Friday, February 8, 2013

Heroes of the United Worlds 4

4: Design the Game Mechanics - DC Heroes RPG

This post covers how I’d take the innovative late 1980’s DC Heroes RPG using the Mayfair Exponential Game System (MEGS) and modify it for this setting (a Legion of Super-Heroes pastiche).

For those who didn’t buy it when it came out in the 1980’s, the DC Heroes role playing game is a great example of how limitations spark innovation. Game designer Greg Gordon had to build a game engine that would handle Robin and a pre-Crisis Superman at the same time. I don’t know that anyone in the mid 80’s was writing the sort of narrative, story focused games that people would use to handle this now, so Gordon was bound by tradition to develop a mechanic that put those two on the same scale.

So he did: each ‘point’ on the chart was worth twice as much as the one before it. Robin, with 3 Strength, could lift somewhere between 200 and 400 lbs. Superman, with 50 Strength, could lift up to 28 trillion tons. They would now fit on one big, 50 point chart!

But that’s not the cool part. The cool part is that he then applied this to everything else on one master table. Each point of distance was twice as much as the one before it. Ditto for time. And they all interacted. Want to know how far the silver age Superman can throw Mount Everest (weight 30)? He can throw it 50-30 = 20 points of distance, or close to 2000 miles. How fast can he fly? Add his 20 points of flight to the fact that 10 points of time is 1 hour and bang, he can fly 30 points of distance in an hour – four times light speed. It’s a remarkably versatile use of the initial solution, and it works.

OK, I don’t think it works terribly well – there are still deformations to the system based on the scale – but it was good enough for people use it the game. Fortunately Mayfair got another bite at the apple when the 2nd edition came out post crisis and everyone got weaker. The system now only needed to accommodate a 25 Strength at the top of the scale, not a 50, and everything got a little easier.

The system has a few other cool bits: physical stats are mirrored mentally and spiritually, so in addition to the usual Dexterity, Strength and Body there’s also Intelligence, Will and Mind and Influence, Aura and Spirit. The same logic applies to all three. When you try to persuade someone you’re using your Influence to hit them and your Aura to wear down their Spirit, just as if you were punching them with Dexterity and using Strength to wear down Body. It’s logical once you wrap your brain around it.

It’s nice in session design as well. Assume the Pcs are investigating a mystery. It’s a test of Intelligence and Willpower against the difficulty of the puzzle to gather clues. It’s a test of Influence and Aura against people’s Influence and Spirit to question witnesses or suspects. Finally it’s a test of Dexterity and Strength against Dexterity and Body to punch the bad guy into submission. Very logical.

It also opens up intriguing possibilities: a high Influence, low Aura character is one everyone likes but has a hard time ‘closing the deal’, or it will take people a long time to buy in. Hiss interaction attacks will ‘hit’ but unless he rolls really well his low Aura overcome the target’s Spirit. The converse of a low Influence, high Aura character is one who seldom speaks meaningfully their successful arguments end the discussion – their high Aura has so much oomph that it immediately batters down the opposing Spirit.

More interesting are the mental options: a high Intelligence, low Willpower character is one who quickly identifies problems but lacks the mental strength to put push to the solution. Your average Green Lantern, on the other hand, can miss a problem for a while (average Intelligence) but when they identify it they solve it instantly with their massive Will seeing through to the solution. That sounds like a lot of classic Green Lantern plots, doesn’t it?

The final plus was the subplot management system; the previous Marvel Super Heroes had Karma awards for fulfilling obligations, but this was the first explicit narrative design nod in a Supers game.

All that love aside there were some real problems with the engine: the hero point economy was a mess, with way to many times and places for spends for way too much effect, so if the other guy spent you had to spend to cancel him out, meaning the points were functionally lost. Advantages actually cost a percent of your total points, making them impractical for high point heroes. The powers and skills list was spotty, full of odd name choices (Invulnerability makes you hard to kill, not hard to hurt) specific rules that were then often waived for the hero best known for the power, weird duplications (Heat Vision is distinct from Flame Projection) and strange absences (professional skills). As for the Gadgetry and Device rules, they were an industry joke of a train wreck.

That said, can I salvage it for United Worlds in my remaining 825 words? I sure hope so.

