Crash Test Magic – Making 4E into a Superhero RPG

Energy Projection is very useful, provided to want to destroy stuff.

Energy Projection is very useful, provided you want to destroy stuff.

How far can the mechanics of D&D 4th Edition be stretched? In this edition of Crash Test Magic, I propose a superhero role-playing game based on the 4E system of powers and feats. To the Vikingmobile!

In last week’s mention of the old0-but-new Dark Sun setting coming out for 4E, I casually mentioned that a superhero RPG based on the 4E rules would be cool. That lead to a discussion in the comment thread, which lead to this more extended exploration of the idea. A lot of this is just brainstorming, and obviously there’s been no playtesting or checking the numbers for balance, so take any stats (like damage numbers) with a grain of salt.

The first concept is that, instead of classes, there are powersets. In printed form they’d look a lot like 4E’s classes – some basic abilities, then a list of powers that increase in aptitude and effect the further you go. There are two huge differences, though. For one thing, powers are not level-restricted. You can take any power at any level. I’ll explain how in a minute. The other key difference is that you aren’t restricted to one powerset. You can freely grab powers from all kinds of powersets.

This is balanced by the point cost of each power. At character creation, you get 50 power points to spend. Each time you level up, you get 20 more, and you can spend them to take any powers you want (you could grab a bunch at once if you get several low-cost ones). If your initial powers are all in the Fire Control powerset, at level 8 (or whenever) you can go ahead and get a power from the Mind Control powerset. Maybe it has great synergy with your fire powers, and you’re a min-maxer. Maybe it fits your character concept. Maybe you just want to try something different.

So what keeps this balanced and prevents every character from having a shopping list of the best powers in the game? Point discounts. Each powerset is a tree of powers. The weakest, and least expensive powers in a set are the “roots.” The super mega cosmic world-beater powers are the uppermost branches. So let’s say at character creation, you want the best Fire Control power, perhaps some kind of massive nova blast that does a ridiculous amount of burst damage. You have 50 points to spend, and it turns out that power costs 50 points. You can take it – you can have the ultimate Fire Control power at level 1. Good luck dealing with situations that require something a bit more subtle, though…

Now let’s say you build a Fire Control hero slowly. At early levels, you take a power that lets you give allies fire resistance, and one that lets you shoot a single target ranged fire attack. Those probably cost 10 points each. From there, you decide to take a blast attack that creates a persistent zone of fire terrain. That costs 30 points, and it’s higher up on the tree than the other powers you took. However, the Fire Zone power costs only half as many points as long as you already have at least two other Fire Control Powers. You do, so you can grab that one for just 15 points. Your buddy with all the Super Speed powers could take Fire Zone too, but it would cost him the full 30 points.

Although characters can jump around the powersets, each PC still has a primary powerset to provide some kind of foundation for the character. Your At-Wills and a few other inherent abilities (a Will defense bonus for mental characters, for instance) come from your primary powerset. There are also secondary powersets offering more generic superhuman utility powers, such as the ability to fly or resist damage. There’s no discount for specializing in these powers – characters can cherry pick from them freely.

This system also makes greater use of the “party roles” of 4E. The roles (controller, leader, defender, etc.) aren’t tied to any one powerset. You pick your role at character creation. Certain powers lend themselves to one role over another, so those powers offer an additional point discount to appropriate characters. For example, the Energy Projection powerset has a power that allows the character to emit a massive energy blast at a single target. Clearly, that’s a striker power, so strikers get two points knocked off the cost when they purchase that power. If that same striker wants to purchase an Ice Control power that immobilizes all enemies within a burst 2, she has to pay full price, since that power only offers the discount to controllers.

I mentioned in the original comment thread that I wanted to incorporate some type of mechanic that indicates an overall increase in skill when it comes to using powers as characters go up in level. Since you can take powers that deal massive damage right off the bat, there needs to be some other advantage to leveling up (aside from getting more powers). Plus, so many of our favorite superhero stories are not about raw power, but rather about expertise and mastery. The rooftop scene of Peter Parker practicing his new spider powers in the first Spider-Man movie is a perfect example.  He didn’t get stronger or gain better webs later on, he just got better at using them.

Unfortunately, I haven’t yet figured this part out. On the other hand, I’ve got a great design team that loves to offer suggestions (that would be you, loyal Vikings). Perhaps this would involve feats? Or some brand new mechanic that allows a character to fine-tune the results of a successful roll? What do you think?

11 Responses to Crash Test Magic – Making 4E into a Superhero RPG

  1. I played a super hero RPG once that did something kinda similar, except instead of having the trees it just gave you new variations on your powers per level. I played a martial artist with an upgrade that let me deal non lethal damage as lethal. now, to understand a bit how damage worked, everyone has two health numbers, losing one leads to unconsciousness, losing the other leads to death. Attacks will either hit one set of health or the other. The unconsciousness number is generally 5-10 times the lethal number and the attacks tend to deal damage to it in the double digits, while 18 is as high as a level one character can have for the lethal number. Martial Arts has a perk that lets them hit with nonlethal attacks as lethal damage. I kicked people so hard they exploded.

