Monday, March 31, 2014

NO:LA Nightwatch: A Supers Campaign Seed (Part Two)

More of the background for my NOLA: Nightwatch superhero campaign. Previous post and more explanation can be found here. 

The Second Sunder War
Embroiled in a conflict with Qurac, following a closely contested election and having suffered a near disastrous event in Hurricane Katrina, America in 2006 was ill prepared for what was about to happen to it. Some had seen the signs-- strange omens and portents, the vanishings of key researchers in the field of magic, changes in the alignment of elements around those places with mystical connections. For some time there had been some rare travel between the worlds of our own Earth and that of Empyre and Majestic-- mostly the result of super team-ups and strange events. But in late 2005 the few gates connecting our world to Majestic collapsed. They had been dismissive of our own world and paranoid about contamination, so most assumed this to be deliberate action by the masters of Majestic. Dust Pilgrim, a super who had come from Majestic years before, assembled a team to look into the matter. After several unsuccessful tries, they managed to wrench open a gate and pass through. Most would never be heard from again.

In early 2006, The Perfect Master, traveling in Empyre found himself dragged before the Arcadian Court and told to leave. The gates between Earth and Empyre would be closed forever and anyone who attempted to move through them would be destroyed. Again, given how rare such travel was, most ascribed this to either a political change in that world or simple xenophobia.

Then in early August, Dust Pilgrim returned-- near death, blistered, his body contaminated with a dark force, he managed to reach the super group The Guard and speak with their team leader Magi before collapsing. Lord Sunder had wholly and completely seized control of Majestic. He'd finally laid hands upon the Eclipse Matrix. Even darker, he'd managed to wrest the Crown of Dusk from Empyre-- brought to him by a traitor from among the Seelie. Empyre had shuttered itself, closing its gates in an attempt to keep Lord Sunder from coming through. But Sunder cared little for that world, instead his attentions had turned to Earth and to the third and final piece of the Shadow Trinity.

The Guard spread out to pass word of the impending assault to everyone they could. In some cases they were able to raise allies, in some cases they found infiltrators who worked to stop or distort their message, but in most places they met indifference. Rumors of a super-villain on another world, even one who had caused so much damage before, could not be the basis for diverting resources and changing long-term strategic plans. In the end, all of that mattered little because the Guard only had seven days to rally people to their cause.

On the seventh day, Lord Sunder came through looking for his own. His forces had been refined and developed-- technology seen in the earlier conflict had been adapted and twisted to his own dark ends. Worse still, he had managed to corrupt much of the forces of Majestic-- and now his armies were supplemented by Bio-Mechanical Warriors, Organo-Mechanical Striders, and the Telepathic Corp that had once defended their own world.

Sunder had also planned his strike more carefully-- in Europe, in Russia, in Japan, in any major industrialized nation he struck at the command centers and cut off communications. Those countries not initially struck were given an ultimatum-- remain apart from the conflict or be destroyed. They would fall later-- for now Sunder's goal was the United States and the final part of the Shadow Trinity. Across the United States, major metropolitan areas came under attack. Superheroes came out in full force trying to keep back the dark forces. There were some successes but more often than not these heroes fell. In some cases, Sunder brought them under his own sway and tossed them back into the fray to fight against their former allies.

As chaotic as the first assault wave seemed, it soon became clear what Sunder's target was-- Boston. There he sensed the energy of the third part. As August neared its end-- Sunder drew his diverse forces together and launched wave after wave at the New England city. Within 48 hours it had nearly been laid to waste. But it was then that Sunder discovered he been tricked. Magi and other had worked to create a diversionary signature to draw Sunder away from the real location. Though they'd later be accused of cold calculation in sacrificing Boston, only a city with a potent magical heritage could have powered the diversion long enough to keep Sunder's attention. The question remained if the sacrifice Boston, Magi and the other heroes would prove to be enough.

As the end of August approached, desperate heroes gathered in New Orleans. Many had already fallen to Lord Sunder-- dead, missing or corrupted. Despite the threat, both remaining government superteams-- Interdict and Frontline-- had been recalled to protect Washington DC. Still some defected away and headed south, alerted by various means that the Crescent City would be the site of the last stand.

From elsewhere, across the globe, heroes found themselves forced to make a choice. They could stay and defend their homelands, or they could recognize the threat to all humanity. Although the exact numbers will never been known, surviving witnesses saw the Russian hero Finality stand shoulder to shoulder Iranian Vigilante Honorable Blade, American super Parity working alongside wanted Malaysian Arch-Villain Son of Light. Even from beyond our world they came. A group of rogue warriors from Empyre, known only as The Twelve Blades, came along with a score of others from their world-- all now outcast and barred from returning home. Some few from Majestic gifted with powers who had managed to escape Lord Sunder's dominion came as well.

Sunder's forces marched from Boston, spread out and divided to raise terror and prevent an effective response. To the east, forces led by Sunder's right-hand Servant, Blackvigil, tore along the coast before heading west towards New Orleans. To the west were the diverse forces under the command of the Atomicus, a super villain who had joined Sunder in the early days of the invasion. His forces had worked to disrupt any local military response in the Midwest and beyond. Finally along the most direct route to New Orleans came Sunder himself and the bulk of his forces. They moved with haste despite the destruction of roads and bridges before them.

On the ground, there were those among the resident New Orleans heroes who begged that the Midnight Gauntlet be taken from the city. But the risk remained too great and there still existed a plan as to how Lord Sunder might be fought using his own weapons. The heroes of New Orleans recognized, but did not truly accept, what had to be done. They turned their attention to evacuating the city as best they could. With only limited help from the government-- occupied with Boston and battling Sunder's march, they moved people away. The Watchman and his team traveled from neighborhood, from house to house. Others-- like Bloodmoon, The Concord, Silverstock, and The Riverman-- used their powers to construct barriers, ease traffic jams leaving the city, and turn the very landscape of the region to their advantage.

