Saturday, March 12, 2011

Applied Correctly, It Could Move The World

A few months back I read this webcomic about an agency to assist the dearly departed who have left something unresolved in this life. I made an off-hand comment that I thought it would make for a great RPG concept: A party of supernaturally sensitive friends that have a Private Investigation firm that caters for the deceased, helping to complete whatever is making their eternal rest restless. The hook was that each week one party member would allow their body to be "rented" by the ghost, becoming a "ghost host" if you will. That player would get to put their normal character sheet to one side and play as someone completely different.

This off-hand comment planted itself in my mind and sprouted roots, slowly growing until I knew I had to do something with it. Originally, I had planned on using my system of choice, FATE 3.0 for the game, but on outlining my ideas to a friend, I was pointed towards something that might work better. The ghost would need some help to find who murdered him, or protect his family now that he's gone. Perhaps someone is messing with an artifact connected to the spirit, or one of his descendants has become a dick and needs to be taught a lesson. In short, the adventures were not going to be straight up hack'n'slash affairs. The ghost needed a team that could function without brute force. He needed someone that could provide Leverage.

The Client
Leverage The Roleplaying Game is based, unsurprisingly, on Leverage the hit series from TNT. I had been a fan of the show since the pilot, instantly hooked on the its unique blend of humour, heist and heat-pounding action. The series follows the adventures of a band of ex-criminals and their leader as they try to make the world a better place one problem at a time. The episodes usually open with a Client explaining why she needs their help, which the Crew succeed at through a heist or caper that inevitably requires last minute tweaking, adjusting or all out replanning to overcome unforeseen obstacles.

The roleplaying game follows this mechanic, allowing the players to put together a Crew of skilled experts to solve a myriad of problems that the GM, or Fixer, will throw at them over the course of a session.

The following review is based solely on the book itself and my impressions from reading it. I have yet to play it, so I'll try to avoid making judgements related to actual play here. It's also worth mentioning now that I have never actually played anything using the Cortex or Cortex Plus systems, the later of which is the system Leverage is built on. With that out of the way, on to the meat of our story.

The Caper
The Visuals: The first thing that is obvious about the Leverage RPG is how pretty it is. Everything is clean and bright and I was particularly taken with the choice of blue print on a white background as the primary colour scheme throughout. It's clean, effective and eye-catching. That's just a personal thing. Blue is my favourite colour, and I think plain white backgrounds work well enough that they should be left alone. Photos and screen shots from the series are used extensively throughout the book, breaking up long blocks of text and keeping things interesting.

The System: Prior to reading Leverage I was not familiar with the Cortex or Cortex Plus systems in any way. Years ago, a friend had bought me the Serenity RPG as a gift, but I never really read it or tried it out. I love the Firefly, the series it is based on, but had no real interest in reading the RPG. As it turns out, Cortex Plus is my kind of system!

Like FATE 3.0, Cortex Plus is, at it's core, a system for telling stories and having a good time. It is reasonably light on mechanics, instead allowing players and GMs to focus on the collaborative story-telling side of RPGs than the combat focused, hack'n'slash of other systems. There is no rule for moving 6 squares in order to flank an opponent, but there is nothing stopping you from describing how you managed to use the crates in the warehouse to sneak around him and FLANKED d6 him.

Characters are equally clean, maintaining the tight focus on story driven, rather than dice controlled, adventures. There are six Attributes, five Traits and a handful of Distinctions and Talents, giving you an absolute minimum of things to keep track of and allowing you to concentrate on the task at hand, ruining the baddies day. There are no lists of skills covering most of the page, no weapon bonus' or damage modifiers, there isn't even a health track!

The play mechanics are blissfully simple. Regardless of what you do, you always role at least two dice, one for the Attribute you're using, the other for the Trait. You can role more if the scene allows and players are encouraged to elaborate on the scene for additional dice,like in the FLANKED d6 example above. Regardless of how many dice you role, you only total the highest two in most cases.

Things get interesting, but not complicated, when you start including Assets and Complications and spending Plot Points to effect the scene, but basically the Cortex Plus system is designed to keep everything flowing along and the players having a good time.

So far so good. The system takes the gameplay I enjoy and runs with it. But there's one key element still to come, one unique feature that sets it apart from other games.

