Wednesday, June 4, 2014

History of Superhero RPGs (Part Twelve: 2010)

Champions now has Fate Points. I mean they’re not called Fate Points, Drama Points, Hero Points, Bennies, Karma, or whatever. They’re called “Heroic Action Points.” You may not find this as freaky and revolutionary as I do. I played Champions from 1981 to 2004. It was a solid game. Some might call it crunchy, but for me it was more that it had stability and structure, with everything monetized and points calculated. You built your character, you figured out the exact number to hit, and you rolled your dice. If you missed, you missed. If you crapped out your damage roll, you just took it. If it took you three turns to burn through the aluminum roof of a shack because you couldn’t roll more than 2 BODY on a disintegrating Killing Attack…then it took you three turns. Those were the laws of the world.

I’ve always associated Hero/Drama/Fate Points with messier or looser systems. We used them as an option in Rolemaster to keep our characters from dying to voles and rabbits. Marvel Super Heroes was the first time I saw these ideas in core rules. Players gained Karma for heroic actions and successful missions. These days many games tie such rewards to background: ideas of heroism, alignments, invoking complications, etc. But Marvel did it first for super- although they also hitched it to advancement, so spending during a session meant your character wouldn’t grow as fast. I dig that we’ve developed many different versions Hero Points over years and games. They’re an excellent shorthand for the spark that lets heroes perform feats of daring and sacrifice.

But they created a weird moment a couple of weeks ago in our Mutants & Masterminds campaign. The group had fought a running battle through an alien mothership the session before. They managed to banish these Rikti forces back to their home dimension, but immediately found themselves facing their true foes- a squadron of hyper-powerful beings who had set these attacks in motion. I let the players reset their Hero Points and spend to clear damage & effects from the previous fight. And then we went right into it. On round one my second villain’s attack I scored a crit on Nightcrawler, played by Ben. He then botched his damage save.

“Do you want to spend a Hero Point?” I asked.
“No. I don’t think so.” Ben replied after a moment.
“OK then you’ll be KO’d for the fight until someone can come over and give aid, and even then you’ll be suffering under a Stagger.”
“OK” Ben replied after another moment.

The rest of the group moved on- now looking at a fight outnumbered six to four. I felt bad, but at the same time a player had made a choice and I didn’t want to undercut that. Ben stayed on calmly for the next hour until one of the other PCs finally managed to get enough breathing room to come and revive him. Ben wasn’t playing chicken with me; I’ve gamed with sour-grapes players who’ve done that. Instead, he said something telling: “We can’t just spend Hero Points any time we don’t like something. It needs to be dramatic.”

What’s interesting is the disconnect between my vision of Hero Points and his. That’s especially important because I run the game and adjudicate the mechanics. In M&M Hero Points can be used for several things, but the improved reroll is most common. Villains don’t have Hero Points- but can gain their effect by giving a hero a point. I have smart players and most invested to the limit with Luck, to gain the max Hero Points. That’s fine. For me those points represent the reserve of energy and determination which makes heroes stand out and triumph over villains. So Hero Points they’re another resource, and in the end all resources are another damage track for the GM. I expect the players to fight hard, burn through Hero Points, and freak out when they have to spend their last one. I throw tough, overwhelming adversaries at my players because they have that resource.

Most get that and operate that way. They know that every once in a while if a session bleeds into another one I won’t let those points reset. That’s a worry that makes their choices more strategic. And I’m cool with that. But I’ve seen that I haven’t gotten that idea across as well as I could have. If I had placed a hard, low cap on Hero Points for the campaign, that would be a different matter- and a different game.

Events: Siege, Blackest Night, The Heroic Age, Brightest Day, Batman: Return of Bruce Wayne, Captain America Reborn, Necrosha, Fall of the Hulks, Realm of Kings, Second Coming, The Thanos Imperative, World War Hulks, Curse of the Mutants, Shadowland, Chaos War.
Television: Human Target, Ben10 Ultimate Alien, Generator Rex, No Ordinary Family, Zevo-3, The Avengers: Earth’s Mightiest Heroes
Films: Percy Jackson & the Olympians, Defendor, Kick-Ass, Iron Man 2, Jonah Hex, Megamind

These lists cover a smaller slice of time than my past rpg lists. I hope this makes them easier to read. As we get closer to the present the lists expand and contract weirdly. I include mostly core books, but also significant setting or sourcebooks. Given the number of great things published I haven't included everything I wanted to.  I list revised editions which significantly changed a line. Generally I only include published material- print or electronic. I leave out freebie or self-published games. I'm sure I've left something off without adequate reason; feel free to add a comment about a line I missed (if published in 2010). I've arranged these by year and then alphabetically within that year.

