Wednesday, August 31, 2011
Microscope remains some of the most fun I've had at the table in years. It offers a collaborative role-playing experience, in which the players take turns building up a history. That's the game- you spin out a story together, trying to play off of each other's work. The system has some conflict and conflict resolution, at the smallest level, but that's about who gets to have final say about a particular fact. You play characters but instead do the kind of world building that GMs do for campaigns.
And we've used it as that kind of tool, a means of collaboratively building a game world. The advantage to that is everyone knows the world equally well. Microscope's also easy to drop in as a pick up session. That happened last Thursday, when a sinus headache put a dent in my prep time for our session of Changeling the Lost. They're in the middle of a quest cycle, so we didn't want to wing it too much. I threw out a few options and they decided to do Microscope. All four of us had played it before a couple of times and enjoyed it.
PICKING THE PREMISE
We decided we wanted to build another fantasy world, both for the fun of doing that creation at the table and to create something we might run in as a pick-up game later. I'm still looking forward to trying Microscope with a non-fantasy premise. We batted around a number of ideas about what kind of world we wanted, until we modified an idea Sherri created. We would be doing the history of a Kingdom with strange otherworldly refugees. For reasons unknown, this kingdom became a nexus for persons fleeing from other worlds. Sherri added that the refugees would arrive via enormous magic stairways, generally identical, but appearing in different places. We had some interesting discussion about how the locals might deal with these kinds of interlopers. Before we got too far, we stopped and set up the beginning periods for our history.
BOOKENDS & BAN/ADD
The first period would be "The First Refugee 'Stairways' Appear." That established the refugees as key and allowed us to consider the fallout from their original arrival. The history would end with the period, "Founding of the New Dynasty." We discussed and came up with some things we definitely wanted in the history. First, all magic would be summoning in some fashion. In order to cast a spell, you had to call something and constant effects required binding. It would look a little like magic in Elric. Second, the world would have lost technology of the ancients (like Glorantha and Exalted). Third, people had knowledge of massive, probably magical, construction technologies. I'm thinking of the kinds of things you see in FFXII. To contrast those, we also picked some things we didn't want. First, there would be no gods- they would have been destroyed. Instead people worship ancestor spirits and other Shinto-like forces. Second, there's no genetic predisposition for evil or good. No race can automatically be assumed to be awful (like Orcs) or good (like Hobbits). Third, besides the stairways (which only work one way- into this world) there would be no magical teleportation or gate magics. Fourth, there would be no native magical creatures in this world- all of those would have arrived via those magic stairs.
WORLD OUT OF JOINT
I think one of the interesting things to look at in the history created here is how much ends up implied or unspoken. The events under a period often add new twists, rather than just presenting the details of the theme suggested by the period. The other thing that I noticed in typing this up is that you do lose something of the back and forth of the creation in reporting it this way. For example, the Black Court was created, then it was destroyed several periods later, then we added details later- in between- establishing some of the things the Black Court had done in the interim. Laid out here from beginning to end, it feels very different from the puzzle game it actually is at the table.
PERIOD I. THE FIRST REFUGEE 'STAIRWAYS' APPEAR
This time represents the period when things significantly changed for the world, with the unprecedented arrival of these strange and magical refugees.
*Ziggurat of Wonders: A ziggurat is discovered by a local farmer and his fumbling he activates something which intensifies the number of gates and stairways. These have appeared before in small numbers, but now more and larger ones appear. The city of Seras is founded and builds up around the location to conceal the ziggurat and conduct studies.
*Founding of the Kingdom: The increased influx of refugees forces an accord between the three major city states of the region. They create the Kingdom of Avastar, and enthrone the dynasty which takes its name. The new kingdom works to deal with the new arrivals.
*Communications: The Ritual Greeting is formulated with aid of the refugees from the Ruby City, who can speak any language. This becomes a consistent practice for any new stairs which appear.
PERIOD II: THE GODS WAR
With the gates weakening the fabric of reality, various factions work to summon their gods through into this world. The gods arrive, war and destroy one another in a massive conflagration which changes the landscape and creates unusual and magical places.
*New Laws: A series of new laws and proclamations regarding the refugees. The devastation in the wake of the divine 'mosh pit' makes refugees of even the natives. Resettlement erases the sense of Us vs. Them between natives and the first waves. The new laws will stand.
*Fiery Arrival: The White Elves appear, tumbling down a new staircase in a burst of flame and debris. They arrive just outside the city of Seras.
PERIOD III: THE CITY FACTORY
An ancient device activates. Boats loaded with masonry, pre-cut lumber, frames, metalwork, glass panes, and roof tiles begin floating down river from Garsk. Although no one can read the ancient instructions, the illustrations are quite clear to experienced builders. Many cities and structures get built.
*The Hollow City: An influx of new people arrive in Garsk. They find the uniformity strangely unsettling, and discover that summoning doesn't work in the city.
*The New Capitol: Following the discovery, the Avastar Dynasty relocates the capitol and bureaucracy to Garsk. While the aesthetics are banal, the safety of the location wholly recommends it.
*Rising Corruption: The newly centralized dynasty falls into the habit of looking the other way so long as regional lords pay proper fealty. Abuses, particularly those involving newly arrived refugees go unrecognized.
*Scene Question: How does the dynasty squelch the resulting unrest? Magic items obtained from the refugees as a 'tax' get redistributed as a form of bribery, bringing those who cause turmoil back into line.
PERIOD IV: THE PLAINS WAR
Ifreet gathers his army and pushes across the kingdom to take the great city of Seras. He is repelled only through the intervention of the Kaliniour Knights, and his campaign comes to naught.
