Outcasts, Part 1: Alien Superheroes

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I’m a big fan of the Supergirl TV show, and I’m particularly intrigued by the fact that its particular licensing limitation* implies a world where most of the superpowers are possessed by alien refugees. What follows is a setting take on how to justify this, followed by some design musings. The next part adds on an additional option for this type of campaign.

* Most of the non-alien DC characters were already in use on other shows or otherwise not available to the TV shows.

In God’s Image

A strange truism of sapient life throughout the known universe is that it seems bound to very similar forms. Through countless channels on countless worlds, evolution eventually settles on a bipedal hominid form for its pinnacle. Many look nearly identical to humans with minor cosmetic variations, the vast majority of the remainder are superficially different but structurally the same, and only the smallest fraction are truly alien in form. Nearly all of them drink water, breathe oxygen, are comfortable in a single G of gravity, and can derive nourishment from the same kind of foods.

Many religions throughout inhabited space seek to explain this truism, and the cutting edge of xenoscience can only postulate some constants of physics and chemistry that cause life to converge in this way.

Perhaps stranger, mental acuity is similarly constrained. Few sapients are much smarter than humanity, and nearly all have understandable emotions and drives. This is also true of their machine creations. There is no such thing as a true general artificial intelligence that any sapient will admit, though many races have come up with quite sophisticated virtual intelligences that lack their own motives and creativity.

All these factors mean that cosmic society plateaus technologically and culturally. The development void between 21st century humans and any given alien species is much smaller than many scientists would expect, even for civilizations much older than those on Earth. Bright humans exposed to starfaring technology can often figure out how to work it, and even partially reverse engineer it: it turns out that very little technology is sufficiently advanced to become magic. While this technological wall is no doubt depressing to futurists, it means that humanity is poised to enter intergalactic society at far less of a deficit than might otherwise be expected.

Of course, scientific competence and cosmopolitan leanings are very different things. Exposure to the vast profusion of alien culture just waiting to embrace earthling neighbors may set off many of the worst isolationist tendencies of humanity…

Design

This uses Savage Worlds as a basis, but you could easily use your supers engine of choice (though the follow up post explains in more detail why I went with Savage Worlds).

  • Use the science fiction companion to build basic alien race traits (with humans keeping the free edge as their racial advantage).
  • Each race also gets a handful of power permissions from the super powers companion, and are built as supers (i.e., they don’t have to take the arcane background edge).
  • Characters receive a variable number of points to purchase these powers.

All characters, even the weakest NPCs, should typically get around 10 points for buying powers, to allow certain powers to be standard for the alien race (e.g., you can always assume Kryptonians can fly a little, and are stronger and tougher than humans, but they might not all be as powerful as Supergirl). Wild Cards and other important characters should receive more, at the power band you want for your game. They’re, for whatever reason, the exemplars of their race’s powers.

In general, unless you’re using an established setting, players can essentially make superheroes as they would for any other supers game, then reverse-justify their power picks to a race of which they’re an exemplar.

Example Races

Kryptonian:

  • Kryptonians have the Gimmick hindrance (require regular access to sunlight from a yellow sun) and the Power Negation hindrance (Kryptonite). They gain six additional Power Points to buy super powers beyond what is standard for the campaign.
  • Kryptonians are incredibly strong, and can buy Super Attribute (Strength).
  • Kryptonians are incredibly hard to hurt, and can buy Toughness.
  • Kryptonians have preternatural flight with no apparent means of locomotion, and can buy Flight.
  • Kryptonians can fly into space and survive for short periods, so may purchase the Resistance package required to survive in space and Doesn’t Breathe (with the minor Limitation of a finite duration).
  • Kryptonians can use heat vision and cold breath as expressions of Attack, Ranged.
  • Kryptonians have enhanced vision and hearing, and can buy Heightened Senses.

Green Martian:

  • Martians have the Weakness (Major) hindrance (Fire) and the Racial Enemy (White Martian) racial drawback. They gain +2 ranks of Strength and +1 Toughness.
  • Martians are psychic, and can buy Mind Reading and Telepathy.
  • Martians are shapeshifters, and can buy Chameleon.
  • Martians have preternatural flight with no apparent means of locomotion, and can buy Flight.
  • Martians can alter their densities to pass through solid matter, and can buy Intangibility.

Human:

  • Humans gain a bonus Edge (per the normal Savage Worlds rules).
  • Humans are stubborn, and can buy Resistance (Mental). With the lack of psychics on the planet, few even realize they are so gifted. As a whole, Earth goes mostly unknown on the galactic stage because long-range psychic probes for sapience are so globally resisted.
  • Humans breed faster than most other races, and form strong groups, such that many humans functionally have the Minions power. Aliens are often overwhelmed by human numbers and tendency to coordinate.
  • Humans are sociable, resistant to fear, and quick to overcome hardship and shock. They can buy Super Attribute (Spirit).
  • Humans tend to have an outsized share of prodigies, and can buy Super Skill (any).

Design Note: Humans needed to be designed to account for their stats being the Savage Worlds baseline, so power choices were made around things that the majority of humans could plausibly have to some extent without it being strange/noticeable.

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Savage Angels, Conversion Rules

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I’ve been running the No Soul Left Behind campaign for Better Angels for several months now. While the campaign is great and the setting of the core RPG is awesome, we couldn’t really wrap our heads around using the trait system effectively. I’ll probably get around to doing a system review one of these days, but the upshot is that the translation of abstract vices and virtues into concrete rolls to accomplish something never gelled, and my players finally asked me to convert to a system with a more traditional trait system.

I wound up choosing Savage Worlds, for a few reasons: it seems pretty resilient to hacking, I already have the Super Powers Companion for a game that never wound up happening, and it’s pretty easy to grok (plus one of the players already has a lot of Deadlands experience and was one of my review playtesters when I originally tried Savage Worlds).

