I’ve been looking at the Leverage RPG for months now ((I got The Quickstart Job pdf way, way back when it was first released, and preordered the main rulebook immediately after reading through it. When the rulebook went to the printer, the good folks at MWP sent me the pdf, which easily lived up to the promise of the playtest scenario. So, it’s been almost a year since I first looked at the game.)), planning to write a post about it, but I didn’t want to do it until I’d had the opportunity to actually run the playtest scenario, The Quickstart Job. Last night, I got the opportunity to try it out, and it did not disappoint.
As may be implied by the name, The Quickstart Job is a short, simple scenario that introduces the rules and structure of the game, played with the characters from the TV show ((And if, by some chance, you don’t know about the TV show, you can find the details here and here and here. It’s a fun, light caper show.)). The adventure is a quick caper, trying to steal some corporate records at a party, with a nice twist thrown in to force the players to think on their feet. It’s set up to be pretty much a railroad plot, at first glance, obviously intended to be run quickly with people who are unfamiliar with the game system, leading through the steps of the con by the hand.
This is a good thing; it’s what a quickstart adventure should do. It keeps the extraneous complexity and subtlety of the system off-screen, showing off the cool things you can do in the game. And the plot is not as much of a railroad as it first appears, something I didn’t appreciate until I actually ran it ((One reason I’m glad I waited until I had run the game before writing about it.)). The complication mechanic adds a lot of little side action, forcing the characters to rethink the plan right in the middle of things going pear-shaped, just like on the TV show.
Quick overview of the system, which is a heavily ((And beautifully!)) tweaked version of the Cortex system, called Cortex Plus:
- There are five different roles in the game, representing broad areas of expertise – classes, if you like – shown in the show. They are Grifter, Hacker, Hitter, Mastermind, and Thief.
- There are six different attributes, representing the standard raw abilities of the character. They are Agility, Alertness, Intelligence, Strength, Vitality, and Willpower. Interestingly, each has a strong social function outside the obvious function.
- Roles and attributes are ranked by die type, d4 to d12 ((In practice, characters have scores from d4 to d10 when starting out)), and rolls are made using the die from the appropriate role and appropriate attribute. Extra dice can be added by introducing something new and interesting to the scene, called an Asset. No matter how big the dice pool gets, though, only the two highest dice are totaled for the result.
- The GM – Fixer, in this game – rolls the opposition dice pool, representing whatever obstacles the characters are trying to overcome. The Fixer dice pool works roughly the same way, except the Fixer gets Complications instead of Assets.
- Plot Points can be used to gain Assets or include more dice from your pool in the result of your roll.
There are some subtleties and other mechanical flourishes to the game, but that’s the core of it, and I’m only going to talk about a couple of other parts.
First, in keeping with the source material, the game uses a very nice mechanic for flashbacks, allowing the players to spend Plot Points to retcon some action in a flashback, showing how they set things up for an advantage that they now want to use. I thought this would be a difficult thing to get the players using, but they were all fans of the show, and jumped at the chance to use the idea. It’s really brought out in The Quickstart Job during the wrap-up, and creates a different way of looking at the game: instead of trying to account for every little possibility during the actual play of the game, where things can get bogged down in the minutiae, you can leave the loose ends for the end of the game and tie them up then, when you see what they are.
Second, Complications. Complications are really the heart and soul of the game. The assumption of the game is that the characters are obscenely good at what they do. They are among the top people in their respective fields in the entire world. So, it is expected that, as long as things go according to the plan, they will succeed. Complications are how you inject surprising things that aren’t according to the plan and force the characters to think on their feet to deal with them. Just like the TV show ((I’m saying that a lot in this review, and I personally think that’s entirely appropriate for a licensed game. In fact, I think that’s eminently desirable. If you’re playing a game based on a TV show, it should feel like you’re playing in an episode of the show.)), the drama and interest in the game comes from how the characters handle the problems that pop up to skew the plan.
Complications arise when a player rolls a 1 on any die in his or her dice pool on any roll. It earns them a Plot Point, and lets the Fixer add a trait to scenario rated at d6. This trait gets added to any roll the Fixer makes where it would apply. So, a Complication like Heightened Security d6 would get rolled when a character is trying to sneak into a building ((Or talk his or her way in, or fight his or her way in, or hack his or her way in, or whatever.)). Extra 1s can grant more Complications, or can step up the die type of an existing Complication: d6 to d8 to d10 to d12.
One of the beautiful things about the Complication mechanic is that the Fixer can bank it, and is, in fact, encouraged to do so. So, when a player rolls a Complication, the Fixer can make note of it and not introduce it until a later time, when it would be more fun. This might seem a little prone to abuse, with the possibility of the Fixer saving up the Complications to hit a player at a very vulnerable point with You’re Screwed d12, but it’s really a way to make sure that the interesting, exciting parts of play get used at dramatically appropriate points. And if your Fixer does that, it just means you are more likely to fail at that particular action, not that the job falls apart.
The entire game is engineered towards making the characters show off how cool they are. That means that, in general, failure just means you have to think of a different way to do what your were trying to do. Even failure in a combat simply means that now the bad guys have you prisoner, and the rest of the team has to try and break you out, as well as finish up the job.
So, how did the playtest go? Really well, I thought, though not quite as I expected. I don’t want to give too much of the adventure away, because I hate spoilers, especially in reviews, but here’s the high-level look at it.
I spent about fifteen minutes at the start of play talking about the system, making sure everyone was up to speed on how to roll, what to roll, how to use Plot Points, and how to get more. Then, I got the players playing Nate and Hardison to read the briefing out loud to the other players, and we jumped right in.
