The Sage Welcomes You

So, here you find a blog about life in general, but with a focus on family, games, books and creativity. Other "stuff" will creep in from timt to time.

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

A few more words about the Marvel Heroic Role Playing game

So, I am continuing to speak about the new Marvel RPG from a first impressions point of view.  I will get a good playtest run this weekend when I attend the launch party at Labyrinth Games on Sunday.  But, since I have the PDF I have wanted to give my pre-play impressions of the game.

Sequentially, the book does not talk about character creation right at the beginning.  There are a lot of basic concepts in the game discussed first as well as detailed explorations of how various game mechanics work, how the game is played through action scenes and transition scenes (the game really gives the feel of creating a comic book story) and how to take actions in those scenes.

However, the way I flip through things is different than going to cover to cover.  I keep a bookmark slowly progressing through the book, but I'm constantly jumping around to see other interesting things.  So, as I mentioned yesterday, I jumped to the end to see the 23 Marvel heroes statted out in the basic book. 

While that is a solid and representative sample, and plenty to play through the "Event" included with the book (perhaps I can post later on how the "adventure/module" structure for the game is structured around these "events"), everyone is going to be missing one or more of their favorite heroes.  Also, plenty of people will want to create their own heroes and strike off in quite unofficial/"What If" directions.

The game well provides for both contingencies.  On the one hand, Margaret Weis Productions has a fairly aggressive production schedule for their "Events" planing to bring out Civil War, Annihilation, and Age of Apocalypse.  Each of those are likely to be packed with character write ups.  In part this is because the game aims to satisfy those individuals who always wanted to play their favorite hero.  So, if you want to be Hawkeye, or Nightcrawler, or The Silver Surfer, all of those official write ups are coming this year.

On the other hand, the game makes it reasonably easy to create your own character, or to come up with a playable version of your favorite, but unreleased, character following the rules and models provided.  Hero characters are defined by five key traits: Affiliations, Distinctions, Power Sets, Specialties, and Milestones.  Combined, these build a character that is complex, versitile, and very role play ready.

In brief, these traits act in the following manner:

Affiliations tell you if the person works best alone, as a buddy, or in a team.  Then, based on how the hero is acting in a scene he or she has a better or worse die to roll in their dice pool (a set of dice you build out of your traits to accomplish actions or to react to things in scenes).  These are not immutable traits and can change and shift over time.  So, for example, Captain America, at the start of the Avenger's Disassembled Arc, operates best as part of a team and lest well on his own.  His peak performance has been trained to operate working with the Avengers, and when they disband, he has a real game incentive to try and get them, or some team, back together.  On the other hand, heroes like Wolverine and Daredevil have their peak performace solo, and operate less well as a member of a team.  Marvel Team Up veteran Spiderman is best as a buddy.  So, by ordering your affiliations, you already know a lot about your hero and it has a very Marvel feel.

Distinctions are pieces of information, catch phrases, titles, or other words or phrases that describe the essence of the hero.  Depending on a given situation, they may count for or against the hero.  When they are a positive influence, they add a "good" die (d8 in a system that goes from d4 to d12) to the dice pool, when they have a potentially negative influence, they add a d4, but also give the hero a Plot Point (which is the action currency of the game that allows heroes to really shine when it counts).  For example, Captain America has as his three distinctions "Lead by Example", "Man Out of Time", and "Sentinel of Liberty."  These traits add flavor to the hero and give flexible and interesting in-game mechanics that help shape play and allow character rewards for making in-character choices that a player would avoid if merely playing the "game."

Power Sets are the heart of the super hero identity as they represent inherent powers, technological or magical equipment, or whatever else (training, alien physiology, etc.) that makes the hero powerful.  The game suggests that you should be able to stat out a hero with no more than two Power Sets.  As I have thought through various Marvel heroes and seen how they did the 23 for the basic game, I have to say they seem to have done a good job with their rule of thumb.  Within a power set can be a number of individual powers that are somehow linked (using Captain America again, he has Super-Soldier Program as one set, and his Vibranium-Alloy Shield as his other).  The powers that make up the Power Set are each rated at a die level from d6 (ho hum, but allowing something a regular person can't do) to d12 (Godlike).  Generally, for any action, only one die from any given Power Set can go in the dice pool.  So, if you have two sets, you can general apply more powers in a roll.  On the other hand, each power set also includes one or more special effects that help customize the powers, and also limits which may interrupt or prevent the use of the power (e.g. Cap can lose his shield) until some condition is met.  The game gives good guidelines for describing and using powers that would appear to easily handle anything you have ever seen in the Marvel Universe, and if it not there, there are clear guidelines for developing new things to go in Power Sets.

