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Reviews - Buffy the Vampire Slayer
 
by Matthew Pook


Buffy RPG coverBuffy the Vampire Slayer Roleplaying Game
Published by Eden Studios
Written by C.J. Carella
Illustrated by rk Post and Christopher Shy
$40

If 2002 was a year of good licensed RPGs, there remains the question of which of them was the top of the heap. Decipher may have got the big two with the Star Trek Roleplaying Game and The Lord of the Rings Roleplaying Game, but as good as they are, we have seen their like before. Neither are new properties. Then comes Eden Studios, which snagged the coolest licence from your TV screen: Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Recently cancelled after a total of seven seasons, we have watched Buffy follow her destiny as a Slayer – facing down demons, vampires, cyborgs and the like, all the while trying to keep the Hellmouth from opening; and dealing with high school, teenage life and her one true love, and then of course, her own death. Throughout, Giles, her appointed Watcher, and the Scooby Gang, fellow high school students who possess the heart, if not always the ability, to help her out, have aided her.

The Buffy the Vampire Slayer Roleplaying Game comes as an attractive and sturdy hardback, laid out in vibrant colors. It is profusely illustrated with photographs from the series, but where more generic images are needed, the superior talents of rk Post and Christopher Shy supply the art. Overall the book has a dark look to it that is in keeping with the series. Further, the book quotes extensively and profusely from the series, and these not only provide amusement, but also serve to remind you how good the writing is in the television show.

After an introductory piece of fiction by Christopher Golden, the usual introduction to roleplaying and a summary of events in the series up until Buffy's death at the end of season five, the book gets down to the first thing we really want to know: Who gets to play the Slayer? Here there are plenty of options. The players could just decide to take the roles of Buffy, Xander, Willow, Giles, Tara, Cordelia and so on. Full Sheets are provided for each as well as suggestions to adjust them to make them stronger or weaker depending upon which season the Director wants to set the game in. Alternatively, players can select one of the twelve ready to run archetypes that includes New Slayer, Former Initiative Commando, Watcher, Psychic, Hacker, Scooby Gang Member, Beginner Witch and Former Vampire Groupie. Of course, the last option is to let players create their own characters.

One problem inherent to the setting is the difference in power levels between the Slayer and other members of the cast. Characters are graded into three types: Heroes, which includes Slayers, Experienced Watchers and Initiative Commandos, have more points to spend on attributes, advantages, disadvantages and skills, but fewer Drama Points. White Hats are more normal people and who lack the training or abilities of the Hero Types. They may be beginning Slayers or Watchers, or more ordinary individuals like Xander (often referred to as the "Zeppo," a reference to the least useful member of the Marx Brothers gang) yet while they have fewer points to spend on their various stats, they have more drama points than the Hero type. Finally, the Experienced Hero has the advantages of both the Hero and the White Hat: more points to spend on statistics and more drama points. The Experienced Hero really reprints the type of characters we see in the latter part of the television series. As to drama points, these work as do hero points in other games, helping to keep the characters (especially the White Hat type) alive in the face of vampires and the like. This is a necessity, as while a Slayer or Experienced Hero will be able deal with the average vampire reasonably quickly, the White Hat will need to burn their Drama Points to achieve the same end. Thus Drama Points work to balance the disparity in whup-ass ability between the White Hat and the other character types, but even so some players may not be happy with this difference.

Characters are defined by their Attributes (Strength, Dexterity, Constitution, Intelligence, Perception and Willpower), Qualities, Drawbacks and Skills. Each of the three character types receives a set number of points to spend on the three aspects of their character. An average human has attribute scores of just two, with the human maximum topping at six, though some qualities or advantages provide bonuses to some attributes that increase them greatly. These naturally include the Slayer Quality, but the Watcher, the Nerd and Ex-Initiative Commando also increase a character’s attributes. If the Director allows it, a player might also select the Vampire or Werewolf quality. Other Qualities include Hard to Kill and Sorcery, while Drawbacks include Teenager, Secret, Humorless and Honorable. Drawbacks do not cost anything to purchase, but actually give more points to be spent elsewhere.

