Review of Justice Velocity

Justice Velocity (affiliate link) lives up to its name: it’s fast-paced high octane roleplaying.

Now, that’s right up my alley, so when I heard about it I had to go and check it out.

I’ve played various examples of games that claimed to be action-oriented, and the question is always how well they do at streamlining and simplifying play versus how well they do at making the game feel thematic. I’m going to focus my review on that, today.

The Overview

Justice Velocity runs about 70 pages. I’d say it’s done really well; there’s not a whole ton of art, but what’s there is good and thematic, and the cover does a really good job of getting players involved.

I’m going to take a moment to talk about what I perceive as the target audience of this game: people who want a break from their regular game or who are not roleplayers (or not frequent roleplayers) who like action films.

That’s not to say that you couldn’t play Justice Velocity for a long campaign as a stand-alone game, but I think this is outside of its primary wheelhouse. It’s 70 pages, and a lot of the rules for stuff are “do what seems cool” instead of highly fleshed out and meticulously balanced things.

And you know what? I like that. It’s a game that respects the intelligence of its players; it’s simple enough to play without the rulebook being referenced all the time, but elegant in its threshold-based 2d6+modifiers mechanic.

Now, it’s not going to let you achieve a lot of mathematical whimsy, it’s a thin book, but one of the things I’ve learned as a game designer is that sometimes people need a game they can play without worrying about a bunch of math, and Justice Velocity is in a genre that lends itself to raw cinematic action and hits that niche.

Now, with that said, it is simple. If you like Shadowrun or GURPS or even D&D you might feel like you’re moving to a much simpler system.

But that’s where we move into the more specialized parts of this review.

Is it Sleek?

Yep.

One of the reasons why Justice Velocity is 70 pages is because it sticks to very basic rules for everything but cars and gunfights (or fistfights, if that’s your speed) and doesn’t complicate those terribly much either.

But the rules actually deliver on that.

It has rules for grid-based play, but the book recommends theater of the mind for most combat (and trackers for vehicles, which is a must). If it’s a one-on-one cinematic moment, you can easily do away with the trackers in vehicle races and chases, both of which can be represented at varying degrees of detail.

It’s worth noting that while I describe Justice Velocity as simple, it has an attributes, skills, special abilities, gear, and usually vehicles to track. That’s a handful of moving parts, but it doesn’t worry too much about the nitty-gritty. Gear is handled entirely by GM fiat (which could cause issues), and advancement is very simple.

One nice thing is that whenever the rules extend beyond simple mechanics, they are very clearly explained and usually get a nice in-depth example. I’m willing to bet that people who play Justice Velocity and want to stick to the rules-as-written experience all play pretty much the same game, which I can’t say about every roleplaying game out there. It’s tremendously clear, and I could probably run almost every part of the game from memory after reading it once (the one exception being the vehicle rules, which get a little more detailed).

Now, I will say that I am a little concerned that the point-buy system might not actually work the best for what they’re hoping to achieve. This might be the only time in history that I’ve ever said those words. There’s a certain amount of character overlap because it’s a game primarily focused on guns and cars, and a good handful of character options aren’t about guns and cars and are unlikely to be taken.

So you’re in an odd place where a lot of people are going to have the same skills (in theory; in practice you never know), and a lot of skills might not be represented. Combat skills come free, though, so it’s more a question of what would matter.

In this way I think the system is perhaps over-streamlined. Skills all cost the same, for instance, and characters don’t necessarily start with any skills. So you wind up with a situation where a lot of people are going to have a couple skills (especially Driving) but not necessarily have any skill represented.

This is probably fretting about nothing; skills give a +2 bonus, but there’s no penalty for not having them. The majority of a character’s bonus is going to come from other sources anyway, but it might have been nice to have a couple free knowledge or language skills, especially as a way to ground people, or have them cost 1 point instead of 2 during character creation.

A small concern I have is that in theory Will could be a little strong because it feeds skill rolls, gives limited uses of a bonus die, and boosts HP. However, since the distribution curve of attributes is relatively slender (players spread 20 points across five attributes) I don’t see a huge problem barring a couple weird situations I’ll discuss elsewhere.

The important thing here: the rules are simple enough for players to understand without needing to read (always a good point, especially for a game you could play impromptu and a genre that fits that style), and a competent GM can take them a long way.

