Champion fundraiser for Rainbow Railroad

ChampionCoverSometimes, I wish I had the power to help, to answer the call of “save me!” in a real and tangible way. Still, I try to do what I can with what I do have, which includes publishing and imagination.

The ongoing pogrom against LGBTQ people, particularly queer men, in Chechnya has filled me with deep sadness and anger, as has the tepid response of the American government. As much as I would like to be the hero who can swoop in and save people—my people—in desperate need, the best I can do for now is to imagine that hero, breathe life into him, and ask for fellow gamers and superhero fans to donate in order to get to know him better.

So, I give you…The Champion! Chosen by the Aristos Eremenos, bearer of the Four Golden Gifts, protector of the people. All profits from the sales of this short pay-what-you-want PDF will be donated to the Rainbow Railroad, a nonprofit dedicated to doing the real heroic work: Getting people in danger out of harm’s way and to somewhere they can be safe. With persecution of LGBTQ people on the rise around the world, not just in Chechnya, their life-saving work is more important than ever. Whether or not you include the Champion in your heroic universe, please consider offering them your support. Be a hero, because the world needs more. Thank you.

Inclusivity: The Next Step

In “The Bad Ol’ Good Ol’ Days” I talked a bit about the challenges of being a minority role-player looking to create characters in settings with even less equality than the modern world. After picking up a bunch of new games at Gen Con, taking part in some LGTBQ-focused events there and at GaymerX, and a bit of online discussion, I gave some thought to the ways of creating more inclusive settings for roleplaying games, and the characters who come to life in them.

One approach to the issue of equality and inclusion in fictional settings is stating “Racism, sexism, and similar prejudices do not exist in this setting,” or something that that effect. While that can help to establish the notion of equality, it shouldn’t be confused with inclusion. In fact, it can sometimes be used as an excuse to justify a lack of inclusion by taking a “mission accomplished” stance: If the problem of inequality has been “solved” simply by declaring it so, why do we have to continue to talk about it or, you know, any of the things or people associated with it? So goes the online joke of “You know what I’d like to see? The inclusion of a minority character that’s so low-key it’s never even mentioned. At all. Ever.”

It’s because equality is different from inclusion. You can include minority characters and themes in settings where they are not treated equally, and you can offer a setting that has equality (at least in theory) without including minority characters and themes, or including some, but not others. That’s another thing about inclusion: It can be unevenly distributed. You can have settings with both inclusion and equality—unfortunately, in that case, you’re into fantasy territory, since we haven’t even gotten there in the real world yet.

That’s one of the issues of the “no -isms” declaration. Not that it’s a fantasy—we deal with all kinds of fantastic elements in our RPG settings, after all—but that it’s often an unexplored fantastic element. The fantastic world of complete equality and inclusion can coincidentally end up looking just like the world lacking those things, the only difference being the prejudice is less overt, and should never be talked about or pointed out or questioned. For example, there may be “no sexism” in a pseudo-medieval fantasy setting, and yet curiously language, relationships, professions, and entire societies remain just as gendered and driven by heterosexist norms as ever. There’s “no racism” in a near-future setting, other than how the “global” culture of Earth still seems remarkably white, middle-class, heterosexist, and Anglo-American—even the punks and rebels.

So inclusiveness in setting is another example of the writing adage “show, don’t tell.” It’s not enough to just say that the issue of inclusion is dealt with, you actually have to deal with it, by including a broad range of characters, and considering how they fit into the world and what their experiences are like. That’s a part of inclusion as well: The stories and experiences of those diverse characters. What is it like to be a woman, a person of color, or a sexual minority in this world? How does it differ from our world and how do those differences affect the fictional world as a whole? Does the world differ from ours in those respects, for that matter?

That’s important, because you can have inclusion without equality in the setting as a whole, just as we can strive for inclusion in our world (as many have done) without full equality having been achieved as yet. This matters particularly for period settings. Take the Agent Carter TV series for example. The setting (post-WWII America in the Marvel Cinematic Universe) is far from equal: Peggy Carter’s challenges as a woman in a “man’s job” are a prominent part of the story, but at the same time, the series strives to be inclusive of women, minorities, and differently-abled characters, highlighting their struggles, while making it clear the societal prejudices against them are unfair and unjust.

Inclusion that shows what it is like to be a minority character in the setting provides not only examples for the readers and players of the setting, but permission. It says, “Look! Minority or marginalized people have roles in this world and its stories and they’re like this.” Just like you’d give players guidelines to play a fictional race (like elves or aliens) or a fictional class of people (like deep-space “belters” or members of an arcane order), give guidelines for character concepts and stories that don’t fit the default expectations of our culture. Not only do players who belong to marginalized communities need that, but players who don’t deserve the opportunity to not only see that, but to consider playing it.

