You Can’t Always Get What You Want

I’ve been thinking about character arcs in fiction and in roleplaying games. While I contend that RPGs don’t necessarily generate stories, characters still have a lot of the same qualities and requirements for us to enjoy them. In both fiction and RPGs, the basic formula for story is that the characters face obstacles and try to overcome them. And this is where one of the biggest differences between the two forms appears, because in fiction, characters can fail, but in RPGs, they can’t.

Now, I’m not saying that it is mechanically impossible for the characters in RPGs to fail. But, in the long history of RPGs-as-written, ((I’m going to be focusing on D&D in these examples, because it is the most universal touchstone that gamers have, and also really illustrates my point. )), the basic assumption is that, if they fail, they die. This is because so many of the obstacles a character faces in an RPG are combats, and the general expectation is that the combat will be balanced to allow the heroes to overcome their foes, so it is only bad dice luck ((And sometimes poor tactics.)) that kills PCs.

That mindset translates into other tasks in the games. Fail picking the lock? Well, try again. And again. And again, until either you open the lock or a trap kills you. Is that a disintegrate spell? Save or die. Tasks either can be repeated over and over ((“I do exactly the same thing that didn’t work last time, but harder!”)), or have immediate, irrevocable negative consequences ((“Natural one, huh? Well, I guess that medusa has a new fighter statue for her garden. What do you want to play next?”)). Combat encounters that turn out to be too difficult are viewed as mistakes in balance on the part of the GM, or as the result of bad dice luck.

What this leaves out of the mix is a staple of fiction: heroes suffering a setback.

Setbacks are what happen when you don’t succeed at what you were trying to do, but don’t die. They are complications – new obstacles that show up because of your failure. They make things harder, or may close off an avenue of approach to your goal, but don’t completely prevent you from achieving the goal.

Classic RPGs, like D&D or RuneQuest, don’t handle setbacks very well. Fail and you either die, or can just try again. More modern games, like 13th Age and Fate, talk about using setbacks and the concept of failing forward, and provide some mechanical support for the ideas ((Especially Fate Core and it’s derived games, and certain iterations of Cortex Plus.)). And there are a few games, like Drama System or the *World games or Fiasco, that live for the setback. The setback is the key to their success.

So, let’s talk about how different games handle setbacks.

13th Age

13th Age is described by its authors as a love letter to D&D. It has a bit of an old-school feel, coupled with some more modern elements of narrative games. It deals with setbacks in two different ways: negative icon relationships and the “fail forward” concept.

Negative icon relationships are sources for setbacks. By default, the GM rolls some dice at the start of a game to see which icons ((For those unfamiliar with 13th Age, icons are the powerful NPCs and their factions that control the setting, like the Dragon Emperor, the Diabolist, the Elf Queen, and the Archmage. They all have their own agendas, and PCs frequently get involved in those agendas, for better or worse.)) are important in this session and, if it comes up with an icon that one of the characters has a negative relationship with, that’s going to cause problems. It doesn’t quite fit the definition of a setback that I proposed above, but it does introduce new obstacles to the game based on player choices. If the characters are already in the middle of an adventure when a negative icon relationship rears its ugly head ((Or heads, as the case may be.)), the new complication feels very much like the setbacks I’m talking about. So, all of a sudden, in the middle of a quest to recover an ancient sword for the Crusader, a character’s negative relationship with the Archmage comes up, and our heroes discover another group digging through the same ruins for the same sword, but they want to give it to the Archmage instead of the Crusader.

The “fail forward” idea is not exclusive to 13th Age ((I’m pretty sure the phrase originated elsewhere – I want to say in Sorcerer, but that’s just because a lot of new language that we use to discuss games originated there.)). It’s an idea and a viewpoint more than a mechanic, so it’s a little slippery sometimes to implement. On the other hand, because it doesn’t really have a mechanical component to it, it’s super portable to other game systems. The basic concept is that no failure on the part of the characters should dead-end an adventure. Failure should just complicate things. So, if you fail to pick the lock on the back door to the guildhall, instead of just not being able to go in that way, maybe you get the door open, but a guard spots you. Or you can’t work the lock, but a guard opens the door from the inside to see what all the noise is ((Or, if you’ve got the right kind of group who will accept a heavy narrative hand from the GM, “Everything goes black. You wake up in a cell, chained to the wall. There’s just enough play in the manacles that your fingers can reach the big bump on the back of your head. You never even heard your assailant sneaking up behind you, you were so focused on the lock.”)). The adventure still goes forward, but now there’s a new complication to deal with – pretty much the definition of a setback.

