Jeremy's Reviews Blog

Wednesday, May 05, 2004

Spycraft (not sure I'll post this one anywhere...)

I originally passed on Spycraft when it first came out, because while it looked neat, it was expensive (especially the supplements), and not something I could really afford to follow at the time.

Then last year, I picked up the Stargate SG-1 book, being a semi-fan of the show, and really liked the rules. They were good, but lacking in some areas, so I planned on picking up the Spycraft rulebook to help supplement them. Eventually earlier this year, I found someone selling a used copy for a reasonable price, so I got it and the Shadowforce Archer main book (I think I paid $25 for both, including shipping).

Unfortunately, I was somewhat let down by the compatibility between the two. There's not a huge difference, but it's there, and requires more work than I wanted to do. Spycraft is also somewhat lacking in equipment (especially guns), and it's very incompatible when it comes to equipment systems. I probably wasn't going to review it, since I didn't like it all that much, but not having anything better to do...

On the surface, it's like regular d20 (and so I'm going to assume you know the basics of d20 in this review, otherwise it would get even longer). But there are a lot of subtle changes that I think, makes it superior to d20, at least for modern games (and I think it's much better than d20 Modern).

Race has been replaced by "Department". Unfortunately, some of these departments make no sense.

For instance, "Wetworks" is often used as a euphamism for killing people. Because when you shoot them, there's blood all over, and so it's wet. But in this, it's people who specialize in unarmed combat. I've never heard that called "Wetworks" before. Because that makes no sense - you can only draw blood from punching someone if you hit them in the nose or something - boxers only get cuts because of gloves. The rest aren't quite as incorrectly named, but generally somewhat dorky.

I really didn't get this. I mean, I guess it's a way of making characters different, but at the same time, this seems to largely overlap with classes, and thus redundant, while some combinations are silly (like a "Soldier" form the Computer Espionage department? Bill Gates hit squad? Hrrrmph). And is it realistic? Not really. It's like a really bad TV movie or something. Did the authors actually read anything true about spies? It's like a horrible, horrible cliched novel.

Unfortunately, this confusion of spy terms and silliness extends somewhat to the classes. There are 6 core classes: The Fixer, the Pointman, the Soldier, the Wheelman, the Snoop, and the Dogg, er, the Faceman. Fairly strong archetypes, I thought, but the actual game descriptions mechanics of them seem to be a bit off.

For instance, The Fixer. I generally think of those as a wheeler-dealer, black market kind of guy, and a guy with connections. But no, in this, they are essentially like the D&D rogue, that is, a thief. Okay, I guess they needed one of those in the book, but couldn't they pick a better name?

The Faceman, surely they must be a con-artist. Well, sorta. They are part con-artist, but their main ability seems to be to disguise themselves. The Snoop, rather than being someone who literally spies on people, or an information gatherer, is actually more like a gadget guy.

The Pointman, at least in military terms, is the guy who takes point, that is, the lead, and watches out for enemy troops and ambushes and such. In this, the pointman is a jack of all trades, and leader of the team. He also helps the team do things better, apparently he has magical fingers, when he points at team members, they perform better. (At least, that's the only way I could reconcille the name with what they actually do, in game mechanic terms)

Only the Soldier and Wheelman seem to be what their class names imply. And even the Wheelman seems more geared towards fighting (almost as good as a soldier) than driving. They probably should have had less combat ability, and more mechanic ability (though maybe not, many drivers are not great mechanics).

So, I found the classes to be a bit confusing, and disappointing. And apparently from a different version of English than I speak. I also found them to be somewhat lacking when it comes to spy archetypes.

What would James Bond be? I guess just a wheelman/soldier, because he while he's very charming, he's definitely not a master of disguise, like the Faceman is.

Faceman from the A-Team also would run into that same trouble. He would probably just be a solider, because AFAIK, he never disguised himself. It was Hannibal who was into disguises.

B.A. Baracus could be represented by a Wheelman, except, he did all the work on his van himself. There doesn't seem to be a gearhead class, other than "Snoop". Okay, yes, the Wheelman class does get a bonus to mechanics skill checks, but I would expect more than that. In many ways, B.A. was MacGuyver before MacGuyver (and with better hair), being able to invent and make innovative and very destructive (but not lethal!) devices from random junk.

Murdoch, I think he actually disguised himself a lot. Though other than that he fits Wheelman pretty well.

The Saint (aka Simon Templar, famous from a decent TV show starring Roger Moore and a really lousy movie starring Val Kilmer) is a master of a disguise and a thief. So a Fixer/Faceman works mechanically, but in purely language terms, seems a bit off to me. He was a thief, not a fixer. Grrr. It's like calling a monkey a rabbit. Sure, they might taste alike, but they are quite different.

MacGuyver? Can't really do him at all. Closest would be the snoop, since they can jury rig stuff, but he was not into hacking/information gathering.

