Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Crux: Urban Fantasy Campaign Seed (Part Nine V-Z)

Concepts from an Exalted Threshold City. You can find the background here. 

Varya Jestkind, Day Quarter Watch Captain
For protection and justice, the Bane and the Thorn, hold sway over their respective quarters in Crux. Hasien Feng, the Bane of the Day Quarter, serves as the primary judge and arbiter for all criminal cases. Under him, he has a staff, called Nettles, made up of clerks, scholars and sub-judges who assess the merits of cases, record details and recommend punishments. Feng himself holds court over only a few cases, but can shape the results by assigning particular Nettles depending on their skill and philosophy. However, before cases ever reach the Bane they have usually gone through the careful hands of the Thorn, Varya Jestkind, and the Day Quarter Watch. Technically called Thistles, no one in their right mind uses this term anywhere within earshot. The Watch of the Day Quarter can be distinguished by their white- or for nights, gray arm badges. Jestkind splits her men into six stations for the sections of the Day Quarter: Apex (the southern wealthiest section), The Tilt (the bazaar and associated areas at the center of the quarter), Tidesent (the Docks at the North), Lantern Courts (the public and entertainment areas in the east), Numina Gate (the western section encompassing the schools, administrative buildings and sites of other higher matters), and the Changers. Walk (the northern area just outside of Tidesent). Each of these districts has various substations each lit with a green lamp. Other members of the Watch may possess or use such lighting; the Watch punishes violators quite messily.

Jestkind comes from a long lines of patricians, some of whom married into House Nellens several generations ago. Her particular branch benefited less from this arrangement but remains known well within Crux and the surrounding lands. In her early thirties, she trained from early youth with a remarkable aptitude for swordplay. There was some talk of her taking a place as an instructor or perhaps consort-bodyguard to a ranking noble. Her family expended great effort polishing both her martial and social skills only to discover her fatal weakness, her inability to still her tongue. Unable to resist a jibe, sarcastic comment or joke at another’s expense, it became clear that she would not do well in a public capacity. Instead, her father purchased her an obscure commission at the back of the Nettles of Crux where she would earn a steady income and copy records over. This she did for only a few months before being released from service for a particularly cutting remark about the frayed hem on the official robes of the newly place Bane, Hasien Feng. Jestkind turned to the places of swordplay in the city, attempting to secure some kind of position as a tutor. Instead her swordwork and sharp tongue were spotted by the then Thorn, Piercing Heart. He took her into the Watch and advanced her based on her ability to irritate anyone, to follow that up with expert dueling and, some have said, her ability to manipulate the Thorn’s affections.

When he retired two years ago, the Magister of the City surprised everyone by appointing Jestkind as the new Thorn. Some suggest a relationship between the two, but that is gossip. Varya keeps a tight rein on Day Quarter and her guards deal with things quickly. Professionalism is stressed, but the motto of the Day Watch is ‘silt flows downstream.’ Therefore many problem persons end up being tossed down into the Dusk Quarter.some more gently than others. Glain Kolath Bloom, the Thorn of Dusk Quarter, has become increasingly irritated with this practice as he has to figuratively and literally (a fall is inevitably fatal) clean up these problems.

Villages of Transhy: Notable rice growing area. (Place)
The Vined Gate: The eastern gate of the Day Quarter (Place)
Violet Scythe: Town in Blossoming Pearl (Place)

V’Neef Arstrius, House Senior
Of the Great Houses, two lack definitive representation or influence in Cascading Flowers: Ragara and Mnemon (Iselsi as well, but that goes without saying). The former’s absence is due to alliances elsewhere in the region and the later’s from certain conflicts over the permissions given to spirits here. Some Houses possess more influence than others here, for example, Cathak has a presence and some notables here, their effect remains small. House V'Neef, the youngest of the Houses, has been attempting to assert connection and control here for some time. Holding the monopolies on wine in the Blessed Isle, they look at the production of alcohols here as an opportunity. Were they to apply themselves, especially in light of recent events in Cascading Flowers, they might be able to shift the balance in the Satrapy and seize authority from Nellens.

However, their greatest weakness lies in the person who commands the branch present in the kingdom, V’Neef Arstrius. While V’Neef was only recognized as a Great House some thirty years ago by the Scarlet Empress, there were Dragon Blooded Exalts among the line for longer than that. Arstrius is said to have been born some two hundred and fifty years ago, in the earliest stages of the family’s growth to power; as was common with that time his Patrician family lent him to Cathak who sponsored him. Drawing in his Fire aspect, he trained the House of Bells, obtained a military commission and fought in successive campaigns including the struggle against the Anathema Jochim and the Ragara Widows Uprising. Though he acquitted himself well, he remains least on his family for uncertain reasons. His first marriage dissolved without issue and shortly after the Widows Uprising, he left House Cathak for the Threshold.

Little is known of his time there, but it is clear that he traveled heavily throughout the South. Certain merchant reports place him in Gem, the Lap and the Varang City States over many years. One story that he has apparently told is of his travels to the furthest south, where the edge of the Pole of Fire can be seen. He spoke of ancient fallen cities, from the time or the Shogun and before, buried in rocks and sands. Barbarian peoples, adapted to the harshness of the land who possession something of the blood of the Gods and the Fae of Fire. There, in these ancient ruins they live and conduct wars among themselves according to ancient rules and codes. Rumor has it that he fought there among them, even taking brides among the various tribes. All that is sure is that when he finally returned to the Blessed Isle, not long after the elevation of V’Neef, he was tall, lean and as red as the eldest of the Fire Aspects. His seniority became a point of contention for a short time, some feeling he belonged more to Cathak. However, V’Neef Aliset, matriarch of the line, accepted him and offered him a role. He declined, instead asking to be granted a place and authority in the Threshold. Thus he came to Crux.

Since then he has managed the House of the V'Neef here, mostly keeping to his own devices. Other members of the family are apparently welcomed here, but they have had no success in swaying him to step into the political arena. This may come to cause him problems in the future. He leaves from time to time, occasionally accompanying caravans who venture to the far South. He is a tall Dragon Blooded, but less imposed through his thinness. His skin has gone almost red-black. Those who do know him keep close on their description of his manners and his habits, but with work that might be overcome.

Vornaas of the Writ, Craftmason
While the great crafts and devices of Lookshy. drawn from the legacies of the First Age and the Shogunate, have captured the imagination of many, lesser devices and creations have often been forgotten. There are those who create significant devices, sometimes powered by the flows of essence but often not. Crux and Cascading Flowers in general have drawn on these talents over the last several decades: designing irrigation systems, improving elevator systems, repairing systems left from the elder days. Accordingly a number of highly skill craftmasons make their home in Crux, versed in ancient lore, craft skills and a dash of Thaumaturgy. Those more reliant on magical skills tend to fall in with one of the two great sorcerers.

