Saturday, March 6, 2010

Game Fiction Review - Web of Arachnos (City of Heroes)

Since it's a supers kind of week here...

The Web of Arachnos by Robert Weinberg - 2005 CDS Books

I recently finished the first City of Heroes novel "The Web of Arachnos". I think it's a later entry in an interesting ongoing progression. We originally had fantasy novels some of which influenced early D&D (Conan, Newhon, LOTR), then we had a wave of fantasy novels influenced by D&D in that they involved players being pulled into a world like that of their game (Guardians of the Flame, Quag Keep), then a wave of direct D&D gameworld novels (Dragonlance), then a wave of novels that often started as a D&D campaign (Feist's novels). Now we have a series of novels (and Warcraft has them too) based on an MMORPG coming back around to the written form that started the whole thing in the first place. There's not a perfect circular flow here but it's close enough to be interesting to me. Given that COH is a superhero game and world you might think that comic books would be more appropriate - it is and they did that too, but I'm not going to review them here because a) my comic interest dwindled after the 80's so I am not current and b) I haven't read them yet.

To the book - I do play COH and so I am familiar with the major characters pictured on the cover, but I have to say that doesn't really matter. This book is a "how it all began" novel, a prequel to the modern day and the current time in the game, so knowledge of the game or the universe is not required. I think it's a good idea for a new book series, but I suspect that plastering the COH logo on the cover instantly limits the audience to a degree. That said I imagine the audience for the "superhero novel that's not a graphic novel" is pretty limited to begin with.

Side Note - I saw a lot of parallels to the first Wild Cards novel which covered the origin of super powers in that universe and the high points of history up to the 1980's, setting up the rest of the novels that were largely set in the then-modern day time of the mid 1980's. Similarly, this COH book begins in the 1920's and moves into the 1930's covering the origin of powers with a single event and the first appearance of many of the iconic COH heroes and villains.

But is the book any good? In short: yes. It sets up[ the 'point of divergence' where the game world diverges from our own, the origin of powers, it introduces the major players of Statesman and Lord Recluce along with several other supporting characters both good and bad, and covers the formation of the first super group. As I was reading it, I was thinking that it would have made an interesting "Season 1" of a TV show along the lines of Heroes.

The Good:
The main characters are interesting and undergo several personality changes during the course of the novel and the reasons behind these changes are clear and make sense for those characters. Statesman and Lord Recluce both are well-developed and feel real enough to make sense.
The setting is refreshingly broad - City of Heroes is based around a single city, Paragon City, which is a typical American East Coast city. The novel travels far beyond this particular setting. I like it when game fiction explores the less well covered parts of the game's setting and this novel spends quite a bit of time in Europe which is not featured in the game. This adds to the realistic 'feel' of the book.
The scope of the novel is just right - it focuses on a few major characters, ramps up to a major event which changes them, and then spends the rest of the story exploring how that event impacts their lives, their families, and the world they live in.

The Bad:
I'll get right to it - the action scenes are not all that impressive, especially for a super-hero novel. The fights are limited and small in scale for most of the story. There is a huge battle near the end but conveying that fight seems to be a little beyond what the author could muster. It's not a huge flaw in the book, but it made me wonder what Mike Stackpole could have done with the same material.
On a related note the high point of the book could have been the nemesis confrontation near the end of the story, where Statesman and Recluce come face to face with full powers and some strong differences of opinion but I found it lacking a little something - it's not bad, it's just not the climactic moment that it could have been.
My final nitpick, and it is minor, is that Monica seems to be on the verge of developing powers late in the novel but there is no explanation as to why. Then she is given a gift at the end of the novel which will give her powers directly. I just felt a little fuzzy at the end of the story as to exactly what her powers were going to be or if she was just really good at karate. Hopefully the next book will cover some of this.

Final Comments: This is a good piece of game fiction. If you are at all interested in superheroes, it's worth a read. If you play City of Heroes and want to know more about the history and origins of the game world, it's invaluable. If you are thinking about starting a superhero RPG and want to see how someone else set things up it's a great resource, especially if you are interested in a golden age campaign.

Main Characters: Interesting, realistic, well-developed, and very sealable for a game of your own.

Supporting Characters: Interesting, good motivations, just enough information to whet the appetite for more.

Plot: Good. It's fairly linear but there are multiple heroes facing 2 major bad guy organizations plus some corrupt city officials so it's not a simple 2 sided conflict.

Action Scenes: Adequate but not the strong point of the book. This is one area that really should improve in future novels.

Resolution: Good to Very Good in that the world is set up for future adventures but it's not a totally satisfying ending for the main characters. It's similar to a movie that is clearly setting up a sequel that will continue with the same antagonist.

