Winnipeg Harvest Game Day 2014

As they’ve done for the past many years, Imagine Games & Hobbies is holding a charity game day to gather donations for Winnipeg Harvest this Saturday, December 6. And, as I’ve done for the past few years, I will be running a Christmas-themed RPG session.

There are events all day long at the store, but my session will be starting at 1:00, and will run about four hours. Price for admission to anything and everything is a non-perishable food item dropped in the bin. For every $5.00 of food you donate, you also get a cheat token, which you can use during play1 to skew things in your favour. That’s important, because there are prizes for most of the events. And they’re tasty prizes.

There will also be snacks.

And my game? It’s a Firefly RPG scenario, like last year. The good people at MWP have once again provided some support for the event: everyone who plays in the Firefly game will get a code phrase that they can e-mail to MWP to get a code for one of two .pdf books: Thrillin’ Heroics or Things Don’t Go Smooth2.

What’s the scenario this year? Glad you asked!

Firefly RPG – The Feast of Stephen

Some jobs are hard. Some are dirty. And some don’t let you sleep much at night.

This job ain’t nothin’ like that.

Seems there’s a bunch of old ships that hitched themselves into a kinda skyplex up in the orbit of Tyrins. Fancy folk on that moon don’t like it there – it’s full of refugees from failed colonies on the Rim – and they’re in the courts tryin’ to get it towed away somewhere.

Meantime, you got a call from the Tyrin chief of police. He and his men are feelin’ charitable, and want to pay you to take a care package up to the ‘plex. Food, clothes, toys for the little ones, stuff like that. It bein’ a festive time of year, and things lookin’ bleak, they want to do somethin’ nice for them poor folks.

Of course, it’s gotta be by the hush. They got their jobs to think about. That’s where you come in. Flesh, wine, and pine logs, you’re bein’ paid to bear them thither.

What could go wrong?

There’s a sign-up sheet at Imagine that lets you reserve a spot in the game. It also lets you reserve your favourite Serenity crewmember. The earlier you sign up, the more choice you have.

C’mon down and play with me, and help support Winnipeg Harvest!

  1. Whatever you play. []
  2. Both of these are great books. You want them. []

Civil War: Rescue

***Spoiler Warning***

My group and I are playing through the Civil War event book for Marvel Heroic Roleplaying, from Margaret Weis Productions. While the course of play may not follow the event book – or the comic books – precisely, there’s going to be a certain amount of stuff that does conform to the adventures and comic series.

In short, if you don’t want to know what happens in Civil War, don’t read these posts. Or the comic books.

***You Have Been Warned***

Last Friday, we got together for the latest session of our Civil War game. We had a full house, which was great, because the plan was to locate and rescue Spider-Man, who had been captured last session. Seeing as the Guardians had been seen helping Aunt May and M.J. escape S.H.I.E.L.D. custody, Captain America had a pretty good idea that the Guardians1 would come to Spidey’s rescue.

And he was right, of course.

Now, in the three weeks between the last game and this one, we’d worked out a system to allow the Guardians to recruit and use other heroes. First of all, they had to have a hero willing to work with the group – that’s pure roleplaying. They’ve had some success with this, with Luke Cage and Daredevil2 joining them, as well as Cyber, an original hero who used to be an NPC associate of Volcanic3.

Once someone is well-disposed to the Guardians, they can be unlocked as playable characters for 10 XP. Each scene, the players can decide which character they want to play from the pool, which includes all the unlocked characters plus the players’ original characters.

The players can bring extra characters along for the scene, but each player only gets to play one character – playing multiple characters would really slow things down4. Instead, extra characters become assets that the group can use, rated at the hero’s highest die. So, you can have a Luke Cage d10 asset if you bring Luke Cage with you on a mission.

Because Captain America had a good idea the Guardians were coming, and had time to plan and set things up, I pulled off the gloves in setting up the opposition for the rescue mission. Spidey was being transported to 42 via a small convoy of special APCs with Doomtech augmentation5. The point APC held Battlestar and a squad of Cape-Killers, the tail APC held Arana and another squad of Cape-Killers. The middle APC held Spider-Man, Venom, Captain America, and another squad of Cape-Killers. Falcon, Sentry, and the Green Goblin were on high watch, flying above the convoy.

I also gave the pro-SHRA forces a few assets for the situation:

  • Captain America’s Plan d12
  • S.H.I.E.L.D. Co-ordination d10
  • APC d10

I also gave Captain America a Reed Richards-built insulator harness for facing Jumpstart6, gave Stun Blaster d10 to a couple other guys.

So, yeah. A pretty tough set-up. Of course, experienced Watchers will already see what I’ve done wrong.

Waaaaaaaay too many characters. After all the talk about how I didn’t want the players running multiple characters each, I loaded up my plate with a total of seven heroes and a whole passel of extras. It made things threatening, sure, but it made them very, very slow for me, and thus for the players.

But we’ll get to that.

We started with the gang hacking the S.H.I.E.L.D. computers7 to find out where Spider-Man was being held. They found that he was being moved the next night to something called 42, and they found the route, but no details about any escort.

They put together a plan8, picked a spot to ambush the convoy that was well away from civilians, and set up a few assets of their own, like Conveniently Collapsing Building d109 and Ambush d10. They all played their regular characters, but brought Cyber, Luke Cage, and Daredevil along with them, using the system I discussed above.

The start of the battle was everything I wanted it to be. The ambush worked great, but the heavy resistance meant that the Doctor and Jumpstart both had stress on them pretty much right out of the gate. They dropped Battlestar and the Green Goblin pretty quickly, as well as a few of the Cape-Killers, and took all three of the APCs out of the fight before the end of the first round.

