Author: Elizabeth Shoemaker Sampat
Publisher: Two Scooters Press
Published: August 2010
RRP: US$10 (pdf @unstore) / Book (?)
Description: Blowback is probably best described as Burn Notice: The Role-playing Game, except without Michael, Fiona, Sam or any other identifiable features that would have the USA network come knocking at Elizabeth's door requesting a licensing fee. Still, the basic premise remains the same, as players play highly competent "burned" spies and the civilians that are their only remaining resource.
Setting: It could be anywhere in the modern world where a burned spy might be put out to pasture, except viewed through the eyes of a spy it is probably not a friendly place. Often this will be the players actual home town. After all, everyone should be familiar with where they live. But remember that there are moves going on in the background. The Agency wants you stuck here, so there must be some reason why this place is important.
However that's just the physical setting. The important setting is all about the relationships between the characters and their relationship with The Agency. The first allows the characters to show off their awesome spy skills, whilst the second is where the true basis of the game lies.
Character Generation: There are three types of characters: Lifers (those spies that are naturals in a business known for short careers), Artists (those spies with a special skill set that is useful in covert actions), and Civilians (those bystanders that care for the spies, and are cared for in return). Lifers are pretty good at the spy stuff, but being a good spy means you are usually bad at forming actual (rather than pretend) relationships. Specialists may not be as good as a lifer outside of their specialty, but are probably not as much as a weasel when it comes to forming relationships with outsiders. And civilians, well, they are not very good at the spy stuff but they are silly enough to care for the spies, so have fairly strong relationships. So as a result, Professionals (Lifers and Artists) get more points that can be applied to the spy skills than Civilians, but Civilians get to have stronger relationships (and almost no spy skills). You get to play two characters, a Professional and a Civilian (who usually has their strongest relationship to another player's Professional).
There are four different spy skills: Pavement (which is all about hitting the street for information), Diversion (which is how you mislead and distract), Provocateur (which is the ability to be a chameleon), and Commando (which is the use of straightforward force). The interesting thing is that the use of these skills changes in each of the three phases of the game. For example, a Provocateur excels at Developing Assets (going undercover, making contacts and charming the right people) in the Analysis phase and Rallying Forces (obtaining help from unexpected sources and tricking the opponents into doing the dirty work for you) in the Operation Phase, but suffers from Control problems (treating friends as assets rather than people) in the Blowback phase of the game.
The relationships on the other hand are the strengths of your attachments to the other characters and even non-player characters in the game. If someone has a relationship with you then they have certain expectations of you. If their relationship is strong enough, they might even have an Agenda (and want you to change in some way). The greater relationship you have with someone, the more stress it can take before it breaks and is worthless you've asked too much of them.
Mechanics: There are three separate phases in the game: Analysis, Operations, and Blowback. The Analysis phase is where you meet the client, gain intelligence on what is going on, and set up the resources you need to actually do the job. This earns dice for you and The Agency (who plays the opposition, even if they might not be from The Agency itself). You can do this safely, for a minor reward, or take a risk (which has the potential for greater rewards (more dice for you, less for The Agency). The Analysis phase tends to naturally terminate, as the character's either run out of skills they can use effectively, or more likely, they suffer from a loss of Momentum (which reduces the number of dice they can use next). [There is a flow chart that explains this, although it is rather impenetrable without the text.]
The Operations phase is where you actually get the job done. Dice are assigned from the pool generated in the Analysis phase (which represents The Plan) and the players skills (as before, each dice has a 50% chance of success or failure, with the number of dice indicating effective degree of success or failure [by generating Momentum]). Meanwhile The Agency develops it's own plan and assigns dice to it, which it can use to resist the attempts of the players. This will usually be in response to the character's actions in the Analysis phase, so it is possible to mislead The Agency into protecting assets that the players have no intention of threatening. Unlike most story games, there is an actual adversarial relationship between The Agency and the team of players. It may not be possible to complete a mission in a single Operations phase, particularly if the Analysis phase was a bust. But you can always go back to the Analysis phase and try again with generating a new plan.
The Blowback phase always follows the Operations phase. This is where you deal with the fallout from the operation. This includes dealing with baggage from the operation, the stress you put yourself under conducting it, and the stress that you put on your relationships with the other people in your life. It is also where The Agency (the actual one) can start pushing up the aggravation on the burned spies. As you can guess from thetitle of the game, it is probably the most important phase of the game as it deals with consequences.
Thoughts: This game captures much of the feel of the show Burn Notice, particularly with the inability of Mike and Fi to actually form a stable relationship with each other (or in fact, with any other people at all). And while the professionals have awesome abilities to get stuff done, they also have no agency backing them up, and have to rely on the civilians for support, and that is going to stress their relationships. Burn through your relationships and you will truly be left out in the cold with no one to turn to. You need them. They don't neccessarily need you.
There is a lot of good advice for the gamemaster (aka The Agency) in the game, and no denying that there is a considerable workload placed on them. My only concern is that the mechanics of assigning dice to the plan (which is how the game gets balanced in play) means that it difficult for the gamemaster to simply wing it. Or steal ideas from the players... <grimace> Then again this is probably a good idea, since it encourages the gamemaster to write down a plan for the operation beforehand (assuming what will happen if the players don't interfere). That way you only need to add changes to the plan in compensation for the player's perceived actions.
Overall this is an interesting game, and very well produced. It was the beneficiary of a $1000 prize in a competition on the Story Games website for the best concept and deserves it.
Rating: Very Good.