& Justice (T&J) is a superhero RPG designed by Chad
Underkoffler (AKA chadu)
that tries to import the comic book story style into supers roleplaying. It
falls in the rules-light camp, but it's not an extreme case. On a scale of 1
to 10, with the ends being 'make believe' and Rolemaster, I would rate T&J
as a 4 or 5. This review is based on a complimentary copy (I know it's in the
sidebar, but I like to state it upfrint) I received and used to run a two-session
playtest. I'll describe each chapter briefly, state my opinions about its contents
and describe some of the things that came up during my playtest session.
T&J is a 6.9 Mb PDF that can
be acquired through RPGNow
or e23. It has a simple
layout consisting of two-column text, superhero drawings and treated images.
There's also a print-on-demand (POD) book that costs US$ 25, but if you have
bought the PDF, you can deduct its price from the book one. Also, if you buy
the POD version, you get the PDF for free. I haven't seen the book, but I heard
it has a good production value and its good quality surprised some of the buyers.
The text has
a few typos, mostly missing letters and such, but some of them -- ranks and
numbers -- caused a bit of confusion while I was trying to understand the rules
(see below). This problem is solved by the errata file available at the T&J
site, which will be incorporated in the second 'printing' of the PDF, around
the middle of October. If you want to buy the POD version, I suggest waiting
for the PDF update, since books bought before that will not be replaced by Atomic
Sock Monkey Press (ASMP), unlike the file, whose buyers will be able to
download the updated versions.
One thing I would like added to
each page's header is the chapter number. Several times I found myself wondering
what chapter was I reading, especially when the text referred to information
in the other ones. Also, whenever I flipped my printout open in search of a
piece of information, I wasted some time trying to locate myself. The lack of
an index (although there's a fairly complete table of contents), together with
the fact that some key rules are spread throughout two or three chapters, intensified
the information location problem. After you a while, you get used to where everything
is, but in the beginning is a bit of a pain.
I'm not particularly interested
in RPG books' art -- I did buy GURPS 3e books for several years --, but there
was something that bugged me about the drawings in T&J: they had a cartoony
feel. See, due to some neurological quirk of mine, I tend to associate rules-light
games with humor, and the art in T&J did nothing but reinforce that, even
though the game is not a humorous take on supers. I understand some of the pictures
were intentionally satirical, like the one in page 52. However, most of the
drawings had that feel, which constantly shattered some of the mood. I wish
some of the art was more like the Snow Owl picture in page 54. Even though it
was done by the same artist that did some of the other cartoony pieces, I think
it captures the spirit of a Silver Age comic book, one of Chad's target setting
for the game.
Chapter 1: The Superhero Genre
Here Chad describes the genre and
the T&J philosophy. The idea is to have the 'mad, beautiful ideas' (telepathic
apes, power-granting radioactive meteors and teenagers wielding the power of
the sun, to name a few) that characterize the comic books in your games, without
subjecting them to realistic physics and the like. In Chad's opinion, the inherent
silliness of these ideas is part of what constitutes the genre. According to
him, you don't need to have all the tropes associated with superheroes in a
campaign, but some of them should be present. A list of such tropes -- alternate
earths, change & status quo and origin stories, among others -- is
present at the end of the chapter. It is quite comprehensive, although Chad
missed archenemy (there's a rogue's gallery entry, though). There's a clear
slant towards Silver Age comics, which is ok, since it is one of the main inspirations
for the game, but it might give the impression that it's all that can be simulated,
a notion that Chad (and I) does not share, since one of the sample settings
at the end of the book it's a 'supers in the real world' type.
This chapter also includes a quick
analysis of the superhero style of stories using Northrop Frye's Anatomy
of Criticism concepts. The styles are Grim 'n Gritty, Cinematic, Four Color
and Animated. I must confess I had to read these definitions twice to get the
hang of them, but I guess that is mainly due to not being familiar with Frye's
concepts. This section could have included suggestions on how to adapt each
style's characteristics mechanically in the game. For example, in a Grim 'n
Gritty game, characters recover 1d6 damage ranks after a scene, instead of the
usual 2d6. A key concept of this game, explored in the other chapters, is introduced
here: scale, which is divided into normal and super. The former encompasses
all the mundane stuff you find in the world. The latter is the extraordinary
stuff, like giant atomic monsters and super-strong bank robbers.
