Pandemonium: ICARUS

I’m not going to point out how far behind I am on blogging, anymore. It’s pretty much a given. I’ve got four more game reports to get up after this one, and a new Pandemonium game this Friday, so I want to get the report of the last session up before that.

Anyway.

We added a new character last session: Maker, a young man who developed nanotech, loaded himself with nanocolonies, and then had his tech stolen by Chimaera Systems. I figured that a good way to introduce the new character would be to have him approach the others1 and ask for their help in getting the2 nanotech back from Chimaera.

Maker was able to tell them that his lab was at the Bleak Island Research Facility3, so the group started plotting a way to get in and find the tech. They built up a number of assets to use in play, and managed to make a moderately stealthy entry to the site.

After dealing with some minor complications on the upper levels, they made their way down to the lab where Maker’s research was being examined and exploited. The project had been labeled ICARUS, and they found ICARUS PRIME, the first Chimaera test subject, ready and waiting for them.

I had reskinned an Iron Man datafile to act as ICARUS PRIME, with a few minor tweaks. This made for pretty tough character, and I gave him some assets and resources based on him being on his home turf. In addition, I had a pretty full doom pool – eight or nine d8s and d10s.

And here’s where I learned the secret4 of the doom pool. Big dice make the players feel time pressure – if I’ve got a d12 and a d10 in the pool, the players pull out all the stops to make things happen now, before I manage to get the 2d12 I can use to end the scene5. But, with a large number of smaller dice, you can make the villains you’re running just nasty! Lots of d8s and d10s mean that I effectively have a whole heap of plot points to roll more dice, get higher totals, make counterattacks, and generally mess with the heroes.

Now, I’m sure that this isn’t revelatory for everyone. I mean, I speculated about using the doom pool for pacing in a post way back here. But this was one of the first times I really started getting it. The shape of the doom pool – number and size of dice in it – creates different kinds of concerns and pacing for the heroes, and suggests and allows different kinds of tricks and benefits for the Watcher.

The upshot of this is that I’m going to be looking for different ways to use the doom pool to create interesting pacing and challenges in the game. I’m curious to see how it works out.

So, this Friday, it looks like it’s going to be a small group – three out of five heroes – and they’re going to resume their hunt for Whisper, the Phage Worms, and the Chant.

What could possibly go wrong with that?

  1. Famous as the Heroes of Gotham after they saved all the citizens on the bridge a couple of sessions ago. []
  2. Very dangerous. []
  3. Colloquially known as Monster Island. []
  4. Well, A secret, anyway. []
  5. I don’t always just end the scene when I get the 2d12 – it can be too easy to rack up the dice and that makes it just feel cheap. []

Pandemonium: Chasing the Chant

I’m behind on posts again1. We’ve got the next session of Pandemonium tomorrow night, so I need to get the post of the last session up tonight.

Now, in my last Pandemonium post, I talked about how I was looking at restructuring some of the gameplay to help speed up the combats. I did the extra prep2, got it all typed up, and was feeling both smug with getting it done and eager to see how it would work in play.

And, of course, my players decided to go chasing after a completely different thread that I had mentioned the session before kind of in passing3, a thread that I hadn’t prepped at all. I thought for a brief moment about saying that I wasn’t prepared for that and asking them to continue with one of the other threads4. I didn’t really want to do that, though, because I’m trying to revive the game after a long dormancy, and that means getting the players interested and excited again.

Instead, I told them that I hadn’t prepared this part of the game world, and that I’d be improvising madly while I ran it. I asked for their indulgence if things went a bit off the rails, or if I needed to ask for a short break to look something5 up. They agreed, so I took a deep breath, and jumped.

I learned something interesting in doing that. I learned that MHR is not nearly as hard to improvise in as I had thought it would be.

The thread they wanted to chase was a series of murders, each with a larger number of victims, that sounded very like the psychic parasites – phage worms – that Inquisitor had chased from his dimension to this one. They’re called the Chant, and their leader is a creature called Whisper. Phage worms burrow into living creatures, and use the lifeforce of their hosts to power their psychic abilities. When they wind up fully depleting the host, they find another one, leaving behind a withered, aged husk.

