Posts Tagged ‘supers’

Marvel Caper!

June 30, 2014

I’ve recently embarked on an experiment to modify the Caper! rules for a superheroes game— specifically a game of superhuman private security contractors in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Some of us in our Boston extended gaming family had played Marvel Heroic Roleplaying last summer, and sadly the rules just never really clicked for me. I liked a lot of what they were trying to accomplish thematically, and the books were absolutely gorgeous, but as a player I never quite groked all of the various mechanics for dice pool builds and Opportunities, Assets, Distinctions, Complications and whatnot. And I know Chris (who was GMing that campaign) also had some problems on his side of the table, what with the Doom Pool, the nuts & bolts of building opposition, etc.

(Chris & I may have further muddied the waters a bit by attempting to bolt on a Smallville-inspired life paths system to the character creation session, adding Values, Relationships & Resources to the mix, but that’s neither here nor there…)

I decided that this summer was going to be the Summer of Marvel Caper! We’ve played two sessions so far, and it is going pretty well. The rules themselves are a work in progress, but what is amazing to see is when the narrative control widgets really click for a player, and when they really grok how to leverage the framing and storytelling of the various Letter mechanics and whatnot… it really takes the stories in very unexpected directions, which is really gratifying for me as a game designer, and I think for the rest of the players as well. This game, more so than any other rpg I think I’ve ever played, makes us all into an audience that can be genuinely surprised by some really clever plot twists and turns.

(Also incredibly refreshing for me as a GM is that the game is essentially zero prep, which I honestly think is a must for me now that I’m in my dotage.)

My first passion being character sheet design, I pulled out all of the stops for this, creating a line of 2-sided sheets that include pretty much all of the rules to the game. However, being the perfectionist/completist that I am, I ended up customizing sheets for each PC for the second session, with art of the players’ characters which I created with HeroMachine (or yanked off of the web if they’re playing a Marvel canon character… apologies in advance to the copyright holders!)

Bunny Hanlon's character: Commander Grace Chopra, ex-SHIELD agent and current Heir of K'un-Lun.

Let me tell you about Bunny’s character: Commander Grace Chopra, an ex-SHIELD agent who is now the current holder of the Iron Fist Legacy. (Photo Credit: Bunny Hanlon)

Rules-wise, I still have some more tweaking to do. After the first session and an overuse of Letters of Introduction— that mechanic works great for heists, but in supers I found it a bit genre-straining— I came up with an alternate use for face cards: rather than going to a contact and having them perform a bonus action on your behalf, you can now instead play a face card to perform an additional “power stunt” during your turn. I freely admit I took a page from Marvel Heroic Roleplaying for this, and I call this mechanic a ‘Letter of Intent‘. Thematically the stunts worked great, but mechanically I feel like they only worked okay— I think having yet another formula for success might have been a bit too confusing for some of the players. (As was the use of Spades/Wild Cards, but that’s always been a real source of confusion for first-time players… and annoyingly I’ve yet to craft the right spiel to adequately explain the rules out loud… hence my summarizing all of the rules on the character sheets!)

Anyways, yesterday’s session was also the first time I’ve ever played the 21 System with an actual GM (and not as a GM-less Caper! session), and I also think that worked out pretty well. There were only a couple of times I had to take over narrative control because I had some specific plot points I wanted to touch upon (when a character consulted some old SHIELD contacts to learn the big bad’s secret identity, for example). Otherwise, I felt like the players were able to sandbox and scenery chew to their hearts’ content.

I’ve always liked to jokingly say (okay, it is not a joke) that I designed a game system using cards as the randomizer because dice hate me. But the ironic thing during yesterday’s session was that my cards hated me! I perpetually had nothing but twos through fours in my hand, punctuated by the occasional seven or eight.  I don’t think I ever had a single face card the entire session! And I *know* I was never graced with an ace… the players gobbled those right up. And an ever-elusive Joker? Ha! Forgetaboutit!

Anyways, this dearth of heavy hitting cards essentially led to a total rout, as my hordes of MGH-fuelled favela kids couldn’t touch the PCs. This’ll necessitate tweaking the mook rules a bit, but I’ll need to avoid going too far in the other direction if the worm turns and I ever find myself with a killer hand… because that’s the other thing I hate in games: swingy math.

