Sunday, July 26, 2015

Monday, July 20, 2015

PDF Only Supplements

I was thinking about what I'd like in a PDF-only supplement, the kind that's never intended to be sold as a printed book. How could you take advantage of the electronic and user-printable nature of PDF?

Let's leave off the bookmarks, because those should always be there. The only time they might not is when the content is less than four pages. We also assume that end users can print material from the PDF.

First, every character write-up on a separate page so they can be printed and used directly, without having. That means that the design of the write-ups is useful at the table as well as pretty.

A reasonably-sized graphic of a character that doesn't give away the secret ID (if there is one), so you can show the players, "Hey, he looks like this."

In fact, if the same write up had space so that you could annotate it (and the PDF allowed it), that would be great.

Cross-links between write-ups and mentions of the character. If clicking on the character's name took you to the write-up, that would be nice.

Certainly there's JavaScript stuff you could add that would make it interesting...a die roller, for instance, if there are random selection charts, that highlights the rolled entry or shades (not obscures) the other entries if you want to use the PDF directly from your tablet. (Actually, if you still want to keep the page count down in case you might print it, you can add a Print button to each character write-up that prints only that writeup, so the user could choose to print only the top character or the bottom one.)

Maps on the page would be nice: a way to print maps automagically, or to print only certain layers of maps so that the GM could plunk down the map before destruction and later after destruction.

Other ideas?

Sunday, July 19, 2015

Helping others

So I got the iPad version of Sentinels of the Multiverse and one of the things that struck me was that Legacy's powers are very much about helping others.

In Mutants & Masterminds, I'd do it by leaning heavily on the Usable by Others modifier, with the advantages Inspire (pretty much made for it) and I'd probably use Favored Environment (With Teammates), or, if the GM disallowed that, put together a lot of Favored Environments and Favored Foes as Enhanced Advantages, usable by others. Then you wouldn't have to worry about power level limitations. Add Regeneration Usable by Others, and then build a tough scrapper with what's left.

In ICONS, you don't have the power level limitation to worry about, but it is harder. One way to do it might be Ability Increase Extra: Affects Others. (If the GM objects, you could do it as Ability Boost, with the caveat that you suffer the ability loss because you've been "lending" your strength to others.) Again, some Healing or Regeneration Extra: Affects Others.

In Supers, you'd want Healing, of course, and I think the best choice would be Imbue with the boost for Multiple Targets.


Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Team Soap Opera


Once again, I'm thinking about the soap opera aspect of comics and how to represent that at the game table. I have read, and believe, that one of the great things that the 1960s Marvel brought to the genre was the soap opera aspect. While I'm not so crazy about the continuing narratives that developed, I certainly love the soap opera part, and felt when Gwen Stacy died, or that Doc Ock was dating Aunt May, or that Bruce Wayne was bereft when Dick Grayson moved out of the manor. But that's something that's hard to get across in RPGs.

See, most of that stuff happens in the solo books for a hero, and superhero RPGs rarely play that way. They emulate team books...which is totally understandable, because there are multiple players at the table, each with his or her own hero character. But team books don't have the same sort of personal dynamic.

It seems to me that team  comics come in two flavours: the anthology of characters (the Avengers or the Justice League), where popular characters from elsewhere are brought together, along with some characters who are seen only in the team book; and the collection of characters (the Fantastic Four or the Wolfman/Perez Teen Titans), where the characters may have come from elsewhere but they pretty much live in that book. (I've stolen the terminology from short story books.) The lines between them aren't clear-cut; sometimes team books are places where comics companies park intellectual properties so as not to lose them ("We're using Generic Name Guy! You can't use him!") or during the period where their own titles are under revamp, so these categorizations are poles, not boxes.

An anthology book assumes that most of the characters will have their interpersonal stuff somewhere else. We don't need to talk about Bruce Wayne's relationship woes, we can just present Bat-God as someone. The stories tend to be puzzle stories, or they have personal effects only on the book-specific characters. (There are exceptions, which are usually the result of editors and writers collaborating across titles, or where the same writer does several solo books as well as the team book.) So the New Avengers during Bendis' run dealt with Victoria Hand and with the Hood and the effect of the Skrulls on Spider-Woman, Luke Cage, and Jessica Jones, none of whom had their own series at the time. Other characters moved in and out and made quips or actions that cemented their (external) characterization. Heck, they even lampshaded it with Wolverine.

A collection book generates a lot of its soap opera from interpersonal conflict between team members. The teams tend to be smaller (though they aren't always: the total collection of X-Men would sink an aircraft carrier, but they usually focus on four to eight) and there are NPCs who deal with the whole team (your Jarvises or Victoria Hands) and NPCs who are specific to individual characters. The more interteam stuff there is, the less you need NPCs outside the team.

