Sunday, September 26, 2010

Traits Part I

I will be writing a series of articles about Traits, and how I thought about them.

In many systems, an Atlantean character is likely to have swimming, the ability to breathe underwater, maybe even super-strength.

And of course, they have spent a bunch of their points on these Traits, merely so they can mutter “And I’ll scour the world’s oceans.” Now… some folks may dig this kind of action, but I think most folks would rather avoid such a task, and would rather not spend points on something that is very rarely going to come up (Costner inspired campaign aside). In CC&VF, Atlantean would cover all these things, plus whatever else being Atlantean means in that particular world. Thus, in combat, a character can use Atlantean to attack, using the super-strength implied aspect of it, but... if there is a need to scour the world’s oceans, well, hot diggity dog!

I also thought of Superman, and his plethora of effects that might come into play once or twice an issue: x-ray vision, heat vision, cold breath, etc, etc. Kryptonian covers all these things, and the character can focus on what they want to focus on, having covered all those qualities with just one Trait.

As always, feel free to comment, criticize, question.

Next Up: Versatile Traits: or How I Imagined Iron Man and His Many Suits of Armor.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

My Gaming Group

When I was a child, I had dreams, as many people do. I dreamed that one day I would be a game designer.

Or not.

Last fall, I started up a supers RPG set in an amalgamverse, players picked a Marvelous characters and a Distinguished Character and merged them. We started out with the Marvel: Saga system, which I have long loved from afar (having only played it as a player, once).

With the unofficial rules on point based character creation I started statting up the characters:

Iron Man+Batman
Power Girl+Shadowcat
Ambush Bug+Deadpool
Spidey+Booster Gold

As I got into character creation, I realized there was a good amount of overlap- two regenerators, two teleporters, and obviously the Thor+Supes amalgam was... pretty powerful. Many systems, the way they are written make some powers and powersets more significant than others. Was one character the same as the other. Creating encounters with a group of villains who could stand opposed to the varying power levels was difficult to say the least. In addition, several of my players had a hard time grasping the system, as it was a bit unusual.

Hmmm.... what to do? I went back to Cartoon Action Hour (1E) and played around with that a bit, I liked the way some things were done, but still... it wasn't clicking. I was a playtester on Season Two, and think it is a pretty neat game, and I converted characters to that system, but started tinkering and wondering about things. What made Deadpools regeneration different from Wolverines? Was it really the same power, just at different levels? What about Superman and Power Girl, both essentially had the same powerset, Supes just had higher levels of powers? And villains... how is it that Lex Luthor was such a great archenemy? So, I went, instead of to a roleplaying system, to the source material proper.

Power Girl was cool and different because of who she was, her skills were a bit different, sure... computer as opposed to newspaper stuff, but beyond that.... the boob window seemed to be a big part of her character, and usually made an appearance or mention every issue or two.... Hmmmm.... and Deadpool, sure, on paper was very similar to Wolverine, but was in four colors, so very, very different. What about his ability to break the fourth wall? How did that factor in.

So, I started thinking like a comic book writer. I knew what these characters could do, and their rough power levels (Power Girl was still, powers-wise, weaker than Supes), but I stepped back... Writers don't have stat sheets. If they want the speedster to run across water, they do that. Maybe it is difficult, and they certainly may not do it all the time, but it is a cool application of their power.

I wanted a game that made that sort of cool stuff possible. Showing up at the table every session, knowing exactly what your character can do is one way to game. I wanted to try something new.

I contacted Cynthia with my idea, and she gave me her blessing to go forward with a supers game that used the foundation of CAH:S2, but went in new directions. Deadpools guns are part of his character, he spent points on them. Other folks can't use them. Spider-Man never picks up a gun. Iron Man has many suits of armor, does each one need to be statted up individually?

Add to this the fact that many players still like rolling dice, the sound and the drama they bring, and I still very much wanted a game, but I wanted a game that captured all the fun of a comic book without getting bogged down in the rules of an RPG. A game that let players have as much freedom as a comic book writer. A game that even went meta, and let Power Girl's costume play a factor in how she was played.

I kept trying to think of problem areas, powers and powersets that seemed to confound other systems, and instead of writing specific rules for them, I began to look at what they were about. A good example is Superman's plethora of abilities- hyperbreath, cold breath, laser eyes, x-ray vision, etc.... I /could/ stat them all out, but weren't they all really just part of his Kryptonian physiology, and usually, didn't he activate them infrequently. What about Iron Man's many suits of armor? Or a speedster? Or why Batman is in the trinity of the DCU even though he has no powers. How is he able to stand back-to-back with Supes against big and nasty villains time and again, being that, on paper, one punch from any of them would turn him into a fine red mist. Hmmmm..... So began my journey.

