Review in a Nutshell
: Turns d20 into a complex, engaging, tactical roleplaying system on all levels, not just combat and levelling. Unfortunately, it does this (as I suppose it must) by adding new rules everywhere.
Spycraft 2.0 is released under the OGL SRD. You need nothing besides this book and some funky dice to play. I will refer to d20 on occasion in the following text, but that's simply as a baseline reference.
At its core, Spycraft is the d20 you know and love. Roll 1d20, add appropriate modifiers and compare it to a DC. Every test in the game boils down to some variation on this.
Where Spycraft differs from SRD d20 is as follows:
Action Dice: PCs have a pool of action dice, whose size (d4, d6, d8, etc) and quantity are determined by a PC's level. Action dice can be spent on any roll; roll the die and add it to your d20 check. Action dice can also be spent to do special things, like provide a temporary boost to your Defense (read: AC). The GM has his own pool of action dice, used not only to bolster NPCs but to trigger story events (gunmen busting through the door, equipment malfunction, trouble at the head office, etc).
Threat / Error: Before, critical hits and critical failures only mattered in combat. Now, every skill check has a potential for catastrophe or epiphany. Every skill check or attack check has a threat range (usually just 20) and an error range (usually just 1). Roll within your threat range and you can spend an action die to confirm the roll as a critical success. Roll within your error range and the GM can spend an action die to confirm it as a critical failure. Most skills have special outcomes listed for critical successes or failures (a critical success on a Charm check might improve someone's disposition by 2 grades rather than 1).
Certain conditions and abilities can toy with either range. For instance, unskilled skill checks have an error range 2 higher than normal. Some feats give you a bonus to your skill as well as widening the threat range. And so forth.
Dramatic Conflicts: For certain contests (like chases, seduction, infiltration, hacking and the like), you and your opponent stage a series of skill checks. You're fighting over a certain amount of Lead. When the Lead decreases to 0, the Predator (the hunter in a chase, the spy in an infiltration) wins. When the Lead increases past 10, the Predator (the hunted in a chase, the organization being infiltrated) wins.
Each turn, the Predator and the Prey secretly pick a strategy. Certain strategies have prerequisites - you have to be in the Lead by so much, or have to have certain abilities on your side - and impose penalties on your skill check. Whoever wins the contested skill check gets to implement their strategy's Advantages. For instance, if you choose the Attack Run strategy in a chase, winning will give you a +4 on any attack rolls you make against your opponent.
The downside: aside from the precis I just gave you there, no two Dramatic Conflicts resolve in exactly the same way. The rules for Interrogation are completely different from the rules for Seduction - different strategies, different advantages, etc. The core rules provide printouts that can be cut into Strategy Cards in the back, so it's not all bad. But it's still quite a learning curve.
NPCs: Rather than statting out each NPC - a process which can be grueling in d20 - GMs can determine an NPC's relative competence (on a scale of 1 to 10, 5 being "on par with the PCs"), cross-reference it with the level of the PCs' party, and jot down a handful of bonuses that stand in for their stats. For instance: instead of calculating several skills, NPCs get a "competence bonus" that the GM adds to a d20 roll. NPCs normally get Damage Saves instead of hit points; make a Damage Save (DC 10 + total damage taken) or fall unconscious.
The book gives several pages of options that can be assigned to an NPC to add more detail. You can give NPCs feats or PC class abilities, allow them vitality points (see below), or give them special attacks (animals are statted in the same way as humans). This was a huge selling point for me, as writing up NPCs in d20 is often a mind-numbing series of calculations.
Vitality Points and Wound Points: Anyone who's familiar with the d20 Star Wars RPG will recognize this one already. Instead of hit points, PCs (and special NPCs) get vitality points and wound points. Vitality points work the same way hit points do, but they don't represent actual physical damage. Rather, they represent near-misses and cosmetic damage (Flesh Wounds, if you will). A PC only takes damage to his wound points if he loses all his vitality points or if an opponent scores a critical hit on him. Wound points are equal to your Constitution score. Losing even some of them is bad; losing all of them is fatal.
I really like this last bit, as it makes combat cinematic without being cartoonish. High-level PCs can expect to weather a few hits without being instantly shell-shocked. However, no one can afford to wade into automatic gunfire, as it only takes one "20" to start chipping away at your wound points.
Stress Damage: It's not quite social combat, but it's a start. PCs and special NPCs can also take stress damage, representing mental fatigue and confusion. Stress damage can come from Dramatic Conflicts, from certain powerful attacks or from class abilities. Once your stress damage exceeds certain thresholds (a multiple of your Wisdom score), you start taking more and more penalties to all of your checks.
Classes, Feats and Skills
The classes are written towards an espionage setting but could easily be tailored to anywhere. You get your standard spy genre tropes (the infiltrator, the faceman, the soldier), with a few modern twists (hacker, scientist, snoop, wheelman) and a few curious new ones (advocate, explorer, sleuth).
Straight out the gate, Spycraft PCs are designed to be highly competent in their specialties, even at 1st level. Many classes have 1st-level abilities that allow them to ignore failure in their specialty skills so long as the DC was low enough (20 + their class level). Other classes double any action dice they spend on certain skill uses. And every PC picks an origin and a talent at 1st level, giving them a unique background that lends skill bonuses, free feats and other advantages. Even a starting PC can be a veteran, or fabulously wealthy, or internationally renowned.