On the one hand, the power curve seems a bit flat, with only 4 levels of powers possible (ho hum, Enhanced, Superhuman, Godlike).  However, the combinations, addition of special effects, and combination with other traits really allows this simple spread of power levels to describe a very diverse set of heroes without the need to have every possible attribute statted out in dozens or hundreds of gradiated levels.  The point is not to try to figure out the physics of superheroes and model that, but to model the way that things work in comic book stories.  The play reports I have seen and my own impression of the simple elegance of the system support that MHRP does just that.

After Power Sets are Specialties.  Theses are the "skills" of the game.  They are few in number and broadly defined.  You get a die if you are an Expert (d8) or a Master (d10) at something important.  There are, at my count, 13 skill Specialties offered in the game.  The focus is on things that come up in comic books, things like Crime, Science, Combat, Tech, Medical, etc.  The focus is on relevant playability, not modeling a complex real world inventory of what people can do.  It is possible that some other specialties could come into play at some point, but really, these do the job of handling your Marvel character.  They also allow for interesting interactions with powers and other traits to flexibly deal with challenges in the game. 

Finally, there are Milestones, which are triggering events that provide the hero with experience.  This is one of the more innovative parts of the character description.  These are not unique, as they have appeared in earlier games (the one that I am familiar with is the Lady Blackbird steampunk scenario where experience "keys" are similarly described).  However, using these milestones to describe possible story arcs and rewards for characters is new as far as the Marvel Universe.  Each Milestone is described by a 1xp, 3xp and 10xp level.  The 1xp level could be a thing that can happen often and the character can gain xp frequently by meeting the terms of that level.  Cap has two milestones (again, a hero may have one or two) and his first one is, for the included scenario, "Mentor the Hero."  If he chooses to aid a speficic hero he gets 1xp the first time he does it.  But there are lots of heroes to help, so he can pick up a fair amount of xp by being helpful.  The 3 xp is a once per scene trigger.  It is a bigger, scene defining moment.  One of Caps is to earn 3 xp when he ais a stressed-out (i.e. out of commission due to physical, emotional or mental stress) hero in recovery.  The 10xp is a defining decision by the hero and may be hit only once per Act.  For Cap, one of his is to get 10xp when he either gives leadership of th team to your chose hero or to force your chosen hero to resign or step down from the team. 

For me, these Milestones are really powerful role playing tools.  The xp rewards allow for purchase of advantages along the arc of an Event, so they have real game implications for success or failure, and they shape the character's behavior to deal with certain issues along the path of the overall story.  While all of the heroes in the book come with predefined Milestones, it is clear that each new important stage of a game/campaign, should be marked with the GM (called The Watcher) and the players coming up with Milestones for all the characters that make sense to the story they plan to tell together. 

Taken together, I see the character system as innovative, comprehensive, flexible and fun.  It is also demanding on a certain level, in that it requires real thought and collaboration between the players and The Watcher to make things like the Milestones and Distinctions work.  However, I think the collaboration it demands builds a better, more trusting and richer play experience.

If I have time, more tomorrow.

Monday, February 27, 2012

A Few Words on the Marvel Heroic Role Playing game

There is a lot to say about this great game and the company that produced it, and I can only speak to a fraction of it at the moment.  However, I wanted to get some thoughts down before I get to actually play the game (which will happen at the previously mentioned Taste of Marvel at the wonderful Labyrinth Games) and then give some more impressions after I get to experience it in play.

So, I am actually buying the hard copy book from Labyrinth and picking it up at the event this weekend.  However, since I prepaid, I received a prompt and efficient e-mailed link and coupon code for a free download of the PDF so that I could start looking at the game last week.  MWP was prompt and the download on Drive ThruRPG was easy.  This is the second game I have bought from MWP (I pre-ordered Leverage for a friend), and this interaction confirms my initial impression, that they do good work and are very competent with their customer care.

I have not read the game itself cover to cover yet.  As is my usual, I have done a combination of flipping through, looking things up (good index and TOC) and then started slowly moving the bookmark (so to speak with a PDF) through the volume.

Everything that I have seen so far impresses me. 

First, they have a foreward by Jeff Grubb who helped bring us the original Marvel Super Heroes game from TSR.  It is a nice piece, and it is classy to have him, in effect, hand the torch to the new game.  Despite many criticisms I have written here about the old MSH game, I have a great fondness for and terrific memories of playing it.  From the first pages, I get the feeling that MHRP will similarly gain a solid place in my RPG repetoir.

