by Lev Lafayette
Superhero 2044 (1977)
Superhero 2044 was the first roleplaying game of its genre, coming in a little late in the piece in 1977 and having been preceded not only by fantasy and science fiction games, as one would expect but even by games of the wild west, intelligent rabbits, and cavemen vs dinosaurs. The game itself comes in a colourful cardstock cover of various super characters by Mike Cagell and the mere 36 pages is saddle-stapled. The writing itself is clear, but the organisation of the text leaves a lot to be desired, as does much of the layout, although the three-column justified text was pretty hi-tech for those days. The book includes a good table of contents.
The game is set, as the name suggests in 2044 where, following a nuclear exchange, there have been various mutations leading to superpowers and a the north Pacific island city-state of Inguria (Shanter Island) has become the world power. Major technological advances include massive changes to battery efficiency, common organ transplants, near-sentient computers, sophisticated genetic screening, and alloplastics. For some extra spice, humanity has made contact with a peaceful alien species, the Formalhautians, whom some four million have been resettled on earth following disastrous climate change on their planet. The multinational and super-powered Science Police ensure global peace, supplanting The Freedom League of superheroes who were destroyed by the evil Dr. Ruby two years prior. Overall one has to say, the predictive setting is pretty damn fine for something written over thirty years ago.
Character design in Superhero 2044 consists of seven prime requisites; Vigor, Stamina, Endurance, Mentality, Charisma, Ego and Dexterity. The first three may seem a little similar in name, so to elucidate: Vigor is long-term health, Stamina is fighting ability and short-term wind and Endurance is effectively hit points. Stats are purchased with a point-buy system (the first?), with 140 points distributed among the seven prime requisites. These are further modified by the character's group (or class, if you like), being either a Unique (exotic human with paranormal powers e.g., Superman), a Toolmaster (normal technically proficient human with gadgets e.g., Iron Man) or Ubermensch (normal human at peak physical apex e.g., Tarzan). At the discretion of the referee an additional 50 points may be point into specific skills and powers. It is probably imperative that a character purchase an Endurance of 20 plus, otherwise they'll be constantly fatigued or worse. If they purchase a Vigor of less than 11, they will find themselves "unable to operate under normal conditions". Worse still, none of the specific skills and powers are described, with merely the examples of the three sample characters for GMs to derive any idea.
The rest of the game system, such as it is, is combat, which is fought in ten-second rounds. There are four kinds of combat; direct physical, transformation, mental attacks and projectile attacks. For direct physical versus mental attacks, subtract the defensive bonus (stamina or ego) from the offensive bonus (ditto) and compare to a matrix which gives a target number on 3d6. An equal difference is a target number of 11, an advantage of 40+ is an automatic hit and a disadvantage of -31 or more requires an 18. For transformations the attacker rolls a die, modifies according to the type of target (human, alien, inanimate) and then rolls another die and tries to beat the number they initially rolled. The same procedure is also used for projectile attacks, however a third roll is made for hit location. Damage affects Endurance and Vigor, but at different values.
A large feature of the game (in this context seven pages) is "handicapping" scenarios where the character has an a score of 1-10 across eight categories (crime prevention, criminal location, stopping crime, capturing criminals, convicting criminals, acquiring leads, collateral damage, and injury/capture potential). Players schedule their hero's activity in log sheets and the referee rolls on random tables to determine what crimes are occurring and the results of the crimes (including rewards) based on the type of crime and the character's handicap. Following this is three pages of income, expenditure and equipment prices.
Following the first printing of the rules, extra rules were added in the second printing. This includes two pages of a "synthetic scenario machine" for solo play, and seven pages of optional superhero rules written by other players. These include mastery in melee weapons, specialisation of handguns and rifles, some sample mental skills, agency fees, and alternative combat rules which have random damage determination.
Even in the genesis days of 1977, Superhero 2044 wasn't much of a game. With the exception of an average piece of cover art (and a couple of interior pieces) and some intelligible writing, the presentation, organisation and physical production are right at the bottom of the ladder. As for the game system itself itself, it is hopelessly underdeveloped and utterly inconsistent, with the experience of actual play is much more akin to bookkeeping than actual roleplaying. Not surprisingly, although it was the first SH RPG, it faded into almost complete obscurity with the arrival of games like Villains & Vigilantes and Champions.
Style 1/5 Substance 1/5
Originally published on rpg.net https://www.rpg.net/reviews/archive/12/12956.phtml
Villains and Vigilantes (1979, 1982 revised)
Written in a dense 48 pages, the revised edition of Villians and Vigilantes is presented in a simple saddle-stapled booklet with cardstock cover and two-column sans-serif text. There's a solid single-page table of contents and the brevity justifies the lack of an index. Layout is surprisingly clear given the density of the text and simplicity of the formatting with simple page numbers. As can be expected, the writing style is clear but formal throughout.
Artistically, the front cover is presented like a comic cover, and the back cover makes provides a nice comic-book panel blurb about the game. The interior art is mainly filler except when directly referencing characters. Overall, it is simply but effective, showing acumen and some cleverness in style. The main chapters of the game are characters, combat, campaign creation, the government, being a superhero, and gamemastering, which can be conceptually differentiated as (a) Game System (b) Campaign Setting and (c) Game Advice.
In terms of character generation the game starts with alignment; all PCs are good, or villians are Evil, and only unintelligent animals can be Neutral. The exclusion on Evil characters is absolute; "If any GM has in his group a player who could be truly classified as evil, we can only wonder why that players should be allowed to participate at all". This apparently strange statement comes from an interesting feature of V&V; the players are the characters, plus superpowers. Likewise, the five basic characteristics, Strength, Endurance, Agility, Intelligence ("mental agility"), and Charisma with values from 3-18 assigned by the GM, based on what they think the player has in these characteristics. Powers and weaknesses however, are determined randomly although there is an option for self-selection. The characteristics, true the style of the era and the publishers, involved table lookups and calculations for modifications and various secondary characteristics, such as hit points (survival value), healing rates (recovery value), power points (energy level) etc.
