Debuting in physical form around GenCon 2014, the Firefly Role-Playing Game whisks the players off to the ‘Verse of the Joss Whedon “western in space” television program of the same name. If you haven’t watched Firefly, let me just say that you are seriously missing out and should stop immediately stop reading this review and go download it on Netflix/buy it on Blu-Ray/whatever. This review will assume that you have done so. Checking in at north of 360 pages, the full-color hardcover has a suggested retail price of $50. The book is also available as a PDF, and this review is based on the PDF (it was a review copy, for those who consider that an important thing to know).
Note: This is a review of a book, not a system. This is a review of a core book, which means I’ll be talking about basic mechanics, and I’ll say if something seems obviously problematic or cool, but this review should not be mistaken as a source of subtle analysis of things like character creation or combat option balance.
The Firefly RPG is set up for the PCs to be a group similar to the main characters of the show, if not actually just playing as the main characters of the show. You have a ship, you have a crew, you’ll hopefully have a job, and you’ll be flying around the 5 star systems and 72 planets of the ‘Verse (I can tell you these numbers only because the RPG tells me these numbers, so the RPG does deliver some the basic political and geographical situation of the ‘Verse in a more coherent and detailed way than you get it in the show). Note that you do not have to play a crew that is hostile to the Alliance.
Mechanics (Find A Job) (~25 pages)
The Basic Roll
Firefly is published by Margaret Weis Productions, and uses their Cortex Plus system that is also used in the Marvel Heroic Roleplaying and Smallville (each of these games uses variants on the system – Firefly is Cortex Plus Action, Marvel is Cortex Plus Heroic, Smallville is Cortex Plus Drama, and there is a lot of variance between them). Note that the older Serenity RPG used what is now called the Cortex Classic system. Characters have various traits – mostly commonly Attributes (mental, physical, social), Skills, Distinctions, and Assets – and each of these traits has a die rating (d4, d6, d8, d10, d12). When taking an action, the player rolls dice (at least two for Attribute and Skill, possibly 10 or more if there are a whole mess of things going in the character’s favor) and then adds the two highest together. This roll (called raising the stakes) must exceed the total rolled by the GM for the NPC involved (the GM’s roll is called setting the stakes, is produced in a similar fashion, and is rolled first). If the PC is on the defensive, then the order will be reversed – the PC sets the stakes, and then the NPC must raise the stakes. Any die that comes up a 1 is a jinx – it can’t be added to your total (even if this leaves the character with zero or one die), and might saddle the PC with Complications. All ones is a botch, and I think we can all safely assume that’s a Bad Thing for the PC.
Each player starts each game session with one plot point, but there are several ways to get more. Pretty much all of the Distinctions (more on those later) can give out plot points. If a PC rolls a Jinx, the GM can give the PC a plot point to create a Complication (more on those in a moment). And the GM can hand them out if the player is awesome in some fashion. Plot points are quite versatile, and can be used to activate certain Distinction abilities, create an Asset that lasts until the end of the scene (or for the rest of the episode, for two plot points), add a third or subsequent die to the die roll (chosen after knowing the roll and possibly after knowing the target number, so a very potent function), or not getting Taken Out.
Assets and Complications
Assets are any random thing that the player can come up with that has some positive relation to the activity. Normal assets are created temporarily by spending plot points. Signature Assets are permanent, appearing on the character sheet and getting used whenever applicable (Signature Assets can also have abilities like Distinctions). Assets can be physical objects, preparation, attitudes, or relationships. So, for example, Malcolm Reynolds might have the Serenity as a high-level signature asset – any time he makes any roll that has to do with the Serenity, he gets to roll an additional d8. Or Zoe and Wash might have assets that give them extra dice to roll when they’re working together. Kaylee might have an easier time convincing someone she’s innocent of a crime because she’s so gosh durn cheerful and sweet. And so on. The only limitations on adding dice from Assets are how many plot points are on hand and how much the GM will let the player get away with.
Complications are something like anti-Assets – they’re something the character is saddled with that gives the opposition an extra die when it comes into play (and the PCs may get to add Complication dice to their pools when the NPCs have Complications). Whenever a PC rolls a Jinx, the GM can give the PC a plot point to inflict a Complication (the more jinxes, the nastier the Complication). A character may also have been saddled with Complications in order to stick around in a confrontation rather than being Taken Out. Complications can be worked off – there are recovery rolls, and PCs can spend plot points to reduce or remove Complications whenever an NPC rolls a 1.
