Marvel Atomic Hero Robo Roleplay

I caved and got the Marvel RPG pdf after some nice person sent me some cash last week (thank you Peter). I didn’t get the $400 for rent, but I got a nice few days with a shiny new RPG without the stress of having to review it, which is much appreciated. Still too early to form a total opinion, but I like it. There’s a lot of talk about how D&D 5e will be modular, but because of the way Cortex works, it already IS modular. There are about twenty things you can do with every dice roll if you want to get really tactical, but you can also just roll to hit if you want, and the system works fine each way.

It’s main flaw is it is NOT very friendly for chargen, because there isn’t a complete list of all the power options. If you don’t know that The Thing has a cool power effect where he breaks the scenery a lot, you can’t find it anywhere else in the book.  Likewise GMs could use more guidance on building NPCs. There are lots of really really fun dice tricks, making for a tactical and tactile experience full of kapwing and kapow in the best sense, but not always a clear idea of what all those tricks mean on a deeper level.

However, the emphasis on smooth, stylistic chargen is lots of fun, particularly designing Milestones and Distinctions.  Here’s my first go at Atomic Robo, which might give you a feel for the system.

Atomic Robo!
Affiliations: Solo d8 Buddy d6 Team d10

I Used My Violence On Them!
Action Scientist
88 Years Old

Power Set: Atomic Robot
Godlike Durability d12
Superhuman Strength d10
Cybernetic Senses d6
SFX: Collateral Damage (as per Thing), Immunity (gas, toxins, disease, pressure), Invulnerable (except electrical attacks)

Tools of Science
Lightning Gun d10
Grenades d8
SFX: Area Attack, Dangerous
Limit: Gear


Combat Expert d8
Science Master d10
Tech Expert d8
Vehicle Expert d8


Destroying the Scenery
1 XP when something heavy falls on you
3 XP when you are Stressed Out by physical stress
10 XP when you cause an enormously valuable or large thing to be destroyed (eg Tokyo, the Empire State Building, a pyramid)

1 XP when a seemingly normal person or situation you encounter is revealed to be strange or crazy
3 XP when monsters or villains show up unexpectedly
10 XP when something threatens to destroy the world or the universe


A Fiasco Replay

My Smallville game was cancelled last Friday because of illness, so we decided to try out Jason Morningstar’s Fiasco instead. Morningstar won his second Diana Jones for it, because his mind leaks genius rpgs like a stricken oil tanker onto the penguins of gaming. Except good oil. Never mind. Anyway, here’s a replay of how it went.

We couldn’t decide on which playset to use so we narrowed it down to six and rolled a d6, and got the Golden Panda. This was cool because almost all of us liked Kung-Fu Panda, and it was a big inspiration. Since we weren’t using one of the playsets in the book, I can’t really comment on those. Each playset contains lists of ideas for character relationships, items, needs and location – you have a relationship with the player to your right or left (which took some sorting out since we were playing on line, god bless Google Documents), and each relationship ends up with either a need, an item or a location. Like I said, I can’t speak for the core game but the ones we got from Golden Panda were a little bit uninspiring, although obviously they have to be very general to allow for freeforming and interpretation. Still, I’m used to systems doing a bit more of my grunt work. Fiasco depends a lot on everyone being ready to throw in lots of ideas about the genre and to produce conflict, the system doesn’t do much of that for you. Which is okay, you just need good improvers/creative types or there will be a lot of humming and harring. Which is okay too though, humming and harring can be part of the fun.

We also didn’t do much actual “roleplaying” in the strictest sense, because (as I’ve always found) when people have more authorial control they tend to stay in author mode. This is why a lot of people think sim-ish play is the best for creating the actor voice – when all you can control is one person, it is easier to slip into acting through them entirely.

You can see the diagram of relationships we came up with and the characters in this post on my Smallville campaign blog. Also the text of the game follows below that. I was playing Old White Beard. I originally saw him as the wise master but when I realised the game desperately needed lots of cross-purposing, I recast him as a revenge-seeking bastard in his second scene.

Once you’ve got those, everyone does a scene around the table, repeating until there’s four scenes. Each scene involves your character and you get to decide if you establish the scene (set up what it’s about) or resolve it (choose how it ends). Being a GM, of course, I was used to doing neither! In most traditional RPGs, players set scenes and dice resolve it! Luckily, we had dice so most of the time I rolled to see which one I would do (odds/evens).

