Le chat noir
Original SA post
Le chat noir
A fair warning before I begin: I only picked this game up recently and have not yet had a chance to run a campaign in it, so my analysis of mechanics and concepts will be based on A: What came before, since this is still fairly close to IC2e and Myriad Song and B: My first impressions of the new material and changes made to the system.
Urban Jungle is the latest of Sanguine's Cardinal games, and many of the systems you're about to see will obviously be familiar from Myriad Song. Some of the systems that have been altered have changed to fit the setting: This is a purely mundane (until the expansion book, which I don't yet possess) noir crime drama setting, set in a lightly (extremely lightly, to the point that I don't know why they bothered) fictionalized 1920s-1940s US. The primary point of fictionalization being, of course, that the United States is not primarily occupied by humanimals. I actually think this is the first game Sanguine's made where the animal people serve no real purpose. They're pretty much gratuitous this time, though they do provide gameplay variation. Urban Jungle introduces a new Trait that everyone has, your Type, that could have easily replaced Species if they'd wanted to make a human-focused game. But it doesn't especially detract from the story that it's foxes and cats (Lackadaisy is fantastic anyway, go read Lackadaisy) and rum-running gorillas.
Now, another important mechanical difference right off the bat in PC creation: The addition of Type (which is effectively exactly the same kind of thing as Species and Career) has effectively removed the Skill Mark system and the 3 Free Gifts. I'm guessing the logic here goes across several points. First, Skill Marks were your only source of unlimited advancement in dice from IC2e and on. PCs have not been able to raise Traits past d12 since IC1e, the only game in the line where they could do that. Thus, by removing the Skill Mark system and making things Trait only, you can more easily control the number of dice players roll. Second, as it is, Skill Marks were less overall EXP efficient than raising a Trait die anyway; you'd effectively get a skill raise to 3 skills, 12 EXP worth of Skill Marks, by raising a Trait with a 10 point Gift. Third, there's a consistent desire to prevent 'minmaxing' by controlling PC development that's evident through most of the Sanguine systems. Given how consistently this seems to be a design goal, I'd hazard the guess that this is something Jason Holmgren (the lead designer of the Cardinal system since IC1e) encountered a lot of trouble with in his own home games. The old Skill Marks system is included in the back as a variant rule anyway if you want to use it.
One of the nice things about writing up systems made by a process of iterative design is that I don't have to repeat myself for dozens of pages. In general, the meat of the system works the same way as IC2e/Myriad Song. You still take Rote how you used to, you still often roll vs. 3, penalties are still bonus dice for your opponent, the dice mechanics work exactly the same, etc etc. The biggest changes are to character creation (introducing Type), a redesigning and streamlining of Gifts, and the addition of a totally overhauled damage system, called Soaks. I also suspect the attempt to cut down on player dice has something to do with the prominence of Rote and Rule of 4 rolling post Myriad Song; one thing you'll note as we get into the system is there are fewer ways to gain a lot of bonus dice consistently, too. For instance, Outfits are now just 'do you fit in' and have nothing to do with providing armor nor do they provide a bunch of 'gear bonus' d8s. There's also another new standardized mechanic: The Dwindle Die. Dwindle Dice represent a situation where you're slowly losing an edge that you've got, so every time that die comes up a 1, it decreases in size until it dwindles away to nothing after rolling a 1 on d4. The main uses for this are temporary NPC opinions (good and bad) where you slowly wear out someone's good will (or get off their bad side) over time. It's also the new ammunition system in place of the old Capacity system from Myriad Song; most guns have a d4 Ammo die and when you hit a 1, you're dry and need to reload.
The other really important change is Soaks. You get Soaks for your Type. See, when you get shot, if you take ANY un-soaked damage, you drop. You're not necessarily dead, or even dying, but you're definitely out of the fight. You still roll your Body vs. 3 to reduce a point of damage, and if you have the Endurance skill from your Type or Career or Species, any Endurance dice also get rolled vs. 3 to lower damage. But what happens when you take a 5 damage shotgun hit and you've only got your Body die? You go to your Soaks. These tell you what they are, how much damage they stop, and what happens to you in return for claiming them. For instance, the Angel (the good-hearted, innocent, peaceful Type) gets Distress Soak-4. That means when somebody tries to kill you, you can tap that to stop up 4 damage instantly (if you only had 1 unstopped damage, you still use up the whole Soak. 'Wasting' 3 points is better than getting gut-shot, right?). The Distress effect is actually a positive effect, too! Your allies see their good buddy is in trouble and have a surge of courage to try to help you, Rallying with 1 success immediately. This opens up a really interesting design space for damage that wasn't present in the original damage system, where you can accept debuffs (everyone can get Panicked to reduce damage by 2, for instance, and you can buy abilities like getting your gun shot out of your hand to reduce damage by lots, etc) or even give buffs to allies in return for not dropping. It looks like it will make saving vs. going down a lot less random. In return, there's no more 'deathblow resistance' Gifts; if you drop, you drop.
Soaks recharge at variable rates; some of them are much harder to 'ready' again. I'll go into them in more detail when we get to Gifts, because they're interesting enough and there are few enough that I think I can cover them all to give an idea of how the new HP system works. The old damage system was one of the weaker parts of the system, and I'm quite excited to see how the new Soak system works in play some time.
As it is, though, if you've read the MS writeup, you almost know how to play Urban Jungle already. I'll also mention the writing is done in a much more 'in-character' style, though it doesn't particularly detract from the clarity of the rules and organization. There's a lot more color commentary and there isn't as clear a line drawn between the fluff and the rules as there was in Myriad Song. On one hand, it makes the book a bit less dry, on the other you've got to be careful with that kind of stuff; for the most part it manages.
Also, of course, this being Noir, the whole book is in black and white.
Next Time: The Species of the Urban Jungle
Original SA post
I mentioned in the first post, but I believe Urban Jungle is the first game where 'everyone's animal people' doesn't really add anything for Sanguine. In Ironclaw, it was a simple way to have lots of PC playable species and add color to a fantasy setting without resorting to Elf/Dwarf/Other. Myriad Song is great for having lots of weird and fun aliens to play as. Albedo was based on a comic where the people being animal-people in a highly artificial and constructed society was kind of the point. And Urban Jungle does have other comics and things it can point to where the anthro thing is part of a noir background. The problem is, Urban Jungle is very committed to being a very open game. It has some light fictionalization of the various cities, crime bosses, etc but from what I can tell, most of the setting is literally just 'we changed some names on normal American cities, also they have lots of cats and foxes and somehow there are snake people with no hands but no-one mentions this'.