Assets and Complications play a big, big role in shaping the action in the Cortex system.
High Stakes Rolls and Getting Taken Out
The GM may determine that a roll is high stakes for one or both of the characters involved. If a roll is high stakes for a character, then losing the roll means that the character will be Taken Out for the rest of the scene. The most obvious example of a high stakes roll is combat, but there can also be social rolls that invoke this rule (e.g., the character is humiliated and cannot meaningfully socially spar any more that night). By default, this is still a single roll – so, unless one of the combatants wants to extend the fight, even combat is a one-roll affair. But characters with plot points available (and who are not hopelessly overmatched) will likely want to stay in the fight a little longer. A character can spend a plot point and taken a complication (typically a wound, for a combat action) to keep on rolling. This makes the next roll worse for the character, but at least she’s still got a shot! Well, for a little bit anyway – eventually one of the complications she’s been saddled with will be too much, and will Taken her Out anyway.
Character Creation (Find a Crew) (~60 pages)
There are three levels of character creation available in Firefly. First, you can just play as the crew from the show (Jayne’s Hat is not a Signature Asset – I say start a change.org petition!). Second, you can choose one of two dozen archetypes with some additional customization. Third, you can build your character up from scratch.
If building a character from scratch, you can make all of your Attributes even, or set them primary/secondary/tertiary if you want the character to be have broad strengths and weaknesses. Each character starts with three Distinctions, which can represent roles, personality traits, backgrounds, or whatever (examples include Alliance Officer, Con Artist, First Mate, Doctor, Mechanic, Companion, Captain, Pilot, Chatterbox, Fashionable, Know It All, Brothers, Rich, Drunk … there are a whole mess of them). Each Distinction does several things. First, each identifies three highlighted skills. Each of these skills improves from the default d4 (if a particular skill is highlighted in multiple distinctions, the skill gets stepped up multiple times), and makes the skill cost have as much to advance later. Each Distinction will add an additional die to any appropriate roll – so if you have the “Fed” Distinction, which relates to hunting down criminals, then you’ll get to roll an extra die whenever you’re hunting down a criminal. Finally, each Distinction has three triggers. One of those three is the same between all of the Distinctions and you always start with it – reduce your Distinction die down to a d4 in order to gain a plot point. The others tend to require spending a plot point or taking some other temporary disadvantage to activate, but some particularly narrow effects have no cost. You get to choose a couple of these triggers (in total, not per Distinction) to start with as well.
After distinctions are chosen and give their skill increases, you get points to spend on more increases, but they cost double if they aren’t highlighted skills. Finally, you get a pool of points to spend on Signature Assets and Skill specialties. Specialties add another die whenever applicable. So if a character had a Physical d10 and Shoot d10 and a Rifles specialty and, say, a Vera d8 Signature Assets, then whenever he shoots at you with Vera he’s rolling a 2d10 and a d8 and a d6, which is why Jayne is really good at shooting you – and he’s probably using his Mercenary Distinction to throw in an extra d4 and gain a plot point.
A character’s “experience” is simply based on the number of episodes she’s completed. Episodes can be used in two ways. First, each of the episodes in a characters Episode Guide can be used once per session as a plot point if the player can come up with a callback to what happened during that episode.
Second, episodes can be spent to train up the character’s abilities. Episodes can be spent to increase all sorts of things, but they’ll mostly be used to turn temporary Assets into Signature Assets, add skill specialties, and maybe unlock new abilities for Signature Assets and Distinctions. Attributes can be modified and Skills can be increased, but these options are prohibitively expensive compared to messing around with Signature Assets and specialties.
Ship Creation (Find a Ship) (~20 pages)
Ships have some similarities with characters, but are ultimately more straightforward. Like characters, ships have three Attributes (Engines, Hull, and Systems). Ships also have three Distinctions, one of which will be its Class (e.g., a Firefly-class freighter or a Tohoku-class Alliance cruiser … because your GM is totally going to let you have one of those). Each ship has two more Distinctions, one based on its history (Brand Spankin’ New, Battle-Scarred, etc.) and one for customization (Cruisin’ the ‘Verse for better passenger-carrying, Automated Controls to hopefully be able to avoid using a Pilot, etc.). Like character Distinctions, the ship distinctions have their own abilities. Ships can also have Signature Assets, and each comes with two for free. Once play begins, Assets and Complications can be applied to ships just like they’re applied to characters, and most rolls involve ships will involve some dice from the crew as well.
