Pointman Hacker Thief is a spy themed RPG by Mark Meredith of [http://dicemonkey.net]. Judging it by its cover, I was expecting to review a game that takes its cues from Bond, Bourne and Bristow. It’s not just motion media being referenced though. The cover artwork has a battered texture to it, reminding me of espionage books with greek letters in the title that you only seem to read when travelling.
The book supports this imagery with a healthy amount setting information. There are four sample employment scenarios for the player’s agents and many non-player characters to throw at them. What’s lacking are some pre-generated characters or a starting adventure to get the GM going. This only really limits the product if you’re looking for something to play immediately with little preparation. Given the abundance of the source material in our culture, hitting the right tropes shouldn’t be too much of a problem.
The game mechanic achieves the goal of the book in that is very lightweight. Conflict resolution is either a competing roll or rolling higher than a static value. Dice-wise it’s a simple 1d6 plus attribute plus an extra two per relevant skill. Of interest is that sixes always explode, giving characters a chance to roll very well, if rarely. However, as there aren’t any rewards for extraordinary successes in the rules, a player will only need that exploding six when they’re trying to do something outrageously difficult. This limits the value of the exploding six.
My favourite mechanic in the game is concealment. Every character, including major villains, has a number of concealed items about their person. Ingeniously, rather than declare what these are at character creation or before a mission starts, the players decide what they’re carrying as they need it. Provided they can justify having a laser watch, ten metres worth of detonation cord or a tiny motorcycle, players can use gadgets freely. It’s a more interesting use of plot points than rerolls or small changes to plot background and gives the players extra narrative agency to solve problems.
It’s at this point that the game mechanic moves the setting away from Bond, taking a more realistic tone. A spy whose name and face are well known will not be effective at moving around unnoticed. Pointman Hacker Thief models this with a simple Exposure mechanic. Every time a character gets noticed, their Exposure increases. Getting captured maxes it out, forcing the character into uncomfortable times with both their allies and their enemies. As a GM, I would look into expanding the mechanic to include reputation. For freelance spies or for intimidation, a spy having a little bit of a exposure could help their efforts.
Persons of Interest
In line with the simple mechanics, characters are people of few descriptors. The core attributes are Pointman, Hacker and Thief. I like how these reference the game title and are much more interesting than the rather bland names found in other games. From the thirty skills available, a character has three to start with. A skill enables a character to perform those actions so there’s no extra numbers to track. Talents are a mix of additional narrative actions and modifiers to dice rolls. Whilst you only pick one at the start, it would have been nice to see more than the sixteen available. Overall character creation is fast and simple with few derived values to calculate.
The group templates are an interesting idea if perhaps mistitled and mis-introduced. From said title and introduction I was expecting templates advising the GM and players on the party composition. Things like the spread of points and roles you’d find in each spy genre. Instead it’s actually more interesting than that. The templates are a way of representing the organisation that the spies are working for and mechanically functions as a pool of points from which the players can draw from. For example, a team that specialises in computer infiltration will have a lot of points in Hacker in their template. This means if their expert gets into trouble they can draw in extra modifiers and the guard on the team can make an attempt at hacking should the situation call for it. The templates work well narratively by binding the players together into more of a team by giving them shared resources.
The layout of the book is clean and functional but heavy on the black. I personally would have liked to have seen the flash of red used on the cover as a highlight in the rest of book. It would have given the palette a little more vibrancy and variation. Another minor point is that map background seems to move around between pages, a variation that kept catching my attention whenever I moved quickly through the pages of the pdf. The quick reference table at the back of the book is a welcome sight, particularly as the book lacks an index or a contents page.
The landscape orientated character sheet does a good job of collecting all the information needed. However the boxes could be bigger giving more space for skills and talents. I’d like the space to write down all the info I need on the character sheet so I don’t have to refer to the rule book.
Pointman Hacker Thief achieves the goal it sets out for itself: It is a lightweight system with elements tailored to the espionage genre. If it stumbles at all, it is in deciding which part of the spy genre it wants to emulate. Whilst the artwork and introduction inspires thoughts of the epic shoot outs Jack Bauer, the rules draw it into the more realistic world George Smiley but the lists of equipment and weapons would seem more suited to a overwritten spy novel. In summary: an effective spy RPG and good value at $5 from Drive Thru RPG.