The name’s Davenport. I review games.
So the other day I’m in my virtual office, just mindin’ my own business — which don’t work out for me that often — when I look up and see this big, oiled-up, muscle-bound fella standing there. At first I think it might be a stick-up, but then I figure that a robber’s face mask wouldn’t be all red, yellow, and gold. And that he’d be packin’ heat, not a microphone.
You wanna know the sad thing? The guy was the most normal visitor I’d had in months.
“Hola, mi amigo!” he yells into the mike. “Rey Dinamita is IN… THE… HOUSE to tell you of Luchador: Way of the Mask!”
Okay, luchadors. I’d heard of these guys. Mexican masked wrestlers. This was makin’ some sense now.
What wasn’t makin’ sense was why the guy felt the need to leap up on my desk.
“LUCHADOR!” he yells to some audience I couldn’t see, finger pointed at the ceiling. “The ONLY game that pits brave masked wrestlers against the likes of master criminals, aliens, and zombies!”
“Ah, gotcha!” I says. “I reviewed Zombie Smackdown, and it has luchadors and zombies…”
“NO game can best Luchador!” he declares, pointin’ at me now. “It will meet Zombie Smackdown in the squared circle at Slamfiesta IV!”
“How are two books supposed to… You know what? Never mind. Just tell me how the Hell you go in here without me seein’ you.”
“Through the lucha door, of course!”
Luchador: Way of the Mask doesn’t spend a huge amount of time presenting a setting, largely because the rules themselves help set the stage for the setting. Simply put, though, this isn’t a setting about Mexican professional wrestling — although that’s certainly part of it — so much as it is a setting about Mexican professional wrestling movies. This is a world in which the likes of luchador legends El Santo, Blue Demon, and Mil Máscaras battle the likes of Dracula, the Wolf Man, Frankenstein’s Monster, and other oddities that somehow never manage to shatter the illusion of normalcy for Joe Average. It’s a world in which society views luchadors as something akin to four-color superheroes. The authorities respect them and turn to them for help, and even the bad guys hesitate before playing dirty against those who wear the mask.
Perhaps I can best describe the gonzo nature of the setting by way of showing you the game’s bestiary:
- Fan, Rabid
- Fan, Cute
- Suit, Evil
- Ganger, Impressionable
- Ganger, Hardened
- Ganger, Enforcer
- Rubber Faced Ghost
- Femme Fatale
- Mad Scientist
- Diabolical Duplicator
- Rue Morgue Monster
- Aztec Warrior
- Aztec Mummy
- Unstoppable Killer
- The Masked Demon
- Zombie, Shambling
- Zombie, Brain Eater
- Zombie, Voodoo
- Vampire Women
- The Umbral Accord
- Umbral Accord, Soldier
- Umbral Accord, Enforcer
- Umbral Accord, Leader
You might be wondering what the Umbral Accord is. The core book only spends two brief paragraphs describing this vast criminal enterprise, but how much text does it really take to get across the idea of “this is COBRA/HYDRA”? It’s one of many illustrations of just how efficient this game is: Introduce a cool concept that opens up a world of possibilities, then let the heroes bodyslam it.
Which, by the way, brings up an important point: As luchadors, the PCs are expected to defeat their foes by wrestling, first and foremost. This may be a turnoff to players who are used to looting enemies for equipment and fighting the paranormal with the paranormal. If so, that would be a real shame. Perhaps the best comparison in American terms would be superheroes who are more-or-less “normal” people relying primarily on martial prowess — heroes like Wildcat and Captain America, for example. Although even that doesn’t really cover it, since the luchadors can possess attribute levels in the low superhuman range. But you get the idea.
Luchador uses a single d20 roll-under mechanic. The margin of success or failure matters, and a success or failure by five or more is an exceptional success or a disastrous failure, respectively. When time presses, luchadors can make “hasty” checks, which increase the difficulty by 1, divide margins of success by 2, and multiply margins of failure by 2.
Luchador uses six primary statistics: Strength, Agility, Conditioning, Presence, Wits, and Determination.
The game features four character classes in the core book, distinguished by their baseline scores in the primary statistics and the ability to re-roll certain actions:
- The Aerialist has low Strength, high Agility, and the ability to re-roll Agility checks.
- The Technico has slightly above average Conditioning and Determination and the ability to re-roll wrestling skill checks.
- The Gimmico has slightly above average Presence and Wits and the ability to re-roll Presence checks.
- The Bruiser has high Strength, low Agility and Wits, slightly above average Conditioning, slightly below average Determination, and the ability to re-roll Strength checks.
