Monday, June 30, 2014

History of Superhero RPGs (Part Thirteen: 2011-2012)

Before I roll into this final superhero list, I have to direct you elsewhere. First, I've set up a Patreon project just for these lists. I hope you'll check that out and spread the word. If you've enjoyed the work so far, consider becoming a patron. Second, if you’re at all interested in early superhero games, you should be reading Christian Lindke’s blog. He’s just begun a series of in-depth reviews of these games from the beginning. These offer smart analysis and place these games in context. His first essay covers Superhero 2044. Christian loves superhero games and all his essays on them are worth reading.

As I’ve worked my way through these lists I’ve avoided defining what I mean by a “superhero” game. Instead I let my choices mark out those boundaries. I’ve been liberal in many cases (Masker Avenger Pulp, Sentai Heroes, Anime Warriors). But what what can we identify about these games. They don’t simply have players running heroes- we’ve seen some particularly dystopian games (Underground, eCollapse). Neither is it costume and appearance; superheroes in general have moved to ditch four-color garments. It can’t simply be that they feel like comic books since more and more superhero tropes pop up elsewhere. Could it be about super-powers? That’s perhaps more defining, but it excludes low-level vigilante settings and games (ala Dark Champions). So I’m going to embrace the cop-out and say it is a combination of all of these, with a smattering of self-definition. If it calls itself a superhero game, I’m inclined to accept that as the spirit.

And I’m not certain dwelling definitions helps people figure out these games. For these lists I’ve noted a systems’s character creation basis and randomizer. That’s useful for me. Another definition I haven’t considered is how these games handle powers- loosely defined to include the heightened talents of someone like Batman or Doc Savage. That’s something I want to know when I look at a game.

Most systems fall into one of three categories. Encyclopedia Games use a list of super-powers, usually with a descriptive title. These can often be tweaked and modified through advantages, frameworks, and limitations. But generally players can pull a character together easily by going through the shopping list. Villains & Vigilantes, Icons, Aberrant, Mutants & Masterminds 1/2e, Marvel Super Heroes Roleplaying, and many, many others use this approach. It’s by far the most popular, and with good reason. Powers are cool- and big books of powers are attractive. Designers can limit what appears in a setting or use the permitted powers to define what a game feels like. Mutant City Blues does this extremely well. This approach also leaves room for supplementary material- new collections of powers and abilities (like the now classic  MA3: The Ultimate Powers Book).

The other two approaches represent polar opposites. On the one hand we have Elemental Games. These allow the construction of powers based on effects and results. Champions, GURPS 4e, Base Raiders, M&M 3e, and a few others fall into this category. Everything can be boiled down to a pool of possible things which can be done in the game. These are then glued together to form a power. The fiction, descriptor, or SFX doesn’t matter. It allows for great versatility but requires more work. Players can’t simply pull from a checklist. Elemental approaches require more meta-discussions in order to tune or restrict powers to fit with a setting. These systems usually have an elegant symmetry and focus on defining exactly what a power can do.

On the other hand, Fiction Games leave that question open. A power’s simply a rationalization for actions. Powers operate as supports for arguments about what a character can do. That can be cover for a base set of simple mechanics, ala Fate. Players and GMs negotiate about when ruby-laser eyebeams can be used, what effect they have, and what consequences arise from that use. Marvel Heroic comes close to falling into this category, but still has some mechanical conceits (power sets with specific techniques). Indie Games like Psi*Run, Worlds in Peril, and With Great Power fit into this. Ironically it also applies to the first supers rpg, Superhero 2044


Events: Fear Itself, Death of Spider-Man, Spider-Island, New 52, Avengers vs. X-Men, Chaos War, Age of X, Schism, Dying Wish, Marvel NOW!, Shattered Heroes, Regenesis, Flashpoint, Night of the Owls, The Culling, Rise of the Vampires, Rotworld, Rise of the Third Army, Death of the Family, Hawkman: Wanted, Throne of Atlantis, H’El on Earth
Television: The Cape, Power Rangers Samurai, Supah Ninjas, Sidekick, Alphas, Ben10 Omniverse, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Arrow
Films: Green Hornet, Thor, X-Men First Class, Green Lantern, Captain America: The First Avenger, Chronicle, Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance, The Avengers, The Amazing Spider-Man, The Dark Knight Rises, Dredd

These lists cover a smaller slice of time than my past rpg lists. I hope this makes them easier to read. As we get closer to the present the lists expand and contract weirdly. I include mostly core books, but also significant setting or sourcebooks. Given the number of great things published I haven't included everything I wanted to.  I list revised editions which significantly changed a line. Generally I only include published material- print or electronic. I leave out freebie or self-published games. I'm sure I've left something off without adequate reason; feel free to add a comment about a line I missed (if published in 2011-2012). I've arranged these by year and then alphabetically within that year.

All-Stars offers a more comedic take on superheroes, using the QAGS (Quick Ass Game System) mechanics. QAGS is pretty light system- six stats get numbers and characters have a tag line. Powers are equally abstracted and lumped into those elements. Players test by rolling a d20 plus value against a target. Perhaps the most interesting innovation comes in the form of Yum Yums. A Yum Yum is a tasty edible marker (candy, chips, soda) which players can spend/consume for auto-successes, narrative control or the like. They're delicious Fate points.

All-Stars provides a brief but unique setting. The characters serve in Paradigm City, but they're not the "A List" heroes. They're not even B-List. They're the supers the city regretfully calls when things go terribly wrong. It harkens to Mystery MenThe Specials, or The Awesomes. Or in comic books, The Tick, Ambush Bug, The Legion of Substitute Heroes, 'Mazing Man, and so on. We've had a few other funny superhero games (Stuper Powers!Project A-KoROLF) but it’s a pretty niche genre. I'm not a big fan of comedy games, but this is fairly well done and presented. It isn't too over the top and the artwork nicely supports the concept. Point-assign. D20 Resolution.