Whisper had been using his abilities mainly to pull more phage worms across into this dimension to help build an army that he can then lead back to conquer his home dimension. Inquisitor had come here to make sure that didn’t happen. When he saw the murder files with a pattern that only he recognized6, he brought the other members of the Guardians in on the case.

Through some investigation7, they managed to track down the latest batch of phage worm hosts to an abandoned tenement in the Narrows. Our heroes managed to clear most of the squatters out before things went to hell, but things did, in fact, go to hell. There was a pitched battle that started a fire, and lots of collateral damage, but the heroes were true heroes, making sure that the innocents in the building all got clear.

But things were not really going their way and, when I finally ended the scene with 2d12 from the doom pool, I brought the building crashing down on them, with Inquisitor winding up in the basement with a shadowy, huge, misshapen figure gloating at him – Whisper.

That’s where we left the game.

We’re adding a new player tomorrow night. His backstory has given me the hook for the session and a way to get everyone involved. It should be fun.

Now, for a bit of musing.

One of the things I discovered as I ran MHR as a seat-of-the-pants improvised game is that I’ve been thinking about the way the system works a little incorrectly. At least, a little incorrectly for me.

I have a tendency, when running MHR, to fall back on the mechanical aspects of it a little too readily. I ask for a lot of rolls, and let the players use their effect dice to build assets and stunts and resource dice that they can use later. There’s nothing wrong with that, but it does lead to a lot of rolls. And rolls in MHR can be slow.

Running with fewer solid stat blocks meant that I called for fewer rolls, because every time a character builds a dice pool to roll, I have to build one to roll against them. Not having the stat block meant that I was reluctant to call for a roll because of the slowdown it would cause as I figured out the Watcher character’s dice pool.

And it worked just fine.

When I did need to make a roll and I didn’t have a solid stat block, I eyeballed things and grabbed a handful of dice based on stuff I made up right at that moment. I pulled in stuff already established in the game – scene distinctions, the nature of the character, etc. – but then I just tossed in a couple more dice – usually d8s, sometimes d10s – to make it a respectable pool.

And it worked just fine.

Now, I wouldn’t do these things in important scenes – fighting the adventure’s big bad, for example – because that cheapens the victory for either side. But for lesser things – mooks, minor actions, stuff like that – it’s something to keep in mind to keep the game flowing.

But the really interesting thing that I learned by doing this improv session is that the powers aren’t necessarily mechanical constructs of the game8. They are more in the nature of narrative cues for both the player and the Watcher. Same thing with the SFX – actually, same thing with pretty much any die on the character sheet.

What does that mean? It means that I need to remember Vincent Baker’s brilliant advice: “Say yes or roll the dice.” The dice are there to provide the flavour for the characters’ awesomeness, and as long as the player is holding to the spirit of the character, it doesn’t really matter if the rulebook description of the power says that it can or can’t do something. If it’s something that would look awesome on the page of a comic book, and it makes sense for a character like the one being played, then go with it. Don’t get mired down in the minutiae of the building of the dice pool – get excited about the narrative and description the player is building into the game.

It’s a valuable attitude shift, I think. We’ll find out tomorrow night if I can maintain it and use it effectively.

  1. Well, still, really. []
  2. Coming up with pre-rolls for the non-starring characters, with totals and effect dice for the standard things they do. []
  3. That’s not quite right. It’s a thread tied to Inquisitor’s backstory, and I had been neglecting it, so I gave him some info about it as a side thing in that session. []
  4. Which I think is a fair thing for a GM to do. And I just erased five more sentences from this footnote, so I think this may merit a post of its own. []
  5. Like, say, a datafile that I could reskin to be an appropriate villain, for example. []
  6. Obtained by Artemis, who has joined the GCPD in her civilian identity. []
  7. Honestly, I don’t remember all the details of what they did, but they did stuff that worked. []
  8. Of course, they are mechanical constructs of the game, but they’re not just that. At least, they don’t have to be. []

Pandemonium: Swarm

Things have been kind of busy around the old homestead, here, with pressure and stress coming from both the personal and the work sides of life. It’s meant I’ve been neglecting… well, a number of things, but the Pandemonium campaign is the one that most needs addressing.

