Friday, February 01, 2013

[Simulation vs. Playability] Villains & Vigilantes 2e -- A Look at Telekinesis and Force Field

As I mentioned in a background post recently, I will be doing a series of posts looking at roleplaying games  to analyze how they balance simulation and playability in the execution of their rules set. In that post, I asserted that every non-abstract game is a simulation of some central conceit. This is particularly the case in role playing games where the conceit is one of the major reasons for the selection of a given game. While some people might play a role playing game because it uses system a or system b, I would argue that more players buy a game because it has a certain conceit. How many people are buying the new STAR WARS rpg by Fantasy Flight Games because it uses a "narrative dice" mechanic, compared to how many people are buying it because it is the current STAR WARS rpg?

I would argue that while every game faces significant challenges in balancing simulation vs. playability, superhero roleplaying games face the largest challenge. This is largely because a superhero rpg must be able to handle almost any possibility in order to simulate its source material. Almost anything can happen in a comic book and that can be difficult to simulate.

The first superhero roleplaying game was Superhero 2044, and it was inspirational on many levels. It was also unplayable as written. Donald Saxman did a yeoman's job of simulating certain aspects of comic books -- superhero "patrols" for example -- but the combat system and character creation systems need additional tweaking to work. Many of the concepts of 2044 made their way into the CHAMPIONS roleplaying game, via heavy house rulings by Wayne Shaw. You can see 2044's influence in both the "point based" character creation system and in the CHAMPIONS combat system (click the link above to see the similarities in the combat system).

The first playable superhero roleplaying game was Villains & Vigilantes. The first edition of the game is playable, but has some very cloogy bits -- like the "to hit" matrix which makes the 2nd edition matrix look like child's play. The second edition was an improvement in every way over the first edition and is still a game I very much enjoy reading and playing. I recently had my regular gaming group roll up some V&V characters and look forward to a full fledged adventure in the near future. It's a fun system that falls heavily into the "abstractionist" rather than "simulationist" camp, but some of its design choices simulate comic book action better than others. To highlight this conflict, I'd like to examine how two powers are mechanically represented in the game: Force Field and Telekinesis. These are two of the three powers in the game I would need if I wanted to make Sue Storm Richards -- The Invisible Woman as a character. I understand that she she doesn't "technically" have telekinesis as a power, but she uses her force fields to mimic the effects of a traditional TK character.

In fact, let's stat up Sue Richards in the process.

In V&V, like in many super hero game systems, a character's primary statistics can affect how individual powers work. V&V uses the classic D&D system of 3 to 18 as the range of "normal human" statistics, and has five main statistics: Strength, Endurance, Agility, Intelligence, and Charisma. Most of these are self-explanatory. Only Charisma doesn't follow the normal definition. It measures not only what we would normally call Charisma, but also includes what degree the character falls on the side of good or evil. So a "very heroic" good hero might have an 18, as would a "very evil" villain.

In Sue's case, I believe all of her basic attributes fall within the normal range. If they didn't, we'd have to decide what her stats were before exposure to Cosmic Rays and deconstruct what her "initial" statistics were and how they are different from her "super heroic" statistics so we could know what attribute related superpower -- like "Enhanced Agility" -- we would need to give her. To limit debate -- though not eliminate it -- I'll be using the "Classic Marvel Forever" stats for the old TSR Marvel Game as a baseline. Since "weight" also matters in V&V, I'll also use the bio which tells us that Sue is 5"6" and weighs 120 lbs.

Below, I'll include her Classic Marvel Forever stat and follow it with my V&V translation. For Charisma, we'll assume that she isn't currently under the influence of the Fear Monger and give her a high Charisma.

Attribute Classic Marvel V&V
Strength Typical 10
Endurance Remarkable 18
Agility Excellent 16
Intelligence Good 14
Charisma N/A 16
For the sake of argument, we'll make her a 7th level character. This will matter as things progress, and we'll also assume that her 6 level advancements have not been added to the stats above.

Now...let's have a look at those powers and see how they simulate various effects from the comic books.

Force Field

The Force Field power is pretty interesting and actually covers most of what Sue Storm Richards does with her Force Fields in the comics. It creates barriers that can comprise of x number of 1 inch "square planes" where x is the player's current number of power points (1 inch is the equivalent of approximately 5 feet). In the case of Sue Storm she has 58 power (starting power equals the sum of all stats except Charisma), so she is capable of making a pretty big force field -- Fifty-Two five foot "square planes" is a lot of surface area.

Force Field provides "Force Field defense," which in Villains & Vigilantes means that the player is very difficult to hit. Most powers need to roll a 0 or less on a d20 to hit someone in a Force Field. While that might seem impossible, players do get to add modifiers to that base number of 0 or less based on powers, stats, and level. The Force Field power also lets our Invisible Woman attach opponents doing damage equivalent to her "basic HTH damage." As you will see when you look at the character sheet below, this isn't very much. In fact, it's only 1d4.

