Friday, August 03, 2012

Supercrew Review from Game Cryer





The following very excellent review of the Supercrew was originally published on "Game Cryer" and is reprinted here by kind permission of the author.

*******************

http://gamecryer.com/2009/05/30/the-supercrew/
Posted by Steve Darlington on Saturday, May 30th, 2009

RPGs may have begun their journey with fantasy, but from very early on roleplaying and superheroes have been almost inseparable. After all, roleplaying lets us be like our greatest heroes, and for many of us, comic superheroes are our favorite heroes of all. But as long as there have been superhero RPGs there has been the problem with them: most RPGs work by listing the rules on what people can and can’t do, and superheroes are all about breaking those rules. Various solutions have been presented over the years, but perhaps none so distinctive or so clever as that presented in The Supercrew, a brand new Swedish RPG by Tobias Radesäter. Thanks to the wonders of the modern age it’s available to anyone across the world, in English or the original Swedish, in PDF form or a glossy 30 page print-on-demand comic book thanks to the benevolence of Lulu.com

You read that correctly: the entire RPG is in fact a comic book, in full color and a rather jaunty, fun style. Using such a device is risky but Radesäter is deft enough to make it cute and wry without ever being saccharine or condescending. He’s also a great artist and uses comic panels with great skill. The end result is an RPG that’s not just easy to understand but fun to read and communicates its simple but elegant system more effectively and pleasantly than anything else I’ve ever seen. It helps of course that the system is so simple and elegant, reducing everything to a universal mechanic of pooled six-siders, yet still modeling every superpower you can imagine while providing dramatic and intriguing mechanical results that feed the players’ imagination and drive the story. Just as it’s amazing that such a great RPG can fit into a mere 30 colorful pages, it’s amazing that so much game can arise from such a simple system.

The Supercrew has much in common with other simple, one-mechanic d6 systems like that in Over the Edge or the also-cutely-illustrated Risus. As with both systems, players define their abilities to be whatever they want: what matters is the number of dice you roll. In Supercrew, everyone has just three stats. One is associated with one die, one with two dice and one with three. In superhero terms, the two is your most reliable power, the one is the one you fail at most and the three is the big gun you can only pull out for the big finish or amazing victory. In fact, you can only roll your three dice stat by spending a hero point, which you get for “falling down” (ie being reduced to no hit points) or for using your one die stat. This is akin to Hero Points in Green Ronin’s Mutants & Masterminds, which you can only get for losing a battle or suffering complications.

There’s more subtlety here than just mimicking the pacing of a comic book. Games where you can choose your own stats have always suffered from the problem of expansive definitions: players - no matter how collaborative they try to be - will always try to define their best mechanical powers to be as expansive as possible, so they can roll them as often as possible. There is of course nothing inherently wrong with this: for one thing, it encourages creativity and unique game situations; Risus devotes a major rules section to explaining how the cooking skill could be used to defeat ninjas. What’s great about Supercrew’s mechanic is that it loses none of this creativity but still drives players to use their lesser stats. And it does it without using a scarcity mechanic like Dungeons & Dragons 4th Edition. As long as players are happy to fail, they can keep powering up. This is a beautiful combination of gamist and narrativist mechanics, and one of the few that not only recognizes that players can have both drives simultaneously but caters to both (and in a simple fashion, without the structuralism issues of Wushu).

(There’s also some deep narrative subtlety in choosing your powers. For example, Batman is the world’s greatest detective but in any given story, he usually takes a long time to figure out he’s being set up by the Riddler - and once he does, it’s a an ever-reliable batarang that saves the day. So it might be that his Detective powers would be his one-die stat. Extension work on narrative progression as compared to character power is left to the interested reader.)

It should be said though that failure is rare: a success is any roll of a 4, 5 or 6, and 6s explode, allowing a single roll to generate high successes. This is another elegant mechanic, providing a large range of possibilities and large amounts of information from a really simple dice roll. It is also optional - many situations only need one success to pass. But Supercrew doesn’t rest on its laurels: success count is what it produces and it doesn’t leave them lying around ignored. All tests in the game, no matter what is being done, are based on success counts. Akin to Wushu, Inspectres or skill challenges in 4E, every problem requires a number of successes to solve - but what those successes (and failures) represent is left entirely up to the players and GM (and without demanding one party or another narrate, which is one of the terribly restrictive parts of several indie RPGs like OctaNe and Dust Devils).

