Actual Play – The Winnebago Job (4/6/2011)

GM: Carl Rigney
Players: Noam, Karen, Nina, Brian and Sean
System: Leverage

This was a real last minute surprise for me. (Or was it my plan all along?) Finn, who was scheduled to be in the game couldn’t make it and I had the free time (sorry Evil Hatters for missing the call, but this was worth it) so it all just clicked together.

I’m running Leverage at Kublacon, so I justified the trip out to Oakland as research. In truth it was that plus a whole lot of fun.

Our Cast

Nina – Max – The androgynous Eurasian hitter with a mysterious mentor.
Karen – Stella – The heartbreaking grifter with a gambling problem.
Sean – Cortez – The Mastermind, a “retired” CIA agent with old enemies still hunting him down.
Brian – Alonzo – The Julliard musician turned thief – “Nobody steals pianos!”
Noam – Sheldon “Shell” – The high school nerd hacker with an ID claiming he’s 43.

Character Creation… continued (AKA, the Prom Job)

Leverage has a pretty nifty system for extended character creation. After picking the major roles your character plays (grifter, hitter, etc.) you then perform a job, only in this recruitment job, all we see are the highlights, or the moments of our characters acting awesome and finishing it off.

Carl got pretty enamored with Shell’s story about being the high school nerd and having a crush on the prom queen. Classic for a reason! So we decided that in the little suburb of Meadowvale in the California Central Valley, the municipal city funds had all been depleted by a water recycling expert named James Bishop. Most people thought James was an environmentalist doing what he could for the area but was sadly unable to save it however the client Nancy Dixon suspected something else was going on. James was getting richer while the poor town of Meadowvale was holding it’s last prom. After this year the school would be shut down. Tell me a bleeding heart that wouldn’t fall for that story.

So, How to Do It

In this opening montage everyone has a scene where they look cool and then pass the action off to someone else to help out in one of their non-primary ways. So as a mastermind I got to do some hitting (which I failed pretty poorly at), the thief got to hack, etc. And of course each of these was framed to be part of the job which we compiled at the end into a big finish, outing the mark and bringing the money back to the client (or in this case the city).

There were some fun bits with the thief assuming the files were in a safe but having to get them off a computer instead and not having anything to download them to, he installed iTunes on the machine so he could drop the files onto his iPhone, and all the while the hitter Max was fending off goons with pipes.

The other thing we get in these scenes are the monochrome character flashbacks, which show how the characters became who they are. As the job came to a close and Cortez and Stella watched Shell blush when trying to talk to the prom queen, Cortez asked if Stella remembered her prom // flashback to Make-out Point with the silhouette of a woman slapping a man. // “I didn’t make it. You?” // flashback to Cortez roller-dancing under a disco ball to “Staying Alive.” // “I don’t want to talk about it. Good times.

Cortez now and then…

The point of the flashback is to give your characters distinctions. Each character starts with one and gains two more during the course of the game. We had piratical ones like “retired” CIA agent, problematic ones like gambling problem and just quirky ones like androgynous. When distinctions are created in play however, they are decided by the other players, which is how you end up with things like “Nobody steals a piano”

The Winnebago Job

Client: Dr. Raymond Smith, concerned father
Mark: Alexander Chambers, cult leader

The skinny: In a tiny town in Washington, Chambers and his New Life Church has been recruiting members and buying up land, positioning to take over the area. Dr. Smith has not only lost his money through a swindle that he believes Chambers was part of, but also lost his daughter Cynthia, who has joined the church.

Objective: Get back his money, get back his daughter, chase Chambers out of town.

Once the job started, the speed of play picked up some. We all approached the town in different ways and all tried to pull different scams. While it was my job as the mastermind, it was really the group who as a whole harmonized all these seemingly disparate schemes to make them look like part of one big plan.

Here Were Our Three “Teams”

Max went in solo as a misguided youth who was looking for a cause to fight for. S/he was a shoe in, especially after saving Cynthia from a group of local ruffians. This gave Max a view of the security and the ability to redirect the guards as necessary.

