Thursday, June 14, 2012

Tommy's Take on Streets of Bedlam

Jason L Blair, of Little Fears fame, recently released his first Savage Setting: Streets of Bedlam, which intentionally shortens to SoB. I like Savage Worlds, I like Blair's work, and I backed this on Kickstarter.

WHAT YOU SHOULD KNOW: The PDF is 255 pages and currently available on RPGnow...still lacking a few finishing touches before it'll get sent to the printers, where it'll seemingly retail for $30. The book is in black and white, fittingly, and drawn by Shawn Gaston. It also has much saltier language than your average Savage Worlds book.

The book is divided into five chapters plus an introduction, and requires some version of Savage Worlds (though it was written for Deluxe, but there's not a lot of hard work moving from edition to edition).

The Introduction provides an overview to the feel of the setting, citing things like Sin City, Boondock Saints and Assault on Precinct 13, and Mr. Blair also said in a chat that emulation of movies like Payback and Four Brothers was certainly possible. Again, this chapter is just a broad overview of the inspirations and source material, as well as a brief breakdown of Bedlam, which is actually two cities (Bedford and Lamrose, the former being the money of the city, the latter being the wrecked out remnants of a blue collar city). The chapter serves as a nice, brisk introduction to what Streets of Bedlam is all about.

Chapter one dives into the city itself, a neo-noirish Gotham that is split in two distinct halves by the Artifice River. In Lamrose, the prostitutes rule Bricktown, the Lamrose side of the river is dotted with crack houses, we have casinos under various management, a Little Italy and a Chinatown. On the other side of the river, Bedford is where the rich and the righteous live, with fake swamps, theatres, cathedrals and a pair of pro ball teams (football and baseball). A handy list of local slang is provided, and it's not so long or dense as to become distracting. There are Italiant, Irish and Polish, and Triad mobs in town, and the cops are little protection. A handy quick-list of businesses and street names are provided, with shoutouts to authors like Elmore Leonard and Ed Brubaker.

Chapter 2 is character creation, which is standard Savage Worlds creation...with a little twist. For one thing, you start an Archetype, a pretty specific foundation for your character (with the option of a Citizen, who is essentially a blank slate). The Archetypes have required skills, as well as free Edges and Hindrances, and then you customize from there. I rather like the descriptions for this game, being three sentences: A physical description, a social one and a mental one. An example of an Archetype is a Badge, catch-all for the cops. This one gets extra Reputation for certain actions, but you also get to choose whether you are straight or dirty, with the former giving you an enemy for crossing the wrong person and the latter providing extra money...but meaning you're in the pocket of someone. Others include Boss (as in gang bosses), Valkyries (the now militant hookers), Drifters, Hitters (Hitmen) and even Marv-like monsters, each with their own customization point even before you buy your skills and Edges.

Chapter 3 gets into the rules changes, providing suggestions for Setting Rules and adding in new Skills, Edges and Hindrances. Some of the Skills are expected, like Interrogation, and others are interesting, but odd, like Eyes of G*d, which allows you to tell whether or not someone is a very bad guy. Edges include things like Street Cred and Sucker-Proof, which provide well explained bonuses, as well as one (Heart on Your Sleeve) that reads like it should be a Hindrance and a couple of Edges that are described, but either have no - or poorly explained - mechanical benefits (like Protected or Entourage). Hindrances include Infamous, Priors (you have a record) and Trigger Happy (where guns are your first solution). Rep is explained here, a stat similar to Charisma, which can fall under three spheres: Public, Underworld and Authority. Interrogation rules are present, as well as an interesting system for Investigations, using card draws to determine the crime, the clean-up and the escape, complete with an example. There's also a Dramatic Damage table, which is basically just flavor, and a system for Roles, which include things like Hero, Sidekick, Love Interest and Plot Device, and can change each session. Each role gains a couple of new effects it can spend bennies on (like Sidekicks pumping a hero's ego up). There's also a bit of a GM section here, pushing for you to jump into the middle of the action and keep it hot, before providing a selection of common story/mission/adventure types (like the ever famous Man on a Mission).

Chapter four is a huge listing of NPCs, made up primarly of Kickstarter backers, like intrepid reporter Shane Hensley, Underworld icon Gareth-Michael Skarka, and drug pusher Nathan Reed. The first 14 of these are tied directly to the archetypes to serve an iconic function. The rest of the Kickstarter backers are named, with mini bios, to fill out the city, with a nice selection of attribute arrays and skill sets provided to mix and match stock NPC stats on the fly.

Chapter 5 gets into the GMing proper, starting with an outline for neo-noir adventures for folks to follow. This leads into an interesting variation on the Plot Point Campaign, with the characters starting off at the scene of a murder, and allowing them to follow up on the clues and plot threads they choose, directing you to scenes in an almost Choose Your Own Adventure-like manner, rather than the more structured Plot Point Campaign set-up. In true Neo-Noir fashion, the whole thing takes many twists and turns and has the potential to end in a way that burns the characters even as they deal with the murderer. Interesting arrangement for the PPC, and not in a bad way. A handful of "Orphan Stories" follow, essentially overgrown plot seeds.

The PDF ends with a note from the author, a placeholder where the index will be, a quick reference sheet, an Episode tracker sheet, an Investigation sheet and a character sheet.

WHAT WORKS: The writing is very crisp without getting at all cute. Nothing is hard to read here. The art sets the scene incredibly well. I love the Archetypes set-up for character creation, especially since there's still so much room for flexibility, and the Plot Point Campaign structure is a welcome change of pace. The city is a wonderful mish-mash of Neo-Noir tropes, giving you everything you need to play around, providing landmarks without roadmaps so everything is where you need it to be.

WHAT DOESN'T WORK: Heart on Your Sleeve is either the worst Edge ever, or a misplaced Hindrance. Entourage and Protected could also use mechanical support. Bookmarks in a PDF are always great, and they don't exist here. I'm one of the few Kickstarter members who isn't a character in the city, because I'm not a fan of "vanity rewards". It takes me out of the setting seeing Shane Hensley or Gareth-Michael Skarka as NPCs in the setting, though I understand why vanity awards are present in KIckstarters.

CONCLUSION: I think Jason L. Blair has done a fantastic job of crafting a unique Savage Worlds experience while retaining the Fast, Furious, Fun feel the game exudes. Great new additions to the rules, a big sandbox to play around in and promises of more to come. Streets of Bedlam is the "over the top" cousin to Wellstone City, serving a similar niche in an ultraviolent and extreme manner. My biggest disappointment is that I didn't have the extra at the time to kick in for the print copy. Recommended if you love Sin City or crazy Mel Gibson revenge movies, and I love both.

My fellow blogger Darren G. Miller, who is present in the game as an NPC, offered up his thoughts over at Geekcentricity.