Emerald City Knights: Prologue

This past Sunday, I started running the Emerald City Knights adventure series for my gaming group using the Mutants & Masterminds Third Edition rules. It was also a chance to try out some other new stuff like the Quickstart Character Generator from the M&M GM’s Kit.

My five players (Sean, Lyle, Michael, Meghan, and Andy) quickly rolled up the archetypes for their characters: Paragon, Weather Controller, Psychic, Summoner, and Elemental. Then it was off to the particular sub-tables to generate the characters’ abilities, advantages, skills, and powers. Finally, we wrapped up by assigning the listed defense modifiers and giving the players some time to choose suitable complications and come up with some background.

The players all liked that the various trait packages were “tagged” with descriptive terms like Imposing, Unobtrusive, Man of Action, and so forth, because it gave them quick “handles” on the characters beyond just their traits. Only a minimum of “massaging” of final game traits was necessary: Andy’s Elemental came up rather short in the ranged combat department (in spite of having a primary Ranged Damage attack), but swapping some skill and ability ranks took care of that. Overall, everyone was pleased with how their heroes came out with just a few random die rolls.

Seans, Lyle, and Andy, after talking it over, agreed that it worked for their heroes to gain their powers during the initial adventure. Meghan and Michael’s character concepts fit better with pre-existing origins, so they started out with full-fledged characters.

After about an hour and a half’s work, here’s the group we ended up with:

  • Action-Man (Paragon): Pinnacle of human perfection, with enhanced combat skills, sufficient accuracy to delivery devastating blows (Strength-based Damage bonus), immunity to many mortal concerns, and amazing leaping, swinging, and climbing abilities.
  • Stratos (Weather Controller): Focused primarily on wind and ice effects, but with a dazzling burst of thunder and lightning able to deafen and blind foes. His powers suggested a Russian heritage to Lyle, which worked well in that Emerald City has a fair Russian community.
  • Arcane (Psychic): Psychic warrior with a “psychic blade” able to shift from telepathic to telekinetic effects, mind reading, a psychokinetic shield, and his namesake psychic invisibility, able to fade from others’ perceptions. Michael decided Arcane was a historian who gained his powers from a cursed magical ring that sought to bring out all the dark impulses in his soul, something he struggles against constantly.
  • Tesla (Summoner): Daughter of dimensional explorers, raised by an extradimensional intelligence after her parents were lost in an accident. Although an adult, Tesla still looks like a child. She commands a group of robots she can summon from dimensional folds in spacetime, each robot equipped with an array of weapons and strong enough to lift a car.
  • Fire Chief (Elemental): Emerald City firefighter with the power to transform into fire, fly and shoot fiery bolts and blasts.

Warning! The following may contain spoilers for the Prologue to the Emerald City Knights Heroes Journey. Those intended to play in the adventure should avoid reading it if they want to avoid any advance knowledge of the adventure’s contents.

The series kicked off as detailed in The Silver Storm prologue for the most part. We established that Andy’s character was a fire chief, Sean’s was a police officer, and Lyle’s was a college intern at a local television station (studying meteorology at school). Arcane and Telsa were both novice heroes looking for opportunities to do good with their abilities for different reasons.

Thus, when the explosion occurred on Yellow Brick Row, Pavel (Lyle’s character) was already there reporting with a news team about the unusually pleasant early Spring thaw that brought out crowds to the open-air mall. Officer Hall and Chief Kane were among the first-responders, and Arcane and Tesla were both nearby and took the opportunity to act.

Tesla immediately set her robots to work rescuing people and gathering information. It happened to work out that each of the other four heroes encountered one of the stormers from the Prologue: Hank Hall and his police partner ran up against Death Magnetic, Chief Daniel Kane was grabbed by Octaman, Pavel and his reporter girlfriend Amy were attacked by Mongoose, and Arcane ran afoul of a sneering Lord Etheric, drawn to the “dark power” he possessed. I decided not to use Lightshow, as all of the heroes were pretty busy as it was and I didn’t want it to turn into solely a one-on-one fight.

