Saturday, January 30, 2016

To add to your animal mimicry/totem list


The biggest problem with playing (or writing) a character who has the powers of the animal kingdom! is that you have to know some of the cool animal powers out there. Yes, you can go the Vixen route, and grab the cheetah, the rhino, a vulture, a killdeer, and an elephant, and you have speed, strength, and flight, which is good. (Not knocking those powers or animals at all.)

But sometimes you want the weird factoids that you used to get from reading comics in the sixties. You know, "Dung beetles can pull 1000 times their own weight!" and other factoids that Gardner Fox used to throw into stories.

I need a place to put them when I run across them, and that place is here.

The noise of the pistol shrimp. Quoting Wikipedia: "The snapping shrimp [also called a "pistol shrimp"] competes with much larger animals such as the sperm whale and beluga whale for the title of loudest animal in the sea. The animal snaps a specialized claw shut to create a cavitation bubble that generates acoustic pressures of up to 80 kPa at a distance of 4 cm from the claw. As it extends out from the claw, the bubble reaches speeds of 60 miles per hour (97 km/h) and releases a sound reaching 218 decibels. The pressure is strong enough to kill small fish. It corresponds to a zero to peak pressure level of 218 decibels relative to one micropascal (dB re 1 μPa), equivalent to a zero to peak source level of 190 dB re 1 μPa at the standard reference distance of 1 m. Au and Banks measured peak to peak source levels between 185 and 190 dB re 1 μPa at 1 m, depending on the size of the claw. Similar values are reported by Ferguson and Cleary. The duration of the click is less than 1 millisecond."

Elephants communicate subsonically. So if you want characters to communicate and they don't have telepathy, and don't want to be heard by BatHearingGuy....

Love darts of the ninja slug. The ninja slug shoots darts into its potential mate. The calcium carbonate darts are tipped with hormones intended to get the target in the mood for love. If you replace the aphrodisiac hormones with other abilities, suddenly you've got a whole theme for a character.

Oppossums are immune to most venoms. Yeah, well, you figure this for an animal whose other defense is lying very, very still. But yes, oppossums have a protein called LTNF (Lethal Toxin-Neutralizing Factor) that grants them (and rats injected with LTNF) a very high resistance to the venoms of snakes, bees, and scorpions...even snakes that are not native to the same continent.

Exploding ants. A species of ant in Malaysia has members that can tighten particular glands all along its body, causing the secretions to, this is gross, explode out of the ant's head. I do not know if this kills the ant, but it probably does. What's even better (worse?) is that the explosive substance is sticky and binds together the limbs of the predator (up to a certain size, of course). The secretion has other unpleasant chemicals in it...expect a rash.

The jellyfish that's its own child...and possibly immortal. One particular jellyfish, Turritopsis nutricula, can revert to its polyp stage after reaching sexual maturity. And after that polyp gets old and becomes a jellyfish, it can do the trick again...and again...and again. Now, jellyfish polyps are immobile and tasty to many things, so it's really unlikely that there are any immortal T. nutricula, but there could be....and that kid over there might be a supervillain who's nine hundred years old and just occasionally imitates a T. nutricula. That's the scarlet jellyfish, I think (but am not sure).

Wolverine? No, hairy frog. The hairy frog can break its own bones and push them out through its skin to make claws.

Sticky stuff The stickiest salamander is the northern slimy salamander, which produces a mucous so sticky that attacking predator gets its mouth glued shut. 

Friday, January 29, 2016

Fiction vs. Roleplaying


While I was driving in this morning, I suddenly thought of a bit for a fantasy short story. It would probably start something like:

I heard the noise of  someone entering and I wondered if this would be the person who finally managed to kill me.

The narrator is a guardian spirit who has been trapped guarding the tomb for a long time. Long enough to regain a sense of self, long enough to be totally bored (I mean, if you have a sense of self, there is nothing to do in a tomb), long enough to want to die, but unable because of the geas to just give up.

Now, that's kind of an interesting character to run across, but I'd develop these totally differently for roleplaying than for fiction, and I offer these ideas as a way to compare and contrast the two. While roleplaying can use a lot of the same tools as fiction, I think that anyone who is trying to tell you that they are pretty much the same is wrong.

(Oh, they're very similar in a lot of ways...but they're very different in others.)

There are lots of ways this could go (maybe it's set in historical times, because the guardian spirit is that old; dress it up the right way, and it could be nearly any setting, including superheroes) but for this discussion I'm going to assume plain-vanilla F20-style fantasy. It's a secondary world fantasy, a cod-medieval world with magic.

In fiction, it would be about the relationship between the guardian spirit and the invader. In that case, I might make the invader someone who is nominally harmless, maybe a young girl that the real thieves kidnapped and threw in here to deactivate the first trap, or a young boy (young to contrast immortal with youth) who is evading others and chanced into this tomb. (This would be a good way to bring it into the modern world, by the way.)

In fiction, the other person would also have an agenda. Maybe she wants to get revenge on her uncle who sold her into this slavery, maybe he wants his family back, maybe the invader wants to help the spirit or hurt the spirit, but both sides want something.

I'd tell the story from the guardian spirit's point of view, as above. Maybe there'd be a twist ending, maybe not; maybe I'd have a third group involved, maybe not.

