Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Review: the Valiant Universe Roleplaying Game

Capsule: A near-clone of Marvel Heroic Roleplaying that throws out the good while keeping the bad.  Useful if you're a fan of the Valiant Universe.

I've been looking forwards to this game ever since Free RPG Day this year, although with some trepidation.  The rules were sketchy, and the free booklet promised more detail when the main rulebook came out.  I also snagged most of the additional free material Catalyst Games had put out as PDFs on DriveThurRPG, which gave me most of the major characters from the Valiant Universe.

Quick side note about Valiant comics, for those who don't know.  Originated in the 90's during the whole big indie comics movement that spawned Malibu, Image, and a host of others small publishing companies.  The early Valiant characters included a pseudo X-Men mutant youth team (Harbingers), a archtypal "Iron Age" gun guy (Bloodshot), the high-tech alien armor guy (the bizarrely named X-0 Manowar), and a quirky no-capes duo (Archer and Armstrong).  There were others too, like the mystical Shadowman and the weird science Doctor Mirage.  The whole thing faded away only to be completely re-launched a couple of years ago.  The characters were freshened up a bit for the modern times, with a real focus on somewhat gritty, realistic storytelling (as much as having a Visigoth wearing alien armor in modern times could be "realistic.")

Catalyst games (known for Shadowrun these days, among other RPG's) snagged the license and promptly cranked out a game using the "Cue System."  (Editor's note: in the original post I said the Cue system came from the "genetic root stock" of Marvel Heroic Roleplaying' system.  A commenter below pointed out that another RPG from Catalyst used the Cue system in 2010, two years before MHR.  I've corrected the statement.) Cues are descriptors of PC's, NPC's, or encounter elements to help players roleplay the pre-generated characters from the comic book correctly.  Unlike an RPG from the big two comic book companies, most people haven't read anything from Valiant, so at some level this makes sense.

What doesn't make sense is why you have not only "Cues" but also "Tags," which also describe PC's, and "Action Cues" which also describe PC's when they are fighting.  What's even more strange is that there is no tangible rules benefit to the tags, unlike Distinctions for MHR or Aspects from FATE.  The Cues and Tags are just there to help you play the PC right, or give you ideas how to run a scene (we'll get around to a subtle problem with that later).  Half a PC's character sheet is made up of little quotes and two-word descriptions of the person, but there's nothing to be gained by a player using them except for genre emulation.  Maybe that's enough, but why not add some carrot of gameplay?

Now for the dice part of the rules.  PC's have five stats: Might, Intellect, Charisma, Action, and Luck.  The first four are rated by dice, so you might have a Might of D6 or an Intellect of D10.  Action is generally how good you are in combat (like the "Fighting" stat from M&M, but now for all kinds of combat).  Generally most PC's run between a d6 and a d10.  Luck is just a number, usually between 1 and 6.

When you want to try to do something that isn't in combat, the formula is a D12+your stat die vs. a d20.  If either of your dice come up with your Luck number, you automatically do it (which is why I suspect most people will want their Luck number to be 1).  When you do something in combat, it's (Action Die + stat die) vs. (Opponent's Action Die + stat die).

Powers are essentially extra stat dice that can either be swapped in for the stat, added to the stat die, or have the higher of the two die rolls used.  There's the odd +1 or -1 to reflect situation modifiers too, but there not a lot of hard-and-fast rules about how that works.  All told the rules are pretty straightforward and easy to understand.

They are also prone to flukey dice rolling, which I complained about in MHR and may do so again, except that Catalyst claims this isn't a bug, it's a feature.  That inherent flukey quality, combined with the very limited spectrum of abilities when you only have five levels (D4, D6, D8, D10, and D12) is meant to reflect the genre that has low-powered heroes go up against high-powered villains and win.  Toyo Harada, the archvillain of the Valiant Universe (imagine if Professor X had Magneto's ideology), would, said the rulebook's explicit text on this very issue, have a "D1000" in power abilities, but that would not work from a gaming perspective or reflect what happens in the comic books.

