Tuesday, April 21, 2020

[Obscure Games] Justice Inc.

My copy, a second print, has a different,
but similar, cover for the Campaign Book.
Back in the '80s, the game publication industry was still feeling out a lot of questions that we take for granted today. One of the debates was in regard to universal, or "generic", systems. First, were they a good idea? Second, if they were, what was the best way to present them? TSR seemed to be on the side of treating them as a bad idea, creating a new system for nearly every game they released: there was D&D and AD&D, of course, and then there were games like Top Secret, Boot Hill, Gangbusters, Star Frontiers, and Marvel Super Heroes. There was a faint relation between some of them (Gangbusters almost looks like a heavily streamlined version of Top Secret if you squint at it right, and of course Gamma World famously was easy to convert to AD&D terms and vice versa), but generally TSR seemed to prefer that players learn a new system that was adapted specifically to the genre. Palladium, on the other hand, joined in with the idea of adapting their existing system to various genres, using their heavily-modified version of D&D to power games of martial arts action or superheroics or whatever. Each of the games was released as a separate title and including all of the rules needed for play. Steve Jackson Games was heading in a different direction, providing a core set of rules and then supplementary material for specific genres or settings.

Hero Games was still in the process of deciding in the mid-'80s, releasing versions of their game system adapted to specific action genres, using the Champions system, originally designed for superheroic action, to run spy fiction and modern action-adventure with Espionage!, followed the next year with a game tailored to '20s and '30s, or "pulp", action and adventure called Justice Inc. After a few more (a revision and expansion of Espionage! called Danger International, along with Fantasy Hero, Star Hero, and Robot Warriors), they would finally decide to go the route of core rules with supplements, but for that one moment, they were tuning the rules more precisely for a given genre.

Of all of the variations of Champions prior to the unification of the game under the fourth edition, Justice Inc. stands out as perhaps the best example of why and how the way of precisely tailoring for a particular approach can work.

The game was released, as so many in the '80s were, as a boxed set. It contained two books, the main rules and a "Campaign Book" that provided background on the 1920s and 1930s.

After getting some experience in giving characters who don't have superpowers something to pay points for with Espionage!, the designers of Justice Inc. returned to powers, but on a smaller scale. Instead of flying around and throwing blasts of cosmic power from their hands, pulp adventurers with unusual powers are more likely to be able to see the auras of living beings, fold their joints over double to aid in escaping bonds, or hold a séance to speak with ghosts. The most outré might be able to cloud men's minds or see dimly into the future. So, instead of providing powers like Energy Blast, Justice Inc. chose to add a sort of intermediary set of skills. Unlike other skills, these were difficult to use intentionally, but able to come into use more easily if the Referee felt it would aid the story. So, the "paranormal skills" were bought much like other skills, but if the player actively tried to initiate them they would take an enormous negative modifier (-5 on the Hero System's 3d6 roll). So, a character with a very respectable 14- skill (roughly 90% chance of success, and usually not very cheap in terms of points spent—a typical character would spend 19 points or more to get to that level, out of an initial pool of 75), if trying intentionally, would be rolling against a 9- (about 37.5% chance). Meanwhile, if it suited the Referee's purpose, whether for atmosphere or plot, they would roll against the full skill and let the player know what happened.

The Hero System relies on a large number of statistics, most with a fairly narrow use, and most roughly on the 3-18 scale. A couple of statistics are more useful than the others, and so cost 2 or 3 times as much to increase (or get back twice or three times as many points if reduced from the average). DEX, for instance, is the basis not only of DEX rolls and DEX-based skills, but also the basic CV, or Combat Value, used to hit or avoid being hit, affects the character's SPD, or number of actions per round, and so on. Meanwhile, APP is mostly a roleplayed stat, having very little mechanical effect on the game. Individual stats can be the basis of a Stat Roll, by taking the stat divided by 5 (rounded to the nearest) and adding 9 to give a target number to roll equal to or less than on 3d6. So, an average person with a stat of 10 will have a Stat Roll for that stat of 9 + (10/5) = 11 or less. Since stats have a soft limit of 20 for normal humans (the player may pay extra points to exceed the limit), these Stat Rolls never get very high, though the bell curve of the 3d6 roll certainly makes higher stats worthwhile.

