Monday, September 4, 2017

Superhero '44 :: A retrospective

OVERVIEW

This is a review of the first edition of Superhero 2044 named "Superhero '44" self-published by Donald Saxman.

First Edition.

PUBLICATION

Superhero '44' was written by Donald Saxman [0], based on the ideas of a John Ford whom I think was his DM. The cover art and some interior artwork were rendered by Mike Cagle. It is the apparently the first role-playing game of this genre ever published.[1][2]

HISTORY

I don't have a copy the original rules anymore and I am cribbing notes using my memory and a PDF copy of the second-edition rules.

I purchased the first edition first printing black-and-white spiral-bound version of the Superhero '44 game rules from San Antonio Hobbies store in Mountain View, California in 1977 after visiting it with my cousin who lived in the area at the age of 13. I was intrigued by the artwork on the cover and the promise of a role-playing game set in the superhero genre. Nothing else similar to this existed at the time. I had only recently learned how to play Dungeons and Dragons white-box from attending an after-school gaming club in Milpitas through a classmate.

I had my own group of friends at school and we agreed to try this out. It was during my 7th grade and we wanted to bring the stories and characters from our comic-books to life. Over the course of two years my campaign game of interconnected characters and gaming sessions grew to accommodate about 10 players and perhaps 30 characters. Eventually, after playing the setting from 7th grade until 12th grade, I began to home-brew the rules to introduce concepts of later RPG designs such as Villains and Vigilantes and Champions.

When I returned from the USMC, I continued to expand upon the original setting to become my own and wound up with about 200 original characters, and an immense game universe which serves as the foundation of all of my game designs including MEST.

I stopped playing in the superhero genre and retired the home-brew after 10 years (7 + 3 year gap) of effort.

OLD-SCHOOL GAMING

Superhero '44 was old-school gaming. It had lots of ideas as a gaming kit, but very little in terms of a proper setting. However, there were some basic structures which I think were very nice and help ground my thinking. [3][4][12][13].

Constraints

  1. The game requires at least one player acting as the Referee, and at least one player with at least one superhero character.
  2. The game has no explicit rule against playing super-villains, but this would need to be house-ruled to make the concept fit within the setting and game structure.
  3. The game could be played solo using just the Activity Board aspect of the Patrol feature (see below) but it wouldn't be very exciting.

Quick Review

Rules Formatting - Terrible
Rules Organization - Terrible
Rules Clarity - Terrible
Art Quality - Terrible

Actually the artwork was good for Mike Cagle, bad for all others.  An overall B for the time; better than the original illustrations provided within TSR's white-box D&D or GDW Traveller.

Inguria at 1-KM per hex scale.
SETTING

Around the year 2044 the island of Inguria (Shanter Island) exists as the home of many prominent scientists and researchers, including numerous costumed heroes and villains. Presumably it is an island nation which is a part of a larger common wealth of islands within the South Pacific regions near Micronesia. When I played this game I never got a chance to purchase or review the expanded settings available via Judge's Guild's Hazard play-aide [5], and I never was able to peek into the second edition printing [6]. So no comment for those!

Some really cool ideas for technologies, culture, history, and locations introduced within the game setting:

Technologies

  1. Inguria is a small island nation which embraces green-energy. It receives solar power beamed from geostationary satellites, and a lava-powered convection wand power-station situated north of the island near its newly dormant volcano. It also has people movers which are these high-speed moving sidewalks (via Isaac Asimov).
  2. Science has advanced tremendously from the time of publication (1977) to the time of the setting (2044). In those 70 years there's been continued advances in micro-miniaturization and in genetics manipulation. Energy technologies have advanced enough to make laser weapons man-portable.
  3. Pseudo-dollars (PD) the precursor to today's crypto-currency which allowed secure exchanges of monies between any two entities. There wasn't the concept of Cloud Computing at the time of the writing and so these exchanges were using some sort of advanced electronics with transactions being kept in separate ledgers; at the personal level or at the bank. Both were susceptible to loss due to electronics failure.
  4. One of the really cool interior art pictures was the "Astrotank!" which was a flying tank with
    Astrotanks are Go!
    short swept wings. At the time of its writing very few Japanese animations were available in the USA, be it military or otherwise. I'm not even sure if the idea came from GDW's Traveller game. Regardless, it was a very small drawing but very exciting to me.
  5. The rules do include lists of weapons and general equipment. The weapons are rated according to damage, bonuses, or penalties they create for when using them or when attacked by them. The equipment list in both the first and second edition rules were just itemizations with costs; there were no paragraphs or rules associated with them.

