Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Disasters in ICONS


Here's the setup for Wednesday's episode of the ICONS Drop-In:
According to the 911 calls, a few minutes ago someone picked up a city block and then dropped it, snapping things like electric lines, water pipes, and gas lines. Emergency vehicles are on the way--injuries, fires, and floods. Was it done by a supervillain, old or new? Or someone who just got powers and hasn't learned to control them?
I haven't run disasters in the Assembled edition of ICONS before. After reading through the advice in ICONS and in ICONS A-Z, here's how I figure I'm going to run it.

There are really four large-scale emergencies on the block:
  1. Fires from the ruptured gas mains
  2. Flooding from the broken water pipes (and that will also impede attempts to fight the fires)
  3. Power blackout in the area
  4. Medical emergencies from the previous
Other things might be there, too, but we're not spending the whole night on rescues...only the first of three hours. So yes, I'll toss in a couple of vehicular accidents or the possibility of someone driving into the dark area, but I am not trying to give an encyclopaedic article on possible disasters for superheroes.

I'm going to ignore the electrical stuff, and count that as something that makes the other tasks more difficult. (It's night-time, the only light is the light that seeps from the surrounding blocks in the direction of the transformer station or from fires. That makes the first problem finding people for rescuing.

Also, I'm going to take a hint from ICONS A-Z and offer players multiple "rescue panels." Mechanically, this is a lost panel of Trouble, but frankly, it feels much more heroic to get Determination by helping than to say it was paparazzi.

Medical emergencies I'm going to handle on a case-by-case basis, depending on who shows up and what they play. (If someone chooses to play the speedster, there might be medical emergencies.)

Floods will be straight pyramid tests, difficulty 5. There are torn mains on all four sides of the block (which is eight pipe ends, but only three of them are currently gushing water; there's a main feed and two side feeds. Restoring water function is worth more than just stopping the flood, but I'm not going to penalize anyone for not doing either: it would take inspired thinking on the part of Hawkeye, Shang-Chi and Daredevil to do it.

Fires are a more complicated pyramid tests. Because the heroes show up fast, the fire test starts at difficulty 4, and escalates: every failure increases the difficulty by one, up to a maximum difficulty of 7. (A really clever idea or result could lower the difficulty, I suppose.) The test is also costly: Any failure causes an Affliction test (heat and smoke inhalation) at the same level as the fire's difficulty. (Making them costly is an idea that comes from ICONS A-Z.)

I'm going to let the session guide me as to whether or not other people need to make Affliction tests, or need to make them more often than the players.

I don't care if characters collaborate on the pyramid tests or not.

Now, what the tests actually represent will come from the session. The main thing is rescuing people. Maybe they'll also be about fixing things, but maybe the whole pyramid test is about finding people trapped in the rubble before the water gets to them. Fires, same thing: it's great if they have the powers to stop the fire, but I'll settle for rescuing people.

Monday, August 14, 2017

Champions talk

SYSTEM: HERO (Champions)

Because Champions 4th edition is Sean's pick of the day over at RPGNow/One Bookshelf, and because the news over the weekend makes me sad and angry, I speak today about Champions.

I had roleplayed before being introduced to Champions, but I hadn't really taken to it. A friend (Jim Gardner; you probably know him, if you do, as the award-winning and award-nominated author James Alan Gardner) had gotten a copy of Champions (probably second edition, and while we were on a weekend away with a theatre group we were both in, we played it. Totally misunderstood some rules, but that's always the way.

It changed me from being meh about roleplaying games to loving them. Most important: I could create the character I wanted instead of being at the mercy of the dice. Nowadays, I'm okay with random character generation, but you'll note that even in ICONS, there's an awful lot of player input. There is a limit that lets you add a power as an extra and then ignore the power you rolled (Extra only). (Of course, as a GM, I get to design almost all of my characters.)

If I had a story in my head, I could build a part of it, the character part. And I could describe some of the disadvantages.

Since I wanted to be a writer, yes, I usually had a story in my head.

There were bad habits, too, ones that I developed and that Champions didn't curb...that same story-telling urge made me a terrible railroader, for instance. I made up disadvantages that were just a different flavour of the other three disadvantages, and tried really hard to come up with limitations that didn't really limit me. If your hunted came up in the session, by Good they were going to appear somehow, even if it was just a postcard from the local supermax prison.

Hero Games was pretty much my sole system for a decade or more. I played Espionage!, Fantasy Hero, Danger International, Star Hero, and weird things that had no actual game attached to them but we knew Hero so well that we knew how to twist it to what we wanted.

I loved Aaron Allston's work. I ran the vampire adventure out of...was it The Circle and METE? I swiped and renamed Dr. McQuark. I think I even used Affrighter, but I'm not sure. I ran some flavour of The Coriolis Effect.

I ate up second and third editions, and loved them despite their flaws. We house-ruled various things.

At first I was pleased with the changes that came in fourth edition to make it a generic system, because we used it as a generic system. (Okay, we had tried other systems.) But I started to get dissatisfied because the loose feeling that had been in the first couple of editions was gone. At first I was pleased that everything had been put into order, but to have sixteen skills, you had to up the point value of the characters, and that inflation kept going. Much though I loved much of Dark Champions, it was also the one where I started to go, "What?" Blue Moon Killer seemed more like a gun-toting Batman of an infinite number of points. (Jim actually played a heroic Joker as his foe in the Hudson City campaign I ran.)

So I was ripe for something else. That didn't come along, but another friend (hi, Vik) was much more into the wider world of gaming than I was, and introduced me to DC Heroes and CORPS and Mutants and Masterminds, and Jim wanted to try Capes at one point, and James Nicoll ran a playtest for Silver Age Sentinels...

I didn't really enjoy the brief campaign of fifth edition Hero we played, and I never saw sixth edition, though Rod Currie assures me it's out there.

I've grown to like games such as ICONS and Supers! and BASH, and I've read through Prowlers and Paragons and others. I guess in a way I'm more into superhero or comic book RPGs than I am Hero, these days.

And I've made my peace with Hero...I'd play fourth edition if someone wanted to.

So it's not really a dead game to me; it's one that I associate with hours of fun and my attitude that games should be toolkits, rather than spoon-feeders of splatbooks. I've just taken a few decades off playing it.