I think this chapter is missing
a clear mission statement. There's nothing here that explains explicitly what's
different about T&J, what sets it apart from other superhero RPGs. The often-mentioned
notion that T&J lets you put Batman and Superman in the same adventure and
have both be equally effective is nowhere to be found. Not even a simple generic
description, like the one I used in the opening of this review's Foreword is
resent. In my opinion, there must be some sort of signaling to the reader that
T&J's take on the superhero RPG is different. It could even be something
amusing, like Jason Puckett's quote (from the T&J
mailing list) while trying to sell a friend into playing the game: "it
has combat rules that explain why Peter Parker's life is so messed up".
Playtest: I paused
my ongoing Unisystem Planetary campaign to run the playtest. Due to some work-related
problems, two of the four players couldn't participate, so I recruited another
friend who also plays RPGs. All three players have been reading comic books
for most of their lives, so it was easy to explain the philosophy behind the
game. I even used the Superman/Batman example from above, which was complemented
by one of the players' own: that fatidic issue of Spider-man where he beats
the living daylights out of Firelord, former herald of Galactus. Based on the
preview, this same player had the feeling that T&J was a humorous attempt
at the genre, a notion I dispelled.
Chapter 2: T&J Rules Overview
This chapter is available as a free
preview, but for the sake of completeness, I'll talk about it, concentrating
on the main points. There are no attributes or skills in T&J. Everything
is covered by Qualities (hence the name of the system, Prose Descriptive
Qualities), traits that can represent anything, including personality (Thoughtful,
Obsessive), physical skills or characteristics (Gunplay, Handsome), mental abilities
or skills (Sports Trivia, Speed Reading), social ties or abilities (Friends
in the Force, Intimidating Guy) and professional fields (Teacher, Bounty Hunter).
A Quality's penumbra is what it's covered by it. Each Quality has a rank
that can be either Poor [-2], Average , Good [+2], Expert [+4] or Master
[+6]. The associated number is the Modifier, which can be added to a 2d6 roll
-- the game's resolution mechanic -- whenever the action to be performed falls
within the Quality's penumbra. For example, a character with Good [+2]
Lawyer would be able to add 2 to the roll when it related to legal questions,
judicial lore, hanging out with fellow lawyers or judges, and even in debates
and such. If more than one Quality is appropriate for a roll, they can be added
together. An Expert [+4] Cop that had Good [+2] Raised by Shaolin Monks would
add 6 to the roll when fighting a criminal hand-to-hand. So, if a player wants,
it can create a very powerful character. As noted in the text, this means sacrificing
versatility for specialization, though. Positive modifiers mean the Quality
is a Strength, a negative one identify a weakness. This distinction can be applied
to the same Quality. Loves Mary Sue can be a Strength when it allows the hero
to overcome obstacles in his life and find new energy to confront problems.
On the other hand, as a Weakness, it's a constant source of problems for the
Task resolution in T&J is divided
into three types: Simple, Complicated and Conflict. The first one covers those
actions that are almost automatic for the character; those with Difficulty Ranks
(specific target numbers are also associated with each Quality rank) lower than
the appropriate Quality one. In these cases, there's no need to roll. Complicated
situations require a roll, either because the difficulty is higher than the
Quality rank or because randomness is desired. Conflict situations feature an
active resistance to the character's attempt and need not be restricted to combat,
with seduction and racing being just two other examples. In Conflict situations,
both sides roll and the highest result wins.
Damage can be physical or mental
(called Failure, in this case). It is divided into normal- or super-scale and
results from the difference in the rolls of Conflict situations. So, if one
party rolls a 10 and another a 7, the damage is 3. Super-scale attacks also
add the target number (TN) of the rank to damage against inanimate objects.
