Author: Steve Dee
Publisher: Tin Star Games
Page Count: 146
Available Formats: PDF & Print
PDF (DTRPG) – $20.00
Print – Not Available Yet
“Home Alone is a movie, not an alibi.”
~ Detective Lennie Briscoe, Law & Order
She’s a forensic scientist from an alternate Imperial Rome. He’s a werecorgi tracking down ancient artifacts. They fight crime!
Partners is an RPG strongly focusing on emulating the police/investigative procedural television shows. I am reminded of other games that focus on television genre emulation. Partners specifically mentions Robin Laws’ Hillfolk, though I found myself thinking of Prime Time Adventures with its focus on developing a television show, though both Primetime Adventures and Hillfolk lack the laser focus of a police procedural. It does share Pelgrane’s Gumshoe system’s focus on investigation, though, unlike the Gumshoe system, Partners does not rely on collecting clues, but rather it dials in on the drama. I also found myself thinking, “Is this actually an RPG?” After giving it a thorough reading, I’m going to answer yes—but it definitely breaks the “rules” of most RPGs.
Partners was recently successfully kickstarted, with digital copies distributed to backers and the digital version currently available at DriveThruRPG.
Note: a review copy was provided by the author to Rolling Boxcars for this article. If you have an item you’d like Rolling Boxcars to review, please visit our Product Review Request page.
Let’s start with what Partners is. Partners is designed to emulate police procedurals and mystery-solving television serials. It assumes (nearly requires, though there are some ways around this) just two players who play partners solving such a case. Each player has a specific role—one is the “Straight Shooter”—a no-nonsense, serious investigator. The other is the Wild Card—the strange and unpredictable partner, always breaking the rules.
The setting can be a modern-day city, Victorian England, a lunar colony, a city with a portal to Hell, etc. Pretty much anything.
Partners differs from “traditional” RPGs in a number of ways. There is no GM. Plots are built dynamically, with the two players bouncing off ideas, drawing cards, and using random name generators—and elaborating on all that. The victim, suspects, etc., are all determined randomly. The players don’t actually “solve” the cases—at the start of a mystery, it’s actually undetermined who the perpetrator is and what their motivation was. There isn’t a task resolution system. Or tasks for that matter. More on this later.
The two players generate a total of six characters initially. They begin by deciding who will play the Straight Shooter and who takes the Wild Card. They then separate and fill in a sheet, answering questions about that character and then returning to compare notes and move things forward. Part of that involves each of the players generating some of the supporting cast. The image below shows the sheets for the two partners:
This initial generation
One important note—there are no real stats anywhere in the game. Everything is qualitative. The game plays by the two players driving a narrative, using random results to drive the case forward.
Generating the Series Bible
After generating the two partners and the supporting cast, the players then build a “series bible,” answering questions—similar to how they built the partners. However, this part is done more collaboratively. These questions answer how the partners get their cases, various ongoing themes, and identifies those things the partners are both skilled (“we’re forensic scientists, so we have an awesome lab”) at and have trouble with (“we’re forensic scientists, so us interviewing suspects in an interrogation room would be kinda weird”). It also serves as a way to define thematic boundaries, a safety mechanism.
A case involves randomly generating a victim and possible suspects. The case goes through various scenes as additional information and details are revealed about the various suspects—their relationship to the victim, deeper secrets about that relationship, the poisoning of the relationship, and the fruit of that poison. As the case moves forward, various cards are drawn to determine which suspect is the focus of the scene and what sort of clues are provided. There will be a dozen such procedural scenes in each game. The last suspect in a game with a “borne fruit” scene is the guilty party, leading to the final confrontational scene where the guilty party is brought to justice.
In addition to the procedural scenes, there will also be four staging scenes. These can be used to drive “B-plots” or be used for “recap scenes.” Sometimes the staging scenes might all be linked together for a strong B-plot; other times, they might be random snippets of life. This is up to the players, though random card draws are used to drive the action for these scenes. For example, a random scene might have a dialogue between a subordinate and their superior with neither partner the focus of the scene. Other times, like those in a stronger B-plot, each staging scene is linked together as one of the partners deals with a problem in their personal life.
The rules also provide options for shorter games. These include reducing the number of suspects, eliminating the staging scenes, and other similar adjustments.
This is where I found myself wondering if I was really reading an RPG. After all the particulars of a scene are set up, it is now up to the players to define what happens. This happens collaboratively between the players. There’s no randomness to this—the players might decide to roleplay an interrogation, they might choose to describe what happens collaboratively, etc. Players might even find themselves swapping different roles, with one portraying one of the suspects. In effect, the players are generating stories dynamically.
On the one hand, part of me said, “this isn’t an RPG; this is using guidelines to tell a story.” On the other hand, part of me said, “isn’t that what an RPG is?” In the end, the second thought won out, but it must be noted this is very, very rules-light. Fate, for example, is another narrative game, but I’d be hesitant to describe that as rules-light—it has a fairly detailed set of rules for moving the narrative forward. On the other hand, Partners has many rules for setting the stage but leaves it to the players to decide how to resolve the scene.
While a game can be episodic—the Law & Order franchise has, for the most part, whole-heartedly embraced this, it is also possible to have a central story arc for a season. The game provides a set of rules for this—a variant on the rules for a single episode—to allow
I only have a digital copy of the game—at the time of this writing, the physical copy is still unavailable. It is a 146-page PDF with black text on a dirty ivory background. The current version is unbookmarked; however, it wasn’t particularly difficult to navigate. The pages look “worn,” with virtual stains, ink markings, etc. It has black and white drawings as well as black silhouette art throughout the book. The book concludes with a number of sheets used in setting up/playing series, victims, suspects, etc. These sheets are vital to gameplay, and the digital version includes them as a separate file as well.
All in all, I really like the layout. It’s clear, easy to read, and easy to find information. My only hope is that it is updated to include bookmarking.
Is This For You
My biggest worry is that players will find themselves staring at each other, having drawn a bunch of cards for a scene, and wondering, “what do we do next?”. One mitigation to this is while the game is short on strict “rules,” it is filled with examples for all stages of play. It also devotes a lot of space to discussing various genre television shows—a huge variety of them—and how they might apply, with examples from diverse sources such as Brooklyn 99, Law & Order, Lucifer, and Daredevil.
If I’ve written this review right, you know the answer to if this game is for you. You’re either looking at the game and thinking, “that’d be awesome,” or “I’d feel so awkward playing this with another person.” I have a hunch I’m a little closer to the second person, but the author did a great job presenting this game to the point I’d absolutely love to give it a try, despite it being way outside of my gaming “comfort zone.”
~ Daniel Stack
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