Monday, April 30, 2012

State Secrets

Game Premise
It is 2213 and the world has changed in a myriad of ways since the dawn of the 21st century, physically, politically and even metaphysically. The seas have risen. The geopolitical lines have shifted. Humanity has begun to reach tentatively towards the stars. Nations are at each others throats and espionage is the name of the game. People capable of manipulating dark matter, a skill believed to be magic in ages past, have started to re-emerge. The world is still recovering from a nuclear conflict over a century ago.

How will you make your way in a world of mysteries, secrets and lies?

Game Overview
I first heard about State Secrets when I started reading Dragon magazine almost a decade ago. I remember then being allured by its promise of over 50 different classes. Recently, now that I have actual money, I decided to pick it up.

Unfortunately, I was disappointed. The mechanics are nothing special, the setting is poorly thought out and a whole bunch of elements, particularly magic and space exploration, seem tacked on without much thought for how they affect the world or how they might be integrated into the setting. The art isn't anything to write home about either, but I'm more willing to forgive that since it's for hard for games with smaller teams and budgets to be able to commission someone to do decent art.

The setting is your standard roll a d20, add modifiers and beat a target DC. The only really notable feature is how flat the progression is. You won't have very many bonuses to things and those you do have will accumulate very slowly. Even your Stamina Damage Rating, the game's hit points, will only raise by a couple of points at most as you gain levels.

It also suffers from a common problem with cyberpunk settings that I like to call 'Africa something something'. Most writers will focus on the United States, maybe one or two places in Asia and Europe. The rest of the world will be an afterthought. Africa in particular will suffer from this and the writer will usually have a paragraph or so about how the entire continent has united or one of the nations rose to prominence. In the case of State Secrets, it's Kenya.

The Character
Step 1) Roll Attributes
State Secrets has 10 different Attributes, generated by rolls of 3d6. If you're lucky enough to roll a 16 or higher, there's a possibility that you may get to increase that attribute by 1-2 points. 10 is the average and 20 is the human maximum. Like I said, the bonuses here are quite flat, so you don't get any unless your attribute is 16 or higher and penalties don't kick in until you get lower than 6.

10, 13, 10, 14, 9, 13, 6, 14, 17, 12 is what I end up with. A roll of 4 for the 17 means that gets bumped up to 19. So now I have to assign them. I think I want a bright and capable character. That 19 goes into Perception and I'm going to put the 14s in Intelligence and Dexterity. The 13s will go in Will and Stamina and 12 will go into Personality. Agility and Movement will get the 10s and Strength gets the 9. That 6 is going to go into Appearance, meaning he's nothing to really look at.

I should note that my Stamina Damage Rating equals my Stamina, so 13. This will increase a couple of points every level until I get to the human maximum of 20. I only get a bonus to Perception, in this case +2.

Step 2) Pick a Character Class
As I said previously, my initial draw to State Secrets was because of the 50+ Character Classes on offer. However, these classes primarily serve to determine which Skills you get to pick, with few benefits beyond that. Admittedly, some get psionic powers or spells. Classes aren't balanced, as some get more skills than others, so they go up levels at different rates, an odd feature outside older editions of D&D or games that seek to emulate that.

I think I'm going to pick a class that isn't technically a class. According to the book Yakuza are members of the Wise Guy class, grunt-level mobsters, with the bonus of being able to pick the Weapon Training: Sword skill. It's practically an exploit!

Step 3) Select Skills
Skills serve to determine how proficient you are at an activity and thus the Difficulty Class you roll against when attempting to perform the task associated with it. Every class gets a bunch of Default Skills and then picks from a list of others.

As a Yakuza, my default skills include your standard gangster fare: Handgun, Connections, Drive Auto, Weapon Training: Club, Street Fighting and Urban Survival . I get a bonus to urban survival thanks to my high perception score and Street Fighting gives me a +1 to initiative rolls.

Now I get to pick 6 more skills. I'm definitely going for Weapon Training: Sword, since that's why I picked Yakuza in the first place. I also want to be awesome at criminal, so I'm going to take Arson, Breaking and Entering and Narcotics. I'll take Drive Motorcycle, because motorcycles are cool. Finally, because paramilitary conflict is the essence of cyberpunk, I'm going to take Urban Warfare.

