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

Monday, 25 May 2015

As shiny as it gets

In 2013, Margaret Weis Productions published a taster for the Firefly RPG that we had been waiting for. Gaming in the ‘Verse presented both a preview and a ‘quick start’ for the Firefly Roleplaying Game, based on Joss Whedon’s 2002 ‘space western’ television series 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.

In the Firefly Roleplaying Game, the players have the opportunity to explore the ‘Verse themselves. They can do this as the crew of the Serenity—Mal Reynolds, Zoe Washburne, ‘Wash’ Washburne, Inara Serra, Jayne Cobb, ‘Kaylee’ Frye, Simon Tam, River Tam, and Shepherd Book—and thus tell of their adventures between end of the television series and the events of the movie, Serenity, or they can create their own crew and then create a ship of their own to love, hate, but most of all, call home. In creating a crew member, a player also has a choice. He can either select from one of the twenty-four available archetypes—from Academy Dropout and Alliance Agent to Newly Ordained Shepherd and Retired Outlaw or he can create a character from the ground up. Obviously, such a character, whether created using an archetype or from the ground up, will not be as capable as member of the crew of the Serenity, but he will have 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 aspects of a character—Attributes, Skills, Signature Assets, and Distinctions are rated by die type, from four-sided die up through six, eight, ten, to 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.

Dorothea Liu
Quote: “Is that a genuine first edition Great Expectations, all the way from Earth that was?”
Character Type: On the run bride
Character Description: Dorothea Liu thought that she had a solid career in medicine before her, to be followed by a husband and children. It was what her family had planned for her after all—and she even thought that she loved her husband to be. Then she found out what her husband was—the son of a Triad boss—and the truth of her father’s business empire. She was heartbroken. She saw her parents in a new light and knew that the last person she wanted to be was her mother. With her mother’s blessing she fled, jilting her husband to be…
According to the hospital she is on extended sabbatical. According to her father, she is a traitorous shă guā. According to her mother, Dorothea is all that she could never be. According to her husband, she is a chī chóng huā dàn who should be on his arm and bearing his children.
Likes/Dislikes: Dorothea is fascinated by the history and peoples of the Border and the Rim—perhaps too fascinated. Given her own history, it should be no surprise that she is a sucker for a sob-story.
Flashbacks and Echoes: Dorothea had a more than comfortable upbringing, but then she saw the violence meted out by her husband to be. She never wants to see that again.

Mental 10 Physical 6 Social 8
Craft d4, Drive d6, Fight d4, Fix d6, Fly d8, Focus d6, Influence d8 (winning smile), Know d8 (History), Labour d4, Move d6, Notice d6, Operate d6, Perform d4, Shoot d4, Sneak d6, Survive d4, Throw d4, Treat d10 (surgery), Trick d4
Look smarty pants, if we wanted schoolin’, we’d have gone to school.
Gain 1 Plot Point when you roll a d4 instead of a d8.
Pedantic: Gain 1PP when you correct someone at an inappropriate juncture or tell the crew a fact that is interesting, but not useful.
Highlighted Skills: Fix, Know, Treat
Someone’s after you—Alliance, the Triads, the Guilds, maybe all three. You’re a fugitive and you’re in trouble.
Gain 1 Plot Point when you roll a d4 instead of a d8.
Highlighted Skills: Move, Notice, Sneak
You attend the most exclusive parties, dress in the latest fashions, and hire the best Companions.
Gain 1 Plot Point when you roll a d4 instead of a d8.
Clout: Step back Influence until the end of the end of the next scene to remove a social complication.
Highlighted Skills: Drive, Fly, Influence

Doctor’s Bag d8
Sometimes things don’t go smooth and sometimes they don’t go smooth and someone ends up with a bullet in ‘em. Times like that you need a good doctor and his bag.
Nice dresses d6
They may not be the latest styles in the Core, but out here in the Border worlds? They cut quite a figure. Out on the Rim, they’re just sassy.

In addition to creating a crew, the players also get to create or ‘find’ their ship. This involves picking a Class and then choosing Distinctions and Signature Assets to ensure that the ship stands out. Some twenty-two Classes are listed, including the Arbitrator Class Alliance Patrol Boat, the Marco Polo Class Space Bazaar, and the Cobb Class Science Ship as well as the Firefly Class Transport. There are as many Distinctions, which either relate the ship’s History, such as Former Salvage or Stolen or to the customisations carried out by the crew, such as Livestock Hauler or Smuggler’s Delight. Signature Assets might include a Chapel, Mining Equipment, or Shuttles.

Sapphire Star
Polaris Class Cargo Liner d8
Engines d6 Hull d10 Systems d8
An older mid-sized cargo liner, sturdy if slow.
Gain 1 Plot Point when you roll a d4 instead of a d8.
Won her in a card game d8
You gamble more than you should, but one time you should really stuck your neck out and you won big.
Gain 1 Plot Point when you roll a d4 instead of a d8.
Well-loved: Crewmembers on board may share Plot Points with another Crewmember who’s operatin’ the ship.
Cruisin’ the ‘Verse d8
Your berths are first class, with plush velvet seats, stunning chandeliers, and lovely music. Whilst the food is excellent and the service impeccable, these fineries come at a price—snooty passengers.
Gain 1 Plot Point when you roll a d4 instead of a d8.
The Customer is always right, unfortunately. Start every episode with an Unreasonable Customer Demands d6 Complication.
Mighty Fine Quarters d8
Shuttles d8

The Firefly Roleplaying Game uses the CORTEX Plus System. Derived from the CORTEX System—now known as CORTEX Classic—that powered the Serenity Role Playing Game, the original RPG based on the Firefly television series also published Margaret Weis Productions, the CORTEX Plus System is narrative orientated set of mechanics designed to tell the type of gritty stories seen in Firefly. The difference is this: in a traditional RPG a fist fight or a shootout would involve rolls each time a punch is thrown or a trigger is pulled. In the CORTEX Plus System, each round of dice rolls—typically one roll per player character and one roll for the NPCs or the challenge—covers the whole exchange. So a fist fight is covered in one roll, the results are narrated, and the story moves on. The aim here is not to get bogged down in unnecessary detail, but to make it dramatic and exciting.

