Oddities and experiments
Posted by Ron Edwards
Here’s the ninth post in my series about Intruder, an anti-hero or villain protagonist created by me and Scott LeMien. I’m in the middle of applying or expressing its concepts in terms of historical superhero role-playing games’ rules.
The previous posts are Intruder alert, “I am I” (includes the actual comics story), Forms and feaures, Rough and ready, Oh noes, What medium and idiom hath wrought, In the Eighties, and A fearful symmetry is born.
Let’s nail down the point: that role-playing games’ rules are not skins. You don’t convert or translate across them. They are instruments and therefore how they’re designed fundamentally affects what you do when you play. Further, or then, what you do with each specific application within that design also affects what you do when you play, and finally, what you do in the exact moments of play becomes what you have played. Therefore both the characters and the outcome (“story” sensu lato) that you and the others in your group create are a function of the instrument you’ve used very much in the same sense as music.
The games I’m looking at in this post are all small-press publishers, although that doesn’t mean much, as I don’t know what else you’d call the early Hero Games or Palladium Press; perhaps designated small-press in hobby terms, which is like talking about slightly-varying goldfish in same tank. However, that said, their distinctive virtue is that they don’t even bother being generic or general, as if they figure that’s been sewn up and they might as well be idiosyncratic. Every author is clearly reflecting on superhero role-playing experiences and previously-published rules. Therefore working up this Intruder has a personal feel for all the games in this post; it’s like seeing what someone else would find important about him.
Guardians (1993, Starchilde Publications), not to be mistaken for a recent game with the same title, is one of several interesting or ambitious concepts butchered by the notorious “Gideon,” including the painful mechanics inflicted on those concepts. In this case, you can tell someone really tried to get some love of superhero comics onto paper, including some effort put into the accompanying comics pages and stories. They look oh-so-80s, for sure, but that doesn’t mean they were bad or badly done. I can’t say the same for the core game mechanics, which are kinda wretched due to the house system (ask me – I played it and Justifiers, thank you).
However, the super-powers material offers a good look at the play-and-design culture of the early 1990s: if you played and knew V&V, GURPS: Supers, and Champions very, very well, then however your group kicked their tires and prioritized this-or-that structural feature, then that’s what your own published game turned out to look like. It’s not a trivial or dismissive point – that context was a real well-spring of play-baked superhero/powers game concepts.
The resulting sheet shows that Intruder is rather effective in his “between the panels” “work-around” rules presence. I didn’t bother to calculate the point costs because they are really tiring, but the mix of control and losing control, and the big, to medium, to immediate applications for his “one step ahead” concept is surprisingly solid. A couple of details to clarify include that Telepathic Projection is Mind Control, and that Probability concerns situations, Evil Eye concerns others, and Luck concerns yourself. That latter combination is genuinely terrifying; unlike (for instance) Heroes Unlimited, Mr. Punch’Em and Ms. Flyer-Blaster are going to have a tough time fighting this guy.
I was therefore a little bummed that, although the heroes and most NPCs may choose from a fairly wide array of concepts, “villain” is a single concept all by itself. That matches the setting content, which focuses tightly on heroes’ image/society conflicts, so villains are vaguely “criminals to fight,” crazy schemers or robbers without much message or social role. Looking it over again, this aspect of the game – and everything about it, really – are a 100% match to the odd/half-good comics title Hero Alliance of precisely the same time period, discussed in Striking twice, some day.
Heroic Do-Gooders and Dastardly Deed-Doers (1997, HDG) was previously discussed here in The game you never heard of. As discussed in the post and including some page scans, its explicit concept of Earth Now is the single best presentation of this concept in role-playing, and it’s very important for Intruder. Determined to do that, I had to cheat a little and reverse the rule for “Spy” that required Lust and disallowed Honesty.
As another “our Champions” game, it is incredibly quirky with perhaps the most detailed fine-grained point system and derived values involving square roots in any role-playing game … yet manages actually to look playable and even rewarding, if you are only a little bit insane. (The humorous text is really, really dated but still hilarious here and there … Greed is defined as “Republican,” and a very good Smarts score is described as “TV sitcom pets.”)
Intruder, again without precisely calculating points because the game’s currency is
insane detailed, is more difficult than I expected. It is very strange that the game includes no Mind Control power, or even Telepathy and related things, because it does include a lot of odd and intrusive abilities. You’d think that a powers list that includes two ways to switch bodies with an unwilling person wouldn’t flinch at little ol’ mind reading or mental puppetry, but I have to conclude that the authors simply ejected all such stuff from their concept of suitable play for the game. So I’m forced to “triangulate” on his powers in the same way I did for a couple in the previous post.
