What Do I Know About Reviews? Headspace (Powered by the Apocalypse)

So, while I was on my journey to read and review everything on my shelves and in my hard drive (okay, not everything), I thought, as long as I’m in Cyberpunville reading and reviewing Shadowrun Anarchy, why not hit the off-ramp and visit one of the suburbs of Powered-by-the-Apocalypse Town and look at Headspace?

Okay, I think I’ve strangled that analogy enough. Moving on.

If you don’t know what Apocalypse World is and what the games are that use the game engine, and are thus referred to as “Powered by the Apocalypse,” I’m not sure I can do it justice here, but the quick takeaway is that the games are very narrative focused, light on rules, and the core mechanic usually goes something like this:

Roll 2d6 and add some kind of stat, or possibly a resource you are willing to spend.

On a 6-, the GM comes up with something bad that happens. Since the GM doesn’t get a traditional turn, this may be where his characters act to hurt your character, or he may just do something that makes  your character miserable.

On a 7-9, You did what you set out to do, but there is some kind of complication. Sometimes you get to pick what that is from a list, and sometimes its up to the GM.

On a 10+, you did what you wanted to do, with no strings attached.

There is way more too it than that, but if you grasp the above, you are well on your way to understanding most of the games that fit the Powered by the Apocalypse moniker.

Headspace is a Powered by the Apocalypse game that was on Kickstarter last October. I didn’t get in on it then, but I picked it up later. It is a cyberpunk themed game, but like most Powered by the Apocalypse games, it has a pretty tight thematic focus. Just like Monster Hearts, Urban Shadows, and Monster of the Week can all fit broadly into “Urban Fantasy,” Headspace shares cyberspace with the Powered by the Apocalypse game The Sprawl (and eventually with games like the Veil and Hydro-Hacker Agents), but has it’s own unique niche.

I’ll go into more detail below, but the quick version is, in this cyberpunk game, you are linked to all of the other PCs, and you share your skills, memories, and emotions with one another.

So, how did this game make me feel? Let’s find out.

Its All About The Looks

Headspace isn’t quite as flashy as some of the larger RPG offerings you might see, but it is definitely a professional and attractive book. It is mainly in black and white, and the artwork is more cartoonish than you might expect for the subject matter, but it is all well done, and actually works rather well to use that cartoon-like quality to emphasize the emotions being portrayed in the scene. This is actually very central to the theme of the book. I do not have a physical copy, but the PDF looks very nice and clean on my tablet, and clocks in at 250 pages.

Welcome to Headspace

The first section of the book gives a quick overview of some of the themes of the book. It also presents common elements the game will have. They introduce the character types, very broadly, and discuss the social contract of the game, and the importance of being aware that the game is asking people to focus a lot on emotions as well as actions.

Playing the Game

This section starts with a definition of the emotions that the GM tracks during play sessions. While you may initially think that definitions for some of these emotions aren’t needed, they serve a specific game function, so the definitions tend to be functional definitions that link up to game rules later on. Essentially it’s making sure everybody knows what the rules mean when they talk about rage or ego, for example.

Professional skills are skills somebody in the link is really good at, and professional skills have Baggage, an emotion associated with the use of that skill. There are also Headspace moves, which are moves other people make in the link using another person’s skills, and improvised skills, which are skills  nobody in the link excels at.

The GM tracks emotional stress, and when one of the tracks is full, it causes Feedback, triggering emotional complications. If the stress is also caused by physical attacks, this may take out a character (physical stress isn’t tracked separately, but is represented by the emotion associated with the harm being inflicted).

Sync happens when someone divulges a Regret, which is a big thing tied to events in the setting, and they can only do this once per session. It can also happen when someone in the link puts themselves at a disadvantage in order to help another member of the group put forward their Drive. Sync helps keep emotional stress from piling up, and can be spent to turn a failure into a success. Drives are what motivates a character to become an Operator and work against the corporations.

Whenever a character is taken out, if they aren’t harmed by something that only stuns them, they can chose to die heroically, and their character becomes a Ghost Operator, someone whose shadow is still felt in the neural link.

Objective clocks are used in the game, but unlike other games that use clocks (a measure of how close the game is to triggering an event), clocks in Headspace can have pieces of the pie filled in by either side that is striving against one another, and if one side has any “slices,” they can add a clause to what the “winner” declares when the clock triggers.

Now, all of this is really interesting, and gets put to good use later, but without some context, and possibly a copy of the tracking sheets and playbooks from the back of the book, someone new to Powered by the Apocalypse games can get a little lost. Still, its all interesting enough to make you power forward, and I’m not sure how I would have reorganized it myself.

