Somehow, I’d missed that Margaret Weis Productions were kicking out Firefly supplements at an amazing rate this year. I picked up the corebook about a year ago, and our gaming group did an A/B tet between Firefly and the older Cortex Serenity game to see how they compared. Later, I played in a pickup game with one of the designers of the game, just to see how it ran with someone who really knew the system. Follow the links to see the original review of the game and other observations.
Knowing there was an opportunity to spend money I didn’t have to, I ordered up Things Don’t Go Smooth and Smugglers’ Guide to the Rim for the game. I should be receiving hardcopies soon, but USPS is apparently in full-blown FUBAR mode this holiday season, so they got bounced back. However, MWP provides buyers of the book with a free .pdf of the game, and while the Smugglers’ Guide is not out, TDGS was. This review is going to concern itself with the e-book version of the supplement.
First off, the book is essentially a sourcebook for GMs — the first three chapters are a catalogue of new bad guy NPCs and their organizations, henchmen, and hideouts or ships. There’s a chapter on new ships and distinctions for the same, and a chapter specifically on running the game, and fleshing out towns and cities. There are two adventures that I haven’t read through (I don’t tend to run canned adventures), and an appendix of the new rules and distinctions. The book weighs in at 238 pages, and two pages of character/ship sheets.
The writing is solid, and the editing — which used to be a weak spot in early MWP productions — has caught most, if not all, errors. The art design and layout is similar to that of the corebook: it’s full-color, pretty, and uses almost no “game art” — that middling quality stuff gamers expect — in favor of screen caps from the show, CGI art, and photos of characters in setting-appropriate garb. The pdf is well-designed, with heavy linking from the table of contents, and hyperlinks on key terms throughout the book. This is one of the big strengths of MWP e-books; they are excellent for use on a tablet or laptop, if that’s how you access your books in play.
The collection of NPCs are good. They are well-designed and fleshed out, as are their support networks. There’s a nice choice, from corporate spies, to crime bosses, to privateers and pirates. There’s a section on using Reavers effectively. The new ships are good, but the artwork does not alway match the description of the vessel — if you’re going to do ship art, make it match the vessel on the page.
The Scheming and Narrating chapter is particularly good for helping new and inexperienced GMs, especially in dealing with the use of assets or complications. In play, one of the issues I’ve seen with Firefly is that the complications can become a bit overwhelming for newcomers. You are encouraged to make them…a lot of them, and tracking and using them was one of the consistent complaints I saw in various play sessions. Unlike Fate, where you often have to spend a Fate Point (plot points in Cortex and Cortex +), Firefly lets you use any one that makes sense in play. This can give you Shadowrun-esque dice pools, but more to the point often “systematizes” elements of play that might be better handled in narration.
Case in point: There’s some great stuff on using the setting to create appropriate complications — like “The Building is on Fire d6” which could definitely be used to help or hurt you, or “Dark and Spooky d6”, which could be used to help a stealth roll or create mental stress from fear or unease. But there was an example that immediately highlighted the issue with just making complications or assets for everything — “Calling for Help d8”. The characters a trapped and calling for help…wouldn’t this be assumed to be the case? Do you need to systematize “Walking in a Straight Line d6”? Without having to use plot points to invoke these complications, as you might in Fate, requires the GM to really sit on the players when they get out of hand. However, that is against the stated goal of Fate like systems, which seek to have the players have more narrative control.
For all these observations, Things Don’t Go Smooth is an excellent, and well-made sourcebook to help GMs bootstrap their campaigns, or fill them out without having to do all the heavy lifting. I suspect, if I run a campaign, i will be using several of the bad guys and their organizations. The GM guidance is good for those who aren’t accustomed to running a game, but will be mostly weak tea for the experienced one. The adventures looked lie they would be good for pickup or convention games, and probably could be mined for material for a self-created campaign.
The physical book is a softcover, but judging from the pdf will be a handsome thing. It’s retailing for $35 (with free pdf download if you buy on the MWP site or from a “preferred retailer.”), and Drive Thru has the ebook for $13. So is it worth it? If you are playing the game, absolutely to either format. If you’re playing occasionally or just need to snag a few things from the book, electronic version might be better
Style: 5 out of 5 — it’s a gorgeous sourcebook, much better production values than necessary for a splatbook. Substance: 5 out of 5 — I was surprised I gave it this, but there’s a whole acre of bad guys and groups to choose from, new distinctions for players and ships, and some good GM advice. It’s a buy.