stevekenson: (go-play)
One thing I’ve noticed about certain fictional settings, especially comic books, is they are often self-defining. That is, you often hear discussion about characters in the setting (even by characters in the setting) in terms of other characters: “He’s almost as strong as Superman!” “Wow, and I thought Batman was scary...” and so forth.

It’s something that could become the basis for an ability scale, Amber Diceless Roleplaying style: where does a character rank on the list of Strongest, Fastest, Smartest, and so forth, or is the character merely “Average” (or whatever the default may be) in an ability? Given how often comic book characters are touted as “The Worlds Greatest _______ “ it makes sense to calibrate a scale to that standard. You’d have to decide if ties were possible and, if so, what that means for the game mechanics, and if there is essentially an infinite amount of space between ranks. Are the ranks based on the heroes (player characters) as the yardstick or something else?

Obviously, there’s a lot to consider in terms of the application, but the ability “Strongest in the World” does have a certain appeal.
stevekenson: (go-play)
So [livejournal.com profile] bruceb’s previews and musings on his New Horizons project got met thinking about the question of “hidden” aspects in FATE: essentially aspects that were not only both good and bad (as many aspects are) but often advantageous and disadvantageous simultaneously. Many of these revolve around what might be called secret or hidden aspects, where using them could be helpful, but revealing that you have them could be detrimental.

Take the example of a masked hero in the American South in the 1920s. Nobody knows that beneath his full face-mask and gloves is a black man fighting against injustice (and adopting at least one of the motifs of the Klan – like most masked heroes, the guy has issues). Faced with an angry black mob and the need to calm them, our hero could take off his mask (or even just one of his gloves), revealing his true race and color, even though he risks further inflaming the mob, to say nothing of exposing the truth to the white journalist who has been his sometime ally. How will he write about it in the next day’s paper?

Another is the “Silver Age” Promenthea from Alan Moore’s comic series: nobody knows the heroine Promethea is really a gay man named Bill, including her sometime FBI boyfriend! Given her magical origins and adventures, there are certainly occasions when the aspect “Transgendered,” “Both Man and Woman” (or however it is expressed on the character sheet) could come into play, but does Promethea dare reveal her secret? Readers of the series know the repercussions of such a decision.

Strikes me there’s a potentially interesting dynamic in the tension between tagging a hidden aspect for an advantage and revealing (and thereby compelling) the same aspect in the process. Sadly, I’ve no time to go delving for it right now in these final days before GenCon.
stevekenson: (go-play)
One thing I’ve noticed from our recent D&D 4e game is a phenomenon that’s not unique to D&D but pointed out somewhat by the game’s lack of a “do-over” or “mulligan” mechanic like the various Hero/Action/Fate points of other RPGs (since D&D action points have a different use).

Generally, RPGs have an action resolution structure along the lines of:

1. Player describes desired action/outcome.

2. GM applies appropriate game rules and calls for whatever resolution roll/mechanics are appropriate.

3. GM interprets results and tells player(s) what happened.

This leads to a certain amount of “wow that action sounded really cool when you described it, too bad you bricked the roll and there’s no way it’ll happen.” It can create a certain amount of anticlimax, in the sense that the “big reveal” of the cool action comes first, and then it either succeed as-described (no real increase in “wow” factor other than “yay, it worked!”) or it fails to succeed as-planned (kind of a let-down). D&D 4e seeks to mitigate this somewhat by having daily abilities do something even on a failed roll, so the effort isn’t totally wasted, but it doesn’t apply much beyond that (as I learned from my rogue’s streak of failed Thievery rolls to overcome locks, traps, and basically to do all the roughish things expected of him).

I wonder about mechanics wherein success or failure, or good/bad dice results, instead grant a degree of narrative control to the player/GM to then make up some action(s) that justify the result. So, if a combat conflict results in a “setback” (but not an outright defeat) for the PC, the GM gets to say, “in a clash of blades, the Count sweeps your sword to one side and it becomes stuck in one of the wooden support beams!” or something like that, rather than having to decide up-front that’s what the Count was going for, and then rolling to see if he succeeds or fails. It seems like it would fill some of the “negative space” of conflicts that just end in “nope, that attempts fails”.