And that’s when I noticed that, even though they had been careful about the action order and everything, I still had about four groups of bad guys that had actions at the bottom of the round, which would lead into the bad guys getting to go again at the top of round two. Now, as far as tactics go, that’s awesome, but as far as play experience for my friends, it sucked, because it would be a long wait for their turns.

In retrospect, what I should have done is picked a couple of good heroes to run, and threw in the rest as assets, just as I was having the players do. That would have allowed me to build the strong resistance and given everyone a good, challenging fight, while still keeping things moving at a respectable pace.

But I hadn’t done that. So, I screwed with the action sequence a little bit to bring things back around to the heroes, who implemented Operation: Grab Spidey and GTFO. This involved them grabbing Spider-Man and running for the GX-1. This retreat was, obviously, under fire, and the Sentry was heavily involved in that. As the heroes were already leaving, I used 2d12 from the doom pool to end the scene with the arrival of the Void.

The Void and the Sentry duked it out, destroying a couple of city blocks and killing some bystanders10, and incidentally preventing pursuit. The Guardians brought Spider-Man back to Volcano Island, reunited him with his ladies, and started planning the next phase.

Because we had spent part of the beginning of the game session deciding on the three questions they get to ask about AIM, because of the AIM database they liberated a couple of sessions ago, and my stupid decisions that made the combat scene go so slowly, that was about it for the evening. There was some strategizing and socializing after that, and they paid the 10 XP to unlock Spider-Man as a playable character, and then they went home.

Now, I’m going to send them the answers to their AIM questions via e-mail, hopefully this weekend, and that should determine where they go next. They’ve also got their invitations to a wedding in Wakanda that might interest them, and the question about what 42 is.

We’ve got three more sessions on the calendar before Christmas, which should bring us up to the end of Act Two. Then the gloves really come off.

I’m looking forward to it.

Edit: I incorrectly used ATV instead of APC in all the instances above, because of dumb. I have corrected that. Thanks to Erik for pointing it out.

  1. And especially Jumpstart. []
  2. The Danny Rand Daredevil. []
  3. He built his lab assistant a power suit to keep her safe when she decided to go underground with him. []
  4. There are lots of things that I love about MHRPG, but it is not a fast game. Quite the opposite. []
  5. S.H.I.E.L.D. got a whole bunch of Doomtech thanks to the Guardians, way back here. []
  6. It added the Insulator Rig power set, with Electrical Absorption d10, and the Gear limit. []
  7. AGAIN. I told them that their S.H.I.E.L.D. Computer Back-Door Codes d12 was going to be used up on this attempt, no matter how well they rolled. []
  8. I shut down one aspect of the plan that would have either had me running two parallel action scenes or completely restructuring the scene I had planned. It wasn’t a good feeling, squashing what was actually an interesting idea, but I did it for the sake of expediency. Sorry, Erik. []
  9. I think it was actually called something else, but can’t remember it offhand, so this gives the general gist. []
  10. Which was kind of a dick move on my part. The Guardians had gone out of their way to pick a mostly deserted area, and did everything they possibly could to limit civilian casualties. Why did I do it? Mainly to make sure that the idea that heroes are dangerous to civilians retained validity. []

Shooting Lots of Fish

***Spoiler Warning***

I’m going to be talking about the Firefly RPG in this post. Specifically, I’m going to be talking about Shooting Fish, one of the adventures in the Echoes of War line from Margaret Weis Productions. I’m going to be doing my best to avoid big spoilers, but there may be some – some of the things I want to talk about will probably give away a few plot points1. I’ll try and keep anything big hidden behind spoiler tags, but read at your own risk.

***You have been warned***

All set for the Firefly RPG demo at Imagine Games and Hobbies.

All set for the Firefly RPG demo at Imagine Games and Hobbies.

So, as I mentioned back here, I got a chance to play the new Firefly RPG from MWP at GenCon this year. I had a blast, and had already bought the GenCon exclusive preview book, and so I offered to run a couple of demos here in Winnipeg: one for my gaming group2, and one for my FLGS, Imagine Games and Hobbies. I decided to take the same tactic that Rob Wieland took when he put us through our paces at GenCon – offering the group the choice between the two scenarios that were included in the preview book.

I think it’s interesting to note that, in each of the three games where this was done, everyone chose the scenario Shooting Fish. They’re both good adventures, and both look like a lot of fun to run and/or play, but Shooting Fish has the crew helping out an orphanage, while Wedding Planners has the crew escorting a young socialite to her wedding. As soon as the word, “Orphans,” comes out of a crewmember’s mouth, though, it’s pretty much all over bar the whining3.

So, yeah, orphans. Everyone goes running off to Newhall to help the orphans. The adventure is fun – it’s simple in structure, with a couple of nice set-pieces, and a good twist that sets up an obstacle with multiple solutions. If you want a more detailed rundown, it’s hidden behind the spoiler tags below.

Spoiler
The crew travels to Newhall to help a shepherd running an orphanage. The evil mayor of the nearby town of Endurance is intent on closing down the orphanage by calling in all its debts. The crew can win enough money to save the orphanage by winning a boat race against the mayor and several other boats, and splitting the prize money between the crew and the orphanage. The mayor, however, won’t let them enter the race until they convince him to, which can happen in a number of different ways. Once the crew gets in the race, they have to repair the orphanage’s boat, and compete in the race. Win or lose, there’s an optional final showdown with the mayor to make sure the orphanage is safe forever.

Both games4 were similar in the overall shape, but quite different in details. This is largely because of the way that complications generated in play by bad player rolls shape the narrative5 in different ways.

