Friday, June 22, 2012

Marvel Two-In One! Cranium-Crushin'-Conversation With Jeff Grubb And Cam Banks Simultaneously!

So we've got Cam Banks again--author of the new Marvel Heroic RPG aaaaaaand Jeff Grubb--the man behind TSR's old Marvel Super Heroes RPG (AKA FASERIP--an acronym for the stats).

It's like having both Human Torches at once…

WARNING:
This conversation contains people being both friendly and happy while talking about two different versions of a game. I don't know how that happened but whatever.

Zak S
Favorite Marvel comic?

Jeff Grubb
The book that got me back into comics was Howard the Duck. My favorite run was the Roger Stern/Paul Smith version of Doctor Strange. Favorite group was the Claremont/Byrne X-Men. Lest I be branded as a grognard - good modern stuff you should be reading - Mark Waid’s Daredevil.

Cam Banks
Avengers, any flavor. I've loved that comic since the earliest days of my Marvel fandom. I occasionally take long X-breaks but always come back to whichever version of Avengers is going.

Zak S
What era were the Avengers in when you started?

Cam
Korvac saga. That was when everyone and anyone was in the team, even the Guardians of the Galaxy. Ms. Marvel, Moondragon, Jocasta... it was awesome.

Zak
Is there a comic you read that you thought "I want my Marvel game to work like this!" or an artist or a writer whose work you thought "This is what we should go for"?

Jeff
You mentioned it in the heading – Marvel Two-in-One, starring the Thing and some low-level hero you’ve never heard of. Mark Gruenwald (who did the great Omniverse ‘zine) was great at running through the Marvel Universe, pulling out small pieces, recreating others, and making linkages that were not there before. I wanted to make a game where you felt comfortable in that universe.

Cam
I am a big fan of Brian Michael Bendis, as is obvious from my choice of events in Basic Game, but I think all of the current Marvel Architects from Matt Fraction to Jonathan Hickman are my inspiration. I'm not dismissing the classic writers of course: gotta love them all. But the current thought leaders at Marvel right now really grease my gears. (Z: Artists?) Oliver Coipel, Stuart Immonen, Art Adams, Paul Pelletier, Davis & Neary from the Excalibur era, John Romita Jr., the list goes on.


Z
FASERIP had the Karma system: you do something good or in-character, you get Karma, you can immediately spend it to change the way the game goes.
Jeff: Did you see this as a new thing or was it just sort of an evolution of the D&D-style level/xp system?

J
The idea of a spendable experience point first showed up for me in Merle Rasmussen’s Top Secret, where you had “Luck Points” you could spend to get out of deathtraps. Karma came out of the fact that, unlike traditional fantasy, Superheroes in an RPG did not have as much of a growth curve (Yes, Superman moved from leaping tall buildings to moving planets around in twenty years, but it wasn’t as if he leveled up). I wanted a reward system that gave a feeling for achievement for the player, and increase their survivability. Spider-Man once beat up a Herald of Galactus. He was just burning Karma at that point.

Z
Cam: Your game is kind of all Karma, in a sense, it's built on a constant economy of getting to do the next thing by doing the last thing right--is that a fair description? Is the old FASERIP Karma system an early ancestor of narrative systems?

C

I think FASERIP was a huge influence on many games that came later, many of them probably don't even realize how much. Even the idea that you could pool Karma together as a team, or it all went away when you broke the unwritten code of super heroes and killed somebody, that's powerful narrative currency.


Z
What are the hardest kinds of things in superhero comics to model in an RPG? Why?

J
Money. The Wealth stat in MSH is a good workaround, but only if you don’t poke at it too hard. This reflects how the comic-book universes handled money. The FF, who had their own building in Manhattan, suddenly go broke, and have to appear in a movie, secretly funded by the Submariner! No one worries about money unless you really have to worry about money (Spider-Man wants to join the FF because he sees it as a steady paycheck). Money is a plot device.

C
One of the hardest things to model to my mind is the discrepancy between heroes. Marvel has this in spades. Black Widow and Wasp and Hawkeye in the same team as Hulk and Thor and Iron Man (who cheats by being rich and smart). I think many games find ways to accommodate this, but Jeff's original MSH and now this one both handle it similarly by saying, "this is how it is. People aren't all on the same level. The game will handle it, trust us." And I think it works.

Z
How does the system handle the big disparity between the power levels? What does it do to make that "ok"?

C
The game limits you to two dice for your total, and one effect die. It means you can have a ton of dice in your pool and it does skew things in your favor, but the swingy big dice and the opportunity rule (when you roll a 1, etc) brings it all in. I think that, plus the fact that the bulk of your datafile is not "power level" stuff, is a narrative equalizer rather than a simulation-type.


Z
Were the Marvel people involved? Or was it just: write something, send it to them, wait for them to send it back?

J
We got a lot of good support from Marvel, from art, information, and support. This was about the time the first OHOTMUs* starting showing up, so they were very interested in sorting out their own history and abilities of their characters.

One thing we really benefitted from was pick-up stat art. I would send out a list of art we needed, they would send someone across the river to the warehouse where they stored all the old art, they would make a stat of the piece, and send it to us. It was great, and allowed us to give the game a strong graphic capability.

