Review: Made Men
At GenCon Indy 2005, I passed a small booth manned by two dapper young men in pinstripe suits. The book the booth had to offer was Made Men. Clearly, at least to my eyes, the book was a game about the Mafia. I was intrigued, but figuring that it was yet another D20 resource produced by a small company, I was prepared to walk by, as I do not play D20. Then one of the gentlemen, who happened to be the author, Sean Mooney, told me that it was not D20, but instead used a variant of the Roll and Keep system used by Alderac'sLegend of the Five Rings and 7th Sea. Well, now he had my attention, and being a good Chicagoan (though I live in suburbia), a game about the Mob is almost a must for my game shelf. The book was purchased, and that evening I set about reading it with the intention of reviewing it for the Lady Gamer.
Obviously, it has taken me a bit of time to get around to actually writing that review. But with my review of World of Darkness: Chicago going up this month, I decided I had procrastinated long enough.
The BookMade Men is a 208 page soft cover book. The cover art is a well-drawn picture of a man's folded hands resting on a table between a stack of bills and a handgun. The picture quickly fades into the black that is the dominant color of the cover, and lends a nice air of quiet menace to the image, which is only suitable for a book wherein you are playing Mafia characters. The interior art is predominantly line art of varying quality. Some images are clearly scans from adds or pictures from the era, while others were presumably commissioned for the book. A few pieces appear to have been drawn on a computer, and are somewhat pixilated, which does create a little bit of a jarring contrast with the 1920's setting. The text is clearly printed in one of the many basic serif fonts available, with a typewriter font used for the headings, resulting in a book that is, at least in the nature of it's fonts, very easy to read.
The GameThe book consists of four chapters, plus a brief (two page) introduction and an index. In that introduction, Sean Mooney speaks of his respect and admiration for John Wick, and how that influenced him in his decision of system. As a player of both Legend of the Five Rings and Seventh Sea, and an owner of Orkworld, I could see the influence Mr. Wick had on this game, and that's not always a compliment.
Chapter one, covering the setting of the game, is probably the strongest chapter. It opens with an overview of the Roaring twenties. Not with a time line or history, but rather with what live was like during that time, covering, more or less honestly racism and sexism with the same factual recounting as prohibition, entertainment, and transportation. The next section is an accounting of what it's like being a member of the Mafia. Though it's presented fairly factually, I personally believe it's probably at least slightly romanticized and fictionalized. After all, it's the romanticization of the Roaring Twenties that makes the idea of a Mafia game appealing. Still, the account clearly presents the Mafia with a weight of the ugly reality of the time, but with enough leeway for lighter and cinematic games. Then there is the city of Port Rapture, which is a little bit of Chicago, a little bit of New York and a little bit of fiction all rolled into one believable city, if somewhat tersely presented as a series of locations. Being a game about playing outlaws, naturally a section on Crime and Punishment is a must, slightly modified to suit the fictional city. Finally, there's a section of slang terms and phrases from the twenties, to lend color to the game.
My primary issue with this chapter is that it covers a lot of ground, but none of it particularly thoroughly. A terse couple of paragraphs conveys the core information needed, but very little of the flavor of the setting. As the strongest chapter, it does not bode well for the rest of the book
Chapter two covers the rules of the game. After a basic but serviceable overview of how the core of the system works, the game ploughs into character traits with no preamble. With a column and a half of blank space on the page before, there certainly was room for one.
