Ronin Arts’s vs. Outlaws is possibly the smallest RPG ever published, and is an excellent “hip-pocket game” for those evenings when no one planned a game.
This tiny game is a standalone product that doubles as the GM’s screen. A six-page fold-out (essentially a CD insert) with a finely printed game that sells for $2.95, it also comes as a combo pack of five copies for $10. The art is vintage pulp-era Western art purchased from Time Tunnel, and gives a nice feel on an adobe-and-old-wanted posters background. The heading fonts are Western-style, of course, and the text font is quite legible, despite being tiny.
The operative word is “brevity”; both the rules and the setting are quick sketches left for GM and players to fill in. The authors openly acknowledge on the cover that “vs. Outlaws is for experienced roleplayers.”
No one will be surprised that the game includes no index, table of contents, character sheet, appendices, etc. Despite this omission, I had no trouble navigating through the half-dozen pages.
Appropriately for the setting, the game uses a deck of regular playing cards instead of dice. The rules are a stripped-down version of vs. Monsters, another Ronin Arts game. Characters have two Qualities, Brawn and Brains, on which all skill or action resolutions are based; the player rates one at 6 and the other at 4. Players can elect to take up to two items of Good Stuff (advantages), each balanced by an item of Bad Stuff (disadvantages), that may modify Qualities or Hardiness (hit points, health levels) up or down.
Good and Bad Stuff may also provide flaws, backstory elements, circumstancial advantages, etc. PCs can have any reasonable equipment (for example, a horse, a six-shooter, etc.), a cool-sounding handle, and some notoriety. Voilà!
NPCs are either Cowboys (minions and bystanders), with qualities lower than the PCs, or Trail Bosses (major antagonists), with qualities equivalent to the PCs’.
The only substantive rules provided are for combat: initiative, melee attacks, ranged attacks, damage, pain and dying, and recovering. No, I’m not going to detail them — the review would become as long as the game! I’ll simply give you the generic rules provided for everything else: draw a number of cards equal to your Brains or Brawn, whichever seems most appropriate to the GM, and compare the highest to a target value: 4 (easy), 6 (average), 10 (hard), or King (damned hard). If you equal or beat the target value, you succeed.
The game spares some of its precious space to list and briefly discuss a series of staple locations used in Westerns (the Mission, the Fort, the Railroad, etc.) It also provides a collection of quick plot-in-a-line summaries (Bank Robbery, Range War, Showdown, etc.)
Finally, the content is rounded up by some suggestions for ambience and sources of inspirations.
I ran vs. Outlaws at Emerald City Gamefest’s 2007 game day; the actual play thread is posted here on RPG.net, including example characters. In other words, my experience with the game is short — like the game itself. Normally, I like to feel versed in and comfortable about a game before I write an actual play review, but in this instance it seems fitting to go for a minimalist approach!
Character Creation. It takes very little time to create a character, and group character creation ensured that no one was doubling up on someone else’s concept, something that would be very easy given the sketchiness of characters in this system. Good and Bad Stuff are the key to creating characters that are interesting and different from each other.
Minimalist Characters. Even with all the Good and Bad Stuff in the world, characters still come down to two stats. If you’re good at shooting, you’re almost certainly perceptive, book-smart, and a hard bargainer, for example. In the long run, this would make for characters that overlap too much.
Big Handful of Cards. With the high scores characters players can stack with the right combination of Good Stuff, including certain characters that can act twice per round, a group can cycle very fast through the card deck. In addition, savvy players will rapidly find an angle to always use their best stat. Consequently, it can be very difficult for PCs to fail at most tasks.
Circumstantial Modifiers. I had to make a few calls on how to handle beneficial or adverse circumstances. I had to choose whether to adjust the difficulty number or to give a bonus/penalty to the Quality used (Brawn or Brains). Both are valid choices, but it’s a good idea to be consistent throughout the game. I prefer the second solution because I don’t like setting arbitrary difficulty values, but that’s a question of GM style.
NPC Actions. Similarly, when PCs and NPCs compete against one another — for example, stealth versus perception — the GM has a choice to assign static target values or to use a Quality and draw cards for the NPCs. The second solution is slower, so perhaps not the best choice; nevertheless, that is the one I used, once again because I don’t like the arbitrary task of assigning a difficulty.
In Short… The players in my game really got into the spirit of the game and seemed to have a great time with it. As GM, I had fun and felt free to respond to their ideas without needing extensive background to support me. Nevertheless, this is a one-off or short-run game; it doesn’t have the depth to support a longer campaign except for a very unusual group.
This is a great game for experienced groups and story gamers, people looking for an afternoon of fun with little or no preparation. People looking for more detailed character stats, depth, or detailed sourcebooks must look elsewhere. But I had great fun with the game, I’ve had requests to run it again, and I always carry a few copies with me when I go out with gamers.