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.


Robert Stehwien said...

A FATE supers hack is my holy grail too. I have a few comments about your current write-up.

Different scales - in general I dislike scales where someone just doesn't get to play unless they bought into that scale. Allowing the expenditure of Will mitigates that a little but still I prefer to have everyone on the same rating system. As it stands you could have a normal with Superb Fists pay 2 will points and suddenly be better than the person who purchased Great Superheroic Might. I'd rather just rework the scale to keep all the important characters in the same range - in a normal pulp game Conan might be Superb Might but in a Supers game the Hulk has a Superb Might. Never liked scale in Fudge either... felt it was a hack just to keep using adjectives rather than numbers.

Will - Why add will when there is already Fate points? Seems like an extra bit As written a point of will is on average better than a fate point and up to 3 times better (when replacing a fudge die with a d6... which also seems like a strange dice complication)

Mike Olson said...

Heya Robert! Thanks for the feedback.

I've been using the Will resource for a while now, and it's never been a problem. Asking why it should exist when there are Fate Points lying around is a fair question, though. Here's how I see it.

Fate Points are a player resource. They're totally outside the realm of the character. The player spends them after a roll to retroactively be better at something, thanks to a metagame justification, but they don't exist for the character. "But I'm Master of the Eight Forms of the Lotus! Surely I hit him harder than that." In addition, you earn them through more metagaming, by deliberately making suboptimal choices for the character. It's a narrativist thing.

Will, in contrast, is a character resource. There's nothing you, as a player, can do to earn Will -- your character earns it by doing well. When your character wants to dip into his Will reserves, it's a conscious choice he's making. The retroactive metagaming of Fate Points isn't present here -- you have to decide before the roll if you're using Will.

In a way, Fate Points are kind of a server-side affair; Will is a client-side thing. And I'm fully aware the concept of replacing Fudge dice with d6s looks wacky when you first hear it, but in play it works very, very well. It sounds like it'd be totally unbalancing, I know, but again, in play I haven't found that to be the case.

I'm all for a guy with Superb Fists spending 2 Will to clock a guy with Fair Fists (Superhuman). All it's doing it putting them on equal footing for one roll. I think I'd probably like to have some justification for that in most cases (cf. The Dark Knight Returns), but that's a detail. It's the mechanical side of things I'm interested in right now, and to me, that's a fair trade off. Obviously it needs playtesting, but in concept it seems pretty sound to me. (I've gone through plenty iterations of FATE supers that seemed great at first, but ended up about as sound as a termite-ridden floorboard.)

The thing I don't like with most high-power FATE applications I've seen is an ever-increasing ladder, where characters have a +8 in something. That's kinda nonsense to me, because it makes the dice almost irrelevant. The idea behind the Normal/Enhanced/Superhuman split is to categorize characters in a way that lets them be meaningfully engage others in their category while being assured of superiority over those in lower categories, barring something extraordinary. The three categories essentially give me 15 degrees of variation without anyone literally have a double-digit bonus. That bugs me.

In other words, I'm really not interested in whether or not Iron Man can punch out a mook. Of course he can. I'm only interested in how he compares to opponents of equal power or above.

The thing it needs, IMO, is some equipment-based way of letting a mook with a rocket launcher pose a danger to Iron Man.

Robert Stehwien said...

Thought I'd respond to your response ;)

At a high level I understand your addition of will - you see it as a character resource and fate points as a metagame resource. I see both fate and will as both a character and metagame resource.... mostly as a metagame resource - I doubt that any real person has ever said to themself "I think I'll spend a little will here". To me fate points are a mix of what you see as fate and will. A matter of perspective and both are cool.

For scale, I don't actually raise the numbers of the ladder that much.

Somtimes I put things on a scale of 1 to 10 (most people in our culture totally get that; more so than fair, good, great, or negative numbers). Normal humans are around 1-3, pulp/enhanced characters from 3-6, and superheroes from 6-9.

Often I don't even use a range of 1-10, I just use the normal Fate range of players having up to 5. Normal non threats are a -1/0/1, dangerous mooks up to a 3 and real threats up to a 5 like the players, and a cosmic threat 6+. I just redefine what that scale means - in a pulp game a +5 might can lift a motorcycle over their head and throw it but in a superhero game a +5 can throw a train and lift a mountain.

My concern isn't if Iron Man can take out the minion - of course he can with an apex skill of +5 vs the minions apex of 1 to 3 (the guy with the 3 might be carrying a bazooka).

With different scales as you have proposed where you either need to buy into the scale or spend will to temporarily act on that scale. My concern is more that Iron Man forgetting to take his Resolve to the super scale and Psychic Blast dude with a Fair super scale mental attack being able to casually mop the floor with Iron Man.

First thing I'd buy under your system is a super defense in every conflict category (probably Endurance and Resolve). And when everyone needs to do something like that to "feel playable" then IMHO something is wrong.

Typically in the superhero genre all the heroes have some defense - sure they may more easily taken out by one thing than another, but they are always able to play on that field. For example Batman and Superman work together and Batman isn't a smear on the concrete.

By having one scale, players know where they stand more easily. Having 3 scales is a real problem in my mind.