So, in the previous example, an Average  (TN 7) super-scale attack would
result in 10 points of damage. The Super-Strength power is the only free way
to do super-scale damage to living beings. This simulates how certain powers
in comics can cause massive property damage, but only knock characters out.
Later, in the powers chapter, you learn that any superpower can do super-scale
damage to people, but that requires spending one Hero Point (HP). This rule
confused me, since there was no mention of it in this chapter. I even thought
it could be a typo, a leftover from a previous version of the game.
Each point of damage corresponds
to one Quality rank, so when the character is damaged he must downgrade his
Qualities. If he takes 2 damage points, he would have to lower his total Quality
ranks by two. For example, if he had two Good [+2] Qualities, he could lower
all of them to Average ; or leave one intact and lower the other one to Poor
[-2]. When a Quality is lowered from Poor [-2] to nothing, the character zeroes
out, loses the conflict. Some people raised the possibility of a death spiral,
but I didn't see it during my playtest. Since the Qualities that will be downgraded
first are not usually related to the conflict and the character can judiciously
spend HPs to counter his penalties, the phenomenon shouldn't be common.
The Quality the character chooses
to take the first hit and the one that leads to zeroing out generate Story Hooks
for the gamemaster, subplots related to the Quality. This mechanic is the source
of Jason Puckett's quote above, in that Peter Parker's constant work and relationship
problems could be mapped in T&J with him the Photojournalist and Loves Gwen
Stacy/Mary Jane Qualities to take the first hit in a fight. It is a great system
that can happen when you are drawing that GM's block, although some Qualities,
like Stealth, can prove a bit challenging.
the rules took less than five minutes. My players liked the idea of Qualities.
They thought it avoided a problem that sometimes happen in systems with discrete
skills, in that a player might forget to buy skills that are appropriate for
the character's concept. The damage system, on the other hand, was considered
a bit odd.
Chapter 3: Characters
Building a hero in T&J follow
regular steps, like choosing a name and an uniform. Certain choices have mechanics
implications, though, Motivation, for example, is not just what propels the
character in his fight for justice, but also a way for the player to earn HPs.
Whenever a hero is confronted with his Motivation, he can either ignore it by
paying a HP, or act on it and receive 1d6 HPs. Motivation should not be seen
as a limitation as to what a character will combat. Just because a hero's Motivation
is 'fight evil corporations', it doesn't mean he won't go after street criminals.
Qualities and Powers are chosen
by assigning a set number of Ranks to them. Although the book offers several
preset distributions, like one Expert [+4] and three Good [+2] or one Master
[+6] and two Good [+2] for Qualities, and six Average  or one Master [+6]
for Powers, the systems boils down to a certain numbers of Modifier points that
can be distributed freely: 10 for Qualities and 6 for Powers. So, if you want
a Good [+2] Quality, you allocate two points to it; an Expert [+4] Power would
require four. For this purpose, Average  Ranks count as one Modifier point.
When choosing Qualities, players also have to select one Weakness, a Poor [-2]-ranked
Stunts (first mentioned in Chapter
2) are touched upon here because characters can begin the game with one or two
of them per Power. Since the main rules for them are in Chapter 4, I'll leave
my comments for that section. But I'll say that this is one of the great things
about T&J and, probably, one of the hardest to properly adjudicate.
HPs are fully explained in this
chapter. Like many of you may have suspected already, HPs are T&J's dramatic
editing mechanic. They allow the characters to find clues, energize stunts,
increase damage, better their chances of success, recover damage and affect
the setting. One of the abilities empowered by HP that I thought a bit contrary
to the game's philosophy was the one that requires HP expenditure for using
offensive power defensively, and vice-versa. This seems to punish creativity,
so I ignored it in my playtest. There are several ways to earn HPs, which include
the already mentioned Motivation, doing heroic actions, being affected by a
limitation or a vulnerability, team spirit and having a Revoltin' Development
happen to the character. These are the occasions when the GM railroads the hero
to further the plot. New characters start the game with five HPs and can have
up to a maximum (MAX) of 10 in their HP Pool. If they earn more than that, they
must burn the excess the next round or lose it.
