Friday, January 14, 2011

Who DOESN'T want to play a Stage Magician?

My brother today was asking how "the Star Wars game" was coming which I replied: not very quickly. Most of this has been recent distractions in the personal life (including my recent illness) which has precluded me from doing any writing recently.

But certainly there's been my normal lazy distractions, too. In my lucid moments this week (not many), I've been thumbing through the ol' superhero RPGs...specifically, Super World, Villains & Vigilantes, and Mutants & Masterminds. Being sick, for whatever reason, put me in a "superhero state-of-mind;" I don't know why exactly. Jedi never get head colds and fevers...but superheroes seem to with some frequency (happens from running around in the rain at night clad in nothing but colorful long-johns). And, of course, I start envying those lucky guys with the regeneration superpowers.

Also, of course, I do have a couple comic books stashed away that are entertaining reading when one is sick in bed, no matter what your age (yes, yes...I have several thick, half-read novels sitting next to the bed, too...I wanted some "lighter" reading). One of these...the first volume of Marvel's The Ultimates, I always find amusing, no matter my state of health.

Also, I caught part of NBC's new television show The Cape last weekend. Kind of interesting, but coming in halfway as I did, I was left wondering where the guy got the seemingly magical apparatus. Unfortunately, I was in no condition to sit through the repeat On Demand this week to find out.

Until today.

Having recently watched Kick Ass and read about the true life exploits of Phoenix Jones and crew, I'm starting to get a little jaded with the whole vigilante hero shtick. It's one thing to postulate a world full of super villains and mutant heroes fighting battles the local authorities should best avoid, but as far as Everyman-type crime fighters taking to the streets, well...that's a good way to get hurt. Not to mention police officers DO receive a certain type of training for a reason (including making sure to protect the rights of citizens, both the innocent and the guilty).

But what the hey...I dig superhero stories, both in print and celluloid. The Cape isn't terrible, after all; it's definitely a step above a lot of superhero shows I've seen on the TV over the years (like The Flash), though perhaps not as clever as NBC's last show Heroes (which, admittedly, I only watched for a season or two). The writing isn't fantastic (dialogue and plot-wise) and there are whole scenes that don't make sense at all...and yet it has some fine actors and some nice effects and action sequences. Watching it often feels a bit like reading a comic book...though one of those disjointed Dark Horse ones that sometimes skips intermediary scenes in order to get you to the next cool piece of art.

[sorry, Dark Horse...hopefully, you know what I'm talking about]

There have actually been TWO episodes of the Cape so far, and the second is somewhat better than than the Pilot episode (the pilot has to mash together too much for its "origin" stint, which may be why it feels so ridiculous and disjointed at times). At least, the new bad guy Cain is more interesting than "Scales."

The show has a ridiculous premise, which by the way isn't necessarily a bad thing; MOST superhero origins start with a ridiculous premise (a kid can get super powers by being bit by a mutant spider? an alien baby that looks completely human is raised to believe in Truth, Justice, and the American Way?). A RIDICULOUS premise, as I was saying; basically, "the only way I can tackle organized crime is to learn stage magic from a group of circus carnies!" Bank robbing circus carnies...but I shouldn't dwell too much on the retarded parts that don't make any sense (I am NOT a dirty cop! But I AM aiding and abetting felons!).

The Cape is a friggin' stage magician...not in the Criss Angel/Mind Freak sense, but in the straight-up Palladium Heroes Unlimited sense. Contortionist, flash powder, fancy clothing gimmicks, knife catching, etc. It's all there.

Which is great, of course. I've written before about my love for Heroes Unlimited, specifically for its way of doing gritty, street-level superhero action in an "old-school" (read: "wargaming" as opposed to "narrative driven") fashion. The stage magician is one of the "power types" (read: "class") of superheroes available to the HU player. It is a class that is almost NEVER taken. At least, the one time I ever saw someone want to play a stage magician, it was my brother who just trying to be a funny asshole in an attempt to "ruin" (read: "make comedic") the game for Yours Truly.

And the stage magician does seem a bit of a joke...he can juggle? Contortionist skill? A few flash bombs...what the hell? And while you're spending the time writing up this guy your buddy has a mutant with armored skin that breathes lightning and flies at supersonic speed. HU does NOTHING to balance characters against each other.

But I've already talked about balance in Palladium games AND how to approach it (with self-imposed setting limits). And The Cape is completely "do-able" in the HU system using a few self-imposed rules. Hell, far-fetched though it is, the show feels like the writer PLAYS Heroes Unlimited and said, "what if we wrote a superhero story using the two lamest character classes in HU...the stage magician and the super sleuth? What would that look like?"

It would look like The Cape. The protagonist is the stage magician and his buddy, Orwell, is the super sleuth. Throw in the new classes from Powers Unlimited Two (specifically the Natural Genius and Minor Hero classes) and you can do this type of superhero campaign, with these villains, all day long.

On the other hand, you canNOT do this kind of game with Marvel or Wild Talents or Mutants & Masterminds...I mean, you could, but it would be a lot of work for not much pay-off. And you'd have to leave much of the rules for any of those games on the cutting board. M&M especially...God! How I want to like this game and how it keeps raising its ugly side for a bitch slap!...where every time you level up you come closer to throwing your street level heroes into the realm of the Silver Surfer.

Yes, yes, you can ignore leveling with M&M altogether...and I can dress in a cheerleader outfit and call myself Nancy, too! I don't want to rework the game to my specifics...if I'm going to do that I might as well write my own damn game. F** you, Mutants & written, you suck.

