Thursday, October 31, 2013

History of Superhero RPGs (Part Two: 1983-1985)

In '84 I walked several blocks to yet another hole-in-the-wall comic book store. It lasted less than a year. At the time I only bought big titles I followed- X-Men, The Defenders, and anything by Frank Miller. I had spare money so I went through the 25-cent bargain bin and found a couple dozen issues each of oddball books- Arion Lord of Atlantis and Swamp Thing. At home read through those haphazardly until I hit the last couple of issues of Swamp Thing…the ones with a new writer named Alan Moore. It sounds clichéd, but those books changed what I got out of comics. I’d enjoyed the solid superhero storytelling of Miller, Claremont, and Wolfman before that, but this offered something new. Gene Ha, who would later go on to work with Moore, agreed. I lent him "The Anatomy Lesson" and he went absolutely nuts. It was all he could talk about in Honors Biology for the next several days. But the rest of my gaming group went meh. They had other books they loved. 

How tightly do comic book and rpg fandom connect? How much is that affected by your location?  Comics completely passed by my Play on Target co-host Sam Dillon, a solid gamer. My Mutants & Masterminds campaign includes a player who only gets his superheros from the movies, supers novels he devours, and the occasional cartoon caught with his kids. In the 1980’s I think just about everyone in our gaming groups also bought comics. We had few 'collectors' because we never had a steady comic book shop. The half-dozen I recall opened and vanished quickly, usually under cover of darkness. The local gaming store tried out comics, but stuck to indie press materials like The Spirit, Cerberus, and R. Crumb. That lasted only a little while. But within our group everyone bought at least a few books and some- Teen Titans, X-Men, Avengers- served as shared touchstones. But everyone had a few series no one else bought. I loved the Defenders and Miller’s run on Daredevil; another really dug Nexus; another followed the Legion of Super-Heroes fanatically. I luckily had an older sister who bought lots of comics for a time and I’d raid her collection. But almost no one seriously bagged or indexed their stuff. We read comics to complement the rpg stories we told. Normal? Not normal? I’m not certain. I’m sure it would have been different had a solid comic book store been available- or a hybrid game and comic book store.

In 1983’s superhero comics saw some important shifts, including the first appearance of Jason Todd as Robin; the start of Walt Simonson’s run on Thor, and the first issue of Batman and the Outsiders. New Teen Titans and the X-Men remained strong. Alan Moore began to make his mark with Miracleman and V for Vendetta. 1984 saw the launch of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Secret Wars, West Coast Avengers, and Marvel’s new Epic lines. 1985 heralded the launch of many small, independent comics companies. Most importantly it saw the start of Crisis on Infinite Earths which changed the face of DC- ending and beginning many comic lines. At Marvel they countered with Secret Wars II. In other media, superheroes fared badly with Misfits of Science, Automan, and The Greatest American Hero on prime time TV. It was a little better with cartoons with Spider Man and His Amazing Friends, Super Friends/Super Powers, and the Incredible Hulk. Superman III, Supergirl, and The Toxic Avenger hit theaters. So while comics started to move into more experimental superhero material, other media remained stagnant. 

These lists covers a smaller slice of time than my past rpg lists. I hope this makes them easier to read. I include mostly core books, but also significant setting or sourcebooks. 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 from 1983-1985). I've arranged these in by year and then alphabetically within that year. 

We 'played' Car Wars in grade and middle school. In the same way I ‘played’ Star Fleet Battles, I never fully got the game mechanics but muddled through. Still I bought everything for CW because SJG offered relatively cheap supplements: Sunday DriversTruck Stop, etc. Then in 1983 Autoduel Champions dropped- a bizarre hybrid supplement combining  Champions & Car Wars. I bought it without flipping through and walked home poring over the pages. Easy to forget in these present days of plenty, but back then you treasured any non-module supplement for your game.

And this...well, I don't think I ever used anything from it. It offered odd rules for bringing superheroes into  Car Wars. On the flip side it presented more complicated systems for handling vehicles in Champions and running CW-style games in several settings. The game connection made sense. Both offered point-build core options and time/speed/actions mechanics. But Autoduel Champions did nothing for me and I never heard other gamers incorporating the concepts. Most people ended up buying it just for the long-awaited Helicopter a rules for Car Wars. SJG would try again later to connect the CW universe to rpgs 
with GURPS Autoduel which also fizzled.

