Friday, January 30, 2009

Supercrew with the Kids

I recently purchased a .pdf of a very simple superhero roleplaying game called Supercrew. (You can read a review of it here.) The game rules are presented in the form of a 28 page color comic book, which is a nice touch.

A few days ago I read the game to my daughter and son, who are nine and six, respectively. Tonight mom was out at a work-related function and I asked the kids if they wanted to play a boardgame. My daughter suggested that since Mom isn't really into rpgs, we should try playing Supercrew.

Mutant Mayhem
I should preface this by saying that I tried playing Mutants and Masterminds with my kids about a month ago, with disastrous results. This was really my fault. My son, who has Asperger's Syndrome, reads at a high level and loves anything with numbers, so he's been reading my MnM books with joy. He's memorized a bunch of the rules as well. But I neglected the obvious point that being able to recite the rules doesn't mean comprehension, and that my lack of gaming experience with those rules would make me less effective as well. So that experience sucked, because the kids were confused, I was hesistant to make rulings, and my son got distracted by the Heroclix we were using as miniatures. Not my finest hour.

The Rules
This time was much better. With Supercrew you pick three powers for your character, each rated 1, 2, or 3, respectively. That determines how many dice you roll when using the power. A roll of 4, 5, or 6 on a die equals Effect 1--a 6 is re-rolled and any additional effect is added to the total. You also get to describe three tricks (which mechanically work the same for all characters--re-roll the dice, turn one die result into a 5, or automatically get Effect 2--but are described differently for each character's unique powers and style). You can use each trick once per gaming session.

You need to spend a hero point to use your level 3 power. How do you get a hero point? By using your wimpy Level 1 power and/or as a compensation for getting knocked out. Everyone has 3 toughness unless they've got a special ability that changes that (rules are kind of vague there). You define all your powers--there's a simple framework presented, but you can be pretty free-form.

The Set-Up
My son made a size-changing character with Shrinking 1, Growth 2, and SuperSizeShift 3 (which let him go back and forth in size in a single turn). He named the character SuperSizer.

My daughter made a character called Alien Z. Alien Z had Bulletproof Costume 1, Superspeed 2, and Trained Pet Monkey 3. Yes, my daughter's superfast character (who for some reason had heat vision as one of her tricks--I assumed it was based on her costume but let her make it her automatic Effect 2 trick) had as her most potentially powerful ability a trained monkey. She's very creative.

I basically copied the stats for two villains (even simpler than those for the characters) out of the book. One could control flocks of crows. I named her Blackbird. The other was called Miss Decibel and had sonic powers. And there were stats for a gang of ninjas, so I used those.

The Call to Action!
On the fly, I decided that the high-tech toy company where SuperSizer worked in his secret identity was being robbed by a gang of ninjas--he got a text message from a terrified co-worker. At the time he and Alien Z were working on her costume in his garage lab. He shrank to tiny size, hopped on Alien Z's shoulder, and held on as she raced at superspeed to the toy company's warehouse.

Back in Black--Ninja/Crow Throwdown
There they encountered a gang of ninjas robbing the warehouse. Alien Z decided to surprise attack the ninjas by racing toward them from a distance at high speed so they wouldn't see her coming, while SuperSizer snuck up in shrunken form once Alien Z left him by the side of the building. Alien Z rolled very well and took out half the ninjas on the first turn. SuperSizer cornered a ninja in the warehouse and grew to giant size. This, plus a series of bad attack rolls/good defenses on the part of the ninja, led to a comedic sequence where he put his head through the ceiling, then tried in vain to stomp the frantically dodging ninja. Alien Z knocked off another ninja, catching a shuriken in the back for her trouble, then noticed that a bunch of crows were flying off with the computer chips the ninja had previously been loading into the back of a truck.

(You may ask--if Blackbird could simply have had her minions fly off with the chips in the first place, why were the ninjas loading them into a truck? This is what happens when you take 5 minutes to set up a game and have a map handy that shows a loading dock with trucks on it. The kids never thought twice about it.)

Alien Z saw Blackbird guiding her flock of feathered fiends and tried to charge the villain. Blackbird used one of her trick powers to send a swarm of crows against Alien Z. Blackbird scored a higher Effect, so her attack went first. To make matters worse, Alien Z flubbed the defense roll, resulting in enough damage to knock her out after the shuriken hit. I ruled that the crows kept Alien Z from seeing where she was going, sending her careening into a truck at super speed and knocking her out. Blackbird then summoned a bunch of crows to lift her up into the air and fly her away.

SuperSizer sees all this because his head is sticking out of the top of the building. He uses his SuperBreath trick, rolls well, and blows away all the birds holding Blackbird, who tumbles to the ground and is knocked out.

SuperSizer and Blackbird engage in some rather awkward roleplaying banter with their captives before the police arrive. My daughter is good with the quips but just keeps asking the same questions and wants to use her heat vision to set Blackbird on fire. She says violence against prisoners is not against the law on her home planet. My friend Aaron might recall that my daughter gets her direct approach in these matters from my wife.

