Monday, August 12, 2013

JAGS Supers: A Victim of It's Own Success

As I said last post, one of the books I was most interested in writing was a "Villains and Vigilantes"-style super-system. We actually took a first-stab at it.

It was so successful ... we might not actually produce the book itself.

What the hell does that all mean!?

Villains and Vigilantes-Style Supers System
One of the tests we did for JAGS Revised Archetypes was to make a list of characters we'd put in a world-book. These were some of the "greatest hits" from our several decades of gaming that we'd migrate to the JAGS format (some of them were already done in earlier versions of JAGS too). Going through them, I noticed something: almost universally these characters had very similar construction parameters.

They were 'balanced' meaning in a "mirror match" with themselves it wouldn't be a 1-shot deal. They were built to "normal humans given powers" specifications (where appropriate--where the original character was a normal human)--rather than some of the super-fast-just-because characters we'd seen (and played) in, for example, Champions (where many characters were very, very fast compared to normal people even if there was no specific justification for it).

Not all of them had an attack, a defense, and a movement form--but many did. Most didn't have more than one attack period.

In short, these characters were the product of a similar set of mechanical systems over many years that had produced characters within a set of parameters that were designed to meet the "standard play environment" we had adopted over time. In GURPS, for example, it was cripplingly expensive to give a character multiple bio-weapons (tail, teeth, claws ... and horns!? You must be joking!?) so we generally had characters with just one.

We expected to fight "at or around" our power-scale and there was, for example, in Champions, no powers that would, usually, instantly win a fight--where the concept didn't exist (or wasn't well represented) we didn't usually have characters that met that standard.

On the other hand, if a game did, for example, contain a "magical petrification gaze" that would take out anyone you looked at--unless they had specific magical defenses--which were rare--in a point-buy system you'd see an awful lot of both.

I want to note that this trend was neither a bad thing--nor was it an entirely unconscious thing. All games promote some sort of thoughtful design even if it's just simply a choice to play that specific game over another. The lack of 'rare' cheap shots, for example, that would take out 'anyone' might be a bit limiting in super-hero fiction--but in an RPG you don't want every battle to come down to 'who fires first.' The GURPS bio-attack thing was kind of a problem for us--but it was simple to just say "extra bio-attacks after you best one are nearly free" and house-rule it.

That said, we had always liked V&V for its tendency towards quirky unbalanced characters. We also felt that "rolling up a character" (usually done by the group at the start of play-time) was a lot of fun and a good way to generate energy.

So we wanted a randomized system for powers ... of some sort.

The Basic Idea Of The System
What I'd envisioned for the JAGS V&V game was a set of random-roll tables ... maybe a "cybernetics table?" Or an "Energy Manipulation Table" or whatever. We could enhance that with rolls for "character's job" or a life-path system that would give you super-siblings or nemesis's or whatever. We'd seen examples of these in other games and more or less liked them.

We were also going to do this: Give you four rolls for powers and, for each roll you elect to drop, you can get 1 level of "Fast Company Action Hero" ability. This would, we felt, lead to Batman at one end of the spectrum (Fast L4) and Superman (no bullet-dodging acrobatics--just raw super-powers) at the other.

A lot of characters would come in somewhere in the middle--and we liked that.

Our twist, though, was going to be that instead of just rolling up a power you would roll a "group of powers" and could spend your points on anything within that group. So if you rolled 'Mutant Appendage,' 'Gravity Control,' 'Super Senses,' and ... I don't know--something else--you could decide to drop Something Else and Mutant Appendage and go Fast Level 2 with one or more Gravity Control Powers and maybe a Super Sense. Or you could just buy Anti-Grav flight from Gravity Control and spend ALL your points on some kind of mega Mutant Appendage ... or whatever.

The same set of rolls could generate very, very different characters.

We'd tried something like this with an earlier set of JAGS Archetype rules and liked how it came out (it was very primitive--with almost none of the powers "actually written out"--but by now we'd turned those place-holders into actual powers).

A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The World Book
What happened, though, on our test launch, was this: we took every secondary heading from the JAGS Revised Archetype book and put it into a spreadsheet. There were 89 of them. Each L2 Heading is a group of powers like 'Gravity Control' or even 'Tails' -- stuff like that.

What I'd done in the intervening years between the first playtest and the almost finished product was to intentionally group all these abilities into logical blocks so that the (eventual) supers game would make more sense. We'd also grouped them into chapters based on commonality--which helped a lot too.

So when we used the spreadsheet's randomize function to give us "four rolls" on the Master List ... we were stunned.

It worked. I mean, it worked so well that we could find no modification (such as breaking up the list artificially into, say, Energy Manipulation--which, in this, was part of Domain Control) that we felt sure was a value add.

We did an Iron Chef test where the same set of rolls was used to make wildly different characters. It worked. We considered making some abilities more common than others (to get to 100 slots, no one has an 89-sided die). It didn't seem to add to the experience.

We sat back: Hmm ... could that be it? Give people a randomization of the Table of Contents--and some general rules (play on 128 AP, if you roll GATS you can spend as much on them as you want--but if you choose Fast Co you only get to choose up to the listed GAT points for that level--unless you go Fast Co L4, in which case ALL GATS and GEAR powers are available to you).

The set of parameters was so simple this wasn't a source book: it was a blog post.

Why Did This Happen?
As I noted above, the reason this worked out the way it did was because during the creation of the actual rules I had already organized the powers in a way that was designed to facilitate the system we knew we were going to build. I'd done the work--I just hadn't realized that the work was complete enough.

Is there anything we could add?

Yeah: firstly, characters tend to work better in our games when they have either one attack at a moderate level or two attacks at the same level (which, due to the way the rules work is cheaper than 2x the points). If we could find a way to encourage that--with the random roll rules you rarely get two attacks you might want--that might help.

We could add life-path stuff. Why not? It's easy enough to ditch if you don't want it.

We could add a Power Modification Table which you could choose to roll on and it would give you some enforced rules for modifying your abilities ...

Right now Weaknesses is one power-slot. We could make it it's own thing and make it an optional roll ...

So there's a little. But mostly?

If you want the randomization spreadsheet, it's in Google Docs. Let me know and I can share it with you.


  1. Hey I know this is an old post but do you still have that document lying around

    1. Yes. I can share it--but I think I need your gmail address or whatever.

    2. It's mchacon at google mail.