Friday, April 26, 2013

The Inferior Super(iority) Complex

So as of April 30th, Margaret Weis's license on the Marvel name goes away, and with it, the PDF and books on that system.

At the risk of sounding callous, good.

Hating the Game, Not the Player

Don't get me wrong; I'm sure Marvel Heroic Roleplaying is a fine expansion of the Cortex rules, well designed to simulate the flow of the narrative if not the direct use of powers within the selected setting. In this pending disaster, I hold MWE largely blameless. Not completely blameless, though, because hey, they chose to get close to Marvel in the first place.

It's a dark time, but there will be a happy ending. Midnight is coming, the coach is going to turn into a pumpkin, the gown is going to turn into rags. The printed books and what PDFs that are still out there will be the glass slipper left on the staircase, but the princess will have wised up and moved on from those licensed prop—


Yes, Igor? What is it? Can't you see that I'm blogging?


What? Seriously?? Firefly??!?! Ladies and gentlemen, my apologies; it appears the princess has learned bupkis. It has morphed from fairy tale into an episodic story of habitual abuse and masochism.

Yeah, I'm Still Angry About That

I harshed on that vibe in a posting literally years ago, lamenting how jolly and candy-like the license for existing IP could be. The entire [$BIG_NAME] universe to draw upon? All that material on which to build reference books and the like? Who wouldn't jump at a chance like that?

The problem is that sooner or later, the license holder is going to take his ball elsewhere, to wave it jolly and candy-like under some other publisher's nose in the hopes of getting more licensing fees. Because what good is intellectual property unless you whore circulate it about?

That wonderful built-up world loses support. They no longer sell the books. They no longer support the system. [$BIG_NAME]'s [$BIG_GAME] becomes an un-game, falls down the memory hole, and is almost never heard from again. Some will play the old game, but sooner or later [$BIG_NAME]'s [$BIG_GAME.index(2)] from [$SMALL_PUBLISHER.index(2)] will come out and people will wonder all over again why they're playing [$BIG_GAME.index(1)]. Until [$BIG_GAME.index(3)] comes out. Lather, rinse, repeat. And rest assured, it will repeat.

"Toys for the Imagination" (*snerk!*)

And in order to go off more effectively at Marvel and the notion of IP-based games, here I'm going to throw some brickbats (ahem) at …Lego.

No, seriously.

Not far from me, there is a Lego Store. They're in a few of the area's big malls, and I was in one of those malls doing other things. So I went to the door and looked in.

You know how it is with Lego, that you can take the big can or box of parts, dump them out on the floor, and build theoretically anything from it? Yeah, you're going to need a very big box of blocks to build that scale model of Mount Rushmore, but it can be done.

However, in that store, every single box was dedicated to creating specific models. You could theoretically build anything, but if you tried to build something that wasn't pictured on the box, it was going to be a Rohrshach test. If not an eye test. Depending how many specialty parts it had, it might even end up looking like a really crooked version of what was pictured on the box anyway.

So yeah, theoretically great for the imagination provided you imagine just what's on the box. That, in fact, is my objection to not only many IP-based games but to Marvel Heroic Roleplaying, for whom character generation was even less than an afterthought—it was an online suggestion. You could imagine anything as long as the instructions to put it together were in the back of the book. You could try building your own, but it could turn out horribly misshapen.

Older, Fresher Blood

The funny thing is that there is no shortage of other super-heroic roleplaying games, but those get cast by the wayside in favor of the named properties. It's almost like people are buying the fancy name rather than the underlying game.

Well, knock it off. You're capable of better. There are games dedicated to the purer genre, without the cachet of the big names sure, but also without the baggage and much less of that dismal future lack of support.

Sooner or Later, It Always Comes Back to the Generics

If you've read enough from me, you knew this was coming: The best toolset for simulating this kind of action is a complete toolset, one that lets you pick and choose what tools fit your campaign needs. And for those, I would first recommend HERO System for its long and illustrious history of supporting Champions (the original form of the modern generic). Second I would recommend GURPSbecause it has tried very hard to accommodate all manner of action, superhero included (mostly in 4th edition through GURPS Powers and secondarily through the much smaller GURPS Supers). Given that HERO started in that genre and expanded from that, though, it gets first nod.

