Title: Truth & Justice
Authors: Chad Underkoffler
Creator: Atomic Sock Monkey Press
133 pages

Product Rating: 3 (***)
Game Play Rating: 3 (***)

Review by John H. Kim (Copyright 2005 John H. Kim)
cf. other reviews by John

         Truth and Justice is a superhero RPG with player-defined human traits and loose player-specified powers. It uses a loosely constrained RPG system -- the "Prose Descriptive Qualities" system -- similar in style to Steffan O'Sullivan's Fudge system, to pick the nearest well-known parallel. The system consists mainly of a basic roll mechanic, a generic system for contests (physical or otherwise) between characters, a superpower system with semi-freeform powers and stunts, and a hero point system. There are almost no specific rules for combat, movement, vehicles, and so forth.

         There are many limitations of the system. It has few flavor details on its own. It is not well balanced or tactically interesting in game terms. Some of the powers clearly outweigh others, and player effectiveness is limited by the subjective GM call of how many traits can be brought to bear on the conflict. On the other hand, it is quick and simple, and it has a workable hero point mechanic. The book also provides thoughtful analysis of comics, advice, and detailed examples.

Material

         The PDF version is portrait oriented letter-size for printing (as opposed to landscape for reading online). It is 133 pages total, including a full-color cover, 122 pages of text, 5 pages of play aids (tables and character sheet), and 5 extra pages of advertisements at the end. The layout is plain, with a standard header throughout and page number in the bottom middle. There is a detailed two-page table of contents, but no index. To be more functional, it should have chapter title in the header and at least an index. It has small comic illustrations every five or so page -- they are of mid-to-fair quality but nicely match the text, though they are a bit sparse.

Introduction

         The game begins with a 14 page introduction to the genre of superhero comics. Some of it is fairly obvious, but there are some intriguing bits. Notably, the author relates superhero styles to Northrop Frye's modes of fiction: myth, romance, mimetic (high and low), and irony. This marks the first time I've seen Northrop Frye referenced in a role-playing game, which I have to give props for.

Core Mechanics

         The core mechanic is to add 2d6 plus a freeform stat or set of stats, and compare to a difficulty number either a fixed difficulty number or the opponent's roll. In conflicts, the amount which you beat another character's roll by is the amount of damage or failure ranks (see below). Stats are rated in five named ranks, which have equivalent target numbers:

Rank Quality Cost Power Cost Modifier (MOD) Target Number (TN)
Poor - ½ -2 5
Average - 1 0 7
Good 2 2 +2 9
Expert 4 4 +4 11
Master 6 6 +6 13
Conflicts result in the accumulation of either "failure ranks" (which recover at the end of the contest) or "damage ranks" (which may take longer to heal). Each point of either type means that the loser must choose a stat to downgrade by one rank. So if you lose a conflict roll by 3, you must lower three stats each by one rank, or one stat by three ranks (with a minimum of Poor: -2). You can choose any stat to take your damage in -- i.e. you can downgrade your "Accounting" quality based on a hit in a fight. When you can't lower your stats any lower (i.e. a hit when all stats are at Poor [-2]), then you have lost the contest.

         This is a narrow scale in many ways (only five steps). Rather than adding more ranks the standard PDQ scale, T&J divides stats into normal scale and super scale. This is similar to the megadamage mechanic in Rifts, or the megadice mechanic in Aberrant. So one character may have Good [+2] Strength (i.e. normal scale) and another has Good [+2] Super-strength (i.e. super scale). Normal scale must roll 2d6+2 for typical tasks. In contrast, super-strength will automatically succeed at normal scale tasks, but must make a 2d6+2 roll for tasks as rated on the super scale. Super-scale damage on a normal-scale target adds the power's Target Number (i.e. 5 to 13) to the damage ranks done. Normal-scale attacks can still affect super-scale targets as failure ranks, though they cannot do damage per se.

         I have three issues with the core mechanic:

However, overall it is a simple and fast-moving mechanic, which is the point. One interesting twist is that the stat which gets the first point of damage in a conflict generates a related "Story Hook". This is a balance such that the trait which the player considers least useful (i.e. chooses to damage first) gets drawn into play. This is noted as why Peter Parker's social life is so messed up -- because with all his fights he will take social stats first.

Character Creation

         Character creation is defined as following nine steps: (1) Name (i.e. normal human name), (2) Background, (3) Qualities, (4) Origin, (5) Powers, (6) Hero Point Pool, (7) Codename (i.e. superhero name), (8) Uniform, (9) Miscellany. This is an interesting order since it is chronological for the character -- i.e. create the human character before you make up the powers or the costume. A comic creator's approach will be nearly opposite --i.e. make the costume and powers first and then later come up with the origin and background. It is trivial to change around the order, however.

