Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Better Angels: A Review/After Action Report

Better Angels
by Greg Stolze
Arc Dream Publishing
176 pages
PDF available via RPGNow
Full Color Hardcover available soon through Arc Dream's online store.

Warning: The following anecdote will likely offend tree-hugging liberals, and fans of former Vice President Dick Cheney (I'm sure there's at least one or two, right?).  In other words, though my own views are left of center, in this case, I'm an equal opportunity offender.  Fair and Balanced...That's Me.

There are transcendental moments in gaming.  Hopefully, you know the moment when players, game master, story, and the fickle fingers of fate in the form of combinations of one or more polyhedrons combine to create those moments in time where you have created a truly great scene or moment, and you wish you could bottle it, or know exactly what formula was needed to create such a memorable experience.

Ironically, I've had this feeling more with Call of Cthulhu than any other system, mostly that dawning moment of realization and terror where the player realizes just how over the heads a predicament her character is in. But I've seen it in others.  The OGL 3.5 Midnight campaign I ran where the players realized that everything they've encountered before has all been manipulated to bring them (and the villain) to one place and moment in time.  The Star Wars Alternate Timeline campaign when I brought a player to tears with the revelation that someone had murdered Senator Amidala.  The point is they're rare, they're difficult to achieve, and they're why, after 30+ years as a GM, player, and in some cases freelance writer in the hobby, that I keep coming back, keep buying books, and dice, and accessories, and all the other accoutrement of gaming.

And I was very fortunate to have one of those moments (indeed, a few of them) last Friday night.

Recently, I've been kicking into a few Kickstarters.  Hebanon Games' No Security package of PDF scenarios...systemless, but most screaming for a Call of Cthulhu treatment.  Chaosium's revamp, rerelease of the classic Call of Cthulhu campaign, Horror on the Orient Express, Evil Hat's FATE Core system.  Onyx Path/White Wolf's newest new World of Darkness corebook, Mummy the Curse.  And finally, the subject, of this return from blogging hiatus after 9 months to tell you about it, I kicked in to the Kickstarter for Better Angels.

And that's where that latest transcendental moment happened...but first, I need to tell you a bit about Better Angels.

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Better Angels is a roleplaying game that is the latest work of genius by Greg Stolze, the man behind some Old World of Darkness books, as well as the excellent Unknown Armies.  In recent years, Stolze has done a number of books using his excellent One Roll Engine.  First developed for use in the World War II Supers game, Godlike (in conjunction with Dennis Detwiller), various iterations of the engine have been the guts of other supers games (Wild Talents and its various settings, eCollapse, Grim War, Progenitor, This Favored Land, The Kerberos Club), Sword and Board fantasy with the excellent Reign, Horror with the free for the download Nemesis, the Kids with Monsters theme so popular in Japanese anime and a certain subgenre of children's literature, Monsters and Other Childish Things, and finally, film noir, with my all-time favorite system, A Dirty World.

Better Angels began as a discussion thread on RPGNet regarding possible settings for Wild Talents (the thread can still be found).  While it never became a Wild Talents setting, Stolze did take the greatly modified One Roll Engine version in A Dirty World, and adapt it to become Better Angels.

The central idea of Better Angels (and this can be found in that original RPGNet thread), is a world where Superpowers are granted by Angels and Demons, who effectively meld with an ordinary human.  In return for the ability to treat the laws of physics as little more than guidelines, the human must negotiate with the angel or demon riding shotgun.  More specifically, Better Angels focuses on the demons, and tries to reflect on why comic book supervillains are, well, not to put too fine a point on it, rather inept at villainy.

Borrowing heavily from an idea first tried in White Wolf's Old World of Darkness game, Wraith the Oblivion, each character in Better Angels is played by two people.  Each player in Better Angels has a hand in playing two characters, his human, and the demon of the player to his right.

That's right, characters consist of the human host (who represents goodness and light), and the demon. Depending on the moral compass of the character at a given time, the demon may have more or less say in what happens in the situation, though if the human uses a demonic power (and there is no other kind available) in a scene, the demon gets let out of the cage for the rest of that scene.  What this results in is a situation where the character is trying to walk a narrow tightrope between not being so evil that he gets first-class ticket on the Express Train to Hell, yet he needs to be just evil enough to keep his demon entertained so he can play with all the new, cool, superpowered toys.

In practice, this means that the human and demon halves of the character are constantly negotiating with themselves, the demon trying to entice the human with bargains for greater powers, the human trying to walk at least righteous enough a path to not board that Express Train to the Ninth Circle I mentioned a bit earlier.
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And that's where the transcendental moment came on Friday night.

I had written what I figured was a one-shot scenario for the game.  I won't reveal the title, or much of the plot, since some of my players may read this, but after a character generation session, I dropped the characters into the New Arcadia Museum of Art.  Specifically, one of their demons had become aware of the existence of a particular artifact, an ornately crafted jewel encrusted golden statuette, supposedly of Set, at the museum's display of a touring exhibition from the Egyptian Museum of Antiquities.

