Tuesday, September 24, 2013

[Review] Mean Streets

Just thought I'd re-post this review here, simply because it's the original "GMshoe" post. :)


The name's Davenport. I review games.

So there I was, sittin' at my computer, starin' over my glass of Texas Red at a mile-high stack of reviewing material and wonderin' if this gig's all it's cracked up to be, when all of a sudden I get a knock at my virtual office door.

It was Mark Bruno and Todd Downing, the Deep7 Boys. They were carryin' a bundle, and they were smilin'. That meant trouble. A grinnin' game designer's like a grinnin' dame -- either he knows he's got somethin' you want, or else you got something he wants and plans to get. I'd done business with this gang before, though, and they'd always dealt square with me, so I was willin' to hear'em out. Besides, the Eden Gang wasn't due to put out another book for at least five minutes.

"You done good work on the Shriek Caper, the Santa's Soldiers Affair, and the Case of the Maltese Arrowflight," says Bruno, a sax wailing somewhere in the distance. (Probably from my radio.)

"Yeah," says Downing. "So now, we got another job for ya."

"I'm listenin'," I said.

I could see Buffy's glare shooting daggers at me from her rulebook cover on the corner of my desk. Easy, toots, I thought. You're still sittin' high on my list.

Bruno hands over the package. It was a game -- one of those downloadable jobs. A game that used that "XPG" system I'd heard these guys gabbin' about. "Mean Streets," read the cover. "The RPG of Classic Film Noir."

I looked back up at the Deep7 Boys. They were still grinnin'.

I took another swig of Texas Red. It was gonna be another long night.


Chapter 1: Introduction

This chapter does a fine job of touching upon the key elements of film noir and how to incorporate them into a roleplaying session -- in particular, the importance of creating characters with intricate and secretive pasts and adventures with stark imagery, moody themes, and character-driven plots. It also introduces the game's default setting -- New York, circa 1943 -- and gives a chapter summary.

Chapter 2: Character Creation


The XPG system is a lighter version of the DEEP system seen in Arrowflight. As such, character creation in both systems is very similar. Characters have six Primary Stats: Agility (AGL), Dexterity (DEX), Perception (PER), Strength (STR), Intelligence (INT), and Willpower (WIL). (This is, perhaps, my personal ideal stat breakdown.) Players get 20 points to distribute amongst the Primary Stats, with no stat being higher than 6.

* * * * *

Playtest: This point allocation tends to result in characters who are slightly above average in a couple of stats and completely average in the rest (i.e., 4/4/3/3/3/3) or else notably above average in one state and average in the rest (5/3/3/3/3/3). The alternative requires taking below-average stats to compensate for more extraordinary stats, and low stat scores in this game really hurt.

* * * * *

The Primary Stats are used to determine three Derived Stats: INITIATIVE (AGL+PER), SAVE (STR+WIL), and SHRUG ((STR+WIL)/2). I'll go into more detail about SAVE and SHUG when discussing combat; for now, keep in mind that SAVE represents the PC's resilience and SHRUG represents his ability to ignore damage (in essence, natural armor).

* * * * *

Playtest: When combined with the typical 4/4/3/3/3/3 Primary Stat breakdown, the SAVE calculation results in some rather amusing score comparisons. The sample NPCs in the back of the book illustrate this rather well. For example, because the Prostitute and Waitress have their 4's in PER and WIL, they have higher SAVEs than do the Detective/Private Eye and the Police Officer, both of whom have their 4's in AGL and PER.

* * * * *

Destiny Points

Characters also get one DESTINY point, which may be used to re-roll any one roll per game session. Like Force Points in Star Wars d6, these may be lost altogether when used for nefarious purposes or increased when used in particularly character-appropriate or heroic actions (certainly not synonymous in a film noir setting). The catch is that the player must stick with the second roll.

* * * * *

Playtest: My test player never used her DESTINY point, which, given its chance to turn success into failure or failure into disaster as well as failure into success, doesn't really surprise me. For a more heroic game, I'd recommend allowing the player to take the better of the two rolls.

* * * * *


Players then distribute 30 points for the PC's Skills, applying no more than 4 points to any one skill. That's a little odd, since the description of skill ratings states that 4 is "Average". One might think that given the bias of the Primary Stat scale toward average, Skills might make up the difference. As it is, if you want your PCs to be particularly competent, you'll need to remove this 4-point cap and throw them some more Skill points.

On the whole, skills are fairly broad -- Melee, for example, which covers all hand weapons. Other Skills, however, are further broken down into Categories, with each Category treated as a separate, specific skill. And in some cases, I found these Categories to be a little too specific. For example, a PC with the Skill (Category) combo of Drive (Truck) can drive only trucks -- not cars, not buses, just trucks. Certain skills also have Specializations, which give the PC +1 to his Skill score to actions falling within the Specialization and -1 to actions falling outside of it. For example, a PC with the Skill (Specialization) combo of Melee (Knife) 3 would have an effective Skill of 4 with knives and 2 with any other hand weapon.