And, in fact, maybe the guardian spirit shares his story...he was a temple thief himself, and got caught. He thinks; he might have made that up, after seeing so many tomb robbers. He can read and write, which makes him think that maybe he was a priest. Maybe a priest turned thief?

So he tells the invader, "I have to hurt you if you cross this boundary. I like you. Please don't do it. But if you do it, you have until I hit you three times to get to this rock on the tomb and destroy it. That's how you kill me."

And none of that mental exercise is suitable for a roleplaying game.

Maybe I could use some of it with pre-generated characters and a con session. Maybe.

As a GM, what I have is a guardian spirit who wants to die, because he or she or it is bored.

I have very little control over what the characters want. I can suggest things, I can put strong forces in place, but I can't make the characters want things. It's always a choice for somebody to decide that staying in town and huffing paint would be better. Well, we assume they want to adventure, because they're playing adventurers...but they don't have to interact with the guardian spirit beyond, "What level is he? Crap. Can we get out? Right, we were running away from the barbarian horde. Well, we camp outside its range but in hiding until the angry barbarian horde goes away."

In fiction, they have to engage because I want them to. In roleplaying, they engage because they choose to. I have made the other options so awful or this one so attractive that they choose to do it.

In both cases, the stated reason can be flimsy ("it's raining") but underlying it is choice.

Now, the spirit has an interesting (to me) backstory. How are the PCs going to hear about it? In fiction, I could just provide it as part of the narration, or I could guide the conversation, but I can't do that here. What can I do?

Well, the spirit's first speech could indicate that he's been there a long, long time. I could do that with elevated speech or with something painfully direct. That is, the guardian spirit could say:

Long have I waited here for someone puissant enough to challenge me. I can never know the release of the afterlife which I have given to so many. 
Or the spirit could approach them this way:
You're using pick-axes of dwarven manufacture and your clothes are strange. Foreigners who do not know of the dangers I present? Or has so long passed that I have been forgotten?
Any special last requests? Because no one else has been a challenge. 
Or maybe the spirit kept a diary in some way. A truly suicidal spirit might do that, leaving what hints he can in the journal and throwing it beyond his own boundary so that invaders might see it. (This suggests a scene where the actual bad guys get it, and the heroes have to save the spirit in order to get rid of the bad guys, and then get rid of the spirit.) Or worse, he's done it by erosion: there is a stream that passes through the tomb, and he has used his minor telekinetic powers to guide the water over the rock, wearing it down until it says what he needs it to say. (Hope someone in the party can read it.)

It would be nice to have the backstory contain the clue to defeating him, but then the players have to know the backstory. Maybe it's a legend told among priests, or sages, or thieves, that to create this particular kind of guardian, you need a specific kind of person, and you need to chain them to the sepulchre with chains interlaced with moly whose stems are tied in a particular way, and each guardian type leads to a different type of defeat. Then the party knows they have to talk to the guardian.

At some point, I would have to decide what the powers of the guardian are. These would be tied to the actual group. Perhaps it's a minor telekinesis tied with the ability to make paired portals. He makes a hole under the thief or thieves, and they start falling from one opening into the other. When they've reached terminal velocity, he makes the portals go away and they slam into the ground. If someone in the party has wings, he holds them together with his telekinesis, so they can't fly...and they eventually slam into the ground.

Yeah, that wouldn't kill a high-level party, but he could stop your blood flow with that portal thing (the portals are from the exit of your heart straight to the entrance, and the rest of your blood you pass out from lack of oxygen eventually). Certain spells would stop it, sure, but that's always true.

For my gang, figuring out the powers would be important, because that would be part of the key to defeating him, or re-directing him to the barbarian horde.

Same idea, difference focus.

Thursday, January 28, 2016

What do you want from time travel?


Some thoughts that have nothing to do with actual time travel (whatever that is) and everything to do with what players actually want to see with time travel. We're emphasizing gaming here, not the actual consequences of the fact that fundamental equations don't have a time component.

In part, this is sparked by a Mutants & Masterminds session I ran where the players just expected to end up in the past. I wasn't actually planning a time travel session, but clearly that's what they expected from the setup. So we went through time, with me vamping and trying to make sure that they caused the things they suspected they would cause. (They helped, because they suspected they would cause it.)

One of the characters, immersed in the whole superhero-supervillain subculture since birth said, effectively, "You have to go back to WWII. It's on your superhero bucket list. You won't feel like you really made it until you do."

So when you're devising your time travel scenario:

  • You can change the past. Maybe not a huge amount, but you can do it. 
  • You can't change the big things. You still want a recognizable future to go back to.
  • You want consequences. Maybe you can't kill Hitler or stop 9/11, but you can erase yourself or the person you love.
  • You want to interact with yourself. If you were alive in the time period (because some characters are immortal or long-lived), you want to be there.
  • You want to interact with the people you've heard about. Going into the past and being Joe Schmoe isn't nearly as interesting as discovering that you have to convince the first Golden Warrior to give up his Ring of Ares so that the third Golden Warrior can take it from a Soviet spy in 1956, and the person who's going to help you is your great grandmother, who thinks you're kind of hot.