For those who want more detail, Spycraft also features expert classes that PCs can multiclass into at 5th level on. These cover greater specialties of the basic classes - the sniper, the illuminatus (a power broker extraordinaire), the raptor (a future-tech ninja), the schemer, the triggerman (a two-gun close-quarters shooter) and several others. The power that these characters have access to is frightening.
There are more feats than I can properly count, feats that allow for specialization in just about any field. There are martial arts feat trees that make unarmed combatants a serious threat. There are skill feat trees that allow you to maximize your advantage from high skill ranks (decreasing error range, increasing threat range, etc). There are chase feats, chance feats (which affect how you can earn and spend action dice), style feats, gear feats ... it's frankly daunting. It makes me wonder how thoroughly all of these could have been playtested, but I trust AEG.
Skills have been simplified in some areas, brutally complicated in others. For one, many redundant skills have been collapsed into a single rubric: Climb, Jump and Swim are now Athletics; Spot, Listen and Search are now Notice, etc. Each skill also breaks down - sometimes over the course of several pages - the many different ways in which the skill can be used and the corresponding DCs.
For instance, the rules for using Athletics to climb are different than the rules for using Athletics to swim. Both types of actions have different DCs, different durations on the skill check, and different rewards for success and penalties for failure. However, you get a similar level of detail with the Investigation skill - there are different rules for canvassing an area (what used to be "Gather Information") versus doing research on the Internet. Both actions have lengthy tables indicating the time required for each skill check, the appropriate circumstantial modifiers (+5 if answering the questions may provoke criminal charges; +10 for narrow topics, etc) and the like.
Again, this is both a good thing and a bad thing. For one, I like rigidly defined outcomes for skill checks. I like to know ahead of time how much harder it will be to canvass a city block vs. a neighborhood, and putting it in writing is one way to accomplish that. The downside is that this dramatically increases the "flip time" of any given check. There is simply no way for a GM to memorize the wealth of possible modifiers to any given skill check; he has to have the tables handy.
The tagline of Spycraft 2.0 is License to Improvise. I think that's a bit ambitious, given the flip time I mentioned just a paragraph ago. I think License to Customize is far more accurate - in fact, I'd say Spycraft 2.0 is the most customizable d20 product I've ever seen.
So take all that and you have a d20 ruleset that can be tweaked instantly for any modern or near-modern game. Want to play 24 (CTU: Boston, perhaps)? Flip the Gritty, Tense, Elite Ops, Speed-Frame and Soap switches, for a game where combat is dangerous, taking 10 is never an option, everyone's highly competent at what they do, and there's drama around every corner. Want to play in the high-octane world of John Woo? Check off Blockbuster (for huge but non-lethal explosions), Bottomless Clip, Bulletproof, Gladiators (to encourage one-on-one stand offs and close-quarters fighting) and Wire-Fu. You could even play Westerns or Call of Cthulhu using these rules.
It's inordinately complex. The game does a lot to meet you halfway - providing very detailed character sheets and pages upon pages of tables - but that speaks as much to the sheer wealth of new rules to be learned. However, I think that all of the complexity is ultimately rewarding, that it results in a type of gameplay that, frankly, I didn't think d20 was capable of.
Verdict: Not for the casual reader. Only for serious system wonks, prospective GMs and committed players.
I wrote this review a week ago for a mailing list that my local gaming group uses. I've reposted it here so that everyone can benefit from my insight. ;) What's changed since then? Well, I need to administer RPG.net grading. Additionally, AEG made its big announcement since then, so I need to talk about that, too.
Style: 3. Art is colorful and evocative, text is readable and well-arranged, and the book itself is gorgeous. However, I have issues with the layout. On several occasions I found myself flipping through the book in frustration, trying to find a particular section. For instance, weapons in the gear chapter. Want to know what the "MAC" tag on your weapon means? Page 258. Weapon descriptions are on pages 269 through 274. Weapon statistics are on pages 282-299 inclusive (eightteen pages of tables). But weapons are picked by using gear picks. The gear ranks of various weapons? Pages 313-321. That's 34 pages you need to flip through to find out everything you need to know about your weapon, presuming you use standard ammunition and no add-ons. Layout and Organization cost this book precious Style points.
Substance: 5. There's practically nothing this book lacks. Classes I never even thought I'd use, dozens of unique ways to apply your skills, a veritable L.L. Bean catalog of modern and futuristic gear, ways to complicate your game and ways to simplify it. In some ways, the raw density of data in this book is its own worst enemy (see my complaints about Style). But if you like any sort of mission-based adventures, from Firefly to Seven Samurai to Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, you will find something in this book to help you make them real. I promise.
AEG: Alderac's announcement that it's laying off developers shot some anxiety into the gaming community, especially coming off two big releases (L5R 3rd and Spy 2.0). But I hear that Kapera and others have made personal assurances that the Spy 2.0 line will not fade away. That's good to know. Remember: Spycraft 2.0 is OGL. The future's wide open for this game and its fans.