[With Great Power] Justice League of America Summer Annual 2008

Started by James_Nostack, September 08, 2008, 01:12:11 AM

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We played With Great Power... last night, and despite a few qualifications had a pretty good time.  A few panels from the imaginary Justice League of America Summer Annual 2008:

SCENE: Stately Wayne Manor
GENERAL ZOD: (flying in to land on the terrace) "People of Earth!  Zod, your overlord, has arrived!  Bow before me!"
ALFRED: "I am afraid this charity auction is invitation-only, sir.  I shall have to ask you to leave."

* * * * * * * *
SCENE: The Oval Office (I'm paraphrasing, I don't remember exactly what Ralph said)

AMANDA WALLER: "Mr. President, if we don't stop Zod ourselves, China and Russia won't hesitate to take action.  I'm requesting permission to deploy the mutates from Project CADMUS to Gotham City, sir.  Even the ones with anti-social psych results.  They might harm a few civilians, but we're going to need everything we've got."

PRESIDENT BUSH: "Miz Waller, I don't want any media backlash on this--gotta save our best spin for Iraq.  Maybe, uh, the local dogcatcher can take care of this one."

AMANDA WALLER: "Mr. President... Zod is... He's as powerful as Superman, sir.  He's Kryptonian."

PRESIDENT BUSH: "We don't need to worry about the Kryptonians.  Hamid Karzai's got them under control, he's a good man."

* * * * * * * * * * * * *
SCENE: the shattered ruins of Gotham City's subway system

GREEN LANTERN: (uses his ring to lift a subway train, wielding it like a flail to wallop Zod)

ZOD: (rips up a long subway rail to parry the train) "Your masters the Guardians left Krypton to die!  They have left Earth to die!  And you are sworn to obey them!  They are unworthy of you!"

GREEN LANTERN: "I agree."  (turns off his ring, dropping seven subway cars on Zod's head)  "Now come and get it."

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
SCENE: the skies above Gotham City; Wonder Woman is in her invisible jet

WONDER WOMAN: (monologue) "I've got to neutralize Waller's stealth bomber before it nukes Zod—and everyone else!  ...The invisible plane can't handle these speeds... It's breaking apart!  Got to eject and leap onto the bomber!  I'll disarm the bomb—with my bare hands!  But this is just one bomb—how do I stop the war??!"

Sadly, we'll never know how this would have ended.  Anyway: the verdict on content is: as usual With Great Power... delivers all the high-stakes melodrama of the best superhero comic books.  I had an excellent time running the game, and some of the more seasoned players seemed to like it too—but not everyone was happy.  I'll talk about that in a minute.


Social Stuff: this all happened at Recess, NerdNYC's semi-annual gaming con.  (I've written a few of my comments about the game there.)

ME - the Game Maestro.  I've played With Great Power... for maybe 5-6 sessions in the past.  I'm a ridiculous comics nerd.
Gil - Batman.  Very new to role-playing games.  Never played WGP.  Fond of superheroes but not a comics fan.
Colin - Green Arrow.  Old hand at role-playing, new to WGP.  Comics fan.
Ralph - Green Lantern.  Wrote Universalis; very familiar with WGP.  Comics fan.
John - Wonder Woman.  Has played WGP several times.  Comics fan.

I've played with John once or twice a year ago, everyone else was new, and fun to game with.

It was kind of strange to play with a (relative) RPG virgin on one side of me, and dudes like Ralph and John on the other side.  I think Gil had a lot of trouble adapting to this style of play, and was frustrated fairly often.  I felt bad about this, because I was mostly focused on keeping everything in motion.  While he understood the rules in an immediate sense, he kept on trying to extrapolate how the rules would work in other scenes, often to his detriment.  It's a neat habit, but not very advantageous when you're new to With Great Power... in particular.

PS.  In case you are wondering how to get people to give you a massage: just say "Massage me" to people passing by.  And they will massage you!  The trick is not to be aggressive or creepy about it.  Just say it with a lot of self-confidence. 