Thursday, August 10, 2017

ICONS Drop-In (Strange City): Episode 2


Hardware War

We had our second Drop-In session last night, and it was okay as far as gameplay was concerned but a failure in presenting a complete adventure. Technical difficulties with Roll20 and some incredible rolling by the GM and poor rolling by the PCs meant that the first fight—meant to be an expository piece where people practice combat—took over two hours, so the last forty-five minutes was rapid tap-dancing and improvising, and I didn't manage to bring it to a conclusion. It turned out okay—everyone who got their connection to work had fun—but it wasn't an adventure. (If anything, this made the session sandbox-y.)

The major reason this was a problem was the drop-in nature of the game. If the same people show up next week, hey, it's golden. But it wasn't an adventure; it was more a teaser scene, with the caption box "Already, in Strange City..."

So as a gamemaster, there are a couple of things that I took away from that:

  • If you're on a time budget, have plans to cut any particular section short, so you can wrap it up and get on with the adventure. I didn't do that.
  • If it's something online, be there half an hour early to handle connection problems or character and rules issues. Again, the drop-in nature of the game means that doing so doesn't eliminate connection problems, but it might lesson some of them.
  • For online sessions, have the troubleshooting list for the platform handy.
  • For online sessions, have the premise or introductory text for the session in print, so you can do minimal backtracking and explaining.

On to the session.

The breaking story in Strange City tonight was the hostage situation at Prime Tools. Prime Tools has been a Strange City fixture for over sixty years; the current owner is Thomas Park. Those in the know recognize the name Prime Tools, because there have been numerous gang-related incidents there at or near the hardware store in the last fifteen years; Prime Tools is on the current border between two gangs, the Milkbar gang (commonly called the Milks) and the Abandoned gang.

Prime Tools
LocationBeside (to the west of) the train track that marks the boundary between Milk and Abandoned territories.
AppearanceA big one-storey box in the middle of an asphalt parking lot. Inside the front is retail and the back is employees only (washroom, break room, manager's office, access to roof).
  • Fire exits on east and west.
  • Loading door and service entrance at back
  • Glass doors at the front
  • Mr. Thomas Park, current owner; a Korean-American in his late fifties, he has worked in this store since he was a teenager and bought it twenty years ago from its previous owner. He keeps a shotgun under the service counter, and a pistol in his office. The pistol is loaded; the shotgun is not. Mr. Park and some trusted employees carry shotgun shells.
  • Annette duChamps, cashier in her late teens. She's trying to make money for school. Her cousin has gotten involved with one of the two gangs.
  • Cameron Hicks, sales associate. Cameron just finished a term with the Army and was lucky enough to find work, mostly because Cameron was a technician.
  • Big hardware store
  • On contested ground
  • The owner is fed up
Inside, the space is maybe fifteen to eighteen feet high (about five meters); the top meter is hanging fluorescent lights, exposed ductwork, and structural girders. The public part of the store has two cashier desks, a service desk, washroomes, and stuff; the employee section has a break room, back stock, a manager's office, and access to the roof and mechanical.

It was about eight o'clock in the evening; the surge of people who need something just before the store closes hadn't quite started. There are two police cars in front, and more coming; the PRAT team is warming up the ion cannons "just in case" but hasn't come out yet. (They're ready, though supers and long-term residents know that where PRAT goes, property destruction follows, and local law states that the city can't be sued for damage incurred while trying to stop supervillains.)

Three supers overheard the police radio chatter/saw the tweets on Twitter/had their favourite TV or radio shows interrupted and show up, fortuitously at the same time:
  • Blastar, a known criminal who has reputedly turned over a new leaf and become a good guy
  • Gold Tiger, a billionaire philanthropist and inventor who has built a suit of powered armor
  • Spectre, a telekinetic man who can create images from his mind

Despite their misgivings about Blastar, the other two agreed to work with him. They went in through the roof entrance.

There were two Milk gang members there; they had some missteps but take both of them...though not without notifying the others of their presence (I kept rolling sixes for the gang members, and the heroes rolled low.) One of the gang members had a Saturday night special, but the other was wearing odd powered gauntlets.

The stacked shelves of products made it difficult to figure out what the situation was inside. Almost all hostages were locked in the washrooms; only Mr. Park was being held by the service counter. There seemed to be members of both gangs inside, fighting each other...

...until they saw Blastar. Then everybody wanted to shoot Blastar. (A Quality showing up.)

Merry carnage ensued. The gang members had prioritized targets as follows:
  1. Blastar
  2. Other heroes
  3. Members of the other gang.

Over in the corner by the hostages was a fifty-ish guy in a pinstripe suit, and he was with gang members, and he's up-selling them. He's wearing clearly-more-advanced gauntlets, and he's saying things like, "Yeah, it does tremendous damage but you're gonna want something that covers an area if you want to get a spread of the other guys... I happen to have something that might work. Do you want to see it?"

Spectre headed over to deal with him but then realized that Mr. Park was being held hostage, so he headed down there. Once he had freed the hostage and gotten him to safety, Gold Tiger flew to the salesman and rammed him, knocking him out and tossing hi against the wall.

Some gang grudges got exercised, one gang member ran out to escape, and the rest were pummelled into unconsciousness.

They went over to examine the salesman. He had identity papers for three different identities, his fingerprints had been removed, and small scars at his jawline showed that he had had work done. Sparks started shooting and there was an increase in tau radiation, almost as if some device were triggered to teleport him away.

Gold Tiger managed to get the device off him before it disappeared.

There was another source of tau radiation in the area, and they tracked it to a luxury sedan parked a couple of blocks away. The teleport device was on the driver's seat. They found more weapons in the trunk of the car.

They decided to visit Dr. Franz Jelinek near SIT, the world's greatest authority on tau radiation. Dr. Jelinek was at home (it as after 9:00 PM) in an apartment in a six-plex in the student area by the campus.

The apartment was cluttered like an episode of Hoarders with books and journals and open crates everywhere. One crate held sawdust; another held translucent globes of varying colours; a third held electronics components. Dr. Jelinek was a small old man, bald with a long aquiline nose, who had a habit of making asides to his dead wife, Maria. (At one point, a PC suggested he get a domestic intern to help clean up, and he agreed that building one would be a good idea, so he got a notepad from a saucepan in a kitchen cupboard, and wrote it down. That was apparently his domestic "things to do" list.)

