Thoughts on Marvel Heroic

Alongside my Monthly OneShots, I’ve recently finished playing in a mini-campaign of another Cortex Plus system, the short-lived Marvel Heroic RPG. While I was fortunate enough to buy it while still in print it’s a system that has languished on my shelf for some time.

Unfortunately, with the campaign over, I feel like it may return to that position for some time as overall it just did not work for me.

First up was a personal issue – I prefer shades of grey in my games. Four colour heroics just don’t sit well with my style of play. Especially when trying to be a clean-cut hero such as Captain America. It’s something that I’ve struggled with during previous superhero games and it clearly remains something I need to work on.

As for the system, well something just failed to click. To a degree, it felt over-engineered, with too many moving parts. Rolls were typically built around a base of Affiliation + Distinction + Powerset + Speciality. That’s before considering any possible boosts or variations such as Sfx. Each of those had to be considered and actively chosen, there is no default combo so each action felt slow, though I will admit that they sped up as we became more familiar with the mechanics.

My other mechanical issue was one of focus. While I understand that the superhero genre is heavily combat orientated my non-combat options felt like they were lacking. Again, I appreciate that Captain America is pretty much the archetype for ‘super-soldier’ but it still put me off when I saw that my non-combat rolls were relatively limited.

captain-america-the-winter-soldier-movie-hd-wallpaper-my-top-10-of-2014This isn’t to say that my thoughts on the system entirely negative, as there was a lot that I did enjoy. The doom pool was central to this, allowing the GM to bank dice for later use rather than having to create complications in the moment (ala Firefly). It’s definitely a mechanic that I’ll be including in my future Prime games, likely alongside the Firefly type complications for when I want to immediately challenge the party.

Second, was the ability to counter actions on a successful defence, allowing the heroes to inflict stress even when it wasn’t their turn. This really felt like it played to the genre and made the heroes feel special, as with enough plot points it is (theoretically) possible to take out a mob of low-level antagonists without even taking an action!

Finally the idea of switching out power-sets between adventures to highlight different facets of a character really appeals. Demon Hunters, which blends some Cortex concepts onto a backbone of Fate, does similar by allowing you to spend milestones to rewrite Aspects. Over the course of a campaign, I could see a character building up a repository of options to pick from. Want to focus on mysterious backstory this adventure? Simply swap in that aspect. Want to highlight your stealth? Add in the power-set you acquired during the recent downtime.

So overall, mixed thoughts. I won’t be rushing back to the system but on the other hand, I would like to play it again (or run it) to see if I can get a better feel for it.

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Demon Hunters RPG – Stacking Aspects

One of the mechanics I love about Cortex Plus games is the way in which the way complications rise and fall with the narrative. With the right rolls your d6 mildly irritating can step up to d12 mortal enemy and back down again over the course of an adventure or sometimes even a scene. The same is true of physical complications, a flesh wound could be aggravated all the way to bleeding out without the need to introduce additional complications. Coupled to this is the dice pool mechanic, if an advantage or complication is relevant to your roll you can always add it to your dice pool before rolling.

Demon Hunters incorporates elements of Cortex Plus but, at its core, is a Fate derivative. Because of this aspects, while always true, have a single value (d6) and require either a free invocation or a faith point to incorporate into a roll. 

The below draft rules modification shifts the mechanics slightly more towards Cortex Plus by allowing for the creation of aspects with die values greater than d6.

Stacking aspects

Aspects that are narrative associated can be stacked together, creating a single combined aspect. Physically link the individual aspects together by drawing a line between them or stacking them atop one another. When invoking stacked aspects choose from the following

1. Invoke each aspect separately as per the standard rules at the cost of one faith point per aspect. Each aspect invoked adds 1d6 to your dice pool.

2. Invoke the entire stacked aspect for the cost of one faith point. For each individual aspect after the first increase the size of your bonus die by one step.

For example during a scene the following scene aspects may be in play

1. Stampede of people

2. Raging fire

3. Choking smoke

4. Demonic hieroglyphs 

The first three of these are narratively linked to one another, the fire that was accidentally started (because no Demon Hunter would ever start it on purpose) has built to an all encompassing maelstrom. These aspects can, if desired, be linked to one another. The fourth aspect stands alone and cannot be linked with the others.

Doyl, our demon Hunter, is trying to escape from the cultists chasing him but he’s not particularly sneaky or athletic so it’s going to be difficult. With plenty of faith points he could invoke the first three aspects to add a mighty 3d6 bonus to his roll. Unfortunately he’s only got one faith point, having relied on them rather heavily earlier in the scene. He invokes the stacked aspect to gain a bonus d10, hopefully enough to make his escape.

