Every Week It's Wibbley-Wobbley Timey-Wimey Pookie-Reviewery...

Saturday 6 August 2011

Wild, Yet Not Without Focus

Back in 2001 there was a rash of RPGs devoted to World War II, of which my favourite was GODLIKE: Superhero Roleplaying in a World on Fire, 1936-1946 from Arc Dream Publishing. It presented a desperate time of men at war wielding small, focused, even odd talents or powers through Will alone, such as being able to open any lock by pointing at it, falling asleep and having your bones go fight for you, or being able to fly, but only whilst praying. Allied characters or Talents, were soldiers first, because whilst every Talent was amazing in some way, unless he had armoured skin or was invulnerable in some way, bullets could still kill him. Worse a Talent’s super abilities could be literally switched off if he lost a battle of will with another Talent or a German Übermenschen.

In addition to being an interesting setting, GODLIKE also introduced what would become known as employ the ORE or “One Roll Engine” System. With a single roll of a pool of ten-sided dice, it determined both how fast and how well a character performed, whilst in combat it also determined where he hit his target and how hard. All this could be drawn from the value (Height) and number (Width) of just matched results. For example, Private Maxwell takes a shot at a German soldier. With Body 2 and Rifle 3, Maxwell rolls 5d or five dice. His results of 1, 3, 5, 10, and 10 reads as Width 2, Height 10, or 2x10. The Width of 2 means that it was not a very quick shot, but the Height of 10 means that the German has been shot in the head and will suffer Width+2 or 3 killing damage.

Larger dice pools increase the possibility of rolling matches in what is otherwise a gritty set of mechanics. Where the ORE System gets interesting is in the addition of two extra dice types. The first is Hard Dice, which always have a value of 10. Any Hard Dice represent both the maximum of any skill or ability and an unconscious inflexible action. It would mean for example, that if Private Maxwell had any Hard Dice in his Rifle skill, say 5d+2hd, he would instinctively aim for the target’s head every time. In the encounter above, the result would be 1, 3, 5, 10, and 10, plus the two Hard Dice of 10 each, which would read as Width 4, Height 10, or 4x10. With the rifle inflicting Width+2 in Killing Damage, the likelihood is that the German is dead, even with protection of his steel helmet.

The second type is Wiggle Dice. Instead of always being set at 10, a Wiggle Die can be any value as determined by the player, and represents more carefully judged skill or ability use. If Private Maxwell had a single Wiggle Die in his Rifle skill, say 5d+1wd, he would have made the roll above and could have attached the Wiggle Die to any of the results, so that he could shot the German in the left foot (2x1), left (2x3) or right (2x5) arm, or head (3x10). Further, if Maxwell had been using a Thompson SMG, he could have used the 2x10 and whatever number the Wiggle Die was attached to in order to achieve multiple hits. Either way, with a Wiggle Die, Maxwell has greater control over where his shot goes and can fire with intent to wound rather than kill.

Mere humans under the ORE System are rated between one and five, but it is possible to have stats or Hyperstats and skills or Hyperskills above this – as high as ten. With a Rifle skill of 5, any dice of any type – ordinary, Hard, or Wiggle Dice – would make Maxwell’s skill a Hyperskill. In addition to these, the ORE System has Miracles, the term it uses for superpowers. Character creation under the ORE System involves buying dice for the Stats, Skills, and Miracles, with Hard and Wiggle Dice being progressively more expensive.

All right, so far it has been all about the ORE System. This is intentional as it is its mechanics that really do set the feel of any game they are used for. They are designed to be fast – “ORE” does stand for “One-Roll Engine” after all, but they are also gritty, not to say dangerous. This was certainly the case with GODLIKE: Superhero Roleplaying in a World on Fire, 1936-1946, and it is so with Wild Talents: Superhero Roleplaying in a World Gone Mad, the RPG that let gamers do more with superheroes and the ORE System than have them participate in World War II.