*The Welcoming Rotundas: Lady Absolute casts down the slaver families and calls upon her Life's Oathed Summons to consecrate the Welcoming Rotundas. These locations act a lightning rods for the gate stairways, drawing them to key points rather than scattered across the kingdom.
*The Black Court: Renmar undercuts his brother, the Duke of Withering Mountain. He loots the armory and arms his spies and bandits with the treasures. They go on to form the Black Court.
*Magical Tinkers: Knitters Hill, a boondocks village on the river Rei strikes a deal with the refugees of "The Husk." They create a bustling trade in 'recalibrating' magical items from beyond. Despite constant rumors about the legitimacy of their trade, they flourish.
*Scene Question: What was the aim of the people of Knitters Hill? They were trying to build a cache of 'just in case' objects for the time when things go wrong- because they are sure that they will.
PERIOD V: LESSONS OF THE BINDINGS
The Binders arrive, bringing with them the knowledge of how to bind summoned creatures into physical objects. This changes sweeps across the kingdom.
*Seras' Protections: Great Elemental Spirits are bound into the towers of Seras to provide a defense against any future large-scale incursions.
*Demon Refugees Defeated: Char Hyaran lures and traps the Demon Imperator- binding both of them in the Sceptre of Bale, and destroying the Dark Staircase.
*Transport Spheres: The Warlord of Thought perfects and tests the first Sphere Launcher transports. These are based on ancient technologies. They send flying across the skies enormous metal carrier spheres, crossing the kingdom where they land safely and gently- ready to be reloaded and launched again.
PERIOD VI: YEARS OF THE MIRRORS
A new group of refugees arrives from a world nearly identical to the kingdom. Many of the refugees appear to be exact doubles of people here, including many of the ruling caste and leadership. Complications ensue.
*Dark Plots Hatched: The Black Court joins forces with a number of the Mirrored Nobility. They set in motion a plan to destroy and replace the lords of the Avastar Dynasty.
*Scene Question: Who did the Black Court target first? Lord Starvael and his wife, the Star-Born Queen, but their success drew the attention of Duke Conch- forcing them to act against him next.
*Mirrored Weapons: Duke Conch of Seras discovers that magic items from Mirrors react powerfully to their counterparts. When crossing swords with his mirror double, the Blade of Madness is born.
*Scene Question: Why wasn't the Black Court revealed by Duke Conch? Conch tried to convince the other lords of the Black Court's actions, but is not believed because of the Blade of Madness. He is exiled with his sword.
*The Unmasking: Lady Zarvantis, when confronted with her husband's mirrored double interrogates the man for hours. Afterwards she claims that his captors have been tricked and that he is her real husband. Her own mirror twin murders her a year later.
*Opening the Vault: Shava, an enslaved earth elemental, guides Voorsh to the lost Jade Vault. Here he finds of a number of fantastic mechanical weapons, including the war machine known as Behemoth.
*The Duke Seeks Aid: Duke Conch, exiled, secretly meets with the Binders. He seeks help in revealing the Mirrors. They bind him into the metal of his sword and remake it as a mirror which reveals the truth.
*The Purge: Clanless warriors in mechanized uniforms penetrate Withering Mountain and kill the members of the Black Court.
PERIOD VII: THE YEAR OF PEACE
The Binders and the newly formed Tech Brotherhood set aside their differences and begin the first peace talks. They seek to repair the damage done by the Black Court and settle the most recent conflicts.
*The Beastkith Rewarded: For their role in the downfall of the Black Court, the Regent allows the founding of Rainlore, a city dedicated to an run by the Beastkith, animal-men refugees who came from a world much like that of this kingdom.
*Scene Question: How did the Beastkith help? They have burrowing folk among them...after a camp out on Knitters Hill they became strangely powerful...and laden down with backpacks.
*Black Heart of the Palace: Renmar, founder of the Black Court, is discovered in his magical guise of the Regent by a senior member of the nobility. Renmar's mirror (and partner) quickly kills the noble..
*Behemoth's Rampage: The Binders collaborate with the Tech Brotherhood, binding a great guardian spirit into the Behemoth to defend the kingdom. The binding to the ancient artifact causes the Behemoth to go berserk, killing many before it is buried.
*The City Sighted: A great commotion rises in Garsk. Late one night in the light of a full moon, a floating city is seen in the sky. It then vanishes from sight.
*The Horde: While some magical creatures and monsters have appeared in the past, nothing matches the sudden onslaught from the Scaled Stairway- as a host of magical horrors stream out for three days and nights. They seem to be escaping a massive dungeon world.
PERIOD VIII: FOUNDING OF THE NEW DYNASTY
With the Avastar Dynasty all but extinguished and the Regency revealed as a villainous plot, the nobles draw together to anoint a new dynasty to lead the Kingdom.
*The Regent Falls: Lidian Zhakovas reveals the Regent and his double- and finally kills Renmar. She refuses at first, but finally accepts the Crown of the Kingdom. She has a condition to create unity- the remnants of the line of Avastar must be adopted or marry into her own house. The Zhakovas Dynasty is founded.
*Ancient Survivors: Storms and Quakes signal a monumental event. The strike of a comet unseals the Impenetrable Ziggurat- releasing a group of the Ancients and the machines of war long sealed away.
*Royal Plots: Though a member of the new dynasty, Prince Avarin wants nothing to do with it. Instead he desires power only for himself. He gathers supporters to him and plots the doom of the Zhakovas Dynasty from within.
*The New Queen: Following the carnage from her cousin's Avarin's failed coup attempt, the young Princess Estarsia is forced to take up her family's duties. A cluster of advisors close in, hoping for influence, but the Princess has her own ideas...
*Night on Withering Mountain: A successor decides to reestablish the lost and fallen Black Court. This distant descendant of Renmar makes his way and secretly reopens Withering Mountain, armed with secret lore of her locks and traps.