It isn't that it's bad, so much as, well, let's compare it to something like Lackadaisy. Lackadaisy is a comic about cat people running a speakeasy during Prohibition. Everyone in Lackadaisy is cat people. The artist has said 'this is because drawing cats' body language and expressions is really fun, as an artist', but if you changed them all to human characters, the story would be exactly the same. It's wholly a matter of art and aesthetics. Alternately, you could go all in on the idea of the various species as racial/ethnic stand-ins, but Urban Jungle doesn't really do this either, in the interest of being open. But you can't quite do the Lackadaisy thing because your species really matters, being a major building block of your character (which is probably why they didn't go with the ethnic stand-in option, because replacing 'I have Fox d8' with 'I have Sicilian d8' would be creepy). I admit I also just get a weird kind of uncanny valley feeling from 'the world is the world, except you're all gators and wolves' that I don't get from it being used in a purely fantasy setting.
I should also note the art. Look, I'm sorry, guys, but you lured me in with a really great cover and then what's between the pages is just inconsistent. You get some good pieces, individually. But the majority of the art is a very cartoony style that doesn't really fit film noir. There's no sense of tone to the art; we go from an elegant advert for high end clothing to hastily drawn sunday funnies stuff about two hobo cats spouting meme dialogue, to lots of very generic 'funny animal' stuff. The cover art deserves special mention as the absolute best piece in the book, and if you're gonna put your best piece somewhere, that's a real good place to put it. I'm also willing to accept I'm just not necessarily the target audience for the art, but the visuals of the book are pretty disappointing. The decision to make everything black and white isn't followed by a sense of tone that makes it feel like a stylistic decision, and it just makes the book feel less colorful.
Now, there's too many species to go over in detail, and they have a lot less fluff/presence for the setting than they did in Myriad Song, so I'm not going to be listing them all. But we know how Species work by now: You get a Species trait die, it goes with 3 skills, and then you get 2 Gifts. There are a LOT of species, and they each get one or two sentences of fluff and not much more. Also note that despite all the art showing snakes with no hands and no way to actually interact with the world, and their little blurb being 'We're not sure about the hands thing, either', they for all intents and purposes have hands and feet and whatever in play so you're playing a snakeman, not Kaa from the Jungle Book but in a bowler hat. One thing that stands out is how no species gets, say, Shooting or Academics. It's all Presence, Fighting, Endurance (which is actually much more useful in Urban Jungle), Athletics, Evasion, Observation, and in the case of apes, Craft. Yep, monkeys are amazing with a monkey-wrench. Ha ha. Similar, instead of natural weapons and stuff, for the most part any animal with claws and prominent teeth just gets Brawling as a Gift. Also, some species are all Giant (as a Gift) to reflect they're huge, like Bears.
Now, your Species is actually noticeably more important overall, specifically because you don't have skill marks anymore. Being from a Species that gets Fighting means you can give someone a little chin music regardless of your Career or Type, after all. Same for Evasion; all foxes know how to be thieves and lookout men, regardless of what your day job might be. When you can't just put a couple points in that to pick it up, suddenly it's more important that 'everybody' from your part of town knows a little bit about that thing you do. Plus, if you wanted to be real good at something, you've got less ways to get extra dice, so picking a Species that's good at it is a good way to get more of 'em. It makes for an interesting choice: Do you pick a Species to broaden what you know, knowing the only way to pick up new skills is to pick up extra Careers later, or do you focus it on being really good at what you already want your character to do? The removal of Skill Marks makes these parts of your character more important than ever.
Also note: Your Species doesn't give you Soaks, that comes wholly from your Type. And since this update is short as hell, let's talk Type.
Now, your Type is what kind of Noir character you are. It's totally independent from your job and your species. There's nothing actually stopping you playing an innocent little Angel who is a hitman. You now get 2 d8 Traits, 4 d6 Traits, and 1 d4 Trait; you're still only 'bad' at one thing, making room for one more average Trait to make room for your Type. Type gives you 3 Skills, and either a Gift and a Soak, or two Soaks. Remember this is in addition to the Panic Soak-2 everyone has just for being a character. You also get an item for your Type, but these are more sentimental or signature items than anything else.
For instance, the Boss is a Type that has buddies. You've got an Entourage (a Gift) of minor NPCs who depend on you, care about you, and who you feel responsible for. Also gonna say: Listing the page number of each Gift for quick reference right after the Gift in all these writeups is a real good organizational change that makes flipping through to make a PC faster and easier. That Gift lets you pick up followers and minor buddies who'll help out (within reason) in adventures. The Boss also gets a Distress Soak -4, which I mentioned earlier, but once per session they can just negate 4 damage and rally all their buddies while doing it because 'The Boss is in trouble!' is a big motivator. They're good at Negotiation, Presence, and Tactics, because they can coordinate with friends but they're also great at making them. And then they get a signature item they're never seen without, so that if their buddies find their scarf in the gutter or something, they know the bad guys have kidnapped The Boss and it's time to rescue you.
The Types are a really neat addition to the game that helps you fill in something that fits in or stands out about your character. You want to be a two-fisted Hardboiled badass with a colt .45 and their trusty hip flask? That's there. You want to be a firebrand, inspiring Rebel who inspires everyone and always seems to have copies of their Manifesto? That's there. Sultry night club singer? Famous war hero from WWI (or II!)? They all have just enough flavor, and an important enough mechanical role to fill in, that they can add a lot to a character concept whether you're going for a contradiction or something that fits in perfectly. They're an extra building block for adding mechanical weight to your theming and character concept and I think they're a good addition for the specific genre the game's going for.
Career is exactly as it's been in every single IC2e and onwards game. 3 skills, 2 gifts, and some stuff. Careers are very varied; you can be a hitman, a politician, a ganger, a mobster, an artist, a scientist, etc. Without Skill Marks, Type, Career, and Species matter a lot more for determining your skills mechanically. There's still a good mix and they fit in well with the Types and Species to give you a lot of mechanically viable options for building characters. They also basically give you 3 good concepting keywords to go off of. Still, Careers work exactly like they always have, so not much reason to go into huge detail here.
