I looked through the games on my shelf, and thought about the games that had appealed past and present, and I think I have to go with Margaret Weis Productions. Despite my lack of enthusiasm for most of the Cortex Plus lines, I’ve been using Cortex classic since Serenity came out, then locked in on the Battlestar Galactica/Supernatural/Cortex Core version once it was released. It’s easily my favorite set of mechanics. Funnily, even though I don’t particularly like most versions of Cortex Plus — from the odious Smallville to the meh Leverage, I am somewhat fond of Firefly and think it would handle both Star Wars and Star Trek better than it does the ‘Verse.

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I always found the Reavers of the Firefly universe intriguing until the movie ruined it. Oh, look, space zombies… Or maybe “space Crazies” would be more appropriate. I understand the movie was an attempt to wrap as many plotlines from the far-too-early-axed television series, but making the Reavers simple a science experiment gone bad was…lazy.

Worse, it too away the agency of a group that had been built up to be a terrifying, almost existential, terror for space travelers in the ‘Verse, the equivalent of trolls under the bridge.

One of the things that made them so interesting was shown in the episode Bushwhacked. Here, the reavers had killed the crew of a transport, yet left one of the crew alive…why? The man is suffering from traumatic bonding, and starts to see himself as one of those that had tortured and killed his crew. But what if it were more than that..? What if, periodically, they leave people alive to see if they will come find them? What if they recruit..?

What if this was a culture, instead of simply space zombies?

These are people who can pilot ships, navigate, operate tactically, who lay traps…not the behavior of animalistic nutballs. Instead of drug-addled space crazies, what if you have a culture of people that have taken body modification, anarchic tendencies, and counterculture ghettoization to a point where they simple don’t quite fit as “human” anymore? We are talking about a period, post war, where there would be a lot of disaffected and damaged folks looking for…something. What about those kids that want to rebel, or are damaged from their childhood — the sort that fled to the likes of Charles Manson and every other low-rent messiah? They don’t just torture their victims; they do it to themselves! They recruit from their victims, like the character in Bushwhacked, but they also have people out there collecting the vulnerable, the young and stupid, the disaffected war veterans, or the power-mad that cannot succeed in the political systems in place.

They prey on ships, but where do they get that flight data to intercept? Space is big; you’d miss your prey without intelligence. What if some of these folks look and act “normal” (’til they ask you, Hannibal Lector-like, to dinner) and work jobs that allow them to find prey or to recruit. you could be friends with one and never know that the erudite fellow you have drinks with after work would torture, rape, and eat you, were you on a spaceship in the black.

Maybe, like other subcultures, it is fragmented and tribal — they fight each other, as much as “the man.” What if you got that one charismatic leader that pulled the disparate crews together?

This version of the reavers could be more than a campfire ghost story, but a much more dangerous and driven group that doesn’t just seek to terrorize for terror’s sake, but might look to eat its prey — in this case civilization — from the inside, as well as out.

 

One of the bits I particularly liked about Mindjammer, the RPG, as well as Atomic Robo was the way they built organizations up (factions in the latter.) As Firefly is a Cortexified version of Fate, or a Fatified version of Cortex — take your pick — I thought it might be fun to introduce this in the Big Damn Game.

Pretty much any kind of organization can be represented — from an army unit to a military organization, from the local PTA to a company to a government. Like characters, they have the three attributes, but these have slightly different connotations:

PHYSCIAL: This is the extent of the manpower,  physical holdings, or presence of a company. An organization with a local/less than planetary presence is a d4, a planetary presence is d6, presence in one of the star systems of the ‘Verse d8, multiple systems d10, and ‘Verse-wide d12. Blue Sun, for instance, has a Verse-wide reach for its products, but does not appear to be present on every world and moon of the ‘Verse, so it would be a d10 (or a d8, if the GM decides that the company has offices and factories only in a select few worlds of each sun.) The Alliance is just about everywhere in the Black, so it runs a d12.

MENTAL: This represents the brainpower of the organization, and  is the ability to gather economic (or other) data, utilize that for its advantage, to create new product or do other forms of research. The average government of a moon is lucky if it can muster a d6, but the Alliance has a d10 and is striving for d12.

SOCIAL: This is the public relations wing, the reputation of the organization and represents the extent of its reach in society. While Blue Sun might barely make a d10 for their physical locations and manpower, they are a definite d12 Social for their near ubiquitous impact on product and culture, from food to entertainment, to medicine. Likewise, the Alliance is very powerful, but the impact of the War has not yet been overcome and many worlds still look to avoid dealing with the Alliance or actively oppose their operations. That puts them at a d10.

A character working with these groups could, for a plot point, exchange their attribute for the attribute of the organization when dealing with a situation, or to create an appropriate asset. Near some men to help you open that Kuzko Shop-Mart on Regina? A plot point and you’ve got yourself a posse of SHOPHANDS d6 ready to help you establish franchises all over that backwater dirtball! You’ll be home on Ariel in just a few weeks, at this rate! Need a bunch of men with guns to catch those fugitives you’ve been hunting? Good thing you’re working for Maximum Impact Security Services — MISS has offices all over this system and a quick call on the Cortex got you HIRED GUNS d6. Yahoo.

