Wednesday, January 23, 2013

The Need to Achieve

Something in Luke/Fumer’s comment on this morning's post really struck me. He wrote:
I never liked superheroes, especially for RPGs. There’s no inherent power curve in the genre, like fantasy’s peasant-to-hero arc.
Leaving aside discussions on contrary examples (Mutants & Masterminds has a definite “level up” design principle while fantasy games like Stormbringer and Barbarians of Lemuria have made a real push to distance themselves from the D&D paradigm)…leaving ASIDE those discussions, my first reaction to this is “Huh? THAT's the issue?!”

Because if I’m reading this correctly (and Luke can jump in here if I’m off base), it seems like he’s saying there’s a real problem with adapting the superhero genre to the RPG medium because traditionally comic book characters are fairly static in their power structure. A character may be Green Arrow (relatively low power) or the Silver Surfer (off-the-charts power) with little rhyme/reason as to why there’s such a great discrepancy (other than it makes for different styles/types of stories), and there’s little dynamic change in terms of growth/development that occurs. In other words, Peter Parker will never someday become Thor just because he’s had 400 issues worth of adventures.

Um…is achievement a requirement of fantasy RPGs?

I suppose the snarky answer from some quarters would be: It is of the good games. But personally I don’t buy that.

I’ve run and run in long-term Marvel Superheroes games in the past, and with good results. Now Marvel is pretty much the LAST game you want to play if your main interest in an RPG is “achievement.” Unlike say, Heroes Unlimited with its XP/Level based system, the only reward from session to session achieved is “karma,” a dynamic resource that varies based on both the type of action taken (good or bad) and the magnitude of that action. The value earned during a game session can even be NEGATIVE, causing you to face a net loss to your personal karma pool due to your cowardly or infamous (i.e. “un-heroic”) actions. Should your hero actually kill or cause the death of someone in the course of the game session, your character loses ALL accumulated karma. This is especially devastating when you consider the only way to “advance” in Marvel (improve your abilities/powers) is to expend your hoarded karma points…usually in the hundreds or THOUSANDS of points (and acquiring more than a couple hundred karma in a single session is a fairly rare and momentous occurrence).

But as I said, we ran long term marvel campaigns, using recurring characters over a series of different adventures and had a great time doing it. I don’t think ANY of the characters ever “achieved” anything as far as advancement goes…the rate of improvement is just glacially slow, especially if your characters are already high on the food chain of superheroes. But achievement wasn’t the point…the POINT was to run a campaign of superheroes in a world filled with the same whimsy and weirdness as your average Marvel or DC comic title (we didn’t actually use the Marvel characters, preferring to create our own villains/heroes…the X-Men might have been present in our universe, but they were “off-screen” the entire time). And we accomplished that with flying colors, facing super-villain teams and angry deities and voodoo magic and cyborgs that looked like Robocop but carried an attitude like the Terminator. We had pointy-eared aliens in fishnet stockings and Wolverine-wannabes and sentient carrots and rocks (all thanks to the Marvel Ultimate Powers book). There was some drama and romance and lots of unrelenting ass-kicking with plenty of stuns and slams and people getting punched through walls and getting knocked several city blocks back.

[ I think there was an Eternal that could turn people into jellyfish (or jelly sandwiches…that part’s a bit hazy)]

The point was to have plenty of dynamic fun, and achievement played very little part in it. Achieving “levels” does not suddenly open up new areas of exploration…all areas of exploration are open from the beginning. The chance of death and dismemberment doesn’t change from a beginning character to an “advanced” one…challenge is always present and you always have a chance to face it down…provided you and your compatriots keep your karma pools stocked up and ready.

Because so many of us got into role-playing through the gateway of Dungeons & Dragons (or RPGs that were heavily influenced by D&D’s achievement paradigm), there’s a common perception that achievement or advancement or “getting better” is or needs to be an inherent part of the game. But that’s a real fallacy of thinking…I mean, you need to understand where the whole concept came from.

In the beginning there was Chainmail and Dave Arneson’s desire to run a fantasy dungeon delve. Chainmail is a war game, similar to Warhammer: you pick out your forces, each piece or unit being worth a certain number of points. There are soldiers with various armor types and weapons, and there are some “special types” including heroes and superheroes (worth 4 fighting men or 8 fighting men respectively) as well as monsters of a (Tolkien) fantasy nature.

