Thursday, July 28, 2016

History of Universal RPGs (Part Three: 1998-2004)

I started gaming in early 1976, when my sister finally digested the D&D box set and taught me. In those days we had unlicensed, knock-off Lord of the Rings miniatures. I still remember what they look like, even the weird set of hobbits nearly indistinguishable from one another. They look like vaguely-shaped lumps of metal to the modern eye. I was young enough that LotR and The Hobbit were my only real fantasy references outside of mythology books. But I knew D&D wasn’t Tolkien exactly. Surely they’d release a version of D&D that was.

Cut to 2016, forty years later. Cubicle 7 has announced a fourth Middle Earth RPG, the first one to actually use D&D.

I don’t know what to think. They’ve done an interesting job with The One Ring, the rpg about walking and meeting people. What will this new one look like? Will it fit? There’s not the best track record on this. I mean I love ICE’s Middle Earth Role-Playing but the actual game really doesn’t scream Tolkien. The sourcebooks, yes. The system no.

It comes back to the big question: can a generic engine be tuned to do a good job with a distinct genre? I’m not sure about the answer, and I’m a goofball who keeps trying to shoehorn and rework engines into other settings. My latest attempt, to create a generic/pick up version of PbtA had mixed success. I’m not saying it couldn’t work, but I don’t think I hit the mark this time.

As you’ll see from this list, many designers remain optimistic about the possibility of universal adaptability. Some here surprised me, some made me nod off, some made me cringe. Enjoy.

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I only include core books here. I’m also only listing books with a physical edition. I might include an electronic release if they’re notable and of significant size. At the end you’ll see some miscellaneous entries, covering borderline or similar cases. Some selections came down to a judgement call. I’m sure I missed some releases. This is a fertile time for Universal rpgs; the rate of publication drops off after this. If you spot something Universal which came out from 1994 to 1997, leave a note in the comments. 

1. 3D&T (1998)
A Brazilian "anime universal" rpg like MAGIUS or BESM. It appeared first in a slightly different form as "Tokyo Defenders," a game poking fun at Japanese Sentai stories. That received enough attention to warrant a new edition and then a retooling which broadened the premise. Marcelo Cassaro's revised edition arrived as an insert in the Brazilian edition of Dragon Magazine. Another full version appeared Issue 60 of the magazine as a special bonus. After that came numerous new editions and splits in development. The most recent version appeared in 2015.

3D&T itself is a simple, point-buy game. The designer originally intended it as a Toon add-on, but then decided to use his own system. He wanted a game accessible to new players. It uses d6s with a margin of success to determine results. You can see more aboutit at Wikipedia.

2. Story Engine (1999)
Story Engine's one of the earliest game I identified as "Indie." At the store we used to get small press rpgs with a particular feel: clearly short run, often with off-color paper, and ready to sit on the shelves for a long time. Eventually you’d only find them in discount bins or bundled with other non-sellers for a distributor's "store starter" set. I'm listing this as 1999 based on the RPGGeek listing, but I suspect it's a couple years earlier. The indicia has a 1996, but the intro says '99, so I'm not sure.

Story Engine came out of Maelstrom Storytelling, a game of a "a science-fantasy world of supernatural powers and ancient civilizations." Christopher Helton has a nice overview of that at Dorkland. Story Engine focuses on narrative elements and descriptors as major mechanics, so it has a little PDQ and OTE feel. Play is collaborative with a GM. Players call scenes and pass control within them. Characters have adjectives and phrases to define them. For contested actions, players add up their number of appropriate descriptors to create a dice pool. They roll that pool with each odd number being a success and total successes compared against a target number. It reminds me of Lady Blackbird, which also uses trait choice to generate dice with a 50/50 success chance (4+ on a d6).

PIG revised the rules in 2006, expanding them by about 50%. The game got a “Most Innovative Game” nomination for the 2011 Indie RPG Award. I'm not certain if they released another edition that year or if the award back dates.

Another manga-generic rpg also known as GRUM. This one comes from Italy. Artist Shinichi Hiromoto (Star Wars manga, Manga of the Dead, Fortified School) provided original illustrations. I've had a hard time finding out more about this one. One Italian gamer's recollection mentions "twists" or weird events which interrupt play and change the situation. I'm unsure if these intrusions come from the GM or player's side. Apparently more was planned for the line, including official 3x3 Eyes, Saint Seiya and One Piece sourcebooks, but those don't seem to have happened.

4. Action! System (2001)
Gold Rush Games worked with Fuzion for a time, but in 2001 shifted attention over to another in-house system: Action! System. Co-designer Mark Arsenault had worked on their earlier Fuzion games, Sengoku and The Legacy of Zorro. You can see that DNA here, notably in the emphasis on figured characteristics. Action! takes the approach to attributes of WoD and DC Heroes, with two groups (Body & Mind) each of which have a Power, Aptitude, and Resistance stat. Resolution is generally stat+skill+3d6 versus a target number. It's classic and if you've played something like Unisystem or Savage Worlds you'll pick it up.

Action! presents a default level, with some discussion of options and dials. Both bolt-on modules and tone shape the offered campaign levels (Realistic, Cinematic, and Extreme) rather than significant mechanical changes. It’s a clean system with large skill and trait (aka advantage) lists. It has a decent "hero point" system called Action Points. These can be used for strictly mechanical effects but come from role-play. Overall there’s decent game skeleton if you want something easy to grok, but with granularity. If you want lots and lots of skills, tons of combat modifiers, multiple maneuver actions, and several damage types, it may be for you. It isn't ambitious, but Action! finishes the job it sets out to do. GRG supported the system with several supplements, including a The War of the Worlds setting book.

5. Pocket Universe (2001)
Another tiny little universal system from the designer of TWERPS, Jeff Dee. This one packs quite a bit into 30 pages. Characters have four stats: Physique, Deftness, Intellect, and Willpower. These begin at 8 and players then divide 10 points among them. They can then pick from a list of 15 disadvantages and 15 advantages, provided they balance costs between the two. There's some figured stats (HP, Unarmed Damage) and a list of 32 skills. Pocket Universe has that weird mechanic of skill points being based on the Intellect you bought. So Int pays off double. Resolution is based on 2d10 versus stat plus skill, trying to roll below. There's some surprising crunch in here like critical hit and miss tables. Overall it’s basic but playable. One of the few novel mechanics offered is the way it handles damage. Attacks have a three number damage rating, like 2/3/4. You roll a d10 when you hit. On a 1-2 you use the first number, 3-8 the second, and 9-10 the third. Armor is compared against that roll, with it stopping the damage completely if the armor value is double the roll, subtracting from the final damage if less than half of the roll, and halving the damage otherwise. It’s a little wonky. Pocket Universe is pretty standard, but has enough rules you'll have to go back to the book in play.

