Wednesday, June 7, 2023

Retrospective: Cyborg Commando

Catching lightning in a bottle is a wildly improbable thing to do once, so I don't think reflects poorly on a creator not to be able to do it a second time. Consequently, I find it difficult to judge the post-TSR career of Gary Gygax as harshly as some, even though his achievements after his October 1985 departure from the company he founded more than a decade prior could, at best, be described as uneven. Still, there's something genuinely admirable about the naive optimism Gygax must have possessed in thinking that his new business venture, New Infinities Productions, had a snowball's chance of lasting longer than the barely three years it actually did. 

Of course, the company's likelihood of success might have been greater had its inaugural first (and only) original roleplaying game hadn't been Cyborg Commando. Published in 1987, Cyborg Commando is a near-future science fiction RPG written by Gygax, Frank Mentzer, and Kim Mohan. Its premise is that, in the year 2035, Earth is invaded by extraterrestrial beings called Xenoborgs. In order to combat them, mankind turns to the nascent technology of cybernetics to create the titular cyborg commandos – human brains placed inside advanced robotic bodies arrayed with the most advanced weaponry available. Players assume the roles of these commandos as they attempt to rid Earth of the Xenoborgs and drive them back into space. (Since the initial boxed set is subtitled "Set 1: The Battle for Earth," I can only assume there were plans to expand the game's scope beyond this planet.)

Cyborg Commando consisted of a 48-page player's book (CCF Manual), a 64-page referee's book (Campaign Book), a 16-page booklet of introductory scenarios, and ten-sided dice in a box. This arrangement closely mimics TSR's own products at the time, but that should come as no surprise since New Infinities seems to have been staffed almost entirely by ex-TSR employees. That said, the game materials are noticeably less attractive and professionally done than those of TSR of the same era, particularly when it comes to the artwork. I wouldn't describe anything as awful, only a bit less "slick," no doubt due to the smaller production budget of the company.

The CCF Manual provides a brief overview of the game's setting and history, as well as the purpose of the Cyborg Commando Force to which all the player characters belong. The bulk of the book is devoted to the game's rules, which are a bit of a mess. The game uses ten-sided dice in a variety of ways: simple (1d10), added (1d10 + 1d10), and multiplied (1d10 × 1d10). The last use is particularly interesting to me, because I would have expected the game to use a straight percentile roll, but, perhaps in an attempt to "innovate," the designers opted to go another route. Helpfully(?), the CCF Manual includes several probability graphs to show the likelihood of results of each type of die roll. Though I am sure some players would find information of this sort useful, the inclusion of these tables is sadly representative of the game as a whole: too much detail about some things and not enough about others.

Character generation and combat both come in "basic" and "advanced" versions, with the latter building on the former. In principle, Cyborg Commando is completely playable using either version of the rules. However, much of the game's text and presentation seems to favor the advanced version, if only because of the additional detail it offers. A good example of this can be seen in the skill lists, where the advanced rules included many, many more skills than the basic version. Of course, the advanced version includes such skills as "general creativity," "domestic arts I," "domestic arts II," "obstetrics & gynecology," and "error avoidance," so I'm not entirely sure much of value would be lost by sticking to the basic versions. I mention all of this not mock Cyborg Commando. Rather, I hope it gives you some sense of the game system's strange obsession with minutiae that I can hardly imagine would ever come up in play at the table.

Of course, this obsession is not limited merely to the rules. The Campaign Book abounds in this level of useless detail as well. For example, nearly half of that volume consists of information on the populations of the countries of the world, along with their latitude and longitude coordinates, major cities, and CCF bases. Yet, for all that, this information consists of little more than tables and maps. It's a lot of heat but not much light for the referee hoping to get a sense of what the Earth of 2035 is actually like for the purposes of running adventures and campaigns in Cyborg Commando. 