Step 4) Create Character Background
So, my guy is awesome at fighting and crime, not to mention smart and perceptive. He's a yakuza. I think my character, Kenji Kikawa is something akin to the criminal version of a sergeant. Originally a native of Japan, he was shipped off to the states at a young age to make a name for himself. He's stationed in one of the more disputed towns of the Western Dynasty, essentially everything in the US west of the Rockies fallen to Asian immigrants and now a despotic monarchy. He's in charge of making hits on the token law enforcement presence in town, promoted to his position due to his keen tactical mind and attention to detail. Pretty much ever since he was put in charge, local townspeople are more likely to go to the yakuza than the police for help with their disputes. He has the nickname 'Pigface' after an unfortunate bar-brawl dispute crushed his nose and left him with somewhat porcine features, not helped by his large ears. Even surgery hasn't helped much.

Step 5) Select Equipment
Mt character class also determines my equipment, which often takes to form of picking a number of iterms from certain categories of gear. I get to pick one piece of Survival Gear, which I think will be some Quality Binoculars. My Accessory will be an Ankle Holster. I get to pick up a First-Aid Kit and some Brass Knuckles. I can't be bothered picking through the handguns, so I'm just going to write down Handgun along with 100 Regular Rounds. I get one Speciality Weapon, which is totally going to be a Sword Cane (he's a stylish gangster, if not an attractive one). For my Vehicle choice I'm totally grabbing a Motorcyle. I get 500 Standards spending money on top of all this,

The Finished Product

Kenji 'Pigface' Kikawa
Class: Yakuza

Intelligence 14; Will 13; Perception 19 (+2); Strength 9; Stamina 13
Dexterity 14; Agility 10; Movement 10; Personality 12; Appearance 6

Stamina Damage Rating: 13

Trained Skills: Arson, Breaking and Entering, Connections, Drive Auto, Drive Motorcyle, Handgun, Narcotics, Streetfighting, Urban Warfare, Urban Survival, Weapon Training: Club, Sword.

Gear: Ankle Holster, Brass Knuckles, Handgun (100 regular rounds), Quality Binoculars, Sword Cane, 500 Standards

How I'd Run It
This is probably one of the few games I wouldn't run, I'm afraid to say. Even if I got some strange, inexplicable hankering to run a game in the setting, there are better systems for it.

Sunday, March 25, 2012

Mystic Empyrean

Game Premise
Create, Discover, Become

Once, long ago, the world of Empyrean was whole and going through a golden age of peace and prosperity. But then something shattered the grand cornerstone of reality and the Aether, a mist inimical to existence itself, swept over creation. Now there are only a few small pockets of reality left, realms that fight against the unmaking of everything.

But all is not lost. Eidolons, beings with hearts of Anima, the building block of all things and great powers to match, seek to recreate reality, assembling the cornerstone piece by piece and pushing back the Aether bit by bit. But how shall reality be reformed and how shall the Eidolons be changed along the way?

Game Overview
Mystic Empyrean is a game with a setting that is pretty much a smorgasbord of wonder. Picture infinite worlds, cities riding on the backs of elephants, mountains made of clockwork, floating islands of crystal sailing through a rainbow sky, an entire continent built on a giant tree. Now picture an equally infinite number of races, from sentient dog people to cyborgs to ashen-skinned arsonists with oddly shaped feet. All of these Realms and Nascent races are possible. You, as an Eidolon with a heart infused with the building block of creation, have superpowers based on your emotions, are almost impossible to kill, can shape the world around them and are tasked with remaking reality, thus making you even more awesome than the worlds you explore and the people you interact with.

The game is very much narrative based and makes use of a rotating GM. When a scene is set up, establishing questions are asked in rotation, with the whole party setting the facts and issues. This is probably going to be a turn-off for fans of more traditional RPG players who appreciate the firm hand of the GM (or GMs who like control) but is pretty standard fair for these sort of shared narrative games.

Mystic Empyrean makes use of a resolution mechanic known as a Balance Tool, which might be a deck of cards or a bag of coloured beads. Every action is associated with one of the seven Elements, which are arranged along a wheel. When performing the action you draw from the balance tool, with the result dictating how you get to narrate the outcome. Drawing that element or Anima results in a Perfect Success, the two on either side a Near Success, the two on either side of those a Neutral outcome and the two opposed elements or Aether a Failure.

While there is a lot of emphasis on groups creating their owns realms and nascent, you could easily run an entire campaign based off the ones in the book, which were created by Kickstarter backers (I also backed this game but not quite enough to create content for the game). My one gripe is that a couple details could stand to be a tad more concrete, such as at what point an Eidolon's heart takes so much damage they die or a bit more info on the Aether.

