I was pretty excited about taking a look at Firefly: The Role-Playing Game (Firefly: RPG) after our Gen Con interview with Christi Cardenas and Tony Lee (the details of which you can find here). Not only was I genuinely intrigued by what I was hearing about Margaret Weis’s design philosophy when it came to building a game for a product license as huge as Firefly, but the people at Margaret Weis Productions were the first to treat me like an honest-to-god journalist.
This meant that Christi and Tony were actually enthusiastic when it came to talking to me and did not shy away from any of the strange questions I was asking about what impact they felt that their new Firefly: RPG would have on the broader gaming community. It also meant that at the end of our conversation, without me even asking, Daniel (Terrible Gamers Business Editor) and I were given both physical and electronic copies of the Firefly: The Role-Playing Game Gen Con 2013 Preview.
And while Terrible Gamers as a whole has not had time to do the play test that would be necessary for us to give you a complete review, I did have the opportunity to read through the book multiple times. So while you are reading this article please keep in mind that this is not a review. They are my initial impressions of a preview of a the new Firefly: RPG ,which were not derived from actual game play. You may take from this that my overall impression of the game was bad, that is not the case. And this caveat–think this is impression of the new Firefly: RPG Preview and not a review while reading it–applies to my thoughts both good and bad.
With that out of the way, let us get to it!
Firefly: The Role-Playing Game Gen Con 2013
The new Firefly: RPG looks to be an interesting game. If you who have played a game in Margaret Weis’s first pass at making a role playing game in the Firefly universe–Serenity: The Role-Playing Game–the Firefly: RPG will probably be familiar. The game itself uses the Cortex Plus rule system developed by Margaret Weis Productions and was originally used in the Serenity: RPG. For those of you who were like me and were only passively aware (or weren’t aware at all) that there was a Serenity: RPG, the Cortex Plus system seems to be exactly as it was described to Terrible Gamers by Tony Lee. It is a system that is best summed up as “narration with structure.”
To really get a grasp on this you have to understand that both the Cortex Plus system and the both of the Firefly: RPGs began as a labor of love. Margaret Weis was so impressed by Joss Whedon’s television show Firefly and his follow up film Serenity that she embraced the idea of creating a game system that would allow Firefly fans to continue having adventures in the ‘verse despite the fact that the television series had come to a premature end. This meant creating a game that not only captured the ethos and episodic narrative structure of the Firefly television series, but also appealed to all of Firefly‘s fan base, including those who had little to no experience with role playing games. Since large portion of Firefly’s fans are women, this also meant (as we discussed in our introductory article) actually thinking about building game whose mechanics appealed to a potential player base often neglected by other games.
To do this Margaret designed a system that attempts to maximize a player’s ability to guide the narrative direction of a game–individual game sessions are called “episodes”–with the Gamemaster. For instance, during game play the player characters are often awarded with “plot points,” which they can spend on things like creating temporary assets to help the character. A good example might be a character walking into a bar and finding herself surrounded by people looking for a fight, only to spend a “plot point” to remember that she is a well known bar fighting bad ass in this part of town, and is thus intimidating as hell to her would be assailants.
Any character action that involves some level of uncertainty, like in most games, requires a dice roll. The player or Gamemaster assembles a dice pool of some combination of D4s, D6s, D8s, or D12s and attempts to “raise the stakes” by matching the sum of the two highest dice scores with a predetermined difficulty level. For example, if a player rolled three dice whose scores were 2, 4, and 7 the two highest (4 and 7) would be added together and the total (11) compared with a number (maybe 10) representing the difficulty. Match or roll over the difficulty the character succeeds. Roll under the difficulty means the character fails. Succeeding at a skill roll means that you were successful at what you were trying to do. Succeeding by a lot means that you get awarded things like the “big damn hero die,” which characters can bank to use later. Failing these skill checks can mean anything from a player gaining “complications” to being “knocked out” of a scene.
Successes, failures, and die rolls in general all come with the potential for inserting narrative bits to the game. Players and the Gamemaster can chose to cash in their banked complications and advantages, plots can twist with each new “complication” earned by the players, and plot points can be spent to stay in the scene even if you have been knocked out. For example, even if a character is successful at any given task, a roll of a 1 on any of the dice in the dice pool automatically generates a “complication.” This could mean that a character can successfully punch out the ex-Alliance soldier who was talking shit about her units performance during the war, but since since the player rolled a 1 on one of the dice, she has just knocked out the son of the planetary governer.
I do really like how the mechanics in the Firefly: RPG add to player participation and create narrative opportunities for everyone sitting at the gaming table. As I said when giving my initial impressions of Fantasy Flight Games’ new Star Wars: RPGs I really value this in a game. So I think that the Firefly: RPG should really be commended for this. What I am unsure about is how the Firefly: RPG’s mechanics would play out in a game. I am a bit concerned, as I am with many games that focus heavily on narrative fiction and only provide light rules to moderate that fiction (Apocalypse World comes to mind), that the player/GM interaction can become difficult to manage. This is particularly the case with players who are new to the hobby. Allowing your players to dictate with impunity what happens in a game’s story can quickly overwhelm new GMs.
