When I was young, I had enough health problems that going outside wasn’t always an option. Playing inside involved getting my mom to tie a towel around my neck so I could pretend to be Robin, and lean back while climbing the stairs, like I was scaling the side of a building. I also would wear a green sweatshirt and jump off the furniture and pretend that I was the Hulk. I miss my twenties.
Anyway, eventually I realized that roleplaying with dice was a lot safer than falling down a flight of stairs, and the second roleplaying game I ever played was TSR’s Marvel Super Heroes. One of the longest-running campaigns I’ve had in recent memory was my DC Adventures game. I’m always on the lookout for new superhero roleplaying games.
For today’s review, we’re going to take a look at Spectaculars, a superhero roleplaying game from Scratchpad Publishing, the same company that brought us Dusk City Outlaws, an RPG designed to be pulled off the shelf and used with minimal prep.
Disclaimer: This review is based on the review copy of the game that was sent to me by Scratchpad Publishing.
Entering the Secret Hideout
The current trend for roleplaying games is usually for a rulebook to serve as the instruction manual and reference book for the game. The gamebook is a guide to what other components you will need to play the game. Scratchpad Publishing games are designed with more of a classical game structure in mind.
What I mean by that is that there isn’t a large rulebook/reference manual, but instead, there are multiple physical components that facilitate play. There are two softcover booklets, the Setting Book and the Rulebook, which come in at 60 pages each. Six player trays house the components you use to build a character, and another tray to hold the dice, tokens, power cards, identity cards, team role cards, complication deck, and initiative cards.
In addition to the above components, there are five tear-off pads, four of which are “series pads,” with sheets facilitating different types of superhero campaigns, and a pad of hero tracking sheets, to track story progression and rewards.
I also picked up the PDF version of this product, but much like my experience with Dusk City Outlaws, unless you want to do a LOT of printing and cutting, the way the components are designed makes the PDF much more useful as a reference guide rather than a practical alternative to buying the physical game.
Those physical components look and feel very nice. The rulebook is glossy, while the setting book has a finish that allows you to write on it as you fill out details for the campaign you are playing. All of the trays feel durable, and the cards are bright, colorful, and easy to read.
Rulebook (Game Rules)
The first section of the Rulebook details the game rules as a whole, beginning with character creation. Characters are built following a procedure:
- Pick an archetype sheet
- Pick a team role card
- Randomly draw multiple powers, and pick one to three powers to assign to power slots
- Randomly draw multiple identities, and pick one to assign to the character
- Put everything in its proper place in the player tray
Since everything is resolved with percentile dice, your identity will provide you with skills, your archetype and team role will provide you with special perks that you may have to spend hero points to trigger, and the percentile chance for your powers to be successful will depend on if that power is in slot one, two, or three of the player tray.
Ongoing games are called series, with individual sessions denoted as issues. Issues are composed of interludes, which are scenes where characters state an objective and may have to roll dice to see if they achieved this objective, and conflicts, which are structured scenes that utilize turns determined by the initiative deck.
In a conflict, player characters may have to interact with the following elements:
Heroes and villains have resistance, effectively the hit points of this game. Minion groups have a magnitude, which is reduced when the minion group is successfully engaged. Objectives are multi-step tasks that must be engaged to achieve a certain effect in combat. Complications are situations like falling buildings or civilians in danger that have a certain number of checkboxes to resolve. Whenever a hero successfully does something to advance an objective or defuse a complication, they gain an additional hero point.
The initiative deck is used to determine the order that all of these elements act on a given turn, and the deck is shuffled and dealt again each turn. Important singular villains get more than one initiative card, but a team of villains, like the Sinister Six, would likely just have one initiative card per villain. Some powers, archetypes, or team roles allow for the card order to be swapped around. I’ll get into this more in the actual play section, but even though I’m not normally a fan of initiative order shenanigans, the way initiative works in this game, it’s painless and fun.
Villains have boxes to track the progress of their plots. For each interlude scene, one of their boxes tick off, meaning that if the heroes take too much time researching or investigating, the villain may be a lot more prepared than they would have liked. As an example, you need to spend interlude scenes to prove Obadiah Stane tried to kill Tony Stark, but if you use too many interlude scenes to get the evidence, Stane steals the Iron Monger armor and gets it powered up for a one on one fight.
