The best part of being an RPG reviewer is that I have a constant excuse to research the cutting edge of roleplaying design, and today that research leads me to Scum and Villainy. Published by Off Guard Games and Evil Hat Productions, this space opera adventure game is a successor to Blades in the Dark, developed with the freely available Forged in the Dark license. Like its parent system, Scum and Villainy is a heavily structured game with lots of focus on narrative, but this time with lasers and spaceships instead of daggers and dark alleys. So, is it worth bringing to your gaming table? Let’s find out!
Scum Inherits Much From Its Predecessor
Like Pathfinder did with 3.5 D&D, Scum and Villainy uses Blades in the Dark’s base system with very few changes. I reviewed Blades a while back, and everything I said there still applies. The character creation is still fast and easy, the flashback mechanics are still super fun, and the rules for stress and harm remain some of the most elegant I have ever seen. In these areas, Scum’s designers knew better than to fix what was already working.
However, Scum has also inherited most of its predecessor’s problems. The core dice mechanic is still bizarrely overengineered to the point that it gets in the way of the roleplaying that Scum is so eager to promote. The static difficulty system means that PCs are still rewarded for overspecialization, since they only need to roll a single six to succeed at any task, and the intentionally vague skill rules make it even easier to always use the skills each PC is best at. Worst of all, the system is still confused about who decides what the results of a roll are. This creates situations where the players can succeed at their roll, only for the GM to tell them nothing happened.
This problem is to be expected in successor games like Scum. While it would be nice for new designers to take on the tasks of correcting their predecessor’s mistakes, it saves a lot of time and energy to simply use what worked before, warts and all. With RPG publishing being such a difficult industry, I can’t blame Scum’s designers for taking this route, even if I grumble at having to treat the simplest rolls as a prolonged negotiation. In short, if the system’s flaws didn’t put you off in Blades, they won’t put you off in Scum.
Now, let’s look at what is different about Scum and Villainy, since the true test of any successor game is how well it uses the mechanics it inherits.
The Game Understands Its Genre
The first thing that strikes me about Scum is how well geared it is for dramatic space opera storytelling. The rule book is of course filled with references and inside jokes that will bring a smile to any scifi fan’s face, but it’s more than that. The game has a purity of purpose: to create an environment where players can play out their favorite stories of space adventures outside the law.
The first place you see this is in the ship choices. Each group starts with a choice of three ships. First is the Stardancer, a freighter designed for hauling both legal and illegal cargo on the frontier. Second is the Cerberus, a lean craft built to help bounty hunters retrieve their targets. Finally, there’s the Firedrake, a beefy warship meant for attacking the tyrannical Hegemony.
You might notice that the game is offering players a choice between Firefly, Cowboy Bebop, and Star Wars with its ship options. While there’s always room for variation, a group that picks the Stardancer is best suited for smuggling, while if they pick the Cerberus they’ll be specialized in bounty hunting, and the Firedrake is for rebelling. This is incredibly useful for the GM to know, since it gives them a place to start planning the campaign, and Scum does it without ever slowing things down.
The character classes* have a similar dynamic. Each one is a stock role from space opera fiction, recognizable without any explanation. Are you inspired by Firefly’s Zoe or Jayne? Then the Muscle class is for you. Maybe you’re more into TNG’s Captain Picard, in which case the Speaker has what you need. And if Battlestar Galactica’s Starbuck has always been your hero, then Scum has you covered with Pilot.
This is all incredibly easy to explain, which is a lifesaver when introducing a new game to your group. Instead of an awkward few hours spent explaining strange concepts, you can spend a few minutes reading out character options, and any scifi enthusiasts will immediately get it. Even if your group doesn’t make a habit of rewatching the original Star Wars films, every option is clearly explained and easy to learn: the perfect vector for bringing them into the space opera fandom.
The Setting Is Built for Space Adventure
One of the things I critiqued Blades in the Dark for was its setting. That game is heavily focused on steampunk street gangs, which creates a problem: by default, the setting is incredibly dark because the PCs’ entire business model is profiting off of human misery. PCs already have a habit of pulling stories in a dark direction, so starting with such a dark premise can result in an entire party of serial killers. That’s fine for groups who like their roleplaying extra grim, but anyone else has to fight the setting to create a lighter story.
Fortunately, Scum and Villainy knows better. It’s still a game of questionable legality, but by default the players are smuggling bootlegged electronics or capturing violent criminals, not selling drugs to addicts or extorting shopkeepers for protection money. This makes the game far more accessible. Groups that want to go super dark still can, but everyone else can play at a more cheerful level.
Beyond the general mood, Scum’s setting is just really well tuned for adventure material. The game takes place in a remote sector of the Hegemony, where the powers that be are either corrupt, oppressive, or ineffectual, and criminal interests run rampant. Thinking up a new mission is the work of a moment, and if you get stuck, Scum has a set of random tables to help you out. Just grab a few d6s to see who wants to hire the PCs for what.