The example in the book is stopping the villains from escaping from a bank robbery, a task requiring three successes (from all the heroes). Flying superhero Bullfinch flies up high to see where they are going but rolls zero successes. The player decides that bad guy Fiat Lux clips him with a light ray, knocking him out of the sky. This doesn’t count as actual damage however, just no progress towards the goal.

“Combat” works much the same way as these tests except that the tests can fight back. Having generated the successes to stop Fiat Lux, this notorious villain distracts the Supercrew battling him by starting a fire. Like the escape, the fire has a number of successes to be “defeated” (as do the heroes) but now it also gets stat rolls of its own. Each round, everyone rolls the stat they want to use, and the highest success also goes first. When attacked (be it by a light ray of Fiat Lux or smoke from a fire) heroes can just roll a “reflex defense” of one die to resist, or use a power – but the latter is only possible if they haven’t acted yet, or if they cancel their intended action. In short, they have to take the pain if they want to do as much damage back. This again mimics comics well, where a lot of fights aren’t about trading blows back and forth so much as heroes using their powers to resist attacks until they see an opening.

Damage is the difference in success levels. If heroes take three damage they are knocked out for the scene; if the fire or bad guy or whatever takes their Toughness in damage, they are defeated (for whatever that means). A lot of simple, narrative RPGs turn bad guys into situations; by going the other way and turning situations into bad guys, Supercrew allows situations to have personality. This drives emotional game play, as players will feel angry at the fire when it “attacks” them with smoke or falling masonry, and again drives narrative, as villains and hazards typically work exactly the same way, literally speaking, in most comic stories (see for example, the Batman arc about the earthquake in Gotham City, or any Spiderman comic where dealing with Aunt May is just as crucial as dealing with Dr Octopus).

The other great thing about this system is it allows massive combats to be resolved with simple mechanics, a typical bugbear of superhero games. A hundred ninjas or the Legion of Doom can be just one hazard. And yet they won’t end up feeling the same because like heroes, challenges get tricks they can use to power up their rolls.

For heroes, these are always the same: the ability to re-roll one die roll, the ability to say you generate two successes and the ability to make one die rolled a five (thus adding a simple success). Each hero can do each of these once per game (or story, if you prefer) and again, it’s up to them to interpret them. Typically they are defined at chargen and linked to a particular ability but they needn’t be, and they can link to any ability. You might want your three-dice ability to be generally very reliable, thus linking it to the “two successes” trick, but on the other hand, maybe you want it to be something that is wildly unpredictable, generating a wide range of successes as your power rages out of control, so the “re-roll” trick is a better choice. Choosing when to use these powers and how they help allows players some mechanical depth and fosters further creativity. Meanwhile, the GM isn’t left out, deciding when his Fire will use its “Falling Masonry” trick to do more damage (and drive up the narrative tension).

Unfortunately, Supercrew only provides examples of hazards and villains, not any tips, guides or rules for generating their tricks and powers and Toughness levels. This is a massive flaw in the game and even the list of excellent and flavorful examples can’t quite make up for it. We can only hope and pray that Radesäter releases a GM guide or adventure anthology as soon as possible (or allows me to write one, hint hint) to fill this gap. This would also be awesome because we’d get to hear more about the Supercrew, and they are very cool indeed.

As mentioned above, the entire RPG is told in comic form. Much of this involves an authorial insert character explaining his RPG while wandering around an underground “RPG design lab”, allowing hilarious bits of satire and slapstick to go on in the background. But his examples are all drawn from the Supercrew whose continuing exploits against the evil Fiat Lux grow ever more complex and explosive as the mechanics to support such things are provided. Thus when we know all the rules, we are rewarded with the big-time showdown.