I've set up a Patreon project 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. 

1. Champions (2010)
The shift from Hero System 4th to 5th lost a number of players- myself included. On the other hand, many found the changes necessary and not overly elaborate. In 2009, Hero again moved the game engine forward, this time with fairly drastic revisions. These aimed at simplification and consistency: attack and defense split from characteristics, elimination of secondary characteristics, improved disads (now called complications), reduced stun multiple for killing attacks, heroic action points, and a host of others. Champions grognards will understand and appreciate the scope of that. Hero remains a chunky system, split into two volumes of 464 pages and 320 pages. Or you could go for the stripped down version which leaves out the bells and whistles at 138 pages

So what is this Champions book? Simply put it’s a massive sourcebook for general superhero gaming. If you've read other superhero rpg corebooks, you've seen GM advice, discussion of genre, and the like. This is that kind of material exploded and expanded. You can see the years of veteran experience on every page. The section on genre types and elements is especially good and thorough. It covers some corner case concepts and offers concrete advice for how to run many of them. This edition of Champions does cover mechanics, but that takes a back seat to how to present and handle ideas at the table. For example the authors work through the various archetypes (Bricks, Projectors) but talk more generally about what these play like, rather than presenting fully-fleshed builds. The book also gives tools for adventure building, super-teams, villains, superheroic combat, and a host of other topics. This is an awesome sourcebook for all supers campaigns, regardless of system. Even the last quarter of the book, with NPC stat blocks, devices and such, has interesting bits. Champions 6 isn't as revolutionary as Villainy Amok or Strike Force, but it is solid. 

There's only one "but" here. Veteran supers GM may not find this as useful. It covers old ground in a new way and that might rekindle the imagination. But you might be familiar enough that you find yourself skipping forward hunting for the new. GMs just getting into supers or wondering how to build these kinds of campaigns should check it out though. Those looking for the specific Champions setting with 6th edition should check out Champions Universe. Point Buy. D6 Resolution.

2. Corner Cases (2010)
I thought it might be worth covering some of the year’s smaller, pdf/PoD-only rpg products. As we get closer to the present it becomes harder to draw a line between professional and self-published products. I'm sure I've missed a few. Bold & Brave is superhero framework for genreDiversion. It sets up the supers rules and presents a brief setting, Prudence City, where licensed and unlicensed supers compete. It’s a dense sourcebook for its size (less than 60 pages). G-Core is another OSR game which, in the words of the publisher, "...ISN'T the original FASERIP nor is it a product of Marvel Comics, but it is 99% compatible with it." Dilly Green Bean Games have built a crazy number of uber-short supplements based on this system. Resolute: the Superhero RPG 2E is a simple 17-page complete supers rpg that packs a ton into that space. Author Michael T. Desing has expanded this with several supplements. The Zeotis presents a supers setting for Saga Machine. It has the feel of a Bronze-Age house campaign. Finally there'sWitless Minion! an amazing take on supervillain minions writing as part of the RPG Geek 24-Hour rpg contest. You can find a free copy of that game here. You'll be amazed at what the author managed to put together in that short period (DISCLAIMER: I am the author and your amazement is not guaranteed and you're probably aware that I'm just shilling for my own free product).

3. DC Adventures (2010)
As I may have casually dropped into conversation before, I had the opportunity to write for DC comics during their "Flashpoint" event. It was billed as a one-off alternate world cross-over to bring some new villains into the DC Universe. We were given a couple of marching orders about structure and then sent off...and then after we worked those up we were given a completely different set of orders. The project felt strange- as if they weren't certain what they wanted. It was only once we had the first and second books done that we learned about the New 52 and the complete reboot of the DC line. We had no clue- which was disappointing because it would have been fun to weave some of those elements into the book. One person thought we were building a new version of Apollo, which would have been cool, but no...we had no clue. 

