ars ludi

if you asked Ben's brain about gaming, this is what it would say

Surprise, it’s Amazon!

Lulu seems to have unexpectedly cut some kind of cross-publishing deal, so the print version of Evil Genius #1: World Domination is now on Amazon.

Yeah, I was surprised too. I just got an email that they were doing it and spang, there it was. Go figure. Pity they didn’t come up with this plan back when I was releasing M&M stuff. Originally they said there would be a 30% markup (!) of the Lulu price, but they’ve already realized that was a bad idea and reverted it to the normal price.

No Zodiac Ring though…

Happy Birthday Dr Null

“This is Chip Chopper, high in the sky in the Channel Four Action News Copter!”

“There’s a swarm of… what look like bugs, big metal bugs, crawling up out of the bay. Each one is as big as a car. They climbed right up the bridge tower, and now they’re spread out across the road, right in the middle of traffic…”

Dr Null: Battle on the Bay Bridge was released two years ago today. Technically Dr Null’s first appearance was in a game about three years before that, but this was the first time he was unleashed on the world at large, so it’s evil birthday cake time!

I released it as a free download partially as a public service, because there was a crazy lack of intro adventures for M&M, but also because I wanted to showcase things like Action Shticks, Revelations, Silent Sound Effects, user-friendly stat blocks, annotated maps, GM cheat sheets, all that stuff — not to mention good old fashioned superhero action that was more about saving the day and protecting the innocent than beating people up.

I’ve heard from all sorts of people that played it (like this glorious evidence from the NC Game Day), but I have no idea how many gaming groups total have tried to save the Bay Bridge. Even now I see the same pattern every week: as Thursday and Friday roll around and the weekend approaches, there is a sharp increase in downloads. I like to think it’s because every weekend there is some GM somewhere who really, really wants to run a game but doesn’t have something ready. Dr Null to the rescue!

Have you played it? Did you save the bridge or hang your head in shame as it crashed into the bay? Pop in and take a bow.

Dr Null Adventure Paths

Hmm, so many Dr Null adventures. But, you ask, how can I use them all to maximize the pain and suffering I inflict on my players?

Here are some notes for connecting the different Lame Mage releases to form a complete Dr Null adventure path. I originally posted this over on Atomic Think Tank but I’m exhuming it here for easy reference, because a criminal mastermind is a terrible thing to waste.

Option 1: Rise & Fall of Dr Null

Start off with Dr Null: Battle on the Bay Bridge (free download). It introduces Dr Null and gives the heroes a good taste of “big scale” action. If you want you can insert a few unrelated adventures after the battle on the bridge, or you can go straight to Day of Dr Null.

Run Day of Dr Null and Death of Dr Null back-to-back. If you want to draw out the battle for the city during the Attack of the Atomic Supermen and really get into a desperate fight, keep the Cyclotron out of view until later in the battle — once the heroes see it, they may be tempted to ignore the street fighting and go after Dr Null.

Death of Dr Null covers how to transition from the city-wide battle to hunting Dr Null in his lair. If your heroes are overwhelmed by the Atomic Supermen, having the heroes wake up as captives of the mad doctor is highly recommended (as described in “The Prisoner” adventure variant). The action builds as the heroes (invading or freshly escaped) investigate the base, figure out Dr Null’s new plan, and then head for the dam. You’ll probably want to skip the Aliens Ex Machina option to keep the focus on Dr Null.

In the big finale at the dam, it is quite likely that Dr Null will get vaporized. Does that mean that his reign of terror is finally over and the world can sleep in peace? Not likely. Give the heroes a couple of sessions of unrelated adventures, or just summarize that things have been fairly nice and quiet now that Dr Null is gone, then spring Evil Genius #1: World Domination on them.

High Noon describes how these doomsday devices were automatically triggered by Dr Null’s death, letting him destroy the world from beyond the grave. For more suspense, make it look like Dr Null is actually alive: his broadcasts promise retribution, but they are really just recordings. Even if the heroes saw him destroyed at the dam, they are likely to guess that he escaped somehow and is now back looking for revenge.

