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Jul 26

Hell 4 Leather review

What is it?

It is a quick one-shot indie roleplaying game that leads you through a tale of Rip-roaring revenge in the vein of Kill Bill, The Crow, Ghost Rider, and Hamlet. 3-6 players – no GM required.

Where can I get it?

From Prince of Darkness Games (Physical and PDF)

From RPGNow (PDF)

It appears to be about £6.66, or £2.50 for the PDF.

What does it consist of?

The physical version is one double-sided poster which folds into six sheets, which contain all the rules.

The RPGNow PDF is optimised for screens, including tablets, and is 12 pages.

You’ll need to supply your own Tarot cards (or normal playing cards if you are so inclined).

How is it played?

Hell 4 Leather is such a simple system that it’s hard to say much about how it’s played without giving away the whole game.  It’s not like D&D, where you could talk for hours and there’d still be stuff in the rulebook you need.  I could probably give you everything you need to play in this here review but I want to leave enough so you actually want to buy the game – they’re an Indie game company, and definitely deserve your cash!

The very first thing you do is decide what setting you’re going to play.  The default setting is bikers somewhere in the American West with some amount of supernatural activity (think Sons of Anarchy mixed with The Crow).  However, pretty much any setting is possible.  I’ve played in the Old West and in space with no magic whatsoever, so so long as everyone wants to play it, you’re golden.

Next: Character generation.

There is no character generation.

One player is going to end up being the Rider – the hero, if you like.  Hamlet, Eric Draven, The Bride – the one betrayed and murdered and now out for revenge.  That person is determined randomly by dealing the cards.  That player makes up this character with some on-the-spot narration, interrupted by another player – again, random – who determines how the Rider dies, and then a third player narrates how the Rider gets to come back and wreak havoc.

All the other characters are determined randomly by random draw, and they can have Boons – powers that may stay the hand of the revengeful hero –  which, you guessed it, are determined by the cards.

The actual play of the game is all about narration rights.  Someone will start setting the scene, and can decide who is there and who isn’t, but if you lay your card on the table you can take over and say your part.

The actual structure comes in the form of scenes, counted down from a special set of Major Arcana cards.  In each scene, after it is set and the players introduced, the Rider will attempt to take revenge on one of the other characters.  Boons can be used to try and stay the Rider’s hand, but it all comes down to a single card drawn from the pack.  And how it is all resolved comes down to how the card is interpreted.  And win or lose, live or die, that’s the end of the scene, and on to the next one – until the last card is turned and every-one’s fate is determined.

What’s so great about it?

Roleplaying is often referred to as communal story-telling.  Well, Hell 4 Leather is exactly and precisely that.  Everything about the game is about getting the people around the table to put together a one-of-a-kind tale.  Even though the scenes all occur in the same order in each game, I have never had two games that were even remotely alike.  The way the setting is created together, and especially the way the prologue sets the ground rules, means every game is completely unique.

It’s a fast game that’s quick to get up and running – if someone has a copy of the rules and a pack of cards you get going in less than ten minutes.  It takes from forty-five minutes to an hour and a half to play, about the same time as a board game.  In fact, because it’s so quick to set up and play, it pretty much fills a board-game slot.  It’s a great game to bring out at a party – you know, the kind of wild swinging parties us roleplayers have – and have a blast.

It’s amazingly free-form, but there’s enough structure given by the way the scenes are set out that there’s enough for you to hang a character on.  I’ve played it with inexperienced players as well as old hands, and once everyone picks it up in a scene or two.

What’s bad about it?

It’s not a game you can run a campaign with.  Even with the freedom and flexibility it has, ultimately it only does one kind of story.  While it’s got replay value, you’re unlikely to play a lot of games in a row.

In Summary

A very focused game that is about as near to a pure storytelling game as you can be, can be set up in minutes and is a total blast.  Great geeky party game.

Plus, it’s like six quid!  Come on!

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