So, there’s the chance of a second game group and a day of play in the offing for me. After some Wild_Talents-232x300blathering at each other, we’ve seem to come to the conclusion a superhero campaign might be the best received. The GM is looking to do a gritty superhero game. The idea seems to be to shoot for a The Dark Knight Returns sort of flavor.

The system he’s suggesting for the action is Wild Talents — a superhero game by Arc Dream Publishing from back around 2006. It was a follow-on game/setting to Godlike, a “gritty superhero game set in WWII” that prided itself on losing the spandex. Wild Talents had some good talent on it. Wild Talents is being pitched on Arc Dream’s page as leaving the characters more vulnerable physically and motivationally. “All too superhuman” is the catch phrase, which implies a game where the character’s are “appropriately” angsty and “realistic.”

I’m reviewing the ebook, as I don’t have a physical copy. The layout and look is good, but the writing is a bit dry. As to the system, it uses the “One Roll Engine” which is, I suspect, an attempt to speed play and make it easier. It might play that way (haven’t actually played yet…), but it reads as paradoxically complex for a single roll mechanic.

It’s a dice pool game. Collect d10s according a skill or power rating. You look for matches. The highest matched dice is the “height” — how well you succeeded, the number of matches is the “width” or how fast you succeeded (or did damage in combat.) There’s a difficulty scale from 0-10, and the situational modifiers pull or give dice. for simplicity sake, you are limited to rolling no more than 10 dice. Sounds easy…;til you get to dice “types”; there’s a litany of them — regular, hard, and wiggle, penalty and gobble, and you can add expert or fixed or squishy dice… Hard dice do a fixed result, wiggle can be modulated in their effect by the player; penalty and gobble dice are tied to difficulty — losing dice due to a situation, or losing their number of matches if they are beaten in a contest.

It could be an easy set of rules to play, but reading the book, it doesn’t come off that way.

Characters have six stats that can have regular, hard, or wiggle dice. There’s skills. The powers are hyperstats (superhuman stats), hyperskills, or “miracles” (powers.) The dice ratings are linked to examples of how much you could lift, how smart or persuasive you are, etc. Powers have flaws, pretty standard for supers games.

Combat is pretty straightforward, if you find the basic mechanic straightforward. There’s also a ‘damage silhouette’ with a certain amount of boxes of shock or lethal damage you can take.

There’s an alternate history for the campaign at the end that isn’t bad, and allows for a universe in which supers haven’t just shown up.

Overall, the basic idea of the “realistic” superhero game is pretty hard to pull off. If you’re going to add in actual powers, instead of just playing Batman, these assumptions won’t play very well with creatures like Superman or Wolverine. Verisimilitude is going to come more from the universe, than how “messed up” the characters are going to get. The One Roll Engine reads as terribly clunky, but I suspect this could be an artifact of the description of the mechanic in the book — I’ll hold judgment until it’s played.

Substance: The setting is well fleshed out without being too restrictive, and the rules cover the necessaries for playing a superhero game: 4 of 5. Style: the layout is good, the art is darkly atmospheric, in keeping with the style of the setting, but is average “game art” quality. The writing is surprisingly stilted and occasionally confusing for the people they had on the book: 3 out of 5.

Is it worth it? I honestly don’t know yet, but based off reading the game, if you want a “realistic” superhero game where the characters will get mashed up instead of riding through a lot of fighting — almost the antithesis of a supers setting — you could find a system for modern settings that accounted for, or could be adapted for, lower level powers. If you’re looking to do four color or even The Avengers cinematic-style supering, I’d suggest looking elsewhere.

Postscript: When I decided to take a crack at a “realistic” superheroes game, one of the things I also did was to make supers a historical artifact — we bent history to include alternate events with supers involved. Instead of going for the “look how real this is; the characters really get hurt!” angle, I went for more social restrictions. Sure you can knock down a building with your bare hands, but can you afford the lawsuit? Do you have a license to use your heat powers as a welder? does you wife know you were out all night fighting the sexy supervillainess? Shame you didn’t bring allies to back you up that nothing happened! This universe assumed the supers were willing to most act inside the law, but there were hints that most the governments of the world were just blustering and hoping these new gods wouldn’t just run roughshod over everything.

