Thursday, December 31, 2015

What Street Level means to me


Someone was asking for a street-level system over on G+ the other day, and I had answered before I really examined my assumptions. So here we'll take a quick look at street-level supers.

If I say I want a street-level hero, then I probably mean Black Lightning. Or Arsenal. Or Batman...wait. Do I mean Batman? Or Spider-Man? I mean, the Bat goes up against Darkseid on a regular basis, as part of the Justice League. And while Spider-Man whups a certain amount of hoodlum butt, I never think of someone like the Green Goblin or Doc Ock as street-level, so why should their arch-foes be street level?

But on the other hand, if we measure a hero by his or her occasional opponents, then anyone who has ever been in the Avengers or the Justice League is not street level. (And over the years, they've had pretty much everybody.) Even though the Justice League has a number of decidedly cosmic foes, it has also had members like Vibe, who it's pretty safe to say is street level. And Black Lightning.

And, frankly, it can't be power level, because I don't think that we can count Adam Strange as street level, even though he's just a dude with a raygun and a rocket pack.

Where does Squirrel Girl fit? I mean, her whole raison d'etre seems to be to take down cosmic villains with a plucky attitude and a set of frankly silly (uh, sillier than usual) powers.

So it can't be occasional opponents and it can't be power level. What about regular opponents? Well, for the early part of his existence, Jim Corrigan as the Spectre confined himself to thugs and hoodlums. In those days, he was the spirit of vengeance. Star Lord has, well, the kind of powers that would do him okay in Hell's Kitchen, but he is a regular in cosmic stories.

There is no hard-and-fast rule, especially as characters wander between titles and teams. So the term "street level" has got to be a guideline, a kind of wish list, rather than an absolute.

With that out of the way, when you say a character is street level, here's what it means to me. Your definition might vary.

  • The character isn't that powerful, or that really intense power is limited in some way. Perhaps OmniNom can turn anyone into a piece of bedroom furniture given their true name, but most people don't even know their true names. OmiNom has to be like any regular trained person...until finding out the person's true name...and then exacts retribution. Or Hulkette can bench press a tank, but has normal tensile strength problems when trying to lift or move heavy objects.
  • Some guys with guns are an actual threat. Kitty Pryde and Colossus probably aren't street level by that metric. Batman might be; every once in a while, they get a lucky shot (when guided by the plot).
  • The usual stomping grounds is a neighbourhood or city, and it's a noteworthy event when the character goes elsewhere.
  • The usual foe hasn't got ambitions beyond the city. There are no plans to take over the world, but rather plans to knock over the 7-11. Or bank. Or maybe get that valuable item out of the vault. Or revenge. If he or she gets hold of an unstoppable robot killing machine, the most likely use is to rob jewelry stores.[1] Again, it's a noteworthy event going up against a foe with bigger plans.

These aren't absolute; characters can be really powerful and be limited mentally or morally, or have sworn an oath to defend this patch of land. But really I need three out of four of these for a character to sometimes be street level.

It feels more like scope, though that's not all of it. Spider-Man is street level mostly because he chooses not to deal with world or nation threatening problems. Cosmic characters talk about worlds and universes where street level characters talk about buildings and streets. They save the world or the universe on a regular basis. (Must be tough to get insurance on Rann.)

In an RPG, lowering the available points/dice is an easy adjustment, but if everyone's on the same page, you might not need even that. 

1. And then drive the Unstoppable Killing Machine out of town to unload it, but the cops are still following it, so you have to kill or disable the cops, and then the spy satellites have it, and it's just sitting there...with a load of bullion...waiting. Killing anyone who comes near. Man, that sounds like a setup for a story.

Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Criminal Times

If one were to do a crime of the week thing, with a map and perhaps with a villain or gadget, how would that be different from an adventure? I mean, if you wanted to help the weary or suddenly on-the-spot GM.

What I would find useful is a map, a list of powers that make the crime a non-starter, and a textual description of the villain. The GM provides why the villain is doing it and tailors the crime and equipment a bit to suit the heroes, if necessary.

The map and the villain might even be references, because there is a certain amount of overlap, but this is one of the cases where specificity is your friend. Otherwise, you do six or even thirty-six of them, run through the major plot situations, and are done...without it having much utility. There's a limit to how generic we want things if we're in a hurry.

No, I'm thinking of stuff like a map of a restaurant and the wine cellar in the basement has an extremely rare bottle of wine that the thieves have been hired to steal. In a superhero universe, how do they do it, and how do the heroes find out? (We assume that the thieves are competent.)

Or the villains need something, so they've kidnapped the dependent of one of the heroes (or of an NPC hero, if everyone has created brooding orphan loners who work together), and the crime is to stop the hero and find the dependent. (Variation: The dependent isn't kidnapped at all, but has been sent by the thieves on a free vacation to a spot without wireless. That requires a very particular personality type on the part of the dependent.)

It's more a criminal situation than an adventure.

Sunday, December 27, 2015

The Sidekicks Origin Generator!

Another repost from back in the day.

Because I'm always most creative when I'm avoiding something else, here's something I whipped up.

Special ICONS Origin Generator for Sidekicks

Instructions: Roll a d6 once for each parent on the appropriate table for the character. (Roll for the correct number of donating entities if the character's origin is Unearthly.) Mentor refers to the primary hero; roll once on the Mentor table to determine identity.


RollMentor is...
1The real or adopted parent
2Actually younger than the sidekick
3Actually a group of heroes, such as a team
4A close personal friend
5The biological or adopted parent
6Entirely ignorant of the sidekick right until they show up at the same place and time


RollOriginal Parent is...
1Captured by evil people
2Absent, back home
3Willingly gave up child to die
4Has somehow misplaced the kid
5Objects to this crimefighting lifestyle
6Is the character's main foe


RollBiological Parent is...
1Conveniently absent or comatose
2Wishing he or she could operate the device but these brittle bones...
3Is actually an agent charged with finding the sidekick and mentor
4Inconveniently absent and the sidekick is covering up
6Is the character's main foe


RollBiological Parent is...
1Worries so about this dangerous lifestyle
2Gave his or her life so that child would have a motivation to fight crime
3Has no idea that this kid does that stuff
4Conveniently absent (out of the country, etc)


RollCreator is...
2Friend of Mentor


RollParent Is...
1In another dimension
2On another world
3On another continent
4Forbidden to be involved
5Approves of this
6Character's archfoe


RollOriginal Parent is...
2Dead by fire or explosion
3Dead by flood
4Dead by disease
5Dead by criminal action
6Dead of causes to be specified later

World of Wonders Fanfic: Every Prince A Frog

Last one I'm going to pull over from the LiveJournal for a while. This one's a story I wrote, inspired by the creations of Dr. Comics himself, Jason Tondro, for ICONS. I have rewritten one paragraph that always bothered me.

No, really: It hasn't had the proper editing, but it's fan-fiction: I'm not going to pursue it. (Where would I try to sell it?) At Dr. Tondro's request, I'm going public with this story.

Characters of Frog-Girl, the Veil and Matrix and parts of the setting copyright 2011 by Vigilance Press. Characters of Frog-Girl, the Veil, and Matrix created by Jason Tondro and visual look created by Dan Houser. Of course, I claim copyright on the arrangement of the words, and my moral right as the author.

That should cover all the legal stuff.

Every Prince a Frog

Polly Sanchez stood on the sidewalk outside her date's home and looked at the motorcycle helmet with horror. "You said you had a full-face helmet." She hated that it made her sound vain.

"It's a helmet." Jason scowled, which made him merely good-looking instead of handsome.

"You said full face. Like with a mask," Polly said. "I'm not gonna have bugs in my teeth." How could she tell him about eating bugs and turning into Frog-Girl? She couldn't. But he had said he had a full-face helmet. Without the right kind of helmet, she wouldn't have agreed to go to this concert on his motorcycle. Their relationship was only two dates old. It was practically new-born.

"Suit yourself." Jason threw a leg over the bike and kicked the engine into life.

"You're going to leave?"

"Hey, it's two tickets for a hot band. Someone will want to go. See you at work tomorrow." He pulled into traffic.

She stared at his retreating form. She finally shouted after him, "Not if I see you first!" If he heard, he didn't respond.

"Jerk," she muttered. She turned—

—and a flying body knocked her down and away from a stone gargoyle that fell to where she had stood.

She lay on the ground, with a hard-bodied person on top of her. A man? "Sorry," he murmured, and practically levitated up, all lithe muscle and grace. He wore a stylish pair of jeans and an equally expensive windbreaker, with a white scarf draped carelessly around his neck, almost covering
his mouth. He tucked it up hastily, at some attempt at anonymity, so naturally Polly memorized his face. His clothes looked careless to first glance, but Polly could tell that the outfile had been assembled with a couturiere's eye for fashion. He wore a fedora, which she noted: you just didn't see many fedoras these days. This one was askew but hadn't come off.

"You should watch out," he said in the same quiet murmur. Tenor voice, maybe striving to be a little less effeminate and not quite sounding natural.