    For example, an item available for purchase "Voice Stress Analyzer" for 1200 PD but what it means or what is does is up to the interpretation of the Referee and the players. Remember that this is back in 1977 AD; there was no Internet (post-DARPANet), no Google nor Bing search engine, If you wanted an answer you had to either already have an inkling, know somebody that does, or do some research at a library the old-fashioned way by checking out niche books and reading them.

Culture

An inspirational Sci-Pol image.
  1. The Science Police [7]; a force of law-and-order-and-science derived from DC Comic's Legion of Superheroes or maybe from Judge Dredd via 2000 AD comics.
  2. The game setting puts a strong focus on patrols, crime encounters, and prosecution by (hand-waved) law. This really grounds the genre into street-level supers. As a superhero fan, this sort of brings the character powers in-line with early 1960's Silver Age of comic-book superheroes [8].  Therefore power levels are somewhere between DC Comic's The Batman or Green Arrow, or Marvel Comic's Spider-man or Iron Man.
  3. Heroes are one of three origins; Ubermensch are top athletes who are trained assassins or fighters. Toolmasters which invent, combine, or engineer advanced technologies. And uniques which are allowed to be nearly anything else but likely have an origin in science or magic.

History

  1. Formians of Fomalhaut were an advanced-science extra-terrestrial species which brought new-fangled technologies with them after being rescued by the Inguria's former superheroes, now deceased. These lived in protective enclaves and worked with the Ingurian government.
  2. Several side-panel arts featured rumors about a Dr. Ruby whom was involved a crisis which destroyed Hendrix Island and killed (or made disappear) many of the original superheroes which protected the island nation as part of the Freedom League.
  3. Lastly, there is an android named Mr. Banta who runs a junk shop giving away bag-loads of old technology rummaged from those prior superheroes, and probably acquired from other places as well. Those black bags were a way to introduced interesting stories or technology or magicks to assist player characters over the course of their campaign.
NOTE: It appears after reading up on Thoul's Paradise that Donald Saxman declares Formians as a relatively low-tech planet.

Locations

  1. A map of Inguria is provided at the 1-hex is 1 kilometer scale. This was nice reinforcement of what was at the time (the 1970's) an introduction of the metric system.
  2. Smaller maps of Bloomberg and its down-town area were provided as well using a 500-meter and 250-meter scale.
  3. Several notable buildings and institutions and their purpose or relevance were identified such as the Koln Institute Alumni ("KIA") for training Ubermensch, or UniqueX for research and training of Uniques.
  4. About 3 dozen locations are labeled on the maps with choice names such as "Meady Swamp", or "Inguria Penitentiary" without much explanation as to their structure, policies, or use. This was fine by me as it allowed room for creativity.

STRUCTURE

Superhero '44 is structured to be played at two different scopes; at the tabletop via Handicapping Scenarios and during down-time using the Activity Board. This combination results in an interesting game-play structure and my cadre of players did it all for nearly 2 years across 20-30 weeks before moving forward with my home brew which dropped the Activity Board.

A copy of the original player sheet with the Activity board at the bottom.
Activity Board

All characters are presumed to be nascent heroes learning to climb the ladder to fame and fortune. It doesn't matter if they are Ubermensch, Toolmasters, or Uniques; they all must patrol the streets and districts of Inguria to fight crime, gather wealth, and pursue training or research.

