(Cross-posted to RPG.net.)
Chad Underkoffler’s Truth & Justice is a deceptively simple system packing a wallop of a punch. It will satisfy players by giving them superheroes (and villains) that are badass from the start, and it will make the GM’s life easier by making it a breeze to handle surprises and create even major NPCs on the fly.
When you first pick up the book or open the PDF, the impression is of a more “cartoony” style of superheroes than you get from reading, say, Hero or Mutants & Masterminds. The art says “Saturday morning cartoons,” not “The Ultimates” or “Wonder Woman.” While the layout is generally clear and legible, with different font styles clearly marking different levels and boxed content indicating side notes, the look and feel are not polished. If I can be granted one wish for T&J’s future by the magic Small Press Fairy, it will be for a re-release with a stylish layout like those produced by Fred Hicks.
The book may seem short at 130 pages, but one of the reasons is that the very nature of the system allows a great deal of useful character information to be packed tightly; as a result, NPC listings use up very little space.
The book is generally well organized, and it’s pretty easy to find information. There is no index, but there is a comprehensive table of content. There are a few instances for which I had to flip back and forth to cross-reference information, but they are minor.
Chapter 1 is a gem, discussing the superhero genre in general. Where others tuck away such thoughts far back in the GM’s section, Chad Underkoffler brings this discussion of heroism and “mad, beautiful ideas” right up front. Here is laid out the goal, the grail of what we seek to re-live or create when we play superheroes. This is the benchmark by which the game measures itself.
If the feel of superhero comics is the “truth” of T&J, then the system is its “justice.” Chapter 2 presents an overview of the rules, expanded from the core Prose Descriptive Quality (PDQ) system which Atomic Sock Monkey Press makes available online for free. The basics are extended with a super-scale to cover time, duration, speed, range, etc.. Chapter 3 discusses the steps of character creation and the use of Hero Points and MAX (more on this later.) Chapter 4 presents a menu of super-powers and discusses stunts, and Chapter 5 explores super-combat.
Chapter 6 explores techniques and provides advice for creating campaigns and running the game, as well as supplying some stock NPCs. Chapters 7 through 9 present three sample setting: Second-String Supers, where the PCs form a team of less powerful substitutes who may, together, be able to meet the challenge when the local first-stringer superhero is out of town; SuperCorps, where the PCs are mercenary consultant superhumans working for big corporations; and Fanfare for the Amplified Man, where the PCs are on some level heroes: gifted doctors, brave firefighters, selfless volunteers, etc., that have each come into possession of a strange piece of jewelry — “the Amplifier or “Amp” — that grants them superhuman abilities.
Finally, Chapter 10 presents an exaustive bibliography of books, comics, movies, television shows, and games that marked the book and the genre; and Chapter 11 offers a variety of GM and player aids such as optional random-roll tables and quick-reference charts.
OK, so how does it work? Mechanically, all rolls rely on rolling two six-sided dice and adding a quality (normal scale) or a power (super-scale) to the total, against either a set difficulty level or an opponent’s roll. Under various circumstances — e.g., by using the setting or equipment to their advantage, through the use of Hero Points, or with great narration — players can gain one or more upshifts (+2 per upshift) to their total.
Qualities are not picked from a list but defined “free-form” or “do it yourself”, like traits in Over The Edge or FUDGE, or skills in Unknown Armies. There is a handy list of Powers, but one can also create some free-form Powers although this should be discussed between GM and player. Both Qualities and Powers are given a rating: Poor (-2), Average (0), Good (+2), Expert (+4), or Master (+6). Only the very top of the normal scale, Master-level Qualities, can even attempt to counter even a weak effect that is on the super-scale.
If you take the bell curve from FUDGE or Feng Shui and slide the scale so the two dice results can be added together instead of subtracted from one another, you get a very similar curve, except that T&J is grainier (fewer steps on the stairs, if you will.) But since adding is faster for most players, it makes play a little smoother in this respect.
There are three levels of task resolution: simple situations, where a character that has an applicable quality or power at a rank higher than the difficulty rank of the task automatically succeeds — no need to roll dice; complicated situations, where the character rolls against a static difficulty; and conflict situations, where two characters roll off against one another.
