It is 2213 and the world has changed in a myriad of ways since the dawn of the 21st century, physically, politically and even metaphysically. The seas have risen. The geopolitical lines have shifted. Humanity has begun to reach tentatively towards the stars. Nations are at each others throats and espionage is the name of the game. People capable of manipulating dark matter, a skill believed to be magic in ages past, have started to re-emerge. The world is still recovering from a nuclear conflict over a century ago.
How will you make your way in a world of mysteries, secrets and lies?
I first heard about State Secrets when I started reading Dragon magazine almost a decade ago. I remember then being allured by its promise of over 50 different classes. Recently, now that I have actual money, I decided to pick it up.
Unfortunately I was disappointed. The mechanics are nothing special, the setting is poorly thought out and a whole bunch of elements, particularly magic and space exploration, seem tacked on without much thought for how they might be integrated into the setting. The art isn't anything to write home about either, but I'm more willing to forgive that since it's hard for games with smaller teams and budgets to be able to commission someone to do decent art.
The core mechanic is your standard roll a d20, add modifiers and beat a target DC. The only really notable feature is how flat the progression is. You won't have very many bonuses to things and those you do have will accumulate very slowly. Even your Stamina Damage Rating, the game's hit points, will only go up by a couple of points at most as you gain levels.
It also suffers from a common problem with cyberpunk settings or really anything set in a version of our world that could be described as 'Africa something something'. Most writers will focus the majority of their attention on the United States, maybe give a bit of love to one or two places in Asia and Europe. The rest of the world will be an afterthought. Africa in particular will suffer from this and the writer will usually have a paragraph or so about how the entire continent has united or one of the nations rose to prominence. In the case of State Secrets, it's Kenya.
Step 1) Roll Attributes
State Secrets has 10 different Attributes, generated by rolls of 3d6. If you're lucky enough to roll a 16 or higher, there's a possibility that you may get to increase that attribute by 1-2 points. 10 is the average and 20 is the human maximum. Like I said, the bonuses here are quite flat, so you don't get any unless your attribute is 16 or higher and penalties don't kick in until you get lower than 6.
10, 13, 10, 14, 9, 13, 6, 14, 17, 12 is what I end up with. A roll of 4 for the 17 means that gets bumped up to 19. I think I want a bright and capable character, so that 19 goes into Perception and I'm going to put the 14s in Intelligence and Dexterity. The 13s will go in Will and Stamina and 12 will go into Personality. Agility and Movement will get the 10s and Strength gets the 9. That 6 is going to go into Appearance, meaning he's nothing to really look at.
I should note that my Stamina Damage Rating equals my Stamina, so 13. This will increase a couple of points every level until I get to the human maximum of 20. My only bonus in any Attribute will be the +2 I get to Perception.
Step 2) Pick a Character Class
As I said previously, my initial draw to State Secrets was because of the 50+ Character Classes on offer. However, these classes primarily serve to determine which Skills you get to pick, with few benefits beyond that. A few get access to psionic powers or spells. Classes aren't balanced by level, as some get more skills than others, so they gain levels at different rates, an odd feature outside older editions of D&D or games that seek to emulate that.
I think I'm going to pick a class that isn't technically a class. According to the book Yakuza are members of the Wise Guy class, grunt-level mobsters, with the bonus of being able to pick the Weapon Training: Sword skill. It's practically an exploit!
Step 3) Select Skills
Skills determine how proficient you are at an activity and thus the Difficulty Class you roll against when attempting to perform the task associated with it. Every class gets a bunch of Default Skills and then picks from a list of others.
As a Yakuza, my default skills include your standard gangster fare: Handgun, Connections, Drive Auto, Weapon Training: Club, Street Fighting and Urban Survival . I get a bonus to Urban Survival thanks to my high perception score and Street Fighting gives me a +1 to initiative rolls.
Now I get to pick 6 more skills. I'm definitely going for Weapon Training: Sword, since that's why I picked Yakuza in the first place. I also want to be awesome at being a criminal, so I'm going to take Arson, Breaking and Entering and Narcotics. I'll take Drive Motorcycle, because motorcycles are cool. Finally, because paramilitary conflict is the essence of cyberpunk, I'm going to take Urban Warfare.
Step 4) Create Character Background
So, my guy is awesome at fighting and crime, as well as being generally smart and perceptive. He's a yakuza. I think my character, Kenji Kikawa is something akin to the criminal version of a sergeant. Originally a native of Japan, he was shipped off to the States at a young age to make a name for himself. He's stationed in one of the more disputed towns of the Western Dynasty, where US west of the Rockies fallen to Asian immigrants and is now a despotic monarchy. He's in charge of making hits on the token law enforcement presence in town, promoted to his position due to his keen tactical mind and attention to detail. Ever since he was put in charge, local townspeople are more likely to go to the yakuza than the police for help with their disputes. He has the nickname 'Pigface' after an unfortunate bar-brawl crushed his nose and left him with somewhat porcine features, not helped by his large ears.
Step 5) Select Equipment
My character class also determines my equipment, which often takes to form of picking a number of items from certain categories of gear. I get to pick one piece of Survival Gear, which I think will be some quality binoculars. My Accessory will be an ankle holster. I get to pick up a first-aid kit and some brass knuckles. I can't be bothered picking through the handguns for a specific model, so I'm just going to write down handgun along with 100 regular rounds. I get one Specialty Weapon, which is totally going to be a sword cane. For my Vehicle choice I'm absolutely grabbing a motorcyle. I get 500 Standards spending money on top of all this,
The Finished Product
Kenji 'Pigface' Kikawa
Intelligence 14; Will 13; Perception 19 (+2); Strength 9; Stamina 13
Dexterity 14; Agility 10; Movement 10; Personality 12; Appearance 6
Stamina Damage Rating: 13
Trained Skills: Arson, Breaking and Entering, Connections, Drive Auto, Drive Motorcycle, Handgun, Narcotics, Streetfighting, Urban Warfare, Urban Survival, Weapon Training: Club, Sword.
Gear: Ankle Holster, Brass Knuckles, Handgun (100 regular rounds), Quality Binoculars, Sword Cane, 500 Standards
How I'd Run It
This is probably one of the few games I wouldn't run, I'm afraid to say. Even if I got some strange, inexplicable hankering to run a game in the setting, there are better systems for it.