And none of that shows up in comic book RPGs. Oh, it can: Worlds In Peril has the Bonds mechanic, which I quite like, and lots of games have the idea of qualities or complications or disadvantages that deal with specific NPCs. The latter don't require NPCs and soap opera, however. (That's good if your players don't want to get into that stuff. I'm not writing about players like that, though.)

How do you encourage soap opera? I have no sure way. However, here are some ideas:
  • Don't travel. Yes, you just had a great idea that involves everyone being on an interdimensional road trip. Have you established what they have to lose, back in the home dimension? Will they care if they ever come back? Yeah, you can travel once you've established your turf, or let the NPCs travel with the heroes, or give them other-dimensional analogues of the NPCs with whom they can say the awful things, or who will act in exactly the ways that the heroes hope or fear the NPCs will.
  • Throw lots of NPCs at them. Some of them will stick, even if they haven't created characters with particular DNPCs. If the PCs seem interested in the NPC, bring him or her back.
  •  Encourage qualities/complications/disadvantages that use NPCs. Try to make the NPCs interesting. It's a nice idea to make the same NPC the dependent NPC of several characters, if you can. If Clara Sparrow is the wheelchair-bound sister of one hero and the boss of another hero and is dating a third hero, well, you've got three reasons to bring her in, and some opportunity for interteam conflict.
I'm happy to hear other suggestions.

Thursday, July 9, 2015

Villains: Making It Personal

When you play a superhero game, there are the villains who are puzzles and villains who are personal. (Okay, there are a couple of other kinds, but they don't start with 'p'.)

Puzzle villains are the ones you have to figure out--once you know that they're secretly plants that are vulnerable to Round-Up, it's session over. They can't come back unless they have new powers because otherwise someone will just go to the hardware or garden store.
Personal villains have a stake in what they are doing. They have an emotional need to do it. Victor Fries wants his frozen wife back. Norman Osborne, at least early on, was as much about his feelings for Peter Parker as his lust for power. 
This is something that Batman: The Animated Series was brilliant at, by the way: most of their adversaries had the kind of emotional hooks you could use multiple times. Other animated series have used it since then. You can certainly have mercenary villains who will split as soon as the projected profit drops--they're a nice palate cleanser, if you will—but it's good if the villains care.

A villain can care for lots of reasons. (Movies provide a good sampler.)
  • He or she is getting back at all the people who laughed at him.
  • He needs the parts or money to get that operation for the sick loved one (Dog Day Afternoon with superheroes?)
  • She's on a vendetta against anyone who went to her high school
  • He wants to get even with the other crooks who stole his share of the money (Payback).
  • She needs to be proven right about some scientific theory that they all laughed at (but where fixing the immediate danger puts the world at risk if there isn't a danger).
It's even better if the emotional hook is tied to the heroes, in hero or civilian ID:
  • The villain is jealous of the hero.
  • The villain is getting back at the hero because the hero refused his offer of friendship or mentorship (Spider-Man).
  • The villain and the hero know each other's secret identities, and one can't reveal the other without being revealed...but their drives or Qualities keep putting them in conflict.
  • The villain wanted someone the hero is dating or married...and having discovered the secret identity, is going to humiliate the hero identity.
You know your heroes. Make it personal to them.

Monday, July 6, 2015

Whoops. We caught the bad guy...and there's still three hours to go.


Of course, that's the point, but usually you catch the bad guy at the end of the session. Sometimes you haven't taken everything into account (usually synergies of powers, but it could be that the players just out-think you, or--as happens to me--you just overlook something obvious like a little-used power and they don't, or something else) and the planned villain for the piece could go to jail in the first fifteen minutes, leaving you with a very early finish to the night.

As pointed out to me by Fred Hicks, if at all possible, you want to give them their victory: you want to say "yes" to this turn of events. The alternative, which I have used, is to hand each player a determination point or whatever your game uses as metagame currency, and go on as you originally planned. There are a couple of problems with that. First, it's not fair to the players. Second, it really encourages the "You lose until I say you win" kind of thinking that rules-light or narrative games can fall prey to (at least in my experience).

So the big bad guy is going to jail. First, let them savour their victory. Roleplay the news interviews while you figure out what you're going to do next.