Here’s an example. In today’s game, Inara, Mal, and Zoe were in the bar run by an unfriendly character. Mal and Zoe made a big deal about drinking only water6, while Inara ordered a fancy cocktail. While Mal and Zoe were dealing with other stuff, Inara worked the room trying to gather information. Not only did she roll poorly and fail, but she rolled a couple of 1s on the dice. I bought those dice and created the complication Inara has been drugged d8. Now we had an entire sub-plot going with the bad guy’s attempt to kidnap a roofied Companion.

That’s the kind of improvised twist that the game system is good at delivering. I didn’t run as far as I could have with the plot line because we had a limited time to play, today, but it could have generated lots of fun encounters as she tried to escape and the rest of the crew looked for her. It was nothing I had planned, and it happened because of a player roll, and it could have been its own adventure in and of itself.

I’m not going to talk in-depth about the events of the adventure, but here are some high points:

  • Jayne taking on a crowd of drunks in a bar to earn a place on a different boat’s crew so he could sabotage them7.
  • River and Book seeking out and neutralizing snipers during the race.
  • Wash jettisoning a burning boat engine right into a pursuing boat, taking him out of the race.
  • Mal doing his best to pick a fight with an Alliance-supporting bigwig.
  • Simon fighting off an armed boarder in the middle of the race.

In the end, time constraints prevented us from lingering on the ending of either game, but in both cases, our heroes carried the day. I highly recommend both of the adventures available right now in .pdf format; they contain all the rules you need to run them. What they don’t have is characters, but the Serenity crew8 is also available in .pdf format. Here are some links for you:

So. That’s the adventure. What about the game system itself?

It’s another implementation of the Cortex Plus system, like Smallville, Leverage, and Marvel Heroic Roleplaying. Of the three, it is most like Leverage, building a relatively small dice pool based on an attribute, a skill, a distinction, and an asset9. Complications can be generated through play by the players rolling 1s, and assets can be created by spending plot points.

It nicely models the pacing and style of an action-oriented TV series with a moderately light tone. It does a few specific things to model this:

  • General competence of the characters. While characters will have some skills rated at d4, the lowest attribute they will have – out of Physical, Mental, and Social – is a d6. So, no character is really hopeless in a broad category of task.
  • Fast combat. One successful roll takes out an opponent. Named combatants – including the PCs – can forestall being taken out by accepting a complication instead.
  • Clear distinction triggers. In a lot of the Cortex Plus games, distinctions are left deliberately vague as to the situations where they apply. The distinctions in Firefly have that element to them, but also have special little perks assigned to them, similar to the way distinctions work in Smallville. This does a lot to help players get good mileage out of their distinctions.
  • Big Damn Hero dice. If you beat your opponent’s roll by 5 or more, you can bank a special die that you can bring in on later rolls to do awesome stuff. This allows the characters to pull off some of the cool things you see them do in the TV series and movie.
  • Surprising problems and twists. This is caused mainly by the complication mechanics that I discuss above. It allows surprises for both the GM and the players.
  • Adventure structure mirrors the TV episode structure. The two scenarios follow the type of act structure that is used in the TV episodes, making the game feel more like a TV episode. This helps with pacing and dramatic flow.

My verdict is that this is a great emulation of the TV show. It’s fun, it moves fast, it encourages and rewards cinematic play. It captures the feel and the heart of Firefly, and should satisfy fans of the series who like RPGs. And, to judge by the group that showed up at my table today, it gets non-gamer fans of the series to try an RPG.

Shiny.

  1. See what I did there, Cortex Plus fans? []
  2. Well, for portions of my gaming group. My gaming group, over the years, has expanded to be a loose network of about fifteen people, and each game I run or play in involves a subset of that larger network. []
  3. At least, playing with the characters from the TV show. There’s a certain expectation of heroic, soft-hearted behaviour with the canon crew. Be interesting to see how that changed with a player-created crew. []
  4. All three games, if you count the GenCon game where I was a player. []
  5. For more discussion of this kind of thing, take a look at this post I did about setbacks in play. []
  6. Tepid water, at that. []
  7. Let’s be straight, here. Jayne planned to either sabotage the opponent’s boat or help them win, whichever way looked like the bigger payday. []
  8. Plus a bunch of other archetypes and the basic character and ship creation rules. []
  9. There are, as might be expected, one or two twists to the system, but that’s the basic idea. []

Firefly RPG Demo Reminder

Just a quick reminder that this is coming up. When I checked the sign-up sheet at the store, there were still four characters unclaimed:

  • Inara
  • Book
  • Kaylee
  • Simon

So, if one of those catches your fancy, better get down to the store and claim him or her!

And if you don’t know what I’m babbling about, here’s the original pitch:

Here you are, on the raggedy edge. You’ve been eatin’ nothing but protein paste for the last week, runnin’ low to spare your fuel cells, and hangin’ on for dear life whenever Serenity’s engines start to creak and groan. This last job for Badger should pay enough to get back into the sky, but not much more. Fortunately, Badger says he’s got another job for you soon as you touch down at the Eavesdown Docks. The way he’s smilin’, you know it ain’t gonna be good. But it pays enough to keep you flyin’.

Come try the new Firefly RPG from Margaret Weis Productions on Sunday, September 29, from 1:00 to 5:00, at Imagine Games and Hobbies here in Winnipeg. Play a member of Serenity’s crew, and brave the black on a job that’s sure to go smooth1. There are nine slots in this game demo, so odds are good that you can just show up and play, but if you sign up at the store, you can reserve your favourite character on a first-come, first served basis.

Come play with me.

