Thursday, June 16, 2016

Villains and Vigilantes - Villains Unleashed




Sometimes it’s hard to find something to say about a roster book for an RPG other “worth it” or “not worth it”. This time I can safely start with “they were really trying something different with this one”.

Main thing setting it apart is instead of just a block of bare third-person narration giving you each character’s background, it’s presented as the findings of a reporter writing a book about our nation’s supervillains. Mainly it’s to leave some villains who are particularly mysterious so you’ll have a complete character sheet ready for you, but the details of where the villain comes from and how they act are for you to decide as best suits your campaign.  Plus with this approach there’d be an actual reason if the profile were to find it necessary to say, mention that a curvaceousfemale badass was in her underwear.

Besides the collection of loose villains the book also has a pair of “themed” villain teams. The first is based on colors, and while I think that’s an interesting idea, the members don’t actually stick to any particular scheme too hard, either having power effects of the relevant color, or for a couple just wearing a costume that’s the right color. Like Big Blue, whose power is being a super-strong colossus but that’s it, and Viridian who’s a mage but who it doesn’t even say anything about her magic have green special effects. It’s mostly typical stuff like astral projection, telepathy and precognition, too.

Which isn’t to say Spectrum isn’t a fun villain group and one I wouldn’t mind using on a semi-regular basis if I ever played the game again. My favorite’s the leader, Red Tide, whose power is red tide. You’d expect the red guy to be an angry powerhouse, and that was pretty original. I also like Indiglow, who even if he has kind of a dumb name is an evil second-story-man version of Green Lantern which is pretty cool. Respect also for having the first lesbian couple I’m aware of in an indie superhero RPG. Overall Spectrum is a fun group I recommend.

The other team is the Malevolents, and while they’re a decent villain group I wouldn’t mind using a time or two, but “themed?” There’s Greyhawk who’s basically an evil Hawkman down to the mask, superhuman eyesight and archaic weapon of choice, Cerberus the wolf-guy who can sprout another two heads and breathe fire, typical giant strong guy Slab, vibration-emitting Pulsator and luck-manipulator Miss Fortune. They’ve got an interesting mixture of powers and I could definitely see using them a time or two in a campaign. But the only theme I see is them all meeting in jail and deciding to team up when they got out.

From there the collection of “loose” villains run the scale from good to lame as, they often do, but I think in this case it’s more of the good than the bad, partly because of the book’s idea of a framing device allowing the GM to just pick up a villain with some interesting powers and make them their own. I really liked Killshot’s build as a mysterious assassin, and Freeze-R-Burn with his mixture of powers if not exactly his name. Glamazon was cool if only because there really need to be more tough women in superhero stuff than She-Hulk and Wonder Woman. Quarry’s an okay super-tough rockbeast, but I think I’ll always prefer Terra-Rizer from “Super-Crooks and Criminals” as my rage-filled rock monster of choice, with his power to sorta-kinda turn invisible among other rocks and how different power attacks do different things to his durability.

Zeitgeist, the ghost burglar, was another especially nice idea. I also liked the Power Pirate, who as his name implies can temporarily steal the PC’s powers, though as-written I’m worried that outside of a string of critical hits the effects would be too short-lived to have much of a point besides beating the players down with their own attacks. Surely we can do better than that. Loonatics Unleashed did better than that.

I don’t really care how much of a badass he is, though (and he is that), I don’t think I’d ever be able to have my players fight a villain named Evil Jim with a straight face. It's nice the authors included how much EXP each villain's worth on their character sheet, though. Saves time for sure.

And there’s a couple new powers packed in the book too, although they seemed mostly to be a way of making invulnerability and force fields less impregnable.

Of course, “Villains Unleashed” tries to be more than just a source of ready-made villains by also having the first in a three-part adventure, to try to entice you to buy the next product with the next mini-adventure in it. But frankly, based on the first part whether I buy it or not’s probably going to depend a lot more on the book it’s packed in with.

This one evidently centers around a new Shadowy Evil Organization named Triskelion. Guess I’ll put that up on the shelf with Intercrime, TOTEM, The Dragon’s Claw, TIC-TAC-TOE, VILE, and Shadow of the recently released “Clockworks”. With all due respect to the author, their most distinctive feature is being made up of three main branches, three leaders. Not terribly distinctive.

