Friday, July 24, 2015

The Kitchen Sink

AKA Taking a Hard Look at the State of a Project

Just as a quick aside...can I just mention how much I hate the current version of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles franchise? I'd guess that it is now more popular than ever and that it's creators (or whomever they sold out to) is making money hand-over-fist, gross compared its charming/dark/satirical origins. Just reading through the current version of the origin story and...Splinter was once human? And he mutated into some sort of wererat? How is that an improvement (or even more sensical) than the original story? April is caucasian now (and seems to get younger with every iteration of the franchise). The turtles themselves are incredibly hammy in personality while...

You know what? It really doesn't matter. Really. The only reason I'm even thinking about it is that there's a TMNT coloring book next to me and the tagline along the bottom says: "Mutants Rule!"

[does  such a phrase even make sense to a child of the 21st century? Do kids these days still say things like "that rules!" like my friends and I did in the mid-80s? It seems like the kind of colloquialism that would have gone out of style 20 years ago...but then, I suppose this is something the turtles might say in their faux-surfer/skater slang, like "kowabunga." Does that mean anything to children these days besides "something a turtle says?" Just...gross]

[of course, given a chance my child likes to talk in something resembling "Minion-speak" (see Despicable Me films for reference)...but then he's four and I cut him some slack...even though he knows that three of a kind is better than two pair]

Now, I'd guess that the "Mutants Rule!" line is a throwback reference to the colloquialism of the 80's...even if the children don't grok the meaning (I just asked my son what he thinks that line means...he said he doesn't know because the Turtles don't "rule" anything. Maybe pizza, he suggested...) *ahem* Even If the consumer child doesn't grok the meaning, the current writer/creator of the coloring book/marketing is probably some dude in his late 30's-40's who is referencing it as typical "Turtle Slang." Then again, maybe it's clever tongue-in-cheek...maybe the franchise owners are saying that these particular "Mutants" have "rulership" over the current marketplace for its demographic. 

Just as D&D, regardless of its current flaws continues to "rule" over the RPG marketplace (via name/brand recognition). Regardless of whether or not a particular edition is outsold by Pathfinder, I'd guess most folks playing PF still consider themselves to be "D&D players." I mean, Pathfinder is just D&D 3.5, right? Hasbro could certainly feel a little justified in writing "D&D Rules!" across the bottom of their weighty tomes.

[yes, I realize this "quick aside" is running long...again...sorry]

But what if we cut off "Mutants Rule!" tag-line and divorced it from all this context? What if we just used it for the basis of an RPG, without reference to turtles or toy-lines or snarky marketers? Sounds like a tasty little premise for some post-apocalyptic action, no? It could certainly be worked to fit (with a little effort) into the most recent premise/changes of Cry Dark Future.

[dunh-dunh-dunh...see? I circled back!]

CDF is in a bit of a dark place at the moment. I don't mean that in the sense of tone, but rather like "in the dark." The real future of the game Cry Dark Future is dark, as in obscured. I don't know if this thing is ever going to see the light of day (i.e. "publication").

It doesn't help that I simply can't bring myself to re-open the document.

The thing is, once I started re-vamping it, I realized just how much damn work it needs. No, I'm not talking layout or editing or artwork, though all that is needed, too (and will be a bitch to do, especially the artwork part). No, I'm talking about wholesale revisions and rewrites and pruning of extraneous crap while finding NON-extraneous, "fluff" plug in the holes. The problem is that, right now, the thing is a bit too "kitchen sinky"...but if you pull that sink out, you're going to find ourself standing knee-deep in a flooded cocina

[just to take an analogy a bit too far]

The original idea with CDF (for those not in the know) was that it was an attempt to do the Shadowrun game with a B/X chassis. Such a task is a lot easier than one might think...despite its point-buy, skill-based, D6 dice pool system, Shadowrun is just D&D with guns. You're still playing scurrilous rogues operating in parties sporting a mixed bag of different character types that operate outside the local law/authority structure. You're still invading dungeons/installations with objectives to rob/loot and/or make a buck from some shady contact person (wizard in a tavern). You're still fighting "monsters" with weapons, magic, and (hopefully) some sort of cleverness, and upgrading your characters with new gear/equipment. Gunbunnies meet folks who like elves.

Thematically, it's not a very big jump from D&D to Shadowrun...and so tweaking the D&D system to allow the kind of madness found in the cyber-punkish setting of Shadowrun is a piece of easy. It took longer to write it all up then it took to work out the specific system issues (a Shadowrun-style magic system instead of Vance; rules for "decking" and vehicle combat, etc.). In all honesty, the most difficult part was coming up with new names for SR setting-specific features ("filing the numbers off" things like cyberdecks, for example). Even the point-buy system of the 3rd edition was easy to model...after all, D&D's done "point-buy" chargen in the past (see Advanced Player Options for 2nd Edition).

However, play-testing showed CDF still suffered from several problems:
  • no really cares much about tracking ammunition ("bullet counting")...and even if they did, that's the kind of thing quickly lost in a fast-paced combat system.
  • several character types felt a bit over-powered. The physical adept for sure (actually had to remove this option from the game; didn't make much sense cosmologically either), but any kind of character with "enhanced reflexes" tended to upstage those without in a way that was not-fun for most of the folks at the table.
  • even cut down to B/X (cutting almost all skills, for example, and adding random attributes), chargen is slooooow and looooong. When you're dealing with point-buys and (especially) purchasing cyberware (and recording modifications) and 'running gear from a number of lists, making a character can take a session in and of itself. And you really don't want slow chargen when characters are prone to getting killed by hails of bullets and manabolts. Even writing up pre-gen "equipment packages" was little help (takes a long time to copy all that stuff, plus figure out what it means for your PC). Tooooo sloooooow...
  • the magic system is a bit of a mess combining elements of Shadowrun and 1st edition Stormbringer while thematically stealing heavily from David Chandler's Ancient Blades Trilogy. And it's too abstract in the spell department.
  • the actual setting of the Shadowrun game is just...ugh. Suffice is to say, a person's tastes as an adult of 30-40+ years is different from his tastes as a kid of 13-15 (when I first played the game). And no matter how "mature" you make the content of a game session it's hard to justify a lot of the 'punkisms that, quite frankly, our world has grown beyond.
[which isn't to say that playing an RPG in a dystopian future ain't possible, or even fun. I look at the recent Robocop reboot and Dread films...just to name two...and see how the idea of a terrible future Earth, full of adventure, still holds water. I guess it's just the dwarves and orcs...]

Anyhoo...I've managed to revamp/update...what? four?...yeah, four out of these five issues (the magic one is the main canker still Lord, another "new" magic system needed). But doing so has opened a bunch of other worm cans, as the game has moved farther and farther away from its SR-meets-B/X roots. Much more post-apocalyptic now for one thing, but without the mutant superpowers so often found in PA role playing games. 

Still has mutants, though. 'Cause mutants rule, right?

But dread is what I feel every time I think about working on the game. I don't know why. Maybe because I like it (the idea of it) a lot? And I want it to be better? And because better takes a lot of time and work and effort? Maybe. 

Maybe it's because I'm stuck for ideas. Maybe I just don't want to make lazy design choices to expedite the thing's completion (like throwing in a Vancian magic system with an appropriately themed spell list).

Or maybe it's just that the game has so many things now (the kitchen sink, too) and the real issue is that manuscript needs extensive pruning and I don't want to lose so many of my "favorite things" that I worked up, even though they no longer fit in a game that's a bit more than B/X Shadowrun

Dread...and distraction. These are my main stumbling blocks at the moment. When I can find the time to do anything (currently after 2:30 in the AM here). All right...enough for now.

Thursday, July 23, 2015

Robot Dummies

There's an episode of the old series Challenge of the Superfriends called R.I.P. Superfriends in which, over the course of the show, the Legion of Doom manages to kill off every member of the Justice League with a potent doomsday weapon in the form of a fairly portable crystal/blasting weapon. The episode opens on a fairly somber note with the Superfriends gathered around the grave of Batman in a cemetery, before doing a flashback sequence to show what happened, and then proceeding with all the 'friends getting hunted down and gaffled.

Of course, good triumphs in the the end of the show it is revealed that the heroes killed were all just robot dummies that had been manufactured to fool the Doom-dudes into thinking they'd killed the Superfriends so they'd get rid of their killer crystal.

[never mind that the imitations exhibited the exact same powers, abilities, and personalities as the real deal counterparts. If one can manufacture Superman clones, do you really need a Justice League?]

For my four year old, this has been particularly fertile ground for his imagination. Over the last several months (since first observing the show), we've played plenty of adventures involving the deaths of superheroes and villains, with the deceased individuals invariably coming back to life upon discovery that the corpses all belonged to "robot dummies."

And it's not a terribly unique "twist" when it comes to cartoon action. We just watched the old (1982) animated film Flash Gordon: The Greatest Adventure of All (a cool little gem that needs its own post), in which the defeated (and "killed") Ming the Merciless is shown, at the end, to be a robot dummy. In more recent media, we've been binging on episodes of The Avenger's: Earth's Mightiest Heroes (2010) and there's an early episode where Nick Fury is crushed to death by a raging Graviton only to find it was, again, a robot dummy.