This is the third time I've played WGP...  Because it was in a "con" environment, I wanted to use pre-gens.  In the past, I've found that using "made up" heroes simply doesn't generate quite the same electricity and emotional investment I get from really good superhero comics.  So for this game, I deliberately used instantly recognizable DC superhero characters for the game.  This seemed to work really well: we didn't get hung up on continuity, and it was really fun to both use time-honored scenes while also breaking from tradition.  It felt good to play with the brand-name toys, you know?

One of the players remarked that the game felt exactly like the Justice League Unlimited cartoon, and he's absolutely right.   

After these results, I really want to run a long-term game using Jack Kirby's Fourth World characters.  Kirby famously had to abandon his magnum opus halfway finished, and for 37 years nobody at DC (including Kirby himself) has known what to do with these characters.  But I bet bunch of With Great Power... players with mad love for the New Gods could do what Kirby himself couldn't, and finish off the saga the way it deserves.  One of these days...


With those preliminaries out of the way, I have some comments specifically about With Great Power...

First: I've played several sessions of With Great Power... by now.  It's a fun game.  The idea of using the Struggle as a defining feature of the characters' relevant aspects is really sharp.  A friend who's more knowledgeable about DC comics than I am suggested a Struggle of "Tradition vs. Individuality," which worked perfectly.  I could easily see how all the characters fit into this thematic conflict, and prep was very fun.  I understand Mike is thinking of de-emphasizing the Struggle in his revision, but actually I think it's one of the defining traits of the system.

Second, and more importantly: the rules of this game are very difficult to remember.  There's the basic rule that if you need more cards, you should increase the suffering of one of your aspects.  However!  If it's a certain kind of aspect, players get an extra card (or must discard an extra card).  Meanwhile, if the GM increases stress on his or her special aspect, he or she draws N+1 extra cards (but discards one fewer cards than normal).  Meanwhile if someone else is in a scene, players' cards are one rank higher... but if the player is featuring two aspects the opposing card is two ranks higher... unless it's a splash page at the start of the session.  In other words, the "general rule" only seems to apply (at best) half the time, and at all other times there's a special case to cover things.  Note that this is for the most elementary scenes--a big fight scene is much more complex.

Our group had three seasoned players, and we got confused sometimes.  We also had a complete n00b who was pretty much lost at sea: he understood to draw cards, and understood basically what was happening, but you could see him get frustrated every five minutes when a new special case arose, screwing up his attempt to understand.

Mike, if you're reading this, the feeling I get is that With Great Power... doesn't have a "card economy"--it has a bunch of "stimulus packages" thrown together ad hoc to create the desired balance of power.  Each of these special rules is layered on top of one another, giving the balance of power a slight nudge here and there to get the desired result, but in play it feels really rickety and convoluted.  There has to be a more elegant way to achieve your objective.  (Overall, the rules of With Great Power Power... aren't any more complicated than those of Sorcerer or Shadow of Yesterday, but they feel a lot harder to remember because everything's a special case, or a modification of a special case.  My brain is bad with that.)

Third, in With Great Power... there's a division between Fight Scenes and Enrichment Scenes.  Fight Scenes are meant for the big, crazy conflicts that characterize superhero comic books; Enrichment scenes are meant for characterization, exposition, and world-building.  Yet even Enrichment scenes have conflicts and stakes.  In theory this is genre-appropriate: in a typical comic book there's loads of non-super stress (J. Jonah Jameson berates Peter Parker; Aunt May has a heart attack; M.J. is dating someone else.)  But these sorts of scenes aren't really about "stakes" at all: they're a way to develop character, plot, or setting.  The immediate outcome is less important than what gets built here, and I feel this building aspect should receive more mechanical attention.  (The enrichment scenes do some of this, by allowing the player to raise or decrease suffering on his or her aspects, which gets interpreted as characterization or plot-work, but I feel this should be the focus of the scene rather than the stakes themselves.)