2.  Invulnerable (2011)
In recent years we've seen more and more games do a quick turn-around for editions and versions. In this case 2011's Invulnerable has been superseded by a 2014 "Vigilante Edition" of the game. The Cosmology Engine powers this game as well as DIRGE Dark Modern Fantasy RPG and Tales of Glory and Terror Fantasy Roleplaying Game. Those, as well as the original edition of Invulnerable, seem to be unavailable. It has a middle weight system- the two page character sheet includes space for the attributes, talents, and powers- but nothing seems overly detailed. Invulnerable includes a setting which is peppered throughout but covered in the depth in the book’s last quarter. I like the conceit behind supers on this Earth-Omega where "strange particles and wave native to other dimensions, irrational matter and energy can resemble common forms of matter and energy but under certain poorly-understood circumstances, they can take on strange new properties." The game's a love letter to a broad range of superhero comics and movies. I'm intrigued and the more recent edition nearly doubles the page count. I expect that folds in the material from the pay-what-you-want rules expansion, Dauntless. Built for the earlier edition, that supplement's still up for sale on their website. Point buy. d6 Resolution.

Perhaps the most striking thing about M&M 3e is how it showcases the incremental change between M&M first and second edition. Not that there weren't significant changes. Those addressed balance problems, cleaned up mechanics, and integrated hero points more fully. But at heart M&M 2e remained a flavor of d20. You could see the original framework and mechanics. But M&M 3e goes much further. Now stats and their linked elements break away from the OGL. Powers are crafted by effects (ala Ultimate Power). The vast variety of status effects have been reconfigured to make them easier to handle. A great deal of effort has gone into creating a logical set of terminology which doesn't harken back to other d20 systems. The Atomic Think Tank forums have a decent round-up of discussions of the changes with the new edition.

So which one should you buy and play? As I've said before, I'm an M&M booster. I've been running 2e solidly for the last couple of years. I made my recent group play that edition rather than the more available 3e. Some of that came from my mastery of the system, some from simply owning most of the M&M 2e books. But we're about to wrap up that campaign...and I've finally gotten around to really looking at M&M 3e and what it has to offer. We now have the Power Profiles and Gadget Guides. There's a large body of supporting material- really interesting stuff. Plus we have all of the DC Adventures as an additional resource. I've picked up most of M&M 3 in pdf format via sales and a recent Bundle of Holding. But I haven't yet bought actual physical copies. That will be the tipping point. Point buy. D20 Resolution.

4.  Polyverse Supers (2011)
A supers system without an attached setting, Polyverse Supers leans towards Champions or GURPS Supers crunch. It offers a fairly detailed, point-based approach. It has all of the classic bits- scaling point costs, modifiers for power creation (called "Adders" and "Subtractors" here), and a detailed set of combat elements including maneuvers and called shots. On the plus side, the layout's clean and the material's generally well-organized (except for a few cart-before-the-horse moments). It has OK art.

But Polyverse Supers doesn't make any kind of case for its relevancy. What makes this system new? What makes it different? Why should gamers pick this up over the vast number of long-running supers games which have extensive support materials. Polyverse claims to be "fast-paced" but I'm not sure the rules back that up, especially in comparison to other supers games. It's especially important for a game like this to stake out territory and show why it stands out in the crowded field. Maybe it doesn't create something new but instead brings together classic ideas in a new way? Games which come with a setting can at least fall back on that as a selling point, but a generic supers system has a larger burden. Point buy. Various dice resolution. 

5. Squadron UK (2011)
In 2011, author Simon Burley worked on revising and republishing his Golden Heroes game as Squadron UK. However, shortly after he had to change his approach- something he explained in a thread on RPGNet, "Games Workshop didn't pursue me - I hassled them. I thought the rights to GH reverted after a period of time specified in the contract but I'm no lawyer and it looks like I read it wrong. I wrote to them before producing SqUK first edition. Heard nothing back. So went ahead. Then when I sought professional publication the company concerned wanted the GH names as it apparently has some cachet and wouldn't put off American players like SqUK could. So I recontacted GW and pushed and hassled for a ruling until I got this scary e-mail pointing out about the IP and saying they'd also checked my web-site and SqUK was infringing their IP and asking me to stop selling it. So I immediately pulled everything.

I don't blame GW. The employee who checked the contract is just doing his job. He probably knows nothing about GH. Given what the Americans are doing to GW I don;t blame them for being protective. I just wish they'd replied to my first letter all those years ago so I didn't splash SqUK all around.

I can't afford to buy back GH or risk a legal battle. So I'm not prepared to risk the "you can't copyright a system" argument - which I could probably have got away with if I hadn't said SqUK was an update of GH.

To "the same but different" seems the way to go. To be honest I'm enjoying it and - touch wood - things seem to be working. Even if GW suddenly gave me GH back now I'd probably update it with some of the new ideas." 
He revised and reissued Squadron UK the following year. He followed that up with a variant setting, Squadron X.

6. Corner Cases (2011-2012)
Again I wanted to cover some of the more interesting smaller or web-pub only supers rpgs. They showcase the explosion of creativity in this genre over the last several years. Codename: Spandex has a great name. It offers another retro-clone take, this time based on Golden Heroes. That's interesting in light of Squadron UK's release the same year. Codename: Spandex focuses on a narrow power-range, "classic X-men" as it describes it. It can be downloaded for free or purchased as at cost PoD through Lulu. Mystery Men! gives another retro-clone using Swords & Wizardry. It's unavailable right now due to a shift in publisher. Refuge in Audacity Core Rulebook has another winning title. It offers an extreme far-future interstellar parody game with superpowered bloodlines fighting over humanity's fate. I can only call this game gonzo for art, tone, and mechanics. First Issue experiments with rpg structure. Each player needs one of the two-page playbooks describing a superhero. Those apparently contain all the rules you need for the game, which uses a coin-flip randomizer. Sentai Spectacular!: The Ultimate Guide to Playing Sentai Superheroes! gives an adaptation of d20 Modern to Sentai. It affectionately considers how to play out these kinds of stories. I'm glad to see games embrace popular genres which are otherwise niche in rpgs. It has been further expanded by Sentai Sequel!. Finally Wicked Heroes comes from John Wick's The Big Book of Little Games. Players take up characters given a potent supernatural blessing and a curse handed down through the generations. The twist lies in the ability for these inheritors to kill and steal these gifts from one another.

