Oct 192011

So even though it was a crass marketing-ploy crossover by many lights, I always liked the idea of the “Amalgam” universe that existed briefly when DC and Marvel joined up to create the ultimate mash-up of their two universes. Remixing is powerful methodology, and to be honest it’s that drive to remix that beats at the heart of my World War G idea.

My love of remixes came up again today on twitter. Cam Banks, who’s leading the team over at Margaret Weis Productions on the next Marvel universe RPG, said something about a “doom pool” when alluding to mechanics getting playtested. Being a big fan of the Doom Patrol run that Grant Morrison did in days of old, I misread it as an implication of the Doom Patrol showing up in the Marvel universe and, well… I was off to the races:

In my amalgamverse the Doom Patrol has everything to do with Dr. Doom.  They’re like an International special forces Hulkbuster unit. One of them is a reprogrammed Doombot code-named Robotman.

I can leave it just there and feel the larger shape, iceberg-like, of the whole of that thing. Negative Man as a stealth operative flitting between bodies in the Latverian Underground. Elasti-Girl as a legacy-of-Reed-Richards type passionately committed to stopping Dr. Doom’s agenda on the global scale and less distracted by wild science. And so on.

Mash-ups are powerful juju. And they can get a little addictive once you get started.

So there’s your mission for this Wednesday. In the comments, mash up concepts from two comic book universes and show me the even more awesome amalgam that results! Bonus points for finding an “overt” connection that joins the two universes together (the way I used “Doom” from one to connect to the “Doom” of another).

Oct 012011

Once Margaret Weis Productions comes out with the Marvel RPG, I think I’m gonna have to do something to run or play in an ongoing game of it, an “elseworlds” kind of set-up I call World War G and which first occurred to me back around 2008. I wrote it up in a locked livejournal post back then, and I thought it might be time to revisit it and revise a few key parts.

World War G’s setup is basically like this: take World War II, but with its timeline utterly changed by the presence of one man. The Manhattan Project has brought together the best scientists of the era — Oppenheimer, Einstein, and Banner — working together on a secret weapon:

They have a working G-Bomb in less than a year. Two significant tests of the bomb produce significant side effects:

In the Pacific, on an uninhabited island, a G-Bomb is detonated. A lizard there gets irradiated with Gamma Radiation and grows huge and green and angry — undetected at first, until it begins its rampage. The Americans once they become aware of it refer to it as the gammasaur. Chinese observers call old legends of dragons to mind and refer to it as Fin Fang Foom. When it surfaces in the harbor waters of Japan, they name it Gojira. Other irradiated reptiles and critters emerge over time (Gamma-ra, an irradiated turtle, among others, makes an appearance). The ravaging of a radioactive, building-tall lizard gives Japan cause to attack America much more ahead of our history’s schedule. (I’m no great historian, so this also does the service in the game of allowing the events and battles of WW2 to head in utterly different directions.)

In the American southwest, a desert test goes several kinds of wrong. Dr. Banner fails to halt a test in time and gets irradiated. What happens to him afterwards gets deeply classified and studied for a time — an experimental super-soldier serum is derived from his new physiology and given to a few allied soldiers. Steve Rogers is the American, and shows promising early results, with incredible muscular development and no loss of intellect and control (unlike Banner, though he’s no dumb hulk either); the Russian Emil Blonsky, however, becomes an abomination, and creates enough collateral damage that the serum is lost. Meanwhile, a desert spider that survived on the edges of the blast bites one of the base guardsmen, a young soldier by the name of Parker, imbuing him with amazing powers. Eventually, the military puts Banner, Rogers, and Parker together in Special Team A — or, as they come to be known, The Avengers: Sergeant Hulk, Captain America, and Private Parker, the Amazing Spider.

(Naturally, the Axis manages to get hold of some intelligence about this and the effects of gamma radiation, but without Banner on the job, they have a hard time with their successes. A few subjects do emerge, of course — The Green Skull for the Germans; the Green Goblin for Italy; there are more.)

An unexpected dust storm sweeps through the testing grounds and travels further on, blowing Gamma-radioactive fallout on an internment camp housing Italian-American, German-American, and Japanese-American prisoners. The “G-Men” this creates break out — one Japanese-American couple features a man who can shoot green energy beams from his eyes, and a woman green-hued telekinesis and other powers of the mind; a German-American man named Kurt vanishes into the night leaving behind only a green puff of smoke; and there are others. Originally patriots, and no fan of the Axis, these G-Men aren’t sure what to make of their new powers or their role in the war, but they’re going to try to join the fight however they can. But can they be trusted as an unpredictable x-factor in a war that’s already gone strange?

The “rampaging kaiju” attacks on Japan spread around enough secondary gamma radiation that a few survivors emerge with strange powers they only partly control. They form a revenge squad, styled after the kamikaze pilots really, but they tend to survive the destruction they cause. They style themselves as Ascending Jade Strike Team, but American intelligence designates them G-Force.

