Friday, December 11, 2015

Does System Matter Part V: DC Heroes

On Tuesday I started a Thought Experiment in supers games, looking at what changes a character goes through when converted from one system to another. This is meant to test the validity of most supers games claims that you can use the system to build “any” character or run “any” kind of game. The character in question – Dr. Zachary Zevon, the Indestructible Man - started in Villains and Vigilantes, and now exists in Silver Age Sentinels, HERO and Marvel Super Heroes.
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Now we look at DC Heroes (or MEGS)

A quick recap: Dr. Z is the Reed Richards analogue in a Fantastic Four style game. His natural abilities include a massive intellect and scientific skill, a powerful presence & sense-of-self, and an ability to analyze his opponents’ fighting style and the scientific basis for their powers. His superhuman ability is an invisible, highly versatile force field. He is renowned as the smartest man on Mars and is a millionaire with access to advanced technology and the Liberty Lair, his team’s base.

Dr. Z (Cost is 2000 points, or 4x base)

Dex 6        Str 3         Body 4
Int 14        Will 7       Mind 8
Infl 8         Aura8      Spirit 7
Initiative 28        Hero Points 141

Powers Ranks Notes
Force Field 8
Force Shield 8
Force Manipulation 12 -3 Factor Cost: can't give object powers or skills

Gadgetry 14 -2 Factor Cost, linked to INT
Scientist 14 -2 Factor Cost, linked to INT
Vehicles 6 -2 Factor Cost, linked to DEX; -1 Factor Cost, no water vehicles

Wealth 14

Advantages and Drawbacks
Area Knowledge: New Philadelphia
Connection: High with Norris Industries, Liberty Station, Gaslight
Headquarters: Expansive
Irrational Attraction: Scientific Puzzles, Minor

There were a few problems here. Many were with the system. To start with, DC heroes gives you 450 points to create a character, saying that this will let you build someone on par with a member of the Teen Titans. A quick mathematical calculation of the Teen Titans as presented in the book proved that this was not so – 450 points was not even enough to build Danny Chase, the boy telekinetic who worked with the team for a while. For more powerful characters the system advises you to multiply your starting points, where a x2 or x3 multiple would give you a Justice League International (this was published in 1990, when the JLI was da bomb) level character. Actually, a x2 multiplier gets you in the Titans, and a x3-x4 gets you in the Justice League. But as long as I know this, I’m fine with it – I just wish the authors had done the math themselves and spared me the trouble.

Now here’s where things get freaky: Advantages and Drawbacks are supposed to have their costs multiplied along with you base points. In essence, they represent percentage investments of the characters total points, as they scale up with the heroes power level. This is messy, since all the advantages and drawbacks cost out at multiples of 5. I made a creator fiat and bumped up the starting points 500 and recorded the costs of the advantages as % of point investment. (This is only enough to make Danny Chase if you don’t charge him 3% of his pointes for his listed High level contact with the Teen Titans, which lets him squeak under with 5 points to spare). For example, being Popular now costs Dr. Z 4% of his total points – it would have been 20 points for a x1 character, but as a x4 character it functionally costs 80. This system makes a degree of sense, but some of the advantages rapidly become useless to more powerful characters.

For example, Nightwing has a higher multiple than the 1990’s era Martian Manhunter: Mr. Grayson has tied up 38% of his total points in Advantages (including 3% in his contact with the Titans), so each multiple only nets him 310 points. He has to be a x4 character to afford all his stats and skills. J’onn, in contrast, has a 10% increase in his base points due to his Loss Vulnerability (all powers and physical stats drop to a 2 when in 1 AP of Fire). Mind you, the version of J’onn in this rulebook lacks his Sealed Systems and Bio-Energy Blast (which were either added later or forgotten about during this era), along with the Super-Speed he seems to have picked up of late. Even with those anomalies, I’d be willing to benchmark Martian Manhunter as a more powerful and versatile hero than Nightwing. So clearly, there is something rank in Gotham.

Now here’s the really odd part: a hero’s starting Gadgets are supposed to be purchased as Advantages. So Wonder Woman’s bracelets, with their 30 Body, would cost her 600 points, which, as an Advantage, are 120% of her starting points, putting her into negative territory that no multiple could ever clear her from. With that in mind purchasing starting Gadgets for Zach is a non-starter, though with 141 hero points he could easily buy or build some in play. Assuming one could ever piece together the DC Heroes gadgetry system – it’s better than the first edition version that the Ambush Bug module famously mocked, but it’s not easy.

