Thursday, April 10, 2014

The Champions - A Secret Marvel RPG Campaign

I decided to go back and read "The Champions", a bimonthly Marvel team title that ran from 1975-1978. There were only 17 issues, but it's an interesting run. It is the most-RPG-like superhero comic I've yet read. This is in the sense that it feels like some games I have run and played in. These could easily be 17 session reports of a superhero campaign presented in comic-book form. Once I realized this it became even more fun to read.

The team is:

  • Angel, having just departed the X-Men as that "new team" came along. He's rich now and wants to do his own thing. He starts off as the kinda-sorta leader and mainly serves the role of businessman who's trying to back the team like Tony Stark does for the Avengers. He comes across as having a player who can;t really make up his mind what he wants to do.
  • Iceman - also fresh out of the X-Men and really just here to help his friend. In the comic he secretly plans to quit as soon the team is up and running. Angel and Iceman come across as being run by two players who have played together before in another campaign (X-Men!) and are starting up a new group, but Iceman's player is about ready to bring in a new character.
  • Hercules - he just kind of wanders in and hangs around. He is impulsive and not afraid of anything. He comes across as being run by a player who has played this character before but not really in this campaign setting ("in ancient Greece" = "in my other campaign") or with these players. Maybe he's a converted D&D character ...
  • Black Widow - She also happens to be in the right place at the right time and brings a boatload of sidekick/dependent NPC/hunted type baggage with her. Played by an experienced player who knows the system and takes it pretty seriously and wants to get on with the game. She ends up being the leader, though half of the team ignores what she says anyway. 
  • Ghost Rider - He is in the initial adventures, comes and goes a bit, ends up being there full time, and freaks Herc out a little bit - clearly an alignment conflict, like having an assassin and a paladin in the same party. He's possibly run by the metalhead of the group (look at him!) and is clearly speaking in and out of character all through the run. His player has a wild concept and wants to play, he just can't make it for every session. 

Things begin with an attack on a college campus where all five of these characters just happen to be attending or passing through. It turns out to be Pluto who is after Venus who is teaching at the school in disguise. This turns into a 3-issue arc that brings the heroes together for an extended period and they decide to work together afterwards. This is also the most coherent part of the campaign and clearly the thing the GM had planned in advance as his big campaign kickoff. This team is not united because of a common origin or cause, nor are they chosen by some outside agency - they are thrown together by chance, which is as a good a reason as any for becoming a team, but seems especially appropriate if you think of it as an RPG kickoff.

Fun with Hercules #1
This run later covers the basics of getting a team together - picking a team name, setting up a base, training together, thinking about the teams goals, and having the introductory press conference - which is of course attacked by villains.

Leadership material?
In the beginning it feels like Angel is the team's leader, but things don't work out especially well. He decides to focus on getting the base set up but he fails at that too as the HQ equipment goes haywire or proves to be faulty all through the series. I assume this was going to lead somewhere but it does not within these 17 "episodes". It just makes him look like a far less competent version of Tony Stark.

Black Widow becomes the leader - by team decision - and seems to work a little better but quite a bit of the time she either seems to forget to direct the others or when she does they ignore her anyway. Imagine making Batman the leader of the Justice League and you have some idea of how this works. Aside from these mixed results, in short order the Champions are fighting a whole Russian rogue's gallery like Crimson Dynamo and Titanium Man and a variety of spies and assassins.

Fun with Hercules #2
To be fair they did start off with an Olympian entanglement, and later they do end up fighting sentinels, so most of the group's hunted's show up eventually. Other villains include Rampage, a sort of what-if badguy Iron Man, and Swarm, a human-insect hive mind. There are others but I'll leave those to individual discovery.

See, he really does care!
Black Goliath shows up a few times, as does a villain turned heroine named Darkstar. I like to think of them as drop-ins or possibly Iceman's player trying out different character options.

There's more interesting stuff here at the wikipedia page if you're interested.

