Things I learned from the Exalted Kickstarter

Exalted 3rd edition is out after many years, and seems better than 2nd edition.  Yet, after all this time I find that I still don’t have the book I kickstarted, which, according the the kickstarter, was the whole point of it (it was stated they didn’t need funding for development).  I reported awhile back that this was on my fucked kickstarter list, and it still is.

From the 3E PDF, the writing is superfluous, inefficient and overblown.  The system, while not as crazy as 2E, is as complex as ever, this time with some strange abstractions layered over the top of the WW storyteller system (which should have been abandoned in the first place). People may play this game, but as stated by the new head of White Wolf:

…while the monumental classic-WW-style books generally sell poorly and are more read than played. If future editions … are actively used rather than collected we have done our job.

Monumental. Did I mention it’s ….600+ pages. It’s not 2009 anymore.  Why would any RPG book need to be this large? The 5E PHB is half that, even the all-encompassing, rather wordy at times Runequest 6 only 450 pages. So what did I learn for the future:

  1. Never back an RPG that doesn’t send you an immediate PDF of the rules.
    •  No one needs money to do development on a new RPG system.
    • People do this in their free time (Black Hack, Godbound, Zwiehander) and are successful.
    •  Any COMPANY doing this will be able to support their developers during the development process, long, long long before they ask us for money (Feng Shui 2, Dungeon Crawl Classics).
    • I expect to Kickstart PRINTING of an RPG, never development.
    • This was just ignorance and stupidity on everyone’s parts that backed Exalted 3E.  Remember how long ago this kickstarter was, we were young then, and dumb.
  2. Never back another White Wolf / Onyx Path Kickstarter.
    •  This goes without saying
  3. Ask for kickstarter money back at the first missed deadline.
    • Don’t meet deadlines that you yourselves have set?
  4. Ask for kickstarter money back if the creator is openly stating that they are facing severe health problems. (people finding out on the side is a different matter)
  5. Be very wary of new RPG system re-development Kickstarters.
  6.  Don’t back anything that will fucking suck to GM, and Exalted, in all it’s editions is a game that’s great as a player, but it’s horrible to GM, not just the learning, but the playing.  This took awhile to discover for myself.

    Solars
    These guys (the second tier signature Solars) are still cooler than the 3E ones, sadly.

“Yes, but you didn’t!” – the failed redesign of Stunts in Exalted 3rd edition

Exalted 3rd edition is out in PDF form to backers and all over the internets for everyone else. It’s being poured over by fans of the game as well as people that were inspired by 2nd editions mess to make other games because the older systems were so fucked up–yet some things were platinum awesome about it. I’ve got a long post coming about the new version, but today I want to blather about the failure of the game to address one of the terrible problems with Stunting in the old edition and it’s not what you think–mote retrieval for stunting– but something fundamentally worse:

If the dice say it doesn’t happen, it doesn’t happen.

Exalted stunting works like this: You say what you are going to try to do and if excites people at the table and titillates the GM, you will get bonus dice or bonus successes on the subsequent roll. In theory, this seems like it will work well: players describe what they hope their character will do and it leads to descriptive flair at the table. However, in actual play it works like this:

  1. Players tire of it. Combats are long and Exalted combats are the longest there is (in 2nd edition) in RPG gaming. Creative juices break down after awhile and stunts become impossible to really impress. Out of sympathy, the GM will start awarding 2 dice stunts on everything partially to help the players stay interested and partially to keep the fucking game going in session long combats. Players also complain a lot if their stunts don’t get ‘accepted’ so it’s easier to let them have the fucking dice. I’ve been this GM.
  2. Since the stunt description happens before the roll, the stunt itself can be a botch or a failure and this grand description that everyone now has floating on their minds DOES NOT HAPPEN. This leads faster to point 1 above– players throwing in the towel on stunting and phoning it in for the rest of the combat session.
  3. Because descriptions of stunts are before the roll of the dice, even when the attack and stunt fails, players may cognitively remember that that stunt actually HAPPENED in the game, even though all facts point that it did not. Players may need to be reminded at the next session about stunts that their characters failed the die roll for that they actually thought succeeded. This is terrible.

