The Superlative System

The following article was the first stirrings of what eventually developed into the ICONS game, when I was playing around with marrying some of the concepts from Fudge and Marvel Super-Heroes.

Back when I first started playing roleplaying games, I was a big fan of the original Marvel Super-Heroes RPG from TSR (particularly in its Advanced Set incarnation by the inimitable Jeff Grubb). The game was simple, evocative, and easy to use.

I’m also an admirer of the work of Stefan O’Sullivan. His Freeform Universal Do-it-yourself Gaming Engine (FUDGE) has many of the same qualities of Marvel Super-Heroes: a simple, straightforward system based on descriptive terms rather than a lot of hard numbers.

For quite some time, I’ve tinkered with the idea of combining the best of the two systems in some way. This page contains some rough ideas along those lines, what I’m calling the Superlative System for ease of reference. Folks are naturally free to play around them them further.

The Marvel Super-Heroes RPG is copyright TSR, Inc. FUDGE is copyright Stefan O’Sullivan. No infringement of either property is intended.


Abilities and Powers

The Superlative System measures all abilities and powers using basically the same set of ranks, but adjusted for the FUDGE scale, as follows:

 Rank

Modifier

Examples
Terrible

-3

Incapable or otherwise impaired.
 Feeble

 -2

 Weak; Aunt May’s Strength, Man-Thing’s Reason
 Poor

 -1

 Below average; Rogue’s Psyche, Dazzler’s Reason
 Typical

 +0

 Average; the Invisible Woman’s Strength, the Human Torch’s Reason
 Good

 +1

 Above Average
 Excellent

 +2

 Highly Talented or Trained; Maximum human Strength
 Remarkable

 +3

 Extraordinary Talent or Training; Maximum human Agility
 Incredible

 +4

 Low-level superhuman; Spider-Man’s Strength, Nightcrawler’s Agility
 Amazing

 +5

 Mid-level superhuman; Iron Man’s Strength, Spider-Man’s Agility
 Monstrous

 +7

 Upper-level superhuman; the Thing’s Strength, Professor X’s Psyche
 Unearthly

 +10

 Unequalled power; the Hulk’s Strength, the Silver Surfer’s Power Cosmic
 Shift X

 +15

 Beyond the power of most characters
 Shift Y

 +20

 Beyond the power of most characters
 Shift Z

 +50

 The limit of earthly powers (megaton nuclear blast, antimatter explosion)
 Class 1000

 +100

 Low-level Cosmic Power
 Class 3000

 +300

 Mid-level Cosmic Power
 Class 5000

 +500

 High-Level Cosmic Power
 Beyond

Infinite

 Omnipotent

The primary ability scores remain the same: Fighting, Agility, Strength, Endurance, Reason, Intuition, and Psyche.

The Health score is eliminated to accomodate the new damage system (below) and the Karma score is eliminated in favor of a new Karma system. Resources and Popularity remain essentially unchanged.

Powers are measured according to the same ranking system and talents still provide a +1 bonus for actions involving them (or more, convert the talent’s column-shift modifier into a dice roll modifier).


Action

Actions are resolved using the relevant ability or power rank. Roll 4dF (a FUDGE dice roll) and compare the result against the difficulty rank of the task. Subtracting the difficulty from the action result provides the Margin of Success (MoS) or Margin of Failure (MoF). This replaces FEAT rolls using the Universal Chart.

Combat

Combat actions are resolved in much the same way: the attacker rolls 4dF plus the relevant ability (Fighting for melee attacks, Agility for ranged attacks). The difficulty of the roll is the target’s relevant ability (Fighting or Agility for melee attacks, Agility for ranged attacks). A MoS of +1 or better results in a hit.

Alternately, both combatants can roll with the result of the roll determining the difficulty for the opponent’s roll, resolving attack and defense simultanteously. Ties mean neither opponent affects the other significantly.

In either case, characters can choose to adopt an offensive, defensive, or neutral stance. An offensive stance allows the player to subtract up to two ranks from the character’s defense and add them to the result of the attack roll. A defensive stance allows the player to subtract up to two ranks from the characters attack rank and add them to defense. This may give characters different results for attack and defense, which can result in things like simultaneous hits or misses.

Damage

Damage is based on the base damage of the attack plus the MoS of the attack roll. Subtract the modifier of the target’s Body Armor (if any) from this to determine the damage total. Then compare it against the chart below:

 Damage Total

1-2

3-4

5-6

7+

 Effect

Scratch/
Bruised

Hurt/
Stunned

Very Hurt/
Very Stunned

Taken Out

A character can suffer up to three Scratched or Bruised results, one Hurt/Stunned, and one Very Hurt/Very Stunned. If a character takes a level of damage already checked off, it becomes one level higher: so a character that has already suffered a Stunned result who suffers another Stunned result is Very Stunned instead.

A Scratched/Bruised result has no game effect; the character took some minor damage, but isn’t impaired in any way. A character who is Stunned is at -1 on all actions for 1 round. A character who is Hurt is at -1 on all actions until healed. A character who is Very Stunned is at -2 on all actions for 2 rounds. A character who is Very Hurt is at -2 on all actions until healed. A character who is Taken Out is unconscious (and possibly dying in the case of lethal damage).

Lethal vs. Stun Damage (Optional)

There are two types of damage: Lethal and Stun. Stun Damage results from punches and other non-lethal attacks. It causes bruising, stunning, and knockouts, but causes no real lasting harm. Lethal Damage results from bullets, knives, fire, and other potentially lethal sources of damage. It causes wounds (Scratch, Hurt, and Very Hurt results) and can potentially kill.

