Archive for March 5th, 2012


marvel heroic – musing hesitantly

Me, Tavis, and Tavis’s son played in the Marvel Heroic Roleplaying launch party at the Compleat Strategist, organized by the incomparable gaming mutant Jenskot.  We had fun!  Then Tavis and his kid had to leave and many new players came.  We had even more fun!  Then I went uptown and played it with some friends, and had fun too!  So: 3 for 3, but with some reservations.

the good social stuff you don’t care about

Here is how awesome my friend Jenskot is: he organized a launch party for free, developing elaborate cheat-sheets requiring hours of work, to promote the work of strangers, who couldn’t get their act together to ship their silly game on time.  It was a launch party to promote a book that doesn’t exist yet!  (You can buy the PDF on-line, though.)  But people still had fun!

"--?!?" is right

The really nice thing about playing these licensed games is that it gives you a chance to geek out with fellow nerds about your love of the source material.  “Wait, we’re fighting Razor-Fist?  Razor-I have prosthetic steak knives instead of hands-Fist?!?  The guy’s not a villain, he can’t even go to the bathroom!  But boy, Paul Gulacy man, what happened to him?  Nobody ripped off Jim Starlin’s style better.”  So that was fun too.

Also if a superheroic adventure begins with Iron Man pretending to get drunk, while Colossus gets wasted on vodka, and they fly around NYC together demolishing buildings in order to finally build the long-awaited Second Avenue Subway line, the game has already failed (in the eyes of a 10 year old comic fan) –

Pretend-Drunk Iron Man + Drunk Colossus + Unauthorized Urban Renewal = GAMING FAIL (for some people)

the good game stuff

Marvel Heroic Roleplaying is a cleverly designed game that, in play, feels like a modern-day super hero comic book.  Lots of snazzy action, a dose of fan-favorite characterization, and (at least at this early stage of learning the game) very drawn out and “decompressed.”  The rules ship with a mini-module called “Breakout” based on the Bendis/Finch New Avengers arc of the same name, and a player commented, “You know, this felt exactly like those comics.”

The closest point of reference I can see is Dungeons & Dragons 4e, but only insofar as they’re both complex games designed to produce cool combat set-pieces by way of a cleverly designed economy.

The game operates by building a dice pool from various personality traits, super powers, and skills.  Your roll measures both your overall performance and the effect it has on the fictional circumstances; your opponent makes a similar roll to resist you.  As a player, you can heap inconvenience on your character–“Captain America is a man from the 1940’s, so I’ll say he has problems understanding how to deactivate the super-computer…”–to earn resources called plot points.  Plot points can be spent to activate special super power combos or to jazz up your dice pool in other ways.

(Indie Filth Alert!  This game expects you, as a player, to occasionally make things worse for your character in the hope of reaping a mechanical advantage.  A sizable segment of gamers don’t like that in any way, shape, or form.  If you’re one of them, you won’t like this game.)

Meanwhile the GM–called “the Watcher” in this game after Kirby’s version of the Man in the Moon–is on the look-out for any 1’s that you roll.  The Watcher buys them off you with plot points, and for every plot point he pays you, he adds +1d6 to the “doom pool,” which represents the general FUBAR nature of superhuman conflict.  When you’re trying to do something that has no NPC to resist you, you’ll roll against the doom pool.  The Watcher can also spend dice out of the doom pool to activate special super villainous powers or create plot twists.

So the game works by steadily growing the doom pool, with you earning plot points along the way.  In theory, the game is balanced if you’re rolling a bunch of d6’s for the Wasp and I’m rolling a bunch of d12’s for Thor, because the Wasp is going to be earning plot points about twice as fast, though the doom pool will also be growing a lot faster as she gets in over her head.

Several people on RPGNet have complained that the game doesn’t have a character creation system, but that’s not true.  It doesn’t have a randomized or point-buy character creation system, but damn if I didn’t create Sonny Sumo last Kirbsday in less than 10 minutes.  Almost all of that time was conceptual.  The game doesn’t really sweat exactly how strong you are: Thor, the Hulk, the Thing, and Colossus are all equally strong, which as a neckbeard offends me greatly.  But figuring out your character’s personality, and fine-tuning some super power tricks, takes a little bit of insight, because that makes a much bigger difference in play.

(Indie Filth Alert: if you like discovering your tabula rasa character through play, this is not the game for you.  If you require randomized character creation, this is not the game for you.  If you require transparently point-bought balanced characters, this is not the game for you.)

The game is also pretty great at handling bizarre power stunts.  You know how, in Kirby’s Fourth World titles, the little super-iPad called Mother Box can do practically anything?  It’s a huge pain in the butt in Marvel Super Heroes, because you’d have to spend hundreds of points of Karma and get many spectacular rolls to pull off so many one-time-only stunts.  But with Marvel Heroic those weird never-see-it-again powers carry a low, low price of one plot point.  Which makes it handy for guys like Iron Man, Hawkeye, and Courageous Cat, who never seem to run out of nifty tricks.

the bad game stuff

Man alive, this game has stats for no-name bozo’s like Armor, Iron Fist, the Constrictor, and Tombstone–but no stats for the Hulk, Thor, Doctor Doom, or Magneto.  Inexplicable!