Tuesday, August 30, 2011
Monday, August 29, 2011
The Perils of Homebrew
This weekend we did character creation for a short-run campaign I’m planning, based on a Microscope history the group built. I’ve read several favors of FATE recently, and I wondered how well the aspects/tags system would work within the Action Cards homebrew we’ve been playing with for quite some time. So I retooled and reskinned the game again, as I’ve done with each campaign we’ve played so far. So far we’ve used it for Magical Swashbuckling, Modern Occult, Steampunk Fantasy, Changeling the Lost, Heroquesting High Fantasy, Star Wars, HALO, Fallout, Skyship Fantasy, and now this version. My goal in rules building for these has been two-fold- find changes and tweaks that generally make the game better, but more importantly find rules and systems which emulate the genre we’re working with. For that, I have to decide on the question of classes from the start.
A Classy Approach
Classes, Professions, Roles, Archetypes, Paths…however you want to say them- they serve as a useful form and approach for players. They can help someone come up with an effective and interesting character, but by the same token they can cut off options. Beyond that, they can also raise questions about balance. That’s a dirty word for some players- and in general I don’t think given the abstract nature of an rpg you can achieve balance unless everyone has access to all of the same choices throughout (which puts the weight of that balance on player decisions). But I do think what I want is for players to more rarely feel like another player is significantly better than them based on a build. Some classes should shine in some places, but not all cases are equal in game play time and weight. Mastery in combat generally has a good deal more impact, than mastery in courtly affairs.
Kissing the Classless
I’ve dealt with this problem in several ways. In a couple of cases, I’ve left out the concept of classes entirely. The first two forms of AC, Magical Swashbuckling and Modern Occult, offered a generic points/pick system with players mostly buying skills and, if they wished to use magic, spending some of those points on that. I offered little in the way of structure. In the case of the first campaign, that came out of my own uncertainty about how the system would work. In the second case, I wanted the PCs to be normal people, caught up in events. We had no skill lists, so people could come up with their own, and certain patterns developed (Dodge, Perception, Sword, as the typical level for skill descriptors).
When I came to prep the Steampunk Fantasy campaign, I faced another set of challenges. I knew I wanted a level of crunch and detail, so I added Talents (really another way of saying “Qualities” like Strong and Tough) and Combat Styles, which I lightly explained. I also built a generic magic system which had a good base idea, but ended up being a lot more opaque and more powerful than I’d intended. The biggest structural difficulty in making the system was that I knew the campaign would last a long time- I’d intended five years of play. (Of course, we’ve played four and a half years and we’re at a 3/5ths point). I opted to not have classes in the campaign, in part because I didn’t want to have to build evolving structures for them. Also, given that the campaign is about life in a school- I wanted the players to build and evolve their personalities and character sheets together.
That chance to build is important- I like the idea of each session players having the choice of buying something or saving up for a bigger purchase. Players often find themselves fighting their own nature- wanting a short-term benefit versus a bigger benefit or power through saving up those points. I’ve seen players go the other direction as well- only saving up and buying big ticket items, but never investing in the basics- leaving them hanging on some standard tasks. I’ve pretty much always defaulted to a point-based versus an experience & level based system. Even when we played Rolemaster, I handled EXP through development points. I don’t think class systems have to be necessarily linked to a level system in rpgs, but decoupling them does raise a number of problems which I will come to. But I’ll admit a points based system has its own problems. I generally offer everyone in the group the same amount of points from a session, as long as they attend. I’ve rarely offered some bonus points to players- too much of that smacks of favoritism. But handing out points every session creates a set of expectations. When you hand out a lower number of points than usual, players may see that as a punishment even though what you’re trying to say is that less things seem to have moved forward in a session. I think the paradox of reward comes into play here. But the other problem is that there always has to be things to spend those points on- not just stuff but a wide range of stuff. If there’s a limited pool, then all characters can end up with the same or equivalent sets of skills. If players buy too much stuff then it all ends up be a mass of words and notes on a character sheet. Something I’ve realized as I’ve gone along is that a GM doing these kinds of homebrews or even calculating points for an existing system, can benefit from a strong sense of how many sessions a campaign’s going to last.
A Heroquesting Digression
As a side note, Robin Laws has a couple of interesting approaches to this problem in HeroQuest 2. First, Hero Points function as development points- with players able to spend them between sessions to improve their characters. But Hero Points can also be used in play to grant players bonuses on rolls (effectively a form of drama points from other games). That creates some tough decisions in game- do I spend this point now- or is it worth saving to improve my character. It changes experience into a different kind of resource. Secondly, Laws suggests some parsimony with experience and buying up- or rather that buying things up shouldn’t have that great an effect. The bad guys should scale as the PCs do. Since nearly everything contests skill vs. skill, this effectively creates a treadmill. Players should stand relatively the same chance against opponents throughout the game. At first I flinched from that idea, stated so boldly, but on the other hand, mechanics like challenge ratings serve the same purpose- though in systems with much more crunch and changing variables. Laws suggests that GMs can turn to existing stories as models for this- that most characters don’t show significant improvement over the course of stories (Sherlock Holmes, James Bond, etc). I think that’s true for iconic characters, but I think others do. Anime, martial arts, school-based- for example these genres have a focus on character progress in skills- not just emotional progress.