She spat out the thing in her mouth. Good, it was just gravel and not a bug. "Yeah," she said. "Hey. Thanks."

But by then, he was gone.

* * *

Polly sighed as she let herself into her apartment. Walking home had taken until after dark. She held her mail in her free hand, but it was just bills: she always hoped there would be something from her mother's side of the family, in Europe. It looked like they had disowned her since the curse of Frog-Girl showed up.

She smiled. She used to get a kick from birthday gifts from her grandmother; twice—her twelfth and sixteenth birthdays—the gift was even money from Grandmother's numbered Swiss bank account. All of Grandmother's letters smelled faintly of nutmeg, which probably meant that a cook typed them, but still, they meant something to Polly. They might have even influenced her decision to become an investment banker, the closest thing to royalty on Wall Street....

No, this royalty was going to spend the night with a pint of Haagen-Dazs chocolate. A movie. Maybe some tweeting.

"He was trying to kill you," came a woman's voice from the shadows.

A Wonder who's into mysterious, Polly thought. Greeeeeat.

She heard the droning of a fly somewhere if she needed one. "What, my rescuer?" she asked as she tossed the bills on a table.

There might have been a smile in the voice. "No: the man who aimed the gargoyle at you."

Polly shrugged. "Gargoyles fall. Old buildings, you know."  She wished she knew who she was speaking to. Frog-Girl, not Polly, could see in the dark. Duh—normal people turn on the light.

She did so. "I'm making tea, if you want some," she said to the invisible figure. She strode into her kitchen area and opened a cupboard. "I tea, Ceylon, and I can make chai lattes if you're not lactose intolerant. 'Cause, you know, I don't want to spoil the whole stealth thing for you."

A woman stepped from the shadows, swathed in dark clothing and a veil over her face. "You are taking this quite calmly."

Polly pulled out the makings of tea. "Lady, I'm from New York. Last week, I saw ghosts of slime men, a horde of rats each as big as a German shepherd, and a doctor making a house call. Nothing shocks me." She put on the kettle. "Well, maybe the house call. You want tea?"

The woman shook her head.

"What, the veil doesn't move?"

The woman glided like a dancer to the edge of the kitchenette. "It was
not his first attempt."

"If I haven't even noticed, he's not very good."

"Listen to me." The woman threw down photos. "He arranged a subway accident, but the train was mobbed by mutant rats and had to be diverted."

And finding a fly on the subway car was the hardest part of dealing with them. "Could have been anyone on the subway. Or all of us. I know—maybe we're all marked for death!"

"Then he tried a trapped cab but you evaded that entirely by abandoning the cab."

A cab? She usually took the subway— Oh. Right. The accident with the burning zeppelin—well, technically, the ghost of a burning parallel-universe Hindenberg. She scooped tea into a ball, got the ball in the teacup.

"You're unusually lucky—Frog-Girl."

Polly laughed. "You think my eyes are that bulgy? Who are you? Maybe BurqaLady? Or is it a hijab, because I can never keep those straight." Just before the water boiled, she poured it into the teacup.

"Some call me...the Veil."

The Veil? In her apartment? Crap. She had to get the woman out of there! Even if the Veil was better than her reputation, which Matrix claimed, she was still too kill-happy by ten.

Polly said carefully, "Sometimes I see Frog-Girl going by. I'll bet she lives near here. So if you waited on the roof, she might go by."

The Veil backed up to the window. "How long would I have to wait?"

"Don't know. Maybe you'll be lucky and Frog-Girl will be going by in the next few minutes."

"Perhaps." And the Veil was gone: Polly barely caught a musical whisper of boots on the fire escape. Then she heard only the sounds of the city. She should have gone out the other window, Polly thought. Nobody can see you. That was why she had the place.

Well, that and the rent-control.

She inhaled the scent of the steeping tea. "We are two single women in the greatest city on earth, and we're gonna spend tonight dealing with a man. We would so fail the Bechdel test," Polly told the empy room. She sighed, poured out her tea, and headed to eat the droning fly. Maybe it will taste better with just a bit of ice cream.

* * *

Five minutes later, she had circled away from the building so she could leap back as if on her way from somewhere else. The Veil waited in the shadows on the roof of her building. Not invisibly, she saw: the Veil was just very good at staying in the shadows.

Frog-Girl squatted upside-down on the bottom of the water-tower and looked at the Veil. She croaked to get the woman's attention. "Hey, Vey. I assume I can call you that."

"Frog-Girl. You may not." She said it gracefully; the Veil seemed to do everything gracefully, even when she wasn't moving.

"Pretty formal for a woman in pyjamas." Frog-Girl leapt across the roof to the wall beside beside the Veil. "Thinking of moving from Titan City to the Big Apple?"

"This apple has worms in it."

"You don't have to tell me—I've dated half of them. So: bad guy in town, and you would like moi's help in catching him? Or do you just want girl talk? You think the girl Wonders are cute, or the boys?"

"I think an assassin is trying to kill you."

"That is like the worst girl talk I have ever heard." She pointed at the bum hiding at the edge of the roof. "We need something to amuse that guy. Get outa here, you," she shouted. "Never seen two Wonders talking before?" She turned and saw that the Veil was already lithely running to the next roof like a parkour expert.

Frog-Girl sighed and bounded over. "Look, who would want to kill little old me? Seriously."

The Veil stopped in the shadow of a ventilator shaft. "Listing only suspects who have motive and the resources to hire an expensive retired assassin—"

Once the list got depressingly long, Frog-Girl interrupted. "I meant, who would want to pay to kill me? My foes take a DIY approach to retaliation and homicide."

"Nonetheless, Tufan is trying to kill your other self." The name sounded like "Tufan" but was in another language. "I think that means he knows who you are. In that identity, you are vulnerable."

"He's been stalking me?"

"You have a Twitter account. You are easily stalkable." The Veil ran and grabbed the edge of the next roof, pulled herself up. Frog-Girl paced her easily. "But what I want to know," said the Veil, not out of breath at all, "is why a contract for the murder of a Wonder would pull Tufan out of retirement and have him change MO. Ideas?"

"He doesn't normally use falling statuary? Because I hear it's the rage in Europe."

"Tufan controls winds. He fills your lungs until they burst."

"Ew. Kind of a CPOP machine?"

"This is my first break in finding him in a decade."

"You were looking for him? Like, not to avoid him?"

The Veil stopped. "Long ago, Tufan killed someone I knew. A young girl. He was just one of the soldiers, then." She shook herself—but gracefuly. "I thought perhaps his powers had faded with time. It happens. It would explain the change in MO." She touched her side, and for the first time Frog-Girl noticed a slight bulkiness that might be a bandage. "That turns out to be untrue."

"I hear you're kinda badass. What do you need with me?"

"I thought I would give you a chance to face your would-be assassin." The Veil jumped to grab a pipe running down the next building and slid part of the way down.

Frog-Girl followed. "But you haven't been able to find him."

"Until now. I got a tracer on him after his attempt on you, during our fight." She made the drop to a fire escape. Frog-Girl landed on the wall beside her. "And Matrix speaks highly of you," the Veil said.

"Okay. I'll help. On one condition." Frog-Girl got to where the Veil could see her. "No killing. I mean it."

"I thought 'Justice croaks at midnight'—'croak' does mean die in the idiom, does it not?"

Frog-Girl stared after the retreating woman. Was that a joke? I think that was a joke.

* * *
The tracer led them to a sewer manhole in an alley. On the street, traffic hummed by.

Frog-Girl whispered, "Why is it always sewers? I hate sewers."  The Veil's posture showed she was about to speak and Frog-Girl said, "Rhetorical!" Frog-Girl laid one hand flat against the cover and pulled, lifting it as it stuck to her hand. "After you."

The Veil held a finger to her mouth for silence and dropped into the hole. Frog-Girl braced herself for the splash or worse, the roar of wind, but there was only the sound of a word in Arabic. Probably a curse word, the way the Veil said it.

Frog-Girl dove in and looked at the puddle of cloth on the floor, and then she flinched from the smell. "I hate sewers!"

"He left his clothes and the tracer here," the Veil said, and said the word again.

Frog-Girl looked up and down the sewer shaft. "Maybe he just changed here. No obvious hideout or exit."

"No; he found the tracer and dumped everything here." When Frog-Girl poked at the clothes, she said, "I checked the pockets. Nothing."

"But did you check the labels? This is not Wonderwear."

"It's what he was wearing." She inspected the sewer ladder.

Frog-Girl looked up from the clothes. "Is he cheap? Because this is cheap stuff. Disposable?"

"He used to wear Wonderwear, even with the surcharge for criminals."

Frog-Girl fingered the cloth. "But he doesn't now. Maybe too expensive for him?"

"That could be why he came out of retirement. He needed the money."

Frog-Girl would have smiled, but her mouth wasn't made for it. "I can check credit ratings if we need to. It's a chain label, and this chain has a store nearby that's open 24 hours, and it's the most convenient of the three—" She noticed movement behind her, almost like something were solidifying, and the Veil tackled her, knocking her to the ground as chitinous claws slashed through the space where she had been.