Dr. Jelinek gave them a couple of pieces of information:
  • He is horrified at the thought of tau radiation being weaponized; he has actually been inserting math errors in his papers to hide such a possibility. He only wants the peaceful uses of tau radiation.
  • One of the consequences of weaponized tau radiation is that it can rip a hole in the space-time continuum,"and that would be a bad thing, eh, Maria?"
  • Unlike regular radiation, tau radiation can propagate linearly instead of spherically; there was much talk of Riemannian folds.
  • He has detectors at his lab, and he can loan one to the heroes. Do they want the sensitive accurate one that's about the size and weight of a bus, or the hand-held one that isn't so accurate?
  • People really weaponized it? This could be a terrible thing.

And then the three hours were up, so I called it.

(Players are welcome to correct my mis-remembering. I've cut lots of stuff out.)

Again, we had fun, but now I think I'll do stuff to minimize this week's problems.

Wednesday, August 9, 2017

Adventure Structure (superheroes)


Let's talk adventure structure, because I am setting up adventures for the ICONS Drop-In sessions and thinking about the adventures.

For the Drop-In sessions I have a couple of requirements, at least until I find out who (if anyone) is showing up regularly:
  • Minimal soap opera; you can't plan a heart-felt talk between a player and an NPC if you don't know who's going to be there. This results in something a bit more like JLA than like Spider-Man, but that's life.
  • Any game mechanic used for the climax of the session has to be used earlier in the session, in case newbies show up. Usually, that game mechanic is fighting, and I use the minion rule to ease them in, fighting minions and later fighting actual bad guys. However, if I envision that a big part of the climax is, I dunno, defusing the nuclear bombs in a pyramid text, then a pyramid test should be part of the first half of the adventure.
  • The situations have to be suitable for any character type or class. I do tend to gear them to the pre-generated characters, but because two players have said they're showing up tonight, the adventure also has to handle them...and they're high-level characters. Fairly rolled—I'm not kvetching about that—but high level. Like, do-anything powers at level 6 or higher.
  • Wide open to the interpretation of Qualities. I want to encourage stunts, stunts require Advantages, one of the ways to get Advantages is Determination points, getting Determination points requires using Qualities. Even though I'm not sure who will be playing in a given session, there have to be opportunities to use Qualities, for good or ill.
  • I promised that adventures would be over and done in three hours. Some day I might go back on that, but not yet. But I still want some kind of continuity; I want the actions of the characters to affect the on-going saga. So I have an underlying reason for the initial happening, and it has a large enough scope of effect that I can look at different parts of the city. It's not, "Oh, Vibroman has begun his evil plan; now we need to stop him." No, it's more, "A darkness stirs upon the face of the city, and here are the side effects, as well as the effects from the player character actions." So here, in the second session, we're looking at a side effect. This is something that happens as a result of the plan to get rid of the Centurions, but it's not related to the plan at all.

That being said, let's look at the structure that Steve Kenson suggests in the ICONS rulebook. It's a four-part structure,w with the parts being (my names for them):
  1. The Evidence of the Disturbance
  2. The Investigation
  3. The Mistake
  4. The Final Conflict

If you're familiar with Orson Scott Card's MICE quotient, this is pretty much his Event structure.

With a three hour session, each part should take roughly forty-five minutes. That's what I plan for.

The Evidence of the Disturbance

I put it that way because we have only three hours: the plan must have already started. This is the first that the player characters learn of it. It doesn't matter what beautiful things you have in mind, if the player characters don't learn of it, they can't act on it.

This is the first set of robots in the Rumble Room, from last week; this is the attempted bank robbery by the mind-controlled stooge, the sabotage on the military satellite so it's shooting random parts of Kansas, the gang warfare. For now, I don't know who's playing, so this is something the PCs can win at.

Despite the textual evidence of a lot of Silver Age stories, I'm not going to pull out a "but the Space Apes got away!" at this point. If you do it, give everyone a Determination point. And make sure that you have made clear, earlier on, that this sort of thing might happen in the first half of the story. (It's better if it doesn't: doing that has weakened my relationship with my gang. Currently I'm philosophically opposed to that tactic. Still, I'm weak and it might happen.)

And this is the part where we introduce whatever mechanic we'll need later. Usually combat.

The Investigation

This is the part where they discover that the poor guy is showing signs of PTSD and has two curious burn marks, one on each temple, talk to the museum curator and discover the history of the artifact, check the Centurion database for criminals with a known interest in the word "riddle", find out what the current state of gang tensions. I kinda skipped this last week (the cause was obvious) but it's also a place where you'd slip in soap opera. If you could.

The clues have to be obvious. There should always be a clear idea of where to go next. (The players can ignore the clue, but they should at least notice them.)

This part seems to me like one of the most difficult parts. You don't want to spoon feed them, and yet things are never as clear as you think. This is an area where I'd figure that you want three things that lead to the next part, but you also want them to be able to follow up on their ideas, which might be better than yours.

The Mistake

We could also call this "The showdown that goes wrong." Basically, armed with information from the investigation, the player characters take on the problem, whether it's the guy who can control minds, the arms dealer who is fomenting revolution between gangs, the woman possessed by a space rock who is attempting to establish a kingdom, whatever. Unless time is tight, they don't win...or rather, they don't achieve a final victory.
  • They fight and lose and are set up for part four (usually by being put in a death trap).
  • They spend this quarter of the adventure dealing with the distraction that the villain set up: they deal with the killer robot, the meteor that will hit earth, the plague that turns everyone into monsters, the Tau Radiation bombs, whatever.
  • They fight and win, and discover that it's not the real villain after all. (This is a version of the previous one, except the distraction is the apparent villain.)
  • They fight and win, but it takes a while and we call it there.
  • They fight and the bad guy escapes.

The Final Conflict

The players try to deal with the root cause of the adventure's problem.

Sometimes this is a continuation of the previous showdown, as I've said.

The players are captured or humiliated because they {lost|the villain got away}, but armed with the knowledge they got in that encounter, they take on the villain again and win (or don't; I'm not insisting that the player characters win).

That's Very Nice, But What Does It Mean?

The parts that I bump my head against:
  • Player focused It's always always always about what the players can see and what the players can do. I often build nice stories in my head that fail because there's no way for the players to know about them. Adventures start when the players notice them and end when the players have dealt with the situation that they think caused the problem.
  • Clues, clues, clues It is a professional problem in tech writing: what you write doesn't necessarily mean the same thing to someone who reads it. And players often look there instead of here. Part of leading them on, I guess, is not leading them. Some things you're going to have to make up on the fly; others can happen over there because it doesn't really make a difference.