The look of the book is great.  The layout is clean and clear.  The art is well selected from a back catelogue probably hundreds of thousands of images in the Marvel library.  But the selected art fits with the themes of the sections they adorn and are not just randomly assigned.  The feel is very professional, very comfortable and it communicates well as the system is described bit by bit.  Right up front they have a breakdown of what things make up a character and a summary of what they mean, using Captain America's sheet as an example.  Then you can dive into the details of the rules immediately following.

Of course, before digesting all the nitty gritty of the rules, the first thing to do is to flip to the back and check out the official stats for the included heroes!

There are 23 super heroes fully statted out and ready to play in the "Mini Event" included in the book.  They include a good representative group from Mavel's popular teams: all of the Fantasitc Four, important members of the Avengers and X-Men, and of course a number of popular "unaffiliated" (at least before the Avengers Disassembled story arc) heroes like Spiderman and Daredevil.  I have no complaints about the initial group of heroes, though I do have some observations.

The group is very representative of the marvel Universe and should satisfy most Marvel fans as a first round of official stats. 

What is disatisfying for me, which is not the game's fault, is the lack of representativeness of the Marvel Universe. 

In this group of heroes, we have 8 women heroes and 15 men.  Marvel suffers from a lack of solid and interesting female heroes, and has never developed any female hero iconic as DC has in Wonder Woman (and even if she is constantly treated as a distant third behind Batman and Superman, no matter what DC does, it has been unable to not have her in that big three).  Here we have Armor, Black Widow, Emma Frost, Invisible Woman, Ms. Marvel, Shadowcat, Spider-Woman and Storm.  These are all solid heroes, but given the almost 2 to 1 ratio of male heroes to female, I hope that somehow the game can overcome the inherent gender issues in the Marvel Universe to get girls and women to the gaming table with the game.  Because I like it a lot.

Looking through the vector of race/ethnicity, there is a starker contrast.  19 of the heroes are white/caucasian background, with other racial/ethnic groups represented by two black Africans, an African American and an Asian (Japanese) character. 

Gaming should know no boundaries, and imagination should admit everyone.  Marvel, along with mainstream comics everywhere, has definitely got some major gaps in how representative its heroes are.  While Marvel has established an imaginary world where there are 9000 significant characters, many from all over the world and from all kinds of backgrounds, the most popular, the most promoted, and the most famous tend to be white and tend to be guys.  This game is not going to fix the industry.  However, going into the game and making the Marvel Universe your own to game in, one has to understand that the way things play out in character selection for the write-ups is pretty reflective of the Official Universe. 

The nice thing about it is that, if you don't like it, in the game, you can change it.

Hopefully, MWP can find some way to tap into those players who maybe don't see themselves in the "top tier" of Marvel heroes and nonetheless get them interested in the game.  With luck, that may bring in some more readers who may be able to exert some market forces for change in the official universe to balance out its cast.

As it is the rules make creation of heroes or statting up of your favorite (but as yet not officially released) hero fairly easy.

I'll have to talk about that tomorrow, as I am out of time to write today.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Rucka on The Punisher

Greg writes up on how and why he took on writing The Punisher.  Short and interesting:

Monday, February 20, 2012

Marvel Launch Week

So, I have written quite a bit about the upcoming game release of Margaret Weis Productions new Marvel Heroic Roleplaying Basic Game .  It is not so upcoming now, as midnight tonight sees the release of the PDF.

Today, despite being a holiday, I am a bit pressed for time, so I'll just point out two great resources that have made things clearer about what the game does, how it does it, and what is planned for the line.

First, there's the information that outlines how things are organized for the game's launch parties: here.  Looks like there are play opportunities for some of the more popular, interesting and diverse characters from Marvel.  Not perfect, of course, but a good sample nonetheless and good for showing what can be done by the system.

Second, there is a very interesting interview with game author Cam Banks at the BAMF podcast.

I'd say everything is looking very good, and I am very interested to get my game on with the system next month.

Saturday, February 18, 2012

Into the Marvel Universe pt 4

Despite good intentions (Road to Hell paved?  Check!), I have been less than constant in my blogging this week.  Nonetheless, I will play a little catch up today while my son practices with his Pipe and Drum band.

So, I have raised a lot of questions about how the new Marvel Heroic Roleplaying Basic Game about to be released this next week by Margaret Weis Productions is going to play, and I have expressed various hopes while mentioning misgivings, many tied to my former experience with TSR's old Marvel Super Heroes (MSH) RPG.

However, I think that my hopes are pretty much going to be fulfilled and my worries allayed based on this terrific post (Collateral Damage #0: The Making of a New (Marvel RPG) Series) by the Chatty DM over at  He outlines some of his challenges even though he is working on the game and goes through the start of a new ongoing campaign and the creation of the new player characters.  It is a great write-up and showcases what can be done within the framework of the basic rules.  While what he describes is not without a speedbump or two, it is a clear demonstration of the robust and flexible character creation possible.  This is very heartening.  I was pretty sure such would be the case, but, sadly, even good companies sometimes make major mistakes, especially with licensed properties (which are just no easy thing to work with (Fred Hicks has some good thoughts on them here).

