Reading Netrunner: Factions.

Note: With this series I’m specifically interested in the way Netrunner expresses fiction through the interactions of its rules. These articles are not intended as analysis of cards in terms of their utility in competitive play.

Now we have an understanding of the rules we can explore another elements important to the expression of fiction in Netrunner, the way personality and context is supported by factions, identities, and influence.

For both runners and corporations, the cards available in Netrunner are divided into two types: faction cards, and neutral cards. Every faction has a number of identities each with a unique ability. These identities represent the individuals or corporate divisions that you will play as. Decks are usually constructed around the ability of a specific identity, with this choice also serving to determine your faction.

There are three runner factions and two corporation factions; there are also three additional mini-factions on the runner side that come with their own specific identities and cards. Faction cards can be used freely by any identity within their faction, and come with an influence value (between 1 and 5 points) that indicates how costly they are to include in a deck of a different faction. Influence costs are only taken into account when constructing a deck, once a game has begun all cards in a deck behave as normal. It is from these faction specific cards that the strengths and weakness of the various factions emerge, where their personalities are defined.

Neutral cards can be used by anybody and provide generic abilities, such as reliable economy and card draw. Neutral cards exist to compensate for each faction’s weaknesses by offering straightforward alternatives to including, the usually more powerful, out of faction cards.

Along with their unique ability, each identity is defined by their minimum deck size and influence limit; the standard being a 45 card minimum deck size and a 15 point influence limit. Corporation decks needs to include agendas worth at least 20 points (rising by an extra 2 points for each additionally 5 cards). In general runner decks will stay at 45 cards, corporations will extend this to 49 allowing them to keep to the 20 agenda point limit while having 4 extra cards with which to decrease their agenda density. Some identities have different minimum deck sizes, 40 cards grants a more efficiency deck as each card has a slightly higher change of being drawn; while a 50 card minimum leads to the reverse. Larger minimum deck sizes are reserved for identities with particularly powerful abilities.

By expending their influence with other factions, runners and corporations can gain access to abilities that compensate for their weaknesses. NBN might be able to tag runners with ease, but they need to rely on Weyland to do something once they’ve found them. Criminals are out to make money, and sometimes that means exploiting their influence with Shapers to gain access to the powerful ICE breakers needed to breach a corporation’s HQ.

Though deck size and influence limits impact deck building, the ability is the primary factor when deciding on an identity.

The original identity for the Haas-Bioroid corporation, “Engineering The Future”, has an ability that means the first time you install a card (be that an asset, agenda, upgrade, or ICE) each turn you gain a credit. This is a powerful ability as you gain a credit for taking actions you want to be taking anyway.

On the runner side the original Shaper identity, Kate “Mac” McCaffrey, lowers the install cost of the first program or piece of hardware installed each turn by a credit. Again, a strong consistent ability, you gain a discount for doing something you want to be doing a lot.


Runners:

Anarchists and revolutionaries, Anarchs are the all or nothing faction. They have some of the most powerful abilities in the game, but these come with significant drawbacks Though originally card draw was a challenge they now have some of the most consistent and reliable draw options in the game; the world changed and anarchy is starting to look like the best defense against corporate fascism.

Anarchs can burn through cards quickly, fortunately they also have ways of retrieving them once trashed. Cards represent both the things a runner can make use of (other people, their rig, their programs), and their own health; Anarchs will gladly burn through anything if it means getting what they want. Notably, they are also the only faction that has the ability to return a specific card of any type from their heap to their grip. With an Anarch nothing is wasted, even old friends.

Powerful, cheap, but with inherent limitations Anarch ICE breakers usually require support cards to work effectively. When facing ICE their strength is in dealing with barriers, they are the faction who tear down walls.

Faust is possibly the most pure distillation of the Anarch mindset. An AI ICE breaker than can interact with any form of ICE, it costs 3 credits to install and comes with a base strength of 2. By trashing a card from your grip you can increase the strength of Faust by 2, and trashing another card will break a single sub-routine. With Faust, and enough cards, Anarchs can get through almost any ICE they want to at the cost of trashing cards, and putting themselves within range of being flatlined. Software, hardware, friends? Doesn’t matter, Anarch will use you to get what they want. Fortunately, Anarchs have multiple in-factions ways of lowering the strength of ICE they are encountering, decreasing the number of cards that need to be trashed.