My goal was to keep the central struggle of Better Angels, which is that the more powerful you become, the closer you are to getting dragged to hell. So the main change to Savage Worlds supers proper is the bolting on of a translation of Better Angels‘ vices and how they relate to powers, sinning, and damnation. This conversion also takes a lot of inspiration from Smallville, insofar as the vice you pick to roll is based on your agenda for the conflict.

The below assumes familiarity with Better Angels and Savage Worlds (and its Super Powers Companion).

Vices

Your wild die (a d6 in standard Savage Worlds) is replaced by a die for whatever vice is your primary motivation for the conflict/scene (e.g., if you have Greed d8, Espionage d10, and Breaking and Entering d6, you’d roll d8+d6 if you’re trying to break into a building to steal something but d10+d6 if you’re trying to break into a building to get information).

  • Greed: Your motivation in the conflict is to gain something for yourself (typically of permanent value): this is generally something that you feel will be useful to you, particularly in the long term (short-term gains may actually be another motivation). If no other value seems appropriate, Greed can also be used for crime- and economics-related challenges.
  • Espionage (with elements of Gluttony): Your motivation in the conflict is to sate your physical needs (anything that makes you feel good physically, including getting into a fight not because you’re angry, but just because you enjoy the thrill) or to discover something secret. If no other value seems appropriate, Espionage can also be used for academics- and perception-related challenges.
  • Cruelty (with elements of Wrath): Your motivation in the conflict is anger: you are pissed off in general and that’s driving your behavior or you specifically hate the opponent. If no other value seems appropriate, Cruelty can also be used for violence-related challenges.
  • Cowardice (with elements of Sloth): Your motivation in the conflict is to not be involved in the conflict: you have no other agenda beyond not submitting to the opponent’s agenda or not being bothered in the first place. If no other value seems appropriate, Cowardice can also be used for athletics-related challenges.
  • Corruption (with elements of Lust): Your motivation in the conflict is to sate your psychological needs: generally this is an urge to be loved or otherwise appreciated, but it may involve going after something that will make you feel good emotionally in the short term. If no other value seems appropriate, Corruption can also be used for seduction- and impression-related challenges.
  • Deceit (with elements of Envy): Your motivation in the conflict is to try to exceed the qualities of someone you feel is better then you, to spite someone who has something you don’t have, or to pull one over on a sucker. If no other value seems appropriate, Deceit can also be used for stealth- and deception-related challenges.
  • Pride (Special, See Below): Your motivation in the conflict is to prove your superiority over someone else and prove that you’re the better person (or villain); since this could theoretically apply to almost anything for prideful characters, any other appropriate value should be considered as motivation first before pure pride is the dominant value. If no other value seems appropriate, Pride can also be used for diplomacy- and leadership-related challenges.

Raising Vices

In any scene in which you used a vice (or a power keyed to a vice) and your demon is active, the rating of your vice can go up by one die step. You must have both used the vice and accomplished one of the following things (as argued by the Screwtape):

  • Greed: Stole something you didn’t need (double bump for something priceless you didn’t even want)
  • Espionage: Gloated in victory or consumed something bigger than your head (double bump for totally suborning someone with illicit knowledge or consuming something so big you shouldn’t be able to do so)
  • Cruelty: Killed or permanently maimed a person/lovable animal or destroyed something of real value (double bump for a massacre or mass property damage)
  • Cowardice: Humiliated someone or sat by idly while something awful happened that you could have easily stopped (double bump for killing someone with a death trap or permanently maiming someone through torture)
  • Corruption: Made someone your minion or seduced someone that should know better (double bump for getting lots of minions all at once or completely suborning a hero’s ally through your charm and wiles)
  • Deceit: Betrayed and mocked someone that trusted you or seriously hurt someone because you were jealous of them (double bump for killing an ally or ruining someone out of jealousy)
  • Pride: Claimed that you were invincible and proved to your enemies that you were right; also special:
    • Whenever a vice would be raised over d12, it resets to d8 and your Pride goes up by one die step. (If you get a double bump while at d12, your Pride goes up by one die step and your vice resets to d10.)
    • If your Pride would exceed d12, this begins the process of dragging you to hell (it goeth before a fall… needless to say, don’t claim you’re invincible unless you’re planning to job it and get beaten).

Repenting

In order to lower a vice, you must forego a wild die for the whole scene (rather than using a vice-based wild die), succeed on at least one test where the outcome matters, and accomplish something opposed to the vice you want to lower:

  • Greed: Help someone with no expected gain or give away something of high value to yourself
  • Espionage: Learn something new and important through above-board means or deny yourself something physical you really want but you know is bad for you
  • Cruelty: Demonstrate mercy when it would be much safer and more expedient not to or protect someone at actual risk to yourself
  • Cowardice: Lose a conflict that costs you substantially (rather than running away) or go out of your way to accomplish something the right way when there was a much easier way to do it wrong
  • Corruption: Admit that you did something wrong and work to make up for it or deny yourself something emotional you really want but you know is bad for you
  • Deceit: Tell a truth that is injurious to you or your interests or help out someone you hate at cost to yourself because you know your hatred is irrational

In order to lower Pride by one step:

  • You must lower a vice below d4 (it resets to d8).
  • You must simultaneously humiliate yourself in a lasting way that will have huge consequences for your reputation.
  • If Pride would go below d4, instead reduce another vice by one step (the dominant vice still resets to d8).
  • If all of your vices are d4, you can attempt Exorcism.