Character powers are sometimes simultaneously ambiguous and specific. That is, each power is described as its own system but sometimes with vagaries within. The power descriptions are concrete rather than abstract (e.g., 'Flame Power' rather than 'Energy Blast'). Careful GM navigation and attention is required throughout and indeed, is expected (for example, the GM is expected to create whatever the PC chooses from their 'Animated Servant' power, 'Bionics' has very vague references to what these new mechanical body parts imply). This said however, a GM should be able to make their way as there is sufficient description in most cases to make the examples workable, especially with those powers (e.g., Disintegration Ray) that have a direct combat effect. Overall it's a solid list of powers, but by no means comprehensive, and quite unbalanced being based on random rolls ("I have Cosmic Awareness!" vs "Ummm.. I have a pet rat!").
Character progression is an experience points and level system, with experience gains based on the value of the villain captured and taken to the authorities, and for donating to charity, with an optional rule for bonus experience points for ingenious play during a session. Level gains provide the opportunity for training characteristics, combat ability, background education, animal training, or even weight loss or gain.
The combat system is round-based with initiative determined on 1d10+Agility, with an initial surprise check. For every 15 'phases' in a round the character can act based on their initiative score (e.g., a character with an Initiative of 36 could act on 36, 21, and 6), with additional actions costing power points. Attack actions are a d20-valued chance based on cross-referencing attack and defense powers on a table lookup, modifying for level, range, and facing – it's a little clunky, but the process itself is simple enough. Selected locations on targets can be achieved by a second 'to hit' roll, with various effects. A successful hit rolls with result in a damage roll, which can reduce hit points, be partially transferred to power points, and may cause knockback in true comic fashion. A character with no power points is out of energy and fatigued, with losses to movement, carrying capacity etc, a character with no hit points is unconscious, and a character reduced to zero hit points and power points is dead. Appended to the combat chapter is reaction and loyalty charts based on Charisma, which looks remarkably similar to those used in Dungeons and Dragons of a similar vintage.
Campaign information begins on selecting a setting (a good if short range across space and time with a heavy 20th century bias is provided) and populating it with organisations, including a couple of examples, such as the default law-enforcement organisation, C.H.E.S.S. (the Central Headquarters of Espionage for the Secret Service) with, unsurprisingly, chess piece metaphors for roles. Charts are provided for NPC generation, which the 'Origin' table certainly a cause for some unintended amusement (there are "Asian" and "Oriental" but no "Indian", for example). NPC knowledge areas are also included as a potential area of education for PCs on level gains. Tables are also provided for scenario generation, but also with some reasonable advice on linking adventures together and generating new situations and, as an act of genre reinforcement. "The best way to learn how things should happen in V&V is to read comic books".
Following this there is a chapter on 'The Government', which includes a very impressive summary of New York State laws at the time of publication, and the trial and imprisonment process – that's worth a dot point in 'substance' alone, and is useful as a template for a range number of campaign settings, even if the specifics differ significanty. Characters also have a legal status and security clearance which further reinforces the rule of law. It would be preferable if there were some more elaborate notes on the application in different settings, but even by itself and with its limited scope, it's a fair job.
The last two chapters are for player and GM advice respectively. The former elaborates on the feature of V&V in that they players are characters plus superpowers, that the characters can engage in merchanidizing, and can engage in a variety of gadgeteering or scientific breakthroughs etc. The GMs section has an example of play and some NPCs. There is also an Appendix which covers falling, structural points, a short bestiary, and a vehicle list. The comic-book code is reinforced again with the equipment description with a recommendations for penalties applied for characters who use equipment out of context.
Overall, this is not a great game but is one with a couple of very interesting ideas and resources – which makes its a little tricky to judge in aggregate. Rule-wise it's pretty clunky and not always fun in actual play, even if the concept is fine. The scope of the game is very limited to the particular subset of the classic superhero genre and doesn't really explore deviations far from that. Whilst there is a fair bit of a game in a relatively short space, it doesn't give a sense of completeness. All this considered V&V made an interesting contribution to RPGs and supehero RPGs in particular but is really something to experiment with for a few retrospective sessions in a contemporary context.
Style: 1 + .4 (layout) + .5 (art) + .4 (coolness) + .4 (readability) + .3 (product) = 3.0
Substance: 1 + .3 (content) + .7 (text) + .4 (fun) + .2 (workmanship) + .2 (system) = 2.8
Marvel Super Heroes (1984)
Keeping up with the number of editions of Marvel Super Heroes requires a bit of a review in its own right. The product being reviewed here is the first edition core set from 1984. There was also an Advanced Set supplement which follows the same rules from 1986, a revised basic set in 1991, the Marvel Super Heroes Adventure Game, using the SAGA system, published by TSR in 1998 and the Marvel Heroic Roleplaying Basic Game, published in 2012 by Margaret Weis Productions. The original game has notable fan popularity as FASERIP, derived from the character characteristics.
The set includes a 16 page introductory “Battle Book” with a cardstock cover, a 48 page “Campaign Book” also with a cover which coveres the rest of the rules, a 16 page introductory adventure “The Day of the Octopus”, a two-sided map, twenty five cardboard playing pieces all with dice included. The Campaign Book contains a single page table of contents and index. The contents are all a little on the flimsy side to be honest but are acceptable. The artwork throughout is of an excellent techical standard, occassionally whimsical, and is tightly bound with the context. The writing is presented in two-column justified with a sans-serif font, with horrid shaded text for allegedly highlighting elaborations (black text on a grey background). The writing style is very informal to the point of being downright chatty and sacrifices density for clarity.
Marvel SH is a percentile-based game, with the primary abilities of Fighting, Agility, Strength, Endurance, Reason, Intuition, and Psyche. These are also given a rank description from Feeble (2) to Unearthly (100) and beyond. A typical person has a value of 6. The Campaign Book illustrates these rankings with characters from the Marvel universe (you may as well make use of the trademark). Indeed, it is not until one of the final chapters of the Campaign Book does one receive the details on how to generate your own superhero. That process begins with randomly determining the characters origin (mutant, altered human, high tech wonder, robot, or alien), and then randomly determining values for each ability with an average roll generating a 'Excellent' result, with modifications according to origin.
Variable abilities are calculated from primary abilities. A character's Health score is calculated from the sum of their Fighting, Agility, Strength, and Endurance, and their Karma is based on their Reason, Intuition, and Psyche. Karma is a resource to control luck and fate and is used to modify die rolls. In addition to these there is Resources and Popularity, both of which are what they say on the tin. For new characters, Resources are determined randomly like primary abilities, and Popularity starts at 50, but may be modified according to origins how the player wants to present their character (e.g., publically known adds +20).
