Even though I ended up really positive on Alien, I often find tabletop RPGs based on existing properties to be under satisfying. My preference is to play in new worlds, allowing works of art I like to influence me as I tell fresh stories rather than trying to rehash ones I’ve seen before. That being said, a film like Blade Runner did significantly define the cyberpunk genre, one that’s extremely popular in the medium of tabletop RPGs, so Free League Publishing’s Blade Runner: The Roleplaying Game makes sense as their next big adaptation.
It’s very clear that the team behind the book are passionate about the films. A large portion of the book is dedicated to painting the setting, which takes place between the two films in the year 2037, in painstaking detail. This section functions as a more robust version of the text that precedes each film, going in depth on the rise of the Wallace Corporation and the current structure of the world. While the world of Blade Runner is interesting, it does feel like it hasn’t evolved with the rest of the cyberpunk genre. Sure there’s evil megacorporations and wealth inequality, but the setting doesn’t seem as vibrant or exciting as new games in the genre, like Free League’s other recent release Cy_Borg.
For Blade Runner fans, there’s a lot of backstory to dive into, but since it’s a world we’ve seen before there are a lot less surprises.
Since all players are Replicant-hunting Blade Runners, character creation feels a little flat to me. Aside from choosing between human and replicant, which has slight mechanical differences, there are different archetypes that you can play as, such as cityspeaker and enforcer, but these end up feeling slightly generic. The classes affect your stats, which are broken down into attributes and skills, like all other games that share the Year Zero engine that Blade Runner is based on. Instead of being standard number scores, these stats all have letter grades that correspond to the die you will roll when doing a check.
For example, if you’re in a fist fight, you may have a D8 in the hand-to-hand skill and a D10 in the strength attribute. Roll a six or higher on either die, that counts as a success. Roll a 10 or higher, that’s two successes. Rolling multiple successes across your two dice gives you a critical success, which can have extra effects to your action. You can push yourself to reroll dice, but at the risk of hurting yourself. It’s a smart system that incentivizes you to use the skills you’re good at while still giving you a chance of success even when you’re using your worst stats.
Your character also has some built in elements to help you figure out who they are aside from their stats. As part of set up, you will define a key relationship and memory to help sketch out your character’s past and present. These can be used by the GM to help build events in the game, tying the ongoing action to your character in more personal ways. You also have a signature item, which can be used during a scene to help you recover.
Combat has some interesting wrinkles to it, but can feel a bit fiddly. There’s lots of rules for different things like falling, drowning and fire damage, which can sometimes slow things down at the table while you’re trying to remember all the specific rules. The main core of the game relies not only on damage, but a crit die for each weapon. Any time you roll a critical success with your attack, you get to roll the crit die of your weapon, which causes an injury to the target in addition to the standard damage. These have both narrative and mechanical effects, making for satisfyingly cinematic fights. For example, that punch you do may knock out their teeth, causing them to have disadvantage on manipulation rolls, while the gunshot may give them a bleeding gut, causing any mobility roll to re-open the wound. It’s a lot of different dice values to keep track of, but once you do it feels a bit more dynamic than a standard D&D fight.
Since Replicants often run from their pursuers, the game outlines some clever rules for both on-foot and car chases. Each round, both the pursuer and the prey secretly select from a series of maneuvers in an attempt to catch up to or lose the other person. Once those are chosen, a random obstacle is rolled, adding both flavor and consequence to that moment in the chase. The prey may have their hide maneuver canceled by running into a dead end, while a crowd of people with umbrellas may give that same hide maneuver advantage. It’s a smart system that allows for another way to resolve action aside from a straight up fight.
The biggest hook for this game to me is the investigation structure. Each day of the investigation is timed out to have four shifts, forcing players to use their time wisely. Story beats will happen that cause the case to progress to its climax as more shifts go by, ensuring that there’s always forward momentum carrying things towards a dramatic conclusion. This encourages players to split the party, covering the maximum amount of ground as the clock ticks down. If you get the Blade Runner Starter Set, which is sold separately from the core rulebook, it comes with a premade case file called Electric Dreams that contains crime scene photos, newspaper articles and all sorts of other ephemera to help set the scene for the mystery at hand. The rulebook does outline tools to create your own case files, but the production value that goes into the Electric Dreams is what makes it really shine.
I’m interested to see how I would feel after a long campaign of this, as it seems like continually playing as a Blade Runner would not be sustainable. Through the films we learn of the injustice built into the systems that Blade Runners defend, making it a moral area I’m not sure I’d want to continue treading in without shifting into fighting against those systems. The game does some work to allow for this push and pull, rewarding you with promotion points when you follow orders and humanity points when you ‘do the right thing,’ so there’s definitely space to explore how to rebel against authority while still working within it, asking important questions about personhood and justice. All of Free League’s upcoming case files will eventually be connected, so time will tell if they are able to walk that narrative tightrope.
There are many other smaller tabletop games that do parts of what Blade Runner does in a more streamlined fashion. Cy_Borg offers a more flavorful cyberpunk dystopia, with a strong visual identity and aggressive style. Bindlewood Bay has a more freeform mystery system that is less about moving characters towards a predetermined solution and more about letting the players be the author of the solution. Blade Runner is one of the most narrowly focused RPGs I’ve seen in a long time, but that focus gives you the tools to live out your own Blade Runner movie.
Especially while using the case file, you’re in for a highly polished experience that’s fraught with decisions that question your conceptions of identity and memory.