Tuesday, January 06, 2015

Player-Defined Powers In Classic Marvel Super-Heroes RPG

One of the more forward thinking ideas of the classic Marvel Super-Heroes RPG from TSR was the idea of player/GM-defined powers and talents. Ostensibly an aid for adapting characters from the
comics into the game, there's nothing saying that you can't have this as a regular option for your games, if you so desire.

We will be using the little known Revised Basic Rules as the basic for our upcoming Classic Marvel campaign, so any page references that I make will be to that book.

In the character creation section (pg. 47) there is a Power Categories Table that is used to determine the types of powers that your character can have. Instead of using that table, substitute this one instead:

Dice Roll
Power Category
Sensory Powers
Movement Powers
Matter Control Powers
Energy Control Powers
Body Control Powers
Ranged Attack Powers
Mental Powers
Body Alterations/Offense
Body Alterations/Defense

The change is fairly minor (adding one line at the end for Player-Defined Powers. The idea is that this is for the rare and exotic powers in your world, the ones that aren't as "generic" as some of the other powers may be. Obviously this will entail an added level of oversight because you will end up with players who want to create an "I DESTROY EVERYONE" power, or something similar.

One of the built-in controls for these player-defined powers is that fact that all powers in the Classic Marvel game have a ranking that controls what they can do. Even if you allow the I DESTROY EVERYONE power in a game, when the character's rank in it is only Good that will act as its own limitation on the power.

However, for those who want to think outside of the box, player-defined powers can help with that. Imagine wanting a character like Kay Challis, Crazy Jane of DC Comic's Doom Patrol revamp of the 80s. Mapping out 64 power sets would be a lot of work, and it would probably be beyond the scope of the Marvel game's character creation rules. She is, however, obviously a starting character. Really, we never see her entire power set demonstrated during the run of the comic...and we don't actually see many of the powers manifest in the beginning. Would a player-defined power be a way to go with this character? Maybe.

With apologies to Jay Z, you could name this power "I Have 64 Personalities And All Of Them Have Powers." Yes, there will be a little book keeping involved in this.

One thing that we can build into a player-defined power now is the idea of spending Karma, one of the game's character resources, for player-defined powers. While this is a common idea nowadays in systems like Fate or Icons, the idea wasn't as commonplace back when this system was created.

The idea being that, particularly with a power like that of Crazy Jane's Crazy-Janeness, having less defined up front costs you a little bit more when you go to actually utilize a power. This idea does fit in with the idea of "pay now or pay later" with the Karma system for the Classic Marvel game. As a GM, if someone in our campaign were to suggest creating this character using a player-defined power, this is a way that we could do it.

I would suggest an activation cost to the power. If you look back at the comics (which I did recently, when I got the Doom Patrol Omnibus for Christmas), you'll see that the character's powers are unreliable and can cut out at times. It would probably cost 10 or 20 Karma to activate the power. It is important to make the cost enough to have some weight (i.e. charging 1 or 5 points really isn't going to give much difficulty to the power), but not so much of a charge that the power becomes useless. The idea is to turn the power into a resource that has an impact on the play of the game. When the player uses Crazy Jane's powers, big stuff happens and bad guys can get taken out. You don't want to make this something that happens to easily, or that can't happen enough. An expenditure of 20 Karma can make a big deal, if it means that those 20 Karma cannot be used later in a game for influencing a dice roll.

Randomness can be your friend. Another option for making a power like that of Crazy Jane's would be to add a random element to it. Using powers that the character has previously used is no problem, and just has the activation cost, but when you go to use a new power you roll for it randomly. Once the power is rolled, it is fixed. This gives you 64 "slots" for Crazy Jane to fill up through play, and each time the player decides that it is time for a new personality with a new power to surface they roll on the Power Categories Table and roll through the sub-tables to determine the power. This roll uses the Power Categories Table from the book, however, because nesting player-defined powers could turn into a headache for everyone involved.

Yes, this does make for a bit of work on the part of the player who wanted this power for their character, but this extra work can be considered to be a part of the checks and balances of the system. Rolling on a couple of tables won't take up that much table time, and it gives an opportunity for group-wide fun as you get to mock the "Matter-Eater Lad" rolls.

Now, creating a character like Crazy Jane is obviously extreme, but it is always a possibility in a super-hero game. Super-hero games are often, by their nature, very gonzo and player-defined powers can feed into that gonzo-ness. You can also have less extreme versions of this power. My Matter-Eater Lad example in the previous paragraph could be a player-defined power. Write it like "Alien Physiology Allows Him To Eat And Digest Anything." The ranking for the power could determine how long it takes the character to digest things, or to chew them. It can be as simple as that.

Yes, Matter-Eater Lad was a real super-hero.

Another good use for player-defined powers can also be in the use of creating alien/extradimensional species. When alien species have powers and abilities far beyond those of mortal beings, like a Kryptonian, you can turn those into a super-power. Does your Kryptonian have a low rank in their "nature"? Perhaps this means that there is some interspecies breeding in their past ("Oh, your grandmother was from Earth?") which means that the powers aren't quite as potent in your character. When doing this you have to predetermine what exactly the "power set" for the alien species would be. Are they tougher than usual? The power rank can be used as an armor against damage. Are they smarter than usual? Substitute the power rank for their Reason in certain situations. There are a lot of ways that you can use this as a power for your character, it just requires thinking creatively.

Player-defined Talents can be even simpler. There are always "talents" that characters can have that are outside of those listed. Computers, Technology and Media have changed dramatically since the Classic Marvel RPG was published. Now, talents like "Twitter Muck-Raker," "Blogger" and "Social Media Guru" are just as viable media talents as Journalist was in the original game. Try to not think of the list of talents available in the original game as the be all of what is available to your character. There are always skills and occupations that game designers won't think about when making a game.

Any of these player-defined parts to a character can have an impact upon both the viability of the character, and their impact upon a campaign. You really want to try to curtail characters that take too much of the spotlight away from other characters. GMs shouldn't just say no to an element that a player wants to add to a campaign through their powers, but everyone should talk it out in order to come to a player-defined power that does what the player wants without bending things for the rest of the group.