The orthogonal mechanics (the Luck characteristic and the Cheating Fate power) seem to be the key, augmented by a kin-group of powers like Recognize Flaw, Unrecognize Flaw, and Power Impersonate. One might even invoke the Gizmo subroutines as a feature of the latter. The result is a very improvisational, rules-rattling character, and his “real” powers are hard to put together and may have to remain abstract, which I don’t think would work too well in the gut-punching, bullet-piercing, confrontational type of play that’s explicit in the rules, unless the many skills’ results were honored as significant. Also, what is the AI? It can’t be another character; the race/class structure is very fixed in this game and doesn’t really allow for it.
Brace yourself now for Stuper Powers! (1997, Unstoppable Productions). It helps that I’ve played it, so I know that its ridiculous and often disgusting powers are more viable in play than they look on paper. I’d forgive anyone for looking at the rules and saying, “OK, this is just a joke and not very funny; pass.” If you do that, though, you’ll miss the meanings of the little clock icons and numbers, because there’s an actual system here, not just trade-around talking.
It’s related to my point in Pinky fingernail o’doom that “dumb” heroes are often quite excellent and, in the moral crunch, mean more than sensible-solid ones. This game goes all the way with that, to the point of offensive triviality, so that you really have to earn your hero-dom, if you can. It also has a good if flip discussion of super bad guys, including the recommended option of playing them entirely effectively with “real” powers, so that only the heroes are saddled with the funny/dumb ones. A GM is perfectly justified, then, in picking up Intruder exactly as he appears in the story to be an NPC adversary, and he just does what he does, and does it well, no rules necessary beyond the ordering of actions and events.
As I recall from play, though, the temptation to go with the silly powers for the villains too is pretty strong, partly because my own mind-set favors “making your nonsense work.” It helps that the Intruder-worthy options are not only valid in concept but even formidable. Player-character heroes get three stuper powers, so I don’t feel wrong at all in assigning him five ((see the linked sheet). These afford incredible power over others’ turns and actions, so think of how they’d translate into most RPG rules, and shudder.
Godlike (2001, Hobgoblynn Press, later Arc Dream Publishing) – this takes me back! I played it in a highly receptive, experience-a-system frame of mind.
It’s set during World War 2, so how would that work? I’d initially thought it was simply out of bounds for Intruder, but then I began thinking about what he’d hate – the American banks’ support that effectively floated the Nazis into power (the “recovery”), the overreach of surveillance and the utility of spy fever to authoritarian interests. If he’s thirty-five years old in 1941, then he would have been twenty-three in 1929, which is an almost perfect parallel to his situation in the modern day.
I can see an interesting and disturbing question for Intruder, too: is he in favor of the Manhattan Project, or trying to expose it and shut it down?
I’ll admit that my sheet is pretty crap, as I didn’t actually tally points or (more significantly) dope out how high and wide every single Talent should be. It could be done but I’m not going to invest that heavily until I get the chance actually to play. Aces and Jinx together are a satisfyingly nasty combination, more battle-effective than the equivalents in many other games. I call attention to the excellent Sidekick, which is an invisible servant and includes a Bad Dog option, so that nails that particular aspect down nicely.
The following two games were developed via participating at the Forge, but – and I am being very harsh here – they both suffered from the status games that were infecting the place in 2005 or so.
Capes (2005, Muse of Fire Games) is tough to discuss. I frankly dislike the game and consider it a design disaster, as well as having played a role in the negative conformist swerve of “indie-ness” in role-playing hobby culture.
However! The character creation is outstanding. It’s called “click and lock”, using the paired components you can get here. You click by putting two together and lock by crossing off three things. The options are really thoughtful and superior work. As a creative device for any superhero RPG, I recommend drawing sheets at random from left/right sides, pairing as you go. You could try doing it several times and then choosing the one you like best, but even a single draw typically pops really well.
For Intruder, one of the two sides is obvious:
In isolation, the candidates to cross out are Read Minds and Project Sensations. But I might have to keep one or more depending on the match I choose, because I only get to cross off three total. For the other half, there a lot of good candidates. I considered Guilt-Ridden, Neurotic, Psychotic Loner, Older But Wiser, Curmudgeon … none of them are full fits, but that’s the point, since you get to cross things off, and the remainder is often quite good.
