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.

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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]

Supers: Creation Events

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I’m dabbling with NaNoWriMo this year, so for this month you may get some of the more gamable setting ideas I’m working with. Because what the world really needed was more superhero serialized web fiction 🙂 .

A Rosen-Tesla Event (also known as a Superpower Event or just Event) is a spontaneous release of explosive energy that always grants one or more individuals superpowers and leaves behind deposits of Cohenite (more commonly called The Substance).

The occurrence and effects of Events remain unpredictable, though several competing hypotheses await sufficient testing. Typically, a seemingly random place and time becomes ground zero for an explosion that grants nearby individuals powers. They can appear anywhere on Earth and at any time or date, with an almost-perfect distribution across the calendar year and inhabited geography.

Events became common knowledge after World War II, and it is unclear exactly when they began. Though they are a global phenomenon and many governments consider them a state secret, it is believed that up to half a dozen of them occur each year, and the frequency has not changed since they began.

Discovery

An initial theory about the Events was forwarded by Nathan Rosen in 1946, with Nikola Tesla posthumously credited due to the use of many of his broadcast power equations in the research. These facts were not declassified until 1976.[1] Rosen always believed, but could never prove, that Events were initiated by deployment of atomic energy and bombs, but could never prove any correlation, particularly due to the frequency remaining constant despite changes in the use of atomic energy.[2]

The first non-classified Event, which introduced them to the world, was in 1949 near Salvador, Brazil.[3] Declassified documents indicate that the governments of previous Event sites had been able to cover them up previously, though no details are included, so it is uncertain how many events happened before the Salvador Event.[4] This did finally explain the masked heroes that had been poorly-kept secrets for the past several years, as the Salvador Five did not conceal their identities and were quite forthcoming about the source of their powers to the news media. Enough other powered individuals have come forward since 1949 that the general theory is understood, though individuals and governments are still believed to conceal most Events.[citation needed]

Frequency and Effects

Unless certain governments are concealing a greater than expected concentration of Events within their borders, each calendar year sees from zero to six Events across the entire Earth. These events are loosely correlated in frequency with population centers, and always include at least one human individual within an approximately five meter radius.[5]

Rosen’s research suggested that potential Events were totally random and far greater in number than observed Events. Due to some peculiarity of the phenomenon, they would only catalyze from potential to actual Event when at least one human being would be included within the blast radius. Since so much of the Earth’s surface is unpopulated, there could be thousands of Events each year that are never actualized, and potentially millions if Events are not limited to the surface of the planet and can, instead, occur in the air or underground. What appears to be a random occurrence might display predictable patterns with sufficient data about exact Event locations and times.[6]

Witnesses of Events, forensics, and the rare video recording detail a standard pattern to the phenomenon. All individuals within five meters of ground zero feel a buildup of static electricity, which some have compared to the sensation of being near a lightning strike. Those outside of the radius have provided less standardized impressions; it’s possible that those that noticed anything were simply reacting to the genuine stimulus evinced by those within the radius. Approximately three seconds later, a wave of heat erupts from ground zero; a shockwave of sufficient force to fling most individuals within the area away precedes a burst of hot air of nearly a thousand degrees at ground zero. The heat rapidly tapers off, but is sufficient to ignite or melt nearby objects. Individuals in between a solid object and ground zero have received serious burns and explosion trauma in addition to their superpowers as they are not able to be flung free of the blast. While the heat and shockwave drop dramatically past five meters, an Event in an enclosed location frequently blows out windows, doors, or even weak walls. The effect is in many ways similar to a small fuel-air bomb.[5]

Any human within the five meter radius seems to inevitably develop superpowers, usually quite soon after the Event. Anyone outside the radius, even only shortly outside, does not develop powers. No animals have been documented to have developed powers, despite a few high-profile fraud “wonder-dogs.”[7] Individuals that enter the radius of the event during the three seconds between static and explosion do not reliably develop powers, despite insistences from seminars purporting to train people to react quickly enough to run into the radius of a nearby Event.[8]

Superpowers from Events

Main Article: Superpowers

All individuals within the radius of an Event gain superpowers. Unless classified Events provide disputing information, all individuals receive powers within a related “theme” or “flavor” of application. For example, the Stars, the USA’s premier superhero team in the 1970s and 1980s, are believed to have all received their powers in the same Event and have different applications of telekinesis: Liberty gained a personal telekinetic field that allows her to perform extreme feats of strength and durability, Patriot gained an ability to fly and shield himself while flying, and Banner gained a more “traditional” telekinetic ability to lift several tons of objects within several yards of herself.[9] A more recent group, the vigilantes known as the Nitro Grade and assumed to be part of the same Event seem to display various flavors of energy emission: two can fling plasma, one wreathes himself in fire, another can generate intense sound, and the fifth can create lasers and other forms of light.[citation needed]