    As a rough rule of thumb, you can move stuff over there during the first half of your session, but it can be perceived as railroad-y. So if the characters really need to know that StarPanda believes that eliminating human life would be a good thing, but they're nowhere near the Centurion database, well, the information is known and said by someone where they are.

    In the second half, you are better to make stuff up. You have to make stuff up that is the consequence of what they did in the first half of the session...it feels more organic, and you get much less of the "you lose until I say you win" problem, which I've alluded to before.

Will those ideas survive conflict with players? Maybe. Keep your eye on this space to find out.

Saturday, August 5, 2017

The Fast Antagonist Generator

Sometimes you need a really fast antagonist. So based on 5 minutes thought, here's what I do. This doesn't generate well-rounded opponents, just fast ones. It also doesn't generate themes or names...that's a different thing from this, though I nod to it in the last step.

I've made this moderately generic, so you'll also have to translate into the appropriate stuff for your system. It is probably slanted to ICONS, because that's the system I was thinking of, but I hope it's not slanted too much.

  1. Do you need a combat antagonist or a social antagonist? They emphasize different things.
  2. Decide on a general level for the antagonist. Maybe you're using Mutants & Masterminds and it's PL, maybe it's the ICONS or FATE chart. The level represents the difficulty for the heroes to defeat, outsmart, or avoid the obstacle. I tend to think in terms of a relative level for combat and an absolute level for social things, but you do you. An absolute level is easier to explain here, so I'll use that in this list.
  3. For combat, decide if the character is primarily a melee fighter, a ranged fighter, or a mentalist. Then you want to set the primary abilities for that kind of combat to the difficulty level you've chosen. Maybe it's fighting ability or high martial arts; maybe it's willpower.
  4. For combat, pick the power or ability that causes the damage. Maybe it's mind control...this antagonist can take over anyone; maybe it's strength; maybe it's a finely-honed set of concussive beams coming out of the// mouth. Up to you.
  5. Again for combat, decide on one of three types of defense: The character has a glass jaw (hard to hit but easy to damage), is average (hard-to-hitness and damage absorption are set to the difficulty level), or is tough (easy to hit but damage absorption is really high).
  6. For a social antagonist, you're looking for a character you can't hit, probably because they aren't obviously a villain. This is the area of your crime lords, your unwitting romantic interests, your crippled relatives, or your crusading bosses. So pick a reason that the hero can't use violence to solve the problem--it might be as simple as being in the other non-hero circle of life, or it's the government's representative, or the hero loves the person because it's Aunt April.
  7. Socially, I've come up with at least these four types of opponents; pick one.
    Fly in the ointment
    This character interfere's with the hero existence. This is the cub reporter who wants a ride-along to do "a day in the life"; this is the enthusiastic fan; this is the protester (who might shade into the publicist); this is the government official who needs to see the hero in action before he approves the hero.
    Speed bump
    On the opposite side, this obstacle has perfectly reasonable expectations of the hero's secret (or not so secret) identity. This is the girlfriend who expects the hero at her folks' place for her mother's birthday, the boss who wants the hero to work overtime, the hot guy who has decided to give the hero a date but only tonight, the cousin coming into town, the blind date who won't go home.
    The character who speaks out for or against the character and influences them. For best results, the hero should have a personal relationship with the publicist in some form. This is the crusading newspaper publisher, the crime lord who wants to shut the character down, the protesting blogger with the ear of government, the columnist, the mayoral candidate who has made destroying the character part of his election campaign, the Twitter spambot, the fake news articles.
    The charact trying to find out more about the character. This might be incidental to something else ("What did happen on the pier on the night of July 12?") or it might be about the character ("Who is Megaguy?")
  8. Given the type of antagonist, you want to improve the appropriate ability/skill to the difficulty level, or provide a quality to provide the motivation, or both.
  9. Do that naming and description thing.

Friday, August 4, 2017

Drop-In Continuity

No, this isn't about some concept called "Drop-In Continuity" (though I might invent that by the end of the post). Instead, having done the first drop-in session, I'm thinking about what the second one will be (tentatively next Wednesday, unless I discover I have to get my wife at the airport).

The constraints are mostly the same:

  • Self-contained.
  • Finish in 3 hours.
  • Provide the rules in small bits for those new to the system. In the last session, I did minion combat, then real combat with some tests, then a fight against a bad guy. While I'm discovering who comes to these things, that seems reasonable: Beat up some thugs, discover that they're the clue to the problem of the week, investigate, fight.

But there's one added, too:

  • Have something to deal with returning players that's optional, in cased that player doesn't show.

And, not necessary but desired, drop hints about what the big issue is. I have a couple of big issues in mind, but I should pick one, and that will be the backdrop for this mosaic/arc.

I've already decided that we're not going to find out what happened to the Centurions immediately. Instead, we're going to deal with something else. I've got a mystical idea, a street-level idea, and a science-y idea. Though the background is ripe with cults, I think we might lay a clue to them but not deal with them this next session. So that leaves street-level or more four-colour.

Let's do more four-colour, because Psychosis is a pretty high level character (I watched the rolls as he made the character, so it's all legit...it's just that he's a guy with several level 8 powers). So we have to go more Green Lantern 1970 and less Batman 1985 (but without someone named Pieface).

Okay: I'll prepare a pair of villains; the lesser one might be a lieutenant of the other one or not, but timing I'll do on the fly (if Psychosis is there, then they'll fight together; if not, the lesser villain is an obstacle on the way to the Big Bad).

Saying Green Lantern 1970 makes me think of Hector Hammond and Star Sapphire. The powers might be useful even if the characterization aren't. An energy form with a "remote" to inhabit? That might be a bit too much like the robot last week. Maybe I'll steal an idea from a certain SF author, and it's still an energy form, but it has been raising a specific family to be its hosts. It can take any of their bodies--powers stay the same but there's a slight difference in the body (or they're terribly different because it's been breeding the family for different purposes).

Actually, that sounds like a creepy, cool idea. They don't have to find out the gimmick right away (unless they read this, I guess, but I trust players not to let real-world knowledge interfere).

And the energy being needs some techno thing that has just been developed at Schwartzchild Industries. Even though the family (who should also have their own agendas) has money, it's not enough to get SCI to loan them the quantum electrodynamic wave adjuster or something. So it must be stolen. But first you have to steal the truck that will carry this heavy heavy object, because if you bought it, people might wonder why you just got a truck that can carry X number of tonnes....

