Thursday, 7 May 2009

Larger than Life - Pulp rules

Larger than Life is a set of rules for pulp gaming from TwoHourWargames. The rules cover all kinds of pulp action, allowing for gritty tales of gumshoes, invading aliens and lost worlds.

There are effectively three parts to the rules.

The first part of the rules deals with character creation. All characters are defined by their Reputation (Rep), which may range from 1 to 7. For a look at Rep and how it works, check out Chain Reaction 3.0 from TwoHourWargames, which you can freely download from their website. In addition to this, Larger than Life adds three skill areas; Brains, Brawn and Bravado. One of these will be your primary attribute and any skills you have will be at full Rep, while skills in other areas will be tested at half Rep. This takes your characters further into role-playing territory than most other TwoHourWargames rules go.

Your group will be led by a Star, representing you. The Star has a number of advantages that other characters do not have. These include:
  • Free Will - the Star may choose how he reacts under certain circumstances (other figures must roll);
  • Star Power - the Star uses this to try to reduce any damage received, making Stars much tougher than others;
  • Cheating Death - the Star may cheat death, although this does reduce his Rep for future games; and
  • Larger than Life - the Star may not be killed by figures of lower Rep than them.
The Star also gets Advantages that can give them positive attributes and disadvantages that can negatively affect the character in some areas. These rules enhance the survivability of your Star. Alongside your Star, you may have a Co-Star, a Love Interest and a number of Extras. Each of these will have their own skills too. All of this builds towards creating a group that has a lot of character and feels like it might have lived in the pulps.

The villains get their own versions of this and rules are included for creating the chief villain, his femme fatale and henchmen as needed.

The second part of the rules covers campaign play. The Star starts at home and is given a task, which might involve rescuing someone or recovering an object or just plain thwarting the villain. Like a film, the action moves from scene to scene with the Star and his loyal cohorts trying to extract the information they need to find the villain and beard him in his lair. You roll to see where you need to go and how you get there. Then you find out if an encounter occurs en route and resolve it of there is one. Then you try to find the clue and extract the information. This last process involves rolling against a randomly determined difficulty factor. It is possible that the villain can turn up and corner you while you are looking for clues, or that you can have other encounters with the locals along the way. There are army lists in the rules that cover a variety of different types of encounters and others are downloadable from the TwoHourWargames Yahoo group. Successfully completing each scene leads to you eventually finding the villain and going to the final showdown. The final showdown is the only time that you are guaranteed a figure game.

The final part of the rules covers setting up figure games and playing them out. It includes rules for generating the basic terrain of the area, the number of opponents that your group faces based on the total Rep of your group and the combat rules. These systems are fairly standard for TwoHourWargames and you can get an idea of how they play out by looking at Chain Reaction 3.0 or Chain Reaction: Swordplay. The basic mechanic involves rolling a number of dice equal to your combat skill, modified by circumstances, and trying to score more successes than your opponent. As I wrote earlier, check out the free rules from TwoHourWargames to see how these systems work.

That covers what the rules contain to some extent. So, the question is: how do they play?

Our Game
We started a story tonight. I umpired the game and made all the non-player character rolls, while my friend, Steve, took the part of the good guys. His star was a PI employed by a wealthy benefactor, who was sent in search of an object. The rules did not specify what this object was, but we worked out that the villain was a Native, so it was probably a tribal artefact. Presumably the PI's wealthy benefactor is a collector of such things. The PI set out in search of information. He was chasing a variety of people that might be able to tell him where to find what he was looking for and his Interrogate skill came into its own throughout this. We went through twelve such encounters with varying success. By the end of the evening, the PI had found 4 clues, not nearly enough to find the villain. His final encounter was a failed attempt to find someone that could tell him where to look. He ran into a young lady with three soldiers in tow, who shot him and his friends up before capturing them all. The rules include a section that abstracts the escape process. We rolled this and all of the good guys escaped to continue their search. We finished the session at that point.

Our Thoughts
Characters in this game are interesting. I like the need to choose primary and secondary skill areas. It gives figures different areas that they excel in, so even your Star can be outshone by his Co-Star at times. The character creation process is fairly simple, although I had to search a bit in the rulebook to follow the process through. Still, it worked and with the characters created the game play can get moving.

The campaign system is quite heavily abstracted and requires a fair bit of imagination and input to flesh out the encounters. By making them into rolls against a difficulty factor, the basic elements of the campaign have a fairly plain flavour. This process can also drag on a lot if you follow the system slavishly as written. This does not necessarily make for a good face-to-face system. On the other hand, if you have the time to invest in it, and want to write up the story as it progresses, this system will work very well for solo play. I certainly intend to try solo games to see if the campaign system has more interest. It will probably work quite well for me in that regard because I enjoy creating the story. However, we did not find it that engrossing for our face-to-face game.

The miniatures system is typical of TwoHourWargames and I like it. I like their rules and the way they work anyway, and this system does not disappoint. I particularly like the idea and implementation of Star Power. It gives a cinematic quality to the action that makes me want to quote Monty Python's Black Knight. You can try the system for yourself with the free rules I have mentioned before, so I shall not comment too much on this aspect of the rules. I like it and it works for me.

The rules are put together and written quite well. We had to flick through the rules quite a bit to check some things, but overall they work well. A few points were not particularly clear (e.g. how you resolve finding a clue with people; the table is under the objects section) but overall it was clear enough. Having a fair bit of familiarity with the TwoHourWargames paradigm probably helped too.

The system has a lot of potential. I think that the campaign system in the rulebook is likely to work best for solo play. I also think that the numbers needed to reach the final showdown are too high based on how our game worked. As it stood, we needed ten successful clues to stand a chance of reaching the villain with the Rep4 PI. Given that we had played through twelve attempts to find clues and only obtained four of them in the space of two hours, the game would have dragged on a bit too long. Reducing the numbers by about 5 would probably be a suitable solution for us. That would mean a minimum of five clues and an average of eight to reach the final showdown.

Another, probably better, approach for face-to-face play would be for one player to script the story, including encounters and deciding the results of success and failure. This might work well using a system where the player has to win a set number of games to reach the showdown. While this is more like a traditional wargame, I think that Larger than Life could benefit from such an approach under some circumstances. I think you could use the system in the book to help generate these games but I am not yet convinced that it will work for competitive play.

Leaving aside my concerns about the campaign system, once you get to a figure game, the system works really well. Battles are fast and furious and great fun. You can get quite a few played in a typical session and characters do not always react the way you would want them to. This makes them act more like real people, which I really like.

Overall, I don't think this is the best system from TwoHourWargames. The battles are great fun but the campaign system lets it down a bit for competitive play, although it is good for solo play. If you are going to play solo, I would recommend these rules to you. If you want to play games against your mates, then the campaign system can be used to generate games, but I would not use it exactly as written. As such, I would recommend the rules, but with reservations.

I shall certainly be playing Larger than Life again and experimenting with what works best for me. The beauty of them is that the system is simple enough that you can tinker with it without breaking it. There is also fantastic support from Ed at TwoHourWargames on the Yahoo group, which is a major advantage. Ed responds to all rules queries quite quickly, which is brilliant and really helps.

You can buy Larger than Life from TwoHourWargames and it is the Featured Game for May 2009, so you can get it a bit cheaper right now. It is certainly worth a try, despite my reservations. I shall certainly do so, and I shall write up my experiences on this blog when I do so to see if my opinions have changed.

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