The cover on the trade paperback collection shows Captain America, no shield but the uniform we know, arms akimbo, eyes glowing bright green, bulletproof. At his side, carrying what may as well be a hand-held automatic howitzer, is Sergeant Hulk. He’s wearing the Allied man’s uniform of the time, complete with the helmet — he doesn’t wear that because he needs it, he wears it to fit in. He is, of course, chomping on a cigar. They’re standing on top of a wrecked tank; the Amazing Spider, in his trademark green-and-black outfit, clings to the side of its armor.

Welcome to World War G.

That’s the pitch at least. Really, the idea is simple: take a Marvel character you want to play, drop him or her into the middle of an unfamiliar World War Two, and rework the origin story such that it arises from the side-effects of the emergence of a gamma radiation based arms race kicked off earlier in the war’s timeline than what got us the atom bomb in our native timeline.

So, who are your World War G characters? What World War G inflected villains do they face? Enlist now!

Nov 242010

Links for reference in this post:

So, Daniel recently reposted his thoughts in response to my Bandwidth idea from December last year, and it’s gotten some interest stirred up on Twitter and his blog. Daniel’s 5×5 notion is solid, but it also cleaves close to the kind of design he prefers: interesting word-game mechanics which build towards the collaborative creation of a story. My angle is usually much more inhabit-a-character oriented and as such Dan’s designs — while good! — aren’t always in the pocket for me in terms of the designs I personally want to play. [1]

As a designer, I’m more interested in creating interesting dynamics of choice and tension through the numerical operation of the game mechanics, and THEN fitting theme and story to that. Bandwidth comes from the other direction, however, by saying “here’s some general themestuff and a setting concept” and then looking for system pieces that fit that. So as I back-of-the-brain tinker with this concept, I discard a lot of stuff that doesn’t fit the mechanical motifs that I find interesting. It’s a process of finding the Venn overlap between my system preferences and the setting conceit. At present, here’s what’s left after that vigorous flensing.

So here are words and phrases from the theme (radio broadcast superpowers) which I find interesting and which I think can be tied into system:

  • 5×5 – Strength and Clarity
  • Distortion
  • Static/Interference

Here’s how I’d systemize these concepts for something interesting-to-me.

Tuners (or Receivers), the folks who gain powers by listening to the right signals, list the various signals they can pick up on their character sheets. They’ll rate these in terms of maximums — how much signal power they can handle (Strength) and how clear of a signal they can manage to achieve (Clarity) with their natural equipment. Strength will correspond to the magnitude of the effect the power can have, while clarity will correspond to how finely controlled that power can be utilized. Maybe the system will value clarity more than strength, if there’s a point-buy gig going on here, making it cost, say, 3 points per point of clarity but only 2 points per point of strength. [2]

Six sided dice, maybe as few as two (and definitely no fewer) get rolled when resolving an action. The goal is to get two numbers, each equal to or less than the strength & clarity numbers the character has for that signal, hopefully exactly equal so the character performs at peak ability. (Stay with me here.)

The player rolls the d6es and allocates two numbers from the results, one to strength, one to clarity. The more clarity (beneath or at your maximum), the more control you can exercise over the effect, the more delicate, the more complex. The more strength (beneath or at your maximum), the more power output you can achieve, covering a wider area, a more potent hit, etc.

If you can’t allocate a number that’s less than or equal to your target strength, that creates distortion, like what happens when you try to play something too loud through speakers that can’t handle it. In the game, distortion is a measure of unintended side-effects — extra bits of power that spew out the sides of your ability, increasing the level of (unintended/undesired) property damage and bystander casualty for example, or changing the nature of your power (it doesn’t sound the same!) in this instance.

If you can’t allocate a number that’s less than or equal your target clarity, that creates static; static builds up over time and (perhaps) reduces the number of dice you can subsequently roll, until you get a chance to squelch it. In play this may feel a bit like hit points: if you can’t roll at least 2 dice because of the static penalties you’ve accumulated, you aren’t receiving any signals. You’re jammed.

Even when generating static or distortion, generally your character successfully does something — assume that your power operates at its max level in something you can’t allocate, it just has some nasty side-effects, so long as you’re not allocating a 6. If you can only allocate a six to something, that should be a significant screw-up.

Let’s talk a few scenarios.

I’m playing a Human Torch type dude, someone who can dial in a lot of pyrokinetic power (Strength 4) and is at least middling good at mastering it (Clarity 3). Let’s say the default number of dice I might be rolling at the moment is 4 d6es (the number rolled needs to be examined but the idea isn’t far enough along yet to be sure of the ideal quantity).

Case 1: I roll 6, 5, 4, 2. I need to allocate that 2 to my Clarity, and that 4 to my Strength, to get close to ideal: I don’t have my ideal level of finesse with how I use the power this time around, but I am able to dish it out at my maximum power level (4). So maybe this is a quick-from-the-hip burst of flame tossed at my target: it burns what it should burn, but it’s not as selective or well-targeted as it could be [3]. Or maybe I could decide I’m willing to take a burst of static in order to get the higher clarity result, allocate the 4 to my Clarity (it’s over my 3, so I get a 3 clarity result) and the 2 to my Strength (I didn’t need that much power in order to pull off the effect I’m going for).