Skills

The normal Savage Worlds skills are replaced with:

  • Pretending to Be What You Ain’t (Acting/Deception)*
  • Playing Sports and Shit (Athletics)
  • Hacking, Cracking, and Social Media (Computers)
  • Grand Theft Auto (Driving/Piloting/Boating)
  • The Old Ultraviolence (Fighting)
  • Taking Slugs Out of Your Buddy (Healing)
  • Scaring the Hell out of Someone (Intimidation)*
  • Digging up Dirt, Looking for Clues (Investigation/Tracking)
  • That Shit You Learned in School (Knowledge)**
  • Breaking and Entering (Lockpicking/Security)
  • Good Looking Out (Notice)
  • Getting People to Do What You Want (Persuasion)*
  • Making Shit and Fixing It (Repair/Crafts)
  • Downrange Violence (Shooting/Throwing)
  • Lurking, Prowling, and Generally Skulking (Stealth)
  • Being Down With the Street (Streetwise/Gambling)*
  • Camping and Outdoorsy Shit (Survival/Riding)
  • Being a Mean Girl (Taunt)*

* Uses Charisma bonus
** Not required to be bought as individual skills (unlike normal Savage Worlds)

Powers and Aspects

Powers and Aspects are rebuilt using the rules from the Super Powers Companion as a guideline. In general:

  • Powers scale in effect pegged to the associated vice die (roughly equal to the value of the die; e.g., at a d6, it’s got 6 power points worth of effect, and at d12 it’s got 12 points worth of effect).
  • Aspects scale in effect pegged the higher of the two associated vice dice (roughly equal to twice the value of the die; e.g., Darkness-Shrouded was Devious, so it’s now pegged to Corruption + Deceit, and if your Deceit is d10, it’s got 20 points worth of effect).
  • I’ll give you little summary blocks to show where the power is at at each rating.

For how they work:

  • You can always use powers, but if you use them your demon is active and raising the associated vice is on the table for the scene (even if you didn’t roll that sin’s die at all).
  • To turn on an aspect, roll the dice for the two vices associated with the aspect:
    • If the demon is activating it, on a failure it doesn’t turn on (and you step down the higher of the two vices), on a success it turns on (and you step down the higher of the two vices), and on a raise it turns on (without having to step down the value of the vice).
    • If the mortal is activating it, on a failure it doesn’t turn on (and you step up the lower of the two vices), on a success it turns on (and you step up the lower of the two vices), and on a raise it turns on (without having to step up the value of the vice).

Example Power, That Hideous Strength (Cruelty):

  • d4: Super Strength (p. 43) +2
  • d6: Super Strength (p. 43) +2, Attack, Melee (p. 22) rank 1
  • d8: Super Strength (p. 43) +3, Attack, Melee (p. 22) rank 1
  • d10: Super Strength (p. 43) +3, Attack, Melee (p. 22) rank 1 (Stackable upgrade)
  • d12: Super Strength (p. 43) +4, Attack, Melee (p. 22) rank 1 (Stackable upgrade)

(For example, if your Cruelty is currently rated d8, you have the Super Strength power from page 43 of the SPC at +3 steps, and the Attack, Melee power from page 22 at the first rank.)

Other Demonic Abilities

  • Sinful Perfection: Step down the vice the player is rolling before the roll is made, but add +4 to the roll’s result.
  • Demonic Endurance: Death is not usually on the table for a hellbinder when Incapacitated. If there’s an easy way for you to escape, when Incapacitated you escape (possibly in a no-body, no-kill kind of way). If your opponents have you in a situation where that’s impossible, they’ll find themselves compelled to arrest/capture you rather than killing you. You’re only in danger of dying past Incapacitated when dark magic is on the table in the hands of someone at the end of her rope (i.e., usually, only other hellbinders can actually kill you, or a mortal that’s been pushed way too far).
  • Devilish Creativity: Use the system in the book and replace the virtue costs with Resource units. You can break one big money unit from crimes into 4 Resources. You also accumulate 1 Resource each per scenario to represent your legitimate income. When you want to make a device/improve the lair, spend Resources equal to the book’s costs (in Generosity and Knowledge) and step up a meaningfully related Vice by one. Boom, you have the device.

Advantages

Secrets and surprises from Better Angels work as special-use Bennies: you can expend them to reroll a test for which they’re specifically relevant.

Character Conversion

  • Make characters normally for Savage Worlds. You don’t have to take an arcane background to get your powers (as per SPC). Edges that don’t make sense may be off the table (most of the supernatural ones, anything that makes you rich, etc.).
  • Award Savage Worlds XP based on how far you are into the campaign.
  • Convert your current Generosity to spare Resources, and your various vice ratings to the new vice rating (1 dot is a d4 up to 5 dots is a d12; if you’ve zeroed out a vice, it’s at an X and no powers associated with it function).

Pathfinder: Ability Point-Based Supers

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Points

Two unrelated things that became related in my brain:

  • It would be reasonable to model Captain America’s superpowers (from certain eras and writers) as just “human max attributes.” In D&D/Pathfinder, that’s 18s (or maybe 20s) in all six ability scores.
  • While I have my misgivings about the fungibility of the race features in the Advanced Race Guide*, I couldn’t help but notice that the point scales involved in race building seemed fairly similar to the points used to buy ability scores. In particular, I wondered if it would be fair to do something like allow a player to be an aasimar (a 15 point race) in a party of players handbook races (9-10 point races) in exchange for the aasimar PC having 5 fewer points for ability scores.

Those ideas gelling in my head, I did do some additional math and found out that, indeed, the race point balancing is relatively close to ability point balancing. To wit, if you made a PC with all 18s it would cost around 90 ability or race points (not counting the first 15 points that normal characters get); for race points, it’s using the +2 ability score bonus with no strings that increases in cost for each cumulative +2. The price is likewise similar (around 130) for all 20s. Since the math is close enough, let’s move on to the system below.

