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Sunday, 15 November 2015

Big Book o' Badduns

Things Don’t Go Smooth is a supplement for the Firefly Roleplaying Game, the RPG based on Joss Whedon’s 2002 ‘space western’ television series that aped the aftermath of the American Civil War. Published by Margaret Weis Productions, 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.

Things Don’t Go Smooth is all about helping the GM make the lives of his Crew—that is, the player characters—just that bit more awkward. It presents a host of antagonists with which to confound, confront, and confuse the Crew, including spies and crime bosses, rival crews and gangs, and the unexplained and the miscellaneous; presents their spaceships and space stations, gives narrator advice for running them, and introduces an array of new triggers; and lastly, provides two scenarios with which the GM can showcase the antagonists of his choice. The supplement comes as a full colour book, illustrated with a mix of photographs and grayscale art, which comes with solid cartography. 

The bulk of the supplement is devoted to its antagonists. The first five are spies and crime bosses; the second four are rival crews and gangs; whilst the last four are oddities and the unexplained. Each of the first heads an organisation with men at their command and plots of their own backed up with knowledge, favours, ambition, and a more than healthy dose of paranoia. They include a freelance spy with a taste for the highlife who trades in information and more; a mercenary queen with an axe to grind against both men and the Alliance; a Moon Boss who will do anything to protect the independent sanctuary he has established; a mercenary commander who trades on her corporate links; and an ex-Browncoat who continues the fight behind the façade of a successful waste management company. Where they possess plots of their own that can see them hiring a Crew or working at odds with a Crew’s aims, the rival gangs and crews are designed to be going after the same jobs as a Crew, and as the competition may be as good as a Crew, perhaps aping their skills and attitudes, perhaps reflecting them. The four rival gangs and crews include smugglers forced to shift unpalatable cargoes, a crazy pirate crew high on adrenaline and alcohol, an information broker backed up by assassins and thieves, and a family of junkers on the make. The oddities and the unexplained are designed to add a degree of mystery to the ‘Verse with legends and rumours that include software that checks for, and shuts down, Browncoat technology; a completely innocent Alliance agent, a wealthy CEO obsessed with ‘saving’ Earth-That-Was, and a ‘ghost’ with gifts to give.

In each case, a full character write-up is given for the primary NPC, who is then backed up with a supporting cast and a description of any bases or equipment. Encounters suggest how the antagonists might be used whilst new Signature Assets are listed and explained for use with both the NPCs here and those of the GM’s own design. Or of course, use by a player character. The thirteen represent a good mix and none of them are quite out and out villains, there being some nuance to their aims and motivations. For example, Zaine Alleyne is a medic who takes too much pride in his skill with a scalpel to quite see the immorality of the work that his Triad bosses have him do, but still has morals enough to undertake acts of philanthropy elsewhere…

Further support for these NPCs comes in the form of write-ups of their boats, thus expanding upon the list of spaceships given in the Firefly Roleplaying Game core rules. They range from an Aegis Class Alliance Battlesphere and Keying Class Medium Transport to a Nanjing Class Yacht and a Sunslinger Science Vessel, altogether adding thirteen new ship classes, along with an array of new Distinctions—Background and Customisation—as well new Signature Assets. These enable the GM to design and build boats for his own NPCs as well as use those for the NPCs presented in Things Don’t Go Smooth.

The last of the NPCs offered are not so much NPCs as elemental forces out of the Black—‘Reavers’! Oddly absent from the Firefly Roleplaying Game core rules, in Things Don’t Go Smooth the Reavers are described as an unstoppable moving force that cannot be reasoned with, fought against, or even defeated. At least not with dice rolls, but rather they can be escaped or avoided. Thus there is no write-up for Reavers in the traditional sense of NPC stats, but several scenario hooks are given along with an example of how to use them.

The GM also receives advice on running antagonists, backed up with three thorough—and entertaining—examples of play that showcase the threats they represent. The advice also covers the creation of lairs and hideouts, and quick NPCs and plots, but most notably Things Don’t Go Smooth gives the GM a set of new triggers, not to add to Distinctions and Signature Assets, but rather to scenes and locations. This is in addition to any Traits they may already have. Location triggers are specific to a place, typically one that a Crew visits regularly, whilst scene triggers are tied to particular scene in an adventure. 

Rounding out Things Don’t Go Smooth are two adventures, ‘Merciless’ and ‘Thieves in Heaven’. The former is a heist movie set in a museum in which the Crew needs to case the joint before making a run on its security, whilst the latter dumps the Crew into the middle of a medical mystery and one company’s desire for a monopoly when they suddenly need a spare part for its boat—one that the ship’s mechanic cannot simply fix. In both cases, suggestions are given as to which of the villains listed earlier in the supplement are best suited to use in order to make either scenario more awkward and thus more entertaining for the players.

Overall, Things Don’t Go Smooth is neatly presented supplement. It is well written and decently illustrated. What stands out though in comparison with the earlier Echoes of War, are its maps. They are a huge improvement, being reasonably detailed and helpful. One interesting aspect to the supplement is that it is not as tightly tied into the crew of the Serenity as Echoes of War was. This does not mean that the contents of Things Don’t Go Smooth cannot be used with the Serenity crew, but it does feel as their importance is downplayed.

Things Don’t Go Smooth very much feels like a companion volume to the Firefly Roleplaying Game core rules. It provides the means for a Crew to have memorable and meaning adventures by giving the GM not just interesting and memorable villains to put them up against, but villains who are antagonists with interesting and memorable motivations. This is backed up with solid advice and support and two good adventures. Things Don’t Go Smooth lets a GM get enjoyably villainous for the Firefly Roleplaying Game.