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

Monday 2 July 2012

If you ain't got that...

An alternative title to Agents of S.W.I.N.G. from Postmortem Studios might be The Avengers RPG – and by that we do not mean the American comic series, but rather the iconic British television series, The Avengers, in which the umbrella swinging, bowler hatted John Steed investigated an array of Cold War, criminal, science fictional, and supernatural threats with a pretty and capable assistant by his side. Similarly, an alternative title to Agents of S.W.I.N.G. from Postmortem Studios might be the I.TC. TV RPG. For those of you not in the know, I.T.C. was a British television company headed by Lew Grade that during the 1960s and 1970s produced some of the United Kingdom’s most iconic television series and sold them worldwide. The Saint, Danger Man, The Prisoner, Thunderbirds, Captain Scarlet and the Mysterons, Department S, The Persuaders! , The Champions, and Jason King to name but a few. What these series had in common, including The Avengers, was their genre and the fact that they were “Cool.” Their genre was that of the “Adventure Series” or “Spy-Fi” and their Coolness was borne not just of the fact that they were good shows, but also that they were British and the 1960s, Britishness was cool and London was swinging…!

In Agents of S.W.I.N.G., you get to be cool, suave, and sophisticated, working as an agent for S.W.I.N.G. – “Supreme World Intelligence Network Group,” an international espionage and counter-espionage organisation that deals with threats to world peace and security above, beyond, and below the global obsession with the West versus East of the Cold War. Just like The Avengers, the agents will be investigating an array of threats and mysteries, but Agents of S.W.I.N.G. has the capacity to push further at the envelope of its genres in a number of ways. First, it draws upon the equally as cool action films of the period, most notably the James Bond films, thus moving more towards the “Spy Fi” genre. Second, it follows both the Adventure Series and I.T.C.’s output out of the 1960s and into the grimmer, more cynical decade of the 1970s, best typified by series such as The Sweeney and The Professionals, so shifting towards the crime genre. Third, it can shift towards the supernatural and the outré with series such as Doctor Who and Sapphire & Steel, neither of are necessarily produced or distributed by, but are nevertheless both Adventure Series and thus not only part of the genre, but also cool. Fourth, it can do the Science Fiction Adventure Serial such as Thunderbirds or Joe 90.

If this seems like a lot of genres for Agents of S.W.I.N.G. to encompass, it probably is, but its actual genre is not many but one – the Adventure Series – and that genre can include elements of many other genres. It is up to the game’s GM or Control to decide how far he wants to go with any one genre with his Agents of S.W.I.N.G. game.

For its mechanics, Agents of S.W.I.N.G. uses the FATE 3 engine. First seen in Evil Hat Production’s superb pulp action RPG, Spirit of the Century, the Fate system is a Fudge variant, one in which Fate Points play a major role. Just as in many other RPGs they can be spent to gain a bonus to a roll, but here they have a greater versatility. Like many “Indie” style games, a player can spend them to create and bring small elements into the game, what is known as “dramatic editing,” but under the Fate system, Fate Points can do a whole lot more. They can be spent to invoke a character Aspect and bring it into play, to tag another character or location related Aspect to bring it into play, to power a Stunt, or to make a Declaration, adding some small element to the story. The Fate system also ditches traditional attributes, instead defining characters by Skills, Aspects, and Stunts. It plays fast and easy – the player rolls two six-sided dice, each of a different colour, and deducts one from the other to a number from +5 down to -5. This number is added to any bonuses derived from Skills, Aspects, or Stunts to try and beat a target number, or to roll higher than an opponent in a contested roll. In a contested roll, the amount by which one side beats the other determines the amount of damage or Stress inflicted, whether Physical, Composure (mental), or Social Stress.

Sometimes though, a player will need a third die – a “SWING die.” Whenever a player rolls well, he earns one of these dice and gets to keep it in front of him. Later on in the game, the player can choose to use his “Swing die” to substitute the negative or the positive die in order to get a better result.