Which I kind of get.  But what frustrates me a little is the way the rules suggest you actually jack up the villains' abilities at the beginning of story arcs and downgrade them later to make sure the heroes win.  Because, you know, genre emulation.  Which starts to sound like railroading.  Which is the game's biggest flaw.

You see, one major rules tweak the game is super-excited about is the notion that the "Lead Narrator" (their terminology for the Gamemaster) switches between players after each scene.  That's right.  Everybody gets to play, everybody gets to GM.  But how do you keep the game from just running off the rails?  By pre-generating every encounter beforehand.  You know, that's what the Cues are for--to make sure your "Lead Narrator" doesn't go off track.  And of course the game features several story arcs based on popular storylines from Valiant comics.  Which is the same damn thing MHR did and which I thought so very little of then.  What is the point of re-creating existing plotlines?  Honestly, explain that to me.  I ground my teeth when MHR suggested I kill off an NPC in their "Civil War" story arc at a certain point so that it could mirror when Black Goliath (or whatever he was called at that point) died in the comics.  Um, no.  I'll kill a person off when I feel like, which is usually when the dice and player agency suggest it.

Moving on, damage is flat.  Hit a guy, he takes 1 or 2 or 4 points of damage.  Attacks with random damage are rare, and everybody has enough "armor points" followed by a pool of "health points" that you can get hit or shot or whatever quite a few times before you have to start worrying about it.  What's weird for a comic book universe that features a lot of psionic characters is that there really isn't any special rules about psionic attacks, except a few circumvent armor points.  The rules for mind control are downright vague and feature a lot of hand-waving.  So you don't see the one-hit KO's that you might see in other games, which could be a good thing in some people's minds.  I kind of appreciate it from a "keep players from grumbling when a flukey die roll takes their PC out of the game early and they spent the next hour sitting around" perspective.

Finally on the subject of rules there are Plot Points, which are basically handed out when players do something neat (subjectively in the opinion of the Lead Narrator) which are then cashed in to create plot twists in the story, or heal your PC a few points, etc.  The plot twist thing seems prone to abuse, but a good Lead Narrator can handle that, assuming you have one this scene.

There's a point-buy system for building your own superheroes, which is more than MHR had to offer.  There's no list of powers, however.  You just pick out whatever you want and slap a die value on it (which costs points based on the die value).  Some powers aren't even powers.  You can purchase what would be called skills or strong personality traits in other game systems.  Zephyr, for example, has "Pop Culture" at a D6 in her powers which the game swears can be helpful.  There's no real guidelines about what powers do or even how they are used--that's the more freeform gaming style in play here.  I'm not sure, for example, when I'm attacked if I use my attack power to suggest I'm attacking back, or my force field as defense, and why if I get to do damage as well as avoid it in the former why I'd ever pick the latter.  There's also no real in-game notion that certain powers are more efficacious than others, so superhuman vision is just as expensive as cosmic energy control.  Which really makes you wonder why you have a point-buy system at all and just not go with the "whatever is allowed" model of MHR.  I know there are mature players out there who will deliberately pick powers based on character concept, even if that concept is limited, but why not reward that in some way?

It sounds like I'm being pretty consistently negative, but I suppose that is because I keep hoping to find a solid system for superheroes with the right balance of crunch and flexibility for me.  What the Valiant Universe RPG turned out to be was a game with all the looseness of MHR without some of the clever tweaks like Emotional and Mental damage or Assets or Complications. I could see trying to port over their point-buy system to MHR, not to mention doing some pretty straightforward conversions of the Valiant characters (it helps that the stat values of d4 to d12 are virtually identical).

What I don't understand is why, if the Valiant license was available, Margaret Weis Productions didn't snap it up, or why Catalyst Games, if they were just going to almost a straight up copy of the Cortex system, didn't try to cross-market that aspect of the game on their end.  I can't honestly suggest people buy this game--too much of the product is available for free from DriveThruRPG, unless you happen to be a big fan of the Valiant comics (like me) and want to see how all your favorite characters are depicted, which for $40 is still a lot.

Thursday, September 25, 2014

My own Monster Manual review

First, read his, because it is pretty much spot on across the board.