I have to wonder how much Green Ronin knew about the upcoming changes as they worked on DC Adventures. I'm going to guess almost nothing. This game and the three supplements are all built on a universe which no longer exists. This isn't the first time this has happened: the first edition of DC Heroes came out just before Crisis on Infinite Earths. But at least DCH had some time to establish itself before that hit- and then jumped back with a new edition based on the excitement of the Post-Crisis setting. I can't imagine Green Ronin doing an update book for DCA to the new 52. 

Interestingly DC Adventures is itself a reboot- the first introduction of Mutants & Masterminds 3rd edition. This makes them fully compatible. DCA is a pretty awesome book- beautifully done and well laid out. It does commit a new edition cardinal sin for me though. There's no quick explanation of the differences between this and M&M 2e. I kind of get that, since they're aiming for the DC audience. But when M&M 3e came out the following year, it also lacked this statement. That's a pet peeve. I really want a clear outline of the changes when I buy a new edition. Instead I had to hunt down a summary thread on RPG Stack Exchange. I'll talk more about that on the next list with M&M 3e. Despite the world shift, Green Ronin has supported this line with three supplements: DC Adventures Heroes & Villains, Vol. IDC Adventures Heroes & Villains, Vol. II, and DC Adventures RPG: Universe. If you like classic DC comics, then it’s worth picking up these volumes. I'll be curious about how long they remain in stock and available. Point buy. d20 Resolution.

4. L'encyclopédie (2010)
I originally found this while assembling my Steampunk lists. A French RPG based on a comic book series. Wikipedia describes the source series thusly (translated by Google from the French with some clean up): "The series is an allegory fantasy (and not an alternate history as the parallel story joins our historical reality in 1939). Born on the battlefields of WW1, in the breath of gas and X-ray weapons, superheroes took over the "gentlemen-vigilantes" of the late 19th century and the control of large European capitals. The (public) made…them icons. Scientists are fascinated by their power. Yet somewhere in the Austrian Alps, a city sprung out of nowhere announced a threat that may erase even the memory of their existence."

"The authors faithfully bring to life the situation in Europe before the war as well as actual "primitive" superhero characters from European folk literature and geopolitical context of the 20th century, in a gesture both archaeological and critical whose ambition is to allow us to reconnect with a repressed collective imagination, and dispel the historical fallacy of thinking that the figure of the superhero is a uniquely American invention. The universe, which also stages vehicles and imaginary technology is called "radiumpunk" by its creators. The word is derived from the term steampunk (which refers to the fictional universe whose technologies are based on steam) and highlights the fact that the technology of the Brigade Chimeric world massively employs radium, whose discovery by Marie Curie serves as a historical divergence."

I'm still trying to track down info on the actual system involved. RPG Geek shows it as d6 based, with stats and traits.

5. Freelancer (+/-2010)
The timeline's a little fuzzy on this one, since it is a German-language game. Freelancer seems to be a kind of henshin-style superhero rpg. There's a free pdf version, as well as a published edition which includes the core rules and a setting campaign based in Cologne, Germany- subtitled "Köln Dungeon Monsterjäger." Freelancer Dynamics seems to be a more classic, Power Rangers-style setting where your heroes echo the elements in a secret war against monstrous forces. That's subtitled Monaco Magic Monsterjäger. Finally another version, Freelancer Reenact 2332 has a more cyberpunk near-future feel, but with the same henshin tropes. That's subtitled Tokio Cyber Monsterjäger. Point buy. d20 resolution.

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6. ICONS (2010)
The news that M&M designer Steve Kenson had contributed to an entirely new superhero system surprised me. M&M felt like such a complete package: moderate crunch tied to a known engine. Of course each edition of M&M has become more distinctive and further away from d20. Likewise Icons builds on Fudge/Fate but is its own beast. For one thing, it has stats with pure numbers rather than descriptors. For another it cuts down the concept of Aspects, making then into PC descriptors & disadvantages rather than a toolkit for describing the world. But probably the most important shift moves the game away from controlled build to random generation. Icons returns to the classic V&V/Golden Heroes model where players roll for stats, origin, and powers. That supports the game’s light and fun approach: "roll up a toon and let's get playing." 