Run High Noon first. Just when the heroes have beaten it and saved countless cities from destruction, launch right into Ice Age, which ups the stakes even higher and puts the whole world in jeopardy. When the heroes find Dr Null’s island and burst into his control room under the volcano… they find nothing but automated systems ticking away. A quick examination of the computer screens clearly shows that the systems have been on automatic for years. If you want a little more action, have an Atomic Super Dr Null in the control room (as described in Ice Age), then reveal that the systems are all automated after he is revealed to be an impostor. Dr Null really did die at the dam after all, and now that his remaining doomsday machines have been destroyed his threat is finally over…

Again you can insert a few unrelated sessions (or just summarize passing time) and then run Like Father, Like Son (Trial of Dr Null). You can also jump straight to Like Father, Like Son any time earlier in the path if Dr Null is captured, since the scenario includes options for running it whether Dr Null is captured, on the loose, or presumed dead.

Option 2: Clone Wars

Another adventure path option is to use Evil Genius #1: World Domination adventures as Dr Null plots to play out the Clone Wars option described in Like Father, Like Son.

Run Dr Null: Battle on the Bay Bridge, Day of Dr Null, and Death of Dr Null as described above, then go straight to Like Father, Like Son (Trial of Dr Null) and use the The Wrong Dr Null trial option. After the action with Melvin Thackery is finished but before the verdict, draw the heroes away with The Cornfields, except it is really one of the Dr Null clones creating the mutant plant-giants. Just as things are picking up, unleash High Noon, courtesy of a second Dr Null clone.

The heroes should have their hands full, but still think they are just dealing with one mad if overactive scientist. As a mob of plant-giants start marching into a city, they are unexpectedly met by a trio of Iron Juggernauts and swarms of Tankbots (from Death of Dr Null), under the control of a third Dr Null clone riding around in a control pod that replaces one of the Juggernaut’s head. Each Dr Null thinks its the only Dr Null so each is determined to destroy the “impostors” and foil their plans, no matter what the cost. Mutant plants and giant robots battle through the city, with the heroes caught in the middle trying to minimize the damage. If the heroes capture Dr Null he proves to be more of a raving madman than Dr Null ever was before.

As the heroes realize they are dealing with multiple Dr Nulls and are struggling to hold back the tide, you can opt to throw in The Brain-Taker (but again with a Dr Null clone instead), have hordes of self-replicating Bugbots overrun a city, or go straight to Ice Age. At any given time the heroes will probably be dealing with multiple world-threatening perils at once: plant-giants striding across the countryside, while crystal cloud energy beams burn trenches across the heartlands, and mobs of brain-drained citizens riot through downtown, all while the temperature keeps dropping.

Got your own recipe for a Dr Null campaign? See ways to improve these paths? Speak up. Sometimes it takes more than one GM to really torture the players.

Three’s a Crowd

After many revised release plans, Like Father, Like Son (Trial of Dr Null) is out the door and looking for heroes to kick around.

Following my own advice, I always try to have the next project underway before the last one is out. Otherwise it’s just too easy to sit around and noodle over the thing you just released.

I’ve already been working on secret project “scotty” (with my two equally secret collaborators), but to keep it company I’ve been working on the first book in the Worlds Collide series (with brief forays into the second book when the mood strikes me).

That should be enough to keep me busy, right? Well due to popular demand I’ve decided to screw up that schedule and wedge another project in there too, which we’ll just call “the little yellow book” for now.

It should be easy to fit in because it’s little, right? It says so right in the code name.

M&M Universal Combat Maneuver

Next time you want to do something a little different but have no idea how the M&M rules support it, try the Universal Combat Maneuver:

1) Think of an appropriate description of your maneuver, including how it's different from your normal attack.

2) Use a Move action to perform the maneuver.

3) Take a +2 on either Attack, Damage or Defense and a -2 on one of the other two. The adjustments apply to your next attack and last for a full round.