Overall: Very Good - I recommend it if you are at all interested in superhero stories or Supers RPG's.

Friday, March 5, 2010

Necessary Evil - Session One - The Campaign Begins

I gave the players some time to tweak their characters after the first combat in case they saw a glaring weakness they wanted to fix. Then we moved on.

Now we flash forward 5 years. The earth has been occupied for 2 years. The Heroes are dead or in hiding. And our Villains have been captured by the V'Sori...

The adventure opens with the PC's captured and carried aboard a V'Sori shuttle, wearing nullifier cuffs that disable their powers. Dr. Destruction, Villain Numero Uno of this universe, shoots it down and brings the surviving villains aboard his craft and makes them an offer - join me or die - then ejects them from the craft. The PC's all join so he blows their nullifiers off before they hit the ground and are told to rescue a particular prisoner form the alien prison camp they are now landing on. Going along, they gather on the roof of the main prison building and FireStrike blasts a hole in it.

The group jumps down into the prison. MegaStrike and Nissa start freeing prisoners and make friends with one who tells them where their target is. NightStrike starts looking for him, while FireStrike starts blasting the cyberdrone guards.

As MegaStrike frees their quarry, NightStrike leads him to the exit hole. FireStrike drops another guard while Nissa glamours the last one using it to shoot the new drones coming through the front doors.

The new drones shoot Mega, Nissa, FS, MindJack (their target for extraction) and Valerie (the helpful female prisoner). Valerie and MJ go down, so MeagStrike and NightStrike start lifting them up out of the whole while FireStrike and Nissa's drone return fire. Tension is high at this point as the drone blaster cannons are pretty potent.

In the end MegaStrike and Nissa make it up to the roof with MJ and Valerie while NightStrike phases through the walls to escape. FireStrike's luck runs out as one final lucky shot hits him hard, blasting him into a cell wall and knocking him into critical condition. As the other villains escape FireStrike expires on the floor of the alien prison camp.

  • Everything I read said the drones should be pushovers for the heroes and the adventure has 12 of them guarding the prison. I only used 8 and ended up with 1 dead villain and 2 wounded villains. It's not the toughness of the drones, they are easy enough to destroy, but it's their gun - it's a 3d6 blaster cannon that can fire 3 shots per round, or one shot per round to overcharge it and make it 'heavy'. Since all of my villains have heavy armor the drones fired one round on normal single shot then switched to overloaded mode after that. I had 4 already inside the building then 4 more showed up on round 3 and caused all kinds of carnage. Without the Heavy option the drones are no threat to the villains, but with it small groups of them are very nasty - I even had them fire at separate targets to endure no one was being bennie-drained and it still hurt. I'll be thinking about this for awhile, but 12 of them would have been a TPK I am sure.
  • FireStrike's death was entirely due to being out of bennies. The player said he thought we would stop after the bank robbery so he felt fine burning them all - he didn't realize how fast things played and that we would have time for a second scenario. I offered to let him keep using FS as in this campaign you aren't dead unless you choose to be, with some possible complications (like a rescue mission as session #2) but he decided to let him go and make a new character for next time.
  • Heavy armor is important and it's kind of like mega-damage armor in Rifts: Having it doesn't mean you're invulnerable to everything but NOT having it means a lot more things are going to hurt you.
  • The game plays FAST (as advertised) but it doesn't feel abstract or "lite" at all. It has a lot of the positives I associate with old-school D&D. You don't need a 3-page character sheet to have a mechanically interesting character. By the end of the night I felt like we had a pretty good handle on the flow of the combat system.
Session #2 is this weekend and I am looking forward to it.

Necessary Evil - Session One - Prologue

The Old-School D&D campaign has been derailed lately due to conflicting kid schedules, birthdays, and a wedding anniversary but another campaign has managed to fire off - The Savage Worlds plot-point campaign. You can see more if you scroll down on this page. I have had the book for years and always wanted to run it with my group but never saw an opening. With the recent splitting of my regular group we had the chance to break away from our strong D&D 3.5 focus and try something new, and this is it.

I have 4 players for now and they had a few weeks to make characters after we decided to play NE. The concept in NE is that the Superheroes of the world have been nearly wiped out by an alien invasion. Earth is now occupied by these aliens and the villains are tired of it, so they begin to strike back. The PC's are Supervillains, a nice twist from traditional supers games. They came up with the following:
  • Nissa, teenage female vampire (similar to Jessica from True Blood)
  • FireStrike, a fire projector/blaster (looks a lot like the Human Torch)
  • MegaStrike a radioactive brick (think a glowing green colossus/thing looking guy)
  • NightTerror/NightStrike a dark stalker type character with insubstantiality powers.
(I dubbed the dark stalker character "NightStrike" after hearing the other two names and threatened to call the vampire girl "BloodStrike" just to keep the theme alive. )

Since we had not played the system before I decided to run a test combat - a bank robbery. This would also give the PC's a connection, as we set the robbery 5 years before the campaign start and decreed that this was the only time the characters had all worked together.

