Monday, February 11, 2019

Things I Learned From Champions: Maximum Movement Determines The Limits of Your Sandbox

In my early days of RPG play, the limits of where you could go were defined by the walls of the corridors and rooms of the dungeon map. You often had a handful of choices at most in any given room, when you wanted to decide where to go next.

Eventually, after leveling up in power and stature, the edges of the adventuring world were pushed back -- flight and dimension doors allowed you to break out of dungeon edges. Wilderness adventures allowed you to choose any direction in which to travel -- though you were limited by how far you could travel in a turn, or an hour, or a day. But eventually, with the right equipment, the right spells, the right artifacts, you could break through these limits too.

But in Champions, you can pour a lot of your points into movement as a beginning character and already push back the edges of the gaming sandbox to a degree that might stun some beginning GMs.

A Staggering Selection of Movement

Even if you forego pumping points into a single movement power, the type of movement power can already chip away at those sandbox borders:
  • Jump can allow you to hurdle impassable crevasses or leap out of a deep gladiator arena (much to the surprise of whichever would-be emperor is maligning your heroes);
  • Tunneling will allow you to make your own corridors (and even close them up after you, if you pay the points);
  • Flight allows you to not only overcome nasty traps like pitfalls or slides, it also allows you overcome barriers like mountains and impassable rivers;
  • Teleport obviously allows you to bypass innumerable types of barriers without traveling through the intervening space (which could be filled with gas, invisible traps, monsters, etc.)
In fact, if you think about iconic heroes, a great part of their character is associated with a given movement power: Superman has flight, the Flash has running, Aquaman has swimming, Spider-man has swinging from a web, and so on. This freedom of movement is one of the defining aspects of super-heroism.

Faster than a Speeding Bullet

But overloading points into a single movement power also grants freedom of movement. Putting enough points into running will allow you to go anywhere on the hexgrid map in a single phase. Adding MegaScale to your flight or your teleport will allow you to go anywhere in the world (at the cost of a little / a lot of accuracy.

In other words, enough points in the right movement power will shatter the walls of your sandbox:

  • "The only other person who knows the secret is halfway around the world."
  • "We'll never get this kidney to the East Coast on time -- we have to find another way!"
  • "How will we check the entire northern border of the state for the lost child?"

Control for Control's Sake?

Of course, we're all familiar with the frustrations of a DM who didn't allow you to go beyond the edges of the sandbox because of a weak reason. We all know the human limits on all GMs that prevent them from creating an infinitely detailed, fractal world -- but we don't like it when the borders of reality are so obviously arbitrary. We want some kind of consistent level of verisimilitude before we'll agree to the edges of a super-hero sandbox.

So we learned to talk to our GMs about the types of games they wanted to us to be able to play. We'd accept in-game, temporary reasons to nerf our powers for a single session (happens in comics anyway). We'd not play certain characters for certain adventure types -- all for the fun of the game.

But we'd never permanently allow that movement power to be taken away, as it was central to the character's concept.

Thursday, February 7, 2019

Campaign Frame: Metahuman Investigations

In trying to come up with a campaign frame that allows (a) players to rotate through different characters; (b) some players to appear occasionally; (c) a coherent story throughline, I looked to a series of books for inspiration:

Sugar & Spike: Metahuman Investigations collects the stories of Sugar and Spike (all grown up now), as they solve cases and problems for some of the biggest names in the DC Universe (Batman, Superman, Wonder Woman). It's a mix of embracing stories from the Silver Age and carrying them forward into modern day -- and how to address any lingering consequences from things like old bat-costumes and an island in the shape of Superman!

From this, I'd take the premise of being hired by known movers and shakers from the meta-human realm and addressing smaller problems of theirs that may have grave consequences for normals caught in their particular kind of gravity. It's a variant on the old triskaidekaturion campaign frame that I wrote about before.

The benefits of this campaign are relatively low-powered starting characters, a way to drip feed aspects of your world's history through an active investigation, and some interesting enemies and allies that you meet along the way.

Chase was a comic book series starring an agent of the DEO (Department of Extranormal Operations).  The DEO was interesting, since its remit was to identify, monitor, and neutralize any metahuman threats to national security.

