Monday, November 30, 2015

The Year in Superhero RPGs 2014

Today I look at Superhero RPG games released in 2014. That was a good year for supers in general, though perhaps not in comics. There we saw experiments and counter-experiments burning bridges. But on TV we got The Flash, Agent Carter, Gotham and Constantine. Those join ongoing series Agents of SHIELD and Arrow. It’s worth noting how many of those are only tangentially supers. In the theaters we got a new TMNT, the franchise-killing Amazing Spider-Man 2, an underrated Big Hero 6, the overrated X-Men: Days of Future Past, a happiness-inducing Guardians of the Galaxy, and finally one of the best superhero films ever, Captain America: The Winter Soldier.

The year’s a little thinner for RPGs. I don’t mean that as a slight against the tremendous products released (AMP: Year One, Cold Steel Wardens, Worlds in Peril). I mean it seems like the market slices out thinner and thinner. While 2013 has a massive influx of new games, the number drops in 2014. But we’re still seeing many more new systems, rather than the expansion and support of existing ones. We have a lot of superhero games out there: many of them just engines and others tied to a setting. It seems like gamers’ dissatisfaction with existing mechanics pushes them to build new ones. I don’t know if that fragmentation happens more with supers or if it just feels that way. That’s probably a question for someone who knows data and can figure out how to model that.

In any case, a solid year for Superhero gamers with a host of new options.

If you’re a podcaster or blogger and want to talk with me about these series, drop me a line. I got nominated for an ENnie last year, so that’s something…maybe. If you’re a designer for games I’ve mentioned on any of these lists and want to talk about your work and thoughts about the genre in general, I’d love to have a chance to do that.

I focus mostly on core books here. I include Kickstarter projects if they actually released in 2014. I give pdf-only releases their own entry if they’re notable, of significant size, or come from a major publisher. I’ve consolidated a ton of material into several ”Miscellaneous” items at the end. I’m sure I missed some releases. If you spot them, leave me a note in the comments.

AMP: Year One falls into the category of Setting-Immersed RPGs. Some Supers games only offer a system, while frost it with a thin layer of background. But a few build their games and mechanics in tandem with the setting. Aberrant and Rotted Capes come to mind. AMP takes that further. In the setting events lead to the sudden explosive appearance of many people with "Accelerated Mutant Potential." The book offers some explanations for the rise, but the full tale's part of the metastory. AMP: Year One covers the first year of supers. That's a smart focus- and parallels the development of the Marvel Cinematic Universe recently.

Eloy Lesanta (Wu Xing, Infestation) offers a lot of background and history in AMP: Year One. He clearly presents the rich world. While the character sheet looks fairly complicated, the system's actually simple. Powers group into Strains, with distinct elements associated with them. They're nicely organized and reinforce the flavor of the setting. The book’s solid and worth reading, especially for GMs interested in new approaches. This year Lesanta released the second volume, AMP: Year Two. That moves the timeline forward and offers new advances for the PCs.

For a long time everyone in our gaming circles wanted to play street-level superheroes. That started in the late 1980s, an effect of Watchmen, The Question, and Miller's work on Batman and Daredevil. Eventually Dark Champions (First Edition) would cater to this kind of low-powered game a few years later. By that time a different kind of street-level supers comics would be in vogue. It felt more brutal, more visceral. It wasn't necessarily low-powered, but it definitely had superheroes doing whatever they wanted to bring justice. That would eventually be known as the Iron Age. I skipped reading comics for most of the '90's so I missed that transition, except for the occasional single issue of something like WildCATS I borrowed. It all seemed grim, strange, and covered with pouches to me. Until now the most significant attempts to gamify that era have been Champions: New Millennium and Iron Age for M&M.

Cold Steel Wardens does a takes on the most interesting new themes from the 1980's. It references the social turmoil and changes of the period. While it focuses on the Iron Age, it leans towards the earlier part of it. It has a great hook, and unlike many superhero games it puts that front and center. CSW has its own system: point-buy and relatively light. The mechanics take up the bulk of the volume. Usually I'd point that out as a potential problem. But instead of just being a new game system with a thin wrapper of setting, Cold Steel Wardens supports the genre. Characters take Strain, both physical and mental. Those aren't just Hit Points or Body. Taking that damage incurs checks which can lead to collapse and breakdown. Mental deterioration can lead to psychoses. Motivations and stances for characters also affect play. Everything feels tuned to serve the genre.

The powers list feels strong, but not exhaustive. General types are presented (Blast, Adhesion, Immunity). Each has options for additional effects and drawbacks. It looks quite easy to build a character. CSW also includes a solid GMing section, covering how to present the genre. There's a setting, New Corinth, detailed in 60 pages (if you include NPCs). That's useful and could easily be adapted to other campaigns. Overall if you like new superhero rpgs and have a fondness for this era in comics consider checking it out. Cold Steel Wardens manages to treat an often parodied era with some seriousness. But it doesn't revel in grimdark. Instead it strikes a smart balance.

