Last week we played some Marvel Super Heroes—the old FASERIP game, not the new one which I hope to talk about soon—and I decided to muck with the reward system a little bit.
In Marvel Super Heroes, your character doesn’t “level up” and seldom improves over time. Instead, heroic behavior earns you Karma points, which you can then spend to alter dice rolls. This represents peak performance, good luck, or the moral arc of the comic book universe, and helps to explain why a comparatively ordinary guy like Captain America can take on the Hulk on equal terms: Captain America may be weaker, but a lifetime of heroism lets him save the day.
Like hit points in D&D, Karma measures whether you’re a protagonist of the campaign. If you’ve got a ton of Karma saved up, it’s because you’ve attended lots of sessions, you’ve overcome many villains, solved many crimes, or found time to manage the obligations of your secret identity. And with great Karma comes great performance.
Yet Karma isn’t easy to acquire, especially in the advanced rules. Most Karma awards are in the neighborhood of 10-30 points, and it’s pretty easy for the GM to place you in a Hobson’s choice: sure you arrested the cat burglar (+5) but you had to blow off Grandma’s birthday party without a good excuse (-20) for a net loss of 15 Karma points.* And of course, if your super “hero” chooses to go on a one-man crime wave, that’s going to carry a heavy Karma cost as well.
There’s also the issue that Marvel Super Heroes doesn’t have strong ways to distinguish characters’ personalities. There’s a +10 Karma award for good role-playing, but in my view this doesn’t always capture the luchador soap opera that is Marvel Comics.
Supers of Yesterday
At the top of my list of favorite fantasy games I really should get around to playing sits The Shadow of Yesterday, by Clinton R. Nixon. Shadow of Yesterday uses a customizable XP system called Keys. Each character chooses a few of these Keys, which read like this:
Key of Unrequited Love
Your character has a love for someone who does not return this love. Gain 1 XP whenever your character has to make a decision that is influenced by them. Gain 2 XP every time your character attempts to win their affection. Gain 5 XP every time your character puts herself in harm’s way or makes a sacrifice for them. Buyoff: Abandon your pursuit of this person or win their love.
You get a few XP for something pretty minor and easy to arrange; you get additional XP for something that carries serious repercussions or is otherwise difficult to deal with. The “buyoff” means that any time you betray the key, you have the option to permanently cash it in for 10 XP, which in Shadow of Yesterday is like leveling up twice, but you can never take this particular key again. In other words, if you choose to lead your character toward a moment of cataclysmic personal growth, you can reap massive rewards. (And no, I don’t know what’s up with the key metaphor, which seems hopelessly mixed.) You can use some of those XP to buy a new key if you’re so inclined.
Method of emphasizing your character’s role as a protagonist in the story? Method to reliably garner more Karma? Method to off-set Karma losses for certain kinds of character-appropriate bad behavior? Method to emphasize silly soap opera elements of super hero comics? Yes to all four. As an added bonus, if you’ve got a player who’s like, “Uh, who is ‘Wonder Man’? What’s this guy like?” you can then point to the Key of Being a Douche.
Some Stuff From Our Game
I haven’t figured out how much it costs to purchase a new Key—I’m figuring 100 Karma, and you can only have three at a time, but that’s just provisional for now, since we’re in the process of testing it out.
Can you match these Keys to the respected ranks of the Avengers?
Key of the Bad Relationship. Gain 10 Karma when you’re in a scene with this person. Gain 20 Karma when you try to win this person’s respect or make him or her jealous. Gain 50 Karma when you suffer or make a sacrifice because of this person. Cash-Out: 100 Karma if you walk out or otherwise end the relationship.
Key of the Bronco. Gain 10 Karma for mouthin’ off to super-guys. Gain 20 Karma when you show ’em up by deeds. Gain 50 Karma by saving the day through lone-wolf grandstanding. Buy-Off: Gain 100 Karma by submitting to a wise leader.
Key of the Crying Android. Gain 10 Karma for discovering a new question (supposedly philosophical, but almost always continuity-obsessive) while brooding over the mystery of your origins. Gain 30 Karma for risking harm in search of an answer. Cash-Out: Gain 100 Karma for answering the question.
Key of Hedonism. Gain 10 Karma every time you indulge prodigiously in wine, women, and song. Gain 30 Karma every time this upsets uptight people or overcomes your responsibilities. Cash-Out: Gain 100 Karma points when you swear, this time you’re going to settle down and grow up.
Key of Homo superior. Gain 10 Karma points when you defeat a human. Gain 30 Karma when you defeat Sentinel robots, government super-agents, or assimilationist mutants. Buy-Off: Gain 100 Karma by taking orders from a human.
Key of the Loser. Gain 10 Karma points every time you mope over your shortcomings. Gain 20 Karma every time you are defeated or give up. Gain 50 Karma if that failing endangers innocent third-parties. Buy-Off: Gain 100 Karma by thwarting a national or global conspiracy.
Turns out that the new Marvel Heroic Roleplaying game has an XP system called milestones that resembles keys greatly. Here’s an example of a milestone.
MUTANTS SANS FRONTIÈRES
Created by Warren Worthington III, this international relief agency offers mutants support they can’t get anywhere else. Will it inspire Beast?
1 XP when you use your Medical Expert to help a mutant recover stress.
3 XP when you choose not to engage in a confrontation in order to rescue or support noncombatant mutants.
10 XP when you either allow a mutant to die or give up your status or reputation to save them.
Note that the massive XP rewards combines the fulfillment of the key (sacrificing your professionalism to save a mutant) with as the option to betray it (letting a mutant die), which in Shadow of Yesterday would be broken out separately, with more points given if you choose to renounce your values.
My first impression of the Marvel Heroic Roleplaying game is cautious enthusiasm: it looks like a complex fighting game that handles “power stunts” a lot better than my old beloved Marvel Super Heroes did, but I’m a little suspicious that fights will begin to look the same after a while, and the scenario creation rules look . . . problematic. But I look forward to getting experience with this thing pretty quickly. Either way, I’m pleased that we hit on these reward systems independently: it’s a sign I’m on to something.
* = Contrast: if you had allowed the thief to go free (-5) in order to make it to Grandma’s party (+10), you’d have a get gain of 5 Karma points. Going to Grandma’s house is therefore more important than catching mere thieves, but less important than catching murderers–it’s about as important as catching an arsonist or mad bomber. Obviously, after an exhausting day on the U.S. Court of Appeals, Judge Richard Posner puts on a strange costume and becomes . . . Milton-Fried-Man, who is Pareto superior to ordinary mortals!