This is done by requiring players to submit a worksheet in the form on planned activities for each game week. It is presumed that each real week of time correlates to one game week. From what I read, this feature is similar to what appeared within GDW's En Garde published in 1975 AD [9].
  1. The Activity Board shows an entire week in 6-hour Blocks starting on Monday and ending on Sunday. There are 4 Blocks (Morning, Afternoon, Evening, and Night) each day for 7 days. The first Block is 8 AM until 2 PM, then 2 PM until 8 PM, 8 PM until 2 AM, then 2 AM until 8 AM.
  2. Activities for each Block are to be described by the players for each of their characters. Sample activities are Patrol, School, Practice, Research, Rest, or Other. If two or more characters are to meet together for some event their player's are to write in that they'll meet at a given Block of time.
  3. Patrolling as an activity is covered below. The remainder activities are primarily used as character improvement Blocks. School, Practice, and Research all generate increments to long-term goals of getting 10, 20, or more Blocks of time to increase a acquire a skill, increase a skill, or invent/build/uncover a technology or clue. Rest is meant for recovery from injury of any form, and Other is whichever the player and Referee agree. Perhaps attend an inauguration or stakeout a specific criminal.
  4. Characters can be employed and have a job which generates a salary. These require 5 or more Blocks dedicated to that activity written presumably as Job for whichever employer was necessary. Taxes, food, insurance, and housing costs are all deductions from the income stream provided by the salary. Taxes are specifically 10% across the board and no tax evasion loopholes are provided.

Patrolling

The Referee is supposed to follow several steps for each character, figure out the "patrol results" for each character. As a young person with a home computer (Radio Shack TRS-80 Level II)[10] I was able to write a small script which helped me quickly figure out which players were where at what time. I needed this because at one point I had something like 10 players in the game as my campaign progressed. 
  1. A map of Inguria showing its named Patrol Areas is provided. Each Patrol Area has its own
    The various patrol areas on Inguria.
    Crime Frequency table entry which with a roll of a D100 generates a Crime Index value of 1-32.  For example; the Government Area consisting of the capital city of Bloomberg has a high incidence of #1 Assassinations and #25 Sabotage (8/100 chance each). But the Outback (near the northern jungles of the island) has mostly #18 Poaching as the principal crime encountered (44/100 chance).
  2. The number of possible crimes encountered is determined by the Crime Density Number which varies from 3 in the City to 0.25 in the Outback. This is multiplied by the number of Blocks with Patrol activity identified on the character's Activity Board. (Actually, it gets a bit more complicated than this, see below for Handicap Scores).
  3. All crimes encountered are resolved in the abstract. The criminals encountered might be stopped before the crime gets committed, but they might avoid capture. If they are captured, they might go to court and not be convicted. Regardless, these may provide leads to future situations which can be resolved as Handicapping scenarios.
  4. The Crime Data Sheet then provides success modifiers for different steps of the crime resolution process for Stop, Capture, Convict, Leads, Damage, and Injury. For example #1 Assassination has a -5 penalty for Stop (stopping the crime) but #18 Poaching is at 0 penalty. However, Assassination is at 0 penalty for Convict (convicting the criminal in court) while Poaching is at -3 penalty.
  5. For all crimes encountered, there is a chance of injury and a degree of reward in terms of pseudo-dollars. For example; Assassination crimes have a relatively low -1 penalty for Injury but a Reward dice of 10 representing 10-60 x 50 pseudo-dollars of reward monies. In contrast, crime #32 Soliciting has a high -4 penalty for Injury but a Reward of just 1. I guess pan-handlers could be dangerous in downtown Bloomberg. 
NOTE: I created a newsletter with those patrol results that had an overview section for the events in the campaign, entries for each character's notable encounters, and clues. I issued the edited patrol results back to each player and mimeographed [11] copy of a blank worksheet for the next week's journal. Players would pass around the newsletter during school hours. Some months I had too much homework, or got sick, or was lazy, and so the patrol results or newsletter would be delayed.

Handicapping Scenarios

In the event that a Patrol Result would lead to a character becoming grievously injured or dead, the Referee with the approval of the player which controls that character may set up a table-top gaming session to resolve it. This is known as a Handicapping Scenario. The Referee could also set up such opportunities for any other reason as well. The first edition rules had very little information as to what to do here, and so I relied upon my white-box D&D familiarity to generate those sessions, which I did at least once a month during school months and at least once a week during summer breaks.