But that’s not all! In most RPGs, the setting is a bunch of fluff you’ll never bother reading because it doesn’t affect your game, but Scum ties its setting directly into the mechanics. Different star systems* provide access to different jobs, and the PCs’ wanted level changes depending on location as well. This encourages the players to learn more about the setting, since it directly affects their rolls. They don’t need to be experts, but it pays to know where they can get the best deal on particle cannons and medical treatment.
Finally, Scum provides a host of interesting factions and rules to simulate them. Which factions you choose to highlight will depend on the tone of your game. If you want a gritty game of resisting an evil government, then the Lost Legion is for you. If you’re more into a creepy story of disturbing alien tech, then the Suneaters have you covered. There’s something for everyone, and the rules for faction advancement make the the setting feel like a living universe.
Character Abilities Are Fun and Flavorful
Scum and Villainy character creation is very similar to Blades in the Dark: that is to say, great. You can usually get it done in an hour or so, even with new players, and it’s easy for most players to create the character they want most of the time.
But with the switch from steampunk to space opera comes a new set of abilities, and Scum really excels here. First, nearly every ability impacts the rules in a unique and useful way. One ability might make the PC better at acquiring special gear, while another lets them engage more powerful enemies in hand-to-hand combat. This is the advantage of using a robust structure: the designers have numerous mechanical levers to pull so that each ability feels important.
Special abilities are also vital for differentiating the classes. Any class can take the Helm skill for operating the ship, but Pilots are special. Only they have an ability that lets them reduce harm to the ship on a failed roll. A Muscle and a Mystic can both fight with the Scrap skill, but their special abilities give them different approaches. The Muscle gets bonuses when facing down a large group, while the Mystic can use their psyblade* to slice through heavy armor.
Abilities are also important for differentiating two characters with the same class. One player might build their Speaker like Inara, selecting only abilities that increase their social standing. Another might take Deep Space Nine’s Garak for inspiration, picking abilities that will let them talk their way into forbidden places. Most RPGs try to do this on some level, but Scum is unusually successful because each ability changes how the game is played in a major way.
Because each special ability is significant, PCs don’t need a lot of them. They start with two and acquire a few more over the course of a campaign, but they’re unlikely to ever get so many that remembering them all becomes a chore. That’s the perfect balance that many games strive for but few reach: enough abilities to be interesting, but not so many as to be a burden.
Progression Is Tangible
One area where Scum and Villainy diverges from Blades in the Dark is in how the PCs progress. In Blades, the party is trying to build up their gang, climbing the criminal ladder until they reach the top. In Scum, most of the progression goes into the PCs’ ship. Some of the same mechanics are there, but the narrative effect is very different.
Scum is designed for campaigns, so each ship has plenty of room to grow. They come with the bare essentials, and that’s it. From there, it’s up to the PCs to decide how their ship evolves over time. Will they invest in weapon systems and become a flying fortress? Or will they go the subtler route and install hidden compartments for smuggling? Will they optimize their ship for hopping between systems, or do they plan to stay in the orbit of a single star?
Answering these questions is a story in itself, and the system provides excellent rules for doing so. It’s simple for the GM to decide how much the PCs make on each job, and the money is abstracted for ease of use. No one wants to track individual coins, but the PCs will definitely care about whether they have the cash for a new AI module.
Beyond buying upgrades, a huge percentage of the rules is dedicated to assigning both positive and negative future consequences. Sure, the PCs can shake down a local magistrate for information, but that will increase their Heat rating, which in turn makes it harder to get jobs. On the other hand, if the PCs take a job for the Suneaters and it goes well, they gain a long-term reputation bonus as well as credits. That reputation will come in handy later when they have to talk their way into an auction for alien artifacts.
All of these developments are codified into the mechanics, so the GM doesn’t have sole responsibility for remembering everything. The PCs and their ship cannot help but change from one session to another, which is a great way to simulate the changing characters we all know and love from our favorite scifi stories. The only downside is that Scum is so focused on development that it can be hard to play as a oneshot. The system’s balance is thrown completely out of alignment if the players no longer have to worry about the long-term consequences of their actions.
Ship Stats Create Confusion
Okay, enough gushing praise for Scum and Villainy. This is a critique blog, so let’s critique! My first issue with Scum is the way it handles ship stats. Specifically, each ship has four attributes: Hull, Engines, Comms, and Weapons.* These attributes behave almost exactly like a character’s skill and are rolled the same way.
This creates a problem: do you roll the ship’s stat or the PC’s skill? You can’t roll them together; that breaks the entire dice mechanic. If you default to the character’s skill, then the ship attributes become way less important. Why should the players pay to upgrade their Hull if they never get to roll it? The same thing happens in reverse if you default to the ship. What’s the point of a skill like Helm if the player can just roll their ship’s Engines to get away?