Most individuals that have gone on record about their powers describe an immediate intuitive understanding of them within moments of the Event, though there is frequently a period of training required to make full use of the powers. These powers remain with the individuals for the rest of their lives, can be inherited by offspring, and cannot currently be detected by genetic science (though certain individuals that cannot turn off aspects of their powers might be detected by such symptoms). The science behind powers is currently poorly understood.[10]

While an Event that hit a tightly-packed crowd could theoretically empower dozens of individuals at once, the largest known group Event is currently the Kuala Lumpur Event of 1987, which empowered twenty individuals in an apartment building.[11] Averages extrapolated from known data suggest that an average of only a dozen individuals per year have received powers from an Event since 1945: from one to twenty individuals per event and from zero to six Events per year. This would result in less than a thousand “first generation” supers worldwide. Based on expected birthrates (due to inheritance) and mortality, most authorities expect that the incidence of superpowers is close to one in three million individuals.[12]

Cohenite

Main Article: Cohenite

In addition to granting powers, the ground around an Event is laced with the metallic substance officially termed Cohenite (but more commonly referred to as Hyperium, Philosopher’s Stone, or just The Substance). First researched and named by Morris Cohen while Nathan Rosen researched the physics of the Events, the transmutation or insertion of Cohenite into the area around an Event is suspected to be the main reason for the heat wave: an extremely powerful chemical reaction.[13] Most Events are quickly harvested by concerns that don’t want to reveal exact numbers, but it’s believed that around 100 kilograms of Cohenite are produced by each Event.[14]

While not an element and not thoroughly understood by modern chemistry, Cohenite has several extremely valuable properties. It alloys very easily with most metals while retaining desirable properties, with up to 50% of the weight of the alloy being comprised of the substance before it becomes brittle or otherwise unstable. Since Cohenite is extremely light (2.1 g/cm3), this means that alloys become extremely light while retaining their strength and conductivity. While the chemistry is poorly understood, evidence suggests that simple alloying procedures with Cohenite naturally produce carbon nanotubes within the metal.[15]

Cohenite is, thus, extremely desirable in many industrial applications. Due to its rarity, a kilogram can easily go for $1,000,000 US.[16] There is a fierce competition between governments and private concerns to secure the site of an Event for the financial bounty of its Cohenite.[citation needed]

Alternate Theory

While it is commonly understood that Nikola Tesla’s experiments in Colorado Springs centered around broadcast power, certain interviews have often been read as indicating a deeper involvement with Events than simply a posthumous use of his notes. Particularly due to rumors that the Allies had small cadres of supers that were integral to willing World War II and in place years before atomic testing, many believe that Events began much earlier than reported.[17] The estates of several friends of Tesla have produced correspondence that might allude to his quest to empower individuals for the US government.[18] Under this theory, Tesla invented a method to produce controlled Events that was reliable but too expensive for general use. However, this method opened a door, and some unexpected interaction with atomic energy, radio waves, or even the Age of a Aquarius (sources differ) led to an ongoing recurrence of the Events out of anyone’s control. Documentation, should any remain, remains highly classified.[citation needed]

Great Conflicting Responsibilities

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This system was inspired rewatching Buffy: the Vampire Slayer. It’s intended primary for modern occult heroes or detective superheroes, but works for any game where the PCs have to balance a normal life (including school or a day job) with the need to investigate in order to find and stop opponents. Virtually all scenarios should involve enemies that grow in power and get further towards fruition of schemes as time passes, granting big rewards to the players for constantly working to curtail their activities, get wind of their plots, and quash their plans early.

The examples below are system-agnostic but assume something with difficulties on roughly a ten-point scale and low-granularity experience points (like oWoD). Adjust values accordingly for other systems.