When Arneson was running his exploration/subterranean campaign he needed a system of rules to work out the results of combat between the players and the monsters encountered beneath Castle Blackmoor. All characters used the simple man-to-man combat rules found in Chainmail (based on weapon and armor type) to determine the results of combat. Later, based on the actions taken (and surprising success) of one particular player, Dave decided to promote the player’s character to “hero” status, giving him the fighting ability of the “hero” piece from Chainmail.

As I've discussed before, by Arneson’s own admission achievement/advancement was never the intention of his original dungeon campaign; advancement was tacked on (with good result) only AFTER players had been exploring the ruins beneath Blackmoor for some time and had become attached to their characters. The objective of game play was simply for characters to acquire treasure; the point of his game was to play the game: a game of fantasy exploration. Period, end of story.

Does this make sense? I mean, do people really grok this? Let’s put it another way: a man designs a game of exploration into a dark and hostile environment. The characters the players will play will face “death itself” in the form of fiendish traps and hungry monsters. What would motivate such an individual to do this? MONEY…that greatest motivator of all. The possibility of making a fortune, of becoming rich (by whatever your relative standards are) will compel individuals to do all sorts of crazy things…work long hours forsaking family and loved ones, embarrass themselves on reality TV, take tremendous punishment on a football field or in a boxing ring, betray the ethics and principles they were raised to believe. The promise of wealth will compel people of different backgrounds and personalities to work together towards a common cause.

[which is part of the reason why the paladin class…with its total disdain of wealth…makes so little sense with regard to the premise of the Dungeons & Dragons game]

Treasure hunting is the in-game justification for the player characters’ actions in D&D…at least originally. Not achievement or advancement or “leveling up.” Those things (and land titles, etc.) were a BONUS, a reward for doing what they were supposed to. It’s only the last 12 years that have seen the erasure of this justification (with the de-emphasis on treasure acquisition).

A superhero game should be viewed and approached with the same spirit Arneson originally had for his Blackmoor campaign, at least in so much as Blackmoor had no expectation of achievement. Playing a superhero game is about exploring the life of a person with gifts not given to average mortals…even if those gifts are nothing more than the courage and conviction in one’s belief in fighting for Truth, Justice, etc. ACHIEVEMENT (if even possible) should be a secondary consideration.

After all, does the tide of justice ever, finally, sweep aside the evil and corruption of those who would prey on the weak and vulnerable? Well, we can certainly hope for that to happen in the REAL WORLD…but in the game world, curing the world of all its woes would mean ending the game (and the fun we’d presumably be having by playing). Instead of reaching some end point, the general consensus for such a game would be for players to “fight the good fight,” doing what they could, before hanging up their cape and cowl…or passing over the mask to the next generation of heroes when the time comes.

Now, if you don’t think it would be enjoyable to play a game where you (or rather, your character) has super powers and faces off against the Forces of Darkness, then you should probably be playing a different game anyway. But if you DO like the idea…well, then, why do you need any sort of achievement to be inherent in the game? You have enough to worry about, stopping the nefarious machinations of Doctor Doom or the Riddler (or whomever) without any bother with regard to advancement or improvement or “leveling up.” In my opinion.

Now regarding the other possible beef raised by Luke…namely, the wide disparity of power ranges between, say Daredevil and Superman…well, honestly, that’s one of the things I love about the genre. Intellectually, it’s pretty ridiculous for Captain America to be leading the likes of Iron Man and Thor (sure Cap is a war hero, but Thor’s been THE go-to warrior god for centuries! You don’t think he knows tactics?)…but it sure makes for great copy!

Of course, you have to account for this in your game design. If you don’t, then what happens when Dazzler gets punched by, O say, anyone with a strength class equal to or greater than Spiderman…for example, and single member of the otherwise “wussy” Wrecking Crew? Answer: One dead Dazzler, that’s what. A person with the ability to punch a (small) hole in a tank will inflict devastating injury on any character not made more durable due to their superpowers. Batman, for example. One lucky punch will quite literally “knock his block off.” You want to see the original caped crusader decapitated by the likes of Bulldozer? A guy who Spiderman one-shots without batting an eye?

