Sunday, June 21, 2015

Classic Enemies Cavalcade!

Theron "My Dice Are Older Than You" Bretz has written a series of reviews / rumination on the various teams and solo villains if this classic Champions supplement -- one that provided many a GM with powerful opposition (and the occasional useful mort) to bedevil his players.

Here's my reaction to one of my faves in his series of posts:

The Ultimates!

While it's true that Binder, Plasmoid, Blackstar, Slick, and Charger offer varying degrees of well-roundedness, lameness, and complexity in build -- I think that when they worked together as a team, they were pretty devastating.

Binder (with his various glue gun attacks), along with Slick (and his friction-reduction attacks) tended to hamstring the heavy hitters of the hero team. With their mobility, they can stay out of reach while their teammates run interference and take out the immobilised heroes.

There's a pretty tough physical attacker in Blackstar, a pretty dangerous ranged attacker in Charger, and a devastating area effect / energy projector in Plasmoid.

If the Ultimates have their teamwork down, they have a rough fight ahead of them.

Monday, June 8, 2015

Earth-642: Keeping Metahumanity in Check

On Earth 641, a place where DC & Marvel superhuman populations have been combined, there are things that will keep their numbers in check (and thus avoid a very dangerous future for normal people).

What are the options?

Several come to mind (spoilers for those unfamiliar with old and not-so-old comics history):

  • The Sentinels -- for comics readers of my generation, these were THE anti-mutant bogeymen. They were self-replicating, constantly adapting robots with a  mandate to capture and/or kill any mutants. As reflected in the "Days of Future Past" storyline in Uncanny X-men (the basis of the movie), the Sentinels eventually extend their mandate to all superhumans, and then to all humans. These are great for opponents when you've earning some kind of government enmity in your campaign. Or perhaps as a 3rd party foil when trying to capture some metahumans on the grey side of the law.
  • The OMAC Project -- in one of the many iterations of the mainstream DC Universe, Batman built a machine called Brother Eye. This machine, meant to watch over the metahuman population (because Batman didn't trust members of the Justice League -- some might say with good reason -- after revelations made during Identity Crisis), was subverted by Maxwell Lord along with some pretty powerful nanotechnology that can turn human sleeper agents into powerful robotic creatures capable of taking out most metahumans.
  • Aliens -- no, seriously. From the DC Universe Dominators, who've always shown interest in the meta-gene, to the Kree Supreme Intelligence looking to humanity as an inspiration for the next step in Kree evolution, there's always the potential for some alien race (or set of races, as in DC's Invasion! crossover arc) that decides that Earth is a danger to their continued dominance or existence.
What are your favorite choices or excuses for keeping metahuman numbers in check in comics?

Thursday, May 14, 2015

Fun With The Hero System: Tricks You Can Do With ENDurance

Folks unfamiliar with the Hero System might not know the purpose of a (formerly) figured characteristic known as Endurance (END).

In the Hero System, END is based on your CONstitution, and is a measure of how much personal energy. Your personal END reserve enables you to

  • exert your STRength in useful ways like lifting a car over your head or punching the baddie into next Wednesday;
  • use active Powers like Energy Blast or Killing Attack (depending on how you build them, of course);
  • other active heroic stuff.
Here's a short explanation from +Ron Edwards 's Doctor Xaos blog:

"Which brings me to Champions the role-playing game, first published in 1981, and examining a crucial rules change for its 1989 fourth edition, written by a different set of authors.

In the earlier editions (1-3), the rule is that for every 5 points of strength or power used, you lose 1 point of Endurance. Granted, that value starts pretty high – typically 40 or more – but consider that one is typically slamming away with 50 or 60 point powers, or as a strength-based fighter, an equivalent amount. Just hammering away like that can drain you, and at 0 Endurance, further effort comes off your more crucial reserves and can knock you right out. There’s a periodic recovery during fights, and one can use actions to do it too, based on a value called Recovery, sensibly enough. In a relatively standard Champions fight of the early days, heroes had to strategize their heaviest hits against their energy reserves, ducking to recover every so often."

Of course, doing all this stuff means your spend your END like a resource. When you're down to zero, you can still exert yourself, but now it starts doing STUN damage to you, meaning you can knock yourself out by overexerting yourself.

The obvious downside to this kind of simulationist (or whatever) modeling of getting tired is the extra bookkeeping -- which is made even more fun with rules that deal with Recovery (I'll tackle that in other post).