So, now that I need not hold my breath on the game, what is left to say?

Hey folks, this is the blogosphere, there is always something to say.

The core of the system looks extremely sound and I see it as seriously more malleable and functional than the old MSH system (as much as I enjoyed playing it).  The question I do have is how does it operate on the extremes.  For example, is it going to work at the very low powered end (say you want a S.H.E.I.L.D. campaign inspired perhaps by DC's Gotham Central or Checkmate type approach (why yes, I am a flaming Greg Rucka fan))?  I think the answer is yes, but I'd like to see a test drive.

Also, how does it work at the very high level side?  Can you do something like the Incredible Hercules run by Greg Pak and Fred Van Lente or the classic Thor stories by Walt Simonson?  A campaign like these inspirations require some major city demolishing, cosmos shaking, dimension bending power to be available, and more importantly, it needs to be interesting.  I think one of the problems with old MSH, was that the system just might have made the high level stuff uninteresting.  Okay, you take 1000 points of damage, and we're done.  Obviously, a good GM could do a lot more, but the system did not provide a lot of support.

I am thinking that in both cases, for the highs and the lows, you can get very good play from the system, but I am still hoping to see some actual play and first hand accounts.

One of the reasons that this is important to me is my own experience.  One of the things that worked incredibly well in the old campaign (so very long ago (and hey here's an article about my old GM), was that it wasn't the powers that made us heroes, it was the fact that we were heroes and happened to have powers (sometimes).  So, for example, we had an armored hero, who was still working hard on his I-want-to-be-Iron-Man suit.  It started off fitting in a really big box and had to be carried around in a van.  Sometimes, there was not enough time to don the armor.  That did not stop the player.  He was ex-military or law enforcement, and, for example, when Hydroman was rampaging, he was more than willing to shoot up a gas station with incendiaries (BOOM) and drive him off.  Another time, a huge Sentinel robot attacked our fellow hero who was a mutant weather controller.  Once again, the need to don armor was a hindrance to going "super", so the player just grabbed the nearest semi truck and rammed it into the robot, allowing me to do a little laser surgery on its head (if I recall correctly (and I had been, at that point, transformed from a ROM the Spaceknight clone into a Justice clone)).

So, the moral of the story is that, I want that feeling that the players are the heroes of the stories, powers or not, and that they have something to do, that is easily modeled by the rules.  Cortex+ looks like it will do it, but I am still at the "show me" stage.  After all, we are about to get The Avengers and the quote is

"Big man in a suit of armor, take that away – what are you?"

"Uh... genius, billionaire, playboy, philanthropist,"

That needs to work.  I will be looking at Chatty DM, my own experience upcoming at Labyrinth Games, and other actual play reports to see how things play out.

But I would say things look very, very good.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Into the Marvel Universe pt 3

Missed out on wrting yesterday, but will try to regain ground today.

So, continuing on with my thoughts and hopes from the planned release of Margaret Weis Productions new Marvel Heroic Roleplaying Basic Game I wanted to start by contrasting what I think and hope we'll see from the new game with the classic, but not perfect, TSR Marvel Super Heroes game (MSH).  One of the issues with MSH was a certain inflexibility in the resolution mechanic.  There was a universal chart and various abilities and powers were rated at fixed levels (good, amazing, unearthly, etc.) , and things had a fairly binary correspondence.  Breaking down a door required strenght, dealing with attacking ninjas required fighting.  There was not a lot of room to innovate and mix things up with the rules as written.  So, if you had an armored hero who wanted to break a door down by charging or flying through the door as a self propelled battering ram, it was not really clear how to adjudicate a rating for that.  The rules would tend to force a GM to either say "you can't do that" or to make up something arbitrarily.  Now all games have such limitations at some point.  Somewhere, the "physics" created by the rule system break down.

However, with a game inspired by the amazing and crazy things that can happen in the pages of a comic book, the farther off you can push that rigidity, the better.  This is one of the reasons I am quite pleased at the prospect of the Cortex+ system driving the new Marvel system.  From what I have seen of the impementation in Leverage, the manner in which creative description and flexible ability and skill categories can work together make for a powerful and fun system that has much fewer "you can't do that" moments, and many more pick up your dice and see how it turns out moments.  That is exciting to me, and I am really happy to get a test run of the game at my favorite game spot next month (Labyrinth Games in Washington, D.C.).