Different from the premise above, this assumes a government interest in keeping the world of normals safe from the metahuman realm. It also suggests an active role from government agencies seeking to gather information about all metahumans, and quite possibly strike teams and assassins tasked with taking out threats that super-heroes can't or won't address in a way that the government would prefer. With something like this, can't imagine that the Joker would stay alive for very long -- unless he somehow manages to fool them with misinformation or is a far greater threat than we understand.

Both of these deal with low-level (or lopsided) metahumans or talented normals attempting to keep the normal world safe in a world of metahumans. There's a rich tapestry of allies, neutrals, and enemies as individuals and organizations across a historical context that can make adventures less of a sequence of clashes, and more of an unfolding mystery that culminates in a climactic resolution.

Tuesday, February 5, 2019

Note to Self: The Armchair Gamer Blog Cycle (Q1 2019)

Trying to set up a regular set of containers for blogging, until I'm back in the habit again. My current areas of interest are:

  • all the superheroic material on TV and the big screen
  • comics (classic and new) and their multi-faceted canon
  • return to Enigmundia (my alternate takes on the Mystara corner of the D&D multiverse)
  • the Hero System
  • all these FATE and PBTA game systems which run counter to my decades of more traditional gaming tastes
  • cross-time / cross-dimensional RPG settings
  • space opera / science fiction gaming
Seems like a lot, and am trying to get a good handle on each so I can set up a notes-and-outline incubator on my apps, so I can easily write from them.

Sunday, February 3, 2019

Mining the Titans: S01E01 "Titans"

"Mining the Titans" is a series of blog posts about using elements of the TV show Titans for your superheroic RPG campaigns.

The TV show is definitely a grittier rebooted version of the comic book The New Teen Titans. There are elements familiar to fans of that original comic book: some of the original cast (Robin, Raven, Starfire, and Changeling), the Trigon / Raven conundrum as the primary reason for the team's formation, hints about an older team (Wonder Girl, Hawk & Dove), etc.

Introduction of Characters

It's interesting to see this as a super-heroic team forming with a variety of backgrounds:
  • Dick Grayson (Robin) as the experienced PC, clearly with a long backstory that is referenced and drip-fed throughout the series along with Dick Grayson's subplot of trying to define his identity apart from Bruce Wayne / Batman.
  • Rachel Roth (Raven) as a newly minted PC with a traumatic origin story that also serves as the catalyst for the team getting together.
  • Kory Anders (Starfire) as another new PC, with the "amnesia that will slowly fade" schtick serving as the hook to allow the gradual reveal of her backstory, abilities, and skills slowly reveal themselves.
  • Gar Logan (Beast Boy / Changeling) as, perhaps, an NPC hero turned PC for the purposes of this new campaign.
An interesting choice: giving almost everyone (Gar's character isn't given almost any screentime in this episode) a reason NOT to go to the authorities.
  • Robin's secret ID and vigilante status are self-explanatory.
  • Rachel seems to be the target of several people (one highly motivated 'killer for the greater good', and an apparently very large organization with members in soup kitchens and the police) who want to killer her, or use her for whatever nefarious purposes they may hide in their dark hearts.
  • Kory is hunted by an apparent organized crime group that is also interested in Rachel.
These pressures will force them together as a team, even as their personality clashes and goals might force them apart. These forces would also allow the GM to define and reveal the hostile, neutral, and safe spaces of the world for the individual and the team in a very organic way. In classic reboot style, many references (meta-hints for the players, not the PCs) are generously spread throughout the unfolding of the storyline.

Combat and Use of Powers

The show is more violent than cartoons: Robin's combat scenes aren't about efficiently taking out criminals -- it shows this universe's view of the vigilante using the fear of violence against criminals (short of killing them, we assume). The manifestations of both Raven's and Starfire's powers are lethal to their targets -- again, almost as if Robin's player was an experienced gamer (a more extended combat scene), while the others are beginners (not quite combat, more of an introduction on how their powers can be used in combat).

This can be an approach GMs use as well -- giving all players a chance to strut their stuff, but with the experienced ones getting a bit more challenge in tactics.

