This is a review of the original version of Ghost Ops (with the Fudge dice), not the Savage Worlds version or the OSR version. This review is based on:
- A dead-tree copy of the core rules bought from a dealer at a convention in late 2019. I do not have the pdf.
- Me reading the core rulebook from cover to cover. My brother reading part of the rulebook.
- Me creating 1 character and my brother creating 2 characters.
- Me and my brother using those characters and some of the standard NPC bad guys to stage some combats.
- Both of us re-reading some of the combat chapter during the above playtest of combat.
- Me re-reading chunks of the book over the next few days.
- Me then wandering the internet, looking for answers to some of our questions.
Ghost Ops is a game of two halves. On first starting to read it, Ghost Ops gave every impression of being a fast-paced, rules-light system. Then suddenly you turn a page and you are in World of Crunch, where it’s really important to know if you are firing a 5.56 full metal jacket or 7.62 tracer round.
That’s not to say crunch is bad (my brother is a crunch addict), nor is this game anyway near original Twilight 2000 levels of crunch. But it does feel weird that one moment I was reading about indie-vibe stuff like pools of points which are “get out of jail free cards” for turning a fail into a success or to avoid taking damage… and then the next I’m looking up a table to find out the Penetration Level of six different variants of the 5.56 round.
For instance here’s an example of the indie-vibe. If you really, really want to kill that bad guy you can:
- Spend a Boost (story point) or a Rank Point (accumulated xp) to lower the difficulty
- Spend points from your Focus pool to add to your dice roll
- Spend a Boost or a Rank Point to re-roll the dice if you fail
- Swap into Bullet Time and use the more abstracted, action movie rules, which will very likely involve you spending a bucket of Focus Points
- And maybe also spend a Boost to re-roll the dice if you fail in Bullet Time??? (It doesn’t say you can’t, but then again, it only mentions lowering the difficulty of Bullet Time with Boosts).
Ghost Ops uses the Fudge/Fate dice, but is not a Fudge/Fate game. You are just adding the dice roll to your skill and any modifiers. Which can make things very swingy, since the max skill during char gen is 4, and Fudge dice are just as likely to roll a negative number as a positive.
Character gen is fast and easy. Good selection of options to pick from – various special forces and police tactical units. You pick an option, which gives you your starting skills and a choice of three ‘packages’. The packages give you 3 abilities (skill specialisations) and your base points in the four “get out of jail free” pools.
Next you get one batch of points to spend on skills and another batch to spend on your “improving your chances” pools, and finally everyone gets 3 Boosts (story points/bennies).
Both I and my brother were impressed with the Ghost Ops char gen process.
Our main criticisms of character gen:
- There are rules buried in the char gen chapter which you’ll need during play.
- Because the char gen chapter is a mix of actual char gen rules and stuff about play and spending xp it’s not clear whether the Extra Package Abilities which any package can take (p60, e.g. Law), are free during character gen or only available later during play when spending xp.
- It is also slightly frustrating that you pick a package and then discover that several of the options in it are off limits – for instance the Australian SAS can take Recon package but can’t take the Recon options of Survival and Track, because the Australian SAS aren’t given the pre-requisite level 2 in Outdoorsman skill at this point in character gen. It is doubly frustrating when you are later given 15 skill points to spend and could in theory boost your Outdoorsman to 4!
- A one page summary of all the character gen stages with page references would be nice, because the char gen chapter is 49 pages long.
- There is no bloody character sheet in the book! I hate games which do that. Even if you think your book has pages which are too small to have a functional character sheet, a half-sized picture of one tells me what you, the game designer, think is important.
I downloaded a character sheet from DriveThruRPG – and it fekking has rules on it which are not in the rulebook! Apparently you can gain XP for rolling a critical and lose XP for a whole bunch of stuff including failing the mission and rolling a critical failure. WTF?
The Levels of Success & Failure table on p98 does not contain any info about getting or losing XP for criticals. The only section I can find on XP in the core book is on p83 and says the GM will hand out 1 to 5 points at the end of a mission. The Success/Failure table also doesn’t contain the ‘+2 damage for a critical success’ info, which is in the Combat section, nor the getting pool points back for rolling Good Successes rule. This is an example of the book doesn’t say dialled up to 11!
Is this DriveThruRPG sheet a char-sheet-with-extra-rules for a new edition? I have no idea. There is no copyright date or printing history info in the core rules, nor on the sheet. DriveThruRPG says the sheet was added to their site in July 2018. The core rules were added and/or updated in Aug 2018. There are comments in the DriveThruRPG page for the core rules which date from May 2020 and seem to indicate that the edition of the book I have is the same one those folk were talking about in May 2020 (see Bullet Time, below).
POOLS AND BOOSTS AND WOUND CLOCKS
Both me and my brother like all of the above concepts.