Case 2: I roll 6, 5, 5, 3. I go for 3 clarity, and 5 strength, over my 4, which gets me some distortion. Bam! I fry the target, but (distortion) I fry it a little too good and a fire begins to spread. Or maybe instead (distortion) I throw my flames at the target but it comes out as more light than heat — I overload its optic sensors, but I don’t do lasting structural damage.

Case 3: I roll 6, 5, 5, 4. I can’t allocate any proper number to my clarity, but the 4 hits the target for my strength, so I put that there (I don’t want any distortion). This does mean I end up with one or more points of static (do I have to allocate a 5, and subtract my 3 clarity rating, to take 2 static? or do I just call this a burst of static and make a single tick mark?), which will reduce my subsequent die pool. But I get a clarity 3 effect and maximum power, and grit my teeth through the painful static.

Case 4: After taking some static I end up rolling only 2 dice. I get a 6, 3, and now the pain really sets in. First off, I have to allocate a 6, and if it’s clarity then there’s a complete lack of control, a true miss; if it’s strength, then I simply have no juice, a straight up fizzle. Where I put the six matters more than color, though. If it’s strength, then I’m looking at distortion, pure distortion as my power runs away with itself and does something really unintended. If it’s clarity, then I take static again, which would take my die pool down to 1 die — removing me from the fight as I get jammed. It’s likely I’ll choose the distortion, but what if my Aunt Mae is in the crowd?

So that’s the rough draft start of the direction I’d take the idea into system. It likely has some deep flaws to it, but it’s a start, and the dice allocation and shrinking pool elements mean I get the effects I’m looking for in a design: tension as the pool shrinks due to static [4], and interesting choices as the player decides how to allocate his numbers.


[1] Don’t get me wrong, I think there’s something interesting in the word-game ideas that Dan has, but I also find myself squinting a bit when a sentence like “I kill you” is easier to build than “I kill your dog”. Yes, I’m oversimplifying his ideas here, but hopefully you get my point. [back]

[2] So, the Hulk’s superstrength signal might be high strength, low clarity — not a lot of control but a hell of a lot of power. Dazzler’s lightshow ability might be low strength, high clarity — a lot of finesse in using the power, but not a ton of punch. Magneto would be a classic 5×5 guy, tons of power and a lot of deliberate versatility in its use. [back]

[3] I’m imagining the existence of tables for both Strength and Clarity that give examples of what a use at levels 1 through 5 of each might look like. Today, I’m handwaving it a bit. Bear with me. [back]

[4] “Interference” is probably a term I’d use to describe static that’s inflicted upon you by others. Maybe that points at a “contested roll” situation where the strengths and clarities generated are compared to one another as you try your Superstrength signal against my Forcefield one. Other axises may exist on the character sheet as well for each signal, such as a Bandwidth rating that suggests how broadly your power can be applied — Telekinesis being potentially much broader than Heat Vision, thus being a greater bandwidth power. That kind of thing. [back]

Jan 202010

My wife got me Invincible: The Ultimate Collection Volume 4 for my birthday, and of course I’ve already read through the whole thing.  I love this comic, though I say that as someone who doesn’t really have a regular comic reading habit.  (Mainly I read stuff in collections, often gifted or borrowed from a friend. This has the upside of getting lots of story in big coherent swaths, but it also has the effect of mainlining the entire season of a TV show in two days. You’re simultaneously full up of the good stuff, and empty because there isn’t a similar volume waiting for you on day three.)

Invincible has me from the word go. I know a few folks I’ve recommended the series to found it to come off a little flat, though several others have seemed really jazzed by it. I flippantly described it on Twitter the other day as “what Smallville wanted to be before it succumbed to a fatal case of kryptonite poisoning”, though I suppose that does more to tarnish the appeal of Invincible than elucidate it. (Ah, Smallville, what an acid-trip of a show you were before I took my leave of you.)  At its core, Invincible is the story of an alt-Superman’s kid, run through a heavy Peter Parker’s Life Sucks filter.  And boy, does it make my I-want-to-play-in-some-supers-genre-games itch flare right the hell up.

But I’m also not sure that I would want to play a straight up “adaptation” of Invincible at my gaming table.  So I need to deconstruct this thing, figure out what its basic working parts are, and which of those parts speak to me as a gamer. If only so my friends can get a little closer to running the game I want to play in! (That said, the analysis will not go that deep in the interests of keeping things spoiler-free.)

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Dec 252009

So, common gaming question: if we had superheroes in the actual world, what government agency would regulate them?  If you’re from the United States like me, your first answer is probably The Department of Homeland Security.  But that’s too pat and too boring of an answer for me.

So I’m looking to head in another direction, one based on something that I think Rob Donoghue cooked up for a supers game once (though it might have been Matt Gandy).  I don’t remember much about it, other than the idea that the folks with superpowers were regulated by (and in several cases, employed by) the Food & Drug Administration.  Now that’s something that has legs, because the FDA is a weird choice, and it forces you to sit and think about what that choice means for the nature and origin of superpowers in your setting as well as the politics of regulation and oversight that got things stashed there in the first place.

So let’s go back to my original question, and turn it on its ear: starting with a particular government agency as the body of regulation, what’s the reason superpowers exist in the world, and what form do they take?

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