Monday, December 29, 2014

The Most Wanted Conspyramid 2: SHARP

Continuing from the last post, this second row represents the SHARP resources that Buzzard can call into play.

“The Freakshow”
Psi-Phon: Seril Wembler’s initial escape was aided by the recently promoted Lt. Cooper, who personally cornered the boy and gave him money and contact information rather than capture him. Since then Psi-Phon has had a symbiotic relationship with Buzzard, using his powers to track down and weaken super-villains to improve Cooper’s department’s numbers – his special psi-tracking and incarceration unit is called ‘the freakshow’. As long as Cooper keeps providing him with money, shelter and most importantly delicious new powers to try Psi-phon will keep working with him. Make the following updates:
* Node Level: Two
* Increase level to 3; he’s been at this a little longer and received some police training.
* Feel free to give him as wide an array of psionic powers as you like, since the police are feeding him other psis.
* He has an indirect access to a Security Clearance 18 and the small group of 8 special weapons SHARP officers in the Freakshow. While it’s clear that Cooper directly orders them it’s not clear whether his human officers or Wembler makes decisions about their tactics.

If the players are nosing around the Freakshow in the basic campaign Psi-Phon it’s likely because of Od (in a more extended conspiracy they might have backtraced Bandit as well) but if they haven’t Seril will buy time by trotting the art psycho out again as a distraction while the Freakshow hides itself.

If that doesn’t work Syril will move to a more physical confrontation. Low level as he may be in this incarnation he’s similar to Syler from _Heroes_ - a mass of possible powers that make it possible for him to take out the hero team. He’ll start, obviously, with other psychics to boost his own power but will take on anyone. The Freakshow agents will keep in the background for this, but will move in to take out wounded or tired heroes. Captured heroes will vanish into an off the books SHARP holding facility, since killing them is always more trouble than its worth.

Od & The Avant Guard
Omar Drekman was an early capture by the Freakshow, but Psi-Phon saw something of his earlier self in young Od and arranged to have him cut loose with supervision and hypnotic conditioning. Od now runs his collection of street gangs, as well as his elite Avant Guard, in the city as a dangerous theme villain that keeps both the street gangs and super-heroes occupied. Make the following updates
* Node Level 2
* Design his crimes to befit a theme villain – he should feel like a Batman villain with crimes that perpetuate his art fixation and a gang of thugs dressed to match his madness.

If the PCs enter the conspiracy through this node it’s because they’re either fighting gang crime and stumble on Od running his latest gang or because Od has received subliminal orders and is engaging in another multi-target art themed crime for the PCs to investigate/encounter and lose or have Od escape/ escape deathtrap or track down his current base. If the latter it’s because the Freakshow or Cooper is running some other op and needs the media distracted and Od is their go-to murderous lunatic.

Psychic heroes might suss out Od’s programming (not that he wouldn’t be crazy without it) and backtrack that to the Freakshow. Street detective ones will determine that there’s some linkage between Od and the Nicotines in that he never targets or recruits from them – there should be a war there and there isn’t. Any suspicious player might wonder how this guy keeps getting away, leading them to question SHARP and finding the Freakshow inside it.

Saturday, December 27, 2014

The Most Wanted Conspyramid 1: Buzzard's Boys

Reading Nights Black Agents (Ken Hite’s Spies v. Vampires game) led me to crease a supers-game conspiracy pyramid. For accessibility I’m doing so with the villains in Most Wanted Volume 1 lightly modified.

The Conspiracy Pyramid is a way to make the supers games more investigative, which gives detective themed heroes an additional way to contribute.  It has 21 nodes (6 level one nodes, 5 level two and so on) that start at the street level and lead up to the head of a global conspiracy. I’ll be presenting these in groups of 3-6, showing how thematic elements of the conspiracy fit together and how they react if poked by the heroes. Villains in level one nodes are level 1-2, level two node villains are 4-6 and so on.

The Buzzard’s Corrupt Cops
Level Three Node
Buzzard: Lt. Cooper had been a ‘supercop’ (honest, sterling record, top human agility) and hid his narcotics corruption and career as the Buzzard so well that he was promoted to lead the states Super-Human Apprehend & Rehabilitate Program (SHARP). For this make the following updates
* Node Level: 3
* Swap starting S and I – he should be in worse shape but smarter in this version.
* Increase Level to 8. He was an experienced police officer followed by years as a super-villain.
* Training increases E to 9, I to 15 and C to 15.
* Inventions include thermal lenses for 20” range IR vision, the difficult to penetrate communications network for his ‘special’ units and new gasses for his bombs as you see fit – possibly some custom tailored to the PCs to make him a formidable threat. He also carries an auto-pistol and nightstick.
* He has access to SHARP resources – which are high end but not superhuman – to investigate and apprehend criminals, or super –heroes if he can manufacture charges against them. Give him a Security Clearance of 13.

If the PCs are nosing around this level of the Conspiracy it’s either due to lack of trust issues with authority figures or because they’ve already uncovered the corrupt narcotic officers or the freakshow inside of SHARP. Cooper is willing to burn one of those branches to keep his reputation as a good cop who has been victim of a conspiracy under him, but not both. Of course if the PCs have discovered both then there’s no way they’ll buy his teaming up with them to stamp out corruption as there’s just too much of it.

He will absolutely try to bring down the PCs via the method that hasn’t already been used, but backed up with his own attacks, tactical prowess and, if need be confiscated weapons. Buzzard will appear and attack with narcotics, hallucinogens, and firearms whose ballistics can be traced to guns owned by some known or suspected criminal on whom everything might be pinned. Cooper will always, always try to redirect the heroes towards someone else – some other gang, some other villain, some other part of his organization, and ultimately the Buzzard ID itself to keep his Lt. Cooper ID’s hands clear. He’s even savvy enough to have had hypnotic residue implanted in his mind to convince telepathic PCs of his innocence after his capture – and will point to Psi-Phon or Mirage as the real villains, so catching him in the act n the Buzzard suit is not a guarantee of victory.

Corrupt City Narcotics Officers
Mirage: Lt. Cooper co-opted Meryl Johnson by being totally honest with her: if she loyally worked for him as the ‘forensic chemist’ and lead of his corrupt narcotics team he’d support her, if she betrayed him he’d bury her. So far the alliance has worked to her advantage. Make the following updates:
* Node Level: Two
* Swap starting S and I – again, this is a smarter, scientific version of the villain.
* Reduce level to 6. This is minor, but she should be less experienced than Buzzard.
* Reduce E to 10 to account for level loss.

If the PCs start pushing at this level Mirage will move to co-opt the PCs if someone hasn’t already done so, with the vice cops recruiting them against another target. This may well have already happened, and if so it’s time to move to the smear campaign. This starts with solid illusions of the PCs committing a crime – preferably a narcotics related one - and then the PCs being ‘attacked’ by a ‘villain’ who is hurting them who turns out to be a normal person under an illusion while Mirage projects Phantom Pain. Once that happens, the police will move in to arrest the heroes, possibly with lethal force.

Some players will love this chance to temporarily engage in the wanted vigilante plot, some will hate it and some already live there, so gauge how long you can run this.

Once the PCs trace this back and find evidence against the corrupt cops Mirage will move to disappear, letting the cops take the fall, but Buzzard will make sure she’s implicated in everything, attributing mind control powers to her to shorten his men’s sentences and make sure there’s no backtrail to his time in the organization. If he hasn’t co-opted the PCs yet, now’s the time to introduce the Serpico one good cop Lt. Cooper to clean house.

Level  One Nodes
The Nicotines
The street gang at the back of the V&V 2.0 rulebook is the gang that Buzzards corrupt cops use to do their dirty (well, dirtier) work in the city. They do deliveries and enforcement and only their leaders know that they have some police protection (that can rapidly turn into a lethal raid that kills them all if they spill anything). The Nicotines are very careful to not kill people since that moves their activities out of Vice and into Homicide, where they have less police coverage.
* Assume the Nicotines are 5-6 gangs of this size (with convenient identical stats), but only operate in these smaller groups to threaten low level heroes. At least until the GM wants a full scale gang war.

If the PCs access the conspiracy through this node they’re doing the urban defender thing, going against a drug gang. Depending on their power level this could be complex or easy. The Nicotines have a half dozen hangouts and, if a few of their members are captured will try to set up a two-unit ambush on the heroes. If that fails they’ll go to ground and see if they can just wait the heroes out; if still pursued they call on the corrupt cops to cover for them.

The Nicotines don’t sweat getting arrested – they’ll be released due to irregularities and lack of evidence – but if the PCs kill any of them Buzzard’s police step in very quickly to capture the ‘killer costumes’. If the PCs are too close to taking the Nicotines down entirely the corrupt cops move in to co-opt them, offering to liaison in a drug war that targets other gangs.  This will likely work short term, but if the PCs keep digging on the Nicotines it serves as the entrance to the next level of the conspiracy.

