Friday, October 31, 2014

Happy Halloween!

With the Royals losing, I felt I needed some baseball cheer in my spooky Halloween decorations!

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Things GM's Do Right: Newspapers

Okay, I'm totally poking at the "Things GM's Do Wrong" meme by instead talking about things that many GM's do (including myself on occasion) that work well and make sense.  Let's start with an easy one: newspapers.

Or television reports, or blog posts, or Newsnet feeds, or whatever your genre wants to call them.  Having a media outlet in your game is a great way to accomplish several things at once.

  1. It creates a fun "recap"of previous adventures.  My experience is that players are often fuzzy on what happened even in their own campaign.  An accounting of last session's activities helps get players, especially those who were absent last time, onto the same page without taking up game time.
  2. It provides an outsider's perspective.  Since a newspaper isn't a strict campaign chronicle, the players get a glimpse of how their activities are viewed by the outside world.  Villains & Vigilantes had a great mechanism for tracking a superhero PC's popularity with public--a major trope in comic books, and a helpful way for players to anticipate how eager the police might be to help them, for example.
  3. It can introduce storylines.  There's an exhibit of a rare diamond at the museum.  The leader of a foreign nation is coming to visit.  The new particle accelerator is coming online tomorrow.  All of these obvious "MacGuffins" can be introduced to the players without seeming heavy-handed.
  4. It is a way to work NPC's into the campaign.  J. Jonah Jameson, Perry White, Lois Lane, and Eddie Brock were all side-characters to the two biggest reporter/superheroes out there.  Like so much about Marvel and DC, the distinctions between the interactions of the side-characters and the main character reflected the ethos of the comic book publishers.  Clark Kent is a star reporter while Peter Parker peddles photographs for rent money.  Maybe the "newspaper" is a blog written by an opponent of masked vigilantes, or to flip the hackneyed plot device, a superhero groupie who enthusiasm will eventually end up placing them in harm (and if the PC's rebuff the blogger, an eventual villain ala The Incredibles).  In a superhero campaign, it can also be the background for a hero's secret identity: reporter, technician, corporate honcho, etc.
So if you're planning on running a superhero campaign (or any other kind of campaign for that matter), a media outlet can serve a lot of functions at once with little work.  You can create a fake blog using existing free blog outlets (like the one this blog is using) or simple word processing software to make up a newspaper.  You can go as complex as doing columns and photos, or just have the headlines typed up.

Easy and simple, and a good way to do something right.

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Appendix N for Superheroes: Bionic Six

I thought I'd explain some of my choices for my entries into my "Appendix N for Superhero RPG's," starting with one of my most obscure choices, the brief TV series Bionic Six.

From Wikipedia:
In the near future (some unspecified decades after 1999), Professor Dr. Amadeus Sharp Ph.D., head of the Special Projects Labs (SPL), creates a new form of technology to augment humans through bionics. His first subject was Jack Bennett, a test pilot who secretly acted as Sharp's field agent, Bionic-1. On a family ski vacation in the Himalayas, an alien spacecraft triggers an avalanche that buries the entire family, exposing them to the unusual radiation of a mysterious buried object. Jack frees himself but discovers his family in a comatose state. Theorizing that Jack's bionics protected him from the radiation, Professor Sharp implants bionic technology in the others, awakening them. Afterward, the family operates incognito as a publicly lauded team of adventuring superheroes, the Bionic Six.
The primary antagonist of the series is a mad scientist known as Doctor Scarab, along with his gang of henchmen – Glove, Madam-O, Chopper, Mechanic, and Klunk – accompanied by Scarab's legion of drone robots called Cyphrons. Ironically, Scarab is Professor Sharp's brother. Obsessed with obtaining immortality and ruling the world, Scarab believes that the key to both goals lies in the secret bionic technology invented by his brother, ever plotting to possess it
 The Bionic Six are Jack Bennett, "Bionic One," his wife Helen "Mother One," their two biological children Eric "Sport One" and Meg "Rock One," their adopted son J.D. "IQ," and their foster son Bunjiro "Karate One."  All of them seem to possess a certain baseline of superheroic abilities (strength, reflexes, and durability) with their own area of specialty.  Bionic One had optic blasts, Mother One had ESP, Sport One could reflect missile attacks with his bat, Rock One had sonic blasts and super speed, IQ was particularly strong, and Karate One had enhanced reflexes and fighting ability.