A more recent development that may come as a surprise is FATE. The FATE Core book should be dropping in a few months, following its wildly successful Kickstarter. And while the dynamics of play are very different from the others, in the hands of someone who knows the system it's more than capable of handling the action. Just be sure to have a set of those [+][-] dice handy.

The Sort-Of-Generics

The genre has gotten no shortage of love from developers because hey, lifting cars over your head. And there are several current and contemporary games that emulate that action. Yes, I said current and contemporary. As in, they're still being published.

Another interesting oddity about all these contemporary games: Unless I say otherwise, each of these is a "generic point-based superhero game," meaning that they don't have much of their own setting, and characters are built up using a pool of points for the sake of balance. Any influence of the original Champions is never stated, but I can smell it from here.

  • From Basic Action Games comes BASH! (Basic Action Super Heroes, not surprisingly), about which I admit I know fairly little.

  • Capes, Cowls, and Villains Foul comes to us from Spectrum Games—the same team that brought you Cartoon Action Hour, and it shows. (Link goes to my own deeply, troublingly conflicted review). If you're familiar with that one, you've got a good start on CC&VF. Buy up (and name your own) Traits from a pool of points, use d12s for all systems ("The d12 just does not get enough love"), get Setback tokens for all manner of damage, and rather than Oomph, characters get Editorial Control. And there's even a table for Random Editorial Twists.

  • ICONS is another one of those that I don't know much about, except that its blurb up on Indie Press Revolution says that it was designed by Steve Kenson, who was responsible for at least one version of Mutants & Masterminds. Which brings us to...

  • Mutants and Masterminds is Green Ronin's generic point-based superhero game which uses the mechanics of 4th edition D&D. Yeah, it sounds weird whenever I say it too. The "level" of your character determines its power level, and from there you can pick and choose what things you want your character to be able to do. Note: This is also the same system used by DC Adventures, the superhero game released under license from that other comic book company.

  • Truth and Justice is the PDQ (Prose Descriptive Qualities) superhero game from Atomic Sockmonkey Press. It is a generic game of "mad, beautiful ideas" and "crazy pajamas," and while it seems to use the caprice that PDQ games do of naming traits and powers and choosing from patterns of bonuses, the bonuses add up in unsurprisingly predictable ways, if you count [0] as [1] because it represents something that, although you get no bonus on it, you can technically do.

  • Arc Dream's Wild Talents unsurprisingly uses the One Roll Engine, which requires up to 10d10 to do anything. Campaign creation is broken down in terms of "historical inertia," "talent inertia," age-of-wonderness a.k.a. "the lovely and the pointless," and "moral clarity." Don't have time to build a character? Grab 9d10 and roll your own point-based character. Seriously. There's a set of tables in there for doing just that, and it does what it says on the can.

I could go on forever, but...

You get the idea? And I'm sure I've missed a bunch of contemporary games. (Tell me about them below in the Comments.) I've also gone on a long time about this, and don't really think I need to tell you about those games that had gone before, like Aberrant, Adventure!, Villains & Vigilantes, and others that I either can't remember off the top of my head or don't know about at all. (Same demand as before. You remember? Scroll down. Comments box. Typey-typey-typey, then Post. Simple.)

Seriously, people, aren't you tired of playing a licensed game only to have the license yanked out from under you and moved to another publisher? Don't just put your foot down, head for greener, smaller-named pastures that don't get mowed every few years and put down roots.

1 comment:

  1. Okay, two right off the top of my head.

    Super Squadron was essentially the Australian Villains & Vigilantes. Powers were rolled randomly off several tables. Unlike V&V, there was no attack-defense matrix of powers showing how powers interacted, but it does have a few pages on cosmology and a spell list for those mystical backgrounds.

    Additionally, I have to mention Underground, the dystopian superhero world in which characters would "design" their character, and then roll for the surgeons in the hopes that they would put them in correctly. Sometimes they didn't, with tragic/hilarious consequences.