Back in my university days when I pretended I was going to be a screenwriter, I read some useful advice about getting your work reviewed and edited by someone else: when someone suggests that a part of your writing has a problem, they are usually right. When someone suggests a fix to that problem, they are usually wrong.
The other day I ran a one-off game of the Leverage RPG. It was… well, it wasn’t exactly terrible, but it was weirdly uneven, and my players were far from satisfied. We discussed the game afterwards, and the prevailing view of the players was that the game system had problems which had accounted for our mediocre experience, in spite of our determined efforts to have fun.
But I don’t think I agree that Leverage is a bad game. I’ve run good Leverage sessions before, I trust the designers based on the other games they’ve made, and even in this session I had a mostly good time GM’ing. Certainly not all games appeal to all people, but my players seemed even more enthusiastic about the caper fiction premise then I was, and had a unanimously disinterested response. So what went wrong?
I thought about this a lot on the way home, and this is my best guess.
PLAY REPORT: THE BEGINNING
First, a recap of the session. I had my players gen their own characters together, and ended up with a team of four: a Thief (sub-speciality Mastermind, an old-school cat burglar and de-facto team leader), a Grifter (sub-specialty Hitter, a charming adventurer), a Hacker (sub-specialty Thief, a young punk hacktivist), and a Hitter (sub-specialty Hacker, a hard-case wheelman). Meanwhile I roll-up a mark, client, and extra complications using the rulebook’s excellent caper generator. Chargen took longer than expected – almost two hours – partly because I screwed up by forgetting to print John Harper’s excellent Leverage character sheets and instead had the players scribbling on blank paper. But people seemed to be having fun.
The team is assembled. Flashbacks flesh out their absurd interconnected history. The client, a boxer, tells a sob story about his corrupt fight promoter threatening him to throw a bout. Blah blah standard Leverage stuff. No dice have hit the table yet, but we’re laughing, setting a tone, establishing character voices.
The hacker wants to find out more information about the mark. Who she’s represented, what their fight records are, basic stuff. For almost no reason at all (except to teach the rules with an example of play, I guess), I make the hacker roll for this. Thankfully she passes, and after a bit of mechanical back-and-forth, she gets her exposition dump. I mumble a cryptic reference to another power who might be manipulating things behind the scenes – the players immediately recognise this for the obvious plot hook it is, and delay taking action or coming up with a plan until they’ve investigated all the angles.
So the unlikely pairing of the distinguished Grifter and tough-man Hitter start visiting bookies to find out if they know anything about the bout-fixing. First the Grifter takes them to a civilised gentleman’s club, but after a bit of roleplayed back-and-forth, he strikes out on the Grifter roll to get information. So the Hitter takes him to a dodgier part of town, where after a short fight and some intimidation, they learn that a mafia godmother is the one actually fixing the bouts.
This was a fun scene. Both characters got a bit of opposites-collide roleplay, and I got a chance to teach the contested action rules. But on the other hand, well, let’s review: we’re ninety minutes in, there’s still no plan, the Thief hasn’t touched the dice and the Grifter is disheartened by his failure. All in all, less than ideal.
THE BIT AFTER THE BEGINNING
The next scene was one I was actually really happy with. Now knowing who they’re after, the crew decide to crash a party at the new mark’s hotel, to find an angle to bring her down. Thankfully I just about resisted the urge to make them roll to infiltrate the party or any of that bullshit.
The Thief and the Grifter take to the dance floor for important, sexy reasons. Their plan is to get close to the mark and steal her keycard so that they can check out her hotel room upstairs. The Thief fails the pickpocketing roll, so the Hitter (disguised as wait staff) gives her another chance by staging a distraction – “accidentally” spilling drinks onto her bodyguard. The bodyguard is pissed, and the Grifter tries to calm him down, but he fails that roll too. The Hitter is beaten up and thrown out, but thankfully the Thief passes the second pickpocket test, before passing it off to the Hacker for some B&E.
The Hacker dodges the patrolling guards, breaks into the mark’s room, and starts hacking into her laptop. Yet another failure – my dice rolling for opposing traits has been incredible all session. “The mark is surprisingly security conscious”, or some shit, so you need to get the laptop back to base before you can break in. The Hacker slips away from the guards again, and the Hitter is waiting outside to drive her home.
