Wednesday, April 16, 2014

NO:LA Nightwatch: A Supers Campaign Seed (Part Four)

More pre-campaign bits and pieces I distributed to the players. Some of these elements are reworkings from other sources. IIRC Terror Firma comes from a suggestion in a Heroes Unlimited book; there's another version of that concept which appeared a couple of years after I did this in Squadron UKYou can find the first post and more explanation here. The history of the Second Sunder War is here.

Japan has a significant split between the two sides of its superhero population. On the one hand it possesses a large and colorful segment of what have been called "Paracelebrities" in the U.S. They draw from across the range of powers from the unstoppable might of the Solar Commando to the less intense abilities of Second Guesser. Many have their own TV programs—reality or otherwise—with more emphasis placed on likeability of their persona's rather than actual powers. In fact, the most popular hero today is Super Taster, whose ability to discern flavors and identify substances has captured the public imagination, despite its decidedly now flashy and non-visual nature. However his careful choice of appearances, his go-to attitude and his recent victory on Ninja Warrior have made him near and dear to many. It is worth noting that Japan has a significant influx of paranormals from around the globe, hoping to make their mark in this lucrative sector. The situation has become somewhat problematic and Japan has recently moved to limit such travel.

The other side of the superhero population in Japan might be called a form of superhero elite. These supers have been recruited by the semi-nationalized zaibatsu, Asaka Concepts, to serve as agents of the government, security handlers, rescue experts and criminal investigation adjuncts. The government heavily monitors press and publicity for members of the Asaka zaibatsu, and is fairly liberal in its use of security restraint orders to prevent negative publicity. Asaka supers never make press appearances except in a carefully controlled situation. Still there exists a large underground network of gossip and fan-fiction dealing with them. To the public at large, these heroes are stoic representatives of the national identity, almost serving as a parallel imperial house in the minds of some.

Having been struck by natural disasters, government corruption, incessant warfare, and environmental damage, many worry about a recent new threat which seems to have struck the continent. Less than a year ago, a government patrol chasing down insurgents in Zaire came across a swath of land vastly different and alien. They reported back to HQ and then went in to explore. They were never heard from again. Several follow up patrols also apparently met a similar fate. At the time a few outsider observers were able to survey the area from a distance. They said the land seemed to have drastically changed vegetation and that there appeared to be movement of animals within the area. Visibility was reduced by something akin to a heat shimmer effect that may have been a property of the temperature or something else. Government Officials soon restricted the area and seized recordings and data from scientists before forcing them out of the country.

In the months that followed, satellites could track the progress of the area, now known popularly as Terror Firma, as it grew in size. Now it encompasses an area many miles across—and significantly spread into a local village. A government blackout within Zaire has kept reports sketchy, but there is some suggestion that the army quarantined the whole of the region forcing people to remain within the village even as the Terror Firma grew. Senior leaders within Zaire apparently believe that this lush development could be key to progress and growth—either through industrial development or perhaps through weaponization. Thus they have been loath to permit any outsiders to study the area. Rumor has it that some western nations have managed to gain samples through backdoor samples and are analyzing the data.

Given a dearth of information, currently scientists can only speculate about the source of Terror Firma. Some fear it may be an alien invasion in the form of a terraforming attack, others believe it some kind of sentiment ecological disaster, some think it might be some kind of magical attack or elemental, and others believe it is some kind of super villain lair. Regardless the situation has become more pressing following the discovery last month of two new and independent areas of Terror Firma in Sudan and Mali.

Following the breakup of the Soviet Union many outside observers expressed concern about the safeguarding and decommissioning of the great nuclear arsenal. Less thought was given to the large numbers of superhumans recruited and trained by the government over the course of many years. Over the next two decades, most former Soviet supers ended up in one of two camps. A good number emigrated to the West or other portions of the developing world where their talents could bring them fame and wealth. Most of the rest remained and began to take up strongman positions if their powers supported it or else joined with one of the Russian crime syndicates or corrupt industrial groups. Battles between superhumans tied to one faction or another became commonplace, adding to the already deadly mundane violence between criminals.

However, some Russian supers remained who loved their homeland and refused to bow down to the corruption around them. They took up classic superhero roles-- fighting crime and battling for justice. In this they found little support from the government or the elite who saw them as roadblocks to gathering wealth and power. When several supers tried to stop a turf war involving persons tied closely to the powerful of the Kremlin, they found themselves arrested and denounced. The few remaining idealistic supers found themselves in a difficult position. Chief among them was The Guardsman,a hero who had been given his mantle from his father, and his father before him. He gathered together a group of loyalists and made a desperate move. In lightning succession he assassinated Putin, the Prime Minister, and a score of other publicly corrupt officials. Within hours battles broke out between Guardman's forces and various other rogue supers. However, lacking any unity these criminals soon found themselves overwhelmed. The Guardsman declared new elections and established himself and his chief allies as the self-appointed guards against corruption, cronyism, and treachery.

Reaction from the world community was swift and negative. Threats were made but never carried out. There was some talk of establishing a Russian government in exile or of assembling an international brigade of supers to stop the Guardsman. Russia found itself without veto power or an official representative in the UN for several months. However, eventually the UN and others found themselves forced to certify the elections which followed. Though other matters, such as Sunder's invasion, have distracted from the situation, many world leaders view the "Russian Problem" with grave concern.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Spirals, Songs, and Summons: Building History for a Portal

Last Friday we had the good fortune to have our old friend Gene Ha drop in. He gave a presentation at a local college, but made time to sit in on for one-shot session. I'd played with Gene is high school and more recently he's played in my online Mutants & Masterminds campaign. Gene and I had spoken about Microscope before, so I wanted to give him a crack at it. To make the exercise practical, we opted to build the history for a Portal from our OCI campaign (more details on that here).