The characters did not know each other at game's beginning (other than a couple of them), but had all found reasons to be there.  I set the opening scene.  It was a Wednesday during the school year  I described a typical downtown museum on a school day in a large metropolis...school buses in the parking lot, a ton of adolescents and younger touring with their classes, grade school and middle school teachers, parent chaperones, and museum employees and tour guides all milling through the special displays...and one deluded Hellbound who had fashioned herself as a gritty hero, but who frankly was beginning to lose even the pretensions of being a hero.  And then, I set them all after the artifact.

I actually have a plot written.  It will have several scenes.  It was supposed to finish in one night.  Instead, we spent nearly four hours on one scene.  And they were four of the best hours of gaming I've even enjoyed.

Before I tell of that transcendental moment though, let me introduce you to my players, and more specifically, their villain/human/demon combos:

My four players, first names only, were Jason, my wife Suz, Eric, and my youngest son Grant.  Here's who they played.

Human Name (Player)/Villain Name/Demon Name (Player)
Magni Eriksson (Jason)/Magnus Minimus/Mighty Shrinky Dink (Suz)
Keila Montrose (Suz)/Skinwalker/Wixalin (Eric)
Malcolm Raines (Eric)/Bullwing/Clarence from the Nether Realm (Grant)
Jim Rainer (Grant)/The Buggerer/Dick Cheney (Jason)

I'd have to pull character sheets to give you the full scoop of what they were capable of, but each of them used one or more powers or aspects to great effect.  Magnus Minimus didn't actually use powers much, though he did use Ghost Form to good effect at least once to escape the museum.  Skinwalker's schtick was Ghost Form (a popular power, as it turned out).  Bullwing used Animal Form and Ghost Form to great effect, though the comedy of trying to watch him fly through crowded doorways in a museum made it entertaining.  Finally there was Jim Rainer, whose Dominator Strike, led to the transcendental moment I spoke about.

The "gritty hero" in this case is a character who had earned something of a reputation as "Flamethrower Faith".  She'd become known as something of a vigilante, killing rapists, drug dealers, prostitutes, pimps, johns, and even torching a branch of the First National Bank of New Arcadia in the process of foiling a bank robbery.  Intend on stealing the statuette, she robbed the display case, but didn't make it out of the room she stole it in before one of the villains (BullWing) stole it, only to lose it back to Faith, who then in turn lost it to The Buggerer.  All this time, alarms are going off, powers are being flung around a room filled to near standing room only with grade school kids, panicky teachers, and useless museum personnel.

Fortunately for the innocent bystanders, I had my usual run of bad luck for the most part when making collateral damage rolls, and other than one museum security guard (targeted by the Buggerer to obtain a change of clothes), and a hapless liberal tree-hugger trying to escape the row in the parking lot in her Toyota Prius (the Buggerer again), nobody innocent was harmed.

The museum security guard had a particularly bad day.  First robbed of his clothing by The Buggerer (Dick Cheney didn't have to put him up to this), he then was groped and beat up by Skinwalker (as part of a deal with her demon) while he was merely trying to head to the locker room to get his second uniform.  I'm fairly certain that he turned in his resignation the following morning.

As for the liberal, she was doomed to death by The Buggerer.  Specificaly, Dick Cheney agreed to offer The Buggerer the use of Ghost Form only if he hurt somebody.  This led Jim Rainer/The Buggerer to look for a target in a parking lot to amuse Dick Cheney with.  As a result, The Buggerer set his eyes on the Liberal.

She never had a name, and I feel a bit bad about that.  She was just this cute, adorable looking museum employee, a tour guide I made up on the spot, and threw a couple of stats at.  Late 20s.  Still living at home. Still single.  Still paying off her usurious student debt, and regretting having not gone back for her Ph.D. Earnest.  Sweet.  The kind of girl you'd take home to meet mom in a heartbeat (unless mom was Lynne Cheney, I suppose).  She had the Obama/Biden 2012 bumper sticker on the car.  A Coexist bumper sticker on the car.  A Sierra Club bumper sticker.  And the car, just to complete the cliche, was a late model blue Toyota Prius.  She was already freaked out by the experience of her narrow escape, and just wanted to get home.

And then, enter the Buggerer.  Egged on by Dick Cheney (waving a liberal in the face of the demon was like waving a thick porterhouse steak in front of a pair of ravenous rottweilers), The Buggerer threw his power of Dominator Strike at her.  Now, I should say that Dominator Strike is a ranged attack.  Energy beams, gouts of flame, sprays of ice, beams of molten lava are all Dominator Strike.  Well, in this case, my son, aka Jim Rainer/The Buggerer, defined the weapon as hypersonic rubber bands dipped in lemon juice.

