Talking to Joseph McGuire about Reality's Edge

07 May 2020
Do game writers dream of electric D10s?


Could you talk a bit about yourself as a game designer?

I started wargaming back in 1997.  Up to that point, I was a normal nerd until I walked into my first gaming shop and saw a Games Workshop catalogue with a Dark Angels Interrogator Chaplain on the cover.  From that point, I was hooked.  From there I started deep into Games Workshop fandom with Warhammer 40,000, but my favorite games were always smaller affairs like Necromunda and Mordheim. 


About fifteen years ago, or so, a friend invited me to attend a historical games convention put on by the Historical Miniature Games Society.  After that my gaming horizons broadened quite a bit.  I got heavily into Pirates, 1920’s Pulp, Old West, and more.  From there it was a simple jump to the zombie and post-apocalypse genres a few years later. For most of the time I was a gamer that tinkered with rules, but I was really into the Rattrap Productions family of rules and I was asked by the owner/author Rich Johnson to work on some of his supplements.  The pay was modest, but through the simple virtue that I was paid, I morphed into a professional game designer. With a small group of friends, we helped Rich produce several supplements; we even called ourselves the Rattrap Bullpen. 


Eventually that ended and I went back to just being a hobby gamer with a major focus on zombie rules.  While working with Rich, I even wrote my first ruleset called Shambling Hordes.  While this ruleset never saw the light of day, it did teach me the fundamentals of writing an entire ruleset. 


Eventually the Fallout 3 video game was released and I was smitten again with the post-apocalyptic genre.  It did not hurt that the game was set physically where I lived and I wanted to build terrain that mirrored my locale. So after building and painting terrain, collecting models and rules, I was honestly not satisfied with the rulesets available for the post-apocalypse genre.   There were options, but they either did not do what I wanted them to do or were too simple.  Instead I sat down and started writing up my own stuff heavily influenced by Necromunda and Mordheim. 


After I was about fifty pages in, I thought, “you know what? I have a stable day job, free time (I was child free then): I could produce my own game if I wanted to.”  So I did.  Over a period of about three years I wrote and playtested the ruleset that would become This Is Not a Test – a warband skirmish game knee deep in the common tropes of the post-apocalyptic genre, playable with any miniatures you want, and in an open sandbox for players to have adventures in.   From that point on, I was no longer a simple hobby wargamer, but a hobby rules publisher as well.  It pays more, but comes with twice the frustration!


How did This Is Not a Test influence the design of Reality’s Edge?


I released This Is Not a Test in 2016 and the game has done quite well for itself.  People like the rules, so when I was developing other rulesets it made sense to keep them.  Of course as Reality’s Edge was my sophomore ruleset, I wanted to change things up a bit, while still using the core This is Not a Test mechanics.  As a result, Reality’s Edge would be intimately familiar to a This is Not a Test player as they share a common DNA, but there are some stark differences.  Both games use a D10 as that particular dice gives a good spread of results, but does not swing as much as a D20.  The game also uses a dynamic Initiative system that keeps all players involved.  Essentially, models have a Mettle stat.  If the game were an RPG, this would include their will, intelligence, dexterity, and charisma, but for a wargame, this is combined into one stat.  Before a model can activate, they must make an Activation Test against this stat.  Roll a D10, combine the result with their Mettle stat, and if they score a 10 or higher they pass.  If a model succeeds, they get two actions and the player may test for another model to activate.  This keeps going until the player runs out of models or they fail a test.  For a failure, that model only gets one action and play passes to the next player.  Now keep in mind all models will eventually get to go and Initiative will pass back and forth between players during a single turn.  This keeps everyone involved and creates tension; maybe you move all your models, maybe only one!  Both This is Not a Test and Reality’s Edge use this mechanic and it’s likely something that I will use for a very long time. 



How did Reality’s Edge first get started as a project?


I am a friend of Joe McCullough, the author of the very popular Frostgrave.  Joe and I used to work at the same game store in Maryland called Dream Wizards.  Joe eventually left the country and started working for Osprey and the rest is gaming history.  A couple of years ago Osprey started to produce wargames and they were looking for authors to expand their line.  Joe recommended me due to the success of This is Not a Test and after discussing it with them, we agreed that a cyberpunk game would be the best fit.  I think we both went into the discussion more or less wanting a cyberpunk game so things naturally aligned.








What were some of the principal inspirations for the game, both in terms of the ‘fluffy’ elements (lore and so forth) and the main mechanics?