I narrowed it down to two for which the crossing-off options were particularly productive. Puppet Master is the most literal match and also more relationship-oriented than the name implies, but Crusader matches the motivations perfectly and only has one cross-off, allowing the Mind Reader side to be customized better. The result is in the linked file (click the game cover).
With Great Power … (2005 version, Incarnadine Press) has a less negative but also fraught history with the Forge, and the author ultimately abandoned this version. I discussed its system features in Scratch Pad and Dark Omen.
Here, I’m using the villain rules which requires retconning: I would have had to choose him from my Scratch Pad Rogue’s Gallery because he fit well with the gestalt (the Plan) created by my list of one feature each for the heroes. Then, reversing the order, we find that Intruder is doing X (the Plan) which either coincidentally or deliberately threatens one feature each of the heroes we’re interested in.
Rather than work all of that backwards by making things up to create an illusion of causality, let’s just accept that the features of the Plan came about that way, as taken from the comics story. His Rogues’ Gallery Entry looks like this:
- Obsession: Change (which would be one side of our game’s Strife, Hope/Change)
- Description: Economic ideologue, master of espionage/sabotage (National scale)
- Aspects: Brutal Mind Control (Power Asset), Assistants as Surrogate Family (Minion Relationship)
Unfortunately, the “Plan” section of the rules was never playtested and I found the sheet difficult to conceive using because the paired Struggle design for heroes doesn’t make sense for the villains. My version here is best understood as an attempt. You can see that it includes targets for Devastation from Raxxus Xxan and Crusader, but also for his own vulnerabilities, which he might have to sacrifice for the sake of the Plan.
The next games might be called “post-Forge,” with recognizable details of its vocabulary and perspectives on play (sometimes distorted), but more directly influenced by cultures & practices of other sites and communities.
Metagene (my version is pre-publication, 2015, Imperfekt Games) is one of many games whose authors sought to distill the best of Champions with the best of Marvel Super Heroes into a new system. That’s a potent goal, and in this case results in one of the best sets I’ve found for the fundamental relationships in “I Am I.”
I found it really easy to cover all kinds of Intruder-y stuff with the powers and related mechanics, including a little wiggling for the negative impact of Mind Control, but within acceptable bounds of dialogue as it seems to me. The Sidekick rules permit the AI to be built as a separate being in a structured, non-handwaved way, and also for Sharon and Ali, since the “Normal” Sidekick abilities are not trivial.
The hero-centric context for play and the canonical setting parts don’t fit as well, and the very idea of playing villain protagonist has to get shoehorned in. One really useful piece toward that end is the Secret Identity Phase. If you combined that with the Earth Now concepts from HDG/DDD above and a certain attention to relationships, it would be a go-to play-event for me. I’m tempted to set one up myself.
Superhuman (2015/1016), by Jamie Fristrom, struck me by its sincerity, and that it managed to get some heart into the basically negative tradition established by Bratpack and the 1990s grim-grit version of Titans.
Here, the presumption is that the current reduced membership of a mighty hero team must cope with a direct challenge to their ideals. To adapt, we must presume that the disappeared superhero mattered to Intruder just as much, and so you can’t slot the story’s Crusader into the role of Paragon. So there has to be another “great man” superhero involved somehow, perhaps a long time ago. Or maybe Intruder is the killer whom they discover and therefore have to face the reasons why, but that means he’s not written up. Maybe it’s entirely a sequel.
Anyway, even though I really can’t hit upon a way to make this work, I can’t resist the character creation rubric. You can see the method and the results in the linked sheet, which is also pages 2-3 of the 4-page rules.
For the Inner Voice, you won’t find the list I’m using in the current rules because I prefer the Inner Voice options in the original rules (2015). For clarity’s sake, the current version’s resolution rules are better; it’s just this one part that I prefer from the original. So, about this Inner Voice thing, it means is that I play him as all about Equality, but another player will offer me revisions of or options against stuff that’s threatening me (or otherwise unwanted) in ways that favor Anarchy.
Quite a bit is stated without constraint, so his resources and network are simply mandated to be villain-level extensive; similarly, his physical enhancement isn’t listed, and in this case, significantly, the cancer is simply left out. Since the game is specifically concerned with conflicts among the played heroes, the other relationships are left out too.
