Super-Heroes Without The Crunch

Category: Cussin' In Tongues
Created on Friday, 15 May 2015 Written by Steve

Last week I posted a new article on Hubpages called “Seven Rules Every Game Master Should Follow.” That explains why I didn’t post here last week, but I don’t have any excuse for the week or two before that beyond a combination of real life stuff and lack of ideas. I’ve written, co-written, or contributed to 20 or so RPG books, I’ve been writing gaming articles for around 15 years, and I’ve done more convention panels than I can count, so sometimes it’s hard to think of topics that don’t feel like retreads of old material. Since I was drawing a blank, I posted on the QAGS Facebook page a couple days ago asking for requests. An Alert Reader (as Dave Barry would say) named Max Traver asked for advice about doing super-heroes using the QAGS rules, so that’s what I’ll be covering this week. 

First off, there are already two sets of superpowers rules for QAGS in existing products, one in Weird Times at Charles Fort High and one in All-Stars. Both are semi-crunchy and mostly pretend that game balance is a thing, because that’s what players seem want in a game supplement, but both are bare-bones because the super-powers are primarily for flavor in those games. If we ever decide to release a super-hero rules set for QAGS, it will be some combination of the rules found in those two books, only with more examples and ideas for handling specific powers and common situations, plus tons of advice about things like story structure and genre conventions. If you’re looking for mechanics, you should check out those supplements. This post is about how I actually run super-hero games using QAGS (at least outside of a convention setting).

Here’s the secret to running a QAGS supers game: Just use the basic QAGS rules. You’ll need to do a little bit of fine-tuning, but not much. The main hurdle is accepting that game balance is an RPG contrivance that has nothing to do with actual fiction, especially team super-hero fiction. If you can’t get over the nagging feeling that it’s unfair to Hawkeye’s player if his character isn’t equivalent to Thor on some arbitrary mathematical scale, this won’t work for you. If there’s not a reasonable level of trust between the members of your gaming group, this won’t work for you. If you want rules where strategy takes the form of manipulating the rules math to create powerful combos, this won’t work for you. You’ll probably be happier skipping the rest of this article and picking up one of the many excellent RPGs that facilitate that style of play. Different people like different things. Nothing wrong with that. 

Character Creation

Character creation for supers is more about clearly understanding how to use the existing rules to define super-heroes than about tweaking mechanics, so I’ll start by outlining how I’d use the standard QAGS Words. During character creation, focus more on building a solid character than precisely defining powers numerically. Once the game starts, it’s a lot easier to fix broken mechanics than broken character concepts. 

Body, Brain, and Nerve

A QAGS super-hero’s Body, Brain, and Nerve Numbers can go up to 19, but keep in mind that since these scores are holistic, many super-powers are too narrow to merit a high Body, Brain, or Nerve Numbers. Captain America might have 17 or 18 Body since his powers cover basically all the physical aspects represented by Body (strength, agility, toughness, good looks, etc.) but are still more or less within the realm of human potential. Hulk would have a Body in the normal range, but his Body number would operate on a completely different scale for actions involving strength because of his super-powers. Hulk can pick up a tank without making a Body roll. Even if Cap rolled a Lucky Break on Body, he still couldn’t pick up a tank despite his higher Body Number. I’ll cover handling contests between characters operating on different power scales a little later. 

Job(s)

A super-hero’s Job is basically “super-hero,” but players are encouraged to jazz up the name with a little bit of flavor. A Grim Vigilante, an All-American Hero, and an X-Man all have more or less the same job--fighting bad guys, saving people, solving crimes, looking good in spandex, etc.---but slightly different methods and skill sets. The super-hero Job is very broad and can be used for almost any super-hero-related action that doesn’t violate the basic character concept or require extensive training or specialized knowledge. Super-heroes rarely make default rolls. 

If you’re running a game that will focus entirely on super-hero activity or something like Fantastic Four where super-hero and civilian identities are merged , you don’t need to worry about secret identities. If a player in that kind of game really wants a defined mechanical advantage for rolls related to his day job, he can take a Skill.

If you’ve got a character like Shazam or Hulk where the super-hero and the secret identities are essentially two distinct entities with limited or no shared consciousness, your best bet is probably to make two separate characters. If the same mind is driving both bodies, defining which powers and abilities are off-limits or have different Numbers in a particular form should suffice. However you do it, make sure the player and GM are on the same page about how the two sides of the character interact and what causes them to switch places. 

