Re: Animated • Avengers: “The Man in the Ant Hill”

avengers5Obligatory 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 Man in the Ant Hill”

This one is a relatively short Avengers Assembled, no disrespect (or pun) intended to either Dr. Hank Pym or T’Challa, both of whom are pretty cool on the show and handled well by its writers and animators. Anyhow, let’s get down to it: Continue reading

Re: Animated • Avengers: “Meet Captain America”

avengers4Obligatory 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.

“Meet Captain America”

It’s flash-forward to flash-back in this episode of Avengers, as Kang the Conqueror plays temporal voyeur, looking over Captain America’s last hours of action in the Second World War. Which brings up… Continue reading

Re: Animated • Avengers “Hulk Versus the World”

avengers3Obligatory 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.

“Hulk Versus the World”

There’s a pretty fair amount of exposition at the start of this episode, with Bruce Banner on the run from the Hulkbusters and investigating the Cube before the confrontation between the Hulk and Absorbing Man, but then the action starts coming fast and furious. Continue reading

Re: Animated • Avengers “Thor the Mighty!”

avengers2So, I was originally going to just post these blogs once per week on Wednesdays, but then I realized it’s my blog and I can post any time I feel like it, so…

Obligatory 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.

“Thor the Mighty!”

A topical episode, considering the release of Goldilocks’ own motion picture this month (which is a lot of fun, by the way, go see it and tell Marvel and their Disney overlords that we’d like to see lots more like it). Let’s get right to the high points: Continue reading

Re: Animated • Avengers “Iron Man is Born!”

avengers1A little side-project I’ve been wanting to work on for a while is going through the episodes of the new Avengers: Earth’s Mightiest Heroes animated series with an eye towards superhero RPGs and what (if anything) we can learn in terms of game design and game mastering from what is (in my humble opinion) an excellent comic book style superhero show. So, without further ado…

“Iron Man is Born!”

The initial five episodes of Avengers were split up into little five-minute “minisodes” shown on the Web to promote the show, then collected to form the introductory episodes. The first focuses on Avengers founder and financier Tony Stark, Iron Man. Some of the episode’s game-able highlights: Continue reading

One Shot at Glory

In a previous blog, I talked about the mechanism of hero points in RPGs, how they’re used (and sometimes abused) and alternative thoughts on handling them.

One that that occurred to me recently, when someone brought up the use of ICONS Determination in conjunction with my “Superheroes & Lateral Wins” blog, was the prevalence of hero points, a kind of heroic inflation that leads to the devaluation of their “currency” in game terms.

I first noticed the contrast in these terms with two RPGs, both of them from West End Games. The first was Torg, with its fairly prevalent “possibility” points. Characters earned and spent them almost constantly, and in my own play experiences, I found Torg players willing to spend a possibility to fix virtually any die roll they didn’t like. There was no assurance of success, just a re-roll bonus, which might change a failure into a success, but it was the tendency to “band-aid” most, if not all, bad rolls of the die that I remember.

Compare this with WEG’s Star Wars RPG, wherein heroes have precious few “Force Points”. Most can expect to have only one or two, in fact. On the other hand, Force Points provide a pretty massive bonus (doubling all of the character’s capabilities for a game turn). The other interesting thing about them was their use was governed by both the selflessness and dramatic potential of the act: If you spent your Force Point selflessly and heroically, you got it back at the end of the adventure. On the other hand, if you spent it selfishly, you lost it for good (and maybe even earned yourself a Dark Side Point). If you spent it heroically and at the dramatically appropriate moment, you not only got it back, but earned another one!

The interesting effect of this “one shot at glory” was players tended to husband their Force Point(s) carefully, looking for the ideal moment, their characters’ chance to shine and really make a difference, rather than applying them to plaster over every bad die roll or reversal of fortune. Force Points served a potential “save your bacon” function, but it was deliberately sub-optimal, again helping to ensure it was truly a last-ditch defense, rather than “I just don’t feel like having my hero lose here”.

I think the very existence of a hero point mechanic versus “the die is cast” (that is, the dice determine everything) is a division between “modern” and “old school” RPG design. The frequency players can call upon this resource affects the amount of tension inherent in the game: if they’re able to call upon hero points often, then it tends to become not a question of if the heroes can succeed, but how they’ll do it. If hero points have to be carefully “targeted” then there’s greater tension in looking for that prime opportunity.

