Crooks… in… SPAAAAAAAACE!

It’s been a while since I’ve posted anything here, and I thought I’d try to get back to it with a review.

I’ve just finished reading Scum and Villainy, a new science fiction RPG from my heroes at Evil Hat Productions. It’s a Forged in the Dark game1, meaning it uses the same core system as Blades in the Dark2. It came out this year3 around GenCon, and I just got around to reading it now.

Short review: it blew me away, and I want to play it.

So, the basic premise is that you are, well, space crooks. You’re the crew of a small spaceship in a small collection of star systems, and you’re… well, if you’re not total outlaws, you’re definitely shady. There are three distinct flavours of crew you can join, based on the kind of ship you choose:

  • Stardancer is for illicit merchants, smugglers, and blockade runners. Think Firefly.
  • Cerberus is for bounty hunters and extraction specialists. Think Cowboy Bebop or Killjoys.
  • Firedrake is for rebels and revolutionaries. Think Blake’s 7 and Star Wars Rebels.

The basic components of ships, jobs, and character types lets you reconstruct pretty much any space-focused science fiction universe you might like, as long as the main characters are a small, stalwart crew of underdogs4.

The Book

If you’ve bought any of Evil Hat’s roleplaying games before, the book is going to look very familiar. Digest-sized hardcover, with thick, solid covers and pages, and lots of black and white interior art. The book is physically durable5, and the layout is very clean and readable. There are even nice page-edge markers that let you flip quickly through the book and see what section you’re in. In short, it’s an attractive, useful book that’s going to last even when you’re using it for reference at a cluttered game table.

Basic Mechanics

Task resolution in the game is really simple. You build a pool of d6s, roll them, and look for the highest die. You get total success with a 6, partial success6 with a 4 or 5, and fail with a 1 to 3. The rolls are mainly Action rolls, based on one of your 12 action types, with dice added or removed based on circumstance. There are also Fortune rolls, which are used mainly by the GM to answer questions that are out of the control of the characters – how crowded is the spaceport, how many people in this village survive the alien plague, stuff like that. Also, Resistance rolls let you mitigate negative consequences that your character might face.

Two interesting twists on the mechanics of rolling are the ideas of Position and Effect. Position is one of three states – Controlled, Risky, and Desperate – that in many ways set the stakes for the roll. Position is determined mainly by the fiction, with the players and GM coming to a consensus before the dice are tossed. This is important, because Position determines how severe the consequences of failure7 are.

Effect is also determined by GM and players based on the fiction. It basically sets the expectation of what success on the roll means. It’s governed by things like relative scale and situational advantages. For example, trying to shoot down a starship with a handgun is not going to have a low Effect, while trying to intimidate a lone bookkeeper when you’ve got three well-armed mercenaries backing you up is going to have a high Effect.

Together, Position and Effect frame the Action rolls, making sure the players and the GM have a shared understanding of what’s going on, how much danger is in the air, and how much good can come from success.

Play Phases

Scum and Villainy, like Blades in the Dark, splits play into three different phases:

  • Free play
  • The job
  • Downtime

Free play is pretty much what it says on the tin – you just play, making whatever rolls the fiction calls for. This is the time when players are generally trying to deal with the aftermath and loose ends of their last job, and track down or decide on the next one. Free play generally lasts up until the crew picks a job and decides to work it.

The job is when the crew does the job. They steal the thing, or smuggle the stuff, or capture the bounty, or sabotage the stuff, or whatever. It’s the main actiony part of the game, and is set up to run in a quick, exciting, and surprising manner. The job lasts until the job is done, win or lose.

Downtime is a more abstracted phase that follows the job, where the crew collects their pay, heals up, blows off steam, repairs the ship, works on their long-term projects, ducks out of the system ahead of the police, and stuff like that. Downtime lasts until each player performs their share of downtime actions, then things revert to free play.

At first glance, this looked to me to be very mechanistic, and kind of dry. But upon thinking about it a little more, I decided that I really liked this aspect of the system. It sets clear expectations of each phase, so players and GMs have a shared understanding of what’s going on, and what’s at stake. It allows the game to implement slightly different mechanics for each of the three phases. It gives solid focus to the activities of each phase, minimizing digressions. And it builds in a rhythm and pacing familiar to anyone who watches episodic TV.

Characters

Scum and Villainy uses the playbook idea I first saw in Apocalypse World. There are a set number of roles that your character could take, and each one has its own special abilities and restrictions, spelled out on the character sheet. Instead of stats, you assign ratings in the different actions, and you pick your starting ability from your character list. As you advance, you can select additional abilities.

