I know the beginning of my love for fantasy. I had sisters that were competing to get me to read J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis. I have a harder time trying to pick out where my love of hard-boiled private investigator stories comes from. What’s weird is that I think I pick this up second hand, from the trope being drifted into Asimov’s Robot novels and watching Blade Runner.
Regardless of the origin of all of my interests, what I’m looking at today is a merging of high fantasy and hard-boiled storytelling. Shotguns and Sorcery The Roleplaying Game is based on the Shotguns and Sorcery stories by Matt Forbeck. The original Kickstarter was run by Outland Entertainment back in 2015, but after some changes of publisher, Matt Forbeck, the IP owner, and Full Moon Entertainment have taken over distributing the RPG, the PDF has gone up for wide sales, and a print on demand option is up and running.
The game uses the Cypher System from Monte Cook Games as its base, with design work being done by Robert Schwalb, based on the setting information by Forbeck.
I received a review copy for this PDF from Matt Forbeck when he announced that he was opening up the roleplaying game for sale.
The Low Down
The PDF which this review is based on is 278 pages long. There is a title page, a table of contents, a two-page index, a two-page character sheet, seven pages of Kickstarter backer names, and an ad for the Shotgun and Sorcery stories.
The book has consistent color line art throughout, which is a mixture of fantasy arms and armor and 1920s era clothing and architecture. The book has a two-page layout on pseudo-parchment pages, with clear headers for various topics. Additionally, there are sidebars for quick glossaries or related topics. While the game uses the Cypher System as its basis, it doesn’t have the same bordered references to the side of the main text that the Monte Cook Games books do.
The first two chapters introduce the setting, it’s real-world history, and also introduces the basics of the game rules. The real-world history weaves from the setting’s origins as a potential 3rd Edition Dungeons and Dragons setting, to a potential Savage Worlds setting, and finally settling in as a Cypher System setting. Between conception and publication, the setting made it to shelves as a setting for fiction before making its RPG debut.
After this history lesson, we get a summary of the Cypher System, introducing how the system works, as well as the expression of cyphers, artifacts, and trinkets as magic items in the setting.
For anyone that hasn’t looked at the Cypher System before, instead of applying bonuses to a d20, characters roll a d20 and check against a difficulty number, but skills, assets, and special character abilities can lower the difficulty before the dice are rolled. XP can be used both for advancement and also to reroll dice. All rolls are player-facing, meaning that when a player attacks, they roll, but when an opponent attacks, the player rolls a defensive check. Movement is abstracted into immediate, short, or long distance. It’s not a bad summary, but if you still have questions, don’t worry, we take a deeper dive into the system later.
Character creation starts with an explanation of stat pools and how they get spent. Just like the core Cypher System, player characters have Might, Speed, and Intellect pools which can be spent for special effects, but also act as “hit points” for the character, depending on what kind of attack they suffer. Points from these stat pools can be spent to lower difficulty, add damage to attacks, or trigger special effects that you pick up from other parts of character creation.
Advancement is split into six tiers, and at each tier, characters get access to new special abilities, pick up more skills, points for their stat pools, and get better at spending points from those stat pools to trigger their abilities.
Where we deviate from core Cypher System is in the “words” in the Cypher System sentence. Characters are built in the Cypher System by adding a Descriptor to a Type, then adding a Focus. In Shotguns and Sorcery, Type is split between what “type” usually means for the Cypher System, and Race. Normally, stat pools are determined by type, but in this game, Race determines your stat pools.
The races we have in the game are Dwarf, Elf, Halfling, Human, and Orc. Not only does race determine stat pools, but it also gives you things like skills, languages, and inabilities. Inabilities are traits that make doing tasks related to those inabilities one step harder, the opposite of what skills do.
I won’t go into too many details, except that this is bog-standard fantasy at this point. Dwarves work hard, drink, and are grumpy. Elves are graceful and arrogant. Halflings are good at thieving and resisting fear, and humans are VERSATILE.
There are a lot of standard fantasy RPG issues, like conflating ancestry and cultural traits into one package, but given the modern discussion on these things, I’ll illustrate by diving into orcs. Orcs live in the city with everyone else, but in Goblintown, the most dangerous and financially depressed urban region. While the traits of other races are framed in the light of culture, like why elves only like to associate with elves, or how family effects dwarves, or how halflings or humans learn to get along with multiple people, orcs are almost entirely defined by absolutes about individuals, from the perspective of other characters, and without a specific mention of their cultural traits, outside of everyone having the traits attributed to the individuals.