To undertake an action, a character rolls one die each for a skill and appropriate attribute and compares the totaled value against the stakes rolled by the GM. For example, several members of her husband’s Triad gang, led by one of his lieutenants, Mitchell Gao, have caught up with Dorothea and in the resulting scuffle, her fellow crewmember, the Inquiry Agent, Jian Zhang, has been stabbed and Taken Out—in general characters are incapacitated for a scene or more when Taken Out, although in dire circumstances, being Taken Out means being killed. Dorothea implores the Triads to give her time to treat Jian. The GM rolls for Mitchell Gao, who as a minor character has the Traits Triad lieutenant (d8), Ambitious, but not stupid (d6), and Sucker for a pretty smile (d4). The GM rolls all three dice and sets the stakes at 10 (5+5), but he also rolls a 1—a Jinx. This earns Dorothea a Plot Point. Dorothea’s player puts together her dice pool from her Social (d8) attribute, her Influence (d8) skill, her Know it all Distinction (d8) to convince the Triads that Jian really is hurt, and to reflect the fact that the Triads are after her, adds a d4 for her On the Run Distinction instead of a d8 to earn her a Plot Point. The result of the roll is 8, 7, 4, and 1. The best combination is course 15 (8+7), which is great because it is five higher than the Stakes. This earns her a Big Hero Die that she can add to any roll. It is equal to the highest die type rolled by the GM—a d8. Yet she has also rolled a Jinx! The GM uses this to step up Jian’s Vicious Stabbing from a d8 to a d10! Nevertheless, Mitchell Gao is persuaded to wait and Dorothea has time to treat Jian. This time, her dice pool is formed using her Mental attribute (d10), her Treat skill (d10) and surgery speciality (d6), plus her Doctor’s Bag (d8) Signature Asset. She also has at two Plot Points and if all else fails, she also has the Big Damned Hero die, so it looks like Jian is in good hands!

Yet under different circumstances, Dorothea might not have her Doctor’s Bag to hand or she might roll badly. This is where the Plot Points come in. If multiple dice are rolled for an action, but the action is failed, a character could expend a Plot Point to add one of the other dice to the result. Or she could create a temporary asset that she can use just for the scene. For example, trapped in the engineering bay by the Triads and Jian still needing help, she might expend a Plot Point to bodge together some basic medical supplies. Or even to actually act if she has been Taken out and cannot do otherwise do anything.

Plot Points earned 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. Plot Points power the wilds swings of good and bad luck in the Firefly Roleplaying Game. They are primarily earned when things do not go smooth, when there is a chance of, or actual failure occurs, but they are spent to succeed on difficult rolls, at dramatic moments, and so on. Pretty much like the television series.

As to the television series, its treatment in the Firefly Roleplaying Game is shiny! Each of the series’ fourteen episodes not only receives a full breakdown and description, including the stats and details of the NPCs involved, equipment and assets used, places visited, and ships encountered, they are also used to showcase the rules. It starts off simple in the pilot, ‘Serenity’, just by giving the stats for Patience, Badger, and Lawrence Dobson as well as a Reaver Ship, before explaining the basics of the rules with the fist fight on Unification Day in ‘The Train Job’. By the time we get to ‘Shindig’, we are shown how complex the rules can get with Mal’s duel with Atherton Wing. Each of these examples eases the learning of the CORTEX Plus System. In addition, each of the episodes is developed with more ideas and suggestions, going beyond what appeared on screen so that the GM could run more than just the episode.

Thus we are almost half way through the Firefly Roleplaying Game before it starts discussing the rules of the game in a more traditional manner. It also means that the background for the setting is rather spread out and given the lack of an index means that locating particular pieces of information can be a challenge. To be blunt, the lack of an index is both inexcusably irritating and disappointing. This is not the only problem with the Firefly Roleplaying Game—its focus is perhaps a little too tight. It really does not expand beyond the possibility of the players taking the roles of the crew of a ship and flying the ‘Verse, so the GM is on his own should he and his players want to go in another direction. Nevertheless, the Firefly Roleplaying Game is well written, an engaging read, and easier to learn than many other RPGs.

Unlike Gaming In The ‘Verse, the Firefly Roleplaying Game comes with just the single scenario, a lengthy affair called ‘What’s yours is mine’. In addition, the GM is given decent advice on creating and running a Firefly game, which nicely couples with the suggestions and ideas given for each of the episodes. The scenario itself is a solid affair that should last two or three sessions.

Putting aside the irritating lack of an index, the Firefly Roleplaying Game is well written, the presentation is excellent, and it is very accessible. Above all, in capturing the grit and drama of the television series, the Firefly Roleplaying Game is both a fine adaptation and the means recreate it at the gaming table.