Superheroes of course require powers. In Marvel SH, the quantity and general category is determined randomly, with the player selecting a particular power within a category with the rank in that power randomly determined. In addition to powers characters also have talents, which are mundane but unranked skills. The quantity of talents is also randomly determined. Powers and talents themselves are described in a mere five pages, but are tightly integrated to the game system as a whole. A brief advice note is given to provide the option of new or enhanced powers balanced by limitations. Magic, whilst fully described in the Campaign Book, is considered so powerful that it is usually not available for starting characters, who must spend a year to pick up the magic use talent.
Character advancedment is achieved by opening an Improvement Fund by spending 200 Karma points and then placing additional Karma in the fund to purchase new powers and talents, improve abilities, and so forth. It's a fairly expensive process – to just set up the pool would require a hero preventing three global conspiracies and arresting those involved! A variety of Karma awards are noted in the Campaign Book, which includes a variety of positive gains (from both crimefighting and charity and educational events), some negatives (big oops, killed an innocent), and even a hat-tip to roleplaying effort. The values can be more than a little wonky; stopping a global conspiracy is a mere +40, but making a charity appearance is +30. Still, hopefully in the process of stopping a global conspiracy one can pick up some Karma along the way.
Equipment and System
Equipment is typically purchased with resource points which, unsurprisingly, come from the variable ability of the same name. Like characters, some equipment have own abilities which are referenced to a real-world measurement. For example, vehicles have control, speed, and body abilities with a mini-car having good control, and typical speed and body, whereas a small jet aircraft will have typical control, remarkable speed, and poor body.
The game system for FEATS (“Function of Exceptional Ability or Talent”) is based around a “Universal Table”, which cross-references a percentile die-roll with the character's ability to give an outcome, with high-rolls representing a greater likelihood of success. The table is colour-coded to reflect degrees of difficulty according to white (automatic success), green, yellow, and red FEATs. Usually characters can act without difficulty against challenges that have abilities with a green FEAT roll, require a yellow for challenges equal to their ability, and a red for those ranked higher. The numerical values are relatively unimportant compared to adjectival column descriptives; Captain America, in effect, has only a 25% better Strength chance than the most feeble of characters, Aunty May.
The combat system is based on rounds between groups, ranging from 5 to 15 seconds. A simple group initiative system is used (optionally with Intuition bonuses) to determine order of actions. Actions include Move, melee attack, missile attack, dodge, grapple, and charge. Attacks are made on the Universal Table with results based on whether a white, green, yellow, or red result depending on the action. Usually it means a loss of Health Points with damage values based on the character's Strength, plus a weapon bonus for blunt weapons, or a flat value based for all others.
Setting, Scenario and Other Components
Apart from the use of Marvel characters, situations, and Marvel Universe references throughout the product, there is additional setting information such as a rather lightweight description of the US legal system (compare Villains and Vigilantes for a comparison), a short section on statistics for a handful of animals, descriptions of unusual environments, and quite usefully, the Karma gains for villians. Of special note is the short section of advice for Judges (GM), which are excellent – be a storytreller, be accurate, be neutral, and be prepared.
The scenario, 'Day of the Octopus' makes good use of the maps and the character cards that come with the game. It starts off with a bit of a thug bash, a bit like attacking giant rats for low-level D&D characters. But there real excitement comes afterwards as the nefarious Doctor Octopus reveals his wicked plans. What follows is a pretty linear plot that involves a lot of clobbering and a couple of contrived, but entertaining, set-piece scenes. The Judge will have do some work if they want something a little sophisticated.
Marvel Super Heroes owes its popularity due to the simplicity of the system and the market share that could promote it (both Marvel and TSR). There are some impressive innovations for a game of its vintage, such as a universal resolution mechanic, and adjectives for character descriptions. The use of Karma as a pool for both experience and in-game buy-in for die modifications is an issue that results in strong opinions, not to mention the very specific code of conduct it encouraged relevant to some comic books. A strength of the game is, despite using some pretty simple language, has an impressive content to page ratio.
The greatest weaknesses of the game are a lack of detail, the lack of built-in balance or even thematic consistency among PCs resulting from overly random chargen, and poor workmanship – but these what is meant that the system is quite good at its core, but poorly implemented. Notoriously, armour is substantially better than dodge, firearms do relativel small amounts of damage – and so it goes on. Overall, it is an interesting product but certainly one not to be taken too seriously (take it as seriously as the author does!), least some deeply ingrained nerdrage at the implementation flaws and limits.
Style: 1 + .5 (layout) + .6 (art) + .7 (coolness) + .7 (readability) + .4 (product) = 3.9
Substance: 1 + .4 (content) + .8 (text) + .6 (fun) + .1 (workmanship) + .6 (system) = 3.5
Champions (fourth edition, 1989)
Introduction and Product
It is difficult to imagine a more canonical superhero game than Champions and it is almost certain that the 4th edition remains the most well-known of that game, not the least for being released in a period where Hero Games had teamed up with Iron Crown Enterprises for production and distribution. Affectionately known as “the big blue book”, this edition came out in both hardback and softback editions. The former has some pretty solid glue and stitch binding although excessive use over some twenty-five years has resulted in pages loosening. The cover artwork of George Perez of Seeker versus Mechanon is evocative and very well-executed. The interior art is above average and contextually based.
The book itself is quite a tome. It is, it must be said from the start, actually two tomes. First is the Hero System rules, a universal point-based game system which weights in at some 215 pages, and second is the Champions supplement, a superhero setting using the Hero system rules, consisting of a sourcebook (58 pages) and a campaign book (70 pages). To make sense of this there is a solid three page table of contents, but surprisingly no index. The text is presented in two-column justified with a sans-serif font, with good use of white space and headers. Page numbers are clear but only have minimal identification. The writing style varies between the formal and informal but is also clear.
Characteristics, Skills etc.