The Moves in Detail

The previous section painted in broad strokes, this one explains a few more concepts in depth. Using your professional skill lets you just succeed with that skill, but at the cost of adding to the stress track of the Baggage emotion. Headspace moves always succeed, but the lower tiers have emotional complications associated with it.

Emotional complications are similar to the types of complications you would have in other Powered by the Apocalypse games, except they are all framed by what emotion is most likely to cause a given type of complication. This is where the definitions of the emotions from the previous section comes in handy, as those definitions help make the examples of what is a “rage” complication versus what is an “ego” complication clearer.

The World of Headspace

This section is written as an in universe briefing to your character, and it shares what is assumed about the game world, without going into the specifics about whatever setting you may have chosen. While much of it feels like a standard cyberpunk setting, the unique spin is that it doesn’t seem impossible to make the world better, just really, really  hard. While it’s brutal and oppressive, there is a degree of optimism that doesn’t seep into a lot of other cyberpunk.

The section ends with gear and upgrades, detailed in terms that explain what tags the gear has (the narrative things that happen when you use an item, like that item being loud or hard to conceal), and what rules they might interact with (like how much harm weapons cause when used to injure someone).

Like some of the other sections, without reading ahead or having the play aids in front of you, you’ll have to be patient if you want to know how you get these goodies. The items are only presented here, as examples of things in the setting.

Character Creation

This section essentially provides an outline of what you need to do to start the game, and lays this out like a checklist. The first thing you need to do is to have everyone agree on a setting, two of which are presented in the book. This is going to be important, because when characters create their first Regret to be revealed, and chose whether their Drive is vengeance or redemption, these are tied to the corporations in play and their secrets.

Another aspect of character creation is creating a story to explain the Baggage that goes with your professional skill, which involves asking a question of the player that involves another Operator in the cell. This ties the group together, which might make for some uncomfortable associates at the beginning, especially for people in one another’s heads.

Characters pick sub-cultures, which give you a list of looks based on the societal background that character was from before they joined the cell. These include things like “corporate,” for clean cut people that were good citizens before they were pushed beyond, to “neons,” who already liked to be on the edge of things from the beginning.

If you don’t have representatives of some of the Operator playbooks, you create Ghost Operatives for those playbooks, ask the appropriate questions, and work in the story of how they died into the first session of the game.

The Operators

If you were confused by the terms and gear referenced elsewhere, here is where it starts to come together. Each type of Operator is explained, with a list of class skills they can pick, and what question to ask to get your Baggage. Edges (knowing people or modifying other aspects of the character’s abilities) are also chosen, a list of gear is presented, as is a starting upgrade (a piece of cybernetics that specifically reinforces what that operator will be doing). You also assign your “stats,” which in this game represent what emotions your are good at controlling, and what emotions you are bad at controlling.

The Gamemaster’s Role

This section of the book goes into some very clear explanations of what type of game this is, and how the game should feel. It explains what type of prep is beneficial to the game, what you should let the players know ahead of time, and what you should all agree on.

As a side note, some Powered by the Apocalypse games hew much more closely to the original terminology and even exact phrases used by Apocalypse World itself, and at times, this creates a kind of jargon that can make players not exposed to this jargon feel like they are missing something, and that maybe some of this jargon has some kind of game rule connotation that they are missing.

While Headspace uses some of this jargon, it does a very good job of being conversational, and introducing the jargon in a more natural way, as well as having a voice that is more appropriate for this specific game, which could mean it is a little more accessible to people new to a Powered by the Apocalypse game.

Corporations and Their Projects

Remember back when we got to see how the clocks work in this game, with the slices of the pie that can go either way, and let the winner make a statement that is now true, with the losers potentially getting to add a clause? Now we get more context for that.

Each Corporation will have projects, big, world changing things they want to get done. If they complete one, the statement made at the end of the “big clock” will be true for the entire campaign,  unless a statement made in a later project changes what happened.

Each game session will have smaller clocks, and depending on what happened in the game session and how it resolved, temporary statements are made about the current state of the campaign. Projects have three legs, and the winner of a given “leg” gets to fill in a piece of the big project clock.

The explanation of the legs of the projects is gold, at least for me. Essentially it is presented as an in game artifact from a corporation, explaining a project and the legs of the project, in what looks like a PowerPoint presentation.