The skills included in the game run to just a total of seventeen, plus Wild Card, which allows a character to take a skill not listed. With just a short list, the skill definitions are quite broad. Instead of individual skill disciplines there are Science, Knowledge, Crime, Art and Sports. Others are both broad and kind of funky – for melee combat there is "Getting Medieval," for firearms there is "Gun Fu." The Wild Card skill is provided to cover that which is not covered by the other seventeen. For example, this applies to the Former Vampire Groupie's Archery, Xander's Military Knowledge, Anya's Demon Facts, Riley's Initiative Tech, Oz's ability to Test Well, Tara's Horse Riding and Cordelia's Fashion Skill.

The mechanics of the Buffy the Vampire Slayer RPG are an ultra-streamlined version of Eden's Unisystem, and the limited number of skills and fast game play reflect both this and the feel of the series. To do anything, a player adds a skill and relevant attribute to a d10 roll. This gives a success level, which also comes with a simple description. In combat the success level can be added to the base damage of the numerous combat maneuvers. The extensive list covers weapons, unarmed combat and special moves: groin shots and stakes to the heart, with both melee and crossbow bolts. The feel of the combat system is fast and slick, again reflecting the past paced nature of fights in the series. Primarily this is to batter a vampire into a state where they will be able to take a staking.

Magic is treated like a skill for combat, but except for a few instant spells, (like telekinesis) most spells are more difficult, lengthy affairs. They are invariably the tried and trusted type, as these are the safest and have less likelihood of backfiring. Spells are usually to be found in dusty tomes that need extensive research. It helps if a character possesses one or more levels of the Occult Library quality. Most people could cast spells, but it takes a true sorcerer or witch to understand or handle the dangerous magical forces involved. Even so, the more powerful the spell that somebody wishes to cast, the greater the likelihood of the spell having side effects.

The rest of the book is largely given over to detailing the background of the series. Admittedly it may not be enough for some, but for fans and gamers, it should keep them going until they get their hands on the first supplements. The spotlight is thrown upon Sunnydale and the various important locations above and around the Hellmouth. This includes Sunnydale High and University of California-Sunnydale, as well as numerous places to hang out, or under, after dark: The Bronze, Willy's Place and the Magic Box for example. Some of the townâs most notable inhabitants are described and given stats for – though most NPCs are not as detailed as proper characters, again making for speedy game play. Although zombies, robots, demons and other monsters from the show are covered, the majority of the monsters detailed are vampires – Buffy is, after all, a Vampire Slayer. Stats are provided for Angelis (the bad version of Angel, who is also detailed for use as a player character), Spike, Drusilla, and Darla, as well as other vampires of all grades -- the Brand New, the Minion, Veteran and the Lieutenant. These are ready for the director to add a name and history in preparation for their game.

For the Director there's lot of advice on how to set up and run a series or individual episodes. The default for this is a Slayer and her Scooby gang, which may or may not be in Sunnydale. Other options allow groups of heroes equal to the Slayer, or a mixed group composed of white hats, initiative or ex-initiative commandos or watchers. Of course, there is the problem of handling a Slayer within the game. The difference in the number of Drama Points between the three character types handles this within the game, but in setting up the game, the Director must deal with the problem of "there can be only one" and whether or not to adhere to series canon (the author provides useful advice on handling both issues). And this is backed up with "Sweeps Week," an adventure for the default setting – Buffy and the Scooby Gang in Sunnydale. It could easily be adapted to the other campaign styles. Sweeps Week is a decent introduction that captures the "cheesy" feel of the series and sets up everything for a campaign that will run across several supplements – three more episodes appear in the recently released directors screen supplement.

Finally, the appendix gives an amusing guide to Buffy speak that includes a droll list of "Britishisms" for those of the audience not possessing an innate advantage in that category. The other, but in-game advantage of being British is that the character can get away with wearing a tweed jacket (including leather elbow patches), which provides a little armor protection (lucky for Giles). The rest of the appendix includes all of the charts needed to create a character and run the game, as well as a glossary.

Conclusions
The Buffy the Vampire Slayer Roleplaying Game can be described as slick, fast and cinematic in its play, just as the television series is. The stripped down use of the Unisystem helps greatly in this and can just as easily allow the transfer of the Buffy genre to other times and places. Already we have played in a Wild West genre and there are plans for a Victorian set game as well. Not only has Eden gained the coolest licence for a long time, they have made of it one of the coolest, most enjoyable games of 2002. This is a book that any Buffy fan will enjoy and understand. Roleplaying Buffy fans – of which there are many – will find themselves right at home.


 

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