I’ve been toying with an idea for a late ’40s/early ’50s spy game of late, and have been trying to decide if i want to do the heavy lifting to write up cars, etc. for the James Bond: 007 RPG, or try something with a different flavor, like Ubiquity (Hollow Earth Expedition). I opened up the Leverage RPG — Cortex Plus — and had a shufty around the rules.

At their heart, con/thief settings are very comparable to the espionage genre. There are certain archetypes that are used that cross the two genres — the thief, the “face” or grifter, the assassin or thug. The hacker is present in the new spy-fi, but prior to the 1980s, it’s more likely they would be some sort of tech.

The main thing to do to turn Leverage into a spy-fi game is sort the “roles.” In the game, these are Grifter, Hacker, Hitter, Mastermind, and Thief. But these don’t quite match a classical espionage setting, so here are the ones I propose:

ANALYST: This is sort of the hacker of the pre-computer age. They know how to look up and find information, analyze it, and aid the team with the information.

HITTER: Pretty much the same as Leverage, this is the two-fisted man of action or the cold shooter.

RECRUITER: This is the “face” — part grifter, part diplomat, part “mastermind” from the game. They known how to manage assets, bureaucracies, and how to get people to do what they want.

TECH: This is the gadgeteer or the “McGuiver” trope — the guy that knows how to build/destroy things with Science!

THIEF: the classic second-story man (or woman).

WHEELMAN: This is another classic trope from spy-fi — the guy that can drive like the devil (The Transporter), the race car driver turned operative, the “guy who can drive/fly anything.”

To reflect the wider skill set usually given superspies in this genre, you might want to account for the extra role by having characters take the usual primary role at a d10, secondary at d8, but increase the tertiary from one to two d6s, with the rest being d4. A more realistic campaign might stick to the d10/d8/d6’everything else d4 of Leverage. 

One of the reasons I’ve been considering Leverage is to increase the speed of play — combat is resolved like any other action, instead of a series of action rounds. The other is laziness — I can run a game in the system without having to stat out the Ferarri barchetta the character happens across, or figure out the specs on a particular airplane. The issue I could see is you lose that “brand name” quality that the Bond movies brought with them and James Bond: 007 captured so well — the specific gin, the Aston Martin, the Walther, the Beechcraft airplane, the Brioni suits and Omega watches, etc.

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Margaret Weis Productions is moving quick to make themselves a major publisher of licensed role playing material — from Battlestar GalacticaSerenity, and Supernatural (all using the original Cortex game engine) to Smallville, which uses a sharply different version of the Cortex system.  Now comes the latest game line, based on the TV show Leverage — about a team of grifters, hackers, and thieves who work together to get their clients revenge from the sorts of crooks that can’t easily be brought down.

The look of the book is spectacular — I bought the .pdf version, but it’s obvious how nice this product is going to look.  The graphic design on it is visually heavy — and the pages loaded slow on my iPad, which is unusual, and was even juping in preview on my laptop.  The introduction by the show creator is nicely done and sets the tone for the book well, and the whole book is well written and surprisingly well edited for a MWP publication.  I found no egregious typos or typeset errors — something that didn’t happen with the first couple of core rules sets.

The rules differences are striking:  you still have the traditional six attributes of the Cortex system, but instead of skills, you have a role — grifter, hacker, mastermind, thief, hitter…  These roles dictate what you do and how well.  Want to hit someone?  that’s probably Strength+Hitter.  What to insinuate yourself with a mark?  Intelligence, or maybe Alertness+Grifter.  Roll the dice, the system uses a scale of d4 (low skill or ability) through d12 (world class.)  There’s also the addition of distinctions — what old school Cortex fans would call traits or complications.  these come into play — sometimes as benefits, sometimes as penalties.  There’s talents — specific things you do well.  There’s assets, but here this could mean anything from Fast Motorcycle d8 to Lockpick Set d4, or what have you.  these are things you buy with your plot points to use during a con.  Complications run the same way — they are temporary (say, Beat to Snot d6, from being in a fight.)

As with Smallville, I think Leverage does a good job of trying to provide a stripped down, fast role playing experience…but it also can come across as overly complex to new players.  For the GM, the use of traits is nicely streamlined, and might be work incorporating into the older Cortex systems.  Here a villain might have the traits Lazy d4 Security Guard d6.  The characters could choose to use the Lazy trait (for a plot point) to benefit them, adding it to their rolls when encountering them; otherwise, the GM (called a Fixer in this game) would roll d4+d6 vs. the players when appropriate.  It’s a good fast cheat for most opposition for the players.

Traits (like the motorcycle above) get rolled when useful.  You’re in a chase sequence with Mooks d6 Who Can Drive d6 in a Late Model Sedan d4 vs. your player’s Agility d8+Hitter d6 on a Fast Motorcycle d8.  The mooks roll 3, 4, and 2 and take the two best rolls — a 7.  Your character decided to raise the stakes by not giving up.  He rolls 4, 3, and 2 — a 7…he’s not getting away.  Spending a plot point, he adds the motorcycle die taking it to a 9.  He’s pulling away!

The new creative team of Cam Banks and Rob Donoghue are trying hard to shift the Cortex property from a more traditional RPG system with attributes and skills and hit points toward a storytelling device where the player collaborate.  It’s a great idea, and some of it works quite well…some of it I suspect does not, but until I run a game using this rules set, I’ll hold fire.  One of their big themes in Leverage and Smallville is pushing the players and GM to work collaboratively to create characters and teams.  It’s a good idea, and one I use when I can, but it feels a bit forced in the writing.  (And don’t get me started on what a cluster f#$k it is in Smallville!)

I’ve been a Cortex fan from the jump, and thought it was particularly good at pushing role playing over roll playing.  Elements of the new Cortex, which is pushing to be more free-form and rule lite, should work well even bolted onto older Cortex versions, but for those that like a bit more structure and crunch, Leverage will probably feel off.

For me, the best bits were on how to build a mission for Leverage, explaining the three act (or more appropriately, the 5 act) structure of the show, how to create marks, reasons to go after them, how to take them down, etc.

Style: 5 out of 5 (it’s beautiful and very well written), Substance 5 out of 5

For $20 for the .pdf, I was not disappointed.  i might even take a crack at testing the rules, but I’ll admit, I’m not particularly big on the new Cortex system.  I like my rules lighter than some, but I’m not much on minimalist rules sets, and it feels like that’s where MWP is headed.