Wednesday, February 3, 2016

Earth 10: DC Heroes Revisited

I’ve discussed my affection for the innovative late 1980’s DC Heroes RPG using the Mayfair Exponential Game System (MEGS) before, but here’s a recap of this brilliant but flawed game engine.

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, and he had to build it using the 1980’s preconceptions of game design – strong GM narrative control, dice consulted for every discrete action, no narrative currency for players. 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. It worked better in the 2nd edition, when they were modeling what I’m calling Earth 9 heroes, who are all weaker than their earlier incarnations so the scale could shrink. (I’m mucking with the scale even more, so Superman’s Strength does from 50 to 25 to our score of 18, so I can run the scale from 1 to 20.)

The other cool bit is that 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 connect with an argument them and the force of your personality (Aura) to wear down their Spirit. Essentially you’re punching their Charisma with your Charisma. 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. His interaction attacks will ‘hit’ but unless he rolls really well his low Aura won’t overcome the target’s Spirit. The converse of a low Influence, high Aura character is one who seldom speaks meaningfully but 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 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?

Unfortunately the rules for Powers and Skills, and how they worked with Stats, and the point costs of character design were mess, the reliance on two different tables for determining outcomes was clunky, the hero point economy was much, much too fluid and the dice mechanic had too much swing to it. Those are all things I can fix pretty easily by returning to base principles and applying some 21st century game mechanics.