Sunday, August 23, 2009

Review: Authority RPG

A Higher Authority
The Authority RPG by Guardians of Order is a visually stunning superhero game set in the widescreen blockbuster comic-book world of the Authority. In addition to setting information on the Authority the game includes the full Tri-Stat rules set used in GOO’s Silver Age Sentinels game, along with stats for the d20 version of SAS. The Authority book itself is a 352-page full color hardcover with roughly the same dimensions as a typical graphic novel. It retails for $45, but I was able to find a new copy for less than half that on ebay, and when I checked last week it was still available at a discount on

I think the Authority RPG is a great option for anybody wanting to capture the flavor of the comic, regardless of the rules set you use to play. It’s a nice resource for comic fans in and of itself.

The strong points of the book include:

  • excellent artwork and graphic design
  • loving attention to the world depicted in the first twelve issues of the Authority
  • a flexible game system whose features such as Dynamic Powers are particularly well-suited to the subject matter
  • setting specific chapters with thoughtful advice on playing and game mastering characters in the obscenely high stakes Authority setting
Potential pitfalls of the book include:
  • the looseness of the SAS game engine may frustrate some players
  • certain limitations of the roll-under mechanic really leap out when characters are rolling versus such high check numbers
  • in spite of the advice, playing characters at these extremely high power levels is undoubtedly tricky and not for the faint of heart
  • as I see it, the source material presents a mixed message that may be hard to reconcile in actual play
A Better World, or at Least a Prettier Game
Jeff Mackintosh’s gifted graphic design combined with Bryan Hitch’s exceptional art make for the most attractive superhero rpg I’ve ever owned. Almost every two-page spread in the book features one or more panels from the first twelve issues of the series. I counted a dozen full-page illustrations in the book, all of which are excellent.

Not only does this give the Authority RPG a “true” comic book feel that even undeniably stylish books such as SAS or 2nd edition Mutants and Masterminds can’t quite match, having most of the art (save for some pieces by comic artist John McCrea) done by a single hand lends a pleasing consistency to the book’s appearance that even professionally illustrated games like the most recent Marvel Universe RPG lack.

The running text is also well laid out, both utilitarian and easy on the eyes. Sidebars and boxed text feature white font on a pleasing deep blue or purple background. Text wraps around silhouetted art are clean. I even liked the font used for the headers. My only caveat is that the main text font, while crisp, is a bit small for my aging eyes. The book was justifiably nominated for the 2005 Ennies for best cover art and production values. Frankly I’m shocked that it was not nominated for best interior art as well, and that it didn’t end up winning anything.

The Not-So Secret History of the Authority
As a setting resource I found the game excellent. You get two chapters of setting material, 70 pages in all. It is focused almost entirely on the twelve-issue Warren Ellis/Bryan Hitch run that began the series, along with material from the Jenny Sparks: Secret History of the Authority limited series by Marc Millar and John McCrea.

Chapter 1 weighs in at 19 pages of text. It starts with a 1 ½ page rundown of the final events in the Stormwatch comic that preceded the Authority, including the Stormwatch Black trio of Jenny Sparks, Jack Hawksmoor, and Shen Li-Min (Swift) that became the core of the Authority. Then you have synopses of each of the first 12 issues of the Authority, followed by synopses of each story in the Secret History of the Authority trade collection. The synopses seemed reasonably detailed and accurate, devoting space to describing the major action scenes as well as outlining the plot.

Chapter 2 is 51 pages, divided into character biographies and background on “the World of the Authority.” The team’s main characters (including the Carrier!) get two pages of discussion, as do major villains Kaizen Gamorra and Regis. These are followed by one-page entries for a variety of characters, ranging from Jackson King to the Koroshi Knife Warriors to Windsor, King of Sliding Albion. To be honest, I’m not sure some of these characters warranted this much descriptive text. Windsor gets more coverage here than he got in the actual comic, where he was quickly killed. Even some key members of the Authority, such as the Engineer and the Doctor, don’t exactly have a big backstory to cover. So you’re left with a certain amount of fluff and supposition about motivations and such.

Still, it’s hard to fault a book’s authors for being as thorough as possible with the source material. Note that you won’t find stats for the characters here—the Tri-Stat and D20 writeups are in the appendix at the back of the book. Instead you get a cute little bar graph at the bottom of each entry that rates a character on a scale from 1-10 in Body, Mind, Soul, Warfare, Damage, Resistance, and Power. As there’s no explanation of what the units on the scale represent, this graphic gave me no information that I couldn’t get from scanning the actual character writeups.

I got much more use out of the interesting and informative section on “The World of the Authority. You get a concise but helpful primer on the roles of the Kherans and Daemonites in the Wildstorm Universe. This is followed by an illuminating look at the attitudes and actions of the secret cabals that run the world of the Authority from the shadows. There’s a concise look at what Stormwatch was that leads into a snapshot of makes the Authority a different kind of superhero team. (You’ll get a more detailed look at this topic in the “Playing a Superpower” section later in the book.)

