January 13th, 2014


Review: Spycraft 2nd ed

Spycraft roleplaying game: version 2.0 (AEG, MGP 6100)


Spycraft is any over-the top spy game you can imagine. Mostly you will think James Bond, but also The Ipcress File, The Man from UNCLE and Enemy of the State.


Spycraft is the game which made people sit up and say D20 (aka D&D v3) can be adapted to a non-fantasy game. So you have the same six stats, you have classes, skills and feats. You also have Hit Points, except it's called Vitality (the effort need to avoid damage) as well as wounds. They did at least make Vitality more balanced and less explosive. The skills pretty much cover everything you expect, with some having narrow focuses.

Added to this mix, they add Action Dice as beenies, and a comprehensive chapter on gear and how you acquire it.

The heroes

Freelance spies. Or you work for an agency. Spycraft 2.0 is written without any real background. Which is fair really, it doesn't need it.

The villains

The main conceit of the book is that villains are larger than life, which is why the James Bond reference is so prominent (especially the Roger Moore and Pierce Brosnan eras). Nobody will be surprised to find a lair within a volcano with an obvious, easy to activate self-destruct mechanism.

The look

What art in the book is reminiscent of the better mainstream comics - clear line art with textured colour. Stereotypes are present but mixed and non-sexual (there isn't a 'sexy spy' class or stereotype).

The good

The authors really, really thought about this. If feels like it there are a lot of options all of which are viable and all of which are in-genre. If you like the number-crunching side of roleplaying and the genre suits you, this game will suit you.

It also has some very good advice for running games within the genre. It's a small section but helps a lot.

The bad

I don't feel there is anything intrinsically bad here. I think if I was 13 again I could happily absorb this book and spend hours poring over different options.

The ugly

My major beef is personal: this is far too complicated. There are tables upon tables upon tables. There are 12 basic classes and a similar number of expert classes. There are so many skills you don't know how to pick them (partly, I'll confess, because there are very few truly niche skills which you can ignore, like in D&D). The feats.... so many feats. Worse for me is that you have to pick Talents and Specialities at the beginning, sort of like nature and demeanor from White Wolf books except that they come with substantial rules effects. Then there are the Action Dice: STs have 12 ways to use them, and then the way the players can use them on top. So about 20 ways.

Looking back, D&D is just as guilty of this (hello spell tables). I just don't like it any more. My mind would explode.

It does inspire me to play in the genre, but I would like to adapt it to the Houses of the Blooded system. Not least because I love the idea of the players using Cunning and Learning to define the plot for me. Probably much better than anything I would come up with. And because I think Style points work much better than the distracting Action Dice.

Execution - 6
Ideas - 9

Brief roleplaying reviews

Some books I've read and don't want to review properly. Because they're not worth it.

Transylvania By Night (White Wolf, WW2808, 1997)
Jerusalem By Night (White Wolf, WW2821, 1999)

Two different Dark Ages setting books for Vampire written by different authors and different developers yet they get the same review.

The Good: There is nothing intrinsically wrong with either of these books. They give you a balanced overall picture of the setting, paint some atmosphere on top and there are some reasonable plot ideas. The cover art, especially the Brom cover on the first of the pair, is gorgeous.

The Bad: Half the book is taken up by the vampires already in the city. In some ways, that's part of the drawback of the old WoD, there are so many clans and they all need to be represented. So the first problem is that where Europe by Night, and indeed Iberia by Night, had so much space for the rich setting it is far too cramped here. There's barely room for anything but the barest facts. TbN gives each country/principality a couple of pages at most, which is hardly enough to describe a city. JbN's best section is the history of Jerusalem, but has only the most mechanical space for the present day.

The other problem with this is that all the vampires are self-referential. It's great to set up rivalries but, for such large write-ups (almost as much space per vampire as there is for Poland), there are comparatively few plot seeds or spaces for PCs. They could have accomplished much more with a relationship map and a series of sample antagonists like those found in nWoD's Night Horror's series. They could have done something similar with locations. This would have given them a chance to do more with the younger (or lower generation) vampires.