One OCI player, Scott, had selected Masks of the Empire as his portal. The tagline for that is “With the fall of the Witchwalls, the Empire of the Hours expands. Now they must dispatch agents to bring new lawless borderlands to heel. Can the Masks tame this magical frontier?” Using Microscope, we would write the history of this isolated frontier region with the following details in place:
  • The place had once been a distant borderland of the Empire of the Hours.
  • A magical barrier had cut it off- we would determine what that involved in our play.
  • Eighty years had passed in isolation and that would bookend our history.
  • We would be building a world for the PCs to play in- and that play would happen immediately following that last era.
With that premise in place, we decided to set the palette. More than usual, we ended up with a pretty modest list of Add/Bans…

  • Intelligent Magical Machines, not necessarily robots, but other kinds.
  • No Arcane “Firearms”
  • No Black-Powder
  • No individual manufacture or maintenance of magic items. Magic items require a consensus to craft and empower.
We had five participants and five rounds. We did an extra round without a focus to allow players to wrap some threads up. As I’ve done with previous world-building exercises using Microscope, instead of scenes we used Questions. Players could ask a Question about an event and either answer it themselves or pass it on to another player. That trick speeds things up, but does move away from a more rp feel. Usually I see questions when players find themselves stuck. In this case we ended up with everything clicking along so we only had a single use of a question.

I also tried an alternative drawn from our work using Microscope for city-building. Instead of a Legacy, I had players write up a faction, society, group, or people present in the world. The intent was to depend some of the on-the-ground player choices when this world pops up on the tabletop. You’ll see the list of those groups created at the end of the timeline.

Lens Focus (by Round):
1. Masks
2. Building
3. Given Voice
4. Betrayal
5. Scars

Note: I didn’t define the nature or source of the barrier further than this. I figured that would develop through play. My writ was simply that a frontier area of the empire had been cut off by a magical barrier. You’ll see that gains some definition later in the history. Note that, as sometimes happens, it isn’t clear exactly when the barrier arises during the chain of events listed below. That could reshape some of the details.
  • The Tribes Gather in Council: The work to regain contact with the Aether Spirits. (L)
  • The Face of a God: While speaking as Metatron for the God of Evenstar and Death, the Face of the Arch Pontiff is stolen in Mid-Ceremony. His ghost has no face or voice.  (D)
  • Tasks of the Unsleeping: The remaining Unsleeping are set to building canals and slowly turning windmills to redirect the winds and waters blocked by the Barrier. Few outlast the endeavor. (L)
  • The Face Returned: Prince Kalikos returns from the border to the Heartlands with the Face of the Arch-Pontiff and seals it away in the Grand Cathedral. (L)

Air Spirits, driven insane by their captivity within the Barrier, rise and thrash- their screams becoming howling winds striping the land and creating deserts. (D)
  • The Fleet Crashes: The magical air-spirit bound ships of the fleet go mad, betraying their crews and crashing into the ground. They litter the ground and end such travel in a matter of days. (D)
  • The Garden Lost: Betraying her lover’s trust, Pael Nael steals the Fifth Verdant Walker, a massive, mobile mechanical garden. However she gets only a few miles before she sends it tumbling over a cliff. (D)
  • The Earth Revolts: Winter’s Scar opens for the first time. It is a great chasm in the earth stretching across the isolated region. It begins a cycle, with the crevice snapping shut in spring and opening in winter. While open, it reveals great mineral wealth. (L)
  • Lost Tombs: Deep within the Cistern of Morg, uncovered by the rending of the Air-Spirit Illiath, the Tomb of the Curse Warden is found by scavengers. (D)

The spirits of the dead cannot pass through the Barrier. They accumulate and haunt the living. (D)
  • The Devas of Solace Return: Percadrix summons nearly forgotten legends back to the Marches of this fragment of the Empire. (L)
  • Liancarn Reaches the Hollows: Liancarn finishes his pilgrimage across the sealed region with The Key. At the Hollows he breaks the seals and reveals the great store of Fane Silver lost there. (L)
  • Mask Makers: Orchul, high arcanist, and his fellow mages work the Fane Silver into thin masks. Placed upon the spirits, they hide the dead from the living. (L)
  • Question: What is the dark secret Orchul didn’t tell the community about the making of the masks? The Fane Silver binds not only the ghost, but also those of its blood line. When they pass, they find themselves drawn to and merged with the mask’s power as well. This prevents newly dead souls from moving on or finding rest. In later years this would create dreadful masses of bound spirits. (D)
  • The Water Walls: Twerek Scorned completes the Tangled Seals, a set of locks and barriers to protect the Last Lakes from the encroaching desert and keep the waters under the authority of Sibilance. (L)
  • Spirit Rafts: Anlazuli builds the first of the Spirit-Rafts- floating platforms of chimes & lanterns- intended to draw the spirits away from populated areas. A simple and useful enchantment, the rafts soon become a common sight. They seem to cycle the spiral of the central rivers permanently, floating forever. (L)