Clearly there's space for a fast-build and fast-play supers system these days. Based on an established foundation, Icons manages to be solid and open at the same time. Dan Houser's simple and cartoony artwork supports that, as does the clean book design. That simplicity has grabbed gamers’ attention- at least to judge by the volume of secondary materials. In just a few years, Icons has developed a massive backlist of support material. Many 3rd party publishers have released versions of their products for Icons (or written new books for it). The publisher has done a great job with the ICONS Hero PackThe Villainomicon, and especially Great Power. This last one includes notes on making Icons compatible with Fate Core. Icons was originally with Adamant Entertainment/Cubicle 7. It then moved to Ad Infinitium Adventures. AIA then partnered with Green Ronin for publication. That's led to a new Assembled Edition of Icons which should be released this year. Random generation. 2d6 Resolution.

7.  Infinite Power (2010)
A medium to light-weight superhero game. I'd put it close to something like V&V or Living Legends. Characters have eight standard stats and eight combat stats, plus talents, skills, and powers. Powers are constructed using a simple effect plus modifiers system. That makes builds fairly easy. It uses d8s for resolution as a pool against a target number. 8's explode for the die system. Infinite Power feels like a basic product- with workable art and layout. While it doesn't stand out from the pack as doing anything novel, gamers looking for a basic game which avoids a story focus might check it out. It has been supported by a couple of supplements including Infinite Enemies and some modules. The price of the pdf at this point in time- $20 for about 100 pages- seems a little high. Points and picks character creation, d8 resolution.

8.  Kapow! (+/-2010)
I'm a bad person and I judge games by their cover. Most often that's me being suckered in by a pretty product. A shiny book with an awesome cover illo that turns out to be a retread, broken, or worse. (I'm looking at you Children of the Sun...) But I'm guilty underestimating books as well. I saw Kapow! and let out a little groan. Goofy name, CG illustrations, dense "wall of text" layout...I really didn't want to look at another one of these. But I did and I was terribly, terribly wrong. 

Kapow! is a smart and simple superhero game that does a dynamite job of bringing in genre elements. Author Joshua Macy distributed a version of the game in '09, but didn't move it into wider distribution until 2011. So I'm splitting the difference and putting it here. The game itself is powered by the SFX engine (which also handles Zounds! The Fantasy RPG and Argh!: The Supernatural RPG). Characters have a simple set of four stats, some basic powers that have a rank, and some minor & major complications. Players use a template which determines base ranks and gives them "boosts" to spend to upgrade their character. Kapow! has an interesting conceit in which power levels are measured from 1-12 (and potentially higher). But what those actually represent depends on the Scope. So at Street Level, a 7 means a character can bench press about 350kg. At National Level a 7 allows a hero to lift a filled semi-trailer. That's a good way to handle things and create a functional world with different classes of supers. 

PCs roll dice based on the rank of their powers. Contests are simple, with higher number winning and a margin of 3+ indicating overkill. There's no power list- instead players define what they want to be able to do and tie that to their concept. Kapows!'s open approach is linked to a detailed list pick where players can modify the base effect of powers. Advantages and disadvantages for powers cost or refund boosts. The game handles combat and other mechanics just as simply. Aspects such as range, investigations, chases, and so on are given some basic color, but ultimately fall back to the base resolution mechanic. Kapow! includes a solid section of GM advice, random character tables, and a hyperlinked index & ToC. As a whole, it pleasantly surprised me. It can be hard going- the layout doesn't do the book any service- but I'm hoping we'll see a revised edition of this in the future. Set pick generation. Various dice resolution.

9. Progenitor (2010)
Progenitor is another massive setting sourcebook for Wild Talents. I'm struck by how solid and independent these books are. They set up an idea, lay the groundwork, and then let things go. These aren't created to be the tentpole for a series of supplements. Instead they pitch you a wild concept, lay out how that might play at the table, and provide tools to put that into practice. And Progenitor lets loose some brilliance in its nearly 400 pages.

