Monday, April 26, 2010

Street Level

(At this point, this game is a broken rip-off, but I thought I'd get it out there. I have to playtest, but my suspicion is that I've seriously overdesigned here and that there's not much room for actually playing anything.)

Street Level

Street Level is a game about people who put on super-hero costumes and go out and try to protect their communities from various dangers. It is inspired by:

-the "street level" characters from 1970s/1980s Marvel Comics: Moon Knight, Daredevil, Punisher, Shang Chi, Iron Fist, Power Man, and Ghost Rider.

-"indie" takes on the same concept: Mike Baron's Badger, Tim Vigil's Grips, and, more recently, Millar/Romita's Kick-Ass.

-various games by Vincent Baker and Ron Edwards (especially Poison'd and Sorcerer and what people have said about Apocalypse World on sites like Story Games). Anyway, you should play/read/buy their games if you haven't already.

-that thing Tom Spurgeon says about his favorite super-hero being Wildcat because his super power is riding around on a motorcycle and beating people up.

The game is agnostic towards actual super-powers. They can exist in the game or not, but if they do you should keep the scale and scope focused on street level action.

Things characters can do:

Your character is going to be GREAT at one of these things, GOOD at two of these things, OK at four of these things, and SHIT at one of these things:

-finding shit out
-acting normal
-sneaking around
-running after shit*
-telling people what's what
-doing violence
-running away from shit*
-taking a beating
-keeping your shit together

*even though the two kinds of running are separate on the list, they get the same rating and count as one "slot" for these purposes


Every character gets to start with two Gimmicks. A Gimmick can be:

-a weapon
-a power
-a fighting style
-some kind of equipment
-some kind of personal edge

A Gimmick has two pieces:

-a rating

All Gimmicks start at rating 1. This means when they're in play they add 1 to your die roll.

All Gimmicks start with the scope of one area of activity. This means their bonus can only be used for that area of activity.

Once you've given your character two Gimmicks, you can "bump" one of them by increasing the rating to 2 or giving it an extra area of activity to cover (i.e. increasing its scope).

You can gain another bump by adding a Drawback to the Gimmick:

-easily lost (GM can make losing this a consequence of mixed success)
-awkward (-1 to some other area of activity when it's in use)
-large (can't be brought into buildings, etc.)

Here are some example Gimmicks:

body armor (+2 to taking a beating, Awkward: -1 to running after/away)
kung-fu (+1 to doing violence, +1 to taking a beating)
home computer with internet access (+3 to figuring shit out, Immobile)
hot rod (+ 2 to running away/after, Large)
bad-ass stare (+2 to saying what's what, Awkward: -1 to acting normal)
mutant mind blast (+1 to doing violence, +1 to saying what's what)


You can choose to start with an Obsession or not. If you do, name the target of the Obsession and give it a rating of 1. Obsessions can give you a bonus dice or penalty dice if they come into play. If the GM thinks that your Obsession would help the action your character is taking, the rating of the Obsession turns into bonus dice. If he thinks it would get in the way of the action your character is taking, the Obsession rating turns into penalty dice.


If your "acting normal" is Great, make up 3 regular people characters who are in your character's life in some way. If it's Good, make up 2. If it's OK, make up 1.

The Set-Up:

Players need to fill in these details:

-how does the character live day-to-day?

Actions & Consequences:

Once you've all established a baseline for how the character is going about his business, you can start into Free Play. This works just like regular role-playing.

Whenever the character is doing (or having something done to him) that falls under one of the areas of activity, he has to roll dice. Roll 4 dice is he's GREAT, 3 if GOOD, 2 if OK, and 1 if SHIT. No matter what, though, you'll only add up the 3 highest dice. In general, if you roll 10 +, you succeed easily and probably get some bonus to carry over to related activities. If you roll 6-9, you have a partial success or a success with consequences. Usually, you'll have a choice between a few different consequences. If you roll 1-5, you fail and set up yourself for worse stuff in the future.

A key concept:

-the upper hand: your character will generally start every situation with the upper hand. As long as the character has the upper hand, he can take initiative and basically take any action that makes sense. Also, on a 6-9, the player gets to make the choice of the consequence that goes along with the success. If a character loses the upper hand, actions are limited to those that are in arenas of activity below the last one that applied (see the character creation list). That means, if you just tried to tell someone what's what and lost the upper hand, you can't get out of it by acting normal (acting normal comes before telling someone what's what). Your only options would be: doing violence, running away, taking a beating, or keeping your shit together. (The exact choice of which, of course, will depend on what is actually being done.) Also, when you roll a 6-9 and you don't have the upper hand, the GM gets to choose whatever the worst option is at the moment.