QAGS first appeared in physical form in '01, with a second edition two years later in '03. The latter edition adds material and makes small revisions, rather than offering a complete overhaul. QAGS, frankly, looks goofy. I never looked at it seriously because of that, despite some flavors of it popping up on my other lists. I'd assumed- based on name and cover design- it would be a less clever version of the TWERPS joke: poking fun at systems and offering the most elemental approach. It's not that, but it is still goofy, just not in the way I thought.

Some of that comes from the overall art, a mix of cartoony, manga-esque, and deliberately amateurish. Some of it from the comic asides and pokes at gaming self-importance (i.e. the "What is a Sidebar?" sidebar). Then there's the term for game points, "Yum Yums." QAGS doubles down on that, admitting players have found the term silly, but they're sticking with it. Players build characters with a trinity of stats: Body, Brain, and Nerve. They then come up with a Job, a nebulous container for all the skills and trappings of a particular background. That's given a value at a cost of twice that in Yum Yums. Players can then take Gimmicks (advantages), Weaknesses (disads), and Skills. Any Yum Yums a player has left they can use during play like Fate Points. The difference is that candy should be used for Yum Yums at the table.

QAGS uses a simple "roll under" mechanic with a d20. It has some interesting add ons and details for resolution and combat, but it’s pretty simple. The Yum Yum economy helps support player competency. That's about it. Character creation, combat, and resolution take up less than half the book and even those sections have large swathes given over to art and extensive examples of play. These examples are solid and consistent throughout.

QAGS reads well, and I didn't think it would. Once I got past the initial goofy tone, I began to enjoy the game. It’s very much a basic engine intended to sketchily model your worlds. The core books offers no skill, gimmick, job, or other lists. The closest you get is a brief equipment section for benchmarks. There's a solid GM section, discussing the challenges of running such a loose game, convention scenario design, genre outlines, and much more.

Hex Games has used QAGS as the basis for several setting books: Aces & Apes (WW1 Anthropomorphic), All-Stars (low budget superheroes), Edison Force, Dynateens, Fratboys VS., the amazingly titled Funkadelic Frankenstein on the Mean Streets of Monstertown, and many more. They have rich library of ideas worth exploring. I appreciate QAGS because it seems to share my desires. I want to be able to adapt cool campaigns and worlds. Generic rpgs and easy base systems make that possible. QAGS lets you do that and do it quickly. I went in ready to dismiss QAGS, but it’s a strong and often overlooked rpg.

BRP inaugurated these lists and 2002 finally saw a more polished and independent release of the system. In the intervening years the BRP booklet had appeared in numerous Chaosium sets and served as the basis for many games, especially in Europe. However this release isn't a great shift forward. Saddle-stapled, it clocked in at a brief sixteen pages. This edition has some of the art and elements from the earlier versions, but lacks some of the charm. lt’s a weird product. Why finally release an independent version after so many years without actually developing and deepening it? We wouldn't see a real "new" BRP until 2008. In that sense this version of BRP probably belongs with the "revision" entry below. But Basic Role-Playing's such a cornerstone I wanted to highlight its stuttered development.

8. EABA (2002)
Another case where a company produced one generic rpg and then shifted focus to a different one. EABA is BTRC's successor to CORPS. EABA takes a slightly different approach to resolution. CORPS has a "roll under" Task Difficulty/ Stat combination mechanic. In EABA attributes generate a die value (so Strength of 7 gives you 2d6+1). Die values shift at +3, so the steps are xd6+0, xd6+1, xd6+2. Skills give additional dice. PCs roll that pool and take the best three die results, plus any modifiers. That's compared to a difficulty. While EABA steps back in granularity and difficulty from CORPS, it still has a simulationist approach to things like combat. The game has a lot of numbers. As a result the hex-based character sheet looks intimidating.

EABA stands for "End All Be All" rpg. BTRC has supported the game with many settings including Age of Ruin, Code: Black, Dark Millennium, EABA Warp World & Timelords, Fires of Heaven, Verne and more. In 2013 they released EABA 2.0, as a tablet-friendly rpg. That includes semi-automated character sheets, a die roller, full hyperlinking, and more. BTRC may be the first rpg company to present an rpg as a modern app.

9. Universalis (2002)
I'm not well versed in the history of The Forge. I know it had a game design community generating striking and new rpgs, many of them story games. I also know it’s been a lightning rod in game design discussions. That controversy's made me wary of digging in too much further. But over the course of these lists I've seen a few games citing the Forge as their test bed. Universalis is one of those and I'd guess among the earliest published ones.

Universalis is a collaborative, GM-less, universal rpg. It isn't like Microscope in that still has a conventional play frame. You tell a story in a way familiar to narrative games. It's a universal game that doesn't require new mechanics, modules, or bolt-ons for different genres. Since everything's defined by the shared fiction you don't need that. The mechanics of control offer the difference.  Despite that apparent looseness, Universalis has a strong central mechanic: an economy of story control and power represented by coins.

Everything is purchased via those coins: theme and genre, the social contract, on-the-fly rules, scene-framing, players actions, control of story components, and so on. There's a fairly deep set of rules covering this and its bidding mechanism. This isn't a loosey-goosey game. Instead the players have to constantly engage with a ton of mechanics. It almost feels like the story elements break the flow of the bidding game. I admire the ideas here and the desire to create fairness and power balance, but it seems overelaborate. Universalis is Interesting from a design perspective, but it feels like modern games have found ways to smooth out these edges without resorting to complex economic systema.

10. Savage Worlds (2003)
I suspect you’ve heard of Savage Worlds. SW grew out of Deadlands, with a rethinking and refining of that system. It came to the table with several strong and smart design goals. First it positioned itself as a system for both miniatures and rpgs. While you could use HERO System for open combats or GURPS to run things like samurai skirmishes (as I did back at 20th Century Gen Con), they didn't really position themselves for that market. Great White* had dipped their toes in those waters with Deadlands:The Great Rail Wars. The company wouldn't make that a major focus, but serving that side of the hobby would remain strong part of the line. That signaled to gamers who liked simulationist play that SW could work for them.

But that didn't come at the expense of Savage Worlds’ second design goal and tagline: fast, furious fun. It focused on a relatively simple mechanic: skill + stat against a task number. But it used a die-type continuum, making it easy to grok and letting everyone use all their dice. You could easily resolve a combat, which could be pretty lethal depending on the scale. Players had access to a decent set of cool stuff in the form of Edges and Hindrances. Like Unisystem or GURPS those had relatively arbitrary costs (which would get tweaked over editions) that didn't require too much calculation. A card mechanic also brought another layer of tactile fun.