Stella and Alonzo showed up as the power couple real estate agents looking to flip Dr. Smith’s property to Alex Chambers and insinuating that they have more property to offer. This got them inside his inner chambers.

Shell and Cortez showed up in a Winnebago trying to score some weed and bring the DEA (who had been investigating the pot farms in the area) into the scene. They performed surveillance and communications with the outside agencies (CIA and DEA in this case) whilst creating the distraction to draw Chambers and his assistant Li out of the compound, allowing Alonzo time to crack the safe open and get the incriminating evidence.

The final mastermind roll to put all the pieces together hinged on Alonzo planting hot diamonds on Chambers, Max having the showdown with his bodyguard Li to prove who’s kung fun was supreme, Stella sneaking out all the documents in a secret dress pocket, and Shell uploading those files to a file server where the federal agencies were sure to find them.


We triumphed gloriously. Li was defeated, Chambers was caught and arrested, Cynthia saw what kind of man Chambers really was, the money and property were returned to the people who had lost them (including Dr. Raymond Smith) and the team made off with a beach front house that had just slipped through the cracks.


Max had to break Cynthia’s heart as s/he did not love her back. Stella lost the bitchin’ Camaro she had previously won. Alonzo drove off in a moving van with a stolen piano in back. Shell was driving the said “bitchin’ Camaro” and Cortez turned on the radio to a 70’s station playing “Staying Alive.”

What rocked

Okay, this need to be prefaced with a major bias I have. I HATE PLANNING SCENES. I hate them with such a fiery passion that that every time I am subjected to one of them I feel like a little part of my soul dies. They kill me because they don’t present any interesting fiction, they take forever, and they are generally useless as the GM doesn’t care what plan you have, he or she just wants you do something. They also can drag on forever as people argue their different ideas and shoot each other’s down. It’s horrible.

Leverage has no planning scenes! Or at least the one we played didn’t. Because… Because. You don’t need them. The planning scenes are all built retroactively as needed. Need to know what kind of safe Chambers has? Sure, we researched that in a flashback. Who is the girl in trouble at the pool hall? Of course, it’s Dr. Smith’s daughter, we’ve got pictures of her. Finally, does Cortez have a plan at all or is he just going to get himself arrested? Absolutely, he was just playing his cards close to his vest in order to bring in the cavalry.

The traditional dangers of not planning are

a) you’re not ready for the obstacles you face and,
b) people work toward different ends (often getting in the way of each other).

Well, the research scenes take care of problem A and the masterminds ability to connect up the bits means that even if it LOOKS like the crew is chaotic and disorganized, they are actually all working towards some master plan.

So, I can’t say enough how much I like the fact that the Leverage gets rid of the planning scenes. It was awesome.

Building distinctions through the monochrome flashbacks was also killer. It reminds me of confessionals from InSpectres, and I love myself some confessionals.

The play itself was fun. We all had cool ideas and did a great job rolling with each other’s punches. I could tell several people had ideas they really dug (like constant piano references, gender confusion, etc.) and I thought we reincorporated them very well.

The spending of plot points as currency was much smoother than it was in Smallville. We all knew what we could spend them on and did so frequently. I was quite proud to end the game with none of my plot points left!

What could have been improved

The recruitment  job had several rough spots.

a) It requires a lot of player expertise in how a “job” should go down. We all needed to think of cool and clever ways our role would be spotlighted in the crime and sometimes that was tough.

b) It was slow. There were five scenes, plus five secondary scenes plus three or four flashbacks. Then between scenes we arbitrated on distinctions as a group and how the scenes would fit together (they weren’t chronologically ordered).

c) I didn’t get the “and that’s how we pulled The Prom Job” feeling like I expected from the beginning of a Bond movie. It was more like “Here are the training wheels for the real game,” which is cool (I’m all down with teaching through doing) but not what I was expecting.