Combat is fairly baroque, as is probably to be expected for a game that originates in playing superpowered beings. When making an attack, the base chance to hit is 11-, modified positively by the attacker's CV (in this case, as the OCV, or Offensive Combat Value) and negatively by the defender's CV (as Defensive Combat Value, or DCV). There are many modifiers, ranging from the attack maneuver used to situational modifiers. If successful, the attacker rolls damage in one of two ways. For lethal, or Killing, attacks, the BODY damage is rolled on a small number of dice, usually no more than 3d6 and frequently less than that. This is compared to any Resistant Defenses the target has that affect the specific kind of Killing Damage (PD, or Physical Defense, protects against physical attacks, ED, or Energy Defense, protects against energy attacks, and so on), which is a way of saying armor that protects against Killing Attacks. The remainder is subtracted from the target's BODY statistic, which is basically a hit point pool. Then, a single d6 is rolled and 1 subtracted, which is multiplied by the original roll for BODY damage. This is the STUN damage of the Killing Attack. This is modified by any appropriate Resistant defenses the character has. The remainder is subtracted from the target's STUN characteristic, and if that value is reduced to 0 the target falls unconscious. On the other hand, if the attack is a blunt attack such as with the fists or even a baseball bat, the attacker rolls a handful of d6s. With a punch, the base damage is 1d6 per 5 pts of STR, for example, while weapons add an appropriate amount (a baseball bat adds 4d6). So, an average person swinging a baseball bat would roll (10/5 =) 2d6 + 4d6, or 6d6 for damage. This is counted differently than Killing Attacks. The total of the dice is used as the STUN damage, and any appropriate defenses (PD versus physical, ED versus energy, etc), not just Resistant defenses, apply. To figure out the BODY damage of the attack, each die that comes up 1 counts as 0 BODY, each that comes up 2-5 counts as 1 BODY, and each die that comes up 6 counts as 2 BODY damage. This can be quickly counted by starting with the number of dice, pairing off 1s with 6s to cancel each other out, and then counting the excess 1s or 6s, adjusting the base up or down by that excess. Which sounds complicated to describe, but is really very easy indeed in practice.

There are more complications, too. Like I said, baroque. And then there are the optional rules like hit locations, bleeding, and so on. I don't mind complexity in my games (wait'll I get around to reviewing Aftermath!, Bushido, and Daredevils), but I like it to serve a purpose.

Anyway, Justice Inc. continues on with rules to cover vehicular combat and chases for cars, boats, and aircraft, and special dogfighting rules for aircraft, rules for gadgets, supernatural monsters, animals, and all of the other things that a good action-adventure game needs. Unfortunately, at one point the rules cop out and refer the Referee to Champions for handling the supernatural powers of ghosts and the like. Which, enh. This is made even worse because, in the next edition of the game, the one where the company decided to create a set of core rules, they would get rid of many of the things that made Justice Inc. such an exemplar of the reasoning behind creating new games using the same system. The paranormal skills were removed, for instance, and players were told to just build them in the same way as superpowers.

Like all of the Hero System games, Justice Inc. offers a generally "cinematic" experience, with that sort of physical logic being well-simulated by the system. Unfortunately, the complexity of the game system works against that experience by being very fiddly and detailed in some strange places.

It's a truly solid game that covers the source material nicely. Unfortunately, Hero System is just not focused enough to be a really good game, in my opinion. I prefer the Basic Role-Playing system, CORPS, EABA, or especially GURPS when it comes to universal/generic games, and I daresay that those who are looking for what Hero has to offer in terms of "cinematic" feel or reality are going to be better served by Savage Worlds. Still, if nothing else, a game designer would do well to know about the paranormal skills and weird talents, as well as the vehicle combat rules, of Justice Inc. when making design decisions.

I feel like that's an ongoing refrain with me. There are many games that I like for showing the way toward certain experiences, even if the games themselves are flawed or uninteresting as a whole.