It’s fitting that one of the first large-scale tabletop role-playing games built to be played exclusively within a digital environment is described as “cyber-noir.” Chrome is an original TTRPG based off Mothership’s D100-based Panic Engine, coded and created entirely within its native online application, Role. With excellent art, a slick presentation, and a compact package, Chrome appears to be a game that will pave the way for a variety of games and designers that want to make their games digitally intuitive and accessible, without losing focus on a great gameplay experience.
Chrome was created by Elle Dwight and Steven Medeiros. Medeiros also did game design and writing for a lot of the game, working alongside Art Director Michael Ackerman and three main artists; Tano Bonfanti, Katerina Belikova, and Aedel Fakhrie. Role is led by Dwight (the CEO) and Ian Hirschfeld (CTO), childhood friends who developed Role as “a social gaming platform focussing on video and people-led role playing experiences.” io9 got a chance to play around in the beta version of Chrome on Role and the overall impression was very positive. While there were some stumbling blocks during character creation, they were easily solved with some additional poking around, and the fact that I was able to create a character sheet at all gives Role a massive edge over some of its digital tabletop competitors.
In Chrome, you play as an Operator, a mercenary enhanced with cybernetic upgrades working for a mysterious organization known as Control. Much like Mothership, a space-horror TTRPG from Tuesday Knight Games, has been described as a play-to-lose game, Chrome is similarly designed, focusing on characters that are meant to hurl themselves into dangerous situations and drag themselves out of it. It’s not a game you survive, but a game you hack through—sometimes literally.
Described as cyber-horror and tech-noir, the game is clear about its positioning and inspirations. This is a grimy, street-level game of bounty hunters and mercs, and the game does not shy away from the combat stress and psychological pressure telling that kind of story entails—after all Chrome is built on the Panic Engine system, which mechanically encourages the characters to take on both Stress and Panic during the course of the game for bonuses and buffs, at the cost of the character’s overall health. While I miss the branching skill trees of Mothership, I don’t miss some of the percentile crunching needed to determine loadout.
One of the things about Chrome that I found to be an improvement on the original Mothership is the introduction of the “Death Presence” mechanic. In many games, if you die, that’s the end of it. You roll up a new character and keep going. This is especially true in a game driven by Panic Engine, where characters are pushed to the breaking point on purpose. In Chrome, when your character dies you have the opportunity to come back as a Death Presence, essentially haunting (or stalking, or creeping) the rest of the group, retaining some player agency and giving a dead character something to do until the end of the session. Depending on how things ended, the dead player can help or hinder the rest of the party, working alongside both the Game Master and the players to help create tension in the narrative, which is much more fun than just sitting around after your character dies in a game like Mothership or even Call of Cthulhu (another play-to-lose game). Then, at the end of a session, you can develop a new Operator, or, using some narrative power, bring back your previously-dead character for the next game. This is New Los Angeles, it’s not like there are rules here.
I found the completely digital interface of RoleApp to be an incredibly fitting use for this kind of game, and appreciated the experience of perusing Chrome through it. I’m a sucker for when narrative meets aesthetic, and Chrome doesn’t skimp on either, taking a holistic approach to the kind of game it wants the players to play. It has a certain aesthetic to it, and while the scale of eldritch horror vs. high tech can be shifted within individual games, ultimately Chrome is always going to ask the players to invest in a game that is about near-criminals limping over the bleeding edge of what’s possible.
Chrome is a completely free-to-play game, but because of the mission of Role, it is not available as a PDF. You have to access the rulebook on Role, even if you wanted to play offline. Thinking of this like a promotional tool more than an extrinsic game is very fair; Chrome is a game that is built to bring people into Role, and while the interface online is accessible and friendly, the exclusion of any way of play completely offline makes it obvious that this is a game for Role first, and everyone else second. In its defense, plenty of digital games are built like this, and this is just a fairly new approach for tabletop RPGs. The basic tenets of a TTRPG are still present in the game and the app, Chrome is simply centralized on a system, but one that it has been built to run on. The cyber-noir of it all is pretty ironic, but I don’t mind. Chrome is a game that knows what it’s about, and is committing to it, for better or worse.
The pandemic has accelerated the need for a better digital TTRPG application. Roll20 is a giant in the ecosystem, and focuses incredibly well on roleplaying that can be described as miniature-based map play, but the interface is difficult, and coding characters sheets and macros is complicated, even for people who have experience doing so. Role has attempted to streamline some of these moments of friction, creating a drag-and-drop character sheet creator that provides a much easier user experience. For the most part, it succeeds, offering a much simpler, pre-built, modular process that surpasses the offerings of a lot of other digital character sheet apps out there.
Chrome and Role are offering a product that is, first and foremost, designed to get you playing on its app. It does so with slick art, a digital-first toolset, and a frankly impressive array of customization that is fairly easy to get a handle on. With the ruleset and buildout toolkit easily accessible within the interface (which prioritizes video over maps, but still allows room for the latter), Role has made a compelling argument for its product and the kind of games it can host on its interface.
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