In 1993, I found my first “proper” job, as a waiter no less. Actually – I say “found”, but the job actually found me, in the form of my mother thrusting a copy of the Evening Times in my direction, jabbing at a classified ad, and suggesting it might be nice for me to earn some cash for myself.
The hours were long , the shifts were gruelling and – this being in the days before “minimum wage” was even a concept – the pay was lousy. Thankfully, the tips – at least to my teenage mind – more than made up for my paltry weekly earnings. I learned to be effortlessly charming and efficient very quickly.
And it was a good job I did too, because in 1993 I had a lot to spend my money on. Some new game called “Magic: the Gathering” had just hit the market, and it was a lot of fun. It combined the fantastic worlds of RPGs with the giddy rush that I had only previously felt collecting football stickers as a kid.
Ah – those memories of standing around in the freezing cold of a Scottish primary school playground watching as your friend flicked through a massive pile of stickers while you and your friends chanted something along the lines of “Got, got, got, got, NEED!” like some demented cultists. If anyone did end up “needing” any of the stickers, that was usually the cue for the owner of the pile of cards to assume the stance and bearing of a Mafia don and ask you what you had to offer for it.
Magic had that same feel, but was considerably more expensive. Fun fact – as part of my spending spree on Magic cards back in the early 90s I managed to get a Black Lotus. Players of Wizards of the Coast’s card game will no doubt be seething with envy right now. The Black Lotus is, without a doubt, THE best card ever printed for Magic. It is also on a list of cards never to be reprinted.
In fact, it’s so sought after that one recently sold at auction for well over $150,000. I thought I was being smart in 1998 when I sold mine for £300… Que sera. Mind you, I doubt mine would have raised much more at auction. I played the hell out of that card on many a beer stained university union table, and that was in the days before deck protectors were a thing…
It was during one of these forays to spend my ill-gotten gains on Magic cards that I discovered one of my favourite RPGs of all time. I use “ill-gotten” in the truest sense, because I learned very early on that if you said to a table of old ladies “I’ll be with you in a minute, girls” you were onto at least a £5 tip.
On this particular excursion, the guy behind the Virgin megastore counter told me that they were all out of Magic cards, and that they didn’t know when they’d have more back in. Disappointed, I started browsing the RPG aisle instead, and my eyes hit upon a game that I hadn’t seen before.
It was a softback book, and the cover depicted a fella wearing a trenchcoat – and looking for all the world that he’d been rejected by a tribute band for The Cure. He was standing in the pouring rain and at the top left, in bright red letters were the words “S.L.A Industries”. I would later learn that this was pronounced “SLAY”.
Flipping it over, I scanned the blurb. It suggested that this was a game where the players were agents for the titular company. It sounded pretty violent, but it also seemed that there was a televised element to it – was this like the Running Man? Then there was the tag line:
Guns kill – but so does the truth.
I HAD to know more.
Curiously, it also seemed like SLA was published in the town I was living in at the time – Paisley, in Scotland.
That evening I read ALL of the background to this game and I was absolutely hooked.
At first glance, SLA seems to be a sci-fi investigation game. Set in a dystopian universe, the players take on the roles of Operatives working for SLA Industries. Ops fulfil all sorts of functions for the company. On one hand they are investigators and detectives, but they can also be hit squads, spokespeople, EMTs, janitors – basically anything the company needs them to do.
Set on the company’s HQ world of Mort – a dying planet where it continually rains – the players operative out of Mort City; a gigantic hive, where the super rich and glamorous live at the top levels, and where the further down you go – literally to Downtown – the worse the conditions become, and the more awful your life is. SLA Industries owns EVERYTHING – they refer to the known universe under their control as The World of Progress. However, despite their dominance, the World of Progress is not an amazing place to live in. The crime rate on Mort is through the roof, so it is up to the Ops to hold things together.
They do this by carrying out the missions that are assigned to them. Called Blueprint News Files (or BPNs) these missions are colour coded, and are what Operatives carry out to get paid. BPNs vary from Blue – which equates to street maintenance, and which covers the filthiest, most simple, worst paying jobs; usually clearing out a sewer of some undesirables – to White – which are investigations – to Red – which are literally Red Alerts – all the way up to the top secret Platinum BPNs that are only issued by Head Office. Sometimes squads even get a choice of BPN.