From your point of view, you want time travel to have limitations or your life will be awful:

  • You can't blip fifteen seconds into the past to change the outcome of the fight you just had. 
  • Time travel is not so easy that they can readjust their arrival time every time they fail. 
  • They can't stay in the past (unless you want someone to replace his grandfather).

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

And now, a word in favour of the generic...

If you've read this blog for any length of time, I don't think it's a secret that at one point I wanted to be a writer of fiction. (Technically, I suppose I am still a writer of fiction, but I'm on a looooong vacation. My skills are getting rusty.)

But one of the things I love writing is the mash-up. You have a genre from column A and a genre from column B and you mix them. In a loose (okay, very loose) sense, it's how Shakespeare created Hamlet, or Romeo and Juliet. The former is clearly modeled on the revenge morality plays of the time while the latter is a mix of comedy and tragedy, though it ultimately settles on tragedy.

Currently the vogue is for RPG systems that model the genre accurately, and to a certain extent I agree with that. If a particular element or aspect give you the frisson of excitement, you want to provide exactly that element in your gaming. Makes sense to me.


What if what thrills you is, oh, adding guns to your bronze-age fantasy? D&D resisted adding guns for the longest time, and even now it doesn't handle firearms particularly well (though with D20 Modern they did take a kick at that particular can). Or having mystery elements in your superhero game? Or doing a story about changes in personality set during a zombie apocalypse?

Sure, you can do them, but the system doesn't particularly model them well.

Granted, a generic RPG, like the Hero System or GURPS, might not do it well either, but it's guaranteed to do it consistently.

It's a balancing act. If you're introducing just one thing the current system doesn't do particularly well, then you might as well house-rule it. ("Uh....when your superhero sees Lovecraftian monsters, he has to roll against Will.") But if you're bringing in a bunch of things, or if you see the possibility of bringing in a lot of things, then a generic system might be what you want.

(And by "generic system" I'm even including something like GUMSHOE, which is a generic basis for systems. You can easily incorporate the NBA chase rules into your Trail of Cthulhu game, for instance.)

I know over on the Writing Excuses podcast they're busy talking about combining what they call elemental genres. This is something similar: when you know what kind of response you want from the players, what kind of flavour you're going for, then you know whether you have a particular genre but heavily modified, or if you have a new thing, in which case you might as well go for a generic system because you don't know what kind of response you're looking for.

Wait, that sounds kind of uncertain.

Except that sometimes roleplaying is kind of uncertain. The GM brings something to the players, and the combination of players and GM makes something new. Neither side has control over the result; either side can choose to scuttle it. It's something you do together. You might have a great history for your world, but if the characters never see it, it lays there. An NPC might have a tremendous fear of wights, but if no wights show up, big deal.

So a generic system is really useful if you're not quite certain what you're building together. Maybe after you've been at it for a while, you'll find some other system that makes it work better, that emphasizes the parts you really like. And that's okay: it's okay to switch game mechanics halfway through. (I used to joke about it, when we were switching from a game system where the attack had to be the last action in your turn to one where the order didn't matter: "He hits and runs away, because we've changed game systems.")

So there is a place for the generic system, even if you're heavily into specialized systems. They're the block of marble you start with, carving away everything that doesn't look like an elephant.

Monday, January 25, 2016

Digging a hole for myself...


There are a couple of superpowers that show in games where I look at them and go, "What?"

Now, these are perfectly cromulent superpowers. They have reasons to exist, and they fill those reasons very well. However, if you have a random character creation system, you look at the power and say, "Hey, maybe I can trade it for a Boost or an Extra."

For me, one such power is Burrowing.

I recognize the utility of it, sometimes. I think that the Troll, in ICONS, should be able to dig himself a hole where he can hide. I think that giant ants should have a way to make their giant anthills, and the machine from The Core should be buildable in your favorite game system.

But man... Burrowing.

Part of the reason is that it's slow. In some one-buttocked attempt at realism, many designers throttle back when it comes to burrowing, just like swimming. "Yes, you can burrow, but only at a speed that is one quarter of your overland movement speed." That's kind of like the M&M game where I suddenly realized that although the bad guy could fly, he could only fly at fifteen kilometers an hour. The heroes just paced him, occasionally whacking him like a beach ball.

We've got a game system where people fire blasts of concussive energy from their eyes, where people have mouths in their hands, where people make plants grow tremendously fast, and you're seriously concerned about how fast they can dig?

It should be a Bugs Bunny cartoon, where the tiny line of dirt is heading at the same speed as a running man. (And seeing the line of dirt is a complication or a limit.) It should be a total surprise when the building suddenly collapses because the hero has removed two meters of topsoil from under the foundation, or that the heroine uses her burrowing claws to trace a circle out on the floor, so they fall through, just like that woman in Underworld escaping.

Another part is that you start down the reasonableness path: well, if he can dig through gravel, maybe he can dig through that fencing that sticks down into the ground. Maybe he can dig through that concrete foundation. Maybe he can dig through that guy's's no harder than concrete. And the Champions players say, "Well, she can fly, so maybe she can go through water at the same speed. It's only a thousand times thicker." The characters just do it, and occasionally get a bonus when they launch themselves at the target like a cannonball. (This is one of the areas where the existence of bonuses and extras makes it seem like you ought to be able to or not to do something.)

