Review: Streets of Bedlam

Posted: 20 November 2013 in Reviews

Something else that fell onto my hard drive from the RPGNow Halloween freebies. I see I’m becoming a theoretical gamer, in that I read and blog about games but don’t actually play them much – that will have to change! Anyway, enough of that; what has it got in its pocketses?

In a Nutshell: Ultraviolent noir crime setting for Savage Worlds Deluxe; 264 page PDF.

CONTENTS

Life in the Big City (8 pages): This explains the nature of the setting by reference to the movies that inspired it; The Godfather, Reservoir Dogs, and so on. That’s to say, there’s a lot of crime, a lot of violence, and nobody is entirely innocent. The typical hero in the setting is a tarnished low-life, driven by something in his past to do Good or die trying, and unencumbered by any snivelling considerations about due process. Bedlam itself is the archetypical big, sleazy city, fallen on hard times, with gangs running the east side of the river (Lamrose) and corrupt politicians the west (Bedford).

Invisible Lines (28 pages): This outlines the history of Bedlam, which is really two cities on opposite banks of a river, and its famous locations in broad strokes; the GM and players are intended to cherry-pick places they like and use them to define their own version of the city. You won’t find a map here, and frankly you don’t need one, because Bedlam isn’t about which route you take to get to the drop, it’s about when you arrive – which is either in the nick of time, or five minutes too late, depending on which is the more interesting story.

The backstory and the locations could’ve come straight out of any Quentin Tarantino movie or the cop show you fell asleep in front of last night; Bedlam is a crime-ridden American city, and if you watch any TV at all, you already know it.

People in Trouble (68 pages): This chapter is about the characters; questionable people who do bad things for good reasons. It opens with advice on how to make and play a character that fits the setting. You’re encouraged to pick one of the 15 archetypes listed and customise it by applying Hindrances, and describing the character; this is because the genre relies on stereotypes, and every major character should fit one of the preordained niches. I don’t have a problem with that.

The archetypes range from the Badge (cop) to the Valkyrie (vigilante hooker), and each has an illustration, a description, advice on playing the character, and how to build one; each begins with some mandatory Edges and skills. However, the bulk of chargen is about why the PC does what she does; her motivation, which is based on one of a selection of Hindrances. Gear is pre-allocated according to the archetype.

15 doesn’t sound like a lot, but how many players have you got, and how many characters are they going to get through in each campaign? I think 15 is enough.

This is present-day America, so there are no elves, dwarves, rakashans or what have you, and no Arcane Backgrounds. The equipment is whatever you could buy over (or more likely under) the counter in any big town.

Rules of the Streets (34 pages): Here are the setting rules; which SWD setting rules work with the setting, 6 new skills, 14 new Edges (I especially like Entourage, an ally group which helps your Intimidation rolls but is otherwise utterly useless), 8 new Hindrances (honourable mention for Dead Inside, which means nobody can make you feel guilty, about anything, ever).

It occurs to me that if you’re familiar with SWD but haven’t twigged what Bedlam is like by now, listing the recommended setting rules would do it for you; they are Blood & Guts, Critical Failures, Fanatics, and Gritty Damage. Ouch.

The skills are the first in a long time to make me sit up and take notice. Especially Cop Sense for the veteran badge’s gut instinct, Eyes of God which is effectively Detect Evil, Interrogation – I’ll come back to that one.

Moving on from those, we next come to drugs (7 different kinds, each with notes on the dosage and what it does to you in game terms) and rules on addiction and how to overcome it, then on to Rep.

Rep is a new stat which applies to interactions with NPCs who don’t know you personally, but know something about you because of what you’ve done; it’s sort of the inverse of Streetwise. You could also see it as Charisma for specific groups, as you have different Reps with the three main factions in Bedlam; the authorities, the public, and the underworld. In each case, the higher the score, the more they will trust you – but the less other groups will. You can increase Rep by spending an advance on it.