MAX is also related to advancement
and by spending it a character can increase his Qualities and Powers, or buy
new ones. MAX can also be increased. Whenever a hero gains HPs, the GM makes
a tick next to his name. When the number of ticks is equal to MAX, the maximum
number of HPs that can be held in the pool increases by one and the ticking
resets. Ticking can be Slow (one tick per HP gain occasion) or Fast (one tick
per HP gained). I recommend the former, since the ease with each HPs can be
acquire and their relative large numbers will probably make characters advance
too fast, something that is dissimilar to the source material being emulated.
Villains have the appropriately
named Villain Points (VP). They can use them for impossible escapes, setting
up Revoltin' Developments, 'really' being a robot double when captured etc.
This is nice, but the text doesn't say how much VPs each one of those cost.
creation was a breeze and the game up and running in short time. Since some
of the concepts ere not completely gelled in the player's head, I allowed tweaks
in the characters between session. In the end, we had Urutu, a Captain America
analog that resulted from the Brazilian super-soldier program, Delta 49, an
exiled chronoagent that has force manipulation, and Black Jaguar, a feral mutant.
Urutu had an invulnerable shield as his sole power. Like Cap, he used it both
for defense and offense. I didn't see any reason for charging him HPs like the
rule I mentioned above required, since this was, in my view, a normal application
of the power. HP earning was plenty during the game and the players spent them
a lot as well, mostly to increase their chances. They never used them to alter
the setting, but that also happens in the Unisystem Planetary campaign, which
makes use of Drama points.
Chapter 4: Superpowers
T&J superpowers follow the same
model of the Qualities, in that you write down your power and assign a Rank
to it. The chapter includes a list of abilities that covers the regular staples
of the genre, such as super-strength, superspeed and flight, among others. It
also features a brief section on do-it-yourself (DYI) powers, for those times
when to create their own abilities. This is not too difficult if you use the
default list as a basis and follow the DIY instructions. The free supplement
Dial S for Superhumans can also serve as inspiration for new powers.
For those of us who like benchmarks for a power's performance, even though one
might argue that comic book powers do not have them, there's an Intensity Chart
with columns for duration, range speed, area, weight, force, energy and money.
It's a bit too steeple, but in the text Chad talks about changing the benchmarks
and adding new columns.
Limitations and vulnerabilities
in T&J are ways to earn HPs. If a player puts a limitation on the character's
power -- say, state that your force manipulation doesn't work against the color
yellow -- he'll get a HP when you his confronted by it and another one if he
manages to overcome it. Vulnerabilities -- kryptonite, for example -- cause
damage, but net the character 1d6 HPs.
Meta-Powers, Quasi-Powers and Intense
Training complete the chapter. The first is a sort of overarching power that
allows the character to have seemingly unrelated abilities that are united only
by common theme. The advantage of using it is that you get to pick several powers
for free at two Ranks below the Meta-Power one. For example, a Master [+6] Kryptonian
could have super-strength, flight and invulnerability (and a few other powers)
all at Good [+2], while an Expert [+4] Vampire might have Average  shapechange,
domination and mist form. The downside is that once the character takes damage,
he cannot he must lower the Meta-Power Rank and, consequently, all of the subpowers'
as well. The rules also state that Meta-Powers, while suggested by the players,
must be written up by the GM, should include a limitation and can be used by
NPCs. Quasi-Powers, on the other hand, are superhuman abilities taken as Qualities.
They are usually less powerful than their powered versions and include a limitation.
Intense Training is the 'Batman Option', where the character switches his Power
Ranks for Quality Ranks. It seems the math involved make it more profitable
to exchange several Average Ranks instead of one Master, but I haven't really
looked at that, so I can't comment.
This chapter has full rules on Stunts.