However, there are a few reasons -- off the top of my head -- that my friends I used to put up with this extra in-game work (which becomes second nature after a while, anyway):

  1. Pushing: There's this rule that you can push STR or any Power that Costs END up to 10 points maximum, but you have to spend extra END in addition to the normal exertion. That means that you can get extra damage or extra movement, but trade in rapid exhaustion (or even knock yourself out) redlining your abilities. Very comic book-y.
  2. Pushing Stats: Did you know you can buy up abilities like INTelligence or COMliness with the limitation Costs END? Then means that if you choose to use these stats at a higher level, you gotta spend END to do it (special effects: activating alien secondary brain and sucking in your gut, respectively). But, because the rules say you can only push powers or abilities that cost END -- you can effectively burn END to become hyperintelligent or incredibly good looking for as long as you can pay the END (or endure the STUN damage once you've run out).
  3. "Free" Cost Discount: the END cost of a power used to be Active Points / 5. When 4th edition came about, this rule was revised to END cost = Active Points / 10. This halved the END cost, and immediately prompted my group to buy all their powers at 2x END cost, because they were already used to the spending of END at the old rate; instant reduction in power costs!
  4. Power Batteries: It's a nice way to model things like a battery of some kind: by creating something called an END battery (sort of an external END stat) that gets used up faster if you use it at full power.
  5. Nova Blasts: There are certain types of powers that will wipe you out if you use them -- maybe even cause you damage. Sort of like a wave motion gun for a super-hero, you can't use most of your powers after doing it. In HERO, you can buy that 'beyond normal campaign limits' power at 10x END cost or something similar (making sure that using it doesn't inadvertently kill you when you use it) -- it helps convince the GM that you won't use it that often.
  6. Temporary END Boosts: sometimes powers of heroes, villains, or the environment in a super-hero setting can boost your total END reserve, or increase your rate of END recovery. This means that you can operate at a higher power level for a short while (taking advantage of things like #1, #2, #4, and #5 as needed), but within certain limits. 
But that's just me, and what I remember us doing -- what about the other HERO mechanics out there? What builds have you put together?

Friday, May 8, 2015

Things I Learned From Champions: A 500 pt. Character is different from a 250 pt. + 250 XP character

I think that most point-build veterans know what I'm talking about here; they've had first hand experience.

But first, a little background.

The Hero System Context

In many systems, experience points allow you to improve your character -- but not all systems use experience the same.

D&D, of course, keeps track of your total experience points. Making it to certain tiers of experience qualifies you to a new batch of capabilities.

In other games, you can use experience points (XP) as a currency. You spend XP (usually with some kind of exchange rate) to buy things that you were able to buy with initial character build points. The exchange rate varies -- but it's usually more expensive to buy up Stats or Skills or Abilities with XP than with initial character build points.

The Hero System is different there: 1 Experience Point = 1 Character Build Point.

This means that if you started off as a 400 pt. character, and you got 100 XP (that you spend to improve your character), you are now effectively a 500 pt. character.

Or are you?

Lump Sum vs. Downpayment + Small Installments

I liken what happens to the difference in behavior of most people when they get a huge sum of money all at once, vs. getting a downpayment, followed by small installments:


  • in the case of the former, you tend to spend on several big things all at once;
  • in the case of the latter, you tend to spend on good quality essentials and then either (a) make refinements with subsequent installments; or (b) save up for that big item you've decided you really need.

Experienced Hero System folks can usually tell by looking at a build which of the two your character falls into (without looking at the Experience Points box first, of course), because they're familiar with these spending patterns in the game.

While it is possible to have a lean, efficiently-built character with little nuances and splashes of characterization right off the bat, most of the time there is a sort of roughness to an initial build of a character, and it's not just evidence of ruthless point-shaving evident in some of the power builds -- there are some powers or abilities that don't gel with the others, or there are some actual redundancies, or some things that don't quite go with the character concept after all.

The experienced character builds are a bit more refined, with tighter character concepts, and more seemingly redundant or extravagant purchases that actually round out the character or solidify the concept.



Sunday, May 3, 2015

Plot Points takes on Champions

I listened to a Plot Points podcast on a Champions adventure -- an old one -- titled Day of the Destroyer. I was surprised that I had so many reactions to something so old and that I'd written about so often.

Here's the link to the podcast. And the link to the podcast on iTunes.

And here are my reactions (which I e-mailed to them, of course):

Response to Plot Points (Champions - Genre Podcast)


I listen to your podcast selectively; because of the review format of the show, there are certain things I'm not really curious about and therefore skip. The rest, I do listen to -- but the recent episodes about the adventure module "Day of the Destroyer" and a discussion about Champions (and the Hero System) spurred to write to you.