Gimmicks & Weaknesses

Once you’ve thrown out the idea that Superman and Green Arrow need to have powers that add up to the same point value, creating a character becomes mostly a matter of definition, not mechanics. Deciding your Gimmick and Weakness is basically a matter of coming up with a good name for the character’s power(s) and vulnerability(ies). It’s perfectly fine for Superman to have a Gimmick/Weakness combo of “Last Son of Krypton” and Captain America to have the “Super Soldier” Gimmick and “Man Out of Time” Weakness as long as everyone understands the effects of Earth’s Yellow Sun™ on Kryptonian physiology and the benefits of Super Soldier Serum. 

You’re probably thinking that this set-up works fine with established characters, but is a little tougher if you’re making original characters, and you’re right. If you’re using this system, the player and GM need a clear mutual understanding of the character’s powers. Fortunately, most super-heroes are built around an easily identifiable theme, so often it’s just a matter of clarifying whether “cat powers” means the character has cat-like abilities, the power to communicate with and control cats, or some combination of both. The two big exceptions are aliens (or at least ones that aren’t being swiped from an existing fictional work) and Marvel-style mutants (who sometimes lean toward the “random collection of kewl powers” school of character design). For Gimmicks with less obvious meanings, the GM and player will need to define things in more detail, usually by making a list of powers and vulnerabilities. 

Other Words

In addition to normal Skills, a super-powered character can take Skills for specific power uses. For example, Supes could take a Skill to give him an extra bonus on flying rolls or Spidey could take Web-Slinging +3. Skills can also be used to quantify minor powers (like keen hearing or stealth) or physical properties (like natural weapons) that work better as bonuses to other rolls than Gimmicks.

The other Words work the same as in regular QAGS.

Running the Game

Running a supers game with QAGS is all about understanding the dramatic rules of super-hero fiction and using that knowledge to know when and how to apply the game rules in ways that facilitate that style of storytelling. Since the best way to learn the dramatic rules of comic books is by actually reading comic books and watching super-hero movies, I’m going to assume you’re familiar with the genre conventions and focus on how I’d use the QAGS rules to model super-hero fiction. 

When To Roll 

Super-heroes are unbelievably competent in most situations, so the threshold for rolling is a lot higher than in most games. For most characters, leaping across gap between rooftops is a stunt. For Spider-Man, it’s a form of locomotion; Making Spidey roll to cross town without touching the ground would be like making J. Jonah Jameson roll to walk down the street. He’s not going to fail unless there are extenuating circumstances, so there’s no need for dice unless something unusual is going on. The best way to judge whether a roll is needed is to decide what would happen if the roll were to fail and then ask yourself if that would ever happen in a comic book or movie about the character. If the answer is no, put down the dice and back away slowly. 

Since you’re going to be rolling a lot less, you can’t rely on the dice to create the story for you. That’s in keeping with the genre. Most super-hero stories aren’t about the characters doing things that are at the upper limits of their abilities, they’re about doing things for which they’re fully qualified amid an avalanche of complications and extenuating circumstances. The challenge isn’t breaking into the bad guy’s hideout, beating up the guards, and taking the McGuffin Ray. That’s a cakewalk for a gang of super-heroes. The challenge is figuring out who stole the McGuffin Ray in the first place, finding his secret hideout, breaking in, beating the guards, and stealing the McGuffin Ray, then escaping the burning hideout while also saving the roomful of orphans the bad guy was holding prisoner. During a blizzard. With an army of juggalos in power armor on your trail for reasons you haven’t quite worked out yet. 

Since the real challenge of super-hero plots comes in the form of figuring out what’s really going on, coming up with a plan, and dealing with unexpected complications, resolving them requires a lot more initiative on the part of players than dungeon slogs where the players can just roll dice to overcome the problems that the GM puts in front of them. That being the case, you’ve got to structure your adventures so that there are a lot of different ways for the players to arrive at a resolution. You also need to  be open to solutions you didn’t think of. If there’s only one way to complete the mission, either the players are going to find it immediately and be bored or they’re going to get frustrated (and feel railroaded) trying to find the One True Answer. 