I should also mention we've got the same skills, mostly used in the same way, as Myriad Song with the exception of Psyche. There's no Psyche skill because we ain't got no space wizards in these parts until the expansion book, which I assume is gonna have some space wizards from all the Cthulhu shit you'd expect out of a film noir Occult Horror add on. The biggest exception is that Endurance can now justify itself being an entire separate skill from Academics a lot better, since you roll your Endurance+Body to reduce damage from attacks before you go into your Soaks. With a more limited number of dice in general, you're also more likely to be called on to use more than one skill for a check. Trait Dice that grant both skills you're using get rolled twice
, which can be a big deal. Like say Barry Bertolli, my Bear Mobster, is trying to impress on his captors they can't do shit to make him talk. He rolls Will+Presence+Endurance for this, trying to show disdain for their methods of gentle persuasion. He gets Presence and Endurance both from being a Bear, so he rolls his d8 Bear die twice. Mobster only give Presence but not Endurance, so he rolls his d6 Mobster once. That kind of thing. Like with MS, it's partly on you to suggest to the Host how your skills and abilities can apply, and where, and then up to them to decide if that works and call on you to roll the dice.
Next Time: Gifts and Soaks
You should see the other guy.
Original SA post
You should see the other guy.
So, Gifts are mostly as they were in Myriad Song, though obviously lacking in stuff like exosuits, space magic, and ray-guns (though wouldn't that be swell to spring on some goodfellas?). There are some general trends in the changes to Gifts, though: For one, there are more 'passive' Gifts. There's even more focus than before on '+d12 in circumstance' Gifts, which makes sense with a general attempt to tone down the number of dice you roll. The Gift of Strength, for instance, is completely out because it would've been a source of +d8s to Fighting (and with way less gear, the Burden system is gone anyway) and they're trying to keep the dice a little more constrained in Urban Jungle. There are now two kinds of Gifts: Basic and Advanced. Basic means somebody, somewhere, starts with that Gift or Soak trait. Advanced means it can only be earned through EXP or Goals. Relatively few Gifts have prerequisites. Interestingly, no-one can start with Veteran anymore, for instance. And things that used to be 'spend an action to refresh' like Sniper Shot are now just 'If you have the Sniper Gift, +1 to range bands of ranged weapons', etc. Bullet Conservation, especially, has been combined with the Ammo Die system to be a much better Gift. It raises the size of your Ammo Die by 1, since you're shooting less and hitting more, representing a skilled shot or trained soldier. This not only lets you roll more 1s before you need to reroll, it also makes you less likely to roll a 1 in the first place. Much more useful than 'Damage Flat but use no ammo' (though that was really useful for counter-chains in MS).
The big thing that changes is that lacking 3 free Gifts means you can no longer raise your starting Traits at creation. No more playing a Mercenary with d12 Career getting +d12 to Shooting and Fighting and then piling an extra d12 Tactics bonus on there 8 'o clock, day 1. Considering that was a starting/pre-made PC suggestion that behavior was very much an intended option in Myriad Song, and given that it has been quite pointedly taken out here, the intention to avoid that kind of starting specialization is clear. What I wonder about is if that's a function of genre, a function of a desire to keep d12s even more rare and 'special' (since they're the die that can theoretically win any contest as long as you have one), or just a desire to normalize power levels at creation a little more. I'd guess it's a combination of all three. There's a clear attempt to simplify the system in Urban Jungle, compared to Myriad Song and Ironclaw 2e. It's an attempt backed up by genre, mind you; this is Film Noir, it's not exactly the kind of storytelling that's driven by what model of power armor you've got. What matters is that hitman just pulled a Chicago (Excuse me, 'Tricogha', which is like Chicago and Detroit at the same time because apparently my home city ain't important enough to crime to get its own lightly fictionalized place and gotta share billing with Chicago) Typewriter outta his violin case, not exactly what make and model it is and if it's a laser cannon or if he's a wizard.
Similarly, Urban Jungle is a lot less combat focused on the whole. You're playing a gangland crime drama (by default) set in an urban center. Guys getting whacked is meant to be kind of a big deal. Thus, the Gifts are a lot more focused on how to commit crimes, accomplish stuff, and have adventures without necessarily topping a guy. Sure, you'll probably have stand-offs and gunfights, someone's going to try to order a hit on someone or you're going to have to rough up some thugs, but you're not space adventurers wandering a hive of scum and villainy. Similarly, people got telephones and telegraphs and shit and the federal government's always looming above the cops if things get too hot, so it's a little harder to get away with really big crimes that make a lot of noise, like throwing dynamite and grenades downtown. Thus, you're a lot less likely to be walking around with a rifle, or using one at all. Also, you might think a Gift like +d12 to Firefighting tasks is kinda meh, but then you read the description and it's also helpful to committing insurance fraud and making it look like an accident. The game knows what you're gonna get up to with these Gifts and they're built to support it.
Now, the main thing I'm excited to try out in this system is the new damage system, and I'm gonna go into detail on the Soaks because I think they open up a really interesting design space for how to deal with taking damage compared to the Myriad Song/IC2e system. I mentioned it before, but for completeness, if you take a point of damage you can't Soak in Urban Jungle, you drop. You're not dead, you're down. There are variant rules for bleeding out and stuff, but by default someone has to make the decision to put another in your head after you fall over to actually kill you off. You get some randomized DR from Body and any Endurance dice you've got, but nobody has any kind of Armor anymore; you're all too busy wearing trenchcoats and sharp suits and cocktail dresses.
At the same time, things do less damage. There's no such thing as Weak/Slaying damage anymore, or Flat damage. All Damage is just the basic 'Damage+X' type, so a base of damage, +1 per successful attack die. The most powerful weapons in the game 'only' do Damage+4 base (though some Gifts will give +2 damage), so keep that in mind when we get to the numbers on Soaks. Still, removing stuff like Slaying simplifies damage immensely, and with only a few kinds of weapons and attacks to worry about, they don't exactly need concepts like Weak/Slaying/Flat or the massive number of #Conditionals to mechanically differentiate 50+ weapons. It's a good place to cut down some complexity because there no longer needed to be complexity to include everything and distinguish it.
