(Marvel) Heroes of Science!

Lacking any roleplaying at the moment, I wander in random directions. Somehow I ended up statting up Robert Boyle, Robert Hooke and Isaac Newton using the wonderful Marvel Heroic Roleplay system.

The stats may appear quite vague because the system is not very descriptive. Whatever you imagine the powers to be in appearance I am sure is the correct conception. Enjoy, or at least, please, boggle at the places my mind goes, if only for a moment.


Smallville Pantheon Episode Six

As we go into the two-parter finale, we recap the entire series:


Ankar and Rokan announce their resignation
Ankar tells Ix that she wants Always to rule alone
Ix and Smith in the Brass Palace, agreeing on dethroning mighty Korak
Always conceiving her experiment
Always and Korak, now mortal, fighting amongst the humans
Korak saves Always from the Ixola
Ix and Smith becoming enemies over the Ixola issue
Yeqawah is betrayed – and then takes her revenge
Smith talking to Lika about the past
Smith freeing Dorabus from his chains
Lika lets it slip to Smith that she knows more about Ix’s crime
Ix and Korak at the edge of the Pit – Ix tries to open it and Korak stops him
Ix and Korak in the underworld arguing with Zyz
Ix and Korak in the Forest, and Korak is swallowed up by the earth
Back at the Palace, Korak is tended by handmaidens
Always summons Kiate, Maiden of Dreams and tells her to watch over Korak
Smith telling Korak he is impressed by him, now realises Ix is more dangerous
Ix, alone in his Tree that Reaches The Sky, sees Aristeia and Anehute together
Aristeia promises Anehute she will be his, if he prove worthy. Anehute makes a decision….


A roaring wind. Fade into a corridor of ice – track through to Aristeia’s prison. Teyamaq, smallest of the Rimeblood, pleads for mercy for Aristeia, but Ulyuq, greatest of the Rimeblood, pushes past him. In her cell, a tear rolls down Aristeia’s cheek as the monstrous Kalakaq touches her. Ulyuq tells her there is no reason for them to be enemies because soon Cold will rule everything anyway. Now that Cold owns the Sky itself, Cold is invincible and will always win. At that, Aristeia’s tears stop, her eyes go dead and her jaw clenches into pure defiance…






Back to Skoh’s camp. A cold morning. Frost in the air. Then suddenly three-headed leopards leap onto the scene and devour men before they can even stir. Bloodshed and screams.


In Godhome, Always takes her morning bath in the Brass Palace. When Korak awakes, she tells him it is time for him, at last, to know her true name: ADELOS, and see the face under her mask. Unfortunately this only leads to more awkward conversation about what next. Always wants to leave but Korak doesn’t like the feel of that. She returns to his bed – but puts her mask back on.


In the Sky, Teyamaq tells Aristeia that she should not make promises to Anehute for he is a mortal and they are always trouble. Aristeia tells him she didn’t ask his opinion, and storms off. Unseen then, on the world, the beasts’ numbers swell, as Jends and Gashens swoop down and swallow men whole. Suddenly the earth itself erupts and swallows hundreds of beasts. Rock shards strike through leather hides and slash jaguar-throats. Ivy curls and swallows around ravening claws. In the centre is Anehute, glowing with power. “Your lord of war may have abandoned you,” he yells to Skoh’s army, “but I am here!”


After all, only a God can woo a Goddess….COMMERCIAL BREAK!


Not everyone is missing the show. One of the men who does not cheer for Anehute’s rescue slips away, takes off his helmet and reveals himself to be Smith. Smith runs to the Palace and breaks up the second round of fun between the paramours, telling Korak at the Effluent has Hit the Turbines. Korak sees that Ix’s servant, Anehute, has been lax in guarding the Pit and sets out not just to kill beasts but to remind Ix’s servant what duty means.


Always does the same, running to the Forest to school Ix on being sooo crazy. Ix says he stands against Korak for her, because – as pointed out in the last ep, before Korak arrived – she deserves to be queen. He calls her foolish for not taking the throne and getting caught up with bad blood. She tells him that Ix has Korak wrong, and now she has come to love the God of War and the match is good. At those words, Ix snaps and grabs her, shaking her with fury till she comes to her senses and stops saying stupid things like that she loves Korak. Always does what she does best – be unshaken, and much as in the first episode, reduces Ix to a shadow, mewling at her feet. She tells him she will marry Korak and Ix can just shove it, because why is it such a big deal anyway that she rule alone? Ix bursts out, broken, that she has to be queen because otherwise there will be nobody to protect him from Korak. Deep down, Ix is terrified of his big brother wiping out forever. Always says she will broker peace between the two, if Ix follows her lead.


