Thursday, February 23, 2023

Superhero RPG Roundup Part 2 - The Multiverse of Superhero RPGs


Given the opportunity to start a new superhero campaign I dove into the deep end and ran through a bunch of games I own and checked into a few I did not. Part 1 of this covered the Marvel Superhero options as I do love the old warhorse and there are a lot of options out there built around that chassis. 

Beyond that though there are many other games in this genre. I hit most of the big ones in my exploration so I thought I would share some thoughts on each in this post.

  • First up, Mutants and Masterminds: In my mind this is the current standard for superhero RPGs and has been for more than a decade. Third edition is thorough and expansive game system with a unified mechanic that is fairly simple to run in play, options for point-build and random character generation, and supplement books to assist with deeper options in almost any area you can think of - powers, gadgets, locations, running a super team, cosmic campaigns, supernatural campaigns, adventures ... pretty much any area of running a game has extra material available if you want it. It's a great game and one I have run multiple times previously.

    For this campaign it was a strong contender but I decided to try something new. I will run this again, maybe later this year, but for now I chose "new" over familiar.
  • Second, Champions - my first superhero RPG and one that still lives in my head whenever we get to discussing them even 40 years later. It works and works well if you want to have all the details. People fuss about math in this game but once you build your character the math is mostly "do I have enough dice to throw for this attack?" rather than anything particularly complicated. I love it and I have players with some experience with it and the current Champions Complete is the best version of it to be released in years.

    Despite this we will only be playing this game once a month and introducing some new players to Hero system when playing on that schedule is just not the best idea in my opinion. I'd love to run it and I will make an effort to do so but it's not the best choice for this campaign

  • Next up - ICONS - lord knows I have talked about ICONS enough on this blog over the years. It's a great game with a ton of support that plays fast and is very good at letting your players focus on what they are doing in the game rather than how the rules work. Bits of MSH, bits of FATE, elements of M&M ... all combine to make for a really good game that can handle a wide range.

    For this campaign I was very tempted to use ICONS but in the end as mentioned above I decided to try something new. ICONS will be back in the rotation at some point as I have a couple of players that have never tried it but for this one I decided to go in a different direction.

  • Savage Worlds - I am running a Deadlands game now and there is a shiny new Super Powers Companion that just came out so it would make some sense to run a Savage Supers campaign now. The new book is solid  - these things have really evolved since they were basically the powers chapter of Necessary Evil with some additional material added in. They have gotten further and further away from the standard SW approach of "powers cost ongoing power points" which is fine for wizards and mad scientists but does not work well for superheroes with permanent abilities so it's a welcome change - it's basically a point buy system for powers now. It is not as comprehensive as some of the other games but a lot of that is because it's a supplement to a game system and not a self-contained game in itself. I'll have a separate review of this one soon.

    As much as it would make sense to use this option - especially since I was considering a WW2 supers game and I have the Weird War 2 book as well making this really easy to run - I ended up deciding to hold off. My main concern is running two games in Savage Worlds in parallel at different power levels and possibly making one feel "less" than the other. There's also the danger of making them feel too "samey" using the same rules for two different games. I will need something to run after Deadlands and I'd say Savage Supers would be a good fit when that day comes so that's probably where it will come into play.

  • Finally I looked at the Sentinel Comics RPG. I had run one of the starter kit adventures a few years ago and it was cool though some of the concepts were tricky coming in cold. I did the Kickstarter and had the rulebook and the GM kit but had not really dived in with an eye towards running it until now. There's a lot of Marvel Heroic (Cortex) in there but it's not just a clone.

    For example you're only going to be rolling 3 dice in your pool - a power, a quality, and your status dice which is a new concept that sort of replaces the solo/buddy/team element in MHR.  This status is determined by a Green/Yellow/Red system which has two tracks. One is your health - as your character takes damage they begin "Green" then move into Yellow at a certain point and then finally into Red as they take more and more damage. There is also the Scene Tracker which replaces the Doom Pool from MHR with a fixed countdown by round that moves through a G/Y/R sequence to show things escalating automatically - no die manipulation necessary. So your status die is determined by the current "color" (some may progress upward d6-d8-d10, some downward, and some may be steady) and also some of your powers are gated by this as well - the biggest bangs are only available when things turn red, for example. 

    This is a great concept that really anchors certain tropes into the mechanics. There are a lot of changes like this where things that were somewhat abstract in MHR become more defined and set and I would say more intuitively playable. I'll do a longer review later but there is so much clever stuff in here that I had to give it a go so it will be our system for this next campaign.

So, more to come on all of this. More in-depth reviews of some of these books and some session summaries as well. So far 2023 is a pretty good year here. 