Originally published in a limited run in 2007, but now available in an expanded Second Edition from Cubicle Seven Entertainment, Wild Talents was always more than just a set of detailed superhero RPG rules. As with the original, Wild Talents Second Edition provides a guide to creating superhero worlds based on our own; pushes the world of GODLIKE into the twenty-first century; and presents a scenario to a low-powered Wild Talents game. There are also one or two additions that I will come to in a bit.

In presenting a “generic” superhero RPG, there are a number of differences between GODLIKE and Wild Talents. The first of these is what powers a character’s super abilities. In both RPGs, it is Will, which when lost in both games means that a character cannot use his super abilities. In GODLIKE, it is usually won or lost following contests of wills with opposing Talents or Übermenschen to try and negate his power. In Wild Talents, Willpower use is more flexible providing a range of benefits when spent and can be more easily gained or lost, ranging being Heroic and rolling matching 10s to suffering failure or tragedy. Underlying a character’s Willpower in Wild Talents are his Motivations, the Loyalties and Passions that drive him. Playing to and against these Motives will usually have a role in how many points of Willpower a character possesses at any one time.

The second difference is the amount of points a player has to spend on his character. The GODLIKE base character, a trained soldier, is worth one hundred points in Wild Talents, on top of which his player has another twenty-five points to spend on his actual Talent. The result is invariably a relatively powerful, narrowly focused ability. In Wild Talents, a player has a total of between two hundred and five hundred points to spend, the suggested total being two-hundred-and fifty points. The third difference is that characters now have one or more Archetypes, each the source of a character’s powers and also defining what he can have. The samples given include Adept (essentially Hypertrained), Alien, Artificial, Mutant, and Mystic.

Guidelines allow a GM or player to not only create his own Archetype, but also his own Miracles. Miracles are built with up to four Qualities -- Attacks, Defends, Robust (Miracle works regardless of distraction), and Useful Outside of Combat. The number of Qualities sets a Miracle’s base dice cost to which can be assigned cost increasing Extras like Locked On and Radioactive, and Flaws such as Attached and Touch Only that decrease it. Dice pool size determines range, spread, and capacity, so Flight 6d gives a flight speed of 64mph, whilst Body 6d lifting power of 1,600 pounds. Power Stunts can also be bought for most Miracles, for example Barnstormer adds dice to roll when maneuvering through a city skyscraper canyons. Other Miracles are straight level based, for example Heavy Armor and Immunity.

Wild Talents includes the usual superpowers, from Absorption to Unconventional move, the player having to the exact nature and parameter of each Miracle, the point being that a power is not going to be the same for every hero. Sidebars suggest how Miracles might be used to simulate powers of the comics, such as using Containment and Attach with Heavy Armor to create Force Fields, or Extra Tough, Flight, Harm, Hyperbody, and Immunity all Attached to Heavy Armor to do Power Armor.

Wild Talents introduces several Miracles not found in GODLIKE -- Telepathy, Cosmic Power/Spell Casting and Gadgeteering/Enchanting. These last two work to simulate other Miracles and can be very expensive in terms of Will. Although the designers go to great lengths to explain how each works, some examples would have helped. This is an issue throughout the book, but primarily with character generation which is not a simple process. To some extent, the selection of pre-built Miracles eases it a little, but Wild Talents is not a game in which a character can be created on the fly.

Except in the Second Edition, such a character can be. In an idea first seen in Reign, the ORE System fantasy RPG in which the players played not just characters, but organisations too, Wild Talents includes a “One-Roll Talents” set of tables. With the roll of nine dice a whole character can be created in a few minutes. For example, a roll of 1, 2, 2, 2, 2, 5, 5, 7, and 9 gives the following results, with the matched sets deciding the Miracles and the single dice his Events or backgrounds.