Investigation

All investigation attempts take an hour or two and can include:

  • Patrolling: Both superheroes and monster-hunters tend to get their first leads by running or flying around the city looking for heads to crack and vampires to stake. In addition to keeping an eye of the streets for anything big or weird, this tends to reduce the number of minions available for bigger capers.
  • Research: Less formidable characters can keep an eye out for upcoming occult junctures or attractive targets of crime in order to get a clue that something might go down soon. Once someone has a name or description of a threat, research involves cracking books, trawling the internet, or hitting up periodicals looking for patterns, secrets, or weaknesses.
  • Forensics: Sometimes, the villains leave a crime scene that our heroes can get to (ahead of or with the blessing of the police). Going over the scene can yield clues, as can taking away any material or mystic traces left behind for evaluation in the lab.
  • Gathering Information: Sometimes, your more gregarious characters can get word that something is up by keeping up with contacts. Once a threat has presented itself, hitting up known informants can be the best way to find exactly what’s going on and where it’s going on at.

Depending on how you like to run mysteries, you can either give out fixed successes based on relevant skill totals every time a player takes an investigation phase or have players make rolls and track margin of success for relevancy. You can track accumulated successes toward a conclusion where they know everything they need to pursue the endgame or have various pieces of information available to various types of investigation with the players trusted to decide when to act upon them. The important thing is that investigation is a time-consuming process that feels like building up information toward a goal rather than just following pre-scripted encounters.

In the background, the villains should always have their own progress bar toward some goal. Patrol might set their progress back by defeating minions and capturing materials, but ultimately their plan is proceeding toward some hidden end in an unknown place, and the job of the players is to ascertain both in time to stop it.

Each day, every player character gains one free “investigation point” that can be spent to:

  • Make one attempt at patrolling, research, forensics, or gathering information
  • Train non-job/school skills (see below)
  • Lower either Stress or Delinquency/Dereliction by one point (see below)

This represents using free time to pursue the investigation, train, or catch up on relaxation or work.

Additional Points:

  • Each player can choose to gain one additional point per day by taking on either a point of Stress or Delinquency/Dereliction. This represents either staying up late for another round or cutting class/skipping work for a couple of hours.
  • Each player can choose to take up to two more points, but each point past the second represents majorly ditching out of school/work and the stress this entails, essentially spending all day on extracurricular activities.
  • On weekends, the GM may choose to just award three points for free (with the fourth point available for a single point of Stress or D/D, representing the stress of blowing off a whole day of free time or not doing homework).

Needless to say, most villainous plots should proceed fast enough that the PCs won’t be able to stop it with just the one free investigation point each day. The point of the system is that stopping the bad guys involves having to make cuts to free time or slack off at school/work.

Training

Players have to spend investigation points (on a one-for-one basis) to spend experience points on any skills that can’t be justified being learned from normal school classes or on-the-job skills. If you want to get that 4 exp upgrade to Getting Medieval, you need to spend time on weapons training that you’re not spending on investigating. Training is a major downtime activity, ensuring that players may not totally zero out Stress and D/D between stories (but also see Long Downtimes, below).

Stress

Stress represents exhaustion, lack of concentration, and just general frustration at spending all one’s free time on the mission. Stress becomes the minimum difficulty for all rolls. In a system like Unisystem with a fixed DC, your stress total is similar to an opposing roll on every task (i.e., stress grants a success penalty equal to the margin of success it would achieve if it were a roll on that result). The intention with either version is that Stress shouldn’t become much of a problem until it gets fairly high. Players should be tempted to throw some points into it for extra investigation points because it’s not a big deal… until it is.

Stress has a practical cap at the maximum reasonable difficulty for the system (or the result of a really good roll, for fixed DCs). At this point, the character is so exhausted that even the simplest tasks are huge efforts.

Delinquency/Dereliction

Delinquency represents skipping classes at school, while Dereliction represents taking long breaks, getting in late, or leaving early at work. Both are the kind of thing that eventually get you in a lot of trouble. A student whose Delinquency reaches the same number as the practical cap for Stress is visited with whatever punishments seem warranted (suspension, detention, or even expulsion, plus likely grounding by parents). An adult whose Dereliction reaches this number is fired. Additionally, it works like Stress to set a minimum difficulty for all interactions with school officials and parents (for students) or employers (for adults); since Stress is a minimum difficulty for ALL rolls, it takes precedence if higher. Once it gets fairly high, the GM may initiate scenes with the PC having to talk officials, parents, or employers out of assigning more onerous tasks, with failure resulting in some responsibility that will gain an additional point of Delinquency/Dereliction if skipped.