Halfway through there’s a thing called the Tilt, but mechanically it does bugger all, which I felt quite let down by. Again, I’m used to my mechanics doing a lot more. I was kind of expecting things to be a lot more random in general, too – we pretty much knew where the story was going by half way (and had a good idea about it before that). Which again, is okay. I guess I was just expecting the tables to be throwing up a lot of the Fiasco stuff, but in fact, what makes it a fiasco is the scene resolution mechanic.

There are four scenes per player, and half of them have to end badly and half of them have to end well. That means you need a lot of things to go wrong, and trying to come up with ways for that to happen is generally what creates the Fiasco. Bad things happening means people working at cross purposes (who are forced to hang out, because you guys are the only principle characters) or people having terrible luck or misfortune. And because most gamers tend to be nice, the bad things get shared around to everyone, so that even the “bad” guys have bad things happen to them. And that’s really what makes a fiasco (or a farce) – everybody has a bad day all at once, not just the heroes first, then the villains.

Interestingly, this ties in with my post from last year about how if your chance of success is 50% or lower, things tend to feel grim. The way to mess with Fiasco would be to change the black/white ratio. Increase the black dice and people’s lives go down the toilet even more – everything falls apart, the center cannot hold.. Increase the white dice and things come to fruition – bad guys do strike, but then are later foiled by heroes.

Which I found interesting: although it is a shared story-building experience with very strict, formal rules for scene composition, and thus the antithesis in many ways of most RPGs, in the end, the biggest factor, the biggest influence on tone is your chance of success. Something to think about there.

Money Matters

The makers of the new Marvel Heroic Roleplaying Game want me to review their game. I want to review their game. It means more press for them, which means more sales, which means a stronger industry, which means more work for me, potentially, plus I get a copy of the game which I might also use to promote it further. But I gave up doing that because I can’t afford it any more. No game company can afford to pay reviewers. Few, if any, gaming sites or magazines can either. Whereas the thing I’m writing this week is for a Real Magazine (TM) and so will pay for my rent this month, and food, and boy, do I like being able to afford food.

Now, if, say, forty people put ten dollars each into a Paypal account linked to my old email at, then I’d have rent for this month and could totally review the game and support the industry. But that’s unlikely and I’m not going to set up a kickstarter for every review. So what’s the point of this post? I guess just another reminder that every time somebody says RPGs are too expensive, another writer dies of scurvy and malnutrition. And that a lot of the time, creative types in this industry actually have to choose between putting food on the table, or content on the web. That’s the reality.

Vampires…in Space!

Somebody on RPGnet brought up Vampires in Space again, so I figured I’d dig out this story of mine which I quite liked.



Pace pulled her hair back and yanked it fiercely into a ponytail. She couldn’t have her hair getting in the way now. There could be no mistakes at all. Not this time.

It should never have got this far, she thought. This is my fault. I was sloppy. I didn’t double check everything. I just saw a dead ship on the scanners and thought nothing of it. And now, nine people are dead, and it’s all my fault.

The inner airlock hissed open and she put on her suit in record time. Only two items remained outside – the overrider, strapped to her left hand, and the pistol on her belt. The pistol was a decidedly illegal, super-up flamer she’d stolen from a dead trader when she’d first arrived at the station. It was risky just owning it, but EMPers were useless on this kind, and penetration weapons were unheard of this far from the rim. The overrider was probably also illegal, and just as vital. A brilliant little device Cord had designed for her, it was her way in. She simply had to clip it into the port, and the codes would unlock any security system in the base. Including the door to the junkyard.

She hooked it up, and it worked perfectly, as always. Good old Cord. The air hissed out of the room, the pressure stabilised and then the iris opened and she was floating in the emptiness of space.

You couldn’t want a better hiding place. Every bit of spacejunk big enough to hold an engine ended up being dragged in here, from the huge, system-spanning BDOs, down to life pods and even lost crawlers. It was a huge, seething mass of steel and opfibre, bobbing slowly back and forth in the stasis field, like the sighing belly of some hideous, scaly beast. Not only would anything hidden in this twisted mass be impossible to find, but it was also an incredibly dangerous place to go looking. The closeness of the dead vehicles created a thousand little gravity pools and eddies, and a single mis-step could find you crushed between two ships the size of moons in a second.

