There is something about space opera that just begs for the inclusion of rogues, thieves, and criminals. Sure, Star Wars has Han, Lando, Boba Fett, and Jabba the Hutt, but even Star Trek has its Harry Mudd and its Orion pirates. Even comic book universes known for their superheroes seem to have their share of interstellar rogues, with the Marvel universe providing the Starjammers and the Guardians of the Galaxy, and the DC Universe providing L.E.G.I.O.N.
There definitely seems to be a demand for rogues plying the starlanes, pulling heists, collecting bounties, and sticking it to the (space) Man.
Scum and Villainy is a Forged in the Dark game (based on the core rules of Blades in the Dark) that takes its inspiration from media like Star Wars, Firefly, and Cowboy Bebop, with characters profiting from crime in the backwaters of the Hegemony.
Scum and Villainy is a 360-page volume, with a color cover and black and white interior artwork. In addition to the black and white line art, there are a few system maps detailing the Procyon sector, as well as many charts and tables throughout.
The book is formatted with bold, clear text, and is very easy to read. If you have seen Blades in the Dark, the format is what you might expect from a sci-fi spin on that same theme. The physical book is a solid chunk of well-constructed lore, which arrived just as I was starting my review process.
The initial section in the book, The Basics, gives a broad overview of what the game is about, how it is played, and touches briefly on mechanics that are fleshed out in the later sections of the book.
Some of the important topics introduced up front include:
- Progress Clocks
- Action Rolls
- Position and Effect
- Consequences and Harm
- Resistance Rolls
- Fortune Rolls
If you haven’t played a Forged in the Dark Game, the basics include rolling a set of d6s and taking the highest rolled die as your result. A 1-3 indicates that you don’t get what you were hoping for. A 4-5 indicates that you achieved at least part of what you were trying to do, but with a complication of some sort. A 6 indicates that you got what you were aiming for, and multiple 6s indicate a critical success.
Adding to that basic structure is position and effect. When a challenge comes up in the game, the GM describes that challenge, but the players decide what skill they want to use to address that challenge. Based on the situation and the skill chosen, the GM then explains the position (controlled, risky, or desperate), and the effect (none, lesser, standard, or greater).
Position will determine how severe the consequences for the various levels will be. A character that rolls a 1-4 in a controlled situation may just realize their approach isn’t working and may be free to come up with a new idea. That same roll in a risky position might alert security, which will arrive soon, and in a desperate situation may get the character zapped by a nearby security drone that they failed to notice.
Some tasks may require an extended effort to complete, and some situations might get progressively worse or better over time. These are tracked with clocks. The GM determines how much time or how much effort must go into what the clock is representing, then draws some lines to create an even number of segments (the smallest clock being a 4-part clock).
For tasks that involve clocks, an action with limited effect may fill up less of the clock than one that produces a standard effect, and a critical success may fill in the whole clock in one shot.
Characters have a set amount of stress, which acts as a currency for how effective they can be in the scene. Characters can spend stress to resist consequences when they occur, as an example, but once the character is out of stress, they are no longer effective in the scene (they may not pass out or leave, but they won’t have any significant actions contributing to the group).
Scum and Villainy presents its character types in playbooks, in a manner that might be familiar to players of Powered by the Apocalypse games. Playbooks are essentially character classes that bundle a set of character options together for a player to choose. The character types presented in Scum and Villainy are the following:
- Mechanic (a tinkerer and someone that can push the ship’s systems in a pinch)
- Muscle (a gunslinger or bruiser whose main job is to punish opponents)
- Mystic (someone that can touch the esoteric elements of the setting with mysterious powers)
- Pilot (the character that can pull off maneuvers using the ship or vehicles more effectively)
- Scoundrel (a character that gets by on doing all kinds of criminal things by pushing their luck)
- Speaker (the person that can pull off a con or talk the group out of trouble they have gotten into)
- Stitch (a doctor, medic, or scientist who can also patch up injuries)
Characters can trade one of their abilities in to define special Xeno abilities if they are from a non-human species, although the rules of exactly what a species can and can’t do will be defined by the player and the GM.