There are a couple of interesting things to look at here.

First, it costs a number of Power Points to keep up a Force Screen equal to 1/2 the number of points of damage repulsed which originated from a list of powers. This is interesting because there is not a rule anywhere in the game for determining whether damage is repulsed or not. One might assume that "damage repulsed" is damage from an attack that would have hit the defender, but for the fact the defender was protected by Force Field. I think this is a reasonable interpretation.  Let's see how this ruling would work -- notice that we are already having to make a ruling to interpret the use of a power.

Ice Powers are on the list of powers that take energy to defend against using Force Field. Ice Power hits a character protected by Force Field on a 0 or less. A character with no defenses that work against Ice Power would be hit on a 14 or less (a 70% chance). Let's say that Blizzard is attacking Sue Storm. Normally, he would hit her on a 14 or less, but she has her Force Field up. He rolls to hit as normal and rolls a 13 and would normally hit Sue except for the Force Field, so he misses. With other defenses, this would be the end of the result. Because Force Field has a power cost related to "repulsed" damage, we now need Blizzard to determine how much damage he would have done and we subtract 1/2 that amount from Sue's current power score. If Sue were protecting someone else and the attack got past the Force Field, which in Blizzard's case would only be possible with modifiers from stats or level, she would lose power equal to the full amount of damage done. At least that's what I think would happen.

Let me just say, that if my interpretation is correct it seems like a pretty good simulation of how Force Fields work in the comics. We often see Force Field users straining to maintain the Field under pressure of attacks. How this power would work from devices, like Iron Man's suit for example, is another matter entirely as suits don't have "Power Ratings" and instead have a number of "Uses." This only adds to the number of rulings we must make to fill in cracks in the rules.

The second interesting thing here is that the Force Field's damage is based on the character's normal ability to damage someone when punching them. I don't know about you, but I think most Force Field attackers -- like say Hal Jordan or Sue Storm -- have this kind of attack because their hand to hand attack isn't very "superheroic." This aspect of the power doesn't seem very realistic as a simulation. I would recommend using a fix that I am going to be making for Telekinesis in a moment, and that is to use an alternate means of calculating base damage for this power. A normal HTH attack is based on a character's strength and weight. Force Field powers should have their "HTH Damage" based on an attribute that best simulates how the Force Field works. For Sue Storm, I would argue that the HTH damage should be based on her "Endurance" instead of Strength. This would still only give "Level 1" Sue Storm 1d6 damage, and isn't something that breaks the system. I would also argue that Hal Jordan's should be based on his Charisma score.

Reading through the Telekinesis power, we can see that it does essentially what Telekinesis should be able to do. It can move things, be used as an attack, and manipulate physical objects. Sound's right. What is interesting here though is the "telekinetic capacity" and how it is determined. The number of pounds a character can move is equal to Strength x Level x 10 pounds. In Sue's case, this would mean she could lift 10 (her Strength) x 1 (or 7 for our "experienced" version) x 10 pounds with her mind. So she could lift either 100lbs. or 700lbs. This would allow her to do either 1d4 or 1d8 damage with her TK. Not very impressive (okay, the 1d8 is almost in the right range for a primary attach, but not quite), and seemingly counter-intuitive. How many of the primarily TK oriented characters are known for their massive Strength? Most of the TK oriented heroes I can think of have average strength, and substitute TK for their Strength.

I think we should use an alternate means of Capacity Calculation. Normal carrying capacity is calculated as follows:

So for Sue we take one-tenth her Strength cubed (1 cubed) plus one-tenth her Endurance which is 1.8. This gives us a total of 2.8 which we multiply by 1/2 her weight or 60lbs. This gives us a total of 168 pounds. I think that looks right for her carrying capacity, but not her "Force Field" Capacity. If we substitute Endurance for Strength in this equation to determine "Force Field HTH", we get 458lbs and a 1d6 damage. While I still think this is low for a higher level Sue, it seems okay for 1st level Sue.  As for Telekinesis, I recommend making two changes. First, change the equation to (Key Stat x Level x 20 lbs = TK Capacity). Then I recommend selecting the appropriate key stat for the character's character concept. In Sue's case, I think it should be Endurance. At 1st Level, this would have given her a 360lbs. TK capacity. Not fantastic, and still only good for 1d6 damage which is about 1/2 of the average attack power, but I think it's well within reason for a starting character.

One thing that is possible in V&V is for a character to have a power "selected" multiple times. The recommendation V&V gives is to increase the effectiveness of the power if it has been "rolled" more than once. I would argue that Sue Storm rolled TK at least twice and would have that increase the multiple of x20lbs to x40lbs giving her a 1st level TK of 720lbs and 1d8 damage. That's all I need for her starting out.