Sometimes I wonder if there should just be a power called Movement, and the player gets to limit it by defining the medium...or doesn't. ("She can fly, and she's just punching her way through the rock.")

A special form of Burrowing might be an incredible knowledge of the sewer system—you know the paths like no one else does, so maybe you can get places no one else can. Your Burrowing level is actually your knowledge of the area. You fail the roll, there is no connection that you can get through. At low levels, that would work quite well, actually.

Or another special form might be a limited form of animal control: you can manage to control the ants and moles and what-have-you that they will make the space for you as you go.

Well, maybe Burrowing isn't so lame. But Dream Control....there's a power that's tough to play in a game....

Friday, January 22, 2016

Playing with a Supers! layout for here

SYSTEM: Supers!

I like the layout of characters that gets used in a lot of the Supers! stuff, but the list is, well, really list-y, and the graphically interesting stuff is beyond my capability on a blog. But one of the character sheets is mostly in my reach...

6DElemental Control (fire)6
1DElemental Form (fire)1
1DMental Hindrance: Hothead-1
1DPublic ID-1
Total (20D character)19

I mean, it still looks very list-y, but it's easier to do the math.

Fiddling with it:

Pyroguy (Tommy Drizzle)
2DComposure13D Mechanics2
6DElemental Control (fire)61DCharismatic1
1DElemental Form (fire)11DLeadership1
1DMental Hindrance: Hothead-1
1DPublic ID-1

Second one is a little less elongated, which I like, but might have problems on mobile devices and is not as easy to do the math for.

In a layout program, I'd consider doing a list-like thing, then a second column that's mostly picture space and disadvantages at the bottom:

6DElemental Control (fire)6
1DElemental Form (fire)1
1DCharismatic11DMental Hindrance: Hothead-1
1DLeadership11DPublic ID-1

You'd put your standard stuff or your changing stuff either beneath or to the side.

Of course, the numbers are small enough (1-8, really) that you could do it more graphically:

0 00 0 00 0 00 0
Mechanics (0 0 0), Leadership (0 0)3
0 0 0 0 0 0Elemental Control (fire)6
0Elemental Form (fire)1
0 0 0 0Flight Complication: Only in fire form3
Charismatic (0), Leadership (0)2
Mental Hindrance: Hothead (0), Public ID (0)-2

That might just be a paper-only or layout-only idea. I've used zeroes here, but you'd use bullets instead.

We could combine the list and the table, but you'd probably lose in terms of calculation:

Secret ID
  • Composure x
  • Fortitude x
  • Reaction x
  • Will x
  • Academics 3D
  • Mechanics 2D
  • Elemental control 6D (fire)
  • Elemental Form 1D
  • Flight 3D Complication Only in fire form

Thursday, January 21, 2016

The villain who makes a point about the character


On Supergirl on Monday, they had the episode with Toyman, which was a lovely episode from an emotional point of view and a bad episode from a superheroes-have-powers,-you-know point of view. (Really...some of the fixes that both Supergirl and the Martian Manhunter got into should not have been problems.) Both might be suffering from limitations that have not yet been explained to the viewer.[1] Henry Czerny does interesting things with his characters, regardless of the writing.

Part of the emotional thrust of the episode is the parallels drawn between Winn and his father, the Toyman, and the existence of those parallels as a driver to move Winn's story forward. That interested me. It's connected to the whole evil twin thing I've been thinking about.

But as a gamer, it isn't necessarily enough to set up a parallel. I mean, it would be great if the players immediately cottoned on to the idea, but it might be that the parallel is only obvious in your mind, or that you haven't presented it well enough. And, of course, even if they see it, the parallel is not necessarily going to drive them to change their behavior, even for one session.

There are a couple of things you can help in the presentation.

First, echo things between the two. If someone describes one situation the way (perhaps in your GM text), use the same words to describe the situation that the character faces. This is especially obvious if you use a particular phrase.

Second, if you can, establish that other things are similar. One character's father hung out with the evil twin's father, or they worked at the same industry or place. The evil twin was a mentor before he turned bad.

Third, give them essentially the same situation so that the difference or similarity of the responses can point up the similarities and differences. In fact, you can provide the same situation several times. Let's say you're doing essentially the Bizarro adventure, where a copy of the hero (meant for good!) starts to deteriorate. You can start by introducing the copy while rescuing the dependent. Both are racing for the endangered reporter, and it doesn't matter who gets there first (the rerporter is going to be saved)...but it might burn a bit if the copy gets there first. Then they both show up somewhere else. One of the PCs predicts dark things ahead (either because he's genre-savvy or because he always predicts dark things). Then the copy starts to deteriorate. The PCs have to fix some of the problems that the copy makes. And finally, the copy decides that to protect the intrepid reporter, the reporter should be put somewhere safe. Like the arctic. Or the moon. Then you have a bit of repetition that calls back to the earlier rescue.

Fourth, if necessary, have an NPC comment on the fact that this is the same situation. Even if the NPC is shot down ("I'm nothing like him!") the idea has been planted.

But the other thing I thought of is that this parallelism might limit the villain if it's all you do with him. The various Berlanti superhero shows are rife with this: an interesting villain shows up for a single episode to act as an Aesop and provide a moral that the character should change his ways.

