[Balance of Powers] A Metagame About Metahumans!

(crossposted from my LiveJournal)

Balance of Powers (formerly known as The Front)

The Pitch: Justice League meets The West Wing, or Tom Clancy's X-Men.

The Big Three (or Four):
What is the game about?
The advertising copy:
In a world slightly different from our own, where certain individuals possess amazing powers that can change the world, Balance of Powers is about the conflict between power and conscience, as well as the conflict between conscience and allegiance. What happens when you gain the power to control the minds of an entire city? Would you make better choices for them? What happens when your government asks to take out a former teammate, one who has become too powerful to restrain and threatens to destroy the Earth? Is killing them murder, or saving the world?
The mechanical truth:
Nations send Peacemakers, superpowered UN peacekeepers, on missions only they can handle, in order to secure the safety and stability of the world...and further national agendas. Ultimately, these tools of the state break, go rogue, or develop too much free will. Balance of Powers operates on two levels. At the macroscopic level, mission outcomes Change the World, creating new facts about the setting. At the microscopic level, individual Peacemakers move within the boundaries of power, conscience, and allegiance, wanting neither too much nor too little of any, lest Something Bad happen.

What do the players do?
The advertising copy:
Players take on the dual roles of United Nations Security Council member nation (as a representative) and one or more metahuman Peacemakers. Peacemakers are the superpowered equivalent of peacekeepers, sent on missions outside the scope of regular diplomacy or military action. These missions can have global repercussions, changing the very nature of the setting. After the first session of Balance of Powers, no two game worlds should be alike. On a personal level, the players will find their characters caught between duty to their country and their own values and motivations. And we all know how power corrupts...
The mechanical truth:
Players first play their chosen nation, deciding which Peacemakers to send on a mission and what national resources to spend, then they play their Peacemaker through the mission itself. Along the way, their characters will change and the world itself will change as a result of their actions.

How does the system get at what the game is about?
The advertising copy:
As nations, players use resources such as Credibility, Intelligence, and Mandate, to pursue their own agendas. As Peacemakers, players use their character's Power, Conscience, and Allegiance to navigate missions. to the best of their abilities. A mission might be successful, but extract a terrible price from a character. Additionally, the repercussions of a mission outcome might change the world as we know it. The next mission will take these personal and global changes into account, until one or more characters can no longer be Peacemakers or a nation faces a change of administration.
The mechanical truth:
Players, as nations, attempt to fulfill their nation's agenda. If they loses too much Credibility or their Mandate becomes weak or excessive, they face revolution...or at least a new administration. Similarly, players, as Peacemakers, attempt to fulfill mission objectives (some of which may be specific to their nation's agenda), while not gaining or losing too much Power, Conscience, or Allegiance. Doing so brings on a Crisis, which may remove the character from the roster of Peacemakers.

Why is this fun?
John Wick asks this fourth question in Wilderness of Mirrors. I think it's relevant here, because this pitch may have gripped some of you and left others cold. Let me explain why I think this is a fun idea: I've like superpowered games since Fred introduced me to Champions about twenty years ago. (In fact, Champions got me into comics, rather than the other way around.) Over the years, my tastes have changed, so the four-color morality and shenanigans of superheroes seems a little tired to me, and the tactical crunch of most supers games is too much for me. Addressing the first issue is easy; to make supers (not superheroes, mind) more palatable, I remove the morality and the costumes. To tackle the second issue, rather than worrying about the range of someone's area-of-effect atomic-energy blast or how many yards someone using superspeed can run in one turn, the system uses conflict resolution through the medium of Power, Conscience, and Allegiance to determine how things fall out. At a further remove, I'm jazzed by the idea of supers trying to do their best for their country and humanity as a whole, but circumscribed by realistic world politics. Let's face it, if the Justice League existed today, every government on the planet would be out to control or destroy them - a far cry from the laissez-faire attitude usually seen in the comics! A lot of this game came from watching the Justice League series on Cartoon Network and being disappointed at the hand-waving of these issues. It came closer to the mark in season three (the first "Unlimited" run), but I still think it never quite reached its potential. This game is my attempt to create what I wanted to see, for myself, for my players, and for any readers. I think that's fun.

I'll be setting up a Yahoo Group for the game, as it moves through playtest. If any of this intrigues you at all, let me know, and I'll send you an invite to the group. If you want to comment or question here, please feel free. I'll addressing things as best I can.


