Thursday, September 24, 2009

Review: Bounty Head Bebop

“You know the first rule of combat? Shoot them before they shoot you.” - Faye Valentine, Cowboy Bebop.

Back in 1998 a new Anime appeared on the scene, something new called Cowboy Bebop. It dealt with the lives and misadventures of a group of bounty hunters in the solar system of the future that looked more like the wild west. There were guns, and terra-formed planets, a corrupt government, the mobs and of course lots of criminals. The crew of the Bebop spent their time doing jobs, keeping their ship together and avoiding starving. While this made for a great show in and of itself, the really cool thing about this were the characters. Larger than life, with secrets, agendas and a history of development that lead them to where they were at that point.

In other words a perfect setting for a Role Playing Game.

The game, Bounty Head Bebop, obviously takes some cues from the series. (AN ASIDE. I understand that this game was supposed to have been an officially licensed product, but I do not have anything to support that with. So instead of explaining all the time why they are the same, let’s just say they are cut from the same cloth and move on from there.)

Bounty Head Bebop (BHB), is a game where you can spend your time flying around a terra-formed solar system hunting down “bounty heads” for fun and profit. The game itself is a slick little RPG with a fun cinematic feel to it. It does what it says on the tin, and does it well.

BHB uses a system called the Inverted 20 system. Basically you have a Target Number (often set by the GM, with guidance), that is modified by ability, skill and or difficulties, your job is to roll that score or under (and different things happen if you hit the number or roll under). The die mechanic is really that simple. Anyone familiar with d20 will catch on fairly quickly despite the roll under mechanic. Now I will be honest, I am not a fan of roll under systems, but I think it works here. To me it seems that Anime based games work best as roll-under. Maybe it is all of those years of BESM or maybe it because it just provides me with a different feel.

Like other d20 games you attributes that despite the name changes look familiar, skills, various edges and flaws, all which work like GURPS. No need to reinvent the wheel, they work fine. Everything is point buy and you spend XP to raise them, like Unisystem.

BHB does something REALLY nice here. Puts in a Character Creation Summary so you can get an overview of everything you need to do. Figure out everything in order.
Attributes look familiar if you have been playing any game at all. They are scored from 1 to 5 for starting characters, but can go up.
Imitative and Movement are derived. As are Saves, Wounds and Vitality points. All pretty simple to figure out.

Skills are next and they are divided up into General, Combat and Specialty. General skills are your everyday skills and like d20 are tied to a specific attribute. Combat skills allow you to fight. Want to be better at aiming or hitting with your fists, then improve the skill. Specialty and Advanced skills are those that you can’t do unless you have a level/points in them. Advanced skills are like advanced sciences.

Edges and Flaws work like GURPS or any other point buy system, though there are no points. You start out with 3 Edges and get up to 6 with 3 more Flaws. Edges can be bought with XPs and Flaws bought off. The list is pretty typical, your Hard to Kill, various “Gun Fu” moves, various pilot and criminal related Edges too. The list looked good and nothing jumped out at me as not being there. There are also various new Psychic/Feng-Shui powers too (details in a bit). And some computer related ones, with the promise of new book dedicated to hacking and the net (for your own “Radical” Edward Wong Hau Pepelu Tivrusky the IV). Now you don’t need to take any Flaws at all if you don’t want, but I think that might be missing the point of this game really. These characters are yes over the top Anime characters, but they also have issues.

Feng-Shui gets it own chapter and it is the province of the Inuit Indians (yeah, that confuses me too, but I’ll go with it). None of the powers seem out of control, so no anime style Ki based special fx here, but a lot of good solid powers. Danger Sense, Locate Objects, manipulate objects, things like that. More power masters can influence minds or regenerate their bodies. There are seven areas of power (spheres) you choose one and you progress through it. It reminds me of the pschic powers from AFMBE’s “Enter the Zombie”. Given that, an ability to bend bullets might be cool in this game. Of course with power comes psychotic episodes. Do it too much and you WILL go crazy, just like they said.
Given this chapter I can see, and hope that the cyber book works the same way.

A money and equipment chapter follows. Money, though very important to the focus of the game, is game mechanic rather than collected. Similar to D20 Modern in a way. And of course lots of guns, spaceships and other things you need, like food and permits. While money is always going to be an issue, since that is the primary motivation of the characters, doing the system like this was a nice cinematic way of dealing with things.