The Character
Step 1) Concept
Because your character's stats are based very much on who they are as a person, having a clear Concept is very important.

I think I want a sort of darker character for this game. Andragi comes from a world where he was a member of the political class, through which advancement could only be made by destroying the reputations of those above you. Andragi excelled at this. When he became an Eidolon he simply adjusted his skill set to a much greater scope. He tends to get recruited by Eidolons who need someone cut down socially or discredited, which can be useful when attempting to influence the politics of a Realm or one of the great factions. He's of a nascent race called the Serureev that appears pretty human-like, except for being somewhat taller and thinner, incredibly long yet graceful eyebrows and hair that is often floor length and comes in a wide variety of shades.

Step 2) Persona Traits
An Eidolon's form is shaped by their personality and talents, the Anima allowing these to manifest as Persona Traits that both change their form and give them special powers. During a scene where a character displays a particularly personality trait, such as acting in a brave or greedy fashion, they get points in that persona. Once they reach seven points they get that Persona Trait at the Superficial Level. If they continue to act in that manner, that trait will get more powerful, but also come to define their entire being, giving them limitations as well as powers.

There are several methods for deciding what Persona Traits your Eidolon starts off with, including a Draft Method by which your fellow players write down traits they associate you with (which probably needs the right group). I'm going to use the Constructed method, the most traditional method where I simply pick four traits to start off with at superficial. Andragi is quite obviously a Gossip, which gives him the Of Many, One trait. This means he's actually composed of a tiny horde of beings, in his case a swarm of prismatic butterflies. He's also Faultfinding, giving him the Infinite Eyes power which lets him open up myriad eyes all over his body that let him see through objects and people. I also see him as somewhat Fashionable well versed in popular ideas and appearances, granting him the Cosmopolitan trait that lets people see him as a friend or confidante unless they're already enemies or have disavowed. Finally, Andragi, shows a lot of Malice when tearing others down, making the Deathly Grin trait appropriate. This gives his eyes a black sheen and also lets him freeze people in place with fear while eye contact is maintained.

Step 3) Balance
Everything, from living things to Eidolons to entire Realms contains a Balance of the seven elements, Fire, Light, Electricity, Water, Stone, Darkness and Air. When resolving an action, an Eidolon may make a number of draws from the Balance Tool equal to the Balance they have in the element the action is associated with. So an Eidolon with 3 fire in their balance who is trying to tear an enemy limb from limb may make up to three draws.

You start off with 1 point in each of the elements and then get an additional point for every persona trait you have associated with that element. Infinite Eyes gives me an extra one in Light (it's about finding the truth), Cosmopolitan and Of Many, One gives me another two in Air due to being about social interaction and Deathly Grin gives me one in Darkness due to its association with fear.

Step 4) Background
This bit here is just your standard character background. So, Andragi comes from a realm where the only form of advancement in bureaucracy is to essentially destroy the career of one of your immediate superiors by finding faults in their methods. The logic is that you need to have a certain amount of knowledge in the area you're critiquing and also will be able to avoid those previous failures. Andragi is more than a bit of a sociopath and thus both excelled at and relished the task of demolishing livelihoods with a few choice words. He even devoted his leisure hours to it, lacking many true friends to do things with. He was so good at doing so, in fact, that he drew the attention of the Great Spirit of air and became an Eidolon. Since then he has travelled all over Empyrean and has been responsible for leading to the collapse of several leaders and regimes. He has become known as the bane of tall poppies everywhere. Like all Eidolons he seeks the restoration of the Grand Cornerstone, but he reasons that those that do so should be able to handle a little criticism.

Step 5) Creed
An Eidolon is also defined by what they believe in and strive for. Their Creed is a belief system that can be summed up in three lines. Whenever they go against their Creed in a substantial way they suffer a Heart Wound, a wound that can permanently scar and disfigure them, possibly leading to major personality shifts.

Here is what I think Andragi's Creed should be”

1) The word is mightier than the sword.
2) Nothing is sacred and everything has its faults.
3) Strength comes from lacking or hiding faults, not overcoming them.

The Finished Product
Andragi, Slayer of Poppies
Fire 1, Light 2, Electricity 1, Water 1, Stone 1, Darkness 2, Air 3

Cosmopolitan, Superficial (Fashionable)
Deathly Grin, Superficial (Malice)
Infinite Eyes, Superficial (Faultfinding)
Of Many, One, Superficial (Gossiping)

1) The word is mightier than the sword.
2) Nothing is sacred and everything has its faults.
3) Strength comes from lacking or hiding faults, not overcoming them.