As well as a steady pay check, BPNs also give squads a chance to advance their Security Clearance Level (or SCL) and to get noticed by the media. You see, in a bid to keep the unwashed masses happy, SLA has pretty much wholeheartedly embraced the Roman poet Juvenal’s maxim of “Bread and Circuses”. Every citizen is paid a stipend of unis – the civilian currency – every week and, to keep them entertained, most of the work carried out by SLA Ops is televised live. There are is also “The Contract Circuit” where SLA sanctioned “Contract Killers” compete against each other in futuristic gladiatorial games. Occasionally, channels such as Gorezone will go into a neighbourhood, open up all the sewer covers, and let all the nasties that live there pour out onto the streets while Ops, Contract Killers and anyone else who wants to get in on the action will take them down, live on air. Occasionally, Ops will get caught up in something like this whilst their in the middle of a BPN…
It’s really not surprising then that one of the driving motivations for Ops – and therefore the players – is to earn enough money to buy the latest armour and weapons.
Of course, the televised aspect CAN make investigations tricky. If your squad is trying to track down a notorious serial killer, it’s kind of hard to get the drop on him when he can sit at home in front of the TV getting a play by play from Third Eye news on how close he is to being caught…
At this point, you’re probably wondering why anyone would want to work for SLA. After all, wouldn’t it be simpler being one of the idle civilians, lounging about on your benefit cheque, watching TV all day?
The simple answer is not “no” but rather “HELL NO”. Mort is a horrible place to live, and Downtown – where the bulk of the unemployed masses dwell – is literally the pits. Put aside for one moment the fact that you’ve barely got enough money to survive, there are gangs everywhere who want a cut of whatever you own “for protection” and the police – a corporate force run by SLA called The Shivers – are amazingly corrupt and are more interested in penning you in and making sure you don’t bother the great and the good in Uptown than they are of preventing crime. You’ll also probably find that there is at least one serial killer active near you at any given time – Mort’s dark, hellish, claustrophobic conditions aren’t exactly conducive to good mental health – and the fun part is that these guys aren’t the worst thing that could come crawling into your apartment! Mort’s sewers are infested with all sorts of nasties, from carnivorous pigs to the omnipresent Carrien packs – a weird, humanoid race of creatures with dog-like skulls for heads and an insatiable appetite for flesh.
Still, although living in Downtown sucks, you could find yourself stranded outside off the city walls living in the Cannibal Sectors. This blasted wasteland clearly owes a lot to Judge Dredd’s “Cursed Earth” but it’s like someone said “How could we take that concept and make it more horrific?” EVERYTHING in the Cannibal Sectors wants to kill you and eat you – yet as an Op you sometimes have to go there for work…
Further enriching the background of SLA are the cast of aliens that make up Mort’s population. There are – of course – humans, but they’re joined by Frothers – humans born with a predilection for drugs and raised in a pseudo Scottish culture, Ebons and Brain Wasters – creatures who are similar to humans except they can manipulate a force underpinning reality called The Ebb – Shakters – big, red reptile guys who live by a code of honour and have a lot of Klingon and Predator going on – Wraith Raiders – super fast cat people from a frozen homeworld with all the empathy you’d expect to find in a domestic moggy – and Stormers – SLA’s genetically engineered super soldiers. Think eight foot tall walls of muscle with weird, slightly equine faces and you’re not going far wrong.
All of that probably sounds pretty odd and that’s because it is! However, it all kind of works – SLA has a VERY unique vibe, and all these weird aliens, the strange city and this strange, mega-consumer driven society where it is perfectly legal – and encouraged – to shoot up on combat drugs really comes to life through the book’s black and white images and the fiction which crops up randomly from time to time.
I say randomly because, although this is a professional production, it still has a bit of a feel of a fanzine. There’s a lack of organisation to some of the sections, and sometimes the artwork can feel slightly out of place or not at all connected to what is being discussed. At one point, for example, there’s a two page spread of what looks like CAD drawings…
The contents reflect this too. There’s some general scene setting pieces, followed by the standard “What is a roleplaying game?” We then get almost ONE HUNDRED pages of background before we hit any rules. Now, the early 90s was infamous for this sort of thing – White Wolf, I’m looking at you – but a HUNDRED PAGES? Most of it will either not impact the players, or will have little material outcome on the state of play – the history which is such a big part of this material is rigorously suppressed and sanitised by SLA in the game world that most starting characters would not know of it.
