Today’s review is a detailed look at Monte Cook Game’s First Responders sourcebook, a setting/rules book for their Cypher System aimed at telling the stories of the frontline servicepeople stopping and mitigating disasters.
I’ve been very excited to get my hands on this one ever since it was announced. It’s not that I’m a huge fan of media about first responders (shows like Chicago Fire quickly become repetitive for me) or that I’m swept up in the drama of being a firefighter or EMT. I think those jobs are really exciting but I also have an EMT and a nurse in my immediate family so I know they can also be so boring at times. Really what gets me excited about First Responders as a game is that it’s an action-oriented game that’s written to be almost entirely combat-free.
I’m having trouble thinking of another game like that. There are certainly dramatic games that have little or no combat (Wanderhome and Good Society are excellent examples from my own gaming table) but they aren’t physically-oriented action thriller genres. Tiny Taverns that I reviewed last month is currently the only thing I can think of in this category, although bar brawls are certainly likely and even pretty common depending on how you choose to play it.
Characters in First Responders are definitely in the thick of things, often in real physical danger, and face injury and violence probably every session. They just don’t usually enter combat; in fact you really have to seek that out if you want it in your First Responders game. This puts First Responders in a pretty unique position and I’m excited to dive in.
Playing First Responders
So if you aren’t wielding weapons and killing folks, what’s there left to do in a game? I’m so glad you asked because the answer in this case is “plenty!” First Responders puts you in the shoes of folks working in Emergency Services, a catch-all term for firefighters, field medics, rescue workers, bomb disposal technicians, etc. When there’s some kind of crisis that’s not combat, these are the positions that are in the midst of things saving lives and trying to contain the problem. In these pandemic-laden times I think we can all understand that designation.
So your characters are first responders of some stripe working for a private company (such as a private ambulance services) or for some public organization such as a federal, state, municipal, or tribal fire station, hospital, etc. There’s also a fictional “international response operation” with the acronym SAVER that gives you an excuse to send your PCs worldwide dealing with every headline-making issue of the day. As a Cypher System game, your options for taking action are wide open but the list of possible actions that first responders might attempt in a crisis includes suppressing the danger, the most common action which involves spraying the fire, sandbagging the flood, reinforcing the collapsing building, and so on. This is a combat-like action that involves “dealing damage” to the disaster just like damaging an opponent (more on that later). You can also quell the danger (just keeping it from getting worse), venting the area (mostly for fires where you clear the heat and smoke), containing the disaster (stopping the spread), detecting incoming threats, rescuing victims of the disaster to a safe place, and healing victims once they’re safe.
These are a lot of different avenues of action which provides variation for all the different PCs, and that’s not even counting the variation of all the disasters out there. You might have a character whose skills set them up for spraying a forest fire while your companions specialize in stopping the spread and rescuing victims. If the next disaster in the game, though, is a collapsing dam then those specialties are suddenly not as helpful which is why you’re encouraged to have a roster of characters (see below).
Generally, though, we’re not looking for 100% accurate depictions of life as a first responder. For one thing, the game isn’t taken over by long battles with paperwork. It would also be a pretty crazy situation for a fire crew to deal with a house fire one week, a forest fire the next, a terrorist bombing after that, and a flu outbreak to round off the month. That’s a horrific month for a small city and if you’re in a big city then why is your fire operation the one responding to all of these things? Certainly there are other fire stations out there! That is why the game has two big pieces of advice for creating First Responders games. First, eschew realism and don’t try to be true to real life. Being a first responder is like any job and it’s not larger-than-life heroism all the time but we’re telling dramatic stories so we don’t want to have all of the job minutiae. Also, real life first responders spend years training for their jobs so the idea that you can read some Wikipedia entries and accurately depict their lives is pretty silly anyways.
Secondly, work to set the mood with fast-paced scenarios, ticking clocks, and not a lot of details to get bogged down in. Along with the previous point, it’s pretty dumb for a fire crew to rush in and hope for the best but it’s fine for your gaming group to do that because it’s more exciting that way. You also want to have an incident action plan so that things don’t get confusing and this book has guidance on how to quickly whip one up at the start of a scenario to jump into enacting it (which we’ll get into below).