3. Masks
Not to be confused with the recently Kickstarted Masks. This Masks is another retroclone from Gratis Games, creator of Codename: Spandex and Dark Dungeons. But this isn't a straight translation. Instead it mashes together Fudge and FASERIP (aka Marvel Superhero RP). That's a neat take, especially since we've already seen a handful of direct FASERIP rewrites. Masks has a ton of interesting material, presented well (with a plethora of Storn stock art). Masks includes no setting info, but instead offers a solid and quick superhero system with a comprehensive power set. It focuses on more classic super-tussle gameplay over anything more narrative. And for a product you can download for free, it amazingly has a decent index.

4. Mutants & Masterminds
Green Ronin dialed back their support of Mutants and Masterminds. Their Gadget Guides assembles the previously published guides for gadgets and items. I like that approach of putting out electronic supplements and then bundling them. Beyond that the company released the Atlas of Earth-Prime series. That expands the world used for the house setting which includes Freedom City and Emerald City. Hopefully we'll see a bundled version of that in the future.

A small game by Sage LaTorra (co-designer Dungeon World, Saga of the Icelanders). Powers for Good has a sharp focus. The rules are fairly abstract and narrative driven. Players create descriptive tags for powers and associate dice for actions. It reminds me a little of Marvel Heroic. There's also a strong AW vibe, especially in the GM section. The quick mechanics take up most of the 37 page book, with the last four pages given over to a quick scenario "Dr. Fission vs. The World." It has some decent art, usually full page. While the cover looks like a Pulp Action game, the material's much more aimed at four color. It cites All-Star Superman and Astonishing X-Men as inspiration. The designer intended this as the first of a series of games. However Powers for Good doesn't seem to have had any follow up. It is currently available PWYW on RPGNow.

Project H.O.P.E. is an Italian Supers RPG I missed on my earlier lists. It first launched in 2008. The system has gone through a couple of editions so far and (I believe) has several supplements. In 2012 they tried to raise money for an English translation via Kickstarter, but were unsuccessful. It has a WW2 setting, combined with Dieselpunk elements. The Silver Age supplement seems to expand the rules and add more setting material, but it may be beyond my Google-fu. Anyone have more info on this game?

An Italian supers rpg self-published in hardcover. This game Kickstarted in early 2014, with both an Italian and English language edition. The former released in'14, while the latter is supposed to land this year. That's an exciting development in gaming IMHO: games released in multiple languages and/or quickly translated. The designers recently ran online events for this at Aethercon. That's another great thing I hope we see more of.

The game itself looks fairly grimdark: a mix of Image comics, '90's flavor, less subtle Ultimate Power, and maybe Abberant? CERN has an accident in 2008 which creates (Humans Exposed to Radioactive Outbreaks). They gain star status, but begin to succumb to normal human corruption and passions. The teaser images include a super fashion magazine cover, a costumed protest, and a pile of half-naked dead bodies. I couldn't tell much about the system itself from the publisher material: "Original incremental dice system rules. No modifiers, thus no hard calculation skills needed. You will not be required to roll too many dice at once. Full rule coverage for every single natural phenomenon. Easy rules for beginners and rich experience for experts." We'll see what it looks like when it comes out in English, likely in 2016.

I lose geek cred for the gaping chasms in my comic book knowledge. As I mentioned above, I skipped the '90s in comics, but I also missed some of the second-tier comic publishers like Valiant. I literally have no idea about this comic universe, except that 1) it looks pretty dense, 2) The guys on the Wait, What? podcast seem to think their recent output is solid, and 3) they have some kind of Toy Story/Quantum Leap crossover book? Maybe?

In any case licensed supers books have not done well in recent years, and those outside the Big Two have rarely gained traction (The Authority RPG, The Maxx, Superbabes). But Valiant Universe has the backing of a strong publisher who pushed the game solidly with several playable demo packs featuring different characters from the line. It doesn't hurt that the game itself looks great- with solid layout and art. As well the comic publishing landscape has changed, with greater and more diverse access through electronic distribution. So maybe it can last?

The system itself uses variable dice to represent quality (stat dice) combined with a d12 base dice. It reminds me a little of The One Ring, with larger die types in place of more dice. Powers are simple and each character has different narrative cues they can call on. There's hints of Fate, Marvel Heroic, and many other systems. The biggest innovation is the rotating role of the Lead Narrator. Essentially the LN controls the action for one complete scene. After that the LN role passes to the player on the right. That's a radical approach and the one which I've seen turning off some players. I like the idea and I’m curious to try it. The system itself feels light enough that could work. If you like story-leaning supers RPGs check this one out. If you're looking for a Valiant Comics sourcebook, this is also a good buy. My only worry is that catalyst has done nothing to support this line. Besides the original Quick Rules (and their expansions) they've released nothing for the core line in the year+ since it came out.

