What medium and idiom hath wrought
Posted by Ron Edwards
Now for my next trick, which is to express or interpret Intruder via the concepts and mechanics across many role-playing games. It’s not a trivial comparison, as he’s based on very situational and preparatory concepts: “did it thirty minutes ago,” “crazy prepared,” “knew all about that,” “investigated and surveilled it all better than you did,” “stole your power,” and that potential mud-stomper of all dramatic conflict-of-interest, mind control. So it’s not just about whether he wields gravity or lightning powers, or how many guys he can take out with one zap. How does role-playing logic deal with this kind of content across games, or rather, what different forms of logic are employed across them?
This is the fifth in my series of posts about Intruder, a “villain protagonist” created by me and Scott LeMien last year. The previous posts are Intruder alert, “I Am I” (which includes the comics), Forms and features, Rough and ready, and Oh noes. You may have noticed in them a certain irritated defiance toward many, many positions and details of pop culture concerning superheroes and comics, and this one takes it further. If you “love me some superhero games!” then maybe you should stay away.
Intruder did originate as a role-playing activity, although the means, Supervillain You, may or may not be an RPG (latest version). Whether it is or isn’t, I don’t really care, but these features are at least relevant:
- Your character is created according to a step-by-step rubric
- The character’s abilities and situational features are rated quantitatively
- The character’s successes and failures are determined by which abilities they’re using filtered through a dice roll.
Therefore “weird” or “story” oriented as it may be from a hobbyist perspective, it’s very far inside what anyone outside the hobby culture perceives as this activity, and may be compared with other titles.
So! Here at the start you see Superhero 2044, which is currently cited as the first published superhero comics RPG (1977, by Gamescience Inc). As with many of the earliest games, it was first released as a set of pamphlets with or without a box and soon bundled into a softcover book (1978, slightly retitled Superhero ’44, self-published by the author, Donald Saxman). Click on the cover image to see my pass at Intruder in the 1978 version. The second page of the sheet is designated specifically for villains, and for this game, that means (i) time & scheduling for (ii) doing crimes. (I confess it may not be a very educated attempt; I am not very far up the learning curve for the game. Also, the extensive finances and expenses would be figured out with the Referee’s help.)
In role-playing, a sheet is not a portrait, it’s an instrument: you use it. And like an instrument, the fact that it can make a particular sound with particular qualities is not sufficient to experience or to understand the music you produce with it.
Therefore, let’s consider what we know going in (he “is” this, he “is” that); what we can manipulate, or better, express with the explicit point mechanics; and what “comes out,” if you will, in terms of what happens and what results. Superhero ’44 focuses mainly on a character’s profile of activity and distinctive external circumstances rather than on “how strong is he” alone. In fact, the quantitative differences among characters’ personal attributes are few and simple compared to the metrics for what they spend their time doing, and how well it’s gone so far.
The other earliest superhero games, as with almost all RPGs of this period, are similarly nuanced in publication dates. Although ideally for this purpose I should use the earliest version of each, I’m using the ones that I happen to have: Villains & Vigilantes (1978/82), Supergame (1980/82), and Champions (1980/82). The Official Superhero Adventure Game (1981) is inexcusably left out because I don’t own a copy.
Click on each cover image to see the Intruder sheets for:
We can geek out in the comments about the (significant) differences among mind-control rules or certain choices I made. Here, I’m aiming at broader comparisons.
Lesson 1: there is no such thing as compatibility. Comparing RPGs isn’t merely currency exchange, and the character is not a constant that you merely shift across different numerical skins from game to game. This is a lesson rather than a reminder, because during this period and into the next decade, RPG culture insisted upon this very thing: that all play was “compatible,” and indeed, that algebraic conversion was a design feature to strive for.
You should shitcan that notion right now.
- The paired definition of “hero” and villain” ranges across rigidly different in principle but not mechanics in V&V and Supergame, differently-constructed mechanics for Superhero ’44, and finally to completely-unconstructed in Champions. I stress that not only what these terms are differs among the games but also that how they are designated directly impacts play; therefore I built Intruder as “Evil” in V&V and as a “Villain” in Superhero ’44.
- The actual or relatable identity of the person ranges across setting-specific and mechanically-different designations in Superhero ’44, to “it’s literally you!” in V&V, and to a wide-open “it could be anyone” in Supergame and Champions.
Lesson 2: what are all these points and numbers, anyway? Their precision isn’t what it looks like. Examine how they all require extensive real-person commitments and judgments, regarding the resulting imagined events of play.
- Despite these games’ mathematical complexity, the numbers are minimally representational. All the games require extensive explicit individualizing and tweaking in terms of a given textual rule’s precise expression in play. Superhero ’44 doesn’t even include a powers list in the rules; you just “say” what they are; Supergame describes the powers’ effects in its brief list as if the reader already knows what they do from the comics, and the reader is expected to construct a desired power from several of the listed effects; Champions includes the significant feature of relevant special effects, as opposed to “skin;” and V&V requires judgmental adjustment of every power’s extent and utility, both in general and also based on how many powers you have (more effectiveness for fewer powers, less for many powers).
