Friday, November 20, 2020

Role Playing Games Part 7 - Marvel Super Heroes Adventure Game

Superheroes are my passion. As a comic book collector and a roleplaying game fanatic, a number of superhero roleplaying games were bound to find their way to my shelf. I already mentioned Supercrew and Hi/Lo Heroes when talking of small RPG’s in my last post. My favorite superhero RPG is the Marvel Superheroes Adventure Game.

I own everything that came out for this system. The Marvel Superheroes Adventure Game uses a deck of custom playing cards called the Fate Deck instead of dice for conflict resolution. The system is called SAGA, and TSR used the system for their Dragon Lance 5th Age game as well. I didn’t like the system in the Dragon Lance game. I love it here! It does abstraction well, it’s versatile, and it’s not too complex.

I would happily play this game again. Unfortunately, unless all the people playing own a copy of the Fate Deck, playing over video-chat will prove impossible. There is a way to play the game using a deck of standard playing cards. In fact, to promote the game upon its release, comic book stores had free comic books that taught the basics of the game using a standard deck of playing cards. So, maybe ... 

The core game came in a box set. It contained the rule book, a roster book with many example heroes and villains from the Marvel Universe, and the Fate Deck. These custom cards were beautifully illustrated with Marvel characters, both heroes and villains. 

The deck has five suits. Four are based on character attributes and one is a suit that benefits the badguys: Strength (in green, represented by the Hulk); Willpower (in purple, represented by Dr. Strange); Intellect (in blue, represented by Mr. Fantastic); Agility (in red, represented by Spider-Man), and Doom (in gray, represented by Dr. Doom.)

The free comic books that taught the basics of the game were: Comic #1 – Wolverine vs. the Brood Queen, and Comic #2 – Captain America vs. Baron Zemo. After these were: Adventure #1 – X-Men: Who Goes There? and Roster Book #1 – the X-Men. This book focused on all sorts of characters from the X-Men comics, heroes and villains alike.

Two more Adventure / Roster Book pairs were released: Adventure #2 – Avengers: Masters of Evil, with Roster Book #2 – the Avengers, and Adventure #3 – Fantastic Four: Fantastic Voyages, with Roster Book #4 – the Fantastic Four. Adventure / Roster Book pairs featuring Spider-Man and the Hulk were planned, but the series met its untimely end before these were produced.
8 Fantastic Four

Two final books saw print before the end: Reed Richards Guide to Everything, which contains a whole lot of rules options to expand the game, and A Guide To Marvel Earth, which was a great resource for the various special locations featured in Marvel Comics from New York City, to the City of Atlantis, to the Blue Area of the moon. This book and the Roster Books also had the distinction of being printed on glossy paper in full color, something that no other books in TSR’s product line had.

When TSR was purchased by Wizards of the Coast, the Marvel License was abandoned, and the Marvel Superheroes Adventure Game was axed. In addition to the two products mentioned above, a book called: Green Goblin's Guide to Crime was in the works and lies in limbo somewhere in a filing cabinet at the Wizards of the Coast offices … sad.

Wednesday, November 18, 2020

Role Playing Games Part 6 - Games In Small Packages

In retrospect, as awesome as it was, D&D 3.5 is my least favorite version of D&D. While it may be universally loved, it is very … crunchy. Dungeons & Dragons third edition introduced a lot of new ideas to give D&D tactical and mechanical richness. Players loved it, since this opened up more and more options for them, ways to manipulate and maximize their experience of the system. (That player agency that I mentioned before.)

I guess that my problem is that I “burned out” on this. I’m getting old. These days, I want simple. I want easy. I guess that’s why I like Basic D&D so much. It’s also why I own a handful of small systems. Simple RPGs that mostly come in at well under 100 pages.

Toon is by Greg Costikyan who created the Star Wars Roleplaying Game. It’s a wacky cartoon RPG about playing characters like Bugs Bunny and Woody Wood Pecker. It’s loony fun, and it works really well. Mine is the first edition of the game that comes in at 68 pages. Later editions of the game expand the rules to 100’s of pages, but why?!