There are a couple of possibilities at this point.
  • The villain planned for getting caught, and he's on the street again in hours. This isn't bad, but you don't want to encourage the idea the players can't win in any way. The end result is that one or more of them decides that killing the bad guys is more permanent, and suddenly the light Bronze Age game you were playing is plunged deep into the Iron Age. And it depends on the villains, too: if the villain is a "leap before you look" kind, no one believes it. (However, if lawyers out of their snack bracket get them out of jail, the PCs know there's something up, and that can be the indication that you need that Someone Else is behind things.)
  • The villain you just put away wasn't the real villain. This is a little more satisfying, if done right. How do you make it satisfying? Have an effect on the rest of the session. That effect can vary. Sometimes the effect is just that the PCs had a chance to be awesome. Maybe the rest of the story is soap opera dealing the consequences of that awesomeness: fame, fortune, whatever, for some team members, and dissatisfaction for others.
  • The real villain learned more about the PCs so that he or she could execute the dastardly plan. If the PCs had to use a little-used power, that's a win. Specifically guard against it, and there you are. The real villain then launches the real plan.
  • The plan called for the villain-in-jail to be in jail, either because the big villain has some kind of plan that they will enact in the jail, or because it gives them plausible deniability for the bigger crimes that are about to take place (until the PCs prove that the jail has a revolving door, or there's a link between the villain-in-jail and the villain-at-large).
In a campaign, you can also spend time on the various subplots you have going. You laugh and say, "Well, you put him/her/it/them away quickly, so now, Nuclear Lass, you can spend time with that loved one." That doesn't work as well if it's a one-shot.

Another thing you can do is turn the evening into a bunch of small encounters that build up the PCs' reputations. Then you can do something with that large reputation: either have them invited up to the next level ("The Avenging League is on the phone") or have them asked to help with a mission that looks like it's out of their range. (That would be the cliff-hanger where you say, "See you next week!")

And none of it involves saying, "You don't knock him out. Here's a Determination Point."

Wednesday, July 1, 2015

School Reunions

I was wondering, the other day, whether Professor Xavier's school ever held reunions. I don't think it does because the nature of comic book time is such that there aren't a lot of graduated classes. (The same for the Mutants & Masterminds setting of Hero High.) But the idea of a reunion at a school for supers appeals to me.

In fact, there's a setting made for it, although reunions are never mentioned: Melior Via's Hope Preparatory School.

And there's a couple of film models, such as Romy and Michelle's High School Reunion or any number of television shows about going to your reunion. (I'm blanking on all of them but Leverage but there have to be a lot, or the things I think are cliches would be fresh and new.) I think going to the reunion would be a great one-shot adventure.

Partly because, and I didn't know this until recently because I am out of touch with reality (it's my super power), school reunion shootings are a thing, now.

So the high school class's tenth or fifteenth anniversary looms. Cissy Parker-Wedge, she of the cheerleading squad and the drama club, she has decided that there should be a reunion. If you're doing a regular superhero adventure, there will be a hostage situation because lowly and despised classmate Eden has gotten powers in the meantime and become a supervillain. (In fact, this is the adventure I ran for M&M based on the idea.)

But I'm thinking about a supers high school. Everyone had powers or training. Everyone gets a terrible life secret that they don't want to reveal. (Billy doesn't fight crime any more! Wealthy industrialist Anthony's company is in the toilet and it's only a matter of time until the auditors discover it! Audrey feels like a man trapped in a woman's body, but gender reassignment surgery is out of the question when you're invulnerable!) There will be good things, too: teenage Casanova Rudy realized he was gay and has a much happier lifestyle now.

So given the setup, there are two possible major plot premises:
  • Someone blames you for their problems, and causes trouble at the reunion
  • You are trying to hide something about yourself and ultimately it gets exposed
You can do both, of course, and it's doubly satisfying if one of the PCs coming clean about the problem they are hiding helps defuse the problems that the troublemaker is having. (Then you have the rest of the troublemaker's friends there for something else, such as the information in the administrative computer, which includes, oh, everyone's secret identities.)

If you were running ICONS, everyone gets an extra Quality which is the thing that they are hiding. You also, in a Spirit of the Century kind of setup, have them list something about their relationship with the other player characters as teenagers. Because you want this to be fun, if someone doesn't like it, they get to be the spouse or significant other of someone who went to the school.

Then, a little more than a quarter of the way through the evening, the troublemaker shows up with lots of things that are player character weaknesses...and takes someone's (normal) significant other as hostage. Some of the demands can't actually be met (well, we assume they're not going to use time travel). While the person is making these demands, the rest of the bad guys are using that as cover to get into the administrative records. The old ones...from before computers. It doesn't matter if the computer is unhackable, if what they want is on paper.

Yeah. Something like that might do as the framework for my next one-shot adventure.