A chapter on “doing things” follows after that. It is your basic rules chapter, but most things are handled with the same mechanic, so this chapter breezes by. I appreciate transparency in my games. “You can do this and this is how you do it.” BHB takes the basic d20 system and really streamlines it to it’s barest essentials (even more so than True20) yet nothing seems lost. Thus this chapter is very short.

Combat is more involved, since the bounty heads aren’t likely to go quietly. The combat chapter is again, easy to read and uses the same simple mechanics. Skills and your rank in them are what is important here. This sets it off from the d20 crowds and puts it back into GURPS/Unisystem territory. In a neat twist you can use the same “to hit” roll as a damage roll, thus speeding up your games. There is logic in this and I like the effect.

The Setting Chapter both pleased me and irritated me. The solar system is the setting with a nearly uninhabited Earth and terra-formed planets and moons. Briefly object hits the Moon, destroys it, sends Earth into chaos where meteors rain every day. But some of those rocks were used to jump gate tech to allow quick travel throughout the solar system and was a key element in terra-forming.

Now humanity is all over the system. There is a real wild west feel to the plaents. Mars is the center of human population now, Venus is like a giant mob controlled Vegas, the moons of Jupiter have food production and so on and all have their own hazards. There is a Solar System wide police force, but they are few, overworked, underpaid and spread too thin. This gives us lots of crime and the opportunity for bounty hunters (like you!) to capture bad guys and bring them in for fun and profit. Mostly for profit.
What irritated me was that this chapter was so short. Sure, I know it is so I can later buy the Mars book or the Io book, but it just touched the surface. Yeah I could go back to the anime (or other shows, Blake’s 7 comes to mind) for ideas. But I was enjoying reading when it was over.

The book has a very nice index, a character sheet that looks familiar to us all and a summary page on how to spend XPs. But the coolest thing is the included adventure in the back. Gets you and going on your first Bounty Head hunt in no time. The adventure itself is good, and even shows you what can be done with the system in terms of story. Sure this could have been a simple bounty hunt, but this one has moral layers and corruption and the hosts of a “Big Shots” like show (nice touch).

What Did I Like?
Simple system, very easy to figure out. Plus it was also easy to figure out what to do with the game. Concepts came with every page (more or less).
The book itself has a nice simple layout and it is easy to find everything. Plus it “reads” well too. The text is concise and gets right to the point.
I also like the Luck and Surge points, which are basically like Drama Points or Hero Points.

What Didn’t I Like?
Still not a fan of roll under mechanics. They seem wrong to me. Would have loved more setting information and some basic computer hacking rules.

Other Notes
Art. The art is nice, but a lot of it is used again throughout the book. Pictures of some of the planets would be nice, what does Venus Vegas look like? How about the domes of Mars? That sort of thing.

What Can I do with This?
Well there is basic premise, go out and hunt bad guys. But there are plenty of other ideas.

The Stainless Steel Rat: Play the bad guys. Sure hunting them is fun, but wouldn’t it be more fun to be the bad guy or the mobsters avoiding the SSPB and the Bounty Hunters?

Reservoir Dogs: You get pulled into a heist gone really, really wrong.

The Usual Suspects: You bring in your small fry bounty head only to uncover that maybe, maybe the most notorious criminal mastermind might be involved or even one of your marks.

Witch Hunter Bebop: Let’s combine Sunrise’s two best anime ever, Cowboy Bebop and Witch Hunter Robin and make a game where you need to hunt down marks using their Feng-Shui powers illegally.

Firefly: Yeah it has a game and I really like Cortext, but I’ll be blunt here. There is nothing in Firefly that Cowboy Bebop didn’t do first and better and with a better soundtrack. You can do the same here. Plus the solar system of BHB makes more sense.

Who should get this?
If you like Anime or space adventures with bullets rather than lasers then this is your game. If you want to do something like Traveler but don’t want the overhead of the system or the mega-plot then this is your game. You might be able to do “Star Wars” or “Star Trek” but we have better choices for those games. This would be perfect for “Buck Rodgers” or “Flash Gordon” though and of course “Cowboy Bebop”.

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