Saturday, May 21, 2016

Tommy's Take on Buffy the Vampire Slayer Revised Corebook

No, a new Buffy RPG didn't come out. This is the one that came out...holy crap...eleven years ago, from Eden Studios. This is not an old review, though. Yes, this is a brand new review of an eleven year old RPG that I got when it was brand new.

Why?

Because it's badass, and you can still get copies for cover price on Amazon even though it's out of print. You can also get the PDF for $20 at RPGNow. (Disclaimer: That last one was an Affiliate link.)


Full disclosure: I was credited in this book as a Contributing Quotemeister (meaning I helped look up quotes for the book, though I don't know if any of my recommendations were used, it's been over a decade), and I received my copy free from Eden Studios for my efforts.

This book was one of the high-water marks for licensed RPGs and, in my opinion, still is. It's just a great RPG period, as far as I'm concerned, so be aware: I'm a fan.

Published by Eden Studios, it's powered by the Cinematic Unisystem, a slightly less realistic and punishing version of the system that powers Witchcraft, All Flesh Must Be Eaten, Terra Primate and Armageddon. It's a point buy system whose basic mechanic is roll a d10 and add an Attribute plus a Skill to hit a Target Number (generally 9).

Based off of the iconic TV show of the same name, Buffy the Vampire Slayer is set in Joss Whedon's Buffyverse and has the very asymmetrical nature of the show baked in, with one or more heroes often having more points to build their character with, offset by having fewer Drama Points, which can allow characters to boost rolls, get a second wind on the spot (healing Hit Points), generating a plot twist (allowing for creative editing), initiating a Righteous Fury (which lasts a whole scene and allows for extra butt kicking) or even coming back from the dead.

The book opens with an overview of the setting mythology, as well as a season by season breakdown of the overarching storylines and how certain elements can be pulled or applied to your games, or how certain events from the Buffy series could be twisted in a "what if" manner. It doesn't live up to the standards later set by the Firefly RPG's amazing episode guide, but it's still good stuff.

As noted above, character creation is a point buy system, with characters being Heroes (more points, fewer Drama Points), White Hats (fewer points, more Drama points) or Experienced Heroes (not generally meant to be mixed with the other two). A traditional Attribute spread of Strength, Dexterity, Constitution, Intelligence, Perception and Willpower is used, ranked from 1 to a lot, with normal human maximum being a 6.

The Skill List is one of my favorite ever, hitting a solid cross section: Acrobatics, Art, Computers, Crime, Doctor, Driving, Getting Medieval, Gun Fu, Influence, Knowledge, Kung Fu, Languages, Mr. Fix-It, Notice, Occultism, Science, Sports and Wild Card (the player-defined catch-all for a skill your character needs to round out that's not already included).

Characters select Qualities and Drawbacks of various types, from basic stuff like Addictions, Attractiveness (which should practically be necessary for a Buffy game...it's a pretty cast), Good/Bad Luck and so on...as well as setting specific stuff like Vampire, Werewolf, Initiative Commando or Slayer (and depending on which point in the timeline the game is set, this may be limited to just One). (Cheap plug: I wrote an article on playing "humane" vampires for Eden Studios Presents Vol. 2, complete with a half dozen premade vamps, each with their own "good" hook).

A dozen premade characters are included, of various power levels, followed by character sheets for all the major cast members of the show, complete with every advance and adjustment they gained episode by episode.

The rules section covers the mechanics in detail, with as much discussion on combat maneuvers as on gear (most of which boils down to weapons). The game pays special attention to decapitations and stakes to the hearts, as these are particularly relevant to the kinds of bad guys the heroes tend to fight. Importantly, it also introduces the concept of the Quick Sheet, which is what most NPCs get: A simplified sheet with three Ability Scores (Muscle, Combat and Brains) that they use for tasks rather than their Attributes. NPCs are generally simplified mechanically as the GM rarely rolls in the Cinematic Unisystem, making the game incredibly "player facing".

