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The Saving Throw
Skullduggery 2010
So a vision is the same as what is real depends upon the lighting, and how I feel

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Overall Review
published by Pelgrane Press reviewed by Scott Wachter
120 pages, 2010, $22.95 (print & pdf)
Game Setting 4
Art 3.5
Character Generation 3.5
Game Rules 4.5
Intelligibility 4
Overall
4
Review Scoring

I have a number of self-imposed rules for my reviews, and I am about to break one of them. This rule requires me to not use a certain word; a word that is so strangely subjective that it has been used to describe everything from R.I.F.T.S., F.A.T.A.L. and the old World of Darkness to Savage Worlds and Star Wars Saga Edition. But I have come across a game where it would be a disservice not to describe it with this word. Skullduggery by Robin D. Laws is fun. This game is absolute mad-cap fun to throw down with your friends for a night or two.

Part of what makes use the dreaded F-word is that the focus of the game is so different from most games on the market. Rather being all about action and violence, the game is structured around verbal sparring and debate. The game also leans heavily towards a style of game that comes in one-shots where the players have a common goal, but also has individual goal that puts them at odds with rest of the party. Intra-party conflict and the fact that persuasion skills can be used against PCs can make this game a bitter pill to swallow, yet it is those two aspects that make this game so appealing. The fact that any 'campaign' of Skullduggery tends to resolve in about two sessions and that characters are assigned rather than hand-crafted means that no-one gets too attached to anything. Once they get detached, everyone cuts loose, the debates get heated, the action gets outlandish and itís all laughs and good times.

Mechanically, PCs have a skill rating and pool associated with each skill. Whenever a skill check is called for a single d6 is rolled, if the player doesn't like a result he can spend a point from that particular skill's pool for a re-roll. An interesting wrinkle in the die mechanic is that a result of 3 (representing a near miss on unopposed checks) earns you a point for your pool, while a 4 (a skin of the teeth success) requires you to spend a point for it to count. All this make skills just a bit more than you usual dramatist-style game without getting really bogged down in nitty-gritty detail that would not suit this style of game at all.

Part of what makes up the game's characters are their resistances and catch phrases. Resistances are similar to vices or flaws from other games except incredibly different. Rather than having a single fatal flaw they can't overcome, characters have a ranking for each of everyone favourite seven deadly sins that they must roll a save against temptation as they occur through play. I appreciate this more than your typical flaw mechanic; as an individual who sees the appeal of a great many vices, it feels out of place for my characters to only have one or two. It also gives the GM a little more leverage in verbal sparring matches, as appealing to a character's shortsighted desires can be much more interesting than simply rolling the dice. Catch phrases are out of context lines that if said at an appropriate moment to receive a refill on two of their pools. This is one of those fun mechanics that doesn't add much to the game except the joy of standing up at the table and triumphantly announcing your line at the exact right moment, to the excitement of everyone at the table.

In terms of combat, each character has an offensive and defensive fighting style as well as a rating and a pool (just like the other skills). The styles end up working like a six-way game of rock-paper-scissors where certain defensive styles counter specific offensive types. This is probably my favourite part of the game, it's one thing for a game to offer you combat maneuvers, but it's another to pull in this back-and-forth, attack-counterattack pattern that you'd more likely see in a card game. The fact that it carries into verbal sparring just makes it all the better. Combat is also fast, brutal, and decisive. Any violence will almost certainly end in death, and the rules make a point of telling players it is a last resort for characters in the game. Debates play exactly the same way as physical violence (though less fatal), but is also way more engaging at the table with players shouting and really getting into the action of the debate. This game pitches itself based on verbal one-up-man-ship and delivers on it so very well.

Also part of the book are four pre-made scenarios for the game. Each of these does a great job of giving an example of how the game works, but also well done in its own right. What also stands out about these scenarios is how different they are, not only from each-other but from the norm for gaming. For example one scenario casts the players as a group of cabinet secretaries trying to secure the confirmation of the president's nominee for Secretary of State while also pursuing their own individual goals. Anything that different from the usual newbie-friendly dungeon crawl at the back of the manual earns major points in my book.

The art in the book is all black and white and caricature-ish style, but unlike a lot of other black and white books there is also lots of art, particularly during the scenario sections where every character and action beats are all fully illustrated. While no piece of art is particularly spectacular, each piece is solid in its own right. The text is well organized, well indexed and includes a set of pages which if printed out, can cut out turns the examples characters' character sheets into a stack of cards for handy reference, which is always great in a one-shot or con situation.

This is not a game that sells itself well on paper, but in play it comes across as fun more than anything else. This game is very well constructed for player vs player conflict and more quirky, off the wall settings and plots. For that reason I give it much higher recommendation than I probably should.



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