Ebony Angel
Erica Knight is what might happen to the heroes if they underestimate Buzzard. Under Buzzard’s orders Mirage messes with her since her powers make her too difficult to contain. Erica knows Cooper is behind it all, with evidence that he’s working with the Mole-People and Queen Victoria. She’s not nuts, but Buzzard and Mirage have done a great job of making her look that way. Make the following updates:
* Reduce Level to 2; she’s a relatively recent threat.
* Reduce S to 15, A to 12 and C to 12 to account for level loss.

If the PCs access the conspiracy through this node it will be because they have made direct contact with Ebony Angel – either having heard news  reports of her and hunted her down or because they responded to the same crime. Buzzard and Mirage keep careful track of EA’s movements and will be alerted if that happens more than once. That’s when Mirage will step in and have an illusion of at least one of the heroes attack EA when they PCs are nowhere close, so that when they encounter EA again she has placed them on her gonzo photographs-news-clippings-and-twine conspiracy board and won’t trust them again without a lot of work on their part.

EA’s initial contact will have her share her story, which is now half-truth and half fiction, and another option is that Buzzard uses Mirage’s powers to frame someone else as being part of Cooper’s ‘conspiracy’ and let EA drag the players in on that attack. Once that goes south and the PCs have helped attack an innocent bystander EA won’t have much stock with them, or her for them.  They players might not trust her upward analysis any longer, but her evidence tying Od and the Nicotines together gives them two other avenues of exploration.

In any event Cooper will eventually step in and use this to draw the PCs into his confidence. The Players should be angry with the GM for getting their PCs to trust a nutbar like EA, not suspicious that the SHARP leader is the head of a conspiracy.

Thursday, December 11, 2014

More Randomness: The Case Files of Detective Double 2

Continuing from the last post….

Snake Head
Snakeheads are Chinese gangs that smuggle people to other countries (no really…. and they have their agents across the world, including the city. The head of each of their city enclaves has undergone a horrific magical transformation that makes them live up to their name. Backed by their international organization they can field a formidable force, and can also draw on the favors owed them by all of their former clients. But each Snake Head leader stands out with their scaled head, hair replaced by a cobra hood, slitted eyes, forked tonge and fangs. Their ability to hypnotize people or freeze them with fear makes them especially formidable in espionage or assassination. (Emotion Control (one target, trust or paralytic fear), Animal Powers - Snake (Ht. Endurance +8, Ht. Senses (scent, vision), Poison/Venom (that comes from bite or spit, paralytic or fatal), Physical handical – has a snake’s head….)

Due to a rare birth defect the woman known as Stoneface has a head made of the same material as the sun*. Her ability to survive this is a marker of her superhuman fortitude, but  it also makes it hard for her to interact with normal society. As such she wears an impermeable helmet with a black stone mask that, thanks to her internal illumination, is transparent from her side even as it is opaque to those viewing her. Still, when Stoneface removes her eponymous mask the illumination is blinding, and if she focuses her gaze on something for too long it will simply evaporate under the energy. This has made her a very effective assassin and crime boss, and she now runs a string of the best contract killers in the city who she hires out for individual hits or gang wars as needed. Stoneface is a canny businesswoman who would be good at her job even if she couldn’t eliminate the opposition with a glance. (Ht. Endurance B, Light Powers, Disintegration Ray, Physical Handicap – head is a miniature sun).

*Please let me know if anyone gets this reference….

Former legbreaker Cornelius Martin got sucked into Lord Geode’s orbit once and as a result he got too close to too odd an experiment. As a result his head and part of his upper torso were strangely mutated, leaving roughly one-eighth of Martin’s body mass with miniature versions of himself all linked together. These interlocking bodies perform all the same functions as you would expect when they’re acting as his head, but can disengage to act independently from his torso. They can form one him at one half his height (one eight his mass), split off a single ant sized version or any combination in between – he can have up to a thousand ant sized hims operating at once. (Mind you, while his head’s away the body just lies there inert, but will be just fine as long as the mini-hims continue to eat and breathe… don’t think about it too much.) He has a gang around him that he maintains through threats and fear, but he’s a very effective thief and spy. (Ht. Strength A, Shrinking, Mutant Power – Duplicates).

There, that fills out a city full of absurdly-headed weirdoes to take on Detective Double, or the heroes in your super-team. In the comics all of these gangs would be running at once, interacting with each other in addition to fighting Spider Man, Daredevil and Cloak and Dagger. In the pulps each would appear once as a major threat and be beaten back and jailed. For your game? Do with them what you will.  

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

More Randomness: The Case Files of Detective Double 1

 Again, this is just an excuse to showcase the advantages of random character creation and to help people fill out some nooks and crannies of their super-hero worlds. I’m rolling up characters in groups of 5 or 6, with one hero and a rogues’ gallery.  The first was a humorous hard luck hero ala Spider-Man who defended the city’s theater district from theater-themed villains; the second was a magical dimensional guardian facing ultraterrestrial threats in the American Midwest. This time around I ended up with a hero who carried a street level vibe so I gave him a Dick Tracy set of malformed villains.

Detective David Double
Beat Patrolman Double was an good community cop and a straight shooter who got too far ahead of his fellows during a police raid on what turned out to be the lab of the mad scientist Lord Geode. Caught in a burst of exotic chemicals David woke to found himself twice as good as any human could ever be – while a world record runner could end up winded from running 15 MPH for eight minutes to cover a mile, David could run at 30 MPH for over eight minutes before slowing down. The strongest men in his weight class could deadlift 800 lbs while he could get that over his head, or deadlift ¾ of a ton. He found his senses sharpened in both what they could do (he can see at 20 feet what a normal man can see at 5) and how quickly he processed from them (letting him make connections immediately that others might never see). With these new powers he quickly made detective and became the force’s point man on the city’s strangely deformed criminals and their gangs. Clad in a distinctive bright-blue trench coat & hat and black shades (to protect his doubly light sensitive eyes) he sometimes works alone and other times leads a crack police team that is beloved by the city. (Heightened Strength to 26, Speed Bonus to 170” ground movement, modified to give +4 on Initiative and on all Agility checks involving movement, Heightened Charisma to 27, Heightened Senses (quadruple all detections, double all senses, immune to range/darkness/side facing penalties, +3 to hit with pistols), Diminished Senses (Light Vulnerability)

Jenny Capricorn
This master of Iron-Head Kung Fu is the city’s representative for the Zodiac Gang that spans the globe. Aside from being a brutally effective martial artist Jenny’s chi is so concentrated her forehead that her hair grows into curves that resemble goat horns and with which she can deliver devastating blows that will, say, destroy cars or shatter plate steel. She can also parry almost anything with her forehead if she braces for it. Jenny has a gang that works for her in international smuggling, where she is in occasional conflict with Snake-head’s gang – when that conflict flares up it’s bad for the city. (Natural Weaponry +3/+6, Ht. Agility +7, Power Blast , Physical Limitation – no range on Power Blast)

Lord Geode
In 1912 Alfred Wegener developed the theory of continental drift, only to spend decades being mocked by the science establishment. He would show them…HE WOULD SHOW THEM ALL! His unorthodox experiments in how the world worked let him horribly mutated – his body is made of stone and his head is a giant geode (with holes into the crystal for the eyes and mouth), he ages on geologic time – but his magnetic charisma has drawn a mass of followers to him who administer his century old criminal empire during his inevitable absence after mysterious deaths. Lord Geode’s work has opened an underworld that’s radically different than what other scientists and explorers have found – almost as if he funds an alternate dimension beneath the earth from which he can launch his assaults on other the timid forces of conventional science. (Dimensional Travel A, Ht. Charisma +22, Ht. Intelligence +10, Chemical Power – Stone.)

More later....

Sunday, December 7, 2014

Card Stack Improv Card Design

The trick to the Sticks-style improv games is giving the cards in the card stacks enough mechanics to make the game playable, introduce one or two new pieces of gaming technology and give them works that spark ideas to hang idea hooks off of. This is easier than it sounds.

First off, by sticking to clearly defined genres (such as d20 Fantasy) no one has to explain much - we all know what elves and dwarves are and there's no having to explain what an Ahoggya is or how the religious chaste system operates.

Second, a decade+ of d20 D&D did a really good job of boiling D&D down to its bare essentials (Six stats, which gives bonuses to rolls; Skills or Proficiencies gives bonuses to rolls; success and failure are d20 + bonuses against target number; sometimes degree of success has a separate die roll; high is always good). Adding new pieces of game tech onto that, such as changes to the magic system, or mook rules, or fan mail, are really simple given how simple and robust that base is.