Cut off from even the most distant Imperial rule, lawlessness rises.
  • Bandit Wars: The Bandit King Zonn Tral takes the Heartlands in a bloody revolt against his former mentor, Jael Allblood. In the midst of Jael’s sudden death, the control rod for “Sanras” is lost. (D)
  • Artoth Reborn: Tine Zeckt-Falling leads the refugees to the abandoned cliff city of Artoth to rebuild its former glory (L).
  • Curses Revealed: Pael Nael unmasks the Queen of Sibilance, revealing Mist-Eyed Drinker who took took the Queen’s form. Drinker, the Curse Warden, slays most of the guests at the grand ball to hide her secret- but many escape and seal the lake-borne palace. (D)
  • Hero’s Path: The Questgiver leads the Troop of the Vanguard through the Misty Glen of Shadow. (L)
  • Spiral-Heart Duel: The rivers, redirected, spiral uniformly to the center of the barriered lands. The three Bandit Kings agree to duel for control at the island in the center. They go but none return and their men fall to war. (D)
  • Bandit’s Fall: Caught out from his paid off Shock Troopers, the last Bandit King Auburth is captured by the Vanguard and jailed in the Tower of Sunfire. (L)

The Moons Vanish from the Skies for a Time (D)
  • The Tower of Lament: Imprisoned by the Curse Warden for her defiance, Tine’s daughter Knaipara learns the Tower of lament was not built as a prison. It is a giant mechanical historian, full of tales. (L)
  • New Masks: Tine’s daughter lives long enough to see the twelve Masks of Aroth- modeled after those of the Empire of Hours- completed and distributed to their fated agents. (L)
  • The Devas Undone: Sacrificing the last Beacon of the Unsleeping, Pael Nael collapses the northernmost section of the Winter’s Scar, burying the Devas of Solace and freeing the region from the perfection-demanding rules of this legendary spirit host. (L)
  • The Lost Ship: With the help of the Barrier Guides, the magical intelligent airship “Savras” and crew attempt to sail above the barrier and find the Moons, but they never return. (D)
  • Godkiller: The Hall of Sign-Solace collapses as Regent Hess, betrayer of the Barrier Guides, drains away the essence of the God of Evenstar and Death, using the blade Saint-Sinner, originally created by the guides to pierce the Barrier. (D)
  • The Summons: Var-seth of the East brings forth the Song of Valor from her Mask of Artoth, calling all heroes to assemble at her side. (L)
  • Death Takes All: The sand, the screams of spirits, and burning winds, the ever darkening sky…few can hold out against the Malaise which begins at the turn of the season. Only the hardiest, the Unsleeping, the Barrier-Touched, and a few of the Guides survive the moonless summer. (D)

Note: Again, I only put the title for this end era before the group. I figured they would develop an explanation which would tell us more about the world.
  • Whispering Lake: The Questgiver’s squire is nearly drowned by the new Bandit King Auburthrit. But young Fain survives to report the dead voices are trapped under the Last Lakes. (L)
  • Litany’s End: Myso, the spurned heir to the Throne of Hours- finally dies. His litany of curses trails off. Finally, the Chorus of the Mask of the Dutiful son is heard. Soon after, the Guides find weakness. (L) Note: this actually refers to events outside the Barrier. The Empire of the Hours is a larger plot point- the Empire which controlled this frontier state previously. The meta-game concept is that the players will be agents of that Empire coming to retake control after the Barrier’s fall.
  • Gates Left Open: Pael Nael arrives at Crotallan, last city of Sibilance, and finds it empty. It has fallen to the Malaise. This leaves only three settlements of significant size left within the Barrier. (D)
  • New Song: For a time the Voice of “Sauras” plays through many other machines. Each delivers a word of a message, but the whole cannot be pieced together yet. (L)
  • Grand Theft: Forgesteel Focus, the core assembly of the War Colossus, has been forged at South Landing. Agents of Regent Hess steal it under cover of darkness. (D)
  • First Cracks: King Dumas of the Dwarves and Technocrat Ablis of the Argent Gnomes find a weak point in the Barrier. They begin piercing it with a great magical intelligent drilling machine. (L)
  • The Second Betrayal: Orchul, traitor high arcanist and minion of Mist-Eye Drinker betrays his new master. The wizard has almost collected all of the words from the Voice of “Sauras” and is disemboweled for his efforts. (L)
  • Enemy of My Enemy: Hess- now a mass of scarred flesh and automaton war colossus- and The Listening Mirror seek to seal the breach. The Curse Warden escapes the Lake Bounre Palace so she can enter the fault and become the Barrier. Fight! (L)
  • True Names: Tine’s daughter’s mechanical scarab escapes her tomb with a secret: the Curse Warden’s True Name is a Millambet, a 1000 syllable poem. (L)
  • The Millambet: The last of Var-Seth’s heroes collects the final verses of Sauras with those Orchul had gathered. The Curse Warden has merged with the Barrier, and her death as her True Name is spoken shattered the Barrier. (L)

  • Argent Gnomes: One of the few peoples with any knowledge of the craft of intelligent machines. They rework and restore these into wearable devices, including armored suits and sleeves.
  • The Barrier Guides: Spirit-Deaf and hardened to desert life, the Guides travel the length of the Barrier testing for the beginning of its prophesied fall.
  • The Farspeakers: Those who can communicate with the Legend Spirits of the Empire and reveal their secrets.
  • The Barrier Touched: Some children are born too near the Barrier or come into contact with it for too long. They develop strange marks and in some cases unusual curse abilities.
  • The Listening Mirror: The secret cabal within the Barrier Guides who seek to become Gods within an eternally sealed realm. 
I'll talk in another post about how to unpack and find threads from that material. 