Vornaas of the Writ is an exception to this. He is a crafter who focuses on the development and refinement of existing mechanical and hydraulic systems. On occasion he has worked with the power of manses to aid in his work, but this is rare. He has a small shop where he keeps a number of apprentices. He is Guild marked, though he came late into the organization. Given that his work fell outside of the normal classifications, they were unsure how to place or certify him. However after he reengineered the Gate of Tri-Born Mists at Blossoming Pearl, they welcomed him more intently. Vornaas is a modest man, avoiding ostentation, but until a few years ago was on friendly terms with a number of the Dragon Blooded in the region, most who had be his patron at one time or another. However, he eliminated that practice two summers ago, sequestering himself in his workshop and avoiding social contact, not just with clients but in general. The circumstances behind this transformation remain unknown.

Originally a painter house of some wonder but has become more conventional. On occasion a new artist emerges from here of note. They are noted for two techniques. The first is the careful creation of frames, cunningly crafted to match their paintings. They are especially known for their triptychs. They also work with heavier paints than the other artist families, using materials that are nearly oils and building up textures. Their traditional rival is family Akias, a feud that has spilled over from canvas onto the streets. As the fortune of one has risen the other has fallen and a number of the leaders of this family believe that they will only be secure when the last Akias is dead.

Waiting Dragon’s Path: Major road through Khedaal (Thing)

The Waymark
Crux stands as one of the Hub cities for Guild operations in the South, though not the largest of them. Fleets and caravans start out from here, heading to richer ports or overland to places where rare and unusual goods can be found. Being a Hub city is an important honor as it draws wealth and goods to the region. However, because of restrictions on certain Guild trades and influence within Cascading Flowers, there has been talk in recent years of shifting the Hub to another nearby city. In particular, the independence of and demands of the Loaders and Handlers of Crux have caused problems. As with a number of other fields, the Guild is restricted from controlling more than half of members of these groups. Work must be divided out, meaning that the Guild cannot exclusively rely on their own people. Attempts have been made to undercut these restrictions, such as working through shadow groups to exert influence, but these have only been partially successful. There has been some talk of exerting more direct influence by the Guild Council here. With the absence of the Scarlet Empress and the disorder among the satrapies, they might have a better chance than in years past. The Guild Council of Crux may move to do this, especially given the recent petitions by Guild members in Carta Mallus, where the harbor at Demdalis has been recently expanded.

Still, Crux and Cascading Flowers enjoy some advantages that others do not. The Majestic Iron Road and the Golden Floret River provide excellent access for caravans throughout the region, heading to surrounding satrapies and even further to the strange lands of the deep south or distant sites such as Gem and the Lap. Overland caravans gather at a site a half-mile to the east of Crux known as Waymark. A tent city has grown up here, serving the various needs of caravans arriving or about to disembark. Though the Majestic Iron Road is kept in fine spiritual order by masters along its path, a variety of ritual specialists and consultants can be found in the Circle of Belongings in Waymark. Here a caravan master can consult to see which spirits and little gods might be encountered along their way and what the proper method of appeasing them would be. Often the caravan hires such specialist to travel with them for consultation and to intercede with the spirits. Mercenaries, camp followers, tradesmen, ostlers and a host of others make their living in Waymark. Most are transient, heading from one caravan hub to the next. The city officials of Crux discourage people from setting up shop permanently in Waymark; the best known fixtures of the place stay for a few days and then travel back to Crux to their actual homes. When news of a new caravan, arriving or departing, comes in Waymark expands. When there is none to be had, people fend for their living in Crux.

Weedwall Souk: Busiest market in Dusk. (Place)

Withering Leaves, High Master of Taxation
Few people create such a palpable send of dread before them than Withering Leaves, one of the two highest Tax officials in the Cascading Flowers Kingdoms. The other, Syndic Weld, a patrician, looks to the interests of the satrapy and has the advantage of receiving his money for the top levels of this. Withering Leaves and his men must make their way through the trenches taking in every jade talent, obol and shekel. Withering Leaves has final say in all matters of taxation, only subject to a veto from the Son of Wreaths himself. He wields this power mercilessly, working his way up the food chain using one evader to catch another. Withering Leaves is known for his outlandish plots to catch tax dodgers: intricate disguises, long term sting operations, trained monkeys, and seductive traps. He usually leaps out at the end of these, evidence in hand with a resounding laugh that inspires and equal amount of fear and dismay. Needless to say, he is not beloved, except by his carefully chosen associates who receive special dispensation on their duties. Each year Withering Leaves survives several assassination attempts. Some say that he looks forward to the challenges presented by the quarterly assessments and attempts on his life. Not a skilled swordsman nor sorcerer, Withering Leaves seems to survive through a mixture of cruel cunning and uncanny luck. His aides, however, are not sometimes as fortunate. Therefore, he is constantly churning through those who die, those who quit and those who transfer to be away from his overwhelming near insanity. Withering Leaves has survived in this position longer than any other High Collector in recent memory: nine years. He is wealthy, corruptible only in the service of further collections of taxes and spry for his fifty plus years.

Wrenhart: Town in Blossoming Pearl (Place)

Zanoc Orchid
Master Artisan and head of a number of practical orders, including the woodwrights, wheelmakers, and other such matters. He is an Outcaste Dragon Blooded, something which has made him suspect with the Guild. However, his avoidance of conflict and focus on his craft and the craft of those under his watch have made him popular. He is said to be able to take up any art he wishes and take it to a master level. Recently his close friend and fellow Council member Sestain Fields-of-Holly competed in a challenge of stonecrafts. Source suggest that Zanoc lost deliberately so as not to cause Sestain to lose face with his artisans.

...and we're done. 

Thursday, July 17, 2014

What Makes a Good PC?: Play on Target Podcast Ep. 32

This week the Play on Target podcast talks about what makes a good PC. You can see we’ve cleverly put this up against the previous episode considering NPCs. We manage to do the episode with minimal “let me tell you about my character…” moments. Instead we talk about what’s a good PC for us as players and as GMs. I love a PC slightly flawed, but not too awful, who makes a difference in some abstract way. That can be having an impact in play on the world or managing to showcase some neat concept or idea. As important, a good PC has to have room to breathe: enough sessions and play time to come to life. There’s a whole graveyard of cool characters I regret because the GMs shut down their campaigns after only a few episodes. Super-frustrating when you’ve come up with something that immediately sparks for you.

In the episode we discuss PC flaws I’ve restricted in campaigns: Loner, Bad Temper, Stubborn. Usually these prove less a problem for the player and more an obstacle for the party & GMs. I don’t mind interparty tension or character flaws that create problems. But sometimes these don’t create challenges or difficult choices. Dirty Harry’s attitude gets him into trouble, but doesn’t generate meaningful consequences or troubling decisions He doesn’t struggle with them; instead he plows through and the world has to get out of the way. That’s fine for iconic characters and some games thrive on that. But a party jammed with or imbalanced by can become wearing.