Finally Great White also came out of the gate with a number of striking setting books. Unlike the settings presented by Amazing Engine or Masterbook, these offered full "plot point campaigns." They had some options and revelations, but with a tight structure and through-line for the set story. That meant GMs could pick them up and get running a full campaign with relative ease. Evernight, 50 Fathoms, Tour of Darkness, and Necessary Evil showed how diverse SW could be. They backed that up by offering Player's Guides for each of these: essentially the book with all of the GM material cut.

Savage Worlds won the Origins Award in 2003. But they didn't leave the system alone after that. Pinnacle revised the game several times, faster than many other publishers. A revised second edition landed in 2004, then a repackaged Explorer's Edition in 2007, then a Deluxe Edition in 2011 with an accompanying Explorer's Edition of that in 2012. They've also supported it with many other products, notably genres books such as Supers Powers Companion, Fantasy Companion and Horror Companion.

*Of course they were called Pinnacle Entertainment then. But Great White published this edition of SW. Then shifted back to Pinnacle in '05.

The Silhouette engine in one form or another powers most of Dream Pod 9's games (Gear Krieg, Jovian Chronicles, Tribe 8). It had many versions and adaptations, developing out of DP9's original rpg/miniatures hybrid 1995’s Heavy Gear. This book saw them finally draw out the core elements to create a stand-alone set of universal rules. It's a weird beast, on the one hand simple seeming, on the other weirdly crunchy.

Let me give an example. Skills only have six ranks, 0-5. You could go above five but that's already legendary. So that's an easy to track range. Except skill ranks also have skill complexity. "While the Skill level shows how good the character is, the Cpx rating represents how much general knowledge the character has in that particular field." So it’s like tech level built into each skill.

At the same time it has an easy actual resolution mechanic. Roll a pool of d6s and take the highest, adding plus one for each additional "6" rolled after the first. After adding modifiers, compare that to a difficulty. But that assumes you've figured out which of the ten stats and 44 skills apply. It isn't bad, just detailed. Of course given the source that detail extends to the system's treatment of equipment and technology. You get 60+ pages discussing mechanicals and how characters interact with those. That's before you get to the Advanced Rules.

It's smartly laid out and presented, but you have to know going in what you're getting. If you want a universal rpg where you spend a significant amount of time building weapons, battle suits, and vehicles, Silhouette has you covered. It seems to do that job well. And though I'm not a person who digs this kind of tech construction, it has one appeal to me: it looks easier than GURPS.

A German RPG, as you might guess from the title. It aims at detail and simulation, with mechanics drawn from Basic Roleplaying's percentile approach. TRAUMA uses fifteen attributes with associated skills on top of those. There's a complex damage and injury system. One detail I'm curious about is the social interaction system. One blogger wrote (translated via Google): "...relationships between characters (have) an objective measure, in contrast, for example, to offer "A Song of Ice and Fire" role-playing game, the "socially tactical maneuvers". When trauma can be "charged" with specific actions the relationship to another character with points and the one who has more points on the "Bank Account", the opposite may thus even force them to favor." The quoted article has a full overview of the revised edition from 2012.

13. Tri-Stat dX (2003)
Tri-Stat dX builds on Guardians of Order’s Big Eyes, Small Mouth-originated mechanics. It came out the same year they made a big push with Silver Age Sentinels, stingy gamer editions, and d20 versions of their most popular stuff. They would use Tri-Stat dX to back their setting books (Ex Machina, Dreaming Cities) and adaptations (The Authority, Tekumel, A Game of Thrones). Over-extension and problematic management would kill the company within a couple of years.

There’s an interesting idea at the core of dX: you select one die type for a particular campaign or setting. BESM used d6 and SAS d10, so this split the different. The intent is to have the dice demonstrate the power of the characters. So you’d have smaller dice for games with a lower benchmark. Tri Stat dX follows the standard model: point-buy and base stats, in this case Body, Mind, and Soul. Players can then buy skills, attributes (aka advantages, feats), and defects (flaws, disads). For a small book there’s a ton of stuff (80+ advantages with many sub-powers for example). The large skill list has several pages with cost listings for each one depending on the game genre (Modern Day Animal Adventures, Historical Ancient Egypt, Futuristic Soft Scifi, and so on).

That’s probably the biggest takeaway from the book: a ton of detail and a wealth of options. The resolution system isn’t that difficult, but character creation is a bear. It reminds me of high-point level GURPS or Mutants & Masterminds 3e. The game has granularity, so if you’re looking for something quick and abstract, this isn’t it. TriStat dX has multiple small-print pages of weapons, equipment, and vehicles, often a good benchmark for mechanics. There’s little in the way of campaign type discussion beyond the cost variations. The core book’s interspersed with GOO adverts (including weird stock art-looking photos). It also mentions an optimistic “Magnum Opus” creator-owned publishing imprint to release your own d20 and Tri-Stat games. Given how the company ended up, I wonder if anyone got burned by that?

14. Fastlane (2004)
At first I planned to tuck this in with "Universal Adjacent" rpgs: games which can be used across genres but have a framework for setting or story type. For example, I love Microscope and Aria but they have a lens to their universality. Fastlane's a game about characters living fast, risking everything, and indulging for all they're worth. The game positions itself as universal, and I don't necessary want to use tone as a test to exclude games. Look at the number of anime/manga colored universal games on the list. Fastlane broke the tie by allowing me to add a new entry to my big list of names for GM's "Croupier."

They're called that because the game uses a roulette wheel for resolution, though it includes mechanics for using dice instead. It also uses poker chips as a narrative currency. Fastlane's squarely in the story game camp. Characters have five facets: People, Assets, Nerve, Guile, and Sobriety (PANGS). These have a value along with player- assigned descriptors. After setting and character determination, play moves through several stages: Life, Appraisal, Favors & Factions. With those decided, the GM sets up scenes and plays out conflicts. All parties in a conflict commit chips, limited by their relevant facet. Everyone places their chips on various roulette bets to show their risk (Straights, Splits, Columns, etc.). Their winnings determines success. Fastlane's an interesting universal rpg, tuned to one-shot play. It has a surprising depth and offers an interesting option for adding stakes and tension to stories.

15. OPERA RPG (2004)
A Brazilian RPG, OPERA stands for Observadores Perdidos Em Realidades Alternativa. Google translates that to "Lost Observers in Alternate Realities." The designer previously worked on a FUDGE adaptation, which influenced OPERA. It uses a point-buy system with 2d6 for resolution. The base rules included options for magic and psionics, and super-powers, with the usual shopping list for each. OPREA did well for a time. The designer supported it with several settings: Conspiracy Dawn, 1887 - Under the Sun of New Mexico, The Longest Day and Elemental Ring: The New Age.