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

NO:LA Nightwatch: A Supers Campaign Seed (Part Three)

More of the background for my NOLA: Nightwatch superhero campaign. You can find the first post and more explanation here. The history of the Second Sunder War is here. This is a collection of real world-esque snippets I wrote to give the players a sense of the population's reaction to superheroes.

Fragments from a Weary World
From HR 1191—(Passed 403-13)
The Congress finds the following:
(1) The development and implementation of methods and processes that can be utilized to prevent violent radicalization, homegrown terrorism, and ideologically based violence in the United States is critical to combating domestic terrorism.
(2) The promotion of violent radicalization, homegrown terrorism, and ideologically based violence exists in the United States and poses a threat to homeland security.
(3) The Internet has aided in facilitating violent radicalization, ideologically based violence, and the homegrown terrorism process in the United States by providing access to broad and constant streams of terrorist-related propaganda to United States citizens.
(4) The Internet has aided in the spread of dangerous paranormal technologies and sciences in the United States. It has served as a clearing house for the propagation of the techniques to criminals and criminal organizations.

DC today announced the cancellation of the last of its superhero titles, following significant drops in sales over the last year. In September Marvel announced it would put all super titles on hiatus to, "make room for new creative developments." Bookscan sales figures for November show 14 out of the top twenty graphic titles are manga, a new record. Sales tracking over the last two years has shown a dramatic decline in the popularity of both superhero and fantasy graphic fiction. Of the six non-manga titles in the top twenty, two are crime fiction, one is sci-fi, one is historical fiction, one is young adult oriented and one is autobiographical. DC says it is pleased with the success of its new flagship titles: Jonah Hex, Mystery in Space, and The 87th Precinct. Other smaller publishers have announced new initiatives aimed at expanding the existing market—notably Image's new Sequel Series which will produce graphic fiction side stories and sequels to notable fiction in the public domain. They're pleased with the reception to d'Artagnan, which chronicles the adventures of the title character as spy in the years between The Three Musketeers and Twenty-Years After. An informal poll of comic bloggers suggest that the next big genres will be Mystery Stories, Near Future Science Fiction, Steampunk, and supplemental comics to existing properties like The Matrix and Star Trek.

Larry King: I want to go back to New Orleans—why wasn't the government advised about the location of this magical artifact?
Carter Niomis (former sidekick, advocate for parahuman rights): Larry—I think that's a misstatement—we don't have any evidence that the government wasn't informed.
LK: But we don't have any that they were…
CN: Listen, this administration has consistently placed any information under the cover of state security secrets—we don't—and can't know exactly what went on. I honestly can't believe that these honorable people wouldn't have told someone…but they had to be extremely careful, look we know that certain branches of the armed forces were infiltrated by Sunder's people beforehand. I mean, look at what happened at Annapolis.
LK: So you think they concealed this as a security measure?
CN: That's not what I said. What I'm saying is that you can't ignore the track record of good these people did and the sacrifice they made. We can't question them because they're dead. They can't be here to defend themselves.
LK: What do you say to the people, the people who lost their homes and their families and their livelihoods, when they ask—why didn't you just hand it over to Sunder in the first place?
CN: I think that's an insult to everyone who fought at New Orleans and everywhere else…
LK: We'll be back with more from Carter Niomis and then later, how the new exclusion of super-powers from the WWL is impacting the Mexican Luchadore Leagues…

"We tried to contain the damage as best we could. I mean Boston was a mess but at least we had the government hitting on all cylinders to get people out of there. In New Orleans, we still had the mess from Katrina and a half-assed job of getting things in place by FEMA and the Army Corps of Engineers. So much of what we did was to get people out of there—from all the areas. We couldn't get everyone, we didn't get everyone…I have regrets…but I'll say this: we lost a lot of heroes because we spent the effort to do that when they could have been helping to prepare for the battle against Sunder."

"When it came time to fight, we had to choose our ground. We didn't have much leeway—we could only distract Sunder so much, and the cost for doing that…I mean, I don't want to think about how many lost their lives. We ended up battling in warehouse districts, shopping areas, parks, and in some residential areas—but I mean the areas where the damage wouldn't be as costly. We lost part of the French Quarter, part of the downtown…so to those people who said we went for the poorer neighborhoods, we lost nicer places as well but we had to make hard choices and choices on the fly."

"It was after that when we started hearing the rumbling, all the conspiracy theories, all the talk about supers having causes the problem. It wasn't just us. We didn't ask for this. I think about everyone who died and it makes me sick to my stomach. I mean I don't blame them—it was overwhelming and I'm not just talking about the people of New Orleans or Louisiana. No, everywhere you go people are looking at you differently. Scared, worried, not trusting. I mean no one trusts the government anymore and they've certainly lived up to that, but we're not tapping people's phones or torturing them…it isn't about supers. No one trusts a hero, or the idea of a hero. No one believes in them."

"That's why I quit."
--Ranger X, Veteran of New Orleans

The government deliberately sacrificed New Orleans

Supers could have done more to protect the U.S.

The government is spying on U.S. Citizens.

The President is doing a good job of protecting us from terrorists.

Superheroes are role models.