To use a Soak, you look at a pile of damage you haven't been able to stop with Body+Endurance vs. 3, and start tapping Soaks. You do this until you exhaust all your Soaks (and drop with unsaved damage) or until you reduce damage to 0 and stay up. Soaks have different recharges, and different values, but the most important rule is if you spend a Soak, you spend the whole
Soak. Say I've only got 1 damage left to get rid of and I only have a big 4 point soak left on my sheet; I gotta tap that even though I'm 'wasting' 3 points of it or I drop. I can't tap it now and then throw out the other 3 points when I get capped again next round. I will be listing all the Soaks, because there are few enough and I want to talk about why they make me intrigued from a mechanics-driving-fiction perspective.
We already talked about Distress Soak -4 back in Type; it's an amazing Soak, with the caveat that you get it once per session. But the CONCEPT of it is what interests me: That you can add a bonus to a once a session Soak rather than them all being about penalties and dramatic complications. Yeah, it's an unreliable Soak since you can't recharge it during the session, but the idea that you not only resist a ton of damage (4 damage is, by itself, a 2 dice success with most serious weapons just flat negated) but also snap all your buddies nearby out of panic and get them rushing to rescue you? That's really cool and an interesting way to mechanically simulate someone being the heart of the team, or otherwise so sympathetic that everyone wants them to make it through the episode and clenches up a bit when they're getting shot at.
Frenzy Soak -2 is simple. You soak 2 damage when you exhaust it, and you recharge it by hitting someone with an attack or Counter. Only a few Types start with this, and one of them I'm a bit less fond of, but this is a very helpful and consistent source of damage reduction. I'm not very fond of the Broken Type starting with Frenzy-2 and Noncombatant, because it means one way or another they won't be using half of what they started with; that Soak and that Gift are in direct opposition. Noncombatant is +d12 to defenses until you attack or counter (then it won't reset for 24 hours), and you can't recharge Frenzy without attacking or countering. I know it's an intentional contrast for the person who tries to avoid fighting back and then snaps in a rage, but I'm not a fan of putting the two abilities in direct opposition like that.
Hurt Soak -3 is our old buddy Hurt from the other systems, except it no longer gives enemies a damage bonus against you. Since any unsaved damage can drop someone, they don't need to muck around with +1 Damage Hurt or +2 Damage Injured to help get people over damage thresholds to actually drop opponents anymore, which is another benefit of the Soak system. If you have access to Hurt and spend it to negate 3, it doesn't actually penalize you in any way. You just can't use it again until the next scene, after you've had a little time to wash the blood off and hold a damp cloth to your bruises for a sec. You'll still be visibly injured after getting Hurt, even when it's recharged, but this is the kind of damage cinematic heroes take all the time without really slowing down after a couple seconds of rolling around and groaning in pain. It's a good baseline for Soaking damage without really no-selling it.
Injured Soak -4 is Hurt's big brother. You only recharge Injured with 8 hours of rest and a square meal. You'll still look like shit when you get up, but you'll be able to take another bullet if you really have to. A PC who's been Injured has actually been shot, or needs stitches, or is gonna have a nasty new scar, but they're still up, still moving, and still good to go. You don't suffer any actual penalties from being Injured aside from it being really obvious you've gotten into some serious trouble, so throw on some bandages and tell people they should see the other guy if they think you look fucked up.
EVERY character has Panicked Soak -2. They mention this a couple times, but I'd have put it in bold at the beginning of the Basic Soaks section personally. Every single character can choose to become Panicked (same as in Myriad Song, can't actually attack until rallied or until you break line of sight and hide for a turn) to negate 2 damage. You recharge this when you Rally. The idea behind this is it gives everyone a way to soak some damage, but more importantly it also gives you an actual incentive to really consider running away or surrendering when Panicked. After all, Panicked Soak was probably your last Soak, and if you're out of Soaks the next hit has a good chance of dropping you. Is it really worth it to stick around and try to rely on Counters now?
Sneaky Soak -2 works well in conjunction with Panicked Soak -2, because it gives you 2 points of Soak but also recharges if you Hide for a turn. Dropping out of a fight and taking cover when you're eating bullets and near misses and running out of ablative Damage Reduction is a good idea anyway, so this a pretty practical thing to have around. Gives you a second to decide if you want to dive back in or get while the getting's good.
Winded Soak -1 doesn't soak much damage, but it recovers by just spending a single action in combat to catch your breath. It's one of the easiest to recover Soaks in the game. Good for when you need to top off another Soak or just barely got tapped. The kind of thing that's more valuable the more base Body+Endurance you've got, since then it's more likely you'll run into a situation where you need just 1 more damage taken care of.
There are also Advanced Soaks, and they include an interesting detail: As far as I can tell, you no longer get hitstunned every time you get hit. Instead, there's the Dazed -2 Soak, which causes Dazed in return for taking away 2 damage. Dazed is just Reeling from the other games with a slightly less awkward name. Also note that Recovering in combat will not only cure Dazed, it will also immediately recharge your 1/Recover Gifts and Soaks. So a Dazed -2 character with Winded -1 can get them both back when they shake off the Daze next round. Recover recovering all your X:Action Gifts at the same time is probably why there are so many fewer of those in Urban Jungle, and specifically why some were converted to Passives; I'm guessing they were found to be too action economy intensive in Myriad Song and they wanted to try something different here.
The Fumble-4 Soak has someone shoot your gun out of your hand or something when you mess up an attack and get countered, OR mess up your own Counter. It's a big Soak, and only usable once per scene, but it's a nice example of 'dramatic development instead of dropping' Soaks.
Rampage -2 Soak is barely a Soak. It removes 2 damage, and that's good. You can only use it once per rest, and that's not. But the point of Rampage isn't the Soak. It's that after you've spent it, you get +d12 to ALL Counters you make until it Refreshes. I love this concept for an advanced power. Yeah, you're out of damage reduction, but now you're goddamn mad and you're going to be a nightmare to actually finish off.
That's it for Soaks in the core book, but the concept gets me excited and they're a good proof of concept. For one, they remove the need to have 'damage floors' to actually end a fight, and they help deal with the way damage would ramp up quickly from conditionals and Hurt/Injured in order to make it possible to go down. They also make it easier to potentially avoid Panicking from every serious hit. What hits do to you is now much more variable based on what Soaks you have. They also add a sense of resource management to dealing with damage. I also like the idea that you can add fiction drawbacks or complications or developments to them in place of 'you drop'. This is the kind of system that can help you build scenes and make combat more than just 'shoot man, kill man'. Similar, the idea that you can hide activated bonuses like Distress and Rampage in with Soaks has a lot of future potential if you wanted to build a more action-oriented and cinematic system with the concept in the future. In general I see a lot of potential for the Soak system that wasn't there in the base damage system from Myriad Song, and I'm excited to test it out in play and see how it feels. If it works as well as I hope, it will open up a lot of interesting things to do in the future, and this is probably the new mechanic that seems the most intriguing to me. I am a huge fan of introducing ways to have complications (and loss conditions) outside of 'you're dead' to combat since I tend to like stable PC casts.