I suspect fewer hero points leads to a bit more “spotlight” time for individual characters as well. If spending your hero point is, by definition, your “dramatic moment” in the game’s story, then there’s a better chance of your hero getting a dramatic moment than with lots of hero points that lead to lots of “better than average” moments.

Sometimes one shot at glory is worth the risk of some bad breaks along the way.

Unlimited Determination

Determination is the “FATE Points” (hero points, Karma, what have you) of Icons, the resource that allows players to exert some influence over the otherwise random elements of the game and to directly affect the narrative. It is also a tool for the GM in handling things like disadvantages (the bad side of aspects in Icons), awarding players Determination when they come into play, as opposed to the more front-loaded approach of awarding addition build-points or character creation/design advantages.

Use of Determination is moderated by two things: certain requirements placed on certain uses—such as the limits on Determined Effort—and the need to tag Qualities.

Qualities, for those who haven’t read Icons (go ahead, I’ll wait…) are descriptive elements of the superhero, like “World’s Mightiest Mortal” or “Dark Knight Detective”. You need to “tag” or activate a Quality in order to spend Determination. In essence, it’s not just enough to say you’re spending X points, you also need to say what is enabling you to spend those points in this particular situation. What is it about your hero that is making this action special or important?

In other words, Qualities actually limit the use of Determination. While it’s often pro forma for players to come up with a way to relate their heroes’ Qualities to any given situation (how often does “Man of Steel” not apply to a superheroic action?) it’s still limiting. Another approach to Icons game play, more in line with previous generations of RPGs, is to ignore Qualities altogether. Just let players spend Determination on whatever actions they want. Other limits remain in place, such as the requirements for applying Determined Effort, although you can loosen them as well (see Determination Variants on the Icons Wiki for some examples).

You’ll probably want to keep Challenges as they are, since they provide a valuable source for acquiring Determination and a key way of handling character disadvantages and drawbacks; Icons doesn’t provide an alternative way of modeling superhero weaknesses, for example.

Why eliminate Qualities in Determination spending? It’s simpler and allows players to spend Determination in play more freely, without having to consider a meta-story reason for it. Plenty of RPGs get along just fine with such an approach, assuming that if players want to spend the points, they should be able to, no justification needed, no questions asked. (Hmmm, “Justification Points” would be an interesting name for an Icons mechanic…)

Freeing Determination from the Quality requirement can make Icons a bit friendlier to new roleplayers, who are already keeping track of the various other mechanics of how to play the game. You can introduce Qualities back in later on, just be aware that you’re limiting Determination use by doing so, rather than enhancing it, unless you’ve also made Quality-free Determination spending less effective in some fashion (half the normal bonus, for example). You can even mix the two: having the normal Quality-tagging Determination and an unlimited form of Determination spending that provides a lesser bonus (+1 per point rather than +2) for those occasions when inspiration doesn’t provide a good connection between Quality and action.

Going Beyond the Genre

In many ways, Dungeons & Dragons was the first “licensed” RPG in that it was based off a fictional property, quite a few of them, in fact. Gygax and Arneson made no secret of the works of fantasy fiction that influenced the development of the game and their own campaigns. They listed them, in fact. Many forums of Old School gaming—such as James Maliszewski’s Grognardia—have spend considerable time deconstructing said influences.

A recent thread on RPGnet asked about “dream RPGs” and I was struck by how so many of the responses were essentially licenses, that is, some fictional intellectual property (novel, film, TV show, etc.) the respondent wanted to see as a game setting, often for an existing rules engine. Given Steve Long’s recent op-ed on licensing in RPGs, I thought it was interesting how many gamers considered a license their “dream game product”. How many game designers and developers have had the same reaction?

I recall a discussion at an Origins Game Fair some years ago where a colleague said how the newly revived James Bond property would make a great RPG. I countered that James Bond was actually a terrible license, for two primary reasons:

  1. There’s the classic problem of living up to the property. Who gets to play Bond? Is there an expectation that someone plays Bond, or a character like him and, if not, in what way is the game based on the fiction? Do you base adventures on the original Flemming stories (which true fans already know) or try and create ones in a similar style?
  2. More importantly, I argued, any modern espionage RPG worth its die modifiers could already function as a perfectly sound “James Bond RPG”. If it couldn’t, then I submit there’s something wrong with it.