  1. Not a guarantee that things will go smooth. In fact, I can pretty much guarantee that they won’t. []

Firefly RPG Demo

Here you are, on the raggedy edge. You’ve been eatin’ nothing but protein paste for the last week, runnin’ low to spare your fuel cells, and hangin’ on for dear life whenever Serenity’s engines start to creak and groan. This last job for Badger should pay enough to get back into the sky, but not much more. Fortunately, Badger says he’s got another job for you soon as you touch down at the Eavesdown Docks. The way he’s smilin’, you know it ain’t gonna be good. But it pays enough to keep you flyin’.

Come try the new Firefly RPG from Margaret Weis Productions on Sunday, September 29, from 1:00 to 5:00, at Imagine Games and Hobbies here in Winnipeg. Play a member of Serenity’s crew, and brave the black on a job that’s sure to go smooth1. There are nine slots in this game demo, so odds are good that you can just show up and play, but if you sign up at the store, you can reserve your favourite character on a first-come, first served basis.

  1. Not a guarantee that things will go smooth. In fact, I can pretty much guarantee that they won’t. []

Civil War: Dry Run

So, I’ve got a group of players that I’m going to be running through the Civil War event for Marvel Heroic Roleplaying, with original characters for all the players. We’ve had a character creation session, and two of the players have produced finished characters. The other two are dragging their feet a little bit, but I’m hoping that they’ll have their finished stuff to me soon1.

Anyway, to make sure we kept the interest up, and to give the two players with finished characters a chance to try their characters out, and to give me a little more experience running the game, we decided to do a one-shot with the two finished characters.

Actually, that’s not quite the way it happened.

I was trying to prod the two players with unfinished characters into finishing off their characters, so I offered to run the first session on Friday night if everyone had their characters finished. The two without finished characters were unavailable for completely unrelated reasons, so I figured I’d go with a one-shot for the completed characters who could make it.

Now, while I wanted to get playing, and I wanted to encourage the unfinished characters to get finished, I didn’t want this to be seen as a punishment for those who weren’t done. So, I decided that, while I would award XP as usual in play2, no XP would carry over to the campaign. It’s just the only way it seemed fair.

The set-up for the session was pretty simple. I was going to have either A.I.M. or Hydra steal a MacGuffin from NYU, where Volcanic3 teaches and lives. A tweet from Cam Banks gave me a better idea. He said:

I hope they feel overwhelmed right off the bat and turn it around in the 11th hour!

That gave me A PLAN! I decided that Hydra, with the aid of Mentallo, would steal the MacGuffin (a cylinder of dark matter that had been bombarded by cosmic rays4 ), but be ambushed by A.I.M. troopers before they could leave the building. A quick look at Google Maps showed me that the Center for Cosmology and Particle Physics at NYU is about two and a half blocks straight down a street from Washington Square Park, so I thought it would be fun to have things move down there for the climax, where Madame Hydra was waiting to pick the Hydra troopers up in a Hydra sky car.

I started by telling the characters that they were at NYU, and asking them why. Jumpstart5 said that his character’s secret identity – a medical doctor and a scientist – was giving a talk there about the effects of cosmic radiation on brain structures, and Volcanic – who doesn’t have a secret identity, being made of lava and all – was listening to see if he could decipher any clues about how to change back into a human form.

The lecture was interrupted by the sounds of weapon fire outside in the main entry. Volcanic stuck his head out to see what was going on, providing a bit of a distraction for Jumpstart to switch into his costume. Outside the auditorium, our heroes were up on the mezzanine, looking down on the entry hall, which was dominated by a giant sculpture of an atom6. A gang of A.I.M. troops had pinned down Mentallo and his Hydra henchmen, but Mentallo had mind-controlled a team of security guards, who were outflanking the A.I.M. folks. Add to that the panicking students, and things looked grim7.

The good guys were a little intimidated by the big mess, I think, and didn’t know where to start. That didn’t stop them from wading in, though. Hydra took that opportunity to make a break for it, smashing through the plate glass windows despite Volcanic coating them with magma. A.I.M., still pinned down by the security guards, took hostages to try and escape.

There was some discussion at this point about pursuing Hydra before they got away, but the pair decided that keeping the hostages safe was the priority8. They concentrated on the A.I.M. troopers and mopped them up before heading out to chase Mentallo and the canister down the street to Washington Square Park.

The battle at the park went pretty quickly, and very much in the heroes’ favour. They were getting the hang of using their elemental control powers9, had established strategies for getting and using PPs, and each had a couple of assets to call on in an emergency. The bad guys got wrapped up in short order, and even Madame Hydra was snagged when her getaway vehicle got electrified.

I had planned for Madame Hydra to snag the canister and escape, with or without Mentallo and the troopers, but the heroes just beat me on that one. See, the second part would have been a Transition scene with the heroes tracking down where the canister was and assaulting a Hydra base – or A.I.M., if they had managed to snag it – and retrieving it before it could get used as a weapon. So, we ended early, and the bad guys all got hauled off to the Raft. I did make the point that this was pre-Breakout at that time, so I won’t have any questions if I use the villains again in the event.

Overall, the one-shot served its purpose – the players got the hang of their characters, I got more practice with the system, and everyone had fun. But no one was hitting their Milestone triggers in the game. I decided not to bring it up during play, but we talked about how important it is after the session wound down. It’s a change of perspective, making the characters decide when they earn XP, but with Milestones, there’s really no way for the Watcher to track the triggers for the characters. At least, not effectively.

I think the players are going to tweak their characters slightly based on how they played, but overall they were pretty happy with what they had built, and I thought they worked well, myself. For me, I got some insight into how to make a scene change location, some more familiarity with managing the doom pool, and some practice making the scene distinctions work for me. So, I call it a win.

We’re trying to set the first full session for September 28. I’ll let you know how it goes.

