Title: Buffy the Vampire Slayer Roleplaying Game Core Rulebook Author: C.J. Carella Creator: Eden Studios Inc 256 pages Product Rating: 3 (***) Game Play Rating: 4 (****)
Review by John H. Kim (Copyright 2002 John H. Kim)
cf. other reviews by John
This is the core rulebook for the Buffy the Vampire Slayer Roleplaying Game, from Eden Studios. It is based on the Twentieth Century Fox television series. A fair amount of space is devoted to direct treatment of the series, but it can also be used for modern-day campaigns that are significantly different from the show.
I feel that this is an overall good game with a few flaws. It has a well-editted, solid rules system -- a variant of the "Unisystem" used by other Eden Studios games. There are some added features which I think would help tailor it to the setting, but these are minor. The background has many inherently strengths due to the show, but I felt that the presentation in the core rulebook was shallow. I should note that I am not a devoted fan of the series (or of any TV in general), but I have watched and enjoyed many episodes on DVD.
The rulebook is full-size (8.5x11) and 256 pages. There is a brief Table of Contents (with only main chapter titles) and a 4-page index of medium quality. Every page is glossy color, and most (80%) of the pages include one or two full-color pictures from the series. The only non-photo pictures are the illustrated character archetypes, which are of mediocre quality.
One can find out about the world of the series (the "Buffyverse") in many other places. Here I will described what can be found in the book. There is a ten-page summary of the plot for seasons one through five. There are 10 main characters given full-page character sheets but no descriptions; and there are also 30 minor characters with capsule stats and 1 to 3 short paragraphs of description. In addition, there are three pages on Sunnydale and an extensive chapter on various monsters.
As I noted earlier, I have seen most of the first and second season episodes on DVD, but knew little about the later seasons. I found the background material frustrating. For example, there was only a half-page of background devoted to the Initiative -- a top-secret government agency introduced in season four. Much of that half-page was a recap of Buffy's interactions with the agency, redundant with the plot summary in the introduction. I would have preferred more information. It seems to me that a full page of collected facts which were nitpick-checked by a series expert wouldn't have been difficult to include and would be useful to many players besides myself.
To dedicated fans of the series or those who don't really care, the shallow background isn't important.
The mechanics are an adaptation of the "Unisystem" used in the earlier Witchcraft and All Flesh Must Be Eaten RPGs. The mechanics are based on adding your attribute (i.e. Strength), skill (i.e. Climbing), a roll of 1d10, and any modifiers for difficulty. The total is then compared to a small universal table to determine the level of success. The table is included on the character sheet; essentially it is one success for every two points over 8 up to 16, and one success for every three points over 16. This works well and is quick to resolve. It seems aimed at converting the roll into a simple number of successes without rolling the big handfuls of dice common in other systems. The turnover from 2-for-1 to 3-for-1 limits the outrageousness of cinematic heroes.
The primary modification to this is the Drama Point system. Each character gets a number of Drama Points (starting at 10 for Heroes and 20 for White Hats) which can be used to alter results. There are five uses for these:
Drama points can be bought with experience (at half-cost for White Hats), and can also be rewarded from certain plot events. Characters receive drama points if their character suffers tragedy as a result of their Drawbacks. Points are also given as a consolation if the GM has the PC's captured in a deus-ex-machina sort of way. Exceptionally witty dialogue, heroic acts, and (emotional) support of the hero also can gain minor Drama Point rewards.
The Drama Point system is clearly at the heart of the BtVS. This is what allows White Hat "scoobies" to fight alongside a powerful Hero without losing spotlight time. There is also a somewhat hidden rule about emotional crises: a Hero may have a period of emotional crisis, during which she has a -2 to all actions and cannot spend Drama Points. It is up to the White Hats to bring her out of this. Both the Hero and the White Hats gain Drama Points for this.
Character creation is point-based. You are given a separate set of Attribute points, Quality points, and Skill points. In addition, you may take up to 10 points of Drawbacks, which give you an equal number of points for either Qualities or Skills. There are two basic types of characters. "Heroes" (like the Slayer) get 20 Attribute Points, 20 Quality Points, 20 Skill Points, and start with 10 Drama Points. "White Hats" (like Xander) get 15 Attribute Points, 10 Quality Points, 10 Skill Points, and start with 20 Drama Points. During the campaign, White Hats also can gain Drama Points from Experience Points at half cost compared to Heroes.