2.  Super Squadron (1983)
I saw Super Squadron on the store shelf for a couple of years. In the early days our FLGS did a good job ordering anything new- but many things simply sat there. At the time I didn't even realize this game came from Australia. Adventure Simulations published two supplements for the boxed set, but the designer seems to have not done anything after this. I found a quote from him about the game here: "It was published in 1984, being the first Australian RPG and the third Superhero RPG. The first two were, Superhero 2044 & Villains and Vigilante. I was an avid AD&D players but wanted an SH RPG to play. The other two were "not very good" so I wrote one....Although the game was well received both here and in the USA, sales mysteriously slowed in the USA for no reason. In late 1986 at Origin, I discovered that a rival company, trying to survive with a low grade SH RPG spread rumors that we were being sued for breach of copyright and would likewise be sued if they sold our products. By the time we had a chance to dispel these rumours, the loss of sales made continuing publication very risky."

Super Squadron seems to take a classic approach- with randomly generated stats and powers. The character record's interesting though. It includes sections for calculating your character's salary and weekly expenses. It also has has a table to track week’s schedule day-by-day broken down by rest, work, training, patrols, romance, and other. The game includes rules for balancing marriage, your love life, and being a crime-fighter. Ideas like that- Superhero 2044's patrols and solo adventure system- have dropped out of most modern supers rpgs. But I love the concept of running these games as almost a Sim-style life emulator. Edit: Interesting detail I saw mentioned on the Monkeyhouse Game forums- apparently this game is pretty blatant rip-off of V&V. I'll check to see if I can find out more about that. Random generation. Point-spend development. Various dice
3. Champions Third Edition (1984)
Another edition appeared between this and the first, but with mostly minor clean up and changes. Champions 3rd aimed to smooth things out and bring together some of the new ideas presented by Champions II!. IIRC Champions III: Another Super Supplement came out the same year, but this edition didn't incorporate those concepts. Champions 3e added new powers, but spent more time fixing problems and making the elements more consistent. More importantly it changed up the look of the book- making more polished and up to date. Mark Williams' again provided most of the artwork, the house style for early Hero Games. The colorful presentation and boxed set brought in many new players. I know some who'd avoided Champions before this but took the jump with this edition. I bought and played it of course, but I started to have some reservations.

More than most rpgs Champions rewarded gamers who figured out the system. They could min/max, identify key picks, and never waste a point. GMs who had that skill used it for good. Players might not. A skill player and less compentant fellow players or GM could make for a miserable time. Players I knew split developed between those who absorbed the mechanics and those who just played. I numbered among the latter. I'd get my ass kicked in PvP open combats, ended up rarely effective in fights, and had my bad guys chewed up and spit out when I ran. There had to be a better way. Point-based. d6-based.

4. Golden Heroes (1984)
Technically Golden Heroes actually appears earlier in 1981, but in a self-published version. In 1984 GW gave it the full treatment, apparently as a response to TSR getting the Marvel license. Even gamers among my group who got into WH40K with Rogue Trader forget GW's time as an rpg company. Games Workshop published unique editions of many US games. For years I had a lovely color hardcover of Call of Cthulhu from them. With Golden Heroes they tried to strike out on their own. However they quickly dumped the line- publishing a few supplements and moving on to other games. I remember the box briefly on the shelf, but I didn't buy it. I did see the supplements floating around used bins for the next decade, especially Legacy of Eagles.

The game used random generation for stats and powers with a twist. To keep them players had to come up with an origin story which tied together those powers. It also had some really interesting ideas about how to track and manage the world itself. The RPG Outsider blog has an extensive and detailed review of the game here- well worth reading. The artwork's great- featuring many of the best 2000 AD artists of the time (including Brian Bolland). Co-designer Simon Burley returned many years later with a revision of Golden Heroes called Squadron UK, which we'll return to on a later list. Random generation. Various dice.

5. Heroes Unlimited (1984)
Palladium first hit the shelves with the massive Palladium Fantasy RPG. I'd first seen Siembieda's work earlier in The Mechanoid InvasionHeroes Unlimited came out a couple of years later, the second big line from the company. Palladium books had tons of ideas- more unusual concepts and random tables than nearly any other game. However I found them difficult going. They took a patch work approach with rules jumbled together and few signposts about how to actually play. Sometimes they felt like a series of articles more than a system. I assume that changed in later years, but the early books can be a mess, albeit a rich one. Heroes Unlimited uses randomly generated stats, powers, and archetypes The sub-systems for these archetypes vary wildly, but generally PCs have a single power set and magic's completely ignored in the rules.

In 1987, Palladium released Heroes Unlimited Revised. This added magic, multiple powers, fixed some rules, took animal mutations & vehicle rules (and illustrations) from the TMNT game, and threw in more options. There's an oddly defensive intro to the revision, including a discussion of the Big Two's apparent ownership of the term superhero. The game's stronger, but the organization remains odd. Palladium published a few supplements for both of these first editions of HU over the next decade: the unique The Justice Machine sourcebook ('85), Ninjas & Superspies ('88), Villains Unlimited ('92), and Aliens Unlimited ('94). Random generation. Level-based. Various dice.

