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

Friday 19 March 2010

The L Team

Now let state up front that I am not a fan of The A-Team. By the time it made it to these shores, I was too old for it, and what episodes I saw played up to its reputation for cartoon violence and formulaic storylines. I know enough about it to understand and spot the culture references when they are made, but the likelihood is that I will not be going to see the new movie. Nevertheless, what The A-Team provides for me is the template for putting together a team of archetype characters for roleplaying, each member of the team possessing a particular role within the team. These roles can be roughly defined as the leader, the brains, the tech, the face, and the wheels, to which can be added the brawn, the gun, and the thief, all depending upon the particular type of the game being played. Of course, just as the template applies to teams in roleplaying games, it also applies to teams on television.

One such team currently on television appears in Leverage, in which a former insurance fraud investigator, Nate Ford (played by Timothy Hutton), leads a team of scam artists pulling off stings against the greedy, primarily in corporations, but sometimes in the government or the criminal underworld. They do this on behalf of the ordinary citizen who has otherwise little recourse to justice. Essentially, this is a modern retelling of the Robin Hood legend, with the merry men replaced by a team of crooks who do good, and who consist of a mastermind, a con artist, a thief, a hacker, and a personal security expert. In the United Kingdom, the BBC shows a similar series called Hustle, which for the ladies stars Adrian Lester and Robert Vaughn. It is also filmed locally, including doing location work in the underground carpark of the building where I work. Conversely, Leverage is not filmed locally, so has never made use of the underground carpark of the building where I work, but it does star Gina Bellman.

So the point of this meandering is that Margaret Weis Productions, best known for publishing the Serenity Role Playing Game and Supernatural Roleplaying Game is to publish an RPG based on the series, Leverage and has released The Quickstart Job as a taster. It comes as an eighteen page, full colour, 9.7 Mb PDF file that contains a short introduction to the rules, write-ups for the series' five main characters, and a complete scenario with any extra rules are explained as and when they are needed.

What The Quickstart Job showcases is the game’s narrative structure, one that models what is seen in an episode of the television series. It opens with the set up, telling you who the mark is and what wrongs he has committed that need correcting. The Quickstart Job omits the planning session, but doubtless it will be detailed in the actual rulebook, and then we are into the action. This is done in a number of scenes that allow the characters in turn to shine, showing off his or her weaknesses. These scenes also build up to the episode’s twist and climax all before cutting to the wrap up scene. During this scene, each of the characters has to shine one more time as they star in their own little flashback scene that when all are combined explains how the scam was pulled off.

The target for the scam in The Quickstart Job is one Dennis Holland, who is using a series of shell companies to not only defraud a bank, but in the process also drive the occupants out of an old people’s home. In addition, he collects kitsch from the 1970s – and not the good stuff either. One of the occupants of the old people’s home, Helen Erdman, hires the Leverage team to help her and her fellow retirees out of their predicament. All the team have to do is grab the ownership papers of Holland’s holding company. Fortunately, Holland’s name is not on the papers, so whoever has the papers owns the company. Unfortunately, it looks like Holland is about to skip the country, though he is holding one last party at his office. This is where the scenario starts, in media res, with Hardison providing support from in the van outside, Parker ready to break into Holland’s safe, and everyone else casing the party. The aim in The Quickstart Job is simple enough – give Parker enough time to break into the safe, but of course, nothing goes quite to plan. It would hardly be entertaining if it did...

Since this is a game from Margaret Weis Productions, Leverage the Roleplaying Game uses the publisher’s house mechanics, CORTEX System Role Playing Game, which defines its attributes, skills, and traits – assets and complications (or advantages and disadvantages), for characters, monsters, and vehicles by die type: two, four, six, eight, ten, and twelve-sided dice, with a rating of d6 being considered as average. Attributes -- Agility, Strength, Vitality, Alertness, Intelligence, and Willpower; and Traits -- Assets and Complications such as “Rank and Privilege” and “Traumatic Flashbacks” are measured by just a single die type, whereas skills work slightly differently in that above a d6 rating a character must specialise and so gets a higher die type.