On the other hand, I recently saw an exception to this. During a recent session, one PC (Mister Miracle) broke off on his own to plunge into the Phantom Zone. He ignored the warnings of others, didn’t tell anyone what he was doing, and potentially could have released a horde of supervillains. But it felt right and everyone enjoyed it as we moved back and forth between scenes. Why was everyone on board? Because that PC had built up trust and good will over the course of the campaign. He’s established himself as a thrillseeker, lured by dangerous places and traps. That’s been a consistent characterization. And in each of the three arcs he’s had one or two moments where that has gotten the better of him and created crises. But he’s also negotiated about that- been willing to be talked down without too much problem, hasn’t done anything to deliberately screw the group, and has generally used that personality quirk as something fun. He’s traded off overcoming those impulses enough times that I think the party had no problem when he did give in.

That’s hugely important. Those moves and moments come in the context of larger play. The group has an implicit dialogue about that. In a sense they’re trading moments. I’m going to withhold my disad now in favor of the group or back your moment where you indulge, but at some point in the future I’ll want an equally interesting and cool moment, and you’ll be down with that.

I can’t stress this enough- let your players be trailblazers for whatever cultures, races, organizations, and communities they come from. If they define them in a particular way: buy into those. That doesn’t mean taking everything as gospel, but be willing to adapt your vision to that of the players. If the players present themselves as a typical member- use them as a model. If they position themselves as exceptional or antithetical build the culture in contrast. I have Elves in my fantasy game and my vision of them has been in a constant dialogue with the players who run them. I don’t really like classic Elves, but some of them do- and that tension has really shaped their presentation. The Elvish people have survived and become more interesting because of that negotiation.

YRMV but I think the payoff for this approach beats out my sticking to my guns about how something ought to be. For one thing it encourages player buy in. They know that if they take the time to develop traits or come up with ideas about their personal history, it will have an impact. For another it can save the GM work. If you allow the players to fill in some details you can put your attention and labor elsewhere to complement that. Finally I really believe that you get more interesting material when different visions come together to make something new. When a player introduces a new element that spurs me to think about the context- and often spins out into even more cool and connected plots, characters, and concepts.

I made this an explicit part of the game when I ran The Last Fleet. Each player had a character from one of the surviving races. I let them determine what they were like- and how they reacted to one another. I riff off of the elements they put into play. Jeanne, for example, developed her feline Namiir race into a weird mix of practicality and artistry. They became more than just Cat People with a penchant for assassination. Kenny over the year helped share and create what Drow meant in our ongoing fantasy world- not AD&D undergrounders, but staunch traditionalists unable to change to deal with modern life. It goes beyond fantasy games, though. Sherri’s play in our first Changeling campaign helped me see elements about the different seemings and kiths. In particular she defined the “Wizened” as persons trapped in a role or duty, unable to break away from that. Matt’s presentation of Mister Miracle in our M&M game has shifted the campaign as a whole to be more cosmic. He’s helped to redefine the cosmology.

If you like RPG Gaming podcasts, I hope you'll check it out. We take a focused approach- tackling a single topic each episode. You can subscribe to the show on iTunes or follow the podcast's page at www.playontarget.com.

Desperate Scrambling: The Pleasures of GMing

We had an interesting situation happen in the Mutants & Masterminds session last night. I tend to be lower prep for most games, but less so for superhero games. I’m running this one online so I find myself having to hunt down images and maps all the time. Even so I’m not always ready for what the players throw at me. Last night was one of those moments.

They’re near the end of the third and final arc of a two year campaign. I’m riffing on Age of Apocalypse crossed with DC continuity to make Vandal Savage the antagonist. He’s gone back in time and changed the future- ruling the world with the aid of Sentinels. I works because the campaign’s been a deliberate mish-mash, with the players presenting new takes on classic characters (Nightcrawler, Mister Miracle, Iron Man, Mr. Freeze, and Thor). The previous session we’d ended with the plot and solution still pretty open. Like most GMs try to set up incidents and let them come up with solutions- but I also try to anticipate a little what they might try. Here’s what I figured:
  • The most obvious solution and one they’d been working on was to use the technology provided by Dr. Fenton (drawn from Ken Hite’s Adventures into Darkness) to physical travel back in time to stop Savage. They’d certainly set everything up for that.
  • I also considered that they might switch things up and actually go after Savage’s major plot device, a massive pseudo-Mother Box construction which he planned to use to create a planetary Boom Tube. I could use that as a means to lead into a final confrontation.
  • I also thought they might use some of their contacts and previous efforts from the middle of the campaign arc to call in support from the heroes of other dimensions for some kind of assault.
  • Finally the other consideration was that they might use some of the paradoxes and dimensional physics to simply go straight after Savage himself- to bring their versions of the “Infinity Gems” against his.

I was pretty ready- with maps and tokens for those.

However when the group started going over options again- and talking about the costs- they ended up spinning down a completely different path. Instead of going physically back in time, which would require some serious energy (definitely possible, but might put NPCs at risk) they asked if they could send their minds back in time (ala Days of Future Past). This came out of the blue- and hadn’t been an option before. In particular, most of them hadn’t even been born in the time they need to get to (1949). But the villain Fenton used that method, so they knew it was possible (and they’d seen the movie). I was a little crazy- and they still went after it even after I told them they had no way of knowing what body they would end up in.

I was recording the session (which ended up split into two parts). Amusingly you can see me scramble on my machine trying to pull together things on the fly to make the idea work. The players couldn’t see any of that. I slow down the pace a little to give me time to get new tokens and the map ready- and managed to pull it off. It’s a peek behind the curtain. The players didn’t see any of that. I manage to pull together a set of proto-Avengers for the players to "possess," repurposed an older map, and set up a fight. We set the players' powers on the fly, which everyone seemed to get into the spirit of. 

Anyway the videos of the session- done using Roll20 and Skype- are below.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

This Imaginary Life, VirtuaCon, Games on Demand: RPG Catch Up

Once again I got the opportunity to talk gaming alongside some incredibly smart people. Richard Rogers invited me back for another session of “This Imaginary Life” this time talking about how GMs should think about/handle the impact of bad rolls on a session. There’s at least a couple of moments during the segment that made me go “Oh yeah, jeez—that’s a much cooler way to see that.” You can check out the video below. 

I’ve been thinking about one particular bit in the conversation. We talk about GM modelling- essentially the GM demonstrating through play how they handle things. With a new GM and/or new game, a player has to figure out how the game’s actually played- what’s valuable, what’s viable, what’s the game’s focus. Even on a micro-level, they have to uncover the mechanics: what happens when the die falls off the table, how are perception/reaction checks handled, how are checks involving group work handled? Usually these approaches come  from the GM (or the culture of the table) as the authority.

How does a player model play for the GM? Does that just mean playing well- or are there play methods, goals, objectives- which the player can act out to help the GM get on their wavelength? Maybe?...like a player taking NPCs seriously demonstrates that the GM ought to take them seriously as well. But does that work in reverse? If that player just kicks NPCs in the shins, should that be an explicit message to the GM to give up on deep background characters? I suspect that I’m overthinking this; I bet player modeling is just about playing well. GM modeling is a distinct beast. I’m a GM who has moved to give more and more authority to the players, but this may be the place where I draw the line. I model those elements I’m pretty set about the authority I want at the table.
Anyway- that’s a more than a little off the topic. If you watch the video you can see some smart people (plus me) talk about gaming.

