With more power …

Last month, I got in a shiny airplane and flew ‘cross the waters, this time to Italy, because people were covering the expenses for me to talk about role-playing, as they do.

It was a complicated trip: design consulting at the Narrattiva booth and doing panels at a gaming convention called Play in Modena, as well as a panel at an academic event associated with the con; and then over to Milan for another academic event at the Instituto Politecnico. My presentation at the latter is currently visible here, along with the following panel. I did a lot of this in company with Chris Crawford, whom I enjoyed meeting very much.

But today, I’m posting about a little knockoff toss-it-in activity at the booth during Play, when Lavinia and Stefano and I sat down for me finally to try out the new version of With Great Power … This is the game that Mike Miller decided to do instead of modifying the first version that I talked about in Scratch pad and Dark Omen. It’s a wholly different game now.

Designing a role-playing game inspired by serial fiction in another medium faces a serious problem:

  • The curse of consensual storytelling, which is to say, blither until someone takes over as boss-author.
  • The equally toxic counter-curse of over-scripted fill-in-the-blank, reducing the participants to minor thespian support of what’s already been created.

The solution is not to find a “balance,” as both are qualitatively bad, but to do something else entirely. What those something elses may be is a matter of in-practice experiment, or as some have called it, a dialogue of design. Mike’s work has been an ongoing player in such a dialogue.

So OK, let’s get to this game. What do you do, and for us, what happened? You start by drawing some cards and consulting the results on tables. Now, in just about any other RPG, this would shunt us to powers lists and familiar trope lists like motivations. Whereas here, crucially, what you get from the tables doesn’t go onto the sheet.

The tables give you questions, some of them oriented toward arriving at powers by yourself (There’s a sniper – how do you stop him in time?), others toward motivations or limitations, and still others toward context. Stefano and Lavinia decided to use the option by which their characters shared their initial card draw, to find that their powers were an inheritance and a responsibility – to be defined by them.

As they went on to answer their further, individual card draws, they arrived at a core concept of super-powered siblings marked by their privilege, family tradition of superheroics, and youth, as well as primordial elemental powers – lots of heat, lava, ice, and electricity. I stress these were emergent, rather easily-stated creations given the probing, prompting nature of the questions as well as items on the sheets like describing your “red” [action-packed, exciting] type of thing and your “blue” [motivated, motivating] type of thing. They also each took a Twist that permitted a specific rules-tweak.

I’ll be first to admit that the names we ended up with, Boom Boom and the Samaritan, have appeared in comics before. Fine, that’s how it goes. (In retrospect, and since we set the game in Milan, I should have remembered who was the foreigner and who were the native speakers, and asked them to suggest super-names in Italian.)

I do miss that scratch pad concept, not necessarily in this design, where it wouldn’t fit well, but for its own sake.

Villain creation follows on hero creation, aimed at provoking maximum engaging conflict as well it should. Drawing a bit on Ophite, I posited someone who challenges privilege at a fundamental level, in this case, tapping into an alternate universe in which there are no police or prisons. I didn’t see this place as actually existing so much as possibly existing if this guy could have his way – in other words, his powers derive from the [fact/perception] that this is possible.

What’s fun about that concept is that it looks destructive: when he vaporizes something, it’s because he’s making the world match his vision. So he can’t just vaporize anything, it has to be something he thinks of as “not fitting.” And since his Twist is his connection to the Samaritan (permitting the Villain Player to force  Personal phase), obviously he can’t blast the Samaritan into smithereens, because his vision of the reality we should be living in includes people like the Samaritan in it, contributing positively to it. … But to anyone watching, this guy just vaporized the cop car or whatever with a classic villainous power-blast.

I hasten to add that I did not explain one tiny bit of this to the players. Later in play he delivered enough villain-talk for them to learn his basic goals and ideals, but at the start, all I did was draw the cards, answer the questions, and describe him as the rules require – how the public has seen what he’s done, and what he looks like. I described a black man in a super-operatic cloak whose elegance was made sinister by its ragged lower edge, and whose face appeared weirdly generic as if it were a super-average composite – but which also shifted into demonic visages when he got upset or intense. The players decided to call him the Faceless Master.

My goal here isn’t to teach the rules outright, but to show the degree of detail and specification that they promote in play. Briefly, as with the previous version, play proceeds not in framed/specific scenes but in phases, each with its slightly tweaked form of the rules. Mikes’ rules sheets weren’t easy for me to follow because they packed in every rule in eeny-weeny Eye-Strain-O Vision, although the players used them fine. I felt better with my extra-non-flashy summary I’d scribbled earlier, as follows (VP = villain player, HP = a hero player):

You can see from the “rolls” that dice are now involved – always a roll of one red and one blue six-siders. Nothing about resolution in the game concerns the logistics of how fast do I fly, getting around, or anything like that; such things are subsets of problematic or assertive statements introduced as such straight into play. This is a now I tell what happens game, including the ongoing process of discovering what’s up, and anything about the past that plays into it, as well as what happens now. Therefore the very tricky thing is to avoid just spreadin’ around the consensual storytelling via conch-holding rules.