In a gaming context, that doesn't necessarily work. In a screenplay or a novel or a comic book, you can make the character change his ways. In a game, it's not your character. And if that's the only reason that the villain exists, well, the villain is kind of a flop if the PC doesn't change...

So in a gaming context, you can provide the opportunity to change. You can use the evil twin to comment on the path a character has taken...but you can't make the character change. Which means that your villains have to have something else about them to make them interesting and possibly re-usable.

The Endnote

1. I'm going to recap here because I need to vent.

  • At one point, Supergirl is caught in quicksand. In a vat of quicksand. The woman can fly and lift a helicopter, but quicksand holds her. What? 
  • The Martian Manhunter has a whole slew of issues on his mission, one of which does reveal a power limitation for this version of J'onn, but really, little of it should have happend. The dude can phase through walls. He can be invisible. Why not go through the building as, say, a security guard, from the outside, straight through to room 52? When questioned about the password, why not read his mind, eliminating the need to perform the awful mind wipe? 
  • How did Max get the camera on Alex's purse? Why was Alex using her own purse, for starters? She's been undercover before. Since she suspects Max of doing evil things, why not make sure all the clothes are from the DEO costume department, which she has raided before? They might have cut some cat-and-mouse stuff for time, but at least allude to it. Or run the story past a gamer.

I enjoy the show, and as a roleplayer, I'm sure that I'm more tactically-minded than some of the writers, but hey... Maybe I can explain Supergirl's problem as hero-in-training, but the other characters are supposed to know. Vent over.

Monday, January 18, 2016


We had a death in the family and I'm going to the funeral tomorrow. (The weather does not incline me to head there today...if I read the forecasts correctly, it will be worse today for the visitation that tomorrow for the funeral. We'll see. I've been snowed in on the Bruce peninsula more than once. I digress.)

Anyway, death is on my mind, so let's turn it to the topic of this blog...superhero roleplaying.

It seems to me that there are a couple of ways or reasons for death to happen:

  1. One is that it's actually the beginning. If you're planning on doing a supernatural kind of campaign, it could well be the event that starts everything: each character dies, and then returns as the Spectre, the Wraith, the Revenant, the Ghost, and so on. In that case, you're really talking about death as part of the characters' origin stories. (The actual mechanism of death isn't actually important; there's no chart of "Death Origins" with "2-4 Shot by criminals/5-6 Hit by radioactive meteorite/7-9 Infected by other supernatural creature" or even "1-2 Vengeance 3-4 Justice 5-6 Redemption.") Since death-as-ending is on my mind today, I'll leave that one there for another day and just note that it exists.
  2. Crappy dice rolls. It happens sometimes that the bad guy rolls really well and the good guy rolls really badly, and it's out in the open. Good guy loses, and we can't think of any other consequence than death. If everybody likes the character, this is a fine reason to have a during death and revivication scenario and adventure where he or she comes back.
  3. Another is the fitting end, usually for a single character. The character does something so awesome, so perfectly in-character, that you respect it even though the logical consequence is death. If you feel this way, let the character stay dead. 
  4. There is the forced end, which is a kind of fridging where the player is leaving, usually for good reasons, and the character's death motivates the other characters to do something, even if it's only investigate the death or extract vengeance. This is actually the one that feels most like comics as currently written, because the character could come back, when Tina the player visits again from the far-off land.
  5. There is the disposal. The player is tired of his character and doesn't want to play any more, either the character or the campaign. Usually the GM engineers a good death, but perhaps the player is easily bored, and this is the twenty-third time this has happened. The GM is tired of carefully crafting a meaningful death, and suddenly a bus jumps the sidewalk and kills the character. Sometimes the GM can find some reason to make the death motivate the other players, but then it would be more of a forced end.
  6. The last I can think of is to clear the decks. In this case, the GM is bored or frustrated, all die, o the embarrassment.

Of those six, less than half call for the character to come back to life: to deal with crappy dice rolls, because the player returns, or sometimes because someone has changed minds about a particular death. (This might happen years after a disposal or a clear-the-decks moment.)

It's totally in keeping with the genre to have someone apparently die (in our group, we often say, "No one could have survived that!" ironically, because we know full well that the GM can haul them out two sessions down the road). That tradition goes back as far as the second appearance of the Joker, back in the first year of Batman.

And, in fact, that's the way I'd play with crappy dice rolls. Ideally, the fact that the character rolled badly doesn't mean that he or she dies; the character might be kidnapped by the bad guys, or teleported away at the last moment (introducing the character with an unhealthy fixation on our hero), or the villain had the device's dial on "mind swap" instead of "disintegrate" (homebrew devices often have this disadvantage).

But if the death is to motivate or to complicate an investigation, it can certainly help...though it's sad for the characters involved. And unlike real life, you can certainly spin out a tale where the character comes back.


Friday, January 15, 2016

Other Genres for ICONS and Supers!

The Search & Destroy handbook modifies Supers! for action-adventure games. Since I don't have S&D, I can't comment on it. However, I can think about the qualities of a genre or subgenre and whether a particular game meets (or could meet) those needs.

Way back when Champions became The Hero System, I figured that any system that could do superheroes could also be a generic system. With age, though, it seems to me that there are some qualities that make a good superhero game that don't necessarily make a good game for another genre, though changing or bolting on rules or subsystems might do the work.

