A few days ago, at an annual meetup of longtime friends and superb gamers, I ran a short session of Katanas and Trenchcoats, the game of “retromodern roleplaying.” It’s a terrific RPG largely inspired by the glory days of syndicated TV, movies, and RPGs in the Nineties, when Immortals, vampires, and Apocalypse-heralding fallen angels left an angst-fueled mark on pop culture. Dynamic, doomed, and cursed to wear amazing leather clothes, these heroes and antiheroes posed in misty alleyways as “power goth” chords or anthemic Queen tracks played behind them. You know which shows I’m talking about.
Game designer Ryan Macklin and others created the original PDF rulebook of Katanas and Trenchcoats last year as half-pun/half-homage. But the PDF did have an actual (if thin) set of rules, and people began playing it! The game attracted enough interest that Ryan last week launched a Kickstarter campaign for a full-blown, honest-to-Adrian-Paul Katanas and Trenchcoats rulebook – and it hit its funding goal on the second day! That’s pretty damn impressive. I’m psyched to see this come out.
For the time being, though, we have the PDF’s original rules, so that’s what I used for Saturday’s demonstration. And one of the quickest ways to demonstrate the rules is to get the characters to fight each other! I pulled in some characters from ’90s TV (Duncan Macleod & Richie Ryan from Highlander, and Nick Knight, Lucien Lacroix, and Janette DuCharme from Forever Knight) and created two “Technomages” as the main pains-in-the-asses who pitted the Immortals and vampires against each other.
They all looked fabulous. Technomage Helena (based on model Helena Christensen) coldly operated death traps while wearing a floral-print hat and a forcefield corset. Her partner, Japeth (think Oded Fehr), was a smooth talker with a thick accent and leather pants.
And that sense of fashion is important in this game! Kickass Wardrobe is one of your character’s five main Traits, along with Raging Passion, Mystical Talents, Ancient Memories, and of course Ancient Sword. You have scores from 1 through 5 in each, and you combine that number with the number of an appropriate skill (e.g., Awareness, Influence, Move) to determine how many d10s you roll. If your roll is better than your opponent’s, your action succeeds! Better still, the player who lost the opposed roll has to describe how awesomely you succeed – and how good you looked while doing it! That sense of fun is a key part of the game’s charm. It simultaneously applauds and gently mocks the emotional excesses of the source material.
Here was my quick-and-dirty plot: Helena and Japeth kidnapped Duncan’s friend (and fellow Immortal) Amanda, and threatened to permanently kill her unless Duncan and Richie subdued the three vampires that the technomages had lured into their abandoned-factory lair. (The technomages are fascinated by the vampires’ necromantic nature, so they want to see them in action before they, um, dissect them.)
One challenge I faced in running the game was that the PDF doesn’t spell out the changes that you, as a Story Master, need to make if a PC is something other than an Immortal. Sure, vampires can use fangs instead of swords, but what about technomages and magic? Technomages’ primary skill is Make, as opposed to Immortals’ Fight, but how do you make that work? Magic shouldn’t look anything like swordfighting. I ultimately decided to treat the technomages’ magic as a cross between Tony Stark’s holotech and Wile E. Coyote’s protean weaponry.
For instance, when the player running the technomage Helena said she was sending a hearse at full speed toward the three vampires on the factory’s third floor, I thought… why not? Who’s to say that this isn’t a car but rather a collection of robotics, holograms, and force fields? Also… conjuring a hearse to attack vampires? That’s AWESOME. Perfectly in line with the sense of style the game encourages.
But probably my favorite callback to the original shows is the game’s use of flashbacks. On the TV shows, the lead character would come across a situation in modern day that inevitably triggered a gut-wrenching flashback to a similar event centuries earlier. Likewise, in Katanas and Trenchcoats, if one of your Traits is “broken” because of something you did, you can only regain that Trait by going through an emotional flashback described by the Story Master!
For instance, in our game, Richie Ryan used his Spanish longsword to break the arcane runes powering the mystical restraints around Amanda. Richie’s player rolled his dice and succeeded, but only just, which meant in game terms that Richie’s success came at a price. His sword was destroyed! His Awesome Sword trait was broken, and Richie won’t get it back until I provide him with a flashback sequence about a similar sacrifice that he made.
The two technomages didn’t like that their Immortal pawns were freeing their friend instead of following the script, so technomage Japeth set fire to Amanda with his fire whip (think Whiplash from Iron Man 2). Duncan Macleod quickly jumped in with maximum emotions and his flowing trenchcoat to smother the flames, leading to this instant classic from the player: “I put out the flames with my love!” Cue the dramatic music!
Ultimately, once the Immortals and vampires teamed up (well, of course they did!), the situation changed badly for the two technomages. Helena escaped by fooling them all with a Blade Runner-type replicant decoy, while Japeth – in the difficult spot of grappling with both Nick Knight and Lacroix – decided to flee the combat via a teleportation effect, but not without breaking a Trait of his own, his Kickass Wardrobe. Goodbye, Displacement Vest!
The players had a good time, and they certainly embraced the campier aspects without playing it for camp. A couple of players were iffy on the combination of Traits and Skills, feeling that there wasn’t enough versatility in the Traits to accurately describe their actions. For me, that’s actually a benefit, not a flaw. I understand the reaction, though. As gamers, we’ve long been conditioned (mostly from D&D) to look at our sheets before deciding what our characters are going to do in a fight. “Do I have Acrobatics? Nope. I can’t do that cool swing on the chandelier.” But there’s a growing trend in game design – evidenced beautifully in the Cortex/Marvel Heroic/Leverage rules – that pushes players to first describe what their characters intend to do and then look at their character sheets and decide which combination of powers or skills will let them achieve that. “I’m resisting the vampire’s attempt to hypnotize me! Let’s see… I’m combining my Will score with my Kickass Wardrobe trait because my Vivienne Westwood punk bonnet distracts the vampire.” Again, that’s very different from many classic RPGs.
In fact, Katanas and Trenchcoats encourages this sort of thinking by reducing your successes if you use the same combination of Trait + Skill on consecutive rolls! So you help yourself – and help create a more interesting story – by thinking of new, fun combinations.
I definitely recommend giving Katanas and Trenchcoats a try. It’s an easy system with a built-in sense of humor. Sure, some rules aren’t as spelled out as you might like – magic rules for the technomages would be handy – but that won’t get in the way of a good time. Please support the Kickstarter, too, and use the #YOLF hashtag (You Only Live Forever) when discussing it on social media, as that may unlock more features.
Now excuse me, please, while I step forlornly into the rain of the Vancouver night….
Update: Ryan Macklin discusses the future form of the Traits + Skills combo – and mentions this blog post! – in today’s Kickstarter update.