Short background: I've been interested in RPGs since the early 80s but only really started playing regularly in 1986. During my time in the U.S. (I'm back in my homeland of the Philippines now), I was based in the San Francisco Bay Area and played a fair amount of Champions there back in the day. I've been interested in it ever since, even though time and availability of interested gamers has waned.

The podcast was entertaining, though I found it odd that sometimes there were some instances of "talking over" one another, which kind of confuses or disrupts the flow of your discussion (sometimes with Sarah, other times with Torii). Is this a matter of the delay in transmission of the online chat / telecon?

It was also very engaging, as I found myself shouting responses to some of the topics or questions answered. This, as you might have guessed, is the reason I'm writing you.

For ease of reading / skipping over, I've put Topic Headings for your convenience. And I swear, I won't tell you about my Champions character.

Champions Gives A Lot Of Power To The Players

I felt that this wasn't quite tackled or explained as clearly as Torii clearly wanted to. Okay, let's be honest: it wasn't explained as clearly as I wanted it to be. So here's a stab at it --

Champions (and the HERO System) allows your to create exactly the character that you want. Any Champions player worth his salt will be nodding up & down at that last phrase: "exactly the character you want".

While almost any RPG allows you to create your own character, few out there allow you to create "exactly the character you want". There's a level of customization in the Hero System that allows to realize your character concept to a great degree, restricted only by the point limit.

In fact, one of the great pastimes of Hero System afficionados is to find a way (preferrably more than one) to create characters that are hard to build in other systems without some hand-waving.

I suspect that this is partially because Champions is early enough in the RPG history that it was in some ways a reaction against the "GM is a God" and the "adversarial GM and Player" dynamic. It may have even been necessary, given the nature of the genre: a slugfest is a very regular occurence -- sometimes between fellow heroes. But I digress.

Okay, so how does it give a lot of power to the players?

Well, first off: the player gets to set the special effect of his / her character's powers. Also known as: Game effects cost points, special effects are free.

What does this mean? My favorite example of this is a power called Instant Change.

Game Effect: your hero can change into his super-hero form (or back to his normal form) without expending an "action". Cost: 10 points.

Possible Special Effects:
(a) there's a flash of light, and you're now in your supersuit;
(b) you change at superspeed, and you're now in your superset;
(c) the planets align, a bolt of pure etheric energy streams from the heart of the Milky Way galaxy into our solar system, and shatters each one of the planets from within, and triggers the Sun to go supernova, destroying everything around it for light years -- then it all reverses, everything goes back to normal just before the planets aligned, and now you're in your supersuit. Cost: FREE.

Sure, the GM still has to allow it into the game (as with any game), but this uncoupling of the game effect from the special effect allowed many a player to break out of any pre-existing classes or templates of the time.

But the uncoupling had a other ramifications, such as being able to craft different ways of achieving the same special effect.

Special Effect: I run so fast, I can run up the sides of buildings OR across the surface of water.

Game Effect:
(a) Buy Running + Clinging (with limitation: only when running); Buy swimming (with limitation: only on the surface of water)
(b) Buy Flight (with Limitation: only to move on surfaces)

These examples, and many more, show how -- as a player, you're granted more options in character creation than most other RPGs.

All Math Is Frontloaded

Well, to some extent it is; the rest of it isn't. But the act of building your character makes you familiar enough with the system that the rest of the math is usually easy enough.

If, that is, you're obsessive when building the character I suppose.

If You Don't Have A Skill, You Can't Do It

Technically true, though the concept of Everyman Skills was introduced into the campaign. And occasionally, the GM can grant a rare bending of the rules based on background or special effect.

Other super-hero games

If you want an exhaustive list of Super-Hero RPGs, go to Lowell Francis's blog:

He has multiple blog posts on the many RPGs released in this genre across the years.


And I hope that puts things at rest.

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

Worldwatch Wednesday: Bureau of Paranormal Research and Defense

The Bureau of Paranormal of Research & Defense is a organization that was founded in 1944 by Professor Trevor Bruttenholm to combat various occult threats uncovered in operations against Nazi Germany.

By 1948, the Bureau was based in a facility in Fairfield, Connecticut, retaining links to various branches of the United States Armed Forces that it had built up during the war.

A private organization that receives funding from several major governments, it had numerous human agents, in addition to some unusually talented or noteworthy agent. Of course, the B.P.R.D. also has had paranormal agents such as Liz Sherman, Abraham Sapien, Johann Krauss, Ben Daimio, and -- of course -- their most famous agent: Hellboy.