[people probably think I'm a terrible human being and father for showing my young child such violent cartoons. It's even worse than that: last week, I taught my child to play poker (five card draw) and it's now become his favorite game. "Let's play cards, Papa!" is an oft-heard refrain in the household. I am a terrible, terrible person...]

[we play for plastic pirate "Jake the Pirate" doubloons and Mardi Gras beads (which are worth two coins each). My home is a den of iniquity...]

Apply face and power set.
*Ahem* ANYway...the existence (and destruction) of robot dummies in the super-heroic genre, improbable as it might be, serves a practical purpose: it keeps the heroes (and the favorite recurring villain...Doctor Doom anyone?) alive and well. Which is important in an episodic, serial medium where you hope to keep your (cash-paying) audience coming back on a weekly or monthly basis. The reduction of character death to an absurd non-happening is a necessity...if you want your fans hanging around for the long haul.

But for how long should that "long haul" be? Is it cool for a specific comic book character to have a thousand issues under his or her belt? For the company producing the comic (and for the employment of writers and artists and editors) it's a good thing...comics have always been a "for profit" enterprise even before the days of expanded media and merchandising. But is that an appropriate model for an RPG campaign? If each weekly game session is the equivalent of an "issue," than a character like Captain America (with more than 600 self-titled issues) has been "played" for more than 11 years. Which I could imagine for an RPG like D&D where characters are in a constant state of development (moving from dungeon to wilderness to court intrigue and barony management)...but for a genre that's not known for much more than finding creative ways of punching out new bad guys, well...

Maybe Will was right...maybe the superhero genre is just too simplistic for an RPG. At least, in the way that it's been imagined by the major (American) comic book companies [gosh, reading old Jim Shooter blog posts are rather enlightening with regard to that industry]. Anyway, something I'm hashing out in my mind right now (in my limited free time).

Okay...back to the grind (my kid's up). Just a couple things: looking at a very, very old version of my "superhero" RPG for possible re-vamp (the reasons will need to be discussed later), but I've come to the conclusion that (even if the genre is worth doing) one needs a very good mechanic for doing it, even (perhaps) a "gimmicky" one. Otherwise, why not simply use one of the many systems already on the market. Supers! is plenty good enough, for example, or MSH (if you don't need much granularity) or HU (if you like a lot of granularity). My "old school" supers game doesn't "have it" as it's currently written. It's serviceable, but that doesn't make it worthy of publication, you know?

Ok, okay! Kid wants to watch The to go!

Saturday, July 18, 2015

Just F'ing Busy

Sorry. My brain has not been on blogging lately. Even that last post was dumb.

Hopefully I'll be "back" soon.

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Supers! Revised Edition (Comparison Review)

[quick word o warning: this is a looooong post. Seriously]

In my last post, I wrote the following (with specific regard to the Supers! RPG compared to the Supers! Revised Edition):

"If I'd read an appraisal of the game in comparison to its original version, I probably wouldn't have shelled out the money for it. That's money (and time) that could have been spent in support of someone else's game."

Fancy Cover
In retrospect, this is far too harsh an assessment. Supers! Revised Edition (hereafter abbreviated as RED) is a good game, and (in more than a few ways) a nice...perhaps needed...update of the original. However, I wouldn't laud accolades on the book for the same thing others do...I don't think the layout or presentation is necessarily better than original book for instance, and while it has a ton of decent art, I don't find the updated graphics and "presentation" to be an improvement worth remark. To the contrary, the book feels a bit cluttered for my taste.

Likewise, I'm not uber-impressed with the "extras" that have been tacked on. Things like miniature rules and random chargen are fine little options, but I wouldn't use 'em and their location in the appendices (as opposed to in the main rules section) is an appropriate placement.

The new "goodies" (powers, aptitudes, boosts, ads, etc.) are hardly worth crowing about, and are actually where I'd lay my harshest criticism. All four of the new aptitudes are garbage, useless and throwaway, for a number of reasons (if someone wants me to elaborate I'm happy to do so, but this is going to be a long post as it is). Many of the "new" powers are likewise unnecessary padding: Additional Limbs is the same as Super Weaponry; Emotion Control is just Mind Control with the complication "limited to emotions;" Super Running is just Super Speed with the complication "limited to running" (if you want to "double up" for your flash clone, make it a power specific boost for extra doubling...though RED doesn't have the same 5D limit for starting powers as the original game, so there's nothing to prevent a person from throwing 10D in Super Speed and getting the same effect). Super Swimming is such an incidental (i.e. seldom of practical value) power, that if you're not going to stick with the original game's Water Powers, you might as well drop it. Meanwhile, dividing the original game's Paralysis power into Mental Paralysis and Physical Paralysis (when they do the same thing and definition/color is already inherent in the original power) is about as good an example of "bloat" as anything.

Of the truly new powers in the game (and I'm not counting the renamed ones...renaming Web to Ensnare is just fine), the only ones worth keeping are the following: Absorption, Communication, Damage Aura, Dimensional Travel, Imbue, Mimic Aptitude, Mimic Energy, Obscure, Probability Control, Transformation, and Time Travel. Of these, Communication has dubious practical value (as written, it's not much different from the Omni Translator advantage) and Probability Control has problematic aspects, probably better modeled by the use of a high Competency Pool and its new "Narrative Control" option. I understand why Damage Aura and Obscure are their own powers (as opposed to boosts/complications of other similar powers), but I'm not sure they don't present some problematic aspects with the way they break the normal rules, especially Damage Aura.

Super Aptitude deserves special mention for being broken and undermining the whole concept of aptitudes and their mundanity; it seems like someone wanted an excuse to allow an uber-fighty guy to sum more than three dice. Look, dudes, if you want to build Midnighter, use Super Brain (and, hell, give it a "limited to fighting" complication) to model his "mental battle computer." Whoever put this power in the book must not have been thinking clearly.

Revising the system for using advantages/disadvantages from the original game was needed (due to it being broken) but the updated list of ads/disads is something of a mixed bag. While ads like alter ego, animal friendship, feign death, and omni translator...and, yes, water breathing by itself...all fit fine as minor powers available for 1D, I don't see why RED fails to keep similar minor ads longevity and tolerance from the original game. Others, like celebrity, intimidating, and nonsentience, are junkable padding, as are mentor, police powers, and security clearance (these three can be modeled using allies). For all ads, I'd limit their cost to 1D and make 'em reactivate-able via use of Competency dice (it fits with the CP's expanded purview) rather than make them so damn fiddly. Not sure why Super Vehicle isn't a straight power with a device complication. I guess because they want to create new vehicle combat rules.

Special mention for crap goes to the new ads Occupation and Size Big/Small. Just so unnecessary except for folks wanting to min-max. A character's aptitude already implies occupation (and level of expertise) this is just a cheap way to get re-rolls for shooting, etc. (rather than use bonuses from one's Competency Pool...what happened to "unified task resolution?" Where else is there a re-roll mechanic?). Size...same deal. These are super-heroes (implied human scale), if they grow big or small then they've got the proper power, if it's "always on" they have the proper complication. If this isn't about min-maxing then it's "kitchen sink" (or sloppy) design. I mean, you can already use Supers! to model (say) Transformers with giant robots simply by scaling what the D6s represent.

[oh, yeah...Base of Operations. So much more straightforward in the original game as Hideout. Again, why do you need to put dice in a base's "aptitude?" It's the character that is performing the lab/science roll (represented by how many dice you give your character). And building an Avengers Mansion or  Hall of Justice? Who wants to spend chargen dice to that? If the campaign setting requires such a structure for the team (instead of an individual wanting his personal Batcave, i.e. a Hideout) then just give it to them]

Disadvantages? Most of these are fine, though I'd limit them all to a 1D bonus (and only take the most severe version of each...for example BLIND instead of NEARSIGHTED. A character can always wear glasses//contacts/goggles-with-corrective-lenses). Of course, this means there are only a couple-four new ones (accidental transformation, bad luck, power loss, and unskilled), and bad luck probably needs to be rewritten or dropped (it's the same as the dumb luck advantage except the GM calls for the re-roll...if a character is rolling their 5D traits all the time, it's still likely to result in a success). The one exception to "fine" in this category is the mental hindrances. I'd scrap all of these as they're fairly unenforceable and seem to exist just to give players bonus dice in chargen. If you want a quirky character, role-play 'em quirky.

[*pause for breath*]

OKAY, at this point you're asking why you should buy Supers! Revised Edition when the original Supers! is still available as a PDF for $1? If you've gotten this far thru my too long review, here's the better stuff:

Rules-wise (everything up through page 20) the RED is actually a step-up from the original edition. Situational Modifiers (how they're defined, how they're used) are a nice addition. The Levels of Success mechanics (with Major Successes and Superior Successes) is a very nice addition, and allows for some neat tricks, specifically with regard to combat tactics.