  1. Yes, that is a hint. []
  2. More on that later. []
  3. One of the PCs []
  4. That’s pure comic book science! []
  5. The other PC. []
  6. Why? Because comic book action! []
  7. I had spent a turn or two while the heroes were bogged down in getting into costume and out of the auditorium to effectively let the villains grandstand, building the doom pool, and deciding what distinctions to put on the scene. Doom pool, which had started at 2d6, was up to 4d6, and there were the distinctions Giant Atom Sculpture, Panicky Students, and Mind-Controlled Security Guards. []
  8. I am pleased about that. I like my heroes heroic. []
  9. Three out of four of the characters have some flavour of elemental control, and the fourth has Sorcery. These are very cool powers, but they’re probably the trickiest to use in cool ways during the game, as they are very indirect. []

Civil War: Recruitment

It’s been a while, huh? Well, without running a regular game, I’ve had less to say than usual.

That’s changing now; this past Sunday, I got four of my friends together to create characters. We’re starting the Civil War event for Marvel Heroic Roleplaying.

I gave the players the option, individually, to decide how they wanted to create their characters: pick a pregen, model another existing hero, use the Random Datafile Generator from Margaret Weis Productions, or model a hero of their own devising. Given the folks who opted to join the game, I was expecting about half to take a pregen, and the other half to model their own heroes. Turns out, all four wanted to create their own heroes from scratch.

MHR  has a character creation system1, but I found it a bit lacking for what I wanted to accomplish. See, one of the most important themes in Civil War is the rift it creates in the heroes of the Marvel universe. The whole brother-fighting-brother vibe. Using homebrewed characters can be problematic, simply because these characters don’t have the deep histories with the other characters of the Marvel universe. Or even with the other players’ characters.

I needed to fix that in order to get the most bang out of the event.

Smallville RPG, also from MWP, has an interesting character creation system2 that establishes all the types of relationships I need. And, as luck would have it, someone had already produced a version of the system for MHR. It’s very good, but it’s a little more structured in the assignment of powers and dice than I wanted to be, and more arbitrary in the relationships than I wanted3, so I looked to another great game for ideas.

Dresden Files RPG4 builds relationships between characters in a wonderfully organic way, using the novels and the guest star roles. It creates history between the characters, and very rich relationships, but unless you throw in the entire city creation section, it doesn’t really tie the characters to other characters in the Marvel universe. And it felt counterintuitive to go through the city building if we wanted to play in the established continuity5.

And so I wound up doing what I always seem to wind up doing6; I kit-built a system using parts from both DFRPG and Smallville. I snagged the idea of the relationship map from Smallville, and the phased approach, including the novels, from DFRPG. The end result was a set of guidelines for building characters that would produce finished characters, with relationships both within the group and with iconic Marvel characters, and develop the characters in a more organic kind of way. You can see the results here.

That’s what I sent out to folks before the game, recommending that they read it over, as well as the MHR basic rulebook7. When we got to the character creation session, I quickly realized that I had made the system too elaborate and structured for the time we had.

We ran through the concept, origin, and first appearance phases pretty much as written, though we didn’t use the relationship map quite as I had spelled out. The players were eager to add contacts with iconic Marvel characters, so they jumped all over it, leading to a pretty full map pretty early on. Seeing that I had enough information on there for purposes of this game, I backed off it.

With the last 45 minutes of our session, we walked quickly through the novel stages, and then called it a night. I sent the players home with some homework: put the finishing touches on their characters, send me their novels, and decide on a name for their group. I’m starting to get replies, and things look good.

And who are these new heroes?

  •  Volcanic, an NYU professor who took on the mantle of a volcano god to save Manhattan from annihilation.
  • Jumpstart, an electric-powered speedster with a family connection to HYDRA, currently working for SHIELD.
  • Mega Joule, an inner-city high school athlete gifted with powerful kinetic abilities and a drive to help other kids on the streets.
  • The Doctor8, chosen by the soul of the world to be the new shaman for the age.

And that’s where things stand. As soon as everyone gets their homework back to me, we’ll set up the first session of actual play. I’m looking forward to it.

  1. Though it doesn’t explicitly call it out as such. []
  2. Called Pathways. []
  3. I know, I know. I’m such a whiner. Seriously, the Marvel Pathways thing is awesome. It just didn’t quite fit what I wanted. []
  4. For which I have much love. []
  5. There are ways we could have done it, but they seemed more complicated than the cool they would provide, so I decided against that. []
  6. It’s a sickness, I tells ya. []
  7. Of course, some did, some didn’t, some read one and not the other, and so on. Which I expected. []
  8. Based heavily on the character of the same name from The Authority. []

Pick a Side

So, I’ve finished reading over the Civil War event book for Marvel Heroic Roleplaying, and was really impressed. It is, of course, a beautiful book, full of Marvel comic book art, and Jeremy Keller’s wonderful layout. But that’s only part of it. It really succeeds on three levels: as an adventure book, as a resource book, and as an instructional book for designing your own events.

Adventurous!

The Civil War event in the comic books was a big, complex, involved affair, and I was initially skeptical about how it would translate to an RPG adventure. The main issue1 in my mind was the question of taking sides in the war. What do you do if part of the group wants to side with the pro-registration folks, and another part wants to side with the anti-registration folks?

Well, the folks who wrote this book saw that one coming, and offer extensive and helpful advice for how to handle things. They encourage talking about the possibility of player-vs.-player combat, and making sure everyone feels comfortable with it. Beyond that, they suggest using troupe play, with players trading off characters to make sure the players are always on the same side, whichever side that needs to be in the current scene. There’s also a lot of advice about how to run the various scenes in the game for different sides in the way – pro, anti, and undecided. Very solid, useful stuff.