As I mention in the video, I’ll be running at Games on Demand this year at Gen Con. I’ve run at cons before- I used to help with Eden Studio demos, ran a couple of local conventions, and GM’d at Gen Con way back in the early ‘90’s. But it has been a several years since I’ve done full-blown con sessions. And I’ve never done GoD before. So wish me luck, and if you’re at Gen Con be sure to stop by and say hi.

Last year I ran sessions for RPGGeek’s VirtuaCon online and loved it. I’m trying to figure out what I want to do this year. Ideally I’ll run three sessions- a kind of trilogy of games if possible. Right now I have three sets of ideas:

Last year I did a session of Microscope in which the players created a semi post-apocalyptic world. You can see my post on that. It went well- though Google Docs ended up being more a problem than an aid. We put that world together late on Friday and then I created and ran a Fate session based on it for Sunday. I was thinking of doing the same thing again this year, but adding in a twist. I would also do a session of Kingdom set somewhere in that created world. It might take some figuring out- and I figure even if I can’t come up with something for the Kingdom session, we can still play using another playset.
Games: Microscope, Kingdom, Fate Accelerated

This is stolen from a suggestion made by Tom Tyson. Run three different superhero games, each using a different system and each representing a different era (Golden Age, Silver Age, Bronze Age, Modern, etc.). It would be a shared superhero world- with loose connections between the stories. It would interesting to do something with a “Freedom Force” style supergroup which examines different eras. Three sessions would be enough to build an interesting world. It might even be fun to see if other people might be running superheroes and get them together on that. Or perhaps even use Microscope to create a shared setting to run from.
Games: Three different superhero games (M&M, Marvel Heroic, V&V, Champions, etc).

The last ideas involves finding three different “hacks” people have written and running sessions of those. Last week I read through Brennan Taylor’s hack of Legend of the Five Rings to Apocalypse World and it looks pretty cool and playable. I think that could be amazingly fun. John Wilson created an adaptation of Golden Skies Stories to Tove Jansson’s Moomintroll tales. It has been some time since I’ve read those, but I love them. That could be fun. I’m not sure what I’d do for the last hack- maybe something like Cthulhu Vice, a really funny Savage Worlds setting which combines Cthulhu an ‘80’s sandal-wearing cop show. I've also been thinking about doing Nights Black Agents, but using James Bond 007
Games: ???

A quick reminder- if you’re looking for AP videos of games, I’ve recorded a number for my non-monetized YouTube channel. There you can find my Changeling Lost Vegas FAE sessions, some Mutants & Masterminds sessions, and one shots for Microscope, Kingdom, Fate, and Base Raiders. I watch other GM’s sessions from time to time- it’s a great way to pick up ideas and back-seat drive. 

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Crux: Urban Fantasy Campaign Seed (Part Eight T-U)

The position of Guild Warden is a difficult one. Wardens enforce Guild rules, laws and strictures on all members within a given area. The Guild provides resources to its wardens in the form of scribes, assistants and money. However a Warden must balance his zeal with the importance of maintaining stability in an area. Abandon rose up through the ranks of the Guild through slow, careful accrual of gains. In most ways he was unremarkable, save one. He doggedly pursued back anyone who had cheated him even slightly in his trade. In most cases, this was not intended to punish (unless he could), but instead to send a message that this would not happen again. His pursuit of these matters led him back to certain discrepancies in the current Guild Warden’s accounts, which ended with that Warden’s death. Though he had not intended it, Guild assigned Abandon to take his place. He has a reputation for careful and contentious work, something which makes many people nervous. He has only held the Warden position for a year and a half and it is unclear who is allied with and against him.

Tepet Lindros, Master of Ropes
Movement between the various quarters of Crux is a vital and lucrative business. The King of Cascading Flowers reserves the ultimate right to assign and regulate those who handle this vital matter. To administer this, he appoints an officer, usually to a three year term, to make sure that elevator operators, freight loaders, and stair wardens all handle themselves properly and pay over a certain portion of their profits. The Master of Ropes cannot be a member of the Guild and the King attempts to appoint someone with solid social and financial status, to help maintain order. Currently, Tepet Lindros, an unExalted member of his house, holds this office. Middle aged and wealthy from investments in the kingdom, Lindros, handles the office in a workmanlike way. His concern lies with anyone causing disruptions or creating noise that will get back to the king. Operators understand that accidents will draw Lindros’ wrath, but they have a certain leeway in upkeep and fee charges. The Tepet is coming close to the end of his term and many people are bucking for the position. Most elevator operators and permanent franchises, at the discretion of the Master of Ropes, but there are always a few spots that open up. By law, only half of the elevator operations may be Guild controlled, by in practice, nearly all are beholden to them in some way.

Thieves’ Gate: Popular term for the Burning Stair. (Place)
Three Wisdoms Towers: School in Numina Gate. (Place)
Thunderous Haven: Disputed border town between Carta Mallus and Blossoming Pearl. (Place)
Tidesent: The Docks district at the North of Day Quarter. (Place)
The Tilt: The bazaar and associated areas at the center of Day Quarter. (Place)
Tilted Bazaar: Great bazaar at the heart of Day Quarter. (Place)

Tonas Sabar, Master of the Three Wisdoms Towers
Many nobles and patricians of Cascading Flowers Kingdom employ private tutors and scholars to train their children, some few manage to send their children to the Blessed Isle for primary education. While other academies exist in the Threshold at Lookshy, The Lap and previously at Thorns, the Kingdom itself has two notable places of secondary education. The first is the Unimpeachable Fortress of Thoughts at Blossoming Pearl, essentially the Royal Academy of the nation. The second, less famous and more harried school is the Three Wisdoms Towers in Crux. Located in the Numina Gate district of the Day Quarter, the school was originally three separate institutions, each led by a notable philosopher, built next to one another to promote debate and competition. Over the years, this mandate and the original principles of the three have fallen away. The towers themselves have been surrounded at the base by a jumble of stone and wooden buildings that make up the campus. A framework of iron and wood connects the towers at their tops, making for passages and walkways students must traverse to reach classes. These walkways are notoriously dangerous and under constant repair.

Tonos Sabar, the venerable master of Three Wisdoms Towers, denies these accusations along with most others. He is notable for his swift and deft hand alternating between painful slaps and an iron headed cudgel to make his point to lesser who would question the school’s works. He claims a second cousin who serves as one of the great Merchant Princes of the Guild, but most believe this is simply an accident of similar names that Tonas has laid claim to. He takes a firm hand with those who approach the Towers seeking admittance for their offspring, but is nauseatingly fawning when it comes to dealing with the Dragon Blooded. Some few are taught here, the children of the least of the families who either need short term schooling for their sons and daughters or else have already had them expelled from real schools on the isle. These students have free run of the place and use it to cower and control anyone else. Tonas has heard the complaints and dismissed them, just as he dismisses accusations of theft by his students from nearby businesses, the grumblings of the Watch as they drag home drunken children on the weekends and the shouts of parents who arrive to find their offspring missing and presumed lost somewhere in the interior of the Towers. Despite all this, Tonas considers himself an educator and manages to keep this image throughout Crux. Students continue to be sent there and will be for some time.