Third, it takes remarkably little to get people to build off of when designing their characters. There are always 3 types of each class card (so 3 fighters, 3 clerics, 3 rogues and 3 wizards) and what I ope to call those makes a huge difference - the first time we played I called the Clerics Exorcists, Crusaders and Thaumaturges and huge amounts of the session were driven by how the players of cleric PCs took them and spun off the evocative terms. In the second game I had the Clerics decide how much affinity they had with Odin, Thor, Loki, Freya and Baldur - the game didn't become Norse, but the connotations around those gods immediately changed how the politics played out.

Inevitably the players come up with character ideas that I would never have considered when pre-generating characters, and likely that the players wouldn't have come up with if I'd given them a detailed world history. In many cases restrictions breed creativity, but so far with this the open endedness of these one shots, the players ability to draw parts of the map of the world, define how they know one another however they want, and merge together the general concepts of the combined cards make the whole thing so exciting to me as a GM. I literally have no idea what they're going to come up with for the day, and neither do they.

I think this time I'm going to focus on evocative class titles (tomb raider, cartographer, foreign legionnaire and missionary will show up at the very least). Then the concept of effect rolls being more than damage - you still roll a d20+ bonuses to see if you succeed in, say, climbing, but the quality of your tools determines whether you're rolling a d4, d6 or higher for how well you did. This takes an existing, well understood mechanic and apply it to other things (you need 12 points of effect to climb this wall), which as I think of it might let you combine things, so morale attacks would directly reduce opponent's effective Hit Points the same way damage does to see if they stop being a threat. That has legs as a mechanic, but it's rooted in the d20 idiom so there's little new to learn.

There will also be some of the ideas I've been working out for what magic should be used for in a dungeon crawl game (low level magic lets you overcome lack of preparedness or loss of gear - Light spell lets you survive without torches, while Mount lets you recover from your horses being eaten) added to higher level magic being more like versatile powers (you have flame magic - what can it do?) This sort of magic is critical as the characters get more powerful as no one has time to absorb and memorize the spell lists in our 5 hour game slot.

I have about 6 weeks to work out the specifics, but i like where this is going.

Saturday, December 6, 2014

Card Stack Improv

After some feedback from the players I'm not going to try to adapt 5E to my card stack system next month. We'll be sticking with the 3E model, which is a natural for the multi-classing in that mechanic.

After the card stack part of things I ask the players to turn to the person next to them and define their characters relationship, then repeat with the other player, so that every PC knows two other PCs but not all eight or nine PCs. This keeps a degree of party coherence but allows for inter-party conflict as well.

In the first session we did 6th level heroes where one group of questers were petitioning a group of established town-based clerics and thieves for help on something and ended up uncovering a centuries old curse. The second session we did a diplomatic meeting 12th level heroes and political players who uncovered evidence of a planned invasion of the lands under their control who had to plan out how to confirm the threat and counter it. Both were clearly D&D at various stages of play, but had very different feels.

This time around I'm repeating the 'everyone gets to draw geographic features on this map' aspect from the second game but modifying it so that pairs of heroes (the first relationship) are responsible for one quarter of the treasure map. This lets everyone have a say in the sort of adventure they want to engage in and the types of threats they have to face. This certainly makes my job more interesting as I have to improv what those challenges actually are based on the details on the map.

I might also say the second relationship discussions are by definition weaker, lacking a shared motivation for getting the treasure. This will all but guarantee some inter-party conflict when they actually get... whatever it is they're after.

I think I'll try to work this out with 9th level PCs, who in my analysis of the classic O and AD&D design are iconic without being political, just starting to move into politics, land clearing and gaining groups of followers. I think I may institute some new damage mechanics to keep Fighters and melee combat impressive without taking tons of dice rolls (abstracting multiple attacks to greater damage and ability to divide damage between targets). I really want the Fighter heroes to feel like John Carter, Conan and Fafherd - more than capable of moving quietly, donning quick disguises and performing impressive physical feats - rather than armored Arthurian knights since that better fits the treasure map through dangerous terrain goal I'm aiming for here.

Monday, December 1, 2014

Pontificating in the absence of evidence

Every 6 months I run a game for my old High School gaming group - so far one shots exploring different play styles and power levels of d20 Fantasy. This January I don't know if I'm going to stick with building a power level focused version of D&D like I have in the past or use it as a springboard for 5th Edition. If I were to do the latter I'd still want to build characters using my card stack system.

To explain, I have several stacks of cards that fall into certain types - levels in the 4 core classes, character race, character gifts, major equipment - and each player starts with one stack. They pick their favorite from the stack and pass the rest to the right. Eventually everyone gets a card from each stack which, taken in total, gives them their stats, class levels, race, special abilities and core equipment. It's a midpoint between pre-made characters and designing the characters at the table.

However it is very much keyed off of 3rd edition multi-classing. 5th edition doesn't mutli-class as cleanly, instead calling for a lot of specific decision points for a design in play character. 5E really wants you to start at 1st level and work your way through to give your character an organic feel, and the classes have internal option trees rather than promoting multi-classing and prestige classes. It keeps things uniform, but it also makes things messy for how I've done this in the past.

This speaks to some of my issues with 5E, not that I've played enough of the game to really form opinions on them. As I said before I think character creation is still too complex: you don't just select a race but a subrace, and rather than a +2/-2 on stats and some bonuses to skills/saves there are differing stat levels and special racial powers that aren't mimicked anywhere else. Classes are easy at first but have internal trees that force decisions at later levels that radically change the character. Feats are optional, but feel optional in the way that 2E non-weapon proficiencies were optional in that all future supplements will assume their use. At least backgrounds are consistent with their 'two skills and a social advantage' structure, which is nice, and you don't have points to distribute between skills the way you did in 3E, which could be a time saver.

It all makes me hesitate to use 5E for the January game. Maybe everyone will think it's brilliant and will start running games for their kids with it (it's probably good for that). But it doesn't feel innovative enough for me to one to showcase rules with it the way I have with, say, fanmail chips, noun+verb magic systems and decentralized power options in previous games - things that weren't in any of the games this group played with before that really show off new gaming tech.

There are a lot of good ideas in 5E, but aside from the Advantage/Disadvantage rules I don't see enough breaking new ground to justify some of the character crunchy bits complexity.

Friday, November 28, 2014

Thanksgiving Randomness Continued

In the same vein as yesterday, here is another hero and another rogues gallery to populate the odd corners of your game world.

Skye Montana, otherwise known as the Judge, was born in her eponymous state by a family who magically bound her to the spirit of the place. Possessed with a mountain lion's fiery heart and piercing eyes, she also has a spirit brother she calls the Wild Wind. Wild Wind controls the weather, whisper secrets of her environment to her and travel away from her to explore other places and return with information. When she turned 20 Skye was recruited into The City, an extra-dimensonal space that helps to guard civilization across the multiverse. Serving out a 3 year term of duty she has returned to her own world older, wiser, perhaps a trifle more bitter and worn down but certainly more powerful to act as earth's supernatural defender. (Weather Control, Heightened Senses (increased hearing and detection, clairsentience), Animal Powers - Lion (ht. strength+10, ht. charisma+15, ht. endurance+8), Dimensional Travel A - the City, Reduced Charisma -6 from City bitterness).

The Scorpion is a man gifted with extraordinary power but an inherently untrustworthy nature. Having found a suit of spirit armor that he can don to give him protection, super-leaping, increased strength and an enervating ray blast. Finding that opened his mind to the multi-verse and let him see peoples thoughts, finds their weaknesses, command their obedience and even override their body's automatic functions. He was meant to be a champion of the City but his natural contrariness made him sting them. Now he runs a criminal empire on Earth, but no one knows his ultimate goals, which betrayals are part of that and which are just him following his nature. (Heightened Charisma, Telepathy, Weakness Detection, Psionics - autonomic override, Armor B Item (Ht. Strength, Speed Bonus) Devitalization Ray item).

Whisperer is a mystic who has mastered the languages of the material world. All metals have pledged themselves to his command and not not harm him, and he can convince other physical objects to move for him with a little bit of effort. He can command the matter of his own body for impressive feats of physical prowess and whisper to the minds of humans to alter their emotions or reduce to see him. Whisper uses this great power for personal gain - after all, even with all this power a man still need to eat! and live in fancy penthouses! To his credit he does not use his powers to coerce women into his bed - he uses more conventional methods to acquire his companionship. Still, he will accept payment from less than savory people for doing things they require. It's a shame that Gaia has pledged her favor to so faithless a man. (Magnetic Powers, Telekinesis, Willpower, Emotion Control, Invisibility)

Owl-Woman-Monster is an incarnation of the ancient Native American monster. Capable of highly controlled and precise flight she is all but unbeatable in the air. Her breath contains a pheromone that at the very least slows if not paralyzes those around her and either paralyzes or kills those she actually bites. Despite her name the only part of her that does not appear human is her feathery hair, which she can hide with some effort if she wants to mingle with normal humans before hunting them. A creature of magic she is very hard to kill, having returned from 'being destroyed with no body found' at least twice in classic comic book fashion. (Flight, Ht. Defense. Ht. Expertise with all attacks while airborne, Poison/Venom)

Denton Crystal, the Man with the Diamond Brain! Sometime in the 1800's an inventor in the American West who built a device that crystallized his mind, making his thoughts flow ever more smoothly. With this genius he built a device that would heal any wounds and extend life, and other that would transform a body into indestructible crystal. Trying to sell his inventions to the robber barons for a quick payout he was derided and driven off as a snake oil salesman (since they didn't work on, well, everyone. Mostly just on him and people who shared some genetic markers with him). Swearing vengeance on society for turning down his 'gifts' he turned to crime, Over the last 150 years his natural brilliance has dimmed a little (though his device still makes him one of the smartest men in the world) and his musculature has faded some, but his hatred for the soft brains is undimmed (Ht. Intelligence Device, Regeneration Device, Chemical Power Device, Reduced Strength).

