Re: ICONS #2

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

Powers and Abilities (well, Abilities anyway…)

The six abilities in Icons are ripped off from an homage to Marvel Super-Heroes, minus the somewhat superfluous Endurance (the “E” in FASERIP), which got combined with Strength, so you’ve got Prowess (Fighting), Coordination (Agility), Strength (duh… Strength), Intellect (Reason), Awareness (Intuition) and Willpower (Psyche). But was Endurance the only superfluous ability to remove from the mix? Maybe, maybe not.

The Prowess/Coordination split largely de-emphasizes Coordination as the sole ability for physical actions, but Prowess is the ability voted Most Liked to Be Considered a Skill. Mutants & Masterminds 3e has a somewhat similar split (between Agility and Dexterity) but both are more raw “abilities” with combat skill for either handled by… well, combat skills. Prowess does allow for the higher-Prowess, lower-Coordination character, but so do the appropriate combat specialties. Are there many characters likely to have more than three levels of difference (a Master bonus) between their Coordination and fighting ability? There’s certainly a case to be made for taking Prowess out of the mix and folding its uses into Coordination.

Coordination and Strength are pretty safe: one is the overall physical “action” ability and the other is the overall physical “effect” ability.

Likewise, Intellect and Willpower are pretty safe. Sure, you could collapse all of the mental abilities into a single one like “Mind” (and some systems do) but there seems to be some benefit to differentiating between a character’s smarts and force of personality. Some have more of one than the other, while others have both.

Awareness exists largely to divorce a character’s ability to notice things from either Intellect or (even less obviously) Willpower. One of the oddities of the Marvel Superhero Adventure Game (aka “Marvel SAGA”) was assigning sensory powers and tests to the Willpower ability. Personally, I blame Mr. Fantastic, who is often portrayed as the classic absent-minded professor: brilliant, but somewhat oblivious. However, while Reed Richards might not pick up of a lot of social cues, he’s plenty sharp when it comes to noticing things where it counts. Likewise, Brainiac 5 of the Legion of Super-Heroes tends to get wrapped up in his thoughts (and ignores some social niceties) but he still sees patterns and clues well enough. Do we need Awareness, or is Intellect—modified by specialties and occasionally limited by challenges—enough?

For that matter, do we need abilities at all? A number of RPGs—including many versions of FATE, A Song of Ice & Fire Roleplaying, and Marvel Heroic Roleplaying—do away with traditional “ability scores”. Characters have ratings in certain things they are notably good or bad at but, otherwise, a kind of background default is assumed (and left unspecified). Icons could likewise skip assigning any abilities at all unless they’re notably above or below average, like a scale of 1, 5, 7, and 9, for example (or 2, 4, 6, 8, and 10, for slightly more options).

Speaking of the scale, some find the 3–6 range of “normal human” too limiting (technically, it’s 1–6 for normal human, including both of the below average levels). Is three levels for the full range of human achievement above “average” sufficient? For a superhero RPG, probably, since most super-types who are “above average” are often way above average. If anything, three levels may be too many in that regard.

Of course, we have to keep in mind two things: First, that many “normal humans” in the comics do have superhuman abilities. Chances are good that Reed Richard’s Intellect and Hal Jordan’s Willpower are higher than 6 in Icons terms.

Second, even if that’s not the case, specialties even things out. Batman may (arguably) have “only” a 6 Intellect, but he’s also a Criminology Master, raising his ability to the high superhuman range even before his “Dark Knight Detective” quality comes into play. Captain America may “only” have a 6 Prowess, but he’s a Martial Arts Master, making him a superhuman fighter. In fact, the Determination system is set up to reward characters like this, since specialties are not included into the calculations for starting Determination. A hero with “only” human-maximum abilities and a lot of specialties can also have more Determination, as the aforementioned characters do.

Paring down the Icons abilities to just four (Coordination, Strength, Intellect, and Willpower) does have some appeal: a nice 2-by-2 “grid” of Physical and Mental abilities (Coordination & Strength/Intellect & Willpower) and Action and Effect abilities (Coordination & Intellect/Strength & Willpower). Plus it is a rip off of an homage to the Marvel Super-Heroes Adventure Game. On the other hand, we lose having the same number of abilities as sides on the die, which made some things easier (largely on the random tables).

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

Re: ICONS #1

I can’t speak for other game designers but, if it weren’t for deadlines and the need to produce, you know, an actual product at some point, my game designs would never truly be “finished.” Instead, they would just undergo more and more playtesting, revision, minor tweaks (and sometimes even major revisions), and then spin off entire other ideas, leading me to put aside that game for a while and go through the process all over again with another design, until I came back to the game with a fresh perspective to start running and playing it again, ad infinitum.

Because I’m always looking for ways to make things “better”. I put that in quotes because it does not necessarily mean objectively better (although there are ways to do that to writing and game design, too) but better in my own esteem, closer to “finished” than it was before, even if finished is a value of infinity I can never completely reach. A lot of that “better” is purely subjective, different ways of describing or approaching things with different esthetics.