So if you can imagine a freaked out young woman trying to start her hybrid car, fumbling with the ignition, hands shaking, tears running down her eyes like a torrential rain, and all of a sudden her driver side window shatters in a hail of lemony rubber band fire.  She gets lightly wounded by the glass and the bands.  Cheney eggs the Buggerer on.  The Buggerer fires another round of lemon juice rubber bands.  The liberal, her fact shoulders and neck a wreck from the cut of a million citric acid-laced rubber bands, slumps forward on the steering wheel...where suddenly the airbag deploys, bruising her face further.

Realizing to his horror that he stands a good chance of just having killed the woman, Jim stops, opens the driver side door of the car, and begins to render first aid.  At which point, Dick Cheney, realizing that The Buggerer still had one more use of Ghost Form left, just as Jim begins to render first aid, suddenly makes the Buggerer go immaterial again via Ghost Form, making it impossible for Jim to care for her.  It was at this point that I realized that I wasn't really part of the story here.  In fact, I never ran a story.  I ran one scene, and enough chaos flowed from that scene to fill a gaming session.  And it was the best gaming session I ever ran.

There were several times during the course of the evening, as the characters were dealing with the chaos around them, and frankly, sometimes just the consequences of their own poor choices, that I realized I had reached one of those moments where all I had to do was just introduce new elements to the chaos, and the players would thoroughly entertain themselves.  It's a feeling I've had only a few times in RPGs EVER and then only for a few fleeting moments.

With Better Angels, I had that feeling for three hours last Friday.  It should be noted that several of my players were lukewarm on playing the game at all.  By the end of it, now that they'd learned the system, and discovered some of their errors in building their first characters, they couldn't wait to play it again.

In conclusion, Better Angels is a unique take on what is, in general, a pretty tired gaming genre (supers), at least as run by a lot of GMs.  It's a brilliant idea, with brilliant mechanics, and frankly, the best game I will have purchased in 2013.  Don't walk, but run, and buy it.  You won't be disappointed.

4 comments:

  1. First off, thanks for mentioning No Security! Secondly, I couldn't agree more. I keep thinking in Better Angels games. It's a really exciting system for running games and creates a unique tone in the narrative that I don't think has been done before.

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    1. Thanks, Caleb.

      No problem with the mention of No Security. It was one of the best things I bought last year. FWIW, I'm going to run Lover in the Ice, as well as Before Lover in the Ice (based off the Drunk and the Ugly Actual Play) as a twofer at Maricopacon here in Phoenix in August. Lover in the Ice will be converted back to a Delta Green scenario, while Before Lover in the Ice (which I retitled Lover in Little Altamira) will be a standard Call of Cthulhu game.

      Re. Better Angels, I had two players (son and wife) who had played A Dirty World a couple of times, and two players who were unfamiliar with ORE. My wife was very skeptical about the game at first...by the end, she's wanting me to run it at home as well as with the folks I game with a couple of times a month. It and A Dirty World have a real Indie game vibe to them, but with Stolze's usual excellent pile of crunch. A Dirty World I consider to be the best match of mechanics with a genre I can imagine a designer coming up with.

      I was sorry to hear that your Better Angels campaign died a quick death. I've been thinking about the missing player syndrome a bit since I read Ross's post about it and I'm going to think on it a bit, since I am giving serious thought to running a short campaign myself. I don't think it's an insurmountable problem, but it will take a bit of creative thinking.

      BTW, Know Evil may have been the best AP campaign I've ever listened to. It made me almost want to pick up Eclipse Phase, and I hate transhumanism as a scifi genre for the most part.

      Anyway, thanks for the comment. I look forward to seeing what you all are up to next.

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  2. Funny that you mention the lost campaign game, actually. It's back on. With summer coming up, we usually add a second game night, and we're going to give things another shot sans the chronic absentee. Hopefully, we'll get started on that soon.

    I think campaigns can easily be done if the GM jumps in to screwtape; it just doesn't work with multiple people missing or someone constantly missing, which was our issue. I'm determined to see the game work in extended play if for no other reason than to see player moments like the one you described in your review snowball ever larger.

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    1. I'd already considered the GM screwtape option as Ross's post led me to think about that quite a bit.

      Re. multiple people missing, that'll kill just about any campaign. At that point, I'd usually consider breaking out board games, or Fiasco, or some such for the evening, and just run that for the evening. I usually have a Call of Cthulhu or pulp adventure (Hollow Earth Expedition or Spirit of the Century) on standby for those occasions when this happens.

      A chronically absent person, to me, would be the worst case scenario for this game, as it effectively disrupts two player characters instead of just one. I think the only solution would be to write that guy's character out of the game, and let somebody else take the demon half of the other character. It'd be suboptimal, but it's the only way I could see it work.

      I do think, like A Dirty World, it'd be nearly impossible to run a long campaign with Better Angels beyond a certain point. It seems to me that, barring a game where the human/demon relationships are frozen in stasis, either the demons would escalate the demands to the point that the human would be dragged to hell, or the human would get tired of the balancing act and try to figure out how to expel the demon.

      Still, I'm going to try to prove myself wrong, probably after the August local convention.

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