Even within the history chapter, the structure is plagued by this same randomness. There’s the history, then there’s a section on what an operative does, then there’s a load of information on Mort. Wouldn’t it have made sense to have had the Op information first, then rules & character generation, and confine the other stuff to a GM’s chapter?
The last chapter of the book is a particular head-scratcher. It includes information on the media….followed by a brief look at the Carrien – the problem vermin from the Cannibal Sectors. Huh?
I’m probably making more of a big deal out of this than there needs to be – as I mentioned before, the setting reeks of atmosphere; the fact that they way it’s laid out does nothing to diminish this. Indeed, after my first reading I was very much of the opinion that I NEEDED TO RUN THIS NOW!
Unfortunately, where SLA did fall down, was the system. It’s a bit cobbled together, and the kindest way to describe it would be “functional”. When I ran games of SLA it worked just fine and we all had fun, but it wasn’t exactly sleek and streamlined. Take the organisation – again – for example. There are almost four pages given over to rules on fear and reputation. These are rules that, in all my times running SLA, I hardly ever used as written.
Combat – always the longest section of most RPG rulebooks – takes up around a dozen pages and is pretty crunchy. However, there’s not a lot of randomness in there – apart from the rolls to hit – so it’s pretty easy to game the system, and after a bit of time with it, it becomes pretty readily apparent that certain types of ammunition are just flat out better than others.
The section on wounds leads to situations that make little sense. Under the SLA rules, every time a character is hit, they take it a wound. It doesn’t matter if they’re hit by the biggest gun in the game, or the worst gun in the game – if they take damage they take a wound regardless. The mechanical effect of having a wound means that you lose a hit point every five rounds. Multiple wounds shorten this duration, and more than five wounds increase the hit points loss. You also get a -1 penalty to your actions for every wound you take. As mentioned before, a blow has to do at least one point of damage to cause a wound, but given that the worst civilian rifle is capable of penetrating starting operative armour, this is kind of moot. Imagine a starting Op, highly trained and armed to the teeth being jumped by a gang – five of which manage to damage him. He SHOULD be able to tear through them, but the rules as written mean that he’s flailing around all over the place and bleeding out where he stands. Not a great look on Third Eye News.
Then we come to character creation…
I’m not going to spend too much time here, but suffice to say it’s a points based system…
…and every character has 300 points to spend on their characteristics and their skills.
Given that for your average human their stats are on a range of five to ten, and that each skill is governed by a stat and that skill can’t go above the stat value you can see that this leads to a LOT of bookeeping!
As was the fashion for the 1990s, there are a ton of merits and flaws to choose from. However, each merit and flaw comes on a scale of one to ten and you either receive or pay a certain amount of points per level you take. This gets unwieldy very quickly.
Let’s take the first merit / flaw combo – Handsome / Ugly as an example. There are ten levels. Each one gives you or costs you a point. One point of handsome is “slightly better looking” and ten points mean “stunningly attractive”. What effect does this have on the game? Well, that’s not clear. Stuff like this really needs to be defined, otherwise how does the GM work out what effect one point of “handsome” has on a roll that relies on appearance?
It gets more ridiculous when you pair up certain advantages and disadvantages. Remember our definition of 10 points of “handsome” – stunningly attractive. Well, there’s a disadvantage called “bad figure” – also on a one to ten scale. What happens if you take ten points of handsome and ten points of bad figure? Apparently you’re stunningly attractive…but with an overweight, misshapen and hideously ill proportioned body. Literally just a pretty face… Oh and there’s no guidance on how this Igor-like body impairs your physical day to day.
If it was said that “The GM decides the effects of the different levels of advantages and disadvantages” things wouldn’t be so bad. However, Captain Inconsistency shows up again. Guess what? Some advantages and disadvantages DO have mechanical effects written into the rules…
By far the most infamous advantage, though, was “sterile”. It landed you TEN points to spend on skills. To put that into perspective, that’s the same as being THE most horrendously ugly person on the planet or being possessed of the Quasimodo-like figure we talked about a minute ago! Unless one of your driving goals was to have a family (and who in their right mind would try and raise a kid on Mort?) this disadvantage had ZERO impact on the game.
