With S.M.A.S.H. on the horizon, I thought it would be a good idea to post a bit of a design blog on the game to provide some details as to how it works and what the design principles and inspiration is for the game.
Let’s start with the inspiration…
One of the two main groups that I play with has a higher tendency for scheduling issues, but it’s a large group, so whilst we regularly don’t have everyone together to play whatever long-form campaign we’re playing, we can usually manage to get enough to run a few one-shots in between. One of our go-to designers for one-shot games is Spencer Campbell of Gila Games. If you’ve not encountered his work, he’s a small indie publisher, like me, who produces zine-style games. However, one of Spencer’s main design philosophies is around the concept of asymmetrical games mechanics. I’ve encountered these mechanics in board games before, but the concept in a roleplaying game was intriguing.
S.M.A.S.H. will be released alongside a free adventure, COUNTDOWN TO DESTRUCTION
After playing a game of Nova, Spencer Campbell’s manga-style post apocalyptic power suits game, an idea that sparked in me (which, like many of my best ideas, came whilst sitting on the loo) to create an asymmetrical superhero game. The theory was that with superheroes, there was the biggest scope for making the game mechanics that each player was using completely different. I quick phone call to Nigel later and the design team was back together!
The first key to how the game would work was to come up with the basic structure for the game. I quickly hit upon the idea of splitting up what makes up a superhero into two main aspects: a Power Source and an Archetype. Whilst the archetype was possibly the most obvious option, basically covering what the superhero does, by separating that from how they get their powers - their power source - I was able to reduce the number of archetypes I needed. For example, a power suit hero like Iron Man, who basically flies around blasting stuff, could be a Blaster in the same way as the Human Torch, who also flies around blasting stuff.
From that starting point I realised I then needed some stats to provide the basic framework for the characters, and so came up with a Defense and a Power stat as that was all I felt it needed - the rest would come down to the unique mechanics of each archetype. However, I then started to think about the alter ego aspect of the superhero genre, and that led to me adding a third stat, Skill, that also seemed to fit in well with the superhero archetypes I was starting to conceptualise - making a difference between those who focused on the skill of how they applied their powers rather than the raw power they wielded. Think about the difference between Captain America and Superman.
So I had three aspects that make up your character: power source, hero archetype and alter ego, and three basic stats: Defence, Power and Skill. All I needed now was to start putting together the choices.
I’ll start by talking about the alter-ego options. They weren’t the first thing I designed, but they’re pretty simple to explain, so I’ll get them out of the way. The idea of an alter ego playing an important part in your character build came out of my thinking about how the “big picture” game would work. The superhero stuff is largely something you only use in fights, but most of the actual roleplaying would come out of the bits between the fights, where your super powers matter little.
I wanted the mechanics here to be super-(if you’ll excuse the pun)-simple. I didn’t want a load of mechanics to get in the way of roleplaying. I basically figured that pretty much all you would need some game mechanics for during these phases of the game was to discover the clues that led you to uncovering the supervillain’s nefarious schemes. So, I made a short list of the different ways in which you might discover clues - things like interrogating people, searching an area, following tracks or performing some science experiment. That game me a basic skill list, and then I created a lost of alter ego archetypes you see in the comic books and movies and married the two together.
That wasn’t quite the end of the story, though, because I wanted asymmetry involved at every stage of the game, so just having every alter ego essentially just using the same list of skills wasn’t on-mission. Hence each alter ego was also given its own special rules, still focused on collecting clues, but each managing it in a very different way. Some alter egos also have different formulas for calculating their levels in each skill, adding further diversity.
Building a Superhero
Power Sources and Archetypes were designed pretty much together. I think I’d got an initial design down for the Brick and Blaster before heading back to think about the power sources before then finishing off the archetypes. Whilst splitting these two aspects up makes for a good choice in a lot of ways, it creates a bit of a design bottleneck when it comes to asymmetry - there needs to be a standard interface that the power source and archetype both connect to, or it wouldn’t work. That interface was Power Points. Basically, your Power Source would determine how many power points you got, and how regularly they regernerated, and the archetypes would then spend these points to achieve their mechanical impact on the game. Given this, I needed to make sure each archetype and power source was different enough to really make the asymmetry “sing”.
Let’s start by having a quick look at power sources, then we’ll come back to archetypes…
It became pretty quickly clear that the power source was a fairly simple beast. It only really had two factors to think about: how many power points did you get, and how quickly do you recover them. After that we could throw in a special rule of two for the ones that needed it, and the job was done. Let’s have a quick look at some of the key ones:
- Alphabetically superior is Absorption, used for those heroes who power themselves up from being attacked. This one was fairly straight forward. They shouldn’t start with many points, but have the ability to generate them as they take damage.
- Next up was “Blessing”. We used this to represent those heroes who had a fairly consistent supply of power, but had the ability to have their powers turned off, such as with Superman and Kryptonite. We decided Blessing should have a moderate power supply that refreshes every turn.
- Innate heroes, used for charatcers like mutants. In contrast to Blessing, this wanted to be low power that you can always use, so they got the ability to ignore Power Points entirely, and use low-level powers for free. However, if they want to use big effects they will need to exert themselves, essentially meaning they damage themselves to do it.
- At the other end of the spectrum comes the Summomers, who can hold a large amount of power, but can only refresh that power when they take an action to summon more power points.