You can lose the upper hand through:

-taking too many injuries
-rolling a 1-5
-if it makes sense to everyone that the character wouldn't have the upper hand

You can gain back the upper hand by rolling 10+.

Arenas of Activity:

At some point, you'll want some crime fighting to happen. If the character has a specific goal in mind, he can try to figure shit out. Otherwise, he can go "on patrol".

-figuring shit out:

10+: You get a lot of info on the target. You get a general sense of his traits. You also get a One Use Gimmick with a rating of 2 and a scope of 1 or a rating of 1 and a scope of 3. You keep the upper hand and have a lot of leeway in terms of setting up any confrontation.
6-9: You get some info on the target - choose one:
-One Use Gimmick of rating 1 and scope 1 AND Heat goes up by 2
-Heat goes up by 1
-need for caution: -1 to next roll against target
1-5: You don't find anything out that's useful PLUS something bad happens. Maybe someone found out you were looking. Heat goes up by 2 and you start against the target without the upper hand and -2 to your next roll against the target.

If your character goes on patrol, the GM rolls randomly for what he runs into. You get a -1 on your first roll in these circumstances representing a total lack of preparation.

Sometimes your character will want to try to get something done in the real world and/or pretend he really isn't the kind of person who would do something crazy like dressing up in underwear and running around beating people up.

-acting normal:

10+: You pull it off and pass yourself off as normal. You can take advantage of the services of a hospital, convince the police you're innocent (as long as you aren't caught red handed), convince the guy that you were following that you're harmless and it was just a coincidence that you're staying on the same hotel floor as he is, etc.
6-9: You pull it off, some suspicion remains - choose one:
- -1 to next roll involving these people
- heat goes up by 1
1-5: They can tell you're not normal. Services denied, cops called, impersonation of a sane person FAILED. Heat goes up by 2.

Sometimes your character will want to sneak around.

-sneaking around:

10+: You remain completely undetected. You get a +1 to your next roll if it follows from the sneaking.
6-9: Success with consequences - choose one:
-undetected but blocked - abort or roll again at -1
-some suspicions raised: -1 to next roll against target
1-5: You're busted. -1 to next roll against target, add one to Heat.

Sometimes your character will want to chase someone or something down.

-running after shit:

10+: You catch whatever you were running after.
6-9: You catch whatever you were running after, but there's a consequence - choose one:
-you take an Injury
-you cause a lot of commotion, add 2 to Heat
-you lose the guy, but have an idea where to look - +1 to a figuring shit out follow-up
1-5: You fail, plus all that running caused a commotion. Add one to Heat.

Sometimes your character will want to get his way through force of personality and/or logical argument:

-telling people what's what:

10+: The audience is convinced, cowed, crazed as appropriate. Get a One Use Gimmick of rating 2 and Scope 1 or Rating 1, Scope 3.
6-9: Success with consequences - choose one:
-you got them part of the way: abort or roll again at -1
-One Use Gimmick of rating 1, scope 1, but using it generates 2 Heat
1-5: Unconvinced, uncowed, uncrazed. -1 to next roll against target.

Sometimes you want to hurt someone. After a given exchange of violence is over, heat always goes up by 1.

-doing violence:

10+: Do 2 Injuries to the Target and a +1 to the next roll against it OR 1 Injury and a +2 to next roll.
6-9: Mixed success - choose one:
-trade up to 2 Injuries with target
-gain some advantage: no injuries but +1 to next roll
1-5: Ineffective! -1 to next roll.

Sometimes you want to run away. Use the running after shit rules, but replace "catch up" with "get away".

Sometimes you have to take a beating.

-taking a beating:

10+: No pain. +1 to next roll.
6-9: Doing ok - choose one:
-take 2 Injuries, but regain upper hand (if you don't have it)
-grit your teeth: 1 Injury, but +1 to next roll
-scarred: take a rating away from acting normal
-permanent hurt: take a rating away from running
1-5: Hurting - 2 Injuries. -1 to next roll.

Sometimes a minor world that breaks apart needs to fall together again.