         In brief, character creation comes down to distributing 10 points among Qualities, one weakness (i.e. Poor [-2] Quality), and 6 points among Powers. All characters start with 5 Hero Points (HPs) and a 10 Hero Point Maximum (MAX). Basically, hero points can be spent to get useful plot twists (divided into discovery, contact, and luck); to improve rolls in different ways; or to recover damage. They are gained by:

The "Revoltin' Development" is a noteworthy use of the mechanic originating in Buffy the Vampire Slayer RPG, giving points over in return for GM hosing.

         As you gain Hero Points, you also gain your maximum hero point pool, MAX. There are two options: gain 1 tick per HP award, or gain ticks equal to each HP award. When you have ticks equal to MAX, your MAX is increased by one. MAX can be spent as experience points to gain ranks in Qualities and Powers, expand the scope of Powers by cementing stunts, and create new gadgets. Some thoughts on this:

Superpowers

         This is the most involved part of the rules. There are 38 Powers listed along with 8 special Qualities. I found the Powers to be unnecessarily complicated given the level of mechanical distinctions. For example, "Beam (of Something)" and "Bolt (of Something)" are listed as separate entries despite no mechanical distinction. I think it would have been better to go through a shorter list of example powers and rather than a long (but still incomplete) list of semi-generic powers.

         There are some bits of logical balance which are violated. As some examples of this:

With a largely freeform system such as this, GM discretion is needed in any case to cover how powers are balanced and used. Thus, these are not necessarily crippling problems. Indeed, many of the powers make clear from the start that they are left to the GM's and player's discretion.

         The more interesting part of the powers systems is the use of stunts. Essentially, a Spin-Off Stunt lets you use a power to do something it wouldn't normally do -- like using an attack power for information. Examples include using telepathy to fry someone's brains or Super-speed to run up walls. It works at a lower rank than the power normally would unless you spend Hero Points, but players can freely invent Spin-Off Stunts at any time. So you can do anything related to your power at 2 ranks lower. In contrast, a Signature Stunt is simply extra effective use of the power, which gets cheaper use of Hero Points and possibly an extra bonus. By spending 1 experience (i.e. MAX), a player can turn an oft-used Spin-Off Stunt into a Signature Stunt.

         Overall, I think that the power system will take a large amount of GM supervision. The game to a degree acknowledges this, describing it as a "high-trust" system which depends on the GM and players working together. In practice, how powers will (and should) be based more on GM-player negotiation, and less on the mechanics and description presented.

Advice & Campaigns

         Following the system, there is a chapter of GM advice, six more sample NPCs, and three sample campaigns. The GM advice is similar to most sections of this type -- including suggestions on team headquarters, vehicles, recurring villains, and cliffhangers. It's most concrete suggestions are for MacGuffins and Plot Devices -- i.e. special objects central to the plot (like a villain's doomsday device) which are put in the hero's trophy room and generally forgotten. It is integrated into the rules that a PC must spend a hero point to use a trophy in a later adventure.

         The first campaign is called "Second-String Supers" -- where the PCs are replacing a more powerful NPC hero who is leaving the small town of Drakesville to go on to bigger and better things. The second is called "SuperCorps" -- where the PCs are hired as corporate consultants in a world dominated by corporations with superpowered employees. The third is called "Fanfare for the Amplified Man" -- where the PCs are the only superhumans in what is otherwise the ordinary modern-day world.

         Each campaign gets around ten pages of coverage, including background, a few NPCs, and some adventure ideas. What is interesting about them as a set is that these are all departures from mainstream superhero comic standards. While it contrasts with the earlier focus on genre tropes, I think that this plays to the strengths of T&J. I feel that given the rules focus, the game is less interesting as a very action-heavy game, and more interesting with more intrigue and exploration. The first two campaigns have PCs that are relatively low on the totem pole rather than being the leaders. The third, on the other hand, is way at the other end of the scale with the PCs a unique force upon the world.

Conclusion

         My main issue with the rules is the lack of rigor in many of the mechanics, particularly with some of the superpowers. However, for a review, the main issue is to compare it with its competition. Obviously, those with desire for detail and/or crunch will not be interested -- preferring games like Mutants & Masterminds or the HERO System. Truth & Justice offers more superheroic flavor than a generic rules-light engine like Fudge, FATE, or The Window. It is more of a traditional RPG than Capes (http://www.museoffire.com/Games/), which can be either a pro or con depending. Lastly, it is more flexible than superhero games with defined backgrounds such as Godlike (http://www.arcdream.com/), Godsend Agenda (http://www.godsendagenda.com/), and Legends Walk (http://www.silverbranch.co.uk/). While the basic engine doesn't inherently grab me, I do think it stands up well to its competition here.


John H. Kim <jhkim-at-darkshire-dot-net>
Last modified: Mon Sep 26 12:23:13 2005