Monday, February 29, 2016

Sparking the imagination

While I was looking over the ICONS material in preparation for this playtest, it occurred to me that some of the games systems I read cause a flurry of sparks, and some do not. Wild Talents does not, even though I can see where it should; Champions did. What I've heard about AMP doesn't yet, but I haven't read the book(s). Interestingly, Mutants & Masterminds 3rd edition doesn't for me, but 1st did. (Second edition is sort of in the middle.)

ICONS first edition did, and second edition less so.

So I've been trying to figure out why that is, for me. Because this is a very personal thing; I know what makes one person's head light up makes another person go, "Meh."

Part of it is the specificity of the game system. The more generic the game system gets, the more flexible it might be, but the more I really have to get into it before I can say, "Oh, here's something we can exploit." In Champions, I was younger but I would also create characters based on the game system. Oh, this character uses this power, which means he can do this, or he can't do that. System mastery is, I guess, part of that appeal, but there's also the old creativity exercise--it's very hard to describe a wall in an interesting way, but it's easy to describe a brick.

Another part is the setting. Does it have nooks and crannies that I can take advantage of? There's a fine line between Freedom City's plethora of characters who probably render the PCs redundant, and the lack of a setting in ICONS or Supers! but both the latter have implied settings that you can grab onto. (Or not, depending on your tastes.)

Part must be presentation, but I'm not sure how.

Part is creativity. I'm sorry to say it, but a chunk of the problem for Capes, Cowls, and Villains Foul for me is that none of the sample characters grabbed my attention. If they had, maybe I'd have looked deeper into the system and grokked it more fully. I grabbed the first villains book, hoping it would do it for me, and it didn't. Now, that might be rectified if I played a game with someone who knows, but I often have to teach myself these games out of the book.

You can combine the setting and the creativity to get some idea of the core activities, what the world is like. I know that to a large degree, the worlds are superhero worlds, and yet some of them (just like some comics) fall flat for me.

Your thoughts?

Sunday, February 28, 2016

Lessons learned so far, ICONS Play-by-post

So I'm testing an ICONS adventure idea as a play-by-post thing in G+. This is an experiment for me; I'm not currently in a position to actually meet people who play, and this seemed like a reasonable compromise.

We've only just begun playing. Fortunately, one of the players has much more experience with play-by-post games, so I'm leaning a bit on him. Here's what I've found so far:

  • Point buy or random; not both. I'm pretty easy about character creation, and the game system really does even out power levels with the Determination point mechanism. I figured I'd let them either create the character they wanted (point buy) or roll up a character. It doesn't matter if the system evens things out: there are hurt feelings when Jack Point-buy is stuck with a 45-point character and Jill Random rolls up a 63-point character. It makes for better vibes among people if you pick one or the other. There are a couple of alternatives: Jill Random looks at her character and if the character is over 50 points, picks a limit for the highest power; if the character is under 40 points, puts an extra on the highest power; assign a higher point value than 45. But it's easier to avoid the issue.
  • Pre-gens are tough to do right. Pre-gens were an afterthought with me. The players asked if I had any, and I found some I had done for a previous trial with in-person players. I did the pre-gens as random roll, and then picked some. I think I tended to pick the higher point ones. Provide pre-gens and the higher point ones get picked. I can't prove that--I've only had one pre-gen picked, but if you want to play a character, why not pick the one with more or better powers? So if you're going to offer pre-gens, use the point value as a way to make the pre-gens at roughly the same power level.
  • Acting player/GM rolls 2d6-7. Yes, according to the rules, each side rolls 1d6. But what I realized is that if you post the villains or some fraction of their writeups, then each person can resolve a task in one roll. 
  • Don't do initiative. We're trying this. People just post when they can, and I summarize at the end of the page. I might (haven't decided yet) go for straight coordination as initiative. That would be a house rule.
  • Start in media res. This whole thing is slow, so you probably don't want to have a week of "and what are you doing?" Maybe the players mention what they're interrupting to be here.
  • Regular posts and a default action. Post frequently, and every character has a default thing that they do if the player can't post. Blast, recover, hide, whatever...that's what the character does if the player can't make it by the deadline.
Maybe this whole thing will fall apart. I hope not: we're doing a single (long-ish) adventure, and I hope the limited scope will keep us moving. But even if it fails, I expect to learn useful things from this.