For example, the S.W.I.N.G. agents want to get a pass from an enemy agent, Gustav Zimmerman, which would give them access to a high security laboratory. They have followed Zimmerman to a masque ball where Claudia Romanov will engage the agent on the dance floor and attempt to distract him whilst slipping the pass out of his pocket. Control decides that this will be an opposed roll against Zimmerman’s Mental rating of +2. Claudia’s player decides to use her skill of +3 (Solid) Sleight of Hand and spends a Fate point to trigger Bump and Grind Aspect. Control agrees and allows her a +2 bonus to her roll. Control rolls +3 and -6 to get a total modifier of -3, which reduces Zimmerman’s +2 Mental down to -1 Bent. This gives an excellent target for Claudia to beat and her player’s roll of +6 and -3 gives a modifier of +3, which when added to her current Sleight of Hand skill gives a total result of +8 or Atsonishing. Since this is 3 higher than the target, Control awards Claudia a Swing Die to use later. Control also rules that Zimmerman was so oblivious that he will be delayed getting to the laboratory himself whilst he looks for it!

Characters are defined by their Skills, Stunts, and Aspects. Skills are areas in which a character is trained in, his knowledge and expertise; his Stunts are related to his Skills and grant a character small bonuses or permissions within the game; while Aspects define the character in some way, such as “You won’t break me” or “Champagne Charlie” and are the more interactive elements within the game. Sample skills might be +1 (Cool) Guns or +4 (Neat) Science, while possible typical stunts include abilities like Architect of Death and Hide in Plain Sight or possessions such as Custom Ride gives you a favoured vehicle that you have added a gadget to (tied to the Drive skill). Most Stunts do not require the expenditure of Fate Points, but those that do are slightly more powerful. A Fate Point can be spent to Invoke one of a character’s Aspects and so gain a bonus, but if Compelled by Control and brought into play, so developing complications and driving the story along, then the character earns a Fate Point. Lastly, Aspects belonging to another character, or to an object, place, or a scene can be Tagged by another character, again by paying out Fate Points. When choosing Aspects for a character, the designer’s advice is that they should never be boring and it should always be possible to view an Aspect in both a positive and a negative light. Otherwise, a character cannot participate in the game’s Fate Point economy – bring negative Aspects into the game and letting it act as a story hook, gets a character more Fate Points to spend in his favour.

At its most basic, character creation is simply a matter of choosing Skills, Stunts, and Aspects. A quick method of creating characters is provided, but of course, the game wants a little more than that from its players, asking them to create a simple background and tying Aspects to their character’s Section (the department that they work for in S.W.I.N.G.), past, and cover identity before being given a free choice of another five. A player has twenty points to assign to Skills, these ranging from +1 (Cool) and +2 (Hip) up to +7 (Far Out) and +8 (Out of Sight); four Stunts to choose; and lastly some equipment to take. It should be made clear that although Agents of S.W.I.N.G. gives detailed lists of Skills and Stunts, players are expected to create their Aspects, tying them into their agents’ concepts.

The first of our two sample characters is based on a character that I originally played in a friend’s James Bond 007 RPG campaign. She is of an impoverished White Russian noble family, who followed her father into his elicit trade of theft and burglary, stealing from the rich to support the family. She worked the high society scene around the world before being caught by a S.W.I.N.G. agent into whose room she had broken. Now she commits burglary as a S.W.I.N.G. agent herself.

Name: Claudia Romanov
Concept: Reformed Jewel Thief
Section: Section 10 – Acquisition
Cover: High Flying Photographer

Section: “In and Out Without a Trace”
Past: Nobility in Reduced Circumstances
Cover: “My camera gets me in everywhere…”
Aspects: “Looks can be deceiving…”, Takes a thief to catch a thief, Like good Russian vodka, Always dressed the part, “I did complete finishing school”
Skills: +5 (Groovy) Burglary; +3 (Solid) Sleight of Hand, Stealth; +2 (Hip) Academics (French, Russian), Photography, Social Standing; +1 (Cool) Contacts, Deceit, Fists
Stunts: Acrobatics, Bump and Grind, Network of Contacts, Unruffled

Physical Stress OOOOO Composure OOOOO Social OOOOOOO

Our second example character is based upon a friend of mine who happens to be a fan of the Adventure Series genre and uses elements of characters that he has played in the past. Doctor Exton was kidnapped whilst working in Nepal and when he returned, found that he had developed strange abilities. These were detected by other members of Section 8 who recruited him into S.W.I.N.G.

