Friday, July 23, 2010

Bring On The Batman

I love Batman[1]. Lots of people do. But he's hard to talk about because there are, like, thirty seven different Batmen[2] depending upon which media you're absorbing, which writer is at the helm, the needs of that particular story and so many other things. Elements of character (Anger, calculation, paternal instincts, striving for human contact) and capability (Detective, martial artist, gadgeteer, icon of fear, iron will, long term planner) shift around based on the specific vision, and the particulars of the title that he's in. The Batman who patrols the streets of Gotham and the Batman who fights alongside Superman in the JLA[3] are so different as to be almost unrecognizable. Almost. Somehow, they're all still Batman, and that's a testimony to the power of the character.

This introduces an interesting and long-established challenge in gaming - how to mechanically represent Batman. Part of the interest of this problem is that it's very easy to model any particular Batman, even the JLA one, but very difficult to model all of them. If JLA batman were unleashed on the streets of Gotham, those would make for some very boring stories because he'd outclass the challenges so quickly as to perhaps be funny, at least for a little while. Similarly, Gotham Batman isn't going to last long on Apokolips.

The easiest solution is to fragment up the "levels" of play, so that street-level Batman simply has a different set of stats than JLA level Batman. Unfortunately, people seem uncomfortable with this sort of approach, because it's a bit too meta for taste.

Another option is to try to point balance things so that Batman really is as tough as other JLA'ers, at least on paper. The old DC Heroes game did this and, to be frank, it was pretty crazily broken since it managed it through what can only be described as an arbitrary and capricious pricing structure.[4] The net result was a Batman who was technically "balanced" (ish) with Superman by using a build you would never, ever see in play.

If you want a really fiddly solution, you can make it all about resource management. Batman has a ton of 2 point tokens, Superman has a dozen 10 point ones. When faced with almost any problem, Superman can overcome it by spending a token, but that's maybe not smart if it's a small problem. In contrast, batman needs to spend a LOT of tokens (like 16 of them) to get a 10 point effect, so it's not cost effective for him to do the big whammies. So Batman uses his tokens to deal with small menaces (though he can combine them when he must) and makes sure Superman has the "budget" to deal with the real problems. [5]

The last simple option is to make up the difference in narrative control. If it costs 20 "points" to make Batman in your system, but 100 to make Superman, then you hand Batman's player 80 points worth of narrative control, usually in the form of something like Fate Points. Now Batman has the ability to make declarations and manipulate events with the explanation being that he "planned for it". When he's not playing at that level, his Fate Point supply falls down to the appropriate budget (so maybe it's a 40 point gap when he's with the Outsiders, and no gap at all at the street level).

This actually works pretty well on paper, but in practice it depends a lot on how the Fate Point economy works. If Batman has only a few more Fate Points than Superman, or Superman can earn them just as easily as Batman, then they stop being a unique point of distinction for Batman.

Thankfully, this a solvable problem. I mean, I can't tell you what the solution is because it depends on the game. For example, the Refresh mechanic in the Dresden Files RPG[6] addresses a similar problem to this, but it does it on an abbreviated scale. The difference between a 10 refresh character and a 1 refresh character is noticeable, but it's no Batman vs. Superman. But even it can break down depending on how the game is played. In a game with stingy rewards, high refresh is very potent. In one with generous awards or lots of free tag opportunities, then a difference in refresh doesn't represent much of a handicap.[7] This is one of those things that's going to be determined from table to table, from session to session, and it's very hard to come up with hard and fast rules for how to handle it.

The solution I find myself toying with is also allowing those "normal" characters more bang for their buck, so that Batman not only gets more Fate Points, he can do more with them. This might be generic (like the list of effects or bonuses gets bigger and longer) or they could be bought (like superpowers) to do specific, schtick supporting things.

The former approach is, I think, pretty self explanatory; the latter is trickier. It runs the risk of looking a lot like Batman has a different character sheet at "JLA Tier", so that needs to be accounted for. While a bit ham-fisted, they could be explicitly called out as functions of the tier, not the character, but that's not terribly satisfying.