Now we know what we’re doing but we don’t know who is doing it. First responders, obviously, but in game terms what does that mean? Well, it’s a Cypher System game so characters are made of descriptors, types, and foci. Starting with type, your character is likely to be a responder, a new type introduced in this book which has abilities designed to help in these disaster situations. You can certainly also be one of the types from the Cypher System Rulebook, adapted for this setting. Maybe your warrior is a firefighter with a blunt approach to fighting the flames, your speaker is an inspiring crew chief who pushes the team, your explorer is a wilderness EMT at home in the woods, or your adept is some sort of medical miracle worker. There’s not much direct guidance on modifying these for First Responders but there are several pregens who use core rulebook types so you can see it in action.
Likewise, you’ll want to pick your descriptors with some sense (skipping magical ones in favor of skilled ones) but really most things will work just fine. There’s a list of foci that work well for this setting and also five new ones specifically designed for responders. Battles the Blaze is a focus for standing against fires while Befriends the Flames is a craftier option for firefighting. Controls the Scene is helpful for keeping the public and victims safe, Finds What’s Lost is a great search-and-rescue option, and Shuts Death’s Door is an excellent healer focus without a single laying on of hands. Since there’s already a “modern” genre chapter in the Cypher System Rulebook, there’s already a lot of support for this game even before you get into the specifics of playing a first responder.
At this point it’s worth noting that First Responders is written with a limited scope in mind. Disasters will “often be one-shots” according to the book since having a team of medics responding to medical crisis after medical crisis is a great career path but it’s hard to make a story that way without repetitiveness (just ask season 18 of Grey’s Anatomy). If you want to do a longer First Responders campaign, you probably want to use rosters of characters, a group of characters that all “belong” to one player who swaps them in and out as needed. If you spend XP to advance one character in the roster then all of them advance, and new characters added to the roster get those bumps retroactively. I remember this from Dark Sun back in the day, though there it was because of the high mortality rate of PCs. Here, though, you might make a team of firefighters for your first session against a forest fire, then when you play again and the community is facing flooding you make a team out of search-and-rescue operators and evacuation medics. Maybe there’s an EMT that’s part of the team both times.
The point is, you don’t have to write in a reason why someone’s fire containment specialist is involved in a train derailment or flu outbreak or whatever. That person just plays another character for that disaster. If your team is missing one valuable character because that player wants to play someone else from their roster, there are a ton of very detailed NPCs to fill out your crew and since making NPCs is a cinch in the Cypher System you can include background players with ease (using the rules for followers in the Cypher System Rulebook). The book also notes that you’re like to only reach Tier 3 at the highest in First Responders because of the short nature of the stories. In fact, the responder type and the new foci only list up to Tier 3 abilities; after that you could use the generic abilities from the Cypher System Rulebook to keep going. Personally, I think this limitation is much more about avoiding an epically-powerful firefighter smiting a burning building with a single spray so you should probably just restart if you get that high. Just move to a different city and start over.
Disasters and Scenarios
So one of the best design elements of First Responders is that disasters work like monsters. They have levels, they have a pool of “hit points” called threat that characters wear down by dealing suppression, they have abilities, and they come in different tiers. Likewise, characters have protective gear which provides armor against disasters’ damage and they have “weapons” like a backpack pump or a fire extinguisher to deal suppression. This means that the rules are familiar and that it’s easy to transfer in between so that if your focus says you deal damage with an attack then now you deal suppression. The equipment categories are the same too (inexpensive, moderate, etc) so all the rules for everything are 100% compatible in both directions.
Disasters in the game are broken up through the challenge system into goals and encounters. A goal is something to cross off the list to indicate how well you’re doing in this disaster scenario. These goals might be achievable goals, things that can be done on a person-level to alleviate the widespread damage, and amalgamated goals, sets of objectives that can add up to success. For an epidemic, for example, you might have the achievable goal of “locate the original source of the outbreak” and an amalgamated goal of “set up a treatment center in town” (which means picking a spot, setting up the tent, placing equipment, etc). Sprinkled into these overarching goals are succinct encounters which zoom in on the action of a particular place. For the epidemic example, there might be an encounter with a victim who has information on a source, a faceoff with a frightened crowd that needs to be calmed, and a belligerent patient who refuses to accept that they’re infected and tries to force their way out of quarantine. These first-person scenes are intended as focal points to the bigger narratives of discussing your efforts, often the result of GM intrusions.