Smith now goes to Lika and puts the hard word on her – time for the truth to come out. Lika says she will only tell in front of both her brothers. Smith says fine and heads towards the battlefield. In the Sky, Teyamaq alerts Aristeia to the carnage below, and they both head down. At the battle, Korak manifests in a crack of thunder and an exploding Targrur Horde.


Anehute tells the people that Korak abandoned them and even late, is not better than nothing. Korak says shut up, puny mortal, or I’ll kill you next, since it seems your master won’t discipline you. Ix arrives in time to hear this and tenses up at the insult but Always keeps him from exploding with rage.  Korak and Ix begin to face off, so Always – ever practical, decides Anehute is the problem and moves to take him down. Attacked on two sides, Ix responds instinctively and knocks Always to the ground with a savage blow.




Meanwhile, Smith and Dorabus have arrived. Smith, seeing there’s a lot of arguing and not enough killing, teaches Dorabus how to yoke a beast with his own chains, thus inventing the chariot. With a targrur yoked, Dorabus begins to unite the people in a defensive line and resist the beasts.  From now on, Dorabus gains a sense of the god of strength and endurance.


Meanwhile Always gets up and says she’s not going to protect Ix if he can’t control himself and since Korak won’t deal with the actual problem, suggests they’re both as bad as each other. For half a second, Ix and Korak find themselves on equal footing and familiar ground – the last time they were friends was when they drove the beasts into the Pit when the world was young. They begin fighting, remembering that old friendship when suddenly – Lika runs up and says she has to end the lies. Ix begs Lika to be silent but the others demand she talk.


Meanwhile, Always and Aristeia are at the Pit trying to identify why the beasts escaped. Always, Goddess of Love, asks Aristeia about her new pledge to marry Anehute. Aristeia, still basically the infant captured by Ulyuq, is just marrying because Anehute seems worthy of it. Always, from experience now, tells her older sister she should marry for love. Aristeia doesn’t know what love is. At this point this conversation and the one with Lika begin cutting back and forth every two sentences. It’s awesome but hard to translate.


Lika reveals the truth. Smith nods, it is as he said  – the balance has always been broken, and emulating it in any way with the Five would be insane. Ix confesses, and says he did it because he was jealous, for his brother had everything, all the glories, and he had nothing. Korak says he got those glories because he deserved them. Ix says doesn’t he deserve something? Korak says it’s not about deserve, you took something that was not yours to take. Ix says “Yes, I learnt that from you.”


Always explains love to Aristeia. Aristeia nods and says that sounds like what Anehute said. Always, knower of hearts, decides to see what lies in Anehute’s heart. She looks inside him and sees nothing but ice. Pure capital-I Ice. Now she knows why Anehute is more powerful than he should be, where he got the power to be like a God. He must have taken it from something as powerful as a God, or more. But all the Rimeblood are far away under the Frozen Sea – except for Ulyuq, who Smith tricked into falling into the Pit…into the Pit…..


The girls turn in time to see a column of steam and ice rise from the Pit. A gigantic clawed paw grabs the rocky spur. Filthy ice-draped ramhorns break through the smoke and eyes like cold death smile through the fog…Ulyuq Has Returned….




CREDITS!  What happens next? Tune in next time….


Why I’m Really Excited About The Cortex Hacker’s Guide (And You Should Be Too)

In case you missed it, the Kickstarter for the new Cortex Hacker’s Guide went live 48 hours ago. At time of writing this, they’d already got $10K pledged which is a fanatastic start for what might seem to be a fairly niche product. It’s a great kickstarter with heaps of levels to pledge at, and some great stretch goals. I’m really excited to be a part of it, not least because it’s my first official kickstarter. My own projects have so far used IndieGoGo and haven’t had a cool video to go with them. MWP’s video is great and I got a little shiver of excitement when Dave Chalker listed my contribution – mutant animals – as one of the sections.