The second edition rules provide more instructions as to what to include in those sessions such as how many bad guys, what kinds, and how they are armed. Furthermore, the second edition rules make known that "Deathtrap Scenarios" could be set up to drive character progression. Regardless, the basic purpose of the Handicapping Scenarios were to give an opportunity to increase a character's Handicap Scores (see below) which help when deciding the Patrol Results.

CHARACTER DESIGN

Character Types

A character must be one of the three types; Ubermensch, Toolmaster, or Unique.

Ubermensch can be KIA graduates, or have some other history. They must spend at least 1 Block each week Training. They also receive basic package skills in weapons proficiency and basic survival. Even with the second edition rules it is unclear how much each skill or proficiency is to be defined by the Referee or the player.

Toolmasters receive starting equipment, a break-through technology, and some area of expertise related to their powers. The archetype is Marvel comic's Iron Man or perhaps DC Comic's Green Lantern.

Uniques are allowed to have any power conceivable. Magic, psionics, or illusion, or anything else. The rules are completely open as to what those powers may be.

Prime Requisites

Characters are rated in several attributes ("Prime Requisites") using 140 Build Points (BP) assigned to Vigor, Stamina, Endurance, Mentality, Ego, Charisma, Dexterity. The minimum assigned value is 1 and the average is 20 with anything below 10 being penalized during game play.
  • Ubermensch receive +20 Vigor/Stamina/Endurance/Dexterity, and -20 Mentality
  • Toolmasters receive +20 Mentality, and -10 Vigor/Stamina/Endurance
  • Uniques receive +20 Charisma
NOTE: In my house-rules, I allowed for a fourth character type "Normal" which represents civilians; these don't receive a defining ability and were limited to Prime Requisites valued between 15 and 30.

Defining Ability

Lastly, players are to negotiate with the Referee for how to spend 50 BP for defining the character's powers, abilities, and other features. Those 50 BP could be spent on increasing the attributes further, or could be assigned in some other very specifically phrased aspect of the game as agreed with the Referee. I don't remember any character examples in the first-edition rules, but I see that in the second-edition rules are very loose examples for character writeups.

Appolyon has bonuses in "Master of Disguise and Computers", and Avenging Knight receives +100 Vigor and x20 Stamina (against 10 Stamina). Presumably Appolyon would receive benefits to his Handicap Scores (see below) or for Mentality when applied to investigating crime.

Maybe Avenging Knight receives those bonuses to its Prime Reqs but his armor needs to be worn, and might be at risk (during game-play) of not being available more than 50% of the time.

Handicap Scores

All characters are given 8 Handicap scores which are factored into the Patrolling aspect of the game to determine success. These are rated from 10 to 80 and can be increased during game-play after each set of Patrol Results. The first-edition rules weren't very clear on this, but the second edition rules provides for progression. Based upon a re-reading of the second edition rules I think those values should initially set between 2-4 and grow as high as 10 because they are used as multipliers.

Using the Appolyon write-up from above and spending some of its 50 BP; maybe "Master of Disguise" is a +3 to Capture and +2 Stopping and "Computers" is a +4 to Leads and +1 Conviction. I'm not sure what costs I ever assigned to these but a quick house-rule could make each +1 worth maybe 5 BP.

Here's how the Handicap Scores mapped to the modifiers of each criminal encounter identified for the Crime Data Sheet.
  • Stopping > Stop
  • Capture > Capture
  • Conviction > Convict
  • Leads > Leads
  • Damage > Damage
  • Injury > Injury

Location Effectiveness Number

There are two other Handicap Scores; Location and Prevention which work against each other for some reason. Location minus Prevention is used to determine the Location Effectiveness Number (LEF) which is a factor multiplied with a Patrol Area's Crime Density number.

For example, the Outback has a Crime Density of 0.25 while the City has a 3. This normally indicates 0.25 or 3 crimes encountered per Block of Patrol Activity spent. So, 4 Blocks of Patrol during a week will result in 1 encounter in the Outback or 12 encounters in the City.