Tower of Feathers
Though a number of the more impressive wonders of the city have fallen into disrepair or have been plundered for use in other places, the Tower of Feathers remains, standing tall above all other nearby buildings (even taller than the famed Karascend Bastion). Perhaps two hundred hands tall, the tower has suites at the base, the mid-point and the top. Interior elevators allow passengers to come up and down at specified points in the day. At the base, the large open arched area shelters the famous Chail Menagerie of Perfection, a seller of rare animals, including beasts of the plains, fish of the sea and reptiles of the air. Chail specializes in careful training and management for his creatures, but only sells animals small enough to be lifted by a man. His grooming, cultivation of unusual interests and clean establishment have earned him a reputation far beyond the Day Quarter. On the other hand, atop the Tower, lies the House of Feathers. Here Grand Spice Fortune, originally from Arjuf, sells rare and unusual birds. 

Platforms reach out from the top of the tower and limbs and carefully crafted scaffolding is used to house his hundredsome cages. The craftsmanship of these cages is nearly as legendary as his birds. A trip, by appointment, to visit Fortune is said to be a mixed experience, between the loveliness of the birds and their songs and the vertiginous drops that the owner navigates through in showing his potential clients a rare specimen.

The Underguilds
The Guild is a constant presence in the Threshold, rivaling the Dragon Blooded for influence even in those areas under the control of the Scarlet Empress. In times past, the Blessed Isle kept close watch on how and when the Dynast families interacted with the Guild. Today, most of those restrictions have vanished. More than ever, the Guild is the mercantile backbone of more and more areas. In Crux, their influence has grown, though by charter, certain areas and portions of certain commerce are held away from the Guild, to maintain some balance. However, even in these cases money and a chain of influence means that at the very least the Guild has some control of most operations. Often this is for the better; the Guild maintains a system to check for quality, maintain reasonable prices and to distribute goods across the regions it trades with. In effect, most merchants must at the various least Guild a measure of approval from the Guild or risk being frozen out.

Legitimate Guild representation in Crux includes the Guild Warden, the Guild Factor . Nihlus Means, and a number of other posts. However a second set of groups exist as well, known as the Underguilds. They call themselves “fraternities,” “brotherhoods,” or “craft associations” but the Underguilds carry out little traditional trade. Instead they are shadowy groups that extort membership fees from those craftsmen and businesses that they believe fall under their auspices. The sums they take are minimal, but yet another drain on the pocket of the Guildsman. The Underguilds do provide some measure of return payment in the form of directing people to their businesses, a minimal degree of protection and in some cases an actual fraternity gathering for members. The Guild and in particular the Guild Wardens recognize the existence of these elements within the Guild itself and the reaction varies. For the most part, these groups are small and benign enough that pursuing them is cost prohibitive, especially since even the ring-leaders are Guild members. On occasion, however, an Underguild oversteps its mark or engages in violent competition with another Underguild. In these cases, the Guild will intervene.

It is believed that there are five or six Underguilds operating in Crux. The most notable of these is the Merciful Company of Fletchers, run by the Guild woman, Arexia Jadevine. This Underguild keeps itself in the open, rather than carrying out secret club meetings and ceremonies. As a result it has gained a certain degree of legitimacy that the other Underguilds lack. The Guild Warden of Crux still keeps a close eye on Jadevine, which may be her actual intent. Some say that by providing an open target, the activities of the other Underguilds and their battles with the local guild of thieves can slip past.

Unimpeachable Fortress of Thoughts: Secondary school at Blossoming Pearl. (Place)

Thursday, July 10, 2014

The Many Names of Gamemasters (Updated)

From time to time in reviewing I’ve hit the problem of naming the Game Master. Also known as the GM. Aka Gamesmaster, Games Master, Game-Master, Games-Master, and Gamemaster. GM’s my preferred term (because that’s what I do).  On the other hand, to me a DM or Dungeon Master, is someone actually running Dungeons & Dragons. That's a matter of taste and experience I suppose (or I'm just plain wrong). Below I've assembled and updated my list of the many 'alternate names' RPGs use. For each I've listed just one example system, even when that name appears in several games (StorytellerNarratorDirector). Many were suggested by my excellent colleagues on the original list at RPG Geek

Feel free to suggest any I may have missed!!!

With GM as #1 and DM as #2, here are 98 many others...

Absolute Judge (Mechanical Dream)
Administrator (Top Secret/SI) 
Adventure Master (Dragonraid)
Airedale (Knights of the Road, Knights of the Rail)
Animator (Toon)
Antagonist (ΑΓΩΝ) 
Author (Age of Empire)
Bartender (Tales from the Floating Vagabond)
Big Mac Daddy (StuperPowers!)
Booker (Kayfabe)
The Boss (Low Life)
Campaign Master (Star Ace)
Cannibal-in-Charge (Cannibal Contagion)
Castle Keeper (Castles & Crusades)
Cat Herder (Call of Catthulhu)
Cavemaster (Cavemaster)
Chill Master (Chill)
Chronicler (WitchCraft)
City Planner (Nightlife)
Consul (Super Dungeon Explore)
Continuum Master (TIMEMASTER)
Control (Agents of S.W.I.N.G.)
Corporation (Merc)
Corpse Master (Rotworld)
Cryptkeeper (The World of Tales from the Crypt)
Dawg Master (Dawg the RPG)
Dealer (Dust Devils)
Director (Night’s Black Agents)
Dispatcher (Ninja Burger)
Dolphin Master (Everything is Dolphins)
Dorn Keeper (Dorn)
Editor (Pandemonium)
Editor-in-Chief (Rotted Capes)
Engineer (Steamfortress Victory)
Everyone Else (Everyone is John
Evil Mastermind (Scared Stiff)
Excursion Master (Excursions into the Bizarre)
Fairy Godmother (I’m a Pretty Princess)
Fairytale Teller (Wiedzmin- trans. from the Polish)
Fate (The World of Synnibarr)
Fixer (Leverage)
Galaxy Master (Starfaring)
Game Control (Spycraft)
Game Moderator (Wild Talents)
Game Operations Designate aka GOD (The Legend of Yore)
Game Shepherd (Spiritual Warfare
Game Sheriff (Dzikie Pola- trans. from the Polish)
Gamekeeper (Tales from the Wood)
GeekMod (Way of the Geeky)
General Management (Time & Temp)
Ghostmaster (Ghostbusters)
Grand Master (Witch Hunter: The Invisible World)
Grey Eminence (Agone)*
Guide (Don’t Look Back)
Hand of Fate (The Secret of Zir’An)
Hollyhock God (Nobilis)
HōLmeister (HōL)
Host (Ironclaw)
Interrogator (InTERRORgation)
Journey Master (Dangerous Journeys)
Judge (Marvel Super Heroes)
Jump Master (Jumpers)
Karma Fate Destiny Master (Refuge in Audacity)
Keeper aka Keeper of Arcane Lore (Call of Cthulhu)
Kennel Master (Woof Meow)
Labyrinth Lord (Labyrinth Lord)
Leader (Shadows of Esteren)
Lead Narrator (Valiant Universe RPG)
Lejend Master (Lejendary Adventure)
Loremaster (The One Ring)
Magister/Magistra (Kata Kumbas)
Maim Master (F.A.T.A.L.)
Marshall (Deadlands)
Master Creator (The Secret Fire)
Master of Ceremonies (Apocalypse World)
Mayor (Kobolds Ate My Baby)
Meister (Das Schwarze Auge)
Mission Director (Recon)
Moderator (Blue Planet)
Mutant Lord (Mutant Future)
Mythguide (Aria: Canticle of the Monomyth)
Mythmaster (Mythender)
Narrator (Houses of the Blooded)
Navigator (Mermaid Adventures)
Operations (Wilderness of Mirrors)
Overlord (Descent)
Overseer (Catacombs
Playwright (The Play's the Thing)
Producer (Primetime Adventures)
Programmer (Engine Heart)
Project Director (Morrow Project)
Prophet (The Seventh Seal)
Puppet Master (Puppetland)
Rattenmeister (Ratten!)
Referee (Traveller)
Runner (Rune)
Scenemaster (Non-Essential Personnel)
Seneschal (The Riddle of Steel)
Sensei (Chi-Chian RPG)
Sherpa Guide (Sherpa)
Sholari (Skyrealms of Jorune)
StarMaster (Space Opera)
Story Master (Dungeons the Dragoning 7th Edition)
Storyguide (CthulhuTech)
StoryHost (Enter the Shadowside
Storyteller (Vampire: the Requiem)
Superintendent (Panty Exposion)
Superuser (Freemarket)
The Man (Starchildren)
Umpire (Lace & Steel)
War Master (Weird Wars)
Watcher (Marvel Heroic Roleplaying)
Watchtower (Smallville)
Wulin Sage (Weapons of the Gods)**
Zargon aka Morcar (UK) (HeroQuest)
Zombie Master (All Flesh Must Be Eaten)
*Eminence Grise in the original French
**If I were to run Weapons of the Gods, I would require that the players address me as the Wulin Sage at all times.