Thursday, November 27, 2014

Thanksgiving Randomness

This year, aside from the usual health and family stuff, I am thankful for Villains & Vigilantes. Sure I'd played games before that and a lot of games after that, but V&V was a real breakthrough game for me in that not only did it produce really cool, memorable gaming experiences but it also made enough internal sense for me to take it apart and figure out how it worked and why. That pocketwatchability made the rest of my gaming career possible.

One thing I would do for fun on snowy days was roll up 26 characters in V&V and build a campaign setting around them. This ended up being very useful as I could populate somewhere the players had never been with an interlocking web of heroes and villains to drop into world-history conversations, making the world feel more lived in. In the big shared comics universes there are other heroes, other teams, other things going on that the PCs aren't involved in, and V&V's random character creation made it easy to capture that.

So on and off I'll presenting a hero, his rogues gallery and their likely crimes for GMs to use to populate the places of their world that the PCs don't inhabit, either for worldbuilding backstory or crossover opportunities.

The White Elephant is the hero of the metropolises' theater district. By day Drew Moore is a fight choreographer and special effects theater technician, but since he was gifted with a really ugly statue that grants him the ability to grow anywhere from 9-20 feet in height and extend his wings for super-hearing and flight he spends his nights fighting the criminals who prey on the theater goers and the theaters. In addition to carrying a tusk-shaped club to wield in combat he's a bit of an inventor, using his knowledge of light and sound design, costuming and electronics to find ways to out-wit his foes. (Size Change- Growth, variable up to x3, Body Power - extended ears act as wings and triple hearing, Heightened Intelligence A +6)

Wixua is a madman obsessed with Chinese martial arts movies. White Elephant's still not sure how he gained his ability to fly, his mastery of esoteric martial arts styles (which include chi-punching people at a distance) and ability to deliver staggering amounts of damage, but we do know that he continues to attack, kidnap and threaten people in and around the theater district. Wixua is actually driven by the spirits trapped in an ancient construction deep under the district, but he doesn't understand their demands entirely - he just knows he has to keep following what commands he does understand in order to keep his powers. (Flight, Natural Weaponry +3/+6 with bonus power (chi can enhance initiative for next turn by +8 or be used as a 1d12 Power Blast, Heightened Attack, Special Requirement)

Pit Boss is a theater musician who sold his soul to the devil for power. In return he received a magical clarinet that can generate flames, cold, or hunks of stone that move at his muscial command. More importantly, he knows a spell that lets him infuse another person with a theater spirit, giving him a cast of rotating sidekicks such as the incredibly lucky Nathan Detroit, the dangerously accurate Annie Oakely or the deadly psychotic Sweeny Todd. Whenever Pit Boss returns its with a new sidekick and crimes that are thematically appropriate for that sidekick. (Pet, Flame Powers Item, Ice Powers Item modified so it makes cold or rocks with the density of ice.)

Fagan is a thief who runs a ring of young thieves, just as in Oliver. Fagan is blessed with incredibly keen senses, an ability to spot the main chance and perfect moment to strike and super-human strength that belies his slender frame. He also possesses a strange, alien device that lets him warp reality in inexplicable ways - he's not entirely sure how it works, or how to get it to do what he wants, but he has mastered using it to make himself ageless, invert gravity, create temporary tunnels through solid objects and other tricks to help him escape. He claims to have been the original Fagan who picked this object off of someone on the London streets and has been toying with it ever since. Depending on the game he could be a black-souled kidnapper or a greyer figure who offers the abandoned shelter and compassion; regardless you can always have the aliens come back looking for their gizmo.... (Heightened Senses, Heightened Strength B, Mutant Power Device)

Small Actor is a crazed, failed thespian who, despite his mastery of all the physical skills of a master dancer, acrobat, singer and magician is simply too flat, wooden and unlikable to succeed in the arts. Acquiring a drug that let him reduce his size he now preys on other actors and theater types - slipping around unnoticed he can acquire (or create) evidence for blackmail and extortion, acting as a procurer and dealer for their baser instincts and even go go far as murder. (Size Change - Smaller, Heightened Expertise (any theater related roll), Heightened Defense, Reduced Charisma.)

Scot is a witch, able to magically change her shape to any animal or to three different female forms of varying ages (something W.E. isn't aware of yet, as one of those forms is her alibi), She has an incredibly active brain that gives her a wild imagination, lets her shrug off lots of pain and gives her faster than normal reflexes. Most importantly she can shift in and out of the Dramaturgological Realm. She can reach into there to alter probability, enter it partially to become invisible, intangible, both or simply enter into it completely to disappear. Her plots are always about stealing the things she needs to perform versions of Shakespeare's plays in the higher realm in fashions that would let her rewrite the world. She's White Elephant's greatest threat and the one for which he is most likely to need assistance.

Happy Thanksgiving, everyone!

Monday, November 24, 2014

Inventing gets a test in Gaslamp Romance

We had the 6th session of Gaslamp Romance last weekend and I finally got a chance to test the inventing rules as they were meant to be used. With the goal of capturing how inventing works in the book I wanted it to be both reliable and frantic. That is to say that if a spark gets a long stretch of uninterrupted time they can likely do what they wanted to do, but the universe will not allow them that time.

Short form is that Sparks have to define what they want to build and the GM will set a number of successes based on how hard that is on a pretty generic table. That also determines how big it is and how much time it will take. Target successes can be modified by having better or worse equipment, having something to modify rather than starting from scratch, having notes to work from, and so on. Success over what you need translates to reduced time or smaller devices.  

If the invention takes longer than the GM wants to give you (which it likely will) complications will arise, forcing you to create sub inventions, race to replace faulty parts, sacrifice some of your gear or accept flaws in the original design to follow through on your original timetable. If you’ve ever read some of the Girl Genius comic you see how often these distractions happen so I wanted to catch it here.

In the latest session our heroines have to engage in some rapid inventing to save the lives of a race of constructs whose creator recently vanished (I’d say dead, but hey, that’s never a done deal in Girl Genius). Bella started working on her own and failed – there are rules for how long it takes you to figure out that you’re on the wrong track and she realized after several hours that she wasn’t going to get it right. So she pulled Elena in and the pair tried again. This got them the bare minimum successes for the project, finding a solution inside the dawn timeline.

At which point I had a piece of their equipment break. The Sparks had to hold things together while Nadia snuck through the city to steal the parts they needed. This is specifically designed to give the non-sparks something to do during the inventing, and by everyone’s accounts it worked well. They got the parts in place but Nadia had taken so long that I ruled they now needed another success if they wanted to hit deadline, describing how they now needed to boost the temperature past what the rig was designed for unless they came up with another plan.

The players tossed back and forth whether they wanted to risk another inventing roll (an advantage is that story wise success or failure are equally interesting) and Elena instead opted to double down and accept a drawback on the invention. This meant that the rig exploded just after they got enough of what they needed, coating Elena with a film of mutagenic goo that WILL DOUBTLESS HAVE NO RELEVANCE WHATSOEVER LATER. Really.

Hooray, our heroines saved the construct race! Who immediately became very creepy, so our heroines fled the scene with all speed, which WILL DOUBTLESS HAVE NO RELEVANCE WHATSOEVER LATER. But more importantly the rules seemed to have met with player approval. 

Friday, November 21, 2014

D&D 5E Initial Play Thoughts

Now that I have a session of 5E under my belt I have a few comments on its design and functionality.

Advantage and Disadvantage are useful enough. They don't really solve the whole problem of needing to track and add bonuses to things as any number of spells still add or subtract digits from die rolls but they do solve most of it. I suppose that's enough.

The swinginess of the system isn't as noticeable at low level, where we expect play to be very swingy and dice dependent.

The spellcasting systems are too complicated. I need to redesign part of the character sheet to make it clear to the people with Cantrips that those are powers with infinite uses. Right now the fact that there are casting rules for one set of spells and other rules for a different set is messing with the players. Things are going to get worse when the Sorcerer levels up and there's a third set of rules for her spells distinct to the sorcerer class. This might not be a problem to people coming in fresh, but its enough not like 3E and Pathfinder that it grates and slows play.

