Trouble for Hire
By Kevin Allen Jr and NDP Design
Ruben looked at Jake’s Boys sat drinking and talking shit at a table in the dead centre of Shelly’s Bar. He needed to keep to a low profile if he was going to leave without any trouble. If he kept to his corner and didn’t raise a ruckus they’d be out of here soon enough. He sipped the harsh bourbon and thought of the bottles out in the desert. They’d been buried somewhere back in the day and would pay something fierce if he got his hands on them. Of course, he might have to keep a bottle for himself, too.
He looked at the bag he’d been given, too big to contain a normal map. Curiosity got the better of him and checking that Jake’s Boys weren’t looking his way, Ruben put his hand in the bag. He felt gristle and fur. Inside the bag was a dead hare, making him grimace for a moment before he saw the markings tattooed on it. He laid the hare out on the table, rolled the thing on its back and saw the map.
“What the—“ he started. Then the hare’s back legs twitched. Ruben quickly moved his drink away from the map which was beginning to shake and move in front of his eyes. The hare was definitely dead when he took it out of the bag, but still, somehow it was getting up. He stared, transfixed for a moment by the eyes of the creature, then it darted away, skittering through the bar. Ruben slugged back what was left of the bourbon and gave chase, hearing the shouts of Jake’s Boys as the hare knocked their drinks over.
“That didn’t last long,” Ruben said, his hand reaching down for a gun he realised had been left in his car. He wasn’t lucky enough for Jake’s Boys to have done the same. “Any chance one of you boys could lend me a firearm?”
Roleplaying games often have each player controlling a hero of their making. Trouble For Hire doesn’t do that. Here, you all take turns controlling Ruben Carlos Ruiz. Yes, not just one character but one specific character who the game already made for you. In this game, we play his adventures in the parts of America that still grow wild and live with the ghosts of older, weirder times.
If you think of Desperado, Logan or the Every Which Way films, then you’re getting there. Add in some of the New Mexico desert and endless skies of Breaking Bad’s cinematic style for good measure, too. Trouble For Hire deals with a hero who’s a bit of an anachronism, a kind of modern cowboy who’s outside of the era he was born into. Ruben is a mercenary, travelling in an old car through roads where no one civilised would go, carrying out crimes and helping those in need. The book and the writing style are bright, bombastic and filled with chaotic fun.
The game presents a number of different stories to play with Ruben, each almost like a film of their own with a beginning, middle and end. It also gives the tools to make your own stories, too.
One player will always take the role of Ruben, but there are different roles which players can take in order to make sure everyone’s involved in progressing his story. Like an asymmetrical board game, each role does something different and has their own rules on handy little cards you can pass around. The roles are:
Ruben Carlos Ruiz – Our hero. He’s the one who makes die rolls when there’s a challenge, so his sheet includes the success levels and the ‘kick’ for actions, which I’ll get to shortly.
Los Campañero – The sidekick or friend. This could be one ally or a series of them. They can do things to help out Ruben, but they may not stick around forever as Ruben’s a taciturn loner anti-hero.
La Villanos – The bad guys, whether it’s an individual villain or several of them. Whoever’s playing the villain/s in a scene can challenge Ruben with chases, fights, anything with direct conflict.
The Road – The setting itself. You’re narrating a sandstorm, heat stroke, vultures overhead. You provide challenges from the world against Ruben.
Los Espectadores – Everyone who’s not an ally or villain. The rest of the people. You could make Ruben feel like an outsider or maybe give him shelter when he needs it.
The Rider – Foil and friend alike, The Rider haunts these stories as a teacher and occasional rival to Ruben. She’s chaotic and intriguing, able to help or hinder depending on where the narrative goes.
La Extraño – The weird shit. This isn’t entirely a real world. It works on weird, dramatic rules even before the weirdness takes over. Vision quests, a witch on the highway, or as shown above a map tattooed on a hare which springs to life.
The Editor – Where everyone represents something either physical or symbolic, the editor is just there. They can put words in people’s mouths, flashback and retake scenes. They recap after breaks and can juggle in roles which aren’t in use.
At the start of a scene, someone is Ruben and other people pick from the list of roles in play, as the premade scenarios lock in certain roles when you use them. Everyone plays until a challenge is issued and then Ruben needs to roll. He has to decide whether he’s using his vehicle, using violence or being a wild card. Each of these bring a different ‘kick’ menu into play, relating to what he’s doing. Again, I’ll get to the kick in a moment. Patience.
Ruben’s player rolls a couple of dice, assigning one to the result and one to the kick. The result is like a lot of these games, a higher number is a better result. Five or six is best, three to four is a conditional success and one or two must be bought out of failure using the game’s currency of RPM. The kick (see, we got there eventually) is the separate effect which is applied to the result. So maybe you do well but Ruben gets knocked out. The table of kick effects are fantastic at making each roll a compromise between doing well and not getting kicked around for it. Maybe you decide that Ruben can live with a compromised success because you’d prefer to spend a ‘6’ on being able to outrun the enemy and establish where the next scene starts.
There’s a thing I’ve not told you about so far, the currency which powers all of this. RPM. What’s it stand for? Don’t ask questions, that’s what it stands for. You all start with a small amount of RPM and there’ll be a big stack on the table. Any role except for Ruben and the Editor just spend RPM. They have ways of clawing it back, but overall it means that you need to be selecting different roles every time the scene changes, or using The Editor & Ruben’s abilities to swap roles around.