Once that’s done, the Hacker reveals that the mark has been looking to invest in a casino, to solidify her precarious position at the top. The Thief comes up with a con to prey on the mark’s insecurities to get her to invest in a fake casino, take all the money she invests, and tip off the cops to her dodgy dealings. The planning takes place over five minutes – quick, punchy, no overthinking and plenty of action. It’s great… and exactly what should have happened about two hours ago.
The Thief makes contact with the mark, and using all the information the crew have already accumulated about the bout fixing, rolls to convince her to go along with the con. Guess what? She fails. The mark sees opportunity, but she doesn’t trust the crew at all – she agrees to meet them tomorrow to discuss terms, but is already preparing a double-cross…
THE FINAL BEGINNING
The crew set up a fake office at a casino closed for refurbishment, and prepare for the mark’s arrival. The mark likes what she sees, pays for the casino… and has her henchmen draw guns to kill off the “treacherous” witnesses of her criminal activities. Police storm the building, and the mark’s goons take the Thief hostage. As they start to drag the Thief away, the Hitter springs into action and…!
Fails. Obviously. My mafia thugs massively raise the stakes; the Hitter tries raising again instead of Giving In (I don’t know why) and predictably fails. He’s bludgeoned into unconsciousness.
After this, the fight gets even messier. The Thief tries to drop a prepared smoke bomb to escape the goons, fails. The Grifter’s in the next room kicking ass, but he needs to drop his bad guy before he can rescue the Thief. Eventually the Thief asks if she can just roll to convince the mark to give up, considering she’s surrounded by armed police and all. I agree, and finally! Success. The marks surrenders, police storm in, the crew make a hasty getaway.
As a coda, the Grifter asks if he can make a roll for a very silly, retroactive switcheroo with the casino contract, so that the mark gave away even more money. Out of a bizarrely misapplied sense of realism, I slap this with the biggest difficulty I think of. Disappointed, the Grifter decides not to bother even making the roll, and the game ends on the sourest note possible.
AFTER ACTION ANALYSIS
When I asked for feedback after the session, the players conceded that they did have fun, but that niggles throughout the game had tempered their enthusiasm. Mostly the blame for this was laid at the feet of the Cortex Plus system.
The Thief observed that the expectations set by the Leverage TV show – where the protagonists are hyper-competent, especially in their areas of specialty – were not reflected in our game, where repeated failure was endemic. She also noted that these repeated failures frustrated the progress of the game, with the crew having to stumble over little problems every nano-second, rather than a few big problems encountered only when the stakes were highest.
The Hitter agreed that the game failed to mirror the material it was supposed to be adapting, especially by lacking any kind of mechanical support for structuring a caper in the fashion of a Leverage crew. He even went so far as to ask if there were rules for planning a con that I’d just decided not to use. There weren’t. The game has no rules for anything like this, though it does have some play advice for structuring a caper in the GM chapter, where the players are guaranteed not to read it.
The Hacker suggested that maybe a more lively economy of Plot Point exchanges would have brought the game to life a bit more. If the players had more points to spend, the game would have been less difficult, and the players would have felt more in control of their characters and their successes. By and large though, she seemed to have a more fun time than most – perhaps because her character succeeded much more consistently than her fellows, especially in her core role.
The Grifter argued that perhaps less dice rolling and more assumed-successes for pretty basic actions would have prevented a string of failure from constantly stalling the game. This is amusing to me, because it’s really the OPPOSITE of the Hacker’s suggestion – rolling dice more often is the only way to gain more plot points in Cortex Action. He also suggested that the game was dated by contemporary standards, especially in comparison to Fate Core. That last part is undoubtedly true. Many of the designers of Leverage went on to join the Fate Core design team, and its evident they learned a great deal from their experience.
The sheer number of failures in our game was atypical, and the negative consequences of that featured prominently in the player feedback I outlined above. It’s easy, then, to say that we were “just unlucky”, that my dice results were anomalously high (this is certainly true) and that our bad experience was just an unfortunate fluke. A more critical voice would argue that the traits I rolled for the crew opposition were rated too high (this is also probably true), and that more reasonable difficulties would have resulted in a more normal distribution of failure and success.
None of this should matter. And we’ll come back to it at the end.
