Sunday, October 3, 2010

RPG Supplements I Like: The Hard Helix

What Is It?
A set of four adventures for Mutant City Blues (which I reviewed here).

The Problem of Modules

Reviewing modules can be difficult-- a good deal of it depends on what your looking for as a GM. I'm hunting for story plots, general ideas and details which can be adapted rather than something specific and tightly laid out. I don't need crunchy details usually-- but that reflects my bias. Since I run fewer one-shots, I'm looking for material I can fit comfortably into existing campaigns. Too much detail which relies on setting specifics means more work for me. Often when I strip away an adventure's chrome, fluff, trap challenge numbers, and monsters stats, I end up with almost nothing. That's been hiding a highly linear, commonplace or uninteresting story. On the other hand, strong stories can be ported to other settings and genres (for example I had a section of a fantasy campaign loosely built on the structure and details of the classic Masks of Nyarlathotep campaign).

No Really, What Is It?
A set of four adventures for Mutant City Blues, the Hard Helix focuses on stories steeped in the setting. In that sense they are a great resource, to be used as is or as a guideline, for GMs planning on running MCB. So far Pelgrane has only released this supplement for the setting, making me suspect that it hasn't proven as popular as Esoterrorists or Trail of Cthulhu. That actually makes the choice easy: if you're going to be running MCB you ought to pick this up. For GMs looking to adapt over material to another supers game, the book still has a good deal to offer. The each of the four stories presents rich mysteries and plots-- but they may take some significant rejiggering to get them to fit.

The Details
Each episode begins with a decent summary for the GM: the plot, scenes, key evidence, the NPCs, and the solution. That's incredibly helpful. The cases get fairly detailed as Laws anticipate players' investigative tactics. The writing is fairly dense, so I suspect gamemasters will either have to make a separate set of notes or annotate in the margins. I like that each scene has a distinct “Title” which Laws uses to keep the hook in the GM's mind.

The book looks great in art and layout. I'm working from a purchased pdf and would have liked a printing version of the pdf with it since the background elements are pretty dark (not WoD bothersome but still dense). The pdf must not be optimized as it makes Adobe Reader run no other pdf I've read through.

I'll try to be gentle with the spoilers here, but if you don't want to know, then skip down to the summary section.

Hard Helix: The first adventure presents a solid procedural, turning on some some clues which rely not on the investigators' powers, but rather on analyzing power use by others. It also introduces the concepts of the scientific analysis of super-powers as the victim was a researcher murdered at a conference.

The Vanishers: Begins on a more high-action note with the PCs called to a robbery in progress by super-powered criminals. The investigation after the fact reveals some twists in that. I like how different this episode is from the first one, providing a nice range of police stories with a supers twist.

Super Squad: Think the TV show The Shield. Laws explicitly identifies this as an adventure which can confront “my own rules” cop PCs with the implications of their choices.

Cell Division: The PCs have to deal with an Mutant revolutionary terrorist threat. This material is set up to be a high-point of climax of a campaign. Ideas and details for it could easily be seeded throughout earlier sessions.

Good stories, all very different from one another. A solid must-buy for GMs wanting to run MCB.

The fact of genetic-only, single source powers does provide some interesting implications for the setting. We're closer to something like Wild Cards, than we are to something like Astro City or the DC Universe. We don't have Accidental Origin or Magical Heroes. The mechanics of the system also don't suggest the existence of Equipment Based Heroes (Robotman, Iron Man) or Trained Adventurers (Bat Man, The Punisher). I suppose these later ones could be fit it, just as the Wild Cards universe did. But those factors mean gamers buying a module like the Hard Helix will have to potentially do some significant adaptation, depending on their existing supers universe.

If you want some ideas on interesting ways to structure mysteries in a supers game-- not just another fight of the week, then it could be worth buying.

Side Note
I did want to comment that MCB falls into an strange middle ground compromise. When I first read about it, the model suggested was Alan Moore and Gene Ha's Top 10. That's a pretty dynamite claim to make given how wild and inventive that setting is. There everyone is a super of some kind and anything goes. I'd say that's one far end of the spectrum in terms of superhero games. Closer towards the middle is something like Astro City-- still with many kinds of power paradigms. There's a great set of stories in the collection "Local Heroes" addressing questions about the interaction of super-powers and the legal system. On the other end we have something like Gotham Central-- which has normal characters interacting with the high strangeness of the super world. That series works especially because even though they're pursuing super-villains, most of them don't have powers. When they do cross powered bad guys, all hell breaks loose.

But MCB opts to have its super-world remain fairly standard, and keeps the players as supers. It think it is a safe choice, but I wonder what the sales implications of that are. I wonder if that's the reason behind Night's Black Agents forthcoming from Pelgrane. I was excited at first because I thought that they would finally be doing a solid spy thriller/espionage game using Gumshoe. Then I read that it is a supernatural, vampire-based spy rpg. Now, mind you that's interesting to me, but not as much as a straight and serious spy-campaign toolbox. Still you can't go wrong with Ken Hite, so I will pick it up.