"Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic." – Arthur C Clarke
Sufficiently Advanced comes in three parts: A back cover, a character sheet, and the rules themselves. The back cover is blurb and pictures, but does convey the core premise.
It is this: In the distant future, the economy is driven by ideas, and thus by patents. Characters are troubleshooters for the patent office, which is run by Artificial Intelligences who work to ensure the survival of humanity into the distant future, simply because they’d like some company when that future arrives.
I usually start with a new game by looking at the character sheet; it serves as a one or two page introduction to the game’s core concepts and approach. What gets a lot of space on the sheet tends to be what the game considers important. In this case, the sheet isn’t too "busy", which tells me not to expect a lot of number-crunching, and that a character is defined by core values, themes, capabilities, and professions – half a dozen of each. There is no space at all for equipment, which tells me that won’t be important. The themes look interesting because they include such things as Romance and Plot Immunity.
Thus armed with an idea of the concept and characters, I venture into the main rulebook. It’s split into these chapters…
Prologue (9 pages)
An introduction to roleplaying in general, and this setting in particular. The game explores a world in which technology has advanced to the limits of what can currently be foreseen, without destroying mankind in the process; and looks at what kind of societies would evolve as a result. The last couple of pages are a quickstart version of the main game.
The Universe (61 pages)
Civilisations, societies, species, and more on the Patent Office. In the entire universe, there are only about 100 inhabited planets, so life is scarce and valuable indeed.
This section opens with a look at each of the 14 dominant civilisations in the setting; each is given a page of descriptive text, and some flavour text such as a short piece of fiction giving a day in the life of a typical member, an imagined conversation between a member of that civilisation and another one, and so on. Part of the description includes the core values a member must have, and the benefits they receive. I really liked these, and might well appropriate some into another setting – they were worth the price of admission on their own. The civilisation writeups end with a relationship diagram showing not only the usual "likes" and "dislikes", but more intriguing relationships such as "studies" or "recruits", and power blocs. Although the game doesn’t suggest this, it could make a useful star map in its own right. I’ll put that in the folder marked "someday, when I have the time and the players".
Then come descriptions of societies – associations of like-minded individuals which provide benefits to members, who must have the correct core value at a minimum level. While everyone is a member of a civilisation, not everyone is a member of a society.
There are four alien races in the setting, none of them suitable as PCs. These are the Coldworlders (slow-moving whale-like creatures who live in the depths of a gas giant), the Worldweb (sentient sap in a continent-sized vine jungle), the Skotadi (exotic creatures made of dark matter who communicate via gravity waves) and the Aia (human-created Artificial Intelligences who have left us far behind).
The Patent Office is described in terms of its typical office layout, the sort of person (or AI) who will be the PCs’ handler, and answers AIs typically give to questions. I loved those, too.
There’s also a section on how crime has changed; essentially, sufficiently advanced technology means that criminals other than con-men have disappeared.
Character Creation (29 pages)
This steps through each area of the character sheet, as it were – core values, themes and so on. It also explains character development, and provides some sample PCs and NPCs.
Characters are created by picking a civilisation (mandatory) and a society (optional), which will determine some of their core values – abstract concepts such as freedom or charity in which the character believes deeply. Other core values are then chosen at will.
Then, themes are selected, ranked, and described; capabilities are added based on the themes. Themes are the key to the character, and cover areas like Plot Immunity, Intrigue, Romance and so forth. I might pick Intrigue as a theme, assign it rank 2 ("obtain secret information") and a descriptor of Stumble Upon – this character could be embroiled in a conspiracy when he notices a pattern in graffiti, for example. One with Plot Immunity 4 ("Evade certain on-screen death") and a descriptor of Bad-Ass is an action movie hero. As much as anything, these telegraph to the GM what kind of scenarios the players are interested in – Plot Immunity, though tells you what the character doesn’t want to do, by telling you what he will triumph over without breaking into a sweat.
