In 2001, Dennis Detwiller, assisted by Greg Stolze and others, created the excellent “superhumans in World War 2” game GODLIKE
, which among other things, gave us the One Roll Engine, allowing a character to determine his initiative score, success and damage all in a single roll. The whole game was so neat that everyone wanted to see what the game world after World War 2 would look like. And that postwar game was announced, under the name “WILD TALENTS.” And then Detwiller’s publisher shut down. After the first few GODLIKE supplements were put out, the project was effectively in limbo until the designers created their own publishing house and website (arcdream.com) and appealed to the GODLIKE fans to help make Wild Talents
a reality. The first run/limited edition of Wild Talents core rulebooks printed in 2006 and was financed mainly by advance orders.
As far as I know, the only way to order this game is special order via the Arc Dream website. It took a while to get to me, but it was worth it. It’s a thick hardcover book that came in a USPS parcel, tightly packed with bubble wrap to make sure it didn’t get damaged. (As opposed to the loose packaging of certain parcel companies that go by three initials which as a single word are pronounced “oops.”) Plus, you take it out and it’s got a nice one-page ad for GODLIKE on one side and Greg Stolze’s upcoming “Reign” book on the other. Note to other companies: THIS is how you’re supposed to package a delivery.
The cover, featuring the game world’s “Odd Squad,” is by Christopher Shy, who also does some of the chapter opening pages and some other interior art, along with Samuel Araya and Todd Shearer. Overall the art is of very high technical quality, but also rather dark and “painterly.” Unlike Champions or Mutants & Masterminds, Wild Talents doesn’t even try to present itself as looking like a comic book (unless you count illustrators like Kent Williams or maybe Alex Ross). It certainly does a good job of presenting the game world’s fairly askew take on superheroes, which resembles science fiction or “alternate history” more than conventional comic stuff.
Introduction: Welcome to Wild Talents
This chapter briefly goes over the concepts behind the game system, and the basics of the One Roll Engine (ORE). In addressing the concept of a role-playing game, it says: “In this limited edition, which we expect to be snatched up by veteran gamers, our focus is on creating characters and their setting. We won’t spend much time telling you what an RPG is or how to run one. If you’re new to this whole thing please visit our website at www.arcdream.com for pointers.” Well, that was simple, wasn’t it?
The introduction also goes over the character stats (as with White Wolf, both stats and skills have a normal human range of 1 to 5 ten-sided dice), the concept of Willpower (and the stat of Base Will) and the three types of superpowers, hyperstats, hyperskills and Miracles. A hyper-stat or hyper-skill is just a power that allows you to add to a certain dice pool, making one stronger, faster, better with a gun, etc. A Miracle is something that is unique or impossible; any human can lift X amount of weight, and a “Hyperbody” could lift a truck, but to lift the truck only with the power of your mind takes a Miracle.
The next section also gives a useful example of play, with sidebars listing game terms and in-game quotes with bold text to indicate game terms (‘First combat round. Declare your actions.’).
Just as Mutants & Masterminds is generally intended to simulate Silver-Bronze Age style comics, even though it is customizable, this section points out that Wild Talents, while customizable, is designed mainly for “cinematically gritty” stuff inspired by the likes of Top 10 and The Ultimates. The example of play also illustrates this also, as two supercops try to apprehend Dr. Jurassic, a scientist who turns into a T. Rex. (‘With that Killing damage, you’ve got broken bones and internal injuries everywhere, [but] you’re alive and conscious. Time for a Stability check on your next action… Wraith, you hear the stomp- THOOM!- and turn just in time to see Jurassic lift his foot off Rabid’s crushed body. Declarations?’)
PART 1: The Game
Chapter One: The One Roll Engine introduces the reader to the mechanics of the ORE. Again, most humans can have up to 5 dice in a given skill and 5 in a character stat. The way the ORE works is that when you roll, you look for matching sets. In game terms, “height” is how high you roll on the match, and “width” is how many are in the set. Thus if you roll 5 dice and get 1,1,4,7 and 8, the match is written as 2x1 (Width 2, Height 1). Generally, height determines how well you did something, and width determines how quickly you did it. Width is the main consideration when speed is of the essence (the width you roll also determines your initiative in combat), while height determines the “effect value” of the roll. In cases where time is not a factor, like a chess game, a 2x8 beats a 3x4.