The Monsters
All the classics, and as far as I can tell nothing really new.  You could, if you know the game well enough, probably recreate the table of contents on your own.
In order to keep things still pretty simple, major league monsters now have two new abilities: Legendary and Lair Abilities.  Legendary abilities are basically additional attacks the DM can activate out of turn order, giving them an edge.  Lair abilities are a secondary effect associated with the location but also adding additional peril to the encounter.
It's a way of working around how to give solo monsters parity with large PC groups who can dog-pile on a single monster who can only hit back once.  Like many things about the fifth edition, it is pretty simple and elegant.
There's no rules for creating your own monsters or upgrading monsters.  Common humanoids often have a "boss" version like an orc chieftain.

The Art
Gone is the blocky, World of Warcraft-inspired look.  Gone too is the eight hundred leather straps.  The monsters seem more plain, less topical and more timeless.  They aren't as in-your-face cartoony either.

Other Stuff
The book is incredibly self-referential.  By that I mean it mentions a lot of the literary legacy of D&D.  Strahd von Zarovich from Ravenloft appears, as does Acherak the demi-lich from the Tomb of Horrors.

This brings me to perhaps my biggest nagging sense about D&D 5E, namely that when you play, you're playing Dungeons & Dragons.  You're not playing a fantasy game, or even your fantasy game.  The game is so branded, in its own right.

And this isn't necessarily a crime.  When you play 13th Age, you're playing the in the 13th Age universe with its thirteen all-powerful NPC's.  When you play Shadowrun, you're playing in the Shadowrun universe.  I've often felt like the impact of D&D on the genre of fantasy can not be underestimated.  It is like weird literary ouroboros: D&D stole flagrantly from fantasy novels, and then in turn become the genetic code for much of the fantasy literature you see today.

But the game seems so much less like a toolbox than its earliest iterations and more like a pre-packaged product to be played as-is.  Yes, you can do it yourself.  You can always do it yourself.  But that implicit ethos is missing, and must be inferred on its own by creative DM's.  And while most of us are, what about the new generation of gamers out there?  I'd have loved, LOVED to have five of six blank pages in the back of this book with the heading "WRITE YOUR OWN MONSTERS HERE."

Saturday, September 20, 2014

Taking Firefly Out For A Spin

Last night we tried out the new a Firefly RPG. It uses a variation of the rules used by Marvel Heroic, Leverage, and others. It actually bears a very strong resemblance to Fate with its focus on narrative and dependence on Assets and Complications. 

I had the full complement of seven players, whom had made their PC's in relative isolation, making for a mismatched group.  Just the thing for the genre. We had the gunslinging smuggler, a burly engineer, an unemployed government bureaucrat, a brawling con artist, a brash pilot, a sullen samurai, and a secretive Alliance spy.  The group was missing a scientist/medic, which meant they were more dependent on NPC's than usual which was fine by me. 

The adventure began with the group deciding to form a loose business consortium and purchase a ship. After borrowing the money from a loan shark, they buy a ship from a dealer of used spacecraft (the discussion of which one to buy did a lot to firm up personalities). 

But the ship they bought held a hidden secret: a dead body with mysterious cybernetic modifications. Now mysterious forces are on the trail of the dead body, and they appear willing to do whatever it takes to get it. 

The group is pretty familiar with the core rules and the source material, so it was easy to get settled in. One noteworthy thing about the game is that most RPG's tend to drop into "bullet time " in combat; every shot, stab, or punch gets its own die roll resolution. In Firefly, an entire combat, even with multiple assailants, is resolved in a single roll. That kept the action moving very, very quickly. There's also little repeat activity. By that I mean you don't have different people attempting the same task over and over again. Everyone participating just contributes their dice to the pool. Doing so means that they share in any Complications from failures, however. 

Speaking of which, Complications come up a lot. Complications are negative conditional modifiers and PC's get them every time they roll a 1 on any of the dice in their pool. That means that, if you're rolling five dice to try to do something you're likely to get a Complication even if you succeed in your action. As a result the group seemed to be dogged with bad luck, hard knocks, and plot twists. Villains often escaped and the PC's spent a lot of time running away. For Firefly that seems to fit.  