Progenitor is a single-origin super setting, with a sci-fi realistic tone. It echoes our own world until 1967 when Amanda Sykes gains superpowers via 'dark energy.' Suddenly she's the most powerful person in the world, able to do nearly anything she conceives of. But she's also contagious. She begins a pseudo-superheroic career, but unwittingly infects others with dark-energy. They're slightly less powerful, but they're also contagious. That process continues, with many years before people understand how powers transmit. The setting has tiers for superheroes, depending on their generation. It echoes the system from Vampire more than a little, crossed with the "activators" of the WildStorm Universe. It also builds in my favorite conceit from Scion: when powerful people (like PCs) interact with mortals, they run the risk of drawing them into their world. 

The character creation system has cool twists. Players can set how contagious they are, for example. The rules offer several new powers and abilities for Wild Talents. I especially like the discussion of building characters who are simply really good at something (like business or invention) and how make them viable in this setting. Progenitor presents a breakdown of powers across tiers and several archetypes (Healers, Speeders, Zippermen). There's some brilliant world-building through the mechanics and cc systems. 

But what blows Progenitor out of the water is the larger campaign concept. Progenitor presents a rich and detailed timeline, running from the 60's up through 2000. And then it wants you to destroy it. You have a baseline history as well as parallel ones- especially a "This is What Happens If the PC Don't Change Things" stream. The book cracks open this history- breaking it down by incidents and period flavor. Four traits- Suspicion, Technology, Economy, and Warfare- define this. GMs can then use tables of random effects based on several axes to change up and shift the history of play. This is a brilliant tool every supers GM ought to be stealing for their campaign. But more importantly it talks about how to consider the PCs impact. The point of this campaign is to NOT be afraid of the players changing the world but instead to embrace that and play out the What If? to the fullest. This is a game where the players can choose to rebuild society, to be The Authority or something else better or worse. A Progenitor campaign ought to span decades, perhaps be multi-generational (ala The Great Pendragon Campaign). 

This setting book is crazy, brilliant, and perhaps the single best consideration of the impact of superheroes on the world in an rpg. I've often disliked cyberpunk as an rpg genre because it presents situation where we play in the wake of the most interesting interactions. Technology has arrived and been adopted- rather than a world where this new tech has just appeared and is shaking things up. Progenitor puts you in the middle of the future-shock of these powers and lets the players shape the world which comes from it. This is a rare must-buy book for GMs looking for ideas and inspiration.

10. Settings (2010)
This year saw several awesome campaign settings. Building on the very cool Wargames series I mentioned on the last list, Vigilance Press produced another alt-history supers setting. The various pieces of the Amazing Stories of WWII series showcase a new take on WW2. Like the earlier series this is presented in a series of smaller pdf-only booklets, allowing GMs to pick and choose. Many of the can be bought in different game system flavors. Also available for multiple systems, Ion Guard offers a riff on the Green Lantern or Nova Corps. A short supplement, but one covering a rarer campaign frame despite the popularity of cosmic comics. I have to wonder if we'll see more of these kinds of settings if Guardians of the Galaxy turns out to be good. Finally Kazei 5 is a massive campaign framework for Hero System. It jams together anime, cyberpunk, and a host of other sci-fi tropes to create a world of mixed-up manga transhumanism. Think Cybergeneration with less grit or a more diverse power-source version of Bubblegum Crisis. Recommended for those looking for a crunchy setting with anime roots. 

11. Smallville (2010)
Smallville's an adaptation of the eponymous TV series using Cortex Plus. I have to admit upfront that I've never been a fan of the Cortex system. I've bought and read several versions of the engine (LeverageSupernaturalSerenityMarvel Heroic). For some reason it doesn't click for me- either when I'm trying to work through the rules or when I actually play the game. On the other hand, many smart people I know dig its various incarnations. It has a simplicity I admire, I just wish I enjoyed it more in practice. 

I also have a hard time getting into Smallville for another, personal reason. My friend Barry loved the show- watching it religiously and advocating for it consistently. After his death almost ten years ago, I've had a hard time seeing anything about Smallville without thinking of him. Wouldn't he have loved to see where the show went, how it expanded the universe, how DC managed to generate other striking TV shows? It’s a stupid thing but one that sticks with me. 