On the other hand, such a nebulous mechanic would make it more difficult to bring quantified game traits into play unless you could do so after the fact. That is, test first and see what kind of roll/result you have, and then decide what trait(s) to apply to it. An interesting outcome of this would be the ability to either play to strengths (high value traits able to fill-out lower results or push higher ones over-the-top) or apply less valued traits to unexpectedly good results, provided the player has a story reason for it.

This inverts the usual formula of:

Task = appropriate Trait + Randomizer = Result

to

Task = Randomizer + chosen Trait = Result

Maybe even doing away with the “Task” portion. So, “figure out how to get past this locked and booby-trapped door” might be the task. The player gets to roll and, based on that roll, choose the trait or traits to apply to the task, explaining to the GM how they apply, to provide a particular outcome.

it’s an approach I’d like to play around with it a bit more. Anyone know of games that apply this approach, or something like it, to good effect?
stevekenson: (go-play)
Apophenia, noun: the tendency to see connections where none exist.”
— The Question, Justice League Unlimited, “Double Date”

One thing you hear often about roleplaying games is they are exercise for the imagination, they force players (including GMs) to flex their creative muscles to come up with all the imaginary stuff that goes into a typical roleplaying game session, to say nothing of a sustained campaign.

One of the elements of RPGs falling out of vogue as “uncreative” is creation of anything by one or more random die rolls: players demand more precision, more creative control, it is said. Systems of point-accounting or allocation are preferred to “roll 3d6 six times” or the like. What this new desire to take the randomness out of character, setting, and adventure design in RPGs does not seem to take into account is how inspiring that randomness can be. How the imagination fires when confronted with a seemingly unconnected list of things and told “make these pieces fit together.”

Take Marvel Super-Heroes for example. It’s character creation system is almost vestigial, since you’re expected to play Spider-Man, or Wolverine, or to fight over who gets to (or has to) play Spider-Man and Wolverine... At any rate, creating original characters is entirely by random die rolls, givng you a collection of abilities, talents, and powers. My game group still jokes about the “wings, claws, ice generation” combo that came up in one of our early games. Funny thing is, that system of randomly rolling-up characters provided some interesting sparks. Take the player who rolled up a super-strong, kind of clumsy hero with Quills who decided his hero was a humanoid cactus... the Mighty Saquarro! Would this player have ever just thought up such a character cold and decided “hey, that sounds like fun”?

What about the Traveller world-creation system that sometimes provided seemingly contradictory conditions? Some might say the system is broken, but what about the cases where the universe surprises us with seeming contraditions? What about the creative challenge of figuring out why that world with no atmosphere has such a high population? Could some sort of natural disaster have driven everyone into underground cities? Was cloning technology, intended to keep the colony alive during the Long Night, misused to create an underground world of overpopulated, disposable mine workers who have never seen the sky?

See what I mean?

Even that humble 3d6 roll. Imagine creating a D&D character as a blank slate, then choosing a class based on the character’s strengths and weaknesses (just as we tend to choose careers and vocations in real life). Rather than figuring out a class from the start and an “optimal build” for it, explain why your wizard is both strong (Str 14) and clumsy (Dex 8) in addition to his notable intellect (Int 17). Was he an oafish farm-lad far smarter than anyone gave him credit (because of his clumsiness) until the local wizard noticed him? Or was he on his way to becoming a soldier before a terrible injury almost crippled him, leaving him to study and discover a talent for the arcane? Or is he a wizard at all? Perhaps he’s a half-decent warrior, who’s slow in body, but a cunning tactician.

Sometimes RPGs forget that part of the fun of the game is not just putting together all those disparate parts, but filling in and providing the creative “glue” that holds them together and breathes life into them. There’s a lot empahsis on the mechanics of character building, rather than letting the random number generators (the dice) do a lot of the generating, and asking the imagination to fill-in the backstory.
stevekenson: (go-play)
It occurs to me that roleplaying game rules are tweaked, modified, and revised far more than the rules of any other type of game. Most boardgames change very little over time: they might see some modification, variants, or the like, but remain largely consistent, certainly not the degree of change you find between the first and current edition of D&D, or the very first and current editions of Hero System or even GURPS.

