I received the print version of Interface Zero Fate edition right before Thanksgiving, and as of this past weekend read it in full. That said, I also played in a short campaign using the playtest rules last year. Both reading the book and my experiences playing the game inform this review.
My first experience with Interface Zero was the first version of “2.0”, which was written for Savage Worlds. I enjoyed the world quite a bit, and a lot of the crunchy bits that are necessary for a Cyberpunk game (cyberware, hacking, drones and vehicles) were very nicely done. In running the game in Savage Worlds, though, I found that the balance of the game was more towards cinematic action than anything else. It boiled down to Savage Worlds as a system: it runs fast and loose, but a lot of the complications that Interface Zero tried to add in weren’t meshing with the system. The lack of attention given to corporations also stuck in my craw, as organizations and their power are thematically essential to my view of Cyberpunk as a genre.
Considering the rules density of Fate as a default, I did not go into my read of the game expecting that this version would resolve any of the issues I had with Interface Zero in Savage Worlds. The playtest reinforced this view: because we ported our characters from the Savage Worlds version and the campaign wasn’t all that gritty to begin with, it played more or less like the flavor from Interface Zero written into Fate. Now that I’ve read the new rulebook, I can see they’ve greatly improved things.
This version of Interface Zero uses fairly straightforward Fate Core, with a modified skill list and variable character builds depending on starting power level. Aspects, stunts, refresh and skills work more or less how they do in Fate Core. While Fate has a relatively pulpy feel straight out of the box, there are a few modifications made to make things a bit more Cyberpunk-y. First, armor and weapons are scalable, giving three basic combat damage levels: Upgraded weapons, upgraded armor, and standard (you could upgrade both weapons and armor, but there’s no statistical effect other than making hand-to-hand combat less dangerous). Beyond that, light armor has no numerated protection in the standard rules, making it quite expensive to get any real damage reduction (which I like). Cybernetics was mostly left alone; this is a good thing because the Strain system manages to be the most elegant balancing mechanic I’ve seen for Cybernetics thus far. The choice to give strain a basis in the two stress track skills instead of one or the other means that there’s a much wider range of builds that can incorporate a lot of cyberware. The porting of the cybernetics list was done fairly well, though many of the cybernetics are only specified through Aspects. Many items throughout the game are specified solely through the Aspect system, making it clear that this version of the game doubles down on Fate’s unique mechanics.
Fate’s system of mechanical differentiation boils down to Aspects, which are descriptive qualities that can either be invoked (using that property for a bonus) or compelled (having the downside of the property trigger a complication). In Interface Zero, every character, location, and object is riddled with Aspects. The section that illustrated to me how elegant this is was the beginning of the equipment chapter of the book. Each brand name introduced for equipment was itself an Aspect, and the book described when these brands could be invoked or compelled. That, right there, is how you Cyberpunk in Fate. The system of location aspects takes the location tags system from the Savage Worlds version and adapts it, and in the context of Fate it works a lot better as a subsystem that can be interacted with. Organizations have aspects as well, but the organization rules are a lot more meaty.
Organizations are the clearest example of using the Fate Fractal for something different. The Fate Fractal is a term used by the Fate developers to describe how any object in a game of Fate, whether real or metaphorical, can be described as a character with aspects, skills, and even stunts (the best example of how far afield you can go, in my opinion, is the “Fight Fire” setting from Fate Worlds: Worlds on Fire). In this game, organizations are characters, and they have both aspects and skills. The book goes through a skill list for organizations, and details rules about organization v. organization conflicts. Even though mechanically it’s just an extension of the Fate rules, this is probably the best set of organization rules I’ve seen this side of Reign. Because the rules re-use character skills, the system provides a lot of depth without adding an undue layer of additional crunch.
On more broad notes, the book, like the Savage Worlds version, is very well done. I appreciate both things that were added (the full dubbing rules are here, in the Savage Worlds version they were added in a splatbook) as well as taken away (taking out the Chicago map allowed for some more page count in the world section and made things a bit more even-handed). The basic system of race/career archetypes remain, and were well integrated into the core character Aspects system. I also enjoyed the fact that the Trouble Aspect and Stunts were nailed down with example lists; coming up with a compelling Trouble out of thin air is one of the more difficult parts of Fate character creation.
My one issue with this version is interesting but possibly inevitable, considering Interface Zero was written for two (and soon three) completely different rulesets. To enjoy this game, you’re going to have to like Fate. The number of Aspects in play, from characters, inventory, locations, and the in-game situation itself, is going to be vast. The number of compels and invokes available is similarly vast, and to really go cyber-nuts with all the sweet gear you bought, you’re going to be looking at two, three, four invokes possible that all need to stack in a relatively coherent way. For this to work, the Fate points need to be flying, and everyone at the table needs to be compelling, invoking, and just generally willing to engage with what’s called the “Fate Point Economy”. Funny thing is, I think this is probably the version of the system that will work the best for my type of group. Savage Worlds has all the mechanics but is a bit too loose for them to be coherent, while Pathfinder will be able to incorporate all the mechanics but likely do so in a very constrained way to make the game fit into a class/level structure. In Fate, having the fractal means that this relatively crunchy game boils down quite nicely. It also means that if your group has issues with meta-game currencies or narrative mechanics, this will drive them up a wall.
In some ways, I’m kind of sad that my Interface Zero game was run before this version came out. Fate works better than I thought it would for this, and the author’s choice to really double down on Fate’s mechanics was a very good one. This game ends up sitting in the middle of my range of Cyberpunk systems, more grounded and crunchy than The Sprawl but significantly more narrative and abstracted than GURPS or even Cyberpunk 2020. I enjoy the worldbuilding, but for multiple reasons if I were to run this game it would be in my own setting. Fortunately, thanks to the systems for locations and organizations, it wouldn’t be too difficult for me to strip out the setting and still use this system. If the amount of thought I’m giving to adapting the system is any indication, I am very positive about running this game in the future and think it’s a great addition to my Cyberpunk RPG library.