Also, orcs are stupid. Not only do they start with the lowest Intellect pool, but they also have a super broad intellect inability. Everything that involves thinking is just harder for them. To be fair, dwarves get this same double whammy for speed, and halflings get it for might. Looking at how the Cypher System handles race, it suggests it as a descriptor. That means that a character can usually choose to be influenced by their culture, but they could also take any other descriptor. Some settings have suggested that instead of only allowing one descriptor, if characters are more likely to frame their character with an ancestral background, you may want to allow two descriptors, so one can be based on race. What I’m saying is, this takes something Cypher System isn’t bad at and makes it worse.
Okay, that was a lot about race, but that’s a pretty important topic in RPGs to me these days. The next thing you pick is your type, which in this case means Freelance, Veteran, and Wizard. Freelance characters have a wide range of special abilities they can pick from, Veterans are largely combat facing, and Wizard abilities are usually supernaturally flavored. Type is one aspect of the character that interacts with Tier, because characters chose a limited number of abilities each tier, and each tier opens up more abilities for the character to choose. Some of these abilities modify other abilities, while some of them are triggered by spending points from a pool.
The descriptor, like in standard Cypher System, usually adds to a pool, gives a character some skills, and may give them an inability or some other trait. Descriptors aren’t “tier dependent,” they just add some modifiers to the base character. For example, if you are Stealthy, you may get Speed pool bonuses, sneaky skills, and an inability to move fast.
Focus gives a character more tier dependent abilities, and relate to “how” a character does their job. For example, if you take Fights Dirty, you get some gear that relates to how you do things, and abilities at each tier that improve your ability to do things that are flavored as taking cheap shots at an opponent.
If you want to view this through a more traditional RPG set up, you might pick “Veteran” to be combat-focused, and then takes “Rages” as their focus, which makes the character more like a barbarian than a fighter, to use more traditional level-based fantasy terms.
Every aspect of the character also includes some kind of “team-building” options. Your type gives you a list of connections to the starting point of the campaign, your descriptor gives you a character hook, and your focus gives you another connection to another PC. I like this concept, in general, although in other Cypher System settings, I’ve seen some of these options start to work against one another instead of adding to the group origin story. There should be enough options for each to work around this, however.
There is a section on gear, but gear is fairly minimalist in Cypher System. There are prices for items, ranges for ranged weapons, and a few tags that interact with other character abilities. For example, since the setting has magical 1920s era technology, we get machine guns, but the rapid-fire quality doesn’t do much unless you pick up character abilities that interact with this quality. Weapons do damage based on broad classes, so light weapons, medium weapons, and heavy weapons all do a set amount of damage for their class.
Playing the Game
In the next chapter we come to revisit the rules we saw originally introduced in the Getting Started section. There are a few more granular descriptions, like how many magic items a character can carry, how to identify them, and how to determine turn order. There are also some notes on spending XP to get lasting narrative elements, like a home or a title, instead of mechanical character advancement.
Because of an encroaching army of undead bound to a powerful necromancer, the city was founded by people across the continent cutting a deal with a dragon, proclaiming him emperor, and building a city on his mountain. The city is divided up by social class, and social class is determined by ancestry. The elves have the highest social standing, followed by the dwarves. Humans have a bad reputation because they tried to organize for better laws in town, and the dragon burned their neighborhood and forbade them from ruling themselves. Halflings are below elves and dwarves, but they get along with everyone, and Goblintown and the Greenskins are the lowest social element in town.
There are two tiers of police. The Imperial Guard only employs elves and dwarves, and they don’t do anything to police sections of town outside of the wealthiest. The auxiliary guard can have members from the lower classes, although even the auxiliary rarely polices Goblintown. Wizards have their own special section of town, because of how much others rely on them, but wizards that attend the city’s official school are the only ones treated with respect. There are other races that aren’t detailed as player characters in the game, such as gnomes, goblins, hobgoblins, ogres, and trolls — although gnomes and goblins are much more important to the story than the others.