The main thing to remember here is that you are never allowed to roll more than 10 dice (since getting more than ten d10s will guarantee a success). It’s quite possible for characters with hyper-abilities to have more than 10 dice in their pools, but you don’t get to *roll* more than 10. The main advantage of having more is that you get to cancel out any dice penalties for called shots, environmental penalties or such.
Chapter Two: Stats and Skills is pretty self-explanatory. Body is used for strength, toughness, and rolls where you punch someone or use a hand weapon. Coordination affects manual dexterity and ranged accuracy. Sense is your general perceptiveness (Sense skills just add on to one of the five senses). Brains is brains. Command and Cool perhaps made more sense in the GODLIKE context; they determine a character’s force of personality and resistance to mental shock. Of course, there is no end of opportunities for a GM to test a character’s mental resolve.
This is important because the sum of Command and Cool creates the character’s Base Will, which is usually identical to Willpower. In Wild Talents, Willpower is critical because the overall game concept is that “Talents” can override reality by sheer force of will and self-belief; shocks to one’s ego or traumas like witnessing (or participating in) a murder require a character to make a Cool-based roll to maintain composure; failure means you lose half your Willpower. Other setbacks like the death of a loved one will also cause a Willpower hit. It is also possible to “burn” a point of Base Will permanently for 10 Willpower points or other benefits, but if one’s Base Will goes to zero, then ALL powers and skill rolls have their dice pool cut in half, and one can’t roll the Cool and Command stats at all.
One benefit of this system, however, is that positive interactions with one’s loved ones or “supporting cast” can be used to regain Willpower equal to the amount of Base Will one has “invested” in them. One can even do this by investing Base Will in one’s home city and protecting it or boosting the community. So on one level, this encourages roleplaying, but unless the more attractive aspects of this system are played up, it will discourage players from having a supporting cast that can be used against them.
Chapter Three: Combat shows how this system works for combat. The procedure in three steps: Declare, Roll, Resolve. Players and NPCs have to declare actions first, because they are all rolled simultaneously. Actions are declared with the lowest Sense rating character declaring first (characters with higher Sense rating are in better position to judge the situation and react). Once all actions are declared, everyone rolls and the highest width action goes first (because width is the factor of speed, remember). If you have tied width, height goes first. Then actions are resolved in order. Now, this is important: If an enemy goes before you and his attack against you hits (gets at least a pair) then simply getting hit causes you to LOSE one die of width off your action, and it’s possible for this to happen multiple times before you go. This of course means that it’s possible for your attack to be completely ruined if the hits take it below two successes.
Since height determines success level, height is the basis of the hit location system, with 10 being the Head. Each location has a certain number of wound boxes (the Head only has four). Most attacks do a certain amount of damage; bare fists normally do width in Shock, or concussion, while a combat knife usually does width in Killing. Taking all your wound boxes for a hit location in Shock means that the area is severely hurt and unusable, like a limb. Taking all the boxes in Killing may destroy a limb and will kill the character if it’s the Torso or Head. Really lethal attacks may do Shock AND Killing, and any Shock damage over the number of boxes becomes Killing instead. This means that any 3x10 attack that does both Shock and Killing will waste most characters, since it does 3 of 4 boxes in Killing then 3 more Shock, only two of which is needed to kill the last box in the Head. Again, it’s fairly “gritty.” The rest of the chapter goes over the permutations of all this: how to do called shots, how to do Martial Arts maneuvers, how ‘spray’ and suppression fire attacks work, and so on.
Chapter 4: Weapons and Objects tells you how to hit things with other things. It starts with the rules for Armor; light armor (LAR) is padding that removes Shock on a 1 for 1 basis, while heavy armor (HAR) removes both Shock and Killing. This is on a scale where a Kevlar vest is 2 LAR + 2 HAR, 2” concrete is 2 HAR and an M-1 tank is 8 HAR. Along with the generic weapons lists, there are also rules for how Area attacks and armor Penetration work, along with adjustments for variant ammo like .44 slugs, 7.62 vs. 5.56 rounds, etc.
