(Edited 20/4/2020 to correct “Issue” to “Series” when referring to the campaign, and “session” to “Issue” for each individual adventure. Oops.)
Spectaculars is the brand new superhero RPG by Scratchpad Publications, the label under which former D&D fifth edition designer, Rodney Thomson, has been producing games since leaving WotC a few years back. I missed out on the highly acclaimed Dusk City Outlaws when it Kickstarted back in 2017, which offered low-prep heist action. As a big fan of the superhero genre, there was no way I was going to miss out on his next offering when Spectaculars came to Kickstarter in 2018.
It arrived last week and its fair to say I wasn’t disappointed.
Behind the Mask
Spectaculars comes in a big euro boardgame-style box, chock full of cards, pads and dice. The boardgame analogies don’t end with the contents, as the rulebook is kept relatively slim (just 60 pages, in the same large square shape as the box). You can see Rodney’s experience in designing board games as well as RPGs shining through, as the rulebook only contains the essential rules to play, relying on the other components – primarily several decks of cards covering Powers, Secret IDs, Complications, Team roles – to pull their weight in detailing the rules that apply to each element.
No extensive lists of abilities here: if you want to know what an Energy Blast does, look at the Energy Blast card. Not great for GMs who want to know the ins and outs of every single rule in the game, but makes for much more accessible rulebook and suits the low-prep, high player-trust intent of the game.
Incredible Tales of Urban Warriors, #273
As you know, I’m usually about the crunch. But in Spectaculars, where the numbers you roll against actually come from is pretty interesting, so I’m going to start there. And as a story-led game, it all begins with the “Series”.
Series is Spectaculars’ name for a campaign, which reflects the game’s extremely strong tone towards emulating superhero comic books. This is worth emphasising: this isn’t just a superhero RPG, it’s a superhero comic book RPG. Throughout the game, Spectaculars provides comic book examples to illustrate each of its key elements, which makes it really clear what they’re referring to and helps fire your imagination. The box comes bundled with four ready-made Series, made up of around 12-13 “Issues”, which are provided on tear off pads and is an element that feels like a legacy boardgame as much as an RPG. As you play the Issue, you will mark up the sheets to reflect how your game went, creating a lasting record of your campaign as well as making it unusable for repeat play (no biggie – us kickstarter backers have it all on pdf to reprint and replay!). Not only does each Series describe a unique campaign story, it also has a distinct tone, which is reinforced throughout the game.
- The first few pages of each Series provide the available Team types (e.g. for the urban heroes Streetlight Knights series, you pick either Mentor & Wards (e.g. Batman and his extended family) or Neighbourhood Watch (e.g. Birds of Prey). The tear-off Team Roster tracks the members, the team’s reputations and gets you started with three hooks: what brought you together, your mission, and what could happen if you fail.
- Next, you get a bunch of hero Archetypes specifically suited for the theme and tone of the Series. These get you thinking about who your hero is and what their powers represent. Each Archetype also gives one special ability – e.g. the Speedster gets to bump up their initiative, going earlier in conflict scenes.
- Finally you get the GM content: a few Villain sheets, which give the template for the first baddies the heroes will have to face, and around 12 Scenario sheets – the “issues” – each designed for a single session and requiring just a few minutes read through to prep.
One cool thing is that as you progress through the Series, as well as getting new Scenarios and Villains, you also occasionally get new hero Archetypes, so if a hero falls by the wayside for whatever reason, you get interesting new options as the story progresses. E.g. after Issue 2, Streetlight Knights introduces the Investigator and Pulp Hero archetypes, and after Issue 11, you get the Secret Agent.
So, you’ve picked your Series, your Team and your Archetype – what next? Powers. Draw 5 Power cards, choose up to 3. Your first is rated at 80%, then 70%, then 60%. If you pick fewer, you get more Hero Points which let you do cool things. Again, the Series gets involved, with powers chosen from a deck made up of 25 common powers and 15 Series-specific. You won’t get a Utility Belt in a cosmic superhero game, nor will you have magical Healing in your street-level investigations. They’re rounded off with 5 basic powers – Strength, Energy Blast, Flight, Toughness and Signature Weapon – which you can pick instead of drawing at random.
Next, you draw an Identity card, again a mix of generic and Series-specific. These give you not only your job, but also your skills.
Finally, you choose a Team Role, which gives you a special ability which can be triggered by spending Hero Points, and gives you a sense of your tactical speciality within the team. Huntress and Nightwing are both street-level acrobatic martial artists, but while Huntress might use the Artillery role to do extra damage with her crossbow, as Tactician, Nightwing’s battlefield awareness can help teammates use power stunts more often.
The Mechanical Mayhem of the Machine Master!
Now we have some numbers. For the core mechanics, roll d% under your ability. Add Boons and Challenge dice to complicate things slightly (turning the basic d% into something more like FFG’s funky dice pools).
But what can each skills or power do? Anything. This is very much a free-form game in the style of HeroQuest or Fate – if you can provide the explanation, you’ve at least got a chance of doing anything you like with any ability. In addition, each power has a special Power Stunt which is usually limited by how often you can do it (e.g. with Phasing, you can ignore damage from an attack). The default use of powers is the “attack”: roll against the power’s % rating, and if successful you inflict the value of the roll in damage. Similarly, skills can often be used for mental attacks. However, if inflicting damage doesn’t make sense, you have other options such as stopping movement (e.g. Elastic Body power) or adding challenge dice (one effect of which is to reduce the damage of an attack, e.g. Forcefield power).
This is a great, flexible system that makes superheroics very dynamic and character-driven. It does require players to have a degree of creativity to ensure narrative options make sense, but the GM can actively influence things with the Boon and Challenge dice.