Leverage RPG

What I’m going to talk about here is broadly applicable to all the Cortex Plus games. The Leverage RPG, though, gives the best and clearest example of setbacks in play. This is because pretty much the whole game is based on the assumption of competency on the characters’ part and the mechanic of the complication.

The basic assumption of the Leverage RPG is that your characters are not just good at what they do, they are among the best in the world. This is an important mindset for the game, because it makes it clear that a failed roll does not necessarily mean the character screwed up. It means something unexpected interrupted what would otherwise be the perfect plan. Trying to con someone out of the painting you need for the job? A fail doesn’t necessarily mean that they don’t buy the pitch – it means that the painting is out for restoration work, or has been sold to someone else, or something like that ((Again, the idea of failing forward – adding a new obstacle, but not dead-ending the game.)).

A lot of the time, failed rolls generate complications. In fact, you can run a whole Leverage RPG session by building the story and the opposition out of complications that play generates ((I know this because I’ve done it. All you need is a basic idea of the job – the mark, the client, the basic situation. Stat out the mark with a couple of dice, as described in the rulebook, and you’re ready to run. Just make sure you have plenty of index cards or sticky notes to track the complications as they arise.)). Complications can be added any time a player rolls a one on one or more of the dice in a roll. You take that die, give the player a plot point, and either add a new complication, or step up a current one. So, as the game goes along, more complications – Mob Interest d6, Heightened Security d10, Broken Toe d8 – arise and make the job more, well, complicated. And interesting. It builds the twists and turns you expect from a heist game ((And from the TV show.)).

Fate Core

Fate has always worked on the idea that something interesting should happen on a failed roll, otherwise why bother rolling ((This is similar to Vincent D. Baker’s idea of “Say yes, or roll the dice.”))? The latest iteration, Fate Core ((Which is available on a pay-what-you-like model in .pdf here.)), standardizes that idea, and gives some more mechanical guidelines, starting with the idea of the four outcomes.

The four outcomes are Fail, Tie, Succeed, and Succeed with Style, but the idea of setbacks only really comes in on the first two outcomes. If you fail, you might still get what you want, but at a serious cost. Serious costs make the current situation worse – it brings in new opposition, or grants a benefit to the current opposition, or maybe puts a consequence on the player. If you tie, you get what you want, but at a minor cost – adding a detail to the story that is problematic for the PC, or possibly giving the opposition a minor benefit. These are perfect examples of setbacks.

The ultimate setback in Fate Core, though, is the concession. At any point during a conflict ((Usually when things are going badly and defeat looks imminent.)), a character can concede. This means that he or she loses the conflict, but gets to have some input on what losing means ((Usually not dying.)), and earns some fate points in the bargain. So, to steal the example from the book, if you’re in a fight, and you’ve taken a couple of consequences already, and the bad guy is still big and strong and unhurt, you might want to concede. You get to say, “Okay, he doesn’t kill me or take me captive,” and the GM says, “Okay, he knocks you out, spits on you, takes your sword as a trophy, and leaves you for dead.” And then you get three fate points.

Drama System

Robin D. Laws’s new game system, Drama System, powers his Hillfolk game, and it has an interesting take on setbacks. The core of the game is dramatic interaction, where your character is alternately petitioning ((Not in the formal sense, you understand. And often not directly.)) and being petitioned. The petition is one character seeking some sort of emotional concession from another character – I want him to respect me, I want her to love me, I want them to be proud of me, whatever. The other character can decide to grant or withhold that emotional concession, as they desire ((And the game builds in reasons for the granter to not want to give that concession.)).

What keeps this from getting bogged down in the standard I-will-not-lose, dig-in-the-heels argument stalemate that is so common in RPGs is that there is a drama point at stake, and you really want drama points in the game. They are a plot currency that gives you certain power over the narrative, and are incredibly useful and fun.

And you only get drama points if you don’t get what you want in the scene.

So, if you are the petitioner, you only get a drama point if the granter doesn’t give you that emotional concession. And, if you are the granter, you only get the drama point if you DO give the petitioner that emotional concession. The idea is that you will get what you want about half the time, and the other half, you get a setback and a drama point.

