Allen Varney, Writer and Traveler



The State of the Art in Superheroics, Part 2

by Allen Varney

[Published in Dragon #165, January 1991]

Mostly I don't get it. T-shirts, underwear, lunchboxes, notebooks, trading cards, collectors' plates, pen and pencil sets, children's vitamins ... why do millions of consumers buy anything with a comic character's picture on it? Is it the secular, mass-market equivalent of the vestments that designate membership in a holy order? A Western answer to Polynesian tribal rulers, who cover their faces with tattoos or cicatrice scars to denote status?

Understand, I've nothing against licensed merchandise. But I have never understood how a Walt Disney cartoon character's face on a popsicle box makes the popsicles sell better, let alone taste better. Nor do I eat pre-sweetened breakfast cereal with a bat emblem on it, nor peanut butter with a big red ``S" logo. My closet holds no illustrated T-shirts, except one my mother made depicting ``Globbo," a character from one of my own games. Other than that, I have no garments adorned with character pictures or product logos (what writer Paul Fussell calls ``legible clothing"). I'm out of step with pop culture.

-- Except in one way. I don't know why, if you like a comic-book superhero, you therefore want to eat peanut butter or cereal or castor oil bearing that hero's picture. But I apprehend at once the pleasure of roleplaying the hero. The peanut butter, one hopes, just sits there; but a roleplaying scenario lets me re-live the pleasure and excitement of the hero's original stories.

Let's look at a new edition of one of the major licensed superhero RPGs, along with its new support line.

DC HEROES Roleplaying Game, Second Edition

Mayfair Games, $25

Design: Greg Gorden

Second Edition: Ray Winninger with Thomas Cook

``Exposed!" adventure: Dan Greenberg

Illustrations: Clips from a hundred comics, plus spot art by unnamed entities on the DC production staff

16-page "Read This First" guide, 72-page Rules Manual, 64-page Character Handbook, 96-page Background Roster Book, 32-page adventure, three-panel Gamemaster's Screen, 75 color plastic-coated character cards, 8 1/2" "Action Wheel," two 10-sided dice, boxed

I reviewed the first edition of this game for Space Gamer magazine in 1985, and to this day that review bugs me. It was lengthy, comprehensive, fair... and so wishy-washy that readers thought it panned the game, when actually I have placed DC HEROES on the Intense Personal Admiration shelf of my game library. It's just that -- the trouble is, it's -- (waves hands vaguely in the air) -- I see that five years has not improved my wishy-washiness. I'll try again anyway.

Overview: DC Comics editor Robert Greenberger writes in this game's Background Roster Book, "The bedrock of the DC Universe still remains the core heroes ... For the record, the `core characters' are considered to be Superman, Wonder Woman, Batman, the Flash, Green Lantern, and Green Arrow. We have added to that list with the revamped Aquaman, Atom, Hawkman, and the newly-minted Starman." (Starman?)

The second edition lets you play all these and almost 250 other characters in the DC Universe -- nearly everybody it's got except the Legion of Super-Heroes, the Doom Patrol, and a few others. We also get some heroes outside the standard continuity (Sgt. Rock, 'Mazing Man, and the Watchmen). This edition's selection of characters improves significantly over the roster of its 1985 predecessor. In that way it resembles the entire game.

Components: At its 1985 debut DC HEROES boggled the industry with its large quantity of material at a reasonable price. Going by its components alone, the second edition also offers a superb value: 278 pages of text, a GM Screen, two decks of coated cards, an "Action Wheel," and dice, for a price you'd expect to pay for the text alone. The value has also improved in that Mayfair's editorial staff has banished the first edition's notorious layout and text errors to the Phantom Zone.

Mechanics: This is one of those universal table games, where every action comes down to a die-roll on a single chart. TSR's MARVEL SUPER HEROES is one of the few other survivors of a whole spate that appeared several years back. DC HEROES designer Greg Gorden, who had previously worked on Victory Games' JAMES BOND 007 roleplaying game, adapted that game's ideas in a unique and thoughtful approach that gives the DC one-table system unusual vigor. (The same design philosophy appears in concentrated form in Gorden's most recent system, West End's TORG.)

