Sunday, February 6, 2011

Tommy's Take on Mean Streets Expanded

Mean Streets Expanded is a single volume rolling the Mean streets RPG in with some supplementary material, to make a larger book, like Precis Intermedia did with Ghostories.

Powered by the genreDiversion system, which uses 2d6 for task resolution, Mean Streets is a "film noir" RPG, designed to emulate films like Gaslight, Casablanca and The Maltese Falcon in an RPG setting.

The PDF is $7.95 and, like most Precis Intermedia games, you can upgrade it to a printed version by paying the difference (in this case, $12). It is also compatible with the other genreDiversion games, most notably Ghostories, which includes a section specifically on combining Ghostories and Mean Streets.

INTRODUCTION

Pretty standard intro, serving as a primer on film noir, including six films to familiarize yourself with the film noir. Also, the six primary RPG concepts relevant to this game are listed as well (PC, NPC, Ability, Skill, Task and Difficulty).

Basic stuff...nothing ground breaking, but nothing bad.

CHARACTERS

Every character has five abilities: Fitness, Awareness, Creativity, Reasoning and Influence, ranking from 0 to 5. Skills are scaled from 1 to 8...(well, you can technically have a skill of 0, it just means you're unskilled).

Every character has a Role, which provides access to certain gimmicks and recommended skills. Roles are essentially what you do in life, such as Bank Robber, Private Detective, Gangster and Grifter. Role also determines your base Monthly Savings.

Health is measured on two tracks, ranked from 1-5: Fatigue and Injury. Fatigue makes you pass out, while Injury makes you die.

Abilities have a point buy method (12 points) and a random roll method, whichever you prefer, with an optional "heroic" method for more points. Characters get 30 points for skills, and any gimmicks dictated by their Role. You can get additional gimmicks at the cost of either one ability point or three skill points, or take detrimental gimmicks, which give an ability point or three skill points...(essentially, you can take positive and negative gimmicks at a one for one, since the points would balance out).

The skill list is pretty big, but manageable. Most of them are tied to an Ability, with Composure being the exception to the rule.

Gimmicks run through some pretty common stuff: There is an extensive list of Contacts categories, for instance, from High Society to Gangster to Hollywood to the Police. From there, you get into things like Acute Senses, Quick and Jack of All Trades, as well as interesting stuff like Criminally Insane, which lets you never fail Fear and Composure rolls.

Detrimental Gimmicks can be as straight forward as Clumsy and Gullible, or things like Dark Secret and Stooge, which puts you in debt to a gangster.

A two page chart summarizes everything for you.

THE ACTION

The basic mechanic entails adding a skill and an ability together, and trying to roll under that number with 2d6. The GM can assign a Difficulty, which is essentially the Margin of Success that the player needs to beat their Skill Total by when rolling. If the margin is 2, you need to roll under by 2 or more. If it's 4, then 4 or more. Snake eyes are automatic successes, double sixes are automatic failures. Optional rules exist for Calamities and Triumphs, which amount to critical successes and failures.

Other rules can modify attempts, such as taking a level of fatigue to reduce the required Difficulty.

Combat is handled under "Violence" tasks. Initiative is governed under "reaction", which is determined by rolling a die and adding fitness and awareness to it. Actions are declared from lowest to highest, and resolved (mostly) simultaneously. Ranged attacks go first, resolved in order. Melee attacks are resolved as contested rolls, with only the highest one winning in a given conflict. Different weapons have damage ratings, with some only doing Fatigue while others do Injury damage, and armor can negate that damage. The rules do cover common eventualities and conditions: Using off-hand weapons, called shots, hit locations, knockdowns, etc.

Chase rules are also provided, a series of contested tasks, opening and closing the Gap. If a roll fails, the person that failed the roll has to roll on the Chase Hazards chart, from potholes to traffic jams. There is also a Chase Activity chart, which determines the path and its effect on the chase.

The relevant rules and modifiers are also summarized at the end of this chapter.

EXPANDING THE GAME

These are optional rules you can use to tweak it around a bit, starting with Cliches. Cliches are cinematic abilities your characters can use, divided into categories and tied to the roles. Fighting Cliches include Bullets Unlimited (in which one firearm will never run out of bullets) and Heavenly Aim (allowing characters to ignore penalties and armor protection due to cover). Other Cliches include Master of Disguise (an uncanny knack for covering your identity with just a few moments of prep), Skeleton Key (letting you open any lock), Nothing But (a knack for forcing the truth out of people) and You Can't Do That (once per story, you can pull off an untrained task as if you had a skill rating of 6). Cliches can also be purchased the same way gimmicks are.

Character advancement rules are provided, as well as rules for quickly producing stats for extras, plus tweaks for reducing the number of dice rolls, or making it more heroic.

Drinking rules are also provided, as well as conversion rules for the Impresa and Masterbook systems that power other Precis Intermedia games, plus a diceless variant.

THE BIG CITY

This chapter provides overviews of three cities: New York City, Chicago and Los Angeles, all perfectly suitable film noir settings. Each city gets an overview, including a history. Relevant locations, mood of the cities and the like are also provided, like the presence of Al Capone in Chicago and the racial tensions present in New York. Chicago also provides three new roles that are relevant to the setting, while LA provides one of its own (Stuntman).