Wednesday, February 22, 2023

Follow Up - Some Old-School Marvel Resources


As a follow up to yesterday's post here are some links to some great support sites:

 First up is the granddaddy of them all Classic Marvel Forever. This site has been around for years and was the one-stop shop for all things MSH including PDFs of the original books. The obvious links are gone these days but I suspect they are still reachable with some creativity. Beyond that there is a ton of extra material from character profiles (including DC!), organizations, house rules, and just a lot of interesting material if you're actually running a campaign.

Another solid one is which is a site I was previously unaware of but does have a ton of material as well. The Links section in particular is a gold mine for characters and character generators and all kinds of useful materials. The site's author has also created their own MSH retroclone which apparently takes the FASERIP rules I mentioned in yesterdays post and adds a bunch more stuff. I have not checked it out myself but I will at some point. Until then here's a link to the FASERIPopedia in case you want to take a look.

Finally there is MSH Gamer which is another great, modern site with character writeups, rules, links - it's just a great site and is definitely worth a look if you're interested in MSH.

Finally a personal note - MSH has gotten some flack over the years about the color chart and how people don't like charts and how it may seem like a kids' game etc. I'd like to point out that one of the goals of many more recent RPG designs is to achieve something beyond basic pass/fail results with their base mechanic. From Savage Worlds success/raise mechanic, One-Roll Engine's height/width mechanic, FFG's funky dice results for several of their games, various dice pool games, and others, have all tried to implement a simple mechanic that gives something more than a simple made it/didn't make it result. 

Well ... here's a game that had -three- possible levels of success plus failure on -every- roll with guidelines on what those different levels could mean while covering a power level that ranged from Aunt May to Thor and Hulk and beyond ... and it's from 1984. So before you dismiss it as "the kid's superhero RPG" or an introductory superhero game, take another look. There's a reason people still discuss it and use it today beyond "nostalgia". There is a serious, robust, time-tested game system here that is as capable as anything newer on the market. 

Tuesday, February 21, 2023

Superhero RPG Roundup Part 1 - Marvel-ish


I went down the rabbit hole these past few weeks to figure out which supers game I was going to run for the group. As is typical for me I went way overboard but it was a good excuse to see if there was anything new out there and also to take a second look at some of the more recent acquisitions I might have skimmed and dismissed.

One of the options I was considering was some version of the old TSR Marvel Super Heroes system. One, because I have fond memories of it. Two, because it's pretty easy to grasp and jump in and start throwing cars at bad guys. Three because there have been several efforts over the last ten years to retroclone it and so make it more available to people. Inevitably these do-overs include some rules changes just like the D&D retroclones do so the question usually is "do you like the changes?" because you presumably already like the underlying system or you wouldn't be looking at them. I do like the original so I started pulling up "4 Color" system games to see what was out there.

The oldest one I am aware of is the Four Color System from Seraphim Games. It is pretty much a straight distillation of the old rules, both basic and advanced, without any major additions. The downside is that it renames every.single.part. of the game and changes the colors of the results table, including using red and yellow for different levels of success than they were originally. So it's not FASERIP here, it would be MCBFIAW ... however you want to pronounce that. This really hurts the familiarity advantage for those of us who played the old one. I assume this is a product of it's time and an effort to avoid any taint of copyright infringement but to me personally it was pretty damaging. If you're not worried about carrying over the old familiar then it's a solid choice for a baseline MSH game.

There is also a 4C Expanded by a different author which takes a lot of the same concepts but breaks some things as well - for me at least. Instead of FASERIP your primary attributes are Might, Agility, Stamina, Strength, Intellect, Vision, and Ego ... so "MASSIVE" which is better than the prior version so points for that. The biggest problem for me though is this:

I mean, the colors are still wrong here AND we're dropping the glorious majesty of the full table for this abbreviated version that only shows the break points! Instead of column shifts you'd have row shifts and who wants that? More seriously the biggest objection some people have to the MSH rules is that they ran off of a chart. This still runs off of a chart, just a smaller one, so what is the benefit here?

Outside of these changes it also adds a point-buy option for character generation alongside the expected random tables. The general approach and tone are different though - it clearly wants to be a universal system and I believe a later version 2.0 really embraces this. Here though it still shows with optional rules for more "realistic" results, a lot more detail in skills, and a 25 page gear chapter. MSH was always about broad strokes to me so breaking down five different types of swords plus blowguns and chakrams ... it feels out of place in this system given the game's origins. It does have a nice section of NPCs, minor opposition, animals, and fantasy creatures and that's a nice inclusion. Overall it is comprehensive but it just goes in a direction I was not looking for in my MSH type game.  