The description can be anything you want, so long as it fits your character and at least vaguely describes why you are getting the bonus and penalty you picked. For example:

Stand very still and take careful aim with your bow, shooting more accurately but making yourself an easier target (+2 attack, -2 defense)

Grab a telephone pole and swing it wildly (+2 damage, -2 attack)

Use your telekinesis to hurl a spray of small rocks at your target instead of one big rock (+2 attack, -2 damage)

Throw up a sheet of fire to singe the werewolf and keep him away from you (+2 defense, -2 damage)

Dig in and channel the spirit of the thunder god and throw sizzling bolts of electrical death (+2 damage, -2 defense)

There are as many as you can think of. They can be actions specific to the character (“I'm doubling-down on my wrist gattling guns!”) or they can be based on the situation or the environment (“Water on the floor? Instead of grabbing him I'll lean down and electrify it with my Shock Gauntlets!”).

The same move doesn't have to use the same bonus and penalty each time. It all depends on how it is described. One round Uber Girl picks up a telephone pole and takes a vicious wild swing (+2 damage, -2 attack). Later she picks up a similar pole and swings it in a broad arc that's hard to avoid, but throws herself off-balance in the process (+2 attack, -2 defense).

The idea is to encourage players (and the GM) to come up with creative descriptions in combat, and let them adjust the odds a little bit in the process.

“A game is a series of interesting choices” – Sid Meier

Superhero games are about doing cool stuff. Not just brave or heroic deeds, but fantastic, impressive, and sometimes completely implausible feats. Superheroes throw buildings at people or melt steel girders with their laser eyes.

M&M combat is fun, but in the end it's d20, and that means you are often doing the same thing over and over: rolling the same attack each round and seeing if you hit. Some characters have interesting choices all the time (like those tricksters with their feints, taunts and redirects), but the average superhero archetype has one prominent choice each round: attack!

Tactically that's not interesting. Even worse, because by the rules you are taking the same action over and over again (same roll, same bonus, same damage if you hit) you can get lulled into visualizing the character as doing the same thing too. Instead of seeing a dynamic super-powered slugfest, you're seeing boring punch-punch-punch-punch. When you make tactical choices, you visualize the situation more dynamically and dramatically whether you intended to or not, because you are seeing what is going on and what effect your choices have.

So tactical choices encourage color, but if you make a rule to cover each possible action or interesting move you'll have a big, big book of combat maneuvers, and you'll spend all your time flipping through it instead of playing the game, and you'll still just be telling people what is possible instead of letting them use their imagination. Stifling creativity = not good.

Fine Print

The move action to do the maneuver is in addition to whatever action you normally need to perform the attack. So if you want to punch someone (standard action) you need to spend a standard action in addition to the move action to do the maneuver. Move + standard takes up your whole round. You couldn't run across the street (move action), use a maneuver (second move action), and still attack in the same round.

The adjustment only lasts one round, so if you want to do it again next round, spend another move action to pick up another telephone pole after the first shattered, aim again, etc.


Yes, it gives everyone a weaker version of power attack, defensive attack, accurate attack and all-out attack, but with the added cost of a move action. If you already have those feats you can use them instead. Since the Universal Combat Manuever is only a two point shift instead of the five point shift from the feats, it let's everyone have a little more latitude without radically changing their PL balance (a character who can do 10 damage normally can swing only from 8-12 with the UCM, instead of 5-15 with a feat).

Yes, it replaces or trumps lots of others maneuvers (improvised weapons, aim, aggressive stance, etc). There could still be cases where you'd rather use the existing maneuver because it doesn't take a move action. The advantage is simplicity, which means (hopefully) players will spend more time thinking of cool descriptions of maneuvers and less time figuring out whether there is a way to do what they want in the rules.

No, it does not stack with other manuevers or feats that it logically replaces. You can't use the Universal Combat Maneuver along with Power Attack or Defensive Stance (for example), but you could use it with something like Sneak Attack or Grapple. [added 04/21/07]

Yes, you could use the same idea in any d20 game. If damage doesn't use a d20 the way M&M and True20 does, you'll have to sort out what the bonus should be.

[Open Game License]

Pax Evil Genius

With the release of Evil Genius #2: Crime & Punishment, I think I have more M&M adventures in print than any other author. My reign of terror marches on unabated.