Vs. Dragons (VsM Engine)
This game based on the VsM-engine clocks in at 66 pages, 1 page front cover, 1 page editorial, 1 page ToC, 1 page character sheet, 1 page SRD, 1 page advertisement, 1 page back cover, leaving us with 59 pages of content, so let’s take a look!
This review was moved up in my reviewing queue as a prioritized review at the request of my patreons.
Okay, so this system can be used as a gateway to roleplaying games; the rules-lite chassis of the VsM-Engine is well-positioned to act as a “first” RPG-system, also courtesy of the presentation: We first get a brief explanation of how RPGs work, a very short list of what you need to play (cards, this book, that’s it) and a brief list of Appendix N-like inspirations in both literature and movies. The artworks herein are classic b/w-pieces that capture a sense of old-school aesthetics rather well – it should be noted that the layout here is pretty impressive: How the artworks are integrated into the three-column landscape, tablet-friendly presentation is pretty neat.
Okay, if you’re familiar with other VsM-games, you probably won’t be surprised by the basic set-up: The game knows two attributes, namely Brains and Muscles. There are 3 basic configurations for attributes: Smart heroes have 5 brains and 3 muscles, strong heroes have 3 brains and 5 muscles and well-balanced heroes have 4 brains and muscles. This value determines the amount of cards you draw when the hero faces a challenge.
Unlike e.g. Vs. Stranger Things, this game also knows a total of 3 different classes: Fighters get to choose either ranged or melee weapons: When making an attack with the chosen weapon type, they draw an additional card. Magic-users get to cast magic – more on that later. Thieves get to draw an additional card when using Brains or Muscles to pick locks, pockets, moving silently, hiding, performing sleight of hand, contortions, tumbling, etc. Now, after deciding on the class, the player gets to pick a Good and a Bad Gimmick: These can include the raising of an attribute by one point, having connections to powerful NPCs, a danger sense, etc. on the good side, while on the bad side, we have addictions, allergies, being klutzy, etc. – so yeah, within the framework of the game, you could end up with an attribute ratio of 2 to 6, should you choose. A character has 10 Toughness – these are basically the hit points of the character. Good and Bad Gimmicks can modify this value to 8 and 12, respectively.
As far as starting equipment goes, you start play with an adventurer’s kit, but otherwise, the game isn’t really about gear, so if micro-managing the like annoys you, that’s a plus; on the other hand, if you enjoy the simulationalist aspects, then this will be less fun for you. In order to get an item beyond the standard, you consult the GM and may draw a card: If the card exceeds the EV (Equipment Value), you get it. You may only procure up to Brains items per session – basically, this is a minor crazy-prepared trope: You realize you had purchased the item. Getting matching items not usually sold in sets is covered as well. Failure to meet the EV means that you can’t secure the item in this game session…better improvise! The money system allows for another way to deal with this: When drawing for equipment, you can send the difference between the value of the drawn card and EV to purchase the item. The hero is assumed to be perfectly capable of using items, which means that there is no proficiency-system or the like to worry about.
Living amenities are codified. Clothing and armor is similarly codified: Armor reduces damage incurred: Light armor by 1, medium by 2 and heavy armor by 4. After a session, regardless of whether it was hit, etc., the armor needs to be repaired – which may or may not require the aid of a blacksmith. I am not 100% happy with the mechanics here: It is RAW possible to not be hit and still requires that the PC has the armor repaired. Similarly, armor breaking mid-dungeon-exploration for now reason is weird. Here, less would probably have been more: The GM already pretty much controls the variables here, so why not grant full control of when it requires repairs? Armor btw. reduces your movement.
Shields take hits in your stead: For each hit, make a simple draw (that is drawing one card): Hearts deflects the blow completely; Diamonds and clubs reduce damage by 1 for a small shield, 2 for a large shield. On a spade draw, the damage is reduced, but the shield is damaged…if it was a melee attack. Ranged attacks only damage the shield if the spade card was a face card. Damaged shields break on the next successful strike against it, or upon making the next attack with it. In short: Shields are pretty damn good. That is, as a whole, a plus – I really dislike how sucky shields are in most fantasy RPGs.
Weaponry is classified in 4 categories: Basic attacks inflict 1 damage, simple weapons 2, improved weapons 3 and advanced weapons 4 damage. A brief table classifies weapon types and is mostly concerned about the group, like “staffs”; Weapons may be 2-handed, have a chance to break, be concealable or have a reach, which may, however, also hamper their use in cramped conditions. Ranged weaponry is similarly codified. Ranged weapons with penetration reduce an armor’s damage reduction. Weapons like bastard swords that can be handled in one or two hands are covered as well. That out the way, a brief table that lists other equipment can also be found and then, we just have to determine the traits – basically, the fluff of the hero, the non-mechanical aspects.
An extensive appendix lets you btw. determine components by chance, should you so choose: The appendix lets you determine place of birth and childhood environment. The latter btw. assumes a couple of less nice environments – after all, well-adjusted folks usually don’t become heroes, right? Thus, we get really detailed 1-page tables for the respective environments: Runaway, bastard and orphan are covered…oh, and there is the “worse” table…which, you know…is worse. After these, we get to determine an adolescence event, a family history, the background of the caretaker, the misfortune that has beset the caretaker, the status of siblings and how they relate to you. You also get to determine a curse you may be suffering from, draw twice on the friends and enemies table and your relationship status can similarly be determined by the luck of the draw. In short: All details you probably require to create a unique hero. This section is helpful, and, of course, you can ignore components of it…or everything.
All in all, character creation is quick, simple and painless.