Really, when I look back at the report of play above, I see two main points of failure – both of them a result of GM mistakes. The first is an unnecessary protectiveness of basic information, which resulted in a long period of slow investigative work in a supposedly action-orientated setting, and a failure to “skip to the interesting bit” (as the GM advice chapter recommends). The second is an interpretation of failed dice rolls in the least interesting way, impeding plot developments instead of “failing forward” and following up with exciting action.
The first point is aptly demonstrated by how long it took for the group to get its plan together. The Hitter wanted to know why there wasn’t structural support to help the group work out their caper. Well, that was on me – if I’d just given then all the information they needed at the start, rather than waste time on fact-finding side quests, then they would have had all the impetus they needed to start working out the details of the con. This would have meant much more time spent on the actual meat of the action… the bit that everyone came to play, and what Leverage is actually about. And if I’d held back any reference to “someone behind the scenes” until a dramatic moment mid-caper, instead of volunteering it the first chance I got, then it might have actually been a satisfying twist, rather than a minor irritant before they just switched marks with a shrug.
As for the issue of boring failure outcomes… well, there’s a number of examples I can point to, but none better than the Hitter being knocked out by a pair of mafia thugs in the final action scene. At the time, this seemed like a reasonable outcome. The game was about to end, so the player wasn’t going to miss much play; the Grifter was in the next room kicking ass, so I had little doubt that the Thief and the Hitter would be rescued; and consciousness seemed like the stakes a fist fight would be playing for, at least in most conventional RPGs. What I didn’t account for was how demoralising it would be for the player, when their supposedly hyper-competent combat character got their ass handed to them in a fight scene, especially against two anonymous mooks. “That would NEVER HAPPEN IN THE TV SHOW,” the Thief and Hitter players were quick to remind me. I didn’t disagree.
Imagine, instead, if I had narrated the failure like so: you knock out one of the thugs, but the mark and her other bodyguard escape with the Thief in their custody. THAT’S how you set up an exciting final action sequence. The mafia are disappearing with the Thief in their car; their “helpless captive” is pickpocketing the mark’s phone and texting directions to the Hacker; the Hacker is searching for a shortcut so that the rest of the crew can catch up; the Hitter is driving after them at top speed, dodging mafia gunshots; and the swashbuckling Grifter is waiting until the Hitter pulls up alongside, before leaping into the mark’s car.
There are any number of times during the session when failures (and complications, to a lesser degree) could have been used to force the story down more interesting paths; or at the very least, delayed failure to a more interesting/narratively appropriate time, rather than powerbombing the pacing by throwing up an immediate roadblock. The reason why the “party scene” is my favourite is because it’s the one when I actually did failure quite well. The Thief fails to pickpocket, but that doesn’t mean her cover is blown, it just means she needs her friends to set up a distraction. The Hacker fails her hacking roll, but that doesn’t mean her whole quest for information is thwarted, just that we’re now testing to see whether she can sneak out the building instead. The Thief fails to ensnare the mark, but that doesn’t mean the caper’s a bust, just that they’ll be facing a double-cross-at-gunpoint in the finale. I shudder to think what would have happened if a few more failures in the investigation stage had been allowed to slow down the boring bits even further.
I’ve characterised these as two different problems, but really they’re just two expressions of the same problem, and its addressed by one of the most basic, obvious pieces of 101 gamesmastering advice:
Never call for a dice roll unless both success and failure would lead to interesting roleplay.
In some cases, like the gathering of information, there is no interesting outcome for failure – a good GM brushes over these bits entirely, and jumps as far forward with the action as possible. In other cases, like the final fight scene, failure can definitely be interesting, if you’re in the right mindset to look for it.
And that’s why arguing the toss about unlucky dice rolls or high difficulty ratings is completely missing the point. Because if the GM is making sure that every fail result is continuing to feed the failing player with interesting roleplay, then that player should be able to fail every single roll they make ALL NIGHT and STILL have a great time.
I’m still not sure about the Leverage system. There are things about it I know I don’t like – vestigial mechanics that either have very little to springboard off of them (GM Opportunities are almost never relevant) or provide very little incentive to use (flashbacks are just like Assets except worse). And I’m certainly sympathetic to the view that the release of Fate Core has made Cortex Plus Action redundant, if only because I really love that game.
But I definitely want to play Leverage again. I’m not ready to write off the system on the basis of my GM’ing mistakes. I’m confident I can take the lessons I learned this session, commit them to memory, and use them to make sure the next game I run will be so much better.
Hopefully now you can too.