Students can take a trait called “Honors” that represents being good at school and having easy access to school resources like the goodies in the science labs. Adults can take a trait called “Income” which works like wealth traits do in any system. Both of these traits are “free,” but essentially set a higher starting value for Delinquency or Dereliction (e.g., if you have Income 4, two points of Dereliction raises you to 6). The students with the brightest futures have more onus on them to live up to expectations, and the adults with the best jobs have more people that will notice if they skip out of work too much. These traits should scale so their maximum is about half the cap for Delinquency/Dereliction.

Players can purchase levels of “Gifted” or “Idle Rich” with character points as normal advantages, representing access to Honors or Income without the associated responsibilities. For example, if you have Gifted 3, you could choose to have a total Honors of 5 while only starting at 2 Delinquency.

Long Downtimes

This system assumes that there will be fairly limited downtimes. Stories represent an active few days or weeks, and then the next story starts only a week or two after the last one. In this case, there are no need for modifications; players will use the time to buy down Stress and D/D earned during the last story or spend points on Training, but will probably not have time to accomplish all their goals before the next story starts unless they ended the last one with very low totals.

If your game includes longer downtimes, simply allocate as many points as they spent on training minus 1d6 to their choice of Stress or D/D. This represents other life stuff coming up; either adventures too minor to note, or home events that made a nuisance of themselves.

Don’t Reveal Your Gifts

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This is a light DRYH hack inspired by this music video. Secondary inspirations are Rising Stars and Chronicle.

Something happened to your town to make this possible. Maybe there was a strange meteor a few years back, or a solar flare at high noon in Summer with you right underneath. Maybe it was a drug trial run on your parents before you were born, or just being downstream from that plant they said was totally safe.  Whatever is was, over the last few years a few of the kids around your age have been developing powers.

One of the know-it-all kids convinced everyone that the adults wouldn’t understand, that the government would come and take you away, and that was enough to keep a bunch of rebellious adolescents quiet. At least for a few months, until one of the oldest kids with powers freaked out a couple weeks ago, totally wrecked the school. Turns out the know-it-all was right: the government descended on your town and took him away. Now they’re constantly hanging around and asking questions and the rest of you are having a real hard time keeping cool.

It was only so long before the stress got so bad someone would blow. Nobody thought the day would be bad enough that you’d all flip out at once…

The Questionnaire

  • Why can’t you rely on your parents or another adult to help you? Think about what kind of troubled young teen with superpowers you want to be. This matters because it forces you to be self reliant.
  • Who do you just know is going to be on the news claiming they always thought you were trouble? Think about your petty small town rivalries and what you did to deserve them. This matters because it gives the GM hooks to personalize your opposition.
  • Where do you plan to run? Think about the plans a kid with no resources or real understanding of the world would make to try to get away. This matters because it allows the GM to structure the first session or two.
  • What is too important to leave behind? Think about a possession or loved one that you’ll risk your own safety to hang onto and take with you on the run. This matters because it gives you an early goal.
  • What just happened? Think about what kind of terrible day would cause you to reveal your powers in a way that will immediately out you as a threat. This matters because it allows the GM to structure the first scenes and get you all together.

Rules Changes

Player Dice

  • Discipline remains unaltered, though it’s colored by the kind of competencies available to adolescents rather than full adults. Since there are no responses, when discipline dominates you can decrease Stress by one or Scrutiny by one.
  • Exhaustion becomes Stress; picture becoming more effective but scared because of adrenaline. Like normal, you can raise it by one intentionally and it automatically increases by one when it dominates. When it exceeds six, you crash.
  • Madness becomes Recklessness; you can achieve a lot more if you’re willing to risk getting noticed. Like madness, you can vary the number of these dice you add to any roll. When recklessness dominates, increase Scrutiny by one.

Talents

  • Exhaustion talents become Aptitudes, and represent the thing you’re best at and get better at as the going gets tough. They work identically to exhaustion talents (minimum success equal to your Stress automatically, or take on another Stress die to add your Stress to the successes).
  • Madness talents become Powers. Pick something big and flashy; it needs to be versatile and capable of massive collateral damage. Energy projection, telekinesis, and super strength are great choices. Like madness talents, to use your power (voluntarily) you must add Recklessness dice to your roll equivalent to the level of the effect you want to create.