Various complications that were inflected upon the PC's included
"Weirded out by the body"
"Person of interest"
"Screaming bystander"
"Jammed up traffic"
"Long held grudge"
"Lacerated arm"
And "May have left an online footprint"

And that wasn't all of them...

Overall the response was good, even though I'm sure I made mistakes in the rules. I've already had some inquiries from other people wanting to play, so maybe I'll have a second group after all. 

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Premise Beach: Metropolis/Gotham

In my continuing "what do I want to run now that I've been asked again" series (better known as "Premise Beach" from the old Kids in the Hall skit), I present another premise.

To understand it, first I want to talk about one of the bigger differences between DC and Marvel Comics.  While Marvel is set in the "real world," with most of the superheroes living in and around New York City, DC has always relied on ersatz versions of American cities, the two best known examples being Metropolis and Gotham City. There's others: Keystone City, Central City, etc. all featuring pretty generic names and looking just as generic.  But Metropolis was always Superman's city, while Gotham was the Batman's home.

Both cities have a different feel, more than just "New York by Day" and "New York at Night."  Metropolis was always modern, bright, and fairly prosperous, fitting for the Man of Tomorrow.  Gotham was always decayed, dark, and poor, just the haunt for a man living constantly in the trauma of the past.  In both comic book mythologies, the city itself possesses the qualities of a character unto themselves, much like how in FATE a location has Aspects like a PC.

So here's my idea.  I have two groups: a novice group of mostly pre-teens, and a veteran group of adults.  I run two supers groups in the same city, but the novice group is the flashy, four-color group.  The veteran group is the gritty group.  It's not dissimilar from what happened in Aaron Allston's Strike Force campaign (which used Champions II at the time).  The initial group had a real mix of PC supers types in terms of style and theme, and eventually several of the PC's split off to form a separate group, Shadow Force.

So again, like the sci-fi concept before, I can re-use locations, NPC's and even tie together plots, while keeping their general "style" distinct.  Maybe the Shiny Hero Team foils a bank robbery while the Shadowy Hero Team discovers that they wanted the money to fund a takeover of the city's major crime family.  This also allows for the occasional cross-over, like when Wonder Woman patrolled Gotham in the Batman's absence.

In theory the new Valiant Universe RPG is due out tomorrow, and I've got it pre-ordered on Amazon (my FLGS wasn't planning on stocking it).  But since Amazon is still telling me they really don't know when they will get it, I'm not holding my breath.  But there are loads of other supers RPG's out there.  My group ran Marvel Heroic for almost a year and liked the system a lot.  Mutants & Masterminds is a crunchier option, or I could take ICONS for a spin.  I'm half tempted to unearth Champions, which is near and dear to my heart, if only out of sentimentality (Fourth edition, none of that later stuff).

Again, thoughts? Man it sure is quiet around here these days aside from my friend Buffra (for whom I would build her dimension hopping barbarian queen for this or any of the campaigns)...

Monday, September 8, 2014

Premise Beach: the Space Station

So at the last gaming session, it was announced to the group that we will be now having two monthly games, one run by one GM, the other by myself.

I will share what I have been thinking about, which capitalizes on the fact that I have possibly two groups, not one, for my future game.  One group is my current group: mostly adults who have gamed for some time.  The other group is largely children (girls, in fact) and novices to gaming.

My idea was to put the entire campaign on a space station, sort of a much larger DS9 or Babylon 5, something more akin to a small town in space.  One group (the novices) play the staff of the station, and are responsible for its safety and operation.  They would be the Star Fleet personnel, a more directed and reactive group.  The other group (the veterans) would play a group of civilians on the same station: freighter captains, merchants, and other associated ne-er do well's.

Map by Daniel Swensen

So I could have one location (the space station), a single pool of NPC's (the crime boss, the nightclub owner, the local politico, the troublesome starship captain, etc.), and storylines that jump from one group to the other.  I could on occasion have a PC jump groups too: the staff of the space station are investigating a crime and need the insight of a civilian informant, or the civilians seek the help of the station's medical doctor in treating a sick crewmen.  In my mind it would have a bit of an "upstairs/downstairs" feel to it.

