Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Make Mine Marvel (Heroic Roleplaying)!

I think my favorite current RPG has got to be the new Marvel Heroic Roleplaying game by Margaret Weis Productions. This may be because it came out so close to the Avengers movie, and I'm still on an awesome movie high, but I've always had a soft spot for superhero games. Many, many years ago, I used to have the old Marvel FASERIP RPG, and spent a lot of afternoons and evenings in the basement of a friend's house creating characters (and occasionally actually using them). I have a pretty large comic collection, which trends towards Marvel over DC (especially recently, since the reboot). So I like to think I know a fair bit about superheroes and villains, even if I haven't had a chance to see the system in action.

MHRP, like the Smallville and Leverage RPGs before it, runs on the Cortex + system. This probably doesn't mean a whole lot to people who don't know those games, but it's a relatively elegant system. It uses dice from d4 up to d12, which can be a bit confusing at times, but the dice grades help to show a different in degrees of power. What the system seems to do very well, at least from my point of view, is emulate the action flow of comics. Characters are made up of a small set of factors; the most ubiquitous of these is Affiliation. There are three grades of Affiliation - Solo, Buddy, and Team. Each character has a d6, d8, or d10, and one of these goes into each grade. This tells you, and other players, how your character prefers to operate - Wolverine, who likes to do his own thing, might have his d10 in Solo, while Captain America, who is at his best leading a team, has his d10 in Team. Affiliation is probably the most-used factor in rolls, since each character is always doing something either alone or with others.

After Affiliation, each character has distinctions. These are defining characteristics of each hero (or villain). To use familiar characters, Iron Man has a distinction of Billionaire Playboy, while Johnny Storm, the Human Torch, has a distinction of Hotheaded Hero. Each character has three, and if they are made relevant in a scene, if that relevance is helpful to the character (Tony Stark needs to use his money), you roll a d8; if it proves a hindrance (Johnny's rash actions get him into trouble), you roll a d4 and gain a Plot Point - these can be used for a variety of things, like performing extraordinary actions with powers, or finding (or creating) resources.

Each character also has one or two power sets. Each power set consists of between one and six powers, at varying levels; to use Captain America again, he has two power sets, Super Soldier Program (covering his enhanced durability, stamina, reflexes and strength), and Vibranium-Alloy Shield (which has its own durability, and use as a weapon). Each of the individual powers in each set has a rating; some have listed special effects (like the shield's ability to ricochet), and each power set has a limit - which can be used to temporarily disable the set - or even just a single power within the set - in order to gain a Plot Point. The limit mimics the part of comics where a hero's abilities are lost for a short period of time to build tension - a villain catching Cap's shield, or someone dousing the Human Torch.

After powers, there are specialties. Each character has a number of skills; there's no set number, just whatever you think your character should have. You really only get ratings in specialties you excel at, though - there are only two skill levels, Expert and Master. Skills only come up when they might be relevant - Reed Richards being a Science Master doesn't help in an interrogation. Finally, there are milestones; they don't add to rolls, but they do help advance your character; each character has two (or more) milestones, and each has three conditions. Each condition, if met, gets your character experience, and they aren't necessarily met by fighting; Iron Man, for example, has a milestone called Demon in a Bottle; its first condition, which gains him 1 XP, is fulfilled if the character finds himself in a situation where he is expected to consume alcohol. The 3 XP condition is met when Iron Man lies to a fellow teammate about drinking or when he gives a teammate reason to think Iron Man has been drinking. The final condition - which closes the milestone out if it is hit - is worth 10 XP, and is met when Iron Man drinks himself into a stupor or checks into rehab. Each condition fo a milestone advances a character's story, if not a session's plot.

When in a situation that calls for a roll - say, a good old fight between heroes and villains - you rolls a series of dice. You always roll affiliation, and then, if they apply, you might roll a distinction, a power, a specialty, and maybe a stunt or resource (you can find out about these if you buy the game). Two of these dice are your roll, and a third is your effect die; the first two are added together to compare to whoever you're fighting, and the effect die is useful only for its die size - it tells you how much damage you do to your opponent (physical, mental, or emotional stress), among other things. Every 1 you roll is a die that can be used against you by the GM (or Watcher), but every die used against you in this way gets you a Plot Point.

If the description sounds a bit technical, I apologize; I haven't actually played the game, though I would love to, so my knowledge is purely on paper. From what I can see, though, the game seems to be very narrative-friendly. There are no exact details about exactly how much a super-strong character can lift, or what the IQ of Reed Richards is; the power levels are fairly flexible. And characters like Hawkeye can stick around on the same team as Thor, because while their powers might not be as earth-shattering, they are more likely to end up with Plot Points that can be used to shape the scene. The flow of the game seems to be true to the way an actual issue of a comic book would flow, and everyone can participate regardless of power level. It seems to solve the problem of power balance by finding other ways of making the less strictly powerful characters useful.

In any case, I am very interested in the game, especially with the Avengers movie fresh in my mind. Once it comes out on DVD, I'll be looking to watch Avengers, and the movies that lead up to it, in one giant marathon; maybe I'll be able to be playing this game as well.

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Playing Games

I like to play games. Mostly, I like to play video games and RPGs, though I will certainly play the occasional trivia game or board game when given the chance. This isn't a new thing, nor is it particularly unusual; I've been interested in video games since the original Nintendo came out, and in RPGs since I first picked up my 2nd Edition AD&D Player's Handbook about 20 years ago.