Saturday, January 26, 2019

System as Physics Engine, System as Narrative Engine

First off, let me apologize, as my terminology may be incorrect in modern gaming theory parlance; I'm not up to date on it. I'll try to define my terms as I go, and get this out of my head.

I've seen a lot of game systems in recent years (FATE, Powered by the Apocalypse) that have been called more 'narrative' in nature. On a linear continuum defined by two opposite poles, this would be one the poles. The opposite pole would be games that are more 'mechanistic' in nature.

Mechanistic game systems' primary priority is to emulate the 'physics engine' of a given world, including perhaps some unspoken rules of that world's genre. In the case of the Hero System, this allows to take damage and recover from it as people do in heroic fiction (books, comics, TV shows, movies), as opposed to how they do in real life. The game rules reinforce the consistency and therefore in-game plausibility of these things happening.

And plausibility -- strongly correlated to suspension of disbelief -- is one of the cornerstones of science fiction / fantasy stories.

Narrative game systems' primary priority appears to be (I've not played that many, and certainly not as long as I've been playing mechanistic game systems) to emulate the character archetypes and plot tropes of a given genre or sub-genre. The rules themselves enable and enforce the actions of characters and the unfolding of the story within certain parameters -- the good ones allowing for a multitude of stories without falling into the trap of the dreaded railroad.

The responsibility for plausibility here lies with the players and the GM rationalizing the unfolding of the story in a satisfying manner.

You'll note that I've steered away from calling either approach 'story-oriented'. To my mind, both are used to tell stories -- narrative ones seem to focus on the narrative flow of the game, while mechanistic ones tend to focus on the plausibility of the events that unfold in the game. Both seem to retain the agency of the players / player characters (for the most part).

With that in mind, some future posts I'll be writing will try to unpack what things I like about each type of system -- and which things I don't. My preference is clearly for mechanistic systems, as these are the ones that I'm most familiar with, and the type that I most strongly associate with RPG gameplay. But I've always been intrigued by different systems and settings in RPGs, so off I go...

Tuesday, January 22, 2019

Mining the DC TV Multiverse: Opening observations

When I was a young gamer, there was an extra delight in playing a supers game wherein there was a chance you might run into a villain or a hero from one of the established universes.

Certainly, if you were playing TSR's original Marvel Super-Heroes RPG, or the DC Heroes RPG, it was expected as the stats were already provided to you -- and it was expected that you were more or less in the same universe as the one in the comics. But if you were in one of the more generic superhero RPGs, then you expected that some liberties would be taken with the canon.

If it was a mixed universe -- with characters from both DC & Marvel (and perhaps other super-heroic universes), then you wondered how things were different.

For example: What was the REAL story behind supers in WWII (since the two big universes had different reasons why the metahuman population, along with the Olympic-level mystery men, could have ended the war a lot faster)? Did Superman first appear in 1938, and if so, does he look old now? Did Batman influence the appearance of the Moon Knight? Why didn't they find Captain America earlier with folks like the Spectre and Aquaman able to search for him?

And all of this is backstory, of course, not meant to detract from the stories and adventures of your own characters.

The current wave of DC multiverse TV shows (live action, not cartoon), shows that it's not afraid of shared multiverses (hello, Arrowverse) or segregated storylines (Titans, Gotham). Furthermore, they are comfortable  playing around with expectations derived from comic canon (Black Canary AND White Canary? Cisco Ramon?). Of course, the cartoon universe led the way with the classic Batman: The Animated Series -- and the movies have done their number of canon as well (Wonder Woman in WWI, older Batman, younger Superman, etc.).

It certainly has changed the expectations for variance from continuity -- now we're simultaneously looking at how the variances both stay true to the characters and their history, and how cleverly they change them to make them more interesting and engaging on their own, or within the context of the world they've been recreated in.

The bar has been raised (and lowered in some cases), and it's likely to be the same in your RPG's supers universe.

Sunday, December 9, 2018

Canon & the Multiverse

There's a Teen Titans show out on TV, movies from characters in the DC Universe, and a steady stream of other DC TV shows (live action and animated) out.

And there's yet another iteration of the DC Universe out in comics (I lose count).

