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Friday, 25 December 2020

2010: Leverage: The Roleplaying Game

1974 is an important year for the gaming hobby. It is the year that Dungeons & Dragons was introduced, the original RPG from which all other RPGs would ultimately be derived and the original RPG from which so many computer games would draw for their inspiration. It is fitting that the current owner of the game, Wizards of the Coast, released the new version, Dungeons & Dragons, Fifth Edition, in the year of the game’s fortieth anniversary. To celebrate this, Reviews from R’lyeh will be running a series of reviews from the hobby’s anniversary years, thus there will be reviews from 1974, from 1984, from 1994, and from 2004—the thirtieth, twentieth, and tenth anniversaries of the titles. These will be retrospectives, in each case an opportunity to re-appraise interesting titles and true classics decades on from the year of their original release.


Published by Margaret Weis Productions in 2010, Leverage: The Roleplaying Game is a licensed roleplaying game based upon the television series which ran from 2008 to 2012. In the series, a Crew of con artists—a mastermind, a grifter, a hacker, a thief, and a retrieval specialist—take on a series of heists in order to fight injustices inflicted upon ordinary citizens by corporations and the government. Each of the episodes follows a set story structure. A Client comes to the team with a problem that only its members can find a solution to. This involves researching the villain or Mark and finding a weakness which the Crew can use to undermine him, and then formulating a plan which will make use of both the weakness and the skills of individual team members. As the plan goes into action, the Mark and his henchmen will seem to gain the upper hand, but ultimately, the Crew will outwit them all. Flashbacks will reveal further clues and improvisations that helped them overcome certain complications, and so ultimately, bring justice for the Client. This is the exact format that 
Leverage: The Roleplaying Game follows to provide not only an excellent adaptation of its source material, but also arguably, the purest treatment of the heist genre in any roleplaying game.
From the outset, Leverage: The Roleplaying Game is a simple sell. It is modern day, it is set in the real world, and the Player Characters, though highly skilled, are all easy to grasp and understand. They are all ‘crooks with a heart of gold’ or Robin Hood-types, rather than out and out criminals. The tone of the series and thus the roleplaying game is also family friendly—although there is action and there are fights, there is never gunplay, at least not on the part of the Crew. (The lack of gun play will also have an impact on game play, making carrying out a heist that much more challenging and thus more satisfying when pulled off because brute force or threat is not an option.) Plus, even if the players have never seen Leverage the television series, then they might have seen its BBC forebear, Hustle, or films such as Ocean’s 11 and the other entries in the series. Lastly, despite the fact that Leverage: The Roleplaying Game follows the formula of the television series, the formula and thus its set-up means that as a roleplaying game—especially a licensed roleplaying game—Leverage: The Roleplaying Game has not actually dated in the ten years since it was published.
Leverage: The Roleplaying Game is one of five roleplaying games from Margaret Weis Productions to use Cortex Plus, the others being the Smallville Roleplaying Game, the Marvel Heroic Roleplaying, the Dragon Brigade Roleplaying Game, and the Firefly Role-Playing Game. It is both a roleplaying game and a roleplaying game, a roleplaying game in that each player is roleplaying a character and each character is playing a Role. There are five Roles—a Mastermind, a Grifter, a Hacker, a Thief, and a Hitter—and Leverage: The Roleplaying Game works best when there are five players, each of whom takes one of the five Roles and so forms a Crew. The Mastermind specialises in plans and coordinating the Crew’s activities on the Job; the Grifter gains and use people’s trust through disguises and roles; the Hacker gains, supplies, and denies information, typically using technology; the Thief steals or plants things by stealth and foiling security systems; and the Hitter supplies force and a tactical edge. There is some crossover between Roles for the Crewmembers, so the roleplaying game can be played with fewer players, but its optimal number is nonetheless five. A Crewmember also has six Attributes—Agility, Alertness, Intelligence, Strength, Vitality, and Willpower; two Specialities, each one associated with a Role, such as Driving for Hitter and Piloting for Hacker; three Distinctions or personality quirks or traits, which can work to a Crewmember’s disadvantage as much as they do advantage; and Talents, essentially tricks which related to particular roles and when activated grant a Crewmember an advantage. Roles and Attributes are rated by die type, the larger the die type, the better the ability of the Role or Attribute, both being defined by ten-, eight-, six-, and four-sided dice. A Speciality is valued as a six-sided die, whilst a Distinction can be rated as an eight-sided or a four-sided die depending whether it is in the Crewmember’s favour or not.