The Congress is doing a good job.

The next President will make positive changes.

The government can be trusted.

Superheroes can be trusted.

Monday, April 7, 2014

Tabletop Deathmatch: The Series Begins

As I mentioned last year, back in April of 2013,  Cards Against Humanity announced their Tabletop Deathmatch competition. On a whim I submitted the board game I’ve been working on and playing for the last couple of years, Right of Succession. To my shock, I made the cut for the final 16. I went down to GenCon in August and pitched the game to a panel of 16 judges. They also had the team from Loading Ready Run film the competition. Cards Against Humanity planed to make that into a web series. They told us they hoped to have the series up by the end of September, but it didn't quite happen that way. 

Last week they put Episode Zero of the series up for viewing. Over the next several weeks they will be release up episodes featuring each of the designs. My episode's scheduled for May- I have no idea what that's actually going to looking like. It could be great- or if reality shows are any indication, I could come off looking truly goofy. At least I didn't slap or yell at anyone (I'm pretty sure). I'm nervous to see what this looks like. They're doing a showing of all the episodes in Chicago, so I hope to go see that. I'll give details if I catch that and once my episode's up online. We will be Kickstarting the game after the series wraps. So wish me luck with all of that. 

You can see the prologue video here and find out more information about the competition. CoH will be running another of these in 2014. 

(Repeated from my earlier post on the blog) I’m glad you asked, fictitious voice in my head. In Right of Succession you take the role of a noble house, trying to rise and gain influence over several generations. You do that in a couple of ways. You add new branches and key leaders to your house, eventually marrying and creating new lines. Each key person has an area of expertise and a rating- so you might have a branch with a Grand Dame (Society 3) and a Pamphleteer (Activism 1). Those roles allow access to different actions which can be used to modify your house, gain influence, generate money, or affect other player’s houses.

More importantly, you’re trying to build up values in the different areas to match the agendas of the current “Real Power,” the figure within the royal household who actually has power. That may be the king, a sneaky vizer, a young prince, the grand inquisitor, or even the royal consort. Each has differing interests. By matching your house’s development to that, you gain more influence (aka VPs). But the trick lies in the way those royals operate. In each generation, one of three people may be the “Real Power”- and through actions and money you can affect who has command. A generation lasts for two turns, and then another rises and takes its place- forcing you to calculate how to match their desires. You can see a couple of turns ahead, allowing for strategic planning.

I enjoy board games, but I’ll admit I can get burned out of even a good game after a half-dozen plays. I’m hugely biased, but we’ve been playing this game for the last couple of years pretty much every week and I’m not tired of it. I still find new approaches and I still look forward to playing. I’m managed to build a game that really hits the sweet spot for elements I enjoy when I play.

Right of Succession came out of two distinct game elements I enjoyed. The first came from classic board games which had better ideas than execution. GW published an epic kingdom-building game called Blood Royale in a giant box. We played it, I think twice. It ended up too long and too boring. It had some great ideas in it- I loved the concept of the goods and treaties. I used that to craft a "Model Feudal Council" at an academic summer camp. It allows me to bring together some fantasy elements with training in Robert’s Rules of Order. I figured that would serve them well if they later wanted to do Model UN, Arab league, or the like. The more interesting idea from Blood Royale was the creation of a lineage- with marriages, family evolution, and the changing of generations. I wanted a game with more of that. I picked up Avalon Hill's Down with the King, hoping it would do that, but it was just a weird hyper-long and detailed game. (That’s one that needs to be reworked and rebuilt for a new era).

So I knew I wanted a game with multiple generations of families. To that I brought another mechanic that I really loved: Demon Fusions from the Shin Megami Tensai video game series. In that, you can merge two demons to create a higher rank one. What you get depends on what you combine. More importantly, there’s a game to trying to carry over the right skills to the new beast. When you play, you try a merge and if it doesn’t exactly give you the right combo of abilities, you back out and try again. And again and again. It’s a weird grind that’s strangely satisfying. I worked trying to figure out how to use that mechanic elsewhere. In the end, I used it as the basis for the marriage system in Right of Succession.

Which I hope doesn’t say anything bad about me.

Thursday, April 3, 2014

History of Superhero RPGs (Part Nine: 2006-2007)

I’ve talked about this before but I wonder: how many gamers actually play games in published “settings.” Let’s leave aside settings presented in particular corebooks- like Earthdawn’s Barsaive, Aberrant’s Nova-filled Near Future, or Cyberpunk’s Night City. Let’s also leave out licensed world books or historical ones. I’m thinking about new settings presented for an existing system. So for example TSR’s Planescape, Pelgrane’s Bookhounds of London, or Mongoose’s Cthonian Stars. Or to more specifically to my subject- Necessary Evil for Savage Worlds, Paragons for Mutants & Masterminds, or eCollapse for Wild Talents.

I ask because I’ve always built my own supers campaign worlds. I’ve been running my hodge-podge, multi-property Firstwave: Year One campaign online for two years. It borrows from many sources but is a completely new beast. Before that I ran the NO:LA Nightwatch campaign I’ve been posting about recently. Then there was the Arkham Harbor, an all-women team in a supernatural world; Bloodlines, which offered a setting with only hereditary and genetic powers; Frontline ,which had strong government enforcement and control; Saviors which offered street level heroes in a world which had once had superbeings. I have several others, but I don’t think I’ve ever run straight from a setting sourcebook. I’ve borrowed characters and organizations, but I’ve never taken a published supers setting’s key premise.