[I will say I detest the charts as "clutter" but that's my personal bias. I can do math faster in my head]

The expanded Competency Pool rules (and the addition of Temporary Competency) is quite good and I've got no quibbles with it, save perhaps the "ignore disadvantage" use (you're already gaining a bonus die by spending from your Competency pool...feels redundant, though currency-wise it's fine so long as all the disads cost 1D). The related Assist rules (which can award Temporary Comp dice to the character you're helping) is fine, if a little clunky (why not just award a situational modifier?)

Combat is the next section where we see tweaks from the original game, and all of RED's are to the good. As I mentioned in a prior post, RED now allows any power, aptitude, or resistance to be used in defense of any type of attack, and is explicit along with providing good examples. The new method of calc'ing damage prevents some of the wilder swingy-ness that's possible under the old rules, and (to me) better represents the superhero genre...neither protagonists nor their nemeses are generally "one-shot" on a blown roll; that only happens to the no name mooks and goons. The set break points for damage escalation are also nicely uniform.

With the exception of critical strike (RED's answer to D20-style "power attacks"), all the combat maneuvers are good, and make good use of the new "levels of success" system (with specific escalation in effect based on major or superior success). It's reminiscent of MSH's Green-Yellow-Red effect chart (though without the chart) and I could see modeling many of the old MSH combat maneuvers in RED using the system. However, the maneuvers RED includes are just fine...and I especially like the options to utilize moves like Interrupt and Take One For the Team through either initiative delay OR comp die expenditure. If your character's competent, you get more options to play with (and because comp dice are earned in-play, a character's effectiveness increases as the player's knowledge of the play style increases...nice parallel there).

The Character Gen chapter starts on page 25, and despite my gripes about the expanded powers, etc. most of the chapter is excellent. Taking the cuffs off and just giving folks a die pool to build their character (an option in the basic book) is a logical next step, especially considering the small number of dice being used to construct the character (nowhere near most point-buy games). Of special note is the attention paid to resistances and the "benchmark" charts provided...this is really nice when trying to model one's favorite superheroes (again, shades of MSH). The design sidebars in this section are all pretty good, and unlike my earlier gripes most of the new boosts and complications appear useful and straightforward (though some are a bit on the "fiddly" side, especially in the boost section).

The character archetypes in this chapter, easily recognizable as the "standard builds" found in Mutants & Masterminds (just done in Supers! fashion)...well, it gave me a chuckle. I also noticed the MSH power types in the backgrounds & origins section (and Reid San Fellipo's incorporation of these into his random chargen appendix was well-done, especially the origin-specific adjustments).

The Judge's Guide (beginning page 107) is fine, though I think the "material strength" charts are come it's possible for a normal human to rend titanium with her bare hands? The major change here is with regard to the "mook rules" which has replaced to previous rating system with a dice system based on rating. I'd have to see how it works in-play, but if you want your Aunt May NPC to have a chance of knocking out Spider-Man with a vase from behind (or at least damaging him), the updated rules allow the possibility based on a good roll vs. bad roll. I don't know, it seems a little forced compared to the ease of the original system. But it allows for greater variation in "quality of mook" (with bonus dice for tougher goons, etc...kind o fiddly).

Similarly, Hazards (one of the stronger aspects of the original game, and the main reason I picked up Supers! instead of BASH) have been changed from a numerical rating to a dice rating. This I like quite a bit less than the original edition, as the randomness makes Hazards less dangerous much less dangerous, on average. I'd probably junk it in favor of the old rules. Drowning and falling are a bit fiddly/inelegant (again, they feel a bit like converted Advanced MSH), but are otherwise okay.

The Campaigning section is great, and a nice addition...there's no such section in the original game (perhaps making that ugly assumption that a GM will "just know what to do"). Quite helpful for the aspiring Supers! GM. Advancement is nicely laid out, as are the various options for character death, though the actual mechanics of character death are a bit broken (if resistances can be reduced to negative amounts, but only Fortitude and Will carry the possibility of death at negative levels, what prevents me from assigning all damage to Reflexes or Composure instead? Player gets choice of damage allocation after all, and both of those are allowed options for physical damage).

After that comes optional rules and appendixes which, as mentioned, I find fairly unremarkable.

So there...after a couple thousand words, I've got my feelings for Supers! Revised Edition off my chest, with precious little web "ink" spilled talking about art or layout or presentation. From a game standpoint, Supers! RED makes Supers! a better game...when it's not over-thinking / under-designing itself. But the original game still has value as a "check" of sorts against some of RED's silliness (like the "improved" Life Support power).

Fact o the matter is, even with these complaints, Supers! RED may be the best generic supers game I've ever seen. I realize that will raise an incredulous eyebrow from longtime fans of M&M, SuperWorld, V&V, MSH, Heroes Unlimited, and Champions, but...well, I'll stand by my statement. Yes, I have gripes (a long list of 'em), but they're things that can, in the main, be fixed by cutting and trimming (or ruthlessly wielding a fat black marker on one's print copy...see why white space is useful, people?). Washbourne's original Supers!, good as it was, had some serious issues (though I count neither presentation nor lack of material strength tables as being among them) that RED corrects quite handily. Armed with both books, I feel confident I could run a pretty good long as I wasn't looking for gritty, street-level granularity in my superhero action. Like MSH before it, Supers! doesn't really do low-level granularity all that well.

Ugh...I've got to get some sleep. Later, gators.

Monday, July 13, 2015


Originally, I considered calling this post "Bloat."

I'm feeling charitable at the moment.

Actually, it's more than that. In honesty my normal state of mind should rest somewhere between "extremely grumpy" and "dead tired" (I slept around three hours the last few nights)...but after outdoor Mass with His Holiness, being less than charitable today seems like an affront. Not sure "to what," but an affront to something.

And...well, I'm kind of tired of being mean. I feel like, lately, I've been turning into the Paraguayan version of RPGPundit. The old version of 'Pundit, anyway...not the guy who seems so reactionary and defensive and personally affronted all the time (I guess internet politics will do that to a guy), but the guy who would gush about some game or supplement that appealed to his taste while ripping apart a game or supplement that wasn't. I don't want to be like that. I want to encourage game designers to design...regardless of whether or not I think they're any good at it.

You folks grok me? Sometimes I spend so much time contemplating things in my head that when I finally bother writing 'em down in a blog post I forget to include crucial parts of my thought process that makes the thing make sense. Let me be perfectly clear:

In this industry...the game industry, but especially the tabletop RPG part of it...where so much of it is driven by hobbyists, and fun, and love of this industry, I want to encourage people to get out there and make games. I don't want to tell anyone:

You suck. Please stop "creating" your heaping, steaming piles of crap.

Is the internet a crowded place? Sure. Is there a lot of "dross" out there? Probably. Does all that noise make it harder for people to locate the true "gems" that exist. Maybe.

But dross and gems are subjective terms. One person's trash is another's treasure, yadda yadda.

Take game bloat for a moment. I've probably related the following story in an earlier blog post, but here it is again: I was hanging out at a game shop perusing the shelf and talking with folks (in part) about the presentation of game books, specifically being interested in what attracts the potential customer. And one of the guys I was talking to was dismissive of anything that was of a small size, soft cover, or low page count. Anything that looks "indie" or "old school." Not that there aren't good games or supplements that come in such packages (he admitted), but unless it comes in a large hard cover with glossy art and high production values, he makes an assumption that it's not worth his money (until someone else introduces him to the game). In other words, he buys the bigger, shinier package because he figures that anyone unable to put out a similarly professional looking product can't possibly put out something that's of equivalent professional quality or value. His preference is for a bloated coffee table book, regardless of what is contained inside.

[this guy BTW is now the co-owner of a local game shop...though he handles more of the beer sale/distribution side of the place while his partner deals with the games]

This type of thinking, of literally "judging a book by its cover," is fallacious, but understandable. I've purchased and read plenty of lovely hardcovers over the years that were poor in terms of writing, editing, or game-worthy content. Some of these were put out by large companies, but others were from small indie don't need to be a big company with a magnificent "design team" to put out a coffee table ready product. You just need money to spend...and rinky-dink outfits have been doing it since before Kickstarter crowdfunding was available. But still, it's understandable: don't you hire the guy who shows up to the job interview with fresh, pressed suit before you hire the scrub in ripped jeans and a t-shirt? Sure you part because presentation shows that you care.

However, small books can still be tastefully, even beautifully, done. A choice to make a small and/or soft-cover book...because of pricing (for the consumer), because of a stylistic choice, because of the book's practical use at the table...can all be plusses, especially when the book itself carries a quality game within its pages. But that's my opinion and, yes, my "preference."

[there are also small, tastefully made indie-game books that are as terrible in editing, writing, and content as a terrible hardcover glossies. However, they do tend to cost less]

And MY preference may not be the majority least not the perceived majority opinion. Which is one reason that new editions of games and revised editions have a tendency to be bigger and  more bloated than their predecessors...even at the expense of a game's overall quality or playability.

Ah, we get to the crux of the post. I spent a good chunk of time "scrutinizing" the differences between Supers! and Supers! Revised and it raised some gripes (for me) about bloat. Not a terrible amount compared to some games, not a huge amount of "bloat for bloat's sake," but enough to irritate me. The book is only 50 pages longer than the original (or 80 if you consider that the original game devotes 30 pages to sample NPCs which the Revised edition doesn't), but it feels cramped and crowded in comparison, partly because excess white space has been filled with full color borders, charts, and illustrations, and partly because the abstract game has been filled with extra blocks of rules and minutia.

