Every Week It's Wibbley-Wobbley Timey-Wimey Pookie-Reviewery...

Friday, 25 October 2013

Your Firefly Starter

Every year at Gen Con there is a slew of new releases and every year there are some that are really ‘hot’. One such title was the Firefly Role-Playing Game from Margaret Weis Productions – or rather it was not. For what was released at Gen Con in 2013 was Gaming In The ‘Verse, a preview of what the forthcoming Firefly Role-Playing Game will be like. And even then, it was not really a preview, but more of a ‘quick start’ giving everything that a Gamemaster and his crew needs to play – an explanation of the setting, the rules, the means to create both a ship and her crew, and two whole scenarios! Plus there are the stats and write-ups for the crew of the Serenity that we know and love from Joss Whedon’s television series, Firefly, so that the scenarios can be played with said crew or with a ship and crew of the players’ creation. All of which comes in a thick, full colour, and fully illustrated paperback book.

Then again, I can hear you thinking to yourselves, “Wasn’t there a Firefly Role-Playing Game before?” To which the answer is ‘yes’ – and ‘no’. Back in 2005, Margaret Weis Productions – the same Margaret Weis Productions that is publishing the Firefly Role-Playing Game – published the Serenity Role Playing Game, not based on the Firefly television series, but on Serenity, the motion picture sequel to the television series. Another difference is the use of mechanics and rulesets. The Serenity Role Playing Game employed the slightly cinematic, if gritty CORTEX System, whereas the Firefly Role-Playing Game uses the CORTEX Plus System, first seen in the Leverage: The Roleplaying Game and most recently seen in the Origins Award winning though cancelled Marvel Heroic Roleplaying RPG. Whereas the CORTEX System, now known as CORTEX Classic, focused on gritty action, the CORTEX Plus System is more storytelling orientated, though the storytelling itself is bound to be gritty given the setting. Now both the Serenity Role Playing Game and the Firefly Role-Playing Game are set in the same milieu, a Science Fiction space western that aped the aftermath of the American Civil War. In this ‘space opera’, the crew of the Serenity try to make living, not always legally, on the fringes of both society and a massive star system far from the aegis of the controlling central government, the Alliance. This is not a ‘clean’ space opera – making a living in space can be hard and is often dangerous work; high technology rarely makes it as far as the outer planets and their moons; and the preferred technology is stuff that works, so for example, firearms rather than lasers and on many planets, horses rather than vehicles. 

Gaming In The ‘Verse begins with an explanation of the setting, supporting it with a dissection of the episodes ‘Serenity’ and ‘The Train Job’. Working from the synopsis of each episode it examples of the rules, stats and write-ups for characters or NPCs such as Badger and Patience, describes the technology and places, and gives ideas for further adventures involving the elements of the episode. These are essentially a number of ‘what if’s’ that could complicate the scenario presented in each episode were the GM to run for his players. There is material here enough to inspire an episode or two for a playing group, but it is promised that the full Firefly Role-Playing Game will contain a similar treatment of all thirteen episodes of the series. 

When playing the setting of Firefly through Gaming In The ‘Verse, a group has three options. The first is to play a member of the crew of the Serenity, whilst the second would be to select from one of the twelve pre-generated archetypes included in the book, from Academy Dropout and Alliance Agent to Small-Time Trader and Triad Enforcer. Alternatively, a player can create his character, one that will not be quite as capable as member of the crew of the Serenity, but one that certainly has room to grow and change as his adventures are played out. Each character is defined by three attributes – Mental, Physical, and Social; several broad Skills, each of which can have a speciality; one or more Signature Assets, items intrinsically bound to the character, like Jayne Cobb’s Callahan full-bore auto-lock rifle Vera or Shepherd Book’s Identicard; and three Distinctions. The latter define a character and come in three categories – Roles, Personalities, and Backgrounds. All four – Attributes, Skills, Signature Assets, and Distinctions are rated by die type, from four-sided die up through six, eight, ten, and twelve-side die. Each Distinction provides a bonus die to a character’s actions, but can also act against a character to complicate his life and so provide him with Plot Points that can be spent later on. The list of Distinctions in Gaming In The ‘Verse is not complete though and a full list will appear in the Firefly Role-Playing Game when it is released.

