Monday, March 27, 2023

RPG Review: Hard City - Osprey Games


You, my loyal reader, know that I like to dabble in all sorts of game design.  My primary focus has been in wargames, but that is not the only type of games I have worked on.  I have built card games, board games, and other simple games for my own amusement as well.  One area I have commented on previously and actively play is Role-playing Games (RPGs).

I actually started my RPG journey before my wargame journey.  I learned how to play "Red Box" D&D from a friend's dad; a Lutheran pastor.  I picked up all the boxed sets from a little bookstore in the local strip mall, the only strip mall within a day's bike ride!  From there, I managed to scrap and scrape together the basic AD&D books, the Buck Rogers RPG, and the TSR Marvel Super Heroes game.  As a teen, I played a lot of West End Games D6 Star Wars and Shadowrun.  Many of the books have been lost to time, and I still lament the loss of my Masters edition boxed set.  Shortly there after, an ad in Dragon magazine sucked me into the world of Warhammer and I have managed to juggle my two RPG and Wargame hobbies every since.  

Now that I am older, having regular RPG nights and/or Wargame nights is much easier.  I was able to get into a local RPG session much easier than I was able to get into the wargaming community!  The wargaming scene had a number of starts and stops.  Meanwhile, I have had a long running RPG group with a dedicated weekly game night, that was only interrupted by COVID, but has since re-grouped after vaccines became widely available.  

The re-engagement with this group has rekindled my interest in RPGs.  Thanks to this group I have been able to play and run a few more modern games such as Dune, Lasers and Feelings, Monster of the Week, Legend of the 5 Rings, Those Dark Places, and more.  The group is primarily a Dungeons and Dragons 5e group, but we are not averse to spreading our wings a bit!  Thankfully, we have several people who are capable of being game masters as well as players too!    

However, this is going to be my first actual RPG review.  It will follow the normal format my reviews take: 

- Things I liked
- Things I did not like
- Meh and other uncertainties
- Final thoughts

Let's get into this with two-fists swingin' and snub-nose .38's blazing! 

Things I Liked
I am a sucker for rules-lite games, and that was this game in spades.  Character design is dead simple, with you picking a number of Tags to flesh out where your character has been, what they are now, and who they want to be.  I expect you could design a character in about 5 minutes, and still have a pretty strong feel for who they are and what they represented in the game.  Easy to role play.  

Even better, the mechanics for this game are dead simple.  You make a dice pool of d6.  In situations where you can apply those Tags from your character, you get an Action Die.  For any complications in the scene, you get a Danger Die.  You roll this pool together.  Any number on a Danger Die, cancels out a die on an Action Dice.  You then take the highest dice left on the Action dice as your result.  6 is a success, 4-5 is a Partial success.  1 or no Action Dice left is a Botch.  Dead simple.
There are Soft and Hard consequences that a GM can throw at the player for partial success and botches.  These can lead to conditions, and not all of them are physical; some are psychological as well.  

You have a special reserve that you can use to manipulate a scene or dice rolls called Moxie.  The mechanic itself is fine, but the part I like is that you can only replenish this pool, but having one of your Flaws cause chaos and challenge to you in the game.  

When they detail how an investigation happens, the book recommends that no checks need to be made most of the time.  You just find what needs to be found.  In cases where it is not that easy, the check is more to determine the complications involved by searching for what you are looking for, not whether you find clues or not.  This avoids an "investigation" being de-railed because of bad dice rolling.  The narrative can always move forward. 

Things I Do Not Like

Injury is relatively abstract, and characters can not take much damage.  Damage adds Danger Die to your dice pools.  However, as the GM never rolls dice the tests are made by the player only.  Light injuries can result from a partial success, moderate injuries from a failure, and a Serious injuries typically come from Botches or stacked from other injuries.  When injured you can choose to stack them or to create a whole new injury.  Most characters can only have up to three active injuries at a time, so you have to decide how to make things worse.  Too many injuries and you start dying.  This system is good for narration but not that easy to keep track of as a Harm bar, or hit boxes that get filled in.   
The background materials about the Hard City are sparse, and intentionally so.  There is plenty of scope for a player to build and play in the setting.  The places mentioned are more as templates or generic backdrops of action that you can then use to create your own later.  

There is a quick list of Belongings and costs, but it is more of a place to start and to give you ideas.  Belongings and the like are more a narrative prop than a goal in and of themselves.  Most basic stuff, if you need it, you can get it.  Unless of course, there is a narrative reason to make it harder to get. 

This is a bit petty, but I wanted MORE artwork in the game.  There are occasional little space fillers that are not "true" artwork on half-pages here and there.  Things like a scrawled combination, or a list of names with some crossed-off.  However, I wanted more of the full/half page pieces in the style of the covers. 

Meh and Other Uncertainties

The game uses "Fictional Positioning" so toss those grid boards aside for this game.  There are some broad categories for distances, just so characters do not teleport across a block; but distance and combat is much more abstract than a game like Dungeons and Dragons, Lancer, or Mech Warrior.    

Scenes and Turns have a relatively loose structure.  Generally characters lead the action.  However, what they want to do, dictates who does them.  For example, a guy who wants to talk gets to take actions before shooting, or fighting.  This means you always have a chance to bargain before you fight, if you plan your actions right.    

The game has a relatively simple experience system that is serviceable for short campaigns.  However, do not look for long, sprawling campaigns and rules to go with them in this book.  Things are much more "cinematic" than that.  

 Like all games now, there is a short blurb about "safety tools" as some of the topics that can come up in the Hard City are seedy or worse.  There is also a short section about how to run the game, that is old hat for most of us.  This does include some basic profiles, and quick "reaction table" that you can use for NPCs in a pinch.  

The most useful part of the GM discussion is the "Web of Clues" and the example adventure that goes with it.  This is really helpful for GMs as it lays out a strong method for structuring an investigation game.  Instead of rooms in a dungeon, it links scenes and clues together in a way where players can easily move from pre-planned point to pre-planned point in a natural way.  

Final Thoughts

This is a nice, straight forward rules-light game.  The focus is on narrative action and less on the mechanics of doing stuff.  It leans into the episodic nature of many of the sources and this game would be best for a one-shot or a short campaign.  If you are familiar with more narrative based games, and that is your jam and you like the genre; then this game will be a good buy.  This is often the style of game I am attracted too, as I want to explore a few themes and characters quickly, and then move onto new challenges.  That is not for everyone.   

If you prefer a more structured and crunch based experience, than steer clear.  I would not expect this game to endure a long campaign very well either.  Things would just start to get redundant or stale.  This game is more Those Dark Places or Monster of the Week, and much less Mutants and Masterminds or Pathfinder.  You probably know the types of games you like, and now know whether this is a game for you or not.  


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