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Subject: A semi-review of John Wick's Cat rss

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Steffan O'Sullivan
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This is a semi-review, meaning I've thoroughly read the book, the hard parts many times, but have not yet played it.

A Word of Warning Up Front to Those Readers Who Do Not Like Cats

This is an article about a game in which players take the roles of cats. It is not meant for people who do not like cats. I, as a cat lover, will probably grow maudlin discussing cats in this article, and those of you who dislike cats will probably feel revulsion. Please don't subject yourself to that. Hit the browser Back button now and spare yourself. I mean you no harm, and this article just won't be your cup of tea. Trust me.

What You Get

Okay, everyone reading at this point should:

A) Love, like, or at least not dislike cats; and
B) Understand that the PCs in the game are ordinary cats - not humans, not feline humanoids, not lions or tigers or weres. Just Felis catus, with no thumbs.

Cat has been published as a small paperback booklet just over 40 pages, and as a PDF document, available on the net in various places. The table of contents is pretty thorough, and lists:

* An introductory short piece of fiction
* What you need to play
* Making a cat character
* Taking Risks
* Healing
* Fighting
* Reputation
* Lives (as in, Nine)
* Style
* Magic
* Storytelling
* Advanced Rules
* GM Advice
* Storytelling in the Kingdom of Dreams
* Dreaming Rules
* Cat Adventures
* Cross-genre Cat
* Natural Enemies
* Boggins
* Fictional Facts & Factual Folklores
* Last Words

A lot for such a small booklet!

Over half the book is the "GM's section", which is not meant for players' eyes, so I won't detail too much information from that section.

The text is pleasantly broken up with what looks to be copyright-free illustrations of cats, mostly, as well as sidebars, bold headers and bullet points. It's easy on the eyes, with enough white space to make it very readable. All in all, a nice little booklet.

The Setting, as the Players Know It

In legendary times, all the creatures sent a hero to battle with the other species' heroes to see who was the strongest, and who the weakest. No tools or hand-held weapons were allowed. Humans were the losers, and cats, of course the winners. The dogs came in second and resent the cats to this day, but that's a side story.

The main story is that the loser had to serve the winner for all time, but the winner had to protect the loser for all time. And so humans, at least good ones, pamper cats to this day. And cats, at least the good ones, protect humans from Boggins, which humans cannot see, but cats can.

Boggins are evil spirit creatures that feed on humans. They come in different varieties, causing things such as couch-potato-hood, worry-wartism, depression, and other maladies of the human spirit. Cats fight Boggins, and the human who lives with a cat is lucky, indeed, and won't suffer from Boggin-induced ailments.

Cats can also travel in dreamland, and have powers there, enabling them to communicate with humans. The problem is to get the humans to remember it when they wake up ...

And so stage is set for the game: the GM provides all kind of Boggins, dogs, mean people, traffic and other difficult situations for the cats to overcome, and the player characters must meet the challenges boldly, yet with style, as becomes cats.

On a personal note, I'm not allowed to have cats in my current living situation and I must say I feel the effects of Boggins. There is a heaviness in my life that gets me down sometimes, which is relieved by visiting a cat for a while. My last two cats, Ivan and Gus, were such magnificent cats that they received more Christmas cards than I did, with a little "P.S., tell that guy you live with Merry Christmas, too," tacked on the end. And they really did keep Boggins away from me, I'm sure. What I'm trying to say is that because of them, I know this game is true. (See, I warned those cat-haters not to read this far ...)

Character Creation

Cats have six Traits (such as Claws, Coat, Tail, Legs, etc.), which serve as broad skill groups. A player picks one trait to be his Best trait (value 5), then three others to be Strong traits (value 4 each). The final two traits are Good traits. This feels very generous for players to start out with, but I suspect you need the cushion - you lose trait values as you take wounds.

The Tail trait is used for magic, BTW, and the author explains that those cats without a physical tail still have a magical Tail trait that can work magic tricks.

Cats then start with at least three Reputations, which are pretty free-form. The players can pick any Reputations they want, such as "Rat Catcher", or "the Unseen". You then allot seven points to your reputations, with three as a maximum value. In a situation in which your reputation could logically impact your Risk-taking, you can add the reputation bonus to the appropriate trait.

Add three names and nine lives, and you're done.

Game Mechanics

Cat uses The Advantage System - click on the link to find my Appreciation for this system. Basically, it's a dice pool system which allows players, if they're willing, to add to the story in order to earn extra dice to roll. It reads very well, and I'm looking forward to actually trying it.

