Sunday, April 19, 2020

The easiest, fastest, most flexible super-power role-playing game

Well, that's what it says on the back cover of the Enforcers rulebook.  Perhaps the authors genuinely believed this.  If so, I hope they have since recovered from their substance abuse.  It's one thing to say your game is easy, fast, and flexible, but to employ superlatives sets expectations rather high.

Without a doubt, the authors were well versed in superhero role-playing games popular at the time.  They liked some aspects of those games and incorporated them into Enforcers.  Some aspects they didn't like and they attempted to design Enforcers in avoidance of these aspects (not necessarily successfully).  The rulebook has no Introduction, but an equivalent section called “Concepts Behind Enforcers” provides insight as to what the authors thought was wrong with these games.
We designed Enforcers with the intent of avoiding the pitfalls most of the super hero systems that have gone before us suffer from.  The following is a short list of some of these.
  1. Randomly generated, underpowered player characters that never get any better.
  2. Complicated character creation schemes that are time-consuming and require a Ph.D. in math to understand.
  3. Ability scores represented by words like Fantastic, Amazing, Incredible, Humongous (or is it Hughmongoose?)
  4. Systems that force you to run someone else's creation.
  5. Combat that moves too slowly and is too complex.
Admittedly, each individual “pitfall” was applicable to one or more systems, but no contemporaneous superhero games (let alone “most”) were afflicted with all of these flaws.  While “Concepts Behind Enforcers” indicates justifiable criticisms of other games, the back cover lists the selling points of Enforcers.
  • Creation point character generation in minutes.
  • Fast and easy combat system.
  • A complete magic system.
  • Create your own super-powers.
  • All alignments of characters allowed.
  • LOTUS® compatible spread sheet program for online character sheets
  • Step-by-step procedures provided for new players.
Listing a “spread sheet program” as a selling point does little to assure a potential buyer that the system is easy.  Given the publication date of 1987, a “program” consisted of printed code that a user was expected to enter manually.  Four pages are devoted to this code which, I expect, very few Enforcers players opted to employ.  In his Heroic Worlds, Lawrence Schick indicates that an “Enforcers Spread Sheet Disk” was offered as a related product.  In the entry for Enforcers, Schick states, “Complexity alert:  calculator required, as math formulas figure prominently in the rules.”  No other superhero game has such a warning.  The game itself recommends use of a calculator:
While all of the calculations involved in this system are simple, there are quite a few of them involved with initial character setup.  You can use this system without a calculator, but it will slow down the action quite a bit if you do.
In addition, character creation requires use of what are admittedly “mystic and arcane formulas.”  All this would seem to put the lie to the notion of Enforcers being the “easiest” system.  Why would the authors put forth such a preposterous claim?  I can only speculate.

Below is the stat block from the Enforcers character sheet.

To be fair, Enforcers offers charts for some of the calculations.

The basic statistics for Enforcers characters are Weight, Strength, Constitution, Agility / Dexterity, Intelligence, Comeliness, and Media Rating.  All are determined randomly, although the score for Weight can be determined “through an agreement between the player and the GM...”  Nonetheless, we are informed, “the GM should go to great lengths to avoid the ‘overweight superhero syndrome.’ ”  (In Enforcers, Weight is used in determining Hit Points and affects the calculation of other statistics, much like in Villains and Vigilantes.)

Other than random determination of basic statistics, Enforcers characters are generated by allocating creation points.  The rules inform us, “Fifteen creation points is a good amount to use if you want a low-powered campaign that grows slowly; twenty-five creation points will result in a more moderate rate of growth; and 35 CPs will result in a high-powered campaign that grows quickly right from the start.”  However, the first published module, The Knights of Beverly Hills, is intended for characters having forty creation points.

Creation points may be used to purchase powers and increase basic statistics (other than Weight and Media Rating).  Superhero role-playing games typically offer a selection of generic powers which can be modified by various enhancements and limitations.  In games like Champions and Superworld, these modifiers are presented as fractions by which the purchase cost of a power is multiplied.  Enforcers eschews this mechanic; each power has a set cost.  If a character's power is less effective than how it is described in the rulebook, the character receives points in the form of a weakness; if it is more effective, there is an additional cost “set by the GM...”  With one noteworthy exception, variations in cost are represented in whole numbers.  Only in this respect is Enforcers character generation 'easier' than that of other Superhero role-playing games; a distinction which is hardly worthwhile given the flaws evident in the game.