Friday, February 19, 2016


One of the things that's part of superhero lore that doesn't show up a lot in RPGs is the sidekick. (By sidekick I also include pets and familiars, so Zabu, the sabre tooth tiger with Ka-Zar, counts as much as Robin or Stripesy.) I'm really talking about sidekicks as sidekicks, not a Teen Titans model where they fend for themselves.

A superhero sidekick is tough to play. When I think about it, I've only had sidekicks show up three times in decades of superhero RPGs: Once, the sidekick was actually an ex-sidekick; another time, the sidekick was simply another player character hero, and there's an agreement between players that character B is the sidekick of character A; in DC Heroes, where there was a specific in-game mechanic for handling sidekicks (that also existed in Golden Age of Champions, but I never used it). I've used sidekicks as a GM to comic effect (such as with Gecko and Lizardboy, where Lizardboy was actually the crazed millionaire's middle-aged butler), but for players, not so much.

Who Plays the Sidekick?

There seem to me to be four options:
  1. The GM plays the sidekick.
  2. The player plays the sidekick.
  3. Another player plays the sidekick.
  4. Rotating people play the sidekick.
Which is best depends on the situation and your players.

If the GM plays the sidekick, you have the advantage that the sidekick can do things that the player doesn't expect. There's also likely to be more emphasis on the disadvantages of a sidekick.

If the player adds the sidekick on to his or her usual load, you have the advantage that the regular PC and the sidekick really do function as one person. The player gets twice as many opportunities to act, which can be a disadvantage (though the player probably paid for this advantage, with an actual cost or a quality). It's rather like Duplicating powers that way.

If another player plays the sidekick, you have the same advantage as if the GM plays, but the amount of trouble generated depends on the players' relationships. I would assume things are easier for the character, but that won't always be true.

If you play the sidekicks in troupe style, then you can take advantage of all of these. 

I think it might be interesting in a low-membership group to have each player take a sidekick of one of the other players. That is, Player A plays Character A and Sidekick B, Player B plays Character B and Sidekick C, and Player C plays Character C and Sidekick A. You get six characters and because the sidekicks are usually lower-powered, they don't stress the players out as much.

Odd Sidekicks

Everyone thinks of Robin, the boy hostage, but really there are a variety of sidekicks and one of them might be right for your character, at least for a while.
  • The sidekick is the one with the power, rather like Johnny Thunder and the Thunderbolt.
  • The sidekick is unwanted, rather like Frogboy or some other minor character who tries to emulate the PC.
  • The sidekick is actually disposable: the hero is running a Be A Sidekick For A Week contest on his website (or such a contest was run without his or her knowledge), and the winner of the contest is an elderly man who has always wanted to be a superhero. ("Look, Brassman, you said that in the armor, anyone could be a superhero. So I built a contest based on that. You signed was in that stack of forms.")
  • The sidekick draws fire, either because he or she is immortal or very tough in some way.

In terms of powers, sidekicks are usually copies, having powers or origins essentially like the PC (Robin, Kid Flash), so the operative phrase becomes "Like the hero but..." However, some sidekicks are spackle or complements, filling in some of the gaps that the hero has. In both an RPG and a book, this often occurs because the GM has determined that they need some power in order to get the plot coupons they need to advance. And some sidekicks are wildcards, some kind of random assortment of powers, joined to the PC through some social or psychological mechanism. 

Animal companions tend to be complements, granting the hero some extra powers in battle or reconnaisance.

What Stories Do You Tell?

If having a sidekick is going to be a special event, then you have to know what you plan on doing with the sidekick. Usually sidekicks are all about Learning Responsibility and About Power. (We don't need sidekicks as audience stand-ins because the players have regular characters for that.) 

You could also use sidekicks as a way to talk about the grit and stick-to-it-iveness that one needs to be a hero. There's also betrayal and infiltration stories, where the sidekick turns out not to be so nice.

What Do You Do Mechanically?

In Supers!, a sidekick would be an Advantage, with the number of dice indicating how powerful the sidekick is. Unless there's special approval from the GM, I'd insist that sidekicks are less powerful than the PC; it's probably a 2D or 3D advantage.

In ICONS, you dedicate a quality to your sidekick. Unless you've arranged otherwise, sidekick powers top out at 7, with origins adding to the powers...until they get to 7. (This gives them roughly the two-thirds suggested in some game supplement. Wasn't it ICONS Team-Up?

