Sunday, January 28, 2018

Graphic Novel: a game review

SYSTEM: Graphic Novel

TL;DR version: Graphic Novel is not a game that I would enjoy. There are some nice world-building elements that you can steal for your games. However, the mechanics are so loosey-goosey that they make me wonder why you'd buy this as a game rather than as some GM advice. That being said, I suspect that those who find it works find that it works well.

This is less a review and more of a personal reaction.

Graphic Novel calls itself "A Free Form Supers Roleplaying Game" and it certainly is free-form. That grants a lot of freedom to the players, which is generally a good thing. However, I think I can summarize the mechanics in five points. I'll try, without infringing on the text (except for the term "Destiny Points").
  • Describe your character.
  • Give your character the number of Destiny Points decided on for the campaign.
  • When it's important, roll a d20. High numbers good, low numbers bad. How good or bad depends on your view of the character's competence in that area, but 20 is always success, 1 is always failure.
  • If the result is bad, you can spend a Destiny Point to re-roll as many times as you have Destiny Points.
  • You get one Destiny Point back per hour, or when you do something that "fulfills your Destiny."
Could this work? Of course. And if it works for you, great. As Abraham Lincoln reputedly said, "For those who like this sort of thing, this is the sort of thing they will like."

It is too free-form for me.

As a GM who has gotten into arguments with players in several different systems, the third point is an issue. Expertise for rolls is decided from the vantage point of the character, so Awkwardman might succeed on that roll to defuse the nuclear bomb only on a 19 or 20, while Reed Richards might succeed on a roll of 5-20.

The fifth point is also problematic: do you get Destiny Points back at one per hour of game time ("You sleep for 8 hours, so you have 8 Destiny Points back") or one per hour of play time ("I know we elided over a month in game, but you spent your last Destiny Point ten minutes ago"). I presume it's the former, but the game doesn't say.

It also doesn't tell you to define your destiny: writing it down has to be inferred from the rest of the text. (My question to the author didn't get answered directly; maybe I misunderstood the response, but my question about the answer hasn't been answered.)

The game does provide a lot of fluff, though: it has names of various people, organizations, and cities that you can plunder for your own game.

Production values are low, but I suspect that's intentional. It looks like it is meant to evoke an older, simpler age of gaming, with self-published and mimeographed gaming aids.

So for me (and I speak only for me), it's not useful as an art object, and it's not useful as a game system. It is useful to me as a source of fluff. Is it six bucks worth of useful? Not for me, but others differ.

So, final verdict: not for me. I hope that this brief discussion tells you whether or not you'll enjoy it.

Jails in Ontario


So as a result of a recent brush with the legal system and a side comment while playtesting this current adventure, I thought, "So the Bruce Nuclear Response Team has the authority to arrest people. I wonder where they go?"

That led me into the hole that is the Ontario Correctional System. The short answer to my original question is, "They get put into jail in Owen Sound." (I think. There's some ambiguity there: the Wikipedia page lists the Owen Sound Jail as active, but the Ontario Corrections page doesn't.) And for gaming that should be sufficient.

It turns out, though, that there are several layers to this particular onion. In Ontario, there are a number of types of things we lump together as jails:
  • There are jails. This is short term holding. Technically, we still spell it "gaol" for the names of some of the older facilities.
  • There are detention centres. These are the same thing, but while jails were originally set up by counties, detention centres are more modern. Both are administered by the province, now.
  • A correctional centre holds anybody whose sentence is under two years (that is, if your sentence is two years less a day, you go to a detention centre). If your sentence is two years or more, they move you to the federal system.
  • There are correctional complexes. These are centres that hold both detention centres and correctional centres.
  • Federally there are correction facilities.
  • "Treatment centres provide specialized and intensive treatment for motivated offenders with clearly identified problems relating to substance abuse, sexual misconduct, impulse control and anger management."

Anybody who knows better can correct me.

Friday, January 26, 2018

Investigation in games


This is actually specific to ICONS but it could be adapted for any game with a degrees-of-success mechanic.

Investigation is sort of odd in games. For some games (the various GUMSHOE games, for instance), it's their jam. For other games, it's a roll to give people the info so they can get on to the next encounter.

So you can roleplay the investigation, with the players talking to various characters and hours of playtime can go by, and that's great, if everyone's on board with that.

On the other hand, you can reduce it to a roll or a series of rolls and have a handout or handouts for the players, and it's done quickly. "You spend two hours researching shipping companies, and this is what you get."

Sometimes you want one, sometimes you want the other. And if you're writing an adventure to be played by anyone other than the group you know, then you have to take both mindsets into account.