My too-clever-by-half XP mechanic was an abject failure. I think. Upon further consideration today, I can’t help but feel that there’s some there there. Essentially, all of the chips the PCs cashed in during the session would get thrown in a box, which represented the ‘boffo box’ that the movie we’re collaboratively creating would earn… get it? ::groan::

Anyways, at the beginning of the session, each player secretly wrote which color of chip they’d want to claim as a share of XP at the end of the session (each chip being worth 1 XP). Which color they choose to claim should be based on how they envision playing their character during the session— if they’re going to be going on the offensive, they’ll want to claim reds; if they’re going to be helping/healing leader-y types, they’ll want to claim whites. Blues are for those who’ll alter the physical and human terrain of the story by creating temporary props & set pieces, retconning parts of the story, etc.

Well, at the end of the session, the box ended up having forty some-odd reds and only like a dozen each of the blues and whites. And once I looked at the slips of paper to see who had claimed what, only one player had claimed red, one player claimed blue, and three players claimed whites. Now, where’s the fault in this mechanic? How much of this chip disparity was caused by my piss-poor hands of cards and never successfully landing an attack on the PCs that they then needed to recover from by spending white chips? How many of the three choices of white had to do with two of those players having never played the game before, so the chip mechanics were entirely new to them?

Even Chris— the sole player to claim red chips as his take— immediately said he shouldn’t get 40+ XP for the session, while the rest of the players only got a pittance. We ended up just doing an even split, with the remainder getting awarded to Bunny, who was voted MVP (she had devised a really cunning plan that totally carried the day and gave both sides— including the “villain”— a win.) So, chalk that one up to the social contract, I guess! [1]

Anyways, maybe its my Caper!-centric ruthlessness, but I can’t help but feel there remains something to this “box office” mechanic. I mean, isn’t a trope of the superhero genre that you reap what you sow? That you get back what you put out into the universe? That with great power comes great responsibility? Like I said, I can’t help but feel there’s some there there, and that with a group of players who’ve played before, who fully understand what the chips do, and are also familiar with each other’s character, their powers, backstory, and what they bring to the table… this mechanic will add an interesting wrinkle to the roleplaying, the storytelling, and will narratively reinforce the chip-cashing that mechanically drives both.

There were some other rule changes that we kicked the tires on for the first time yesterday: an initiative mechanic, I had tweaked the stats for the Letters of Introduction, and I added a new “Previously, on red23…” opening scene mechanic that gives the players an opportunity to introduce their character and enter the session with some chips in their back pocket. All of these seemed to work out fine… or at least I didn’t hear any complaints about them after we wrapped and jawboned for awhile. But that may have been because the XP box office gag dominated the conversation. 😉

Anyways, I’m really looking forward to session three! I’ve already decided its going to be a PvP ‘Danger Room‘ session so I can really see how the combat rules work.


[1] Call it sour grapes if you will, but even now— nearly eight(!) years after I designed Caper!— I still fail to understand the complaint I heard from some critics that they didn’t like the game because it led to backstabbing and ruthlessness since— unlike most (if not all) roleplaying games— it has an actual ‘win condition’. Methinks those folks need to play some Diplomacy.


May 26, 2012

Plain and simple, I’m a sucker for supers RPGs.

Thus it was that I grabbed a copy of the Marvel Heroic Roleplaying Game from Margaret Weis Productions and after some time to read and digest it I ran a one-shot today (wherein the heroes faced yet another splinter cell of AIM and their hideous creation U.L.T.R.O.D.O.K). I’d heard that the game takes a different twist on the genre – it is much more narrative-driven than other games I had played. Based on my experimentation with adapting Dogs in the Vineyard to supers a few years back, this was very appealing feature to me. And following Jack’s review of it a couple posts down I had to check it out. (more…)

Marvels, Mutants, and the Murder Castle

March 6, 2012

Available right now in PDF from and later this month in print, the new Marvel Heroic Roleplaying game is by Margaret Weiss Productions, the same folks who brought you the Serenity, BSG and Supernatural rpgs.  More to the point, they are the ones who did the Smallville and Leverage rpgs using a system called CORTEX Plus, a variation on their standard dice pool system from those earlier games that is extensively modified to suit the particular game and genre being emulated. With Smallville, you’ve got dramatic tv series with powers rules that under the hood could do just about anything the awesome indy game Prime Time Adventures can do, though with a more codified tactical structure.  Similarly, from what I’ve seen of the Marvel game, it does a similar job for high action serialized stories (ie comic books, or even, dare I say it, the pulps!).  As PTA is to Smallville, I see Spirit of the Century (or more generically FATE) is to Marvel Heroic Roleplaying.

