Take my love/take my land/take me where I cannot stand….

January 19, 2011

 

In September 2002 Joss Whedon, of Buffy The Vampire Slayer and Angel fame brought us a new TV series best described as the wild west in space. Eleven out of order, frequently pre-empted episodes later it became the latest casualty to the engine of evil, fueled by the broken dreams of hopeful geeks that is the Fox network.

But all was not lost! Those eleven little stories spawned a worldwide phenomenon of fandom. Conventions, fandom organizations, fan fiction (including way too much slashfic for this writers taste.) a movie and, for the purposes of this article a very well done little RPG.

Now, before I go into the review I’m going to do one of my little disclaimers. I am a Browncoat. That is to say I am part of that subset of science fiction fandom that curses the Alliance and those bastards at Fox equally.  Remember when I said you’d see this material again? https://mechgogogames.wordpress.com/ .Wasn’t lying was I?  I know what “I’ll be in my bunk” is a euphemism for and firmly believe that all the best starship pilots wear Hawaiian shirts and play with little plastic dinosaurs. I am a nerd on the wind. Watch how I geek.

That being said, the Serenity Role Playing Game is not just for people who know who Vera is. If you like good science fiction, good game mechanics and some decent product support then you are someone for whom the game is intended. Of course, fans of the show and movie are going to get an extra kick out of it but that’s really no different than, say, a guy with Chewbacca’s autograph tattooed somewhere getting a little extra thrill out of a well made Star Wars RPG.

One thing. Don’t come to this game looking for encounters with alien life forms. About the closest you’re going to come is dealing with the Reavers. There are no aliens in the Firefly verse! Though some have argued that Serenity pilot extraordinaire Hoban Washburne is a giant Fraggle. Can’t really dispute that given the photographic evidence above.  But there’s no alien space babes looking to learn more about this strange custom called ‘kissing’ or bug-eyed monsters looking to slurp your brains out through your nostrils. Well, maybe Jayne on a hangover but…

The basic premise of the Firefly universe (henceforth refered to as the ‘verse) is that Earth was used up. Humanity took to the stars because our home could no longer support us. We found a solar system with dozens of planets and hundreds of moons, many of which were capable of sustaining life. The ones that weren’t, we terraformed.

Civilisation is broken down into three basic groups. The Core or Inner Planets, the Outer Planets and Reavers. Core worlds are highly civilized models of high technology. They have all the best toys and more rules than mushrooms after a hard rain. Think of them as Back East in old west terms.

The further out from the Core you get the more rough and tumble things become. Law is a mite more tenuous and technology is a good deal more catch-as-can. You’re more likely to see a horse than a hovercraft out in the fringe because a hovercraft needs fuel, tools, spare parts and a whole infrastructure. A horse needs a vet, some hay, a stall and, if you want to make more, at least one other horse.

Reavers are humans who, for whatever reason slipped a cog. Then ate it. Zoe puts it best in one episode. “If they take over the ship they will rape us to death, eat our flesh and sew our skins into their clothes. And if we are very, very lucky they will do it in that order.” Reavers are bad . Write that down.

The premise of the game is the same as the premise of the show. Get a ship. Get a crew. Find work. Keep flying. And yes, you can play as any or all of the cast of the original show and fly the good ship Serenity as she appeared on screen. Or you can build totally new characters, grab a different ship-including at least one armed variant of Firefly class freighter and have adventures that have nothing to do with the personalities or exploits of Mal, Zoe and the rest.

The mechanics of the game are, as I said, simple and easy to grasp. Character creation is point-based which I tend to prefer over random rolls. It lets you create a more personalized character and puts the emphasis, I think, on building a three-dimensional alter ego rather than just a random collection of stats. Your starting point pool is determined by the Heroic Level of the campaign, set by the GM. In other words, how experienced are your crew when they start out?

Greenhorns are the least experienced. As babes in a basket as the good captain would say. They start out with 42 attribute points. This means that if you’re smart you’re going to want to start out taking lower risk missions but will have plenty of room to grow.

Veterans have been around the block a few times. You’ve been on some runs, gotten into and out of a scrap or two. You start out with 48 attribute points as a Veteran. This gives you the means to take on jobs that are more interesting than others. Of course following the example of this dashing fellow might not be the best idea if brains were intending to be one of your stronger suits .