Campaign Use

The B.P.R.D. (or something very much like it) is a useful organization in a campaign because it has several attributes that help flesh out the setting and perform some useful game functions:
  • We've been around since the War. -- As an organization with a relatively long history has many secrets, many past employees and agents, and many past cases (and possibly artifacts) and ongoing experiments and files;
  • Those don't grow on trees, you know -- Government funding isn't always (surprise!) extravagant, or predictable. Some pet projects get the money, while others end up shelved and some things wind up pushed back or short of resources. Until it's an emergency, of course.
  • Dark corners of the world -- Adventures for the B.P.R.D. agents take them all around the world, into all the dark places that they must walk.
  • The Abyss also gazes -- While some agents' lives are short, others transition through many phases across many major and minor (traumatic?) cases, and developments in their own lives due to exposure to the occult or the use of their own powers. Seldom for the better.
  • We've lost track of it -- Part of the reason that the B.P.R.D. tries to keep tabs on personalities and artifacts of interest is that there's always someone (or something) that has an agenda for the world.
  • Beyond the Bureau -- Another aspect of the B.P.R.D. is that each agent has ties, alliances, and enemies beyond the Bureau. And sometimes those lead into stories and adventures beyond the current agency mission list.

Monday, March 30, 2015

Tradecraft Tuesdays: A New Wave of Espionage Film Franchises?

As a solid series of super-heroic films come pouring out of the DC & Marvel universes, a lesser noticed trend has been emerging: spy films.

True, there's never been a lull, really -- what with the continuous Bonds and the (relative) newcomers like Jason Bourne. However, I'm talking about the return of several espionage properties that hearken back to the Cold War heydey.

First up is SPECTRE, with Sam Mendes directing Bond once more. Appropriately enough, the film picks up from the prior film and begins building on the current Bond 'mythology' establish in the prior film. It looks promising, though decidedly more conspiracy-laden and less action-filled (in the trailer, at least).


Second is a surprising entry: The Man from U.N.C.L.E., with Napoleon Solo played by Henry "Superman" Caville and Ilya Kuryakin played by Armie "Hey, I Was The Lone Ranger" Hammer. Directed by Guy Ritchie, with promising scenes from the trailer that promise to provide both the action and the humor that I enjoyed in the old series, while bringing it a bit up to date with the modern filmgoing sensibilities.


Third is another property that kind of killed off the well-known leads to the setting, and built its own new mythology around the core concept of the original: a team of specialists. It's the return of the IMF in Mission: Impossible -- Rogue Nation. The action is at an appropriately ridiculous level of visual spectacle, with fun-sounding banter.




All in all, a promising collection.

However, to cap it all off, I'd like to say that I enjoyed Kingsman: The Secret Service as both a deconstruction and joyous reconstruction of the gentleman spy in the modern era. A lot of fun, a lot of action and humor, some shocks along the way, and Colin Firth revealed as a believable action star in much the same way that Liam Neeson revealed himself in Taken. Try it, if you haven't already.


Martial Arts Monday: Background

I grew up in the wake of Bruce Lee's death, in a deluge of HK martial arts films, U.S. martial arts films, and Philippine martial arts films.

I took up Karate, like several other folks in my age group, and continued a full year after the rest of them had stopped going to class.

My interest in martial arts (mostly Karate at the time, though I was exposed to a variety of them, through the aforementioned movies, and my late uncle who practiced -- among other things -- Tai Chi) was a bit of youthful exuberance mixed in with the seemingly mythical things going on on the big screen.

It was an eclectic mix -- a steady stream of rapidly decaying Bruce Lee films in the theaters (perhaps I'll explain the lagari system someday in this blog), occasional movie gems on one of the three local TV stations like Billy Jack. Or some of the classic kung fu films like Drunken Master or Snake in the Eagle's Shadow.

AD&D


And so, when I was introduced to AD&D, I gravitated toward the monk. I never really got to play it, though -- so put off was I by the barriers to progression at the higher levels. But if I had a chance to start off at a higher level, I'd have jumped at the opportunity.

I thought that the barehanded damage was cool -- but not as cool as being able to reduce falling damage (which really didn't happen that often in-game, but hey, I was willing to jump out of windows a lot just to use it). The ability to also have naturally good AC was also pretty neat, but I realized in practice that the DM never really penalized players with removing their plate armor, unless EVERYONE got their gear taken away, which would be great for the monk but pretty bad for everyone else -- especially the mages and their material components!

Champions

No big surprise then that when I played Champions and built my first character, I gravitated towards the ones with martial arts. My longest running, most experienced character was a martial artist, naturally.