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

The Year in Superhero RPGs 2013: Part One Action Galaxy to Man-Made Mythology

2013 was a damn fine year for superhero games. We saw some clunkers, but it also delivered an amazing assortment of new approaches and smart expansions to existing systems. We experienced an explosion of games produced via Kickstarter support: either as an individual project or as an expansion reward for one. That’s a trend I expect we’ll be seeing until the great and oft-predicted collapse of crowdfunding. I don’t have a sense if superhero games are over-represented in these fan-funded projects. That might an interesting area to study: what kinds of rpgs are pitched and which ones actually fund?

So with the main body of my History of Superhero RPGs lists complete, I turn to inventorying last year’s developments and publications. Because those lists ended up longer and more involved (i.e. I love supers so I wrote too much), we’re getting to this several months late. As I did with the Year in Horror RPGs I survey the major products and publications in the genre actually released in 2013. If a book was crowdfunded or pdf series’d, I’ve generally held it off for the year in which a printed or collected version arrived. I’m sure I’ve missed some things here- for example I’ve left off a number of worthy electronic-only small publications and strictly fan published material. For these entries, I offer comments, impressions, and some pseudo-reviews if I've read the game. After this I finish this I'll inventory Horror and Steampunk/ Victoriana rpgs for the year. 

This material is supported by a Patreon project I've established just for these lists. I hope you'll check that out and spread the word. If you've enjoyed the work so far, consider becoming a patron. 

Events: Age of Ultron, Infinity, Battle of the Atom, Requiem, Wrath of the First Lantern, Batman: Zero Year, Trinity War, Psi-War, Forever Evil, Lights Out
Television: Power Rangers Megaforce, Marvel’s Avenger’s Assemble, Beware the Batman, Axe Cop, Marvel’s Hulk and the Agents of SMASH, Marvel’s Agents of SHIELD
Film: Iron Man 3, Man of Steel, The Wolverine, Justice League: The Flashpoint Paradox, Kick Ass 2, Thor: The Dark World, Despicable Me 2

That’s a decent year for supers in general media. I don’t think anything really knocked it out of the park. Continued changes in the Spider Man comics generated the most heat; Miles Morales in the Ultimate Universe and Doc Ock’s continued possession in the main continuity sustained interest. Damien Wayne’s death sparked some reaction, but that seems to pass quickly. It felt a little inevitable. Arrow finally developed created a solid base of fans. It and Agents of SHIELD remain the only adult-oriented supers show with any legs right now. IMHO none of the tentpole supers films did more than continue established franchises without real risk. That may be the biggest lesson- the acceptance of this genre as a mainstream moneymaker may end up dulling their edge (assuming they had one to begin with…an arguable point.)

Action Galaxy revises Skortched Urf' Studios' Galaxy Command with a superheroic twist. The makers of Black Tokyo, several of their GC products are hidden by the adult filter on RPGNow. Action Galaxy doesn't appear to go that direction- in fact it explicitly references DC's Legion of Superheroes as a jumping off point. The setting takes an explicitly '70's spin on design, aesthetics, and personality. That's kind of a cool twist- harkening back to some Italian pop sci-fi, Damnation Decade and the Grell/Cockrum runs on LSH. The interior art however doesn't necessarily reflect that. Plus the structure and layout's a little wonky (no ToC for example). I goes back to the d20 OGL as a basis. The book assumes a knowledge of those rules and recommends other GC products for the game to work. It jumps into the deep end mechanics-wise, but Action Galaxy clocks in at 90 pages. It might be a useful for a GM looking for future supers ideas.

It's more than a little disappointing that Marvel Heroic Roleplaying vanished before some of the movie projects connected with it hit. For example, we never saw the Age of Apocalypse book- an event teased at the end of the most recent film. I'm sure that would have provided some kind of boost. But I also imagine the upcoming (please let it be awesome) Guardians of the Galaxy would have given some life to the Annihilation event book. For those not familiar with the arc, Annihilation is a massive, galaxy spanning, intergalactic-war filled, epic sequence for the Marvel Universe, featuring Thanos, Drax, Galactus, Super Skrull, etc. The Negative Zone invades and attempts to destroy the positive matter universe. This sweeping book includes rules for starship battles and cosmic powers. Of course it is now decidedly out of print- and never saw a physical release. Somewhere there's another Earth where MHR kept rolling and we're seeing web supplements tied into the movie, including the release of Rocket Raccoon and Groot datafiles.

3. Apex
This is an interesting supplement- and one of the few to adapt D&D 4e to superheroes. Of course it isn't a straight 4e adaptation. Instead it builds on Dias Ex Machina Games' Ultramodern4 system. There's also a slight connection with the company's Amethyst fantasy setting. Apex offers mostly rules, with a light wrapper of setting. It assumes a modern game, with characters who received strange new powers. Apex can be handled as a more classic game or something like Gen13. There's a great line in the book stating that, "Apex makes no attempt whatsoever to adhere to principles of game balance." That's an interesting tact, especially given how much 4e has been built on balance and parity. The game has the crunch of that system with ladders replacing classes and 400+ feats. Apex requires buy in to a bunch of other gaming materials, but if you're already working with those and want to do supers, it might be worth checking out.

