July 30, 2021

Parallax RPG Review

c.w. violence, torture, state repression.

If anyone is able to provide me with a physical copy of the Parallax RPG I’m willing to pay up to £100 for it. As far as I can tell there was a physical printing but I can’t find one for sale.

This review is based on reading a PDF which appears to be a low-quality scan of the book. This leads to some doubt around items such as the lack of art etc.

Parallax (20041) is not a game I think I would ever play. The theme - the characters being members of a secret police agency in an unspecified country - is beyond intense. The lack of art means we don’t have large cool” spreads of civil liberties being broken - whether this is deliberate or not is harder to parse. The text only refers to player characters as such - no terms such as adventurers, agents, employees’ are used out of in-universe context.

Characters are made of a few different elements - Attributes, Skills and Psychology. The usual attribute array is quickly interrupted: Strength, Agility, Authority, Paranoia and ▓▓▓▓▓▓. That’s not me being cute - the attribute is literally redacted in the book. This looks to be someone having actually physically done this rather than a graphic design element, but the nature of the scan makes this difficult to be certain of.

Each of these is calculated with 3d10 - the attributes being added to Skills as part of the resolution system. This messiness is expected in older games - there’s no provided character sheet which might have reduced the cognitive overload of doing this. That said, there seems to be no advancement or levelling up system - so potentially these values only need to be calculated once.

The Skills are one of the first direct mentions of the unpleasantness of the game - the lack of rpg fiction” and art leaves the text low on detail so far. Here we begin to see listings detailing torture techniques, the ability to gather incriminating material - but also skills in Hiding Paper Trails’, Collaboration’ and Prison Tattoos’. The camera’ of gameplay zooms in and out wildly here - some of these are very specific, very detailed actions you’d expect in a blow-by-blow game, whilst others sit much further back - high level skills such as Investigation’ and Family Life’. The mystery of ▓▓▓▓▓▓ deepens - it’s linked to a strange grab-bag of skills: the aforementioned Family Life’, Long-Distance Running’ and Humiliation’ to name a few. At first I thought these mapped onto a D&D framework but this quickly falls apart. The number of skills is baffling - and the meagre amount of points allotted means characters are likely to have to specialise. I think this is the intention - given the number of skills related to pulling on state resources, the characters will often need to rely upon external support to achieve their goals. It’s worth pointing out beyond an introduction - Characters are employed as part of the Secret Police agency.” - we have no idea as to what characters do yet.

Psychology feels like a section from a different game entirely. A map is given of the characters brain, and each area of this map has a slot. Characters begin with all of these empty - we are told that we may, during play, be given Idea Cards which sit within each of these slots. Some small detail is provided, but no details as how cards are gained.

Frontal lobe - personality, branching paths, output.
Parietal lobe - identification, relation, input.
Occipital lobe - perception, filter.
Temporal lobe - support, ancillary.
Spinal Cord - unthinking thought, reaction.

In the scan I have access to, there are no included cards. The Controller (GM) section talks about encountering Ideas as part of the normal process of play, or as a result of failed Skill tests. Without access to these cards, it’s hard to guess what normal play items might cause exposure to Ideas - although the failure of Skill checks causing Ideas gives some interesting hints - rather than a glorification of secret police, it might be telling they start with heads empty - and the failure of their duties introduces them to thought? This gives a flip-side on the Skills previously mentioned - if you’re operating against the state, many become tantalising options.

The Controller section is a mish-mash of generators with minimal structure or framing outside of some loose advice for building and running dissident thinkers. Many of the generators relate to byzantine rankings and bureaucratic red-tape - much of which is explicitly mentioned as not applying to members of the Secret Police. Others give ideas of low-level criminality, types of state-deviance and benign activity in various locales - habitation block, collective farm, army barracks. Using these tables, the Controller is expected to generate the fictional country themselves - something mostly out of favour in 2004.

There are no rules or guidelines for adjugating the use of Skills - leaving their application wide open, or assumed knowledge on the part of the playgroup.

Statistics for the opposition’ are interesting, framed primarily in story terms - Dissidence and Appeal. There is a loose procedure for using Dissidence to track how obvious they are - their Signature - and how many they convert, using their Appeal. Chillingly, the only reward structure is for total people convicted - there is no mention of guilt. If the players begin to condemn too many within some of the various State Apparatus’, they can expect consequences but also alliances from power brokers within those various groups - all of this being mediated and tracked with a Relationship Score and Reaction Counters.’ Notably, the statistics of Dissidence and Appeal are used to describe all NPCs, not just those marked as dissidents for player characters.

The Combat section is one page detailing how to shoot or strike. Those who are hit either die immediately or are too injured to fight further, possibly dying later on.

The next section is two pages of redactions. I can’t decide if I love this or hate it - if it was done to the scan or is an intended part of the experience.

There is no starter adventure nor index. The book closes out with a list of Inspirations - a mix of historical reference works and spy fiction with two notable exceptions. The first is A Perfect Vacuum - Stanisław Lem. I’m not sure how this relates, having yet to read it. The second exception throws much into doubt. History Will Absolve Me - Billy Woods is an album released in 2012. The entire Inspiration section may be a post-hoc addition - the font changes suddenly, becoming something akin to Courier. I’ve seen such dramatic shifts in other older RPG books, but this feels starker.

Since reading it, I’ve not been able to stop thinking about this strange game. I’ve yet to find any other awareness of it. Despite being something I wouldn’t run (outside of a very small group of trusted players who were in for bad vibes gaming” ) I think it’s worth reading.

Boring shit:

a4 pages, 104 pages, two-column layout with little whitespace. The prose reads sometimes ultraminimal, other times weirdly detail orientated - I suspect multiple authors were involved. There doesn’t seem to have been any editing. There are no credits, thanks or anything else.

  1. I’m not sure about this date. See the end of the review.↩︎

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