The Rick Rocket Conundrum

by David Meadows 12. September 2017 19:45

It's all my own fault. But I don't know how to fix it.

Let me start at the beginning. 

Rick Rocket appeared very early in the Strikeforce story (off the top of my head, I think you'll read about him in chapter 30 or 40), in a small role in his real identity of Hugh Howard, then an old man. After helping him, Strikeforce learned he was a retired super-hero. Not just any super-hero, but Rick Rocket, America's first super-powered masked hero, appearing in the late 1930s and becoming the greatest hero of World War 2.

He cropped up a few more times in the game, and despite his minor role I had a full background and history worked out for him.

So, my series of historical games reached the 1930, the era of "pulp" heroes, and of course I had to include Rick Rocket somehow.

I decided this game would be his "origin" story, and the players would (unwittingly) be there at the birth of America's greatest legend. This would only be a minor part of the game -- as the focus of the plot has to be on the players' characters, not a supporting character -- but I thought I could still make it work and make it fun for the players who remembered the character's introduction nearly 30 years ago (our time).

Then I made a silly decision: I made Hugh Howard a coward.

This will be great, I thought. Subvert the players' expectations, make him not the hero everyone expects, and actually make them, the players, the people who push him down the path to heroism.

It's dramatically satisfying on so many levels. I'm a genius.

Except ...

It went a bit wrong. We've now finished the 1930s game, and Hugh Howard is still a coward who has no intention of putting on a costume and fighting crime.

Continuity is unravelling around me.

I'm sure I can fix it.

I have to fix it.

I'm just not really sure how ...

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You Can't Do That

by David Meadows 6. September 2017 19:20

As a GM I can't dictate to the players how they play the game, I have to let them do what they want and hope I'm prepared enough to react to whatever they do, no matter how ridiculous. (There has to be a two-way contract, though: the players have to implicitly agree that they won't do anything so stupid that it will wreck the game for me and the other players.)

One thing I do have to do, however, is lay down some ground rules right at the start so they are creating the right kind of characters to work within the game. I've already mentioned that I want to ban certain abilities that the rules would normally allow, but that's not what I'm talking about now. I'm talking about the character: not the list of skills and powers that they have but the personality, goals, and motivations.

We've already mutually agreed that the players will be super-villains conscripted by the government in World War Two and given pardons in exchange for carrying out some dangerous mission behind enemy lines, and the game I create will be based on that assumption, so I'm going to make sure the players stick to it when they create their characters. But that simple "mission statement" sentence still allows the players to create almost anything. And as I start to think through the storyline I want to run, I start to realise that some things won't work. Some of the objections are just common sense, but I still need to explain them to the players, so they can create characters that will work.

For example: you're a criminal, but you've got to want to work for the government. Otherwise, as soon as you're parachuted into France you're ditching the team and heading for Switzerland. Which might make a great story for that character but it's effectively removing the player from the game (unless he can get the rest of the characters to come with him ... and if that really happened, I'd run with it and try to make an interesting story out of this unexpected new direction, but it would really, really mess up my weeks of planning and probably give me a nervous breakdown trying to generate a new storyline on the fly, so if you're reading this ... just don't, ok?).

So, the government isn't even going to offer the job to anyone they think is so irredeemable that they won't stick with the mission. If your crime was shooting a Jewish shopkeeper because you’re a Blackshirt, for example ... well, forget it, that character's not getting picked for the team, so create another one. (Meanwhile, I'll pinch that one for a future villain ... ). The pitch from the government is going to be: "You've done some bad things, but we think you realise that Hitler is everyone's enemy, even yours, and we're appealing to you to help us stop him." If you think the character you've just lovingly imbued with life would laugh at that offer and walk back into his gaol cell instead, then I'm sorry but you'll have to scrap him and start again.

So I'll explain the ground rules to the players, and I'll examine the backgrounds they create for their characters, and we'll talk them over, and we'll come up with something that works. I'll almost certainly allow "borderline" concepts in, even if they don't entirely mesh with the goals, because that will generate its own interest and conflict during play (the best character in Blake's 7 was the one that was hated by the rest of the crew because he had completely opposite ideals to them ... you know who I mean). But there are limits, and I have to put my foot down where I know that an idea simply doesn't fit. Not for my sake, but for the players'.

Ultimately, it's my game and the buck stops with me.

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Game Balance

by David Meadows 4. September 2017 20:12

How powerful/skillful/well-equipped should the players' characters be? This is a fundamental decision I need to make, as everything I then put in front of them in the game has to be designed to be at a level that challenges them without being either impossible or too easy for them to overcome.

I don't want characters who are so powerful that they can win the war single-handed, but conversely I want to make sure the super-humans are actually better than human. My feeling is that if you put a super-human in the middle of half-a-dozen armed soldiers, the super-human should beat them comfortably. A dozen soldiers or something like a tank ... that should make them at least pause and plan.