Speaking of Greg Costikyan, or more specifically, his Star Wars RPG: Mini Six is a multi-genre RPG that covers playing in a variety of settings and uses the dice pool system that I talked about with the Star Wars RPG. It’s a great little gem at only 36 pages. If you want to run a game on the cheap, the Mini Six PDF is free, and print on demand is only $6! 

Hack-n-Slash Fantasy Roleplay is a simple fantasy RPG that uses the Fudge system. Fudge is a simple open source RPG rules system, and I think Hack-n-Slash may be the only book on my shelf that uses it. It’s good, and it has a cool method for creating random dungeons, so you could play this solo if you wanted. It’s a nice little hardcover book at 70 pages.

Ambition & Avarice is an interesting D&D clone that lets players play Orcs, Goblins, Lizardfolk, and Dark Elves alongside Humans, Elves, Dwarves and Halflings. This mixture reminds me of World of Warcraft and I like it. At 97 pages, it’s the biggest book in this list.

Simplicity is a version of Basic D&D that strips it apart and puts it back together to create a modular approach to character generation. You don’t play a Warrior or a Wizard, but you can select some of the benefits of either (or any of the other fantasy character classes and races) and mix and match them together anyway you like. It’s a really interesting and surprisingly simple system. It comes in at 48 pages.

Retro Phaze is a personal favorite. It’s a fantasy RPG that is designed to emulate console video games of the NES/SNES variety, like Final Fantasy and Dragon Warrior. It does this remarkably well, and uses only the ever wonderful six-sided die. It’s 32 pages of pure genius.

X-plorers is a sci-fi RPG that uses a system based on the very earliest versions of D&D. So, it’s both really simple, and familiar. It comes in at only 39 pages. The Supercrew is a 28 page comic book that is also a superhero themed RPG. I love this one for obvious reasons.

Finally, I suppose that I will mention: Hi/Lo Heroes and Five By Five. Both of these small RPGs are my own design. Hi/Lo is a superhero RPG and Five By Five is a multi-genre RPG meant to handle a variety of settings. Each has received a modest amount of accolades within the RPG community. Hi/Lo is 36 pages and Five By Five (a handsome hardcover book) is 56 pages.

Many of these smaller games are out of print and hard if not impossible to find. Thankfully, many of them can still be found in PDF format, but I wouldn’t give up my precious print versions for anything.

Tuesday, November 17, 2020

Role Playing Games Part 5 - Wizards of the Coast and Dungeons & Dragons 3rd Edition

D&D’s entry point into the book and hobby stores of the world was through its distributor, Random House. The way this particular arrangement worked is that TSR (TSR was a company founded by Gary Gygax and childhood friend, Don Kaye. Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson are credited with the creation of Dungeons & Dragons.) received a percentage of a book’s value immediately from Random House upon delivery and then the balance once the book was sold. If a book did not sell, it could be returned, and Random House would be reimbursed for their initial investment.

My understanding is that this distribution arrangement was unusual. It apparently served TSR well enough at the time. Dungeons & Dragons books were illustrated, hardcover volumes that were expensive to produce, and the immediate influx of revenue from Random House was helpful in keeping the books in print. Unfortunately, TSR got greedy (this is after Gygax has been forced out of the company) and over-produced a large percentage of product just to get quick money from Random House.

Random House sued TSR, and sent all unsold product back. They terminated TSR’s distribution contract, and that was the end of TSR. TSR lost the lawsuit, and had to pay Random House pretty much everything they had. While D&D as a property was worth millions, TSR couldn’t pay their people to produce the product, and had lost their primary means for putting their books on store shelves.

Wizards of the Coast was the hot young company on the scene. I have talked a bit about collectible card games and Magic the Gathering. Wizards of the Coast was the producer of Magic the Gathering, and many (the majority?) of its players also played D&D. It seemed like a good fit, and Wizards of the Coast acquired TSR. Initially, Wizards of the Coast kept the TSR name as they worked to put a small number of AD&D second edition books (old and new) on store shelves, and to restore some of TSR’s damaged reputation. Behind the scenes, Wizards of the Coast worked on an all new version of D&D.

