Since I like to wear my biases on my sleeve, before we dive in, I feel I must point out that not only am I a huge fan of superhero media, I’m also an easy mark for superhero properties that build the same kind of deep continuity you find with publishers like Marvel Comics or DC Comics, without having a real publication history. For example, I love the emerging continuity of Green Ronin’s Earth Prime as portrayed in their Mutants and Masterminds products.
I’m going to try not to retread too much territory from my Sentinel Comics Starter Kit review from 2018, but if you aren’t familiar with the property, Sentinel Comics is the fictitious comic book publisher that produces the comics upon which the Sentinels of the Multiverse card game is based, as well as the Sentinels Tactics miniatures game, The Sentinels of Freedom video game, and the Freedom Five board game. In case all of that doesn’t clue you in, this is a property with a deep sense of history to draw upon.
I was a Kickstarter backer for this game, and while I received the Sentinel Comics: The Roleplaying Game Core Rulebook, as well as the Sentinel Comics Game Moderator Kit, I’m keeping my focus on the core book for this review.
The Official Who’s Who of the Sentinel Comics Universe
This review is going to look at both the PDF of Sentinel Comics: The Roleplaying Game, as well as the physical book. The book is 458 pages, and many comics panels serve as examples of play, as well as large, colorful charts, and many symbols and dice images in explanations.
There are about eight pages of character and villain sheets, some in black and white and some in color. There is a five-page Index/Glossary that summarizes concepts and points the reader towards various sections of the book. There is also a credits page and a separate page for the table of contents.
Calling this “full color” is not quite as descriptive as it could be. This book has bold, bright colors throughout. Chapters are introduced with huge splash pages of the characters in action. The end pages are amazing, because they contain a collection of comic book covers from (non-existent) comic books across the decades.
Chapter 1: Introduction
The introduction is one of the shorter portions of the book, but it sets up the expectations of the game. It spells out that the following concepts are assumed to be true when playing Sentinel Comics: The Roleplaying Game:
- Characters are heroic
- Characters work as a team
- Personality and principles are important to the game
- The game assumes a Silver Age comic book tone
- The game assumes everyone will contribute to the narrative
In addition to setting expectations, this section explains the structure of the book, as well as introducing the characters that are being used in the comic strip examples included in the following chapters.
Chapter 2: Playing the Game
This section introduces the broad strokes of the rules that are used to adjudicate the game. This starts by explaining how stories are broken up into Collections, Issues, and Scenes, which essentially are, using other RPG parlance, story arcs, game sessions, and individual encounters. Scenes break down into the following categories:
- Action Scenes
- Social Scenes
- Montage Scenes
Action scenes are probably familiar to anyone that has played a roleplaying game with combat resolution. Social scenes may be only roleplaying or may involve some rolls to resolve contentious discussions. Montage scenes are extended scenes that allow a player to pick a single mechanical benefit that happens during that downtime.
The next part of this chapter uses the character sheet of Legacy to show how different aspects of characters are recorded, including principles, backgrounds, archetypes, powers, qualities, health, and abilities.
When a character acts, the most important thing is to determine what the goal of the action is. Once this is determined, actions fall into one of the following categories:
This game system is referred to as the GYRO system, which stands for Green, Yellow, Red, and Out. Character abilities and status dice are based on their status. If either their health, or the scene itself, advances to a new color, those abilities, plus any previous abilities, are available to use. For example, many Red abilities are more effective, but can only be activated when the situation gets dire.
Characters pick a Power and Quality, rated in dice steps from d6 to d12, plus the character status die. The character usually uses the middle number of the three rolled to resolve the action.
Something that can be incrementally worn away is usually attacked to remove it from a scene. A situation that requires distinct steps to resolve is approached with an Overcome. Boost or Hinder actions generate a number to hand off to another character to apply to a roll to either help them or penalize their roll. Defending allows a character to roll a die to ablate the damage incoming from others.
Abilities sometimes modify how this basic structure works, and abilities are marked as either A, R, or I, or Action, Reaction, or Inherent. Abilities that are listed as an Action replace how a standard action is resolved. Reactions can be used once per turn, and Inherent abilities modify or add to the regular way an action is resolved.
Characters may have to accept a twist to accomplish a goal, or they may accept a twist to gain more than one effect from a single action. Minor twists are short term setbacks or challenges added to a scene, while major twists tend to be long term story complications introduced into the narrative.
If you have never played Fate, Cortex Plus, or a PbtA game, some of these concepts may not feel familiar, but if you have played some or all the game systems mentioned here, this system very much feels like a unique synthesis of what each of these games does, without feeling too much like any one of them.
In an action scene, characters will hand off to one another after they take an action, and each opponent in the scene also gets a turn. If the Scene Tracker is being used, on the Scene Tracker’s turn the tracker advances, and any Environment effects happen at that time.
Characters can be taken out of a scene if their health reaches zero, but a player character never dies unless the character wants their character to die. Each character will have an “Out” ability that they can take, just like the Sentinels of the Multiverse card game. This doesn’t represent your character doing something, per se, but how your character inspires and influences your team. It does give you a choice to make on your turn that influences the current scene.