I also really appreciated how the Firefly: RPG Preview dealt with character creation. Character’s are largely built around a set of “distinctions” that really give starting characters a lot of depth. These distinctions typically expanded on someone’s past or career and have tangible in-game effects, which require players to be constantly inhabiting their characters. Most impressive though is the fact that the Firefly: RPG contains full character and ship creation rules in addition to a list of template characters. What is more, the list of template characters is quite impressive.
There are 19 unique character templates, including templates representing the characters from Firefly, for players who want to jump right in and start playing. Including the character creation rules and a multitude of templates allows players to get a lot of mileage out of the Firefly: RPG Preview. This is unlike any other RPG Preview/Beginner’s product I have encountered. Most other games only include around 6 template characters and give absolutely no indication of how a player might go about designing their own unique character for a game–I’m looking at you Star Wars: Edge of The Empire Beginners Box. Compared to the Firefly: RPG Preview every other game preview sucks in this regard.
Finally, on a more personal note, I must confess that I found the game terminology confusing from time-to-time. I suspect that this is due to the fact that I have been role playing for many years, and I am used to more standard gaming conventions when it comes to describing game mechanics. So it is entirely possible that the excessive television terminology I found burdensome–plot points, big damn hero dice, etc–would be more natural for others.
Outside of the presentation of the Cortex Plus system, the Firefly: Role-Playing Game Gen Con 2013 Preview contained a number of other resources for new players. These included a description of the Firefly ‘Verse, a synopsis of the events from the Firefly television show, the first 2 adventures from the Firefly: RPG’s adventure series Echoes of War, and a guide to role playing games for new players.
While I did not need a refresher on the Firefly universe or the television series, I think these are great resources to have. While the Firefly: RPG is intentionally aimed at people who are already Firefly fans, I do think there is something compelling about Joss Whedon’s setting that is attractive to people who haven’t seen an episode of Firefly. Having the universe explained does a great job of selling the setting to those people.
I was impressed with the inclusion of the synopsis of the television series because I think it could serve as a great resource for new role players and GMs who have picked up the Firefly: RPG and have made it through included adventures. This helps to eliminate, at least in a small way, one of the biggest barriers to new GMs–writers block. It did, however, cross my mind that new players might actually try to play “episodes” from the television series, which the Firefly: RPG actually encouraged.
I do not think this is a very good idea at all, particularly if the players in such a game were avid Firefly fans. My experience is that such adventures rarely end well, particularly when something happens that disrupts people’s understanding of a story’s cannon. Imagine, for example, playing in a Star Wars: RPG where the players accidentally kill Luke Skywalker on Tattooine, blow up the Millennium Falcon, or a player in control of Luke Skywalker decides that he does, in fact, want to rule the Galaxy side-by-side with his dad. This is just bad, trust me. I’ve seen people nearly come to blows when things like this happen in a game.
Finally I had very mixed feelings about the two published adventures from Echoes of War–Wedding Planners and Shooting Fish. Both of the scenarios were very well written, and while I don’t usually run “canned” scenarios myself, I would not have a problem running these; however both suffered from a pretty big issue. While the scenario authors do encourage players to bring in their own “crew” to the scenarios if they wish, the stories were written and designed around the characters from the Firefly television series (see my comments above for why this can be very, very bad).
First Impressions: Conclusion
So now is the time where I sum it all up for you. Do I think that Margaret Weis Productions succeeded in making a game that has the episodic narrative feel of Joss Whedon’s Firefly? Does the game appeal to the broad audience it was aimed at? It is almost impossible for me to tell without actually running the game myself.
What I found in the Firefly: The Role-Playing Game Gen Con 2013 book was encouraging. I am always happy when games try to find mechanics that allow for a more participatory experience for players. I was also happy to see a number of resources that are actually useful to people picking up role playing games for the first time, or trying to play in the Firefly universe for the first time.
My complaints about the system are not really complaints as much as they are uncertainties. There is something about the Cortex Plus system that makes it read just a little too freeform. I have concerns about whether or not the new role players that the Firefly: RPG hopes to attract, particularly the new GMs, could become overwhelmed by the narrative freedom. I also worried that the published adventures reliance on the actual Firefly television show characters might have unintended consequences by reducing the “fun” factor for some fans.
For a more definitive accounting of Firefly: The Role-Playing Game you will just have to wait until Terrible Gamers actually gets a chance to play the game. When that happens you can expect a very detailed review of the game to show up here! Until then, if you are feeling generous, you can help us out by making purchases through our Amazon store (come on you were going to buy stuff from them anyway, right?) And if you are feeling extra generous you can always click on the donate button!
Similar Articles: See Our First Impressions of Fantasy Flights Star Wars: Age of Rebellion!
(c) Scott Mills 2013