The Saving Throw
Leverage: the Roleplaying Game 2010
I'm gonna steal what's mine. Oh I'm gonna break the laws, but I'll get through your door. But you wait and see yeah, I'm gonna get ya, get you free.

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Overall Review
published by Margaret Weis Productions reviewed by Scott Wachter
204 pages, 2010, $39.99 (print), $19.99 (pdf)
Game Setting 4
Art 2
Character Generation 4
Game Rules 4
Intelligibility 4.5
Review Scoring

Since I started gaming there are a few genres I've been looking for games to simulate at the table, with heist and caper games being at the top of that list. After Margaret Weis Productions announced that they had licensed TNT's Leverage, a TV series in which a team of criminals take down bad guys, I thought I would have to keep on searching. I assumed that this would be another of MWP's shallow Cortex system re-skins, a decent game but nothing special or even an all that interesting use of the property. What Cam Banks and company ended up dropping in my mailbox was a well thought-out indie game in traditional licensed game clothing. This game's mechanics are the launch point for MWP's new Cortex Plus rules, which take the language and baseline rules of the Cortex System but then add new layers and tweaks to make it specific to the particular setting. Overall, the game is a very pleasant surprise and excellent adaptation of the TV series.

The same core rules from Cortex are still present. Skills and Attributes are represented by dice; the better you are at something the bigger the die. Rather than buy skills with points, you distribute those dice based on a choice between two arrays, either specialized or versatile. That keeps things balanced fairly well while giving at least a minimum of options to gamers. Players roll at least two dice (you can add more in the form of Assets and Specializations), then total the two highest and compare the result of the two difficulty dice rolled by the GM. If the player wins then things go his way, the GM wins, then things get trickier; not necessarily a loss, but not a clean win either. Players in Leverage (much like the main characters of Leverage) never fail. This is pure competence porn at its best and an excellent representation of the game aping the TV series. Additionally, if the player rolls a 1 not only does it not count to the total but lets the the GM add a Complication to the scene, but if the GM rolls a 1, the player gets a Plot Point to use to their advantage later.

Rather than a standard XP system for character advancement, each session counts as a point that can be spent on Callbacks (more on those later) or to add Specialties, Talents, or Boost any of your Attributes, each bought at different rates. Balancing an immediate benefit in the form of Callbacks against the long-term benefit from levelling up is a favourite of mine and any game that includes this sort of balance is a winner in my book.

Character creation starts with players assigning dice to their primary and secondary Role out of the five archetypes represented by the show's main characters. Role dice are always rolled during task resolution along with your attribute or skill, and your approach to the task dictates what role die you use. For example tailing a target's car without being noticed would require Thief + Driving, while an aggressive car chase would require a roll of Hitter + Driving. This keeps things nice and flexible which is always good in a rules-light game like this, but the problem that arises from this is that having two people with the same primary role will often lead to the party becoming unbalanced with either all problems being approached from that strong side (i.e. two Thieves lead to all problems being solved by stealth and pickpocketry) or the players step on each others' toes trying to share the same niche (two Masterminds at the same table tend not to get along). The flipside is also problematic where being short a player leaves the team without a means of problem-solving and the player whose secondary fills the gap will find end up being pulled in two directions for most of the time.

Also new to this game compared to regular Cortex are Distinctions, Assets, Complications, Flashbacks and Plot Points. Plot Points are really what this game revolves around, they are a pool of points each player can use to bring in extra dice to rolls for a scene in the form of assets (say the GM is forcing you to roll Vitality checks because you've been up all night hacking; add Big Honking Energy Drink d6 to the roll), or swing the plot in their favour with either Flashbacks or through their distinctions. Distinctions are short descriptive phrases that define your character beyond stats. If that sounds a bit like Dresden Files, you would be right, a fair number of the Dresden Files team from Evil Hat worked on this book, but it's just as awesome a mechanic here as it was in Dresden.

Complications are the GM's answer to player's Assets anytime a player rolls a 1 (regardless of whether or not the roll succeeds) it lets the GM add an extra d6 to his rolls for the rest of this scene. Flashbacks cost a player a Plot Point that can be used to give another player an asset ("remember that thing I gave you" leads to them having Thing d6 for a scene) or to establish something that happened in a previous scene that was 'cut' to add suspense later and resolves the the current problem. Another way Flashbacks come into play is in the form of Callbacks, players can invoke a similar situation from a past session to make a current situation go better (i.e. "Sophie did this in an evening gown and didn't whine half as much as you are now"), although doing this forfeits the player's ability to use that past session to count towards advancement. Complications and Flashbacks are really what makes the whole feel like Leverage rather than just Heist-Themed Cortex Game, this is the key to good licensed gaming; invoking the feel of the property beyond slapping the logo and screenshots all over the book.

Action is broken down by beats and scenes, roughly similar to rounds and encounters in d20 games, with simple actions taking a single beat while more complex actions (cracking safes, breaking difficult encryption) taking multiple beats. Combat (which is encompasses any prolonged contested action, like dueling hackers, or two con men trying to win a mark's trust) works much like regular skill checks but once the GM sets the stakes with roll the player can roll again to beat it, this goes back and forth until one side backs down. Bringing more people into the fray only adds dice to each side rolls, there are no special manoeuvres (aside from description in RP), no extra rules, nothing fancy about combat compared to anything else. And it's perfect, this game isn't about combat and it's rare for game that says that to not follow it up with fifty pages of rules for punching dudes.

On the Gamemastering side of things the book lines out the formula of any given Leverage episode and a set of tables to generate a victim, a villain (complete with hubris), win condition, and requisite second act plot twist. It makes it very easy to plan a session in about 15 minutes, however it also makes the game very episodic, which might not be for everyone. I found that the quick session planing and the stand alone nature of each adventure makes this a great back up game for when part of the group cannot come in or one-shots between campaigns.

The GM section also gives a very nice set of tips and tricks from running the game; everything from subverting player's expectations of the formula to juggling the player spotlight. The book is finished out with an episode guide covering the events of every episode from the first two season of the series. Each guide is framed in the format of the random job generation section of the book, and while illustrative examples are great and I understand that every licensed game tries to be a fan guide to the series, but more than thirty examples of the format feels excessive to me.

All the material is presented very clearly and in conversational tone that's becoming more common in gaming books. I really enjoy this shift in tone that more and more books are taking. It feels like the designer is explaining how the game plays, rather than a voice from the heavens proclaiming the laws of the universe. It also leaves room for gaming advice to work itself into the text organically rather than being shuffled into a specific section. All of the text is well organized and coherently presented. That said, it does have one critical flaw: there is no index. I've said before that this inexcusable in any game regardless of how good the rest of the text is.

For as many new fences that Margaret Weis’ old horse has jumped on this product, the art department doesn't seem to have the legs for it that the designers did. Nearly every page of this book features a screen shot from the TV series, though usually one that is at least vaguely related to what the text is describing on that particular page unlike their past few releases. Add that the art takes more page space than really necessary it just ends up distracting. All I can say in the metatextual elements' favour is they haven't included the phrase "Official Leverage Roleplaying Game" twice on every page like they did with Serenity.

Judged on its own merits, this book makes for a great adaptation of a setting and serves as a solid game to bring out for conventions and between campaigns. It fills an under-served genre in gaming and is well worth a look even if you aren't a fan of the property itself. Judged in the context of Margaret Weis' other projects and this a colossal step forward in terms of design and approach to licensed gaming material and makes me excited to crack open my copy of Smallville and anything else that this team has planned for the future in spite of a few flaws.

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