How I'd Run It
This does seem like it would be pretty fun to run straight, with realm creation, exploring the slowly re-emerging world and ultimately rebuilding reality. Like I said, you could do a pretty solid campaign with just the stuff in the book (races include giant sloths that shit coal to power war machines and puppets controlled by shadow monkeys), let alone the crazy shit your players come up with.

However, I was playing Psychonauts while I read this (if you haven't played it, check it out, it's seriously awesome) and it gave me an idea. You could use Mystic Empyrean to run a game in that style, psychic agents entering people's mindscapes to solve problems and help restore sanity or find information. Your talents and personality gives you powers within other people's heads, each mindscape is infused with its own traits and emotional influences. Only real adjustment needed would be to replace the elements with something slightly less mystical, maybe just colours.

Monday, March 19, 2012

Legendary Guys

Game Premise
The Orb of Ultimate Power is up for grabs. As a Legendary Guy, you seek it. Unfortunately, all the other legendary Guys seek it as well. You're going to have to fight them off in an awesome and spectacular fashion to show that you are truly the Legendariest Guy of all!

Game Overview
I got Legendary Guys in postcard format along with my recently arrived copy of Mystic Empyrean which I'm currently reading through and will do a post on in the near future. Legendary Guys is more of a competitive game than your traditional RPG, but you make a character with broad traits and roll funny-shaped dice, so I say it counts and a good subject for a mini-update.

All rolls are opposed, since you're competing against the other players and the system is dead-simple: roll whatever die your trait it rated at, your opponent does the same, highest die wins.

It is in fact possible that nobody wins a game of Legendary Guys. Since you get one last attack when you're killed, you might get to kill your last opponent. Better hope that doesn't happen when you play it, because that would be lame.

The Character
Step 1) Who am I making?
The card encourages you to steal liberally from pop culture, the only caveat is that your character has to be amazingly awesome. I briefly considered making Daffy Duck the Wizard from this Merry Melodies cartoon, but instead I've decided to make someone even more legendary: President George Washington (NSFW).

Step 2) Traits
I have 10 points to spend on Traits. Traits can have between 1-5 points, the more points in the trait, the higher the die rolled, a d4 for 1 points all the way to a d12 for 5. Once you've rolled a trait in the game, whether to attack another player or in reaction to an attack you can't use it again.

As you've just learned from the video, George Washington was a skilled man. He Could Knife Into Heaven and he can also Kill With a Stare, both traits I'm going to put 2 points each in. He was also Made of Radiation and Ate Opponent's Brains, which I'll put 1 point each in. I also heard that motherfucker had, like Thirty God-damn Dicks, which also gets 1 points. Most dangerous of all, he's Six Foot Twenty, Fucking Killing for Fun, which gets the remaining 3 points.

Step 3) Hit Points
Every time you lose an opposed roll against another player you lose a Hit Point. When you've been reduced below 0 hit points, you're dead. Like all legendary guys, Washington starts off with five.

Step 4) The Venue
The most legendary player gets to pick the venue for the duel. As the only player, that's me by default. I'm going to pick Washington DC, except it's on fire. All of it. I dunno, robots or something started it.

The Finished Product
President George Washington

6'20'', Fucking Killing for Fun d8
Ate Opponents Brains d4
He Could Knife Into Heaven d6
Kill With a Stare d6
Made of Radiation d4
Thirty God-damn Dicks d6

How I'd Run It
Pretty much straight. It doesn't need a GM and it seems like a decent game to play when you've got dice on you and 20 minutes to spare.

Saturday, March 17, 2012

A Dirty World

Game Premise
The world is a dark, dirty place these days. You don't know who to trust. Everyone seems to be holding some kind of dark secret, except for those who seem to be just in it for a quick buck. Even the streets seem filthier and why the hell is it raining all the damn time?

Some folks fight for justice in this dirty world while others seek to exploit it for their own gain. But there's no such thing as black and white and today's saint might be tomorrow's sinner.