Now, I can still see some downsides.

First, the Marvel Universe, as much as it has produced stories and characters I have enjoyed, it comes freighted with a lot of crappy baggage.  One of many not great things from Marvel is their many mediocre at best "events."  The new RPG is going to have at its heart, a whole variety of the past events to sell additional products that expand the basic game and the defined universe (read lots of hero and villain descriptions and advice about running various places and aspects of the mainstream Marvel Universe).  I don't begrudge Margaret Weiss Productions this organizational structure, but I think it showcases the bland filler of the Marvel Universe along side its more positive aspects.  This is not to say that every event has been a failure artiistically as far as story (I'm not even competent to speak commercially), but as I have tried to go through back issues and from time to time follow through one event or another (and Civil War was the last one I seriously looked at (with disappointment)), I can't say that I love any of the big cross overs (and this goes back all the way to the Secret Wars craziness that perhaps began it all).

So, there is that which may weigh against buying much into the line of products.

Also, there is just a lot to dislike in the Marvel Universe.  Obviously, both big publishers have always had trouble in balancing their portrayal of women and minorities in the pages of their books.  While not bereft of success from time to time, on the whole, the comics of the Marvel Universe are targeted at the white, middle class, heterosexual, male reader who expects female heroes, when they get seen, to be seen as wish fulfillment fantasies first and their story, personality and intellect, if shown at all, are all secondary at best.  This is not a view I want to subscribe to or to have prevelant at my gaming table (on those rare occiasions I get to game).  So, in taking the mainstream Marvel Universe as the default field of play, I get stuck with a narrower world than I would like, and a lot of work to make it over into an image that I feel more comfortable in (and having my players, most likely including my children, play their stories).

And there are number of other things that have been woven into the Marvel Universe that just violate my worldview.  People in the Marvel Universe are really much worse and more banally evil than you find in the "real" world, for all its flaws and tragedies.  This comes out most strongly in the Mutant Menace trope of most X-Men/Mutant etc. books.  Its like regular people, at least if they are in an X-Men book (not necessarily a Spiderman or Fantastic 4 book mind you), have the super prejudice power.  It only activates normally if you are in an X-book, and then beyond all history, evolving social understanding, or ability for information to be spread and people being able to rise above their context, you always seem to have just a mob of "mutie haters."  It is absolutely incoherent and frustratingly so.  I mean, I know this is a super hero comic, so with flying people and blue people and telepathy and all, the threshold of the willing suspension of disbelief is pretty high.  Still, emotionally, most of these stories fail because there is not enough truth to them.  People are prejudiced and they do hate, and it has and will continue to lead to suffering, injustice and even genocide, but it seems like there is truth (in an emotional sense) to how it gets portrayed in the Marvel Universe.  The feelings come and go depending on what book you are in, and the story of prejudice just falls on its face because it almost never is told the way things really happen.  There are a number of other examples of things woven in to the fabric of the Marvel Universe that just grate against me, but ifyou are going to get Spiderman, Captain America, Kitty Pryde, et al, all the rest comes with it.

So, of course you can, under your own steam, create a completely different reality, as in the already mentioned World War G post by Fred Hicks.  Or, you could chose a slightly different flavor of Marvel by trying to use the Marvel related settings in other media, such as The Avengers: Earth's Mightiest Heroes animated show, or any of the Marvel super hero movies (Spiderman (1+2 but NOT 3) Iron Man (1+2), Captain America or Thor pretty good, first and second X-Men movie and X-Men first class also pretty good; Daredevil, Elektra, any of the Punisher, Ghost Rider or Hulk movies from bad to very, very bad), but I'm not sure where that really gets you.  Also, there is the "Ultimate" universe, which has some promise.  Unlike the old "New Universe" where Marvel tried to generate a whole new set of heroes in a new version of a super heroic universe (which did not last long), Ultimate, really starting with the well done early issues of Ultimate Spiderman, tried to remake the Marvel Universe by shifting, tweaking and reimagining its heroes.  They seem to have done a pretty good job with Spiderman.  But I tried to read the Ultimate X-Men books, and, for me, it was if they took all the dumbest plots from the last forty years of X-Men and found ways to make them DUMBER.  So, your mileage may vary.

In the end, there has to be a way to make a corner of the universe your own and have your players' front a center.  But deciding what to take and what to leave, especially when it gets all interconnected, can be a task, and I am not sure how I might take that on.

Wrote myself through another lunch, so, here's to blogging, unfounded opinions, and forceful statements without analysis.

Thanks for reading.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Into the Marvel Universe pt 2

Hi all (?)