7. Settings (2011-2012)
These years saw several awesome new setting sourcebooks worth looking at. City book Iron Bay two urban centers for the "Adventures Have Consequences" setting from AHC Studios. They've released a several supplements for that in M&M 3e and Icons flavors. I like the idea of two neighboring and contrasting cities. The WatchGuard Sourcebook (3E) offers a sketchy world background, originally for M&M 2e and then released for 3e. The book has a short overview of a campaign city followed by several dozen character write ups and a number of scenarios. Watch Guard has a strong Valiant vibe to it, but you have to piece the world together from the various entries. A solid and useful resource for any supers GM. The first of two character sourcebooks, Evil, Inc. Sourcebook Vol. 1: Heroes and Villains doesn't actually have mechanics. Instead it offers generic materials showing characters from the popular superhero webcomic. A massive sourcebook for ChampionsBook of the Empress details a massive intergalactic empire useful as a source of villains and opposition in a supers campaign. Think the Shi'ar Empire from X-Men, but more consistently evil. BotE is one of the last Champions products Hero Games published. Fiasco's Heroes of Pinnacle City presents a world of poor impulse control and death-ray eyebeams. I imagine something like Brat Pack or The Specials.

Capes, Cowls, and Villains Foul has interesting selling points. It stresses that as in the comics, unbalanced characters (i.e. Green Arrow versus Darkseid) can impact battles. I like that focus on abstractions and relative power balance. CC&VF does this in part with a resource-spend system. Characters have traits which they add to rolls. Multiple linked traits can be used on the same test. However once you use a trait, you mark it off for the scene. That's an great concept- making resource management a central part of the game. You have to carefully choose what you want to use in a scene and what you want to refresh. It reminds me of the more granular mechanics of Mutant City Blues.

The game itself looks nice- with generally decent art and effective layout. CCVF definitely focuses on simulating the feel of a comic book, both in presentation and in system mechanics. For example Hero Points are called "editorial control." That emulation’s to be expected from the same company and designers which brought us genre buy-in games like The Big CrimeCartoon Action Hour, and Slasher Flick. This is a smart and well-designed supers game which I'm surprised hasn't gotten more attention and love. Point buy. d12 Resolution.

9. Future Heroes (2012)
Future Heroes is an odd supers game with a far future backdrop. It is set in Starbright Illustrations’ Extreme Future setting, which has been pumped out in four editions in a handful of years. The actual sales blurb doesn't mention that; I had to discover that in the book's intro. FH/EF gives a kitchen-sink sci-fi universe, closer to Traveller than Star Wars. Most of the background material offered in the book feels like a restatement from a sci-fi game. In a few places it deals with the implications of supers within the setting, but hey seem like an afterthought.

The game mixes crunch and vague narrative elements. You begin by picking out bits for your character's origin story (power source, alignment, theme, resources, hook, etc.). Some of these are purely fiction while others have a vaguely defined play effect. Future Heroes has defined stats and make-your-own skills, both given percentages. Characters choose an "ability type" which is really just a fiction to contain their four powers (movement, attack, defense, and extra). The powers themselves mostly offer a simple effect, modifying other game percentages in most cases. Resolution has players adding 60 to their relevant skill or ability and then rolling under that on percentiles...I think. The game mechanics feel like a first draft pass, with much left unexplained. You have to make a test and then go to a table to check the effect results, most of which require another roll. Future Heroes has three types of damage to track (disadvantage, wound, and death). Characteristics are described as having effects, but how do those numbers fit in? Since most of those are rated at 60+ at the start, that means 120% chance? That clearly isn't what's going on, but the material feels deliberately sketchy. That strange and unfinished feeling carries throughout the book.

Starbright Illustrations has turned out several dozen rpgs and supplements in the last few years. In particular they've taken advantage of the Fate Core OGL to repackage most of their games. That includes a Fate version of Future Heroes. The reaction to those has been pretty mixed- with the term "shovelware" thrown around. Point and pick character creation. Various dice resolution.

10. Godlike (2012)
This is and isn't a new edition of the classic '01 game. Godlike spawned a host of great supplements- both for the original game (Will to PowerCombat Orders No. 2: Saipan) and for the more generic version, Wild Talents (see the many cool sourcebooks from the last two lists). But Arc Dream also consistently tweaked and developed the base Godlike game. They released a series of pdf supplements, expansions, and rules changes. This revision incorporates those, makes serious shifts to character advancement, adds many optional rules, and cleans up the layout. Its striking that this "1.5" version was produced via a Kickstarter campaign. That's an early KS rpg project (mid 2011)- and its levels pale in comparison to later games. But it’s important to consider the strength of interest that shows especially not for a whole new game or overhauled edition. Instead people wanted the classic game but brought up to date.

Godlike remains a striking game- a serious consideration of the role and utility of supers in wartime. While GMs can play with some of the dials, it remains a crunchy and realistic take on the genre. It is a far cry from Marvel (MT1: All This and World War II) or DC (The World at War. Consider how far Godlike’s away from the source material in decades. In the comics DC’s move away from a WW2 basis and legacy heroes makes sense. That's 70+ years ago. Still Godlike's an amazing game- and one which fully embraces its niche genre. Point buy. D10 Pool Resolution.

11. Heroes Wear Masks (2012)
Heroes Wear Masks is an adaptation of Pathfinder to superheroes. The industry has been relatively restrained in adapting PF to other genres. I have to wonder if that reflects lessons lesson from the d20 explosion or the difficulty of adapting PF and keeping the feel. I lean towards the latter. I'm not a Pathfinder player, but it seems particularly tuned to high fantasy. Heroes Wear Masks isn't standalone, it requires the core PF book. In covering supers, HWM takes a conventional approach. Origins are effectively races. Characters are built from somewhat directed classes which mix power type and approach (Energy Projectors, Detective, Combat Expert, etc). These have unique features (like the Brick's Basher and Power Stomp). Characters gain levels in a classic way and can multi-class. Powers have ranks representing effectiveness. It feels like a pretty straight adaptation. As such it seems like a supers game for groups that love Pathfinder. YRMV for other groups; reviews I've seen have been highly varied. Avalon has supported the line with a variety of pdf micro-supplements. Level and class build. Various dice resolution.

