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Sunday, July 6, 2014

Firefly Role-Playing Game: Gaming in the 'Verse (Gen Con 2013 Preview)

Title: Firefly Role-Playing Game: Gaming in the 'Verse (Gen Con 2013 Preview)

ISBN: 9781936685318

Price: $34.99

Publisher/Year: Margaret Weis Productions, 2013

System: Cortex

Out-of-print: Yes

Available on DriveThruRPG: No

Overall rating (1-10): 7

Announced back in February of 2013, this new version of MWP’s Cortex System (used in games such as Supernatural, Leverage, and the Marvel Heroic RPG) takes browncoats back to the ‘verse, this time with a tighter rule set and more of a focus on the TV series.  While the full core rulebook is slated for Quarter 1 release in 2014, the preview version for sale at GenCon is plenty enough to let players find a crew, find a ship, and fly the black. (As of this writing, the release for the core book has been pushed into Quarter 3 at the earliest.)

The book itself is a 272 page softcover, with images taken from the Firefly TV series.  One thing that is made clear in the book is that this is not a “beta” in the way that FFG’s Edge of the Empire or Age of Rebellion Beta rulebooks were; the rules have been written for this game, with any further playtesting being done in-house and on an “as needed basis.”  I know some people aren’t happy about a licensed-based RPG product simply using footage from the source material; this was a constant complaint I heard in regards to Wizards of the Coast and their various Star Wars RPG product lines.  But in this case, it works.

The book opens with a quick introduction to the setting, putting the default time frame in the same window as the TV series, with events from the Big Damn Movie not having occurred yet, as well as a quick overview of the Cortex system’s mechanics and the chapters in the book.

In a rather neat approach, the book breaks down the first two episodes of the series, “Pilot” and “Train Job,” as though they were actual RPG adventures, allowing players the chance to have their own crew take a crack at things and see if they can do better or worse than Serenity’s crew.  They also include several NPCs from the series with full stat blocks to allow a GM to simply drop folks like Badger or Adelai Niska into their game without much fuss, as well as various elements to futher flesh out the ‘verse such as Reaver ships and bits of tech that the PCs might come across or know about.  The NPC layouts are very simple, listing their Attributes, trained Skills, Distinctions, and any personal assets they might have.  There’s also various setting elements such as the liberal use of Chinese words and phrases, adding a nice touch.

From there, it’s on to the meat of the rules used in the Cortex Plus system.  If you’ve played the Marvel Heroic RPG, then you’ll see quite a few familiar things, such as how the dice pool is assembled.  The rules are explained in a way that’s both direct and informative, with examples given of how the system works.  Like prior MWP offerings, the game uses d4’s through d12’s, with the larger dice obviously being more beneficial to the person rolling, since you only get to keep two of the dice you rolled to determine your check result.  Rather than a set difficulty, all dice rolls are opposed checks, especially if there’s an NPC involved.  The person or thing targeted/defending makes their roll to determine the actual difficulty, or “set the stakes” as the system calls it, with the person or thing acting rolls their dice in the hopes of beating that difficulty to “raise the stakes” and succeed.  If the player does really well, they earn a Big Damn Hero die that can be used to boost later actions.  If they fail, they earn Complications which will make things tougher for your crewmember seeing as how they increase the difficulty of tasks by virtue of being included in any roll to set the stakes.

Most actions will have a dice pool of at least two dice, the first being the Attribute (Physical, Mental or Social) and the second being your skill rank.  Interestingly, everyone starts at a d4 for their skills rather than not having any dice as occurs in most other RPGs.  I like this as it encourages players to at least make an effort at something they’re not trained at doing, as they’re at least going to get a d4 added to their pool; it’s not much, but it’s something, and sometimes that’s enough.  One element I recognized from the Marvel Heroic RPG was the inclusion of Distinctions, including such things as Crude (think Jayne), Reader (River), Stoic (Zoe), Everything’s Shiny (Kaylee), and Things Don’t Go Smooth (Captain Reynolds).  However, where a Distinction simply allowed the player to roll an extra d8 or reduce it to a d4 to gain a Plot Point in MHRPG, in Firefly a character’s Distinction has additional effects that can be triggered once unlocked, giving the player additional options for their character.

Character creation in this system is fairly simple, and the entire crew of Serenity are presented as examples of what a starting character could look like.  However, some folks are itching to make their own Big Damn Heroes, and while the book doesn’t quite give a fully free hand in doing so, the players have a fair amount of leeway.  The three Attributes are set at a default of d8, though you can choose to drop one to a d6 in order to increase a different one to a d10; Mal Reynolds has a d8 in all three of his Attributes, but Inara has a lower Physical but higher Social and Simon Tam has a higher Mental but a lower Physical.  From there, it’s time to choose your crewmember’s Distinctions, of which you get three.  Another part of Distinctions that are important is they note which skills your character has a knack for, which will be important when you get to skills in a very short bit.  While there are no rules for creating your own Distinctions, the book does offer plenty of choices, split amongst roles, personality traits, and backgrounds, allowing for plenty of variety amongst the crew.  You also have the option of “unlocking” two additional Distinction effects when creating your character, either providing you a boost when rolling a dice pool or an additional way to earn Plot Points (handy things that let you keep an extra die from your dice pool or trigger certain special effects).