And I don’t think I’m alone in this. Most of the superhero GMs posting online seem to build their own worlds (like Barking Alien and Armchair Gamer). Now that’s a purely anecdotal observation, but I wonder if we ways to study that. One means might be to track how many of these supplemental settings actually get solid support and expansion. The three I mentioned in the first paragraph have respectively gotten a reprint, a module, and nothing. While I’ve seen many fantasy campaign settings arrive and go nowhere, I’ve also seen several spawn rabid followings like Midnight or Forgotten Realms. I’m hard pressed to point to a superhero setting, not tied directly to a core system, which has had multiple and substantial supplements. In this case I’m particularly not talking about numerous small pdfs or villain/organization books which happen to be set in that universe. If that is true, I wonder why that happen? What actually sells for superhero games? And why do we continue to get new settings books: Are they thought experiments? Are they just house campaigns written up for vanity? Do they sell to GMs looking for source material? Or am I wrong and these settings are getting serious and consistent play?

Events: Infinite Crisis, Civil War, 52, Fallen Son: The Death of Captain America, One Year Later. Amazons Attack, World War Hulk, Countdown to Final Crisis, Sinestro Corps War, Annihilation, Annihlation: Conquest, Messiah CompleX
Television: Aquaman (Pilot), legion of Super Heroes, Heroes, Power rangers Operation Overdrive, El Tigre: The Adventures of Manny Rivera, Blood+, Painkiller Jane, Bionic Woman
Films:  Blood Rayne, Ultraviolet, V for Vendetta, X-Men: The Last Stand, Superman Returns, My Super Ex-Girlfriend (uuuuuughhhh), Ghost Rider, TMNT, Spider Man 3, Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer

These lists cover a smaller slice of time than my past rpg lists. I hope this makes them easier to read. I include mostly core books, but also significant setting or sourcebooks. Given the number of great things published I haven't included everything I wanted to.  I list revised editions which significantly changed a line. Generally I only include published material- print or electronic. I leave out freebie or self-published games. I'm sure I've left something off without adequate reason; feel free to add a comment about a line I missed (if published from 2006-2007). I've arranged these in by year and then alphabetically within that year.

1. BASH! (2006)
The original BASH- Basic Action Superheroes- is a short, quick-play system. Characters have three attributes, skills, advantages/disads, and a set of points to buy powers. The power list on offer in the first book is eclectic- and a little odd. While the whole thing feels threadbare, the resolution system's pretty easy- based on compared 2d6 (with doubles exploding). It would be easy to dismiss BASH given the layout, art, design, and general messiness. However in the years since the publisher has continued to support the line and release supplements. That includes BASH! Ultimate Edition which is about four times the length of the original. That got an ENnie Awards nomination in 2010. There's a lot to look at in the line: fantasy & sci-fi versions, modules, villain collections, and powers books. Point buy. d6 Resolution.

2. D6 Powers (2006)
I never played any of the old WEG games, not even Star Wars. I read the rules but didn’t have a chance to actually try them out. It’s a system that gets a lot of love, despite a mixed history of companies supporting it. D6 Powers covers two bases- serving as both a generic sourcebook for d6 games and a power supplement for GODSEND Agenda (discussed on the previous list). Setting specific elements are carefully marked in the text- an example of good editorial choices. It also has...wait, wait. I have to say this once again: if you're going to put a background element on your pages- watermark, illustration, cityscape outline...PLEASE MAKE IT AS SUBTLE AS POSSIBLE. Alternately, make it easy to turn off. D6 Powers isn't the worst offender in this category- but it wore on me as I went through the book. 

D6 Powers does exactly what it needs to. It opens with light suggestions and discussions of how players create supers characters- with decent examples and advice. Advantages & Disadvantages come next which says something about how you're supposed to think about your character. A large selection of powers follows, the gadgets rules, new combat options, and finally some templates for character types. I like the way the game inserts commentary and advice within each section. Red text covers the implications of different items and how a GM or player might manage them. This is a great sourcebook for the d6 System and a useful sourcebook for homebrewers looking for some supers rules to adapt. Point buy. d6 Pool Resolution.

3. Hearts & Souls (2006)
In the early to mid 2000's we got a slew of new amateur press rpgs with the same problem. The designers had enthusiasm, interesting new approaches, and access to new DTP tools. However they didn't have experience with those tools or with layout in general. That resulted in many, many hard to read games- with jammed & difficult to follow text design. Hearts & Souls is hard going, but it has a few interesting ideas. It makes a character's Drive central to them- giving them access to rerolls. Stress triggers offers a new approach to weaknesses. It also use a relatively simple system for tracking character stats. Other elements I'm not as sure about- especially things like the Monologue mechanics. The game has powers and attributes, but players assign qualitative values to them as they wish. There's no point or parity system in the main rules. The power list is only a little over a dozen items on a couple of pages. Most of the core book consists of general GM advice and setting pitches. The problem is that H&S doesn't make a compelling case why it should be the go-to light supers system over any others. In fact it feels more like a GM's home campaign with tacked on rules. Freeform character generation. Various dice resolution.

