Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Tweaking Marvel Super Heroes

After running through the intro adventure for the first time in at least 20 years I had two main areas of concern: 1) the lack of a defensive roll or other way for a character to influence to-hit rolls and 2) Karma and the way it isused in the game.

Defenses: The game as written makes attacks totally dependent on the ability of the attacker, regardless of the defender. A Hydra agent rolls against his own Fighting or Agility to see if he hits, regardless of whether he's shooting at Spider-Man or the Hulk. This felt wrong to me at first, but there is a dodge action in the game. Unfortunately you only get one action per round, so you have to give up your attack to do it. However, I realized that this was really a problem in my eyes because I am so used to once-per-combat initiative. A decade-plus of "roll it once per fight" has conditioned me to think in those terms, whereas the upside of every-round initiative means that if Spidey dodges this round, he has a chance to win the initiative  next round, and punch a goon in the face. This actually works pretty well and makes determining initiative that much more interesting during a fight.

The only tweak I made was that I decided to allow a character who had not acted in this round to abort to a dodge (ala Champions) if he was attacked. The downside though is that if you went first and did punch that goon in the face and didn't take him out, well, he's probably going to shoot you on his turn and you just have to hope he misses.

I have thought about allowing d6 Star Wars style multiple actions per round at the cost of a column shift drop for each additional action (I noticed it's in the Advanced Player's Book as well), but I think it could get complicated and I kind of like the simplicity we have now. I probably will formalize it as Standard-Move-Minor ala D&D 4E as the minor would cover thigns like opening a door or pressing buttons on a control panel or setting the quinjet to "hover" or various other small things that happen in a round that don't really take all that much time. I'm not sure the game needs that much structure but it would lay out things a little more clearly. I'm going to see how the next few sessions go and then decide if we need it.

Karma: This is a larger problem and one I haven't fully solved. I love the rules for acquiring and losing karma as heroes go about their daily lives - I think it's one of the best mechanical systems for enforcing the genre (and alignment for that matter) even if it is a little heavy-handed in places. There's really not much ambiguity to it - heroes act a certain way, and they can be rewarded for it. Now you know the REAL reason Batman doesn't kill...

The problem comes in spending that Karma. Being able to auto-shift an attack into a red result anytime at will could be problematic in a campaign and in a one-shot. Part of me says that's just one of the benefits of those stats and playing true to the hero archetype, but part of me sees it as a game-breaker waiting to happen. I like player-control mechanics like Fate Points, Luck Points, Bennies, and Force Points, but I don't like the varying and unpredictable cost of using them in attacks under this system. I also don't like that it costs 40 points to drop an incoming result by one color, or that it costs 100 Karma to try a new power stunt - that's a huge disincentive to get creative with powers that aren't written up as attacks right from the start. Considering that some published heroes start with over 100 Karma (Wolverine has 121) while others start with under 20 (Wonder Man has 18), I'd like to see those low on Karma points be able to benefit in some way during a game. My initial thoughts on an alternattive Karma system:

  • 10 Karma will drop an incoming result by 1 color (Defensive uses should be cheap)
  • 10 Karma will also stabilize your character if they are knocked unconscious and are dying (Defense again)
  • 25 Karma will raise one of your power or attack results by one color (Offensive uses should be cheaper than they are now, but more than a defensive use)
  • 25 Karma will also let you try a new power stunt (Creativity should be more achievable than it is now)
  • 25 Karma can also be spent to acquire a "second wind", restoring the character to 1/2 of Full Health (Another defensive usage but I'm not totally sure about this one - we're going to try it and see how it works in play)
  • 25 Karma (and a full action round) can be used to get a damaged or unprepared vehicle or device to activate and function temporarily - it might be a car, or a space shuttle, or a giant laser, or a city-wide force field generator (I'm still a little vague on this one but it has so much potential in play I had to put it in, though the cost is subject to change.
  • Karma as an advancement method, i.e. experience points, is dropped altogether. This is a bad practice that tends to lead to hoarding as players suffer through multiple sessions without burning any karma in an effort to get some nifty new power or move one they already have up one level. I don't want that to be a concern so I will use some other method of advancement, completely separate from Karma. 

These options allow a hero like Captain America with 60 Karma to do a few different things during a fight as needed, instead of gambling it all on one roll or having a new power stunt stay completely out of reach and that's my main goal with these changes,

I also feel like there should be some kind of reroll mechanic in there somewhere but I like the color-shifting option a whole lot as it's not something you can do in a lot of other games that are more pass/fail than degree of success. Given that, I'm not sure where to put a reroll option in - at 10 I think most people would take the sure thing and just shift up one, and raising it to 25 only makes this worse. I'm going to table it for now and see how things go.

I also feel like there is potential for some 50 point options like bouncing back from unconscious to half-health or an automatic untrackable escape like a ninja smoke cloud or something like those but I'm not really prepared to nail down just yet.

My only other potential issue right now is the extra effects on a red result for some attacks. It means that there's a small percentage chance of taking down any opponent, even one you cannot normally injure due to tough defenses, in one shot. I'm not sure I like the idea of Cap or Cyclops one-shotting Ultron with a lucky or Karma-fuelled roll. I'm hoping my tweaked Karma rules will help keep the major villains alive long enough to actually be a threat. If not I may have to look into some tweaks to those extra effects and I'd really rather not change that up.

If you're interested, the ultimate home on the web for all things MSH is here.

Anyway there's the first crack at it. Comments and experiences and anecdotes are welcome. I'll also post up something about them after the next session where we get to test them in the heat of battle.

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