Action-Espionage in RPGs

I’m not ashamed to admit that I’ve seen every James Bond movie ever made. Some I’ve watched over and over, and others (anything with Timothy Dalton) I’ve only seen once. I know they are not real espionage movies—they’re action movies with a thin veneer of espionage trappings sprinkled over them…sometimes.

But I’m okay with that. When I want real espionage, I read something from Le Carré, Forsyth and others. Sometimes, though, I don’t want real espionage. I want action-espionage.

More recently, I’ve watched the last few Mission Impossible movies. Now, I hated the first MI movie—I thought it took what was best about the original Mission Impossible television show and ripped it out, and then created a crappy James Bond copy. I heard enough about MI:2 that I knew I should avoid it because I was guaranteed to be annoyed and disappointed.

But then some people I trust told me that MI:3, MI: Ghost Protocol, and MI: Rogue Nation were all decent action movies and that I’d probably enjoy them. And they were right.

Which, of course, brings me to roleplaying games.

Espionage or action-espionage?

Real espionage is hard to do in an RPG. This is because real espionage doesn’t actually have much action in it. It involved meticulous research, long planning, endless surveillance, and other elements that don’t really translate to a fun and exciting time at the table.

Which is why most espionage RPGs add other elements to increase the fun factor. Night’s Black Agents, for example, is a fantastic game with a system (Gumshoe) that really emulates espionage in fiction in both book and film. But NBA is about operatives against vampires. The original setting for the first edition of the Spycraft RPG (Shadowforce Archer) included psychic powers and magic. Conspiracy X has aliens.

But that’s okay. A good RPG needs a hook, something special for players to grab onto so that the game doesn’t flounder. Vampires and aliens give the players something to focus on right from the beginning. There’s a conspiracy out there, and it’s run by creatures that aren’t human, and your job is to stop them. It’s pretty easy to get a campaign going quickly with such a solid premise.

But the James Bond movies and the Mission Impossible movies don’t include any of those elements. There are no vampires, or aliens, or psychic powers in either of those franchises, and yet they are fun and exciting to watch.

So how do we do that in an RPG?

What system?

I’ve been thinking about this quite a bit over the last few months, as I prepare to run an action-espionage game for some friends. I admit I’ve had a hell of a time deciding on what system to use for this campaign. My initial thought was to use Fate Core, but I don’t think it’s the right system for my players.

I also have the original James Bond 007 RPG published back in the 80’s by Victory Games. There are some things I really like about this game—it stands up very well despite its age—but there are some elements that don’t work for me.

I considered the first edition of Spycraft, but classes and levels are not something I want to use for this campaign. I don’t feel that such a system captures the feel of an actual action-espionage book or movie.

Night’s Black Agents, while an amazing game that I absolutely love, is a bit too complicated for some of my early-teen players. I expect that managing the ability pools will cause some issues.

I also looked at Mythras (including some of the elements from Luther Arkwright), and was very close to picking this as the system to use for the campaign, but the hit locations and the overall deadliness didn’t match what I wanted.

Feng Shui 2nd Edition is almost perfect for what I want. It’s a game designed to emulate Hong Kong action movies, and most of the elements that work well in Feng Shui translate over perfectly to the action-espionage movies that inspire this campaign. My main problem with this choice is that I’d need to make some additional archetypes to ensure that the key character types are covered, since there is only a single “Spy” archetype in the game. I can rename a couple of archetypes and switch out a schtick or two, but I’ll probably have to create a couple of scratch. Still, right now it’s probably the best choice for what I want to do.

The only other option is to go full narrative and use HeroQuest 2E. If you’ve read this blog, you know I’m a big fan of HeroQuest. My only problem, as I mentioned in last week’s post, is that I’d have to create the entire genre pack for this campaign because HeroQuest has no support for settings other than Glorantha, besides a few pages in the back of the HQ2 rule book. And I’m not sure if I can commit the time to develop this for the players without seriously delaying the campaign (which I’m getting very eager to get off the ground).

The key elements

So what are the key elements from the James Bond and Mission Impossible movies that I want to highlight in my action-espionage campaign?

  • Plots are usually fairly simple: Hugo Drax plans to wipe out all human life on the planet with a specially-developed nerve toxin, which he will drop onto the planet from his secret space station. Or a mole within the IMF has arranged for an arms dealer to acquire a secret weapon to sell to a terrorist group, so that the IMF has a reason to launch a pre-emptive strike. The overall plot of the mission should be easy to summarize in a sentence or two.
  • The protagonists (i.e. the player characters) aren’t worried about dying from a stray gunshot. They can face overwhelming opposition and be forced to retreat, or even get surrounded and captured, but they rarely get actually shot. Injuries tend to be in the form of beatings, but that’s about it.
  • The planning of operations is left in the background. Almost no time is spent in the planning phase because a) it slows down the pace of the game to a crawl, and b) it becomes repetitive once the operation begins. The players should have a quick way of outlining an objective, grabbing some equipment, and then heading out into the field.
  • The player characters are highly skilled from the start of the campaign. This is not like those old zero-to-hero fantasy campaigns. In Casino Royale, you get to see James Bond as a pre-007 agent in the opening sequence, in order to show how he skillfully earned his double-o rank. But that’s about it.
  • Characters have an overall focus area in which they are the “best” on the team, but all the agents are skilled in multiple areas. Ethan Hunt, Luther Stickell, and Zhen Lei can all drive vehicles under stressful conditions and they all know how guns work. But when you need someone to hack into a computer system, Stickell is the best one for the job.
  • Each mission should have opportunities for sneaking into a location, for chases, for gunfights, for close combat, and the possibility use special tricks, like hacking, disguises, etc.
  • Each scene should result in the player characters receiving obvious clues that lead them to one or more other scenes that advance the mission. Red herrings should be kept to an absolute minimum (with the very occasional exception for those that are a key part of the villain’s plans).
  • The “good guys” and the “bad guys” should generally be fairly obvious (with the very occasional double-agent). The players should feel they are working on the side of the heroes and that they are making the world safer/better. Shades of grey don’t really fit this campaign.
  • Action (including combat) should be fast and easy to adjudicate. Complicated systems that slow down the resolution are not appropriate.

I think that if I can hit these major points, then the campaign will really feel like something out of a James Bond or Mission Impossible movie. A few of these are the result of the system I choose to use, and the rest influence how I will design the missions. It will be important not to become too repetitive—by that I mean that a car chase on a highway in one mission might be replaced by a chase on skis in the Alps, or a motorcycle chase through crowded streets, or something else. It’s still a chase, but it feels different because of the unique elements involved.

The James Bond movies are a great example of this. James Bond has been involved in a great number of car chases throughout his 24 (Eon) films, but they often have elements that give them a unique flavor. The car chase in Goldfinger is a different sequence than the one in The Spy Who Loved Me. And that’s not counting all the chases on skis, or in boats, or on foot, or while falling out of a plane, etc.