Leverage the Roleplaying Game uses the CORTEX System in a slightly easier, more streamlined way. The attributes are still there, but instead of skills, each character is rated by die type in five Roles, each Role being what the character does in the series. The five are Grifter, Hacker, Hitter, Mastermind, and Thief, again each defined by die type and each corresponding to one of the characters on the television series, who will have the highest die type in his or her Role. This is a d10 for each character, so Parker has a d10 in Thief, Hardison a d10 in Hacker, Nate a d10 in Mastermind, Eliot a d10 in Hitter, and Sophie a d10 in Grifter. Each character is also rated in the other Roles, a d8 in his next best Role, a d6 in the next, and lastly a d4 in his two worst Roles.

A character also possesses three Traits and three Talents. When brought into play, the Traits can act in a positive or a negative fashion. If positive, the character gets an extra d8 to roll. If negative, he only gets a d4, but he also is given a Plot Point. Talents are positive rather than negative and add a bonus to the play in some way. Let us look at Hardison, the show’s tech as an example – I would have suggested taking a look at Gina Bellman’s character, Sophie, but let us not go there... He has the Traits of Cocky, Computer, and Geek – none of which are described meaning that are open to interpretation by both player and GM – and the Talents of “Do You Have That Thing I Gave You?” and “Opportunist.” With the first Talent, Hardison can spend a Plot Point to pass another team member an extra d8 by reminding them of a handy device he gave to them earlier. Better still, if it can be done via a flashback, the extra die improves to a d10! The second Talent lets Hardison turns setbacks when rolling his Hacker Role in potential opportunities.

What is interesting in terms of character design in Leverage the Roleplaying Game is that while the Roles define what a character does and can do, and his primary task within the team, that primary task being what the character is, they do all this is done with just five Roles, almost like a piece of Indie game design. The Talents also define what a character can do, but the simplifying of the skills into the five Roles does one more thing. It moves the emphasis of who a character is onto the Traits.

The other difference between the mechanic used in the Leverage the Roleplaying Game and the standard CORTEX System is the player’s roll, as usual a combination of a character’s attribute plus an appropriate Role. So most of the time Hardison will roll 1d10 for his Intelligence and 1d10 for his Hacker Role, combining the results. In most CORTEX System games, this roll is made against a standard target that varies according to the difficulty of the task. Here the roll is made against a target determined by the GM or Guide rolling two dice. A character can sometimes roll more than the two dice, either because he spent a Plot Point to add another, or from another character – as in Hardison’s “Do You Have That Thing I Gave You?” Talent. Whatever the source of the extra die, only the two highest dice count towards the end result. The mechanics are all relatively straightforward, with the effects of failed rolls adding only a little more in terms of complexity.

All right, so I have spent an awfully long time writing about the introduction package for a game that is not even out yet, and will not be out for over a month, so it is time to tell you what I think about Leverage the Roleplaying Game and The Quickstart Job. Of the former, I wonder how big an audience it will find outside of the USA, if only in the U.K. where the series is not shown on one of the major channels, but I am hoping that it will do a good job of helping to guide a GM and his players through the set up and the running of the scam. After all, it is the sort of task that happens often enough in RPGs, but rarely receives much in the way of an explanation. Plus the television format, which when adapted to the roleplaying game will encourage the creative participation upon the part of the players, usually in turn and usually through the format’s heavy use of flashbacks.

The Quickstart Job showcases all of that, and does so in handy little package. It probably does not have quite enough information in it to make easy to run if you are not an experienced GM, and if you are not fully conversant with the television series, then a little background might have been helpful, both for the series and each of the characters. Other than that, The Quickstart Job provides a solid taster for the forthcoming RPG and a couple of hour’s worth of entertaining play. 

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