In the variants I talked about earlier, the only major subsystem I added involved creating a flexible magic system. Players could choose to invest their points in that as they wished. On the other hand, when it came to adapting Changeling the Lost, I had to deal with a building a larger and more defined system. Changeling required a “class lite” system- with the players choosing an archetype to start in the form of their faerie seeming and kith. Those choices give them a general personality template, a flaw, and two abilities. The bigger part of the system lies in the various Contract sets- magical powers built around a theme, with five levels of progressively higher cost. The choice of seeming affects these indirectly- no contract set is exclusive, but some cost less for certain types. In addition to the contract sets I added a dozen or so purchasable advantages based on the original system. Outside of the Contracts and related abilities, the characters remain fairly normal- buying general skills and talents. Most unusual powers come from those. Accordingly, they’re pricey. That system required a good deal of work- but made easier in that I was adapting existing material. The seemings and kiths give players a good entry point into the setting, but don’t restrict later choices. Instead they incentivize some choices over others. That’s a good carrot to keep in mind. Kenny’s HALO campaign took a similar approach- players bought skills and talents and then chose a role. Each role had a progressive set of abilities and you begin with the first couple from the list. Once the game began, players could buy from any list- but there was a significant advantage to working deeper into a list, with the better abilities coming up later.
Friday, August 26, 2011
PUNCHING THE FUTURE
So Wednesday saw the publication of Flashpoint: Project Superman #3, finishing out the series I wrote. Gene and Art did an amazing job under a tight deadline. It looks great. The pages in a few places fell exactly as I hoped- pages 2 & 3 we set up will parallel panel design and they ended up being facing pages. I love the effect of that especially because you have a really strong set of visual and narrative contrasts working there as well. I enjoyed doing this book, which was a challenge. We were among the last of the tie-in series to wrap up. Next week the last book of the Flashpoint spine series comes out. That will finish out this event and lead into the new relaunched 52 DC books. The keys to why that relaunch happens are in the Flashpoint books, but the event itself stands as a whole.
Writing a Flashpoint tie-in book has been interesting. One the one hand you have a number of beats and plot details you’re required to hit. Those form a set of obstructions that you have to work with- some provided before the process and some during. There’s an interesting contrast in the idea of Flashpoint itself. Dan Didio as C2E2 said that they’d commonly gotten feedback that Elseworlds books were popular, but that readers wanted more depth and exploration of those worlds. Flashpoint tried to do that- offering a large scale alternate-world story, without pushing out the regular books going on at the time. In fact, I think the only one directly affected was Booster Gold, but I could be wrong. Doing such a large series in uncharted territory requires immense editorial coordination. It does offer a lot of room for depth, but at the same time you have to rein in the various books to make them work towards the central story. That’s an interesting "obstruction" requiring the writers to find a creative path around.
LIKE WRITING A FORGOTTEN REALMS ADVENTURE
There’s a couple of parallels to the art of building a superhero rpg campaign world. Certainly the kind of tinkering done in this kind of broad alternate universe looks a lot like what we do as GMs. The Flashpoint universe is a little unusual in that it is actually holding back its key premise: what’s the difference? What caused the change? OOH with most Elseworlds books we get that up front- the same with rpg supers settings that try to not just be another "Publisher Universe" (Underground, Brave New World, Lucha Libre Hero). The other issue’s about how much you use/integrate with a published setting. For example, how constrained do you as a GM feel about changing up the setting? It you hesitate on that, you could be subject to a host of choices and options you don’t like. If you want to buy in- and have players who buy into the setting because they know it- then that’s a hefty trade off. You’re effectively playing in someone else's sandbox. With a good group, they may be willing to follow you down that road, but I’ve seen players in the past with an attachment to the setting. Not that they would critique every little decision you make as a GM- but rather as the setting spin further away from what they saw as the core strengths of the setting, they’d become irritated.
DO SETTINGS MATTER?
In my earlier inventory of some superhero settings, I mentioned that the only one I’d actually run "as is" was Wild Cards. I do have to wonder how many gamers actually use settings, in general, and how many use superhero settings in particular? There’s a lot of material out there- but how much is really useful. I pick up setting books if they offer some interesting ideas to adapt or at the very least a cool set of bad guys. So some of the settings books I’ve bought- like Champions Universe and Paragons- really function just as an enemies book, the bestiary of the superhero world.
I'll focus on supers here for a bit, but I think the same questions can be applied to setting books in general- what are gamers getting out of those and how are they actually using them?
I think you can break setting books and types down into three flavors: universes, premises, and specific settings. I’d say universes are what game companies try to establish for their superhero games- like META-4 for M&M, Champions Universe, Villains & Vigilantes, Golden Heroes, Superworld- all work to set a kind of big and all-encompassing world in which the stories can occur. Marvel and the DC Universe also fall into this category. They’re large- with the intent of providing a history and backstory for GMs coming in- and open enough that it excludes no story or idea. These aren’t particular useful to me and I have to wonder how useful they are to other people.
By premises I mean superhero games/sourcebooks which add an obstacle or limitation to the setting. For example, Godlike adds two- the first being the time period of the game, set in WW2 but the second being a unified "scientific" source for the powers of the supers. Other Wild Talents books do the same kind of thing- Progenitor, eCollapse, This Favored Land, Kerberos Club, GrimWar- all offer a niche superhero experience with a distinct focus. Other examples are Aberrant, Wild Cards, and Mutant City Blues. Generally I like the ideas of these, but there’s such an attraction to building one’s own super universe that I again read them for ideas to borrow.
Finally setting books in the super universe usually means city books- with these often being the cornerstone of a company setting out their universe (hence San Angelo, Emerald City, Bay City and Freedom City). Again I have to wonder how many people use superhero city sourcebooks as is. I’ve seen some interesting and distinctive ones (like Gotham and Bedlam City) but often they’ve kind of generic. I can find NPCs to borrow, but what I’d really like to see is a kind of generic sourcebooks for running city adventures for superhero games. Think of something like the great Damnation City- but for supers.