However, even as I was making my lists of differences between the two books' content (with the idea of doing a side-by-side comparison), I realized something I hadn't before...Supers! Revised was authored by different people, completely unrelated to the original author, Simon Washbourne. Washbourne (author of Barbarians of Lemuria and the Swords&Wizardry-Stormbringer mash-up heartbreaker called Crimson Blades) transferred the publishing rights for his game to Hazard Studio, a group of illustrators and gamers who are associated with Zenith Comics, an on-line (web) comic imprint.

The connecting factor between Hazard and Zenith is Walt Robillard, artist and (it appears) co-owner of both groups. Walt and Andrew Collas (editor-in-chief of Zenith) were working on a hack of "an old school supers game" when Collas was hipped to the opportunity to acquire Supers!. However, neither Robillard nor Collas were involved in the writing/design of Supers! Revised (both were involved with the artwork). Instead, the writing is credited to Aldo Regalado and Rus Boyd. Regalado considers himself a writer, not a designer, though he credits Champions, Simon Washbourne, and Chris Rutkowsky (author of BASH) for his design sensibilities; his other credits on DriveThruRPG include a couple setting supplements published for both Supers! and BASH.  Russell Boyd appears to a first-time writer, though he has several art credits (mostly for supers-type RPG supplements) on DriveThru; he also cites Rutkowsky as his main influence.

In addition, although uncredited, Dave Bezio (of X-Plororers) provides a five page appendix converting the Supers! abstract system to tactical/miniatures gameplay in the 5' per square range, and Reid San Fellipo (Crawling Under a Broken Moon for DCC) provides a seven page appendix for doing random chargen inspired (at least in part) by the original MSH.

These individuals are the responsible parties for Supers! Revised, not Simon Washbourne who (interestingly enough) has gone on to publish what appears to be his own revised version of Supers! called TRIUMPHANT! The Super Heroic Role Playing Game. I have not purchased Triumphant! (as of this post) but I have read a couple reviews that lead me to believe it's fairly similar to Washbourne's original game, just with an updated dice mechanic that uses polyhedral dice besides the D6, plus a couple "quirks" (like "Triumph dice").


[*considers what he wants to say*]

The point is this: the design choices of Hazard Studio may not be to my taste, they may fall into their own preferences based on their own gaming sensibilities, as opposed to my own or even as opposed to the original designer (Washbourne). And that's fine...different strokes for different folks and all that. BUT...damn, I bought this game based on its great reviews, the only complaint coming from someone who wanted print-on-demand (and now it has that), and...well, if I'd read an appraisal of the game in comparison to its original version, I probably wouldn't have shelled out the money for it. That's money (and time) that could have been spent in support of someone else's game.

And THIS is why, I suppose, I write a bunch of negative shit about other peoples' games and designs. Not because I'm an asshole (though, I've certainly labeled myself as one over the years), but because I get tired of seeing reviews that are mainly A) puff pieces, B) solely concerned with art/lay-out/production values, or C) both. Especially with regard to games that are 2nd editions or 3rd editions or revised editions or whatever. Just because a new edition is BIGGER does not make it BETTER. Just because an edition is NEWER does not mean it is MORE INNOVATIVE.

I'm not trying to be mean. I'm trying to give my honest opinion. And that might be helpful to some people...even those people who consider my preferences the opposite of their own (and thus buy what I dislike and vice versa). It's not that I just get off on being a dissenting opinion, and I do enjoy writing about things that I find cool/neat, too. But my opinions are just that: mine. My preferences. And that doesn't mean someone's book or game or product or supplement is so terrible they should quit designing or quit publishing or even that they should quit trying to make a buck on their work.  I applaud and encourage creativity and artistic endeavor.

On the other hand, if I see something that's fucking terrible, I'm going to suggest that people don't buy it or watch it or read it. In those instances, I'm not telling the particular designer (or filmmaker or artist or whatever) to quit what they're doing...I'm hoping they'll do better in the future. That this particular offering is not up-to-snuff (for whatever reason) or is harmful to its audience or that...well, whatever the reason that doesn't mean I'm telling the creator of said project to hang it all up. Just want to be clear on that.

OKAY. Having gotten all that off my chest, I now want to write a little bit about the differences between Supers! and Supers! Revised...keeping in mind the reasons/goals of the design team that led to the revision. In their own words:

ALDO REGALADO, SUPERS! REVISED CO-AUTHOR: Simon Washbourne created a great game in SUPERS! First Edition. It was fast, fun, simple and robust, and the game’s action economy and narrative elements combined to enable superhero play like no other game I’d ever encountered to that point. The game, however, was also very vague in parts. Some Powers had die codes, but no explanation on how to use them. The game also lacked guidelines for breaking objects, handling vehicles (super or otherwise), grappling and a slew of other elements common to the superhero genre. A primary goal of the revision, therefore, was to provide answers to recurring questions, thus making the game more complete while remaining true to Simon’s original vision. Another reason for the revision was to bring new players into the fold by improving on production values. 

RUS BOYD, SUPERS! REVISED CO-AUTHOR: Another consideration going into the revision was the general presentation of the game. I think a lot of people were turned off by the general look and feel of the book and weren’t giving it a chance. While it wasn’t a major factor, giving the game a facelift was a component of the revision. Otherwise, as Aldo said, beefing up the options, making rules consistent and accessible, and fleshing out some of the missing elements was the #1 consideration.

But I'll get to that in a separate post.

Friday, July 10, 2015

Drinking and Stinking

I have very little time to blog. I'm sure of it. Very little time before my infant (she's 14 months now, so a bit older than a baby) wakes herself up again and needs to be put back to sleep again. This has been the drill every 20 minutes to an hour, for the last three nights or so. Problem is, the wife is sick as a dog, too, so if I don't do it, she stays sick. Problem is, she's over-worked and not getting better fast anyway. Ugh.

So, I have enough time to knock out a quick blog post, check the Mariners feed on my phone (losing again...just gave up a 3-run dinger to make it 6-1. Terrible), and down another glass of wine. Because if I've got to be up all night putting the baby back to sleep, I might as well be drinking.

Ope! That was almost it! A cough and a cry, but she managed to roll over without waking up (I am downstairs). I better work fast on this wine. Had half a bottle tonight at dinner (the other half shared between my wife and mother-in-law...sitter with the kids, but SHE can't put the kids to sleep. Nope). Thought about the Pope. Did not get a selfie, but sat about 10 yards away (five rows back), while he spoke. He looks like Jason Robards. He looks like just a man...or, I suppose, like any other Catholic priest. He has a quiet humility, but mostly I just sensed exhaustion from the guy. It must be exhausting...the endless festivals in your honor, having to press the flesh, the crush of millions of people trying to see you, touch you, yell out to you, everywhere you go. He's here for five days and the government's been planning his trip for half a year. It's like this no matter where he goes.

Just a man. My mother-in-law touched him as he got into his Pope-Mobile to drive away. She's Mexican, a lifelong Catholic of the conservative Latin American variety. Seeing him up close and personal was as big as seeing any favorite rock star, but he didn't sing. He Spanish, so I didn't understand him. But my wife will get me a copy of the transcript (being in media, she's had for a couple days) so I can translate it. She said she felt a sense of peace hearing him. Having him here was good for the president of Paraguay, which is good because he's good for the country and he needs all the help he can get. But you folks aren't interested in South American politics.

Most people just seem like people when you get up close to them. I saw Barac Obama up close and personal at a (lightly attended) rally during his campaign for his first presidency. The man has a riveting presence and dynamic speaking ability. Charisma, I guess you could call it. On the other hand, I've met rock stars who were quite underwhelming...Jerry Cantrell was so unassuming as to be easily forgettable even as I sat next to him (drinking) at a bar. I've watched Barysnikov perform in a small, black box theater in Seattle (in his twilight years, doing experimental dance, though he still had moves) and you could still sense the power in the man. The old man.

There's that cough cry this time. Better hurry with the drink. Check the score: 7-1 now, top of the 8th, and we're on our second reliever. Throwing balls, c'mon Beimel, get it together! Our all too human bullpen.

A cry. Another cry. She's up. Got to go.

Huh, that actually went extremely fast...fastest ever, perhaps. A little acoustic Toad the Wet Sprocket, and she's back to sleep in under five minutes. That is truly a record. Might need a little more wine to celebrate.

Mariners just got out of the 8th (stranding two A's on base); still down six runs at home. Our team is THE WORST team in the MLB with runners in scoring position. A couple days ago we went 0-14 with RISP...that is God awful. I might have to have a little more wine for the M's, too.

Humans are human. Carrie Fisher is 5'1"...that's shorter than my wife. Many professional athletes are gigantic human beings and physically imposing, but most of them cannot sing or dance. Speaking of "athletes" (I use the term loosely): the M's just went down 1-2-3 to end the 8th. That included Robinson Cano ($24 million per year!) and Nelson Cruz ($14+ million per year). They are both 1 for 4 tonight. How can someone make over $10 million dollars per year to fail 75% of the time? Well, only 70% in Cruz's case (he's batting .304...unfortunately, we're still six games under .500, about to be seven).