Following a very useful introduction that provides pointers for both new players, those new to the Hero system, and for those who are experienced with the Hero system, the game dives right into a setting question of different character power levels, defined by their character points. There are eight primary characteristics (STRength, DEXterity, CONstitution, BODY, INTelligence, EGO, PREsence, COMeliness) and six figured characteristics (Physical Defense, Energy Defense, SPeed, RECovery, ENDurance, STUN) derived from the primary characteristics, along with two movement modes (Running, Swimming). Characteristics have variable point costs, depending on their perceived usefulness – Dexterity (which contributes to a number of skill chances and to Speed) costs more than Comeliness (which has little in-game function).
After characteristics is skills. These have a skilled chance of 9+(characteristic/5) or less on 3d6. It's a workable formula that flattens high-end characteristics, but is strange with low-end values, which are more common in 'heroic', rather than 'superheroic' games. Resolution can be contested (skill versus skill) and some skills can complement others. This is in addition to various modifiers, including a time-scale chart, and depending on the setting, there is a set of default “Everyman” skills which all characters receive. The skill list, of about 65 core skills not including specialisations, provides a fairly complete set of activities, albeit with a bias towards the contemporary.
Following skills is perquisites (perks) and talents. The former includes contacts, followers, and money. The latter includes various unusual abilities that aren't quite skills, such as time sense, luck, speed reading and so forth. It is here that the game handily provides identifiers for powers that need to be checked for individual campaigns.
Whilst characters in many realistic-heroic campaigns can do without powers, any fantasy or superhero setting will need them – and there's quite a collection. A particular feature of powers in the Hero System is that they describe an effect in game terms, with the world-based logic for the effect being a supplementary question – the “special effect”. Thus an energy blast is a power, and the actual form it takes (lightning bolt, flame bolt, stream of savage butterflies etc) is the “special effect”. There are some sixty-five powers in total, again with those which may be unbalancing to certain campaigns identified. Each power has anywhere from a few paragraphs to half a page in description, with plenty of examples.
Powers are categorised as adjustment powers (those that modify characteristics or other powers), mental powers (based on the character's Ego characteristic), movement powers (from flight to tunneling) , size powers (growth, shrinking), special powers (endurance free, exclusive of power frameworks, always on), and a catch-all list of standard powers. There is a consistent Endurance cost for most powers (1 END per 10 character points) when used, and a descriptive for the time scale of application (Instant, Consistent, Persistant).
A characteristic of the Hero System is that the base description of powers can be modified with a variety of advantages and limitations. The cost of a power is then modified by multiplying the relative benefit of the advantages, and divided with the relative cost of the limitation. Furthermore, for a radically reduced cost in powers, groups of associated powers can be put in a framework whether as an elemental control, which allows for several powers to be used simultaneously, or a multipower, where each power occupies a resource slot. Even more adaptable (and often limited) is the variable power pool to represent such collections as a gadgeteers workshop.
Character Disadvantages, Package Deals, Sample Characters
The Hero System innovated the concept of character disadvantages, a variety of psychological, physical, and social flaws which, when valued, provide the hero not only with a richer in-game personality but also bonus character points in compensation. The amount of points available is limited to character type, and can be bought off or changed in the course of a campaign. Whilst each disadvantage is given a detailed point value, a very sensible overarching rule applies; a disadvantage that isn't a disadvantage isn't worth any points. To further round out a character there are package deals, a point bonus for purcahsing an associated set of skills etc. Finally, as part of the character generation process a small set of sample characters are provided from a variety of genres, along with some simple “normal” characters.
Combat and Adventuring
The Hero System combat system starts with perception with modifiers making the distinction between targetting and non-targetting senses. When combat is entered into it is typically carried out in a hex grid system (with the scale of one inch = 2 metres). Combat is run in turns of 12 seconds, or segments. Actions occur according to the character's Speed characteristic, ranging from 1 action per turn to 12, with each opportunity for actions being a phase. There's plenty of actions that can be carried out in an action phase; different attack modes, turning on powers, different types of charge, and so forth. A defensive combat maneuver can be carried out early to abort a future phase, or an action can be held for a phase. As a component of comic book reality, a soliloquy takes no time.
A successful hit in combat is based on 11+OCV (offensive combat value) – DCV (defensive combat value) on 3d6, with END costs for the attack. The same applies for EGO based-attacks. If appropriate for a superheroic genre, check for Knockback, or for a heroic game, Knockdown. There is a variety of modifiers to this base chance depending on circumstances, the attack type, and the combat maneuver in question. Damage is based on the class of the attack, with each 5 points of an attack doing 1d6 of normal damage, with graduations in between. This d6 represents the amount of STUN damage caused, with a 1 on the die causing no BODY damage, and a 6 causing 2 points. Normal damage, both STUN and BODY is resisted by PD or ED as appropriate to the attack. However if the attack is a Killing Attack (e.g., slashing and piercing weapons) then PD and ED do not provide protection against unless there is resistant defense (e.g., armour). Killing attacks have a cost of 1d6 per 15 points and have a standard STUN multiplier of 1d6-1, or, optionally, a hit location chart can be used. When a character's STUN is brought downto 0, they are unconscious, and if their BODY is brought to zero they are dying. There are optional rules for hit location and follow-up effects such as sectional defenses, and impairing and disabling wounds. A character's REC value typcially determines how much END and STUN they can recover each turn, but also a healing rate for BODY. Finally there is also PREsence attacks, which can be used to hesitate, awe, or cow opponents.
The Environment and Character Progression
Characteristic rolls are used for those actions which aren't really skill-based and are derived from 9+CHAR/5, typical for the game. Whilst there is plenty for STR-based characteristic effects, there's little in the way of others. One is never quite sure where INT 18 in the Hero System is placed in real-world comparisons, as their is insufficient examples of what such a value represents or what sort of difficulty rolls are required for such a rating.
There are workable rules for drowning and falling (which all RPGs need), and true the superhero setting, objects have their own DEF (armour) and BODY as they tend to get smashed up and thrown around. Other favourites for the game include rules for automatons (whether robots or zombies) and specific powers that such entitites have, along with the limited characteristic range for computers (AI systems get an EGO!). Vehicles and bases are built in a similar fashion, like a character, but with their own particular characteristics range, and Size for bases. For superheroic games vehicles and bases cost points (albeit at 1/5 value) and in heroic games they're paid with cash Further to environment considerations are vehicular combat, an extraordinarily bare list (3) of animals, and then several pages of weapons and armour.