The game lacked “punch” in a way that I think may be crippling if exampled closely. Our experience was that after probably 40+ rolls in the night, Carl never got narration rights. Either we won the roll (a huge majority of the time) or we lost on the first roll and gave in (I think only 3 times in the game). Each time we gave in however, we took narration and were able to weave our failures into successes.

Examples: Max got beat up by the locals, but used that to gain Cynthia’s sympathy and gain admittance to the cult. Stella’s offer to sell the real estate got shut down but she narrated the failure as Chambers and Li being distracted by the exploded Winnebago out front, which granted her what she and Alonzo really wanted: access to the safe.

I think stories of any kind, need to show the characters grappling with failure. Usually in spy stories that means improvising – making a new plan or trying something previously deemed too risky. We never had that and therefore never really had to improvise or go off the schedule. To some degree this helped (in that we were improvising the plan all along) but in general I was disappointed at the ease of success.

The one critical place where the game needed more teeth is the twist. Every spy move, caper, etc. has a twist, where things suddenly go very wrong. I assumed this would result from a success from the Fixer but as he never got narration rights that didn’t show up. I think the twist needs to happen and it needs to hurt, like “Everyone give me a plot point, write down a debilitating complication and give me 10 pushups. THEN I’m going to tell you how your characters are getting squeezed!”

I think at the very least, the Fixer needed some ability to say “Yes, but” or “Yes, and,” possibly at the cost of a plot point, or maybe instead of the complications he got as from the players rolling 1s.

I never got the “opportunity” mechanic. Perhaps because I just didn’t have a talent that used them, but when the fixer rolled a 1 we all stared at it like Zoolander in front of a computer. We knew it was important but didn’t know what to do with it.

6 thoughts on “Actual Play – The Winnebago Job (4/6/2011)”

  1. Thanks for the detailed writeup and feedback, much appreciated.

    I hate planning scenes too, so my favorite part of Leverage is how it inlines them using flashbacks. But the other side of that coin is that the pieces of the plan are going to fit a lot more loosely when created on the fly by players (especially playing together for the first time and learning the system as they go) than by a room of writers who have days or weeks to work everything out in detail. But then, the show itself goes for a rather loosely jointed feel, and I thought the game captured that quite well.

    I really liked the Recruitment job as a way of fleshing out the Crew, and don’t begrudge that time, but it did mean there was barely 2 hours for the major job, less than that with breaks. So the lack of a twist was purely a time issue, and similarly a lot of description got handwaved. I would have liked more time for grace notes, like Cynthia showing Max around the compound and talking about family, or Alonzo getting to demonstrate his piano skills in the B&B, etc etc.

    The Crew doesn’t lose contests much; this is competence porn after all. And even when they “lose” it’s either part of the plan or them improvising cleverly to go with the flow, like Max getting beat up by 4 punks to get into the Compound, or Stella failing to hook Chambers into buying, when really that was just an excuse to get into his office so they could crack the safe after Cortez caused a distraction by crashing the Compound gates in the doomed RV.

    The Opportunities (when the Fixer/GM rolls a 1 on his dice, certain talents let you exploit those) did feel flat, because the players didn’t choose talents that needed them. Maybe I missed a rule for it, but there should probably be a generic “Player can pay a plot point to turn an opportunity into a d6 asset” rule, except players can already pay a plot point to create a d6 asset so that would be meaningless. Also, when I’m demo’ing a game I like to stay to the rules-as-written, not rules-as-I-think-they-should-be, since it’s doing a disservice to people who want to know what the game’s like to run the game it’s not.

    Possibly Complications (when the player rolls a 1 on a die and the GM gives a plot point to create a d6 complication) and Opportunities should use the die size that rolled the 1, instead of always a d6. That might create a lot of d4 clutter, but it would create a reason for players to pay a plot point to seize a d12, whereas there’s no motivation to pay a plot point for a d6 you could create anytime.

    No one took the talents that let you shuffle plot points around. I should have reiterated the way players can transfer plot points by triggering a flashback; that would have come in handy to boost the Mastermind’s plot points going into the wrapup, you were down to 1. But that turned out OK anyway. It’s the hazard of having to choose from a list of talents without knowing the implications of the rules. Some talents got used a lot, others were neglected.