What about xXx, aka Xander Cage, aka Vin Diesel (I know, one name is sillier than the next), from the movie xXx? He was some sort of extreme athlete, pressed into the spy business by a Samuel Jackson who must have been desperate for money (I really thought he had standards). While the premise (and everything else) of that movie stunk, but it's a fairly common theme in spy movies - some civilian or non-spy gets caught up into things. Granted, I don't expect rules like an imaginary spy friend played by Dabney Coleman, but something representing more normal people, or even a non-specialist sort of agent (like say, Maxwell Smart or the guy from the Prisoner) would have been helpful.

Where are the femme fatales (like in the various James Bond movies, or Mata Hari), the sleuths (like Hercule Poirot, several of the novels with him were spy stories), the Assassins and Martial Artists (like from say, Black Mask or many Jackie Chan movies), where are the scientists, the Qs? (Q actually did go out in the field, especially in Octopussy, helping to assault the base at the end).

To a certain extent, some of these classes are found in other books (surprise surprise), but also are just plain missing, which makes me wonder what movies the designers were watching (apparently, just Mission Impossible 2. Ugh).

So basically, to sum up the classes, I think they are largely a mess, in both terminolgy, and trying to represent the genre. They needed a lot more classes and more apropriate names for the existing classes. Some could say a class system just doesn't work for modern games, but I think it can, but AEG just needed to make them a bit broader, and more cusomtizable. In D&D, most of the none magic using classes are customizable, like the Fighter or Rogue (or even the 3.5 Ranger) - that's a path AEG should have taken, I think.

In SG-1, I felt the classes were better (though I still had problems with the name of the "Pointman"). And there was the Explorer, sort of a general class, and the Scientist. I realize the genres are different, but as I pointed out, the spy genre is quite big and there are many roles missed by the 6 spycraft classes. Still, in either case, I think there needs to be more than 6 core classes. I would think 12-15, but at least 9. (Admittedly, I love core classes).

I actually could go on and on about the problems with the classes, but I think I've made my point (or convinced you I'm a crank, but either way, my job is done).

As mentioned, combat is somewhat different than normal d20/D&D. Simplified in some areas, more complicated in others, like replacing Hit Points with Wound Points and Vitality Points.

Hit points are possibly the easiest way to represent damage, but many people have problems with them, at least in systems like d20, where the hit points increase a lot from level to level. Many people also have problems conceptualizing what they represent, something not helped by console RPGs in which characters often do have 100s of hit points, and literally do get whacked by swords or other weapons.

But if you don't have inflating hit points, you run the risk of characters dying a lot. Unless you do silly things like letting people dodge bullets (like say, BRP) or not letting characters die in one hit, no matter how deadly a blow (like say, Shadowrun).

Wound Points and Vitality points pretty much solve these problems, I think. They split the hit point concept up into two. Wound points represent actual, physical damage. Vitality points are like the D&D hit points, they represent fatigue, luck, etc.

So it's basically, the best of both worlds. Characters can die in one blow, but only very very rarely. Enough so that they won't do stupid things, like jump off cliffs. But their main danger is the "ablative" effect, that is, they get slowly worn down, which I think is the best model for RPGs.

It's funny, when I first heard of this rule, I really really didn't like it. But since playing SG-1 (and now Spycraft), I've grown to really really like it. It's a shame they didn't use it in d20 Modern. Thankfully, now the rules are open content, having been released in Unearthed Arcana (AEG got permission to use them about 2 years earlier, something no other company could get, but now anyone can).

Gone are "Attacks of Opportunity", which is a great move. That's something that really only matters in melee combat, and if there is spellcasting (or something similar) that is devastating, and so deserves a chance to be disrupted by getting whacked in the head.

Also gone are "Full Attacks", in which high level characters could make multiple attacks per round (The whole, +15/+10/+5 thing). Instead, one attack takes a half-action. So a character can make two attacks per round if they want, or one attack and one other half action. (Somewhat similar to regular d20 in which you can attack once and move)

Armor is also handled somewhat different. Each class gets a "defense bonus" to armor class, based on level. But if they use armor, this bonus is forfeited. Armor instead provides damage reduction, and in some cases, a bonus to defense (but usually a small one).

For instance, the Kevlar Vest has a Damage Reduction of 4, but a Defensive Bonus of just +1. (Most armors don't have a defensive bonus to ac, and some heavier armors have negative ones).

Another interesting addition is "Action Dice". These are basically additional dice that the player (or gm) can use to improve any skill roll or combat roll. They are generally small dice (d4s), and most characters get 3 per session to spend (you can buy more using feats and such).

Besides helping improve rolls, action dice change combat dramatically, because they are integral into how critical hits are handled. While a critical "threat" works the same, critical hits happen only when a player uses an action die. This does add to the flavor of combat, but also adds more record keeping. The GM also gets action dice, to use against players whenever he wants, and also has to use it to score critical hits. I don't think I like that idea. It makes the GM too much of an adversary, and I also think it takes away some of the GMs power - I prefer to be more of a neutral party, but with the right to intervene either way if it suits the story best. Spycraft wants to take that way from the GM.

