First test with players

by David Meadows 18. September 2017 19:41

I have a handle on how the combat rules work from my solo test, and the next step was a test with the players. I created some simple characters for them to use, and set up a simple situation against some typical enemy forces.

This has two benefits: first, it teaches them the rule mechanics. Second, it lets them see first-hand what a character can and can't do, what he's vulnerable to, how the game treats the balance between weapons and defences, how effective different skills are at different levels, and so on. When they come to create their own characters, they'll have a better idea of how to create someone balanced and effective.

To cut a long story short, the test was a great success (at least from my point of view). It went slowly, because I did a lot of referencing rule books, but I've satisfied myself that once I have the rules off pat it's going to be quick and simple to run.

The players threw themselves into the spirit of the test, trying all manner of things to test the rules to destruction. So we had people on foot and in vehicles, crazy manoeuvres, tanks crashing through buildings and pedestrians, all manner of different weapons being employed, people picking up grenades and throwing them back before they exploded, people sneaking around as well as charging in recklessly. We learned that you need to be very skillful to shoot from a moving vehicle, that machine guns aren't as good as you think they are (except when they are), that grenades are horrible but survivable, that (un)lucky dice can upset you but there are ways to mitigate the disaster, and that skilled characters can take on three-to-one odds and win comfortably, as long as they're clever about it.

Overall, I'm very happy with how things are going.



by David Meadows 11. September 2017 19:05

I seem to have committed to running a test of the combat system with the players on Saturday. I'm not sure why I said I'd do that, I am neither materially nor mentally prepared for it.

Oh well, five days to get sorted out...  


Rules Test (3)

by David Meadows 11. September 2017 18:58

We're on combat round 4, and Lionheart has to decide whether to finish off the thugs or to ignore them and chase the boss.

Beating thugs has been a little slower than I expected, so if he stands and fights the boss will get clean away. So I decide Lionheart will have to leave the thugs for another day, and he leaps clear so he can chase the boss.

There's a rule that allows your opponents a free attack at you if you try to move away from them. This seems fair, as it establishes a "zone of control" around each fighter that prevents someone just sprinting past a group of enemies unopposed. As soon as you move past one, he gets a free attack.

Because thug #2 is actively engaged with Lionheart, he gets his free attack as Lionheart bounds away. Lionheart knows that the thug has no chance to hurt him unless he’s incredibly lucky (again!), however. The gamble pays off, because the crowbar just bounces off Lionheart’s bulletproof skin. 

But now Lionheart has leaped clear, the other three thugs all shoot at him. Again, it's a gamble, but the odds are that none of their bullets will get through Lionheart’s tough skin -- and indeed they don't.

The boss has continued running, but Lionheart has super-human speed and is gaining fast. So the boss tosses a grenade behind him -- no, I don't know why he's got a grenade in his pocket, I just wanted to test the grenade rules. It's a poor throw, and the grenade goes wide, but the explosion is still close enough to hurt Lionheart. It's more powerful than a bullet, and Lionheart takes another "shaken" result, which is going to stop him dead in his tracks. But with the crime boss almost in his grasp he can't stop now, so he spends another hero point to tough it out, ignores the shaken result, leaps forward, reaches the boss, and in one super-strong punch it's all over.

He's still got three armed men behind him, and with two hero points used up he's in some danger of lucky hits from them really messing up his night, so instead he scoops the unconscious boss over his shoulder and leaps off to deliver him to Scotland Yard.

A good night's work for our hero, and a satisfying test of the rules. Maybe heroes are slightly more vulnerable in this game than I anticipated, but that just means they need to fight more intelligently, and I'm ok with that. I'll make sure this comes across to the players when I test the rules again with them, so hopefully they don't get their characters killed in their very first fight.

So, armed with a better sense of combat balance, I can continue creating the Nazi characters who will be opposing the players. 

And here ends the rules test.


Rules Test (2)

by David Meadows 9. September 2017 12:47

We left our intrepid games master in a panic because the rules let a useless thug hit and badly hurt Lionheart, who's supposed to eat thugs for breakfast. Is all hope lost? Are these rules actually not as good as I thought?

