[With Great Power ...] Brief but strong play in Sweden

Started by Ron Edwards, July 30, 2010, 03:24:18 PM

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Ron Edwards

Hi everyone,

This is probably my last post to the thread before GenCon, but please, let's keep it going.

Jaakko, I'm familiar with the sources you mentioned but the similarities are superficial. Most importantly, our comic/game had none of the post-modern, self-referential features of Grant Morrison's writing. We preferred to dive into and adopt the genre conventions of retro-early-20th-century comics and animation, rather than step outward and "examine ourselves as a comic." The more I think about it, the more the original show Batman: The Animated Series informed my thinking.

Nathan, yes, that's exactly what I mean by Color-first. You're using one or two of the things on my list, and I suspect a whole lot of people do the same already for any number of games they play, especially fantasy adventure and comics. My thinking is that I'm not proposing a new or startling technique, but identifying one that's already in wide use, and quite likely absolutely crucial for successful play in many cases, but often not acknowledged. It'd certainly be crucial for playing Annalise, and if I remember correctly from my version of the rules, there's an explicit step for doing so.

James, I definitely want to get to the Codeflesh discussion later. Don't let me forget. Also, it's related to your current point, because among other things, I speculated that the Plan for a gritty, low-down setting like that may be best phrased in terms of no in-fiction planning by anyone, but more as a thematic principle along the lines of "This damned city" or something like that. However, in most cases, I agree with you that at least some (and possibly all) of the potential Strife Aspects in the Plan can be accounted for by one or more of the villains planning something. If nothing else, it's way fun to create and play.

Michael, here are some of the larger issues I'd like to explore with you regarding the game, and I hope they might be helpful in considering the potential revision.

1. Phrasing for the Struggle is a fascinating consideration. Only one particular construction seems dysfunctional to me, and there's only one example of it in the book: "Tolerance vs. Prejudice," i.e., something pretty good vs. something pretty bad. That doesn't seem like much of a Struggle.  But in the functional range as I see it, I like the idea of posing two things which are both pretty good in their ways, and I like the idea of occasionally pushing the phrasing of a Struggle into more oblique forms (Love vs. Justice), in order to find out how far such an approach can go. I'm currently thinking that every Struggle actually has at least one more unstated "corner" to it which we discover through play.

That phrasing is actually only one part of my larger interest in the dance of Struggles, Convictions, and Obsessions both within a given Story Arc and from Arc to Arc, as I described in my earlier post.

2. I'm not entirely certain about the Plan-as-Aspect rules. Do I understand correctly that a villain's Plan is its own, entirely independent Aspect in addition to (a) the Aspects the villain has much like any other character and (b) whatever Aspects he or she Captures late in play? If so, I find myself a little boggled between considering the Suffering of such a Plan Aspect along with the Suffering of each of the Strife Aspects, because conceptually the former's fictional content is actually composed of the latter.

Also, if so, then I wonder why the players don't simply target that Plan Aspect via picking fights and reduce it to ashes in four conflicts, bam-bam-bam, especially after they gain numerical superiority later in the Story Arc.

3. The second paragraph in #2 is best considered as part of my larger concern, which is, admittedly based on not enough real play, I cannot see how any villain's Plan has a snowball's chance in hell of succeeding. Yielding Conflicts early in play is no big deal for players, and they can rack the Story Arc along fast, stealing the GM's decks and ruining his or her wild cards. If the players get one or two Aspects Devastated this way, all to the better - they get yet more wild cards (when the GM has less) and stomp the GM. And again, all they have to do is Devastate the Plan Aspect - three or four players against the GM, with six or seven decks among them against one, and only four conflicts to win among them, seems easy as pie.

Especially since the Strife Aspects need to go through four more victories each by the GM after Devastation/Capture. Under the reduced mechanical circumstances of the GM by that point in play, I can't see it - again, based at this point on minimal contact with the system.

4. The above point might be best understood given my current thinking about the Scratch Pad, which I'll try to explain. As I see it, a Scratch Pad has a lot of stuff on it, as many as 12 to 15 items, some of it better fleshed out (e.g. Scale) than others. I pick three to six per Story Arc ... and let's thinking carefully about those things which are not chosen.

i) For example, in most Batman stories, his savagely-effective and competent fighting ability would simply not be on the Hero Sheet, but would remain on the Scratch Pad, there to be included through auxiliary and Color narration, not at risk in any way. Or to take it to the rulebook, I'd expect to see such an item on Noir's Scratch Pad, reflected in Nick's constant narrations of kicking people in the head, and again, not in danger of risk. So these are things which are very important for a given character, and in some cases, perhaps central. I wouldn't want to play without them. (And yes, in the fullnes of time, maybe I would eventually choose to place one of them as an active Aspect, or even a Strife Aspect, but my point is that at the outset and through most substantive development of the character through play, they wouldn't be.)

ii) One might also think in terms of Scratch Pad items which are there for later consideration or inclusion, but aren't Aspects for the current Story Arc and don't enter into narration at all during play. These are more like an idea-bank, not "part" of the character yet or perhaps never to become so.

