Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Super-Five in the DCU!

Given me "paws" ... get it?!

This past week's play-test of Super-Five has given me pause. Oh, a good time was had by all ... these were good pause. I simply have a lot buzzing around in my brain following the game.

One of my players is a big Wonder Twins fan. I even posted Super-Five stats of the Wonder Twins just for him. We started talking about the Wonder Twins and he brought me up to speed on the evolution of the characters post the Super Friends and even created his own version of the characters for Super-Five.

So, that was it. A play-test of Super-Five had to happen, and soon, so that he and his wife could role-play the Wonder Twins: Zan and Jayna!

Plans were made and I grew very excited about the chance to give Super-Five a whirl. We are playing Five By Five v3 and that game is going well. We have more or less modern day ordinary characters who find themselves adventuring in a sort of every genre multi-verse, but we haven't made the jump to superheroes (yet,) so this was an awesome chance to test out some of my rules additions/variations.

Much to everyone's surprise, my Wonder Twins players came ready to roll and set the tone for the evening!

Zan and Jayna came dressed to play!

I knew that two of my players were going to be the Wonder Twins so I asked my other two players if they could think of other less mainstream characters from the DCU to round out the team. I was more than pleased with the results as my players came back to me with: Ambush Bug, and Deadman. This was going to be quite the interesting game.

Click Deadman or Ambush Bug text in caption to visit the artist's page.

I began the adventure in Metropolis and told Zan and Jayna that for this game they were high school students at Metro-High. They were cool with that. Ambush Bug has a history of annoying Superman, so I told him that he might be in Metropolis with that in mind, but that Supes is no where to be found, apparently off-planet dealing with some extra-terrestrial menace.

I started with the traditional audible burglar alarm at Metropolis Federal Bank to draw the heroes in. Deadman is transported to the site of the robbery by Rama Kushna the Goddess who sponsors his existence in the afterlife, as she explains simply, "You are needed here." The rest of the heroes respond of their own volition as heroes are want to do, since they are within earshot of the alarm.

Inside the bank are people with hands in the air, but no robbers in sight. The bank robbers are invisible! Deadman manages to possess one of the robbers and through his eyes can see the others. They are all using some kind of technology to make themselves unseen. Zan and Jayna turn into a mist and a police dog. Zan is hoping the mist will maybe expose the invisible baddies. It's a good thought, but it doesn't work. Jayna in the meantime barks at the hostages in her best, I'm a trustworthy police dog bark voice, and tries to lead them outside to safety.

One of the invisible robbers blocks the door, stopping the escape, but Zan and Jayna are having none of that and transform again into a tiger and a water spout. Zan as a water spout tries to push the bank doors open while Jayna threatens the robbers with a Tigery growl. But they fail their dice rolls so instead it's decided that Zan's water spout accidentally washes Jayna's tiger self right outside and into the path of the police.

Ambush bug finally makes an appearance popping up between tiger and cops exclaiming, "Don't shoot this tiger! Doesn't she look trustworthy!"

Zan was able to wash the robbers away from the doors, subduing them in the process ... all but two that is. The two by the bank counter, one of whom is possessed by Deadman. The robber with free will makes a break for a side door and the Deadman follows, playing his role as baddie, hoping to be lead to the robbers' hideout.

But outside a dark cloud looms blotting out the sun! And behind this dark cloud? I gigantic flying starfish!! It's Starro!

Little starfish (well little compared to Starro, but still big for starfish) come flying out and cover the faces of cops, and superheroes alike, everyone but Deadman and the bank robber who are invisible, and Zan who was still made of water.

All the world's heroes are the slaves of Starro!

Ambush Bug simply reached up and pulled the Starro-fish off his face. For some reason he seemed to be immune. Zan, who was still a water spout, didn't really have a face to speak of and so was also free for the moment. Jayna in tiger form was the only player character hero under Starro's thrall.

Enter Captain Marvel to save the day! Who was immediately snagged by a Starro-fish and turned from potential savior to threat. Zan could move to touch Jayna and hoped that a transformation might help free his sister. He was able to trigger a transformation and both Zan and Jayna returned to human form. And tah dah! It worked, Jayna was freed of the Starro-Fish.

The heroes fled inside the bank to hide, hopefully placing a physical barrier between themselves and the Starro-fish. Deadman noting that the transformation power of the Wonder Twins had freed Jayna from Starro's influence quickly entered Captain Marvel's body to attempt to trigger his transformation. I had Deadman's player make a roll for this to see if he really knew the secret of the magic word, "Shazam" and he rolled a zero, so I let it fly. Deadman entered the big red cheese's body and managed to over-ride Starro's control invoking the magic word, "Shazam!"