Pope Francisco (Mr. Robards) is a normal man. A quiet man, certainly a tired man. But I wouldn't call him "dynamic" or "charismatic" (and certainly not "physically imposing"). I don't suppose he was elected "Pope" to be those things...but he IS a symbol of the Church, and the closest thing to a living Christ figure in the hearts (and minds!) of Catholics all over the world. Sunday Mass is going to be in a muddy field with a projected half million people (certainly more...1.5 million have crossed over from Argentina this week to see His Holiness as it is). Woodstock had 400,000 people. I happen to know there will only be 400 portable toilets at the event, and the Powers-That-Be are aware of the woeful insufficiency of this. They're just not telling anyone.

He's just a man in a fancy outfit with a fancy car and a fancy plane. He's Batman without the utility belt or the burning desire to bring justice to criminals. I should be writing about Batman and not the Pope, but I'm drinking and I don't really have time to do anything other than cheap thoughts. It's the bottom of the 9th and Mark Trumbo has (apparently) hit a home run shot to score two runs (Seager was on base after being hit by a pitch). The score is 7-3 and Jesus Montero has just come up to the plate...he was sent down to the minor leagues last year after showing up spring training over-weight and out-of-shape. His excuse? "I wasn't doing nothing, just eating." A Mariners scout was fired last year after provoking Montero into a fight by sending him an ice cream sandwich to him in the dugout.  This is his first game back at the Major League level since being sent down and he's 1 for 3 tonight.

Oh, wait...we're sending in a pinch-hitter. LoMo (Logan Morrison)...which is a funny nickname since both lomo (a cut of steak) and lomito (a steak sandwich) are staples of Paraguay cuisine. LoMo just struck out. The M's traded pitcher Michael Pineda to the Yankees for Jesus Montero. Pineda is a 9-5 starter with a 3.64 ERA. The Mariners are a dumpster fire.

After LoMo struck out, Mike Zunino struck out (he's batting .165...not good) and then Dustin Ackley was a quick fly out (he's batting .222...not good). Both these guys were top draft picks (Ackley #2 over all for his year). Zunino can at least catch, but both are black holes in the line up.

Mariners lose again. Drink.

Ope...there's the baby crying! Got to go!


Okay, she's not going to sleep. At least not easy. So I'm going to have to drain my glass and cut this conversation short. Good night, folks.

Man, I'm exhausted, too.

Regarding His Holiness

Welp, I'm off to meet the Pope at the presidential palace. Not sure we're allowed to take "selfies."

Hopefully I'll have time to write more about superhero RPGs when I get home.
; )

Thursday, July 9, 2015

Nerfing Aquaman (Supers! Revised)

One of the reasons I'm really starting to groove on the DC superheroes (more than heroes of the Marvel stripe) is the manner in which their powers are handled. There is a tendency amongst DC heroes to be limited to a single power set (with a couple notable exceptions) rather than possess a number of fairly unrelated superpowers. Consider some of the older heroes: Flash (super speed), Green Lantern (power ring), Green Arrow (archery), Batman (uber-detective), Hawkman (flight)...rather than characters with multiple powers with which to overcome obstacles, you get a single superpower that must be used in a variety of creative, stunt-y ways to overcome a variety of challenges. For me, it's a very Old School approach, which I appreciate.

Use Flash as an example: here's a guy who in the game terms (of some RPGs) has a host of powers...phasing through objects, deflecting bullets, "decreasing gravity" by speeding up molecules, breaking time and dimensional boundaries, etc. But those are all products of a single power: he's really fast. He doesn't really have multiple powers, his comic writers are just trying to figure out different ways to use the powers he has. Contrast that with some of the popular heroes of Marvel like Captain America (perfect physical specimen, longevity, tactical supremacy, unbreakable shield), Wolverine (super senses, claws, regeneration, adamantine skeleton), any member of the Fantastic Four (yes, Reed Richards super-brain counts as a different power from his stretchiness), Thor, Spider-Man, etc. Even the idea of the "brick" type superhero (the big dude or dudette who is both super-strong AND damage resistant) is something far more prevalent in Marvel comics than DC...yes, Superman fits the bill (he IS the original, after all), but even Wonder Woman while strong, wasn't naturally invulnerable to damage (originally, anyway). The number of "bricks" one finds in Marvel is staggering: from Cage to Colossus to Thing to Hercules to Sasquatch to Wonder Man to...well, there's a bunch. An new one born with every super-team that rolls off the shelf.

Aquaman, like his DC brethren, derives his powers from a single source as well: his undersea heritage, The ability swim fast, fight well (underwater), talk to fish, breathe water (duh), and manipulate watery effects (at least, in the old Aquaman cartoon of the late 1960s), not to mention his Atlantean minions all combined to make him a fairly effective and power his own element. Part of the reason Aquaman gets such a bad rap (and, yes, I was as guilty as anyone when it came to bad-mouthing the sea king in my youth) was his appearance/presence with those air-breathing superheroes known as the Justice League, AKA "the Superfriends" and his taking part in their surface world (and outer space) adventures. Environments where his powers were diminished or outright useless.

Best Used in Solo Player Campaigns
I've mentioned before that my boy is a big fan of Aquaman. That's because his introduction to the character was by way of YouTube videos of the old '67-'68 cartoon that featured Aquaman as a solo hero in his own environment. We watched a lot of these when we were stuck in the Asuncion Sheraton hotel for five weeks (when we first came to Paraguay). Now that we've downloaded and watched more of the old Superfriends cartoon (and their battles with the Legion of Doom) I can see why I considered him such a punk as a kid. The guy does nothing. He is routinely left behind or relegated to the sidelines, existing only to be captured or voice some simplistic exposition when danger's afoot. When not riding his Sea-Doo (because it's a faster way for him to travel than by swimming?), he is most often seen riding "shotgun" in Wonder Woman's invisible plane which (humorously) reminds me of guys who couldn't get it together enough to get a license or a car and were thus relegated to the passenger seat of their girlfriend's car.

[back in the day, we had rather derogatory terms for this status of male (see the TLC song "No Scrubs") but as a somewhat more mature adult I try to refrain from such judgmental name-calling. Besides, I was "that guy" for a number of years myself. ; )]

At best, Aquaman's portrayal could be described as "lame," like a limping horse (in terms of being a superhero, anyway). But really, he was just a fish out of water, and diminished by the limits of the 20 minute, Saturday Morning format. Because I'm sure that creative use of his underwater abilities could be found, given a little extra time and brainpower.

Enter Supers! which I mentioned a couple days ago (before the specter of illness again struck several members of my household and thus curtailing my writing/blogging time...AGAIN). Supers! uses a quick and easy D6 system (roll handfuls of D6s and total for results) that emphasizes creativity (via narrative control) without being terribly "abstract-crunchy" in a FATE-y kind of way. Which I like a lot. It allows for power use in a very traditional comic book style, where a single power can be used for multiple stunts.

For example, your Incredible Hulk clone is fighting against some sort of flying menace that he can't reach because his feet have been encased in concrete by some typical comic book-y weirdness. You can still use your Super Strength to attack his winged opponent by (for example) "clapping his hands with such power as to buffet his foe with gale force winds." Roll the dice associated with the power. Similar to Villains & Vigilantes, which had an extensive cross-reference table for power use (attack) versus power use (defense), characters in Supers! have more options than the simplistic strike and parry/dodge of Heroes just dispenses with the V&V table, instead relying on narrative creativity and a simple D6 total vs. total roll-off. Combat is thus only restricted by a player's imagination and the limit of "one-use per round" for powers/abilities.

[in the Hulk example, the villain might use his rating in "Super Flight" to defend against the green goliath's attack...but then he wouldn't be able to use the power for his own attack in the round, needing instead to select a different power or ability]

The default setting for Supers! has players build characters out of 20 dice total...that's not a whole helluva' lot compared to most point-buy chargen systems (Wild Talents is in the several hundred range, and even Mutants & Masterminds 1E defaults at 150 power points). What's especially impressive is you can create most "Justice League" level powerhouses with about 30 dice. That's a pretty impressive feat considering compared to the full page stat blocks of DC Adventures.

As an example, here's a serviceable write-up of Aquaman (30 dice):

Resistances (all start at 1D):
Composure 3D
Fortitude 3D
Reflexes 2D
Will 3D

Aptitudes (all start at 1D):
Athletics (Swimming) 5D
Fighting 3D
Presence 3D

Summoning (underwater only) 6D*
Super Strength 5D
Water Powers (underwater only) 6D*


*NOTES: The complications added to his powers give them each a +1D bonus. I could easily add some advantages/disadvantages like Wealthy and Allies (to reflect his King of Atlantis heritage) and Enemies (like Black Manta and Ocean Master), but it's not terribly necessary. There isn't really a disadvantage that models his need to occasionally immerse himself in water ("danger of drying out") but this could be achieved by adding a "circumstance" complication to Super Strength and some aptitudes (like fighting) and resistances (like fortitude).

