RPG Mega Mix, Round One Review: Firefly the RPG

Nuthin’ ever goes smooth! The players had done the job, escorted the runaway rich girl to her secret elopement with her beloved. On the way, we had avoided agents of her villainous husband-to-be, Tempelton Colt Steele (not a name I came up with, I swear), mechanical malfunctions and the predations of frenzied, cannibalistic Reavers. They’d done the job, and they just wanted to get paid.

And then a previously staunch ally, a lover to one of the crew, pulled a gun and emitted the evilest of laughs….cue the shocked faces of our heroes, the tense music, and bam, the perfect cliffhanger. But we’re we writing an enjoyable, but predictable, script or playing a game?

The Basics

The Firefly RPG is the creation of Margaret Weis and uses the “Cortex Action” variant of her proprietary “Cortex Plus” system. It’s a quick and simple way to run a game and it works likes this: Each player has a dice pool ranging from d4 (terrible) to d12 (the best possible). This dice pool is assembled by taking the relevant dice from:

Your basic pool

  • An attribute – Your basic strength, smarts or social skills.
  • A skill – There are 19 you can pick from, such as sneak, fly or drive.

Your extra dice (if they apply to the situation)

  • A signature asset – Like a gun or medkit.
  • A distinction – Something that defines your character, a special move of sorts.
  • Big Damn Hero Dice – A reward you pick up for rolling particularly high (we’ll cover this later) 
  • Assets in favour of your crew
  • Complications in favour of your crew.

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When a player wants to take an action, regardless of what it is, he describes it to the GM and assembles his dice pool. The GM “Sets the Stakes” by rolling the opposition dice and adding together the two highest numbers rolled to get one total.  The player then attempts to “Raise the Stakes” by rolling the player’s dice pool and adding the two highest numbers rolled.

If the player exceeds the GM’s total, the player has raised the stakes and the action succeeds. If he beats the GM roll by 5 or more then he adds his highest dice to his sheet as a “Big Damn Hero Dice” which he can use later. If the result is a tie or lower than the GM’s, then the player failed to raise the stakes and the story changes in an unexpected way.

Both the GM and the Player can use Plot Points to affect the outcome of the roll. In essence, Plot Points are a narrative currency which allows both sides of the screen to monkey with the outcome of the game. Best represented at the table by poker chips, they can do the following:

  • Keep an additional die from your dice pool in a total after your roll
  • Activate a Distinction trigger (when required)
  • Create an Asset (like a weapon or tool) at a d6 that lasts until the end of the scene
  • Make an existing Asset last until the end of the Episode
  • Roll a Big Damn Hero Die and add it to your total after you roll 

If any dice in either pool roll a one, you’ve rolled a jinx. Your opponent may then spend a Plot Point to create a Complication regardless of whether or not you’ve won the roll. A complication is an unhelpful Trait your opponent can use to work against you. The Complication die starts out at a d6 and increases for each jinx rolled in the die pool.

If that all sounds pretty simple that’s because it is. It easy to assess the various skills on your sheet at a glace before assembling your dice pool and get rolling. However, while simplicity is good, it can be restrictive. So how does it work in practice?

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The Game Itself

Before we get into this I’m just going to put this out there……I gorram love Firefly. As far as I’m concerned it remains one of the best Sci-fi shows to have been created and it cancelling was a tragedy on a Euripidean scale.

That being said, I found the sheer scale of TV show references piled into the core rules to be mildly obnoxious. I know the show inside and out, I’d be genuinely surprised if a GM decided to run this game without at least having watched the show a few times. So I found myself hissing in irritation at the fact that the first 136 pages of my corebook were a blow by blow rehash of the episodes of the TV show with a sporadic drip-feed of rules.

Compounding this is the fact that the Echoes of War: Wedding Planners mission PDF that I picked up has a “quick-start” style rule-set in it that runs for only 23 pages. I don’t need a narrative reminder of the first season, I can always just watch the show, I needed the rules to set out clearly and in a sensible order.

The other side effect of this emphasis on replaying the TV show is that it takes until page 162 before the game grudgingly mentions that there is an option not to play as the cast. You can create your own character, there is a list of archetypes to pick from, but it seems oddly sparse and lifeless. More like an afterthought than the main thrust of the game.

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Indeed, while you are provided with a map of the Verse, very little information is provided outside that which you would have picked up from the show. The rest of the Verse remains a blank space. A stark contrast to the game’s emphasis on the warm familiarity of its main characters.

If you are coming to this game wanting to construct your own crew and fly your own ship around the verse the be prepared to put the legwork in. You might be able to bobble around the planets and places that come up in the show, but if you want to head out into the black you’ll need to get a little creative.