While most early RPGs weren’t licenses, they were efforts to emulate particular genres: fantasy, far-future and post-apocalypse sci-fi, espionage thrillers, superhero comic books, and so forth. They were inspired by key elements of those genres. While Champions and Villains & Vigilantes (or Mutants & Masterminds, for that matter) weren’t licensed DC or Marvel games (although M&M now is) they were all looking to emulate the stories and characters DC and Marvel established as staples. Likewise, Top Secret wasn’t the 007 RPG (we’d have to wait for Victory Games to get to it) but it was certainly aiming for the same target, along with source material like Mission: Impossible and The Man from UNCLE. D&D is certainly not a Lord of the Rings RPG, but Tolkien is part of the game’s DNA, as are the works of Howard, Leiber, Anderson, and even Lovecraft.

Now, the interesting part is when these big genre-blenders manage to move beyond pastiche and begin adding their own elements back into the genres from which they sprang. It’s difficult to estimate just how much of an influence “D&D-style fantasy” has been on the genre of fantasy fiction; big enough that the expression “D&D-style fantasy” seems to hold some meaning for fans and readers. Similarly, it seems to me the superhero RPG convention of characters with a suite of attack/defense/movement capabilities has taken greater hold in the comic book in the past few decades and you see more heroes and teams who could be characters from an RPG as much as a comic book.

The real elders of the RPG IP field have been around long enough to become sub-genres unto themselves. D&D has “iconic” and “signature” elements that started out as goofy Monster Manual pictures, throwaway lines in modules, and sci-fi rip-offs. Similarly, it was the strength of the Champions setting and characters that gave Hero Games licensing muscle. How many did Call of Cthulhu introduce to the Mythos, and how big an influence was the game on the addition of Great Cthulhu and his kin to popular (geek) culture?

One thing RPGs (and RPG creators and players) seem good at is taking sometimes contrasting or cliche elements, combining them in novel ways, and producing new story elements and stories out of them, which can in turn be recombined to fresh effect. A sort of fictional evolution out of the primordial ooze of all the various character, plot, and setting elements thrown together into the bubbling stewpot of a roleplaying game.

I’d suggest some of the best RPG properties (that is, fictional elements, not rules systems) start out aiming to emulate the source material of a genre, but then push past their origins and break through into territory uniquely their own. I actually think this is true of both licensed and non-licensed games. West End Games Star Wars RPG, for example, was often at its best when it put aside slavish devotion to the films and looked at other parts of what is now called “the Expanded Star Wars Universe”. Dungeons & Dragons started out as a patchwork of pulp fantasy but established its own sub-genre. Traveller took the conventions of Imperial SciFi and built a universe with them. Shadowrun copied some of the conventions and language of cyberpunk, but added its own fantasy spin and developed in its own direction, just as Vampire might have been the Dracula or Lestat RPG, but grew beyond that to create its own mythos.

I think it’s an interesting approach for RPGs to provide the genre elements and framework, to serve as systems for making up and trying out new worlds. The Diaspora game with its cluster-creation system (almost a game unto itself) is an interesting example, not unlike the random world design of Traveller that helped inspire it. Games of the imagination are often at their best when they challenge us to create new things out of old rather than look for ways to repackage experiences we’ve already had and opportunities to argue the same details of fictional canon over and over. The place for creatives—both designers and players—to reach for is the synthesis where the whole is greater than the sum of just its (randomly rolled) parts.

ICONS: Marvelous Numbers

It’s no secret that the Marvel Super-Heroes RPG was a big inspiration for my own ICONS: Superpowered Roleplaying. I still consider MSH one of the high-water marks of RPG design, especially superhero RPG design (indeed, I said so in my essay in Hobby Games: The 100 Best).

Still, I didn’t necessarily want ICONS to just be a MSH clone, especially when it has already been done. I was looking to implement some other concepts in the system, notably elements I liked from FATE and a different sort of “hero point” economy with the Determination system.