As mentioned previously, the scenes are set up in a very basic, linear, hand-holding style. That didn’t survive encounter with my players. They’re all experienced gamers, and all of them are fans of the show, so they took what they had and ran with it. The first scene was pretty basic, with three of the characters scoping things out at a party, and we went through that as written, with them making their notice rolls and getting – or not getting, in Nate’s case – the information they needed. The second scene involved an actual objective to achieve, and that’s where they went to town.
In seconds, there was an elaborate scam involving a cake, fake e-mail, a surprise speech, and the preemptive removal of a couple of security guards. The scenario gives three options to accomplish the objective, and they’re probably very useful for groups who haven’t gamed as much, or watched as much Leverage; my group came up with a strange mish-mash of all three, with some extra bits thrown in, involving four out of five of the characters.
I hadn’t actually expected there to be that much flexibility in the scenario, so I was a little caught off-guard, and panicked a bit. My first instinct, being less secure in the system and scenario than I might have liked, was to try and force them back onto the tracks, but then the wiser part of me said, “Nah. It’s a playtest. If it all goes to hell, it doesn’t really matter. Relax and go with it.” So, I took a minute or two to think ((Also, a convenient bathroom break, but that’s not all that relevant.)), and ran with it.
That was the moment when the game started to shine. Everyone was trying crazy things, everyone was throwing around Plot Points for Assets ((Which, for most of the evening, I kept calling Aspects. What can I say? Mechanically, they’re similar, and I’d just run Feints & Gambits the previous evening. But it was confusing for the poor players.)) and flashbacks, and I was layering on the Complications.
The game rolled along, and I nudged them past some points where they were getting bogged down by things that could better be handled in the wrap-up through flashbacks, and kept the pace going fairly well. Not quite as well as I would have liked, because I had to scramble a couple of times to figure out how to handle something, but that can be addressed by familiarity with the rules.
All in all, the game took about two and a quarter hours, and ended nicely ((Although, Eliot got pretty beat up at one point – no matter what the system, a sucky roll is a sucky roll.)) for the group. They achieved the objective, and helped a little old lady keep her home, and sent the scumbags who were threatening it to prison for a long time.
Afterward, as I like to do with playtests, we had a postmortem to talk about the system, and what worked and what didn’t. Then we called it an evening.
I really like the system. It does what it promises to do, and it does it with style and flair. I have not seen a system that handles caper and heist play nearly as well, ever. Some specific thoughts:
- The Quickstart Job seems to use an earlier iteration of the rules than what finally got published in the rulebook. Specifically, the rules for acquiring Assets and for Contested Actions are different. The ones in the rulebook are, in my opinion, cleaner and more fun.
- Once the game jumped the rails of the plot, I really began regretting that there wasn’t a complete set of traits for the Mark – the main villain of the piece. And for the locale. It was easy enough to improvise things, but the addition of a couple of stat lines would have been very useful, especially in an introductory product like this.
- The idea about using post-it notes to track Assets and Complications on p115 of the rulebook is solid gold. Even in this short game, there were about ten Assets created, and five Complications (some of which got stepped up as high as d12). That’s a lot for everyone to keep track of, and the notes were a life-saver.
- No one in the playtest used their Distinctions ((These are another thing kind of like Aspects in FATE. They let characters either get bonuses to their dice pool or to get an extra Plot Point.)) to generate Plot Points, only for bonuses. This is, I think, the product of the short adventure and the larger-than-normal starting Plot Points for the characters. In campaign play, I think the characters would be more hungry for Plot Points, and use the Distinctions more to get them.
- The game is really focused on doing one thing, and doing it well. By default, the situations for the adventures are going to be rather formulaic, just like in the TV show. That said, there are a number of hacks for the system to work in different types of settings and genres already on the net. For a start, check out Rob Donoghue’s blog on the subject. His Two Guys With Swords set-up makes me really want to run a short Fafhrd/Grey Mouser campaign.
- The playtest scenario leaves out a couple of the coolest parts of the system in the interests of brevity. Character creation is wonderful and collaborative, and the basic assumption of play is that the group is going to plan the job at the session. And there’s great advice in the book for handling both of these things.
- The game has a situation generator, which lets you randomly roll up the client, problem, mark, etc. for a job. It’s tremendous fun to play with, even if you don’t end up using the results strictly as rolled.
- I messed up the fight action a little in the game, due to lack of rules familiarity. That was part of the reason Eliot took such a beating, though his abysmal dice luck was a larger contributing factor. Again, this will be addressed by more familiarity with the system, and was exacerbated by the difference in rules between the playtest booklet and the final rulebook. The two systems were warring in my head.
- The game is optimized for five players. Fewer players, and you’ll have one role that’s not covered in a primary position; more players, and you’ve got some double primary roles. Now, in theory, either of these – or both – could happen even with five players, but the system makes it sub-optimal. It’s far from game-breaking, but could change the dynamic of play significantly.
So, yeah. Leverage RPG is a very fun game. It’s got me looking at the slot on the game calender that opened up with the demise of Fearful Symmetries and thinking.
But I think I will hold off on starting a new campaign for now. I think I’ll wait at least until the two splatbooks come out this summer. I’ve already got them pre-ordered.
I think I may run another playtest, though, with a job of my own devising and full character creation. Just to see how it goes ((Honestly. I can quit any time.)).
***Super Important Edit***
I forgot to say thanks to my players for taking part in this playtest. I hope you had as much fun as I did. So, thanks to:
- Penny – Sophie
- Michael – Hardison
- Sandy – Parker
- Kieran – Nate
- Aleksander – Eliot