So assuming the Golden Age setting as outline in the previous post what sort of game engine works best?

There’s a few  I would consider, some more likely than others. The first wave of candidates includes:

  • Wild Talents – Produced by Arc Dream using their One Roll Engine, it steers towards a grittier style of gaming like that seen in Watchmen or The Dark Knight Returns.
  • Mutants and Masterminds – From Green Ronin Games, Mutants & Masterminds uses an extremely heavily modified version of the d20 System (as seen in D&D 3rd edition and variants). That said, it has evolved into a very different game. While ability scores, feats, and skills remain, a lot of other concepts like hit points, classes, and levels are left behind. The game as a default assumes a Silver Age like setting.
  • Hero System – From Hero Games, the Hero System is an extremely crunchy game. It pretty much has rules for everything. It is a very effects-based system – the rules have tons of pages for the effects, you have to determine the trappings around it.
  • Savage Worlds – From Pinnacle Entertainment, really steers more towards a pulp-like setting, it has been used for supers in the past, though I suspect the rules would begin breaking at higher level of superpowers, though it would probably work well for the likes of Batman, the Sandman, etc.

So lets examine them. My group has had some brief experience with Wild Talents and Mutants and Masterminds so one of them is most likely – currently it looks to be Wild Talents, but there’s plenty of time to change, as our D&D 4e game will likely take us through the end of the year. So we’ll start by examining those two.

Wild Talents

Wild Talents uses a rules system that’s been gaining some traction in recent years – the One Roll Engine (ORE). It’s not quite a “mainstream” RPG but more than a typical “indie”. (That said even the most popular RPGs are at best niche games.) It shares some similarities with other dice pool games, where you use your attribute and skill (or your power) in a dice pool. However your roll determines everything about your action. For example, in combat it determines initiative, accuracy, and damage. This is done by determining the “height” and “width” of your roll. What you do is look for matches on rolling d10s. The number of duplicates is the width an the value of the duplicated die determines the height. For example rolling 6d10 and getting 1, 3, 4, 4, 4, and 7 means you have a width of 3 and a height of 4. Your width determines things like speed/initiative and damage. Your height determines your accuracy which in combat conforms to hit location with a 10 corresponding to a head hit.

Combat is fairly dangerous – a gunshot to the head, barring armor, has a good chance of killing a character right off. It is crunchy in some respects — dealing with hit locations for example. On the other hand it avoids the use of a battlegrid.

Adding a wrinkle is there are different types of dice. Standard dice are d10s, though there are also “hard” and “wiggle” dice. Hard dice are always 10. Wiggle dice can be set to any value you want. Obviously in character generation hard dice and wiggle dice are more expensive, with wiggle dice being the most expensive. Why bother with wiggle dice? Because you lack any finesse with hard dice. Two hard dice guarantee a hit in combat (barring a dodge action or something else to counteract it), but it will always be a hit to the head — i.e. very deadly. If you want to grab something from an opponent, you need to get matches in the hit location they are holding it, typically impossible to do with hard dice.

In our group, we had some troubles with hard dice – they are sometimes a bit tough to grasp mentally. Assuming we play Wild Talents again I’d do some tweaking. First off, we’d need to make certain we all agree just what the hard dice mean, especially in combat — does it mean a shot to the head? Some other form of knockout — for example Captain Kirk’s infamous shoulder chop or Mr. Spock’s Vulcan nerve pinch as a bunch of stunning hard dice? At character generation I’d also give the option to preset the hard dice to a different location — most likely a chest shot (though one could see Jedi Knights being rather fond of presetting hard dice as limb shots…)

A place where Wild Talents both shines and causes some difficulty is in “miracle creation” — i.e. the manufacture of superpowers. It gives you the ability to create any superpower you could want. This requires quite a bit of care however, as the game is not built to protect you from “breaking it”. For example, it is perfectly possible for a character to master the ability to suppress nuclear fusion to the extent where he can turn off the sun. The idea behind the game is you aren’t trying to break things. Making things a bit easier is a collection of premade miracles, the miracle cafeteria, which gives you a decent set of sample powers — including the most common powers you’ll find in comic books.

As far as tone of the game goes, one thing I’ve noticed is while the game works perfectly well for a “generic” superhero game, especially one based on more modern comics (i.e. the Iron Age or modern comics), Arc Dream has chosen to devote a lot of resources to considering alternate settings. Their first setting, This Favored Land, covers superheroes (“Talents”) in the American Civil War. The Kerboros Club also takes place in the 19th century, covering Talents in a very odd Victorian Age. Grim War is a little more standard, taking place in modern day and covering mutants and mystics grouping themselves into various factions.

In play I found the game easy to grasp and the players in my group grasped the basics very quickly. Like I said earlier, hard dice were a bit tough to absorb for some players, something I’ll need to keep in mind. Also, I found defensive powers can make it east to make characters extremely difficult to hit and/or damage. These are all workable items, but they are things I think we’d need to agree on before play starts. Our previous try of the game was brief but useful, allowing us to see what areas of play we need to be aware of.

Mutants and Masterminds

This is probably the most popular superhero game currently being made. It has much going for it. It is based on the d20 System, the same rules used for Dungeons and Dragons (especially as seen in the 3rd edition of that game). At first glance, a class and level based game which centers around “killing monsters and taking their stuff” seems an awful starting point for a game centered around superheroes. However Steve Kenson did a masterful job of keeping what works in d20 for supers and building a unique game with that as its foundation. While anyone familiar with the d20 System will find much familiar, much too has changed. Classes are gone. Characters are built with a certain number of power points which can be used to buy attributes, skills, superpowers, feats, attack bonuses, etc. The game is designed to be built over a tunable power level. This defaults at 10 for building characters like those found in X-Men or JLA. This is used to determine both caps for various ways you purchase abilities and to set the number of power points you get. As you gain more power points through adventuring it is up to the GM as to whether the power level increases or stays the same.

The basic game engine is quite similar to that of D&D, though like Wild Talents it is far less tactical than D&D. It also eschews the use of hit points to track damage, instead introducing a Toughness saving throw. The game has an extensive list of superpowers as well as various frameworks one can use to combine and modify powers. The book Ultimate Power breaks down powers further allowing for quite a bit of tinkering (though not quite as open as Wild Talents). The game is quite a bit less deadly than Wild Talents – no such thing as hit locations for example, removing those regrettable shots to the head. It is a bit more structured than Wild Talents – powers are a bit more defined as are what happens in a combat round.

The sourcebooks for Mutants and Masterminds are first rate. They are heavily into simulating various genres of comic books — books for the Golden Age of comics, superspies (like S.H.I.E.L.D), Iron Age comics, mystical heroes, etc. They all show a great love for the genre as well — even if I don’t use the game the sourcebooks will come in handy.

Compare and Contrast

For now I’m planning on focusing on the two rules engines specified above — if neither proves satisfactory, I may wind up expanding to the others I’ve listed. I’ve played short campaigns in both of them so I know either will work well. It will probably come down to what the group is more in for. I think we’re more likely looking at a Wild Talents game, but we will need to work out some issues with die rolling to make sure everyone is comfortable using them or coming out with tweaks to the rules,