Chapter 3: Creating Heroes
This is an extensive part of the rulebook. This encompasses about 100 pages of the book, and while the actions are simple and easy to adjudicate, there are a lot of different abilities (essentially alternate ways of adjudicating actions) as well as a lot of example twists based on different character choices that the player makes, so that it’s easier to narrow down the kinds of complications that arise in the narrative.
Effectively, instead of allowing for a free form modification to relatively simple expressions, this section gives lots of very specific tweaks that are thematically tied to the lists under which they are organized.
The following steps are part of character creation:
- Power Source
- Red Abilities
- Finishing Touches
While the process itself is linear, there are modifiers in different stages that add different dice ratings to your powers and qualities, give you different options for what dice you can assign to powers and qualities, and give you different abilities with which you can substitute or supplement your standard actions. Because of this, you may end up flipping back and forth a lot in this section when creating a character.
The section mentions two methods of character creation, guided and constructed. Guided involves rolling randomly on the charts that summarize all the categories for each section of character creation. Constructed involves the player choosing whatever option they would rather have in each section. Regardless of what method you use, the end of each discreet section usually gives you a number of dice that you can use to assign to different powers. For example, at the end of one step, you may get one d10 and two d6 to assign to different powers or qualities.
The character’s principles will give you a list of possible twists that you can use for your “go-to” consequences. Choices for Background and Archetype will give you different Green and Yellow abilities, with Red abilities, your “clutch” moves, being picked at the end. The Retcon phase of character creation lets you choose a modification to one of your previous choices to customize your character a bit more.
I appreciate that twists have several examples to draw from, so that players aren’t left entirely on their own to come up with ideas on the fly. I also like that principles and personalities are an important and mechanically reinforced portion of character creation. I like that the abilities you gain from your principles not only trigger the character getting a hero point, but also trigger everyone getting a hero point.
Character advancement involves grouping and recording story collection, where characters can change their powers or other character details at the end of a character arc, but the overall character power level doesn’t change much. For each collection, however, the character can reflect on that storyline, and use it to retcon a scene that happened between stories, belay minor twists, or modify dice rolls.
While the individual bits of character creation are simple and easy to understand, because later steps often create more options or modify choices made in previous steps, there can be a lot of flipping back and forth in this section. There is nothing wrong with that, but if your brain works like mine, sometimes you end up looking at a page and wondering why you flipped back to it.
Chapter 4: Moderating the Game
This chapter covers all the parts of a game that the Game Moderator will need to juggle. This primarily includes adding elements to scenes, deciding whether to use the scene tracker and environment actions, and how to pace the game.
One of the best bits of advice in this section is regarding clues and story progression. If characters need a clue, they find it. If there is any randomness, it’s about how prepared the villain is when the PCs arrive, or if the PCs get ambushed, etc.
In action scenes, especially when the Scene Tracker is being used, there may be objectives that require the Overcome action. For example, an open portal may keep pouring minions into a scene, or civilians may be in danger. If these complications aren’t addressed, characters may end up being hindered, attacked, or find themselves surrounded by more opponents.
In addition to these pacing and structural bits of advice, this section also addresses topics like teaching the rules, improvising situations that arise, coming up with meaningful choices, and dealing with problem players.
One of the important concepts that is communicated by this chapter is that the Scene Tracker is meant to introduce the idea that characters must prioritize their actions. It’s rare for characters to fail to do what they want to do, but because time is ticking away, characters must balance introducing twists and ultimate goals before the Scene Tracker advances to the end of its count, at which point the scene resolves in a manner logical for the GM to narrate.
Chapter 5: The Bullpen
Different types of challenges and oppositions are introduced in this chapter. One of the challenges discussed is the Doomsday Device. Doomsday devices are noted as something to be used sparingly, and something that will cause a major change to the campaign if they are not subverted. Doomsday Devices have their own turns in the scene, and unlike other challenges, Doomsday Devices usually require multiple stages of resolution. For example, finding a device, disabling a device, and safely dismantling a device might be some steps of a Doomsday Device resolution.
Opposition comes in three “sizes,” minions, lieutenants, and villains. Instead of having a dice pool, minions and lieutenants are represented with a single die, and may have an ability that modifies the single die under a narrow circumstance — for example, +2 when resisting damage or attacking. Minions degrade a die type each time they are attacked, meaning that once they degrade from a d6, they are out of the scene. Lieutenants roll to resist damage, and if successful, they don’t degrade. If they degrade under a d6, they are also removed from a fight.
Villains are built more like player characters, although not in the exact same way. Villains are built from Approaches and Archetypes, which present a list of abilities as well as health levels appropriate for the villain type. In addition to the health from both choices, the final amount of health for the villain is determined by the number of players in the game.
I appreciate that the text discusses that the same villain in different stories might change their approach or their archetype. Billionaire Lex might be a Mastermind/Inventor when confronted in his high-rise office, but supervillain team leader Lex might be a Tactician/Squad villain, despite being the same person. This means that some approaches and archetypes might work better with or without allies. This also means that the status die that the villain is using may not always be based on their health, but on how well they are performing their villainous approach.