I've done a capsule review of Venture City Stories, so I'll steal from that. It's a brief supers supplement for Fate Core. Venture City Stories is cleanly laid-out, following the template established in other Fate products. It looks good, with highly functional sidebars and call-outs. There’s a wealth of solid art here for a small product. Illustrator Tazio Battin delivers with an excellent and evocative style. The images manage to capture the sense of a world with high level supers and street level conflict.

Venture City is a focal point location, a grim and murky urban center with corruption run through it. It exemplifies the rest of the setting: a world questioning supers and a deeply blurred line between good and evil. It reminds me a little of Hub City from the DC Universe. The whole tone feels close to Marvel’s Ultimates universe. You could also compare it to Aberrant, but dialed back significantly.

Essentially players come up with a core concept for their power. They break the important features of that power into discrete stunts. Each power has a Drawback; really a trouble aspect for it. But it also has a set of Special Effects- microbenefits which can be called on when a player succeeds with style on the use of their power. They can also use their power in overdrive which gives them an amazing result, but inflicts a Collateral Damage effect. One of the examples is a Speedster able to travel anywhere in an instant but tearing up the streets behind them.

It has some other cool elements, as you can see from my full review. I dig it and have run using the mechanics a couple of times. Evil Hat has promised an expansion to VCS, adding more examples and templates for powers.

I've played Worlds in Peril a few times now. It offers a Powered by the Apocalypse framework for supers. Yet Worlds in Peril feels very much like a broad and classic supers rpg (ala Mutants & Masterminds, Champions). You can do various simple builds and the meat of the game focuses on combat and conflict with villains and their plots. There's a little bit of social stuff in the "Bonds" mechanics, but those very much have a supporting role.

I wasn't sure about the game honestly. I backed the Kickstarter mostly because I dig superhero games. But I've come to like Worlds in Peril and appreciate the approach it takes. That being said, the order of information makes learning more difficult than it needs to be. I found myself reading and rereading several sections before I got how it worked. Even then, when we played I had several pieces wrong. Bottom line: the writing makes the game more opaque than it needs to be. I say that as someone who enjoys and recommends Worlds in Peril. It has some great ideas and can move fast. But be prepared for the radically different approach it takes to powers. Recommended.

Side Note: I've been asked about the difference between WiP and the other recently Kickstarted PbtA game, Masks. This is a really rough impression, but Masks has more crafted archetypes (called playbooks) which you can tune. More mechanical attention's paid to social interaction, status, leverage, and interpersonal relationships. How you get along with your fellow heroes, your peers, adults, etc affects stories and play. That's really rough, but Masks is much more tuned to a particular kinds of supers game. I'm always interested in seeing how designers approach that.

11. VixeM
A Spanish rpg in which second-string supervillains have to battle an alien invasion. That sounds a little like Necessary Evil, but more tongue-in-cheek. The publishers blurb stresses the simplicity of the system and cites Apocalypse World, Houses of the Blooded and Spirit of the Century as inspirations. It also mentions that the characters may be more of a threat to one another than the enemy. I'm curious if that's an off-hand comment or actually mechanically part of the system. PvP elements, IMHO, can break a group. They have to be handled carefully.

12. Miscellaneous: New Editions
Three stand-alone rpgs received new editions in 2014.

Bulletproof Blues (Second Edition) updates a game which came out only in 2013. This version does little to change the actual mechanics. Instead it expands the examples and advice from the first edition. That only adds about eighteen pages to the count. The Invulnerable Super Hero RPG: Vigilante Edition is a new edition of the 2011 game. This cleans up some of the mechanics, adds some new options, and changes the interior artwork. The project had a failed Kickstarter but released anyway.

I mentioned the original Supers! on the 2010 list. That game has gone through some publication contortions. This revised edition came out of a successful Kickstarter. There's a distinct difference in the look: while the earlier version had cartoony art (ala ICONS), this one looks more like something from Valiant Comics. This new edition expands and develops the mechanics originally created by Simon Washbourne. It still offers a reasonably simple, d6 based engine but with additional options. The response has been mixed. I've seen a number of positive reviews and players citing this in "What Supers Game to Use?" threads. But I've also seen reviewers take exception to the changes and finding them scattered and broken. Yet even that critique still calls this one of the best generic superhero games out there. If you're a system-hound for supers games, you might want to check this out.

13. Miscellaneous: PDF Character Books
Ah Villain books, the bestiary of superhero systems. Tthey lend themselves to individual release, so we've seen micro-pdf products and series lately. Hence this listing may not be complete.