Conclusion

Emulating a particular media property requires some effort to get right. The system plays a big part in this, but it’s important to remember that the GM has a major role to play in giving the players some direction and in setting boundaries. An action-espionage campaign, for example, won’t feel like the Mission Impossible movies if the GM keeps coming up with complicated and convoluted plots that contain multiple double- and triple-crosses and where everyone walks the fine line between hero and villain.

Have you ever played a campaign that was based on a single movie or movie series? How did the system and the GM help (or hinder) that emulation? Tell us about it in the comments.

 

The missing element of HeroQuest

Back in 2011, a roleplaying game by the name of Other Worlds was released by Signal 13 (i.e., Mark Humphreys). Some of the ideas for Other Worlds actually came out of early development of the HeroQuest 2 rules, but the ideas diverged and ultimately we got two different, but similar, games.

I own both games (of course), and there are certainly elements of Other Worlds that I really like. It’s well-written, and the rules certainly work with no major issues. My preference, though, still runs to HeroQuest 2E.

I had considered listing the things that I prefer in HQ over Other Worlds (OW), but those are really just my own opinions and naturally different people will have different preferences. So instead, I’m going to list some core differences between HQ2 and OW, and anyone reading this can determine which sounds better to them.

This is not a comprehensive list, just a bunch of elements that I feel are the major points of comparison between the two sets of rules.

  • While HQ2 uses a single d20 for resolution, OW uses percentile dice.
  • The characters’ ability ratings in HQ2 are on a 1-20 scale. The ability ratings in OW are on the same scale as the percentile dice (starting as low as 10 for children or apprentices or as high as 50+ for legends and/or demigods).
  • In HQ2, the d20 rolls is compared to the character’s relevant ability rating. In OW, the relevant ability rating is added to the character’s d100 roll to arrive at a total.
  • In HQ2, the result of the player’s roll (critical, success, failure, or fumble) is compared with the GM’s result (critical, success, failure, or fumble) to determine the overall outcome of the contest. In OW, the total of the player’s roll is compared with the total of the GM’s roll, with the higher roll winning the contest.
  • HQ2 characters often use Keywords as a short-hand for a group of abilities, resulting in fewer overall abilities in the sheet. In OW, characters tend to have a much larger number of abilities, as keywords are not used.
  • The way the rolls and the scale work with a d100 roll in OW means that contest results tend to be more “swingy” than in HQ2. Humphreys has stated that he designed it this way so that results would “be more decisive and unpredictable” than the more common partial victories/defeats that occur in HQ2.
  • OW doesn’t track injuries like in HQ2. Rather, all contests result in a flaw (for defeats) or new temporary ability (for successes).

In comparing these two games, I have found that the pace of game play in OW to be noticeably slower due to the much larger number of abilities that a player has to manage, as well as the need to add large numbers (e.g. rolling a 78 on the d100 and adding it to the character’s ability rating of 46). The math will not slow down some groups, but it still isn’t as fast as comparing the die roll on a d20 with the ability rating to see if it is higher or lower.

On the other hand, I’m not the biggest fan of Masteries in HQ2. I really wish there was a more elegant, official way to keep the simplicity of the d20 roll and still easily use numbers above 20 for the ability ratings. I know there are a few different workarounds out there, but I haven’t seen any that I feel are a real improvement.

So what’s the missing element?

So what does the core rules for Other Worlds have that I feel is an important missing element in HeroQuest?

The OW rulebook is written to provide the GM (and the players) what they need to start playing the game pretty much right away, in the setting that interests them the most. There are a series of “Genre Snapshots” in the book that cover cultural and professional archetypes, as well as examples of special powers for different genres of games, including fantasy, horror, pirates, science fiction, superheroes, and wild west.

Conversely, the HQ2 book really lacks the same kind of material in the core rules. The section “Creating Genre Packs” has a small handful of unrelated examples of various elements (for example, a single occupational keyword from a science fiction setting, a single cultural keyword and single religious keyword from a fantasy setting, a single magic framework for a pulp-inspired setting, a tech description for a single high-tech weapon, a single psychic talent, a single species keyword, and a single sample creature).

Certainly, there is word count dedicated to explaining how a GM can do the work to develop all of these things him/herself, but if you’re not playing a fantasy game set in Glorantha, there’s nothing there for you to use immediately to get a game going.

The most unfortunate part is the statement near the beginning of the section, “Moon Design Publications will also produce setting packs for various popular genres, and continue its series of HeroQuest supplements set in the world of Glorantha.” But since the HeroQuest 2E core rules were released, only a very small number of third-party materials for other settings have ever been produced. Some of these were well done, like the excellent (but no longer available) Nameless Streets by Alephtar Games, but others were extremely disappointing, like (the also no longer available) Ye Little Book of HeroQuest Dungeoneering and Ye Little Book of HeroQuest Monsters (a pair of PDF supplements that I can’t imagine inspired anyone to convert their D&D game over to HeroQuest).

Recently, the Superluminary setting book for Other Worlds was released. Labelled as “a space opera toolkit for Other Worlds,” it provides some great information on designing a space opera setting. But more importantly, the book includes a huge number of pre-configured setting elements that can be dropped right into a game to get a campaign off the ground as quickly as possible. Furthermore, after providing templates for all kinds of homeworlds, professions, special elements like cybernetic implants, alien artifacts, and advanced technology, starships, alien species, robots, psionics and other special powers, and factions, it wraps the whole thing up with a chapter on a pre-defined setting called “The Merovinthian Sector” that contains yet more archetypes and can be used immediately to jumpstart a game.

How I wish something like this existed for HeroQuest 2E! Unfortunately, as much as HQ2 and OW share many similarities, the two games are different enough that it would require conversion work to use Superluminary with HeroQuest, thus defeating the whole purpose.

A call to action?

As a fan of HQ2, as someone who ran a demo game at GenCon the last time I was there (literally the only HeroQuest game on the entire roster), I’d love for more people to find and enjoy this great system. But the best way for that to happen is for the publisher to throw some resources behind it and provide a product that people can grab and start playing right away. There is already the HeroQuest: Glorantha book, but where is the HeroQuest: [Space Opera Setting] or HeroQuest: [Modern Espionage Setting] or HeroQuest: [Superhero Setting] or HeroQuest: [Post-Apocalyptic Setting].

Which of course raises the question, if I want these things to exist, why don’t I throw my own hat into the ring? There is a HeroQuest Gateway license for a reason, and others have certainly given it a try.

Why not me?

That’s a good question, and one I’ve been considering for the last while. The real answer is that I’m working on my next novel and I don’t need any distractions to take me away from that right now.

But then, I’m actually preparing for an espionage campaign that I will run for some of my friends. So maybe I’m doing some of that work already.

But if an official HeroQuest setting book came out that wasn’t for Glorantha, but instead was for a completely different property, I can say that I’m almost guaranteed to buy it, sight unseen.