Connected to this: running an Enrichment scene for the GM-controlled villain is awkward.  First, even if the villain loses the stakes, a crafty GM can probably alter the villain's plan on the fly so that the stakes don't matter much.  Second, if you're roping players in as NPC's in the scene, the GM generally gives the player direction ("This character's a henchman.  Your motive here is to curry favor by being a yes-man, but you don't want to volunteer for anything dangerous" or whatever).  For me, this skirts pretty close to the GM providing his or her own opposition.  I suppose you could hand the villain over to a player, but With Great Power... emphasizes keeping the villain's goals, motives, and long-range plans secret from the players for a while.

I also have a couple of minor questions about the rules which I'll try to raise in the Incarnadine Press forum.

And emerging from our session I've got a couple of points I want to raise about a large number of indie games too; this might take a little while.


I think this is the first game I've been in that's ended up as an AP thread.  That said, there were a few things that I noticed about With Great Power that caused the frustration and bewilderment that you saw us getting into.  The first part was that it was a little annoying to find out that there is an optimal time to increase suffering when going into a conflict in order to maximize available cards (for the record it is to enter a conflict and then increase suffering, which gets you around the "discard down to x cards" rule).  That was a relatively minor quibble however, since I got hit with it once and then we all figured out that increasing suffering going into the fight was silly. 

The bigger issue I think was the perception that at every turn the villains had a better chance at doing anything than we did.  I think this was partially due to the game session being somewhat abridged (double progression up the plot development chart, whatever it's called, plus us not actually getting to the final beatdown) but beyond that simply looking across the table and seeing James with a 25 card hand and drawing triple cards was daunting.  Even after we captured one of the villian's decks, something that I'm still not totally sure how it happened, we were still drawing N (or maybe N+1) cards to the GM's 2N.  While I'm pretty sure that the asymmetrical draw mechanics exist in order to keep the heroes from totally stomping on the villains while the sides have matched decks, it was frustrating to know that the GM had more opportunities to dictate the flow of the fight even at that stage (and yes, it is within genre for mid-story conflicts to be dictated by the villains, it just isn't terribly fun from a play perspective if people have a lot riding on it, which brings me to my next point after this brief aside).  We also forgot the card rank increases for multiple people in a scene, unless that only applies to Enrichment scenes and not Conflicts. 

Additionally, I think we as players set our stakes for the first conflict too high.  Instead of going for a slow increase in tensions on both sides it seemed like people pushed straight for "deal with the problem" level stakes, which forced the villains counter-stakes to be something equally high (the one that jumps out at me was that in our first conflict Batman's stakes were essentially: defeat the Kryptonians at his manor house or Alfred gets vaporised by General Zod's heat vision).  While that felt like reasonable a counter-stake for the stated goal, it seemed like bringing out the big guns while we were still pretty heavily at the disadvantage. 

While it was fun to play the Green Arrow, and I almost got to play out something close to my second favorite Dark Knight Returns scene (we broke early), I was kicking myself for picking the weakest character of those that were available.  A lot of it has to do with being at a loss for coming up with ideas about how to fight a Kryptonian effectively while armed only with a bow and an incredibly manly van dyke.  While the mechanics of WGP put characters of all power levels on an even footing as long as the weaker person has good narration skills, the lack of structured abilities ("yes the Green Arrow is a crack shot and has a bunch of trick arrows, but what does that mean?") makes it difficult to judge exactly how everyone lines up and makes it very difficult for weaker characters to figure out what they will do in a conflict with a stronger character.  For instance, had I been playing Superman during my fight with Ursa (named Jax-Ur in our game, but we were essentially fighting 2/3rds of the Superman II villain team) it would have gone the same way (because of the cards) but that outcome would have been expected, because it's in genre for evenly matched supers to fight to standstills repeatedly, instead of being an exercise in suicidal bravery.  Don't get me wrong, that scene was really fun to play, but had two of our heavy hitters not Given within the first two exchanges I would have exercised the better part of valor and split instead of going head to head with a Kryptonian. 