The First Session–It All Went Sideways

The first game session is framed as starting “in media res”, with the corporations having just accomplished one leg of one of their project clocks, and things going badly for the players. This is where any Ghost Operators are assumed to have died, and the players get to fill in one piece of “pie” for having done something detrimental to the Corporation on the way in. That means the first session is the Operators trying to get out of the bad situation that you determine they are in, depending on the setting and corporations involved.

This is a very interesting way to hit the ground running, and get the players right into the action. The only thing I worry about is the replay value of campaigns with this assumed set up. When things feel a little too familiar, I worry that the value of jumping right into the action is somewhat negated by knowing how the game is “suppose” to start, even if the setting and corporations are different.

Session Two+

This section goes into how the campaign should progress after you have played the first session. Session two is where the GM and players need to start introducing Anchors, characters that the PCs can spent time with to vent their emotional stress, and who represent the aspects of the setting where “normal” people live.

From session two on, the GM is suppose to start introducing new projects from new corporations beyond the first, and any time the PCs ignore one of the corporate projects for a whole session, they get an automatic success. This means out of four or five corporations in a setting, a few projects are likely to slip through.

While I like that this reinforces that the PCs can’t fix everything, and that the world is a living place, it does feel like it introduces the possibility for the campaign to start getting a little confusing, with all of the pieces in play. It certainly reads as if the tension and story potential would be worth it, but it may also get a little overwhelming.

This section also talks about XP and advancement. XP is awarded when the cell achieves Sync, and some of the advancements can get a little pricey. I’m also a little confused about introducing this at the end of the session two+ section. Does this mean that PCs aren’t suppose to get XP in the first session?

Headspace Settings

This section presents two pre-generated settings, which are not assumed to exist in the same “world” with one another. In addition to the settings, the general rules for creating a setting are presented, so that a GM and players could design a completely different dystopian setting for their characters to live in.

The rules for building the setting are interesting and fun, starting with picking certain big ticket things to happen, then moving down to other events, then getting into the more local events that sprang from everything above it, and then detailing the corporations involved, what secrets they are keeping, and who their agents are. The agents will be assumed to have the same level of skill and to roughly correspond to one of the roles of one of the Operators, and that agent is tied to a specific emotion as their “theme.”

The two settings included are the Vancouver area after a tsunami hits the western side of the continent, and Israel, after a massive drought has hit the region and plans for a water reclamation plant have literally gone up in smoke, causing the UN to step in. Both settings have a pretty detailed map of the region they take place in, and have distinct corporations, all set up with secrets, agents, and a starting project.

Of the two, Vancouver feels like a stronger setting to me. The corporations are collectively a bit more evil, their projects more sinister, and the impending issues clearer. The Holy Land setting has more corporations that feel self-interested, but not wholly evil (some clearly are, however). The corporate projects don’t seem that terrible for some of the corporations, and the setting mentions a plot element that was already used in the Vancouver setting that feels redundant and less compelling in this setting.

I think were I to run this, I’d be leaning towards Vancouver, or building a setting with my players. The Holy Land setting is interesting, to be sure, but I’m not sure it’s as perfectly tailored to this exact game as the Vancouver setting is.

One thing of note with all of the example corporations in the settings–these corporations are big, evil, and full of resources, but they are quite as powerful as the mega-corps in other cyberpunk games, which I think is important to note. This game is promoting making a difference, even if it is difficult to do so, which calls for corporations that haven’t already more or less “won” the setting.

Everything Else

The rest of the PDF contains the Ludography, which is the inspirations from games and media that went into the game, staff credits, thanks to the Kickstarter patrons, and an index, as well as the playbooks and play sheets.

Positive Emotions

This is a different spin on cyberpunk than most games take, and that feels exciting. The writing is conversational and approachable. Making a setting seems like it would be fun even without getting to use the game itself. The themes of emotions, stress, and sharing traumatic moments are really well reinforced throughout the game rules.

Negative Emotions

If you aren’t into games like Powered by the Apocalypse style offerings, this probably won’t be the one to convince you to change your mind. While the books is very clear and easy to read, the order that information is presented may still be confusing, especially to people that aren’t familiar with the way Powered by the Apocalypse games work. While the game rules aren’t complicated, the assumed progression of the campaign might be.

Recommended–If the product fits in your broad area of gaming interests, you are likely to be happy with this purchase.

This is a solid game, and a fun read. If you have any degree of affection for narrative based games, and any degree of interest in cyberpunk, you should check the game out. Even if you don’t, the parts of the book that deal with creating dystopian settings, framing NPCs in terms of emotions, and running campaigns may still be worth a look.


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