In the meantime, maybe I’ve got an idea that I can’t get out of my head. Maybe.

What about you? What kind of book would you like to see for HeroQuest that isn’t tied into the world of Glorantha? What genre would be well-served by HeroQuest? What would make you drop everything and start running a HeroQuest campaign if only there was a book that you could grab that had all you needed at your fingertips? Tell us about it in the comments.

How Fast is Too Fast?

As I mentioned two weeks ago, I’ve started running D&D 5th edition for my son and his friends. In fact, I’ve now started running a solo game for him as well, in which he plays a drow fighter/ranger named…Drizzt.

Yes, he’s thirteen years old, why do you ask?

Anyway, as I’ve delved into the rules more fully, and started outlining the early bits of the campaign, one thing I noticed was the advice in the Dungeon Master’s Guide about planning encounters and experience point (XP) advancement.

Like all previous editions of D&D, characters in 5E gain experience points as they adventure, and when they accumulate enough experience points to reach a certain threshold, their level increases. And, like all previous editions, it requires more experience points to advance to the next level than it did the previous one. So you only need 300 XP, for example, to reach 2nd level in D&D 5E, but you need another 600 XP to reach 3rd level.

As I said, this is like every edition of D&D before it. However, one of the big changes in advancement that came about with D&D 3rd edition is that how a character gains XP is different from the editions that came before.

In AD&D, for example, characters gained most of their experience from treasure. One gold piece was worth 1 experience point. If you managed to steal the chest of gold from an evil necromancer, you could acquire a lot of money, and therefore experience, very quickly. Conversely, while characters also received experience points for killing monsters, it was only a fraction of what they would typically get from stealing treasure.

It’s true in most aspects of life that reward drives behavior. Therefore, if a party of characters could manage to steal a bunch of treasure without getting into combat at all—and combat was always a dangerous proposition, especially at the lower levels, and could easily lead to the death of one or more characters—then they were likely to be more successful than a party that went in and tried to kill every monster.

This also contributed to a sense of urgency when exploring a dungeon, through the use of wandering monsters. You see, wandering monsters didn’t generally carry any real treasure on them, and since you got very few XP from killing them, it was a big risk with little reward.

This changed dramatically in 3rd edition. At that point, characters started receiving all (or at least the vast majority) of their experience points from the defeat of monsters. Treasure became a way to purchase better—sometimes magical—equipment, but it didn’t contribute to the character’s advancement directly. Needless to say, players quickly learned that the fastest way to advance was to murder every monster in a dungeon, and then collect the treasure afterward. Wandering monsters stopped being a threat, but instead were roving piles of extra XP. There was no longer an urgency to get in, collect what you could, and get out, because that wouldn’t help you increase your level.

The other big change from earlier editions of D&D was the rate of advancement. In AD&D, the first few levels were gained fairly quickly, but advancement tended to slow down dramatically. By about 10th level, characters were spending quite a bit of time in each level before gaining enough XP to advance to the next. Campaigns could take years of real time for the characters to level up to the mid-teens, and only a small percentage of campaigns ever made it to level 20.

In 3rd edition, the rate of advancement was also changed. As designed, it would take approximately thirteen level-appropriate encounters to reach the next level, every level. This is because, as it took more XP to reach each successive level, the characters were expected to face tougher monsters, and defeating tougher monsters resulted in higher XP rewards. So the rate of advancement was expected to remain the same, or very close to the same, throughout the campaign. In my experience, with adventures designed using the advancement system as outlined in the Dungeon Master’s Guide, it would take around 18 months of regular weekly play to reach 20th level.

Fourth edition pretty much kept this rate of advancement (or even a bit faster, as the top level in 4E was 30, not 20). In addition to monsters, this edition also codified the option to give XP for story-related goals, such as rescuing a village, or closing a portal to a hostile dimension, or whatever. It was a step in the right direction, but really didn’t make a big difference to the campaign. A full campaign of level 1 through 30 could be done in about 18 months. Actually, it was designed to be a bit faster than that in theory, but the fact that each combat in 4E tended to take longer and longer as the characters’ levels increased meant that it ended up slowing down the campaign just through the length of each battle.

Now we’re at D&D 5th edition, and there are two options. The first provides XP for defeating monsters—characters are not required to slay all the monsters if there is a way to drive them off or otherwise defeat them in a non-bloodthirsty way. This method is very similar to the one in 3rd and 4th edition, in that monsters are worth a certain amount of XP, and that is the expected way to advance.

But in looking at the various published adventures and the rate of advancement, one thing I see is that a typical party of four or five characters will likely advance fairly quickly. In fact, as designed, the game expects that characters will reach level 20 in about a year of regular weekly play.

So is one year to level 20 too fast?

As someone who started playing back in the early 1980’s, it certainly seems so to me. But then, I’m also pretty much always the DM, so I’m aware that my perspective is skewed, both in early experience and in my viewpoint of the game.

Apparently, it’s a common expectation for players these days to complete a campaign in about a year, or perhaps a bit longer.

Is this good or bad?

The correct answer is it’s neither. The fact is, most campaigns don’t last for multiple years. There are certainly groups out there who can, and do, have campaigns like that, but they tend to be the exception rather than the rule. Imagine if you’re in college or university, and you start a campaign at the beginning of the school year. Assuming you can play regularly, you’ll be able to get your characters’ levels up to at least the early teens before everyone splits for the summer (or graduates). Or maybe you’re in your twenties or thirties, and you’re trying to keep a group together for a multi-year campaign. But people often have to move due to jobs. Or they have kids and then find can’t play nearly as often.

It can be rather difficult to maintain a campaign for years at a time.

So maybe the XP rate of advancement is pretty appropriate for the time people actually have to play this game.

But maybe you find tracking XP is a pain, and just wish the whole thing would go away. I know I’m in that boat sometimes. And so I was pleasantly surprised to find that 5E includes as an official option using “milestones” instead of XP.

The milestones option simply means that all characters gain a level at certain points in the campaign. The DM might decide that a level is increased every time the party completes an adventure. Or perhaps they simply agree that the level goes up every two sessions. Or they can choose whatever pace works for the entire group of players.

I know a number of DMs who were doing that already in previous editions of the game, but it’s nice to see it formalized as an option. In fact, the published adventures from Wizards of the Coast even recommend using this option. As an example, the Tomb of Annihilation includes a “Suggested Character Levels” table that outlines the ideal level ranges for different parts of the adventure. Just below the table, the adventure states:

“As the DM, you can dispense with XP tracking and allow characters to gain levels at whatever pace suits your campaign, using the Suggested Character Levels table as your guide.”

Since the adventure includes some great sandbox areas, it means that the DM doesn’t have to worry about steering the characters to certain places at certain times in order to avoid having to redo all the encounters. Instead, the DM can let the players follow leads they find interesting, and have their characters explore and interact with the setting at their own pace, with the DM occasionally granting them a level as they have adventures. And when they start to show interest in the main thread of the adventure, the DM can either hold off any more levels, or grant them an additional level or two to ensure that the adventure can be run without a lot of rewriting of the encounter locations.

