RPG Review: Wild Talents

About ten years ago Hobgolblyn Press came out with the World War II superhero RPG game Godlike. Superhero might not be the right word though - it presented a gritty world where being superpowered was no guarantee of your survival. For most "talents" a bullet to the head could kill you as easily as any other soldier. Even if you were armored that armor was dependent on your willpower. If your will failed you, your armor would too.

The game found its way to Arc Dream. Knowing that people were using it for non-WWII superhero games they did a pre-Kickstarter crowdfunding operation to produce the Wild Talents RPG based off of Godlike. I wasn't part of the crowdfunding but I did manage to snag one of their extra copies. I will say one thing for that first edition - its binding rivals the old TSR 1st edition AD&D books - for some strange reason it slipped out of my car at my daughters' daycare as a blizzard was beginning. Unable to find the book at home and seeing the bag I had it in was opened and had been leaning against a car door the next day I asked the daycare if they found a book in the parking lot. They confessed a very odd book had been found in the parking lot. It was snowed on and driven over and survived remarkably intact.

They've since releases a second edition of Wild Talents in both a small "essential edition" as well as the full edition. The essential version contains everything you need to play while the full version also contains lots of campaign information and an expansion of the Godlike RPG's timeline to the present day.

To understand Wild Talents - or for that matter, the bulk of Arc Dream's games, you need to understand the basics of the One-Roll Engine (ORE). ORE is a "bucket of dice" game where you roll anywhere between one and ten dice when you are performing a task. What you are trying to do is get matches. Matches are successes. You might see a problem with one die... Generally speaking, higher matched die rolls indicate better quality, this is referred to as the height. On the other hand, the more matches in a set, the faster an action is performed, this is referred to as the width. So if you roll six dice (always d10s) and get 1, 4, 4, 4, 5, and 6 your fours represent a success - a width of 3 and a height of 4 or, in ORE terms, 3x4.

Take another example. Suppose in the same scenario you roll 1, 1, 1, 1, 10, 10. In this case you actually have two successes - 4x1 or 2x10. Which would you use (for one action you can't use both)? The answer is dependent on what you are trying to do. In combat, the 4x1 almost certainly will be the first action but will represent a shot to a limb while the 2x10 will represent a head-shot. If you are trying to repair your starship the 4x1 means you repair it super-fast but it's probably going to fall apart real soon while the 2x10 is an awesome repair that takes longer. So it depends on what it is you are looking for - speed or quality.

The neat thing about this system is everything you do in a round is determined by one die roll. It serves as your initiative, your chance to hit, your damage.

Now normal folks only get to use regular ten-sided dice. But there are two special kinds of dice the superpowered folks might have access to. There's Hard Dice. Every Hard Die is treated as a ten. You don't roll them. With two you are pretty much guaranteed of success. However they lack finesse. Boom, head-shot. Boom, head-shot. Boom, head-shot. (Note - the game suggests one might treat head-shots as shots to vitals if a head-shot doesn't make sense.) There's also Wiggle Dice. You decided what they are after you roll. They are super-expensive. One Wiggle Die with any other die guarantees a success.

Now you probably want your character to be, well, super. Wild Talents gives various background options which give you permission to buy certain types of powers. For example, if you are a super-detective like Batman you aren't going to have super-strength - or any real powers for that matter. But you might be able to justify a Wiggle Die given your extreme training and adaptability.

Rules are given to make your own powers, or "miracles". There is also a selection of predesigned miracles in the miracle cafeteria section of the game. There tends to be a lot of ways to accomplish the same thing so the game expects a fair amount of give and take between players and GM to build characters.

A neat thing about Wild Talents is it defines various axes to design your world around. You can, for example, define how much super-beings influence history. The Marvel and DC Earths, for example, look an awful lot like our own history despite alien invasions and the like. On the other hand, the world of Watchmen begins diverging from our own, starting with the Minuteman and even more so after the arrival of Dr. Manhattan.

Another axis defines morality. Is it a black and white world like the Silver Age where good and evil are easily determined? Is it a world of grays? One where it is impossible to judge who is right or wrong.

The weirdness of the world represents a third axis. Beyond the impact super-beings have on history, how odd is the world? Are the citizens used to Atlantean Invasions? Or does the appearance of a flying man shock them?

Another consideration for axes of design is what roll do super-beings play? Are they expected to line up as heroes and villains? Or do they show up in all sorts of ways of life, like one sees in the comic Powers or the RPG Mutant City Blues.

That's the basics of the game. There's a lot of details - things like different damage types (killing damage for example), use of willpower to modify rolls, etc. which might be covered again in the future.

As far as my impressions of the game go... I will say it is a game with a bit of learning curve. It does things a bit differently from other games - for example everyone rolling at once requires some careful record-keeping for a declaration phase - computerized tools make life much easier, especially in battles with a lot of combatants (thought the game does have mook rules). 

One thing that has caused me issues is the fact that the game assumes no one is trying to break the game. You know how some parents begin sentences with "I love my kids but..."? Well I love my players but I do have some that really enjoy seeing what they can do within the boundaries of the rules. A lesson I've learned from this is the necessity of conversation and being willing to say no. Or at the very least, "yes, but..." Wild Talents is a game that has some wide-open options but it comes at a cost - the game can very easily be abused and it is something that GMs need to look out for - and it is possible to abuse without even trying to. For example I had a player who wanted to be excellent at unarmed combat. Two hard dice taken and loe and behold we had a bare-handed killer on our hands when it wasn't what he'd intended. 

This isn't to sound negative- Wild Talents is a game I really like and one that I'll probably GM or play again. But I would advise carefully setting up the ground rules of character generation at the start and carefully working with players to realize characters. It is not a game where I'd simply tell players to stat up some characters and show up.

Wild Talents is a very flexible game. It allows for easy building of powers - it is a lot less crunchy than games like Hero/Champions. The settings Arc Dream has published indicate how flexible it is - it has been used for American Civil War supers with This Favored LandKerberos Club gives us a glimpse of a Victorian supers setting. Grim War shows us a modern setting of magic, mutants, and vast organizations.

What does it work best for? According to the rules the inspiration comes from comics like The Dark Knight Returns, Top 1o, The Ultimates, The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, and Watchmen as well as films like Batman Begins, The Dark Knight, Iron Man, Spider-Man, X-Men, and The Matrix. In my experience, ramping up the grittiness to near-realism like that of Godlike is pretty easy. Ramping down to a Silver Age is doable but I suspect that there might be better engines for that. 

(Note - this review was a little more freeform than some of my previous ones - I may well revisit this, especially if I find myself playing Wild Talents again in the future.)

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