Should be interesting to see someone else’s take on supers.

In an earlier post I mentioned I’ve been planning a co-GMed superheroes campaign and have been looking at various system to run it. A few were quickly tossed to the side, even though they’re perfectly serviceable, due to a number of reasons. The old DC Heroes from Mayfair was my leading contender because it’s easy to play and cheap to find on eBay, as it’s been out of print for over a decade. Marvel Superheroes is also quite workable, but I always found it a bit too abstract for things like distance, time, and other issues. Heroes and Champions, which favorites of many, are staggeringly complex (in my opinion) for character creation. The flexibility of these systems is due to rules overload (once again, opinion based on experience with former iterations), kind of like GURPS…I like systems where you can build a character quickly and get moving.

Eventually it was down to Icons and Mutants & Masterminds (I’m reviewing the DC Adventures rebadged game here, but all the mechanical stuff will be the same…) Funnily enough, both are written and designed by Steve Kenson, and it shows. Where Icons is a stripped down supers system with a different dice mechanic, the layout of the chapters, the basic list of powers, etc. is similar. Think of M&M as the loaded mid-szie car to the stripped-down Icons platform; Escorts and Aspires, so to speak.

In the end, I think we’re going with the new M&M, which has ditched much of the early d20 garbage for a much more sleek die mechanic.

First, the product design itself. I’ve got this in .pdf and borrowed the physical book for the review from a friend. The “Hero’s Handbook” is beautifully produced: hardcover with art by Alex Ross. The interior is gloss, heavy-stock paper, full color, with lots of high-quality comic book art done by a multitude of professional comic artists. The binding is very solid. It looks good, it feels good. Which means it is commensurately priced at $40. The electronic format is half that at $20, and is a well-done proof of the book. It resolves quickly on the iPad (my measure for whether an e-book is good or bad), unlike some of the other graphic intensive layouts (like Smallville and Leverage from Margaret Weis, which are CPU hogs and need to be optimized for e-readers.)

The core mechanic is simple: take your ability (like Fighting), power (say, Fire Control), or Skill (Investigation), and any other modifiers, add a d20 roll, beat a target number or opposing roll by the bad guys. Ranks in abilities and powers — as with the old DC Heroes roughly equate to time, weight, information amount, etc. — and are roughly exponential, with each rank being double the power, weight, whatever of the previous rank. It’s open ended but the tables go up to 30, the equivalent of 25k ktons, 4 million mile, 200 years, a billion cubic feet. Above that we’re getting into astronomic proportions. Mostly likely, your campaign will be a bit more modest to start out with.

Character creation is point based and the power level of the campaign ca  be tweaked from masked avengers levels, where the characters are more suprahuman than super, superheros, “Big Leagues” like Batman, or World Protectors like the Green Lantern or Superman. Abilities and powers are bought at a simple x points/rank, and equipment is purchased this way, as well — if you’re a gadget-based hero. There’s also hero points gained through play and used to alter scenes, activate some features of powers, better rolls, cut damage, etc. Pretty standard stuff now, but it was still newfangled when DC Heroes did it in the 1980s.

The big plus: gadgets aren’t a complete kludged mess in M&M like they were in DC Heroes. (If you get the impression DCH was my go-to supers system in the ’80s/early ’90s, you’d be right.)

Combat is straightforward, save for “damage” which is conditional…no hit points. You can be compelled or controlled by powers, dazed or incapacitated by damage, fatigued or impaired by environmental conditions, just to nake a few. they can combine and stack to work against you. If it sounds confusing, on first pass, it is. Mostly this is an attempt to give GMs a bit more wiggle room in describing injuries or power effects, but until I play the system, I can’t comment on how well it will work. (This seems to be a popular new way of handling damage or “stresses”, as it’s called in Smallville. I like the idea, but the execution could be off-putting to new role players, is my gut feeling.)

The DC-branded campaign elements are handled well, without getting too involved. In Chapter 10, it gives a glossed over review of the DC Universe (Multiverse?) history, the campaign specific cities, locales, planets, etc. There’s coverage of multi-dimensional travel and the various “Earths” of the DC comics. Chapter 11 gives a run down on the various heroes and villains of the universe.