The flip-side of this is that when we leant into it, when our characters fell into familiar tropes: the gruff former Browncoat with a heart of gold, the wisecracking pilot, the big dumb outlaw, it became a really fun game. Even if the Wedding Planners mission felt like a quick mating of the plot lines of Our Mrs Reynolds and Shindig (honestly, who calls a character Templeton Colt Steele? Every time he showed up it sounded like we were acting out a cheap paperback erotica novel)

Dice flew, Plot Points were tossed back and forth, the story switched and changed with every roll, keeping everyone on their feet. We stopped trying to make our own way in the verse and just let the familiarity structure of a TV show wash over us. We all saw the eventual double-cross coming a mile off, but when it did arrive we cheered and cursed and shouted in Chinese. (太空所有的星球塞盡我的屁股 – Tai-kong suo-yo duh shingchiou sai-jin wuh duh pee-goo)

Player Perspectives

Joe: I played Don Li, dock foreman, ships captain and former Browncoat, and he had a whale of a time! There was love, loss, tragedy, betrayal and a quick leg-trembler in the cargo bay ;). As a player, however, I felt a bit like a spectator. The whole scenario felt a bit like the script was already written and we were just actors in it. I’m not saying our GM was railroading us, I don’t think he could have given how much input the game gives us in the narrative, it just felt like we had a clear beginning, middle and (twist) ending and we would get the best results from the game by sticking to that. I actually voted for Blades in the Dark and, if anything, Firefly has just made me look forward to playing that more.

Adam: I really enjoyed it. But I think I might have enjoyed it more if I was playing as Wash. I loved how simple the dice system was, it’s so easy to pick up, and the Plot Points mechanic made me feel like we could effect real changes in the direction of the story without having to rely on the DM to interpret our actions. I’m not sure why we didn’t play as the crew of Serenity, and if we play again I’ll be pushing for that, My worry with this game is that, because of the focus on the TV storyline, you would get bored of replaying it scene by scene way before a campaign ended. I’m looking forward to what choices 1D4 gives us in the next round, I’m hoping to somehow bribe the others into voting for Edge of the Empire.

The Roundup

There’s a fair bit about the Firefly RPG that I don’t like. I don’t like being railroaded as a player and I hate it as a GM. The early part of the corebook is excruciating and possibly the worst way of setting out the rules I’ve seen for some time.

But for all that it is still a hugely fun game. We didn’t play as the main characters but I suspect that if we had, we may have enjoyed it more. In my opinion, the game is designed to be at its best when everyone slips comfortably into their roles as a member of Serenity’s crew, complete with orange tasselled hat.

If I was to run the Firefly RPG again I would probably invite everyone in costume, have the soundtrack on, pull out my best Badger impression and cheer at every well-timed, character specific line and badly pronounced Chinese insult. Then we would put the game away, pick up something that gave us far more creative freedom and just watch Firefly after the game. I do a good Mal Reynolds impression, but Nathan Fillion does a much better one.

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What was your experience of the Firefly RPG? Were you big damn heroes or did you crawl away like a bitty-little bug? Please Like, Comment and Subscribe for regular content 🙂

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6 thoughts on “RPG Mega Mix, Round One Review: Firefly the RPG

  1. I found the rule introduced through episode summaries helpful. It made me imagine the setting using the CORTEX mechanics.
    As far as characters I guess that, although I am a fan of Firefly and my players familiar with it, we went our own direction from the beginning. Maybe this is because the players first played in the Star Wars Edge of the Empire setting and are used to “playing around canon.”

    Liked by 1 person

    1. My guys went exactly the other way. They were super against playing in an established canon with characters that were already really fleshed out. They wanted to make their own characters in the same ‘Verse and I don’t think the game does that in a satisfactory manner. That being said it’s hard to accuse a game of being bad when I actually really enjoyed it. I think the plot points lead to some great, group narrative and we all got to work on our Chinese profanity 🙂

      Like

  2. I’ve heard about this but never read a review. It’s a shame about it not being as fun as GM, but generally, it sounds interesting, and I love the idea of playing it in cosplay. Awesome article!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks Luke. I’m thinking full on cosplay would be the best way to do it. I’m a little tall for Badger and a little young for Niska but I do a damn good impression of both :). I just don’t think the game has legs. Once you’d got the big costume party out of the way you probably wouldn’t come back to it.

      It looks like we’ll be playing Blades in the Dark or Tales from the Loop next week. I’ve heard rave reviews about both so I’m pretty excited 🙂

      Like

      1. That is such a shame. I love Firefly, and want this RPG to work so badly! But if it doesn’t then it doesn’t.

        I’ve not heard of either of those, so I look forward to the write ups 🙂

        Like

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