The next entry is literally named FASERIP and has been out since 2016. As you can guess from the name it addresses one of my concerns with 4C by using a lot of the same terminology though it does change the rank names and it changes the Results table but it changes it to Bronze/Silver/Gold as the levels of success which while different is also incredibly intuitive - excellent choice here if you feel like you have to change it up. In the authors own words:

The rules of this game are not an exact replica of the rules of the game that it is emulating. While the majority of them are the same there are some differences. The main differences are that this game uses a different list of super powers and that it has a different method of generating characters. However, in play, the game retains the feel of the original game that it is emulating

The changes mentioned as far as creation is that the random generation options are mixed with some point buy options to allow players more control over how their heroes end up. It looks decent enough to me. Overall I like this one a lot and it is a complete supers game with examples, stock NPCs, and some alternate settings. It's laid out by someone who had a clue and remarkably it is free!

Next up was this one. That's a lot of title. "ZENITH COMICS PRESENTS: MIGHTY SUPER HEROES THE ROLE PLAYING GAME BETA-PLAYTEST EDITION" ... yeah. Sure. Great.

First up it's not pretty - it's a beta version and there's not a lot of layout flair and no art. That's fine. They do keep most of the rank names and the chart colors from the original - hallelujah! Task resolution does differ a bit though. From the rulebook:

When making a FEAT you take the Rank of your Ability (also called its Intensity) and compare it to the Rank of the opposing Ability (or Power, or item), and apply the difference as either a positive or negative (expressed as +/-CS) on the Universal Table, starting at the Column called Shift 0 (SH0).

So it's not the linear chart we are used to but something slightly different:

It assumes there will always be an opposing value which is quite different than the original game. 

Character generation is random with an option for modelling one after a known hero -  this boils down to make it up and let your GM look at it. 

The game adds a new stat "Dynamic" which is Charisma by another name. OK.

It also adds Callings, which is described as "why you do this" and can be tagged ala FATE to gain column shift bonuses by the hero or negatives or other trouble by the GM. Cool. The game also adds Weaknesses which are exactly what they sound like with potential negative mechanical impacts. It's a short list right now so maybe updates will solidify this section. There are also Contacts, another limited section, and Quirks, both positive and negative. Quirks are more like Hero or GURPS advantages and disadvantages so now it has that as well. 

There is an extensive Powers section as you might expect and it looks to be pretty well thought out with specific tasks, difficulties, and optional adjustments for each one.

There is some other innovative stuff here. Minion rules, a Villain Karma pool for the GM, and I like the idea of trying to innovate within the MSH framework in some ways.

I'm still not sure about that new approach to task resolution. Given that it expects an opposing value for every task, which effectively translates into column shifts, but there is also a table of column shift modifiers, I think it could get tricky adjudicating some situations. I think I like the approach the earlier system took and that some other similar retroclones take as well but it's not broken or bad in my eyes - just not the exact flavor I want.  

Alright after working my way through multiple FASERIP based games I can tell you this one was my favorite. It has all of the signature traits of the original - the rank names and structure is almost the same, the task resolution is the same, and the color chart is the same - off to a good start. They've taken "Intensity" from the advanced rules set and just incorporated it into the game as "Difficulty". The idea here is that if there is a difficulty rating you compare your relevant ability to that difficulty and if it is higher you still just need a green, if they are equal you need a yellow, and if it is higher you need a red (and if it is much higher you just can't do it). I think this works better than what Zenith is trying to do as it is just easier to grasp in my opinion. 

One significant addition here is the new stat "Resolve" - for social encounters. As damage is to Health, Stress is to Resolve. This opens up some space for characters to be mechanically better (or worse) than others in non-combat situations and I think it's a big gain for the game as there are some actual mechanics around it now.

The other big addition is the Profiles system. These are lifted pretty directly from the Marvel Heroic Roleplaying system (Cortex these days) and effectively replace the old Karma system:

I loved these in MHR once I figured them out and my players did too. Seeing them here really made me think about the impact they had on play and how it could work in this system and I am very much looking forward to trying them out when I get the chance. There are guidelines on how often each level can be earned and then a nice list of ways it can be spent much like the old system - everything from improving the results of a roll to shaking off stun to bringing in a contact to avoiding death ... for a time.

Character creation has two approaches right now - Narrative (or "just pick") and Random (with tables) and there are plans to add an archetype system as well. It looks fine for now and MSH never had a real point-based system anyway. The approach they have taken here is to put the character creation rules with all the power lists, talents, profiles, etc. in a separate book as you mostly use it during character creation. The main book for the game is all about running things so it can be a lot lighter than trying to put it all in to one. Makes sense to me.  Of course there is a GM chapter with advice on running the game and some options rules too so things might not be completely sorted out yet.

 So anyway there's a rundown of my journey through Marvel Retroclones. Lots of things to think about but I did find a clear favorite. More on those other systems I explored will be coming along presently.