Thursday, June 30, 2011

The Reboot Supers Campaign: Worth It?

A follow-up today to my post on superhero RPG ideas from DC’s relaunch yesterday. Eisner-award winning artist and illustrator for Flashpoint Project Superman* Gene Ha added a comment to my post yesterday. He brought up a couple of interesting ideas. I’ve been thinking about setting generally, and superhero settings in particular- which is a post I want to come back to. But Gene’s forced my hand, so I thought I could probably get a 1000 words out of a response. I’ll also point to a post on this topic from Dice Monkey.

*Yes, I’m going to keep banging that drum.

Gene writes:
Two things I'm really curious to hear your take on. Most obviously, what do you think of setting a superhero RPG campaign in a "reboot" of a classic superhero universe. Some sort of "Crisis" event would be part of the public record (eg red skies, superhero battles, etc) but people wouldn't understand that history had been changed. In a sense, I think this is what the current World of Darkness setting is. You'd be free to change anything. In the DC Relaunch, the Enchantress is pure evil. Obviously, change secret identities. Superman was never adopted by the Clarks. Second, buy in being helped by using an established universe. Using the DC Relaunch model, I think you can get great effect from a superhero world that's only a few years old. The most powerful team is only a few years old. Most heroes and almost all supervillains aren't known to the public yet. In my one session 'campaign' this worked very well.
GM Knowledge
I’m going to address those two questions separately, but I have to set up a couple of things. I’m a DC guy- I mean I love the Marvel Universe, the Byrne/Claremont run shaped my thinking about superheroes. But before that I was reading DC, Batman, Superman, the Flash, Aquaman, and especially the JSA. I watched every season of the Super-Friends religiously. I was buying heavily before Crisis on Infinite Earths and after that for several years, through Millennium, through Invasion, and so on. I dropped off a lot in the 1990s, so I missed things like Zero Hour and Bloodlines. Eventually I came back and figured out where everything was continuity-wise, going back to read classics I’d missed, like Starman and new great things like Seven Soldiers. So I’d consider myself pretty knowledgeable about the DC Universe. And with certain exceptions, the Marvel Universe, because I like to read reviews and summaries.

Player Knowledge
But I’m the exception among our group. I have a little over a dozen active gamers spread out among the five rpg campaigns. If we extend that out a little further, we can add another dozen gamers who have I have played with, play with infrequently, or talk to about gaming. So let’s put that number at about two dozen. Of the first group, I’d venture to say none of them really know current continuity in Marvel or DC. A couple might know a little more about Marvel, and have something of a handle on that. Among the larger group, we add a couple who do know comics continuity, usually for one line or the other. Only one person I would expect to know it well, and to know the events and characters of other lines (like Image or Wildstorm).

What do players know? I think they know the main characters as presented in the movies: Batman, Superman and now Green Lantern. They might have some other familiarity from other media: Robin, Wonder Woman, Teen Titans, etc. But I bet that be a kind of pastiche. They might have watched Superman, Batman Adventures, Teen Titans or even The Batman. But I bet they don’t know Justice League Unlimited or The Brave and the Bold. So one thing I think is that you have to play to the player’s level of knowledge.

Rebooting Your DCU
Which brings me to Gene’s first idea (and which Dice Monkey also suggests): doing an event which changes the continuity of an existing universe. Ideally it would allow you to reset things, but the problem is that you’re likely referencing things which the players aren’t aware of in the first place. In that case, you don’t really need and event to have that come around. You can just run the game with, let’s say a DC continuity, but you’re still going to have to spell it all out for the players. They don’t know all the references: how Elongated Man is a great detective, that Captain Atom is a kind of time-traveler, that there have been several incarnations of the Vigilante, that the Spider is a legacy hero and so on. I think you could only reasonably work with the big characters of the DC universe, and their changes. That’s where the Justice League cartoon really works for me. It begins with a small, tight group and builds continuity from there. You get many episodes before other significant elements of the DC universe get established.

I have two competing criteria for game concepts there days: 1) what does it add to the game? and 2) how much work does it involve? You could have some of those big DC characters, revised, in the background, but I don’t think it necessarily establishes a structure of tone for the players. Unless you establish that the PC are peers to those characters, in which case you could use that as a means of providing affirmation to the players. Otherwise you might be stuck in the same mode as the DC Universe Online game, where the archetype characters just serve as waypoints and mentors.

Gamers' Rosetta Stone?
But I think one way to get around this would be to find some easily read and comprehensive Urtexts for the players. For example, when I went to run my Star Wars game, I said the only things canon were those which appeared in the films. Everything else- books, games, comics, etc,- the players couldn’t count on. They might appear, but no assumptions should or could be made from that. I could have been even narrower and said only the New Hope trilogy, which would have required them to actively ignore a bunch of things they’d seen. On the other hand, that could be an interesting approach. But generally you want to avoid the kind of hesitation players have about historical games: that they have to know a bunch about the setting to play.

So the question would be what could serve as an Urtext for a version DC Universe. One choice would be Alex Ross’ Justice miniseries. That’s about a close as I can imagine to an easier to grasp version of the setting, though not really in continuity. Beyond that I have trouble picturing comics which give a solid overview of the current DC continuity. Even the new relaunch books don’t have anything like that. Since it isn’t functioning like an Ultimate Universe, there really isn’t that much in the way of simplification. If we look beyond print comics, then we have some great options. People have been talking up Brave & the Bold as a great entry point series, but I haven’t yet caught any of that. What I do know is Justice League, probably my favorite superhero cartoon. You could use just the first season or two as the basis, telling players that’s the background. Then you could later bring in elements from the later Justice League Unlimited series. Except for the glaring absence of Power Girl, that would be great.

On the other hand, another option would be to take a different approach for DC continuity, offering players an easier text to work from. You could build a campaign world from Kingdom Come or New Frontier. These would be striking games, with very different tones. Players would know that only what’s in those books would count for continuity. The nice thing about both of those is that they leave plenty of room for other characters to enter and have an effect on the world. I love the Astro City universe, and you can gain a clearly grasp of that setting in just a few graphic novels. However, that world’s too packed, too rich. You need space for the players to play in.