Game Overview
Noir is a very difficult genre to get right through the medium of RPGs. This is in no small part due to the fact that it's all about atmosphere and that can be something that's very difficult to pin down through mechanics. In my opinion, A Dirty World is one of those that gets it right. Everything is about your character's personal values and every conflict is about putting those on the line. Sure, you may have a line on your sheet reflecting how you're a detective or that you know astrophysics, but what really matters is what part of your heart and soul are you putting in the conflict. Are you going to try and appeal to the lawyer's better nature or seduce him? Are you going to wave your gun in O'Malley's face and hope he surrenders or rush in, fists swinging? Are you going to patiently work up the evidence to take down the mob or figure out some kind of quick scheme to ruin them? These are all meaningful choices in A Dirty World and all conflicts resolved with the same mechanic.

What's also interesting about A Dirty World is that there's always a trade-off to be made. Every stat comes in a pair. If you want to raise one stat in the pair above tree, you limit the other stat to two dots. Hit the maximum of five and that other stat can't rise above one. Stats fluctuate quite a bit in the game, however, so you might not be limited for long. One shocking betrayal could turn the idealistic DA into a bitter, paranoid mess.

A Dirty World is a One Roll Engine game, which I first covered in my Godlike post. Quick reminder, roll a pool of d10s, look for matches.

As always, the thing I adore about ORE games is their one roll generators of various kinds and A Dirty World's One Roll Legal Problem Generator is simply delightful. One roll gets you a crime and the inevitable tangled web of conspiracy and outrage it lies at the centre of. The fact that they also provide a couple of examples of how to fit the roll results together is always appreciated.

The Character
Step 1) Identities
Before we get started on building the character, I'll outline what I have to work with and my goals. I have 40 points to use, with different stats costing a different amount of points. As you'll see, 40 points doesn't actually go that far.

Now, who am I making? I want a character who strives for the truth, a white hat in a sea of grey. But I also want that character to properly struggle. I'm thinking a tabloid journalist, a guy who means well but is a little bit of a crackpot with a not-so-sterling reputation. Arnold 'Arnie' Paxton is the editor of The Raconteur, originally a forum for returned servicemen to tell their war stories. Many of these were outlandish or outright false in some cases, which gave the paper its reputation. Arnie has branched out into attempting to expose organised crime and corruption, but is held back because of his rag's status, as well as his own slightly unhinged nature.

Right, now that that's out of the way, on to Identities. Identities are the core stat of the game and are also core to who your character is as a person. You use them as the basis of every roll. They come in three pairs, Mental, Physical and Social. A character with high Patience will seek to achieve their goals the slow but thorough way, while a character with high Cunning looks for the quick, immediate solution. A character with high Vigor is tough and physically powerful, while a character with high Grace . Finally characters who are good at Understanding are good at comprehending motives and determining goals, while characters skilled in Persuasion are good at convincing others to support their own motives and goals. You can have certain amounts of both stat in each pair with no problem, but once one of them is raised above three, it restricts the maximum

I get one free point in Vigor to start off with and every additional point in an Identity costs another three points. I need at least one dot in each, so I'm going to start off by spending 15 points to get 1 dot in the remaining five. After that, I think I'm going to put 2 more dots in Understanding, a fairly important skill for a journalist.

Step 2) Qualities
Qualities are still important, but less static aspects of your character. They tend to represent values which are far more malleable and prone to being changed by single events. There are six pairs of these, two pairs being linked to an Identity Pair. When you get into a conflict with someone, be it a battle of wits, an attempt of seduction or a punch up, you're generally attempting to trade off one of these qualities for the other in its pair or, even better, reduce them outright.
Characters that are Generous are able to achieve their goals by giving things to others, while Selfish ones are all about taking and stealing. Demonstration is all about teaching while Observation is all about learning. Courage is used in violent situations where you're at a disadvantage, while Wrath is used when you have leverage against your opponent (suing a gun always puts you at an advantage). You use Endurance to make it through trying situations and Defiance to avoid them Corruption focuses on your ability to deal with lies and base motives and Purity on truth and better nature. Honesty is about dealing with the truth and Deceit with lies.

Each dot in a Quality costs 1 point. I don't start with free dots in any of these, so I'm going to start off by spending 12 points and getting a dot in each of them. I'm then going to sink another two points in Corruption (it helps him figure out the mind of the criminal element) and three points in Observation (investigative journalism).

Step 3) Profession
This is actually something of a misnomer, your Profession is more of an archetype that encompasses your goals and how you achieve them. The main benefit of a Profession is that it lets you trade two particular Qualities that aren't in a pair through their Professional Link. There are six to choose from and they come in opposing pairs, just like stats. The Academic is about imparting information, the Detective finding. The Defender protects from harm, the Thug inflicts it. The Ingenue is all about innocence, the Femme Fatale corruption (note, while both of these are typically female archetypes in noir, your character doesn't have to be a woman to be one).