I've mentioned it before, but it’s amazing how distinctive and even revolutionary the various Marvel RPGs have been. Each has broken away from accepted approaches and gone for something novel (open and narrative driven Marvel Super Heroes, diceless The Marvel Universe Roleplaying Game, and card-based Marvel Super Heroes Adventure Game). In contrast DC adaptations have been more conventional. Marvel Heroic continues the trend, despite being an retooling of the previously used Cortex engine (which we just saw in Smallville). As I mentioned in the header, some supers rpg use highly abstract powers- making them roughly equivalent. For these a power operates as a narrative justification for an action. Marvel Heroic is probably the only major release superhero system which embraces that approach to power (if you consider Smallville only an also ran).

Marvel Heroic uses a dice pool system. For any action players build a set of dice based on several sources (affiliations, distinctions, power sets, etc). The game records these as a particular die type (d4, d8, d12, etc). Players roll the pool and generally add the two highest values rolled to get a rating. The highest die type remaining becomes the effect level. MHR has a few additional complications (ways to change the dice added, ones go to the GM, and other tricks) but that's basically it. The vast majority of powers and skills and such are simply written as an abstract term and a die type. (Iron Man's "Missiles d6," "Repulsors d8," Business Master d10," "Science Expert d8"). Some powers and other elements have SFX and/or Limits which allow an additional effect based on spends or circumstances. But generally everything's abstracted- and your choice of dice/elements is primarily restricted by your ability to weave it into the action description.

When MHR first hit, we saw a wave of game advocacy. I wasn't sure about it...I've still got Champions in my DNA. But my friend Nick ran a session at a local game day and I really enjoyed it. There's an embrace of the Marvel Universe I dig. The game's built around playing those characters. It includes rules for making up your own datafiles, but these are particularly loose. MHR doesn't strive for balance. It recognizes the inherently unbalanced nature of the setting and lets it go. There's parity in play and the mechanics keep it from feeling too out of whack. Combine that with systems for players building off each other, challenging milestones for development, and simple mechanisms to sacrifice for gain and you have a cool system. It also has a novel and workable rule for building up challenge over time.

Marvel Heroic grabbed everyone's attention when it hit. It took a novel approach by presenting several versions of the core book. Gamers could by it on its own, or they could buy it in combination with an event book- in this case the Civil War Premium Event Book. An Annihilation Premium Event Book was also promised, but apparently only came out in pdf form. By 2013, despite several products in the pipeline (including an Age of Apocalypse supplement) Margaret Weis pulled the plug. That seemed an unusual move- we've more often seen licenses run out or be yanked. It’s really too bad- MHR is pretty awesome and I'm not sure it would work nearly as well for a generic supers game. A good portion of the cool here comes from the setting and the way the system combines with that. Abstracted character creation. Various dice.

A Spanish-language supers rpg. I want to track down a copy of this. It appears to be a lengthy full-color production. The system draws at least a little from Fate according to the translated web blurb. Here's a bit of that, run through Google and cleaned up, "Betlam is a sick city, beset by corruption, crime and crazy costumes. For good people, living there be a nightmare, an ongoing dance with despair, danger and death ... But, for decades, someone ensures the safety of the innocent, fighting evil in everywhere in the city and keeping alive the citizens' hope for a better future. Because Betlam is under the gaze of the Sentinel.

Join Team Sentinel: don costumes and fight crime on the streets or stay at the base and become an expert who supports the guard so they can succeed in their mission. Or live in the world of Sentinel as another masked crusader, an honest cop trying to make a difference or an insane villain henchman falling into a self-destructive spiral. In the book you will find lots of pre-generated characters to get you playing right away and rules to incorporate your character in the story." Point buy. d10 Resolution

14.  Psi*Run (2012)
I might be stretching definitions to include Psi*Run here, but it’s a good game and worthy of attention. Players take the role of "Runners" who have psychic powers and amnesia. They’re pursued by former captors called “Chasers.” It reminds me of Runaways, the pre-New52 version of Gen13, and Breathtaker. There's also a little vibe of Brian Wood's Demo and old school gamers hear an echo of Psi World. But Psi*Run offers a more human and character driven game. Players develop their Runner by ;listing qualities and coming up with a power. The game plays out in scenes detailing the pursuit of the PCs by the Chasers. The players have two goals- get several locales ahead of pursuit and piece together their past. The game play is simple and elegant. It lends itself to creative play, with the group collaborating to build the story. Psi*Run offers a goal-oriented super-esque game for players not familiar with supers. A great one-shot engine.  Descriptive character creation. d6 Resolution.

15. Supers Unleashed (2012)
I'm lost about what to say on this game. It feels more like an outline for a supers rpg than an actual game. It has a deceptively attractive cover, followed 30 clean but oddly laid-out pages. A small suggestion- if you're doing the game pdf-only, you can afford to run a few more pages. You don't have to run everything out to the gutters. That creates weird contradiction when you glance through the book- at first is seems filled with detail, but when you look closely you see how empty it is.

Players have 100 character points which they assign to powers. Supers Unleashed advertises itself as having 171 Super Powers. That seems like a rich array until you realize a complete power description is "Arsenal: A character with Arsenal can change his hands and arms into any weapon imaginable allowing him to deal with any threat with lethal force." Essentially every power is just a narrative description. The same thing happens for the lists of technology, archetypes, limitations, and power sources. It feels disingenuous to pitch the game based on large game element lists when those amount to "make up whatever." Task resolution uses a d20 roll plus the level of the relevant power against a target number. In combat that's against an opponent's roll plus their defensive power. That's a simple mechanic, but seems problematic given the open-ended build. The GM section's equally vague, with a list of short-sentence adventure hooks, hero tropes, villain tropes, and character roll calls. Point buy. d20 resolution. 