Stunting like this seemed cool back when it was done in Feng Shui and copied around to other games. Feng Shui 2 has fixed this problem while still incorporating stunts fully into the combat and chase systems. First, stunts happen AFTER dice are rolled when a big success happens to ask the GM for a special effect– not more damage, not anything completely defined by rules, but something that is decided at the table like punching a guy so hard (the punch HAPPENS because the dice say so first) that his limp body knocks down a row of motorcycles like dominoes and pisses off all the biker onlookers! Second, there is the option to ask for a special effect before dice are rolled, at which time the difficulty of the roll goes up– letting the player know that he is trying something that could more easily fail.  This is simple on paper and PLAYABLE.  Players aren’t going to get fucking bored off their ass because yet another 30 dice attack failed to even hit the big bad guy since he has seven shadows evasion every round…

Because Exalted is a min/max’ers, system junky style game with very little narrative freedom during fights (stunting always translates into raw mechanics) I guess they had no choice to make stunts like they did, but they were rubbish in play in 2nd Edition and not just because they gave motes back.

RPG’s of 2009 – the year of mega-complexity – part 1

I was pondering my own desire for a Great Simplification in my RPG playing and GM’ing over the last few years and it lead down a path of wondering what year was the height of RPG complexity across the board? Now, sitting in 2015, the OSR is going strong, Numenera’s cypher system is still rolling forward (and the Strange) and has some very simple mechanics, 13th Age has stripped away the grid of 4th Edition and created an extremely playable D20, people are swinging off the nuts of the extremely simplified, deconstructionist spoof of D&D: Dungeon World. What’s more, Hasbro’s D&D v5 released last year, and while still fairly complex compared to the latter three versions, it has also undergone a great simplification compared especially to the two previous iterations. The pendulum has swung to the simple, but when was it at it’s apex of complexity that gave the current trend momentum?

The year I feel people were playing (and had an appetite for) the most complicated RPG’s in the history of the hobby is 2009. Since that year, I gut-feel (I ain’t going to track down sources) like the RPG community, as well as myself has been yearning for a simpler style of play, one that invokes more imagination and less about mechanics and OPTIONS. Yet, in the early 2000’s, I firmly believe that myself and many other people wanted nearly infinite complexity in our RPG games, and anything less was ‘just fucking shit we played as kids.’

Where did this desire for complexity come from in the first place? Why did we need so many character/monster/spell options and all this minutiae? People designed and produced these complex games hoping they would sell, and there was obviously a market for each being as complex as possible. But why?

I’d like to divide RPG players into two (overly) broad groups. First, the 70’s set– people that were born in the 70’s and played OD&D when it was actually published. These are the Holmes, Moldvay, Metzner kids. The second group (again this is broad) are the Lord of the Rings kids that played or started playing D&D 3.0 when the LoTR movies came out. The boost of those films to D&D and RPG’s as a whole was simply huge and there is an entire generation of people that jumped into the hobby, starting again with fantasy, during this time. What were these two groups both influenced by to make them want exceedingly complex games in 2009?  How did D&D 3.0, designed by the same guy that did Everway and 13th Age, end up being so complicated and by extension– all these other complex games!

Magic the Gathering. MTG had a huge effect on all gaming everywhere from 1993 on. I would say MTG had as big an effect as the creation and propagation of Dungeons and Dragons itself. What MTG did for gamers and game designers is to create a desire and acceptance of a vast array of asymmetric powers. A MTG deck is essentially a collection of powers that players need to know, memorize and combo. Not only do they need to know their own deck, they need to know as much about all the other cards in the game that may be played against them as well. Roleplaying games hence started having massive amounts of variable powers– especially Exalted and Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay (who even had all the player skills on cards).  MTG primed gamers minds for mass asymmetry and a desire for the same in their RPG’s.