* In that my intuition and experience is that it leads to players ditching rarely used but interesting features for boring features they think they’ll use more

Point-Based Supers

You can turn Pathfinder into a supers system by just giving out bonus points that can be spent on ability scores or racial features. A character of around Captain America’s power level gets 100 or so points. Notably, these characters will be hella awesome for first level characters, but scale normally through character level (and mythic tiers, if you’re feeling particularly gonzo).

Character points can be spent in three major ways: enhanced ability scores, racial features, or spell-like abilities.

Ability Scores

While the normal point buy rules stop players from buying over 18, it’s easy to extend the costs indefinitely upward: the cost for each ability score increase is equal to the modifier for that score (e.g., it costs 5 points beyond the cost of 19 to get to 20, because 20 grants +5).

The extended chart is below:

Score Total CP Cost Score Total CP Cost
7 -4 22 37
8 -2 23 43
9 -1 24 50
10 0 25 57
11 1 26 65
12 2 27 73
13 3 28 82
14 5 29 91
15 7 30 101
16 10 31 111
17 13 32 122
18 17 33 133
19 21 34 145
20 26 35 157
21 31 36 170

So someone that had 100 points and went all in on an ability score could start with a 30 or better.

Racial Features

Most of the racial features from creating new races (p. 215 of the ARG or here) are probably viable for building heroic abilities. Hell, you need a pile of superhero points to afford to be a robot (sorry, “construct”).

Specifically, leave out the racial features that modify ability scores (use the point costs above) or grant one-off spell-like abilities (see below). Otherwise, anything the GM and player agree works for the character’s power concept should be fair game for the prices listed.

Spell-Like Abilities

The real bread-and-butter of making supers is the freedom to pick spells to use as spell-like abilities. Want to be a blaster? You can do worse than Scorching Ray. A teleporter? Dimension Door.

The costs in the ARG seem relatively cheap for this purpose, though: it makes more sense to sell players a second level spell per day for 2 points when they’re going to have less than a dozen points, but that’s a LOT of scorching rays if you have 100 points to spend.

So I suggest for this purpose you cost spell-likes as their level squared. So:

Spell Level CP Cost
1 1
2 4
3 9
4 16
5 25
6 36
7 49
8 64
9 81

You can also work out with the player how many uses are required for something to become an At Will spell-like ability, or an always-on supernatural ability. For attacks and other primarily-in-combat powers, I’d work out how many times I genuinely expect the player to use it in a day, and make it At Will once that many uses are purchased. For utility abilities, particularly long-duration ones, it may only take a few per day to become a self-only, always-on supernatural ability. Healing and other things that become really good out of combat with unlimited time should probably never become At Will.

Like racial spell likes, the caster level for these abilities is equal to total character level/hit dice, and the save DC is equal to 10 + spell level + the most relevant ability score modifier (but don’t let the player browbeat you into setting the save DC to the ability score he’s raised to a crazy high level if that doesn’t actually make sense).

And with all of that, you’ve hacked in superheroes. Either turn them loose on the normal fantasy classes and setting, or strip down the core classes to run something more traditional for supers.

Better Angels Rules Summary

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Better Angels is a One Roll Engine game where the PCs are conflicted supervillains: conflicted because the source of their powers is a possessing demon gleefully trying to get them to sin so it can drag them bodily to hell. It’s a way to justify classic four-color supervillain shenanigans. Of course you put the hero in a death trap and then leave the room rather than just shooting him, and make sure you commit crimes with high property damage in front of the cameras rather than quietly in the dead of night: it appeases the demon with your grandstanding without actually killing anybody.

I’m running this soon as well, so here’s the rules summary I put together for my players’ reference.

Basic Rules

Dice

Characters take actions by assembling a pool of d10s. Roll all dice and look for matches. In a matched set, the number of dice in the set is the Width and the number on the dice is the Height. For example, four 6s is a set with width 4, height 6, or 4×6.

The width of the set is the most important element, and indicates speed and power. Wider sets go first if timing is important, and have a greater effect.

The height of the set indicates quality, and is often used only to break ties or for miscellaneous rules effects. In many cases, a 3×5 is better than a 2×10.

Some powers grant Master Dice, which allow you to add a die of any value after rolling (essentially widening any set you rolled).

Contested actions use the defender’s set to remove dice from the aggressor’s set. A set must have an equal or greater height to cancel dice (e.g., 3×5 cannot cancel a 2×6). In combat or other fast-paced situation, a set must also have equal or greater width (or the attacker just goes too fast to be stopped).

You can make a Called Shot by dropping one die and setting another die to a fixed number before rolling, hoping to roll more of the same number as on the fixed die.

You can take Multiple Actions by dropping one die per extra action and hoping to get multiple sets.

If timing matters, players declare actions in order of Cunning (using Knowledge to break ties).

Extra Time, Weapons/Tools, Surprise, and Secrets can grant Advantage of up to +3. Advantage can be added as extra dice for your pool before rolling, or saved to increase the width of a rolled set (and you can split it between uses if you have multiple points of Advantage). The amounts of advantage are:

  • Extra Time: 2x as long (+1); 3x as long (+2)
  • Weapon/Tool: Small and concealable (+1); serious and noticeable (+2); really big and/or nasty (+3)
  • Intellectual Surprise: Circumstantial evidence (+1); conclusive evidence (+2); damning evidence (+3)
  • Surprise Attack: Cunning Greed/target’s Cunning Espionage; both get sets (+1); ambusher set 2x vs no set (+2); ambusher set 3x/no set (+3)
  • Secret: Minor secret (+1); Secret worth effort to conceal/deny (+2); Life-endingly horrible secret (+3)

Strategies and Tactics

Instead of attributes and abilities, characters assemble their dice pools based on Strategies (bolded green) and Tactics (italicized purple). These are personal virtues and sins that can and will frequently fluctuate in play due to damage. Permanent character abilities are limited to Specialties and demonic aspects and powers. In the examples, the sin is on the left, the virtue on the right:

Cunning/PatientGreed/GenerosityEspionage/Knowledge

These are generally used for mental conflicts. Running out of Patient makes you go berserk.

