Night before last, I had the pleasure of revisiting one of my favorite obscure corners of RPG history: the 90s Street Fighter RPG. Yes, you heard that right—a tabletop roleplaying game of Street Fighter. Like the video game.
And next week, on Saturday Jan 22nd, I get to go there again, as Misfit Table is putting on a Twitch special event of a Street Fighter RPG one-shot. It’s gonna be awesome!!!
So, let’s talk about this game! Apparently, according to this article, in the early 90s, when White Wolf was just making its name, some of the developers were playing Street Fighter 2 on breaks, and they had the brain wave that it would make a fun rpg system. (Little did they know how right they were.) So they got the rights from Capcom and made the game, more or less.
If you know White Wolf, you know this is a little out of character for them. White Wolf was the giant of roleplaying gaming in the 90s. It was an era when DnD was becoming passe (in certain crowds), and the dark, emotionally-heavy “storytelling” games that White Wolf put out nailed the 90s gothic-industrial zeitgeist perfectly. Everyone was dressing in black and trying to outdo each other for who could be the most tragic. We were all halfway to pretending to be vampires anyway, so a game about it was a natural fit. (Ironically, in hindsight, the 90s were one of the most prosperous and peaceful decades in recent American history.)
Then here comes Streetfighter with this brightly colored, larger than life, over-the-top action game, produced by White Wolf themselves, no less. It was the only thing they ever produced that broke their iconic, gloomy mold, and the only franchise that did not co-exist in the same “World of Darkness” with all the others.
10 Reasons why the Street Fighter RPG is Amazing
Without further ado, let's discuss what makes this game so kick-ass. (Pun intended... do I get my dad-joke card yet?)
1) Art and Design
All you need to do to start having fun is pick up the book. Is the art and fiction a little cheesy? Sure, but so are the kung fu flicks and wuxia fics that so many of us love. The bright, primary colors used in the design, the comic book-style font, the vivid art of larger-than-life heroes punching each other in the face, all of it combines to create an aesthetic experience unlike any other. It's a blast!
The system feels like something thrown together over a weekend, and that’s a good thing! Well, it has both good and bad sides—the good side is that the game knows exactly what it is and includes only enough to be the best version of itself. It’s a trimmed down version of the iconic Storytelling system, not overburdened with unnecessary traits or rules. It is Street Fighter, and nothing else, for better or worse :D
3) The Storytelling System
Street Fighter uses the Storytelling system from White Wolf. And it uses the original version, before they started mucking about and changing things. Don’t be fooled by acidic complaints on the internet about early White Wolf's game system; I read those as nothing more than the inevitable backlash against anything that becomes too popular, and too many of those criticisms are based on pure hearsay or deliberate misunderstanding of the rules. It’s not flawless, but what is? It’s amazing. Fight me on this. I will take you on!
The Storytelling system just does more than a d20 system does. The way difficulty and dice mechanics in that early version are elegant. The variety of attributes and skills, along with the ability to combine any attribute with any skill, gives tremendous power and flexibility. The system inherently gives more weight to a variety of scenes (other than combat). So even though Street Fighter is as combat oriented as any that White Wolf ever produced, the fact that it uses the Storytelling system at its core means that it is robust enough to handle any roleplaying scenario you want to throw at it. This alone makes the Street Fighter RPG a cut above what it would have been had any other publishing house produced it.
4) Alternating Gender Pronouns
This rulebook, published in 1994, makes the effort to use male and female pronouns in roughly equal measure. I got pushback on that for a game I playtested in 2014, 20 years later! Well done, White Wolf.
5) Special Combat Maneuvers
And now to combat, the meat and potatoes of this game :D
In most tabletop roleplaying games, your only option to attack an opponent is to use the “Attack” action. Not so, here! You have your jab punch, strong punch, fierce punch, your short, foreward, and roundhouse kicks, your grab and block and move—and those are just the basic maneuvers! There’s pages upon pages of special maneuvers that you can learn and bring to the fighting ring.
Each of these maneuver options are meaningful in the game mechanics, but simple enough to be used easily. It gives so much more life to combat than simply attacking each round. Sure, in any system you can always add narrative flair by describing your attack, but you can do that here too, and here, you have attack options actually mean something.
6) Activation Words
This is an actual rule: you can gain a bonus if you shout the activation words for each special maneuver as you perform it. “Haddouken!”
7) Attacks Hit
One minor innovation that I love is that they do away with the attack roll. If your target is in range, you hit. You don’t roll to see if you miss, you just go straight to rolling for damage. And why not? Nobody likes to roll and miss, and if half the attacks miss, doesn't that just slow down combat?
Of course, in Street Fighter, there is still a chance of missing. It's just built in to the timing and movement systems, so that you can dodge by making the right decisions and predicting your opponent's actions, which is super cool.
8) Combat Timing
Street Fighter has a mechanic where the slowest people go first, but the faster people may interrupt them, which leads to a very tactical fight, where timing and spatial position matter deeply. If you interrupt to move out of range of your opponent’s attack, and they don’t have the movement to reach you afterward, you effectively dodge that attack. You make meaningful decisions at each stage of combat, not only in choosing which maneuver you will use each turn, but also in executing that maneuver, choosing when, how, and where you will move.