The Kits, er Backgrounds, need to be clearer in how experienced the PC is. As it stands its possible for your first level PC to be a local hero, a respected officer or an established member of a spy network - all of which imply a certain level of life experience - or an untested acolyte or street urchin - which implies a very different one. It's a minor nit, but since the experience tables treat levels 1-4 as the Design In Play, your kids from the backwater village become legitimate heroes levels, it became a noticeable one. The actual abilities conveyed by the backgrounds don't have to change, just the text for them.

I'm not sure we need the subraces; they add another level of complexity to what could be rapid character creation (Race + Class + Background; select 2 skills from list, done) and I'm not sure how much they add other than more need to memorize crunchy bits.

Likewise I don't think I'll be adding Feats to my game. I found them critical in 3E, but now I feel like they're in the way. Has my gaming style changed in the last 14 years? Sure. Now I feel like the people who saw Non-Weapon Proficiencies as being optional in 2E and treated them as optional, as opposed to what I did back in 89 which was treat them as critical.

I get the real sense that 5E is trying to reduce the advantages of system mastery, but didn't want to go all the way on that, so Feats are still there but 'optional' and classes have lots of little options. I want to see system mastery go the way of the dodo in this edition, however. Hence some of my decisions.

I also told the players that they had to go with either the standard spread or roll at the table and take what they got. I then had to wrestle one of the adult players to the ground because he immediately insisted his character concept required a point build so he could spread things around and not have the '8' that comes with the stat spread.

I do have to admit that when Nick rolled up his elf paladin and the dice hosed him (he has more penalties due to stats than plusses) he took it with impressive grace. Jason admitted later he'd probably have groused more than Nick did. Nick then took our advice and borrowed things from the Dragon Magazine article I wrote years ago about how you can use bad stats to make your character impressive by having his background - being the sole survivor of a red dragon attack that killed his village - be writ in scars across his body to explain clearly why he has a below average Dex and Con. Yes, he has below average stats, but since he should be DEAD, and you would be DEAD if you'd been there, his stats are pretty damn awesome. It makes for a visually and socially impressive character, and fortunately 5E is not stingy with increases to stats over play.

I'm looking forward to next session.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

The Caves of Erratic Decision Making

Continuing from last time, our heroes had survived a goblin ambush and found both the trail to the goblin's lair and evidence of survivors being dragged away from the last ambush. I can't go into too much detail on this because at this point he players have intersected with the material I'm re-purposing unchanged from the module that came with the D&D Starter Kit.

Suffice it to say that they engaged quietly, overextended, recovered, moved forward, engaged quietly, overextended, recovered, moved forward, rinse, alter repeat until they fled somewhat ignominiously back to their base camp.

Ya'know - First Level.

Their base camp was making use of the depression that held the cache, covering it with the canvas, covering the canvas with a layer of sand. That preparation proved prescient as the quintet spent the night lying silently in the sand as the goblins and their wolf scoured the island for them. Luck or divine assistance saw them through the night (I ruled the searchers needed an outcome of 15 or more to find them and their rolls were 4 and 14).

The next morning our heroes take stock - they don't have any good way off the island, they know the Goblins are likely prepared for them, and they don't know what the pirates (or whoever left the cache) were doing on the island. After some debate they decided to follow the pirates trail tos ee if they could find another boat. Moving past the original ambush point they cross the island to find another cove that does indeed contain a boat. And another. And another - more than two dozen shipwrecks dating back at least 400 years jumbled up against one another like a mad jigsaw puzzle, held in place by the orange-grey coral that has grown up between and around them.

"That's not possible" Roberto whispers.

Between them and the mass of wrecks seagulls and crabs are congregating, hiding something in the sand. Shooing them away with magic and yells they find a group of eight bodies, all as decomposed as the ones the goblins were using for the ambush. Brock surveys the area with a soldiers eye and discerns that these people were fighting one another - 3 on 5 from the looks of it - and accounted for most of the damage before they were struck by a third party with bows. The arrows were taken, and the bodies stripped just as the ones at the ambush site.

Roberto examines the bodies and finds markings of both Talos and Malar worship amongst the fallen - both chaos gods, and erstwhile allies.

There's also evidence that whatever these people salvaged from the shipwreck mass was stolen by the Goblins and brought back to their camp.

"What," Olam asks, 'In the Nine Hells is going on here?"

We'll find out more next month!

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

In the Footsteps of Evil

The second part of my first session of 5E playtest write up, we pick up with our heroes washing up on shore having just escaped a slaver ship,

After a quick confirmation that all five of the escapees made it to shore the make a survey of what they have and it's not much - the storm-tossing cost them their weapons and then passing into this cove at low tide ripped out the bottom of their rowboat. Tebryn and Olam make improvised weapons from the oars while Roberto hands out the contents of his pack, collected under the god-touched daze that has just now lifted (though it is clear to the others that Roberto is now much more than the man they knew in chains on the ship). That pack contains things of nostalgic import for eachof them: Tebryn's scrolls of notes and revelations from his time in the wastes, Olam's playing cards, which unbeknownst to the others are a call sign to other members of his spy circle, The goblin tooth necklace that Brock constantly wore prior to his enslavement, Deldiira's woodcarving supplies that have been passed through her family for generations and Roberto's holy symbol, the red cord wrapped around the wrists and hands as a symbolic recreation of Ilmater's bondage.

Everyone scours the horizon and the coasts, ascertaining that they are in no immediate danger before Brock leads Olam to the treeline to scout there. They discover an unnatural rise at the edge of the sand which, when excavated, reveals a canvas wrapped cache containing no shortage of weapons, armor and equipment, as well as vestments to the faith of Talos, the storm lord and one of the gods of chaos. Tossing those aside they raid the cache to outfit themselves and feast on iron rations and deeply watered down wine. It's remarkably convivial and all offer prayers to Torm, Tyr and Ilmater for this providential bounty.

Climbing a tree and scanning about Brock is able to find evidence of elevated land and running water inland, and a likely trail heading in some hundred yards from their current spot. At their approach the trail reveals to Roberto and Tebryn's eyes that it is not just a game trail but has been expanded by man. Brock and Olam go one further, sure from the machete marks and regrowth that it was cut to its expanded form less than a week earlier. Someone, a worshiper of an evil god, was here, cached supplied and led a modest-sized party into the jungle. Seeing no other course the group cautiously follow.

Some distance later they spy two bodies lying across the trail, obviously days dead from the smell fo the rot. Olam and Roberto approach, and Roberto's medical training gives him enough time to note that these corpses were felled by arrows that were since removed but not enough time to mount a warning before arrows streak from the underbrush. Roberto falls, Olam is wounded and Tebryn rushes forward to shield the fallen cleric. Having identified where the archers were firing from Brock disappears into the underbrush on one side while Deldirra's fey enchantments send those on the other side into a magical slumber.

Tebryn lays hands on Roberto so Tyr's  blessing can restore him to consciousness and the cleric scrambles for cover as the archers to their left fire again. Olam charges their position, blocking an arrow with his shield before dispatching one goblin with his sword. The remaining one prepares to fire on him when Brock appears from the undergrowth and clubs him down with a crowbar. Tebryn runs to the other archers, dealing with one goblin before tying the other up for questioning.

The group takes a short rest for Roberto to recover and examine the bodies (both slain with arrows, both looted; this disturbs the players equilibrium, wondering what foul creatures would loot the bodies like that. They then armed themselves with the fallen goblins shortbows....). Brock, the only one with a common language with the Goblins, questions the survivor but his visceral hatred of the race causes him to permanently end the questioning before he learns too much - there are goblins here, they did attack the 'boat people' who he thinks are pirates, they were planning to ambush more of them when they came back through from the coast, they left the bodies there to bait the ambush and whoever they expected it wasn't our heroes.

Roberto shakes his head sadly at the waste, but Brock did find a path leading from the ambush site back into the woods, clearly to the goblin camp, and there is evidence that the Goblins pulled some bodies, likely survivors, away from the ambush, Roberto is unequivocal that those taken must be rescued, no matter who they are. Brock, seeing a chance to kill more Goblins in this, agrees wholeheartedly, and the group heads deeper into the island.

Monday, November 17, 2014

Escape into the Sea of Fallen Stars!

We had the first session of my 5E playtest game on Saturday and I have several things to say, but first the play report.

We opened with a diceless sequence of 'meeting the heroes' as they escaped confinement on a pirate/slaver ship on the Inner Sea. I opened with describing their current dire circumstances of the five of them being chained to the wall of a small cell in the hold of a large ship and asked everyone to give me two cool things they did to get the five of them off the ship during a sudden tempest.

(Being players they immediately started asking if they could free all 80 other prisoners, take over the ship from the 30 pirates and otherwise push things well past the boundaries of the scenario. You're first level, people! This is you're very quick origin story that sets up the villains, not the big boss battle! I don't know if this is the downshift from playing kick ass Feng Shui PCs last time we met or something about players no longer remembering that they should run away from some stuff.)