I said I’d come back to Interrogation, and now I will. Whether your character is committing a crime, solving one, or preventing it, he needs information – the kind people don’t want to give him. Interrogation methods in Streets of Bedlam are specialised dramatic tasks, pitting one of the interrogator’s skills against one of the subject’s attributes; the Interrogation skill can be swapped for any other skill used in interrogating a subject, so you might use it instead of your Persuasion, for instance, if it were better.

There are also rules for handling investigations. While the PCs never miss the crucial clues (the rules prevent that), they might not figure out what the clues mean. Prior to play, the GM draws several cards – the higher the perpetrator’s Rank, the more cards get drawn – and uses them to lay out a sequence; the crime itself, the cleanup, and the escape. The PCs then turn up, noticing stuff as they arrive, then processing the crime scene. How well the crook did (measured by the card draw) and how well the PCs did (measured by skill rolls) determines what interpretation the PCs place on the clues. This bit, I did not really follow, and a detailed example would have been very useful.

Ultraviolence. This is essentially a set of trappings; in Bedlam, you don’t just punch someone, teeth fly in all directions with an improbable amount of blood, and there’s the noise of breaking wood. However, this rule can slow fights down, so the author recommends saving it for the Big Bad.

Roles. As well as their archetypes, characters have roles; the hero, the sidekick, the love interest, the plot twist. Who is which can be assigned by the GM or emerge in play, and can change each session, but each role has a couple of special abilities. For example, the Love Interest can spend a benny to exhort the Hero: “Do it for me!”, in which case he rolls at +4, but if he succeeds, the next scene must be about their relationship. The Plot Twist can spend a benny to gain narrative control and reveal the real motive for a major NPC, or a previously unknown fact about another PC.

The rules done, we now segue into advice to the GM, which is much like advice to a screenwriter – in fact, some of it is advice to a screenwriter. How to set up an episode (i.e. game session), story archetypes, stock scenario ideas.

Familiar Faces (62 pages): There are no monsters or aliens in Bedlam; just humans, although to be fair some of them are monstrous and alien. This section is split into three.

  • Key characters are the iconic ones who appear in the interior art. They are NPC instances of the archetypes, and could be used as ready to play PCs.
  • Major players are the best-known and best-connected NPCs; the crime lords, the wealthy, the famous.
  • The public directory are the bit players; cops, crooks, contacts and citizens.

A lot of the NPCs are named for people who backed the kickstarter that funded Streets of Bedlam, which I think is a nice touch. I lost track of how many NPCs there are; I can’t imagine ever needing that many.

The Things We Do For Money (46 pages): This chapter is about noir screenwriting as a tool for creating adventures. Basic story structure, setting the scene, different types of scene, linking the scenes into a story. This explanation is followed with an introductory scenario, 34 pages long, showcasing the techniques; it’s a kind of plot point campaign, in a way. A young girl is found murdered, and for their various reasons, the PCs unravel a tale of extortion, violence, abuse and poor decisions; but there is no happy ending, not even for them.

We also find half a dozen adventure seeds, and rules for randomly generating episodes using card draws.

…and as is traditional for SW settings, we close with some quick reference sheets and a couple of forms; episode sheet, investigation sheet, character sheet.

The chapters do have numbers, by the way, it just felt more in character not to use them.

FORMAT

Very basic, single-column black text on white, with comic-book style illustrations every few pages. No colour, no page background, easy on the printer.

SUGGESTIONS FOR IMPROVEMENT

If it were me, I wouldn’t repeat so much of the core SW rules for character creation in every archetype. After the first couple of PCs, the players will know their attributes start at d4.

I didn’t really get the Investigation rules; a detailed example would be good.

CONCLUSIONS

I confess, this one got to me. I had to rewrite this post several times because I was channeling Raymond Chandler by chapter three as I read it, and that’s not the best style for a game review, at least not unless you’re a better writer than I am; but it shows how easily I slipped into the mood. It’s clearly a labour of love by someone with a deep knowledge of the genre.

Overall Rating: 4 out of 5. I probably won’t run this. But I want to.

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Comments
  1. Sean says:

    Ahh, the curse of theoretical gaming. I do appreciate your reviews are quite helpful though. Reminds me that I have An Echo Resounding and Adventurer, Conqueror, King lurking on a hard drive somewhere.

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