Sunder approached the city, confident in his powers. His two flanking armies prepared to move forward. The heroes had been quiet in their preparations which they now set into motion. In the east, the terrain had forced Blackvigil's armies to consolidate. It was then that the assembled heroes-- those with mastery of the elements-- let loose the force of nature itself. Rivers and waterways had been carefully and quietly dammed, and the landscape had been reshaped to draw the army into what essentially had become a valley. When they let loose all of the waters at once, combined with the force of a tropical storm a group of heroes died harnessing, the army shattered and drowned.

To the west Atomicus gathered his forces. He'd supplemented those given him by Sunder with any supervillains who would join the cause of destruction. Two days outside of New Orleans Atomicus gathered his troops together on a abandoned military base. Having called his subordinates together, Atomicus quietly declared his allegiance to the Earth and, with the flip of a switch, set off a nuclear weapon-- incinerating the mass of Sunder's forces there.

Despite the losses of his two flanking armies, Sunder pressed on. He had no need for subordinates-- they would all eventually be fodder to him anyway. His power had grown such that only those wholly corrupted and imbued with his essence could remain in his presence for any length of time. Sunder tore aside all natural obstacles in his path, leaving behind any stragglers and pressing on. By the time he reached New Orleans he had perhaps a thousand warriors left to him, each blazing with the light of Sunder's essence.

Conflicting accounts remain of what happened next. The heroes who remained alive in the city were a fraction of Sunder's numbers, but they fought valiantly. Pitched battles along Canal Street, a raging firefight in the Morial Convention Center, a crushing melee that devastated the Irish Channel-- each of these a holding action to keep Sunder from his prize and give those trying to come up with an answer more time.

Time, in the end, would be its own answer-- combined with the nature of Midnight Gauntlet. No one has yet confirmed exactly what happened, but some speculation can be made. The Shadow Trinity granted power which grew as the items came closer together. Sunder had been using his corrupt avatars as power sinks to hold some of that power as he assimilated it. No one is sure who finally took the Gauntlet to Sunder, battled him and forced the energies into him. But it was at that moment that other heroes, led by the Tempus Fugitive, let loose their trap. Somehow they spread Sunder's energies-- held in his avatars across time. They would exist in moments-- trapped and separate from one another but unable to join their power together. As Sunder fell into the void of time he dragged others with him, many of the last defenders who had managed to hold him long enough.

Before the Second Sunder War, few had any solid estimates as to the number of superbeings-- of various origins-- on the earth. What is generally agreed is that at least two-thirds, likely more, died or vanished in the war. More lost their powers, suffered grave injury of simply retired after those battles, having seen too much. Some moved away from herodom into other circles like entertainment and politics.

Today, well over a year after the final battle, New Orleans and the rest of the US works to rebuild. Much has been accomplished. Much remains to be done. It is now that some few, a new generation of heroes, have begun to step up and take the place of those who have fallen. Fewer superheroes exist, fewer super villains are active, but there are still threats out there that require a response.

Next: Media and the World

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Better Player Advice: Play on Target Podcast Ep. 26

Play on Target goes classic today with a perennial question: how can I be a better player? As with the last week’s episode, I think we hit some concrete and specific strategies. Certainly we do less name-checking of odd rpg systems and resources. As I mention in the podcast the discussion comes from four people who generally GM. That informs our position- though all of us play in campaigns (some online, some f2f, some Pbf). I think in the future we need to do a slightly tilted version of this topic: what do I want as a player? Ideally I want to play at the intersection of those two concepts: knowing what makes for enjoyable play and knowing what I like from a game. 

I think it's harder to judge your performance as a player; perhaps more particularly to accurately judge your performance. As a GM you’re out in front of everyone, watching the group and working to generate reactions. Enthusiasm, player participation, tension, attention, remembering details, taking initiative, playing off of the world- all of these are good benchmarks for a GM’s success. (That assumes the GM isn’t in the self-doubt death-spiral, which is a topic for another post). A good GM thrives and works with that feedback.

So how do you tell if you’re doing well as a player? You have some objective criteria. You get invited back, for one. Though you could also read that as socially mandated or based on the need to fill a seat. How about if the GM backs your character choices- though that may instead reflect the GM's style. You can’t necessarily judge it based on how much time a GM affords you at the table. A good GM spreads the spotlight around. You can't judge it on laughter you generate, since sometimes comedy breakouts slow a game down. I’ve had class-clown players who brought sessions to a halt. So much of what happens at the table is subjective- a player’s voice is one among many. If you’re good with judging social situations and responses, you probably have an easier time judging how well others enjoy your play at the table.


I’m not sure- I’ve seen some socially smooth folks who went to weird places in games. They’d clearly decided on an approach and didn’t connect that with others. I’ve seen players who absolutely can’t pick up on social cues or avoid confrontation play strong and solid characters at the table. Is that a factor of play style, a factor of their ability to judge their performance, or some combination of the two?

Some games award bonus points for good play- rp’ing or some other factor. You could take that as an indicator. I’ve almost never used that. My sense has always been to reward the group as a whole. I played in a Champions campaign where people could vote on a bonus point award for a particular player. As a newbie coming into that group, I always felt a little out of place. The system encouraged the players not to rock the boat with one another or with the GM.

A smart group tells the GM what they’ve liked and how much they’ve enjoyed the session. That keeps the GM happy (generally- death-spiral aside). I think it equally important for the GM and other players to talk about play that they’ve enjoyed. That’s one of the things I like about both online games I run- the players stop and take time to say how awesome a particular scene, choice, or interaction was. I need to be better about making clear when I enjoy someone’s play. The responsibility has to be on the whole group- not just the GM- to point to striking and fun moments at the table. We need to point out good play to the players who play it…(need a better phrase for that).

Does the reverse hold true? That’s more difficult. If you’re bothered by somone’s play your choices are more constrained. Obvious bad play- racism, sexism, interrupting, disrupting can be more easily pointed out. That’s still hard. I had to call a fellow player one time on the fact that whenever one of the women in the group spoke, he interrupted them. It took me some time to get the nerve up for that. How do you call out just not good or mediocre play? Criticism won’t work- you have to find some way to see if you can judge their interests, find a better role for them, or reinforce what they do well. I’ve had that work and not work. I think players should help one another. If someone has success in a niche, encourage that. But I think the GM has more responsibility on that side. If a player isn’t fitting in, if they’re bringing the group down, or if the GM just plain doesn’t enjoy running for them, that’s needs to be communicated.