A deal with the devil, powerful abilities that might get you killed, that’s the Anarch approach.

The runner faction with the strongest connections to the physical world, Criminals are all about action and exploitation. They have some of the most impactful events in the game, supported by numerous ways to make money. Though their software can be expensive to both install and use, they have several ways of manipulating ICE that don’t require the actual breaking of sub-routines. Through expose effects Criminals can reveal what an unrezzed card is without having to interact with it, letting them either avoid it or wait until they have the means of dealing with it. They can also bypass ICE entirely, or derez it, forcing the corporation to spent credits if they want to rez it again.

Criminals are tool users, not engineers, their ICE breakers are expensive, and they lack the means of returning them to play if they are trashed. Criminals lack Shaper’s consistent card draw, in return for better filtering options. If they want something they know exactly how to get it. Combined with their ability to reveal hidden information through expose effects, good Criminal players need never worry about facing a problem they can’t already deal with.

Where Shapers deal best with code gates, and Anarchs with barriers, Criminals have an affinity for sentries, the most directly punishing type of ICE. Sentries are usually represented as entities able to observe and identify runners. A consistent theme among killers (anti-sentry ICE breakers), is their ability to disguise a runner’s identity or otherwise trick the sentry, (Mimic, Alias, and Femme Fatale being three popular killers). Unsurprisingly Criminals have the most experience at identity theft and deception, their killers are some of the best in the game.

The nature of their work means Criminals accept getting located as an inherent risk, so they have several ways of either avoiding, or removing tags. These usually come courtesy of their various contacts throughout the criminal underworld, including corrupt politicians, and corporate employees.

A classic Criminal card is Account Siphon. For 0 credits you initiate a run against the corporation’s HQ, if successful instead of accessing cards you force them to lose up to 5 credits, then you gain 2 credits for each credit lost and take a total of 2 tags. The economic swing enabled by this card is dramatic and can be the difference between winning and losing, especially if you are able to perform multiple in a game. Taking 2 tags is a risk, though as each tag can be removed for a click and 2 credits you will have more than enough after a successful Account Siphon to deal with them. Usually though, manual tag removal is not necessary given how many ways Criminals have to remove tags at a reduced cost. An event that targets HQ, Account Siphon also synergies with other in-faction abilities that reward making runs on the corporation’s HQ.

Criminals are in it for the money, and they’re not above exploitation, manipulation and straight out brute force to get it.

Shapers are the artists, engineers, and academics of the Andorid world. Theirs is the faction of powerful software and hardware, and the means of mitigating the cost (in both clicks and credits) of getting them into play. Representing both their mastery of technology, and the diverse communities they inhabit, Shapers have a lot of options to draw cards, but limited means of filtering that draw to ensure they get a specific card. Shapers make friends easily, though those friends can’t always provide exactly what they need.

Hackers in the classic sense, Shapers understand the systems they are manipulating on a fundamental level, they can change ICE from one type to another, or find the exact tool for the job at a moment’s notice. As befits their position as masters of software the Shaper ICE breaker suite is most efficient at dealing with code gates; the most variable of the ICE types.

Not as obviously engaged in illegal activity as the other runner factions, Shapers are able to maintain strong relationships with academic institutes; a lot of their resources coming from universities and religious organisations.

Test Run is an example of a typical Shaper card. For 3 credits you can search your stack or the heap for a program and install it for the rest of the turn. Once this turn is over that card is returned to the top of your stack, where it can be drawn again during your next turn. With Test Run not only can you search for a specific card, but you can install it at a potentially reduced cost. Being returned to your stack after the turn mitigates some of its power, but now you know exactly where that card is, information that alone can be worth 3 credits. When targeting programs that have usage limits Test Run allows you to use those card more times than normal. Some programs need to be targeted at a specific server, and with Test Run you can try out a card against one server, before targeting it at another when you install it later.