Following the character creation rules, were write ups on each of the races. This positioning is an odd choice – it’s traditional for players to read about their character choices BEFORE the make up their characters. However, this is a minor gripe as these two page spreads were a great read, and really helped conjure up the weird atmosphere of the setting. However, due to the way the rules worked it became clear VERY quickly that there was little point – other than flavour – in playing a Shaktar because, pound per pound if you were going to play the squad’s “big fighty guy” you’d be better off playing a Stormer.
In short, the rules were a bit of a mess. However, much as I’ve spent time here highlighting this, that’s only to contrast with the fact that they didn’t stop myself and my group having an absolute blast with the game! I’ve probably not conveyed it very well in my description, but the unique atmosphere of SLA helped to completely eclipse any of the crunchy shortcomings of the rules system. Yes, there were other sci-fi dystopian games out there, but none of them felt like SLA, with its weird aliens, its strange Ebb forces and its drugs – and what was with all those little call backs to the real world – the world that the players were living in? As an example, Mort’s most infamous serial killer was called “Halloween Jack” and he had a Jack O Lantern shaped mask. Clearly, there is nothing in SLA’s cosmology that corresponds to Halloween, so why is this? Likewise, all the months of the year share the same names as those of the Gregorian calendar. An oversight, or something else? There’s also the song titles from real life bands scattered throughout the text. SLA’s background captured the mind, and I’ve never met anyone who played it who didn’t absolutely love it.
Case in point: one of these fans was Max Bantleman who produced a fanzine called “The Big Picture” which was distributed and sold at games shops and cons. This fanzine featured fan-made articles on races, creatures, opponents, equipment – all sorts of good stuff to slot into your SLA campaign. Now, bear in mind that this was when the internet was in its complete infancy. Nowadays, this sort of stuff would be on a website or a Facebook group somewhere. However, back then a fanzine was the best way to distribute this information.
Unfortunately, Max didn’t exactly endear himself to the folks at Nightfall. He needed art for his fanzine, and he decided that the best place to take it from would be the main SLA rulebook. As he said himself, his intentions were good, but this didn’t really help his cause and he was considered something of a nuisance by Nightfall.
Like Max, most fans who bought into SLA wanted more content. So, when I saw a review of Karma – SLA Industries first supplement – in Valkyrie magazine, I naturally rushed out and bought it!
Karma was a very clever sourcebook. Presented as a SLA Industries lifestyle magazine for Operatives, it was all flavour, with the rules crammed into the back. Loads of sourcebooks since then have followed this pattern, but back then this was really unique and refreshing.
Karma doubled down on the atmosphere created in the main rulebook, with more evocative art and prose, and introduced some further typically SLA concepts. One area that received a lot of exploration was that of biogenetics. Unlike other games in the genre, SLA didn’t have any kind of focus on cybernetics – indeed, there’s a slice of history that talks about that having been a passing fad in the World of Progress. Instead, SLA has biogenetics as an equivalent. Want to be stronger, faster or tougher? Get some biogenetic implants. Want to see in the dark? Get some biogenetic implants? Want your life extended? We can do that too with biogenetics. In fact, one of the big articles in Karma is the concept of L.A.D, or Life After Death. For a small fee, operatives can be fitted with an implant which notifies Karma when they die so that they can dispatch a medical team to stabilise you and bring you in for resurrection. Like all things SLA, there was no guarantee it would work. End up dead in Cannibal Sector 1, and chances are the medics won’t be able to get to you in time…
It was around this time that Wizards of the Coast took note of SLA Industries and bought the game outright. Amongst their publications was the “Mort” sourcebook that covered the HQ planet of the company. It received mixed reviews.
Anyone who knows anything about Wizards of the Coast will know that they are not a company famed for their RPGs (other than that one time they swooped in and helped a little known game called Dungeons and Dragons that is….). In December 1995 they announced that they were dropping their entire roleplaying line, SLA included.