6. Justice, Inc. (1984)
I still dig this supplement. In some ways, it is the first genre/setting book for Champions. Like Espionage! it has stand-alone rules, but it feels closer to the original game. Justice, Inc offers a modified form of powers- with Talents, Psychic Powers, and Gadget mechanics. The boxed set came with two booklets- one with an awesome cover. There's a ton of source material presented here- more than the earlier Daredevils game. Aaron Allston, Steve Peterson, and Michael Stackpole wrote the game. The incomparable Allston also wrote two modules for it: Lands of Mystery and The Trail of the Gold Spike. I love that those offered stats several different games including Call of CthulhuChillMercenaries, Spies & Private Eyes; and Daredevils. I also love the detail that game borrows its name from The Avenger with a logo design which riffs on Doc Savage. I think this game fits with a brief Pulp Heroes renaissance in the late 1970s and early 1980s- with Farmer's Greatheart Silver stories, the Doc Savage novels, The Shadow comic books, and most importantly Byron Priess' amazing (and forgotten) Weird Heroes anthology series. Point-based. d6 based.

TSR kicked superhero gaming into overdrive with the release of Marvel Super Heroes in '84. MSH remained strong until the mid-1990s at our local store. The modules often sat on the shelves for years, but any sourcebook or group supplement sold again and again. When I work as a manager we had steady reorders on those products. MSHRPG also offered a new approach to game and box design. It moved away from conventional rules layout to a conversational approach: examples of play, comic book illustrations, an introductory prologues. We'd see this again in other striking TSR products of the same era- The Adventures of Indiana Jones and Bullwinkle and Rocky Role Playing Party Game. More importantly it broke through the barrier of emulation and actually offered a real universe from the comics.

I bought it...and I just didn't get it. It seemed so thin, especially for a group invested in Champions. We thought ourselves sophisticated and FASERIP* seemed like Baby's First RPG. Nine pages for character generation? Names instead of numbers for things? Zone movement? Inconceivable. Where was the crunch and detail? And thus for us Marvel became a non-contender. I couldn't even see the interesting bits which could be stolen for other games, like the rules for criminal trials. So it is with a twinge of jealousy that I hear about other gamer's great experiences with the system: amazing campaigns, the joy of the big supplements and handbooks, the pleasure of tooling the rules to do many genres, the ability to handle cosmic-level adventures. I was having good times with supers in the same years, but with more time spent calculating out the characters’ OCV, ED, and REC. Better? Worse? Who can say? Random Generation. Point  Spend Development. Percentile dice.

*It wasn't until a few years ago I heard Marvel called FASERIP, after the names of the attribute levels. It was more months before I actually figured out what those bloggers were talking about.

DC Heroes showcases some of my own gaming hypocrisy. The year before I'd dismissed Marvel as too light and unworthy of usurping the rich crunch of Champions. But a year later I grabbed up this game as an alternative. Champions’ new edition had fixed some things, but added many new options. The split in player skill I mentioned above had gotten worse. I wanted a game which would level the playing field. And frankly, I loved DC more than Marvel. I remained a DC fanboy until the coming of the New 52 which cured me of that.

Mayfair's game smartly put DC's most appealing property, The New Teen Titans, front and center. It also managed to look like Champions, with point-based stat and power purchases, while remaining more abstract. Champions offers an atomic-level approach, while DC Heroes offers a molecular one, with bits assembled into pre-made sets. It had several other innovations: the AP rating system with a sliding scale allowing cosmic level abilities; the breakdown of stats into opposition/strength/resistance; spending Hero Points for resolution benefits; and team-based combat maneuvers. We played and enjoyed it for years. The layout made sense and you could find rules easily. I think because we'd come from Champions we could overlook some of the oddness and complexity of the system. We knew it handled low-level characters terribly- making them all pretty much the same bland set of single digits. But it handled epic-scale play well. Some people disliked investigations rules with the gathering of clue points, but we ignored those. Yet over time we discovered cracks and gaps in the rules- balance issues, hyper-effective combat tactics, and fundamental problems with the division of the three effect types. Still we stuck with it for a long, long time through several campaigns. Point-based. 2d10 dice. 

An interesting third-party supplement for Champions. The short-lived Firebird Ltd. produced this and another multi-system supplement every Champions and James Bond group loved: The Armory Volume One. GAoC arrived and set the stage for a common supers supplement, the WW2 hero game. Most pulp rpgs followed Raiders  and had you fighting Nazi's pre-WW2, but these books put you on the homefront or battlefront. I've written about these supplements before: A Cape Too Far. That lists about a dozen such products. Designer Chris Cloutier also wrote the later 4th Edition version, Golden Age Champions.