Pace spread her arms and slowed herself down. She couldn’t let her determination to end this let her make such a mistake. Her jets would get her out of all but the biggest pockets, but swimminng up-stream would cost her a lot of time, which she didn’t have. Just drift, she told herself, breathe slowly and drift. Look at all the pretty stars stretching out around you, and let the gravity do the work.

It wasn’t actually hard to find the ship. When you hide something where no-one would ever think to look, there’s no need to bury it. And he needed an access hose to get into the base – even in his gaseous form, he still couldn’t survive the vacuum of space. Very few of the dead ships had any fuel by the time they ended up here, so only two hoses ran into the yard. She just had to find the right one, and follow it along and –


She touched her wrists to activate the magnets in her palms and soles as she floated into the ship’s gravity well. Again, she admired his skill. The damage to the cockpit looked severe enough to have wiped out all that was worth salvaging, and made the risk of decompression high enough to keep away all but the most insane junkers. Pilot most likely killed on impact. Just another bit of spacejunk. Nothing to see here.

And that’s why he’d been able to sneak right into her territory and work right under her nose. He probably even knew she was here, she realised. He had been playing a game the whole time, seeing just how good he was at covering his tracks, and staying hidden. Well, you did a damn good job, she admitted. If you’d left a few hours ago, I never would have traced the ship. In fact, if you’d left the last two alone, I might never have found you all. But it’s always the same with these breathless bastards – they always had to push it, had to rub your face in it, really make themselves look big.

And that, she thought triumphantly, is why I’ll always get you.

She braced herself for impact, palms and soles facing the metal hull. The magnets kicked in and she adjusted the strength until they held her steady, just a few inches away. She realised she’d stopped breathing for a moment. Come on, Pace, breathe, she chided herself. Concentrate. He’s good, but he’s not that good. You will get him.

She waited until her breath was back in rhythm once more, and then slowly reached out and carefully placed the overrider into the doorlock. With a shudder, she was in.

The interior airlock was pitch black, but her readings told her that the hull was still intact, and that gravity was still on. But no oxygen, of course. That was how he’d stayed dead to sensors all the time. So simple. She wondered how many of them might have done the same over the years. How many she might have missed.

It also meant she would have to keep her suit on. ZG training or not, she could never move as fast as one of them with all this metal on her back. The only solution was to get the drop on him, and take him out with one shot. She checked the gun. Full charge. Targetting ready. She turned off her lights, switched her vision to UV. And then she reminded herself, once again, to keep breathing.

It wouldn’t be long before he knew she was here, but without lighting up like a Christmas tree on the scanners back in the control room, he couldn’t run internal sensors. As long as she kept moving, she could still surprise him.

The UV let her manoeuvre well enough, but the darkness was still oppressive. Every step she took echoed through the corridors around her, disappearing into the dark corners far above and below her that she could never see. She resisted the urge to run, and fought to keep her breathing slow. In. Out. In. Out.

But she had to move quickly. She swept each corridor and bay only once, then moved on. She remembered enough of her military training to systematically rule out the peripheral areas first, then slowly work back inwards. Every now and then her vision would scramble, or she’d get an echo, and she’d frantically rescan the area, back and forth, up and down, her heart in her mouth, expecting him to leap at her at any second, but still nothing. Just the slow, quiet beeping of her enviro-scan and the warmth of the gun in her hand.

In. Out. In. Out. The dark corridors sped along under each step after ringing step. In. Out. Scan, left, right, nothing, keep moving. In. Out. The cockpit was empty. In. Out. So was the medbay. In – then she saw it. An slight heat trail, leading, most likely, into life support ops. She tightened her thick gloves around the pistol and flicked the targetter onto silent mode as she crept forward.

She edged through the medlab, around the bulkhead, and there was her target, crouched down with his back to her, playing with the life pod controls. A quick getaway, maybe. She only barely had a shot, but is she moved again, he’d almost certainly hear. Slowly, she raised the gun to her eye level, matching the targeting interface to her pupil. She took another second for one more breath. In. Out.

And that was enough.

It was clever. Once again, so very clever. Not just an accurate visual holo, but the heat signature was matched as well. It was just slightly too warm to be real. She breathed again. You didn’t make the mistake. You picked it in time. You’re going to get him.