The Veil fired twice over Frog-Girl. Even silenced, the gun seemed loud in the tunnel. The Veil rose to one side and fired once again.

Lying on the floor of the sewer tunnel was an enormous translucent bug, more than six feet long. It had claws that would have torn through each of them.

Frog-Girl swallowed, and was annoyed by the gallumphing sound. "So that's what's been eating the alligators. I wondered where they'd gone."

"You have the oddest luck," said the Veil.

"All bad. But— Thank you. That's a heck of a gun."

"Incendiary rounds. For someone who might be able to turn into wind."

"Tufan can do that?" Frog-Girl swallowed again.

"He couldn't before. But rampant growth of his powers would also explain the need for money." She holstered the weapon. "Possibilities."

What cost Tufan his retirement money? wondered Frog-Girl. Stock crash?

* * *

"It doesn't look open," said the Veil.

"It is." She pushed open the door. "I needed a change of clothes once. Cheap was good."

The clerk in the store was a young Asian woman, maybe eighteen. "Frog-Girl! You need another poncho?" She leaned forward. "What about this guy who saved your life? Was he cute?"

"You tweeted that?" asked the Veil.

"Just that it happened. I didn't give away my secret ID," said Frog-Girl. To the clerk, she said, "Definitely gay. Too nicely dressed."

The Veil plopped the clothes on the counter. She said, "We're looking for the man who bought these."

The clerk examined them. "Our store label, but I didn't sell these," she said to Frog-Girl. "Mama's asleep, but I'll ask Papa." To the Veil, she said, "He has insomnia. You guys will watch the place? I'll be a minute." She bustled away.

The Veil said, "She's calling the police."

"She's getting her dad."

"I'm a wanted criminal."

"I'm a humanoid frog. We all have our problems." She was talking to empty air. She shook her head. "So rude."

* * *

"I told you she was getting her dad. Anyway. Big Arabic guy," Frog-Girl told the Veil. "Middle-aged, moustache but shaves his head by the stubble. Someone invents a hot wax treatment for heads, they make a mint."

"Frog-Girl—" said the Veil.

"Okay. He paid cash, but he's been coming in here for the last couple of months. Always alone. Smells of disinfectant. Once he bought kid stuff—pyjamas. Shopping here, though, I'd guess he's economizing." She shook her head. "Penny wise, pound foolish. I still have a Burberry trenchcoat—"

"Frog-Girl. I listened. The man told us where Tufan is."

"I'm telling you he doesn't know."

"But he told us that the man smells of disinfectant, and that he comes in late, but not late enough to be working night shift. Which probably means after visiting hours at the hospital. We just have to figure out which hospital. We'll start with childrens' hospitals, because of the pyjamas."

"Oh." Frog-Girl pulled out her phone. "I'll tweet it. Someone will recognize him."

The Veil closed her eyes as if in pain. "If he knows who you are, he probably reads your tweets."

Polly used her tongue to put away her phone, then said, "All right, we'll do it your way."

* * *

"Who knew your way would involve B&E?" said Frog-Girl from the ceiling. This was their second hospital. The first had been easy, quick, and negative.

"Shh. If you can't be quiet here, stand lookout."

Frog-Girl padded along the ceiling, moving to the wall when the drop tiles began. Behind her, the Veil slipped into the office. Down the hall, a paunchy red-headed security guard was walking along with his big timeclock. And the timekey was by the office the Veil had just entered. Security guards are bad, right?

There was no way the guy was gonna miss a giant tree frog clinging to the wall. Frog-Girl could hide, but this wasn't a good spot. She backed up and dove through the transom. The Veil stopped trying to crack into the computer and looked at her. Frog-Girl indicated quiet with one orange finger to her lips.

The doorknob turned.

The guard stepped in and scanned the room with the beam of his flashlight. He saw the computer unattended and on, shook his head, and came into the room to turn it off.

On the way out, he saw the humanoid frog clinging to the ceiling. He stopped.

Frog-Girl didn't want to knock him out or paralyze him; he was just doing his job. "Shhh," she whispered. "I'm hiding."

"From what?" he asked.

Good question. From what? "Killer...shape-shifting...robot. From the future."

"Like the Terminator?"

"Where do you think they got the idea?" That's where I got it. "Right now it looks like a big bald Arabic guy. Seen anyone like that?"

"Just Mr. Fakhoury. Up on the sixth floor. His daughter's sick. But he's been there for months." The guard looked at his watch. "He might still be there—sometimes the nurses let him stay late, him being her only relative and all."

"Thanks. The robot's too dangerous to tackle alone."

"Should we evacuate?"

"Don't even know if it's him." Behind the guard, Frog-Girl saw the Veil raise her arm and— "No!"

The Veil hit him on the base of the skull with a pistol. He fell like an empty potato chip bag. "You were taking too long."

"It was peaceful!"

"Now he has a better story, and we don't risk of alerting Tufan with an evacuation." She shook her head. "Killer shape shifting robot?"

"We don't even know if Mr. Fakhoury is Tufan!"

"We will."

* * *

The rolling cart was hard under her, and everything smelled of disinfectant and plastic. Frog-Girl felt exposed, even though the cloth covered her. Like they were going to see her and laugh at her. Sure, she could fight mutant rats, tangle with ghosts or other-dimensional slime-men, deal with the insidious plans of the Subtle Cuttlefish or the Singing Sprite, but really, she looked just stupid going down a hospital corridor. And the windows here did not open far enough that she could slip out and go up the outside of the building, like last time.

All the Veil had to do was throw on a labcoat and she looked like a technician with a burqa. (She was pretty sure it was a burqa.)

And then the cart stopped moving. Another elevator? She heard the click of a door. Muffled distant hospital sounds. A scream.

She threw off the cloth. She was in a closet. Damn that Veil! She had gotten rid of Frog-Girl, which meant that Mr. Fakhoury probably was Tufan.

The door was locked. She could probably break it open, but this was a hospital, and that would be noisy— She saw the hinges. Oh. It opened inward.

She placed one sticky finger on a hingepin and lifted. It came out smoothly; obviously they greased their pins on a regular basis. Twice more, and the door was loose. She fastened both hands against the door and pulled. It came off smoothly and she set it aside.

People in the hallway were running away, so she leapt toward what they were running from.

Papers and chairs whirled and obscured, caught in the cyclone that stretched from Mr Faroukhy's hand. Sofas from the small guest alcove were tumbled against walls, two windows were broken, and the smashed computer equipment from the nurses' station lay scattered on the floor.

Movement showed her that the Veil had slipped into the nurses' station.

"Hey," she called to the man as a greeting, but he aimed a hard stream of air at her. It didn't knock her loose from the ceiling tile, but it did knock the tile free. I hate ceiling tiles. She leapt off the tile in mid-air, but the gust of air slammed her into a wall.

The Veil took the opportunity to stand and fire twice at the man.

Frog-Girl shouted, "No killing!"

"He has killed scores of men and women!"

Standoff: if the Veil moved forward, the man would kill her, but his winds couldn't deflect a bullet. Frog-Girl looked around. She needed to know where Fakhoury's daughter was. Over there—a nurse, hiding, that room. Problem was, she was hiding close to the nurses' station, so the Veil might overhear.

Not to be helped. Frog-Girl began making her way slowly along the floor, sticking to the floor and keeping low even as the winds threatened to tear her loose. In the nurses' station, she could see the Veil reloading. What now? Explosive rounds?

Frog-Girl slipped into the room, and the sudden lack of wind was like a balm. "Mr. Fakhoury's kid—where?"

"Room six-twenty-four." Frog-Girl didn't move. "Across the guest area, down that corridor. Third room on left."

"Thanks." She scuttled out of the room, saw that the Veil was already halfway across the space, pinned down by the man—she guessed she could call him Tufan. If she went across, the same would happen to her, and the ceiling was those damned drop ceilings—

Ah. Drop ceilings. She scurried up the wall and lifted a tile so she could squeeze inside. The real ceiling was a maze of ductwork and cables and dust—she saw one dustbunny that was due to gain sapience soon, based on size alone—but movement was not impossible. Slowly, she picked her way, trying not to shudder as grime stuck to her slimy skin.

Ah. There. She crawled into the third room on the left, across to the far wall. From behind, she could paralyze people entering the room and they could talk—

She carefully lifted a tile—

Too late. The Veil stood beside the dark-complected tween girl in the bed. The Veil had a gun to the girl's head and one aimed at the doorway. The girl looked like one of her nieces, except surrounded by cables and tubes and machines that went ping.

And Tufan was in the doorway.

The Veil was saying, "You killed dozens of people in Yemen, and for this crime—"

Frog-Girl shot out her tongue and pulled back the pistol aimed at the girl. The pistol tasted of gun oil and sweat. She tucked it in her belt.

"Ptu," Frog-Girl spat. "I said, no killing!"

In response, the Veil wrapped an arm around the girl's neck. The pistol aimed at Tufan didn't waver. "I can break her neck."