This particular session of the game took place back near the beginning of August. Since then, I canceled one game due to illness and just haven’t gotten around to scheduling another. Now, a two-month gap in play is a danger sign for a campaign1, so I want to get this post up and try to schedule the next session ASAP.

The play summary for this session is, because of the gap, a little sparse on detail, so I’m going to lay out the events I remember in point form. I invite the players to add to2 this list in the comment section.

  • Things started with our heroes interrogating Sparky, the prisoner from the previous adventure, at Artemis’s apartment3.
  • They didn’t seem to make much of an impression on the cocky4 young kid, so they let him go. Not without putting a5 tracking device on him to follow him home.
  • Warlock scried on Sparky’s meeting with Magus, and saw a couple of his other henchmen there. One of these henchmen was decked out like a vodun priest, and he seemed to be able to detect the magical spying. Warlock, however, reached through the the link the priest was creating, and rendered himself undetectable by the priest. EVER6.
  • Artemis and Inquisitor used some of the Orrakachu tech to create a device for detecting dimensional incursions7.
  • They used the detector be on the scene when an incursion happened on one of Gotham City’s bridges, unleashing a horde of insect-like incursives8.
  • There was some crossed communication during the fight, when Artemis was able to shut the incursion down, but had to hold off because a couple of the others had – willingly or unwillingly – gone through the rift to the alien dimension.
  • On the other side of the rift, they found lots and lots more of the insect creatures, as well as some giant bugs that seemed to be controlling the actions of the smaller ones, in a cliched-but-effective insect hive mind kind of deal.
  • Vastly overmatched, they retreated, shut down the incursion, stabilized the bridge9, and got the surviving civilians to safety10.
  • The very public operation, saving people from alien bugs and preventing a bridge from collapsing, prompted the gang to use some XP to cement a Heroes of Gotham d6 permanent resource for the team.

So, that was pretty fun.

Now, let’s talk about some of the difficulties I’ve had running this game.

For all the parts of it that I love, MHR has two main flaws as far as I’m concerned: combat can be slow to run, and it can take a significant amount of time to prep for a game system.

I’ve talked about the speed of combat before. Because villains and heroes share the same stat makeup and mechanics11; and because each turn requires the creation of two dice pools, two rolls, and two sets of calculations; and because of the way the initiative system works; there can be a significant12 time period between a character’s turn. This is just an artifact of the system. The fact that there are active defense rolls can help mitigate that, but if a character is just not a target, that doesn’t really come into play.

On our annual trip down to GenCon this year, Clint and I were talking about this, and he suggested that, for the non-boss villains, it might be faster to give the character a set roll and effect die for the stuff they do. That would cut down a lot of the time the Watcher uses to build dice pools, many of which are just the same from turn to turn, anyway.

Now, coming up with the the average for the kinds of mixed dice pools used by MHR is complex. Sitting down with dice, scratch paper, and a calculator, I could probably have roughed things out eventually, but then I discovered this Firefly RPG Dice Pool Calculator. It’s not ideal, because it doesn’t take into account the idea of the effect die, but it’s close enough for my purposes.

I’ve been struggling with how to assign an effect die13, how to adjust the total based on spending doom dice14, and how to assign 1s to the roll15. I know just enough about probability math to recognize that the simple ideas I have for this won’t be accurate reflections of the actual probability, but not enough to be able to properly model these elements simply and elegantly.

Then I realized that this was a game, not a math paper or computer program, and I could stop sweating it so much.