The rights for SLA went back to Nightfall who made an agreement with Hogshead Publishing. The main rulebook was reprinted along with a couple of supplements. These were an adventure called “The Key of Delhyread” and a sourcebook called “The Contract Directory” which sought to define exactly what the Contract Circuit was, and what all these TV shows that the unwashed masses consumed were all about. Both were ok, but neither really set the SLA world aflame. Hogshead folded in the early 2000s and, once again, the rights for SLA went back to Nightfall.
When discussing SLA from this period, it is impossible not to talk about “The Writer’s Bible”. Remember that quote from the back of the original rulebook – Guns Kill, But So Does the Truth? Well, in 1998 a document called The SLA Industries RPG Writer’s Bible / Style Guide was leaked one of the SLA mailing lists. Kids – ask your parents what a mailing list was.This document was just over two dozen pages long, and it seemed to be an internal Nightfall document for freelance authors, explaining how certain aspects of the World of Progress worked thematically and what the game’s metaplot was. Clearly, the idea was that new writers would be able to stick to the game’s canon, whilst also knowing what could and couldn’t be discussed. The document itself was very rough and ready – but then again it was an internal document intended for internal use; not as a polished piece ready to be consumed by the public.The really interesting part of the document was the second section, entitled The Truth. In this, Nightfall explain the secrets behind the various forces at play within the World of Progress. About three and a half pages into this section we come to the metaplot.I’m not going to go into it here – the document is easy enough to find if you go looking for it – but suffice to say, the general reaction from the SLA community upon reading this was “WTF”? Personally, I found it all rather interesting – it was like no other RPG I’d read before. Yes the document was rough as you like – but it was never intended for public consumption. I often wonder what would have happened if it wasn’t leaked and Nightfall were able to explore their Truth through publications. There were aspects of The Truth that went a long way to explaining why the World of Progress was the way it was, and I really wish that some of this had come out in the form of supplements, rather than being left to fester in a Writer’s Guide.Back in the world of publishing, SLA Industries was taken on by Cubicle 7 in the early 2000s.
Despite an initial flurry of enthusiasm, Cubicle 7 only released two of the supplements they had lined up – “Cannibal Sector 1” and “Hunter Sheets Issue 1”. Unfortunately, Dave Allsop – one of Nightfall’s directors and the guy responsible for most of the iconic SLA imagery – left Cubicle 7, and this probably took a lot of energy out of the SLA project. 2007 was the last time Cubicle 7 released anything for the game and then – once again – it reverted back to Nightfall games.
Nightfall spent the early 2010s releasing a variety of PDF only “data packets” for SLA Industries. These small supplements were short on pages but VERY rich in lore. For fans of SLA, they were an absolute delight to read through. Many of them came with a “Truth Rating” on the front, which corresponded to how deep into the game’s metaplot they would go. Interestingly, when Cubicle 7 took over SLA it was announced that The Truth as presented in the writer’s guide was no longer canon. However, reading through these data packets it was very easy to see the influence of that document – albeit far better presented. Did this mean that the Truth was back? The way that some of the data packets left things dangling it was clear to fans of SLA that something was brewing on the horizon.
