Last night was the final session of the Roll20 ETU campaign we've been running since October 2017 (final blog post coming soon!). What's next for the Roll20 Gang? Here's a clue:
That's right, not content with exploring portals to alternate dimensions in ETU, the Roll20 Gang is headed for RIFTS Earth! But wait, there's more... starting with character creation, the gang and Happy Monster will be podcasting the actual plays of RIFTS for your audio enjoyment! Look for the first podcast sometime after our upcoming Kickstarter campaign for Legion of Liberty: Superheroes of 1776.
One significant worldbuilding challenge for Legion of Liberty was deciding how much the existence of superhumans would have changed history. Early on, we decided that superpowers were confined to the New World, meaning that they would have had no significant effect on European history until 1492. Afterwards, however, would the history of colonization have gone in a different direction if the Europeans were facing native superhumans?
Some of the answer to this dilemma came from the power levels of the campaign. The superhumans in Legion of Liberty are relatively low-powered compared to classic comic book heroes. Alone or in small groups, they are formidable, but by no means a match for a regiment of musket-wielding infantry. Further, the history of European colonization of the Americas is full of native groups siding with the Europeans for their own purposes. As an example, Cortes would have had a much more difficult time conquering the Aztec Empire had client states of that empire like the Tlaxcala not sided with Cortes as a means of (they thought) obtaining their independence. Of course, the history of colonization is also full of examples of the Europeans double-crossing their native allies as well.
As a result, we decided that European colonization would have proceeded more-or-less as it did historically. The one significant difference was the conscription of superhumans, which in Legion of Liberty is common to all of the colonial powers. While superhumans are not decisive on the battlefield, they have a significant psychological impact on morale for any side fighting against them. It's one thing to face a line of men with muskets just like you; it's another thing entirely to be blasted with lightning from a woman flying fifty feet over your head.
The conscription of superhumans into European armies made it unlikely that most historical figures of the American Revolution would have been superhumans. A few, however, notably Paul Revere (the Silver Speedster), could have bought their way out of conscription. Purchasing your way out of the draft is less bizarre than it might seem to modern ears - at the time, commissions as officers in the British Army could also be purchased, and, at least theoretically, all of the regular army soldiers were volunteers.
The forces that drove the American Revolution were therefore the same with or without superhumans: the British crown’s attempts to impose more burdens and greater order on colonies that had previously been left more or less to their own devices. The addition of conscription of young superhuman men and women simply adds another causus belli to the list of grievances raised by the colonists.
Developing a setting based on a historical, large scale war requires that the gamemaster consider how the players will participate in major battles. Fortunately, Savage Worlds provides a great starter framework with the Mass Battle rules. However, in the world of Legion of Liberty, superhumans are more powerful on a battlefield than, say, even a Veteran wizard in a battle between 5000 orcs and 3000 human knights. The question was then how to capture the importance of the presence of superhumans on the battlefield within the framework of the Mass Battle rules.
Late 18th century land warfare included a lot of formation fighting, mainly because of the horrible inaccuracy of muskets. While rifles were available at this point in history, they were extremely slow to load. A skilled musketeer could fire 4-5 rounds per minute; a skilled rifleman was lucky to fire once every two minutes. As a result, massed formations of infantry blasting musket volleys were the order of the day. An infantry unit could also form a square to defend against a cavalry attack, or spread out to minimize the effect of artillery fire (although the two in combination could be lethal, as the defense against one made the infantry terribly vulnerable to the other).
Where rifles were beginning to see use was in skirmishing. A skirmish force would spread out in pairs ahead of the main infantry formation. Their role was primarily to eliminate enemy skirmishers, followed by direct attacks on enemy leadership. Killing officers and sergeants could eliminate unit discipline and cohesion, and without the discipline of the formation, infantry generally broke and ran when attacked in force.
Superhumans, then, could act somewhat like skirmishers. We envisioned superhumans working much the same way – their primary responsibility would be to eliminate enemy superhumans, and then to strike at the main body of the enemy in whatever way best suited their powers. With this structure in place, a super-versus-super battle could be occurring in the midst of a larger scale battle. The setting rule we created has this individual combat affecting the morale of each side – losing a superhuman is a major blow, and if one side is more successful in defeating the other’s superhumans, the conventional forces might break and run.
Dramatically, this works very well – the characters both have a major influence on the battle and get to duke it out with British superhumans in standard Savage Worlds combat. The result is a “best of both worlds” flavor that fits the setting and makes for fast, fun, and furious gaming.
Once we had the initial concept of superheroes in the American Revolution, the next major mechanical question was how to model the superpowers. Savage Worlds offers at least three obvious alternatives for superpowers between Deluxe and Adventure editions – Arcane Background: Superpowers from Deluxe, Arcane Background: Gifted from Adventure, and the Superpowers Companion. Of the three, the Superpowers Companion rules are completely different from the other two, and our take on that ruleset was that it didn’t really suit a lower-powered, historical superhero game. Many of the powers had technological or sorcerous trappings that didn’t fit the concept, and the basic structure assumes the heroes have all their powers on day one, versus the setting concept of young superhumans growing into their abilities during the revolution.
With the Superpowers Companion put aside, that left the two Arcane Backgrounds. The major difference between the two is the skill used to invoke the character’s power. In Gifted, a single skill, Focus, is used for all powers; in Superpowers, each power has an individual skill. For the young heroes of the Legion, the idea that each could have wildly varying skill in various powers seemed to fit better. Further, distributing skill points among several superpower skills serves to slow the progression of the character’s abilities, keeping them more on par with musket-wielding foes.
Once we set the basic framework of the Arcane Background, we added some benefits for superhuman ancestry – extra skill and ability points to reflect the overall superiority of superhumans. These extras allowed for superhumans to start with, for example, higher Strength than would normally be possible for a Novice character without compromising every other attribute. Removing the maximums on attributes also provided the characters with the chance to grow into truly stupendous heroes if they chose to invest in specific attributes.
Two other decisions affected the structure of the superhumans, both Setting Rules from the core book. Born a Hero allowed Novices to take powers and Edges not normally available at their rank, setting them apart from the Extras around them. No Power Points both sped up the game by eliminating power point bookkeeping and also minimized “power stacking” where superhumans could buff up several abilities at once. No Power Points also mitigated the effect of allowing Novices to take extremely high level powers – the penalty for actually using the powers would be so punishing that the power would only work occasionally unless the player invested heavily in skills and Edges to provide bonuses.
I will be running an online game for Roll20Con again this year! The game is an excerpt from the Children of the Apocalypse campaign, and will run starting at 2:00 PM Eastern time on June 23. You'll find "Those Who Would Be Gods" on the Roll20.net Join a Game page - search for Savage Worlds and Roll20Con2018 and it's right up top. Hope to see some of you there!