This is the one hundred twenty-second entry in the Scratching That Itch series, wherein I randomly select and write about one of the 1741 games and game-related things included in the Bundle for Racial Justice and Equality. The Bundle raised $8,149,829.66 split evenly between the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund and Community Bail Fund, but don’t worry if you missed it. There are plenty of ways you can help support the vital cause of racial justice; try here for a start. Lastly, as always, you may click on images to view larger versions.

A sleek helicopter sporting a corporate logo has just delivered another random selection from the Bundle for Racial Justice and Equality. It’s The Company, by Mega Corp, and its tagline in the bundle reads:

Corporate Survival Horror

The only way to make survival horror more horrifying is to make it corporate.

The Company is a tabletop role-playing game that requires 3-6 human players, and I lack the time to assemble and organize such a group. So, I have not actually played The Company, I’ve just read through the book(s) and written my impressions here. I say books because there are separate ones for the Manager, who assumes the role of GM, and the rest of the group, who will assume the roles of specific characters they create. This means a lot of details of the setting and themes are reserved for the GM’s eyes only, while the other players’ hapless characters are thrust into dangerous missions on behalf of the massive Wuhan-Baxter corporation. All they know is that the company is involved in all sorts of dangerous research, and when things go wrong, emergency response teams like theirs are sent in to protect and retrieve company assets at all costs.

The authors cite inspiration from the film Alien, the Half-Life games, and the works of Michael Crichton, which should give a rough idea of the tone. The game is set in the present day, but in an alternate timeline in which a lot of weird and supernatural stuff happened that is only vaguely described. The Baxter corporation, which later merged with its rival the Wuhan Consortium, was mixed up in nearly all of it, and carries on the tradition to this day. With reckless disregard for the wellbeing of its employees, Wuhan-Baxter meddles in all sorts of dangerous activities, and when disaster strikes, the Asset Recovery and Containment Division (ARC) gets sent in to clean up the mess.

The uncaring and ruthless corporate setting is expressed mechanically via Stress, which characters accumulate often during their dangerous missions. Any type of difficult task in The Company, including combat, is resolved by rolling one or more ten-sided dice, but the default chance of success is only 30%. To even the odds, players must apply their characters’ skills or items to add additional dice, increasing the chances of rolling a success. Unless, of course, it’s a particularly difficult challenge that requires two or more success rolls. Failing a roll incurs Stress (unless it’s a combat roll, which tends to involve getting hurt instead), and at any time the GM can demand a player roll for Burnout. That’s another ten-sided die roll which, if the result is lower than the character’s current Stress level, leads to a swath of (mostly) bad outcomes.

From reading the Management Manual (for GMs), which includes a full premade mission to play, I gleaned that Stress gets handed out constantly from other sources too. The included mission involves investigating an undersea laboratory that has cut off communication with the surface, and the team will incur Stress just from stumbling upon all of the horrible things that are happening down there. Enter a room? +2 Stress at the grisly sight inside. Use your skills to investigate more closely? Another +1 Stress for discovering it’s even more unsettling than it first appeared. Ramping up Stress seems to be key to maintaining tension and excitement for the players. As is the time limit: every mission has an explicit timer, and all actions take time, so players must make tough decisions about what to do and where to go before the situation gets even worse.

To counteract Stress, we have Drive. Players earn Drive by acting appropriately for their job — Soldier, Scientist, Medic, Engineer, or Technician — and can then spend it to add dice to tricky rolls, “push” a failed roll to get a second chance, or rest for a short period to recover some health and reduce Stress. But that timer is still ticking, so don’t rest too much. The mission-based structure of The Company means it’s easy to play one-off sessions, or campaign play where the same characters go on multiple missions over multiple play sessions. For campaigns, Drive is also used for character advancement, so players will face tough decisions about spending Drive during missions to survive, versus hoarding it for later. There is bonus Drive awarded at the end of missions, however, so there will always be something to use for improving character skills and nabbing new perks.

The Company sounds like it could be a lot of fun, but I suspect an experienced GM will be needed. The mission included with the Management Manual comes with a full timeline of events that only the GM knows, and players must piece together what happened once they arrive on site. There’s a map, several non-player characters with their own objectives, and a limited time window to return to the surface or risk getting stuck in an increasingly dangerous situation. All of that detail will be a great help when players try their first game, but then it will be up to the GM to create new missions of similar complexity. The Stress mechanic and explicit time limit are not common features of tabletop role-playing games, so GMs may not have a great sense for how to design around them. It will be a delicate balancing act to create a mystery that players can at least partially unravel within the allotted time, while maintaining tension and the right amount of Stress.

I should note, however, that Mega Corp have also released a supplement to the game, Conflict Resolution Guidelines, which includes six full missions by different authors, alongside some extra rules. That’s not included in the bundle, but — like the base game — it’s offered for any price you want, including free. As a taster, an Optional Rules Gazette is included with the base game, showcasing some of the new rules from Conflict Resolution Guidelines. It includes a new Executive character that the GM can control as an additional party member who does not always have the team’s best interests at heart, new perks and items, and more ideas for campaign play, including the option to leave the company and go freelance.

So, if dealing with weird, otherworldly crises for a massive uncaring corporation sounds like fun, definitely check out The Company. It seems to nail the tone, and the mechanics sound fun as long as missions are well designed. So get out there and protect corporate assets like a loyal employee. Don’t worry if you missed it in the bundle, because The Company is sold for any price you wish to pay, including free. The Conflict Resolution Guidelines add-on isn’t in the bundle but is also available for whatever price you want, so there’s nothing stopping you from grabbing that too.

That’s 122 down, and only 1619 to go!