[Cross-posted to Emerald City Gamefest.]
Last night we tried the beta playtest version of Danger Patrol. Created by Seattle game designer John Harper, Danger Patrol is a quick-start role-playing game where players take the roles of pulp science-fiction heroes. Character creation takes only a few minutes and play is quick and fairly simple, revolving around eJohn Harlements of danger added on-the-fly by the players and game master. This is a great match for the Emerald City Gamefest Thursday Night Open Game sessions or a pick-up game among friends.
The game is still in beta testing so there is no lavish production. It’s a neatly laid-out PDF document with a ’30s science-fiction look, but the only illustrations are icons, examples of use of dice, markers, etc., and a head shots of “Professor Bradbury” and “Danger Cadet Billy”, the narrators (or the Clippies) of the game, answering the questions expected from readers.
The writing is clear and kept short, and the information is well organized for quick reference. There are many useful checklists and cheat sheets, such as the list of the “stuff you need” to play (what types of dice and how many, markers, tokens, etc.), the step-by-step character creation process, the scene sequence, the “GM jobs and threat move” page, the list of “heroic actions”, the rules summaries, etc.
The entire document is only 35 pages long, and 8 of these are the styles and roles archetypes. Another page lists real story titles from vintage science fiction magazines, providing a wonderful source of colour and inspiration. Who can resist “Wanderers of the Wolf Moon” or “Skeleton Men of Jupiter”?
Setting. The entire setting takes less than a page, because the people at the table are expected to create most of it as they go. Really, all that is provided is a premise:
The Earth was destroyed 50 years ago in the atomic wars. Just before the end, hundreds of rocket-ships escaped Earth. Most of them went to Mars, where the richest man in the Solar System, millionaire Hamilton Hawks, had built a giant utopian “city of the future”—called Rocket City.
There is a little colour text to go with this, but only enough to set up the main antagonists and give a feel for the locations. The game also explicitly does away with the racism and sexism of the pulp-era narratives. Player characters are members of the elite Danger Patrol, heroic agents who protect Rocket City from various threats.
Rules. The rules are simple but may be jarring for people who are unfamiliar with story games, an entire category of RPGs that has evolved in recent years.
- Characters are created by picking one of eight possible styles (alien, robot, psychic, two-fisted, etc.) and one of eight possible roles (explorer, commando, detective, professor, etc.). (This may look familiar to those who have played Capes from Muse of Fire Games.) Each style and role comes with its own special abilities and equipment, but everyone also has some ability in the other roles, indicated by distributing various dice from d4 to d12 among them. The method of matching style and role prevents characters from looking too similar.
- The game opens with a quick “previously on Danger Patrol” introduction narrated by the players, followed by an action scene. The GM introduces various threats (e.g., Failing anti-gravity system, Robo-Mooks, True love in peril, etc.), each with a rating that indicates how hard it is to defeat and how many turns it will last between consequences take place (a poisoned man dies, something explodes, a villain escapes, etc.)
- Players indicate their characters’ actions and select an appropriate role and die size, then add bonus dice from any powers or equipment they are using. In order to obtain more dice, they can introduce additional danger elements to the scene, and ask for their fellow players and the GM to contribute more.
- Dice rolled are successes if they roll 4 or greater. Dice that produce 3 or less add to the character’s Danger track. Inching up along that track allows the character to gain additional power tokens to use for various special effects, and at higher level provide bonus action dice, but they also mean that the risk and consequences are greater for the character, all the way to death.
- Unresolved threats spin off consequences every turn, such as getting worse, generating new threats, generating damage dice, etc.
- Once all threats are resolved, the action scene is followed by an interlude scene where characters can recover a bit and interact with other PCs and NPCs to develop the story. Next is a suspense scene, where questions left by previous scenes are investigated or answered through the PC’s action, using mechanics similar to those used in action scenes against threats.
Examples of play. The game document offers examples of all three types of scenes and detailed examples of the resolution process, with schematics. Those are helpful to provide not only the rules overview but also a sense of the game flavour.
We started the game with three PCs: an Intrepid Daredevil (Major Triumph), a Ghost Flyboy (No-Face), and a Two-Fisted Explorer (Andromeda Brixton). The game opened with the “previously on Danger Patrol” sequence, which immediately provided No-Face with a nemesis and a wingman.
