US Marshals: A Shared Storytelling Game of Justice in the American Wild (Difference) (Priority Review)
This book clocks in at 114 pages, 1 page front cover, 1 page editorial, 1 page ToC/introduction, 1 page advertisement (for Outlaw Soaps! – It fits thematically in the book – really like it!), leaving us 110 pages of content, laid out in 6’’ by 9’’ (A5), so let’s take a look!
This review was moved up in my reviewing queue as a prioritized review at the request of my patreon supporters.
Okay, so first things first, this is a rules-lite game about the “Imagined Wild West” – not the historical one, necessarily, and with the subject matter being slightly less common than the Age of Sails tackled in the first Difference-engine-powered game, we begin with a pretty nifty array of links for further research, so if you want to embark on a more historical game, or are like me, not from the US and thus not as enmeshed in the history of the nation, this’ll be extremely helpful – particularly because we’re playing US Marshals and/or their deputies this time around, and not the classic lone stranger popularized by media. Interesting here would also be that the author obviously did his research – if you fear a depiction of just the Old West of classic Hollywood, you’ll be told about some ladies that were US Marshals. Similarly, while racism was obviously a thing, the book also contextualizes this, and provides examples for African American heroes serving as US Marshals. So yeah, you can obviously ignore these or include them in your game, choosing what aspects you wish to emphasize, but it was interesting for me to read and certainly not something I was that familiar with.
Interesting here: Even if you have no patience to do some research on the era, the game explains the role of the US Marshal (or deputy) rather well in a succinct and precise manner, and that out of the way, we move to the swift and pretty painless character creation.
The game requires 2 six-sided dice (d6s). You start by choosing a nickname, followed by selecting your attributes. There are three of those, the first being Mental, which denotes your wits, cleverness, will, etc.. Physical describes strength and endurance, agility, etc. and finally, Social, determines the character’s charm, persuasiveness, humor, etc. You assign the values +4, +3 and +2 to these.
After this, you choose two Talents and two Flaws (a difference to the first Difference-engine game); this change is smart, as it generates more roleplaying potential; Talents generally tend to provide a +2 bonus to one type of challenge, while Flaws either provide a -2 penalty to all challenges pertaining some broader aspect, or -3 to challenges pertaining a more limited component – enough of those are provided to get a sense of the intended balance and make the notion of designing more of them yourself simple. Cool here: There are plenty of special events that may happen when you roll doubles, snake eyes (two 1s) – you get the drift. If you e.g. have the cheapskate flaw, snake eyes represents an item malfunctioning, breaking, etc.
Talents and flaws may also influence your Health – the default starting value is 9, and the game has another resource, namely Grit. This is clever, as it is easily the aspect of the game that makes it last – Grit is a mechanic that will have different applications, depending on your talents chosen, and it also acts as XPs of sorts – it can either influence roles, or you can spend 3 grit to buy a talent, 5 to get rid of a flaw, or 6 Grit to increase an attribute by +1. Health is always equal to the sum of all attributes, so an increase also makes you slightly tougher. The pace of the game’s progression is wholly in the GM’s hand – as noted, Health is the combination of all attributes; other than Health-increases, gaining talents or removing flaws are the suggested means to depict character growth.
