Silver Age Sentinels (Deluxe Limited Edition)
Silver Age Sentinels (Deluxe Limited Edition) Capsule Review by mmadsen on 27/10/02
Style: 5 (Excellent!)
Substance: 3 (Average)
When I read about Guardians of Order's new superhero game, Silver Age Sentinels, it sounded perfect -- flexible like Hero, but streamlined. It does present clean, flexible rules for superhero roleplaying, but it's not the Holy Grail I sought.
Product: Silver Age Sentinels (Deluxe Limited Edition)
Author: Stephen Kenson, Mark C. MacKinnon, Jeff Macintosh, Jesse Scoble
Company/Publisher: Guardians of Order
Line: Silver Age Sentinels
Page count: 334
Year published: 2002
Comp copy?: no
Capsule Review by mmadsen on 27/10/02
Genre tags: Superhero
After reading some high praise for Silver Age Sentinels -- and some not-so-high praise for the d20 version -- I picked up the Deluxe, Limited-Edition, Tri-Stat version at my local Wizards of the Coast store.
Years ago I rabidly supported Hero's Champions line, but when the fifth edition came out, I realized I didn't want a dozen stats, dozens more figured stats, a 12-segment speed chart, endurance tracking, and the consequent three-hour combats. Champions had many great ideas, but few of them required the kind of complexity the system's known for. The strongest idea, separating powers into game mechanics and "special effects" certainly doesn't require complicated rules, and the idea of customizing your powers shouldn't be too complicated either.
The Deluxe-Edition book is beautiful — on the inside. Let me step back a moment. There are actually two versions of the game. Guardians of Order have put out a Tri-Stat book, using updated rules from their Big Eyes, Small Mouth line (their anime game and former flagship line, before they came out with SAS), and a d20 book, using most of their Tri-Stat rules kludged onto the d20 system. For each of those versions, Tri-Stat and d20, they've put out a Deluxe Edition, and they will be putting out a non-deluxe, black-and-white paperback later. Anyway, the Deluxe-Edition Tri-Stat book meets you with a terribly static, bland cover. The heroes are just standing there, lined up, left to right. The Deluxe d20 version has a much more dynamic cover.
Inside though, the layout is crisp and clean, and each chapter starts with a faux comic cover starring the game's heroes -- done in the style of the Golden Age, Silver Age, through the modern era. I really, really enjoyed the comic covers.
The art clued me in that Guardians of Order really nailed the comics ethos. They make a concerted effort to bring the reader up to speed on comicbook history -- Golden Age (intro of Superman and Batman through WWII), Silver Age (after the Comics Code, intro of Marvel Comics), etc. -- and to heartily endorse heroic heroes, not angst-ridden psychopaths. Hence the name: Silver Age Sentinels.
Why is it called the Tri-Stat system? Because each character has three primary stats: Body, Mind, and Soul. For D&D players those three stats roughly map to D&D's six as follows:
Body -- Str, Dex, and Con
I don't mind (if you'll pardon the pun) Mind and Soul, and I don't mind grouping Str and Con -- honestly, how often is a character concept "big and fragile"?-- but grouping Str, Con, and Dex into one Body stat bothers me. A staple of action stories (in many, many subgenres) is the smaller, more agile fighter defeating the big, slow brute -- technical boxer vs. brawler, little martial artist vs. thug, human vs. ogre, etc.
Now, the Tri-Stat system can handle a character who's big and strong but not agile, or witty but not eagle-eyed, or strong-willed but not charismatic. That's what the Less Capable Defect is for. A high Body stat with the Less Capable (Agility) Defect means the character is strong and tough but not agile. Given that one Value of a Stat only costs two Character Points, the Less Capable Defect is a bit coarse for my tastes though. For instance, for one Bonus Point you take a -3 penalty to a Major Aspect (e.g. Agility) or a -6 penalty to a Minor Aspect (e.g. Manual Dexterity).
A -6 penalty is quite extreme in a system that goes from 1 (inept), through 4 (adult human average), to 12 (max human potential), then on to 20 (max achievement in the universe). And that's to get one Bonus Point to add to your 175 Character Points you start with (if you're building an average superhero).
If you do the math, a "perfect" character -- with no powers -- only costs 120 points, well under the average superhero's point value. The book recommends restricting stats over 12 (max human potential) to one per character, and I didn't notice any sample characters with a stat above 16. At just 2 Character Points per Stat Value and a max Value of just 20, I have to wonder if the designers thought this through though. On the one hand, a character can easily be on a cosmic scale, but on the other, he's still not guaranteed to beat Joe Average in an opposed roll; it's a 2d10 system.
In one very important way, Tri-Stat combat resembles GURPS combat. The attacker makes an attack roll against a fixed difficulty to "hit", then the defender makes a defense roll against a fixed difficulty to dodge, parry, or block the attack.
While this is a quick and easy system — you don't even have to add or subtract a single new value for a new and different target — the fixed difficulties lead to scaling problems. Dodging is average difficulty, so anyone with a good DCV (and good defensive skills) might literally dodge 99% of all attacks that "hit". At just two points per level, Defensive Combat Mastery is too cheap to ignore.
There's a way around this problem though. Attackers can make Trick Shots, trading minus N to ACV for minus N to the defender's DCV. This works, but then mathematical players find themselves quickly calculating optimal Trick Shots for each new opponent. "Hmm...my ACV 18 vs. his DCV 17 -- I'll Trick Shot for minus 7."
Tri-Stat Silver Age Sentinels' skill system gives each skill a cost, per level, in skill points. That cost depends on how useful the skill is, in game. Thus, a combat skill like Ranged Defense might cost 12 skill points per level, while a challenging real-world skill like Writing might cost 1 skill point per level.
Skills only go up to level 5, giving 5 to the appropriate Stat when that skill's involved. I suppose this limits abuse potential, given their low overall cost, but this means that talent overwhelms training.
But wait, 12 skill points per level is a low cost? Yes, because those are skill points, not character points. In effect, a skill point is a tenth of a character point, and, thus, a level of Ranged Defense only costs 1.2 character points -- appropriate since a level of Defense Combat Mastery, usable against all attacks, costs 2 character points.
Every character starts with 30 skill points. Extra skill points cost 1 character point for 10 skill points -- in the form of one level of the Highly Skilled Attribute. Fewer skills give one bonus point per 10 skill points traded in -- in the form of the Unskilled Defect.
I like the way the system guides players toward a reasonable number of skills -- you get 30 skill points, and you have to make an effort to take a Defect to get your character points back if you want fewer skills -- but I'm not sure I see the need for multiple kinds of points for character building.
One mechanic I really liked, at least in principle, was the Second Wind. If you're using the optional Damage Difficulty Penalties -- that is, at 75% health, you're at -2 to all rolls, at 50% -4, at 25% -6 -- then you can get a Second Wind (and ignore those penalties) if something happens to sufficiently motivate you.
This is, of course, perfect for superheroes (and pro wrestlers). To get the Second Wind, the character has to make a successful stat check against his best stat. Personally, I think it should always be a Soul check.
(I can see a similar mechanic working in Champions too. In fact, another mechanic that really belongs in a superhero game is Pendragon's notion of Passions. If something particularly important to the hero is at stake, he can become inspired to greatness or disheartened and driven to despair -- effectively a Soul check -- treat the Passion as a skill -- to gain short-term bonuses or penalties.)
The Tri-Stat version of Silve Age Sentinels presents clean, flexible rules for superhero roleplaying, but it's not the Holy Grail I sought.
(This review began as a series of messageboard posts on EN World.)