With Great Power by Michael S. Miller is a superhero roleplaying game that emulates the melodramatic, four-colour style of the Silver Age of comics. It’s uncannily attuned to the tropes of that era, and what’s more it’s fantastic fun to play.
I wanted to play a staunch defender of the people, a larger-than-life, powerful, positive character and boy did I ever get that in the Glowing Guardian! With his allies, Little Young’un and the Armoured Arcanist, he defends New York City (because of course New York City) from the plots of supervillains like Zoltrak the Cursed and the Incandescent Inquisitor!
So how does the game itself encourage such incredible stories?
It’s in the game’s DNA
The game I played was the second edition of With Great Power, also called the Master Edition of the game. I’ve never played the first game, also called the Classic Edition, but that doesn’t matter because the two versions have almost nothing in common.
The Master Edition has been entirely rewritten and is now based on the game system from Swords Without Master (which I reviewed here). It is therefore stamped with the logo “Descended from MonkeyDome” (Swords Without Master‘s equivalent of Apocalypse World‘s “Powered by the Apocalypse“).
While I don’t think the game holds together quite as well as Swords Without Master does, that is admittedly a very high bar, and With Great Power is nevertheless an interesting and fun variation of the base game that is well suited to the Silver Age superhero genre.
Everyone loves an origin story
Character creation in With Great Power is very cool and completely different from Swords Without Master. The first stage is explicitly to discuss what all the players like about superhero stories, to get everyone on the same page. It’s a simple and wonderful idea.
Then players draw cards from a 54-card deck, each of which has an origin question. These are (often leading) questions to help spark the imagination and define a character’s backstory. As standard, each player will answer three of these questions. They are very good at encouraging that Silver Age flavour, and help create a lot of the setting and supporting cast of the characters.
Our team of heroes for the session consisted of:
- The Glowing Guardian, my character, an idealistic high school teacher who received superpowers from an alien Guardian Matrix. He can fly, sense people’s emotions, and is invulnerable to most injury, but whenever his invulnerability is used he starts to glow yellow. He spends his nights marking homework and stopping crime, and he’d always rather talk a criminal into changing their ways than beat them senseless.
- Little Young’un, a Korean-American high school girl from Queens. She first defended her local neighbourhood (her name is derived from Korean-language reports of a new yeong ung, or hero), but spread out to stopping gang activity all over the city. Her superhero hanbok was made by her grandmother. She is incredibly strong, but has no special transport or enhanced speed, so she can only get to danger (or back to her classes!) as fast as her bike will carry her.
- The Armoured Arcanist, a billionaire single mother of two who became a hero after discovering a magic medallion during a deep sea diving expedition and incorporating it into her armoured diving suit. It now empowers her with shadow and fire powers, which she uses to defend the city, mainly from mystical threats. She is torn by her need to save the day in the city and making time for her kids, Gino and Olivia. They all live together (with her mother as well) on the Sky Fortress, which despite the name is really more of an exclusive, flying New York borough.
Origin questions can definitely inspire ideas if you need a little help, but the flip side is that they won’t necessarily allow you to make the character you had in your head before the game. One of the friends I played with was vocal beforehand about wanting to play as Captain Rocketpunch, but his cards didn’t support that. I guess if you have a character you really want to play (or, for instance, you want to play as a pre-existing superhero from an established setting), you could skip the origin questions or just pick the cards that will lead you where you want to go.
There’s even a group character creation option (the ‘Interconnected Origins’ sidebar on page 27), although we didn’t use it. It’s specifically for creating teams of characters with a common source (the Fantastic Four, for instance, instead of the Justice League). Beyond the shared origin, it doesn’t help make your characters’ lives interconnected (which is what I always want from group character creation), but it’s a useful start.
Last point on character creation: I really appreciate how things like Twists are presented all in a list, so you don’t need to flip through the rules searching for them like you do in Swords Without Master. It’s a small thing, but it helps.
Playing with the (super-soldier) formula
One of the things that makes Swords Without Master work so well is its understanding of the genre conventions and, yes, formulaic structures of the source material that it tries to adapt. Everything from the choice of terminology to the structure of a game session is devoted to that goal of echoing the classic tales of sword and sorcery.
With Great Power does the same thing, but for superheroes. It uses Swords‘ basic framework, but changes the details to better fit the new setting and genre.
Most simply, the game’s moving parts get new names for their new superheroic identities. So, for example, Rogue players are now Hero players; the Overplayer is now the Villain player; the Overtone is now the Splash Tone; Feats Heroic are now Icons; Tricks are now Twists; Motifs are now Fan Faves; and the End Game is now the Gloating Phase. Despite the new names, though, these elements work in essentially the same way as they did in Swords.
A bigger impact, though, is due to the changes to the default phases in the game. Phases are discrete periods of game time that operate on slightly different rules, and each one represents a different part of the story. The order of phases, which varies game to game, dictates the rhythm of the story you’re playing. Swords Without Master had three default phases (plus some advanced optional ones that I’ve never used), but With Great Power bumps this up to four: Adventurous Phase, Personal Phase, Scheming Phase, and Villainous Phase.
