The Leverage RPG is the latest licensed game from Margaret Weiss productions using a variant of their Cortex Plus rules. It is based on the hit TNT TV series about a group of (slightly) reformed criminals, who take down untouchable and truly villainous targets.
The layout of the finished rulebook is outstanding; it’s slick, clean, and very readable. The illustrations, all stills taken from the series, add to the crisp atmosphere of the presentation. The text is written in a breezy style, addressing the reader directly – and it includes asides that put the reader directly into the mindset of the crusading anti-heroes that are the game’s focus.
The Leverage version of Cortex Plus is closer to ‘original Cortex’ than the version found in the Smallville RPG, tuned to be a sleek and efficient engine for running teams of ultra-competent characters who seldom fail at tasks – but who often find themselves in complicated trouble. In Leverage, Characters have the customary Cortex primary Attributes; Agility, Alertness, Intelligence, Strength, Vitality, and Willpower, plus ratings in each of the Roles needed for a ‘Leverage’ Crew; Hacker, Hitter, Grifter, Thief, and Mastermind. Like other Cortex games, these are rated by die-type. A character’s primary Role in the Crew is rated as a d10; their secondary role is rated as a d8. Their other roles will get a d6 or a d4, depending upon player preference and the outcome of the Recruitment Job. Characters also get Specialties, Distinctions and Talents – Specialties represent focused training in a particular skill, Distinctions are descriptive terms similar in many ways to FATE Aspects, and Talents are unique ‘rule breaking’ abilities which function much like D&D Feats (but with much more evocative and entertaining names).
The Recruitment Job is an interactive way to create a team of characters that work well together. It reprises the sort of communal character creation seen in Spirit of the Century and Smallville, in the form of a ‘pilot episode’. This initial job is played out as an abbreviated con, with a spotlight scene for each character, where they are teamed with another Crewmember. The outcomes of those scenes will determine the ratings of the character’s third-tier roles, and will be used to create the character’s Distinctions; one chosen by the player, and two chosen by the other players – a fun feature of the game; after all, you can’t always control how your ‘co-workers’ see you… By the end of the Recruitment Job, most of the blanks on the character sheets (called ‘rap sheets’ in this context) will be filled in. Conveniently, and in the interest of Leverage’s fast-play style, any remaining blanks can be filled in on-the-fly later. The character creation chapter closes with write-ups for the main characters from the series, provided as examples.
The standard Cortex dice-system is used; in Leverage any action by a character is a test of one Attribute and one Role. A die of the appropriate type for each is rolled, supplemented with other dice from time to time, and the two highest are added together to generate a final total. Dice that roll a 1 are never added in; instead, they generate Complications. Supplemental dice can come from Specialties, or from useful details brought into play by spending Plot Points. Plot Points can also be spent to allow an additional die from the pool to be added into the final total. Some Talents also grant this powerful effect.
A player can choose to utilize one of his or her Distinctions to add to a die roll, and can choose if the Distinction helps or hinders the effort: If the Distinction helps, the player adds a d8 to the dice pool; if it hinders, the player adds a d4 to the dice pool and earns a Plot Point. Those d4s are dangerous – they don’t give much chance of improving the final total; and d4s generate Complications 25% of the time.
Complications generated by the players are used by the GM; each can be either a useful detail valued at d6 added into an opposing roll, or a one-step increase in the size of an existing Complication die – d6 to d8 to d10 to d12. The severity of facing a d12 Complication is summed up in the text by a Hardison quote: “Aw, Hell no!”
When the GM’s dice roll 1s, the result is not a Complication – it’s an Opportunity. Many Talents trigger when the GM’s dice grant an Opportunity to the Crew. Both Complications and Opportunities can be held for use in later scenes, and need not be used against the character or NPC who rolled them. A ‘Leverage’-style con is a tightly interrelated series of events; one little mistake at the beginning can snowball into major trouble for someone else by the end.
A key feature of Cortex Plus is the concept of ‘raising the stakes’; all rolls are opposed rolls; the player and the Fixer trade off rerolling their dice and attempting to outscore the opposition until one side or the other loses, or gives in. The ‘Giving In’ mechanism in Leverage works differently than the one in Smallville, resulting in an additional Complication rather than the outright loss of whatever was at stake. This is appropriate to the caper genre, where nothing is necessarily settled until the very end.