16. RandomAnime (2004)
Another anime-universal rpg, but one I hadn't heard of. In hunting around I saw that reaction on various rpg forums: gamers know BESM and OAV, but not this. The character sheet looks fairly simple: eight stats, a skill list, and space for "gimmicks" (aka powers and feats). It uses d6s for resolution along with point-buy character builds. Players select from templates to help with those builds (Idol, Princess, Scoundrel). It doesn't have example settings beyond some discussion of mecha. RandomAnime got generally decent reviews, but doesn't seem to have gained a large audience.

The publisher, Infernal Funhouse has a website and storefront, but dated to 2012. I'm not sure if it’s actually functional: there's a vague goodbye note on the landing page. I'm a little surprised they didn't add it to DriveThru, just to get some revenue stream. They did release a GM screen as well as Minionomicon and Collectemon in '05. There's a vehicle and mecha sourcebook promised but not published.

17. On Electronic Releases
Focusing on printed/published games meant skipping a metric shit ton of electronic-only generic games in this period. These range from online compilations to heartbreaker pdfs to more substantial releases. Microtactix “The original downloadable adventure game company” published the sharp looking Simply Roleplaying. JAGS-2, “Just Another Game System,” took a Runner Up in the 2004 Indie RPG Awards. FATE and PDQ Core first appeared as pdfs in these years. There are many more: Impresa Modular Roleplaying System and genreDiversion from Precis Intermedia, POW! Core from aethereal FORGE, Action Spectra from Arrogant Game Design, and beyond.

18. New Editions
I mentioned Savage Worlds’ multiple editions in this period. HERO Games also revised HERO System with 5th Edition in 2002, the “Black Book” edition. But two years later they revised it as HERO System Revised Fifth Edition. That added over 200 pages to the book. HERO Games staffers legendarily tested and confirmed that the book could stop a bullet. Steve Jackson also retooled GURPS, a game which had developed in piecemeal. That had necessitated the release of two Companions to keep track of new options and mechanics. GURPS Fourth Edition kept most of the structure, tweaking a few key elements like character creation cost formulas and the handling of defenses.

19. Universal Adjacent
  • Multiverser: Players play dead versions of themselves. The GM kills them at the start of the game and they gain the ability to take on new lives in other realms. You get to go to a new world every time your character dies.
  • Power Kill: An rpg meta-game bolt on. Intended to be a lens to look at the actions of your in-game characters in any genre.
  • Primetime Adventures: Play out any genre as a TV series. You play actresses & actors within your show. It has rules for commercial breaks, fan mail, and season arcs.
  • Władcy losu: A Polish hybrid rpg-strategy game for any genre. You play Weavers of destiny with powerful psychic powers and using those to manipulate society.
History of Universal RPGs (Part One: 1978-1993)

Tuesday, July 26, 2016

Leaving Crowsmantle: A Campaign Postmortem

Last week we had our final session of Crowsmantle. That’s my PbtA hack for our game about adults returning to a fantasy world of their youths. I’d rate myself as generally happy, moderately OK with the campaign as a whole. More than anything over ten sessions it lunged wildly from a rock solid session to a weak one to a great one and then back. My earlier post outlines the ideas we had going in and has a link to the pdf of the rules I wrote. The basic pitch was, In their youth, they journeyed to a land of wonder. There they became heroes and saved lands from a great evil. Then they grew up. Now as adults, they’re called back to fight peril to a realm transformed.” I wanted my system to be light and adaptable.

I posted some sample characters. If you like watching online games, you can see the full series here. I put together a Pinterest board for the campaign. That’s been my go-to for visuals lately. I used to have wikis, but the free ones I used switched over to a pay model, so I’m off of that. Pinterest has the problem of not really allowing for annotation and organization though. I also put together an inspirational YouTubemusic video playlist. I had the players each select a song for their character. I should also say G+ continues to cut event functions. I had cool banners for each session, but because of the way people RSVP now, you end up missing them.

Let me start with the mechanical aspects of Crowsmantle I like hacking games; sometimes they work (Action Cards; White Mountain, Black River) and sometimes they don’t (Scions of Fate). You can see lots of examples of my hacking half-assery on the blog. Many I don’t do anything with, some I get to the table. With Crowsmantle I wanted to try out my idea for a PbtA basis for pickup game aka Pug'buttah. I refined that a little for CM. I had World of Dungeons and Simple World as reference points. Overall I don’t think it’s a bad idea, but I screwed up my execution in several ways: from not having the pdf be cut & paste to leaving aside several of the major systems I wanted to emphasize.

When I showed him the rules, Rich said “this puts a lot of the heavy –lifting on the players.” I acknowledged and yet underestimated that. Rich was pointing to the system for advances. I had offered a general template for them (ala FAE) but didn’t spell them out further. In the 1.1 revision added more examples but it was too late. In effect I gave the players homework, something I’ve said you shouldn’t do. And if you do that don’t expect them to actually complete it. We played bi-weekly, we had a vague set-up, and sessions ran for less than two hours. Instead of coming up with crafted advances, players fell back to taking stat boosts. Nothing else seemed as easy or useful. If I wanted the system to actually work I needed a formula for how you built advances (new abilities, new moves, upgraded moves) combined with easy shopping lists. The examples I had weren’t enough.

That’s especially true with moves. I thought we’d be coming up with custom moves on the fly. But that requires switching modes in play and draws attention to the moves themselves. Maybe if we’d had longer sessions we could have done “move creation” at the end? I’m not sure. I think a shopping list would have been better. And the blame rests with me; I didn’t hold up my end of the bargain. The only move I introduced came in the last session, to abstract and dealing with Mobs of Guards. It’s still an open question whether refined move-making in play would work or not.

There’s a mechanical problem (one among many) with my Crowsmantle rules. I present four basic moves (Fight, Interact, Act, and Discover). Those parallel Fate’s four basic actions. That means you can apply one to any task. If that’s the case, why would you need new moves with rolls? Why should players spend an advance to get a new move if they can just do it with the existing framework? Player-bought moves need to be stronger. That means that the “default” moves need to be a little weaker. For example, my Fight move reads,

10+ Deal take/standard harm and pick three effects.
7-9 Deal take/standard harm and pick one effect.
…deal extra Harm (may be taken multiple times).
…gain +1 Forward for yourself or another (Set Up).
…take no Harm.
…Change State/Position.

A reduced move, let’s call it Conflict, would deal & take standard harm plus two effects on a 10+. On a 7-9 it would deal & take standard harm OR pick one effect.

If a player wanted to buy a Move representing combat proficiency, they could take something closer to the original Fight move. They could also add new choices (Clear a Mass of Minions, Send People Flying Back, Cause Terror in Your Foes, Find a Weakness, etc). That gives a mechanical incentive to figuring out a new move for something your character does well. I’d need to create a better shopping list and build structure to do that.