Shapers are problem solvers, when they need a particular tool they find it, or just change the problem until it fits one of the tools they already have.

Corporations:

In the world of Android: Netrunner Haas-Bioroid are responsible for the construction of synthetic bioroids, artificial humanoids used for labour. Thanks to this reliable and cheap workforce Haas-Bioroid has become the corporation of labour and manufacturing. They are masters are performing multiple tasks at once. If a sudden need arises to work extra hours just throw some more bioroids at the problem. This absolute control of time management can also be seen in their ability to waste the runner’s time, draining them of clicks and limiting their ability to get anything done.

Their in-faction bioroid ICE have good strength to cost ratios, but come with the downside that their sub-routines can be broken by spending clicks. With enough time even the most dangerous bioroid can be reasoned with, or circumvented.

Haas-Bioroid is about progress, their core faction ability support a mindset of constantly installing. Not only do they have powerful assets and ICE, but they also possess several ways of returning cards to play if they are trashed. They may lack consistent means of inflicting physical damage on runners, but that doesn’t mean they are unable to take direct action. Officially, bioroids can’t harm humans. Unofficially, destroying software and melting the mind of any runner who attempts to access a secured server is much more efficient – not to mention cleaner – than blowing up their house. Because of this Haas-Bioroid are the faction of program destruction and brain damage.

The quintessential Haas-Bioroid card is Biotic Labor. For 4 credits you gain 2 clicks, meaning you get back the click you used to play Biotic Labour and an extra click. If played as your first click this means you now have now have 4 clicks total instead of 3. These clicks can be used for anything, though the classic example is to play Biotic Labour as your first click, install a 3 cost agenda, then advance and score it using the remaining clicks.

Bioroid’s provide an efficiency and reliable labour force, one Haas-Bioroid exploits to the fullest.

Jinteki are a vast bio-tech firm, responsible for both software development and medical research. Jinteki produced clones are an organic alternative to the bioroids manufactured by Haas-Bioroid. Through the Nisei project they have even begun to develop rudimentary psychic abilities.

With medical research taking priority, Jinteki’s software development is geared toward cyber-security. Their ICE suite is one of the cheapest and they have several in-faction ways of rezzing ICE at a reduced cost. Despite this, Jinteki have a hard time keeping runners out of their servers through sub-routines alone. What they can do however is make any runs costly, even potentially deadly. They are the de facto net damage faction, with the greatest number of in-faction trap cards and damage dealing ICE.

As their creator, Jinteki also have access to psychic clones, along with psi based ICE, that forces the runner to attempt to read the corporation’s mind. Failure allows the corporation to leverage abilities that might otherwise be too over-powered. Through these psychic clones and other bio-tech research Jinteki are masters at gaining information on their own future, and adapting to events on the fly. They can see which cards are coming up in their own R&D, and even rearrange the order and placement of ICE to better adapt to threats as they emerge. Jinteki are the only faction with the ability to swap the position of any installed ICE. They can even force runners to face different ICE than they expected, or cause them to end their run on a different server than where they initiated it.

As a mega-corporation with a historical link to Japan, Jinteki also have connections within the Yakuza. These provide limited ways for them to take direct actions against runners.

Project Junebug is an asset that can be advanced like an agenda. The idea is to bait the runner into attempting to steal what looks like an agenda only to suffer the consequences. When the runner accesses Project Junebug the corporation can pay 1 credit to inflict 2 net damage per advancement token. At 3 advancement tokens this is enough to kill a runner through a full grip, but even at 1 or 2 the loss of cards can be game changing. Project Junebug can be especially deadly given how runners are likely to have had to get through damaging ICE before they reached the stage where they can access it. Even if the runner is able to avoid the net damage, or access Project Junebug while it is not advanced (such as from HQ or R&D), the presence of one in a deck can change their behaviour. All advanced cards now have to be treated with caution.

With Jinteki what you see isn’t necessarily what you get, and that poorly defended server might just be bait.