Name: Doctor Simon Exton
Concept: Psychic Doctor
Section: Section 8 – Uncanny Affairs
Cover: Consultant Toxicologist

Section: “I know your body, I know your mind”
Past: It was a strange holiday
Cover: Let me through, I’m a Doctor!
Aspects: “My, that does look painful”, It’s just a scratch, Sardonic Wit, I have just the thing for that in my bag, I sense that there is more to this
Skills: +6 (Fab) Science; +4 (Neat) Academics; +3 (Solid) Fists; +2 (Hip) Empathy, Intimidation; +1 (Cool) Contacts, Mysteries, Resolve
Stunts: Cold Read, Developed Immunities, Psychic Telepathy, Sixth Sense

Physical Stress OOOOO Composure OOOOOO Social OOOOO

The setting and genre is supported with rules for equipment and gadgets, organisations, a year by year breakdown of events of the setting’s timeframe – the 1960s and 1970s, along with some notes on Superscience! and the Supernatural. If Control wants to push his game in either of those latter two directions, he might find the guidance somewhat light. Then again, both usually figure as elements within the Adventure Series genre rather than serve as its mainstay or focus. Further, the primary genre for Agents of S.W.I.N.G. is “Spy-Fi.”

Advice for Control on running Agents of S.W.I.N.G. is well done, but essentially boils down to keep the game light, keep it moving, and take your cues from the players and their agents. Agents of S.W.I.N.G. do not come with a scenario as such. Instead it includes a detailed outline that can be used as scenario, all but ready to play.

Perhaps where its Adventure Series genre is best displayed in Agents of S.W.I.N.G. is in its chapter of SWINGers. Or rather, its chapter of some thirty or so S.W.I.N.G. agents, each of them drawn from the various television series that are the inspiration for the RPG. If you know your I.T.C. and other series, then there will be certain pleasure in recognising who Cobalt and Iron, John Chain, Agent Crimson Saul Metford, Andrew Bowie and Richard Foyle, Jackson Queen, and John Swan are, and which television series that they come from. That said, there is no explicitly given use for these characters, whether as sample player agents or NPCs. The given sample “Villainous Schemers,” which include a Chinese criminal organisation, an extremist Left wing revolutionary movement, and a American neo-Nazi movement, are of more immediate and useful use, providing something iniquitous for the player agents to investigate and interdict.

Physically, Agents of S.W.I.N.G. comes as a three-hundred-and-fifty-six page black and white digest sized book. The layout is done as if from a series of report files, illustrated with silhouettes of ladies in various action poses, sometimes armed, sometimes not, but either way, reminiscent of the opening film credits of the James Bond series. The only other artwork in the book is the illustrations of the sample characters. Unfortunately, whilst Agents of S.W.I.N.G. is readable, both layout of the book and its editing are at best wanting. Some of the book could have been better organised, and whilst the choice of fount, Courier New, is perfectly in keeping with the book’s genre, its size is too large, often leading to ragged paragraphs because the column width is too short. As to the editing, the book just needed another polish, preferably from another pair of eyes than those of the author’s.

There is one last issue with Agents of S.W.I.N.G. and that is Mike Myers. Much like a game of Pendragon threatens to tip into absurdity a la the film Monty Python and the Holy Grail, a game of Agents of S.W.I.N.G. can easily lurch into a parody of its genre, the Austin Powers trilogy of films. Given the title of the RPG, there is certain inevitability to this, but it is certainly within the purview of both the players and Control to rein any such tendencies to “schwing” that way in their Agents of S.W.I.N.G..

Being a “Spy-Fi” or Adventure Series RPG, Agents of S.W.I.N.G. is anything other than a serious treatment of the espionage genre. Agents of S.W.I.N.G. is not Ron Edwards’ SPIONE: STORY NOW in Cold War Berlin or even Crafty Games’ SpyCraft, but is rather a light, almost coy take upon the espionage genre, whilst also serving as a toolkit to do other light, almost fantastical genres. So for example, whilst Agents of S.W.I.N.G. will do The Avengers or even The Man from U.N.C.L.E. with a wink, a tip of the bowler hat, and even a cocked eyebrow, with a little effort upon the part of Control, it would also do Thunderbirds, U.F.O. , or even The Six Million Dollar Man. Overall, despite lacking something of the flair its genre calls for in terms of its production value Agents of S.W.I.N.G. is a pleasingly light version of the FATE engine that demands just enough from the players to do its genre justice.