Yeah. That's enough to build around.

Thursday, August 3, 2017

ICONS Drop-In (Strange City), Episode 1


Well, I did it. Only one player showed up, and I haven't yet decided whether I'll run weekly or bi-weekly, but it looks like Wednesday nights on Roll20 is where it is. (So drop in and play, if you have a hankering for some superhero fun.)

(Aside: Roll20 is just hard enough to use that I have to invest in it. Sure, it says it's system-agnostic, and it sort of is...but the default is D&D/Pathfinder.)

Here's a sketchy summary of the first session, devoid of the snark or attitude I'm used to from James Nicoll. If anyone reads this and asks questions, I'll answer them in the comments, but also amend the main text so that others won't have to ask the questions.

Episode 1, Rumble Replacement

PC: Psychosis

Today's the day for tryouts. Tryouts are actually held at Camp Centurion, a decommissioned military base purchased by the Centurions. A special train runs out to it; the normal security precautions are lifted slightly in order to allow the train in and out.

The train car has a number of people on it, maybe two dozen. About half of the people on the train are in costume. Of the remainder, some are obviously there to provide moral support to others.

One guy shows off his power—flame powers—by making a flame dance on his palm during the ride in; when the train arrives, a stern military-looking gentleman escorts that guy away. The rest are greeted by Mr. Geist, who shows the moral supporters to a waiting room and splits the rest of the applicants up into pairs. Psychosis got paired with Blur, some kind of speedster.

The building is tall and curved. Not military at all.

Twenty minutes later, the two of them are meeting Black Aster and the Heartbreak Kid, who will be running the Rumble Room for the test. The Rumble Room is about two and a half storeys tall, and apparently the mechanisms for it go a couple of storeys down and at least one storey up. The control room is visible through a window, but the window's not very big.

There are two doors. They hiss shut and then there's the muffled sound of locks engaging. "We're not going to put the force field up for this run. We want Wisp to be able to get in and get you, if necessary," says Black Aster over the loudspeakers.

"Later we'll use simulated scenes," she continues, "but for now just the bare room, so you can see where things come from."

Things seem to go fine at first—they eliminate some robots. They're ready for more.

They notice a strange steampunk-y man in the control room, who Blur identifies as CyberSerf, a kind of cyber-thief for hire. CyberSerf clearly ups the lethality on the Rumble Room. The room's paralyzing gas doesn't get either of them; Blur gets caught in a pit trap but gets out through the hatch by vibrating her molecules at superspeed; Psychosis avoids his pit trap. Both phase out of the Rumble Room to find CyberSerf at the control panel.

The larger room is clearly a haven for the gadgeteer of the group: large artifacts and trophies and unknown machines are sitting in various stages of construction or demolition.

CyberSerf hits a button on the control panel and one of the statues—a robot—starts to move. It makes quick work of Blur and says something in an alien tongue, then, "All impediments to the mission must be removed. Life must be eradicated. The mission must succeed."

Then the robot hits Psychosis and knocks him clear across the giant chamber. Psychosis fades into the wall.

CyberSerf says cheerily, "That worked out better than I hoped." Then the robot starts attacking him. CyberSerf gets hit once before activating the antigravity repulsors in his boots; the repulsors don't let him fly fast but put him out of range (even stretching range). Then CyberSerf realizes that the morale supporters and the heroes-to-be-tested could provide a welcome distraction, so he begins to guide the robot to them.

Psychosis is working his way along (through) the wall, trying to get ahead of them. He hears a woman saying, "Look, they've been in the Rumble Room for long enough. I'm sure it must be our turn now." Longbow and Ice Princess are soon in combat with the robot. Psychosis concentrates on CyberSerf, who drifts to a window once the robot's attention is engaged.

Though CyberSerf manages to blow a hole in the window, it isn't quite large enough for escape, and Psychosis catches him in a hard light ball-and-chain image. CyberSerf then fires a bullet of expanding adhesive resin at him—but Psychosis reflects it back, trapping the computer criminal in his own adhesive resin.

Meanwhile, Ice Princess has been knocked unconscious and Longbow has been seriously slashed by the robot's blades. Psychosis makes it to the control panel and deactivates the robot.

Psychosis gets all the injured to the infirmary, but by the time he gets back, CyberSerf has escaped.

The Centurions are still missing.

Names mentioned: Black Aster, Blur, CyberSerf, Heartbreak Kid, Ice Princess, Longbow, Psychosis, three different types of Rumble Room robots.

Some future time I'll put the selection of pregens up so you can see them. The conceit is that the pregens are all crafted at 45 points, and if you commit ahead of time, you get to roll your own character or spend 50 points to create your character. 

Addendum: As a module, for you

I might never do this again, but this is what my notes would look like as a sort-of module. I stole heavilyfrom the Mutants & Masterminds Beginner Guide, so kudos to them.


Today's the day for Centurion tryouts, at Camp Centurion, a decommissioned military base purchased by the Centurions. A special train runs out there; the normal security precautions are lifted slightly in order to allow the train in and out.

The train car has about two dozen people on it, maybe two dozen. Some people are obviously there as moral support to others. Half of the people on the train are in costume.

One guy shows off his power by making a flame dance on his palm during the ride in; when the train arrives, that guy is escorted away by stern military-looking folks.

The Centurion building is tall and curved. Not military at all. Mr. Geist greets them, shows the moral supporters to a lounge. He splits the applicants into groups (the PCs are one group, or a PC and an NPC), each group to a room.

In point form:

  • Forms and tests were done before arriving, on computer or at previous assessment.
  • Showing off on train is a sign of bad judgement. You have to show obvious potential or they'll cut you immediately.
  • PCs are split into groups (if only one PC, use a pair with an NPC).
  • Changerooms provided if necessary; PCs were told to dress in something durable.
  • The change in security for the train is how the bad guys got in to do their thing.
  • If a character’s powers require some source to work (such as plants), they are not provided.
    • Part of the reason Heartbreak Kid is watching is to see how they adapt to lack of the source. (Mentalists are bad against non-thinking robots, for example.)

Starting Easy

Twenty minutes later, the PCs are meeting Black Aster and the Heartbreak Kid, who will be running the Rumble Room today. The Rumble Room is about two and a half storeys tall, and apparently the mechanisms for it go a couple of storeys down and at least one storey up. The control room is visible through a window, but the window's not very big.