Apocalypse World

As with Leverage RPG, above, I’m using Apocalypse World as a single example of the entire family of *World games ((Including Dungeon World, Monster Hearts, Dungeon Planet, tremulus, and others that I probably haven’t heard of.)). Setbacks are really the core of the system, and they are what drives the narrative and even forms the structure of the story. Whenever the PCs fail at a roll, the MC makes a move against them ((As hard and direct a move as the MC wants. Not as hard and direct a move as the MC can. This is a vital distinction in keeping the game flowing. And the characters alive.)), and then asks, “What do you do?”

“Well, you fire at old Scrub, but the bullet goes wide, and everyone hears the shot. Scrub dives for cover, and suddenly, Sheriff is on the scene, and she’s yelling at you to come out with your hands up. What do you do?”

“You can’t get the old door in the rock to open. The random codes you punched on the keypad didn’t make the light go from red to green, like it was supposed to. Something happens, though: sparks start to crackle all over the surface of the door, with little arcs of lighting grounding themselves in the surrounding cave wall. What do you do?”

It’s the “What do you do?” that you always end your moves with that make this setbacks. You’ve made things harder, added more obstacles, and generally defeated the characters, but the fact that you have to leave things open for the “What do you do?” means that you cannot dead-end the game. There must be a way forward – all the players ((Yes, the players. They choose their next moves, and, if they roll well, whatever they choose is the way forward.)) have to do is decide what it is.

But good as the hard moves on a miss are, the really perfect example of the setback happens with a roll of 7-9. With that roll, the characters succeed at what they’re attempting,  but at a cost. Giving the characters a mixed success is good, but even better is making the characters choose between getting what they want and losing something else. This hard bargain creates some of the best setbacks in the game.

“Okay, you dive for cover, and roll up behind a burned-out car. As you fly through the air, you feel a tug at your clothing and, when you land and get your breath back, you see that a bullet went right through one of the ties on your pack. Half the contents, including your flashlight and the handkerchief full of bullets, are strewn on the ground out there, where the bullets are falling like rain. You’re safe where you are, but your gear is exposed and won’t last long under this fire. What do you do?”

Those are some fun setbacks.


Fiasco is another game built around setbacks. With the black and white dice mechanic, half the scenes ((Well, possibly a little more or a little less, if you use the default rule that the last die is wild.)) end in an unfavourable outcome – as setback – for the character.  And it’s the rest of the group who gets to decide that. Oh, the player can influence what kind of ending he or she is getting through roleplaying, but really, if there’s no more white dice, it doesn’t matter how good the play or the argument, things will end bad.

Of course, bad endings are part of the fun of Fiasco. The first two pieces of advice I always give to new Fiasco players – especially if they’re experienced roleplayers – are:

  1. Don’t get too attached to your character. Bad things are gonna happen to him or her.
  2. Don’t try to “win.” Instead, embrace failure and self-destruction, and revel in them.

Fiasco players, like Drama System players, are incentivized to accept setbacks, because they are such a core part of the game. And they’re a core part of the game because they’re a core part of the inspiring media. Remember that Coen Brothers movie where everything went smooth for the characters and it all worked out great? Yeah, me neither.

So, Why Setbacks?

Okay, so we know what setbacks are, and how different games handle them. Why should we care?

  • Setbacks give the opportunity for character development, showing how characters deal with frustration, loss, and things other than success. That gives us more insight into the characters, the world, and the story.
  • Setbacks also vary the pacing and shape of the narrative. If events are just a single string of successes leading to a climax, we tend to get bored. Periodic failures keep us interested by building in suspense – if we know the character can’t fail, we can zone out, but if it’s in question, then we focus in. It’s just more interesting to us.
  • We know that, in life, nothing is ever perfectly smooth. There’s always a few hiccups along the way, and sometimes we need to take a step back before we can take a step forward. And, if our games have the same sorts of things, we can more closely identify with the characters we’re playing. It feels more real to us.
  • It gives us the opportunity to do fun things in a game. Have the heroes captured by pirates, or chased away from the rich treasure by a fearsome beast, or get caught in the stolen car with the twelve sticks of dynamite and open bottle of bourbon. You can throw in the weird and unexpected, the frustrating and the fun ((Caveat: if you’re going to throw in the frustrating, you better throw in enough fun to compensate. Otherwise, you’re a jerk.)).
  • Setbacks provide a greater sense of accomplishment at the end of the adventure. Characters had more obstacles to overcome to reach the end, and had to work harder for their reward. It makes the eventual victory ((Assuming there is one, of course. But that’s a topic for another day.)) that much sweeter.