Ships and Crews
In Blades in the Dark, the party chooses what type of gang they are, and that choice introduces special rules that make the group better at doing the kind of work they specialize in. This same concept is present in Scum and Villainy, but instead of choosing a type of criminal gang, the group chooses a specific type of ship. The options included in this chapter include:
- Stardancer (a light freighter type of ship good at hauling loads and doing all kinds of jobs)
- Cerberus (a patrol craft that’s good for tracking and hunting bounties)
- Firedrake (a small corvette that’s good at, well, starting localized rebellions that might grow larger)
Each ship has lists of modifications that the players can choose from, and those modifications usually require the team to either pay off, align with, or upset some faction or another. Your starting ship also influences how many gambits you start play with—extra dice that a character can add to their die pool when attempting an action. The Stardancer and Firedrake crews rely more on luck, while the Cerberus doesn’t grant it’s crew as many gambits. Ships also allow the crew an extra dot in actions based on the theme of the ship.
Each ship has a starting scenario, sample jobs, and a list of opportunities. These scenarios, jobs, and opportunities are all tailored to the ship’s theme, so the Firedrake will have various raids on Hegemony targets, and the Stardancer will have rumors about cargo that needs to arrive at a certain time or place.
Pre-release discussion mentioned that the modes of play for Scum and Villainy aligned with campaigns that might be more like Star Wars, Firefly, or Cowboy Bebop. It didn’t strike me until I read through the entry on the Firedrake that the Star Wars “flavor” is very much in line with the early seasons of Star Wars Rebels, rather than Han, Chewie, or Lando’s adventures.
When doing a job in Scum and Villainy, you jump straight to the point, rolling an engagement roll to determine how far into the job you get before you hit an obstacle, and how dangerous a position you are in when that happens. Before you roll the engagement roll, you determine what kind of plan, which establishes your narrative position as the job starts. Those plans are:
This structure allows you to start playing very quickly, but I have to say, my own play group had a hard time coming up with using a mystic plan if you don’t have a mystic character or artifact, and transport kind of seems like it’s a “sub-category” of some of the other plans.
Characters will determine the load that they are carrying, either light, medium, or heavy. How much of a load determines how conspicuous a character is while doing the job and gives the character several checkboxes they can mark off to indicate that they brought just the right tool along for the job.
Because jobs start with characters already in the thick of it, characters can also call for flashbacks to determine what they might have already set in motion. Depending on how elaborate the action taken is, these flashbacks might cost 0, 1, 2, or more stress from the character’s stress track.
The downtime section of the book introduces a very specific procedure for dealing with the aftermath of the jobs that the players just completed (or abandoned). Walking through these steps determines how much the PCs get paid, if they keep their ship in working order, how much heat they built up for the job they just did, and if that heat causes any immediate problems for the crew.
In addition to the procedure followed after the job, each player can spend two downtime actions to do a variety of things. These downtime activities include:
- Acquire Asset (getting an asset for temporary use)
- Craft (building a gadget)
- Indulge Vice (doing one of your favorite things to help recover stress)
- Lay Low (staying quiet to lower your heat)
- Long-Term Project (starting and filling in a clock to represent a long-term plan)
- Recover (healing from harm)
- Repair (fixing things that went wrong on your ship)
- Train (getting extra XP, because you don’t know how to relax during downtime)
Some of the little quirks of downtime I particularly enjoy—you can “spend” your friends and allies whenever someone shows up to arrest you, instead of going to jail or paying off the authorities. You can also overindulge in your vice and do something… ill-advised.
How to Play
The How to Play section of the book covers a wide variety of topics, starting with when to just narrate and react to the fiction, and when making a roll is interesting and furthers the story. This section also goes more into the philosophy of picking an action, determining position and effect, and giving details to the scene and to the actions being taken.