Mutants & Masterminds 3e did well. Black Wyrm Publishing began a new series, The Algernon Files 3.0. However they've only released a few. WatchGuard: 7Ronin offers another set of adversaries set in the WatchGuard world. Rogues, Rivals & Renegades has a series of individual villains with commentary from several organizations. Acts of Villainy continued to roll out, broken into three types: Masterminds, Solo, and Teams.

ICONS has several new or ongoing series: 3RD Power presents High Science villains; Space Supers covers “The Great Game” setting; World’s Most Wanted is fairly classic; and Do Gooders & Daredevils works for this and M&M 3e. Other system received less support. Villains: Accelerated came out in several versions including Fate. Heroes and Vigilantes offers a collection of characters as well as setting details for use with the MADS rpg. Soultaker Studios added to their Adversaries series with support for BASH, SUPERS, G-Core, and Capes, Cowls and Villains Foul. NEULOW continued their interesting series providing d20 Modern adaptations of public domain characters like The Three Lives of Fantomah: Guardian of the Jungle and the Complete Golden Age Oddballs: Kismet & Penny Parker. This is a great series to check out if you like classic Golden-Age stories and high weirdness. Finally, Las Mejores Historias del Centinela Jamás Contadas expanded the characters of the Spanish Supers rpg La Mirada delCentinela.

14. Miscellaneous: Updates and Adaptations
  • Bangers: Trigger Happy's an odd little rpg, aimed at emulating high-octane gun-bunny movies like Die Hard, The Killer, The Transporter, and so on. Essentially hard and heavily armed characters blasting it out and flying in slo-mo through the room with guns blazing. Bangers offers a setting and rules expansion for TH, where youths battle it out with superpowers instead of firearms.
  • Base Raiders/Savage Worlds Conversion Guide: One of several guides released. That's great- I love the setting, but don't dig the system as much.
  • Better Mousetrap (MM3): This originally came out for Mutants & Masterminds 2e. This revision maintains the same material, but updated for the change mechanics of 3e. This is an interesting grab-bag supplement. It has enough mechanical elements I can't recommend it for non-M&M GMs, but for those running the system, it's a great purchase
  • Future Heroes (Fate): A Legion of Super Heroes-esque frame for Fate. It comes from Starbright Illustrations who don't have a great track record for Fate supplements. Caveat Emptor.
  • Iron Bay Virginia (ICONS): One of several "Actions Have Consequences" products converted for use with the latest version of ICONS.
  • Savage Worlds Super Powers Companion (2nd Edition): This has a good amount of new material as well as updates to the previous mechanics. 

15. Miscellaneous: Modules
  • Assault on Precinct 9: Set in Stark City, written for ICONS, it has the PCs stopping a jailbreak.
  • BETA Men: A new M&M 3e module for the Amazing Stories of WWII setting.
  • Evilution Unchained: A massive three-act mystery campaign for both ICONS and Hero. Superhero campaign modules are fairly rare, so that's a welcome release.
  • Fiasco: This game saw two superpowered adaptations. Bats! offers a world where everyone plays a gravelly-voice version of Batman. X-People has mutants amok.
  • Heroes Wear Masks: Avalon Games published several modules for their Pathfinder-based system. Freak Nation, God in the Machine, Native Population, Pax Demonica , Playing Your Cards Right, and Rise and Fall of the Phoenix.
  • ICONS: Ad Infinitum released two adventures: The Metaskulk Invasion and The Nemesis Crisis. The company continues to do a good job keeping this line active.
  • Mind Games: A Rotted Capes adventure which has characters dealing with a corrupted mentalist
  • Scene Stealers 1: Black Ice: The first of a series of short modules for Supers!. It has the players dealing with a cold-themed villain.
  • Super-Special 2014: A Free Comic Book Day module available in M&M 3e, ICONS, or Supers! flavors.

16. Miscellaneous: Setting/Game Material
  • Awesome Powers: A series of substantial supplements for BASH!. Each details a different power set. This year saw the release of Force & Gravity and Mental.
  • Public Enemy: A chunky supplement for the weird manga-inspired Double Cross rpg. This adds options for playing villains, new traits, more background on existing organizations, and a detailed random scenario generator.
  • Splinter City: A Protocol series game. These are rules-lite rpgs sharing a system, created by jim pinto. You don't play heroes here, but instead normal folks going about their day-to-day lives in the shadow of superhero-dom. Think Astro City.
  • Super8s: Two short supplements for the "Crazy8s" rpg. They add a module for playing. The two books complement one another, but the first volume has the basics you need.
  • Superstring Multiverse: Offers multiversal enhancements for M&M 3e. It discusses related powers, presents characters & universes, and offers ideas for managing these campaigns. The company has supported this with two additional expansion books.

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