Actual Play – Too Many Secrets (5/27/2011)

GM: Sean Nittner
Players: Michael Wilson, Jennifer Thomas-Bryant, Alex Miller, and two others (sorry I wrote down the names lost them)
System: Leverage


Game system: Leverage
Start time: FRI, 8:00 PM
Duration: 6 Hours
# of Players:5
GM / Judge: Sean Nittner
A job needs to be done. Not only is the money right but you don’t have a choice; your past has caught up to you. Your the best out there, what could go wrong? CHAR:Provided LVLS:Criminals

How this got started

I pretty much knew that if a caper game came out and I heard great things about it, I had to run it. It was almost serendipity that I started watching the show Leverage right around the time the game was coming out. The show is campy and fun and full of awesome, so I figured the game (coming on the heels of Smallville) would be too.

One mistake I made however was taking my favorite caper movie (Sneakers) and using it as my original premise for the game. Martin Bishop (aka Martin Brice) played by my favorite caper actor ever Robert Redford (The Sting, Sneakers, Spy Game) and he spends most of the movie in a horrible pickle, first being duped to perform a heist and then having to risk his neck ever further to fix his first bungle. The hiccup for me is that the game is set to be much lighter than that. The characters are unto gods in the game and bound by very few limitations, except perhaps funny quirks (you know the hitter that doesn’t like guns, or the thief who won’t steal from the poor), but those never affect the plot so much as they make the characters seem more empathetic or funny.

So I named the game “Too Many Secrets”, which any fan of Sneakers would recognize, but by the time I got the book, read it, and played in a game (Thanks to Carl Rigney: I knew I couldn’t run a Sneakers game. I’ll do it someday but not with Leverage.

As good as check in the mail

As usual I made a bunch of props for the game. This time custom plot points for every archetype. The hitter got shotgun shells, the matstermind had chess pieces, the grifter had my favorite, little placards with pictures of the hearts and minds of people he or she had captures. All pics of gamers, many of which were probably at the con. I had the pretty, pretty character sheets John Harper made: Finally I took all the important NPCs and put their pictures in my clear picture frames. And then I forgot all of it at home on my way to KublaCon.

Yep, my entire box of props, packed nice and tidy, left sitting on my living room floor.

In retrospect a friend (Kevan Forbes) was probably right, props can become a crutch. It was good to run a game without them. Although it did cost me $60 in dice. Blerg.

Character selection and creation

Hacker: Jennifer played a good-ole country girl, who had a girly, Hello Kitty themed laptop and an always full cup of coffee.


Hitter: A former prize fighter with amazing, long blond hair.


Mastermind: Alex was the Mastermind. He made sure the plan worked, even when it was failing. Often that involved cleaning supplies.


Thief: He apparently spent some quality time in air-ducts.


Grifter: Michael played the iconic “Face”



Fixer: Apparently complete with a Chet Powers stare


The Mop Bucket Job

When we did full blown character creation in Carl’s game (aka The Prom Job) I felt like it ate up too much of our 4 hour slot, but with 6 hours it worked very well. At least timing wise.

What hurt the initial flow of the game, and continued to be a deterrent throughout was a combination of crazy dice luck (favoring the fixer) and me being not quite fast enough on my feet to think if why it “should” have worked. I want to break that apart into two different issues.

Win/Fail Paradigm. Most players I game with don’t think in terms of the dice deciding between two interesting results. The think in terms of winning or losing. I’ve seen three games try to address this mindset (Mouse Guard, S7S and Leverage). All of them take the tact that your actions were awesome and should have worked but didn’t because of some unforeseen complication. There is a visceral response however, when players see the dice rolled, do the mental math to realize they rolled lower and immediately start conjuring up images of their character being a buffoon.

I wonder if players not seeing the dice might actually help this? Or if there is a better way to present the dice options as Be Awesome/Be Awesome with complications rather than Win/Fail?

Here is are two example of the paradigm shift I’m looking for, one iconic and the other tied specifically to leverage. In every case assume the player misses the roll:

Iconic: Indiana Jones needs to swing over a pit to escape a collapsing temple. Typical Win/Fail paradigm: He tries to swing across but swigs short and falls in the pit. Awesome paradigm: He swings across and scrambles up the other side only to find natives there with spears at his chest. A big one walks over and kicks him in the chest knocking him into the pit. It is full of snakes, why did it have to be snakes?