Conclusion

D&D has always been a level-based game, and players have always tended to engage in behavior that brought them the biggest rewards at the fastest pace. As the editions changed, the focus on how to accumulate experience points have changed. In conjunction with this, the expectations of the real-time length of a campaign has also changed to better reflect how people actually play the game.

For some people, the expected rate of advancement in D&D 5E is too fast. But it’s nice to see that there is an official option for the DM to adjust this rate of advancement to suit the playing group’s style, including the removal of experience points altogether.

What’s your favorite rate of advancement in D&D? Is it tied to the edition you play, or do you use an unofficial method to track the leveling up of characters? Tell us about it in the comments.

Image available under CC0 1.0 Public Domain, downloaded from Pixabay.

Atlantis: The Second Age

Last week, I mentioned the Atlantis: The Second Age RPG from Khepera Publishing as a great sword & sorcery game that I would love to use for a campaign with my son and his friends once they’ve gotten used to regular gaming with the current edition of Dungeons & Dragons. Not surprisingly, I’ve had some people ask me questions about the game, and so this week I’m going to talk about both Atlantis and Khepera Publishing.

Atlantis: The Second Age has been around a long time. Originally published by Bard Games as a trilogy—The Arcanum (the rules book), The Bestiary (the monster book), and The Lexicon (the setting book)—it was then updated to a second edition that incorporated the setting book and bestiary into a single volume.

Two other publishers released also editions of Atlantis over the years: Death’s Edge Games (now known as Spartacus Publishing) and the now-defunct Morrigan Press.

But it was Khepera Publishing’s edition of Atlantis: The Second Age that has truly brought this world to life in a game that is dripping with sword & sorcery flavor and includes more adventure ideas than I’ve ever seen in a single setting.

The core rules of Atlantis: The Second Age gives you everything you need to play. It includes all the rules, an overview of the setting, and a short bestiary. But the two other books in the line, Atlantis: Geographica (which delves into the setting in great detail) and Atlantis: Theragraphica (which is an expanded bestiary) are pretty much must-owns for those who are interested in this amazing world—not because you can’t play the game without them, but because they are that good.

Khepera has also published a handful of adventures for the game, but none of these are essential (though they are all good).

Atlantis: The Second Age uses the omega system, a modified version of the Omni system used in the Morrigan Press edition that is a variation of the system in the Talislanta RPG. (I’m simplifying things greatly here, because the various publishers and multiple editions of all these games have created a system that has changed in various ways through the years, but I don’t feel like getting into a long and convoluted history lesson here).

The core of the game is based on a single chart. To succeed at a task, the player takes his/her skill level + attribute, subtracts the difficulty, and adds the remaining number to a d20 roll. This is compared to the chart and gives one of the following results: critical failure, failure, partial success, full success, and critical success.

Atlantis-Second-Age-Table

One of the nice things about this system is that adversaries and monsters can use a streamlined stat block, which reduces the GM’s prep time and allows a more freewheeling game where the players are not constrained by needing to adhere to a line of pre-plotted encounters.

But, while the system is fine and does what it needs to do (provide resolution of tasks and otherwise gets of the way), it is the setting that really brings this game alive. Khepera Publishing created something truly special here.

One of the elements I find really interesting in Atlantis: The Second Age is the choice of races. There are no elves and dwarves here, as this isn’t your typical high-fantasy setting. It’s also not Conan, where everyone is human and the differences are purely cultural. No, the Atlantis setting embraces strange races in a way that works well for the sword and sorcery genre. The choice of races really provides a sense of an antediluvian world, one that is both familiar and alien, and ancient. Each races has a reason for its existence within the setting, and those reasons echo through the ways those races continue to interact with each other.

And then the different cultures across the world work together with the races to make each combination unique. As noted in the book:

“You may notice that there are no racial packages and that is intentional. A Lemurian raised in Ophir will have different belief and social mores than a Lemurian born on the island of Zinn. To reflect this, the cultures are all racially neutral.”

This is great, as culturally homogenous races in RPG settings are ridiculous (looking at you, dwarf miners with scottish accents).

The Atlantis: Geographica book truly is a thing of beauty. It goes into extensive detail about every region in the setting, and adventure ideas drip from every page. Nowhere have I seen the focus on sword & sorcery tossed aside in favour of high fantasy trappings. This is an ancient world, full of powerful creatures, and reading the Geographica made me want to read stories about the kinds of legendary heroes that would live in this world.

And the game is designed for just that—legendary heroes. Newly-created player characters are not like first-level D&D newbies. No, they are already skilled and ready for action and adventure. Characters don’t start off fighting kobolds and goblins and eventually work their way up to fighting giants and dragons. Rather, player characters are motivated to earn Renown and engage in Great Works—individual goals that ultimately lead them to achieving their great destiny and becoming legends rather than falling into ignominy and succumbing to their dark fate.

Examples of Great Works from the game include:

  • Rescue the princess Aerope from the depraved merchant Krion.
  • Prove that the necromancer Gorka is behind the plague that’s causing sickness in the kingdom.
  • Retrieve the Black Cloak of War and bring it before the corrupt priest Menegrus and earn my rightful place as king.

These are not just ideas for single adventures. The players are encouraged to come up with their own Great Works ideas, and the GM weaves them into the campaign, providing a player-directed game that gives them impetus to go out and seek the achievement of their goals.

As I’ve said above, this is a gameable world. Just as an exercise, I selected three pages at random to see how easy it would be to come up with an adventure idea at short notice. Here are three things I found:

Atlantis: Geographica, page 72

“Hine-Nui-Te-Po, the Goddess of Darkness

No one knows the origin of the woman Hine-nui-te-po (HI-ne-NOO-ee-tay-po) or if she is even human, but she roams the seas in a vessel made from the shell of a large turtle and the bones of Leviathans…She is surrounded by ever-shifting shadows and accompanied by the animated corpses of recently dead heroes from nearby islands. The boat carries thousands of corpses stacked head to toe and is propelled by skeletal oarsmen.

She often arrives at an island and goes inland to gather the bodies of the dead and sometimes aids those in need. At other times she has been known to leave pestilence and disease in her wake when she gathers the dead, killing nearby villagers.

Depending on her mood, Hine-nui-te-po may invite a traveler to dine with her or offer a favor. At other times, she will take a liking to a hero and demand that he join her crew and roam the Elysium until the stars die.”

Atlantis: Geographica, page 133

“Massawa

Another lure is the lost city of Melka Kontaurea (MEL-ka kon-TO-ooree-a), an ancient Ophidian ruin said to lie beyond the caves in a hidden valley somewhere in the mountains. It is said to be home to vast treasures and malevolent wraiths, though despite local legends, no one in the realm is actually known to have ever visited the ruined city.”