Let's take Sound Projection, “a standard offensive power” with a cost of six creation points.  As a “a standard offensive power,” the player chooses (1) his or her accuracy with the power and (2) the amount of damage it inflicts.  Accuracy is measured as BCTH (Base Chance To Hit) and damage is measured as DAM#.  As can be seen on Table 1, a BCTH anywhere from 26 – 75% does not modify the cost.  According to the rules, “At the time a power is initially purchased, the BCTH is fixed permanently and can never be altered unless the power is completely retaken a second time.”  You want to improve your ability through training, practice, and experience?  That's not going to happen in the Enforcers universe!  For standard offensive powers, “A character can have a DAM# of up to 10 with no additional cost...”  Each additional DAM# 10 (or fraction thereof) costs an extra creation point.  (For comparison, a Colt .45 has a DAM# 6.)  So, Sound Projection with BCTH 95% and DAM# 20 would cost 7.5 creation points.  What are you going to do with one-half of a creation point?  I don't know, maybe buy another standard offensive power?  Although  it's impossible to improve BCTH for an existing power, you can increase DAM# by 3 for every extra creation point spent.  Getting a BCTH of 120% for a mere point might seem like a sweet deal; however, a greater BCTH imposes a higher energy cost.  That's right, the better a character's aim, the more fatiguing it is to use the power.  The 'energy cost per use' formula is:

Energy Cost / Use = (DAM# × 3 × BCTH) / 1000

So, each use of our hypothetical Sound Projection power would have an energy cost of six (i.e., 5.7 rounded up).

What about claims of “Creation point character creation in minutes” and “Step-by-step procedures provided for new players”?  Well, it's all relative.  The age of the universe can be measured in minutes.  Any “Step-by-step procedures” doubtless make perfect sense to the author but may not easily be  comprehensible to anyone else.  Preparatory to creating a character, Enforcers encourages players to consider various “points” like personality, objectives, and motivation.  This is commendable. The rules then go on to explain creation points and basic statistics.  So far, so good.  The next section is “Optional Statistics, Superpowers, and their Effects.”  This is where the problems begin.  Actually, the section describes the basic mechanics of Enforcers combat; there's nothing wrong with this, but the section title is misleading.  There are no optional statistics presented and the information about superpowers is entirely peripheral.  The next two sections are “Super Power Descriptions” and “Weakness Descriptions.”  Only then are we treated to “Calculated Statistics and their Effects,” a section which explains Hit Points, Energy Points, and other concepts which ought to have been addressed much earlier.  Also, Enforcers commits the unforgivable sin of not providing a sample character.  Enforcers 'borrowed' several concepts from Villains and Vigilantes.  One concept it did not copy was the inclusion of sample characters in its advertisements.  That was clever marketing; you didn't even have to purchase Villains and Vigilantes in order to see a sample character.

There's one other thing I would like to mention before concluding this post.  The first page of text in Enforcers – even before the Table of Contents – has the title “Missed-Information.”  In other books, this would be “Errata” and and it would appear at the end because it's unfortunate.  About this page the author tells us:
We are using this opportunity to correct some mistakes that occurred when the book was originally printed.  As it was not feasible to correct all of the errors in the text, some of these corrections are given below.
Not feasible?  As indicated in the last post, nearly twenty pages had to be removed from this edition.  They could remove those pages, but it was “not feasible” to implement some corrections.  Even worse, three out of four corrections indicate the wrong page with which they should be associated.  “Dr. Jay Christensen” is listed as the book's editor; one wonders in which field of study this person earned his or her doctorate.

Sunday, April 5, 2020

A Super-Powered Science Fiction Role-Playing Game

Art by Albert Deschesne

In 1987, 21st Century Games published two editions of Enforcers (“A super-powered science fiction role-playing game”).  Pictured above is the cover of the second edition, although the copyright page states “First Edition / August 1987.”  The 'super-powered' aspect of the game is clearly evident in the cover illustration, but what makes Enforcers a 'science fiction' game?  Here is what the back cover text discloses:

Welcome to L.A.

The year is 2046, and the world has changed.  The pace of
evolution has been accelerated a thousandfold by a
combination of man's pollution and fallout from alien weapons.
Humans are evolving and changing into new and different
forms with incredible powers and abilities.