However, if Location minus Prevention is -9, the LEF is 2/3. And if Location minus Prevention is -6 the LEF is 1/6. It is possible to have an LEF of 0 if Prevention exceeds Location by 7. The average LEF is normally 1/4. This makes the Outback have 0.25 encounters per 4 Blocks and the City have 3 encounters per 4 Blocks. I think I would have resolved that 0.25 encounters value as a chance of a single crime equal to 25% using a D100.

Character Growth

Patrol activities increases a character's Handicap Scores. Assigning Blocks upon an Activity Board for School, Training, and Practice will increase various attributes. Skills, powers, and other things are left mysterious. The rules specifically request that the Referee never identify how a character may improve such things to their players and leave it inspiration. I respect that and it fell in line with the old-school way of doing things.

Really; there were no concepts like Experience Points (XP) acquired for defeating Villain X at 1-to-2 odds. Completely free-form.

CONFLICT RESOLUTION

Prime Requisite Scores

Each of the Prime Reqs is used for a specific conflict resolution feature, and having a low score less than 20 or worse less than 10 brought significant penalties during Handicapping Scenarios.
  • Vigor; the health of the character and susceptibility to illness.
  • Stamina; the athletic ability of the character used for running, holding breath, dodging, and causing damage. 
  • Endurance; resistance to pain and fatigue. 
  • Mentality; the ability to solve puzzles, do research, learn new things, or outwit others.
  • Ego; self-preservation. Resistance to mental, magic, psionic, or psychological attacks.
  • Charisma; the ability to influence others using persuasion, charm, leadership, sexiness.
  • Dexterity; the ability to hit something. Reaction speed, balance, accuracy.

Turn Sequence

Each turn is 10 seconds long with 1-inch at scale equal to 2-meters. It seems that this was designed as a wargame using figurines a la Chainmail. I never used this feature prefering to role-play it out. However, the character with the highest Dexterity score goes first and having 30 or more in that score allows two or more actions.

No rules are provided for how far a character can move with 1 action or how to break ties. I sort of presumed distance of movement each action was equal to Stamina in meters; so 20 Stamina is 20-meters per 10-second Turn.

Kinds of Combat

There are 4 ways; Direct, Projectile, Mental, and Transformation. As an action, a character could perform one of those ways of combat, or of course do something else like help another character or unlock a door or drive a car.  Anyhow;
  1. Direct Physical Attack; hitting or striking with a weapon in hand or with using unarmed combat. 
  2. Projectile Attack; shooting a target at a distance. Or throwing a knife or rock at them. maybe shooting a fire-ball or lightning blast.
  3. Mental Attack; controlling the target's mind, terrorize them, or to create illusions. 
  4. Transformation; altering reality in some way such as making water to ice or changing a target into a chicken using magic. The attack might have limitations according to how the power or ability was defined such that the target must be in range, be visible, or be in touch.

Resolving Combat

Physical and Mental combat are resolved using 3 six-sided dice (3D6) added together and compared against a table to find a target number with the default being 11+. There are lists of modifiers which affect the roll of the dice as well as the attributes used for the combat.
  • Direct Physical Attack; compare Stamina of attacker and defender against the Universal Combat Matrix table to find the target number; the attacker must score that number or higher for success. Upon success, apply the weapon damage to the target. For example, a Sword causes a target to lose 20 Endurance and Vigor but a Fists (untrained) merely cause -5 Endurance.
  • Mental Attack; compare Ego of the attacker and defender against the Universal Combat Matrix. The defender receives bonus Ego for comparison depending on its awareness of the attack and its Mentality attribute.  Find the target number and have the attacker roll the 3D6. Upon success, damage is equal to the definition of the power used during character creation. Presumably there could be mental attacks which reduce attributes temporarily while the conditions of a successful attack (such as fear) are in place. This is never called out in the rules.
Projectile and Transformation attacks are resolved using a different mechanism where a single six-sided die is thrown, then its value modified, and the a second die is thrown to match or exceed that modified value.
  • Projectile Attack; a list of several modifiers are available such as range to the target, dexterity of the shooter, and whether the target has shielding, cover from terrain, or is wearing armor. Upon successfully hitting the target apply the weapon damage. For example, an assault rifle which hits the target with HE shot bullets will penalize it -30 Endurance and -40 Vigor. Whereas if the target were hit by a speargun is is penalized -20 Vigor and -20 Endurance.
  • Transformation Attack; very few modifiers appear here. Humans are +0 to that single first die roll. Formian targets cause +1 to the first score (a penalty), while inanimate objects cause -2 to the first score (it is easier to transform objects). Upon rolling the second die and matching or exceeding that first score, apply the effects of the transformation. So the rock becomes gemstone or the target human becomes a chicken. The degree and duration of the effect are completely negotiable during the design of the Transformation attack power; the rules provide no guidance here.
NOTE: My house-rules show that I altered Projectile and Transformation attacks to use the 3D6 as well.

