OSRetro: In Defense of Cyborg Commando

OSRetro is a new feature section on the site that takes a look back at games and products that have already been published long ago with fresh eyes and/or the power of hindsight. It’s not meant to be a full review of a product but rather a glance back at the products of yesteryear from the point of view of OSR gamers today. Our first serving for this section is an article that Bob Brinkman kindly offered OSRToday the option to publish. We took him up on it. Because who can resist a little controversy when it comes to old school games…?

In 1987, New Infinities released their first system, Cyborg Commando. My original review of the game [“Howling Commandos” Gateways Magazine #7, Dec 1987] was relatively positive and I have always been shocked by the vehemence with which this classic game has been panned. I feel that the reputation of the game is wholly undeserved and, considering that the system goes for as little as ten dollars online, feel that this classic game is worth another look.

Let us begin with the CCF (Cyborg Commando Force) Manual. Conceptually, the game is fairly straight-forward. Earth has been invaded, mankind has been overrun, and the players represent humanity’s last line of defense against the Xenoborgs. Set in the “near future” of 2035, the first thing one might notice is that the predictions of at least some of the science behind the game is fairly accurate. In game canon, “the first cyborgs” were created in 2016 when scientists at UCLA learned how to convert nerve impulses into electrical signals. While we certainly don’t have cybernetic warriors as a part of our military, the idea of this sort of nerve-to-computer conversion is already a part of our world. While we have not yet reached the point of simply replacing nerves with wires, the game system predicted this with fairly accurate timing.

After being given the human perspective of history, we then are given a history of our world from the invader’s point of view. Their perspective is one of empire expansion and long-term planning. This portion also speaks of the alien reasoning for some of their particular methodology (such as choosing the bloated, insect-like, form that they would use for the Xenoborgs) as well as the “under-estimation” of mankind’s quick development and tenacity. The concept of man as the unexpected snag in alien expansion plans was later successfully used by Alan Dean Foster in his The Damned trilogy of novels.

The tale of the invasion itself, one of careful planning and tactical targeting of long studied military assets, is quite plausible and paints a final picture of a rapid collapse of human nations that one could still see happening today. What is left is a world where over 2 billion people have perished in the initial onslaught and the rest are in hiding; a world where modern conveniences such as electricity and running water are gone. When one compares this to recent programming, such as TNT’s Falling Skies, the potential for adventure in such a setting is readily apparent.

While other reviewers have attacked and ridiculed the overall setting, it is clear to see that Gygax, Mentzer, and Mohan were a bit ahead of their time for alien invasion tropes. The setting is scientifically plausible (a stated goal at the beginning of the CCF Manual) and rich with adventure and conflict. In fact, the campaign setting – put forth in five pages – is more interesting than the tired and recycled settings that are offered in multiple volumes by other systems. This base setting alone would provide a nice starting point for any creative GM and, since later expansions were never released, is ripe for home rules for any number of play styles.

Next, we get into the mechanics of the game and character generation. The system used for the game is the d10x system, where a single combat roll often will give you both hit and damage information. The book contains a very detailed explanation of the system and its probabilities compared to other systems. This section does have an extraordinary number of unnecessary charts to detail this. These charts have been another area in which folks have maligned the game, but, to quote the book, “You do not need to know these details to play the game, but they are provided for those who are interested.” Since this is not your basic percentile system, I can see people being interested in how this unique system works.

We then look further into the mechanics, delving into how this system affects things such as skill ratings. Here the game certainly stands out. In most games, a skill point is a skill point. One has no more, or less, value than any other. While this certainly makes for ease of use, it isn’t the most realistic way to treat things. This is addressed with use of the d10x system. Spending points in lower skill levels actually increases your chances of success by a higher percentage probability than spending points in higher skill levels. This is a fair representation of human development in any skill. Improvement tends to be increase quickly at the lower levels of skill, and improvement at higher levels is much slower. An average person can learn to play the piano, but their rate of improvement is not constant. To become a virtuoso takes much longer and the gradual improvements over time are much less.

To make certain the players are aware of the differences, a chart of the best and worst Skill Rating increases is included in the book. Granted, including such a chart certainly is an aid to those who “Min/Max”. This is a problem that exists (in some form) in all systems although, to be fair, Cyborg Commando is the only system I’ve ever seen that actually provides the math for those players. This flows nicely into the character creation section.