One area where Icons might benefit from being more like MSH, however, is in terms of numbers. Like Marvel, Icons has a 1–10 scale for most abilities. (MSH also has the “infrared” of Shift 0 and the “ultraviolet” of Shift X, Y, Z, and Class 1000, 3000, and 5000, but let’s stick to the “visible” spectra for the moment.) Unlike MSH, Icons’ 1–10 scale is a literal scale with numerical values from 1 to 10. Marvel’s scale assigns numerical values from 2 to 100, and staggers them with some interesting effects:

  • Low-End Resolution: Icons’ average and below levels are 1–3. Marvel’s are Feeble (2), Poor (4), and Typical (6). You don’t even get to a “round” value until Good (10), which is above average. For Icons to have equivalent values, they would have to be fractions (0.6, 0.4, and 0.2) – not a lot of fun to deal with in game play.
  • High-End Resolution: Marvel’s traits are linear and similar to Icons from Good (10) to Amazing (50), just ten times more. The upper two ranks, however, show a marked jump from increasing by 10s to 25, for Monstrous (75) and Unearthly (10). By contrast, Icons has a linear progression all the way through. The different between any two adjacent levels is always 1.

I think it would be an interesting experiment to try Icons using the existing rules as written, but Marvel values for determining things like Stamina, damage, and damage resistance. I haven’t run all of the numbers yet but, if it pans out, then maybe it’s something for the Icons Wiki.

Hero Points: Taking the Bad with the Good

I think it may well have been the suave and sophisticated spy RPGs—either James Bond: 007 with its Hero Points or Top Secret with its Fame and Fortune Points—that gave us the modern RPG staple we’ll call the “hero point.” Hero points, which go by many, many different names in different games, serve essentially two functions:

  1. They help to avoid anticlimax and the general “dramatic deafness” of many rules systems by granting players some control over the randomness of the game’s resolution systems (as most RPG resolution systems include a random element).
  2. They help to avoid whiny players who pout when their precious snowflake characters actually (gasp!) fail at something.

Both functions help hero points work as a “safety net” encouraging players to make risker (that is, more dramatic and heroic) choices, because they know if the choice results in a metaphorical (or literal) fall for their characters, they’ve got something to “catch” them.

Makes sense that hero points came from the super-spy genre. Those guys are good at everything. They’ve got what S. John Ross defined at the “Truly Badass” advantage. However, it makes for a frightfully dull RPG to simply say “the heroes always win.” So hero points provide a way to do it, but with limits.

(As an aside, it’s interesting to note that the dramatic tension with iconic heroes like James Bond and Doc Savage isn’t if they are going to win, but how. It would be interesting to model this in an RPG context. That is, the goal isn’t to make enough good rolls to eventually succeed, it’s to—literally—plot a course from initial challenge to success. But I digress…)

Hero points are all about limits: you only have so many of them, you can only use them for certain things, or at certain times. There may be ways to get more, in which case they as serve as “carrots” to encourage genre-appropriate behavior (Mutants & Masterminds and ICONS both do this).

One interesting element of hero points is they allow players to essentially remove some of the misfortune in the game, negating a certain number of poor die rolls or other random factors on the negative side of things. They typically do so without any counterbalancing. So if I get three hero points to improve my die rolls, I get to ignore three bad rolls as if they never happened. That certainly changes the dynamic of the game in terms of how often my character will encounter dramatic failures, assuming my hero points can save my bacon (and my dignity) most of the time.

What if, instead of a “free ride,” hero points only deferred the “bad stuff” they usually counter? That is, a player could choose to override the results of the dice at any time in a fashion similar to hero points, but at the cost of racking up an equal amount of “karmic debt”?

You see some shades of this concept in systems for earning hero points: compels in FATE, or complications in M&M, for example. But these require the player to choose to accept bad stuff for the character in exchange for the hero point award. I’m talking about the ability to mess with the structure of the game knowing it will eventually come back to bite you in the ass. In some regards, it’s like a plot-device version of Paradox from Mage: the more you mess with things, the more you pay for it in the end. You can even adopt some of Mage’s sliding scale, with “low-impact” changes that blend smoothly into the overall fabric creating less “backlash” than the really outlandish and poorly explained ones (the equivalent of the kind of bad plotting in real world media sure to provoke angry fan screeds).

You could leave the application of the “bad karma” up to the Gamemaster, in the hands of the player(s), or some combination thereof. It would be interesting if players were responsible for their own characters’ bad karma and it was their job to think up ways to cause them problems in a dramatically appropriate way as much as planning out their dramatic successes. For a truly fiendish option, we could go with what I’ll call the “shadow” approach (in honor of Wraith): another player gets to decide when and how your bad karma comes into play! Because there’s nobody as capable of thinking up bad things to happen to your character as your fellow players…