  • Patient Generosity: Making long-term investments
  • Patient Greed: Long cons, forgery, hacking, cracking
  • Cunning Generosity: Buying illegal goods, bribery, conspicuous spending
  • Cunning Greed: Petty larceny, lockpicking, hotwiring, shoplifting
  • Patient Knowledge: Research, knowing things
  • Patient Espionage: Investigating, casing, bugging communications, staking out
  • Cunning Knowledge: Defusing bombs, jury-rigging, quiz games
  • Cunning Espionage: Spotting ambushes, noticing opportunities, other quick perceptions

Sly/OpenCruelty/CourageCowardice/Endurance

These are generally used for physical conflicts. Running out of Open kills mortals (and isn’t ideal for hellbinders).

  • Open Courage: Making a melee attack against superior* foes or overwhelming numbers
  • Open Cruelty: Making a melee attack against equal or inferior foes
  • Sly Courage: Making a ranged attack against superior* foes or overwhelming numbers
  • Sly Cruelty: Making a ranged against equal/inferior foes, making any kind of attack from ambush
  • Open Endurance: Chasing, endurance athletics, bracing a door/wall, pinning a target in combat
  • Open Cowardice: Kicking down a door, outrunning someone, blocking an attack
  • Sly Endurance: Tailing, juggling/tightrope walking, disarming someone in combat
  • Sly Cowardice: Climbing, escaping from pins/bonds, passing an object, dodging in combat

* For hellbinders, foes only count as superior when they’re supernatural but the binder’s demon isn’t currently invoked

Devious/InsightfulCorruption/NurtureDeceit/Honesty

These are generally used for social conflicts. Running out of Insightful removes your base defense against manipulation.

  • Insightful Nurture: Understanding someone’s better nature, resisting temptation/seduction
  • Insightful Corruption: Understanding someone’s weaknesses, temptations, and urges
  • Devious Nurture: Persuading (to do something good), inspiring
  • Devious Corruption: Seducing, cajoling, bewildering
  • Insightful Honesty: Defending against attacks on the truth, riposting against manipulation to sense what was true
  • Insightful Deceit: Resisting appeals to better nature, riposting against manipulation to sense motivations
  • Devious Honesty: Gaining Advantage from a difficult truth
  • Devious Deceit: Gaining Advantage from a believable lie

Damaging Strategies and Tactics

Conflict generally has an intention to reduce a targeted tactic or strategy. You pick a particular tactic to target (which is usually limited by the type of tactic you’re using), and do damage based on the result:

  • Width 2-3: Slide a dot of the tactic into its opposite tactic. If it’s already empty, slide a dot of the parent strategy into its opposite strategy.
  • Width 4: Remove a dot from the tactic. If it’s already empty, remove a dot of the parent strategy.
  • Width 5: Remove a dot of the parent strategy, even if there are still dots in the tactic.

Aspects and Powers

Aspects

Aspects are remnants of the possessing demon’s diabolical heritage strong enough to affect the body of the host. The player of the mortal will pick one and the player of the demon will pick the other.

They’re powerful but costly to activate. The demon half always controls activation, there must be at least one point in the aspect’s governing Strategy for it to work, and there are two ways to turn them on:

  • The mortal requests it, the demon agrees, and the mortal slides a point off a Virtuous Strategy in payment.
  • The demon makes it happen without request, rolls the aspect’s governing Strategy (no Tactic), and turns on the aspect for free if this roll gets a set. If there is no set, the aspect still turns on, but the demon must slide a point from the governing Strategy.

The available aspects are:

  • An Utmost Foulness* (Cunning): Turns you into an amorphous (and flexible) blob of nastiness
  • Aqua-Form* (Sly): Turns you into living water
  • Carapace (Sly): Grants armor that reduces attack Height
  • Cloven Hooves (Cunning): Lets you forge demonic pacts with mortals to give them a bonus and you a Tactic upgrade whenever they use it
  • Darkness-Shrouded (Devious): Swathes the area around you in inky darkness only your allies can see through
  • Flame-Wreathed (Devious): Covers you in fire that deals damage to melee attackers and improves your own attacks
  • Ghost Form (Cunning): Grants intangibility that you can selectively turn on and off
  • Giant (Sly): Makes you big and super strong
  • Glory* (Devious): Makes you incredibly beautiful/terrifying
  • Hell’s Engine* (Sly): Replaces a body part with a hellish contraption (chooser picks the contraption, non-chooser picks the body part)
  • Horned (Sly): Gives you an intimidating natural weapon
  • Invisible (Devious): Lets you turn invisible and get a surprise bonus on attacks
  • Legion* (Cunning): Creates unpowered doppelgangers of you
  • Non-Euclidean* (Devious): Turns you into a cloud of concepts, allowing shifts in which Tactics get targeted by attacks
  • Wings (Cunning): Lets you fly and also temporarily sacrifice the wings to negate an attack

Powers

Powers don’t necessarily have a permanent physical structure, and they’re under the total control of the mortal. However, activating them counts as invoking the demon (allowing it to start paying attention and talking for the rest of the scene). The player of the mortal will pick one and the player of the demon will pick one.