Most GMs will try to strike a balance, which tends to create confusion and arguments around the table, as players have a major incentive to roll whichever option will give them more dice. Scum already has a problem with being too vague on what skill to roll in what situation, something it inherited from Blades, and ship attributes only make the problem worse.
In fairness to Scum and Villainy, the model of giving ships character-like stats is unfortunately common in roleplaying design. I penalized Star Trek Adventures for it, and I can think of at least three out of four systems off the top of my head that do the same thing. But lots of people making a mistake doesn’t excuse it. In most cases, it’s better if ships function like a complex piece of equipment rather than a separate character, and if the ship does have its own rollable stats, it should be crystal clear when to use them. Scum has a few guidelines, but it isn’t enough.
Not All Options Are Worth Taking
Earlier, I expounded on how great Scum’s character options are because each of them does something cool with the mechanics. Unfortunately, the same isn’t true of an equally important group of options: ship upgrades.
Some upgrades have a clear mechanical effect, like the medical bay, which gives a bonus die when the PCs recover from injuries. These upgrades are great. It’s clear what they do and why PCs might want to spend money on them. Less great are the upgrades that provide only a flavor bonus, like long-range scanners, which let the ship detect objects up to a dozen light-minutes away. This has no obvious effect on the game’s mechanics.
The first problem with flavor upgrades is that they put serious pressure on the GM. The PCs paid money for these long-range scanners; they’ll expect it to do something. But what should it do? That’s something the GM has to determine in the moment, with no rules to help them out. The more flavor upgrades a ship has, the more time and energy the GM has to spend thinking of bonuses. What’s more, players are more likely to argue with whatever bonus the GM whips up than they would with something written in the book. That’s a whole lot of effort that should have been spent crafting the story.
The second problem with flavor upgrades is that the GM would have most often granted the flavor without needing an upgrade. Look at the long-range sensors again: until I read that ability, I just assumed all ships in this setting had sensors that could reach out a few light-minutes. There’s certainly nothing in the rest of the book to indicate otherwise. Other options are even more absurd. The “tracers” upgrade lets the PCs put remote tracking devices on people or vehicles, which just feels like something highly skilled bounty hunters should be able to do without any special abilities. It’s a bizarre case of Schrodinger’s Upgrade, where everyone assumes the PCs can perform a specific action until they find an upgrade that grants that action. Then they all lose the ability to perform the action until they buy the upgrade.
Based on some rough counting, I’d say about half of Scum’s ship upgrades are flavor only. That still leaves a lot of mechanical options for savvy groups, but it sets up a major trap for neophytes. Less-experienced players will spend their hard-earned creds on a new galley, only to find it doesn’t actually affect the rules. At best, they’ll forget about it and move on. At worst, it’ll be an active annoyance, as they resent the credits spent on this useless upgrade.
A Key Option Is Missing
Despite the flavor upgrades, Scum and Villainy is really good at giving players what they want. It’s got all the tropes your group will expect when they think of space opera: laser blasts, alien monsters, even psychic powers. However, there’s one glaring hole in this list: rules for buying a better ship.
Players can customize their starting ship to an incredible degree, and they can switch to one of the other starting ships if they like, but that’s it. There are simply no rules for trading in your old hunk of junk and buying something new, or for capturing a vessel out between the stars.
No game can include every possible option, but this seems like a really obvious one. In a game about flying ships and making money, it’s hardly a stretch to consider the PCs might want to spend that money on a new ship to fly. Maybe the designers are saving it for an expansion, but this kind of core functionality should really have been included in the base game. It’s something players will want to do, and the GM will have to either create a bunch of new rules or use fiat to say it can’t be done.
Adding insult to injury, the ship sheet has size ratings for larger vessels even though there are no rules for the PCs to ever get their hands on something that big. Yes, Scum and Villainy, my players would love to get a frigate or dreadnought someday, but they don’t seem to exist as far as we’re concerned.
The Rules Are Empowering, If Cumbersome
Even with all my gripes, there’s no doubt Scum and Villainy is a fun game. The PCs feel like badass space cowboys, exactly like the book promises. They can blast their way from one job to another, earning credits and making enemies along the way. While some options are more powerful than others, it’s unlikely that any player will ever make an unplayable character, and if they do, the book is very clear about allowing them to change their abilities. If nothing else, Scum and Villainy is easily the best space opera RPG I’ve ever played, and I’ve played most of them.
At the same time, the rules are always there, making themselves known and sometimes restricting your ability to tell a story. You can’t ever just roll the dice and move on; you need to spend precious time picking over a long list of factors that might or might not be relevant. This problem gets better with experience, but it never goes away completely. You’ll have to decide if the extra burden is worth all the benefits Scum and Villainy has to offer.