Chapter 5: Other Threats briefly goes over other hazards, like electrocution, exposure to cold (but strangely, not heat) and the damage of poisons, which in this book are pretty deadly.
PART 2: Characters
Chapter 6: Building a Character starts the character generation process in Wild Talents. Characters get a LOT more points than GODLIKE characters, but unlike those characters, Wild Talents PCs also have to buy archetypes – basically, defined character conceptions that determine what kind of powers they can start off with and how those powers can develop. The book also shows how to buy a stat with regular dice, hard dice and wiggle dice, with hard dice in a given category costing twice regular, and wiggle costing twice hard, or four times regular. What are they? Well, hard dice are assumed to always come up 10, and wiggle dice are ‘wild cards’ that the player can set to any number he wants. The reason wiggle dice are so much better is that there are some times when you DON’T want to roll at maximum ability, like when you want an enemy to underestimate you. (As the book says, ‘sometimes a perfect performance doesn’t give you the perfect result.’) Also, one wiggle die in a pool means that you can always get a match with anything.
In the point system, this means that stats are 5 points per regular die, 10 for hard, 20 for wild, or (5/10/20). Skills are 2/4/8. Miracles use a similar ratio but the cost is highly variable (see Chapter 9). Furthermore, during character creation one can increase Base Will by 4 points per Base Will. Any points left over from chargen are given to temporary Willpower.
Chapter 7: The Point Total gives recommended point totals for various power levels. This is on a scale where a “normal guy” built with average stats costs 100, a GODLIKE super-soldier costs 125, and most comic-book supers are at least 250 points, which is what the game recommends as a starting point total. This short chapter also goes over some options to enforce the ‘flavor’ of a game; lower-point characters with few variant options for dice rolling produces a ‘gritty’ game, while giving more points and options makes a ‘cinematic’ or ‘four-color’ game.
Chapter 8: Archetypes details what archetypes are. These come in three forms: Source (the origin of the powers), Permission (what kind of powers you can have) and Intrinsic (some intrinsic quality of the character’s form, like having an allergy to alien ore or being an amorphous blob with no fixed hit locations). One can make a combo template out of these to build an alien race, a demigod “package,” and so forth. This chapter goes on to list common archetype packages that PCs can use in addition to customized ones. This section also reverse-engineers the GODLIKE Talent package as one of the examples.
Chapter 9: Superpowers *starts* to describe the book’s superpowers rules. They actually go on for two more chapters. This chapter describes the game principles on which powers work, specifically how one designs a miracle (hyperstats and hyperskills simply add on to the normal stat). A core miracle costs 1 point per regular die, x2 for hard, x4 for wiggle (thus, 1/2/4). There are ‘level-based’ miracles that cost a flat 2 points per level. The main thing about these is that they apply automatically without needing to adjust one’s dice pool; they’re used largely for defense powers like Heavy Armor.
A core miracle can also have up to four qualities: Attacks (self-explanatory), Defense (ditto), Robust (does not turn off when you’re stunned or asleep) or Useful Outside of Combat. Each quality adds +1/2/4 points to a dice miracle or 2 per level to a level-based one. For instance, if you build the Human Torch’s flame aura, obviously it Attacks, it Defends (melts bullets and some energy attacks) and it’s Useful Outside of Combat (Torch can light campfires, write letters in the sky, etc.) so if you had a base “Flame On!” miracle it would be 4/8/16 points per die. The one thing it isn’t is Robust, because the flame goes out if the Torch gets knocked out.
Every time you activate a miracle, you need to “bid” 1 Willpower point to turn it on, and if the dice pool fails to get a match, you lose that point. Technically this applies to level-based powers also, but they activate automatically. However, if something happens to cancel a leveled power, you lose the “bid” point and need to spend another point to turn it back on. Plus, there are certain high-powered variable abilities (like Spellcasting) that require multiple Willpower points to be spent at the time of activation. This is why Willpower points are so important.