Leverage: The thief is breaking into a secured office. Typical Win/Fail paradigm: The thief can’t pick the lock and is stuck outside. Awesome paradigm: The thief make it in easily but the moment she gets inside, the hacker starts seeing alarms go off and realized they didn’t know the office had motion detectors. Now the hacker needs to act to cut off the alarm.

In both cases the awesome paradigm keeps the protagonist being, well, awesome, instead of deprotagonizing them. Several games promote this but even when given the option to look cool, I see players defaulting to the “oh, looks like I botched the roll, okay I suck” mentality.

A Fixer Fast on his Feet. The second part of this problem comes from me, the fixer (GM, whatever) not being fast enough on my toes to think of these three things. 1) Why it should have worked. 2) What unforeseen complication prevented it from working and 3) What immediate threat/conflict needs to be addressed (often by another PC) because it didn’t. In the first case, Indie should have made it because he did in fact swing across the bit, but he didn’t know about the natives, so now he’s got snakes to fend off. In the second example, the responsibility is placed on the hacker. The goal there is to reinforce teamwork, but it generally came off as “I am incompetent, I need you to save my bacon”. As a fixer, I think it is key to cut off that line of thinking as quickly as possible. Maybe in the future for games like this, I’m just going to immediately start narrating their success and while doing so, keep my mind working on how to complicate it, so as not to give the players a chance to start thinking in terms of failure.

The game started off with the players rolling very poorly on several rolls in a row and the “easy job” ending up getting very complicated very fast. I believe the players still had fun but they lost some confidence in their characters. This may have also been a good time to have an NPC show them how bad ass they were in comparison (another crew tried to do the same job and failed, or someone acknowledges them in person as awesome, etc). Yes, it may be cheerleading, but players in Leverage should feel like awesome super competent bad asses.

The play is the thing aka The Starshine Job.

To make the job immediately personal I used some back story questions, which in truth proved to drive the story forward more that my intended pacing. The client was Ashley, a young aspiring actress duped out of her meager savings (and money she borrowed) by Peter McIntire, the owner of the Starshine Talent agency. Immediately I asked who was related to her and Alex went for the younger sibling angle, a perennial favorite amongst antagonistic characters. Then I asked about love interests and it turns out that Ashley had fallen for our hacker, but the grifter was head over heels for her. Great, a love triangle PLUS an overprotective brother.

From there I started doling out the basics, a simple goal (get her money back and reveal McIntire as a fraud) with several complications (he has powerful connections as well as a feverishly loyal ex-boyfriend of Ashley named Marcus that still believed McIntire would make him famous).

The crew got busy at working the angles of his connections and finding ways they could turn them against him.

The twist, in a rush

The game ended up running a little slower than I expected which meant the end was somewhat rushed. I revealed the twist, his money laundering for the mob, and that got the crew moving fast to get Peter to reveal himself before the mob could show up and “silence” him.
It seemed a bit cliché, but frankly the immediacy of the mob threat breathed a lot of energy into the ending of the game and made for a strong close. Aces in my book.

What rocked

The love quadrangle was a ton of fun, and great to play out through the entire game.

Our country bumpkin hacker was a very nice change of pace from the iconic Hardison. Complete with a hello kitty laptop.

The players were great about shining the spotlight on each other. I really loved that they would call in one another to do specific jobs, act as support or help clean up a mess. Awesome teamwork.

The Leverage system did all the fun bits it needed to. Creating flashbacks, assets and distinctions as needed to both create mechanical nuances and fill the narrative with interesting bits.

What could have improved

As mentioned above the Win/Fail paradigm hurt the energy of the game initially.

I had other back story questions I was going to ask once the ball got rolling so that all five members of the crew would have personal investment in the job (Like who got burned on a scam like this before, or burned someone and felt really bad about it afterwards and who has a past relationship with the Mark). I think if I had remembered those early on, it would have put some more oomph in the game.

We were a bit rushed in the end, partially because of starting late and taking kind of a leisurely pace so I had to rush through the closing somewhat, which is a shame because it’s one of the few parts of the game where the mastermind gets center stage.

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.