The answer, by the way, is to become cold and murderous. No, I'm only kidding. Well, I'm painting with an overly broad brush anyway. I mean, there were only a few executions and torture sessions and...
Fully realizing that I was doing the same thing over and over and might not only be stuck in a dramatic rut, but also frustrating the hell out of my players in doing so, I decided to try something wholly different in not only mechanics, but tone too. So I got my mits on a game I'd only heard about in passing: Extreme Vengeace, a game of action movie mayhem.
This is the game to play if you're looking to reproduce the stories and style of anything you've seen on the big screen starring Arnold Schwarzenegger, Sylvester Stalone, Jean Cleade van Damme, Dolf Lundgren, etc. Light on the story, lighter still on the logic, and big on the explosions and ass kicking. It's a game where you take it easy on the players and let them badass their way around the set for a while before pulling out the stops with the final heavy, who everyone knows is going to get his ass beat something fierce. It's the exact opposite of how my games typically go, so I figured it would be a good stretch for me and a fun change of pace for them.
Now, while you play a character in the world of an action movie, like Jack Slater in Last Action Hero, I decided to change it up just a little bit and put the focus on the cinematics of the game. So instead, I had the players play actors who were playing parts in an action movie. This way, when they invoked their powers, I had an easier time asking them to narrate flashback sequences and camera angles.
How'd it play?
Conceptually, the game is great. And while it wasn't intentional, the way character creation is done makes the transition from character to actor a snap. See, characters consist of two aspects: your description and your type. Descriptions are things like athletic (Jackie Chan) or pumped up (Schwarzenegger), while types are things like soldier, fighter, and agent. In a standard game, you pick one of each, add together the stats and powers, and BAM! Your character is done.
All I did was make the description into something called typecast and applied it to the actor. That was the base character. Thus, every role that actor Glitterpony Sweetcream (yes, an actual character from my game) ever played would be played smooth. Smooth was his typecast, but his role might change from film to film. One film he might be playing a smooth cop (though knowing Glitterpony, he'd refuse that role), in another he'd be playing a smooth soldier (though again, not really his thing). If he plays a hitman, he'd be a smooth killer. Same with a ganger. I've belabored this example enough.
Mechanics were pretty simple: you've got two stats. When you want to take an action, you say what you want to do and allocate dice to it. Roll those dice and look to beat a target number or the opposed roll. One neat thing about this is that your description can modify your pool.
Oh yeah. This was my favorite part of the game. See, the GM plays the audience watching the film, and audience reaction to what's going on affects the die pool. "I shoot the helicopter," gets snores from the audience and thus takes a penalty. "I race my motorcycle up the stairwell, blow open the door to the roof and jump the bike off the edge, crashing it into the cockpit while emptying my gun into the gastank so it explodes while I fall into the harbor," on the other hand would get a rousing round of whoops and hollars, maybe even get people doing the wave (anyone remember that? Anyone?). Of course, it also comes with a hefty die bonus.
I'll admit though, my joy in playing the audience didn't come from encouraging more narrative input from the players. It should have been that, and it has been something I wanted more of in the past, but this time it was something far simpler.
I got to heckle the actors, and it was part of the game, so it was 100% okay.
Oh, the joy. Maybe some of that player character sadism has worn off on me, but I did so very much love dropping my head on the table and snoring, or outright booing when someone wanted to search bodies for spare cash. And yes, I even got to yell "you suck!" at Glitterpony once when he played it like a girly man. It was far more fun than it was supposed to be, I'm sure.
As for observations that might be useful to you, faithful reader, well, here's what I observed:
- Simple, but out of the box: The combat system is pretty cool. As I said above, you want to do something, you give the action dice. Combat in Extreme Vengeance is loosely organized chaos. There's no codified initiative. Instead, everyone shouts out what they want to do when they want to do it, and whoever puts more dice into the action gets to go first. If you want to go before someone else, up your bid. He can up his as well until someone comes out on top. There aren't any rounds either. You stay in the current exchange until everyone's out of dice. Then all pools refresh and you go at it again. Thus you can be truly awesome at one action, or try to split your pool among multiple actions. Remember though, narration can increase your die pools, so even though driving and shooting might require you to allocate dice to two actions, while keeping some in reserve for defence, saying you're yanking your hot rod underneath the trailer of an 18 wheeler to come up on the passenger side and emptying your uzi at the gunman hanging out the window as you sideswipe another car is probably going to get you plenty of bonus dice. The game encourages you to think big.
This is all handled with die pools, which are a tried and true method of game mechanic design. This chaotic element, while something I found cool though, was something that some of my players found frustrating. There was a lot of confusion in the beginning. One player wanted to shoot three guys. He thought he was putting three dice into the effort, but in order to shoot three people, he was really putting one die into three different shots, which meant he was routinely interrupted (he was shooting extras though, so one die was all he needed).
I like out of the box thinking in RPG design. I've already got many many many shelves filled with similar, now stock, mechanics. So this sort of thing was refreshing for me. It might push some out of their comfort zone though, and not everyone likes that.
- Action movie effects: While you only have 2 stats, your character gets loaded up with a series of powers call his repitior. This is a series of camera tricks, special props, and special acting abilities that allow him to manipulate the movie. Examples include catchprases, soundtracks, zooming camera, and the famous single hit shown in quick cut multi-angle replay. They're awesome, and upon reading any of them you immediately know what they look like and how they can be used. I loved them.
So did my players. Too much. This game laid bare a simple truth: give a player something to play with on his character sheet and he's going to use it. All of it. All of the time.
Characters start with too many repitiors in this game. The session we played consisted of a single scene: the characters converge at a run down project building where a gang has taken over and the leader, whom the characters all have a grudge against, is issuing demands. After a quick fight with some extras, the group blasted onto the roof.
At this point we're about15 minutes into the movie. It's an in media res sort of beginning, with minimal character development so far, and we're about to kick off the first big fight that spells the end of the beginning action sequence. After this, we'll probably throttle it back, show the characters relaxing a little bit, establish them more as people, and then ramp things up again. You've all seen films like this. But remember, right now the credits are in recent memory and we've just begun the movie.
So the characters bust down the door to the roof and converge on the gang leader.
Suddenly one of the players invokes a flashback to show the gang leader killed his brother and then flashes back to the present all angry and crying tears of vengeance with screams of "Luigi!" (he was playing Mario, a plumber).
As Mario throws a wrench at the ganger, Glitterpony draws his piece and fires, the camera riding the bullet to impact.
Now we cut to one of the other characters and the film speeds up as he fires off a burst with incredible speed.
The ganger manages to get his hands on one of the characters and proceeds to grab his throat and punch him in the face over and over, pausing after each one in true JCVD fashion.
Glitterpony doesn't like that, and as the camera turns back to him, his soundtrack begins to play, and he cuts to a flashback of the ganger grabbing his friend by the throat and punching him in the face (I outlawed that use).
In short, the party tried to blow through every last use of repitior they had in that first fight. Only one of them thought to try a stunt action without resorting to a repitior (and it was prety cool, running at the ganger, dropping to his knees and sliding through the guy's legs while driving the butt of his guns into the ganger's knees; I gave him big cheers, and big bonus dice for that). Repitior are cool, but they're too available in the beginning. I think the game should start you off with less and ease you up as you progress. This forces you to come up with more stunts of your own and get more comfortable milking the crowd for cheers, which is where the real meat of the game is, I think.