My POV on continuity is a complicated thing, one that I may put together blog posts or a podcast on in the future. But this blog is about gaming and RPGs -- so what does that give me?

Well, I've always had my own take on how the DC multiverse and timelines should be. My headcanon -- and thank you to the blogosphere for this term -- is one that still believes in a particular kind of continuity. That there is a universe where the events of the primary timeline matters, and all the elseworlds and splinter timelines are just echoes.

And I've always wanted to set superheroic RPGs in this shared universe, one where:

  • the big names are known heavyweights, but there's still space of newcomers
  • the other superheroes and teams are constants (after a fashion) but are still constantly adventuring and in flux (out on a mission, missing, changed powers, etc.)
  • the villains and heroes occasionally get weird team ups
  • major crises periodically (and hopefully sparingly) pull everyone together into adventures allowing for many cameos and easter eggs for comics fans.
I guess what I'd like to do is to put together some ideas and toolkits for creating sandbox superheroic adventures in an established universe (well, a combined one, picking and choosing from the plethora of Marvel / DC / other comics lines and their continuities) that players would have no problem sitting down and playing in one week and disappearing the next -- but one where GMs also can juggle the storylines of present and absent players and PCs.

Time to put on the hot cocoa and think a bit before returning to the Armchair Gamer study for some setting writing. See you soon!

Monday, June 18, 2018

Data Scan: Cyberpunk 2077 E3 Trailer


If you're one of those Cyberpunk / Cyberpunk 2020 fans that have been looking at getting that late 80s cyberpunk fix this side of the 21st Century, I'm sure you've been wondering how to make it less dated and more relevant.

Of course, there's been no shortage of modern takes on the near future technodystopia in films and series -- perhaps it's time to come up with a new list of inspirations, since we're so close to 2020. However, a trailer was released at E3 for Cyberpunk 2077, sharing a glimpse into the world of that classic RPG, but updated (and hopefully ignoring the outdated technology that was touted as the 'bleeding edge' at the time it was written).

It looks promising, with an interesting set of 'slice of life' scenes that show that the strange, slightly violent cyberfuture has a wealth of alien, yet approachable locales to adventure in -- where not every streetcorner is awash in violence.

There are scenes of cybered up, gear-toting people on trains, hanging out on the street, enjoying the future as something mundane. I enjoyed the brief clip of the motormouth taxi driver chatting away, unimpressed by the gun-carrying cyberpsychos in his taxi, a sort of acceptance of the way of life in the future-shocked world.

There's a flood of vids and articles about the gameplay that a number of game reports actually got to see from E3, and I have to get caught up. But it looks promising, and I can't wait to hear more -- while digging up my old CP2020 collection!


Thursday, June 14, 2018

On the Radar: Fictional Past, Present, and Future

Three RPG books that caught my eye on DriveThruRPG this week were the following:

RuneQuest

Oh, yes. The latest version, and crafted by the hands of Greg Stafford, Jeff Richard, Jason Durall, and Steve Perrin. Rules update, and a delightful dive into the world of Glorantha.

Here's the book pitch:

RuneQuest: Roleplaying in Glorantha is an all-new edition of one of the world’s most influential and acclaimed fantasy roleplaying games. First appearing almost 40 years ago, RuneQuest is as dynamic and vital as ever. This all-new, deluxe edition introduces RuneQuest and its setting of Glorantha to new players everywhere.

Try out a skill-based percentile system that balances experience-based progression with deadly combat!

The core rules of RuneQuest are essential for players and gamemasters, as they contain all the rules for character creation, starting homelands, background history, professions, skills, starting Runes and magic, and the cults and gods whose influence will define your character’s activities. Further, the rules for character advancement are contained here, for the times between adventures.

Torg: Eternity

I have fond memories of the original Torg rules and setting, and wanted to impact the outcome of the Possibility Wars during its heyday with other Storm Knights. Perhaps now, if I pick this up, I'll have that chance again!

The invasion of Earth told in previous tales of TORG took place on one version of our world. The High Lords there were successful for many years, but were eventually stopped by the planet's valiant Storm Knights.

But there are infinite versions of our world.

This is the tale of a different Earth, one where things did not go as well...

