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

Saturday 4 November 2023

Decyphering Disaster

The majority of the roleplaying that we do involves heroes in fantastic and fantasy situations. A mighty warrior holding off a horde of orcs. A powerful wizard opening a portal to another world. A skilled star pilot threading his way through an asteroid field in pursuit of pirates. A wily thief sneaking into the headquarters of a bank to break into the vault. A priest forcing back the undead through the power of faith alone. A superspy confronting a supervillain in his volcano secret base. A telepath with two heads exploring the ruins of the long past in a post-apocalyptic future. All of these situations are familiar from our roleplaying. What though if we could roleplay heroes in situations that are fantastic, but grounded in reality rather than fantasy? What if we could roleplay heroes who help others and come to the rescue of those caught in situations beyond their ability to cope with, let alone survive? Fight fires before they spread? Search mountainsides for climbers and skiers caught in avalanches? Dig into earthquake zones to find the trapped? Range across flood zones to get to those still caught? Research outbreaks of deadly diseases before they can infect more? As we have seen on the screen—big and small—all of these situations can form the basis for exciting and dramatic storytelling where the protagonists rush into danger to save others, but curiously, not in roleplay.

First Responders presents the means to roleplay exciting situations in the contemporary world where highly skilled men and women deal with emergencies and disasters—fires, floods, volcanos, earthquakes, pandemics, and even nuclear disasters. The only other roleplaying game to deal with this is Deep7’s Disaster! 1PG, but that put the Player Characters at the heart of the disaster and has them survive it rather than deal with its consequences. In First Responders, the Player Characters are ordinary men and women, but they are trained as firefighters, medics, search and rescue specialists, scientists, HAZMAT specialists, counsellors, Incident Commanders, and more. They are literally the first to respond, and in the default setting, do so as members of Sovereign Agency of Veteran Emergency Responders—or SAVER—on an international scale. The players will take on multiple characters, troupe style, drawing from a rooster of Player Characters, each with different skills, abilities, and areas of expertise, in order to ensure that the right personnel are assigned to deal a particular situation. Alternatively, First Responders can be played as a series of one-shots, with different teams still tackling different situations, but the roleplaying experience providing a genre cleanser, a change from the more fantastical fare that a roleplaying group might roleplay. First Responders is published by Monte Cook Games and is a genre supplement for the Cypher System.

As a supplement, First Responders fairly zips along, racing through its rules and advice in smart order before providing multiple scenarios that deal with a range of threats and disasters in a good third of the book. It begins though, by explaining what the Player Characters do as first responders and giving advice to the Game Master on how to run a First Responders game effectively. This means eschewing realism, or rather eschewing too much realism, whether particular techniques or terminology used by first responders, or even scientific detail—note, not science itself, but overly encumbering play with it. Everyone, players and Game Master, need to set the mood by accepting that disaster scenarios invariably mean they the first responders are against the clock and they need to act urgently, and the first responder Player Characters work together to co-ordinate a plan and then execute it. Also discussed are the types of actions that the first responders can take, and whilst they are often very physical in nature and not combat actions per se, they still involve the first responders battling against a danger, such as a fire or rising waters. That danger is actually defined in the same way as creatures and monsters are in the Cypher System, but instead of Health the danger has Threat. Thus, a first responder can ‘Suppress’ a fire or flood, to reduce its Threat; he can ‘Quell’ it to temporarily subdue or stop its progress; Vent’ a flood or fire or alter the flow of larva, to redirect the danger and effectively hinder it; and ‘Contain’ a danger to stop its spread. Other actions include the more obvious ‘Detect’, ‘Rescue’, and ‘Heal’. What have here though, is an adjustment in terminology for many of the actions that the first responders will be undertaking, from the more standard actions that Player Characters would undertake in a more fantastical Cypher System setting. There is advice here also, on consent, on the dangerous and often deadly nature of the First Responders setting, and the use or not of gallows humour. It is all good, solid advice.

In terms of what a player roleplays, First Responders explains how to use the “I am an adjective noun who verbs” phrase to create Player Characters, noting how the more fantastical language of the many options in terms of Descriptors and Foci can be applied to a real-world setting like that of First Responders. For example, “I am Brash Warrior who Stands Like a Bastion” can be a firefighter or a rescuer and “I am a Careful Explorer who Runs Away”, a volcanologist or a nuclear scientist. This does take some adjustment and some interpretation upon the part of player and Game Master, but the results are no less exciting or heroic. Useful skills are listed, as are numerous roles, whilst the Responder is a character Type—like Warrior or Adept from the Cypher System core rules—specific to First Responders. The new Foci, such as ‘Battles the Blaze’, ‘Controls the Scene’, and ‘Shuts Death’s Door’ are also specific to First Responders, but could find their way into settings. The focus of the equipment section is mostly on protective gear, much of which will actually be part of the first responders’ role, so there is very much not the need to go looking for bigger and better equipment as play. There are also few weapons in the traditional sense, just the knife and fireman’s axe, whilst the backpack pump, the charged fire hose, and so on, are treated as weapons because they are used to fight or battle the elements of the emergencies.