So it is with Icons, amongst many other projects. Since the game was published, I’ve continued to tinker with it. I’ve run it. I’ve played it. I’ve set it aside. I’ve watched and listened to others do so and, of course, I’ve thought about it, sometimes even when I should have been thinking about other things. As a way of processing some of those thoughts, getting them out of my head and down in words, I’ll be blogging about them on here. So…

Playing at Dice

One of the things I’ve considered about Icons is the dice. The game uses 2d6, one die designated positive, the other negative. The player rolls them and subtracts the negative die from the positive die to get a value from –5 to +5 as a modifier to the character’s ability level for a test.

Overall, I like the probability curve of the dice, and I like the accessibility of using two standard six-siders (despite my fondness for Fudge dice): who doesn’t have a couple of d6s hanging around? So I haven’t thought so much about replacing the dice. What I’ve thought more about is how the dice are rolled.

The existing system is fairly simple. Still, the player has to differentiate between the positive and negative die, and has to subtract one from the other before adding the result to the ability level. This is a bit more complex than die rolling in, say, Mutants & Masterminds, where it’s a single d20 roll + trait rank.

One option is the “high-drop” variant: essentially the same except, rather than adding the positive and negative die, you drop the die with the higher absolute value and just use the value of the lower die as the result. So if you roll +3 and –4, you drop the 4 and the roll is a +3. Doubles cancel out to +0. The probabilities are actually the same, but there’s no subtraction involved, although the player still has to differentiate the two dice.

Another I like is to “split” the dice: rather than having the player roll both (and in Icons, only players make die rolls) have the player roll the “positive” die and the GM roll the “negative” die, but rather than subtracting, the negative die is rolled and added to the difficulty set by the GM. Again, the net probabilities are the same, but this way the player only rolls and adds one die and the subtraction occurs as part of the regular effect vs. difficulty comparison.

Example: A player rolls a Coordination test for a hero to clear an obstacle. The player rolls 1d6, gets a 3 and adds it to the hero’s Coordination of 5 for an 8 effort. The GM has set the difficulty for the test at 4 and rolls a 2, for a total difficulty of 6. That makes the outcome of the test a 2 (8 effort – 6 difficulty), a moderate success.

This option is a bit more like M&M in that the player rolls and adds only a single die. I’m still not sure if the 1d6 roll feels too simple: there’s an argument to be made that a fistful of dice feels more “powerful” or “heroic” (it’s the premise Hero System has operated on for decades). This approach also gets the GM rolling dice, which can be seen as a bug or a feature depending on how you feel about the only players roll approach. It does, on the other hand, make everything an opposed roll, which makes PvP stuff easier.

As with a lot of system tweaks, it’s not necessarily that any of these alternative approaches make the system objectively “better” (in purely mathematical terms, they’re actually all the same) but they do have slightly different feels to them which can affect the experience of game play. If you’re in an Icons game, feel free to try them out and, if you do, drop me a line and let me know how they work out for you!

Marvelous Initiative

So there’s this new superhero RPG on the block called Marvel Heroic Roleplaying. You may have heard of it, created by the licensing mavens at Margaret Weis Productions, led by Cam “Mr. Fantastic” Banks, using the oh-so-hackable Cortex+ (that’s “Cortex-Plus”) system.

Amongst its various game systems twists and turns, Marvel Heroic Roleplaying (MHR for short) features a novel new initiative system: in essence, one of the players gets to go first, based on consensus and description of what’s happening in the scene. The Watcher (that’s the Game Master in MHR) can spend some Doom Pool dice (a GM resource) to have a non-player character go first.

The interesting part is whomever goes first decides who goes next, with the caveat that every character in the scene has to get one turn before the next turn starts, and whoever goes last in the turn gets to decide who goes first in the next turn. So, you can definitely play things so all your friends (and fellow heroes) go first, then all of the GM’s bad guys, but if the bad guys go last, the GM can choose one of them to go first on the next turn and give them all of their actions before the heroes get to go at all. Plus the GM can still spend Doom Pool dice to interrupt the action order any time. So some degree of back-and-forth seems sensible.

One nice thing about this approach to initiative and turn-taking is that it’s eminently easy to borrow to use in other games! So, a few thoughts on Marvel-style initiative in…

Mutants & Masterminds

The standard M&M initiative system is cyclical: at the start of a conflict, roll an initiative check (d20 + initiative modifier) for each character (or group of minions) involved in the conflict. Characters then act in order from highest to lowest each round before starting back at the top of the order. Certain actions, like delaying, may change a character’s place in the initiative order but, otherwise, it’s fairly static.

Applying the MHR approach to initiative essentially removes the need for advantages like Improved Initiative and Seize Initiative, except possibly as fire-breaks against the GM using a complication (the M&M equivalent of spending Doom Pool dice) to interrupt the initiative order or allow the villains to go first. This might cost the GM an additional hero point (awarded to the player of the character with the appropriate advantage).

