It was with trepidation that I opened Deadly Fusion. What a terrible cover. Unremembered, unloved, seemingly unread and unreviewed, and not even having DC Heroes’ usual snappy trade-dress, that terrible cover-art it looks doubly off-brand. Was this review just going to be a string of jokes?
It was not. Despite everything, Deadly Fusion turns out to be a really interesting module, and I’d hope to see more things like it or inspired by it.
Like TSR did with their Marvel game Mayfair seems to have decided to let their superhero adventure modules be a place where designers got to experiment with mutant formats and ideas. When you look at old fantasy, horror and sci-fi adventures you see the beginnings of things we still see all the time today—normal scene-chains (sometimes expanding into scene webs), and location-based sandboxes. This isn’t one of those. Like Marvel’s Secret Wars and Nightmares of Futures Past, Deadly Fusion spawned no descendants, and that’s a shame.
New adventure formats are rare, and not enough people complain about it.
Deadly Fusion is called a “match play” and what that means is it’s for two people who both take the role of player sometimes and GM sometimes, specifically here:
-Using one of two books, one player GM’s the other player—as Batman—going through some scenes in Gotham City investigating a plot which eventually leads to the Joker.
-These scenes alternate (every two or three) with the Batman player acting as GM (using the other book) to get Superman through some scenes in Metropolis investigating a plot which eventually leads to Lex Luthor.
-That's most of the adventure. But then for the last section both players then stop and begin reading: the two separate books become separate Choose Your Own Adventure style books with paragraphs ending in choices for their respective characters—you go to the numbered paragraph and read the next thing—with the possibility of skill checks and fights along the way.
-Then the characters (and their players) re-unite fight or talk or both, and then make some decisions together, then finish the Choose Your Own Adventure thing to see what happens.
It’s super weird, and not perfect—especially the end—but surprisingly well-done. The whole thing is enabled by a few interesting techniques:
-First: limiting information. The two-book format, the investigation structure, plus the fact that the two investigations are separate for most of the game gets rid of the problem of the GM-player’s metaknowledge getting in the way of being fair. The Batman character doesn’t have enough information to figure out anything about Batman’s mystery while reading Superman’s and vice versa. The game doesn’t quite stick the landing at the end but it offers some intriguing tools which could’ve probably been leveraged to do it, which we’ll see below.
-Using superheroes. Superheroes don’t much sandbox: if Lois is in trouble, you go save Lois. This allows the GM to be sure that if the PC survives, they’re going to get to the next scene eventually without too many railroad nurses or nudges.
-Using specific characters: Both of these scenarios wouldn’t work if you had a PC with telepathy, but, no: you have Superman, you have Batman. This allows the creation of very specific scenes and challenges and for the game designer to anticipate—with a fair degree of certainty—the range of outcomes. It also has some fun side-effects, as we’ll see.
You can start to see right away some of the barriers to this kind of adventure catching on, the main one being: this isn’t the kind of writing that can arise organically from normal RPG play. Unlike a typical adventure module or even a ruleset, this kind of match-play requires one person to set it up—including dropping in hidden information for both sides—and then to hand it over to two other people and not participate at all in the resulting game. It has to be a product. It isn’t the kind of thing that’s just an extension of what a GM might make at home for their own campaign.
Also: it’s not re-usable. You play once and pretty much it’s used up. And it requires two GMs. I think in the internet era, however, this could be a very good fit for, say, two RPG internet friends to play on Zoom.
So, the details:
-Great scene: Batman has to interrogate a pawn shop guy behind bullet-proof glass named Gus Rogers. Gus isn’t especially crooked but he thinks Batman’s an idiot and makes fun of him, which seems like a fun thing to roleplay. When the scene gets to the breaking point, Gus runs off, if Batman pursues him he ends up in Crime Alley and has to deal with a My Parents Are Dead flashback. This is the kind of thing you can only do if you are playing an established character and the module really plays it for all it’s worth.
-When Batman gets to the docks ““straddling the littered sidewalks, overweight sailors seasoned with equal parts saltwater and rum, stagger about and decry their sorry plights” then ask batman for a drink. If he gets rough he has to fight
-Because he actually isn’t the villain behind everything, when Batman meets the Joker the Joker’s confused and thinks he’s been drugged and taken to the Batcave. This is a good way to make the Batman player interact with the Joker instead of just immediately punch him.
-The real villain in the end is Brainiac—who wants to blow up Metropolis and Gotham. In the final scenes, if Batman or Superman loses their fight to Luthor or the Joker, then the player takes over Luthor or the Joker and they have to foil Brainiac, because their city is at risk, too—I love that.
-After explaining the format, both the “Batman” and “Superman” books start with a fake article about getting energy from cold fusion and shouldn’t. There’s no reason the GM needs this information and I can see it spoiling some surprises and challenges for them when they take on the player role—I wonder if someone higher-up asked for this to be put in at the last minute to make it easier to understand the technological plot points that come up later
-They also have a page up front saying what the hero knows about the other hero and about The Joker and Lex Luthor. Like the fake article, I don’t think this serves much purpose except to tip the module’s hand as to who the villains are, but y’know, LotFP hadn’t invented profit-share-modules yet so a freelancer’s gotta hit that word count. (The author's read Dark Knight Returns--Batman thinks Superman’s “patriotism prevents him from making the most of his abilities”.)
-There’s also a place to “Use this section to (secretly) mark your answer to the offer made to you by the Joker/Luthor during Encounter Eight” —to keep it secret from the other player/GM. Nice idea, it shouldn’t be in this part of the book because, again, tipping the module’s hand. You don’t need to know you;ll meet the Joker or Luthor this early.