Capabilities are the five key areas of technology, rated from 1-10, with 2 being the average unenhanced human. A PC’s rating in each is influenced by his civilisation; for instance, a member of the Mechanica must have at least a 6 in Stringtech, and might have as much as 10; a 10 would mean he has something like a fusion gun built into his body. Capabilities also have Reserve, which is partly like fatigue or power points, and partly like hit points – your capabilities are reduced if you don’t have adequate rest and whatever power or nutrients they require.
Finally, the player allocates years of the character’s life to learning professions. You can have as many as you want, at whatever level you like; the only impact is that your character has to be old enough to have spent the necessary time on them. There doesn’t seem to be a downside to being older. This relies on the players; a min-maxing munchkin could take all the professions in the book at level 10, and the only effect would be that he’d be several thousand years old.
Then you’re done; no equipment to buy here, because your capabilities are the equipment – built-in nanotech, or a robot body, for example.
This is a bit different from character creation in normal RPGs, but the game includes a number of stereotypical, nearly-complete PCs to help with it, as well as stat blocks for stock NPCs.
There’s no standard way to improve your character, although there are some suggestions; since you can start off as good as you want to be, there’s no real need for one.
Game Mechanics (30 pages)
Dice rolling, conflicts and their resolution, story triggers, the care and feeding of themes.
To attempt a task, you roll 1d10 for a relevant capability and a relevant profession, multiply the score by the level in the capability/profession, and then pick the higher of the two scores. If that total exceeds the target number set by the GM, you have succeeded. An average person with average rolls would score about 10 (average roll of 5 x average capability of 2); the best character possible (capability 10) with the best die roll (10) would score 100. You can expend your capability’s reserve to boost your score. There are rules, tables and flowcharts for types of conflicts and which capabilities or professions apply.
The other main mechanic, besides dice rolling, is the use of "twists" to activate one of your themes. You start with one twist, plus one per complication (problem in the current situation) your character has; you could start the scene wounded, perhaps, to get another twist. Using a twist allows the player to invoke one of his character’s themes to his benefit; for example, you capture a foe and need to convince him to help – a Plot Immunity Bad-Ass might scare him into revealing the truth, an Intrigue Stumble-Upon character might find a clue in his pockets while frisking him. Twists, then, are similar to bennies, fortune points or fate points in other games.
The bit I found hardest to grasp is the story trigger. This is a potential event, known to the players but not to the characters, which they can use twists to activate. The GM can create triggers, but cannot activate them. The players can activate them, or create them, by spending twists. A trigger consists of a secret (what’s going on), a reveal (how the characters find out – the players already know), a lever (which activates the trigger) and an effect (what happens after activation). Players know the reveals, which means they can choose whether to activate the trigger or not. I’m still not sure I understand this properly, but there are a number of example triggers to get you started.
The section closes with advice on how to use themes, avoid abuse of them, and handle complications.
Technology (30 pages)
Devices and how to use and invent them.
Devices function much like capabilities, except that they have no reserve. A variety of them are described, with tech levels, costs, and so on. "Devices" include not only personal equipment, but special training and large-scale infrastructures like power plants or orbital elevators. Interestingly, there is also a section on equipment that is not available, because it doesn’t fit the hard SF concepts of the game, because it would make a good plot device so should not be something you can buy off the shelf, or because society tried it and decided it wasn’t worthwhile.
Advice (17 pages)
Tools, adventure ideas, alternative settings, and designers’ notes.
One thing repeated through the game is that Sufficiently Advanced chews through plot faster than most games, because the players can spend twists to bypass parts that don’t interest them.
Again, there is an unusual – but welcome – section at the back of the adventure ideas; a list of scenario types that don’t work well with this game.
The chapter also includes commentary on other possible universes, and optional rules for letting players create new civilisations from which PCs can come.
Appendices (2 pages)
Acknowledgements and sources of inspiration (reading and watching lists).
This game didn’t interest me enough to replace any of my current favourites, but it does have some ideas – especially societies – worth borrowing. It’s also interesting to see a game written by a physicist, which gives the scientific angles more credibility. Can’t complain for a buck.