This chapter also gives master tables for the game values of certain dice pools, so you know how much faster 8d in Flight is compared to 5d, for instance. It also gives ideas for ‘power stunts’ (buying dice that only add to your power’s dice pool in special circumstances).
Chapter 10: Extras and Flaws explains how powers can be given special modifiers to make them more or less useful, and thus more or less expensive. Most of these work on the 1/2/4 formula, although really effective Extras (like an extra that makes a power nullifier’s effects Permanent) make a power cost x2 points *after* all other modifiers are applied. This chapter also contains the rules for building a power as a Focus or separate item; the base Focus flaw is -1/2/4, but you get to apply various appropriate modifiers in addition. In particular there is a +5/10/20 extra called Manufacturable that allows a character to make blueprints for his focus so that it can become an item of real technology and not just “Goldberg Science” that fails to work when the inventor isn’t around.
Chapter 11: The Miracle Cafeteria lists the game’s pre-made miracles as a “cafeteria” selection (as opposed to customized powers that the authors call ‘gourmet miracles’). These provide specific examples of how the ‘gourmet’ ingredients are added up to create various point totals and qualities. Generally however, the powers are a bit vague; “Control” can be used to control anything from Gravity to Humans. Also the interaction of various qualities gets a bit complex. Heavy Armor, for instance, requires the Defends quality by definition, granting 1 level of Shock and Killing defense per level. You can also get it with the Attacks quality, representing someone who’s so ‘hard’ that it hurts to hit him or get hit by him, thus adding Shock damage equal to your level in the miracle. But adding attacks also means that your Heavy Armor only grants Shock defense and no Killing defense, unless you buy the Max extra (x2 final cost) to get both Attacks and Defends qualities.
Chapter 12: Character Advancement briefly explains how experience points work. According to the book, the GM awards 1 XP per adventure, plus 1 to a player of his choice, with the players voting on which player receives a bonus point. Buying stuff up requires the same amount of points as it did in character generation. It normally requires some “off-camera” training (perhaps a montage) to justify spending XP. It is also possible to burn 1 Base Will to improve a stat without training time, or to burn Willpower to increase a stat or power in the middle of an adventure. This approach has problems, of course.
Moreover, the game says that a character needs to have the “Mutable” intrinsic to gain completely new powers; this means you have to either have that quality or be very careful about what your character conception is if you have lots of ideas for new powers.
PART 3: Superheroic Histories
Chapter 13: Changing the Course of Mighty Rivers is the chapter written by Ken Hite, and as ‘Jacob X.’ put it, this chapter alone is almost worth the price of the book. The chapter is a GM’s guide to designing a superhero campaign history, starting from the fundamental: “First decide what you want, then build it. Work backward.” To create a framework for a super-world, Hite uses a model of four ‘axes’ on a scale of 1 to 5, Red, Gold, Blue and Black: Red for the Marxist ‘Great Momentum’ concept, representing how easy it is for Talents to change history; Gold for the metal, representing how much superheroes change over time; Blue for “out of the blue” ideas like aliens, gods and other strangeness that actually seems to be the norm for a super-world, and Black for morality, with higher levels going more towards clear distinctions of ‘black vs. white.’ Naturally the higher the rating of each axis, the closer to classic comic-book reality the setting gets (‘The classic Silver Age DC Universe was a Black 5 universe and proud of it’). Thus in addition to being Black & White morally, the classic comic world is resistant to change by superhumans, tends not to change them much or at all, and is full of unbelievable fantasy that is commonplace for the setting. By contrast, the GODLIKE World War II setting is rated as Red 4, Gold 4, Blue 1 and “workable at Black 3”. Thus, it’s mostly historically accurate with no ‘super’ elements other than the unexplained appearance of powered individuals, and a grim morality that nevertheless affirms that Nazis are Evil.