Similar, the Soaks also let them completely strip out the old Saving Gifts. No need for everyone to have Combat Save when everyone has Panic Soak and at least one other. Those were fun in IC2e and Myriad Song, but evening those out also makes sense for the genre since they want to play up 'a guy with a gun is a serious dramatic complication and threat' rather than 'you can't be taken out in 1, no matter what'.
Next Time: A small sample of samples.
I'm gonna need some guys
Original SA post
I'm gonna need some guys
So, this is going to be both a couple example characters, but also some thoughts on character creation and how ideas like Type vs. Skill Marks actually feel once you start plotting out character concepts and throwing together some guys and dolls. All of this should be taken with the caveat that I have not yet run Urban Jungle, since I have other games to work on at the moment, so this is a spot judgment based on what I can see and what making PCs feels like comparatively rather than something where I've seen it all in motion for myself.
Let's take Barry Bertolli first, because goddamnit I started with the Bear and I'm gonna keep going with the guy. Barry is, of course, a Bear. This gives him Endurance, Fighting, and Presence and the Gifts of Wrestling (gets access to a bunch of special grappling moves, rather than a bonus grappling) and Giant (d8 bonus to situations where bigness matters, though it's not clear if that helps in a fistfight or not, plus his Reach turns to 3m with all melee). Barry is gonna be a tough guy who means well, who don't listen so good when people tell him the world can't be better. So he takes Knight as a Type because he likes the flavor of it. This gives him Endurance, Presence, and Tactics, an Injury -4 Soak, and the Gift of Bodyguard, so he can swap places with allies and take hits for them. Barry's also a proper Mobster and a made man, with a dapper suit and hat, always smoking a cigar. So he gets Presence, Shooting, and Negotiating, plus Bullet Conservation (Ammo dice are all one size higher to start) and Streetwise (d12 on criminal dealings, easier to get illegal stuff). Barry's a big guy and a very good bear, so he puts his d8s in Bear and Body. He's not to quick on his feet, being huge, so his d4 goes in Speed. Everything else gets a d6.
Let's look at what he can do off the bat. Barry's pretty good with a shotgun or magnum, since they rely on Body and he's got a d6 Shooting from Mobster. He's solid in melee since he's got those d8s from Body and Bear (and maybe Giant, it's unclear), though his d4 Speed slows him down (a lot of melee includes both Body and Speed). He's not so good at dodging or sneaking, because he's got only a d4 to roll. What he's really good at is being intimidating; he's got Presence from Bear, Mobster, and Knight, plus his Will isn't bad, his Body is great, and I think 'I loom over him while I suggest we have a serious discussion concerning his health and well being' is a place where you can argue Giant kicks in for sure. He's also tough as hell, having his good Body, then 2d6 in Endurance, so he has a chance of shrugging off a shot from a service pistol or a hit from a combat knife without even having to go to soak (those are both Damage+2, he can soak up to 3 damage from Endurance+Body potentially, though odds are low). On everything but being a scary (or just impressive) guy, fighting, and some basic negotiation and street smarts, he ain't too good, because it's way easier to run into situations where you only have 1 die in something in Urban Jungle.
He picks up the Personality of Kind and the Motto "Bigger means better.", and a goal of 'Help somebody with their debts.', and he's good to go.
Still, he's definitely playable, and definitely fits the archetype of a big, burly made man who's secretly kinda soft on the inside and probably listens to sob stories, which then gets him in trouble with the boss and gets everything in his life spiraling out of control.
Let's take another. Hilda Mariendorf is a Fox, which gives her Athletics, Evasion, Observation, a Danger Sense (d12 to deal with traps and hazards, +d12 to Init), and makes her a Coward (+d12 to Dodges while Panicked, runs faster while Panicked). For Type, she's an Egghead. She's always been a smart girl, and gets Academics, Transport, and Craft, plus Noncombatant (+d12 to Dodges if you haven't fought back yet, have to go a full day without fighting to recover it if you Counter or Attack) and Injury Soak -4. She's also a Reporter, because hey, Reporters getting up to messes is a classic. That gets her Observation, Questioning, and Transport, plus Gossip (Same as MS), and Research (Also same as MS). Hilda's real good at her Egghead background, so she's got a d8 in Type, and her whole core is being sharp, so d8 in Mind. She's no fighter, though, so she's got a d4 in Body and d6s in everything else.
Like with Barry, Hilda's got some big things going for her off the bat. For one, she's a really good reporter; d12 from Gossip, d6 from Career, and probably d8 from Mind means she's great at just taking the temperature of a place. She's also a surprisingly good scientist and academic, with Research applying to labwork as well as library work. She's perceptive and picks up on trouble easily. She's also nearly impossible to actually pin down and kill in a fight, because you can choose to turn Panicked at any time to activate Coward, and with Coward+Noncombatant even dedicated fighter types will have a hard time hitting her while she runs away. She's not especially impressive (probably kind of mousey looking) and not great at negotiations and dealing with people outside of asking them questions. She's not good at fighting back, but then her goal in a fight is to get the hell out of the fight or draw fire, not to gun people down. Pen's mightier than the sword and all! Also makes a competent getaway driver and ain't bad at all at making stuff.
She picks up a Personality of Inquisitive, the Motto "What a Scoop!" because how can you not, and then the goal 'Get to the bottom of this!' and she's good.
Something I've noticed when making characters with this system is they tend to fall more rigidly into archetypes than they do in something like Myriad Song. This is obviously intentional, when you've got a literal type-casting stat on your character sheet. You're also more likely to be outright bad at some things than you would be in MS, and more importantly, you actually start with fewer Gifts and effectively less skills, if you count Type as a replacement for starting Skill Marks (which I think it is). Now, this is probably due to a mixture of trying to simplify the system, and a different in genre compared to space opera adventures. But it does feel much more constrained to make characters with. It's faster, much faster; you make 3 major decisions and then assign 2 good dice, 1 bad die, and fill in from there. You can make a PC in 2 minutes. But there's a lot less personalizing your PC mechanically.