C
Marvel was involved right from the beginning when we approached their licensing team and continues to work with us on product lineups and future plans. I work almost every day with a great guy in their publishing department to get all of our content right by them, from continuity and "canon" to whether there's a hyphen in Cape-Killers or not. (There is.)

Z
What's the most memorable superhero game each of you has been involved in as player or GM? What made it stand out?

J
Before MSH, there was Project Marvel Comics, which was my superhero campaign in college. They were the Junior Achievers, a JA branch of the Avengers (this was before the west coast team). They operated at Purdue University and consisted of characters with names like Carl the Firebreather, Big Man of Campus, and Super-Pin, the Pro Bowler of Steel. They were set in the Marvel Universe and at the end of the campaign, they went to New York to fight Spider-Man and meet Mayor Koch. Actually, they MET Spider-Man and ended up FIGHTING Mayor Koch.


C
Years ago I ran a MSH/FASERIP campaign with some original characters using the Days of Future Past modules, there were three of them. I sent the heroes into the dark future of the Sentinels and PRoject: Wideawake. This part of the campaign went for about a year and was so immersive and full of epic stuff (Kang, Immortus, Super Squadron, every mutant ever, etc) that I still remember it well.

Z
Were you using that Steve Winter module with the orange chart? It's a rare example of a superhero sandbox...

C
That's the one, man! Loved it!

Z
Is there a particular story line or set-up (Secret Wars, Civil War, Fall of the Mutants) you think would be particularly fun to play in a game? Why?

J
The X-Men New Mutants in Asgard annuals. (Editor's note: Fuck yeah) It took the characters and put them out of their element. I would be a split-moderation nightmare, but I loved that stuff.

We did do Secret Wars and Secret Wars II. Jim Shooter sent me copies of his hand-written notes to tell me how the thing ended.

C
All three of this year's Events should be a lot of fun to play in, that's actually one of my criteria for picking those. In addition to them, I think playing through Fear Itself or Secret Invasion or any of the other big crossovers would be cool. We're still figuring out which of those to do for next year, but whichever one it is, I'm pretty sure I'd want to play in it!

Z
Any favorites other than the ones slated for publication?

C
I like World War Hulk, I loved the Korvac Saga, loved the Micronauts quest for the Keys of Power, ROM SpaceKnight, the period when the X-Men were based out of Australia. Many good memories. I think they're good for gaming because there's a strong ensemble and room for What If? moments. What if ROM joined the Nova Corps? What if Korvac wiped out the Avengers? That's got bite.

Z
Who was your sort of "test" hero---if you can remember? Like when you were first figuring out the rules and trying to design characters? Or was there a set?

J
For MSH, it was Spider-Man. That dude fought EVERYONE.

C
First two heroes were created were Captain America and Iron Man. John Harper worked up a mock datafile concept really early on and those were the two he picked. Parts of those datafiles are still around today in the Basic Game versions of the characters.

Z
Marvel Heroic is- and Marvel Superheroes originally was- mostly supposed to be about playing the existing Marvel heroes. Do you like that? Who do you like to play? Are there certain situations where that's more fun than others?

J
Original PMC was set in the Marvel Universe, but everyone created a character off random lists of powers. For Basic Marvel, we were asked by the licensor not to put in a detailed character generator, as they wanted people to play their characters. By the time Advanced Marvel came around, the same folk were telling us, whatever we do, we have to have a detailed character generation system.

I like the challenge of creating your own characters within an established universe. The MU has a lot of internal comic-logic rules, and making your vision (or your random handful of superpowers) work is really fun. 

C
I think playing existing heroes is a really big deal. I talk to people who are absolutely sure they would hate playing "somebody else's character" but when they sit down and pick up Spider-Man or Ms. Marvel they have a blast. I think it's like when you're a comics writer and get your big gig on Avengers or X-Men or Fantastic Four. Those are not your characters, but you MAKE them yours. Your spin, your stories, your approach. That's what MHR is all about, with Milestones and XP and so on. I think that's why it's our default.

Z
How do you keep a superhero campaign interesting over the long haul? How does it compare to the D&D 20-level model?

J
The same thing that keeps comics interesting for me - a large universe that takes the players/readers to different challenges in new areas. The original PMC campaign was intended as a one-shot and ended up running a full year at college. MSH support product for that first year swooped through all the major groups and then went out for the independent "Marvel Knight" style operatives.


C
Funny thing about campaigns is that we're perhaps conditioned to want to start one off and then go until we all get sick and tired of it, or our group breaks up and moves apart, or some new game comes along we want to play. I like that Marvel's event model forces something of a limited run with certain characters. You can sandbox it for months and months, and then wrap it up, just like you can on some video game RPGs like Skyrim or Dragon Age. I like the freedom to tool about for a bit, but with the knowledge that there's going to be an end. Milestones in MHR really keep this viable.