In any good caper, and all RPG adventures, nothing goes according to plan. The Crew must think on their feet to solve complications as they arise, avoiding the FBI that just appeared on the scene; dealing with the armed mercenaries that everyone had previously thought were just gym-enthusiast office workers or by-passing the biometric lock on the safe that they were told had been installed in the 1930's!

In great capers, like Leverage or Oceans 11, the seemingly unexpected situation was planned for all along. The Crew had called the FBI to arrest the bad-guys in the act; the lunch everyone saw the office workers enjoying had been laced with a sleep inducing (but not dangerous. We are good guys after all!) narcotic; and the Hacker had uncovered the invoice for the new safe while reading the bad guys private emails, equipping the Thief with the appropriate gear.[1] Events like this are usually explained in TV and cinema through the magic of the Flashback. Now, you can too!

The Hook: When the Crew is stuck in a difficult situation, with the enemy closing in all around, sometimes things just seem hopeless. That's exactly the moment when the Mastermind smiles, looks the baddie in the eye and throws in a new, unforeseen Plot Point. The baddie swings around and, expecting his own band of highly expensive thugs to be at his back, is dismayed to find himself looking down the barrel at a HIGHLY TRAINED d8 POLICE OFFICER d6. Turning back to the Crew, his jaw drops. Where the cornered heroes once sat is the supposedly disposed of crate of baby milk formula containing unlicensed cheap ingredients that have caused nothing but harm to hundreds of babies in the poorer district of the city. The Crew themselves are nowhere to be seen.

How did all this happen? That's what Flashbacks are for. Flashbacks are the Hook that Leverage uses to reel in its players. Linking in to events in the adventure, Flashbacks allow players to go back in time and alter or add to a scene that occurred previously. Remember when the Hitter took out those thugs in the garage earlier? They happened to be the ones tasked with disposing of the evidence. Or how about the start of the previous scene when the baddie walked in on the Grifter talking on the phone. Thought she was talking to the rest of the Crew, didn't you? Nope. Calling in a tip to the local authorities regarding some unscrupulous dealings.

Flashbacks give the players a level of control over the outcome of events that seemingly go against them. Leverage is an RPG where success is always the only option. The question is, how interesting and exciting can you make the journey toward that destination be for yourself and your Crew mates? As in the series, Flashbacks allow you to establish character traits from events that occurred at an earlier point, sometimes earlier that day, sometimes in your characters life before the game, or even as far back as her childhood! Similarly, they allow the players to wrap up loose ends after the Job is completed. How did the Thief know that the head body-guard was sleeping with the baddies wife? These things are story elements that make the game fun and exciting, and very similar to the show.

Again, so far so good. Everything about the game seems to be geared toward my preferred  play-style. The new elements that the game uses to distinguish itself against the competition read well and seem to be enjoyable Assets. But, in the world of Leverage, where there are Assets, there are Complications.

The Twist
Leverage The Roleplaying Game is based on the hit series from TNT. This is important, and bares repeating here upfront. Not only does it give the RPG an immediate audience of fans who enjoy the show and RPGs, but it also means that there are probably a few sales that will go to fans of the series that have never owned, seen or played in an RPG. This in turn lends itself to my first and biggest problem with the book.

As an experienced role-player, I am familiar with how to read RPG books and how such books are laid out. While I never hold issue with seeing "What is a Role-Playing Game" on one of the first pages in any RPG (in fact, I love reading how different authors try to explain the basics in a single paragraph to people who have possibly never heard of such a thing. Always amusing), I don't feel I need to be hand-held throughout the text. I'm an adult reader, and consider myself smart enough to figure some things out alone. There are several moments in the book where the author stops to explain who "you" is referring to in this section. Other times, I almost feel like I'm being talked down to, having basic concepts over explained, in overly simplified terms. The whole thing comes off rather amateurish feeling at times. It feels like this is written by a fan of the series as a home-brew game, rather than what it is; a thoroughly play-tested, proof-read, professionally designed, published document. There are moments when the author is chatting to the reader in an informal, friendly fashion that make those sections sound like a blog posting.

Should I blame the author for this? Or marketing? Actually, I've chosen neither. I don't particularly like it, but I have to look at it in the light of what this is. A licensed product that needs to appeal to everything from non-role-players, through first-time GMs, to experienced veterans (for the record, I fall somewhere between the latter two).