The encounters are certainly solid enough on their own and if you buy this book, by all means you should run them. But they’re generic robberies, and deliberately so, with the authors saying to the GM, “We want your fingerprints all over it” and for you to be the one who comes up with the payoff for the theme running between what’s stolen in the pregen encounters. Yeah, the GM should definitely do that, but…they also split this adventure up over three books trying to make it more likely I’d buy all three books. I’m not saying I won’t, not at all, I’m saying it could’ve been incentivized better. If I decide to run a premade adventure I should definitely be prepared to personalize it some. But I should probably also not need to and be able to just run it right out of the box. The author can't possibly account for everything in every stranger's game, but why the villains are stealing what they're stealing is something I do expect them to tell me.

And it’s very serious about playing the adventure out as an ongoing campaign, reminding the GM to dole out experience after every encounter by mentioning it again after the description for every encounter. Even the encounter where the entire thing is the players literally magically being gifted with all known information about Triskelion. I’m sorry authors, I really am, but no. A wizard hands them a written history, practically a textbook deus ex machina; that’s not worth experience points, no matter how well the players turn in their roles, and could set a really bad precedent. If you guys think fighting NPC good guys shouldn’t be worth EXP, neither should that.

If you enjoy V&V, buy this book. But buy it for the premade villains.


Monday, December 21, 2015

Teenagers From Outer Space: TFOS Does Winterfest!




First off, no relation to the Mystery Science Theater 3000 subject of the same name. Although that was certainly goofy enough to be right at home in this game.


Without going into too much detail, as I’m pondering a rundown of the game itself sometime, once upon a time a designer at R. Talsorian Games found out about a really funny sci-fi/school comedy anime called Urusei Yatsura and evidently thought it would be a great basis for a role-playing game. And thus was born Teenagers From Outer Space, where creatures from across the cosmos have decided to enroll their kids in human schools and expose them to such radical ideas as individuality and capitalism. The players control these star spawn, or the lucky kids who’ve been put in charge of helping them get acclimated to life as an Earthling teenager. And hijinks, as they say, ensue.

Sadly while the game’s fondly remembered by the people who did get to experience it, it evidently didn’t find a lot of support from the game-buying public. I own six products with this game’s name on them and as far as I know that’s it. Three are versions of the core rules, two are premade adventures and one’s a mall for the players to hang out at. Heh, malls. Remember those?

One of those premade adventures is the subject of this particular review, but pays homage to its animated roots by eschewing the long and intricate plot of the only other premade adventure, “The Field Trip,” and instead being a loose outline of short, humorous episodes to keep things fast and fun. They also packed in a list of new powers characters can have, like being stretchy or literally being so cool your character can deflect an attack by making a (hard) saving throw.

As the name indicates the meat of the series of little episodes laid out in the book revolve around the winter festivities of the characters’ school (Or perhaps the very, very basic premade school that comes with the booklet. I’m not sure if it’s embarrassing or not that the school outline that came with “Bad Medicine for Dr. Drugs” was more detailed. And that was a serious anti-drug tale that still thought a good name for a street gang was "The Monkey Thugs"). These include the big dance, electing the WinterFest king and queen, an extremely cheap and dangerous carnival, a planetary invasion by three races of evil, uncool aliens at the exact same time, and of course saving Santa Claus from corporate mercenaries.

Yes, really.


Of course the GM’s expected to fill in an awful lot of blanks to keep things as crazy as possible, so the scenarios in this module require a certain kind of person to run them. But then, TFOS requires a certain kind of player to begin with. The main focus of the scenarios is on winning a popularity contest against a pair of jerky but good-looking cool kids (aren't they all?), something the players can’t do with brute force even if the game makes it easy for players to equip themselves with silly futuristic weapons. Hell, it’s easy for the unwashed masses to resort to violence; if they were smart and sophisticated enough to try something else they wouldn’t be the unwashed masses.


On that note, though, I’d say that while the final scenario where the players help save Santa is practically required, it’s also a disappointment. While in the hands of a good GM it’ll still end up being plenty silly, it’s also just your typical “blow up the bad guys” thing from any old RPG. Besides the holiday theme it’s not connected to the previous plot ideas and just kind of pops in like a poorly-integrated boss fight. There aren’t even circumstances that have them meeting up with Santa who’s already in trouble: the kids just hear about commandos attacking the workshop on the news and, presumably, pile into their flying saucers to go to Saint Nick’s rescue. Suppose those zappy guns it’s so easy for the players to get had to figure in somewhere.