Z
I've always thought superhero adventures were some of the easiest to run because once you pick a villain 75% of your work is done--the fights last a while and take up a decent chunk of a session plus a supervillain often sort of is a whole tactical situation in a package, like: "You're fighting a sentinel" is at least 20 minutes of game time right there. Agree? Disagree? Agree but...?

J
If you start with the bad guy, you are not only choosing the skill set for the combat, but the motivation (Wealth! Power! Vengeance!) and the MO (Robbing Banks! Taking over Countries! Making the hero look bad!). I would sometimes start with a MU Stalwart bad guy, or with an archtype of my own. Then I would try to figure out what the cover would look like (since covers were often done well before the story was), and go from there.

C
I think this is equivalent to the ease at which some people can pick a monster out of the Monster Manual and build an adventure around it. So super villains, in many games, are just boss monsters. It's good to string together some kind of coherent plot, obviously. In MHR, we make it pretty easy to drop in an opponent Watcher character, and they come pre-loaded with motivation and personality, too.

Z
When you GM superhero adventures at home, what kind of structure do they have? Is it a few villains who just react to what the players do naturally? Is it an encounter-chain? Do you have set pieces and links? Do you make it up as you go along? Cam--in this case I mean other than the Future Past campaign, naturally.

J
Superheroes, in particular the old school types, are very reactive. They don’t go out and DO so much as they react to bad guys DOING stuff. They are on patrol and spot a mugging. A monster attacks the city. Their headquarters is blown up, or a DNPC (Champions term) gets kidnapped. That puts the first move into the hands of the GM. It can be very villain of the week.

One of the things that comics do that traditional RPGs don’t do is that they move the camera away from the protagonist to the antagonist (and often to the supporting cast). I would often end my sessions with a teaser “Meanwhile” panel, where an armored gauntlet with a big “D” ring would smash down on a monitor and should “Curses! I shall have my vengeance on them! So swears DOOM!”

C
I've always thought of adventures as set-pieces or locations with investigation or causal links between them. When I plan, I don't do much prep, but I do think of one or two scenes I would like to drop in, and I let the players direct a lot of the flow of the story. Sometimes they aren't on top of their game, which is fine, I can pull out a generic scene and use it. But other times their discussion at the table informs me of the sort of thing I could make use of and it makes me look like I had the whole thing planned out.

Z
Anything you guys would like to ask or say to each other before I post this up tomorrow? 

J
To Cam - Congratulations on creating a great game that captures the modern Marvel Universe. I think both comics and games evolve over time, and MH shows that evolution.

C
Thanks Jeff! Jeff is also responsible for some great Dragonlance material, and his mercenary character Vanderjack was so cool I ended up writing a novel about him. 




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*
Official Handbooks To The Marvel Universe--those are superhero encyclopedias, natch!
--Zero-Ambiguity Zak

11 comments:

  1. I love that cover, but I always thought Spider-Man would make a poor bludgeoning weapon, espicially against the Thing.

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    1. In marvel heroic I believe he is an Asset which can Stress the Thing by freaking him out in the middle of combat by hurtling toward his rock-hard hide . In FASERIP "A character using a blunt weapon inflicts up to that item's material strength; if the material strength of the item is greater than the Strength rank of the user, the user's Strength rank is increased to the lowest value of the next rank for damage. Aunt May (Feeble Strength) uses a lead pipe (Excellent material) in the drawing room on Col. Mustard. Aunt May would inflict two points damage normally, but inflicts three points (minimum damage of next higher rank) instead. Daredevil (Good Strength) using the same lead pipe would inflict 16 points damage (minimum damage of next higher rank), and the Thing (Monstrous Strength) would inflict Excellent damage (20 points). (That is why Ban Grimm does not normally use lead pipes in combat -- when he uses a blunt weapon, its purpose is usually to reach a non-adjacent target, and he has a preference for lightpoles.)"

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    2. The No-Prize-esque explanations in the MSH rules text are things of beauty.

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    3. I guess Thanos is a narrative guy instead of a min-maxer then. He is kind of a ham.

      Man, I'm sad I was a bit young to get into MSH when it was first coming out - but at least I've started reading it now thanks to all the positive buzz.

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  2. Lets me second that , the old FASE version of marvel was one of the best things to come out of TSR since AD&D debuted . The FASERIP setup was perfect for teaching anyone how to play and for creating characters who are neigh impossible to describe in other (point based) systems. I loved getting to hear about the origin story for the game.

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    1. I'm a writer of novels and comics and if I need a new villain I still use FASERIP to this day. Nothing gets the creative juices flowing like randomly rolling up a character and trying to make sense out of a character with Weather Control, Energy Blasts, and a prehensile tail.

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  3. Man, I love Jeff Grubb, and he's totally right about the MTIO stuff that Gruenwald did - the Project Pegasus Saga was a highlight of my childhood-comics reading.

    Great interview, Zak.

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  4. Thanks, Zak. That was the most unexpected, the coolest team-up ever.

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  5. That was cool. I eagerly await part 2!

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  6. great interview zak! i've been running a Classic Marvel (FASERIP) game since 1998 and i'm really looking forward to converting my PCs over to the new Marvel Heroic system. so it was great to see the two minds behind the systems talking about them :)

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