The form that the “something” took was not what a lot of SLA fans were expecting. In 2016 Daruma Productions announced a Kickstarter for a SLA Industries miniatures skirmish game called “Cannibal Sector 1”. According to the Kickstarter, backers would get the rulebook and factions decks. Dave Allsop would be doing the artwork, and he would be collaborating with Jared Earle – one of SLA’s original creators – on the lore and background of the game. Apparently there would be “other goodies” included, but something that was stated in the first update was that “we will not be including any faction starters or miniatures in this Kickstarter. If the stretch goals reach high enough levels, we do aim to create on special character for each faction.”This didn’t bother me – as a rule I’m EXTREMELY wary about backing Kickstarters that include miniatures, as they never run to time, so I happily backed it for the book. Some new official, tangible material that I could hold in my grubby hands from the guys behind SLA? Yes please!There is a phenomena that I like to call “Kickstarter Bloat” – where a creator puts in a ton of stretch goals in a bid to entice more and more backers and ends up having to produce more than they can realistically hope to produce or ship. CS1 was absolutely riven by this, and Daruma seemed completely oblivious to it. Although I wanted the main rulebook (that is, the one with all the RPG bits in it – not just the skirmish rules) my pledge, after the stretch goals included:
- A signed hardback rulebook
- An A5 copy of the skirmish rules
- A PDF of the rulebook
- All 6 faction decks
- A CS1 T-Shirt
- A CS1 pin
- A CS1 bag
- A shiver sergent mini
- A manchine mini
- 4 character minis
- A warithen mini
- A shaktar mini
- An ebon mini
- A 313 stormer mini
- A Xeno stormer mini
- An Aetherman mini
- A vevaphon mini
- A sector ranger mini
- A grit stormer mini
- A chagrin stormer mini
- An advanced carrien mini
- An ex-War Criminal mini
- A digger mini
- Glyph cards
- 6 sets of 4D10s done up in different factions’ colours
- A campaign medal
- A PDF campaign pack
That’s….a LOT! Given that most miniatures games that are fulfilled on Kickstarter run into the hundreds of millions of dollars, the fact that this one was funded on just over fifty thousand was concerning. People who backed the Call of Cthulhu 7th edition kickstarter are probably getting deja vu round about now…As was expected, in 2017 I received a message saying that “Things wouldn’t be delivered as planned” and then unfortunately – but not entirely unsurprisingly – in June 2018 backers received a message from Nightfall saying that they had parted ways with Daruma who were going into liquidation. To help try and deliver the Kickstarter they were going to partner with Word Forge games but, unfortunately, all the funds from the Cannibal Sector 1 Kickstarter were gone and thus Nightfall and Word Forge were going to have to work out how to fund fulfilment.
What followed was painful for a lot of people, but the new Nightfall and Word Forge partnership had to make some tough choices. They had a bloated, creaking Kickstarter, and they had to cut some fat in order to make fulfillments of the core deliverables a reality. In the end – by the middle of 2019 – I received my books, along with a handful of miniatures, some dice, the bag and a pin. Was it worth it? Well, the hardback – the only thing I REALLY cared about from the whole campaign – was a thing of beauty, and it was MASSIVE. This mighty, full-colour tome delved into the entire history of CS 1 – from its origins as “Central Outskirts” all the way to the present day…and then into the future. Yes – SLA’s authors had chosen to move the metaplot forward! There were also a couple of moments where I’d read something, stop and go back and read it again as there were some tasty nuggets of the new Truth in there.
So, a few months later when the Kickstarter for SLA Industries 2nd edition went live I was all in! Despite the shaky ending to the CS1 campaign, Nightfall had shown a lot of integrity in the way they had acted. They took a massive financial hit themselves to ensure that the backers would at least get something – the main thing for the project. Plus, their communication was spot on – they were honest, transparent and didn’t mess around with timelines. Speaking as a professional project manager, this is all you can ask for! The SLA 2.0 kickstarter went largely to plan. There was a little thing called Coronavirus that got in the way of a summer 2020 delivery, but otherwise it went smoothly. A Quickstart was released early on to give us a taste of the game.
As mentioned before, Nightfall’s communication along the way was great, and whilst the shipment of physical product was delayed, backers did get their hands on PDFs of the book on schedule, and I have to admit that this was a pretty exciting moment for me. My co-host Jason was spammed by a series of messages from me – the tone of which probably came across as that of an excitable teenager – as I read through the book. Jason was a massive spoil sport though – declaring that he would be waiting till he got his physical reward before reading anything (SUBTEXT: ENOUGH WITH THE SPOILERS IAIN).Interestingly, as the campaign was coming to a close, Nightfall announced that certain of their products were now no-longer canon. These included the “Mort” sourcebook (which was rendered redundant by the Mort chapter in the new rulebook), “The Key of Delhyread” (that never really felt canon in the first place), “The Contract Directory”, the Cubicle 7 “Cannibal Sector 1” sourcebook (which didn’t have any of the original SLA crew involved in its production, and which was rendered pointless following the release of the new CS1 book) and the “Ursa Carrien” data packet (which didn’t fit with the new origins of Carrien as presented in 2nd edition and the new CS 1 book). They also commented directly on The Writer’s Bible and pointed out that the Truth as presented there was not the Truth under pinning second edition. Now, for those of you familiar with it, there’s clearly still a kernel of the old Truth there, but I’m interested to see where they go with it.Lately, Nightfall announced that all the other first ed supplements were now being considered non-canon and they’re going to be removed from Drive Thru RPG. This is a somewhat puzzling decision. Why remove them from DTRPG? Sure, make them non-canon but why cut off a potential revenue stream? I’m sure there’s more to come here…
Going back to the campaign, Nightfall will have my eternal thanks due to the way they handled my pledge, personally. Because of circumstances beyond my control, myself and my family had to move house pretty quickly at the end of last year. This was around the time that Nightfall were shipping the Kickstarter Rewards, so I contacted them asking if they could redirect mine. They messaged me – ON CHRISTMAS DAY – asking for my details. A few days later my goodies turned up. It goes without saying that THAT level of customer service is above and beyond what is expected!
