Sunday, June 14, 2015

Cloak & Dagger

Once again, we delve into the realm of games marketed as role-playing games but which fall far short of how we understand the term.  In this installment, the game is Cloak & Dagger – a merchandizing effort associated with the movie of the same name.  If released today, the game would certainly not be categorized as 'role-playing' but in the far gone days of 1984, such a label could be – and was – applied.

The plot of the film may sound familiar.  A kid withdraws into a fantasy world after his mother dies and the kid's father is emotionally distant.  However, it turns out that the fantasy isn't entirely fictional.  As the real life implications of the 'fantasy' are resolved, the kid and his father bond.  The end.

In this case, the 'fantasy' is focused on fictional super-spy Jack Flack, star of video and traditional role-playing games.  A dying man gives the kid a video game cartridge containing military secrets.  The kid (played by Henry Thomas, alumnus of E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial – another movie with an RPG connection) confronts enemy agents applying the capable advice of the imaginary Jack Flack.  (Dabney Coleman portrays the father as well as Jack Flack because the espionage ace is essentially a surrogate father image.)

The beginning of the film features the exploits of Jack Flack.  When two giant dodecahedrons start tumbling toward Jack, the scene transitions to the kid rolling a pair of twelve-siders on a table with miniature figures.  The audience realizes that the 'exploits' were merely the imagined action of a game!  The dice rolling scene (among others) were filmed at The Game Keeper, a real game store that your humble host contemporaneously frequented.

Anyway, the kid is ecstatic.  He exclaims, “Twenty-four!  Jack Flack's agility is twenty four -- he escapes!”  Since twenty-four is the maximum amount that can be rolled on 2d12, we must not be dealing with a 'roll equal to or under' mechanic.  Apparently, the fate of Jack Flack is governed by a system requiring that a target number must be equalled or exceeded by rolling dice and adding an ability value.  I guess the Difficulty Check was 48.  Obviously, I've put more thought into this than the writers.  (Actually, the script called for d20s:  “...two monstrous twenty-sided, brightly colored geometric forms come rolling...”)

Appropriately, twelve-sided dice are used in the Cloak & Dagger game.  Although the game comes with only one d12, it is rolled twice on most occasions.  Also, the challenge card of 'Boulders!' displays dodecahedrons (shown above).

Jack Flack is not a playable character in the game; he is represented by an advantage that can change hands among the players several times.  The manual uses the term “character” only once.  The rules almost always use “players” in reference to the real world participants as well as their in-game personalities.  'Players' have three abilities:  Speed, Strength, and Agility.  Ability Levels range from 5 to 25, but only in increments of five.  Thus, an Agility of 24 (like Jack Flack's stated score in the film) is not allowed.  Players distribute scores of 10, 15, and 20 among their Abilities.  During the course of a game, levels can rise and fall.  A example Ability Levels Form (shown below) is provided in the game manual.  Aside from Abilities and the player's name, an area on the form is reserved for “Alias.”

In describing the concept of “role-playing game,” the manual states:
...each player, a Spy working under an alias, assumes his or her own unique character...Each player is free to develop his or her own unique style and strategy...
The object of the game is to capture a set of four spies, go to a particular city, and retain the spies while all other players get one final turn.  During the course of the game, players can travel among several cities and choose one of three challenge levels when they opt for an encounter.  Players may attack or sabotage one another and capture each other's spies.

According to Section 7 of the manual:
In the hard world of Cloak & Dagger, as in the real world, almost everything has its price.  Players may stop the game at any point to negotiate a deal.
With a few listed exceptions, anything is tradable.  This concept extends beyond in-game favors and materials.  For example, “You may...offer Jack Flack to the player who agrees to pay you a dollar, or to get you a drink.”  In Cloak & Dagger, a player has a degree of 'agency' in excess of many board games and each player is encouraged to personalize “his or her own unique character.”  This is the extent of “role-playing” in the game; there is only one 'scenario' and there is no game master.  Regardless, someone made the decision to market Cloak & Dagger as “a role-playing game.”  The phrase appears five times on the box.  In the pictures of the game on the box (as well as in the rule book), the manual is titled merely “manual.”  The actual manual has “role-playing game” followed by “game play manual” in smaller font.  Perhaps someone felt that if the phrase “role-playing game” was used often enough, people would believe it.

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