One of the things that V&V allows characters to do is increase basic statistics with level increases. For the sake of argument, let's assume that modern Invisible Woman is 7th level and that she has put all of her advancements into Endurance.

Using our updated equations 7th level Invisible Woman would have a Force Field Capacity of 973lbs doing 1d10 damage. This is right in the sweet spot of between 1d10 and 1d12 plus stat bonuses damage (+1 in Sue's case). Her TK would be 6720lbs which does 2d8 damage. Given that this hits like a HTH attack, and HTH attacks are the least accurate in the game hitting on only a 5 or less, I think this is right in the sweet spot and puts her in line with most of V&V's "Bricks."

Notice that what constitutes a massively strong character in V&V is 3 tons, significantly less than the Hulk's 100 ton lift capacity. That would do somewhere in the range of 6d10 damage, a figure not likely to be "survivable" by most characters.

Just looking at these two powers it seems that V&V is a very good simulator of Comic Book style action, but that it still has a few cracks to fill in. Some are easy to fill in, like changing the TK equation or even I imagine coming up with a new Carrying Capacity to Basic HTH Damage chart (something I would recommend doing). Others are a little more difficult, like figuring out what is meant by "Damage Repulsed." The game was the first truly viable superhero role playing game. It is a fun game, but it does show some fraying around the edges of the rules. Some of these are legacies of being a kind of D&D derivative in combat, others are due to insufficient play testing.

None of them are game killers though, and all of them make for interesting combinations about how V&V tackles the problem of Simulation vs. Playability. With the exception of some of the equations required, and the clunkiness of the combat system, it's pretty clear that a lot of effort went into playability instead of simulation and where the designers focused too much on simulation -- the system's attack power vs. defense power attack chart comes to mind -- you end up with some of the more clunky aspects of the game.

I hope that Fantasy Flight Games Fantasy Games Unlimited and Monkey House Games are able to work out their legal issues in an amicable manner, and that we will be able to see a true 3rd edition of the game soon. It is one of the greats.

 Invisible Woman is Copyright Marvel Comics.


SESchend said...

Fun read, Christian; makes me want to go blow the dust off my V&V1E box down stairs!

I'd love to see/hear your thoughts on CHAMPIONS and its game-breaking super-speed power (or why you think it doesn't break down the game, if that's the case).


Christian Lindke said...

I'm actually working on a CHAMPIONS post recommending a "sweet spot" in the game. It's a game that as a GM, you really have to watch out for min/maxing and the best way is to strongly define the limits of capabilities within a statistical window.

Too often people have far to high defenses for the "assumed" power level, this in turn leads to massive power creep on offense. Just look at the development of "penetrating" attacks and "double armor piercing/double hardened" powers that have come up throughout the years.

It's the only game I've seen an actual arms race occur in outside of games like Star Fleet Battles where it fits narratively.

Doc Savage said...

I think you meant Fantasy Games Unlimited at the end there. That's the publisher of V & V 2nd edition.

Doc Savage said...

The inflation is what has turned me off
Champions. Look at any writeup of Green Lantern, for instance, and you see that he has maximum normal human strength; then Batman suddenly has superhuman strength to make it work. The defense is that GL "has to" have STR 20 to be "viable."

Doc Savage said...

I don't think Champions has a superspeed power. What edition are you using?

Christian Lindke said...


Thanks for the sharp eye on the FFG/FGU typo. I've got FFG on the mind lately. You are correct, Fantasy Games Unlimited is the publisher of the 2nd edition of V&V. Monkey House Games has published the newer 2.1 edition, and they are the companies currently in a legal battle.

I too was wondering at the CHAMPIONS superspeed power, but haven't read through all of the powers for 6th edition in the Powers book.

Christian Lindke said...

Regarding the GL conversion with the "maximum human" strength. I think that our own fandom sometimes gets in the way of a good conversion of a character. We often get too caught up in making our favorite character, "awesome" and not accurately representing him or her.

The "GL 'ha[ving] to' have a STR 20" is an example of what Daniel Kahneman calls "ideologically motivated cognition." It's where we justify facts -- using our rational mind -- to match or own cognitive biases.

Sometimes we are too close to those things we love. I'd give Hal Jordan no more than a 13 STR. That's why he's got the ring, it does the heavy lifting. Maybe I'd give Guy Gardner an 18, but he was a Gym Teacher and College Football player.

Doc Savage said...

personally I max Batman out at 15; he's an athlete/martial artist, not a musclebound bodybuilder. All one has to do is scale back all the inflated stats and powers to regain some semblance of reality.

Doc Savage said...

I'm pretty sure you still simulate it with multiattacks and flight-in-touch-with-surface and so on.