Otherwise you could operate in a vacuum. You might not know if the other people at the table disliked your choices. I had this happen in a game. I may have posted this story before. I played in a Buffy-style game with three other players. We had a Slayer, a vampire, and a Voodoo Priestess. They all had interesting powers. I took a one-armed investigator who had a phantom arm. He could use it to break things from the inside, open doors, and do a modest amount of damage. The power was fairly light-weight in comparison to the others. But I liked my character- and I liked positioning myself as the normal person in a group devoted to high weirdness. I had decided to play the Zander/Zeppo figure in the team. I’d comment on that role- especially when they forgot I had any powers at all. I enjoyed it Until I found out the other players thought I was serious about my complaining. They’d taken it as me having sour-grapes for making a shitty character.

I hadn’t been clear about my play and the other players hadn’t given me feedback. We’d ended up in a loop. I felt like an idiot. I ended up quitting and the game stopped after that.

Yikes. Let’s hope I’m better at that now…

Related, but a little off topic, I want to do a player survey of some kind. About fifteen years ago I did one for my players- multi-page paper sheets using muitple question types. I suspect I wanted affirmation as much as information. The results did offer me a sense of some things: genre preference, game activities, system details. Of course all of this was stated preferences, which in my experience can be radically different from actual preferences. I’ve seen GMs and players who make a claim to wanting a certain amount of crunch, realism, and leathality but in practice really hate that. The survey was too big and clunky and wasted space. I did learn that at least one of my players had been cheating regularly and consistently, something I hadn’t known.

Now we have much easier tools for setting up surveys and actually getting that in a useful and anonymous format. By my count I have about two dozen players who have played at least four sessions in a campaign of mine over the last five years and who I still feel comfortable communicating with. That’s a pretty decent pool to draw on. Ideally I want to come up with a short, easily completed survey focused on getting useful information. I want to imagine it more like playtest feedback. 

Right now I’m thinking a quantitative section- with an agree/disagree continuum- and a short qualitative section. The former seems like the easier to come up with, although I really want to keep that short and reasonable. I’m imagining an optional section for rating genres and activities. The qualitative section’s more of a challenge. I have to ask myself what I want to find out. Ideally I want to know about moments where they thought something cool happened, moments/sessions that spring to mind when they think about the game, times when they felt stuck or helpless, times when they were confused, times when they felt their choices didn’t matter. I want to see if I can identify open or unsatisfied questions or moments for them.
I’ll post some details when I actually have something put together.

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

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

NO:LA Nightwatch: A Supers Campaign Seed (Part One)

When I was asked to run a short superhero campaign a several years ago, I went to the players to ask them what they wanted. Most comments remained fairly general-- higher powered, not street level, some four-color action. But a couple of players suggested that they wanted to do something set in New Orleans. They'd been there several times and had run some campaign set there pre-Katrina. I'd opened the floor to their input and decided to go with it. However to avoid a lot of the political and cultural potential baggage I made a couple of changes.

Since this was a superhero universe, I opted to have the disaster which had visited the city be of a  super-powered nature. Katrina had occurred the year before, and had been slightly ameliorated by the presence of super-beings. Then the following year, a major villainous calamity, as you'll see in the history happened.
The background theme for the game would be the level of distrust which might arise towards supers following such devastation. I've read many comic books which have these things happen and then the next issue, it seems to be forgotten. In the Avengers, Kang took over the world for several issues and put all the supers in camps, but once that arc was over-- no one talked about it or the fact that he had trashed New York. In fact the only one which kept those consequences going that I recall was “The Pitt” arc from the short-lived New Universe line from Marvel.

My goal would be to have the group work on two fronts-- fighting villains but also trying to reestablish trust with the community. I'm not sure how successfully both elements worked, but we had a generally solid twelve session max-series campaign with a beginning, middle and an end. I'm hoping Mutants and Masterminds GM's will find this campaign outline/seed useful to mine for ideas. I'm avoiding stats, but gamemasters may find some plot seeds or ways to structure their own game.

Most of this material is fairly conventional. I deliberately echo the kinds of fast and trope-filled material you find in much supers world-building. One important detail is that I released this material to the players every few days in the weeks leading up to the campaigns. I think that made it a little easier to work through, though some of the later concepts- especially the NPCs- ended up lost in the shuffle. 

Supers (and hero prototypes) have existed for some time—reaching back to a pulp era in the 1930's that included gangbusting vigilantes, sinister masterminds and lost civilizations. Most heroes at that time were either non-powered adventurers, based in technology or technological accidents, or had a mystical origin. International Adventurer Duke Dawson ("And His Twin Fists of Legally Inspired Justice") and Black Coffin ("Who Brings Fear and Doom to Criminals Everywhere") represent the twin poles of this era. On the one hand the public had an insatiable appetite for the brightly lit and well publicized adventures of Dawson and his Men of Justice. On the other cloaked vigilantes possessing strange powers and knowledge were spoken of quietly in the dark and dangerous hearts of American cities.

But theses heroes could not keep the world from descending into the darkness of World War Two. Many ended up involved in World War II but not to any great effect. In fact most operated on the home front or else joined their respective armed forces in their real identities. Following the war most of these heroes faded into the background, except for a handful who maintained this lifestyle.

Though the impact would not be known for a decade and a half, the Roswell Crash of 1947 began a crisis which would change the world. In that year an explosion occurred in Roswell New Mexico. The weak cover story of a crashed weather balloon only fed the fire of rumors about an alien spaceship and crash survivors. In fact the ruse was intended to cover an even stranger event-- tales of "Little Green Men" were a relief to those in charge of the Roswell Project. In fact the crash and explosion had marked the appearance of a group of travelers from a parallel world. They had escaped their own world, dominated by a being of pure evil, but fell into the hands of the government who treated them as experiments. Eventually they died under the "care" of these scientists, leaving them with almost no answers.