Experience in the Hero System is doled out per adventure, with a couple of character points for an short session and bonuses for longer adventures, inventiveness, roleplaying etc. It is possible for the GM to assign expeirnce points for specific skills or attributes used in an adventure. Apart from the designer's notes and some brief remarks in adding new powers etc, a long combat example brings on to the end of the Hero System rulebook.
Champions Sourcebook and Campaign Book
The Champions Sourcebook is a players and GMs guide for participating in superhero campaign. For characters a standard but well-written introduction of the character creation process of three parts; concept, ability purchase, and balancing points. One interesting thing about the Hero system is that you don't have to start anywhere in particular with character creation; start with powers, start with disadvantages, start with abilities – whatever the player wants to fit the concept. Origin stories are always part of the genre, and this is obviously included along with building character stories and their motivation. Some amusing powergamer rule exploits round off the chapter; my favourite (given my Georgist inclinations) is The Landlord who, for a modest number of points, can build a base that covers all known land. As the saying goes, “If I own all the land and you own all the money, by the following morning I will own all the land and money, and you shall be my slave”.
The GMs section is a policy of elaboratin on structured flexibility. That is, it goes through the universal aspects of being a GM and in particular the campaign setting ground rules for diverse superhero campaigns. It encourages player input, establishes the importance of the PCs, scales the aspects of “campaign tone”, and so forth, before moving into the system-specific aspects such as character building guidelines, optional rule choices, and recommended or disallowed skills, powers etc.
Another chapter covers desiging adventures, which again is a collection of very sensible advice of bringing the PCs together, bringing loose ends together, checking for hunteds and DNPCs, bringing in complications, incorporating the game system mechanics, organising subplots, and supervillian motivations and activities which are – alas – somewhat too stereotypical. Handy combat summary and adventure recap sheets add to the collection. Following this however, the sourcebook goes a bit random – putting several short sections in place with little consideration for order. This includes a checklist for PCs, maintaining the campaign, environmental aspects (surely this should be in the main rulebook?), very brief notes on legal aspects, and to conclude some random charts. It was a fairly disappointing conclusion to what was otherwise a good section.
The Champions campaign book covers the specifics of a specific superhero campaign. It starts with a superhero group, including the unfortunate Seeker, and their base and vehicle, followed by a range of other characters that can be used as heroes or villians. At one page per chaaracte these are fully-fleshed out individuals and certainly are well presented. A multi-chapter introductory scenario which is pretty linear, but does include some interesting opportunities for unexpected conflicts and in a good variety of settings. There are options for the scenario to make it more comic or grittier, and the main quarry of the scenario, who stay hidden for some time, are also described as per the other characters in the sourcebook.
Champions remains perhaps the most well known superhero game for a good reason. The scope and scale is usually well-suited and there is a serious attempt to cover a great deal of ground. There are some very unexpected and disappointing exclusions, especially on the heroic level – there is insufficient attention to technological development, skill levels and modifications, and the bestiary is utterly woeful. Whilst it can be run as a heroic-level game, further work is required. The game system may be a little on the crunchy side for contemporary tastes, but it sensibly introduces this for the purposes of adaptability. Stylistically, there is a lot of positive remarks to be said about the book. Physically superb and well-written the book also has decent artwork, textual expression and organisation and so forth.
Overall, this quite the classic game for the genre and its recognition as such is well-deserved.
Style: 1 + .7 (layout) + .7 (art) + .7 (coolness) + .7 (readability) + .9 (product) = 4.7
Substance: 1 + .7 (content) + .5 (text) + .7 (fun) + .7 (workmanship) + .7 (system) = 4.3
DC Heroes (third edition, 1993)
DC Heroes was published by Mayfair games, initially as a boxed set in 1985, with a second edition in 1989 and a third edition, in softback book presentation, in 1993. Although the game has been out of print for many years, it still enjoys very solid support; a yahoo! group dedicated to the game has over seven hundred members and has consistently received hundreds of messages per month over the last six years. This review is of the third edition although, as editor Bryan Nystal says in the introduction, the system differences are very minor. The 184pp softback book is broken up into ten chapters and four appendicies. There is a good table of contents but no index. Whilst the text's organisation is clear and with plenty of examples throughout, it's also very dense, with very little whitespace and only a smattering of art to make life easy on the eye. The writing style is quite formal as well and the game system leans towards the "rules-heavy" variety. The combination of these factors makes reading fairly heavy going.
The game system is sometimes referred to the Mayfair Exponential Games System (MEGS) and uses a doubling scale for attributes, where zero is an index representing either 50 pounds, 10 feet, 4 seconds, 1' cube, $25 or 1 paragraph, depending on the attribute measurement. Thus 2 attribute points (APs) of Strength is capable of lifting a weight of 200 pounds and 3 for 400 pounds. Character attributes are based on physical, mental and mystical with each of these categories consisting of finesse, power and resistance thus; Dexterity, Strength, Body, Intelligence, Will, Mind, Influence, Aura and Spirit. I suspect the similarity with nWoD is not accidental. The rules emphasize on multiple occasions that the exponential nature of the system means that APs cannot be simply added together, but rather the real world quantities must be correlated with the value - thus two weight 7 elephants do not have a weight of 14, but rather a weight of 8. APs can, however, be used in arithmetic across values (e.g., Time APs = Distance APs - Speed APs).
When engaged in a conflict, cross-referencing acting and opposing values on the Action Table provides a target number which, if rolled on 2d10 or more results in a success. The table does allow some improbable results allowing, for example, a character with an AP of 1 to succeed (albeit with an 18 plus roll) against an opposing AP value of 8, who has 128x the value of the Acting AP. Even more so, any doubles result on 2d10 is open-ended. If a successful result is achieved, comparison between the attribute effect value and resistance value on the Result Table is carried out, with a number of column shifts dependiing on the success of the original action. Despite discomfort with the range of possible success which is exacerbated with the doubling system, the core system of the doubling scale, the attributes, and the action and result tables are quite solid. For those who want a more gritty and realistic approach to the system, the 2d10 roll could be easily replaced with 3d6 with no doubles for action resolution. Hero Points may also be used to modify value ratings.