City books do lead into one of the big considerations in running a supers game: local or global? A local game offers the advantage of a steady stable of normal NPCs and the chance to get at PCs normal lives on a regular basis. PCs can also build up a solid reputation, learn the ins and outs of the criminal society, and really develop useful resources. The disadvantage to a local game is that it does require the crime to come to the players- and when looked at in the grand scale, the city might seem like an awful place to be if these kinds of things keep happening. If players do screw up, cause problems or fail dramatically they have to really live with the consequences of their choices. A global campaign, on the other hand (or even national) offers the exotic- with new places and sites to have fights all the time. It means players can team up with and meet new heroes on a consistent basis. On the other hand, global games reduces some of the classic investigation story possibilities. It also means a smaller stable of local NPCs (perhaps base staff?). The biggest question is how the PCs get from place to place in a speedy fashion- Quinjet? Magic Gates? Teleporters?
SETTING THE SETTING
So what questions does the superhero GM or publisher have to answer? Beyond the simple premise things, which hopefully make it different from other games- a few questions have to be dealt with.
Published Heroes: Will you have existing comics heroes or villains in your world?
Unified Origin? Is there one event which caused superpowers? Is it mutation, genetic, supernatural?
Magic? Is there magic? Never underestimate the impact of that decision.
How Long? How long have powers been around? How long have superheroes been around?
Public Reaction? Hidden or Public heroes? Celebrities or Pariahs?
Tone? A really important decision to convey to your players. Try to find solid analogs to explain what you’re aiming for.
Realism? A little different from tone- the question of how realistically you’re going to treat the idea of being a hero/vigilante (i.e. will there be a Civil War?)
Established Universe? If so, can you point to a few sourcebooks (movies, comic runs, TV shows) which set out your vision?
Tuesday, August 23, 2011
The result has been the development of a lot of different superhero settings. On the one hand you have superhero universes created by game companies to support their line. They have to- that’s a bread and butter staple for those game lines. On the other hand, you have the adaptation of existing properties. That gives the company a huge and ready market. It also means that they could coast on the content already created in developing product. On the other, other hand, you have settings which spin out and away from the usual superhero concepts. These take the idea of supers and usually move them to another context. That’s easiest when moving them over to another sci-fi setting, given that some versions of supers are simply SF. But these ideas can be moved further afield...
So here's a starter, a partial inventory of superhero rpg settings-
1. DC Universe
DC Heroes was the first licensed superhero game I seriously bought into. I picked up Marvel but never liked the system- it felt too loose and thin, even with the later power sets. DC Heroes OOH had strange crunch and bizarre math calculations. It also had a hugely problematic system for tracking damage. Having three kinds of damage sounds cool in principle, but it created all kinds problem for the GM with some powers being auto KO and damage effects not stacking.
But the DC Universe remains my favorite- if I’m going to borrow supers elements, it will usually be characters from here borrowed over into another setting (especially my favorite characters like The Question and Batman). But being a DC fan can also be a profoundly unrewarding activity, especially with the reboots and global changes which happen from time to time. I’ll be curious to see how Green Ronin rolls with the upcoming 52 relaunch- something I’ve mentioned before. I recall playing DC Heroes when Crisis on Infinite Earths rolled out- changing up the setting and background, forcing books to have pre and post-Crisis stats. Then we got the era of events with Invasion, Millennium, and then a host of others.
The DCU poses a tough question for GMs- what do you gain by using this universe at the table? Is there a resonance that adds something? How do you capture that? And how do you handle changes to the ongoing universe in your own play?
2. Marvel Universe
I’ve talked up the DCU, but I love Marvel as well. I grew up on those old cartoons, especially the 1960’s Spider Man shown in reruns. Those BTW don’t hold up as well watching them now. But I’ve never really thought of marvel as the universe I’d want to run a campaign in. There’s something about the complexity and continuity there that throws me off- or perhaps it is the angle more towards a kind of grittiness? The DCU seems more mythic, while the Marvel Universe feels more real. I think if I were to run something in this world, I’d have to do an "Ultimate" version (though not like the crappy later Ultimates and Ultimate Let’s Kill Everyone series).
I am excited by the possibilities of the new MSHU rpg coming out from Margaret Weis. I don’t care so much about the system- I need to have someone sell my on Cortex, but I am excited by the approach they’re taking. Doing up event books for some of the classic and iconic episodes in the setting (Age of Apocalypse, Infinity Gauntlet, etc) seems like a great plan- making sourcebooks gamers and non-gamers might want to read. I’m looking forward to seeing that they do.
3. World War 2
In an earlier post I talked about World War Two as a superhero setting. Certainly the new Captain America movie sold me at least a little on the concept. I was actually a little disappointed that it had to end with him coming forward into the future. I would have loved to see an Invaders film, or at least just another Cap in WW2 movie. Interestingly the new DC "relaunch" seems to be jettisoning the supers in WW2 concept. There apparently won’t be a Justice Society of American, which has major ramifications for characters who are "legacy" heroes, most notably Starman whose entire cool run builds on those ideas.
But then again, WW2 ended almost seventy years ago. Drawing from that well does get old- especially the further away in time we move. So assuming that WW2 is off the table, what other war periods serve the same kind of purpose? Korea? Vietnam? Iraq? Each of those carries with it social and political baggage, and so are so close in time as to make things really odd. Watchmen dealt with the idea of "heroes" in that war, but what if supers arose in that period- if we move that trope to there. Certainly Iron Man’s origin has been successfully moved from war to war over the years. Can that work for other heroes? What does a supers campaign look like where the first heroes were forged in the crucible of Vietnam?