There are two doors. They hiss shut and then there's the muffled sound of locks engaging. "We're not going to put the force field up for this run. We want Wisp to be able to get in and get you, if necessary," says Black Aster over the loudspeakers. “Means the room is a little more delicate than usual. This is an easy setting, bare room. Starting...now.”

  • PCs can see through window to control room. Black Aster and Heartbreak Kid are there.
  • Room releases 2 level 1 robots for each PC. These are minions, so any hit will take them out.
  • PCs know that Centurions are looking for teamwork, etc.
    After PCs have dealt with robots, Room starts increasing the opposition.
  • Begin with traps that are generally appropriate for characters.
    • Good generic ones are flame trap, pit trap, etc.
    • Hand-to-hand fighters like taking on level 2 robots.
    • If characters have some special ability like phasing, don’t introduce a trap with “Affects (Ability)” yet.
    • When a character deals with one threat, there’s a 50% chance of a new one starting immediately; if there is nothing happening in the room, new traps are a certainty.
    • Don’t use the Sonic Screamer trap yet.
  • After two more pages of opposition, someone notices that Black Aster and Heartbreak Kid are no longer visible. Now there’s a steampunk sort of fellow at the control panel.
    • Someone with appropriate knowledge or Intellect test (Difficulty 4) identifies him as CyberSerf, a computer hacker for hire.
    • He has a low level of Mental Resistance on (in case he was dealing with Heartbreak Kid).
  • The next threats are more lethal. Robots are level 2, and shoot instead of blast, and the traps have “Affects (Ability)” enabled to deal with special abilities that the PCs have shown or are obvious by looking at them.
  • As soon as any PC finds a way to leave the room to get to him, he turns on the Sonic Screamer.

Things Get Real

  • The control panel is in what is obviously the technology lab. This is a huge room with various things in states of assembly or disassembly.
  • Armoured unopenable windows show outside.
  • A corridor leads into the rest of the building, including the lounge where the innocents are locked in.
    • CyberSerf can override that lockdown if he needs the distraction.
  • There are lots of tools or equipment that the heroes can use (the room has the Quality “Danger! Equipment here!” which can be activated with an Advantage). The equipment might be captured villain technology or just machining equipment. For example:
    • Hydraulic press
    • Exosuit to move heavy items
    • Cutting lasers or welding torches or cutting water-spray
    • Alien space pod
    • Magnetic net
  • CyberSerf is busy doing we don’t know what until the PCs get to him.
  • To buy time, he presses a button, and Robot X comes to life.
    • If there are lots of PCs, several things might come to life at the button press.
    • If the PCs are outmatched, several other applicants left their room and are coming up the corridor. They’ll help, but they aren’t world-beaters. (We don’t steal focus from the PCs.)
  • CyberSerf will escape if he can.
  • Heroes can stop this version of Robot X with brute force, or by imprisoning it in a sufficiently strong cage (the Rumble Room itself?), or by using the “All kinds of tech inside” quality, perhaps by claiming that some remnants remain of the safeguards that the Centurions tried to put in. They can make quick work of it if they trigger the Overload limit on its Nemesis.


  • There is an infirmary for anyone injured; it has Healing 6 Limit: Degrades.
  • Investigation by the PCs reveals:
    • CyberSerf put the base on lockdown so everyone was sealed into their buildings, passes didn’t work, and so forth.
    • CyberSerf then stole files.
    • Someone else killed or kidnapped the Centurions. All of them are gone, even the ones who weren’t at Camp Centurion.

Camp Centurion

  • Decommissioned military base purchased by the Centurions.
  • Used for testing, constructing devices, examining and dismantling villain technology and gadgets.
  • Fairly high but unobtrusive security:
    • Surrounded by force field generators and scanners. Together, they keep out everything but natural wildlife and environment. Force field is between 1 and 8, depending on threat.
    • Camp can be covered top and bottom by force field “domes”
    • Scanners on grounds search for mental threats (possessed animals, for instance).
    • Magical protections have lapsed due to recent events not relevant here.
  • At least one room in each building has life support (in case of chemicals, gas, radiation, etc)
  • Outside of test building, need a pass.
  • Powered by reactor which uses combination of science, magic, and parallel universes.
    • Camp is now a known weak spot in dimensional walls.
  • Relatively small staff. If a task can be automated, it is.
  • Controlled by camp computer, which can share databases main Centurion computer.
    • There is no AI after the last one revolted.
  • Main building is tall and curved, about eight storeys tall, and has three underground levels.
  • Floors are reinforced in main building to handle up to Density 8 (though that person might have to take the stairs if the service elevator is broken).
  • There is a fantasy “Centurion” camp there for a week in the summer.


  • Dangerous stuff happens here
  • Takes the obvious precautions and some inobvious ones
  • Weak spot in dimensional barriers

Rumble Room

  • Used for training and testing supers.
  • Can handle powers to level 8: it’s tall enough for Growth 8, strong enough to withstand Shooting 8, and so on.
  • A force field can be enabled to prevent Phasing out of the room, but is not in this scenario.
  • Unless otherwise stated, the Rumble Room attacks as if it were Coordination 5 or Prowess 5. So to avoid a trap such as a pit, tentacles, or a flame cage, it is usually attacking at 5 versus Coordination (usually) or Prowess.
  • Applicants generally agree to a fair test, so mental attacks and some line-of-sight attacks can get through the window. (Lasers and light-based attacks cannot, in case a blast hits the window.)