Powers typically have a (fixed dice pool) to activate them. The available powers are:

  • Alchemy (Greed): Turns items (or body parts) temporarily into gold (Cunning Greed), and grants a Master Die to use Generosity for bribery (if Greed is not less than Generosity)
  • Animal Control (Deceit): As Body Control, but affects animals
  • Animal Form (Espionage): Lets you turn into the form of a (usually terrifying) animal, with more powers the higher your espionage (Cunning Espionage)
  • Armor (Cowardice): Grants you a defense that reduces the Width of physical attacks (Open Cowardice)
  • Arrogance (Cowardice): Provides a passive social defense based on your Cowardice
  • Babel Babble* (Corruption): Lets you start a spiel of jargon that attacks listeners’ Knowledge or Nurture (Cunning Corruption)
  • Banish (Cowardice): Lets you send something (including a touched target’s body part) somewhere else within line of sight and thirty feet (Sly Cowardice), and grants a set of dedicated items you can send up to thirty miles away
  • Body Control (Deceit): Turns human targets into your puppets that you can give orders to (Devious Deceit)
  • Clairvoyance (Espionage): Lets you see up to miles away (Patient Espionage)
  • Crime-Time* (Greed): Gives you a minute pause in which you can move and everything else is frozen but invulnerable (Cunning Greed)
  • Dark Ritual* (Knowledge): Satisfies your demon to grant advantage for the rest of the scene (Devious Knowledge)
  • Dead Ringer (Deceit): Lets you copy the appearance of another person you’ve spent time with (Insightful Deceit)
  • Dominator Strike (Cruelty): Gives you a customizable ranged attack (Sly Cruelty)
  • False Memories* (Deceit): Implants a false memory into a touched target (Patient Deceit)
  • Hanging Curse* (Corruption): Curses a target with a ban that will damage a Virtuous Strategy if violated (Patient Corruption)
  • Impossible Beauty (Corruption): Gives you advantage to social rolls to influence people (Devious Corruption); could be artistic skill rather than physical beauty
  • Ineffable Defense (Espionage): Reduces advantage granted by surprises or secrets used against you based on your Espionage
  • Oracle* (Knowledge): Allows you to question the GM about the future or possible actions (Devious Knowledge)
  • Psychic Objects (Greed): Lets you create useful objects with size and complexity based on your Greed (Cunning Greed)
  • Regeneration* (Cowardice): Recovers damage or shifts to your Open and Sly suffered during a scene (Open Cowardice)
  • Retrocognition* (Espionage): Lets you see what happened in a location previously (Patient Espionage)
  • Soulless Materialism* (Generosity): Animates objects to fight for you (Cunning Generosity)
  • Summon (Greed): Lets you summon visible objects within thirty feet to you, including target body parts (Cunning Greed), and grants a set of dedicated items you can summon to you from up to thirty miles away
  • Telekinesis (Deceit): Allows you to move objects/people within line of sight and range based on Deceit (Insightful Deceit)
  • Teleport Self (Corruption): Transports you somewhere else within a few miles based on Corruption (Insightful Corruption)
  • Terror (Cruelty): Drains Courage at range (Devious Cruelty)
  • That Hideous Strength (Cruelty): Gives a melee weapon bonus and lets you perform feats of strength based on your Cruelty
  • The Evil Eye* (Cruelty): Allows you to apply a curse at range that reduces target’s dice for several scenes (Cunning Cruelty)
  • Wither (Corruption): Shrivels, wilts, corrodes, etc. a touched/grappled object/person (Devious Corruption)

Innate Abilities

The player of the demon controls access to several other innate abilities common to all demons:

  • Devilish Creativity: All hellbinders can make infernally cunning devices (often disguised as scientific inventions, but possibly just obviously magic items). These use a customizable system that costs points from Virtuous Tactics to create the item.
  • Appreciating the Numinous: The demon can recognize other hosts of angels or demons (special campaign rule: only when both possessing spirits are invoked).
  • Spying: If the demon’s primary Sinister Strategy is higher than its opposite, the demon can perceive all the time. If it’s not, the demon perceives only when invoked. The demon cannot talk to the mortal, even if it can perceive all the time, unless invoked by being given permission to speak or the mortal activates a power.
  • Sinful Perfection: The demon can turn one die in the mortal’s pool into a Master Die for a particular roll by sliding the related Sinister Tactic for that roll into the Virtuous Tactic (e.g., if the player is rolling Courage or Cruelty, slide a point of Cruelty).

* from the No Soul Left Behind campaign book

Legacy Superheroes

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Season 2 of Young Justice finally showed up on Netflix, and got me thinking about one of the things that DC has always done extremely well: worldbuilding through character inheritance.

The DC universe has such a robust mythology of archetypal characters, it’s easy to introduce a new character that can rely on other characters for the heavy lifting of powers and such, and provide a foil to differentiate the character. For example, you don’t have to come up with a whole new explanation for how a new speedster works; that character is tapped into the Speed Force, which provides some interesting constraints and possibilities for development. Young Justice is basically all about this: nearly all of the characters are legacy heroes based on a Justice League member. The DC Universe MMO does something similar, providing character building blocks from established characters to mix and match.

There are a couple of interesting ways to profit from this in your own supers games: top down and bottom up.

Top Down

The first method is to use an existing setting or make your own with a lot of nailed down origin concepts. The players then pick from these origin types to control what powers they can access, and what baked in story tropes they’ll be part of. Obviously, stated that broadly, it’s something that lots of supers games do: are you a magic hero, a mutant, a scientific accident, and alien, a highly trained human, etc.?

