Recent Playtests: SV and CN

I’ve been trying out two new (for me) games lately: Scum and Villainy, and Champions Now. How’s that been working out?

Scum and Villainy

This is a hack of Blades in the Dark, so much of what is said here probably applies to Blades. This game caters to the Solo-Firefly-Cowboy Bebop style of space rogues. You pick one of three ship types, indicating the sort of campaign you want to play (smuggling and thieving; bounty hunting; rebels against the empire), and build a crew of rogues and ne’er-do-wells who’ll fly it.

This game has a lot of moving pieces. There’s multiple injury systems (Stress, Harm, Trauma, Resistance rolls), multiple competence metrics (player vs. ship ability scores, playbook special abilities plus a per-job choice of load), multiple ways to boost your die rolls (special moves, taking Stress, Devil’s Bargains, assistance, group actions), multiple everything. The character sheets on Roll20 are some of the most complex I’ve ever seen.

As a result, the game is starting out slowly. The group made maybe four distinct ‘moves’ in the first session (reach the contact in the bar; notice he’s dead and try to learn something about the corpse; have a confrontation with an NPC; escape the cops), and the second and third sessions have been going about as fast. I think part of that is the people involved, but there’s also a lot of decision-making around individual rolls, followed by a fair amount of interpretation of results.

Evil Hat’s Fate line is often seen as “rules light”, but all the stuff they’ve put out - notably Venture City Stories for superheroes - just has a ton of crunch, and drills down into detail after detail of how a thing works. S&V feels like that tendency to add crunch to a pass-fail-complicate rubric has gone wild.

I think there are things to like. The concept of “load” is neat - it feels like it satisfies GMs who don’t want to track a lot of encumbrance and don’t mind players coming up with equipment on the spot, but at the same time imposes some choices and sacrifices. The game has not one but two ways to express action difficulty, with some room for players to escalate if they need a better outcome, and that’s a welcome change from the relentless sameness of PBTA game difficulties. I just wish they didn’t have to surround it with so much complexity.

Verdict: this feels like a good game to play if you want this one particular thing (rogues IN SPACE doing JOBS where things always go to SHIT) and have an experienced facilitator, but as a game for a bunch of newbies to pick up, it’s rough.

Champions Now

This is a resurrection of the Champions/Hero System game rules, the first major point-buy system and a cousin to GURPS. Champions is notorious with older gamers for being a math-intensive dice-fest, but it’s also a system that lets you drill into a ton of detail about how your characters work and what they can do.

Champions Now was Kickstarted by Ron Edwards and others, promising “to show you why the original Champions […] was actually just that good”. I got into Hero System at 4th edition, when Steve Long rolled in and did a bunch of work on the system. And having played a bit, I’m going to say I prefer later Hero System to this.

Mechanically, it’s not a complete mess, but there’s a lot of randomness. Some of this is inherited from Champions (which was complicated and idiosyncratic). Some of the systems (like Knockback) haven’t been reworked yet, and the text acknowledges this. The new work that’s been done, however, seems intent on messing with existing (and playtested) systems in novel ways, not unifying and clarifying the weaknesses of classic Champions. It’s a '73 Toyota beater car whose owner is proud of the new stereo system.

It’s not all bad. There are some very welcome changes from traditional Hero, such as the unification of Defense scores, some specific power mechanics (e.g. Power Defense), and more. If there’s interest, I can analyze these as they compare to later Hero System editions. Some of the changes don’t seem to have any good justification, beyond “I prefer it this way” or “I think PCs have it too easy” (in a recent video post, Ron literally says he wants PCs “in the dirt” more often).

What I get from reading Champions Now is that it’s Ron Edwards’ house rules, not a true overhaul of an old system, and so it feels like the problems described above aren’t likely to be addressed, because they are considered features, not bugs. The closest comparison I can make is to Rifts. Kevin Siembieda is reputedly a great GM, but he’s not a great game creator or publisher. The Rifts books are shot through with opinions, “don’t have fun this way” rules, and more. Similarly, the Champions Now playtest document I have (version 0.5 as of this post) includes comments like this:

  • “I don’t want your opinions” (although he qualifies this by saying that after he hears what we came up with, he’s willing to … debate?)
  • “it’s best not to discuss or negotiate the statements” (in context, this is about the GM establishing two statements about what the game is about)
  • “Originality is over-rated” (in context, talking about character creation, and in the same section he tells us what character types not to allow)

Ron’s welcome to his opinions, and many players may agree with them, but my feeling is that this “my way or the highway” style of game design is antithetical to what really made Champions brilliant: how much of a toolkit and a sandbox it really was for imaginative players.

Verdict: an opinionated overhaul of traditional Champions, with more restrictions on chargen and play style than recent Hero System editions. Champs was never a newbie-friendly game, but how much nostalgia you have for a certain style of gameplay will determine whether a veteran player enjoys it or not. I’m very unlikely to want to play again.