Every skill falls under a Primary Stat, and no Stat really gets short shrift in this regard -- even the oft-neglected Strength. It's worth noting that as in the DEEP system, there aren't any pure Stat rolls in XPG -- every roll has an associated skill, at least in theory. This includes uses of brute strength, which would fall under the Strength Feat skill.

Personality Traits

"Personality Traits" is a bit of a misnomer for this part of the character creation process, since these are general assets and liabilities as well as behavior tags. Liabilities (and behavior tags) provide points with which to buy assets or more skills. Note that these extra points can't push skill levels above the starting cap of 4.

Starting Wealth

Fans of character balance should look elsewhere when it comes to cash in this game. The rules base starting wealth on the monthly income of that character's profession in 1943, including discriminatory wages for women.

Character Archetypes

The book offers 13 film noir archetypes upon which players can base their characters: Assistant DA, Detective, Dilettante, Femme Fatale, Gangster, Gangster Moll, Girl Friday, G-Man, Grifter, Private Eye, Reporter, Stooge, and War Veteran. These are merely descriptions, however -- not ready-made characters. Still, many of the NPCs in Appendix B are based around these same archetypes, providing a decent guideline.

* * * * *

Playtest: Due to the compartmentalized point pools, the immediately accessible archetypes, and the lack of kewl powerz, character creation is extremely fast. My test player had a detective ready to go in about twenty minutes on the outside.

* * * * *

Chapter 3: Game Mechanics

XPG is a stat+skill roll-under system using 2d6. The margin of the successful roll is the degree of the success. Boxcars (natural 12) is always a critical failure, resulting in some form of fumble. On snake-eyes (natural 2), the character has a critical success -- the player can make the roll a second time and, if successful, add the second roll's margin of success to the total. (The rules aren't clear on whether this process is open-ended on successive snake-eyes.) I really like the way the critical success mechanic makes critical successes both more likely and more lucrative for more skillful characters, preventing PCs with a stat+skill of 2 from only succeeding with an outrageous success. However, I'd like the same mechanic applied to critical failures in order to prevent PCs with a stat+skill of 12 or more from only failing with a horrific failure.


The margin of success from a roll using the INITIATIVE Derived Stat determines order of combat. Combatants get one unpenalized action each -- more actions are possible, but they must be declared at the start of the round and come at the hefty cost of a -3 penalty per extra action applied to each action. Attacks are resolved as opposed rolls, with the highest margin of success winning. Note that parries are "free" actions, while dodges are not -- characters may dodge whenever they like, but all subsequent actions get an additional -3 penalty. (Alternately, characters can make a "full dodge", sacrificing any other actions for a single Dodge roll that applies to all incoming attacks that round.)

* * * * *

Playtest: The action allotment and dodge mechanic combine well during gun battles. In my test gunfight, I noticed that INITIATIVE is of paramount importance -- the combatant who shoots first can force his opponent to Dodge, thereby insuring that any subsequent returned fire from the defender would be at a penalty. This nicely simulates gunfire's ability to force an opponent's head down. On the flipside, however, because penalties from a Dodge apply only to subsequent actions, the combatant who goes first will get what amounts to a "free" Dodge.

To explain: In my trial combat, a Detective and a Street Punk were having a shootout in a warehouse. Both declared that they would fire at each other. Detective won INITIATIVE and fired first. Street Punk dodged. Now all subsequent actions taken by Street Punk were at -3. Street Punk fired back, and Detective dodged. All subsequent actions by the Detective were now at -3, but that was a moot point -- the Detective was done for the round. (Of course, if multiple attackers had been firing on the Detective, that penalty would have applied to any further dodge attempts.)
At least, that's the way the rule reads. I'm told by the system's creator that this is not correct, and that the -3 penalty would apply to the dodge roll as well as to any subsequent actions.

* * * * *

Damage is determined directly from the amount by which the attacker's margin of success beat the defender's margin of success. The result is then multiplied by the weapon's Weapon Rating (WR). If the weapon has a Damage Bonus (DB) as well, it is added to the total, as is the attacker's STR for hand-to-hand attacks. If this total is higher than the defender's SHRUG, the defender takes one wound for every multiple of his SHRUG score that the damage exceeds. (In other words, if the damage is more than twice his SHRUG, he takes two wounds.) If the damage is less than his SHRUG, he just takes a -1 penalty to his next action, whatever that action may be. Characters have seven wound levels, with a cumulative -1 penalty beginning at the second wound level.