The overall adventure is broken into 37 scenes, split into 3 acts. Not every scene is mandatory, and it’s assumed that Watchers will improvise any other scenes that are needed based on the actions of the players. Scenes are identified as Action (26) and Transition (11), but several of the scenes have notes about running them as the other type. In essence, the structure and scene choices offer not just a sequence of events in the larger story of the Civil War, but a toolkit to let the Watcher and the players develop and explore their own experience against the bigger backdrop.

The structure provided is not rigid, but is a useful default and starting point. There are a few defining scenes that I think are pretty important to make the game about the Civil War, rather than just normal superhero hijinks, but you don’t need to follow the default roadmap to get to them. The structure is loose enough to expand for Watcher-created, player-driven scenes, and to collapse to omit scenes from the book that don’t quite fit. And there’s plenty of fodder in the book to make it easy for the Watcher to improvise both action and transition scenes on the fly.

That said, you don’t have to play that loose with the structure. Following it step-by-step from the first scene to the last in order will give you a solid, exciting event, one that your players will talk about.

The only thing that I think is missing is from the Sourcebook section at the front of the book. This is where the events behind the Civil War, the factions involved, and so on, are described to give you context. It’s very complete, but there are a few story threads that run through the three acts, in various scenes, that I think could have been noted here. Things like the Atlantean vengeance squad, or the MGH trail – threads that wind through the other scenes and that the Watcher probably wants to keep track of. You don’t need anything big; just a quick list of the various story threads and the scenes that directly apply to them.

But that’s a pretty small quibble.

Resourceful!

Y’know, this book is worth the price of admission just for the datafiles it contains. You get 32 full hero datafiles. You get 33 villain-style datafiles in the Friends and Foes section, any one of which can be converted to a whole hero datafile with about thirty seconds of work. And scattered through the rest of the book are 59 other datafiles, ranging from villains to average citizens, and 3 add-on power sets. A few of these are duplicates, but the vast majority are at least tweaked from other appearances, either in this book or in the basic game book.

And then there are the milestones. 22 milestones specific to this event – that is, not attached to hero datafiles – and lots of interesting unlockables. While this stuff is tailored to the Civil War event, it is easily adaptable to other events/adventures/characters.

One of the things I look for in a product is material that I, as a GM, can lift out and use with minimal work. This book has that in spades, and has an index just of the datafiles for good measure. Kudos!

Educational!

Above and beyond anything else, this book is a master-class in designing for your ownMarvel Heroic Roleplayinggame. Want to see a stunning example of how to build an event? Look at this book. It’ll teach you the structure and flexibility you need. Want to find out how to handle a certain type of scene? Odds are there’s an example in here2. Want to see how to put together a certain type of character or power set or milestones or unlockables or…

It’s all here. And the way it’s set out is accessible and instructive. Just reading this book, even if you never use any of the scenes or story, will make you a better Watcher. It is a stunning example of what to do with the game, and it is filled with smart ideas and interesting twists that show how the rules work in neat ways. In creative ways. Infunways.

Summing Up

If you plan to run MHR, I’m going to go so far as to say you owe it to yourself to read this book. It’ll make it all much easier and much better, both for you and your players. The adventure is good – very good – but the value of the book goes way beyond that.

Excelsior!

  1. Heh. []
  2. There’s an action scene that is all about debating a Congressional committee, for God’s sake! []

Savaged!

**Spoiler Alert**

I’m going to be talking about the Breakout mini-event in the Marvel Heroic Roleplaying rulebook. I’m going to be giving away more about things than in the previous act so, if you’re planning on playing the adventure, I’d say skip the Actual Play section.

You Have Been Warned!

A few weeks back, I got together with my gaming group to finish off our run through the Breakout mini-event in the Marvel Heroic Roleplaying core book. Our first session had gone pretty well, and I was interested to see how the second act played out.

There were a number of very specific things I wanted to learn from running this second act:

  • The first act is primarily one big action scene. I wanted to run the second act to see how the game handled stuff that wasn’t just face-punching1.
  • I wanted to see how the experience point system worked in play, and to do that, I really needed to run the second act.
  • I wanted to gauge the learning curve. Everyone was pretty much up to speed at the end of the previous session, but the gap between sessions was pretty long, and I wanted to see how much of that mastery they had lost in the downtime.
  • I wanted to see if I could speed up the action scenes so that players didn’t have to wait as long between their turns.

So, I brushed up on the act, gathered my MHR gaming kit, assembled my players, and away we went.

Actual Play

Our roster of New Avengers2 was:

  • Black Widow
  • Colossus
  • Daredevil
  • Shadowcat3
  • Storm

At the end of the previous session, Black Widow had determined that the breakout at the Raft was intended to free Karl Lykos4, and that he had probably fled to the Savage Land. Further research at the start of this session turned up some mysterious blanks in S.H.I.E.L.D.’s files on the Savage Land, specifically on one of their outposts there.

The team spent some time gearing up – that is, using the transition scene to create some Assets and Resources for themselves to use in the adventure. They came up with a couple of fairly standard things, like med kits, but also a device that could detect Karl Lykos’s unique mutant energy signature. The X-folks signed out a blackbird, and they flew off to Antarctica.

Shadowcat was piloting, and ran into the magnetic and meteorological anomalies that prevail in the Savage Land, and pretty much on cue, someone brought up the fact that no one ever lands in the Savage Land. They always crash5. Kitty looked at me, and asked if she could roll to land the plane safely.

Now, in the adventure, the default action is that the plane lands safely, but then gets stomped by a T-Rex. I had intended to let that happen, but when a player asks to roll on something, that’s usually a signal that that moment matters to them, and as GM, you should do your best to make it a memorable moment6. Given that reasoning, I let her roll against the Doom Pool, which was still at 2d6, to land safely.

