Review: Hell 4 Leather

Hell 4 Leather is an RPG of bloody revenge on Devil’s Night by Joe Prince and published by Box Ninja. To quote the website:

An RPG of Bloody Revenge on Devil’s Night…
You were the meanest most badass SOB around. Everything was tight – you rode with the Devil’s Dozen – toughest chapter going. No fucker messed with you.

Except…

Your ‘buddies’ screwed you. Life is cheap. What’s a little murder between pals? But… You cut a deal with the Devil. You got one night – Devil’s night – to exact vengeance. You’re gunna show those bastards what a REAL Angel of Hell can do. When the rooster crows, your chance for revenge is over – you’ve gotta go Hell For Leather!

That blurb sets out the entire premise of the game, which plays out over a series of scenes as one character returns from the dead to try and enact retribution on those that wronged them. Hell 4 Leather is a GMless, and settingless story game, with play and character archetypes guided by tarot cards that work to build towards a climatic finale. I first played it a number of years ago and it was my first encounter with GMless story games. It’s one of those little known systems that I wish more people knew about. If I ever put together an emergency ‘Games on Demand’ pack this will be one of my go to’s.

Mechanically the game is extremely simple – each scene is outlined by one player, guided by the flavour of a pre-defined tarot card. After that everything plays out organically, up until the point at which the Rider enters and attempts to kill one character. Another simple mechanic decides whether they succeed. It’s to the point and doesn’t intrude on the roleplay.

So why should you play Hell 4 Leather? First up it’s a great game for filling a gap between sessions. The premise of the game means it is meant to be run as a single one-shot. You can play it in as little as an hour (though that does require short, succint scenes) or over a more leisurely pace of 2-3 hours.

The second reason? This is a great way to set up the opener for a campaign in another system. Deadlands, Shadowrun, Dresden Files or even D&D. The settingless nature makes it ideal for flipping between different worlds, outlining a grisly series of murders that serve as the opener to the main campaign. With a little work you can even transport it to games that don’t support the supernatural.

Finally this is a game that is oozing with character. From the use of tarot cards, to the choice of scene framing and the simple yet all encompassing premise Hell 4 Leather is a game that embraces its inspiration and doesn’t set a foot wrong.

You can purchase Hell 4 Leather from drivethruRPG.

All reviews are rated out of 10, with Natural 20s reserved for products that go above and beyond my expectations. Unless otherwise stated all review products have been purchased through normal retail channels.

My Top 6 Influencial RPGs

This is another quick topic that is doing the rounds on Twitter at the moment, but I wanted to elaborate a little on why I picked each of them.

1) Torg – My very first tabletop RPG with an amazing GM that quickly inspired me to run my own games. Yes, the early 90s system is clunky by modern standards (and was so even when I first played it in 2006) but it was Torg that made me fall in love with this hobby. It’s also the game that taught me how much went on unseen behind the screen or in the GMs head, the GM of that campaign made it flow so smoothly that as a newbie I naively assumed it was easy. My subsequent first forays into GMing taught me otherwise.

2) Cortex (Classic, Plus, Prime) – I could easily fill four of the 6 spots here with Cortex games (Serenity, Demon Hunters, Smallville, Firefly) thanks to the impact the line has had on me over the years. Instead, I’m going to list it once, with a separate entry for Demon Hunters for reasons that will become apparent. For this entry, I’m focusing specifically on the system. Cortex was the first game that I discovered for myself, back with the original Serenity. At that point, I’d played only a handful of systems but mostly Torg. Mechanically and thematically the two were so different it was almost overwhelming. I dove into it, roped players into a game… and then ran a disaster of a session as a rookie GM. It was an experience that somehow didn’t put me off GMing.

Since then Cortex has continued to influence me thanks to its continued iteration. Demon Hunters gave me the first glimpse of how a game could be adapted to a new setting with only a few small tweaks. Then along came Cortex Plus, which demonstrated how to take the central DNA of a system and heavily adapt it to mesh with radically different genres. Smallville introduced me to the potential for constant player vs player conflict actively supported by the mechanics while Firefly introduced me to a smooth rules set that is pretty much perfect (in my opinion) for convention play. The in-development Cortex Prime is set to take it even further, providing a full toolkit to build future games on and I can’t wait to see where the system goes next.