Summoning allows a character to summon mobs of mooks or a henchmen to fight for you, and this adequately models his ability to summon schools of sea life or large sea creatures (though only underwater)...this could even be applied to summoning "Atlantean soldiers" and the like. Water powers gives a person the ability to breathe underwater, create/manipulate water effects (like in the 60's cartoon), walk on water (which Aquaman can't do but the complication nixes this), and swim at 150mph (25mph per die)...the latter is faster than any non-supercavitation torpedo (or sea animal) though considerably slower than the Mach 10 or whatever the hell is his official speed...10,000m per second I read on one web site.

[one thing I dislike about DC superheroes are their seeming Godlike powers, which is more a reflection of "power creep" over the years...and an attempt to model comic book stunts that defy opposed to any real, sit down discussion of what's, say, actually IN the utility belt or a character's top speed. This is a product of the artist thinks it would be cool (and/or story appropriate) for a character to "swim up" a waterfall, and only later does a fan figure out how much speed is required for such a feat. Modern hydroplanes are capable of 200mph on straightaways, and that's with very little of the boat actually touching (and dragging) the water. I'm happy with 130 knots of speed, even if it's not "canon"]

Anyway, this a pretty competent Aquaman, though certainly more effective underwater than on dry land. Still, very easy to model using the rules as written for Supers!

Unfortunately, Supers! (as I mentioned before) had a couple issues that made it less-than-perfect. Sure, it didn't have EVERY power, advantage, and disadvantage one might want, but it certainly had enough (and modeling others ain't terribly hard). No, the problems were mechanical ones, and I broke down and purchased the Supers! Revised Edition (both PDF and print copy) to see if they fixed the issues. It did have very nice reviews, after all.

Welp, after reading the PDF I can happily report they fixed both issues. The first was Composure attacks that (previously) allowed any Cop with a decent Presence skill to shout down most any character with their authority. This has been changed so that a character can explicitly defend using powers OR aptitudes ("Hulk not surrender! Hulk smash!!!"). The second issue was that the activation of an advantage gave the GM a pass to activate a disadvantage...which didn't always make sense (why do I need to bring Ocean Master into a space scenario?) or...didn't make sense (the disadvantage  of "Normal" is already accounted for in chargen so how can it be "activated?"). Not to mention the characters that had ads without disads and vice versa. Now, they don't work that way...they're just always "on" (and several have been modified from how they appear in the basic game. "Normal" is gone completely, which isn't a terrible thing).

But even as they fixed these broken mechanics, the Revised edition has also "fixed" a bunch of mechanics that didn't require fixing. They've added ads that are prone to min/maxing (like nonsentience and big size) and ones that weren't necessary due to minimal effect or existing aptitude (feign death and intimidating) and disadvantages that are difficult to enforce or of minimal impact compared to the advantages they bring (mental hindrances, for example, have no real bite, nor ugly characters that stay in their masks).

They've added some needed powers that were missing from the first edition (Absorption for my Sebastian Shaw clone and the new Mimic Aptitude and Mimic Energy powers). But they added some that really stink, like Super Aptitude which completely undermines the whole Aptitude concept/mechanic (riddle me this, dumb-dumb...what's the point in spending dice to increase multiple specialties beyond 3D when you can simply buy "super aptitude" at 4D or 5D. Broke your own damn game). And they changed powers that didn't need changing (like Super Brain, Super Science, and Super Senses). This, plus the addition of dumb aptitudes like Awareness (great...add an unneeded system of surprise mechanics) and Sleight of Hand (to pick pockets?) plus extra complexity in combat (even with regard to fighting mooks!) just makes one go UGH!

However, the worst they've done is to nerf Aquaman.

Whereas the original edition of Supers! allowed one to easily model the King of the Sea with the selection of Water Powers...a power that would be seldom used in the game due to its incompatibility with most surface adventures...they broke up the power set into separate powers that must be purchased individually: water breathing (now an advantage), super swimming, life support (because being able to live underwater also allows you somehow to live in a volcano or outer space??), and (presumably) elemental control water.

Aquaman hate. That's what it is.

*sigh* I know, I know...this post is too long. Sorry. We'll cut it off there.

Monday, July 6, 2015

Wonder Woman

No, not Carli Lloyd...though if you saw her one-woman showcase against Japan in the World Cup final yesterday, you'll understand why the title might easily apply.

[good links on Lloyd, American Hero, can be found here and here. She's the Miroslav Klose of women's soccer...just has a nose for the goal. Congrats to the US team, by the way]

No, just wanted to talk about the real Wonder Woman...the comic book more time.

As I mentioned previously, I spent a lot of my vacation time in the USA re-reading and scrutinizing (I won't say "analyzing" since in my mind that implies a more systematic approach) various superhero RPGs I've purchased over the years. The specific books in question included the following:

Capes, Cowls, and Villains Foul (by Barak Blackburn)
DC Adventures (yes, the Green Ronin one)
Heroes Unlimited (both Revised and 2E)
Marvel Superheroes (both versions of the Grubb classic)
Mutants and Masterminds (1E)
Supers! (by Simon Washbourne)
Wild Talents

[superhero games that I own but did not bother to read include Capes, Champions, Godlike, Guardians, Sketch!, Superworld, Villains & Vigilantes, With Great Power, and probably a couple-four others that I'm forgetting at the moment. I own a LOT of superhero RPGs]

These are not listed in any particular order besides alphabetical. If they were listed in order of importance or attention paid (or even chronological order of scrutinization) than Green Ronin's DC Adventures would be first on the list. That's because the superheroes of the DC universe have been getting a lot of love in my house lately.

One of the nice things about being back in the US of've got access to wonderful comic book stores. I've mentioned Batman '66 a couple times on this blog, as an incredibly cool and clever concept: a Batman comic that pays homage to the campy TV show of the 60s, fit for both child and adult consumption (not an easy thing to do, folks). Managed to pick up the second volume (trade paperback) of the series while in town, and it continues to contain excellent stories. The re-skinning of the buffoonish King Tut (was he ever an actual villain of the original comics?) as a dangerous, time-travelling mastermind is sheer genius...and the appearance of the Bat Anti-Croc spray (my son has always digged on the anti-animal sprays since watching the 1966 film) is hilarious "fan service."

Like Mary Poppins: "Practically perfect in every way."
But Batman '66 wasn't the real treasure we picked up. Perhaps due to the success of the Batman '66 series, DC has issued a Wonder Woman '77 one shot (it contains two separate stories, but there are no public plans to make it an ongoing series...or so I was told) that may be the coolest thing I've seen in print (right up there with Xenozoic Tales). Wonder Woman '77 tells WW stories based on the iconic Lynda Carter television series of the 1970s. It is beautifully drawn, skillfully capturing the likenesses of Carter and co-star Lyle Waggoner, even as it includes actual (comic book) super-villains from WW's rogues gallery like Silver Swan and Doctor Psycho. Like Batman '66 the comic does a good job of taking itself seriously, even as it's done in a light-hearted tone, attempting to end

" did nearly every [TV] episode, with Wonder Woman or Diana Prince smiling."
- Andy Mangels

I know, I know...this is not the Wonder Woman of the 21st century, the ass-kicking God of War with a sword that doesn't mind putting bad guys in the ground. This is the throwback Wonder Woman, the "Citizen of the World," Ambassador of Peace version. Frankly, it's damn refreshing...I'm just not a fan of the Wonder Warrior version currently on the shelves, in case that was unclear from my last post on the subject. Is it unrealistic that vigilante superheroes have a "code against killing?" Sure: just like utility belts with anti-shark spray or bulletproof bracelets are "unrealistic." Like D&D, it's not important to me that a bullywug shouldn't be interested in carrying off human women (because they're, like, frogs, dude)'s a damn escapist fantasy! How often do mind flayers need to eat a brain before they start feeling the pangs of there a "brain superstore" in the Underdark that they can frequent?

If you're going to buy-in to the madness then buy-in. Superheroes are unrealistic, better versions of ourselves (humans) that we can look up to and strive to emulate. Making Wonder Woman a badass killer is fucking stupid. If you want to make her less of an objectified pin-up girl, try giving her a costume that's not a bathing suit. Is she the only DC hero to continuously have bare shoulders since 1980?

On sale 7/22: Blood and Swimsuits!
But. I'm son has not been exposed to the "sword-and-axe" WW, and even so he readily acknowledges her as the most powerful member of the Justice League after Superman (and I'm fine with Supes being numero uno, seeing as how he was the first superhero - i.e. hero with superpowers - ever to see print).

[some four year olds are sponge-savants when it comes to dinosaurs; my boy can correctly categorize comic book characters as either Avengers or Justice League and name the power set and secret identities of most. This without entirely grokking the whole DC/Marvel thing and without being allowed to watch shows in the TV7 category]

That's without the warrior queen, god of war, bench press a jumbo jet power set, mind you.