In situations like this, there's just one question a beleaguered super-hero GM has to ask: 

What Would Peter Parker Do?

Pete would curse his bad luck, then he'd think about how much Aunt May was relying on him, and he'd make some supreme effort even though it seemed hopeless, and he'd win through in the end.

I firmly believe that this is the very heart of super-hero fiction. It's not about how hard you punch, it's about how you bounce back in the face of adversity. Any super-hero RPG rules that don't model this in some way are severely lacking.

And, what do you know? These rules do allow for this!

The game allocates a number of points called "bennies" (short for "benefits") to each character. (First of all, that's a horrible name for them, and I'm not going to use it. I'm going to call them "Hero Points", which is a term my players are familiar with from our original Strikeforce game.)

The player can use these "hero points" to overturn a run of bad luck and let his character win through by making some supreme effort. It's a rules mechanism I really like, because it doesn't completely take away the chance of failure (if the player screws up, he's still going to fail) but it offsets the small (but, as we've seen, real) chance that the GM is going to roll "6" multiple times in a row and really ruin your day through no fault of your own. 

The rule could be open to abuse, but as long as the number of points granted is small, the effect is one of re-balancing rather than un-balancing the game. The player can't blithely ignore every bad result they get, they have to choose their moment and make their character's heroic effort count. From experience in other games, I think the number of points granted to a player in these rules is about right.

So as Lionheart's player, I use up one of his "hero points", and he instantly recovers from the unlucky "shaken" combat result, pulling himself back together and ready for round 3.

On to combat round 3, then, and as expected, now he's on top of things again, Lionheart's superior skills cause the two thugs to miss him, while he punches thug #1 hard enough to knock him out.

I now look at the thugs with guns, and decide one of them ought to stop hovering about and just shoot Lionheart. The problem is, Lionheart is toe-to-toe with thug #2, and the rules give a chance (probably realistically) that the gunmen will hit their friend instead in the confused tussle. Should they try it?

I decide that thug #3 doesn’t really like thug #2 anyway, and doesn’t really care if shoots him by accident. So he takes the shot, misses Lionheart, and to thug #2’s great relief misses him too (I'm sure harsh words will be exchanged later, if they both survive this).

At this point, I decide that the boss villain will save his own skin, and he runs towards the back door. If he can get through it, he will jump into his waiting motorboat and make a clean getaway down the Thames. It now all comes down to whether Lionheart can catch him in time.

Tune in next time for the exciting conclusion!


Rules Test (1)

by David Meadows 8. September 2017 22:37

After generating a handful of characters, the next step is to test the combat rules by, well, making the characters fight.

For the fight, I use Lionheart, the first character I created with these rules (see here). He's going to be fighting some smugglers in a riverside warehouse in the East End of London in 1939. I quickly create five "thugs" and their leader. This only takes a minute, as cannon fodder like these don't need complete skills, I just need to note down the stats directly relevant to combat. They're all weaker than Lionheart of course (he's a super hero!) but they're armed with a variety of weapons to equalise things. I still expect him to beat them comfortably, however, as statistically they have almost no chance of hurting him. I sketched a quick "warehouse" plan and marked the characters with numbers (no need to be elaborate for just a test):

The combat starts when Lionheart, stalwart defender of British values, throws open the warehouse door and challenges the smugglers to surrender. Obviously they don't, or the fighting rules wouldn’t get tested.

While I'm running the combat, I have the rules open next to me and check every step of the way. If I identify a chart or table I'm obviously going to refer to a lot, I mark it with a sticky tag -- and I'll probably copy it so I have it for handy reference without wearing out the rule book.

Round 1 of the combat. Randomly deciding who goes first, it's Lionheart, so he runs up to a thug and punches him, missing completely (have I made his fighting skills too poor?). The thugs go next, and the three with guns draw them from under their coats. The two with crowbars in their hands (they were opening a crate of contraband, see?) move up to Lionheart and bash him. One misses, but the other gets a lucky hit -- literally, a lucky hit. Mathematically, these thugs have almost no chance to hit anyone as fast and skilled as Lionheart. And if they do hit by some miracle, they have almost no chance of hurting him. He'll shrug off anything less than a heavy machine-gun bullet.