Friends of mine worked on the book, and the preview I’ve seen so far looks beautiful.  I ran a demo of the MHR game at my FLGS, The Gaming Goat, this past Saturday.  This was to be part of the official ‘Launch Party’ for the game, but since the print books have been delayed a few weeks, the Goat’s party has been postponed until April.  I showed up, anyway, in case some didn’t get word of the reschedule. Good thing, since two players showed, and a third who was awaiting a later D&D Lair Assault game joined in.  Since we were pressed for time, rather than run the prepared ‘event’, I simply started with my players choosing their demo characters, and followed the premise that suggested; Spider-Man, Captain America and Wolverine walk into a bar…


[Review] Icons

March 14, 2011

I’ve been bit by the supers bug again recently (it gives me the proportional strength of a box full of d6s) and was looking about at systems out there. I’m kind of tired of high-crunch systems, which unfortunately the genre leans pretty strongly on.  And I’m just plain done with making my own systems or heavily tweaking existing ones. I’d been hearing some good stuff about Icons from Adamant Entertainment, which had 2 big things going for it right up front: 1) it’s written by Steve Kenson, who wrote Mutants & Masterminds/DC Adventures and 2) my friend Theron had written a module for it and from eight or nine years of internet acquaintance I’ve found his taste to be pretty impeccable.  Added bonus: the pdf of the rulebook is on sale for $1.99. Really, how could I not?

And frankly why had I not picked it up already? Well there were also two strikes against it: 1) I didn’t like the cover art style and 2) it’s based on FATE with which I’ve had some issues in the past. But I understand both of those things are purely subjective and my issues and neither one was strong enough to overrule the positives (this is kind of like FATE dice right here). Or the $2 price tag. (more…)

Look, Up in the Sky! A review of DC Adventures

October 16, 2010

I picked up the DC Adventures rpg from Green Ronin the other day because 1)I’m a sucker for supers games, 2) it’s Mutants & Masterminds 3rd edition and I have the first two so why the hell not?, and 3) A shiny Alex Ross cover will get me every time.

Having played both 1st and 2nd edition of the game I’m having a hard time getting my brain around this. They’ve shifted much more to an effects-based powers system where you basically have to build the powers you want. For example, if I want Super-Breath there’s no such power, so I should take Affliction (Hindered/Immobile/Paralyzed) or maybe Move Object or maybe Damage (Ranged), or perhaps all 3 with an Alternate Effect rider so that I could use any one of those but not all 3 at the same time.

They give some examples of some common powers and how they’re built with effects but it took a couple of reads for me to really get how they worked. There are archetype templates and 25 or so sample DC characters in here to suss it out from as well. But this game is taking a lot more effort than most for me to fully internalize how things come together. I don’t think I’m particularly dumb so I have to imagine this is tough and would be nigh-impossible for someone new to gaming who picked this up because they love comics. Bad form. A page or so outlining how to build some of these powers or even just a couple of examples in the “Jon is building a character and wants to be able to do X” mode would have been very useful.

The upside is that when everything does click into place it’s extremely versatile. You *can* build just about anything by focusing on the effect you want to achieve, and there doesn’t need to be a 300 page list of every conceivable power under the sun. I mean, who’s ever going to go to the list looking for Super Breath? But I figured what it could be in about 5 minutes. And if I dig around on the Atomic Think Tank boards and elsewhere I bet other folks have done a lot of the heavy lifting to put together powers for me.

The combat/action resolution engine remains the same from 2nd edition M&M. There’s an attack roll vs one of 3 set defenses (Parry, Dodge, Will) depending on the type of attack then the defender gets a roll on their defense against the damage rank of the attack. Failure on the resist is measured out in ranks – every 5 you fail by means the attack imposes a more serious condition. There are no hit points in this system – you just accumulate conditions until you get incapacitated or some such. I really dig that.

This edition of the M&M engine moves even further away from the d20 OGL (although it is still in there, but I’m not entirely sure why). The traditional base numbers of 3-18 for your ability scores are gone and now you just buy your bonus. Which makes all kinds of sense and I wish they’d done that for 4e. The standard array of abilities (Str Con Dex Int Wis Cha) is gone too, replaced by 8 stats that cover a lot more ground.

I’d also be remiss if I didn’t mention that part of the reason I love M&M in general and this game specifically is that it remains a love letter to the old Mayfair DC Heroes system. There’s a measurements table where distance/weight/time doubles each rank up. There’s a Motivations list that is almost copied word for word out of the old DCHeroes book. Other little bits here and there nod and smile to my old beloved. And then BAM! there’s an Effects/Damage Resist table at the end of the book that I’m sure is a direct homage to the old RAP tables.

The book itself is beautiful – nice glossy paper, lots of great full color illustrations right from the past couple years of comics (and rather heavy on the JSA, which doesn’t break my heart any).