- Different as these games are, they all share the distinct absence of randomized personal attribute scores, which were a staple of almost all other RPGs of the time, in fact all of them that I know except The Fantasy Trip. The limited randomization in V&V powers is more of a springboard than a determinant.
Lesson 3: how is everyone playing expected to relate to the fiction, both the one they make through playing and the one they appreciate as inspiration? There’s a non-trivial overlap between “how does my guy fit or not fit into the society he’s in” and “what am I here to say and do in this activity.” I suggest as well that these games share a strong skew toward “we’re here to make some comics of our own!” as opposed to celebrating representational fandom. But because they share that skew, they differ profoundly in the specifics.
- Although all of the games pay lip-service to playing in “any” setting, Superhero ’44 presumes its textual setting in the titular year and in its fictional location; V&V operates at the extreme other end in presuming that this is the players’ real lives approximately right now; Supergame doesn’t address the issue; and Champions leans toward the contemporary comics model of being “in our world” without much concern for alt-universe definitions or justifications.
- The biggest issue is a player-character’s relationship to legally-defined crime: in V&V, Good/Evil are defined strictly and only as upholding vs. breaking the law, specifically the 1978 New York Penal Code; Superhero ’44 is almost as rigid including a grimly explicit randomized list of what a villain might be up to or what a hero might try to stop; Supergame requires “good guys and bad guys” without being too specific about what they are; and Champions is so agnostic regarding “hero” and “villain” that it amounts to intentional DIY, with its write-ups leaning toward conflicted heroes and sometimes-sympathetic villains.
- Rules for social standing, income and expenses, lifestyle, use of time, obligations – these are highly quantified in Superhero ’44, as you can see on the sheet, indeed practically the whole game; V&V imposes them as a constant quantified concern although not as formally; whereas they’re completely presumed and non-mechanical in the otherwise quite-quantified Champions and Supergame. All the games except Champions, incidentally, reference financial rewards for capturing criminals.
- Revisiting “you” as hero in terms of priorities and identification; Superhero ’44 and Supergame lean toward investing personally in good strategies to win fights (albeit with very different variables); V&V takes its premise of the actual-you as aspirant hero very seriously, to the point of encouraging real-life self-help to get into better shape and to be more ethical/law-abiding; and depending on one’s reading, Champions adds the dimension of empathy via a highly personal array of sympathetic troubles for a character who is not you.
- Relationships are explicit as Hunteds and DNPCs in Champions, which can be quite nuanced, e.g., Intruder’s AI could be designated as either or even both; they’re not formalized at all for V&V, but they’re not absent, given the very strong fictional context for them (i.e., your own real life, for a hero character); and they’re effectively absent in Superhero ’44 and Supergame.
Lesson 4: as I mentioned above, considering situational and plot-power powers as opposed to the magnitude of energy zaps, Intruder’s concept really brings out which games permit or even elevate such things as preparation, insight, lateral thinking, and sudden reversals.
- Superhero ’44 does this by highlighting what a character does day-to-day and even hour-by-hour, as opposed to what is happening to them by flying in the window or just “showing up somehow.” It’s almost more of a daily planner than a game. One’s stated details even affect the metrics, which factor into the difficulties and effects of the rolls. V&V focuses on immediate personal effectiveness, but it does feature fluctuations in Charisma as “not like the other attributes” (in this, it’s similar to its contemporary RuneQuest), and a lot of in-play situations are affected by using Charisma, one way or the other. Its only other nod to player-framing devices is the Cosmic Awareness power.
- I have my suspicions that Supergame has emergent properties along these lines, possibly even influencing players to go on to author Champions, which is very strong in these terms. It’s the one game that doesn’t pre-suppose “crimes are being committed and you try to stop them,” so you need some other means of framing a character’s activity of the moment. Its Luck/Unluck and Presence both operate as significant orthogonal subroutines, to the point of reshaping whole situations on the fly; depending on how they’re played, the forward-affecting skills like Detective Work and Security Systems may operate as within-play scenario-preparation; and the Disadvantages are essentially a checklist for what the character’s topics-for-therapy list looks like.
- All of these games acknowledge intrinsic problems and limitations of powers and, implicitly or explicitly, of what might be called the daily grind. As I see them, one can’t even process what the rules are saying without these features firmly in place, mentally, and carrying out any situation in play pretty much by knowing “And this is going to make my life more difficult!” in addition to the logistics of battling Mucus-Man or whoever.
Given both the similarities and the startling diversity of what is actually on the sheet per game, it is perfectly sensible to ask, for each, What do you play this for?, and also sensible to expect completely different answers.
Next post: More role-playing game sheets! Looking at Intruder via the big-hair 80s superhero games and their relationship with comics