CONFORT
CONFORT–with 71 credits…

Anime, and fighting games. Especially Ninja Scroll for starters and EVERYTHING else since and by extension ALL Japanese fighting games. I spent food money in college playing Virtua Fighter and Samurai Shodown 2 and the adoration of those games culminating in Guilty Gear and Virtua Fighter 4/5 created an appetite for a system where your character fighting opponents gave the players tons of options, tons of character styles and special powers, conditions, everything. I believe fully that Anime and Fighting games were extremely responsible for the rise in complexity over the course of the 90’s and 2000’s. People eschewed the muddy murderhobos crawling around in dungeons for scraps with just a few stats and a single damage rating– they wanted heroes that could SHIN SHORYUKEN!!!  Combat, never a strong point or focus of old D&D (despite how we played as kids) became absolutely critical to RPG system design.  Once you understood what was going on in the fighting engine of King of Fighters or Samurai Shodown, it was hard to look at your PNP RPG combats the same way.  Reinforcing the trend from D&D 2nd edition– anime propagated that characters should be ‘heroes’ and not just some git with a sword and some rope stealing stuff from a tomb or abandoned dwelling.

Vampire and the D10 system. This is called the storyteller system but compared to story games these days (Hillfolk, Fate, et al.) this was really a ‘universal mechanic’ RPG more than anything. The really awesome thing about Vampire, which no one had done before well, were the variable player powers based on caste/clan.  Suddenly players were able to take a fairly straight forward (and broken until the Trinity version of the game fixed it) difficulty/successes system and layer in THEIR characters variable powers, and see how the whole mess worked together. As much as I am not a fan of the vaguely gay (remember it was still only the early 90’s–it couldn’t be blatantly gay which would have been much better!) vampire soap opera stuff myself, I, like many other, viewed the system with some sort of awe, but just wanted it to be turned loose on a genre that wasn’t so…. goth and metaphor for being a closeted gay dude. (this ended up being Trinity/Aberrant and Exalted). Because the system was easy to add options to–they did– so much…

Warhammer 40k/Fantasy: Especially the 70’s gamers started spending MASS cash on 40K and Warhammer stuff in general in the late 90’s and early 2000’s.  The game was extremely pervasive in game stores, being the bread and butter of many stores along with MTG.  Warhammer is all about army/unit asymmetry and tons of variable powers for everything, with customizable characters to the nth degree (we rip on “herohammer,” but that shit is fun both on and off the table as long as it’s balanced).  Since D&D was derived from miniatures games, 40K has a similar root.  Warhammer is the natural hardcore extension of Swords and Spells and Chaimail, both of which are awful in comparison.

Now, there have been many complicated RPG’s before 2009, especially in the realm of ‘universal’ systems such as GURPS and the HERO system (starting with Champions) as well as, arguably, TMNT (actually a really good game for it’s time!) and Rifts which really wasn’t that complicated except for all the character options and SDC/MDC bullshit (and mass addons). Phoenix Command, Twilight 2000, Rolemaster from back in the day were all COMICALLY complicated simulationist style RPG’s. These last three are games that, if you accidentally buy at a gaming flea market for a couple bucks, end up not on a shelf or drawer for later ‘research’ fodder or toilet reading, but get fired directly into the recycle bin. Yet, these games came out of an era where I think no one knew jack shit about how to design an RPG in general, the medium being all so new after all, so you have to give them a bit of a break unplayable as they were compared to (most) games of today.

Next post, three RPG’s that define 2009’s complexity to a C!

Exalted 3 Comic released to kickstarter peeps

Exalted 3 will someday come out.  Gencon is looking impossible, but if you kickstarted the book you will have gotten a comic via drivethru to check out in the mean time.  Since the lead developer is apparently not going to die (this was a consideration due to health issues), we will likely see this relatively soon, but Gencon: no.

The comic is good, it’s not GREAT, but it’s a good read and does not descend into some of the cheese that the Exalted COMIC book did (there was good stuff in there too).   One thing of note is that people that kickstarted at a massive level to the new version got to contribute a character to the comic , so the writers/artists were dealing with some fanboy’s wet dream from the outset.  Given that, it turned out really well compared to the horrible vanity shadowfist cards we’ve seen since Zman gave up the game.

I’m still excited for this fucker, but if it sucks, it’s only postponed my Exalted game using Marvel Heroic (cortex+) system.

Here are a couple of pics.

exaltedcomic1

 

exaltedcomic2

Happy 40th D&D!

Ye old blue book....
Ye old blue book….

