G2P (“Games 2 Play”) is a semi-regular segment from GM Chris, and is devoted to showcasing the rare, the unusual, the crazy, the Indie, and (only very occasionally) the wildly popular in the tabletop RPG world. Games that you either didn’t know existed, games that you should try out as soon as you can, games that will make you laugh or hang your jaw in wonder at their amazeballs glory. In other words: games to play. This episode…
Katanas & Trenchcoats (Episode 1: Welcome to Darkest Vancouver)
April 1 came and went, and I honestly (perhaps for the first time in many years) fell victim to precisely ZERO April Fools pranks. But before the day went out with a calm flutter – I noticed an “announcement” in my facebook feed that proclaimed a teaser from some insane guy named Ryan Macklin about his “new RPG” in cheeky glory. An RPG called “Katanas & Trenchcoats”, where the players get to don the guise of what (in no way bearing any kind of copyright infringement) you might call “immortals”. Exceptional, dark, brooding, and sexy immortals (some of which may, in their non-copyrighted universe, come from so-called “Highlands”) that swing swords in dark alleyways in attempts to cut off each others’ heads. Because in the end, there can be only one.
Now – let me explain something very nerdy to you.
When I was 6 years old, I saw a movie on HBO that I thought was the coolest thing EVAR. It had this crazy-accented guy with a brooding stare, sword-fighting immortals, flashbacks, decapitation, a young Clancy Brown wearing Billy Idol’s wardrobe, Sean Connery being Sean Connery, and a really bad-ass soundtrack from Queen. This movie was Russell Mulcahy’s (soon to be) cult classic: “Highlander”. It… stayed with me. I vividly recall tromping around the backyard, swinging my tree branch cum Japanese Katana and declaring “There can be only one!” I watched this movie more times than I can count. There were several rather awful sequels, and a somewhat (at times) good television show that ran for like 6 years in the 90’s, with a different actor as Macleod (but it was really a different Macleod, because Christopher Lambert guest-starred as the “real” Macleod on occasion when he needed a paycheck…), and then…
You know what…? You all know what I’m talking about.
So when I saw an announcement for Ryan Macklin’s “Katanas & Trenchcoats” on April 1st, I figured it had to be a prank. No one would make a Highlander RPG. No way. I would get too much pleasure out of that for it to ever be a real thing. Then – lo and behold – April 2 rolls around to find that this RPG is real. It’s real, and it is NOTHING like what I thought it would be. It’s even better.
“Katanas & Trenchcoats” is indeed a game about pretty, brooding, angsty immortals trying to chop each others’ heads off; but is is also a game that is beautifully, unusually, and hilariously irreverent in all the proper ways; and it’s a game that genuinely succeeds in poking its head through the 4th wall between story and audience understanding, and utilizing the players’ knowledge, expectations, and love of cheesy unabashed ridiculousness of ’90’s film and television to actually enhance the experience of gameplay. It made me laugh. And it made me want to play it immediately.
Macklin’s vision is pretty consistent, but was bolstered by design work from several other notables, including the eponymous Leonard Balsera. But the rules and content are written (rather intentionally) almost as if Macklin is a 13-year old obsessed with Highlander and determined to make an RPG. The book actually uses the words “badassery” and “kickass” as genuine adjectives without explanation. Numerous F-Bombs and other 4-Letter Gems are dropped with regularity throughout. And again – this hilarious brand of near-sarcastic framing is a key part of representing the tone the game is trying to get across. It sounds like 13-year olds chatting in their basement and designing an RPG together. It succeeds in getting the reader and players in the same mindset – as excited as the developers were – and really pulls the curtain back on the RPG and fanboy tropes that helped shape so many of us in our gaming careers.
This is bolstered by the mechanics of character creation, which actually rewards player characters for creating lengthy multi-page backstories (like we used to do before we knew better), and focusing long and hard on your origin story, personal tragedies, historical influences, and current “badass rep”. Players are encouraged to pick a “soundtrack song” for their PC, and the GM is encouraged to put these songs into a playlist and put it on random when combat occurs – with the PC who’s song is playing at the moment getting bonuses from it. (Macklin’s team has even gone so far as to build a youtube playlist of suggested songs that fit the theme and tone, available at the game’s site – just to show you how insanely dedicated this team was.) These immortal characters are supposed be as dark, sexy, and broodingly ’90’s as possible.
The rather slim (roughly 25 page) PDF rulebook outlines the core rules of gameplay and character creation, with a moderate touch of “setting” – but is clearly the first of several supplements to come. With it’s subtitle of “EPISODE 1: Welcome to Darkest Vancouver” and references to future “episodes” to be released with more setting details and advanced rules content.
The d10 resolution mechanics of the game are fairly simple, with enough strategic planning and mild complexity to make an RPG player feel right at home. Characters assign ranks to their 5 primary Traits (“Awesome Sword”, “Raging Passion”, “Kickass Wardrobe”, “Mystical Talents”, and “Ancient Memories”), and also assign ranks to varied skills (there’s about 15, ranging from “Fight” to “Sneak” to “Will” to “L.C.S.” – that’s “Lying, Cheating, and Stealing”). When you declare what you’re doing, you determine what trait/skill combination you’re using to do it. Players are encouraged to get creative and are actually penalized for using the same trait/skill combination two checks in a row.
The combined ranks of the trait and skill equate to the number of d10s you roll for that task. Every 7 or better rolled is a success. You might be rolling against a difficulty set by the SM (that’s the “Story Master”), or more likely, against an opposing foe or other immortal who responds with their own trait/skill roll. The disparity between your total successes and the successes of your foe (or set difficulty) determines how drastically you succeeded or failed.
There’s a few other interesting rules to allow you to setup boosts to assist yourself (or your allies) in future rolls, to use special stunts/abilities called “Edges”, and so on. But ultimately, the system is neither hyper-complex or blindingly simple, and follows the current trend of narrative storytelling. A tactical war-game this is NOT.
Where the game truly succeeds is in the tongue-in-cheek setting and fanboy-joy tone. The core setting takes place in the “world of danger and badassery” that is “The Darkest Cosmos”, with the Episode 1 book detailing “Darkest Vancouver” (itself a 4th Wall break-down and nod to the fact that so many syndicated ’90’s shows filmed there), and includes brief write-ups for various immortal “clans”, famous and powerful immortals, vampires, werebeasts, fae creatures, ghosts, and technomages to serve as allies and enemies.
“Katanas & Trenchcoats” is a romp – and a clear labor of love for Macklin and his friends. It draws upon the experience of seasoned RPGers and designers to create something that is a mix of the fun we enjoyed when playing games in junior high and the reasonable expectations we have now for what entertains and intrigues us. It’s fun, extremely lighthearted, and should keep a good group entertained for a good while. Frankly, I can’t wait to get this on my table.
The basic PDF is available for only $5, and is well worth it. Macklin also offers a $10 premium edition, which differs from the basic version in 2 ways: it’s watermarked/personalized for you, and simply owning that personalized copy entitles you to a stat boost for your character. [raised eyebrow] Steve Jackson would be proud.
So enjoy some non-trademarked magical lightning and sword-slinging in dark alleys the next time your group gets together! Give “Katanas & Trenchcoats” a download. For five smackers, it’s worth the read, alone.
Peace, Love, and Good Gaming – GMC
(All names, references, and pictures presented in this article are Copyright 2015 to Ryan Macklin and publicly available at http://somanykatanas.com, all rights reserved by their respected owners. This article is a media work of review and publicity, and is in no way intended to share intellectual property or copyrighted material outside the scope of media review.)