In short, the next step beyond recognizing the value of and need for inclusion is actually doing it, and doing it as well as we can.

The Bad Ol’ Good Ol’ Days

I was delighted yesterday to read Fat Goblin Games announcement of renewed support for Castle Falkenstein, a long-time favorite of mine. I still fondly recall purchasing it at GenCon and sitting, ensconced, in one of the side halls of the convention center pouring through its contents, losing myself in its graceful, romantic, and magical setting.

As anyone who knows me will attest, I’m an absolute sucker for Victorian-era alternate history RPGs and generally love my historical roleplaying, but one thing I’ve increasingly grappled with is reconciling the romance of a bygone era with its often harsh realities, particularly with regard to things like gender and sexual equality, colonialism, racism, and the even harsher human brutalities of our shared history. If you’re rolling your eyes at this point about my “spoiling” your enjoyment of a good fictional romp through Steampunk Victorian London, medieval Europe, or the Roman Empire or whatnot, feel free to click the “close” or “back” button and move on. Otherwise, consider with me:

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Poll: Best ICONS Options

What’s your favorite new rules option for ICONS Superpowered Roleplaying? I’ve posted a number of ideas and optional rules on this blog, and I’m looking for you to vote for your favorite.

I’ve also opened up comments for discussion and mentioning your favorite ICONS variations from elsewhere, whether it’s ICONS Team-Up, third-party products, your own series, or elsewhere on the ‘net. What are your favorite ICONS options and hacks? Let’s hear ’em!

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FAE: Shifting Approaches

This is more of a post-let than a detailed post, but it was an idea that occurred to me and I wanted to get it out there for anyone who might benefit from it or do something interesting with it (which, by the way, is carte blanche for you to do so, if you feel so motivated).

In Fate Accelerated Edition, characters use different Approaches to perform actions, choosing from Careful, Flashy, Forceful, etc. (or whatever other names the Approaches are given).

One classic element of fictional conflicts is encouraging, forcing, or tricking an opponent or rival into using an Approach that puts them at a disadvantage: get a normally careful foe angry enough to attack with abandon, make a somewhat dim-witted rival overestimate his own cleverness, put a forceful, flashy character in a situation where being sneaky and subtle is called for (or vice versa).

This is essentially Creating an Advantage except, rather than sussing out or creating an aspect, you’re shifting the conflict to a different approach. So, on a tie or success, you get a sense of the opponent’s weakest approach and get to shift the conflict there for one exchange. If you succeed with style, you keep it there for two exchanges and, at the GM’s option, can spend a fate point to keep it there for an additional exchange.

Example: Two sword-fighters  are facing-off, and it quickly becomes clear they’re evenly matched in the Quick and Flashy department, so one tries to taunt her opponent with a Flashy maneuver to get him angry enough to try a Forceful attack. On a tie or success, she goads her foe into taking a Forceful approach for the next exchange, perhaps giving her an opening for a Quick attack. If she succeeds with style, her foe is so unhinged, he goes Forceful for the next two exchanges at least.

Addendum: Why is this any better than just creating an advantage or getting a bonus? Apart from the flavor of it, shifting approaches can have a more variable bonus (depending on the spread between the subject’s best and worst approaches applicable to the situation) plus it can potentially deny the target access to stunts based on a particular approach: If your foe’s best stunt is based on being Flashy, for example, and you force him into a situation where he has to be Sneaky, then that stunt is likely off the table for the moment, giving you an added advantage.

ICONS Scale Adjectives

Toying around with adjectives for the ICONS 1–10 ability scale:

  1. Weak
  2. Poor
  3. Average
  4. Fair
  5. Good
  6. Great
  7. Fantastic
  8. Incredible
  9. Amazing
  10. Supreme

The mid-range (2–7) matches Fate Core for the most part (although ICONS knocks out the “Mediocre” level, having just two below Average). Overall, I like the contrast between the “normal” (3–6) and “super” (7–10) adjectives.

Re: ICONS #4

More re-think, second-guessing, options, and general tinkering with Icons Superpowered Roleplaying, building on what started here.

Different Damage

A thread on RPGnet is discussing an idea similar to a topic also touched upon in Icons Team-Up, namely alternatives to Stamina for determining damage and victory conditions in conflicts. It’s a concept I’ve touched upon in the Icons Wiki and my Moral Victories blog post as well. Here are some further thoughts on the matter.

Effect vs. Resistance: Attacks work as given in Icons: test acting ability (typically Prowess or Coordination) against an opposing ability (also typically Prowess or Coordination) to determine effect (effort minus difficulty).

Example: Electric Judy (Prowess 6) does a leaping kick against a Prowess 4 thug. Judy’s player rolls a +1 for an effort of 7, minus difficulty 4, or an effect of 3.