-keeping your shit together:

10+: You pull it together. +2 to next roll and ignore any injury penalties.
6-9: Pulled together with consequences - choose one:
-pull it together, but still off-balance - -1 to next roll and regain upper hand if you didn't have it
-pull it together, but still off-balance, - -1 to next roll, but ignore injury penalties
-pulled together, with scars - add a new obsession
-pulled together, with scars - take a rating away from acting normal
1-5: Broken! You're incapacitated or otherwise ineffective due to mental and emotional strain. Take a rating away from acting normal and figuring shit out. Add an Obsession or increase an Obsession (up to a max of 3).


Your Heat rating represents how much attention you've drawn to yourself from criminals and law enforcement alike. Heat affects:

-the kinds of criminals you run into on patrol
-the amount of police effort directed at you
-the ease with which you can get away with shady stuff in your community


1-6: Bubbling under - no problems
7-12: Some concern - detective assigned to the case
13-18: Wider concern - task force assigned to the case, -1 to rolls that might be affected by heightened state of alarm (figuring shit out, sneaking around, etc.) Crooks put out a bounty.
19-24: Secret ID discovered - penalty die to all acting normally rolls. No access to home base. Bounty goes up: attracts out-of-town talent.
25+: City-wide emergency: curfew, lock down, etc. Everyone versus the hero.

Laying low:

You can try to Lay Low. Just say what you're doing instead of fighting crime. For each week you lay low:

-take one off of heat
-return a bad guy to the bad guy list
-take a -1 penalty to your next roll (for being out of practice)


When you delivery an Injury, it gets marked off the rating of the target. When their rating is zero, they've been defeated.

When you take an Injury:

Mark it off under the appropriate column: Fists, Sticks, Knives, Guns.

(I'll have some kind of chart here: 1st level of wounds is a -1 to roll, second level is one penalty die, and third level is 2 penalty dice. Fists and Sticks go through all three levels, but any knife/gun injury puts you at the second level of injury at least.)

[So - the injury record for your character will look like: four columns up top - Fists, Sticks, Knives, Guns. Three rows down - -1, 1 Die, 2 Dice. The number indicates the how many injuries you can take before that level is "filled" up and you move onto the next penalty level. When a column is filled up, you shift to the right and start taking injuries in that column. When you get to the end you are dying, but I don't have any particular rules for dying yet.

-1 3 2 - -
1 Die 3 2 3 2
2 Dice 3 2 3 2

Right now the game is, somewhat purposefully, a huge death spiral. I'm working on some kind of advancement mechanic to slightly balance that.]


Only the highest penalty in each category matters for Healing purposes.
If your character does nothing but rests, he can make a taking a beating roll to heal Fist and Stick penalties:

10+: All Fist penalties healed, Stick penalties drop to the next lowest level
6-9: Fist penalties drop to next lowest level, Stick column loses one Injury
1-5: It gets worse: nothing happens, and -1 to subsequent healing rolls

Healing from knives or guns is different: you have to either figure shit out (i.e. first aid, find a back alley doctor) or act normal (to get a regular doctor, hospital to help you) first. Then you get to make a taking a beating roll (at -1 if you're not at a legit hospital):

10+: One level of penalties is healed after a week of rest.
6-9: A week of rest gives you:
-get rid of one injury
1-5: It gets worse: nothing happens, and -2 to subsequent healing rolls

Stuff that could happen:

-find random crimes
-beat up bad guys
-question bad guys
-spy on bad guys
-help people with problems

The Bad Guy List:

Heat 1-6:

1 - vandal (1)
2 - brawler (1)
3 - domestic disturbers (1)
4 - prostitute (1)
5 - mugger (1)
6 - car thief (1)

Heat 7-12:

1 - burglar (1, 1T)
2 - prostitute (1, 1T)
3 - mugger (1, 1T)
4 - car thief (1, 1T)
5 - drug dealer (2)
6 - bodega robber (2, 1T)

Heat 13-18:

1 - rapist (2)
2 - burglar (2, 1T)
3 - drug dealer (2, 1T)
4 - car jacker (2, 1T)
5 - pimp (2, 2T)
6 - mobster (2, 1T)

Heat 19-24:

1 - drug dealer (2, 2T)
2 - bodega robber (2, 2T)
2 - rapist (2, 1T)
3 - car jacker (2, 2T)
4 - pimp (2, 3T)
5 - heister (2, 2T)
6 - mobster (2, 2T)

Heat 25+:

1 - heister (3, 3T)
2 - arsonist (2, 1T)
3 - drug dealer (2, 3T)
4 - out-of-town talent (3, 2T)
5 - mobster (3, 1T)
6 - mobster (3, 2T)

Kingpin - mobster (3, 3T)

How the list works:

The goal is to get rid of the head mobster. You have to work your way up the ladder, though. Rules: you can only figure stuff out about bad guys in your heat level or lower OR about bad guys of the same type of one you've already dealt with (although this requires figuring stuff out, sneaking around, and/or telling them what's what). You can only roll randomly (on patrol) in the current heat level. Once a target has been chosen, the GM needs to give that Bad Guy a name and choose traits (if necessary). From then on, that Bad Guy slot is filled up and if a random roll hits it again, it bumps up to the next level.