NBN are the media and communications giant of the Android: Netrunner universe. Specialists at locating the runner, tagging them, and using these tags either for their own benefit or as a means of draining the runner’s resources. With access to a vast wealth of information NBN have many abilities that allow them to draw cards, meaning they can get to what they need faster than any other faction; though their ability to filter for specific cards is limited.

Their ICE is not the strongest or most damaging, but often comes with difficult to avoid “on encounter” effects that must be resolved before the ICE can be interacted with at all. These let NBN tag and tax runners even when they cannot keep them out entirely.

Through news broadcasts and entertainment shows NBN are able to saturate the world with their own messaging. From advertising to straight theft, NBN has various in-faction ways of gaining money. They can very rapidly swing the economic game in their favour, with devastating effects for the runner.

If the runner has made a run during their last turn, NBN have ways to find them. For 2 credits SEA Source allows them to initiate a trace with base strength 3 (the corporation can then pay further credits to increase the trace strength, the total of which the runner must match to avoid the trace being successful). If this trace is successful the runner receives one tag. SEA is the Space Elevator Authority, NBN have their sources everywhere, even miles above the surface of the earth.

NBN known everything about you. They’ll either use that to stop you, or simply to make more money.

The Weyland Consortium is a giant faceless conglomerate, even their CEO is never identified; instead their operations are directed by the mysterious Weyland board. Constituting multiple divisions and subsidiaries Weyland’s focus is on construction, security, and banking.

Weyland have their fingers in everything, they can get whatever they need when they need it. Of the four corporation factions Weyland are the only faction to have multiple ways to look for and draw specific cards.

Though their ICE suite heavily prioritises barriers and uncomplicated “end the run” sub-routines Weyland can increase the power of their ICE through advancement tokens. Investing time and money in something makes it stronger, that’s the Weyland philosophy.

Weyland are ruthless, willing to sacrifice their own scored agendas for future gains. The game isn’t over until it’s over, and whoever is left standing at the end is the winner, nothing else matters.

Like criminals, Weyland relies heavily on their presence in the physical world, here their various black and grey operations allow them to inflict meat damage, and destroy runner hardware. Owners of banks and a private military, Weyland are the experts at making money and inflicting damage upon the runner and their associates. Their reliance on sheer brute force is balanced by their lack of a consistent in-faction means of identifying and tagging the runner.

Like Weyland themselves, Scorched Earth is straightforward and blunt. For 3 credits, and provided the runner is tagged, you can inflict 4 meat damage. One of these played against you is painful, multiple are lethal. Any runner facing Weyland has to be mindful of dropping below 4 cards in their grip if they have no other means of meat damage protection. Scorched Earth is (at least before the release of its younger sibling BOOM!) the most common cause of runner death in Netrunner.

Weyland’s approach to problem solving is simple, remove the problem, and if necessary the entire city block the problem is in; then make money on the reconstruction.


Mechanics, factions, and identities. These three elements, supported by flavour text and card art, form the narrative foundation of Android: Netrunner. Understanding this foundation we can now explore how the Andorid universe is developed over time – through new cards and interactions – and how the player developed story of each individual Netrunner game can support a fictional reading.

Reading Netrunner: Introduction.

Note: With this series I’m specifically interested in the way Netrunner expresses fiction through the interactions of its rules. These articles are not intended as analysis of cards in terms of their utility in competitive play.

Maya (art by Adam Schumpert, click for artist’s Art Station page), console of the Shaper runner Jesminder Sareen, Maya allows you to return a card being accessed from R&D to the bottom of R&D, preventing the corporation from drawing it during their next turn. A powerful but highly situational card.

Netrunner is a two player competitive card game that takes place within the Android universe, a fictional setting created by Fantasy Flight Games and originally devised for the game Android. As a living card game – with predetermined cards entering the available pool every few months – Netrunner is able to consistently build on its mechanics over time, allowing it to change and grow in ways that not only develop the game’s possibility space but also its fiction. This linking of mechanics and fiction is one of the strengths of Netrunner, and something that has kept me playing even through periods of stagnation in the competitive meta-game.