The Power to Create a New Universe
On the other hand, turning back the clock (or moving it up?) to make a new universe I like. This is a great idea- I love the concept of a Year One or almost Year One universe. Superheroes have only been around for a short time. The world’s still getting used to them. There are a couple of iconic heroes, but none with a nation-spanning effect. I would offer the players a chance to play a Year One version of their favorite character, or they could play a new character. They could them be the first Justice League (or Avengers if you want to do Marvel). You could bring the classic villains for those groups to bear (Starro for the former, Kang for the latter). They wouldn’t have to have any real knowledge of the setting, but could instead build their legends themselves.

We had a low-level Watchmen-style campaign in which a player did an alternate version of Batman. It was tremendous fun; Art did a Year One version of Captain America later in the same campaign. The riffs and the background in that case serve as a resource for the GM, rather than a touchstone anyone has to "get." If the players did decide to all run new characters, then I’d probably opt to drop any existing comic book references entirely. Otherwise as a GM I would run the risk of bringing in things outside of the players knowledge or just putting things in to be cute. The players might feel that they weren’t building a legend, but instead playing in someone else’s story.

I like it- I think I might do that with the next supers campaign. The last several supers campaigns I’ve run have all had their own continuity, their own setting. They didn’t incorporate any elements from DC, Marvel or other comic series. I think in part that came out of my worry that bringing over a little piece invited questions about the implications ("wait, if the Question exists in this world, does Lady Shiva or Richard Dragon? He was trained by both of them. What about Batman?"...and so on). I think most of that’s my own fevered mind- how I would react if I played in a campaign which had bits and pieces of other continuities.

Actually what helped break me out of that was running a supers game for four female players, none of whom really invested in the details of the superhero universes. They’d read comics, X-Men, Ultimate Spiderman, etc. but they didn’t think about the genre or continuity the way I did. Reference went past them- they concentrated on play. In some ways the background didn’t matter to them except where they could interact with it.

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Raiding the Relaunch for RPG ideas: DC's New 52

So today Project Superman #1 hits the stores. That’s part of the DC Flashpoint event, which showcases an Elseworlds-like setting across many titles. At some point I’ll take a more serious look at superhero rpg settings and alternate settings. Today I want to look at what comes after Flashpoint and tie this slightly into my post from yesterday on RPG Reboots.

And I want people to go out to their local comic shops and buy a copy of Project Superman #1 (since I wrote it).

The Shiny, Candy-Like Reset Button
If you’re a comic fan, you probably already know that DC will be relaunching the DC Universe in September with some significant changes to the continuity. This isn’t going to restart everything at "Year One" or make the kinds of sweeping changes which Crisis on Infinite Earths did. Instead, they’re retooling the line, cleaning up some problematic moments, keeping what they like, trying to appeal to a target demographic, giving Batgirl back the use of her legs and so on. It will be interesting to see how this comes out of Flashpoint. I don’t think I’m giving anything away by saying that some of the FP creative didn’t know the big picture about the changes. Gene Ha’s said as much before- we knew that things would be falling out of these books, some changes and some new characters, but we weren’t told exactly how. We just had to build the best story we could within the constraints of this setting. In some ways, writing like this with a number of beats and details already set down for you is like running a game in someone else’s setting.

DC Adventures?
Yesterday I talked about reboots within RPG lines- more specifically pointing out games which had taken on relaunches or reboots (hard or soft) as a chance to change up the game. The new DC line will be coming out of the gate with 52 new #1 titles, plus the Vertigo titles and a few books which will be holding over or wrapping up (like Batman, Inc IIRC). You can find a good, full listing of those books here. As I mentioned in the list, it does make me wonder how Green Ronin plans to approach this. They did a smart thing and have suggested that there are several possible versions of the DC characters. That may allow them to adjust to everything. But DC Adventures Heroes & Villains, Vol. I will be coming out soon, just a couple of months before everything changes. Will we see a Flashpoint sourcebook? Will there be an update book for the new continuity? I can’t imagine they could even think about something like that until the books have been out and rolling for at least a year, and AKAIK those are still being written.

DC's New 52
That aside, I wanted to pull out from the new DC relaunch titles those I found interesting, less as comics, but as ideas for new or revisited directions in Superhero gaming. That’s probably my favorite genre to run in, after fantasy. So let’s take a look at a few titles and see what we can make of them.

Demon Knights
Blurb: Set in the Dark Ages of the DC Universe, a barbarian horde is massing to crush civilization. It’s fallen to Madame Xanadu and Jason Blood, the man with a monster inside him, to stand in their way...though the demon Etrigan has no interest in protecting anyone or anything other than himself! It’ll take more than their own power to stop an army fueled by bloodlust and dark sorcery, and some very surprising heroes...and villains...will have no choice but to join the fray!

Here we have a superhero comic set in the Dark Ages. DC has an interesting line up of characters from that era (Shining Knight, Klaw, Beowulf, etc) so it will be interesting to see them dip into that well. It does suggest possibilities for a pretty distinct supers campaign. On the one hand, you could do a straight supers in a Medieval (I’ll use that term generically). Of course, by supers, I don’t mean four-color characters in suits and capes. These characters would have to be distinct kinds of wizards, powerful specialty warriors, or creatures out of myth. In some ways, that’s pretty much like your classic adventuring party. I can imagine using a version of Ars Magica or Pendragon for the background. Given the limits I think you’d end up with something like a League of Extraordinary Gentlemen (or The Kerberos Club) for the period.

And I’m not sure what you’d gain in terms of play. Historical games already have a tough buy in for players, who often worry about their grasp of the period. The campaign concept would have a high-magic feel, but I wonder if that wouldn’t be better serve by just having a straight fantasy game. I have two ideas I would run. First, adapt Scion to the period. That provides a strong and coherent background for the PCs and connects to a classic logic. The players would be Children of the Gods not only having to deal with their new natures, but having to keep that hidden from superstitious outsiders. You could play off of the idea that the period marks the decline of worship for the parents of these gods (you’d probably want to stick with the Celtic, Norse, Greek and maybe Egyptian pantheons). It makes sense historically and could work. Another alternative would be a Mage the Sorcerers Crusade campaign (later than MA obviously). The PCs could act as a roving band of magical troubleshooters ala something like the X-Men. You’d put the Order of Reason in the background, making them like the various Anti-Mutant campaigners and such.