This book gives the 1e Dungeon Master’s Guide a run for its money for disorganization–or maybe, in this case, over-organization.  The rules for healing and recovery are spread over three chapters, written largely the same way but in each instance there’s a little rule added that appears nowhere else.  This book’s credits list six editors; you could not prove it by the way the book is organized.

There are a lot of things in this game that resemble one another, but have subtly different mechanical effects.  “Stress” is exactly like a “complication,” except that stress doesn’t go away at the end of a scene; instead it converts to “trauma” which is also exactly like stress (which is like a complication).  A “stunt” is like a “push” is like a “resource,” and all of them are like “assets,” except that an asset is created by rolling dice, and all four resemble “traits” except a trait is a permanent part of your character.  Basically, they came up with a really nice economy, and then are trying to tell you there’s a mechanical difference between Coke and Pepsi–and there is, but it’s hard to discern at first.  So far, it seems that no two people who have read rules agree on how a fictional circumstance should translate into the mechanics.

Although the game describes superhuman speed, subsonic flight, and teleportation, there aren’t any rules for movement in general, or spatial relationships of any kind.  A single villain trying to run away from a group of super-heroes with differing rates of speed requires a surprising amount of mental gymnastics.

(Indie Filth Alert: if you really like battle-grids, miniatures, and being able to unambiguously declare where your character is in space, this is not the game for you.  If you like saying, “My guy’s kind of over here, and your guy is kind of over there” and having the mechanics reflect that, this game might not be for you–it appears to be an open question.)

If you’re not careful, it’s easy to say, “Well, what you just declared is mechanically permitted even though it doesn’t make fictional sense.  Oh no, we broke the fiction!”  Example!  Spider-Man hurls an industrial air-conditioning unit at the Vulture.  He rolls to get an “effect die,” which can be traded in for any one of the following; he can spend a plot point to do another thing too…

  1. Spidey could inflict physical injury on the Vulture (effect die becomes physical stress)
  2. Spidey could break the Vulture’s flying suit (effect die cancels out flying super power)
  3. Spidey could inflict a painful memory of past defeats on the Vulture (effect die becomes emotional stress)
  4. Spidey could remove the distance between him and the Vulture (effect die cancels out the “I’m far away from you” asset)

The first three are at least arguable given the fictional circumstances.  But there’s almost no conceivable way that chucking an A/C unit at the Vulture will physically move Spider-Man and the Vulture closer together.  Yet the game’s economy isn’t going to stop you from saying stupid stuff like that.  It’s the table’s responsibility to police the interaction between the fiction and the mechanics.

(Old Gaming Fart Alert!  If you doubt the good sense of the people you play with, this game is not for you.  If you believe that RPG’s should be hardwired to prevent you from creating logical paradoxes accidentally in play, this game is not for you.)

what do you think, middle-aged comics nerd?

Marvel Heroic Roleplaying is an extremely nifty game that shows a lot of promise.  It is, however, extremely confusing even beyond the learning curve of a new game.  Aside from the crazy disorganization of the text itself and the almost-but-not-quite-the-same quality of many of the rules, the text veers toward a worrying (but manageable) one-night stand between cause and effect.  I played it three times in one day with three different groups, and we all had a great time!  You might too, but it’s not for everybody.


When Someone Great is Gone

After last night’s Dwimmermount session at the Brooklyn Strategist, we were doing a post-mortem about how it had been awesome when we were using miniatures on the section of the dungeon that I’d fully laid out with Master Maze, but as soon as we ran out of pieces to build new areas explored in play we started getting confused about who was doing what where. The solution is straightforward – Stefan will come back from Prague and we’ll borrow more of his personal collection; also he is a skilled enough builder to take apart one part of the layout and use it to create a new area at the speed of exploration, so either he’ll be there to help out or someone else will contribute (or learn) that skill. But being of a theoretical bent, we kept chewing over why the problem arose at all.

I usually run without minis and have no problem creating a mental picture of the scene. Why then did the transition from an area we could see with minis to one where we’d use our imagination throw us off? A B-Strat regular who was having a smoke nearby said that this is why, as a book jacket designer, he hates being told to put a face on the cover. “Faces are specific,” he said. “As soon as you see one, you lose the ability to visualize the character any other way.”

So maybe why we don’t post music videos more often is that as roleplayers the words make pictures in our heads that the visuals contradict. Like, I love the image of the absent silhouette but I never envisioned this song as being about a lover. It makes sense; actual dialogue as my son and I are riding in the car en route to the So Cal Mini Con during the summer I was obsessed with “California Gurls:”

KATY: sun-kissed skin so hot we’ll melt your popsicle

SON: What does that mean?

DAD: Well, you know how you have to eat your popsicle fast in the summer because the hot sun melts it?