"I know you can," said Frog-Girl. "But do you want to avenge the death of one innocent girl by killing another?"

"If necessary."

"That's not the woman Matrix told me about. You mean he was wrong about you."

There was a long moment: no one moved—then the Veil pushed the girl away as she fired at Tufan.

Frog-Girl's tongue lashed out again, but this time wrapped around his wrist and yanked him into the wall. The bullet tore into the place where he had been.

"And you!" Frog-Girl said. "Who paid Tufan to kill Paulina Sanchez?" She used his name deliberately: give him the chance, later, to make good with his daughter.

The Veil's pistol swiveled, aimed at his head. Now less than four feet separated them.

The man looked at the pistol, and at Frog-Girl. "It was a numbered account."

"Show me," said Frog-Girl. She could at least track it; Polly knew people in Switzerland. She could even reach out to her Grandmother. "You can use my phone. It has a web browser."

It took him a few moments. "Here."

Frog-Girl looked at the number. "Keep the money," she told the man. "Help her get better. Stay with her."

She told the Veil, "I know who they are."

"But Tufan—"

"Has given up killing. And if not, you know who he is now, and what he looks like, and that he has a daughter. Surely you can find him with that."


Frog-Girl grabbed the Veil by the waist and bounded from the room. Three more leaps and they were outside, on the side of a neighboring building. Frog-Girl scaled easily to the roof, where she set the Veil down.

"I could have got him," the Veil said.

"At what price?" Frog-Girl said. "And you won't. Because, unlike everyone else, I have some idea of what you look like under that veil."

The Veil started to move—

"If I have to paralyze you to make you listen, I will. You were following Paulina Sanchez, trying to find Tufan. I know that. So it stands to reason that you were the guy who rescued her from the gargoyle. Right height, right size, right moves. Then you disappeared to fight him. Right?" Frog-Girl handed the Veil back her pistol.

The Veil checked the chamber and then holstered it. "Matrix was right.  I am impressed."

"I notice you didn't confirm or deny. But I don't want that girl to lose family like I did."

The Veil drew her eyebrows together. "Your family loves you. I've seen you with your nieces."

"My father's side loves me." Frog-Girl gave a small croak of despair. "My mother's side—they're the ones who paid Tufan."

The Veil looked away for a moment, and then she said, "I do not have to return to Titan City immediately."

Frog-Girl leapt to the edge of the building and crouched there. "I'd like that."

"I can get a jet to take us to Switzerland."

"I mean a movie and some girl talk," said Frog-Girl. "I have work tomorrow."

Saturday, December 26, 2015

Stamina and Pyramid Tests


In fact, I had forgotten that I touched on Pyramid Tests and Stamina in the original ICONS rules, after Team-Up came out. Here's what I said...


One of the optional rules in ICONS Team-Up is that characters can use success pyramids instead of Stamina. That is, instead of saying that a given character has 15 Stamina, you say that he needs a Massive Success to knock out.

Quick recap of terms: A Massive Success means that you get 5 or more points of Effort (that is, your roll and numbers add up to 5 or more better than the target difficulty, whatever it is: a roll+Ability of -1+8=7 is a Massive Success if the difficulty is 2, but not if the difficulty is 10). The thing that makes this a pyramid is that the successes are cumulative: two moderate successes make a major success, and two major successes make a massive success (which means that four moderate successes total up to a massive success).

In some ways, this is the same as Stamina, except that you're not whittling down Stamina points, you're whittling down even more abstract Success Pyramid points or levels. But that very abstraction opens you up to some different possibilities.

Those successes can be in anything. Suppose your heroes are fighting the evil Regenatron ("The Von Neumann New Man"), with Regeneration 10 and Damage Resistance 8, but only Intellect 3.

Aaaaand the powerhouse character (Strength 10!) player didn't show up the last mnute. What you have instead are Looneytunes the shapeshifter and Bob Howard The Duck, the computer-using occultist who has been cursed into the form of an anthropomorphic metrosexual duck.

With a success pyramid, they could take on Regenatron.

Rather than punching (Looneytunes is Strength 3; Bob Howard The Duck, henceforth BHTD, is Strength 1 because, hey, he's a duck), they confuse him into giving up.

Looneytunes begins by working with BHTD to create a dinner date, and Looneytunes assumes the form of an attractive female rabbit. (Well, it works for Bugs Bunny.) Their first scam is to make it think that he's the odd one for not being an anthropomorphic animal....and they get a major success, because it's not bright. They tell it it's supposed to be a sloth. (The GM adds "Gullible" to his list of challenges for Regenatron, and makes a note that a firmware upgrade will remove that later.)

Then they fake it out by claiming it has to go to the office, which it does, trying very hard to stunt its regeneration into transformation, trying to look like a sloth, and it's moving slowly. It's taken in by the office (moderate success), which is why the explosive in the filing cabinet surprises it. (Looneytunes' cosmic power whipped it up.)

Then Looneytunes comes in as Regenatron's "boss" and begins berating it, but Regenatron figures out who he really is (the poor shapeshifter has a tell), and gets mad (the GM is using the rule where a failure wipes out an equivalent success). Regenatron is angry, so it doesn't see the portable hole that BHTD has conjured up and steps in....and the hole leads to the other hole in the ceiling, so poor Regenatron keeps falling faster and faster, while Looneytunes gives it anvils to hold and gets popcorn while eating, right up until BHTD takes the hole out of the floor...

And so on. It rather reminds me of the Marvel Heroic Roleplaying game in that abstraction (though the idea predates that game).

If you were going to use success pyramids for stamina, I'd consider only using them for villains, or major villains. a sense, the minion rule in ICONS is kind of a success anthill: minions are removed from the fight by a single success. You could grade opposition by success pyramids...

OppositionTo DefeatPossible Difficulty
MinionA single moderate successTo hit value
HenchmanMajor successTo hit value
VillainMassive success5, but depends on hero tactics
MegavillainMassive success8, but depends on hero tactics
Cosmic crossover style villainMassive success10, but depends on hero tactics

What it takes away is any concrete idea of what the heck they're doing, and the level of the power matters less. You have to refigure Regeneration and Energy Drain and Affliction. 

What it adds is that villains who would normally be invulnerable are now accessible by all sorts of means.

Friday, December 25, 2015

Have a villain group


Another repost from the LiveJournal.
For no particular reason, I was thinking that there aren't enough villain groups for ICONS. (Man, did I love the Champions Enemies books back in the day.) So, have a villain group in ICONS. Have them without stuff like, oh, explanations or tactics. This group, Fourscore, specializes in stealing things: information, diamonds, ATM refills, whatever.

I see them as losers, actually, taking jobs and always looking for the next big job. Kobold keeps having his heart broken and talking to Covalent about it, who thinks, "I'm right here!" and Whackjob is laughing at both of them. Lightfinger is this earnest crook type who is sure that the very next job will put them in the big time. Despite their powers, they can't quite put it all together.

As powers go, they're actually not bad, though they are hindered by the lack of anything in a technical sense. On a lot of jobs, Lightfinger just sends in Whackjob as the new filing cabinet. She gets the stuff (so long as it's material; she's no good with computers—reminds of her days in an office, before the accident) and they go. She walks out the next day, and off they go.

If the job calls for something more direct, then Whackjob waits to be auxiliary if it all goes south (which she often ensures). Covalent general takes the leadership role here, because he has experience with small squad tactics; he's largely hampered by the fact that he doesn't know nearly enough chemistry.



Gardner Finch8Leadership
8Strength7Resistance (magic)
Determination25Power Theft
*Intellect4Resistance (damage)
  • Sensitive about height and being different
  • Loyal to his gang
  • "These powers gotta be worth something!"
112 lbsWillpower
Point Value 536


Whackjob Prowess Specialties
Tina Wells 5 Performance (Acting), Stealth
Transformed Coordination
Stamina 3 Powers
10 Strength 5Fast Attack
Determination 4 7Transformation
Limit: Not physical properties Extra: Stretching
* Intellect
Height 7 6Aura (usually grows spines)
Varies; originally 4'11" Awareness Qualities
Weight 6
  • Loves to imitate office furniture...especially filing cabinets
  • Looney-tunes practical joker
101 lbs Willpower
Point Total 51 6


Kobold Prowess Specialties
Larry Erdman 4 Science (Geology)
Unearthly Coordination
Stamina 4 Powers
10 Strength 4 Elemental Control (Earth) [Blast]
Determination 5 Extra: Defensive
* Intellect 4Mind Shield
Height 5 Qualities
4'2" Awareness
  • Unknown to him, a changeling
  • Falls in love at the drop of a hat
  • Loves to lecture
Weight 4
118 lb Willpower
Point Total  40 5


Covalent Prowess Specialties
David Petersen 5 Military
Transformed Coordination Powers
Stamina 4 5Transmutation
Extra: Defensive Extra: Effect, Telekinesis Limit: One element at a time, full panel to shift
Extra: Effect, Energy Drain (as all the oxygen tries to leave you)
10 Strength
Determination 6
* Intellect
Height 4 6Stretching
6'0" Awareness Qualities
Weight 3
  • Nonhuman looks
  • Wanted by the US Military
  • Hopeless love for Kobold
180 lbs.Willpower
Point Total 434

Likes Kobold romantically, but Kobold is straight, so that's not going to happen.

