Review: “Leverage” RPG

Long time readers will remember the 4th Power Project, my attempt to merge d20 Modern with D&D 4e. While researching powers for PC, I took notes from a number of sources, and one that bubbled to the top was the TV show Leverage. For those who don’t know, Leverage is a show about five highly skilled con-artists and thieves who have decided to help those who have been wronged and have no place left to go. Each episode is one complete heist- like watching Ocean’s Eleven in an hour (and with only five people.)

It turns out I wasn’t the only one watching Leverage for RPG research- the Leverage RPG has just been released from Margaret Weis Productions to bring the same sort of stories to your RPG table. You assemble your crew of a grifter, hacker, hitter, mastermind, and thief and pull off one job in an evening to help the helpless and provide… leverage.

Now, it would have been easy to put together a game where there’s a bunch of useful skills, you roll some dice, add the number to the skill, and go on. Instead, the designers went several layers beyond what was needed to put together a licensed RPG, and instead created an extremely well put together system that not only captures the show perfectly but also gives a ton of tools for players and GMs to create your heists.

Putting Your Crew Together

In case you don’t want to play the crew from the TV show (all of whose character sheets are provided), you can create your crew by running through the section called The Recruitment Job. After working out who is playing which of the five primary roles in a crew, and filling out some secondary stats, you play in a quick, improvised session where essentially each player gets a chance in the spotlight to show what they can do. Depending on how those scenes go, other stats are filled out, and by the end of it, the other players will help you fill out your “distinctions” that reflect your personality and how everyone else sees you. The GM’s role in this is primarily to facilitate and assist, so no planning is necessary on his part. After that, you have your character and your crew, and you’re ready to dive into your first job.

Characters are broken down into the following traits:

  • Ability scores like Strength and Willpower, rated from d4 to d12.
  • The five core roles (Hitter, Hacker, Grifter, Mastermind, Thief), from d4 to d12. Your highest one is your primary role, so if you Hitter is d10, you are the group’s Hitter.
  • Specialties that help when you use one of your roles for a specific thing, like “close quarters fighting – hitter” gives you an extra die when being a Hitter in close quarters.
  • Distinctions, which are statements about your character. If you’ve played FATE, these are the closest to Aspects, where they are parts of your character that can potentially help you in some situations and make your life more complicated in others. A good example of this is Nate Ford’s “Drunk” distinction, where it can be used to make his life more complicated if he’s been drinking too much (a player can invoke it to add a d4 to a roll but gain a plot point in the process) or help him (if he were Grifting and pretending to be drunk.)
  • Assets, which are both signature items or anything else working in your favor. Often, these will stick around for either a scene or an entire job, and can be something like “length of lead pipe” or “helpful janitor” that you can consistently call on.
  • Talents, which are like feats in D&D that let you break the rules in different ways.
  • Your rap sheet, which lists your past adventures, explained below.
  • Plot points, which are given throughout the game to help add to rolls, add assets, and more.

How do these things help you pull off a job? The basic mechanic is that you roll an appropriate Ability and Role. If you’re beating up someone, you’re probably rolling Strength and Hitter. Hacking into a secure system? Intelligence and Hacker. And so on.

Then you see if there’s anything you can add in the form of more dice. Your specialty might apply, getting you an extra die. Your asset might come in handy, there’s an extra die too. Your distinction might either help directly or make the situation more complicated- both give you more dice. Then you can spend plot points to help out. You roll all the dice, and take your top two and add them together for your result (or top three if you spent a plot point.) You compare to the DM’s roll (which is built similarly, but with plot elements) and highest wins.

But that’s not all! Every die showing a “1” generates complications, which the DM can use to add more plot elements, make the existing plot elements more nasty, and more. So basically, the more you involve other factors (like the helpful janitor and your drinking problem), the more likely something will come back to bite you. It’s also why adding a d4 to your die pool is dangerous. Sure, it’s an extra die to try to get a higher number, but it’s also the most likely to cause a complication.