Rumble Robot I

  • These simple robots take the place of civilians in simulations.
  • They’re slow, blocky, delicate, and cheap to build.
  • The quality “Minion” can be removed for a slightly tougher opponent.
(Let's see how a straight conversion of the table works, or if it's too small on this page layout.)
  • Connected to base computer
  • Robot
  • Minion
  • Life Support 10

Rumble Robot II

  • These robots are an actual threat in simulations.
  • They’re not minions.
  • Normally they blast, but in lethal simulations, they can shoot.
  • They can also be equipped with some customizations (such as Affects Phasing).
Coordination3Power [Blast/Shoot] Expert (+2)
  • Connected to base computer
  • Robot
  • Blasters (Blast 4 Extra: Shoot)
  • Tough (Damage Resistance 4)
  • Radar (Super-senses 1)
  • Life Support 10

Sample Rumble Room Traps

  • I chose from this list to match the heroes.
  • It wouldn't be too hard to generate numbers to make it random, because I stole this list from the Mutants & Masterminds Beginners Guide and altered for ICONS; it's random there.
Pit TrapA trap door opens under a character, revealing a pit underneath. If a (non-flying) character is caught:
  • Falling in causes a Coordination test (Difficulty 1) to avoid a being hurt (Strike 1). Athletics can be added.
  • The hatch is Material strength 8 to bend or break; but Difficulty 6 to lift.
  • To get up to the hatch is a Difficulty 5 climb.
  • Breaking the hatch is a Pyramid test, but only a short and deep one: It requires only a Major success, and marginal successes add to the test (two marginal successes make a moderate success).
  • Suitable powers to escape easily include Phasing, Corrosion, and Telekinesis.
Fire Cage

A projector in the wall or floor surrounds the target character in a cage of flames, limiting movement and mobility. Character is in partial hold in the cage, at -2 for most actions and unable to move; the cage “bars” are Aura 4 and have the Contagious extra.


  • Suitable powers include things like water form or Air Control, Water Control, or even Flame Control, or sufficient Damage Resistance or Force Field.
  • Squeeze through bars with appropriate power or a successful Coordination test (Difficulty 5; the -2 is already figured in).
  • Douse the cage with an appropriate power; treat as an opposed check, power to power (Aura 4). If the character’s power wins, the flames are doused and the character is free.
Freeze Ray

A weapon extends and fires a beam that traps a target in ice (Binding 6).

Homing MissilesA volley of three small homing missiles launches from a hidden panel in the Rumble Room, locking on to a particular target.

“Not-smart” Missiles: Attack 4 Defend 7 Blast 4 (Extra: Homing); Qualities: “Small” & “Not smart”. (Homing is from Great Power: each missile attempts to hit for 3 pages or until it succeeds, whichever is first.)


  • Attack the missiles: The missiles have the quality “Small” (-2 figured into target number); any successful attack detonates them.
  • Avoid the missiles: If you outlast them for three pages, they run out of fuel and fall down, probably detonating. If you specifically defend for a page, it can be a maneuver to activate the “Not smart” quality, and they’ll get confused and fly into something, detonating.

Rampaging RobotThe room releases a robot level II.
Sonic ScreamerA device extends from the ceiling, emitting a powerful ultrasonic shriek (Stunning 6 vs Will, Extra: Burst). All characters must deal with it. While the Sonic Screamer is active, players must make a Will save (Difficulty 6) on the Rumble Room’s panel. Characters in enclosed environments (such as armor with Life Support or closed in pit traps) can ignore it.
Steel Cage

A cage of steel bars springs up around a character. If character is trapped in the cage, treat as a partial hold (no movement, -2 to actions).


  • Slip through the bars: Suitable powers include Phasing or a water form.
  • Bend or break the bars: The bars are Material strength 8 to bend or break. Another short & deep Pyramid test: It requires only a Major success, and marginal successes add to the test (two marginal successes make a moderate success).

Steel TentaclesFour flexible steel tentacles spring from a surface of the Rumble Room to grab and hold a character (Binding 8).
Stun GasA jet of stun gas engulfs the character (Stunning 6 vs Strength).
Vertigo BeamA beam shoots out and interferes with the inner ear and balance (Affliction 6).



Coordination5Technology Expert (+2)
  • Working off a debt
  • Expert in his field
  • True love is doxxing heroes.
  • Cybernetic access glove (Interface 6)
    • Extra: ESP Limit: Medium (computers with cameras)
  • Protective Harness (Force Field 5)
  • Gadgets 5
    • Limit: Temporary (constant powers)/Degrades (instant powers)
    • Extra: Armory
    • Mastered Gadgets include Mind Shield (Mental Resistance 4) and Adhesive Gun (Binding 5 Extra Burst)
  • Flight 3
    • Limit: Finicky (Power always works, but GM sets power level for that chapter)

Robot X

  • All life must be destroyed, starting with the PCs
  • Next time I'll be better
  • All kinds of tech: hero, villain, alien
  • Heavy robot body (Density 5: gives Damage Resistance 5, Strength +1)
    • Limit: Constant
  • Blasters (Blast 6)
  • Nemesis 5
    • Extra: Instant
    • Limit: Overload
  • Life Support 10
  • Nanotechnology system (Immortality 1)
  • Feel free to add powers or remove the Overload limit on subsequent appearances.
    • If the heroes defeated him this time by triggering the Overload limit, it will not be there next time.
  • The Immortality is nanotechnology. Unless very special precautions are taken, the robot reassembles itself, but it takes hours, days, or months.

Tuesday, August 1, 2017

Strange City background

(This is just what's in the PDF, converted to text so I can play with it. I haven't decided which CC license it will be under eventually, so for now it's under development.)

Strange City is the background for any new superhero stuff I run, whether it's solo or group adventures. It's meant to be a mid-sized metropolis with (as the name indicates) some access to the occult and the Fortean. While Strange City has the usual run of self-made tech geniuses, easily robbed labs, and mutant rights groups, it is also a mystic nexus. More people learn the fake occult here and the real occult, witches and vampires and zombies are real (if mostly hidden), and the spells from that book you found on the internet might work here, though not the way you expect.

Each section has ideas that occurred to me that might form part of an adventure or character for your character or group. These are ideas only: ignore them or change them as you please.


Strange City was founded in 1666 by Ezekial and Hepsibah Strange, and it remained a small (almost endangered) community for hundreds of years. The discovery of high-quality pitchblende in the 1950s changed that, and the city quickly mushroomed because of its new connections to the tech sector. (Strange Village became a city in 1961.) The city has two universities. Both are well-respected, though not at the very top of their fields; Enoch Strange is a world leader in dealing with the sociology of the strange and the occult. SIT has developed some amazing new technology but critics say it exists mostly to feed the city's hungry tech sector.

The city has districts:
  • The Mines is now the factory and warehouse district, although it was once the mining area. There are underground tunnels here and occasionally one will collapse.
  • The Offices is the business and banking district.
  • The Flats is the slums and the poor housing.
  • The Coast is where the rich people live.

Others are named as needed (the artist district, the theatre and entertainment district, and so on).

The Universities

The two universities are well-regarded, but their names alone not going to get you a job, unless you're in their specialties.