Dungeons & Dragons 3rd Edition was a big deal. Many (myself included) feared what Wizards of the Coast might do to our beloved game of D&D. Were they going to completely redesign the game to give us “Magic the Gathering – the Roleplaying Game?” There was much speculation in this direction. There were a lot of eyes on the launch of the third edition of Dungeons & Dragons at a time when the roleplaying game industry was struggling. TSR had crumbled. Comic book stores were a major source of RPG sales, but these stores were struggling. Fortunately, it seems that Wizards of the Coast was aware of the burden it carried.

The third edition of D&D did in fact introduce major changes to the D&D game system. They did away with the distinction between Advanced Dungeons & Dragons and Basic Dungeons & Dragons. The third edition was just: Dungeons & Dragons. The design was carefully made so that it would still “feel” like the D&D (or actually AD&D) that people were used to. The design tossed out a bunch of legacy mechanics that just didn’t make sense for smarter more useful mechanisms, but they didn’t toss the baby out with the bath water. The core of D&D was still in there. And it was good … better than good, it was great! And, for the first time, the books were in full color. D&D third edition was beautiful.
Also, to make sure that D&D was being played, Wizards of the Coast did something else very smart. They released this new version of D&D with something called the Open Game License. They told all of their competitors, “please, write materials for D&D.” And their competitors did, because D&D was hot, and everyone wanted a piece of the action. D&D 3rd Edition sold amazingly well.

I played the heck out this game. I loved it.

In 2003, three years after the release of D&D 3.0, Wizards released D&D 3.5. It wasn’t a new version of D&D, but in the three years since its release, it was discovered by virtue of the experiences of many, many players that there were things about D&D 3.0 that needed fixing. So, these things were fixed. D&D 3.5 remained in publication for five more years.

I own five of the 3rd Edition D&D books, and the core three 3.5 books. I also have two books that make up the Castlemourn Campaign setting, because it was written by Ed Greenwood who created the popular D&D setting: The Forgotten Realms, and because it was published by Margaret Weis of whom I am a fan. I’ve not gotten Castlemourn to the table, but it’s something that I hope to do one day.

I am sharing the covers of my D&D 3.X books with this post, but sadly after bragging about how beautiful these books were, you will see that all the covers are just … uninspired. I don’t know what they were thinking.

Monday, November 16, 2020

Mr. Mxyzptlk's Circus Caper!

Taking a break from the four part Dr. Fate story for a short tale from Superman #351 called, "Mr. Mxyzptlk's Circus Caper!" This one has fantastic art by my favorite Superman artist, Jose Luis Garcia Lopez!

Wednesday, November 11, 2020

Role Playing Games Part 4 - Science Fiction Games

I was in love with role-playing games, not D&D specifically … but, role-playing games. I couldn’t get enough of them. I loved trying out new settings, new genres, new methods of play and game mechanics. I was the guy in my game group who always wanted to bring something new to the table. Sure, there was Timemaster, but that was a pale imitation of the game that I really wanted, Doctor Who!

I have a copy of the Doctor Who Adventures Through Time And Space boxed set sitting on my game shelf. The game is ambitious in its attempts to simulate every possible contingency in every period of the past, present and future. The game was published by FASA a company known for producing a very complicated tactical space combat game based in the Star Trek universe called, Starfleet Battles. I ran Doctor Who for a very short time.

Doctor Who is a solid game, but it’s too complicated for Doctor Who. I actually only own a copy (currently) because I received it as a gift. Given that it represents a cherished piece of my past, it is a valued gift. But, I don’t often look at it, and I know that I won’t play it again. It’s just too complicated, and I own better games.

One thing that the Doctor Who game did demonstrate is that a game can be very complex and very thorough, and utilize only the simple six-sided dice as its randomizer. Remember that I mentioned creating my own D&D(ish) rules so that I could use ordinary dice? Well, collecting game systems that feature the humble six-sided cube has become something of an obsession. In fact, two more such games soon found their way into my collection: Traveller and Star Wars.