Thus, I have come up with the following simple rules to address these issues:

  • Effect die is the second largest die in the pool. For a pool of d10 + d8 + 3d6, effect die is d8. For a pool of 2d10 + d6 + d4, the effect die is d10.
  • Adding a doom die to the roll increases the total rolled by a number based on the die type. d6 = +1, d8 = +2, d10 = +3, d12 = +4. This is far from accurate16, probability-wise, but it’s simple, quick, and isn’t too nasty for the PCs. We’ll see how it goes.
  • 1s will be assigned based on the Average # of Jinxes on the calculator. For example, a dice pool of 4d8 has an average number of jinxes of .50, so every second time I roll that pool, it will be assigned a 1 for the characters to buy, recorded as 1/2. This means that there won’t be multiple 1s in these pools very often, but again, it’ll speed things up without unduly screwing over the heroes.

So, that means that, for a troop of Orrakachu soldiers with a dice pool of 1d10 + 5d8 for their attacks, the attack line will look something like this:

Orrakachu Soldiers Attack Pool Total 14, Effect Die d8, 1s 2/3.

Again, this is not mathematically sound as far as probability goes, but I really care less about that17 than I do about making things run smoothly and a little more quickly in combat. Things are a little weighted in favour of the villains this way, but I figure that will balance with the fact that the players will quickly figure out the numbers they have to beat for their rolls, and will use that knowledge to finesse things a bit as far as spending PPs and other tricks go.

And, of course, I won’t be using this method for the big bosses or for smaller fights. Just to help me run larger, more complex combats.

The downside to this approach is that it feeds into the prep time of the game.

Prep time for MHR is not overwhelming like D&D, but it’s also not trivial, like Apocalypse World. Because it’s a comic book game, one of the assumptions is that there will be interesting superhero battles, and that can involve some fussing about ahead of time. Mook-type opponents are very simple to stat up, but any real opponents requires some thinking and tinkering to build something appropriate.

For the most part, I look through the large number of stat blocks available both in the MHR books and online, find something that fits, and reskin it. On occasion, I use the random datafile generator that MWP released to create something brand new. Both these methods are somewhat time-intensive, though; it’s not like I can throw together an impromptu session quickly.

Now, to use the average roll method outlined above to speed up play, I will have to put in some more prep time, converting the stat blocks to have the averages reflected. That’s not a huge deal, but it is an extra demand on my time which, right now, is at a premium.

The way I try to address this is by prepping some utility stat blocks and fights whenever I prep a session’s stats. I make a scene or two that I don’t think will get used in the current session18 and can be easily repurposed for another session. This usually means I tie it to one of the side plots, and produces the useful effect of creating a stockpile of themed scenes that I can later turn into a primary plotline for a session or three.

It doesn’t make things faster, prep-wise, but it does mean it’s a little more efficient in producing results that can help reduce prep down the road by front-loading the work.

Anyway, that’s the kind of stuff I’ve been thinking about with Pandemonium. I’m going to send out some e-mail to my players to try and book the next session – that’s when I’ll find out for sure if the game has lost too much momentum, or if we can salvage it.

I’m hoping it’s not dead yet. But if it is, it’s my fault for leaving it hanging.

  1. Campaigns have momentum. If you lose it, it can be very, very hard to get it back. []
  2. Or correct, if I got something wrong. []
  3. And what could go wrong with one of Magus the Maggot’s minions knowing where Artemis lives? []
  4. Also brainwashed. []
  5. Mystical, I think? []
  6. It was a really, really good roll. []
  7. “Hey Rick, can I make a device to help us find dimensional incursions?” “You mean an Adventure Plot Detector? You bet!” []
  8. I used the stats for the Annihilation Horde from the late, lamented Annihilation event book that almost got published. []
  9. Which was near to collapsing at this point. []
  10. Escher had got an early start on this bit, using her mind control almost as soon as she arrived. []
  11. For the most part, anyway. []
  12. Over an hour, at one point. []
  13. Necessary for the basic mechanics. []
  14. A nice-to-have requirement for the mechanics. []
  15. Not crucial, but some powers key off the opportunities represented by the 1s. []
  16. For most dice pools, the straight bonus is a significantly larger boost than probability dictates. []
  17. A lot less, in fact. []
  18. But which might. []

Pandemonium: Against the Maggot

I am waaaay behind on the blog. There are five posts that I want to get up before GenCon next week, so things are going to be busy here the next several days. It also means that some of the play reports may be a little sketchier than you’re used to seeing here. That’s a product of both me rushing to get things done and the fact that some significant time has passed since the actual play session.