Continuing on from yesterday, and just to complete my last thought, the thing I found from playing our someone ongoing MSH game first was that a good Supers game has to make space for the player characters.  Unless you are playing a deliberately ironic "third string" kind of capaign, you can't have it where Superman or the Avengers, or whoever are lurking just off scene to clean up the players' mess or to steal the players' thunder.  So, you have to have your own universe, home base, or something that gives the players' Supers center stage. 

If you go the established heroes route you have to avoid devolving into a space where you spend more time arguing over "Spiderman would never do THAT!" etc.  One way to do that is mapped out well by Fred Hicks in his World War G post.  Basically, you let the players reimagine things, so whatever they do as Spiderman, etc. is exactly what that character would do, because the character has ownership.

Character ownership is another issue we dealt with in that first campaign.  As I recall, one of the things that was weak in old MSH was the character design piece.  It was all to easy to default to the random tables, so beloved by us for AD&D, but really often a terrible way to design a character (okay so your powers are the ability to move through earth, water breathing and an enhanced sense of taste, what are you going to call yourself?  Stupid Powers Man?)

My first character's first incarnation suffered from random creation, as did his background (another kind of clunky thing that the game did).  My fellow players were more forcefull in making character driven decisions to put together their characters, but from our old school background, that design almost feld like cheating.  Gaming has come a long way in that respect.

The lesson, I think, is that since the game is supposed to be the story of the characters, you want to give a lot of creative space for the players to make interesting and creative choices to design characters they want to play.  The system has to have bounds, but good players tend to make good choices so that a well designed and thought out character does not break the system, but instead is the best expression of it.

I think that is one of the things I most look forward to in seeing the Margaret Weis Productions new Marvel Heroic Roleplaying Basic Game.  Having read through their Leverage game, it seems to me that the company and authors really know how to customize the Cortex+ system to maximize player ability to creat interesting fun characters that are nonetheless well in-bounds for the system to handle.  I am interested in seeing how the system handles the various power levels that you find within the Marvel Universe.  I am pretty confident that they will be able to balance the game so that you can deal with everything from the Punisher at street level to handling Galactus and the Beyonder at the cosmic level.  However, the devil is always in the details, and I will be interested to see how the design handles these issues.

I think a real challenges that any implementation of a universe, like Marvel, is to comprehensively handle the power levels so you can use the same system to reasonably run and resolve issues where you can have teams where the power levels can really range from the Expert human to the cosmically powerful (think the contrast between someone like, say, Hawkeye and Thor).  I think this was something that was not so well balanced in the old MSH.  As a number of smart people have observed (e.g. Ryan Macklin and Rob Donoghue as recent examples out in the blogosphere) game mechanics and the "physics" they set up,drive play and decision making.  I think the old MSH, for me, made it very hard to have the flexibility to have mismatched hero/villain battles, despite those being a feature of comic book storytelling.

For example, you could definitely have an issue where, say, Captain America had to go one on one with Dr. Doom or Loki.  However, the MSH did not really provide creative mechanics for making a match up like that fun or interesting.  A good GM could make it work, but I think without support from the rules.  I think this can be different in the latest iteration a Marvel RPG, and I look forward to what it looks like.

I also look forward to what it does for character creation.  The publications all center around major Marvel events that allow for attractive and exciting releases of collections of villains and heroes that can plug into scenarious drawn from the huge comic history (though mostly recent) of the Marvel Universe (I would totally buy an event based on Walt Simonson's Thor run, but I don't see that in the immediate offing).  In any case, while they must, as a matter of course, give us pre-made heroes from the mainstream universe, there has to be a way to create new characters.  How that is done and what freedoms, constraints, tools and guidelines exist in the rules are reallly likely to make or break the game.

Since it is both a feature of the source comics and my past roleplaying with MSH, I also hope they will address, at least eventually, the transformation of a hero (i.e. how to trade in old powers for new).  Obviously there needs to be some story driven justification on a change (although Marvel has set the bar pretty low (Psylock needs to be hotter, and Asian)), and the mechanics are probably easy enough as far as trading around dice etc., but it would be nice to see some process set out as it is 1) something seen in the genre, and 2) a way to give new life to a character that might be needed to inject new life or fun into a capaigm  (then again, it might just be a gimmick, see Psylock above).

Well, wrote myself through lunch again.  To your delight or horror, I promise more tomorrow.

Monday, February 13, 2012

Into the Marvel Universe

At the end of this month Margaret Weis Productions is launching their new Marvel Heroic Roleplaying Basic Game built on their Cortex+ system which powers their Leverage and Smallville games, among others.  Next month, I will be getting to test drive the new Marvel RPG at a Taste of Marvel at the wonderful Labyrinth Games in Washington, D.C.  I expect the event will be a lot of fun.  I have been impressed by what I have seen of the Cortex+ system.  It appears to be a very flexible, fast playing system that allows for a lot of creativity and imaginative play that should be a good fit for a comic book style game.

