The Independents: Operators

Welcome back to The Independents! It’s time for a gear-up montage as we check out a new offering from the sibling-run outfit Samjoko Publishing! Action movies and RPGs both grew up around the same time, and during the 80s when both forms were fresh, there was some crossover. The James Bond RPG, Ninjas and Superspies, and later Feng Shui and Spycraft all approached movie tropes when developing their playstyles. Now, though, the feel and, dare I say it, choreography of modern action movies has come to RPGs in the form of Operators. Kyle Simons has taken a very different approach from other games in developing Operators, focusing on the fast pace and tight camera work of movies like The Bourne Identity and Mission: Impossible instead of the technical details of their cars, gadgets, and guns. While the game hasn’t been fully released on retail sites like DriveThruRPG, physical rewards have been sent out to Kickstarter backers, meaning the game is pretty close to final form.

Operators takes inspiration from the structure of PbtA games. The Session Zero mechanic laid out here is a “pre-game collage”, where players and the GM (here called “The Director”) grab images of locations, vehicles, people, and scenes to help inform what they want the game to look like. From there, the Director is encouraged to build out a villain, and the game proceeds by “playing to find out what happens” as the Director plays through the villain’s plan which the characters try to foil. The structure, then, is very much aligned with PbtA principles and intended for emergent gameplay. The mechanics, though, are a bit different.

Operators runs on Fate dice, and while it uses the standard ‘4dF’ roll it doesn’t use the traditional additive mechanic that Fate does. Instead, plusses are counted towards success, while minuses provide complications. This works by having skill ranks reversed: all skills are ranked from 1 to 3, but 1 is the best and 3 is the worst. Your skill rank corresponds with how many plusses you must get to succeed: with a rank of 1 you only need 1, with a rank of 3 you need 3. As there are no modifiers, this means that with your rank 1 skills, you have about an 80% chance of succeeding, which is genre-appropriate for action movies. That probability drops off significantly for your lower rank skills, so each character feels narrow and specialized. In addition to your skills, there are three specialties: Training, Discipline, and Trademark, which each grant special abilities when fictionally appropriate. Training allows your character to reroll a single minus die, but only if they play out a flashback scene relevant to their training prior to rolling the dice. Training applies to the character’s wider skillset. Discipline, on the other hand, is a specific sub-skill which the character is very good at, like Krav Maga for fighting or motorcycles for driving. If the discipline is ‘primed’ through an earlier scene that references those specific skills, then a player can reroll any blank dice that come up, ignoring additional minuses (i.e. they can’t, through rerolling, make their roll worse). Finally, the Trademark is a special move that is connected to one of the character’s highest rated skills (a skill with a rank of 1). Once per session, a player can use a trademark to automatically succeed on a roll.

Several other character traits are used, and most of them are adapted from Fate. The Inner Turmoil is clearly the character’s “Trouble”, but here it’s used for downtime scenes which help the character recover stress. Speaking of, Stress and Consequences are lifted wholesale from Fate Core. Each character has a two box mental and physical stress track, and can take one each of minor, moderate, and severe consequences. While framing a downtime scene will help the character recover stress, there is no method noted in the book to recover a consequence.

The vast majority of the game fits into the single roll mechanic, with complications adjudicated by the Director. There are two special subsystems which, while almost entirely for flavor, add a lot to the action movie feel of the game. These are the Fight and Chase mechanics, which use decks of special cards which are available with the game. The Fight mechanic comes into play when a character is engaged with an opponent who is roughly their equal, and while the Fight skill is important, it’s not engaged directly. For a Fight, the player rolls four dice and draws four cards. Mechanically, the die roll means that a player inflicts one Stress for each plus and takes one Stress for each minus. To make it more interesting, though, each die is associated with a card. The cards all have maneuvers on them, like ‘arm lock’ or ‘elbow to the jaw’. By associating each hit with a die (and drawing additional cards for minuses to represent counterattacks), the fight sequence plays out in visceral succession, while still being quick. Fights continue until one side or the other is taken out…as a typical ‘on par’ opponent will have four stress, a one-on-one fight will rarely last more than three rounds. Characters get an edge by having additional ‘temporary stress’ granted to them at a frequency determined by their Fight skill. The chase rules are similar, with a different deck of maneuver cards and the same die-to-maneuver mechanic intended to get players narrating fun and detailed sequences. Here, the character’s Move or Drive skill determines either how many plusses they need to get to catch the opponent, or how long they have to go before getting away.