After this, you choose your gear – gear doesn’t give you bonuses (at least usually; special gear may well grant bonuses!), but does allow you to perform certain tasks. All characters begin with proper clothes, a knife, a revolver and either a repeating rifle, Sharps rifle, or a shotgun, as well as a Marshal’s badge and a card signifying their office. Beyond that, you name items, and perform a simple challenge – if you win, you get the item; if not, then you don’t get it. You get to roll until you lose or have 5 items. What’s a simple challenge, you ask? It is a roll of 2d6– you roll against the opponent, and if you win, you win, if you lose, you lose. Ties are rerolled. This is the most simple resolution method herein, but not the only one – I will get to others later. But I digress: The system knows three types of weapon: Simple, improved, and advanced – their damage ranges from 1 – 3. Reloading a firearm takes a full turn, and ammo should be tracked, but this is handled in an abstract manner I enjoyed. You count shots, but are assumed to have enough ammunition on you to reload thrice. The game also specifies that one roll does not necessarily equate shots fired. Derringers and Holdouts, repeaters, carbines, etc. – all provided, and yes, the weapons do have differences in their details and rules by type. Range is a simple concept as well – from Point blank to Extreme Range, there are 7 different distance categories, which can impose massive penalties. At extreme ranges, only seasoned veterans will be able to hit at all, unless using a Sharps rifle, and these instead really suck at low ranges, you some tactics re gear are included. Rules for aiming, sights, bows and arrows or thrown weapons are also included. And yes, we get rules for cannons, explosives, etc. as well. All of these gear rules are not rules you need to know to play, mind you – they are introduced later in the book, and I moved the brief discussion of them to this section for the sake of readability.
Finally, you can add traits like age, weight, etc. and other non-.mechanical game data –and bingo. Character creation is very much possible in less than a minute – if you roll for items all at once and use colored dice, you can definitely resolve character creation in even less time. Room, board etc. is generally not necessarily something you need to track. Really cool: A suggested survival kit list of useful equipment is provided for your convenience, cutting down on the dreaded shopping spree eating up gaming time.
The Difference engine’s core resolution mechanic is to roll 2d6 + Bonus versus 2d6 + Bonus. Impossible tasks are not rolled, and easy tasks are resolved as automatic successes. Before dice are rolled, the GM and player agree on Stakes – what happens on a success, and one a failure.
The winner of the challenge is the one with the Higher Result; in case of a tie, Bonuses are compared; if the bonuses are the same as well, the highest rolled result on the dice acts as a tie-breaker – and should this still be tied, the player wins. In the case of challenges between players, neither fails – they can reattempt the check on the next turn.
But why is the engine called “Difference Engine”? Well, to determine your success in a challenge, you can have different successes – there are actually 7 degrees of success; by barely making a challenge with a tied roll of +0, you achieve minimal success, while a Difference of 11+ means an incredible success – fighting and jumping examples allow the GM to easily determine effects for a given result. It should be noted that the GM-section of this book also contains advice pertaining such components, assigning difficulties, etc. – the system is easy to grasp, intuitive and explained ina concise manner.
Teamwork is very potent – the player with the highest attribute rolls 2d6, and adds +1d6 per additional privateer involved. Only the highest two dice results are calculated, and only the Marshal who rolls the dice applies Talents and Flaws! Examples on how to interpret the rolls and how to make the eponymous Difference matter are provided, with several simple suggestions illustrating results. The system knows critical successes (double 6s) and failures (double 1s) as an optional rule, and the pdf even explains what happens on a double 6 opposed by a double 1, walking you through the entire process of using this. The game presents a detailed example of a challenges, and even if you’re new to roleplaying, that should explain the subject matter rather well.
There is one more factor to consider – Grit. Each character begins play with 1 point of Grit, and more points are gained whenever a Double is rolled ( i.e. two 2s. two 3s, etc.); this, however, may well be modified, depending on your Talents, Flaws and background story. If the players use Grit, the GM gains one point of Grit, mirroring a system I have used with some success for hero points and similar mechanics in more complex systems. (Yep, in my home-game, using a hero point will net the group a doom point I’ll use for complications and adversaries…)
Using Grit BEFORE the roll lets you add +1d6 per Grit used, but only the highest two results are used to calculate results; OR, you can add +2 per Grit used. If used AFTER the roll, you get to add +1 per Grit used to the result OR you may reroll one die rolled, but must take the new result.
