The d12 is the best polyhedral die around, no contest. It has a pleasing shape, it rolls well, it can sub in for a d4 and a d6 as needed, Yet the noble dodecahedron is also tragically underutilized. Barbarians and their greataxes, the best/worst dice in FFG/EDGE Narrative Dice games, the odd spell here or there. A random table if it’s lucky. Well, no more! One game has burst onto the scene to give the d12 its due at long last, its starring roll… and what better role to star in than in a good-bad action movie? A good movie, those are easy. But a ‘bad’ action movie that’s still so good? Those stand up to the test of time. Get ready to write your script and delve into your favorite clichés with Action 12 Cinema from The RPG Academy’s Michael K. Ross!
“B Movie Action. 12 Sided Dice” is the appropriately action-movie-ish tagline for this game, and in this case the game is exactly what it says on the tin: A12C exists to let you create an action movie of your very own, the more so-bad-it’s-good the better, and then play through it as the heroes. It’s a movie designed by committee, but for once that may not be a bad thing, as A12C is a GMless game where every player is a script co-writer and a starring Hero.
Of course, to have a movie you need a script, and that’s the first thing your group will do when gathering together for your A12C one-shot, the default method of play, although the game notes that there might be some fun to be had in making direct-to-tv sequels (A12C2:2D6?). First, you decide on your rating – PG-13 is the assumed default, but so long as everyone is okay with changing it, go right ahead. Get your safety tools, i.e. your content warnings, in place such as the X-Card and Lines & Veils. Next, decide your genre – every A12C movie is an action movie, sure, but it could be a creature feature, or fantasy, or horror, or martial arts, or sci-fi, or superheroes, or more! You also figure out what era the movie is being set in – take note if you end up with a sci-fi movie set in the year 3000 but made in the 60s.
Next, you need your Big Bad Evil Guy. Perhaps they’re terrorists, or fascists, or a dragon, or yourself from the future. You can make up your own, or you could use the best die ever to roll on some random tables. The book notes that this, like many random elements, may require some creativity to fit into what you’ve already got – the example given is a “Wizard” BBEG in an 80s action thriller who is the CEO of WizardCorp, developing technology to brainwash people and take over the world. While the plot may be thin, you still need one to tell you what your BBEG is up to. Perhaps they’re cloning world leaders and replacing them, or trying to use the Necronomicon, or there’s a tornado full of something unlikely, or it’s all just a case of mistaken identity.
A game of A12C is meant to be played out in three acts, and you’ll need obstacles for the Heroes to overcome. You set out six in total – one for the first act, two for the second, and three for the third. Since what exactly they will look like will be determined during play, the contents of the random tables in this instance are pretty generic: Fight!, Collect All The Pieces, Plan It Out, A Mystery To Be Solved, Endangered/Injured Civilians, that sort of thing. While you’ll be filling the middle in as you go, you also establish two locations during setup: where you start, and where the big finale will take place. You give each a few details, and also settle on what the Worst Possible Thing that could happen there is. The Underground Casino is lush and extravagant, but everyone is armed, so any fight will be a mess. The Engine Room is a tight space, difficult to access and full of hazards, and you really don’t want the coolant to fail or else the whole thing will explode.
You can’t just have Heroes, of course. Not everyone can be among the stars, so every player then creates a supporting character. They need a name, a description, and a relationship to one of the Heroes. They could be mentored, a former lover, a sibling, or even a rival! The last part of your script writing actually happens after character creation since it will be partially informed by who the Heroes are, but I’ll address it here: Tropes. Action movies are chock full of tropes, the more recognizable the better. You pick out five for Act One – during play Heroes can tap into them to improve their chances of success, more on that later. Unused tropes moved to Act Two with new ones filling the list back up to five. There could be a Cavalry Betrayal or a Bullet Catch. You might be Kinda Busy Here, possibly because you have to make a Life-or-Limb Decision. Escaping Deadly Gas may be something you have to deal with, perhaps by using an Air Vent Passageway. Will you go through a Super Power Origin Montage, or find yourself in a tense Mexican Standoff? Watch out for Exploding Fish Tanks, and don’t forget to Cut the Red Wire, No. Wait! The Blue One.
Now that you know what kind of movie you’re in, who’s in it?
Heroes have four Attributes – Brains, Brawn, Charm, and Moxie – which you assign an array of +0, +1, +1, and +2 to as you wish. Then you have two Skills at +2 and three Skills at +1. Skills are “anything you want them to be”, and you make up and fill in their entries yourself. Examples given include Acrobatics, Blacksmithing, Dancing, Firefighting, Investigation, Artistry, Counterfeiting, Firearms, Hypnotism, and Mining. The logic advised is to make a Skill broad so that you’ll be able to use it a lot but the game notes that making a very specific Skill and then trying to work it into the story can be a lot of fun. You also don’t need to fill them all out right away – Ross notes in the text that he had players fill out their +2 Skills during character creation, but had them leave the +1 Skills blank to be generated during play.
Each character also has four spaces for Relationships, two of which get filled at character creation. Perhaps the character you have a relationship with is actively in the scene to help you (like having your partner’s back, and they’ve always got yours), or perhaps the emotional support/inspiration drives you to succeed (“You Can’t Let Your Daughter Down Again”). You also have a Heroic Trait that sets you apart from normal folk such as Protector of the Weak, Too Foolhardy to Fail, Master Tactician, or Just, as well as an Achilles Heel that holds you back or can make things worse such as I’ll Just Wing It, I’m The Smartest Person In The Room, Fear of Failure, or I Forget My Own Strength.