Also, a character must make a SAVE roll every time he is wounded, including any current penalties. If he fails, he falls unconscious. Knockout attempts work in a similar manner, except that the SAVE roll must be made whether the damage causes any wounds or not and that the defender doesn't actually take any wounds from the attack.
* * * * *

Playtest: Overall, the damage mechanic is fairly straightforward. Combat has the potential to drag a bit, given the fact that the PCs and NPCs tend to be very closely matched, making net margins of success fairly low. The SAVE roll requirement makes combat end fairly quickly once one side starts taking wounds, however, while also making unconsciousness a far more likely result than death.

I discovered several oddities about the system, however.

First of all, because damage is determined by the net margin of success of the attack, it's entirely possible for a successful attack against which the target is not defending to do no damage. Why? Because if there is no defense roll and the attacker rolls exactly what he needed to hit, the margin of success is zero. Therefore, the margin multiplied by the Weapon Rating will also be zero, meaning that any damage will rely upon any DB and STR points. If neither of these apply -- which is quite likely for gun combat -- the attack does no damage.

Next, an attack that causes no wound hurts worse than does an attack that causes the defender's first wound. Why? Because an attack that does not exceed the victim's SHRUG imposes that -1 penalty to the victim's next action. An attack that causes the victim's first wound, by contrast, imposes no penalty at all. The obvious fix would be to apply that -1 penalty to the next roll after any successful hit, whether or not it causes a wound.

What struck me as the oddest of all, however, came up during my trial brawl. Brawling attacks have a WR of zero, so they depend upon the attacker's STR for any damage. But if the attacker's STR is less than or equal to the defender's SHRUG, the attacker can never, ever, cause the defender to take a wound. If both combatants have this same problem, then, fisticuffs becomes completely pointless -- unless they go for knockouts. In that case, any hit just causes the defender to make SAVE score -- unmodified, because the damage isn't sufficient for a wound -- to stay conscious.

I'm told this quirk was deliberately designed into the system to force evenly matched combatants to resort to tricks other than brawling, which isn't genre-appropriate. I confess that I'm not familiar enough with film noir to comment on that subject. I will say, however, that I don't think deliberately frustrating characters skilled in brawling will achieve the desired affect; rather, I suspect that such characters will simply pack brass knuckles, which will boost the WR of their punches from an ineffectual 0 to a respectable 2. Furthermore, I'm not a big fan of such heavy-handed tactics to enforce genre-appropriate behavior. And even if I were so inclined, I'd still have to wonder why the same sort of hindrance isn't put in the way of other seemingly genre-inappropriate combats, such as sword duels or bullwhip fights.

In any case, the problem -- if you see it as one -- is easily fixed. The stats for the aforementioned bullwhip set the precedent for a weapon having a negative Damage Bonus. So, I don't think giving fists a WR of 1 and a negative DB would be out of line.

* * * * *

The chapter concludes with some brief rules for vehicle combat. Vehicles are rated for Speed (SPD), Maneuverability (MAN), and Chassis Strength (CHA). SPD or MAN is added to the driver's Drive skill in combat, depending upon whether the driver is attempting to close up/pull away or take evasive action, respectively. CHA is used only to determine damage when ramming, the assumption being that most weapons available to Mean Streets characters won't be powerful enough to actually destroy a vehicle; however, called shots to destroy key components, such as the tires, are still possible.

Chapter 4: New York City

As previously mentioned, the default setting of Mean Streets is New York City in the year 1943. This chapter gives a respectable overview of that setting from the glitz to the grit, including entertainment, fashion, politics, and, of course, crime -- with heavy emphasis on the crime, for reasons that should be obvious. The majority of this information is of the local color variety. It does this very well, but don't expect to be able to have PCs strolling randomly through the Big Apple with this information alone.

On the other hand, the chapter does give a nice broad-brush view of the five boroughs -- Manhattan, Brooklyn, Queens, the Bronx, and Staten Island -- as well as Chinatown, the Upper West Side, and Central Park. Also included are a New York City timeline from the beginning of the Great Depression in 1929 up to 1943 and a list of city landmarks.

The most detail, however, goes into the New York City underworld. The history of the Syndicate, the city's ruling coalition of four Italian Mafia families, is detailed, along with the current disposition of each of those four families and their bosses. The chapter also discusses the efforts staunchly anti-Syndicate Mayor Arthur Lopresti and his tough-as-nails police chief, Walter Ellis, to combat this threat. The chapter concludes with stats for Lopresti, Ellis, and all four Syndicate bosses. I'm not sure how likely such stats are to come into play, but they're nice to have nonetheless.