Atlantis: Geographica, page 185

“Greed Run Wild

One might wonder what happened to make a single swamp such a hotbed of greed. One might start by looking at the strange black substance leaking from the riverbeds that dot the region. This black oily substance is the blood of something timeless that sleeps beneath the Ngani swampland. One long-dead Atlantean scholar postulated that this substance is the blood of Ba’al or Set. This is not the case; the creature that lies beneath Ngani is much older, though it is Ba’al that has twisted the creature’s blood to his own end, using it to inspire greed, murder, and to corrupt humans and Atlanteans both.”

I could turn all three of those into adventures easily. And there are often more than just a single adventure idea on a page.

Khepera Publishing and Jerry D. Grayson

Khepera Publishing produces Atlantis: The Second Age, Hellas, Worlds of Sand and Stone, and Mythic d6. Their products are excellent, with good layout, editing and design. I’ve been happy with every single thing I’ve purchased from them.

But Khepera is really the brainchild of Jerry D. Grayson. I’ve had the pleasure of interacting with Jerry over on RPG.Net, and he’s consistently one of the nicest, most professional people in the industry I’ve ever dealt with. Jerry is the kind of person who genuinely wants to make the world a better place, and he puts his actions behind his words.

I was really happy when he was named as one of the creators of the expanded setting for the second edition of 7th Sea, and he’s a designer that helps make this hobby more fun and more inclusive with each new project he takes on.

Conclusion

Needless to say, I’m a big fan of Khepera and of Atlantis: The Second Age. This is a game with a tight focus on a particular style of play, and a setting that provides so much great content and endless adventure opportunities.

If you like sword & sorcery gaming, you owe it to yourself to check it out.

Better Than I Expected

Dungeons & Dragons has been around a long time. I started playing it in 1982, with Tom Moldvay’s Basic Set red box and Dave Cook’s Expert Set blue box. Introduced to the game by some friends at school, I was instantly hooked (and obsessed) with D&D. Over the next year, I picked up the AD&D hardbacks and spent long hours reading the Gygaxian prose and trying to figure out all the many intricacies and contradictions presented in the texts.

I have purchased and played every edition of D&D since then, and even gone back and played a short game using the original D&D rules. And that continued all the way up until the current (5th) edition was released.

D&D 5th edition had a long and public playtest period. This did wonders for Wizards of the Coast, the publisher of the game, as it got a very large number of players heavily invested in the next edition long before it was available for sale. Online surveys were conducted regularly throughout the playtest, letting fans feel that they might have some say on how the edition would eventually be designed. It was great marketing, and it was wildly successful.

And it drove me away from the game.

 

Now, I feel that every edition brought something new to the table, and the overall D&D game was stronger for it. And the two editions that were the biggest departures from what came before was 3rd edition and 4th edition.

Third edition brought a somewhat more simulationist slant to the game—monsters, for example, were created using the exact same rules as player characters. It also heavily relied on tactical combat, requiring grids and miniatures for any combat more complicated than a couple of guards in front of a door. (Previously, miniatures were purely optional—even Gary Gygax didn’t use miniatures the vast majority of the time when running D&D.) And the character-building mini-game became a thing for the first time.

4th edition brought in across-the-board class balance. It codified a lot of additional races as primary options that had only been minor options in previous editions (e.g. dragonborn, tieflings, goliaths, etc.). It also relied heavily on tactical combat, and got rid of minor battles—if you were going to get into a fight at all, it wouldn’t just be with a couple of guards in front of a door anymore. It introduced possibly the best and easiest way to present monsters, as discreet stat blocks that contained all the information needed to run the creature, with no need to reference other rules (like spell descriptions) in the midst of a game.

But both of those games were released in the age of the internet. Third edition had a pretty large backlash from players of previous editions. On the Dragonsfoot forums, dedicated to earlier editions of D&D, the 3rd edition was referred to as TETSNBN (The Edition That Shall Not Be Named), and detractors across the web often complained that it was “dumbed-down” and designed “for the video game crowd.”

4th edition had the misfortune to be released after social media had become pervasive, and those who didn’t like the game had even better tools to amplify their own personal dislikes. Not surprisingly, I guess, many of those who had loved 3rd edition then attacked 4th using the same stupid complaints that they had faced about their own favorite game a few years earlier—that the edition was “dumbed-down” and designed “for the video game crowd.”

I’ve made it no secret that I think edition wars are stupid, pointless, and ultimately harmful to our hobby as a whole. Our hobby is small enough that I cannot even fathom the mindset of those who need to separate us into ever smaller groups, such “true roleplayers,” “dirty storygamers,” “munchkins and min-maxers,” and other similar bullshit.

It amazes me that people can’t just enjoy the hobby without constantly trying to tell others that they are playing games wrong. There is such a sense of entitlement to these people, as if they feel every game, every company, and every roleplayer should cater to their personal likes and desires.

The need to tear down the current edition of a game (whether it was AD&D 2E, or D&D 3E, or D&D 4E) just because it made some changes a person doesn’t like is moronic and needs to die in a fire.

And I feel it’s even worse when a company engages those people, amplifies their ridiculous ideas, and caters to them.

Paizo Publishing did just that during the 4E era, which ultimately gave rise to their own Pathfinder game. Their willingness to encourage feelings of betrayal by WotC in gamers—as dumb as that idea really is—actually helped them define their initial core market for Pathfinder, and they enjoyed great success with it.

But I felt that when the WotC developers of 5th edition also engaged in edition warring, against an edition that some of them had previously worked on and designed material for, the hypocrisy was too much for me. The fact that they engaged some online “personalities” (i.e. people who scream their opinions the loudest) who are known for their divisive, narrow, and silly views on what makes a roleplaying game made the situation even worse.

I watched the development of 5E—I’m still a D&D gamer, after all—but I found that their marketing of the new game was insulting to those who actually enjoyed the previous edition. They parroted back the words of the loudest complainers, rather than addressing the specific, and real, issues with the 4E rules.

Ultimately, it appeared that D&D 5E was heading back in the directly of the second edition of A&D, and trying to pretend that all of 4E was some kind of mistake, despite some great innovations and additions to the game that had been introduced in that set of rules.

And so, I gave the playtest version of the game a few tries, but I came to the conclusion that this edition wouldn’t do anything that AD&D didn’t already do. And so there was no real value in me investing in and learning a new set of rules when I was already highly familiar with a set of rules that would produce the same outcome at the table.

And I certainly didn’t feel like giving WotC any of my money.

So when I launched a D&D campaign with my son and his friends last year, it was the first edition of AD&D that we played.

But 5E is the current edition. It’s the edition that is in game stores and on Amazon. It’s the edition that is getting promoted in marketing by WotC. And, inevitably, other kids at my son’s school started playing it. And so he joined a new 5E campaign, and started asking me questions about it (as I’m the RPG expert in my house). And then one of my son’s friends got the D&D 5E Starter Set box and the Player’s Handbook for Christmas, and asked me if I would help him learn the game.