What Else Is In The Book
So, the above is about 105 pages, which leaves quite a bit more. What else is in there? About another 40 is GM material – how to use the narrative system and general GM tips. There’s an adventures (What’s Yours Is Mine), and that’s almost another 40. The biggest single chapter, however, is an Episode Guide, which runs about 130 pages. And I have to say that I found it a rather odd bird.
Finding an episode guide in a licensed product like this is not new – I can recall a number of anime RPG core books that were more episode guide than RPG. But this is not an episode guide in a traditional sense. It goes through all of the episodes, but the purpose isn’t to serve as a reference on the episodes, but rather to use the retelling of each of the episodes to remind and inform the players about the setting, and to very slowly introduce game mechanics, using examples from the series, up to and including GM techniques. Also, scattered throughout the episode guide is where you’ll find all of the NPCs, ships, equipment, and gazetteer information that I’d normally expect to find broken out in their own sections of the book (there are also suggestions for how the GM could do things a bit differently than what happened in the episode). Chinese phrases are also scattered throughout this chapter, but for them there is an appendix later with a complete list.
Unfortunately, this combination of functions leaves the episode guide fairly ineffective at these two distinct functions. As a “learn to play” section, it’s too long – you just have to read through too much stuff that’s not really related to learning how to play. And as a reference it really does not work. They have put an index in the front of the book and then a list of citations later in the book in the GM chapters, but it’s still really inconvenient to try and look up crunchy bits in an RPG book when they’re scattered all over the place. I remember when the L5R RPG switched to having literally all of the mechanics in its supplements at the very back of the book (they used to be clumped at the end of each chapter). I was skeptical of this at first, but once I actually started using those books it turned out to be incredibly convenient. Firefly goes in the opposite direction, making it a hassle to reference NPCs, ships, and gear during session prep and gameplay.
Art, Editing, Writing, Graphic Design, Etc.
The art in the book is a combination of screen shots from the show, new photographs (most commonly new NPCs, and drawn art for the chapter openings and the character classes. The shots I tended to like best were (1) the best character straight-on character images from the show (or, possibly, from promotional material for the show), then jazzed up with effects like star backgrounds and presented on a large scale; and (2) the sepia-toned shots that are mostly (I think) their own work. I have to say I was not a fan of some of the split-screen art boxes that were used, where they had a square or vertical rectangular space they put art in, and they fill it with two or three screen shots stacked up on top of one another. The images sort of blend together in a way that I did not find appealing.
Editing, layout, and graphic design were good – not a lot of typos, layout looked nice and I didn’t see any goofs, and things like the graphic displays of the five start systems (one with all five and five with one each) were well done. There are also schematics of Serenity and some of her component systems.
I do not know if it’s something inherent to the Cortex system, or something modified just for Firefly, but I think that the way the experience costs push character growth makes it feel like what you see on the show. Character capabilities don’t really change much – Wash doesn’t become an even better pilot and Kaylee doesn’t suddenly learn how to punch well. What you tend to see instead is learning more about characters’ pasts and personalities and relationships. In the game, these are Signature Assets, and they are relatively cheap to acquire.
The plot point flow seems extremely important – you might almost be hoping to roll a jinx here or there to tempt the GM to hand you out some more. At a minimum that will let you trade a few lousy rolls at one point in the adventure for a killer roll later in the adventure, which is usually a fairly strong effect.
One of the observations I frequently make about RPGs is that a lot of us will buy a lot more RPG books than we will ever use (or buy books where we really only end up using one particular mechanical bit). That means that it can be important whether an RPG is simply good reading material. For that purpose, I can’t recommend the Firefly core book – too much is taken up by that 130-page intro/episode guide chapter, and it does not make for good reading material.
Ultimately, I think that whether you’ll value this as a game will, unsurprisingly, come down how you feel about Firefly (or, more specifically, roleplaying in the Firefly universe). On the bright side, I think that if you are interested in that, this will work – licensed RPGs just fall flat on their faces from time to time, or try to implement systems that just don’t work well with the feel of the source material. Firefly avoids any such pitfalls. With that said, having successfully surpassed that threshold, how much players dig the Firefly RPG may depend on how they feel about the fairly elastic nature of the Asset system. Do you have nightmares of players getting to just make up any random old thing to try and get a bonus whenever they want one, without any real mechanical limitation? Then this system may not tickle your fancy. Do you think it’s really cool to be able to just name relationships and equipment on the fly, following your narrative without excessively detailed mechanical restrictions? Then you’ll probably really like this.