More effective, I think, would be some way to build these things so they scale up while supporting the same schtick, so the type of effect remains the same, but the scope of it changes with the scope of the game. Take, for example, Batman being the greatest detective in the world. At the street level that lets him do all kinds of Sherlock Holmes stuff, but at the JLA level, that Sherlock Holmes stuff scales up to things like outsmarting alien god minds, and making plans that unfold over millennia. . At street level, his icy glare can make a gangster back down. At the JLA level, it can cow the warlord of a thousand worlds. All because he's just that awesome

What I like about this approach is that it allows you to support the other human-but-awesome characters. If you go with a generic system (where they all just get more fate points, or generically more useful fate points) then the difference between Batman and Green Arrow becomes one of schtick, not mechanics, because when you're operating at Superman's level, it really doesn't matter if that attack came from a bow or a batarang,

With unique "narrative powers"[8], you can call out Green Arrow's schtick so that he can, for example, spend a fate point to create a situation where there's a tiny target that needs to be hit to great effect. "Great effect" might mean blowing up a car (at street level) but it might mean killing a sun (at JLA level).[9] As I think about it, this works incredibly well for gadgets. Street gadgets might include a mini blowtorch and some flash bombs. Super Or higher level gadget start getting much sillier (though one of the nice things about not-superfriends Batman is they keep the gadgets toned down these days. I dig that.)

It'll be worth thinking some about what these things-to-be-named later look like. It's easy to come up without he first dozen or so, but it may take some kicking around before I'm convinced this is a sustainable idea.

As a final nod, twitter shout out to @semiocity, @boymonster, @ThadeousC , @johnoghue and others whose discussion drove me to this post, which was quite different in its intent when it started.

1 - I love Superman too, but this is not the time for that particular geek dialectic.

2- And about 6 different Bruce Waynes, just for good measure.

3 - For those only passingly familiar, here's the issue in a nutshell. The JLA has guys like Superman, Green Lantern, Wonder Woman and The Flash. Batman is smart and tough and fast, but he's still a normal guy, so those really only go so far. So given that, how does Batman keep from being utterly useless when fighting villains who are dangerous enough to threaten the whole Justice League? Historically (think Superfriends, if that means anything to you) it was by making him a gadget guy, to the point where his utility belt probably outclassed Green Lantern's ring as an item of power. Modern writers have concentrated more on the tactical and planning advantages of havign the World's Greatest Detective on the team, and Grant Morrison's JLA run cemented Batman as a chessmaster, the guy who wins because he's always several moves ahead of any opposition.

4 - Pricing skills in a supers game is tricky, but it gets really crazy when they're treated like they're on par with powers. If Martial Arts are more expensive than Heat Vision, you may have a problem.

5- Entirely impractical, I know, but it's an interesting thought experiment. Consider, for examine, that many other JLA-ers may have 8 point tokens.

6 - Short form: The more magic you have, the fewer fate points you begin a session with.

7 - Which is why we don't depend on refresh as the *sole* balancing mechanic.

8 - Oh, god, as soon as I said that, I broke out in hives. That's a horrible, fight-picking name. It desperately needs to be called something else. I mean, in FATE terms they're a particular flavor of stunts, but that's not an answer. Aspect stunts? Might make sense in Fate terms that these stunts need to be tied to a specific aspect, like "Greatest detective in the world" or "Master Archer"

9 - Yeah, as an aside, the Archer power is not to be more accurate, but rather to create situations where being accurate matters.


  1. I'm going to be interested in your take on how we handled powers (aka Abilities) and non-super narrative traits (Distinctions) for Smallville.

  2. @Cam I'm intensely curious to see how you do it! Though I can voice the thing I;m looking to see: I think that generalized powers (Spend a point to do something super strong) work for a lot of things, but the one thing they have trouble with is when two characters have the same power, especially if the difference in their level is important.

    That is to say, I don't think it's too big a deal for super strength, at least in the scope of Smallville, because in a fight between two super strong dudes, it's more about the fight than the precise yardstick of strength.

    But it is perhaps a bit more clear in a case like Superspeed. It's important to me that Bart be able to waggle his eyebrows and leave Clark in the dust. If their superspeed's aren't distinguished in that fashion, I would feel kind of disappointed if i were playing Bart.

    So, I'm really curious about the relationships and stuff, but that's the powers question I'm super curious to see how Smallville answers.

  3. The show usually depicts everybody's super-speed as more or less equivalent; people who can do it can interact with others who can do it at "normal speed" etc.

    In cases where one is trying to outrun another, it comes down to dice, and Bart has a d12 compared to Clark's d10.

    And even then, I'd generally say if it's a question of "who gets there first?" the higher die rating kicks the other one's ass, assuming nothing else is factored into it.

  4. So, one thing this idea would depend on is a tiered system to denote the level of adventures. For simplicitly, let's assume there are 3 tiers: Heroic (street level), Super Heroic (Teen Titans, Outsiders, Mid-list Supers), and Big Damn Heroes (Morrison's JLA, Superman, Wonder Woman, other A list heroes).