To create a Crewmember, a player selects a Primary Role and a Secondary Role, assigning a ten-sided die to the former, an eight-sided die to the second, and decides on two Specialities, attaching each to a particular Role. A six-sided die is assigned to a third Role, and four-sided dice to the remaining two. The size of dice types assigned to the attributes will vary depending upon if the Crewmember is focused or versatile. Lastly, the player selects three Distinctions and two Talents.
Winston Moran
Winston Moran used to work in financial security, preventing banks and other institutions from being robbed. He was injured in a car crash which also left his wife in coma and due to the injury was forced to take early retirement. Unfortunately, his employers defaulted and left him without pension, forcing him to turn to ‘crime’ to pay for his wife’s medical bills.
Grifter d8, Hacker d6, Hitter d4, Mastermind d10, Thief d4
Agility d8, Alertness d8, Intelligence d10, Strength d6, Vitality d8, Willpower d8
Bank Fraud, Games
Voice of Authority, Walks with a Cane, Industry Veteran
Slip of the Tongue (Grifter)
Sea of Calm (Mastermind)
This though, is the quick and easy version—but not the fun version. The suggested version—the fun version—is ‘The Recruitment Job’. Each player partially defines his Crewmember and together the Crew play through a simple Job designed to showcase what each Crewmember can do and define and bring into play the other undefined aspects of each Crewmember. Essentially, this is the playing group’s pilot episode or ‘Zero Session’ for their Leverage series. There are one or two quirks about Crewmember generation. The first is that a Crewmember’s Secondary Role will define how he approaches his primary Role. For example, the Grifter whose Secondary Role is Hitter, is a ‘Swashbuckler’, aggressive and challenging  with a Mark, but uses lots of misdirection and quips in a fistfight, whilst the Hitter whose Secondary Role is Grifter is a ‘Duellist’, a quick, deceptive combatant who uses feints and distractions to bait his opponents. The second quirk is that there is no Charisma attribute and this is by design. Rather, the Attributes of Intelligence, Strength, Vitality, and Willpower all assume aspects of a Crewmember’s charisma and how he uses it on the Job. Essentially, every Crewmember is charismatic, but exactly how will vary from Crewmember to Crewmember—just like the cast of a television series.
Mechanically, Leverage: The Roleplaying Game uses the Cortex Plus system—in 2020 revisited with new core rulebook, Cortex Prime. The basics revolve around two opposed dice rolls, one by the player, one by the Fixer—as the Game Master is known in Leverage: The Roleplaying Game. Each dice roll consists of two dice. For the Crewmember, the dice roll will consist of a die from one Attribute and a die from one Role, both of which will vary from situation. For example, when his Crewmember is chasing a potential Mark, the Fixer might call upon the player to roll his Crewmember’s Alertness plus Hitter, or if a Crewmember is being chased by security guards and he wants to hide, perhaps on the ceiling, the Fixer would ask his player to roll Agility plus Thief. The Fixer will in turn be rolling dice which might be for the environment, such as ‘Ten Stories Up d6 plus Vibration Sensors d8’ or an NPC, which for most NPCs, such as the Client, a simple Mark, Extras, and so on, will have no more than a handful of traits, such Wannabe Hacker d4 or The Best Golfer d6. Other NPCs, including Marks, Foils, and Agents—the latter typically out to capture or beat the Crew or a particular Crewmember, can be as complex as actual Player Character Crewmembers.
Although just two dice form the core of the basic roll, other dice can be added to it. The use of Specialities, Distinctions, Assets, and Complications can all add dice to the roll. In most cases, these require the expenditure of Plot Points. Plot Points—of which a Crewmember starts with one—can also be used to activate Talents and create new Assets, which last for the scene (or the whole Job for two Plot Points). Ultimately, only the two highest dice are counted and added together. This sets the stakes for the Fixer to roll her dice and attempt to roll higher. If she does, she ‘Raises the Stakes’, and it is up to the player to reroll the dice, and if add in more dice, to gain a score higher than that rolled by the Fixer. Alternatively, whomever rolled lower can back down and decide not to roll to beat the other. In which case, the Crewmember or Mark has given in and taken down, the winner of deciding the outcome. If however, one side rolls five higher than the stakes are currently set at, then they have achieved an Extraordinary Success and an automatic takedown of their opposition.
