If you’re anything like me, you begin reading Galveston adventures thinking “What, another retroclone named after a city in Texas? Does every roleplaying group need to take their houserules for The Dallas RPG and publish them as their own separate game?” But like many other Dallas heartbreakers, Galveston contains a few really clever, innovative ideas. I just wish that the designers had been confident enough to discard more of the Old Soap Renaissance baggage and create something more original. Are we always going to be playing in the field of soap operas set in 1980s era Texas? Could we at least update the setting to modern day?
Most of the game follows heavily from the original Dallas rpg. You have the same essential core mechanic, a very similar list of attributes and a set of goals that involve uncovering secrets and gaining control over specific groups or NPCs. Like many Dallas clones, Galveston adds a combat system, which I feel is a mistake. It detracts from the real core of the game. The importance of JR being shot wasn’t how he was shot, it was the mystery that arose from there.
You have a pregenerated cast of characters with no character generation rules. This is fine for some games (I quite like the cast of PCs in King of Houston). But Galveston’s cast is full of wishy-washy uninspiring PCs with dull motivations (e.g., “Goal: Investigate accounting errors at Buck Wapnow’s cattle ranch”). This lack of strong situation and drama plagues the entire game. Who cares who secretly runs the Chicken Hut?
Even though the locations are uninteresting, I do like the rules for secretly seizing control of locations, organizations and NPCs. There’s a secret bidding system, whereby you know when people bid, but not how much. You can use this to fake out other players in various ways: making several small bids may seem like you’re investing more than you really are. One large bid may fly under the other player’s radars. Investigation rolls can reveal some about the bids given, which helps make investigative PCs useful.
When someone finally reveals their secret control, they get a bonus based on how heavily invested they are. At that point, the secret bidding is closed on that resource, but other players can later reveal they had even more invested in the NPC or group, and that the resource was really working for them. This makes for entertaining reversals in play. Once, during our playtest, one player miscalculated his secret total, which led to some rules confusion. Clearer rules on how to handle this situation would be helpful.
Closely tied into the secret bidding is a system called “Foreshadowing”. Each secret, goal and NPC or group has a list of 5 hints that you can use, and each hint also applies to several different secrets. On your turn, you can insert into your narration a hint pointing toward one of your secrets, goals or hidden control of a resource. When you finally win the Big Reveal bonus from bringing out your secret, each hint that you gave adds a multiplier onto the bonus (there’s a chart). but each hint also makes it more likely that an Investigating PC could discover your secret and steal that Reveal Bonus for themselves. Hints are a risky maneuver, but can really pay off. This subsystem can make for really interesting play, but it also limits replayability: once you know which hints point where, it becomes easy to steal the Reveal Bonus from another player.
These new mechanics suggest to me that the designers could have made a really interesting, innovative game if they had abandoned some of the ideas carried over from the Dallas RPG. Or that they had made a setting out of Galveston that had enough drama to really sustain interest in the game. But as it is, I doubt that this retroclone can survive in an RPG marketplace already overcrowded with Dallas heartbreakers, TV soap systems and big budget licensed television drama games.