Monday, August 7, 2023

RPG Review: G.I. Joe: Role-Playing Game - Renegade Studios


<Famous musical chords from the 80's cartoon>

He fights for freedom where ever there's trouble, G.I. Joe is there!  He never gives up, he stays 'til the fights won, G.I. Joe will dare!  

<More dramatic chords>

As a child of the 80's, this was my jam!  I loved G.I. Joe from the cartoon, to the toy line, to the merch, and beyond.  When a special gift giving day came, you could count on me getting G.I. Joe!  I honestly wish I still had it all, as I had so, so much.  I would stage weeks long campaigns between the Joes and Cobra; an evil terrorist organization determined to rule the world!  

Therefore, when I saw this was coming out I knew I wanted it.  I saw it in my LGS but held off.  I did some research on the game, watched some actual plays, and looked through the book.  However, I waited about a year before I finally let my mag-pie nature get the best of me. I caved in and bought a copy.  My inner-child said, "This I command!"  

To get started, the books seems to focus around the "hey-day" of the G.I. Joes from the 80's with a cast of familiar faces.  However, they seem to focus on the period of the TV show, but before the G.I. Joe Movie and Cobra-la.  There is no mention of G.I. Joe: Extreme, Sigma 6, or Renegades.... which is just fine by me.  The game leaves it open on whether you want to play the more light hearted 80's style cartoon for kids, a more gritty/realistic campaign ala the comic books, or something else.  Therefore, you have Duke, Scarlet, Snake Eyes, but the scope seems to go all the way up to Slaughter's Marauders but not into the Iron Grenadiers or Serpentor.  Those "in the know" will understand what all that gibberish means, and knowing is half the battle. 

So, let's get into this...... YOOOOOOO, JOOOOOOE! 

Things I Liked
Character creation is robust and gives you some elements to build a "character beyond the numbers" but also gives your character a good group niche.  You define things that influenced your character, which can lead to some role-play hang-ups, and bonds.  Your Origin is also fairly well fleshed out as part of creation and that feeds into "Roll-play" as well as the "Role-play".   

The Essence system is pretty easy at its core.  You roll a d20 and a d? based on your skill level and add them together.  You are trying to beat a Target Number with your roll.  The multiple dice allows you to remove some of the randomness of a straight d20 roll, and also eliminate some of the ridiculous "gimme" rolls of straight bounded accuracy. Core attributes give you essence points for skills.  If you do not have a skill dice, you roll 2d20 and pick the lowest; basically a disadvantaged roll.  Specialization allows you to roll a lot more dice when it applies.  Modifiers tend to take the form of skill dice shifts up and down. Most TNs are between 10 and 25. 

There is a whole chapter dedicated to Exploration as a subject.  It includes rules and gives some good details for extreme conditions, eating, disease, etc.  This makes sense as there is also an entire chapter on locations to go along with the exploration.  

The rules specifically say that being "defeated" does not mean dead.  It means you or your foe are defeated.  That could be just having your spirit broken, your will to resist shattered, being unconscious, too injured to go on, or dead.  I like that the defeat consideration can be made to be narratively appropriate for the situation. 

I enjoyed the look of the book, the themed asides, the details about the Joes and Cobra, the "lore" and the artwork a lot in this book.  I also appreciated the built-in book mark and the hardcover.  This is a hefty tome, and one I could easily use to take-out a Cobra Trooper. I felt like I was getting a lot of content for my money.  Sure it didn't have every single Cobra operative, every vehicle, etc. that I wanted, but they need to have some sort of limit on things! They have the key ones for sure.    

Things I Did Not Like
This game uses the Renegade Studios Essence 20 system, which is essentially a D20 system.  This system is also used with Power Rangers, Transformers, and other Renegade Studio games and is there house system.  I have no qualms with the system itself.  However, the way it is implemented applies a Class and Level style system with characters gaining Feats as they go up in level (With re-skinned names).  I am not a fan of this approach for modern and Sci-fi games as it makes odd distortions that do not mesh well with "modern-aesthetics" and ubiquitous firearms IMHO.    

Character creation is a bit heavy on special or unique rules that can only be used situationally in-game, and I could see some short campaign where the situational rules never really come-up at all.   

The game allows players to decide how "grim and gritty" they want their game to be which is fine in theory.  However, in implication this game is surprisingly crunchy!  I know there is a loud and vocal subset of players who prefer that style, but this is way too crunchy for me to have a casual 80's nostalgia game.  Plus, entry level Joes are.... not that great at what they do sometimes.  You may want to start at a higher level, but that still leaves a lot of fiddliness that would be hard to teach someone "on the fly".

Reading the example of 3 Joes using an APC against some Trouble Bubbles was eye-wateringly complex.  So much, that I mentally decided that I would need to abstract using vehicles a lot in game.  Very fiddley, but it probably helps some people know "exactly" what they can and can not do and how to do it mechanically.  I am not that type of RPG player, and want a bit more narrative flow and a lot less specificity.   