I wonder if the reason for that might be the intense identification RPG players have with their in-game proxies, their characters. You hear a great deal with RPGs about the “feel” of play, debates about simulationism vs. narrativism, and other discussions about what the purpose of RPG rules even is (beyond, one assume, “to play the game by”). A lot of this seems to stem from the impression that a virtual person’s “life” is governed by these rules, rather than just a faceless game piece. Nobody cares what the queen’s reason for attacking the opposing rook is in Chess, nor does anyone seem to care what the One-Eyed Jack thinks is “wild” in Poker. There are no “characters” in those games, no story or narrative, just an abstraction with a set of rules and an end-state.

By the same token, RPGs are the only real sort of game to ascribe different motives to the player and the game-piece. That is, when you’re playing Monopoly, you make decisions based on how to win the game, not on sound financial advice or your ideas about the market or affordable housing. RPGs, on the other hand, often run into conflict between the “sensible” choice (both in objective terms and in terms of the most efficient exploitation use of the game rules) and the “character-driven” choice, wherein the character’s fictional preferences are taken into account.

RPG character are (at least obstensibly) unique. Even if they fit various niches and archetypes (or character classes) they have their own names, personalities, histories, and such. Little wonder gamers are often invenerate tinkerers, who monkey around with the rules trying to get just the right “feel” to them. Add to that the fact that people play and enjoy RPGs for different reasons, having different ideas of what constitutes a “successful” RPG system, and it’s no surprise that we see so many variations of our favorite games, with more coming along all the time.
stevekenson: (go-play)
[Poll #1263977]

I wonder if there’s a corrolation between different RPG play styles and verbal identification with one’s character in-game. The first person “I do this” is more of adopting the role, taking on the character, while the third person “my character does this” is more an element of the game, treating the character as game-piece or separate from one’s self. How do you play it and what, if anything, is the impact on how your game play feels?
stevekenson: (go-play)
A conversation with an RPG industry colleague over dinner led me to think some about different ways roleplaying games handle the actual mechanics, or in-game effects, of roleplaying, measured on a continuum from implicit to explicit:

The “implicit” approach essentially assumes roleplaying “just happens,” as sort of a by-product of playing the game and essentially no rules are needed to cover it. This is how most RPGs initially dealt with the issue: by not dealing with it, at least, not directly. So, 1st edition D&D, for example, has virtually no roleplaying mechanics. How you choose to roleplay your character, his personality, attitudes, history, likes and dislikes, and so forth, have no real impact on game-play. About the only roleplaying mechanic in the game is alignment, and even that is more of a general behavioral guideline than a game sub-system.

The “explicit” approach encapsulates some of the roleplaying experience in the rules of the game. Perhaps one of the earliest examples is Call of Cthulhu’s Sanity system, which not only measures a characters descent into madness, but mandates a certain kind of roleplaying as the character’s sanity deteriorates. A great many explicit roleplaying rules systems provide mechanical incentives for “appropriate” roleplaying, which usually means in accordance with genre conventions and established character traits. They’re systems where how a character thinks or feels is often as important as what the character does.

Interestingly, there’s a perception that implicit RPGs do not “support” roleplaying in-game because they don’t incentivize it in any way, as if roleplaying won’t occur if there’s no clear game system reason for it. However, it could be said that implicit games are the most open-ended, since players are entirely free to play their characters as they see fit, without having to worry whether or not their portrayal syncs with the mechanical requirements of the game. That is, they can make unexpected choices, go against established character traits, or come up with entirely new things on the fly without needing to shoehorn them into their character’s game stats.

When dealing with the “roleplaying experience,” one wonders: Which approach actually “supports” it more?
stevekenson: (go-play)
It is resolved: a game mechanic that allows for a re-roll of the dice, especially if it involves expending a limited resource (uses per day, points, etc.) should never result in a worse roll than you started with.
stevekenson: (go-play)
At the gym this morning (I do a fair amount of thinking and wool-gathering while doing mindless cardio), I wondered about how D&D 4e designers chose to tackle the “issue” of martial-type characters (i.e., fighters) having more options in combat to presumably remove the constant “I attack again!” litany and thereby make D&D combat more exciting.