One might even think of these and other Scratch Pad considerations as a core, ongoing saga phenomenon. If you listed the whole Scratch Pad (keeping in mind it too an be dynamic, so listed through time) in parallel with the chronological account of which items were used as Aspects through several Story Arcs, and which of those Aspects underwent Devastation and maybe Transformation), then to me, we're finally seeing part of the larger Reward Cycle of play.

As I explained it to someone recently, any hard-core, long-term Marvel reader knows that Hawkeye was a fabulously successful character as a cast of the Avengers, and even today I'm happy to see what some writer or artist decides to do with him. But Henry Pym was not. No matter what any writer or artist tried, or no matter how much sturm und drang got caked onto him, he was boring and annoying. The distinction between these two characters, especially since in some ways they are equivalent ("beta-powered Avengers member"), is something any such reader grasps instantly. I see With Great Power as the single game which can really dig into how and why that distinction exists, in creative terms.

5. So to combine points #3-4, what I'm saying is that if I see some or even all of my current Aspects Devastated, and even if I see the Strife Aspect Transformed, this is no disaster for me as a player. I have the Scratch Pad. Only one of its features can be altered by someone besides myself through play, per Story Arc, and I get to pick which one that is each time anyway. My current thinking is that there's no reason why game-play should not include a strong fighting chance for the GM to succeed in the Plan, and every reason for such a chance to be there. If I'm right about that, then I'd recommend removing the steps of post-Capture Suffering, and putting Transformation one short step from Capture - one more victory after that, and wham, it's Transformed. (Proviso: I plan to play by the current rules in some depth before I stand by that recommendation. It is currently speculation only.)

As you can see, I am not particularly invested in altering the details of resolution within either Conflicts or Enrichments; I think those work really well and that more attention should be paid toward longer-term, larger-scale aspects of the mechanics.

Best, Ron

Michael S. Miller

Too much to address all right now, but two central elements regarding #2 (The Plan and the Transformation of Devastated aspects).

A) You're absolutely right that The-Plan-As-Aspect absolutely does not work. It was added to the text at a late stage, seemed promising in light playtesting. Failed miserably in heavier, post-publication playtesting, and Kat and I haven't been using it since. We're using the much more simple guideline of "If a villain Transforms the hero aspects necessary for his/her Plan, then they've succeeded!" It has the same effect with less complexity. If the heroes Redeem their Aspects before they're Transformed, they foil the villain's Plans and "save the day."

B) Once the GM has a Devastated/Captured aspect, she doesn't need to win entire conflicts in order to make it Suffer. It now belongs to her, and she can make it Suffer whenever she could normally make an aspect Suffer (i.e., during Enrichment scenes, or Assessing during conflict scenes).

I found using "only suffer by winning fights" moves too slow to be a threat. Unfortunately, the above tends to move too fast, and it's almost too easy to Transform an aspect once a player gives it to you. Fixing that pacing issue while simplifying the game are high on my lists of priorities for the revision.

Also, your thoughts on the Scratch Pad are lighting little sparks of possiblity in my head! I look forward to getting back to this after GenCon.

Peter Nordstrand

Any sufficiently advanced incompetence is indistinguishable from malice.
     —Grey's Law


There are several things I'd like to say in this thread, but I'll try to stay focused on the original topic.

A year ago I ran a terrifically successful With Great Power... game, in large part because everyone at the table was completely and totally dedicated to the Color of the game.  ("So, it's like, Strange Tales circa 1966, except starring Spider-Man and the Thing!")  The players were great, but we were pretty much just coasting off the enthusiasm we all had for that particular source material.  Someone would mention the original design of the Beetle and we'd stop for like five minutes to discuss how great it was.

This past month I've been running a Marvel Super Heroes RPG game where we're simply not on the same page, because I completely failed in my duties to present Color first.  Although about half the players weren't comics-crazed like me, I figured, "Hell, I'm not trying to get much better than 90% consensus here.  The Marvel Super Heroes RPG provides a decent amount of color, and the comics are largely homogeneous from 1961-1986.  We'll probably be okay so long as the group doesn't drift toward the Marvel Monsters type stuff from the early 1970's."

And, obviously - they drifted toward the Marvel Monsters stuff.

I'm not enthused at all about this particular sub-gene, but I have nobody but myself to blame for not explicitly setting expectations.  We brought in a new player two weeks ago, and he wasn't quite sure what to make of the material--whether we're doing a horror series, a screwball comedy, or what.  Also, the rules don't support that sub-genre especially well (you're rewarded for behaving like a conventional super hero, are severely penalized for killing, and modestly penalized for scaring/intimidating people). 