SON: I think it’s private parts.

DAD: OK, you got me. All pop songs are about private parts.

But I always thought “Something Great” is about the death of a mentor, and the reason I’m thinking about it now is that its personal meaning for me is tied up with Gary Gygax. Maybe it’s the timing of when the song came out and Gary’s passing four years ago today. Maybe it’s lines like this:

I miss the way we used to argue,
Locked, in your basement.

In that I hear my nostalgia-for-things-I-never-knew for the days when arguing about wargames over a sand table was an imaginary haven from the real war in another country. In my mind that time seems to have a purity and innocence that ended after D&D’s success cracked this world open. The war outside was over, to be replaced by dirty civil wars within TSR that were soon to be mirrored by the culture wars in which D&D was the devil. That’s the era I remember, in which the AD&D books seemed already artifacts of a magical time long past.

The video does this well as the shadow moves through the aisles between crates of records and adventure modules. Pulling out any one of them would teach me about how it felt to be alive in a time of magic, and that time had to be now because I was holding some of it in my hand. But I had the sense that the wizards who could teach me how to perform that magic on command were gone, even when I was young and this wasn’t really true.

I’ve been thinking a lot recently about the formation of TSR. I feel I’m old enough and have shared enough of the same experiences that I can put myself into the shoes of Dave Arneson or Gary Gygax or Don Kaye: as an idealist and a hobbyist and a gamer, as a publisher alternately elated or terrified by success, as a father and as someone who would have invested my life insurance into my friends’ dreams if Kickstarter didn’t avert that particular tragedy. I’m not comparing myself to these guys, just saying that having played in a sandbox filled with toddlers I have a little more insight when I roleplay a giant.

So maybe that’s why I hear “Someone Great” as being about the drafts going back and forth that aren’t yet D&D, the pressure to publish because Gary has kids to feed and the tension over whether Dave has creative control and can take his what must seem to Gary like a young man’s idea that there is all the time in the world to get it right :

There’s all the work that needs to be done,
It’s late, for revision.
There’s all the time and all the planning,
And songs, to be finished.

And it keeps coming,
And it keeps coming,
And it keeps coming, 
Till the day it stops

You have to know that I idolized my friends’ big brothers, and that the two things they introduced me to were D&D and the Beatles, to understand why I take what’s basically a lost-love song, “Paint it Black” with less masochism or “1952 Vincent Black Lightning” with less mist in your eyes, as being about TSR’s lost opportunities. For me D&D books and Beatles records were secrets of the world before I was born, beams of dazzling dusty radiance the older kids sometimes let slip between their fingers but I could soak up anytime I wanted by opening the covers. AD&D was that Book of Gold, sure, but so was Hawkmoon with its “terrifying ancient gods of Granbretan” Jhone, Jhorg, Phowl and Rhunga and The Einstein Intersection where Delany’s characters “treat the rise and fall of the Beatles the way we treat the rise and fall of Achilles”. (The fact that both of these are basically Gamma World under the skin rather than D&D explains a lot about me and my romance of lost greatness too.)

My omen that John Lennon had been killed was when, exploring a deserted beach, I saw that someone had written STRAWBERRY FIELDS FOREVER in giant letters on the sand. After a long time alone bemused by this, I came home to the news. All the wonder and dread of that writing in the sand collapsed into a specific sadness: now I will never see the Beatles reunite and play live in concert. I guess I was as self-centered in 2008 as I was in 1980, because I had basically the same reaction to the news of Gary’s death.

Here’s Gygax, speaking to Lawrence Shick in 1991 for Law’s Heroic Worlds:

There is no question that the D&D game was the first of its kind, and from its success there sprang a whole industry… I did the AD&D system to go beyond that. Right now I’m working on something new to contribute to Fantasy Role-Playing Gaming. All of that, however, owes the Original D&D game far more than credit for “inspiration”. The D&D game was and remains the start of role-playing games. Dave Arneson and I have spoken frequently since the time we devised D&D. We don’t plan to collaborate on another game, but just maybe one day he’ll decide to combine talents again. Who knows?

This is as bittersweet with lost possibility, as rich with bruised tenderness, as the point where Lennon and McCartney are hanging out together in New York in 1976 watching Saturday Night Live (there is something sad about a rock star even in life). The two men have been making nice in the press for once about what was good about the thing they built together, and now Lorne Michaels is holding up a check for $3,000 and offering it to the Beatles if they’ll reunite and play a show there and then.

$3K in 1974 dollars seems to me about right for the budget to do the first print run of D&D. What was Gygax doing that night in 1976? Was he watching Saturday Night Live and if so what did it mean to him? Was he a Beatles fan too who hoped or dreamed or somehow knew that there was a possibility John and Paul would really hop a cab together and make it happen? Did he think about calling up Dave: “hey, is your TV on?”

Probably not. At the time it was just a joke that’s only imbued with significance in hindsight, right?

 I wish that we could talk about it,
But there, that’s the problem.

Past Adventures of the Mule

March 2012

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