Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Tommy's Take on Leverage Roleplaying Game

I've been waiting for this one.

I absolutely love the TV show Leverage, and the Leverage RPG Quickstart is the only Quickstart I have ever spent money on. The problem? It sure looked incredibly daunting to run when I was reading it. Now, the Leverage RPG is finally released.


For those who aren't aware, Leverage is a TV show on TNT that is, essentially, a "Robin Hood meets Mission Impossible" thing. A crew of five criminals (The Mastermind, Grifter, Hacker, Hitter and Thief, wonderfully played by Timothy Hutton, Gina Bellman, Aldis Hodge, Christian Kane and Beth Riesgraf, respectively) help the poor and downtrodden who have been screwed by The Man, and help them get revenge/restitution.

Nate Ford (Hutton) was an insurance investigator who butted heads with the other four that now make up his crew, who leaves his job when his company refuses to pay for medical treatments for his son, leading to his death. In the pilot, he assembles the crew when he's hired for a big revenge scheme, and it all balloons up from there.

Now on it's third season (and confirmed for a fourth), the crew have hit some interesting twists and turns along the way, but the show keeps to a basic formula: A Client hires The Crew to get revenge on The Mark, complications and hilarity ensue...I say hilarity, in that the show is more of a modern day A-Team than anything else, with the Rule of Cool being the order of the day.

Honestly, it sounds like it should be a lovely transfer to a roleplaying game, right?

Unlike the initial release of Smallville, Margaret Weis Productions has bookmarks in place right away, as well as searchability and copy and paste. However, there is no index, for those of you who buy the physical book.

The book is full color and filled with photos from the first two and a half seasons, making the book appear much less dated than a lot of licensed RPGs tend to (MWP pulled off this same feat with Smallville).

FOREWORD

We get a one page foreword by the show's co-creator (and comic/roleplaying geek John Rogers) about the inspiration for the show. I do agree with the concept, and find it incredibly cathartic...even though I'm not always sold on the politics of the show...but it's far from being as heavy handed as it could be.

THE PITCH

This is essentially the introduction chapter, telling you about the characters in the show (mentioned above) and a bit about the tone of the world, which is Very Serious with a side of Quirky. It also makes it clear that your starting characters are not starting characters: That is, the PCs are not rookies...they are at least Very Good at what they do.

THE BRIEFING

Now we start getting into mechanics and game terminology.

The Party is a Crew, the GM is a Fixer, etc. Leverage skews a little closer to traditional RPGs than Smallville did, not dispensing with the Attributes like the latter did. Every Crewmember has Agility, Alertness, Intelligence, Strength, Vitality and Willpower, rated from d4 to d12. Every Crewmember also has a role (Mastermind, Hitter, Grifter, Hacker and Thief) rated from d4 to d10. You get Specialities that are tacked onto the Roles, Distinctions that help flesh out your Crewmember more, Talents that distinguish one Grifter/Hacker/Mastermind/etc from the next, as well as Assets and Complications (extra bonuses or pitfalls that the Crewmembers may call on - or have to deal with).

As for the system itself, you always roll at least two dice: The appropriate Attribute and the appropriate Role...and yeah, sometimes you have to figure what "appropriate" means. You total the two higher dice (sometimes things such as Assets allow you to roll more dice) and that's your result. The Fixer than rolls the appropriate opposition dice, and if he rolls higher, than he Raises The Stakes. The Player gets to try to regain control of the situation by outrolling the Fixer...at any point, one side can back down and let the side in control of the situation decide how it is resolved. If you outroll the Fixer by 5 or more, you get an Extraordinary Success and have thoroughly trounced the opposition.

If a Player rolls a 1, the Fixer can toss in a Complication. If the Fixer rolls a 1, the Player gets an Opportunity...same thing, different perspectives.

Finally, every Crewmember gets Plot Points that they can then use to tweak the action.

THE CREW

Also known as Character Creation.