These books take as their lead comics like The InvadersJustice Society, and All-Star Squadron- in both their original Golden Age forms and later reworkings. The first season of TV’s Wonder Woman used the original WW2 setting, but ditched that later. The recent Captain America film's notable for embracing the period flavor. But comic books sources slowly moved away from this. Cap will always remain a WW2 veteran because of the frozen in ice device, but the rest of the continuity shifts. Marvel's always played loose with that timeline, but for years DC pegged things tightly with legacy heroes of the Justice Society and the existence of characters who fought in the war (aided by various forms of life-extending magics). DC's New 52 completely ditches that concept, even in their reworking of Earth-2. It makes a certain amount of sense, but means they have to discard years of established goodwill. The concept can't really be shifted to a more modern conflict (Korea? Vietnam? Iraq?) without mangling the vibe.

This may be a reach, but Judge Dredd has always skirted around the edges of being a comic book superhero. Depending on the era and the writer he's been more or less a four-color lawman. At times he's an instrument of gory violence and at others a figure for striking satire. I caught on to Dredd when the comic offered a smarter take on issues of violence, punishment, and consumerism. Many striking talents cut their teeth working on 2000AD. I've read a little too much later material that just embraces ass-kicking. Still he can be reasonable placed in the canon of superheroes. Plus he's teamed up with both Batman and Lobo.

The Judge Dredd rpgs generally take ideas at face value. This version came out during the 1980's when Games Workshop hadn't yet figured out exactly what kind of game company they wanted to be. I picked up a copy and made up characters, but never ran it. Instead I went for the easier Judge Dredd board game. The rpg itself feels like an old school hodge-podge: random characteristics with weirdly different value ranges, rules oddly organized, and highly detailed character sheets with tracking for each bullet. But if you like Dredd then the game's pretty fun to read with tons of art from the comics, reference details, and cross-section diagrams. It borrows some concepts from other games, including a speed and action chart which looks suspiciously like ChampionsRandom generation. Point-spend development. Various dice.

I really don't know what to say about this game. Designed by Erick Wujcik, it is less disorganized than many other Palladium Games of the same period. It builds on the Palladium engine, and the result is a game which feels incomplete- with much left to the GM to fill in. In short it feels very old school. Right out of the gate it offers ideas about a larger world outside the TMNT universe: a place of strangeness and anthropomorphic animals (which would be built on for the various supplements). Perhaps most strikingly, this game came out before TMNT became a thing...two years before Eastman and Laird agreed to license the concepts for toys, which led to the cartoon, which led to the movies and so on. Here we have a game built on the original incredibly dark stories- which had just begun to movie beyond being parodies of Frank Miller and David Sims. 

And it is crazy wonderful, filled with new art and bizarre tables. Everything’s built on randomess, with a let's-see-what-you-get approach. The game has multiple sub-systems with tons of crunchy bits and modifiers, from skills to Animal Powers to Psionics to equipment. Surprisingly there's few detailed rules for handling martial arts. It includes an new TMNT story as well as a retelling of the origin. If you like the Turtles, you ought to track down a copy of this. It went through multiple printings and at least one significant revision. Copies always sold at the store up to the end of the license in 2000. Palladium supported the line with many unique books, some offering anthropomorphic new worlds independent of the TMNT setting: Transdimensional Teenage Mutant Ninja TurtlesAfter the BombRoad HogsMutants of the YucatanMutants Down UnderMutants in Avalon, and many others. Random Generation. Level-based. Various dice.

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

Monday, October 28, 2013

Halloween Horror RPG Round Up

Given that we're just a few days away, I thought I'd pull together everything I could find directly related to horror from the blog. Don't forget the Eternal Lies giveaway contest which ends on Wednesday. We hit another milepost today with post #800. 




Thursday, October 24, 2013

RPG Person Profile

I'm currently running (at home): Our group’s homebrew rules for Libri Vidicos, a Steampunk Fantasy school game; Last Fleet, a fantasy riff on BSG; and Legend of the Five Rings.

Tabletop RPGs I'm currently playing (at home) include: 13th Age with the GM’s world.

I'm currently running (online): Changeling the Lost (now switched over to Fate from WoD) and Mutants & Masterminds (restarts in January).

Tabletop RPGs I'm currently playing (online) include: None. I need to try out more one shots.

I would especially like to play/run: Durance, Kingdom, or DramaSystem. 

...but would also try: Last Best Hope, Gumshoe, or some flavor of Fate. Preferably one-shots or short campaigns.

I live in: South Bend, at the northern edge of the horror which is Indiana.

2 or 3 well-known RPG products other people made that I like: City of Lies; Kaiin Players Guide, and GAZ 3: The Principalities of Glantri

2 or 3 novels I like: Dictionary of the Khazars; Lord of Light; and Jhereg.