    My dice were a little cold, especially in the Recruitment Job (2d6 should not be snake-eyes 3 rolls out of 10!), but even when PCs set stakes and I raised them, I don’t think there was ever a case of PC rolling again to re-raise. There seemed little reason to, since losing isn’t that bad. If you Give In you get a plot point, get to narrate your awesome defeat, and get a d6 complication that isn’t
    going to hurt all that much, mechanically.

    Possibly I needed to roll bigger dice on the tests; the PCs were dealing with d12 d8 pretty readily, and so weren’t pressured to spend plot points to include more dice. Even in the final outcome roll where I rolled Powerful d12 Cult-Leader d12 and threw in another d8, the Mastermind handily got 5 over.

    (comment too long, continued in next post…)

    1. So the lack of a twist was purely a time issue

      I still haven’t cracked the book myself, but is there a mechanic for a twist, like there is in Fiasco, or would it have been something you needed to create and execute?

      The Crew doesn’t lose contests much; this is competence porn after all.

      Yes and no. Leverage is full of little quirky failures where something that should work just doesn’t. Especially when it is one of the crew messing with each other (like Sophie messing with Elliot). And the thing about those hiccups is that they rarely stop the crewmember, they just make them improvise a bit more. So is it really a failure, or just the player narrating what looks like it will be a failure, only to be recovered by a narrow save?

      I should have reiterated the way players can transfer plot points by triggering a flashback; that would have come in handy to boost the Mastermind’s plot points going into the wrapup, you were down to 1

      I was working feverishly to get rid of all mine. I figured I won the game if I spent them all (as is I only got close). We had more than we knew what to do with, which creates a currency like SotC rather than like Dresden. As far as that goes it adds to the competence porn but removes us from any sense of desperation. I enjoyed being able to give people assets but the truth is they could have just spent the plot points to do it themselves, so they were never scarce enough to be precious.

      My dice were a little cold

      The dice felt really lopsided. One of the few times you won a roll was because Nina’s dice rolled catastrophically bad (I think she had three 1s and a 3 on her d10). In general it looked like we were matching d8-d10 range vs. your d6. Once Chambers and Li showed up and you pulled out the d12 I thought we were in for trouble but by then the players had figured out how to game the system enough to roll gigantic pools of dice. Not sure what to make about that other than the above mentioned competence porn.

  2. (… previous comment continued.)

    You say “I think stories of any kind, need to show the characters grappling with failure.” but I disagree. Some stories do, sure, but Leverage isn’t that kind of story. The Crew suffers setbacks, but the outcome is going to wind up as victory or total victory, it’s just a romp to show how they go about achieving it.

    I think it could probably be hacked to offer a grittier feel, by adding something like Smallville’s Stress. The real test of that would be whether you could use it to run something like the Richard Stark “Parker” novels, or Reservoir Dogs.

    Your notion that a failure should involve the PLAYER doing 10 pushups makes me think of Chess Boxing; talk Govneh into playing it with you!

    And in case anyone finds it useful, here’s a copy of the Leverage RPG Rules Summary I used as a handout, if you want to adapt it for your games.

    I look forward to hearing how your Kublacon run goes, so we can compare notes!

    1. The Crew suffers setbacks, but the outcome is going to wind up as victory or total victory, it’s just a romp to show how they go about achieving it.

      This is the one area I’m still struggling with. Because if the crew never seems in danger, and just walks through every job, then their is no sense of desperation or danger. I mean in the show, we are lead to believe that the crew could have really bad things happen to them. It never does, but the actors play it like they could and then “fix” everything with a flashback, a sudden trick or a getting saved by another crew member. I never got that sense of desperation in our game. And that wasn’t because you didn’t present a good challenge, it just felt like we could ignore the fiction (which was complicated and difficult) and let the dice bludgeon our way to victory.