The Torg Eternity Core Rules include all the rules and setting information you need to create characters and play the game, including

  • Background on the Possibility Wars
  • World Laws and adversaries for Core Earth and the 7 invading Cosms
  • Creation and advancement rules with dozens of perks for all kinds of characters
  • Magic, Miracles, and Psionics rules
  • Gear for all tech levels

Star Trek Adventures: Command Division supplement

Last but not least, a supplement detailing what life is like for characters in the Command Division of Starfleet:

COMMAND A STARSHIP. A HUNDRED DECISIONS A DAY, HUNDREDS OF LIVES, STAKED ON YOU MAKING EVERY ONE OF THEM RIGHT.

The Command Division supplement provides Gamemasters and Players with a wealth of new material for use in Star Trek Adventures for characters in the command division. The Command Division supplement includes:

  • Detailed description of the command division, including its role in Starfleet, the various branches within the command division, the role of Fleet Operations, life as a command division cadet, and details on starship operations.
  • Expanded 2d20 Social Conflict rules, enhancing social encounters and galactic diplomacy.
  • An expanded list of Talents and Focuses for command and conn characters.
  • Over a dozen additional starships and support craft to command and pilot, including the NX, Nebula, Sovereign, and Steamrunner classes, as well as many shuttle types and the indomitable Work Bee!
  • Advice on creating command division focused plot components for your missions to test the mettle of your captain and flight controller. 
  • New rules on running Admiralty-level campaigns that let you command entire fleets, as well as information on commanding starbases.
  • Detailed descriptions and game statistics for a range of Command and Conn focused NPCs and Supporting Characters.

TM & © 2018 CBS Studios Inc. © 2018 Paramount Pictures Corp. STAR TREK and related marks and logos are trademarks of CBS Studios Inc. All Rights Reserved.


Tuesday, June 12, 2018

Things I Learned from Champions: Keep Some Surprises Under the Hood

Much of the superhero genre is steeped in secrets and misdirection. The heroes themselves were referred to mystery men and women, so a surprise or two from them was to be expected.

I'd argue therefore, that the 'classification' of superheroes into narrow categories (in other words, representing them as rigid classes) in an RPG runs counter to the spirit of the source material. Fortunately, many of the early superhero RPGs avoided this, despite the influence of D&D.

TSR's Marvel Super-Heroes may have had types of origins in the random generation of characters, but they didn't shackle you into 'mage' or 'fighter' or 'speedster'; that tended to be a function of the powers you rolled up. Mayfair Games' DC Heroes RPG and Hero Games' Champions, as point-buy systems, sidestepped this entirely -- your combination of purchased stats, skills, and powers crystallized the type of character you were playing.

And while the was a shorthand on the types of builds you had (Brick, Martial Artist, Energy Projector, etc.), there were always different kinds of each, and certainly mixes of several builds, as was often seen in the source material.

So, we used this to our advantage, in-game.

What you see isn't necessarily what you'll get

One of my characters was a martial artist had a grappling hook that he used to attack the enemy, ie up the enemy, and so on. The obvious build was to use Energy Blast (for the ranged attack) and Entangle (for tangling up the enemy) -- but I didn't go that route. It was built as stretching, bought on a focus, and I used my Martial Arts for Strikes, Throws, and Grabs at range. And while I could therefore take damage from damage shields, it also allowed me to type at long distance, feel the texture or warmth of things far away, etc... chalking it up to mastery of my weapon. It helped with that element of surprise when playing under good GMs (or perhaps more adversarial GMs who forget the builds that they approved, and just go by your character art).

But building in surprises -- like a woman whose costume shouts martial artist, but is really built as a brick ("My kung-fu makes my body impervious to bullets!"); or an item that seems to be a focus (like a power ring) but is bought straight ("I summon it back onto my finger via sheer willpower!"); or building a martial art that allows you to Full Move with every manuever; or combat skill levels that only work when you're fighting by yourself ("I just didn't want my friends to think badly of me, when they see what I can really do.") -- but using them sparingly, does add to the mystique of your character.

And helps when your opponents stereotype you and your capabilities.

The joy of Champions is that it allows you to do all this -- after all, points pay for the effect; the special effect is up to you.

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