Sorry about that.

Now, here’s the first post. One down, four to go.

There was a big gap between the first session of Pandemonium and the second1. On the one hand, that sucks because it’s easy for games to lose momentum with big gaps in play, especially in the early phases. On the other hand, it gave me some time to build in reasons for the stuff that happened in the previous session so that, when our heroes started investigating what was going on, I’d have stuff for them to find and learn.

First thing I needed to do was decide who the incursives2 selling the tech were. Also, what they wanted, and what the tech was.

It was around thisabin-sur time that I found Names: The Story Games Name Project 3, and started looking through it for good alien names. There’s a section called Orrakachu that had names with the right sound to them4, so I decided the incursives were from the Orrakachu Hegemony, and started pulling names from those lists. A bit of web searching led me to a picture of Abin Sur from the Green Lantern movie that I liked for the look of the Orrakachu.

As far as the tech goes, I thought it would be interesting to make it three suits of Orrakachu battle armour, so that’s what I did.

The background on the Orrakachu was pretty basic, but I needed at least a little in case the heroes went looking for it5. I decided the Orrakachu were controlling, but not necessarily warlike or evil, incursives. Their MO was to come to a new world, destabilize it, and then persuade the controlling powers of the world that they need to join the Hegemony as a junior member, ceding control to the Orrakachu.

I also came up with why they were selling this stuff to Magus the Maggot and his Styxx gang, and why Magus was co-operating with them, but the characters haven’t figured that out, yet, so I’m not talking about that here. You’ll just have to wait to find out when they find out.

So, with the backstory figured out, we were ready to go. When I6 got the players together in a room and we got to play, they started digging into the mystery of the previous session.

One of the cool things they started doing was co-opting elements of the setting, such as one of the dirty cops from last session, into resources for themselves. I love when characters start interacting with the setting they created and using it for their advantage – not only does it help make the world seem more alive and vibrant, but it also gives me tacit permission to use the things from the setting to make their lives interesting7.

Anyway, they found out the above information about the Orrakachu, and they did some testing of the Orrakachu tech8. They even arranged for a meeting with Magus the Maggot to find out what was going on. That’s where things went a little wrong for them.

Sure, Magus was happy to meet with them. He even set up a location in the Catacombs to do so. But Magus was still a little miffed about not getting the tech he paid for, and also not getting back the money he paid for it. Our heroes had both, and didn’t seem at all inclined to give any of it to him. Thus, the best course for him was a nasty ambush.

I played a little dirty with this fight, partly because the fight in the previous session had been deliberately easy so as to let the players get used to their characters and the system. One of the players had created Magus and his gang as part of her background, and some of the stuff she created made me think of the Purple Man‘s abilities, so I re-skinned him for Magus. I re-skinned a couple of other Marvel characters for Styxx enforcers, and gave them all a few assets in place to reflect their preparation for the fight. Then, I opened with Magus breaking down Escher’s control over her telekinesis9, which blasted all the heroes into different corners of the room.

The fight was pretty tough for the heroes, and I seem to recall almost taking out two of the characters10. In the end, Magus and one of his enforcers fled, all his low-level thugs were taken out, and the heroes managed to capture one of the enforcers11. So, the heroes were victorious, but it wasn’t an overwhelming win. And the grudges on both sides have a chance to grow.

And just as I’m writing this, I have remembered that I promised to send some e-mail to a couple of players who want to rework their Milestones12. That’ll happen tonight, folks. Sorry about the delay.

Anyway, Saturday is the next game. I’m looking forward to it.