Overall, there’s a boatload of style to the book’s look, the way they handle powers and their effects and flaws: 5 out of 5. Substance: there’s enough crunch to satisfy all but the spreadsheets for characters crowd, but it’s not too heavy handed. The DC background is good enough to run, but might seem a bit slim for DC comics fans (in which case you have the background material…it’s called your comics collection.) Substance: 5 out of 5.

Is it worth $40? In comparison to similarly priced games? Yup. Is it worth $20 for the e-book? Definitely.

Icons is a rule-lite-ish superhero RPG published by Adamant Entertainment. I’ve been tossing about a co-GMed supers campaign to take some of the gamemaster heat off of me, once the baby comes next month. We’ve looked at a couple of the systems — the old Mayfair DC Heroes, the DC Advnetures (aka Mutants and Masterminds), and the old TSR Marvel Superheroes games. Icons manages to borrow some of the best elements from these and very little of the bad.

First, the physical stuff. Icons is a nice book — brightly-colored, good paper quality, and this also shows in the .pdf version. It used Helvetica as the font for the main text, so it’s easy to read. The headers for chapters and sections are in various comics fonts and lend character to the book. The art is so-so, cartoonish, rather than comic bookish, but it’s not a deal breaker. Overall, the style is solidly average.

The meat: characters have ratings from 1-10 in their abilities (Prowess, Coordination, Strength, Intellect, Awareness, and Willpower) and their powers. The scale is very roughly exponential, like DC Heroes was, with each level being about twice the strength/power/whatever of the number below. Powers are fairly generic, and borken down by types (alteration of things, control, mental, movement, etc.) Icons has a real throwback character creation — it’s random. For most experienced gamers, I think they’ll find this annoying; for the newbie or the D&D gamer, it’s probably no big deal. There are variant rules to point-build. It’s easy and quick to build a character and I was able to build pretty much what I wanted, although this game is designed to limit your supers to levels that aren’t earth-shattering or galactic proportions. If you want to pit Galactus against whomever…this isn’t the system for you.

The basic mechanics are very easy and are reminiscent of the old The Babylon Project die mechanic: you roll 2d6 — one is a negative, one a positive — and then apply the outcome to the appropriate ability or power. (The Mighty Mongoose is letting fly on a couple of Captain Sinister’s mook. He rolls a blue d6 (positive) and a red (negative) for a 3 and 4 respectively: a -1. He has a Prowess of 5, giving him a 4 for the attack. The mooks are average folks and defend with a 3 — he’s hit and done 1 stamina point to the baddie.) It’s simple once you’ve done it a few times. The other element of Icons that’s intriguing — only the player rolls in tasks. The players are the heroes; their abilities are the important ones — they either beat the basic ability or power of the bad guys or they don’t. When attacked, it’s the same — you either succeed in your defense or you don’t. It should make for quick play.

In the Taking Action! chapter, the rules are broken out over about 30 pages. Time is measured in a novel way. There’s the usual split between action sequences and narrative time. Action time in the game is broken into panels — as per a comic book and represent an action that could be portrayed in a drawn panel. All of the character’s actions make a page — what would normally be considered a round of action. Narrative time is broken into chapters, with the chapters coming together into a issue (a complete story.) Distances, speeds, and other issues, much like TSR’s Marvel Superheroes are fairly abstracted int0 ranges like Personal (touch range), Close (melee distances), Extended (most ranged attacks), Visual, and Beyond. Materials you might break have a Strength rating (paper is 1, brick is 4) and are roughly twice as strong as the level preceding. An adult person weighs 4, a car 6 and so on… As I said, very abstract.

If you like crunch, Icons will probably not work well for you. If you like a bit of wiggle room in things, it’s a good lightweight engine for playing supers.

Overall, I’d give it a 3 out of 5 for style, a 3-4 out of 5 for substance depending on your need for solidity in your rules. It’s worth the buy and right now the Adamant .pdfs are $2 on Drive Thru RPG (they’re taking the iBooks/Kindle publishing paradigm to heart and I hope it’s working for them.)

(Disclosure: I’ve written for Adamant’s The Imperial Age line.)

Half the book — as with most supers games — describe the powers and their particular effects.