Character design is based on 450 Hero Points, with variable Factor Costs which measures the relative usefulness of the Power, Attribute, Skill or Wealth. Again a table determines the actual costs; in this instance a formula could have been developed instead as it is clear there are a few break-points in the table which some players will exploit. The extensive range of superheroic Powers come with a Base Cost as well as a Factor Cost which can be further reduced in cost by linking the power or skill with an Attribute. Bonuses and Limitations can be applied to Powers which further change the Factor Cost. Overall it's a comprehensive system, tends somewhat towards number-crunching with Powers relatively inexpensive compared to Attributes. In addition, characters may also purchase advantages, drawbacks, wealth, and provide their personality and background, all of which modify their Hero Point total. Characters must also have a motivation which neither provides nor costs Hero Points. Additional Hero Points are gained as adventure experience usually ranging from 1 to 6. The cost for increasing Attributes is quite different to purchasing them in the first place, using a different table with significantly less differentiation.
The skills and powers are descriptive and comprehensive with all the expected abilities. The 32pp of powers are differentiated in physical, mental, mystical and a handful of special powers and, as mentioned, are relatively inexpensive compared to Attributes with usual Factor Cost of 1-4, with some notable exceptions such as Flame Being (FC 6, Invulnerability FC 7, Air Control FC 9 and Continuum Control FC 10). On occasion there is even moments of humour in an otherwise dry text (the Power "Dumb Luck"). The skill list is a mere 8 pages, and does allow for unskilled use in some circumstances as well as specialisation. Some abilities which are would normally considered skills (e.g., Area Knowledge) are considered advantages.
Combat in DC Heroes is carried out in phases of 4 seconds (0 APs) with initiative determined on a d10 plus their character's Initiative Value (the sum of their Action Attributes). Actions are announced lowest to highest, but resolved highest to lowest. Conflicts are resolved, as per any other between Action Values and Opposing Values, Effect Values and Resistance Values modified, of course, by various powers and skills as appropriate. Characters are unconscious when their Body is reduced to zero and dead at negative Body. Most combat however, is defined as "Bashing" rather than "Killing" and the objective is to reduce the opponent to an unconscious state rather than a negative or dead state. As with other actions, Hero Points may be spent to improve initiative, attacks, defense and even to reduce damage. True to the genre, there is also knockback effects along with various maneuvers such as flailing attacks, grapples, sweeps, charges, trick shots etc.
A short chapter on character interaction covers task resolution methods for interrogation, persuasion and intimidation is followed by gadget design, construction and modification and repair along with notes for the genre-convention of omni-gadgets. The same chapter also includes standard equipment such as buildings, landscape items, electronics and computers, vehicles and weapons. This is appropriately followed by a chapter on wealth and upkeep (charity is good for heroes!) and finally two excellent chapters on gamemastering and plot and sub-plot development.
The final section of the book are the appendices. This includes an a solid 20-page introduction to the DC Universe with minimal notes by Jack Kirby, Roy Thomas, Rober Kanigher, Mike Gold, Roger Stern, Neil Gaiman, Dan Jurgens, and Paul Kupperberg. It is really pushing it however to describe these comments, all less than 1/2 a page, as "essays" as the back-cover blurb does. This is appropriately followed by 14 pages of DC Heroes characters, including several versions of Superman, Batman and his friends, Green Arrow, Green Lantern, Aquaman, the Flash and so forth, several pages of natural and exotic animals and to wrap up, a few pages of genre information and charts and tables.
Whilst the superhero genre has never been my kettle of fish (doesn't explain why I have at six different games in that genre), and my actual play experience of DC Heroes has been minimal, the game system has always held some appeal over the past fifteen years, albeit a little crunchy and with some mechanics criticisms as noted. It is a detailed and solid system and could quite possibly be used successfully in high-end fantasy campaigns which emphasise magical powers. As a major comic publisher it is somewhat inevitable that DC Heroes would retain a large degree of support among gamers well after publication ceased, but the significant production of some 60-plus supplements and sourcebooks certainly helped. Apparently, the game system today lives on with Pulsar Games' "Blood of Heroes" RPG, although this does not include the DC-branded characters. Overall this is a solid publication with some excellent ideas and support for the DC superhero universe.
Style: 3/5, Substance 4/5
Originally published on rpg.net https://www.rpg.net/reviews/archive/12/12960.phtml
Godsend Agenda (first edition, 2001)
Introduction and Physical Product
This review is going a little out on a limb; instead of reviewing the most well-known iteration of this game, the second edition which utilised the D6 system, it is taking a look at the raw but worthy first edition. The well-glued 224 page softback with a simple but effective golden scarab as the cover motif. The greyscale and line-drawings for internal art are usually of a fair to good standard. Of particular note is the massive comic which introduces the game, taking up some 40 pages, with others scattered throughout the text; notably the author seems fond of the naked female form. After that one can finally glance at the table of contents, which is a very annoying place to put it. Furthermore there is no index. Combined finding things in actual play can sometimes be a little challenging.
This said, page numbers are clearly marked and the two-column serif font is easy to read. The greyscale text for highlighting incidentals is also clear. The language is quite informal, but fairly clear, although sometimes key examples of play are incorporated in comic-book style pages which are not exactly the easiest to find. The organisation of the text could do with a little bit of work. There is metaplot and setting information scattered at the start of the book and at the end, and mixed with the introduction which provides the basic mechanics. The chapters as titled are, after a hefty introduction, 'Character Creation', 'Powers', 'Combat and Recovery', 'Gamemaster', 'The World of Godsend Agenda'. There is also some appendicies which includes sample characters, animals and NPCs, charts, a timeline, and some plot hooks.
Character Generation and Core Mechanic
Character generation is point-based system which allows variation according to the GM's setting. It begins with a concept and archetype, the latter providing a personality template and a bonus for certain actions the lead to the recovery of Ka, a metagame currency to modify die rolls. It's a fairly limited set but workable, and the Ka rewards in actual play don't seem as important as the natural recovery rate. In addition it's a attribute and skill system. Average human attributes range is between 1-5, and the superheroes of Godsend Agenda typically push that upper limit and might have a couple of extraordinary values. The attributes are Strength, Dexterity, Intelligence, Spirit, and Influence.