Wow.  If I was to point to one single thing that influenced me more than anything else, it would be D&D, both playing it as a kid, trying not to play it as a teenager (to be cool) and then moving on to better games as an adult (better being Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay for the most part) and just all around gaming– D&D was the gateway drug!  I’ve spent some of my tiny amount of leisure time this week going through some of my old RPG shit and trying to ID the path I took through the hobby.  I think it’s this (bold means I feel it was a huge influence):

D&D Basic (blue book) > Moldvay Basic (boxed sets) > AD&D (sort of, since it really fucking sucked and we just used the Basic rules with the AD&D monsters) > Gamma World (ahem…shoplifted copy I shamefully admit..)> Champions > Star Frontiers > Paranoia > Call of Cthulhu > Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles > Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay  (this lasted all through college and beyond) > Werewolf  > Feng Shui > Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay 2nd Edition > Exalted (this got me back into RPG’s seriously around 2006) > Dresden Files/FATE > Marvel Heroic Roleplaying > Carolina Death Crawl > ???

Now, of course, it’s all about the narrative style games and I haven’t played a D20 in years.  13th Age will be the first delve into a modern D20 since a single session of Pathfinder about 4 years ago.  Of course, 13th Age IS a mash up of narrative and D20 crunch, so we’ll see how it plays  vs FATE and vs 3.5.

That said, there have been many awesome RPG’s that came out in the last couple years and even just last year besides 13th Age:  Fate Core, Numenera, Fiasco, Marvel Heroic Roleplaying, Carolina Death Crawl are all huge additions to the genre that are moving the ball forward– it’s really tough to pick what to even run!

Looking forward to 2014, we’ll have D&D Next, Exalted 3 and what looks like a crazy interactive game by Robin D. Laws: HillFolk.  While I feel the new version of D&D is already out and it’s called 13th Age, I’m interested to see what D&D Next is able to do.  Let’s face it, Pathfinder has the ‘miniature heavy’ version of the game locked so Next will either bring it back towards the OD&D versions already handled by Labyrinth Lord and Lamentations of the Flame Princess or try to take Pathfinder head on (which is sort of 4th edition after all).

I know some of you have already been roped into many of my experimental games (playtest of fate core, carolina death crawl for example) and it will continue…

Ah… I guess I hate generic RPG system books

Lament this!
Lament this!

I hopped on both the Fate Core 3 and Cortex Hackers Guide kickstarters earlier in the year with no regrets and while this is NOT a review or discussion of the systems included in these books, nor the layout, nor the art or anything content wise by any means, I don’t like either of them and here’s why: they are generic RPG books and little did I know– I can’t fucking stand them! There’s really nothing more boring than a system without a reason to use it and while I really like both Cortex and FATE, the ownership of these books is fundamentally useless to me– and I can’t even get through reading them….at all. Imagine trying to learn Advanced Squad Leader or Mystic Realm (both very difficult games to learn) without having a strong affinity to the gaming theme they represent. Could you get through such rules? I thought I could, but I can’t. Not ever.

Let’s take Lamentations of the Flame Princess as an example of a similar game to the of the books above in that it still presents a sort of generic system for running Fantasy RPG’s first off. Lamentations uses the most generic and nearly universally familiar OD&D system (Moldavy Basic essentially), changes a couple of things (like only fighters get +1 to hit at levels) and then tells you how to run a Fantasy game with it. There is a (very strange) adventure in the back, but other than that there is no description of the Lamentation’s world at all– just about what survival Fantasy Horror gaming should be like. Yet, while the system is one most of us are intimately familiar with (being the basis of all D20 play ever anon), Lamentations, while not including much in the way of a world, has a very clear Swords and Sorcery /Survival Horror focus for the game, the art and writing; a setting that makes what you are getting into with the game extremely clear. It is not a base rule set for any genre it is a base rule set for Swords and Sorcery. Of course we know from the years gone by that D20 has been used for everything under the sun with some incredibly weighty systems (Pathfinder, 3.5, etc.), but that’s not what Lamentations is doing. Instead it’s laying out a well-known set of rules within a specific paradigm even WITHOUT a massive world-spanning gazetter included in the base package. I love Lamentations and it will be my go-to D&D game if I ever give that a whirl again, and who can deny modules like The God the Crawls or FUCK FOR SATAN to boot? Most importantly, I was able to get through the text of the rules, the GM advice (which is amazing and goes far beyond anything I’ve ever read for running an actual group of players) and the supplemental materials. Why?