I don't know if anyone else produces adventures with areas where there are investigation or similar tests. What I've noticed that I have started doing is this:

Topic (whatever the test is about
Difficulty3 or 5 or whatever
Pyramid test?No or Optional or Required
TimeHow long is this test going to take? Sometimes the time is implicit in the task.
Everybody KnowsThis is the background information. Bombs are bad, the Noble family has three kids. You barely have to ask this stuff.
Marginal SuccessDo they get information on a marginal success?
Moderate SuccessAnything for Marginal Success, plus whatever is here.
Major SuccessAnything for the previous two successes, plus whatever is here.
Massive SuccessAnything for the previous successes, plus whatever is here.
ConsequencesThis might be obvious. (Boom or no boom, when disarming a bomb.) But that goes back to something else. If there aren't any consequences, why are you making them roll? If you've got the information listed here, it means two things:
  • There's a consequence to not getting some of it
  • You're okay with them having all of it.
Sometimes players roll well, and if you don't want the info to change things, don't make it available. Have it show up only after the computer contacts the alien probe or something.'s an important point...where possible, I list the source they find stuff from, so I can improvise a roleplay investigation if the players are into that. So some stuff is just in the records ("Ten minutes of Googling tells you the basic rules of cabotage in Canada"), some could be tied to a person. ("Mrs. Johnson was the one who saw the ghost.")

Also, I've been looking at Encounter Theory and trying to use that to guide some of the adventures I'm writing now. Anybody else heard of it (Plot Points podcast)?

Monday, January 22, 2018

No Drop-In this week


My work has moved a training session to Wednesday so I have to be in the city that day, for I don’t know how long.


Sunday, January 14, 2018

Spark vs. Dark...groping towards pre-gens


Not that anyone asked, but here are the pre-gens I have already written for the Dark vs. Spark Bruce County adventure. They'll get adjusted by playtests, of course, but this is what I'm starting with. The qualities and backgrounds are not yet written...this is mostly power sets and names.

In general, players are free to change one of the Qualities to make the character fit better for them.


Lindsay Pilgrim has taken the Head-Heart-Hands-Health motto in a totally different direction, Foraitch has one ability that is quite different: a touch can transfer everything the target knows. That information might not be immediately available—it takes time to go through someone's entire life. Okay, balancing realism and game mechanics, let's say it usually takes an hour. Anything that hasn't assimilated when the next person is copied into Foraitch's head, well, that's gone.
Specialties Leadership Expert (+2)
Knack Spark
Power Mimicry
  Extra: Mental powers, Limit: extra only,
  Limit: takes time to process afterward (buy back Determination)
  Extra: Flight3
Epigram: "Head, Hands, Heart, Health is my motto"
Loves animals
Quality 3?

Game Mechanics: I figure that though the memory transfer is instant, ferreting out the information can take time: When Foraitch is trying (that is, not fighting), a minutes per point of Intellect of the target. Without trying, it takes twenty minutes per point of Intellect.

If there is a particular piece of information (like the combination to a lock), start with 1 in the first "assimilation period" (ten minutes or thirty), and increase by 1 for each time period after that, up to power level. Test that number against the target's Intellect. The GM can modify this based on whether the information would be easily accessible: people just know their names and birthdays, but there might be slower recall about the events on a specific date. Or spend a Determination point and counteract the limit.)


A blatant ripoff of Jason Tondro's fabulous Frog Girl, but I liked the name-power match.

Lily Patrick is a student at Georgian College, studying law enforcement. Her parents own a Chinese restaurant, but they are Serbian, with a name granted to them on immigration. She is husky and tall, with acne outbreaks that sometimes go away with the switch from Lilypad. (The name started when she started saying her own real name and then had to fix it.)

Lilypad (Lily Patrick)
Specialties Investigation, Law
Knack Spark
 Extra: Invisibility; Limit: half effect if not motionless6
Aura (small spines)4
Super-Senses (360-degree vision)1
Epigram: The were-frog: moving in all environments but at home in none
Social media maven
Still looking


Justice White is a bullied kid—now teenager—who escaped by dealing with farm animals and learning about animals as much as possible. An accident at Georgian (the high school kids were using its facilities, and it's just next door) put Justice in contact with the Light.

Menagerie can turn into animals, even imaginary ones. And as the fight continues, certain powers start to appear, which might turn Menagerie into a different animal.