Problem is, if you’re working for these groups, they expect results will be shiny. Screw it up, and your use of their assets can cause a Complication for the company — that Kuzko setup went swimmingly and now you have a presence in the few towns worth a squint…and possibly just raised Kuzko’s footprint in the Border worlds, raising them from a d6 to d8 Physical. Sounds like someone’s getting a promotion!

Shame that hunt for those fugitives went pear-shaped. Might not have been so bad, save for the very public use of MISS mercs in town. Did you really have to take down a schoolhouse? MISS is bracing for the WHERE’S THE OVERSIGHT? d6 complication you got slapped on them. Great work, greenhorn; we wish you luck in your future endeavors…’course, we’ve also slagged your name from here to Blue Sun, so good luck finding legitimate gunwork.

If an organization is hit for more than a d12 complication, it’s “taken out” — if this was a physical operation, like a military operation, this means the unit is either destroyed, or routed and no longer a threat. If a mental one, the research might have wound up a dead end, or bad management led to a hemorrhage of talent. A social event that took out a company so badly damages their credibility as to impair their operations. The organization steps that die down. If they go under d4, the organization is destroyed.

Organizations also have skills — the GM should decide with are appropriate for the organization. They should also have some kind of MISSION STATEMENT distinction (Kuzko’s “Best prices on the border”, for instance…) and two others that are appropriate like Blue Sun’s “Biggest Corporation in the Verse” or the Alliance’s “We’re from the government….” they can use.

An example of an organization might be Kuzko Shop-Mart…

Kuzko Shop-Mart

Mission Statement: Best Prices on the Border d8

Distinctions: Terrible but Cheap Labor Practices d8, Largest Logistics Network in the ‘Verse d8

Attributes — Physical d8, Mental d8, Social d8

Sills: Influence d8, Labor d6, Survive d6

Kuzko started as a purveyor to the Independent movement, but toward the end of the conflict quickly shifted to a commercial focus to avoid any repercussions from the War. Their large Border network of suppliers and buyers allowed them to swiftly gain a foothold in several major markets, and the perception of their having been Independent allowed them to build a loyal customer base. The company is know for having the best prices, for always hiring, and for being a royal pain to work for, with lackluster pay and an aggressive cost containment strategy.

So there’s a quick hash-up of rules for organizations in Firefly. Feel free to comment or make suggestions for how to make them better.

One of the few complaints that we had when we tested Firefly against Serenity was the monolithic quality of the attributes — Physical, Mental, and Social. We felt that this didn’t allow the characters to be unique enough in some ways. So here’s my “fix” for the attributes in Firefly…use the attributes from Serenity.

When making a character, use Agility, Strength, Vitality, Alertness, Intelligence, and Willpower, and build the character for 48 points — that gives you the same d6, d8, and d10 (x2) dispersion of Firefly. You can use these more varied attributes to customize your characters even more. Some maybe your character is very strong, but can’t walk through an empty room without tripping. In Firefly, you might have chosen a d8 to balance these traits, or gone with d10 to model the big bruiser you wanted to build. With this you can give the character a d6 Agility and d10 strength.

What about Social? Here the old attribute would be Willpower.

Otherwise, you roll the same way as you do with unadulterated Firefly.

The latest supplement for the Firefly RP dropped this morning as a PDF; the print book is a few weeks away (my guess.) I had a chance to skim the book well enough to do a quick review of the product. Smuggler’s Guide to the Rim is primarily a GM resource and pre-generated adventure supplement. At 291 pages, almost half of it is a pair of adventure campaigns, maps, appendices with Chinese comments for players to throw off for verisimilitude. The rest of the book is primarily a new reputation mechanic, new templates using these rules for character and spacecraft creation, and the “Good Shepherd Run” — a cargo/passenger run that provides locations, GMCs (GameMaster Characters), and ships for your campaign.

Style: 4 out of 5 — it’s the usual high quality MWP has had since the Cortex Plus lines started rolling out. It’s well written and edited, the art is mostly screencaps from the show, photos of characters in appropriate dress, and some good quality “game art.” The whole thing is nicely hypertext linked so you can bounce around the book as you need. The print version, I suspect, will be softcover and should be a nicely done as the Things Don’t Go Smooth supplement.

Substance: 3 out of 5 — For me, this wasn’t the best supplement I’ve bought, but it wasn’t the worst. If you like to run pre-generated campaigns, bump the Substance up to 4 out of 5. The reputation mechanic is nicely done, the templates for character creation is very useful, and the settings of the Good Shepherd Run is good material to use in a pinch.

Is it worth it? The PDFs on Drive Thru are usually marked down to $17ish bucks. For that, yes, it’s worth it; the print book/pdf combo was $30 for me. Is it worth it? If you use the adventure material, it’s a definite buy; if you don’t….meh….

However, the Firefly line is definitely a labor of love for the people at MWP, and it shows. I haven’t done more than run a few adventures, but I haven’t felt bad supporting the line, thus far. Since it’s pretty easy to tweak the material for the original Cortex rules, if you prefer, I’d say buy it.

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.

Here’s a website with a nice set of utilities for the Firefly RPG. There’s a probability generator for the dice pools, starship complications charts, travel time calculator, an interactive map that’s a bit twitchy, and a name generator.

Have at!