All of this because I was simply too lazy to present a focused vision.  I knew better but didn't follow through.  I'm trying to make up for it, but by this point it feels like I'm swimming upstream.

P.S.  In regards to this...
Quoteany hard-core, long-term Marvel reader knows that Hawkeye was a fabulously successful character as a cast of the Avengers, and even today I'm happy to see what some writer or artist decides to do with him. But Henry Pym was not. No matter what any writer or artist tried, or no matter how much sturm und drang got caked onto him, he was boring and annoying. The distinction between these two characters, especially since in some ways they are equivalent ("beta-powered Avengers member"), is something any such reader grasps instantly

The problem with Pym is simple: he's a closeted super-villain.  That's considerably interesting to me, especially in light of early Marvel's tradition of anti-heroes and anti-villians.  Unfortunately, even as a villain Pym only had only two good stories in him.  Still, it's two more than Hawkeye ever had.

Bret Gillan

To chime in about something that was brought up earlier, I'm currently playing a one-on-one game of With Great Power. While it seems to be mostly well-suited to it, I think having fewer players to get into conflicts with leaves the results of conflicts almost entirely to where we are in the Story Arc since I (the GM) have to make fewer decisions about when and where to spend my good cards. I can pretty much throw down the meanest thing at any point early on and not have to put a lot of thoguht into it.

It does set up a situation, though, where once the tables start turning the player is chomping at the bit to beat the crap out of me.


Another consideration is strategy during the big conflict scenes.

When I GM'd, I understood that the rules would let me win very easily.  Early in a conflict, I would play low-value cards in order to lull the players into a bidding war.  After they exhausted 80% - 90% of their hand (and likely wrecking several of their aspects along the way), I would crush them with wild cards and aces.  (Tactic: player lays down an ace with a satisfied smirk: "Ha ha, super villain, I win!"  Respond by playing a wild card set to the same suit to cancel their ace.  Next round, play an ace of your own.) 

The fact that I burnt through a lot of my own cards to do this didn't matter, because every time a conflict started I got a massive infusion of new cards because the players had stressed their aspects so much.  I did this over and over again. 

I suspect the optimal strategy, from a player's perspective, is to realize they cannot win most conflicts early in the game, and therefore forfeit the battle.  This lets them husband their good cards for mid-game, where the GM has fewer wild cards.  If you only devastate one or two aspects along the way and leave the others untouched, you should be pretty competitive.

If the players aren't comfortable forfeiting, they should just play the best card they have for each suit and yield if all suits have been filled.  There's a chance with this strategy that you might beat the GM, especially if his attention has been split with a simultaneous conflict, but you'll only lose approximately 4 cards.

Ron Edwards

Hi guys,

In agreement with both of you, I'm thinking that battling to keep one's Aspects pristine is probably not in line with good strategy, satisfying story creation, or the spirit of the game. With the rules as currently written, it seems to me as if getting one's Aspects savaged is part of the point, and that much of the climax is about (i) what happens to which one and (iii) redeeming something before it gets Transformed.

I wonder whether, at some point in the design process, "the worst thing" that the hero players are trying to prevent shifted from Devastation to Transformation. I'm basing this on the pre-publication version, in wihch there was no Plan and no Transformation if I remember correctly, and as far as I could tell, in which Devastation was more like a final fate. Whereas, as I've tried to articulate here, in the full game, basically, Devastation is the real start of the game in action.

I think the current rules are much better in terms of genre and many other things, but they display a little ambiguity between these two frameworks. In the illustrated example, Steven gives up because he doesn't want to Imperil the Armor of Truth himself, which would open it up for one step worse if he loses the next round. He loses it anyway, for a final result of Imperiled, and my impression from that example is that this is a very big story moment. Here and in the majority of relevant examples, the player fights like a dog to protect the relevant Aspect from increasing in Suffering via conflicts, and again, the implication is that although you might want the cards, it's really quite significant to overplay your risk and end up with more Suffering than you planned.

Which is again kind of weird, because given the Story Arc and the fact that Transformation looks quite difficult to me given the heinous advantage of the players (even without the Plan to target directly as an Aspect) ... well, hell man, in strategy terms, in story/thematic terms, and in line with the excellent text in the game about how important it is to get your ass stomped first (with which I agree as a comics nut), I'd be racing the GM to get my Aspects devastated.

The fun seems to come from (a]i) those times in which the fictional content of the conflict is something I find too awful to submit to (Mike referred to how I unexpectedly "gotcha'd" him this way in our game); (ii) those times when I have two or more Aspects in the mechanics fire simultaneously, as the color depicts; and (iii) a combination of the first two. Or rather, here I'm talking about the strategic + fiction fun, becauae larger-scale emergent content of play is also all kinds of excellent, as I discussed about villains in the older thread and those things I'm interested in further discovering as I wrote in this one.

Best, Ron