They recommend creating characters together and running through a short Recruitment mission...and while you CAN play this with more (or less) than 5 players, that's obviously the sweet spot so that you hit the coverage on all of the Roles.

One thing to note about the die scale: d12 is character defining, off the charts kind of stuff. d10 and d8 is incredibly exceptional. d6 is stuff that you have, but isn't a huge part of your character and d4 is "interestingly bad".

Every Player picks their Primary Role (rated at d10) and Secondary Role (rated at d8). While some people might share the same Secondary, it's PROBABLY a good idea to spread out the Primary Roles...although this can lead to an interesting deficiency for gameplay.

Each role is given a paragraph overview, as well as a full description of just what they do, and important Attributes for each Role. Additionally, each Role gets a set of character "types" one might get by combining the various Primary Role+Secondary Role combinations, complete with suggested Talents for each combo.

Right now, you only assign the Primary and Secondary Roles...from there, you add two Specialties, which add a d6 to your Role+Attribute rolls when relevant. Some examples include Driving (Hacker), Sports Trivia (Mastermind), Explosives (Thief). There is no set list for Specialities...you get to define them, as well as their associated roles.

For Attributes, you get two dice arrays to choose from to spread out among your Attributes, one being more focused (giving you an extra d10, but also an extra d6) while the other is a little more spread out.

Distinctions are kind of like Aspects from Fate-style games, in that they define parts of your character, but can provide bonuses or penalties, depending on the situation. The kicker is that you get a Plot Point for invoking a Distinction in a negative manner...AND you get a bonus die: a d4, which is more likely to cause a Complication.

Talents are unique abilities that are all triggered in different ways: Some are meant to be used when the Fixer provides an Opportunity (by rolling a 1) and some kick in when specific actions are used. The book is annoyingly vague on Talents (stating only that you get "one or two" and that "at least half" must be keyed to your Primary Role).

Each Role gets Talents, as well as a list of Open Talents. I can only imagine that the upcoming Splatbooks (only two, last time I looked, not five - some Roles are sharing books, obviously) will add more.

Grifters get Talents allowing them to spot lies a mile away, or allowing them to be Masters of Disguise.

Hackers can get bonuses if they are squaring off specifically against another person instead of an automated system, or they can drop a Plot Point to have retroactively given a Crewmember a sweet tool.

Hitters can get some dirty, dirty tricks, as well as size up opponents before they ever have to fight.

Masterminds can allow Crewmembers to openly share Plot Points or even turn a Complication around into a bonus die for their own roll.

Thieves can take Talents to gain bonuses on just about any specialty.

Open Talents include allowing you to blend into the background or spend a Plot Point to insert yourself into a scene that you weren't already involved in.

The Talents section ends with a set of Talent creation rules, in case you want something that's not there.

The Recruitment Job is a minisession that brings the group together and helpfully fills out the rest of the character sheet. According to the book, by this point every Crewmember should still be recording 3 Role dice, 2 Distinctions, 2 Talents and 2 Specialties...so I'm really kind of confused on Talents (and Specialties), as to what should be defined when.

The Fixer gets a very brief "Job Creation" guide, to help slap the short session together. Essentially, the Fixer drops the basic scenario in the laps of the Crew, and lets them figure out how they want to solve it, with each deciding their role.

You all then walk through the Scenario, adding the appropriate Talents, Specialties and other Roles as need be, with the Mastermind swooping in to fix things if someone botches their part of the mission.

Once everyone goes through their Spotlight Scenes and the Mark is taken down, all of the Crew should be pretty well fleshed out.

Alternately, there is "Fast Recruitment", which lets you fill in the blanks without the Recruitment Job.

One thing worth noting is that one of your Distinctions is out of your control: That is, the other players will determine that Distinction, as it is how other people see you, so have fun with that.

