Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Tactical Superheroes?

This superhero is a tactical genius
No, not that kind of tactical superhero, I'm talking about tactical play, and by that I mean gameplay which uses, even emphasizes depicting the RPG action on a table utilizing maps and miniatures.  For superhero games, the ultimate expression of this is Champions, whose "Speed Chart" was the brilliant means to stagger actions between super-fast and rather sluggish characters, but also dropped game speed down to a crawl.

The other end, my current gamesystem Marvel Heroic Roleplaying, whose abstract gameplay means I could probably play in my living room without a table at all.

Why is tactical gaming valuable, not just in superhero games, but in most games?  For me, the benefit became obvious when I once had a player whose character seemed to be everywhere.  Watching the door, checking the chest for traps, and looting the bodies.  Whatever could be done, her PC was there.  Being able to say, "no, you're here" is pretty helpful.

In addition, there's the "wait, what's going on" factor.  When you have a half-dozen players who aren't always paying attention, or may be going to the bathroom, etc. being able to glance at the table and get a handle on what is happening at that moment.  It would be nice to not have to consider that option, but I think that's just a natural limitation.

The downside to tactical gaming is that you are essentially letting the rules have more say in what a player can and can not do.  Can he get close enough to the villain to hit them?  The rules will show that, because you'll be moving a miniature X number of inches or hexes or squares to see.  Frankly I think in the superhero genre this unfairly penalizes PC's with hand-to-hand abilities over those with ranged abilities.  There's a reason why we invented guns--they allow us to hit more people in combat.

In superhero comics, characters seem to be able to move around fairly freely, without a lot of regard to how far exactly they can go.  Take a look at this panel from Civil War.

This is, by the way, one of my favorite pages in the whole Civil War.  You can see, in this scene, why Spider-Man is one of the iconic heroes in the Marvel universe.  But anyways, Spider-Man moves through a crowd of opponents, clocking each of them in turn.  Think about what would be required to make this happen in a crunchy, rules-heavy tactical game.  In MHR, Spider-Man is just using the SFX Area Attack, risking a lot of dice ending up in the Doom Pool, or one of the opponents using their resistance die against Spider-Man in turn.

Put another way, in a conversation with one of my prospective players, the player asked "how does [MHR] handle super-speedsters?"  In a lot of games having super-speed is a handy way to have multiple actions when other players only have one.  That's a pretty obvious power-gaming option.  In MHR, you might get the SFX Area Attack or "Machine Gun Punches" (see Speed, the NPC from the Civil War Event Book).  But you'll only get one real roll.  No making the other players wait even longer between their own turns, etc.

And, if the players have to just pay closer attention, so be it.

Monday, February 25, 2013

Do superheroes get better?

In the comments section of my last post, Barking Alien raised two of the most common critiques of Marvel Heroic Roleplaying: the lack of PC improvement with experience, and the lack of tactical play. I'll tackle the first issue in this post, and the second in a later one.

The Experience Point question has several levels.  MHR does have XP, which are usually used to unlock plot elements that has a positive impact on the game.  There is some very desultory discussion about changing or improving powers, but like most things in MHR this is more of a plot issue, not a gameplay one.  In other words, the question is does the story support the idea of your character gaining new powers, not have you played your character enough to justify the improvement.

Part of this dynamic is MHR's rather consistent bias towards using their own characters in their own re-hashed-from-the-comic-book storylines.  This is my least favorite aspect of the game, to be quite honest.  I buy the sourcebooks these days to mostly glean ideas, rather than use them in the whole cloth.  Since theoretical gameplay is so tied to the Marvel Universe, you're not going to be tweaking their characters.

The other part of the dynamic has to do with the general feel of the source material.  To wit: do comic book characters improve with time?  I think it has a lot to do with the nature of the character.  Comic book characters who started as "teen heroes" like the Dick Grayson Robin, the Peter Parker Spider-Man, and most of the younger X-Men who then grew out of adolescence and into adulthood in the comic book continuity do in fact improve.  Kitty Pride is a lot better at superheroics than she used to be.

The many costumes of Peter Parker
Superheroes that started out as adults, on the other hand, seem to be a bit more static, especially if their starting point was as a fairly competent individual to begin with.  Captain America, for example, is still pretty much the same.  So, I could argue, is Wolverine, Batman, and Superman.  Different writers may dial up or down their powers, but for the most part they are still the same highly-effective heroes they always were.

Another factor is how much attention has been given to the character.  "Marquee" heroes, the ones that often define the publishing house franchise, have more often than not been around for decades and usually had their own solo books.  Heroes that have consistently been a part of teams and rarely if ever had their own solo series are, by their nature, less developed and less likely to change or specifically improve over time.  They might have major plot events surrounding them or even see their powers change in dramatic ways (i.e. Wonder Man) but they don't seem to grow in ability.