As noted before, skills all start at a d4, but you do get a few points to increase them, as well as getting some increases based upon which skills are noted as “highlighted” for your selected Distinctions.  If your Distinction notes the skill as “highlighted,” you increase by one die type, and if the same skill shows up under two or more of your Distinctions, you increase that many times.  For instance, if two of your Distinctions list the Fly skill, then you’d increase it from a d4 to a d8.  While this could be abused to get a d10 in a couple of skills for free, this approach will come back to haunt you as it’s a lot cheaper to raise a highlighted skill, so you might be better off selecting Distinctions that offer a broad array of highlighted skills instead of focusing too much on a select few skills.  Spending your skill points also ups your dice rating in that skill, though you’ve only got so many points, and those non-highlighted skills cost twice as much.  For example, none of Jayne’s Distinctions (Crude, Family Ties, Mercenary) list Fix as a highlighted skill, so if Jayne wanted to get better at fixing things, it’d be mighty pricey for him, though he’s pretty good at hitting people with his fists (Fight) or shooting them (Shoot), particularly with Vera.

The last step is spending your specialization points, which can be done to either add a specialization to a skill that you’ve got at least a d6 in, making you better at that skill by adding an extra d6 to your dice pool anytime that specialization would apply to a roll, such as Wash having the “transports” specialization attached to his Fly skill, making him very good at flying Serenity.  The other thing those points can be spent on is to create character assets that are always present, such as Vera, the Mare’s Leg, or even Serenity herself, allowing members of a ship’s crew to be particularly adept at actions involving their ship, such as Kaylee and her way with Serenity’s engines, or how Mal seems pretty in tune with the ship in general, even if he’s not as good a pilot or mechanic as Wash or Kaylee.

The book also provides a number of ready-made archetypes that only need their two additional Distinction triggers selected but are otherwise ready to play, a handy thing for a group that simply wants to start flying the black but don’t feel up to portraying the Big Damn Heroes (ain’t they just?) that we know so well.  However, one thing that is missing is rules for character advancement.

The last portion that’s for the players is a brief chapter on the party’s ship, with only three models offered, among which is, of course, the Firefly-class transport.  Ship stats are handled much the same way as they are for characters, with three Attributes (Engine, Hull, and Systems), a Distinction based on the class of ship, and two additional Distinctions based on the ship’s History and a Customization.  When used in play, the ship’s own Attribute and Distinctions get added to the dice pool, meaning that Wash is rolling a lot of dice when piloting Serenity, accounting for him being able to do all sorts of fun stuff like a “Crazy Ivan.”

The next section of the book are two separate adventures that can be run using the Firefly cast or original characters, and do a good job of capturing the general feel of the setting.  The first of these is “Wedding Planners”, which finds the crew entangled in an arranged marriage situation that starts with them ferrying the bride-to-be and just goes from bad to worse, while the second is “Shooting Fish” and centers around the crew’s attempts to help an old friend, save an orphanage, win a boat race, and deal with the local corrupt mayor that wants to shut down said orphanage.  The adventures themselves are loaded with plenty of NPCs that GMs could have crop up as recurring characters in their campaigns… provided none of the PCs put a bullet in some of their brainpans.  Though in that case, just give the NPC a new name and face, and just use the same stats for that type of opponent.  The book then wraps up with an Appendix that covers designing the game and the book as well as a Chinese Translation Guide and atlas of the White Sun system, the primary star system of the series, and ending with a side-view schematic of Serenity and a character sheet and ship sheet.

Overall, it’s a pretty slick system, one that’s open to a lot of fun interaction as the players are flying the black.  The dice pool system is very simple yet flexible, with the Distinctions adding a lot of in-character flavor both in terms of role-playing but also to the dice rolls, providing benefits and drawbacks as suits the situation.  My one complaint with this book is the complete lack of character advancement rules; you’d best be happy with your character when you create them, as officially speaking you’re going to be stuck with your choices until the full rules get released early next year.  Admittedly it’s possible to come up with some method of character advancement, either by drawing from prior Cortex-based RPGs or simply extrapolating from the character creation section, but I honestly feel that such a step shouldn’t be necessary.  I get that this isn’t meant to be the full RPG, but a lack of character advancement rules just feels like an oversight.  But honestly, that’s the only real negative to me for this book, and it’s a comparatively minor one that can be remedied with a little creativity.

If you’re a fan of the series, it’s certainly worth picking up the PDF at least, and it wouldn’t take much to modify this game to run in other settings, from a true Old West game to other sci-fi settings such as Battlestar Galactica, Star Trek, or even Star Wars.

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