Setting the game in the middle of a world war introduces a significant problem that most traditional super-hero settings don't have: all the weapons are designed to kill you. In a standard super-hero comic (or movie, if movies are your thing), most weapons are non-lethal. Other super-humans will punch you or zap you with generic energy designed to incapacitate (rather than vapourise) you. The heroes who have built-in claws and love to slice people open are, thankfully, very few and far between. Likewise, the run-of-the-mill villainous henchmen and agents of super-spy organisations have weapons set to "stun". A few might have lethal weapons like machine guns, but they're generally rubbish shots so that's ok.

In a world war, it's senseless (unless you’ve got a very solid plot reason) for your soldiers to hold back from killing their enemies (i.e. the player characters). They want to kill them, and what's more they’ve got rifles and machine guns and grenades and, if you're really trying to scare the players, tanks and dive bombers. And that's a problem.

The problem is that in a game you don’t want to kill the players' characters. You want to scare them into thinking they might die, but if they actually do die it really messes up the game. You've got a player who has nothing to do for the rest of the afternoon (possibly the rest of the year, depending on how you've set up the situation) and everyone ends up really depressed. A GM's job isn’t to "beat" the players by killing their characters (that would be too easy, considering you control the entire universe), it's to make sure the players have an enjoyable game.

Let's be clear: player characters shouldn't be immune from dying. Death should be a real and present danger, otherwise there's no challenge. If they die heroic deaths while saving the world as part of the big adventure climax, that's fine. Don't aim to do it, and allow the players to cheat it if they possibly can, but if they die for a noble cause, that's a satisfying end. Then there's deaths because the players have been utterly stupid despite your best efforts ("It's a pit of lava. Nobody can survive it." "Ok, I'll jump in just to make sure."). If that happens, well that serves them right (and anyway, your player has probably done it because he's not really enjoying the game and he'll be happy to sit the rest out). But random, "senseless" deaths in the middle of a game just because you misjudged how powerful to make the villain's energy blast, that's something we all want to avoid.

So when literally every single opponent has the motive and means to shoot the players' characters, you need to make sure the characters are bullet proof. Or too fast to hit. Or invisible. Or simply clever enough to be somewhere else.

But not too bulletproof, or fast, or sneaky. They have to be fallible, to have something out there that can pose a serious threat to them, or where's the challenge? And with no challenge, you have a boring game and an even more boring story. So you need to strike a balance.

This is what we call "game balance".

The old D&D game, for all its faults, did game balance better than anything since. It used the concept of "levels", which told you which monsters were good matches (on average) for characters of a specific power/skill level. Your "fifth-level fighter" should be fighting "fifth-level monsters". Seventh or eight level monsters would likely be too much for him, while first or second level monsters are not even worth his consideration. It all worked really well, and nothing has ever found a better way to do it, despite "levels" now considered an unrealistic, old-fashioned idea. 

Games that don't have rigid levels generally have a lot more flexibility in how you design characters, but with the flexibility it can be pretty hard to know exactly how two wildly different character designs stack up against each other.

The only way to know for sure if the game balance works, then, is to test it. Some things you can test mathematically: you know the damage a bullet does within the rules, so you know how tough the character has to be to survive it. But some things have too many variables to work out statistically and you can only really find out if characters are matched to the threats you've designed by testing them by actually playing the game.

Ok, so statistically the character can survive everything the riflemen throw at him, but can he move fast enough to reach the heavy machine gun (which can hurt him) before it reloads? Or what if he engages the riflemen in hand-to-hand combat while his slower (but better protected) friend advanced on the machine gun nest? You can create a handful of characters and test things like this before you unleash the game on the players (or vice versa).

Once you know this sort of thing, you can guide the players through character generation by hinting at the sort of threat they might face (not giving the plot away, but reminding them of the background): "Yes, that’s a great character but he'll die as soon as somebody shoots at him. What do you mean, he'll avoid people with guns? The whole point of the game is to fight Nazi soldiers!" Or, to the group collectively: "Look, here are the game statistics for the armour on a Panzer II tank, and none of you have an attack big enough to hurt it."

You can't dictate to the players how to create their characters, though you can put an outright ban on some abilities if you've decided they will unbalance the game: I've already decided to ban long-range teleportation powers, for example, because that completely kills the challenge of infiltrating behind enemy lines. But despite my best efforts, I probably will end up allowing some power or combination of powers that will cause an imbalance, simply because I can guarantee that my players will out-think me no matter how hard I try to challenge them, and they'll figure out how to make a power work much more usefully than I expected.