4. Humanydyne (2006)
A French rpg, Cubicle 7 apparently published an English softcover in 2011- but they don't have that available as a pdf. Instead you can buy the French 112 page electronic version for $20 (marked down from $40!). On the other hand, that English version may in fact be mythical. While some retailers (like Amazon) have an entry for it, others show it as a cancelled product. That's too bad as it looks like an interesting concept. Some describe it as post-apocalyptic, but it looks more dark future (ala Transmetropolitan). Players apparently take the role of agents trying to maintain some balance between humanity and superbeings. That reminds me a little of The Boys as well, but this seems more cyberpunk and less testosterone. ????

5.  Legends Walk! (2006)
A mythic superheroes game in the vein of the later Scion system and GODSEND Agenda. The characters have been chosen by a pantheon which grants them specific powers. Legends Walk! uses a simple resolution system- closer to Fate or Marvel than Champions or even V&V. While the game offers some optional complications, players will find the basic system rich enough. The core book presents a fully-fleshed out setting. It gives a near-future world which has been shaped by the emergence of the super-powered bearers of mythic force. Imagine a superhero universe where the only characters were like Wonder Woman or Thor. Players have to balance their choices with the demands and restrictions of their pantheons. Silver Branch has published several supplements with new characters and pantheons. As well they've released a version of the game using the Truth& Justice rules. List pick character creation. d6 Pool resolution.

6.  To Be A Hero (2006)
A superhero setting sourcebook for d20. It feels like a long house campaign mixed together with a splatter of new d20 mechanics. I'm not a big d20 person, but usually I can tell when some thought and care has gone into the mechanical adaptation. Those games make an effort to clarify changes, make any new sub-systems clear, and explain what the game's adding to the d20 basics. Then there's everything else which takes d20 mastery as a given and shovelwares more rules onto the page. TBaH feels like the latter. I'm also more than a little annoyed by the trace art here- clearly lifted from the Justice League cartoon. Only recommended for the most die-hard d20 fans. Level and class. Various dice resolution.

7.  Wild Talents (2006)
Wild Talents takes the superhero rules presented in Godlike and brings them into a modern setting. It further refines the One Roll Engine mechanics used in that system (and in games like Reign). Interestingly, Wild Talents was among the earliest 'crowdfunded' rpgs- resulting in a heavy hardcover edition. The game retains the complexity and depth of the original Godlike game. It is closer to Champions or GURPS Supers than Mutants & Masterminds or any flavor of Marvel. Some of that complexity comes from the granularity and some from the potential scale of the game. That's at least my impression; I've heard other opinions.

Wild Talents also builds on Godlike's setting. It offers a campaign frame which details the history from post-WW2 to the present day. The coolest tool allows GMs to define worlds on several axes: Morality, Super Being Influence on History, and Weirdness. That's a neat way to break down settings. It makes it easy to look at later Wild Talents setting supplements and get a feel for the play. Later Arc Dream would revise Wild Talents with an Essential Edition covering just the key rules and a full 2nd Edition which includes the setting material. Point Buy. d10 Pool Resolution.

8. Pulp (2006-2007)
As with some of the other lists in this series, I've consolidated the corner-case Pulp Hero games into one entry. Pulp Era: Cinematic Adventures in the Yesteryear! is a revision of a much earlier free rpg product, heavily expanded. It definitely covers the domino-mask wearing crimefighter. It seems to have had a wide distribution as a trade paperback. The blurb line describes it as a game that covers that territory, but with a Tarrantino twist. Not sure what that means. Better known is Spirit of the Century which IIRC offers the first approach to the modern FATE system. Definitely more light and cinematic, SotC gives plenty of options for science heroes and vigilantes. Evil Hat has since played up this universe with other games. Two-Fisted Tales Revised took home an Ennie nomination for best writing in 2008. The original appeared in 2003, but this revision knocks it out of the park. It offers a great overview of the genre, a solid bibliography, and uses public domain art of the era appropriately. The game has some crunch, but isn't especially difficult. Characters can have powers or power-like effects through mystical training, gadgets, or actual spells. That can be tuned by the GM to create distinct genre types. Definitely a useful resource for any GM wanting to run a pulp game.

9. 4C System (2007)
One of the first old-school superhero clones and another early crowdfunded product. The 4C System offers a basic engine for play, but encourages other publishers to build on it. Basically, 4C rebuilds the FASERIP mechanics from Marvel Super Heroes. This core engine can then be used to play out many different games. 4C includes significant material on superpowers as you might imagine. But the whole thing only comes in at 32 pages and can be downloaded for free. If you liked FASERIP and want to give it another spin, you can't go wrong with this. Given the price of Marvel Supers old stuff (especially MA3: The Ultimate Powers Book) 4C is a better option. If you don't know the original game, you still might look at it as a quick and simple superhero game with options for integrating personality and play. Random generation. Percentile resolution.

Designer Scott Bennnie has done a ton of amazing work. He's made solid contributions to superhero gaming across several systems. I think some people assume 'superhero' as an rpg genre doesn't have the dynamism of something like fantasy or sci-fi. But setting books like this, Underground, and Aberrant prove that wrong. They put a new spin on the genre- sometimes with massive changes and sometimes with simple shifts to the initial premise. Often it begins with the question of origin.

In this huge world book superbeings are literally archetypes. Called Gestalts, they represent a key concept, ideal, or symbol. In most cases a person becomes bonded to a concept and gains powers- for better or worse. The world book presents these ideas and the setting arising from it in over 300 pages of detail. It’s pretty massive and thorough. Gestalt aims for a more serious approach, but not necessarily a dark one. It reminds me a little of the early days of Marvel's Ultimate lines. GtHW presents many ideas and characters, but these are often deeply embedded in the background and setting. GM's looking for a complete new setting may be interested in it as well as those who like to strip-mine background books. It exists in several versions including ones for HERO system and Mutants & Masterminds 2e.

