Review: ‘Ladykillers’

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I’m slowly working my way through the first Bundle of Holding I obtained (first of many), and it’s time to review Ladykillers by Matt Snyder, one of the games in the Bundle that I’m most interested in. It features a pitch that could easily be run in most other systems – wronged women return from the grave with magic powers to hunt monsters – but its native system is quick, simple and flavourful.

Content warning: this is a game where you will want to discuss permitted content. One of the character generation questions involves suicide, and obviously given the subject matter, which is very much in the genre of female-centric revenge thriller, there is a lot of potential for upsetting themes to come up.

Like Dead of Night, I feel this is a game I’ll need to see in action before I can assess how well it works, since its playing-card-based mechanic has a probability curve of SUPER WEIRD. However, this short but awesome little game does what it sets out to do with a minimum of fuss and no excessive verbiage. It’s very much an indie story game rather than some robust campaign system, but reading it made me want to rock up to a 24 Hour Roleplay or a spontaneous game session and run the story of a group of badass ladies slaying the men who done them wrong. It’s very prep-light, and the most important bit of prep, generating the revenge list randomly, can be done in advance.

Character generation uses questions to add to your ladykiller’s Sin and Grace scores, which dictate your ability to draw cards during the game, and you choose an Aspect such as the Seeress, the Changeling or the Seraph with special powers. That’s literally it. Go go super quick but flavourful character creation! The hitlist is randomly generated but will produce a startling array of interesting villains who can, presumably, be reflavoured if they become too repetitive. I imagine it would be very easy to write your own covers, natures and methods to keep things fresh.

The system is…odd…but none the worse for that. When you face a conflict, you choose whether to use your Sin or Grace score – do you indulge your worse side or be your own better angel? This score flavours how you approach the conflict and dictates how many playing cards you are dealt to try and play a successful hand. You pick two cards from your hand to play – two red cards mean success, and any black cards mean failure (so playing a mixed hand still means failure). BUT the difference in number between your two cards (aces are 1, faces are 0) is how many points of Pain you suffer as a result of the conflict (which you take whether you succeed or fail over all). So sometimes you might want to fail just so you don’t take as much Pain, or choose to play certain cards strategically for other bonuses. If your Pain exceeds your Power (your expendable resource for the game), you can’t use your Aspect’s abilities – however, other ladykillers can start a scene to help you through the Scars your Pain has caused…potentially at a cost.

Ladykillers is not a complicated game: it’s 19 pages long, and designed to tell one very specific kind of story, not unlike Heroine or Annalise, but the sense of fun in the design means that it doesn’t feel too ephemeral to be interesting. I love the use of cards and flavourful generation over robust but workmanlike mechanics, and while I think it’ll make the game experience less reliable than, say, Fate or D&D, it’s trying to do something completely different. I imagine that if you get on board the Ladykillers train, you’re in for a great ride.

As a fan of the classic Ealing comedy The Ladykillers, I appreciate the use of the title’s pun to reclaim a sexist term, and that kind of holds true of the game. While the pitch might come from an exploitation genre, Ladykillers never feels misogynistic, which is a careful line to tread with the whole ‘wronged woman seeks revenge’ trope.

This game is stylish and, while it might be a little light mechanically, it doesn’t try to over-complicate things. The write-up seems to suggest that it should be run as grim and gritty, but you can balance that with big dumb over the top action, because fundamentally it’s a game of archetypes with a melodramatic premise. And of course, since the book is snappy and brief, a lot of the decisions about tone, setting and style are left in the hands of the GM. I very much look forward to wreaking some havoc!

Links:

Matt Snyder’s blog Stories You Play

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