3) Demon Hunters (1st/2nd editions) – What can I say about Demon Hunters that I haven’t already said before? It’s a setting that I love for so many reasons, see my recent self-interview for the long list. But the biggest way that it has influenced me? By providing an open world that allows for me to publish my own material. I’ve released two adventure starters (Missionary Opposition and Lockdown) for the most recent edition inspired by the Slice of Life web series and Channel Surfing, an adventure starter drawn from one of my own campaigns and that Dead Gentlemen made available to their GenCon GMs. How cool is that.

4) Hell 4 Leather – One of my first introductions to indie games, Hell 4 Leather bills itself as a Role-Playing Game of Vengeance inspired by tales such as Hamlet and Kill Bill. It’s an inspired game with minimal yet tight mechanics that come together to tell of the repercussions of making a deal with the devil. I’ve played it across a variety of genres, Westerns, Sci-fi, Urban Fantasy and it hasn’t let me down. As influences go it opened my eyes to the possibilities afforded by non-traditional mechanics and tales, supported by the flourishing indie scene in Scotland at the time. While I still tend towards traditional games it was this game that sparked my continued interest in the wider aspects of TTRPGs.

5) Lady Blackbird – This was, in many respects, a turning point for me as it was one of the original inspirations behind Project Cassandra. While the two bear little resemblance thematically the underlying system once did. Yup, Project Cassandra started off as a hack of Lady Blackbird. The system used is, in my opinion, extremely elegant and the whole idea of being able to wield powers in the same way as any other skill (and with few limits) really spoke to me. As I worked on the concept the systems diverged but that was where my interest in game design began.

6) Legend of the Five Rings (4th Edition) – A game that has influenced me in many ways but the biggest was providing me with the chance to join a long term, online campaign. My introduction to playing in the setting came via an online campaign run by Sir Guido and organised through the Happy Jacks Podcast community. It was the first time I’d really played an online campaign and the first where I was gaming with people across the world (we had people from Alaska through to Turkey). While I no longer regularly game online the experience was great and allowed me to step outside of the relatively small bubble that I was gaming in up to that point. It’s something that I’d like to do more of, especially when I get to the point of restarting playtests of Project Cassandra.

RPGaDay 20th and 21st August

Double post before I fall even more behind and because two days is the most dramatically appropriate number of posts to catch-up on.

20th) What is the best source for out-of-print RPGs?

For me it’s a mix of eBay and drivethruRPG depending on whether I want to own physical books or not. I’ve drifted over to the not camp for games I’m just interested in if only because of the space saving or because it’s splat book 21 of a given system and really I only need it to reference a single page.

In terms of the single best out of print purchase I’ve had it was from an Oxfam bookshop. Somebody had obviously been clearing out their shelves and had donated a massive pile of WEG Star Wars d6 books. I ended up buying almost all of them, spent close to £100 on them which is probably the single biggest book purchase I’ve ever made.

21st) Which RPG does the most with the least words?

A difficult question but I think that I’m going to go with Hell 4 Leather. The rules fit on a double sided fold out (around A3 size) but manage to be both evocative and detailed enough to outline the entire story arc. The game is designed for single story play but because of the way scenes are described it has tremendous replay value.

The game isn’t known nearly as well as it deserves but I highly recommend picking it up: Hell 4 Leather on DriveThruRPG

RPGaDay 2017 8th August

8th) What is a good RPG to play for sessions of 2hrs or less?

If we’re talking individual sessions then I think some of the more indie one shot systems work really well for this. They quite often have an emphasis on short scenes framed around a single purpose and the ability to just run things on the fly, with or without a GM. I suspect a lot of people will mention Fiasco which is a fun game but I just wanted to touch on a few others.

The criminally unknown Hell 4 Leather by Joe Prince tells some amazing stories of revenge and retribution over a short time period. It’s moody, atmospheric and the scene designs are really tight. I’ve played it repeatedly, always had a blast and am convinced that it would work really well as a set up story for another game. Play the revenge story then switch to something else to chronicle the fallout / investigation (the supernatural aspect would pair really well with some urban fantasy).