Super hero role playing has been a hit an miss genre for me.  I have read a number of games, played a few, and missed many more that have come and gone.  Supers has been a style of play that came out pretty early in the RPG evolutionary tree, I think really flowering first in the early 1980s.  Champions and Villains & Vigilantes seemed to be the games I remember being on the scene early.  The Hero system came out sometime in that distant past too, and all of these were generics, not taking an identity from any particular license.  Then both DC and Marvel did get into the game with respective licenses with Mayfair and TSR.

The old TSR Marvel Super Heroes (MSH) was my first experience trying to play any kind of ongoing supers game.  I was never much of a comic book collector.  I had friends who were fanatics, however, which was good, because I could read their stuff.  While DC and Marvel both got represented in my friends collections, the dominating theme of those days were the X-Men and Marvel.  DC made some inroads with Justice League International and Man of Steel, and (on the other end of the light/dark sepctrum) the Dark Knight Returns, but Marvel just seemed to dominate the majority of my peers' reading and discussion time.  So, naturally enough, there was interest in MSH.

We had a number of abortive attempts to start campaigns (after all it was competing with my sprawling, derivative, and in many ways lame, yet dominant AD&D campaign), but finally it settled in to three characters and the GM.  We had an Iron Man type knock off, a Storm knock off and a, sort of, ROM the Space Knight knock off to start with.  I definitely learned things from our play about runing these kinds of games and about the system TSR put together. 

First, just like any game, you have to run a good story.  There need to be fun bite sized bits you can get through, and you also have to have something bigger going on.  Even if one night's play is, or seems, to be a one-shot, it still needs to showcase the interesting things about the characters, from their foibles to their awesome powers.  So, for example, the game that my character started in was a rather abortive attempt to make an initial campaign that started, as most of our RPG experience did up to that time, in a Dungeon type crawl.  That did not work.  It was not effectively about anything.  Then, as the other players dropped, but I wanted to keep my quirky, strange character, the GM had the very effective plan to drop me into a parallel Marvel Universe, where he then started the other two players, and use the first adventure to basically kill or cripple most of the important heroes in New York.  We watched a horrible moster kill or make disappear most of the Avengers, Fantastic 4, Dr. Strange, etc.  This was great, because it gave us as players a place to fit in, and small and large things to do.  We had to 1) help stop the monster, 2) rebuild the hero teams, 3) find out what was behind the attack, & etc.

As it turns out, the framework to start the new RPG is not that different (now if we could only get paid for having the idea first . . .) as the setting proclaims:

"The Avengers have been disassembled, the Fantastic Four are somewhere in space, and the X-Men aren’t answering their phone. When dozens of dangerous villains are spring from the maximum-maximum security prison known as the Raft, who’s going to stop them? You are."

Of course this is a storyline already seen in the Marvel books as well, and it is a great place to start off because the story is about the player characters and how they can make an immediate impact (perhaps quite literally) on the story.  The problem with established supers universes is that they may have one, two or three already of the kind of character that the players want to do.  Unless you are having them run the established characters (which is a mixed blessing) it can be hard to make space for them.  The problem with a blank slate approach (often the challenge with the generic systems) is where to begin to build your world.  The models that people will think of are complex universes with everything from established teams to alien races and magical dimensions.  You can find yourself biting off too much.  Still, you have room to let the players' characters be the front page news, instead of being a note in the style section while Superman or Thor is on the front page.

I have some (many) more observations, but they will have to wait, as this is to be a lunchtime exersice in trying to write coherently for the next few weeks.  So, for now, adieu. 

Tomorrow more thrillng anecdoes and unfounded opinions.

Saturday, February 4, 2012

Punisher Issue #8 Review: Blue on Blue

Total credit to the folks at the Gaithersburg Beyond Comics.  They ran out of Punisher #8, but had a fresh copy for me the next day from another of their stores.  Great service.  Thanks folks.

And what an issue. 

Spoiler alert Spoiler alert Spoiler alert etc.

This was an issue dominated by the tour de force storytelling of the creative team.  Greg Rucka, in the lead as writer, has control in every panel, despite many being without dialog.  Some will say Rucka did not work so much this issue because there are relatively few verbal exchanges. 