There are seven types of character: Mechanics, Muscles, Mystics, Pilots, Scoundrels, Speakers, and Stitches. Each one is pretty clear in its focus, but the choices you make during character creation add welcome distinction to the role.8

In addition to your action ratings and your special abilities, you also select a Heritage to reflect where your family comes from and a background to show how you grew up. These sound like a pretty fine distinction, but there are categories for each that you choose from, so it becomes more clear what each means.

You also need to choose a Vice – the little indulgence that helps you blow off steam and deal with stress. These aren’t necessarily what we think of as vices, including things like religious faith and family relations, but also include stuff like drink, drugs, gambling, etc. It’s anything that helps you feel in control and lets you balance yourself.

Each character also comes with a list of people you know besides your crew. This is an interesting mix of folks that link you into the setting, giving you a list of contacts, friends, rivals, and other faces. So, instead of having to ask the GM if you know anyone who can get you an unregistered blaster, you can ask if your buddy Shod, the arms dealer, can hook you up. This is just a beautiful way to make the characters feel like they have a history, and brings the background characters of the setting to life.

Character creation doesn’t seem to take long, but you wind up with an impressive depth of information about your character before beginning play. Not everything – in fact, there’s a section in the rules discussing the desirability of leaving details undetermined at character creation so that they can be discovered during play9. But the characters are flavourful and distinct, based on the character creation decisions.

Ships

The ship is an important component of the crew. Each type of ship is optimized to focus on a specific kind of job10, and has a playbook much like a character. You get to customize your ship somewhat during the creation phase, which allows you to skew or sharpen your focus somewhat. You also have to choose ties to various factions who helped or hindered you in getting your ship and crew together, so you start the game with some predefined relationships that you can lean on and that can lean on you.

Ships can advance, like characters. You can add new functionality, improve different parts, and generally grow it just like another character. Considering the emphasis placed on ships in this type of science fiction, it really works for the genre.

Setting

The setting is a network of four star systems in the Procyon Sector11 linked by jumpgates. In all, there are about a dozen planets, and maybe half that number other locations spelled out. It’s all part of a backwater area of the galactic Hegemony, which is a moderately oppressive and corrupt12 science fiction society. Tech is unevenly distributed, as are political power and sentient rights.

Procyon Sector is strewn with different types of environments, influences, secrets, and power struggles, making it a rich place to mine for story ideas. It’s a limited number of locations13 but the variety and the messiness of the connections give enough interest to keep the game going.

Besides star travel and blaster pistols, Scum and Villainy contains a lot of other popular science fiction tropes, including a space wizards14, alien races, xeno-archaeology, and sentient robots15. As I mentioned earlier, you can cobble together an homage to pretty much any science fiction universe you care about.

Brilliant Things

So, there’s the broad strokes of the game. It’s not an in-depth examination, and I’m sure you’ve spotted some holes as you’ve read through my thoughts. I’m going to address some of the holes below, as I call out a number of things that I think are absolutely brilliant about this game. Note that a number of these aren’t original to Scum and Villainy, and are just features of the Forged in the Dark games.