Bad Guy Traits:

Bad Guys have a rating and one or more traits.

The rating is how many Injuries it takes to subdue them (if you choose to go the violence route) and the penalty/bonus associated with their traits.

-tough (need weapons to injure)
-speedy (-1 against running)
-determined (-1 against telling what's what, taking a beating)
-knife fighter (injure with knives, -1 to doing violence)
-well-armed (injure with guns)
-gang (-1 against doing violence, running away, +1 against sneaking, figuring shit out)
-mobbed up (draws attention of mobsters, corrupt cops - cannot be arrested, talked out of, etc. - must be killed to be permanently removed from list)
-hard to kill (takes double injuries to kill)
-out for justice (-1 against telling what's what, doing violence)
-under siege (-1 against figuring shit out, sneaking around, telling what's what, +1 against running away)

Defeating Bad Guys:

"Defeating" here might mean beating up or killing, but it might also mean scaring straight or "turning" someone (i.e., into an informant). When you defeat a bad guy you get an XP for each point of rating and each trait.

You can spend XP as follows:

-a +1 to a single roll costs 2 XP (you can spend it after the roll) (you can only get a single +1 per roll by spending XP, but this +1 stacks with +1s from other sources)
-you can add a rating point to a gimmick for 3 XP
-you can add scope to a gimmick for 3 XP
-you can buy a new gimmick for 6 XP (note: this new gimmick can start with a drawback)
-you can increase one of your areas of activity by one level for 10 XPs

Friday, April 16, 2010

The American Comics (after Andrew Sarris)

Inspired by this comments thread:

The Pantheon

Winsor McCay
George Herriman
E.C. Segar
Frank King
Harold Gray
Chester Gould
Roy Crane
Walt Kelly
Jules Feiffer
Harvey Kurtzman
Carl Barks
Charles Schulz
Jack Kirby
R. Crumb

The Far Side of Paradise

George McManus
Hal Foster
Crockett Johnson
Milt Caniff
Bill Mauldin
Will Eisner
Jack Cole
John Stanley
Otto Binder*
Saul Steinberg
Bernie Krigstein
Steve Ditko
Leonard Starr
Garry Trudeau

Expressive Esoterica

Lyonel Feininger
Billy DeBeck
Lou Fine
Lynn Ward
Floyd Gottfriedson
Fletcher Hanks
Jerry Siegel*
George Carlson
Milt Gross
C.C. Beck
Basil Wolverton
George Price
Johnny Craig
Jack Davis
Will Elder
Wally Wood
James Thurber
Stan Lee*

Fringe Benefits

Osamu Tezuka
Goscinny & Uderzo

Less Than Meets the Eye

Al Capp
Alex Toth
Al Feldstein*

Lightly Likable

Bud Fisher
Harry Tuthill
Rube Goldberg
Noel Sickles
Chic Young
Alex Raymond
Stan Drake
Mac Raboy
V.T. Hamlin
Curt Swan
Hank Ketcham
Graham Ingles
Jack Davis
Sheldon Mayer

Strained Seriousness

Burne Hogarth
Neal Adams

*working with various artists

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Screening Log: March 2010

Two Rode Together (John Ford, 1961) (v) ** - The kind of a movie die hard auteurists are likely to overvalue: a good-but-not-great that happens to be very interesting to think about in terms of how it relates to other movies - other John Ford movies (mainly The Searchers), other westerns (the Anthony Mann movies where Jimmy Stewart plays an amoral anti-hero).

Midnight (Mitchell Leisen, 1939) (v) ***** - At first, I was watching and thinking "Okay - this isn't bad. Don Ameche isn't great, but the movie seems pretty enjoyable." But then - once the false identity stuff gets going and John Barrymore shows up - the movie came together for me and all of a sudden I was watching one of the most wonderful romantic comedies I've ever seen.