Haven't you heard of me?
The whole thing feels disjointed. There were multiple writers and artists on the book during its brief run and that's probably part of it. It takes time to bring an ensemble cast together, much like the first season or two of a TV series can be weaker than what follows. Despite this, it's a fun (and short) read. It also makes a lot more sense if you read as an RPG campaign.

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Thrifty Gamer Alert: M&M Bundle of Holding

Well here's another nice deal this week: The Mutants and Masterminds Bundle of Holding. It's a good week to be a superhero rpg fan. Looks like 9 bucks gets you the core book and the GM's book, about 10 more (as I write this) gets you the threat report, the GM's kit, and the Emerald City Knights adventure path.

I have all of these already and that's a darn good deal. I paid more than $20 for them so the price is certainly right, and you could run a campaign for years with this stuff. If you're at all interested, it's worth a look.

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. 

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

A Look at "Capes, Cowls, and Villains Foul"

Superhero RPG's: I like them and I have a lot of them. Ever since finding Champions circa 1982 I've been a fan of costumes, capes, and energy blasts in RPGs. Since we have a new big-time superhero movie out now I thought I would spend some time this week looking at some super games that aren't Champions, Mutants & Masterminds, or ICONS since those are the ones I talk about the most. There are a lot of them out there now and if you're at all interested in the subject there's bound to be one that hits the sweet spot for you.

Capes, Cowls, and Villains Foul is a set of rules released in 2012 by Spectrum Games, the company that brings us Cartoon Action Hour, among others. It's full color and 164 pages. There's a free quickstart version available here, the full version is here. I picked up the PDF a while back and thought I would share my thoughts.

First up: The game uses d12's and only d12's. That's an odd choice but I can work with it.

Character Creation:
There are four "parts" that make up a character, mechanically speaking:

  • Traits - these are your stats, skills, and powers and the recommended number is 5-12
  • Complications are what you might expect, aka disads or flaws
  • Editorial Control is hero points/fate points/bennies/determination
  • Factoids are sort of a boiled down background
Now this seems sort of FATE-ish but there are building points involved. Each Trait is ranked, with 1-4 being "Human", 5-8 being "Superhuman", and 9+ being "Cosmic" with point costs jumping at each tier. There are also various advantages and disadvantages that can be applies to each trait, changing the cost and the ways in which it can be used. These Traits are really the heart of a character and are wide open - examples given include strong, detective, robotic body, ruler of a small European country, flying car, revealing costume, wings, law enforcement contacts. Note that there is no big section on powers or abilities here - it's strictly up to the player to come up with their own choices.

Additionally, Complications can be activated (by the player or the GM) to give a point of "Editorial Control" . There is a list of ways control can be spent, requiring from 1-3 points to accomplish. It's fairly standard stuff like re-rolling a die, avoiding a KO, and modifying powers though the "saving a civilian" option is nicely genre-appropriate.There are other circumstantial ways to gain EC but this is the primary one built into the character.

Factoids are basically notes about a character that don't involve die rolls. These might be personality quirks or skills that one knows but are not combat-capable in. After reading through it I was thinking of them as comparable to Traveller's "0-level" skills.

Now after reading these in the first 40 pages of the book it all seemed a little fuzzy. How would I define my go-to superhero, the Amazing Aluminum Man in this system? Is "electrical control" too broad? Is "flight" better as a separate trait or would it be a part of the electrical thing? The whole thing is pretty loose and probably won't congeal until you've actually had a session with a group of players and a DM to help set some shared expectations. Fortunately there is a nice example of character creation that runs about 4 pages and hits all of the steps involved. I felt like it helped clarify things a great deal. I'd actually like to see more of these. There is only the one example walk-thru, but there are 20+ sample characters right after this that at least show some different completed examples. 

