Tuesday, August 7, 2018

RPG Review: Simple Superheroes

Simple Superheroes RPG
This is a review of the portable document format (PDF) of Simple Superheroes, undoubtedly a superhero themed role-playing game (RPG). Published and written by Joshua John Kitz of Compose Dream Games. Simple Superheroes is available online at the RPG Market Place (composedreamgames.com/marketplace) and my new favorite seller site, Indie Press Revolution (indiepressrevolution.com) in print as well as PDF. Compose Dream Games is a small indie publisher, which brought this RPG to life via Kickstarter at just over $4K internet bucks. Simple Superheroes was provided by the publisher free of charge, for the purpose of this review.

Disclosure: This review includes some affiliate links and references.

I’ve been reading over a lot of superhero RPGs lately. My live group is making a push for an alternative game and superhero RPGs are at the top of the pile. I blame Marvel Studios. My player group (of gentlemen grognard scholars) started with Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, but when the original Dungeon Master bowed out, and I couldn’t sell them on HackMaster 5e (which is why I’m not in sales), we reverted to yours truly running a hack of Dungeons & Dragons (D&D) Basic. Personally, D&D Basic is my favorite for obvious reasons, simplicity. So, three such (simple) superhero themed RPGs are at the top of my reviewer slush pile and will most likely serve the purpose for our fill-in game. These are: Save the Day by Okum Art Games, OneDice Supers by Cakebread & Walton (reviewed for EN World here) and this very title, which is about to come under review.

Simple Superheroes features a unique system and via character creation is a bit of a sandbox. There are also some optional features in the rules as well, which push it a bit away from its simple theme and I suspect the author is a fellow number cruncher at heart. Honestly, I don’t mind sandbox elements, as long as the writing does the job of defining the elements for use within said RPG. While many gamers have different ideas of what is a sandbox is, mine are as follows. A sandbox has a box. A written framework, while the “sand” should consists of the ideas, which fill the box and like sand, should be plentiful, but because of the box, not overflowing. Even a decently framed sandbox, is usually the opposite of simple, because sandboxes are meant to cultivate ideas, rather than limit or streamline them. I’m not saying a simple sandbox is impossible, but I’m getting off track and I’ll leave that thought for the conclusion…

As far as its Sandbox elements, Simple Superheroes does this pretty well. The author defines the framework and is none too shy with examples which help color this in. Owing to simple, the book starts out with Character Creation, defined in brief within one page, The Rules defined in one page. And one page, which features Options and Special Actions. This organization is a bit disorderly to what is usually common clicking off the first few pages, but as a rough guide to the system/game itself, it’s decently presented while at the same time, will serve as a useful reference point for new players.

Character creation is anything but straightforward, yet is well defined. The most important and crunchiest aspect of this is selecting an Array. The choices which determine the type of superhero character being created are Well-Rounded, Standard or Focused. Each Array has a specific number of Talent Ranks and Relation Ranks, which will correspond to how many dice, are rolled when a specific talent/superpower/skill is performed. Well-Rounded characters will have a broader Array of Talents with more utility with Standard being the medium, and Focused characters… Being well, more focused!

Players and GMs will essentially be defining each character’s superpowers (Talents) as well as the overall superhero type, from scratch. In Chapter 3: Powers and Common Foes, there is a respectable amount of detail provided to assist with this process. Most information is based on what you’ll find familiar in superhero fiction, but the writer translates these ideas for the purpose of a RPG, without being reliant on other IPs. A collection of guidelines and tables, round this section out, providing a good starting point for how the ranks of superpowers or Talents apply.

 In place of alignment or disposition common to most RPGs, Simple Superheroes builds character personality through two short sections: Relations and Values; Description and Weaknesses. These elements are presented in brief, but mostly encourage players to create concepts or description(s) which will outline their superheroes history, personality, faults and flaws. I’ll let Relations and Values sections, speak for it-selves:

“Relations can be to a person, place, thing, activity or even a Value. The rank reflects the relative importance that your character places on each Relation. Relations are not meant to be used between player characters. They represent how much your character cares about something, not how much someone else is willing to help your character.” (PG 12)

 “…Heroes can take a VALUE instead of a Relation. A Value is a tenet, precept or belief that the hero cherishes and upholds. Because Values tend to be broader than Relations, a hero should only get to roll a Value once per session.” (PG 12-13)

I like what is presented in these sections. Ode to building character for a character’s sake, always gets a nod in my book, as it doesn’t delve into the pitfalls of alignment for a superhero themed RPG. What can I say? A superhero is always the good guy so time is usually better spent developing a backstory. This might be a personal hang-up of mine (in regards to superhero RPGs which focus on alignment), so let’s talk a bit about the system, while I contemplate that.

Simple Superheroes is a dice pool system, which utilizes d6. When characters are using a power or skill and need to resolve a conflict, the number of dice rolled is expressed by the Array Rank of the relevant Talent. For instance, if the player selected the focused Array, one of their powers will start with a rank of 5. If that power is say… super strength, they will roll 5d6 to determine if their task (using super strength) is successful. Like any dice pool the GM sets the difficulty, or the amount of successes required, which in Simple Superheroes a basic success is any die with a result of 3 or higher.

Except, the game also allows the GM to increase the difficulty, by raising the number of individual die as well, such as instead of a success being a 3 it might be a 4 or higher. Unfortunately, while this idea had my RPG mechanic-gear works turning, beyond a few play examples the idea (a good one mind you) doesn’t fully expressive itself. I found myself re-reading over sections just looking for it, doing key phrase searches… It also doesn’t keep to the simple theme, so perhaps this is why the idea isn’t further explored, but this also leaves me to wonder why it was included at all.

This Review Featured in KoDT #246
The true gems of this product are among some of the Game Master (GM) sections. My favorite was a simple questioner with the section Building Your City, which engages the GM to fill in some of the more mundane details of the city setting. Admittedly, this is something I do, when the city itself is important to the campaign or in the least, the player characters will be returning. Details are important for the backdrop of a mundane setting (as well as for the GM to know and create ideas on the fly) and I was delighted to add a few of the author’s questions to my own series. Also as to the GM sections, there is a nice presentation on conflict and how to use it, as well as a short collection of adventure hooks and pre-made superheroes, both of which should assist in getting the dice rolling.

The PDF upon my screen features black and white illustrations and is mere 119 pages cover to cover. Honestly, it reads a lot bigger than it is and much of it speaks not only to running this game, but superhero RPGs in general. The writing is in (RPG) standard double column format, which includes hyperlink references throughout text as well as The Table of Contents. I’m really starting to appreciate publishers who include this as a feature. It makes the material much more searchable and certainly assists with ease of comprehension in regards to new players and aided with this review.

Overall, this is a decent product. If I had to make a choice based on the layout, I would certainly recommend the PDF, rather than the dead tree version. The search-ability of the PDF is a plus, while the layout in book without digital tools leave a bit to be desired. Despite not liking the layout, the writing has craft in spots and the GM sections are articulated very well. In the download section over at Compose Dreams Games (composedreamgames.com) you can get a better idea with five page sample (here) of what Simple Superheroes free, by downloading The Heart of Simple Superheroes.

While no doubt, there are certainly easier systems I can only think of very few which have also attempted to merge the concept(s) of simple and sandbox. While I wouldn’t say the authors attempt is a complete success, I certainly do think the game has achieved a medium between the two and might provide some nice variation from your old RPG, go to systems. This product is worth a look if your player group likes creating their own superpowers and needless to say, especially if you are in the market for a superhero RPG.

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