And there are certain genres where that might be true. But most genres without powers use skills to distinguish the characters, and a system that models superheroes tends to gloss over the skills, making them broad, maybe making them additions to your attributes, so that a character can attempt anything unskilled.

In order to fit in the characters who are super-attributed (super-strong, super-fast, super-smart), the systems also tend to compress the low end. In Supers!, for instance, aptitudes really span from 1-4, and everybody has a 1. In ICONS, the attributes run from 1-6. While that's not much worse that D&D, where the supposed 1-18 scale is really -3 to +3 (the attribute modifiers), it certainly feels more constrained.

What about the settings or genres where the characters have powers? ICONS might be used to make a kick-butt Vampire game, for instance, where your clan represents a set of powers you can choose from, and you all get one of a set of Qualities that reflect your clan and vampiric nature. You would have to bolt on the actual powers, defining them as necessary. You'd lose the blood points mechanism (unless you added it) but you could use the Qualities in the same way.

Supers! makes a nice action-adventure game (theoretically--as I say, I haven't looked at S&D yet).

With the right trappings, either one could be a nice high fantasy game, with races and characters who can eventually get strong enough to lift mountains. Both provide resilient enough characters that you could play something like zero-to-hero without worrying too much that your character will die near the beginning of the campaign. (I probably wouldn't go for straight S&S, though, but on the other hand, I have Jaws of the Six Serpents for that....)

Either of them might do well for some of the less-hard science fiction, too. They'd make great systems for something like Star Wars, though you'd have to figure out a mechanism for the Force.  (Actually, the more I learn about Kylo Ren's backstory, the more he sounds like a failed character in a Star Wars game...)

They're both best for comics. One is a little more four-colour than the other, but they're both good. And in the realm of comics, I'd love to see someone do the equivalent of Leaving Megalopolis with them.

Tuesday, January 12, 2016

Mind search...too many minds!


The default ICONS Assembled doesn't handle the ability to search for a particular mind very well. I'm used to the name "mind scan" from Champions but there's a character named Mind-Scan who instead probes minds. So I've gone with the name "mind search."

If you don't recall, the ability is to sort through all the minds in an area and locate a particular individual. In Great Power, it's probably the power "Super-senses: Telelocation". That power lets you locate a person based on how well you know them.

But it's not a perfect fit for mind search as I've seen it in the comics.

The caveat is that I haven't seen it a lot, so I might have seen a couple of outliers that don't represent the bulk of appearances.

I've seen it used in three applications. The first and probably most obvious is Cerebro. (I predate its big sister.) Cerebro is explicitly said to be doing something telepathic, and in one of the 1960s appearances I saw gave Professor X enough juice to make mental contact. It says "telepathy" on the tin, but I don't think so. Really, it's a human mutant finder. They used it to locate a missing member of the team, probably on more than one occasion, and it needs to be operated by someone with psychic potential. The thing that makes it most psychic to me is that Magneto can hide from it by using certain psychic abilities.

I'd probably go with Detection, except it has this huge range. It's global, and therefore probably a plot device. Even though it started off as the size of Professor Xavier's desk, now it's a big immovable room thing. So I'd probably call it a plot device...but my point is that it finds people who are totally unknown to the user. (That's its purpose.) Telelocation talks about how well you know them.

Yeah, you can get around that, but still...

The second case was in Teen Titans. A psychic teenager is enlisted (the details are vague for me; sorry, it's been decades) to find a missing team member. (Heck, for all I know, Steve Dayton has tried this too, in his Menton persona.) Here at least the psychic teenager knew the missing person, so that sort of fits.

The third case is J'onn J'ones, the Martian Manhunter. There's a case in the comics (and in an episode of JLU) where he scans for a particular person, who they've just met. The impression I get from JLU is that he's opening minds and peeking inside. (Well, opening the doors of his mind and searching through the stuff that washes in.)

You can make the case that he failed because he didn't know the person well, but it didn't seem like that. It seemed, in ICONS terms, like there was a side-effect, maybe mental blast, that scaled according to how many minds he looked at.

I don't really have a good answer. Mind-search is a rare power anyway, and it's a plot destroyer in many ways....I think that's why Steve Kenson put the "how well you know" limitation on it. It's probably best done as a stunt, anyway, probably with the Telelocation sense. I might not make it how well you know the person; I might make it how many minds are in the area being searched. (Maybe the Champions influence. That always seemed game-able to me, though the scale wasn't useful.) The person's mind (and possible Mental Resistance) are the opposition, and the number of minds in the area is some kind of modifier. Any character limits on range are in effect.

The number of degrees of success tell you how well you locate the person: Marginal success establishes only that they're alive, Moderate success pinpoints the city, Major or better success gives you an area roughly the size of a block.  With Moderate success, you can try some kind of mental contact, which may of course be opposed.

(Edited to name the Steves.)

Monday, January 11, 2016

ICONS Tricks, part III


Just a quickie that Steve Kenson just pointed out.

You can certainly take the Limit: Source or Limit: Removable on a power that comes from a device, but the trade-off is that you no longer get Trouble from losing it.