GM Dice

  • Pain becomes Danger, but is essentially unchanged. The GM always rolls at least one danger die, and can roll up to nine. When danger dominates, gain a coin of Catastrophe: even if the character succeeded, he or she made a mistake that will come back to haunt the group later.
  • Scrutiny starts at zero, and represents the intensity with which the authorities are looking for the player characters. It’s increased by crashing and Recklessness dominating. Add these dice to every roll: even when there aren’t police and FBI agents actively in the scene chasing the characters, the effects of the manhunt on the behavior of the rest of the world and the intensity of the scene are palpable. When scrutiny dominates, if the result was a failure, the acting character is captured and will have to be rescued by the others (but reduce Scrutiny by 2). If the result was a success, the group must immediately face a new Danger 3 (plus Scrutiny) challenge of a group of cops or agents; obviously, if Scrutiny is high enough to keep dominating, this could keep going until someone is captured.

Crashing and Snapping

  • Crashing causes you to erupt in a storm of powers, probably causing massive property damage and casualties, immediately raising Scrutiny by 3. You pass out afterwards (for hours rather than days), leaving your friends to figure out what to do with you (and probably resulting in a capture and reduction of Scrutiny by 2 if you were not in a position to be saved before the authorities got you), but you have your full Discipline and other capabilities when you wake up.
  • Snapping is mostly rolled into Crashing; instead, the secondary threat to characters is Scrutiny getting high enough that they’re faced with immediate capture.

Coins

  • Coins of Despair become Coins of Catastrophe. They represent mistakes the player characters made catching up to them. They work the same as despair, and generate coins of Hope when used.
  • Coins of Hope are unchanged.

Inheritance (Second-Gen Supers)

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I recently got linked to Legion of Nothing and very quickly tore my way through the five years of biweekly updates. It’s a take on the idea of generational superheroes, my other favorite examples of which are The Incredibles and Sky High. (I might also mention Watchmen, but I’m not sure it has quite the same vibe.)

Most supers campaigns I’ve played or heard about have tended to focus on first-generation heroes, and a lot of supers RPG settings even make “superheroes are just emerging now” a central conceit. But positing a Golden or even Silver Age of powered individuals prior to the start of the campaign has a number of interesting advantages:

  • It’s required to have some kind of equilibrium with law enforcement and government that can inform player actions. Either the previous generation got superheroics outlawed, in which case the players know they’ll be acting on the sly, or the previous generation established a set of protocols (implicit or explicit) about how the new player characters can act within the world.
  • Player characters don’t have to start from scratch: they’ll necessarily inherit resources and wisdom from the previous generation. The characters can start heroing from the first session, because they don’t have to feign ignorance of the genre conventions while they learn to be heroes or spend several sessions justifying access to necessary support.
  • Game plotlines can play with a fully fleshed-out “how do powers alter the world?” concept immediately, and can reference events with short exposition about what the previous generation knew. Players can be launched right into a tangle of plotlines with earlier development based purely on their forebears’ prestige.
  • Character generation can mix random and purchased powers generation, possibly satisfying both camps.

These last points are the focus of the (mostly system-agnostic) ideas below.

Previous Generation Generation

Most supers systems have some kind of random power generation method. Have each player make at least two characters using this method; you don’t need to fully flesh out character stats, but at least get a full suite of powers to figure out exactly what the character can do.

Use the collaborative system of your choice (Smallville Pathways, Microscope, etc.) to assign those power sets to semi-fleshed out characters. You need each one to be a named hero or villain with a good idea of personality and history. You particularly want to make sure these characters have numerous trysts that could produce another generation of supers. If you wind up with a whole set of notes on previous stories and characters in this world, so much the better.

Note a point where the characters start to wind down to care for their children and ultimately think about retirement. Then all the players pick the parents for their actual PCs based on which relationships they find interesting and what kind of powers they want to have.

Use this information and the rules below to generate your characters.

Perks and Flaws

The ideas below assume that you’re using a system with point-based chargen for all elements. If you’re using something where powers aren’t really quantified on that scale, the GM should just give away powers equal to the previous generation and award free points for each perk that isn’t about powers sufficient that everyone feels that the other advantages are worthwhile (e.g., if Inheritance grants a bunch of really potent powers, Trained should give a whole spread of really good combat skills).

Perks and Flaws are separate from normal chargen. Each Perk costs one point and each Flaw awards one point. Players start with Inheritance (except those that take Scrub) and can buy more by taking Flaws. Most Flaws are mutually exclusive with at least one Perk. You can only buy these traits if they make sense within established facts from the prior generation (e.g., if both parents are described as dead broke, you probably shouldn’t take Wealthy for their kids).