However certain of the more mystically attuned sensed the strangeness surrounding Roswell. While they we unable to uncover the full truth, they were eventually able to extricate three artifacts the travelers had brought with them. These artifacts had been brought to our world to prevent Lord Sunder from gaining his full strength. Understanding something of the danger of the objects but not their full importance they divided and concealed them across the globe.

In 1963, Lord Sunder came looking for his treasures. His sorcerous invasion swept across Europe, Asia and North America. Sunder's hordes spilled out of gates, cairns and old locations of power. Local forces fought back as best they could be, but many of Sunder's troops resisted conventional arms. These could only be fought with the assistance of those magically and paranormally powered. Heroes, some the children of those from the 1930's, joined the fray and the resources of dozens of secret orders, ancient masters and hidden sanctums flowed into the war. Throughout the winter of 1963 the battle raged on—while Russia threw itself into the conflict and some attempted to ally with the invader, eventually the combined forces managed a series of successes. Part of their success came from the assistance of two other parallel worlds—one, called Empyre, where the Sidhe, had taken control and held humanity enslaved. Despite the potential for conflict, the Sidhe recognized the potential danger and lent arms which could strike at the invader. The other, known as Majestic, possessed no magic or knowledge of it, but did have a hybrid technology based on psionics and biomechanical engineering. Eventually Lord Sunder was driven back and the gates were closed.

Quietly, the sorcerers of the earth put the three artifacts into new hands. One was given to Empyre, another to Majestic, and the third into the care of a secret cabal in this world. The war had the effect of disrupting the course of the Cold War, but only temporarily. Many had feared that one side or the other would eventually use nuclear arms, but that potential disaster was avoided. It also had the effect of making the idea of magic and parallel worlds and more generally the fantastic, available to the general public. Acceptance of new heroes and vigilantes arose from that.

In the years following the war, another change began to be seen across the world. Persons with new, strange powers seemingly arising from nowhere. Latent powers were often triggered by accidents or traumatic events. These "naturally" powered individuals formed the core of a new generation of supers who shaped the 1970's and beyond. The most common theory as to the origin of these powers is that the Sunder War created a kind of reality fallout-- the gates, the world changing magic, the strange technology-- all of this had altered the genetics of some people allowing these powers to appear. Scientists continue to explore this theory, especially since new supers have begun to appear born with super powers. Some suggest these are most potent latent powers perhaps activated by the pain of birth, but no consensus exists.

Next Time: The Second Sunder War 

Friday, March 21, 2014

History of Superhero RPGs (Part Eight: 2004-2005)

After a couple month break, I'm back to finish out this list series. In these posts I trace the history of Superhero rpgs- one of my favorite genres. I hope to do the rest of these lists bi-weekly until I finish them out. If you're interested in other genres, I'd also covered Horror, Samurai, and Victoriana & Steampunk. The full list of lists in this superhero series can be found below. 

Usually I offer introductory comments, but I'll keep this short to move things along. I will say this is an amazing couple of years in superhero gaming. Important lines stayed strong and kept evolving, publishers released interesting and risky products, and more indie developers offered new takes on the genre.  Plus, as you'll see below, my game of choice arrived...

Events: Identity Crisis (yeech), Avengers Disassembled, Infinite Crisis, House of M, Captain Atom: Armageddon.
Television: Astro Boy, Danny Phantom, The Batman, Power Rangers SPD, Justice League Unlimited, Power Rangers Dino Thunder, Venture Brothers, Super Robot Monkey Team Hyperforce Go!, Ben 10
Films:  Spider Man II, The Incredibles, Hellboy, The Punisher, Catwoman, Blade: Trinity, Batman Begins, Elektra, Constantine, The Adventures of Sharkboy and Lavagirl, Fantastic Four, Sky High (!)

These lists cover 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. Given the number of great things published I haven't included everything I wanted to (for example I left off Dark Champions: The Animated Series!).  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 2004-2005). I've arranged these in by year and then alphabetically within that year.

On this list you’ll see some interesting new worlds published by emerging companies or done as reskins of existing systems. The Algernon Files came out originally for M&M 1e. Like the best fantasy bestiaries, it offers enemies with a linked theme. In this case the enemies (and allies) emerge from the solid and world the designers created. That approach doesn't always work. I've read other supervillain collections based on half-baked settings. This one avoids that trap. Each character has full stats plus enough character background to make them work. It also avoids the trap of characters falling into just a few types. Blackwyrn went on to publish a version of this for HERO 5 and a revised 2.0 version for HERO and for M&M 2e. They also published a WW2-centered sourcebook in the same universe, The Fires of War: The Algernon Files Volume 2. That’s a must-have for anyone doing Golden Age games.

This is a crazy game for several reasons. If you're familiar with The Authority comic, you can see why. If not...well, that's a little hard to explain. In the late 1990's Warren Ellis spun off The Authority from his work on Stormwatch. Through these titles he helped to refocus the Wildstorm comic line. The Authority offered a "wide-screen" approach to massively powerful superbeings changing the world. It was a hit. But then things shifted with a change of writers, a shift in tone, and the events of 9/11 pushing DC to limit and censor the comic’s over the top destruction and violence. The post-Ellis books become dark, strange, and kind of awful in places. The Authority RPG only covers up to through the Ellis run. I can't even imagine how they'd deal with the later material which includes significant rape and sexual abuse.

The Authority comic’s popularity had diminished by the time this book hit the market. IIRC Guardians of Order intended this as the first of a series of games covering the Wildstorm Universe. That would have included Ellis' other big success Planetary, as well as WildCATSGen 13, and Wetworks. Guardians of Order ceased operations under a cloud in early 2006- so nothing came of the other games.