The traits themselves are presented in a somewhat haphazard way. It begins with the specialized traits of "Loyalty" and "Respect" and then proceeds to character professions, which read more like character classes. The professions have required skills, or "talents" listed, but what these are isn't explained until three sections later. In between are sections for attributes, which are named with poorly chosen synonyms for the standard traits that appear in most games on the market. I understand the desire to rename Attributes to better evoke the genre, but these terms don't feel intuitive to me, and actually sever me from the genre to some extent. The substitution of "Brute" for "Strength" and "Moves" for "Dexterity" are the most jarring. The terms are accurate, but not the best options, in my opinion. The other section before talents is about the Ethnicities and Families of Port Rapture. Each ethnicity has a chart that the player rolls on to determine what their benefit is. Each family includes benefits that the character receives upon reaching a certain rank in the family. Progressing in rank within a family is explained, in a somewhat scattered fashion, in the section on professions. The section on Talents is divided into Basic Talents and Advanced Talents, subdivided by a talent "type". This section is fairly clear. Advanced talents have certain requirements in both basic talents and attributes before they can be purchased. Finally there are "Credentials" (known in most games as Advantages) and "Quirks" (also known as Disadvantages). There is no introduction to this section at all, the first entry under the section header being the first of the credentials. It was only after reading the names of all the "quirks" that I realized they were disadvantages, and I still am not sure if they give points or cost points. Nowhere in the book are quirks listed with a negative cost, but they don't give any advantages either.
Character generation is two and a half pages, including a quarter page picture and two sidebars. As many games have, Made Men dispenses with the difference between points at character creation and experience points. Your initial character is built on the same scale that will be used to improve the character. This, in and of itself, is not a bad thing. The organization of the Character Creation section, however, leaves much to be desired. Spending points is addressed after discussing if your character is in an organization, what talents you might want to purchase (though not what it costs to purchase them), and a section praising the use of Credentials and Quirks. Nothing is mentioned about attributes until the experience section discusses how to raise them, and the starting level of traits (2) isn't mentioned until an example of raising traits. This alone makes the game less than newbie-friendly. Traits that cannot be adjusted with experience are discussed in the same section as spending experience, with no divider between them, and guidelines for distributing experience points comes after a two paragraph section recommending multiple characters. I really think this section could benefit from an example of character creation.
The combat section of the chapter takes up just eight pages. I'm still trying to decide if this is a good thing or a bad thing. To it's credit, the combat section seems fairly clear and covers most of the basics of combat as well as some guidelines for not-so-basic combat. The organization of information here could be better, but it's not as disjointed as the preceeding sections on character creation and character traits.
Chapter three returns to the setting of Port Rapture and begins by introducing some of the NPCs of the city... without a single statistics block among them, leaving the game master to determine their stats. In a generous mind, I could say that this is to allow the GM to tailor the campaign to the player characters, but nothing is said of this by the author. Still, the characters are well written, though with somewhat "John Wick"-ish blanks in the backgrounds that feel like they will be filled in later, rather than having been left for the GM to determine.
The next portion of the chapter deals with the ritual and vows of "being made" into each family. In a game called "Made Men" these are good to have, and significantly add to the flavor of the game. But there doesn't feel like there's enough here. An introductory couple of paragraphs on what "being Made" means, including the mechanical benefits, two paragraphs on each family's ceremony, five vows, and that's all. Granted, I don't know what else I would have put in this section, but what's here doesn't seem like enough.
The Law Enforcement section of the chapter includes information about the legal structure of the city, including how much a typical bribe needs to be in order to influence a person at that level, what the benefits are of those bribes, and how often they need to be paid. The characters here also have a section of "average stats", though they are far from complete characters. Still, it's a nice cross section and the information on bribery is both suitable for the genre and, with some quick translations of currency, applicable as a guideline for other games as well.
Businesses make up the next section of the chapter. Again, there's no introduction to the section when one explaining why this information is included would be useful. Fortunately, due to the genre, this is one introduction that is fairly intuitive. A lengthy (for Made Men) introduction to legal businesses begins the section. Each business is listed with a brief description, how much starting one costs, what the average profit per month for the owner is, how much must be paid for "protection", and what sort of illegal businesses could use the legal business as a front. The only thing that truly gives me pause in this section is that while a character may own a chain of businesses, a chain is limited to four, with no in game or mechanical explanation given. Presumably, play testing determined that larger chains gave a character too much money or something similar, but I'm always a little perplexed by game rules that feel arbitrary. Illegal businesses follow, again with a lengthy introduction. Illegal businesses have a brief description of the business, what is needed to set up said business, how much it costs, the average profit, miscellaneous management information, and what the chance is that a business will get caught by the police. The chance of discovery should be rolled once per month. My issue here is that events such as the police discovering an illegal business can make good adventure wrinkles or even adventures in and of themselves, and such things can also derail an adventure if they happen randomly.
