Tuesday, 23 May 2023

[Review] Noofutra

I spent much of my teenage years playing Shadowrun - a game I once called "the most fundamentally awful and crass idea ever invented [...] a crime against gaming and literature and culture in general", but which I am also on record as wanting to give an extensive re-imagination treatment. And I have a deep, abiding love for Cyberpunk 2020. So I am always on the lookout for games within that genre. 

Nooftura, released a couple of years ago now by the well-known Scrap Princess, is one of them. While it does not mention the word Shadowrun, I assume due to legal concerns, it bills itself as 'a take on...a popular setting [which] takes all 80s cyberpunk's attitude and iconography, shoves in generic fantasy staples, and forces them to keep up'. This is a pretty accurate description of Shadowrun. Elsewhere the author calls her project a 'weird fantasy cyberpunkesque toolbox/overgrown zine/setting guide/barely coherent vapourware book'. And this, it turns out, is a pretty accurate description of Noofutra. It is well worth tracking down, and if nothing else looks fabulous. But I'm not sure it quite works except as a spur to further reflection. 

The Good

The first thing to say about Noofutra is that I very much like the 'main ideas', which (p. 3) are identified as 'extrapolating 2019 into a cyberpunk tomorrow' (rather than a 1980s version), 'the noir take on sci-fi', and 'the supernatural as an epistemological rupture of what is real, true and possible'. This mixes influences in an intriguing way: a bit of Mona Lisa Overdrive in its insertion of the supernatural into the cyberpunk; a bit of Viriconium in the depiction of a future in which reality itself as beginning to fray; a bit, indeed, of the literature on cybernetics (se e.g. W. Ross Ashby) as a confluence of the human and the technological in a 'domain of all possible machines'; and actually rather a heavy dose - presumably unintentioned - of the work of CS Lewis in That Hideous Strength (a little bit more on that later, perhaps). Check out this passage in particular (p. 5):

'In Noofutra, layers of algorithm generated custom content bloom impentrably thick around anyone who exists. You don't even have to be "logged-on", a digital awareness follows your every move, every sign you look at shows its message for you alone...You can register and pay for a news source or a curated advertising experience. Odds are that your money just gets you smoother slicker deceptions, a tighter fit for your personal echo chamber.' 

In other words this is a future in which interoperability between the human and the technological has become total, in a way that is inherently and obviously sinister and horrifying. And this in itself has consequences that might properly be termed demonic - a basic rupture in underlying reality caused by a decay of fundamental limits and barriers, in order that genuinely supernatural and malign forces can be unleashed. (This is very James Poulos, by the way - in a manner which again is surely unintentioned, but fascinating.) In this case, that mostly means weird monsters like dragons formed from medical waste or demolished buildings; 10 metre tall 'cannibal giants', undead beings, and so forth - not to mention, naturally enough, magic and spells.

The second thing to say about it Noofutra is that the setting-creation elements work well for riffing on. The basic project of the book is to build on the method of setting-generation that really began with Kevin Crawford's stuff and which (I humbly submit) I had a hand in popularising - namely an awful lot of random table which juxtapose interesting concepts and provide springboards to build on. This in turn means that the setting itself is simultaneously minimalist and painted in broad and sweeping brushstrokes - more, indeed, of a mood rather than a setting. Your mileage with this may vary, but let's be honest: it's not as though D&D in its original form was much more than a mood, either. And the mood that Noofutra creates is cohesive, compelling, and interesting. What you get 'out of the box', as it were, is in the end a kind of conceptual or thematic framework that would allow you to produce a certain type of game with a certain type of atmosphere, and on these terms it works (certainly for £5 in PDF).

The Bad

With that said, Noofutra has issues. First and foremost amongst them is that, by the author's own admission, the thing is 'barely coherent'. This is a euphemism for not having been very carefully thought through or explained. (Why, for example - no pun intended - are there so few examples of use? The second page should be an extended, worked illustration of 'how to use this book', which would have been trivially easy to write and would have made the entire thing come to life.) Producing a mood is all very well and at that level, as I earlier said, the book is cohesive. But when you look too closely you really start to see the seams. 

The section on 'Law & Order' (p. 18) is a good illustration of this. It brims with nice ideas (punishment through disfiguring tattoos imbued with a dormant toxic fungus making them impossible to remove; corporations being policed by numerical reviews from other corporations) but these are simply jotted down as though in bullet-point form; it provides us with a way of randomly generating 'justice methods' within a local area ('chained up in public'; 'imprisoned in dark, barely serviceable space, given little food or water'), followed by a similar table of 'corporate justice methods' ('cursing: assassination of valued employeed made to look like a complete accident'), but nothing in the way of advice about how to put any of the content into effect at the table, nothing about what policing looks like when the PCs encounter it, and nothing really in the way of gameable content or adventure hooks. In this sense it actually feels very much like one of the old setting splatbooks of the 1980s or 90s, which gave the DM lots of Lonely Planet style information about the furniture of a world or region but which felt at the same time oddly inert. 

Thin sketching of background concepts doesn't help either. Here's a section on 'The Net':

'At this stage it's so powerful, complicated and limited by corporate greed, most people can only access it in device- or applicaiton-based ways. If you really want to tinker with things, you must fully immerse yourself, inserting your own agency into the Net - something like suspending your own mind and soul and having them operated in the sub-reality, "cyberspace". If you try and have a sub-soul with your real soul active, you generally start having bits of personality break off into ghosts while physically and mentally falling apart.'