Layered onto the basic simplicity are a few “fiddly bits”: vulnerabilities, limitations, stunts, etc. that allow more customization and offer a streamlined version of the tweaks found in more elaborate systems.
One of the most interesting features of the PDQ system and its applications like Truth & Justice is its abstract damage system:
Damage (be it physical, mental, emotional, or social) is the loss of capability. As a character takes damage, he is less likely to be able to perform at peak efficiency. This is shown by a temporary Downshift applied to the character’s listed abilities called either a Failure Rank or a Damage Rank, depending upon the nature of the conflict. The player selects which of his Qualities or Powers takes the damage/Downshift(s), and can spread out the damage across several abilities at once. Whichever ability of the character that the player decides takes the first hit of damage in a conflict generates a Story Hook. […] Basically, in any T&J conflict situation, some of a character’s Qualities and Powers can be thought of as useful for either “attack,” “defense,” or “absorption.”
Damage is recovered at different rates depending on the conflict. Whichever quality or power a PC uses to absorb the first damage in a given episode is used by the GM as the source of a subplot (Story Hook). In our games, we sometimes substitutes a flashback when we have enough story hooks already or when it’s a one-off game.
When I first read this, I thought it was a munchkin’s dream come true. Sure, the brick will absorb damage with the social qualities and keep on fighting! But it actually fits the superhero genre very well, where most damage is largely cosmetic and the heroes get more effective through the fight as they get more beaten up. It also explains, for example, why Peter Parker is always in trouble at work or rescuing Aunt May: it’s because he took the first hit with his “Loves Aunt May” quality or absorbed damage with “Photographer at the Daily Bugle.”
Example: Spiderman takes 3 levels of damage from the Green Goblin. He doesn’t want to downshift any of the abilities he’s using in this fight, so he absorbs it by downshifting the qualities Loves Aunt May, Photographer at the Daily Bugle, and Loves Mary Jane each from Good to Average. Because he picked Loves Aunt May first and this is the first damage he’s sustained this episode, this will spin off into a Story Hook involving Aunt May in an upcoming episode. If Peter had picked another pepper, perhaps absorbing his first damage level by downshifting Wall-Crawler to absord social failure rank when arguing with J. Jonah Jameson, he might instead encounter a Story Hook involving his power becoming unreliable.
Finally, the experience system: in short, the more often you earn Hero Points — e.g., by activating your flaw (your Poor quality), by accepting a “Revoltin’ Development” such as the villain escaping, or by providing sterling role-playing or clever ideas — the quicker you advance. You increase or gain qualities and powers by spending MAX, which also represents the maximum number of Hero Points you can hold. But you gain a tickmark (call it experience, if you will) for every Hero Point award; when you have as many tickmarks as your current MAX score, your MAX increases by one and your tickmarks zero out. So if you spend MAX, you regain it faster!
Example: Nightcrawler starts with the standard 5 Hero Points and MAX of 10. He can earn and spend Hero Points all he wants; but right now, tha maximum number of Hero Points he can hold at any one point is 10 (MAX). If he has to accept a Revoltin’ Development and get captured by the Green Goblin, or if he uses his Poor (-2) Wants Acceptance quality, or acts heroically, etc., he gets more HPs — but until he spends some, he can only add up to 5 to the 5 he already has. Once he has received 10 Hero Point awards, his MAX goes (say it with me!) up to 11. In-between games, Nightcrawler’s player wants to spend a bit of this improving his Swashbuckling quality from Good (+2) to Expert (+4). He spends 4 points of MAX, raising the quality by one rank and dropping his MAX to 11 – 4 = 7. This time, Kurt will only need 7 Hero Point awads before raising his MAX score to 8.
At the time Atomic Sock Monkey Press released Truth & Justice, I had played Champions (3rd ed.), Villains & Vigilantes (2nd ed.), Underground, Aeon Trinity, Savage Worlds: Necessary Evil, and Mutants & Masterminds (2nd ed.); and I had run Silver Age Sentinels (Tri-Stat). I was planning to restart a campaign that had previously run on SAS, but I had decided to switch to M&M2e. My husband suggested that I look at T&J; but upon reading it, I thought this sytem would be too grainy, making characters too similar and giving a cartoony feel. In addition, I was afraid that it could very much lend itself to player abuse with its open-ended power descriptions. I went ahead with M&M and forgot about T&J.
