The first mini-review I ever wrote, Smallville, was published a year after the game went out of print, because that’s how behind the curve I am. Margaret Weis haven’t produced new Leverage content for years, but the Cortex system is alive and kicking, with a new design studio at the helm, a successful Kickstarter, and a resourceful fan community (including yours truly). As 2017 ends, nostalgia moves me to re-examine where the seeds of Cortex Prime were first planted, and in a way, this blog too. Seven years later, Leverage still holds up.
As a game system matures, tweaks to it can often overburden the mechanics with unnecessary complication. Leverage, one of the first Cortex Plus games, avoids this problem. Its straightforward design goals are achieved with a streamlined character sheet – just three core traits, plus specialties, assets and SFX, to adopt Cortex Prime terminology. The Roles, in particularly, are devilishly evocative. The TV show Leverage takes five career criminals, each specialists in their field, and pits them against villains the law can’t touch; the RPG takes those same five specialisations, and assigns each character a die rating in each. The game doesn’t always capture the tone of the show (flashbacks, a key feature of the programme, lack mechanical teeth compared to alternative ways of spending resources), but the tools it does provide, such as an “adventure” generator for a Mark and the complications they present, are a gem.
Leverage can be hard to run. Hyper-competent PCs do not always fit well with something so random, where failure is an ever-present prospect. In the show, “true” failure in anathema, with setbacks usually “part of the plan” that are withheld from the audience until the conclusion. The game can absolutely be run this way, but the GM advice chapter doesn’t seem to realise it. More detail about how to plan a heist, both as a player and as a GM, would be useful.
I find Leverage charming because every rule I don’t like is an opportunity filled in by later iterations of the system. Cortex is designed to be modular, and taking those developments and reverse-engineering them to Leverage is easy. But it’s not strictly necessary. There’s nothing fundamentally broken about Leverage, and many of my favourite Cortex features (the Roles, the Distinctions, the escalating actions) originate here. This is the game to whet your appetite whilst waiting for Cortex Prime.
(I never review a game I haven’t played or run. Check out https://michaelduxbury.com/category/reviews/ for more RPG reviews.)