I had a stat called “Talent” to represent the special magic PCs had when they were younger. It had atrophied. Players named their talent stat, vaguely defining what they could do with it. I planned to use “Big Magic” from Monster of the Week for this. There you roll & get several effects, but you also have a drawback or catch. I tried that a couple of times, but eventually ended up ignoring that catch mechanic. Players got themselves in enough trouble without it. In retrospect I wish I’d had everyone make up a custom move representing their power. That would have helped them define clearly what they could do.

For example, Raven had Futuremancy as a talent, Charlie had Patterns. In practice those ended up way, way too close. Because Futuremancy had an obvious predictive note to it, the group called on Raven to use it, and as a result it got more play. I should have spotted that problem early on. My solution above would have fixed that. Alternately I could have suggested Patterns be explicitly about figuring things in the present scene and Futuremancy be about inquiring about future scenes. Overall I short-changed Sherri in play.

I used Keys as the experience basis, ala Lady Blackbird and TSoY. I still like those, but I’m not certain they worked as well as they could. They fit with our Middle Earth f2f game because they support a certain tone. I’m wondering if something looser and more player defined like flags or directives (from The Sprawl) wouldn’t have been a better choice. Again, it would have asked players to make significant decisions about their characters.

As I mentioned in other posts I’m still getting used to running PbtA. My recent work has split between trad (13th Age, Mutants & Masterminds) and narrativist (Fate, Action Cards). Even when I run the latter I tend to slow things down in combat, extending scenes to give players space for cool stuff. With the latter games I imagine I’m going super-fast. But my ongoing joke with Rich is that after I ran a Fate micro-combat that moved along at a rapid clip, he said “Man, I’d forgotten how long Fate combats take.” Emphasis on long.

I struggled with Crowsmantle combat pacing. I started by following MotW’s approach, which seems closest to my own. There foes have wounds and you have to figure out a Big Bad’s weakness before you can affect them. That went OK, but slower than I wanted. It got better when I abstracted things later on. In the final fight, a hit either took a lieutenant out or put them in mortal peril for another.

My other stumble came from GM Moves in combat. The fight move I mentioned above has your typical pick “take no Harm” under the choices. Early on I got stuck in combat. When players rolled 6+, I fell back to only dealing harm or harming NPCs. Because I wanted speed, I didn’t want to stop off to come up with things. I got over that later. But it’s one of those places I need to work. Fate has aspects and those encourage an interaction with the environment. I think in combat GM reaction moves serve that function. You can use those to cause interesting effects and showcase scenery. I got better as we went along (in places), but it’s something I want to think about more. Maybe I need to write out a set of interesting GM moves for combat scenes. I do like crib sheets.

Session nine’s a good example of a bad session. The previous episode had ended strongly, with players captured as a result of a combat gone wrong. It was one of those great “play to see what happens” results. Since they had been caught and since we had airships in the game, I thought I’d do a Lady Blackbird homage. It landed like a lead balloon; the players either didn’t care about the frame or didn’t catch it. But more importantly dealing with the guards and getting to the flight deck wasn’t that interesting. I had some cool action descriptions, but I ended up bogged down there. The early part of the session sucked the energy out of the room, and we hit a solid meh by the end.

In retrospect I should have done what I ended up doing for the next and final session. I have to give credit to Jason C for making explicit a technique I’d partially used before, but hadn’t pictured in this context. I’m paraphrasing, but he said for a dungeon he just needed a custom environment move, some GM Moves and he could go to town. At Origins (which came after my weak S9) I sketched those out for both Magic, Inc and Neo Shinobi Vendetta. Not just more guards or the opposition is coming. But interesting bits and pieces. I should have had those ready for the ship. Fighting the guards should have happened once, and then shifted to other interesting things.

Session 9 had another problem moment, something which happened several times over the course of the campaign. The players had a choice. They’d made a decision and started on that path. Then that would get obscured, they’d debate the choice again, and it’d become clear that people had missed what was going on. In Session 9, I pushed a choice about direction (go X or Y way with some small structural differences between them) that wasn’t that interesting. I also threw in a secondary event that complicated the choice; I should have just dictated that as my move instead of making it wishy-washy.

Anyway, the lesson I keep learning when I run online is that you have to assume people are only hearing about half of what you’re saying: GM or players. There’s the noise of the medium, user isolation, personal environment distraction, the crunch of a short time frame, and a host of other causes. Having the camera and seeing faces helps, but you’re losing body language signals. When I’m at the table I can tell if Chris is getting it or not. I can tell if he’s even listening. That’s less true online. And if you’ve ever seen players talk over, not listen to, or completely misunderstand one another at the table, that’s compounded online. Some of my Wednesday players are terrible at listening to one another, forcing me to go back and restate points constantly. And that’s a game with a shared map and token space, which usually makes things better since we have a visual representation.

When we originally talked about the game, the group said they wanted to deal with both the Real World and the challenges of The Realm. The idea would be that we’d swap back and forth between the worlds. Once we got into the game, I realized that wasn’t going to happen. For one thing we had four player kingdoms we wanted to at least touch on and ten 1 ½ to 2 hour sessions to do that in. If I’d super abstracted the events and challenges, we might have been able to. But I started more on-the-ground than bird’s-eye. So instead I focused on the other issue we’d talked about: figuring out what had happened during their absence.

I leaned into that because I like running mysteries. That’s one of my favorite things: seeding details, having players come to conclusions, and using those to push things forward. That’s a large part of my f2f games. Assassins of the Golden Age, our riff on Assassin’s Creed, has been pure mystery, problem solving and manipulation. The players spent the last session finding out details and putting them together as a way to take down their enemies. Mysteries work less well online, in part because of that noise factor. But some great players, notably Rich, don’t dig mysteries. He’s not the only one. Judd Karlman shocked me when said he didn’t do mysteries, period, during an episode of This Imaginary Life. Anyway, I spent more energy than I should have seeding details, building frames for mysteries, and leaving threads to be pulled (Eagle Cloaks, Owl Capes, etc). I should have dialed that back and focused on more revelation maybe? I’m not sure. It might be the nature of PbtA, running online, or more likely my own style hang up.

What did I like? That the rules got out of the way. We rarely went back to the book and instead just rolled, assessed, and played. I loved most of the NPCs: the goblin Ortiz, Friend Raccoon, and Subasa all stick with me. Several sessions really clicked for me (the battle at the town and the meditative session afterwards; the capture in the mall; the final episode). Others were seriously uneven. I enjoyed coming up with fairy-tale weirdness (the travelling jazz band; the civilized bear; land shark travel; the Minecraft riff; the Goblin Mall). I liked the world and some of the plots. I thought Mischa’s arc ended up being fairly poignant. I like that Ignacio didn’t really belong in the real world. There’s a ton more. Andrea talks a lot about head cannon. In this case I’ve got a ton of GM head cannon about the setting.