Combat is classified in turns, which correspond to no set amount of time, allowing you to categorize them anew per frame (so that naval combat might have longer turns); initiative is a simple challenge, which is a smart change to the system. Akin to how VsM-games work, difficult movement may require Mental or Physical tests. Attacking may be resolved by rolling Physical vs. Physical, Physical vs. Mental, Mental vs. Mental – it depends on the context. Damage is contingent on the weapon employed and the Difference. Obviously, social combats are also possible, and it should be noted, that
Marshals reaching 0 Health take their negative Health as a penalty to all challenges If negative Health exceeds one of the PC’s attributes, they can’t use challenges in that attribute any more. At -6 Health, a character falls unconscious, at -10, the Marshal is dead. The game includes discussions of handling attacks versus objects, and indeed, actually has a dueling sub-engine, which is surprisingly exciting, involving potential wagering of Grit. Speaking of which: GMs may actually allow for Grit being used to temporarily recover Health. Let me state this right here: This is genius. There usually is a dissonance between players not wanting to spend such a resource (because they are hoarding it), and the reality depicted in classic Westerns and similar pieces of media. If the characters are so tough, why don’t they constantly operate at peak efficiency? The game makes the player not want to use Grit unless necessary, which also means that it’s sometimes smarter to NOT buckle up and use it to heal. This is very clever, and I really enjoy it. Optional rules for getting worse without proper treatment are fyi included as well.
Healing is handled easily: Roll a Mental challenge, and add Health value of target, whether positive or negative, to the result. On a success, the target regains half the Difference (rounded down) Health. On a failure, though, the Difference is taken as damage! So no, Health-scumming is not wise, and yes, it is very much intended that full heals are difficult. The engine has further improved in this game over its first iteration, in that the game presents actual rules for the means of getting around (trains, coaches, horseback – the latter differentiating between types of movement), but also has further rules regarding making camp: Campsite complexities, conditions and tasks are all covered.
The rules lite “GM has the reins”-angle is further emphasized by having positive and negative conditions and states of mind listed, which can have mechanical effects – and yes, we once more have the game spelling explicitly out that the like can’t be power-gamed. Love, faith, pride – all of these matter, and the game also walks you through downtime in detail – and where to draw the line between depicting everything and nothing. From being on the lookout to cooking and similar tasks, this engine presents quite a few cool components. Camp safety also is a factor – poisonous snakes in the vicinity, increase a threat level of a camp site by +1; the GM rolls a check with such factors cumulatively added to determine bonuses versus the characters’ rolls. It seems simple, and indeed, is an elegant solution.
The book acknowledges that it can’t be an extended GM’s guide, but provides several solid guiding principles and the like, and presents advice on choosing GM roll bonuses. The book also talks about why it abstracts the whole matter of money, how progress doesn’t necessarily need to be positive, and how to handle bonus-granting items – if you went overboard with handing out items, the book has trouble-solving means. The book also briefly touches upon weird west themes and presents stats for generic NPCs, as well as a handy little two-page character sheet.
Editing and formatting on a rules language level are excellent; on a formal level, I noticed a few near-homophone hiccups (à la “then/than”), but nothing serious. Layout adheres to a nice one-column full-color standard, using a blending of modified public domain art and stock pieces to surprisingly consistent effects – kudos for capturing the aesthetics well. I can’t comment on the virtues or lack thereof of the physical book, since I do not own it. A somewhat serious downside for the pdf is that it only has 7 bookmarks. For an over 100-page game, those are not enough and make navigation not as comfortable as it should be. If in doubt, I’d suggest print.
Lucus Palosaari has really learned from his first Difference game – here, we have a serious step ahead for the game, with pretty much all of my gripes taken care of. For one, the sequence of rules-presentation makes more sense to me; secondly, the game is simply more detailed: We have a lot of optional historic angles and explanations, and indeed, the book manages to be better at maintaining longer games: The use of Grit as a combination of hero points and XP is super smart and rewarding, and I can see the system allowing you to run prolonged campaigns. Presented in a concise and sensible manner, this is a fun, rules lite game, one that lets you choose the pace of the game and the degree of complexity of the game. As a whole, I consider this to be a success, and as such, my final verdict will clock in at 5 stars – if you’re looking for a rules-lite game that’s easy to grasp, one with a potent engine that you can customize easily, then you can’t go wrong here.
You can get this fun, well-crafted, rules-lite game here on OBS!
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