It seems to me a potentially significant element of RPG design is “how do you make somewhat predictable events exciting”? That is, when you’re dealing in fairly established fictional tropes, how do you make your game something other than “going through the motions”? Like most things in RPGs, it seems there are both mechanical and story-based (narrative) solutions:

ruminations after the cut... )
stevekenson: (go-play)
Sometimes (like today) I miss 64-page RPGs. You may know the ones, from the early days of the hobby, when an entire RPG came in the form of a 64-page, saddle-stiched (which is to say, stapled) booklet in a box. Oftentimes, there would be a 32-page adventure along with it, or maps, or other components (dice, counters, and whatnot), but the core, the essence, of the entire game would be contained in that 64-page book.

Many of mine became dog-eared, their covers intended with thumb- and finger-marks from holding them so often. I’ve still got most of them, games like Gamma World, Villains & Vigilantes, Champions (the second edition, before they went with a square-bound single book), Boot Hill, Top Secret (before S.I.), Marvel Super-Heroes, Star Froniters, and, of course, the original Dungeons & Dragons boxed set(s). Those games packed whole worlds of fun and adventure into those booklets, and still do, in many ways.

Now, I’m not making judgments about more recent RPGs, with their hardcover “core rules” with hundreds of glossy, full-color pages. Hey, I’ve written or contributed to more than a few of them. Still, there are times when I get nostalgic for those booklets, for games smaller than many typical magazines these days. I know part of it is because, as the saying goes, “the Golden Age of adventure is around age 12,” and so, too, was the Golden Age of gaming, in many ways; my Golden Age of gaming, anyway (my “Silver Age” of gaming was around age 16, I’d say).

It’s no small feat, what those early game designers accomplished, fitting worlds into 64 pages. In some ways, we designers weened on their work are still catching up.
stevekenson: (go-play)
While working on some Mutants & Masterminds stuff this morning, I idly wondered what it would be like to apply the power structure of D&D 4e to the superhero genre: on the one hand, it would be an odd artificial limiting of some powers to “daily” and “encounter” usages. On the other hand, it might model the idea of rarely-used powers and “power stunts,” the things superheroes do sometimes, but not regularly. The “special” and “finishing” moves.

Indeed, the limited-use powers sort of address what I call the “Form Blazing Sword!” problem in dramatic terms: if a character has a big “special move,” why not bust it out right away? If it’s a one-shot thing, however, players are more inclined to wait for that big dramatic moment when it’ll do the most good: for the decisive attack against the big bad, or the action that turns the tide of a fight. This is especially true for daily/encounter powers designed to come into play later in an encounter, requiring the user (or target) be bloodied, for example.

While I think the D&D 4e framework would still need a fair amount of modification to work for four-color superheroes, in many ways it’s closer to start off with than D&D 3e was when I was first designing M&M. When Wizards gets around to doing other RPGs based on the 4e engine, it’ll be interesting to see.
stevekenson: (go-play)
It occurs to me that ability scores in D&D are largely redundant, and have been almost since the beginning of the game.

In OD&D, abilities served something of a purpose: they were a sort of “natural selection” in that you rolled them randomly (much like an accident of birth) and they helped to shape the choices you made about your character. A high-Strength, low-Intelligence character was clearly destined for a career as a Fighter, not a Magic-User, for example. This made ability score requirements (as opposed to mere bonuses for high Prime Requisites) more significant: if being a Paladin required you to randomly roll a 17 Charisma, along with the Paladin’s other requirements, or being a Ranger required a broad number of above-average abilities, then those characters would be correspondingly rare in the game; playing one was a bit like winning a lottery.

In the evolution of D&D, player choice has displaced random determination of abilities, starting with being able to arrange rolled scores in any order (so you can put your high score in the ability important to your desired class), then variants like 4d6 and drop the lowest die, multiple sets, and various other mulligans designed to ensure nobody is stuck with a character they don’t want to play. D&D 4e has eliminated the final vestiges of randomness in character generation, going with a point-buy system for ability scores and even standardized hit point progression.