And that’s why you should care about setbacks in your game.

For the Players

Okay, gang, I’ve just spent close to 3000 words telling GMs that they should screw their players over ((Well, no I didn’t, but that could be one interpretation.)). Now I’m going to claim that I did it all for you.

As a player, I suggest you embrace any setbacks that come your way. They are another chance to show off how awesome your character is, in victory and in defeat. James Bond gets captured by the villain all the time, just so he can show off how cool he is when he escapes. Han Solo gets frozen in carbonite so that he can have his emotional moments with Leia and so that the rest of the gang can come and rescue him. The Fellowship of the Ring has to turn back from the mountain pass, and they get to confront horrible ((But very cool.)) evils from the dawn of time in the Mines of Moria.

Setbacks are just another way to let your character be cool. It’s an opportunity to add a twist to the story, and to reveal something interesting about the characters, and to earn a sweeter victory at the end. Of course, this depends on both the GM and the players accepting this idea, and then implementing it in game. The chance to add further problems to the characters’ lives is probably incentive enough to get GMs on board with this, but it requires players to jump in just as eagerly, and to reward the GMs with good play and good moments when encountering a setback.

If both GMs and players are enthusiastic about the way setbacks can enrich a game, then setbacks will happen and will be awesome, even if you’re using an old-style game like RuneQuest or D&D.


Central Canada Comic Con 2011

This weekend is Central Canada Comic Con, and once again, I will be there with the good folks from Imagine Games and Hobbies running demos of board and card games on Saturday and Sunday. I’ve made my selection and packed my bags ((I’ll try and get a picture of them up – my bags are awesome!)), so it’s just a matter of hauling them down to the convention centre Saturday morning and setting up.

Last year, I tried the sign-up thing for running the games, and it was a complete bust. The few people who did sign up for a game didn’t show, and I deferred demoing games for interested folks because it was almost time for a game that never happened. So, this year, it’s catch-as-catch-can; come find me in the gaming area, and if I’m not running a game for someone else, I’ll set you up.

Here’s what I’m bringing with me:

  • Legend of Driz’zt
  • Conquest of Nerath
  • Escape From the Aliens in Outer Space
  • Deluxe Illuminati
  • Elder Sign
  • Mansions ofMadness
  • Berzerker Halflings From the Dungeon of Dragons
  • Cthulhu Dice
  • Zombie Dice
  • Fury of Dracula
  • Battlestar Galactica
  • Carcassonne
  • Chrononauts
  • Fiasco

In addition, I’m going to bring along the Leverage RPG and The Dresden Files RPG, and am ready to demo either one. These take a little more time, though, so I recommend you get to me by early afternoon if you want to try either of those. And if you can supply a full roster of players (3-5 for Leverage, 3-7 for DFRPG), that’ll make it far more certain that you get to play. Figure three hours for either of those.

So, if you’re at C4, and you’re interested in gaming, come see me, whether to play or just talk about games.

I’ll be there.

Leverage: The Crossfire Job

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

Leverage: The Double-Switch Job

Friday night, I got four players together to run a second playtest of Leverage: The Roleplaying Game. My plan is for this playtest to be somewhat more involved than The Quickstart Job, and includes full character creation with the recruitment job and a job of my own devising. That means two sessions: one for character creation and the recruitment job, and one for the full job. And the first one was, as I said, on Friday.

One of the things I was worried about was the fact that I could only get four players, when the game seems highly optimized for five. I could probably have snagged one more player by expanding the initial invite list, but when I started thinking about that, I realized that it might be a good idea to see how well the game works with fewer players ((Another question becomes how well the game works with more than five players; at some point, I may try and test that.)), so I decided to go with it.