I really loved the Ninja Hero supplement - all the various martial arts represented by different manuevers and a bit of history, and the ability to make your own martial arts. There was some abuse, but also some genuinely creative martial arts that appeared in Champions games, and even in some Star Hero campaigns (alien martial arts)!

So for Martial Arts Mondays (Metahuman Mondays was a stretch, and Mystara Mondays will probably become multiparters in the same week, and Game Mechanics Mondays require more rules referencing than I thought -- but it's still in there), I'll be taking on my interests in the arts of hand-to-hand combat as they were paralleled in comics, movies, and of course RPGs.

Friday, March 27, 2015

Filipino Fridays: Some Massacres in Philippine History

If you know something about the Philippines, you'd certainly know that it's a predominantly Catholic country in Asia. However, you might not know what we mean when we talk about the Moros.

According to Wikipedia:

The Moro people or Bangsamoro are a population of indigenous Muslims in the Philippines, forming the largest non-Catholic group in the country, and comprising about 5% of the total Philippine population.

You can imagine that there are tensions -- long-simmering, occasionally explosive tensions -- in the country. However, it's also source of rich cultural material, and an eminently mineable history of promises, betrayals, and conflict.

Something that you may wish to take a look at when tackling this kind of thing in your games is to research several key elements in our history and extrapolate them for your own use in your games. But be sensitive in your use -- these are people's lives, after all -- and the wounds may still be fresh in some families.

I offer this as a sort of reversal in the more positive posts on my beloved country -- we are, like every other country -- filled with agendas, personalities, and organisations always in conflict over scarce (or ridiculously valuable) resources.

Moro Insurgency in the Philippines [ Wikipedia ]

Details the emergence of the Moro Insurgency from the late 1960s to the present, with a sympathetic slant toward the Moros' plight. It talks about several key events and policies that led to the current situation.

A key event, still discussed to this day, is the Jabidah Massacre -- something that I'd long accepted as de facto history. A varying number of muslims, it's said, were recruited into the Philippine military to perform a secret mission. But when it was revealed to them that they'd be fomenting dissent in a nearby island against fellow muslims they refused, and were (allegedly?) killed to silence them. It has long been a rallying point for local muslim insurgent movements.

More recently, the Mampasano Massacre (clash, to some) involved members of the Philippine military entering ares controlled by MILF (Moro Islamic Liberation Front) & BIFF (Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters) forces, intending to serve arrest warrants for high-ranking terrorists. In the ensuing clash, 44 members of the Philippine National Police's Special Action Force (PNP SAF) were surrounded, and -- after they'd surrendered -- were slaughtered.


Right now, the media narratives are talking about how the Jabidah Massacre might've been a hoax, and how the Mampasano Massacre might be a reverse Jabidah operation. It's hard to sort out true history from the shouting between camps.


Maguindanao Massacre [ Wikipedia ]

On the morning of November 23, 2009, in the town of Ampatuan in Maguindanao province, 58 victims were on their way to file a certificate of candidacy for Esmael Mangudadatu, were kidnapped and brutally killed. The people killed included Mangudadatu's wife, his two sisters, a large number of journalists, lawyers, aides, and motorists who were witnesses or were mistakenly identified as part of the convoy. They were killed because Mangudadatu was challenging the incumbent Mayor (Mayor Ampatuan) for his mayoral seat.

The case is still ongoing.



Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Worldwatch Wednesday: Keeping the World Safe


Worldwatch Wednesdays are named after Worldwatch One, a reference found the movie The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension. In the forseeable future, I want to dissect various organizations appearing in TV / Movies / Comics / Novels with the noble goal of saving the world (either wholesale, or one person at a time).

In the Buckaroo Banzai film alone, you can talk about the Banzai Institute, the Blue Blaze Irregulars (and their feared strike teams), and the Hong Kong Cavaliers!

You can go back to Doc Savage and his Fabulous Five, and shift to a modern take on distributed world-saving solutions with Global Frequency. Looking into espionage agencies that took on the heady task of saving the world from evil, we can cite U.N.C.L.E. and perhaps the 00 Section of the MI6 that James Bond belonged to. One might argue that TV shows like The Librarians and Warehouse 13 share similar organizations.

In RPGs, there are many, many iterations of this type of organization -- Bureau 13 from Stalking the Night Fantastic and F.R.E.E.Lancers from the Top Secret / S.I. supplement of the same name.

Worldwatch Wednesdays hopes to sneak a peek at each one of these, until they run out.

And so I leave you with the words of the Blue Blaze Irregulars:

"Treat us good, we'll treat you better.
Treat us bad, we'll treat you worse."


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