We then jumped into an action scene at the Null Gee Palace of Arts, a zero-g theater orbiting above Rocket City which hosts the Rocket City Opera Company and the Rocket City Philharmonic Orchestra. The Danger Patrol had discovered that the plans to the Rocket City turbo laser defense grid were being sold under cover of the opera, and they were there to retrieve the plans from the middleman, Jim Hood. The scene opened with lots of threats: Jim Hood collapsing after being poisoned; a failing anti-gravity generator which could only be reached after four squads of attacking robo-mooks, here to steal the plans, were defeated; a mysterious figure trying to flee; the diva Anna Bubblinka in danger from the collapsing scenery; and someone’s true love in peril (at the time undetermined).
Flyboy No-Face rescued the diva and Major Triumph stopped the mysterious figure from fleeing, while Andromeda Brixton battled the robo-mooks. The scene took about two hours to resolve, as it was our first contact with the system, and many spin-off threats and plot elements were generated in the process, including a new love interest for Andromeda (Douglas Diamond), a romance for No-Face with the diva, and a plan by the Stygian Adepts to steal the Rocket City defense schematics and unleash dark magic. We ended up pushing our “danger tracks” pretty high but still had a good number of power points to avoid death with.
The interlude scene that followed added new information: the diva was in possession of a mysterious alien artifact which No-Face stole; and Andromeda’s sweetheart Douglas, who turned out to be Rocket City’s assistant ambassador to Venus, was mixed into the theft as well on behalf of the Venusians, supposedly allies of Rocket City.
This was followed by a suspense scene where we resolved three questions: How did Hood get the plans? (they had been sold to Jim Hood by an engineer at the Rocket City Department of Defence), What is the origin of the alien artifact (another universe!), and Why does Venus want the turbo-laser plans? (they are actually acting as a front for the mysterious Neptunians.) This left us with our cliffhanger for the next episode.
It’s clear that this game can only be successful if all players at the table are willing to jump in and participate very actively. Like many story games, it requires a good deal of energy and, tired from work, at times I really had to talk myself up to the level needed. It’s not a good intro to story games if you have players that are more quiet or shy, and need to be drawn out into the action.
Like other games of the type, this system is also very vulnerable to dissension in the group. If people are in the mood for different things, different types of stories, it will become very disjointed. I have some gamer friends who tend to have a short attention span and to go “breaking” the story when that span is exceeded (or just to mess with their fellow players.) While this is easily handled in some systems, it could wreck the play experience in Danger Patrol because it requires more collaboration. (This collaboration is needed among players when creating the story, but the characters can be at odds.)
This is a neat little system, but it did wake up my urge to tinker. Although the setting is barely an outline, I would actually open it up for design by the players right before the first scene, World-Burner style: define the tone of the game and the setting, a few key locations and characters, who are the main allies and antagonists, etc. That way you could play it in a galaxy-spanning empire or inside the Hollow Earth if you wanted, and everyone at the table would have a bit of common understanding.
The mechanics can easily be adapted to any other genre and setting where everyone at the table will have a good understanding of the styles and roles. For example, someone has already posted a hack called Danger League where you play four-colour superheroes, and I hear someone else adapted it to a Hellboy-like setting. You could just as easily adapt it to Feng Shui, or Star Trek, or your favourite ensemble cast setting. You would need to create or adapt the styles and roles, but if you’re picking from something well-defined which everyone at the table is familiar with, that should not be too difficult.
This is a fun little game that requires fairly little preparation. So as long as everyone is in the mood, it’s a good spur-of-the-moment game. It would also work well for a convention. If you like games likes octaNe, Wushu, In A Wicked Age, Primetime Adventures, Universalis, or Dogs in the Vineyard, you will probably enjoy Danger Patrol.
On the other hand, if you prefer to play a very structured game, if you like most of the story elements to come from the GM, or if you don’t like to take your turn in the spotlight and prefer to be the quiet support type, then you will probably not like this game.
I enjoyed playing Danger Patrol and I recommend it for the Thursday Night Games or the next convention.