foreground. I can see that the artwork would not be to all tastes, but to me it helps set the tone for the book. The only issue I have with the cover is that the man’s face seems strange (although, having read further, I suppose he could be a mutant).
Upon opening the book (or scrolling past the front cover in my case) we find a an excellent inside cover which explains clearly and concisely what to expect from Techbook: Chrome. It describes itself as “An alternative take on cybernetics, with rules for bionics and other bio-replacements, cyborgs and cyrgeware thrown in for good measure.” In all honesty, I did not have the faintest clue what to expect from cyrgeware (or, for that matter, how to say it) until approaching one hundred and twenty-five pages into this one hundred and thirty-six page book. Other than that, I was quite taken by the neat and simple arrangement on the inside cover (barring the legal bit and the credits, of course). Personally, I feel that more rpg rulebooks, including supplements and adventures, could do with a simple, brief synopsis of the main cut-and-thrust of the book on the inside cover. It makes it easier to understand what you’re getting yourself into. For instance, two similar vampire-themed games with similar covers and titles could prevent unnecessary confusion by providing a simple synopsis on the inside cover. That way, fans of “the game of deep and personal horror and descent into madness” wouldn’t accidentally purchase the rulebook for “the game of administering righteous beatdown to werewolves”. Obviously that is a fictional example, but the principle still applies.
The next page is the table of contents, which is laid out in a very simple and easy-to-read manner. The retro-futuristic font from the front cover is used here alongside a printed circuit-board design running down the left-hand side, which serves to subtly steer it away from the extreme and almost satirical retro-futurism of the Fallout series to something with a little more depth and seriousness. The table of contents seems to suggest a book that, while not taking itself too seriously, is clearly a book that can be used to play some very serious games. Having already read it all the way through at the time of writing, I can safely say that this is the general feel flavour of the entire book.
On the same double-page spread is the Author’s Note. The artwork above it reflects the same light-hearted yet capable of genuine gravity feeling evoked by the rest of the book, showing two screaming faces apparently being merged (or torn from one another; I cannot tell) through streams of ones and zeroes. The design itself is flamboyant and perhaps a little silly, but the expressions on the two faces show genuine feeling, apparently a mixture of fear, pain and loathing. The Author’s Note itself cites many works featuring cybernetics (or their equivalents) as the forefathers of modern cybernetics in fiction, ranging from the works of Edgar Allen Poe to the Six-Million Dollar Man.
The next page is where the fun really begins, however, and boy does it start with a bang. “The Social Acceptance of Cybernetics in the Twilight Sector.” Boom. There you go. Right in the deep end. I don’t know about you, but I think that this is probably the best place for a setting expansion book to start. This is the real meat of any roleplaying game: how do the characters interact with this stuff? In Twilight Sector, there is no single easy answer. The bulk of society views cybernetics and bionics with somewhere between unease and veiled hostility due to the constant presence of mutants in society, and their general dehumanisation by non-mutants. Doesn’t sound like it makes sense? Well, the mutant issue has spiralled so far out of control that any augmentation of any kind likely to put the user at an advantage to the rest of society is treated with blinkered fear and superstition. It’s during this section that we are treated to our first proper example of the bizarre and brilliant sense of humour employed by Mr Lees in Techbook: Chrome. The first inset textbox in the entire book is graced with the delightful subtitle Doctor Techlove, or how I stopped Kvetching and learned to embrace the Chrome. I must confess that it took me approaching four readings of the section to pick up on the Doctor Strangelove reference (I haven’t seen it; so sue me), although I laughed out loud when I finally twigged.
The chapter tackles a host of sociological issues regarding cybernetics, as well as dipping into mutations and the implications of obvious cybernetic enhancements. In this, Terra/Sol Games show that the Twilight Sector setting has a very grown-up approach to prejudice, in that the general human populace neither recognises nor understands many of the prejudices of the twenty-first century yet indulges in irrational and hysterical behaviour to a similar degree. A second inset is provided later in the same chapter detailing the attitudes of a sample of subcultures regarding cybernetics, bionics and cyrgeware. While not particularly surprising or strange in their views, the sample subcultures do add an extra layer of complexity to the sociological issues surrounding enhancement, replacement and augmentation.
The next main heading in this chapter is “Social Acceptance of Chrome in Other Settings”. For people like me who have an almost pathological inability to run any setting as it is written in the book, this section is invaluable. Even if you generally choose to run your game set in the Twilight Sector, it is still reasonable for the characters to leave the Twilight Sector at various times, so this section is still useful even for setting purists.