Perks

  • Inheritance: (Automatic) You have fully inherited the potential from one of your ancestors. You can buy powers from that prior character up to whatever levels that character had (and can buy them after chargen with sufficient in-story rationale as to why latent powers are awakening).
  • Dual Inheritance: (Replaces Inheritance) You have inherited potential from both sides of the family. You can treat both prior characters’ powers as your Inheritance for purchasing at chargen or later (with the same need for rationale for latent awakening).
  • Combined Power Genesis: (Replaces Inheritance) The mixture of your parents’ genes created a new set of powers influenced by but not identical to your forebears. Work with the GM to come up with a list of powers and levels that are inspired by your characters’ ancestors, and you can purchase them like an Inheritance. These have similar magnitude and levels to the prior characters (e.g., if both characters have weak powers at low ranks, you probably shouldn’t hybrid it into a major power at high rank).
  • Prestigious Legacy: Your ancestors weren’t just heroes, they were some of the most renowned heroes in the world. You have a very easy time gaining renown and respect, and may just collect some completely unearned accolades if your costume is similar enough to your ancestor’s. You may sometimes gain aid or gifts from people that feel they owe debts to your forebear.
  • Wealthy: You descend from supers that either already had money, managed to turn their powered earnings into lasting and legitimate wealth, or married into money. While all of the (non-Broke) characters are comfortable and have access to whatever resources are standard to the team, you’re rich in your secret identity. This gives you a lot of potential social and political pull and freedom from having to work a day job to protect your identity. If the system includes a wealth trait, you can purchase as much as you’d like (others can only buy up to middle class). If there is no such trait, you can just assume you’re rich.
  • Trained: Your parents decided to prepare you from childhood to take over for them some day, or at least to protect yourself against their enemies. You can buy any combat skills you wish and have easy access to training for more in-play (other PCs are limited to what makes sense for their background at chargen, which might be very low indeed if you start as teenagers).
  • Augmented: Your family was friendly with psychics, inventors, government scientists, or some other group that could give their kids a leg up. You can buy limited powers that represent what makes sense for improvements from mental defense constructs, cybernetics, or minor genetic boosts. These should be limited to things it makes sense to do to your children to give them a protection against an empowered world, rather than whole power tropes on their own.
  • Airtight Identity: Your family has been very careful to establish a wall between powered and civilian life. You’ve trained from childhood on behaviors to keep people from finding out your secrets (including low-level psychic defenses to protect you from surface probes). There’s no paper trail leading to you from any of your parents’ costumed deeds. If a plotline is uncovering the real identities of the PCs, yours will be the last to fall and the easiest to actively protect.

Flaws

  • Scrub: (Replaces Inheritance) If you got any powers at all, they’re much weaker than those of prior generations. Maybe your parents were the skill specialists of the team with no powers at all. You can only buy echoes of your ancestors’ powers: replace major or moderate powers with similar weak powers, and you can only take a rank or two of them (if that’s meaningful in your system). You should probably take Trained and get yourself some powered armor or gadgets if you’d like to fight evil with your friends. You cannot buy Dual Inheritance or Combined Power Genesis.
  • Obvious/Mutated: Your powers are very hard to hide, either as a direct inheritance or some new element from combined powers in a bloodline. You might constantly leak visible energy, be unable to turn off your armor/size, or have other inhuman mutations to your body. With some combination of containment tech, illusion projection, or just really bulky clothes, you can still maintain a secret identity, but it’s always one malfunction or accident away from being revealed to everyone nearby. You cannot buy Airtight Identity.
  • Villainous Forebear: At least one of your ancestors was a very bad person that still has notoriety, enemies, and former allies that believe debts are owed. You have to work twice as hard to get respect as your teammates (because everyone is just waiting for you to go dark too and/or suffered at the hands of your forebear). You will often be singled out by people that want payback for the sins of the father. You cannot buy Prestigious Legacy.
  • Broke: Maybe your parents died early or just were never very good with money, and you never learned even basic money-management skills yourself. Unlike the other characters, your character is not even middle class: you cannot buy any wealth- or finance-related traits, and your secret identity is poor. Even if you still live a comfortable life supported by the rest of the team or the government, you’re the last person they’ll trust with unrestricted access to team resources that could be sold off and you’re the first person they’ll blame if something gets stolen. You cannot buy Wealthy.
  • World on Your Shoulders: Growing up with your legacy was too much to live with, and it did bad things to your mental health. You must take at least one relatively crippling psychological problem such as addiction, overconfidence, narcissism, etc. Your personality is somewhat annoying or worrisome to your teammates, and they’ll have a hard time trusting you with serious responsibilities or even getting you to admit that you have a problem.
  • Overprotective Parents: Your parents never wanted this for you, and have tried hard to keep you from following your legacy. They will constantly try to interfere with your superheroing. You cannot buy Trained or Augmented.
  • Cursed: Your lineage comes with a major downside, either as a consequence of your powers or an unrelated aspect of your bloodline. You have some kind of incurable chronic debilitating ailment. It’s probably not fatal within your expected career as a hero, but it causes you pain and difficulty performing certain tasks.
  • Open Identity: Either because your parents were public or you made a mistake early in your career, you have no secret identity: your legal identity is publicly associated with your powered one. This puts any unpowered friends and relatives in serious danger, and threatens the secret identities of your teammates if they’re seen with you unmasked. You cannot buy Airtight Identity.
  • Promises to Keep: You made a long-term bargain with a (relatively) benign entity or inherited one from your family. Maybe you owe service to the government beyond what your team already provides, maybe your mentor is powerful and requires service for knowledge, or maybe you owe your powers themselves to some group intent on collecting for a long time. You will regularly be leaned on by this group to do things you might not otherwise want to do.

