Shadow of the Beanstalk is a supplement for Fantasy Flight Games’s in-house generic RPG system Genesys, set in their own hard sci-fi and cyberpunk setting the Android Universe, previously seen in the now sadly discontinued LCG Android: Netrunner. The book expanded upon the worlds we gleaned in the board games and the Worlds of Android setting book, and as a RPG supplement with much to say about what kind of characters you can play as or interact with, it grabbed the chance and made an unmistakable stance in support of diversity, giving us sample characters that’s trans, non-binary, and everything in between. To add insult to the injury to all the asshole fanboys who claimed that diversity hurts the sales of Marvel comics or Magic: the Gathering, the book quickly climbed its way into DriveThruRPG’s hot list as soon as the digital version was out, with Worlds of Android quickly following suite, proving a diverse setting indeed sell in this age, and “diversity hurts sales” is either caused by some other factor, or is simply a large pile of horseshit vomited up by bigots.
Lemme digress a little, here: for a long time, we trans people is a largely invisible demographic in RPGs; which is ironic, since the make-believe nature of RPGs makes it a perfect tool for exploring one’s identity. It took Dungeons & Dragons, the most popular and enduring RPG, until its 5th edition to finally officially admit that we exist, just like we’ve existed all over the world and all through history. But to me, the biggest offenders are science fiction games; you’d think that in a future where robot eyes are common, trans people would be free to be whoever they want, but noooo; ShadowRun, another one of the most popular and enduring RPG, didn’t even bother to acknowledge our existence in its 5th edition core book, and finally deemed it fit to grace us with a lip service in the Player’s Handbook; Coriolis, a game that does a wonderful job portraying a sci-fi future shaped by a non-Western culture, neglected to mention how new tech and ideology might affect trans or gay people at all. I can go on, but I see no reason to make an exhaustive list of all RPGs ever published.
On the positive side, Eclipse Phase is one of the first games that fully embraced the varied sexuality and gender that its body-swapping, transhumanist future can bring, and is one of the very few games that dare to make an ideological stand against bigotry and prejudice in this era of post-truth and oppression. Apocalypse World and Monsterheart, along with many of the games Powered by the Apocalypse or inspired by it, inherently let your character present as any gender, which includes neutral or tresgressing, and the way the relationship mechanics work in many of them means any PC is just a few dice rolls away from realizing they are pansexual (or not). I would go on, but unfortunately that’s pretty much the only games I can think of that actually made a real attempt to represent us, until Shadow of the Beanstalk.
Back to the book itself, it’s a supplement for Fantasy Flight Games’s generic RPG Genesys, which means you need a copy of the core rules to be able to play. Since the system uses custom dice that’s a pain to purchase outside of the US, you may have to either settle for the paid dice app or painstakingly use normal dice along with a look-up table. Apart from that pet peeve, I have no particular feelings about the system; it does its job as a generic system just fine, and it’s not as crunchy as, say, GURPS, but also not as flexible, so it wouldn’t have been my go-to system for anything. It does at least make one major improvement over the system used in their Star Wars RPG line: since improving stats is the absolutely best way to improve your chance of success at a task, in the Star Wars RPGs, you have a very strong incentive to save up all your experience to improve stats, while neglecting the varied Talents that give you interesting abilities; in Genesys, you can no longer improve your stats with XP past character creation, but if you buy enough Talents, you can eventually purchase a Talent called Dedication, which improve one of your stats by 1, up to its usual max.
Apart from restructuring a few skills like Computer or Knowledge, the main addition to the core Genesys rules in Shadow of the Beanstalk is the favor system, where your character can owe the various factions – from corps and orgcrimes to activists and terrorists – favors in order to obtain more XP and credits during character creation, thus giving you greater freedom when making a character. It also expands upon the hacking rules, where a computer system is divided into subsystems, each potentially protected by ICE: Intrusion Countermeasure Electronics, a term coined by William Gibson, the Father of the cyberpunk subgenre. Each ICE belongs to one of three subtypes, and each “breaker” program the hacker use can only breaks certain types of ICE; the hacker needs to defeat all the ICE protecting a system before accessing it. If that sounds familiar, it’s because it does a decent job of capturing the gameplay of Android: Netrunner.
Compared to the Worlds of Android setting book, which contained many vignettes of varying qualities and some amazing technical details, Shadow of the Beanstalk does its job and delivers many cool ideas and hooks that will get any creative type going. Instead of going into details about how a laborer clone is made or how the space elevator leverage momentum, it tells us about how different subsidiaries of a given megacorp may have different work cultures and ways of dealing with freelancers, or how asking “You sexy?” in a bar will either start a brawl or led you to a fellow vet.
And as I said, it makes an unflinching stance in favor of diversity; sample characters are peppered through out the description of New Angeles, a diverse megalopolis built around the titular Beanstalk, a space elevator situated in South America. Many of these characters are unmistakably trans, with descriptions about how a trans man had to leave his hometown because his family wouldn’t accept his identity, or how a grateful community chipped in to pay for the treatments for a trans woman. It also gives us many non-binary characters, with terms like singular they, xe and Mx being used for different characters. In the section about a cutting-edge hospital, the book took the time to point out that they can change “gender, skin color, and even ethnicity” through a combination of gene therapy and surgery, something most other sci-fi game never bothered to mention. At first, I thought the use of the term “gender” may be a mistake, but given how well the book presents trans people otherwise, an idea struck me: since the bread-and-butter of the biotech giant that owns the hospital is to quickly grow and educate clones to use as labor, could they actually use similar techniques to undo social conditioning that trans people had suffered? Does this mean they can also “cure” trans people by making them cis, and thus actually change their gender instead of sex? The implication here is both wonderful and terrifying at the same time, just like any good cyberpunk or sci-fi setting should be.
In an era where Goliaths like Amazon Prime or Netflix casually embrace varying degree of bigotry just to appeal to that small demographic of die-hard assholes, it’s easy to lose all faith in a Capitalist system that seemed hell-bent on appeasing the lowest scums of the Earth; that’s why it’s hearty to see that Fantasy Flight Games, the industry giant in the realm of traditional gaming, takes an unflinching stance in support of diversity, and hopefully their resulted success would convince other companies that diversity and respect aren’t just morally laudable, but also just good business decisions; then maybe one day we can finally drive all the bigots into the hole in the ground where they belong, and live in the kind of bright future promised to us in many science fiction. To reach that end, we all must do what we can.