The adrenaline surge of encountering their respective foes and the effects of the Silver Storm triggered Action-Man, Stratos, and Fire Chief’s powers. Death Magnetic initially got the drop on Action-Man (literally – she dropped a minivan on him) but Tesla helped even the odds. Then Action-Man hit upon switching foes with Fire Chief; the heat of his flame powers was able to interfere with Death Magnetic’s magnetism, and he burned up sufficient oxygen to send her down for the count while Action-Man took down Octaman with a few well-placed hits.

Lord Etheric got about one good hit in before Arcane knocked him into a window display. Stratos (arc-leaping away from Mongoose) hit the goth bad guy with a dazzling burst that allowed Arcane to finish him off.

The new heroes decided not to do anything to conceal their identities, for the most part, although Fire Chief proved the one with the best press (not surprising given his prior experience and leadership abilities). The heroes quickly agreed to work with the local police to track down and contain other stormers, and decided they were none too fond of the heavy-handed local AEGIS commander and his approach to “bagging and tagging” those afflicted by the Silver Storm. They also agreed to work together to investigate the explosion that led to the Storm in hopes of finding out what caused it and who was behind it.

All-in-all it was about an hour and a half for character creation (including sketchy backgrounds, names, complications, etc.) and a couple of hours of game play, including the roleplaying and character introductions afterwards. Emerald City’s new heroes are off to an interesting start and are going to discover they have their work cut out for them…

Planet-busting in Mutants & Masterminds

Some superhero settings feature truly cosmic levels of power. While, in my experience, it is most often easier to simply treat such massively powerful beings as plot devices, sometimes it’s fun to consider the limits of the game system in terms of modeling them. Case in point: how many ranks of Damage would you need to destroy the Earth in the third edition of Mutants & Masterminds?

Now, a lot of it depends on how we define “destroy.” For the sake of discussion, let’s stipulate the following:

  • The Earth is an “object” in game terms (albeit a big one). So it is subject to the rules for damaging objects.
  • While made of a variety of materials, we’ll consider the Earth’s base Toughness that of stone: rank 5.
  • The “thickness” of the Earth is its diameter: 7,901 miles. That’s technically a distance rank of 20, since it’s shy of the 8,000 miles value of rank 21. Since an object’s Toughness equals its base rank + (distance rank + 7), that would make Earth’s Toughness rank 5 + (20 + 7) or 32.
  • Let’s say that the Earth’s Toughness is also Impervious, so nothing less than Damage 17 even has a chance of damaging the planet as a whole. Anything else might mess up the landscape, but that’s all.

So, the minimum Damage rank (17) has a resistance DC of (17 + 15) or 32, the same as the planet’s Toughness value, meaning the resistance check pretty much can’t fail.

But wait: let’s assume the “attacker” is going to take the option of making an attack check, since the Earth is a pretty massive object. It’s not like he’s going to miss! That’s good for a critical hit and +5 Damage. Likewise, let’s assume the attacker goes for a Power Attack for –2 to the attack check and +2 Damage.

That ramps the Damage up to 24, or DC 39. Now the GM needs to roll a 7 or better for the planet to suffer no serious damage. A 6 or less means a Toughness reduction, while a 2 or less (for a Toughness check total of 34 or less) actually means two degrees of failure: the attack blows a hole clear through the planet! While that doesn’t shatter the Earth in one blow, it probably means the end of life as we know it as the molten core bursts out and floods the surface.

(Indeed, if we were being really pedantic about this, we could probably stipulate the Earth’s “thickness” as that of the rocky mantle—mere tens of miles—since any attack that blasts through that will unleash the high-pressure molten magma from the core. But I digress…)

Ramping things up further, a Damage 20 attack, made with a successful attack check, a full Power Attack (+5 Damage), and some extra effort (for +1 Damage) does a whopping Damage 31, DC 46. The planet needs a die roll of 14 or better to avoid damage altogether. A roll of 9 or less means a hole punched right through the planet, while a roll of 4 or less shatters the entire planet in a single blast! So it’s quite possible for some high-level characters to at least threaten Earth-sized planets, to say nothing of smaller moons or the like. Take the Damage rank up by even 5–6 and the attacker has even odds of smashing planets with single attacks!