The main issue with having only four players is that there will be one of the five roles ((Theoretically, you could wind up with more than one role going spare if the players double up on primary roles, but the structure of the game seems to encourage diversifying.)) that does not have a primary – a character who has taken a d10 in that role. That means the team has a slightly reduced tool set for completing the job. While that initially bothered me,  I began to think about other strongly role-based games, like D&D 4E, and how they play with one or more of the core roles lacking. They work just fine; it just changes the options the characters have in approaching the various obstacles in the adventure.

The initial phases of character creation went pretty smoothly, with everyone picking their primary and secondary roles, distributing their attributes, and picking a distinction without any problem. We wound up with a Grifter/Thief, Hacker/Hitter, Hitter/Thief, and Mastermind/Thief. I found it interesting that, recognizing that they did not have Thief in a primary role, the group’s approach was to make sure that they had, shall we say, depth of field in Thief as a secondary role. The prevalence of the Thief role in secondary, to me, created a strong theme for the crew ((The fact that the Thief role is secondary to three characters, in my mind, almost overshadows the difference in the primary roles. Strong commonalities often act as a foundation of unity for a group, allowing the differences in the primary roles to shine out. For example, every member of The A-Team had been a soldier; they could all fight, despite the fact that each brought a different skill set to the table, as well.)) – they were, for the most part, stealthy, sneaky, covert types.

Attribute-wise, we had an even split in the group between the generalist and specialized attribute arrays. That says to me that the two options are nicely balanced, each offering something valuable, yet different. Now, that was my assumption, based on the fact that each array essentially gives you 48 die-sides to spread among your attributes, but equal numbers doesn’t always mean the two options are as good as each other. The test, in my mind, is whether people will use both options equally. In this admittedly small statistical sampling, they did.

Everyone seemed to have a good idea of their first distinction, based on the little bit of backstory they had come up with for their character concept, so that went quick. We wound up with Charming Rogue, Hot Tempered, Tougher Than He Looks, and Bastard. And then we got down to the recruitment job.

This was a little rough. Some of that roughness is my fault for trying to make things a little more elaborate than the way things are described in the rulebook, and some of the roughness is caused by the expectations set up in the rulebook for what will happen during this job.

The part that was my fault was caused by me wanting to inject a little more flavour of the full job into the recruitment job. So, I let the group set the mark and the client, and then I statted them up. They got to determine the plan for the job, within the restrictions that they would each get a spotlight scene. The issue here is that I let things get too elaborate, story-wise, while still keeping the spotlight scene restrictions from the basic recruitment job, meaning the crew had to work things into a very artificial structure. In retrospect, I should have gone all one way or the other: either make it a full job, with none of the restrictions, or stuck with the basic nature of the recruitment job.

The part that was caused by the expectations set up in the rulebook is a little different. See, the assumption that was left with after reading through the character creation session was that the characters would be complete after the recruitment job, with maybe one or two that were missing one or two things that could get filled in during the first job. A little bit of math shows this to be somewhat unreasonable, unless you’re running a full-session job ((Even then, it’s gonna be a tight fit.)).

When you start the recruitment job, each character needs to complete a certain number of things on the rap sheet:

  • Three roles still need dice assigned to them.
  • Each character needs two more distinctions.
  • Each character needs two specialties.
  • Each character needs two talents.

Now, the roles are moderately easy to assign – just try doing something in one of the scenes that uses a role you haven’t assigned. The trick is that, by doing so, you are by definition not playing to your strengths, moving outside of your comfort zone. I like this, because it very nicely puts some interesting stress on the character, revealing more information by how they respond under pressure.

It’s the other three categories that create the problems. Each distinction, specialty, or talent is introduced in play with a flashback. That means, in a four-player game like we had, you need a total of 24 flashbacks during the job in order to cover everything. Each flashback took about five minutes to work through ((Mastery of the system would, of course, reduce this time requirement, but given that the recruitment job is going to be one of the first jobs most groups do, I think it’s fair to say that mastery of the system probably won’t exist in the group at the time of running it.)), with time for the player to come up with a flashback, present it to the group, and incorporate its effects into the character.

That makes for two full hours of flashbacks. Two and a half, if you’ve got a full five-person crew. Considering that our play sessions run about five hours, and the first two hours of the evening were taken up with the first part of character creation and an explanation of the system ((Again, this time requirement would be reduced significantly with mastery of the system.)), that leaves an hour of play devoted to creating and completing the job in the present if you’re going to get everything in. That doesn’t strike me as a reasonable expectation.