Stats are rolled randomly, but in a clever way that prevents stat levels from straying too far from a class’s strengths. All stat rolls are checks against a score of 11. On a success, the margin of success increases the baseline score. On a normal failure, the baseline score drops by only 1. On a disastrous failure, the score drops by 2. However, if the roll fails but doesn’t exceed the baseline — e.g., the baseline is 14 and the roll is 13 — the baseline score does not drop. I’m generally ambivalent about randomized attributes, but to my mind, this is a great way to do it.
Note that these scores are the ratings. All stats have levels as well, based on the rating/3, rounded down. The ratings are used for everything associated with the stats that don’t require a roll, such as base melee damage (Strength level) and the difficulty of striking an opponent (Agility level).
Characters have four derived statistics as well:
- Initiative = 10 + Agility level + Wits level. I like the combination, as it reflects the ability both to see a threat and to act on it.
- Fatigue = Conditioning level and Determination level. Again, a great combination. What are your physical limits, and how good are you at pressing past them?
- Resilience (resistance to injury) = Strength level + Conditioning level.
- Vitality (basically hit points) = Resilience x 5.
Characters have 15 points to spend on skills — possibly more, if their statistics turned out particularly low. (Again, a nice way of counterbalancing the random stats.)
The first level of a skill is “proficiency”, which equals half of the governing stat rating rounded down plus 10. So, a character with an Agility of 18 and proficiency in the Agility-based Strike skill will have a skill rating of 19. Characters have automatic proficiency in the four Combat skills (Strike, Throw, Tackle, and Armed) and the four Wrestling skills (Grab, Hold, Slam, and Drop). This saves time by giving the characters the basics in every skill a luchador must know.
One quick note: “Armed” means armed melee combat. There is no ranged weapons skill. Attempts to use such weapons rely on straight Agility. Now, I get that this is because luchadors shouldn’t use guns, but it makes writing up gun-toting NPCs awkward as well. The game tries to get around this by having gun-trained NPCs roll twice, but frankly, I’d prefer to have a gun skill that PCs can’t buy.
Players must pay 3 skill points for proficiency in other skills. They may then buy levels of expertise at a cost in skill points equal to each level purchased; e.g., buying 2 levels of expertise costs 3 points, one for the first level and two for the second. Note that levels of expertise don’t just improve your chances to succeed; in certain circumstance, they serve as the level of difficulty for an opponent’s opposed check against you.
The non-Combat, non-Wrestling skills fall into two categories: Mike (as in microphone) skills and Extracurricular skills.
The Mike skills are interaction skills amusingly framed in terms of things a luchador might do in the ring: Promo (convince/inspire), Intimidate, Trick, and Beg. All four have applications both in and out of combat. For example, Promo can be used to make a good first impression or to fire up spectators to a fight (and thus earn the showboating luchador extra fatigue to burn — more on that in a moment). Beg can be used to suck up to someone or to plead for mercy from an opponent (and thus break their momentum). Beg, by the way, is mentioned as being a distasteful skill among luchadors, and it certainly seemed to be among my players as well, none of whom took it.
Extracurricular skills fall into four very broad categories: Language, Craft, Knowledge, and Pilot. The specific skills under these categories are up to the players to devise. Given the few points that they have to throw around, I basically nuked the Language skill altogether. I just didn’t want to mess language issues in-game anyway and didn’t want to force any one character to blow the points needed to be the group’s translator. And in a more general sense, I’m glad that players can make unskilled checks (treated as “hasty”) using the governing attribute, because outside of combat, luchadors are going to have a lot of skill gaps.
And speaking of combat…
As you might imagine, the game devotes a great deal of space to fighting. Combatants can make a number of different moves and counter-moves, all of which are summarized on this handy table. Some moves are complex actions, requiring multiple steps to accomplish; e.g., you must grab and lift an opponent before slamming him. To avoid having your opponent escape or counterattack during such a move, the luchador can work all aspects of the complex action into a single round so long as each step in the process gets an exceptional success. This adds a nice touch of drama to combat.
I should mention that every action burns at least one point of fatigue. If a luchador runs out of fatigue, the difficulty of every action goes up by one, and actions cost 2 vitality instead. That’s bad. To regain fatigue, a luchador must spend a round doing nothing, at which point the fatigue “tank” refills. Of course, taking even a short a breather during combat is a bit risky… Again, a nice touch of drama.
Now, I must confess that I found combat to be a little complex for my taste. It wasn’t keeping track of the actions, though. It was keeping track of the damage.