So if my character's Legs Trait is Strong (4 dice) and I have a reputation as a Great Leaper (2), I'm already rolling six dice. If I then describe the situation in such a way as to give me an advantage, the GM is encouraged to award me at least one more die for contributing to the story - nice!

The GM sets a difficulty target number, usually 1-4, and even numbers are successes.

Nine Lives are much like Fudge points, meaning the player can spend them to influence the game in various ways. But they don't recharge each session, so spend them wisely.

Style is something cats excel at, of course, so there must be a rule for it. And there is: if you roll more successes than you need, you may either save the excess to use later, or spend them to improve the situation in which you took the risk. The rulebook gives the example of a cat, chased by a dog, racing in front of cars and needing to roll three successes to avoid the cars. He rolls four - and spends the extra as a Style point to announce that a car slams on the brakes and so blocks the dog long enough for the cat to get completely away.

Magic is fairly mild in this game, being more "tricks" than spells. This includes such things as landing on all fours, hiding in plain sight, sneaking by vigilant dogs and through closed doors, etc. Looks like fun to play with, though!

I must say at this point that the magic rules are not very clear. At one point the author says you roll dice, but there are no rules for what you need to roll, and he even implies later that you don't need to roll dice. The Bauble Curse is thrown into the middle of this section, and though I've read it almost a dozen times, I have no idea what his intention of the game mechanics relating to it are supposed to be.

It's okay - he later says it's not the kind of game to get uptight over rules but to hold them loosely. But I'd still kind of like to understand his intentions, at least. But it's minor, I'll let it go.

The GM Section

The rest of the book is the GM section, and contains some very good advice. It's not really for novice GMs, though. Oh, some of it is, but I think you'd be lost trying to play this game as a novice GM. No, the advice is more for GMs of more traditional RPGs coming to a "story RPG" for the first time. And it's a few pages long and helpful stuff, I recommend it.

After that, he describes gaming in the Dreamworld, which cats should visit at least once per game session, I imagine, knowing how much cats sleep. This is also well done, and I have a good sense of what he's getting at here.

There are two pages of suggested adventure seeds, but they're not very well detailed. Definitely not for a novice GM - you'll need some experience (and imagination) to run this game. The seeds will get you started, but after that you're on your own.

I do like the Cross-Genre Cat suggestions for running a cat PC in another game, though! That would also require a flexible GM, but I'd love to do it sometime.

The section on Natural Enemies details dogs (still jealous that the cats won the contest in legendary times, but mostly on the human's side), rats, mean people, and five different types of Boggins with hints on how to create others. This section is well done and worth reading.

Finally, the game ends with cat facts and folklore. While it's an interesting collection, covering nine pages, I knew all but maybe a page's worth of it. But then, I know and love cats, so perhaps the section is more useful to other players to help them understand cats better.

My Opinion of the Game, and Other Cat Games

By now you've gathered that:

* I love cats;
* I like this game quite a bit: character creation, mechanics, setting;
* I find some parts wanting, others a bit overdone, but most of it is very good
* I really, really want to play/run it sometime!

So, about 90% of it is an excellent product, and that pretty much sums it up.

I have three other games which focus (at least 50%) on cats as PCs. (I actually have another dozen games in which it's possible to play cats, but they're just one of many possible animals you can play.)

Of these four games, Cat by John Wick (this game) is my most to my taste. The others have their strengths, all of them, but also their weaknesses, at least to my mind.

Closest to this game in setting is Cat RPG. Hmmm, hmmm, hmmm. This is either a case of parallel evolution (although that one is published a few years later) or it borrowed heavily from John Wick's game. You have the same legendary contest, the same contest results, invisible beings that drain humans (called Snufles instead of Boggins), and the same general setting.

However, the system is very different and, to my taste, inferior. (You randomly roll traits, then add a single d20 roll to match a target number. The mathematician in me cringes at trying to come up with meaningful target numbers for randomly rolled traits plus a die with a large standard deviation - oof!)

The book is much shorter, not as well detailed or well-written, has no magic, and overall is simply not as satisfying.

Its saving grace is something that only real Cat Lovers (such as myself) will think is a good thing: it goes into a little more detail about tying cat facts into the story. When a cat leaps on your face when you're sleeping, it's knocking a Snufle off. When a cat bats at you as you walk by, it's batting a Snufle's tendril, of course. Dogs enjoy the feelings they get of Snufles feeding off people, which is why they hate cats and do everything they can to make people keep dogs close to them. Birds' nests are also breeding grounds for Snufles eggs. Mice are on the side of the Snufles, and can even interfere with a cat's ability to drive Snufles off. This is soothing reading that makes perfect sense to me, so I can forgive a lot in the book. Except that game mechanic.