16. Threshold (2012)
Originally I planned to lump this into the corner case listing, but Threshold’s oddness warrants an individual entry. For one thing the designer presents it in html format. That means when you extract the files you’er bounced around between them rather than getting a whole book. It’s also completely Creative Commons licensed. Threshold takes place in a near-future corporate controlled dystopia-light. Citizens serve at the behest and whim of these corporations. The PCs are experimental subjects who've gained powers from a corporation. But they're also terminally ill. To add to that the substance giving them their powers is finite and has to be replenished. It also builds up to toxic levels in their system. All of that plays into the dramatic nature of the game where players attempt to deal with their "Regret" and find peace. Powers and other elements are freeform, with little in the way of complex mechanics. Games consist of the PCs carrying out missions for their corporate masters and at the same time trying to come to terms with their emotion baggage. Threshold has an interesting premise, but feels underdeveloped. I'd be curious to see some actual play with it. On the one hand my instinct is that a light system (Apocalypse World or Fate) might give it some shape, but I'm not sure if that would act against the core premise. 

Thursday, June 26, 2014

Making Memorable NPCs: Play on Target Podcast Ep. 31

With summer comes a slightly more regular schedule to our podcast episodes. This week Play on Target takes on NPCs and how to make them compelling. We’re again joined by Sherri Stewart, who brings a player-centered perspective to the question. I think we manage to get through the episode without digressing into tales of our favorite GM characters. That’s for the best.

Sometimes when gamers talk about old-school I think not about system but about the kinds of stupid play we engaged in “back in the day.” Going berserk and shooting our allies in James Bond 007, attacking other players at the drop of a pin, playing chicken with the GM trying to break the game. There’s a whole period of my early days of gaming  I remember fondly in the general, but when I actually think about specific incidents, it wasn’t nearly as much fun as I remember. Of course we were young and more than a little stupid.

I recall a Rolemaster campaign, the third or fourth one we’d done with this GM. He always had wild plots, borrowed background elements from interesting sources, and we met highly archetypal NPCs. We were a ways into the game, perhaps a session or two after we’d lost another batch of PCs to E Tiny Crits, when something occurred to me. I turned to one of my fellow players, “R-----, have we ever met a woman in this campaign?” He thought about it for a bit and we went carefully back through every NPC we’d ever encountered. All of them were men. Then we thought about the previous campaigns, and realized everyone there had been male as well. It wasn’t that there weren’t women in these worlds- just that none of them had ever been presented as a significant NPC.

When we confronted the GM about that, he shook his head. Clearly we were wrong. The next session we met a Priestess. The GM played her uncomfortably- briefly trying to do a falsetto voice. After the first couple of scenes he mercifully dropped that. From then on, we met characters of various genders.

I don’t know exactly what the lesson there is- expect perhaps to say: take a look at your cast every once in a while. I consider diversity a positive feature, so I’ll enjoy a game more if I have a diverse set of NPCs.

It can be easy, especially if you’re improvising or not as comfortable with fully playing NPCs, to fall into a mode. You find a particular tone or approach that works for you and use it for all of your NPCs. You may not even realize you’re doing it. Everyone the party meets might be sagacious, gruff, or flowerly. Just as changes in pacing and up/down beats create contrast and therefore interest, varying your NPCs makes the world seem more dynamic to the players.

A number of years ago I had a GM who ran a Vampire campaign. It was good for the most part, with interesting plots and hooks. But eventually I came to dread playing it. Every time I spoke to an NPC they were condescending, snide, and arrogant. And it was a game where we mostly interacted with other vampires, so actually responding in kind didn’t work. Later I played in a Cyberpunk-esque game run by that GM. Again every NPC spoke from a position of superiority, treated us like dirt, or refused to even vaguely acknowledge our competency. Even when we were in a clearly dominant position, the NPCs smarted off and mocked us. After that I avoided playing with that GM.

While I’ve seen GM’s fall into other modes, the Always Superior NPC’s a particularly bad one. And I don’t mean that the NPC steals the spotlight or outshines the party. That’s a different issue. More they consistently act like they’re smarter and better. I don’t know exactly where that comes from. It may be that the GM doesn’t realize it comes across like that. When you hear your recorded voice, it always sounds different from the voice in your head. It might also be a question of self-confidence, of worry that the players might not think your the smartest person in the room. I played in a Steampunk game where I got that vibe from the GM- using his NPCs to show that he himself was better than the players. Of course that was the same game where the GM ignored our character builds and made us assume alternate identities at the start.

I thought I’d pull together some of my earlier posts on NPCs and NPC building. The earliest ones are pretty rough, but there’s some useful material and ideas there.

If you like RPG Gaming podcasts, I hope you'll check it out. We take a focused approach- tackling a single topic each episode. You can subscribe to the show on iTunes or follow the podcast's page at

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Crux: Urban Fantasy Campaign Seed (Part Six M-R)

The master of sea-borne trade in and out of Crux. He served as a Captain himself until a particularly vicious attack by the Lintha family left him and a handful of stragglers making their way back to port. Since then he has voyaged out a few times, usually on long term expeditions to secure contracts but in general he stays in Crux. He has a difficult task balancing the interests of the V’Neef family, An Teng’s fleets and the various nations of the West. His last voyage there in particular seems to have cost him dearly. Though he returned with impressive contracts his health suffered greatly. Since then, he has relied on his key Captains. He has also turned to the inimitable Modest Chain, who seems to have great influence upon him.

