Up for review this time and just in time for Halloween is an independently published RPG that is a great fit for both adults and kids: InSpectres is a game about supernatural investigation and elimination. It is by Jared Sorensen and published by Momento Mori Theatricks. In it, players adopt the role of members of a franchise of InSpectres, Inc. which the book describes as a “paranormal investigation and elimination service based in California and dedicated to safeguarding the human race from extra-dimensional hazards and supernatural manifestations.” Anyone familiar with Ghostbusters or Ghost Hunters will have a pretty good feel for the game’s theme. This blend of supernatural investigation with elements of a start-up company, both of which the mechanics address, makes for a very entertaining game whether you play it to its full comedic potential or prefer to stick to a more traditional horror game (e.g., Cthulhu). Most of the games I’ve run of InSpectres tend towards the former, with zany stuff like demons spewing nacho-cheese and haunted sorority houses.
InSpectres is available as an 80-page soft-cover, digest-sized book for $20, or as a pdf for just $10. I am reviewing the pdf version. And, as if that weren’t enough, there’s an independently-produced movie based on the game due out some time this fall.
The Physical Details
The book’s layout and art is very good – it’s attractive, fits the theme of the game, and is easy to follow. This includes the choice of typefaces which are easy to read, whether viewed on a tablet or printed out. The art reinforces the default campy/comedic feel of the game, although there is nothing to prevent the game from being played as straight-laced as the group likes. Aside from some character sheets (or more accurately character sheets, a franchise sheet, & a card sheet), and a handful of six-sided dice, all you need is the rulebook to run the game. Best yet, the game requires no GM prep. Thus, it’s a perfect pick-up game or for busy parents, and that alone makes it worth the purchase in my opinion but let’s not get too far ahead of things yet…. on with the review.
Character & Franchise Creation
Like most RPGs, the book starts with character creation which takes no more than a few minutes. Players simply choose a name, a former career or background, and then divide nine six-sided dice between four skills/abilities:
- Academics – represents smarts, knowledge, education, research skills, intellect.
- Athletics – represents physical abilities.
- Technology – represents the ability to operate, repair, or build equipment. It’s also used to buy equipment.
- Contacts – represents the character’s social skills, as well as who they know.
Finally, each character (or as the game refers to them, agent) possesses a unique Talent which is a specialized area they excel in. Mechanically, the character gains a bonus die anywhere the talent is applicable. Some examples might be master chef, Trekker, Ladies man, or Dog breeder. Talents can be as serious or as silly as the group likes, and players are encouraged to be creative in finding uses for their particular talents.
Once character creation is completed, the group (players & GM together) creates the franchise which shapes the nature of the resources available to the group as well as the types of jobs they might attract. The first step is deciding upon the size and age (e.g., is it a brand new franchise or an established one?) – new companies have little money and resources, but also have few expectations about their performance and can scrape by with small jobs. Older, established companies, in contrast, have more money and resources available, but need larger, more lucrative (and thus more difficult) assignments to meet payroll and stay afloat. After deciding on the size of the company, the resources of the franchise, which are measured in dice, are divided between four areas which are tied to three of the four skills.
- Library Card – tied to Academics
- Gym Card – tied to Athletics
- Credit Card – tied to Technology
- The Bank – repository for leftover dice, they can be used to add a bonus die to any roll.
The dice placed in these areas (the game provides a cards sheet on which the dice can be stacked for ease of bookkeeping) represent a dice pool from which any of the players can draw on during each job to gain bonus dice on a particular roll. Once the dice are used, they’re gone for good, and thus they represent the limited resources of the franchise that the characters can bring to bear during the job. Within the game’s fiction, this might represent using the business’s computers to do research, or charging a proton pack to the company’s accounts. The Bank dice are special in that they can be used for any roll, but they’re unreliable – when used it’s possible that they will not be available or even worse.
As mentioned earlier, the system uses dice pools, where a player rolls a number of d6 equal to their skill (e.g., they roll 4 dice if they have a 4 in Athletics), plus the possibility of bonus dice from either a character’s Talent or using Card Dice. Essentially you’re rolling between 1 and 8 dice for any given task. The highest single die result is then compared to a very simple chart where a “3” or better is essentially a success – a “1” indicates a major failure, ranging upwards to a “6” indicating an amazing result. With 5 and 6 you also get franchise dice, which are used as a gauge for mission completion.
An important difference between InSpectres and most traditional RPGs is who gets to narrate success: with a roll of “4” or better, the player narrate the results, colored by the degree of success they achieved. Rolls of less than four (i.e., 1-3) are narrated by the GM. Essentially, what this means is that players get to describe positive outcomes and introduce new facts and elements into the session’s fiction, while the GM handles the failures in a similar fashion. With everyone contributing to the story and plot development, the result is some amazing twists and developments as the game progresses.
Two other items in the character mechanics bear mentioning: The first is Stress. In InSpectres, stress is what happens when bad things happen to characters. This is handled in a very simple way – anytime the agent feels stress (from minor items like getting cut off in traffic to major ones like a demon appearing in NYC), they roll between one and five dice and consult a simple chart, using the lowest result of the dice rolled. Once again, low rolls are bad, causing a loss of skill dice (essentially the “damage” mechanic of the system), while high rolls indicate the character handled the situation in a suave manner that earns them Cool Dice. An important part of the stress rules, is that the player is expected to roleplay their character’s reaction based upon which skill they lost dice on. For example, if you lose dice from Academics you might suffer a blow to the head or might have become so unhinged that you can’t think straight and start gibbering madly. The second mechanic is Cool Dice, which are awarded when you handle stressful situations with flair. Cool Dice can be used to augment skill rolls or remove dice lost because of stress.
The last, and perhaps most important mechanic, is that of Franchise Dice. Each job requires the team to earn a certain number of Franchise Dice to complete it successfully. Every time a Skill roll comes out as a 5 or a 6, the team earns one or two dice. These dice serve an important function because they help determine the pace of the of the mission and tell everyone when the solution is coming to an end – the more the team collects, the closer they are to finishing the job. At the end of the job, these dice are then turned into the franchise’s Cards and Bank. It may sound odd to someone that’s used to traditional GM-paced games, but it works amazingly well. It also means that the game, once everyone is clear on the rules, practically runs itself in a very fast paced manner.