A couple hundred years ago, an event called The Fold sent every living being across every dimension into a sort of nightmare reality. Very Powerful Beings were able to reconstitute themselves eventually, but the world was utterly trashed. Using magic and strange technology, lichs, dragons, demons, angels, capitalists, and other monsters built the sprawling megacity of Neo-Francisco. In one of those lost realities, you might have been the heroes destined to save it. In the neon-sick car crash of technological majesty, fantasy weirdness, dimensional rifts, and incredibly funky music that is NF, however, you’re gig workers working for the delivery app Disposable Heroes. It’s deadly work, but it pays! Sorta. This is the deck-based roleplaying game of long hours, high mortality rates, and blazing neon from Sandy Pug Games!
Sandy Pug Games has actually crossed our radar a number of times in the past – Americana got the nod in October 2018’s Kickstarter Wonk, You Are Quarantined with Adam Driver and He is Insisting on Reading You His New Script was featured as part of April 2020’s Bargain Bin Gaming, and even Disposable Heroes was in the Kickstarter Wonk for October 2019. They must be doing something we like to keep popping up on our radar, but this is the first time we’ve given them the full review treatment. When he was looking at DH’s Kickstarter Aaron described the game as a “Cyberpunk Roguelike XCrawl”, but let’s see what we can make of it with the full product.
DH is a Powered by the Apocalypse game, specifically of the Dungeon World strain: your characters have the typical Strength, Dexterity, Constitution, Intelligence, Wisdom, and Charisma attributes, most actions are going to be covered by ready-to-use moves, and you’re rolling 2d6 plus a modifier with the results landing you with different degrees of success. One change makes the most dramatic difference to the mechanics of the game, however: characters do not have hit points. If a character takes damage, any kind at all, they die. That’s it, they’re gone. Unless they had a point of Armor, in which case they lose the point and will only die the next time they take damage.
Must have pretty short sessions, huh? Well, no, and that’s where the other most fundamental change to the game comes in: the cards. How do you pick your character? You draw a card from the deck of options, 52 in all. What happens when a character dies? They go into the discard pile, and you draw another Disposable Hero, continuing to play using their stats, gear, and abilities to get that magical tchotchke to its destination. After all, this is the gig economy – there’s always someone waiting to take your work, ‘waiting right behind you for their shot at the coveted 5 star rating’. How do they get into the action? Who knows, doesn’t matter. Maybe they get a ping and race over, maybe they’re sitting in a bar and see the package hit the sidewalk outside, maybe the app teleports them to the scene. Point is the package keeps moving.
In additions to the stats above, each character has a few things going for them, aside from name and sobriquet: a weapon, a unique move, and an animal. The weapon will have a die (d4-d12) assigned to it, and that’s how much damage you can do when using it; that might not sound like a lot, but mooks typically have 3 HP, and bosses up to 12, so no slogs here one way or another. Said weapon will also have tags to help guide how it’s used in the narrative, like Reach, Throwing, Magic, Messy, Stunning, and so on. The move and animal on a card are completely unique to that character, and are really what makes playing a bunch of different characters fun. The moves are written out as per usual, and we’ll have some examples shortly, but the animal is much more nebulous.
Essentially, each character has powers related to the animal listed on the front of their card. It could be plain magical, it could be a spirit riding along, or the characters themselves might even be animals, but however you flavor it, the characters can act as their animal without having to roll anything, provided that their actions aren’t interacting with a move. The example highlighted in the rules is The Bat, who can Fly and Echolocate.
Zuzu The Fighter (The Badger) has an Ancestral Long Sword, and can roll+STR to name those who will live and those who will die when they go into battle. Chantek The Tea Brewer (The Orangutan) wraps their hands to strike foes, and can tell with a glance what tea someone will like – sharing a cup may allow them to learn great secrets or gain leverage. Nigel The Pirate (The Seagull) wields a flintlock and has a boat they can summon to any body of water or any stretch of land it may fit upon, and which might have everything from Lots of Cannons to an Undead Crew. James Ha The Hive (The Bees) might stand out the most with their move: whenever they act, they can succeed as long as you tear the card in half and discard one half, until you can’t reasonably tear it in half again, at which point you scatter the pieces and grab a new hero (you can always put the card back together with tape, it says).