From here Hite advises the GM to figure out how many supers are in his world. He gives tools such as “Pareto Principle” percentages and historical population graphs of how many Talents could be in a given time period, such as the Roman Empire or the Crusades. This leads into a discussion of how Talents would change history by their presence (with subheadings like ‘Whosoever Can Lift This Castle is Rightwise King of England’). There is a particular focus paid to the US Civil War and World War II. The author touches on the what-if possibilities of latter-day events like the assassination of JFK, or the government’s reaction to 9-11 in a world with superhumans. This leads logically to….
PART 4: A World Gone Mad
Chapter 14 is the long-awaited extended history of the GODLIKE universe, and it is indeed pretty bizarre, as the long-term results of Talent appearances on Earth become known. It’s worth noting that while GODLIKE is subtitled “Superhero Roleplaying in a World on Fire”, Wild Talents is subtitled “Superhero Roleplaying in a World Gone Mad.”
How mad? Well, both MacArthur and Mondale got elected President, for starters. Basically, as Talents become more commonplace, the writers are more prone to make major changes to history. In particular, British projects after World War II allowed the UK to maintain Great Power status via the invention of a mass-production process for Talents- which in turn seems to have triggered some sort of Gestalt where the major Willpower limitations of WW2 Talents were overcome by a new generation that lacked those barriers (thus the label ‘wild talents’).
The story ends around 1992 with a very Watchmen-like stunt on the part of a “Hyperbrain” mastermind, and like Watchmen posits a greater trust between the superpower nations and the possibility of a world utopia, but with the world’s problems by no means resolved. The setting as presented still offers a lot of potential for PCs with options for the GM to move Earth in any unusual direction he wishes.
PART 5: White Knights, Black Hearts
Chapter 14 (?) is a sample scenario for using the rules or perhaps starting a campaign. Notably, it isn’t based on the GODLIKE/Wild Talents continuity, but is set in 1975, and is intended to convey the anti-heroic, downbeat themes of the popular media at that time. The PCs are low-profile “street” heroes who are set up for a murder rap and forced to clear their names, in the process getting deep into a civil war within the local Mob.
The scenario includes stats for the mob-hired Talents, the established local hero team, and sample heroes who can be used as starting PCs and who are intended to display the setting themes. Namely, it’s the 70’s, the characters protect people on the street, and they’re all held back by “The Man.” So the samples include Trouble Man, a shapeshifter who’s a large black man in his hero ID and a nerdy white guy in his secret ID, The Streak, who can run Mach 50, but only as long as he’s totally naked, and Redshift, a multiple-personality Communist hero who’s a Republican cop in his secret ID, which basically means he’s hunting himself.
Outta sight, brothers and sisters!!
Any superhero/superhuman game needs to be able to present a solid set of rules for superpowers, which usually requires the ability to design your own. Wild Talents is a good start on the path to that goal. However, I say it’s only a good start because the powers and the iterations of those powers aren’t well-developed, even in comparison to GODLIKE. For instance, the GODLIKE game *had* a Super-Speed miracle, which doesn’t exist in Wild Talents because all movement effects work on the same scale. But this means that with the aforementioned Streak, they bought his speed as +7d of Hyperbody with No Physics extra and the flaw “Only For Movement.” This seems a bit cumbersome to me. Despite having the GODLIKE pedigree, this is still a pretty new game, and the Wild Talents Yahoo! Group where I lurk demonstrates that there are a lot of aspects to the rules that are still open to interpretation, or don’t seem to be in the book. Basically, the powers system is just as dense as HERO System 5th Edition Revised, but lacks that level of clarity. So the downside to this game is that if you wanted something that was easier than HERO or had more options than Mutants & Masterminds… too bad.
I still give it a very high recommendation, though. That’s largely because it presents a certain creativity and unique vision, presenting a distinct take on superhuman fiction that compares well with its source material, and gives players a really fascinating place to play in. Plus, the One Roll Engine is a fast and innovative mechanic, and the powers rules DO work. They just need some more testing and fine tuning- perhaps in a second edition. Let’s hope there is one.
A clean-looking, well-illustrated book that succeeds in presenting a “post-modern” look at superheroics.
A superb and innovative game system marred mainly by a lack of clear power design examples.