Tag Archives: Superhero

Spectaculars: the review

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

Components 1Spectaculars 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 Components 2element.

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 “Issue”.

Issue 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 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 Issue describe a unique campaign story, it also has a distinct tone, which is reinforced throughout the game.

  • The first few pages of each issue provide the available Team types (e.g. for the urban heroes Streetlight Knights issue, 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 Issue. 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, 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 Issue, 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 Scenario 2, Streetlight Knights introduces the Investigator and Pulp Hero archetypes, and after Scenario 11, you get the Secret Agent.

 

Origin Story

So, you’ve picked your Issue, 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 Issue gets involved, with powers chosen from a deck made up of 25 common powers and 15 issue-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.Secret_ID

Next, you draw an Identity card, again a mix of generic and Issue-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). DazzleThe 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 using a few different tools to help emulate comic books and reward players for doing so. Each session 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 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 session, 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 sessions, 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 Issue 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. ComplicationDo 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 Issues 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.

Spectaculars Credits

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!

 

Power Ranks – combining absolute and variable resolution mechanics

Time to throw a log of contemplation into the cold dead ashes of this blog burner.

Earlier this week, I read another excellent blog entry by always thought-provoking Rob Donoghue, one of the creators of Fate, around resolution mechanic based on TV tropes. Read it here:

http://walkingmind.evilhat.com/2015/11/02/the-tvgame/

The idea of rigid tiers of ability is something I’ve considered myself on many occasions, and it is one that pops up from time to time in RPGs. For example, Jonathan Tweet’s Everway. The actual model described by Rob, with near-automatic success over lower ranks, a small chance of beating a higher rank, and more nuanced conflict resolution within ranks pretty much describes Robin D. Laws HeroQuest / Hero Wars system to a tee.

This got me thinking a little about Superhero games. Building mechanics that allow you to reflect Awesome Man’s planet-moving abilities alongside Sneaky Man’s street-level gumption and then bring them together in satisfying game play is notoriously difficult. However, it strikes me that retrofitting a rank-based model into existing superhero games could go a long way towards solving this issue. There are numerous ways this could be done, but as food for thought, I’ll set one out below.

 

Rank Concept

Every character, power and ability is given a rank. These range from 0 to 5:

  1. Incapable. This character simply doesn’t have this ability in a way that can be used game-mechanically (e.g. physical strength for a 3 year old child)
  2. Normal human
  3. Above normal human (street-level hero or villain)
  4. Super-human
  5. Powerful super-human
  6. Cosmic super-being

Every character has a core rank. This is the default for every stat, skill, ability and power they have. However, you can also increase or decrease abilities on an individual basis.

  • An ability of a higher rank always beats an ability of a lower rank
  • An ability of a lower rank can only affect an ability of a higher rank if there is some kind of advantageous or aggravating factor (e.g. overwhelming odds, team work, a critical hit mechanic, exploiting a stated weakness)

To illustrate this by example:
Superman is a Rank 5 hero. It is impossible for any attack from a Rank 3 to hurt them (whether they just don’t hit, or they bounce off his Uber-tough skin, or whatever).

Batman is a Rank 5 hero* with Rank 3 physical strength. Although he can mix it with the big leagues, his physical attacks are impotent against many bad guys so he needs to find other solutions.

Wolverine is a Rank 4 hero with Rank 5 Claws. Those things can cut through anything.

*or could be. Other builds are available!

Ranks plus Conflict Resolution

The impact this has on the conflict resolution mechanics can potentially be quite dramatic. Points-buy systems typically give tough Heroes high levels of invulnerability or defences to reflect the fact they aren’t easily hurt. They then need to give equivalent high levels of damage to reflect the opponents that can sometimes hurt them. You then end up in a situation where any Villain that is a challenge to Superman will kill Batman in a single blow.

However, with a rank system you don’t need to do this. Instead of giving Superman a 25d6 punch attack, you can give him a Rank 5 8d6 punch attack. With that punch, he can damage any opponent he fights. But he won’t insta-kill a street-level thug just because he’s forgotten about the pulling-your-punch mechanics. Similarly, you can build a Captain USA character who looks like he’s just a normal human, but because he’s a Rank 4 hero, he can dodge bullets and duke it out with super-powered foes without needing to break in-game scaling mechanics.

Similarly, Batman has rank 4 Intimidate. Against ordinary bad guys, he doesn’t even need to roll. Against average super-villains, he uses his (high) skill. Against Justice League-level baddies he just glowers moodily.

To work at its very best, you need to separate out Combat mechanics from Non-combat mechanics. For example, Strength should reflect the ability to exert force on the game world but NOT reflect damage. This is a fundamental requirement to ensure scaling for things like Lifting doesn’t break scaling for Combat. It’s something I used to hate, because it broke my simulationist view of the real world, but the reality is we’re not simulating real world, we’re simulating comic book world and to my knowledge Superdude hasn’t punched anyone’s head off to date. As I recall, Silver Age Sentinels and related tri-stat games did just this.

Finally, a beneficial side-effect of this is that it can increase how much you are able to play in the game mechanical sweet spot. Hero System, for example, with its buckets of dice approach, offers quite different game play when the typical attack does 4d6 damage to when it does 15d6 damage (not least, because more dice reduces the likelihood of rolling extreme values). Using ranks, you can pitch the game at the level your group most enjoys whilst still allowing for apparently vast differences in powers and abilities.

 

Playing with the concept

The other fun thing about the Rank concept is it offers different ways you can play with it to make it work for your game.

For example, instead of linking it to hard-and-fast power levels, you can just use it as a relative scale. Rank 6 means you are the best at that in your campaign universe. Regardless of any other PC or NPC, you are the best. Want to be Usain Bolt? There ya go.

Another, related, way to use it is for niche protection. According to the canon, Superman has a genius-level intellect, yet in the Justice League he invariably plays second-fiddle to Batman – this is because Bruce invested points in Rank 5 intellect, giving himself niche protection as “the clever one”.

One option is to introduce rank auctions as part of a collaborative character generation, for a bit of competitive tension in the creation of the PCs. Not suitable for every group, or indeed every game, but forces you to ask yourself just how much are you willing to give up to be the best warrior in the kingdom?

Finally, for those characters like Batman who seem able to effortless scale up and down as befits the story, you can do away with multiple character versions or complex power-builds. Simply vary the character rank based on the story you want to tell and nothing else needs to change. (“Today, we’re playing a Rank 3 scenario”). Or create a power that allows a character to more easily raise his Rank: you don’t need a mob of Batmen to duke it out with Superman, you just need to remember that he can knows your weaknesses and he always has a plan…