In addition to rolling percentile dice to determine success, or spending hero points to trigger abilities, some powers have power stunts associated with them, which have you put time tokens on the power card. You take off one token each turn, and you can’t use the power until the time tokens are all removed. Circumstances may cause you to add advantage or challenge dice, which have special symbols on them which may make successes more impressive (more damage, special additional effects), or failures more devastating (reversing the work you have done on an objective, for example).
Heroes pick an aspiration and a turmoil, and at the beginning of the issue, they can frame scenes to show how their personal goals progress. Advancing the story of a turmoil or aspiration earns the player progress towards story awards. Characters can also gain lasting repercussions, which can just be narrative beats that have made an impact, but some lasting repercussions trigger abilities from recurring villains.
Rulebook (Origin Story Seeds)
In addition to detailing the structure of play, the rulebook also has inspirational origin story charts, which include the following:
- All Heroes
- Super Science Heroes
- Magic Heroes
- Cosmic Heroes
- Street Level Heroes
- Pariah Heroes
- Strange Heroes
These origin tables are one of my favorite things in Spectaculars, because they aren’t just useful for this game, but provide a lot of inspiration for any superhero game you might run.
Rulebook (Story Rewards)
There are multiple categories of story rewards that characters can gain.
- General Rewards
- Revamp Rewards
- Setting Rewards
- Retirement Rewards
- Origin Rewards
- Fourth-Wall Breaking Rewards
General rewards and revamp rewards are essentially what they say on the label. Setting rewards are story rewards that change one of the truths that define the setting, and might alter the tone of the series. Retirement rewards are declarations for how the character wants to leave the series, and often retirement rewards grant origin rewards to the next character that the player generates.
Fourth-wall breaking rewards will be hilarious for some tables, and grating for others. These are special rules to model playing with the setting as a media property. For example, you might take a story reward that grants you a new temporary power because a new action figure of your character was produced that has an accessory included with it.
Rulebook (For the Narrator)
The narrator’s section of the rulebook advises on how to improvise an issue, instead of using the scenarios included in the series pads, how to build a more structured issue or series, and how some of the rules surrounding villains work. The narrator’s section ends with a list of optional rules, which also includes some notes on how gameplay will likely change if you follow these optional rules.
I’m going to give you a spoiler right here. I love this book. It is such a great guide to creating a superhero world, but I’m getting ahead of myself. The setting book starts with The Basics, a two-page spread of questions about the setting you want to create. Not only are there some great questions that are quintessential to how a superhero setting works (how common are heroes; how does the public feel about them; how do the authorities feel about them), but what’s great is that most of these questions have multiple choice answers, so if you don’t have a good answer of your own, it’s not too hard to find an appealing option.
Depending on how you answer some of the questions in The Basics, you will get directed to other forms in the book to answer. Did your major city have a recent disaster? There is a page for that. Was that disaster caused by powered individuals, which caused the authorities to crack down on them? There is a page for the legal ramifications of regulating heroes. Is there an agency that enforces this? There is a page to detail that regulatory agency as well.
There are entries for detailing mega-corporations, interstellar empires, nether dimensions, super-powered schools, ancient artifacts, alternate dystopian futures, lost cities, terrorist groups, and a ton of other superhero setting tropes. I love how this section guides you to relevant entries, and provides you with some solid answers if you don’t have your own ideas for how to shape that aspect of the setting.
I love this book so much that I almost hate to say there is a downside, but there is a bit of one, that I’ll touch on when we get to our actual play section.
The Series Pads
There are four series pads included with the box. The series pads include team structures, archetypes, minion types, villain types, and adventure scenarios with their own villain progression tracks, complications, and objectives. The series included with the box include the following:
- Clash Among the Stars
- Eldritch Mysteries
- Explorers of the Unknown
- Streetlight Knights
As you might surmise from the titles, Clash Among the Stars involves superhero stories in space opera settings, Eldritch Mysteries involves superhero stories with supernatural elements like folklore monsters and magic, Explorers of the Unknown involves high concept Earth-bound adventures like you might see in the Fantastic Four or the Justice League, and Streetlight Knights involves the kind of stories you might see in Spider-Man, Daredevil, or Batman.
On one hand, I like the individual components in the pads. I like the overall design of the archetype pads and how they form the basis for the player trays and the card arrangement, and I like the team frameworks and the quickly summarized issue format. The villain progression tracks are a great bit of RPG tech for advancing stories without putting too much cognitive load on the GM to determine exactly what the villain is doing right at this moment.