Chapter 5: Mastering Film Noir

This chapter explains how to translate film noir into a viable roleplaying game. It starts this effort by expounding upon the origins of film noir in the hard-boiled detective pulp fiction of the 1920s and 1930s. It then describes how a film noir scenario may be built around three fundamental elements: the Scheme (which may serve as nothing more as a McGuffin or backdrop), Characterizations, and Narration and Setting. From there, it explains how to create a film noir PC group -- either by making the PCs all part of the same organization (reporters, government agents), by building upon possible mutual interests (e.g., a government agent working with a police detective and a private investigator), or by tying the backgrounds of still more diverse characters into the plot itself. A nicely detailed example of the latter follows.

Admirably, the book doesn't whitewash the differences between men and women in film noir, which would have done a major disservice to the genre. Instead, it concludes this chapter by examining the various roles of women and men in film noir. The former gets more space, likely because viable PC roles for film noir women aren't quite so obvious.

This chapter absolutely drips with film noir style, and it actually got me fired up about running a game -- something I didn't really think was possible, simply because I'm one of those people who usually requires some sort of "weirdness" element in his game settings.

Chapter 6: A Tangled Web

This is a 10-page adventure based on the film noir classic The Big Heat. It's a fine example of the genre, complete with a sultry femme fatale, a dangerous mob underboss, and plenty of shady double-dealing. There's also room for some combat, although I'm happy to say that the climax of the adventure doesn't hinge upon it. (And thankfully, none of it involves a straight fist fight…) If the adventure has any flaw, it's that the premise strongly favors PCs who are police officers or detectives -- I'd have preferred to see an introductory adventure more easily accessible to a variety of archetypes.

Appendix A: Costs and Equipment

Most of the emphasis here is on weapons, although stats for several cars and a price list of everyday items is included as well. Weapon stats include Weapon Accuracy (WA), which gives a bonus to hit; Weapon Rating (WR), which is the multiplier for the margin of success used to determine damage and doubles as the strength requirement for the weapon's unpenalized use; and Damage Bonus (DB), which is added to total damage to represent improved penetration or stopping power. Several of the weapon stats seem a little out of whack to me -- a cleaver does no more damage than a bottle, for example, and a chain is more accurate than a club.

Appendix B: Filmography

A list of fifteen film noir classics, including the director, stars, and commentary from the author.

NPC Stats

Sixteen common NPCs, all of whom have the same stat point allotments as the PCs but most of whom have 20 skill points to the PCs' 30. It's a good selection, and given that bias toward the average in XPG stats, it wouldn't be hard to quickly adapt them for use as still more NPC types.


The cover image, repeated in a slightly modified form as a background to the chapter title pages, is pure noir: a literally shady character in a fedora and trench coat looming in the foreground of an ominous benighted cityscape. This gives the book a nicely unified appearance. (In one unfortunate circumstance, however, it looks like they simply cut and pasted a portion of the cover image as some filler art, catching a chunk of the title in the process.) The remainder of the interior art is a mixed bag. Much of it appears to be retouched period photos, and are quite good at setting the film noir mood; however, some of the original artwork has a very game-y look to it. Thankfully, the former outweighs the latter. The period map of New York City at the back of the book is a nice touch, but like the location descriptions, it's only useful for getting a very general idea of the setting.

The layout is extremely clear, making good use of shaded sidebars and restrained use of art. (Well, aside from the cut-and-paste job mentioned above, and one instance of a 3-1/2" x 3-3/4" square set aside for a small XPG logo.) The book lacks an index, but given its small size, I didn’t really miss it.

The writing is also very clear for the most part, although some of the rules took me several readings to get right, and at least a couple ultimately required clarification from the writer. More importantly, though, is the fact that the writing gets across the feel of the film noir genre and makes it seem like something fun to run.


I don't know if I'd be interested in running an extended film noir campaign, but this book at least got me interested in running an adventure or two. That alone is quite an accomplishment in my case.

I also don't know if I'd be able to run an extended film noir campaign using this book alone. While it does a fine job in its setting overview, I'd need more specifics to avoid the kind of research and/or writing for which I don't have a whole lot of time. The only alternative would be settling for a kind of nebulous New York City that has little impact on the game beyond atmosphere -- doable, but not all that appealing to me, personally. I'm hopeful that the game's forthcoming supplement Dark Companion will be helpful in this regard.

On the other hand, despite the rules quirks and broad-brush setting info, this is a completely playable and stylish game that includes an adventure for less than the cost of most adventure modules I know. That makes it a very nice value.

So, if you're interested in film noir and don't feel like throwing down for a hard copy RPG, give Mean Streets a look. Even if you just play the adventure and never use the game again, you'll have gotten your money's worth. And if you use it for more than that, you'll be getting a very sweet deal.

No comments:

Post a Comment