Sunday, January 10, 2010

Supers: Cracking the Nut

Often in the past I've lamented the lack of a supers FATE hack that appeals to me. While I've seen some totally workable supers rules for FATE in the past -- in that I can say "Yes, I see how this would work well for other people who aren't me" -- they've all been either too hand-wavey (all superpowers basically work like the Theory in Practice stunt) or too crunchy (lengthy, pigeon-holing stunt chains) for my tastes. No offense intended to anyone involved in their creation, of course. We just have different tastes.

But! I've been giving it more thought lately for some reason (I've actually made periodic stabs at this one for a couple years, at least) and I think I'm on to something. It's a pretty radical departure from the way I normally handle these conversions, but the superhero genre presents some unique challenges -- consider, for example, that Capes and Champions are both basically trying to do the same thing, albeit in radically different ways.

The first big departure: Skills are bought with points, not merely slotted into a pyramid. Starblazer Adventures does this, and while I'm not usually keen on it (I really dig the simplicity and implicit philosophy of the pyramid), it's the way to go here. So let's say characters start with 35 skill points. That's enough to give you a pyramid that peaks at Superb. Maybe that's too much, but it's not important right now.

These skills are in three broad tiers, which for now we'll call Normal, Enhanced, and Superhuman. Each tier has its own ladder, so you could have Great Athletics (Normal) or Great Athletics (Enhanced) or Great Athletics (Superhuman). As might be expected, Normal covers the normal range of skills in SotC. It's the realm of what normal people (albeit heroic ones) can do. Enhanced is better than that -- Wolverine's speed and olfactory sense, or Wonder Woman's or Luke Cage's strength. Beyond what a human could normally do, but not Earth-shattering. Superhuman is Earth-shattering: Superman's or the Hulk's super-strength, the Flash's super-speed, Daredevil's super-senses. That kinda thing.

Skill ratings are only relevant if you're dealing with an opposing skill that's in the same tier as yours. Otherwise, Enhanced always beats Normal, and Superhuman always beats Enhanced. Go ahead and roll, but it's just for effect. If you have Fists (Enhanced) and your opponent has only has Normal skills for his defense, you defeat him. End of line. I know that seems harsh, but there's a way of mitigating it -- I'll get to it in a bit.

Skills cost a number of skill points equal to their quality (e.g., 3 skill points for a Good skill), plus 5 skill points per tier above Normal (+5 for Enhanced, +10 for Superhuman). So Superb Might (Normal) costs 5 skill points, but Superb Might (Superhuman) costs 15.

That can eat up skill points pretty quickly, but you can "sell back" Refresh to get more. Players can trade Refresh for skill points on a 1:5 basis. Refresh starts at 10. Something that often gets bandied about is lowering Refresh in exchange for superpowers; this is obviously similar, but without the arbitrary factor.

However, no skill list is going to cover everything that superheroes do -- nor would you want a huge skill list for a FATE game anyway. It's antithetical to the system. I'm solving this with super-skills, as so many have doubtless done before me.

There's a generic stunt called Super-Powered (or something) that lets you take an Enhanced or Superhuman skill, or a super-skill. These are player-defined, and can be as specific as Flight or Ice Bolt or as general as Utility Belt or Man of Steel. Super-skills are characterized by their trappings, so... we're going to need a list of skill trappings. When created, a super-skill begins with two trappings for free. Each trapping added on top of that costs skill points equal to the skill's quality.

So you can see the dilemma there: Do you get a cheaper, narrowly focused super-skill, or a more-expensive super-skill with broader application?

For example, that Man of Steel super-skill I mentioned earlier could start with the Physical Force (lifting/breaking) and Toughness (additional physical consequence slots) trappings. Great Man of Steel (Superhuman) with those two trappings would cost 14 skill points. (Of course, it's much funnier as "Average Man of Steel.") Adding the Unarmed Combat trapping would cost another 4 skill points, because its quality is Great, for a total of 18 skill points.

Let's do Utility Belt. There should be a lot of trappings here, if you're making the God-Damned Batman -- stuff like Ranged Combat (batarangs), Climbing (grappling line), Locks, Security, Lab Work, and more. Even with just those five, a Good Utility Belt (Normal) would cost 12 skill points. An Enhanced version of same would be 17 skill points -- nearly half your starting allotment. Better trade in some Refresh.

Don't think you have to buy everything in advance, though. Every character has a special aspect -- his Concept aspect. This is exactly what it sounds like: a brief description of the character's shtick, like Last Son of Krypton, Super-Soldier, World's Greatest Detective, or Fastest Man Alive. Pay a Fate Point to invoke it for effect and get an additional trapping for that super-skill, probably for the length of the scene.

Now then. In addition to the stunt, taking a super-skill also means taking another special aspect, either a Weakness or a Complication. I think we all know what those mean, so I'm not going to dwell on it too much, other than saying that a Weakness is something that's harmful to the character, or something against which his powers are especially weak (kryptonite, the color yellow, "strong magnetic fields" -- always a classic), while a Complication is basically an Aunt May, a Mary-Jane Watson, or a mild-mannered secret ID. You need one of these two for each super-skill you take. There's some more possible motivation to consolidate your superpowers into a small set of super-skills.

A brief word about Will. This is a character resource (as opposed to Fate Points, which are a player resource) that can be tapped when a character wants to put extra effort into something. Spend a point of Will to replace a Fudge die with a d6. But here, you can do something else with it: You can spend a point of Will to bump a skill up one tier for one roll, but only if targeting or defending against a higher-tier skill. For example, if someone's coming at you with Fists (Enhanced), you can spend a point of Will to improve your Athletics from Normal to Enhanced for your defense. But you can't spend Will to get Fists (Enhanced) just to punch out a mook.

How do you get Will? Every time you obtain spin on a roll, you earn a point of Will. Like I said, it's a character resource -- performing well boosts your confidence, and etc.

Will goes by many names -- Chi in "Spirit of the Fist," Elan in "Spirit of the 17th Century," Grit in "Spirit of the West," and so on -- so I'm inclined to call it something different here, too. Whether that's something warm and fuzzy, like Heart, or something more tied to the medium, like Pow!, I really don't know. Whatever it's called, it lets you bridge the gap between skill tiers.

Anyway, this is just the beginning of an idea, I know -- there are a lot of details to iron out -- but I really think it has legs. I haven't been this satisfied with FATE supers since... well, ever.

We now return you to your regularly scheduled Spirit of Greyhawk series.
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