Ah, the magic chapter. This is my favorite magic system ever (specifically the slightly expanded version from The Magic Box supplement). In a pinch, you build spells with a series of modifiers, and that sets your spell's Power Level (and number of needed Success Levels). Most spells can be cast as a ritual, meaning anyone can try it. Those with the Sorcery Quality can generate big time mojo quickly and efficiently. However, successfully summoning magical power but falling under the spell's Power Level means SOMETHING happens, and that's usually not good. If you're running this game and you want to delve into witches and warlocks running around, I highly recommend taking the plunge on The Magic Box.

Chapter five is a broad overview of Sunnydale, setting of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and it's various locales and (mostly) human residents, such as Jonathan, Harmony, the various principals and a couple of generic stats (like cops). As an aside, Riley Finn is relegated to a Quick Sheet here, which bugs me as he was a major cast member in Season Four and part of Season Five.

The bestiary is good stuff. It starts with vampires, including a discussion on their origins and abilities, before giving no less than four generic vamp stat blocks before hitting "named" vamps from the show like Luke, Darla and Dracula. Then we get into demons, which is a huge category as most lumpy headed creatures that weren't undead were lumped into the "demon" category. Shapeshifters are next, with a focus on werewolves, but also including giant mantis creatures that pose as teachers. It happens. The Restless Dead (ghosts and zombies) get a small section, as do Robots (which showed up more than you would think), before diving into each of The Big Bads of the show (The Master, Drusilla - with guides on adjusting Angel's stats for Angelus, The Mayor - as human or Demon, Adam, Glory, Warren, The First and Caleb).

The GM section dives into structuring a campaign for a "season" type feel, rather than a standard ongoing campaign. There's even a sidebar back in the rules section that discusses the pacing of experience points to match your game structure (I'm partial to 13 episode seasons, myself). I once wrote up sections on Series Finales and Cast Members Turning Evil that I offered for this book at this section and thought I had posted them on my blog, but my own search fu is failing me now. Or my mind is. One or the other.

Chapter 8 was a good idea that never executed well. Best intentions and all that. It was an adventure/episode called Sweeps Week that was meant to kick off a season involving a Big Bad called The Djinn. It weaved through another book or two (including three episodes in the GM screen), but Eden lost the license before it could ever be resolved. Still a neat episode that can give you an idea of how to structure your own episodes if you need the guidance, featuring knock off cameos from Xena, Connor (or Duncan) McLeod, Captain Kirk and the T-800.

The appendices include one on "Buffyspeak", a glossary and a slew of helpful charts, especially weapons and combat maneuvers.

Six Points:

  • The production values are largely amazing. Chock full of great images from the show, with beautiful layout to frame it with. The original art is largely good, though I wasn't a fan of the art in the Sweeps Week adventure. Just felt too dark and muddy for what they were going for.
  • This is an incredibly flexible system, especially when you add in the other related books, like the Angel RPG and The Magic Box. At one time I was set to run a campaign that hybridized Friday the 13th the Series, The Dead Zone and Beauty and the Beast, all in the Buffyverse.
  • The writing style was one of the first that I had encountered featuring an informal writing style. This grated on some people (still would, I suppose), but I love RPG rulebooks that don't read like textbooks
  • The system as designed can lean heavily on the Dexterity stat, as attack and defense are both based off of it AND the number of actions your character has per turn can inflate based off of it, making it a bit of a "God" stat.
  • The fan support for this game was outstanding, and thankfully Jason Vey's site is still up, featuring his sourcebooks for playing as Highlanders and The Crow in the Cinematic Unisystem.
  • Combat is fast and free flowing, capturing the spirit of the source material. I ran it both online and face to face and it never lagged.
If I had been able to sustain a Cinematic Unisystem campaign, I may never have picked up Savage Worlds. I fell so hard for this system that it ruined Classic Unisystem for me (Witchcraft, All Flesh and so on). I doubt I ever try again, as I have now tried four times (counting Buffy and Angel-based games), and the crashing and burning disappointment is too much. Whether due to scheduling conflicts or lack of player buy-in, it's just not meant to be. (A shame, too, as I still have my Buffy and Angel playtest files from the unfinished books.) But it's a great choice for the Buffy archetype of supernatural adventure, and it can still be acquired for a reasonable amount of money (with only Magic Box currently above cover price).