Most of the time, doing product reviews isn’t all that difficult. I tend to see our job as being the faithful recorder. Here is what this product is. Here is what it seems to be trying to accomplish. Based on extensive experience playing games, here is conceptually where I think it stands up or falls down and why. Here is what they could potentially improve on. And finally, here is my recommendation about this product: Who should buy it, and is it worth the money? Occasionally, however, a product review comes along that is harder for me. This was one of those reviews.
The reason behind that was not that this one did anything vastly different from other books. It’s a roleplaying rulebook with a setting attached. It’s not that it is even the first of its kind to use the mechanic. The reason that this one was different for me personally was that when everything is said and done, this is exactly my kind of science-fiction game. It hits all the right notes, it’s got all the right potential in all the right places. It’s action keeps me interested and the narrative focus hits me right where I live. So here’s the problem: My previous encounter with this system, Blades in the Dark, left me intrigued but confused. I wanted to understand this mechanic. I wanted to do a deep dive with it in a setting that felt a bit more natural than a Ghostpunk Victorian town like Duskvol. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, it’s just out of my normal mode of thought. So I spent a lot of time with Scum and Villainy. A lot. And while I still wouldn’t say I’m quite there, I am a whole lot closer than I was.
Scum and Villainy is a roleplaying game by Stras Acimovic and John Leboeuf-Little of Off Guard Games that is published under Evil Hat Productions. The game is a member of the Forged in the Dark family which means that it uses (essentially) the same mechanic as Blades in the Dark by John Harper. You and the other players are scoundrels, fringers on the edge of space, the Procyon Sector specifically, trying to make money by any means necessary to keep your ship flying another day until you can make that last big score and retire. You are far from the center of galactic civilization of the Hegemony, and occupying this same space with you are hordes of other people and organizations that either through choice or fate ended up on the desperate edge where you find yourself. For the cinephiles out there, this is a grittier version of Firefly, though there can certainly be comedic undertones similar to the crew of the Serenity if you wish. For the roleplayers, this strikes a similar feel to Fantasy Flight’s Edge of the Empire where you are on the gritty outskirts trying to stay one step ahead of rival gangs, factions, and other fringers all while avoiding “Imperial Entanglements”.
At 360 pages, Scum and Villainy is a fairly impressive book, even with Evil Hat Productions’ standard 5 x 9 in. footprint. It is bound in a high-quality hardback and printed on heavy paper with good ink penetration so that there is no easy smear with usage. The organization and layout are easy to read, with key terms bolded to assist in focusing the reader’s attention on the key game mechanic concepts. With the exception of the cover which is in color, even the black and white artwork does not detract from the quality of the final product, as all of it fits the theme of the book rather nicely and accentuates the subject matter with its placement. While the cartography in the book’s single map is simplistic, it gives enough for the GM to get a general idea of how to get from point A to point B.
In a format that I’ve come to truly appreciate, Scum and Villainy spends the first section of the book, the first 52 pages, going over the game from front to back. Now, this is a summary section and helpfully, includes page references to more detailed treatments later in the book when it references them. But I’ve gotten to where I, personally, particularly enjoy getting a view of the flow of a game in broad strokes before I dive into the particulars of the rules. As a player (assuming you are more savvy than I) you can probably read just this portion of the game, sit down at a table and, with the GMs help, create a crew a ship, and begin playing. There is probably enough detail for many to do so. To assist in this process, there is an extensive packet of both step-by-step walkthroughs and sheets for every character and ship type possible. It is incredibly useful.
Scum and Villainy is a narrative-first style of game. Before mechanics are even discussed, you should describe what it is that your character is trying to do narratively. The dice mechanic in the game is based on a small dice pool of d6’s. I believe that at the most, you can only ever throw four or five. A six is a success, a four or five is a success with complications, and a one through three is a failure. So if you are throwing one dice, you have, at a minimum, a 50% chance of success in doing what you are attempting. With assistance from other players, pushing yourself (using stress to add bonus dice) or taking a Devil’s Bargain, and using a crew gambit (something like accumulated crew karma), you can add more dice to your roll.
The outcome is weighed against your position and the anticipated effect which are set by the GM. The default for these is Risky position (because you’re doing dangerous stuff and you’re rolling dice because there’s a chance that it will fail) and Standard effect (you achieve what you would normally expect with the action you described). Your characters are going to get into trouble. Lean into it and embrace the chaos. It’s where the fun is in this game.
The next chapter is on building characters and goes into more detail on the seven character types (Mechanic, Muscle, Mystic, Pilot, Scoundrel, Speaker, and Stitch), their common abilities, each of the types’ special abilities, and the types’ specific gear. After that is a chapter on turning your characters into a crew by describing the center of their life, their ship. There are three kinds of ships that are “optimized” for different types of missions. The Stardancer is a ship for illicit merchants, smugglers, and blockade runners. The Cerberus is a ship for bounty hunters and extraction specialists. And the Firedrake is for rebels that wish to fight the Hegemony. This is not to say that the types of missions are limited to only the category that is optimized with each ship, but it gives the players and the GM a place to start imagining in their shared headspace. Additionally, there is some help with each ship as to some types of jobs that a GM might have a crew of that kind of ship go on as well as a sample starting situation (first job) and some considerations as to where that might go afterward.
