Polishing Four Colors al Fresco

I just sent off an email to the person outside of the designers who best knows Four Colors al Fresco. I’m trying to polish a couple rough edges (Masterminds, character advancement, gaining Storypath cards), and hoping he can put together a playtest group and help me out. But if anyone else out there can do the same or has played before and discovered/invented a solution—or just has an idea from reading this—please feel free to chime in.

Following is the slightly-edited message I sent.

Masterminds.

I’m not completely happy with them, but I think they’re about ironed out. Unfortunately, it’s not enough actual play of them under the current rules (particularly the dice ("alpha planet") part). But it sounds good on paper, and the rest of it has been used plenty in play.

To review: Masterminds have an "Alpha" planet, and any time they are involved in a combined roll, they simply get to choose where that planet falls (presumably Dominant or Weak). IOW, don’t put yourself in a situation where you’re going head-to-head with a Mastermind, if you can avoid it, and certainly not in their area of power. The Alpha Planet functions otherwise like an Omega Planet—you get a Power, Weakness, and Quirk. Masterminds, in addition to their other Traits, have Mastermind Traits. That’s always been the case, but what I finally figured out is how to explain how I’ve always used them: they basically function like infinitely-reusable Storypath cards. At this point, I’ve been winging the number of Traits for Masterminds—I’ll take suggestions on how many they should have, or if there should be any rules or guidelines on how many or what types of Traits they should have.

Non-simultaneous combat.

Something I’ve been experimenting with, and I like in theory but might be a problem in practice, is "comicbook order" for action scenes. In most RPGs action is linear, or at least approximates it—everyone takes a turn, then repeat. Well, in comic books, that’s not necessarily so. You might focus on Wolverine fighting Sabretooth for a while, and then cut over to Cyclops teaming up with Iceman to try to stop the Blob. The important part is that the comics aren’t necessarily saying that the latter duel is temporally after the former—they might have been simultaneous, but we focus on one, then the other. (They might also be sequential—I’m not ruling that out, just not requiring it.)

Translated into gameplay, the idea is to focus on one subset of the action until it reaches a natural break point—that could be a cliffhanger, one person defeating the other, one of the involved parties calling in an ally, or whatever. But the important part is that, so long as a given subset of the characters are engaging in actions that could be occurring without directly affecting the others, deal just with that subset. Then "back up" and switch over to a different subset, and proceed until a break point. And so on. 

Upsides: A different feel. This feel is less choppy then most RPGs. You don’t do your cool move…and then wait 5 minutes to do the followup move, totally eliminating any momentum. This feel hopefully evokes comic books a bit—the most common medium for superheroes.

Downsides: It might replace waiting a couple minutes between actions with doing a bunch of stuff…and then waiting 20 minutes for your next turn. And, in fairness, action resolution flows quickly enough in Four Colors that taking turns for every action has never been a huge deal. But that also implies that letting the game run for a while via "comic book turn order" wouldn’t be so bad, either. 

Character change:

This much I’ve figured out for certain: I want a system that lets characters change over time, and leave it up to the players whether that means they also get better or more powerful. I.e., advancement is one option, but not mandated by the rules. So, both to accommodate this, and because I’ve never liked it when chargen rules produce characters different than the advancement rules—and since there is so much freedom in defining Traits—characters will always have the same number of Traits. So however the mechanics work, the end result will be redefining one or more Traits, so that you end up with the same total number. One way to do this could be to figure out a way to effectively combine two Traits you already had, thus freeing up a slot to add a whole new one. Or you could broaden the scope of an existing Trait. Or you could always just completely replace one.

What I haven’t figured out is what mechanism regulates this. The original rules used the blank Storypath cards (1 in a deck of 81)—you’re allowed to hold on to a blank Storypath until between sessions, and then trade it in for a new Trait. It would now be permission to redefine a Trait, but could otherwise function the same. But I don’t think I like the randomness. Some people advance, some don’t—and who or when is essentially random. And it would likely be pretty infrequent. Ideally, the Trait-redefinition rules would either be completely freeform "do it whenever the group says it’s ok", or tied into one of two parts of the game:

A: The Storypath cards: It could be trading in a certain number, but I’d actually prefer to encourage spending them—not make it a tradeoff between using them in play or hoarding them for advancement. One possibility would be to track how many are spent (and it could be just the helpful or just the hindering ones), and when X are spent, you redefine a Trait. Another idea would be to tie using them in game directly into advancement, and make advancement an in-game rather than between-game event. So, perhaps, when you use a story path card you can sacrifice N more to make a permanent change in the character as part of whatever that story path card does?

B: The passage of pages/issues/miniseries: I’ve long wanted a way to systematize concretization of in-game events, in the form of new or changed Traits. In this paradigm, it would be something like "each N issues" or "upon completion of a miniseries" or "once per miniseries" or something similar, you get to redefine a Trait. My biggest objection to this is it feels a bit too predictable. And the between-issue options don’t feel very superhero-like—in comics, at least, characters tend to get radically redefined during events, not between them (reboots and the like excepted). One idea I toyed with was accumulation of some sort of points (1 per issue plus 1 per miniseries, or something like that), and then you can use those points to concretize in-game events. IOW, if you don’t spend any points on it, then Dr. Doom’s death ray that you took from him last issue is just never mentioned again. But if you have and spend Y points, then you can make it [part of] one of your Traits. This works slightly less well with the fixed number of Traits idea, which I definitely want to stick with, but the basic idea is there. But now I’m adding a whole ‘nother set of mechanics to the game. Using the passage of time—which isn’t all that much more than flavor text right now—for this is awesome! Tracking points for it is not—unless it gives a really awesome benefit in the process.

And, no, a Dresden Files-like GM-declared milestones system would not be satisfactory. It’s basically separate from all the other mechanics (a good thing in Dresden Files, but not what I’m looking for), so at that point I’d just go with "whenever you want to" or "whenever the group feels is appropriate".

Storypath Economy

Storypath cards have always been basically the "hero points" of the game. To that end, I think how they are gained needs some tweaking. Right now, spending them works really well. But, by the strict rules, they are almost never gained, and only sometimes replenished. So, suggestions for when/how they might be gained, in order to encourage their freer use, and so that long-running games don’t run out? When I ran a multi-month game, I simply handed out a couple to everyone every couple sessions (i forget whether it was 1 per session, or a larger number per miniseries). That could be the rules—but if you have a cleverer idea, I’d love to hear it. The other obvious mechanism is as a reward—either for entertaining play (a la Fan Mail in Primetime Adventures) or for in-game actions (a la tokens in Iron Heroes). 

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