The bedrock of the system is Attribute Points, or APs. These measure not only characters' abilities, but weight, distance, time, money, information, and literally everything measurable. Six APs of time is four minutes; of distance, 200 yards; of weight, a ton and a half. (The second edition has tinkered a lot with the original AP quantities.) If you have a Strength of 6 APs, you can lift 6 APs of weight, or throw 4 APs of weight for 2 APs of distance, or throw 1 AP of weight at 5 APs of speed, and so on. Everything in the game interrelates in this elegant way.

Attribute Points increase logarithmically -- that is, as the rules put it, "Each additional AP of measurement is worth about twice as much as the AP before it. Therefore, a Character with a Strength of 6 is twice as strong as a Character with a Strength of 5." An ordinary human has Strength 2; Batman is Strength 5; Wonder Woman, Strength 16; Superman, Strength 25; and the strongest characters in the game are the Monitor and Anti-Monitor from the Crisis on Infinite Earths mini-series, with Strengths of 28 and 30, respectively. (A Strength of 30 can lift 30 APs of weight, or 100 million tons.)

Attribute Points have to be logarithmic in order to fit both heroes and normals on the same Action Table, the chart used to resolve any action with a single die roll. This is the tricky part of the DC HEROES design, but once you master it, you know almost the whole system -- the great strength and weakness of one-chart games.

Character attributes provide "Acting Values" and "Opposing Values." Cross-index these on the table to find a number to beat on a roll of 2D10. Roll the dice, count how many "column shifts" you get on the table, then go to the Results Table, the other half of the DC system. Cross-index the characters' "Effect Values" against their "Resistance Values" to obtain a value in Result Attribute Points, or RAPs. These RAPs (increased by column shifts from the Action Table) tell how much damage a haymaker does, how long a magic spell lasts, how much information an interrogation gathers, or whatever.

It sounds forbidding, doesn't it? It's actually just two steps up from those "Mileage Between Major Cities" charts on road maps, and no more complicated than reading a slide rule -- not that I recall how to do that. Most of the other rules are trivial adjuncts to the Action and Result Tables.

The system has not changed between first and second editions, except that now you can use the "Action Wheel" to figure the numbers, instead of boring old columnar tables. (The numbers don't quite line up in the wheel's windows, but it still works okay.) As before, combat remains fast-paced and fluid.

Hero Points: The game awards these as experience, but they serve far broader functions here than conventional EPs or XP in other games. Characters can spend Hero Points to gain initiative, temporarily increase attributes and powers, and reduce damage taken. It costs Hero Points to build gadgets and to buy new powers. They're almost a currency, and moreso in the second edition where "pushing" a power now costs three points per AP gained. This is a fair fix of the earlier silly rules, where a good die roll let Batman lift a DC-9 airplane.

The pre-generated heroes start play with 10 to 200 Hero Points, and they can earn 100 or more in a successful adventure. They need them all, because there's always a heavy Hero Point flow during play. Sometimes so many get blown in a single phase, maybe on a single punch, that it's like the Weimar Republic, where townspeople hauled hyper-inflated Deutschmarks in wheelbarrows to buy a loaf of bread.

Character generation: This is much improved in the second edition. Players spend Hero Points on selections from a very extensive list of powers and skills, now given a "Factor Cost" to differentiate plot-shattering powers like Continuum Control from non-starters like Super Ventriloquism. These powers can now have cost-changing bonuses and limitations a la the CHAMPIONS game. Character advantages, drawbacks, and motivations lend individuality even to the non-powered supporting cast.

The second edition designers also encourage heroes with personalities, not just powers. In an elegant streamlining of the first edition's rather bizarre options, players get Hero Point bonuses for defining their characters' background, physical description, and personality. They realize that this, as much as a list of powers and skills, is what makes a fun and memorable superhero.

