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Monday 2 July 2018

RPGPundit Reviews: Aces & Eights

(note: this is a review of the original Aces & Eights RPG, not the new edition)

Aces & Eights is a spectacular game. I have to admit I had serious doubts about it going in. It was an over-produced over-hyped game; it was from Kenzer & Co. who I didn't trust very much. It was about the cowboy genre, which is often misunderstood. It had an alternate history, which is usually the kiss of death.

But I have to admit (note the time and day!) I was wrong about most of these.

Obviously, the game is over-produced. But it sure is beautiful. It's a massive hardcover. It makes a beautiful "thunk" noise if you let it go from as little as an inch over a table. The style of it is impressive. It reminds me of one of those old Time-life books; you know the one, that your dad or grandpa or uncle always had? About WWII, or the Civil War, or even the wild west? Its full of public-domain drawings, paintings and photographs of the wild west, many of them from that era or slightly after. This last touch was sheer brilliance on their part, to go that route with the illustrations instead of using modern artists with comic-book or anime styles.

But the game is not over-hyped. Its hyped just right, just as much as it deserves. Because in terms of actual playability, this game is damn near perfect. I'm surprised to say that it has replaced Coyote Trail (which is also a very good game but just can't compete with A&8s) as my default game for wild-west action.

That last statement by itself should be enough to mark the stopping point for this review. It should be all anyone should need to know that its a game you want to get if you have the slightest interest whatsoever in western genre RPGs. But for the sake of completeness, I'll give you some more actual details here.

First, Kenzer created Hackmaster, which was pretty much a house-ruled clone of AD&D. After A&8s, they've gone on to make Hackmaster 5e. In between the two lies A&8s. You can see the linear connection in the rules. A&8s will be strikingly familiar to people who have played AD&D (in other words, pretty much everyone). And yet, its very much its own system. It doesn't have classes, or levels, or experience points as such.

What it does have is a system that really works well. But its a very big system, especially for combat, with lots of fiddly bits. So the game presents in its first chapters a "basic combat" rule-set. These are all you'd really need to run a fight; but if you want to really get the most out of the game you should look at the advanced combat rules, and cherry-pick what you want. The game also contains a number of sub-systems, practically mini-games in and of themselves, for dealing with things like bar brawls, prospecting, cattle driving, gambling, and trials. Yes, that's "trials" not "trails"; the game assumes that sooner or later, one or more of the PCs will be up on criminal charges. That's what I call realism!

So let's start where the book starts, looking at gunfights. After all, that's what most everyone is going to want to do in a wild west game, a shootout. And here's where I'm about to get a very nasty letter from the guy who did the Omnifray RPG. When I reviewed that product, I mocked the game for having "rounds" that last one-tenth of a second. Well, guess what? Aces & Eights has rounds that last one-tenth of a second. Except here, it doesn't bother me, in fact it works. I know that seems almost like a hypocrisy on my part, but the truth is that the brilliance of their game design makes it work, which I would have thought impossible. A good deal of the credit must go not only to the design of the rules themselves, but the clarity of the writing; while with a game like Omnifray I felt like I was slogging through molasses, with A&8s it was perfectly smooth and easy to read and understand; in fact, I couldn't put the thing down.

The combat system works on "counts"; when combat starts you begin "counting" each tenth-of-a-second. Players get to act at the moment their initiative roll indicates, and from there declare what they're doing. Any action takes up a certain number of "counts" from the moment its declared until its actually finished. So if drawing a gun takes 5 counts, and you declared you were drawing your gun on the 5th count, you'll be drawing your gun until the 10th count. People doing things that take less time will be acting before you. You can do more than one thing at a time (moving and shooting, for example) but if you're shooting while you're moving, then you get a penalty to hit.