Deldiira, the Halfling Guild Artisan, was the most recent addition to the cell, and once there are no guards present reveals her hidden Sorceress skills (and in shaking her head reveals the small horns on her hear that are evidence of her wild fey heritage) and sets herself to casting ray of frost on her chains repeatedly, gritting her teeth at the conveyed ice burn on her wrists until the chains snap from the pressure.

She yanks and they shatter, sending chunks of metal around the room. Brock Grimsbreaker, a Dwarvish soldier, nags a flying bit of metal and, after conveying it to his teeth, uses the shard to pick the lock on his chains. He quickly frees the other occupants of the cell, uttering curt orders tokeep quiet and stay calm while they assess the situation.

Once he frees the long haired, wild eyed Elf Hermit Tebryn that figure grabs another shard and worms it into the wood holding what once were his chains. By the time Brock frees the other two Tebryn worked the length of chain free and is spinning it expertly, watching the door and ready to deal with anyone coming through.

Brock frees the slender Human Acolyte Roberto - who has a bit of a glazed expression - and then the broad shouldered Human Warrior Olan Gethbriar. A whispered word in Olan hear from Brock and Olan nods, charging the door just as a guard passes it, knocking the door down, and the guard. Olan grabs the slavers sword from its scabbard as he falls and snags the top of a water barrel as an ad hoc shield.

Tebryn charges past him up the stairs to the deck, apparently planning to deal with both pirates clinging to the doorway with his chain. Instead both collapse at the sigh of his approach - he thinks they have fainted in terror of him but actually felled by Dildiira's enchantment. Olan is directly behind him, snagging a second sword from a fallen pirate and tossing it to Tebryn, who snags it effortlessly in the dark and driving rain and commences to wield both it and the chain to clear a space from the others.

Roberto, still somewhat glazed, emerges carrying a small pack that he gathered on instinct from the guard's room, and waves a hand towards the pirate trying to keep control of the ship. Divine radiance falls from the sky at the gesture, throwing the pirate from the wheel. Deldiira grabs the humans hand and yanks him into one of the ship's rowboats.

Brock yanks open the chest holding carpenter's supplies for ships repair and snags a hatchet, which he uses to cut the rowboat free. He leaps in while Tebryn and Olan give them cover. Olan interposes his shield on an attack on Tebryn and pushes the elf into the now descending rowboat. He then takes a viscous sword hit from one of the pirates and falls, more alive then dead, into the pitching rowboat.

Seconds after he lands Roberto lays his hands on the dying human and, with a prayer and the full force of Ilmater's might flowing through him for the first time, restores Olan to life and health.

We'll continue next time....

Friday, November 14, 2014

Versatile Single Powers

In general when I'm designing characters for supers games I like keeping them focused - a primary ability, a secondary ability, a career based skill and a hobby based skill is usually enough, if not too much. This design makes it really easy to slot the PC into a team with some niche protection (though don't get me started on the construction of bricks, energy projectors et al as being analogous to classes in D&D) and also leaves enough room for versatility in those abilities that the PC can 'fly solo' if needed.

Based on Wednesday's discussions on Big Hero 6 I wanted to toss out a couple of other 'single power' hero ideas have cropped up in my mind lately. There's something wonderful an potentially iconic about an ability that one can, with some creativity, turn into a truly versatile power. Here are some examples:

*Fish Skin*
In my Tri-Stat super heroes game The Aquarius Odyssey Asha wanted a fish based water breather. She ended up with two 'powers' - her secondary one was the classic super-strength and durability that so often comes with water breathing in the 'body designed to survive at ocean depths', but primary was that her skin could mimic the skin of aquatic animals as super-levels. This let her breathe water through her skin like a catfish, feel her surroundings like a shark, excrete a slippery oil to speed motion through the water and resist being grabbed (again like a catfish), generate light like any number of bio-luminescent fish, generate electricity like an eel and have invisibility-level camouflage like a octopus. The more we bothered to read books on marine biology the better this power could become. In V&V it might be Animal Powers- Fish but I prefer it as a single highly versatile Body Power.

*Customizable Mind*
I've been reading some Oliver Sacks essays and its always amazing seeing some of the breadth of what the human mind is capable of, and it would be interesting to have a PC who could take advantage of that, turning parts on and off, or just having a 'perfect' brain. The tales of the people who, after some brain trauma, can learn languages with great rapidity, or suddenly know how to play the piano and compose music and so on are well documented, but Sacks also comments on a man who lost his color vision but his black and white nightvision became incredibly acute, reading license plates from 4 blocks away and seeing with almost no light (mind you his physical eyes were unchanged; it's just how his brain interpreted the sensory data) and how the twitches of people with Tourettes have been clocked at 1/6th normal human reaction times. Again in V&V Speak someone with Willpower as a power could do a lot with this.

Call me nuts, but I've always wanted to play a PC who just had Wings (I'm currently using Angel as an NPC in my ongoing X-Men Play By E-Mail and having a blast with it.) Sure, on a base level all you can do is fly, but the musculature needed around the torso to make a pair of extra limbs, never mind wings, work would almost certainly give low end super-strength, Swans and geese routinely use wings as striking appendages that hit hard enough to break a mans leg at a range that puts them well outside usual punch and kick counter attacks. If the wings are classic comic book 'can do anything any bird can do' then they move fast enough to let the PC hover, but even without that such wings could generate huge amounts of wind with plenty of possibilities for it, and the character can glide silently. There's a lot to be said for a simple set of wings if you look closely enough.

*Light Powers Device*
One of my favorites, the Light Powers ability in V*V has a couple of standard uses, but I like the idea of having a device be a handful of devices, so the PC is carrying a versatile flashlight with IR and UV finctionality, a laser welding torch, a laser pistol, a handful of flash grenades, goggles with both light amplification and a flare device built into them, a suit that glows sptlight bright to prevent accurate targeting and so on. You can do the same thing with other devices but somehow Light Powers lends itself to this most readily in my mind.

I'm sure I could go on for a while, but the point is to build out your PC from a single logical starting point. V&V works best for this because most of its powers are cause rather than effect based. Effect based games leave me flat because players end up in standard configurations. I prefer figuring out what the power does, and then work out how you can use it. It's much more of a Marvel style than a DC style, but shortly I'll be discussing how I intend to use this for a DC Heroes game.

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Big Hero 6 and Supers Character Design

I caught a showing of Big Hero 6 (It's good; if you like Supers you'll like it) and walked away with a couple of ideas on designing super-heroes. 

First is that the heroes in this are very focused (and if you've seen the previews I'm not spoiling anything): 4 of the 5 humans have better than normal physical stats, heightened intelligence and a single device. Hiro has a Giant Robot (or Animated Servant in V&V speak). Gogo has her magnetic wheels (Heightened Speed Device). Wasabi has his short range plasma generator (Disintegration Ray Device) and Honey has her chemical mixing kit (Poison/Venom Device is how I'd stat that). Our fifth hero, Fred, lacking Heightened Intelligence, has an armor suit his friends built that gives him 'monster powers' (Armor Device). This is very much in keeping with Marvel idiom of characters built cleanly around a single theme. 

As you can guess, I’d argue that V&V can build out a Big Hero 6 team very quickly and would be my go-to system for this. Not only does its random power generation work well when you have small number of powers to integrate, but it generally produces heroes who are both super and in spitting distance of the ‘man on the street’. That catches the vibe here really well.

It also fits for a team idiom where no one of the heroes has the classic super set up of Movement, Damage Resistance, Damage Delivery and Detective/Sensing Ability. Yes, Baymax (Hiro’s Animated Servant) has all of those abilities, but Baymax is still extrinsic to Hiro – he can be separated from him, have to recover him, lose control of him – which carries a different feel both in the narrative and in play from him having his own Iron Man style armor suit. That forces the heroes to work together and provides strong niche protection.

You can tell the design session for the characters was ‘everyone is a tech genius from the college Nerd Lab who builds their powers’. This is followed instantaneously by the special snowflaking of
Fred: can I be the non tech genius school mascot who hangs out in the tech lab?!?!
GM: sure Fred, we’ll let you be the school mascot.
Fred: Can the school mascot actually be a Monster?!?
GM: No Fred, the school mascot is not an actual monster. But the tech geniuses can build your normal person a monster suit.
Fred: Awesome! I’m a giant monster!
GM: Fred, What’s your characters code name?
Fred: Fred

Fortunately no one else tried to special snowflake; more importantly by making being super-smart a requirement the characters have to differentiate on something else. Like Pendragon demanding that all of the PC be knights that restriction generates creativity – everyone is a different kind of smart, has a different take on their smartness and produces different powers from that. Something to keep in mind next time you’re building out a hero team. 