One may quibble with certain power cost ratings (Spirit Travel, an astral form, is among the cheapest in the game!), and with the approach that makes (say) Earth Control, Flame Control, and Ice Control three different powers instead of one Control power with three options. But in general this is a good, balanced system, much broader than the existing DC Universe requires. It produces a wide variety of superheroes without taxing the player.


Did You Know ...?

According to the DC HEROES second edition ...

  • Batman (Intelligence of 12 APs) is twice as smart as Superman (INT 11 APs). Most other hero INTs range from 5 to 10; ordinary people have 2 APs in all stats. Captain Marvel, who supposedly has the wisdom of Solomon, is virtually a dullard (INT 4), as is Green Lantern Guy Gardner (INT 3).
  • Sergeant Rock (BODY 6) is as tough as Batman.
  • Metamorpho has the Charisma skill. They could have fooled me.
  • Batman (STR 5) can lift 1500 lbs (5 APs of weight) without pushing. He can throw a grizzly bear (5 APs of weight) 10 feet (0 APs of distance). In the new edition the Joker (STR 4) is no longer twice as strong as the Batman. In fact, he's not nearly as good as the Batman in anything except WILL (both have 12).
  • Remember how a Green Lantern's Power Ring is powered by the user's will? Of Earth's three Green Lanterns (never mind the alien crew), Hal Jordan has WILL 25, among the highest in the game. John Stewart is WILL 23, and Guy Gardner is WILL 18. Superman (WILL 20) would make a better Green Lantern than Guy, but we knew that.
  • As in the first edition, Superman is still not the most powerful character in the game. But this time the previous champ, the villain Trigon, is absent. The new powerhouses are Dr. Manhattan of the Watchmen and the Monitor and Anti-Monitor from Crisis on Infinite Earths. All have 25 APs of the do-anything Omni-Power, which should easily trounce the Man of Steel.
  • The highest AP number of any kind belongs to the master villain Darkseid. He has 65 APs of the Warp power, which lets him connect two points 200 quadrillion miles apart. That's, what, 33,000 light years?
  • Superman has 14 APs of Superspeed versus the new Flash's Superspeed of 10 APs. I guess the designers hadn't seen the recent issue where they raced neck and neck around the world.
  • Wonder Woman, with 7 APs of Running, can run 400 yards (7 APs) in four seconds (0 APs). That sounds like Superspeed, no?
  • Bruce Wayne, with wealth of 20 APs, can lay his hands on 20 APs of money ($26 million) on a week's notice. Lex Luthor (25 APs of wealth) could marshal $800 million without trouble.
  • To build a headquarters with walls of the super-strong material "promethium" adds 100 APs to the cost of the building (Rules Manual, p. 38). One hundred APs of wealth is 25 nonillion dollars (25 followed by 30 zeroes), which is around 500 sextillion times more money than there is in the world.
  • Once more, the character roster includes a Mayfair Games designer. He has the highest skill number in the game: 21 APs of Writer/Photographer. Congratulations, Tom Cook!


Gadgets -- zero for three: Most major roleplaying systems seem to have a blind spot, a particular rule or system that just won't work right no matter how many times the designers fiddle with it. In CHAMPIONS it's Growth, or maybe the vehicle rules. CALL OF CTHULHU players lament the time needed for character generation versus how long the character survives. In AD&D it's -- well, fill in the blank yourself. Every DC HEROES player knows that design's blind spot: the gadget rules. The second edition is Mayfair's third try at gadgets, and the rules still don't work.

Gadgets, like characters, are defined by their APs of attributes, powers, and skills. You buy these with both Hero Points and the owning character's money. The more reliable the gadget, the more expensive it is. Most ordinary gadgets break down about one time in ten uses.

Use the gadget's AP values to figure its Hero Point cost and dollar cost, spend the Hero Points, then pit the owning hero's Wealth APs against the dollar cost in a check on the Action Table (the hero is trying to buy the parts). To reduce the price at the expense of more time, buy each ability separately. Once the parts are in hand, check the hero's Gadgetry skill to see how long it takes to "install" the gadget's abilities. The baseline time is one week, but a good roll could reduce that to a few hours.