There is also important figured values from this include Base Damage (half Strength), Mind and Body Points, representing mental and physical stamina, respectively. If either of these are reduced to zero the character is unconscious, and if they are reduced to a negative value, the character is dead. It should be evident from this that PCs are not typically too much powerful in terms of the ability to take damage than normal characters. Base Initiative in tactical time is also a figured characteristic; player characters receive 3 Action Points per round whereas NPCs receive 2. Finally, maximum Ka is also a figured value. Notably characters may also combine and form a Ka Pool (instant joke there).
There are roughly thirty base skills are rated in ranks with an associated attribute. The broader skills include the various ranged weapons (seriously, one per coarse type should be enough) and various knowledge skills. The list is a quite biased towards contemporary settings, which is not what all the scenarios provide. Each skill receives a paragraph or two in description. Task resolution is based on skill plus attribute plus 2d6 versus a target number – the average being 13, and recommended variations, without many examples it should be noted, from -4 (9) to +30 (43). Double one's represents a critical failure, and double-sixes are open-ended without limit.
In addition to attributes and attribute-linked skills, characters also have advantages and flaws, the latter providing additional character points. All this may begin to sound familiar with several other RPGs. These are what would expect from other games and our typically purchased on a per-level basis. The game does include some inventive names for common examples worthy of note; this includes Dervish Defense (bonus dodges), Ball and Chain (effectively DNPC).
Powers are likewise purchased on a per level basis and are based on concrete rather than abstract descriptions, and also have an associated attribuite. There is close to one hundred powers all up, giving quite a good range of potential implementations. Powers have “add ons” which refer to special modifications from the base description, both positive and negative, which varies the point cost. Given the typically fairly gritty level of PCs in terms of their usual attributes, the powers is where the superheroes have the opportunity to show their outstanding characteristics. There is all sorts of weightings involved in range, damage, and cost, as each power is quite specific, leading to the possibility of weighting errors. A possible example is Energy Blast, which at a cost of 3 points per level, does 1d6 damage per level with a 20 foot range per level, whereas Water Projection does the same damage, has half the range, provides a weak movement power of 5 feet per level, and costs 6 points per level. Also included under 'Powers' is gadgets and inventions, which is built in a similar manner to a character but with a reduced cost according to the type (e.g., 25% cost for vehicles, 50% hand-held device etc).
Combat and Recovery
Combat is carried out in five second rounds, with a simple 2d6+Initiative determining the rank for the combat. Characters receive a number of Action Points per round as mentioned; the actions include Move (Dexterity times 5 in feet per AP), Attack, Dodge or Parry, Aim, Ready, Reload, Stand from Prone. An attack is a simple 2d6+skill versus a flat target number of 10, or against the result of a Dodge or Parry. There are increased difficulties for ranged weapon distances (i.e., double base distance is +4, triple is +8). There is also rules for burst fire from automatic weapons, charge attacks, feints, disarm, grapples, etc, along with a range of skill modifiers based on context. Armour protects against damage according to its Defense Rating, often with a negative Dexterity adjustment. Armour is also ablative, which adds a bit of extra bookkeeping in combat. Characters are Stunned if they lose 50% of their Mind or Body points in a single attack, which reduces their AP by one, and forces them into a defensive mode.
Damage will depend on the power used or the weapon used. With melee weapons they are presented as a bonus on top the unrolled Base Damage (e.g., a sword is 1d6+3+Base) or half that Base with muscle-powered range weapons (e.g., bows). Other ranged weapons have a simple damage roll (e.g., a .45 pistol does 2d6 damage). Note that without armour, an alleged superhero could find themselves in serious trouble when threatened by several normal characters. Especially beware ranged weapons in this context! A variety of environmental damage sources are also described; poison, falling, fire, suffocation etc. Recovery is based on 1 point per day in Mind and Body damage, but then with a possible test with an opposed test of the maximum Mind or Body value versus the current damage with a bonus point for each five points of success.
Game Master and Setting
The Game Master's chapter provides advice for running play which is good sense but well structured (have a story, give everyone something to do, pace, provide dramatic tension, pace the game etc). A variety of short campaign ideas and recommended character points are provided which fit into the provided setting, which, in summary form, involves an alien species (the Elohim) and their empire, the ultimate force of the universe (Ka), conflict within the empire, conflict with another alien species (the Chimereans), their arrival on earth and the continuation of that conflict within their use of Ka power and earthly demigods. It's not really the sort of setting that particularly grabbed me, but it's certainly within expectations of a superhero genre publication. There is a good amount of supporting material for the setting, including a very hefty backstory history, numerous NPCs and organisations, and plot hooks. It is quite possible to completely ignore the entire setting and simply use the rules as presented, or simply to derive some ideas from the setting and adapt to one's preferences. The rules are systemically independent of the setting, and other appendicies such as the NPC and animal chart (for example) can be used regardless of adoption. The Gamemaster chapter also includes experience point rewards which are based on per adventure are provided for roleplaying, character development, and dramatic development.
Conclusion and Evaluation
Overall Godsend Agenda is well-produced, both as a physical product and as a game. The overall system may not be particularly creative, but it is well chosen selection of influences. It is a little on the raw side, both in terms of the presentation, workmanship, and content. It is recommended, especially if the GM and players are prepared to catch imbalances as play develops and to elaborate the incomplete elements. Nevertheless, as writ it could have really dealt with a new edition, which of course it received.
Style: 1 + .3 (layout) + .6 (art) + .6 (coolness) + .5 (readability) + .7 (product) = 3.7
Substance: 1 + .4 (content) + .5 (text) + .6 (fun) + .4 (workmanship) + .8 (system) = 3.7
Mutants and Masterminds (2002, second edition, 2005)
Overview and Physical Product
Mutants and Masterminds is a d20-based superhero RPG. That simple sentence covers both the ingenuity of the game, making good use of the OGL to expand the scope of the license designed for Dungeons and Dragons to include a different sort of superheroic character to the 20th level wizard. As a result it has an easy lead in for players who, in all probability, are already familiar with the system but also the opportunity to elaborate from a well-established base.