  • Really, you have always had me at the *pitch* part of this set-up. Everything else is gravy.
  • I love it. Watching this space with interest.
  • Where's your head at on the mechanical specifics these days, Matt? I only have my vague recollections of half-sleep-deprived, entirely-road-hypnotized blatherings during the drive to and from GenCon.
  • Dude, this all sounds groovy. Count me in.
  • Role-playing Season 1 of Justice League Unlimited? HELL YES.
  • edited September 2006

    The way we left things was more or less like this:
    Power, Conscience, and Allegiance are rated from 0 to 6, with players getting to distribute 10 points among them. Each value translates into a die size: 0=d2, 1=d4, 2=d6, 3=d8, 4=d10, 5=d12, and 6=d20. These values are always available during a conflict, depending on the nature of the conflict.

    Ideally, I'd like to use conflict mechanics similar to Dogs, for two reasons: 1) I think the poker-style raising and seeing is good and 2) it brings the back and forth into the conflict itself. I think the latter lends itself to the supers genre, where two metas might trade blows, smashing each other through buildings or throwing cars at one another before one drops. I've got a few ideas on this front, which I share once they're a little more coherent.

    Otherwise, the only other major mechanics I've got in place currently is Crisis.
    - If your Power drops to 0, you suffer a crisis of Reinvention.
    - If your Power rises to 6, you suffer a crisis of Confrontation - everyone will be out to get you, as you've gotten too powerful.
    - If your Conscience drops to 0, you suffer a crisis of Sociopathy. If your Power is higher than your Allegiance, you go Rogue. If your Allegiance is higher than your Power, then you get Promoted (usually to black ops). If they're equal, you are Institutionalized.
    - If your Conscience rises to 6, you suffer a crisis of Free Will - you just can't bring yourself to follow these orders anymore and must resign.
    - If your Allegiance drops to 0, you suffer a Court Martial. You may be dishonorably discharged, give a desk job somewhere (possibly at the academy), or returned to civilian life (unlikely, depending on your Power).
    - If your Allegiance rises to 6, you become a Tool of the State. You'll do whatever your country asks of you, without question, and they always have uses for that.

    I have a few other notes, but they're at work right now. I suspect some of the above may be slightly off, as well. More as I have the chance.

    EDITED: Changed the crisis levels from 5 to 6, after some mechanical consideration last night.
  • I'm with Fred - you had me at the pitch.

    Have you ever read the Authority by Warren Ellis? If not, check it out. It tackles these dilemmas head on - why don't supers just take over, "for our own good" - and has a similar setup, with the Authority looking after world affairs.
  • Andrew,

    I have read the Authority, as well as other Ellis titles. Stormwatch, in particular, was an early influence on this game. However, metahumans in Balance of Powers are very much monitored and controlled by mundane governments and organizations. Not so much as the Psi Corps in Bablyon 5, but most people recognized shortly after World War II that metahumans were the equivalent of walking nuclear weapons with free will - it's one of the reasons that there hasn't been as much of an nuclear arms race in this setting. One of the primary mandates of the Peacemakers is to hunt down "rogue" metahumans, where a "rogue" is any metahuman that isn't registered with an international monitoring organization and/or is in violation of national laws. A tagline of the game is "Fight metas with metas." Rogues have often become dictators of third-world countries, but none of them (save one) have stayed in power longer than a year.

    Anyway, glad to hear of your interest! I'll keep you posted.
  • I too am definitely intrigued and will be watching progress with interest.
  • The dual role of nation and dude appeals to me. What's a superhero?
  • Does the nation have to be a NATION?

    Could it be some other entity which acts on a national level?

    I'm thinking big churches, multinational corporations, etc.
  • Jason, it's funny that you mention "superhero." One of my early notes for the game has some Rules for the game:

    1) This is not a superhero game.
    2) This is not a superhero game.

    With a nod to Fight Club.
  • Fred,

    The default setup involves the players each choosing one of the founding five members of the UN Security Council (US, UK, France, Russia, and China), but I'm hoping to detail some possible drifts such as national meta-teams, corporate-sponsored metas, mercenaries (called "metanaries" in the setting), and the like. There are even possible drifts that replace Power with something else - spy stuff (gadgets and training) for a spy game, Magic for a fantasy setting, Cyberware for a cyberpunk game, etc. As long as personal conscience remains wedged between the ability and temptation to change the world (Powers) and answering to higher powers (Allegiance), the game should hold true.
  • Oh, that's cool in a high-speed-low-drag way, if you can port the core conflict to less "underwear pervert" settings. Awesome. Looking forward to seeing it.
  • To quote myself from above: "to make supers (not superheroes, mind) more palatable, I remove the morality and the costumes."