Finally, each character has a Personal Crisis on their hands – “a staple of Action Movie Heroes is that they’re the right person to be an action hero, but their personal life is in a mess.” Think of John McClane’s marital troubles in Die Hard, and you’re on the right track. Again, you’re making up your own, but the examples given range from regretting ending a relationship because of how others viewed it to someone else having taken the blame for you to figuring out who you are now that the war is over. The Personal Crisis is more a roleplaying prompt than anything else – it’ll only cause you any mechanical trouble at times of your choosing.
When it comes to actually resolving a task, that’s where all the d12s come in, specifically in dice pool form. You always start with one d12, and then you add more from the attribute you’re using, a skill if it’s relevant, and a relationship if you can leverage it. If you tap into a Trope, you can get an additional one as well, although the Trope can’t be used this way more than once. You’ll end up with one to five d12s, five being the maximum unless you bring your Achilles Heel into play, which adds two dice that can bring the maximum to seven. If you remove a die from your pool before rolling, there’s a chance you can make progress on resolving your Personal Crisis. After rolling your die, 8s and higher are successes and 1s are setbacks. 12s count as two successes and can be spent in a number of ways including rolling another d12 yourself and adding it to your roll, keeping a d12 you can roll on another player’s turn to help them, or even some healing! Finally, you can use your Heroic Trait to reroll as many dice as you like, except for any 1s. The setbacks stick around.
Once you’re finished rolling the dice you subtract your setbacks from your successes to see if you’ve accomplished what you set out to do. If you have leftover successes, the answer is yes! If your result is zero you don’t make any progress but you do activate a villain cutscene – it won’t have any mechanical effect, but it does introduce new information to the fiction as we see what the bad guys are up to, and that may include new issues for the heroes to deal with. If your result is negative, however, you get a critical failure.
Those obstacles we mentioned earlier? Each needs 12 successes to be overcome so that the heroes can advance through the story/the movie can keep moving along. Each player will take turns as the ‘active player’ narrating/roleplaying out what their character is doing to overcome the obstacle, roll the dice, and then tallies how many leftover successes they got. When someone gets the 12th success, you’re past the obstacle! However, if you rolled a critical failure things take a decidedly bad turn for the heroes, and you instead add up to four more successes back on to how many you need.
While A12C is a rules-lite game, it is quite interestingly a theory-heavy game. Ross has very clearly spent a lot of effort in thinking of both the building blocks of a good-bad movie and how to translate that into a roleplaying game. Some of this is built into the mechanics and the gameplay flow, such as the three act structure of a session. Much of it, however, is wrapped up in discussion. There’s talk about using the language of film to smooth the transition from a visual medium to an oral/theatre-of-the-mind one (complete with book recommendation for further reading). There’s lists of character types for inspiration and an outline of the seven basic plots to provide a framework.
There are more than twenty pages of tropes and their descriptions (which kindly saves you from getting lost in TV tropes for a week). Least surprisingly, there’s a filmography to look into with examples for each of the subgenres of action: The Thing for Action/Horror, Time Bandits for Action/Fantasy, and The Magnificent 7 (but only the 2016 one) for Action/Western, for a few examples.
The book also darn near starts with addressing whether A12C is a storytelling game (“a game where multiple players collaborate on telling a spontaneous story”) or a roleplaying game (“a game in which players assume the roles of characters in a fictional setting”). This is a bad medium/industry for terminology, honestly. Doesn’t every roleplaying game tell a story? What makes a roleplaying game a game? What perspective do you take on a role? Terms get tossed around a lot, and the definitions are often kind of fuzzy. I found it very interesting that Ross took the time to talk about A12C’s place in that spectrum since it’s improv-heavy and rules-lite, with the answer being that it moves around a bit – the active player, up until dice are rolled, is simply telling the story of what’s going on without any need to check in with others. That might be the sum of it, with folks taking turns telling the story, but players can also sort of zoom in to play roles where they want to. Perhaps multiple characters are in the same scene, or the active Hero has an open communication line with another, or maybe even non-active players jump in to provide enemy banter from the guards the active Hero is sneaking past (an example right from the book).
The pins that hold the entire thing together are The Three Rules. To paraphrase: you don’t break with the fiction that been established already, you can’t take away another player’s agency, and you don’t grant yourselves success towards an obstacle without dice hitting the table. That avoids plot holes, fights in the trailers, and messy script rewrites all in one go.
If you need big numbers or a lot of abilities or gadgets or mechanics to reach the feeling of being a proper over-the-top action Hero, A12C isn’t going to do it for you. The +14 to Autofire just isn’t there. It’s also, strictly speaking, not a game where you play to find out what happens – you set out the cast, the plot, the obstacles, and all the tropes in play before the inciting incident that kicks off the plot even gets started, and there’s a certain amount of predictability to the overall story that may not interest everyone. It’s more of a game where you find out how things happen, and if that floats your boat then you’ll be doing just fine. Action 12 Cinema is a game that knows exactly what it is and what it wants to accomplish, and everything between the covers is working in service to that. It is, as the book itself claims, a love letter to action movies. If you love them too, there’s a good chance that A12C will be the perfect way to write a love letter of your own.
Action 12 Cinema’s Kickstarter is in its own third act and barreling towards a final showdown, coming to an end on Wednesday, March 22 2023 10:15 PM EDT. It’s already reached its basic funding goal and increased the art budget; ready-to-play movies complete with Heroes and Even More Art are still on the list of goals to stretch for. So lock and load, think of some good one liners, and get your seat in the Cinema before the credits roll!
Thanks to Michael K. Ross for sending us a draft copy to review!
One thought on “Action 12 Cinema Kickstarter Review”
Thank you for the review.