The chapter wraps up with two very important aspects of a Mafia/Roaring Twenties genre game: Gambling and Alcohol. The poker rules seem a bit complicated, but at least the rules exist. *. Blackjack and Roulette are simpler, though roulette has a fair number of tables to check. Craps, as it should, rests on a die roll and includes rules for cheating with loaded dice. Cheating, and its effects, is not covered in the other games, which is a bit of a shame. The section on Alcohol covers intoxication and Alcohol poisoning very nicely, and includes a decent, though probably far from complete, list of different types of alcohol that is very useful for game masters and players who don't drink. The final page of the chapter deals with adjusting percentages to allow for Public Demand, a nice touch for those GMs who want that level of realism in their games.
Finally, the fourth chapter is the equipment chapter. Each entry has a description and a cost. Things such as security systems for businesses, primitive as they are in the twenties are covered with purchase and setup prices, as well as the target numbers to set up the system and the penalty (or bonus against) disabling. The term "bonus against" seems very awkward, and could easily be misread as a bonus to disabling, which renders the numbers nonsensical. Poisons are covered here, with their cost per five doses, their availability, application (how many doses are required), time for effect, their forms and what sort of modifiers apply... though what the modifiers apply to isn't always apparent. The description covers any modifiers to the Mettle (stamina) roll, and the modifiers on the chart for each poison don't match the one in the description.
The description for Cars takes up a page, single column. It is written as if spoken by a salesman, and doesn't add much beyond a page of flavor text. The next page is a chart of cars listing make, model, year, cost, speed, seats, doors, the modifier to the character's Drive rolls, and the target number for lock picking your way into the car. While the chart is nice, anyone who is not a classic car buff is going to get lost by the differences, and quickly. I know what a Phaeton, a Model T and a pickup look like, and my knowledge of cars of the twenties ends there. Yes, I can look them up on the internet, but considering that everything else has a brief description, any sort of color text that would actually give me something to work with would be appreciated.
Weapons are the next section of the chapter. I commented earlier that the combat section of chapter two was only eight pages, because I felt that something was missing, being used to weapon statistics being found with the combat section. Still, the equipment section is logical. Melee weapons list damage rating and type, the weapon cost and what skill (I thought they were called talents?) to use with the weapon. The charts for firearms add ammunition capacity, reload time, range, cost and target number to make the weapon, and cost and target number to make the ammunition. The variety of firearms here is representative of the era, and of course includes the Thompson.
The chapter wraps up with a very brief section on explosives, limited to Molotov cocktails and pineapple grenades. The explanation given is that a gunsmith cannot create more complicated explosives. However, dynamite and basic gunpowder were used in business and industrial capacities in the roaring twenties, and their statistics should have been included, even if there was no intention of letting a character create such things. They may not have had quite the genre feel that throwing a grenade into a storefront might, but blowing up trucks, cars, trains and buildings were definitely part of the era.
I wanted to love this game. I have an affection for many of the eras of romanticized outlaws throughout history, and the Roaring Twenties is certainly among them. I was hoping to read this book and spend the next month buzzing with ideas and cursing the lack of time to run a mafia game. Instead I find a game that tries hard, and isn't badly written so much as badly organized and badly edited. Terminology changes aren't consistent throughout the book, and there are many places where information is either difficult to find or just plain missing. The game has potential, and I truly hope that they can do well enough to come out with a second edition after the game has undergone some more editing and maybe another round of play testing with groups further removed from the authors.
|* In 7th Sea, the advice on running games of chance was to physically play them out, without any advice on making allowances for characters who were better gamblers than their players. Needless to say, house rules for gambling were first on many a GM's list.|