Now, what happened next, I totally stole from an episode of the Batman: the Brave and the Bold cartoon. And it was the reason I put Captain Marvel in the story. I wanted this to happen. I just didn't expect it to happen so soon. The magical lightning comes down, but it doesn't strike Captain Marvel. Starro is in the way blocking out the sky. The lightning hits Starro! The Star fish despot from space lets out a mighty scream as he is struck by the lightning and stunned from the attack, all the Starro-fish fall from the faces in the immediate area, including the one on Captain Marvel.

Deadman vacates Captain Marvel and enters one of the police officers on site. He quickly explains to Captain Marvel that he needs to keep invoking the magic word ... to do it over and over again! Captain Marvel complies and the assault on Starro begins. This could mean the end of the adventure very quickly! I needed to slow things down a bit to keep the story rolling along a bit longer.

Enter some new players, heroes still under Starro's control. Raven of the Teen Titans, Wonder Woman, and the Flash. I had Flash give Ambush Bug a super-speed punch in the nose. I had Wonder Woman bind the Wonder Twins with her magic lasso. And, I had Raven envelop Captain Marvel in a ooze of mysterious black force. (I might be getting Raven's powers confused with Cloak of Cloak and Dagger fame here ... but my players went with it.)

The twins try to transform to free themselves of Wonder Woman's lasso, but trapped in the magic of the lasso's embrace, the transformation doesn't work. Ambush Bug teleports over beside Wonder Woman hoping to draw the Flash into an accidental collision with the amazing amazon, which does work and Flash and WW crash together freeing the twins.

The Wonder Twins attack Wonder Woman by transforming into a pool of water and an octopus. I am not entirely sure how it happened, but the octopus ended up spinning through the air like a Frisbee. Deadman tries possessing Captain Marvel again, right through the black stuff, to which I dramatically announce ... "When you try to enter Captain Marvel's body through the black matter you instead enter into hell! Bwah! Ha! Ha!!"

Again might be getting Raven confused with Illyana Rasputin but Raven's dad Trigon was a demon, right? I haven't read a Teen Titans comic since Wolfman and Perez in the 80's. In fact, my entire version of the DCU (and Marvel) as depicted through my GMing would definitely be an 80's universe. But again the players went with it.

I told Deadman how he found a young Billy Batson sitting and crying among the fire and brimstone. Ambush bug decided to try to break Starro's control over Raven and described teleporting right in front of Raven and poking the Starro-Fish in the "eye" with his finger. This seemed like a very Ambush-Buggy thing to do and so I had him roll for possible success. Succeed he did, and I described the Starro-Fish falling away from Raven's face. It was easy enough to rationalize that the Starro-Fish's hold on Raven was already tenuous at best.

I went ahead and had Starro take off ... flying away into the distance ... and had the Flash and Wonder Woman follow, leaving the small group of second rate heroes alone to their devices. Deadman attempts to "leave" Captain Marvel's possession and is able to return to the real world. Raven has fallen to her knees and is an emotional wreck, incoherent and unable to function as a result of the backlash of Starro's possession. The cocoon of blackness that held Captain Marvel captive dissipates, but there is no Captain Marvel to be found ... he is gone.

Deadman tells the group that Captain Marvel is trapped in hell. No problem, says Ambush Bug, I can teleport there and rescue him! We agree that given Ambush Bug's unique perspective on the worlds and time and various dimensions, that he might indeed be able to accomplish this. So, I let him roll it. The roll fails, and I say ... sorry, you can't seem to teleport to wherever Captain America is. Ambush Bug reminds me that he was not in fact trying to teleport to Captain America but rather Captain Marvel.

It's a fun slip of the tongue because I quickly decide that in fact, Ambush Bug's failed roll means that he did indeed teleport right in front of Captain America during World War II (because, war is hell ... right?) I waited to see what Ambush Bug decided to do with this new turn of events, but he merely quipped a quick greeting to the Captain and then teleported himself back to the other players and the immediate problems at hand.

He explains that he can't locate Captain Marvel, and Deadman tells him to try Billy Batson instead as that was the form that he was in. I decide this new tact warrants another roll of the dice and this time Ambush Bug is successful. He arrives at Billy's location, scoops him up and returns him to the rest of the group. Billy's ordeal has left the boy distraught. And Raven is no better.

Ambush Bug decides that what they need is Professor X to go into their minds and fix them, so he teleports to the Marvel Universe to Professor Xavier's School for gifted youngsters to nab the professor and bring him back to help. There's a bit of breaking the forth wall fun as Ambush notes that Professor X looks exactly like Captain Picard, and the Professor is brought up to speed on the situation.

Professor X agrees to help and tries to enter Raven's mind. This roll fails, and I explain how the professor grabs his head screaming in agony as he connects with Raven. In a panic, Ambush Bug teleports the Professor back home and leaves him there for the X-Men to sort out.