Yeah, yeah, this pretty much dates me. Yes, I got a Nintendo when they first came out, and I remember playing the original Super Mario Bros. game for hours on end, though I can't quite recall whether I ever beat it. And it was fun, but only to a certain extent. It was when I invited other people over so that we could take turns playing games, or even simply watch each other play, that I began to really enjoy myself.

Of course, the early Nintendo games weren't much for multiplayer action; you could only have two players, and more often than not you were playing against the other person rather than in cooperation with him. I never found that much fun; I wanted to play with my friends, not against them. I'm not the most competitive person in the world, obviously; I don't like the kinds of feelings that intense competition bring on, and so I tend to avoid them. So I looked, mostly, for single-player games, or cooperative-play games. Contra (yet another massively dated game) was one of the few that allowed people to play together, and I remember a number of very enjoyable afternoons spent playing that with friends.

After moving around several times (and having to find new friends each time), eventually, when I was around 12, I discovered Dungeons & Dragons. Well, 2nd Edition Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, to be precise. I was fascinated by the idea, because it told me that, without a video game system or something similar, I could get a group of friends together and play a game with a story like a video game, but with a lot more freedom and capability to include more players. Since I was the one who discovered the books, I ended up being the first Dungeon Master; I still have some reminders from those very early days. Eventually, I ended up moving again, and playing more, and moved on to different games.

Eventually, I went to college, and while I was there, 3rd Edition D&D came out, as well as the Gamecube (though that was near the end of my undergraduate years). I wasn't a very sociable person in college; for the first year or two, the only person I regularly spoke to and did things with was my roommate. It was having some much-needed friends, and gaming (through a club at school), that helped me to widen my social circle there. Eventually my social group grew to around a dozen or so people, among them my roommate, several people from my junior year dorm floor, the other guys in my senior year apartment, and people met through various advertisements on campus for gaming, as well as a few people who showed similar interests in class. By the end of my stay at college, I felt like I belonged there, which is something I had been lacking.

After college, I felt listless, unmotivated, uninspired. I moved back in with my parents, and tried a number of things, but nothing seemed to hold my interest. I made few social contacts, and the few I made were fleeting at best. Eventually, my family got a dog, Merlin, and while he was a constant companion, his interest in games was a little less complex than mine. Eventually, after some severe issues (which I won't go into here), I was diagnosed with, and treated for, severe clinical depression. I ended up going back to school, but the connections I made in my undergrad years were gone; I didn't live with, or really work with, my fellow graduate students, and so never got to know any of them, at least not really. My half-hearted attempts to reach out to other students never quite seemed to make an impact, and they still don't. Lest anyone think I am blaming others for this; I'm not; I'm just very bad at making friends and other social connections

So, I play games. Mostly, these days I play online games; after a number of years playing World of Warcraft, I stopped playing that; nowadays, I'm into other things, like Star Wars: The Old Republic (at least for the time being), though I am looking into other games like Guild Wars 2, or maybe A Secret World. These games are the main way that I connect to my friends across the country, who I get very few chances to see in person. They allow me to connect with people I care about, and have fun with them. I wish I could find a group, either online or in the area, to play RPGs with, but my luck there hasn't been so good.

Games are fun. They are one of the ways we connect with other people, and have fun with them. Games can have meaning, as well, even if that meaning is entirely fictional; playing a rebel in a game world conquered by bad guys feels like it has meaning, even if that meaning isn't in the real world. They give us a sense of accomplishment; being the one to deal the last blow to a dragon, or solve the last piece of a complex puzzle, is a great feeling. Games are, in some ways, more appealing than real life, because games have clear objectives: Do this quest. Save that princess. Bankrupt the other players. So is it any real shock that I often find games to be more interesting and enjoyable than real life?

After all, I can't slay a dragon in real life.

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

The Return of the Mass Effect

After Mass Effect 3, I have again had Mass Effect on my mind; with
that in mind, I whipped up the following, though I doubt anything will
ever come of it.
The year is 2186.
In 2185, rogue Spectre Saren Arterius, along with his allies the geth
and the entity Sovereign, assaulted the Citadel; only the brave
sacrifice of the first human Spectre, Commander Shepard, defeated
The threat of the Reapers has been lessened by Shepard’s sacrifice and
the efforts of the Normandy’s crew. But the galaxy is still
threatened, from without and within. From the separatists of Cerberus
to the mysterious alien Collectors, from the synthetic geth to the
strange vegetative intelligence of the Thorian, many things lurk just
beyond the galaxy’s horizon.
You and your team have been called upon. Can you hold the line?
This is a game set in the Mass Effect universe, in a timeline that
diverges from that of the games after Mass Effect 1. It will use the
Mass: the Effecting conversion of the New World of darkness system
(this can be found at http://wiki.rpg.net/index.php/Mass:_the_Effecting).
The characters the players provide should form a team, whether that is
a small mercenary company, a planetary exploration crew, a team of
galactic scouts, or anything else that seems to fit in. For those
unfamiliar with the Mass Effect universe, a helpful source of
information is the wiki, which can be found at
http://masseffect.wikia.com/wiki/Mass_Effect_Wiki. Let me know if
you’re interested.