THEODORE KINGSLEY III
Quote: “Some orders are meant to be disobeyed, more or less, as my old fù qìng never said.”
Character Type: Principled Pilot
Character Description: Theodore Kingsley III had a glittering career ahead of him as an officer in the Union of Allied Planets Navy. After all, his father was an admiral and his grandfather was an admiral, and it was expected that he would follow in their footsteps. That would change for the recently promoted first lieutenant during the Battle of Du-Khang towards the end of the Unification War. Piloting a gunship, Kingsley was ordered to evacuate casualties from a position under heavy attack by Independent forces. He did this several times, often under heavy fire, each time ordering his crew to evacuate the Independent casualties at the same time. Each time he was ordered to ferry away Alliance casualties rather than Independent ones until the point where there were only Independent casualties left. Ordered away to another mission, the pilot not only ignored the order not to go back in, he punched the officer who gave it. This would have got him a court martial, but the combination of the missions he had already flown and his family connection meant that he was instead given an award. Kingsley was decorated and promoted, told to behave, and assigned to what he considered to be parade duties. Disillusioned, when the war ended and his term of service was up, he resigned his commission – the first Kingsley to have done so for generations, and quit the Core Worlds.
For the last decade Kingsley has worked the Border Worlds as a pilot for hire, rarely staying with one crew for long. Too often he finds an order he disagrees with, disobeys it, does what he feels is the right thing, and then quits.
Likes/Dislikes: Theodore loves to fly and hates anyone who gets in the way, especially with what he regards as daft orders. He does not have much time for the Alliance Navy either. He is fond of painting though and never travels without an easel, canvas, and paints.
Flashbacks and Echoes: Theodore does not like to talk about his record or what he did in the Unification War. This has got him into trouble in the past.

ATTRIBUTES
Mental 8 Physical 8 Social 8 
SKILLS
Craft d4, Drive d4, Fight d6, Fix d4, Fly d10 (Alliance Gunboats), Focus d6, Influence d8, Know d8 (Navigation), Labour d4, Move d4, Notice d8, Operate d8, Perform  d6 (Painting), Shoot d6, Sneak d4, Survive d8, Throw d4, Treat d4, Trick d4
DISTINCTIONS
SHIP’S PILOT d8
The list of folk wanting to hire you is longer than your arm. You’re just that good.
Gain 1 Plot Point when you roll a d4 instead of a d8.
Born Behind the Wheel: Spend 1 PP to step up or double your ship’s Engines Attribute for your next roll.
Highlighted Skills: Fly, Notice, Operate
DECORATED d8
You came back from the War with a medal and a story. You’re not sure if it was worth the cost.
Gain 1 Plot Point when you roll a d4 instead of a d8.
You’re a Gorramn Hero: Spend 1 PP to double your Social when dealing with anyone who served on your side.
Highlighted Skills: Fight, Influence, Shoot
A LITTLE NERVOUS d8
“Oh God, oh God, we’re all gonna die.”
Gain 1 Plot Point when you roll a d4 instead of a d8.

SIGNATURE ASSETS 
Dress Uniform & Medals d8
It would have to be a dire situation wherein Kingsley had to wear his medals and dress uniform again. Still he keeps them in a kit bag in his quarters – just as his mother would want.
Easel, Paints, & Brushes d6
Kingsley’s preferred method of relaxation. One day he might get to paint a sunset on every planet in the system.

The second character is more like the twelve archetypes that come ready to customise in Gaming In The ‘Verse. These are not quite ready to play, but require some simple customisation by adding skills and an extra skill specialisation. The following example needs the player to raise his skills, add a specialisation to one skill, and select his triggers for his three Distinctions. (In the form of Jian Zhang, the Inquiry Agent will support an example of the rules in play).

Character Type: Inquiry Agent
The Unification War meant that things did not go smooth for folks on both the Border Planets and the Core Worlds. It caused all kinds of problems and both things and people have a tendency to go missing. Which is where you come in – you find things that are missing. For a commission that is. You are not a detective and you do not carry badge. Most folks would never talk to you if did. Badges are not popular out on the Border, especially Alliance badges. So now you rely on your powers of persuasion and maybe some sleight of hand when the need calls for it. If it comes to it, you have a Sanctioned Investigator’s License, but most times that works better with the Law rather than most people.
You don’t like trouble and you would prefer to put your hands up or make a run for it rather lay your hands on someone. After all, you are no bounty hunter. Usually you get people to do most things and answer most questions when you ask them. They open up to you most times.
When work is scarce though you make your money from playing cards and dice – Mahjong is a favourite. Just like your grandma taught you.

ATTRIBUTES
Mental 8 Physical 6 Social 10 
SKILLS
Craft d4, Drive d4, Fight d6, Fix d4, Fly d4, Focus d4, Influence d8 (Interrogation), Know d8, Labour d4, Move d6, Notice d6, Operate d4 (Cortex), Perform d4, Shoot d6, Sneak d6, Survive d4, Throw d4, Treat d4, Trick d8 