What I’m advocating drills down from those broad classifications to actually latch onto the key setting elements of the universe. Using Young Justice as an example, players might pick:

  • Alien (Kryptonian): You can take some or all of the Kryptonian powers (invulnerability, super strength, flight, x-ray vision, freeze breath, etc.). You are vulnerable to kryptonite, and draw your powers from the yellow sun of Earth. You are likely related in some way to the House of El, and inherit its enemies.
  • Alien (Martian): You can take some or all of the Martian powers (telepathy, telekinesis, shapeshifting, phasing, etc.). You are vulnerable to fire. You are among the last of your kind, and hunted by ancient enemies from your home.
  • Atlantean: You can take powers related to living undersea (water breathing, swimming, strength and durability, marine animal control, hydrokinesis, etc.). You are part of the Atlantean feudal system, and beholden to its politics.
  • Clone (Copy): You are an exact copy of an existing character, and may take that character’s powers (possibly reduced or enhanced based on that character’s backstory and limitations). You may or may not have that character’s full memories, and may have been created as a sinister replacement. You will struggle to find your own place in the world.
  • Clone (Hybrid): You are a combination of two or more characters (and can mix and match other origin types), and can take powers related to either or both. You were likely created as an experiment in improving on the original stock, and may have in-built conditioning that you must overcome. You will struggle to find your own place in the world.
  • Human (Trained): You have advanced martial training from Batman, Green Arrow, the League of Assassins, or some other skilled teacher, and should particularly focus on the martial arts favored by that group. You likely have a conflicted relationship with your mentor, and often inherit his problems and enemies, but can also rely on your adoptive family for help in a pinch.
  • Human (Magic): You were trained in magic, likely in an idiosyncratic style common to a parent or other mentor such as Zatara. You are part of the small and eclectic community of mystics, and may operate under requirements and allegiances that are extremely arcane to your team.
  • Human (Tech-Enhanced): Your powers come from cybernetics, power armor, or other high-tech devices, and you should choose which company invented them. You will be beholden to that originator for replacements and improvements to your tech, which may create trouble for you.
  • Meta (Speedster): You gained your powers from a meta event or inheritance/transfusion from another speedster. Unlike typical metas, your powers are specifically informed by the Speed Force (though you may also feel an obligation to deal with any other metas created by the same event that gave you your powers), which earns you specific enemies and allies in other speedsters.

Essentially, you can’t take powers without in some way tying the character in to the larger narrative of the setting, immediately attaching allies, enemies, and potential problems before the start of play.

Bottom Up

The opposite method is good for getting a lot of player buy-in (and getting them to help the GM worldbuild): instead of picking from a pre-defined list, each player explains how his or her powers are actually in line with a setting archetype.

For example, a player rolls up a speedster, and then works with the GM to invent the idea that speedsters are somehow apart from other characters empowered by some meta event, and actually have more in common with other speedsters. The GM and player negotiate out the idea of a Speed Force, a sense of responsibility for other meta villains created at the same time, and invent various Flash characters from history that are well-known holders of the same powers.

The key difference in any other game where you pick powers and then try to justify them is the sense of the legacy. In the example, you’re not making The Flash, a character that, as far as he knows, is the first speedster in the setting and will gradually uncover thematic ties as the GM has ideas. Instead, you’re making a character with precedents that you’re going to negotiate with the GM up front: you get a say in elements of the setting that your character will be the focus of, and you help the GM by providing a whole bunch of setting ideas that you’ll be interested in. The GM doesn’t have to throw a bunch of ideas at you to see which ones you bite on, because you’ve already indicated that you’re into the meta events, Speed Force, strange relationship to other speedsters, etc.

Obviously, this method works better for players comfortable with taking that kind of ownership of inventing setting details so they can then happily interact with them in play.

Supers: Powers

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And due to hitting 50k on NaNoWriMo and then being out all Thanksgiving weekend, here’s one more background excerpt before returning to our regularly scheduled program.

Superpowers or simply Powers are superhuman capabilities bestowed on individuals via a Rosen-Tesla Event.

Scientific Basis

The majority of powers manipulate forces explicable by science in inexplicable ways. Despite over sixty years of study, no theory of powers has been accepted as predictive by the scientific consensus. While the forces supers manifest may be themselves quantified, the mechanism by which they are generated has not been.[1]

Supers regularly appear to violate the laws of conservation of mass and energy. (Some scientists believe that apparent violations are simply a transfer of matter and energy via an unknown mechanism for creating stable wormholes.[citation needed]) Certain demonstrated powers seem to violate basic understandings of how fundamental forces work (e.g., Telekinesis and other applications of motive forces without an apparently source). Others have biological effects that are very poorly understood (e.g., Regeneration and Shapeshifting).[2]

In general, researching powers is complicated by lack of access to repeatable test conditions. Not only are many supers unwilling to subject themselves to extensive tests, the tendency for powers to be unique even among those in the same Event makes it hard to set up proper controls.[3] It is theorized that certain countries guilty of human rights violations may have a better understanding of powers, due to willingness to run invasive tests on powered citizens, but these governments are the most likely to keep their research and actions secret.[citation needed]

Even though many of the mechanisms for powers are not understood, their repeatable elements can produce scientific breakthroughs. For example, MIT has announced a potential artificial gravity generator based on study with the retired hero Heavyweight.[4]

Rules

While the scientific principles behind powers aren’t understood, there are several consistent similarities between known power wielders that have become accepted as rules.

The first is that all individuals within the same Event gain powers with a consistent theme. Each power can be described as a variation on a central concept (e.g., different forms of Telekinesis, Energy Projection, Mind Control, Healing, etc.).[5] Certain scientists believe that these concepts must be understood to form a scientific understanding for powers: the unique individual powers are all results of a central factor interaction with the different physiology or psychology of the individuals.[citation needed]

The second is that a single individual’s powers can always be expressed as a single concept. If a super appears to have multiple powers, they will always be expressions of a single, central power. For example, Liberty’s great strength, durability, leaping ability, and ability to climb any surface are all expressions of Telekinesis used to enhance her body or things touching it. This means that many active vigilantes and villains require a way to gain additional offense, defense, or mobility not provided by their powers; there are few powered individuals that simultaneously have an ability to cause harm, resist to harm, and move in a way that exceeds normal human capabilities.[6]

The third is that all supers develop an intuitive understanding of and ability to control their powers. There have been very few examples of supers that lost control of their powers, required extensive training to access them, or did not know the extent of their powers, and most of these are believed to have had psychological problems that prevented the normal intuitive control.[7] Smith vs. The Exploder set a precedent that supers cannot legally claim that they lost control of their powers without extenuating circumstances; there are no accidental power activations, just potentially negligent uses of powers.