As I mentioned above, they one of the best mechanics in T&J, one I think
is missing from most supers RPGs. The idea is to allow the players to expand
the boundaries of their powers, using it for things not necessarily associated
with the ability (Master [+6] Rank Qualities can also have Stunts). Stunts come
in two flavors: Spin-off and Signature. The former is an attempt to use the
power to do something that falls outside its penumbra, but that can be
rationalized as being accomplishable by it (using your webbing as a shield,
using superspeed to vibrate through a wall). Spin-off Stunts have a Rank --
which is the one you use for the roll -- two levels below the stunting power's.
Signature Stunts are techniques that enhance one aspect of the power (anime
'named attacks', martial arts special moves). They always cost at least one
HP to use, have a starting Rank one level below the stunting power and, besides
adding their Modifier to the roll, also add the stunting power's too. This makes
them extremely powerful at high Ranks. After repeated uses, the character can
turn a Spin-off Stunt into a Signature one by spending one point of MAX. Both
types of Stunts can also have their Ranks increased for an attempt by spending
I read the rules twice and I still
couldn't tell for sure what Rank a Signature Stunt started with and if it required
the expenditure of HPs. The text is not clear and a couple of typos in Manticore's
description compound the problem. I had to post the question to the mailing
list in order to finally settle the question. Another problem with Stunts, but
this has nothing to do with the rules, is that it's hard to adjudicate them.
The distinction sometimes is not that clear cut. Trying to decide what's a Spin-off
and what's a Signature can take a while. Dial S for Superhumans can be
a good source for that, and a kind of Stunt database on the net would be even
49 had Force Manipulation as a Meta-Power. This raised the question of whether
he could use its base Rank for rolls. The rules seem to indicate that any rolls
should be done with the subpowers' Rank. Period. However, on the mailing list,
Chad said that depended on how the power was described. So in Delta 49's case,
it was ok to use the base Rank for creating and manipulating constructs. If
it was described as Power Ring, then no. Urutu spent his Master [+6] power slot
to have an invulnerable shield. As a Signature Stunt, he wanted a shield-throw
maneuver. I allowed it, but soon noticed it made him quite competent, since
he added 10 (6 from the Master shield and 4 from the Expert Stunt) to the roll.
It can be argued that throwing a shield is more a Spin-off Stunt, but since
Cap. America does it and Urutu had been active for more than 20 years, I allowed
it. A similar thing happened with Black Jaguar, who had Master [+6] Jaguar Instincts
(described as a Ninja-like Quality) and an Expert [+4] Unseen Prowl Signature
Stunt to simulate those stories where a character infiltrates a villain's base
off panel. On an average roll, Black Jaguar will get a 17, so, unless there
are some really over the top security measures, he will sneak in anywhere he
Chapter 5: Super-Conflict
This chapter the information on
conflict. It has rules for initiative, using multiple abilities, attacking multiple
targets, recovering damage and combat options. It also touches on using offensive
powers for defense. Here, it explains that charging HPs for it is optional and
can be eliminated if the GM considers the use appropriate. A super-conflict
that does a good job of highlighting the main points of the system example closes
One thing I noticed is that it takes
a while to gauge how many Qualities, Powers and Ranks an opponent should have.
Even though most of those may not be applicable in a battle, they will function
as 'hit points' and let him endure the beating for a long time. This isn't a
major problem, since you can zero him out when you think he has fulfilled his
role or the combat is taking too long. After a few sessions, the GM should have
a better grasp of the balance required.
Another point that wasn't clear
to me is when player characters (PC) gain Failure Ranks. For example, if a PC
wants intimidates a thug into dropping his weapon, they roll. If the PC wins,
the thug takes Failure ranks and drop his weapon. What happens if the situation
is reverse? I usually don't roll influence-type actions against PCs, so in my
games they would never accumulate Failure Ranks from those. According to Chad
(via mailing list), in this case the GM could roll and if the PC lost, he would
take Failure Ranks, but would only drop his weapon if he zeroed out.