That’s the basic mechanic how most of the game operates. The only other crucial part of play is in the plot points, which are the equivalent to action points/fate points/bennies/etc. that are all the rage. Moreso than the other parts of the game, these allow players to grab narrative control. In addition to the mechanical benefits like adding more dice, keeping more dice, and activating talents, you can also spend them to make up an asset like listed above, or engage in a “flashback.” Fans of the series might recognize this idea immediately, as they are a key component in turning what was apparently a failure, and revising it to actually be for the best. Maybe when being beaten up by the bad guys, your Hacker managed to slip a tracer onto one of them. At the time of the scene, that didn’t happen. But by spending a plot point, the Hacker could reveal in a flashback that it happened, so now the bad guys can be tracked.

All that can seem a bit overwhelming- and you might feel weird those first few times trying to scrape out every part of your character to get the best roll. One of my few complaints about the game is that the lines between distinctions, assets, etc. can be a bit fuzzy at times. However, it all starts to feel natural after only a few challenges. Leverage has been described as a “competence porn” show, where you know, even moreso than other shows, that the main characters will ultimately succeed, and the joy is watching them overcome interesting obstacles on the way to victory. The dice-rolling reinforces this, and as you get more used to the system, you see just how many options you have at your disposal to get the job done.

Finishing off the characters is the equivalent of the experience point system. On the back of the character sheet is a list of all the jobs you’ve completed (each one named like the jobs in the show, such as The Two Live Crew Job, The Top Hat Job, etc.) You can make a callback to one of those jobs to add to a roll, literally using the experience to help you. Or you can “spend” those jobs to permanently improve some of your statistics.

The Fix Is In

That all is how your crew of con artists gets together and gets the job done. The opposition- the GM, or The Fixer, as it’s called in Leverage– is trying to make the crew’s life difficult.  At its heart, there are just a couple pieces you need to start the job going: a Client who comes to the PCs and asks for help, a Problem, and a Mark (the villain.) Like characters, these are expressed in dice, with the Mark getting some big and nasty dice whenever the PCs try to go up against him/her/it directly, and reasons why you can’t just take out the Mark to fix the Problem.

One great part of the book gives you tables to generate everything you need to generate a job on the fly, from who the client is to the Mark to a major complication. These can be rolled and interpreted in secret, or in the open to work collaboratively with the group (which is what Rob did in the adventure he ran that I played in.)  Just by including these tables, which are really the only elements you need to plan a session, the game becomes a great pick-up game.

On top of that, once the adventure is in motion, you don’t even have to keep trying to stay one step ahead of the PCs- the dice will do that for you and it’s up to you how to interpret it and use it as the situation warrants. If the player rolled a 1 while using the Helpful Janitor for a roll, maybe you turn that into a complication where the Helpful Janitor is working for the enemy, or maybe he has enemies of his own. Or you can just save those complications and use later for introducing an entirely new complication.  It’s entirely up to you.

The book contains a few other tools to help The Fixer out as well. There’s a lengthy chapter on “The Crime World,” the setting guide to the world of Leverage, though more centered on the life and operation of a con artist than an almanac-type approach. This lays out some of the ground rules of the fictional universe that Leverage resides in that looks like our own, but explains why the PCs are discouraged to use guns. There’s also stats for some of the major antagonists in the series, and an episode guide to the first two seasons of Leverage that lays out each one with all the elements you’d use in a session. That’s another source of adventure ideas right there: if your players have never seen the show, you could run the jobs right out of the book.

The Big Score

As you might be able to tell by now, I’m blown away with the Leverage RPG, and I wasn’t expecting to be. There’s always a worry with RPG adaptations (just like video game adaptations) that it’ll just be a lazy conversion, where there are some skills and blah blah blah. Leverage does it right: it takes the source material and gives you all the tools to tell the same kind of story. It builds the game into the source material, instead of forcing the source material into a game. I’m a big fan of modern games in the first place, and I really enjoy the show, so this one hits all the right notes for me, on top of having some downright genius game design behind it. Not only that, but it screams out to be hacked into other times, and even further out (I could see it powering a Mage: The Ascension game, for instance.)