It’s important to note here that not everything needs to get taken care of in the recruitment job. The book specifically says that if, at the end of the recruitment job, you still have some blanks on your rap sheet, don’t worry about it, because you can fill those in during play. The problem was that I hadn’t done the math on the time factor needed for all the flashbacks, and had assumed that it was unlikely that there would be anything left to fill in if we ran the recruitment job properly. That meant I was trying to cram everything in during the job, and that made things feel very forced and clunky.

I also think that the requirement of a flashback to introduce distinctions, specialties, and talents is not really necessary. In future, if I run this again ((Who am I kidding? Of course I’m going to run this again. I don’t want to start a new campaign right now, but I’m at least going to try another playtest with more than five characters to see how things scale in that direction.)), I’m going to say that you can establish these things after a good character moment – maybe even let the rest of the group pick the moment to establish a distinction for a character. Still allow flashbacks, but not require them. That would speed things along, I think.

Another thing I should have done to speed things along is to have cheat sheets done up of the available talents, to aid the players who hadn’t read through the rules in picking them on the fly. I didn’t do that, and it meant that a lot of times, the players didn’t know what kinds of talents they could pick, and so didn’t try to establish them.

I’m making it sound like the recruitment job was a train wreck, aren’t I? It wasn’t. It was less smooth than I would have liked, and parts of it felt forced, but it still worked and was fun. Considering how smoothly things had gone in The Quickstart Job, I was curious as to why it hadn’t gone that way this time, and so I’ve spent some time analyzing the issues. That’s why I’m talking about problems rather than what went right, here.

The job turned out to be interesting, and showed me very nicely how a good complication can be used as a twist in the job.

The basic set-up was that a real estate developer had a property owner beat up, trying to force him to sell ((Strangely reminiscent of the current storyline in my Feints & Gambits campaign, but only one of the players is in both games, and the set-up wasn’t her idea.)). The crew decided that he was a collector of antique swords, and also skimming off the company profits. The plan was to swap one of his valuable swords with a fake ((An interesting first scene for a group without a Thief primary, I thought. The Hitter/Thief managed it, though.)), then approach him to sell him the real sword. The asking price would be high enough to get him to tap into his offshore accounts for funds, which would let the hacker piggy-back in and copy his financial records for delivery to federal investigators. The money from the sword would then go to the client to cover medical bills and pay off the liens on his property.

Things went pretty much as planned, right up until we got to the end of the scene with the hacker copying the data, and I realized I had three complications that I hadn’t spent. I glommed them all together into one d10 complication, and said, “Huh. According to the financial data, he’s using his development company to launder money for the mob.” Mob Involvement d10.

That changed the objective of the plan to getting him to roll over on the mob, abandoning his luxurious life for witness protection. The Mastermind organized a series of flashbacks where the crew made the mark think that someone in the mob had given him up to the feds, and the mob was going to take him out to prevent him being arrested and testifying, ending up with the asset Worried About The Mob d10 to offset the mob complication. The wrap-up had the mark fleeing into the arms of the FBI ahead of imagined mob assassins, and the money from his cleaned-out accounts going to the client.

The way the complications I had left turned into a twist in the plot worked remarkably well. The rulebook says that, really, all you need to run the game and build jobs are a problem, assets, and complications. This was a perfect illustration of that fact, and one that I need to keep in mind for when I create the full job for the next stage of this playtest.

We wrapped up with a postmortem, where we discussed the issues I’ve outlined above, but everyone said that they had had fun. To help address some of the issues, I had gave those who had not completely filled in their rap sheets the option of doing so before the next session, or leaving the blank options to be filled in during play. The one thing I wanted to complete were the distinctions – most of the characters had one distinction still to be filled in. I got the rest of the group to decide on a second distinction for each character based on how they had done things during the job.

And that’s where we left things. In three weeks, I’ll be running this crew through a full job – they’ve already got a taste of how it works, but now they will have no restriction on number of scenes or who’s involved, or the number of flashbacks needed, or anything like that. I think it’ll go a lot smoother ((I’m using the word smooth, and its variants, a lot in this post. That’s because smooth is the best way to describe the system when it’s working well.)). I’ll let you know how it works.

Leverage RPG: The Quickstart Job

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.

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.

Thinking hard.

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.)).

We’ll see.

***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