And for all the genius of the game so far, the genius I’ve gone at lengths to describe already, all of it is nothing compared to the staggering genius of this book’s construction and presentation. I’ve always, always been adamant that the most unsung aspect of RPG design is presentation, so that reading the book is not just enjoyable but causes the information to be “taught” in the most elegant way, using style and layout and tempo to teach invisibly, sending the theme and shape of the game into the player’s mind without them even realizing it. But to date no game has ever come anywhere near the teaching mastery of Supercrew. The simple act of explaining the system driving the story rewards the reader for their understanding and makes them eager to read ever onward. Yes, the story is simplistic and the heroism child-like and four-color, but it’s still fun and immensely engaging. It helps a lot that the heroes have a Swedish flair to them (most notably Captain Sweden himself), preventing them from being too similar to American clones. It also rescues them from the bane of 99% of superhero RPGs and settings, which is to be drenched in American comic lore (no, I really do not give a flying fruit bat about the various “ages”, mister designer) and the deconstructionism or “irony” that inevitably brings with it (Truth and Justice, I’m looking at you). All too often, taking superheroes seriously or intellectually crushes the life out of them, and this is true in RPGs as well as comics.

Supercrew is in no danger of this. It is furiously, unstoppably fun, on every page. It is also, despite its brilliant design and nods to satire, gorgeously simple in all the best senses. In fact, if it weren’t for a single swear word, it would be a fantastic RPG for children. It helps immensely in all these regards that it is - like its inspiration - a thirty-page comic book that you can carry anywhere. I have seen nothing so tragic in RPG emulation design as the recent Mouse Guard RPG, where a light-as-a-feather comic book was emulated with a giant brick of an RPG. That was so wrong it caused me physical pain.

In a day and age where more and more game designers are realizing that carting stuff around is a major issue (and is why PDFs are so important), Supercrew is leading the pack with an RPG that is staggeringly complete and enduringly useful in a package more portable than an Kindle. And universal too - although it is full of a love for superheroes, the system will work with nearly anything. In an age of coffee table books, Supercrew also remains a beautiful game, with Radesäter’s art shining off every page and begging to be shown off. And in a lovely conceit, Radesäter emphasizes the lesson of his RPG writing in character design, demanding that players draw their characters and color them in. It’s a little lame and a little forced, but it is so in the same style as the rest of the RPG: with a sense of fun and wonder and engagement that awakens the childlike joy of creation that RPGs can so often bring forth - but so often fail to.

In an age of high-criticism (such as we are in), there is a constant danger in any art form of thinking that light-hearted, whimsical or simplistic works cannot be immensely intelligent, critically observant and unbelievably accomplished. Supercrew is the absolute destruction of that idea, being all three of the latter things without ever once sacrificing the former three. It is light in every possible sense of the word, and it gives off light, illuminating the gaming world, inspiring designers with its genius and players with its uncontained spirit of fun and wonder. It enlightens the mind, engages the heart and warms the soul, and what more could we ask for.

Style: 5 (Undoubtedly the best-written RPG in the entire history of the hobby)
Substance: 5 (One of most elegant and richest simple systems you will find)

*******************

I realize that I have been going a bit nuts over the Supercrew here of late, but I really feel the game is well worth its praise, and as it's now a few years old and the original buzz about it may have died down to make room for the next "new" thing. I really want to do my part to make sure this little gem doesn't vanish into obscurity. It deserves so much better.

Regards,



Jeff Moore





2 comments:

  1. Great article, Jeff ;) I've bought Supercrew last summer and I've fallen in love for it, having played in the past to Risus in a desperate attempt to find a rules-lite but at the same time "complete" superheroic rpg system.
    As you've said, Supercrew has a lot of potential but it lacks the creator's support and the main website is almost dead.
    I've seen that recently has benn published a french version of the game, so the latter isn't dead at all.
    I hope to see any news about it as soon as possible :)

    ReplyDelete
  2. Supercrew remains my recent favorite super-hero RPG. I hope to incorporate some of its elegance as I go forward in my continuing design of Five by Five.

    ReplyDelete