In my brain, they have this whole backstory. They grew up in the same poor crime-ridden neighbourhood.  Pick a problem, somebody had it, including substance abuse, health problems, self-image, abusive boyfriends, self-loathing, and so on. They stuck together because nobody else would stick with them. When they found the device, they figured selling it would be their ticket out. They were all eighteen to twenty at the time. They were hiding it at Finch's place when it exploded and caught all of them. It triggered Finch's mutation. Erdman tried powers for the first time and it works, so he figures he was transformed. Petersen was on leave from the Army, but he never returned, being a kind of glowy guy now.

Thursday, December 24, 2015

My first thoughts about adventure scope: A reprint


This was originally over on my LiveJournal, before I started this blog. But some of the roleplaying stuff should move here, I think, so I reproduce it to meet the twin needs of wanting content here and collecting all the superhero stuff on one blog. It was at


Originally, I was thinking about classifying various superhero adventures. I complained last year (or the year before) about how many of the published adventures were "road" adventures. (I complained because I wanted to see local adventures, but road adventures are not necessarily a bad thing. Most of D&D is built around road adventures.)

Anyway, the obvious range for superhero adventures may have a mix of magic and science, or be one or the other. We'll do a Kinsey scale thing and call it 1 to 6. At the extreme ends, you need to have someone skilled in manipulating that technology; in the middle it's just trope flavouring.

An ICONS adventure such as A Murder of Crowes is essentially all about magic, but you don't have to be magic (call it a 2), while something like The Skeletron Key is all about technology (call it a 5). Most adventures sit in the middle—Gangbusters! has high-tech weaponry, but that's just flavour. Most adventures explicitly show you one pole or the other, but don't rule out the opposite....The Skeletron Key might have all the shiny tropes of technology, but it doesn't rule out the presence of Magus Rune, Lord of the Inscriptive Arts.

The other scale is scope, with it extending from local to cosmic. Say the range is City - Nation - Continent - Globe - Solar System - Cosmic. (I'm not sure that Continent gets a lot of play in North Americaonly three big countriesbut it could be very common in Europe.) (I tried placing Neighbourhood in there and claiming that anything off earth was Cosmic, but several adventures take place near-earth and I wouldn't call them cosmic.)

You could go binary with this thing, with the two values being road and local, but as an adventure classification, you probably want to know how far the PCs are going to go.

Dimension hopping is rather like scope. I was thinking about it, and rather than dimensions being woo, another axis, they're really a bit of flavour. Another dimension is another city or farther; same scale as scope. If your players go to Opposite World, where everything has managed to come out mostly the same despite everyone having the exact opposite moral compass, or Annelis, the world that exists on the surface of a fluke burrowing ever deeper into the body of the glutton god Azagulp, really the difference is how distinct they are, not how far they are. What you're measuring is how much the everyday behaviour of the heroes is appropriate to what they're doing. I just indicate dimension hopping with an asterisk...and let the scope indicate how different the rules are. Even though everyone on Sauroglobe is a reptile, the world acts like ours. Call it a different city (Nation). Opposite World is a global change: It's at least as different as someone from Poughkeepsie going to Mongolia. Annelis is probably cosmic.

A big part of changing scopes means, I think, losing allies and being unfamiliar with the local customs. So if you normally run Zebulon Odd and his adventures with the Omicron Gang, having him be trapped in one city forces him to deal with things he can normally ignore. In the same way, when Vine-Swinging Gupta has to travel around the world, he gets to deal with all of the culture shock details he normally doesn't.

Remember: we've already established that things like lethality or noir-ness are set by your campaign.

For the set of adventures I did (all the Ad Infinitum, Impossible Tales, and Stark City stuff), there were 33 adventures. Fourteen were restricted to a city, the rest were not.

There's certainly wiggle room: First, I don't have all of the adventures handy and had to go by memory. Second, there were other choices; for instance, I chose to say that the prison complex in "Jailbreak!" was far enough away that it counted as national, but there is a precedent in comics for putting dangerous prisons full of supervillains right in or by the city. Call it roughly half were in the city, and half were a road trip of some kind, either shrinking into a man's body, taking a trip to Alaska or New Zealand, or discovering extraterrestrial empires.

However, I chose the values so that they could be used for random creation (though I'm not sure you'd want to). The scope is a simple D6 roll (though if you want to weight it heavily, use 2D6:
2d6: ScopeMeans...
2-7: CitySomething happens in the city. Your city. Go beat them up.
8: NationRoad trip! There's a problem that you'll have to travel to, but fortunately, there's transportation available.
9: ContinentBe careful...they do things a little differently where we're going.
10: GlobeWe're going to be cut off from our regular allies, and at risk of sowing confusion and interruptions, but this is something only we can fix.
11: Solar SystemThere's some problem in a satellite, a space station, an experimental space craft, or the hidden world on the inside of the hollow earth.
12: Cosmic"Help me, Obi-Wan <insert-name-here>. You're our only hope!"
Now, those descriptions (beside being firmly tongue-in-cheek) also assume that the city is your normal stomping ground. If you normally run a game of the Planetary Protectors, those aren't the conditions that apply: you probably have allies in Tokyo, Norway, and maybe even on St. Pierre.

For magic versus science, it might be:
Magic vs. Science D6Means...
1: Magic galoreThe main threat is a seriously magic one, and knowing some magic is essential.
2: MagicLots of magic, but science can certainly help here. You can make do with Grimoires For Dummies.
3: Magic flavouredIt's a bad thing with a magic label, but we can all thump it.
4: Science flavouredIt's a MacGuffin with a science label, but anyone can hit it.
5: ScienceIt would really help if we had someone scientific to help, the answers might be available on Wikipedia.
6: SuperscienceI hope you have a tech whiz available, because just pulling out the plug is not going to work.

(I did a bubble plot in Excel — because I had to learn something in Excel, I figured I would do this as well — but haven't saved it as an image and put it up. Later.)

harvey_rrit pointed out that some settings are rich in both science and magic, so maybe you need to roll twice.

Nowadays, I'd probably set the scale at neighborhood - city - nation - international - solar system - cosmic.   

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Super Solstice, everyone

Posting will be sporadic starting last week.

However, I want to take the opportunity to wish everyone a happy year to come. Good gaming for all of you. If you've been having troubles, I hope they ease soon, and bring only good complications. I would rather we all have to choose between six excellent game systems than be forced to work with one that is sub-optimal.

Be kind to one another, and thank you for the kind words you have shown me and the tough criticisms. Both have forced me to work harder at this hobby.

So merry Christmas, happy Hanukkah, keen Kwanzaa, super solstice and Saturnalia, or just happy holidays... I hope you have a good wrap-up to the year and an excellent start to the next.

Friday, December 18, 2015

But what's your core activity?

I was listening to the Ken and Robin Talk About Stuff podcast and they once again mentioned the idea that you ought to be able to name a core activity of your game. It doesn't mean that the activity is the only thing you'll be doing, but it's the main thing.

So my first attempt at defining the core activity for my favourite niche-of-a-niche activity (superhero RPGs) is "Defeat the bad guys and preserve order."

I was also listening to the Fat Man on Batman podcast, where Andrew Kreisberg mentioned that in the Flash TV show writers' room they have a sign that indicates the recipe for each show (Heart, Humor, Spectacle, in that order of importance). Kind of the same's their statement of core activities.

You notice that bad guys aren't mentioned? In fact, I'd say that the villains are often the weakest part of the Berlanti DCTV-verse. The season bad guys are generally good, but the individual episode bad guys can be quite weak. Supergirl in particular has this problem right now.

If you have players who are committed to the story and the relationships (the kind of players who would take on the game Masks, for instance), that might be totally okay. If your players came up through Champions, though, and they expect bad guys, that would be a problem. "We are good guys and we always win because the opposition is pretty wimpy."

The Base Raiders game makes this explicit....I just wish I liked the system more, because there are details that I like a great deal. In that game, the players defining goals means that they also define the core activity.

So here are some other statements of core activities for superhero games and how they might affect the campaign.

We salvage stuff either before others or in dangerous places. This is less combat and more situational puzzles, with the possibility of rivals and possibly some legal loopholes.

We rescue people, from natural and unnatural disasters. I was trying to think of something that was super and would use super abilities, and be heroes, but not have your traditional punchy-fighty structure. The characters are first responders, essentially, to great disasters.