I guess I'm just down on heavy combat in a game that tries to be as cartoony as possible, and the penalty for losing all your hit points is missing your next turn, and then getting them all back after that. Sounds to me like the combat monsters can stay home.

It’s a little interesting to note the game getting a little more blatant about its anime roots, even if some of it’s stuff the players aren’t really meant to see. One of the aliens the players have to save Christmas from during the three-way invasion are the Robotoids from planet Voltron, and considering whose work inspired this game in the first place, I highly doubt it’s a coincidence that one of the stimuli the new power list uses as an example of what can set off an “out of control power” is being hit with cold water.

And look at those cute Totoros you can win for your lady! Or whatever’s appropriate on the planet you’re from.

All in all, aside from the combat-centric scenarios, this is a pretty good module.The winter festivities are a great setup for plenty of teen-related chaos, the new powers and devices described in the book are cool and a lot more original than the ones in the book as they weren't filling most of it out by copying and pasting from UY's major alien characters.

But if there’s one thing that’s a shame about this book, I’d actually say it’s the humorous insert art, since nobody’s meant to read the booklet except the GM. As bare-bones as it is to leave most of the content up to the person running the game who actually knows his players and their quirks. So, here’s a few more examples of the goofy pictures in this booklet, along with a little sample of the mayhem waiting to be unleashed.







Happy holidays!

Monday, September 29, 2014

Adventures of the Rope Warrior (Snark)




Making something that’s boring but beneficial entincing to kids is a tricky job, not helped by how a lot of edutainment makers seem to severely underestimate kids’ ability to tell when they’re being led on. Certainly I have fond memories of some of the edutainment shows of my youth, but one approach that seems almost impossible to pull off is when the makers try to weave their moral into a story of grand adventure to grab young viewers’ attention. Most of the time you get a Captain Planet and the Planeteers, something remembered more for the absurdity of its presentation than the positive values it contained.

Which is why I feel a little bad saying that David Fisher’s pair of books are pretty dumb. But then, books about a guy who gets the strength to save the universe from alien drug dealers and obesity-promoting corporate bosses by jumping rope, well…If anybody’d ever heard of this, Captain Planet’s place in internet history might in trouble. Or at least Drug Avengers's.

I say I feel bad because the benefits of jumping rope are something I’m inclined to think he truly believes in. The first of these Rope Warrior books came out in 1996, but in August of this very year he put out a new book of jump rope tricks. I do believe this is an entire lifestyle for Fisher, and yeah, nearly all of us could stand to spend more time looking after our health. Still, if you write a morality tale, and you name two negative characters Maury and Ima Whiner, you do it to yourself, really.

It also doesn’t help how both books start off with this:


Granted it’s talking about feats like using a jump rope to swing on something or twirling it to deflect projectiles. The kind of stuff people only do in high fantasy, and without which the jump rope would have no place in the narrative. Still, it sounds really weird to set out to tell the reader jumping rope is totally awesome while telling them not to do any of the things the role model the story gives does with his jump rope.

But I’ve delayed talking about the story itself long enough. In 2086 (90 years after the work is published rather than the usual even 100, cute), the Roper family are the first humans to live on another planet in an experimental station on Mars. They’re really into fitness. So much so that young Charles got the nickname “Skip” for his love of skipping rope.

Obviously happy family in action plot. DEAD.

But one day their idyllic existence of getting up at 4:45 AM to jump rope every morning is shattered as evil aliens from the planet Keebar (Keebar??) attack the Mars station and try to perform some kind of insidious operation on Skip’s parents. When it fails, their leader, Varco, guns the Ropers down and blows up their emergency escape ship, leaving young Skip alone and jumping rope for years, awaiting rescue.

But eventually rescue does come: an old friend of the Ropers comes by to check on them after 15 years of no regular reports (yeah, really). A friend who’s since joined the “Intergalactical Drug Police,” but I had a lot more fun just calling them “the Space Narcs.” Anyway when Skip finds out the Space Narcs are on the trail of the guy who killed his parents, who runs an interplanetary drug ring, he wants in too. And because he’s the main character, he gets in.