I’ve got a couple of other issues I’ve been thinking about (the difficulty of running a vague vs. unstructured game online, does PbtA work with authorial structures, etc). But let’s leave it at that. If you’ve slogged through my report, thank you. I may get up the courage to do another serious revision of these rules and perhaps even run the same premise with another group. 

Other Postmortems: 

Thursday, July 21, 2016

Loot! Loot! Loot!

I love loot. Despite that I’ve been accused of being stingy with it. But that comes from the same whiners who say “ooh I don’t have enough points,” “wait I lost how much sanity?,” or “we’re only first level why is there a dragon?” You can get by without much loot. We’re been playing Rolemaster for close to two years in the same dungeon and I think we’ve gotten a handful of gems, a potentially cursed religious chalice, various nuts & bolts, and three actual magic items. Of course, I ended up with the +15 laen sword, so I may be a little biased.

Anyway, on a recent Play on Target episode we discussed loot, treasure, money, items, etc. We were lucky enough to have Sherri on as a guest. She added her player-perspective to our GM focused interests. Below I offer nine additional thoughts on filthy lucre and ancient relics in rpgs.

1. The Pudding Blade: I like weird items with strange powers players have to find a use for. They make my job easier. It means I don’t have to think about the group, their roles, and what they already have. If you’re not using a random chart to generate treasure, then any decisions about drops have the PC group as a context. If you keep dropping flails but no one uses them, and in fact everyone’s invested in everything but flails, that’s a problem. Or if it’s all swords, all the time, and the group ends up with a golf bag worth. I try to skate the line between suspension of coincidence (“look everyone got a magic weapon of the kind they use”) and punishment (“six new helms everybody!”). Bizarre things make it easy. I don’t know where they’ll end up or how they’ll be used.

2. How Much for the Eye of Vecna? Tangential to the concept of Loot as Stuff, there’s the question of the economy in games. How do we handle money and purchasing power? Better minds than I have written about the economic impact of wealth on fantasy civilizations. Money loot becomes more important when the backdrop has scarcity. As I say in the episode less scarcity means you have to shift your picture. If you want players to spend what they want has to be scarce. Night’s Black Agents makes that vital to the set up. It’s costly to run a rogue intelligence operation. You want weapons or cool Q-tech stuff, you need money. And that means doing off-the-books jobs to get that money.

3. Glorious Doom Hammer of Doom: What can we learn from Diablo’s drop system? A. Having cool names makes everything better, but be careful not to repeat. B. An easy means to dispose of items seems awesome but generally devalues them. C. Stuff should have a look, something players can integrate into their self-description. D. Giving sweet equipment to beloved NPCs can be satisfying.

4. I'll Just Pay Then Off: Some games have capital “W” Wealth. These games allow players to roll or spend points to make themselves rich (GURPS, M&M). It’s a thorny question. Obviously the GM can still make that interesting: some choices come with costs or they’re in locations where their wealth isn’t recognized. Call of Cthulhu, Fate, and a few other games have wealth as a skill. I like systems where you can throw your money around but it reduces your skill or effectiveness for future attempts. Taken to its logical extreme, wealth becomes a hit point pool or damage track. You could use that to absorb social attacks or have it assaulted by thieves. But that might be more tracking and recording than I’m good with.

5. You Don't Know, Why Don't You Drink It? Rolemaster has some interesting treasure mechanics::delving and attunement. There’s a whole set of spells (usually for Bards) to figure out what an item does. They can also uncover history and other information, but really it’s about this challenge to the PCs and the mechanics to overcome that. This means you need to be clear to the party how you’re going to handle items. If you tell players what X does, then you potentially negate the need for some spells (and therefore part of a character’s build options). Of course, since its Rolemaster, they add another shade of difficulty. In order to use staves & wands, you have to make a skill check with “Staves & Wands,” aka Attunement. I’ve seen many GMs use this skill as necessary to using any item that doesn’t offer a flat bonus. I’ve done it myself…

6. Torc Grenades: Of course my favorite mechanic for this kind of figuring out is early Gamma World’s flowchart. There you flat roll until you figure it out, break it, or kill yourself. A more interactive approach with some bonuses and skill interaction might be fun. Artifacts of a bygone age are a staple of post-apocalyptic gaming, and figuring them out is important. It’s why I’ve been curious about the long-mentioned Gumshoe PA game. What will discovery there focus on: other groups, lost lore, or how relics work?

7. Wastelands:  Mutant: Year Zero takes a middle path on this kind of loot and I dig it. MYZ has artifact cards, ranging from the obviously useful (rifle) to the oddball (air mattress). Each card has a description of the effects and even the most mundane has some bonus. The air mattress helps with recovering fatigue. Artifacts often contribute dice to checks. When they do so, players add black dice to their pool. If these dice roll 1’s they can wear out. Gearhead characters can then repair them. It’s an easy mechanic and creates opportunity and value for tech characters. The cards help too. As well, some of the more obscure pre-made relate to a meta-plot operating at the back of MYZ. That’s a nice touch and the GM can seed those as they see fit.

8. Power Up: Other genres require a different take on loot. You can still have equipment finds in a sci-fi game, but more often you’re getting money to convert into stuff. Superhero games don’t have loot per se. But we could make some rewards more concrete so they feel more like loot. Accumulating NPCs and contacts is one obvious choice. Worlds in Peril has a bonds system and that offers a mechanical benefit. Bases are another great reward for group long-term play. That’s especially true if players can invest points, effort, or “loot” into making the base better. Never underestimate the power of that kind of shared resource. Particular kinds of reputation can be a reward. It would be interesting to offer loot in the form of rep levels with different segments of the population. That could be a popularity number along with a phrase describing the kind of rep. Finally loot and stuff found in villain lairs, labs, and on downed foes can be “excuse” loot. If someone has cool stuff or strange chemicals, that’s an excuse to buy new powers or enhance existing ones. That’s the whole basis of Base Raiders.

9. Wear & Tear: Finally, I’m torn on something I mention in the episode. Ashen Stars has an interesting system covering cyberware and viroware, both cool things with special abilities. You can pick up more of these in play. Obviously there’s a limit to how much you can have (ala Humanity from Cyberpunk 2020 or the item chakras from 13th Age). In Ashen Stars there’s an upkeep cost to these items. If you don’t pay that, you lose their powers and suffer additional problems as they break down. That’s a cool mechanic for balancing items and giving players something to spend money on. BUT I know that I loathe video games with weapon breakage and item degradation. Would I hate it as much at the tabletop? I don’t know. I suspect it would be an occasional road bump rather than a runaway treadmill. So maybe there’s something worth pursing in the idea of adapting that kind of upkeep (and maybe upgrade) mechanism to a fantasy game.