One suggestion I would have for introducing people to a good way to have fun with WGP who either haven't played RPGs or who aren't used to games that don't have a strong emphasis on narration is to have people think of superhero movies instead of superhero comics when they are trying to figure out how they are going to describe their actions.  Partially this is because it adds a degree of dynamic action that might ease people into doing something more interesting than simply hitting their target, but mostly because it is the method of interacting with the world that we are used to.  If people who aren't used to playing style-heavy games are trying to narrate their actions as a comic strip, they are going to get hung up trying to maximize the awesome of each mental frame.  If they instead think of it like a movie it will them string their actions together into an exciting narrative and what would be pulled out as a panel in a comic will simply be the most important instants in that narrative.   

On the flip side... I really liked the Struggle concept as something to give characters the drive to do what they are doing, and while the Struggle didn't really come up in play much in our game, I can see it driving a longer game forward as the GM hammers one side of a character if that player is really playing up the other.  The example of Responsibility vs. Freedom in the book is a great example, if a player really starts pushing the "freedom" convictions, the GM should attack them on the responsibility angle.  Actually, I think we missed the point that all six convictions are present and instead assumed that we only had three of the six.  While I'm not sure of the exact rules, it would surprise me if the intent was to freeze people out of half of their convictions.  Sure you can't get a mechanical benefit from half of your convictions, but that's simply because the player is choosing which aspects to focus on in the story: just because I focused on my connection with the Green Lantern doesn't mean that my relationship to the Black Canary is a non-thing, simply that it won't be the focus of that nights story.

All right, I need to stop this at some point, and I'll just keep rambling on if I don't post this and go to bed.  The short of it was that it was a fun game, had some very rough spots for everyone at the table (learning curve = high), and that it did some really interesting things that in hindsight make a lot more sense than they did while the game was going on (card draw differences between GM and players, and I love the abstraction of what powers actually do). 

Oh, one last thing (for real).  The part where there are NPC-only Enrichment scenes, I would handle it the way that we did, with players taking control of the non-central character with some direction from the GM.  In order to keep it from being the GM providing their own opposition, give the players some creative control over the scene and stakes, maybe they get to narrate the immediate results if the GM ostensibly loses the challenge.  While this does make it possible for the GM to lose their own Enrichment scene and the players to then decide that they are turning around the Zeppelin-Fortress and going home, that makes for a lame story and will probably not come up (or be vetoed by the rest of the players).  I'm sure there is a more satisfying solution but interesting stuff can happen as long as the GM isn't too restrictive in their guidelines, and as long as the players aren't killjoys if they are given some power over what their opposition will do, and it won't run into the problem of players learning the villain's plans early because they never play the guy with the plan.


Colin, thanks for posting!  It was fun to play with you, I hope you'll be back in town one of these days.

Some of what you're talking about is due to my choices as a GM.  For example, in a typical Fight scene the GM won't hold half a deck of cards.  Initially, the GM's cards are (approximately) 7 + 4 per involved player, to each player's 7.  Yet because Fight scenes last a long time, they are dull as hell for non-participating players.  So I deliberately tried to rope every player into every fight scene.  I ended up with a ton of cards, and then Ralph and Gil totally bailed, so I could concentrate my firepower on other players.  Yet even then, you and John pretty much managed to hold me off: after at least 45 minutes of play, neither of us could stage a decisive victory--I guess I could have ground you down with another 10-15 minutes of play, but then Ralph and Gil would have died of boredom. 

Thank you for raising the "freeform traits" part of the mechanics.  In theory I love this, because it's genre-appropriate that the Green Arrow is as valuable as Superman.  But something about this bugs me; it's an issue I have in Capes, The Pool, and Dogs in the Vineyard--I feel that I could do all kinds of things if I don't mind twisting my traits into a pretzel to justify it.  When this is combined with Director Stance--i.e., the player is allowed to invent pieces of the scene--it feels incredibly cheap to play this way.  I really like open-ended traits; I also really like Director Stance; but I'm not sure I like them together.


