Vs. Moon Men (VsM Engine)
This game based on the VsM Engine clocks in at 56 pages, 1 page front cover, 1 page editorial, 1 page ToC, 1 page SRD, 1 page back cover, leaving us with 51 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 patreon supporters.
Okay, so, as far as the tone is concerned, Vs. Moon Men taps into a genre I absolutely adore – early silver screen alien panic classic cinema and science-fiction; you know it – the classic 50s, 60s and, to an extent, 70s-aesthetic, still deeply infused with a sense of optimism and naïveté, where good and evil were distinct and clear; of course, chances are that you may be more familiar with e.g. the contemporary games like XCOM, movies like Mars Attacks! (which heavily quotes the tropes of the classics), series like Futurama and the like; if you haven’t seen Ed Wood’s cult classic “Plan 9 from Outer Space”, I wholeheartedly suggest you do so at your earliest convenience. Same goes if you haven’t read or listened to “War of the Worlds.” (And yes, we get a slew of suggestions regarding themes in the beginning!)
You see, 1969, Armstrong and Aldrin were captured by the Moonies – and Collins’ warnings feel on deaf ears. And now, we have a full-blown invasion on our hands! By golly, it’s time to show those aliens what a good ole’ hot-blooded American (or human of another nation) is capable of!
To play, you just need at least 2 decks of card, pencils, and the character sheet included in the download. You choose a name, a biography, and you have 4 attributes: Offense, Defense, Metal, Physical and Social. Offense and Defense are for defending and attacking in combat. The other three attributes are used for all other types of situation resolutions that might crop up. At the start of the game, you get a pool of 5 values to assign to these attributes: 6, 4, 4, 3, 3. You also tick off a role of 4 – brains, face, heart and muscle are suggested, though it should be noted that these are explicitly NOT tied to the attributes. As for customization, you can choose up to 4 good gimmicks, but you have to take a bad gimmick for every good gimmick you take. Want to play a veteran of the war in Korea? Take the appropriate gimmick, but giving the character some sort of PTSD-ish bad gimmick might make sense. Some gimmicks are role-exclusives and denote as such in the name, though, provided the Moon Master (the term used for the GM) allows it, they may be taken by other characters. Being a mechanic, having medical training, being athletic, etc. – quite an array of stuff. On the bad gimmick side, we have allergies, being pretty ugly, haunted by bad luck, being a coward or obsessed about a keepsake, etc.
After choosing your gimmicks, you put down your Health – unless modified by a gimmick, your starting Health is 10. The core mechanic will be familiar to veterans of VsM: You draw a number of cards equal to the related attribute (so, if you have a Social score of just 3 and attempt to sweet-talk someone, 3 cards) and compare the value of the highest card with the TV (target Value) of the challenge. If it’s of equal or greater value, you succeed. The supplement does offer variant rules here: A critical failure/success via two jokers, and a suggestion of using a Tarot deck. (Minor nitpick: I noticed typos in that box.) Yes, you can card-count the game. It’s intended that way. But if your game consists of serious card-sharks, there is a die-based variant noted as well. Jacks are 11, Queens 12, Kings 13. Aces are 14, but for damage purposes, Aces count as 1.
The game differentiates between 5 standard TVs, ranging from easy (TV 4) to impossible (TV 14/Aces); when two or more characters cooperate on an action, the character who draws the highest amount of cards draws their allotment, + 1 per assisting character. Opposed actions are resolved by comparing who draws the higher card; if that ties, the base attribute determines the victor; if that also is tied, initiative order wins; if the contest is between players, the one closest to the Moon Master’s left wins, and ties between PC and NPC in such an extreme case? They’re resolved in the PC’s favor. There is a variant rule I’d highly recommend: Variable successes. If you beat a TV with more than one card, you beat it in a better way; and yes, the game provides feedback and guidance to resolve this. As an aside, this base engine also allows the Moon master to set up complex challenges that require a sequence of successful draws over the course of multiple turns, etc. But you’ll find that out sooner rather than later.
As for combat, turns have not fixed duration and may range from seconds to hours, depending on the requirements of the scene(s) in question; initiative is resolved by drawing cards, and a surprise is resolved as a free attack. Movement can be, depending on circumstances, be handled in a purely narrative manner (perhaps, supplemented by checks?) or on a map, where the attribute related denotes the number of units (like 5 ft.-squares, or 30 ft.-squares, or hexes…) your character can traverse per round. The default would be 6 feet (~2 meters) per unit, which is actually a pretty realistic measurement for quick gun fights and the like.