A Powers Framework

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I’m not really sure what the system below is for, but it more or less came together all at once in my head while thinking about how comics tend to have very plot-devicey magic and how it would be cool to do something more consistent. So the frameworks include magic, psychic abilities, and superpowers. The major goal is to make the three types of effect have limited overlap. It also makes mind control really hard, because that’s generally more trouble than it’s worth in a supers game.

Magic

  • Magic is an act of will: Creating a mystical effect requires the mage to imagine it completely and use this mental template to create a change in the world. This is often done by using ritual objects and chanted spells to more easily force the mind into quickly envisioning common effects. Many mages study languages invented for magic, where spell vocabulary that would be complex in conversational languages are much more efficiently spoken. A spell in a language the mage doesn’t understand is almost always useless. Envisioning new effects is mentally draining, but a mage can use well-remembered spells indefinitely.
  • Magic requires sympathy: The more things are connected, the easier it is for a mage to channel magic through them. A mage has a much harder time throwing fire at a stranger across a room than igniting a nemesis via blood and a true name across the world. Forging symbolic links between the target and intention is essential to all magic.
  • Magic moves energy: Mages cannot create or destroy energy. To throw lightning, a mage must have access to a significant source of electricity. However, due to sympathy, this energy doesn’t have to be on hand, just connected to the mage by a sympathetic link. Naturally occurring sympathetic “channels” link vast untapped wells of various forms of energy within the earth, and a mage with access to these ley lines can evoke significant power. Even a master mage cannot evoke significant effects without access to power (but such mages often know many different ways to find and channel power).
  • Magic cannot invade another’s mind: Magic may not alter or divine the thoughts of another sapient being. However, mages can teach most such individuals to willingly project parts of their thoughts in a way that the mage can access (essentially visiting their dreams). Some mages develop ways to trick individuals into doing this to read their minds without them knowing, but even then nothing beyond surface thoughts can be accessed or adjusted.
  • Magic cannot deliberately alter the wielder’s body: Despite the dreams of many a mage, it’s not possible to change the body of the mage. This is likely due to even the most minor of changes being invasive enough to break concentration or throw off the sympathy of the mage to him or herself. Magic can create the illusion of personal change. Sometimes magical backlash will alter the mage. The inherent use of magic often seems to extend the life and health of the mage within the human norm. Magic can alter the forms of others, but doing so requires very complicated rituals (as altering biology is an extremely complicated thing to envision).
  • Magic cannot create or destroy mass: Magic can teleport matter in discrete chunks (beings or objects that are part of a sympathetic whole), but cannot create it from nothing nor eliminate it. Thus, magic cannot cause things to grow or shrink, and cannot remove part of a coherent being or object. Magic is very good at removing foreign objects that don’t share a sympathetic unity with their hosts. Magic can cause a target to slowly increase or decrease in mass by exchanging matter with the environment (e.g., eating or excreting for living beings).
  • Magic is impermanent: Reality seeks to undo magic, leaving behind only what would make sense in a purely rational world. Damage dealt by flung energy remains, and objects or beings altered slowly and within the bounds of chemistry or biology may retain their changes. But pure magical constructs or significant physical changes revert quite quickly. A mage can weave a more complex spell (creating a more complete and robust visualization of the change) to make the effect last longer, but it will eventually expire. Through great effort, a mage can sometimes set up a persistent sympathetic bond to a source of power that will renew the magical effect, but breaking the bonds or exhausting the power source returns the magic to temporary status.
  • Magic is learned: Magic is knowledge and training, won like any skill through dedication and practice. Some individuals seem to have more of a knack for it, just as some individuals have a knack for any other educational focus, but there are no humans “gifted” with a shortcut to power and none that cannot evoke magic if they successfully learn the discipline. If one puts in the time and effort, magic is available to all sapient beings, and is a learned skill like any other.