The fight opened with the characters already in the bank taking money. As they emerged, 2 cops step out of the donut shop across the street and yell "Freeze dirtbags!".

They last all of 1 round as FireStrike takes one down and MegaStrike takes out the other one. Firestrike burns a bennie making sure he takes the cop down in one shot.

Another cop comes out of another shop and is promptly dropped by NightStrike while Nissa feeds on one of the downed cops.

The group rests for a round and heads for their getaway vehicle feeling pretty pleased with themselves. Then, with a whoosh and a resounding CLANK! the well-known armored villain Red Menace lands in the middle of the street and in a bad Russian accent demands the cash.

The fight lasts 2 rounds as Red is clearly not up to taking fire from 4 super opponents (I used the armored hero sample character straight from the NE book and decided he kind of sucks after this - he will have upgrades before his next appearance.) He doesn't go down though. Nissa saunters over to the villain as he goes toe to toe with MegaStrike and glamours him, telling him that the money is "in that bar over there". Red heads toward the bar and the group heads out, though they do see Champion flying by in the distant sky.

Notably, FireStrike has used all of his bennies by the end of this fight.

Notes from our first combat:
  1. The WIld Die is working as advertised. It made a difference in this fight.
  2. Bennies are important but my players don't totally get them yet.
  3. Heavy Armor is important but not as critical as I thought it might be - all super attacks are automatically considered heavy.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Supers RPG's - Personal Background Part 2

One note here - I realize I have neglected to mention GURPS Supers. GURPS is a fine system - I like it and have played multiple campaigns in it, mostly fantasy. I think it excels at low-powered games and falls apart with higher-powered ones. I have most of the 4th edition books and I am told it handles high power much better than 3rd, but I have yet to try it. I just never liked the flavor of GURPS Supers. tried it, didn't like it. Plus it wasn't really a game line on its own, just one book in a larger line with minimal support.

The 2000's saw a rather surprising (to me anyway) wave of new superhero RPG's. By the end of the 90's TSR went under and so the Marvel Game went away. DC went dormant. V&V disappeared years before. Champions was still rolling along and rolled out 5th edition in 2002, and Heroes Unlimited was still in print, but that was about it by the end of the 90's. West End did a DC Universe RPG using a different system but the game came and went in 3 years so I don't know a lot about it and never played or ran it. Pinnalce came out with Brave New World which had a great concept but the system was similar to Deadlands and just didn't feel very Super in my opinion. It didn't last long either.

Then in 2002 we got TWO totally new super RPG's - Mutants and Masterminds based on d20 mechanics but using a point-build system like Champions, and Silver Age Sentinels using Tri-Stat mechanics and a build system too. That was also the year 5th edition Champions came out so it was a great year for super-systems. Godlike also came out at the same time.

I picked up M&M 1st edition and liked it. I ran some sample combats but we were heavily into D&D so there was no way to make it a regular game. I loved the presentation though and though it was the best looking supers game since Marvel. Until I saw SAS...

SAS was to me the high point of supers game presentation. I love the history of comics, I love the chapter headers presented as old comic book covers, I like the artwork in the book, the character presentations, the page edges colored by chapter - it's just better done than anyone else. I like the system too, but it was hampered by a lack of support. I would still happily play or run it today though.

M&M got some very nice support then it went to a 2nd edition in 2005 and got a lot better. It did touch one of my pet peeves though - I really dislike game systems jumping to a new edition after only 2 or 3 years, games like Shadowrun 1st to 2nd, D&D 3 to 3.5, etc). My dislikes aside the game was a little wonky in places and 2nd edition was a big improvement. M&M is still going strong and I would guess that it's the #1 Supers game today as far as sales.

Godlike came out about this same time and is another great game although more limited in scope, focusing on supers in World War II. Being a history buff and having a particular interest in WW2 this is an awesome game to me and uses the One Roll Engine system which I also think is great though I suspect it's a little strange in play. Power levels are lower and there isn't a ton of support but the concept is awesome and the background is great.

The problem with these newer games is that I haven't gotten to play many of them. I have books for all of them, I like them, but I haven't been able to string together players and time to run a campaign using them. Hopefully NE will open things up like this after we complete it.

