Not a dream
Posted by Ron Edwards
I recently had a chance to try playing some Morpheus, a role-playing game from 1989, written by Devin Durham, self-published under the imprint Rapport Games. As is often the case, we borked the rules horribly and in re-reading them I said, “what on earth were we thinking, it’s totally clear right here,” but now I think I get it pretty well. I’ll be giving it another shot at the next opportunity.
What? Another totally obscure RPG, like that Heroic Do-Gooders thing in The game you never heard of? Yup. I love them. I have shelves of’em, I’ve played most, and plan to play them all. This one makes a lot of historical sense: it was published in the same year as Erick Wujcik’s Amber, and in the same spirit of pure experimentation coupled with blazing faith in others’ creative integrity. For those who’ve followed my role-playing writings in the past, you know that I think 1989 was a watershed year and not in a good way. The first problem was Advanced Dungeons & Dragons 2nd edition, and the second was Shadowrun. Their publishing effect was to force RPG design and commerce into an extremely narrow procedural, physical, and social space; and as far as the conceptual framework and creative habits of gamer culture is concerned, I consider the effect to be similar to the K-T meteor strike. Amber, and in a different way, Mike Pondsmith’s original Cyberpunk were like the last wonderful species of the Cretaceous just prior to the event. Morpheus is one of them too, sadly unrecognized.
On to the meat. The first thing is that I minimized, even tossed aside, the game’s conceit that the content is dream-park play among a set of unnamed characters in a science fiction setting. This conceit, called “one-step-removed” by a friend of mine, is an uncommon but consistent design feature throughout the history of RPGs which is, for the most part, remedial – it’s attempting to get players out of a counter-productive over-identification with the characters which makes them over-protective and under-committed to the imagined events. It’s a great topic to discuss some time but as I say, I minimized it because it’s not that important and moved on. I also focused things a bit by requesting we stay in superhero comics territory, particularly of the freewheeling and not-very-justified kind, instead of the genre mash-up implied by the rules (I mean, superheroing of this kind is a mash-up already).
What do we find then? That one’s character is built from Dream Points. You get a bank to start, you spend them on powers, and you get more. You’re yawning already: so how is this different from Champions, and the horde of games spawned therefrom? This is how:
- The term “Power” is used for almost anything your character actually does, including movement past a very minimal base amount, or capturing anyone’s attention via dialogue for any reason. Everything with an in-fiction effect requires a Power to be used. It’d be better termed “action.”
- Powers are used up – either they’re bought with uses-per-day (which is expensive), or you buy charges which are gone forever once used.
- Powers are invented (constructed from a short list of components) and bought on the fly, at any point during play.
- Powers may be dismantled and returned into one’s Dream Pool bank, at 50% return.
- Dream Points are passed out thick-and-fast to the players during play.
- Powers may not be upgraded with Dream Points, only with their special subset given out at the end of a story arc.
Therefore a great deal of the Dream Points you spend, particularly for bigger/effective impact, are gone forever, and Dream Points are flowing into your bank all the time. See what I mean? Most of the DP spending and character activity are not an edifice one is building, but a wave-front one is riding. The points aren’t spent to have and keep powers, they’re spent to make up and use powers, and not in hermetic concentration before and between play, but in the moment, situationally, during play. Which puts this game right in the same design space as what I described for the Champions Vari-pool in What does this power do?, and for Scratch Pad in With Great Power … in Scratch Pad. One can build permanent stuff into one’s character, but it’s expensive at the outset, can only be done with points gained upon the arc’s end (Survival Bonus) and making those features bigger is done between arcs rather than during play. Most of what we see him or her do is easy-come Dream Points converted into easy-go Powers built and fired-off on limited-use
The core of play is therefore “character concept,” a much-abused phrase in role-playing parlance, here synonymous with the under-rated term “special effects” in early editions of Champions (see the breakout PDF in Math is not hard). The mechanism for that core is a currency which does not model anything in play whatsoever, but fuels one’s input into play. This is a remarkably radical thing to see in 1989, and it’s no wonder the game relies so heavily on the one-step-removed device – without it, players would be forever asking shit like “but how strong is my guy when I don’t buy Force.” (which is a lot like asking “how strong is Superman between issues of the comic”)
The game is also historically on-the-spot with its grotesque and laborious construction of combat to-hit and damage rules, but without going into that, it also features an interesting device which focuses attention on in-the-moment Powers-making all the more: simultaneous damage for all material attacks after everyone’s mixed it up. That means (i) no physical hit pre-empts any other, and (ii) bulking up on new powers right in the middle of the hit-resolution step is a really good idea. That latter also means that successful play absolutely relies on applying the limited concept for the character widely and flexibly based on the specific situation. In other words, what good super-powered comics do in order to be good.
The bit we did was pretty undistinguished as fiction, although I do give credit to all four players for diving in with me: Abram with the Chameleon, Tim with the Gargoyle, Ralph with Johnny Shock, and one other person (Jason?) with the unnamed portal-opener character. What they did get, and it’s really what I was most interested in seeing, was the wave-front feature, which everyone agreed was sound as
a dollar actual money (whatever that might be). If the fiddly point-structure and the humpbacked combat mechanics were streamlined and constructed into an easy-use device, this game would blow the doors off super-powered play this very day, let alone twenty-seven years ago.
It’s a short post for a reason. It’s high-test high-density material, and I want some discussion. This one and the posts I’ve linked in it, and more generally the 19 posts to date in the “Supers role-playing” category, are starting to gel into a major design manifesto for this exact idiom (genre, if you like). I’d like feedback and thoughts, mention of play-experiences, genuine input about it.