To attack someone, you get to use one of the coolest parts of the game; the Shot Clock. This is a wheel-shaped transparency you put over a silhouette of the figure you're attacking (one criticism I could make of the game is that not enough basic silhouettes are provided, so the only figure you can use right from the book is "cowboy standing straight facing you, or cowboy standing straight to your side"; if you want to fire at a dude crouching or something like that, you'd need to either make your own silhouette or get one from Kenzer separately). You place the center of the shot clock over whatever part of the body you're aiming at (so you can aim at any part you like, but aiming at the center of the body means that you'll be covering more of the body with the shot clock, improving the chance that if you don't hit the bull's eye you might still hit the dude anyways). You roll to-hit; and if you get a 25 or more to hit (not easy for a starting character) you hit the target. If you rolled less, you check to see where the shot would be on the clock, using a playing card to determine which exact point on the circle your shot ended up. Its really cool. Of course, its also a gimmick that makes the game difficult to pirate; if you don't have a shot-clock you basically can't play the game.
Damage depends on the weapon used, and damage dice are "penetrative", so that if you rolled maximum damage, you roll again and add. This means a shot might only be a flesh wound, or it could kill you in one good shot. In the advanced combat rules, there are some warhammer-esque tables organized by hit-location, indicating other gruesome consequences beyond mere hit point damage that can happen when you get shot. Combat is fast and deadly; healing takes lots of time. This is clearly not a "cinematic" style of wild west gaming. Its fast and deadly, which makes it fortunate that creating characters is so much fun.

I should note also that combat experience is itself one of the replacements for the experience/level system. Your performance in combat is modified by how many gunfights you've been in before. This affects everything from your speed, to your ability to hit, to your resistance to panicking if shot at or hit.

That's the basics of the combat (though the lengthy chapter on advanced combat includes rules for just about everything from cover to movement to facing to weapon familiarity to explosives and more). And combat is awesome, but there's so much more awesomeness in this game than just gunfights.

Character creation, for one. Its a brilliant mix of old-school and modern design; you roll 3D6 for each attribute (plus a percentage decimal score after that, a-la AD&D Strength). But you have building points, that you can use to increase scores, buy talents, and select skills. You also get quirks or flaws (rolled randomly, though if you want you can choose one instead of rolling, but get only half the bonus BPs for it). There are way more flaws than "talents" (feats), and the flaws are all very cool and lend instant uniqueness to your character. That's far from the only way to develop uniqueness, though. In the appendix there's an expanded set of random tables to determine your character's background story, history, social class, etc. Let me say this right now: anyone who doesn't use these tables is a communist. They rock hard. I'm talking WFRP2e hard.

Besides the standard D&D attributes you also get Reputation and Fame. These are two very important attributes, which do what they sound like (measure how respected you are, and how famous you are), but beyond that they also serve to do a variety of other things. Reputation actually serves as one of the replacements for a level-system. The higher your reputation gets, the better your bonuses get. Fame affects you socially in a variety of ways.

The skill system is a little unusual, and was confusing at first, because unlike just about every other RPG I've ever seen, the percentage number you get for your skills is your percentage chance of FAILING, not of success. At first, before this sank in, I was wondering why it seemed like characters with lower attributes would end up with higher skill percentages.
There are several dozen skills, covering just about anything outside of combat you could imaginably want to do in the wild west. One thing that I do feel was missing was the fact that there are no "skill packages" or even lists of suggested skills by profession type. In a way, that makes sense given how variable careers go in this setting, where you might be a prospector today and a bartender tomorrow, but still, a bit more structure would have been good.

After this, you get some rules on all kinds of elements of living in the setting; the second on diseases is instructive, for one. Here's also where we get into the micro-games. There are special sub-systems included for a variety of activities in the wild west. Some of these are rather better than others. I loved the prospecting and cattle-driving rules, and the gambling rules are pretty good. The rules for bar brawls and criminal trials, on the other hand, were pretty complicated and took some time to savvy. Pretty much every sub-system was cool; but cooler still is the fact that none of them are necessary; you could do any of the above things using the standard rules with no problems; but the sub-systems just make things more interesting. I could easily see a group spending a whole session to run a trial or go prospecting.

The section on firearms is gorgeous, featuring (in full-colour glossy paper just like the entire rest of the book) two weapons per page, with details, costs, range modifiers, and beautiful picture of the gun itself, along with its ammo. A couple of pages show all the guns together as a comparative size chart.

There's a section on horses and horse ranching, with lots of good rules and details on making your own horse unique. Again, theres nothing necessary about this section, you can use it if you think its going to be important to your game, but if you don't want the added complexity, just leave it out. You should all know by now that I love toolkits, and this game is one big toolkit. Its spectacular.

I should also note that a number of the rules (and sub-rules) make use of standard playing cards. Everything from combat itself (with the shot clock), the chase rules, and of course the gambling rules. But the cards aren't used as a core mechanic in the sense of players or the GM having to hold a suit or play cards for actions, they're mainly just used as another randomizer like dice, and I think that's a wise choice on the part of the designers.