How well does this work? See for yourself. The Batman wants to build a miniature bat-camera. He buys the camera's 1 AP of Body and 12 APs of Recall power at a cost of 13 APs -- something under $200,000. That's for one camera, yeah. This is the same cost as the Batmobile. It's a good thing Bruce Wayne is a billionaire! Of course, he can buy the Recall power in one week for $100,000 (12 APs), and the Body the next week for $50 (1 AP), saving $99,950 for a week's wait.

To build the camera, the Batman must pit his Gadgetry skill of 12, an impressive value, against the camera's 12 APs of Recall. He has a fifty-fifty chance. If the player rolls 10 or less on 2D10, the task has defeated Batman; the camera's intricacy is beyond him. If the player rolls 11 or 12 on 2D10, Batman has to spend a solid week, doing nothing else but eating and sleeping, to build the camera. It probably breaks if it takes more than 100 photos, about four rolls of film.

All this may sound like a Pentagon procurement scandal, but it points up the root problem that has always kept DC HEROES gadgets from working: Fundamentally, the designers just don't want heroes to have them. "If Gadgets with long durations were easy and cheap to build," designer Greg Gorden wrote in the first edition, "they could be very inexpensive replacements for permanent Powers."

So what? What else puts non-powered heroes like Batman in the same (Justice) League with titans like Green Lantern and Captain Atom? Gadgets are practically self-balancing. Villains steal them; heroes don't always have them to hand (no power armor allowed in fine restaurants); their batteries run out or their warranties expire. A gamemaster can keep them in line as easily as any abusive power. Loosen up, guys.

Assessment: In that 1985 review, when one-table game designs were proliferating like comic-book mutants, I spent pages talking about the problems of the single-chart approach: You can't memorize the rules. There are lots of tiny little rules on interpreting the table, and it gives vague results. That's where readers thought I was condemning the game.

Five years later that whole argument seems, if not wrong, then beside the point. Whatever a universal table's limitations, DC HEROES has overcome them by cleverness and by sheer longevity. It combines broad combat options with speed of play. It quantifies noncombat interaction, such as interrogation, better than any game I know. Its AP system shows true ingenuity and, in the second edition, improved realism. The background roster is immense, and the "Exposed!" adventure (by the talented Dan Greenberg) is both entertaining and educational for novice gamemasters. Philosophic objections and gadget rules notwithstanding, this is one sharp design.

So the game still resides on my Intense Personal Admiration shelf. But the problem is -- you see, I just -- (more hand waving) -- darn!

The continuing saga: The biggest change between the first and second editions isn't the rules. It's the universe. After the first edition, DC Comics finished its big Crisis on Infinite Earths universe-cleaning limited series. Two or three more giant multi-title runamuck crossover series followed. John Byrne overhauled Superman, George Perez revised Wonder Woman, and Batmania hit the nation. Hot titles cooled off, and new ones captured the buyers' fickle affections.

The result is a completely different DC Universe. Everybody has changed, and nearly everyone has shuffled group affiliations. Big-time villains have died. Lex Luthor is no longer a mad scientist in power armor but the world's wealthiest man. S.T.A.R. Labs has become a vaguely sinister conglomerate, and the U.S. intelligence community looks different after the "Janus Directive" storyline. For unclear reasons, magic is now less powerful than it was, and the Spectre is no longer an ultimate power. The Green Lantern Corps is gone. Superboy? Who's Superboy?

Freelancer Michael A. Stackpole ran into this trend when he updated the Batman Sourcebook supplement for the DC HEROES second edition (see the review below). Of the eight years of Batman back issues Stackpole was researching, DC editors declared five years' worth, all the work of a particular writer, null and void. Another issue revised the origin of the second Robin, Jason Todd. Then, just before Stackpole's deadline, an issue of The Question featured a completely new origin of Batman's foe The Riddler. Stackpole got caught off guard.

