Monday, October 19, 2015

A "Deviant Decade" - 1970's roleplaying

The cover of Deviant Decade
I played a quick session of John M Stater’s recently released 70’s B-movie inspired game “Deviant
Decade” last night and that spurred me to write an impromptu review and share some of my fascination for the 70’s with my readers.

First, I will say a few words about my personal take on the deviant decade itself, then go on to the game.

It came from the 70s

My life experience does not include the 70’s. I was born in the early eighties, but for a time now, I have held a fascination with 70s history and culture.

On a very personal level, I think the fascination with the 70s grew from the fact that it was when the time my parents were in their 20s. Looking back at my own life I found that the years between age 19 and 29 has changed me both profoundly and in ways I did not expect.  My parents went through those years in the 70s with everything that entails from the Cold War to bell-bottoms. It must have been something.

Gay rights demonstration in 1976
(Photo: public domain)
Then there is the fact that much of the popular culture that I love and many of the social movements that have affected me grew out of 70s. Stanley Kubrick’s “A clockwork orange”, 2nd-wave feminism, John Pertwee’s Doctor Who, the resurgence of sword-and-sorcery, sexual liberation, counterculture, exploitation-cinema (which existed earlier but was transformed in the 70’s), the New Left, heavy metal, the deinstitutionalization of psychiatric care and last, but not least, the creation of Dungeons & Dragons.

Roleplaying itself, to me, is a child of the 70s whether it is Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson’s creation of D&D in ‘74 or the founding of the Loose Moose Theatre in Calgary in ’77 you trace its origins by. Both genealogies of the hobby just proves that there were many good ideas to come out of the “Deviant Decade”.

About the game

John M Stater, who runs the Land of Nod-blog, makes games with a decidedly old school bent. “Deviant Decade” is no different, with simple minimalist rules, character classes and freeform objective design meant to challenge player skill and focus on the emergent, as opposed to the pre-planned, story.

Deviant Decade is a 34-page black and white PDF product of which 31 pages is actual game content. There are a few public domain images throughout and a half-page overview map of New York city with 10 marked locations, but no descriptions of the locations.

The short introduction sets the game in the crime-ridden big city streets of the 1970’s stating that the characters are larger-than-life survivors of these streets.

Character generation, skills and stuff

GM: "You went to see Caligula and it made you hungry for
even more decadent entertaiment. What do you do?"
(Photo: vaticanus, CC BY 2.0)

The game moves quickly through character generation. Seven ability scores rates from one to six and rolled with seven d6 rolls that the player can assign to which ability he chooses. The players then choose from 14 classes ranging from the Average Joe through the Night Nurse to the Vietnam Veteran.

Classes list the primary and secondary skills for the characters with tertiary skills chosen freely by the player. Starting skill scores are determined randomly with primary skills having the best chance of a high starting score. PC get seven skills total, one primary, three secondary and tertiary. Skills are ranked from zero to twelve, but starting values are no higher than six.

There are also a table of weapons and a short list of other 1970’s appropriate items with prices.

Mechanics and the lack of advancement

The resolution mechanic is a 3d6 roll under skill + ability score + modifiers in the -2 to +2 range. A few skill descriptions indicate a variable difficulty using 2d6 for easier tasks and 4d6 for harder tasks. Given that 12 is the maximum skill+ability score for a starting character it makes it hard for players to see many successful rolls. The harshness of this is somewhat offset by an interesting Luck mechanic, but the game is still on hardcore (or maybe just old school) mode.

The game has no advancement rules.

Adventure oportunities and sewer gators

Graffiti covered undergroud and your chaaracter?
(Photo: NARA/public domain)
The adventures section provides five “adventure templates” with a small table for each to flesh out an adventure setting or opposition. The templates slants towards action and survival-horror adventures with or without supernatural opponents.

Following the adventures is the monster section with something like 40 “monsters” from bikers, cops and street punks to giant apes, sewer gators and vampires. There are pop-cultural references here that made me smile and the diversity supports a range of adventures.

Monsters also have levels to judge how hard a challenge they are, but given the lack of an advancement system for PC’s they all look very dangerous.

Hard times for teens in the 70s.
(Actress Eve Plumb in
Dawn: Portrait of a Teenage Runaway) 

My game last night

The game I ran last night was a spur of the moment idea with a single player and me as GM. I think we spent less than 30-minutes from the time we agreed to try Deviant Decade until we were actually playing a game where an exorcist priest was trawling the seedy parts of Bronx looking for a possibly demon-possessed teenage girl. 

The supernatural-thriller (ala The Exorcist/Rosemary’s Baby) with urban crawl-ish elements was a nice fit for the game. It was a blast playing this game!

As the game mechanics are hard and we were playing a one-shot I was greedy with calling for die rolls and lenient with granting positive modifiers when my player had good ideas (which she usually has). I think that is good GM advice when running Deviant Decade.

(Photo: NARA/public domain)

Your game?

Overall, I recommend this game, I recommend the 70s too even if I have not been there, but I did play this game. For $2.99 you get a functional, fun and easy game tailored to experience the grime, crime and decadence of the 70s city streets. Dig?

I would like to see an advancement system though (even if making one up would not be very hard).