Big Damn Hero. So let me get this straight. You five all mean to kill me. Tell ya what ; just to be sportin’ I’ll keep my eyes closed until the first three are down. Big Damn Heroes are cinematic characters who take on the big jobs and are known far and wide for their exploits. They start with 54 attribute points.

So what do you do with your attribute points? You buy Attributes! The core Attributes in the Serenity RPG are Agility, Strength, Alertness, Vitality, Intelligence and Willpower. The number of points you spend determines what sided die you get to use for that Attribute. Four points buys you 1D4, six points buys you  1D6 and so on up to D12.

From there it’s a matter of determining your secondary abilities which are generally a function of your Attributes. Your starting hit points get their basis come from the max total of your Vitality and Willpower dice for instance. Get yourself some skills using your 20 skill points that you spend much as you did your attribute points. Then go out and see what the ‘verse has to offer.

Once you’re out in the black you’re going to find yourself Doing Stuff. All kinds of stuff. Some of it might even be legal! And how do you Do Stuff? Sometimes you just do it. Other times you figure out which Attribute makes the most sense in combination with what Skill to accomplish your task under the circumstances and roll the dice.

The difficulty of the task determines the number you have to equal or exceed in order to do what you’re trying to do. An Easy task is going to need a three or better while an Impossible one will require a roll of thirty-one or more. Good luck with that. You’re gonna need it.

The last mechanic

(sorry but I have a firm rule of never passing up the chance to look at pictures of Jewel Staite, however thin the excuse)  of the game is Plot Points. Everybody gets six to start. Additional ones get rewarded at the GM’s discretion for doing something cool, helping to achieve a goal the entire crew has and other reasons.

You use these to improve your dice roll one of two ways. You can either use them to buy an additional die to roll before you roll or you can use them after the fact to get a plus on your end result. Catch is you have to decide before you roll. You can only have a max of six Plot Points saved between game sessions and can use the rest-or more if you like  -to improve your character . Never a bad thing in a game where dying is easy and stupidity or bad luck tend to the fatal side of things.

Fair warning; combat in Serenity can get you back in character generation mode quick. Guns can kill with a single successful hit. Everybody is packing outside the Core and there are no magical medical devices that heal a sucking chest wound in a few seconds. So trigger-happy players take note; think before you shoot unless you’re in a tearing hurry for your former character’s identical cousin to show up asking the Captain if he’s hiring.

All in all this is a solid system. Not surprising with industry icon Maragaret Weis  putting her stamp on it. Yes, that Maragret Weis. In addition to the main book there are several supplements, ranging from a Big Damn Heroes Handbook,

to a book of pre-generated adventures to a whole campaign supplement that takes you can play through from beginning to end. The main book also has several adventure seeds you can use. Or, if you like, just lift the plot of any western film or novel from the last hundred years and use that. Heck, True Grit has been redone starring Jeff Bridges and Matt Damon. Slap down your ten bucks, take some notes and put the whole thing in outer space.

The downside of the game is that there isn’t as extensive an online support system for it as I’d like. Fireflyrpg.com is sparse at best and several others no longer exist. About the best one I saw in my research was browncoats.com to be found here http://www.browncoats.com/index.php?ContentID=42ea90c7f2629 . A quick google using the keywords “Serenity RPG Scenarios” will get you to a few interesting places as well.

The index of the main book can be a bit tricky to navigate. I found it a mite counterintuitive in places and there isn’t a definitive list of tables to be found anywhere. Page 31 will give you what you need for how to build a character and 141 will tell you how to Do Stuff.

All in all though this is a solid game. The benefits, to my mind, more than outweigh the relatively few flaws. The simple fact I was willing to shell out $40 US each for the main book and Big Damn Heroes in today’s economy should say plenty about the quality of the product. I ran it at CONvergence 2010 with a group of people who had mostly never seen the show and who had never, to a person, played the RPG. Everyone had a great time and felt like they’d made a contribution to the adventure.So find a coat, (brown is a damn fine color and you can find them on sale 😉 ) strap on your hogleg and head out into the black. Keep your boat in the air and no power in the verse can stop you!

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