So I downloaded the basic rules and read them through, and then I grabbed an old 3E adventure, The Sunless Citadel—I had no idea it had been reprinted as a converted 5E adventure in Tales from the Yawning Portal—and I showed them how to create characters and ran them through part of the adventure.

And despite my earlier experience with the playtest rules, it was actually good.

I found the rules were quite simple, and we didn’t run into any edge cases in our session, so I ended up running the game without ever needing to actually check the rulebook (other than using the 5E monster stats). Now, I’ve been gaming for a lot of years, and I’m familiar with a large number of different systems, so I have an advantage in that I can pick up a new RPG and get playing faster than someone without that level of experience, but I was pleasantly surprised to discover that the game provided an enjoyable play experience, and the whole thing hung together really well.

In fact, it’s far better than I expected considering the mess that was that public playtest, the dumb statements by some of the developers, the poorly-designed surveys, etc.

And so, I picked up the three core rulebooks from Amazon, and I’ve run the game a couple more times now. And I have to admit that the end result is a decent game that does provide that feeling of earlier editions. And the rules are simple enough that the learning curve was pretty much non-existent.

I have to acknowledge, though, that this has been a bit of a moral conflict for me. I believe in voting with your wallet. And so I was conflicted over WotC’s handling of the switch between editions—I didn’t want to reward their ridiculous behavior during the playtest and early promotion of the game. Paizo’s participation in and encouragement of edition wars is one of the first reasons why I don’t give them any money—their ongoing behavior in various other ways has only reinforced that decision (but that’s a separate discussion).

Ultimately, though, I feel that I’m in a position to encourage and coach new roleplayers. And the big game, the one that everyone is currently playing, and the one that is available in all gaming stores, is D&D 5E. I can certainly introduce them to other games, and I most definitely will at some point, but I feel this is the best way to get them into the hobby and cement their love of roleplaying games.

There will be time to show them all kinds of other games from other companies. I can’t wait to show them some great sword & sorcery action with Khepera Publishing’s Atlantis, the Second Age. Or troup-style play with Atlas Games’ Ars Magica. Or introduce them to urban fantasy with Onyx Path Publishing’s Mage: The Ascension (my favorite of the World of Darkness games). Or horror investigative gaming with Chaosium’s Call of Cthulhu or Pelgrane Press’ Night’s Black Agents. Or science fiction gaming with Far Future Enterprise’s Classic Traveller or Fantasy Flight Games’ Star Wars.

But for now it’s D&D. And I’m happy that the game is fun, easy to play, and provides an experience that they just can’t get from video games. And I’m also happy that I get to help introduce a new generation of gamers to my favorite hobby.

HeroQuest and Supers – Part 3

This is the final part of a series of posts (part 1, part 2) on using the HeroQuest RPG to run a superhero game.

Example Characters

For these characters, I’m using the character write-ups on Marvel.com and the Marvel Universe Wiki.

Spider-Man

Here is Spider-Man’s 100-word write-up, taken from his entry on Marvel.com and edited slightly to fit into the 100 words:

Bitten by a radioactive spider, high school student Peter Parker gained the speed, strength and powers of a spider. Taught that with great power comes great responsibility, Spidey vowed to use his powers to help people. Peter can cling to most surfaces, has superhuman strength and is 15 times more agile than a regular human. His acrobatic leaps and web-slinging enables him to travel rapidly from place to place. His spider-sense provides an early warning detection system, enabling him the ability to evade most any injury. Peter is an accomplished scientist, inventor and photographer who lives with his Aunt May.

I’ve underlined the abilities in the above paragraph so you can see where they came from. Here is Spider-Man’s list of abilities:

Origin:
Bitten by a radioactive spider
With great power comes great responsibility
Vowed to use his powers to help people

Powers:
Speed, strength and powers of a spider
Cling to most surfaces
Superhuman strength
15 times more agile than a regular human
Acrobatic leaps
Web-slinging
Travel rapidly from place to place
Spider-sense
Evade most any injury

Regular Life:
High school student
Scientist, inventor and photographer
Aunt May

Note that some people might break out scientist, inventor and photographer into three separate abilities, I’ve chosen to leave them into one overall skill-set ability here. Both are valid options.

Of course, this description leaves out his constant wisecracking, which has often been used to save his life as he drives a villain into to blind rage, forcing them to make mistakes.

If I was going to use the List Method of character generation, I would take a different approach. Here is how I might define Spider-Man using this method:

Spider-Powers [keyword]

  • Proportionate strength of a spider
  • Superhuman agility
  • Web-slinging

Secret Identity [keyword]

  • Aunt May
  • High school student
  • Scientist, inventor and photographer
  • Continuous wisecracking banter

With great power comes great responsibility

Note that both Spider-Powers and Secret Identity are keywords, and he has one separate ability that doesn’t really fall under either keyword, With great power comes great responsibility.

You can see how the List Method compresses a bunch of abilities under the keywords. For example, I didn’t call out his Spider-sense or his Wall-crawling abilities, as the keyword covers that and they don’t really need to be broken out unless the player wants to raise them above the keyword.

In this kind of game, I would probably rule that the keywords cannot be raised on their own—only the breakouts can be raised. This allows the player to better focus their game-version of the Spider-Man character on the specific things he or she is finds most interesting.

Thor

This is a bit harder to boil down to only 100 words, but I’m going to give it a try. Again, the write-up below comes directly from Thor’s entry on Marvel.com, edited to get it down to 100 words.

As the Norse God of thunder and lightning, Thor wields the enchanted hammer Mjolnir. He’s quite smart and compassionate, and also self-assured—he would never stop fighting for a worthwhile cause. As the son of Odin and Gaea, Thor’s strength, endurance and resistance to injury are greater than the majority of his superhuman race. He is extremely long-lived, immune to conventional disease and highly resistant to injury. His flesh and bones are several times denser than a human’s. Thor is trained in the arts of war, being a superbly skilled warrior, highly proficient in hand-to-hand combat, swordsmanship and hammer throwing.

Here is Thor’s list of abilities:

Origin:
Norse God of thunder and lightning
Son of Odin and Gaea
Superhuman race

Powers:
Enchanted hammer Mjolnir
Strength, endurance and resistance to injury
Extremely long-lived
Immune to conventional disease
Highly resistant to injury
Flesh and bones are several times denser than a human’s

The Man Himself:
Quite smart
Compassionate
Self-assured
Never stop fighting for a worthwhile cause
Trained in the arts of war
Superbly skilled warrior
Hand-to-hand combat
Swordsmanship
Hammer throwing

Once I listed his abilities, I see that there are some redundancies. For example, his resistance to injury is listed under two abilities, and his combat skills have a lot of overlap. If this was a player designing a character, I might encourage him or her to adjust the description to get rid of the repetitive bits and perhaps add something about being in the Avengers, or his relationship to the Warriors Three, or something else like that.