Traveller is an interesting game. It’s resolution system is super simple. Roll 2 dice. Add your skill modifier (usually a 0, 1, 2 or 3.) If the result is 8 or higher, you have achieved whatever it is you were trying to do. Traveller didn’t try to do anything tricky or clever with the dice or its systems. Despite this, the game itself was very detailed. Traveller is still in print today and the version I have is a hard cover book published in 2008. The Mongoose edition updates the rules a bit, but stays true to the original. I like it.

Traveller is considered “hard” science fiction by most. The design of the game took into consideration the science of space travel. Space battles and dog-fights weren’t really a thing in Traveller. Mostly, players were tasked with finding enough work just to make their payments on their ship and to keep it in the air. This non-heroic vision of the future, makes Traveller an acquired taste for many players. (I personally theorize that playing Traveller was an inspiration in Joss Whedon’s creation of Firefly.)

While Traveller was a “non-heroic” look at a hardcore sci-fi future, the Star Wars RPG was the complete opposite. Star Wars introduced me (and the world?) to the concept of dice pools. The idea here is that you roll one die and if you get a 5 or a 6, that’s a success. To add some utility, the more skill your character has, the more dice you get to roll (a dice pool) increasing your odds of success. To push this just a little further, difficult tasks required more than one success, and so you have a nice little escalation of skill vs. difficulty. Dice pool systems are clean and easy, and Star Wars may be the first place this kind of system was used.

Star Wars the RPG was fast and furious. Rolling handfuls of dice was fun! The original Star Wars RPG book is a masterpiece in capturing the Star Wars theme. Unlike the Doctor Who game, Star Wars was perfect at capturing the spirit of its source material. The Star Wars license has moved around over the years and the company that originally published the Star Wars RPG is long out of business. The recent owners of the Star Wars license, Fantasy Flight Games published a deluxe reprint of the original Star Wars RPG a few years ago. If you can find one of these, I recommend picking one up.

As a side-note, my copy of Star Wars has a small red Kool-Aid stain on a few of its pages. This stain was put there by my little brother Chris, marking the book as one of the few original RPGs in my collection that I have not replaced. I have somehow managed to keep it for over 30 years, following its original purchase by me from a comic shop in Belleville, IL in 1987.

I began this post mostly chronologically. Timemaster, Doctor Who, Traveller, and Star Wars were some of the first games I played following D&D. They all also happen to be Science Fiction games. Glancing over at my shelf, I do have a few other Sci-fi games. Tiny Frontiers is a super clean and simple six-sided dice driven Sci-fi game of space exploration. I love the “Tiny D6” system and will be touching on it again soon. I also have a supplement for Tiny Frontiers called: Mecha And Monsters.

I have Buck Rogers XXVc, Dream Park, and Mekton II all designed by a game designer named Mike Pondsmith, whose work I really admire. Dream Park is another solid system that uses the much beloved six-sided die. It’s based on a series of books by Larry Niven and Steven Barnes. The Buck Rogers game was published by TSR (the Publishers of Dungeons & Dragons) and is the first time that I know of that a designer applied the D&D game system to a different game. It’s really well done. Mekton II is an anime inspired giant mech pilot RPG. (Pondsmith is an anime fan and he produced some of the earliest anime inspired RPG work that I know about.) It uses a random “life path” system to create your character’s backstory by rolling dice, and I really like it.

I have Rogue Trader which is a RPG set in the Warhammer 40K universe. Rogue Trader uses a version of the Warhammer Fantasy Role-play rules. (I have fond memories of that game and will speak about it again.) And finally, while I may imagine that Joss Whedon created Firefly after playing Traveller, I still had to rush out and buy the Serenity RPG when it came out. Like Star Wars before it, Serenity is a masterpiece in capturing its theme in both its game system and its presentation.

The success of Serenity led Margret Weis Publishing to produce a number of RPGs using variations of the game system introduced in Serenity, and I will be talking about another of those in the future. Margret in addition to being a successful RPG publisher is a fantasy author who originally wrote fantasy fiction for Dungeons & Dragons (the Dragon Lance novels.) She is from Independence, MO and graduated from the University of Missouri like my Julie!