SuperSizer gets caught up in explaining to the villains just how they were defeated, possibly the first hero monologue I can recall. A little nudging gets him to threaten to shrink super small and crawl up the nose of one of his captives, which is sufficiently gross to get a little info out of a ninja--they were supposed to rendezvous with their employer at the docks. Then the other ninjas shut him up.

The police come for the prisoners and Blackbird uses another of her trick powers to turn into a bunch of birds and fly away to freedom.

Awkward Sleuthing
The next part did not go smoothly, as I eventually had to railroad the kids into trying to find clues to help them figure out what ship on the docks the bad guys were heading toward. I had this idea that a Japanese engineer had left from a military company because he didn't want to use his artificial intelligence breakthrough to control war robots, but to create lifelike robot pets for kids. The Japanese company wanted to steal the chips back and had hired ninjas and two supervillains to do it.

I don't think the kids got much of that. Eventually they figured out that ninjas were from Japan (a blatant, silly clue that my son actually grasped). Then they talked to the people in the warehouse and got enough info for my daughter to look up ships headed for Japan from the dock that evening. They found one and headed for it.

I probably should have just let the kids do whatever popped into their heads, but I really couldn't understand what they were trying to do. So my bad for not realizing they weren't getting the hints I was dropping.

Final Act
They got to the docks to see the ship ringed by crows keeping lookout. I can't really accurately relate what happened next, because I didn't quite understand it. But my daughter unleashed her pet monkey, which snuck on board the ship and rigged up a zipline that the two heroes used to swoop onto the deck at high speed past the startled crow lookouts. SuperSizer went giant-sized on the ship as Blackbird and Miss Decibel came to confront them.

At this point it was getting late and it was increasingly hard to keep my son even remotely focused on the game. So I wanted a quick ending with a bang. Thus I decided not to pull out any additional ninjas (they don't come cheap).

It was even faster than I expected. My son unleashed his SuperSizeShift ability, combined with his re-roll trick and a 6, to generate an Effect 4. Miss Decibel's defense roll of Effect 1 meant she would be knocked out. We described this as SuperSizer suddenly shrinking as Miss Decibel unleashed her sonic blast harmlessly overhead where his giant body had been a moment earlier, then leaping toward her like a flea, landing at her feet, and finally enlarging to full size with a punch that sent her skyward and into the water with a splash. Awesome.

My daughter engaged in some witty banter with Blackbird and then came up with a neat plan--to use the water nearby to soak the crows so they would be unable to fly, negating Blackbird's power. She got a 1 die anecdote bonus (another once-per-game-session deal) for an entertaining story about how she got the idea. Then she unleashed a staggering roll: 4, 6, 6, with the two re-rolled dice coming up 4 and 6, and the re-re-rolled 6 coming up 5, for an Effect of 6. Particularly considering that Blackbird had used up her power tricks for the session, she was toast even with an excellent full power defense roll.

Unfortunately, I could not for the life of me understand how the actions that my daughter described taking had anything to do with the plan she had laid out. It's like she forgot the water aspect entirely. Which was fine with me, I just can't remember it. The way I recall the conclusion is that she ran past a surprised Blackbird and leaped onto the water, creating a massive waterspout that shot up and drenched all of the crows, rendering them helpless as Alien Z rode the waterspout onto the deck of the ship, tapped a dazed Blackbird on the shoulder, and cold-cocked her when she turned around. Because that's more along the lines of what my daughter had said she was going to do, and that was beyond awesome.

There was no denouement, as it was time for pajamas and teeth brushing. But I was really happy with the visuals of the two final coup de grace moments, which would have looked great on a splash page or in one of the DC animated cartoons.

Much happier with this game session. If we started it earlier and perhaps took a break in the middle, we could get a could couple hours of fun. The rules are pretty simple and the tricks, particularly their limited resource nature, added some fun. My son seemed to have the best grasp of the rules, which I had to explain a couple of times to my daughter. She had the better focus on the game itself and contributed pretty much all of their clever dialogue.

My daughter tends to want to control the story more than the interactive format allows, especially as she's not the GM. The oddest aspect of this is that she keeps trying to hold the non-player-character's side of the conversation, talking back and forth with herself. On the other hand, she's getting better at thinking up stuff to do and tends to keep the action moving, which is a critical skill and much appreciated. My son has the attention span you'd expect of a six-year-old but also the associated enthusiasm when things go very well or very poorly. Basically great success or disaster got him equally thrilled and anything in the middle lost his interest fairly quickly. I also need to learn to hide the box of Heroclix when we are actually playing!

I think if I have just a little more fleshed out in terms of options (which wouldn't take long) so the kids could have more freeform choices (which I need to be willing to accept no matter how odd), and I figure out some ways to nudge them more gently into getting moving/doing, and they get more of the hang of how roleplaying games work (or narrative--you'd think that with all the animated adventures they watch, they'd recognize cliches and plot points more easily, but that just isn't natural connection for them), that they we will all continue to have fun.

