Scum and Villainy Review
Scum and Villainy, written by Stras Acimovic and John LeBeouf-Little (and published by Evil Hat Productions), is the sci-fi reskin of Blades in the Dark and allows its players to smuggle droid parts, to hunt alien bounties on distant planets, and to fight the galactic hegemony as scrappy rebels. This review is dedicated to exploring Scum and Villainy, focusing on both the positive and less positive aspects. The short version is this: S&V is a great game for a short campaign in which the characters explore the criminal side of adventuring while having the opportunities to be daring, creative, and innovative.
Heist adventures have been a mainstay of tabletop roleplaying games since Shadowrun, published in 1989. In most heist adventures the players spend a good long time planning for the upcoming heist mission- they plot out each movement, analyze potential obstacles, and forecast possible setbacks. Then, using skills, contacts, and equipment, they try to preemptively overcome these obstacles. And then, the action: the Game Master presents the events of the actual heist while the players sit back and revel in their cleverness as things go exactly as they were intended…or get frustrated when issues they did not (or could not) foresee play out and interfere with their success.
As a side note, there have been two serious issues with any heist adventures of the past and they are the following:
- Planning takes too long. Players could spend hours trying to imagine all the possible obstacles that must be defeated and then coming up with the myriad ways to do so. Of course, in this process, they often spend time defeating issues that were never going to crop up in the adventure.What a waste of time!Grump
- Conflict is fun. If the players did, in fact, manage to preemptively solve every problem that they might face in the running of the heist, then the whole thing just runs as narrated by the GM. The players in this circumstance simply listen to their plan’s success: no drama; no conflict; no fun. The entirety of the entertainment value of the heist is built into the players NOT thinking of every possible obstacle and overcoming it during planning. In other words, something has to go wrong with the plan, or it’s not fun. And if that’s the case, why spend all that time planning?GrynBecause strategy is super-fun, of course!
Finally, someone came along and solved the problem of the heist adventure, and that someone was John Harper, the guy who wrote Blades in the Dark. The conceit behind BitD is the idea that the players just dive into the heist and use flashbacks to retroactively “plan” for the obstacles as they come up. It’s genius, really, and allows players to creatively overcome challenges while not taking an hour to do so.
While BitD had some issues that didn’t appeal to me, including some setting issues, the basic concept was brilliant, so it was only a matter of time before some smart people came along and turned the idea in a slightly different direction …
Villainy (or the positive stuff)
Scum and Villainy blends the heist genre with the excitement and wonder that come with exploring the far reaches of space. As the title of the game suggests, it owes great thematic debt to the Star Wars franchise, with character archetypes like Pilot, Scoundrel, and Mystic (read Jedi), while there are some differences as well. For example, there are hyperspace “gates” rather than jumping to lightspeed.
The game does a great job of capturing the feel of scrapping for creds in the Outer Rim while trying to stay under the Empire’s radar.
The real excellence of this system, though, is the chance to do heist adventures right. In a Scum and Villainy session, the characters are presented with a possible score and then immediately jump into the action. The opening scene is established with a die roll that is modified by the characters’ simple plan outline and possibly by contacts and assets that the characters can bring to bear. From there, the players’ decisions and the dice conspire to throw complications in their path.
Each time a new obstacle lands in the path of the characters during their job, players are allowed (although not required) to spend resources to flashback to before the run began when their characters foresaw exactly this situation coming up and prepared for it. The player then gets the opportunity to create a solution to the problem.
This ability to address the present challenges (and only the present ones) in a manner that makes your character seem cool and effective is, in a word, FUN. And, don’t worry about being bored. The dice mechanic is specifically designed to throw additional challenges and obstacles at the team, without feeling overwhelming or drawn out. In fact, in some instances, my gaming group finished a complicated and satisfying job in about an hour, though usually it takes a bit longer than that.
Scum (or the less positive stuff)
All that said, there are a couple points about Scum and Villainy that leave me eager to wrap up the year-long campaign that I’ve been playing. That’s right- I’ve been playing in an ongoing S&V campaign for a year now, which means that it’s a very good game. I don’t waste my hard-earned gaming time on mediocre games, so please keep that in mind while I address a few minor faults.
While the game is split up into two different phases for each heist: 1) The Job and 2) Downtime (ala The One Ring and, to a certain extent, Mouseguard), the actual dice-rolling mechanic and basic rules are really quite simple. They mostly rely on common sense in adjudicating the stakes and consequences of each roll.
Blades in the Dark introduced the concept of “clocks” to measure the progress of a series of actions or consequences over time, an idea that S&V runs with. Unfortunately, the simplicity of the mechanics and the ubiquity of the generic clock mechanic can make missions and the obstacles that comprise them feel a little “same-y” over the course of many jobs. Sure, the characters all get to use different skills and/or clever plans to overcome the challenges, but when it boils down to it, once again filling in wedges on a clock can sometimes feel repetitious as the only difference is whether this clock has six wedges or eight. To be fair, inspired adventure planning and player engagement can mitigate this issue quite a bit, and it took a good long time of playing before it began to a bit repetitive. But opening the hood of this game reveals that the engine really only has a couple moving pieces.
Which leads to another issue. Although the rules have a clear system for establishing, maintaining, and winding down a campaign, Scum and Villainy doesn’t seem intended for long-term play in a series of adventures. In addition to the problem of an ever-increasing sense of mechanical repetition, there are only 12 player skills, each rated from zero to three, and a half-dozen or so powers for each character “class.” So, there isn’t a ton of room for character development, and certainly character differentiation suffers. All the characters start to become quite competent at everything, and it’s hard for me to imagine introducing another Pilot to my group while expecting him to feel significantly different.
On the other hand, playing Scum and Villainy for a single session or a convention one-shot misses out on the opportunity to experience the fun of the Downtime activities that connect one adventure to the next. Mitigating “Heat with the authorities” and dealing with the fallout from missions is a lot of the fun of the game. The sweet spot seems to be a short mini-series of games, perhaps bringing out the game every so often when you feel inspired by the episode of Firefly you saw last night.
At the end of the day, Scum and Villainy is an excellent game that finally allows players to run heists in an efficient and exciting manner. In fact, I’ve considered sitting down and trying to shove a Shadowrun skin onto these rules to see if the granddaddy of all heist games might be improved by this innovative approach to planning jobs. I suspect it would be!
It also addresses what I consider to be the biggest issue with Blades in the Dark, which is the requirement that the characters be evil. In S&V, “the powers that be” can be evil instead of the characters, so breaking the law is actually a socially responsible act.
Anyway, I highly recommend Scum and Villainy for a short campaign (maybe ten or so missions) of high adventure space-faring and potential alien larceny. I hope you’ll let me know how it goes, and May the [redacted for Trademark reasons] be With You!