Monday, November 10, 2014

Decentralized Power in Character Design part 4

Last post on this (probably) but I wanted to discuss how and why I dealt with this in Gaslamp Romance. The last problem with giving the PCs skilled NPC assets is the damage it can do to niche protection. Now of my players had picked Gaslamp Melodrama where all of them were potent sparks with resources angling to advance their agendas then I wouldn't worry about it since 90% of character differentiation in that is personality and the remaining 10% is edging out one another in skill rather than displaying clear niche dominance in them.

Instead we're in a game setting where niche dominance - this character is best known for X, this one for Y, and this one for Z  - which is the usual structure for an RPG. When you let PC A be best known for having a team of people who are experts in X, Y and Z it undercuts the other players - eve if they are individually better than player A's team it still deforms play at the table. I've seen this happen and it's not pretty.

Now, if those NPCs are experts in B, C, and D that's fine since it doesn't break into anyone else niche. But the solution I ended up with for Gaslamp Romance was that for the PCs the henchmen were skille in...whatever the PC is expert in. For example Nadia, who is a highly skilled spy and gunslinger, is able to quickly recruit other skilled spies and gunslingers. She can get allies to pitch in for a firefight or to help her gather information but she can't get a master chemist or airship engineer or something else and use is as a reliable part of her character's abilities. They help her be better at what she's already good at, which keeps her from overshadowing the other players.

(Note that she can have contacts with people with different skills, but they are totally GM controlled NPCs who can be inaccessible, distracted, unreliable and so on. That makes them so much less reliable that it's better to rely on the other PCs who have those skills.)

A second advantage to this design is it means I can combine it with the low granularity of the game mechanics to just use Nadia's stats for her recruited allies. There's a penalty applied based on the level of the quality being used to recruit so only the highest qualities will produce recruits on the PCs caliber, but there's an elegance to it. The player knows what the NPCs are capable of because they are both narratively and mechanically extensions of their PC.

Anton, the other PC with a decentralized quality, has a group of soldiers, none of whom are nearly as skilled as he is. But when all 6 of them act in concert they match him. In combat that this lets Antone attack one foe and have his men launch a volley against the other and effectively double his attacks. Or have his men in three groups of two to take 3 more actions at a larger penalty.This gives the player a lot of flexibility, especially outside combat where dice rolls don't matter - the men can scatter to collect their gear, buy supplies and contact transport and in very short order the PCs are ready to move without shilly shallying around on the little stuff. Yes, we likely would have elided over the little stuff in play with 'and then you do the little stuff, barely making your sailing time', but having Anton's PC, or an extension of it, do it for them makes him look more capable. And that's a good thing.

Friday, November 7, 2014

Decentralized Power in Character Design part 3

To recap, my conjecture is that decentralized power for PCs (i.e. power outside their immediate bodies) faded for a while due to desire for character immersion coupled with a desire for simulation. I expect the GM not wanting to handle dozens of NPCs that the immersive-driven player no longer wanted to handle had something to do with it. In fact, mechanics has a big part in bringing them back, at least for me.

Some steps back were pretty easy - having players spend character resources to get iconic/signature gear that works better than normal and can't be permanently lost was common in supers games but worked its way into others (Earthdawn's magic item system was built around linking you to your magic items in a way that both made them more powerful as you got more powerful and forced PCs to research the setting background for plot hooks...alas like much of ED it was a little too complicated for casual play; Feng Shui lets gunmen and martial artists have signature weapons they can't lose, etc.). That's all to the good, but it's not quite the same as having the power a of a local lord with a mass of troops that 9th+ level fighters got in early D&D.

Several games do let players buy rank in organizations and higher levels of resources for their PCs, but usually make control of those organizations cost prohibitive and find ways to minimize what resources can do (because hiring a team of mercenaries to take point on your battles is what _villains_ do...). A revelation for me was the Big Eyes Small Mouth system for Organizational Ties, where control of powerful groups was in reach for players - mind you those powerful groups were sometimes student counsels and the like depending on the game - as were groups of flunkies. In the playtest for Silver Age Sentinels Org Ties these really came into their own, where for the cost of a mid range energy blast you could make your character, say, Director of SHIELD or in charge of Wakanda.

Yes, these still required GM buy in (a surly GM could then try to force you to buy a countries worth of flunkies and massive resources and tons of agent level fighters) but it put the idea of playing a character who controlled a large, powerful group back in reach of the players. The idiom of the game still required that, like the Steranko Nick Fury or Christopher Priest's take on Black Panther, that the hero lead from the front, but that helped bridge the gap between immersive play and massive resources.

Later games, like FATE, reduced everything into Aspects that can be invoked in play, and that aspect could just as easily be 'Lab of scientists and flunkies' as it is 'genius scientist' as both let the PC do sciency stuff. That's even better in some ways as it pulls everything back into a single mechanic.

Which is what I was trying to go in Gaslamp Romance. I'll talk more on Monday as to why I did what I did for that and how I hope it will work.

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Decentralized Power in Character Design part 2

As I commented Monday it's sometimes a bit of a jump for people to accept decentralized power (power that is not inherent to the characters' body) in role playing games. This is a little odd, since the original RPG had one stat - Charisma - that was dedicated to decentralized power and all of the character classes, but fighters especially - transition to that as a focus after name levels. 

I'm of course referring to henchmen, hirelings and eventually followers. The ability to hire people to come with you on adventures - people that barring morale checks were initially under the players control - was a major one in early play, and the game explicitly transitions fighters to commanding territories and armies once in the double digit levels. That the player would command resources outside of their PC and their gear was assumed.

However as more and more people played the game that decentralized power decreased. Like many game groups mine didn't do much if anything with henchmen and hirelings. Part of that was wanting to engage in more immersive play (and hence not be working the numbers for a henchmen and hirelings in addition to our PC) and part of it was either not understanding or not wanting to engage in higher level political play. D&D didn't help because non-fighters, and magic users specifically, accrued ever more personal power as they advanced past 9th level and never really entered the political realm of play that fighters held. If you _liked_ the dungeon/wilderness adventure paradigm then Wizard and Cleric were the classes to play after 9th level, which you can see in the number of high level Mary Sue wizards wandering around the early published campaigns. 

The first game (that I know of) that did anything with restoring decentralized power was Traveller, which had a chance of your PC starting play with existing political power, a ship or large amounts of cash, but aside from the rank those weren't permanently part of the character. You don't see that until Champions comes out and people can purchase powers with a limitation that makes it a device they can temporarily lose but always get back. Likewise you can 'buy' allies and contacts, but they are not guaranteed (relying on a random roll to appear in many cases) and controlled by the GM. Even with that the idea that the player would wield _reliable_ power through others - having troops to command, spies under their control etc. – faded away from game design. You can particularly see this in interations of the GURPS rules where even their Supers designs fought tooth and nail against the idea of Signature Gear even up through the early 2000s.

The reasons for this movement are twofold in my opinion: first was the desire for more immersive character play, and having to control other people breaks away from that. The second was simulationism: since in real life no one completely controls someone else there was the urge for more ways to insert GM control. I’ll look at these a little more later. 

Monday, November 3, 2014

Decentralized Power in Character Design, part1

A few years back it occurred to me that the best way to build the three main PCs in Star Wars _on equal points_ is as follows:
Luke: high competent in most areas, strong piloting skills, either have a game mechanics where newbie PCs advance faster than others or have a pile of points set aside to justify rapid advancement.
Han: strong in most skills, plus points for purchasing loyal super strong sidekick (whom Han's player would control) and kick ass smuggling ship.
Leia: high competent in most areas, strong in social and knowledge skills, plus points for purchasing the entire Galactic Rebellion, which (Leia's player would control).

That's right, Leis' player controls the rebellion. Of course she does. Like any good pulp hero she's both in charge and out on the front lines doing the most important tasks - like stealing the plans for the death star, or leading the assault on the force field generator, or making the executive decisions around fleeing their compromised hidden base.

This is part of the general theory that in a high trust game, especially with experienced players, the GM should place as much control of the setting onto the players hands as possible. Yes, it's easy to run a Star Wars game where the PCs are agents of the rebellion who are given missions to execute, but there's a lot to be said for letting the players dictate the course of events. That's how we run d20 Fantasy Games, for example - Ed Greenwood commented on the need to lay out a dozen or so adventure hooks across the general vicinity so the players have real agency - if they decide to skip Waterdeep and head south due to rumors that the red dragon killed off the sword coast left behind a hidden but now abandoned hoard in Calimsham then so be it. (Just have a few 'on the road to the adventure' plots lying about to occupy them on the way there while you build the horde out from the single sentence you started with.)

The trick here is to start thinking of the parts of the characters under a players control as not just their physical person, or the person and their iconic gear, or the person, gear and one or two close allies but their entire spheres of influence. As I'll discuss over the next few posts that's can be a difficult transition to make.