The ways in which runners and corporations use their assorted resources to wage cyber warfare, and the narratives thus created, help expand the fiction of the larger Android universe. This is further supported through the card art and flavour text. Specific characters can appear on multiple cards, where their presence helps contextualise not only the underlying fiction, but also the mechanics and card interactions themselves.

I am interested in examining the ways Netrunner represents its characters and organisations through mechanics; how it develops the fiction of the Android universe through card interactions, and the addition of new mechanics over time. To be able parse this fiction, to read Netrunner, we first need to understand the game’s core mechanics and foundation fictional elements.


Android: Netrunner is an asymmetric game of cyber-warfare waged between a runner (hacker) and a mega corporation. Corporations build servers protected by ICE (Intrusion Countermeasures Electronics) and attempt to advance their agendas; or simply remove the runner threat through direct action. Runners in turn construct their rigs, establish networks of resources, and deploy ICE breakers to breach corporate servers and steal their agendas.

Play unfolds sequentially with the corporation and the runner taking turns until one side wins. Only in a competitive time-limited game is a draw possible. Outside of card abilities players in Netrunner have a fixed number of clicks per-turn. Each click is spent on an action, from playing a card, to making a run on an opposing corporation’s server. Fictionally each turn is equivalent to a single day, while runners keep their own schedules and can take four actions per-day, corporations operate primarily during business hours and are therefore limited to three clicks.

Cards are draw from each player’s deck (known as R&D for the corporation) into their hand (grip for runners and HQ for corporations). By paying their associated cost in credits, cards can then either be played directly, or installed by placing them onto the table. Installed cards have a degree of permanence and in some cases can remain in play for the entire game. Cards that have been installed can be trashed, removing them from active play and sending them to either the heap (for runners) or the archives (for corporations). For the corporation each of these three locations is treated as a server, meaning that runners can access the cards within if they successfully make a run on it. These central servers require as much, if not more, protection than the remote servers the corporation establishes over the course of the game.

Parasite (art by Bruno Balixa, click for artist’s Art Station page), an Anarch card able to corrode and eventually trash ICE. It is one of the more powerful cards in the game, and forms the core of ICE destruction deck builds.

Runners:

Runners cards are divided into four different types: programs, hardware, resources, and events.

Programs are your software, they take up memory – of which four units are available as standard – and have abilities that can be executed for a cost. Most programs perform actions during a run on a corporation’s server: from Icebreakers that directly combat ICE, to cards that will allow you to perform some action when you access a server. As software that only exists within the cyber-realm, programs are some of the easiest cards to trash, but also have numerous ways of being returned to play.

Broadly speaking hardware represents your actual computer, your rig. As these are physical objects in the world they have a permanence that software lacks. Hardware is difficult to remove from play, and also almost impossible to bring back once it has been removed. If part of your rig gets trashed you’d better hope you have an actual replacement.

Resources symbolise the people, organisations, and non-physical utilities that runners can call on for support. Representations of people and organisations, resources are second only to programs in their susceptibility to being trashed. If the corporation can “tag” the runner, identifying them and their location, then any resource can be trashed for a single click and two credits. When the corporations knows who you are even your friends are at risk. Like hardware, as most resources are objects in the real world, there are very few ways to bring them back into play once they have been trashed.

Events are specific actions a runner can perform. These are most commonly ways of allowing you to perform more actions in a click than allowed by your standard abilities, or to perform those actions under special circumstances. With events you can draw multiple cards, installs cards at a reduced cost, or initiate a run on a server ignoring certain ICE.

While the cards in play are the tools available to the runner, the cards in their grip also serve as a conceptual representation of the runner themselves. Cards in your grip can be trashed through damage, which comes in three forms: net, meat, and brain. Each card trashed in this manner absorbs one point of damage, if more damage is inflicted than can be absorbed then the runner flatlines and the corporation wins.

Net damage is frequent and  lightweight, it is damage inflicted to the runner in the cyber realm. Net damage is most commonly inflicted by ICE sub-routines, ones and two points at a time. As it is a form of non-physical damage there are programs and hardware that can negate or absorb net damage.