TbN Execution/Ideas: 7
JbN Execution/Ideas: 5

@ctiv8 (Postmortem Studios (James Desborough), 2005)

This is basically Anonymous: the roleplaying game. While it shows great foresight, I think real life has trumped it. The mechanics are fine but don't really rate a review. If you want to run a game along these lines and want inspiration for the practical structure of the organisation, it's a reasonable resource - but not really necessary.

Curse the Darkness (Play Attention Games, Inc, 2012)

I got into this on Kickstarter because I am a fan of Matt McFarland's White Wolf work.

The Good: the setting is really unique. Somebody/thing had stepped in to play god. If you do anything he doesn't like, you will (probably) be dragged into the darkness. The old structures have all collapsed, most people have died and the survivors are trying to get by, somehow.

The Bad: For some reason, Curse the Darkness just didn't resonate with me. It's a game about telling stories, but there doesn't seem to be much time to grow the stories. Character death is so sudden. I will admit that part of my dislike is the system: it seems remarkably random and lethal; and I suppose I ought to try it in practice before I criticise it too much. It's just I've read Fiasco and that just seemed right.

The Ugly: curiously, I think the system would be good for Cthulhu. The types of challenges fit it perfectly, and the ease of elimination would be good for the horror aspect. It would certainly make a different sort of Cthulhu game!

Execution: 6
Ideas: 5

Active Exploits (Politically Incorrect Games, 2004)

This is a diceless roleplaying game but, for me, if I'm going to play diceless it needs to be simple. This really isn't. By the end I was scratching my head quite a lot.

Hackmaster (Hackmaster Basic, Kenzer and Company, 2012)

This is billed as a more balanced D&D. Maybe, but it soon appeared significantly more complicated. Considering it uses the basic D20 engine, I didn't get anything new from this.

Clockwork and Cthulhu (Cubicle 7, 2012)

The good: what I like about this book is that, although it focuses on three adventures, it does more than that. The first third of the book is setting material that, while incorporating setting-appropriate elements of the Cthulhu Mythos, also sets up plenty of antagonistic factions to be part of. The theory of the setting chapter then gets used in the adventures which make up the second two thirds. If this reflects the quality of the Clockwork and Chivalry books I would be tempted to explore further (but only tempted; too much other stuff to read first, and I am not such a fan of the genre).

The ugly: it's focuses on three adventures. Not really my favourite kind of book. It just happens to work here.

Execution: 8
Ideas: 8

The Book of Madness (White Wolf WW4251. 1994)

The good: I do have problems with Mage: the Ascension, largely about the factions and how the rules don't match the prose descriptions. This book, however, isn't one. In particular, the sections on infernalists and temptation give tons of ideas, and the Marauders (crazy mages!) get a great section.

The bad: I am not saying the Nephandi section is necessarily bad, it's just not very good. Qlippothic magic doesn't seem very tempting at all; and some elements aren't really explained satisfactorily.
I could have done without the mythological beastiary; in fact White Wolf never did a good job at making such beasts actually interesting.

The ugly: lots of the book ends up replicated in later books, such as the spirit sections and umbral rules; and the sorcerous paths that end up in Sorceror: revised start here (and never get much better). The paradox section is hit-or-miss and could have done with less very-rare paradox spirit and more interesting examples of the other flaws.

It's still a really fun book for lightweight Mage fans.

Execution: 6
Ideas: 8

The Wild West Companion (White Wolf, WW3704, 1998)

Previously missing from my Werewolf: the Apocalypse collection. Yay!

The Good: The first two chapters, on life in The Savage West and on the Storm Umbra are well written and very tight. All good, considering it's new information. The new stuff sections are solid, there's a nifty section on warfare (and how werewolves can be incorporated) and there are a few other fun surprises.

The ugly: there are a few sections which largely get duplicated in the Changing Breed books, although that's somewhat inevitable. They aren't bad if you haven't read up on the werespiders etc before. On the other hand, the tribal sections are a bit meh.

Execution: 8
Ideas: 9

There may be some others I missed or want to do a fuller review on.