One thing missing from SG-1 is special abilities or effects for various guns. One of the neater things about SG-1 was that certain weapons would produce certain effects, for instance, large caliber handguns could knock someone down if they were hit. One of the major downsides of Spycraft, at least the corebook, is the guns and gun rules are almost non-existant, apparently having been put in the gun splatbook (Spycraft Modern Weapons Guide or something like that)

Spycraft gives me a feel of a tactical computer game when it comes to combat, which is generally a good thing. So I like this part a lot.

And the skills are pretty much straight d20, which I think is a good system, and the feats are all very solid, too. Lots of feat trees or chains (that is, feats that require another). They're also pretty solid.

What about the gear section? Well, there is a lot of gear. But unfortunately, unless you happen to be running the default game, where the PCs work for a nameless "Agency" and use their 'point' system, you're largely out of luck. There are prices for guns (sort of), armor, and some of the more mundane items, but the gadgets and gizmos don't have any prices on them. Even stuff that probably is available commerciallly.

"Guns. We need guns." But apparently spies don't, as there are none in this book, other than some very generic stats based on caliber. To not include any real life stats of guns is pretty pathetic - Call of Cthulhu d20, a game that doesn't involve guns much, has lots and lots of gun stats and well done descriptions, in about 10 pages or so, more than enough for most caes. This has barebones, vague descriptions, which are sometimes incorrect. For instance, a 7.62x51mm is not really an assault rifle, it fires a much more powerful bullet than true assault rifles, and thus is often used in different roles.

Clearly, they want to force you to buy their gun book. Not entice you, but force you, as the gun stats in this book are basically non-existant, 2-3 generic examples of bullet calliber for each type. I have never really seen a modern game do this before - not include any gun stats at all. Unbelievable. And IMHO, inexcusable, for a game in which gun combat is common. I can see them not being in a something like HippieQuest: The Search for Soap, or Carebears: The Snuggling, but in a game where the guy on a cover is a carrying a pistol?

I can excuse the lack of vehicles a bit more, but a few real world examples would have been nice. I'm an expert on old mustangs, but beyond that, most of my car knowledge comes from video games. I'm woefully ignorant on things like motorcyles, airplanes, and mopeds.

The chase system, while sound mechanically, doesn't make much sense in real life terms. This is shown by the example in the book itself - a car chasing a motorcyle. I've done enough street racing when I was younger to discover that a car, even a fast one, has absolutely no hope of chasing a motorcycle. They're just so much quicker in terms of acceleration and braking and much more maneuverable. Still, I guess if you want a system in which anyone can catch anything, this works.

Basically, it's a relative system. Person A is so many lengths ahead of B. Each chase turn, each can make a special maneuver, which can close or widen the gap, or hurt the other's car (like shoot at it).

The maneuvers are divided into "predator" and "prey" categories, which are the chaser and the chaseee. The manuevers seem to favor the chaser, in many cases, they can increase their speed by a lot, while the chasee can only increase their speed a little. Actually, most of these maneuvers ignore the sort of vehicle being driven, the increases are absolute, not based on what they drive.

The example is a bit confusing. It doesn't help that one guy is named "Skybreaker" and the other "Sideshock". Two weird names that start with an S. (The chase example is actually best an example of how not to write an example - even the author apparently confused the two names in the example.)

The section on GMing is different than what you normally find. It proposes a very adversarial and very rules driven way of GMing. Basically, instead of the GM being god or a storyteller, you play the villains exactly like PCs (more or less).

I really don't think RPGs should be competitive, especially not GM vs. the Players.

Still, I do really like the basic Spycraft rules, basically the normal d20 rules for skills and such, and the the way Spycraft handles combat. I just didn't realise how bad or incomplete the Spycraft main rulebook was - it's needed a rather large errata (a 5.1 megabyte PDF). An errata that I can't view, by the way, as it's only available as a PDF and Adobe Reader crashes my system. (Okay, I can view it using GhostGum, but that's slow as dirt). The class rules are much better in Stargate SG-1, and the gun rules are more complete (though ironically, I complained about the small number of guns in that book as well), so you might just want to get that instead, or wait 'til Spycraft 2.0, which will hopefully be closer to SG-1 and more complete.

Hopefully. But to me, as is, Spycraft seems designed only to let you play Spycraft, not emulate the genre, not even be a generic spy game. If you want to run an actual spy game or emulate a movie (except maybe the awful Mission Impossible movies), or god help you, real life spies, then you're only slightly better off than starting from scratch. Maybe if you own all the books, it's more useful, but as I don't, well, I can't take that into account. C-

I've heard rumors that AEG might be coming out with something similar to the d20 License for Spycraft, in that they will let people use the Spycraft logo to make associated products. Hopefully if true, this will let people/companies come up with more suitable classes and prices for equipment, which would truly make it a generic spy game (and perhaps more suitable for things like modern horror or blaxploitation or martial arts or all 3, like the movie, Romeo Must Die). Actually, since the VP/WP rules have been released as open content, companies could do this now, even without the logo. (And they should.)

Spycraft. The spy game apparently designed by people who have never seen a spy movie other than Mission Impossible 2, and think guns are icky.