Because the other problem with game balance is that you can never anticipate how well the players will play the game, though you can be pretty certain that collectively they will be cleverer than you. "A Panzer II tank rolls down the road ... you know that none of you have the power to stop it, so ..." "Wait! I’ll mind-control the crew!" "Uh ... ok ..." (You hadn't anticipated that, and suddenly your "unbeatable" obstacle designed to make the players go in a different direction has been beaten, plus you've given the players a pet tank. Uh-oh. Hope you had your contingency plans in place ... )

Anyway, I'll leave this now while I go away and double-check the rules for the mind control power and decide whether I'm banning it or not ... 

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The First Character

by David Meadows 27. August 2017 09:43

Games start with characters, both those created by the players and those created by me to act as their allies and/or antagonists. Before I can work with the players on their characters, I need to create some of my own to make sure I understand the rules and to make sure that the characters produced byt the rules will have power levels that fit my concept of what WW2-era super-humans should be like in my game universe. 

So I pick a character I already have a strong concept for -- the British super hero Lionheart -- and work out how to create him in the game. He's a character I might actually use in the game, so whatever I create now won't be wasted effort.

Lionheart is super-humanly strong and agile, and should be able to shrug off a rifle bullet. He has claws and animalistic senses (he’s basically a "lion man", hence the name). He's also meant to be noble and patriotic (the name does double duty, evoking the noble spirit of the Crusades (Richard the Lionheart, get it?) (ok, yes, I do know what the Crusades were really like, I'm talking about the romanticised version).

So I work through the rules. It starts with basic attributes and skills, so I make him strong and agile and give him skills primarily in stealth and unarmed combat. He's not quite as skillful as I would like, but then I remind myself that this is him "just starting out" in his career, and he will have the opportunity to improve over time.

Next I look at the powers, and pick from the extensive list in the rules. I give him super-strength which lets him carry 500 pounds effortlessly and lift a ton at maximum effort. I add in extra agility, leaping ability, and speed. The agility and speed boost up his combat ability, and the strength gives him a powerful punch, so I feel better about his low fighting skills. He’s untrained but gets by on raw natural power. Which fits the character concept really well. I add the “Attack” power, defining it as “Claws” and calculating the average effect of the claws and his strength he will be able to knock out or kill a man in one blow. That’s about what I want. I give him toughness which, statistically, will make him mostly immune to bullets (a lucky shot will still hurt him -- he’s not Superman). 

A few more final bits and pieces, like the night vision of a cat, and he’s done. And it looks good. He fits the concept, he’s at the right level of power, and the rules were quick and easy to use. I’m happy so far.

The personality of the character doesn't come from a set of rules, obviously; that comes solely from how I choose to have him think and act in the game.

The rules include a "character sheet" that you can print and copy for use in the game. I've used one as a working sheet (hence in pencil and with a lot of scribbled notes and crossing out) while creating Lionheart, and here it is to give you an idea of how it works, though obviously it won't make a lot of sense without reading the rules. 

(Just spotted an error: the "Pace" at the top should be "12" not "6", to reflect his speed power.)

Each of the players will get a blank one of these to record their character's stats on. I won't actually use this sheet myself, though. Unlike a player with a single character, I have to juggle multiple characters every session and have to be able to easily access their stats while keeping them hidden from the players and leaving space for the rest of my notes, the rulebook, and a place to secretly roll dice. I simply can't have a stack of loose A4 sheets, it's not logistically possible. So I'll play around with more compact formats until I find one that works. Each of Strikeforce's villains was recorded on a single 3x5 index card, for example. (Two boxes full of them!)

Anyway, the next step for me is to run a practice fight with Lionheart and some generic thugs, to get used to the combat rules and to make sure the power balance actually is what I think it is (if he's shot dead the first time he leaps into combat, it will be back to the drawing board.) I’ll report on that shortly ... 

 

 

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Avatar

by David Meadows 17. April 2017 22:40

When did Avatar become the most important character in the Game? It's hard to say for sure, but it started in Strikeforce chapter 17, coming this Friday. My ideas of how my universe (its cosmology) worked started to crystallise then.

I thought I was running a basically science fiction Game, but that went wrong right from the start when one player decided to play a demon.

It was trying to reconcile that choice, and fit demons into my (I thought) rational universe, that gave me the key over-arching plotline that ran through the whole Game.

I'm not going to give it away now. And chapter 17 won't really explain anything either. But it's where the explanation starts. Don't miss it!

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Research

by David Meadows 14. April 2017 18:14

I've got more bothered about getting historical and geographic details right recently. Because the Game is set in what's more-or-less our real world, I've always used real places and historical events as background, but as long as the details were vaguely right then I wasn't too bothered about absolute accuracy. As the Game progressed, I took more care over getting things right -- possibly because the players were getting better at pointing out errors ("But the Luger wasn't in use in 1907" "Oh...").