Boosts are story points/bennies. I love story points. Ghost Ops is pretty standard use of story points, so you can spend your Boosts to… lower the difficulty; re-roll a fail; give another PC +2; increase the difficulty for an enemy; or narrative effects. Every time a player spends a Boost, it goes to the GM (a Bust) for them to spend against the PCs later.
In addition to the story point/boosts, every character has four pools of points:
- Reaction points – spend these to increase Initiative or to add to rolls to dodge traps, collapsing buildings, etc.
- Damage points – spend to increase your hand-to-hand or melee damage.
- Resilience points – spend to increase your armour value when hit. Resilience points are also your last ditch hit points, for when you have taken maximum Wounds.
- Focus points – spend to add to any dice roll. Focus points are also what you spend in Bullet Time.
I am quite happy with 4 pools of points doing different things, as it means you can customise your character to emphasise the one/s you like best. My brother disagrees and thinks four pools are too many. Horses for courses.
Hit points are done as Wound clock and a Trauma clock. Wounds are for ‘regular’ damage and Trauma is for disorientation, blunt trauma, etc. When you reach 3 o’clock, 6 o’clock, 9 o’clock and 12 o’clock there are penalties. For wounds this is penalties to skills, for Trauma this is locking you out of some of your Points Pools. Simple and elegant.
For our combat playtest, my brother drew two large clocks on a piece of A4 paper and used coloured tokens to keep track of the wounds and trauma of several characters at once. I may steal this idea for keeping track of NPCs’ hit points!
COMBAT RUN THRU
On the face of it, combat is really simple: roll to hit vs a Target Number of 2, plus or minus the usual modifiers for aiming, cover, range, and doing a called shot. You roll damage dice and add the weapon/bullet calibre damage number. No problem.
Then we get to armour and the crunch arrives.
We’re still not convinced we’ve been doing armour right, from the confusing way things are written. Look at this paragraph (p108):
When a target is hit, the armour is rolled the same way as skills or damage. The player rolls the dice, adds the Armour Level and the result is removed from the damage inflicted. If the attack was from an Aimed or Called Shot, then the location’s armour is rolled, if there is any.
What? Does that mean you only roll armour for aimed or called shots? That seems a bit weird – armour only counts if you aim??? Or do those latter two sentences say the same thing twice in different ways? Or are you rolling twice, and one of the rolls is some kind of soak roll?
Please games designers, have your books proof read by people who don’t know how to play the game, not by people who are reading what’s in their head, not on the page.
And put in lots and lots of examples, covering all sorts of different instances. If you’d given me an example where it was a Called Shot and one where it wasn’t a Called Shot, I’d know what that paragraph meant.
So this is what we THINK armour does…
If Penetration Level > Armour Level = the bullet ignores the armour. No armour roll is made. So Armour 2 is no protection against a bullet with penetration 3.
If Penetration Level <Armour Level = the penetration level is deducted from the armour. So Armour 4 is reduced to 1 by a bullet with penetration 3. An armour roll is then made with the 4 Fudge dice, which will add from -4 to +4 to the armour. That armour total is deducted from the damage rolled earlier.
So what happens when Armour Level equals Penetration Level exactly? The book doesn’t say.
Well, it doesn’t say in the Armour section. There’s a bit in the Cover section which says if you are shooting straight through solid cover which has an Armour Level equal to the Penetration Level, then the shot goes through and damage is at -1. So I guess you can apply that rule to hitting someone in their ballistic vest. But we’re not sure if that’s what the rules intend you to do with body armour etc. It would have been nice to have some PL = AR info in the actual Armour section!
Also missing from the Armour section is instructions on what to do when your Armour roll gives you a result below zero. For instance the book has a combat example where:
An NPC does 6 damage. PC rolls +3 on their armour dice, adds it to 1 armour = 4. So they take 6 – 4 = 2 damage. Great. Simple example, fully understood.
But what if the PC rolled -3 on their armour roll? For a total armour of 1 -3 = -2. The book doesn’t say. As I quoted above, it does say “armour is rolled the same way as skills or damage.”
Ah, so my first assumption was that means that a negative total is indeed treated as a negative result, and that negative result does something in the game. Like the negative roll can reduce your skill and therefore maybe you miss the TN by -4 for a critical fail. Or you can get a bad damage roll and it reduces the 5 damage of your bullet to less than 5.
However, my brother, using his crunch-fu, pointed out that my interpretation means people who wear armour are worse off than unarmoured people some of the time. Soooo, I guess any negative armour results count not as a negative number, but as zero???
For the curious, here’s the kind of thing my brother’s crunch-fu spotted (i.e. if the armour roll can be a negative result). Both these people are shot with the same calibre of round for 5 damage.
Mr Buck Naked has no armour (0) and is shot for 5 damage.
Ms Fashionably Armoured has AL 3. A PL 3 bullet reduces that armour to zero. She still makes an armour roll (we think), and gets -3.