2 or 3 movies I like: Kairo (aka Pulse); Spirited Away; and Dragonslayer.

Best place to find me on-line: On G+, RPG Geek, or via the blog.

I will read almost anything on tabletop RPGs if it's: A city sourcebook or about samurai.

I really do not want to hear about: what sucks about game things; I’d rather hear what people think actually works and is useful.

I think dead orc babies are: (....well, ok, it's complicated because....) it is the moment when I see if a GM’s going to do something interesting or just be douchey.

Free RPG Content I made is available RPG Geek where wrote two 24-Hour RPGs for contests and one of them won: Witless Minion and ArclightRevelation Tianmar
...For Fate with an adaptation of Scion I created that’s fairly complete. 
...For listening with the podcast I co-host, Play on Target.  
There’s more on the blog, scattered across the pages.

You can buy RPG stuff I made here: Not yet. 

I talk about RPGs... on RPG Geek under the name edige23 and on Twitter @edige23

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

Over the decades I’ve run serious and extended campaigns in a half-dozen superhero systems. This weekend I pulled together all of the core books I had for different superhero games. I ended up with twenty-eight: from Aberrant to Wild Talents. And that’s just hard copies- I have many more in electronic format. And that’s just core books not the secondary material: citybooks, villain books, modules, alternate settings, WW2 books, power guides, and so on. Honestly if you told me I couldn’t run Fantasy games anymore, I’d turn to superheroes. I’ve done some of my favorite work in that genre- exploring themes and ideas more concretely than in many other games.

Yet superhero games still feel like more work to me. I’m a fairly improvisational GM, sketching perhaps a few pages of notes for a session and spinning off previous work for many sessions. When I run a supers game, on the other hand, I dig in. I feel obligated to generate the news, to come up with colorful secondary characters ahead of time, and to develop fully-fleshed mysteries. I don’t want a supers game to be just about the fights- I want something more. But I want spectacle. At heart I’m still a kid getting up early Saturday morning to watch the Superfriends despite having seen the episode many times.

Today kicks off another History of RPG’s series. In the past I’ve covered Samurai RPGs, Horror RPGs, and Steampunk & Victoriana RPGs. I’ll be aiming for a weekly release, but we’ll see how that goes. Each list will cover a small slice of time, beginning at the dawn of supers gaming. In past lists, I’ve focused solely on core books and covered each game with a single edition. This time for most of the game lines I’m mentioning each of the major revisions and editions. Hopefully I’ll provide some sense of what shifted between them. I’ve also decided to cover some distinct supplements- third party material and campaign books which offer a striking set of new options or ideas. Generally I’m only including published material- print or otherwise. I’ve left off freebie or self-published games unless I think they’re really important.

I’ll  try to provide some context for the superhero material happening in popular culture at the same time. For this first list I had a hard time finding official stats for which comics had dominance. It does include Byrne and Clarmont’s run on X-Men and Miller on Daredevil. This period does include the release of Superman I &II, Swamp Thing, and Condorman. On TV we had Spiderman and His Amazing Friends, the Dr. Strange movie, and The Incredible Hulk

I'm sure I've left something off without adequate reason; feel free to add a comment about a line I missed (if published from 1978-1982). I've arranged these in by year and then alphabetically within that year.

1. Superhero 2044 (1978)
If you have a chance you should take a look at this game. I know I "played" it, but looking back I'm not sure I can actually see what the system is. Not that I can't figure it out, but I don't think there's actually a game system here. For one thing, though you make up and play superheroes you have no rules for superpowers. You define an archetype and assign points to stats, but that's about it. It has some charts and odd resolution mechanics (like a Stamina Modifiers table).

But at the time it generated a world of ideas for me. I don't think at the time I got the actual setting of the game- a future sci-world with supers (hence the title year). Probably the coolest thing in the game was a whole set of rules for playing a solo game. It included a time planning worksheet, rules for patrolling, random crimes table, and details for dealing with litigation. More than anything though, it showed that you could do supers in an rpg and pushed forward other games. Point-Based (sort of). No super powers system. Various dice.

Sitting in the back room of the first incarnation of the Griffon Bookstore my friend and I "played" S2044. At the same time I could hear my sister's group playing a new game- one with an actual resolution system, defined powers, and the real feel of comic books. I remember having my first pangs of edition wars, wanting the game I played to be better, to win. But soon enough I begged my parents for a copy of V&V and rolled up my first character. Five powers: Heightened Constitution, Claws, Darkness Control, Regeneration, and Revivification. The bringing people back from the dead seemed like a loser power to 10 year-old me, but that's what I rolled.