4. The Kerberos Club
Back in that blessed time between the publication of Alan Moore’s League of Extraordinary Gentlemen comic and the release of the film "based" on that property, a friend and I tried to interest Eden in a game setting using Unisystem to do a kind of super-powered Victoriana game. They weren’t too interested, and then the movie put a bullet in the head of anything like that. I am glad to see that the concept has been picked up by others, with the Kerberos Club being the most visible and interesting of those. I’m a little surprised that we haven’t seen a Victorian HERO sourcebook- or even a GURPS one. There’s a BRP take on it, Agents of the Crown. But Kerberos Club really seems to have come into its own, with a hefty sourcebook for two systems (Wild Talents and Savage Worlds) and now a recent stand alone version using FATE.
5. This Favored Land
Superheroes in the American Civil War and Wild West- why not? We’ve seen undead and werewolves in the setting, so it only makes sense. Ken Hite’s Suppressed Transmission articles had a number of variations on that theme. But This Favored Land takes that fairly seriously. In some ways it sounds a little more like an X-Men, Heroes or even Psi World kind of campaign set up. The characters have to remain hidden and underground or face local superstition. But what if you actually did it over the top? What would that look like? Would it be too goofy, or would you have the probably of presenting a four-color setting against the awfulness of the racial injustice and suffering of the period?
6. Blood of the Gods
Then we have the classic supers as demi-gods. The recent Clash of the Titans movie could easily be read as a superhero film. Blood of the Gods offers a frame for Wild Talents with the PCs acting as divine heroes in the ancient world. The Hellboy/LXG/Ancient Rome mash-up I really want to do will have the same kind of vibe to it- or it would if I ever got around to writing it up. Of course, the blood of the gods thing doesn’t have to be limited to the ancient world. Take Nephilim or Scion for example. I believe that The GODSEND Agenda’s also built on this premise.
Green Ronin has their own "universe" established by this point, META-4. It is interesting to look at the differences between the material in 1e and 2e of Mutants and Masterminds- where a split between the developers meant a number of things fading out.
But I think more interesting is something like Paragons, a sourcebook for a world where superpowers have only recently arrived in a global event. The book offers the GM a number of ways to build and play out that event. It also presents options and implications depending on the nature of that event (magical, chemical, mutation) etc. In a sense this is a toolbox for GMs to build a new campaign. That sounds like a great idea- but it is actually caught between two poles. One the one hand, it provides enough structure that GMs looking to build their own world may reject it and not pick it up. They may not realize what kind of tools it offers- and certainly at first flip-through that may not be readily apparent. On the other hand, as a product, it represents something of a dead-line for production. If you want to publish further material in that setting, you have to take into consideration that every version of the setting run by GMs will operate under different assumptions. You have to offer a supplement which doesn't negate any of those...
8. Champions Universe
It isn't the first, but it is one of the most comprehensive rpg-spawned supers universes. I like how the setting has evolved- first hinted at in the various Eenmies books (Enemies, Enemies II) those characters and the universe of the setting have evolved into something fairly coherent, spread across a huge number of sourcebooks- revisited in each edition. For me it was the revised Champions: The Super Role-Playing Game 4th edition that really settled down to doing some universe building. You had the Champions team detailed in that core book, and then they were used as touchstones for the later products. Champions Universe, Champions of the North, Kingdom of Champions, Neutral Ground and such really set the tone and established the characters for the setting. It tries to be a setting which can encompass anything- magic, super-science, legacy heroes, magic. It reminds me the most of Astro City.
But despite Champions being the go-to system for many years, I don't recall anyone ever really using the setting as it stood. GMs would use the enemies and organizations, but the setting as a whole (or even significant part) never got used. Still, based on sheer lasting power, you have to admire this.
9. Hudson City
As a kind of side note, spun out of the Champions Universe, you have the Dark Champions/Hudson City setting. This aimed to be a gritty, dark and violent supers setting with the idea of low-powered and street-level vigilantes. It drew inspiration from sources like The Question, Watchmen, Brat Pack, and Batman Year One. At best it offered an interesting approach to superheroes- one which raised questions and provided challenges to the players. At worst it had just awful psychotic and stupid villains- including some much more appropriate for high level campaigns. Dark Champions as a thematic setting profoundly affected a number of our local campaigns. I used it for several street-level games as did others. I've been thinking about how games like these would look today- in an era of things like Kick Ass, Defendor, and Super vs. The Dark Knight.
10. Wild Cards
Strangely enough, of all the settings on the list, this is the only one I've played or run in "as is." A number of people in the group loved the books- although I only made it up to volume six before I quit. Of course this setting came out of a supers rpg campaign (using Superworld IIRC), then became a book series, then became a campaign again. The first adaptation GURPS Supers Wild Cards was OK- but really marred by bad art, bad layout and a terrible base system. (There- I said it, I hate GURPS Supers). The more recent version for M&M 2e is amazing- with loads of detail, great art and a dynamite approach to presenting the setting. It is too bad that the shift to the new edition renders this problematic (the same thing Green Ronin did to the awesome Nocturnals: A Midnight Companion sourcebook in the move from 1e to 2e).
We played this using Champions, which wasn't a great fit but everyone knew it. We had a nice mixed group of Jokers and Aces- including one amazing character without any powers. Despite only having been a handful of sessions, just about everyone remembers the game because of the amazing players we had. I'd love to give this a try again some time, but I think only a couple of people in the group actually know the books.
11. Brave New World
I've seen copies of this on discount racks for years, but I've never picked up any of these. Wikipedia describes it as:
"The game is an alternate history superhero game set in a fascist United States of America living in a perpetual state of martial law since the 1960s. Inspired by the Kingdom Come and Batman: The Dark Knight Returns comic storylines, X-Men, Nineteen Eighty-Four, and the political and social upheavals of the 1990s, the game depicts renegade superheroes fighting a corrupt and evil government."
That's a pretty dark vision. The setting has a lot of supplements out for it. From what I can tell it takes a singular source approach to powers- with things that look like magic actually being powers (perhaps something like the way Planetary describes things). It also reminds me a little of the later Savage Worlds setting, Necessary Evil.
