Always/Never/Now

Earlier this week I had the opportunity to complete a run of Will Hindmarch’s Almost/Never/Now, a cyberpunk take on Lady Blackbird. It was inspired by revisiting a long-running cyberpunk campaign he had been a part of, and wrote the adventures that would become A/N/N as a sort of love letter/dramatic finale to the world and characters he and his friends had created and inhabited a decade prior.

The sessions themselves blend story, action, and character in a flexible form that encourages big storytelling: cinematic action, dramatic blow-outs with your peers, and always pushing what the mechanics allow. This is a collaborative story situation, writ large over international espionage and dystopian intrigue with cyberware and technology and highly specialized weaponry all coming to bear in a system that absolutely does not concern itself with the specifics of how you accomplish any of that.

The hook for the series of adventures is your team of professional criminals got burned a decade ago and just recently heard back from what might be their old fixer. They’ll have to pick up where their shadowy careers left off and wrestle with who they’ve become since. The reveals in the game hinge on your character’s growing knowledge of what their old partner was up to, caught between an international megacorp who will stop at nothing to get those secrets and a worldwide digital nation state with stakes in the outcome. Each step takes you deeper into international intrigue and further from the relative safety of your new lives.

With layers of technology, action, and backstory, the system has to be pretty loose to let the PCs shine. The basic premise of rolls is the same as Lady Blackbird: Describe what you are trying to do. Choose a Trait and note how many Tags within that trait apply to the roll. If applicable, roll additional dice by adding Stunt Dice (which you earn by other players rewarding awesome actions) and/or scratching off single-use environmental tags like Flickering Hologram or Careening Truck. Each PC has four traits that help define their persona and capabilities. For example, Alex Hayes (the former conman and cat burglar turned legit restaurateur) has the trait Escapist, with tags of Dodge, Improvised Weaponry, Misdirection, Quick, Dirty Fighting, and Vanish. Any action you think could make use of one or more tags under that trait, you roll that many dice.

You gain experience according to your PC’s Keys, which define iconic circumstances for your character to get into or out of. You can also permanently change your behavior and remove the key from your sheet for a boatload of experience. Rounding out the mechanics, we’ve got Edges, which function like feats in other games to give you a little rule-breaking bonus once per session. The other way to alter your character is to initiate a Flashback scene, where the GM reads you a brief interlude and gives you options about how you reacted ten years ago when you were a bigtime spy. The player picks an outcome and narrates a bit of resolution and gets to add a tag to their sheet. This keeps the history of the characters as a resource to draw upon and reveals a little bit more of each PC throughout the campaign.

Which honestly for me is the biggest drawback to this setup. Since the whole event is built around your shared history, it does seem weird that there’s nothing built in to pinpoint anything between your characters before the campaign begins. While any table could add these backstories themselves, it feels like a missed opportunity to establish some connections at the top of the adventure. A flashback or two has connections between PCs, but those get revealed sessions into the campaign, as well as a couple PCs with keys that connect each other. When you meet back up in Iceland after 10 years, it would help to know if any of you had an intimate connection, or felt betrayed, or parted on uncertain terms. I don’t think a pre-written set of cues is necessary, but perhaps something like the playbook history questions from Apocalypse World, which could set up who Alex has blackmailed, or who has Tank tired of breaking their toys and needing repairs.

The adventures themselves unfold along loose rails, with big reveals triggered by info dumps at the end of each act. There are 13 adventures, of which only 12 can be played in any single run of A/N/N. You could do it in as few as 5, plunging ahead with as little information as possible, but you would really miss out on some truly inspired adventure creation. Just reading through the adventures would be excellent inspiration in the point of attack: When and how you initiate the story. One adventure had us thinking we were meeting up with a key contact, but starts with them bleeding out in the backseat as the team races down the labyrinthine highways of the near future, dodging drones and enemy agents in cars and motorcycles. Another has you preparing for a pitched battle, but it picks up at the key moment of downloading the data and having to weather a second wave of baddies. Some of those might have benefited from players having to check a couple of Conditions to reflect the first half of the mission you don’t play. Maybe offer your players some stunt dice to volunteer for it?

I had a ball playing this one, not least of all because I was part of a long-running Shadowrun game and the idea of getting to check back in on that party years after their adventuring prime is really appealing. The constant work to find new ways to apply your skills, equipment, and unique cyberware is a lot of fun, and focusing on the how without worrying about modifiers and maneuvers is freeing as a player. It helps you feel like a highly trained professional who has total control in wild situations. I particularly enjoyed finding new ways to use my spider harness and Attack-on-Titan-ing my way around the scenery. I climbed buildings with it, ziplined down hallways, catapulted baddies, yoinked myself out of vehicle crashes, pulled over server racks, and rail-gunned myself into a goon to fold him over a railing. There’s something to be said about feeling like a bad-ass at the table, and this game gives you plenty of opportunities to show off.

In fact, if you’re not planning your next action to earn a bucket of stunt dice from your peers, you’re missing one of the best rules in the game. By inviting players (including the GM) to reward each other’s best ideas, you all build the story the way you want to play it. Love the deep character reveals? Give ‘em a stunt die. Like how the street sam tore up the opposition? Stunt die. Like how your players are leaning into their dark histories and worst instincts? Stunt die! Since this also primes the mechanic for PCs to assist one another in play (by rolling a stunt die if they have one), it behooves everyone at the table to make sure the stunt dice flow freely. Since going as hard as possible through the whole campaign is a good thing, rewarding the sort of behavior you want to have at your table is a great mechanic and I hope it makes its way into more games or gets house ruled into your campaign at home. Consider giving all your players an Inspiration die they can award each other in your 5E game, or a pool of differently colored bennies that you can push around for player-to-player rewards in Savage Worlds. There’s a way to put the mechanical high five in the hands of players and off your GM’s plate, so consider sharing the burden that way

Always/Never/Now is available at DriveThruRPG, so consider picking it up and running it, or checking out the free game it was inspired by over at one.seven design. Will Hindmarch is also responsible for my favorite game design podcast, the aptly titled Design Games with World Wide Wrestling‘s ND Paoletta.


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