It doesn’t get any points for organization though. There’s a section on The Basics at the front which I keep having to flip back to as I’m reading the chapter on how combat works, and also to the section on Abilities to see what the defenses and resistances are and how they work. There are some things listed as Extras for powers that feel more like they should be Advantages. Many of the write-ups list things I can’t find (“Protection, Toughness with the Impervious extra is just listed as “Impervious Toughness” which confused the heck out of me at first. At least I think that’s what it means. And some characters have “Arrays” which I’m still looking for a description of). I have a feeling that these troubles are going to hit me in character creation but I *think* in actual play the system should run pretty smoothly. There are still many more different types of Actions (Charging, Aiming, Grabbing) and Maneuvers) (All-out Attack, Power Attack, Slam) than I’m comfortable with – in my experience it tends to create option paralysis in even experienced players so I usually ignore them and just refer to them when a player describes what they want to be doing. A tidge too much crunch for my liking, but honestly I’ve usually found more rules lite supers systems just don’t do the job.

Overall I think it will be a good system and ideas are already churning in my brain for a supers game. It’s a very powerful toolbox and once I have my full brain around it I think it will do everything I need.

Mutants and Masterminds: Appropriate Powers for use with Nemesis

March 29, 2010

Life has conspired to keep me absent from this blog for some time.  While our D&D DM finally got a new job, it was in another state, so “Not Your GM’s Keep” in on indefinite hiatus (if you hadn’t noticed), with the last few entries stuck in draft limbo.

Not that I’ve had any dearth of gaming, as our other GM (who is also out of work – there’s probably a post in there somewhere on how the state of the economy has changed my gaming landscape) has had to miss several sessions, so I’ve been running more than I have in ages, 1-2 games a week.  So I’m going to try and catch up with some things I’ve been meaning to write about these other games as well as soliciting ideas for them (which means my players had better skip these posts for now).

I am putting together the next session of our “Are You MAJESTIC?” M&M reality show campaign for this week, and it’s going to be a relatively straightforward battle with prototype robots that are designed to scan and upgrade themselves to battle their opponents.


More 4e Supers

March 11, 2010

More thoughts going back to this post.

-I really love the mechanic for the Psi classes (except the Monk). That feels how Supers should work – having an Augmentable pool so you can really push to have a big effect when you need it. I immediately think of Cyclops for some reason, putting points in to make weird bank-shots or for massive damage effect or something.  Or those things could all just be his various Encounters and Dailies I suppose.

-Travel powers. Bill and I hit upon this while looking through PHB3: handle them like the Skill Powers. You can swap out Utilities for them or use a Feat to buy more of them. In some ways I like this and in some the “everybody gets an At-Will for free” works better. Not entirely certain there.

-With the now 5×4 grid of Power Source/Role (and some doubling up) there still doesn’t feel like there’s  a good pattern to use to map onto supers genre conventions as neatly as I would like. I think Race and Class are probably going to be individually determined and may not bear any consistency from one character to another (I mean, look at Mutants or Aliens or Robots. They don’t really have much in common from one character to the next that can easily map onto “all aliens are Deva and all Mutants are Gnomes”). I’d really like to not have that kind of looseness, but that’s just me. I would sit down and ask someone to describe the kind of character and powers they would want and try to find the best match. Role is the primary foundation here, so once someone decided they want to be a Controller, for example, then the differences between Wizard, Invoker, Druid, Seeker and Psion dictate the class (have to work up a chart to define the differences more concretely. I think of a Wizard as more pure AoE status control and an Invoker as doing more AoE damage and debuffs but that may not be accurate). I think I just have to let go of my Bert-like control issues on this one.

-One of the most important things is to be able to use the Character Builder. The damage types and flavor text are entirely handwaved but the powers and feats themselves should remain constant. Equipment largely goes away thanks to the DMG2’s Inherent Bonuses (thanks, Bryant).  Doing the travel powers as outside at-wills wouldn’t interact with the Builder at all and would allow for skill-monkey Batman-type characters to really shine.

I think I may well be at the point where I want to get some people together and try making up some characters, and then FIGHT! just to see what it looks like.

4e Supers

September 22, 2009

4e for Supers. Given that this is me, it was only a matter of time. These are mostly unstructured notes. Also shouldn’t be a surprise.

Basic assumptions: 1) Keep it as close to 4e’s established ruleset and structure as possible. Mainly so that you can still use the Character Builder. 2) Setting neutral, although we’ll want to be able to replicate things like Marvel or DC, 3) No system gets Flash or Green Lantern right so holding them up as “imposible to make in this system” is a non-starter. (more…)

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