Well, her roll boosted the Doom Pool by a couple of dice thanks to the opportunities she rolled, and the Doom Pool roll beat her. I spent one of the new dice in the pool to counterattack, inflicting a d6 of emotional stress on her, as she wrestled the blackbird in for a landing, describing it as a barely controlled crash that left the plane largely intact, but cut a huge swath through the jungle. Everyone got out to survey the damage and decide what to do next.

And that’s when the T-Rex came and smushed the plane.

The T-Rex fight was interesting primarily because it showed off the sophistication with the rules that the group had developed after only a single session. The players worked the Plot Point economy efficiently, taking their Distinctions at d4 to gain points, spending points in clever and useful ways, and even using their power limits and spending experience points to get more Plot Points when they needed them. I have to say that I was very pleasantly surprised by skillfully everyone worked the system.

Better than that, though, was the way everyone got into narrating the action based on what dice were in their pool. The T-Rex had two dice knocked off its Solo pool in the first round thanks to clever things like Storm lowering its core temperature and Daredevil and Black Widow co-operating to use their swinglines to trip the dinosaur7.

After walking through the jungle for a while, homing in on Lykos with their detection device, I dropped the mutates on them. My goal with this fight was to boost the Doom Pool up to 2d12 so as to end the scene with the heroes captured. This proved to be an interesting exercise in resource management, as I need to spend enough from the Doom Pool to keep the bad guys up and fighting, but save enough that I could reach that magical 2d12 level. This wound up generating a fair number of Plot Points for the good guys, which made the whole thing a pretty epic battle.

But I got to that 2d12 I wanted, and had Brainchild lead the group into an area that he had mined with disruptor bombs8, and knocked everyone out.

They recovered as captives of the mutates and Karl Lykos, who spent a little time monologuing9. But you know who you shouldn’t ignore, even when she’s stripped and manacled to a high-tech restraint table? Black Widow, that’s who. She’s got the skills to get out without tripping the power dampening thingies. And she did. First thing she did was free the others, and Storm and Shadowcat double-teamed Lykos, taking him out in one turn10.

They mopped up the rest of the mutates, in the room, and I told them that they heard more coming from elsewhere in the complex. So, Black Widow said, “Hey! I’m gonna cash in these 10 xp to unlock the S.H.I.E.L.D. Champion Clearance thing and get the helicarrier to show up and take us away!” Which she did, so that was the end of that. We did a little bit of wrap-up stuff, but that was pretty much it for the night.

Thoughts

So, here’s what I found out about the things I wanted to see in this session, as enumerated above.

  • MHR handles non-action scenes just fine. In fact, the light framework they use for the adventures and the fact you can use the Doom Pool to represent the environment makes it very easy to improvise when the characters take unexpected actions. The transition scenes help recovery, but more to the point, they give a lot more options for roleplaying and interacting with the world. The start and end of such things are pretty loosely defined, and I think that’s a big advantage.
  • The experience system works fine, as far as we saw. The main use of xp in this short adventure was gaining more Plot Points in tight situations11. I think that actually spending the xp to buy up character abilities is going to see limited use if using Marvel characters and events – it’s more likely to see use in longer campaigns and using home-made characters. That said, it does everything it needs to, and the unlockables are a very neat mechanic.
  • The mastery of the system that the players had gained in the first session came back very quickly, and grew in play. The learning curve is not nearly as steep as I had originally feared12. So, yeah, the game is pretty easy to master once you get the core concepts down. One important aspect of this mastery that was pointed out is the design of the datafiles. They make it remarkably easy to just go down the list and build your dice pool. Some real thought went into the sheet’s usability, and the folks at MWP deserve kudos for that kind of attention to detail.
  • Action scenes are still not fast. I thought they were getting faster, but it was pointed out to me that, as Watcher, I’m involved in everyone’s action, so I’m always busy interacting with the players, and that skews my perception of how long a player is sitting waiting to do something13. The fact that combat is symmetrical, with players getting to make reaction rolls and possibly counter-attack when attacked, lessens the sitting around aspect. But the fact that the Watcher has to build a dice pool the same way as a player, but for several different characters, slows down that part of the game. This is far from a game-breaker, but it is something the Watcher needs to be mindful of – make sure that the focus is always firmly on the heroes, and try to keep the spotlight moving briskly and fairly among the heroes to minimize boredom.

And that’s the end of our MHR playtest. Everyone had a good time with it and I think I may look at setting up a longer game in the fall, when my gaming schedule opens up a bit.

As an interesting aside, a number of the players in this group stated a preference for playing canon Marvel characters in these games, rather than creating their own, original characters. I knew intellectually that this was a common preference – otherwise, there would be more emphasis on building your own character in the main rulebook – but I was surprised to hear it in my group. See, for me, it might be fun to play Spider-Man or Doctor Strange in a one-shot, but for a real campaign, I want my own character to play. So, it’s an interesting eye-opener to hear others voice a different preference, and discuss the reasons with them. Enlightening.

Anyway. ‘Nuff said.

