Sunday, June 15, 2014

Review: Double Cross

This will be first of a series of reviews covering Japanese RPGs that have been translated to English.  The second will be Tenra Bansho Zero, and the last in the series will be Golden Sky Stories.

When Double Cross was first published in English, there was a limitation from the Japanese publisher that there would be no PDF version.  Only printed copies.  I'm glad to say that when I was researching this review that I found out that the core rulebook is now available in English Language PDF (the first supplement is also available in PDF).  I am happy that F.E.A.R has allowed the PDF to be made because it means the game is now accessible to a wider audience.

And wow this was a long and complex review to put together.  I am going to space things out a bit by reviewing the Double Cross Advanced Rulebook and Public Enemy supplement before getting to Tenra Bansho Zero, which looks like it'll be just as long of a review...

Overview

  • Publisher: Far East Amusement Research (Japan), Ver. Blue Amusement (North America)
  • Game Type: Role-Playing Game
  • Book Type: Core Rules (516 pages)
  • Availability: Softcover, PDF

 

Setting

 I'm sure that Double Cross draws inspiration from Japanese comics and cartoons, but I'm not familiar enough with anime and manga to tell you which series it grabs ideas from.  But since I try not to use comparisons to other things that the reader may or may not be familiar with, it's a moot point.

Double Cross' default setting (and I say default setting because I understand that there are a number of alternate settings for the game that are only available in Japan) is one of a secret war waged by Overeds (what the player characters are) against the Gjaum (read that as 'germ' and you'll be fine).  Both Overeds and Gjaums are super-powered beings created by the Renegade Virus, an omnipresent virus that is normally dormant in humans.  When the Renegade Virus activates in a human, it creates an Overed, who gains super powers from the virus.  But if an Overed uses his Renegade-fueled powers too much without having the emotional connections that make us human, the virus takes control of the Overed and turns him into a Gjaum.  Gjaums tend to be impulsive and animalistic; ruled by their urges and decidedly lacking in higher level thought.

The governments and an international group called the Universal Guardian Network work to keep the Renegade a secret from the masses and to contain the Gjaum problem.  They're opposed by False Hearts, who can only really be described as super-powered terrorists.  They're Overeds and sane Gjaums, and they seem to exist for two reasons: opposing the UGN and using their Renegade powers to do whatever the hell they want.  The UGN is assisted in keeping things under wraps by the various governments, who understandably don't want a panic since Overeds look like normal people when not using their powers (Gjaums, on the other hand, are usually hideous mutants), and the fact that all Overeds have a power called Warding which knocks out anyone who isn't an Overed, Gjaum, or Renegade Being within a certain radius.

What's a Renegade Being?  Well, the source material implies that the Renegade Virus is possibly sentient.  Sometimes the Renegade Virus will infect animals, objects, or take on the form of mythical beings.  These non-human examples of active Renegade infection are collectively called Renegade Beings.  It's odd because the existence of such beings really heavily implies that the Renegade Virus is capable of becoming sentient (we already know it can sense and read emotions since it reacts to an Overed's will and mental state).

I'll be  honest here.  The setting has a lot of gaps in it and I'm fairly certain this is deliberate.  The Advanced Rulebook and Public Enemy supplements (both of which are available in print) expand on the setting, but the core rulebook is largely devoted to all things involving the player character.  The true nature of the Renegade Virus and the agenda of False Hearts is not concretely defined in the core rulebook, allowing for any number of scenarios to develop.

 System

Double Cross uses ten-sided dice exclusively.  Performing basic tasks is straightforward; you roll a pool of d10s equal to the stat called for by the GM and keep the highest number, then compare against the target number set by the GM.  If you roll a critical, which is usually a 10, you re-roll the dice that came up a critical and add 10 to the result.  Keep rolling as long as you get at least one critical, adding 10 to your end result every time you critical.  Skills are a flat bonus to your die result.  So if you're shooting somebody and roll 9, 7, 8, 8, and 8 with a Ranged skill of 2, your total is 11.

Double Cross, being about people who have super powers fighting other things with super powers, has a well structured combat system.  I don't mean complex when I say well-structured.  There's a lot of give involved because of the super powers, but the primary reason for the definite structure is for timing power-use.  These timing rules also form a major part in how the powers can be combined.

Yes, a character's Renegade powers can be combined, within the limitations set by the system.  The combinations are not predetermined, though the game assumes you will work out and write down your most commonly used combos ahead of time.

I should also mention Encroachment Rate, which has a mechanical effect on its own.  Many of the Renegade powers increase your Encroachment Rate when you use them.  This is both good and bad; I'll get to the bad part when I talk about Characters, but the good part is that at certain Encroachment thresholds you actually get extra dice and level boosts to most of your Renegade powers.  The danger here is that you might lose the character.

I will say that the rules seem a bit loose in the sense that there seem to be pieces or explanations missing when I read through it.  There is errata published by Ver. Blue Amusement, but it doesn't answer the questions I have about how powers are used.  Each power has its own little mini system and while many of them do make sense, it feels like some are missing a piece.  I specifically looked at Flashing Plasma and after reading it several times I can only conclude that it is one of those powers that exists to modify other powers.  It would be nice if there were labels saying as such instead of having to remember the power key from the beginning of the power/syndrome section.