Frankenstein, Agent of SHADE
Blurb: It’s Frankenstein as you’ve never seen him before, in a dark new series from acclaimed writer Jeff Lemire (SWEET TOOTH) and artist Alberto Ponticelli (UNKNOWN SOLDIER)! Frankenstein is part of a network of strange beings who work for an even stranger government organization: The Super Human Advanced Defense Executive! But can he protect the world from threats even more horrifying than himself? And since he’s vilified for who and what he is, will he even want to take on this mission?

OK, so your immediate reaction may be- "I read that before when it was called Hellboy." However this version of Frankenstein comes out of a Grant Morrison mini-series originally, which was filled with high weirdness. If they can keep that up- maintain the strangeness of Morrison’s Doom Patrol or The Invisibles in this book, then it might work. If they just make it a Hellboy clone, it will be less interesting. The one thing they do have going for them is that this takes place within a superhero universe. Why do they rely on these characters over conventional heroes? Why would they avoid the sight of mainstream supers? Those questions could provide the seed for some cool stories.

How would that work for a superhero campaign? Perhaps there’s some kind of corruption or bleed tied up with the supernatural monsters? Perhaps it is like an Esoterrorists campaign where the bad guys want more attention and stories to come out of the events. In that case, they’d want standard supers to steer clear of things, to avoid them mucking things up or spreading taint. I can imagine a Booster Gold-like figure who keeps getting in the PC’s way. The player characters would be oddball, monstrous or actively supernatural heroes. They’d be expendable and secret. On the other hand, you could also just run this as a straight Hellboy campaign. There’s already a sourcebook out there for it and the concepts could easily be adapted over to any flexible system (Savage Worlds, Mutants and Masterminds). Rippers already does something pretty close to this.

Justice League Dark
Blurb: The witch known as The Enchantress has gone mad, unleashing forces that not even the combined powers of Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman and Cyborg can stop. And if those heroes can’t handle the job, who will stand against this mystical madness? Shade the Changing Man, Madame Xanadu, Deadman, Zatanna and John Constantine may be our only hope...but how can we put our trust in beings whose very presence makes ordinary people break out in a cold sweat?

So you may notice a trend for the oddball and supernatural in these items. This book appeals to me because it just seems so bizarre. Peter Milligan’s writing it, and I loved X-Statix. Plus it seems to have some really nice ties to the Flashpoint: Secret Seven. For a campaign, you could simply use what I mentioned above- a team dedicated to keeping regular supers away from incidents they couldn’t handle or which would corrupt them.

But another thing does suggest itself, a superhero world where all super powers derive from magic. We’ve certainly seen the opposite case: Paragons, for example, sets things up to have a more natural explanation (though you could have magic there).Wild Cards has a purely scientific explanation. I’ve run a couple of campaigns where all powers came from genetic or technological sources. Even where there was "magic" it had an alternate explanation based in reality manipulation and super-science. The Wildstorm Universe takes this approach (especially when Warren Ellis writes it). But imagine a world where every superhero or villain had a magical origin?

They wouldn’t have to be from the same tradition, you could have children of the gods, weird Unknown Armies-style denial magic, a guy wielding a magic ring, a cursed undying person, and a Voudun Priest in the same group. It would take some thought to really get that mish-mash to fit together, but if you think about DC or Marvel they both have that kind of strange amalgam, but they also have non-magic supers. Another alternative, and I think I have to credit Ken Hite with this one, would be a Mage the Ascension campaign, where the players’ magical talents manifested as superpowers. They could be actively be subverting the Technocracy’s paradigm through the belief in superheroes, perhaps setting up an "Event" to explain their creation. On the other hand, they might instead be PC unaware of the nature of their abilities as magic, uncovering that only later. In that case, you’d probably want to dial back the paradox rules.

Blurb: They are Stormwatch, a dangerous super human police force whose existence is kept secret from the world Directly following the ominous events of SUPERMAN #1, Adam One leads half the Stormwatch team to recover something (or someone) from deep in the Himalayas. Meanwhile, Jack Hawksmoor and the rest of the Stormwatch crew look to recruit two of the deadliest super humans on the planet: Midnighter and Apollo! And if they say no? Perhaps the Martian Manhunter can change their minds...

Stormwatch comes out of the Wildstorm universe which is being folded into this one. There’s some debate about how well that will work (Links). In the original books, Stormwatch started as a kind of Justice League, then became a global police force, then turned evil and blew up, and then got reworked as a kind of police to superheroes. I enjoyed several of those versions. This new one has some appeal- the concept of a secret group policing the superhuman community has a good deal of appeal. Some of the other new books coming out share that premise a little. Suicide Squad, O.M.A.C., and Grifter all echo that. I’ve always pictured Grifter as the guy who keeps other super-creep in check, but I’ll admit to not following him that well. He falls into that category of super-competent killers that I find annoying (Punisher, Deathstroke, even Wolverine).

So the two main premises, secrecy and super-policing can be done separately or together in a campaign. A game where the group has to keep their existence secret could have some really interesting implications. Perhaps they’re part of a Conspiracy X, MiB, or Delta Green style group that has to operate below the radar to avoid general panic. Or perhaps they have major enemies who would squash them if they ever popped up visibly, like The Runaways. To go back to the classics, a Watchmen-style game where superhero-dom is illegal could give rise to a great and tense street-level campaign. Especially in our modern surveillance society- how would you keep your activities secret, how could you avoid being tracked and spotted?

Super-policing, on the other hand, requires an established setting. The players need to have a buy in to get a handle on what’s going on. So I’d run something like that in an established setting (the DC or Marvel Universe) or else in a setting I’ve already established in a campaign. For example, a couple of years ago I ran my Bloodlines campaign, a short series showcasing the setting. I’d love to go back and revisit that, perhaps with a PC group tasked with keeping rogue or outlaw superheroes off the reservation. It would not be as dark as The Boys, but would have the PCs digging into the secrets of villains and heroes. I should say that Mutant City Blues gets around the need for an established setting to work from. The Quade Diagram of MCB gives players an easy and tangible way to picture the superpowers. Combine that with the easy buy-in of a straight police game and it works.