-A lot of indulging in that mainstream RPG vice: endless statblocks for normal people. Lois Lane has an Aura of 2. Did you know that? I like this bit
Most notable about Lois are the conflicting aspects of her remarkably resourceful intelligence and her unerring ability to fall directly into deadly criminal schemes.
Also I don’t completely remember what "Aura" is but it has something to do with personality and mystical oomph I am 100% sure Lois has more of it than fucking Jimmy Olsen. Also featured: Cat Grant (who I, who have read almost all comic books, barely have heard of), Margaret Sawyer (who I have never heard of) and Officer William Henderson (ditto). They each get a column of descriptions to themselves but no picture at all, which seems like the opposite of what you’d want had anyone but the writer given a fuck about this module. A lot of the personality information they’re trying to get across so the GM could role-play them could’ve been gotten across in one picture or—better yet—a comic panel where they’re saying some characteristic catch-phrase
-They do some railroading they could very easily have avoided. They basically offer nursing and nudging options to get PCs to move to the next scene, but since DC Heroes offers xp for all kinds of things, the module could easily make it like “If the player correctly follows the clue, they get Hero Points, if Jimmy Olsen has to point it out to them, they don’t”. You lose something for not solving the challenge, but it doesn’t affect the module’s ability to take you to one of the next scenes. Since this is primarily a superhero game (so about role-playing and fights) rather than a detective game (about the convolutions of solving or not solving various riddles on time), and it obviously requires the two players to submit to the unusual format in order to be playable, I think this is a good compromise. Also: Hero Points are a spendable xp stat, so if you don’t solve shit yourself, it does legitimately affect your game later, which is nice, without having to write an endlessly branching octopus module to account for every twist the story might take.
-The Choose-Your-Own Adventure doesn’t quite work. Obviously it’s less fun to have the two friends, after having been talking to each other throughout the game, have to go off separately and do homework—and, more than that, the choices they have to make don’t really offer an interesting range of options or involvement with the mechanics. However, it really seems like some of what they did with each player having information the other didn’t could have been used in another way to make a more interesting and surprising climax. The cover shows Superman and Batman about to fight—which they probably won’t—but I think it would’ve been worth railroading the heroes into fighting if they could’ve made it into an interesting wargame with some secret info on both sides. Or, better yet, ended with them both fighting something that has pre-programmed surprise moves like "In round three, whoever last interacted with Brainiac gets their brain transferred into a pig" etc.
-In Batman’s endless statblock, perhaps as a deliberate choice, Batman is not carrying “omnigadgets” as he is in the normal DC Heroes rules from this era. Omni-gadgets are a (great) catch-all rule which allow gadgeteering characters to pull out until-then-unexpected pieces of equipment like shark repellent, which is pretty true to the genre. It makes sense that for this adventure, what Batman’s carrying is standardized, like: this is what you have to work with on this day in Gotham. There are also traces of DC Heroes designer Ray Winninger’s maniacal “quantify fucking everything in rules terms” ethos with Batman’s miniature camera described as having the “Recall” power at 3 with the limitation “Only Recalls visual information” instead of just saying it’s a fucking camera. The cassette recorder has Recall: 10 for some reason.
This is clearly a Batman influenced by the Dark Knight Returns era, described as “…a callous and obsessive veteran of a dark and malignant war”.
-Superman’s statblock: No super-ventriloquism it’s a cover-up.
-Information on what Superman knows about the Joker, Luthor and Batman (“as ruthless and violent as any proclaimed hero to have ever lived” which seems a little extreme considering Superman lives in a world where Lobo and Brainiac’s son have had their own comic book for a year, but whatever).
-Joker— Motivation: Psychopath. Occupation: Psychopath
-Commisioner Gordon is only one point tougher than Jimmy Olsen I call bullshit.
-Now the adventure begins with the Superman player GMing the Batman player as Bruce Wayne in the mansion: You see the bat-signal but also, to let you know about a separate incident, Alfred tells you that he saw one of the alert buttons blinking while he was dusting the Batcave. Is that really how that works?
-The map of Gotham City (above) does not look like any map of Gotham City I’ve ever seen.The current canonical map—which looks like Manhattan only fat and drunk—was drawn, I think, by Eliot R Brown (the guy who did the technical drawings in DC Who’s Who and Marvel’s OHOTMU as well as all those Punisher comic pages where it’s just pictures and technical specs of his guns) for the No Man’s Land storyline.
The current canonical Metropolis looks like Manhattan sideways and, likewise, does not look like the Metropolis in this book.
-The read-aloud text is very purple.
Superman: “The city is a beacon of hope to the teeming millions, representing all that is good and true of the American dream.”
Batman: ““Every single inhabitant of this decaying borough at once envies your strength and hates you for it.” “The store itself reeks of a mingled stench of aged sweat and gun oil.”
I’m going to say something strange: I think the read-aloud text is good in this module. I usually hate read-aloud text but a thing like this where you and a friend pretend to be Batman and Superman is probably best played in a spirit of slightly ironic indulgence (after all, if you play too seriously you just have Batman just call the rest of the Justice League as soon as he sees trouble). Ham it up, read to each other. You don’t have 4 people waiting to start arguing about how to cross the orc moat—I could see it working.
-There’s a minisystem for computer hacking where basically different levels of security have more digits and the better you roll the more of those digits you get for free and the rest you have to guess. It’s a nice idea but the game doesn’t really show why having to brute force the remaining numbers is bad. In theory it’s a time-sink but since, unlike a typical dungeon, the game has no random encounter there’s no particular reason not to say “Ok, I try every digit starting with 1, then every digit starting with 2…”. It would’ve worked fine if they’d put a ticking clock in there.
Now I've said already "Someone should make one of these" and, fine, in writing this I twisted my arm.
I'm getting to work writing and drawing one now. More later.