Thoughts on the Altered Carbon Quick-Start

The Altered Carbon Kickstarter launched recently, and with it a “Quick-Start” that’s 65 pages and attempts to introduce potential players to the game.

I’m a fan of Altered Carbon (both the books and the show), and I’ve looking pretty seriously at Cyberpunk Red and Eclipse Phase, which have both had major releases recently and are planning to do more stuff in about the same timeframe as the Altered Carbon game. They’re also the most immediately obvious competitors, with Cyberpunk Red taking a more traditional cyberpunk approach and Eclipse Phase doing more weird and horror-themed transhuman elements.

So, does it look good?

Well, not really. I started reading on a tablet and got through all 65 pages, and noticed that a few things were pretty difficult to get my head around (or, for that matter, see and figure out). Now that I’m on my computer, I find that the same complaints I had are still there, reduced a little by larger size and higher resolution but not fully mitigated. It also means that my usual style of play (I’m a barbarian and use my phone or tablet for reference at the table) would be not particularly feasible if I got the Altered Carbon game digitally. Also, there are a few minor editing issues that I caught, but since this is a pre-release preview I won’t make note of them unless they were significant.

My first major contention and criticism is that this is not a quick-start. It’s a preview. The idea of a quick-start is that people can actually play your game, and this will not facilitate that. There is no player-focused story content (though there is an overview of the setting), and there’s relatively little in the way of full rules.

Instead, we get a very brief overview of what each of the chapters in the final game would be, and I think that is something that needed to be in a front-and-center disclaimer at the front of the book, since I’m seeing a lot of people talking about this and (entirely legitimately) asking where the actual content is.

So overall the book covers: setting, character creation, gameplay (divided into skill checks, combat flow, and combat skill checks), and all the assorted equipment, vehicles, and sleeve stuff.

At the very end, there’s an example of play.

Layout and Appearance

Normally this would follow the rest of a break-down, but in this case I think it’s important to put the most important thing I had issues with first.

Altered Carbon looks really pretty, but the usability is clearly second.

Starting with the timeline on Page 4, where the font for the years was illegible on my tablet and aggravating elsewhere, there are just a ton of mistakes that get made.

One of these, in my opinion, comes from the fact that icons are used consistently in place of other representations. While these are actually text elements with a special font (which presumably could be helpful for accessibility, since the plain text is nominally present for screen-readers, though I’m not sure if it is formatted usefully), this creates a significant issue when they’re too easily blended together.

Four different character elements (Stack Points, Tech Points, Ego Points, and Influence Points) all share the same round grey format, and they don’t disambiguate well. The result is that you see a lot of text repeated right next to the icon, since at least they generally have the good sense to include both in many key places, but it also means that you’ve got elements that are confusing or worthless in a lot of cases.

This is repeated to represent all character attributes and the like.

Here’s an example:

I’m not sure if this is just some sort of weird font error, but it replicated across both my tablet and my desktop PDF readers, and I’m gonna be honest: I’m never going to want to look at these instead of anything else.

They would have been better off to use two letter abbreviations in every case, with the possible exception of degrees of success and failure (which are simply +/- symbols.

The Setting

So one of the things is that it’s not immediately clear whether the game follows the show or the books, and the answer seems to be that they do whatever suits their interests.

That’s not bad or anything, it’s actually pretty reasonable since the show made sacrifices to make things comprehensible while the books don’t always go into a lot of details on things.

I didn’t see anything in the reading that really caused me to cringe as someone who’s fairly familiar with the Altered Carbon universe, but I wasn’t really as interested in the setting as someone who’s a diehard fan or who is encountering it for the first time might be.

There were a couple sloppy bits, like near the end when there was a box explaining that within the Protectorate people “do not legally own their sleeve”, which I think is perhaps not explained well because it’s more of a “it’s considered the same as any other property” thing as far as I understand from the books and movies.

Character Creation

Again, this isn’t fully usable; there’s a preview but it’s not complete even to the point of making a streamlined character.

There’s assigned randomness in stack points, which I’m a little skeptical about. I love rolling randomly for stats, but in this case you allocate resources to get a random return. There’s little chance for a happy surprise, but a lot of chance to wind up with the short end of the stick.

Really, I don’t see enough to go into depth. They mention backgrounds, age, and trait trees. These seem feasible enough for me, and I think that they could get a lot done with the framework they have.

However, there are a few big questions I have. How skills are determined is not mentioned at all in the character creation section.


I’m not going to break down the sections individually here, in part because I generally found that I’m not comfortable enough with the elements to be certain with what I’m talking about, and in part because there’s a lot of very rapid movement between concepts that left me with more questions than answers.

I’d seen prototype Altered Carbon character sheets from someone who played a beta at GenCon, and I was curious about how things came together.

As I understand it, you have skill rolls and attribute rolls. I’m not sure about how the latter work; it seems that a skill is always featured and often seems to function independent of attributes. Skill checks have a number roughly between 1-12, and attribute checks use a skill die and your attribute number.

You want to roll low, with a 1 being an automatic success.

I think that in terms of narrative play, this basic system would be great.

However, this is not how things play out.

A large section of the “quick-start” is dedicated to the luck die, despite the fact that this isn’t used at all in the narrative play section. There’s a degree of success mechanic that isn’t mentioned at all, but I gather it to be somehow related to either dividing the target number by the roll’s result or some other witchcraft.

This is the only evidence I found for how the Degrees of Success mechanic works.

My Verdict

I don’t want to pass judgment on Altered Carbon yet, but I have no interest in backing it, even if I had a bunch of free money to spend on games.

My biggest concern with Altered Carbon is the fact that it’s not immediately obvious what it wants to do.

The mechanics promised speed at first with a simple roll-under system, but then we have five or six additional complications and a whole lot of math, and character creation is already pretty hefty.

In terms of mechanics, I look at what I’ve seen of Altered Carbon and it’s already two or three times more complicated than Cyberpunk’s Interlock system, which is being streamlined for Cyberpunk Red.

In terms of character creation, I look at Eclipse Phase 2nd Edition and it has a lot of the same steps and processes without requiring as much math or introducing undesirable randomness into the equation.

Now, it’s a little unfair to choose a game and cherry-pick elements from two different games as points of comparison, but the difference is that the two really important selling points to me, as I understood it (because it’s not clearly stated) are the Hazard System and its ability to represent the transhuman characters of Altered Carbon.

Altered Carbon: The Role Playing Game will employ the Hazard System – a brand new game system that finds inspiration in popular engines like the Cortex System, Savage Worlds, and Outbreak: Undead.. all while delivering unique gameplay specifically designed for this RPG.

From the Kickstarter

In reality, it’s much heavier than the Cortex System or Savage Worlds, at least in any of the implementations I’m familiar with, and I don’t see anything in the preview as it stands to indicate that it offers anything those two games don’t offer in terms of playing in the Altered Carbon universe.

Of course, the preview is awkward and not really a quick-start, so it’s obviously not going to do what it seems to want to say it does, but I feel pretty confident that what we’ll get in Altered Carbon is a fairly heavy system a lot of people won’t be interested in bothering to pick up. It may align really well with the universe laid out by the books and show, but I’m not sold that you couldn’t recreate those in a different system.

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