Specialties Science (Veterinary), Medicine
Knack Spark
Transformation (animals)6
  Extra: Imaginary ones, too6
Nemesis: Limit: Preparation5
Epigram: Any animal you can imagine (aka "The best bestiary").
Quality 3


David Kooigstra is a farmer. Got a sizeable herd of dairy cattle, and a decent milk quota. And superheroing gets in the way, but darn it, someone's got to do it. And it makes getting lane clear in the wintertime so much easier. The Science and Technologies make up the farming trade, which is broad: he can fix a tractor, tell you what the good weather is for planting, help a cow with a breech birth, and so on.

Specialties Science, Technology
Knack Spark
Cold Control6
  Extra: Ice slide for movement6
  Extra: Ice armor (force field)6
  Extra: Telekinesis (Limit: snow/ice only; buys back Determination)6
Life support (cold)1
Epigram: If it's cold, I can control it.
Somebody's gotta do it (but cold hands, warm heart)
We gonna do this, or not? I got things to do


Casey Wilde is in fact the wild kid, in the middle of his or her family. Races cars at the Sauble Speedway in the summer and is a mechanic the rest of the time. A DUI conviction in the past (maybe it's still current: maybe Speedway doesn't have a driver's license right now).

Specialties Driving, Technology
Knack Spark
  Extra: Defending6
  Extra: Surface Movement6
Dazzle (sound)5
Epigram: Fastest man around
The simple pleasures: getting hammered and going fast
A dare? Well, then, I gotta.

Think Tank

Dakota Thompson puts his or her mind in the suit and is essentially animating it...and essentially there, so though there's a certain Astral Projection quality to the power. Dakota can animate other suits, but the fact is, fully articulated copies of people don't happen everywhere. Dakota has been building this one for a while, but it could be any articulated thing. This one has microphones and cameras and all such to see what's going on and act on it.

If the suit is damaged, Dakota might take the damage, though destroying the suit doesn't kill Dakota. (Finding Dakota's body and killing it while Dakota is busy? That would work.) As with Astral Projection, Dakota has no sensations while projecting, but can snap back as a reaction. Doing so abandons the suit, however, wherever it is.

Dakota has tried putting weapons on the suit but they've never worked, which is a mystery. Other things, like specialty cameras or microphones, seem to work on a case-by-case basis (that is, they're stunts).

Think Tank
Specialties Technology
Knack Spark
  Extra: Rangeless6
  Extra: Telekinesis6
  Limit: Feedback
Damage Reduction (limited to material of the suit, but normally)6
Super-senses (telelocation)1
Epigram: Inhabiting a suit with mind powers!
Quality Two
Quality Three

Saturday, January 13, 2018

Dark vs. Spark as a genre...character creation


I've been thinking about the adventure I've written for the Dark vs Spark world (All Those Explosions Were Someone Else's Fault by James Alan Gardner). I felt like the standard ICONS origins weren't quite right, because all of the heroes we see are Transformed (though birthright heroes are mentioned as a possibility). (Edited and updated)

So you could do point-buy, because you ignore the effects of the origins. That might be what I do.

In all cases, follow the spirit of the book. In general, hero characters have an SF rationalization or are SF-adjacent (even in the book they're not really SF; in game terms, they're specifying the quality that will guide what powers they can stunt); villains are monsters of legend.

So generally: have some kind of cliche or tag in your Qualities that describes your powers. Given the environment, you can swap Swinging for another Movement power, unless you really want it.

If you're going to do point-buy:
  • Use 50 points
  • The Knack "Spark" is free.
  • You don't get the advantages that come with an Origin, regardless of what the origin is.
  • You can use the optional rule from ICONS Origins that lets you essentially buy a multipower or array of powers that fit in the same category. They can't be used simultaneously. For example, you can have three Movement powers at level 4 for 4+1+1=6 points.
  • The power "Magic" is still available, you just can't call it Magic, because Light and Dark don't mix. Green Lantern is a character with Magic, for instance: He can do nearly anything based on his Willpower roll...but he has some super-scientific gadget that allows that.
  • That said, a character can have magic items, but those items demand a price to be used, and you'd best have an interesting story about how you got it.

