We've played two sessions of the Beta playtest rules. I currently have three players. Only one has any extensive experience with Hero System. I've GMed Champions and Hero System, so I have a lot of math chops for the power design. We've had an initial character development by email, a face to face session of finalizing development, and two face-to-face play sessions.
I did most of the mechanical character and power creation in the interests of time, with the exception of Breakthrough, whose player has some Champions experience. In the designs, I designed the powers to conform what I got from dialog with the players about their vision for the character.
I'll attach a PDF with three heroes and another with a bunch of villains to this post.
I followed the game setup in the Beta document closely and I think it paid off. To start, I emailed my players the portion of the Beta rules that explains the Person, Problems, and Powers approach. I said we're creating our own superhero book, right here, right now, with no reference to any other cannon. I asked them to create humans – no aliens or amnesiacs.
For powers, I encouraged them not to think in terms of mechanics, but rather how they would appear in a comic. I also kept initial development separate, so they didn't get into extensive world build. I also sent these two statements:
- Techno-wondrous discovery.
- Fraught personal lives and the political history of Seattle.
One player did not connect much to the “political history” part, but everyone came up with technological powers and problematic personal lives.
The text they provided in response to the three corners of person, problems, and powers, was rich with fodder for defining the character's life, disadvantages (particularly DNPCs), and the nature of superpowers.
In writing this, I realized we haven't developed much in the way of visual concept for PC appearances and costumes. We've defined what powers look like in action, but nothing prominent about the appearance of the PCs in their super-personas. Not so for my villains, where I always add a few words of description.
Secret ID: A.J., a 30-something Iraq war vet with missing leg and PTSD. The player provided a picture of AJ in a casual pose in combat fatigues. He's latino, but grew up in Seattle and his parents are solid middle class. His mother was Breakthrough I a couple of decades ago. He lives with his parents in their house in Ravenna district even though his wife, pursuing her high-powered executive career has moved her and their 13 year old daughter to Capitol Hill. He has to stay near his childhood home because he is dependent on daily exposure to an alien artifact under the house. His excuse is that his parents need him. So far he and his wife are staying together despite this strain. He works as a mobile mechanic, driving his workshop truck from job to job.
Breaththrough got his powers after returning home for Iraq missing a leg. The alien artifact under his house colonized him with nanites and gave him a cybernetic leg. They also provide superstrength, superleap, and super healing. When a bullet or flying blade hits him, the nanites eat the incoming projectile and heal any wound. Aside from punching or tearing things apart, his primary attack is a superleap move-through. Mechanically, his power design is pretty straightforward.
Disadvantages that have been considerations in play are his DNPC teenage daughter, his vulnerability to electricity, and his dependence on the immobile alien artifact under his parent's house. A US Government agency is hunting for the alien technology that powers him. His PTSD hasn't seen play yet.
Breakthrough has been played in both of the two sessions we've played so far.
Secret ID: Leif. A 28 year old technopath. Leif works in a computer recycling shop and lives with his sister, who makes a living posting cosmetic reviews to youtube. She knows about his secret ID and his need to avoid internet contact, but she also want so fix him up with dates. His power is the innate ability to command and communicate with technological machinery, including animating it and shaping it into things useful for himself. I suggested the look of things created by technopathy to be open frameworks of bars and twisting wires and jumbled components and we've gone with that.
Mechanically, his primary powers are technology awareness (with 2-way communication ability) and a variable power pool that requires a source of technological parts. Outside the pool he has “Technophagy,” a blast with no range that lets him dismantle technological devices. He also has skills: computer programming and security systems. Rather than use telekinesis, I decided he could use computer programming and security systems skills through his technopathic awareness communication.
Disadvantages include: Hunted: by the secret Amazon department that is “recruiting” technopaths; Physical limitation: the need to avoid all internet contact lest he be detected; DNPC sister; DNPC “Byte,” an AI with amnesia that he discovered unused for 15 years on an old disc.
Radioshack has been played in both of the two sessions we've played so far.