The Majestic Iron Road: The great central road of the kingdom. (Thing)
Menagerie of Perfection: Animal shop run by Chail. (Place)
The Merciful Company of Fletchers: Underguild run by Arexia Jadevine. (Person)
Mercy-of-Sky Passage: Major east-west passage through the mountains bordering Blossoming Pearl. (Place)
Meritous Draught: Tavern keep and owner of the Grievous Pit. (Person)
Mirrorstone Gap: Wall mine in the Dusk quarter. (Place)

Nellens Chenault Whispers, Satrap of Cascading Flowers
Each area in the Threshold that has full allegiance to the Blessed Isle and the Empress is considered a Satrapy. Many, if not most of these posts fall into the hands of the Dynast families and from these they draw resources and strength. The power of a satrap can be dictatorial, particularly in those places where the populace had to be subjugated, there have been threats of rebellion or valuable resources must be held. The Legions once were the great bargaining tool the Scarlet Empress held. Not only for conquest, but as an aid to allies in the Threshold to maintain civility, prevent invasion and keep back raids and supernatural foes. Now, however, many of the Imperial Legions have gone, absorbed into the various Great Houses and that which was both a carrot and a stick for places in the Threshold has vanished.

In the case of Cascade, the Satrap’s power lay mostly with the carrot. House Nellens, arguably one of the weaker of the Dynast families has acted here as a diplomatic embassy rather than as a controlling force in the country. In the past, Nellens could be counted on to provide some measure of military support to the area and in return the province handled their taxation and commerce duties in a timely manner. Those days may be behind them however and this has made the already ill-tempered Nellens Whispers a slowly burning powder keg. Whispers himself came from a particularly elegant and careful branch of his family. When he assumed this post ten years ago, it was to preserve the status quo and increase Nellens mercantile opportunities out of Arjuf. That worked well enough for a time, with Whispers contacts and cronies aiding him. However, with an empty throne, Nellens family as a whole has had to turn their forces, money and interest elsewhere. Whispers has been unable to gain much or provide support to the province as he would want.

Currently he is caught between three forces. The first is the Son of Wreaths, a ruler who can charitably be described as impractical. While the King grants great blessings and doesn.t ask much of the Satrap, when he does he expects it to be fulfilled. The second are two of the four neighboring kingdoms, Carta Mallus and Khedaal. Both have extensive resources, one in wood and the other in iron, both have strong Dragon Blooded family backing, and both share a long and abiding hatred for each other. Cascade has sat between them, protected by the treaties of the Empire for some time, but what will happen now is unclear. Certainly Whispers will have little say in that. Third within Crux and Cascade in general the question grows louder and louder, what Great Family will take the reins of power from Nellens. In the minds of many, this is a question not of if, but who and when. This has made the Satrap and unpleasant person to be around, particularly during his weekly reports.

Nellens Vadeeth, Satrapy Garrison Commander
Born of patrician family, Vadeeth became adopted the Nellens family when he exalted. Thrust into the complicated world of the highest nobility, he did his best to remain at the center- neither striving forward nor falling behind. As a result his time at the House of Bells, while formative, did little to earn him a place, contacts or a commission. He returned to his adoptive family where he served briefly in various roles until the disbanding and distribution of the Legions. The forces that came under Nellens command were quickly stripped of their former Exalted leadership. The only Exalts left in positions of power were those whose loyalty to the family remained unquestioned. Vadeeth took command of a small portion of the forces and eventually found himself assigned to the Cascading Flowers satrapy. These forces are not stationed at Crux, but rather split between Laurels of Ash and Keep of the Last Hour. Every six to eight months about half of the forces at each site rotate to the other, an overly complicated arrangement intend to keep the troops in marching order.

The forces granted to the satrapy are rather thin. In the past, more might have been given to ensure security of the area. Now they are token: enough to deal with bandits, small insurgencies, and riots perhaps but not much more. Vadeeth seems aware of this and unlike other garrison commanders does not press his power. Instead he tries to make sure that his organization keeps its leakage to a minimum. static forces such as these often have a high attrition of goods and troops. Vadeeth reports to Crux and Nellens Whispers once every three to four months. There are some reports concerning his most recent visit that suggest some tension between the two men which had not previously existed. Certainly, Vadeeth seemed to come away from the meeting with thunderclouds hanging above him.

Nihlus Means
The senior member of the Guild Council of Crux and the face of most transactions with the Guild. Nihlus has maintained his position by virtue of his great wealth and his contribution to trade from the Kingdom. It was his family that discovered a set of relatively cheap and effective preservatives for flowers that have allowed them to become a trade good in their own right. However, Nihlus has not aged well and has become known for strange outbursts and fits. The death of his granddaughter and daughter three years ago affected him deeply. However, no one has yet taken the step of openly speaking of replacing him.

Not: Town in Blossoming Pearl (Place)
Numina Gate: District in the western section of Day encompassing the schools, administrative buildings and sites of other higher matters. (Place)
Oaksaint Vross: Outcaste Dragon Blooded of Air and major sorcerer in Crux. (Person)

The Painter Families of Crux
Cascading Flowers Kingdom lacks in a great wealth of trade goods. Instead, it has a diversity of what could be generously called luxury goods: the specialty rices, unusual alcohols and a few rare gems. Its greatest resource, however, lies in its abundant and vibrant fields of flowers and herbs. Over generations, the artisans of the Kingdom have worked to develop unique uses for these materials. Floral perfumes, paper, dyes, inks, spices, and so on have been developed from their rich bounty. Unfortunately, as with all of the other goods produced by the kingdom they are produced in small quantities and are often subject to the vagaries of taste and fashion.
One notable product distilled from the flowers of the kingdom are the magnificent paints created. Developing vibrant colors which will both blend and sustain remains an art held with greatest secrecy among its peoples. Other places have to resort to cruder paints, made from char, minerals and ores. The flower based paints however, have never been duplicated anywhere else except by the most costly and intensive magical creations. The secrets of this art remain in the hands of the Son of Wreaths, a few select experts at Blossoming Pearl and those who developed them originally, the Painter Families of Crux.

Descending from a native people now vanished or intermarried into the population, these five (now four) families have dedicated themselves to the creation of paintings of exquisite quality and form. While related originally, these families have evolved into powerful rivals.fighting to create new techniques, gain clients and patrons, and assert influence over those who determine fashion. These battles can be brutal and nasty. Paintings such as those produced by the families of Crux have been used to commemorate occasions, seal agreements, conclude marriages and a host of other uses. The symbolic art of flowers, a language perfected in the kingdom, finds one of its highest expressions in the art of these painters.