A pulp-era sourcebook for Basic Roleplaying, you can see it as a genre sourcebook ala Pulp Hero or GURPS Cliffhangers. It covers a wide range of Pulp material, including Masked Adventurers (which brings it under my wide definition). Basically if you put a character in a domino mask on your cover, I'll probably lump it in here. It's a thin supplement, but if you want something simple to reflect the era, Astounding Adventures might be a decent choice. The book itself splits pretty neatly between character options/GM resources and three pre-made adventures. There's a little oddness there since they're intended as episodes or introduction for three different pulp frameworks. That means they're a little mutually exclusive. For these kinds of books I'm always more interested in general GM material and ideas (hooks, quick campaign frames, etc) than fully-fleshed adventures. However each could be used straight or modified for a night-cloaked vigilante game.

I've had some time to think about this game since I read it, ran it, and reviewed it. The concept has stuck with me. On the one level, I love the idea of embracing an apocalypse of superheroes. Nearly all supers- heroes or villains- have vanished in Base Raiders' setting. The world's carefully established balance has been thrown out of whack. Any heroes left behind have to recognize their own weakness. Everyone's suddenly in the wreckage of what the metahumans have done to the place. On the next level, I love the building concept of BR and the frantic tensions going on. These supers left behind their stuff: weapons of infinite destruction, self-replicating robots, bizarre alien menageries, and most importantly the bases. Players might be hunting for answers but they might also be seeking ways to empower themselves. That backdrop- of vast numbers of people in a "mad science" scramble akin to a gold rush- clicks for me. It suggests all kinds of plots, characters, and interesting non-combat stories. Finally on the root level, presenting superbases as dungeons honestly never occurred to me. I mean we had games and sessions where the team had to fight their way through or explore them (Death Duel with the DestroyersIsland of Dr.Destroyer) but that acted as backdrop. It wasn't a real dungeon crawl- with the place itself as a tangible obstacle, the need to track resources & the possibility of turning back, and the actual accumulation of loot. That's sharp and Base Raiders does it well. While I'm not entirely sold on the implementation of Fate given here, author Ross Payton has published conversion rules for M&M, Wild Talents, and Savage Worlds.

On previous lists I've mentioned Greg Stolze's other setting experiments with Wild Talents (ProgenitoreCollapseGrim War). Each of these asks a conceptual question about superhero games and uses a setting to explore it. Better Angels considers the nature and purpose of supervillains. Demons come to those near death and make them an offer: they can live, but only through possession. From that they gain great powers- but must commit evils to appease those forces. The game explores the tensions in maintaining a balance: being just wicked enough to calm the demon without giving in to total corruption and loss of autonomy. The trick- reminiscent of early Wraith: The Oblivion- comes from how your demon's managed. It is created and run by another player at the table. That's a nice gimmick and works for me better than some other multi-player cc implementations I've seen.

OOH my experience with villain/bad guy games has been bad. Over the years I've seen them attempted with different groups. The half-dozen tries I've seen have crashed and burned. They usually end up with hurt feelings and recriminations, whether they're fantasy, sci-fi, or supers. The occasional exception has been games like Vampire which provide a pressure valve against total evil: the need to maintain some kind of humanity. Better Angels works with that and makes it the fulcrum of the game. Supervillains end up comic book-y because they need to entertain. In order to survive they have to hatch elaborate plots with loopholes. That's clever and makes for a challenging take at the table. Better Angels is a complete game, using the ORE of Godlike and Wild Talents, but it has been more tailored to fit this setting.

This appears to be a second revised edition of Bulletproof Blues, though I can't find much info on the earlier 2010 version. I suspect that may have been a limited release. BB uses the fiction of an established comic line, Kalos Comics, which has evolved and grown (much like the DC or Marvel Universe has). It's a kitchen-sink setting with legacy heroes, super-science, and Lemuria. In other words the kind of overlaid and accumulated universe which comes from too many years of continuity. In a reflection of the way comic companies work, the introduction mentions a recent crisis event which has "changed everything." The rulebook doesn't delve too far into that or the setting generally. Most of the information comes from the 14 pages of world background. Instead Bulletproof Blues is a semi-generic supers game, with a setting tacked on to give it some dimension.

The game offers a couple of refreshing comments early it. For one it cites Planetary and a desire to do more serious superhero fiction. I'm not sure the background material entirely supports that- but neither does it indulge in grimdark or Silver Age goofiness. More importantly Bulletproof Blues forthrightly mentions many competing games and acknowledges their strengths. They didn't offer exactly what the designers wanted from a supers game, but BB does. However they don't then spell out what that really means- that's a major missed opportunity. If you felt strongly enough about the elements to create a new game, tell us what distinguishes your game upfront and what makes it distinct.

Bulletproof Blues builds on a simple 2d6 resolution system. But that's tied to a benchmark system with shifting levels. I'm never sure what the solution is when dealing with benchmarks in supers games. My friend Gene hates them when they don't follow a mathematical rule. For my part I usually handwave this things- I just want a rough guide. The game's laid out well- with frequent stop-off to consider how to deal with problem gamers and abusers. Character creation's relatively simple- stats, advantages, skills, powers- nothing too elaborate. The game has mechanics for complications, drama points, and non-combat elements. The power descriptions are well written, but do require individual mechanics and rules for handling each one. Finally there's an excellent section of reprinted advice from Greg Stoltze on GMing. Generally this is a solid product, not revolutionary, but well done. GMs dissatisfied with other offerings, as the authors were, might check it out.

I think I could probably push the envelope by suggesting that Transformers is superheroes. They come close, but I suspect they're more like GI Joe- a strange cartoony war-story mixed with sci-fi elements. On the other hand another cartoon stable, He Man, is definitely a superhero. The backdrop may be science-fantasy, but he has a secret identity, wears a costume, and battles against colorful supervillains. So once again I include Cartoon Action Hour in my list of superhero games. This new edition of a classic but under-appreciated game cleans up and simplifies some elements while adding new options and rules. Some of the seeds presented offer 'superheroic' takes in the loosest sense. For example "S.L.A.M." sketches a world of secret agent wrestlers battling against the Extreme Wrestling Federation which conceals a sinister cabal of villainy. Of course many of the examples draw from a Masters of the Universe style world, so there's that kind of superheroics as well.

A massive campaign sourcebook for Godlike which covers urban warfare on the Italian campaign. While not connected, this complements the earlier Black Devils Brigade, another sourcebook and campaign covering the Italian war. Courtyard of Hell seems narrower; BDB aimed at allowing GMs to run the whole of the march through Italy. This book focuses on specific battles and how to manage house to house fighting, combat in dense locations, and the dangers of a siege-like situation. CoH includes some new mechanics and options including a quicker-resolution system for cityfights. The supplement includes pre-gens, which suggests the authors have aimed to a ready-to-play setting to introduce new players. That's not a bad approach given the detail of Godlike- both in history and mechanics.