Meat damage is slightly less frequent, but can often be enough to kill the runner outright; flatline through meat damage is the most common form of runner death in Netrunner. Meat damage represents direct physical damage to the runner themselves, as such it usually requires that the corporation has been able to identify and tag the runner. Meat damage can only be negated by hardware or resources that exist within the physical world. Software cannot directly absorb meat damage, though it can prevent or otherwise restrict the means by which that damage is inflicted.

The most infrequent type of damage is brain damage. This generally only occurs in small quantities but it differs from the other types due to its persistence. When brain damage is inflicted cards are trashed from the runner’s grip as usual, and their maximum hand size is reduced by the same amount. Runner’s can die directly from brain damage if more is inflicted than they have cards in their grip, but they can also die to brain damage if they are ever left with a negative hand size at the end of their turn. Brain damage is inflicted most commonly by ICE, and there are few means of negating it.

House Of Knives (art by Alexandr Elichev, click for artist’s Art Station page), a Jinteki agenda that when scored allows the corporation to inflict one point of net damage during a run. A strong card in a “death by a thousand cuts” net damage build.

Corporations:

Corporation cards are divided into five different types: agendas, ICE, assets, upgrades, and operations.

Agendas are the varied goals of the corporation. They are at the core of Netrunner, and constitute its primary win condition. Corporations need to execute on these plans by installing agendas in a server and advancing them by spending a click and a credit. Each agenda has an advancement cost and is worth a specified number of agenda points. When scored agendas grant the corporation abilities that different in utility and power depending on their advancement cost. If the runner is able to access an agenda before it is scored they can steal it, earning the agenda points for themselves. The first player to reach seven agenda points wins.

ICE are the means by which corporations protect their servers. They are obstacles the runner has to overcome in order to access the cards in the protected server. ICE can do a variety of things from simply ending the run, to inflicting damage, or destroying programs. ICE are defined by their type (barrier, code gate, sentry), their strength, and the number of sub-routines they possess. Each sub-routine that is not broken by a runner’s icebreakers resolves, and the effect it specifies is carried out. Though as a runner you want to get past ICE, sometimes it’s not possible or necessary to break all sub-routines, allowing a sentry to trash one of your programs might be worth it.

Assets are the divisions, subsidiaries, and executives the corporations rely on to operate. Installed one each to a server they operate much like resources do for the runner, providing consistent per-turn income and increasing the range of actions available. Though representative of organisations and individuals within the world, that these assets have to be installed in servers indicates they are less physically extant than resources. They represent the corporations current use of these assets not necessarily the assets themselves. As such, once a runner access an asset they can pay a cost to trash it. Corporations in turn have multiple ways to bring trashed assets back into play; the sever might have been destroyed but the asset itself remains.

Upgrades function in a similar manner to assets, with the exception that they can be installed in any server alongside an asset or agenda. The same mechanical and narrative rules apply to upgrades as to assets.

Operations are to corporations what events are to runners, ways of taking direct action and performing more actions per-turn that allowed by the standard abilities. Through operations corporations can: attempt to tag a runner, gain extra clicks, or advance cards at a reduced cost.

In order to allow corporations to carry out their business with security and secrecy, assets, upgrades and agendas are – with a limited number of exceptions – installed face-down. With assets and upgrades needing to be rezzed, for a cost, before they can be used. This allows the contents of a server to be hidden information. Furthermore, certain assets can be advanced using the same rules as advancing agendas. These advanceable assets usually perform stronger abilities than standard assets, and sometimes their strength is proportional to the number of times it has been advanced. In this way runners don’t know which, if any, of the cards the corporation has installed might be the agenda they want and which might be a harmless asset, or even a trap.

Though it is not possible to inflict damage on corporations they way you can against a runner, there are other restrictions on their behaviour that lead to their own loss conditions. At the start of their turn the corporation must draw a card from R&D, if this is not possible because there are no cards left then the runner wins; they have been able to outlast the corporation, draining them of assets and preventing them from advancing their agendas.


Though not an exhaustive breakdown of the rules of Netrunner this should help frame the rest of our analysis. Next we will look at the game’s different factions, and how the influence system helps differentiate and define them through delineation of their strengths and weaknesses.