Is it Thematic?

Yes. Eight hundred times yes. It may have a little testosterone poisoning, but it’s both self-aware and blissfully unconcerned about what people think about it.

Cars. Guns.

You want ’em? Justice Velocity’s got ’em.

It’s the sort of game I’d be totally happy just kicking back and playing, and one that’s a great rainy-day or missing-player backup game. I don’t know if the rest of my group would enjoy it, because they’re not really into the genre like I am, but if you ask “Could I use this game to recreate X?” and X is any major action movie of the last 20 years, the answer is almost certainly yes.

The one exception I’d point out is that the rules are very focused and tight. You wouldn’t be recreating Netflix’s Bright, for instance (but why would anyone in their right mind?) or some of the other genre-action hybrids like superhero movies, but that’s not the point of Justice Velocity and they don’t lie and pretend that it is.

Vehicle chase rules are a stand-out positive part of the ruleset. I don’t think I’ve ever seen them better elsewhere, and it has one of the few random tables to help with inspiration for obstacles and boosts that you might encounter while racing around a city.

They do get a little complicated compared to the other rules, and it would’ve been nice to see perhaps a little more of the under-the-hood dice in the way of examples (the first example is a little vague on what exactly people rolled).

The Elephant in the Room

Before I move on, I want to quickly address a couple issues I do have with the game. I don’t want to be too negative here; they’re not deal-breakers, but they are things that I would be remiss if I overlooked.

A lot of things are left to “roll with it” mode. I’m a believer in the intelligence of average (and even slightly below average) players and GMs to figure out what the heck they want from their games, so I’m totally fine with this.

The problem is that if you don’t know what you’re doing, or even have an idea of it, you can really easily mess stuff up.

Character advancement is practically nonexistent; though it’s present the rules are basically “Throw some AP (Advancement Points, of which each player gets 10) at it”, and the method for determining that is left up to you. If players expect AP every session in a fifteen session game, you’re going to run out of options for them very quickly before they start stealing the spotlight from each other, and I don’t think the book is clear enough about that.

One of the suggestions is to base AP gained on Will, which is probably the only big balance issue I see; the game is generally loose on balance, but as an exercise in collaborative storytelling I don’t see a problem here. With that in mind, you could expect to see people gaining 2 AP per session and people gaining 6 AP per session if someone were liberal with AP (I don’t think anyone who read the book would go beyond that), and the people who started with high Will could easily dominate the competition.

Keep in mind, however, that they are clear that the idea of the story isn’t to follow people gaining bigger numbers but to follow high-octane action. Not having advancement is not the issue; not being consistent with it is.

For a group that’s already frequently roleplaying, I think this is a non-issue. People will use the method they like from other games. It’s for first-timers and infrequent roleplayers that I see this becoming an issue, which is why I’m hesitant to openly recommend what would otherwise be an excellent first-time game, unless the GM has experience.

If there were two things I’d change about Justice Velocity, I’d put a lot of the things that currently are just given the “season to taste” treatment into organized tracks for “high-power”, “baseline” and “high-stakes” play so that things like the rates at which you refresh resources and how to handle character death could be communicated to players directly. This would make it playable by novice roleplayers and address 99% of my concerns about the game.

The second is that I’d tweak the AP costs of some things or give starter packages for players.

Other things are all nit-picky. The sample enemies are next to sample PCs and other content in Chapter 3, when it might make sense to move them to the GM-specific section in Chapter 7. There’s inconsistent capitalization in the Abilities table. The word roll is misspelled as role once.

Very nit-picky. This game is well-edited and obviously lovingly playtested to get rid of any significant errors, and while it’s not A-list Hollywood production value, it’s probably the most solid indie title I’ve seen in a while.

The Verdict

I really like Justice Velocity and don’t regret buying it. Will I recommend it? Conditionally.

If you’ve played other roleplaying games and want something fast and light that’s built with some really solid chase scenes, this is an easy option to recommend. I feel like its bespoke mechanics do a better job than, say, Savage Worlds, which would handle the action movie genre well but has a lot of extra stuff to handle other stuff as well, for the particular milieu it occupies.