Secret ID: 20-something bicycle courier and martial artist who picked up a strange “wrist watch” after a witnessing a van crash and spill its contents. The “watch” is a space-time distortion device (from where we don't know) that allows him to teleport. (I had given the players two example characters to give them an idea what the mechanics looked like and this player liked PowerStar [whom I had actually played in a previous playtest], and reskinned him. So Comet is a teleporting martial artist like PowerStar. The player does emphasize the “time” part of the technology, so the special effects are different from PowerStar and promise the possibility of interesting temporal complications.
I don't know Comet as well as the other PCs because the player has not yet been able to attend a play session due to holiday commitments. The most standout contribution is the DNPC girlfriend/supervillain that the player wanted. Leona is a hot shot lawyer for Amazon and secretly also a supervillain. Comet and Leona are mutually ignorant of their super identities.
DNPC Villain: SpinMeister
The DNPC girlfriend/villain concept jazzed me and I created SpinMeister, a human mutated by experimental attempts to create a technopathy. She has martial arts (to challenge Comet!) and the power to appear as any other human--a doppelganger. She is actually invested in her relationship with Comet because she's fundamentally lonely. Changing identities all the time leaves her feeling alienated. I love her thematic contrast of role-taking verses the yearning to have a real relationship. I hope to develop this more when Comet's player attends the next session. Mechanically, SpinMeister has: Martial Arts, Acrobatics, Disguise, moderate Telepathy and Mind Control to help her carry off impersonations, and Invisibility, Only to appear as another human.
SpinMeister is in the villain PDF attached to this post, along with Arachnon, Robokhan, Steelwing, and an APEX Agent.
Wraith's player joined us for the second full session. To speed things up, I had him email person/problems/powers to me and I did the mechanical design. Not all points have yet been spent and the character still needs lots of Disadvantages, but we had enough to play a session.
Wraith is Isaac Wiles, an lonely engineer who has a job and spends a lot of time tinkering in his father's super-hero workshop. Isaac is son of Gregory, who was Doctor Sampson, a two-fisted, old school superhero. Dad retired in the 90s after being paralyzed from the waist down and went on to make a fortune in the dot com boom. Gregory is a DNPC with psychological limitations that make him critical of Isaac's “softer” approach to heroing and also a desire to mold his son into a business success. Gregory and Isaac know each other's secret Ids.
While Doctor Samson was a two-fisted old-school hero who enforced rules and cooperated with police, Gray Wraith is a martial artist who has doubts about simply enforcing law. He's also a Parkour pracitioner, so I gave him a superskill of 10” flight with the limitation it has to end each phase on a surface or handhold. His technological powers are a stealth suit that makes him invisible in low light and an electroshock palm taser (with increased knockback) that adds to his martial punch. He proved effective in combat.
Gray Wraith, Breakthrough, and Radioshack are stated out in the attachment hero PDF.
Highlights of the Background
Primary sources of powers are technopathy and exposure to the nanites from alien devices.
Jeff Bezos is a Lex Luthor like mastermind, using Amazon to dominate Seattle. Secretly, his organization captures and/or recruits technopaths to its covert causes.
Alien artifacts are buried in scattered locations. Secret US agencies are looking for them and people affected by them.
Two PC heroes are sons of heroes of a previous era: Breakthrough's mother and Gray Wraith's father. I declared they had known each other, which added a nice texture to the background.
Comments on Mechanics
I can only speak from my own experience making heroes and villains with the Beta rules, as I've been doing most of that work for our group. Here are some observations:
the Piercing advantage is too expensive and the defense is too cheap. I could not get an effective “killing attack” equivalent to be affordable by my villains.
The Severe advantage, though, is nice, applying Knockout damage to resistant defenses.
The Awareness power would feel more useful to me if it were broken into components as later editions of Champions did with Enhanced Senses.
The Separate Advantage needs more development. Faced with the challenge of creating a persistent obscuring cloud dropped by Steelwing and Robokhan's robot-creating variable power pool, I almost brought in the Follower and Automaton rules from Champions 6, but I gritted my teeth and improvised the definition of Separate powers.
