A few weeks ago my husband ran a game of the Leverage RPG for four of our friends and me. I should qualify this review by saying, he only had the rules in The Quick Start Job plus what he could remember from the game he played at GenCon. The full RPG hasn’t been released yet.
I’m impressed with this game. I often complain about systems getting in the way of the sort of play they claim to support; the Leverage RPG goes the opposite direction. Every mechanic in the game was built to make the game feel like the show. The plot moves quickly, you’re encouraged to work together, and it captures the “fly by the seat of your pants” feeling of the show while still giving the players a lot of control over what’s going on.
As someone who likes the show, I found it massively amusing to be playing with other people who were into the Leverage characters. We hammed up their strengths and flaws, even some of their quirks. It’s one of the few times when I had no problem playing someone far outside my normal comfort zone. The characters and the light, fast system made it work. The presence of the earbuds meant that we could help each other in-character if someone faltered. This kept the “meta-game” issues to a minimum.
If I had to describe the system very briefly, I’d say there are four distinct parts: die rolls, special abilities, traits (also the similar assets and consequences), and scene control. There’s also something called Plot Points which are similar to Action Points or whatever they call them in Spirit of the Century.
Plot Points can be used to fuel some special abilities and you can get them by playing up parts of your character that are generally considered negative. However, the mechanical penalty you get for playing up a negative trait is a chance that things will become complicated and something exciting and dangerous will happen. It’s a gamble and it doesn’t detract from your ability to accomplish your goal. I loved the fact that playing “bad” things about your character didn’t always directly hurt you. It could, but the fact that you could get lucky and have no effect made the trade off much easier to swallow for me. I felt a lot more willing to play up the negative parts of my character and wasn’t as worried about the occasional results.
Most die rolls in Leverage involved rolling two dice: one die with the type of your appropriate attribute, like Agility or Strength, and one die with the type of your appropriate skill. The skills fall into the categories already defined by the Leverage characters: Grifter, Hacker, Hitter, Mastermind, and Thief. The pre-built characters on the Leverage team had different balances of skills and attributes and some of them were pretty good at their secondary skills, which seemed in line with the show. They definitely had the flexibility to take on other roles when needed.
When you needed to make a roll, you’d figure out which attribute and skill were appropriate (or the GM might tell you) and roll those two dice. Your total for the roll was dictated by the sum of the two dice that you rolled the highest on. You can use a Plot Points to add another die in some situations or to make a third die count towards your total. This gave us a bit of a safety net for crucial rolls and we were managing a limited pool of Plot Points to use that net.
It might seem like you’d always want to grovel for as many dice as the system would give you. Except dice rolls can also dictate complication and assets. For every one that you rolled on a die something exciting and unexpected, a complication, came up in the current situation. I’ve seen this happen to the actual Leverage team dozens of times. Everything is going great, and oh and wait the target also wants to see the good RIGHT NOW or the event has been moved to a venue they haven’t hijacked, in ONE HOUR.
Strangely, complications don’t feel quite as much like getting screwed, because they add so much to the flavor of the game. Our GM went out of his way to let us think of our own complications, so while it made life harder, I didn’t feel like the situation was spinning out of my control. We had something else to plan around and when we succeeded in spite of everything, our team looked that much more awesome!
The GM can suffer from the reverse of complications. When his NPCs roll ones, the players get an asset. This is some sort of advantage that the players can exploit later. This is also the sort of thing that’s come up in the series quite often. A stolen laptop just happens to have all of the mark’s financial information on it or the he might be a bit taken with Sophie, which has happened in the show more times than I can count. Assets each have a die associated with them and you can spend a Plot Point to also roll that die on a roll if you can reasonably describe how you’re using the asset to make the action easier. This adds to the possibility of complications, and it adds to the possibility of success. The whole situation gets more mixed up and interesting as things progress. Each asset felt like a small victory that we could use to further own the con.
Each character also had different special abilities they use to help other or to be more effective themselves. We only got to see the Leverage main cast, but I’ve been told there will be rules for making your own characters in the book. I assume there will also be other special abilities or rules for making them up. The ones we saw included powers that let characters “own” their specialty skills on contested rolls, powers that made them more awesome in their general field, and powers that let them help others or share their awesomeness. That last set was really powerful because it captured a part of that feeling of “we’re more when we’re a team” that’s so prevalent in the show.
Those powers plus the earbuds and some of the plot control mechanisms gave the game a cooperative nature that was unlike any other RPG I’ve played. Many of the helper skills cost Plot Points, so they weren’t unlimited, but they were a way that Hardison could help anyone with technology, Sophie could talk anyone through grifting, and Nate could encourage the team members to work together, with a mechanical benefit. It captured the feeling of the show and encouraged people to play in that style.
I’ve played many cooperative RPGs. I’ve played a couple of storytelling games. I’ve never played a storytelling RPG that hides the fact that it’s a storytelling game as well as Leverage. Most of the game feels like a regular, low simulation, RPG. The arrangement of the plot is different. You set short scenes and players are allowed to declare that they did something previously at any time. Then you immediately have a flashback to them doing it. This ends all of the super boring Shadowrun style pre-planning sessions. The characters might have had those meetings, but we didn’t need to be there for them! As players couldn’t forget things and we could pull off the clever, reversible plots like the Leverage team even if the mark did something crazy.
The GM was pretty up front with us. The team is supposed to win. That’s explicit in how the game works. If they don’t win, it’s clearly the first part of a two part episode and they’ll fix it in the second part. This is another dead giveaway of a story game. The story and having fun with the story is more important than being totally realistic about the world. I think this is a good decision, since it mirrors some of the slightly sloppy stuff in the show, while emphasizing that the point is for the players to make an awesome Leverage style story where they “win.”
In our group there were four people who have played RPGs with differing levels of frequency and one person who was totally new to the whole idea. Three of the people at the table hadn’t seen Leverage, so we showed them the pilot episode before we played. We struggled a little at the beginning, which was partly my fault as Nate, but we figured out what we were doing quickly and had an awesome time. The new player told us afterwords that she had fun and wanted to play again. That seems successful to me.
My first impression of the Leverage RPG has been overwhelmingly positive. I thought all the mechanics actively added to the game and to making the game like the show. I think it’s a good game for new players, because it’s relatively simple and if you like the show you already know how to play the existing characters. I’m eagerly awaiting the main book so I can bully my husband into running more games for us. :)