The book itself is smartly done- a full color hardback with strong layout. As with many GOO products it offers a complete game and a sourcebook for the material (up through Ellis' issues and the awful Jenny Sparks: The Secret History of the Authority mini-series). The system itself is a modified and higher powered version of the Tri-Stat rules seen in other products, especially Silver Age Sentinels. There's a nice discussion of the differences in the text- something I appreciate in games. Players can build a character or use random generation to assemble one on the fly. I've seen copies of this fairly cheap so if you like seeing interesting supers rpgs, dig The Authority, or enjoy the Tri-Stat system, you should pick it up. Point Buy. Various Dice for Resolution.

3. Necessary Evil (2004)
Early Savage Worlds took a radical approach to campaign and setting building. They blended world sourcebooks and campaigns together to craft extended "Plot Point campaigns." Like classic campaign modules or series (The Enemy WithinHorror on the Orient Express) these offer a mostly linear through-spine to the story. But PPC’s break these multiple incidents, open scenes, and optional bits. They still have a beginning, middle, and end, but give GMs more options with a minimal presentation. Necessary Evil was the first "supers" book for the Savage Worlds line. I read through it when it came out but didn't get how it worked. All I could see at the time was that it wasn't the kind of sourcebook I knew.

The premise is a solid one. The PCs are supervillains and the last line of resistance against an alien invasion. The invaders have killed nearly all the superheroes. That's a neat twist- and one which gives players a different set of motivations and conflicts. I've always found bad guy games tough- even when the PCs have a shared goal or motivation. Every time I've seen them blow up due to interparty conflict and recrimination. Necessary Evil doesn't offer much advice on that point, a major weakness. When it came out it was the only source of superpower rules for Savage Worlds, but new products cover that for the present edition. Pinnacle published a version of this for Explorers Edition as well as the useful Necessary Evil Figure FlatsPoint Buy. Various Dice for Resolution.

I've knocked companies for licensing niche or obscure series (GURPS Humanx springs to mind). When this came out I had no idea who the Nocturnals were. Only a couple of people in our area had heard or even read the series. And yet Green Ronin went with a massive, full-color hardback sourcebook. What was the deal? The deal is that the Nocturnals are awesome- a creative mix of noir, monster hunting, supernatural conspiracy, soap opera, and weird fantasy. I love Daniel Brereton's art and reading through this book made me fall in love with the setting and characters. Like the best core licensed products, this is as much a series fanbook as a game product. The art is lavish, there's an original story, and tons of background material and secrets.

Game utility's another question. It was written for Mutants & Masterminds 1e. Later M&M editions took radically different approaches to some of the core mechanics. The additional rules presented here feel more like a d20 throwback. The later M&M supplement Noir has the same problem). It goes for crunchier, street-level options fitting the setting. That would require some serious retooling for other games and editions. That aside the Nocturnals offers an excellent resource for series fans and supers gamers who enjoy things like HellboyBuffy, or Mr. Monster. Worth picking up if you can find a copy. That used to be easy, but they're a little rarer now.

5. Omlevex (2004)
Omlevex is the greatest Silver-Age comic series never written. This book presents the imaginary characters and stories of that line- featuring Drake Einstein, The American Gargoyle, Freedom's Trio and others. It writing manages to capture the feel of the era without being completely derivative. You can see some of the inspirations, but they live on their own. The book's a super-fun read, but perhaps most useful for GMs running a lighter or more retro game. The coherence of the material means that it could be an awesome alternate dimension to play with. Omlevex came with stats for HERO 5, Silver Age Sentinels, and M&M 1e. Z-Man gave up on rpgs and this ended up in bargain bins for years. There were rumors that Omlevex would reappear as a new stand-alone supers rpg, but nothing has come of that.

6. Power Grrrl (2004)
Like OmlevexPower Grrrl offers a setting sourcebook for an made-up line of comic books (not to be confused with the webcomic Grrl Power). The only sourcebook for the POW! generic system it presents a very, very 1980's style comic book world. The always excellent Shanya Almafeta has a solid review of Power Grrrl posted on RPG.Net. I think that says just about everything you need to know. Point buy. d6 Pool Resolution.

This is another odd one from Green Ronin. Like The Nocturnals, I'd never heard of the Red Star comic series. Strangely this product isn’t a supplement for Mutants & Masterminds, but instead for d20 Modern. Green Ronin once again gives us a beautiful product; the hardcover's well-laid out and presented. Red Star offers a science fantasy spin on the Soviet Union. It seems almost more anime- a combination of shamanistic magic, high-tech suits & armor, and characters as singular heroes. It might be considered a corner case superhero product, but the character design and story arc of the original material seem closer to that than anything else. The unique setting works for and against it. If you're looking for a mythotechnic Soviet campaign frame or love the original comics, then this is for you. Otherwise it is so tied into that material GMs will have a hard time digging out useful bits. Class and Level based. Various dice for Resolution.

8. Capes (2005)
2005- What a great year for new approaches to superhero games! Capes is a GM-less player-driven supers game. The shared narration gets passed around, with players trying to twist and tweak their compatriots’ stories. Those tales go around with freeform play until there's a conflict, at which point it shifts to the rules for arbitration. It also has a token-based resource system, used as a currency for buying control. Capes focuses on a particular supers question: "Power is fun, but do you deserve it?." To play off that, characters accumulate Debt, which measures the difference between how much they've proved their worth and how much they've actually done so. As loose as that may feel, the game actually offers an interesting character creation system. Players select a Power Set and a Persona. These cleverly fit together with the player making a few additional selections, resulting in a final set of stats. If you're a fan of supers and like indie or GM-less games, you should pick up a copy of this. Having gone back through it again, I realize I really need run a Play-by-VoiP session of this. Set-Pick Character Creation. d6 Resolution.

Disclaimer: I was sort of involved with this game at a distance. I had a friend who worked for Eden Studios when they got the City of Heroes license. That made sense as the zombie baddies in the game took their name from one of the AFMBE creators. CoH seemed like a smart fit as the MMO had broken the mold and grabbed players’ attention. My friend asked me to sit on a couple of play sessions to get ready for con demonstrations. The game worked OK- in part because we only worked with the end results: character sheets with clear power explanations. We'd also played a chunk of Unisystem and so got the basics quickly. When we looked at the demo module- included in the quick-start pack- we decided it wouldn't work well for conventions. So I came up with a new concept built on a fight-investigation-death trap-final fight structure. I wrote that up, he massaged it, and Eden used it at Origins, GenCon, and other conventions.

