Wednesday, April 9, 2014

A Look at "The Foundation"

Eric Metcalf's "The Foundation", subtitled "A World in Black and White" was published in 2000. I believe it was the first d20 superhero game. I've been tripping over it for years as it still turns up in bargain bins and used book stores with remarkable frequency, at least around here. I finally picked it up a while back and decided to share my thoughts.

First, note that banner on the cover - this is part of the true old-school d20 wave, where yes, there are very strict limits on what can be printed in the book and the rest is handled with a "see the D&D Player's Handbook". A lot of good adventures came from this time, but not many good games, because of that major limitation. The banner is not kidding - more on that later.

Second, who is Eric Metcalf? The former University of Texas and NFL running back whose career was winding down around the time this was published? No, though that was the connection I made and it would make for a cool story, it's not him. I'm a little concerned when someone puts their name on a cover like that as if it's a selling point but it's not a huge deal.

It's a 128 page book and it opens with about 18 pages of story and setting history. It's sparsely illustrated and even though I usually like some of this kind of thing it felt like it dragged - lots of names I don't know and lots of political and military maneuvering. It's presented in a narrative format, not a timeline, but I think a timeline might have worked better and saved some space. It feels like a lot of detail right up front.

Next we have 10 pages of new races, new classes, powers, skills, and feats. This is ... brief.

  • Races: There are 3 races: alien, human, metahuman. Aliens get one power as a "species attribute", humans get a free feat and -no- powers, and metahumans get 1-4 powers.  OK.
  • Classes: There are 9 classes: Brick, Combat Artist, Energy Projector, Gadgeteer, Martial Artist, Mentalist, Rogue, Sorcerer, Wizard - those last 3 and the "martial artist" are the straight D&D classes other than changes to weapon proficiencies. These are not fully described classes - each one gets a paragraph or three of description, including what D&D class it's related to and what kind of hit die it uses.
  • Powers: There is a list of about 40 very specific powers. Most of the offensive ones do 1d6 or 1d10 of damage at first level, and increase by a die every 5th level - that means your 20th level super character does 5d10 with their energy blast. That seems a little weak to me. Force Field gives a +3 AC, +1 more per 4 levels. That is really weak. Flight - same as the fly spell with no time limit. Growth - same as the Enlarge spell. It's pretty disappointing.
  • The new Feats are largely weapon and armor proficiencies - Street Weapons, Hunting Weapons, Kevlar armor, etc. 
  • The skill list is replaced with a Modern Skills List that's not terrible - it combines Sneak and Move Silently into a Stealth skill, one of the popular home rule changes. It includes separate skills for spacecraft engineering (though no other kind of engineering), and spacecraft gunnery (though no other kind of gunnery) and things like investigation, driving, and pilot. Out of this whole section, this is easily the most complete part.
After this we have 3 pages of "Starting Characters" which is a 3rd level version of 6 of the classes with stats, skills, feats, and powers. The 3rd level Brick has 28 hit points and is AC 12. This does not strike me as "superheroic". 

This is followed by 35 pages of heroes and villains from the setting. It's a lot of background material and a lot of personal history and details. 

Next up is 5 pages of GM advice about running a Foundation campaign, followed by 12 pages covering two introductory adventures. 

To close out the book we have almost 40 pages of story, apparently written by Eric Metcalf. I read part of it and skimmed the rest - I didn't much care for it. To me that last section reveals the true purpose of the book.

Most Superhero RPG's are about the system: Champions, M&M, V&V, GURPS Supers, and ICONS all fall into this category. They may end up with a cool setting but the main idea is to put out a system for playing superhero adventures in some way.

Others are more about setting: DC anything, Marvel anything, Aberrant, Underground, The Authority - those games are more about a specific world and the characters that live in it than a specific system. They may have a truly great system, but the setting takes top billing. 

Eric Metcalf's The Foundation A World In Black & White has almost no mechanics at all. I don't just mean the class stuff. The Hunting Weapons proficiency gives proficiency with shotguns. How much damage does a shotgun do? No idea because it's not in the book! There is no gear here other than the "Foundation Battle Van" which I know has a maximum speed of 90 mph and is AC 15.

So with no mechanics to speak of then by default this is a "setting" supers game. Unfortunately it's a setting that exists only in the author's head and just doesn't come across as being all that interesting. The main evil organization uses black chess-piece codenames so of course the good side has to use white chess-piece codenames and the bad guys take over the U.S. for a while and there seems to be a fascination with using street gangs and there's a bunch of military battles too and something like a civil war as the army fights the navy. It all reads as being more Tom Clancy than Stan Lee and if that's how you're trying to sell a superhero game then I'm just not buying into it. I like Red Storm Rising just fine, but throwing superheroes into it diminishes the fun parts of both of those things. As a setting:
  • There are no maps
  • There are no specific locations of interest
  • Aliens? Nope
  • Dinosaurs or lost lands? Nope
  • Other dimensions? Nope
  • Discussion of superhero tropes like secret identities, dependent NPC's, or deathtraps? Nope
The whole thing reads as a vanity project, from the way it is presented to page after page of relentless prose. Comic books are a visual medium - this needs a whole lot more "show" and a whole lot less "tell". The book refers the reader to the author's tripod page where they can find more stories about these characters and this universe too. It's still up (!) if you want to see a sample without buying this book - see here.

I really did not like this game.

I thought I might be treating it harshly - it is a product of it's time, before the age of full-color hardbacks, art on every page, and a decade of awesome superhero movies. So what was going on when it was published?

Circa 2000 the Marvel Super Heroes game is dead, DC Heroes is dead, V&V is dead, Heroes Unlimited is still around, and Champions is pretty quiet. Brave New World from Pinnacle is new and cool but never seemed like a major force. Aberrant is another new one from White Wolf. Both of those last two are complete systems and not d20 related. D&D Third Edition is the mammoth tidal wave of gaming and a d20 superhero game sounds like a great idea, and it will be, when Mutants and Masterminds is published in 2002!

Looking at the games we had, no, it's not just hindsight - this was a bad product when it was new too. Some of the best superhero RPG's predate this book, and it appears to have learned nothing from them. This is more than an issue of taste or preferences - there is not enough material here to run a superhero campaign in a modern setting.

So that's all the time I'm going to spend on this one. If you're interested, it's still available in PDF form here. I would advise pretty much anyone to save their money, or spend it on pretty much any other game than this one. 

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