The Smallville rpg itself is pretty brilliantly assembled. It is dense, with characters and a timeline running up through Season Nine. As with several narrative-focused supers games, Smallville abstracts superpowers. Players can set and define those for an effect, but it generally describes what kinds of events and scenes they can affect. Plot points can be combined with powers or other distinctions as well to shift the narrative. When testing for success, players assemble a dice pool built on their relevant traits (like Chloe's d10 for "Big Sister," 2d8 for "Watchtower," and d8 for "Lois is going to get herself in trouble"). The last of these represents the most interesting concept in Smallville. Character creation involves relationship mapping. Players define their connections to other PCs and NPCs, assigning them both a descriptor and a die value. That's a brilliant little tool we've seen in some other games (DramaSystem's cc and Fate's Phase Trio). But here the personal world-building is highly tied to the mechanics. That's a trick worth borrowing for others games. Overall Smallville is a decent resource for fans of the TV show. MW Productions released only two supplements (Smallville High School Yearbook & Smallville: The Watchtower Report) before dropping the license. Relationship mapping and pick build character creation. Various dice for pool resolution. 

Savage Worlds first brought us superheroes with Necessary Evil. That "Plot Point" campaign expanded the SW system with ideas for building weird and potent powers. As you'd imagine, the Super Powers Companion builds on and expands those rules, bringing it up to date with the Explorer's Edition. A little less than half of this book offers new character options: hindrances, edges, powers, equipment, base-building, etc. Most powers are strictly defined with a few options for modification. The other half of the book is aimed at the GM with 70+ pages of sample villains. That's a little disappointing. It would have been interesting to see a distinct NPC book and instead expand the powers section with more ideas. Of course SW has also moved on to a new edition (Savage Worlds Deluxe) which has some significant changes within it. It’s unclear to me, as a Savage Worlds novice, how much impact that has on the utility of this book.

13. SUPERS!  (2010)
In an era of easy pdf publications, it can be hard to disentangle product histories. Supers! originally came out as a 74 page book. I looked at the slightly later 105-page version, which seems to add an appendix of NPCs. There's apparently another version which has the basic book plus the SUPERS! Sourcebook. The game seems to have begun with Beyond Belief Games and then moved over to Hazard Studios. It also seems to have been distributed by Cubicle7 for a time. To complicate further there’s a recently released new edition. Just last week that appeared with a new cover and page count. That's based on a successful Kickstarter from last year.

The originally Supers! offers a minimal approach. The layout's basic- single-column open. The art ranges from good to just OK throughout. Most character traits are rated in d6's. Characters define values for four resistances and pick a set of aptitudes which cover skill areas. The game offers a descriptive powers list and players assign dice for their each power’s strength. The system is simple enough and the form of powers open enough that groups can easy add to the 46 powers listed here. Supers! also offers a short list of boosts and complications to modify powers. Finally characters can also take advantages and disadvantages to flesh things out. Overall the game feels very by-the-numbers. Dice are rolled against a target number; margin of success can determine effect. There's a short setting and some detail on GM. Supers! looks like a fair, light-weight superhero game. They have released a few supplements, including the Supers! Public Domain Supers. But I'll curious to see what advancements the revised edition will bring. Can it define a niche for itself? Can it make itself stand out from the crowd of superhero rpgs? Point buy generation. d6 Resolution.

And here we are back again nearly full-circle. I think I mentioned before the disputes between authors Jack Herman & Jeff Dee and Fantasy Games Unlimited (in the person of Scott Bizar). Both sides believed they had the right to the V&V property. Though the wikipedia entry suggests the matter was far from settled, in 2010 Dee & Herman brought out a new edition of V&V from their imprint Monkey House Games. This version is pretty much identical to the original, with a few corrections, new layout/art, and some notes at the end. It remains a tried and true classic and has generated a surprising number of new supplements in recent years. That success seems to mean that their other revision of V&V, Living Legends, has taken a back seat. Random stats and powers. Various dice resolution.

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