Mind you, I had never played the City of Heroes MMO when I wrote the adventure. Plus we didn't have access to a version of the final rpg rules. Still things went off well. But the full game never appeared. All we got was a demo pack some time later. Again, the excellent Shanya Almafeta has a really spot-on review of it you can read here: City of Heroes: A Compare-And-Contrast Review. Eventually I did see a nearly finished version of the CoH tabletop rules. These were faithful to a fault- an incredibly literal and mechanical translation of the computer game's mechanics to Unisystem. I wouldn't have been my supers game of choice, but it never saw full publication. Another piece of Eden Studios vaporware, Beyond Human, originally seemed to be the supers sourcebook for Unisystem. However while it covered parahuman powers, it wasn’t a superhero game. Instead the settings and details offered went in completely different directions. Beyond Human still hasn't been published, but the nearly complete version I saw years ago was an interesting and worthwhile addition to Unisystem...and nothing like City of Heroes. Various dice resolution.

10. GODSEND Agenda (2005)
GODSEND Agenda doesn't do the greatest job of selling its unique setting. Check the publisher website and RPGNow blurbs yields only part of the story- a supers game with some mystical characters perhaps? BTW there will be some modest spoilers in this overview. The secrets of the setting may be why Khepera Publishing doesn't go into too much details. They want GMs to have the chance to slowly reveal the metaplot. In GSA modern super battles reflect an age-old battle between aliens and heroes with ancient historical links and legacies (think Nephilim or Fireborn). The history and background is crazy wild- and as one RPG Net review points out, can be used in any time period. If you're looking for a complete supers setting with a heavy weird mystical bent, GODSEND's a pretty good choice.

The game itself uses the D6 system (of D6 Powers and Star Wars (WEG 2nd Edition)). If you're comfortable with those mechanics, you may like this game. It ends up a reasonably light game, probably closest to Savage Worlds. Khepera also published a GODSEND Agenda Superlink Conversion and GODSEND Agenda d20 Modern Conversion, so if you're intrigued by the setting but not the system, you have some options. There's also a Quick Start version of the rules you can download. Point buy. d6 Pool Resolution.

11. Living Legends (2005)
Despite Fantasy Games Unlimited folding in 1991, Villains & Vigilantes managed to retain a significant following among superhero gamers. In the 1990’s I knew of several groups who had stuck with the system, sometimes returning to it after trying Champions. V&V co-creator (and legendary rpg artist) Jeff Dee took his experiences with that system and created Living Legends. It borrows some concepts from the earlier system, but elaborates on key mechanics including resolution, the power lists, and effect measures. Living Legends provides mechanics for point-buy character generation as well as random. Early editions of LL had some problems, but the most recent (v1.2) seems cleaned up. The publisher, Monkey House Games, would later issue a revised version of V&V. They’ve worked hard to make support products compatible between both games. As a result, Living Legends has a deep backlist of modules and organization books. Point buy or random character generation. Various dice for resolution.

I came to M&M 1e late in the product cycle. When I did, I picked up everything for it and ran two different campaigns. M&M wasn't perfect, but it did what I wanted and you could find a decent Excel-based character generator for it. Then Green Ronin published the second edition...not too long after releasing a major sourcebook for 1e- Gimmick's Guide To Gadgets- which the new rules completely invalidated. I was a little irritated. I'd invested in the whole line and M&M Superlink pdf products as well. That put me off buying into the 2e for a little while. But I wanted to see what changes they'd made and I eventually broke down. So yeah, I liked it. In fact I kind of loved it. M&M 2e cleaned up the mechanics and moved it further away from the original d20 sources. Now it felt like a game which stood on its own.

Not that it doesn't have problems. Some powers don’t match cost to actual power at the table (some Immunities, Possession, Obscure). My friend Gene objects to the Strength table values and the sheer number of possible conditions. The time/distance system can be wonky and using it with a tactical map often doesn't work. But despite that creakiness, I like the way it plays. I like the looseness and balance. Overall I like the feel and speed. I talk more extensively about that in this post from a couple years back. M&M 2e remains my go-to superhero game- just so you know my bias in these lists. I'm currently running a Roll 20 online campaign with it. I did buy a copy of the 3rd edition and I traded it away...but that's a story for a later list. Point buy with level limits. d20 Resolution.

13. Truth & Justice (2005)
Truth & Justice uses the PDQ or Prose Descriptive Qualities system. I've written about other games with those mechanics: Zorcerer of Zo and Swashbucklers of the 7 Skies. The simple system lends itself to a story focus and T&J game plays on that. The core book begins with an extensive discussion of the tone, scale, and style of supers campaigns. It's a useful discussion- but veteran supers GMs may find themselves skimming through.

The game uses a pick system with players choosing character elements including powers. Most of these connect to a Quality which has a value added to die roll checks. T&J includes a list of superpowers, nicely done and open-ended. The power rules straddle the middle ground between restrictive and completely abstract. The system also uses a Hero Points mechanic- with connections to successful heroic actions and playing out character conflicts. Overall gamers will find a light approach to superheroes. I'd say Truth & Justice is closest to the difficulty of any of the Marvel Supers systems. The core book includes a number of interesting campaign frames as well. Truth & Justice has gotten decent support, with a couple of supplemental books (Truth & Justice: More PowerDial S for Superhumans). As well other companies have published T&J versions of existing supers products- Legends Walk! (Truth & Justice Edition) and Adventures into Darkness (Truth & Justice / PDQ)

14. Villainy Amok (2005)
It may be just another supplement for Champions 5, but I have to call out Villainy Amok on this list. If you run superhero campaigns, you ought to buy a copy of this. VA is a sourcebook for crimes, capers, adventures, and campaigns. Each of the early chapters takes a classic supers trope (Natural Disasters, Superhero Wedding, Shrunken Characters) and examines how to run them, offers twists & turns, and shows how to link to other stories. While sometimes it goes off into dense Hero system mechanics, the base ideas are system agnostic enough to make it hugely useful. The end chapters give  lists of hooks and ways to muck around with the PCs' limitations and disadvantages. I'd like to see more books like this for supers and other genres. I've seen a few fantasy supplements covering narrow topics, but those more often end up offering specific adventures rather than a toolbox for gamemasters. I think a modern or sci-fi book of classic plots re-examined would work. I've written a little more extensively about Villainy Amok in this post.