Let’s talk about Cortex and Fate– both excellent rule-sets. At the moment I prefer Cortex a bit more because, those of us that love Exalted want to play high powered crazy fights in less than 8 hours a piece. While I really enjoy exploring a new RPG system, what I don’t like, and this is a recent discovery, are these tool-kit only rulebooks. While clearly laying out what can be done with the system and the system itself (in the case of FATE 3), there’s absolutely no hook at all saying to me as a GM, i.e.: the person that will have to put all the work into the game for the most part, that I should try to make stories for this. It’s more like saying: ok you as a person should make an RPG out of this– and if you have time for that type of thing you are in a completely different demographic. Even the awesome Marvel Heroic Roleplaying, whose setting I really have no interest in at all (apart from Guardians of the Galaxy) gave myself and my players some framework to WANT to play. When I pick up FATE 3 and peruse the Hackers Guide for Cortex… I fall asleep, LITERALLY. There’s just nothing there but laying out an RPG system which, while incredibly important that it’s not pure shit (I’m looking at you Twilight 2000), it’s extremely boring when extracted from any sort of genre framework to spark the imaginations. It’s like one side of the brain is satisfied while the other one just sits there, bored off it’s ass.

Then, there's Exalted.
Then, there’s Exalted.

Dresden Files (FATE 2), while not that fun to play as any sort of Wizard, are essential books for my RPG library as a basis around how to create that TYPE of game (modern Wizardry) with FATE. Marvel Heroic Roleplaying (CORTEX), again while not a specific world I am interested in playing in was yet another awakening to what is possible for handling high powered, superheroic RPG’s. Even very difficult systems like Legends of Wuilin (which will likely never see print) Strange Fate (FATE 2 on crack) are extremely interesting books because they weave the stories you are going to tell in with the system it’s presenting. While you are reading the SYSTEM you are also beginning to create the stories that you will tell together with your group–and I think this is absolutely key. Sure some people that want to make a FATE or CORTEX game may love the generic system books, but for me, it’s just a waste.

Exalted 3 kickstarter funded in 18 minutes

Exalted_2nd_Ed__Jade_South_by_UdonCrew
too bad she didn’t survive the Reclaimation–but did her exaltation…

Well fans, here it is finally (and unexpectedly for some), the Exalted 3rd edition kickstarter.  This is not a kickstarter for the game itself, but a kickstarter for two over-the-top productions of the 3rd edition main book (one made of METAL).  Metal will run you about 350 bones, but you can get the deluxe version of the new book for about $125 thrown in the cess pot.  Of course, I did it immediately because Exalted is the game that got me back into the pen and paper roleplaying game hobby after a long, long hiatus.  Sure during this hiatus I ran a bit of Warhammer 2nd edition, and played some Pathfinder here and there, looked upon the D&D 4th edition rules languidly, and had a very fun but disturbing weekend session of a first edition module (slave pits of the undercity) using the 3rd edition D&D rules.  The hobby, before Exalted came around, was something to diddle with here and there, but felt like something I did in the past.  Exalted 2nd edition really started the fire of love for the hobby that I have carried ever since.  It’s broad scope, it’s sensual and ultraviolent artwork, it’s mechanics (see below) and just being a massive work of fiction by a plethora of authors in the source books kept me reading and reading, even while Real Life was stripping away the ability to actually play all that much– but play we did and MOST of the time it was awesome for me and the players (well I hope)

And so begins another long post about Exalted.  With all the praise and fans it got (and it got a lot), 2nd edition Exalted had problems, glaring ones actually; especially for a GM because it was incredibly hard to systematically run combats/conflicts the correct way using all the charms available to your enemies while remembering the player’s charms enough to give them a tactical run for their money.  I remember as a childe running the battles in D&D at higher levels where the enemies would use their powers and monsters weren’t just a stat line (HD, hp, THACO and damage) and that got COMPLEX with Drow firing up their minor globes of invulnerability and geas and all that crazy shit.  If it was too much for a Dew’ed up 12 year old to handle, how can a working adult with no time to prepare fare?  Exalted is like high level D&D  on crack even with beginning characters.  That’s part of it’s appeal and part it’s problem.  You have characters that can fly, that can never be touched by an attack, can disappear underground or if allowed to speak, can cajole anyone within earshot to fall on their swords– all of which is in the normal paradigm of powers of the Exalted.  The issue with this vast array of powers is that they are fitted over the top of a very detailed and crunchy system with tons of numbers and dice and modifiers and almost too many options for players to deal with.