It turns out the Space Narcs’ next big operation is to destroy an isolated but heavily-defended drug factory. As opposed to someplace in the middle of civilization but not sticking out like a frigging sore thumb, but whatever. We’re talking about villains only one step up from ones who chop down acres of rainforest just because they’re bored. The Space Narcs have a formula that can make anything coated with it indestructible, but not enough of it to actually shield anybody, let alone multiple agents, from getting close enough to destroy the factory without being blown away by its massive laser sentry guns. Skip suggests they coat his jump rope with the formula so he can twirl it to deflect the lasers while the other Space Narcs blow up the factory, and so his jump rope will actually figure into the plot. Because he’s the main character he's given his wish, and because he's the main character his idea works.

But unlike in other brainless, socially-relevant adventure stories, blowing up one extremely obvious source isn’t enough to topple the Keebarian (yes, Keebarian) drug empire. The Space Narcs did find a clue to where to look next, though: the word “GIRTH” and the fact that they tracked Varco’s escape ship to Earth. Being the newest member and thus the one least likely to be recognized, Skip heads to the planet of his parents’ birth to find out the meaning of GIRTH.


So we begin the second book, Survival of the Fit, and with the setup out of the way all remnants of subtlety are lost without a trace. GIRTH turns out to be the name of a huge company that runs a city where everything is automated and most people never leave their homes. Gee, in a book where the hero jumps rope, that can only mean evil’s afoot!


Indeed, as Skip finds out when he infiltrates their headquarters and meets up with a pair of shapely females who were kidnapped for trying to host a workout show on public access (one of whom falls in love with a guy named “Skip” waaaay too readily), GIRTH is under the control of none other than his archenemy Varco the Keebarian drug kingpin! The reason GIRTH doesn’t let anyone get away with being healthy is so they’ll die young and their bodies can be harvested for the impurities a sedentary life inflicts, which it turns out are the secret ingredient in Varco’s evil Space Drug! And the reason he got mad at Skip’s parents, if you care, was because they took such obscenely good care of themselves there was nothing in them to make drugs from. Which leaves us with an absolutely beautiful Space Whale Aesop: exercise regularly and eat right or you’ll be contributing to alien drug trafficking. Good lord.

The blob guy looks about as confused as I was.

And the book manages to get even more insane. Skip proposes to the Space Narcs that he and the girls go back and try to encourage people to get fit. The Space U.N. applauds his devotion but thinks that’ll take too long, Varco will figure out what they’re up to and move his operation somewhere else, and the only viable option to stop him now is to blow up planet Earth for the greater good of the civilized galaxy. Not even the city where they know his headquarters are, the entire frigging planet. Makes me wonder if the other planets who belong to this group worry about what might be going on on their planets that’ll get them blown up.

What are you even pointing at, Skip?

But wouldn’t you know it, the Space Narcs arrested a guy who tried to blow up their ship who turns out to be from the future! And if he takes Skip far enough back to have time to spread the joys of rope-jumping and stave off the need for planetary destruction, he might be able to bargain for a lighter sentence! And after accidentally ending up in the Cretaceous period first because that’s a rule about time-traveling in subpar stories, they finally get to their intended time period, which surprised me a little by still being about 50 years in the future relative to the book’s publication.

I was kind of expecting Skip to come back to the late 20th century and have his adventures in fitness alongside some normal kids from our time. Such as in some supremely ill-advised programming like Lazer Tag Academy or something.  

Speaking of....

Or worse, that David Fisher might try to evoke some more interest at school assemblies about the joys of jumping rope by claiming to be Skip Roper himself come back to save the world with the power of aerobic exercise. Or maybe even on one of those televised appearances he’s so big on you knowing about.


And despite the promise of another adventure, this is where the saga of the Rope Warrior ends. You almost have to think the author knew that, with how the book ends with the time traveler making another stop to save Skip’s parents too, thus ridding him of any baggage he might’ve had and leaving nothing but his passion for jumping rope. And that’s another problem a lot of these heroes meant to teach messages suffer from: they’re so clean-cut and boring the message they try to encourage seems boring by association. “This guy saves the world from aliens and says I should jump rope? Geek. Let’s go watch the Power Rangers instead, they fight aliens with laser guns and super-cool robots.”