[by the way, if you DO want to model that kind of super world, you’ll want to direct your attention to Heroes Unlimited…though you might want to divide SDC totals by a factor of five or ten]

In the superhero world, “fortuitous circumstance” tends to conspire to keep the more squishy heroes breathing, and when modeling that world (especially due to the disparate power level between characters), you’ll want to make sure there’s something present that provides that same “safety net.” Or at least, provides the option for folks who like that kind of thing. That, too, is part of the fun. In my opinion.


  1. I wouldn't want to play a superhero game that DID involve much advancement. Maybe increases to skills, RQ style, but not powers. After all, what was the Danger Room for, if not to improve skills.

    My main objection to running a superhero game these days is that I have sold all my original MSH stuff. No, actually, it is that a superhero game limits player choice in the way that a D&Dish game need not. Superheroes are largely reactive - they react to the evil schemes of Doc Ock and Magneto. Now, I am coming to think that I might be able to present a world with enough options, and the possibility of Player Hero goals, in order to keep it from being 'X is doing Y, stop him' every week.

    But then I think, if we want to maximise player choice in a superhero game, shouldn't we have them play the villains? They are the ones with the schemes and plans...

    But does that make D&D PCs supervillains in training?

  2. Playing Necessary Evil (a Savage Worlds game) that involved super powered beings with fairly rapid advancement seemed like a pretty good idea when we started out. After the first full rank though, people were struggling to justify where all the cool new powers had come from.

    Becoming a bit better at stuff is OK in most games, but suddenly realising you can fly needs some justification. On the flip side, I've played some contemporary set games with bugger all in the way of advancement, with survival being the primary goal. XP points were handed out, and could be used to but up skills that had been used, at a very expensive rate if I recall correctly, or hoarded and used to give a one off skill roll boost when you really needed it, on a one for one basis. Most players split their XP between these options, meaning next to no advancement, but the ability to stay alive in truly dangerous situations. It ended up being a fantastic game, even if I did go a bit crazy...

  3. To me it's all about how you look at it or rather, how you want to look at it.

    If you look at it as a fan of comic books, yes, their is little real 'level advancement' or 'power creep' in comics. Actually that's not even true. The Golden Age Superman of the 40's ccould leap tall buildings while the Silver Age Superman of the 60's and 70's could fly at light speed to other planets.

    Than there is the gamer perspective. This is not a comic book. This is a Superhero RPG. It is a game about comic book superheroes. As such, it should follow game concepts as much as comic book concepts.

    For another take on this subject, please feel free to check out this post on my blog:

    1. "As such, it should follow game concepts as much as comic book concepts."

      That's a specific example of one reason why I'm not a fan of attempts to emulate genre - the desire often gets in the way of the 'game'. Controversially (perhaps) it is why I think an Appendix N fetish can become a bad thing, and why my own, personal Appendix N is made up of games (and gamebooks).

  4. My 20 year marvel game did have noteworthy advancement and growth s part of the genre or at least change.

    Champions had the radation accident option - cash in your points and rearrange your character for a while or forever. Several characters changed names, equiptment and styles and achieved this by roleplaying. Events in play offered transformation. Spidey has been a human spider, had cosmic powers just in time to battle magneto, other weird stuff so its fun for a change and keep continuity.

    My players gained a few talents and i put limits on how many stunts you could buy Good (10)=1 - each extra rank = +1. Stunts do happen in comics and can make some characters gross so i had to cap it - very few capped a new power or got up to a new super power rank. Stats did improve with some wimps turning into commandos over the years.

    Horror tactic of evil players - spend all karma but a little bit - use that to kill annoying enemy. Arg must stop too many flashbacks!

  5. I would say superheroes often do advance, just not in raw power. Rather, they get more skilled, more experienced and can do more things with their powers. So Green Arrow will always be low powered but he can get better at what he does. That's where M&M breaks down - it feels strongly oriented toward increasing raw power with level. Level should measure experience, not raw power. If you wanted to do a class and level system, you could make low powered character like thieves - quick to advance - and high power character like B/X elves - powerful but very slow to advance.

    While superheroes are usually reactive it doesn't have to be that way. Green Arrow in the new tv series is actively hunting down enemies and a campaign could be run that way. You could also take a "Heroes for Hire" approach.