See, besides comics like Batman '66 and Wonder Woman '77 (what's next, BTW? Superman '81?) you can still pick up illustrated books that feature comic book heroes written for kids. We got one where WW fights Cheetah (and her trained henchbeasts) in the old school fashion: Lasso of Truth, (mild) super strength, animal empathy/telepathy, smarts and fighting prowess. Combine that with some Batman "phonic books" (that include guest appearances from Supes and WW) make for good, heroic fun and DC has created a Big Fan in my little guy.

Anyway, while the Green Spectrum is still my main focus when analyzing superhero RPGs (from Green Arrow to the Green Goliath, AKA the Hulk...and including Green Lantern in between), I now find myself drawn towards modeling Wonder Woman in game. DC Adventures, of course, has a write-up of the Amazonian (pre-God o War even). but man-o-man that system is just too clunky/crunchy for my taste. I don't even know what I can compare it to, in terms of attempting to read it. It's like...I don't know. I didn't bother bringing it to Paraguay with me, so what does that tell you?

[by comparison, I did bring my copy of M&M, even though there's stuff I really hate about the basic system...mainly, the scaling of "power" with "level." I believe I've blogged about that in the past]

Heroes Unlimited fails the "Wonder Woman" test. HU isn't really designed for games with heroes as powerful as the Justice Leaguers anyway, but you can't even create a poor man's version using the system...the Immortal power type ("class") from Powers Unlimited 2 is a pretty poor fit, and there's nothing on the Aliens class that seems to synch up. Advanced Marvel isn't terribly helpful, though the Basic (original) version of MSH does pretty well for modeling WW (with basic powers like Unique Weapon, Unique Vehicle, and Animal Communication/Control. Heck, Steve Trevor even makes a handy Sidekick!), but it still has problems with a lot of other DC-types (Batman, Green Lantern, Flash...and, well, you can probably stop about there).

Surprisingly Robust
No, the gem that really stood out was actually a game that I'd set aside a while back: Supers! The Comic Book Role-Playing Game. Unlike Mary Poppins, Supers! is not "practically perfect in every way;" in fact it has a couple fairly serious mechanical flaws (in addition to making it tough to build a Hulk clone). However, it's a lot better than I good, in fact, that it meets nearly all my needs for the "generic-supers-system-I've-been-searching-for-this-last-quarter-century." Which is saying something.

Supers! is the other (superhero) RPG I brought with me to Paraguay.

So I am very happy and Wonder Woman is a big part of that. After all, if I wasn't trying to find a way to model her character in a way that wasn't D20 complicated (because I was appalled at her write-up in DC Adventures, which I was reviewing because of the attention paid to the character by my boy...he said today that Wonder Woman is his 2nd favorite character behind Batman, though that's a position that's likely to change on a weekly basis)...I wouldn't have bothered to check out Supers! which I'd previously written off as "nice, but a little lightweight." Hell, it can even make a good looking (i.e. "very playable") Aquaman character. Which is also saying something.

But I'll talk more about Supers! in another post (and I'll get back to KWN and the D&D cartoon..,yes, I have a lot of irons in the fire. See what happens when you don't have enough time to write?). I see Supers! also has a revised edition now...I might pick that up and see if corrects those aforementioned flaws (to sum up: composure attacks and ad/disad use in-play; most everything else is milk and honey).

Aaaand...that's enough. I will say that I had a chance to catch the four or five episodes of The Flash series (On Demand) while I was back in Seattle and I liked it. I especially dig the show's interpretation of the Barry Allen character and the way the writers have embraced super villains (the episode with Captain Cold was a distinct highlight). Also, I particularly like the choice of Iris West and her father Joe to be played by African-American actors Candice Patton and Jesse Martin. The show's not a faithful recreation of the Silver Age character (it's not set in the 50s-60s, for example), so there's no need to keep all the characters caucasian. Hell, one of these days people will figure out it's okay (and interesting) to have a black Bruce Wayne or a Filipino Peter Parker. More interesting than giving them swords, anyway.

[EDIT: at the time I wrote this, I was unaware of the Miles Morales character in the Marvel Ultimate imprint; however, my original point still stands: if you're rebooting a 50 year old comic character for a 21st century film, you're already stepping away from its Silver Age canon. I'd like to think the demographics of American superheroes could match the demographics of the U.S.]

Just saying.
; )

Friday, July 3, 2015

D&D - The Cartoon (Part 2: Setting Considerations)

As was commented in my prior post, folks who treated themselves to the DVD box set of the Dungeons & Dragons cartoon received an adventure for use with the D20 edition of D&D (I couldn't find a copyright date so I'm not sure if it's for 3rd or 3.5) that includes statted up pregens of the show's main protagonists plus Venger. Curious folks can download a copy of this here (link available through the Dungeons & Dragons Cartoon Encyclopedia).

All of these character write-ups are terrible. They are simply 7th level characters, equipped and outfitted as such, and bear almost zero resemblance to the characters portrayed in the show. For example, Sheila the Thief (rogue in DND3 terms) wears a +2 mithril shirt and dual-wields two masterwork rapiers thanks to her two-weapon fighting feat. Presto the Magician has an Intelligence of 20(!) and carries a whopping 15 spells, most of which are of the damage causing/combat variety (ice storm, wall of fire, fireball, haste, lightning bolt, glitter dust, mage armor, scorching ray, burning hands, ray of enfeeblement, and shield (x2) make up the non-utility spells he carries in his memory). Diana the Acrobat doesn't have the acrobatics feat (hmmm...) but does have all the special abilities of a 7th level monk (her class in the write-up) like immunity to disease and resistance to enchantments (still mind). Funny, the write-up only gives her a Charisma of 11...less than Sheila (15) and Presto (13!) and barely more than Eric and Bobby (9 and 10 respectively). This despite being the natural leader of the group whenever Hank is absent and generally the most charismatic/confident one of the bunch.
"Yeah, Charisma is my 'dump-stat,' too..."
Ridiculous or not, the handbook is simply a product of the time it was produced, and probably designed to tempt most fans of the cartoon (who, like me, grew up watching it in the 80s) to check out the newest edition of D&D (since you'd still need the core rules to run the adventure/use the quick-start rules here!). As a teaser to a product, it's certainly an enticement.

However, consider the actual game at the time the show was written/aired. In 1983 your choices of D&D were pre-Unearthed Arcana AD&D (1st edition), the B/X version of D&D, or Mentzer's Basic (in the main, a repackaging of B/X retaining nearly the entirety of the Moldvay/Cook rules). Mentzer's Companion (which started to deviate substantially from previous "basic" sets) wouldn't be out till 1984 and the Unearthed Arcana (which took 1E into the "1.5" range) wouldn't be out till 1985.  Both Holmes's version of Basic and the original ("0E") edition had been discontinued by 1983. Other than the reissue of "basic/expert" in its Elmore illustrated glory, the most recent rule books to be published for the D&D line would have been the Fiend Folio (1981) and the Monster Manual II (sometime in 1983).

In light of the status of the show's namesake/inspiration, we can analyze the cartoon through one of two lenses: AD&D (pre-UA, 1st edition), or B/X D&D (or BE pre-CMI, pre-RC).

[note: I'm not saying one SHOULD do this, only that we CAN. The show exhibits a number of unique concepts not present in any edition of D&D, including and especially objectives unrelated to the acquisition of treasure/loot and the idea of reluctant adventurers of a non-heroic stripe ("reluctant" and "non-heroic" not generally being found in combination)]

Regardless of the rule system used as one's "lens" there are several interesting setting choices to note:
  1. The show eschews the typical "Tolkien high fantasy" tropes in its presentation. There are no elves. All the protagonists (and the adventurers that they meet) are human. Orcs are clearly of the "pig-faced" variety not the twisted elves, green-skinned berserkers, or burly adventurers found in other fantasy adventure games. Dwarves are encountered as a species of sentient (like lizard men or orcs) that act as a goal/objective (slaves that need to be freed) not fellow adventurers. The single instance of a "halfling" in the series is nothing but an antagonist in disguise, and a creature that displays none of the halfling traits found in most editions of D&D. This is a human-centric universe.
  2. Mythology is, for the most part, absent. Other than the titular dragons, unicorns, and the aforementioned slave-miner dwarves there are no creatures from classic mythology found in the pegasi, elves, manticores, chimera, etc. Even the "classic" monsters that appear are different from their actual mythology. Dragons have multiple heads, are part demon, or breath lightning. Unicorns have the ability to teleport. Hydras breath fire rather than being slain by it. Goblins shoot lasers. Movie monsters are likewise removed for the most part: no vampires, werewolves, or mummies, for example (though there is an encounter with something resembling a zombie or ghoul). On the whole, this is a world of alien creatures, not the kitchen sink of folklore Gygax created.
  3. On the other hand, creatures now identified as intellectual property and brand identity (mind flayers, displacer beasts, carrion crawlers, etc.) do NOT appear. Lolth even appears as a human, not a Drow (there are no dark elves, nor elves of any type in the D&D cartoon).
  4. Magical items, while present, are not nearly as ubiquitous as they are in normal D&D campaigns. All magical items exhibit specific, strange powers. Most contain some backstory or interesting history, even if it isn't fully revealed. The protagonists' possession of magical implements is quite unique, marking them as "heavy hitters" of the realm (alongside such notables as Warduke, Strongheart, and the being known as Dungeon Master). All are items that are coveted by those seeking power (generally, bad folk).
  5. Despite the titles provided to the protagonists, none of these characters exhibit any of the normal abilities associated with their class. To be clear, in 1983 there was no "cavalier," "barbarian," or "acrobat" class in the existing rule books, yet even taking into account the Unearthed Arcana (which presented classes first demonstrated in earlier Dragon magazines) we see none of the skills possessed by player characters of these classes.
The last point is worth elaborating a bit. Gygax first published the barbarian class in Dragon #63 (July '82), the first of a number of classes he was testing for a new as-yet-to-be-released publication (this was explained in issue #65 when he provided a list of possible classes and asked for feedback). The thief-acrobat was published in issue #69 (January '83) and the cavalier in issue #72 (April '83)...all essentially as they would later appear in 1985's Unearthed Arcana.