The other half of the Campaign Book is more genuinely useful. It details the Xenoborgs, including their biology, society, and culture. In addition, this section delves more deeply into the aliens' polymorphism, revealing that their leaders, the so-called Masters, are a type of Xenoborg not yet seen on Earth. The Masters are directing the invasion of the planet for its resources, hoping to make use of them to further the expansion of its star-spanning empire, which consists of hundreds of worlds across the galaxy. There are also sections about the FTL Q-drive the Xenoborgs use, which, as I noted earlier, seems to suggest that New Infinities hoped that Cyborg Commando would eventually expand beyond Earth.

That was not to be and it's not hard to see why. Cyborg Commando contains a handful of genuinely interesting ideas but the vast majority of it is muddled, half-baked, or silly. Judged even by the standards of 1987, it's not a good game and I suspect that even the folks at New Infinities knew this. The game received a small amount of support in the form of three adventure modules and some novels, but, by 1988, the company seems to have pinned its hopes on doing knock-off D&D support material – the Fantasy Master line – that might garner attention due to the names attached to them (Gygax, Mentzer, etc.). When that didn't happen, the company, along with Cyborg Commando, was largely forgotten. I wish I could say that was a shame.  


  1. I found my copy of Cyborg Commando in a dollar store, probably in the nineties. The mechanics are a lot like Dangerous Journeys, especially character stats. There are three basic stats: Mental, Neural, and Physical. The advanced game breaks them into three substats each, Capacity, Integrity, and Recovery, for a total of 9 stats.

    This compares closely to the Mental, Physical, and Spiritual traits in Dangerous Journeys, and the mechanic is similar to how Dangerous Journeys “advanced” breaks them into two substats per basic stat which are then further subdivided into Capacity, Power, and Speed for each substat, for 18 stats.

    1. That's fascinating. I haven't looked at Dangerous Journeys in a long time, so the possible connection between the two games wasn't apparent.

    2. I have the modules, and I was always surprised how little "hook" there was for a game made by gygax

      and sadly, I LIKED dangerous journeys, I have all the books

  2. It's too bad that New Infinities never published the AD&Dish version of Necropolis that they advertised. It is also a shame that they didn't publish more of the same quality as The Abduction of Good King Despot.

  3. Cyborg Commando sounds like a dud. Glad I missed it. I did, regrettably, buy one of the Dangerous Journeys books in the mid 90s, huge disappointment. Still love the look of the 1e AD&D covers though and deeply appreciate Gary's genius as expressed in those tomes.

  4. I am fascinated by Error Avoidance as a skill. So much potential!

    1. Having "obstetrics & gynecology," and "error avoidance" next to each other makes one think Gygax missed a huge opportunity by not making a RPG tie-in for Cronenberg's "Dead Ringers."

  5. I remember seeing this in Waldenbooks and thinking, wtf? It seemed to be aiming at a younger, or at least, less discerning audience. It also felt like the designers were not paying attention to other game designs of the era; had it been released 5 years earlier, it might have garnered a different reaction.

  6. I'm still angry about having wasted money on this dog of a game even after all these years. Whether I'm angry with Gygax for making such tripe or with myself for falling for his name as a selling point varies depends on my mood. And then I repeated the mistake with Dangerous Journeys, although in that case it was because I assumed GDW wouldn't have put out something as muddled and shoddy as Cyborg Commando was.

    I suppose the bright side of the experience was to make me quite thoroughly immune to rose-colored glasses syndrome where Gary is involved.

  7. I remember reading at least one of the novels. It did not impress.

  8. James, I had utterly forgotten about this game until your post, but it, in a weird way, represents my apotheosis as writer of role-playing games, and led to my sole bizarre encounter with Gary Gygax. Bear with me, if you will...

    In late 1987 I stumbled across a copy of Gateways Magazine, a nascent national publication focused on nerd culture — mostly games & comic books — that I soon found my self working for as a freelance writer. The next year I pitched the publisher on a multipart series on the history of RPGs that gave me access to virtually *everyone* in the industry: Gygax, Arneson, Chadwick, Stafford, etc etc etc. New Infinities was a major advertiser in the pages of Gateways, and I was encouraged to ask a lot of questions about the company and Gary's plans for the future — but recalling the conversation now, we were both far more interested in talking about the past.