Also, the lack of Skill Marks is something where yeah, I get it; raising skill marks was the only source of 'uncapped' advancement and they're experimenting with reining that in (I suspect). Similarly, on a pure EXP basis, you get more from raising a Trait for 10 than you would for spending 4 on 3 skills to raise 'em after all. That eliminates a variable EXP cost, which I also believe is a design goal. Similarly, you can take a Gift to instantly get a d8 Skill in a Skill, which I think is meant to keep the same cost (10 EXP as opposed to the 12 EXP it would cost under the Skill Mark system) but also make it harder to focus on a single skill and get a d12 in it (you can't raise the d8, it just remains as a constant bonus at that level). This also pushes absolutely all Advancement to be done via the Gift system, which achieves more standardization and technically simplifies things. The problem is, it also makes learning something new to any degree kind of a big investment.
You see, when you want to buy a new Type or Career (you obviously can't buy a new Species) you need both its Gifts/Soaks first. So say Barry wants to go to school and become an actual wise guy. He'll need to learn Geography and Research before he can then spend 10 EXP to become a Professor, too. Or Medicine and Research and then spend to become a Doctor. He'd have an easier time picking up Egghead, by taking Noncombatant and then Extra Type: Egghead, since he's already got Injury -4. But that's still a 20 EXP investment (or some adventures for Goal fulfilling). Then he's got to slowly creep up from d4. He could also just take Skill Expert (Academics) to get a minor edge, but it's generally a big investment to actually learn new things.
Type can also be an awkward replacement for Skill Marks just because it's so heavily tied to your character's flavor. I mean, this is your type-casting, one of the core adjectives/descriptors for your PC. It's a big part of your concept, but it's also a really important mechanical building block, seeing as it's your only source of Soaks and possibly a big portion of your starting Gifts. I think tying it so heavily to a major mechanical foundation of your character increases the temptation to pick a Type because it will get you the bonuses you want, not because it sounds like a cool flavor for your PC. When your Species, Career, and Type are your only source of 'skill marks', there's more of a mechanical incentive to pick them by mechanics rather than trying to smooth out or fill in gaps in mechanics later.
Same for eliminating free Gifts. I get the intention; the idea is both to make character creation a lot faster and to make it more directed so that you don't have people starting with crazy builds. It's an attempt to reduce the influence of system mastery (which is always an issue and always worth considering in a highly crunchy system) and make it quick to make an archetypal character, because this is a genre driven by archetypes. It makes it nearly impossible to make a 'bad' character, too. All 14 skills are useful and broad. You're going to be good at what you put down on your sheet, no ifs, ands or buts. You make a reporter, you'll be a competent reporter. You make a mobster, you'll be a decent mobster. Etc etc. That has real value, especially for a first time player coming into a new system. I worry, however, that making genuinely branching out into new things very difficult will lead people to primarily advance in what they're already good at.
So in the end, I find the changes to PC creation kind of a mixed bag, though again this is without having actually run a campaign and seen how advancement interacts with the initial PC creation for myself. They provide guidance against system mastery traps, they're quick, they'll generally produce competent PCs, and they're in-genre. However, they're much more constrained and there are fewer decisions to make during PC creation, which makes it harder to make PCs really mechanically distinct from one another. Also, in general, a starting UJ character is going to have fewer Gifts by a longshot. They can have as few as 4 (and 2 soaks) and only up to 5. Compare to 2 for Upbringing, 2 for Legacy, 2 for Career, and 3 free in MS. I suspect this is part of simplifying the system, since UJ is an intentionally cut down version of Cardinal; there's a reason the book is 100 pages shorter than Myriad Song. At the same time, it will produce lower power PCs to start.
Next Time: Shooting people.
Original SA post
So, for the most part, I could just write down 'combat is the same as in Myriad Song' and not be wrong. There wasn't much need to change the majority of combat, especially as Urban Jungle is significantly less combat focused. The urban setting means that shooting people down in the street draws the kind of attention you really don't want. Some details have changed, though, and this is also a good time to talk about the changes to gear.
For one, Rally is now more effective. Instead of needing an additional Gift to Rally allies into Focus, anyone can use one of their Rally successes to do so if they've already gotten rid of their status effects. This, combined with how many characters get Noncombatant, seems like a very deliberate change to make it easier for a non-fighter to pitch in with moral support while dodging bullets. Movement is also much more focused on 'theater of the mind' rules. For the most part there's no mention of concrete movement rates (and no Gifts related to them) compared to Myriad Song. Now, MS had 'zone based' Theater of the Mind alternate movement rules alongside its 'if you're using a map' movement. It's interesting to see Urban Jungle assumes Theater of the Mind and zone-based movement as a default. UJ also completely does away with the Very Long, Extreme, and Horizon distances for combat, reasoning that the chances an RPG encounter takes place at 300+ meters (especially in a city) are pretty goddamn low. Init has also changed: Speed has been cut out and you use Observation+Mind+Danger Sense. The difficulty of the check is no longer based on the circumstance of the fight starting; all Init is rolled vs. 3. You can no longer start Focused by getting multiple successes; instead, the more difficult it was to be ready at the start of the fight, the more successes you need to avoid being Dazed (the new term for Reeling). This means a character who somehow has 6 Observation+Mind+Danger Sense dice (which is possible; Type+Species+Career+Danger Sense+Skill Expert+Mind will do you, though that's a lot of specialization) is actually completely impossible to surprise in combat since they can just Rote and 3 successes is the most required.
There's no longer automatic hitstun, either. A character has to have the Dazed -2 Soak and use it to actually get Dazed. Alternately, you still get Dazed when you perform a Stunt (big actions), when someone tricks you, etc. That's a big change from previous games, where even hitting someone to no effect could screw their action economy. At the same time, hitting someone to no effect is much less likely now; they'll suffer the effects of any Soaks they expend because with no armor and just Body+Endurance (and with even 1 unsaved damage dropping a guy), most characters aren't going to stop a hit with just their steely abs. Another little thing I'm not entirely sure on: They say to add your Ammo Die as a 'bonus attack die', which seems to suggest guns with ammunition dice add the die to their attack result? I suppose that's to simulate that you're firing a bunch of shots and have a better chance of hitting and hurting someone? That makes Bullet Conservation (which sizes up your Ammo Die) even better if that's the case. This despite the part on 'dwindle dice' saying to roll these dice separately from the rest of checks. It's a bit unclear. Ammo Dice go down 1 size every time you roll a 1 on them, and when they drop below d4, it's time to reload.