    That anecdote aside, for character creation everybody got an offensive power, a defensive power and a travel power. The offensive powers pretty much defined your class while the other two don’t need to necessarily make sense. A different PC was a vibrating ferret-man, for example. As you leveled up you got more tricks in line with your offensive powers. Psychic guy gets telekinesis, Martial arts guy kicks things harder, ferret-man vibrates harder and might get an added benefit like The Flash’s vibrate through walls trick. This sort of a system is nice because that travel power really helps let the slower guys keep up, simply by not having any slower guys.

    I’d give the first utility power free, but maybe tier which ones you can get free. That way everyone will be able to stay somewhat together without having to spend extra points on rather situational movement stuff.

  2. Yeah, maybe the utility powers would show up like feats do now: level 5 you pick from a certain group, level 11, a different group, etc. I like that.

    Also, it goes without saying that I didn’t even get into redoing damage, villains, the death system, stealth or any of the five dozen things that would have to happen to actually do this.

  3. Well, the damage thing was just a unique quirk to this system, eventually it stops looking like 4e and becomes its own beast, right?

  4. Overthinking it; just don’t require implements/weapons & the fighter is the HulkThing, the Warlock is your blaster, Wizard is your elementalist, etc.

  5. Leveling could provide a bonus like action points. Each level, a character gains level*mod power variability points that can be applied to certain numbers (damage dice, attack bonus, burst or blast, range). No number can receive more than half the character’s total power variability points (min 1). A character’s points regenerate every encounter.

    So, a level 1 character can do the ultimate supernatural meteor swarm of death and disaster power, as can a level 10 character. However, the level 10 character has the opportunity to make it more ultimate.

    I’d say your total number of power variability points can’t be modified by feats or anything, but Leader-type powers could grand temporary pvps. Maybe feats could alter how you use points or perhaps let you regenerate points.

    Could be a bit powerful in later levels, but they are superheros.

  6. That’s a good concept. I would make a list of things you could use the points for other than just boosting a power. For example, you could spend two points to exclude an ally from a burst attack, or spend two points to slide an enemy two squares. That would give a little more of that “skill and mastery of my powers” element.

  7. I like the idea of having a pool of per-encounter “variable” points, as well. It could lead to a really interesting set of feats that are “powered” by them, things like the aforementioned escaping death by some profoundly unlikely means, or having “a plan” that gives you bonuses to a given skill or combat rolls against a specific foe, for instance.

    Furthermore, you could have a feat – or even just a mechanic – where you could temporarily switch out powers for other powers for a turn\encounter\day (depending on how many of these Variable points you want to spell) of equal or lower base cost (ignoring discounts) to represent what in M&M is called an Alternate Power – like Iron Man using his repulsors to boost his flight speed, or Flash using his vibration power to cause a disruptive resonance in an object. Something that is possible, but not something they do all the time.

  8. Let me play devil’s advocate for a bit. :) What advantages are you trying to get out of this? The 4e architecture limits the choices of characters. This is an acceptable trade-off in D&D because 1) it follows genre conventions and 2) it provides a much greater game balance than previous games. In your proposal, you are much more limited than a point-buy system, and you still don’t have as much balance as 4e D&D. If some players choose to spend all their points on a really nasty attack power and others choose to be less powerful and more flexible, it will be hard to create opponents that challenge them unless you make sure to have certain opponents face off with certain heroes (a plan that rarely survives first contact with the PC’s).

    Also, are you keeping the “At-will/Encounter/Daily” triad? How are these balanced point-wise and game-effect-wise? Can you buy the same effect at different uses? If so, how do you cost a daily vs. an at-will vs. encounter? If there is a difference in effect, how do you balance them? Part of this is related to the campaign style. I’ve been in superhero games where we’ve generally had one fight in a day, and in games where we’ve had to run a gauntlet of different encounters. If you know somebody’s GM’ing style, you might decide to just buy at-will and daily powers.

    Further, how do super-stats work? Are they bought with power points or something else? Point-buy 22 won’t work well for modelling a wide variety of heroes. And many people judge a superhero game by it’s ability to make a number of their favorite heroes work in it. If you do make super-stats available, how do they interact with attacks and damage?

    Finally, how do meta-powers work? Superheros that copy other people’s powers or who have wildly flexible powers like Green Lantern? Without them, I don’t think this game will pass muster as a complete superhero game.

  9. Philo, when I form a real RPG publishing company, you’re hired. All valid points. My only defense is that I was obviously constrained by the length of a blog post here, so a lot of those things would be addressed if this were actually fully designed. But certainly some of those things I hadn’t thought of – always good to have a devil’s advocate on staff.

  10. I see it as at-wills only with maybe a few dailies mixed in, as in the new Psion class available to D&D Insider subscribers. You have a handful of at will abilities that can be modified using variability points to do different things. You also have a couple of mega powers that you can use once per day. The pvp modification would obviously be more limited with those powers.

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