Combat

The “don’t roll if there’s no chance of failure rule” applies to a lot of super-hero combat as well. If Batman’s beating up a mugger, you can usually just let the player describe what happens without rolling. If you need a longer mook fight for pacing, use the combat rules but ignore the damage to the heroes. Most mook hits don’t hurt heroes, they just temporarily keep the heroes from pounding mooks. Depending on how well the mook succeeds, the hero might lose his next action, suffer a temporary penalty, drop his weapon, etc. If a mook scores an extremely lucky hit (a Lucky Break, for example), he might actually cause a problem that will affect the hero after the fight is over. This can take the form of (usually minor) damage if you don’t have any better ideas, but less abstract options usually work better. Specific wounds that incur penalties, loss of equipment, and (if appropriate) odd effects on super-powers (like a head injury that causes a character’s psychic powers to go wonky) are all possibilities. Obviously, this requires more descriptive combat than “I shoot it for 3 points of damage” and “He pokes you with a stick for 5 points of damage,” but you’re going to need to step up your descriptions for a super-hero game to work no matter what combat rules you use. 

Even in fights against real threats, heroes shrug off a lot of damage, so the standard QAGS damage system only works if you give the players  a lot of Yum Yums to spend on negating damage. If you want to avoid too much Yum Yum inflation, you can either make sure every character has something that functions as an Armor Rating (actual armor, a healing factor, super speed that makes it hard to land a solid punch--most comic heroes have something to explain why they’re harder to kill than civilians) or change the damage rules slightly (all damage is halved, all characters ignore the first 5 points of damage per hit by virtue of being super-heroes, etc). You can also change the amount of damage that each YY negates. The extent to which you need to tweak the damage rules depends on what kind of game you’re running. A street-level game will probably stick closer to the existing rules than a cosmic game. 

If a character does manage to run out of Health Points, he’s still not dead, he’s just out of the fight. In most cases, a character with zero or fewer HP is still conscious and might even be able to take non-combat actions. He may even be able to get back into the fight if he can find a convincing explanation for his second wind. Super-heroes only die if they consciously decide to sacrifice themselves (which often means game mechanics aren’t even involved) or if they are in an earth-shattering “end of a major crossover event” type battle. In the latter case, the GM should make sure the players understand the stakes and the exact rules for death by die roll (HP reaching negative Body is a good rule of thumb). 

Differing Power Scales

Since Batman has a 16 Body Number (on the human scale) and Superman has a 16 Body Number (on the Kryptonian on Earth scale), they’re evenly matched mechanically in an arm wrestling competition even though Supes can pick up oil tankers. This kind of scale difference isn’t usually a huge problem if you run your stories like a comic book because like tends to pair up with like. Tanks fight tanks, super-speedsters fight other super-speedsters, and blasters fight blasters. Even in the Batman vs. Superman example, comic writers always make sure Bats has some kind of power armor or something that puts him on the same power scale (more or less) as Superman. Still, you’ll occasionally run into uneven power match-ups, so you need a way to deal with it. I suggest dividing scale differences into four different levels depending on the circumstances:

  • Minor Advantage: One character is clearly outclassed, but not by a huge margin. In the Batman/Superman version of Over the Top, Batman would be wearing a Hulkbuster suit he borrowed from Tony Stark. It makes him really strong, but probably not quite Kryptonian level. In this case, Superman’s roll automatically succeeds with a Success Degree equal to ¼ his “Last Son of Krypton” Number and adds his Body roll (if successful) to the total. He only fails the roll (Success Degree zero) on a Bad Break. 
  • Moderate Advantage: Middling power difference, like Batman in a standard power armor suit arm wrestling superman. The mechanics work the same, but Supes gets half his Gimmick Number automatically. 
  • Major Advantage: Batman’s trying to arm wrestle Superman while wearing just a light powered exoskeleton. In this case, Supes adds his Body roll to his full Gimmick Number. 
  • No Chance In Hell: If unenhanced Bruce Wayne arm wrestles Superman, Clark wins. Since there’s no chance of any other outcome, there’s no point in rolling. 

For Super-Speedsters, just give them two actions (possibly with an advantage bonus for speed) when they’re acting against non-speedsters in anything other than a contest of speed (which is a “No Chance In Hell” situation). Yes, The Flash should technically be able to punch 100 people in the same time it takes Batman to punch one guy, but the game should flow like a comic book and Flash and Batman get roughly the same number of panels in a JLA fight. The bonus action allows Flash to do more between the panels. Just keep in mind that “run to a crime cave halfway across the globe to get a weapon to shoot at the bad guy” is a legitimate single action for Flash and he can use his second action to fire the missile.