  1. Thank you, heavy work schedule, and life schedule, and leaky bathroom ceiling, and bronchitis. []
  2. “Incursive” is the word that came up during setting creation to describe extra-dimensional beings who have entered Gotham City via a dimensional incursion. It was a nice example of natural development of terminology, so we kept it. []
  3. This is an absolutely great book for coming up with a bunch of names for games, as you might imagine from the title. I heartily recommend it to gamers and writers. []
  4. Also a table entitled Weird Honorific that’s just awesome. []
  5. And they did, so well done me! []
  6. Finally. []
  7. Which often means “more complicated.” []
  8. Netting them some nice assets, as well as potential new powers if they decide to go that way. []
  9. Activating her Uncontrollable limit. I rolled really well for his attempt, and then gave the player the option of rolling a reaction, or letting him activate the limit, for which she would gain a PP. She chose the PP. []
  10. Well, at least one. []
  11. That’s right, isn’t it guys? You caught Sparky? []
  12. Character creation in MHR is really easy, but it lacks the kind of structure a lot of players expect from an RPG. The trickiest part of character creation is coming up with Milestones, because they have to both suit the character concept and the campaign. So, that means we need to tweak them sometimes. []

Pandemonium: Gun Bust

Last Friday was our first session of my new Marvel Heroic Roleplaying campaign, Pandemonium. We had previously done a setting creation session, and a character creation session, and now we were finally getting to play.

In between the completion of the character creation session and the actual play session, there was a fair bit of work getting the characters finished and tweaked, and getting the setting bible finished1. I am really pretty pleased with the way the setting and characters turned out. And I’m especially pleased that we got the feedback loop going. You know what I’m talking about – ideas from the setting inform the characters, and the development of the characters fleshed out the setting.

You’ll notice that, in addition to the actual setting elements, I’ve added a few extra sections to the bible:

  • Milestones. These are simultaneously one of the coolest and one of the slipperiest elements of the game. Using them is absolutely great in helping characters bring up the issues that they are most interested in during play, but coming up with good Milestones is tricky. So, I created a couple specific to the setting, and stole several others from various published MHR products, tweaking them as necessary. The plan was that the players could either pick from the list or use the ones in the bible for inspiration2.
  • Experience. Unlike most other RPGs, experience in MHR is best spent, not in “leveling up” your character, but in unlocking various campaign resources34. This section spells out how to spend experience points, including listing an assortment of campaign resources at various levels of expense and utility for characters to spend their XP on.
  • Pushes, Stunts, Resources, and Assets. One of the things that I had a lot of trouble keeping straight in my head during the Civil War game was the differences between all the ways you could get an extra die to roll in your die pool. I wound up playing very fast and loose with it, and that really contributed to the power-bloat that caused me problems in the game. So, this campaign, I spelled things out so we were all5 on the same page with how these things worked. I also added the idea of Flashbacks, stolen from the Firefly RPG, to allow the characters to fill in some backstory in order to boost the die they get for what they’re doing.

Eventually, I’m going to get this stuff up on a wiki, but at least I got it out to the players in time for them to read it before the game.

Anyway, when people showed up, I spent some time running through the basics of the mechanics for the game. Once that was done, I dropped them right into the action scene.

With the time spent at the start of the game talking rules6, and the fact that the initial session of a new game is always going to be slow as people learn the system, I picked a very simple first action scene. They had found out about a weapons buy by the Styx, a local street gang, at a warehouse in the Narrows. A group of Styx gang members were meeting some mysterious weapons sellers, with local corrupt cops providing security.

To help learn about the way that Resources and Assets work, I told the characters that, though they were at the warehouse and the buy was about to go down, they each had a chance to set something up retroactively. So, Warlock conjured a ring of tiny watcher lights to keep an eye on the warehouse, Escher put together a pouchful of sleep gas bombs, Artemis7 sealed up the main doors with her telekinesis, and Inquisitor wired some nightvision goggles into his helmet. Once that was done, I explained how the turn sequence worked, and let them choose who was going to start.

Opposition-wise, I had put together simple stat blocks for the gang members and the police. There were five in the gang mob, and two mobs of three cops each. For the sellers, I used the Kree soldier stat blocks from the Annihilation event book8, and threw in the Kree Captain as a boss. Now, I didn’t describe the sellers as Kree9, but people could see the stat blocks I was looking at, so I explained that I was just looting the stats, not the details.

