RPG Review: Streets of Bedlam by @jasonlblair – Life in Savage Worlds isn’t always black and white
As a full disclosure I am reviewing Streets of Bedlam by Jason L. Blair having read through a copy of the PDF (available from DriveThruRPG for $14.99). I have not had an opportunity to try it in action yet (although I would love to), but I’d like to think that I’ve played enough roleplaying games in my day that I am pretty good at evaluating these things.
What is it?
Streets of Bedlam is a sourcebook for Pinnacle Entertainment’s Savage Worlds Deluxe Edition game system. To use Streets of Bedlam fully you will need a copy of Savage Worlds. If you like roleplaying games even a little bit, you should probably have a copy anyway. It was one of the first smaller press games that I fell in love with and does a really good job of creating a game system that creates a good deal of crunch and plenty of ability to be expanded (tons of that) with a streamlined system that is really very easy. Streets of Bedlam contains a setting and rules for playing a neo-noir (think Sin City or whatever your favorite example of the genre is) game with that system. As Blair says, it’s a game where people do bad things for good reasons. It’s dark, violent, and gritty. It’s a world that looks black and white, but everything is really shades of gray. It also has some fantastic art by Shawn Gaston to set the mood. Man, I love that art.
What’s in the book?
Streets of Bedlam is long at about 250 pages, and almost 35 of those are background on the setting, almost 60 pages is characters of various degrees of detail (many with full write-ups and many with one or two sentence blurbs that give you some nice character ideas), and probably about half of the 66 or so pages about archetypes is setting stuff. Putting that together you see that just over half of the book (Give or take a little) is setting stuff. The rest of it is rules about various things.
Honestly, if you want to run a neo-noir game in any system and want a great, fully-fleshed out city to use, I would recommend you pick up Streets of Bedlam just for the first section. The writing is all in-genre. Short declarative sentences. The kind of thing you would see in a detective novel. Streets of Bedlam takes place in a Bedlam, which is really two cities: the upper-class Bedford and the rough-and-tumble Lamrose. The book gives you a ton of detail on both, although I will say that Lamrose is by far the more interesting side of the setting, which is no great surprise. I found the locations to be far more interesting and Blair’s write-ups did a great job of sparking ideas for things to have the characters doing. Virtually every location made me think “oh, I could have a group go there and have this happening”. You also get a nice list of random place names if you are in a pinch in the middle of a session (or you are plotting) and you need a place for something to happen, as well as some street names.
After the setting material, you get all of the archetypes for Streets of Bedlam. Class, races, whatever you want to call them in other systems, these give you a mood-setting one page write-up about that archetype (All of which are stereotypes from the genre or from Bedlam, specifically) and the bonus Edges and Hindrances you start with as well as a really awesome system where you make an extra decision after you choose your archetype that sets up something your character has done in the past. Something that will, inevitably, come back and bite them. I have found that many players need an extra nudge to develop their background, so making it mechanical in this case (as well as a simplified, three sentence description system that I will likely use in almost every other game I play) seems like a great decision to make sure everyone’s character has something interesting that you can use. You don’t have to use the archetypes but, I think, after reading them you will want to. Blair does everything possible throughout Streets of Bedlam to get you thinking in-genre and the archetypes are just another example of that. A little later in the book there are tons of full character write-ups of the majors players in Streets of Bedlam and describes a lot of the metaplot (which Blair does a good job of making interesting, but optional, always a trick). Beyond a bunch of Wild Card characters (that get nice, full page write-ups and stat boxes), there is also a fantastic system for quick-stating NPCs. You can have a “tough and dumb beat cop” in about five seconds. I would love to see a lot more of these pre-prepped, mix and match skill blocks. There are also dozens of short character write-ups (description only, I believe they are the names of Kickstarter contributors) that can give you a person of interest in a pinch.
Streets of Bedlam is not just a setting book (although it is a great setting book), however. It also includes a list of new skills, edges, and hindrances to use in your Savage Worlds game that are all theme appropriate. More exciting than that are the subsystems. I love subsystems. Honestly. I do. Blair creates four for Streets of Bedlam: Rep, Interrogation, Investigation, Ultraviolence, and Role. For me, having a nice subset of rules for a particular activity screams “This is important.” Yeah, you could do a simple skill check and be done with it, but that doesn’t give the thing enough of its due. All of the systems appear to be very nicely made. Rep lets you have a different reputation with each of three groups (Authority, Public, and Underworld) and also lets you use someone else’s Rep (if you name drop and appropriate person or have something symbolizing them) to try and get your way with an appropriate group. So, say you’re known as a cop and have a negative reputation with the underworld. Well, maybe it will help if you pull out the note from the mob boss you have temporarily aligned yourself with to catch a murderer. Interrogation has you trying to get enough successes over a number of rounds (with appropriate narrative in between) without drawing a Club (you’ll understand once you read Savage Worlds). Investigations is a particularly clever system that has you drawing cards to determine how hard it is to find clues about each phase of a crime that was committed (or whatever you are investigating). It also gives you a nice guideline for the narrative flow of something that often devolves into “I roll to see what I can find.” Ultra-violence is probably my favorite of the subsystems (along with Rep) which lets you roll in certain situations to do particularly gruesome damage to your foe. It’s nicely genre appropriate and adds a nice narrative flair to the whole thing. Finally, Role lets you set out what your character’s role is going to be in this particular session. It gives a great guide to the person running the game of what you want to have happen, it lets the players create a narrative structure at the outset, and it – systemically – gives you a couple of extra ways to spend bennies that session.
The last talk of the book is some information about story structure and then a full Plot Point campaign to get you into Streets of Bedlam. It is 13 acts by my count (some of which could be optional or written out depending on what your players do, obviously) and each one contains between one and four scenes. Blair manages to cover a lot of contingencies and it is a nice ready-to-go adventure to get you comfortable with the setting. Obviously, I can’t say how it plays in action, but it reads well and it gives you a good feel for the tone of the game – especially the dialogue. There is also a nice list of quick story seeds if you need to get a game together in a pinch, or just need some inspiration.
You can probably tell from reading this that I came away very impressed by Streets of Bedlam. It is well-written and gives you a ton of material, both rules and setting. If you are at all in the market for a neo-noir roleplaying game setting (even if you don’t use Savage Worlds, although especially if you do), I can wholeheartedly encourage you to pick up Streets of Bedlam. It’s a great read with tons of good information and an interesting setting that takes pieces from a great genre and puts them together into a complete product. It is available from DriveThruRPG for $14.99 right now with a printed book to follow, as well as a full line of other products, including Five-Story Drop, additional scenarios for Streets of Bedlam, which is due out in August.
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Michael is an enthusiast about a lot of things, including indie games, roleplaying games, board games, and comic books that wanted to help create a place where he could bring things to the attention of those with similar interests. Futile Position is a true labor of labor, which he hopes continues to grow through the support of the great readers who have come upon this page.