It’s also fantastic to see this product come out, after nearly two years of waiting. Marvel Heroic Roleplay sort of got in the way, because hey, Marvel is a 200-pound gorilla of a licence (and one hell of a game). It’s always good when something you’re proud of finally gets to come out (assuming we get the next five grand). It’s also great how MWP have designed this particular KS. Us writers have all been paid our base rate, but anything the company makes beyond costs goes into paying us more. MWP already pays above average for a gaming company, because they are classy, professional people who are joy to work with, but passing on the return to writers takes that to a whole new level. One of the biggest problems with the RPG industry is the market won’t bear price rates that pay authors a fair rate for their work. Until, of course, crowdsourcing came along, allowing consumers to send money directly to those authors. Hopefully, more companies will follow MWP’s lead. We want that because good writers deserve good money, and they go elsewhere if they don’t get it. Letting them make more money on products keeps good designers writing good material for the games you love.

If that alone doesn’t convince you to back this project, let’s talk about the content.

You might not know what a Cortex is. Cortex was originally designed by Lester Smith and others for the first product from MWP, the long-forgotten Sovereign Stone fantasy RPG, then hammered into a full generic system by Jamie Chambers, after which it was used in such games as Serenity, Supernatural and Battlestar Galactica (all great games, btw). I’ve been a fan since the beginning of Cortex’s goals: it’s got a central rigidity like its design-cousin Savage Worlds, but, like Unisystem, is simpler and cleaner because it wasn’t designed to also support miniatures. As someone who finds most generic systems (eg GURPS, ORE, FATE) generally far too heavy, Cortex is right in the sweet spot for me.

Then something really awesome happened. Cam Banks, Josh Roby and Rob Donoghue (and others) came onto work for MWP and produced Smallville and Leverage. Both games started with the very “core” or Cortex, which is roll one die, rated from d4 to d12, for one “axis” (originally your attribute) and one die for a second axis (originally your skill) and add them, plus roll extra dice if you have them, but still just add the two highest. Both games then transformed that central idea by adding some very modern and indie approaches. In Smallville, they replaced the two axes entirely, replacing stat+skill with Emotion + Relationship, to build a completely different mindset. In Leverage, they got rid of hitpoint ideas and replaced it entirely with FATE-like Aspects and some other great ideas. These new interpretations were, as a whole, nicknamed Cortex Plus (or C+).

This wasn’t just great design, it was great modular design.  There are at least two key aspects to game design – having numbers that work and make sense, and dressing the numbers up so they communicate the right information while making sense. So far, few games have really looked at breaking those two things down separately. I can only think of FUDGE/FATE as the exception. I’m good at dressing up the numbers but not always good at building the basics, so I was intrigued (not to mention incredibly impressed with both Smallville and Leverage as RPGs as a whole). The first thing I did after reviewing these two excellent games was email Cam Banks and demand to know when Cortex Plus was going OGL. He didn’t have an answer – yet. Instead, he got back in touch about the Hacker’s Guide.

The designers were well aware that with Cortex Plus, the genie was out of the bottle and there were suddenly a lot more you could do with the system, and that the two incarnations were not just great games but great ideas that inspired more tinkering. That rather than split them up into Cortex Plus Drama and Cortex Plus Action, the two could be cross-linked and combined and broken down and rebuilt, and that was in fact more interesting than taking a core system and hammering out a few appropriate Merits and Flaws for your favourite TV show. However good Serenity and Supernatural were, they could be made better by bending things around more, and applying these new ideas. I was already chafing at the bit to do this; I was not surprised to find I was not alone. One such interaction of the two came out soon after, as Marvel Heroic Roleplaying, and very nice it is too.

But putting out a whole new game was an expensive idea. Instead, the idea was to bring all these ideas together in one place, in a shorter form. The Hacker’s Guide, on the surface, looks like a shotgun-blast sourcebook, adding new traits and merits to the Smallville and Leverage systems so you can play them in other settings. But it’s a lot more than that. We crossed the streams and relinked the wires, and in the process, teach you how to do that yourself. Some of that teaching is explicit and direct, some of it is implied by seeing our end results. Cortex is one of the most interesting systems around right now, and some incredible stuff has been done with it already, and we’re taking that even further. That’s exciting as hell and something I’m really proud to be a part of.