The TL;DR version is that I suspect it's rare to have the sidekick as a regular thing...perhaps a bit more common with familiars-as-sidekicks. But there's no reason why you can't introduce a sidekick as a running plot for a while.

Wednesday, February 17, 2016

A general plotting rule

For all my superhero consumption:

If there's an easy way that normal people would handle a problem, consider that method for your super characters.

I know there are exceptions, such as when you want to show that someone is out of step with reality. Still, if it's something as easy as, "Phone work and claim the person is sick to buy time" rather than "Have the shape-shifting alien try to impersonate the person before the boss," well, I have to think, go the simple way. No, it's not as much fun as watching Melissa Benoist get to play a person pretending to be a person that she pretends to be, but it makes me throw up my hands less.

A supers setting of no import

Because I'm bored, here's rough notes for a setting start.

All kinds of heroes (mutants, transformed, robots, magic, aliens, etc.). If you can justify it, it can exist. Heroes have been public for a generation, starting with Galaxy in 1979. (Yes, that means that there were decades of superhero comics to draw from.) Some think that the pre-existing comics shaped what came.

North American superheroes appeared after the meltdown at Three Mile Island. Surely it wasn't the radiation; dirtier bombs had been exploded in earlier years. But if metahumans have long been with us, the incident at Three Mile Island spurred them to be public. Galaxy had just come into her powers, so she is no proof either way.

In the recent past, there has been a battle between good and bad on an unprecedented scale, though the numbers of metahumans were never so high that everyone was affected. At the end of it, the various groups were shattered. Oh, there might be a member or two left of some (even most) of them, but the : mighty battle between good and bad, has destroyed both and left power vacuums. (If we ever want to bring them back, they aren't dead, they're in the massive crossover event Clandestine Infinities.)

The person on the street in North America would recognize as good-guy teams the Liberty Union, the Justice Vanguard, the Appeal, the Shadow Cabinet, and the Golden Balance, and hero names like Exalted, Galaxy, Nimble, Spicer, Suitable, Maximan, and the Sky Clan. The same person would know about Doctor Apocalypse, about Count Infinity, and about the Darwin Association, who have all very publicly tried to destroy the world.

They are less likely to know about the other criminal organizations, such as the Benevolent Organization, the Parliament of Hunters, the Federated Autarky, and the Underworld Syndicate. Those organizations are in disarray, though they're likely to be re-built in some form or another. 

The Atlanteans have only just come out in the last fifteen years (since the disasters off the coast of Africa), though they claim to be older. There seem to be at least three types of Atlanteans, ranging from the human-looking sub-mariners through the merpeople to the Deep Ones. They are beginning to be a threat to shipping, though nominally some counrties have treaties with them. (Adventure idea: protecting a watery caravan.)

Fight club exists, and it's for supers. Imported from Thailand, the underground combat rings for metas are a place where heroes and villains have both trained.

This is a time when super villains start to appear, eager to make names for themselves and consolidate control. At the same time, non-super organized crime--the mundanes--are trying to re-grasp what has slipped from their fists.

There is no obvious government organization dedicated to metas--that function has been distributed among all the different alphabet-soup groups. There is fierce rivalry between the groups. 

But you don't start with any of this--you start with something small. A group of female villains who have all adopted code names that start with B (who call themselves the "B Hive") have decided on something flashy as their coming out crime. They expect police involvement and maybe a superhero or two, but the point is to demonstrate that they are tough and can't be stopped. 

This first crime is a pretty standard bank robbery, except that they have their escape already planned--they expect that the psionic powers of one of their team will let them leave whenever they want. 

There are more members than the ones on the job, but this caper is Brawn, Blister, Blackbird, and Bungee, with Brainz held in nearby reserve.


Saturday, February 13, 2016

A link

What a week--from funeral to sick-as-the-canid-of-your-choice. 

But because I was talking about parasites a while ago (and because I like parasites), here is a bit of news:

Now, there's an idea--an intelligent parasite can only breed in organisms with a certain set of characteristics. Before its mind was subsumed the host left its planet to prevent infecting others. (He was a genius on his world, a twelfth-level intellect on a planet of fifth-level intellects.)

The parasite has caused superpowers because they're a side-effect in humans of the characteristics that the parasite needs. 

That might be an interesting end-game to a supers campaign. All sorts of organisms can be infected, but only in supers (or a certain type of super--one of the player characters, perhaps?) can it breed. The PCs have to stop the infection from reaching those individuals and wipe out the infection... Or failing that, wipe out the individual.