It’s also easy enough that you can play it with your friends who are interested in roleplaying games but think that “dice” is what you do to vegetables when you’re cooking. Because you can pretty much play with just a couple six-sided dice, you can really easily play anywhere, and you can make characters super-simply by using a point pool system, which is great for both speed and balancing some of the otherwise frenetic moments, and despite my griping about a couple small elements it’s tremendously well-made with room to customize it to fit your needs and the theme you’re going for.

That there are two things I’d change about the game, and both of them are easily resolved by a good Session 0 or a savvy GM is a good sign. I’d like to see a second printing/edition with a little more bulk (perhaps delivering on more of the Kickstarter goals?) that keeps the underlying stuff exactly as it is.

Review of Craghorn Twighorn’s Discount Spell Emporium

Disclosure: I received a free copy of the PDF of Craghorn Twighorn’s Discount Spell Emporium from Kian Bergstrom for the purposes of writing this review.

Craghorn Twighorn’s Discount Spell Emporium (affiliate link) offers a bunch of spells for 5e that are designed to be deliberately unhelpful (or, at least, carry some extreme caveats). Obviously, there’s a lot of utility for this in the right game; a few of the spells are so situationally useful that they don’t make any sense until a perfect moment comes along, while others are simply comedic.

These are generally intended to be used as scrolls, magic items, or perhaps even effects brought down by an NPC, and no PC spell lists are provided. Some could logically fall into particular spell lists, but I’ll make a note on this later.

I’d broadly divide the spells into four categories: the referential, the situational, the comedic, and the scatalogical. The value of each of these categories differs.

A lot of these are referential, and as such they’re definitely down to taste. “Animal Farm” for instance, is a spell that makes beasts obey other beasts in a nod to Orwell’s classic novel. “Cassandra” gives the power of prophecy, but nobody believes the prophecy. There’s an 7th-level enchantment simply called “The Rock” that makes a creature incredibly charismatic and bold, at the cost of later suffering fatigue and exhaustion.

The referential spells generally feel good, though there are a couple places where the mechanics are a little iffy (e.g. “affleck”, which should really have some removal condition for its effects), which of course comes down to them being a humorous reference. Since, again, these spells are unlikely to feature as the centerpoint of a campaign, I don’t think this would be a giant issue.

Then you have the situational. These are spells that I could actually see a character using as a serious spell. “Mist Hand”, for instance, is an illusory hand similar to Mage Hand, but has some distinct qualities that people might actually use in its own right (e.g. it can go further away, and be used to lure enemies as a result). “Gentle” lets you target another creature and make them only deal nonlethal damage, which is cool.

In some games, especially more humorous games, it makes sense that a character might actually have some of these spells on their spell list (or, of course, that a powerful mage with a sense of humor may possess them in a more serious campaign).

My biggest gripe here is that there’s such a focus on being deliberately useless that many of these spells that are otherwise quite interesting are placed at a higher spell level than they should be and one almost gets the feeling that they’re not being taken seriously. If players have access to buying Twighorn’s scrolls, or at least the particular subset that fits into a particular game, they may actually be able to get some powers that are cool and play into things that other spells for 5e often don’t do.

Then you get into the comedic spells. These are ones like “Goat Friendship” and “Pork Entrail” that just exist to make the game more spontaneously weird. When used in the right context (which may require some setup), these can bring good value to the right game. Heck, I had a DM who would’ve killed for some of these.

Unfortunately, here is where you also find some small issues with balance. For example, “Mouthy Ward” has a permanent effect that would enable the detection of any creature in a 15-foot space (without specifying which creatures it can detect, which makes it a 2nd level illusion spell with an unintentional high-level divination effect) and then yell abuse at it. Of course, this is where the DM would come in to make sure that everything flows smoothly. Generally, however, the majority of these do work well, so take the nit-picking with a grain of salt: they’re not the tightest spells in terms of game mechanics, but they’re intended for a narrative effect and if you don’t want them to become prevalent in your game you can just excise them.

Then there’s the scatalogical. This is really the low point of the spells, though they tend not to be excessively vulgar. They’re maybe a half-dozen in total, and don’t deserve further note. It will entirely depend on the age and sense of humor at your particular table as to whether or not these go over well.