All of this takes the back seat to a much greater question: regardless of how the founding material may or may not support the notion, how willing are players to give up the notion of an improving PC?  Getting better over time is one of the real constants of RPG's (with the one notable exception: Traveller).  People are very used to the idea of having their PC's be able to face increasingly powerful opponents and achieve greater heroics.  After a point, a MHR character can only get so much better--he or she can go from a d8 to a d10 to a d12, which represents a Captain America-to-Hulk increase in Strength, for example--but that's it.  There's no small, incremental, graduated increase in ability that is more prevalent in other games, largely as a result of the light, abstracted rules set.

Is it a deal-breaker?  That largely depends on the group.  I think that unless there's a real shift in expectations, MHR won't suit most traditional players for long-term play.  We haven't even gotten into tactical versus narrative play, which creates a whole 'nother set of changing expectations.

Saturday, February 23, 2013


Last night I had a great gaming session, not because the group hit a ton of great plot milestones but because in addition to some good in-character roleplaying, there were just a couple of moments of pure hilarity that literally brought tears to my eyes.

But when it was all done, I needed to have a conversation with my group and tell them the truth: I'm burned out on D&D.  I've been running it, roughly speaking, for several years now.  The only change I have had really is the annual EOW event, and that's just a couple of days.  Now it's been good and I've gamed with a lot of great people and I've had a lot of fun, but I'm tired of the game and more broadly the genre.  I told the group that either someone else had to take over running the game, or I needed to change the game.

With the other GM in the group already running another game on another night, the group readily agreed to a different game, but wanted to discuss options.  After kicking around ideas like Serenity or Star Trek, the group settled on one of my favorites, Marvel Heroic Roleplaying.

If you stuck around here through December, you know I created 24 villains from scratch for that game.  I also have a fairly roughed-out world called "Earth 3" which is a bit of a hybrid of the two major comic book companies' worlds, albeit with no IP-infringing characters (Doctor Strange became the basis of "Mystic," for example).  Even in the first few minutes of discussing the game I could hear the players' horizons expanding as they were told that there were no character-creation guidelines--just come up with a reasonable concept.

One of the players talked about how interested she was in the possibility that as a player she could have an impact on the story.  She's talking about the abilities of players to create assets and resources that affect gameplay in a tangible manner.

The thing I like about MHR is that the focus isn't so much on stats and feats and working the angles.  It's about being able to come up with a interesting story together.  I think that MHR Events that have been published are railroad-y in the extreme, so I'll be looking at how to lay out something different.  I don't think it'll be hard.

I'm so pumped about this, it's more than I can say.  Champions was my game in the halcyon years of college, and now I'm getting a second bite at the superhero apple.  I'll keep you up on details as they come around.

Saturday, February 16, 2013

Scooby Balance

....or "why complicated plots are a bad idea."

It's funny how a single essay can evolve into something else. Zak at PDaDwPS writes a Valentine's Day post about game balance called Balance.  His point?  Any challenge posed to a group of players is acceptable as long as the group could overcome it through cleverness and thinking.  My "NPC from another table" Barking Alien says that's all well and good, but there are plenty of GM's who disallow clever responses if it doesn't fit what they thought the solution should be in his post Counterbalance.

Which brings me to a comment I made there about Scooby Doo.  I think a lot of really creative storylines die horrible deaths on the gaming table because GM's either lock themselves into too rigid a plot, or create a plot whose narrative is so convoluted that the players miss large chunks of it and everyone ends up frustrated.

My axiom: no plot should be more complicated than a Scooby Doo episode.

Side note: this episode had the villain actually explaining how he did it,
which suggests even it was too complicated.
  Why is this the case?  Why forcibly ban the more sophisticated plots of TV shows like Lost, Flashforward, or The Event?  Simple.  It's the storytelling mechanic.

For one thing, all the players receive their information from a single person, who knows the entire story but is conveying usually by voice all that they perceive, either by sight, or sound, or whatever.  Just because the GM visualizes this in his or her head doesn't mean that the information is they communicated effectively to the players.

Second, the GM's voice is usually spoken into a room full of people, the odd player's child, several smart phones, and a host of other distractions.  I have, on more than one occasion, had to tell my group to be quiet and listen, because all too often a player will complain that they missed something because they were looking up something in the rulebook, contemplating a slice of pizza, or just not paying attention.

Third, people's brains just work differently.  Think about how often when you read a murder mystery or watch one on TV that you actually figure out what happened before the end.  Be honest.  Half the time?  Never?  That's because our own problem-solving processes are greatly influenced by the way we think and approach a situation.  That in turn is influenced by our personality and our experiences, including our technical expertise and history.  In a murder mystery, we might begin to suspect the person whom we like the least, or who looks like the murderer from another novel we read, who we think might have done it based on our own conclusions from the clues that we noticed.  Now take six players and one GM and see how well those mesh up.  They won't.

That's why you have to keep things simple, and the funny part is that the players will still pat themselves on the back for figuring things out, because intuitively they know how difficult making this all work was.