They did the whole ring-to-bracelet thing when they changed into costumes.

The Bennetts were sort of saccharine-sweet when it came to their personalities, possess an almost Brady Bunch-like quality of sibling squabbles, etc.  As such, they tended to be boring.  The plots almost always seemed to hang off the villains: Doctor Scarab and his cronies.  Frank Welker's talents, best known as Freddy and Scooby from Scooby Doo, can't be underestimated here (he did no less than three of the villains in the show), although Jim MacGeorge doing a a George C. Scott impersonation for Doctor Scarab was also a great touch.  While the Bionic Six always got along, the villains hated each other and were perpetually scheming to get the upper hand.  As such, they remain more memorable and interesting then the eponymous heroes.

The only downside to these guys is their lamentable names, which are vaguely reminiscent of what players name their PC's. 
Which brings me to an interesting thought about superhero RPG's: unlike its source material, very little "screen time" is spent on the villains in a superhero campaign.  While comic books frequently have the "Meanwhile, at Doctor Death's secret lair..." moments, villains usually only come into the scene with their plots fully hatched (or hatching) and little opportunity for inter-villain byplay.

But I think great superhero stories rely not just on great heroes, but possibly more on great villains.  Trying to find ways to make sure that villains get their moment, whether than is by "monologing" or getting in a few hard hits beforehand, would be critical in a genre where villains need to be more than just the BBEG at the end of the dungeon.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

The Initivative: Superhero RPG Appendix N Blog Challenge

Spawned from an off-handed comment I made in my own blog, Barking Alien has kicked off The Initiative: Superhero RPG Appendix N Blog Challenge.

And since it was my idea, I accept.

Background: "Appendix N" is the list of recommended source material from 1st Edition AD&D.  It contained a bunch of fantasy and sci-fi novels that influence the creators of the game and included people like Clark Ashton Smith and Jack Vance.

In BA's original post and follow-up challenge, the issue was how to inform potential players about your own style of GMing when it comes to superhero RPG's.  Are they gritty or light-hearted?  Realistic or fantastic?

You need five to ten comic books, and five to ten other sources (movies, TV, video games, etc.)

Now the real challenge is that BA is my RPG brother from another mother, so it would be easy to just copy his list whole, but what's the fun of that.  I will say that there are a lot of crossovers.

Comic books
The Avengers (esp. the 1970's Avengers and the Busiek/Perez era up to Avengers: Disassembled)
The Justice League (esp. the late 70's to early 80's "satellite years")
The New Teen Titans
The X-Men (the Wein/Cockrum and Byrne/Claremont era of 1975-late 1980's,  Feel free to stop when the X-Books exploded everywhere)
The Crusaders (The Red Circle comics relaunch that was too, too brief)
The Outsiders (vol. 2)
The Legion of Super Heroes (as BA said, the Levitz era is the best)

Non-comic book medium source material
Batman: The Animated Series
Superman: The Animated Series
Justice League/Justice League Unlimited
Young Justice (TV series--surprised BA didn't have this one)
The Incredibles
Galaxy Rangers
Bionic Six

What didn't make the list?

  • Most of the 1990's.  That includes the "Iron Age" stuff that I read extensively but has aged so badly and the post-modern comic book movement that just doesn't suit me for the RPG medium.
  • The early DC-comics based TV shows (aka "The Superfriends") which I liked as a kid and the most recent DC-comics based TV shows (aka "Arrow") that I like as an adult.
  • The Marvel Studios movies, which I enjoy a great deal but apart from the Avengers don't reflect the team dynamic.  I considered putting in the Avengers movie but it's kind of a mess, plot-wise.