  • Daykane: The painter family most currently in favor both with the Son of Wreaths and Dragon Blooded collectors
  • Castlight: The smallest of the painter families, barely more than a single line and some cousins.
  • Akias:  The Akias is the family that bears most strongly the marks of the heritage of the painter families
  • Wailingsong: Originally a house of some wonder but has become more conventional
  • Idomatu:  The lost family of the painters of Cascading Flowers Kingdom.
Piercing Heart: Retried Thorn of Day Quarter. (Person)

The Ricelands
The heart of Cascading Flowers Kingdom, the Ricelands are a wide range of semi-wetlands, kept moist by low ranging foothills, terrace farming and a complex network of irrigation channels and aqueducts. Rice is the primary food staple of the area and several varieties are grown. Much as they do with their complex and labyrinthine system for identifying flower species for collection and market, rice has become a complicated issue. Some argue about the beauty of the sweet short grains of the Kaffodo families, others applaud the long grain stickiness produced by the villages of Transhy. Certain rice grains have become luxury goods and on occasion, nobles and travelers tour the areas, crossing the wetlands and sampling rice and rice products at various well known locales. The sprawling and elaborate network of farms and paddies make travel through the heart of the area more difficult, especially without a guide. Strangers, depending on their appearance, make be seriously questioned. Most passing through instead choose to skirt the area, through the Weedlands, a region circling the Ricelands where the lowest quality rice is grown and farmers desperately try to stabilize the flats and marshes.

Thursday, June 19, 2014

Crux: Urban Fantasy Campaign Seed (Part Five H-L)

Haelex: Lake town in Carta Mallus (Place)

The Hand of Calming Repose
Over the centuries, the Guild has emerged as the only widespread group able to consistently parry the intent and control of the Scarlet Throne. Other groups exist such as the Seventh Legion at Lookshy, the Lintha Family and the Lord of Bulls, but these tend to be geographically isolated. Once the power and threat of the Guild was truly understood by the Empress, she undertook measures to prevent other groups from reaching this level. Accordingly, the Thousand Scales and the All-Seeing Eye were set to monitor the strength and development of the various Thieves and Assassin Guilds scattered in the cities of the Threshold. If these criminal groups seemed to possess contacts across borders, they were to be crushed mercilessly. If they had a significant number of Exalts, Dragon-Blooded Outcastes or otherwise, they were to be crushed mercilessly. If they had operated on the Blessed Isle itself, they were to be crushed mercilessly. If they did not match any of these three criteria, they would be left to their own devices. Over the years these unstated rules spread out within the Threshold and underworld leaders made sure to obey them carefully. The exception lay with the East and the Scavenger Lands where the reach of the Scarlet Empress remained less tangible.

It is believed that within Crux two bands of assassins exist, independently of one another and with very different intentions. The smaller and more recent of the two, the Gatetakers, likely has only a handful of members but each is said to be potent. They may well have non-mortals among their numbers and clearly came here from another region. Their killings are quick and artless. The other guild, The Hand of Calming Repose, has a long history in the area. Most assume that Crux hides their central base, but that is more speculation than confirmed truth. 

While they maintain no contacts with Assassins Guilds in other areas they have operated outside of Cascading Flowers Kingdom, with evidence of their work to be found in An Teng, Carta Mallus, the Grim Reach, Khedaal and The Lap. Unlike their smaller rivals, The Hand operates with care and art. Most victims are posed in positions of restful sleep where possible. To support this style, the Hand is said to possess expert craft in the manufacture of poisons. So much so that the occasional Dragon Blooded from the Realm has come here to purchase assistance in dealing with troublesome rivals. While no outright war has broken out between the two groups, eventually the Gatetakers will cut across the Hand’s line of interests. We can expect the resulting struggle to be messy to say the least.

Harken: Amputee veteran of the Fate.s Talon who advises commander. (Person)
Hasien Feng: Bane of the Day Quarter. (Person)
Haven’s Way: Road to Khedaal in Blossoming Pearl (Thing)
Hesaal Chain: Cloth Merchant and notable Outcaste. (Person)
Hollow Cliff: Coastal town in Carta Mallus (Place)

House of Profligate Letters
Six years ago, when Anaza Dwells-in-Dusk heard the first news of the absence of the Scarlet Empress and the placement of a regent on the throne, he decided the world would soon come to an end. Wealthy, but having inherited it and spent a goody bit on his love of ancient letters, poetry and fine volumes of history, his grasp of the lore told him that everything would fall apart. 

Accordingly he went on a vast and mighty bender that lasted six months and burned through the last of his money in an orgy of wine, whores, gambling, eating and various illicit substances. Having exhausted his resources, he holed himself up in his house and awaited the end; an end which did not come. It took several weeks and the sharp smell of decay from his house and his own body to rouse him to the realization that unfortunately the world had not ended. Suicide was not an option as it had an anticlimactic sense to it. Anaza realized he would have to find some means to support himself. Lacking other skills he turned to his hobby and decided to become a writer of fine words, flowery words, words such as you have never heard. He sought out a few of the most conceited persons in town, offering to provide them with letters to lovers and friends, speeches for gatherings and reports to be sent back to those above them. Over time, he gathered to himself a fine collection of clients.

Though he now lives and holds his business in the Dusk Quarter, he can often be seen traveling to the Day Quarter to quietly meet with a person of some repute. Anaza keeps the identities of his customers secret, though one can often tell when the speech of the ancients emits from the mouth of a cow that he has been at work. Anaza apparently believes that the world will collapse soon- just not in the immediate future. He saves up his commissions carefully and blows them on booze and whores during the major festivals. Each time he awakens from his binges he regretfully realizes that the world has gone on and he must return to work.