There are six attributes (Strength, Dexterity, Constitution, Intelligence, Perception, Willpower), rated 1-6 for normal humans. A score above 5 cost three times the usual amount: eight points for a score of 6, eleven points for a 7, etc. There are also seventeen standard skills, plus each character has a define-your-own skill, rated 1-10 for normal humans. The skills are very broad, with skills like "Art" for all artistic endeavors or "Getting Medieval" for all old weapons from bows to swords.
There are eleven generic character templates provided: four Hero and seven White Hat. In addition, ten main characters from the show are given full character sheets. The four hero templates are: New Slayer (obvious), Former Initiative Agent (military commando), Demon Hunter (trained by his family for the task), and Martial Artist (trained in mystic Eastern arts). Except for the obvious first one, I found these a little dull but they at least serve as example characters.
Combat is simple: you roll your attack as a normal skill roll. If your roll is higher than the opponent's defense roll, then you do damage equal to the base damage of the attack (a fixed number) plus one per success level of the attack roll. Note that defense is all or nothing: if you are hit it does nothing to reduce the damage. This makes play go quickly since you don't have to calculate the difference between attack and defense totals.
Damage is calculated from base damage, such as 12 for a pistol or (Strength x 4) for a sword. Points are subtracted from this for armor (if any), and then it is multiplied. Sharps weapons and guns are multiplied by two, while shots to the heart are multiplied by 4.
The combat system works fine in general. I do feel that there are more modifications which should be made to reflect the Buffy series. In the show, Buffy tends to punch and kick vampires around for a while and then stake them. Armor and weapons are of de-emphasized in favor of unarmed martial arts in skimpy outfits. In the mechanics, the damage multipliers for armor emphasize the importance of armor, since it effectively has double value against sharp weapons and bullets. Damage is also much larger for a sword (Strength x 4 with a x2 multiplier) than for punch (Strength x 2). It seems to me that it would be better if sword were instead something like (Strength x 2 + 4). This would be the same for an average Strength person, but for a super-strong Slayer the sword makes less of a difference so it is reasonable to forego the sword.
The magic chapter is 14 pages. The magic system is actually extremely simple: the character rolls Willpower + Occult, and if the number of successes is greater than or equal to the power level of the spell, it works. There is a -2 penalty for each spell cast after the first one, unless you have a break of several hours to a day. There are six spells from the series described plus one sample spell, plus two pages of explicit guidelines for setting the power level of new spells.
The one flaw I see with the magic system is that virtually any spell can be cast by spending a Drama Point on the casting. Even simple spells can be devastating with this. For example, if a specialized White Hat witch uses a Drama Point to cast the sample spell, she can do 96 points of damage to a vampire on average. For reference, The Master (the main villain of the first season) has 90 Life Points. Now, the Master could spend one of his Drama Points to halve this damage to 48, but it is still pretty major. The same spell roll would succeed in turning him into a rat, if she knew such a spell.
The primary means to control this is by keeping tight control on what spells a PC knows. A by-the-series campaign ought to have a witch start out knowing almost no spells, and learning them should be a difficult process. Still, there should be some more advice on this, I think.
The book includes stats and brief descriptions for 11 background characters and for 22 monsters from the series. It includes some extended discussion of monster types: 6 pages on vampires, 4 on demons, 2 on werewolves, and a page each on ghosts, zombies, and robots.
The good news is that there are a lot of stat blocks for sample monsters to match the series. The bad news is that none of them are covered in much depth. For fans of the series who are already familiar with these, I think the added stat blocks are useful -- though I was a little frustrated at descriptions of monsters I hadn't yet seen in the show.
The rulebook includes 14 pages of GM advice, including how to set up a series, design adventures and NPC's, and so forth. I liked most of it, but I think there is still a definite weakness in how to set up a campaign. The default premise for a campaign is to be set in Sunnydale, where the PCs are a Slayer with a group of her friends. There is an obvious continuity problem with this, and they do suggest various alternate possibilities for series. While they cover all the basic options, the suggestions are fairly dull (like the Hero templates). It would have been nice to see one or two cool sample concepts for a series instead of six or seven generic ones.
There is a 16 page sample adventure included as well. I will try to avoid spoilers here in case there are those who play in it, but suffice to say that I didn't like it. It is passable as a potentially amusing set of fights, but I feel the central premise of it is a rather cheap gag.
Overall, I think this is a great game design. The key to it is in the simple, fast-moving system coupled with the Drama Point rules. If you want to roleplay Buffy-like adventures or even Buffy herself, then I have no hesitation recommending it. The drawback is that given the size and cost ($40) of the core rulebook, I would really have liked seen some more effort and organization in the background material. If you want it as a general-purpose monster-fighting RPG, it is overpriced but still a good design. You might want to try another of the Eden Studios Unisystem games instead.