Friday, March 20, 2015

The Menace of the Joker, Part Two

Having vented my spleen about the whole Batgirl/Joker/DC Comics fiasco out of this week, I would now like to return to my regularly scheduled discourse on superhero RPG's.

A while back I mentioned that I was interested in learning more about the DC Heroes RPG, if only because it seemed to be this oddly forgotten RPG from days of yore.  I owned a bunch of sourcebooks, but not the game itself, and could only glean some sense of the game's mechanics.

Well, over Spring Break with the kids I happened to be traveling out of state to see my parents, and on the visit hit a FLGS in the area which turned out to be the Holy Motherlode of out-of-print RPG's to the point where I could have blown $200 there easily, if I was so inclined.

I wasn't, but I did pick up one book:

Superman had just died when this edition was published, otherwise I'm sure he would have made his way into the cover.  By the way, nice gratuitous cleavage.
I haven't had a chance to work my way through the entire book yet, but I did glance at the stat-ups for the various DC heroes and villains, including the Joker.

From an RPG standpoint, he seems pretty underwhelming.  Roughly human stats in most areas.  Hawkman-level intelligence.  His only really outstanding stats are Influence and Willpower.  He gets high ranks in the Charisma and Gadgetry department, but is actually a little underwhelming in Weaponry and has no close-combat fighting ability whatsoever.  Under Advantages he has Arkham Asylum (low) and Organized Crime (high), and that's it.  Arkham Asylum is "low"?

At 120 Hero points, he's between Aquaman (100) and Batman (120).  I'm not sure if that really does anything for him, however.

I do get it.  He's a Batman villain.  He has no superpowers.  The fact that he is "easily the Batman's most persistent and deadly foe" is grounded largely in the weird Batman-universe mythological explore-the-human-psyche elements, not raw power.  He's a pushover in a lot of ways, but not in others.  Just look at Kingdom Come or Injustice to understand that.  Any B-level superhero can level him in a fight, but he is great at messing with people's minds.

Now, how to handle that in an RPG?  This is the case where I think there's a gap sometimes between "superhero RPG's" and "comic book RPG's," and where Marvel Heroic Roleplaying may actually shine.  If I had to do a quick stat-up for the Joker for MHR, it would probably look like this:

Solo d8  Buddy d6  Team d4

Clown Prince of Crime
Homicidal Maniac
Obsessed with the Batman

Weapon d8
SFX: Joker venom.  When inflicting a "Hideously Disfigured" complication on an opponent, add a d6 to the dice pool and step up the effect die.
Limit: Gear, see MHR

Crime Master
Combat Expert
Menace Master
Psych Master
Tech Expert

So, not the most formidable guy in terms of power, but turn him loose to create an Asset, or to make an Emotion-based attack on someone and he's rocking a 3d8 or 4d8 and a d10.  Now he's a serious threat in game-terms.  You might throw in some Thug d6's in there if you really want the climactic fight scene.

That's why I really think MHR is more the "comic book RPG" than the "superhero RPG" in a lot of ways, warts and all.


  1. A very interesting approach, and one that certainly reflects the Joker in game system terms, were you to put him in game system terms.

    What do I mean?

    Well, I have really only ever used the Joker once in an RPG campaign, and my group ended up talking about that adventure/story arc for years to come.

    It involved a series of minor crimes, thefts mostly, all related to the punchlines of rather cliche' old jokes. He left many a hapless eyewitness victim to his grin inducing gas, but there were no deaths.

    It was the Joker's M.O., but not necessarily the Joker of today. It was the Caesar Romero Joker, crossed somewhat with the Joker of the late 70's and early 80's. A Supervillain Joker, not a shock-for-shock's sake Joker, or a look-how-deep-we-can-be-about-mental-states Joker.

    Then, in the end, someone noticed a pattern in the punchlines. Another looked at all the items stolen in addition to money. Adding it all up, Joker intended to kill everyone at a charity vaudeville event, his terrible allergenic concoction if the audience DIDN"T LAUGH.

    That's right, if one of the jokes bombed, the bombs went off, releasing an allergenic toxin likely to kill 75% percent of the attendees, and hospitalize the rest.

    In the end, the heroes split up, disabled the bombs (save one which was eliminated in a different way), while one of them fought the Joker. He was crafty, clever, equipped liked a dangerous, clown themed Batman. That wasn't exactly how the rules had him. It's how he made sense to me. Eventually, he was beaten, but though wounded, he escaped.

    There are a hundred ways you can portray comic book heroes and villains. The easy way, the lazy way, is not usually the best way. Right now DC is all about the lazy way IMO.

    1. I did realize, as I was writing the article, that the effectiveness of a character like the Joker is more HOW you play him. Mammoth might be a powerhouse who is likely to rob a bank in broad daylight, but the Joker is more likely to do something sick and twisted and in the process come across as more dangerous.

      It is interesting how some game mechanics tend to take those abstract notions and "monetize" them, so it goes from "the building is on fire" to "Burning Building d8."

  2. True. I think the lesson I learned when running Superhero games (especially those set in a specific universe like Marvel or DC) is that some characters are best represented by the narrative, no their stats on a sheet. That's what I really meant to say above.

    I remember looking at the DC HEROES game (First Edition) with some friends at one point, and saying, "Look at the Flash's stats. Look at the stats of his enemies. With the exception of the Reverse Flash, just going by the game, there should never be any crime in Central City." Flash so outclasses his opponents rules wise, it's ridiculous.

    How do Captain Cold, Heatwave, and, good lord, Captain Boomerang, have a snowball's chance in a blast furnace of going up against the Flash?

    Plot, writers, and intelligence. That's the only way.