DISTINCTIONS
RELENTLESS INVESTIGATOR 8
Just the facts, dǒng ma?
Gain 1 Plot Point when you roll a d4 instead of a d8.
Bloodhound: Step up a Complication involving higher authorities in your jurisdiction to step up your
Notice skill for a scene.
I’ve Got Backup: When you create an Asset based on calling in official resources and support, step it up to a d8.
Highlighted Skills: Influence, Know, Shoot
SMOOTH TALKER 8
You can talk your way out of a life sentence or into a locked room. Just don’t make promises you can’t keep.
Gain 1 Plot Point when you roll a d4 instead of a d8.
Gift of Gab: Spend 1 PP to double your Influence die for your next roll.
Start Fresh: Spend 1 PP at the beginning of a scene to step back all of your social or mental-based Complications.
Highlighted Skills: Influence, Know, Trick
HARMLESS LOOKING 8
You blend into a crowd like a rock blends into a quarry.
Gain 1 Plot Point when you roll a d4 instead of a d8.
Couldn’t Hurt A Fly: Step back your Physical die to step up your Social die when convincing someone you’re not a threat.
Quick Change: Spend 1 PP to create a d8 Asset to help you disappear into a crowd
Highlighted Skills: Move, Sneak, Trick

SIGNATURE ASSETS 
Sanctioned Investigator’s License d8
Most people out on the Border Planets don’t want others poking about their business. They like it even less when it is the gorramn law doing the poking about. So you are glad that you do not carry a badge, especially an Alliance badge. You carry something that gives you some credibility with the law if they ask and verifies that you are not the law when folks really, really want to know.
Jei Jei Pocket Stunner d8
Not everyone out in the Black wants to carry a gun, but even so, it pays to have a means to protect yourself. Which is why you carry a Jei Jei ‘Electric Induction’ Pocket Stunner, guaranteed to knock out an assailant at twenty paces or on contact, a non-lethal protection that is rare outside of the Core Worlds. You hated guns when you carried an Alliance badge and this is a compromise.

In addition to creating their characters, the players also get to create their ship. The options are limited in Gaming In The ‘Verse to just the choice of three hull types – Alliance Patrol Boat, Firefly Class Transport, or Polaris Class Cargo Liner. Whichever one the players chose, this is their ship’s first Distinction, the other two providing its History and its Customisation. To this the players get to add a Signature Asset or two. A nice suggestion is that this should be done during play with the players spending Plot Points to describe a flashback to when they came aboard for the first time and so discovered another aspect of the ship.

The basic rules to Gaming In The ‘Verse and thus Firefly Role-Playing Game are quite simple. Whenever a character wants to undertake an action, he rolls a skill and an appropriate attribute and adds the total together and compares them against the stakes rolled by the GM. For example, the Inquiry Agent, Jian Zhang is on Persephone looking for a client’s daughter and believes that Harly Polk might have been the last person to see her. Unfortunately, he does not know where Polk is, but he does know that Polk likes to gamble. Therefore, he wants to know where Polk might have gone to gamble, so his player makes a Mental (d8) + Know (d8) against the stakes set by the GM, who rolls Persephone Underworld (d6) + Challenging (d8). Zhang rolls 2+7 for a total of 9 which beats the GM’s roll of 2+5 for a total of 7 and so learns that Polk is probably playing Mahjong at Mama Fang’s. 

Whatever the situation and the task, a player will always roll and keep two dice, but will often roll more and keep the best two. These can come from skill specialities, from Distinctions, and from Assets, either Signature Assets or Assets temporarily created during play. For example, Zhang has arrived at Mama Fang’s to discover that it is a closed game, so he needs to persuade the guard to let him. To do so, Zhang must make a roll of Social (d10) + Influence (d8) and can add his Distinction, Smooth Talker (d8) to the roll as well. The guard just has to roll his Mental (d6) + Focus (d8). Zhang rolls 8, 4, and 1, and selecting the best two gets a result of 12. The guard rolls 2+3, which sets the stakes at 5. This not only a success, but because it is five more than the stakes set by the GM, it means that Zhang has achieved an extraordinary successes and thus gets a Big Damn Hero Die to use later. Given the success of the roll, the GM also rules that the guard not only lets Zhang into the game, but puts in a good word with the game boss who is running the game. Unfortunately, Zhang also rolled a 1 which is a Jinx, and although it did not count towards his total, it is enough to add a Complication to the situation, which in this case the GM describes as Mama Fang is Mad at You (d6). This might come back to trouble Zhang shortly. In return the GM gives Zhang a Plot Point.