9) The Abort Phase
One of my absolute favorite parts of the Street Fighter combat system is a very short phase in combat, (which the rulebook actually gives very little attention to!) and that is the abort phase.
The way it works is this: each person chooses their combat maneuver privately (represented, if playing in person, by combat cards, filled out with all the details of your various maneuvers). You determine and reveal the Speed of your action, but nothing else. Then, once each fighter sees the relative speeds, they have the option to “abort.” This means they give up on their attack and either try to get a block up in time, or jump away.
This can be a heart-pounding tactical moment, in which you've got to choose whether to deliver your punch (at great personal risk) or abort and try to protect yourself. If you only have a few health levels left, what’s the right choice? If your opponent is faster, can you survive long enough to deliver your blow? If you’re faster, will your hit take them down, or will they survive to counterattack you? If you abort to block, will that be enough to get you to the next round? If you jump away, can you get out of reach, or are they doing something mobile enough to catch you? There's a lot to weigh, and you don't know what your opponent is doing--you just know if they're faster than you, or you're faster than them. I don’t know why the rules don’t linger on this part more; to me, it was always one of the most interesting parts of the game.
10) Deeply Tactical Combat, and it's Still Easy
All the factors above—the special maneuvers with their unique effects, the involved timing rules, the choice to abort or not—they combine to form a deeply tactical combat system. In Street Fighter, you have real options every single turn. Your positioning matters. Your timing matters. Combat is full of meaningful choices, especially if you compare it to a game where your only attack option is simply, "attack." And the miracle is that they did all this and it’s still easy!
Three Ways the Streetfighter RPG is Not So Great
Alas, nothing is perfect. Let’s acknowledge a few ways this game could be better.
1) More Playtesting Needed
The system feels like something thrown together over a weekend, and that’s also a bad thing. There are some typos in the text, or text that doesn’t flow from one page to the next properly. (Ryu’s backstory starts at the end of Ken’s page…) There are also some details of the Storytelling system (such as splitting dice pools) that are alluded to, but never fully described in this rulebook. You have to have another Storytelling core book to know what it’s talking about! There’s not too much that’s actually problematic, but it’s distracting.
Perhaps even more significant: there are elements of the combat system that are almost there, but are genuinely pretty hard to use as written. The good news is that a few house rules can bridge that gap to get it to that golden game it’s so close to being.
For instance, take the combat rule that you start with the slowest fighter, but any faster fighter can interrupt at any time. It’s super cool in theory, but there’s two problems. First, you can get one action interrupting another action, which is interrupting another, which is interrupting another, and then you have to unwind all that. It’s a pain to keep track of. And second, a lot of the time the faster fighter is going to just go first regardless, so you’re going through all this rigamarole for nothing.
The easy solution is to just go in order from fastest to slowest, but allow any fighter, on their turn, to hold their action, with the option to interrupt at any later time of their choosing. That way, if you’re the faster fighter, you still gain the benefit of having the option to force your slower opponent to make choices before you do, but you only work through the extra steps required when you actually care about it.
Like I said, it’s an easy fix, but the fact that that’s not how the game is written is a big problem, because some groups might not come up with that on their own, and end up playing a needlessly more complex version of the game. Or, different groups find different solutions, and then we’re not all playing the same game anymore.
2) Cultural Representation
Okay… theoretically you can give them props for representation, as many cultures from around the world are represented. But that pales in consideration of how incredibly reductionist the representation of each culture is. Every single World Warrior is a crude stereotype of the culture they come from. Every. Single. One.
There are only two things to be said in White Wolf’s favor here. First, they had to work with the source material, which was the Street Fighter 2 video game. They didn’t really have an option to redesign it from the ground up. And furthermore, given the times, I’m not sure that society was in a place where they would have known what to do even if they had. Second, and this I find amusing, even the white male Americans are similarly reductionist to their culture—you have Ken, the billionaire playboy, and Guile, the musclebound vet. Neither has any more subtlety in portraying USA culture than… well, any of the others do in portraying their own. If it’s racist, it’s racist to everyone equally.
3) Huge Combats
I’ve talked a lot about how wonderfully tactical the combat system is, but even this has a built-in downside. Though the system is incredibly streamlined for how tactical it is, it can still start to struggle in large combats. It works beautifully for 1 on 1 fights (which, to be fair, is what it's designed to model), but once you get to huge, set-piece battles, it can be a hassle to track all the action.
Join in the Action
And there you have it! A needlessly in-depth discussion of the 1994 Streetfighter RPG, published by White Wolf. If any of this has piqued your interest, the books are long out of print (and very expensive online), but there are many digital resources. I recommend sfrpg.com as a good go-to site, as well as the free “Twentieth Anniversary” pdf, which is a fan compilation of all rules to-date.
And of course, to join in on the action, tune in to twitch.tv/misfit_table on Saturday, Jan 22, for a livestreamed Streetfighter RPG one-shot. (Or catch the VOD on Youtube later.) See you there, misfits!