Monday, February 28, 2011

Tommy's Take on Terror Network

Terror Network is a counter terrorism roleplaying game, and the first RPG released by Bedrock Games (distributed by Avalon Games). I have previously reviewed their Crime Network RPG, which you can read about here.

Terror Network is available in PDF format for $9.99, and you can get it, the Agency Resource Guide and two adventures in a bundle for $21.96. Terror Network is 114 pages, bookmarked annd searchable, with copy and paste enabled.

The table of contents is fully clickable, which should make navigation quite simple.

INTRODUCTION and ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS

This is a counterterrorism roleplaying game, and that doesn't just mean fighting Muslims. We get a broad overview here, noting that it is very likely that characters will die, as well as pointing out that you can run a traditional campaign or follow a plot/story arc through multiple characters and even law enforcement organizations.

Acknowledgements are also given to the experts that helped the authors research this game.

CHAPTER ONE

The introduction lets us know what we're in for: namely, it is a dice pool system, in which you roll a number of d10s equal to your skill compare the highest result to a target number. If you meet or beat it, you succeed. If you roll a natural 10, that's a total success.

We learn from a sidebar that there is a "High Octane" variant in which the PCs are more durable, if you wanna go the action movie route instead of a grittier route.

CHARACTER CREATION

First up, you pick one of three backgrounds: Military, Academic or Civilian. This sets the number of points you have to spend in given skill groups. You get three Primary Skill Groups, two of which are user defined, and one of which is specified by your background (Combat, Knowledge and Specialist).

Next, you pick Agency and Rank. It is assumed that everyone belongs to the same agency, and ranks are listed for the FBI, CIA, Homeland Security, Local Law Enforcement and Military.

Purchase skills next, with 12 points for each of your Primary Skill Groups and 9 points for the remainder. Defense skills provide opposition against other skills, and most skills are
"grouped", but there are still a ton of them. For instance, firearms are grouped into Small, Medium and Heavy Arms, with Sniper Rifles getting their own skill. As I noted in Crime Network, it's more skills than I normally like, but since your characters are defined entirely by skills, I have less of a problem with it in this system.

Every skill is given at least a paragraph of explanation, more if needed. You can take Expertise in skills, which grant you an additional die if you are using that skill for the noted purpose. For instance, using the Small Arms example, you can take Small Arms at 3d10 and an expertise for Single Shot. When using a Single Shot pistol, you now roll 4d10.

Contacts are also an important part of the game, and come two varieties: Support and Information. Information Contacts are good pipelines of info, while Support Contacts will actually try to physically assist you. You can have Military, Criminal, Police, Political, Civilian, Academic, Media and Agency Contacts. Each type of Contact is given a write-up on the types of Information and Support they will grant you if you make your Clout roll. Unlike Crime Network, you don't run the risk of having a hit put out on you if you fail, or go back to the well one too many times.

Unfortunately, we don't have Shortcomings in this game like we do in Crime Network...a shame, I rather liked them.

GEAR AND WEAPONS

The stat tables are very easy to read, and are divided up in Firearms, Melee Weapons (of which there are really only three, including your bare fists), Explosives (including IEDs), Contaminants (from Anthrax to Ebola to Alpha, Beta and Gamma radiation), armor and vehicles.

Every entry gets an explanation...they don't expect you to just KNOW what ricin is, for instance.

The chapter ends with grid maps for blast radius effects.

A very good chapter that provides a lot of equipment options and knows that a game about counter terrorism probably needs rules for poisons and radiation as much as it does for guns and cars.

COMBAT AND NON COMBAT RULES

We've covered the basic mechanics already, but this chapter provides further clarification and rules, such as damage. After a successful attack, you roll Damage against their Hardiness. Success equals a Wound. Every 10 you roll on the Damage roll equals an additional Wound. Three Wounds equals incapacitation, and dying sets in. If you get a Total Success (natural 10) on your Attack roll, you get an extra Damage die, to increase your chances of rolling that extra 10 and inflicting more Wounds.

Combat, by default, is grid based (and explosives have a chart for applying to the map grid), with the Speed skill being used for initiative. You can make a Move Action and a Skill Action each round, two Move actions, or you can take one Move and drop the skil Action, adding 1 to your Defenses, drop both for +2 to your Defenses, or just drop movement and add 1d10 to your attack roll. So, a decent level of options right there, without getting too complicated.

A handful of further tactical options are provided, including shooting someone from behind, targeting multiple opponents with automatic weapons and making called shots.

The chapter ends with basic vehicle rules, as well as "When Grenades Miss" (you've probably seen charts like this several times). Facing rules are also relevant here, and given a chart to cover that. This can impact their defensive skills from certain attacks.

I can see, in some situations, how lifting the Assassination Rules from Crime Network might also come in handy.

COUNTER TERRORISM AGENCIES

Now we get into the agencies and what they DO. Department of Homeland Security, among other things, are meant to raise and lower the threat level...unfortunately, this is one area where the book is slowly becoming outdated, as DHS recently announced they were doing away with the color coded threat system.

The FBI would probably be my pick for a game, simply because their mandates and purview are just so damned flexible.

The History of Counter Terrorism section goes into the backgrounds of the FBI, CIA, Department of Homeland Security as well as the US Special Ops, with a sidebar on just what kind of legal authority the military have on US soil. It's a nice touch for those who don't feel inclined to bone up on their own. However, the chapter continues on a great roll with the Approaches to Terrorism section for each of the above...breaking down their tactics and their organization.