 Characters

Character creation and reference takes up most of the rulebook; the rules themselves take up 30 pages out of a 516 page digest-size book.  The character section, which includes gear and references for the powers, takes up 236 pages.  It's seriously an intimidating task for a beginner to create a character.  Fortunately there are three ways to create a character, tailored for varying levels of player experience.

The first is to just copy down one of the premade characters included with the book, pick (or roll if you'd like) some 'personal data' as the game calls it, and start playing.  Interestingly, these are not typical pre-generated characters in that they're useless.  They're actually quite capable according to the reviews and comments I've read.  And if they're the yardstick to measure by, the characters I've generated don't exactly measure up to them.

The second method is called Construction and seems to be written for people who have played a few sessions of Double Cross and have a better idea of how things work.  It's flexible without being too detailed.  You pick your breed, syndromes, work, cover, skills, powers, allocate a few points, and grab some gear.  It doesn't take too long, about 30 minutes if you don't agonize over the choices.

The third method is likely written for people who've played the game for awhile; it is called Full Scratch.  In essence, it is similar to Construction except you are given 130 experience points to customize your character after picking breed, syndromes, work, and cover.  This method is for people who know what they want to build and have experience under their belt.

Speaking of experience points, Double Cross treats them differently than most RPGs.  First of all, the Experience Points, while spent on player characters, are not removed when a player character dies or becomes unplayable; the Experience Points belong to the player.  This is so a player who loses a character can just whip out another character sheet and start on their new character instead of having to wait around.  Second of all, the GM earns Experience Points too, just so that if they want to hand off GM duties they can do so and play a character.

Let's talk about Loises and Tituses, because they are extremely important to player characters.  You see, the way to drive down a character's encroachment rate is by developing Loises (named after 'Lois Lane' from Superman).  Loises are emotional ties, the things that allow an Overed to remain human.  The emotions associated with a Lois is not always positive, the point is that a Lois is a tie to humanity.  A character always has a maximum of three Lasting Loises; just three.  And at the end of a session, a character reduces their Encroachment by 1d10 per Lois remaining at the end of the session, with a few options to reduce it further at the expense of gaining less XP.  After all is said and done, if a character's Encroachment Rate is still over 100%, they become an NPC and a new character is required.

Tituses, on the other hand, derive their name from the play Titus Andronicus, which is pretty much a story about how much people are willing to sacrifice in the name of revenge and winning (Hint: In the play, they sacrifice everything).  Tituses are what become of Loises when they are damaged beyond repair or the player decides to discard a Lois for a boost in power.

In both cases, Tituses and Loises also exist to give players the tools to craft stories around their characters' lives in addition to the mechanical benefits.  It encourages the players to build connections to the in-universe world while playing precisely because of those mechanical benefits, which in turn builds an environment conducive to role-playing.

Gameplay

 GMs are encourages to plot things out ahead of time, with a lot of advice and help aimed at structuring the scenarios and building the NPCs.  But what is important to me is that the author spent some time explaining the expectations the players and GM should have of each other.  That is, it spells out etiquette, which serves as a useful reminder for old hands and a good primer for new players.

Double Cross seems like it is set up for short stints, meaning one-shots or a campaign with a short number of sessions.  Given that XP is given to the players and GM alike and the fact that the game recommends that sessions be complete stories in themselves, this makes sense.  The mechanics aren't too complex either (they just tend to be explained in a kind of round-about way), lowering the amount of time spent learning to play.

It also seems like one of those games that I can't judge how it'll play from reading it.  I'll definitely have to come back with an Actual Play report at some point in the future.  I think I'll personally have issues playing it because I'm not real big on prep work for my sessions, but it can definitely work for somebody who doesn't fly by the seat of their pants like me.

Verdict

This RPG is clearly written to emulate a specific genre of anime, though what the name of that genre is escapes me.  Horror and conspiracy enter into it, as does super-powers.  It does this well in my opinion, though I'm terrible at running horror games so my opinion is perhaps flawed in that regard.  It's worth getting if you like super powers, horror, or modern-day conspiracy.

Here is the caveat though.  Even though I have a lot of respect for the effort it takes to translate something not only from a foreign language but also a foreign culture, Double Cross has some hiccups in the translation.  I didn't see any big issues or unintelligible crap; Ver. Blue Amusement has done a very technically proficient job at translating the book from Japanese to English.  But an outstanding translation takes an unbelievable amount of time (as I will discuss when I get to Tenra Bansho Zero) and Double Cross is not an outstanding translation.  It is readable and (most importantly) understandable, but it also seems very literal in places.  It demands that the reader pay close attention and read things thoroughly to ensure comprehension, and you will need to extrapolate information based on what is said and not said.  Don't get me wrong; it is a very good translation, but English speakers need to really pay attention to the text so they don't miss something.

The more I think about it, I don't know if the weird word choices and phrases are a side-effect of translation or if the original Japanese text was the same way.

All things considered, I don't regret buying Double Cross and plan on running a game or two of it at some point.