Modules and Models-An Old World Order

Today, it’s time to talk about one of my favorite subjects: Published Adventures and supplements. Everybody give me a woo-hoo! Well, not really. If you’re saying woo-hoo by the time I’m done with this, either you share my opinion, or you’re saying “Thank God it’s over.”

In the old days of writing superhero game supplements, it was assumed that there was going to be a certain level of game balance. Everything floated within certain specific ranges, and kept to those ranges. The numbers were looked at in adventures and organizational supplements as “What if someone reads this? They’ll probably design characters very much like these.”

Then the early nineties came, and all that changed. Characters aren’t design models anymore. They just take up space on paper and do what they do. I have a big problem with that, as far as superhero games are concerned. I will offer a solution to the problem, of course, but it doesn’t come without a minor price.

Wizards and Pathfinder often statblock creatures that have very little relevance to the adventure as a whole, even though the likelihood of fighting the NPC is somewhat less than the chance that the Moon will crash into the Earth, ending all life. Champions is just as guilty. Proper use of some of the villains in Volume One, Master Villains of the three villain books will destroy characters even if they have seven or eight hundred points. That’s a character’s entire starting value in experience points, or close to it.

In the old days, adventures used to be models. They were designed with game balance firmly in mind. These days, many published adventures and supplements just publish a sheet that doesn’t seem to be balanced with anything else in the supplement. This troubles me. When I design an adventure or setting, I assume that the players will want to fight their adversaries and beat them up at some point.

Only now, often that means that the expectation of fighting characters is grossly undermined by the reality of running the combat. Some of the master villains in the latest Champions book literally seem like they’re never meant to be encountered.

I now offer some solutions to the problem:

1) The GM can randomly change the stats of NPC’s to fit the game. This is annoying. Why did I pay for a supplement in the first place if I have to edit everything as soon as I take it home? I might as well have done everything myself. While a little rewriting should always take place to make it fit into the GM’s world, this is going too far.

2) Adventures and Supplements should be models for how characters are designed. Perhaps a few pregenerated characters should be included with each one to demonstrate how characters should be created. While I’m not necessarily a fan of pregens, this might help game designers as a whole see how the adventures are meant to be balanced. (Kudos to Paizo here for constantly publishing their iconic characters at the appropriate level in every adventure.)

3) Fairness needs to be taken into account more often. I keep thinking “What are these games that I’m not seeing where this is balanced, and/or works?” And the answer is, I don’t know. I can’t see them. This is why people don’t playtest anymore. They assume that the adventure or supplement will be heavily edited by the GM after purchase.

4) When I go to gaming conventions, most games that I play are close to, or very much like my own in terms of how the numbers in Hero System are handled. And of course, I think “Hey, this is universally accepted. Why aren’t the published supplements more like this?”

So why isn’t this ethic replicated with published material? That’s a question I can’t answer easily.



  1. The people who put out the Deadlands stuff(Pinnacle Press I think) had a rule about stating NPCs I think you would love. They did not stat out the NPC(except maybe some skill rolls stuff or advantages…) till it was story relvelant for the PCs to actualy fight the NPC…or fight with the NPC.

  2. Another thing that comes from the past comes from FASA: Never stat anything you don’t want the PCs to fight. If it has stats, and they know it has stats, they will invariably want to kill it at some point.

    Pregenerated characters don’t often appear in adventures because (with certain specific exceptions) they are a waste of space–people aren’t going to just pick up the adventure and run it with the characters provided. There are exceptions (first looks at campaign/adventure arcs such as 4E Keep on the Shadowfell; DC Adventures’ new rulebook where the point is to play DC heroes, etc) but unless the pregen is either (a) designed for new players or (b) iconic to the system, you simply won’t find them anymore.

    I think that the problem is–and it’s one we’re seeing get addressed in some games (4E, Pathfinder) but not so much in other games (Hero, Deathwatch/Dark Heresy/Rogue Trader)–is that it’s not the adventure, but the system, which needs to mandate balance. The first two examples (both flavors of D&D) are really remarkably solid: if you build a character using their system, and you use their recommended challenge levels worth of enemies, the fight will be pretty fair straight-up. This is borne out by experience in both games.

    Other systems have different problems. The FFG Deathwatch/DH/Rogue Trader systems suffer from not enough playtesting and poor editing; it’s almost like they’re guessing if you put these disparate elements together you might have a fair fight or it might be too easy. Much as I love the games for their richness and diversity, the simple fact is that when you have three systems in the same general universe all of which share a similar concept (psychic abilities, or psykers) AND in EACH of the three games the system for that concept is totally different, you’ve obviously got a problem in your design of the games–because the games are (ostensibly) MEANT to be highly compatible with one another.

    The Hero problem–and it’s been around for a while–is that they have different levels that people are expected to build their characters around, but the monster/villain/etc books don’t have a corresponding scale, or even a suggested range (with certain exceptions, like Dark Champions villains for Dark Champions level characters). I would love to see monsters with different stat blocks and easier powerup/depower options for such villains. A guide as to how to customize Villain A for my Power Range 1, Power Range 2, and Power Range 3 game is more universally useful to a GM than having more bad guys.

    From an adventure design standpoint, including versions of your enemies for different power level games increases and extends the utility of the adventure. Pathfinder does this and D&D does this with their (respective) Chronicles and RPGA systems, which (despite anything else you can say about them) is brilliant design: if I have a product that for 10% more pages printed can be used at any level between 1-4 or 1-8, that product is worth more than a simple 1st level adventure.

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  • Upcoming Appearances

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