Yes, I'm aware something was stuck to the scanner. It seemed appropriate.

Just from a technical standpoint, the first book feels like the author wanted to shove in every single little idea and detail he came up with, thinking that’d make the limited story it actually tells more gripping. There was a fair bit I didn't mention to keep the summary from bogging down. Like when Skip’s been on the station for years he realizes he’s grown out of his kiddie jumpsuits and goes to put on one of his dad’s. There’s some kind of biological sample in the elbow that melts into Skip’s blood when he puts it on. In both books, we never find out what it did to him.

Also, right after his parents are killed, Skip sees himself on the Mars station’s security cameras and realizes he’s walking around all angry and obsessed like Varco did. He decides he needs to keep his cool and not let anger overtake him. And that’s the last we hear of that. It wouldn’t be unreasonable to assume the reader’s meant to take away the lesson they shouldn’t let their problems take control of them. But if Skip realizes that and overcomes his problems that quickly, he’s even more dull to read about…

But point being, there’s an awful lot of stuff going on in the first book. It feels very, very busy for a young adult novel. In the second book by comparison, it felt like I was watching an old movie serial most of the time, with lots of little cliffhangers at the ends of chapters. Where some GIRTH security guards shoot into a cardboard box we’re led to believe Skip’s hiding in, and he winces as lead rips through the sides of his hiding spot…except he was actually climbing the wall of the building, and what he was wincing at was one of the guards making a bad joke. When the Keebarians think they’ve tricked Skip into returning to his Space Narc buddies carrying a time bomb, in the next chapter we find out he actually realized his Space Narc identity badge felt kind of heavy and turned the tables on the Space Drug Pushers.

But speaking of the Space Narcs, I’m really worried about them being run by idiots. In the span of the two books we find out they incarcerate their prisoners somewhere the prisoners can see their impounded vehicles, meaning if they were to escape their escorts or cells…yeah. There’s also a rule that any Space Narc can challenge any other Space Narc to combat at any time. This challenge cannot be denied. Not to the death or anything, but what the hell kind of drug-policing body is this??

The rule’s real reason for existing seems to be so a main character gets a chance to prove himself before the Space Narcs when an incredulous senior member doesn’t believe a guy who’s only been in the agency a day should be hearing about all their most important plans. Which, really, Skip probably shouldn’t, but he wouldn’t be involved in the plot if he didn’t. The way the author clumsily plasters over that plot hole it just sounds like the Space Narc administrators are using the contraband substances they confiscate for themselves.

And whatever other problems the series had, the second book almost seems as if it was never proofread. One particularly awful incident shows itself after the heroes find out what the secret ingredient in the villains’ Space Drug is, and the Space U.N. decides they’re too firmly entrenched for any solution to work but the (regrettable) annihilation of planet Earth.

Now, as noted the Space Narcs arrested a guy who turns out to be a time traveler, and Skip and another human Space Narc decide to have him take them back in time along with the girls from the public access workout show. Once in the past, Skip and the girls plan to spread a message of health and fitness to derail the villains’ plan before it can start, and save Earth from destruction.

But that’s when the bad continuity checking kicks in. Skip and his human Space Narc buddy decide not to tell the girls about the Earth being destroyed in their present…but then they immediately do. Yet when they go back in time, a character accidentally voicing his surprise at Earth still being where it’s supposed to proves they actually did go back in time. The idea that Earth wouldn’t be there causes the girls to ask what he meant, and they’re distraught to learn Earth was destroyed. Despite having been told about that before they left.

Like I said at the beginning, I feel a little bad raking these books over the coals. Mostly because the author does seem to believe in his message, and a little bit because he seemed to think the Rope Warrior was going to be huge. In the back of the first book are profiles of a couple of the supporting characters, seemingly meant to go on the back of action figure packages.



There were was even a fan club membership form.


Look at that. The author believed in the Rope Warrior books and their fan club so much he set a date when he’d stop accepting applications, even. Does anybody out there still have one of those posters or newsletters? I’m just so morbidly curious after hearing about this.

But let’s get real. A role model who fights alien drug lords and travels through time…but what you’re supposed to pay attention to is him jumping rope? Was never gonna happen.  Good on the author for his dedication to the merits of jumping rope. But good on whoever made him realize his attempt at a rope-jumping pop culture icon would never happen, too.