With this post, I am officially caught up ((It won’t last. Fair warning.)).
Friday night, I got the gang back together for the second part of my more involved Leverage RPG playtest ((You can see the first part of the playtest here.)). This time, the objective was to run through a job that I created, to see how that works.
To create the job, I used the Situation Generator in the rulebook, which lets you use dice to determine the client, the mark, the problem, and the twist, along with all the various shades of those things. Now, I had been playing with this little toy for some time, rolling up different random situations, and I had come to the conclusion that this was a great thing to add to the game; in five minutes, you can have the skeleton of the job down on paper, and then five more minutes to flesh out the bare minimum of stats you need to play.
I spent more than ten minutes building the job, though. I did up stats for a number of people and places that never made it on to the screen, and I spent a fair bit of time juggling different storylines for the job to see what fit best what I wanted to achieve, and I spent some time brainstorming a couple of things with a friend who was not part of the playtest ((Thanks, Chris!)). If I were a little more familiar with the system, I think that I would have spent less time filling in the details and trusted the game to provide the complications and twists I needed to make the story work.
One danger that cropped up is a holdover from other RPGs, and that’s a reluctance to change a die roll during the situation generation phase. Somehow, it feels like cheating to pick an appropriate item off the list for a given aspect of the game, or even to re-roll. I’m a big fan of random generators – they can really help spark creativity when it’s flagging – but not every random conglomeration of elements is equal. My old-school tendency was to honour the dice; I had decided to roll randomly, so I had to live with the random results, right? When I realized I was doing that, and bending over backwards to work in certain unworkable elements, I gave my head a shake and threw out the problematic bits. Suddenly, the whole job fell into place. Short version: random tables require the exercise of personal judgment, not blind obedience.
With the job in hand, I spent the first little while with the group talking about how their crew usually does things. I asked them where their base was, who usually met with clients, how they found clients, things like that. The questions were only vaguely relevant to the game we were going to play; really, what I wanted to do was to give the players a feel for how their characters fit together and how the crew as a whole fit into the world. It also offered me a little insight into the group dynamic, and gave me some ideas for things to do later on. Once we had a better grip on who the characters were and how they worked, I brought in the client for the briefing.
I had been going back and forth on how much to lay out in the briefing and how much to force the characters to find out through play. This is basically a question of how you want to weight the mystery-to-caper ratio; i.e., how much time do you want the characters working to figure out what’s going on versus pulling crazy cons. In the end, I went with a fairly high mystery component, not because I didn’t want lots of wacky caper goodness, but because I felt that would accomplish a few things:
- It would allow a bit of a ramp-up to the bigger pieces of the con, as they pull little capers to gather the information they need to make the whole thing work.
- It would avoid prejudicing them toward a specific course of action, allowing them to choose the approach they liked best with minimal interference from me.
- It would help flesh out the world, giving me some raw material that I could pull in later as need, generated by the actions of the crew.
With that approach, I gave them the bare bones: a college football star had been arrested and convicted of drug possession with the intent to distribute, and sent to prison for 15 years. His sister had been trying to get him to appeal, but he wouldn’t even see her. From all accounts, her brother had been framed.
First step was to try and get the court files, but the hacker blew her roll, which I decided meant that the files had been removed from the computer and the hard copies sealed by court order. She was able to find that it was the DA’s motion to seal the files, though. And he was up for re-election, on a tough-on-crime, zero-tolerance platform.
So, the mastermind went to steal the paper files, while the grifter went to try and see the brother, and the hitter was following around the sister, because he’d spotted someone else following her during the meeting. Things went pretty smoothly: the grifter got in as a DoC psychologist, the mastermind told the file clerk he was part of an ongoing federal corruption task force, and the hitter identified the people following the sister as detectives in the vice/narcotics division ((He also got to beat a couple of guys up, after the cops spotted him.)).
The crew pulled together a pretty solid picture of what was going on: the DA had a couple of dirty cops on his payroll, and was setting up some high-profile cases during his re-election, framing people like the college football star. The plan came together fairly rapidly after that: get enough evidence to expose the DA and his dirty cops, forcing the cases to be reopened and the charges against the client’s brother dismissed.
To that end, they staged a fake assassination attempt, with the hacker on a rooftop using a Mil Spec Sniper Rifle d8 to take out the cops’ car, allowing the hitter to come to the rescue and take the cops to be debriefed by the federal corruption task force, represented by the grifter and the mastermind. They played hard-ball with the cops, offering them immunity from prosecution in return for information. The info that was offered was the twist in the job: they offered the DA’s real name.
The story that emerged was that the DA was really the brother of the head of a drug cartel, who had created a fake identity to go into law. He made it to DA thanks to the lessons he learned from his family about using corrupt cops, and that’s when his brother tracked him down. Now the cartel is forcing him to provide cover for their members, shifting the frame on to people like this college football star.
The plan then expanded to take in the cartel. The crew figured that, if they could expose the connection and the influence the cartel was exerting, both could go down. So they played both sides against each other, getting the cartel to send a hit squad after the DA ((Cartel Hit Squad d12 complication, filled with four Thugs d8. The hitter got the drop on them and didn’t break a sweat.)), and the DA to go to the real feds. In short order, the DA and his brother were in separate interview rooms spilling their guts, trying for reduced sentences, and the wrongfully convicted young man was back with his family.
After the game, we again had a post-mortem conversation. Everyone enjoyed this session more than the previous one, both for the freedom of choice it offered and for the clear structure behind things. That said, the consensus was that, while The Leverage RPG is fun, we’re not sure it can sustain an interesting campaign.
The game does a fantastic job of doing caper games. It is, without a doubt, the best game I’ve ever seen for that. But it only supports caper games, which is kind of one-note for a campaign. Sure, it’s easily hackable, and big chunks can be lifted out into other styles of game entirely ((I’m currently re-reading The Black Company by Glen Cook, and the game would work really well to model a lot of the scenes in that book.)), but out of the box, it focuses on one type of game. It does that type very well, but…
I think a part of the problem with this is that the group is made up of players, not TV writers. See, in the writer’s room at Leverage, they can make each job very different by choosing different scams to run from the outset. For players, though, the tendency is going to be to focus on the kinds of solutions that worked last time – gamers like to weight their odds. That’s going to lead to a sameness of play that I think would wear thin after a while.
It does, however, offer some great possibilities for a less-frequent, less-intensive, limited campaign style. Have to think about that.
One of the things I noticed in play was that none of the players wanted to risk rolling on their weak roles. Hell, most of the time, they didn’t even want to roll if it meant using their secondary role. Again, this is a reasonable expectation among players in a game where most things can be accomplished in a variety of different ways. But it does remove some of the interesting moments when a character is forced to play to one of their weaknesses. That’s another thing I have to think about – how to make it attractive to use a trait that isn’t optimal for your character.
One thing that I didn’t do during my prep work that I wound up really regretting was coming up with a list of complications to drop into play. I found myself really scrambling to pull stuff together towards the end of the game when I realized I had a bunch of unspent complications sitting on my table. A little list would have taken almost no time to put together, and would have saved me a lot of stress during play. After the game, of course, I came up with a dozen complications that would have been fun to play and taken things in interesting directions, but by then it was too late.
Anyway. We had fun. Thanks to my players for giving this a try:
- Aleksander – Charlie the Hitter, who was Tougher Than He Looked
- Clint – Duncan the Grifter, who was a Charming Rogue
- Kieran – Jack the Mastermind, who was a Bastard
- Vickie – Carmen the Hacker, who was Hot Tempered