Wicked Dead Brewing Company’s role-playing game Cat: A Little Game About Little Heroes is great fun for pick-up games with players of all ages.
[For clarity’s sake: this review is not about the completely different Cat RPG from FNH, published here and on Lulu.]
John Wick’s Cat RPG, published in 2004, is a tiny little book that sells for $15, or $7 as PDF. The book numbers 44 pages, in 5.5 in. x 8.5 in. format (140 mm x 215 mm). The black-and-white two-column layout is simple but pleasant enough to the eye; all illustrations are from public domain art.
The text is organized in alternating sections of setting info in the form of first-person narration by the author’s cat, and rules material. The style is not bad; it could have used a bit of polishing but all in all an easy read.
Organization-wise, because the rules information is found throughout the text, a short page or half-page rules summary for the players would be very useful. The table of content is sufficient to find the necessary information; there is no index, but the game is short enough that it’s not difficult to find what you’re looking for.
A character sheet is provided at the end. It’s serviceable, though some fans have created alternate ones that are even more useful.
Cat RPG uses John Wick’s very simple Advantage system, relying on small pools of six-sided dice. Characters take only minutes to create; aside from a concept and names, cats have six traits:
- Claws for fighting and climbing
- Coat shows off a cat’s colours, protects him from claws and teeth and helps him persuade others.
- Face for perception, sensory center (eyes, nose, ears, tongue and whiskers).
- Fangs for fighting and carrying things around.
- Legs for jumping, balance and other quick movements.
- Tail for using Magic.
Traits are rated Best (5 dice), Strong (4 dice), or Good (3 dice). Damage may later bring those down to Hurt (2 dice) or Crippled (1 die). Each cat gets one Best trait, two Strong, and the rest at Good.
Other creatures may have different traits; for example, dogs have Nose (smelling) and Paws (digging); humans have Thumbs (picking things up, manipulation).
Cat characters also have 7 points of Reputation to distribute (e.g., Rat Catcher 2). They can spend them on up to five Reputations; ratings that can go up to 5. Finally, cats start with nine lives, of course.
When taking a challenge — runs a Risk — a cat’s player rolls a number of d6 equal to the appropriate trait. Appropriate reputations grant additional dice. And finally, any advantage that can be credibly narrated by the player will grant Advantage dice. For example:
A cat tries to hide from a dog. The player says, “I have three advantages. First, it’s dark, lending to my hiding skills. Second, it’s raining, which makes it hard for the dog to catch my scent. Finally, I’m up high, hiding on a dumpster. High above the dog’s head.”
The GM agrees and says, “Okay. You have three advantages. You can roll three additional dice to hide.”
Sometimes cats face an opponent that has different traits. If a cat has a Trait an enemy doesn’t have, there’s no competition; the cat wins any contest involving that Trait. Conversely, if an enemy has a Trait a cat doesn’t have, the cat loses the contest.
The book offers rules on contests and damage, using cat magic, and character advancement.
The background material woven through — this is not the kind of game that makes a sharp distinction between setting and system — revolves around the role of cats in protecting humans against supernatural threats, and particularly boggins which feed on people’s negative emotions. A few adventure seeds and the traits for a few enemies are provided.
Finally, the book contains useful game-mastering advice that is quite handy not only for this game but in a wider context. The emphasis is on dream adventures, since cats can wander freely in the Realm of Dreams. Another useful advice section discusses how a GM can overlay Cat on top of another role-playing game. The example offered is that of adding Jonesy the cat from Alien to a sci-fi horror story.
I have run this game several times at conventions; most recently, I ran it for the third year in a row at ConQuest NW.
The really quick character creation allowed me to do away with pre-generated characters, the approach I usually favour for time-constrained convention games. I found that people really love making their cat character and get attached to it. A majority of the players are people who played in a previous game, and saved their character sheet!
The simplicity of the game also lends itself well to the sketchy, modular preparation style I recommend for conventions. A page or two of outline and character thumbnails suffices to run most games. It doesn’t help to have too much material, since cats do what they will and do not willingly follow a railroad track!
On the down side, even though they are short the rules are not organized for very rapid reference; I’ve resolved that in the future I would have a rules cheat sheet on the back of each character sheet. Some rules need to be made explicit or tinkered with; for example, how do characters help one another? My answer is that they don’t — cats are solitary, self-centered creatures, after all.
In fact, many aspects of feline behaviour seem to be excellent matches for typical player behaviour, such as the combination of heroics for a cause with ruthless cruelty to one’s opponents. In every game, player character have heroically protected the innocent — and endlessly tormented even minor enemies. In one game, they took malicious pleasure in completely wrecking the inside of a convertible BMW, and in terrifying a dog. In our most recent game, in a scene taking place in the Goblin King’s castle in the Dreamlands, they amused themselves by throwing purple velociraptors down a set of Escheresque stairs and watching them bounce. Good times…
One thing I found missing in the rules is some incentive for characters to use their weaker traits. There is a strong incentive in the rules as written to always use your best trait for everything. It’s personal taste, but I like systems that offer incentives to use weaker stats and accept the occasional failure.
I have run this game for newcomers to role-playing and for young players. It’s very easy to grasp and people really get into the idea of playing feline. Incidentally, it’s quite easy to allow players to have dog characters instead, if the group is thus inclined.
Cat is a simple, streamlined game that makes for excellent impromptu, one-off, or episodic games. It’s an excellent choice for gaming with children or introducing your non-gamer friends to the hobby without scaring them off with mazes and monsters or hit location tables. It requires very little backstory and can be fitted in just about any setting to taste, from medieval fantasy to modern horror, etc. It could even be quite easily adapted to live-action gaming, at least system-wise.
It is not a good choice for people who prefer crunchy systems or don’t enjoy playing whimsical characters.
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