At this point astute readers will be noting that the standard 3d6 bonus will average a higher roll than the d10, so why bother with the stacked aspect? The answer is simple – cost, a single faith point rather than three while still making use of a wider range of the aspects in play. 

During the playtesting I’ve done with this rules modification I’ve also noticed a secondary bonus – it encourages greater player engagement with scene aspects. Knowing they can get a larger bonus for the same cost drives both the creation of aspects and their creative use. It is also intuitively balanced, there’s nothing to stop the DM from creating or invoking stacked aspects using demon dice.

As always I’d be interested in anybodies thoughts or comments on this.

RPGaDay August 22nd

22nd) Which RPGs are the easiest for you to run?

cortexplusThis again mostly comes down to familiarity for me, so once again I’m going with Cortex. More specifically Cortex Classic or Cortex Plus Action (such as Firefly) which are the two variants I’ve personally run. For both of them I could pick up the game and presuming I had a setting inspiration have characters ready to run in a few minutes. Especially Cortex Classic where I’d even be comfortable with characters being generated in play using the old ‘assign your stat when you first roll it’ approach.

The other reason for picking Cortex is that I know I can comfortably run it for players unfamiliar with the system. I’ve done so a number of times for both friends and at conventions. Having that level of system mastery means I can focus more on the game in front of me without getting tangled up by the mechanics.

RPGaDay August 15th

15th) Which RPG do you enjoy adapting the most?

Cortex in its various incarnations. It cortexwas the first system that I really grokked, not just in terms of how to play but in how the different aspects of the system clicked together. It helps that from a design standpoint it is relatively modular with elements that can be slotted in or out easily. I’m really looking forward to tinkering with Cam Banks’ new Prime version of the system when it comes out and hopefully will be able to put something interesting together with it.

As I’ve slowly started tinkering with game design it’s one of the systems that I keep coming back to and I’ve got notes for a few settings that I’d like to adapt to it. First and foremost would be one centered around stuffed toys and their adventures as they try to protect their sleeping owners. Nothing too original but something that could be fun. Second was the Powers campaign, think the TV series Heroes as a good example of where this was going. We tried a short campaign of it using Classic and a bodged together mechanic for the system (where you had to roll as close to the target number as possible). That didn’t get far due to issues with both the narrative and the mechanics but it’s one that I’ve always wanted to revisit and flesh out more.

RPGaDay 2017: 2nd August

2nd) What is an RPG you would like to see published?

wp-image-1746684981jpg.jpgMy own, Project Cassandra. Cold war psychics with a focus on a single short scenario rather than long campaign play. I got close to having it finished but then had a bad playtest and it just got pushed to the backburner long enough to drop off of my focus. My aim is to get back to it in the next month or two and iron out the last few issues before just putting it out there. It’s never going to be a big release or seller but just completing it will be a personal milestone.

I’ve already released a number of drafts and design notes for the game, all of which can be found here on the blog or through http://www.projectcassandra.co.uk which takes you directly to the game page.

Future Projects

With Project Cassandra edging ever closer to completion I’ve been given some thoughts as to what I want to work on. The length of the list was rather surprising, I didn’t realise I had accumulated notes for so many ideas already.

Niska’s Race – A Firefly Adventure. Having run this at multiple conventions it’s about time that I wrote this up and put it online for others. I’ve got a partial draft of the adventure, what it really needs is some focus on the structuring and what information needs to be presented for others to run it.

Demon Hunters Adventures – Again adventures I’ve run in the past that I’d like to get out for others and again I’ve already got a partial draft to work from. For these I’d love to be able to get them released on drivethruRPG as some sort of semi-official / recognised adventure for the system. First step though is writing then I can worry about layout / publishing.

Neon Blades, cyberpunk reality TV – Aim is a lightweight system with a focus on the idea of looking good over all else, hence the idea of some sort of reality TV show focused on a team of operatives. I’ve got the initial outlines of a system but it’s lacking any details, so in keeping with the theme of style over substance for now.

The Fallen Mountains –  I’d still like to flesh out my Legend of the Five Rings setting  to the point of it being a resource for a future game. Likely to be a slow ongoing process as I detail characters, events and locations.

The Delve, Leverage / Cortex+ hack – The idea for this actually came from a series of images I got through JEShields stock art patreon. The idea is of a group of fantasy dwarves trying to break into a wizards vault. Thinking more along the lines of D&D style fantasy than Tolkien with magic being relatively common. At the moment just an idea, first step will be to go over the original game again and see how much can just be used as is.