Enoch Strange College

The much older of the two is the Enoch Strange College. It is a liberal arts collegis with a reputation for turning out independent thinkers. Its specialty is the sociology of the occult, and its rare book library is the envy of universities this side of Arkham.

There have been scandals — one of the professors founded a cult — but the place has been free of trouble for about fifteen years. (Of course, some would say that it's ripe for problems.)

State Institute of Technology

Despite the name, the SIT is no longer affiliated with the state college system, but it is a public college. (There is a movement afoot to change the name to the Strange Institute.) It deals with technical matters. Critics say that it exists primarily to feed the ravenous maw of the local tech scene and that it turns out drones instead of thinkers—but they are well learned drones, for all of that. There certainly are professors whose experiments are on the cutting edge, and in fact a bequest from the Judas Strange Foundation requires experiments that are risky.

The SIT campus is on the edge of town. It has a complex maze of delivery and steam tunnels underneath it that make it well-suited for criminal lairs, but the criminals in question are usually creating or growing dope.


There are other schools and colleges in the area. The best-known is Nugget College, a vocational college that teaches electronics and media presentation.

The Media

Strange City has two and a half television stations, a dozen radio stations, a daily newspaper, and two weekly newspapers.


Two of the stations are network affiliates. The networks do local news, but most of the programming is imported.

The half station is part of the educational process at Nugget College, a private institution in town. Its programming is entirely local and changes with each semester. Some shows have a continuity because students stay with them from term to term, but all of them change once in a while.

In a game:
  • Annoying or sycophantic questions will probably come from reporters at the network affiliates; truly oddball shows and “events” will come from Nugget College as a student experiment.
  • Sometimes a new reporter is looking to make a name and get hired by a bigger station somewhere.


There are three big stations whose formats change occasionally. They are currently oldies, talk radio, and country & western. They are owned by syndicates, and the programming is dictated elsewhere. The rest are small radio stations that cater to specialized tastes.

In a game:
  • One of the talk radio hosts might choose to make vigilantes a convenient scapegoat for everything.


There are three newspapers.
  • The Bee is the daily, and is part of a chain. Leans conservative or Republican.
  • The Strange Times is a weekly with excellent investigative journalism. Founded in the early 1970s. Leans liberal or Democrat.
  • The Citizen Weekly is best known for its ads and its personals, though the personals are mostly online now. (Still, the Weekly’s Strange Happenings column is looked at by everyone from occultists to cat-loving grandmothers.)

In a game:
  • The Bee sometimes hires someone who wants to make a name and move up. It is also an excellent adversary if someone wants to be persecuted by a paper.
  • The reporters from the Strange Times are likely to uncover things that someone doesn’t want uncovered.
  • The Strange Happenings column is an excellent way to spread rumours and news, and its pseudonymous author might actually be a super or occult master.

Mass Transit

Transit in Strange City usually refers to the rail system, but there are buses. The rail system is mostly an elevated rail system because parts of the city are on a floodplain, but some sections are underground. There are also buses, taxis, and Karry, an electronic ride-sharing service that has disrupted the lives of taxi drivers.

In a game:
  • There is violence between taxi drivers and Karry drivers.
  • A super starts “flight-sharing,” carrying people to destinations as part of Karry.

Places to Rob

Banks dot nearly every corner, but the ones with access to the highways tend to be most robbed. Someone with super strength has made a hobby of ripping out ATMs and leaving with the contents.

There are three "big" museums: The Strange City Art Museum, the Strange City Technology Museum, and the Enoch Strange Museum. Any of them might receive something worth stealing.

There are a number of small specialty museums in Strange City, which might get something rare and unusual.

The laboratories at the universities have a tendency to be robbed.

The Super Scene

The city has a super-group, the Centurions. Its most prominent member is Quantum Strange; his principle foe is K-Osprey (who sometimes spells it Chaos Prey). They have a headquarters in town and outside of town is a decommissioned military base that they bought, Camp Centurion. That's where the dangerous material is tested and the real training happens.

In the last few years, though, the Centurions have taken to fighting global or even interstellar threats, and the business of protecting the city largely falls to the Parahuman Reconnaisance and Tactics team and vigilantes. PRAT is always willing to bring out its big weapons, and Lt. Karpinski has a somewhat adversarial relationship with the local vigilantes...possibly because they tend to deal with the problems before PRAT can. (They never refer to themselves as PRAT, by the way, though everyone else does. In the police force, they're Strange City Parahuman Reconnaissance and Tactics, or SCPRT.)

There is an unusually high number of supervillains in Strange City: they outnumber heroes by between 15:1 or 20:1, depending on the definitions used. Enoch Strange's sociology professors have been working on why, but they haven't come up with a reason why there even are supervillains. The conservative press claims that having powers makes you a supervillain.

As a powered person yourself, you know:
  • There is power suppression technology that works on most supervillains most of the time. (Treat it as a Power Nullification rank 9.)
  • The federal government agency that deals with superhumans is the Parahuman Investigation and Corrections Agency (PICA). (They also hate their nickname.)
  • Medical care with no questions asked is available from the Abattoir, from Dr. Chimera. The Abattoir moves from time to time, but someone usually knows where it is (a difficulty 3 task for a known super). Dr. Chimera rarely has the most up-to-date equipment, but it knows its business. Dr. Chimera can handle trauma from violence and has a comprehensive knowledge of the effects of various superpowers. Some have wondered why Dr. Chimera’s has never been raided; those who wonder too loudly disappear.
  • There is a supervillain prison outside the city—the Black Rock Prison. It is administered by PICA but the actual day-to-day operations are contracted out to a private company.
    (Black Rock will have a riot and the private company will be replaced when I come up with a cool place to have the replacement prison.)

In a game:
  • There is a riot at Black Rock Prison.
  • Someone figures out how to defeat Power Nullification.
  • A villain comes to the heroes because someone has stolen the files from the Abattoir, and the villain doesn't want that information getting out. The heroes must find the thief, if they agree.

Neutral Ground

There are a couple of places that are regarded as neutral ground. Generally, no one steals there (largely because there isn't anything worth stealing) and they are places to have a talk. The existence of places like this are one reason why the police force has a guarded relationship with vigilantes. One of the places is a bar; the other is a vegetarian cafe. The third place is medical.
  • The bar is Free State, a country & western bar in the Mines district.
  • The vegetarian cafe is Home on the Grains, over in the Offices district.
  • The medical place is the Abattoir. Dr. Chimera and his staff do not allow fighting on the premises.