Freedom City Annotated

Freedom City is an amalgamation of everything I have enjoyed in superhero comics over the years. So it includes more than a few homages to classic comic stories, characters, and creators who brought those comics to life. Fans of the book have enjoyed hunting for these various “Easter eggs” that are scattered throughout. For folks who might enjoy the Easter eggs, but aren’t quite so fond of hunting for them, I’ve prepared this collection of notes. It’s a peek behind the scenes of the creation of Freedom City, offering some insight into the homages hidden in its pages and some of the ideas I had while writing the book.

If you’re the sort of person who doesn’t care to have the mystique of a setting spoiled by knowing its background, or you don’t like in-jokes or homages in your settings, read no further! You can enjoy Freedom City just fine without knowing any of the stuff in this document. On the other hand, if you want some insight into the four-color saturated thoughts that led to the first campaign setting for Mutants & Masterminds, then read on, true believer!

p. 29, Gigantosaur. Gigantosaur is a big, purple dinosaur, similar to the saccarine, singing host of a particular children’s program.

p. 31, The Claremont Academy. The two unnamed characters in the middle of the illustration look like teenaged versions of young mutants Artie and Leech from the X-Men comics. (Note that the illustration is also somewhat in error, since the presence of super-powered students at Claremont is a secret, so they wouldn’t necessarily be roaming the halls openly, although they may in your campaign.)

p. 41, AEGIS. In Greek mythology the Aegis is a shield bearing the image of the Gorgon’s head. A type of “shield” seemed appropriate for the name of a super-agency.

p. 43, Patriot. Jack Simmons is named for Jack Kirby and Joe Simon, the creators of Captain America.

p. 50, The Scarab. The name Alexander Rhodes comes from the city of Alexandria (itself named after Alexander the Great) and the Colossus of Rhodes in the ancient world. The Scarab has elements of heroes like Hawkman and Dr. Fate (both reincarnated Egyptians) in his background.

p. 53, Security Companies. Stronghold Security is named after the super-prison from the Champions RPG while Titan Security Services is named after the Teen Titans (and shares the same circled-T logo as the 1980s incarnation of the group).

p. 53, Law Firms. Cabot, Cunningham & Crowley is named after Laurie Cabot, Scott Cunningham, and Aleister Crowley, all occultist authors. The Grayson in Hartford, Grayson & Cole is an homage to the Earth-2 Dick Grayson, who was a partner in a law firm. The Nelson in Nelson & Bannerly is after “Foggy” Nelson from Daredevil.

p. 54, The Claremont Academy. Named for Chris Claremont, longest running writer on X-Men (the original “School for Gifted Youngsters”).

p. 56, Master Lee. Named for two masters: Bruce Lee and Stan Lee.

p. 56, The Beaudrie Opera House. Named after Valerie Beaudrie, alias Wonder Woman’s enemy the Silver Swan.

p. 57, The Hunter Museum of Natural History. Named for Rip Hunter: Time Master. Who better to be the patron of a museum of history?

p. 58, The Kirby Museum of Fine Arts. Named for Jack “the King” Kirby, the most influential comic book artist ever.

p. 58, Champions Restaurant. Named for the Champions roleplaying game, of course.

p. 59, McNider Memorial Hospital. Named for Dr. Charles McNider, the Golden Age Dr. Mid-Nite.

p. 59, The Providence Asylum. Its founder is Howard Phillips, after H.P. (Howard Phillip) Lovecraft, pulp horror author in the 1920s famed for his “Cthulhu” stories, who lived in Providence, RI. Randolph Carter was a character from Lovecraft’s fiction (who also mysteriously disappeared).