I could use the Star Trek: the Next Generation and Deep Space Nine RPG's by Last Unicorn Games to do this, or Traveller, or the new Firefly RPG.  Lots of possibilities there, both in licensed and unlicensed products.

What do you think?  Interesting?  Overly complicated?

Saturday, September 6, 2014

Premise Beach: Gaming the first season of Mission: Impossible

I've been watching the television series Mission: Impossible from start to finish, and am now done with the first season.

For those who don't know, the first season didn't star Peter Graves as Jim Phelps, but instead the main IMF agent was Dan Briggs, played by Steven Hill (who went on decades later to plan DA Adam Schiff on Law and Order).  More trivia: Hill agreed to the role as long as they respected his orthodox Judaism.  The producers did, not realizing that meant that he wouldn't work on the Sabbath.  As a result, Hill was often unavailable and the series had to rely more heavily on other cast members, especially Martin Landau, who had not wanted that active a role on the show so he could be free to do movie roles.

While the cast would settle into the same five regular characters, the initial premise of the show had one sole full-time agent who would draw from a pool of volunteers or contract agents.  Despite having a consistent cast in the credits, in actuality the first season's roster of IMF agents was fairly fluid, and could have as few as two or as many as eight (although almost all of them had Martin Landau playing Rollin Hand).

I like the idea of part-time spies, and the light-hearted, clever, relatively non-violent (especially for this day and age), and moralistically black-and-white nature of the show really appeals to me these days.  In the wake of national events I'm having a bit of introspection about hobbies that have innately violent elements, so the notion of out-thinking an opponent rather than killing them has some traction with me.  Although to be fair, a lot of the bad guys in M:I would often end up being killed by their communist or criminal overseers as a consequence of whatever hijinks had occurred.

There's two ways to go about re-creating a Season One-style Mission: Impossible game.  One is to use a rules-heavy modern era game like d20 Modern or Aether.  The other is to go with a game based on a modern-day M:I premise: Leverage.  It's pretty straightforward for that system: Briggs, and then later Phelps, is the Mastermind.  Barney is the Hacker (early version).  Cinnamon is the Grifter.  Rollin is the Thief (and a little Grifter).  Willy is the Fighter.  I should stat these guys out sometime.

Monday, September 1, 2014

Reality Check Ahead

After finishing Autocratik's "RPGaDAY" blogathon, I find myself with a lot to think about.

Right now, in theory I play in an RPG run by a friend every other Friday.  I say "in theory" because there are always the inevitable schedule conflicts, but on the whole this group has been my regular "home game" for the last four years or so.

I've also begun to occasionally go to a board game night at my church run by a local Meetup group.  A few members of my RPG group participate as well.  This group meets once a month on a Saturday night.

Just recently my daughter got invited to another board game group meeting at a different church, but one that a lot of her former classmates attend.  Being a part of this group means she can keep in contact with them, even though she now attends a different school.  Again this group meets monthly on a Saturday.

So, in theory, I'm playing either in an RPG or board game event four times a month.  That's not even including the two nights a week I drive an hour to practice roller derby, both weeknights.  That's eight more evenings.  I will say that this may be coming to an end, however.  I've gotten injured twice so far and the toll is getting too high.

So, roughly speaking, almost every other night--twelve times in four weeks--I'm doing something that qualifies as recreational.  On the other side I'm working a full time job, plus an additional side job that takes up about five hours a week.  Plus my regular job just tried to pin me with more work in the last week. Twice. 

And then I'm raising two kids.  Which is the best part of my life, but often ends up competing for my time against all the other stuff that isn't as important.

All of which is to say that every time I start thinking about starting something or taking on something, I'm beginning to question whether that is wise.  I also think I might have too much now: dropping or even cutting back on derby practices would help.  One night of board gaming (the one with my daughter's friends, since I see the other people at the home game) rather than two could be something.  Definitely keeping work under a dull roar would be good.

But playing and board games don't stoke my creative energies, which is a problem, and one I might have to address.  I have always been a dreamer, and not having something for my hyperactive brain to chew on could be a bad thing.  More later.

Over at Strange Vistas