Once I’ve taken all of this into account Zach’s stats and skills were simple enough. I made him as smart as Lex Luthor and the Chief (the two smartest humans in the DC Universe), but with a lower Science and Gadgetry score to take advantage of the Linking option. His Spiritual Stats are right on line with where his 20 Charisma in V&V should put them – very high, but not human maximum (if you follow the scale, he is one fourth as Influential as the Batman, though the two share the same strength of Aura). The hideous lack of granularity for STR and BODY means that his physical stats are higher than perhaps they ought to be, but low for a super-hero in DC, but his DEX looks right. This system would be a simple enough expansion of the Tri-Stat method were it not for how Strength and Body are on an entirely different scale!

The powers? One word: Oy! And I thought HERO was a pain! But it’s not really; HERO just operates under a different paradigm than I prefer for in game flexibility, so I feel like I’m fighting the system to get a character that can use his powers on the fly. DC Heroes on the other hand, has NO rules for using your powers on the fly, and also has a highly specific powers list. Oh, you can push those powers, or make trick shots with them, but you can’t suddenly use force field to create a temporary vacuum. In HERO I get around this with the Variable Power Pool; in SAS I do it with Dynamic Powers; in V&V it’s Inventing Points or writing a flexible power description. In DC heroes I, er, don’t. That’s because the Force Field power does only one thing – protect his body against attacks. The Force Shield power, which I had hoped would be the same as Force Wall from HERO, is even more specific – it creates a shield that can be interposed, like a Shield spell in D&D that is 4 feet in diameter. I bought it to have an easy way to protect others, but it can’t make a globe around someone. It’s just a 4’ diameter shield, and the rules are specific about how it can be used. Those specific rules are at odds with how Booster Gold, one of the few people in the book with the Force Shield power, uses it in the comics, however. I really wonder how many DC comics Greg Gordon actually read while writing this game, as it lacks the feeling of total immersion in the back-story that Jeff Grubb brought to Marvel Super Heroes.

Anyway, back to Zach. I had to buy Force Manipulation, which is the Green Lantern power. But I couldn’t use that to make a vacuum either, because Air Control is a mental power and Force Manipulation can only duplicate stats, physical powers and skills. He could use it to create a giant blowtorch that would melt a wall because Flame Projection is a physical power, but no messing with the air. This is, however, the only way to build Green Lantern style force walls, so I bought a high amount of it and limited it so he couldn’t duplicate powers and skills. With all 12 points put into the BODY of a creation he has a chance to bounce an air to air missile (damage 13), but it would shatter under a single punch from Wonder Woman (damage 16). Of course, if I go for maximal lifting with this Zach could support 50 tons, which is one hell of a lot more than his 4000 lb limit in V&V! His personal Force Field will stop a machine gun, and since it adds to his Body it equates to making him as tough as his toughest Force Manipulated constructs. 

That done, how well would this work in play? This is really hard to say. I’ve owned the DC Heroes rules since they came out in the 80’s but have played it only a handful of times. I suspect the combination of powers would let me do a lot of the things I liked with the character, even if it would be a stretch on more than one occasion. He’s combat worthy enough, at least to my untrained eye, and I think I have a handle on the Gadgetry rules. If I’m wrong on that score I’ll know soon enough. 

Zach ended up costing more in DC heroes than I thought he would, but that’s the cost of the Intelligence, Gadgetry and Science skills – not to mention having to sink points into 3 stats to capture his powerful mind and 3 more for his high charisma. Still, given the freaky point structure of the game his relative point cost to other characters is hard to measure, as 25% of his points are tied up in Advantages. 

This experiment left me seeing that DC Heroes is a high versatile, powerful game that’s buried under some godawful power mechanics, and perhaps an overly fiddly dice engine. It is designed for a much higher power scale than the other games I’ve reviewed so far and looks like it does a good job of balancing out Batman with Superman in a mechanical and narrative sense. If I were to run something in it I’d use it as an excuse to chuck the entire power listing and start from scratch, adopting the ideas of Scarcity cost and Versatility that I’ve been discussing of late in Alarums & Excursions. 
Scarcity would replace the base cost of the power or skill and would be determined by the player who first built someone with that ability, given them control of how often the power would appear in play. Give something a high scarcity cost and you’ve set a bar on entry for other characters; a low one means that you aren’t staking a claim on this niche (unless you set a low one and then buy 20 ranks of the power, daring people to try and catch you). An entirely new structure of Scarcity costs in the campaign would make the world look like a very different place than the standard comics universes. 
Versatility would take the place of the Factor Cost, a 1-10 ranking by the GM and player about how flexible the power or skill is intended to be in play, setting the groundwork for the gentleman’s agreement that determines how much leeway the character is cut when he tries to use the ability in new ways in play. 

I’m very interested to hear whswhs’s take on these thoughts, since he’s the only person I know who ran a long term DC Heroes game and can tell me how the dice mechanic worked out and whether my fears that profligate hero point spending would seriously skew play are true to life. Tomorrow we tackle the FUDGE write up that Mr. Stoddard wrote for me today, and then Mondat we get to chadu's Truth & Justice version.