So, looking back on these games, my take-away is a crucial variable: whether the powers and related rules matter in play, and if they do, how. I’m most interested in the in-betweens, the ones which do not strictly represent the powers’ presumed in-game physics, but for which what you say or specify that “your guy can do” does in fact shape or constrain or spawn options. I hope you can see that this same quality is present in some of the earliest superhero games but was lost in the “fearful symmetry” I described in the post before this one.
At least until I realize otherwise, I think the next post is the last of the Intruder manifestations or expressions via role-playing rules. It’ll concern relatively recent games which are explicitly renewals or re-visions of well-known games, including but definitely not limited to my Champions Now. I’ve got at least one more Intruder-oriented post in mind after that, getting back to the comics work. If you’re interested in discussing any comics or creative topic about him, let me know!
About Ron EdwardsGame author, publisher, consultant, teacher
Posted on June 5, 2020, in Supers role-playing and tagged Capes RPG, Godlike RPG, Guardians1993 RPG, Heroic Do-Gooders & Dastardly Deed-Doers RPG, Icons RPG, Intruder, Metagene RPG, Stuper Powers! RPG, Superhuman RPG, With Great Power RPG. Bookmark the permalink. 6 Comments.
Wow. I can’t believe someone besides me even owns Guardians, let alone has played it (man, it’s terrible). You are as degenerate a collector of Supers RPGs as me, sir! Maybe more (I made a choice long ago to opt out of GURPS).
Shall we be seeing write-ups based on Mutant City Blues, Sketch!, and/or Supers!? How about Aberrant or Mutants & Masterminds?
Some yes and some no. I don’t own or have access to every single game – more than most, yes, but not all. I don’t have Mutants & Masterminds, for example.
Not all of the ones I have are suitable in concept for Intruder, and although I’ve wiggled a couple of settings for some version of him, as with Godlike, there still has to be a resulting fit. Some of these games are very good, like Underground, but the fit’s not there – I think Aberrant might be similar, although I’m not sure.
Sketch is a good idea, especially since I am, in fact, starting with a sketch. That would have fit here in this post. Supers is scheduled for the next one along with FASERIP and other games with “call it retroclone although it isn’t” design features.
All that said – this is an intense, tiring project, especially given the other stuff I’m doing. No one has ever done this before, either at all or with the precise intellectual and historical focus I’m bringing. The points I’m making matter a lot.
Your reply seems distracted to me, leaning toward my unwanted conclusion that I’m doing this to no purpose. Maybe I should have just shot a video of me grinning and gushing “lookit all teh gamez,” if this is what I’m getting back.
tt’s true, I am glad you’re reading and I appreciate that you’re commenting at all. Now, please – can you do a little better? What do you think of what I’m saying?
Personally, I find it fascinating. Your analysis of these various supers games…how they interact, how they developed, how they focus on differ in focus, what they owe each other…this is stuff that I enjoy reading. As I’ve owned, read, and/or played many (most?) of these games…all in the name of looking for the One Great Supers game…I’m able to follow much of it, finding myself nodding along.
As they relate to Intruder (the character) specifically: this I also find fascinating reading. You’ve taken a rather decent concept for reading (as a comic) and tried to see how it might be modeled in an RPG (a different medium attempting to emulate a different)…and you’re finding it pretty tricky. I’m not surprised by this (given the RPG hobby’s historic wargaming roots and its legacy/imprint on the design), but I can’t help being a bit disappointed. The best comics have something more akin to literature than to spectacle (“cinematic”) entertainment. That kind of thing can emerge in game play, but it’s tough to manufacture it from the get-go…especially as RPGs (even supers RPGs) attempt to create MAXIMUM POSSIBILITY possibly within their focus. I asked about the possibility of doing a supers game based on the Sorcerer system in an earlier post; you replied that it might work for SOME types of story, and I agree: something where a character’s power seems as much a curse as a blessing (I don’t think it would model at all well for Dr. Strange, for example, but perhaps something like Swamp-Thing or (some might think this weird) Spider-Man). The point is, there are a LOT of different stories told in comics, even in the “hero” genre, and no RPG can fit all types. “Intruder” tells a particular type of story and, because he’s a “villain” may be antithetical to the design intentions of many games.
But that’s basic stuff: you asked if the power rules of a given game informs play, and (if so) how? To me, it feels most of these games are working backwards from that equation. They EITHER A) have particular setting they want to explore…a real world with sudden emergent powers (like Aberrant), a police procedural with something “extra” (Mutant City Blues), etc. …and then try to make a power system that “fits,” OR B) have a system they want to do…use a “D&D” chassis (Guardians below), something fast and abstract with lots of dice (Supers!), chargen based on art (Sketch!)…and shoehorn powers to fit the system. Savage Worlds’ “Necessary Evil” is influenced far more by the story (and by its adherence to the SW system), than by the mechanics of the power rules.
