#RPGaDay2015: 19 – Simulating Powers and Influencing Stories

It’s probably no surprise that the supers RPG I wrote is, most days, my favorite. “Why” is hopefully the more interesting question.

When we wrote Four Colors al Fresco back in 1999/2000, the supers RPG scene, even moreso than RPGs in general, was very different from today. With two minor† exceptions, all supers RPGs up to that point had the same fundamental structure, focusing on modeling superpowers with varying degrees of detail and complexity. Marvel Superheroes (and others) had extensive lists to try to cover every power imaginable. Champions (and others) instead provided a system to build your power, detail by detail*.

But both methods ran into the fundamental problem that, once you had your character detailed, they were largely set. Oh, sure, every supers RPG (well, almost every—not sure about some of the earliest ones that I’ve never actually seen) had ways for characters to spend experience points and get more powerful. But until you spent those experience points, your capabilities would stay the same. If your character could lift 5 tons, your character wouldn’t be throwing a tank. That’s just not how superhero comics work. They’re wildly inconsistent—in one scene, the Thing grunts to lift a truck; in another he easily rips up a giant tree and uses it as a club. Some of this is power creep over the years, and could be simulated in an RPG by experience mechanics. But some of it is scene-to-scene, and characters might get more powerful or less.

Champions had (and has) complicated rules for “pushing” that try to model the variable capabilities that supers display in the comics. Other games have more generic “stunting” or “hero point” rules that simply let a character do better than their stats would indicate with either a good roll or by spending some resource. At best, these mechanics work pretty well for this—but they’re still predicated on the notion that there is a consistent physics underlying what supers are capable of, and if you understand it with sufficient detail, you can produce the same results as the big comic book writers.

There Has to be Another Way!

OK, hands up, everyone who thinks that your typical superhero comic writer starts from a detailed simulation of the reality of the characters’ powers, and then only uses plot elements that that allows.

Yeah, me neither. I mean, sure, it’s been done, particularly for a single plot point or even storyline. But the majority of the time, I’m pretty sure the writers are writing good stories first, and bending the physics if necessary to make them work. Story is ruined if Spider-Man can lift a bus? Bus is too heavy. Story would be cooler if Spider-Man can toss a locomotive? Spider-Man lifts the locomotive. The trick to good superhero writing isn’t so much perfect consistency, as keeping the inconsistency small enough to be overlooked and/or justifying it.

So, with that in mind, we saw a different way. Inspired by games like Over the Edge and Maelstrom Storytelling, we set about to create a supers RPG that assumed the same structure that the writers of comics do. That is, a game built upon a good story, where the powers are in service to that story, rather than a game built upon a powers framework and the story has to fit in there somehow.

Obviously, these two approaches overlap in many cases. I’m not saying you can’t have interesting, satisfying, comicbook-like stories using Champions (or Mutants & Masterminds, or Wild Talents, or…). And you’ll almost certainly create some sort of powers framework and/or world physics in the process of crafting comicbook-like supers stories—we certainly did with Four Colors al Fresco. But if you build the game around numbers and quantification, it’s going to be easier to support that part, and if you build the game around story, it’s going to be easier to support storytelling.

The way we chose to favor story, rather than power physics, was to define powers (and all of a character’s capabilities) the same way that a comicbook writer would: with textual (rather than numeric) descriptions. This is not to say that there can be no quantification, just that it’s done in a narrative, rather than mathematical, fashion. If your concept is someone who is as strong as ten men, then their Power would be “Strength of Ten Men”. Want a character who can fly? It’s as simple as writing “Mechanical Wings: A pair of great wings fuzed to her shoulders lets her fly.” Want more detail? Add it. Want to leave it open-ended? Do so. Want to define the Hulk’s power‡? No need to figure out exactly how many stress points it takes to push from a Strength of 250 to a Strength of 300, or have a stress track that requires N points for each point of Super-strength boost. “The madder he gets, the stronger he gets.” That’s all there is to it.

Some other day, I’ll talk about why Four Colors al Fresco isn’t built primarily around narrative-control mechanics (like Primetime Adventures, With Great Power…, or Capes), despite being built to facilitate story creation.


† minor in the sense that almost nobody had ever heard of them, and neither, as far as I know, led directly into any other RPGs in the future

* I once read about a Champions character who had a Force Field power with the limitations of Ablative and “Only in Crowds”. To fully make sense of this, you have to understand that all of his powers were mind-control based…

‡ well, one version of his power. It’s changed a lot over the years, but there are at least some versions where the madder he gets, the stronger he gets, and there’s no limit to that.

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