- If the -3 counts as zero, she takes 5 points like Mr Buck Naked (or maybe 4 points if reducing armour to zero acts like cover).
- But if the -3 counts as -3 then she takes 5 - -3 = 8 damage??? (Or 7 with the cover thing).
That latter option of 7 or 8 seems silly, on the common sense basis that armour very rarely magnifies the effect of a bullet (!). But we can’t actually tell from the rules or examples if that common sense version is what the game intends.
Bullet Time is all about doing cinematic action movie stuff. On a first read-through, Bullet Time looked amazing – instead of rolling dice, spend a bunch of Focus points to do action movie stuff like kick open the door, dive in, roll behind the sofa and headshot the three bad guys.
Then we playtested it. Okay the spending points is nice and will save a bunch of dice rolls, BUT… And it’s definitely a capital letters, great big BUT. Several big buts! (Ooh, er, missus).
But #1: Bullet Time is entirely independent of skill and abilities (skill specialisms). It says on p130 “No skills or abilities can be used to succeed in the attempt” . So, er, does that mean someone who has no Weaponry skill can use it? If the SAS (weaponry skill 4 to 6, 8 Focus points) and Mr Bean (weaponry skill 0, 8 Focus Points) all storm the Iranian Embassy together, is Mr Bean suddenly as competent and lethal as the SAS? The book doesn’t say.
But#2: However, there is a discussion on DriveThruRPG in which the publisher says you DO add weapon skill to the Bullet Time dice roll, which makes the SAS a billion times more lethal than Mr Bean. Gaaah! Is my book an early edition of the rules? But that discussion was from May 2020, and I bought the book in 2019, so maybe my version is the latest dead-tree version, after all? Searching for errata has got me nothing.
But#3: Without the weapon skill to add in, you’ll be blowing all your Focus points (pool is a max of 10, our characters had 7 or 8) and still might not succeed. Because all that cinematic and exciting stuff like diving and rolling and doing called shots against the 3 bad guys? That ramps the target number up like nobody’s business.
Base TN 2
Kick open the door +1
Dive in +1
Roll behind the sofa +1
Called shots = +2 x 3 = +6
Total TN = 11
So if an SAS bloke spends a Boost to reduce that to TN10 and blows all 8 of his Focus points on it, the TN becomes 2. Which gives him an 18% chance of success on Fudge dice.
If he’s allowed to add in his Weaponry skill of 4, he has a 96% chance of success. Or if he does a less flamboyant description, and misses out the diving and rolling (TN8), he can either have a guaranteed success or stick to 96% and save himself a couple of Focus points.
I suspect my players will be doing the maths in their heads and shedding the cinematic descriptions in favour of the increased chance of success.
There’s a nice rule which says that if you fail your Bullet Time roll, you might succeed in some of it. So the GM can say our SAS bloke still managed to hit 2 of the 3 NPCs. But in the next paragraph it says failing a Bullet Time mean you are prone and the NPCs get a free attack against you. Does that include when the GM lets you have a partial success? The book doesn’t say.
Experience is a bit weird. You get XP… which you turn into Rank Points (nothing to do with military or police rank). Then you spend the Rank Points to improve your character. Maybe they could have skipped that middle bit and you just spend the XP to improve your character?
You can also spend your Rank Points as if they were a Boost, with the added spin that the GM does not get a Bust token if you do.
However, in my 38 years of gaming, none of my players have ever, ever, ever made use of any “squander your XP for a short term gain” rules in any game which has them. Not even the player who habitually forgets to spend his XP! Everyone – including me and my brother – want to save the XP to make our characters permanently better. The only time I can see myself using a ‘sacrifice XP for a onetime benefit’, would be if it came down to a stark choice between losing a beloved character or re-rolling the dice.
And, as mentioned above, the character sheet has rules for gaining and losing xp on it which aren’t in the core rules. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen an RPG before which has rules for taking away xp which you got
- Their cross referencing sucks. My copy is now filled with “see page XYZ” scrawled in the margins.
- My brother moans that the gear is inconsistently crunchy: lots of ammo types but no difference in weapons firing the same ammo? He points out that a 9mm SMG and a 9mm holdout pistol have very different velocity (and therefore damage).
- Lots of gear/vehicles referenced with no description/picture and some in the national gear options in character gen are not in the weapon tables. And many are only called by their M number. Are you expected to know or google every piece of equipment?
It has some lovely stuff in it, and I enjoy military games. Therefore I sooooo wanted this game to work, and be a smooth and cinematic experience. Could be the version of the game the designers use is indeed that very experience. But the copy I’ve got appears to be missing some of the rules and/or only has them implied rather than actually written down. I think it was proof-read and edited by people who already knew what it said, and already knew how the game played, so they missed the stuff that someone coming to it fresh needs to know.
The pdf might have corrections in it, since that’s traditional these days. But I’m reluctant to shell out more dosh only to find that it still has those holes in it.