New Tribes – Shape Memory Polymers
Author: M Jason Parent
Page count: 8 + Cover + OGL
Price: $2.00 at EN World Game Store or DriveThru RPG
This new product from E.N. Publishing describes a new technology for near future d20 games. This technology is shape-memory polymers (SMPs); plastics that change form under the proper stimuli – an electric charge, heat, impact, and so forth. The concept and technology are interesting, but New Tribes – Shape Memory Polymers (NTSMP) falls short of fleshing out the ideas.
NTSMP begins with a brief introduction, explaining shape-memory polymers from the origin to the near future. This is an actual technology that is in its early stages.
Following the introduction is a section that provides some common uses of the SMPs in the near future, including tires, electronics, and pants. Yes, pants. Lightweight plastic pants that are oversized. The wearer hits a button that generates an electric charge in the pants. The pants then shrink, becoming skintight. I find the concept lame, yet having observed numerous fashions, painfully believable. When the technology actually becomes practical, I can easily imagine these being quite the fad.
General equipment follows the common uses. This section is quite brief, detailing only a few items. These items include SMP rope and grapnels. These are not particularly interesting, but have just enough of a future twist to fit in cyberpunk style games.
Weapons. When dealing with shape-changing plastics, you have to expect a selection of weapons, and it is next. As with the general equipment section, NTSMP details only a few SMP weapons. These include the spineblade, a knife that sprouts spikes, making for a nasty effect. Also included are cesti-like gloves that harden on impact, increasing the wielder's damage.
The ideas behind these weapons are interesting, but the mechanics are questionable. Take the spineblade for example. The basic effect to represent the increased damage is an improved critical multiplier. However, in addition to an increased multiplier, the spineblade has a special effect. If the wielder succeeds on a Strength check with a successful critical hit, the critical multiplier increases by one more. This represents the wielder withdrawing the now-spiky weapon. I'm wary of mechanics such as this in games with an abstract hit point system, as found in many d20 games. In most d20 games, hit points represent a combination of factors that include, but are not limited to, actual physical damage. In d20 Modern, the low massive damage threshold refines this concept. When an attack forces a massive damage save, the attack involves actual physical damage. Thus, for a d20 Modern game, a more appropriate mechanic might involve increasing the DC when the weapon attack forces a massive damage saving throw.
After the weapons comes armor. SMP armors work on a principle similar to that of the gloves mentioned above. When struck, the armor alters form in order to redistribute the energy of the attack. While the game mechanics are solid, the idea seems more advanced than the technology implied in NTSMP. I'm not a physicist, but I would think that by the time the bullet hits you (or, in case of the gloves, you hit the target), the damage would already be inflicted, before the armor could respond. As written, the SMPs seem almost prescient. Of course, semi-aware shape-changing plastics are an interesting idea.
The armor section also includes SMP gear for skaters. Because, you know, in the future, skaters rule. Actually, I've always wondered at the omnipresence of skaters in cyberpunk settings. Is it an artifact of the time when cyberpunk games were more popular? Personally, when I think of skating and the future, I'm reminded of Highlander 2 and the hover board things. Then I'm saddened because something reminded me of Highlander 2. Anyway, the skater gear is neat, even if they do actually use the "S K 8" abbreviation.
NTSMP ends with descriptions of two SMP ammunition variants. Other than being SMPs, these aren't particularly different from the non-SMP variants. This section needs notes on how these ammo variants interact with the increasingly common Armor as Damage Reduction rules. While not a core rule, Armor as DR is out there as OGC and, I believe, common enough to warrant a mention.
Layout and Style
New Tribes – Shape Memory Polymers uses a standard two-column layout with an easy-to-read font. The heading font (Metrolox, I believe) is distracting, but the blue color helps it to stand out. NTSMP's look is appealing – white and metallic grey, with light grey grid lines. It's clean, slightly sterile, and futuristic. The tables are clear and easy to read. Overall, NTSMP is an attractive document, though it needs a more efficient use of the space – some of it is simply wasted.
New Tribes – Shape Memory Polymers contains five pieces of art, plus the cover. The art simply depicts some of the products available in the document. The images are set on light grey grids. The art is clean and clearly shows the products. I like it; it reminds me of Fields of Fire, and the Street Samurai Catalog from Shadowrun. I appreciate functional art in game products, and this art is functional.
According to the Open Game Content declaration, "All text in this volume except for all E.N. Publishing logos, trademarks, product names and product lines is released as Open Game Content." I find the inclusion of product names and product lines as protected content interesting. I can see some value in protecting the fictional company name "Carnivore, Inc." (A weapons manufacturer it seems), but I don't see much need to declare "Quick Release Memory Grapnel" or "Frangible Plastic Munitions" as protected content. However, this might be my personal bias – too often, people often declare unusual and unnecessary things as protected content.
New Tribes – Shape Memory Polymers is unlocked, allowing copy & paste, page extraction, and image copying. I appreciate those who make unlocked documents – such documents are far more useful that locked files. Unlocked documents save a tremendous amount of time when making handouts and small docs for games. In addition to being unlocked, NTSMP has complete bookmarks. Even if they are just a few pages, pdfs should always have bookmarks. It is a good habit for creators to have.
ConclusionLike nanotechnology, SMPs are interesting, with amazing game potential. Unfortunately, New Tribes – Shape Memory Polymers doesn't even begin to scratch the surface of possibilities. Reading NTSMP is like reading the first couple pages of a sourcebook, and then finding the rest of the book empty. NTSMP opens a fascinating door, but fails to step through.