Arkadi Quayn
Body 2 Coordination 2 Sense 2
Mind 2 Charm 2 Command 1
Base Will:
Willpower: +1
Skills: Athletics 1d, Brawl 1d, Endurance 1d, Intimidate 1d, Knowledge (Engineering) 4d, Perception 2d, Research 3d, Scrutiny 1d, Stability 1d

Flight 8d+1wd with Power Booster/9; Light Armour 4hd; Immunity (high altitude and suffocation) +2hd
Power Blast (Defends) 10d
Precognition 8d

Events: Librarian, Stranded Time Traveller From The Future, Unjustly Convicted

Now this character is far from complete, a few details are needed here and there, primarily his Archetype. As to Quayn’s background, the Events suggest the following. Quayn was a technician working on a time travel program led by Doctor Tempuso, who was using the technology to his own ends and set Quayn up to take the blame. He was convicted of the crime, but escaped and attempted to stop Doctor Tempuso. Although successful, Quayn was flung back into the past with a device that that Doctor Tempuso had stolen from the future. This is what gives Quayn his powers.

Given the complexity of building characters in Wild Talents, it is pleasing that the section on creating worlds is as elegant as the ORE System mechanics. In “Building Superheroic Histories” Ken Hite starts with one simple question – “How much do you want the existence of superheroes to change the world?” Then with four design axes, he takes the GM through how to set the parameters for his campaign. The Axes are Red, Historical Inertia measuring how much Talents can change history; Gold, Talent Inertia or how much the Talents change themselves; Blue or how much paranormal and alien influence there is; and Black, Moral Clarity, is the world morally black and white, or does it contain shades of grey? Push all four to the maximum to get a Four Color world. The essay also discusses the nature of realism in a Talent setting and how Talents fit into it before exploring common trigger points for Alternate Histories, coming right up to date with 2001.

The setting for Wild Talents is “A World Gone Mad,” a development of the history first seen in GODLIKE. Whilst it parallels our own modern history, it makes a number of switches to the politics of the Cold War, with the Soviets and the Americans backing different nations in the Middle East -- Israel is Soviet backed, Syria U.S. backed, and so on. In this history, Talents were used in a militarized Space Race, reaching Mars in 1969; and it culminates in secret interstellar in the first decade of the twenty-first century. Other notable differences include a united India as a world power that leads the computer industry, and the Talent volunteers, a non-political organization that helps worldwide. Campaign suggestions are given throughout the history, decade by decade.

Wild Talents is rounded out with four appendices. The first of these gives the full stats for many of the Talents that have appeared elsewhere in the book. The second and third appendices present well-written guides to both roleplaying and how to be a GM, whilst the last looks at adventures, scenes, and challenges. At just two pages in length, it is a bit too short to be anything more than a cursory look at all three.

When I originally reviewed the First Edition of Wild Talents it included a complete adventure. The Second Edition does not, and is the better for it. The issue was that the scenario was not set in the Wild Talents setting “A World Gone Mad,” which meant that the book contained a set of rules, a guideline to superhero setting creation, a given setting, and a generic scenario, four elements that did not sit well together. Had the scenario been set “A World Gone Mad,” then the book would have been more cohesive and more focused.

The same effect, that of being more focused, is achieved in the Second Edition of Wild Talents with a set of detailed, gritty rules; a superb essay on setting creation; and an interesting setting itself. While the rules for running the game are simple, those for character creation are excellent for anyone wanting to detail their superhero’s powers in exact terms. These are rules in which you can get under the hood and tinker, but this demands time and effort upon the part of both and GM. Wild Talents is not necessarily a casual superhero RPG.

The effect of the rules though, is fantastic, and particularly so in genres other than the Four Colour of mainstream superhero comics. This is not to say that Wild Talents cannot do Four Colour, but it has to work harder to do so. Where its strengths lie is portraying grittier settings such as The Dark Knight Returns, Top 10, The Ultimates, Watchmen, and even the Wild Cards setting. In doing so, Wild Talents: Superhero Roleplaying in a World Gone Mad brings a harsher edge to roleplaying the superhero genre, yet still has room aplenty to be flexible.

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