If La Villanos wants Jake’s Boys to fight Ruben then they spend RPM to make that happen. This currency makes sure people are triggering mechanics and making drama for Ruben. It also marks progress on the adventure’s sheet. Every ten RPM spent causes a new ‘Mile Marker’, which is something like ‘Asking the wrong guy for directions’ or ‘Jake’s Boys track you down’. They’re things which will be happening in this leg of the story. Some will pile up if they’re not dealt with, making the situation feel damn near insurmountable, although Ruben’s a good guy and can fight through it all if he’s got the right combination of luck and grit.
The Mile Markers also signal a forced change of scene, but this time everyone hands their roles into the centre of the table. Someone picks Ruben and everyone else takes what’s left. Any roles not taken get an RPM on them as an incentive to choose them in future scenes and to keep things varied. Sometimes you get folks like The Rider who won’t appear for ages but will grant you a ton of RPM when she does, or others like The Road who might see so much use they never get a break.
The story ends when you’re out of markers, so initial spends of RPM are freewheeling and fine, getting the measure of how it all goes. Then near the end you start to blaze through Mile Markers as everything goes to hell. The end of the story looms quickly and the choices in challenges and edits becomes focused and deliberate.
The book itself is beautiful, a colourful square object with a combination of drawn art simple in form with bold colours, and photographs with huge bold text proclamations on it. “Rally Your Amigos, Let’s Tell a Story” it virtually shouts at you when you open the book.
There’s also a Traffic Light system which is the game’s version of the X Card or other safety tools. The lights have Red for ‘No’, Yellow for ‘Tread carefully’ if people get close to problematic or upsetting content and Green for ‘That’s Awesome!’ Which can be spend as a free use of RPM. The different safety tool mechanics are good in different games and groups, and something I like is when they get baked into a game like this. By having the lights and mechanising the green light as something to spend for free RPM means that it naturalises the presence of the safety elements as well.
You’ll need to print out the role cards if you’re playing this. I made sure my cards were in colour and on nice card as they were going to get passed around a lot. I printed and cut out the traffic lights and a few adventure sheets for when I run this again. If there’s one criticism here it’s that I couldn’t see adventure sheets pre-filled in with the contents of the adventures in the book. I let the group pick the adventure we were playing, which meant I had to quickly fill in an adventure sheet with all the details while also explaining the rules to the group. Along with this you need a load of tokens and a few six-sided dice.
I’ve only played one game of Trouble For Hire, where we used the Whiskey in the Desert scenario. Ruben was chasing after some ancient whiskey in the desert while trying to avoid Jake’s Boys who were also searching for it. The scenario had some premade characters to use like Shelly Blackbear, Las Tres Brujas and Jake, The Texan Asshole. It also had some locations as things we could use, both in the Mile Markers and listed out in the adventure. There was one rule which was that Ruben couldn’t get any dramatic injuries until we find the score. Other scenarios have different rules, like locking down The Rider until later in the story.
Our Ruben had a hard time from the start, alerting Jake’s Boys and trying to rescue the undead map from them. The player of Ruben had him steal a car, so rather than ‘well actually’ and mention he had a car, I just went with that. It was probably for the best as Ruben drove through a sandstorm and ended up jumping through the windscreen of the car and into the back of a camper van Jake’s Boys were using.
He fought everyone there, grabbed the map and crashed. There were some odd visions from a trailer park in the middle of the storm, made more confusing when Ruben woke and found no one there.
The Federales started to get involved in the chase, hunting Ruben down after the car theft and subsequent crashes. Officer Mendez was on the take, working with Jake (until he could betray him). Ruben was briefly helped by The Rider in a gunfight with Jake’s Boys, but the map took a bullet which tore an essential part of it. He made his way to Masada and Shelly Blackbear, who introduced him to Hatchet, a low-rent Machete… affordable for the budget of the story we were telling, which was sometimes narrated as a cheap film. We took a break and as we forgot about Hatchet, there was a quickly ADR’d goodbye and a silhouetted version of him driving off as we could only afford Hatchet for a scene.
Back on his own, Ruben raced to the score in an old farmhouse with its own ghosts eager to keep the place secure from thieves. Jake and Officer Mendez showed up for a final firefight, only to have Mendez betray and murder Jake. Ruben fled through the house as the Federales lit it up. A ghost in the house pointed Ruben to the basement where he hid, finding the whiskey and a place to keep safe from the fire while the ghost disposed of Officer Mendez and his men.
The group managed to get into the shifting player roles quickly, but I know my group are mostly GMs who I throw this sort of thing at. I think the presentation is clean and simple enough to get anyone up to speed fast and the role cards give players all the rules they should need at any one time. It may look fiddly, but it was a really fun experience. The group managed to get into the boots of Ruben, although there were a few points where no one wanted to play him as they all had ideas of how to tag in the different role cards. Any conflicts like that were solved amicably and quickly, keeping the momentum always going forwards until the haunted, fiery end.
Just to read, Trouble For Hire is a fun book. It’s full of energy and the stories it presents have a great tone to them. I definitely want to play this game again.
If you want a game with some freewheeling chaos then this will help you create a really entertaining, messy story in a handful of hours.
Trouble For Hire can be bought online at DriveThruRPG and Itch.io.