Add the effect from the test to the effect ability of the action (Strength for an unarmed attack, power level for most powers) and compare it against the resistance ability (typically Strength or Willpower) to determine outcome.

Example: Electric Judy has Strength 6 due to her android construction. Her player adds 3 for the attack test to get a total effect of 9. The thug has Strength 3, so the outcome is a 6.

Applying Outcome: There are two basic ways of applying outcome. The first is to use the table on page 7 of Icons and the guidelines for Pyramid Tests (in Team-Up or on the Wiki): a massive success means victory for the acting character and defeat for the opposing character, while lesser outcomes incrementally move towards victory/defeat, with two major successes equaling a massive success, and two moderate successes equaling a major success.

Example: In the prior example, Electric Judy scored a massive success against the thug, taking him out of the fight. If Judy had been fighting Skeletron (Strength and Invulnerability 8), her effect of 9 would have been only a moderate outcome (and, technically, would have only been effect 8, since Skeletron’s Prowess is also 1 higher than the thug’s).

The other option is to give character’s a “track” from 1 to 5. When the track hits 5, the character is defeated. The effect of a test fills in the box corresponding to its number on the track (or the 5 box, if it’s over 5). If that box is already filled-in, it “rolls up” to the next box until it reaches an empty box, and fills that it.

Example: In Electric Judy vs. the thug, the result is the same: effect 6 fills in the 5 box on the track, taking the thug out. In Judy vs. Skeletron, effect 1 fills in Skeletron’s 1 box. Another identical hit from Electric Judy would then “roll up” to Skeletron’s box 2, and so forth, allowing Judy to eventually wear him down. In this approach it would take her five such hits to defeat Skeletron, while in the prior approach, it would have taken her four (since four moderate outcomes add up to a massive success).

Minimal Success: Icons Team-Up introduces the concept of minimal success (a total effect of 0), moving that result out of moderate success and leaving moderate an effect 1–2. A minimal success attack (a graze) is half Stamina damage with a minimum of 1. Under this approach, a graze has a maximum effect of 1, regardless of effect vs. resistance level.

Example: If Electric Judy rolled a –2 attacking the thug, getting effort 4, that would be exactly equal to the thug’s Prowess for a graze. Although her Strength 6 would normally score at least effect 3 (a major success) after subtracting the thug’s Strength 3, this hit only does effect 1.

What About Armor? So how does armor (particularly Invulnerability) work in this approach, with the use of a resistance ability? There are a number of options:

  • Armor provides a bonus to resistance ability. It should not be a direct addition to two 1–10 scale abilities, however, or strong characters with armor become truly invulnerable! In this case, divide armor level by 2 to 3 to reduce maximum bonus to +5 to +3 or so.
  • Armor substitutes for the usual resistance ability, so only armor levels above Strength actually matter. Invulnerability’s rolled level must be at least Strength+1.
  • Armor protects against certain types of damage. For example, if you want more lethal damage in the game, have Strength provide reduced (or no) resistance against shooting and slashing attacks, with armor protecting at its full level.

Slams and Stuns – Consequences: With effort on the action test influencing effect, how do things like Slams, Stuns, and Kills work into this system? By default, they don’t, since anything less than a massive success has no effect other than incrementing the target closer to defeat. However, you could repurpose the concept of Consequences from Team-Up to add these things back into the system.

Essentially, rather than filling in the track, a character can choose to suffer a consequence: a moderate consequence blocks a moderate (1–2) outcome while a major consequence blocks a major (3–4) outcome.

A moderate consequence is generally one panel worth of disability: losing your next action due to a stun, getting knocked down, momentarily entangled, and so forth. It goes away after a panel, but gives your opponent a momentary advantage. A major consequence imposes a challenge on the character for the rest of the scene, one opponents can potentially tag, and giving one “free” tag where the hero earns no Determination (or the player spends none to tag on a GM character). This is essentially a spin on the “Lasting Injuries” on page 72 of Icons. It also works with the Maneuvers system, which essentially looks to create consequences rather than inflict losses.

Massive Consequence Option: By default there are no massive consequences, since the consequence of a massive loss is defeat! However, the GM can allow the option of taking a massive consequence for a hero in dire need to shrug off a massive loss and keep on going. This should be a serious, permanent change in the character: loss of a power or powers, loss of a limb, or something equally big and not easily undone.

Alternative Resistance: You can play around with the combination of action vs. opposition and effect vs. resistance to get a lot of different options to achieving success. While there’s the traditional Prowess vs. Prowess and Strength vs. Strength, there’s also Strength effect vs. Willpower resistance (inflicting pain rather than “damage”as such) or Intellect vs. Awareness (tricking a target) or Willpower vs. Willpower (contests of will) and so forth. It provides alternate avenues for characters who lack a particular effect level, such as sufficient sheer damage to overcome a target’s resistance. It may also lead to more effective means of tagging certain aspects and making use of them.