    Given those tiers, lets use an example that's been growing in my head - Wealth. Bruce Wayne is rich, with a big company behind him. In practice, this translates into a deep well of resources that he can draw on, over and above static things like the Batcave.

    At heroic level, his wealth is useful since he can buy out small problems and perform acts of generosity without a problem. Wayne Corporation is powerful, but not invulnerable, and it's the biggest company in town (like a car company in old Detroit)

    At the Super-heroic level, he can casually buy stylized jets and lairs in far off corners of the world. Wayne Co. is Fortune 100 and is a force on a global scale. Plotwise, anything that can threaten Wayne Co is something huge, world-domination huge, or at least nearly so.

    At the Big Damn Heros level, Wayne Co. is bigger than anything but Lexcorp, and is one of the top five richest companies on the planet. If money can buy it, then he can have it. He can bankroll armies and maintain vast networks as needed. Very little on the planet can even touch it.

    At each level, the "power" is similar - Batman has access to wealth an resources through the company owned by his Alter Ego - but the specific manifestation varies.

    That help any?

  5. I like your idea of just scaling it up when he's with the high-power heroes. Whether he's taking on street toughs or Darkseid, he can do the same thing, and often does.

    This is why I like more simplistic, "don't worry too much about the numbers"-type supers systems. Focus more on the badassery and make the rolls, don't worry so much about the numbers.

  6. You've reasoned your way to the same neighborhood of an idea I've been brewing on for a while. Get me on AIM or something, soon, it's better discussed realtime.

  7. I am liking this "scoping" idea.

    "Street gadgets might include a mini blowtorch and some flash bombs. Super Or higher level gadget start getting much sillier (though one of the nice things about not-superfriends Batman is they keep the gadgets toned down these days. I dig that.)"

    JLU Batman uses a lot more specialty gear (explosive batarangs, electric brass knuckles, etc.) than B:tAS Batman, so this tracks.

  8. Or, as Batman says in Justice League: The Ultramarine Corps (also by Morrison): "I'm opening the sci-fi closet, Alfred. Don't tell my friends in the G.C.P.D. about this." (Where he breaks out a boom tube gauntlet to teleport to the JLA remote lab on Pluto.)

  9. @steve I was trying to remember when that happened! It's a PERFECT example!

  10. Another thought or two:
    * You can also get differentiation with different thresholds. Blue Beetle And Batman were both Rich, but BB's only tiered up to Superheroic. In a JLA adventure, his wealth wouldn't bring much to the table.

    * That tiering may suggest there's only one top slot. That is to say, Batman and Mister Miracle might both scale up to JLA level escape artistry if they're on their own, but if they're together, only MM scales up. Dynamically allocates spotlight, but it might also seem a little too forced.

    * And, lord, this so very much applies to science. All science. If Barry Allen were as good with Forensics as he is in old JLA, he should be off writing papers and founding institutions.

    * This might even apply to some full on super heroes. Plastic Man is one of the most powerful heroes on the planet, but he also can get tied to a lamppost by a burly gangster, depending on the story. Though his powers are concrete, it's possible they might scale as well.

  11. Gotham and JLA Batmen "are so different as to be almost indistinguishable." I think that's not quite what you meant to say.

  12. *laughs* You're right, though that's an awesome error.

  13. See? This is the horrible power of twitter. I watched you guys have this conversation in real time and I was horrified then. And now the post is here I am even more horrified because now even I am thinking about how to scale Batman appropriately.

    This scaling problem is common all over the place in anything that has supers/gods/fairies/etc. where the powers are uneven. It's a problem with Supers but it was an immense issue in a game like In Nomine where the difference between a drone to a guy sent to Earth to a Dude with a Word to some Huge Archangel was vast but was quantized poorly. And even the Huge Archangel Dudes were uneven against each other in ways poorly expressed.

    I shall name this and dub this The Batman Problem and shall henceforth refer to it as thus for all time immortal.

  14. And now, the Rogue problem, followed by the Scarlet Witch problem.

  15. The Rogue problem is, thankfully, pretty specific and (equally thankfully) pretty obvious. The solution is "you're a twink, sod off".

    Scarlet Witch problem is solved by GM no longer trying to date that player.