Let’s look a bit at the game’s economy– not money, but the stuff the player has to manage on their character sheet.    First and foremost is Essence— where characters have a rating of 1-5 that determines a personal and peripheral pool of points they can spend in situations to use their powers.  Second is health levels, usually about 5-7.  Third is Willpower that also fuels some powers but is used as a rating as well, then there are Virtues that can be channeled for success at a task, next is DV (defensive value) that can be manipulated by actions and charms. Soak, which is either bashing or lethal (chracaters have both) and determines how much damage you can take before you take it in health levels,  and last (I must have missed some here) is your Ticks for an action– how fast the action you are taking takes in game time– this ALSO can be manipulated by various means.  As you can see, that is a SHITLOAD of stuff to keep track of and when you are a player, it’s daunting.  When you are a GM with 5-10 characters in a combat it becomes …IMPOSSIBLE.

So a lot of people played Exalted and a few people eventually found some things about the system that were a bit broken (well a lot really) as in you could build a character that could not be hit at all by manipulating essence expenditures and essence gain via various charms/innate abilities– and you could do this at character generation.  What’s more, these players argued, because some of the attacks in the game are incredibly lethal (and there is no resurrection) all player and NPC characters MUST use this type of character build to survive combat. They further argued that the Exalted in the game would know this and it logically applied that every character in the game would (if they could) have such a build.  Unfortunately because of the internet, these builds got everywhere and while my play group may have sort of built their characters a bit this way, even a partial twink build like this made the combats even more frustrating to run and also made them incredibly LONG.   While I complain about D&D and Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay because about half the time you attack you fail (the ‘whiff factor’) and when you do hit it does “damage” that really isn’t damage since everyone in D&D is either dead or 100% combat effective–and this made combat boring, Exalted’s combats can become boring for a completely different reason– even though characters have all these awesome potential attacks and can do stunts all over the place and it’s very narrative, because Essence is used to save you from dying AND fuel your attacks, players will not use their essence for anything cool unless they absolutely know that they will get a hit.  Since the powerful antagonists ALSO have this going on– it becomes a long flurry of dodging and blocking with perfect defenses until everyone is asleep at the table in Real Life with no outcome. Rather than a fight, a real pub fight that is, any combat becomes a lot more about essence management than anything else.  While that logically should be part of the game economy– it ended up being the only thing.

Since the last time I played Exalted I have searched for something LIKE it that can carry the weight of the system but without all the long crazy fights.  While I read a bunch of other systems certainly influenced by Exalted (like Wu Lin and Noblis, etc.), I actually got to play FATE and Marvel Heroic Roleplaying.  While FATE is awesome, I think Marvel Heroic Roleplaying’s system absolutely nails the ‘supers’ genre (where Exalted fully belongs except, of course, there are swords and spells) mainly because while characters have all this cool shit they can do but when they fight with each other instead of constant negation: SOMETHING HAPPENS.  Fights between fully kitted out superhero teams plus whatever other fodder may be in the mix go like greased hole lighting because when Thor throws his hammer at the Hulk, chances are even in the comics where no one really dies– SOMETHING is going to happen in the MHR system.

So what I’m looking for in Exalted 3 is MHR.  That’s putting it as simply as I can.  I am cool with the D10’s and the base Storyteller system, but something has to HAPPEN in combat and it has to happen whenever a player rolls the dice.  It’s fun to dodge all around and never get hit by Dragon Blooded hunt pack, but man 4 hours of that to wear down everyone’s essence and sneak in a single hit that turns an enemy to ash? No.  The complexity of Exalted, all the stats, all  the economy on the character sheet that needs to be managed, the tick-based combat, all of which in theory should work just breaks down when you are faced with tracking every character.  While I the essence reactor twinking can be solved, there’s got to be a middle ground between super crunch complexity and playability.