p. 61, Ditko Street. Named for Steve Ditko, early Marvel artist on Spider-Man and Dr. Strange.

p. 63, Jerry Jonas. An homage to comic book newspaper editors Perry White and J. Jonah Jameson.

p. 63, Julie Streeter. A street is another name for a “lane” and Ms. Streeter is a star reporter…

p. 63, Radio Stations. A bunch of comic book homages here:

WBTO = Batman and the Outsiders

WJLA = Justice League of America (classical indeed)

WLSH = Legion of Super-Heroes

WNTT = New Teen Titans

WJSA = Justice Society of America (the “oldies” station)

WBNB = Brave and the Bold

WNCC = New Century City (the original name of Freedom City)

p. 71, The Pinnacle Path. Named for Pinnacle Entertainment Group, publishers of Deadlands and Brave New World, among others.

p. 72, Nightclubs. Many named for comic book mini-series:

Eclipse = Originally called “Final Night,” changed to an homage to the super-villain Eclipso.

Fouth World = Jack Kirby’s “New Gods” stories.

Infinity, Legends, Millennium = The comic mini-series of the same name.

The Secret Bar = Named for the Secret Wars and inspired by the Safehouse, a spy-themed bar in Milwaukee (and in past years a regular spot for gamers visiting for GenCon).

p. 73, Restaurants. Stan’s Super Heroes is named for Stan Lee, of course.

p. 74, Bands and Musicians. The Boy Wonderz are a play on Robin’s “Boy Wonder” nickname. The Kings in Yellow are named for an element from the Cthulhu Mythos (a potential adventure hook if the band is also tied in with, say, the Brotherhood of the Yellow Sign). Promoter Frank Mills is named for comic creator Frank Miller.

p. 75, ASTRO Labs. An homage to both Kurt Busiek’s Astro City and STAR Labs from DC Comics.

p.75, Danger International. Johnny Danger is based on a character from an unrelated pulp heroes campaign while the name of the company is also an homage to Hero Games’ modern spy/thriller RPG.

p. 78, Prominent Wealthy People. Publisher Wayne Clark is, of course, named after Bruce (Batman) Wayne and Clark (Superman) Kent.

The Brotherhood of the Yellow Sign. Based on elements from the Cthulhu Mythos, and from the similar cult in Green Ronin’s Freeport setting.

p. 80, Stadiums. Schuster Arena is named for Joe Schuster, one of the creators of Superman. Stone Studium is named for Victor Stone, Cybord of the Teen Titans (who was a college athlete).

p. 94, The Grue Empire. The Grue are originally named after comic author Mark Gruenwald (note their homeworld is named Gruen Prime, or Gruen-World).

p. 96, The Star Knights. A’Lan Koor, Earth’s former Star Knight, is named after Alan Scott, the original Green Lantern.

p. 99, The Freedom League. The League was originally called “The New Centurions” (in honor of the fallen hero Centurion) but I decided “Freedom League” was a more classic-sounding team name, and gave them continuity with a previous Freedom League team (which Centurion belonged to).

p. 100, Captain Thunder. Ray Gardener is named for Silver Age comics writer Gardener Fox. Ray Cloud, “Captain Thunder’s Pal,” is an homage to both Jimmy Olsen and Tom “Pieface” Kalmaku (Green Lantern’s young sidekick).

p. 108, Johnny Rocket. Johnny Wade is named for fellow “hot-head” Johnny Storm (the Human Torch) and Mark Waid, long-time Flash author. His coming-out is an homage to another other gay speedster, Marvel Comics’ Northstar.

p.110, Lady Liberty. Beth Walton is named for Elizabeth (Betsy) Ross and that most American of families, the Waltons. Her husband is named for Steve Trevor, Wonder Woman’s long-time romantic interest, and is, of course, literally “Mr. Right” (Wright).