  16. HAHAHA

    Actually, I tend to solve the Rogue problem, at least in thought exercises, by determining about how many powers a character has to take in order to be omni-effective, and then charge Rogue for that many powers. Other strategies include the whole "okay, you've taken too much, now you get those powers but get to roll around on the ground and not use them" bit.

  17. That gets me to thinking of the opposite problem - what happens when you want a Cosmic-scale character to participate in a smaller-scale story?

  18. @lenny I've been thinking about the same thing. And in some cases, reverse scaling works just fine. Spider Man just needs to be a little faster than whoever he's fighting, whether it's a herald of Galactus or some guy with brass knuckles, so that's easy to scale.

    But Superman...that's rough. But what makes it rough is that I'm not sure what that comic/story _looks_ like, so I'm uncertain how to model it.

  19. As I summed up in the email I sent Rob (this whole scope thing actually very closely hits something I discussed with Ryan back towards the beginning of the year or so), I think it's just as "expensive" for Cosmic Super-Strength guy to use his power to deal with a "human scale" problem as it is for Lois Lane to use her Reporting skill to affect things on a cosmic scale. Superman doesn't use his super-strength to solve his human-scale problems (more to the point: when he does, it's rare), simply on the basis of "you don't hunt rabbits with a nuke."

  20. I've often used the scaling idea in superhero games and I find it works rather well.

    In dealing with something from a higher scale it is necessary for our heroes to break the problem down to their scale to deal with it. As a trivial example, a giant robot is attacking the city. The heroes have to not so much attack the robot (which is too big a problem to deal with holistically), as attack parts of the robot or actions the robot might take. This may include using the robots own strength against it.

    Dealing with something with a lower scale is easy. It just doesn't scale down. The robot is going to find it just as hard to hit our heroes as it will to hit something at it's own scale. Damage can also readily remain the same, since in genre, it is perfectly acceptable for the heroes to roll with the punch or dive for cover. Or be protected by the rubble. [It's a form of plot immunity, really.]

    [Whilst the example given is for a physical confrontation, it works for all manner of confrontations. If you purposefully upscale a character, the "special effects" change to be appropriate for the scale you are operating on, but the actual character remains essentially the same. As you say, blowtorch becomes laser cannon. If you downsclae a character you find that, even if they retain the powers, they cannot use them as effectively. Sure, summoning a hurricane level wind will swat your enemies en-masse, but it will also devastate the surrounding area they are in. Similarly, superman can't punch people because they'd break. He taps them instead.]


    The personal problem I have with biasing things with a fate or story point economy is that I prefer such economies to be very free-wheeling and tend to use them as reward incentives, encouraging their use. When the game mechanics rely on restricting the narrative powers of the players (as represented by the fate, style, or story points), I find it also tends to squeeze the players and they start becoming overly conservative with their spending of such points.

  21. @rob: Your "narrative powers" idea is perfectly valid, of course. I also find myself thinking about two other ways to deal, that may go together.

    First is the concept behind a lot of WFRP3 action cards: getting to use a high characteristic in a different arena. e.g. an Int-based action card (Find Weakness?) that let's you get bonuses toward a future combat roll etc.

    So your highly-trained humans might just have a single trait or small cluster that "scale up" - and they can essentially stunt off that. Batman's chessmaster or drive or your favorite Batman focus; Green Arrow's commitment to social justice or centeredness in his own humanity. The scores for these descriptors get a star after them, and are as high as any score in the game. And either the highest ranks only "unlock" in cosmic situations, or the stunt rules are set up so that there's no point in using them in Crime Alley: it's better just to hit somebody.

    The other thing to bring in IMHO is "maps," broadly considered. Sometimes this is a real map with a lot of important stuff on it. While Wonder Woman and Mongol kick each other around, Black Canary can find the secret door. I remember a late-70s/early-80s Avengers fight scene where Beast basically stands looking at the room while Thor and Iron Man et al wallop someone freaky powerful. The fight ends when Beast, basically, flips a key off-switch.

    Sometimes it might be a conceptual map like in Diaspora's social system. Supergirl and Flash can get themselves and the villains all the hell around the zones on the physical map. The Question and the Huntress can smack, drag or draw folks around the social/thematic map.

    These two ideas probably go together. They let the non-cosmic characters do meaningful stuff, but it feels different to play the Acrobatic Sleuth than it does to play the Stellar Centurion.

  22. Interesting post. I read it and then came back to it mentally as I was writing a post about statting characters as a reading comprehension activity in classrooms. Your points would make for great debate and discussion in a class where students watched or read difference incarnations of Batman.
    Thanks for the mind fodder.


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