Psionics

  • Psionics are exhausting: Unlike magic and superpowers, psionic abilities seem to violate known physics: they can exert energy on the environment with no clear source. However, using them exhausts the wielder proportionate to the strength of the effect. Only time and relaxation can restore a psion’s ability to exert power.
  • Psionics enhance perception: Many psionic abilities provide sensory information to the wielder without a clear chain. A psion can learn to read minds, interpret energy signals outside the normal spectrum obvious to humans, view remote locations, and even glimpse aspects of the past and future. In most cases, the psion can only detect, not influence: minds cannot be controlled, signals cannot be generated, locations cannot be teleported to, and time cannot be traveled.
  • Psionics extend touch: Psions can move things with only the mind and a force beyond what their muscles can create using telekinesis. Many learn all kinds of interesting variations beyond simply lifting objects, such as defensive “force fields” and generating or halting sufficient friction to alter fire, heat, and even electricity (pyro, cryo, and electrokinesis). The range on these effects is always based on the wielder’s perception, but that is often greatly expanded by other psionic abilities. Creative psions can seem to violate the limits of their powers by applying telekinesis in precise ways.
  • Psionics are part of sapience: Only sapient beings can gain psionic powers, and only a subset seem to have the gift. Rather than some kind of inherent limitation, these powers seem to be accessed by reaching a state of mind that is unique to the wielder. It remains uncertain whether all humans could gain these powers, but they appear in only a small fraction of the population. There are no individuals limited to only a minor talent, though some psions may not realize their starting insight can be further developed by training. If the psion’s mind was to change bodies, psionics would be retained.
  • Psionics are all connected: Psions often cannot devote the time to become skilled in more than one aspect of psionic power, but no psion is limited in the choice of disciplines. A psion skilled in telekinesis could choose to develop his or her telepathy at any time, and vice versa.

Superpowers

  • Superpowers store energy: Each individual with superpowers has a type of energy that his or her body will absorb and store within an internal “battery.” Energy cannot be created or destroyed, but can often be stored drastically more efficiently than chemical batteries. Some powered individuals can project energy commensurate with a small power station, but only if they’ve previously absorbed all that power from their preferred source. When the internal battery runs out, the powers stop working. Common sources of power are light, electricity, chemical (i.e., eating food), or kinetic. The powered individual takes reduced harm from the energy type, but the conversion is rarely completely efficient and those that can absorb more dangerous sources tend to find them a less robust source of energy (e.g., a kinetic absorber is hard to hurt but not completely invulnerable to impacts, and requires more effort to fill up than an individual powered by sunlight).
  • Superpowers alter the body: All superpowers in some way alter the wielder’s body. This may mean an actual physical change or the ability to project energy or matter. No powers allow the wielder to alter the world without a direct link to the physical form: telekinesis, teleportation, telepathy, and anything else that could reasonably have “tele” in the name are the province of magic and psionics.
  • Superpowers can seem to alter mass: Individuals with superpowers can shrink, grow, or add physical augmentations that seem to create mass from nowhere or make it disappear. In all of these cases, the individual is coupling dimensional warping with shapeshifting. An individual that grows retains the same mass, but is slightly shifted outside the normal dimension to seem heavier and larger, and one that shrinks is shifting in the other direction. The cube-square law doesn’t come into effect, but neither does strength scale directly: a “giant” is stronger, but not in a completely proportionate manner. Characters that alter mass are not completely in phase with this reality, and that can become a vulnerability that magic or psionics can sometimes exploit.
  • Superpowers cannot directly alter another: All superpowers affect the wielder, not anyone else. However, projected energy, chemicals, or biological agents can have minor or major effects on a target. In all cases, these must be transmitted to the target through a logical vector for the type of emission.
  • Superpowers are part of biology: All superpowers come from mutation, accidental or deliberate genetic manipulation, or entirely alien biology. Someone who knows what to look for can identify a powered individual via DNA (though uncommon powers may appear at unexpected places in the genetic sequence). If an individual were to transfer his or her mind to another body, all powers would remain with the original one.

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