We are the superhero support team, who make them look good, despite resistance from them and the other side I had thought of this one some time ago as a campaign that had every player representing both a member of the support team and the superhero. The two might be attached to each other or not. It was either going to be structured as a prep-fight thing, or as a series of flashbacks during the fight: every time a hero wanted to use a retcon or said that something was available, I was going to flashback to how it got there. (The latter might be interesting in a story, but I couldn't see a way to make it work as a roleplaying session.) I loved the "Our people meet their people to discuss where the fight will be" scene, though: "It turns out your original nominee is owned by a mob boss we're beholden to. That's off the table. We'd like this place, because it's due to be destroyed, and we'll split the demolition fee with you." This also implies a lot more social stuff and relationship stuff than the others.

Thursday, December 17, 2015


I was listening to the Play On Target podcast, where Lowell Francis interviewed Eloy Lasanta, and Lasanta mentioned his love of the X-Men. I've heard of this love from others and I realized that the superhero RPGs I love (Supers! and ICONS) do a more four-colour setting by default.

I was never a big reader of the X-Men...the proliferation of X-titles in the 1990s was of the reasons I fled to DC (truthfully, I had been a DC child anyway) and then away from comics. But I recognize the basic characters and I see that the powers approach of my favourite games doesn't really reflect the X-Men as I understand them.

Caveats that I might be totally wrong in my understanding so that True Fans(TM) might object. However, this approach might be fruitful in figuring out how you do things to more accurately reflect the comics. It's mostly inspired by Marvel Heroic Roleplaying (it's not influenced by AMP except for what was in the podcast; I don't own AMP and haven't read it).

When I look at them, the characters in the core X-Men and the New Mutants (again, circa the late 1980s and the early 1990s, when I was occasionally looking at the books) are mostly human but with one or two powers that make them different. As humans, they're usually pretty good...Scott Summers is well-trained, Warren Worthington seems to be buff, Kitty Pryde manages well, and so on. (In story, the justification is the danger room and the training.) It's not until later (such as in Excalibur) that you see any disabled heroes. Anyway, the powers are applied differently: a character might freeze a lock or throw iceballs or make an ice wall, but it's one power. We'll call it a theme. This is like the power sets in Marvel Heroic Roleplaying.  (I don't have a list of themes handy, but I might edit one in later.)

Both Supers! and ICONS have mechanisms to handle this stunting: Competency dice and determination points.

First, we roll to see how many themes you have. We're going to use 2d6 because we want the bell curve.
RollNumber of themes
2-6One power theme (Colossus has the Strength theme; Angel can fly; Cyclops blasts things with his eyebeams)
7-10Two power themes (Kitty phases and is smart; Wolverine has the healing factor and an animal theme)
11-12Three power themes (I can't think of examples at this second, but I'm sure they exist. Maybe Cable, who has cybernetics, and the telekinesis, and being from the future and having that kind of knowledge might qualify as a third--I don't know enough about the character to be sure.)

Then we're going to figure out the width of your biggest theme. This is the number of standard expressions of your power. Iceman lucks out because he has three main expressions: ice armor, movement, and the ability to create things out of ice. Colossus has two expressions: strength and durability. (You might be able to call that one in ICONS with Alternate Form.) Cyclops and Angel have a single expression: optic blasts and flight, respectively. (Actually, you could make an argument that Angel's second theme is wealth but I'm not sure I want to go there. Worth considering that wealth might be a power, like any ICONS ability over 6.)

Again, we roll 2d6 for the bell curve:
RollWidth of theme
2-6One main expression
7-10Two main expressions
11-12Three main expressions

If you have multiple themes, the additional ones only get one main expression. (That's okay: you can stunt on any of these themes.) You get to pick which one might have multiple expressions, if any. You can run all of those main expressions at once. So Iceman, who has three main expressions, can have the armour, the movement, and the attack.

You pick (or roll, on the nonexistent table) your themes. Once you have themes, you can pick or roll main expressions. Those are the powers you normally use, but you can stunt others.

"Great," you say. "But what is the point?"

The point is that it's free to swap expressions or powers within your main theme. (In systems with a finer grain, such as Mutants & Masterminds, you might say that swapping within your theme takes a bit of time, maybe your movement action, but doesn't cost hero points.) To keep extra expressions up simultaneously costs a competency die or a determination point. To stunt in some other theme costs a competency die or a determination point. It costs two dice or points to bring a power into your theme, and you have to have a justification.

By defining the themes, we get to ones where it's difficult to use a power (it's from a different theme according to the homebrew rules we've just put down).  In fact, you can have character generation being constructing your theme, or players can add to the theme with experience. (That's certainly the only way to add powers or expressions to a secondary theme.)

Themes would include a particular animal or being animalistic; darkness; force; light; air; earth; water; fire; plants; movement; telekinesis; mental; decay or corruption; magic; strength; time; body alteration; and so on. A theme has one or more obvious main powers and the set of things that often go with it. A theme has, oh, five to ten powers in it--we're looking for comic book cliches here. Some of them will be contradictory...just don't take them both.

For instance:

ThemeExpressions (powers)
AirFlight or Gliding, control winds, shielding winds, alternate form (air), gentle fall, shielding
Animal themeDepends on the animal...Power mimicry specific to animals, Flight, Swimming, Burrowing, Leaping, Claws/fangs, Strength/toughness, Growth/Shrinking, Super-senses (smell, taste, hearing, eagle eyesight, 360 degree vision, sonar, infrared vision, electroception)
Body alterationGrowing, Shrinking, Phasing or Intangibility, Air walking, Density Increase, Duplication, Regeneration, Enhanced Senses, Stretching or Malleability
MentalMind reading, Mental link, Mind control, Mental blast, Mind find, Possession, Telekinesis, Precognition
PhasingIntangibility, Air walking, Enhanced senses, attack by phasing through things, disable electronics
StrengthStrength, Invulnerability, Leaping, Flight, Superbreath, Alternate form that gives strength, Density Increase, Immobility

A given power can show up in more than one theme. There are multiple ways of doing an energy blast: that was the whole point of going to effect-based powers. Here I'm trying to graft a cause back on to those.

Themes might possibly be the character types in the Mutants & Masterminds random character creation system. In Champions terms, everyone gets an elemental control and the ability to stunt within it for free.

This is totally untested, but I think it might work.

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Pyramid Power!


I was thinking about pyramid tests in ICONS. I don't think they're a solution without a problem, but I think there isn't enough guidance about what they can be used for. Let me make my suggestions, and other things will naturally occur to you.

A pyramid test is a set of tests where you want to accumulate a massive success. Lesser successes add to larger successes. So you could roll once, or eight times barely successfully. That's the concept. How can you use it?

In combat, it could represent firing the photon torpedo down the narrow access shaft to destroy the Death Star, or managing to get sufficient damper rod material into the atomic monster's tiny mouth opening. (There might even be a way to replace actual combat with Stamina and such with pyramid tests, but I don't want to go there.) It's an interesting way to handle a crowd of minions or a swarm of bees: rather than treating the swarm as a single opponent, the PCs have to win a pyramid test where they can use any technique, from swatting with the wall of a shed to the quantities of honey they put out to attract the insects.

In tests, it's good for something that the skillmeister does while the combat bunnies fight. For instance, perhaps the combat bunnies keep the Killdroids busy while your tech-savvy character is defeating the firewall(s) around the computer that controls the Killdroids, or that supplies them power in a mad Nikola Tesla air-power scheme. The tech-savvy character may take three panels to break into the computer while the fighting goes on, but the combat bunnies would never be able to destroy the Killdroids unless TechGuy got through the firewall.

One place that I've had good luck is to use the pyramid test instead of detective work. In a scenario I had written, there was a certain amount of detective work, which was the jam for my first playtest group but tedious to the second. The first group just roleplayed it. (In game terms, I was mostly concerned with how fast they'd find the information, not that they'd find the information.) I replaced the roleplaying with a pyramid test, because the second group of players preferred--they were able to say, "Oh, I'll do this to test," roll to see if/how well they did it, and add that to the pyramid test. So long as players had reasonable ideas of how to approach the problem, I allowed it. The fact that you can spend an Advantage to get +2 to effort helped, too, because they were able to minimize the boring detective stuff and get on to what they wanted, which was to fight bad guys.

Your opponent can negate your character's successes, or you can run with a second pyramid test. They represent opposed and unopposed tasks: if what your opponent does subtracts from what you do, then you subtract their degree of success from the total you've achieved.

Uberfraulein (the cousin to Ubermensch) is having a tug of war with Wonderful Chick. Obviously they're working against each other. You have a single pyramid test.

Ubermensch and Flicker are running for charity. Unless they're actively working against each other, I'd run it as two separate pyramid tests, each rolling against the same target number. Ubermensch will probably lose to Flicker because he has flight 8 and Flicker has Superspeed 9, but maybe not. Maybe an earlier mistake by Flicker (that is, a bad roll) will allow Ubermensch to get to the finish line first. (You can even make it a sub-game by giving each player the choice of whether they want to make a roll to add to their own pyramid or subtract from the other's.)

You could certainly run a pyramid test when trying to convince someone that they are wrong about something--say, your character's secret identity. Your character needs to provide a certain number of points of proof, because the other person knows that shape changers exist, so just seeing the two of you in a room isn't going to convince them.