But if this was the bait, where was the trap? She wheeled around, her heart shuddering like a dying engine. The medbay. She hadn’t checked the body tubes. A perfect place to hide. She pounded back into the room, sweeping every corner, checking every shadow. She leapt over the console, and kicked open the body tube, and drove her fist down into the empty case, and that was when he took her.

It was her suit alarms that told her. Without peripheral vision, she hadn’t even seen him, hadn’t even felt him touch her. But one simple knife cut, and he’d killed her – completely severed her oxygen line…and the backup, she verified, as the warning messages rolled across the HUD. Before she even had a chance to turn, she felt the second cut rip down through her safety valve and the air left around her in the suit gushed away in one great sigh. In. Out. In. Out. And it was gone.

Finally, she turned right around and saw him, stepping back to enjoy his handiwork. A sickly smile spread across his twisted face as she lost her balance and slumped back against the wall.. Something in her mind was telling her to raise the gun again, to take the bastard with her, but all her body could think about was getting oxygen. She kept breathing in, but each time, there was nothing there. In. In. In. In.

Silently, she sank to the floor, her legs useless, her vision clouding. Her weapon skittered away across the steel floor as her hands clawed wildly at the hoses, as if she could some how reconnect them. Her mind was elsewhere; she was realising that he’d been hiding behind the hologram itself, hiding in plain sight again, where no-one would think to look. She was wondering if he would feed on her before she totally lost consciousness, and smiled at the thought that the lack of oxygen might make her blood taste off. She wondered if Cord would find her body, if he would know what happened, if he would tell her story, and make sure her successor learnt from her mistakes.

She noticed was still breathing, even though it served no purpose. In. In. In. With each breath, her lungs burned with red fire and her throat seemed to crack from dryness. Dimly, she could still see her killer close by, hovering, mocking her perhaps, but she was seeing only the strange curve of the bulkhead opposite her, and the wonderfully intricate screws that held it together. Poor Cord, she thought, between the fiery explosions of pain that rocked her head. He would never get over her death – he would blame himself. Which was stupid, because everything he did was perfect, and she was the one who always made the mistakes. He made the overrirder, and it worked every single time. Every single time.

She realised she was still holding the overrider in her left hand, and she rubbed a gloved thumb across it, as a final goodbye. Then, as her vision went black, she remembered something. With her last ounce of strength, she bent the plastic casing of the overrider back, back, back – and then it snapped. A few opfibres tore, and the charger gave off one tiny little spark.

The explosion engulfed half the ship. As the intense heat ate through her heavy suit, and then flesh, and then bone, she had time to remember one last thing, something she had learnt by heart, all those years ago: In every generation, there is a Chosen One. She alone can battle the vampires, the demons, and the forces of darkness.

She is the Slayer…

How I Write RPG Reviews

Way back in 1999, I started writing my first published material by sending game reviews to RPGNet. Back then it was pretty much the only game in town for reviews. This, I think, was my first one published. Since then I’ve reviewed for a few other sites, and been pleased to succeed in my goal of getting into reviews in the first place: getting comp copies. As I was and am too poor to afford any kind of games, my dream was always to be the guy who got free stuff, and I succeeded.

Unfortunately, nowadays almost all review copies of RPGs are PDFs so I’m giving up reviewing them for the most part. I can’t re-sell PDFs if I need cash, and I find them a pain to read. I’m also giving up reviewing for RPGNet because not many people read them any more. RPG reviews are not really in demand, I feel, on RPGNet or anywhere. People would rather go to a forum and ask everyone’s opinion then read a detailed review, I think. So low audience, low return.

However, over the last twelve years I’ve written more than a hundred reviews, and been lauded for them often – often enough to get noticed, get free stuff, and even, in a few cases, get writing work with the companies. So that’s my qualifications for saying I obviously am doing something right. I must know how to write good reviews.

But until now, nobody’s ever asked me how I do it. But now they have, so I’m thinking about it.

Really, like any writing, your first rule is know your audience and know yourself. If you’re writing for a particular outlet, you have to match their style and their audience. If you’re writing for yourself – which, thankfully, RPGNet lets me do – you need to know what kind of reviewer you want to be. For myself, the goal was always to be a critic as well as a reviewer – in the best and highest sense of the word. As Oscar Wilde said: “The role of the critic is to educate the audience. The role of the artist is to educate the critic.”