RTfco250Remember Tomorrow by Gregor Hutton. A small cyberpunk game that leans heavily on the Gibson stories, with a particular focus on characters getting out / completing their story. To do so they must be Ready, Willing and Able but each of those comes at a price. With how scenes are framed and resolved it is easy to build up a large cast of characters that are retained from session to session yet each of them may never come into contact with all the others before they are retired. A great lightweight narrative system that is true to the genre.

Dread by Epidiah Ravachol and Nathaniel Barmore. One of the most well known indie titles but also one that I’ve unfortunately only had a chance to read. Dread is the Jenga tower horror RPG. Want to do something challenging? Make a pull from the tower but knock it over and you’re marked for death. Maybe not immediately but there’s no escaping it. Everybody I know that has played it loved the suspense the tower adds to the game and that it emphasises characters playing to the tropes of the genre. Definitely one I need to try ASAP.

Blog Carnival: Summer is Coming

This month’s RPG Blog Alliance Carnival topic is Summer is Coming, hosted over at Dice Monkey. Here in the UK I can say, with some certainty, that Summer is most definitely here (we’ve just had our hottest day so far this year). Having gotten into RPGs while at university, and still being friends with a number of university students summer is also a period I associate with less gaming as campaigns always tended to wrap up just prior to the exam period. So with that in mind I thought I’d present a few suggestions for games that can be run in a fairly adhoc manner, without the need for a regular group meeting each week for a continuing story.

  1. Quickstart rules – Ever had that system you always wanted to try but never got around to? Summer is the perfect time, aided by the fact that many systems these days release a set of quickstart rules that come with a prewritten adventure and sample characters. Best of all is that they’re usually free. So go ahead, give something new a try, if you like it then hey presto, option for a new campaign and if you don’t then it hasn’t cost you anything to give it a try.
  2. Hell 4 Leather by Prince of Darkness Games. A game of supernatural revenger, which sees a murdered ganger (one player) given 24 hours to seek revenge on their former friends (everybody else). The game requires no prep, is focused tightly on the group narrative and can be run in around 2 hours. It’s one of my favourite pickup games and I’ve played in sessions where the setting has ranged from the relatively mundane wild west or 30’s mobsters through to D&D fantasy or dystopian cyberpunk. Highly recommended.
  3. Fiasco by Bully Pulpuit Games. Fiasco is probably the most well known indie games, helped by its appearance on Wil Wheaton’s Tabletop. The game is all about setting up a group of relationships and making plans, then seeing how they all go horribly wrong with the introduction of the tilt. The game itself is setting agnostic, which is instead chosen through the use of playsets that contains all the relationships, needs, locations and items. There are, literally, hundreds of playsets available covering pretty much every possible setting you could want.
  4. Lady Blackbird by One.Seven Design. Lady Blackbird is a steampunk / pulp adventure game and system that follows the attempt of the noble Lady to escape from her arranged marriage and rendezvous with her secret love, the pirate king Uriah Flint. Think steampunk crossed with equal parts Flash Gordon and Firefly. The game (which is free to download) contains a complete system and set of PCs plus the outlines of an adventure chronicles Lady Blackbird’s journey. While the adventure, as provided, requires either a quick thinking GM or some extra preparation there is a surprising depth to what is provided, making it easy to flesh out as required. As such the game can be run as a one shot or just as easily expanded into a short campaign.
  5. Remember Tomorrow by Box Ninja. A near future cyberpunk game that focuses not on the gadgets and implants a character may possess but the more basic fundamentals that underlie the classic works of Gibson et al. Namely what do they want and are they Ready, Willing and Able to obtain it. Like Fiasco and Hell 4 Leather the game is narrative based and runs without a GM, with players cycling between PCs and the NPCs of the various factions. One of the most unique features is that while a single session may complete a PCs story everybody else (PCs, NPCs, factions) form an ever evolving pool that can be drawn upon next time the game is played. Thus while two characters may never actually meet in the narrative their actions may have significant impacts on one another through the world with which they interact.

So there you have it, a few options for your summer gaming. If anybody has any additional recommendations then I’d be eager to hear them as it looks like my summer is once again going to be dominated by one offs and irregular games.