"Is this for real?" Stackpole asked DC. Yes, said DC, it's part of the canon now. So Stackpole wrote that Riddler origin -- but now, a year or two later, DC has gone back to a previous origin. The canon, like that of the early Hindus, apparently undergoes frequent revision.

Reading vs. gaming: These changes, whether cosmetic or systemic, make interesting reading if you follow DC comics. But does this maelstrom work as a campaign background? Sure, the DC HEROES Background Roster book does a fine job of describing the universe and its heroes. But note how much this description differs from the first edition. And each month's worth of DC titles puts it further out of date.

Suppose you start a DC Universe campaign, and then next year's mega-crossover series, or a revised villain origin, makes your current subplots obsolete. Do you throw them out, or do you decide you're not playing in the "official" DC universe? Presumably the "official" universe was the reason you bought the game. But, presumably, the subplots are what your players want to play.

This review began by recognizing the appeal of a licensed game background that allows players to re-create their favorite stories. But that background should be stable, a known quantity. For instance, West End Games has set its STAR WARS RPG in the time between the first two Star Wars movies. Even if later films in the series appear, the existing material still works. The DC Universe's planned obsolescence, by contrast, makes an official campaign unstable. Even as players are reliving their favorite stories, the campaign history may be shifting like mercury.

This leads inevitably to a peculiar set of ...

Recommendations: Don't get the DC HEROES game's second edition for the license; get it for the system. Though the game closely simulates its subject and provides plenty of background on the DC Universe, that universe carries fatal risks as a campaign background.

But if you find other superhero RPGs too slow or complex for your taste -- and if you don't mind one-table systems -- use the DC HEROES rules as a fast-paced superheroic combat system for your own campaign world. Sure, you may take your inspiration from DC's Universe, but soon your campaign will probably diverge to become your own creation. That new world will entertain you as much as the comics you based it on.

(All right, I guess that's definite enough. It's a little quirky, maybe, but not wishy-washy. Whew!)

The Batman Sourcebook, second edition

96-page softcover reference book, Mayfair Games, $10

Author: Michael A. Stackpole

Additional material: J. Santana, Louis J. Prosperi, Jack A. Barker, and Ray Winninger

Cover and illustrations: Anonymous DC Comics staffers

Mayfair supported the first edition of DC HEROES vigorously, if unevenly. Though DC is apparently a fussy licensor (DC recently returned the forthcoming Justic League sourcebook for a second complete rewrite), it appears Mayfair is gearing up for the same pace on the second edition. Did they just want to lead with a strong product, or were they capitalizing on the Bat-craze that still grips the comics market? Either way, the new line benefits from this polished update of one of the original edition's best supplements.

Mike Stackpole designed FASA's new LEGIONNAIRE RPG and many other games, and he has written six or seven novels set in the universe of the BATTLETECH game. In his spare time this talented writer has updated this comprehensive 1986 reference guide about the Caped Crusader. Along with updated stats for everybody, everything, and every place important to the Batman mythos, The Batman Sourcebook includes essays on Batman's relationship to the new, post-Byrne Superman, his role in the Justice League(s), and that perennial topic of arguments at comics conventions, "Is the Batman Sane?" (In the latter, Stackpole almost weenies out from answering the question, but finally argues Yes.)

Ray Winninger's "Double Jeopardy," a snappy adventure for gamemaster and one player, leads the Batman on an intricate trail of clues to a confrontation with an old nemesis. (Hint: The GM often gets to flip a coin.) Too bad the ending falls a bit flat, but the development to that point should keep the Batman's player working hard.

The Batman Sourcebook maps all of Wayne Manor, most floors of the Wayne Foundation, and all four levels of the Batcave. It even lists the issues in which Batman picked up those two trophies we always see in Batcave scenes -- the giant 1947 penny and the Tyrannosaurus Rex. Now that's complete!

Unfortunately, graphics designer Gregory "Ike" Scott, fresh from giving Mayfair's new edition of the CHILL RPG a stylish and scary veneer, adapted the same bizarre approach to this book. All the titles look like ransom notes! It's good to see that in later DC HEROES game supplements Mayfair has abandoned Scott's peculiar use of boldface type.