“So, Anton, you want to Sneak Around behind the gangsters and ambush them? It’s pretty dark down that alley, have a Boon die to help you!”
“Oh, Zara, using Throw Money at the Problem to bribe the gangsters? Again? Have 4 challenge dice, they’re still flush from last time you did that…”
So far, so good. A relatively simple, narrative-heavy, rules-light superhero game. Cool, but nothing spectacular (oh, please). What gives it that extra bit of hero magic, is the story structure around the mechanics.
I must stop Nefario, but Steve is waiting for me at the Prom!
Spectaculars uses a few different tools to help emulate comic books and reward players for doing so. Each Issue provides core scenes for the GM to run: any other scenes are created by the players using Interludes. Typically, these are used to gather more information, uncover clues or progress a personal goal. They are intentionally highly free-form: Spectaculars won’t tell you the PCs need to go to the Municipal Museum to find a clue as to Anubis’ evil scheme. The clue is (potentially) wherever the PCs want to look, the fun comes in determining what the obstacle is and how they overcome it. It requires a GM to think on their feet, but it’s entirely in keeping with the genre, again. And generally, each Interlude should have a simple, one-roll resolution, which keeps things fast and light.
Even more interesting are personal Interlude scenes. After the first Issue, every character should write their origin story, and gain an Aspiration and a Turmoil. I love that these aren’t included from the start, as this feels in genre – starting with the superhero and rounding out the character later. Then, before the opening scene of subsequent Issues, each Hero can frame an Interlude scene reflecting their Aspiration or Trouble, and earn that PC an extra XP advancement and a Continuity Token. This really helps tie character back-story into each scenario, in a way that really reflects the comic book genre. But with each Interlude recommended as being no more than 5 minutes, it shouldn’t get in the way of your traditional four-colour action.
As for that Continuity Token, it can be used to create Back Issues and Retcons. A back issue is a flashback scene to an earlier comic that gives you some information or advantage that relates to your current problem. A retcon establishes a new fact about a setting element, character or villain. Again, entirely in genre, and pure fuel for player creativity.
Jack, the yobbish wannabe-celebrity hero, needs information from the oily boss of a huge gambling corporation. He spends a retcon token, and establishes that he is in fact sponsored by them, with their logo proudly emblazoned across his super-suit. Now, getting that meeting is no problem. Whether he can get anything out of it, however, depends on Jack’s diplomatic skills. Oh dear…
You call that power, Megalad? Let me show you TRUE power!
And there’s more. The 40-page Setting Book contains key locations (Super-Science Lab! Crime Syndicate!) and major NPCs (Media Personality! The Agency Chief!) that crop up in most major comic book series. You fill this out collaboratively, building the world as you progress through the Issues.
Reputation tracks with the Media, Public and Government influence events throughout the Issues: maybe a high Public reputation helps calm some riots, or a high Government reputation brings unexpected help from on-high.
The Experience tracker awards Story Advancements as each hero engages with the Series and their personal Aspirations and Turmoils. Benefits range from traditional (extra skills, more hero points, improved powers) to transformational (new costume, mutation, take on the Mantle of the Bat!) – with a fifth and final Retirement advancement for heroes that reach the end of their story (giving a boost to your next character, which could represent a continuation of the previous character’s story as a clone, AI creation or even your former nemesis turned to good).
Lasting Repercussions are story-based consequences from the events of Issues, enriching the developing narrative for individual characters. For example, if a science-based hero helped defeat the Mad Scientist villain, they might gain “Vengeance of Dr Mystery”. Now, every future time they meet, Dr Mystery will get a growing bonus to attack their new-found arch-enemy (and in turn, granting the PC the option of a Nemesis advancement, giving extra hero points for any scene where the villain appears)
Complication cards help GMs add features to conflict scenes that split the heroes’ priorities. Do you spend your turn trying to defeat The Devastator, or tackle the fire that just erupted in the nearby apartment block (and earn a Hero point for doing so)?!
With four Series included in the box, plus clear guidelines on how to create your own (and a digital creator pack that means you can be absolutely certain fan-made stuff will be hitting the internet soon) you have enough content for at least 50 sessions of fast, furious, story-driven superhero fun. With the exception of those lucky people with twenty year D&D campaigns, this ought to be more than enough for anyone. At around £1 per session, that seems like excellent value to money to me.
Oh Captain Wonderful, however can we thank you?
I am super-excited by this game. I do love crunch, but from many sessions of the likes of Champions, Mutants and Masterminds, DC Heroes etc., I felt there was something missing from superhero RPGs – an over-emphasis on the mechanics of super-fights, but not enough on emulating the genre itself. I always thought HeroQuest would be an excellent basis for super role-playing, and in some ways Spectaculars is this game, only more so. This game has provisionally leapt to the top of my extensive SHRPG pile, with it’s vivid four-colour art, episodic super-heroic action, and genre-reinforcing structure.
Caveat: I haven’t played Spectaculars, so this review is based purely on a read-through and my usual over-enthusiasm for any RPG that includes cards and components (see also, my unnecessarily large WFRP3 collection). But I am absolutely dying to give this game a good run through, and not just a one-shot, but a campaign. So watch this space…
Will The Dicemechanic actually organise an Online Campaign of this incredible new game? Find out in the next exciting issue of Spectacular Super-Tales!!
Spectaculars cover art featured at the top of the page is by David Lojaya. Ah, sod it, the whole team deserve credit for this great game, so here it is.
And just look at that list of names. Designer of Marvel Heroic Roleplaying. Designer of Fate. Designer of M&M and Icons. Designer of Dungeonworld. Plus some prominent streamers/producers – let’s hope this game gets some internet air-time soon!