This is, let's be scrupulously honest, interesting but half-baked. How is any of this realised or mechanised in the game? No idea. And the book is full of stuff like this - page after page of it. There is what seems to be a reluctance to do the hard and boring tasks of making sure all the moving parts fit together - or even that there are any moving parts at all - and an unwillingness to really commit to anything concrete. The end result is not something that one can really use, so much as something that inspires ideas. Inspiring ideas is grand. But at the risk of sounding very no-artpunkish, ideas are the easy bit. It's making them work that's the difficult part.

More fundamentally, this speaks to a problem at the heart of the entire project, which is that the future which Noofutra depicts - 'no-one knows what's going on, what's bullshit or what's a terrifying new game-changing paradigm'; 'layers of algorithm generated custom content bloom[ing] impenetrably thick around anyone who exists'; everyone obtaining their own 'truth, tailored for [them] with amorphous adaptability' - is itself almost by defnition one which lacks the very structure and substance needed to be really playable. The future imagined by Alexandre Kojeve, in which everything is simultaneously homogenised and tailored to every individual, and in which the cyberneticisation of information has been totalised, may be interesting to think about, but it's actually quite difficult to give it the bones that it really needs to be a gameable concept. Fundamentally, what makes D&D (for example) work is that it is a shared, imaginable space which refers to known concepts and genre furniture that everyone (sorry) can 'grok'. Noofutra doesn't have this, and in fact its entire setting is based on the notion that this kind of shared, imaginable space has disappeared. How to make that work? Perhaps there is a way, but the book doesn't really demonstrate it.

The Ugly

Noofutra looks great. With that said, there are some cosmetic and stylistic issues. There is a real problem with run-on sentences, for example, which are liberally scattered throughout and send shivers down my spine every time I come across them, but I suppoes that just reveals the pedant in me. What I find more off-putting is the tone of the writing, which I often see in OSR products and remember well from the old G+ days - a very direct, chatty, informal style which is often deliberately and archly ungraceful. ('People don't often travel very far, it's dangerous with all those self-driving cars all operating with different road codes, can't keep them on the same page'; 'You make a robot too smart and it develops a soul, grows crazy and kills itself. Something to do with the soul being too large to just be in reality and it needs to be Dom-reality but it isn't'; 'Batshit MC Escher architecture'.) This is mixed in with a strongly (to my eye) China Mievillian tendency to coin future slang that sounds jarring - 'Abhuman', 'Adjace', 'Moreau', 'HoZo' - which I also think could be toned down. All this, I know, is a matter of taste, and god knows I probably come across like a jumped up, prissy twerp in my own writing so I shouldn't complain too much. But I do wish the evidently intelligent and gifted author cared a bit more about making her work read nicely. 

What I reflected on most when reading Noofutra, however, is how plausible much of it looks as a depiction of the future, and how depressing and alienating that future appears. To come back to Lewis, I often find myself thinking that I can see the themes of That Hideous Strength - hubris, rationalism, transhumanism, cyberneticisation, surrealism, atomisation - begining to emerge, and playing out in ways that are already evidently disastrous. Scrap Princess conjures those themes very well in her word-sketches of the future extrapolated from 2019. But it all feels rather too close to home, and for that reason a place in which I wouldn't really choose to indulge in a little imaginative escapism.

3 out of 5 bec-de-corbins


  1. Mm.

    I want to make a critical comment here, but as someone who designed their own “Shadowrun-like” game (still not commercially published) I am probably, unfortunately, biased.


    Is this an actual game? You talk about the “good” as being the themes and the “bad” having to do with the (lack of) game-able content. Forget the ugly for a moment (what you decry is simply the amateurish tone of the hack writer…as a fellow hack, I know the type)…is this a game? Is it playable? Or is it just a collection of concepts and thought exercises? Tell us (me) about the system. For a review, you’re not really given me much besides…mm… “impressions.”

    And AS a person who has written their very own SR-type game, I have a practical reason for making this complaint: I want to know if my own work is superfluous, if (perhaps) I should bin the thing (rather than spend time trying to hire illustrators…the main hang up that’s kept the book from being published), and instead buy/play Nooftutra.

    Come on man…I do not need a new coffee table book, and I definitely don’t need a piece of alt-history imagining text: I’ve got plenty of “reading material” on my nightstand. Tell me about the GAME. This IS a game, right?

    I don’t need/want another list of random tables, illustrated by Scrap or not.

    1. It uses the rules from Mothership (which I don't own). It is playable in the sense that, with a bit of work, you could probably use it to design a setting for a game. But it would require a lot from you as the DM - you couldn't really run it out of the box.

      I would say go ahead with your project. Plenty of space for Shadowrun clones!

    2. Ha! I’m sure it will get finished one of these days…
      ; )

    3. Ready the pitchforks, but if artwork is what's holding your project back... A.I. generated art (demonic though it might be) is a virtual godsend!

    4. There is a style of OSR-adjacent books that seem to me to hold the view that they don't need to be "a game": you probably have many games already, just use one of those. This kind of book aims to give inspiration and ideas and thematic content to play through in one of those games, not to be a game in itself.