Basically, if one person has to succeed at a number of tasks in a row, a pyramid test might work.

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

One Tontine, No Waiting

Emily Dresner-Thornber reminded me of one of my favourite illegal financial mechanisms, the tontine.

In case you're not familiar with it, the tontine is a group ownership of some item. As each person dies, his or her shares pass to the other survivors. Whoever is left standing at the end, owns the whole thing. Very useful if you want an excuse for murders galore.

In a powered person context (because clearly this isn't going to be about superheroes, just supers), all powers derive from one power source. Originally, all of ten thousand people had powers. (In a supers game system with points, everyone had the same low number of points.) But if you kill someone, you get their points. When you have children (if you have children), they get your points. There's a trade-off: more kids means that someone is likely to survive, but they probably each get fewer points. And you're stuck with fewer points. Some powers, like immortality, let you avoid losing points under normal circumstances, but if you have kids, you're unlikely to be immortal....they've sucked up your points.

The contest to kill other super-powered people starts. I think it would start as overt, but as members got better, it would move to covert: some people would hide. Once individuals get past a certain point, they might be overt again. ("You killed that guy, and then your skin started glowing. Weird.")

There's an interesting situation where some very low-level supers had kids and essentially became invisible because everyone had so little power. And then the parents die, and the kids get stronger. So they get attacked. Maybe it's luck, maybe it's the fact that their parents took someone out with a rocket propelled grenade just before they died, but all of a sudden, the kids are in this decades or centuries-long game and they have to survive. And folks aren't going to leave them alone.

Saturday, December 12, 2015

A Request

Please produce the podcast "Shakespeare and Superheroes". Make it about bringing outside influences into your superhero adventures. 

I'd listen. 

Friday, December 11, 2015

Re-using a Villain (or other character)


Following up on my notion of "cusp" versus "rise" characters, character re-use is central. So now I'm thinking about re-using a character. Obviously, if the character was intended to be re-used, it's easy. Or if the character got away, all you need is a motivation, either a diamond as big as the Ritz, or revenge if the character was an onion-skin away from capture.

Maybe character write-ups should come with a "re-use" category, indicating the ease of incorporating the character into your campaign over a long term. Well, relatively few characters are sold with the idea that they can't be reused (though there are situations that call for it: Dr. Immoral Dilemma, for instance, also known as SAW).

But let's say you have a character who was a one-off but the players are still talking about him or her. How do you bring that villain back? 

And, in fact, I'm going to challenge my earlier idea and say that there are some characters who are refreshing to see again but they aren't tied to any long-term goal. They're just wacky or inventive or fun. The Foxbat character from Champions was like this.

Anyway, in one sense, it's a silly question. In my youth, when we wanted to bring a character back, we said, "He broke out of jail and now he wants revenge. And he's bringing friends." And it can be that simple. If that's what you want to do, go for it.

On the other hand, that was hit and miss. Sometimes it was worth doing and sometimes the character just showed up and it was another ho-hum session.

Nowadays, with more time between sessions, I'd ask myself some questions before bringing a character back.

Why was the character popular? Was it the connection with one of the PCs? Was it the cool power? Was it the plan? Was it the hostage situation? The costume? The seasonal connection? The fact that the villain always brings candy canes? You don't want to destroy what made the character a success in the first place.  Presumably you're bringing the character back because the players talk about him or her. What do they say?

You don't have to do the exact same thing, of course: sometimes it's fine to riff off the previous adventure, presenting the villain and heroes in the opposite light. Maybe the villain is trying to shake off the depression after having tasted godhood. Maybe the villain wants to be arrested because he's hooked on prison food (The Emerald Epicurean has been promoted at the Superguy prison, and his breakfast souffles are to die for.)

What do you need to change, if anything? When you resolved the last adventure, what had changed for the PCs or the villain? If the villain had a great plan revolving around the worship of Samhain and it's early Easter, do you have to take that into account? If the villain professed her undying attention for one of the heroes who has since gotten publicly married, does that change things? If the villain wanted to get hold of the eighth star of the Pleiades that fell to earth in the fourth century AD, and it got destroyed, what's the villain's plan now?

In fact, that can be a large part of the adventure: a plan that would have been fine before the heroes got responsibility fails because the heroes just have too much to do nowadays (no, I'm not projecting; why do you ask?) so the villain falls on increasingly desperate attempts to get their attentions.

A special case of change is if the villain died. Coming back from the dead is almost as old as comics, dating to when they wanted to bring back the Joker, so there's no shame is revealing that the villain survived the terrible fate that apparently befell them. (Bonus points if someone said, "No one could have survived that!" when he or she died.) Heck, you can even have the villain actually be an imposter trying to duplicate the original's MO, or have the villain simply shrug it off. 
"But...I sent you to the pits of Tartarus!"
"I got better."
Why is the villain back? Let's face it, any sensible mercenary villain would go, "Hey, they beat me. I'll go work in the Congo, where there's only war and strife to worry about." So why did the villain come back here, to the campaign location? There are a couple of possibilities. Revenge, of course. Maybe what they want is only available here (there's a reason that the museum of supervillain trophies is in the town with superheroes), or they need the eclipse that's going to be visible locally. Maybe they are just too attracted to the hero or NPC to stay away.

Sometimes it's fun to beat up the bad guy who keeps trying to win (though my players are more likely to find out his inner problem and set him up with a job); sometimes there's a complex scheme that evolves from the return of a bad guy.

Thursday, December 10, 2015

Cusp versus Rise


Because RPGs are hero-centric, I categorize the villains as cusp villains or rise villains in terms of how the heroes view them and how they interface with the heroes.

A cusp is a brief (usually one session) interaction. A villain group might plan its heist for weeks but if the heroes don't know about it until they enter the jewelry store, it's a cusp from the heroic viewpoint. This might be the villain-of-the-week, or the latest installment of being harried by some other villain.

A rise villain has lots of hero face time. This could be because it's a friend of the hero who has succumbed to a sudden-but-inevitable betrayal, or it's a returning villain, or a spider in the middle of a web who is pulling threads.

I thought of this while considering shows like Flash or Supergirl, where the villain of the week is usually forgettable, even if they are terribly powerful, like Weather Wizard on the Flash TV series or Jemm on Supergirl. (It might be just my viewing, but it seems to me that Alex was losing against Jemm despite all the badass weaponry until the intervention of J'onn J'onzz.)

The idea in a roleplaying sense--and I don't know if it's useful--is that villains your players respond to can become rise villains. Rise villains are usually more memorable, possibly just because they have more face time. They recur. Reverse Flash and Zoom and Astra are all rise villains because you have an ongoing sense of them, of dread and anticipation.

In general, we want our campaigns punctuated by rise villains because they're memorable. The next question is figuring out what makes them memorable.

Wednesday, December 9, 2015

Campaign Framework: Community Service


Spinning off from some thoughts yesterday, a kind of sponsored hero team....

It started when organized crime in Orchard Valley brought in a supervillain. (Less hired, and more finally succumbed to the insistence of one of its higher-placed members, who said they should get with the times.) Their first action, a protection racket, worked quite well until it expanded to the small business neighborhood of Cherrystone, where the owner of the Bran New! bakery refused to pay them. (Cherrystone's motto is Cherrystone—It's not the pits!)

They came around that night to burn down the place and show everyone. They didn’t realize that the pastry chefs are often working late at night to make pastries for the next day. They also didn’t realize that the pastry chef—Gloria Desroches—was a pyrokinetic, so arson was just the wrong approach.

She stopped them. There was collateral damage, because she had never done this hero thing before (she uses her powers to brown crusts and sometimes to caramelize the top of a creme brulee).

They came back with a car to run in the side of the building, but she extinguished the explosions running the engine, and it sputtered to a stop twenty paces from the building. (They did throw rocks and manage to break the window.)

By then, the local chamber of commerce had come to Gloria and asked her to be on call for the neighborhood. She agreed.

The city already had a “superhero”—the city a suit of powered armor seized in a drug raid, and they had been using it sans weapons for community service. The city had a kill switch for it, so there was little risk of an offender going berserk. The powered armor was strong and bulletproof, so it was useful for disaster relief, search and rescue, getting cats out of trees, and so on. Orchard Valley added Cherrystone to its regular route.

The organized crime group added a second supervillain, and Gloria had to work with the suit of powered armor. It still wasn’t a full-time gig: she was a pastry chef and Andrew was a stockbroker working off his DUI. Then organized crime added two supervillains, and Andrew and Gloria were outclassed.

So the chamber of commerce temporarily hired two more heroes. These two were actual heroes: they had powers and chosen to put themselves in harm’s way. They actually made it a team: the Social Protection Agency, or SPA. They put into place protocols and schedules and training regimes.

The players are members of this team. Gloria has since retired (it was interfering with her cooking, and she wanted to set up her own shop), and Andrew’s sentence ended. The power armor suit sits unused, because the user has to fit it: it is a Procrustean deal for all that it can change size slightly.