Sample character from the book
Taking Action
The resolution mechanic for using a Trait is 1d12 + Trait level vs. a set difficulty/target number or an opposed 1d12 + Trait. If the "attacker" beats the "defender" then the defender takes a "setback token". There are some wrinkles here:
  • Traits can have more than 1d12 associated with them. Most of the time this does not add together but creates a roll-multiples-and-choose-the-highest situation.
  • Traits can be "linked", such as using both your super-strength and your super-speed to really wallop someone, which will also add a die or an additional  fixed modifier to your roll.
  • When a trait is used in combat it decreases in effectiveness. Most of them can be used several times before they really begin to degrade. When they do it generally leads to a roll-multiples-and-choose-the-lowest situation. This puts a clock on things as players try to accomplish their goals in a scene before their traits degrade to uselessness and a flurry of setbacks.
Most tasks are handled this way, as a sort of attack vs. defense for damage, in the form of setback tokens. This might be a brawl, a conversation, an interrogation, or an investigation - it all works the same way. Setbacks represent everything from physical damage to disappointment to mental blocks to maybe even a failure of courage. In any given Scene, each character can take up to 4 setback tokens. This is very reminiscent of the Marvel Heroic game and it's three types of "damage" tracks, but here all of the different possible types of "damage" are treated cumulatively.

There are some additional notes on using this system with genre staples like pushing and the fastball special and just generally how to use it to do super-heroic things. This kind of thing is really helpful in an abstract system and I am glad it was included as it did answer some of my questions about specific cases or examples. 

Wrapping up, there is a nice 20+ page example of play that covers a lot of ground. I heartily approve of the efforts by the author to use examples like this as it really does help illustrate how the game is supposed to work. 

There is also a pair of introductory adventures to help get things started.

"Revealing Costume" - Heh
Overall Impressions
I have not yet played this, so please keep that in mind. The author's notes at the end of the book describe the origin of the game as wanting a "comic book simulator" instead of a "super powered character engine". My thoughts while reading it kept going back to FATE and MWP's now-lost Marvel Heroic, so I'd say it definitely leans in that direction. The character sheets look comparable to ICONS, call them "FATE with some numbers stuck on". The lack of a generic powers list or set abilities feels a lot like MHRP, but it does have the point system to put at least some kind of framework around it. 

So would it work for a Superhero campaign? Sure. It's pretty much wide-open when it comes to character design, has what looks to me to be a fairly solid resolution mechanic, and has a hero point mechanic to let players pull off outrageous things. It is very much a dramatic/storytelling type game over a simulation game if that matters to you, though there is no real setting presented here other than generic super-stuff in a modern world. It's very much a system and not a universe.

Mechanically it's on the lighter end of things, in the ICONS/MHRP neighborhood. There's more "system" around task resolution than ICONS, but less in-play manipulation of dice than MHRP. I'm also a little unsure of the variability: ICONS uses a range of ratings from 1-10 with a d6 on each side as the variable element. Here ratings appear to run from 1-12 or so with a d12 on each side as the variable element, so it's going to have a little more swing. That may be fine for comic books anyway.

If Champions or Mutants and Masterminds is your game then there's probably not much to see here. Despite the shared subject matter, it's a different approach and it's not going to have anywhere near the crunch you're used to.

So, will I be playing it? For me, it's a good game but no, probably not. It's mechanically light, but I already have ICONS and I like its flavor of lightness better. For a comic-book simulator I already have Marvel Heroic and I like its flavor of narrative better. Then I have Champions and M&M for crunchier games. It seems like a decent enough system, but there's nothing in it that just calls out to me to jump in and choose it over these others. I suspect that's a fairly big hurdle for any new superhero RPG that isn't tied to a franchise - what does it do better than every other system out there? I'd still encourage anyone interested in the lighter/narrative side of supers to give it a look. If you want more crunch than a pure FATE superhero game, and didn't like Marvel Heroic or ICONS it might be right for you.

Monday, April 7, 2014

Thrifty Gamer Alert: ICONS on sale

A note to thrifty gamers out there: Icons is on sale at DTRPG as a pay-what-you-want special.

I assume this is because of the announcement of the Assembled Edition coming this summer.

EDIT: Update from the man himself here.

Regardless, if you're interested, it's a good opportunity to take a look at the game for a low price. Also, the Villainomicon is set at the same price as well:

I don;t know that I would call it "essential" to the game but it does have some Q&A, introduces the "pyramid test" concept, and has lots of pre-made bad-guys ready to drop in as needed.

Motivational Monday