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Justifiers RPG – OSR Carnival, Pt. 2 – Betas and Mechanics

29 Dec

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Welcome to part two of my entry in the Obsolete Simulations Roundup blog carnival!  Part one can be found here and covers the setting of the 1998 science fiction RPG, Justifiers.

The heart of Justifiers are the Betas; anthropomorphic human/animal hybrids owned by the corporations that created them.  Players roll up their characters to generate base attributes, then select a Beta animal type.  This hybrid template augments their character’s attributes and gives them other special abilities.  For example, a grizzly bear Beta has enhanced speed, strength, teeth and claws, and can track by scent.  A bat Beta can fly, has sonar, and can track by hearing.  The core book offers a nice selection of animal types to choose from and each source book adds more options.

Playing anthropomorphic animals is the main point of Justifiers, but for players looking for a less fuzzy choice the rules also include options for humans from high gravity worlds and genetically augmented humans, evoking the Replicants from Blade Runner.  Additional sourcebooks include further options, such as playing aboriginal races from colony worlds, and for the truly gonzo experience you can create a Gamma.  Gammas are the offspring of two Betas, combining the animal abilities of both parents into a truly bizarre combination.  Adding to the mix are rules for psionics and cybernetic enhancements.

The concepts in Justifiers are a lot of fun, unfortunately they’re burdened with a clunky rules set.  In particular the character creation rules feel complicated for the sake of complexity and fiddly without elegance.

Justifiers is a percentile base system and players start by rolling up their character’s seven attributes with straight d100 rolls.  Attributes are Strength, Dexterity, Constitution, Presence, Intelligence, Wisdom, and Agility.  Players can order the stats as they like and replace their lowest roll with a 65%.  However this is the first place where the rules and concept are at odds.  Betas are genetically engineered to be physically superior, but this method will generate a wide diversity of ability levels and it is quite possible to end up with all low scores.  Certain attributes will be enhanced when the player selects his or her Beta type, but for an engineered species it would seem more appropriate to use a matrix that will generate a more narrow range of results, perhaps with 65% as the average, and making exceptionally low scores the statistical outliers.

Once the player has their seven attributes, they run a series of formulas to generate the character’s seven statistics.  These are Mental Strength, Body, Resilience, Base Speed, Base Skill Level, Base to Strike, and Damage Bonus.  Each statistic has its own formula, usually the combination of two attributes divided by ten.

The character then rolls to see if they have psionic abilities, having a 5% chance on a d100, with the character getting between one and five powers based on their roll.  This makes psionic Betas very rare and mental powers substantially increase the Beta’s buy back value with the corporation.  The game also has basic rules for cybernetic parts and a player may option to have such replacements, again adding to the buy back value of the Beta.

Justifiers has a large section of skills to choose from, determined by their primary career focus and cross training.  I like the concept of a betas having a wide scope of skills, but several skills are of questionable necessity, such as math and reading and writing one’s own home language.  Given the highly trained nature of the Betas, it seems superfluous to apply percentages to skills specifically listed as addition and subtraction and for literacy.  These are not the only skills that feel redundant, while other staple skills like stealth and concealment are either missing or rolled into the surveillance skill.

Another strange choice is how damage works.  The character has points from both Constitution and Body statistics and specifically states that the Body points are expended first.  This lead me to believe that Body would work as some form of stun, possibly recovering faster or having some other different game effect.  However healing rates for both statistics are the same.  There are only two cases where these values are treated differently; during character advancement where level adds to the Body score, and radiation exposure that effects each score differently.  This leads to the question, would a more streamlined single attribute be better or are there other reasons for the two statistics that the designer had in mind?

Where the character generation rules feel overly fiddly, the combat rules are surprisingly sparse in details.  Combat is based on skill rolls modified by circumstance modifiers, but only a handful of example modifiers are given.  Rules for armor are fine, but rules for basic ideas like cover and full automatic fire are noticeably absent.  Presumably the GM would assign a circumstance modifier for cover, but none is given in the examples.  Instead of automatic fire, machine guns simply have a larger number of attacks per round.  Critical wounds cause internal damage that causes damage each round until treated, but the persistent damage is based on 25% of the damage caused by the wound.  This means it must be calculated and tracked on top of everything else going on during combat.

Individually these and other rules quirks are not major flaws, but collectively they lead to an inconsistent and confusing whole.  I constantly had the feeling that I was either missing design notes or that rules had been created on a case-by-case basis without regard for the overall flow of the system. It’s unfortunate, because the rules bog down what is otherwise an exceptionally interesting game.

In 2010 a German gaming company released a new edition of Justifiers, reportedly with a new set of rules.  However there isn’t an English translation, so I don’t know if the mechanisms have received the overhaul they so desperately need.

The core book includes a good section of equipment and a sample adventure.  The sample adventure is particularly good, as it both highlights the standard planetary mission style and gives the GM an example of standard operating procedures for a Justifier team.

The sourcebooks for Justifiers are quite nice.  Each is printed in digest format, which was uncommon for the time.  The artwork is very good, on par with the better black and white indie comics of the late 80’s and limited only by the quality of printing available for its reproduction.  For a small run independent game, Justifiers also has a large number of sourcebooks.  My box set includes the core book, two planetary survey adventure books, a book on the Beta hybrids called Gammas, and an aboriginal species book that includes rules for adding magic to the game.  I’m aware of four other sourcebooks that were released; two more adventure books, a book on the corporations, and a cybernetics book.

I have no desire to run a game using the Justifiers rules, but I would definitely recommend using the universe and mining the sourcebooks for ideas.  As mentioned in part one of my review, the books are available in .pdf format from Drive Thru RPG.

JustifiersBook

That’s it for part two.  Stay tuned for part three, where I discuss rules alternatives and adventure seeds.

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4 responses to “Justifiers RPG – OSR Carnival, Pt. 2 – Betas and Mechanics

  1. Brutorz Bill

    February 17, 2014 at 8:51 PM

    I would love to see Justifiers converted to a better system. The setting is just freaking cool!

     
    • Fractalbat

      February 17, 2014 at 9:18 PM

      Indeed it is! It’s just great stuff. Thanks for the comment!

       

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