Wednesday, July 22, 2020

Wild Talents (Second Edition)

I really should have broken this game into two posts. I've got two such strong theses for the rules and setting sections that they are battling for space in my mind. They are "headshots will kill you dead" and "wow, the USA can do no wrong," respectively and now that I think about it, maybe it's best if I let these impressions stay in the background because while they are both accurate, they are also incomplete.

Wild Talents uses the ORE ("One Roll Engine") and it's a very . . . clever system. I mostly mean that as a compliment. It is often satisfyingly clever, but it's also occasionally clever in a way that outsmarts itself and leads to the system driving the story, rather than the players' decisions.

The way it works is that you roll a number of 10-sided dice based on your character's traits and then the rules pull a number of relevant pieces of information out of that roll. The main thing you're looking for is matches. If at least two of the dice show the same number, the action succeeds. If more than two show the same number, that is called "width" and is used to determine various properties of the action - usually how fast it happens, but also, with attacks, its overall damage and its ability to penetrate defense. The system also cares about what number you match. That's called "height" and usually determines how effective your action is, hit locations on attacks, and is used to overcome difficulties. Sometimes you're going to care about extra matches at different heights (this is the mechanic behind the extra action system) and sometimes you're going to care about the values of your unmatched or "loose" dice. It's a pretty elegant way to get a quantity of information that normally takes several rolls in other systems.

With special powers you can gain "wiggle dice" that allow you to replace one of your dice with any value you like or "hard dice" that replace one of your dice with an automatic 10. And this is where the game starts to get out of hand. Hard dice cost double the xp as regular dice. Hyperskills (skills which are superpowers and thus susceptible to power-dampening effects . . . making them identical to skills 99% of the time) have half the cost of regular skills. Getting five hard dice in a hyperskill has the exact same cost as raising a regular skill to five. In combat, a set of 10s indicates a headshot. Each die in the set does one point of damage. The head has four health levels. For approximately 2.5% of the cost of an average character, you can guarantee instantly fatal headshots on every combat action, with one extra width to spare in case your opponent tries to defend. Such a character would be only moderately optimized.

The book on some level accepts this. There's a sidebar where it discusses how a starting character can permanently extinguish the sun. It costs 44 points per die. In theory, if you were willing to take the "+1 die for taking an extra turn" bonus and just roll ~10 times, you could do it with approximately 1/6th of your 250 character creation points. To do it reliably takes 2 hard dice, for a total of 176 character points, leaving you enough to be an average person besides (being able to snuff out any star in the visible universe costs 61 points per die, which is still attainable, though doing it reliably would not leave you enough points to have a character).

They say that "In Wild Talents, we trust you, the players, to build the kinds of character you want to build" which is kind of a nice sentiment, but also kind of a cop out. I may have the authors' trust in these matters, but I certainly don't have my own. Even if we talk about excluding obviously game-breaking stuff like the power to wipe out all matter in the universe, it's still ridiculously easy to make unbalanced characters. In theory, you could strip the effects-based power system down to its basics, cap special dice, and trust that similarly sized dice pools cancel each other out, but in doing so you'd be throwing out most of the game's options. Ultimately, the power-design system is so open-ended that it forces your rpg group to basically be designers. I don't hate it, but it's deceptive about the amount of buy-in you're going to need.

It's not a system that's helped by the vagueness of the point costs. Basically, you can divide powers into one of three categories - Attack, Defense, and Useful. And "Useful" is a category that includes anything that's not explicitly an attack or defense. So, for example, the ability to permanently change lead into gold is 5 points per die (2 for a useful power + 4 for a permanent power -1 for only working on lead). The ability to change anything into gold is 6 points per die (because it doesn't have the lead prerequisite). The ability to change anything into anything is 10 points per die (add +4 for the versatile tag).  Also costing 10 points per die - telekinesis. Because it can be used for attack, defense, and utility and it needs the ability to work at a range and affect a certain amount of mass (one of these capabilities is free, the other cost 2 points per die, but must be bought separately for attack and usefulness.)

It's a system that requires you to consciously and skillfully navigate not just your own expectations, but those of the group as well. To, in essence, max-min, but deliberately parsing abilities to be more limited than they otherwise might, because the only thing standing between you and limitless cosmic power is the flexibility of the word "useful."

Which brings us back to the headshot issue. Four regular dice cost the same as two hard dice. The  regular dice get you a random level success approximately 50% of the time. The hard dice get you the maximum level of success 100% of the time. This holds true across every power, skill, and attribute in the game because it's baked into the math of how costs work. Relying on dice is a purely optional downgrade to your abilities. Thus any combat should reasonably boil down to characters just constantly shooting each other in the head to an almost comical degree. I'm seriously picturing the Boss from the Saints Row series, and the way that in later games all of their melee attacks were nut-shots with different contextual animations. It's one of those jokes that gets tired after 3-4 repetitions, funny again after 10 repetitions, and hilarious after 100. That's how I'm picturing ORE combat.