Conflict resolution is similarly simple: You draw your Brains or Muscles value of cards and compare it to the TV (Target Value) of the task at hand; as long as one card can beat the TV. Opposed challenges are just that: Compare draws, higher wins. Teamwork is potent – the character with the highest attribute draws, plus one card per assisting character. Simple. Characters can always draw at least one card, unless a task is deemed impossible by the GM or unless the reduction is due to Pain.
As in other VsM-games, suits have general associations: The red suites are generally positive, the black suites generally negative. Hearts are better than diamonds, spades are worse than clubs.
Okay, so how does combat work? Initiative is based on player seating, starting left to the GM. Combats are measured in turns, whose length are determined by the GM on a fluid basis. Movement is either handled via abstract categories OR allow you to track the movement: 1 square per Muscles-value movement. Brains may also be used to e.g. determine the correct spot to walk to, etc. – basically, this is pretty. In order to hit a target, the PC has to exceed the target’s DV – Defense Value. That works pretty much like a TV. Ranged attacks are compared to the RV – Range Value. A target uses the higher of the two values chosen from DV and RV.
As long as a character has 6+ toughness, he is fine; at toughness 5, the character is in minor pain, which translates to -1 to both attributes. 2 is the threshold for moderate pain, equal to -2 to both attributes. 0 toughness means extreme pain, i.e. -3 to the two attributes. Dropping below 0 toughness knocks the character out; -2 equals death. The threshold values for monsters are quick and easy to determine. Resting an hour regains 1 toughness; full 8 hours of sleep net you 10 toughness. Resting for 10 minutes reduces the current pain level by one step. Quick aid has a TV of 10, and drawing a spade means you used up all healing supplies. There is also an optional rule for fantasy logic and instantaneous healing, should you prefer the like.
The book also covers rules for attacking objects and structures, fire, and general hazards. There are no hard rules for determining falling damage, but e.g. water as a hazard is covered. A GM can also rely on a variety of monsters, readily statted for you: We get undead apparitions, boggles (frog folk), cockatrices, a general stat for cosmic horrors, stats for crossroads demons, warmonger demons or demon lords. Weird eyelings, the eponymous dragons, faeries, giants, goblins – basically, we get a selection of the classics of fantasy.
Now, magic. How does magic work? Well, there are basically holy symbols (talismans of true faith), spellbooks, grimoires – you get the idea for these basic items. Unbreakable shields/armor, penetrating weapons – we have a couple of basic magic modifications regarding items. Magic wands and staves can hold magic and act as basically magical batteries, but can potentially explode if overcharged.
Okay, so how does spellcasting work? The character must spend a turn and channel the power of the location; the GM draws a card, which represents the value available to the hero; the hero only knows this value if the GM draws a heart-suite card. 2- 8 mean “little power was gathered”, while 9+ means that a decent amount could be gathered – and this is usually what the PC knows. Once the pool is depleted, the character can attempt to draw power again, but this halves the values. Magic of a location replenishes after 24 hours. When a hero attempts to cast a spell, he must expend spell points, even if the target value is not met. If the hero doesn’t have enough power, it automatically fails. This system makes magic feel pretty chaotic and unreliable. Magic is categorized in 4 types: Folk Magic is assigned to Hearts, Divine Magic to Diamonds, Witchcraft to Clubs and Black magic to Spade. Healing via e.g. black magic is possible, but may take a less savory form – you get the idea. Sample TVs are provided for the GM, with e.g. wish-granting requiring King, resurrections and gateways assigned to Jack, etc. A smattering of sample spells are included for the GM’s convenience, including some ideas for e.g. damage spells etc. Unsurprisingly, Brains determines the number of cards drawn for spellcasting.
The next chapter provides basic advice for GMs – the structuring of adventures, possible rewards (and how to gain both Bad and Good Gimmicks. We also get a couple of brief summaries of a couple of settlements (each about 2 – 3 short sentences long) and 6 sample adventure locations that might act as hooks.
Editing and formatting are very good on both a formal and rules-language level – I noticed no serious issues. Layout adheres to a really nice 3-column standard (11’’ by 8.5’’) and is pretty impressive: The use of b/w-artworks and public domain art to generate a concise, old-school aesthetics is pretty neat. The pdf comes fully bookmarked for your convenience, but only with bookmarks for the chapter-headers. Two bookmarks seem to be superfluous and point towards somewhat weird places, but this is an aesthetic complaint.
Rick Hershey, with additional content by Lucus Palosaari, has created an interesting modification of the VsM-engine, one that is based on extensive modifications of the rather impressive Vs. Stranger Stuff Season 2. The modifications are smooth and interesting and switching games is pretty simple; if you know how to run Vs. Stranger Stuff, you’ll know how to run this. The game is interesting and play smoothly; it is easy to grasp and, potentially, run. That being said, I kinda found myself wishing there was more in the class and magic section: While detailed enough to not qualify as fully freeform, I personally prefer particularly the magic component to be more concisely defined. That being said, since even the most potent magics can theoretically be accomplished from the get-go, this may not necessarily be feasible. Still, the magic items and classes introduced here represent perhaps the one lost chance of the system. You see, while the games based on the VsM-engine allow for quick and smooth one-shot scenarios or shorter campaigns, the weakness of the system pertains to longer campaigns; there is simply not that much going on regarding character progression and advancement. Both magic and classes could have easily added, perhaps as optional components, means of advancing the characters in a concise manner; they *can* act as such as presented here, but ultimately, we could have gone one step further here, truly evolving the game.
In short: This is a well-made fantasy game based on cards; it is particularly suitable for those looking for an easy way to introduce players to RPGs or for quick, rules-lite gaming. It is not as detailed as Vs. Stranger Stuff Season 2 in its supplemental material, but still, the system does that aspect rather well. Hence, my final verdict will clock in at 4.5 stars, rounded up due to in dubio pro reo.
You can get this rules-lite game here on OBS!