The rest of the chapter deals with the different uses of Tech levels in the Twilight Sector, including details on Maintech, Sliptech and Retrotech worlds. The entire section is highly informative and doesn’t hesitate to discuss the meaning of each term in great depth, adding considerable flavour to the setting. It’s at this point that we start reaching the first main system-specific sections, being a list of the useful skills for Chromers (people who use cybernetics or any of the augmentations in Techbook: Chrome) and the mechanical effects of general cybernetic limbs. Speaking of cybernetic limbs…
Chapter two deals with cybernetic replacements. Chapter three deals with sensory cybernetics. Chapter four deals with cybernetic limbs. I’ve grouped these together in the review because, to me at least, they are all thematically similar. It is extremely difficult to talk about one of these without dragging in at least one other, although the same could probably be said of the rest of the book. I feel that this is a clear testament to the closely planned style of the book. Information is rarely duplicated anywhere, but instead referenced. Chapter two starts much the same as chapter one, throwing us right in at the deep end. The moment you turn the page (or scroll, in my case), you immediately find yourself flung into the overview of constructing cybernetics, implanting them at the hospital, self-implantation, making your own cybernetics, details on organic cybernetics… There is enough information here to settle even the most pedantic of arguments. However, for those of us who do not use the Traveller system, the artwork is where this chapter really shines. Sadly there are only two illustrations in this setting, but they are both highly evocative. The first is a full-page line drawing of an arm-wrestle in some sort of space tavern, featuring a man with a Mk 23 cyber-arm (according to the caption) having it forcibly ripped from the socket due to overexertion (Overstress, to use the technical rules term). The second is a considerably smaller piece depicting a man undergoing surgery on some form of automated surgical machine.
The Cybernetic sensory Replacement chapter is really mainly a list of numbers and values that are really mainly for the Traveller system. However, I feel confident that I could reasonably modify the rules given with relatively little effort to fit anything from D20 to World of Darkness. And I intend to.
CyberLimbs are the focus of the fourth chapter, and again are primarily a list of different values and attribute adjustments. Once again these are of limited value to a non-Traveller player, but the sheer richness and variety of the information included means that this functions equally well as a setting book compared to its function as a supplement. CyberLimb replacement covers everything you’d expect and more, going so far as to include options for tentacles, tails, finelimbs, oversized limbs, partially organic limbs and even limb enhancements.
The next chapter delves even further into the realms of the obscure. Now we get as far as reconstruction, partial limbs (replacing only a hand, for instance), cybernetic organs, cybernetic interchangeability and even sub-torso replacements, cybernetics used to replace the vast bulk of the Chromer’s body. It is here again that the quirky John Lees humour appears again, offering us such upgrades as the “Genital Sweet [sic]”, misspelling intentional. Conversely, it is during the cybernetic interchangeability section that the artwork once again drops a real doozy. This time it is a line drawing of a face staring directly towards the reader, having one ear and one eye either removed or fitted.
The final chapters on biological replacements, cyborgs, accessories and cyrgeware are really rather similar to the previous chapters in terms of their makeup, consisting of large blocks of rules-heavy text interleaved quite elegantly with snippets of information about the setting, painting an ever-more complex view of the Twilight Sector. As a non-Traveller player, I must admit that wading through Traveller-specific rules can start to drain after a while, but it is entirely worth it for the rich setting detail. Sadly the hilarious flashes of comic genius are few and far between here, but it is a credit to the author that despite his talent for the humorous, Techbook: Chrome stands on its own two (or more, knowing Chromers) feet even without the comedic interludes and subheadings.
A special mention is probably worth making for Cyrgeware. I brought it up as it has been mentioned again and again throughout the book, but is only explained in the final chapter. Cyrgeware (said “surge-ware”) is the method of introducing nanites to the body to modify body chemistry, composition or abilities. In all honesty, despite the continuously excellent artwork and high level of detail, I felt that cyrgeware was perhaps a little last-minute as an addition. The effects and implications of cyrgeware are not discussed as thoroughly as the other technologies in the book, which was a little disappointing. However, as I was less attracted to cyrgeware, this didn’t affect my enjoyment of Techbook: Chrome unduly.
Substance: 4.5/5. Consistently informative. Techbook: Chrome was diligent and meticulous in its explanations of the technology available for bodily enhancement and replacement in the Twilight Sector. Despite the Traveller-specific rules I feel that other GMs would benefit from this book.
Style: 4/5. The writing style was quite the most enjoyable I have encountered in a role-playing game book for some time. The artwork was similarly excellent, although there was one strangely cartoon-y drawing in the section on healing tanks that seemed to jar with the overall tone. Other than that, I feel that a little more of the excellent artwork would not have gone amiss.
Overall: 8.5/10. A must-have resource for any Traveller GM, and well worth the money for any hard sci-fi GM with any ability at system conversions. Perhaps a little more work on the last chapter and a little more artwork, and Techbook: Chrome could be the best rpg book I read this year.
[4 of 5 Stars!]