Monday, October 13, 2014

The Curse of the Genre Fiend

Let me share with you a story from the annals of my roleplaying game experience.  Back in 1991 or 1992, my gaming group in college purchased the first edition of a new RPG, Vampire: the Masquerade.  This was a watershed moment in a lot of ways, both for the group and the RPG community in general.  I was tasked with running the game and basically used the pre-generated community of Gary, Indiana as a core fro the campaign.  Members of the gaming group dutifully built various low-level courtiers in the vampire court, pathos-laden tragedies, etc.  Except for one player.  He built a werewolf.

There's always that guy in a gaming group.  The one who just wants to buck the system and play something so outside the concept that he'll always stand out, always have to have some plot line revolve around him.  A werewolf PC was also completely free of the three strictures places upon the other PC's: a dependence on blood, a vulnerability to daylight, and the strict social castes of the vampire community.  Meanwhile as a GM I had to figure out why on earth the NPC Vampire lords wouldn't just load up a bunch of silver weapons and place a huge bounty on this guy's head.  Thankfully the player didn't get what he wanted out of the game and dropped out.

But beyond people who intentionally work outside the boundaries of the genre, there are people who for whatever reason don't understand the usual tropes associated with that medium.  One of the most vulnerable to this intentional or unintentional "coloring outside the lines" is the superhero genre.

Over the past twenty years the superhero genre has been deconstructed ad nauseum, often within its own medium.  Sometimes it has been done very well.  Other times it has been done by self-indulgent authors looking to create violent rape fantasies to the point where I suspect they might deep down loathe superhero stories (I'm looking at you, Mark Millar).

And in one case, gloriously reconstructed...

Too bad DC Comics didn't get the message
Here's what I'm trying to say.  If you are trying to recreate the feel of a classic superhero comic book, then the participants have to accept that a person who creates gauntlets that can lift and manipulate tons of metal using "magnetic fields" is not going to use them to revolutionize the transportation industry and become a billionaire but will, in fact, use them to rob a bank where they will likely get punched repeatedly in the face by someone dressed up as a ferret.  And then do it again at the first opportunity.  Not because it is logical but because deep down superhero stories are about larger-than-life characters behaving in mythic battles of good and evil that do, in their own way, explore what it means to be a real human being even as they wield powers beyond mortal men.

You know what does a good job of explaining this?  The Valiant Universe roleplaying game.  I know I banged it around in my review, but there is a great sidebar in the rulebook called "Superheroes: Accepting the Premise."  It's not about certain genre conventions about superhero/villain identies (since Valiant is a little soft on those) but about the physics of superpowers and how that translates into game rules.
"From the moment the first superhero comic book stories began to unfold, writers had a conundrum.  They had some characters seemingly as powerful as gods fighting alongside (or against) characters with extremely limited abilities, if not downright mundane attributes.  How does a villain with only genius-level intelligence stand up to a being that can annihilate planets?" --Valiant Universe: the Roleplaying Game, pg. 43
Their answer involved an ambiguous, story-oriented system that relied less on rigidly-defined abilities and more on imagination and flexibility.  How many tons can Bloodshot lift?  As much as the story demands and the dice allow.  Why can Spider-Man lift tons but get overwhelmed by handful of regular men in the New Avengers episode "Breakout"?  Because the story.  It is why it, and other "narrative" RPG's do a better job of emulating the comic book genre rather than just creating a superhuman RPG.