All-Star Western: I like the Wild West heroes of the DC Universe (Jonah Hex, Batlash, Vigilante, Diablo, Scalphunter, etc). I just watched a Justice League Unlimited episode which used several of them. having a group of highly trained and masked vigilantes could be a really great approach to a Wild West game. Otherwise the genre leaves me cold. I want to check out the setting material from This Favored Land, which does Wild WestW with actual superpowers.

Legion Lost: Time-traveling superheroes from the future get trapped in our present. They have to figure out what went wrong. I like that concept. I don’t know how you’d translate that to a campaign. Kenny pulled an interesting version of this a bit ago when he ran a WW2 Supers campaign. However the WW2 setting was vastly different, with the Axis having won. One of the PCs was a time-traveler from the future who had come back to put right the changes. In fixing the situation, the rest of the party undid their own history. In some cases, they would never have become heroes...great stuff at the table.

Legion of Super-Heroes/Green Lantern Corps: These are both classic titles just getting reset to #1. In the Legion, they’re focusing on the Legion Academy which seems like a good choice. School-based games work well. But generally thinking about these makes me realize that I’ve never been able to wrap my head around a future, sci-fi, or space based supers campaign. I’ve made a couple of passes at that with mixed success. The best I ever managed was a near-future cyberpunk campaign with superheroes.

Batman, Inc: This isn’t getting relaunched, as I understand it, but will wrap up its twelve issue arc naturally. Essentially, Batman has recruited heroes in various nations as the "batman" of their respective area. I like the idea of franchised heroes, especially with a character as iconic as Batman. That could serve as nice origin/background for a PC. I did a version of the franchised superteam in a short campaign in which the PCs were recruited by a city as the local supergroup after the previous one vanished mysteriously. They had to balance crime-fighting, publicity and local events. And, of course, they had to figure out what happened to the other group...

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Reboots, Relaunches and RPGs

Sometimes good games die awful early deaths, and sometimes bad games come back from the dead undeservedly. In some cases the authors and publishers like some aspects of the original idea but want to fix major problems, draw in new audiences, alter the central concept, or just keep the name but go in a new direction. That can be good- creating a new and superior product with what made the original great, and the addition of new ideas and voices. Sometimes it can just create an opportunity for old players to jump ship or gripe about the changes.

I'm not talking so much about edition changes, but more about really significant reboots and major changes in the approach. For example Rolemaster shifted to Rolemaster Standard System. And while that was a major shift which rendered all the earlier books invalid, it was still pretty much "Rolemaster." Shifts in editions for GURPS and HERO have likewise made shifts but kept the same basic approach and concept. I'm also, with a couple of exceptions not talking about properties which bounced around from publisher to publisher for a new system but generally similar kind of game.

So this list is dedicated to major reboots which dramatically change the game, literally and figuratively.

1. Cybergeneration
Cyberpunk 2020 did a great job of bringing some of the feel and character of Gibson and company's literary movement to the gaming table. The original game was dark and a little nihilistic, emphasizing how decay had led to an emphasis on style over substance and violence as ordinary. Technology was useful but dehumanizing- there were consequences for living in this world. Over time, however, a good deal of the cautionary and critical nature of cyberpunk got filed away: leaving flash, techno-fetishism, gun-love, and an emphasis on super-slick, high powered violence and weaponry. That was the nature of an evolving genre and a game line moving to answer its audience's desires (more guns, more cyber mods, etc).

Cybergeneration as an rpg is an explicit response to that. It reboots the Cyberpunk setting in a direction which, I know, a lot of players and GMs did not like. Instead of the lethal, modded up, cybercycle-riding mercenaries of Cyberpunk, you had youths, torn out of their element, given strange powers and embarking on a crusade against the powers that be. Cybergeneration emphasizes hope and the ability for some to stand up against nihilism and corporatism. It points out the flaws and problems of "dark games" and tries to provide an antidote. It feels like a set of designers who met their actual buying audience and didn't like them very much.

2. Gamma World Roleplaying Game
I played Gamma World when it first came out- and even then it felt like a strange mish-mash game. I think we often forgot that it was a far-future apocalypse, and often just thought the high tech was the product of some other factor of the setting. You can see that GW's suffered a lot of attempts at re-envisioning: the original and second editions, then a massive system change with the third edition, then a switch back with the fourth, then a fifth edition which jammed it into Alternity, and then the obvious d20 edition done by White Wolf's Sword and Sorcery Studios. We might also mention Gammarauders which took more than a little from GW.

When I heard that Gamma World was going to be rebooted again, I was skeptical. However the idea of bizarre reality warps wipes away so many issues that the new GW seems to really work and hum along.

3. World of Darkness
A reboot to end all reboots in some ways. White Wolf finished out their metaplot with the Time of Judgment series, providing GMs with the tools to finish everything off. Then they reworked everything with a universal system, parallel structures and changes to the brand identities- some large (Changeling: The Lost) and some small (Vampire: The Requiem). The original lines had become something of a mess, but there's a little bit of throwing out the baby with the bathwater in what they did. In particular, I find the new approach to Mage doesn't grab me at all, whereas I liked the concepts and mechanics of the original. There's some serious question about where the new World of Darkness is headed, with older material now PoD, a reduced publication schedule for new books...but most of all with the forthcoming MMORPG being based on the original Vampire cosmology.

4. RuneQuest Deluxe Edition
Chaosium had had modest success with the early editions of Runequest and had built a decent fanbase for the Glorantha setting. That setting had strong popularity outside the US in particular. RQ, of course, used a early version of Basic RolePlaying, with a number of arcane systems included in it. Then Chaosium licensed Runequest to Avalon Hill. AH wanted a fantasy setting and a generic fantasy game to create other worlds for (so we got Griffin Island, Vikings: Nordic Roleplaying for RuneQuest, and Land of Ninja). The AH publication schedule ended up a mess with some great products coming out in the later period and some awful products early on. They included some of the worst artwork I've ever seen in a game.

