Cyberpunk, a type of science-fiction defined by “low life and high technology,” is a genre in the role-playing game industry that has been long defined by a few strong staples (namely Shadowrun and Mike Pondsmith’s humbly named Cyberpunk series) and a number of half-baked pretenders that never fully realize the legacy the legends have left for them. It is a category that requires world building with a certain level of cynicism or at best, closely guarded optimism armored with a healthy dose of realism. Ladies and gentlemen, introducing Corporation by Brutal Games.
Corporation is a pen and paper RPG by UK-based Brutal Games initially published in 2009, a game that owes as much, if not more, to the cyberpunk computer games of the early 1990’s and the mid to late 2000’s as it does to Shadowrun and Cyberpunk. Make no mistake though, Corporation is less like Deus Ex and more similar to both versions of Syndicate (the original 1990’s version and the “less then stellar” reboot released in 2012,) trading the “post-cyberpunk” guarded optimism of the former for the classic grim and gritty cynical sarcasm of the latter. For some, the moral ambiguity and lack of a clear “hero” will make the game a bit harder to get into yet this is hardly a noteworthy flaw between the additional corporations listed in Machines of War and the community’s eagerness to come up with fan-made corporations of their own.
Much like Syndicate, Corporation puts players in the boots of an “Agent,” a post-human black ops specialist in the employ of one of five major international corporations or four smaller minor corporations introduced in the “Machines of War” player supplement (Machines of War will be the subject of its own separate review.) To Brutal Game’s credit, all of the five major corporations are reasonably balanced, appropriate for a variety of play styles (though each company definitely has a set theme such as crime dramas or military adventures,) successfully hit upon the “classic” cyberpunk mega-corp archetypes, and are more or less equally morally disgusting with no clear “good guy” between them. The initial five corporations players get to pick from are:
Ai-Jin: A predominantly Chinese manufacturing concern ruled predominantly by Chinese gangsters. Their legal enterprises revolve around mega-construction and heavy industry, their illegal ones range from crime classics like drug running and chop shops to the stuff of sci-fi nightmares like meatdolls. Starting Ai-Jin Agents get the ability to have a second identity complete with appropriate credentials and the electronic paperwork to back it up, handy for getting past UIG checkpoints and fooling customs officials.
Comoros: Indo-African Corporation primarily focused on learning and education, powerful psychics that are arguably the only “good” guys of the five (if only by merit of being slightly less morally revolting then their neighbors.) Their “goodness” generally offset by a pronounced “ends justify the means” attitude; begging the question how far players would be willing to go for the “greater good.” Comoros Agents gain a bonus to learning and using “telepathics,” the “magic” of the Corporation universe, allowing them to learn new techniques quicker and use them more often.
Eurasian Incorporated: A European corporation that’s a classic evil cyberpunk mega-corp in every sense of the phrase, a horrifying evil held in check by equal amounts of comedic incompetence. Dominance of leisure and healthcare industries give them almost literally endless revenue and a flippant disregard for medical ethics makes their research doctors the only thing more terrifying then their agents. EI Agents get the “Expense Account” trait, which basically does what it sounds like; a company account that can be charged for virtually anything that can be deemed “mission critical.” Subsequently EI gives players arguably both the weakest and yet most hilariously over-powered ability at the same time. Deniable Resources, Corporation’s fan-operated “official” forum, is rife with hilarious stories and most of them invariably involve EI.
Shi Yuriko: Japanese company dominating the electronics and high-tech goods market. Protected by futuristic ninjas and samurai wielding charged-ion katanas, Shi Yuriko follows a corporate philosophy that embraces Bushido and ancient Japanese philosophy… warts and all. Shi Yuriko tends to contain nods to either Gibson-era depictions of Japanese cyberpunks (ie: techno-ninjas and machinegun-toting cyber-samurai) or Japanese culture before the signing of the Harris Treaty. The company maintains a tentative monopoly on ion technology, allowing SY agents exclusive access to a collection of deadly armor-piercing melee weapons.
Western Federation: An ultra-nationalistic American armaments and defense manufacturer that controls all of north and central America, essentially the same sort of company as Ares Macrotechnology from Shadowrun or Militech from Pondsmith’s Cyberpunk. Rules over some of the most stable and prosperous regions of the world… regions guided by a puritan philosophy and no small amount of police-state fascism. WF benefits are arguably the most straightforward; agents can use more guns and get access to better weapons then what is normally on the shelf. If you like
Within those five corporations, players can assume a variety of roles ranging from heavy weapons specialists and infiltrators to medics and mechanics using a classless freeform system based off Brutal Game’s own proprietary “Brutal Engine,” add an appropriate stat and skill together, roll two ten-sided dice, and it’s a success if the total dice roll is lower then the sum of your character’s attribute and skill. That’s it, that is the only dice formula you need to know to do everything but roll damage and combat initiative and those aren’t much harder then the core mechanic. Combat tends to be fast and relatively fluid
Equipment and augmentations also pay a small tribute to Corporation’s video game inspired roots. Nestled in between the typical pen and paper RPG fare is a collection of weapons that sound like they were clearly lifted from Unreal Tournament such as bladed discus launchers and acid-spraying guns, giving an almost whimsical take on the traditional cyberpunk brutality. Meanwhile, general equipment and augmentations tend to play it a bit safe with a fairly typical selection any Shadowrunner or Cyberpunk would recognize. A bit bland perhaps but then at least Corporation knows what players are going to want… unlike Otherverse: America giving us stats for Exo-Wombs.
Lastly, there are the chapters on the game world and the things players can do in it. And here is where the Corporation core rulebook shows its only real weakness. To summarize, the Corporation core book gives players and game masters a number of fanciful and wonderful concepts clearly inspired from the same culture that brought us Max Headroom and Judge Dredd (the 2000AD comic, not the Stallone movie.) From teleportation stations and ocean-spanning sky bridges to the savagely ultra-violent Weltball and skyscraper-sized Cyberlins (think the giant robots from Pacific Rim,) one cannot say that there is an element of awe-inspiring wonder beneath all that grim and cynicism. There’s just one problem, the setting lacks a strong anchor point like Cyberpunk’s Night City or Shadowrun’s Seattle. To be fair, Brutal Games was quick to follow up with the Eastern Bank supplement (a hot zone in the cold war going on between corporations) and each corporation “splat book” released so far includes a chapter devoted to the company’s “capital city,” a single metropolis that conveys the spirit of its patron faction nicely. But still, the one thing the core rulebook could have benefited from is a single multi-corporation “crossroads city” given even just a couple pages of exposition.
Final Verdict: Four out of five stars, not perfect but far from irredeemable, a solid morally ambiguous sci-fi cyberpunk RPG and a reassuring sight to see in light of Cyberpunk v.3’s commercial failure. Perfect for fans of the Syndicate games that wondered what it might be like to step into the black jackboots of an agent of their own creation…