In addition, the short essay from Ghostories is present here as well, if you wish to combine the two for some horror noir.

Half a dozen "quick locales" are also given, with basic descriptions, for use when setting up your stories: night clubs, PI offices, police precinct houses and so on.

CRIME & PUNISHMENT

Given the genre, this is a very useful chapter on crime in the 1940s. It starts with the major layers of law enforcement, from the local police, to county sheriffs and state police to the feds. Major crimes are described, including a few common defenses. The structure of the courts system is also provided, as is an 11 step system for trials, running from discovery through sentencing.

VENDETTAS

This chapter flips the coin and focuses on the American branches of the mafia. It even breaks them down by city, including information on various cities (like Philadelphia) that did not get full treatment a couple of chapters ago. It is also worth noting that this chapter doesn't just treat the mafia as adversaries: Some story seeds are provided, placing the characters in the role of black hats, rather than cops or PIs.

CASABLANCA

Thanks to the movie by the same name, the name "Casablanca" is now almost synonymous with film noir. Appropriately, this chapter details the city of Casablanca, as well as the country of Morocco, as a setting for your Mean Streets game.

Three new roles are also provided: Freedom Fighter, Refugee and War Criminal, as well as three new, appropriate, connection gimmicks.

This chapter includes three pages of incidental characters, as well as a map of the city and a quick reference of both French and Arabic phrases.

THE ATTITUDE

This is the GM section, essentially.

It starts with a discussion of the history of film noir, as well as the basics of laying out the plot, beginning with the McGuffin and building from there. The roles of both men and women are discussed, which will vary pretty dramatically, if you stick closely to the source material.

Eleven stories are included, complete with important cast members, ideas on how to involve your PCs with each story, and a series of twists for each story that you can use.

Mists of the Past involves the wife of a Congressman being blackmailed about her shady past in the pornography industry.

Suitable for Framing involves a wounded soldier who is claiming to be framed for the murder of his wife.

Raiders of the Lost Art involves valuable French art that has been sent to the US to keep it out of the hands of Nazis and has now gone missing, setting off a chase by all of the interested parties.

Angels with Sticky Fingers has a nun on the run after a woman turns up dead in a convent.

Dial H for Hitman has one of the PCs targeted by an infamous hitman...who is so good that no one knows his face.

The Dog That Wouldn't Be Fixed involves a boxer who refused to take a fall after he finds out an orphanage was depending on his victory.

Guess Who's Coming To Harlem involves a racially charged love affair featuring a mobster's daughter.

Father of the Bride has a missing inventor and his dead mistress to deal with.

We, The Jury involves the trial of a major Mafia Don and his attempts to disrupt the jury.

The First Thing We Do... sees a law firm being picked off one by one.

On an Empty Chamber features a missing judge and a missing court reporter.

Copping a Plea sees a homeless man found with the body of a murdered girl.

The chapter ends with a listing of 40s goods and prices.

THE STORIES

These are three complete scenarios, designed to be ready to run.

A Tangled Web (based off of The Big Heat) is set in 1943 New York City, and begins with the investigation of a suicide that obviously has deeper layers.

Where Shadows Fall has a poor woman in dire need of help, and only the PCs can truly help her out, of course. It starts simple enough, with a missing bracelet, which is actually the key to inflicting grievous damage on the mob.

Secrets of Casablanca obviously takes the PCs overseas, to investigate the death of a reporter, and turns into a race against time to uncover the truth and bring the situation to the head.

REFERENCE

A series of charts, featuring all of the modifiers and such that are likely to come up in play, as well as a full page character sheet, and a page that has three smaller sheets on it, as you and your group prefers.

TEMPLATES

21 templates are provides, such as Adventerous Dilettante, Classic Femme Fatale, Arrogant G-Man, Mystery Man, Bitter Veteran, Paranoid Bank Robber and Overhyped Boxer. These are ready to go (minus names) to be used as PCs or NPCs, or just as inspiration.

Finally, Disposable Dice can be printed out and assembled, if you really don't have two six sided dice laying around.

THOUGHTS

My overall impression of Mean Streets suffers just a bit from following so closely on the heels of reading Ghostories, which kinda blew me away. It is definitely a case where, to me, Mean Streets doesn't really have anything to add to Ghostories, while Ghostories probably has quite a bit to add to Mean Streets.

That said, there is certainly plenty of material here to take your game and run with it, and I really like some of the included gimmicks, especially some of the Cultural Gimmicks. The chapters on Crime & Punishment and the mafia, especially, are tremendously useful and well placed, as is the source material on 1940s Chicago, New York City, LA and Morocco.

If you wanted to play it a little more "Sin City" and a little less "Casablanca", kicking in all of the Heroic options, plus Cliches, would get you pretty close.

If you have Ghostories, and you are looking at this for mining material, I can't give it a strong recommendation...if you want a film noir game, especially one that seems like it would scale up fairly well, I give it a bigger thumbs up.