Alternative Pyramids and Tracks: Stamina in Icons lumps all damage into the same category, whether it is a punch, a bullet, or a mental blast. It’s possible to create differentiated pyramids or tracks under this system, separating out different types of “damage”. Examples include physical, mental (even “moral”), emotional, lethal, nonlethal, fatigue, and so forth.

Alternate tracks, like alternate resistance, allow for a different range of tactics to achieve victory.

In this case, it may be possible to shift accumulated losses from one type to another, to help prevent rolling-up. For example, a hero might shift a moderate loss on the physical track to the mental track, to avoid another moderate loss making it a major (especially if there’s already another major loss on the track). This kind of shift may cost Determination, be something anyone can do X number of times a scene, or some combination thereof.

If you try any of this stuff out on your own, or have your own approaches or thoughts on conflicts in Icons, drop me a line, I’d love to hear from you!

Re: ICONS #3

More re-think, second-guessing, options, and general tinkering with Icons Superpowered Roleplaying, building on what started here.

Puttin’ on the Hits • Damage Options

Steve Perrin dropped me a line to ask about damage in Icons:

“I have trouble getting my group interested in playing Icons because there is no variability in damage. The basic concept is fine, but when they run into a situation where someone with Blast 5 can’t scratch someone with Invulnerability 6, they get dispirited.”

The ability of armor (mainly Invulnerability) to trump damage is intentional: There is a degree of resistance to damage for superheroes that no amount of skill can overcome. Can the best marksman in the world hurt Superman with an ordinary bullet?

That said, a good part of the variability to damage in Icons comes from achieving slam, stun, and kill results on the attack test, rather than any sort of “damage roll”. Even an attack doing 0 (but not negative) Stamina can potentially slam, stun, or kill. So damage 6 versus armor 6 can still result in a knockout even if no Stamina damage is done!

Also, since players make all of the rolls, they can spend Determination to get a massive success on an attack, followed by a massive success on the stun test: rolling damage level against the target’s Strength as the difficulty.

Example: All-Star (Strength 10) takes a swing at Troll (Invulnerability 9) and All-Star’s player declares a determined effort for a massive success, since he’s been fighting Troll to a virtual standstill and time is running out. Getting a massive success on the attack test ends up costing him 1 point of Determination. Now, with a possible stun, All-Star’s player rolls Strength (10) against Troll’s Strength (9) declaring another determined effort for massive success. The roll is a +0, but All-Star has 2 more Determination points, enough to push it to a 14, 5 points over Troll’s Strength level. All-Star’s punch leaves the monstrous villain seeing stars before Troll topples over like a fallen redwood!

Since this can require a fair amount of Determination, the “free tags” approach from the Maneuvers system may provide a boost, although the idea is the heroes will fight the invulnerable villain for a while, trying different things and building up their Determinations until one of them can make the final attack.

Combined Attacks (Icons, p. 67) also provide a way of boosting damage against an otherwise invulnerable foe, even if just to the threshold where a stun or kill result is possible (aided by determined effort in a dramatic moment).

You can also institute something akin to the Power Attack maneuver in Mutants & Masterminds: a trade-off of attack level for damage level. The thing to beware of here is if the trade-off is more than 1 or 2 levels, then it greatly favored skill over sheer power, since you can always trade for more damage. If there’s a reverse option (like Accurate Attack in M&M) but not limit, attack and damage levels become almost irrelevant except as a combined value, and slow (low defense) but tough (high armor) targets become sitting ducks.

The “Newton’s Revenge” option for Damage Variants also tips things away from the armored-types somewhat, opening the “variability” of slams, stuns, and kills up to everyone. It’s generally fairly well balanced, since invulnerable often equals high Strength as well. If it becomes too likely that a massive success with a low-damage will result in a stun, you can always let the bad guy use the better of Strength or armor level as the difficulty for the stun test. Remember, however, that this, combined with determined effort, opens up the possibility that any hero can take out virtually any foe with enough Determination to make the attack.

Ultimately, characters immune to the “I hit him” option are intended to encourage players to think of creative solutions to overcoming their opponents other than pounding on them, with the exact details varying from situation to situation. The Pyramid Tests rule provides a decent system for handling these things in more than an all-or-nothing single test that builds up some tension. (In fact, pyramid tests open up the potential for a whole different (non-Stamina) system for tracking “damage” and victory conditions, which I’ll discuss in a future blog.)

Got a take on damage in Icons? Feel free to drop me a line and tell me about it!