Who, I'm sure, is beloved by enough people that it's going to be a battle. 

Friday, February 5, 2016

Another family death

Sorry for being so quiet. It's a combination of work and another family death. 

I guess my family has just reached that age. 

(So long as we don't repeat that time 20 years ago when I did six funerals in six months.)

Tuesday, February 2, 2016

What's your game about?


So Howard Tayler was, as of GenCon, writing a roleplaying game set in the world of Schlock Mercenary (I think the Kickstarter is over, so if you didn't know about it, you have to wait until it's really available). The podcast Writing Excuses this week was about worldbuilding for RPGs, and the very first piece of advice from the guests was knowing the purpose of your game. Not the higher moral purpose, but rather, when someone is playing your game, what are they doing? What's the usual activity?

And for superhero games, part one of that answer is almost always going to be, "Beating up supervillains." Another part is going to be, "Encouraging fun at the table" (however you describe fun) which I prefer to "good roleplaying" because I have discovered that "good roleplaying" varies with the group and the player or GM. So can "encouraging fun" but you run into fewer conflicts about whether a particular action was angst or wangst.

But as it happens, I'm also drafting the part of one manuscript where I talk about potential rewards.

One of the things I happen to believe is that, when you get points for killing things, everything looks like it's got hit points. (I ran into the equivalent when running Marvel Heroic Roleplaying.) So what do I want to encourage in the context of the game? What's the point of this little adventure?

Back in the Herozoic era, when I began, there was a table for XP, and it had things like:

  • Just being there (1)
  • Long involved adventure (2)
  • More than one session (+1)
  • Outnumbered (+1)
  • Clever, inventive, roleplayed well (+1)
  • Characters totally failed at purpose of adventure (-1)

Now, that's not "Kill things and take their stuff" territory, but it is kind of vague, and you notice that only the lines "clever, inventive, roleplayed well" and "totally failed" have anything to do with what you as a player did after you got there. More than half was just showing up. Frankly, my first draft of experience looked pretty much like that. (I've been influenced, what can I say?)

Both Supers! and ICONS have abandoned that XP approach for an "achievements" approach. Minor achievements might be just showing up (and as I get older and life seems to get more complicated, I do appreciate it), but they can also be things like resolving the storyline. There's a little less of the "you showed up, you get a point" kind of thinking.

Still, they don't give you an actual guideline. In one way, that's awful, but in another way, that's great. You get to define what your game is about. You get to say what a minor achievement is, and what a major achievement is. In fact, Base Raiders formalizes this as goals for your character. (Some other time we'll talk about goals-you-can-achieve and goals-that-are-your-pole-star, and whether they're the same for everybody.)

Because you know that players are going to do whatever gets them character advancement. If it's "solve a mystery" then they're going to find a mystery and solve it. And, out of fairness, the GM better put the thing in there that gets them character advancement. It's not nice to say they advance by solving a mystery and then not providing one, or worse, by killing kobolds and then giving them a whole village of kobolds they have to save.

Frankly, I still think just showing up is worth a point, but why not give it out at the beginning of the session instead of the end? Every Supers! player gets a competency die, just because they're there. ICONS players get Determination points.

But beyond that... Depends on the type of campaign you're running.

You are the city's premier group.
Minor achievements:  Rebuild the section of town destroyed by natural disaster. Resolve the plot of the session. Protect your secret identity. Make it to your son's graduation. Have a date.
Major achievements: Rescue the mayor. Save the city from the doomsday device. Help the new team. Expose the imposters.

You are shadowy vigilantes.
Minor achievements:  Don't get caught. Take down bad guys without help.
Major achievements: Escape jail. Keep your secret identity.

You are students at a super school.
Minor achievements:  Get that cute MOTAS to notice you. Survive hazing. Reach out to the new kid. Survive the betrayal of the cute MOTAS. Fight off the bad guys from the rival school but be open to the good guys from the rival school.
Major achievements: Get picked for a super team. Pass the test. Discover and defeat the invading clones. Get the school to change its policies.

You are a supervillain's enforcement group.
Minor achievements: Succeed in the mission, which he will outline to you; keep your family in the dark; escape jail; don't lose any members in a fight with the heroes; avoid getting killed or fired by the boss.
Major achievements: Get a promotion; get your superior arrested or slaughtered; get your daughter into a good school; manage to hide your true identity all through Parent-Teacher Night even though rival villain or hero group shows up.