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Design Notes: SynthWave RPG

The year is 208X. Augmented reality, or AR, and the dawn of Para-sentient artificial intelligence have transformed the world. Rogue AI manifest by hacking hard light projection technology to spawn in the real world. These are Sprites. Simultaneously, humanity has changed. Modified humans and nanotechnology mean those blessed, or cursed, with augmentation are capable of superhuman feats. Synthetic humanoids, or Synths, bridge the two; Snyths include augmented human cyborgs, remote-controlled humanoids, and mechanical beings with self-aware intelligences. Corporations wrangle for attention and dollars in a neon-lit, irradiated urban sprawl where government has all but failed. On the street, cycle gangs, pill-pushing thugs, and organized crime terrorize the streets. Most shelter in their hermetically sealed apartments or slave away in their drudgery cubes, escaping with pharmaceuticals or fanciful holographic entertainment. You, however, you demand more.

This is SynthWave.

SynthWave is a love letter to 8bit and 16bit game worlds set in a Neo-1980s cyberpunk landscape. As characters progress against dire and comical archetypes of retro legends, they unlock additional actions and unleash specialized powers called combos that are greater than the sum of their parts.

I enjoy learning new roleplaying game systems. Increasingly, I am trying my hand at building gaming systems. Sometimes this is like reinventing the wheel: If someone else has already done it, why do it? I honestly don't know. I feel an impulse, a notion that pulls at me. I also abandon projects when I realize that I'm not going to make a given project better than what is already out there. (After watching Penny Dreadful, I worked up a rough system, but then realized that it would be easier to play Savage Worlds: Rippers, and so that is what I worked on.)

SynthWave RPG feels like a gravity well. I circle it and I reflect on it, but I can't quite escape it. At least, that is, until I figure out what I can do with it and then it'll send me off into space with the lesson. Since we've been using my homebrew d20 Pronto game system (click for the PDF) to play through Dungeons & Dragons: Out of the Abyss, I feel more confident in what I've built and my instincts around game mechanics. And so, I'm working on a totally different system that feels fun and silly. It helps that some early input has been so positive.


Character Statistics

Volume: Might, intimidation, splash damage

Break: Speed, acrobatics, targeting

Hack: Smarts, computers, hype

Core: Empathy, toughness, leadership

Stats begin at 1 for each. For each level, gain that many and any previous level in points. So a Level One character assigns one point to any of the stats, generating a 2. A Level Two gains 2 additional points, which can be assigned where they wish. A Level Three, if starting from 1s across the board, has six total points to assign. Characters maximums for any statistic is double their level.

Level Threes

The lightning reflexes and glistening brutality of Level Threes tells any onlooker they’re dealing with someone special. Player characters begin as a Level Three. They may be either a:

  • Sprite (minimum 2 Break & 2 Hack), a hard-light construct native of the binary domain;

  • Synth (minimum 2 Hack & 2 Core), or Synthetic, an amalgamation of flesh and machinery on the macro, either with human or artificial intelligence;

  • Supe (minimum 2 Volume & 2 Break), or Superhuman, someone born or grown to be greater than the mere mortals around them; or

  • Baseline Human (minimum 2 Volume & 2 Core), someone through sweat and grit is able to keep up with madness around them.

SynthWave, just like it sounds like, is set to the 1980s homage music full of riffy electronic waves and rapid fire dance rhythms. Of course, the theme is built around cyberpunk dystopian visions of corporate leaders, street level roughs, and the stooges that kidnap your kid brother. Villains should be evil and comical, speaking like J. Jonah Jameson or Raúl Juliá as M. Bison in 1994's disastrous Street Fighter adaptation. The more absurd and scene-chewing, the better. Stakes should be outlandish and intimate: Your mother has been forcefully recruited to crack into nuclear bases so terrorists can sell the weapons grade plutonium, your boyfriend is the only one with his old crime boss's blood needed to save him and continue his pill-selling enterprise, the hyper-intelligent military AI you've been playing games with for a decade now plans to upload all our minds and then purify the planet of the virus that is humanity.

Let it be big, let it be silly, and make sure it is fun.