I had a great time playing this game...I don't think I've ever not had a great time playing WGP.  I took Hal Jordon from noble self righteous defender of the law to disenchanted cynic telling the Guardians to go Eff themselves to going all Punisher on Zod all in the compressed time frame of a Con session.

While the card mechanics could probably do with some streamlining and clean-up, I think the biggest problem with the session is trying to do a complete story arc in a single session.  WGP will never shine as a one shot.  The whole meta structure of the story arc is predicated on on the slow build up.

I've said this before elsewhere, but I'll mention it here.  Never ever, use the cover two slots on the arc with one card method of compressing the story arc.  I've never seen that work effectively.  It changes too many rules at once, and completely disconnects the shifting in the balance of power from the fiction.  Better would be to pick a spot on the arc to play...probably not even the first spot...and if the game advances a space or even two fine...but to try and compress the entire arc into one session I think makes the fiction too frenetic and confusing.

Zod having an overwhelming number of cards at first is as it should be.  Players getting beat to snot and burning all our cards for little effect early on is as it should be.  Over the course of the arc, the advantage shifts to the players and that is where WGP shines.  Compressing that I think takes one of the game's great strengths and shows it in a very bad light.



Ralph, I agree that covering the arcs is confusing, but the same could be said for devastating one's aspects (rules change with each aspect devastated), and as discussed, the rules on "who draws how many cards and when" are already bristling with exceptions.  I understand that the rules in With Great Power... work, but I'm not convinced that they're as smooth and as elegant as they could be.  The mechanics have this jury-rigged feel to them.  (This isn't meant as a knock on the Millers: it's definitely a fun game, just that IMO there's some room for improvement.)

The other thing that this session really brought home to me is a problem, either in my GM'ing style, or in a bunch of indie games as a whole.  It's the "Dudes-In-A-Scene" problem: here's a new scene, only one or two players are involved: if the scene drags on too long, other players will wander away (happened a lot during our game, which wasn't a problem with me given that it was a Con environment), or get bored (happened to me last time I was a player).  IME, Dudes In A Scene is typical in games like Sorcerer and Primetime Adventures, and developed as a rejection of the Party-Party-Party approach intrinsic to Dungeons & Dragons and similar trad games.

The trouble with Dudes-In-A-Scene, for me, is that the most obvious fixes end up creating problems of their own.  For example, when I have tried to hand off NPC's to audience members, they participate for a little bit... and then as the antagonism between the "Dude in the Scene" and the GM heats up, these NPC's generally go quiet.  I don't know whether that's the spectator's reticence to screw with the GM's domain, or feeling out of one's depth being handed a strange set of conflicting motivations.  Or, trying to keep all scenes short (say, 10 minutes or under) sometimes shortchanges these really deep scenes where you want to dig in and show off certain things about the PC, the world, the tension, whatever. 

One suggestion, taken from Story Games, might be to have the other players narrate the outcomes of the PC's actions--basically turning them into GM's.  I've also had some luck trying to have each player contribute to each PC, so there's always at least a little bit of creative investment.  (It seems this is part of what Group Chargen accomplishes, though it might be possible to take this farther.)  I'm also curious to know about letting audience members frame the scene...


I think WGP is ideally suited for handling the "dudes in a scene" problem using Flashpoint techniques.

i.e.  Here are 3 dudes...they're doing stuff...they get in a conflict...stop...cut
Here are the other 2 dudes...its their turn to do stuff...they get in a conflict...stop...cut

Now everybody is in a conflict at the same time...just not the same one.  And since every individual character fights the GM seperately it totally doesn't matter mechanically that the cards you're playing against the GM aren't for the same fight as the one I'm in.


Oh, I'll also note that I was one of those who wandered off a couple of times.  I hate that when people do that in my games, so sorry.  I was pretty wired on two much caffeine at that point and needed to move around...so nothing to do with being bored, I was still within earshot most of the time.


Ralph, it's quite all right: while disconcerting, I think part of the fun of Recess is getting to connect with people and check out stuff--no harm done.  I enjoyed meeting and playing with you.

That flash point technique is interesting, I'll give that some thought.