August 14, 2015

Firefly RPG: A Bug in the System

We've all had nights as players and GMs when games just fall flat. Typically the problem comes from low energy, poor storytelling, or unhappy character builds. But for the first time I've had run across a system and it's mechanisms which I, and some of my players, just don't like. Unfortunately, it is the Firefly Cortex+ RPG.

The people in my group are fairly open to new RPG systems. This group was started with the understanding that we will switch systems from time to time to try and experience games which we normally would not have been able to. We've gone through 7 unique systems in the past year and a half, with Firefly by Margaret Weis Productions being the latest.

This isn't my first experience with Firefly. The same GM currently running the game had run one a while ago, using the pregenerated characters and adventure in the book. Running for a group of four hardcore Firefly fans and me, the game went well, but at the end of the night something left a bad taste in my mouth. I chalked it up to new system jitters and decided if it were to get another run I'd probably not have the same thoughts.

But here we are. About a year and a half later and we had just started a new Firefly game, this time with player generated characters. But halfway through the session that bad taste started coming back. I asked some of our newbie players (1.5 year veterans now) how they enjoyed the game over the next couple of days and they both seemed put off by it, each for different reasons (in a nutshell, dice and plot point mechanisms). While they both admitted their minds could change with more play, their reasons didn't seem to match my feelings toward the game. So I spent the last week fermenting my thoughts of the game, trying to dig up what it is that keeps putting that taste in my mouth, and I believe I've come to a conclusion.

Most of the players in my group have compared the Firefly RPG to the Fate system. The mechanisms of rolling dice and spending plot/fate points to manipulate the roll are very similar to each other in these games. While I don't believe that a full comparison to Fate should be done, I will be comparing Firefly to some aspects (pun) of the Fate system.

So what's my issue with the system if it isn't the dice rolling or the plot point mechanisms of the game? It's the jinxes. Specifically, now the jinxes seem to take a lot of work to make narrative sense. To quickly summarize, a jinx is when you roll a 1 on any of your dice, which can be used by the GM to buy complications with plot points. This can be compared to threat or despair in FFG's Star Wars games. But in Star Wars, the threats come from the difficulty pool, which I don't seem to have a problem with. Firefly Jinxes come from the dice pool of your character's skills and backgrounds which, to me, has a narrative disconnect to how you are earning complications. It can somewhat be compared to The One Ring's act of rolling an Eye of Sauron on the feat die. But, for whatever reason, it doesn't seem the same to me and here is why.

In The One Ring, the feat die is rolled with every roll you make. You don't choose to add the feat die in when a skill you have associated with an action may assist you. In Firefly, every die you add to your pool for backgrounds and proficiencies increases your odds of rolling a jinx. In every case in Firefly you will be rolling at least two dice (lets use two d8s for example), which gives you a 24% probability of rolling a jinx. Now lets say you add a d8 distinction, and a d8 signature asset. The probability of rolling a jinx with 4d8 is now 41%. Now, because the more dice you add to your pool the greater the possibility of a jinx, I ended up trying to not use dice that made narrative sense to use. As the attacker, I wanted to look at the defenders result and try to use as few dice as possible for my roll. Where as when I was defending, I didn't want to give my attacker and dice from complications that arose from my defense roll.

The way jinxes come about do not seem to make sense to me. They feel like they may have been designed like this to keep players from stacking tons of dice into their pool, but it doesn't make sense if a character doesn't add a die in for a proficiency or specialty that they. I think it gets very narratively muddy at that point, and I think this is what turns me off from this system. I tried to turn the probability part of my brain off during some rolls last session, thinking of the extra dice as a chance to earn extra plot points instead of complications. But whenever I rolled a jinx, I didn't feel like a plot point was worth the complication, because it takes the same plot point you earned to snag an opportunity to get rid of it.

In the end, I will play more Firefly to see if my opinion changes on this again. There must be something I'm missing that I have yet to realize. But for now, if I hear that Firefly will be the next system to hit the table, I might pass.

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