The Adventurous Phase shows the heroes being generally heroic; the Personal Phase shows the heroes’ lives when they are not being heroic; the Scheming Phase shows how the heroes learn of the villain’s plan; and the Villainous Phase shows the villain enacting that plan or otherwise fighting against the heroes. Hopefully those descriptions show how the scenes can build on each other to make a classic superhero story. If not, trust me that they do just that.
Two of these phases are cribbed almost exactly from Swords Without Master (the Adventurous Phase is the Rogues’ Phase, and the Villainous Phase is the Perilous Phase but made to focus on a single unifying villain), but the other two are more original.
The Scheming Phase seems similar to Swords‘ Discovery Phase, but some subtle changes entirely alter its purpose. The addition of leading questions tied to the villain’s plan means that the focus of the phase is now to push forward the plot, whereas the Discovery Phase was a time for collaborative worldbuilding until the next dose of excitement. This makes sense. Superhero stories are almost always based in the here and now, and thus require little worldbuilding, but the need to bring the heroes up to speed on the villain’s plans is vital.
The Personal Phase is even more important, as it is the primary means of providing the soap opera part of superhero stories (and I love super-powered soap opera games, see my posts on #Smallville). The Personal Phase is odd because it’s the only phase that requires players to play another character’s supporting cast instead of their own heroes (unless their heroes happen to also be your character’s supporting cast), and the way the “active” hero keeps other players to script is by giving them a “charge”, or motivation for the scene that puts them at odds with the hero. We struggled a little bit with this. Playing supporting cast is very different from playing a hero protagonist, and there is bound to be less investment in it. This puts more pressure on the active hero player to think up good charges (this is hard) and shoulder more responsibility (because this is the active hero’s time to shine without anyone to fall back on). Maybe our group will get better at this if we play again, and our personal phase scenes were perfectly serviceable, but mechanically this didn’t work for us quite as well as the other phases did.
The game still uses tones in its resolution but now, instead of Jovial and Glum, the tones are Red and Blue. Red is forceful, passionate, strong, uncontrolled; Blue is calm, thoughtful, inspiring, purposeful. Basically, Red is the Human Torch and Blue is Mister Fantastic. Or Red is the Hulk (the Green Hulk, confusingly) and Blue is Bruce Banner. Or Red is Superman Red and Blue is Superman Blue, for anyone who can use that debacle as a reference point.
I approve of the use of colours-as-tones to the extent that it adds yet another meaning to the word “tone“, but otherwise I don’t like it, because within the game it loses a lot of the linguistic play that made Swords work so well. Jovial and Glum were defined not just by the actions, personalities and temperaments of the player characters, but in the setting, situation, atmosphere, etc. The tones themselves were highly evocative, and were described in ways designed to fire the imaginations of the players and keep them focused on the genre.
In contrast, the words Red and Blue are not very evocative of the tones that they represent. This is partly mitigated by the fact that players’ aides and character sheets include lists of other words that are connected to each tone, but the fact that this is necessary just reinforces my point. And these lists are almost entirely made of words that describe characters, and very few that describe settings, situations, or atmosphere. This makes them much less useful as springboards for narration (we especially had trouble using the Blue tone in the Villainous Phase).
I honestly don’t know why a game called With Great Power doesn’t use Power and Responsibility as its tones. They are much more intuitive and evocative, and there would be barely any changes necessary. “Powerful” and “Responsible” even appear in the lists of words used to describe Red and Blue respectively!
Plotting and sub-plotting
Plots and sub-plots are mechanically distinct, but both of them give sessions an overarching narrative to tie them together. Unfortunately, I don’t think my group fully understood how they were supposed to work.
Sub-plots come up any time both dice roll a 3 or below, which is quite a lot (approximately a quarter of all rolls). This makes them a combination of Swords Without Master‘s morals and mysteries, and I like that these have been streamlined (although I think morals might have suited the source material of this game). Coming up with sub-plots was something we struggled with and often missed out entirely. We also got confused about the rules in the Scheming Phase and thought that we could reincorporate sub-plots during the game (a change I actually like, even if it isn’t intended by the rules).
Plots on the other hand are the schemes that the villains attempt to carry out. There are three parts of a plot, and this is important because sessions can end with some, none or all of these coming to pass (i.e. the heroes can’t always be sure of winning outright, and may have to settle for a partial victory). However, it wasn’t until the end of the game that we realised the three parts of the plot need to be mutually exclusive. We had all assumed that these were sequential, but the resolution mechanic at the end of the game made it clear they were not. Fortunately, that’s something that we’ll know to get right next time we play.
I think the thought bubble is genius!
The thought bubble is the only mechanic in the Master Edition of With Great Power that has survived from the Classic Edition of the game. It’s easy to see why too: it’s brilliant. It’s so brilliant that I may write a whole blog post on it another time.
In short: there’s a cut-out thought bubble that any player can hold over their head to indicate that what they are saying is their character’s internal monologue. It is an amazing tool for almost any roleplaying game, and so appropriate to Silver Age superheroes in particular. I’ve added it to my list of mechanics I wish more roleplaying games would use.
I would play this again, or gladly run it if we wanted some more superhero shenanigans. It’s intended for a specific type of superhero story, but it delivers that that type of superhero story consistently and enjoyably. Many other superhero RPGs try to do everything and fall short, but With Great Power knows what it wants to achieve and does it well.