As opposed to S2044, V&V went generic, with almost no discussion of a specific world or setting. It assumed you knew what a comic book game would look like. The visuals from Jeff Dee and Pete Matthews echoes the look of hotter properties of the time: Grell's Legion of Superheroes, Cockrum's X-Men, and even Simonson's Manhunter. V&V 1e echoed conventional games- with stats and levels complimented by random power tables. The combat system relied on a full-page matrix table, comparing attack power to defense power. Beyond that I can't remember how the system worked. V&V 2e completely blotted out my memory of this version since it cleaned things up so well.  Random Powers. Level-Based. Various Dice.

3.  Supergame (1980)
A game I never heard of until I began this research. It seems to have been an adaptation/rip-off of Superhero 2044with more details and numbers. RPG Talk has an interesting overview on it. More fascinating is the comment from a playtester on RPG Net. He talks about the couple who wrote the game and the investment they had in their 'rules vision'. They apparently put out a couple of supplements for the game as well. Different Worlds #23 has an article from the designers. As a sidebar, Christian Lindke has a great article looking at DW #23. That issue has a strong focus on superhero games of the time, including a survey of the genre at that moment in 1982. You should check out his write-up herePoint-based. Various dice.

Villains & Vigilantes dominated superhero roleplaying in our neck of the woods. Then came Champions. It quickly spread among the gaming groups, even those who hadn't been playing superhero games. A new generation of players latched on to it. In my post on Champions in general, I mention the split it created: between those who wanted a looser, more story-driven game and those who wanted detailed four-color combat. But more than that Champions empowered players in a way few other games had.

Champions changed roleplaying games. Yes, Melee and Wizard had offered point-build characters first, but Champions completely reworked that approach. You could build anything you wanted, because it worked at an atomic level. In theory, anything could be modeled within the system, not just characters. It set off long sessions of players talking and trying to figure out how you could construct X, Y, or Z character. It gave GMs a concrete benchmark for the opposition, for better or worse. The system worked really well right out of the gate- I think we forget how solid and complete this complex game was right away in the first edition. It also gave us the first Villains book, with Enemies and started to build its own distinct supers universe. Champions II & Champions III: Another Super Supplement expanded the skill rules, increased the number of powers, and added base-building. Point-based. d6-based

5. Crimefighters (1981)
It can be argued that superheroes came out a tradition of pulp heroes. Many of these existed as gentlemen adventurers, with roots in Victorian literature. Eventually masked or costumed heroes would emerge, with the Shadow as the best known. This complete game came in an early issue of the Dragon. I remember reading it one summer, along with a stack of Doc Savage novels I'd taken with me on vacation at my grandparents in Kansas. I loved the concept of the game and made up many characters, but never actually played it.

Crimefighters is impressive for an add-in to a magazine. At 22 pages it has all the rules necessary for a masked crimefighter game, including an adventure and a page of notes on the genre. Excellent art by Dee and Willingham make it a complete package. The game system itself is fairly basic. Players roll percentiles for their six stats (seven actually since Accuracy's measure for left and right hands). Then they can spend points based on those stats for Mental and Agility skills. These skills are a mix of traditional skills and special abilities- like climbing, aerial flips, and archaeological. Players have a 5% chance to have a mysterious power as well, of which there are ten. The whole thing feels very old school. It does have a few interesting bits- with certain character types gaining more of less experience based on their actions (Pragmatist, Defender, Avenger). Players also roll for contacts who can offer special kinds of info during a case. Random powers. Level-based. Various dice.

6. Daredevils (1982)
Growing up I developed a wariness about some FGU games. I'd been told they had complicated mechanics, dense rules, and detailed bits. I lumped together Space OperaAftermath!Skull & Crossbones, and Chivalry & Sorcery in that category. But I loved reading Doc Savage novels and so when I had some extra bucks I picked up Daredevils and tried to read it. Much as I would later do with Bushido, I tried to grok this system but never really got it. It had some seriously crunchy bits, but more the order of presentation and layout worked against the game.

Is it a superhero game? Yes, in the broader definition of that I mentioned above. Like many pulp genre rpgs it goes all over the map- from Raiders to Marlowe to Movie Reel Horror to The Shadow. To that end it offers five pages of optional rules to cover mysterious masked heroes with unusual powers. Daredevils has players roll to see how many points they get to spend on powers. Each power has a distinct cost, but the GM may also allow players to acquire them randomly later in play. The game only provides a dozen powers, plus to different forms of enhancement to each of the seven "talent" areas. Random and point-based. d6, d10, d20 dice.

7. Supervillains (1982)
 A game I remember seeing on the game store shelf, but never picked up. It straddled the line between board game and rpg so I wasn't sure what it actually was. That's a little strange given that I loved TFG Games like Intruder andSpellbinder. It offers rules for making characters, but primarily exists as a game for running fights between superbeings from preset scenarios using counters and a map. Beyond that, I'm unsure how this game operated.