First, there’s vitality, which, again, is akin to hit points, except that Vitality loss incapacitates rather than kills. Then there are five wound levels each equal in vitality point size to resilience. Losing wound levels increases difficulty levels, makes getting back up from a knockdown slower, and reduces options for reactions to attacks. These are not to be confused with injury points, which accumulate from damage in excess of the victim’s resilience. These don’t really do much other than limit the amount of vitality that can be recovered and generally make healing take longer, although they’re also the only way to put down certain creatures like the undead who don’t lose vitality. Then there’s the chance for knockdowns (if the damage exceeds the target’s Strength) and stuns (if damage equals or exceeds the target’s Resilience or in the event of an exceptional result on certain attacks).
That was just a lot for me to track. I’m fairly certain that I never properly managed all of it in any combat. Now, I will say that while combat rounds lasted longer than I’d like while I juggled these numbers, the number of rounds tended to be small due to extended stuns effectively ending combat. It may well be that as I get better used to the system, combat will run more quickly.
One of my favorite aspects of the combat system is the concept of “risk”. Essentially, this involves luchadors either charging or climbing and leaping — the longer the charge or the higher the leap, the greater the risk. Generating risk requires a complex action and makes the attack roll itself more difficult. It also involves taking some minor damage on a success or serious damage on a failure, but a success will result in a major boost to damage against your opponent. In short, if you want an incentive for luchadors to climb tall objects and leap dramatically upon their opponents, well, here you go. What’s more, on a risk-based attack, every point of risk generates a point of heat on a success, half that on a failure.
Oh, what is “heat”…?
Heat is the game’s version of drama/fate/hero points, the big difference being that luchadors earn heat for actions that would fire up an audience. Heat may be spent in a number of ways and at a number of costs, from shaking off damage to flat-out doing the impossible (i.e., succeeding with an exceptional success without the need for a role). One use that saw a lot of action in my game was Save Face/Excel, which allows luchadors to spend 1 heat to change a disastrous failure to a simple failure or a simple success to an exceptional success. As mentioned previously, an exceptional success allows complex actions to continue within the space of a single round. Note that characters can only burn heat equal to 1 + their fame level.
But what is fame…?
Fame is the closest the game comes to character level. Fame increases with a mandatory heat expenditure at the end of each session equal to the purchase of expertise levels with skill points; i.e., the first level costs a total of 1 point, the second a total of 3 points (1 + 2), etc. Leftover heat carries over, which means that the greater a luchador’s fame, the more heat he can retain between sessions.
The aforementioned fame level is 1/3 of the luchador’s fame, and has three effects.
First, as previously mentioned, it regulates how much heat the luchador can burn in a single action.
Second, foes seeking to attack a luchador with a weapon of a scale deadlier than that the luchador is employing — the scale being normal weapons, sharp weapons, and firearms — must make a Determination check with a difficulty equal to the luchador’s fame level for every point of difference on the scale or lose a turn. For example, a luchador with Fame 3 has a fame level of 1. Trying to stab this luchador when he is unarmed or using a club would have a Determination difficulty of 1, whereas shooting the same luchador would have a Determination difficulty of 2. I totally get the genre emulation the author’s going for here, but in play, it seemed a little awkward. I’m pretty tempted to add the fame level to either the attacker’s difficulty or to the defender’s armor.
And third, a luchador can design signature moves that become more effective and more heat-worthy once the player has spent the XP to purchase them. The amount of XP required to do so drops based upon the complexity of the move, which in turn is based upon several factors, among them the number of “flourish” steps — otherwise pointless acrobatics or posturing — that the move requires. Fame level limits the number of flourish steps that can be included. I like this. It makes sense that more famous luchadors would have more moves based on a lot of showboating.
The book’s black and white art is surprisingly good. It isn’t the best I’ve seen, but it does have a kind of fun comic book flair that perfectly fits the material.
The writing clearly springs from an author with a sincere love of the subject matter, and the enthusiasm is infectious. The writer has an easygoing style that’s like being taught to play while sharing an ice-cold beer. I spotted only minor typos.
The book lacks an index, but at only 65 pages, the extensive table of contents more than makes up for this.
The system may be a bit fiddly in places, but the core mechanic is simple enough, and those fiddly bits help differentiate the game from any other over-the-top action setting. Overall, this is a game with a huge sense of pulpy fun. Given the low price point, I highly recommend that anyone who isn’t hardwired into grim-and-gritty gaming give this one a try. If the premise makes you think you’d love this game, you’re probably right.