I think that’s a large enough sample size to show how having characters die a lot is actually part of the appeal, letting players try all kinds of different things over the course of the game.
The actual gameplay these characters engage in is all about delivering the package to whatever extremely Powerful Being has ordered it, navigating their defenses and the general chaos of Neo-Francisco. The moves are pretty standard – melee and ranged fighting, talking things out, protecting your allies, figuring things out with either street or book smarts, that sort of thing. Two stand out as unique. I Quit is for when you’ve “had enough of this shit” – you discard your current character, and roll flat 2d6 to either help your former co-workers or make things worse for them as you leave the job. Could be useful in a really tough spot, or good if you don’t care for the character you’ve got. The last has to deal with the package. Packages can have all sorts of tags (handheld, unwieldy, rush job, illegal cargo, volatile, hardy, etc.), but they also have HP, 3 by default. Delivery! gets used when you actually, finally, deliver the package, and you roll+ the package’s current HP. This will either get you that 5-star rating, have you teetering on the age of unemployment, or see you fired and facing a boss fight.
And yes, package HP can go into the negative.
Play continues until you get to make the Delivery! move. What happens when you run out of cards? That’s up to you, says the game. Perhaps it means game over, perhaps the discard pile gets reshuffled and everyone leaps back into the fray.
All that is how the game functions on the mechanical level, but what about the world it’s set in? Well, what you’ve read so far is all from the cards or the box they come in, and that’s a pretty good start. There’s one card in the deck with both sides devoted to setting basics, and then you’ve got 52 characters worth of crazy abilities, animal power shenanigans, and wacky weaponry (from a Long Range Rifle to a Bag of Cans to a Time Knife) to give you an idea of what life in Neo-Francisco is like. Still, in the end it’s a little short on details, with DH running into the limitations of the ‘whole game in a single deck of cards’ idea. There’s just not a lot of free space to work with. With just the deck in hand, you’ll have to come up with details on your own, which will be just fine for some and a daunting prospect for others.
For the latter, however, there is some good news, even though it involves some extracurricular reading: Disposable Heroes has a wiki of sorts. Here you can find all sorts of additional inspirational information. Details about the wider world outside of NF. A deeper look at Powerful Beings like the Dread Lich Draxxus Bombastus and Albaloam the Great Golden Dragon of Yix. History and culture, like the time NF wound up on the moon (which, by the way, is sentient now) and the nitty-gritty details of popular bloodsport Fantasy-Basketball.
There are a few red links, so there’s room to grow, and it’s not the best-organized wiki I’ve ever seen, but it is a very interesting read, and for those who need a little more to go off of it’ll be a vital DH GMing resource.
Disposable Heroes seems to me like it’s a game that’s perfect for one-shots, and even random pick-up games come the day we can actually go back to game stores and conventions. Campaign play? Not so much, although the FAQ on the wiki points towards an idea where the Disposable Heroes are a mercenary company with a base that they teleport to when they get hurt, and honestly that sounds pretty fun. The characters are all so wacky it might be nice to keep them around and get to know them a little better.
This is a game designed for fast-paced fun, and from the moves to the art it’s positively dripping with character. The back of the box claims it’s “unlike anything you’ve ever played”, and you know what? It’s telling the truth.
You can find Disposable Heroes in both print and play and physical formats on itch.io, and you can also find physical copies at Exalted Funeral and Spear Witch. $10 will get you a print-and-play, $40 net the physical version. Given that it’s still the plague times, it’s very fortunate that there’s also a Tabletop Simulator version of the game on Steam. And, as mentioned, you can check out the Disposable Heroes site to learn more about the world of Neo-Francisco.
What are you waiting for? Bombastus has ordered a paperweight made from the condensed screaming souls of the innocent, and there are plenty of other ‘heroes’ who’d like to take the job. Get to work!
Thanks to Sandy Pug Games for sending us a copy of Disposable Heroes to review!
Like what Cannibal Halfling Gaming is doing and want to help us bring games and gamers together? First, you can tell your friends about us! You could travel through one of our fine and elegantly crafted links to DriveThruRPG which, thanks to our Affiliate partnership with them, gets us funds to get more games to review! Finally, you can support us directly on Patreon, which lets us cover costs, pay our contributors, and save up for projects. Thanks for reading!