Outside of the rules, the game has an appendix section filled with loving (and intense) detail on a number of topics relevant to action games, including spy tradecraft, computer hacking, bomb making, and a little bit of gun porn. The references are tied in with some discussion on fictional positioning; while there are no rules differentiating, say, a pistol and a submachine gun, the characters’ loadouts and mission goals align in the fiction, allowing the Director to adjudicate accordingly. This is the very definition of rules-light, but is well-aligned with the philosophies of the OSR, where a game need not provide rules for every single item. Furthering that alignment, there is a discussion on how to run the game more traditionally, and pull back from the default of examples of play in the book, which involve heavily player-driven scene framing.

Operators is a fun bit of rules-light action movie play, and the subsystems introduced are both easy to use and incredibly evocative. The sum total execution of the book, however, needs a little work, both in rules layout and editing. First, the book is silly with typos. “Principles” is misspelled as “Principals” in the table of contents. Essentially all the typos are word gaffes, that is to say correctly spelled words used incorrectly. These are things that spellcheck will never catch but a good editor will, and the book should have another editing pass. Spelling is minor (though hard to un-see), while rules integration is a little tougher. First, while it’s a valid decision to include the full rules in a reference section and abbreviated player-facing rules in “how to play”, it’s not a decision I agree with and I don’t think it’s very effective in this 200 page book. While I usually look at games from a GM perspective, even for a player’s benefit I think a lot of the “behind-the-scenes” rules, like how many stress boxes opponents have, should have been placed in the rules once instead of basically writing things like the Fight and Chase mechanics in two places. Here, Luke Crane’s “in summary” chapter endings from Burning Wheel would have been a much more effective way to help readers digest any complexities, rather than omitting them and putting them back in later.

My other issue with the game comes down to integration. While they don’t hamper the core gameplay loop, this game has several examples of “hanging rules”, mechanics which were dropped in (usually from other games) without enough thought to integration. One example of this is the Director Moves. One of the reasons that MC Moves are so effective in Apocalypse World is that they help the MC understand the pacing of the game, and the back-and-forth cadence of Moves. In Operators, player characters don’t have Moves, and yet the Director Moves are dropped in without much thought as to what they mean. They still represent good advice, mind you, but are fairly incongruous to the rest of the game. What would have worked better would be to use the (excellent, by the way) villain arc steps as building blocks for “Moves” the Director could make. As they are, the Director Moves don’t add much, especially not for someone who isn’t already familiar with Apocalypse World. The other place I see this issue most prominently is the porting of Stress and Consequences from Fate. As I mentioned above, no mode of consequences recovery is outlined in the game, at all. Now, as the game is intended as a one-shot game first and campaign second, this isn’t necessarily a problem. That said, I was expecting to see in the “One Shots and Campaigns” section a mention of recovering consequences between sessions. I did not. What both of these issues have in common is that they arise from assuming a degree of literacy in the systems which the rules were ported from. Having played Apocalypse World, I see the Director Moves and contextually understand how they fit in. Same with Consequences, because I’ve played Fate. A standalone game must be read in isolation, though, so these omissions likely imply that the game should be test-read by a broader group of gamers. These problems are common with many game designers, especially within games which are hacks and adaptations of other systems. Fortunately, Operators has a fun and interesting core loop, and is worth fixing. As the game is not yet fully released (I got my copy as a Kickstarter backer), there is a great opportunity to polish it up and make it into a really tight product.

Operators is a flawed gem which plays great, but needs to be massaged to be easier to use. It adapts rules from PbtA and Fate well, but then makes the mistake of assuming its intended audience will already be familiar with both of these games. This is a shame, because the bones are well put together, the Fight and Chase mechanics are innovative, and the (non-rules) reference material is just awesome. I’m definitely willing to recommend Operators to anyone interested in an action movie game; I also hope that the developers take my observations into account as they prep the game for wider distribution.

Operators will be available soon. The quick-start is available for download at the Samjoko Publishing site.

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