Not all villains have these, but singular villains might also pick an ability from the Villain Upgrades, and the Villainous Mastery charts. Upgrades often add more health as well as giving the villain the option for more abilities, but almost all the Villainous Mastery abilities are Inherent abilities. These are good additions to add to the villain when heroes have run into them multiple times over the course of a campaign.
Environment options are also presented, for example, creating Green, Yellow, and Red abilities and twists for different types of environments. Unlike minions or lieutenants, environments usually have three different aspects with different die ratings for the environment to roll when the environment takes its action. While environments can’t be defeated like villains, sometimes there are Overcome options for shutting down some environmental conditions or abilities.
Chapter 6: Adventure Issues
This chapter includes two sample adventures for the game. The first adventure is a short scenario that, by default, is designed for the pre-generated Daybreak team of young superheroes.
Battle of the Bands is a fun scenario that involves the team stumbling over a plot by a team of supervillains who are also a heavy metal band, detailing the five supervillains that are part of the team. Much of the action involves keeping the crowd safe while recovering some stolen technology enhancing the villain team’s performance.
A Conspiracy of Clones is an adventure with a bigger scope, dealing with a supervillain that has a world-spanning plot that will require the PCs to deal with minions, find a lair, and confront the villain and his allies. The adventure also has notes on expanding this into a jumping-off point for a larger campaign arc. This adventure doesn’t assume a specific team of heroes, just a starting location.
Chapter 7: The Archives
The archives present several existing heroes from Sentinel Comics, as well as example minions and lieutenants, villains, and environments. The background information for these characters tells the general story of the setting as it stands now. This is a superhero setting that has just survived a major, multiverse shaking event, and the premier superteam has just opened a new school for training the next generation of heroes. This is a good starting point for an RPG setting, because it merges new, not previously established heroes, with a world that still has some damage to repair from a major event.
Most of the characters presented are associated with the previous Freedom Five/current Sentinels of Freedom, their training campus, and the city of Megalopolis. There are a few entries that move beyond this baseline, although many of those entries are still tangentially associated with the Sentinels of Freedom (for example, Mordengrad, Heritage’s nemesis Baron Blade’s native country).
There are eight iconic solo villains, three supervillain teams, seven categories of minions and lieutenants, and about six different established environments.
When I saw the size of this book, I thought there would be more detailed heroes, villains, and environments. I didn’t realize quite how much space hero, villain, and environment creation were going to take up. As someone that has been listening to the Letters Page, the podcast where the creators of Sentinel Comics discuss the history they have devised for the setting, I almost felt as if the selling point would really be the deep lore dive.
There are a couple of reasons why I’m not disappointed in this development. I walked through character creation and played a short (solo) scene, and it helped me to realize how compelling the character elements can be. It showed me how robust this is as an engine for superhero stories with the same assumptions even without being tied to the property. Additionally, showing brand new players just how much history exists in the setting in the core book might be a bit . . . intimidating. The story of the Sentinels of Freedom and Megalopolis is a nice, constrained story that implies a wider superhero world, without providing too much minutia.
That said, I’ll probably be jumping on any setting books that come out in the future.
Cast Off Lesser Things and Embrace the Light
The core resolution system is easy to grasp, and the combination of Powers, Qualities, Abilities, and Principles works very well to add flavor to individual mechanical building blocks. There is a wide range of comic book tropes covered in this book, facilitating the ability to actualize a wide range of character concepts.
The Scene Tracker is what really helps to pull all these concepts together and sets this game apart from other supers RPGs. The immediacy of action and the need to prioritize actions is an aspect of superhero comics that rarely comes through in RPG mechanics.
The Moon Grows Closer with Your Every Breath The mechanics build in the importance of making split-second decisions, and the addition of twists can cause a simple narrative to explode into a memorable scene. [social_warfare]
It’s strange to cite something as both a benefit and a hindrance, but because there are so many examples of powers, power sources, motivations, personality types, and abilities, it’s very easy to find yourself bouncing back and forth through the book when making a character, or when the game facilitator is building a major villain. In a perfect world, this is the kind of RPG content that could be facilitated by a nice web application.
This probably won’t be an issue for most players, but if you assume that this book is going to be your guide to everything Sentinel Comics, this book is only going to lightly touch on a few aspects of the very, very detailed setting.
Recommended–If the product fits in your broad area of gaming interests, you are likely to be happy with this purchase.
If you are the type of gamer that prefers your RPGs as simulators of a world where some people have superhuman abilities, and they may be superheroes, this game may not appeal to you. It very much models the pacing and tropes of sequential storytelling. This is a game that is concerned with modeling what would happen in a comic book featuring that same storyline.
The good news is, if you are the type of person that really wants to seize upon the pacing and the feeling of how a comic book story unfolds, this game does all of that phenomenally well. The mechanics build in the importance of making split-second decisions, and the addition of twists can cause a simple narrative to explode into a memorable scene.
Would you rather have rules that help you model a world, and then apply your own scenarios to those rules, or would you rather play to the tropes and conventions of a genre right from the start? What games do you feel emulate genres well? What games do you think provide a solid, flexible framework for applying multiple genres? We would love to hear from you, so leave your thoughts below!