Saturday, November 1, 2014

Thoughts on the DC Television Universe

Had an interesting conversation with Geri the Murderous Librarian today about Arrow, Flash and Gotham today and the nature of the growing DC Television universe. She and I were not at odds but had different viewpoints on the Arrow series in part because of character interpretation - the Green Arrow of the TV show is clearly built off of Mike Grell's _Longbow Hunters_, the early 1990's interpretation of the character who works on an urban hunter vibe. I happen to like that interpretation of the character, while Geri's default the 1970's hippie version, who picks ideological fights, cracks jokes, has a boxing glove arrow and a generally lighter tone. Both are valid version of the character but I can certainly see her point.

Even without the general DC live action dictate that these characters are serious stuff and not childish super-heroes who crack jokes, DC's TV unit kinda worked themselves into a corner here - Smallville was a well done, popular show that was built on the theory that ti would never show Clark as Superman. As the show went on and the universe expanded that became harder to do, especially with more super-heroes turning up. The desire to have a semi justice league meant they needed to have a crystallization character.

This _should_ be Superman. But they can't have a Superman in the show's premise. It could be Batman, but Batman was decreed off limits. So they made it Oliver Queen - he's passionate, has resources, and can be made into a credible leader type. Except Ollie isn't the crystallization character - he's the irritant. The almost outsider who keeps forcing the rest of the League to defend what they're doing, to focus on the little guy, to point out worst case scenarios and otherwise start social conflicts. That's true whether he's the urban hunter or the loudmouthed idealist. That's the big tweak to the character. And the Oliver Queen in Smallville was popular. Popular enough to give him his own show.

But then they didn't build on the Smallville basis but re-set that type of Oliver in a new setting, which is now the core of the growing TV universe, inspiring the new Flash. And that decision just puts everything else a little off kilter. It should be Barry, or Hal, or best of all J'onn acting as the core of the team if the big trinity is off limits.

No real point to this, just some observations on how comics translate to TV. Ill do more later on how this can work for supers gaming based one existing properties.

Friday, October 31, 2014

Elements of horror in GMing

Since this post is dropping on Halloween I suppose I should discuss something scary. So let me start with this

which is a series of scenes from movies where someone explains to you how and why they work. I found it fascinating to watch because I love knowing how things work so I can apply them back to GMing. Fortunately I watched this just a couple days before running Elena Turduck and the Ghosts of Odysseus so I was able to put the ideas in here to good use.

Now some of the stuff in here you just can't do as GM - you can't control visual space. Sure, you can control where the players focus by what you choose to describe to them, but a lot of film tricks about setting up the geography and being asymmetrical in how you fill that space aren't viable. That just means you have to make the most of how you can make the focus. Make sure to mention the things you want them to visualize prominently, and then mess with them. Describe the chair being in the room, linger on it, include it in every explanation of the space and it becomes important. Then do something with it. or don't, if you want to keep ti creepy. As in weighted tones "is anyone sitting in the chair?" to watch them scurry.

Rely on light and darkness in your descriptions. In one sequence from last session Elena was alone in a big control room space - just her and the hum of the machinery in the glow of the control lights. She found the big old light switch and as the lights flickered on she saw shadowy humanoid shapes in each flicker, and with each flicker they moved further away from her until when the light became constant she was alone in the room. At that point you can't help but wonder what happens when you have to go somewhere dark...which the PCs of course had to do shortly.

Plus, that darkness was in a confined space - riding along on a conveyor belt through the bowels of the plant with a ceiling so low they had to lie down and machinery clanking on each side. Watching how each of then PCs entered that space gave the players a way to say something about them, and once they were so confined I could attack them or not. It's a open question whether which is scarier. Instead I had something happen to one of their NPCs that made him scream and never come our the other side.

Use non-visual senses. The best indicator that things were hunting them was the monkey-like fug of the creatures that the French Pastry Chef's delicate nose could detect. The most effective table jumps I got were when the monster chasing them uttered its hawk-like attack scream as it swooped down from the trees in a blur of motion. Deny them the visual in your description until its almost too late.

Focus on things other than what you're really showing. When one of their troops was slaughtered by an enemy construct off screen I didn't belabor the description of the body - I let the person who found him know he had been disemboweled and had his throat ripped but didn't go into detail there. Instead I focused the detail on the blood pooled on the jungle leaves 4 feet off the ground, dripping to dirt. That told them quickly how bad the death was, how strong the monster was and gave me a visual call back to bring up later. When one of the PCs finally got hurt I could come back this, describing the blood drip, drip, dripping to the ground. (It also turned out to be a salient clue to the plot, but I wasn't thinking that when I set up the first image. Learn to call back to yourself! It makes you look smart)

Every once in a while it's nice to scare them. Just don't go overboard (unless it's a horror game by design, but remember the real difference between fear and shock, or shock and disgust.)  Have fun! Happy Halloween!

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Mechanics in the Abstract

One of the game mechanics changes I made for this round of Gaslamp Romance was making some of the rules even more abstract. Not Life Points and the like, but resources, connections and allies.

For a long time there was a strong tendency in game mechanics to make concrete anything that had a real world analog, and this usually included money and connections. D&D doesn't have this problem because cash is so key a part of the game system but in other games where your character can start with greater than normal resources you need some mechanism for adjudicating that and all too often the system gets really granular - the PC has an income of X dollars a month that you have to track expenditures and monthly income. it's too much of a pain, and the sort of pain that really never appears in the source fiction. Even in Buffy (the origin of my spine rules set) the characters reversals in fortunes are plot drivers (what does Cordelia do when she's poor? what does Buffy do when she has to support the household) rather than exercises in math. The BtVS rulebook however has the usual 10 incomes levels and monthly appx income.

The first system I saw get away from this was the way ahead of its time Marvel Super Heroes. The first edition had rules where you got your Rank # in income per week and had to trakc that for purchases. The second edition abstracted it completely - if Tony Stark has an Incredible wealth then it's a die roll against the cost of the object to see if he can buy it, just as if he were pitting his Incredible strength against a great weight. It's completely of a piece with the rest of the system, and does away with all that irritating bookkeeping.

For this game we abstracted even more - with her Resources and Connections quality Nadia is able to access caches of equipment when she goes to new places that lets her refill her wallet, get new clothes and identity papers and pick up more generic define as needed spytech. With his even higher Resources quality Jahn is able to just buy/have stuff that you would expect a really rich person to be able to buy/have. it's really simple.

Allies and henchmen have a slightly different mechanic, but work as part of their qualities as well. Nadia's contact network give her a +2 on any information gather roll if she has the time and ability to make contact with people. She can also quickly recruit someone to act for her, using her stats for any rolls but at a penalty. Neither Rachel nor I have to have stats set up for NPCs and figure out who she gets and who rolls for them - she is able to recruit a henchman and make all the rolls with her stats at -5. Her henchmen aren't great, but another set of hands (and vehicle for her inserting herself and her drama points into the scene) is nothing to sneeze at. Jahn can likewise purchase henchmen, and add his Wealth quality to any interaction where he can throw cash at the problem.

Finally Lt. Adler's men also work with his stats, but at a -3 penality (he has a higher quality) and that penalty drops the more men he has doing the same thing - Adler as a heroic sort is equal to all 6 of he men combined, but having them launch a volley at a foe functionally gives him a second attack.

So far it's working.

Monday, October 27, 2014

Elena Turduck and the Ghosts of Odysseus

Had the 5th session of the Gaslamp Romance game yesterday and the general consensus was that the new rules worked well. Less hunting around on the character sheet (but still some - I think Synergies and Specializations are necessary but they do mean a little more hunting), much cleaner damage resolution, and the use of the poker chips meant I had a physical drama point reminder in front of me. No real 'inventing' scenes yet so jury's still out on the mini-game mechanics, but everything else is going in the right direction.

Rachel commented that this session she felt much more comfortable with Nadia - it was clearer to her what her character was meant to 'do'. I don't know if the new mechanics and sheet had anything to do with that, but I think it had a little. Since the PCs are currently on the submarine of a roguish smuggler and his furry first mate Nadia quickly manipulated the captain into seducing her; this meant that he wouldn't be aiming his charms at naive and politically important Elena or being cut to ribbons for interrupting Bella the mad french chef. It also let her plant a listening device in his room, reorganize the ships communication tubes so he can't spy on her and plant a cache of her gear underneath his bed for emergencies. Later in the game when she lacked a rifle she let one of Anton's soldiers take a shot at the enemy and then grabbed his rife and took over as a much better shot.

I think the other players felt comfortable with it as well - Asha finally got to show off some of Bella's knife skills, and she was certainly the one driving the Foglio-iztion of the episode with our heroes in diaphanous robes and taking baths in streams and whatnot. It ain't Girl Genius without a little cheesecake. The plot was a mash up Most Dangerous Game, Book XI of the Odyssey and Forbidden Planet that came together nicely. I'll give more details when I have time, but the look on Diane's face when she figured out what was going on was wonderful.