This approach renders abilities largely moot: after all, does the system really need support for weak fighters, dumb wizards, clumsy rogues, and foolish clerics? Sure, such characters might exist in the world as NPC plot devices , but it’s fair to say the vast majority of player characters follow a certain mold when it comes to what Castles & Crusades calls the “Prime” of their chosen class. “Strong” and “Fighter” are virtually synonymous, as are “Smart” and “Wizard” and “Nimble” and “Thief” (sorry, “Rogue”). Indeed, C&C almost goes far enough in recognizing this fact, but not quite: they still retain ability scores and modifiers, even with their clever system of Primes.

“But what about character individuality?” some cry. A system wherein all fighters are strong and all wizards are smart means everybody is the same. Personally, I think this is more of an issue of perception than anything else, but I think it can be addressed with a combination of secondary and tiertiary traits alongside descriptors, like the “Aspects” in FATE or specialties in the forthcoming A Song of Ice and Fire Roleplaying (SIFRP). Sure, fighters are all strong, but in what way? Big? Brawny? Savage? Forceful? Apply some modifiers encouraging players to play up their characters’ unique strengths and you get a wide range of differentiation with very little in the way of added mechanical complexity.
stevekenson: (go-play)
One concept discussed over our Thrilling Tales of the Midnight Society Game last night was that of using the addition of aspects as a means of “advancement” for FATE characters. It often seems like players come up with better aspects during the course of the game (an oft-heard comment is “Hey, that should so be one of your aspects!”).

Seems like one way to make a “pick-up” FATE game like Spirit of the Century more suited for long-term play might be to limit a character’s starting number of aspects to half (or even less) and have the character acquire or accumulate aspects, much as RPG characters tend to acquire (or accrete) history, personality, and depth as they are played. The acquired aspects might be more “rooted” (the other players were “there” when it “happened”) and their addition more organic, growing out of “actual” events.

The extreme example would be to start a character out with just one or two aspects (say, “elf” and “wizard” for example...) and add others on like “the legendary bow of Brindenwood” and “Goblinslayer” as the character adventures and improves. It could be as many as one aspect per adventure or just one per “significant” moment in the overall series arc. It’s a method of character advancement that its widely free-form but does actually add “abilities” to the character sheet, since it widens options for Fate Point usage (and even “stunts” if you’re using some sort of stunt system based on what aspects a character has).

Edit: One additional idea would be the potential of shedding or losing aspects as well. A "use it or lose it" rule that says any aspect that isn't activated or tagged for X number of sessions is scratched off the character sheet would be an interesting way of ensuring the removal of "dead wood," possibly freeing up space for newer, more interesting aspects (assuming characters have a reasonable limit of how many permanent aspects they can have at once). As it is, I'm allowing players to drop aspects they started with but have found less interesting or useful in play to acquire newer ones.
stevekenson: (go-play)
I’m woolgathering before leaving for the airport to pick up a friend who’s visiting us from out of town for a few days, and I’d like to pose a general question for readers of my blog:

What degree of “transparency” of action resolution do you prefer in an RPG? That is, how apparent should it be whether or not a character’s action has succeeded or failed, and why?

In a typical RPG, the players roll dice for their characters’ actions out in the open, and the results are fairly apparent: the players know the character’s relevant abilities and the result of the dice. The only real X-factors are the difficulty or modifier set by the GM. In some systems, even these are known (or the GM may choose to share them). The GM rolls dice for the actions of non-player characters, typically behind a screen or the like, so the players don’t know the results of either the rolls or necessarily the abilities/traits of the NPCs, although some players can and will figure them out from the available evidence. The GM has a fair amount of leeway to “fudge” results while remaining within the realm of credulous possibility.

If this is the mid-point, then the extremes would be:

1) Where all resolution must be out in the open and transparent; the GM makes rolls the same as any other player, open to player scrutiny and the only unknowns are the actual traits of the NPCs, and perhaps even they must be known (depending on how the resolution system works). Even if they’re not, players will pick up on them quickly. Or...

2) Where all resolution is hidden from the players and handled by the GM (much as some “secret” rolls are in mid-range games). All the players know are their characters’ traits; the outcomes of the dice are like a black box, and the GM has even more leeway to “fudge” results. The players are more heavily reliant on the Gamemaster’s interpretations of what “actually” happened.