is quick. There were two major combats in the adventure and they lasted four
or five rounds, taking 10 to 15 minutes tops of real time. Although still a
bit tactically oriented in the first combat, my players soon were in the spirit
of the game and did some cool moves. Delta 49, for example, created a bottle
to imprison the water manipulator, who escaped later by increasing his pressure
and popping the bottle's cap. This was one situation where we were in doubt
if Delta 49 should have gotten Failure Ranks. On the mailing list, Chad said
that if the Force Manipulation was linked to his will power, which was the case,
then yes. Some of the opponents had more than Ranks than I thought necessary,
making them more resilient than I want. I adjusted that during combat easily
Chapter 6: Gamemastering
Chad opens this chapter stating
that T&J is a high-trust game, i.e., it requires GM and players to be sure
that no one will try to screw the other over. This is important, since T&J
is more prone to derailing than other games if the everybody is not on the same
page. This section also has general advice on setting creation and adventure
design, as well as running the game. Some adventure options are named after
comics, like The Two-Page Spread and Retcon It!. I especially liked Title Character,
where it's assumed that each session happens in one of the characters solo magazines,
enabling the featured hero to have a bonus to his actions or to dictate a single
plot, setting or NPC point. Animal and vehicles rules appear here too and follow
the same system, using Qualities to reflect their abilities. Six character write-ups
(three heroes and three villains) grace the chapter's end
Playtest: I recycled
an adventure from another superhero campaign of mine. It was great fun converting
the villains to T&J, both because of the easy and of the fact that I created
these characters when I was a teenager. In fact, I kept thinking about all the
other supers I created and tried to fit them into the game's model. Sometimes,
it's difficult to isolate the key points of a character and translate them into
Qualities, and you might end up with an inflation of traits.
Chapter 7, 8 and 9
These are sample settings for
the game. Second-String Supers, an Animated style campaign, describes
a city whose main hero (think Gotham City and Batman) has left to join the
JLA-equivalent of the world and the responsibility for its protection now
falls on minor local heroes. It's the most complete of the settings, with
NPC and episodes write-ups, and presenting the structure for an almost complete
campaign. I found this setting interesting, but too Animated for me. The Cinematic
Supercorps features superhumans that work for superconsultancy agencies.
It uses some of Chapter 6's NPC write-ups and describes a few organizations.
Although it does not have sample episodes, it sports an intro scenario: a
staff meeting at one of the superconsultancies. It seems like a fun scene
to play. By and large, this was the setting the most caught my eye. Fanfare
for the Amplified Man (great title, btw) is a Grim 'n Gritty campaign
along the lines of The 4400, Marvel's New Universe and Wild
Cards. Regular, but heroic, people are granted powers from a mysterious
place/entity/source called the Nexus and now must decide what to do with them.
This setting is "intensely player-driven", as described in the book,
but I also found it too open. It seemed more like an essay than a campaign
T&J is missing a sample adventure.
The settings are nice and allow the reader to visualize the game's flexibility,
but an adventure could serve to showcase some of the qualities (no pun intended)
of the system, the more outrageous possibilities that aren't a part of the
super-conflict example in Chapter 5.
Chapter 10 and 11
A three-page bibliography that
includes comics, books, RPGs, movies and TV shows gets its own chapter. I'm
glad to say I'm familiar with most of the titles listed there, since the are
top quality. Chapter 11 has random-roll tables for those times when the muse
has left you and handouts. I recommend printing those out and giving copies
to each player. They speed up play and help managing things like downgrading
My players thought the game was
fun and quick, and I concur. That, I think, is praise enough. The adventure
did feel more like the ones we read in comics, so Chad reached his goal. Picking
up the game, making characters and playing is simple and fast, so, although
I probably won't drop Unisystem as my default game, T&J has earned its
place as a good substitute for those days when you want something else. I
wouldn't go so far as call T&J a generic system, but it certainly is qualified
to handle similar cinematic genres, such as pulp and Star Wars-like space
opera. In fact, I myself started writing a quick adaptation of Chad's rules
for Lucas' setting. Support for this game is still limited. However, the mailing
list is a great source of ideas and Chad is quick in answering questions.
The doubts I expressed in this review were solved in this way. I hope my complaints/suggestions
help improve the game's clarity, which seems like the only real flaw.