Experience is handled a little differently here. You record the Jobs you go on, and you can refer back to previous jobs in Callbacks, essentially gaining free Plot Points. You can also "spend" jobs to add Assets, Specialties or Talents, or improve Attributes or Roles, although you can't use "spent" jobs for Callbacks.

You can also modify the Crew (in big and small ways) over time, replacing Distinctions, losing (and replacing) Assets and so on. Optional rules are included to take a very loose approach ala Relationships in Smallville, building the Trust among the team, which can yield benefits.

Lastly, after x amount of Jobs, you take a Break (Leverage tends to run in "split seasons", usually with a dramatic twist that sets up the time off)...during that time, all remaining Jobs must be "spent" in preperation for the return to action.

The latter part of this chapter cleared up the earlier parts...but this could have really done well to have a one page "cheat sheet" of precisely what you get and when creating characters, with hard numbers removed from the wall of text.

All of the flowcharts in Smallville made it incredibly easy to follow...and while character creation isn't as involved here, a summary would still have been great.

The chapter ends with Rap Sheets for the five main cast members, as well as temporary Grifter replacement Tara Cole.

THE JOB

A more detailed gameplay chapter, beginning with going back over Traits in more detail...note that a LOT of supporting characters will be utterly defined by one or two Traits: Thug d6 or Nervous d4 Deputy d8, etc.

We get a very well-written breakdown of action for the game, defining scenes in "beats" (when the dice are rolled), as well as kinds of actions, such as Face Actions (used when one character is trying to manipulate another, for instance).

In Combat, you can Give In if you're losing and don't think you can turn things around, taking a Complication but getting away, as well as a Plot Point.

Leverage uses Flashbacks, and we cover both types in detail: Establishment Flashbacks which are used to add an Asset for the scene to help you out, and the Wrap-Up Flashbacks in which the Crew's plans are all in place, the proverbial trigger is pulled, and hopefully the Mark goes down.

THE FIXER

This is the GMing chapter, and a well-done chapter it is.

This chapter provides a breakdown of the Leverage pacing structure, and a step-by-step walkthrough for building a Caper. You get the starting points: The Mark, The Client and The Problem...does someone come to the Crew? Does one of the Crew witness something they feel needs fixing? Etc. Other selections include The Problem, Why They Need The Crew (if the bad guy is the Mayor, normal legal channels may not work), The Mark's Angle, Why The Mark is Protected, The Mark's Weakness, Who Else Is Involved...just a well-build menu to help walk you through creating Capers.

Again, this chapter is heavily focused on recreating the Leverage experience, with your Crew, and a lot of space is devoted to that. There is a handy section on Twists you may want to avoid, mostly so that you don't make your Crew so paranoid that they refuse to do much of anything without hours of preparation...(anyone here every play D&D with someone whose DM twisted a Wish on them, and they got another Wish? Did that player take an hour carefully phrasing said Wish to avoid being utterly screwed?)

Ultimately, the rule is "Don't let the action slow down, and give the players enough information that they don't spend all night chasing their tails"...which, in most situations, I completely agree. A tail-chasing scenario CAN work, in the right circumstances...I mean, it's classic red herring stuff...but setting up a Mark who is actually innocent isn't the same thing as not giving the players an essential piece of information and having them chase drug smugglers when they really need to be bringing down a hospital administrator.

Seriously...I love the idea of this game, but as I noted, the Quickstart Job made me very...nervous. This removes a LOT of apprehension I have about trying to run the game, essentially acting as a Dummy's Guide To Heists and Capers.

Very well done.

THE TOOLBOX

This is the "how-to" build very aspects of The Job, complete with examples.

The Mark is defined by their Traits, starting with why they are untouchable and their motivations...then they get their weaknesses...and a fifth trait that's more than a little for flavor.

The Client isn't detailed quite as specifically, but they aren't often involved in the middle of the action (though this isn't always true, as more than one Client has wound up as part of the Crew's plan).

Extras a generally a single trait.

Agents are a little more detailed (and competent) than Extras (and often Clients), and can be on your side or against you.