I'd say that Arnie is a Detective, constantly searching for the truth. This lets him trade points between Observation and Selfishness.

Step 4) Specialities
Specialities represent broad but specialised areas of knowledge you possess. When applicable, they let you perform certain kinds of actions others cannot (you need a pilot to fly a plane, for example) and in other circumstances will give you an extra die to your roll.

Each Speciality costs two points, which funnily enough is how many I have left. I'm going to give Arnie a speciality as a Journalist, giving him an extra die where being a recognised member of the fourth estate would be useful.

Step 5) Secret
In the world of Noir, everyone has a secret. Some of them are just embarrassing, others have the potential to destroy lives if brought out into the open. A minor secret will net you an extra die to your rolls, with greater and more weighty secrets giving you more dice. When making characters as a group, the player to your left knows your secret somehow.

Arnie is a heroin addict. He got hooked on the stuff after he came back from the Great War, as it helped calm his mildly shell-shocked nerves. He's very good at rationalising the addiction, but also understands that if it gets out it could ruin his career and any chance of The Raconteur being taken seriously. I think this counts as a Serious secret, which is in fact worth an extra point. I think it feels appropriate to put this point into Deceit.

The Finished Product
Arnold 'Arnie' Paxton

Profession: Detective (Observation/Selfishness)
Specialities: Journalist
Secret: Heroin addict

Patience/Cunning 1/1
Generosity/Selfishness 1/1
Demonstration/Observation 1/4

Vigor/Grace 1/1
Courage/Wrath 1/1
Endurance/Defiance 1/1

Understanding/Persuasion 3/1
Purity/Corruption 1/3
Honesty/Deceit 1/2

How I'd Run It
The moment I saw this game I actually wanted to use it to run a superhero game. Something along the lines of the amazingly brilliant Marvel Noir line of comic books, street level characters battling in a world of grey. Particularly choice pieces of gear or even minor superpowers could use the Speciality rules. I'd probably give starting characters a few more points (50, perhaps), since competence is fairly important.

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Marvel Heroic Roleplaying

Game Premise
Supervillains are breaking out of the containment facility known as The Raft! The Scarlet Witch has altered reality, creating a world where mutants are in control! Annihilus is waging an omnicidal war on the universe!


Game Overview
There have been a couple of different roleplaying games based on Marvel Comics over the years and Marvel Heroic Roleplaying is the most recent. It was released this year by Margaret Weis Productions, a company that has produced several games based on licensed properties including Leverage and Smallville.

The focus of this game is to directly emulate popular storylines from the comics. The Basic Game comes with the Breakout scenario, the story in which the New Avengers got back together, and Civil WarAnnihilation and Age of Apocalypse are among scenarios that have been announced for future release. It's not just about the storylines, but the characters. Datafiles are provided for 24 different Marvel characters, everyone from Spiderman to Wolverine to Iron Man to Luke Cage to Ms Marvel to the Fantastic Four and half a dozen different X-men.

This will be the first game I cover that uses the Cortex system, featured in all Margaret Weis Productions games. You will generally have a pool of dice of varying sizes. You then roll the dice, find the two with the highest numbers and add together for a final result. If you beat your opponent then you can use remaining dice as Effect Dice, representing ways you have changed the situation to your advantage or damage you've done to your enemy that will allow you to roll even more dice later on. Most of the mechanics involve increasing your die pool or changing the kind of dice you roll. Each Cortex game tends to be differently flavoured around a certain kind of conflict and narrative. While Smallville is all about emulating TV-style character interaction and Leverage about setting up the perfect plan, MHR is all about climactic superhero smackdowns and making the tough decisions superheroes make.

Marvel Heroic Roleplaying doesn't actually have any hard and fast guidelines for character generation as of yet. The idea is that you're either supposed to play one of the 24 characters provided with the basic game or you make a new character using the existing ones as a rough guideline. It's actually not that difficult to make your own character from scratch although I do kind of wish that 1) there was something more concrete to work with and 2) the game came with just a few more characters out of the box, especially since there are a few noticeable absences like Thor, Hulk and Nightcrawler. Actually, that reminds me of another issue I have: lack of statted villains. The game does come with a number of villains to go with the Breakout scenario, but none of them are particularly high profile. No Dr Doom, Magneto, Green Goblin or Red Skull, basically if you don't know who Carnage, Count Nefaria and Sauron (no, not the Lord of the Rings dude, this one is different) are then you're a bit out of luck. I imagine we'll see datafiles on the more prominent Marvel villains at some point, but again, some more out of the box would have been nice.