With Great Power... describes itself as a melodramatic superhero game. WGP focuses on bringing a character's issues to bear and exploring those. The game plays out through Conflict scenes- where multiple characters face off in attempt to drive the story and Enrichment scenes- where a players look at character aspects and examines how the situation and challenges have affected them. The game uses standard playing cards for resolution, with the players sharing a common hero deck. The rules also encourage players to verbalize what their character is thinking- suggesting the use of a thought balloon prop to reflect this. It seems gimmicky, but I can imagine that being fun. That's a light contrast to the heavier discussion of dramatic situations and play given throughout the core book. 
Characters begin by defining a key character conflict (authority vs. freedom; justice vs. vengeance, etc). Players then explain what they excel in (which can include powers); define their character's motive; and sketch out their relationships. These make up aspects which serve as the basis of Enrichment scenes. A series of additional questions fleshes out the characters’ background and focus. The system's loose and highly narrative. For all that, I wouldn't call this a light system. It offers some challenging structures- both in terms of rules systems and play structures. If you're interested in unusual storytelling games or want to see an unusual drama focused superhero game, you should check this one out. Question-based character generation. Card-based resolution.

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

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

This Imaginary Life: Clearly Stating Your Playstyle

On Monday I had the chance to be on This Imaginary Life: A Post-Game Hangout Show. They have an amazing crew; I got to talk with Rich Rogers, John Stavropoulos, and Erik Frankhouse. We cover two topics- clearly stating your playstyle and techniques for running combats with less or no maps. I had a good time doing the show- though I 'll admit to being a little intimidated by such sharp and fast thinkers. I hope I offered some useful advice. Check it out. 

Monday, March 17, 2014

GUMSHOE: A System Guide for New Gamers (Updated)

I put this overview together back in Jan of 2012. I thought I'd update it with some new information and details.

Below is a guide to the various lines of GUMSHOE products, arranged by date of initial publication. I've provided a brief description of the premise and what new ideas this iteration brings. As well, you'll find a link to the core book for the system, reviews for that core book, and links to other products in that line. In the case of Trail of Cthulhu, I've provided a link to the Gamer's Guide to that RPG.

Pelgrane Press has used their GUMSHOE rpg engine across a number of game lines. The mechanics of that system uniquely focuses on mysteries and problem solving. Not a generic system, GUMSHOE instead has a set of base mechanics and ideas tweaked, shifted and added to for each version- aiming to offer the best genre emulation.

System: GUMSHOE 
GUMSHOE is a ability-based system, with characters being defined primarily by the abilities they possess. Characters have two types of abilities: investigative and general.

Investigative abilities include fields of knowledge such as Ballistics, Forensic Anthropology, and Streetwise. These have a rating which serves as a pool for use of that ability. Possessing at least a one rating shows the character has expertise. When a player uses that ability to examine a scene, they do not have to roll. Instead, if there are core clues present which can be found by that means, they locate them. Points may be spent from an investigative ability to gain additional or extra information, at the GM or player's suggestion.

General abilities cover areas where players can risk failure- Athletics, Health and Shooting for example. Use of these abilities is uncertain and success or failure can have a dramatic impact on the story. General abilities also have a rating which represents a pool. To make a test, players roll 1d6. If they wish they may make a spend from the relevant ability's pool and add that to the roll. Players must meet or beat a difficulty set but not revealed by the GM. General ability pools require special circumstances to refresh (end of a story, time in a hospital, etc).

Review: GUMSHOE: RPGs I Like 

GUMSHOE now has an SRD available for gamers and designers. It is available as both an OGL and a CC license product. For more details on this, see this post on the Pelgrane forums. 

The Esoterrorists 
Premise: Players take the role of agents for the Ordo Veritas, a benevolent conspiracy. They battle against the Esoterrorists, a network of radicals and maniacs dedicated to breaking down the membrane between this world and the supernatural outside. They do this by crafting terror and manifesting otherworldly creatures. They operate like a terror network, with a focus on fear and publicity.

System Additions: This book sets up the basic GUMSHOE rules, with expert agents operating in a modern setting. Pelgrane plans to publish a second, revised edition of this game.

Core Book: The Esoterrorists 

Additional Products: The Esoterror Fact BookProfane MiraclesAlbion's Ransom: Little Girl LostSix PackedThe Book of Unremitting HorrorThe Esoterror Summoning GuideAlbion's Ransom II: Worm of Sixty Winters, and The Love of Money 

Core Book Reviews: The Esoterrorists: RPGs I Like and Review Of The Esoterrorists By Pelgrane Press 

Premise: As above, players take the role of agents for the Ordo Veritas, a benevolent conspiracy. They battle against the Esoterrorists, a network of radicals and maniacs dedicated to breaking down the membrane between this world and the supernatural outside. They do this by crafting terror and manifesting otherworldly creatures. They operate like a terror network, with a focus on fear and publicity.

System Additions: I wanted to give the second edition its own entry. This version significantly expands the material. On the rules side the 2nd edition cleans up the presentation and clarifies points. It adds a few new innovations, but keeps things simple and clean. On the campaign side, it massively expands the background, explains the concepts more fully, offers more developed campaign set up, and presents several fully-fleshed scenarios. Everything's very well-done and presented. I would recommend this as a first Gumshoe game if you're working with a group unfamiliar with Call of Cthulhu (in which case, Trail of Cthulhu might be better).

