Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Retrospective: Daredevils

Released in 1982, FGU's Daredevils (written by Bob Charrette and Paul Hume, the duo who had previously created the well-regarded Bushido and would later go on to create Shadowrun) was the first "pulp" game I ever remember seeing, let alone playing. In RPG-speak, "pulp" is treated as if it were a genre, usually exemplified by anything from genuine pulp fiction featuring characters like The Shadow and Doc Savage to those inspired by them (or their imitators) in other media, such as Indiana Jones. The pedant in me recoils at this, as pulp magazines covered a wide range of genres and what gamers nowadays call "pulp" is actually only one type of "hero pulp," focusing on what the subtitle of Daredevils calls "action and adventure in the two-fisted Thirties," that is, over-the-top adventure tales between the two World Wars. Alas for nitpickers everywhere, the terminology ship sailed long ago and, accurate or not, "pulp" now means something very specific in a RPG context and, though Daredevils was written before this semantic neologism took had taken hold, it was nevertheless written to give players the chance to explore the Amazon for lost cities, take down flamboyant gangsters in a mob war, and, of course, fight Nazis as they seek out occult artifacts in the world's hidden places.

Daredevils came in a boxed set, consisting of two volumes -- a 64-page rulebook and a 32-page adventure booklet with four sample adventures, along with some charts and dice. FGU games have a reputation for being very long and complex, but the reality is that most of them were both shorter in length and no more complicated than the three volumes of AD&D. Daredevils in particular puts this myth to rest, as its rules, while certainly more complex than, say, OD&D or Traveller, are nevertheless quite concise and straightforward. Characters have six attributes -- Wit, Will, Strength, Deftness, Speed, and Health -- and players may allocate 75 points amongst them on a one-for-one basis over a possible range of 1-40. Higher attribute scores than 40 are possible with training and experience.

Ranges of attribute scores are grouped, with each group having an "effect die," which was used mechanically in cases where that attribute mattered. Thus, a character with a Strength of 30, which is in the "25-34" attribute group, had an effect die of 2D6 for determining hand-to-hand damage and so forth. Daredevils also had "saving throws," which were really just a type of ability check -- two types, actually, as there were "attribute saving throws" and "critical saving throws." The difference was whether one divided the relevant attribute by 2 or by 3, with the latter being used in cases of extreme difficulty. Players must roll equal to or under the saving throw number on 1D20 to succeed, with 1 being a critical success and 20 being a critical failure.

Daredevils had no character classes, but instead had skills. Skills were ranked on 1-100 scale, but skill rolls were made on 1D20, after dividing a skills rank by 5. Sometimes, the difference between the number needed and the result of the dice roll was used to generate an "effect number." It's a game mechanic I'm very fond of myself and I wonder if it was from Daredevils that I got the idea. The number of skills one could purchase (and their ranks) was based on "development points" that were themselves a function of a character's age. Age was determined randomly by a 4D10+12 roll, with the age also being the number of development points a character received. Each development point could be exchanged for a particular game mechanical benefit, such as acquiring a new skill, 2D6 points in an existing skill, or 1D3 points in an attribute. Character generation obviously favored older characters, but characters older than 44 suffered penalties to their physical attributes that limited their effectiveness in some aspects of game play.

Daredevils showed that, even in 1982, the hobby's wargames roots were still very close to the surface. Its movement and combat rules were very persnickety, with an emphasis on using miniatures (or markers of some sort) to adjudicate many of their rules. There are many modifiers and optional rules, dealing with critical hits, hit locations, and the like. However, most of them could easily be dispensed with or used only in specific circumstances when the referee felt that the added detail was warranted. Much like D&D, the precise rules could be easily dispensed without too much trouble. On the pother hand, the extra detail is useful. I know my friends and I found the automatic fire rules quite helpful when running a mass battle against hordes of enemy soldiers in a desert scenario.

Daredevils includes optional rules for "special powers" -- low-level super powers -- and luck, the latter of which is a limited type of "hero point" system. Also included are details on the 1930s world, lists of animals, weaponry, generic NPCs, and some solid advice on building adventures. Advanced rules of various sorts are present as well, for players and referees who want them. What's interesting to me is that the rules include a wide variety options for character improvement, many of them time-consuming. As befits an older RPG, Daredevils is clearly designed with long-term campaign play rather than one-shots in mind, although I think Daredevils could be used quite creditably for short campaigns as well.