You didn’t do a write-up for Intruder in Heroes Unlimited (at least, I couldn’t find one in your Eighties post). Strangely, I think that might have been a been of an easier model. Along with the new “power types” (classes) presented in Powers Unlimited 2, there should have been a way to model both his powers and his origin. Siembieda builds his villains exactly as his heroes (there is no differentiation between “good” and “bad” or “super” and “normal”) and then strives to build a “realistic” game, right down to the advancement system. The result feels very different from the 4-color style of other games…it’s not just gritty, its downright granular…which makes it a poor emulator of your typical Avengers/Justice League comic (or, to put it differently, it seems to avoid the “fearful symmetry” found in RPGs of the same era). And it might do well for running an Intruder campaign, if you had a GM willing to put in the work, and make the proper edits. Despite the slavish devotion to combat (in the rules), the game tends to fall apart (or, rather, becomes “mired”) as soon as any battle goes down. With regard to your Big Question: I think that emergent play (especially in HU’s first couple editions) ends up being very heavily influenced (not necessarily as the author intended) by the strange intersection of different power rules and draconian systems. If grenades and high powered rifles kill you faster than a “mental bolt,” characters end up buying military gear; if you only get ONE power (1st Edition HU), then you end up looking for ways to make that one power work for you. Heroes Unlimited is a strange beast with a number of issues, but I find it hugely fascinating. The original (unrevised) edition is perhaps the most coherent, best explained, and well-laid out of ANY of the Palladium games (except, perhaps, Recon)…subsequent revisions butchered and edited the thing a lot.
I’ll be interested to see Sketch! because I think it will be difficult for Intruder. Aberrant is a game whose setting/world is so tightly focused to its system that Intruder might be initially tough (as with Superhuman) but might work especially well long-term (there aren’t any “heroes” or “villains” as such, and authority figures tend to run towards the corrupt). I think Intruder would be a great villain in Mutant City Blues if you can find the correct power mapping. And I don’t personally play M&M (or own a copy anymore…though I have in the past) because I pretty much hate everything about it, but a lot of folks LOVE LOVE LOVE it, and I’ll be interested to see if you can make Intruder work in it.
Supers! has an abstract power system that might work well for modeling Intruder, but it’s another game that is “hero facing;” been a while since I’ve picked it up (years, actually) so I can’t remember. Other retroclones (Truth & Justice, FASERIP, etc.) are kind of “blah” for me…they’re slaves to that “system first, damn the rest” model. I will mention Thomas Denmark’s “Guardians” (not to be confused with Gideon’s) has a good bit about not needing supervillains in a game where PCs are mutants, aliens, outcasts, etc. (and thus hunted by traditional authorities)…with that attitude, you could run a villain game (there is also a section on experience for villains that would seem to work). Chargen would be a little tricky, given Intruder’s origin/type and how it intersects with available powers, but I think it could be managed.
Um…is that a little better?
It’s fantastic! Not just your kind words but the intellectual engagement that I’ve been pining for in doing this thing. This is extremely well said:
I think that this “kind of thing” is never manufactured from the get-go, in any medium, but instead merely recognized when it happens (and a tragedy when it’s not recognized). My interest in the superhero RPGs arises partly in my drive to understand when a game design keeps itself open to that possibility and when it punts it away hard in favor of other priorities.
I did feature Heroes Unlimited; it’s right there in the Eighties post. I appreciate your points, as I prefer the first edition myself and would have used it if I could have found a copy.
You’ll see some of the games you mentioned in the next post, with an eye toward the odd coupling between idealism to “use this classic system” + the pragmatic insights of changing critical parts of it.
While I saw your discussion of Heroes Unlimited (I *have* been following this series), I did not see a character write-up for Intruder using the HU
system…that’s all I was saying.
The first edition of HU is a tough find. I only managed to pick up a copy on eBay about a year ago (after having played the “Revised” version since high school circa 1989). I was very (and pleasantly) surprised with that I found in its pages.
?! You’re right! I did make Intruder using Heroes Unlimited, but the sheet isn’t uploaded and I didn’t make that link. I’ll have to find the sheet and fix that.