Interestingly, there is a whole section on Combat, and a whole section on Exploration.  However, there is not a whole section on Social.  They primarily leave that covered by the general skill system.  There are some benefits and rules that apply to Social situations, but no dedicated section on how to use it in game.  It looks like they approach it as just another form of combat, only with words. 

Finally, I was not a huge fan of their GM section.  This is a fairly complex game, and the few pages they devote to how to run it properly are.... generic at best. There are plenty of adversaries, enemy vehicles, and the like provided.  However, not much on how to actually structure, run or balance the game.  

Meh and Other Uncertainties  
I was able to find some QRS and Character sheets for the game on the Renegade Studios website.  The character sheets are a good start, but you will want some extra paper to write down what some of the special rules actually do.  

There is a lot of kit, equipment, drones, animals, and vehicles that your characters can access in this book!  Again, a lot of special rules and fiddliness but also a lot of room for customization as well.  As your character goes up in level they can access more and more of this type of stuff.    

The game has a basic Meta-currency called Story Points.  Players start with 1 per character, and earn more as a team for certain situations.  GMs can use this to help NPCs last a bit longer by changing defense stats, re-rolling bad rolls, roll as if Specialized, etc.  These are intended to even out the chance of really poor rolling and keep the story flowing.  

It has a simple adventure for beginning Joes to get use to the game, and lets them explore G.I. Joes HQ.  It estimates using 3-5 characters over about 4 hours.  Pretty much has everything you need to play it in the book.   

Final Thoughts
This was an interesting read.  It definitely leans into the "crunchier" side of RPG design, and follows the well-worn D&D paths with a few diversions.  The Character Creation is deep enough for those "Min/Maxxers" out there, but also gives character focused designers a lot to hang their hat on.  I appreciated the options they offered and how they led to a personality and mechanical benefits.  It also fit the theme of each G.I. Joe being a specialist.    

Overall, the Crunchy route is not the path I would have taken for this property. Instead I would have gone much more rules-lite with an emphasis on conditions and allowing a broader skill use.  Action would have been much more narratively driven, as it is intending to create new stories based on the G.I. Joe Media.  However, I also understand that is not to everyone's preference, but I think would capture the "feel of the genre" of fantasy, military-lite action with specialists in TV/Comics.  This feels WAY to structured for that type of genre.  However, that could be MY game play/design preference showing. 

I can see why they went the route they did.  You might think in a Fantasy, Military style game that tactical combat would be pretty important.  Tactical elements like where you are compared to others, ranges, vehicle combat, etc.  However, at the end of the day you want to simulate kids' playing make-believe more than playing Stratego.  This game leans heavier into the the "tactical" side of RPGs than I would like, BUT such approach might make it more appealing to existing D&D players.  Time will tell.   
Now you know, and knowing is half the battle. 


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  1. It's time designers realized that highly detailed, combat centric rules are better as a tabletop miniature game than as a conversation based theatre of the mind rpg. This is true for D&D and Pathfinder as well. If you don't play out combat on a battlemap it loses much and becomes dead weight. So, does the GI Joe rpg work when played as tabletop battlegame?

    1. You maybe onto something. I see some people talking about RPGs and tactical combat and wonder why they don't play wargames if that is the focus of their RPGs.

      That said, even in wargames the trend is to simplify and streamline. So, most wargames really only deal with the 4M basics and some chrome. The 4Ms are Movement, Missiles, Melee, and Morale. Since you are often dealing with more than one "character" they are a lot less crunchy on an individual basis.
      Therefore, a super-crunchy RPG has a purpose and an appeal.

      I did not try this out on a grid-based tactical map, it was a read through, putting together some characters, and some "on-paper
      testing. I also started some work on a beginning level module in case I ever wanted to give this a shot.

    2. Honestly, this 4M simplicity approach in miniature wargaming is shite. It results in boring very samey copycat games lacking in excitement and interesting mechanics. Not saying it needs to be classic Battletech, but if you strip stuff away, godawful as it may be and we know much is just administrative grind and differences that don't make a difference, please put something else in place or you end up with sad little interchangeable skeleton games.

  2. I purchased this game as a die-hard "child of the 80s" expecting to be able to re-create the 20-some-odd-minutes of cartoon adventure from my misspent youth. Unfortunately, there were a lot more rules than I was expecting. Seeing "Luke Gygax" as the writer should have tipped me off. Seeing how he was 'inspired by his time in the Army' may have been another red flag. In my opinion, it would have been better if they had built a "basic" set of rules, and then a section of bolt-on rules to "make it your own". Also, the absolute lack of generators (codenames, missions, locations) and other GM support is just tragic.