    One of my gamers hated the idea of supers, because she hated the silliness of spandex and 1950s morality. It wasn't that hard to get her to play Aberrant, because it takes a similar approach. If you remove morality and costumes, you defuse most of what people object to in supers. Of course, this can still lead to stuff like the Mutant X show, but it's a start.

    Rob D, on the trip home from GenCon, grilled me as the importance of *superpowers* to the game. I said they were color - important color that interests me, but color. The game is not about the powers; it's about what you do with the powers, and what others want you to do with them. His suggestion was to strip out the powers part and replace it with something else and playtest *that* as well, in order to make sure it still worked and stayed focuses. I don't know if I will fully implement his suggestion, but it lead to the drifting ideas I detailed above.
  • This sounds incredibly interesting, Matthew. Count me in!
  • I'm wondering if this might finally be the system that will support playing two of my favourite fictional settings: the Galactic Milieu (Julian May), where the 'supers' have psychic powers, and the True Game (Sherri S. Tepper), where the powers are quasi-magical/quasi-psychic.

    I can't access Yahoo Groups from work so my participation would be limited, but I'd be interested to see how this develops - my email address is in my profile.
  • Posted By: Matthew GandyThe game is not about the powers; it's about what you do with the powers
    So, could you say it's not really power, but "privilege"?
  • Sorry, I poison the well when I talk about this stuff. I lack the superhero appreciation gene, can't speak the language, it creeps me out. Rock on, Mr. Gandy.
  • Mike,

    I'm not trying to design a generic system so much as have a system flexible enough to do the various things I want it to do. The Powers category is interchangeable with other things (Tech, Cyberware, Magic) mainly because supers as a genre kind of includes everything else (Batman is Tech and Training, Cyborg is Cyberware, Doctor Strange is Magic). But I do hope its what you're looking for, and I'd be proud if you choose this game...to drift the heck out of it. More on the Yahoo group once I have that settled, hopefully later this week.


    I'm not sure 'privilege' would be appropriate, as being a metahuman in this setting is a double-edged sword. Yes, you have special powers, but you have register, identify yourself at every turn (via armband or uniform), and follow rather stringent laws. I was just saying that it's not about the flashiness of the powers themselves, but how you use them. One of the things I consider was having a breakpoint, where the character could finally do what they *wanted* to do, rather than what their government was telling them to do. Ultimately, that works itself out in the various conflicts between power and conscience and conscience and allegiance. Also, mechanically, Powers are a lot less mired in the usual supers RPG conventions of range, area of effect, damage dice, and the like. They work as a component in conflict resolution as other sub-elements of Power, Conscience, and Allegiance work. Narrationally, you can't make mind control part of a conflict resolution if you don't have mind control powers, but I hope to keep the game out of the quagmire of miniatures-ism.


    I'm not sure that that wouldn't make you a perfect playtester for this. However, I realize not everyone has the gene. I don't have the zombie horror gene, so I haven't been looking to try out The Infected. To each his own. As with Mike above, I think it would be great if you could take the game and drift it somewhere more to your liking.
  • Very interested in the notion you propose and the drift that could come from it.
    arrefmak at gmail dot com

    Are you considering the possibility of Players having to play the 'nation on your left' for the Powers Player to create tension? I could also imagine the nations played by "internal factions" with the Players jointly taking roles of those factions. This would mean factional play would keep Players involved who did not have Powers involved in the scenes.

    A thought.

    Luck with the development.
  • To be honest I needed more convincing that most of these folk. You got my attention with the Crisis mechanics. I dig them and I like what it seems to promise to accomplish. I have some similar themes (less on the national level) in my game. Thank you, BTW for reminding me that I need to get crackin' on that!!!
  • Arref,

    My current notion is for someone else to play your character's country, yes. Factionalizing and the rest is consideration for another time, but as I may have mentioned, I've thought some about how to allow for other play structures, such as national meta-teams, corporate sponsorship, etc.

    As for keeping players involved who don't have characters in a scene, I'll just say that I have a Sekrit Tekneek in the works, but only playtesting will tell for sure whether or not it will work.


    Not sure what you're looking for by way of convincing, but yeah, the game started to evolve from a trad game with a neat setting into a totally different beast when I (with the brainstorming power of Evilhat's Fred and Rob) figured out how to put the squeeze on characters from multiple angles. Conscience stuck between Power and Allegiance is me, but Crisis is largely Fred-inspired.

    So get crackin' on that!!!
  • So like....when are you going to open up playtest?

    Because I'm all over this.
  • Brent,

    Probably during the beta cycle. I hope to start up the alpha cycle soon, but I'm not finished with enough of the mechanics to do so. Regardless, I'll have the Yahoo Group set up before then, so anyone who wants in on beta testing will be welcome.
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