CC&VF is designed with genre-emulation in mind, both in the rules, and in the gameplay. Folks might have a hard time making characters, more because the process is quite unlike many other games. But once they figure out the mindset, there is a tiny bit of math, but creating characters can be lots of fun. "I want a character who can....." No need to craft powers to suit your needs, give your character whatever power you want. Your Ninja Trait implies alot more than just picking up ranks in stealth and knowing Japanese. Hawkeye and Thor stand side by side protecting Earth.

My gaming group is great. Because they love superheroes, I made this game. I wanted them to be able to star in their own comic book.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010


I love comic books.

More specifically, I love superheroes.

I love when new characters (complete with new costumes) are introduced.
I love that purple and green is an acceptable and established color scheme for a costume.

And like so many children, I always thought it would be the coolest thing to be a superhero. Of course, deciding on which one was always difficult. To have Matt Murdock’s Radar Sense, or Spider-Man’s ability to cling to walls and super strength, or Nighthawk’s cool costume….. difficult choices.

Enter a love of roleplaying games, the chance to pretend to be a superhero. I’ve played many superhero RPGs over the years, and as much as I loved poring over the Official Handbook stats and seeing what powers and power levels individuals had, each system seemed to be lacking something.

It is my belief that Batman and Superman are made with roughly the same number of points. Those of you more used to point based superhero RPGs (Ian, I am looking at you) will guffaw at this belief. But I would propose this theory- if they aren’t, why are they equally matched, why are they able to team up and take on earth-shattering foes. And, for that matter, I would additionally offer up that Lex Luthor is made with as many, if not more, character points that Supes or Bats.

Now, a skill based system can attempt to replicate this, but, at the end of the day, is Batman’s 10 ranks in detective equivalent to the fact that Superman is nigh-invulnerable and can push the moon out of orbit? In a combat situation, I’d say… no… Yet Batman is not at all an ineffective combatant.

Speaking of combat, superhero (and villain) combats are fast, fun, and not very crunchy in RPG terms. Many superhero RPGs attempt to quantify every power, explaining what a character can do, the exceptions that their powers activate, and thus, superhero combats become a dice-fest.

As I had secured myself a table full of gamers ready to play a superhero game, I began to think about how best to balance a character who wanted a Superman level character with one who wanted to play a character closer to Deadpool in power. And how about Deadpool’s ability to break the fourth wall (or She-Hulk’s, for that matter, thank you Mr. Byrne). And villains, without handwaving the villainous nature of Lex Luthor, how to implement that level of villainy into a system to make characters fear him, but have that fear be reflected in the system itself?

I tried several published systems, and still was not able to capture the feel of the comic books. In many systems, Superman’s awesome strength will essentially mean that he will need to fight other similarly powered (similar in “points” and in strength/ toughness, to be able to withstand his mighty blows). And what about a Deadpool like ability to break the Fourth Wall? And what about an over-the top (or not over-the top as the case may be… wink) costume like Power Girl’s, which has come into play in regards to her character. And the Hulk’s ability to Hulk Out? And Wolverine’s ninja skills?

Comic book characters are both incredibly static, and also constantly changing, often depending on the writer and how they interpret their powers. Instead of having to retcon these new interpretations of their powers, what about a system that allowed for characters to explore their powers and abilities in the same way. Grant Morrison’s Plastic Man from JLA was written as one of the most powerful characters in the DCU. As a Plastic Man fan, I loved this, but certainly, pre-existing “data” on his powers did not indicate this.

So, I started this running this superhero campaign, we tried a couple systems none of which were able to capture the diversity of powers and flavor for the superheroic combats that I think all of the players were interested in. I began to think in terms of being a comic book writer instead of someone running a game and trying to force the square peg into the circular hole (quantifying superhero powers and abilities into concrete stats). As I began to think in these terms, I began imagining a game system that would allow the GameMaster and the Players the ability to have as much fun telling their shared story as an actual comic book writer had when writing an issue of a comic.

Thus, was born Capes, Cowls, and Villains Foul. Using Cartoon Action Hour: Season 2 as the starting point, I starting tinkering (with Cynthia’s permission) with how Traits were created, trying to imagine all the various situations in a comic book, and how to recreate them in a quick and easy way. How would one create the Hulk’s Strength? How could one explain a character who gets beat up and ends up getting stronger? How to create a speedster who can do all the all the cool stuff that speedsters do, on occasion, without having to resort to purchasing additional Tricks, Feats, Extras. How about the power armored character with a warehouse full of specialty armors…. And primarily, to craft a system that understood that Batman, Superman and Lex Luthor were all similarly powered, and that although Superman can move the moon, Batman has some tricks up his sleeve as well, as does the diabolical Lex Luthor.