When I was a teenager, I was a huge cyberpunk fan and Reality’s Edge pulls the majority of its inspiration from that 1980’s/1990’s cyberpunk vibe.  If I had to pick my main inspirations it would be a tie between Neuromancer by William Gibson and Snow Crash by Neal Stephenson for the importance of hacking and a worldwide data network, a dystopian future ruled by corporations, and overall gallows humour of the state of decay of humanity brought about by technology.  Besides those two, the biggest inspirations were cyberpunk RPG’s; namely, GURPS Cyberpunk, Shadowrun and Cyberpunk 2020.  Shadowrun is an icon and I loved the vibe of kitting out a small team of mercenaries to go on missions.  From Cyberpunk 2020 I pulled that idea that cybernetics, while powerful, come at the cost of your humanity.  From GURPS Cyberpunk, I drew inspiration for hacking. Despite its age, the original authors did an amazing job of really learning how computers work and their hacking ideas are fantastical while totally grounded in what could have been.  Now of course, Reality’s Edge is different than each one, but I hope fans of those RPG’s can find something familiar in it. To finish things out, the overall vibe of the book borrows heavily from movies and comics like Blade Runner, The Matrix, Johnny Mnemonic and Transmetropolitan.  When I worked on the artist briefing for the book, these were the major sources I wanted to pull from and I think the artist Thomas Elliot did an amazing job.








One of the most unique features of Reality’s Edge is the role of cyberspace. Can you explain how this works, and how you went about designing the system?


As a cyberpunk-themed game, hacking and the worldwide data network are an integral part of Reality’s Edge.  There are a couple of ways to handle hacking in a tabletop miniatures game.  The most common is to have a second board somewhere nearby to represent cyberspace.  By moving chits around on this board, players can influence the main game.  However, in my opinion, this takes away from the action in the main game. I opted to go for a pseudo-magic system a bit influenced by Frostgrave where your hacker model uses his application, or apps, a bit like a wizard casts spells.  You check range, roll against the target’s Firewall, and you check the results.  Each crew, or your group of models, is also accompanied by a digital avatar.  This model cannot be seen by the majority of models, only other virtual beings, and represents a remote hacker following your crew from somewhere far away.  This avatar enters the virtual space linked to the physical space your crew is operating in, tagging along the local virtual network.  Because virtual designers are lazy, these virtual spaces often mirror the physical location they are tied to.  By assuming this, we can have virtual actions and physical actions on the same tabletop.  Now I know this requires a little suspension of disbelief, but playtester feedback showed that this was a simple and quick way of handling hacking, which could have been infinitely complex.  Now hacking is done by apps as mentioned before.  Almost anything carried by a model can be hacked.  Guns can be jammed or forced to shut down, robots and drones can be disabled or even bricked.  There is also a whole suite of apps that let you target the local environment, like causing lights to flare up, gaining control of surveillance cameras, or raising a parking barrier for a bit of impromptu cover.  Of course, cybernetics can be hacked, so there is a real chance a model can be punched to death by their own cyber fist.



Cyberpunk is a very evocative genre – can you talk a bit about how you tried to integrate the narrative cyberpunk themes into the game?


Reality’s Edge assumes what is called the crapsack world trope, which basically means the world sucks. Corporations have taken over and now the few control the many.  To reinforce the low life vibe, I did not want crews of super corporate ninjas jumping about fighting Olympic quality athletes decked out in power armour.  While that is cool, that’s not necessarily the punk vibe of cyberpunk I was chasing.  Instead your crew is made of a low level mercenaries who freelance themselves out.  They take gigs, called JOB OPS, short for job opportunities.  Your leader is a Showrunner who manages the crew. During a non-campaign game, other than your Showrunner, no one else can gain experience points.  Your freelancers are not committed enough to your cause to improve themselves.  But as part of campaign play you can hire them permanently.  Doing so costs you money and effort, but once they join the cause, they get additional abilities and can gain experience.  Another cyberpunk trope is that cybernetics take away your humanity over time.  This was an important addition to the game and is a thematic way to naturaly limit how much chrome a player may want to take without imposing an arbitrary hard limit.  Each piece of chrome has a cost in installation points.  Further, models also have to test for cybershock anytime they suffer four or more points of damage during a single attack or if they roll a natural one, a fumble, when making an activation test.  Generally, you only fail this test on another fumble, making it pretty rare. However, for every 10 IP the model has, they suffer a penalty to that roll.  When a model fails a cybershock test the models slips out of the player’s control a little bit. So players have to balance the utility of their chrome versus the drawbacks of having their sprawl ronin going catatonic, insane, or attacking their friends.  



What was the biggest challenge in designing Reality’s Edge?