Folks whose only exposure to the WotC barbarian of D&D3+ might be surprised at how different the character class is...more an "outdoor skill monkey" with big hit points and an abhorrence to magic in any form. There is no "rage" ability or "uncanny dodge bonus" no trap sensing or (from 3.5) damage reduction. Just a more woodsy brute with an ability to hit creatures only damaged by enchanted items (necessary due to the class's refusal to use magic weapons!) and the ability to call up a barbarian horde at high levels.

[note that Bobby the Barbarian displays none of these traits]

Meanwhile, while Diana does possess some of the acrobatic abilities associated with the "thief-acrobat" class...a kind of 1E prestige class that gains pole vaulting and tumbling skills starting at sixth level...she displays zero of the thief abilities that are just as much a part of the class. There is no "1st level acrobat" in AD&D...the thief-acrobat is a high level thief that specializes in cat burglar type escapades a la Hanse Shadowspawn from the Thieves World series of books. The in-show explanation given for Diana's abilities is that she is an Olympic gymnast...otherwise, she'd (presumably) have no such abilities aside from those granted by her magic totem.

[hmmm...this is getting long again. More to follow...]

Feliz Dia de la Independencia!

As they appear to do every year, the U.S. Embassy in Paraguay did their annual 4th of July celebration yesterday on the 3rd. My wife was able to wrangle us a couple invitations to the event, so that's where I was yestereve.

What an f'ing travesty.

As my buddy Heron recently accused me of living in a cave filled with hate, I will restrain myself from ranting...I realize that referring to Paraguay as a "hellhole" the other day was grossly unfair (considering it isn't in the midst of a civil war or systematic genocide or the invasion of a foreign power). Suffice is to say that it was little more than another "themed party" at which wealthy locals, politicos, and high-ranking military dudes could hobnob and cram their gobs. There was little actual Americana (and precious few Americans!) present. And...

And if I write anymore it will turn into a rant. The whole affair was depressing and I'm glad the drinks were free.

I will say that I find it slightly ironic that the one event I'd expect and hope to have fireworks had none, considering the fervor with which this country like to blow shit up (we had fireworks going off in our neighborhood every other night this week). *sigh*

Anyway...on a much happier note, I spent much of yesterday reading the entirety of Lowell Francis's History of Post-Apocalyptic RPGs series over at Age of Ravens. It's an excellent comparison and analysis of PA trends in gaming, especially in light of world events that have shaped our perception on what might constitute an apocalypse.  Long-time readers of this blog know my fetish with regard to PA games, settings, and fiction, so I'm hardly unbiased, but Age of Ravens has been nominated for an Ennie (though not sure why for "Best Website" and not the "Best Blog" category)'s good reading and I suggest folks check it out.

[on a related...if depressing...topic, I caught the Vice episode "Cold War 2" last night. Maybe the coming decade will see a return to the classic PA tropes associated with WW3 (a la Twilight 2000) as opposed to alien and Cthulhu armageddons]

Hope everyone in the US of A is enjoying a good, old fashioned Fourth of July weekend. Damn, I wish I could be up there right now...barbecues and beer and inner-tubing and Seafair Parades (Seattle only...sorry) and gaming, of course. July 4th weekends were always good gaming weekends for me, back in the day.


I'm going to eat a Big Mac for dinner tonight.

Wednesday, July 1, 2015

D&D - The Cartoon (Part 1: Nostalgia)

I find it hard to believe that in all my ramblings and nostalgic tangents, I've never blogged about the old Dungeons & Dragons cartoon...but search as I might, I find no mention of it. On the other hand, per Wikipedia, the DVD release (which I own) was only published between 2006 and 2008 and I started this blog in 2009...the box set was probably gathering dust on a shelf long before I ever started blogging about games.

Besides, I've tried to make the content here a bit less about nostalgia (really!). And the D&D cartoon (certainly my reasons for buying the DVD) falls squarely in the middle of that soup. Ah, well...if nostalgia's not your thang, you might want to skip this post.

Somewhere on a shelf in Seattle.
The D&D cartoon (I realize folks these days refer to it as "The Animated Series" or "TAS" but, whatever) was probably my favorite cartoon series of all time. That is to say, I'm thinking about that at this moment (about 1am my time...just put the baby back to sleep by rocking her to Free Bird, so maybe my brain's on tilt), and I'm hard pressed to think of any other show that might be in the running. Certainly Thundarr the Barbarian is neck-and-neck for the top spot. But I can distinctly remember setting my alarm clock to make sure I got up in time to watch Dungeons & Dragons (as the network kept moving it to earlier timeslots...7:30 I think?)...what kid sets an alarm clock to get up on a Saturday morning just to make sure he catches his favorite cartoon?

The show ran from 1983 to 1985 (again, per wikipedia), but most of the episodes from Season 3 are unfamiliar to me, whereas I can clearly remember all of the first two seasons. It's quite possible that in the fall of '85 (when Season 3 was airing) I was busy with extracurricular activities (I was playing a lot of soccer round about that time) and that might account for missing shows certainly I would have remembered the Fairie Dragon episode...fairie dragons having made a semi-prominent appearance in our AD&D campaign by then (though our DM had drawn them from Dragon Magazine, not the later MM2 entry). Anyway, I loved it at the time, and it certainly filled the hole in my Saturday Morning melancholy caused by the cancellation of Thundarr in 1982.

[to be clear, my love of action/adventure RPGs may stem from my love of action/adventure cartoons as much as anything. I liked Loony Tunes, certainly, but would easily switch the channel for Thundarr or Blackstar or Tarzan, Zorro, and the Lone Ranger. I stopped watching action/adventure cartoons when they started A) being used as a vehicle for marketing toys, and B) started including heavy-handed morality messages tacked on as epilogues. Shows like He-Man, G.I. Joe, and Transformers may hold a soft spot in the hearts of many Old School Nerds but for me those shows are the reason I stopped watching cartoons altogether. Sorry...I've got better things to do than be lectured by a shill for toy company]

Not that shows like Dungeons & Dragons didn't have morality messages encoded into them as part of the plot...but give me some credit for being able to figure out there was a lesson to be learned about teamwork or whatever. After Dungeons & Dragons ended, I stopped watching cartoons with a couple exceptions: the after-school series Galaxy Rangers (which featured cyborg protagonists and a cool theme song) and, of course, The Simpsons which was mandatory primetime viewing for high school kids (which I was) when it came out.

But I digress.

I picked up the DVD box set for Dungeons & Dragons a few years back, but lack of free time (and lack of interest from the significant other) precluded me from getting through all the disks before the thing went on the shelf. While it didn't have the catchy theme song common to most cartoons of the mid-80s, it certainly had plenty of "D&Dish" action, animation, and themes. No there was no murder-hobo bloodletting and corpse-looting (which, in a way, makes it fairly opposite most D&D campaigns...especially the ones I was running or playing in during the early 80s), but it was definitely populated with the weird and whimsical, the danger and fantasy that is (for me) at least as important as getting to getting my imaginary stab on fighting orcs and dragons and whatnot.

The show served as a source of inspiration on occasion, though  perhaps not as often as you'd expect. I designed a fairly extensive labyrinthine dungeon with a super-beholder at the heart of it based (in part) on the premise of a particular episode, and one of the long-running PCs in our campaign was a cleric whose magic shield was (more-or-less) a direct 'porting of Eric the Cavalier's totem. Also thief-acrobats with extendable magic quarterstaves were fairly ubiquitous later on (though on second thought, this was probably due to the publishing of Unearthed Arcana in 1985). But that's about it. Venger never made an appearance in our tabletop games (nor Tiamat, though we started using the Monster Manual with our B/X games circa 1982). No one had a bow that shot lightning bolts or a club that worked like a horn of blasting. Of course, until 1985 (and the entry of UA into the "Gygax canon") the only place folks would have heard of the character classes "cavalier," "barbarian," and "acrobat" would have been long out-o-print copies of Dragon. Bullywugs and purple worms? Sure. But even as a 10 year old I wasn't setting up encounters with Lolth at the local tavern.

ANYway...the reason for this post was NOT to stroll down Memory Lane, but rather to mine some things out of the cartoon for gaming purpose. Yes, really. But as I've meandered overlong, mired in nostalgia, I'll save that for tomorrow's post. It's 2:30 and really past my bedtime.