I’m not as much of a fan of how the individual pads are organized. Team frameworks are at the top, then some archetypes, then minions and villains that might appear in an issue, then an issue summary. Then, you might get some more archetypes that seem thematic for inclusion with a later issue (meaning if you want to play, say, a Martian Manhunter type character, you may need to dig through the pad until you find an alien invasion issue), and some more minion and villain types later on. It’s a lot of digging, and it feels weird to flip back and forth and tear things out of the pad non-sequentially.
It’s also worth noting that the game expressly mentions that you can use archetypes from different pads in different series. If you are doing an Explorers of the Unknown series with a Justice League style team, the “Batman” archetype is in Streetlight Knights, the “Superman” archetype is in Clash Among the Stars, and the “Wonder Woman” archetype is in Eldritch Mysteries.
There are free PDF downloads of hero and villain archetypes available online, which organize all of the team and hero sheets from all of the series pads into one PDF, and all of the minion and villain archetypes into another PDF, and I like this organizational arrangement better. This may have been the only viable way to physically produce these, rather than having smaller pads with the villains and heroes separate from the series sheets, but that separation makes the PDF much easier for me to navigate.
The following decks are included in the game:
- Team Roles
- Basic Powers
The cards in the Powers and Identities decks have color-coded sections that reference the series pad for which the card is appropriate. The powers that appear in the decks are thematic for the series pad that section of the powers deck is associated with, although sometimes there is some similarity between different powers in the subsections. For example, Kinetic Energy Manipulation is a Common Power, but Bend Space, a power that alters the direction of projectiles and particles, is in Clash Among the Stars. The stunts on Kinetic energy Manipulation are about bumping damage up or down, while the stunts on Bend Space are about accuracy.
You could use the Guardian archetype to build a Green Lantern style character in an Explorers of the Unknown series, using the Common Powers and the Explores of the Unknown Powers, or in a Clash Among the Stars series, using the Common Powers and the Clash Among the Stars Power. While you can find similar powers that would both seem very much like Green Lantern staples, the scope of the Clash Among the Stars stunts feel a bit bigger to simulate fighting a galactic armada or raiders (for example, with a 500 resistance force fiend), instead of Jessica Cruz or John Stewart slapping members of the Royal Flush Gang around with constructs while hanging out with the Justice League.
At the Table: The Sapphire City Sentinels
I don’t always get the chance to get a game to the table before I can write a review, but since one of the design goals of Spectaculars is to be an “off the shelf” game, I asked some of my regular game group if they could make time for a one-shot, and we took the game for a spin.
We detailed our city, Sapphire City, a west coast city in northern California. The group chose to have the team archetype of Prodigies, that banded together as Professional Colleagues. The series was set in the 1980s, and we decided that the team is sponsored by Sapphire City University by a grant studying superhuman impact on society. Sapphire City itself suffered a major catastrophe when rival Sapphire City State performed an alternative power experiment that blew up a quarter of the city and caused the feds to put checkpoints in and out of the city.
Our team members are:
- The Monster, Aberrant (a tentacled creature that works in the University’s business office during the day)
- The Construct, Fraternity Boy (an animated mound of garbage given sentience by an experiment at the college, and attending as a student)
- The Super Soldier, Cold War (a superhuman researcher whose scientific past working for the government granted her cold powers and flight)
- The Inventor, The Professor (a gadgeteer that works in the engineering department of the school)
- The Power Armor Pilot, Cat Walk (a supermodel going to the school on a grant, he volunteered to pilot a mech suit for school credits)
When we were creating our city, the group enjoyed the initial stages of creating the setting in The Basics, but the more branching sections for setting creation we were directed to fill out, the more they started to take options that didn’t lead to more setting detail. Additionally, the random powers led both the Construct and the Super Soldier to build characters that they weren’t entirely happy with, power-wise.
I used the first scenario in the Explorers of the Unknown pad, but added in a villain and modified the structure a little to get a few more aspects of the game in use for our one shot. While in the University President’s office, robot bee drones carried by a queen bee carrier robot attacked the city, endangering citizens and damaging buildings. The group sprung into action so hard that their initial attacks on the bees went through the University President’s windows instead of exiting the office (“Hero House!”).
The group springs into action saving civilians, stabilizing the building, fighting the swarm of tiny drones, and then taking out the bigger carrier. Due to a poorly understood metaphor, Fraternity Boy investigated a pizza place, while Cold War and Aberrant searched the university labs, and Cat Walk distracted the authorities so The Professor could gather pieces of the wrecked robots. The group found out that the robot bees had appeared in the subway previously, and The Professor created a tracking device to home in on the signal, under the local sports stadium.