House of Ten Thousand Folds: Artisan house of tailors. (Person)

Hypothetical Codes of Intercession
One of the central purposes of the Immaculate Order is the maintenance of the proper role of things. There is a hierarchy of life, a chain of being that reaches from the lowliest insect at the bottom to the Dragon Blooded at the top. But it is more than just a hierarchy, it also includes the sense that each place has tasks, duties and proper areas given over to it. To reach or act beyond those limits is to invite disorder and chaos. This is part of the reason why within the Blessed Isle and those places in the Threshold where the Immaculate Faith has stronghold, Monks and Priests are the only ones who are to interact and deal with spirits and gods. This is more practical in the Realm, where the shadow of the Scarlet Empress lies heavy on the supernatural. In the Threshold this is not so. Day to day life may require making allowances for these being, for example Guild Caravans must maintain at least one ritual specialist to deal with the Road gods and all others they might cross on the way.

Cascading Flowers Kingdom is a prime example of a place which has a different relation. Numerous festivals and events honor the local spirits and gods, general superstitions hold sway over the populace in the countryside and Crux itself has its own pantheon of little deities and spirits. For the most part, this relation is amicable, but requires upkeep in honor, gifts and sacrifices. The Immaculate Order has permission to intervene only in the most serious of cases of these things abusing their position. The Scarlet Empress permitted the Kingdom to keep its relations with the spirits for two reasons. First it was among the first places to throw its lot in with the Empress and later, it was the birthplace of Adaiko, a favored consort of the Empress. This Outcaste, raised here, drew the attention of the Empress who took him as her lover. Their child, Adaika, grew to found her own Dynast House some five hundred years ago. However, it was eventually snuffed out by a coalition of rival houses almost two hundred years later- yet another Dynasty forgotten and lost in the Blessed Isle.

The agreement that binds and sets the relations between the spirits and the little gods in Cascading Flowers is called the Hypothetical Codes of Intercession. It requires that all spirits communicating with persons other than Dragon Blooded, the Immaculates, the Civic leaders and the line of the King must speak indirectly and mostly in metaphor. Some spirits are bound to alternately lie and tell the truth depending on the season or time of day. Most locals pay little heed to communications with spirits that seem to be direct as these are likely tricks. But symbolic actions and events carry great weight.

The lost family of the painters of Cascading Flowers Kingdom. Once upon a time they were notable for their great scrolls, paintings which unfurled to tell magnificent stories. However, they were destroyed, with some of their talent absorbed by the other families shortly after a peculiar incident. Chias Idomatu, a brilliant painter until that time, painted an amazingly offensive anti-Scarlet Empress painting. The painting itself had been a commission from House Nellens to the Court. The revelation of the actual content resulted in swift reaction and Chias vanished shortly after. The scroll which has come to be known as “The Empress Whore.” It is known (in some circles) to be in the possession of House Ragara.

Iron Petal: Fortress town in Blossoming Pearl. (Place)
The Kaffodo Families: Rice growing group. (Person)
Karascend Bastion: Palace Bastion in Crux. (Place)
Keep of the Last Hour: Fort and town in Blossoming Pearl on the edge of Khedaal (Place)
Khedaal: Neighboring kingdom to the east (Place)

Khopus Barge
The apparent current director of drug and slave trade coming into and out of the kingdom. Khopus’ veneer is thin. Unlike others who heavily cloak their activities in legitimacy, Khopus maintains only a slight illusion that he trades in real goods. Some suspect that he did not want to inherit this business but was forced into it. Shortly after he assumed this role, a number of his family members died in brutal and unpleasant ways. Khopus is currently waging his own war against the rural Thieves Guild known as the Freeing Grip. They have been particularly active against his operations and caravans.

One of the six districts of the Dusk Quarter of Crux, and perhaps the seediest. One of three districts that make up the outer band of the quarter, it hugs closest to the south stairs throughout the night. The southern entrance, called the Burning Stair, is known popularly as Thieves. Gate. Since people can travel up and down as they wish without charge and is has fairly broad avenues, it is the most popular for those with the least coin. City administrators take little care of this entrance beyond having the Watch maintain the most basic monitors. As a result, walking the stairs can be a trial. Rain pours down in when the skies open up, ice sometimes forms across it in the coldest seasons and in summer. Though the light in Dusk Quarter is dimmed, the heat from the devices that draw in the sun can murderously bake those traveling on it. Evenings in Knifepoint often begin with small gangs- street toughs and worse- gathering at the base of the Thieves’ Gate stair, watching for likely marks and stragglers. Often these groups, when not fighting among themselves will filter out to the other districts to gain their entertainments.

The Dusk Watch presence in Knifepoint is strong, but devoted in great part to keeping trouble well contained within the area. Glain Kolath Bloom, the Thorn of Dusk Quarter, feels that this keeps the inevitable to a minimum. Knifepoint, unlike the other districts, has Watch guards constantly rotated through. Every member of the Dusk Watch must spend at least five days a month at a watch station or on patrol in Knifepoint. The rest of their time is spent at one of the five other districts of the quarter: Charton (the outer band lying to the east of Knifepoint), Bloodwash (the outer band lying to the west), Stonespoke (the very center of the Quarter surrounding the pillar), The Gavels (the area next to Stonespoke that hangs to the north during the day), and Grace’s Hold (adjacent to Stonespoke and hanging south during the day). While this policy is intended to avoid corruption, it also means that the Watch members have little connection with the residents of the district. This may be Glain’s intent as well. Still, despite the dangers and troubles there, many live in Knifepoint- staying in packed cheap houses, squatting in collapsing buildings or huddling in alleys. Those who practice the subtle arts of lifting, cutting purses or pick pockets find that Knifepoint makes an excellent avenue of escape. Few with sense will follow a thief into the area. However, thieves who make such an escape must also watch for bigger fish waiting there for such a meal to come running to them.

Lantern Courts: Day district comprising the public and entertainment areas in the east. (Place)
Last Flower: Furthest southern town in Blossoming Pearl, caravan post. (Place)
Lavender Gate: Town in Blossoming Pearl (Place)
Leodis of the Wane: Owner of the Garden of Ablutions. (Person)

Lock Gate: The western gate of the Day Quarter (Place)