The next part of this section is a deep dive into the individual actions, giving examples of what the actions look like, what the GM should keep in mind when those actions are used. For each action, there are examples of what controlled, risky, and desperate looks like, as well as what reduced effects and serious complications might mean in context of that action.
The section ends with a list of player best practices. These include getting into the mindset of a character living a dangerous life in this kind of setting and engaging the rules to push the elements of the story that you want to see played out.
Running the Game
This section is aimed towards the person running the game. It details the goals the GM should have, the questions the GM should be asking, and the GM principles for running the game. There is a section of GM best practices, as well as GM bad habits, and how to get the game started.
This section has some nice, boldly highlighted advice on what to do to keep a session moving and highlights the major responses a GM should be making when the PCs act. The section on GM bad habits addresses baggage a GM might bring with them from games that don’t have the same structure as a Forged in the Dark game, such as assuming a specific action is the only way to resolve a situation.
This section also includes some of my favorite GMing advice that I appreciate whenever I see it repeated—don’t make the PCs look incompetent when they fail. They are awesome. They are the star of the show. Things just didn’t work out. What did that look like?
Science and the Strange
This section goes into the rules surrounding characters finding and using artifacts and designing and making gadgets. The rules surrounding artifacts dovetail with the setting lore on The Way, an energy field that binds and penetrates all things, but is also a little bit like the Warp from Warhammer 40K, depending on how you want to flavor it.
The section on artifacts details using the Attune action to interact with ancient technology, what effect the artifact has, and what kind of glitches it might have developed over the years. Artifacts have different scales on how far reaching their effects might be, and some examples are given. Some are simple personal weapons that aren’t as clumsy or random as a blaster, and others are literal rifts in the fabric of reality that let you travel from one star system to another.
I will admit, the rules for designing and building items using the crafting rules feel a little heavy for the effect they have on game play. Effectively, most items you build will do something very specific for a job, or it will do something with more effect than a similar, common piece of equipment. For that kind of narrative positioning, there are a lot of steps to walk through.
The Procyon Sector
This section of the book details the four main star systems of the Procyon Sector, a backwater of the galaxy where all the game’s action takes place. Because of the way the jump gates work in the setting, it’s easy to keep the galaxy narrowed down to a manageable size, where a limited number of systems means managing heat is something meaningful.
Each system gets a sub-section here, detailing important NPCs, planets, and various factions that are the most prominent in that region. In addition to suggesting what power groups might be in play in each system and on each planet, the descriptions also suggest what kind of jobs might be available where, and what locations are the best for lying low when the crew is in trouble.
In addition to the star systems in the Procyon Sector, each of the major factions at play get their own write-up, complete with goals, assets, enemies, and allies. The factions are divided up into Hegemony factions (strong ties to the ruling government), Weirdness (beings that look for ancient artifacts and/or deal with The Way), and Criminal (these folks don’t have much respect for the established rule of law).
The factions lend themselves towards different styles of campaigns. For example, there are rival mercenaries and assassins for bounty hunting PCs, renegade Imperial legionaries and the local imperial legion for rebellious PCs, and lots of shady groups that want something moved under the noses of the people that are the established rulers of the sector.
Changing the Game
This section of the book is all about optional rules and hacking the system to produce a different type of game. There are examples of how to make different special abilities, ship abilities, modified rules for using gambits, optional costs for space travel, and rules for affiliations with various guilds and factions.
