Monday, July 5, 2010

RPG Resources: The X-Men

I haven't updated this blog for nearly a year now. It's high time I fixed that. For a while I was using it to archive some of the "Live and Let Dice" pieces I wrote for a site called Pop Thought. Unfortunately, most of the material I posted there were corrupted when the site was besieged by Chinese spammers back in 2008 and I lost a lot of data, including some of my best pieces. Ah well. Some of them are still intact. Including this one, which is a review of sorts.

From June 23, 2004:

RPG Resources: The X-Men

I don't normally do a whole lot of research for the role-playing games I run. This is mostly because of laziness, but also because most of my RPG's either are based in worlds I am already pretty familiar with or have a GURPS supplement for, or which are complete fantasy so I can pretty much run it on the fly. Every once in a while, though, I need to do some actual research.

That was the case with the 'Uncanonical X-Pals' game I began running with my wife some months ago. Now I've never really been a Marvel Zombie. My wife read Uncanny X-Men back in the '80s during the Chris Claremont era, but most of my knowledge of the Marvel Mutantverse came second hand or from the movies and the two Saturday morning animated series. I know who the characters are, what their powers and personalities are like, but that's about it.

Now this isn't necessarily a problem. I wasn't planning of closely following the comic book's continuity any more than the movies or the cartoons did. My philosophy of RPGs is rather similar to what the Muppets said in their version of Alice in Wonderland: "Don't be surprised if you see Captain Hook / 'Cause our version won't always follow the book!" But still, I thought running this game would make a good excuse to delve into Mutant Minutiae.

As any serious scholar will tell you, the most important source for a project like this is Primary Research: the original material itself. My wife has a few dozen Uncanny X-Men and New Mutants from the 1980s and a couple of the early graphic novels. Her treasure, though, is a graphic novel reprinting the Dark Phoenix storyline from Uncanny X-Men including the first appearances of Dazzler and Kitty Pryde, the first battle with the Hellfire Club, ladies in lingerie, and the Tragic End of the Carrot People which led in turn to the Trial of the Phoenix and the (First) Death of Jean Grey!

The edition we have is out of print, but the "Dark Phoenix" Saga has been again reprinted as part of the black and white Marvel Essentials series and is well worth reading.

Another obvious source for running an X-Men RPG, strangely enough, is the X-Men RPG. Last year Marvel published a new Marvel Universe Role-Playing Game and so I picked up the MURPG's Guide to the X-Men game supplement. The book covers a lot of material in a slim 94-page volume and I have found it very useful. It gave me helpful information on the nation of Genosha and a lot of material on the Morlocks, (the supplement includes an RPG adventure set in the Morlock tunnels). Each character it covers gets a full column write-up.

It's a very slick-looking book. These days hard covers and snazzy graphic design are essential to role-playing games. The layout of this book is sharp but not so splashy that it competes with the content as some more artsy books do.

The down side is that this is a supplement. The Guide to the X-Men has no listings for Magneto, Beast, Jean Grey or even Cyclops. That's because they've already been listed in the MURPG's core rulebook. They assume, rightly, that you wouldn't be buying the Guide to the X-Men unless you already had the MURPG and wanted additional information not included in the main rules. That's what the word Supplement means.

Another disappointment is that the book is very brief. As I said, they pack a lot of information into it, but there's a lot of material which is only skimmed over. Each character gets an illustration, usually the most recent appearance available. Which means that Iceman for example, instead of his classic "body-of-ice" look, is portrayed looking like a thug in a leather duster. A fan more familiar with the X-Men of the '70s and '80s, or even of the '90s, is likely to look through this book and say "What the hey? What did they do to Banshee? And why is he wearing the same costume as Avalanche?"

They also give a lot of space to characters from X-Statix, an X-Men title I was completely unfamiliar with. It looks very interesting and surreal but the characters are drawn in a thick-line cartoonish style that, while appealing in itself, clashes horribly with the artwork for the rest of the characters. I suppose for completion's sake X-Statix needed to be included, but I could not convince myself that the characters existed in the same universe.