The next chapter discusses both narratively and mechanically what happens when the characters are on the job. One of the key mechanics here is the Flashback mechanism. In Forged in the Dark games, the focus is on getting players into the action. With some basic questions answered about the kind of approach that they wish to take toward a job (either Assault, Deception, Infiltration, Mystic, Social or Transport), they are thrust immediately into the action with an Engagement Roll. There is no hour or two-hour long planning session (or longer) prior to getting into the action. Instead, we assume that the players’ characters are competent and then in the job, when something comes up that should have been caught with planning, the character can have a flashback and jump to a narrative in the past that deals with how they prepared for such an eventuality, thus making them look even cooler. The whole thing feels very much like the scene at the police station in Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure shown HERE. The idea takes a bit of getting used to but the key is to remember that the characters are assumed to always be competent. Even if they fail doing something, it is not necessarily because they did anything wrong, it was that circumstances beyond their control made it so that they could not accomplish what they wanted to do. At the end of the chapter, there is an extensive and useful example of play that (like the one in Blades in the Dark) is one of the most helpful I have ever seen in a published tabletop roleplaying product.
The next chapter deals with Downtime. What do you do between jobs? How does indulging in your character’s chosen vice help you blow off stress? How close is the law and what entanglements have your shenanigans gotten you into? How do you upgrade your skills, your ship, and your crew to stay one step ahead of the crew behind you trying to put a blaster shot between your shoulder blades? After that is a chapter that goes into further detail for the GM in particular but for the player as well on how to utilize the common 12 actions, what they might look like or what you might think about narratively when using them, and what some dice rolls might look like at different levels of position (Controlled, Risky, or Desperate) when using them. This chapter also offers a section on best practices as a player in a Scum and Villainy (and more generally, a Forged in the Dark game). If you are a player, I highly recommend internalizing this section. It really will help you get into the feel and atmosphere of the game quicker.
Following that is a chapter for the GM on Running the Game. Like the section on best practices as a player, this chapter is 24 karat solid gold for a GM, but it also highlights an important design point. Scum and Villainy games are meant to be somewhere between a dozen and twenty sessions. They are not, like so many other games, an endless campaign with the same characters. The reason for that is that as characters gain in power and crews gain in resources, the opposition does not necessarily scale the same way. Eventually, the players can overtake their opposition and a portion of the game mechanic “breaks”. I won’t say completely because first, I’ve never played a game that long, and second, with the dice mechanic, there is still plenty of opportunity for things to get squirrely on characters. It is, however, a core design consideration and one that needs to be accounted for in the thinking/planning of a GM.
After that, there is a short chapter on science in this setting and the strangeness of some of the things in this setting, in particular, the Way. This is very much analogous to magic or in the science fiction genre, the Force. Next comes a fifty page chapter dealing with setting. What is the Procyon sector? What are the major worlds in it? Who can you find on those worlds? And perhaps most important, what are the different organizations and factions operating there and what are their interests? This last one is what gives the GM the major conflicting prompts to player activity and makes the setting feel like it is alive. Thirty six factions are detailed with enough information to get your mind going and you can create others if you feel the need in your story. The last chapter of the book gives the GM some tools to monkey around with the system, create new abilities, and get in and make Scum and Villainy their own.
The two biggest things I would say about this book (and by extension, Blades in the Dark) both fall under the heading of “More”. The first is the easy one: More setting. One of the great things about Numenera is that the actual number of places detailed is relatively small for each geographical region. But there are seeds that give potential ideas for other locations everywhere. One of the things I wish this book had done more was give seeds of “other” places. Not fully fleshed out (it’s too much work for the designer, and doesn’t let the GM breathe), but enough to create an idea seed.
The second thing that I think needs more relates to the core mechanics. Coming from other gaming systems (and there are a lot of them), for me personally, the idea behind Position and Effect in particular was definitely intriguing, but it wasn’t intuitive. I don’t know that I can speak for anyone else, but for my money, more examples or even another full example of play like the one presented would have been useful. I don’t want anyone to misunderstand. It is not that the text itself was unclear. It is just a very different thought process as both a player and a GM to deal with the action roll than in most other roleplaying games.
I’m still not entirely sure what it is about this game that intrigues me so much, but it’s undeniable. It is as interesting to me as Numenera was when I first ran across it. The system that John Harper created from the Powered by the Apocalypse games and that Stras Acimovic and John Leboeuf-Little built upon is functionally simple, deceptively elegant, and narrative-focused. The last one, reinforced through the rules and the instruction themselves, making for a very intriguing contrast to other games. I highly recommend this game as a way to broaden one’s horizons as a GM and a player. It has already changed some of the ways I think about running games and what is important in a good system and for that alone, it was well worth the money. Happy gaming!
- Josh Walles