The Art of the Steal (Don Argott, 2009) (v) **

The Blind Side (John Lee Hancock, 2009) (v) - I would have given this one star, but for that obnoxious little kid.

The Lusty Men (Nicholas Ray, 1952) (v) ***** - Once again: my favorite Nicholas Ray movie is the one I've seen most recently.

Early Spring (Yasujiro Ozu, 1956) (v) ****

Mon Oncle d'Amerique (Alain Resnais, 1980) (v) ** - Interesting and ambitious. It's hard to think of another movie that "explains itself" so directly and blurs the line between telling and showing.

Werckmeister Harmonies (Bela Tarr, 2004) (v) ** - Two stars provisional based on watching a truly awful DVD of the movie. I really loved what I saw, but the experience was definitely marred by the poor image quality.

Paisan (Roberto Rosellini, 1946) (v) *****

The Keyhole (Michael Curtiz, 1933) (v) *

Gentleman Broncos (Jared Hess, 2009) (v) ***

The Invention of Lying (Ricky Gervais and Matthew Robinson, 2009) (v)

Zombieland (Ruben Fleischer, 2009) (v) *

Stars in My Crown (Jacques Tourneur, 1950) (v) ****

They Had to See Paris (Frank Borzage, 1929) (v) - Clunky. Will Rogers' performance seems forced.

Born Reckless (John Ford, 1930) (v) ** - Another good-but-not-great Ford, interesting to me (from a historical perspective) for the way it blends genres.

Pilgrimage (John Ford, 1933) (v) **** - Near-great Ford and another example of moviemaking before genre ossification set in.

Brigitte & Brigtitte (Luc Moullet, 1966) (v) ***

Up & Down (Luc Moullet, 1993) (v) ****

The Lives of Others (Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, 2006) (v) - A fraud that tries to reduce an extremely complex subject to a case of good apples and bad apples. It also pushes the idea that loving art makes you a better person in a rather simplistic and self-serving manner.

Ruggles of Red Gap (Leo McCarey, 1935) (v) (r) ***** - Perfection.

My Winnipeg (Guy Maddin, 2007) (v) ***

L'Argent (Robert Bresson, 1983) (v) **** - It seems like much of the contemporary European art-house/festival style comes out of this movie.

The Hitch-Hiker (Ida Lupino, 1953) (v) *** - Effectively bleak.

The Ghost Writer (Roman Polanski, 2010) **** - A perfect thriller.

Bromo and Juliet (Leo McCarey, 1926) (v) (s) *** - I liked all of these Charley Chase/Leo McCarey movies quite a bit. They're interesting partly because their comedy comes less from big gags and more from character-based humor.

Dog Shy (Leo McCarey, 1926) (v) (s) ***

Innocent Husbands (Leo McCarey, 1925) (v) (s) ***

Isn't Life Terrible? (Leo McCarey, 1925) (v) (s) ***

His Wooden Wedding (Leo McCarey, 1925) (v) (s) ***

Surrogates (Jonathan Mostow, 2009) (v) * - I liked this slightly better than I, Robot, but it has a similar problem: a sci-fi premise that already seems horribly out-dated matched with special fx that already seem horribly out-dated.

The Searchers (John Ford, 1956) (v) (r) ***** - At a party last summer, during a wide-ranging conservation about movies, a friend of mine remarked that he thought The Searchers - which he had just seen for the first time - was overrated. At the time, I tentatively agreed. Not because I didn't like the movie, I explained, but because I thought there were at least a half a dozen John Ford movies that were better. So, here I am, less than a year later, watching The Searchers on Blu-Ray, and I'm asking myself: "What was I thinking?" I mean, yes, I still don't think that The Searchers towers over all other John Ford films, but it certainly does belong among his best. And if I can't quite get behind it as a "Top Ten Movie of All Time", I wouldn't argue with anyone who could. More simply: this is a breathtakingly, painfully beautiful movie. Just about every scene, every shot is perfectly calibrated, emotionally nuanced, and thematically complex. The shot where Ward Bond averts his eyes from John Wayne's goodbye to Dorothy Jordan ranks as one of the greatest single shots in the American Cinema.


(v) = Seen on home video (dvd, dvr, etc.).
(r) = Not my first viewing.
(s) = Short film.

Star system ("borrowed" from the Chicago Reader)

No stars = Not recommended
* = Redeeming feature(s)
** = Recommended
*** = Highly recommended
**** = "Masterpiece"
***** = A place in my personal pantheon