Friday, October 31, 2014

Review: Firefly the Roleplaying Game


It's been out for a few months, people have been checking it out and doing things with it, but is the Firefly RPG the game you've been waiting for? Does it have any appeal even if you don't particularly like the show? (Spoiler: yes.) Buckle up; this is gonna move fast. I've got a lot of ground to cover, and I only have one blog post to do it in!

My Play Experience: 2 sessions through Hangouts, 1 demo session at a convention

The Gorram Basics
Firefly is a licensed roleplaying game based on a cult TV sci-fi show that aired on FOX for a single season. That sound you hear is the wailing and gnashing of teeth by a legion of disenfranchised geek TV fans. The general consensus is that the show was cut off before its time, but I don't plan on talking much about that, because this post is about the RPG. The same company made a game based on Serenity, the movie made to follow up on the series; that game came out about 9 years ago, and uses a much earlier version of the same mechanics.

Firefly uses the Cortex Plus RPG framework, which is an evolution of Serenity's Cortex Classic rules. The rules changed significantly in tone and structure, while keeping the same core of "roll funky dice". The new rules are most similar to the ones which power the Leverage RPG, with some tweaks and modifications that simplify it significantly. In general, Margaret Weis Productions has learned from their prior games and built a new game from those foundations.

New Rules, Better Rules?
The most obvious difference between the Serenity rules and the Firefly rules is a general streamlining of systems. The Serenity RPG had Advantages and Disadvantages that provided specific bonuses and penalties, it gave characters Wounds and Stress which they suffered when they took damage, and it used Plot Points as a game currency to give bonuses in some occasions. In Firefly, all of these are integrated far more tightly and smoothly. Advantages and Disadvantages are replaced by Distinctions, which give you specific abilities that you can unlock; they also let you add a die to your pool, and you can decide whether it's a good die (which helps you do better) or a bad die (which earns you Plot Points). Wounds and Stress are eliminated and replaced with the concept of Complications, dice that get rolled against you. Plot Points are now an integral part of the game, and flow freely (if you're being savvy).

If you haven't played Serenity, maybe you just want to know how the rules feel in general. They're slick and effortless. You go to do something, you figure out how you're doing it, you roll some dice, and you add the two highest. If you're doing something that could take a character out of the scene (like punching them in a bar brawl or denouncing them at a party), they get to roll to defend against you; the loser can accept a Complication to keep going--it's sort of like a debt that you have to get rid of later. The entire game sees the crew developing Complications and getting rid of them as they try to complete their mission. That's exactly the sort of dynamic I'd expect from a Firefly game. Along the way, you can spend Plot Points to create Assets: temporary advantages that can range from Got the Lay of the Land d8 to The Crew Believes in Me d10

But What About Characters?
The most devoted fans of the show are probably listening for this section, because the dynamics between the characters are what keep the show tight and interesting. Case in point: I was skeptical when I heard that the game would be based on the Leverage RPG, and not on something more drama-based like the Smallville RPG (which, aside, is a superb game about character drama, whether or not you like the source material). When I finally had a read through the book, I realized that they'd managed to put in just enough character drama to make it work alongside the mission-based skeleton of the game.

It's all in the little touches: the book is filled with explanations on how you can use the rules to make character-centered fiction. Assets and Complications are the easiest example--the book calls out something like I've Got Your Back as an Asset that you can make, one that connects two characters in a particular way. It even points out how you can use a character-anchored flashback when you're creating an Asset: maybe when you create Veteran Training, you can go back for a quick flashback to your time in the Unification War. Leverage has a similar mechanic, but when you change the genre, the purpose of the flashback changes as well.

Also, some of the Distinctions in the book are tailor-made for interesting character moments (such as Hitched), and borrow heavily from the Distinctions that you can find in the Smallville RPG. When you add these in, you get just enough structure for players to build characters off of.

The Book Itself
Physically? The book is lovely. My gut feeling is that it ranks in my Top 5 of physical RPG books owned. The cover is sturdy, the pages are full color and glossy, the layout is absolutely lovely. (Kudos to Daniel Solis on that one.) There's a lot of fun Firefly-esque advertisements scattered across the pages, and the book makes good use of photos from the TV show. There's also some wonderful high-quality art that's found throughout, most especially on the character archetype pages. It's well worth the price tag, and then some. Also, and I cannot understate this, the spine looks absolutely wonderful on the shelf. It's got a great sci-fi rustic feel to it.

Structure-wise, this book does something that I like immensely: it begins by using the TV show as an extended tutorial for the game. This might annoy readers who want a quick reference for the game upfront, but I personally feel that having particular examples of the rules in action is a fantastic way to learn it. You can pick up on a lot of nuances that way. Plus, they pick some great moments in the show that they then emulate very well in the system. I can't pick out any which feel like a stretch, and it even goes above and beyond in scenes like Mal's big fight in Shindig, using the RPG mechanics to show you what's going on in the story. (It's a neat application of games to story, where games provide the logic behind the events in the story.) Finally, if you really need to find a particular rule, there's a section closer to the end of the book that gathers them all and gives an overview of which Episode Guide explains which rules.

The book is also filled with character templates, massive amounts of advice for running the game (and I'd be completely fine letting someone cut their teeth on this game), and an adventure to get things started. It has the original Firefly crew, but also gives you the ability to be up and running with original characters in ten to fifteen minutes flat. There's also sections designed to help you make your own Distinctions...and of course, there's a number of pages devoted to building your own ship to traverse the 'Verse.

Final Verdict
If you liked the show, and you're a gamer, put this at the top of your queue. It has high production values, fantastic rules design, and strong advice for running a game like the show. It also discusses at length how to run games focused on different aspects of the 'Verse, such as fighting criminal syndicates or dealing with megacorps.

If you disliked or didn't watch the show, and you're a gamer, strongly consider it, especially if you don't own Leverage. It can be readily repurposed to a number of stories (Cowboy Bebop comes to mind immediately), and it's the slickest RPG I've seen in the past five years. Well, arguably not quite as slick as Swords Without Master, but still pretty slick.

Finally, if you liked the show and are inexplicably not a gamer despite reading this blog, go check out the game! It's a great entry vector into the hobby.

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