Later that year, my husband ran a T&J game based on the Marvel mini-series Nextwave! for our local club, where we like to try different systems. It was a smash hit, and another GM liked it so much that he ran a few more episodes. I discussed changing systems in my own campaign, but by then my six players had made the effort to start with M&M and were in no mood for another switch.
Still, I was now interested in the PDQ system. I had a chance to play a few games of The Zorcerer of Zo in late 2006 and early 2007, which helped me grow comfortable with the basics of the system. Finally, a couple of months ago I got my group to give the Truth & Justice system a try, promising that if anyone at all asked to, we would abandon the experiment. I treated the episode as the “annual” for our comic book.
They loved it! One of the players who had been least interested in conversion, and is a self-described casual gamer, led the lobby for change this time. So we converted the characters right at the game table at the next session. That was an excellent demonstration: everyone remembered how much work it had been to create a superhero in other systems. We had time to do the character conversion/creation and to play a full episode!
Another one of my players, who in the 8 years we’ve been gaming together has rarely designed his character himself (he usually grabs a template or lets the GM write a character for him) turned down my offer of help and made his character all by himself. Granted, his way may not have been as efficient, but here’s the beauty of it: in T&J, it doesn’t really matter! Even if your character is not super-duper-optimized and munchkinized, it will still be kicking butt!
Between the players’ response and the fact that as GM, my work is so much easier (“Uh, the Public Defender? She has, hm, Expert Argue her way out of a paper bag, Good Connections, and Poor Hates to be patronized…”), I love my game right now.
Making characters is a breeze. My players, who in the last few years had had to deal with character creation in Shadowrun 3 and 4, Earthdawn, Ars Magica 4 and 5, and M&M2e (all of which pretty much require a spreadsheet or character generator), were very fearful, but the process was painless. We did notice that players perform much better in play with a character they have designed than with pre-gens.
Free-form is hard! Since we’re all trained to be good, honest players who make reasonable, balanced characters, it can be disconcerting at first to be allowed to pack so much into a character. Is it cheesy to use the quality “Top Cop” to intimidate a suspect, find clues, shoot, and pull strings? Hell no. That’s how the game works. You may get a downshift for things that are less central (e.g., shooting), but it still works.
Bringing in new players. Because characters start effective right away, bringing in new players does not show the usual painful disparity between starting and seasoned characters.
Creativity & initiative. The system is so light and unobtrusive that players stop worrying about rules and start bringing the house down. They start riffing off each other’s moves, stacking powers in creative ways, coming up with entertaining setbacks for their own characters in order to earn Hero Points, and creating fun flashbacks. They’re suddenly much more active and take the initiative.
Effectiveness: munchkins and max-min’ers. Because every quality has the same abstract value, it’s not so important to optimize a character. We’ve had one character do great things with the Master-level quality… Interior Decorator. The characters that are at first glance ineffectively built (we call them max-min’d) have held their own, and munchkins are not particularly scary because they’re not that effective.
Damage in play. I was afraid the damage system would feel silly, or too easy. Instead, it’s given us a very good comic book feel. There is no lack of suspense just because players see their characters’ qualities dwindle instead of hit points or wound levels. If anything, it’s ratcheted the drama a notch, as players tend to hold on not just to their characters’ offensive capabilities, but to their defining qualities.
Comic book or cartoon? In the end, the flavour has been very much what we read in our favourite comic books, not just in the funnies. We’re playing the Wildstorm line, not Krypto the Super-Dog.
Is Truth & Justice for you? GMs will probably love it since it makes it so easy to prepare and run games. And if is seems a bit new-fangled (not really, but it may sound that way), be reassured that it’s very much a “traditional” RPG with a GM, dice, experience, and fiddly bits to customize characters. This is not the “My Dinner with Andre” RPG!
If you prefer the very exact style of Hero, the vast amount of sourcebooks of d20 lines, or the extensive background of the World of Darkness, then you may not be satisfied with T&J.
However, if you like the idea of quick and free-form character creation, a plot-driven abstract damage system, and a light little game engine, T&J may become your best friend.