The funny thing, though, is that you can pay twice the cost of a hard die (4x a regular) to buy a wiggle die. The game charges you a premium for the opportunity to be less effective. The only time this seems remotely tempting to me is with combat powers, when you might want to target an arm or a leg for narrative purposes. Even then, it's an expensive cost for a situational power. You could probably make an argument for 1 wiggle die plus a large regular dice pool, for the versatility that comes with being able to add an extra width to any set without sacrificing your potential for automatic success (and such dice pools are more resilient to penalties, to boot), but it's likely not a coincidence that most of the statted NPCs have 2 hard dice in their utility powers.

In any event, I'd say that for Wild Talents to be a truly great supers system, it needs to bring some order to the chaos of its wide-open character creation. Suggestions that it's possible for the GM to add limits are near-useless, absent some guidance as to what the specific limits should actually be.

Which brings us to the setting. Sigh. It's largely fine, sometimes even amazing, except for the presence of one huge problem that makes the whole thing seem like a joke. The history chapter covers the Cold War in exhaustive detail, and at every point in the process it operates on the assumption that the USA is a global force for good. Imagine it's the late 90s, the USSR is still around for complex alt-history reasons, but it's on friendly terms with the USA and "Soon, even the Soviets were welcomed into backwards nations as helpful 'big brothers' and the fear and hatred against them quickly dissolved - particularly since America was always involved as well."

I don't want to downplay the tyranny or the cruelty of the USSR here, but that's just an absolutely off-the-wall reading of Cold War-era politics. So much of the world quite rightfully saw the First World as  bunch of economic vampires and the Soviet Union got a shit-ton of free influence based on the idea that they might help to keep the USA out. 

The section on India is particularly instructive. In alternate 2010, it's the world's 3rd-most powerful nation, and it's all thanks to embracing capitalism shortly after independence. They "knew that the Americans were idealistic and often foolish." This is in the wake of an Indian conquest of Pakistan that led to a Talent-driven war where "every major city in India, once ravaged by starvation, was burning." And it's an intersting dichotomy, because that starvation didn't deserve the passive voice there. It was something inflicted upon India, by British colonial misrule, and something the Americans in 1950 owned by proxy because the UK was firmly in their camp.  There's a very good reason the term "third world" was coined to describe nations like India attempting to forge their own path outside the American and Soviet spheres, and it's a shame that Wild Talents has forgotten that it ever meant anything but "poor."

But the weirdest thing about the setting is that despite being an absolute whitewashing of the USA's abhorrent Cold War conduct, and despite an uncomfortably Islamaphobic tone (pretty much the only time Muslims show up at all, it's as terrorists . . . or victims of India's and Israel's territorial expansion), it's also fairly ardently Democratic partisan. The only Republican president of the post WW2 era is Douglas MacArthur (a swift and decisive victory in Korea put him on the ticket instead of Eisenhower). And while he is treated with a certain generosity ("MacArthur's keen military mind saw the Soviet threat for what it was"), he's also attributed with completely botching his response to the civil rights movement (the words "Race War" are used - unfortunately, I don't know how it turns out because that's the first and last time the American Civil Rights movement was mentioned).

Following the MacArthur presidency is an unbroken streak of Democrats, including some of history's famous losers like Hubert Humphrey and Walter Mondale. John F Kennedy even beats out Ronald Reagan, who is never heard from again. It's under these Democrats that the USA becomes beloved and trusted and eventually, in the 90s, under Robert Kennedy, makes peace with the Soviets so they can team up and fight the giant alien empires that surround us on both sides.

I wouldn't even call this "poorly aged," because I'm sure that even in 2010 this historiography was baffling. Maybe they're going for a "4-color" thing where the good guys are good and the bad guys are bad, but it's almost embarrassing how earnest this setting is about ideas that are just plain wrong.

Overall, I'd call Wild Talents a near-miss. With some more concrete character-creation suggestions and a new history that didn't kiss America's ass quite so much, it could be a real contender, but I'm forced to think of it as a curiosity - a book that inspires me to homebrew my own ORE supers system, but only intermittently gives me the tools necessary to do so,

Ukss Contribution: A psychopathic Talent built a robot and transferred his consciousness into it. The robot committed a bunch of war crimes and was mothballed. Later,it was taken out and reprogrammed and now it's a hippie who replaced the US Army iconography on its chest with a peace symbol. I like that, a pacifist war machine.

No comments:

Post a Comment