Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Mercenaries, Spies & Private Eyes

I almost gave this book away.

There used to be a comics shop in Downtown Bloomington, IN, called 25th Century Five & Dime. It was in the basement of the Allen building, and they sold comics, weird books, incense and games both used and new.

I spent a lot of time there.

MS&PE sat there for a long time, used price $13.95, and I looked at it and kept moving time and time again. Then, one day, I was down there with my (then) girlfriend, looking over the used stuff. She was into espionage, mysteries and so on, so I got got bold and bought the game at last. A couple of the old school gamers hanging out there at the time gave me the big ol' thumbs up for my choice, and I was starting to feel good about my impulsive choice.

When we got back to her place, though, I looked over it and was disappointed. I asked her if she wanted it, but she never said yes.

What'd I miss on the first read-through? Was I blind to its flexibility? Did I miss how simple it is? Was I so enthralled with shiny, new, more complex games at the time, that this game's trim, uncluttered design registered as a primitive bicycle and not a streamlined roadster?

10 years later, you cannot have my MS&PE. No, no, my brother -- you got to get your own.

Look, this game is not perfect. Skill point costs for starting characters are, in my estimation, a little stiff, but house rules will resolve that very, very quickly. The experience system (where your character gets XP and so do his skills) comes off as a lot of bookkeeping, but the clever GM and/or player will find shortcuts soon enough (1 checkmark next to the skill = 50 APs). And guns? Guns will mess you UP.

No matter. These are trifling issues, and if not dismissed can actually be embraced (hey, guns can mess you up!). And even these few flaws (if they are flaws at all) are vastly outweighed by the game's many merits.

Mike Stackpole built this game out of Tunnels & Trolls, which was recently described by The RPG Site regular Sosthenes with the phrase: "Roll some dice, add them, tell a story. Take that, you indy fiend!" It inherits most of the combat system, adds a simple system for guns, throws some in some twists for unarmed combat, inserts skills and gets down to business.

And what business! Character creation is swift if trim, and gameplay is only so involved as it needs to be, which means "roll 2d6, add appropriate attribute and skill levels, and try to beat a number." There are a few skips on the track here and there (Brawling skill modifies a Luck save against...what?), but again, it's nothing that the enterprising GM cannot clear up on his own.

I decided that the Brawling save is made against damage taken that round, for instance.

There are lots of guns, rules for car crashes, equipstuff to last you a while and a swell bibliography.

And then there are the essays.

Stackpole wrote a section each on how to build and run espionage, detective and merc scenarios. They are concise and meaty, and the advice is golden no matter who you are. Some of it you may already know, but -- do you have a sword that never needs sharpening?

Also, there's a section that talks about how law enforcement agencies work, two pages on using "live" clues, and the absolutely delightful chapter entitled "Tunnels & Thompsons":

The first testing of the MSPE firearms system that ever took place was a game session referred to jokingly as "Tunnels & Thompsons" because it took place inside a dungeon. This expedition was a group of second level Tunnels & Trolls characters armed with automatic weapons and thrust into a 5th to 10th level dungeon. The saying that "God made man, but Col. Colt made him equal" never seemed so true as on that adventure - the only casualty was a demon with a low DEX and a grenade launcher. After that a great archaeological expedition of mercs, preppies and the elite of spydom was launched into the Sumatran jungle to track down a lost Japanese regiment from WWII. In the ruins they discovered that, while a full clip from an AK-47 will not kill a vampire, it can sure slow one down.
Yes, that tingling you feel is your sense of adventure.

Now that you want this game real bad, go get one. Yes, it's still available. No, I'm not getting paid for this.

Ahh, sweet sweet impulse.