The section moves on to cover Gamorra, Sliding Albion, the Higher Dimensions where the Carrier roams, and a series of key Earthly locations from the series. My favorite parts of this listing were the “Aftermath” sections describing recovery efforts in each area directly impacted by the Authority’s actions. Basically this provides a paragraph or so of insight into just how London, Moscow, Los Angeles, Tokyo, or the Moon are coping with the aftermath of the events that took place there. It’s a nice touch when trying to figure out how the widescreen action of the Authority might influence the world over the course of a campaign. You also get some additional coverage of singular entities like the alien Outer God and organizations like the British Space Group. Good stuff.

Character Creation and Game Mechanics
The game engine here is essentially the same as SAS, with the use of 2d12 instead of 2d10. Ostensibly this is to give even the extremely high-powered Authority style characters some chance of failure using the roll-under resolution mechanic. Frankly, d12s seem like a weird dice choice to me.

The resort to d12s is an attempt to deal with a real potential problem when the check values are this high in a roll-under system: the players are rarely going to fail at much of anything that doesn’t involve large negative modifiers. This is probably as it should be given the powerhouses they are intended to emulate. However, it also means that any bad guys they face with similar levels of power are rarely going to fail on their defense checks. This means keeping track of the Margin of Success for both sides in every exchange, which is a bit tedious.

I could tell you more, but to be honest, the SAS game engine has already been pretty thoroughly review on

I will say that I think the Dynamic Powers or Power Flux options of SAS are some of the only ways to model the unusual and wide-ranging talents of Authority characters such as Jack Hawksmoor, the Engineer, and the Doctor. And the examples from the comics given in this rpg have helped me a great deal with visualizing how something like Dynamic Powers might work in play, more so than the original SAS book did, to be honest. Still, you are best advised to write up a lot of optional power combos (Defenses, Special Attacks, and so forth) in advance to keep from having the use of such free form powers slowing down game play.

I Fight the Authority—the Authority Always Wins
Chapters 6 and 7 give you roughly 50 pages of helpful advice on “Playing a Superpower” and “Game Mastering the Authority,” respectively. This advice actually goes into much more useful detail than the source material itself.

In my view the initial Ellis/Hitch run remains the freshest and most entertaining of the Authority’s incarnations, before the characters became a bizarre, hyper-violent fusion of “we’ll just kill anyone who disagrees with us” attitudes and liberal power fantasies. (Having characters talk down to corporate chiefs, U.S. Presidents and other heads of state like naughty children became so overdone that it lost any real narrative impact. And I say this from a liberal’s perspective. YMMV)

At the same time, however, it has always seemed to me that there is a real disconnect in these first three story arcs between the stated purpose of the Authority and the actual content of the stories.

“Everything has changed—except for one theme that runs through the whole damn thing. This is about making a better world. It may well BE a world that’s suddenly gone nuts, exploded into a widescreen two hundred million dollar fantasy of skies full of super-bastards and The God of Cities standing side by side with a woman whose got nine pints of bacteria-sized machinery instead of blood . . . But these stories have always been about that thing that superhero stories never seem to get around to. Making the world a better place. The difference in The Authority is that they simply have to beat up over a thousand people an issue to do it. And what’s wrong with that?”
--Warren Ellis, from the letters page of THE AUTHORITY #1, quoted on p. 275 of the Authority RPG

This is all well and good, except the Authority don’t actually do anything BUT fight an homage to a pulp villain Fu Manchu, a genocidal alien warlord, and a huge Cthuluesque alien. None of these opponents require any dealing with gray areas whatsoever. No moral dilemmas, no subtlety, nada. The Authority TALKS about making a better world the way politicians TALK about building bipartisan bridges, but really they just go about kicking ass.

Not that there’s anything wrong with that. But if you have players coming from the world of the comics, they might be expecting cinematic blockbuster action. If they think of the Authority more in the context of what Ellis said he wanted to accomplish, they’ll want worldchanging more on the lines of what Aberrant tried to be. Doing BOTH is quite a challenge. Ellis didn’t pull it off, not really, and when Marc Millar started trying to tackle some of the social/political change issues on his run, he descended into superficial self-parody much faster than on his X-Men or Ultimates titles.

The rule set presented in The Authority RPG clearly favors big action. The GM and player advice does give useful tips on how to try to balance the conflicting messages of the Authority source material. “21st Century Questions” digs into questions lying beneath some of the people and events that the Authority encounters. There is a great discussion of how fame distorts the lifestyle of a superhuman in the 21st century and the various ways in which mere mortals will react to the members of the new pantheon walking amongst (or flying over) them.

In summation, I think this game is a great resource for anyone wanting to play in the setting of the Authority. I have some reservations about the SAS ruleset. I find it better than many superhero games out there but not as slick for my tastes as Mutants and Masterminds, but picking up this game made me want to give it a try once again.

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