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

Thursday, July 14, 2016

Second Wave: Collaborative Superhero Campaign-Building

Last night we did a session of Microscope to build the backdrop for our new Mutants & Masterminds campaign. We weren’t building from scratch. I’d run a three arc, 50+ session campaign for this group called First Wave. This new campaign, with new characters, would take place 18 months after the end of the last one.

For First Wave, I’d had them run “Year One” versions of existing superhero characters. They’d picked Nightcrawler, Mr. Freeze, Thor, Iron Man, and Mister Miracle. That let me include and play around with Marvel and DC elements in a pastiche. In this hybrid world superheroes had just begun to emerge, including the PCs. That however turned out not to be the whole truth. Superbeings had existed for decades, but had been kept secret by a villainous group called the Cabal (the PCs would figure that out midway through the first arc). I lifted that concept from the otherwise atrocious Wanted miniseries.

The last campaign ended with many old heroes and villains released from exile in the Phantom Zone. Vandal Savage briefly transformed by New York into "New Apokolips: with time/dimensional villainy. First Wave defeated him with a dimension & time-travelling counter-strike. Afterwards many New Yorkers remembered all or fragments of that alternate timeline: being dominated by robots and rogue supers. Despite those fears and tensions, in the we established in the post-game that First Wave continued as the premier superhero team.

We came into last night with that in mind. I’d told the players our theme would legacy characters: sidekicks, supers taking up a mantle, heroes with connections to earlier ones, etc. Think Young Avengers, Teen Titans, New Mutants, etc. I only created the bookend periods for the timeline; beyond that I tried to keep an open mind. I didn't think about or plan anything for the campaign and I didn't participate beyond a couple of small additions and clarifications during play.

Below is what they did to came up with for the world. I’ve added a few GM comments in red and done some editing . In a few places they made difficult choices about calling something 'light' or 'dark'. What they settled on in each case colored the result heavily.

Add/Ban List
By default we'll generally stick close to previously established campaign facts.
  • Ban: No Time Travel
  • Add: There is a Multiverse. Time passes the same in other universes.
  • Ban: No Erotica Moves

The group just finished playing Numenera, so apparently the last one was necessary.

Themes for Rounds
Round One: Heroes (Scott)
Round Two: Politics (Carl)
Round Three: The Phantom Zone (Matt)
Round Four: Redemption vs Justice. (Fabian)
Round Five: Dimensional Meta-humans (refugees) (Ben)

Period: Aftermath of Vandal Savage’s Manhattan Takeover
New York works to rebuild and come to terms with memories of a superhero occupation. (L)
  • The Great Subterranean Exodus: In the aftermath of Vandal Savage's takeover, collapsing caverns and tunnels leads to the Mole Man bringing many creatures and “Molemen” to the surface. (L)
    • Question: Are the Molemen citizens? No, but many activists have taken up their cause. (D)
  • Mr. Freeze is elected Mayor of New York City in a landslide accompanied by many insinuations of winning the “meta” and “subhuman” vote. (L)
    • This was an early one and at first I thought I might intrude but I held back. We established that players could only reference/use a previous PC with that players permission. I wasn’t sure about the timing, but hey it’s a superhero world so anything goes.
    • Question: What is Mr. Freeze’s biggest policy blunder? His libertarian views towards superpowers makes Manhattan the center of superhero & metahuman powers. They flock there, leading to more and more damage and conflicts. (L)
  • City agents equipped with rudimentary Phantom Zone projectors back-engineered by Mr. Freeze begin “disposal” of giant monsters and gargantua. This is not done without controversy.
    • There's mention in play that these creatures belong to the Mole Man, a crucial PC ally from the last campaign.
    • Question: What ends this program? They run out of targets. Eventually city agents either drive the Molemen creatures underground or into the Phantom Zone (L).

Period: Appearance of Dimensional Refugees
Governments struggle to deal with this influx and the related strains on their economies. This leads to further fractures in metahuman v human relations due to these “alien” metas. (D)
  • Mister Miracle and allies defeat a force of extradimensional Starks bent on world conquest. The International community is introduced to SHIELD (Super Heroic Interdimensional\Extradimensional Liberty Directive), a group of red white and blue clad adventurers from across space and time. Not long afterwards, Mister Miracle vanishes into the Phantom Zone, as this organization carries on  his mission of spreading freedom across the multiverse.(L)
    • Question: Who is a member of SHIELD? Nick Furious, a massive gamma induced red/white and blue hulk who gets stronger when his country/nation/dimension is threatened. (L)
  • Congress passes legislation creating a path to citizenship for dimensional refugees; however this further incenses the Molemen activism movement. (L)
  • Molemen riot in downtown New York finally leads to some justice for them. Matt Murdock, with the aid of Mister Miracle, negotiates an addition to the legislation to allow to become citizens as well (L)
  • The Great Lakes Avengers are exposed as extra-dimensional counterparts. They claim that some meta-human refugees have disposed of this dimensions counterparts in order to take their place as heroes, and to blend into this dimension. (D)

Period: Superhuman Flyers Grounded
For an unknown reason, all meta-humans gradually lose the power to fly. (D)
  • First Victim of the Grounding. Several dozen supers lose their powers and fall (some to their death), including Angel and Darkstar. (D).  
  • The superhuman group: New Mutants confront and defeat “The Skylord” thus returning the power of flight to Superhumans. (L)
  • One of the dimensional refugees from an “Age of Apocalypse” dimension, Dark Beast, manages to perform genetic studies of “The Skylord” and from there he devises and discovers why and how meta-humans are able to fly, and from that the basis of a super-weapon is created which can ground superman fliers. This becomes a politically charged event, which the military tries to keep secret. (D)
  • Victor von Doom teams with First Wave to halt a massive interdimensional invasion from the remnants of the forces First Wave defeated before. This act of ‘heroism’ sets the stage for Doom to run for the Presidency (L)