Scum and Villainy versus Blades in the Dark
If you are familiar with Blades in the Dark, you may be wondering if the game has any major departures from that game, beyond the space opera setting. Some of the major mechanical differences are as follows:
- You don’t track what turf you control in Scum and Villainy–your crew is on the move and your ship is your home
- Healing clocks are a bit more forgiving–it’s a six-segment clock as opposed to a four-segment clock, but once you are healed, you are fully healed
- Gambits are mentioned in the optional rules for Blades in the Dark, but they are a major feature of this game–there is often extra luck floating around for your interstellar rogues
- Scum and Villainy has a built-in “end game” –when you reach +3 favor with a faction in Scum and Villainy, you do one last job for them that changes the sector in a big way, and retire your characters
At The Table
My local group of gamers managed to get this game to the table before I was finished writing this review, so I have a few extra insights to provide. In the interest of full disclosure, I have managed to play Blades in the Dark before, but I’ve never run a Forged in the Dark game, and none of my players had any previous play experience.
Position and effect can sound intimidating in the abstract, but if you remember to walk through stating what the obstacle is, asking what action the player wants to use, then determining position and effect, the rhythm of the process becomes comfortable in a short period of time. My group intentionally talked through some unlikely actions for a situation as kind of a warm-up, like what cracking a safe using sway would look like).
There are a lot of little steps, and it’s easy to forget a few of them. For example, my group completely forgot to pick a heritage. We also ended up backtracking through the ship modules, as we got ahead of ourselves when detailing the ship. Many of those little things are great details for long-term play, and I wish they were a little more obvious, but they didn’t get in the way of the normal flow of play and aren’t anything that can’t be added back in later, once it’s obvious that you missed a detail here or there.
It was very easy to start a job and resolve actions. The only prep I did for the game was to print out the rules references and the playbooks. I explained the rules as we were making up characters. We had a little bit of confusion over actions versus attributes, but that didn’t take long to clear up. For the most part, our gang of smugglers managed to steal a floating Way creature for a cultist while hauling a bunch of racing animals and avoiding getting smashed by a six-armed empathic ape. The rancher didn’t even find out he had a forged document until they were out of the system (3/4 segments on the clock).
Less than 12 ParsecsIt captures the feel of being a space criminal, bound for fortune and glory, while providing some substantive rules on which to hang a narrative.
The game manages to strike a skillful balance between several extremes. Individual rules are simple, but the interaction of the rules is likely to keep players that appreciate longer-term play engaged as well. The setting is made up of many recognizable elements, but the individual factions have a lot of character and personality. It’s easy to understand what makes this universe tick. It captures the feel of being a space criminal, bound for fortune and glory, while providing some substantive rules on which to hang a narrative.
Even I Get Boarded Sometimes
Some of the character or ship details are easy to miss, even with the play aids and the detailed playbooks. There are a few elements that still feel like they are more re-flavored elements from Blades in the Dark, rather than integral space opera crime story elements.
The Way makes sense, as many space opera stories feature supernatural elements beyond “standard” science, but Way creatures feel like an attempt to keep ghosts, vampires, and demons in the game without as much backstory. The more involved process of creating arcane and alchemical items makes sense in the creepy, supernatural city of Duskvol, but using a similar process to make a blaster that is good enough to plug a legionnaire with full effect doesn’t feel as appropriate to the setting.
Recommended–If the product fits in your broad area of gaming interests, you are likely to be happy with this purchase.
If you like more narrative games, but still want to have enough rules to give you something to engage with over the course of a story arc, and you like space opera, you will appreciate this game. It uses the tropes of the genre well, and provides a setting with lots of personality, while still retaining a good amount of blank space for personalization.
Reading this book reminded me of my first forays into Powered by the Apocalypse games. I could never quite get comfortable with Dungeon World, for example, but games like Monster of the Week helped me to re-contextualize Dungeon World. I have a feeling that Scum and Villainy, with its space opera setting and slightly fewer moving pieces in campaign play, may do the same for Forged in the Dark games.
What is your favorite fusion of crime and space opera? Has any other RPG helped you pull off heists in a galaxy far, far away in a manner that you find satisfying? Are there any other Forged in the Dark games on the horizon that have your attention? Let me know in the comments. I’m looking forward to hearing from you!