If you'd rather have pre-generated characters:

Well, I'm working on some in another post. But because Mike Lafferty agreed to let me run the finished version of this on an episode of the BAMF podcast, there will also be some Fainting Goat characters modified to suit the setting. Mostly this involves changing the backstory and the Qualities; with the pre-Assembled characters, sometimes the powers need to be adjusted, too. I'll be putting up the changes (only the changes: the point is to drive you guys to the Fainting Goat back catalogue). I am currently considering, as heroes:
  • Bastion (Stark City)...magnetic powers and your former criminal
  • Bodhivajra (Justice Wheels 10)...your can-do-anything-but-directly-solve-the-problem character...though he might be too difficult to rein in. Still considering.
  • Chill (Justice Wheels 5)...your cold controller character
  • Flux (Stark City)...your child-of-immigrants shape-changer
  • Laughing Boy (Stark City...your manic vengeance-seeker
  • Mako Commander (Justice Wheels 13)...hey, there's a school of Marine Technology right in Owen Sound, along with a nearby underwater national park.
  • Memphis Bell (Improbable Tales Primal Power)...your strong woman, though I'd also have to change the name, it being Canada and all
  • Orion-5 (World's Most Wanted 2)
  • Professor Prism (World Most Wanted 1)...your light controller with a heart of gold
  • Sable Lynx (Stark City)...your slicing fighter

General tie-ins...I need someone to provide someone to provide super-scientific parts, so the area has a supervillain, sort of. The Mechanic will create various gadgets, because he needs money for his Plan To Save The World, which less intelligent beings cannot comprehend. So he's a Spark, but not necessarily one of the good guys. He usually aligns with them...except when he thinks that not aligning will further his plan. So a certain number of the backgrounds will be rewritten to use The Mechanic instead.

If you're going to use random character creation:

Besides Transformed, I can imagine possible Trained, Artificial, and Birthright origins. Gimmick is essentially relegated to "a Spark created this artifact." Unearthly might be possible. I'd rather relegate those two to "if you have a character concept that uses one of these, talk to the GM, but for random character creation they aren't common enough to roll." (I could be talked out of that.)

This is what I've revised after my initial three minutes of thinking...

  • Most origins grant you the knack "Spark," which gives you the effects of the Halo from the book, and lets you defend against the effects of the Dark. If you get Spark, it doesn't cost you a Determination point—it's part of the book (or the genre, if you will).
  • Roll for origin, but the choices are seriously weighted to "Transformed." The easiest thing to do is say that all origins are Transformed, but I expect I'd get howls at that. So...any roll but doubles is Transformed. (As in the standard rules, and you get the knack "Spark.") For doubles:
    1,1 or 2,2Birthright. You get the knack Spark and the standard benefits.
    3,3Unearthly. You are or claim to be an alien or from an alternate dimension. You get the knack "Spark" and yu get to increase two abilities (attribute or power) by 2.
    4,4 or 5,5Trained. Even though you're not a Spark, you've decided to fight crime. Unlike the other origins, you don't get "Spark" but you get +4 Specialties instead of +2. As in the standard rules, you can still trade in a power for two more Specialties.
    6,6Artificial (your essence has/can move into an object). You get "Spark" and the standard benefits.

(Edit afterward: I'm re-thinking this, because most hero origins in comics aren't pure examples of their types. Is Jaime Reyes unearthly or transformed? Is it okay to say, "generate your character as normal, but remember that there is a transformative event." I'd still shy away from Trained or Unearthly, but those can be done.)

I originally had this, but I don't think I'll do it: Because the book makes a big deal of your one-line character description defining your powers, well, that sounds like a Quality to me. As a secondary reward, define your character with a Quality and you can change one (1) power or add +2 to a power to fit the "Spark elevator pitch." (Maximum is still 10, of course.)

Does that seem too restrictive or is it enforcing the book?

Thoughts? Comments? Suggestions?

Thursday, January 11, 2018

The Library Golems


I haven't used these, but they were inspired by a set of tweets that Mary Anne Mohanraj posted on her Facebook feed:

But it's not out of place for a superhero game to have a mystic library, and for that library to have mystic protectors... Hence these "book golems".

Book Golems

The book golems are spirits that roam the library. Treat them as ghosts, or astral projection without bodies: they can fly on the astral plane, pass through things (and there are very few rooms in the library protected against ghosts...because they would not be able to let these guardians in...but the library as a whole is protected), and have a great deal of trouble affecting things on the physical plane. They are not clever, but they do have a certain awareness. (In ICONS, they exist as the Servant power.) Vistors to the library are given protective tokens that identify them. Employees of the library are their own tokens: there is nothing to steal, and the attunement takes some time, but it can be revoked from a distance.

The library is decorated with headless statues of stone or bronze. The statues have books lying at their feet, which are never cleaned up—which seems odd, when the rest of the library is meticulously (even magically) tidied and organized. Here's why.