8.  Superworld (1982)
I remember the big push by Chaosium in the early 1980s, getting a number of different games out on the market, all built on the Basic Roleplaying engine. I loved Stormbringer and some of the other systems, but I skipped on Worlds of Wonder when it hit shelves in 1982. That contained Future WorldMagic World, and Superworld. I'm not sure what made me take a pass on it- perhaps thinking that Champions already offered the best game. I was already a stupid game snob by that point. At least in part I was suspicious of a superhero game being dropped in on top of another game engine.

Strangely later that same year Chaosium released an expanded and independent version of Superworld (but not the others). This boxed set includes a 32-page character creation book, 40-page powers book, and 40-page GM book. It uses the BRP system with powers added on. Players roll their seven characteristics individually; they then can spend that total on powers. Superworld pays homage to Champions in several places here. Effects define powers (Snare, Supermove), limitations and advantages modify costs, and powers require energy to use. There's some interesting material here- particularly in the campaign section. The game got an expansion with the Superworld Companion in 1984. It also appears in some of the multi-system modules of the era: Bad Medicine for Dr. Drugs and Trouble For HAVOC.

I have a copy of this in my hands now, a rare treat, but when the second edition (called "Revised") came out I scoffed. V&V was dead, man-- Champions had put it in its grave. Why bring back a dead game- where you rolled your powers? It felt like a cheap money grab. I put off buying the boxed set but eventually I came into a copy that sat on my shelf. Until I met Gene Ha- who loved V&V 2e dearly. For several classes in high school we sat at the back with Gene running a V&V campaign on the fly- one with weird extra-dimensional corporations and highly detailed graphics. I ended up lifting many of his concepts for later campaigns. But more importantly I came to appreciate V&V.

The revised edition cleaned up many problems and its actually a model of economy system-wise. FGU would put out many modules over the following years, but they never released a "companion" or "expansion." This game stood well enough on its own. It also showcases some of Jeff Dee's best work- stuff which sticks with me. Its only 48 pages long and very old school. Roll stats, roll powers, figure hit points and like details. Combat still uses an attack vs. defense matrix, but much reduced. Players roll a d20 under a modified target # to hit. The actual mechanics only take up about 2/3rds of the book. it does use one of my least favorite mechanics: players can have different #s of actions without any kind of balancing mechanic. Still it remains a solid example of old-school gaming. It ended up vying for dominance in our groups for years. If you didn't want the math of Champions and hoped for a pick-up game, you went with V&V. Random powers. Level-based. Various dice.

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

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

12 Weekend RPG Lessons

This weekend I ran two sessions for Virtuacon- Microscope at 10PM Friday and Fate Accelerated at 9AM Sunday. The first session created the world for the second. I had two players from the first return for the second. Unfortunately I had two last-minute drop outs from the Sunday game (work event and family illness) which cut us down to three players. I still enjoyed it. I also ran a pretty satisfying f2f Legend of the Five Rings session Sunday evening. Saturday I moderated the three rpg panels I posted about yesterday.

In any case, here are twelve things I learned or noticed this weekend.

1. Have your water ready. And have a lozenge or something like that at hand. Online games can be intense; I don’t like taking too many breaks in them. Personally I have to get better at pacing and balancing online. Since I can’t pick up cues as easily as f2f, I get more tense. That’s especially true with one-shots. With extended online campaigns I eventually relax and I figure the players out. I can’t do that in a one-shot so my tendency is to keep moving, keep the pace up, and not stop.

2. A piece of advice that came out in the Better Player panel: if you want to be better, become its biggest fan. Make the game into your obsessive fandom. Love it like you love Firefly or Dr. Who or whatever your Geek-cult is. During the panel I nodded, but the more I think about it, the more sense it makes. Being a better player’s in good part a question of mindset. Psych yourself up and put yourself in a good place and you’ll enjoy it more. Embrace the game and see what joy you can find in that. There's a kind of weird gaming Pascal's Wager going on there. 

3. I’ve now taught Microscope a couple of ways. Participating while teaching yields stronger results than simply overseeing. For the Virtuacon game I once again opted to act as moderator only, except to answer a few questions. I thought that would help the players feel like I wasn’t in the way of things. But it didn’t provide good benchmarks or help them warm up.

Events remain the hardest elementt. I still have a tendency to fall back to generalities over specifics. For example dropping in “The War Between the Reks and Droogs Begins.” That event has some detail but isn’t evocative- and more importantly, it isn’t a specific narrow slice of time. It needs something like “Busker Huth ignites the war between the Reks and Droogs by shooting his rival Dugger Droog.” Now we have named characters and a history of previous tensions. Players can run with those more fully elsewhere in the timeline. Another bad habit I have is suggesting a period in my event: “Out of Control Storms Sweep Across the Islands.” That implies a wider range of time. Instead I need to offer something like “The first of a series of Class Five Hurricane destroys the island of Thrombone and its capital.”