 

  1. This is a bit of an unfair characterization of the combat in MHR, which tends to be very flavourful. But you take my point. []
  2. Heavy on the X-folks, but what can you do? X-men make fun characters to play. []
  3. And Lockheed the dragon, of course. []
  4. AKA Sauron. No, not that Sauron. This Sauron. []
  5. This is almost verbatim what Spidey says in the actual book. []
  6. This is a good rule to keep in mind, alongside Vincent Baker’s “Say yes or roll the dice.” Combining the two ideas does a lot to illuminate when you should and should not ask for dice rolls. []
  7. Actually, that last thing didn’t work out so well, thanks to some poor rolling, but Daredevil took the opportunity to lose his billy club and get a Plot Point for invoking his Gear limit. []
  8. Yeah, I made that up spur of the moment when I wanted to take them out. It fits comic logic, and no one batted an eye. []
  9. I had to build up the Doom Pool again, of course. []
  10. Shoulda kept some more dice in the Doom Pool. He needed them. The heroes all had at least three Plot Points each, and that’s a pretty big edge. []
  11. Plus, of course, the helicarrier rescue. []
  12. Though I still forgot an important rule during play and didn’t remember it until after the game. Which rule? Oh, nothing important, he said sarcastically. Just that you can add an opponent’s stress die to your die pool for free. Yeah, ’cause that’s not a big deal. []
  13. Smaller groups will mitigate this to some degree, and larger groups will exacerbate it. []

The New New Avengers

**Spoiler Alert**

I’m going to be talking about the Breakout mini-event in the Marvel Heroic Roleplaying rulebook. I’m not going to be giving too much away, I think, but if you’re planning on playing the adventure, I’d say don’t read the last couple of paragraphs.

You Have Been Warned!

So, a couple of weeks back, my friend Clint, who runs a couple of games I play in, was looking for an opportunity to play in a one-shot game that he didn’t have to run. I stepped up to volunteer, and set out a list of games I could run on short notice to the group who were interested, and got them to vote on what they’d like me to run for them. They voted for Marvel Heroic Roleplaying1.

No one else in the group had read the rulebook, so I was clear to run Breakout again. I approached it a little differently this time around because I was running it for my friends, in private, and not as part of the Launch Party event as a representative of anyone else. One of the things I did was to allow the group to select characters from the complete list of heroes in the rulebook2. We wound up with an interesting mix: Black Widow, Colossus, Daredevil, Shadowcat, and Storm.

I had put together a kit for running the launch party, consisting of the laminated cheat sheets for the players, the laminated play mat for me, a bag of poker chips, a bag of red dice for the Doom Pool, a bag of green dice for everyone to share, the datafiles, some pencils and pens and post-its, and some flippable cards for tracking who’s gone in the turn sequence3. For this session, I added index cards on which I had printed out all the villain datafiles, as well as the S.H.I.E.L.D. agent stats for the players. And I spent some time making custom flippable cards for each of the five players, featuring art of the hero each was playing4.

I also decided to start the game by running the hook as a transition scene, giving the players a chance to do a little roleplaying and establish some assets for use later on. Only a couple took advantage of the opportunity to create an asset, because they each had only one plot point, and were worried about getting more. But Black Widow wound up with Expert on Raft Security Systems d8, and Daredevil came to the party with Bob Reynolds’s Legal Research d8. When everyone was ready, we went on to the action scene.

I had prepped a little better for this one than for the previous one, mapping out some choices for the big villains, and determining which minor villains I was going to use and where I was going to use them. Thus, the escalation of things, and the addition of more villains worked more smoothly than in the previous game I ran. The fact that I had all the villains printed out on index cards made it easier for me to track who had acted in the turn and who hadn’t, because I could just flip the cards over when the villain had finished his turn. I also kept a closer eye on the Doom Pool, using the dice more frequently5 than I had previously, and that helped the flow and build of the game.

Some highlights of the game:

  • Colossus wiping out a mob of villains in one attack by being dropped into their midst by Storm.
  • Storm whipping up the winds to create Storm-Swept d12 on the open landing deck.
  • Shadowcat using her intangibility and counter-attacks to essentially get Armadillo and Tiger Shark to beat themselves unconscious.
  • Black Widow using her S.H.I.E.L.D. squad, not to fight the villains, but to get the Raft security measures back online and send a distress call to S.H.I.E.L.D. HQ.
  • Daredevil locking Foggy Nelson in an empty cell to get him out of harm’s way.

I ended the scene by spending 2d12 from the Doom Pool6. Up until the distress call, I had thought the scene was going to be a real disaster for the characters, and was ready to narrate a pretty grim ending, but with the distress call, the scene ended with the arrival of reinforcements and the bulk of the villains being rounded up.

We finished up with another transition scene, as Black Widow kept Maria Hill from arresting the stray X-Men, and then interrogated the prisoners to find out who the target of the break-out was. When she found that it was Karl Lykos, the X-Men got a little worried, and were able to fill in the rest of the gang about the kind of threat he poses.

Everyone had a good time, and we’ve decided to run the second act in the next couple of weeks. So, this one goes in the Win column.

 

  1. Well, actually, the vote was tied between MHR  and Dragon Age. We went with MHR because Clint voted for it, and as he generally GMs for this group, I gave his opinion extra weight. Also, I was currently obsessing about MHR and wanted another chance to run it. []
  2. Minus the Sentry, who is really more of a plot device than a character in the game. At least, in the first act. []
  3. I carry this stuff – less the oversized play mat – in two organizer pouches from Tom Bihn. The dice and poker chips fit nicely into a Tom Bihn travel tray, which doubles as a bowl for the dice in play. Some time soon, I’m going to have to do a blog post about gaming bags, a much-neglected market in the luggage industry. []
  4. Okay. Tangent. Searching for art for comic book characters online – especially female characters – will show you things you cannot unsee. It’s not good. And when you’re looking for a picture of a character to put on a card for the daughter of two of your friends, it becomes blindingly easy to see that most pictures of female comic book characters – even the non-X-rated ones – are all about the boobs and the butts. My point? I dunno. I just wish not every woman in a superhero comic was treated like a cheesecake model. I guess. As an aside, the art chosen for the MHR rulebook tends to avoid this kind of sexism, tends to more diversity than you normally see in mainstream comics. So, kudos to the gang at MWP for that. []
  5. Also more intelligently. []
  6. Which held only 2d12, so that worked about right, as far as I’m concerned. []