Back in the DCU, Jayna transforms into a baby dragon and tries to comfort Billy. It helps some, but not enough, so she tries with Raven too. This is more successful and the comforting coo of Jayna's baby dragon form brings Raven back to her senses where Professor Xavier had failed. (Maybe Ambush should have grabbed Lockheed!)

Look out, Shadowcat, Raven wants your pet!

Raven tends to Billy while the heroes turn their attentions to the problem of Starro. They have figured out that it seems to be "Transformation Magic" that disrupts the starfish invader and so they concoct a plan. (And, seriously ... this is their plan:) Ambush Bug teleports all over town gathering as much Country Time Lemonade Mix (it was their product placement, not mine.) as they can get, filling a gigantic bag with the stuff.

The idea is that Zan is going to transform into a giant ice cold glass of water and using the Country Time they will create the most irresistible glass of lemonade ever conceived, and when Starro comes to drink it, he will actually consume Zan (and Jayna who will take the form of a gnat floating on top of the delectable beverage.) Then the twins, now inside the very internal organs of the giant interstellar starfish will transform and the magic of their transformation will destroy Starro in the process.

Have our Heroes discovered Starro's weakness?!

Well, this plan was just so silly, I had to see it through. To improve their chances, the heroes donned the tech gear confiscated from the bank robbers to make themselves invisible and then went in pursuit of Starro. I explain that Starro has flown very far away in a short time (being able to travel between the galaxies and all) so, Jayna turns into a little mouse and Zan into an ice cube. Ambush grabs them up and Deadman possesses Jayna for the ride as Ambush teleports the lot of them to Starro's location.

I explain how Starro has gathered all the worlds superheroes here to some remote valley in Colorado to begin an super-powered invasion of the galaxy! The heroes are confident and spring into action to implement their plan. I have them roll some dice, but these come up the accursed Doubles! The plan is doomed to fail! I describe how a gust of wind blows the Country Time Lemonade powder before they are able to mix it into Zan's giant ice cold glass of ice-water shape and how the fine powder invades everyone's nostrils causing all to sneeze and cough, including Starro and all his possessed supers.

This distraction buys the heroes a bit of time to gather their wits, but was certainly not the outcome they were hoping for. Zan and Jayne become giant creatures and attack Starro, but Deadman has a different idea. "Can I find Zatana among all the heroes?" he asks me. I say that he can, and so Deadman possess Zatana to enact his own plan.

"Lla seoreh emoceb eht Settekcor!" He chants!

(I make the player say the words. If you don't know, you have to read each word backwards. He wrote them out on his iPad and then recited the spell.)

It worked! All of the worlds superheroes were suddenly a dancing chorus line of Rockettes!

Batman, is that you?!!

He then cast the counter spell, "Seoreh nruter ot lamron."

And this worked too! The transformation freed all the worlds superheroes of Starro's control, who all collectively as a group joined forces to wail on the alien starfish in a multi-page splash illustration mega battle.

It seemed like this was a good way for Starro to meet his demise and I conceded victory to the players. They had saved the world, nay, the universe!

Everyone had a lot of fun, but the play-test for me was sort of a mixed bag ... hence the paws. I ran this game like I tend to run all of my games, fast and loose ... reacting to the players and going with the flow. Should I have instead created something with more structure in an attempt to focus on certain rules?

Because the thing is ... we didn't really use trait specialization or even participate in a structured combat at all. It was more fast and loose than that. I think that I did assign one point of stress to Jayna during the game, but it was arbitrary at best. But, no one missed it. And so, my pondering is ... maybe I should just abandon all ties to my old-school gaming roots and make Super-Five a full blown story game.

I don't need the miniatures war game elements in my game to have fun. Why do I even need rounds of combat, or hit-points (or stun, or whatever)? Even our regular Five by Five sessions seem to flow better when we hand-wave combat.

These are the thoughts tumbling in my head. Coupled with how do I create rules to facilitate what we did at the table during this game. I know what we did. It's a lot of how I always play. But, how do I package that so that others can benefit from the same play style?

If combat isn't based on the familiar war game model, will players be able to get into it? If I don't want to bother tracking stun or life or whatever, how do we create a sense of urgency or player mortality?

What do other story games do? I am going to do some research and read some games that focus on narrative over simulation to see how other game designers handle game management. If anyone has any good story games to recommend that I read in this quest, please pass them along.




  1. Hi, Jeff. I am following with interest the evolution of Five by Five. I think you should check Heroquest, written by Robin D. Laws and published by Moon Design Publications, and FU (Free Universal), by Nathan Russell. Both are available in PDF form at rpgnow.com. FU is free, by the way :)

    1. Thank you for the recommendations. I will check both of these out!

  2. FU looks really awesome. I am also looking at Itras By, Lady Blackbird, The Shadow of Yesterday, and Over the Edge ... some really good stuff here.