p.113, Raven. Callie Summers is named after Callieach, a Celtic raven goddess. She’s at least partially inspired by the Earth-2 Huntress in DC Comics, who was the daughter of Batman and Catwoman.

p. 116, Siren. A portion of Siren’s inspiration comes from a desire to do a “non-lame” aquatic character, and also to treat the Voodoo mythos much like DC did Greek mythology (with Wonder Woman) or Marvel did Norse myth (with Thor).

p. 119, The Atom Family. Their name is something of a pun both on the atomic nature of many Silver Age characters and the Addams Family. Dr. Atom was inspired by a character named “Dr. Warlock” that a friend played in a Torg campaign. (Dr. Warlock was, of course, a pulp hero from that game’s “Nile Empire” realm.) Jack Wolf was inspired by another character from the same campaign.

p. 123, Tess Atom. Although it isn’t stated in the book, Tess is short for “Tesla” (after both inventor Nikolai Tesla and Tesla Strong from Tom Strong). It’s also similar to Tessa, or Sage from X-treme X-Men.

p. 125, Cosmo the Moon Monkey. An homage to the many super-pets of the comics, particularly Lockjaw (the Inhumans’ teleporting dog) and the space monkeys Gleek (from Super-Friends) and Blip (from Space Ghost). Cosmo has proven to be one of the most popular characters in Freedom City!

p. 128, Megastar. Christopher Beck is named for C.C. Beck, early Captain Marvel artist.

p. 132, Seven. Vervain is an herb associated with witches and witchcraft. It’s the same root name as “Verbena” (used in White Wolf’s Mage RPG).

p.133, Sonic. Lemar Phillips is named for Phil LeMarr, voice actor on cartoons like Justice League and Static Shock!

p. 135, Wilson Jeffers. The Black Avenger is inspired by the slate of ’70s African-American characters whose names all had to start with “Black” (Black Goliath, Black Panther, Black Lightning, etc.). He’s named after Jefferson Pierce (Black Lightning).

p. 147, The Factor Four. A villainous version of Marvel’s Fantastic Four, complete with elemental themes. Granite is loosely named for my home state of New Hampshire (the “Granite State”).

p. 151, Argo. The Argo was a ship that carried the heroes of Greek myth, so it seemed a fitting name for a construct that carried the powers of modern heroes. The similarities in appearance between Argo’s features and those of Amazo in the recent Justice League episode “Tabula Rasa” (tall, bald, gray skin) are kind of interesting, given that Amazo partially inspired Argo, but his animated appearance came after Freedom City.

p. 155, Doc Otaku. A poster on the Mutants & Masterminds forum of the Green Ronin message boards used the handle “Doc Otaku” before Freedom City was published. The character was invented independently, but I almost changed his name because of the coincidence. I’m glad I didn’t; he’s a fun character and his name is part of his charm. The real Doc Otaku online has since adopted the Freedom City character as his online avatar.

p. 156, The Angel Androids. Doc Otaku’s favorite creations are a blond, a redhead, and a brunet whose names all begin with the same letter, just like The Powerpuff Girls. They’re also inspired by Charlie’s Angels and the endless anime featuring cute, but unstoppable, girl androids.

p. 158, Gamma the Atom Smasher. Named for both the gamma radiation that spawned so many Marvel heroes and villains and the modern-day inheritor of the mantle of the Golden Age Atom in JSA. His real name, Adam Ward, is after Adam West and Burt Ward, who played Batman and Robin in the 1960s TV series.

p. 165, Lady Tarot. Her first name, Alicia, is the same as Alician Masters from Fantastic Four, who is also the daughter of a criminal.

p. 173, Quirk. The “Q” name comes from both Aquaman’s impish foe Quisp and Q from the Star Trek: the Next Generation series (and its spin-offs).

p. 176, Star-Khan. At least partly inspired by Ricardo Montelban’s Khan from Star Trek.

p. 181, Toy Boy. “Lettam” is the name of a particular toy manufacturer spelled backwards.