The physical product is a rock-solid thing of beauty. A hardback of some 256 gloss colour pages, and reasonably well-bound. The colourful artwork is of a high and consistent standard throughout and is typically contextual. The layout, in two-column justified serif font, marks each page with chapter title and page and makes use of colour as a further identifier. There is different emphasized sections, some for tables, special elaborations, and “under the hood” (both the traditional metaphor and perhaps an hat-tip to Watchmen). There is a detailed one-page table of contents and a three-page index. Following an extensive introduction and glossary with very satisfactory content, there are eleven chapters: Hero Creation, Abilities, Skills, Feats, Powers, Characteristics, Devices and Equipment, Combat, Gamemastering, World Building, Friends and Foes, and an Appendix of three introductory adventures. The writing style throughout is formal, precise, and of a higher density to most publications.
Mechanics and Characters
The core mechanic is the same as other d20-based systems; roll a d20, add various modifiers as appropriate, and compare the result to the target number, or Difficulty Class. However there are a number differences between Mutants and Masterminds and other d20-based systems. There are no character classes, the closest equivalent being packages of traits which are more of a convenience or archetypes, which are an excellent range pre-generated example characters which means you can start with a character pretty much right away. The entire game is run entire with the d20 with no other die involved, there are no hit points (using grades of damage instead), and there is a metagame resource of Hero Points. These are used to improve a roll, dodge, invoke a feat, escape death etc, and are acquired therough narrative elements; setbacks, complications, heroism, and roleplaying.
Mutants and Masterminds is a point-based system with “power points” determining the cost of all numerical aspects of character creation. Abilities, attack bonuses, defense bonuses, save bonuses, skills, feats, powers, and drawbacks all cost power points to purchse (negative in the case of drawbacks) in a linear fashion. Gamemasters set the level for the campaign (the default examples use level 10, which sets the power points to 150), and this provides a cap to attack, defense, saving throw modifiers, toughness, ability scores, skill ranks etc. Ability scores are the classic six-pack: Strength, Dexterity, Constitution, Intelligence, Wisdom, Charisma, with an average of 10-11 and a bonue or penaly of +1 for every two points above or below that figure (the scale is dropped in third edition as superfluous). As a notable difference from standard d20, Strength and Dexterity do not provide bonuses to attack or defend, and Intelligence does not provide bonus skill points. There are various modifiers for a character's Size, with a scale from Miniscule (3 inches and less) to Awesome (128 ft or more). Strength capacity has non-linear increases to account for truly super-strength (e.g., to push the moon requires Strength of 350). As a great little rules hack, movement is noted as miles per hour in walking speed, with tactical feet per round being an order of magnitude of that number (e.g., 5 mph equal 50 feet per round).
Skills are pretty much as expected, although with some modern technological examples (e.g., Computers). In all there is roughly 30 skills with broad-based Craft, Knowledge, and Profession skills and with ties to ability scores. Each skill is defined and provided with example Difficulty Classes to illustrate use. Feats are all-or-nothing abilities that provide bonuses to combat, to skill use, to the use of hero points, and with a large general category, which does include a range of non-combat advantages. There is approximately 80 Feats in total, most of which can be described sufficiently in a simple paragraph. An interesting contribution is the ability to buy some classic Feats in multiple levels (e.g., Improved Initiative).
Powers of course are a focus of any superhero RPG, and Mutans and Masterminds is no exception. Powers are also bought in ranks with variation according the relative usefulness of the power mainly in terms of its combative power. Powers also have extras and flaws, which modify the base cost per level. A categorisation is described according to their effects, specifically Alteration (shape changing), Attack, Defense, General (catch-all), Mentl, Mopvement, Sensory, and Trait. Powers, like everything else, are based on a d20 plus power rank and modifiers versus a Difficulty Class. It is possible for Power vs Skill checks etc to occur, and there's various modifications to time, range, and value (e.g., people effected) according to rank. In a sense, Powers in Mutants and Masterminds are like an flexible version of spells in Dungeons and Dragons, and it is not surprising to discover that over hundred are described, usually with three or more paragraphs.
The combat system is very similar to standard d20, but with some notable streamlining. Initiative is rolled once per conflict, and superfast heroes don't receive multiple actions per round, although they usually be able to carry out the range of actions provided sooner. An attack is based o the same core mechanic, with a wide range of modifiers offered. Damage is not rolled, but rather a successful attack requires a Toughness saving throw, with various DCs based on the force of the attack. Damage is based on how badly the roll is failed by. As is often the case, the combat section also describes the various damaging effects of the environment on characters, and the end of the chapter provides a very handy condition summary.
Setting and Scenarios
A solid chapter of Mutants and Masterminds is dedicated to equipment; with a distinction drawn between devices and equipment. The former provides access to a power and cost power points, the latter is mundane items. A further distinction is draw on whether the item is independent or not. A bionic implant, at least in superhero terms, is neither a device, nor equipment, but an implementation of a power. Rules are provided for invention and jury rigging, and with the prospect of mishaps. Wealth is also defined as a base benefit and check system, rather than counting gold pieces. There is a short list of general equipment, a longer list of melee weapons, ranged weapons, armour, and various vehicles. There is extensive components to buying headquarters and the building of constructs.
A gamemastering chapter provides an elaboration of the DC model and some general advice about running the game, creating adventures, and tweaking the rules. A following world building chapter provides an campaigns in terms of setting, style, a very lengthy elaboration on matters of genre (a reference to the comic era and their style and theme), various cosmological approaches, history, brief notes on rather vague catch-all 'society', and finally organisations. A final chapter provides an extensive range of potential NPCs, both friend and foe (as the chapter is entitled) as well as more brief statistical overviews of “supporting cast”. The book concludes with two scenarios, one fairly simple, and the second which is deliberately designed for greater campaign integration and complexity.
This is truly an excellent game; it is extremeley well produced, visually appealing, with plenty of detail, a wide scope, and innovative take on the d20 system. It is very flexible, quick in actual play, and highly enjoyable. It doesn't quite have the same amount of detail as, say the Hero System, but it certainly has a lot more than plenty of others, and does so in a manner that is even more consistent that n the standard d20 rules.
Style: 1 + .8 (layout) + .7 (art) + .8 (coolness) + .7 (readability) + .8 (product) = 4.6
Substance: 1 + .8 (content) + .7 (text) + .8 (fun) + .9 (workmanship) + .8 (system) = 5.0