Session 2: Highlights from Actual Play
In both our first session and our second session, I made a point to have prepared an agenda for one DNPC for each PC. Radioshack was out with his DNPC amnesiac artificial intelligence looking for clues to the AI's past; Breakthrough had a father/daughter outing to the zoo with his teenager, who wants to get mom and dad living in the same house.
At the start of session two, we added Gray Wraith to the game and his Secret ID Isaac met with his father, Gregory, the former superhero “Doctor Samson” (now wheelchair bound). Gregory is a self-made millionaire since his accident and believes his son should strive and learn. Today he offered Isaac the chance to head a real estate deal with Amazon, backed by Gregory's money. He invited an Amazon exec and his lawyer (Leona/SpinMeister, Comet's DNPC) to a lunch meeting. Isaac prefers to remain an engineer and argues. Then Isaac's burner phone rings and a superhero needs help – exit from awkward situation with father turning red.
The players enjoy the these scenes, even though dice are rarely rolled.
In our second session, just played, we ended up in an extended battle where Breakthrough and Gray Wraith rescued Radioshack from capture. Villainous agents were escaping with a van full of agents and Radioshack unconscious and in a technopath blocking sack. Players jumped onto the van and ripped the roof off and the battle unfolded from there. There were 6 agents built on 100 points, which gave three 240 point superheroes a pretty tough challenge. When the heroes had rescued Radioshack, I decided that the villains would cut their losses and retreat. Most of the agents got away when a flying battlesuited supervillain called Steelwing showed up to create a diversion. Unfortunately, as you'll read, she did not get away.
The battle ran through 3 or 4 cycles of the 6 segment version of the action turn. It played really well and I was amused to see characters, both PCs and villains, making decisions based on when to take recoveries. One player, who had experience with Champions, said he thought the lack of post-turn recovery might interfere with the flow of combat. I didn't have a chance to follow up with him about his opinion once the session was over. I thought it worked fine as is.
Players were not enormously creative with the use of powers, but we did see effective use of what they had on their sheets. Vulnerability to electricity also became a concern for one hero and one villain. Just announcing that the agents activated “Electro bayonettes” gave one PC pause. It's nice to see a special effect taken seriously.
I also remembered to use the Beta knockback rules. I had originally thought they were too liberal, but in practice they felt right. One agent got punched and produced a nice dent in the side of a van. And Steelwing got knocked through a building outside wall!
One of Radioshack's power pool configurations proved decisive against Steelwing: 3d6 Entangle “Frozen Servoes” limited to only affecting battlesuits led to the downfall of Steelwing. (And I created that power for Radioshack! Grrr.) When he used it, it gave me pause, because the special effect is him talking directly to the tech in her flight suit. I ultimately decided that the standard Strength roll could knock the servos loose. Sadly, she had a 10 STR and had to burn a huge amount of End while failing to escape.
Steelwing was finally freed when Gray Wraith Martial Punched her while she lay against a wall. Entangle is usually vulnerable to outside attack, I ruled that the body Wraith did shook her servos loose. Everyone accepted this as making sense given the special effect. I think it's notable that no one even thought to question the idea.
Ultimately, Steelwing, just couldn't get away and was captured.
I think it's really important to stress that the two statements, the three corners of person, problem, and powers, and a few other elements of the setup are PART of the RULES. I think many roleplayers are used to skipping what they might see as GMing advice and focusing on the “concrete” rules of points spending, dice rolling, and combat. If so they will miss crucial elements that make the game sing. It might be valuable to introduce these setup procedures with the same sort of step-by-step presentation that “concrete” rules get – as an example, see town creation in Dogs in the Vinyard.
I note, too, that scenes where PCs are faced with mundane problems they can't punch their way out of are necessary juice for game. When players are using superpowers, they get the thrill of power. When they have a mundane problem, they feel the contrasting anchor of mortal limitations. The contrast amplifies the joy of using superpowers. I think there's something to this that also increases player's emotional investment in the mundane problems--maybe it's just frustration, maybe it's the background knowledge that they are exceptional and powerful.