Attacks are resolved in two ways: In melee, you draw Offense number of cards, using the enemy’s Defense attribute as the TV; in ranged combat, you compare Offense with either the target’s Defense, or with the range value – vs. Moon Men knows 5 ranges, and over 24 ft./8m away requires an ace to hit, which is very punitive and obviously does not represent ranged combat expertise, though it does fit with the aesthetic, where someone punches out an alien with bare hands, while they manage to miss a barn door at nigh point-blank range. This is easy enough to modify, but it’s something to bear in mind.
If you managed to hit the target, you draw one card for each attack card that managed to get past the target’s Defense attribute as the TV. The card you draw is then compared to the “damage cap” of the attack. Each card that has a value equal or less than the damage cap deals 1 Health point damage. (This is the reason aces count as 1s for damage!) Some weapons do have a base damage, which means they always do the base damage, at the very least. Once you reach 50% Health, you take -1 to all attributes; -2 at 1 point of Health remaining, and at 0 or fewer? Sorry, you’re dead. The game does have an optional rule for death at -1 Health or below. A full night of uninterrupted rest (8+ hours) lets you regain 1 Health; if a medical professional tends to the wounds, the medic may draw a card. If it’s a Hearts card, the patient regains an additional Health. Painkillers, First Aid equipment and the like further helps.
Environments can also impose complicating modifiers, which apply to the number of cards you may draw: These range from -3 to +3.
As for equipment: Mechanically, there may not be much difference between second-hand clothes and a dapper suit, but the game does caution that folks are bound to react differently to how you, for example, look. Sample values for clothes, living space, transportation, weapons, etc. is provided; weapons and the like note their damage caps, whether they are two-handed, range multipliers, etc. The engine manages to coax out a surprising amount of differentiation out of the rules light game. We account, for example, for concealable and breaking weapons, and moonie weaponry does offer special rules: Electrode guns knock out targets and only can be fired at point-blank range, for example.
The book also does note means to advance characters, roughly presented in order of hierarchy: Bonus cards, good gimmicks, attribute improvement, removing bad gimmicks – you get the idea. Fear checks are resolved by using mental to compare it to a combined Offense and Defense of the triggering adversary. As far as NPCs are concerned, the system notes the concepts of Nemesis enemies and hordes; we also get a few good and bad gimmicks for NPCs, and some sample NPC stats that you can use for common roles.
Now, since vs. Moon Men has a slightly more action-driven slant than other VsM-games, we do get vehicle rules: Vehicles have a crew value (number of characters required to operate); Handling comes usually as a penalty ranging from -1 to -4, which denotes the penalty for actions that the vehicle is not designed to do. Movement denotes the units it can move in one turn; Health specifies how much damage it can withstand, and Armor reduces the damage cap of a weapon – if it reduces a damage cap to 0, the weapon can’t hurt the vehicle. The use of vehicles is simple and codified properly, and we do get TVs for vehicle repair. A diverse array of vehicles are provided, ranging from horses to tanks, planes, flying saucers, commercial pleasurecrafts (speedboats etc.) – you get the idea.
After this, Moon Masters get some insight into the invaders from the moon – good moon men gimmicks (and a bad one), and we do get 6 sample moon man stats for various rules. After this, we take a look at the assumptions of the game, which is, per default, that of terrestrial freedom fighters, though the system certainly can account for other modes of play. The default starting point would be Anytown, USA, which notes e.g. “The Bar”, “The University”, etc. – it is, basically, a means for the Moon master to think of the standard small town USA backdrop that we’ve come to expect from the genre. We conclude this pdf with 2 pages of different adventure hooks, some of which are truly and genuinely interesting.
Editing and formatting are very good on a rules-language level, good on a formal level. Layout adheres to a nice two-column full-color standard, mirroring classified files, with a type-writer like font and a blend of old-timey photography and artworks that have been modified to elicit the illusion of a concise whole. This is an aesthetically-pleasing pdf. The pdf comes with a ton of nested bookmarks that render navigation comfortable and painless.
I really liked Jason Owen Black’s “Vs. Moon Men.” While I do maintain that it isn’t as encompassing as the supremely impressive Vs. Stranger Stuff Season 2, currently my favorite VsM Engine game, it does offer quite a few components that allow for some depth in the system. Now, granted, mathematically, not all of them always make sense, as some players will point out, but that frankly isn’t the point of the engine in the first place. The benefit of the VsM Engine has always been that you can explain it to non-gamers in less than a minute, and start playing after less than 5 minutes; and indeed, character generation is quick and painless. Vehicle rules add some depth, and while I would have loved to see a bit more regarding alien vessels and adversaries, this remains a fun and easy to pick up game. My final verdict will hence clock in at 4.5 stars, rounded up due to in dubio pro reo.
You can get this nice game here on OBS!