There are lots of great twists to the details of the town, like the fact that corpses have to be disposed of officially by the city due to the necromancer’s armies. There is an addictive form of alcohol that boosts a wizard’s abilities, but is also very addictive, and there is a drug sold in the city made from dragon scales.
Racism is a problem in the city, but there is some good narrative reasoning . . . except for Goblintown.
There are some great commentaries on police acting as the (literal) protectors of wealth, and the exploitation of the masses due to the leverage of an indifferent government structure. However, this tends to fall apart with the Greenskins. Unlike the humans or the halflings, who have their social standing because of where the other races have forced them, the Greenskins are portrayed as essentially deserving the lowest rung on the social ladder.
We get a ton of interesting organizations and interactions, but the Greenskins form gangs because they are violent, and one of the main named characters we get is a literal cannibal trying to lure people into their territory so they can eat them. So close, I just really wish anything with the goblins, orcs, etc. had been written with the starting point of, “but what if the other races are wrong about them?”
There is some wider treatment of organizations, what the world looks like outside of the city walls, and what “the Old Country” is like, in very broad terms. Dragon City has benefited from its unique circumstance, and its magical 1920s era technology is far ahead of the rest of the world. Groups of adventurers sometimes try to escape their economic circumstances in the city by sneaking out into the wilds and looking for treasure in the abandoned ruins now overrun by the undead army.
Creatures and Characters
GM facing rules are much lighter in Cypher System games, so creature stats are relatively simple. There is a difficulty level for the monster, it’s armor, health, damage it causes, it’s movement, and adjustments to the monsters level (i.e. some monsters defend at a higher level than they attack, for example), and then some notes on how the creature fights, interacts, can be used in a campaign, and what kind of loot it is likely to carry. There are often special GM intrusions (special twists that the GM can introduce either for XP or when characters roll a natural 1) that are flavored for that creature.
There is the standard array of undead, giant animals, elementals, and animated constructs represented, and there are some traditional fantasy creatures that are given a twist in this setting. For example, the faerie that live in the wild are hardened by the proximity to the undead. Special shout out to the Cruul, which is essentially what would happen if you took a D&D mindflayer and merged it with a starfish.
There are a few twists that might be interesting from a narrative standpoint, but make me a little hesitant to introduce in a game. For example, doppelgangers in the setting can only reproduce with other creatures, so they have to turn into those creatures to propagate. It’s an interesting twist, but it’s also a potentially fraught story to tell in a game.
There are also stats for several NPCs in the setting in this section, including the Ruler of the Dead and the Dragon Emperor. The “crew” that was featured in the Shotguns and Sorcery novels is detailed as well. I like the inclusion of some contacts that are police officials and medical examiners, as this plays into the hard-boiled aspects of the setting.
Magic items list a whole range of items broken down into Cyphers, Artifacts, and Trinkets.
Trinkets are the least powerful items in the setting. They are effectively permanent, but are generally convenience and utility items. For example, some plates keep items on them warm, spheres that chill liquids that the sphere is placed within, or rods with a light at one end. Some of the trinkets have even less of a discernible purpose, such as twitching body parts or self-mobile wooden eyes.
Cyphers are the items that the whole game system is named for. Characters can only carry a set amount of cyphers on them at one time (which can usually be modified when a character gains abilities at different tiers). These are single-use magic items that are often potent, but limited. Many of these items in the Shotguns and Sorcery setting take the form of potions or enchanted scrolls, or pages from books.
Artifacts are permanent magic items with a bit more of an effect than Trinkets, but many require a depletion roll. Eventually, the magic in them may run out, but with enough lucky rolls, they aren’t going to be anywhere near as short term as cyphers. A few special artifacts do not have depletion rolls, such as Bottomless Satchels.
For those familiar with other fantasy games, cyphers are going to do much of what you would expect from scrolls and potions. They either provide a very useful one time effect, or may provide a special extra ability that lasts for an encounter or so, such as protection from a given form of damage.
While some of the artifacts are flavored from the setting, such as Conflagration Pistols that can set someone on fire as well as shoot them, there are also a lot of items that emulate iconic fantasy RPG magic items, like the aforementioned Bottomless Satchel, Darksight Goggles, or Floating Disks.
Like the creatures section above, there is a lot that can be used from this section for general Cypher fantasy games, as well as with the default Dragon City setting.