What level of transparency do you prefer in your RPG experience, and why?
stevekenson: (go-play)
This morning on the treadmill I was thinking about a slightly different way of handling action resolution in an RPG, something I’m calling “progressive success” for the moment. It goes like this:

Ability: The first “test” of a character’s ability is set at a default level, kind of like taking 10 in D&D: the character either has the ability to perform the action as a “routine use” of the ability or doesn’t.

Effort: The next “test” brings the dice into play: it’s “giving it the ol’ college try” or attempting something that may or may not work, depending on how the dice fall.

Determination: Then, lastly, there’s “determined effort”: really trying hard to succeed, bringing into play action points (or whatever they’re called in the particular game), or mechanics like pushing, extra effort, etc., because the character really needs to succeed.

Now, there are lots of permutations of this sequence, depending on circumstances, such as:

• In the Ability step, the character may or may not be aware whether or not a task is beyond his ability before attempting it. If not, the only way the character finds out is by trying. If so, then the character may be able to skip this step.

• In cases where a character must act under pressure and gets only one chance at an action, he may skip right to the Determination phase, however he forgoes any further effort, even if it would normally be allowed; it’s all or nothing at that point.

This approach reduces some die-rolling, because characters have a “routine” level of performance and can therefore ignore a lot of petty stuff.

It also produces a progression of effort, where a character attempts something, fails, puts in some effort, maybe fails or gets only a minor degree of success, then really tries hard and succeeds. Or maybe gets lucky on the first effort and succeeds.

It may reduce or control the spending of action points or the like by requiring a level of “frustration” to use them: that is, you can’t just pull out the heavy determination right from the get-go, you have to struggle a bit and progress down the list before you get to that point. (One interesting permutation here is to allow team effort: if none of you has the level of ability right off, and just one of you fails in the effort, any of you can go for determination; witness Luke Skywalker vs. the Death Star in A New Hope.) This may create some dramatic tension and reduce: “I blow all my action points on my first action in the climatic scene! Oops, guess that wasn’t so climatic...”

You can mess with it for meta-game effect: some maneuvers, effects, powers, etc. might restrict or enjoin characters in terms of their abilities (reducing the affected stats), the effort they can put into them (die roll penalties, or not allowing rolls at all), or their determination (limiting its effect or preventing players from spending it at all under some circumstances). Some of this might work a bit like the “perseverence” mechanic in Torg, wherein characters needed to build up their determination against a horror monster in order to overcome their fear and use many of their bonuses against it.

Anyhow, still thinking and tinkering...
stevekenson: (go-play)
It occurs to me that, in many regards, the lauded goal of “creating stories” in RPG play often leads to the mistaken belief that playing a good RPG should be like reading a good story of the same genre, whether fantasy, four-color comic book, cosmic horror, or whatnot.

However, in my experience, the “story” part of an RPG actually comes after the game is over, when you and your friends are recounting the cool story of what happened to each other or to someone else (”Hey remember that time we saved the world from the Overshadow?”). Playing the game is actually more akin to writing a story, including all the missteps, edits, typos, mistakes, unexpected turns, and revisions that go along with that process. It’s when GMs and players expect the game to play like reading a novel or watching a show—where the author (GM) has done all the work in advance—that things become railroady, frustrating, and disappointing.
After some consideration, I’ve got to peg Marvel Super-Heroes as the pivot point from old-school superhero RPGs. Although Marvel’s game system is, in many regards, the pinnacle of achievement in superhero RPG design, other aspects of the game shifted it away from what had come before and towards what would be in the future: the licensed setting, with a greater focus on a pre-existing setting (rather than an implicit or assumed setting), greater genre enforcement (via Karma, whereas before there was no such mechanic) but, most of all, the presumption that the game, rather than the players, would provide the “heroes” of its adventures, namely the Marvel Comics characters.

Sure, there was a nod to character creation, but it’s telling that it was in the Appendix of the game, rather than right up front: the default assumption was that you would play Spider-Man and his amazing friends (so to speak), and the adventures were all written that way: for a group of pre-generated, pre-existing characters that were provided for you.