Daredevils is a very fun game, not without its flaws, but I think it holds up rather well after nearly 30 years. The rules are a nice mix of randomness and player choice and support a range of options. It's also a game from a time before "genre emulation" meant heavy-handed rules designed to enforce a particular mode of play. It's a wide-open game that can be used to handle a wide variety of action and adventure campaigns, a fact FGU built upon with its several follow-up products that each presented scenarios focused on a particular sub-type of hero pulp. If you're interested, the game and its supplements are still available from FGU at very reasonable prices. I recommend them highly.


  1. Daredevils got my vote a few weeks back for most underappreciated pre-1984 RPG. We spend one fine summer (1983) and a little beyond playing the game with a sort of weird menace/30s pulp hero theme, but truly it could handle any number of genres from horror, to adventure, mystery, exploration, crime, espionage, etc.

  2. Don't forget Aftermath! I greatly appreciated the Hume/Charette mechanics: they did a lot of things I thought were really solid. It would not stretch my imagination to want to use Daredevils or Aftermath (probably the former, as it's nicely pared down from the latter's wider girth) as a "generic set of rules" for something that was heroic-but-still-human in nature.

  3. I thought Jordan Weisman created Shadowrun.

  4. I was more intrigued by this game at the FGU webwite.

    Year of the Phoenix

    "You are one of an elite few Astronauts. In the year 1997, and a vital link in our American strategic plan. As a member of PROJECT PHOENIX, you exist to defend our space station, our moon base . . . And beyond."

    the cover made it look like some good cold war in space as imagined in the 80's.

  5. So many FGU games I really wanted to like. They were just so fiddly. To actually pare them down to usable form cost more time than just playing something that already worked for us. So many games, so little time.

  6. Aftermath (or, as we called it Nastymath) was a Trig/Physics class, as I remember. The math/calculations requried for some of the elements needed a calculator (one guy in our group actually used a slide-rule...) for some of the needed results.

    After a few sessions, we opted for GDW's T2K/ GW - far more easier to use, develop, and recover from the math hangover.

    Not that I shun math - the CompSci degree does demand it, but it seemed too much for dice-rollers to handle - maybe for Math Majors...

  7. I owned it, ran a couple of games at least, but don't remember them at all. Like a lot of games of that time it didn't distract us from our great D&D games for very long.

  8. We played Dardevil a lot, back in the mid eighties. I loved this game and its historical background.

    The mechanics, though similar to those used in Bushido and Aftermath, were simpler (but far from flawless). I really enjoyed the character creation and their previous careers, which made every PC so lively...

    Anyway, I think the game is more suited for short campaigns, mostly due to a high death-rate (a .45 bullet could have devastating effects and your leather jacket did not help much).

  9. Ah. Year of the Phoenix. We actually played a few sessions of that. Essentially, you were USAF space pilots sent to protect an American space station against a Soviet attack. However, in doing so, you get zapped several hundred years into the future, where the Zoviets have taken over Amerika (the game's spelling).

    Still, it was all done in the best possible taste.

  10. Oh yeah, cograts on getting 500 followers (probably today), James. Is that a record amongst the game blogs? You are still handily ahead of are selling better than sex, my friend!

    Not that bragging rights matter on blogspot, but great job on forging on with great insights and drumming up old school memories for us old timey dudes!

  11. I wasn't a huge fan of Daredevils, played more Justice Inc. a few years later. I did use a lot of the adventures FGU published for Daredevils though and always enjoyed them.

    Dragon 47 (Mar 81) saw the publication of Crimefighters from Dave Cook. 16 pages followed by an adventure and a one page article on the pulps. Percentile based and mysterious powers included.

  12. And The Evil DM has a Crimefighters PDF if you want to give it a look

  13. I actually bought this off the shelf at Leisure Games, London last August. I thought it was well written and atmospheric, but the character rules seemed unnecessarily persnickety - eg why have stats from 1-40 when you're dividing by 2 and rolling on a d20?

  14. I never played this game. We (mis)used CoC and the previously mentioned Crimefighters for this kind of thing.