[sorry...that was kind of a's getting late and I'm starting to cough again so I should probably wrap this up. Suffice is to say I spent a lot of the earlier part of the week poring over M&M to see if I could salvage a manageable supers game out of it...and kept getting extremely pissed and frustrated at multiple points. Ugh!]

Heroes Unlimited certainly needs tweaking, but it can work (and fairly easily) for a low-powered granular hero game...and I mean "work with all cylinders." Probably because it doesn't have that many cylinders to fire. But as my love for Boot Hill shows, I don't think an RPG needs to model EVERY thing (with rules/systems/mechanics) that might happen in the imaginary game world. HU has everything a supers game needs...and maybe a few it doesn't (like the whole clunky skill system...).

Anyway, I just thought it was interesting someone making a show where the protagonist is such a low-powered hero (though still plenty "unrealistic" and "comic book fantasy"). Also, after watching the program, I have a newfound respect for the stage magician as a class (I can see some ways to use it besides as a Mysterio-style chump-villain). Funny thing is, I think my brother has, too!
: )


  1. I think there used to a lot of comic heroes that were 'magicians', meaning they looked like stage magicians rather than like Gandalf. However they tended to have either actual paranormal powers, or unrealistically effective hypnotism.

    Check this out.

  3. Mandrake was a bog-standard stage magician, with none of the actual paranormal powers of the likes of Zatanna.

    As for Heroes, if you only saw one series, then you saw it at its best. The first series was very strong, then it all went to heck after that.

  4. @ Kelvin: That's kind of what I figured.

    @ Eldrad: Cool, thanks! Not quite what I was looking for, but certainly one for the collection (and if you're going to go "rules light" why NOT go all the way?).

    @ anarch: I always think of the old Trickster (James Jesse) character from the Blue Devil comics myself...though with a stretch, DC's low-powered Man Hunter character might have made a good model for the stage magician.

  5. You didn't like The Flash TV show? That was one of the best Superhero Live Action TV programs ever. It even mentioned Hawkman!

    I can think of several Superheroes who at one time or another looked like Stage Magicians, though most had some 'real' magic power.

    I have to disagree in regards to M&M, especially 3rd edition. Check out that sweet DC Adventures book. The street level Batman type now rock.

    I actually had a stage magician-themed Batman type crime fighter in one of my M&M games. He was similar to Tuxedo Mask of Sailor Moon fame in some ways, though leaned more toward traditional American comics. I think he was called The Secret Admirer or something similar.

  6. The show has barely touched on his past as a soldier, and I think he may have been in Special Ops. I like the fact that he is still in training as a superhero, i.e. the whole knife throwing machine, and developing resistances to poison. All in all, I liked the show, but my teevee went on the fritz, and I missed the next episode. I don't know if it will last the season or not, but hopefully it will.

  7. @ BA: I liked the Flash as a kid...I think this particular show is done better, though (it's a matter of opinion, I understand).

    RE M&M: Wow. What can I say? How many editions/supplements do you need to make it work?

    But that's unfair, I realize. Here's the thing that gets me: I like levels in superhero games (as superheroes can be compared to each other in terms of power level). I like experience being a factor in determining veteran abilities versus rookies (as we have examples of both in the superhero genre). I do NOT particularly like them being linked together (as they are in M&M) nor the universal nature of the beast (a 5th level "street hero" that gains 10 levels will suddenly be the equivalent of Thor or Superman). That's just trying to make D20 fit into the "comic mold." D20 isn't good for EVERY genre.

    @ Zan: Oh, I definitely think the "special forces" background is if that makes it more "realistic" that he can master his disappearing act, etc. in a couple weeks. Which is laughable, but whatever, I'm willing to go with the I said, I don't think it's terrible.

    As far as I know there have only been the two episodes already televised ("Pilot" and "Tarot" with Cain). I'll be curious to see if it can survive the season (is Summer Glau the kiss of death to these shows?).

  8. @JB, yeah the dissappearing thing bugs me a bit, but I can deal with it. I like the fact that none of the characters are really "super powered". Chess is an interesting super villain. Scales seems kind of cliche, but then again we are dealing with the "super hero" genre. My prediction is that it's not going to last the season, if it does it will be the only season.

  9. Yeah it is "rules lite" BUT for a super heroic game it really works. I challenge you all to let go of the rules and just as we say in Louisiana "pass a good time" Some accuse my game of not being possible due to no stats and no hit points but it really works well IF you let it. Most of all it really frags the circuits of rules lawyers! BUT in the descriptions there IS STATS. If you are strong enough to lift a bus versus someone of normal human strength you will hurt worse on a successful hit. It the power of the GM fiat baby! You just can't at all suck as a GM!

  10. @ Eldrad: Yeah, but what if I DO suck as a GM?
    ; )

  11. Good post. I have a soft spot for the line

    SDC Palladium is a fun game (MDC is not my cuppa) and most of the various parts of the line can crossover pretty well.

    In particular Ninjas/Superspies meets Turtles meets parts of Heroes Unlimited is a great "super pulp" combo.

    Some parts of Palladium Fantasy, Beyond the Supernatural, Bugs in the System and Dead Reign can be used as well.

    The trick is exactly what you indirectly suggest here, be the GM who sets limits. Some mutants with powers ala Push or Jumper or some of Mutant X or low powered X-Men or that kind of thing is a good fit. More 4 Colors types, not so much