I’m going to skip the List Method here, as it will be similar to what I did with Spider-Man above, compressing some of the abilities under keywords. But the gist of the character will be the same.

Iron Man

This one is a bit different, as Tony Stark himself is a human being with no superpowers of his own (even though he is a genius). All his super abilities come from the armor that he invented and wears.

Captured by terrorists, billionaire industrialist Tony Stark created an advanced suit of armor to save his life. With a new outlook on life, and accompanied by his assistant Pepper Potts, Tony uses his money and intelligence to make the world a safer, better place. Tony has a genius level intellect that allows him to invent sophisticated devices. He also possesses a keen business mind. The armor includes many rays, bolts, missiles and projectiles, sonic generators, magnetic field generators, a laser torch built into the finger of Tony’s gauntlet, and the armor’s surface can generate an electric charge to dispel attackers.

I had to go to the Marvel Universe Wiki to get additional information on Tony’s armor, and it was a struggle to keep this one down to 100 words. In the end, I compressed all the various weapons (repulsor rays, pulse bolts, mini-missiles, explosive shell projectiles) into “rays, bolts, missiles and projectiles” as we don’t need a high level of granularity for what amounts to the same overall effect (doing damage). The specific details of which attack Tony is using at any given time can remain part of the player’s and GM’s narrative.

I kept his sonic generators and his magnetic field generators as separate abilities, as I can see some creative uses of these different abilities in various situations, so I felt it was worth it to give them their own abilities. Other players and GMs might combine those to get a few more words to use for another ability.

Here are Tony’s abilities.

Origin:
Captured by terrorists
Billionaire industrialist

Special Equipment:
Advanced suit of armor
Rays, bolts, missiles, and projectiles
Sonic generators
Magnetic field generators
Laser torch
Electric charge to dispel attackers

Tony Stark:
New outlook on life
Assistant Pepper Potts
Make the world a safer, better place
Genius level intellect
Invent sophisticated devices
Keen business mind

Character Summary

All three of these characters are playable as written, and as a GM I would find it pretty easy to run a game with players selecting any or all of these.

However, as I mentioned previously, it’s important for all the players to be on the same page regarding the narrative specifics of these powers. For example, Spider-Man has Superhuman strength as an ability, and Thor has Strength, endurance and resistance to injury as an ability. But Thor’s strength far exceeds Spider-Man’s, though their actual ability ratings may not be very far apart in the game.

So the players need to have a few notes that define the range of these abilities and what they mean. This doesn’t have to be comprehensive, especially if the players are all familiar with the heroes (and villains) that show up in the game. This is where something like the Marvel Universe Wiki is very useful. The players can jot down some key definitions on the back of the character sheet so that it is handy if the question comes up in a game.

For example, the player of Spider-Man may want to note that his superhuman strength can lift up to 10 tons optimally (up to 25 tons max) and that he can use his web swing-lines to travel anywhere from 40 MPH to 110 MPH (depending on which source you reference), and Thor’s player should note that Thor can lift in excess of 100 tons.

Villains

But what about the villains? Well, one of the great things about HQ2 is that villains don’t need full stat blocks like heroes. Instead, the Resistance is used when the villain opposes the hero.

Note: I’ve been running games for a very long time, so don’t generally use the entirely optional Pass/Fail Cycle to determine the Resistance, because I don’t really need it. I know that some people are offended by the very existence of the Pass/Fail Cycle, but since it’s an optional tool that is explicitly noted as only being used when the GM isn’t sure what the Resistance should be and “…can envision equally entertaining story branches from either result…” it means that it can be safely ignored if you don’t like it.

Villains often also have powers they can bring to bear on the heroes, and more importantly, they have weaknesses the heroes can exploit. Luckily, HQ2 already contains a perfect tool for GMs to manage this, in how it suggests you describe fantastic creatures (HQ Core Rules, page 105).

For your villain, the GM can note Significant Abilities (those abilities that describe key elements of the villain) and Exceptional Abilities (special abilities that the villain can bring to bear to increase the Resistance). I would also add a third category and suggest the GM also notes Weaknesses (those elements of the villain which, if the heroes engage the villain on that axis, would lower the Resistance).

Here are some examples to show what I mean:

Dr. Doom

Here is Doom’s write-up from Marvel.com for both his Powers and his Abilities:

Powers: Doom can exchange minds with others. He possesses some mystical abilities, such as casting bolts of eldritch energy and invoking mystical entities (principalities) for additional support.

Abilities: Doom is a genius in physics, robotics, cybernetics, genetics, weapons technology, bio-chemistry, and time travel. He is also self-taught in the mystic arts. Doom is a natural leader, a brilliant strategist, and a sly deceiver.

Doctor Doom’s weakness has always been his arrogance. He truly believes he is better than every other living person, and he refuses to accept that any failures of his plans are due to mistakes made by him.

Now the above is actually fine when it comes to running Doom in a game, but if I was going to boil those down to elements that I could use in a “stat block” (as much as such a thing exists in HQ2), I would probably list it like this:

Doctor Doom

Significant Abilities: physics, robotics, cybernetics, genetics, weapons technology, bio-chemistry, time travel, the mystic arts, natural leader, sly deceiver, doombot army

Exceptional Abilities: Brilliant strategist, switch real self with doombot double

Weaknesses: Arrogance and pride

So if the heroes are going up against Doom, the Resistance would generally be Moderate on the Resistance Class Table (or whatever Resistance the GM feels is right for the situation) for anything that was opposed by Doom’s Significant Abilities. The Resistance would be High if they were trying to work against his strategic planning ability, which is one of his Exceptional Abilities. And the Resistance would be Low if they came at him through his arrogance or pride.

Thanos

I’ve always liked Thanos as a villain. Here is his write-up from Marvel.com:

Powers: Thanos possesses the superhuman physiology of all Eternals, granting him superhuman strength, endurance, reflexes, and agility. His skin in nearly invulnerable, particularly against heat, cold, electricity, radiation, toxins, aging, and disease, and he can survive indefinitely without food or water even before his “curse” from Death left him immortal, unable to die. His mind is also invulnerable to most forms of psychic attack, and can project a psionic blast of energy as well as blasts of plasma/cosmic energy from his eyes and hands.

Abilities: Master strategist, adept in sciences far beyond Earth technology, some mystical knowledge.

Thanos has a couple of weaknesses. First is the fact that Thanos, despite having actually successfully conquered the universe more than once, ultimately leaves an opening for his own defeat. According to Adam Warlock:

“A man always seeking ultimate power and losing it as soon as he attains it! Why? Because deep in his soul he knows he is not worthy of it. Three times you have triumphed over incredible odds to gain the ends you desire…and three times you have subconsciously supplied the means to your own defeat.”

