Tuesday, February 16, 2016

The Agency should have been groovy but it isn't

Recently, I picked up the Agency and gave it a read. The Agency is an indie style role-playing game about being groovy spies in the swinging 60s battling against supernatural threats to the civilized world.

The game has some decent points. It has a very streamlined and easy to use system and I like elements how adventures are designed and work. Unfortunately, it is also fairly bland which is kind of unforgivable if you were trying to capture the world of the 60s as it was only on TV.

Character creation and mechanics are very simple. Fundamentally, every time your character tries to do something, they roll three six-sided dice and get successes when you roll four, five or six. (Okay, so you get away with flipping coins) One skill will get an extra die and another will get two extra dice, so we know what you're really good at. Add in some bonuses and flaws and that's just about everything you need.

There is also an economy built around karma. Karma isn't about the dice rolls. You use bonuses to spend karma to get ahead in the plot and you use flaws make your life more difficult in order to earn karma.

The most interesting thing about characters as far as I'm concerned is their motif. That is a reoccurring theme about the character that the player can use to heal up a bit or help another player. And you have to invoke the motif in order to use it. So you know, it has some story value.

I found the actual running of the game more interesting then the player mechanics. Every session or adventure or episode, depending on how you want to find it, has a threat token pool. There's a cap to how many tokens you can use in each scene. The threat tokens let you control the tempo of the overall adventure, as well as each scene.

Another element that I really like are complications. Everyone writes a plot twist down on an index card with the GM writing down three. Folks can draw them to earn some karma and make the story more interesting.

The mechanics of the game are simple but they should handle just about any situation. As a game that's easy to teach or to pick up and play at the drop of a hat, the Agency seems to fit the bill.

However, like I said it's a start, I have some issues with the Agency. You are working for a super secret agency that is set in the colorful world of the television 60s and you are fighting against supernatural threats.

BUT, beyond the fact that the title agency exists and tends to hire folks who survived their first supernatural experience, there's really no information about it. In fact, other then the fact that it's set in the 60s and mentioning some of the different government organizations that handle supernatural threats, there is nothing about the theme or setting.

Don't get me wrong. I'm all for homebrew settings and for players and Game Masters to be able to develop their own worlds. However, the Agency is designed for some very specific play and you really don't get anything beyond a list of movies and TV shows to use for inspiration.

There are also some holes in the mechanics. There's no rules for advancing characters, although that doesn't bother me too much since I think the game is more suited for one shots than campaign.

What I consider a bigger issue is that supernatural threats are treated exactly like mundane threats. They just have the supernatural label. While that does keep things mechanically simple, I never had a sense of the fantastic or supernatural. When a major component of the theme seems to be missing, that's an issue.

In the first appendix, the author notes that 3:16 was a major influence on the Agency. When I read that, I not only realized what parts were from 3:16, I realized they were my favorite parts of the Agency.

3:16 is even more mechanically simple than the Agency with very simple scenario structures. However, the theme is very tightly welded to the system. More than that, there is an unspoken underlining theme in 3:16 about politics and genocide that drives the game into being a campaign instead of just one shot. Comparing the Agency to 3:16 doesn't do the Agency any favors.

As I already said, what really are the Agency strong points are simplicity and ease of play. And don't get me wrong, I think those are really strong pluses. However, that's something that I look for in a game and I have other games just a simple that I think are thematically stronger.

Just as one example, last year I looked at a RPG called Mermaid Adventures that was aimed at younger players. Despite looking like Disney's Little Mermaid the RPG at first, I found that it actually had a sandbox environment with enough details for me to have a real grasp of what the game was trying to do. Oh, and it had really simple mechanics that anyone could pick up.

The Agency succeeds mechanically but it just doesn't have any sparkle. 


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