Now involved in the game, Zhang wants to play well, but so not so well that Harly Polk will lose. In fact, he wants to Polk to win and thus make him receptive to questions, making sure that Polk thinks that Zhang is nobody special. Harly gets to roll his Mental (d6) + Trickery (d8) for his gambling, but Zhang has a Gambling specialisation and wants to use his Distinction of Harmless Looking to make himself appear ordinary. So he gets to roll Mental (d8) + Trickery (d10) + Gambling (d6) + Harmless Looking (d8). Harly rolls 5+5 for a total of ten, whereas Zhang rolls 2, 2, 4, and 5, which gives him the result of 9. Of course, this is not enough to lull Harly into a receptive mood, but Zhang has a Plot Point or two to spend – every character begins play with a single Plot Point, and Zhang has already earned another in play. He can earn more during play by temporarily reducing a Distinction from a d8 to a d4, from receiving a Complication from the GM when he rolls a Jinx, whenever the GM spends a Plot Point of his own to oppose your character, and from great play. Back in Madame Fang’s gambling den, Zhang could have spent a Plot Point before the roll to activate a Distinction trigger if appropriate, or create an Asset (d6) for the scene that would add another die to the roll. None of these are appropriate, but he has two options after he has made the roll. He could spend a Plot Point and roll and add a Big Damn Hero Die to the roll already made or he could add an extra die from the roll already made. The latter seems the easiest option and so Zhang adds a 2 from what he rolled to bring the total to 11 and so beat Harly’s roll.

In each case, what a player is rolling for is an effect that will advance the action or the story in a ‘beat’ which is defined as a period of time in which a player character could take a single action. How long a beat is depends on the action. It can be as short as the time it takes for a character to throw a punch or dive for cover, or as long as it takes to fly from Persephone to Avalon. This particularly shows most effectively in combat. In most RPGs, if a player character wants to punch an opponent, he makes a roll to hit and if successful, he rolls damage. Not so in Gaming In The ‘Verse where a successful roll may mean that the opponent or even the player character is taken out for the scene. Where in another RPG, a character might employ a bigger or better gun and receive a better damage roll or a bonus to hit, in Gaming In The ‘Verse a character can have a signature Asset like Jayne’s Vera or the Inquiry Agent’s Jei Jei Pocket Stunner. Using the Asset adds another die to the dice pool. 

The other aspect to the CORTEX Plus system as used in Gaming In The ‘Verse is that “things don’t go smooth” – and that is entirely intentional. Having things go wrong from one beat to another provides the players with the opportunity to earn Plot Points. With Plot Points to hand, a player can trigger his Distinctions, add Assets, and so on, essentially allowing a player to add elements to the on-going story, bring his back-story into play, and when it comes to the dénouement of the current story be appropriately heroic. The aim is to model the ebb and flow of the television series and its episodes – after all, the clue is in the use of the term, ‘beat’ – and this it does in fairly light fashion.

Gaming In The ‘Verse comes with two, lengthy ready-to-play scenarios. ‘Wedding Planners’ and ‘Shooting Fish’ comprise the first two parts of the Echoes of War campaign that explore how the Unification War continues to have ramifications ten years on… ‘Wedding Planners’ sees the crew ferrying a princess to her wedding who discovers that she just does not want to go, whilst in ‘Shooting Fish’ the crew come to the aid of an orphanage that a greedy man is about to shut down. A further scenario in the series, ‘Friends in Low Places’, is already available, but a really thoughtful touch is that the publisher has released the first of these scenarios, ‘Wedding Planners’, for use with the CORTEX Classic system, as typified by the original Serenity Role Playing Game. Both scenarios showcase the rules and how the game works as well as adding new rules, like expanded chase rules in ‘Wedding Planners’. Also included with Gaming In The ‘Verse are a set of designer’s notes that discuss both the game in general and the Echoes of War campaign. These provide a nice look behind the scenes of these scenarios and the game itself. There is even a Chinese Translation Guide for when you want to get your degree of Gorramn verisimilitude in your game right.

Physically, Gaming In The ‘Verse is a well presented softback book. It is liberally illustrated with stills from the television series and the buff layout has a certain period charm to it that does not feel out of place with the television series. In terms of content, what is missing from Gaming In The ‘Verse? The most obvious missing element are any rules for experience or character advancement. Deck plans are also missing. The absence of both of these elements is not an impediment to play of a Gaming In The ‘Verse in the short term, and that is intentional. The book after all, is meant to be an introduction to the setting and the forthcoming RPG. For all that, there is an awful lot of play potential in Gaming In The ‘Verse. Both scenarios will provide several sessions of play and that is before you take into account the supplementary material contained in Gaming In The ‘Verse that the Gamemaster could develop into scenarios of his own.

Gaming In The ‘Verse is an excellent introduction to the CORTEX Plus System – in fact it is a better explanation than that given in the Marvel Heroic Roleplaying RPG. It keeps its rules simple and straightforward whilst still allowing the players plenty of input as to what their character does and how they affect the action. As written, the Firefly fan that comes to this never having played an RPG should be able to grasp the CORTEX Plus rules with relative ease, though as with most RPGs, the Gamemaster should have some roleplaying experience under his belt before running Gaming In The ‘Verse. As an introduction to the Firefly Role-Playing Game and quite literally, gaming in the ‘Verse of Firefly, Gaming In The ‘Verse is a pleasingly complete, even shiny – well, it had to be said – quick start with more play than you think.