Earlier on these lists I mentioned my group’s reaction to GURPS Supers. We loved and played GURPS but really disliked early attempts at modelling superheroes. Several times we came back and looked at it but gave up. By the time this edition of GURPS Supers came out, we'd migrated completely away from GURPS. I read through it and the earlier GURPS PowersPowers covers more of the rules and mechanics for handling superpowers. On the other hand like other genre-focused supplements for the new GURPS 4e line, GURPS Supers offers more of sourcebook for running these campaigns. It gives some new mechanics (new powers, other approaches to character builds) but last third of the book discusses campaigns, superhero universes, and modelling these elements in GURPS. The books still has a lot of rules, so GMs looking for a more open or generic sourcebook may be disappointed.  Point buy. d6 Resolution. 

While it has gotten better in recent years, I loathe CG artwork in rpgs. Many, many games throw you into the Uncanny Canyon. I dread some publishers because of this. I'm not saying every piece of art in GUII is bad, but there's some serious nightmare fuel. Combine that with thick watermarked gutters, dense text design, and tomato red callout boxes and you have a book which you have to slog through. Guardian Universe II weirdly assumes players know the world of the previous Guardian Universe game, and then completely blows that away. From there it doesn't do much to tell you what you're actually doing in the game or how it differs from other supers rpgs. Clearly there's an interstellar feel- but you have to get far into the book before you have any sense of what's going on. Character generation is random for the most part. Beyond that, the organization of the book makes the rules hard to follow. It does have an index, but that's small comfort. Random generation. Percentile and d10 based (I think).

13. Paragons (2007)
Mutants & Masterminds 2e came with a built-in setting, the world of Freedom City. This echoed Champions' approach with 4e and beyond. Interestingly the M&M world shifted between 1e and 2e, with certain characters and elements excised out. I think this has to do with the original developer group leaving or being removed from the project. That's too bad as that cut some cool ideas. But Paragons is a completely new setting. It aims for two design goals. On the one hand it wants to be flexible for GMs. On the other it wants a "realistic" approach which places superbeings in a real world setting. On those Paragons has mixed success.

Don't get me wrong- this is a dynamite book. I'd recommend it to anyone interested in supers gaming. It has great resources in the form of characters, story seeds, and GM techniques. However it doesn't have quite as many dials as it could. The GM can tune the source of power outbreaks, specifics of the initial events, and some other details. But the book takes as given much more- societal impacts, organizations, and what the power structures look like. I wish Paragons had more wide-ranging options in the chapters, but I wonder if that wouldn't be an entirely different book. The "realistic" approach it goes for, on the other hand, doesn't work. It feels like most other superhero settings: lots of paranormals, weird organizations, superbeing bars, etc. It has all of those trappings. It certainly isn't a Year One setting book. While it does address some of the implications of supers to the real world, it doesn't feel any more realistic than the backdrop of Aberrant or the Champions Universe. I think that's more a question of a book which tries to offer something for every GM. Paragons may not do exactly what it sets out to, but it remains a highly recommended supers supplement.

On the flip side of "realism", I also point to another Green Ronin supplement from this period: Iron Age. That tries to emulate the feel of comics from the mid-80's to mid-90's when men had pouches, spines arched, muscles bulged, and no one had feet. That's a fun read and also worth picking up.

14. Scion aka Hero (2007)
Some might consider this a corner case, but it really feels like a superhero game to me. You have a modern setting, characters who discover they have special powers, and battles against the forces of evil. Sure you have all the mythic trappings and details, but we see the same thing in characters like Hercules and Zauriel. This first book feels the most superheroic. Eventually the Scion game line moves from high powered adventure to earth-shaking struggles, but if you've read any of Jack Kirby's work or even Grant Morrison's various heroes as new gods stuff, then you know the template.

The first book of the Scion line, Hero is pretty awesome. It sets up the concept well and offers lots of choices for the players. It borrows the base system from Exalted 2e- complete with the battle wheel. That makes sense and the games feel close. The way the system handles Epics attributes (borrowed a little from Aberrant) works decently. The system does have couple of problems. Some effects and aspects are simply much more powerful than others. In particular, speed is the end all and be all of the system. Beyond that the combat can be slow, with significant downtime for players. Most importantly, once you get to the highest power rank of the Hero book things get crazy. The sheer numbers of dice, the necessary level of the opposition, what the characters can do to normal humans are all crazy. And that's just the first of several arcs- with later books getting even more potent.

Still I'd recommend the first book (as well as portions of the Scion Companion). The ideas and details there could easily be adapted to your supers system of choice. The concept of Fatebinding, where NPCs who interact with the PCs get knotted up in their stories is worth stealing. Really, really worth stealing.  Point and pick character generation. d10 pool resolution.

15. The Supercrew (2007)
A light-hearted supers game presented in a comic book format. Originally from Sweden, it received a later English-language version. In the game players play themselves. In the middle of a game session, they're called away to assume their secret identities as heroes. Supercrew uses a hyper-simple stat and resolution system. Overall it looks light a fun and light-hearted superhero game with unique art. Random generation. d6 Resolution.

History of Superhero RPGs (Part One: 1978-1982)