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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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: Animated • Justice League “Paradise Lost” – Part 1

jl10This blog takes a look at episodes from the Justice League animated series from a tabletop roleplaying game perspective, both in terms of game design and game play.

Obligatory Spoiler Warning: I will be discussing the events of the 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.

“Paradise Lost” – Part 1

A hurricane strikes “Beach City” (the news report has Snapper Carr reporting from “Beach City Pier”). This preamble is the classic “heroes vs. disaster” scenario, which tends to get limited treatment in superhero RPGs compared to combat.

Diana’s monologue on her way back to Paradise Island is classic and any player who came up with Wonder Woman saying these things to prepare for a confrontation with her mother should get some type of award!

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Re: Animated • Justice League “Injustice for All” – Part 2

jl09This blog takes a look at episodes from the Justice League animated series from a tabletop roleplaying game perspective, both in terms of game design and game play.

Obligatory Spoiler Warning: I will be discussing the events of the 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.

“Injustice for All” — Part 2

So now that Luthor’s Injustice Gang has caught Batman, what are they going to do with him? Note that Batman is intimidating to most of the villains in the room while chained up and not even trying! That’s some “passive” intimidation score!

A “stasis field” prevents J’onn’s telepathy from locating Batman, the same technology used to restrain J’onn in Secret Origins. Nice consistency in the application of plot devices.

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Re: Animated • Justice League “Injustice for All” – Part 1

jl08This blog takes a look at episodes from the Justice League animated series from a tabletop roleplaying game perspective, both in terms of game design and game play.

Obligatory Spoiler Warning: I will be discussing the events of the 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.

“Injustice for All” — Part 1

“Injustice for All” is one of my favorite Justice League episodes (along with Season 2’s “Secret Society”) because it has team vs. team dynamics, snappy dialog, and a lot going on, along with a more classic Silver Age Lex Luthor. Plus a terrific use of Batman and his abilities, which we’ll look more at in Part 2.

Thanks to Martian Manhunter impersonating Superman, the League finally gets the goods on Lex Luthor. Luthor hops into a high-tech flier, firing blasts to cover his action, then uses a missile to bring down the roof, all before Batman, Green Lantern, or Martian Manhunter can move to stop him. Given the eagerness of most players to act, this looks like some type of fiat on the part of the GM, creating a complication for the heroes.

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Re: Animated • Justice League “The Enemy Below” – Part 2

jl07This blog takes a look at episodes from the Justice League animated series from a tabletop roleplaying game perspective, both in terms of game design and game play.

Obligatory Spoiler Warning: I will be discussing the events of the 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 Enemy Below” – Part 2

Going after the missing Aquaman and following up on evidence that someone in Atlantis is behind a plot to assassinate him, the League falls victim to Atlantean perimeter defenses and is captured. Atlantean synaptic headbands leave them largely powerless and in the clutches of Orm, who intends to execute them as he leads an attack on the surface world.

So, Aqauman is largely a joke in fan circles, thanks to versions like the Super-Friends, but Justice League offers us quit possibly the most badass Aquaman ever: Orm chains Aquaman to a rock and pins his infant son there by his swaddling blanket before blasting the rock and sending it sliding into a volcanic trench. Aquaman is able to break one of the chains by sheer effort, but cannot break free of the other. So he severs his own hand in order to save his son! (This, by the way, is far cooler than the comic book version, where Aquaman’s hand gets eaten by piranha.)

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Re: Animated • Justice League “In Blackest Night” – Part 2

jl05This blog takes a look at episodes from the Justice League animated series from a tabletop roleplaying game perspective, both in terms of game design and game play.

Obligatory Spoiler Warning: I will be discussing the events of the 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.

“In Blackest Night” — Part 2

While Superman and J’onn investigate the truth of the allegations against Green Lantern, Flash and Hawkgirl keep an eye on the trial proceedings. Flash impulsively offers to defend John against the charges, not realizing that the alien system of jurisprudence makes advocates subject to the same penalty!

Arkis’ power ring aura is enough to protect him from Hawkgirl’s mace. So why do Green Lanterns throw up protective bubbles, if their rings provide an automatic force field? Is there an additional protective benefit? A “layered” defense of some sort? The bubble might represent a kind of primarily defensive action, sacrificing an attack for improved defense (as is the case in many game systems).

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Re: Animated • Justice League “In Blackest Night” – Part 1

jl04This blog takes a look at episodes from the Justice League animated series from a tabletop roleplaying game perspective, both in terms of game design and game play.

Obligatory Spoiler Warning: I will be discussing the events of the 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.

“In Blackest Night” — Part 1

While Jon Stewart is visiting his old neighborhood, some trouble breaks out, with even bigger trouble on its way. Green Lantern easily stops some criminals’ getaway car, lifting it up into the air, and grabbing the escaping criminal and holding him off the ground with his power ring.

When the Manhunters arrive to take Green Lantern into custody, the Justice League confronts them and, of course, a fight breaks out.

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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!

Re: Animated • Avengers: “The Breakout” – Part 1

avengers6Obligatory 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 Breakout” – Part 1

Now we’re cooking. The preludes are done and it’s time to get into the Avengers first big two-parter that kicks off the series with the crisis that forms the team: Continue reading