The other fault I have with the book is related to content, and, like the language used, is a by-product of something else. Leverage The Roleplaying Game is clean, clear and concise, thanks to it's use to the Cortex Plus system. It forgoes detailed charts and situation modifiers for story-telling and genuine thrills. The downside of all of this is that it's surprisingly easy to explain everything in a short amount of time, or in this case, ink.

The Leverage RPG book comes in at just over 200 pages thick. Less than Dungeons and Dragons Dungeon Masters Guide at 224 pages and half of either Spirit of the Century or the recently released Dresden Files RPG, both of which clock up over 400 pages! This is great, right? Yes, and no.

Even at a paltry 200 pages, Leverage has an unprecedented amount of filler. The whole last chapter, The Record, is a synopsis of every episode from the first two seasons in game terms. It is filler of the highest order. It still doesn't beat the Stargate SG-1 RPG level of filler where they produced game supplement books of the series episodes in seasons, but it's pretty close. Add to this seven pages of examples of locations that seem to be just stating the obvious, and you have over 30 pages of material that I don't need for any game I run myself. Not just don't need, I don't have to read over or even look at them!

The question then becomes, should they have printed a book of only 170 pages? The problem is that the less you print, the less you can justify charging, and the less buyers will be willing to pay. At some point you have to charge enough to cover the costs of printing, or cut the quality of printing to match the cut in price. Given the high quality of printing on show in the book, maybe having that filler is a necessary evil (there's a villain for a Leverage game: A company deforesting whole areas just to print books twice as big as they need to be so they can charge more and increase profits!).

The Mark[2]
Having read through the book, I find that Leverage The Roleplaying Game stands as a wonderful, beautiful introduction to the world of criminals, capers and roleplaying games. It has it's flaws, but nothing is ever perfect, and the flaws seem to be easily ignored, or simply don't do much to effect the overall quality of the product. The system is a joy to read and learn about, even if I haven't had the opportunity to actually playtest it myself yet. I look forward to using it either in a game based in the Leverage setting, or in my own world of body renting ghost detectives. If you like telling a great, fast paced, rules light, collaborative story where it can be more important to be cool and funny that effective, then Leverage The Roleplaying Game is for you. Like the show, the book is great fun to look at and belongs on any gamers shelf that enjoys story driven games like Spirit of the Century, Dresden Files and Doctor Who.

The Flashback
Over the course of this review I have mentioned things like FATE 3.0, Spirit of the Century and Dresden Files. FATE 3.0 is the system that runs Spirit of the Century (SotC), the only game I've ever successfully run a full campaign in. I have long been a fan of the system and associated games, owning the limited edition hardback print of SotC, as well as having preordered and purchased the enormous Starblazer Adventures, a book big and heavy enough to kill someone with, and most recently picking up the Dresden Files RPG (DFRPG), the most recent iteration of the FATE 3.0 rules system. FATE, SotC and DFRPG are all by Evil Hat Productions, and I had long been aware of the names associated with them. Fred Hicks, Rob Donoghue and Ryan Macklin are three of the very short list of games designers whose names I would recognise[3].

I purchased Leverage The Roleplaying Game, got home and started reading through it. As is usual, I skipped the credits page and skipped right to the good stuff. It was only after I was most of the way through the book before one of my friends pointed out the crossover in creative minds between Evil Hat and Leverage. I was stunned I had never heard about it before, but there you have it. Sometimes, it's not what you like, but who you like[4]!

[1] - In terrible capers, it is revealed that all the supposed complications and bad luck and events that went against the team were entirely planned and nothing was accidental and the Crew perfectly predicted exactly how the baddie would act, such as Ocean 12. Don't do this.
[2] - See what I did there? The final mark for the review. The Mark. Gettit? Yeah, it was a terrible pun, but I couldn't resist.
[3] - Before anyone says anything, yes, I know there are a lot more people involved in the making of an RPG, but they're just the names that stick out to me. Sorry if you feel left out. Console yourself in the knowledge that even if I didn't name you, I am eternally grateful for the amazing job you did on my favourite games.
[4] - Huge shoutout to the design lead and author of Leverage The Roleplaying Game, Cam Banks. Great job, man! Hope you're not too hurt by my negatives toward your work. Just remember, don't get mad, GET EVEN d10.

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