Another weakness is Thanos’ obsession and love for Death. And a third is his emotional state, as described on Marvel.com, “…a melancholy, brooding individual…”

Here is how I would list Thanos for HQ2:

Thanos

Significant Abilities: superhuman strength, endurance, reflexes, and agility; nearly invulnerable skin, survive indefinitely without food or water; invulnerable to psychic attack; psionic blast; plasma/cosmic energy blast; mystical knowledge; highly advanced technology

Exceptional Abilities: Immortal and unable to die; master strategist

Weaknesses: Melancholy; obsession with Death; provides means to his own defeat

Magneto

Magneto is either a hero or a villain, depending on when in the Marvel Universe the game is set. For this example, I’m going to use him as a villain.

Magneto’s description in the Marvel Universe Wiki is pretty wordy, so I’m not going to copy it all here. Instead, I’m just going to stat him up as I would for a game.

Magneto

Significant Abilities: Master strategist; expert on genetic manipulation; engineering genius; immune to mental attacks and manipulation (helmet); control of electromagnetic spectrum energies; driven by mutant cause

Exceptional Abilities: Control over magnetism

Weaknesses: Honor to his enemies; protective of mutants

Note that I put his protectiveness over mutants as a weakness rather than as an ability. This is just a GM choice based on the fact that heroes might use this against him if they were trying to stop one of his villainous schemes.

Conclusion

Hopefully, this gives a HeroQuest GM some ideas on how to run a superhero game using the HQ2 rules. It’s actually easier than it might seem at first, and the narrative strength of HQ allows a great deal of flexibility, which is a core part of any comic book superhero story.

Thanks for reading, and happy gaming!


Note: All Marvel characters and the distinctive likeness(es) thereof are Trademarks & Copyright © 1941–2018 Marvel Characters, Inc. The reference to these characters or the Marvel Universe is not a challenge to these Trademarks and Copyright.

HeroQuest and Supers – Part 2

Last week, I talked a bit about using the excellent HeroQuest RPG for superhero games. This week, I’m going to talk a bit about how to define characters.

Superhero Characters

Once again, I want to remind everyone that ability ratings in HQ do not represent how “powerful” or “skilled” a person is with that ability, but instead represent how well the person uses that ability to accomplish their goals.

For example, Captain America has low levels of enhanced human strength as part of his super-soldier modifications. Iron Man has superhuman strength that allows him to lift weights that Captain America couldn’t budge. However, both characters might have the same rating in super-strength, because it represents their ability to use their individual strength ratings to effect change in their environment and accomplish their goals.

The key to determining if Captain America or Iron Man can lift a particular weight doesn’t lie in the ability ratings, but in the definition of those abilities themselves. It’s well established that Captain America can lift (at the highest end) about 2 tons (or 4,000 lbs.), and Iron Man can lift 80+ tons (or 160,000 lbs.). So if Captain America tries to pick up an M1 Abrams battle tank (about 68 tons), the GM shouldn’t even call for a roll. It’s an impossible task, as defined by the character itself (not the character’s rating). If Iron Man wants to lift it, he can.

But where the rating matters is inside the adventure when everyone is at the table. But it’s important for the GM to frame a contest so that it gives the player a chance to come up with a potential solution to a problem.

For example, the GM says that a building is collapsing, and a bunch of innocent bystanders are going to be crushed. Captain America is not strong enough to hold up the entire building, of course. However, the player narrates that Cap uses his shield and his enhanced strength to deflect the falling debris away from the huddled bystanders, preventing any injury to them and creating a pocket in the falling building where the debris supports itself and lets them escape getting crushed.

The stakes for this are: If the player succeeds, none of the bystanders get injured and can be easily rescued once the building settles. If the player fails, one or more of the bystanders get injured or even killed.

Note that, since we’re playing a comic book game, having Captain America’s survival depend on the results of a single roll are not really appropriate. The GM decides that it’s more interesting to determine if Cap can save the innocent bystanders or not, than whether he personally survives or not. The player is playing Captain America—of course he survives. But the guilt over his inability to save the innocents is something that might be interesting to play out if he fails.

In this case, the player rolls Cap’s Super-Strength ability rating, augmented by his rating in his Captain America’s Shield ability.

Differing Power Levels

Of course, many comic book hero teams combine superheroes of varying levels of power. The Avengers, for example, have had both Black Widow and Thor on the same team. The character ratings are likely to be in the same range, but their actual descriptions of what they can do may vary widely.

This is not a problem specific to HeroQuest, by the way. Most published superhero games have the same issue. Mutants & Masterminds pretty much ignores it, assuming all characters will be created with the same Power Level. The now out-of-print Marvel Heroic Roleplaying used a more narrative system that ultimately is similar to how a HeroQuest GM will need to address it.

In games that use a system that attempts to simulate real-world physics, these things are more easily defined. A villain who is tough enough to ignore small arms fire might have an Armor rating higher than the damage rating of the most powerful handgun. All the GM has to do it compare numbers and see which one is higher.

In a more narrative system, it is vital that all the players at the table are on the same page. If the Abomination can shrug off bullets, then the pistol-wielding hero won’t be able to narrate using his guns to take him down. But this also frees up the player to come up with the kinds of crazy stuff that you actually see in comic books. Can the hero shoot something else that may cause some kind of chain reaction that will affect the Abomination, like shooting a fuel tank and causing a huge explosion?

Because the Resistance is not based on real-world physics, it becomes a negotiation between the GM and the player as to what the character may accomplish. This means the GM has to be flexible and accept comic book logic when the player comes up with a solution to a problem.

This also means that the GM needs to keep in mind the power level differences when presenting challenges to the team of superheroes. If the GM tells the players that the alien invasion is being carried out by robots who are immune to any weapons less powerful than a round from a battle tank, and one of the characters is playing a hero on the power level of Daredevil or the Punisher, then that hero is going to struggle to find a way to affect the situation.

The GM can, of course, always present innocent bystanders to rescue and similar situations. But this will get stale after a few times—every player wants to be able to hammer on a villain sometimes. So it’s important for the GM to ensure—if there are heroes of varying levels of power on the team—that villains, or villain teams, come in varying power levels as well.

It won’t need to be all the time, of course. Occasionally having a single villain that only the most powerful of heroes can battle is okay as long as there are other important things for the lower-powered heroes to do. Note that I put emphasis on important—crowd control is an okay option if used very rarely, but the GM should ensure that other elements get used much more often. Options include a doomsday device that needs to be deactivated, the closing of a portal to another dimension, facing down hordes of minions that threaten to overrun a vulnerable group or location, capturing the person who summoned the big villain, stealing something important while the big villain is distracted by the battle, etc.

What is important is that the player needs to feel that he or she is contributing to the success of the team, even if playing a hero that is not as super-powered as some of the others.

Conclusion

In HQ, superhero characters don’t really differ much from their mundane (or fantasy-based) counterparts. But, as always, it’s important for everyone at the table to be on the same page.

Unfortunately, I’m out of time and I didn’t get a chance to demonstrate some character write-ups. So I’m going to revisit this topic again next week and give some example characters as well as examples of a few villains.