The MHR approach likely means actions in M&M conflicts would vary more, as each player (and the GM) chooses who goes next in the action order, rather than staying with the same order from round to round. This can be good for variety, difficult if the GM has character sheets or stats arranged in a particular order to keep track of them during the conflict.

Icons

Icons has an even simpler initiative system: the heroes go, then the villain(s), and back and forth until the conflict is over.

The MHR approach mixes things up a bit more, allowing for villain actions to be potentially interspersed amongst the heroes’ actions, depending on who is chosen to go after the initial player. All of the “action” (in terms of die rolling) falls to the players, since villain actions are framed more in terms of the heroes reacting to what the villains do: the players roll counter-actions rather than the GM rolling villain actions.

Much like spending Doom Dice in MHR, the Icons GM would award Determination to the players in order to interrupt the action order or to have a villain go first as a challenge in the scene.

Whether you’re looking to play Marvel Heroic Roleplaying or just rifle through its pages for clever ideas you can lift for your own game (or hack its game system into something suitable for, say, Dungeons & Dragons…) check out the latest member of the superheroic RPG team; there’s a lot of power there!

Re: Animated • Avengers “A Day Unlike Any Other”

avengers26Obligatory Spoiler Warning: I will be discussing the events of the Avengers episode in the post. If, for some reason, you’re interested in the show and this blog and have not seen the show, go and do that first. The blog will make much more sense, and you won’t have your enjoyment of the show spoiled. You Have Been Warned.

“A Day Unlike Any Other”

This is it: the season finale, featuring the Avengers versus a vastly empowered Loki with the fate of the Nine Worlds hanging in the balance! Continue reading

Re: Animated • Avengers “The Fall of Asgard”

avengers25Obligatory Spoiler Warning: I will be discussing the events of the Avengers episode in the post. If, for some reason, you’re interested in the show and this blog and have not seen the show, go and do that first. The blog will make much more sense, and you won’t have your enjoyment of the show spoiled. You Have Been Warned.

“The Fall of Asgard”

The arc of Season One of Earth’s Mightiest Heroes reaches a peak in the next-to-last episode as Loki reveals his master-plan sitting on the throne of Asgard, having claimed the power of All-Father Odin himself! Continue reading

Re: Animated • Avengers “The Ultron Imperative”

avengers23Obligatory Spoiler Warning: I will be discussing the events of the Avengers episode in the post. If, for some reason, you’re interested in the show and this blog and have not seen the show, go and do that first. The blog will make much more sense, and you won’t have your enjoyment of the show spoiled. You Have Been Warned.

“The Ultron Imperative”

Ultron is defeated at a heavy cost to the Avengers, but is Ultron’s threat truly ended, and is the Avenger’s teammate Thor truly gone? Doesn’t look like it! Continue reading

Re: Animated • Avengers “Ultron-5”

avengers22Obligatory Spoiler Warning: I will be discussing the events of the Avengers episode in the post. If, for some reason, you’re interested in the show and this blog and have not seen the show, go and do that first. The blog will make much more sense, and you won’t have your enjoyment of the show spoiled. You Have Been Warned.

“Ultron-5”

Another in the big wrap-up of the first season, the genesis of a major Avengers villain foreshadowed since the very start of the season… Ultron! Continue reading

Re: Animated • Avengers “Hail Hydra!”

avengers21Obligatory Spoiler Warning: I will be discussing the events of the Avengers episode in the post. If, for some reason, you’re interested in the show and this blog and have not seen the show, go and do that first. The blog will make much more sense, and you won’t have your enjoyment of the show spoiled. You Have Been Warned.

“Hail, Hydra!”

As the first season of Avengers begin to draw towards a close, it’s time to start wrapping up some of the many plot-threads spun out during the season, and this episode has a lot of them: Hydra, AIM, Black Widow… and the Cosmic Cube! Continue reading

Re: Animated • Avengers “The Casket of Ancient Winters”

avengers20Obligatory Spoiler Warning: I will be discussing the events of the Avengers episode in the post. If, for some reason, you’re interested in the show and this blog and have not seen the show, go and do that first. The blog will make much more sense, and you won’t have your enjoyment of the show spoiled. You Have Been Warned.

“The Casket of Ancient Winters”

… and now for something completely different.

Having defeated Kang the Conqueror and saved the Earth, the Avengers are confronted with a whole new menace. Rather than a technologically-advanced foe from the far future, it is a mystic menace from the ancient past. Continue reading

Re: Animated • Avengers “The Kang Dynasty”

avengers19Obligatory Spoiler Warning: I will be discussing the events of the Avengers episode in the post. If, for some reason, you’re interested in the show and this blog and have not seen the show, go and do that first. The blog will make much more sense, and you won’t have your enjoyment of the show spoiled. You Have Been Warned.

Episode 19: “The Kang Dynasty”

It’s the conclusion of the Kang the Conqueror trilogy as the Avengers take the fight to Kang high above the Earth, with the fate of the world hanging in the balance. Continue reading