There are also a couple spells that are just plain powerful and useful, but they’re all within balance limitations (at least as far as I’m concerned; some of them do things that other spells don’t, so I’m going with my gut on how to balance some of the effects). Especially as spells read from scrolls with limited availability, I don’t see any problem with them.

There’s an additional overview of Twighorn himself, found at the end of the spell list. As a comedy-centered character with access to many of the spells included within, he won’t fit into every campaign (though a DM could play him as more of a tragicomic figure), but his stat block looks good and he could be an interesting adversary or ally.

The feeling I got from the spells overall was a little hard to define, so I’ll resort to a comparison. If you’ve ever played SJG’s Munchkin, this is basically taking the references and jokes from that and transplanting them into 5e. As with Munchkin, there are a lot of great things and some okay things blended together. If you’re running a game, you don’t necessarily want to give players unrestricted access to these spells, but they can be wickedly funny in the right context.

Spire: My Game of the Year

Normally I don’t like talking about a game of the year because it’s hard to choose one, but this year is going to be different.

This year, I discovered Rowan, Rook & Decard’s Spire (affiliate link) on Kickstarter. I decided, mostly on a lark because I liked the art-style, to back it.

I played a lot of games that I liked this year, and since I consider games for my Game of the Year based on when I play them, not their release date, Spire had to compete with a lot of different games. It beat them all to such a degree that I didn’t have to question my choices.

However, my review of Spire is already out there, so I’ll recap what I like about it and be brief. This commentary applies to all the supplementary content that’s been released after the core rulebook as well, as it’s all been of really good quality and I’ve been enjoying it.

Spire combines humor (dark and zany, sometimes combined and sometimes independent of each other) with one of the most compelling core conflicts I’ve seen in a roleplaying game.

It also has a world that’s compellingly deep without requiring you to commit to any one interpretation of the setting. The sheer poignancy and inflection of culture found in Spire’s world allows for a setting that provides endless possibility, and honestly stands up well in comparison to any other game universe I can think of. I can compare it to the deep worlds of Shadowrun, Battletech, Avernum, Eclipse Phase, Faerun, Sryth, and Eberron that consumed the imagination of my youth, and I have no doubt that it will be a fond staple of my imagination for years to come.

Spire’s mechanics are so good that I’ve used them in my own games; Waystation Deimos is the only one that’s out now and uses a modified version of the system (which is itself borrowed from another developer), but there’s an elegant simplicity to them that allows them to blend narrative and mechanics without sacrificing anything to either.

The art is what first drew me into the world of Spire, and Adrian Stone has done a tremendous job at illustrating it in a way that reminds me of Failbetter Games’ style, but with its own twists. It’s evocative, dark, and colorful simultaneously, and unfortunately I’m not enough of an art critic to find the words to do it justice.

I cannot speak too highly of Spire. It’s a game that has earned its place among the greats.

The Ashen King on WorldForge

It’s finally here, the Ashen King, the first official Hammercalled sub-setting, is on WorldAnvil.

Don’t get too excited yet, because I had a lot of other stuff to do and I haven’t finished transferring everything over or replacing the stuff I lost in a crash.

But it’s a start.

Sorry for the short update; it’s been a hectic week.

Tomorrow I’m aiming to get another five or six things that are ready for publication up (which requires some minor editing and re-arranging to fit the WorldAnvil format).

Wrapping Up an RPG Campaign

One of the things that I’ve been asked about a few times is ending a campaign of D&D or other roleplaying games.

It’s the sort of thing that comes up from time to time because of the fact that many of these games are entirely open-ended. There aren’t any real stopping points or times to end the campaign scripted into most games, and barring a catastrophe that kills all the player characters (deserved or not), it’s hard to reach a point where the game comes to a satisfying conclusion.

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Goals (April 9-April 15)

I’ve been keeping up my output over on steemit. I’ve also made some good progress on things, which I’d like to quickly highlight.

First, the Hammercalled Rules Reference is out. This is the first public playtesting document for Hammercalled intended for general use, and it’s also a tool intended to allow people to make their own game using the Hammercalled ruleset.

Second, all of the advanced guide for velotha’s flock is done except for the sample characters and a quick editing pass before it’s out for testing (that means a public release, for free!)

Without further ado, here’s what I’m working on:

Continue reading “Goals (April 9-April 15)”