Great story moment, but none of the three people pummeling Spidey have super-strength.  Also--yikes, no mask!
But beyond rules it is also about buying into the premise.  In my Marvel Heroic Roleplaying game the player who struggled with this the most was Rachel, who played Samkhara.  Samkhara didn't have a costume but wore street clothes and and wielded emotional-based powers.  Her whole idea was to have Samkhara constantly hide in crowds of onlookers and sniper villains with work-around powers.  Which is smart.  Snipers are smart, and realistic.  Camouflage is smart, and realistic.  And in so many superhero RPG's I have had players who built smart and realistic PC's because their roleplaying ethos was to build PC's that could thrive and survive and win. That's not what superheroes are about.  It might be what superhumans might do, but not superheroes.  At least not in the classical sense.

Which means explaining things and probably spending more time having a literary discussion about your game than you might in other games.  Especially if you are a "Genre Fiend" to use Aaron Allston's terminology from his Strike Force supplement and have to have the feeling just right.

Thoughts?  Comments welcome.

Friday, October 10, 2014

Friday night recap, hoodie edition

It's Friday and we are playing Mass Effect. 

Rachel always gets her man. 

The young bloods are ready to attack. 

The old bloods show the kids how it is done.

One of the many combats that night.  Black Widow looks on approvingly.

My custom Geth Prime stalks the team.

Thursday, October 9, 2014

JLA/Avengers (or Avengers/JLA)

I had the chance to read the most recent DC/Marvel crossover recently.  By "recent" I mean "2003-4," since there have been other crossovers, such as the X-Men/Teen Titans crossover and the Amalgam Universe titles.  If you haven't read this series, or the collected edition that I found in my public library, it's worth a look, especially if you're running a superhero game.

For one thing, it's Busiek and Perez, two top names in the industry.  I loved the Busiek/Perez run on the Avengers at the time, and frankly feel like it was the last time the team really felt like the Avengers to me, although the "Heroic Age" came awfully close.

The plot is pretty straightforward.  Krona, an exiled Oan, comes to the Marvel Universe looking for the truth of creation, in the process destroying several alternative universes, including the "Earth 2" of the Crime Syndicate of America.  When he gets to the Marvel Universe, the Grandmaster challenges him to a game: the greatest hero teams of the two universes will compete to find twelve uber-powerful objects.  Krona agrees, but with one condition: he gets the Grandmaster's team, the Avengers, and the Grandmaster gets the Justice League.

Both teams then end up hopping back and forth between the two dimensions, first opposing one another and then eventually teaming up.  There are lots of little bits to make comic book fans happy.  Dream contests occur (Superman versus Thor, Captain America versus Batman).  Jokes are made about overly similar characters like Hawkeye and Green Arrow.  Hercules mentions his dalliance with Hippolyta to Wonder Woman.  And Batman takes a small side-trip to kick the Punisher's backside.  Off-panel.  Because the Punisher is a jerk.

But the part that makes this really interesting is the way they explore the real differences between the two core ethoi of the comic book universes.  It can best be summed up in one exchange, in which Batman meets the Thing briefly.

[Batman]: "He has a...rough edged charm."
[Captain America]: "Was that a knock?  Ben Grimm may not be sleek and elegant, like the heroes of here, Mister.  But he's one of the finest men I know--and he gets the job done."
 DC heroes?  They are wonderfully iconic with their capes and symbols.  Marvel heroes have rough, human edges.  When the two teams first visit each other's worlds, the League is aghast at a world where there is a Latveria, a Genosha, and even the Hulk.  The Avengers, especially Captain America, are suspicious of the adulation of the populace towards their heroes and suggest they are crypto-fascists.

That contrast is, among many other reasons, why I suspect Marvel characters look better in movies while DC characters have done so well in cartoon animation.  Broad shoulders, spandex, and capes work in cartoons in way they just can't be carried off in real life.  (Plus, the animated series respected the decades-long traditions of the characters and were marketed to comic book fans, while the DC movies always tried to re-invent the characters and target people unfamiliar with the legends.  But I digress...)

When it comes to creating your own superhero RPG campaign, I think there is some question about what kind of heroes the PC's will be: iconic or marginal?  And, what if those roles were changed?

Over at Strange Vistas