For the Game Master there is excellent advice on the nature of a First Responders campaign and how to run one. Most notably, the Game Master is expected to proactive in telling her players what their first responders know, since after all, they are trained in their respective fields. Introduced here is the ‘Challenge System’ as a means to present the emergencies and disasters as obstacles to be overcome in both dealing with them and the dangers that they place NPCs and the first responders in. This will often require the putting together of an Amalgamated Goal, representing a number of objectives that need to be overcome in order achieve it. Some of the dangers can be unexpected and these can be handled through Game Master Intrusions, the means of presenting greater challenges to the Player Characters in the Cypher System. Game Master Intrusions are also used to drive the escalating nature of the emergencies, known as ‘Disaster Mode’. In standard play of the Cypher System, and initially in First Responders, a mandatory Game Master Intrusion occurs when a player rolls a one on the die. In ‘Disaster Mode’, when this occurs, not only does the Game Master make an Intrusion, the range under which a mandatory Game Master Intrusion can occur also increases. Initially at one, the first time it occurs, it rises to two, the second time, it rises to three, and so on. A list of Game Master Intrusions is given here, but there are also plenty throughout the book in its sidebars. First Responders also encourages something that runs counter to the age-old advice of ‘Never split the party’, but here it is necessary. The first responders will be facing multiple, often separate difficulties, which need to be dealt with simultaneously rather than sequentially. Lastly, it suggests bringing them back together to deal with mundane issues, such cleaning equipment or aiding a friend or helping an organisation. In this, it neatly models the epilogue of an episode of a television series, where the characters have a chance to relax and recover from the dangers that they faced in the field. It also points to the one of the origins for the supplement.

In terms of disasters, First Responders explores and categorises six—fires, floods, earthquakes, nuclear disasters, pandemics, and volcanos. In each it explores the danger they represent and gives samples of each model different danger levels. Thus, for fire, there is a Small Fire, a Standard Fire, a Demanding Fire, a Difficult Fire, a Challenging Fire, and an Intimidating Fire. Each is treated like a monster with a Task Difficulty which the player must roll against to affect it when it is his first responder’s turn to act and again when trying to avoid its effects, whether that is actual damage from the fire or being engulfed by flood waters. As mentioned before, a disaster like this will have Threat which must be reduced rather than Health, though not always, as for example, flood dangers have no threat at all. First Responders does this for six of its disaster types. It provides enough detail for the Game Master to use SAVER as an organisation for her campaign, and then suggestions to use each of the six disaster types in other genres. These are thumbnail descriptions only, designed to give the Game Master ideas. As well as giving sample NPCs, First Responders suggests new Cyphers that can be used in the genre in addition to those found in the Cypher System core book. These are all subtle Cyphers, like ‘Big Breath’ or ‘Dumb Luck’, all entirely in keeping with the non-fantastical nature of the genre.

Penultimately, the Scenarios chapter provides situations which both SAVER and the first responders can come to the rescue. These all have a challenge rating of four and vary from a Collapsed Motel for earthquakes to a crashed transport truck for nuclear disasters. All are nicely detailed, with details of their Amalgamated Goals, encounters, challenges, and Game Master Intrusions, and more. Any one of them could provide a solid single session’s worth of play and if used as part of a SAVER campaign provide episodes for that. Lastly, First Responders does include a glossary of emergency responders’ terms and some sample first responders reader for play.

Physically, First Responders is very presented. Both artwork and cartography are excellent and the writing is engaging, helping to bring exciting if mundane action to life and present as something that is playable.

Even if its mechanics would not work in other roleplaying games, the advice and the situations described is so good that it actually makes First Responders the key sourcebook to opening up the no less heroic world of emergency response teams to roleplaying in general. It also works as a sourcebook for running a television style series-style campaign based around hospitals and firefighting teams, perhaps with a little bit of Soap Opera thrown in! In whatever way it is used, First Responders provides everything the Game Master needs to run an exciting and challengingly heroic campaign in the world that they already know and see in the daily news broadcasts. With First Responders, you can be heroes and it does not have to involve magic.

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