Where Cortex Plus gets interesting is in the generation of Plot Points. Whenever a one result is rolled on a die by a player, it is not counted towards the two dice he keeps as his Crewmember’s total, but it does generate or improve a Complication, which adds another die to the Fixer’s dice roll. When that happens, the player receives a Plot Point. When the Fixer rolls a one on any of her dice, it generates an Opportunity and the player can bring in one of his Crewmember’s Talents, if appropriate. The fact that rolls of one generate Plot Points and Plot Points can be used to create Assets, add dice to a roll, and so on, means that players will want to be rolling ones almost as much as they high results, and the best way to roll ones, is to roll lower value dice, such as six-sided- and four-sided dice. Both of course, have higher chances of rolling ones. A Crewmember starts play with a Role set at a four-sided die, but the other way to bring in a four-sided die is to add a Distinction to the roll. If the Distinction works in the Crewmember’s favour, then it is rolled as an eight-sided die, but if it is to his disadvantage, it not only adds the desired die, but also the reviled four-sided die. Either way, rolls of one represent the type of setbacks that might be seen in an episode of Leverage, but at same time generate the Plot Points that will ensure already expert Crewmembers complete the Job and take down the Mark. 
For example, the Crew managed to plant a bugging device in the Mark’s office. However, the Mark’s security ensured it was not able to broadcast what it downloaded from his computer, so the Crew needs to get it back. Winston Moran has already been into the Mark’s office, ostensibly to talk about a bank fraud, but that was to give the bug time to work. Now he needs to get it back. He tells the security guard that he dropped his wallet in the office, so the guard lets him go and get it. The guard is diligent and comes to check on Winston. To see if Winston grabs the bug before the guard becomes suspicious, the Fixer asks his player to roll Winston’s Alertness plus Thief. Unfortunately, this is a d8 for Alertness and a d4 for Thief—the latter is so low because Winston is not as young as he was.
Winston’s player rolls an eight and a one! This sets the stakes at eight because the one is set apart and further, it generates a Complication. The Security Guard has Security Guard d6 and Really Doesn’t Want Any Trouble d6, but since Winston rolled a one and generated a Complication, it adds another die to the Fixer’s roll, in this case, Suspicions Aroused d6. She rolls a four, a five, and a two! This Raises the Stakes to eleven. Winston’s player states that he is going to roll d8 for Alertness and a d4 for Thief again, but spend a Plot Point to bring in a Distinction, in this case, Walks with a Cane. As this is being used to Winston’s benefit, it adds a d8 rather than a d4. His player rolls a three, a four, and a six to give a final result of thirteen. This beats the Fixer’s stakes and she backs down as Winston allays the security guard’s suspicions with, “Found it! Sorry for being so slow—old man with a cane, you know?”
Beyond the simple mechanics, Leverage: The Roleplaying Game introduces numerous elements which model the television series. For example, all of the Crewmembers are Experts and as in classic episodic television, they do not really improve, or at least if they do, it is at a very slow rate. Instead of the classic Experience Points, a Crewmember records each of the Jobs he completes. During a future Job, a player can have his Crewmember make a ‘Callback’ to the previous events of another Job to gain a bonus eight-sided die. This provides the Crewmember with a ready pool of bonus dice, but alternatively, a player can improve an Attribute or Role die, or purchase further Specialities or Talents by permanently marking off the Job titles.
Where the television series is really modelled is in the use of Flashbacks. In an episode of the television series, the focus of the Job is all on the Mark and how he is affected by the Crew’s efforts to scam him. They come in two forms. Establishment Flashbacks add an element to a Crewmember’s backstory to bring an Asset into play, whilst Wrap-Up Flashbacks establish Assets which can aid in turning the tables on the mark and go towards the finale and Mastermind’s final roll against him. They are both a narrative device to further showcase the various Crewmembers’ Roles and other traits and a means to overcome a Job’s final hurdles.
For the Fixer, there is a deep discussion of the heist genre as seen in Leverage, taking her through the process of constructing a Job—from the Client and his Problem to the Mark, a discussion of a traditional three-act structure versus the five-act structure of a Leverage episode, twists to use and twists to avoid—the latter primarily to prevent the players and their Crewmembers getting to bogged down in planning, taking inspiration from news stories, and even a ‘Situation Generator’ for creating a random Job. The Fixer can also make use of the example Clients, Foils, Agents, Locations, and more, though Locations are relatively easy to come up with given that the Leverage: The Roleplaying Game is set in the modern day and the Fixer can draw inspiration from around her. The world around the Crew is explored in broad detail, whilst the criminal and the Crew’s place in it is given more detail. With advice on subjects such as ‘Thinking Like a Criminal’, ‘Violence’, and the nature of ‘Cons’, including long, short, and classic cons. This last part is a solid introduction to grifting and running con games, and much like the rest of the chapters intended for the Fixer can just as easily be read and perused by the players. Rounding out the Leverage: The Roleplaying Game is an episode guide for the first two seasons of the television series. This either works as inspiration for the Fixer or it feels a lot much like filler content, but either way, it would have been nice to have some ready-to play-Jobs alongside it.