Otherwise, fighting people works about how it did in Myriad Song. The real difference is that everyone is potentially much more fragile and it's much harder to build an enormously 'tough' character without armor/Invulnerability and with the damage thresholds removed. This isn't so much a balance decision as a genre one; the book, supplemental materials on their website and forums, etc are all very clear they wanted a real chance that a single bullet drops you or introduces dramatic complications via Soak. Somebody waving a Colt in your face or pulling a Thompson out of a violin case is supposed to be a real threat. Admittedly this was the same in Myriad Song and Ironclaw; I can't remember many times that my players weren't
nervous about getting shot, since damage can ramp up so quickly in the older games as it is.
To really put Soak in context, we need to talk about the damage ratings on guns, knives, baseball bats, etc. As I said before, Flat/Weak/Slaying are all out. All weapons just do Base Damage+Successes in damage, now. Curiously, this actually makes unarmed combat more dangerous than ever, because it's no longer got the problem of being Weak. A skilled boxer is almost as dangerous as someone with a knife, and in a crime setting, 'I'm as dangerous as an armed man with just my fists and so don't need to carry a weapon around' isn't an irrelevant benefit. What's curious is that lots of Gifts give new 'weapons', now. For instance, Jumping gives you Vault, which is an 'attack' that lets you vault or tumble past someone 3m in any direction if you hit, and lets you Charge them 10m before you do it. You can also use it to Counter. It does no damage, but that's neat. Running lets you shoulder charge people and do minor damage. A normal guy punching someone is Damage+1, Body+Fighting. A skilled Boxer using a Jab to Counter is Damage+1, Speed+Body+Fighting, and they can also Uppercut on their actual attack for Speed+Body+Fighting Damage+2. That's the same damage as a combat knife, for reference. Instead of unarmed Gifts giving bonuses to attacks everyone has, they just unlock new attacks.
Most concealable, light weapons do Damage+1. More serious weapons do Damage+2. Heavy weapons like shotguns, fire axes and rifles do Damage+3. REALLY nasty weapons like dynamite or an elephant gun do Damage+4. Characters with a specific Gun gift get a situation where their Gun does +2 damage. Pistol Reflexes gives +2 damage with Pistols when Countering while Guarding. Rifle Aim is +2 damage with Rifles while Aiming. Shotgun Blast is +2 damage with Shotguns while Near (3m). Now, let's take that in context with Soaks and Saves. Injured -4 will negate 4 damage in return for you being noticeably fucked up. A character just saving on Body+Injured would only be able to stop up to 5 damage. Now look at the damage on an aimed Hunting Rifle shot by someone with Rifle Aim: Damage+5 means they'd do at least 6. I've looked and looked and I'm not entirely sure the rules ever say directly if you can use more than one Soak on an attack, but I have to assume you can. Still, as you can see, getting hit with serious hardware like longarms will put your PC in a lot of danger. This makes sense both from a genre perspective, and from the fact that it's much harder to engineer situations where you're using a military rifle in this sort of game; it probably should be impressive.
Now, when I said there's no armor, I meant it. Outfits are primarily just a flavor/descriptive thing now. There's the option to give players +d8 if they're wearing an appropriate Outfit for what they're doing like in MS, but it's entirely optional. All the suggestions on the mechanical effects of Outfits (reduce number of needed successes, give +d8 to a check, or tie it to a Favorite Use, which works exactly like Favored Uses in any other Cardinal Game) are just that: Suggestions. Given how rare bonus dice are in Urban Jungle and therefore how much more valuable an extra d8 can be, I'm not too happy with this being as nebulous as it is.
Another thing that I wonder about : A lot of weapons only use one stat die now, with lighter weapons or concealable weapons usually using more. For instance, a light Varmint Rifle uses Mind+Speed+Shooting (but is base damage +1) while a Hunting Rifle is Damage+3 but Speed+Shooting. Same for a Pocket Pistol (Damage+1, Speed+Mind+Shooting) vs. a Service Pistol (Speed+Shooting, Damage+2). I have to wonder, with how much more dangerous being hit is, if the extra to-hit dice don't outweigh the extra point of damage more often than they used to. In MS, for instance, a Knuckle Duster had more Trait dice included, but did less damage, meaning you'd have a better overall chance of scoring a hit but that you'd need the unlikely event of scoring lots of successes to make it a knock-out. Here, depending on what Soaks someone has, and with characters generally having less dice, that extra Trait die might matter a lot more in getting a hit in the first place and thus slipping at least 1 damage onto the enemy to drop them.
Another little niggle: There's still a First Aid stunt to try to help a buddy who's down. Except there's no Dying status anymore, and it doesn't specify if it gets them back on their feet, or what. If you're down, you're just Incapacitated, after all. There's a bunch of extra rules in the 'mostly optional/situational' Handbook section that will make medicine actually do things to help you, since they add rules for bleeding out and dying if you're knocked out in combat, but with two whole classes devoted to medicine it feels a bit weird that the main place they kick in is if you're playing with an extra and optional subsystem.
Really, mechanically, from this point on? There's no real changes from Myriad Song left to chronicle. Urban Jungle is a cut-down and simplified version of Cardinal, both for genre reasons and because I suspect they wanted to try to make a simpler game after how complicated Myriad Song can be. In general I find the new damage system has some exciting possibilities for future development and I'm eager to try it out and work with it, but I'm a lot more mixed on removing Skill Marks and adding in Type. Granted, there's full rules on how to add Skill Marks back in to the game in the back, so that was definitely anticipated. The rules will do you fine, but aside from the total overhaul of damage and the change to purely Gift/Soak based Advancement, there just aren't that many fundamental changes; it's the same Cardinal system. Cardinal's still a good system, so that'll do you, but in working on designing characters everything just feels a little more awkward than before.
Also, there just isn't going to be a lot of fluff in this book. I'll get into what fluff is there, but the fluff is clearly meant to be a toolkit rather than anything else; you're going to be doing a lot of the writing legwork, just like with Myriad Song, except without as much to go on. Part of this is because the setting is the real world (but with animal people) from 1901-195X. You need more fluff, there's a lot of books about this 'setting' out there for you. There's also a very good Recommended Media list, including both a wide array of Noir media to browse and a succinct explanation of why each entry is on the list.