And at first glance, that’s all the rules do: roll a “main” die to determine the red/blue tone throughout the current phase, and successive speakers similarly roll a red/blue tone to govern the sub-set of activity their character is bringing to it. It’s perilously close to “make a story by improvising, take turns.” (Did I mention that unconstructed story-by-committee-discussion, consensual storytelling always really sucks? The real strength of this design is that it does not rely even a little on plot workshopping, negotiation, or agreement.)

What then are the constraints which make this fun? The core is found in the recording of Fan Faves, moments that anyone happened to like, for which there are nine slots. Once they’re all full, play in phases continues but now plot elements so far and the villain’s plan can be transformed – literally developed, changed, destroyed, altered, whatever. Crucially, heroes’ own components can get a jolt. (As our time was limited, we used six of the panels instead of nine – the only rules change at our table – and it worked well, but only barely. I can see that nine would be better.)

Therefore, systemically, it’s not at all about “will the villain succeed,” as it’s given that either he or she doesn’t, or that if it looks that way by the end of this game, then another story is implied to be coming along to take care of that. This game is strictly about what about these events changed you, and how? In this, it’s faithful to the old design but realizes that goal in a more cleanly and events-dependent way.

How that went: again, given the limited number of Fan Faves, the story was perhaps more laser-focused on the Samaritan and his travails than on really getting to know the Faceless Master’s situation (although enough of that came into play to do its part), or on developing Boom Boom much. However, the payoff is clear in how well the three characters’ individual input and efforts all struck sparks off one another to generate an absolutely unique little (violent and Kirby-dot-filled) drama.

Briefly, the Samaritan and Boom Boom differed in their preferred ranges of carefulness, consideration, and anticipating results of their actions, pretty much as their names imply. Then, when the Samaritan’s roommate and extremely “I must not put you in danger” romantic interest guy, Anton, is indeed endangered, the Samaritan (i) alienates the villain who was trying to find common ground and (ii) starts to agree with Boom Boom (hence Stefano added the “Dark” to the name on the sheet). If I do say so myself, the Faceless Master was both intriguing and threatening, not least in terms of “how do these two know one another,” such that this decision and outcome were in no way planned, imposed, or otherwise railroaded into play, but emerged from it.

  • Consider the love-and-angst scene between the Samaritan and Anton in which Stefano rolled red die high, and thus was constrained to respond to Anton’s heartstrings-plea passionately, superlatively, energetically, and so on – even though Stefano knew this was really really a bad idea from from the Samaritan’s point of view.
  • Did I mention that I invoked the Faceless Master’s personal tie to the Samaritan, thus we got a Personal Phase confrontation between them, of the “join me!” sort, in whispers, as Anton blissfully slept on?
  • The part of the Faceless Master’s plan that succeeded [reincorporated by me] was “Distract opponent,” including “Give Samaritan something to worry about,” and the part that didn’t [reincorporated by Lavinia] was “Destroy institution,” including “shut down the police for good in the region.”

Thus when Anton was endangered by the Faceless Master’s attack on campus security, the Samaritan was enraged mainly because he felt really really guilty … a plot outcome which relied heavily on the above three, sequential rules in action: red die high rather than the blue; using a Twist; two different players choosing what to reincorporate. This is the absolute opposite of workshipping, consensual plot development. Instead, plot (strong plot, causal plot) emerges from different people’s applications of specific rules in a particular unplanned sequence.

So that’s the strength: the cognitive act of how “it all came together” is facilitated by the rules in action without empowering any single player to dictate it, and especially without permitting it to be planned. Therefore the softness of the moment-by-moment rules/resolutions, which border on conch-shared story-turns, become what has already occurred when the reincorporating process kicks in. The process taps very hard into the human ability to “bring it together” in a way which does not rely on simply injecting familiar tropes or reaching around for anything that will do it arbitrarily. It’s low-pressure and high-fun.

I like my systemic experience to be consequential, and I-talk/you-talk tends to blither and succumb to single-person domination, or, as I mentioned, to be subjected to so much structure that there’s no point to playing. My default or most-intuitive design preferences therefore tend strongly toward the more atomic, actions-in-a-scrum range, e.g., Sorcerer, Trollbabe, Elfs, and Circle of Hands. I’ve written some that do that lean in this direction of “my turn, I say what happens” design – It Was a Mutual Decision, Spione, and S/Lay w/Me – although none tilted quite this far. Mike’s done something here that offers not only a fun experience, but also a powerful learning tool about how we engage with and create stories.