In any case MHR has solved initiative in roleplaying games forever .

Marvel Heroic Roleplaying: First Session and random thoughts (feelings?!)

1981. You had a wank to this image.

Supers RPG Games.  What can I say about them briefly?  They are a guilty pleasure at best and at worst a one shot farce where people make characters that are walking beer mugs named Mr. Frothy.  Over the long years I’ve run the Hero System, TMNT and Champions and while they didn’t totally suck (TMNT, embarrassingly  was probably the best in play), each had their quirks.  The Hero system has a lot of “Math.”  Champions took forever to make a character build (our first experience with a points buy as kids) and the fights took a long, long time.   Even for us children, they were fun dalliances from the serious stuff like D&D and Call of Cthulhu (and Gamma World)–not the stuff of a long campaign.  Once the cynicism of the late 80’s set in along with Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay, there was no going back to the genre. A Supers games was all fighting: there wasn’t much narrative other than punch the shit out of some Viper agents and take down Armadillo with a RKA before he has a chance to act.  While fun, the other factor was that your character didn’t build up with experience– they came out of the womb about as powerful as they were going to get.  I think very very few sessions of Supers games were played for these reasons, but we did spend much more time making characters.  Somewhere I have a pile of moulding character sheets for Champions with all the Xmen, Rom the Spaceknight and probably ridiculous characters like Devil Dinosaur and Kamandi (the last boy on earth you know).  This is where time was spent on these games, not the play itself.

However, in the last 20 years, two games hit the shelves that can only be described as Supers games: Feng Shui and Exalted.  in 2007, the capstone on the superhero genre hit the shelves in the form of Exalted 2nd Edition.  Think Exalted isn’t a supers game?  Look at it. Seriously.  While Exalted has it’s problems, some GLARING problems, the setting and the ability for a system to FEEL like you are playing an uber powered individual with nuanced power sets really put everything else I had played before back on the shelves (including Feng Shui). Everything in the “Supers” genre, from ICONS to Kerberos Club to the new Marvel Heroic Roleplaying is trying to capture that magic that Exalted brought to the table while trying NOT to fall into the traps Exalted did from a system perspective.

That said, now we are older and have responsibilities other than finding a dark corner to beat off in or making sure we actually eat something other than funyons during a given Summer day spent in a dank basement.  There’s no time to make characters, there’s barely time to PLAY a game, much less know the rules to the extent Champions/Hero system requires. And let’s not even get into the whole Exalted 2nd edition complications.   So we turn to FATE-like games with a focus on narrative and player-fiat rather than system heavy simulation.  While it uses what’s called the Cortex system, MHR is, in essence, FATE with the D&D dice (and lots of them).  This is not a bad thing.

While I had read the MHR rules once through and skimmed them again right before play,  I must admit, I was largely unprepared for being the GM (Watcher).  I understood what the Doom pool was, how dice pools were made for actions, but had a good deal of fuzziness around the nuances rules.  Of course, the first scenario is about the best I’ve read in a Supers game– all full on combat with other super villains– an asston of them pouring down.  In fact ,there are so many that mobs of them show up as Mooks and you can spend dice from the Doom Pool to ‘power’ up some out of this huge list of D-grade villains like Scarecrow, Mentallo and Tiger Shark in the back of the book.  I planned on the entire session being combat, and oh yeah, it was.  While some players shudder at session-long combats, don’t let that throw you off– it went surprisingly fast for what it was–a MAJOR throw down.  Running four major super heroes (Thor, Iron Fist, Iron Man and Wolverine) vs seven+ supervillains including one A-lister in the form of Carnage his bad self actually worked.   Trying to run seven villains and all their powers at once in the first session of a new game seems totally insane– and at first it was, but characters don’t have a ton of powers that you can’t remember at all (like Exalted), so you’re not overwhelmed.  It’s what you do with those powers both in the narrative and with your dice that make the difference (again, remember this is FATE-like).   I fucked up a few times, sure, like using Living Laser’s LIMIT on his power set as a power (stupid me) and not quite doing Count Nefaria’s powers right…but compared to running 6-8 mere Dragon Blooded in Exalted, it was a total cakewalk as a GM.