Since then, there’s been a tendency, if not an expectation, in superhero game/setting design (as the two have become strongly linked) to provide pre-existing or “signature” heroes. The Champions—in all their various Hero System and Fuzion incarnations—are a good example, as is the Guard in Silver Age Sentinels, the Justice Foundation in San Angelo, and my own Freedom League in Freedom City. Even in Champions: New Millennium, where part of the high concept is a comic-crossover style “crisis” has killed off most of the world’s superheroes, there is still an existing sample hero team!

In some regards, if I had it to do over again, I’d have ended the Freedom City timeline shortly after the Terminus Invasion and killed off all of the setting’s major heroes, leaving only the mysterious Dr. Metropolis, Foreshadow, and a handful of Claremont Academy kids, with the rest as big, gaping holes for the player characters to fill. I still would have provided background and game stats for a lot of the characters, but I’d have left it up to the GM whether or not to have any of them survive or just use them as inspiration or legacies for a new generation of heroes. I’d have turned all their secret lairs and orbiting satellites and skyscraper headquarters and whatnot into mausoleums and museums, gathering dust and waiting for new heroes to arise and take up the mantle, and I’d have villains having a field day, with a city and world crying out for heroes. (That and I might have had a “new” Freedom League actually made up of bad guys prentending to be new heroes, ala Kurt Busiek’s brilliant Thunderbolts run.)

That’s a key complaint about many pre-fab settings: they’re too tightly woven together, so complete in and of themselves there’s not a lot of room to insert new characters who are truly important and capable of great deeds. In the worst-case examples, the settings and their meta-plots become entirely about the creator(s) pet character(s), with the players (and their characters) as little more than bystanders, watching “history” unfold around them. Part of the problem is for an RPG setting to continue as a published setting (with follow-up books, etc.) this is necessary, to a degree, otherwise the setting has no continuity, no story to it. The problem is, the story in an RPG isn’t about the setting, it’s about the heroes.
My friend and fellow RPG designer [livejournal.com profile] maliszew has been ruminating a great deal lately about the roots of sci-fi and fantasy RPGs: looking at the core essential ideas that constituted the earliest expressions of those genres in roleplaying (ruminations that have borne fruit in the form of his Thousands Suns RPG and his “Pulp D&D” project). This had led me to wonder about the roots and core RPG expressions of a favorite genre of mine: superheroes.

For me that means the days when the landscape was dominated by Villains & Vigilantes and Champions. I don’t dismiss games like Superworld out hand, but I never played them back then, so from when I started gaming in 1981 or so, until the release of Marvel Super-Heroes in 1984, V&V and Champions were superhero gaming for me. What do they tell us?

Well, like games at the time, they were short: little more than booklets by today’s standards (especially the 500+ page monster Champions/Hero System has become). They differ in approach: V&V was random character generation and relatively set powers (with some variables based on ability scores) while Champions was build-to-order with one of the first real point-build and effects-based systems. What was interesting in both was how implicit the superhero genre was: neither had an established setting, indeed, V&V never had one, and it took years for Hero Games to eventually try and cobble together a coherent “Champions Universe” out of their various sourcebooks and adventures.

Adventures were, in fact, the name of the game. They were practically the sole supplements for V&V, apart from a couple licensed things like DNAgents, and made up the bulk of early Champions releases, although Hero Games did experiment with some sourcebooks as well, primarily “monster manuals” focusing on particular organizations or villains (like the Enemies series). The adventures talked fairly little about the setting or genre, they simply assumed the obvious: the player characters were members of a superhero team, they had a headquarters of some sort, and they fought evil. What else did you need to know?

And what about Marvel Super-Heroes? As I said in my essay in Hobby Games: The 100 Best, MSH is the gold-standard of superhero RPGs, the basis for my longest-running campaign, and therefore a significant part of my “gaming DNA”. It was the first licensed superhero RPG, taking the gaming genre out of the realm of the theoretical (where you assumed your superhero setting was like the comics) and into the actual, where your superhero setting was the comics. Like V&V, MSH was a random-roll creation system with fairly broad power descriptions, assuming you weren’t playing the provided Mighty Marvel characters.