Core Book: The Esoterrorists (2nd Edition)

The Esoterrorists on RPGNow
Additional Products: Products listed above work with this edition.

Fear Itself 
Premise: Players take the role of characters, perhaps victims, in a modern horror setting of slashers, creatures and maniacs. Fear Itself aims to simulate modern pop horror, especially cinematic horror of movies like The RingPulse, and House of Wax.

System Additions: The list of abilities has been modified to reflect the lower relative skills of characters in this setting. The rules also include very basic psychic powers- with dangers associated with those. Characters can start from a list of stereotypes, and/or choose special Risk Factors- drives which explain why the character remains in the story rather than fleeing. Additional rules for stability appear as well.

Core Book: Fear Itself

Fear Itself on RPGNow
Additional Products: The Book of Unremitting HorrorInvasive Procedures

Core Book Review: Fear Itself: RPGs I Like

Trail of Cthulhu 
Premise: Investigators against the Cthulhu Mythos. Adapts the key ideas of Lovecraft's work and the rpg traditions established by Call of Cthulhu into GUMSHOE. ToC notably moves the timeline forward, setting the game generally in the 1930's, rather than 1920's.

System Additions: Retooled ability sets to fit the genre. The rules offer two approaches to campaigns and mechanics, Purist versus Pulp, with the latter offering the players more of a fighting chance. Characters now have Drives which guide their behavior and choose a Occupation to start. Occupations determine starting abilities, credit rating and special talents. Stability has now been paired with Sanity as two distinct abilities. Those rules, including madness mechanics, have been expanded.

The rules offer a significant discussion of the Cthulhu Mythos, followed by an extensive bestiary for creatures from there and elsewhere. Rules for setting-specific magic and tomes appear as well.
Core Book: Trail of Cthulhu
Trail of Cthulhu on RPGNow
Core Book Reviews: Hiking with CthulhuTrail of Cthulhu: RPGs I LikeA perfect marriage of setting & rules, and My Profane Thoughts

Trail of Cthulhu: System Guide for New Gamers

Share A Game - Trail of Cthulhu

Mutant City Blues 
Premise: An event ten years ago resulted in 1% of the population gaining super powers. Players take on the role of officers with powers dealing with "heightened" crime and criminals. A predictable structure and pattern to the superpowers allows for investigations based on meta-forensics.

System Additions: An extensive set of super-powers, some of which operate as investigative and some as general abilities. Unlike other superhero games, powers must be chosen along certain lines. These lines make up "The Quade Diagram" a resources for players to figure out which powers associate with which evidence. Other abilities and rules focus on the police procedural nature of the game.

Core Book: Mutant City Blues
Mutant City Blues on RPGNow
Additional Products: Hard HelixBrief Cases

Core Book Reviews: Mutant City Blues: RPGs I Like

Ashen Stars 
Premise: A far-future sci-fi setting in which players take the roles of "Lasers," freelance law enforcers. These operate in the Bleed, a region of space once controlled by an empire known as the Combine, now left to its own devices. Navigating between disparate planetary cultures and races, the Lasers balance ethics and the need to make a buck. Moves the idea of mysteries forward more broadly to problem-solving.

System Additions: Several alien races with special talents provided. Alien specific abilities and psionics, as well as an ability list tuned to the sci-fi setting. Cyberware and biological implant rules. Extensive systems for spaceship combat. Notes on handling improvised investigations.

Core Book: Ashen Stars

Core Book Reviews: Review & A Couple of ThoughtsAshen Stars - A review, and Stars Like Ash

Premise: Not a stand-alone core book, Lorefinder adds elements of GUMSHOE's investigative rules to the Pathfinder system.

System Additions: Character creation within Pathfinder; drives for PCs; and new skills, feats and magic

Core Book: Lorefinder
Lorefinder on RPGNow
Core Book Reviews: Is that GUM on my Pathfinder’s SHOE? Or, can an “old” dog learn new tricks?

Night's Black Agents 
Premise: Players take the role of spies who have been "burned" by their company. The reason: their discovery of a massive vampiric conspiracy behind the scenes. Now the PCs must remain alive while striking back at the monsters.

System Additions: Highly tailored set of abilities for the genre- with new ideas and uses for abilities. Rules for using investigative abilities and general and vice versa. Benefits for high level purchases of general abilities. Role specific talents. Mechanics for trust, contacts, networks and betrayal. Now options for cinematic combat. Chase rules. Vampire and conspiracy construction toolkit.

Core Book: Night's Black Agents

The Gaean Reach
Premise: Based on Jack Vance's science fiction, in particular "The Demon Princes" series of novels. Players become hunters seeking vengeance on the mysterious and elusive Quandos Vorn. They have to seek their quarry through investigation, infiltration, and deception. The game take place in a golden-age sci-fi universe more of imagery than hard technical details.

System Additions: Players use a system of build cards to construct their characters. The group defines the details of why they're pursuing their quarry. The Gaean reach also adds a version of the Taglines system from Skullduggery and the Dying Earth Role Playing Game. This allows players to gain benefits by integrating premade phrases into their play. The basic GUMSHOE system on offer here is relatively light, with some interesting new takes on abilities.

Core Book: The Gaean Reach

The Gaean Reach on RPGNow

Premise: Players are members of TimeWatch, recruited from across history to fix and maintain the one true timestream. Missions may require the team to head to a particular date to fix an obvious change. On the other hand missions may also be more subtle, requiring the characters to investigate and piece together the specific sabotage.

System Additions: TimeWatch offers a set of character archetypal competencies, for those who don't want to build from scratch. The game offers some interesting time-themed abilities with additional effects (Paradox Prevention for example). Chronal Stability offers an additional damage track. It obviously includes material and rules for handling time travel, reality shifts, and destroying the timeline.

Core Book: Kickstarter backers currently have access to the Jurassic electronic edition of the game. The printed edition is due in November.

A series of short essays by Ken Hite produced monthly by Pelgrane Press. These alternate between discussions of Cthulhu Mythos creatures (odd issues) and deeper looks at places and ideas for GUMSHOE (even issues).