Tests are determined by the roll of a standard six-sided die, called a d6. Only players roll dice, the game master does not. If a player character's level is greater than their target, no roll is required and the test succeeds. If the player character's level is the same as their target and the stat they're using is greater than their target, no roll is required and the test succeeds. However, if the target is of a greater level or greater stat than the player character, a roll is required. The target number is the difference in the state, minimum 2, plus the difference in the level.

Here are a few examples

  • Amalgam, the military green Synth, is Level Three and punches a Level Two securi-bot and succeeds without a test, beacuse the securi-bot is a lower level.

  • Bounce, the violet armored Sprite, Blasts an energy pill (3 Break) at a Level Three street thug enforcer (Break 2), and succeeds automatically because Bounce's Break is greater than the street thug. If the thug had 3 Break, Bounce would roll, needing to get at least a 2 on the die.

  • Chips, the Baseline in a tank top and jean shorts, Throws a full trash can (Volume 3) at the Level 5 ninja synth (Volume 4), resulting in a target of 4 (Volume difference is 1, but there is a minimum of 2, plus 2 from the difference in character level, resulting in 4)

Having spent just a bit of time with the new Pathfinder Second Edition ruleset, I found I really like the nuance and detail of the system. I also enjoy this in the OSR Zweihander: Grim & Perilous. Both of these games I find detailed with nuanced game worlds and regular decisions to make, both for roleplaying and for combat (which can be part of the same).

But... Holy cow does tactical combat take time. I cannot get around how much time it takes. It is game breaking how much time handling miniatures or web-based tools can be.

So I want something that feels tactical and is also fast-paced. Let's reduce the dice rolling and action economy, instead emphasizing the decision-making.

That's where the combo system comes in. And with Combos, quickly followed Beats and Rhythm.


Whenever a stat hits 3, 4, 5, 6, 8, or 10, a character unlocks a combo. Combos are type-specific or stat-specific. Therefore a Sprite of 3 Volume | 2 Break | 3 Hack | 1 Core will have their Sprite combo, a Volume combo, and a Break combo. While stat combo options begin with a pre-determined combo, they branch out quickly to give each character flavor. As long as a character meets one of the prerequisite combos, they can access the later combo.

Combos involve spending multiple actions at once, always with a roll, with a minimum difficulty of 2. Successful combos and roleplaying award Beats, which can be represented by tokens on the table such as poker chips. Beats may be spent to add a d6 die to a later roll, or multiple can be spent to add more dice. These additional dice add to the result. Characters of Level 3 or higher can hold up to one Beat per level. Beats are not stored between sessions, though character introductions at the beginning of each session are an opportunity to earn a Beat through roleplaying. (We'll spend more time on this in talking about Game Mastery.) Beats can be used sequentially by multiple characters, both player and non-player characters, to gain additional bonuses as part of a Rhythm.

Example: If Amalgam (Player A) spends a Beat and is successful in their combo, Bounce (Player B) can spend a Beat immediately following Amalgam’s turn to gain +1 to their combo attempt. Chips (Player C) can continue the Rhyathm as long as Bounce is successful, gaining +2 in addition to their Beat die.

As long as these Combos are successful, the expended Beat is regained as a reward.

NPCs of Level 3 or greater can also play off of Rhythms, though if they do not, they did not disrupt the Rhythm for the PCs. Each subsequent, consecutive Beat adds +1 more to the previous bonus. Some combo abilities work off of Rhythms. Rhythms end when a PC does not spend a Beat or if a PC fails their combo attempt.

So very much like a thumping track, the action moves swiftly around the table. Players identifying their Combo and rolling one or a small handful of six-sided dice.

While this is clearest in a punch-up scene, it can also be used to manage social scenes where quips and clever retorts fly. While the system may not be robust enough for it, I would like each combo to have both a combat and a social element to it, allowing the Rhythm System to be an overarching theme of the game.

All of this is rough and in need of play-testing and more development. I can't help but be excited about it! I want a game like this to exist and I'm writing it up presently. Thanks for reading!

Image Credits: Old City Blues comic, Megaman by Capcom, Street Fighter II (had to get one before the suckapunch was thrown) by Capcom, and "City of Lost Children"

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