The Character

Step 1) Who Am I Making?
Rather than coming up with my own superhero, I'm going to use the system to make an established Marvel character. Which character is that going to be? Well, I tossed a couple of options around, before finally deciding on Squirrel Girl, aka the most powerful character in the Marvel Universe ever.

Doreen Green started off as a simple mutant who was somewhat agile, could talk to squirrels and with clever use of her powers was able to defeat Dr Doom. Since then, she's become the centre of a running gag where she takes down some of Marvels' most powerful villains, including Thanos, the Mandarin and Ego the Living Planet. She's also the leader of a team of superheroes based in the Great Lakes region with a constantly fluctuating name. She's one of Marvel's more lighthearted characters and she should be fun to stat up.

Step 2) Affiliations
Superheroes are often defined by how they operate. Some are loners, some work better with a friend and others work best either leading or being part of a team. Your Affiliation Die is the die you basically get to add to every roll and is determined by who you are operating with, whether you're going Solo, teamed up with a Buddy or acting within a Team.

I have a d10, a d8 and a d6 to allocate to each affiliation. Squirrel Girl works primarily in a Team environment, both seeking to join the Avengers in her first appearance and eventually going on to lead a crew of her own. However, her Solo achievements are the stuff of legend, so I'm going to put the d8 there. That leaves Buddy with d6.

Step 3) Distinctions
Distinctions are short descriptors of your character that will allow you to add dice in situations where they apply. When a distinction applies, you may choose to add a d8 to your dice pool or a d4. Why use a d4 when bigger numbers are better? Firstly, you get a Power Point for doing so. These may be spent in various ways to activate special abilities or add more dice to your pool. Secondly, whenever you roll a 1 on a die the GM has a chance to use it as an Opportunity, which means that the Doom Pool, a special pool of dice they can use in a variety of nasty ways, gets larger and nastier, but they also need to pay you PP to do so. Thus it's a great way of building up those points. So for example, Wolverine's player might choose to roll a d4 while fighting a villain using I'm the Best There is at What I Do, representing how he's so sure of victory that he's likely to get overconfident and make a mistake. On the other hand, Thing's player might not need the points and will just add the d8 to his pool when using It's Clobbering Time! They're also just a useful way of giving everyone else the sense of who your character is and how they operate.

I need to define three Distinctions for Squirrel Girl. I'm going to start off by giving her the Cute But Deadly distinction, reflecting that she might seem harmless and silly but is anything but. Friend of the Squirrels represents her relationship with her greatest allies. I'm also going to create the Resourceful Leader distinction, as she's quite smart and capable.

Step 4) Power Sets
What is a superhero without their powers? Power Sets are collections of Power Traits the character possesses like super strength or flight that add dice to pools when used and come with associated Special Effects and Limits. Special effects might give you bonuses to using your powers in certain ways or cool tricks you can perform, while limits will negatively impact your powers in certain situations, sometimes giving a PP in exchange.

I'm going to start off by creating a power set for Squirrel Girl based off her ability to summon and direct swarms of her namesake, called Squirrel Mobs. This will come with just a single Power Trait, Control Squirrels, which I will set at d8. Now I need to add a few SFX and Limits to this. I'm going to add the Area Effect SFX. This lets me affect multiple opponents, adding a d6 to the pool and letting me keep an Effect Die for each one. I am also going to give her Furry Hordes, which steps up the effect die and lets me add d6 when I use the power to create Assets, effects that let me roll more dice later on, in this case the mob of squirrels I have just summoned. For limits, I'm going to give this one No Squirrels Here, which gives Squirrel Girl 1PP every time she chooses to Shut down the power, representing the fact that there are no squirrels to be found.

Now for something a little more interesting. Her second power set, Squirrely Mutant, will have a few more power traits. She will have Enhanced Strength, Enhanced Reflexes and Leaping all at d8, plus a d6 in Enhanced Senses, representing her superhuman ability in those areas. I think this is a great place to create an SFX that lets her pull the shocking victories she is known for. This SFX, which I'm calling It's Canon Now, lets her spend a PP and 2d12 from the Doom Pool to immediately end the current scene on the condition that she's operating Solo. This is normally something restricted to the GM but I think it's the most fitting way of modelling her. Now for some limits. I'm going to give her the Mutant limit, which allows her powers to be shut down by mutant affecting stuff like Negation Collars or Leech's powers, but also gives her 1 PP whenever this happens. I'm also going to give her a limit called Not Avengers Material, where both 1s and 2s are counted as Opportunities in any roll using a Squirrely Mutant power. Note that this will cause the Doom Pool to rise rapidly, something that might cause issues in the short term but gives me a greater chance of being able to use It's Canon Now when I need it.