Adventures were also a staple of MSH, but sourcebooks were prominent as well, since the game sought to describe as much of the existing comic book universe as possible in game terms. This may be the beginnings of the expectation of superhero RPGs having a set “world” to them (followed on by DC Heroes, and then the development of an “official” Champions Universe). By contrast, by the time you look at Champions: New Millennium in the '90s, you see a superhero RPG coupled with a pre-packaged setting and “signature” characters.

Seems like superhero RPGs have gone from relatively light and often random or vague systems with the adventure as their basic supplementary unit (much like the individual comic issue for a superhero) to more structured and detailed, with built-in setting(s) and the genre book or sourcebook as their standard supplement (like the rise in popularity of graphic novels and trade paperbacks?).
stevekenson: (go-play)
One curious aspect of RPG design and play is the idea that everything—every hazard or danger—should be, at least potentially, survivable. You get a saving throw, soak roll, resistance test, or what have you. There’s always a chance, even if it’s a slight one. Thus you have RPGs defining saving throw DCs for things like cyanide (or fictional toxins defined as the deadliest in the world) and damge values for molten lava and nuclear blasts. Now, of course there are genres of fiction (notably comic books) where such things are entirely surviveable by characters with the right powers, but for others is there really something so wrong with having “instant kills” in the game, much as there are in real life?

One brilliantly humorous example of this is the Fire and Brimstone “supplement” (subtitled “The Comprehensive Guide to Lava, Magma, and Superheated Rock) that makes fun of this attitude in RPGs by offering the simple “rule” of: if you fall into lava, you die. Similarly, if you’re jettisoned into space, or dropped from 30,000 feet without a parachute... you die. Is there really a point in calculating and “reality checking” the amount of damage involved per second (round, minute, what have you)?

Similarly, a colleague and I were discussing modeling certain poisons with all sorts of resistance and “attack” rolls and whatnot and I asked: Is this really necessary? Aren’t the effects of a given poison on a given metabolism (as measured by a game trait like Constitution, Stamina, or the like) pretty clear-cut? Barring some kind of medical intervention, many poisons are simply lethal; your Stamina score is just a measure of how long you have to live, or how long medical attention has to arrive before it’s too late. In some cases, the answer is “not very long.”

Am I saying the GM, like nature, should be sometimes cruel and merciless? Perhaps, sometimes. After all, what really creates dramatic tension in fiction is the potential for death at the hands of such dangers. The hero dangles over the lake of lava, but doesn’t fall in and somehow manage to suffer only half damage long enough to swim ashore. The heroine nearly drinks from the poisoned goblet; she doesn’t take a hearty swig but somehow manage to make her save vs. poison.

Ah, but what about the heroic resistance, the one-in-a-million avoidance of certain death? Well, in some heroic genres that should certainly be an option, but I think it would be easier to have an overall “avoid certain death” mechanic than to define every means of “certain” death in detail and build a slight (and often different) chance of survival into each one.

There’s a great deal of derision directed at “killer Gamemasters” who dispense death without mercy, and “railroading” plots that have certain moments where the heroes have no way out, no chance whatsoever, but I wonder whether or not those things add a certain excitement to the game. I wonder if they help to break down the notion that player characters are somehow entitled to their survival and success simply by virtue of being “important,” the kind of “everybody wins” mentality that encourages a “fairness” wherein no one is challenged, and nothing is ever really at risk.
stevekenson: (go-play)
I was struck by this line from Hiro in last night's Heroes episode and the character's (completely understandable) reluctance to kill someone, even someone like Syler, in cold blood. I was also immediately struck by how completely un-dramatic such a scene would have been in an average RPG:

Ando's player: "You have to kill Syler now!"

Hiro's player: "Okay." (Dice clatter on the table) "Critical hit! Kickass!"

GM: sigh....

Apart from "it's all roleplaying" I wonder if there's a good mechanical way to reflect the dramatic build-up to an action where the drama is all in the decision to act rather than the action itself. Or is that imposing mechanics where they shouldn't go, dictating how characters act and react and disempowered the players?

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stevekenson

July 2011

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