Jump forward years after AH has died and Mongoose picks up the license to Runequest which again gets done as a generic fantasy system. And it gets used to reboot several properties with earlier gaming versions: Elric, Hawkmoon and Fafhrd and Grey Mouser. Plus they reboot the game into Glorantha: The Second Age which puts RQ back into Glorantha, but the time of high myth and...quite honestly if you don't know Gloranthan continuity and history it just plain gets weird. Of course, now that's out the window and Mongoose is again rebranding this system as something else- and not doing the Glorantha Second Age stuff any longer.

5. Hero Wars
Following up from the previous item, Hero Wars came out of the downfall of AH and the return of the Glorantha license to people who wanted to do something with it. For a couple of years, that was discussed on various boards until the newly formed Issaries, Inc finally released a rebooted game for Glorantha. That game polarized many players. Some had cut their teeth on classic RQ and loved the setting and the system equally. HW offered a pretty radical departure in gameplay and mechanics. The rules had a narrativist approach which emphasized characters and ideas over stats and discrete spell lists. That polarized the community. Myself, I didn't like it very much- I wasn't married to the RQ system, but I had a hard time understanding the rules as presented in Hero Wars and the later HeroQuest: Roleplaying in Glorantha renamed and revised version.I didn't get it until they rebooted the game again- creating the second edition of HeroQuest- this time presented as a generic system. Another drastic change, but one which made the game accessible to me.

6. The Lord of the Rings Roleplaying Adventure Game
So there's a strange history to reworkings of existing properties to create new Lord of the Rings material. ICE originally published their licensed LotR material as generic, but really using Rolemaster (1st, 2nd & Classic Editions) (see Umbar and Ardor as examples. Then they reworked Rolemaster into MERP. Then there was Tolkien Quest and the Lord of the Rings Adventure Game as attempts to reboot or rework the license to draw more users.

Eventually ICE lost the licensed to LotR after which Decipher picked it up to parallel the movies. In some ways that's a pretty radical reboot in itself- you expect different companies to have different systems, but this was a kind of radical rethinking of the approach to gaming in the setting: action directed to the movies vs. a historical approach to the whole of Middle Earth. Of course Decipher ended up with two distinct rebooted flavors of LotR: Lord of the Rings and The Lord of the Rings Roleplaying Adventure Game. And now we get to see how Cubicle 7 approaches this.

7. Champions: New Millennium
Super games have had many reboots, not unlike the comics themselves. Villains and Vigilantes, for example changed their system radically between the first and revised editions, though most people have forgotten that earlier version. Champions/Hero has had many reworkings even though most of the basics have remained the same (even some secondary lines have been drastically retooled- consider the shifts between Espionage! and Danger International). One of the oddest reboots and attempts to create synergy was the rebranding, cross-over, what-have-you experiment of Champions: New Millenium which tried to marry some Hero mechanics, R. Talsorian's Fuzion system, and a new Champions setting together. I know players who loved both Cyberpunk and Champions- but every one of them hated this.

Related we could consider the various flavors of Marvel. We've had at least three distinct and incompatible versions of a Marvel Supers RPG. The first, Marvel Super Heroes, from TSR remains the most popular, a really simple and abstract system that many loved. But there's also Marvel Super Heroes Adventure Game and The Marvel Universe Roleplaying Game. DC's had much the same experience. The original DC Heroes (1st Edition) had to contend with a massive change in continuity happening right in the middle of things- Crisis on Infinite Earths. Later editions had to provide dual stats, new sourcebooks to keep up and so on. We seen this echoed more recently with DC Adventures Hero's Handbook. We've been waiting on the oft-delayed characters book, volume one of which is now coming out. But the DC Universe is "relaunching" with new continuity in September. Where does that leave Green Ronin?

8. Rokugan Campaign Setting
Legend of the Five Rings is a weird beast as far as reboots go. Several times they've moved the timeline forward significantly, to parallel the card game's story. That has, in turn, rendered a chunk of earlier material less useful or even outright invalid. Those reboots have effectively kept the game and concept but rewritten the history- in a way that makes it difficult to simply port your character over from one edition to the next if the GM keeps the background. But the more significant reboot happened in with the second edition of L5R which, a little ways in, switched to hybrid L5R 2e/Rokugan d20 presentation. The switch meant double the system material in books, with half being a waste for those not playing that flavor. That was a strange reboot period, attempting to cash in on the d20 craze. Legend of the Five Rings 3e switched back to the house system with another jump forward in the timeline.

AEG also switched over 7th Sea to d20 with Swashbuckling Adventures. In that case they didn't bother with dual statted material, but instead tried to create a solely d20 setting out of 7th Sea, IIRC. I'm used to companies putting out d20 flavors to grab some of that money (Aberrant (d20 Edition) for example), but this was a more significant reboot. 7th Sea/Swashbuckling Adventures eventually ceased publication, so make of that what you will.

9. Karameikos: Kingdom of Adventure
Mystara and the Known World remains my favorite of the classic TSR fantasy settings. The GAZ - Gazetteer series has some of the best material. It was a setting which managed to bring together some really divergent stuff (Hollow World, Blackmoor, Red Steel). But the problem was that most of this was written for the Basic Dungeons & Dragons game- particularly the third edition which included things like the Basic, Expert, and Companion sets of rules. Eventually TSR decided to make everything Advanced Dungeons and Dragons. So they went back and reworked the world of Mystarra in several boxed sets including this one, Mark of Amber and Glantri Kingdom of Magic. These IMHO ended up badly done- smashing much of what made the originals consistent and interesting. They devastated the setting to kill off things and places. It was annoying, and a pretty clear attempt to have an "event" which would require new purchases.

10. Top Secret/S.I.
The original Top Secret was a classic genre simulation. Players took the role of spies in a generic spy agency. Of course the GM could and would define that further, but what was more important than the world, background and trappings was the mechanics for playing a spy. Boot Hill took a similar approach to Western gaming, while Gamma World and Star Frontiers existed in more detailed worlds. Of course, as we'd see across the history of TSR, nothing got the attention or did as well as classic fantasy- though they tried again and again to find gold. Top Secret went through two editions before they decided to reboot it.