They are so very wrong.  All you have to do is look at the twice a week draft scripts that go up on for the web comic Rucka writes and publishes with two collaborators twice a week, and you will see how much thought and detail goes into the writing that is purely visual.  This is not to slight the amazing work of his artistic team.  Rucka candidly admits he can't draw worth a damn.  However, as a "director" he tells his artists his vision in detail.  The results are then a dialog and synthesis of Rucka's vision merged with the artist and the colorist.  Checchetto and Hollingsworth turn in terrific work that provides excellent visual storytelling which only happens in this way in this art form. 

What results is the latest chapter in the compelling opening Punisher storyline for this run of the character.

The Punisher and Sgt. Cole-Alves (survivor of a mindless massacre at her own wedding which killed her husband and her family and friends) start out weapons drawn and pointed, in the midst of a slaughter each has wrought.  The Punisher is working his way through The Exchange, an organized crime group made up of henchmen from other "Super" criminal organizations in the Marvel Universe (Hydra, AIM, etc.) as part of his latest offensive in his never-ending war on organized crime.  Cole-Alves has started her path of vengeance, with a certain sense that the Punisher is doing work she should be doing.  While this is just another offensive in his war, this is her vengeance.

Still, each recognizes that the other is not the enemy and with a declaration of "Blue on blue", they call a truce and each look to capture intelligence and leave the scene of their latest fight.  The Punisher warns Cole-Alves "Stay out of my way."  They may both be marines, but when it comes to the vengeance business, he is the professional and she is the amateur.

Next, there is a somewhat parallel story of The Exchange leadership.  It turns out that one of the directors is an ex-SHIELD agent, who has left back doors into SHIELD technology caches around New York.  The deaths of 18 Exchange operatives was a gambit by him to draw out the Punisher and set him up.  He promises his partner results.

The rest of the issue follows first detectives Clemons and Bolt as they follow up Clemons determination that there were two shooters at the scene of the latest bloodletting for the exchange.  Clemons guesses that Cole-Alves is the second shooter.  Cole-Alves sets him up to test how far he is willing to go to try to get evidence of that.  By the end of the scene we know that he knows that she knows that he knows, but there is no evidence for an arrest.

Finally, we get to The Exchange's trap.  I won't spoil the end, but there are some twists and turns.  The theme of the issue is misdirection and deception; getting information by laying traps and stalking horses (Blue on blue indeed).  It is a great next chapter in this building story.  All the creators are to be commended.

I highly recommend it.

Thursday, February 2, 2012

No comment

So, Punisher issue 8 came out yesterday, but my local store had a short supply and ran out before I got there.


They are supposed to be getting some from the other store today or so.

So, I cannot comment on the issue, but many others can, so I will chronicle their ratings without, I hope, exposing myself to too many spoilers before I get to read the issue.

IGN (9/10)

MCMBuzz (B+)

Comic Vine (4/5 stars)

Crisis on Infinite Midlives ("Rucka is telling this story in his own good time, but it’s worthwhile keeping up with it. He’s assembled a rich cast of characters that all deserve their own moments to shine.  . . . Stick with this book. We’re going to get some payoffs soon and storytelling like this in a decompressed book doesn’t come around as often as we deserve.")

Punisher Central (Overall Rating: A)

JINXWORKD FORUMS ("Wow, Greg Rucka knows how to write a story.") [Review by JBK405]

Comic Bastards (3/5)

Update Feb. 6

More reviews--

CBR (4.5/5 stars)

forces of geek (A-)

Multiversity comics ("Greg Rucka has been doing fantastic work on this title, and I will sing its praises until the end of the world (and then some)")

Henchmen-4Hire (4/5: Good; "Booyah, baby!  Hells yes! Finally, Rucka gives us a stand-up-and-shout moment of pure excitement in his Punisher series! This is the kind of darkly sinister yet wholly rewarding scene I want in my Punisher comics. There are few things more badass than the Punisher’s skull logo appearing out of the shadows. And Rucka and returning artist Marco Checchetto nail it to the wall and leaving it dripping!") 

Shawn’s Showcase ("I do want to mention Punisher #8 because I do not believe this book has gotten the attention it deserves. Greg Rucka has offered an interesting take on the Punisher by centralizing the stories on the people whose lives are affected by the vigilante-killing machine. It really does offer the character in a different fashion. Well worth trying out.")

Don't Hate the Geek (Top Pick of the Week)

Mr. Comic Book, After School (4.5/5)

and also

Grant's Cover of the Week - Punisher #8 by Marco Checchetto
("Grant: I'm super happy to have Marco Checchetto back on this book.  He and Greg Rucka really know how to make great comics.  And while they're doing great stuff inside the cover, Checchetto is also taking the time to do great stuff on the cover proper.  This picture may not have much to do what's going on inside, but when the Punisher is sporting such a fine facial hair, I'm not terribly concerned about it.  Seriously, Frank, that's one hell of a beard you have there.")