So next time I do this I need to participate- and probably kick off the first round just to make it easier. And I need to make sure I do my events right. I might make a couple of other changes. First, I restricted who could answer questions (my replacement for scenes). That’s an unnecessary complication. Second, I need to make clear that the history they’re building will be the lead up to any scenario- rather than groups playing within that timeline. Third, I have to use something, anything, else besides Google Docs to handle this. G+ Hangouts and Docs don’t work together well with multiple editors. I thought it might be a function of the program nesting, but one player had the same problems using it outside. It also loses the visual appeal of the cards. Several programs create pseudo-post its  and I need to use one of those.

4. Having seen my office from two different angles in video backgrounds, I spent yesterday straightening up.

5. I was initially skeptical about the way Virtuacon opted to handle the panels: coming up with topics and then gathering participants  I’m used to people assembling panels and submitting them as events. I wasn’t sure how it would work and I expressed my worries a couple of times. I can say that I was completely wrong. The line-up of panels and talent ended up amazing- and that’s looking outside the three panels I managed. Virtuacon had fifteen total panels running across the three days. Impressive, wide-ranging, and well done.

6. I really like Fate Accelerated. I need to practice and get better with it. I like the combination of transparency of mechanics with rich possibilities. When I run online, I don’t want too many tools or details (like map measurements or whatever) in the way. Fate allows for that. But I really need to get good with the system. I’m still quite bad at forcing compels and bringing that idea into play. I have to overcome my hesitation and really see how that works as a part of the game's engine.

7. I’ve been reasonably lucky in my time on the Interwebz. I’ve only dealt with a little bit of trolling- usually people with strong opinions about gaming stuff who take exception to some minor point. But that’s been relatively rare. I’ve got white male privilege on my side and I tend to avoid political statements and confrontation. So the public Q&A feed during my final RPG panel threw me off a little. Not just for the nastiness, but for the sheer stupidity of it. It seems like such a low-stakes arena to waste your time coming up with douchery. Weird.

8. I realized what I love even more than the play process of Microscope is the GM post-processing. Obviously that only really applies if you’re using a session to build a world for play. But I love going back and tightening connections between ideas and figuring out the bigger picture implied by the history. I have as much fun trying to suss out what elements can be used for play- finding great story hooks- as I do creating it at the table. That’s probably a selfish thing- I get to have my collaboration and then my personal control. Still, it works for me.

9. I really want and need to run and play more online.

10. All three panels I ran had great ideas. One piece of advice really hit me between the eyes. Over the years we’ve had many people leave our gaming groups- some from conflicts. That’s never easy. I opened the Handling Difficult Players panel with the idea that we wanted to play with the difficult players. We'd assume "Just don’t play with them" wasn’t viable for any number of reasons (friends, connections, etc). At the end though Filamena put a twist on that concept. She suggested that if you do have to ask someone to leave- in the end its about you not being able to provide the experience they want at the table. They need something else from the game- a different play style, a chance to argue, validation through dominance- that you as a GM can’t provide. Given that, they need to be playing with another group, one which can meet those needs. It might seem obvious to some, but it hadn’t clicked for me before.

11. I loved what the players came up with in the Fate Accelerated session. They spent some time building up resources, they established new stunts and aspects in play, and they pulled some things out of their asses. I’d plotted a bunch of different possible hooks and threads for the scenario and I wasn’t sure where they’d go. They went with the Burning Zeppelin Crash. Other scenario paths they didn’t follow: Threat of the Word Demon; Exploring the Dig Site; Secrets of the Holographic Library; and Corrupted Word Smiths.

12. I’ve been to a bunch of conventions: GenCon, Origins, MichiCon, and many others. A ta guess, I’d say four dozen. Of those, I organized or helped with the management of a half dozen. I’ve also participated in a couple of online events.

Virtuacon was the most satisfying and fun convention I’ve attended. I enjoyed running my games here more than I have at f2f cons. I loved the lead up to the convention. I dug being able to run my panels. I appreciated the international flavor- with gamers from across Europe and North America. The UTC timing thing looked overly complicated to me, but the set-up encouraged players and GMs to run at odd times and get new people in.

The existence of a continuous online G+ Hangouts tavern gave a spine to the experience. I never went there, but I checked in and watched the discussion bounce around. I think that’s an amazing innovation and one other online cons should do if they can get a mass of participants. That combined with the diversity of voices appearing in the Virtuacon G+ community and on RPG Geek made the experience feel open, fun, and inclusive.