12. Superhero 2044
The earliest superhero RPG I played. It took use a long time to realize that there wasn't actually a game engine to the game. More importantly when I was a kid I almost missed the part that it was a superhero game set in the future on an island. It was a very strange set of choices- but we muddled along with it. For being one of the earliest superhero rpgs, it managed to come up with a bizarre setting- almost like they didn't want people to think of it like a comic game. Still it did recognize the importance of a "city" to establishing a setting- even if it didn't offer much in the way of details. When Villains and Vigilantes 1st Edition came out, we went over to that.
This is one of those "How did they actually publish that?" games. Not only did Mayfair publish this, but they produced a number of amazing full-color supplements for it. This is a dark, dark setting with a near future dystopia where the PCs have all been given super-powers to fight in various wars and then head back and try to reintegrate with society. It is a mean, gruesome, black-humored love-child of cyberpunk and superherodom. The obvious godfather of it, in background, tone and art style is Pat Mills and Kevin O'Neill's Marshall Law. It seems strange that a comic with so few issues could be that influential.
Underground came out in the early 1990's when cyberpunk in games was really hitting its stride. As well comics themselves had started to take a darker turn- with the advent of the "Iron Age" of comics.
There's a trend in these last five settings on the list (from BNW on). That's a move to science fiction or at least near future. Of course the classic comic version of this would be the Legion of Superheroes. Trinity comes the closest to emulating that, but it is still vastly different in tone and focus. Here's we have a world of supers (read super-psychics) organized into military units to battle against alien forces and a rampaging group of metahumans who departed Earth generations ago but now may be returning. That's fairly dark, with all of the grit, conspiracies and betrayal you imagine in a White Wolf game.
There's some interesting stuff here, but even having read it a couple of times, I have a hard time picturing how I'd want to use this frame. I do like that the setting here ties into their Aberrant game- that being a historical precursor. It also has an interesting take on the duties and lives of superheroes. In both cases, I think the setting has concepts and details I might borrow for a campaign, but as a whole I have a hard time buying in.
Lastly, another near future dystopian supers setting, this time using the Wild Talents system. As the publisher describes this:
"A world of PASSION! POWER! And POORLY-CONSIDERED PHILOSOPHIES!It is interesting to see how the focus has shifted from big guns and the military-industrial complex focus of something like Underground to information age disasters, ecological collapse, financial catastrophes, and vanishing privacy. There's seventeen years between those two games. I'll admit I'm curious about this setting- I've picked up another WT sourcebook (Grim War) and there's yet another available, Progenitor.
Welcome to the future. The economy’s in a coma, civil order runs on inertia, and biotech "superpowers" are so cheap that bus station schizophrenics are getting them. Huge storms ravage the coasts and the U.S. is under martial law. Even the Internet is unreliable.
What do you do? How do you fight for your beliefs? Riot? Sacrifice? March on Washington?
Maybe put on a mask and cape"
Monday, August 22, 2011
The guide to all things faerie in the Castle Falkenstein setting.
I little while back I went back to a game store in Chicago I literally hadn’t been to in twenty years, Games Plus in Mt. Prospect. When I’d last been there I remember picking up 2nd edition Ars Magica. But more importantly, even though we had a solid local game store, it was the first place I ever saw an R. Talsorian product- the original Cyberpunk 2013 boxed set. In a strange link-up, on my recent visit I finally found a copy of The Memoirs of Auberon of Faerie- the only Castle Falkenstein product I’d never actually seen in the flesh. Even though I’d managed a game store during the period when CF first came out, we’d never been able to get a copy on the shelf- or at least I’d never seen it. And I’d always managed to miss it at conventions. So- with the wait and the hype of people telling me it was their favorite CF supplement- is it wonderful?
THE BOOK ITSELF
The Memoirs of Auberon of Faerie describes itself as "The Sourcebook of Faerie History and Lore for Castle Falkenstein." It’s a 128 page softcover, with a black and white interior. This book opts to use straight black ink as opposed to some of the other CF sourcebooks. It follows the same layout standards as the rest of the line. That means it is generally solid and clean, but does have some strange shifts to smaller and denser fonts for sub-sections- some of which get hard to read. That’s particularly true for tables and reference pages. Still for something from the mid-1990’s it does a nice job with the techniques available. The cover’s pretty terrible- a weirdly faux-looking bookcover and a cut and paste image. The book itself has a ton of interior art, with plenty of specific illustrations for the various kinds of faerie. However Lawrence Allen Williams provides most of that art. I’m not fond of his style- in places it looks OK, but a good deal of it doesn’t work at all for me. Ironically he’s at his best when he’s drawing the unearthly, as his problematic grasp of faces, form and anatomy don’t show as strongly. Now that’s a personal preference, it you’re a fan of LAW’s work, then you’ll likely be pleased by the consistent presentation.
In a change from the rest of the Castle Falkenstein line, Jeff Grubb drops in to write this book (as opposed to Pondsmith and company). Grubb’s a veteran and prolific game designer, with a long and strong track record at TSR. He follows the pattern of other books (like the core book, Six-Guns & Sorcery, and The Book of Sigils) in establishing a narrative frame, a story running through the book. In this case, the book is literally what it says it is, the memoirs of the character Auberon from CF. But Grubb uses the PoV of the biographer asked to take down these words, a nice device that has a decent pay off at the end of the book. Grubb manages to echo the tone and voice of the other books- but at times he hits a few false notes. Some of that works because the narrative does revolve around truly strange creatures, but in several places I found myself thrown out of the story.