What I've seen of the MURPG's rule system looks interesting. It's a diceless system. Instead of rolling randomly against an Ability score, each character has so many points called "Stones" which may be allocated to different Abilities each turn. Oh, and it also refers to each unit of time as a "Panel", which is cute and I'd be happy to give the games points (or Stones, or whatever) just for that conceit alone. I was tempted to hunt down the core rulebook, but by the time I picked up the X-Men supplement I had already started running my own game using GURPS rules. Still, if I come across a copy of it, I just might pick it up.

We were well into the campaign when we came across the Marvel Encyclopedia: X-Men in a bookstore. This is the second volume of the Marvel Encyclopedia and in many ways is a superior source of information than the MURPG book. At 240 pages it is longer and lacking the need to include game mechanics it has the elbow room to do the Mutant Universe more justice. We get the complete team and detailed descriptions of all the major characters in the X-Men books and a good number of minor characters as well.

If I have one complaint about the Marvel Encyclopedia, it's in terms of its organization. The characters are categorized by group affiliation. Within each group, first the major characters recieve a page, or in the case of really important characters two pages. Then the secondary characters get a half page each. Then the tertiary characters are listed three to a page and the minor characters four to a page. Each grouping is arranged alphabetically. The arrangement is logical, but makes it difficult to find anyone in particular. Is Mastermind listed under the Brotherhood of Evil Mutants, or under the Hellfire Club? Is Sabertooth listed with the Marauders or with Weapon X? In order to find a particular character you need to use the index, and the index does not differentiate between primary and secondary entries. The index entry for the mutant-hating rabble-rouser Senator Kelly cites pages 80, 81, 196 and 201. You'll have to check them all to find his main entry, unless you're lucky enough to guess checking the last one first.

A lesser complaint is the same as my complaint about the MURPG's illustrations. In fact, the Marvel Encyclopedia uses the exact same ones. It does however take advantage of the greater room to show the illustrations off to their best advantage and most of them are very good. The minor characters, however, don't get the star treatment and their pictures are down to near-postage-stamp size.

One aspect of the Encyclopedia that I did really like was that each super-powered character, even the minor ones, gets a capsule listing of powers and weapons and a chart rating them on a one-to-seven scale in terms of intelligence, strength, speed, durability, energy projection and fighting skills. Another chart in the back of the book explains what each ranking means.

The Encyclopedia easily beats the MURPG in terms of breadth, and also in terms of depth for the major characters. The lesser characters, however, are only mentioned in passing with little more than a thumbnail illo and a sentence or two of description. When I needed info recently on the villain Omega Red, I actually found much more in the MURPG than in the Encyclopedia. The MURPG also has more maps and diagrams, as you would expect from a RPG supplement.

Using both books to cover each other's lacunae actually went pretty well and I didn't really need any additional reference to run my game. But I got one anyway. I just couldn't resist.

X-Men: The Ultimate Guide from DK Publishing originally came out in 2000. The more recent Updated Edition which I picked up incorporates some new material including photos from the movies and material on the Morrison run on the series. It's a big coffee-table book with gobs of illustrations.

This is the book I really wanted, because it presents a historical overview of the X-Men from the very beginning. The book is arranged chronologically, starting with the team's first appearance in 1961. Most of the characters get whole double-page spreads and multiple illustrations showing how they looked in various eras. We get to see the Beast, not just in his current puddy-tat incarnation, but also his original, "big feet" neanderthal look and his classic more ape-like appearance.

It's a big, beautiful book. Once again, it is not quite as broad as the Encyclopedia; it won't list all the members of the Shi'ar Imperial Guard, for example, but what it covers it does with a wealth of detail both in terms of background and illustration. I heartily recommend it.

Oh, and now I've started buying Astonishing X-Men too. This game is turning out to be the most expensive campaign I've ever run!

* * * * *

"The Uncannonical X-Pals" turned out to be a fairly successful campaign. It ran for a good long time and my wife, Lute, enjoyed it a lot. Her character started out as a normal reporter working the mutant beat and getting involved with the X-Men. For a time her character developed a romance with Hank McCoy, the Beast. Ultimately, it was revealed that she herself was a mutant (not something we originally planned, but that's how it worked out), and that brought her to the attention of Magneto. Lute has always been a fan of Magneto -- she has a thing for charismatic megalomaniacs -- and her character and Magneto eventually married. It was a wild, roller-coaster of a campaign.

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