This is not a one-way exercise either, the objectives of the amalgamated goals and the order of the encounters are often determined by the Incident Action Plan created by the players. When they arrive on a scene they quickly assess the scene and set objectives, which gives the GM their work, and then the players create a plan then implement the plan to set things moving. In my experience, there’s a natural lull after objectives are set where the players start talking about options and preferences and this is where a GM can sketch out some options for the story, using the swiftness and versatility of the Cypher System.
They can prep this ahead of time and work on the fly using disaster building blocks to construct the overall disaster. One very common building block is fires which receive a lot of attention as a result (I’ve tried making disasters without them but they almost always show up). The book provides six levels of fire from the level 1 simple fire of about a foot in diameter to the level 6 intimidating fire that can fill an entire short area. Something truly massive like a forest fire is going to be beyond the crew’s ability to tackle at once but they could try to suppress a level 6 section of it, especially to keep a road open or what have you. Fires get threat as normal (five times level) and inflict damage according to level, but they get worse at Speed defense as they get big (you can’t really miss a burning forest with your attack). Fires spread as their action and spreading three times turns it into a fire of the next higher level (though you can suppress it enough to prevent its spread that round) and bigger fires can attack as well as spread and spawn smaller fires. There are rules for choking on smoke, flashover events, suffering from burns… These are very dynamic adversaries.
Similar building blocks are provided for floods and unstable buildings (viruses are more abstracted) and you can mix and match to ramp things up: maybe the flood causes a propane tank to explode into a fire or moving into a burned-out town leads to negotiating a lot of unstable buildings looking for survivors or remains. Also, throughout these disasters you are using Disaster Mode (similar to Horror Mode from the from the Cypher System Rulebook) which means as the scenario unfolds GM intrusions start to happen on more and more low rolls so that those focal encounters happen more and more as well. To add to this, the book provides notes on disasters in other genres so that you can have zero-G fires in The Stars are Fire, volcanoes in Numenera, floods in Stay Alive, earthquakes in The Strange, etc. You also get a short list of subtle cyphers to outfit characters with (my favorite is Dumb Luck which provides some magical game moments). In the back are some great reference sheets, tracking sheets, and some great sample characters showing the broad range of characters possible in First Responders.
Before those, though, we have a set of scenarios to dive straight into, grouped by disaster type. If you want to tackle a fire as a group you can use the detailed scenarios of a house fire, a wildfire (I started here… maybe work your way up), a skyscraper fire, and a fire in an industrial complex. You could also try to deal with a volcanic eruption or try to mitigate a flood with a flooded neighborhood due to a rising river or a dam breach which is truly harrowing. Earthquake scenarios focus on the aftermath of evacuating folks from a collapsed motel or prepping a city for a magnitude 8.0 (!!!) earthquake after some initial shockwaves are felt. A relatively small-scale nuclear disaster is provided in the form of a crashed transport truck that was full of radioactive waste, while “Fever in the Heartland” shows how a pandemic scenario might unfold… in case you haven’t had enough of that sort of thing in recent years.
I started off this review saying I was very excited for this game and I wasn’t disappointed. Just based on the new type, the guidance on running tense situations, and the entire presentation of disasters and disaster mechanics, I think this book is definitely worth the purchase. The addition of disasters in other genres is a bonus that is particularly great and I look forward to bringing these into my next Numenera foray.
I do wish that there was a little more in the way of advice on expanding things, specifically adding in other Cypher types and running longer campaigns of First Responders. I’m entirely onboard with the idea that characters in the typical First Responders setting should be overwhelmingly responders in type, but if someone wants to branch out I find myself struggling to think of examples that make sense. Also, with the use of disasters in different genres, I’d love to know how to make a glaive or a nano succeed when I bring that volcano (or whatever) into Numenera but currently I’m on my own. Maybe there will be a glimmer down the road but that’s a blank spot in this book. The second lack is about longer campaigns. I know that having high-tier characters will start to get silly but what if your players’ characters all hit Tier 3 and you want to keep going? Should you lean heavily into player intrusions? Should you restart with rookie characters trained by the vets? Are there organizational resources at that level which PCs could spend their XP on? I can come up with all these answers but I’d love to know what the authors think.
All in all, though, this book is great. It’s got that physical-action-without-combat niche covered and is both imaginative and familiar in how it applies the Cypher rules to this new situation. I love it and I’m already planning the next disaster to inflict onto the world for some poor first responders crew to respond to.
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