Characters subtract their Endurance modifier from any Stun Damage that they suffer, but not from Lethal Damage. Body Armor, Force Fields, and other defensive powers subtract their rank from Lethal Damage (and from Stun Damage as well, if their power rank is greater than the character’s Endurance). Note that this means characters with negative Endurance modifiers actually take more Stun Damage than normal, they’re especially fragile and easily hurt.

This optional rule reflects the difference between charactgers like Spider-Man (who’s fairly tough and can take a beating from Dr. Octopus, but can be seriously hurt by a gunshot) and the Thing (who’s just plain tough to hurt period).


Karma

Superheroes face some serious challenges, ranging from world-beating menaces to trouble in their personal lives. Dealing with these challenges grants heroes a benefit calledKarma, which they can use to overcome further challenges or perform heroic feats.

Gaining Karma

Heroes start each game with a Karma Pool of 0; they have to rely on their wits and their own abilities. As the story unfolds, the heroes may earn Karma by facing various challenges, as follows:

  • If defeated by a villain in some way, the hero gains a point of Karma. This includes being Taken Out or captured by a villain, or allowing a villain to escape from the hero in some way. In some cases, the Gamemaster may choose to automatically capture or Take Out a hero, in the form of an ambush or inescapable trap, giving the player a point of Karma in exchange.
  • When the hero fulfills or deals with a personal obligation, he gains a point of Karma. This obligation must demand something of the hero; just going to work and paying the bills doesn’t count. If the hero rushes across town after fighting a villain to make a lunch date, or to visit a sick relative in the hospital, he gets a point of Karma.
  • If the Gamemaster invokes one of the hero’s Subplots or Weaknesses (see below), the hero gains a point of Karma. For example, if a hero is vulnerable to water attacks and a villain rips up a water main to use it as a weapon against the hero, he gets a point of Karma if the attack is successful. If a hero is claustrophobic and panics while buried under rubble, the hero gets a Karma point. When a Subplot or Weakness is invoked, the player has the option of spending a Karma point (assuming the hero has any) to ignore the effects, but doesn’t gain any Karma when doing so.
  • If a player goes along with the GM to further the plot in some way, the player’s hero gets a Karma point. For example, if a villain mind controls a hero and the player chooses not to resist but allows his character to be controlled, then the hero gets a Karma point (which you know is going to be used to later to pound the mind-controller into the ground).
  • Finally, if a player roleplays especially well, coming up with something that everyone at the table finds especially enjoyable, the GM may award that player’s hero a Karma point. This includes “master plan insurance,” in which the GM awards a Karma point to a player who comes up with a particularly clever plan, which the player can use to help ensure the plan’s success.

Using Karma

Players can spend their heroes’ earned Karma points in various ways during the game:

  • A player can spend a Karma point to automatically succeed at any task with a difficulty rank of Good, or equal to the character’s relevant ability, whichever is higher. The hero achieves a competent success on that task.
  • A player can spend a Karma point to increase the result of a 4dF roll by +1. This roll can be one the player makes or one the GM makes that directly affects the player’s character.
  • A player can spend a Karma point to allow his hero to perform a power stunt. After performing a power stunt successfully three times, it becomes a permanent part of the hero’s powers (no longer requiring Karma to use).
  • A player can spend two Karma points to turn all damage the hero currently has into Scratches or Bruises (which fill up the character’s damage boxes normally). This can shift more serious damage down the damage track.
  • A player can spend three Karma points to achieve an automatic +3 bonus on a task without rolling the dice.
  • A player can spend one or more Karma points to “edit” the circumstances of a scene or situation in the character’s favor. For example, a useful item might be close at hand, the circumstances just right for a particular plan, the hero knows someone who can help him out, and so forth. The GM determines the Karma cost for a particular edit, ranging from one point for minor changes to as many as three points for significant alterations.
  • A player can spend a Karma point to temporarily ignore the effects of a Subplot or Weakness. The GM decides how long the Karma point keeps the Weakness at bay. For some Weaknesses, one Karma point is enough to ignore that Weakness for the rest of the scene. For others, a Karma point may only keep the effects at bay for a moment (about one combat round).

Hero Creation

The Superlative System works best with the “character modeling” option (essentially the same as Subjective Character Creation from FUDGE) wherein the players simply describe their characters in game terms, assigning appropriate ranks to their abilities. Gamemasters wanting a more detailed system can assign a number of “free” character ranks. Heroes start out with abilities of Typical and no powers or talents. They can spend their free ranks to increase ability scores or acquire powers and talents (one rank grants one talent or a power at Typical rank or increases an existing power by one rank).

Subplots and Weaknesses

Superlative System heroes can have various drawbacks called Subplots and Weaknesses. Subplots are story elements that demand some of the character’s attention, time, and effort, such as romantic interests, relationships with friends and family, personal issues, maintaining a secret identity, job troubles, and so forth. Weaknesses are flaws, ranging from vulnerability to particular types of attacks (that attack is sure to Take Out the hero), loss of powers when exposed to glowing meteorites, severe phobias or other psychological issues, and so forth.

Players can choose as many Subplots and Weaknesses for their heroes as they wish, subject to the GM’s approval. The benefit is that when the GM invokes a Subplot or Weakness in the game, the hero gets a Karma point (in exchange for allowing the GM to hose them with the drawback, essentially). So the more Subplots and Weaknesses a hero has, the more Karma he can potentially earn. GMs may insist that every hero have at least one Subplot or Weakness, providing the GM with a means of limiting the character and awarding Karma, but this is not required.