The team is not a full-time job—there just isn’t enough crime in Cherrystone or even in all of Orchard Valley. But the work of the criminal organization means that there is some crime and the team is necessary.

Ongoing characters would include various business owners (Gloria Desroches might still be around), the organized crime group and their rivals, the team's manager, local civil rights groups and lawyers, and whatever dependents your PCs bring in. Golden Acres

The Corporate Superhero

I meant to post this yesterday, but didn't. C'est la vie. I want to point you to a resource that I've only just found: A list of superhero tropes and cliches. Yes, I will be referring to it occasionally.

Today I'm thinking about the trope of the corporate superhero: the hero who is paid by a corporation or organization to act as a superhero. This is closely related to the supervillain mercenary or employee, and a lot of the things here can be used there.

Let's consider the world-building. A corporation can sponsor or employ a superhero because it created the hero, so it can work in a world with very few heroes and villains. (That would actually work for a three-heroes-and-no-supervillains background, right up until the rise of, well, supervillains.) In that case, the superheroes are probably transformed humans, gadget-based humans, or artificial in some way, but aliens aren't impossible.

On the other hand, maybe there are so many superpowered people that the corporation sees an advantage in having one. Evil Faceless Corporation (henceforth EFC) looks much more caring if Captain Compassion is on the job. (They just have to keep him out of Houston, where they're doing something...and that's just a name I picked out of a hat, not a reference to any real world thing.)

If most of the superpowered people don't actually want to be heroes or villains  then the corporate sponsorship is opportunistic and possibly unhindered by a moral code.

So corporate sponsorship can work with almost any number of super-powered folks, but the fewer there are, the more you have to justify it.

There are a couple of variations on the corporate superhero:

  1. The hero has no powers or abilities at all, even in costume, but any acts of "heroism" are carefully stage-managed to look like such. In this case, the company gets the good will engendered by a "hero." It's probably cheaper to create a faux hero this way, but not cheaper to maintain this facade. Useful primarily as part of some other scheme (though a "keeping up with the Joneses" competitive matching scheme might work: if every other corporation in your market segment has a superhero and you don't, it might be worth it).
  2. The hero has abilities, but acts of heroism are stage-managed to get a better effect. I'm not sure where stage-management shades into support staff, and you might be able to play with that distinction, especially if your heroes have a support staff.
  3. The hero is meant for something else (such as advertisement or promotion) and stumbles into the heroism thing, to the delight or chagrin of his or her handlers. "We were fine when you got the cat out of the tree, but a guy who flies and is not bullet-proof should not be stopping bank robberies, he should just be tailing the criminals." This is a broader definition of the Tony Stark cover story that Iron Man is the bodyguard. It includes bodyguards but also the guy who makes supermarket appearances, or who acts as a superfast courier.
  4. The hero is actually a hero, paid for by the company. The hero gets to hero without money worries, while the company gets reflected glory and good will. Expect pushback if the hero investigates corruption in a corporation or conflicts with their market segment.
  5. The hero is actually a hero and is accepting sponsorship, which might lead to a conflict of interest when they tell the hero to look in one direction while they do something else.
  6. The hero is totally on board with this and is maximizing profit. In stories, this character and the character in the item before are probably bad, but it might be more interesting to have them simply choose to help in the areas that don't leave them open to a conflict of interest, and to emphasize the ways in which that makes them similar to the player characters.
  7. The corporation makes the heroes and funds them, but really makes its money on marketing their images (which is, I think, part of the background of Seana McGuire's Velveteen stories). The heroism thing is a loss-leader: it's necessary to keep the marketing going (you have to have something to market) but they aren't going to pour an infinite amount of money into it, either. It's possible that the corporate heroes are opposed by villains who are also funded by the corporation, that the stories (like professional wrestling) are planned out in advance but loosely, allowing for change depending on what happens.

A team of corporate heroes could be interesting rivals or opponents for the heroes without actually being bad.

Monday, December 7, 2015

Crisis on Christmas, ICONS style


Steve Kenson's Crisis on Christmas is a fine adventure that should be a Rankin/Bass production. But John Holmes asks for an ICONS version. So here's one minute of thought and twenty-nine minutes of typing. I assume you're read the adventure: no context provided here.

Early on, they can encounter Desparia's weather control powers. To create the "Cloud of Despair" (Affliction versus Will, ranged, burst, level 7) and the "Snow Blind" powers (Dazzle, burst, level 5), either stunt them using the "Ice Witch" quality or make them GM fiat: she can do them, but they require additional effort on her part and they won't happen during a fight. (Possibly before.) If you stunt them, it puts more determination points in the pockets of the heroes.

The wolves look something like this:

Determination-Stamina61Life Support (Cold)
Qualities1Damage Resistance (shaggy fur)
Unnatural3Magical claw and bite
Extra: Ignores non-innate Resistance
Pack hunters

Desparia's hobgoblins look something like this:

Determination-Stamina71Life Support (Cold)
Qualities3Strike (cudgel) or Blast (crossbow, sling, iceballs)
Unnatural2Damage Resistance (armor)
Willing to die for Desparia

The extras for the wolves and hobgoblins might make them tough against your heroes. Feel free to treat them as minions. Shift things around a bit to suit your heroes: maybe the Blast is a bit higher; maybe the Strike is not a damage 5 bashing attack (Strength+1) but a damage 4 Slashing ice sword. If the hobgoblins are not tough enough for your heroes, then add the Quality "Small" to them, and treat them as if they had enough Shrinking for a +1 to hit and evade. (Hobgoblins: The smaller they are, the tougher they are!)

Here's a version of Desparia:

Coordination3Awareness6Elemental Control Mastery
Determination-Stamina78Elemental Control (Cold weather) Damage Resistance
QualitiesExtra: Blast (wintry winds)
Ice WitchExtra: ESP (ice scrying) Limit: Extra time to cast
Scared and Angry Little GirlExtra: Binding
Gifted by Mr. Infamy3Flight
1Life Support (cold)

At the end, when they try to convince Desparia, do it as a balanced Pyramid test...with three failures, it "tips over" (Mr. Infamy has gained the upper hand) and they have to start again after changing something about the situation.

Friday, December 4, 2015

A look at Masks

Here's a brief look at Masks, a PbtA game which had a very successful Kickstarter, and which I expect will be published in 2016.

I've never played another Powered by the Apocalypse game, so I'm a virgin there. I've never even owned one before, so I have no idea how it goes.  But there's a call for playtests on Masks, so I had a look at the playtest materials.

Currently, there are three PDFs to the playtest materials: one of the ten basic playbooks, one of the basic moves, and one of GM moves. I and my gang have been playing RPGs since 1980, so there is clearly some unlearning that has to go on, and unfortunately the skeletal nature of the playtest material doesn't help. Fortunately, I can look at the DungeonWorld SRD for some of the connective tissue. Unfortunately, it's a bit different.

Part of it is the terminology (what is the difference between a soft move and a hard move?) and part of it is the formatting (the PDF they supply is clearly in format for booklets, but figuring out how to print it isn't in the remit, apparently). Still...

The playbook for a character is also the instructions for creating the character. It lists the various decisions you have to make and the moves that are unique to your character type.


The characters are teen superheroes in Halcyon City. They are a team: they all want to be superheroes and they all want to be together. Reasons might differ, of course.

Players define their characters' backstories and then the players together define how the team came together.


It turns out that saying "powered by the Apocalypse" goes a long way, but not far enough. It basically covers the resolution mechanic and the approach to storytelling. But there are a couple of other things that are involved.

Characters don't have hit points; they have emotional conditions. It might seem limiting to say that the character has only five hit points, but emotional conditions are more fluid than hit points typically are, and there are ways to relieve an emotional condition, either in the scene or for the next scene.

There's an influence mechanic that affects your rolls against a character, but you can trade your influence in for something more momentous.

There's a team mechanic that can provide benefits to the entire group or to an individual at the expense of the group.

The game works best with three or more players and a GM (whatever they call the GM in this system...referee?). You can make it work with two, but it stutters, and I can't imagine how it could be done with a single player without some heavy alteration of the rules.

Encouraging the Tropes

The game has a number of clever things that really encourage the tropes or cliches of teen team comics. (You'd probably have to make changes if you wanted to be the Teen Titans as written by Bob Haney, but frankly, I'm not sure that Bob Haney's mind could be contained in any game.) It would handle the Wolfman-Perez Titans brilliantly:

  • Robin/Nightwing: Protege.
  • Starfire: Outsider.
  • Raven: Doomed.
  • Cyborg: Transformed.
  • Changeling: Okay, Changeling I have trouble slotting into a playbook. I feel certain that he'd fit, but I don't remember all ten of the character types right now. Emotionally, he feels most like the Beacon playbook to me, but his powers don't match the description they give at all.
The biggest problem (as shown above) to me is that the playbooks are essentially classes, and sometimes you end up choosing a class because there's a power you feel is neat. In the full game, I hope there's some discussion of fitting powers to the playbook. I don't have enough experience with PbtA games to know where I can hack, yet