Links: Incarnadine Press WGP page

Next column: Stones, smoke, and light (May 14)

About Ron Edwards

Game author, publisher, consultant, teacher

Posted on May 7, 2017, in Supers role-playing and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 5 Comments.

  1. I’m glad you got to play, Ron. Thanks for the insightful review.

    One thing to clear up in the credit-where-credit-is-due department: That key innovation of group story-creation through discrete moments of exchanged authorship was not my innovation. I played Epidiah Ravachol’s Swords Without Master (http://www.worldswithoutmaster.com/swords-without-master/) and saw the stunning power of that process in action. It was like Eppy picked up the technique you call “conch-passing” exactly where InSpectres and The Pool left it in 2002 and refined it into the central component of many clever insights into human creativity and encoded them into Swords Without Master. The new With Great Power: Master Edition is not innovative in some absolute sense; it’s derivative of Swords Without Master, in the same way that Monsterhearts is derivative of Apocalypse World. At least, that’s what I set out to do.

    But it sure is fun to play, and I’m very proud of that.


    • Yes and no. (I say that a lot lately.) Yes, certainly, to the immediate influence from Swords Without Master to you. But the pedigree of the techniques, and their components, has a more complex history. I wasn’t going to get into this in the post, which is why I left off the whole issue of attribution, but I guess I have to.

      In James V. West’s The Pool, and in Jared Sorensen’s InSpectres, the person-specific moment of designated narration is not itself either the framing or resolving mechanism. It doesn’t describe what happened before the players went to the dice, as that’s already established, and it doesn’t itself carry core-outcome power, which is determined by the dice.

      When I talk about conchs, I’m talking about a much larger-scale unit of speaking, in actual play terms. We sit and listen while so-and-so talks, then we sit and listen while other-person talks, then you sit and listen while I talk, and so on. Each speaker takes on pretty much full narration of what’s happening, what happens now, and what happens because of it. In other words, including the resolution mechanics of the events rather than the description of other mechanics’ outcomes. Sequential full-authorship.

      That’s a poor, non-fun way to generate fiction, as it turns out. There’s no such thing as a good conch rule, even if you open it up to supportive chatter or impose sequential requirements. I was excited by Jared’s and James’ work back in 2000-2001 because for the first time in RPG history, rules for narration were escaping that trap, because they designated the authority to narrate but weren’t conchs. And they also escaped the prior attempts toward that end, namely in Amber (1989) and Theatrix (1993), which all love for those games aside, weren’t very good either. Games that went on to mess with this sort of momentary narration include Matt Snyder’s Dust Devils in 2002 and my Trollbabe in 2003.

      However, certain readings-and-uses of The Pool and certain game designs focused on fully empowering speaking alone to determine “what happens” (in Jonathan Tweet’s taxonomy, a Drama mechanic). Ferry Bazelmans’ Soap, Ralph Mazza’s and Mike Holmes’ Universalis, and Jared’s octaNe were probably the most influential at that time.

      I kept an eye on this “family” of design, because it functioned well on-and-off, game by game, but seemed to harbor specific pitfalls. I’d observed that failing to narrate all the way through the outcome of a characters’ actions and responses was the main missing thing in my experiences of games built along these lines, especially when they weren’t strictly framed in plot terms as with most Jeepform. I really think Matt Wilson’s Primetime Adventures went down a wrong road from its original Dust Devils-like form to a less functional Theatrix-y workshopping version in the second and third editions. I also think that Ben Lehman’s Polaris (2004-2005) had introduced way too much negotiation/massage of what was happening.

      I tried my hand in this zone of design at this point, starting with It Was a Mutual Decision (2006) which was heavily influenced by Emily Care Boss’ designs and by Jeepform, with an imposed act/theatrical structure. I reached enough conclusions to go my own way and introduce “forward action, take it all the way through” content to Drama mechanics in Spione (that same year), and if I say so myself, broke some new ground there. I then gained insights from Kevin Allen’s Sweet Agatha and finally went all the way with you-speak/I-speak, full-resolution spoken mechanics in S/Lay w/Me (2009), which I think – and Eppy’s free to correct me – had some influence on Swords Without Master.

      I’m not posting this to say, “Not Eppy! Meee!!” but rather to lay out just how multi-influenced and generational (if that term may apply to units of months and year-or-two) this dialogue of design has been.


  2. Thanks for the breakdown, Ron.

    Looking over that sequence of games, I realize that I had missed two things: 1) For some reason I remembered The Pool and InSpectres as coming after Universalis, chronologically, and 2) I actually played almost none of the games you list from 2003-2009. One session of PTA and one session of Trollbabe, if memory serves. No wonder it seemed to me that the potential of that type of game had been neglected for so long.

    Liked by 1 person

  1. Pingback: SENSOR SWEEP: Indefatigable Passion, Infinite Wells, Consensual Storytelling, and Literary Respectability – castaliahouse.com

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