THE FIRST PART: HISTORY
In the Castle Falkenstein nineteenth-century Steampunk setting, Auberon leads the Seelie, the "good" faeries. He’s opposed by the Unseelie, led by the Adversary. Faeries fit centrally into New Europa, but can be given more or less attention depending on the GM. The core book offers basics on playing such characters- including one type where you essentially have to hide from the party the whole time. This book works to expand the background of the fey as a whole, give them greater context in the setting, and providing richer choices for those who wish to play one. The first thirty-eight pages offers a lengthy narrative history of the faeries. Essentially they existed as creatures of pure energy and will, until they fell through the Veil into a real world. There they assumed physical form- based on imitation and adaptation. The various species, powers and restrictions of the types of fey arose from that process. And then the faeries literally destroyed that world. There's more than a little echo of Steven Brust's To Reign in Hell throughout.
Grubb does a good job of describing the "otherness" of the faerie: how their lack of inherent imagination forces them to ape the manners of humanity. They lack experience with the world and have no moral or social obligations limiting them, and so they eventually destroy everything in their path. There’s a strange tension throughout this early narrative- with Auberon serving as a kind of faerie apologist. But make no mistake, he’s as monstrous as the others. Eventually he changes and evolves, but your reaction to the story here will depend on your reaction to that character. Some may find his later sufferings and trials make him sympathetic. I don’t so much; I don’t hate him, but I don’t think I end up in the place the author wants the reader to be. Instead I'm pretty much thinking about how to destroy the fey, "good" and "bad." Still the narrative is compelling in this early section, detailing how the fey moved from world to world- facing some obstacles they couldn’t overcome, with the greatest of them being killed, why they have a European flavor to them, how the division between the Courts arose. Finally it describes their arrival and machinations in the world of New Europa, the Fifth Earth. It works as a story pretty decently.
With one exception.
The Fourth Earth the Fey come to is a far-future sci-fi universe which looks a lot like Warhammer 40K. I hit that part and just went "ugh." It might sound silly, especially when we’re dealing with a game which is a mash up, but the genre collision here felt unnecessary and over the top. Castle Falkenstein puts together magic, steam tech, and the fey in a single setting. To have the existence of power-weapons, battle-suits and the like is over-egging the pudding. That world isn’t connected to the CF universe, but it is mentioned and out there- an unnecessary detour. Eventually I forgot about it- but it does get pop up again in the book (hidden super weapons, etc) and each time I got irritated anew.
In addition to the history presented here, the book stops off to provide some substantive background and rules information. There’s a breakdown of the worlds of the Faerie Veil, as well as how that interacts with the modern Falkenstein setting. Four pages are given over to describing the faerie abilities, with special emphasis on how those fit into combat. There are discussions of promises, repulsions, the Courts, and faerie death- all useful for any kind of fey game. Finally there’s also an explanation of how the Dwarves arose in the CF world, split off as they are from the fey.
PART TWO: TAXONOMY
With that story finished, the bulk of the book presents an extensive breakdown and discussion of the various types of fairies. This runs from page 39 to pretty much the end of the book. It begins with what it means to play a faerie and some suggestions about which kinds make better dramatic characters than others. It looks at how the powers of the faerie make them "alien"- giving them a different viewpoint on the world and interactions with it.
Over nineteen sections we get a pretty amazing look at the variety of faerie-kind, from Brownies to Fetches, Giants to Lake Ladies, Phooka to Selkies, Pixies to Vampires. Each section offers an overview of the type plus discussions of the many different "sub-species." So for example in the first section on Brownies you get Hobs, Bwcas, Fennoderee, Grogans, Piskies, Trow, Killimoulis, Gnomes, Gremlins, and Mannikens. Each gets several paragraphs describing what they’re like, usually with an illustrative anecdote or story. You get pictures for most of the types as well. Each section ends with a presentation of the stats for the types, and some small additional rules.
All of these are fun reads- with great stories, often suggesting plots, NPCs and incidents for the game. Most of the material here is system-free. You only really get mechanics on each section's final page. Some of the material does tie into the particulars of the Castle Falkenstein setting, but overall this would be a significant and useful resource for any GM interested in a classic and western approach to the fey in a campaign. I think this could easily be borrowed for any kind of Victorian setting, or even a modern one. I can imagine a Faerie Hunters campaign using Gumshoe, for example.
The book ends with special kinds of faeries, in particular the Daoine Sidhe, who are cross-breeds with significant power. While there’s some general material which could be used elsewhere- the characters presented (including Dracula) are particular to the CF setting. Five pages cover The Adversary, The Wild Hunt and Auberon himself- powerful NPCs and ideas which could reshape a campaign. Finally some of the unique weapons of the faerie appear, plus stats and background for Auberon’s powerful and significant children. The last two pages of the book pull of a neat trick of tying into the opening framing sequence- and providing pay off for clues dropped throughout the book. While these last sixteen pages are good, they offer the most to GMs looking for CF material.
I’m perhaps spoiled a little by my exposure to the two breeds of faerie books in Changeling the Dreaming and Changeling the Lost. The former presents the faeries as creatures who create imagination and the latter presents a darker take on the fey. Memoirs came out two years after CtD, and presented a much more structured and classic take on the topic. I like the Memoirs book, but I don’t love it. There are several missteps- the way Auberon’s presented, the goofy sci-fi bits, and the artwork- that throw me out. But there’s a lot of good stuff here. I think the question is how much the faerie interest you if you are a Castle Falkenstein player or GM. Either could benefit from this book greatly.
How useful is this for non-Castle Falkenstein gamers? That’s a mixed bag. The first section would be of less interest, except for some of the ideas on how faerie powers operate and interact with the world. But I think the larger second section could provide a really useful framework and resource for any GM wanting to bring those ideas into a campaign. In that regard, it stands up as one of the best, stat-light resources on the topic.