Another game in which you can play a cat can be found in Worlds of Cthulhu (Issue 4). This is an English translation (and slight enlargement) of two articles originally written German. This is delightful, and the only reason I say it's not to my taste is that I'm not fond of the percentile system used by CoC, and I'm not much into horror games. And this supplement is firmly rooted in the Cthulhu mythos. But if that doesn't bother you, and you love cats, hunt this book down and get this supplement! You'll love it! (I bought mine online at Warehouse 23.)

H.P. Lovecraft was a cat lover, and cats appear in a few of his stories, usually in a positive light. In Cathulhu, the PCs are cats facing the same enemies that human PCs would. It's a very detailed approach, with lots of different ways to customize your cat, and advice on running the game. Recommended if you like the percentile dice mechanic, and absolutely essential for a cat-loving person who's also an avid Cthulhu player.

Finally, and the oldest of the lot, I own and have actually played and run Woof Meow. This is heavily influenced by both T&T and GURPS, and is not a bad game at all. It's just showing its age a little bit.

Fully 50% of the book is devoted to dog PCs, but the rest is pure cat. It's skill-based, with a respectable list of skills ("Streetwise" in this game is crossing the street without getting hit by a car!), but a triply long list of magic spells for each species.

I played it at GenCon, run by the game designer, and enjoyed it enough to buy it. I've run it for my sister-and-law and nieces, and they had a blast (three cats and a dog) and ended up saving the neighborhood park from an unscrupulous contractor and crooked local politician. Not bad for cats and a dog!

I would play this again, but the system is showing its age, and I'd be more likely to translate it to Fudge, which would be a piece of cake. I don't think the long spell lists would work in John Wick's game, and I like them enough to want to keep them, if I ran that setting.

So, that's that. He who dislikes the cat, was in his former life a rat. (An old saying, honest - a former landlady of mine, born in 1925, had it in needlepoint that her grandmother had done in her youth.)

If you love cats, look into one of these games. And if the Advantage System sounds like something you'd enjoy, make it this one.


[Note: this is part of my series of semi-reviews of Indie game products.]

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Richard
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Excellent 5 in 1 review!

The Ivan and Gus story was very moving soblue
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Dave Bernazzani
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I picked up John Wick's Cat for under $6 on PDF recently and can say it was a fantastic read! Admittedly, I'm a cat lover and will be reading this aloud to my feline girls.

I'm looking forward to seeing this one hit the table.

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Chad Bowser
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Thanks for the review. I have and enjoy both Cat and Cathulhu, but wasn't familiar with Woof Meow. I'm a huge cat fan myself, my wife and I have six and we volunteer with a feline rescue org (one guess where our cats came from).

I've been looking for a game system use for Evan Dvorkin's Beasts of Burden. Woof Meow might be just the ticket.
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Steffan O'Sullivan
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"We talked a little more of Milesians and Firbolgs; but I do not write what he told me here, as it is at variance with things I have written already, as is often the case with legend, whence comes a pleasing variety." -Lord Dunsany
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cjbowser wrote:
Thanks for the review. I have and enjoy both Cat and Cathulhu, but wasn't familiar with Woof Meow. I'm a huge cat fan myself, my wife and I have six and we volunteer with a feline rescue org (one guess where our cats came from).

I've been looking for a game system use for Evan Dvorkin's Beasts of Burden. Woof Meow might be just the ticket.

Yes, it might at that. There's also Dawg the RPG (Second Edition), which is easier to find, I imagine.

Tell you what I'll do, though: tonight I'll look through Woof Meow again and post a more thorough description to that page. It won't be a review, but it'll at least give you an idea of what the game contains.

Edit: and see also http://rpg.geekdo.com/geeklist/44966 for other games with rules for playing animals.
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Steffan O'Sullivan
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"We talked a little more of Milesians and Firbolgs; but I do not write what he told me here, as it is at variance with things I have written already, as is often the case with legend, whence comes a pleasing variety." -Lord Dunsany
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sos1 wrote:
Tell you what I'll do, though: tonight I'll look through Woof Meow again and post a more thorough description to that page. It won't be a review, but it'll at least give you an idea of what the game contains.

This is now done - in the forums, under General.
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