Monday, February 11, 2013

Book Review: Broken Angels

Takeshi Kovacs, the body-jumping soldier of the future is back in the sequel to my previously-reviewed Altered Carbon.  But while the first book was a cyberpunk noir detective story, Broken Angels is a completely different style of story, albeit still set in the gritty far future as the first novel.

Kovacs is back to being a soldier-of-fortune, rather than a detective, and is approached by a shifty individual with a plan: stake claim to a priceless alien artifact smack in the middle of a war zone.  Kovacs signs up for the caper, joining forces with an archaelogue (I do not know why Morgan doesn't use the word "archaeologist" like everyone else) and a sleazy corporate operator.  Later they recruit a band of fellow mercenaries who you know will just serve as cannon fodder for the rest of the book.

Like I said before, Altered Carbon was a detective story, but Broken Angels is much more of a techno-thriller: weird alien artifacts, mysterious deaths, and an escalation of violence throughout the story.  In the first book, which takes place on Earth, Kovacs comments about how antiquated Earth's culture is and this is reflected in the much more high-tech aspects of this story making it less cyberpunk and more just hard sci-fi.

And frankly, it just isn't as good.  Altered Carbon explored the notions of what it means to be human in a age where people are digital constructs.  Broken Angels gets a little into what it would mean for humanity to encounter a far-superior alien society, but not enough to really grip the reader beyond, "oooh....spooky weird..." at best.  Kovacs isn't as philosophical as he once was, but instead seems to spend a lot of time alternatively complaining about suffering from radiation poisoning or mooning over the archaeologist in a very, very undeveloped romance.

In addition, there is a teased-at notion about religion, especially Voodoo (reminding me more than a little bit about Neuromancer) which ultimately comes to nothing at all.

In the end, Broken Angels turned into a confusing, jumbled mess that I rushed to get through not because I couldn't wait to see what happened, but just to get to the end, and that's not a good sign.

On the "what can I get out of this for gaming," front, it seems odd to say that the story was almost too familiar a trope to be really helpful.  How many gaming stories out there feature the hunt for alien artifacts?  It being in the middle of a toxic warzone (to the point that all the participants suffer the effects as the story winds on) is kind of clever, but overall it has been done and done often.  Sigh.

Sunday, February 10, 2013

Why I love my local gaming store

Four blocks from my house is a small gaming store featuring miniatures, roleplaying games, and board games.  The owner, Mike, bears more than a little resemblance to the comic book store owner on "The Simpsons."  But one reason why I like the store, Hometown Games, isn't just its convenience, it is because Mike is perfectly willing to talk me out of buying an RPG rather than try to convince me to, if it isn't the game I want.

Case in point.  Last night I was wandering around there and Mike said to me, "are you looking for something?"

I explained to him that I was several months away from ending my D&D campaign and was looking for something else, something different.  "Let me guess," said Mike, "you've got shelves of games at home, and none of them are right."

I agreed, and told him what games I had decided not to go with, like Pathfinder, because it was too much like what I had been running for the past several years. I asked him Dark Heresy, because I had heard some mixed reviews about it.  "Let me ask you this," said Mike, "does your group know the backstory to Warhammer 40K?"

"Only two of them," I said,

"Okay, then Dark Heresy may not be for you.  If you want to go with something like that, go with Only War, which I really like, because the notion of a military unit is more accessible to people, but you have to be careful with games that have a command structure some times.  Your players who are commissars might start shooting other people.  You can also go with Rogue Trader, because those are merchants in space, which is a pretty common concept for anyone familiar with sci-fi RPG's."

"What about Iron Kingdoms or Shadowrun?"

"Iron Kingdoms is another one that you need to know the background.  Shadowrun is pretty good, but there's a new edition coming out this summer, and since every edition has been better than the last, you're better off waiting."

So, just in case you missed it, a store owner told me to not buy product on his shelves that he probably will not be able to move in a few months.  Why?  Because he knows it is better to keep a customer happy with good service than score a quick sale.

Best store owner ever

What are your thoughts on the games I asked Mike about?  Comments welcome.

Saturday, February 9, 2013

Gaming Night Pic

Here's a pic of my honest-to-God, mixed-gender, multi-generational gaming group, all together Friday night.

Good gaming session, actually one of my favorites that I've run in a while.  The group now has a flying ship that can transcend dimensions.  While flying over one of the layers of Hell they were attacked by an earthquake dragon and a bunch of vrocks (Vrock Lesnar, Vrock Obama, Vrock from Pokemon and Dwayne "the Vrock" Johnson).  One of them managed to hurl one of the PC's over the side of the ship, causing an outright panic.

Later (having saved the falling PC) they had a solid roleplaying session featuring an NPC uncle of one of the PC's, and a legit "which direction to you want to go in the campaign" question.  Player agency, woo hoo!

And then the third act featured a battle with a bunch of pod demons, which are just fun monsters with loads of weird powers, etc.

My group always begins by having dinner together: my classic pulled pork and no less than two different salads and vegan cupcakes.  We were curiously healthy this time around, which I appreciated (although there was still beer).

Over at Strange Vistas