Game Review: Covert Ops (Playtest Version) by Bill Logan and Larry Moore from DwD Studios

I’m going to start this review with a bit of personal history and then we’ll get back to Covert Ops, so excuse the temporary detour…

Long ago in a galaxy far far away I worked on a game called Covert Directives for Moebius Adventures. It used the basic rules we developed for Age of Phaedrus and spun them off for a modern/near-future setting. And it was a ton of fun, but the system didn’t age well. I was hoping to find a way to take the world (which was an alternate history 2000s) and spin it out for another RPG eventually.

DwD Studios: Covert Ops (Playtest) CoverWell, I think I’ve found the system. Covert Ops from DwD Studios’ Bill Logan and Larry Moore takes everything you love about BareBones Fantasy and makes it work seamlessly in a modern world of spies, paramilitary operations, and more. I bet you could even do cops & robbers with it if you wanted and wonder if you could almost do an urban fantasy by mixing and matching magic from BBF into the system, but I get ahead of myself.

I’m late to the BareBones RPG party I’m sad to say but plan on remedying that soon. This is a RPG that’s simple enough to put all the basics into a few pages (about 7) that still manages to offer a wide variety of combinations that would be difficult to describe. Creating a character requires 7 steps. And once it’s created you have about a bazillion things you could do with it.

Yep, I’m a convert.

I was given a rare chance to look at a late draft of Covert Ops recently. The main book is 104 pages right now and the first 40+ pages focuses on character creation and character development. Have a concept for a James Bond-style character? Go for it, right down to the “Extravagant Lifestyle” where your operative will live in penthouses, sip champagne, and shut down museums when you want to show a girl a good time. Want a more Jason Bourne-style character? You can do that too, right down to detailing which martial arts moves your guy has. You could even do an Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D. kind of character, with a base of operations and all the cool gear you could ever want.

The next 10 pages deals with the game system itself, as far as what you need to know as a player. You don’t need a ton of dice, just a couple of D10s for percentiles. Compare your roll to the ability or skill (plus modifiers). If you roll lower than the number, success! Otherwise, failure. Pretty darn simple resolution mechanic.

Here are some of my other favorite parts:

  • Just like other systems, you get critical success or failure but you get them when you roll doubles. Roll doubles below your target and you get cool bennies like doubling damage or disarming your opponent. Roll doubles above the target and your weapon jams or you might trip and fall over your own two feet.
  • The resolution mechanic works for contested actions just as well as when it’s just your character vs. their own skills. And resistance checks (reactions to something bad affecting your character like a grenade blast) work the same, but vs. the character’s ability scores.
  • Want to do multiple things in a round like fire a shot at a bad guy and kick him off the balcony? Cool, just know your difficulty goes up by 20 every action. Depending on your ability and skill scores, you can do a ton if you want to.

But here’s my favorite part of the deal. Bones. What are bones? Chits you can cash in to do cool things in a game. You only get a limited number, but these allow you to re-roll if you need to (or force an opponent to re-roll), add more damage (or resist damage), or even just look cool while performing an action. I used to have a mechanic called “Brownie Points” in my games that would do the same thing, but this is better as it’s built into the system. And don’t worry, GMs get them too. 🙂

Modern combat rules are always tricky. Firearms can make things difficult. But I think Covert Ops has it right. Maybe not perfect, but nothing is perfect. There are rules for automatic weapons, reloading, and even driving (and damaging) vehicles in combat (including rules for “Chase Scenes” which are a must for any modern RPG IMHO).

The rest of the book (about 50 pages or so) deals with things the GM will need to know. How to handle determining modifiers in combat, handling various conditions, getting folks from place to place without spending hours roleplaying boring plane flights, etc. Plus – most importantly – you get rules and guidelines for helping create the OTHER side of the table. The world and people in it, from your basic NPCs folks will encounter to the big baddies and their whole organizations.

Want to create S.P.E.C.T.R.E.? You have all the tools at your disposal. But more interestingly you can randomly generate an enemy organization for your PCs to go up against, right down to their agenda.

We all know however that the core of all modern spy/paramilitary/police-style games revolves around the whole “mission” concept. Whether you’re applying a TV-series approach with a “season” and different “episodes” that all fit into one cohesive whole or going with a more cinematic approach, there’s plenty here to help you break up mission planning a bit as a GM. Five simple steps and even a code name table if you want to go that far. (Personally I want to know what “Operation Nythus Warrior” is all about!)

But if you don’t want to create your own thing… SECTOR is there at the back of the book to get you going quickly. What is SECTOR? Well, I could tell you, but then I’d have to kill you. This group hits me a bit like S.H.I.E.L.D. with more of a real-world feel (no superheroes, yet). You get an entire back story for the group, along with specifics on how SECTOR operatives should be run.

I wish there was a mission or two in the book main book, but that’s where the Covert Ops: Game Master’s Operation Manual comes in. So never fear, there’s plenty more action and help if you need it.

Now I haven’t talked about the layout, writing, and art at all, but I have to say it worked beautifully. Simple single-column layout in most places (and two-column in others) with clear headings and easy-to-read fonts. Good use of design elements such as lines, small art pieces, and tables. And the art, from the cover by Eric Quigley to the illustrations from Khairul Hisham, are fantastic – from full page to quarter page pieces.

So I have to say that Bill Logan and Larry Moore have knocked another one out of the park with Covert Ops. I’m excited to see what else DwD Studios has in mind for the line – and now I need to dive into the fantasy side of things with BareBones Fantasy to see what else I’ve been missing. Hopefully we’ll see Covert Ops release sometime in the next month or two, but the draft I saw looks great already!

And now I may have to dust off the Covert Directives world and see if I can convert it for use with Covert Ops soon. 🙂

For tons more about DwD Studios and their products…

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