I knew the moment Cam asked what I wanted to do. My first RPG, the thing that made me love this hobby, was Erick Wujcik’s Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles RPG. Nothing else I’ve ever seen has ever got right the part I loved so much about that game, which was being able to play almost any animal imaginable. Finding a way to do that – and keep the simplicity which is so important to Cortex – was a huge game design challenge, and I’m really proud of how it came out. It’s not TMNT, of course, (no use of copyright material should be implied!!) but inspired by that RPG and how it inspired me. TMNT holds a special place in my life, and Erick was a hero, and later, a mentor and a personal friend, so this is also my way of giving something back. That’s my personal connection; for you, the point is that if you liked TMNT, my response to it is here, and it a more passionate and dedicated response to that game and its goals you will not find anywhere else in the hobby.

So if you are interested in RPG design, both indie and trad, and where the two meet, if you’re interested in how to take a core idea and expand it and develop it across settings and genres, so as to learn how to do that yourself, whatever your core system of choice, then you should be excited about the Hacker’s Guide. And if you ever liked the TMNT rpg and really feel a need to play any reptile, bird or mammal you can name, then you should be very excited about my contribution. So go out and back it already. If only because I need the cash.

Also Smallville

One of the hardest things about Smallville for the GMing style I use is that whenever it’s not Lead vs Lead, it’s Lead vs Feature so it can be very hard to jump right into a conflict with some random guy without doing the long-winded character prep. Which has plenty of its own rewards, and helps you see how best to shape them to be foils, but takes time and may make you tempted to make them take centre stage when that’s not their purpose. But eyeballing a difficultly level sans a Trouble pool increase is not written into the rules anywhere.

Luckily Old Steve The Amazing is here to help with that. Here is the Absolutely Unofficial Quick-Stat Guide To Any NPC a Lead may run into and needs to roll dice against.

Johnnie “Eyeball” McImprovised
Generic Feature – Homme Sous Le Avenue – Suddenly Spotlighted

This is the stuff I really want to do in the game, the stuff that gets me right into the action/story d10
This is a useful back-up if I get off my main focus d8
This is something I really hope you don’t bring into focus because I don’t care enough and you’ll stress me out for sure d4

I have a vendetta with/most care about Lead X d10/d8
I care a little about Lead Y and Z/the rest of the team d6

I can impact the story/world a lot or succeed easily when I’m doing this thing d8
(in fact, I am sometimes so busy being awesome at it, I might get a Plot Point)
I can also do this d6

If I’m around for a whole ep at least/more than one scene, I also have 2d8/2d6 Depth.

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


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 catstesha@yahoo.com, 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.

The Genius

The greatest genius of the Buffy RPG was taking something gamers always do – in that case, make pop culture references and undercut dramatic moments – and make them both in-setting appropriate and wired into the system.


The greatest genius of Smallville is taking something gamers always do – in this case, constantly get into pissing contests with each other over the smallest things and fail to move the plot forward as a result – and make it both in-setting appropriate and wired into the system.


I may have to make a game about drinking Mountain Dew…

When All You Have Is a Hammer – Smallville and Dice Rolling

Some thoughts after our most recent game:

One of the most important parts of a roleplaying game, the life and breath of how it actually works in play is when you roll the dice, how often you roll them, and how you interpret them when you do. Yet this is something that is often skimped on in design, and even more so in rules writing.

The reason for this is a lot of game designers have come to their own conclusions and assumptions about dice rolling, and are so used to those assumptions they cannot help but design around them. Sometimes they try to communicate those assumptions, but only so many of them get through.

For example, you’ll often see a lot of games say things like “only roll dice when it’s important or dramatic”. That’s fine advice – unless, like me, you think that the GM shouldn’t be deciding what is and isn’t important. That’s not my job, that’s the game’s job. Or the dice’s job. If the dice make something interesting happen, then that’s interesting. Let them decide. And roll them as often as possible. But a lot of games are designed from the point of view that dice rolling kills roleplaying or at best interferes with it. But I tend to think it feeds it. Plus I also like rolling dice. I might roll dice to see if you cross the street okay. If you roll a critical fumble, that means you get hit by a car. Which tells me that somebody tried to run you down and murder you. And thus we have plot out of nowhere.

You can’t do those kind of things in some other games. Or you can, but the system fights you. The point is, applying that kind of logic to Smallville can get you into trouble, because the same question comes up again and again: “What do I roll?”