The advantage to an item labeled as a Device is that you can generate Determination with it. Even if your Trained hero is an antisocial loner with no Qualities whatsoever, you can create determination just by having the Lonercycle stolen or the Lonerlasso broker. If the Lonercycle or the Lonerlasso is given with the Limit Source, you can't do that. You probably have more Determination because you used the limit to offset the Determination loss, but it is a trade-off, and you do have to consider it.

Scattered thoughts on the economic solution versus the lawful solution


(I'm scattered today, so this might not get to the point.)

In the real world, when there's a demand for something, someone usually steps in to supply that demand. Not always; in a superhero world, you have to distinguish between something that you can supply and something you can't. A number of villains want world domination, but that turns out to be difficult to supply. (Most people who can get it won't give it up, although there's an interesting meta one-shot, where it turns out the whole thing is virtual reality, so that Visigoth Feral can finally take over the world...and the sequel is what happens after he discovers the ruse.)

However, in a superhero world, there are a number of things that aren't legal to sell that are still wanted. Vampires and blood, for instance. Blood is not really legally available for sale, but making it available could reduce the total amount of vampire-on-human violence. ("I managed to pay my way through college by pimping humans to be vampire blood bags!") Various radioactive materials are necessary for the life of various supervillains, who would presumably not be indulging in crime if they could just get what they need. [1]

So supply and demand says that most of the time, if there's a demand, there's going to be a supply. That trade is going to be illegal if the law doesn't recognize it. Sometimes the law is vague or fuzzy; the status of blood as a commodity is one: it falls under some health laws and it might be illegal, but it might not. Most people refuse to sell it because of that gray area. (There's also the question that can't legally enter a contract to buy something because they're not recognized as persons.) Sometimes the law is just hasn't recognized vampires, AIs, robots, zombies, uplifted animals, and extraterrestrials are legally persons, and can't legally enter into a contract to buy something. [2]

In your superhero world, there are almost certainly people working in favour of making some of these things legal (Atlantis should be recognized!) and some people against it (What happens to shipping if we recognize Atlantis? Is there a competitive trade advantage to ports that recognize Atlantis, or are the sea-dwellers too scattered or rare to make a difference? Is the threat of terrorism by Atlanteans an acceptable risk? [3])

The attempts don't have to succeed, but you can have them in the background to give verisimilitude to your superhero world. The idealistic college student who is all about how vampires are only violent because they can't get blood (and who may or may not have suspicious scabs along the femoral artery); the working man who is sure that the current set of anti-invasion laws are sure to make things better for him ("All the interdimensional guys gotta get sent back because they're taking jobs from guys like me!"); the businessman who claims that the attacks by created villains improve the economy (because they stimulate building and repair work, and a certain amount of R&D).

You could even have a presidential hopeful who offers solutions on these problems—the kinds of solutions that make trouble for the heroes.

1. And the water of the fountain of immortality is probably a fair advertising issue: Touting it is outlawed as an unprovable claim, because it takes decades before you discover that you're not going to die.

2. There's always been the question in my mind of why Bruce Wayne doesn't pay thugs to quit crime. In fact, that's part of the appeal of the Wayne Foundation: it's a tool where Bruce Wayne tries to make the world better so that Batman isn't needed. (Which brings in mind the millionaire sketch from Second City: Bruce is out of money, because he's spent it all on thugs and crimefighting equipment. What does he do now?)

3. In my recent Emerald Knights campaign, I had the Atlanteans as freshwater aliens living in the Great Lakes. They were recognized and had treaties with Canada and the USA. The fact that they regarded an area of the lake as taboo played into the game a bit. The early parts of the game are on Obsidian Portal, if you want to look at it. I think it was called something like Steel City or Steel City Blues.

Friday, January 8, 2016

The superhero pay gap

I was listening to the new episode of the Freakonomics podcast this morning, and they had a compelling argument that the oft-repeated statement that women make 77 cents for each dollar that men work is an average and is subject to problems because of that.

Though there is male-female discrimination, the guest (whose name I have already forgotten: she's president of the AEA) argued that when you control for other factors, a big factor is that women get paid less because they take jobs where flexibility is prized. Corporations pay for the amount of time that they have employees available. According to her studies, women also tend to avoid owning things, because ownership of a business is time-consuming.

Assuming that's correct....

Another group who prizes work-life balance and needs to be able to do jobs flexibly is superheroes, particularly the kind with secret identities.

For the most part, this isn't going to come into play. Some characters will be wealthy, some characters will be so poor that it doesn't matter, some will have exotic life support and don't need a place to live, some will be paid to be superheroes.

But sometimes you can make it affect play.

If you have a player who wants to play this sort of thing, you can have an extra source of angst for the hero: people who started their careers at the same time are further along or make more money because they don't have a sideline. They don't need to escape at a moment's notice. They are (male or female) the underpaid ones in this scenario because they can't commit to being there Sunday or working late, or even a straight nine to five.

If you want to do a sideline of "this is the choice I made: be a hero and do it secretly, and this is the cost" this might be an extra bit of filigree to add to it.


Quote of the day, because I thought it was appropriate to superheroes and villains:
A certain kind of rich man afflicted with the symptoms of moral dandyism sooner or later comes to the conclusion that it isn't enough merely to make money. He feels obliged to hold views, to espouse causes and elect Presidents, to explain to a trembling world how and why the world went wrong.