  • Devil’s Bargain: When you’re getting ready to make your Action roll, you start looking for extra dice to add to your pool, because more dice means a better chance of getting a full success – maybe even a critical. One thing you can do is accept a devil’s bargain. This is when the GM offers you an extra die for the pool in return for something bad happening in the fiction. So, maybe you get an extra die to shoot at the bad guy, but then your blaster jams, or you throw the cops off your trail, but it means they stumble onto your friend in a compromising position. It’s a way to elevate the stakes of the roll, giving you more risk for a better chance of success. It’s a wonderful little temptation to throw at your players, much like a compel in Fate.
  • Load: This is a great way to bypass the planning delay that choosing your equipment for an adventure can bring. Instead of having a detailed list of everything your character is hauling around, you pick a load level for the character. Then, during play, you spend your allotment of load to have the items you actually need in the moment. Each playbook has a couple of lists on it – one for generic items you might have, and one for items specific to your character type. Thus, anyone can say they’re carrying a blaster pistol or a communicator, but only the Scoundrel can decide to have forged documents.
  • Engagement Roll and Flashbacks: One of the big stumbling blocks in running a game focused on heists, capers, and missions is that, instead of  being a game about heists, they can become games about planning heists. I’ve spent sessions sitting around, discussing plans, and not getting to actually implement them until the next session, and then finding that half the planning was wasted, because the thing we planned for never happened16. In Scum and Villainy, you decide what your objective is, choose a basic flavour for the plan – assault, deception, infiltration, mystic, social, transport – and one initial detail. Then, you jump into the job, taking all the planning as given. You make an Engagement roll to determined how things start, and get on with things. When you run into something that you wish you had prepared for, you have a flashback, to show how you actually did prepare for it during the planning that happened off-screen. Not only does this allow play to bypass lengthy17 planning sessions, it means that you only have to deal with plans that make a difference, and that’s awesome.
  • Clocks: I think the first time I saw the clock idea in an RPG was in Apocalypse World18. Clocks are essentially timing/tension devices, a visual representation of changing situations. You can start a clock for any impending event, which means drawing a circle and splitting it into however many wedges you want. When something happens to make the event more imminent, you colour in a wedge or two and, when all the wedges are filled, the thing that the clock was tracking happens. The beautiful thing about clocks is that they sit right there in front of everyone, so they can see their progress, and can see what fills them up. It’s as good as a soundtrack for ratcheting up tension. Of course, clocks don’t just track bad things – they also show how close you are to finishing big projects and things. Either way, it’s great visual feedback on what’s happening.
  • Factions: In addition to the four systems and twelve planets of the Procyon Sector, the book documents 36 different factions. These are power groups of various strengths, abilities, and goals operating in the setting, ranging from the powerful and connected Engineering Guild to the hard-scrabble opportunistic street gang Wreckers. During character and ship creation, the crew winds up entangled with some of these factions, owing them favours, or being owed favours, wiring the crew into a dynamic mess of politics and scheming. Each faction has its own goals and resources, and they develop their own relationships with the crew, often based on how friendly the crew is with their friends and enemies, and how useful the crew is to them. This gives the setting a feeling of life beyond the characters, as the different factions jockey for position and pursue their goals, changing the setting as they do so. It also serves as a rich source for jobs for the crew.

Conclusion

I’m a huge fan of this game, despite not having played it yet. It draws on the structure created in Blades in the Dark, and shows how it lies at the root of some of the most popular science fiction stories of our time. I think the cultural touchstones of the science fiction settings are a little more accessible than the industrial pseudo-Victorian fantasy basis of Blades in the Dark, which may make this book a little more popular than it’s design parent19.

If you’re looking for an action-packed science fiction RPG that privileges story, if you want something that focuses on the underdog in an exciting universe, if you like caper and heist stories that don’t get bogged down, this is the book for you.

  1. I find the naming of the… I don’t know what to really call it, maybe the genus of the game? I find it a little odd. I mean the first time I saw it was with the Powered by the Apocalypse games based on Apocalypse World, and that seemed kind of cool, but I’m not sure how much I like it as a trend. I’m torn. It strikes me as good branding, but it also strikes me as a little bit precious. So, yeah. I dunno. []
  2. Which is also a really cool game. The core system is fantastic, and I like seeing it get reapplied to other genres. []
  3. 2018, for you folks in the future. []
  4. So, not so good for most Star Trek franchises, or for Battlestar Galactica. For BSG, though, there’s Tachyon Squadron, which I want to review next. []
  5. I’ve been hauling it around in my bag for a couple of weeks, and leaving it open face down on tables overnight, and stuff like that, and it still looks pretty much brand new. []
  6. Think the 7-9 roll in a Powered by the Apocalypse game. []
  7. Or cost of success. []
  8. This makes it much more viable to have multiple players playing the same character type without stepping on each others’ toes than in the Powered by the Apocalypse games. []
  9. Which reminds me a little of the practice of leaving a couple of aspects undefined in Fate games to be determined during play. []
  10. Though, of course, that doesn’t mean it can only do that type of job. []
  11. Not necessarily having anything to do with the real Procyon, of course. []
  12. Has to be, right? Otherwise it’s harder to make the argument that PC criminals are actually heroes. Especially if you’re playing in the rebel mode on a Firedrake. []
  13. Not unlike the ‘Verse of Firefly or the Quad of Killjoys. []
  14. As exemplified by the Mystic character type. []
  15. Ur-bots, in this case. []
  16. My players remember the Amber game, where this was common. []
  17. And potential fruitless and frustrating. []
  18. Except, as I recall, it was just used for tracking injury to the characters there. Maybe also impending threats? Can’t say for sure. Pretty sure it was used for tracking impending threats in Dungeon World, though. []
  19. Though I strongly recommend getting both, if you can. They’re worth it. []