The Game Master
The Game Master section has a really deep dive into how to run Cypher System games. It addresses how and why to ascribe different difficulties. There are best practices for what makes good GM Intrusions to make the game more interesting and how to advance the story with them. There are also several examples of different types of intrusions.
There are sections on running NPCs, pacing games, and challenging characters. It then transitions to a specific section about making the setting come to life. There are some cited examples of events that happen in the Shotguns and Sorcery stories. There are also some sample scenarios, and some differences to the setting depending on if you set your game before or after some of the published stories.
There is a section that addresses that character names follow a real-world pattern. Elves use Italian names, Dwarves use German names, Gnomes use Russian names, Halflings use Irish names, and Humans use English names. The text acknowledges that these are Eurocentric names, but the counterpoint is that people have different skin colors in the city. That’s not the best defense of only using European names, but I have another issue.
Green-skinned people of the setting don’t have a uniform naming convention. They don’t have last names, and their names are generally short words with one or two syllables. I don’t think this was intentional, but added to the rest of the narrative for the orcs, goblins, etc., this means that the lowest social class characters don’t get to have names that get grouped in with the European names. This further others them, meaning that even for all of their other differences, humans are clearly “closer” to elves and dwarves than orcs and goblins. They aren’t “us.”
There is a final section about “Dragon City in Other Games,” which mentions a Pathfinder conversion as well as using Dragon City as a Recursion in The Strange (another Cypher System game where alternate worlds exist that are spawned from human fictional constructs). For anyone interested, I checked on the Kickstarter, and it looks like the Pathfinder conversion is still an ongoing effort, which I was curious about, given the time between the Kickstarter and this release, and the intervening Pathfinder 2nd edition.
This section does such a good job touching on how to get a handle on Cypher System, in general (much of which it has in common with the Cypher System Core Rulebook), but I wish it had used a little more space talking more in-depth about hard-boiled tropes, or giving more detailed examples of jobs adventurers might go on outside of single paragraph examples for each job.
The Keen The book does such a good job of having a personality, but also leans heavily on the fantasy tropes, meaning that it’s not too difficult to extract lots of useful Cypher fantasy content for a game that lives in that space
The text is a complete and clear expression of the Cypher System that should be easy for new players to parse. The setting is imaginative and vibrant, bringing in lots of tropes from both fantasy and hard-boiled stories, and hybridizes them. Even as it does this, this is one of my favorite treatments of fantasy in a Cypher System product, feeling a little more approachable than, for example, Gods of the Fall. The artistic design of the book is well-realized, with artwork that is consistent and appropriate for the high pulp stories that the game hopes to facilitate.
Separating a key part of character type for race, and then reinforcing racial tropes, and limiting the usefulness of various people for various tasks, repeats some mistakes about race, ancestry, and determinism that lots of RPG discussion is centered on at the moment. Aside from the mechanical aspects of race, something is unsettling about goblins, orcs, and other disadvantaged people being lumped into the category of Greenskins, and then presenting a group of people defined by skin color as largely being the dangerous brutes that the other people worry that they are.
While there are a lot of great examples of how to run the Cypher System and best practices, there isn’t nearly as much effort put into explaining how to keep a dungeon crawl feeling hard-boiled, and I wish there had been a bit more effort about integrating both sets of tropes in adventures that lean the other direction.
Tenuous Recommendation–The product has positive aspects, but buyers may want to make sure the positive aspects align with their tastes before moving this up their list of what to purchase next.
The book does such a good job of having a personality, but also leans heavily on the fantasy tropes, meaning that it’s not too difficult to extract lots of useful Cypher fantasy content for a game that lives in that space. Because most of the technology is framed as magic, it’s a little less useful for extracting 1920s hard-boiled tools, but the flavor is there.
I would be a lot more enthusiastic about widely recommending this if it weren’t for the fact that the approach to orcs and goblins feels regressive. The explicit ties to skin color even undercut the generally specious arguments about fantasy races not having direct correlations to real-world people. I wish race had been treated with a little more care, with a bit more perspective from the orcs and goblins, and less of a disclaimer that you can play “some of the good ones.”
What are your favorite games that have mixed genres? How hard to you like those mixed genres to lean into one another? What do you think the traits of a good hybrid genre setting are? We want to hear from you in the comments below.