—Lewis H. Lapham, editor and writer (b. 8 Jan 1935)

That sounds sooo pulpy to me, not just because the phrase "moral dandyism" does not get used much.

Thursday, January 7, 2016

Hey--long time no see

Happy new year, by the way.

It's been quite busy, but I'm not ignoring least in the sense of not thinking about you, you inchoate audience mass, you. I'm sort of ignoring you in the writing to you kind of way.

Most importantly, it's been busy at home and work. That's certainly my priority. And I'm doing two adventures for small publishers.

The one I guess I can talk about (because Walt Robillard mentioned it on a podcast) is a Supers! REd adventure, which feels simultaneously too long and too short.  I worry that I've written it too long, and then I look at things I have to cut out of it, and I think, "Ohmigod, this will end up being too short!" However, it's gone in some interesting places even though I've been slow about writing it. (I want "careful" on this one--it's an adventure with time travel, and a slap-dash approach will only make trouble down the line--but I worry I've just been slow.) Call it Fall of the House of Echo, which is not the real name; it's just what I use to refer to it when I don't want to use the real name. That's pretty exciting.

I've play-tested it with Mythic GME and Supers! but I'm not really in a life situation where I can get a group together. (Something about work and commuting for twelve hours a day.) I've even found commercially available (and unsuitable) maps for three of the locations that might need maps, and for another I used the Rosie's Bar map from Champions.  I'll try to get Walt's permission to do another playtest with humans, by Google Hangouts. Drop me a line if you're interested.

I'll tell you the real name when it's available from Hazard Studio. Then I can add it to my tiny portfolio of RPG stuff (Assault on Precinct 9, from Fainting Goat Games, and two of the World's Most Wanted villains).

I'd like to collate all of the Fallen ICONS stuff into a single PDF to make it easier for people to download. I don't think I'll offer it for sale; I don't want to go through the hassles of setting up a OneBookshelf account. If I do that, though, I'll probably get Steve Kenson's blessing in the form of the ICONS-compatible logo. The other thing I'll do is scour the web for free or cheap graphics. The PDF will be free and the look will reflect that, but at least it can have a few pictures.

I was looking for something or other in the ICONS line on RPGNow, and I realized that there really are quite a few villain characters for sale. So I'll have to resist the temptation to kvetch and moan because, really, they're out there.

And how's your life going?

Monday, January 4, 2016

A moment of reflection: DC Heroes


I just wanted to take a moment to think about that other influential system, DC Heroes. Yes, the TSR Marvel game turned out to be stunningly influential, but aspects of DC Heroes have also influenced the modern superhero game.

I haven't the brainpower to spare today to actually trace the effects it has had, or even talk about what a mess the whole Blood of Heroes thing became. I just want to talk about the system and me.

I bought it in first edition. It concentrated on the Teen Titans, who were hot at the time, and it had (for me) two really revolutionary things. First, the action-opposition-effect mechanic was, well, beautiful. I still keep trying to recreate it in other things, and fall back on its division of physical, mental, and spiritual effects. I mean, wow. Other games have collapsed mental and spiritual or even provided mechanisms where all three are the same thing (only separated by power modifiers) but to me, there's something elegant in the domains of the mind, the body, and the soul. (Mind, it got confusing early in play trying to keep straight whether soul was the aiming attribute or will was or maybe spirit...but the structure of the cards kept it straight.)

Second, everything was on the logarithmic scale. Now, that wasn't new to me: Champions was already using powers to calculate strength. But applying it to everything? Wow. Information, time, distance, strength...all of it. You can see that influence in later games by Steve Kenson: both M&M3E and ICONS Assembled feature benchmarks that have almost all the same features. Heck, M&M3E even features the funky equations for distance, time, and speed. one would play with me in first edition. So I eventually got rid of it.

Then a friend, my system whore friend, convinced me to try it again. We would run two campaigns that intersected: they took place in the same town but he would run the superheroes and I would run the mages. So I got second edition. And a number of the supplements. (I still own Magic. I might own others, but I haven't checked.)

I thought the campaign was a blast, and I still remember some of the player characters: the voudoun professor and the psychic private eye, and the mercenary who had been trapped alive in Hell since the Hundred Years' War. (Sorry, Jim, I don't remember your character. I don't even remember who I played as a superhero, except he was probably influenced by Batman because all my characters were influenced by Batman.) We were still playing it when the third edition came out, and I bought that so I wouldn't have multiple books to carry around.

Now, for all that I loved the game, I thought there were a couple of issues.
  • The power names were too specific, and it was often the case that you had the same power three times, once for spirit, once for physical attacks, and once for mental ones. The gadget rules in the first edition were clunky...well, the gadget rules were always clunky. And the numbers were the time, I had played Champions, where a character was between 200 and 400 points...the idea of playing 1400 point characters scared me. (It still does, a little. No, I've never played Rifts. Why?)
  • Even though the exponential growth is a way to make Jimmy Olsen and Superman fit on the same chart, it does lead to characters being rather similar at the low end.
  • And I really wanted a formula instead of the tables. Having to do table lookups was a bit of a nuisance to me....still is.
But the game...well. Great. I can see why is still a going concern.