      Thanks for the Rules Summary link. I will definitely use it in my Kubla game.

      1. I was feeling my way with the dice; next time I run I’ll try bigger dice to put a bit more pressure on. But given that the game doesn’t even have a damage system, the danger IS purely illusionary, so players and GM must conspire to not look at that too sharply.

        Perhaps the danger comes not from the Mark, but from the Crew’s emotions towards each other. Like Dogs in the Vineyard, then.
        I don’t know if that’s really the case; it’s just a thought.

        If you want the PCs to be tormented and angstful I’m pretty sure Smallville is a better way to go than Leverage, anyway. Or Monsterhearts.

  3. General thoughts
    This was an email I sent after the game, edited slightly and reprinted at Sean’s request.

    That was a great group. Thanks for running it, Carl; it seemed like a complicated game to try and steer, and I had a lot of fun.

    That said, I have some critiques of the game itself.

    I liked the character creation job sequence. I sat down knowing only my character’s name, and found myself playing a Juilliard-trained pianist from the slums of Brazil. Almost from scratch, we ended up with Teenage MacGuyver; the quintessential “off the reservation” government operative; SE Asia’s most dangerous androgyne former child assassin; and Faye Valentine’s cooler sister. Good stuff!

    But the actual play mechanic was awkward at times, with all the cutaway scenes interrupting the flow of the action. Now, half the pleasure of watching “Leverage” is seeing these elegant and tricky plans unfold. But the end of every episode has already been written, and we are just along for the ride. Trying to recreate that sensation in an open-ended game with the added element of dice-roll failure may be a forlorn hope. I didn’t envy Sean at all; as a mastermind, he should have known every step of the way what the plan was. Instead, we were making it up as we went along.

    I agree wholeheartedly that planning scenes, done poorly, can be a real fun-suck, but I also found the flashback mechanic a little too convenient. Instead of having a well-researched and carefully-crafted plan, we improvised blindly, reacting to every unexpected situation with a pocket deus ex machina. It was a fun game, but didn’t much feel like an episode of “Leverage” to me. Then again, perhaps a fun game that just kind of resembles the show is an optimum outcome. I think there should be a happy medium between the two extremes, which may require some rules tweaking by the judge. Maybe put a hard limit on the table time spent planning, and then give each player a limited number of flashbacks per job, so they become a valuable resource instead of a role-playing cheat code.

    There were also way too many sequences where it was a one-on-one game between the GM and the player of the moment. The fight scene; Nina rolls dice. The safe-crack scene; I roll dice. One of any number of data mining scenes; Noam rolls dice. But Karen and Sean had primarily role-play characters, and their scenes seemed a little abrupt in comparison. In all of these cases, I would recommend something I used to do during “Spycraft” games, and have the other players role-play the NPCs. This fleshes out the scenes, keeps everyone more or less engaged, and allows the role-play-centric team members to really cut loose. For example; Carl could have pointed at us each in turn, said “Thug one, thug two, thug thee, thug four. Grab an eight-sider and attack Nina.” Then we could have all painted a really colorful fight sequence as Nina kicked the crap out of us. Or during Karen’s flashback to the street race; someone could have played the owner of the car she fronted, someone else the owner of the car she decided to fleece. You see where I’m going with this.

    I’m nit-picking, and I apologize, but I do so because I think there is a lot of potential here. I believe the limited time element had a lot to do with my criticisms. I could see spending an extra hour doing research on the mark, and planning out the complex long con with all the attendant short con elements; then going into the actual action with a greater sense of confidence and a tangible goal. Maybe the creation job needs to be a whole session on it’s own. I also lamented the shortage of good role-play, especially since we had such an obviously capable group. As Carl mentions above, there are no hit points. It’s all pass/fail, which puts much of the onus on the players to color in the action. Otherwise it devolves to just numbers very quickly.

    In sum, it’s a lot of fun parts, but they don’t fit together quite perfectly, and a little work is needed around the edges. Having such a fun and creative team mitigated this enormously, of course. Thanks again for having me along.


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