The game has a considerable amount of GM advice and information for playing a wider campaign; and it also has a considerable section on setting. Some of the details here are a little bland, others good; some of the names in Spanish lead me to wonder if they got an actual translator or are using guesswork and google. To my delight, though, there are even hex maps in this book (of the "devil's cauldron" region which is the default area setting of the game)!
There are also complete maps of two different towns, one a small sleepy town bordering on failure (Black Horse) and the other (Lazarus) a booming western town. Not just maps, these include setting detail on damn near every inhabitant you could want to meet in the town, and even some sample "passers through". There are statblocks for sample NPCs of all the generic varieties, from sheriffs to judges to pimps to stable boys.

Another part of the wider campaign is experience. Besides combat experience, and gaining in reputation and fame, the other way to improve is through additional Building Points. You gain these in the game by meeting personal or professional goals. A personal goal can be just about anything, from "buying a horse" to "becoming a national official", with more points for harder tasks. Professional goals are met by following profession paths. But these aren't classes, you can switch from one profession to another freely at the start of any adventure, and then switch back to another later. So a character could be a farmer to start out with, become a lawman, try his hand at being a gambler, later start up a mine, and later on run a saloon, going back to "lawman" from time to time. Each profession path has a set of goals that the PC must follow more or less step-by-step. There's a TON of them, some which might be pretty unlikely to be used (who the hell would play a wild west RPG for the chance to be a baker or a miller?!).
To further prove this game was specifically made for me, there's a Tobacconist profession path. And to use that path for an example of how the process works; a tobacconist has as his goals "set up for business", "buy a lot", "operate business for one month", "build permanent storefront", and "hire an apprentice/employee/manager".

There's an astounding level of detail in this game; everything from the economics of cattle ranching to the rules for Faro, to the price of a baseball mitt in the late 19th century. On that last note I should mention that price lists are very complete, and yet there is one major failing in this section of the game: the designers provide prices for everything from pipes to sheet music, but they don't actually provide any guidelines to what standard wages for different kinds of jobs might be!

The book is 400 pages long. Of these, the last 120 pages are appendices. In the first appendix (p.280-315) you get the details of the alternate history of the setting. Yes, its alt-history, but its not nearly as annoying as others I've seen, because the authors have gone out of their way to make it plausible. From discussions on theRPGsite I've been informed that the main goal was to try to make the Wild West of A&8s a more lawless and anarchic place than it was in our reality, and to expand the length of time that the wild west might have lasted. They accomplish this nicely with the "shattered frontier", a history where the civil war began much earlier, and ended in a stalemate; and now the west is split among five influential powers: the USA (still the most powerful but much weaker than in our history and recovering from the war), the CSA (which has turned into a backwater hellhole), Texas (which is separate from the CSA as its own state), Imperial Mexico (slightly more powerful than in our history) and Deseret (the nutcase mormon nation in Utah).

Anyways, the problem in this section isn't that the alt-history is implausible. Its very well designed in that sense. The problem with this section, and what makes it poor, is that its written like a brilliant history textbook, very thorough and academic; and utterly useless for actual play. The authors could have dedicated these 35 pages to a quick overview of the various nations and details about the practicalities of living in this wild west setting on a day-to-day basis, but instead they filled it with high-falutin' history-text stuff detailing presidential politics, wars, detailed political dealings, etc. Stuff that's interesting for an historian to read (I don't know how anyone else would deal with it), but that really doesn't add much to the table as far as the playing of the game is concerned. This section could have been used way better than to just show off the author's alt-history mad skillz.

The remaining appendices detail the quirks and flaws, skills and talents in detail; and then provides the aforementioned "detailed character background" tables for creating your character background. That plus a glossary of western slang.

Aces & Eights is not 100% perfect, but it is a masterpiece. Its the kind of game that even if you never thought you'd run a western game, should you see this book you might change your mind. Westerns have always been tricky RPG material, but A&8s finally provides a truly definitive Western RPG that doesn't rely on magic or fantasy elements at all, and yet manages to be a fantastically interesting an thoroughly playable experience. I couldn't recommend it enough.


(Originally Posted July 22, 2009)

1 comment:

  1. I'd use it if Boot Hill weren't faster, easier, and better for my needs. Except not the silly fake history.