Given that the core system is essentially FATE, I must comment on the change in dice in MHR from the Fudge ones.  Unlike FATE, you have a dice pool that you build from your character sheet, from resources and assets (like a tire iron you picked up, or a tank you are about to throw in the case of the Thing) or enemy consequences.  You roll these dice and select two for your ‘to hit’ roll and select one die for effect.  The effect die number showing has no meaning, just the size of the die.  Your opposition rolls against that ‘to hit’ number to dodge or block, building a pool in the same manner you did to hit and also selects and effect die and a ‘to hit’ roll.  Essentially whoever gets higher gets to fuck the other character up– the only difference is that the attacker gets to do so for free and the defender has to spend a Plot Point to apply his effect.  This means the dreaded WHIFF factor is nearly gone– if you miss, chances are you are going to take some damage in return.  Players thought the counterattack mechanism was overpowered, but really, what it comes down to is a roll off and whoever wins can hit– attacker for free but with no information (dice haven’t been rolled) the defender ‘at cost’  but with all the information (dice are already rolled).

Damage takes the form of a die type and is either a consequence (like being wrapped in cabling) or some form of Stress (like FATE).  So, if you have D10 damage, that’s not only a track to see how fucked you are, but bonus die your opposition gets to roll against you.  Once it’s over D12, you are out of the scene and take some real damage.  Damage can happen FAST.  In the first exchange, if Thor hadn’t had a Plot Point to invoke his invulnerable power, he would have been one-shotted by Living Laser. The heroes were one shotting villains all over the place– and some of these guys were plenty ‘ard.  Like FATE, when you are in combat, things HAPPEN.

The dice pool mechanic was pretty quickly picked up by the players but it must have been crazy for them in the first hour or so.  They were able to build their pools quickly throughout the game– though I think it wasn’t exactly correct because though you can use a die from each ‘section’ of your character sheet, that doesn’t mean you are legally allowed to.  For example if you were trying to punch someone, you can’t use a “criminal master” D10 for your free trait die– it just doesn’t make sense.   My only complaint is that I hate D4’s: hate rolling them, hate reading the numbers off and hate stepping on the fucking things late at night. Otherwise the dicepool works really well.  It’s not as fast as FATE, but it doesn’t take forever and seems to squeeze out narration.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t talk about the powers in the game.  Powers are called ‘Power Sets’ that include all special effects and a limit.  Most characters have but one power set, but some have 2-3.   The special effects are things like: “Remove your Stress die to the doom pool and step up your next attack effect die by one rank” and really represent the player’s powers in the game.  The Limit is some condition that shuts down the power set (like Iron Man having his armor power shut down by an EMP).  These limits were tough to integrate during the first play– I just didn’t know if I was supposed to show them to the players or not.  You do not play with a GM screen and nothing is hidden from the players so I would assume they could just look on the enemy sheets.  Again, the number of powers and effects are manageable and it’s possible to run a shitload of NPC’s with no problem: something that cannot be said for ANY other Supers game I’ve played.

Ok…there are a few A-listers that are pretty cool…

In summary, the first session was chaotic but showed a lot of potential for the system.  I need to run the game again (and explain the rules better to the group) to see if players get bored of the system and all the dice or if it stays fresh.  Like most other Supers games, there isn’t really any reason to use or get experience points– but they are there and there is some leveling up, but for the stock Marvel characters– who cares?  In short, MHR really this blows away Champions and the Hero system because I could sit down and run the game with little to no prep, much like FATE. With practice, I could probably make up villains on the fly during play.   The issue, creatively, is I’m not sold on and RPG based around MARVEL, you can’t really make characters easily and while the system isn’t tied to the setting all that much, who on earth has the time to make an alternate setting?  That said I will run this fucker again, despite the fact that the main characters have underwear with them on it that your kids would wear and lunchboxes and toys from the 70’s and are pretty much played out story wise (I never noticed how fucking LAME wolverine’s ‘Japanese’ backstory really was– oh the 80’s…) but it would be nice to get off the generic Marvel heroes in the book (FF, Xmen and Avengers,with the only B-listers being Power Man and Iron Fist) and onto stuff like the Lesbian Space Adventures of Phyla-Vell or you know… something closer to EXALTED.