So, how does 2nd ed compare to that original edition I picked up in Glasgow all those years ago? The biggest change is the production values. One thing that long time fans of SLA joke about is the quality of the old books. Both my copies of Karma and my original rulebook fell apart in record time. This new book is a study hardback that will retain its pages for many, many years. The layout and organisation is also far more professionally done that in 1993, but that’s hardly surprising with both the advancement in technology and the fact that the Nightfall crew have had many moons to hone their craft! When it comes to artwork, on one hand, it’s leaps and bounds ahead of where it was in the early 90s. Dave Allsop was an excellent artist back in the day, but it’s clear that he’s become even better over time. The pieces are all full colour, and they still reek of that strange, odd, SLA Industries atmosphere. It’s actually very hard to compare them to the original pieces completed almost thirty years ago. The production values in the new book are MUCH higher. Seriously – I’ve mentioned it before but it deserves mentioning again – the layout and the simple construction of the book is up there with the best modern RPGs have to offer.
However, there was something extremely compelling about 1st edition SLA. Part of me really misses the black and white artwork from that first book. Yes, the newer book is much more polished, but there was a certain raw power to the imagery in the original. I don’t know – I should probably take these rose tinted glasses off…One of the new pieces of artwork that I loved – and which was long overdue – was the map of Mort. This REALLY brings to life the bizarre structure of the city, and just why living in Downtown (not to mention LOWER Downtown) is so awful. It really brings alive the scale of the place – from the spires of head office to the wastes of the Cannibal sectors. Previously, Mort was pretty much whatever an individual GM made it – which was fine – but it was often hard to reconcile what was written in one place, from where it was described elsewhere. With this new artwork it actually makes sense – albeit a twisted, dark, dystopian kind of sense…
The background and history sections have been expanded upon since first ed, being updated to include some of the material from Cannibal Sector 1 in addition to a whole load of brand new stuff. For the keen eyed, the Truth – in some form – is clearly still there. Indeed, there are blatant name drops for some of the folks mentioned in that original document. However, this is clearly something that’s going to be built upon in future supplements, so I’m excited to see where they go with it. Actually, I don’t know why I said “keen eyed” – the opening and closing pieces of fiction are both massive truth bombs that I loved. However, if I was entirely new to SLA I’m not sure I would understand them or their significance. That said, I’m not sure I understood SLA’s original opening fiction back in 1993 so maybe I’m over thinking this!There’s a new type of BPN too – Orange – to represent investigations into the Sh’ien cult that is making its presence known on Mort. For long time SLA players the subnote of “LAD cannot respond to requests for assistance from operatives on an Orange BPN” should be suitably chilling reading.Along side the cults, one of the “new” foes facing Ops are the Conflict Aliens.
I’m using airquotes around new, because the Conflict Aliens aren’t new – they’re a part of SLAs murky past that they thought were long defeated. As antagonists go, these guys are seriously scary, very well equipped and out for bloody revenge. Given how much SLA have sanitised their own history, Ops facing these guys are going to be totally ill-prepared.Join the cast of “newish” bad guys are the Dream Entities. Those who have read some of the data packets released by SLA or Cannibal Sector 1 will know what these guys are – they seem to be the manifestations of the fears of people living in and around lower downtown. They’re an interesting change to serial killers and carrien, because often these things can’t simply be blasted away, and they really let a creative GM make the lower reaches of Mort a thing of absolute terror. They also raise some rather unsettling questions about the nature of the whole of SLA Industries’ reality.