Step 5) Specialities
A superhero isn't just their powers. They will generally have more mundane abilities as well, such as mastery of Combat, knowledge of Science, Mysticism or the Criminal underworld and even using their talents to Menace their opponents. Specialities are basically this game's version of skills. They are rated at two levels, Expert, which lets you add either a d8 or 2d6 to your pool or Master, which lets you add d10, 2d8 or 3d6.

I think Squirrel Girl is an Expert in both Combat and Acrobatics. I'm also going to make her a Vehicles expert, since she's flown a gyrocopter in the comics a couple of times.

Step 6) Milestones
This is probably my favourite bit. In MHR, characters gain XP by fulfilling character-specific Milestones along the path they're taking in life that often involve tough choices. You get 1xp for actions that come up often, such as Beast helping mutants recover from stress, 3xp for more significant but uncommon actions, like Spiderman taking trauma (like stress, but worse) from a dedicated enemy and finally 10xp for a making a decision that's a turning point for the character, such as Iron Man choosing to either go into rehab or have a total relapse.

I need to figure out two different Milestones and neither of them are going to be completely serious. The first one I think should cover her team history as a Great Lakes Avenger. She gets 1xp every time a team she is a member of changes its name. She gets 3xp every time Grasshopper dies, one of the Great Lakes Avengers' better running gags. Finally, she gets 10xp when a team she leads gains widespread recognition and respect or she's forced to disband it.

The second one will focus on her nature as Marvel's most powerful superhero, Remember That Time I Beat Thanos? She gets 1xp every time another character brings up one of her past victories. She'll get 3xp every time she stresses out a villain using Resourceful Leader . Finally, she gets 10xp the first time she defeats a villain when using It's Canon Now and causes the entire table to either cheer or leave the table in disgust.

The Finished Product
Squirrel Girl
Doreen Green (Public)

Solo D8 Buddy D6 Team D10

Cute But Deadly
Friend of the Squirrels
Resourceful Leader

Power Sets
Squirrel Mobs
  • Control Squirrels D8
SFX Area Attack Target multiple opponents. For every additional target add d6 and keep +1 effect die.
SFX Furry Hordes When using Squirrel Mobs to create Assets add d6 and step up the effect die +1.
Limit No Squirrels Here Earn 1PP if you have Squirrel Mobs shutdown for the remainder of the scene.

Squirrely Mutant
  • Enhanced Reflexes D8
  • Enhanced Senses D6
  • Enhanced Strength D8
  • Leaping D8
SFX It's Canon Now Spend 1PP and 2D12 from the Doom Pool while Solo to immediately end the current scene, narrating the outcome to your liking.
SFX Mutant Earn 1PP when affected by mutant-specific Milestones and tech.
Limit Not Avengers Material Count 1s and 2s on dice as opportunities when using a Squirrely Mutant power.

Acrobatics Expert D8
Combat Expert D8
Vehicle Expert D8

Great Lakes Avenger
1xp when a team you are a member of changes name.
3xp when Grasshopper dies.
10xp when a team you lead gains widespread respect and recognition or you're forced to disband it.

Remember That Time I Beat Thanos?
1xp when another character brings up one of your past victories
3xp when you stress out an opponent with Resourceful Leader
10xp the first time you defeat a villain with It's Canon Now in a way that causes the entire table to cheer or leave the table in disgust.

How I'd Run It
I'd really love to give the Breakout scenario a shot if for no other reason than the idea of an alternate Marvelverse with a different group of Avengers massively tickles my fancy. I'm also going to definitely check out the other scenarios that are brought out, both for the datafiles and because if the basic game is anything to go by they'll be pretty cheap.
This would also be a good medium to try out a comic idea I've had for a while. Anyone who knows me at all knows I'm a massive Spiderman fan, and I've always wanted to see a dedicated 'spider-family' team, if you will, consisting of Spidey, the three Spiderwomen, Kaine, Toxin, Steel Spider and maybe Spidergirl. I've dubbed the idea 'Spinners', since Slingers was already taken by another Marvel book with a good premise but lacklustre execution.