Period: President Doom
Dr. Doom (Victor von Doom) campaigns and becomes president of the United States (D).
  • The Latverian People’s Liberation Army, backed by Mindless Ones lent to them by the Dread Dormammu, overthrow the Doom regime. He flees to America, where he holds dual citizenship. (L)
  • Presidential nominee von Doom selects Mr. Freeze as his Vice-President.
  • “Anthony” Stark, himself a dimensional refugee, reveals a device for detecting “dimensional frequency” as a means of identifying non-native supers and persons. He announces its sale to the US government. (D)
  • President Doom fulfills his promise to “build an interdimensional wall and make the “dimmies” pay for it” (D)
    • Question: What is the most common way of breaching the dimensional wall? Dimensional Refugees are able to breach the wall by whenever the Phantom Zone projector is used (L).
  • Extra-Dimensional "Coyotes" manage to steal and create a flawed copy of the Phantom Zone projector to establish a dangerous and expensive means of entering and exiting the prime dimension. (D)
  • Freeze is sidelined initially but then mounts a constitutional challenge to Doom’s eligibility for the Presidency. (D)
    • Question: Why does the challenge ultimately fail? The challenge fails because Doom has replaced key members of Congress with Doombots. As well as a Wrongful Death suit brought against Mr. Freeze for Mr. Cobblepot’s demise eats up his time. (D)
  • Doom promises a cure for Nora Freeze if Freeze confesses his culpability in the wrongful death of Cobblepot. (D)
    • Question: What was Freezes response and why? Torn by his love for both Mrs. Freezes, he vacillates. He alienates the living Mrs Freeze and squanders his opportunity against Doom who then retracts his offer taunting Freeze with a partial formulation. (D)
  • Mr. Freeze resigns as Vice President, rejects all human companionship and begins working on extra dimensional technology to solve the multitude of problems he has been complicit to redeem himself to Mrs Freeze (whichever, he is flexible). (L)
  • Dr. Doom’s advisor is a dimensional “refugee”, who he has taken under his wing, he is a precognitive super-human which allows Doom to preemptively take political & military actions but divides the superhero community when they find out about it (D).
    • Question: Where was this precog from? Earth 238
    • This is a dual reference. The first part alludes to the current Civil War II storyline. The second, Alan Moore’s run on Captain Britain and his James Jaspers character.

Period: Neo-Soviet Super Empire
A superhuman cold war erupts between Neo-Soviet, Neo-Soviet satellites & the Western allies. This is triggered when a refugees using a Phantom Zone projector pull in Red Son Superman, Red Batman, Red Brainiac, Red Wonder Woman, and more. They establish a new regime in Soviet Russia. Batman becomes head of the KGB, and they take over the old buffer states of Czechoslovakia, Bulgaria, (Eastern) Poland, Latvaria, Afghanistan, Yugoslavia etc. (D).
  • Latvarian Massacre - In response to the Neo-Soviet forces massacring citizens of Latveria, President Doom deploys the SHIELD to defend them, leading to further devastation and even more hostility between the two powers. This bolsters Doom’s popularity at home. (D)
  • The death and autopsy of Red Magneto reveals the Neo-Soviet supers origins as hybrids squeezed out of two separate dimensions by the projector technology. (D)
  • The NYSE halts trading for the eighth time in response to Super-Soviet/Western warfare and tensions. This time the increasing economic collapse is triggered by algae bloom contamination of the Atlantic Seaboard by Red Aquaman. (D)
  • Revelation of the neutralization of nuclear weaponry by an uncovered Cabal device leads to a military foray into Finland by Neo-Soviet troops. (D)
  • Mole Man is redeemed, he has seen the light (pun intended), and he frees his creatures from the Phantom Zone, but feeling dispossessed by America, he decides to defect to Soviet Russia (L).
  • Doom changes the “Meta Path to Citizenship” to require service in government-sponsored super teams. (D)

Period: First Wave World War I
As the world spirals into chaos and conflict, First Wave steps in to become the arbiter of international justice...whether the world wants it or not. (D)
  • Doom announces a new amnesty program in an attempt to garner public support and shore up his presidency. (D)
    • Question: What is this program? Further recruitment of powered persons generally, but specifically amnesty for hidden Rikti refugees in an attempt to have them assist in the war against the Soviets. (D)
    • The Rikti are a City of Heroes reference. The group originally met playing that MMO.
  • While fighting for the Soviets in Iraq, Mole Man has a mishap with a Phantom Zone projector. He accidentally calls in Jormungandr (the World Serpent) from another dimension and destroys the entire country (D).
  • The Tournament of the Seven Mystical Cities of Heaven convenes on the border of Soviet Russia and is cancelled when Red Heroes attack it. (L)
    • One of the players will probably be running Year One Iron First.
  • First Wave, Rikti, World Serpents, Red Supers, Ninjas, Mutants, Kree, and Phantoms clash in an apocalyptic battle over Turkey. (D)
    • This player deliberately left this open. There’s a battle, but no statement of resolution. He set it as dark, so I can assume the war continues on. He mentions several groups we haven’t seen: Kree and Ninjas for example. But he also mentions World Serpents suggesting some interesting fallout from the Iraq situation. Perhaps some transformations ala TDAR? Or actual giant serpents? Then there’s the mention of Phantoms. What does that mean? In the last campaign the Phantom Zone was a high-unbreakable prison that Mister Miracle finally cracked at the end. In this timeline so far, it’s been a more permeable version of that, with it also used as a means for exiles from other dimensions to reach this one. So what are Phantoms? A slang term? Some kind of person enhanced by contact with the Zone? A fragment of the Zone itself?
Period: Authorities Confirm Vanishing of First Wave
I left this deliberately blank at the start and the players opted not to fill in more here. That gives me plenty of room.
  • Mister Miracle reappears, stumbling out of a Boom Tube in the center of Manhattan, a flood of phantom zone refugees trailing behind him. Strangely aged, with long grey hair and a beard, he collapses upon emerging. (L)
    • Question: How does the new Mayor of NYC discover that the Mr. Miracle is not the original Miracle?  Deputy Mayor Dick Grayson, unnerved by Miracles’ rambling prophesies of interdimensional invasions from tentacled mind gods, investigates and discovers the Mark of Odinson on him. (L) 


The players continue to dig Microscope. We’d used it for our 13th Age campaign and they’d used it for Numenera. One of the players hadn’t tried it before and he dug it hugely. Including rules explanation, we managed to get in six rounds (a starter one plus one for each player) in about three hours online.

I wasn’t sure what the tone of the new campaign would be. As I mentioned above, they’ll be running legacy characters. I imagined something like Young Justice, Gen13, Infinity, Inc, or Runaways. But I hadn’t expected that to collide with a really dark timeline. The world’s at war, a war of superbeings. Dimensional invaders and refugees have shifted the balance of power. Victor von Doom is the US President. The economy has collapsed. Humanity has seen whole nations destroyed.

And the major superteam, First Wave, has mysteriously vanished.

So this may well be a darker, grittier superhero game than I’d imagined. More like a Netflix series in a devastated New York? Or perhaps it’ll be about some kind of redemption and rebirth from that crisis. We’ll see. I have a lot to think about for next week.