Making it all work.  Cyberpunk is a trope heavy genre.  Any cyberpunk game has to have tons of gear and chrome, a simple, but deep, hacking mechanic, cyborgs, street samurai, and lots of other things.  I spent months rewriting, adding things, and taking things away.  Honestly, when all was said and done, the book was double the size of the original size Osprey contracted for.  The book is 320 pages, one of the biggest rulebooks that Osprey has published I believe.  But that should not scare anyone off.  Less than 10% of that is actual mechanics.  Most is just fun options players can pick and choose from.  The biggest challenge was to include everything I thought a cyberpunk game was supposed to have.  I could have cut some things for sure, but in the end I am really happy with the content of the game and I am especially thankful to Osprey for letting the book swell up to meet my craziness. 



What is it about science fiction, generally speaking, that attracted you to the genre?


I’m a huge nerd.  I grew up on Star Wars, Star Trek, and sci-fi books and comics too numerous to count.  I have always been drawn to the fantastic and alien worlds, starships, and laser blasters just appeal to the inner kid in all of us.  Of course, as I grew up and older I was drawn  further towards the cyberpunk and post-apocalyptic genres; both feature technology that only makes things worse for humankind, not better.  What that says about me, I’m not sure. 


Cyberpunk Painting

If you’re going to play Reality’s Edge, chances are you’re going to need some suitably sci-fi miniatures to do so. Whilst the rules don’t come with their own miniatures line, this means that wargamers can do what they do best – improvise! There’s a whole range of miniatures out there that’d make great proxies; after looking through the book, we decided we’d have a try at painting a CORPSEC grunt and a runaway robot.


Paints used:

Vallejo: Imperial Blue, German Grey, Neutral Grey, Medium Blue, Pale Flesh, Dragon Red, Livery Green, Medium Sea Grey, Black, Gunmetal Grey
The Army Painter: Wolf Grey, Ice Storm
Citadel: Nuln Oil, Reikland Fleshshade, Skavenblight Dinge, Rhinox Hide


Corpsec Grunt

In any cyberpunk setting worth its salt there’s always the omnipresent mook; nameless, gun-wielding dudes who can generally be found patrolling high security areas or firing at the main protagonist as they run across the rooftops. Our grunt is actually a kitbash of pieces from several different companies. The arms and legs are from Anvil Industry’s PMC line and the head from Mad Robot Miniatures. The torso is a Warhammer 40,000 Cadian torso with the Imperial Aquila shaved off.

1 The miniature was assembled and primed grey. The arms were kept separate  to make painting the chest easier. All the fabric was painted Imperial Blue.











2 The armour, equipment and weapon were painted German Grey.








3 The model was washed with Nuln Oil.








4 The edges of the armour were highlighted Neutral Grey and the folds on the fabric Medium Blue. Skavenblight Dinge was painted on the tops of the boots and along the crease of the black fabric.





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5 The flesh was given two thin coats of Pale Flesh and washed with Reikland Fleshshade. Pale Flesh was then painted over this on all but the darkest recesses. The headset was painted black, and the eyepiece and a button on the comms unit Livery Green. Dragon Red was painted on the other two buttons. Finally, the muzzle and the working parts of the gun were painted Gunmetal Grey, and the magazine Sky Grey. Nuln Oil was then washed over these parts. The base is Gunmetal Grey with a Nuln Oil wash.





Runaway Robot

The whine of motors, the pneumatic hiss of pistons and the staccato bass of heavy weapons fire; all the telltale sounds of one mean machine that’s ready to rumble! This miniature is a Wardroid from Pig Iron productions.





1 The miniature was assembled and primed Wolf Grey.












2 The mechanical elements were painted Medium Sea Grey.














3 Areas such as the ammo box and wires on the back were painted German Grey.










4 The whole model was washed with Nuln Oil.












5 Wolf Grey and Medium Sea Grey were reapplied to the miniature, leaving the wash only in the recesses.












6 Highlights of Ice Storm were applied around the edges of the armour.









7 The lenses and several doodads on the figure’s back were painted Dragon Red. To add scratches to the armour, get some Rhinox Hide (or any other dark brown colour) and paint thin lines on the armour using a detail brush. Then get your highlight colour (here, Ice Storm) and paint a line directly underneath it. This creates an illusion of three-dimensionality.





Creating an Industrial Base

Take a blob of epoxy putty and roll it flat on the base with a wet pen. Take a thin, straight object like a piece of plasticard or the blunt side of a craft knife and press lines into the putty. Use a pen to create the rivets in each corner.


Proxy War

Gamers have a good variety of sources when it comes to cyberpunk miniatures. Mantic’s Pathfinders and Corporation Booster for Star Saga are inexpensive places to start, whilst Necromunda units from Games Workshop also work well. Anvil industry sell a number of modern and near future conversion kits, including bionics.



Interview by James Winspear

Images supplied by Osprey Publishing

This review originally appeared in Issue 437 of Miniature Wargames  . Pick up the latest issue in print or digital here or subscribe to make sure you never miss another issue 


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