I mean, you’re crossing the street – how do I choose which Virtue that engages? Which relationship? It’s just the street! For a less facetious example, let’s imagine you’re trying to swing from building to building like Batman on his batrope. It’s just a physical action. It doesn’t have a heart and soul of why.

Now, there are lots of ways to deal with this problem.  First of all, you could rethink the whole thing, and remember how the game works – that you don’t roll unless it matters. And that’s cool, but that’s now why I’m writing this. I’m writing this for GMs who are still learning how the game works and have ended up in this situation. They’re used to rolling the dice all the time and now they’re in a position where the player doesn’t understand because the GM has asked for a basic dexterity roll and their character sheet doesn’t HAVE dexterity.

Option two is try to fudge it: ask the player why they are swinging across the street, and whom for. This is not ideal, because now the player thinks you’re insane. He was swinging across the street because a) he wanted to cross the street and b) look cool doing it and he rolled dice because YOU told him to. Now you’re asking him to justify crossing the street because of who he cares about? Not good.

So what is the solution? The solution – at least for me – is to have your players think before the problem happens about primary motivations and primary relationships.  That is, guide your players in to thinking about why their character does Most Things. Now, this might also not be obvious, but for the kind of games where you might call for a dodge check, it usually is.

Let’s consider, for example, Batman. Batman has his fair share of angst, yes, but he also has an overriding drive: to bring justice to the streets of Gotham. In Smallville terms, he’s got the Value “JUSTICE I am justice incarnate d12”. And whom does he care about most? Who shaped his life? I’m going with his parents. He’s got “MY PARENTS were gunned down in front of me and I must avenge them d12”.

Of course, it won’t always be as obvious as it is with Batman. Many classic heroes have two or three defining traits. Spiderman has DUTY but is also funloving (probably POWER I love slinging my webs and making snappy comebacks d10”) plus is also full of angst when his duty conflicts with his LOVE for the people closest to him. Spiderman has lots of issues, and is much more of a Smallville appropriate character as a result. And again, characters playing their first game might not be so easily able to identify their central personal angst straight away. But they can always change it.

The goal is simply to have the players identify their general chief motivation and most important driving factor in shaping that motivation. This way, they never have to ask “What do I roll?” because if there is any doubt, that’s what they roll. Why does Batman do everything so damn well? Because he trained himself to be the perfect machine. Why did he do that? Because of his need for Justice, after losing his parents.

Yes, Batman has other issues, but they’re not there all the time. And that’s the point of this: GMs and Players alike may find adjusting to Smallville tricky. By giving them something to hold onto and roll all the time, they can use the system easily and simply and then be ready when the angst comes up. Eventually, Batman will have to decide if he should keep hiding behind the mask (TRUTH) or if he can be there for the woman he loves (LOVE) or if this is about revenge (DUTY) instead of justice. And that’s the moment he has to use a different stat and engage with other issues. Likewise, mostly he focuses on losing his parents but slowly he realises he can’t use those dice for dealing with other people, and he comes out of his shell.

I’m not saying Batman needs therapy, although he does and it would save a lot of money spent on armoured gauntlets. I’m talking about building a bridge from standard roleplaying to Smallville roleplaying, and you do it through making sure your players have a hammer to fall back on. Yes, this means that all they may have is a hammer, and they’ll be rolling it all the time. But that’s okay because in Smallville, your hammer is what drives your character. If Batman ever shut up about justice, he wouldn’t BE Batman. So what happens is that all the players gain a much better sense of who the character is. And if the character decides he really isn’t that guy, he has a mechanical incentive to go through personal change so he can raise a different Value. It also doesn’t matter if they constantly look for nails (to complete the aphorism), because hey, that’s what Batman does – he magically finds crimes that help him deal with his need for street justice.

Note that this won’t work quite so perfectly with people who don’t want to play characters with ANY emotional hooks. But it will help them get a leg up into the game. They at least now know what dice to roll, should the GM ask for a roll. The GM doesn’t have to stop a dramatic scene while Batman looks for his Batrope skill. And we learn what Batman cares about.

Give your players a hammer. They’ll learn to use the rest of the toolbox later, if they want.

The Wheelman Rolls Out

Sometimes, I’m a perfectionist, and getting all the stuff I wanted in this took an extra week or so. It’s not just how to tuck the Wheelman into your list of Roles, but nine new talents, full breakdowns of Secondary Roles, rules for chases, races and games of chicken, pregen characters and more.