|Art by Michael Kucharski|
As an employee of Flying Buffalo, Michael Stackpole was exposed to Tunnels & Trolls. His experiences inspired him to adapt the T&T system to 'modern' genres of adventure, specifically “detective, spy and mercenary fiction.” So, in 1983, Flying Buffalo published the descriptively titled Mercenaries, Spies and Private Eyes. (Personally, I would have gone with Guns & Gumshoes. Would you believe Mysteries & Mayhem ?) The back cover proclaims, “This is a unique role playing game which can be set from the earliest use of gunpowder to the near future with its ultramodern technologies.” While statistics are given for 16th Century firearms, MSPE is better suited for more recent eras. The “near future” is not specifically addressed. Aside from contemporary characters, there are sample characters for the 1930's and even the 1880's (including Sherlock Holmes and Professor Moriarty).
When a T&T character gains an experience level, there may be a windfall of attribute increases Improving attributes in MSPE is more moderate; at each level, a character can improve one attribute by two points or two attributes by one point. (BTW, Holmes is seventh level, Watson is fourth.)
There are no character types/classes in MSPE; beyond differences in attribute scores, skill portfolios make characters distinct from one another. I previously wrote about Stackpole's skill system, at least as it relates to T&T. In essence, a character's Intelligence determines the number of skills the character can have. (This seems reasonable, except aristocratic titles and 'psychic' skills are purchased no differently than 'normal' skills.) Unlike T&T, where weapon use is based on character type, MSPE characters must purchase combat skills in order to be competent with weapon groups or fighting styles. Each skill starts at level one. Additional levels can be acquired during character generation by spending additional skill points; however, during play, skills can only improve via experience (i.e., 'adventure points'). Naturally, characters earn adventure points, but points are also specifically assigned to skills when they are used during an adventure. According to the rules, “There should be no other way for skills to pick up APs.” Anyway, upon earning one thousand adventure points a character advances to level two and when a skill's total assigned experience reaches one thousand, the skill becomes level two. So, instead of just tracking experience for a character, a player is obliged to track the character's experience as well as separate volumes of experience for each skill.
Although I do not think this is a good way of handling skill improvement, I could at least appreciate it if it was consistent...but it's not consistent. 'Martial Arts' skills are improved not by experience gained during an adventure, but only through training. One might think that many skills (e.g., Pilot, Medic, Slight of Hand, et al.) would benefit as a result of training – much like what happens in real life – but this is not so in MSPE. Beyond meeting attribute requirements and spending one skill point, a character can obtain up to five levels in a martial art by training. In MSPE, “training” equates to an outlay of money; five levels equals $1,400.
'Psychic' skills cost three points each. There are six possible skills: psychometry, telekinesis, clairvoyance, precognition, telepathy, and empathy. A player does not choose a specific 'psychic' skill; the skill is determined randomly. A saving roll modified by Intelligence resolves whether a psychic skill is latent or controllable. Alas, no rules are provided to allow a latent skill to become controllable with experience.
Combat in MSPE is handled much like combat in T&T, except MSPE does not use two-minute combat turns. Combat Rounds in MSPE last for thirty seconds – except Missle-Weapon Combat Rounds only last for fifteen seconds. Oh, and “Movement takes place in 15-second increments...” Why not have combat rounds of a consistent, standard duration? I guess that wouldn't be realistic.
From the foregoing, one might assume that I dislike MSPE. This is not the case. I agree with another statement from the back cover, “...MSPE is elegantly simple, easy to learn, and most of all, fun to play!” I object to those rules facets that – in my opinion – mar the elegance of the system. It is because I like the system that I find these errant facets frustrating. “Contradictions and inconsistencies can destroy a campaign,” Stackpole writes on page 77; they can also reduce the appeal of an otherwise competent rules system.
To end this post on a positive note, I commend 'Book 2' (of 3) of the rules, “Introduction to Scenario Design.” The 'Hit Location' and 'Car Crashes' sections really belong elsewhere in the rules, but the rest is top-notch advice on creating adventures and campaigns in the MSPE genres, with a special emphasis on formulating and running “mysteries.” After all, a mystery needs a degree of finesse not often required in a typical dungeon romp.