Federal, state and local governments are having a difficult time
coping with the crisis and have resorted to letting the super-
beings police themselves.  This has created a world where
good battles evil, where superpowered mercenaries line their
own pockets while helping to stave off a greater evil, and
where mechanical geniuses hatch plots to force society to
conform to their own warped views.  This is the world of


This setting would seem to have potential.  Unfortunately, Enforcers barely touches upon this setting; providing only two-and-a-half pages of background.  Gary Bernard, the primary author, explains why in an article he wrote for White Wolf Magazine #11 (August 1988).  In “THE ENFORCERS UNIVERSE: The Untold Story,” Bernard states:
It was our original intention to include in the Enforcers rule book 10 pages of background information on the compaign (sic) universe in which our modules are set. After we finished writing the rules, we discovered that the book was almost 20 pages longer than was originaly (sic) planned. Because of this, we were faced with the choice of going ahead with the background information and raising the price of the book, or scaling it back publishing additional information later. In the end the economic concerns won and the background information was drasticaly (sic) reduced.
Here's how that situation should have been handled:  Dump the setting altogether and sell the book as a set of generic 'superhero' rules.  The 2½ pages devoted to the setting could have been used for material that was sorely needed.  Then publish a sourcebook for the setting, ideally getting permission to include statistics for super-hero games not affiliated with licensed properties (like Champions and Superworld ).  This would expose the game to a larger audience and avoid what is essentially false advertising.

The limited setting information begins with a timeline that starts in 1991 and goes only to 2003.  We then have the following paragraph to take us through the remainder of the time:
The years from 2004 to 2056 (sic) are exciting for many different reasons.  Colonization of the inner solar system begins in earnest with permanent bases established on Mars, Venus, Titan, and the Moon.  Great advances are made in medicine and in genetic research.  Contact is made with several peaceful alien races and trading relationships are established.
No information is given on how there could possibly be a base on Venus (or why anyone would want one).  No information is given about the alien races, not even the Entcir, whose attempt at invasion in 1997 brought an end to World War III.  Evidently, the “fallout from alien weapons” is a result of the Entcir invasion, but that is never discussed.

“The World of 2046” section of the rule book addresses two main subjects, neither of which is an alien invasion.  We get a paragraph about the reality of lycanthropes; as a result of “a civil rights crusade. . . relations between humans and lycanthropes are fairly good.”  Also, the EPA conducted a study that concluded, “the continuous accumulation of mutagens in the environment. . . has accelerated the rate of genetic change in all plant and animal species, including man.”  As a result, “high-level officials” make the following policy decisions:  not to tell the public (because that would cause panic), engage upon a “worldwide environmental cleanup,” protect the rights of mutants, and have law enforcement and intelligence agencies recruit super-powered individuals.

In White Wolf, Bernard states, “This article contains some of [the] information that didn't make it into [the] book.”  Surely, the article divulges fascinating and useful details about the Enforcers setting?  In a word, no.

The article offers almost two pages of text (when one discounts a portion which essentially amounts to an advertisement).  A separate page is devoted to a map (shown below).

Map by Albert Deschesne

The only features on this map that would not appear on a contemporaneous map are (1) Kern County (for reasons unknown) has been changed to Mojave County and (2) there is a space port near the bustling metropolis of Mojave.  Actually, a space port has since been established at Mojave; so prognostication props to the author, I guess.  Seriously, were maps of Southern California difficult to obtain in 1987?  This map – which must have taken all of three minutes to make – does essentially nothing to enhance the game setting.  There's no legend, no Catalina, no 10 freeway, no hills, etc.  The author ought to have directed the reader to consult a map rather than foist the above scrawl upon his audience.

The author doubtless thought that a map – even a crude one – would enhance comprehension of the article since he emphasizes real estate.  No, really...
Riverside/San Bernardino Conties (sic):  These arid conties (sic) are home to people who can't afford the ridiculously high housing costs in Los Angeles and Orange Counties.  The western portions of both counties are heavily developed with the population dropping off farther inland.
Remember that time when the Silver Surfer bought a condo?  You don't?  That's because details about real estate are not germane to superhero adventures.

The author seeks to overturn the supposed “New York bias” of super-hero games.  Ultimately, he uses the excuse that he and the other two authors reside in the Los Angeles area.

Otherwise, Bernard discusses the monetary system of 2046:  “...most transactions are processed electronically through the use of intelligent bank cards.”  We learn, “stealing existing money already in an account is easy, however, trying to embezzle additional money from a stolen bank card is almost impossible.”  This sentiment might provide some insight into what happened during Enforcers playtesting.

Finally, the article provides a table of reaction modifiers regarding various law enforcement agencies in Southern California.  Only the LAPD and Orange County police departments offer positive modifiers; the “Ventura County Sherriff (sic) Department” comes off the worst with a whopping –60%.  There has to be a story behind that.