When the golem needs to take form on the earthly plane, it animates a statue, and places a book on its neck. From then on, the statue has the abilities described in the book (represented as variable abilities in the Servant description). Until that book is removed (a +2 difficulty to the task), the statue cannot change books. The book can be burned off, of course, but they are fire retardant; the statue can be immobilized, or the spirit can leave the statue, either by being exorcised by a puissant-enough magician or because its job is done. If the body is destroyed, the spirit is free to animate something else.

The books around the statues tend to be biographies of famous fighters, rogues, wizards, and so on.

If there is no statue around, the book golem can build itself a body entirely of books. It is not as tough as a body of stone or bronze, and more prone to flying apart if there is a sudden impact, but it has happened. The sight of an inukshuk of books stomping towards you does tends to give thieves pause.

There are ways to get around them. The book golems are not nearly as fierce on the astral plane, so they can be fought or imprisoned on the astral plane. It is possible that someone could switch the book before it is placed on their head so they have the abilities and skills of a renowned pacifist. There are a limited number of these spirits, so one could, in theory, turn off the protection for all the librarians and trust that the book golems will be busy with them instead of your operative.

Book Golem (Spirit form)
Incredible (7) Astral Projection, no body
Incredible (7) Servant, Extra: Variable Limit: Abilities depend on book
  • Ghost
  • Protect the library!

Book Golem (Statue form)
Incredible (7) Alternate Form: Stone (Damage Reduction 7, Strength 7)
Weak (1) Super-Speed
Fair (4) Magic: Any other abilities
  • Ghost
  • Protect the library!
  • Book is only Damage Reduction 3 versus fire

Book Golem (Books form)
Average (3) Alternate Form: Books(Damage Reduction 7, Strength 3, Slashing from paper cuts 3, Stretching 3)
Weak (2) Super-Speed
Fair (4) Magic: Any other abilities
  • Ghost
  • Protect the library!
  • A moderate result on a slam or stun makes the body fly apart

Wednesday, January 10, 2018

Drop-In delayed, dammit


I dunno if it's food poisoning or what, but since about 1:00 this afternoon I have had a fever and have been unable to sit at a computer for any extended time, and that might be too many details for comfort. I re-scheduled my late afternoon appointment and I'm just dealing.

I apologize, folks. This was totally not the plan.

Tuesday, January 9, 2018

Reminder: ICONS Drop-In tomorrow


Yup, gonna try the old ICONS Drop-In again tomorrow at 7:30 pm. Yes, that's a twist: It starts a half-hour later. Though I'm in the city, I have a 5:30 appointment, and I want to make sure that I'm back and y'all are not left cooling your heels. Pictures on, sound on Hangouts.

We dealt with K-OSprey last time, and the incidental threat of Hermetico, and discovered the truth about Mr. Geist!

Ah: there's the setup. This week, the mystical realm holds sway as we deal with the curse that holds Mr. Geist on this plane of existence, and the kidnappings of a number of students who were interested in Potential Expansion Training.

Pre-gens will be available (as always) but if you contact me sometime today, I can look over your character or we can build a character together.

Wednesday, January 3, 2018

Action scenes


The heart of comic books and comic book games are action sequences. While the players have a reason to be invested (they don’t want to lose the fight), a lot of fight scenes are boring. I ran across this recently: John Rogers on action scenes in movies. (This isn’t actually the one I was looking for, but I think this one is more generally useful.

To sum up: Don't write action sequences. Write suspense sequences that require action to resolve.

Yes, there will be a Drop-In tonight!


I know, it's late to promote anything, but there will be an ICONS Drop-In tonight at 7:00 EST on Roll20 for pictures and Google Hangouts for voice. I'll find the Roll20 link and edit it into here, for them as want to play for the first time and has a Roll20 account (and it's free, so why not?). (That link: )

We'll wrap up the K-OSprey story, but it's certainly at a point where anyone can join.

The story so far:

K-OSprey, Strange City's most notorious and lethal criminal (our Joker) killed the only child of billionaire Joshua Darcy. Earlier today, Darcy offered a ten million dollar reward for the person who K-OSprey and provides him with the body or incontrovertible truth. (He figures his lawyers can keep him out of jail.)

The heroes have deposited K-OSprey in what they hope is a safe place, and now they're dealing with at least one of the people who wants that ten million dollar reward...and Mr. Darcy has yet to be dealt with.

Known about K-OSprey:
  • Possibly multiple personalities, at least serious mood swings from criminally comedic to dadaistically lethal
  • Prefers to be called "it"
  • An apparently infinite number of winged harnesses, many with slightly different abilities
  • A gadgeteer of some repute
  • Not common knowledge: The players know that he can't actually be killed at the present time: Heaven won't take him and Hell doesn't want him, so he's effectively Immortality 10