The Otherwhere Quest

40-page solo adventure booklet, Mayfair Games, $7

Author: Ray Winninger

Cover: Arne Starr

I've seldom enjoyed Mayfair's solo adventures, with their hundreds of tiny paragraphs of flat prose, and their brief, linear plots with limited replay value. This solo lets you take the role of any of Earth's three Green Lanterns, though your choice is immaterial to the plot, and sends you into an alternate dimension called the Otherwhere. There you must find the maguffin -- er, Harmony Beacon that will re-energize the Forever Barrier, thereby saving the Thurians (characterless good guys) from the Subjugators (offstage bad guys).

This solo features a couple of nice ideas, such as Combat Tables that let opponents use different fighting tactics and a Power Ring Table that simulates the famous Ring's open-ended Omni-Power. And this serves as a useful teaching device for the DC HEROES game mechanics. But as I travelled the Otherwhere (that is, moved from square to square over a flat diagram), I concluded this one-shot plot feels as flat as the Otherwhere itself.

[1999 UPDATE: At Gen Con the next year, Ray said Mayfair had given him all of 24 hours to write this adventure. It shows.]

The Law of Darkness

48-page adventure module, Mayfair Games, $8

Design: Scott Paul Maykrantz

Cover: Paris Cullins and Mike DeCarlo

Most of the New Gods don't appear in the DC HEROES second edition, but Mayfair has quickly remedied the lack with this far-ranging adventure featuring Highfather, Orion, Lightray, and other residents of New Genesis.

That incorrigible Apokolipsian, Darkseid, is still trying to conquer the universe, and this time he's accidentally blown up Supertown's Source Wall, so the New Gods must travel to Earth, where Granny Goodness (looking, as the text says, "like Dr. Ruth after a 30-year prison sentence") is hypnotizing everyone in New York City into doing calisthenics, and the heroes fight Acidic Blobs, Slow-Down Gas, and the Deathmaker robot from Studio X, and then it's off to Gotham City to fight hordes of rats, or maybe to Metropolis to fight hordes of Para-Demons, and then to DeSaad's lair to fight hordes of Bug Warriors and a Devolution Cube, and then to the big climactic fight with Darkseid himself. Just let me catch my breath ...

Once again the adventure's ending falls slightly flat, but getting there should be a rollercoaster ride worthy of the original Jack Kirby stories of the New Gods. But don't try to run this plot with a different group of heroes!

Short and Sweet

PHBR3 The Complete Priest's Handbook, by Aaron Allston. TSR Inc., $15. Is there anything so unlikely as a "generic priest"? This 128-page AD&D supplement provides noble priests, outlaw priests, fighting-monks, amazon priestesses, and other "priest kits"; priest personality archetypes like the Crusader, Philosopher, Hypocrite, and Earnest Novice; 60 sample priesthoods of deities from Agriculture through Birth, Disease, Elemental Forces, Hunting, Literature, Oceans, Oracles, and Trade to Wind and Wisdom; and rules for designing new faiths for your campaign. There's new weapons and equipment, martial arts rules, and adventure hooks for priest characters. Never thought of an all-priest campaign? You never saw The Complete Priest's Handbook. Bravo! (Or do I mean "Hallelujah"?)

Invasions: Target Earth, by Cyrus Harris. Iron Crown Enterprises, $8. Watch the skies? Too late, they're here! This campaign sourcebook for CHAMPIONS tells how to game a large scale, multi-scenario alien invasion, whether by robots, aliens, or (no kidding) giant ants. Learn how to set up the invaders' command structure and firepower, then follow every phase of the invasion from arrival to aftermath. The nicely illustrated Sourcebook section details a 13-scenario invasion by Demonicus Rex and his other-dimensional thugs, and it pays lip service to five other traditional invading armies. The scenario outlines here need fleshing out, but Invasions takes you a long way toward turning your campaign world upside down and righting it again. Much of this book adapts easily to other superhero RPGs, too. Start filling your game's skies with ships.

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Copyright ©1991 Allen Varney