As a player, I’ve spent hours creating characters. Some systems are fairly simple while some other games make it horribly complex. Basic character creation in Cyborg Commando takes roughly 5-10 minutes. It is that simple to prepare a character and be ready to play. The system contains no random component in the process. Just spend your allotted points and you are ready to go. Advanced character creation can take a bit longer, 15-20 minutes, just based on the number of skill options that become available to the characters at that point. The game is actually made so that you can start by playing the basic version and then upgrade your characters to the advanced rules once you have the hang of things.

Like character creation, combat is also broken down into basic and advanced versions. Each Combat Turn consists of two “cycles” each consisting of five phases each. Timekeeping for combat is a little odd; each Combat Turn is 8.6 seconds long (1/10,000 of a day) and each phase is .86 seconds long. Combat happens fast. In addition, rather than focusing on individual or group initiative, each phase is for a specific type of action. “Zap Weapons” fire in phase 1, while slower actions (such as tossing a grenade) take place in phase 4.

The advanced combat system adds a great deal more depth of field to combat. Special effects, called shots, a hit location system, and several other modifiers are offered. The thing is, while this is the “advanced” combat system, it doesn’t overly complicate combat. I, like many of you, have sat and played through combats that have taken hours to resolve. Clunky mechanics, coupled with 10-12 books worth of complications from additional splat books, can really slow things down. Here, there isn’t much to remember. The focus is on ease of play.

Learning the basic combat rules takes about as long as it takes to create a basic character. The system is simple and while there are some modifiers available, it isn’t complex. A group of players using the basic rules can be up and running in under a half hour, which is not a bad learning curve for a system. The advanced combat rules, like the advanced character creation rules add 10-15 minutes of study to understand.

The rest of the CCF Manual is background material: sixteen pages of technical data about the Cyborg Commando, as well as a bit of information about the Cyborg Commando Force and how it is organized. All of this is material that players will probably want to familiarize themselves with as a campaign continues, but it isn’t important for their first game session. Again, players can sit down and be playing in 30 minutes with no great preparation on their part.

Next in the box is the Campaign Book, meant for the GM so that he can fully understand the setting. It starts by telling the GM to decide which measurement system to use for their campaign: Metric or the more familiar American system (the “English” system). This simple choice has been used as a major portion of mocking reviews, as the results one gets using the different systems do differ. For example, a character with a strength score of 20 could lift 2000 pounds, but if you were using Metric he or she could lift 1000 kilograms (which is 2204.62 pounds). While this mechanic means that there are differing values depending on the GM’s decision, the mechanic is a constant within the game. The differences really don’t matter. It certainly makes much more sense to have written it as it is than to force players and GM’s to calculate back and forth based on the conversion rate of 0.453592 kilograms to a pound. This particular point of snark in other reviews is just that, posturing to look cool by taking pot shots at the system where no problem really exists.

From here it moves to dealing with the global population and explains (perhaps in a bit too much detail) how they came to the number they did. While the game tries to focus on the possible, it is sections like this where it does become a bit unwieldy and certainly would be a bit intimidating for a younger gamer.

The pre-invasion population of Earth is roughly twelve billion people. The post-invasion population of the world is eight billion and falling. That is all a GM really needs to know, and the information certainly doesn’t need to be spread over two pages with five population tables for helping to calculate the current given population of any given area. As a GM, I’m just going to decide what the population of a given town is and go from there; I’m not going to sit down with a calculator and some tables to figure out what it should be for game purposes. It is this sort of inundation with charts that has made the game a bit of a target in some reviews. It can be a bit much to wrap one’s head around.

Indeed, here we come to the game’s biggest problem: a fascination with mind-numbing population minutia on a level not seen before or since. Each of the five global alliances receives a page of flavor text, giving you the basics of what you need to know about these areas. Frankly, more information would be beneficial, but most GM’s can easily build from the skeletal descriptions given. However, each of those five alliances also has a minimum of four pages of population breakdowns that will bring your reading to a screeching halt.

While this information is not meant for use at the beginning of a campaign (“you will initially only use a small portion of that vast amount of detail”), frankly, most of this section is a throwaway. I might not want to run a game in which there are eighty-two Cyborg Commando bases in the European Commonwealth alone. To put it into perspective, it took me longer to count the sum total of all CCF bases listed in the book (365) than it took me to generate a character. Much of the first half of this book simply isn’t of use to the average GM and is going to frighten off any GM just starting out, but might appeal to a small fraction of die-hard number crunchers out there. It is interesting to see what the game developer’s specific campaign world looked like, but I for one wouldn’t recommend using the details given as anything more than a springboard for the GM’s own ideas.