First, change the weight curve so it starts at 12.5 and not 50 lbs. Now normal humans have a Strength of 3 (lift up to 100 lbs without an extra effort roll) or 4 (200 lbs without a roll) and a maximum of 6 (800 without a roll). With viable scores from 2 to 6 we have a 5 point range for ‘human’ adventurers, the minimum I like to see.

Second, standardize that scale for all attributes: 2 is a weak adult/strong child level to 6 for normal human maximum, perhaps 7 with highly trained in natural gifts. Yes, characters like Batman have higher scores than those, but I don’t need to model them for this setting. The Legion isn’t full of master detective martial artists; it’s full of above average teenagers with singular powers. Putting the “if it’s past this it’s a power, you must explain it” cap on hinders the “a couple points here, a couple points there” stat creep in point systems.

Third, clarify the cost methodology. The existing structure matches how I work my way through games: the Active Points are the powers potency, determining how much of an effect it has in play. The Factor Cost is the versatility, measuring how often and in how many different ways the power will be useful. The Base Cost is the scarcity, a mechanic to keep some powers rare (or balances cost between limited powers vs. broader ones, which I care for less as a design feature), and only applies to skills and powers. Base Cost only applies to powers and skills – you can’t put a scarcity premium on attributes! I know the Mayfair guys had a method for assigning those costs, but I don’t know what it is.

Here’s what it looks like: Dex, Int and Infl are Factor 7, all other stats are factor 6. Defensive Powers are baseline Factor 5, offensive powers are factor 3, movement powers are factor 2, and sensory powers are factor 1 to 3.  Everything works around that framework, and some powers have Base Costs to make them less viable at low levels (i.e. getting any Skin Armor costs 50 points base, or 1/10th a low power hero’s points, so it’s less attractive to them then an hero built on 1500 points)

I’m changing that up a little bit. The stat costs are fine, but Defensive Powers are Factor cost 1-5 (baseline 4) based on how many of the Body/Mind/Spirit stats functions they cover. Likewise offensive powers will cost 1-5 points based on how much they mimic Strength/Will/Aura’s combat functions. Running is factor 2, and other Movement powers are Factored based on that. These Factors can be shifted up or down if any particular hero’s power has specific advantages or detriments.

I am now scrapping the given powers and skills list and develop ‘core powers and skills’ that define the 21st century PCs and founding Centurions. I will then let the players define any power that isn’t on there when they want to buy it. That gives the players a lot of control over the setting, especially with the ability to set Base Costs to drive up scarcity in certain areas.

Fourth, change the structure for Advantages and Disadvantages so that they are player defined (modeled on a set of examples from the21st century PCs and Centurions), have no effect on the costs of other skills or powers and cost 10 points to record on the sheet (yes, you pay for your disadvantages). In play they are either paid for or rewarded when used. One of slight utility costs/grants 5 hero points per incident; moderate is 12; high is 25. Being hunted or taking damage near Kryptonite doesn’t get you points to buy more powers at character creation, but does reward you when the hunter or green rocks show up. Having area knowledge or connections doesn’t cost you anything until you bring it into play. That is a very 21st century mechanic, but one that makes sense.

Finally, change the Action and Resistance tables so that Points 1-13 each have their own columns and rows (rather than doubling up) and set the rest of the table to max out at 25 points so we keep the focus on the lower power levels where most of the action will take place. Hero Points use should be limited to no more than 5 on any action, and any HP past 15 have to be banked at the end of a session to be saved for character improvement. Those disadvantages look much better now as a way to bump up Hero Points in play, don’t they?

The other members of the Centurions will follow tomorrow, but the basic rules for the 21st century PCs are as follows:

Add 14 to Strength and 7 to Dex
Add the powers
* Invulnerability 7 (which increases damage reduction)
* Flight 14
* Sealed Systems 14
And one of the following sets (or something similar)

Set A – the vision powers
*Telescopic Vision 14
*Microscopic Vision 14
* X-Ray Vision 14
* “Entropy Vision” 7, which is an eyebeam with a disintegration special effect.

Set B – super breath
* Super Breath 14
* Cold Generation 7
* Sonic Attack 7

Set C – the Pet
Add the player’s favorite pet as a time traveler with them, giving them the same core low entropy powers as the others and +3 Intelligence.

Set D – the Enhancer
* Invulnerability Field 10: adds to the resistance of any one/thing the PC is holding
* Extra Lift 4: add another 4 Strength for lifting purposes only.

That gives us four subtly different flavors of Superboy.