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Thursday, 2 December 2010

Behind The Mask: The Joy Of Random...

The Adventures Of Superhero Girl by Faith Erin Hicks
 "I didn't pick my superpowers, they picked me"
Careers have been made in the comic book industry by being able to dream up new and imaginative superheroes and villains, yet "point-build" roleplaying games expect players to do this - sometimes at a moment's notice - right there at the games table.

Sometimes a player will arrive with a preconceived idea for a character, but more than not - especially if the players are not totally au fait with the superhero world - there's be a lot of umming, ahhing and staring off into space before he or she cranks out a thinly veiled clone of an established, popular character.

This mental constipation can also lead to further frustration and ultimately taint a player's opinion of your campaign before the first adventure has even begun.

And this, for me, is what makes Villains & Vigilantes' random superpower generation system so wonderfully appealing. Anyone can pick up their dice and within 20 minutes to half-an-hour have the outline of a unique character, ready to play.

It's quick and easy, but there also remains an element of choice - so the experience doesn't go to the other extreme and the player feels totally at the mercy of the gods of fate.

Under normal circumstances (and I'll address this at a later date under 'house rules'), each player character gets 1d6+2 rolls across his choice of the five tables of superpowers (powers; devices; magic/psionic items; skills; and magic/psionics) plus a random drawback from the "weaknesses" table.

The player must discard one of his rolled powers and if he wants to drop his "weakness" he has to scrub off a second of his random powers.

Now, of course, the observant among you would have realised this can mean a character ending up with only a single superpower.

Back when we were setting HeroPress up as a play-by-mail game I addressed this very point in the first HeroPress Sauce Book (British humour... HP Sauce... gettit?):
"Whenever someone rolls up a character and then moans: 'But I only got one power! What use is flight?' ... stop and think. If you woke up one morning and suddenly found you could fly would your first reaction be: 'ohhh, boring, wish I could fire blasts of super-heated energy and fry people's skin off..."
You just have to look at TV shows like Heroes, No Ordinary Family or Misfits to know that people with a single superpower can thrive in a superhero milieu if enough effort is invested by the writer/player into developing the character's personality and backstory.

On the other hand, game-wise, this striving for realism is often more an ideal than a true reflection of the game as it relies on the other players not having rolled up Superman or Sentry.

Comic book superteams usually represent a broad spectrum of power levels, but there has to be some degree of compatibility and synergy between team members in a game - no one wants to be the Wonder Twin stuck back at Titans Tower, while the team are off facing Deathstroke or Brother Blood.

This, again, ultimately comes down to discussions between the player and the Gamesmaster; if he genuinely thinks his character is unplayable (or unable to gel comfortable with characters generated by the other players), it's quick and easy to start the random generation process again - rather than the mathematically complex juggling act of point balancing, min-maxing and optimisation that goes into "points-buy" character builds.


[Footnote: I strongly recommend you check the highly entertaining Adventures Of Superhero Girl by the talented Faith Erin Hicks, for a wry take on the idea of superheroes with real lives. It certainly earns the HeroPress seal of approval; I can't praise it enough - just read and enjoy!].

2 comments:

  1. "as it relies on the other players not having rolled up Superman or Sentry."

    That's where point-based character creation works better than random generation. Everyone will have spent the same number of points so will (generally) be as powerful as one another. Thus, no one can complain that they only have flight whilst another character on the team also has flight together with superstrength, superspeed, x-ray vision and invulnerability.

    Also coming up with powers usually isn't a problem - far from it. I have a ton of ideas! It's the history, background, personality and future storylines for the character that take the most time and effort to come up with (and sometimes stay fluid well into the game's beginnings). You need these whatever manner you choose to create the powers.

    Not that I have any problem with randomly assigned superpowers - they can be fun too! It can be even more fun if the player is allows to come up with the form (or effect) of the superpower. Eg. flight could be natural, manipulating gravity, wings, hi-tech device, walking on air, etc.

    BTW, most of my superhero characters were thinly veiled clones of established characters, at least power-wise. Unicorn was a Spider-man/Nightcrawler mix-up, Oak was like Hulk/Thing, Reflux was Iron Man (in a world where characters had natural-based powers). Nothing wrong with them. It's what you do with them that makes 'em special.

    ReplyDelete
  2. "That's where point-based character creation works better than random generation. "

    No, you're missing my point - all I was saying is that it would be unfortunate if everyone else in the group had generated Sentry-level characters and you'd only got, saying, 'improved hand-to-hand fighting' (for example).

    All the major teams (such as JLA, Avengers, JSA, Defenders, Outsiders etc) feature characters with a broad range of power 'levels' and abilities.

    It's only certain structured teams - like the Fantastic Four and Power Pack - who could be seen to have roughly equivalent power levels. But the FF & PP are the exception, not the rule, as this "style" of team also tends to share a common origin story as well.

    Generally I find that point-buy systems, without a degree of randomness, suck. The whole idea of artificial balance is ridiculous and fails to simulate either 'real life' or the comics, films etc that the games seek to emulate.

    To strip it down to ridiculous basics - Players A and B each design 100 point characters: Player A just uses the 100 points and takes no weaknesses, but Player B takes "heavy smoker" for 10 points or "terminal illness" for 50 points, why should Player B's character then have more powers and abilities than Player A? It makes no sense.

    I'm not saying character's shouldn't have weaknesses, I'm saying I don't see how the 'reward' for taking them reflects any degree of verisimilitude.

    ReplyDelete

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