The group quickly attempted to dismantle a machine set up to build more robot bees before the sports competition scheduled for that day started. The team divided up their efforts between shutting down the machine, fighting off a swarm of drones, and fighting another queen bee carrier.
When I checked off the boxes for the Mad Scientist villain I was using, I gave them a grudge against a hero. We determined that when he showed up, Doctor Collectivist was an old foe of Cold War. Doctor Collectivist had a red lab coat, a Darth Vader inspired breathing mechanism over his mouth, and twin-charged electro whips that came out of the sleeves of his lab coat.
Aberrant’s team leader ability let him spend hero points to shift the team forward, pushing back Doctor Collectivist’s turn, and allowing the team to finish off the queen bee carrier before Cold War spent her striker team ability to do massive extra damage to Doctor Collectivist. The Doctor got in a few good shots, but was gone before his second turn of actions.
After Action Report
The group felt like the Team Roles were more important than any of the powers they had, although they also felt part of that was due to the randomized nature of the powers they had access to when building their character, especially after looking through the deck of powers.
The group liked the setting book details, but for a one-shot, they didn’t want to get too deep into answering questions. We spent about 90 minutes on character creation and setting questions, versus about two hours of playtime. The closest example of setup to playtime ratio without previous prep that our group usually has is about an hour to set up for a PbtA game with about two and a half to three hours of play afterward.
Despite these observations, the group was enthusiastic to play the game again. They wanted to play at least a short series where we could have a session zero to flesh out the setting in more detail, and they wanted to try the optional rules for intentionally choosing powers from the appropriate decks. As far as the game mechanics went, they enjoyed the time tokens, hero points, and initiative tricks in the game, and liked the stunt aspect of the powers.
Endgame This is the first supers RPG that expressly addresses your ability to emulate playing Street Luge Batman, Angela jumping continuities from Image to Marvel, and Black Knight’s adventures in the Malibu Universe.
This game is a joy to look at, and the components are fun to utilize. There is something very satisfying about lining up the cards in the player trays, using the tokens, and dealing out the initiative cards. The physical components do a lot to help convey the genre, even as the rules are a quick and effective way to adjudicate superhero stories. Once everything was up and running, I felt like it would be very easy to model all kinds of superhero stories that I’ve had in my head since I was jumping off couches and falling downstairs wearing a cape.
Everything makes sense once you dive in and look at the components, but because the components entail multiple elements, between the sheets and the cards and the rules to explain them, the game can feel a little more daunting than it actually is when you get a handle on what each component is doing. The logic of the series pads is solid (although I’d argue there is a bit of granularity between Fantastic Four style adventures and JLA/Avengers stories), but the organization of the pads and the required flipping, as well as the hidden archetypes make the pads less intuitive than I would have liked.
While it’s not an issue for an ongoing game, even one that is only playing a short arc, the extended setting creation questions front-load some work that may not allow the game to feel as “pick up and play” as it is intended to be, especially compared to its sibling game Dusk City Outlaws.
Recommended–If the product fits in your broad area of gaming interests, you are likely to be happy with this purchase.
This is the first supers RPG that expressly addresses your ability to emulate playing Street Luge Batman, Angela jumping continuities from Image to Marvel, and Black Knight’s adventures in the Malibu Universe. Even without the game rules, the origin seeds and pretty much the whole setting book are worth your time if you are interested in superhero gaming (in addition to running this game again, I’ll be using the setting book to flesh out my next Masks game as well).
When you add the background material and world-building tools to the game itself, this is a great investment if you are at all a fan of superhero RPGs. There may be a few speed bumps to the setting pad organization, but once you have all the components lined up, they work together beautifully and make play at the table very intuitive. The stories you create are fun, but so are the tools you use to create those stories, both from a narrative, and a tactile perspective.
Beyond the series pads, the only other thing I would throw in my wish list is perhaps a quick start city/setting for each of the series pads to help facilitate getting into a scenario faster for one-shots. On the other hand, if you are playing a series with these rules, and especially if you are going to play multiple series in the same setting, this game has a very robust set of tools to facilitate repeated play.
What are your favorite superhero games that you can get to the table and play quickly? What are your favorite tools for building a setting? What does a set of rules need to do to guide a group in their collaborative world-building? We would love to hear from you in the comments below!