From that came Top Secret/SI with a new and drastically simplified resolution system. In fact, it is pretty much a completely different set of mechanics. But on top of that they added a metastory- with players as members of the detailed agency ORION. Despite building a concrete world, the game served as a core to a couple of different flavors of spy gaming in addition to the base (TSAC2: Agent 13 Sourcebook for supernatural and TSAC4: F.R.E.E. Lancers for sci-fi spying).

11. Orpheus
I found Wraith: The Oblivion an interesting idea, but not exactly my cup of tea. Some of the ideas for the Chinese Underworld were striking (Dark Kingdom of Jade). But I could never quite get behind the pitch of the game: was the intent an interaction with the real world or instead souls fighting in an afterlife fantastic setting? It wasn't clear- but it felt as it moved along that the focus shifted from any real interaction with the WoD to the wars and metastory of the afterworld. Which had a significant event...and I'm not entirely sure, this is based on a picture I've put together from skimming books and reading posts. But at some point someone sets of a ghost Atomic Bomb?

That shift and change up gets hinted at the in reboot of the "Ghosts as a PC Race" concept for World of Darkness in the form of Orpheus. That's actually what drove me back to try to pick up what the Wraith connections were. Orpheus piqued my curiosity. This reboot of the ghosts concepts has people in the real world using and manipulating their own ghosts- a nice concept. Orpheus also changed up the game by making it a limited series of books with a running campaign plot that began and wrapped up over the course of six supplements. As with everything else, the idea of ghosts got hit with the global reboot stick in the new World of Darkness relaunch mentioned above. Now it has become Geist: the Sin-Eaters, which sounds a lot like the old Mummy: The Resurrection game...

Monday, June 27, 2011

Swashbucklers of the 7 Skies: RPGs I Like

As a little bit of a cheat (we call it efficiency) I’ve decided to review Swashbucklers of the 7 Skies (S7S). Last week I reviewed Zorcerer of Zo (ZoZ), which uses the same PDQ (Prose Descriptive Qualities) system. ZoZ takes the lightest possible approach to those rules, while S7S has a little bit more crunch added to it. Atomic Sock Monkey also uses PDQ for the well-praised Truth and Justice; Monkey, Ninja, Pirate, Robot: the RPG; and Dead Inside. I picked up S7S as source material for my own fantasy, flying ships, Battlestar Galactica homage (see here). I also bought Sundered Skies at the same time and I think a useful comparison can be drawn between them. S7S is a pirate rpg with flying ships and some light fantasy. Sundered Skies is a high fantasy rpg with flying ships.

The Book Itself
Swashbucklers of the 7 Skies comes in a slightly oversized trade format, clocking in at about 328 pages (including adverts and such). That’s "7" skies and not "Seven" if you’re doing a search on it. The color cover has a nice iconic illustration, with a classical map tone background. The art throughout is simple and clean- some original pieces, some clipart, some nice Dover choices, and a rich set of symbol graphics associated with the magic of the game. Readers can breeze through the text thanks to the excellent and clean layout. Even those sections with a greyed background remain highly legible. S7S avoids my pet peeve in book design and sticks to no more than three fonts, with one of those reserved for really special moments.

Swashbucklers takes place in a domed world, a fantastic land encased by the borders of the celestial sphere. At the center of the dome stands the Sky of Fire, like the core of an apple reaching from the top to the bottom. The apex of the dome is unreachable, while the bottom of the sphere is a sea of roiling "Blue," like azure tar. Between those levels, the sky is broken into layers, with winds moving in different directions within the layers. More importantly, the dome is sectioned into six further skies, slices running from top to bottom. These remain set in relation to one another, but cycle counter-clockwise around. Each has a distinct character, so they serve as "seasons" for the fixed floating islands and locations around the world. Navigators of the flying fleets learn the best passages and routes through these skies. The six are The Mists, The Sky of Frost, The Ghost Sky, The Sky of Stones, The Sky of Thunder, and The Jungle Sky. So, along with the blazing Sky of Fire in the center, you get seven.

The cosmology of this is very cool. The book spends the first 130 pages setting up the background, environment, peoples, and cultures. If you’re looking for an existing sky-borne setting to play in, this one holds together. If you’re just looking for inspiration, you’ll find a great deal here. Chad Underkoffler provides enough detail, for example, about each of the Skies to make them feel distinct and interesting. I found myself making notes as I read through- ideas for adventures in each one. His treatment presents the physical features, flora and fauna of each well. The tone here is light and deft- this isn’t a grim and gritty world and the mythic is presented as a kind of legendary background, with it mostly appearing as lore and superstitions in the minds of the inhabitants.

After two dozen pages of geography and background, the author takes us through the various kingdoms of the world. These have quite divergent approaches- and don’t simply echo classical western tropes. 7th Sea did a good job of converting European pseudo-cultures into a new fantasy world. S7S does a little of that, but for the most part stakes out its own territory. Each kingdom feels unique and interesting; with some exceptions I could easily imagine PCs from those places. The writing does a good job presenting what you need to know to play or run these areas: people, cultural details, what’s going on now, etc. They fit together into a whole, something some setting books fail at. This section takes up 50+ pages. The next treats magic and the faithful, a nice set of ideas and structures consistent with the setting and convey a different feel from other games. I’d recommend these ideas for GMs looking for a basic structure to bring over to another fantasy game. That takes up about 20 pages. The last section, just shy of 30 pages, covers the ships, equipment and trade of the setting.

The System
At about the halfway mark of the book, we finally get to the mechanics, beginning with character creation. That’s an interesting approach. I’m used to games giving background first, but Underkoffler really sets the stage before presenting any kind of mechanical details.