Injury

The effects of injury as a result of reduce scores in one or more Prime Requisites is described in a couple of charts, but is not complete in effects or depth and breadth of description. I remember house-ruling most of this stuff. The setting allows that death from seemingly fatal injuries is uncommon due to the high technology available, but the characters must be admitted to a hospital or similar facility.
  • Vigor; having 10 or less makes the character incapacitated, wile 4 or less makes the character unable to move and is barely conscious. Unsure what 0 or less does ... death?
  • Stamina; there is no chart for this. I treated it similar to Vigor in regards to penalties.
  • Endurance; having 14 or less is being stunned and disallows attacks and limits the character to a single move action per 10-second Turn. A character is unconscious at 4 or less, and comatose at 0 with brain damage upon reaching a negative number.
  • Mentality; apparently it is just fine to have a low mentality. Nothing is written for a Mentality of zero. 
  • Charisma; no penalties for low or zero Charisma.
  • Ego; no penalties for low or zero Ego. 
  • Dexterity; 5 or less penalizes the single action any character is allowed. 
NOTE: I can see that the second edition rules allow for hit-locations, but I don't remember if that was within the first-edition rules as well. Apparently each body part (head-body-arms-legs) has 50% of Vigor. If any part fell below 10, it becomes incapacitated. Head with 0 Vigor causes death.

PLAYABILITY

How does the game play? I think it did just fine for its time. The setting was able to inspire me to branch from the high-fantasy world of Dungeons and Dragons. The Patrol rules helped provide for a structured down-time for characters and allowed long-term planning. The rules were certainly sparse and spotty in their implementation, but to a creative person they would encourage modification via house rules ... which is what I did. Lots of it.

Would I recommend this game in its original format to anybody today? No; there's just too much missing or let unclear.

SUMMARY

When compared to modern tabletop role-playing games it truly lacks. Many of the other role-playing games published during these early years except for perhaps GDW Traveller (also published in 1977) also lacked polish. It seems now that the rules as written were probably notes quickly captured by the author from some campaign he ran, but having likely no other rule sets written in the modern pattern; everything just became jumbled or described incompletely.

----

Notes

[0] See Donald Saxman's home page at http://www.thesestrangeworlds.com/author.html
[1] Per https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Superhero:_2044 it was the first edition which was black-and-white and known as Superhero '44. It did not have a color cover until after Gamescience games published the second edition as Superhero 2044.
[2] Per http://www.legrog.org/jeux/superhero-2044/superhero-2044-en it was published in January.
[3] See also this review at https://rpggeek.com/thread/1072933/superhero-2044-breakdown
[4] See also this review at http://robertdushay.home.mindspring.com/Museum/Superheroes/S2044revw.html
[5] See archive for Hazard play aide at http://www.museumofplay.org/online-collections/3/68/110.3016
[6] See Superhero 2044 2nd printing at https://www.scribd.com/document/324403481/Gamescience-Superhero-2044-Corebook
[7] See Wikia at http://dc.wikia.com/wiki/Science_Police
[8] See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Silver_Age_of_Comic_Books
[9] See En Garde at Scribd https://www.scribd.com/doc/292247379/GDW-En-Garde
[10] See entry at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/TRS-80
[11] See entry at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mimeograph
[12] See entry at http://www.advanceddungeonsandparenting.com/2014/06/a-history-of-superhero-rpgs-game-by.html
[13] See entry at http://thoulsparadise.blogspot.com/2013/06/