Foils are built almost exactly like Crewmembers (minus Roles, but with Traits). They are generally recurring characters, sometimes being from a Crewmember's past and sometimes holding a grudge once crossing paths with the Crew after they are formed.

Places have Traits as well, and can be one time set pieces or recurring scenery (like the Crew's base).

We also get a bit on "ripping from the headlines"...that is, taking a story from the news and turning it into a caper. Which really ISN'T a bad idea, and if you have any news-aware players, they can probably give you all kinds of inspiration (maybe even bringing you the basic caper themselves).

Where they REALLY win me over is the Random Situation Generator. Yeah...a series of charts that you can use to roll up Capers, starting with The Client and going from there. In fact, I'm going to sideline this review for a minute to roll up a Caper.

Client: Clergy
Problem: Framed (oh, this is getting good already)
Pressure: It's Personal
Mark: Businessperson
Mark's Angle: Greedy
Mark's Power: Wealthy and Connected
Mark's Weakness: Fearful
Mark's Vulnerability: Family
Who Else Is Involved: The Innocent
The Twist: The Mark' not really the bad guy

Hmm...I'm seeing a Pastor or Priest of the church that a crewmember either does (or did) belong to being framed for embezzlement in a charity situation with a local (successful) businessman whose wife is the church receptionist and whose son is a youth leader at the church. Obviously, he's a heartless, greedy bastard who set up the clergyman...except, of course, that he didn't...in this case, I'm inclined to say that the wife or son is the The Bad Guy, having access to both ends of the business' charitable donations. For a REALLY seedy twist, toss in an affair: Wife with clergyman, clergyman with youth leader or wife (actually step-mom) with son...maybe Dad is prominently anti-gay (maybe funding "re-education camps"?), son and clergyman are closeted lovers, and son is doing this all behind his Dad's and lover's back, planning on his lover being exonerated when the framejob collapses...either thinking he can outsmart your Crew, or not counting on the clergyman going to the Crew for help.

Hm...yeah. Anti-gay businessman funding homosexual re-education camps. Clergy gets outed as being gay, and then the frame job happens. Clergyman goes to the Crewmember for help, knowing that the businessman HAS to be setting him up, thinking he may suspect the affair with businessman's son. In reality, the son (with some pent up hostility towards Dad) has manipulated his position working in both the church and his father's company to set up this elaborate plot to give his tyrannical father his comeuppance. Mom can just be hopelessly caught in the middle or supporting either the father's or son's agenda, depending. I think that'd work.

Anyway, back to the review:

The chapter rounds out with stats for some Agents and Foils from the show, including geek icon Wil Wheaton's turn as the Hacker known as Cha0s...and contradicting the early section that says they don't have Roles, but Traits...(to be fair, the book says that some of the Traits may be the same as some of the Roles the Crew has...but not only do the example Foils have the exact same Roles, but they are listed as Roles and not Traits...an example of a Foil, even fictional, with differing Traits would have been appreciated).

THE CRIME WORLD

This chapter gives tips on considering the world at large, as well as "thinking like a criminal", but the harmless, Leverage kind of criminal (that is, don't go around shooting people, for instance).

Of course, it also says to Keep A Low Profile, and anyone who watches the show should know why I find that to be so funny (the crew ends most episodes mugging for the Mark as they are hauled away, and Eliot has become a media sensation at least twice while on the job).

We also get the basics of Cons, including some Cons used in the show, to help everyone get in the mindset.

While not as impressive as the GMing chapter, it is still very helpful.

THE RECORD

This is a summary of the first two seasons, broken down with The Client, The Mark, The Problem, The Plan and How It Goes Down, with quotes tossed in for good measure.

After all of that, we get a blank Rap Sheet.

CONCLUSION

I doubt I've ever been more disappointed that I lack a full group of five players than I am now. Margart Weis Productions *may* have topped Smallville here.