That all said, this game might not be for you. Even if you’re onboard with everything else, make sure you’re aware of these things:

  • The game heavily steers towards the core conceit of Leverage, that you’re a group of con artists that is trying to do good, mainly for its own sake. If you’re looking for deep character drama full of angst in what these characters do, you probably want to look elsewhere.
  • Along with that, there are a few conceits of the genre that can be hard to get into, especially for other fans of the modern genre. If you need stats provided for 50 different types of assault rifles, you will be disappointed.
  • Players have a fair amount of narrative control at their disposal. If you’re more used to a traditional model where the GM is the sole source of story, this may not make sense for you. (Though I recommend trying it first- you might be surprised.)
  • The target number of players is exactly five. Players get secondary roles to cover any gaps, but clearly, five is the ideal group size for the game. Furthermore, it’s optimized for the same 5 players, though (as it happened in the show) you can drop someone of the same role in as a replacement.

If you are undeterred, perhaps it’s time to get your crew together, and steal from the rich and powerful. Maybe it’s time to provide… leverage.

The Leverage RPG is available now in PDF, with a print version on the way soon. Two supplements covering the different roles have been announced for released in the next few months. The reviewer received a free copy of the PDF through the DriveThru RPG Blog and Podcaster program.

About Dave

Dave "The Game" Chalker is the Editor-in-Chief and Co-Founder of Critical Hits. Since 2005, he has been bringing readers game news and advice, as well as editing nearly everything published here. He is the designer of the Origins Award-winning Get Bit!, a freelance designer and developer, son of a science fiction author, and a Master of Arts. He lives in MD with e, their three dogs, and two cats.

Comments

  1. Did you check out Amethyst for 4e? (It was also released for 3.5.)

    They are also working on an ultratech setting based on Ghost In The Shell. (And again, an unreleased version for 3.5, is available free download.)

    If you’re wondering what Ghost In The Shell is… matrix leaned heavily on it for its action sequences.

    Here’s a usable link for you;
    http://www.diasexmachina.com/

  2. Yep, I’m familiar with it and have a copy, and it was heavily suggested when I was working on 4th Power. It’s definitively a different genre than what I was working with.

  3. I’m very excited to try this out, and if you think it can be adapted to handle something like Mage: The Ascension – what the hell are we waiting for?!

    What would you guess are going to be the biggest hurdles for someone who has never seen the show and sits down to play the RPG?

  4. That would be right here: http://roll.critical-hits.com/2010/11/26/mage-the-leveraging/

    There’s a lot of good advice on running the game for first time GMs, though they’re going to want to steer clear of the random generation stuff at first certainly. Come up with a job (or steal one from the book) and do a bit of extra prep, and go from there.

  5. Could this game be a good substitute for Spycraft?

  6. For sure. The only big difference is the (intentional) absence of guns in the party’s hands… you’d have to do a little hacking to reintroduce those and everything that come with them.

Trackbacks

  1. […] though: before going too far into a hack of the game, I wanted to get some experiencing running Leverage as is to get my head around it. While I had participated as a player, running it is a whole other […]

  2. […] hardcover that had gone to the beach barely holding it together, as I work on my hack of the Leverage RPG for Mage, and it’s fun to look back at this game that was so influential to me. Not […]

  3. […] Review: “Leverage” RPG from Critical Hits ” RPG (critical-hits.com) […]

  4. […] Leverage: the Roleplaying Game does so many things right. It’s quick, collaborative, easy to prep, iconic, and tethered to a great back-and-forth mechanic and play style. But still, every plan has room for improvement. […]