In this case, though, the thug benefits from a game rule called "acing", which means that if you roll the maximum score on a dice you roll another dice and add the result -- and if it's another maximum score, you keep going. I get a ridiculous run of luck and roll loads of dice, which means Lionheart is not only hit, he's hit really hard! He's "shaken" (a game effect that means he can't act again until he gathers his wits) and he's badly injured! Lionheart has "Super Nerves of Steel", which means he can grit his teeth and ignore the wound, but being shaken is still a problem.

Round 2, and the thugs win the random initiative check so they go first. I've just remembered the "ganging up" rule, which means that because there are two thugs attacking Lionheart, they each get a bonus on their attack chances. Despite this, luck deserts them and they both miss him. Lionheart now needs a successful "Spirit" dice roll to recover from being shaken (Spirit being a game statistic that represents his willpower). Unfortunately, it's not his strong suit. I concentrated on making him fast and strong, and skimped on willpower. He fails the roll, so he's still shaken, unable to act, and will get repeatedly battered until he either recovers or another thug gets lucky and injures him again.

I'm suddenly dubious about the game's balance -- yes, the thug got unbelievably lucky, but even so, Lionheart should not be in this much trouble.

Will our hero survive?

Will the GM ever figure out how to balance fights properly?

Will these rules be thrown out in disgust?

Tune in next time for the next thrilling part of this play test!


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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New Rules

by David Meadows 13. August 2017 17:00

There are two things I need before I start a new game: a story background and a set of rules.

The story is obvious. If I don't have a story to involve the players in, I don't have a game. There's a lot to say about that, so I'll get to it later. First I’ll talk about the rules.

When I decided to run a series of discrete (though related) historical games, I knew I would need to use a different set of rules for each. Though the rules are really the least important element of a game, it’s important to have something that is capable of modelling the era correctly. You can’t just pick up a random set of rules and assume they will do what you want them to do, as rules are typically tailored to do something fairly specific and limited. If a set of rules has been written specifically to run games in the Wild West, they’re probably very good at resolving who wins the gunfight in the saloon, less good at figuring out whether a Roman Legionary can defeat the barbarian charging at him. A set of mediaeval rules will tell you how fast a horse can go, but are less useful if you’re playing in 2017 and you need to know the acceleration of your character’s Harley-Davidson (yes, you can research those details in conventional sources, but then you still have to figure out how to convert those real-world details into the game's mechanics, and it's all time and effort you don't want to spend when you really want to get on with just creating a story). 

And yes there are generic rules which (in theory) will handle every era, but they tend to be just that: generic. They don’t go into the detail you need for any specific era, forcing you to either buy extra setting-specific books from the publisher or do a lot of work to add the detail yourself. So for my purposes they give no advantage over just buying a suitable set of specific rules in the first place, really.

So before I can translate my story ideas into a workable game, I have to look for rules that will suitably model the kind of story I like to tell in the era I'm doing. I’ve never played a World War Two setting before, so I’m starting from a position of complete ignorance. Quick, Robin, to the Googlemobile!

An evening of solid research turned up a number of potential systems for playing characters in the War, but I had another problem: I needed to play super heroes in the war. And most games involving super heroes set them squarely in the modern day. 

To my rescue came something called Savage Worlds (from Pinnacle Entertainment Group, ), which is, yes, “generic”. But two of the key supplemental books they had produced were a super-powers book (obviously intended to be set in the modern day) and a book called “Weird War 2”, with a setting that assumes you are ordinary soldiers fighting not just the enemy but supernatural monsters in World War Two. Take that, subtract the supernatural and insert the super powers from the other book, and it works! (I hope.)

So I bought the books and I started reading. And it really will work. The WW2 book has all the detail I need to minimise any extra research on my part, and the core rules (the "generic" part) are flexible enough that adding in both the mundane war stuff and the super-hero stuff at the same time won't distort anything (I hope). Overall, I really liked the system -- it seemed simple but still comprehensive, and it looked like it would produce the style of game I like to run. 

So, rules are sorted. And while all this rule reading is going on, I’m still writing the story background. That's something for the next post ... 

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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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