I also added a short list of things that I could spend Doom Pool dice on, ranging from reinforcements for the various factions to an explosive dimensional breach occurring. This was to make the Doom Pool more threatening to the players, which in turn increases the tension of the action, and seemingly raises the stakes of what’s going on. Also, it lets me spring some cool stuff on the heroes.

The heroes sprang into action and, through good planning and being awesome10, they managed to triumph. All the cops were taken out – including the reinforcements that got called in, the gang members were all mind controlled, and the boss seller got chased back to his home dimension. Pretty much right at the moment the warehouse collapsed into the water. Everyone scrambled for safety at that point, though Artemis took the time to try and snag the bag of money they gang had brought to the buy11.

We wrapped the evening up at that point. I went over the XP stuff again, because it’s easy to forget to track such things during the game. Overall, I was really quite pleased with how quickly everyone got into the swing of the game. Not just the way they picked up how to build dice pools but, more importantly, how to do crazy, cool, awesome stuff – stuff that you’d see in a comic book or action movie – and use the system to support that. So, kudos to my players for that.

I sent them e-mail a few days later, asking them to think about what loose ends from the first session – or from the setting bible in general – they want to pursue. That’ll give me some direction for building the next session’s adventure.

Next session is in about two weeks. I’m really looking forward to it.

  1. If you want a copy of the final setting bible, you can download it here. []
  2. They wound up doing both, so score. []
  3. In my opinion, of course, which I will defend. First, the source material doesn’t generally have the heroes getting stronger, or faster, or whatever – the heroes change, but mainly they weave themselves more into the world, learn more, make contacts, etc., rather than leveling up. Second, bigger numbers on your sheet don’t mean the same thing in this game as they do in other RGGs – the way the balance works in play, there’s just not the huge benefit to big numbers that you see in, say, D&D. Third, it’s just more interesting to have your character be owed a favour by a pandimensional deity than to go from Flight d6 to Flight d8. []
  4. That was a really long footnote. There may be a whole blog post lurking in there. Have to think about that. []
  5. Except there were a couple of times in the session that I couldn’t remember how one of them worked – whether it lasted for a single action or for the scene – and just glossed over it because I didn’t want to take the time to look it up. But I can brush up on that before the next session. []
  6. Two of the players were veterans of the Civil War game, and the other two hadn’t played since I had run the playtest when the game was first released. The fact that I had been doing some things wrong in Civil War meant that everyone – including me – needed to be taught or retaught the rules. []
  7. Who decided she had infiltrated the warehouse while the rest of the heroes were outside. []
  8. I am so glad that I at least got the .pdf of this book before the line ended. It’s a brilliant book, with lots of useful stats and some great new pieces of rules, like vehicles, timed actions, and racial power sets. []
  9. In fact, I really didn’t describe them much at all, except to say, “Yeah, you can tell by looking at them that they’re not from around here.” If they are interesting enough for the characters to pursue, I’ll have to come up with some details. []
  10. As well as through the fact that I deliberately created fairly easy opposition for them. []
  11. She succeeded, by the way. []

Pandemonium: Coming Together to Fall Apart

After we ended our Ashen Stars one-shot, our group decided to try out a Marvel Heroic Roleplaying campaign. The proposed frame was a street-level campaign set in Gotham City. Upon discussion, it seemed we had a big enough diversity of views on what that meant that I felt it would be a good idea to have a game-building session to make sure we were all on the same page.

Hot on the success of the game-building session for Sundog Millionaires, I decided to use the exact same set-up: start with a Want/Do Not Want list, come up with the elevator pitch for the game, then use the Fate Core game-building method to flesh things out. It’s not a perfect fit, simply because, with Fate Core, you come up with aspects, and there are no aspects in MHRPG. But there are distinctions, which are close enough1 to substitute.

When we got together a couple of weeks ago, we ran through things. We wound up with a street-level game, but less focused on the common gangs, organized crime, and low-level villains. One of the players really wanted a kind of interdimensional city2, so we talked things out, and decided that our Gotham City wasn’t the DC Gotham City. We’re still using the Gotham City map I found online, and the name of the city, and the gothic comic book feeling. But no Batman, no Commissioner Gordon, no Joker, etc.