PDQ intends to be simple, lighter than FATE or Savage Worlds. It aspires to a narrative focus as the former does, and adaptability as the latter does. There aren’t a lot of details, knobs and dials needed to adapt PDQ to another genre or setting. FATE, on the other hand, requires more work depending on the distance from your reference game (Diaspora, SoTC, Dresden). PDQ is a low detail, high trust system- relying on the players to exert control and structure. My biases lean in that direction- not for any specific game/system, but that in the last decade our group has moved towards transparent and simple systems with greater shared authority.

PDQ in S7S operates with a basic 2d6 roll for tests, with that roll being modified by the rating of the "Fortes" characters use. In other PDQ games these are called Qualities. For each Forte the player selects a descriptive word or phrase in character creation. If a task fits with that descriptor, the player gains a bonus to the roll. This bonus depends on the level of the Forte. The GM has to serve as an arbiter during character creation as to whether a Forte is too narrow or broad.

Fortes cover everything; characters have no stats. Skills, abilities, traits, tools, magic, gifts, characteristics, advantages, etc.- all of these fall under Fortes. FATE and Hero Quest take similar universal approaches. Each Forte has a level, ranging from Poor to Master that give an increasing bonus. These level names are also used for difficulties (an Expert task requires 11+) but difficulties can reach higher, with Inconceivable! at the top (21+). Anything outside of a character’s Fortes is rolled as Average, with no bonus to the roll. S7S also offers characters a Swashbuckler Forte which gives them a discount on techniques associated with that Forte. Techniques can describe a situation or aspect of that Forte. These can be used to affect a reroll or add a +1 bonus. The game also offers Foibles, flaws players the GM can use to explain failures and increase drama. The rules present a number of example Fortes for the setting with discussion of their place and role in the setting. These also define how to purchase gifts and magical abilities.

A few other mechanics are worth detailing. S7S uses Style dice which players can gain through good play. The rules offer an interesting approach to doling out and balancing those. Most challenges and tasks are abstract, but the book spends time talking about many examples and cases. This is well written and clear. Players narrate victory if they win, the GM if they lose. The rules offer mechanics for duels, damage measured as Fortes reduction, and handling vehicular duels. That’s basically it- with some additional complications for direct conflicts, combat, damage and the like. It is a simple and abstract system based on a clear and quick mechanic.

Character creation and rules take up a little under 120 pages of the rules. Going through them again, I’m struck by the PDQ system’s ability to simply add crunch without it feeling overwhelming. The system is sound and complete but not thin. You could easily get these rules down in a session or two of play and not really need to refer to the book after that. It offers simple, consistent mechanics which can easily be adapted on the fly. S7S ends with 70 pages of GM advice, most of it generic but some of it aimed at running PDQ and S7S in specific. This reads well and there were at least a couple of points there which made me stop and think about how to apply those to my own GMing.

I consider this a solid and worthwhile purchase for my needs. I was looking for ideas I could borrow or use in my Skyships campaign. I found that here. But I was also struck by how well this setting holds together. If someone were to ask for a Swashbuckling game, I might go for this one, rather than Lace & Steel or 7th Sea. I has the advantage of some light fantasy and very easy to grasp, teach and adapt mechanics. I enjoyed reading it and it sparked a lot of ideas.

It would be really easy to adapt this setting to another system. The simplicity of the mechanics means that disentangling them would be a snap. On the flip side, PDQ is a highly adaptable system. I could easily imagine using it for another genre. It wouldn’t be my first system of choice for a long-term campaign, but it would be for a pick-up game or short (6 session or less) campaign.

Friday, June 24, 2011

Project Superman/DC Adventures

An interesting coincidence today, Newsarama has a preview of the first three pages of Flashpoint: Project Superman which I wrote. That's coming out next Wednesday. And yes, I am going to repeatedly harp on this book (done with Gene Ha!, Art Lyon and Scott Snyder). As well as Rocketeer Adventures #2 which came out this week which I have a story in.

But the interesting rpg connection comes from Green Ronin finally publishing the pdf of DC Adventures Heroes and Villains Volume 1 (which RPGNow spells wrong). I'd been wondering what was going to happen with that, given that DC is relaunching/rebooting the DC Universe in September. I may have to pick up the pdf, though it is $26 which seems a little high but I may breakdown and do it anyway. I like Mutants & Masterminds and enjoyed what Green Ronin has done in adapting DC over. I'm going to talk more about the DC re-launch next week and what it means to gaming.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Building Talent Trees: "Classes" for The Last Fleet

So far I've run two sessions of my Last Fleet campaign, with the next coming up this Saturday. For this version of our homebrew system (Action Cards) I've been trying a trick I've used before. Players don't have classes per se, but instead have concepts. Based on that they get to buy the usual skills and such. But each also has a "Talent Tree" with two branches that grant them new powers and tricks. I'm trying to emulate the way classes operate in MMORPGs and other CRPGS. The first part of the trick is that I'm building the trees as the game progresses. I had them tell me some things they'd like to be able to do and I built the first six items on their trees based on that. Then, every other session, I will solicit their input about what else they'd like. Since that can change as the game progresses, I hope the players will be able to develop the character they really want. The second trick is that these talent items cost points, but they also require a "Learning Experience." Meaning that the player has to have failed significantly in a session at least once in order to spur them to develop a new approach. A player can only have one Learning Experience held at a time. I hope this will help simulate the way characters in drama comes to pick up new talents. Below are the talent trees I built for each character at the start. Tomorrow, I'll post the newest ones with notes on what the players requested.

