The Saving Throw
Firefly Role-Playing Game: Gaming in the 'Verse, GenCon 2013 Preview 2013
I feel the black reaching out. I hear its song without a doubt. I still hear and I still see that you can't take the sky from me.

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Overall Review
published by Margaret Weis Productions reviewed by Scott Wachter
272 pages, 2013, $9.95 PDF, Softcover $24.95
Game Setting 3.5
Art 3
Character Generation 2.5
Game Rules 3.5
Intelligibility 5
Review Scoring

Managing expectation is always a difficult matter. The first RPG based on Joss Whedon's much-beloved TV series, Firefly, and its sequel, Serenity, was released in 2005 by Margaret Weis Productions and was so aggressively generic it turned me off MWP's work for the better part of decade. This grudge was then shattered by Cam Banks' creative direction on the Smallville, Leverage, and Marvel games taking the base mechanics of The Serenity Role Playing Game and re-configuring them to suit the exact needs of the settings has once again left me over-hyped for the new Firefly RPG, and once again, my hopes are denied. Perhaps not as strongly as the first time around, but I'm fairly certain that this design team has lost whatever spark was present under Mr. Banks.

This review is based on the 2013 GenCon preview edition of the game, not the final release version of the product (due out in the second quarter of 2014). Normally RPGamer doesn't write scored reviews for unfinished material, but if MWP is confident enough in this book to charge twenty-five dollars for it, we are confident enough to semi-arbitrarily assign numbers to it as an indication of its quality.

The mechanics of play are derived from the game of the year-winning Marvel Heroic Roleplaying Game, but with dice scaled down to mortal power levels. Action is resolved by assembling a dice pool out of one of three base stats (Body, Mind and Spirit), a rather long list of skills, one from three distinctions representing background or career, plus any perks, plot points, or situation bonus dice that might apply. The best two of those dice are then tallied and compared to the best two of the GM's dice pool of a wide range of opposing factors, high number wins. The Doom Pool mechanic has been given a bit more bite compared to Heroic, with more ways to introduce complications and stack the dice against PCs based on poor rolls, because to quote the Captain, "things can't ever run smooth." It's a solid re-purposing of an existing ruleset. While it may seem unreasonable to want more than that, this team has repeatadly shown itself to be capable of amazing things. At this point recycling feels disingenuous.

The really cool part of all these rules is the presentation. Rather than the usual blocks of texts interrupted with sidebars, examples, tables and assorted diagrams typical of game books, the designers summarize the first two episodes of the TV series and whenever a scene introduces a game element, it uses the summary to explain that rule. It's a fresh take on the paradigm that is extremely illustative to the reader.

The way the rules are presented initially could have lead to some referencing troubles, but the core mechanics are restated more clearly at the beginning of the GM's section. That sort of clear attention to detail is present throughout the whole book, despite its intermediary status. There's even a handy reference of all the Chinese phrases spoken in the first two episodes. The book has a nice clean layout with a mix of source material screenshots and ink drawings to fill in anything the short run of the show couldn’t provide examples of along with new example characters.

Character creation is more à la carte than buffet style. Backgrounds and Distinctions are selected from an extensive list with minimal explanation as to how to create one's own. This could be because the game is a preview with a mind towards getting con-goers gaming quickly, or could be a remnant of Marvel's lack of character creation mechanics. Either way, it comes across as limiting, especially when compared to FATE's Aspect system, which inspired Distinctions in the first place.

The book also comes with two previously stand-alone adventures. This sounds great until gamers find out that they're written specifically with the TV series cast in mind (because everyone has 9 players handy), and are really railroad-y. Both are fine as a convention demo or if anyone is incredibly interested in what Margaret Weis' very own Firefly fan fiction would read like, but otherwise just fills pages.

No game about Firefly game could be complete without spaceship rules, and in this case those rules are a logical extension of the existing mechanics that don't take much effort to integrate into gameplay. Ships have only four stats and a few distinctions that gives players a nice range for customization without ever bogging things down.

On the one hand, it is irksome to see Margaret Weis' game design team retread old ground for the Cortex Plus mechanics when they have shown themselves capable of amazing feats of creativity with this game design language; on the other, it's not as though there will ever be any more Marvel Heroic RP products no matter how amazing a game it may have been. As a man who owns a rather brown coat, I can appreciate the effort by fans to make a game for fans, but it seems that this is not the absolutely best effort that could have been made.

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