In this modern age of Batman v. Superman, we forget that tension between shiny, bright goodness and dark avenger stretch back to the pulp era with these characters (though Superman was pretty brutal back then). Among strictly pulp heroes that tension's best represented by The Shadow vs. Doc Savage. On the one hand, a relentless figure of the night who gunned down his enemies. On the other, a master of science who focused on rehabilitation and philanthropy. Ironically Lester Dent, author of Doc Savage, actually wrote some Shadow novels. They're strangely discordant in tone to the rest of the series, with the character more a brawny superspy who comes out in the light of day.

Two products from Scaldcrow Games explicitly reference this tension: Davey Beauchamp's Amazing Pulp Adventures-Role Playing Game and Rotwang City: City of Shadows Role Playing Game. Both books include complete rules for a simple 2d6-based pulp system called Bare Bone Beyond. DBAPARPG presents Sapphire City, the city of tomorrow. The cover features classic costumed heroes. The setting suggests a place built on progressive science and golden age tropes. On the other hand, Rotwang City offers a darker take on things. It's a corrupt place, gritty and overrun by crime. Here heroes become vigilantes as they fight and kill to stop the forces of evil. I like the pairing and these look like interesting products I'll be checking out more fully in the future.

I'm not an art guy. I can't draw. I barely manage to put together decent maps. But at the same time I appreciate good game art- and recognize the importance of cover artwork. The cover for Deus ex Historica looks...weird...to me. YRMV. There's something about the armless torsos and strange flattened perspective that throws me off. The bits of the interior artwork I've seen look better, but the cover stuck with me. Inside you get a nearly 400-page character sourcebook for Mutants & Masterminds 3e. The framework has a future historian looking back at these heroes and villains to examine their stories. So characters are drawn from across the different eras: Golden Age, Bronze Age, Iron Age, etc. That's a nice conceit. It uses the tales of these several dozen supers to tell the story of the world setting. If it's compelling, that can make for a great read (see The Algernon Files or Omlevex). On the other hand drawing across different eras does potentially make some characters less useful- depending on the kind of campaign you're running. DexH came out through a modest Kickstarter project and apparently had a series of free preview pdfs.

A Japanese supers game translated into English. I bought a copy based on an interesting reading review I saw. Double Cross is a trade paperback thick enough to stun an ox. And man is it dense and complicated...or maybe it isn’t. I’ve had really hard time making my way into the game. Each time I try I’m thrown by the terminology, rash of stats, and weird organization. That’s too bad- apparently it and the rest of the FEAR line is huge in Japan, part of a creatively evolving line of games.

Some of what I know comes from the blog posts which convinced me to buy and some from looking through the book. It has an anime vibe, with youths granted strange powers they can barely control. These powers divide them into various types or "syndromes" (Orcus, Stoker, Halo). They battle to protect those they love, defeat others who would use their powers for wrong ends, and to conquer their own demons. As characters use their powers they run the risk of becoming more corrupted and monstrous. I'm reminded of Code:Breaker and several other anime series. The system includes significant mechanics for relationships and social networks. Juggling those is key to survival. But the game also includes a ton of powers and abilities. It feels chaotic, but I suspect that’s simply because I haven’t managed to find the hook to pull me through reading the rules. I feel like I’m back in the ‘80’s trying to figure out Living Steel. Check out the sample character sheet here.

I’m glad to see more games translated from other languages, especially non-Western ones. Ver. Blue Entertainment has produced a striking product. They’re also released the Double Cross Roleplaying Game Advanced Rulebook and Public Enemy. If Double Cross sounds at all interesting I encourage you to to check out the online reviews.

13.  ICONS
ICONS had a dynamite year in 2013. Funded by a Kickstarter project, Great Power expanded the power choices for the system, as well as adding some new discussion of how these could be used. I love power books- and this is a particularly readable one. Simple, clean layout and great spot illustrations make this pretty awesome. A must buy for the first edition of the game. While GP expands the powers, ICONS Hero Pack presents new options for just about everything else in the game. It covers mechanics for such classic elements as sidekicks, headquarters, and strange environments. I love that the book opens with an iCONS FAQ- declaring its intent to be useful and practical. Again, the book design serves the material really well. Finally ICONS Team-UP series has continued on. These offer simple fan-designed character collections. That may be the most brilliant marketing tool I've seen for a game like this. Of course 2014 would see the release of a new Assembled Edition- integrating many of the new rules and ideas from these supplements and others. 

I'm a big fan of Blackwyrm Publishing- they produce some of the most entertaining supers products out there. I also like that they release supplements across game lines. Imaginary Friends is a 200-page campaign supplement for Champions 6 and Savage Worlds. Rather than present a straight point-to-point campaign, it offers backgrounds, events, and choices than can be used to build a bigger picture. As the PCs investigate and pull together the threads they uncover the pattern. Of course you'll probably want to avoid them seeing the sourcebook cover itself. The adventure offers a twist on the classic "child bring things to life with his mind" trope seen in Twilight Zone and Justice League Unlimited. I like the idea of supers sourcebooks that manage to mix world building and interesting plots. More and more modern supers adventure design has opened up (with the MHR event books as a throwback exception). But that can be tough to manage- especially with supers where different groups may bring vastly different powers and resources to bear.

MMM takes another bite at the d20/OGL apple for supers. It does so in a massive, 400+ page core book which includes complete rules and some background material. In this kitchen-sink setting supers are called "Mythics." While the game includes this framework, it's primarily intended as a general supers rulebook. As with M&M and Wild Talents, the mechanics are the focus, rather than the backdrop. And there's a ton of mechanics. This is a huge book, but the text is dense and small. I mean super, holy-cow dense. Combine that with a large pool of technical terms and abbreviations and you have a game truly built for d20 grognards.

Man Made Mythology takes a conventional approach to the d20 system. Players select a races (humans, synthetics, Valkyries, etc) and a class to customize their character. Classes help define specialties and focus abilities: Gadgeteers, Martial Artists, Invokers, and seven others. Powers are built around linked sets of abilities. These have ten tiers of talents each with a new benefit. For for example Superhuman Constitution at Tier 1 grants Increased Constitution (Rank 1); at Tier 4 it gives Shrug it Off; at Tier 8 they get Strong Willed. MMM comes with 50 powrer sets described; at a glance it seems like these could easily be expanded with a supplement. Beyond that it includes all of the supers game basics: equipment, sample villains, vehicles & bases. The game setting's built into the mechanics and dealt with in passing, but there's no large section explicitly laying that out. MMM should appeal to people who enjoy d20 games and perhaps disliked M&M's move to simplicity and away from the basic structures of the system.

Next time- Mighty Six to Triumphant!

This material is supported by a Patreon project I've established just for these lists. I hope you'll check that out and spread the word. If you've enjoyed the work so far, consider becoming a patron. 

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