Static, Implied, and “Discovered” Traits

I’m grouping these together because they’re kind of related. A static trait is something that doesn’t work well mechanically as a Gimmick or Weakness roll, so you need to define the mechanics separately. Unusual vulnerabilities are a good example. A super-heroic werewolf would take damage from silver, but trying to base the damage on a Weakness roll every time is wonky at best. It’s easier just to establish that touching silver causes X damage per round and that silver weapons get an additional damage bonus of +Y. Some static traits don’t need mechanics at all because they just work. You’re never going to need to roll to see whether or not an Superman takes damage from a punch to the face. Superman is invulnerable, so he doesn’t take damage from physical attacks. No mechanics necessary.

A lot of static traits are implied by a character’s super-powers. Super strength is a good example. Being super strong doesn’t necessarily make a character a better fighter (so the power scale trick doesn’t work), but it should give the character a damage bonus when a punch connects. If the advantage is in the form of a bonus or penalty, you can probably derive it from the Word that implies the trait. A good rule of thumb is to use a bonus or penalty equal to ¼ the Gimmick, but that might change depending on the character details and power scales involved. For a characters like Thor and Iron man who have superhuman strength that’s not really central to the super-hero identity, ¼ Gimmick works fine. Hulk adds his “You Wouldn’t Like Me When I’m Angry” Gimmick Number as a Damage Bonus to all attacks against regular people, but the bonus decreases when fighting someone who can take damage as well as he can dish it out--maybe ½ against Thor, ¼ against Veronica, and no bonus against She-Hulk. Superman obviously pulls his punches (otherwise he’d kill most people with one punch), so the GM may rule that his Damage Bonus is ¼ Gimmick against normal opponents unless the player specifies otherwise before rolling. He can add up to his full Gimmick Number to damage if he wants, but that could result in a good roll ending with Lex Luthor’s head landing on the moon while his body’s still in Metropolis. Unless you’re going for Zak Snyder Superman, I wouldn’t recommend it.

The main difference between implied and “discovered” powers is a matter of obviousness. If a player suggests that his super-strong character should get a damage bonus, most people will agree that’s a no-brainer. The idea that “superior Kryptonian senses” includes X-Ray vision isn’t quite as readily apparent, but at some point it happened and now it’s accepted cannon. The truth is that super-hero powers are as fluid as the writers’ imaginations, so super-hero games have to give the players a chance to interpret their abilities in new and unexpected ways. Fortunately, Yum Yums offer a built-in way of doing that. Just make the cost dependent on how loosely the player is interpreting the power. In the case of extremely powerful “discovered” abilities, the GM will have to take a cue from comic writers and either come up with a convincing  anomaly that explains why the power worked that way just that one time (with Superman, unusual solar activity is a go-to) or introduce an easy way to nullify the ability it it starts constantly short-circuiting plots (lead blocks X-Ray vision, and once Lex Luthor knows that he’s going to buy a bunch of lead). Worst case, you can always engineer a storyline that alters the character’s powers (preferably with input from the player) if there’s just no believable way to explain why the character isn’t using his new-found ability to end every story before it starts. 

As I mentioned up front, running a super-hero game according to these concepts (especially that last bit) requires a gaming group where players trust one another, have similar play styles, and have common goals and sensibilities about what makes a good game. If you like crunch or need more structured mechanics, you should check out the supplements I mentioned earlier (if you still want to use the QAGS rules) or find a more rules intensive game that works for your group. If you and your players are comfortable playing fast and loose with the mechanics, you’ll have a lot of fun. One of the earliest QAGS games was a JLA game, and Gimmicks and Weaknesses like “Last Son of Krypton” and “Amazon” worked just fine because everybody understood and agreed about what they meant. I played Green Arrow (Job; World’s Greatest Archer; Gimmick: Trick Arrows; Weakness: Dames), in case you were wondering. If anyone else has questions (about QAGS or gaming in general) they want me to try to answer or topics they’d like to read my thoughts on, the request line is still open. Contact me  in the comments, through the Hex web site, or one of our social media accounts. 

*If you’re worried that this will give Supes an unfair advantage (which might be a sign that this style of play won’t work for your group) or want to account for villains sometimes taking Superman temporarily out of the fight without magic or Kryptonite, try this: Track damage normally. When Superman runs out of Health Points, something happens to take him out of the action. He’s buried under a pile of rubble, notices an innocent that needs saving, or whatever. Each round, he makes a Gimmick roll and adds the roll (if successful) to his HP. When he gets back to full HP, he’s done whatever he needs to do (dug his way out from under the collapsed building, saved the innocent, etc.) and can rejoin the fight next round.  

 

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