The weird thing is, the whole anthro thing bugs me in this game where it never did in the others. Ironclaw was a setting written around the idea that these species and peoples were all different cultures with a real place in the setting. Wolf, Pig, Fox, Horse, all of them have nations and politics and lots of smaller houses and sub-national organizations for the other species. Myriad Song's appeal is partly based on 'you can play a murder bush on the run from the narcos who made you and who never asked to be born', primarily because that totally rules. Albedo is A: Based on a comic that was already about this and B: Everyone being an artificial culture with very little organic history and a weird sense of existential malaise is a major, major part of the setting's sci-fi concept. Here though? The history section is full of stuff that actually happened, only very lightly fictionalized. The world is our world. Just with furries. Which causes a weird kind of uncanny valley for me, where I start asking myself questions like 'Is there a cow guy out on the ranch tending non-guy cows? Is that where my 10 cent burger is coming from at the dinner?' that just didn't come up in Ironclaw. It just feels a bit more gratuitous than usual, partly because there's so little fluff and so there isn't (intentionally, because they probably want to keep it open to a group) any real guideline on how all this plays into the setting or if it's literally just mechanical/artistic set-dressing.
Next Time: New Orleans. It's just New Orleans.
Original SA post
I've been trying to come up with how to talk about the setting chapter for Urban Jungle for awhile now, and I think I'm gonna come down to this: It's insufficient. There's some baffling decisions in the design of the setting/fluff stuff that I'll be talking about, but at the end of the day, the setting chapter is a couple timelines for some lightly fictionalized US cities and then a list of places/neighborhoods and nothing more. It's actually a substantial amount of the game's pagecount, but it really doesn't feel like it when you're reading it. One of the things that kind of annoys me is that they bothered with the fictionalization at all, when from what I can tell the majority of the events are directly taken from real people and real events, just with the names changed and 'Oh, he's a stoat now' thrown in. Why even bother at that point? Why not call it New York? Why's it got to be Shaysen City? If you're going to have a mobster who is literally, directly Lucky Luciano, why's he Happy Donnola (he is also now a weasel)? What's the point?
Also they meld Chicago and Detroit (And Milwaukee, and Cleveland) into one city and c'mon guys, my city's suffered enough. We were even important to rum running in prohibition! The early 20th century was Detroit's heyday! We were the goddamn Paris of the West over here, and then the Arsenal of Democracy!
I'd normally go over a lot of the setting details but it's just history, for the most part. I suppose the thinking is there's a lot of setting supplements for 'The US, 1901-195X' in history books, but you'll be doing a lot of the legwork. There just isn't a lot here that's directly going to lead to an RPG plot, if that makes sense? It's a series of lists of discrete events and some places. There just isn't that much for me to write about.
The biggest issue for me is that it's especially not very helpful if you're unfamiliar with noir as a genre, which for the most part, I am. I've seen Casablanca, sure, and I have a vague sense of the genre, but the setting chapter doesn't really do much to help with that. Another source of the issues is probably that the game wants to cover the entire first half of the twentieth century, and 1910 New York is going to be a hell of a lot different from 1950s New York. It's hard to nail down the tone of a place that changes every couple years, when you're covering 5 decades of real history, and only have so many pages in an RPG book to do it. I would have preferred more of a focus on how to evoke the genre in New York, or Chicago, or whatever rather than just a list of events and places.
That said, the Hosting chapter has a pretty good set of material on how to structure adventures and work the narrative into the game rules. A good explanation of a standard three act structure for individual Episodes is helpful, especially if you assume a reader might be new to writing. I appreciate the Host Advice section being a mixture of creative writing guide (with decent examples/hooks) and GMing advice; it can be too easy to forget that your Host is often going to have to be a writer as well as a referee. Much of the actual advice echos the same advice from Ironclaw and Myriad Song, but that's really a case of 'if it ain't broke don't fix it', as the majority of the advice there is solid and makes for good gaming. The emphasis on 'there are threats besides death' is something I both appreciate and enjoy in the entire Cardinal line.
They also include the X-Card mechanic, where a player can just toss the card on the table to say they feel uncomfortable and a scene will stop, which I'm glad to see in more and more RPGs. I feel it's especially important in a historical setting, because all too often you see horror stories about people using 'historically accurate' as an excuse to express a lot of really uncomfortable racist or sexist sentiments at a table, and having a 'nope' mechanic for if things start going down that road is an important part of ensuring a game can be respectful and comfortable to play.
And at the end of the day, that's kind of it for Urban Jungle. It's a much shorter game than Myriad Song, and the review was always going to be less packed partly because the mechanics are mostly shared between the two games; they're both refinements on IC2e in different directions. Myriad Song is much more complex and expansive, Urban Jungle is intentionally cut down and simplified to try to produce a faster and lighter Cardinal. There's no need for a massive list of cool sci-fi guns and armor, because the stories this game is trying to tell don't really care which kind of pistol that thug is waving in your face, just that he's waving a pistol in your face. But overall, the book is a good 100 pages shorter; it's trying to be a shorter and quicker game.
It's also just a lot more mixed, for me. I'd still recommend it if you want a solid, playtested system for a crime drama. You'll get the same mechanical quality you'll get with anything Cardinal based, and the new Soak system is really fun to play with and opens up interesting new possibilities. I really look forward to playing around with that for my own home-writing projects with the Cardinal system. The stripped down weapons and combat are generally better balanced and get across the tone they're going for. Characters are much more archetypal and a little more restrictive in design, but at the same time there's far less 'system mastery' involved in making a character, which can be a huge boon when you're introducing a new player to a mechanically complex system like Cardinal. Your PC is going to be good at the things you made them to be good at.
At the same time, the setting stuff just isn't enough. I would really have preferred more of a focus on genre and 'how to write a crime drama' over the lists of events and places. The Recommended Media list is comprehensive and well done, but that's still requiring more legwork from the reader before they're really 'ready' to write for the setting.
I can't recommend Urban Jungle as unreservedly as Myriad Song because the setting can't avoid that weird uncanny valley feeling for me, but it's still solid, and still worth a look if what it's trying to do is something you want to play. It'll tell the story it's going for well, the rules all work, and it's easy enough to make a PC who sounds fun to play; if you've got those three things, a game's still going to be good even if it can feel a little stripped down.
Next Time: I got no idea at moment.