NPCs are easy for the GM (called the ‘Fixer’ in these rules) to create. Most minor NPCs have only a single Trait, usually rated at a d6. More important NPCs can have multiple Traits, ratings in one or more of the Crew Roles, Talents of their own, etc. If the Fixer desires, the most important NPCs can have full rap sheets equivalent to those of the player-characters. Two examples of the latter are given from the series; Sterling, Nate Ford’s personal nemesis, and Cha0s, the ‘black hat’ hacker portrayed by fan-favorite Wil Wheaton.
The most interesting of the new mechanisms in Leverage Cortex is one designed to re-create the show’s signature structure: In a typical episode, the con is shown going down primarily from the mark’s point of view. Then, utilizing a series of rapid flashbacks, the ‘hidden’ parts of the job are revealed to the audience, showing just how the mark was duped. The flashback mechanism in the Leverage RPG allows a player to go back to a previous moment in the job, and reveal what they did then to set up their Crew to win now. Some flashbacks are used to justify spending Plot Points on useful details; others are used to orchestrate the ‘big finish’, accumulating bonus dice for the Mastermind’s final roll against the mark.
The advancement rules are also innovative, based on the concept that extraordinarily capable characters are already at the top of their game; they don’t increase their abilities very often, but they can draw on their extensive prior experience to gain a situational edge. Each completed job is given a title and listed on the character’s rap sheets. At any point during a job, a player can make reference to the events of a previous mission that are relevant to his or her current action, gain a bonus d8, and tick that job off the list – it can’t be used for a ‘callback’ again during the current job. In that way, a character’s accumulated experiences become a flexible drawing pool of bonus dice. To acquire a permanent increase in an Attribute or Role die requires the player to strike multiple jobs off the callback list permanently. Purchasing additional Specialties or Talents is slightly less expensive, but uses the same mechanism.
The book gives plenty of useful advice for the Fixer, and plenty of example cons, clients, marks, NPCs, and locations, ready to use. A very thorough set of tables is included for random job creation. With a few rolls, a Fixer can get the inspirational seeds for a complete adventure. This makes the game ideal for episodic, low-prep play.
The chapter titled ‘Crime World’ describes the setting of ‘Leverage’; a world just like our own, where, in Nathan Ford’s words “the rich and powerful take what they want’. The only difference between Crime World and the real world is the existence of a handful of talented and driven individuals willing to break the law in order to get justice for the victimized. An interesting point about Leverage; this is the first Cortex game that has no science-fictional, magical, supernatural, or super-human component. That makes it something of a rarity among RPGs in general. The ultra-competence of the characters in their chosen Roles substitutes, in a way, for the ‘uncanny’ abilities common to PCs in other games.
The book wraps up with a complete episode guide to seasons one and two of the series, with enough detail on how the jobs went down to be a useful primer for both Fixers and Crewmembers in ‘how to run a con’.
Although the rules are focused strongly on the concept of a group of ‘white hat’ criminals a la ‘Leverage’, they never force characters to put on the white hats. It would be no trouble at all to run a heist game in the vein of ‘Ocean’s Eleven’ or the British TV series ‘Hustle’, to give two examples. In ‘Hustle’, Mickey and Danny’s Crew are not trying to be good guys; nevertheless, since they live by the maxim that “you can’t con an honest man”; their marks are generally the sort of real bastards that the audience would love to see taken down anyway. It’s easily possible to push a little further, and run a game using the Leverage rules that is thematically more like ‘Eleven Harrowhouse’ or even ‘Reservoir Dogs’. This works best as a one-shot game, because the level of trust between Crewmembers will break down after the job is complete. The climax of that sort of session would not be the ‘big score’ itself, it would be the aftermath of betrayal and recrimination…
In fact, as with the previous Cortex Plus game, Smallville, the Leverage RPG system is robust enough to make it useful for things that go far afield of the original licensed property. These rules can handle just about any setting that involves a team of highly competent professionals. ‘The A-Team’, ‘Burn Notice’, and especially ‘Mission: Impossible’ spring immediately to mind. Even if you are not a fan of the ‘Leverage’ series, the Leverage RPG may be just the tool to bring a little caper action to your gaming table. “Let’s go steal ourselves an adventure!”