One issue with Leverage: The Roleplaying Game is the same as the Leverage television series. It is fundamentally episodic in nature, such that there is relatively minimal character or on-going development from one episode to the next. This is partially reflected in the slow growth and improvement of the Crewmembers through the Jobs recorded and spent as Experience Points. What this means is that the Leverage: The Roleplaying Game is not necessarily a game to play on an ongoing or even a long term basis, but since every episode of the television series and every Job is more or less self-contained, it works well for one-shots, for short seasons, and even pickup games with minimal preparation time if the Fixer uses the tables provided in the book to create a situation.

In terms of play, Leverage: The Roleplaying Game is a game which encourages player input, whether that is in the expenditure of Plot Points to add Assets to a Job or be inventive in how each player brings his Attribute and Role combinations into play. The Fixer will probably suggest combinations most of the time, but there is scope for a player to suggest his own too. This though, is also open to abuse, but a good Fixer should be able to nix that in the bud and encourage her players to play in the spirit of the Leverage television series.
Physically, Leverage: The Roleplaying Game is a really clean, bright looking book decently illustrated with stills from the television series. It is both engagingly and well written, and although it lacks an index, the table of content does a reasonable job of making up for it.
Neither the mechanics nor the genre of Leverage: The Roleplaying Game have dated and both are as comfortable to run in the here and now of this year or any other year, as much as they were in 2010. The focus of the design on emulating its source genre however does date it to its publication era, that of the storytelling game/indie roleplaying game movement which dominated the late 2010s, but of course, designed to a far more commercial end. As much as it is designed to emulate the Leverage television series, its treatment of its genre means that it can do other heist or con game set-ups just as easily as it can Leverage the television series. Nominated for the 2011 Origins Award for Best Roleplaying GameLeverage: The Roleplaying Game is an elegant, well-designed treatment of not just the Leverage television series it is based upon, but also of the heist and the con game genres in general.


  1. The whole setup reminds me of the original Mission Impossible TV Series.

    1. I've long suspected that "Leverage" was being developed as the Mission: Impossible" rpg, until Tom Cruise came along and blasted the licensing rate into orbit.

  2. I saw this at Half Price Books a couple years ago. Flipping through, I remember feeling embarrassed for the creators, seemed super cringe at the time. But I never watched the TV show.