The most recent supers game that caught my attention (besides the above) was Necessary Evil for Savage Worlds. It came out in 2004 and was rereleased in 2009 in a slightly updated form. I really like the Savage Worlds system after trying out some fantasy combat with it and after seeing the campaign concept I was sold. it's taken me 6 years to get there and it's been over 10 years since my last supers campaign of any kind, but we're finally there and I am very happy about it.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Super RPG's - Personal Background Part 1

Since Neccessary Evil is up and running I thought I would talk a little bit about my experience with super RPG's.

I started playing Supers in 1982 with the Champions boxed set and it is my first love when it comes to playing a super hero game. I had read some things about it in the Dragon (the RPG internet back then, such as it was) and when I saw it at Hobbies for Dad and Lad in the mall I got it, for $12 if I recall correctly. It came with the rulebook, a pretty decent adventure, a large hexmap of a typical city street corner, and 6 blue d6's (I still have one of those dice today). We made a lot of characters and beat each other over the head with steel girders and lamp posts for years. I think my version was technically the second edition, but it kind of bled into 3rd edition. In 1990 4th edition was the first "clean" relaunch of the Hero System and I got on board quickly, having a regular group of college game buddies that played a lot of fantasy hero. I ran 2 short campaigns of Champions (and one of Fantasy Hero) in the 1990's but then things went dormant in the 2000's as we focused on 3rd edition D&D. I was planning to run a Champions campaign when we finished the current D&D game this year, but the premature detonation of my group changed those plans. My love of Champions aside, there are other good supers games besides Champions.

I played a lot of Marvel Super Heroes in the 80's - it has tons of great background, a quick system with the color table, and feels like a supers game. I would be happy to run or play it today but a lot of people turn up their noses - maybe they think of it as too "kiddie" but to me it's a great system. I have a ton of stuff for it living in the top of my closet and I may run it for the kids sometime soon.

Villains and Vigilantes was one of the first Supers RPGs (they had some great ads in the 80's Dragon) and I have made characters and played some sessions but we never liked it as much as our other options when it came to these kinds of games. The random character generation was a problem after Champions - it could be fun, but if I wanted random powers we already had Gamma World which was more fun for that kind of thing. I still have the rulebook and I have picked up a few adventures for it but I don't know when I would run it over something else.

DC Heroes was interesting but was not as popular among my friends. We tended to follow the Marvel Universe more anyway, plus they had a regular update column in Dragon for years. DC had a lot of heroes we had never seen and the system was not as intuitive to our teenage minds as Marvel or Champions. So both the setting and the system were trumped by other systems, which meant it got very little time in play. I have picked up 1st, 2nd, and 3rd edition since then, plus some adventures, and I see some of the coolness of the system now, but it still feels like more work to run a session than either of our other primary options.

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles was a cool little game that was technically supers but there weren't a lot of super powers in it (other than Ninjutsu). It was actually fairly gritty and made a good street-level supers game if you wanted to fight in back alleys with knives and baseball bats. We did have fun wit hit when we played it, but it's not really the same kind of game as the rest of these.

Heroes Unlimited was the full-blown Palladium Supers game and it featured the then-OK Palladium system and a bunch of random tables for super powers. You decided your origin, but your stats and powers were rolled randomly and that killed it for us. In the 90's Heroes Unlimited basically became another sourcebook for Rifts among my gaming groups.

A note about Rifts: Rifts gets a lot of grief in some gamer circles because of its over-the-top environment and equipment and classes etc. If you look at it as a post-apocalyptic supers game it makes a lot more sense - giant robots, super-magic, uber-ninjas, big guns, dinosaurs - these are all elements found more commonly in a supers game than a traditional fantasy game. if you try to run it like D&D, it's tough. If you run it like a post-nuclear justice league it should work a lot better.

That was pretty much it for 80's Super RPG's, and the 90's was largely new editions of these same games. I know there was a Basic Roleplaying Supers game but I never saw it on the shelves or in play. Among my friends in the 90's Champions 4th edition was dominant (it's what I ran) and Marvel in 2nd place (what my friend occasionally ran) in between a lot of 2nd edition AD&D, Rifts, some Twilight 2000, and some Megatraveller.

Sunday, February 28, 2010

Necessary Evil - it begins

Ran the first session of my new Necessary Evil campaign Friday night and it went very well. I have only run 1 session of Savage Worlds prior to this (and it was years ago) despite having been on the mailing list for the game since before it was published. I am amazed at how quickly and easily the game runs.

I will post more details on Monday -a kid birthday and an anniversary have me rather busy this weekend.