    I spent months doing interviews and working on the article, and Part I was published the summer the magazine had a booth at GenCon. I saw it as my big shot at breaking into the field and didn't want to pass up the opportunity, so I used the weekend to go around the convention and introduce myself to everyone I had spoken to — and when I got to the New Infinities booth I was... underwhelmed doesn't even begin to describe it. It was almost non-existent. For all the hard-sell and Gary’s going on about “a game that’s going to change the industry… again” it was clear no one was interested in Cyborg Commando.

    But everyone WAS interested in Gygax.

    Gary was at GenCon with his second wife and new daughter, as well as their secretary/nanny, and it seemed he couldn’t walk 5 feet without a someone stopping him to talk or gush. I swung by the booth a couple of times in the hope of meeting him and getting him to sign my copy of the magazine, but the crowd was always pulling at Gary.


Finally, his secretary pulled me behind the table at their booth and introduced us. Gygax and I chatted for a while but were repeatedly interrupted. His secretary went to run an errand and his wife stopped by to hand off the baby and someone came by to remind Gary of a meeting.

    “Oh,” Gygax responded. “I need to talk to someone, could you watch her?” he said, handing me his newborn child without a second thought. Suddenly, the scrum of people disappeared and I was left standing by my self, the sole occupant of the New Infinities booth — except for the cooing prodigy of E. Gary Gygax in my arms.

    I truly had no idea what to do.

    Any fear I had about having to sell copies of Cyborg Commando — or having to care for Gary’s child — were quickly waylaid by the realization that no one was buying the game; and that, within a few moments, the girl’s nanny reappeared saying, “Oh my god sorry, we forgot the baby.”


    1. That's a remarkable story. Thanks for sharing it.

    2. I love the baby story. How many of us can say that we held Gary's baby? Well done!

    3. Do you know which one of his kids it was? You've got a heck of an introduction story if you ever run into them.

    4. The problem with that story is Gary only had one child with Gail, Alex Gygax, a son. All of Gary's daughters were from the first marriage and were grown. So I think you are mistaken with that detail.

    5. JRT — it is entirely possible I misremembered that fact; it was 35 years ago after all, and a chaotic moment. For whatever reason I got it in my head that was his daughter I was unexpectedly babysitting, and never had occasion to question it until now. Thx! — JPT

    6. No problem, just making sure people don't think there's some hidden Gygax daughter somewhere...LOL...

  9. I've never even read this game, but its fame preceds it.
    The funny thing is that a few years later, her in Italy, a mini-rpg with a similar concept was produced: Cyb.
    Cyb, while clearly a product of its age, had a very neat "coding" system: the pcs collected cards (the game used playing cards instead of dice) as pieces of programs they could use to unlock the powers of their android bodies.
    So, for example, a set of 2 of clbs/energy-knight of
    swords/ eyes- ace of clubs/manipulation could be used to shoot laser beams from your eyes

  10. I owned a copy. Actually I got it by a game importer and was asked to do a review for a fanzine.

    I considered literally trash. Not much for the game system (even if the idea that you rolled 2d10 and MULTIPLIED the two values to get a result between 1 and 100 - minus prime numbers, of course - was quite stupid, IMHO...) but for the fact that there was absolutely nothing to do except making insipid "missions" where you would fight insectoid aliens or try to get some gizmo that falled in their pincers.

    I do not own Dangerous Journeys, so I cannot comment on that being a better product. Cyborg Commando cemented in me the impression that Gary Gygax may have been a trailblazer... but as a game designer he was not really good.

    Especially if you consider what was the situation in 1987, for RPGs:

    I mean: Ars Magica, Star Wars, Traveller 2300.

    And the year BEFORE saw GURPS, Warhammer RPG and Ghostbusters.

    Cyborg Commando proved that he was neither good at contributing anything significant in terms of mechanics (GURPS, D6, Traveller AD/Traveller 2300) neither in inventing interesting worlds where you could do something interesting with your PCs
    (Traveller 2300 again, Ars Magica, Warhammer and Talislanta are all examples of the latter).