The main threats in our Gotham are the rampant corruption3 and two linked threats: dimensional incursions, and a turf war between the native Gotham gangs and some extra-dimensional terrorists. Our heroes are among the first people in the world to develop powers, and there is no superhero culture as is usually found in most comic book universes. While the concept of superheroes exists in our Gotham, they are relegated to comic books and cartoon shows. No one actually uses the word to describe themselves in real life, no matter what their powers may be.

While we don’t have the whole setting nailed down, here’s a link to the current version of our setting bible, for the curious.

The next week, we got together again to do character creation. I had asked all the players to come with a solid idea for a character – background, powers, concept, etc. – but not to worry about any of the stats and numbers until we got together. There was a lot of talk early on that MHRPG didn’t have a character generation system. This is not true, but the system is a lot less structured than most people are used to4. Creating a character is more art than science, because there are no real constraints on the process beyond, “Do what’s right for the character.”

This is because most game systems put the mechanics for game balance in at the character generation stage – everyone gets the same number of points, everyone gets to choose one races and one class, everyone gets to pick X items from a list, etc. This gives everyone a character that5 has equivalent mechanical weight and strength. This mechanical equivalency is then assumed to grant each character equal chances for coolness during play6.

In MHRPG, balance happens in the mechanics for taking action. It allows each character opportunity to shine, to do things their way, and show off what they’re best at. It allows Thor to share the stage with Daredevil, and for each to have their own cool moments. They will be very different moments, but they will be equally cool – and the type of cool will be dictated by the type of coolness you decided to build into the character.

What this amounts to is that character creation is mostly about eyeballing a concept, and pulling in the numbers and mechanics that you think best. The section about it in the main rulebook focuses on the idea of modelling an existing character from comic books, but it can easily be used to create an original character. The key, as the rulebook says, is to know as much about the character as possible. For existing characters, that means knowing their books. For original characters, that means a solid character concept.

The lack of a more traditional structure for character creation, and the more-art-than-science nature of it, meant that I really wanted to do things as a group. We started by talking out the concepts, and then walking through the assigning of affiliation dice and picking distinctions. Moving on to the power sets and power traits, I had imposed a few constraints.

One of the challenges I had in running my Civil War mini campaign was that it was difficult to come up with serious challenges for the heroes without either cheating or using so many villains that it becomes far too cumbersome to run. Faced with that, I wanted to limit the overall power of the characters7. I restricted the number of power sets for the characters to two and, within each power set, I set a limit of one d10 power trait8, and no d12 traits.

Once we had the basics roughed in, and had talked about SFX, Limits, and Milestones, things were at the point where one-on-one time with each player was necessary to flesh out and finish the characters, so we stopped there for the evening. Now, we’re filling in the rest of the characters via e-mail and, once we get those sorted, we’ll start play.

And here’s our roster of characters for this game:

  • Warlock, a student of the mystic arts who has found a set of magical armour that boosts his power. Unfortunately, when his mind occupies the armour, his body lies helpless and unconscious.
  • Escher, a new psychic suffering from PTSD, torn between caring for those whose minds have been damaged by encounters with the dimensional incursions and punishing those who would prey on the weak and damaged.
  • Artemis, an expert in finding things, with contacts in both this world and the extra dimensional marketplace of the Bizarre.
  • Inquisitor, an extradimensional cop from the Enclave, hunting down Whisper and the rest of the Chant, incursive terrorists from his home.

Stay tuned for more information once play begins.

  1. Both functionally and philosophically. []
  2. Inspired by the city of Cynosure in the Grimjack comics. []
  3. Similar to the Gotham of the early Batman days. []
  4. Especially from a superhero game. []
  5. Ideally, if the game design assumptions are solid. []
  6. Which is really the only reasonable measure of game balance that I ascribe to. []
  7. This also helped reinforce the idea of the street-level power level of the game. []
  8. I wound up saying that the character who was taking a single power set could have two d10 traits. Why? Because, even though I consciously know that balance happens in play rather than in character generation, I and my players still have the knee-jerk reflex that we need to impose fairness at chargen. []