The Independents: Scum and Villainy

“Easy does it friend.” Ari raises his hands as Marx levels his gun. He raises his voice again across the hanger. “You wouldn’t want to do anything hasty now. I’m sure there’s room to negotiate here. All we want is to get paid, and the artifact is yours.” Already the situation was looking bad. Marx, the supposed buyer they were set up to deal with, chose to bring his own group of thugs, and it seemed like their idea of negotiation involves bullets.

“It looks like we have to move to Zero Gees given.” Ari whispers into his comm. “Grease, are you ready in engineering?”

“As ready as I’m ever going to be.” The gruff voice of his mechanic buzzes over the line. “I really don’t like the way gravitrics has been handling. If we had sprung for the upkeep, I wouldn’t-”

“Now’s not the time!” Ari hisses back. “Ren, tell me you’re ready.”

Ari can hear the cracking of knuckles. “It’s insane…I’ve always wanted to try it!”

Ari can hear the grin on his pilot’s face. He looks back up at Marx, whose goons are now surrounding him. “No? I guess we’re in Freefall

The go word starts the actions. The lights in the hold flicker as the gravity suddenly goes offline. There is a sudden bank as Ren corkscrews through the void, taking them on a controlled tumble. Ari reaches for his gun, “You should have just paid us Marx!”

Strap on your holster, and fire up the ship engines, it’s time for adventure. This week, we are looking at Scum and Villainy, a recent release from Off Guard Games/Evil Hat Productions! We’ve previously mentioned that the system mechanics of Blades in the Dark bear similarities to games Powered by the Apocalypse, but Evil Hat has taken matters further by spinning off their own mechanics into a SRD for other developers to tackle new games. Scum and Villainy is the newest installment of this, and to be honest as far as the genres go the games transition pretty smoothly.

To quickly set up the plot, space is ruled by a core Hegemony…at least in principle. Out in the backwaters, the real movers and shakers are likely criminal enterprises, megacorps trying to make a profit, or cultists hunting after remnants of technology left from an ancient civilization. The players are beings who are looking to break out of the rigged game of legitimate life, looking for some way to rise in the ranks, consorting (or dealing) with the Scum and Villany throughout the galaxy.

Character creation (like BitD) is usually very quick. You select a playbook, each of which rewards a specific style of play with Experience. For example, the Muscle earns XP when they deal with situations using force or threats, while the Scoundrel earns it when they address a problem with charm and audacity. These perks should generally steer you to where you would like to go with your playstyle. From there your character’s Heritage and Background, essentially where they came from and how they grew up, assign four extra skill points and a Special Ability. While not necessary, the book provides a couple of archetypes as examples for players to guide the direction of their playbook. A Scoundrel could be the dashing Captain (Han Solo from Star Wars) or a tough, scrappy Veteran of the Core Wars (Malcolm Reynolds from Firefly), and while players are free to tinker with the exact loadout, they are useful starting points. From there players decide their Vice, a personal weakness which is a useful mechanic for reducing stress or can be invoked by players acting against their own interests in the session for more XP. Finally you pick from a list of NPCs in your playbook, selecting one each to be a friend or rival, mostly as a bit of character color.

Finally, as a team, players select their ship and choose its upgrades. Unlike Blades, which had a variety of gangs to choose from, there are only three options. Each type of ship provides ship XP (upgrades for the ship) for completing jobs of a certain type, and gives the crew a reputation for the types of jobs they take on. Stardancer gives bonuses for smuggling and blockade running, Cerberus for Bounty Hunting and Extraction, and Firedrake for sticking it to the Hegemony. This is probably my greatest quibble with the game. Blades in the Dark had a large variety of gangs, with a wide breadth of what they would specialize in. Scum keeps the specificity, but with so few options, it seems that players are being shoehorned into what they are supposed to be, especially if the ship changed how they are viewed by the galaxy at large. This would be one of the first things I would houserule if I wound up running a game, offering at least a few more options for players, or working collaboratively with them to create something from scratch.

We quickly recapped the FitD gamplay mechanics in the aforementioned article, but we are going to expand a bit here. Even before the roll is made, the GM assigns the challenge level of a check, and as well as the effect it would have. Shooting from a distance in a secure position would be Controlled (that is, you are in a very safe place) but you would have a more limited effect at firing a bunch of suppressive rounds rather than trying to drop a single target. Trying to shoot out the critical power source of a machine which is about to trample you might be Desperate, but man would it be effective if you hit. The GM sets up this balance before the roll, but the players are encouraged to talk it out and focus exactly what they would want to do.

Rolls are made depending on the number of skill dots or attribute points your character possesses, for which your character uses the highest die rolled. A 1-3 is a failure, a 4-5 is success with a complication, and a 6 is a full success. Rolling two or more sixes is a critical success. Players are able to add dice by spending Stress (which is tallied by a tracker), by another player spending it to assist them, or by taking a Devil’s Bargain, wherein they are able to get a roll boost but the GM can invoke consequences for them down the road, regardless of how well they roll. This version also introduces the Gambit. Gambits are a team pool resource which can be spent for an extra die, and are replenished by rolling sixes on risky rolls, offering a gamble for the party to boost the odds.

The upshot of this is that the game is very player facing. GMs don’t really make rolls, it is more that they deal consequences as a result of player actions. When some kind of complication occurring five out of six times, there is usually abundant chance for complications to be handed out, either by having harm dealt to players or by advancing a clock. In the GMing section, GMs are encouraged to not demand what skill needs to be rolled. Instead, a situation is presented to players, and they come up with the method they want to go about solving the problem. Being alone with two guards might naturally seem more like a Scrap roll, but if you are the Sitch . . . there, a beaker of boiling sulfuric acid! Let’s get science-y!

I happen to be a big fan of this branch off from the PbtA system. For me, it increases the number of action options a player has available to them, and has comparatively less restriction on how players can use them. It also takes on the feel of a single shot episode of a TV show, with a very cinematic feel, and in that spirit allows me to make my own version of Firefly, Dark Matter, Farscape, or The Expanse. Cowboy Bebop is another influence the book cites, and I could very easily see recasting the solar system into different ports and boroughs for the same effect. The system already comes in with a number of optional rules, and other than my one issue with ships, I really think that it would be very easy to make the setting your own. I seriously have considered dropping another game in order to put this in the queue, and I believe that I could put my own twist and world build with my group to get something fun going. All in all, Scum and Villainy was a very fun pickup and I recommend it for either newcomers to the system and for Blades fans who want to take a Sci-Fi direction.

You can find a PDF version of the game at DriveThruRPG, and the physical version at Evil Hat.

Unwise deals. Blaster fights. High adventure among the stars. Welcome to the world of Scum and Villainy.

Do you have setting ideas that you think are cool? Tell me about them here or on twitter at @WHalfling! Also, keep an eye out for a potential Meet the Party if you want to get going right away on your adventure!

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