If that’s how you see yourself, then your role is not just to describe but to illuminate, to not just make a declaration of worth, but to convince your audience you are correct in your declaration. It is not unlike being a travel writer; you are selling them on a book not just through facts but through a journey, an experience – your experience. It doesn’t always have to have personal context, but it should always be about your journey and what you found there. I find that the best way to leave signs behind to others, and lead them to the gems you discover, and away from the dross.

Enough waffle. Some more – and more concrete – rules I’ve learnt along the way – sometimes painfully taught. Whether they are good rules or not, they’re the ones I’ve used, and since the reviews have been well received, they may be worth something.

  • Set the context. Whether personal or historical or thematic. No product exists in a vacuum, and no review should either. The audience benefits from the background, because it gives them a landscape in which to situate your comments and understand the conception of the book better. And if you talk about your background, they know how and why you came to the book, giving them greater insight in how to compare your views to their own. An authoritative voice is important – your opinion matters, and don’t let anyone tell you different – but if you make it a personal voice rather than a universal one, and an illuminating one rather than didactic, you give people room to have their own opinions and experiences, and to use your review to understand how they might feel about the work, rather than be told how they will feel about it.
  • Ask (and answer) the three questions. Early on, I read something that said that a review must answer three questions: What are the goals of the work? Were those goals achieved? And Was that a worthy goal to begin with? These formed the backbone of all my reviews, and really, they’re what make a review more than just a description of contents. They also give your review coherence, direction and structure, which can be important when you’re five thousand words into a review of a five hundred page tome. By keeping the goal of the work in mind, your review gains focus and direction, and it stops you from being biased, because you remember that just because you don’t like the goal doesn’t mean the product has failed. The questions also encourage you to analyse and evaluate, which is critical. It is not enough simply to describe.
  • Respect the work – but respect your audience more. A roleplaying game is, or can be, a hefty product, the output of great toil, even a work of art. It deserves your respect. You owe it to it, its creator and your audience to come to it without to much bias, to read it cover to cover, and take time to evaluate it fairly and fully. However, do not under any circumstances think you owe it or its creator any more than this. I have in the past made the mistake of being too nice, and it is a terrible idea. You feel bad because you lied, your audience doesn’t get the truth, and in almost every case, you annoy the creator or company anyway because they still don’t think you’re positive enough. Your audience demands nothing less than your total honesty. Their time and money (and yours) is vital and precious and should not be wasted on the mediocre or insufficient. Your audience is also, you must assume, intelligent, experienced, refined, and deserves the best.  Any thing which does not meet those standards should be called on it, not molly-coddled or equivocated upon. This isn’t nursery school, there are no points whatsoever for trying hard or enthusiasm, and even fewer for tact.
  • Respect the artist – and yourself. If it is a comp copy, let them know when you receive it. Get the review done as promptly as you can. When it goes up, take the courtesy to let them know. There’s no reason why you can’t have open communication (and comp copies and all the rest); it doesn’t taint your opinion of the work. You can still imagine what it would be like to pay for the work, and you can still suggest the artist is off his rocker if you think he is. He won’t take it personally, and if he does, then you don’t do business with him any more. A professional artist, someone worth reviewing for, someone worth your time, will never begrudge a bad review. That, indeed, is perhaps the most important sign of a professional, mature artist. And what I mean about respecting yourself is understanding that you don’t have to put up with anything less than pure professionalism. If anybody gives you any attitude about a negative review, they’re not worth dealing with ever again. Likewise, if any of your audience get their panties in a bunch because you disliked their sacred cow, ignore them entirely. Anyone who actually loves something knows its flaws, or comes to love it more when it discovers them – or has good enough arguments to refute the flaws that others see.

Beyond that: if in doubt, follow the work. Keep an open mind, give your hand to the artist, and follow him down the rabbit hole, and then be prepared, some times, to get sweaty and dirty digging yourself out again. It’s not always pretty. Sometimes, it’s miserable. But the journey is almost always worthwhile, I find. The teacher always learns more than the student, and I inevitably find I understand and appreciate a product more at the end of a review than at the start. If I don’t, it’s probably a bad review, and I need to fix it or start again.