Cortex+ hack based around the adventures of soft toys –  Another vague idea for the moment, could probably be achieved with just some custom distinctions  and renaming of a few elements. Originally inspired by a DoubleClicks song called Lullaby for Mr Bear.

Powers, PbtA followup to Project Cassandra. Again a vague idea for a thematic follow-up to Project Cassandra using a hack of the Apocalypse system  dealing more with the consequences of gaining powers in a world dominated by global conspiracies. Will hopefully incorporate some ideas from an old Cortex game  where powers regularly went out of control  with devastating and tragic consequences.

State of the Conspiracy: Major Feedback from Dragonmeet

I posted a quick collection of thoughts regarding Dragomeet 2016 over on my G+ page but I wanted to give the Project Cassandra feedback a post to itself.

What happened

The setup for the game was the same basic questions that I used during the Stratigicon playtest, that Apollo 11 had discovered something and President Nixon was due to be assasinated prior to announcing the discovery. The discovery this time, shapeshifting aliens on the moon who had already infiltrated the USSR and were now trying to take over the US government. The assasin was non other than the vice President who had already been replaced. Thrown into the mix was a Soviet Null, immune to the powers of the party (but not, as it would turn out, regular bullets).

The adventure went by fast. Too fast, as the players blew through every challenge with ease thanks to a combination of difficulties that were too low, great teamwork and some amazingly inventive use of Powers.

Feedback

The primary feedback was pretty unambiguous, actions weren’t challenging enough, which resulted in the group not failing for the first two thirds of the game. This had a knock on effect in that it prevented other mechanics from coming into play, namely conditions and spending premonitions on re-rolls. It was only towards the end of the game that I started raising the difficulty that we started using all of the mechanics but by then it was too late to have a major impact.

The second negative was with the skills themselves and compounded my GM error with the difficulties. Essentially the players found that they either had too high a skill level for a given task or were lacking the skills entirely (and therefore didn’t attempt actions). This is something that has come up in playtests before and I had hoped that the current skill list addressed it. Unfortunately this does not appear to be the case.

It’s a blow to get this close to having the game finished before running into a major issue but on the other hand I’m glad it went badly. It’s the first major catastrophe I’ve had but it also feels like it is workable rather than an impassable issue.
Beyond this the feedback was quite positive. The players enjoyed the scenario and being able to influence it through the questions plus liked the fact that the powers weren’t mechanically constrained to prevent them being overpowered. As these are all aspects I’d put thought into I’m glad that the players picked up on my design aims. Following the game I’m also convinced that the single scenario design (of saving the President) was the right approach. Once the game is finished I may add a bonus sheet on running additional highly defined bonus scenarios (I already have ideas for one based around the Berlin Airlift).

Going forward

I’ve been pondering how to change the skills since Dragonmeet but before I dive too deeply into it I thought it important to look again at the probability tables, the results of which are plotted below. The x-axis plots the number of successes and the y-axis the percentage chance of rolling at least that many successes for a given skill level.

2016-12-06

Looking at those numbers it’s clear how off my perception of the difficulties was. With a skill level of 3, which the players were regularly achieving, there is still a 66% chance of rolling 3 or more successes. In my head 3 successes should have been difficult and definitely not in their favour so often. Those odds rises to a staggering 90% at a skill level of 4 and drops to 32% for a character with a moderate skill level of 2.

It’s clear therefore that the first thing I need to do is adjust my idea of difficulty levels and then add explicit descriptions to the game. My current working template is:

1 – Trivial – Only worth rolling if the individual is unskilled
2 – Normal
3 – Challenging (with intention of this being a typical roll for the game)
4 – Hard
5 – Heroic
6 – Impossible

The second approach is a limit on the maximum skill level of a character. The players at Dragonmeet suggested setting it at 3, which I’m thinking of implementing. At this level a skilled individual will pass a Challenging roll most of the time but still fail at a noticeable rate.

The biggest change, which I’m still working on, are the skills themselves. Under the current design players add up related specialities to get their skill level and tend to either end up with a high level or none at all. If I keep the current system the specialities need completely rewritten to provide a wider breadth skills with only a small number that overlap enough to give a high skill level.

The alternative is simply list a set it skills with a rank by each of them. That has the advantage of simplicity and also makes it easier to deal with edge cases as I can give each skill group a rank for when no specialities apply. For example using brute strength might just fall under the general umbrella of the Physical skill set at rank of 2 for the strongest and 0 for the weakest. The downsides of this approach are flavour and rigidity so more thought will have to go into it before I settle on one over the other. I may also split the skill groups further by adding Social to the existing mix of Mental, Physical and Specialist.

All in all I’ve got a lot to think about and a valuable learning experience for future projects.