Supers: Secret Identity Rights

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And here’s some more of my world building that’s hopefully useful to someone running a supers game.

Secret Identity Rights, also referred to as Mask Rights, are a legal precedent that prevent police and other legal authorities in the United States from publicly unmasking any individual, and provide stiff rules of secrecy for authorities that discover a masked individual’s identity. They are part of a larger culture of legal vigilantism.

In essence, unless an individual in a mask and operating under a code name voluntarily and publicly reveals his or her real identity, or gives the authorities explicit permission to do so, anyone involved in revealing the identity can be subjected to lawsuits, and may even be criminally implicated if the revelation of identity led directly to violent retaliation against the previously masked individual or friends and family.

The rights were set as precedent when the Supreme Court ruled against the state in Roger Rose vs. New York (usually referred to as Red Blade vs. New York). Additional clarifications for the protection of masked criminals were established in Elizabeth Ardry vs. Illinois (usually referred to as The Dragoness vs. Illinois).

Background

The United States has always had a larger population of declared powered individuals than the average for the rest of the world. Experts believe that this is a combination of the country being a high priority immigration target even for supers and a history of comics and other tales of masked crimefighters from before the beginning of Rosen-Tesla Events.[1] By 1952, there were over twenty masked vigilantes active in the the country, most of them operating out of New York City.[2]

One of the vigilantes, Red Blade, was frequently at odds with the city police. He used a sword, and would frequently maim or injure criminals, particularly those that were (allegedly) part of the Mafia. After several warnings, and two deaths which he claimed were self defense, the police arrested him and unmasked him as Roger Rose prior to trial. While he was in custody, his family members were murdered, and most agree that it was payback for his crusade on organized crime.

He sued the city for their deaths, declaring that their revelation of his identity had led directly to the murders. The case reached the Supreme Court and was decided in his favor, establishing several precedents.[3]

In 1955, a similar challenge (by an assassin that styled herself The Dragoness but who was revealed to be Elizabeth Ardry when finally captured) made it through the courts and established that these rights extended to those that had never presented themselves as crimefighters.[4] Like Roger Rose, Elizabeth Ardry’s friends and family members had been killed as payback for her actions, a situation that might have been avoided if her identity had been kept secret after her incarceration.[citation needed]

Acceptance of and Restrictions on Vigilantism

In addition to the effects on protection of identities, the initial ruling required states to come up with solid laws on vigilantism that took into account the use of super powers, with the encouragement to not drive those that would use their powers for the good of the public to be forced to be seen as criminals.[5] The states complied, and most came up with some variation on the following rules:

  • Powered individuals may follow the normal hiring processes and requirements to join local police forces or similar state and federal agencies (e.g., FBI, marshals, etc.). They may then work as masked members of these forces when employing their powers. Most require an unmasked partner for the hero, to prevent accusations of a secret police.
  • Masked vigilantes may make citizen’s arrests, and may use powers in the pursuit of these arrests and to prevent crimes. As with all citizen’s arrests, wrongfully accused individuals can issue lawsuits or request criminal charges be filed, particularly if they were injured by the vigilante. In these cases, the masked individual has a right to face the accuser without revealing his or her identity. In all cases, vigilantes are expected to follow directions given by actual police officers in regards to a suspect or operation, and are often arrested if refusal to follow these instructions leads to harm or failure of the police action.
  • Masked vigilantes suspected of criminal acts may reveal their identity to the authorities in order to establish an alibi or otherwise prove that they are being framed. Most jurisdictions have strong regulations for this, often having a small set of individuals that have gone through specific training courses on how to keep this identity secret. Sometimes, the members of the department allowed to know this information are, themselves, kept secret to prevent blackmail for a hero’s identity.

These rules do vary from state to state and city to city, with some being even more permissive (e.g., Texas is famous for its citizen superheroes) or less (e.g., Los Angeles, California expects all powered crimefighting to be done by police officers).[6]

Implications of the Rule

Masked individuals frequently come under scrutiny when believed to have committed crimes or when interfering with police investigations or operations. Known vigilantes are often asked to come in for interrogation willingly, and accorded privileges if they comply, including being given the benefit of the doubt. They are often interrogated with their mask still on, and only divulge their identity to trustworthy officers to establish an alibi. Conversely, known criminals are not given such benefits, and are interrogated unmasked. The number of individuals that know their identities is kept small, though, to reduce the chance of later lawsuits if the identity is leaked. When and if either type of individual comes to trial, masks are left on during the trial.[citation needed]

If convicted, powered individuals must often be kept in specially designed penitentiaries anyway, so their identities are kept secret even after conviction. Most are kept in solitary confinement, and allowed to wear a mask when situations require interaction with anyone other than trusted guards.[7]

Other Countries

Main Article: Vigilantism Worldwide

Variations on the United States methods are common in many countries, particularly members of the European Union. Notable exceptions are Russia, China, and Japan, where all powered crimefighters are required to operate under the aegis of government agencies, and masked vigilantes are treated the same as masked criminals.[8] This tendency of Communist states to require supers to register was integral in convincing the United States of the 1950s to allow vigilantes.[citation needed]

Recent History

After the end of the Cold War and the climactic battle between Liberty and The Hammer, public opinion began to disfavor masked vigilantes. In the 1990s and early 2000s, most jurisdictions began to announce that any vigilantism, particularly by powered individuals, would be considered interference with the police.[8] However, with the recent resurgence of powered criminals and post-9/11, many jurisdictions are considering reopening the door to masked heroes.[citation needed]

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