I admit, I don't follow the operations of any of the above organizations that closely, but it sure READS like these guys did their homework, so I would imagine that this is all more than good enough for your campaign. I certainly found it to be terribly interesting and useful, especially when they delved into things I really didn't know much about, such as the Special Operations tactics and organization.

TERRORISM OVERVIEW

This could easily have gotten hairy, so - straight from the book: "In Terror Network, terrorism is defined as: the use of violence against symbolic targets and innocent victims to 1) intimidate groups or governments to pursue a desired course of action or 2) disrupt the status quo. This is a simple definition, and it also has limitations, but for the purposes of a counter-terrorism role playing game, it should provide GMs and Players with a helpful framework."

That explanation works well enough for me for RPG purposes, especially with the immediate caveat that terrorists are all different, but tend towards some common traits. A history of terrorism begins in Revolutionary France and carries through to the modern day, where a number of terrorist groups from a range of ideological extremes are provided, with jihadists sharing space with ecoterrorists and white supremacists. This section ends with a handful of fictional terrorists groups as well, for inspiration or just tossing your players for a loop.

A dozen common types of terrorist attacks are covered, including four varieties of WMDs, hijackings and cyber attacks, with a paragraph or so of explanation for each.

The chapter ends with some recent famous attacks, such as 9/11 and 7/7 (the World Trade center attack and London bombing, respectively).

In the dirty bombs section, I did notice a reference to Chapter Six here...which is fairly erroneous since this is Chapter Six.

OPERATIONS AND STORYLINES

This is, essentially, "How To Run A Counterterrorism RPG". Five sample operations are provided, with a paragraph or so on how they might would turn out, as well as a section on how to weave subplots into the Agency life (should you and your players decide to go that route)...like your kid getting busted for smoking pot while you're in the middle of stopping white supremacists from firebombing African American churches.

This chapter also encourages you to use real world organizations while also advising you to take care when using real people...for instance, using Al Qaeda isn't a bad idea, but having the PCs throw down directly with Osama bin Laden may get a bit campy for some groups.

Guidelines are included for making your own terrorist organizations, including helpful tips on (literally) mapping out their command structure.

Really, if I had one complaint about this chapter, I would have liked more sample operations (and made them just a bit less specific), but that's a minor quibble. As I noted in Crime Network, the game warns that it is terribly gritty and lethal, but I just don't see it with the rules as written. That said, the Rules as Written with the High Octane Health Variant and you probably do get pretty close to Jack Baur territory.

OPERATION DIRTY WATER

I'm going to ditch all pretense of objectivity for a moment, I hope you don't mind: Good God I love Bedrock Games and their approaches to adventures. Essentially, you are given a plot and timeline, and the PCs (assumed to be FBI or Joint Task Force agents) do whatever they can with the information given at the beginning to stop the plot.

Essentially, the agents have six days to save Boston from a terrorist plot that involves a bomb, a kidnapping and an assassination.

Important locations that are likely to turn up over the course of the investigation are detailed, as are the likely results of the PCs showing up there. Like with their Crime Networks adventures, the railroading begins and ends with "Here is what we know and these are your orders." I love that approach and they do it very well.

TERRORIST THREATS

We get nine terrorist threats across a broad spectrums: Muslim jihadists, white supremacicists and even disgruntled auto workers.

I was thrown a bit here by the inclusion of an FBI Agent and a CIA Agent, looking for the terrorist links, but now I'm pretty sure they were just meant to be sample characters...apparently not.

We get a fully clickable index, which is also a very nice touch.

APPENDIX

About a full page of books and articles are provided, followed by a probability success chart and an NPC sheet. Personally, I would like to see the Description bar removed and NPC sheets set up two to a page, but that's me.

A Stock Characters chart immediately follows, with a blank character sheet, a filled out sample character sheet and a High Octane sheet.

We get a few ads in the back of the book, promising the Agency Sourcebook (review coming very soon), Operation Hydra (an adventure that'll probably wind up in the queue sooner, rather than later), Crime Network (which is pretty great itself) and Horror Network (which really intrigues me).

THOUGHTS

Personally, I thought they did a fine job of taking the source material very seriously. I can't imagine how hard it is taking such an objective approach to things, ensuring that there is no real "Slant" in there. I didn't see any real discussion of torture, other than noting that it is presently illegal. That's fine, and well worth noting...but the thing is, it is probably going to come up at some point. I don't know of they felt like it would glamorize torture or what, but when the whole game is covering one very touchy subject, it feels like a strange omission.

I just did a quick scan of the Agency Sourcebook and came up empty there as well. Just saying, I'm not sure how you play a rules bending Jack Baur without torture...(and if standard interrogation methods are just as successful as torture, then why would you ever NEED torture?).

Personally, I think I might would house rule it so that torture has a "Say Anything" possibility...that is, you break a guy to the point that he will feed false information just to make you stop...maybe a roll made by the GM, so the PCs don't know if the information is legitimate.

Anyway, my quibbles are certainly minor. There is an unfortunate reality that the pieces of the RPG pie are often taken up by the loudest and flashiest publishers...and a lot of great work gets overlooked, unfortunately. From a style standpoint, Terror Network is completely functional, but nothing to get all excited about. It's when you actually pay attention to what's inside that you realize that level of work being done here. I cannot imagine how hard it is putting out a roleplaying game over Counter Terrorism and resisting the urge to G.I. Joe it and adding in a COBRA knock-off or something...the only real flight of fancy being the "High Octane" rules modification...and produce a great, interesting read (that also doesn't try to preach at you, from any direction).

Great, great stuff.