- Then we needed to think about the sort of heroes who aren’t actually superpowered - Batman, Iron Man and the like. We figured these will basically fall into one of three categories: power suits, gadgets and those who are trained to replicate superpowers through their skill (like a spellcaster, for example). Power suits gain a power source that refreshed each turn, but can be reduced as your suit got damaged, gadgeteers have to pre-pay for their powers in gadgets, and “technique” users needed to make a dice roll to see if their power could successfully go off.
There are some superhero archetypes that come directly to mind. As proof of concept, I’d done an initial design for the Brick and Speedster, but there soon followed a brainstorming session where we tried to think of as many different superheroes as we could and define what archetype and power source they might belong to. That left us with eight archetypes we were confident would fit every hero you could think of. I’ll get to them in more detail in a bit, but for now, let’s have a look at how we working in the asymmetry.
The first thing we needed to consider was the next design bottleneck - how would these characters interface with the enemy. For combat, we needed some universal mechanics, but we also needed to maximise the asymmetry. For this we came up with three calculated stats - Attack, Initiative, and Hit Points, and then gave each hero a different method for calculating each of them. This also allowed us to focus characters on the core stats that were most applicable to that archetype. Bricks, for example, will be better with a high Defence, whilst Blasters will benefit from a high Power stat and Martial Artists from a high Skill.
As we were building a short list of archetypes to cover a vast array of superhero concepts, we couldn’t just have each hero having it’s own set way of working. Each of them would need a bunch of options to pick from so that you can create a range of characters from a single archetype. We quickly hit upon a two-tier system where each archetype would select Power Moves, and then each of these could be assigned Upgrades. The Asymmetry would come not only from what these powers would actually do, but also from how each archetype would get to select their power moves and upgrades. Finally, we also gave each archetype its own special rules that could change anything about the archetype’s approach to the game.
Let’s have a look through each archetype to see how we achieved this asymmetry:
- Blasters: Blasters gain a special rule that sees them rolling dice for damage. Their calculated stats favour Power above all others. Their power moves tend to have a variable power point cost, and come with a scaling effect as a result. Every blaster gains the Blast power move, and then they can choose from other powers and upgrades, being able to apply any known upgrade without it affecting the cost.
- Bricks: Bricks have special rules that allow them to respond to enemies, moving and getting stronger as enemies attack them, and soaking damage for the team. Their calculated stats favour Defence, and to a lesser extent, Power. Bricks get to choose upgrades for their power moves without costing them choices, but instead it increases the cost to use that power.
- Controllers: Controllers’ powers work by controlling objects or creatures, called Thralls, and getting them to do their bidding. Their calculated stats favour Power and Skill over defence. As with Blasters, Controllers all get the Summon Thrall power move, but this is actually the only power move the class has. Instead they have a large suite of upgrades for this power to choose from that modify the strength and utility of their Thralls.
- Every Hero: The Every Hero is a themed superhero - Spiderman is a great example. When creating an every hero you choose three keywords to define your theme, which then determine what powers you can buy. They prefer a balance of stats in their calculated stats. Every heroes buy power moves and upgrades in a similar manner to Bricks (upgrades don’t cost them options but increase the power point cost), but in addition each power move has a list of keywords, and the more keyword matches you have, the fewer of your choices it will cost you to learn that power move. As a result they have probably the broadest range of powers as an archetype, but lacking the right keywords will reduce this list for each individual build. Every hero is by far the most versatile of the archetypes at character creation.
- Martial Artist: The martial artist’s special rules all revolve around how their powers work. Every martial artist power move is a reaction to something else, often another of your power moves, allowing them to chain together combos of power effects. As a result they can choose a special combat Stance, which affects some of their power moves, and a rule that determines how many moves they can chain together at a time. Their calculated stats heavily favour Skill.
- Mimic: Mimics copy the powers from other superheroes. They have a special rule that determines who they can copy, and then they can choose their powers each round, rather than choosing them at character creation. The archetype of the hero or villain that they are mimicking, however, restricts what powers they are able to use in the same round. That said, they do have a special rule called “Sticky Powers” that allows them to have powers that they always have access to, a bit like Rogue’s super strength and flight abilities.
- Shapeshifters: The shapeshifter archetype was basically designed to combine together two common superhero archetypes: those that transform between different forms, like Ant Man and Beast Boy, and those who stretch and warp their body to achieve different effects, like Mr Fantastic. As a result, one of their special rules, Mastered Forms, allows them to pre-pick a collection of different powers and activate them together. Their calculated stats prefer Power and Defence over Skill. When a Shapeshifter learns a new power move, they automatically learn all the upgrades associated with it. Each power move has a variable cost and scaling effect (similar to Blasters), but they get to choose to apply a number of upgrades based on the points that they spent on the effect itself.
- Speedsters: The Speedster’s special rule allows them to activate multiple times in the round, in reaction to enemy activations. This allows the speedster to keep moving and attacking throughout the round. Their calculated stats favour Power and, to a lesser extent, skill. Speedsters, like Shapeshifters, learn any upgrades with they learn a new power move, but, unlike shapeshifters, they have to spend extra power points to use them, and are limited to using one per activation - their power comes from being able to act several times, so their powers are individually a bit weaker than other archetypes.
Hopefully now I’ve given you a flavour of how the game works and whet your appetite for this amazing game. It’s due to release soon, so watch this space or, if you’re reading this later, head over to DriveThruRPG.com to pick it up!