The system is where SLA has REALLY made improvements. Things have been simplified, streamlined and balanced. I’ll caveat this with the fact that I’ve not played it yet, but a casual reading shows that it’s a zillion times better than the bloated mess that 1st ed was. My co-host Steve is eager for me to run a game, so hopefully I’ll have a more informed opinion soon! Combat looks to be fast moving and streamlined – minimising the amount of numbers that need to be crunched at any one given time – and gone are the silly rules on wounds. Under the new rules, wounds are serious affairs that happen when you take a lot of damage.Character creation is much more balanced and simplified. Gone are the need to keep track of several hundreds of character points, and each of the races seems to be fairly evenly balanced. There are reasons to choose from all of them now.
Sadly, for long time players and fans of the Karma supplement, Vevaphons – the biogenetic polymorphs – are no longer a character choice, but I can see why they were removed. I only ever had one player choose to be a vev in first ed, and while it was a fun character it was THE most bookkeeping intensive character in the whole party! They’re not ENTIRELY gone from the setting, and I can easily envisaged the opportunities of using a rogue vev as an NPC villain.
The Chagrin variant of the Stormer is also gone too, but I’m personally not that bothered about this. The Chagrin was really just for those folks who wanted to play the ultimate combat monster – as if playing a normal stormer wasn’t enough – and they weren’t that interesting to roleplay outside of their rather narrow “Hulk. Smash!” window. Two other character options are added in place of the vev and the chagrin. Firstly, we have a race that was made playable in “the contract directory” – the advanced carrien. These are carrien with a human level of intelligence that have been captured and domesticated by the company. The insight into their ways of thinking and how to roleplay them are fascinating. I particularly love the picture in part of the book of an advanced carrien trying to comfort a distraught civilian – I think think this will be the experience of many players choosing this race!
In the “brand shiny and new” corner we have the Neophron – an avian race of conflict aliens. These guys were never really at war with SLA, and after the Conflict Years they just faded into Conflict Space and did their own thing. However, with the advancing metaplot and cults and other conflict aliens popping up all over the place, the neophron have decided to throw their lot in with the company. Technically, they’re not BRAND NEW – Neophron have been referenced before. Indeed, one of the big bads in Hunter Sheets 2 is a Neophron, but this is the first time players have been given them as an option. Like the advanced carrien, there are some great notes around the psychology of this species and how to roleplay them. These guys are much more Sherlock Holmes than Arnie, so they’ll be a welcome addition to any squad looking to make bank on White BPNs. I’m also happy that Nightfall chose to not give them any kind of flight. It wouldn’t be amazingly practical in Mort for starters, but I always find that unlimited flight powers can often disrupt the most well plotted scenarios…
So there you have it – SLA Industries’ on-and-off history for the last few decades. What’s really interesting is how SLA has survived all these years. On one hand, it looks like a really niche game. A small press title that was released in the mid 90s, and which churned out a few titles before being bought by someone bigger before being dropped. Most games would vanish into obscurity by this point, but SLA has somehow managed to keep going, even though the going got pretty rough at points. What’s even more interesting is that, prior to 2nd ed being released, people were still playing SLA, years after it had vanished, even though it had a terrible system that most groups ended up houseruling within an inch of its life. Why would players stick with this?
I think the answer is obvious – the creators of SLA Industries managed to craft a setting that was so unique, so compelling and so interesting to play in, that nobody minded if there weren’t official supplements being released – they simply wanted to explore and game in the World of Progress. At one point the only two books I had were a tatty copy of the main rulebook and an equally tatty copy of Karma, but that didn’t stop me from running a four year long campaign, long after Wizards had dropped all support for SLA.
Like the Carrien who lurk in Cannibal Sector 1, SLA Industries has proven to be tough, adaptable and only slightly prone to mutation. If you’ve never given SLA a try, now’s the perfect chance to jump in with both feet. The shiny new 2nd edition is available both on Nightfall’s website and Drive Thru RPG. For those of you who are veterans of the World of Progress, grab your FEN 603, strap on your Body Blocker armour and make sure you’ve packed enough Kick Start in your medical kit – there’s a whole new world of BPNs out there to explore and it’s as dangerous as ever.