I'm very happy that they gave me a second chance and that they did such a good job of being creative and fun, and I told them that.

Monday, January 26, 2009

Latest Episode of 24

The new season of 24 has some interesting ideas, but overall is losing my interest fast.

Part of the problem is that the themes are getting repetitive:
  • The government is corrupted at high levels
  • The President has no loyal people in his/her own cabinet (why the hell were these people appointed to their positions--you're telling me most cabinets aren't half-filled with yes men and women)
  • A new flavor of terrorism (cyberterrorism) is being used, but I'm pretty sure they've done variations on this before
But my biggest complaint is that there's a huge hole in the logic of the response to the terrorist threat this time.

The terrorists have identified themselves ahead of time, quite clearly. And they aren't some amorphous collection of terrorist cells spread around the globe. They're the leadership of a sovereign nation.

And AFTER they launch an attack on American soil against American citizens that kills hundreds, the government (aside from the President) wants to pull back a US military force that is ALREADY IN POSITION to invade the country in question and overthrow its government, giving in to the demands of the terrorists.

The President reacts to this with an appeal to the moral values of America. If we don't overthrow this terrible government, many innocent African people will die.

This is what is known as a "straw man argument." It's the weakest possible case the President could make.

Let's review: the leaders of another country have attacked the United States and killed U.S. citizens. There's a bona fide smoking gun. They have the power to kill more of us at their discretion. And the response of a majority of the policy makers is to give in?

That's idiotic and completely unrealistic. Let's go over the stupid assumptions:
  1. The American people will be more upset that a President allowed a terrorist attack to occur by not giving in to terrorist demands than they will be outraged when they find out that WE KNEW WHO THE PERPETRATORS WERE AND DID NOT RETALIATE. That's as bad a misreading of the American psyche as I can imagine, and no American politician would fall for it in the short term. Remember, this show takes place in 24 hours. We may not have the stomach for sustained conflict, but we are also far from likely to turn the other cheek when under attack. And remember, THE TROOPS ARE ALREADY IN PLACE. We would retaliate immediately. Only after repeated successful terrorist attacks would we think about backing down. Anything else would be political suicide.
  2. The proposed invasion is pointless because without the support of a certain African leader now held by the terrorists, no stable regime could be put into place to replace the deposed evil dictator. WHO GIVES A CRAP?! Remember, the leadership of this nation has attacked the US, killed Americans, and threatens to do it again. US leaders would not give a damn who replaced the current dictator, as long as those who did understood very clearly that they would never, ever, attack the United States again.
  3. Somehow we would let someone walk around with this secret cyberweapon to use against us and assume that if we met this one particular demand, they'd be totally satisfied. Really? Our assumption wouldn't be that they'd use this power against us again? Or to get more leverage on other political decisions? Because obviously we'd be rushing as fast as possible to plug the loophole making us vulnerable. Either we can't do that in a timely fashion, in which case we are vulnerable for possible a year or more, just trusting that we won't be threatened again. OR we can fix it in a timely fashion, in which case what are the conceivable odds that we wouldn't retaliate against the dictator's government once we thought our Achilles heel was fixed?
But let's not leave out the stupidity of the entire terrorist plot against the United States:
  • The ridiculousness of the secret cyberweapon that somehow penetrates all government firewalls and grants access to all of our infrastructure. As if everything, all the power plants, air traffic control systems, all of it were somehow magically unified by the fact that it all runs on computers.
  • The goal of the terrorists makes no sense. They don't want the United States to overthrow their government. To prevent an invasion, they threaten an attack at a weak point. Okay, that gives them some leverage until they launch the actual attack. At which point we're at war. It's not like this is a major enemy power with a big military we're talking about. It's an African country. That we don't care about that much. Remember how we actually had a lot of international support for blowing the shit out of the Taliban in Afghanistan, before we got sidetracked? It would be the same thing among the developed nations. It's clear that this dictator is seen as a genocidal war criminal. So if this dictator wants to prevent US action, attacking the United States is the stupidest possible tactic to take, the one most likely to galvanize US and global public opinion toward action and intervention. The smart tactic is to blackmail influential US leaders. Al-Qaeda launched the Sept. 11 attacks because they wanted to punish us. They had no particular expressed, realistic goal of getting us to leave any particular regime alone. The kind of attack being launched works only if the US doesn't know who did it or has no way of striking back. As shown, we might not be able to stop their attacks, but we surely can launch our own.
  • We're supposed to believe that enough high-ranking politicians are in the tank to an African nation that smuggles diamonds that they're willing to betray the United States even after it is attacked. Before we're attacked, okay, I can almost stretch my credulity far enough. But once Americans are being killed? Really? The huge American diamond conglomerates have that much influence? Big oil I could believe. Diamonds are a stretch.

I'm really not sure if I can sit through the rest of the series.