January 27th, 2010
|12:52 pm - Indie RPG and the Temple of Doom - With Great Power|
The superhero genre is a broad one, not just in terms of quality but in the styles and themes of stories that can be told within it, everything from Watchmen to Fighting American to Starman and beyond. Most superhero RPGs attempt to encompass as much of that thematic breadth as possible, generally by ignoring theme (at least on a mechanical level) and instead focusing on flexibility and mechanics in character detail and creation, following the blueprint laid down by Champions. With Great Power takes a very different tack, focusing on the subgenre of 'hero overcomes great odds to save the day, but at great emotional cost and sacrifice', the model best typified by Spider-Man and most Marvel comics up to the early 80s or so. But rather than using early 80s game design, WGP does this with detailed and very specific mechanics that put characters' needs and relationships at the centre of conflicts, and carefully structures gameplay to produce a (hopefully) satisfying narrative arc.
Character creation starts with choosing a thematic conflict for the story arc, such as power/responsibility or freedom/duty. Characters are then defined with a handful of Aspects, narrative tags that can cover superpowers and skills ('Spider-powers', 'Black Jade Kung-Fu'), but also relationships, jobs, personality traits and anything else the player wants to see integrated into the plotline. After creation, the GM spends some time creating a villain or two in the same way, and a Plan that relies on the villain taking control of specific PC Aspects in some way. Play then revolves around scenes, setting stakes, and similar indie-game stuff, which feature either character/plot development or outright conflict; the difference is important and makes a big difference in gameplay.
The system uses playing cards, and development scenes are a simple high-card-wins clash between GM and player; conflict scenes are broken into pages and panels, and the system morphs into back-and-forth trick-taking, where changing suits allows you to narrate changes in conflict style (moving from slugfest to stealth, for instance). Losing a scene costs you your stakes and inflicts damage on Aspects, but in turn gives you more cards to spend in conflicts. Pretty straightforward, but there are many tricks and tweaks to give the system substance and (especially) to reinforce the theme and structure. For instance, GMs start with multiple decks and many wild cards, but the more conflicts the PCs lose, the more advantages are stripped away - so by the end, the NPC villain may have a big narrative advantage over the heroes, but the players actually have the mechanical edge over the GM and can make a last-minute dramatic comeback. WGP has a number of such tricks (some complex enough to require planning sheets and props), and they really reinforce the structure and direction of play in clever and more-or-less organic ways.
Gameplay aside, WGP is clearly and energetically written; the narrative voice is enthusastic but never over-hyped, and author Michael Miller's obvious love of the genre is infectious. Perhaps the best element of the writing is the ongoing example of play, a session with named players and PCs that illustrates every aspect of the rules clearly and engagingly. (There's also a short comic example for conflict scenes, but it's clumsier and largely unnecessary.) I often find indie RPGs don't give enough guidance to players and (especially) GMs about how to change their established playstyle, but WGP does this very effectively, to the point where I feel confident I could easily run a game and know what I was doing. The only concern I have is one central contradiction - the GM is meant to play reactively, bouncing off PCs' aspects rather than planning a plot, but at the same time has to play and portray the NPC villain as proactive, drawing the heroes into his/her Great Plan and thinking a step ahead. Balancing that could be tricky, and it's a shame the game doesn't give slightly stronger guidance there.
And that's a pretty minor flaw, frankly, in what is a very cool looking game. I burned out on supers RPGs 15-odd years ago, and ever since I've felt that I've said and done everything I think I need to with that kind of game. With Great Power makes me think about going back to that well and seeing what emotional power I could draw from old, classic themes and tropes. I hope one day to get the chance.
I ran a two-session game of WGP a while back, and it was mighty awesome. Actually, here's
the first one, if you're interested.
This page is not here
like plum blossoms in the wind
existence is fake
...sounds very cool! It's interesting to see the difference in tone between the four-colour heroics of the rulebook's example of play and the significantly darker style of your game.
If Captain Pilcrow and his nefarious henchmen start terrorising Melbourne, drop me a line... :)
You're always on my call list!
When I organize myself to make one, anyway...
Did you hear about the $20 Haiti relief bundle they're selling at DriveThruRPG? Lots of weird and wonderful indie stuff, although also lots and lots of d20 dreck. Still, for the price it's hard to go too far wrong :)
Yep. Donated at the start of the week, slowly working my way through the downloads now.