The next twenty pages of the Campaign Book focus on the aliens. Starting with general notes on the Xenoborgs and giving stats and equipment information, the book moves on to far more technical discussions. There is a four-page section on Xenobiology which, despite what you may think, makes for an interesting bit of reading. It is also the sort of thing that I would print out and give the players as a report found in a demolished research center. The same could be said for the section on Xenoborgs as beings. Both of these sections are essentially detail-filled flavor text to give the GM an idea of what is going on, but they are written in such a way that they could also be directly used (depending on your players) to impart some knowledge about the invaders to the Cyborg Commandos.

The game also features a few other types of aliens. First mentioned are “The Masters,” the supreme intelligence behind the invasion. They are described as worm-like creatures that weigh about 90 pounds. Interestingly, much like the worm-like Goa’uld of Stargate, they have the ability to enter a host body and take control of its body. This conjures the fairly horrific image of a two foot long, 90 pound, worm ripping its way out of a host, revealing itself to the players for the first time. It certainly would be a memorable moment. The other two alien types listed are, like the Xenoborgs, genetically manipulated tools created by the Masters for the purposes of warfare.

This section serves as a great starting point to inspire GM’s to create other races as needed while their campaign progresses. There is no reason to stick solely to these four races. The potential diversity is something that can be used to keep the game fresh and interesting (rather than always simply fighting the same creature all the time).

After three fairly dry pages on the subject of the interstellar travel system used by the aliens, we arrive at the “good part” of the book – discussion of the invasion itself. Written from the point of view of the Xeno forces, it does a thorough and interesting job of laying out the alien objectives and their methods for attaining them. Unfortunately, this goes into two pages of depopulation charts followed by another two pages of charts dealing with such topics as converting meters to feet, Centigrade to Fahrenheit to Kelvin, and many bits of information that just aren’t needed. At best this is all information that is a keystroke away for modern gamers. At worst, this is all information that the average gamer (then or now) is never going to need.

The final page of the Campaign Book devotes a single column to adventure ideas and another, single column, to interesting elements of the game. As strong and simple as the CCF manual is to enjoy and absorb, the Campaign Book is the opposite in its unwieldiness and lack of useful materials.

The last of the three books included in the boxed set is actually a flippable volume comprised of Player’s Adventure Notes and GM’s Adventure Notes. The first three pages of the player’s portion are an overview of the five global alliances as well as a brief world history from 1990-2030. This information is well structured, easy to absorb, and more useful than the majority of the alliance information offered in the Campaign Book. A single page devoted to general role-playing tips is followed by two pages of armor, equipment and skill lists. This information is well laid out, is easy to read and put into use, and is very player (and GM) friendly.

The GM section of the book starts by discussing role-playing and potential problems that may arise. One such example is “self-protective cowardice” and the book provides tips on how to deal with problem players. While seasoned GMs certainly aren’t going to need any tips on dealing with players, it is interesting to look back on an age when information like this was routinely included in RPG books so that GMs could have at least a basic suggestion of how to deal with a problem player.

The rest of this booklet deals with creating adventures and campaigns, and offers twenty adventure seeds as starting points for a GM to build upon. Again, I find that the information included in this small booklet is of far more use than the Campaign Book and this contains all someone really needs to create and run their first adventure. This booklet, coupled with the CCF Manual, is all that is really needed to run a game.

A total of four adventures were released for the system. Three were available commercially, while the fourth was a pre-order investor’s adventure and is very difficult to find. While other sets were also planned, they never materialized, making the legacy of Cyborg Commando a fairly short one. It remains an obscure game with an undeservedly poor reputation. Used copies of the game are very inexpensive and, in an age where a movie for two costs close to $20, the game is certainly worth the trial investment.

26 years later, portions of the history need to be corrected but that is no reason to shy away from a fun little game, designed by some of the giants in the field of RPGs. The game isn’t perfect, and the Campaign Book can be a bit overwhelming, but the system itself is fun and easy to play. Give it a try, you won’t regret it.

Copyright 2013-2014 Bob Brinkman.

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