Sherri: Dweena Squint, Goblin Scout/Gadgeteer

*Meshed Blunderbuss: Dweena may spend a point of Focus to reload weapon without taking an action. Blunderbuss may be used to parry without unusual weapon breakage. (Hard Gear Start)

*Blunderbus Blast: Dweena does +1d Damage when firing her blunderbuss normally. Blunderbuss Spread: Dweena may spend a point of Focus and fire at up to three adjacent targets; damage is 7d. (Hard Gear 1)

*Expert Staff: Dweena possesses an excellent staff giving her a redraw related to her direct work activities. Additionally, they can usually lay their hands on standard goods and equipment quickly, and more exotic goods given time (and their availability in the fleet). (Soft Gear 1)

*Cling Boots: These boots allow Dweena to move along any solid, flat surface. This includes planks, ship bottoms, walls and ceilings. They are heavy and loud. (Hard Gear 1)

*Sky Squid: Dweena may make an attack which freely tags "Blind" without rolling damage. This has a short range and may only be dodged. Additionally, the Sky Squid provides an alert when opponents approach from the rear. The Squid also acts as a parachute. (Soft Gear Start)

*Goggles: Dweena may ignore the Dim Lighting tag. Built-in lenses allow magnified vision to pick out small details on surfaces and objects. They also protect the eyes from blinding tags. (Soft Gear 1)

Ward: Marreg Warmane, Orc Warrior

*Ice Cutter: Meshed Magical Blade: Marreg may activate after a successful hit- any 9’s & 10’s rolled on damage count as two HP. This requires one round to recharge. Alternately, if he spends a point of Focus, 8-10 counts as two wounds. (War Chain 1)

*Warrior Prowess: Marreg always does +2d damage with any muscle-powered weapon. (War Chain Start)

*Far-Leap: Marreg can leap twice the distance of even a strong man. This includes running leaps and standing leaps. He can hurdle tables, animals, etc., easily. (Hunt Chain Start)

*Bellow: As an action Marreg may bellow, applying a Startled tag to all Mooks present. This can also be used to draw attackers and disturb prey. (Hunt Chain 1)

*Social Sledge Hammer: Marreg does +1d social damage to non-Orcs when attempting to intimidate. He also reduces social damage done to him by non-Orcs by 2-points. (Hunt Chain 1)

*Slam: Marreg may slam into an opponent after making at least a half move. This does 3+4d damage and may more easily tag a target with Unbalanced and even Knocked Down. This is an attack action. Slam does not lower defense, but the tags it can inflict do lower defense. (War Chain 1)

Kenny: Whet Bloodlaced, White Elf Pistoleer/Empath

*Combat Reflexes: Whet goes first in a standard combat round, except when surprised. This ability does not affect one-on-one duels. (Blazing Branch Start)

*Pistoleer: Whet does +1d damage with pistols. Rapid Volley: By spending a point of Focus, Whet may fire two pistols on the same round at two different targets in any arc. Damage is 1+5d. This requires having a pistol in each hand. (Vigilant Branch Start)

*Mounted Combat: Whet gains the ability Mounted Dodge- affecting himself and his mount. As well, his Mount’s # to be damaged increases by +1 while Whet rides. (Vigilant Branch 1)

*Precognitive Parry: Whet’s uncanny perception allows him a Parry redraw against any opponent with a mind and emotions. This does not work against automatons, vehicles or the like. This is considered an ability for redraw limits. (Vigilant Branch 1)

*Speedload: Whet may spend a point of Focus to reload one pistol without taking an action. Additionally, when carrying both pistols, he may parry with them as if they were a standard weapon. (Blazing Branch 1)

*Burst of Speed: Whet may make an additional half-move. This ability has a one-round cool down time. It does not reduces his defenses to make a full move when he does this. Alternately, Whet may spend a point of Focus to make an additional full-move, instead of half-move. (Blazing Branch 1)

Scott: Chain Firespinner, Scalebound Brawler/Fire Mage

*Tail Mastery: Chain may strike as Unarmed at a target behind him without penalty. This counts as an action. Alternately, he can spin and sweep with his tail, tagging up to three Mooks with “Knocked Down” as an action or freely by spending a point of Focus. (Talon Wing 1)

*Claw Expert: Chain does +1d with his Claws. He is not limited to a single parry per round. (Talon Wing 1)

*Rending Claws: The most potent Scaleborn have claws which can rip through wood and light metal. Additionally, by spending a point of Focus, Chain may add +2d to a claw attack. This ability does not have a cool-down. (Talon Wing 2, Req. Claw Expert)

*Fire Breath: Chain may project a short blast of fire, in his front arc. This can do 6d damage to up to three targets, and may easily tag “On Fire.” Note that the flames have no force behind them, only heat. This is a natural ability, not a spell. (Fire Wing Start)

*Fire Magic Initiate: Spell: By concentrating, the caster can affect a flame in one of four ways: double the size of a flame; cause an existing flame to make a standard move; sustain a flame without fuel; deepen the effect of an existing flame (extra damage). Casting requires an action; sustaining it requires concentration and line of sight. (Fire Wing 1)

*Scales: The Scaleborn’s skin protects as Medium Armor, without any movement or encumbrance penalties. This armor is “Enduring” meaning that it is difficult to tag with a weakness. (Talon Wing Start)

Jeanne: Lira Moondawning, Namir Rogue/Shadow Mage

*Dagger Mastery: When using a hand-carried or thrown dagger, Lira does +1d damage. This includes magically produced daggers. Lira also gains the ability “Throw Dagger.” (Rogue Path Start)

*No-Step: Lira may run along narrow surfaces or edges which would otherwise not support her weight: tree limbs, fall rope, gutters, etc. By spending a point of Focus, she can move without leaving tracks, even on the most delicate surface. (Shadow Path 1)

*Shadow’s Magic Initiate: Spell: The first step in this Shadow-based Wizard school. By concentrating, the caster can affect shadows in one of four ways: double the size of an existing pool of shadow; cause shadows to ripple and create a distraction; deepen shadows to conceal a person or thing within them; dim the lighting in an area to twilight. Beginning the effect is a spell-casting action; sustaining it requires concentration and line of sight. (Shadow Path Start)

*Shadow’s Guise: Spell: The caster may create an illusion which disguises them as a generic, same-sex member of another race. They will appear non-descript, without specific features. Close, intense examination will reveal the illusion, as will bright, direct light. Lasts for a scene, may be renewed. (Shadow Path 1, Req Shadow Magic Initiate)

*Enchanted Dagger: Lira’s dagger can fade to shadow and be resummoned as she wills it. Lira may spend a point of Focus to add +2d to her attacks with the dagger. This has a one round cool-down. (Rogue Path 1)

*Namir Agility: Lira automatically lands on her feet without damage for any fall 20’ or less. For falls up to 100’, she may make a Physical pull to land without damage. For greater falls, she can reduce but not eliminate the damage. (Rogue Path 1)