This has led to some retroactive headaches. I've been editing the bios of Carl and Carla Zod, ready to upload in a future site update, and finding all kinds of errors that I presumably didn't know or care about 30 years ago but now are really bugging me.

Such as, why is Carl Zod teaching at University of California San Francisco? When I introduced Zod in the fifth Game session (or Strikeforce chapter 5), I set the story in San Francisco completely at random. So when writing Zod's background, I placed him at UCSF.

The problem is (I know now): it's a medical school. Not the obvious place to find one of the world's foremost theoretical physicists.

I'm not going to re-write history (i.e. the details played out in the scenario 30 years ago and chronicled in chapter 5 last year) to have Strikeforce meet him at his home in Los Angeles. I'm stuck with San Francisco. But I'm tweaking his background so it makes a bit more sense in the "real" world.

It probably wouldn't bother anyone else if it was wrong. But things like that have started to bother me...

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Diversity

by David Meadows 13. April 2017 21:56

There's a big fuss in the media at the moment about diversity in Marvel comics. Apparently, Marvel editors believe that people aren't buying Marvel comics because we don't like the "diverse" (non-straight-white-male) casts they've introduced.

As a life-long Marvel reader who no longer reads them, let me set the record straight: I didn't stop buying their comics because they introduced black, female, or gay characters. I stopped reading them because they were consistently publishing bad comics. I'm talking about having storylines that were impossible to follow, making beloved characters act completely out of character, and randomly cancelling and restarting titles just to make it as hard as possibly to know what to buy. I stopped buying Marvel comics because their editors no longer knew how to put out good comics, not because they had gay heroes. Every lapsed Marvel reader I've spoken to has said the same.

Soooo....... how does my universe score on diversity? Probably pretty poorly. It was simply never a consideration when I started the Game. So the vast majority of characters are straight, white males. In later years I (and I think my players too, though we never discussed it) put more thought into having a greater variety of character backgrounds. So I think you'll find the Heroes cast more diverse than the Strikeforce cast. But the mix of main characters still isn't anywhere near representative of modern America.

I could retroactively make half the supporting cast black, but that would be the very epitome of "tokenism", making a change just so I could say I've done it, and I don't think it serves any useful purpose.

So I'm sorry, I've got a mostly non-diverse cast, and I'm stuck with it. It's just how it is.

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Don

by David Meadows 9. April 2017 10:14

Don wasn't supposed to be an important character. When I introduced the DICE organisation to the Game, the main and only important character was supposed to be Major Eastwood, its leader (a thinly disguised Nick Fury, as I'm sure everybody figured out). But I needed other agents, so Don started as a generic background extra, and then got a name probably around the time Scorpio saved his life

He could still have faded into the background, but now he had a reason to be remembered. Scorpio had saved his life, so there was a bond there, and when I needed more DICE agents to appear in a plot it just made sense to say it was Don. So now he needed a personality, and a background, and a skill set beyond being "generic secret agent #1".

Huey, Dewey and Luey were quickly added to DICE because Don needed a team and, well, I love names that are puns and/or have meta-textual meaning. Ed ("the duck") Mallard was also an inevitable addition by this point.

Don was never a major character, because the Game had to be exclusively about Strikeforce, and he didn't really appear very often, but his appearances were remembered. 

When I ended Strikeforce and moved the story "twenty years later", the main characters would be young super-humans on the run. I needed an older mentor for them, someone who could lead them into the stories I wanted to tell. From the moment I concieved the idea, there could only be one choice: Don.

When we started that next phase of the Game, I introduced Don and the players accepted it with a smile, because they knew it was exactly right. As players they knew and trusted Don, and so it made it easy for them to believe that their characters would trust and follow him. It wasn't something forced on them to make the story work, it was something that made sense within the world and felt right.

In the Strikeforce story, I introduced Don by name earlier than I did in the Game, and I gave him and his squad larger supporting roles. Whenever I've needed a generic DICE agent, I've made it Don or one of his team. Because it probably was, except I hadn't given them names at that point. And because I knew Scorpio had to be with Don at a certain point in order to save his life and for them to become friends, so why not begin the association a little sooner? I think it works.

Don went from un-named to cardboard character to trusted friend to key participant to one of my favourite characters over years of play, and I like to think it all grew organically. I hope it looks that way from the outside. But you've still got lots of his story to read ...

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About this blog

The Heroes Universe is an ongoing work of fiction, conceived and chiefly plotted by David Meadows, with help from a group of friends, over a 30-year period.

I am slowly documenting the Universe on this web site.

This blog is a behind-the-scenes look at the creation of that history.

If you're new here, the series of posts listed below will explain what it's all about. I hope...

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