Comics. The glossy color pages, devoured in secret because “Girls can’t like comics”. Hidden gems of beauty and brief snapshots into the lives of those that were “more”. From Superman and Batman to the Huntress, Storm and Wonder Woman, they lived, they loved, they had phenomenal adventures and always, always defeated the bad guy. For a little girl living a semi-ordinary life, they were my security, my hope, and often my dreams. That’s part of why I stole this review time from Josh, because to be honest, I’m more a superhero geek than he is.
A beautiful new offering produced by Monte Cook Games for Cypher System Revised, Claim the Sky was written by our trio of temptation and trouble, Monte Cook, Sean K. Reynolds, and Bruce R. Cordell. The centerpiece of one of their most recent Kickstarters: Heroes of the Cypher System, Claim the Sky continues their line of genre toolbox books for playing and running the Cypher System. What is this one for? Well, after our smashing horror, our delightful space, the worshipful wonderland of wonders, and our fantastic fantasy, now they’ve leaped into the most Incredible one yet: Superheroes.
Manufacturing and Production
As usual, I’m going to start with the technical specs. The colors are bright, vibrant, and include the standard white portions of the cover for a tool kit. The pages, as always, are nicely laid out, and the PDF includes bookmarks in the proper places; always a bonus in my book. We haven’t received the hard cover yet, but I’m sure it’s going to be just as awesome as the rest of Monte Cook Games’ products taking their ease on my bookcase.
Claim the Sky, this book is written much like the comics of yore, with a large and bright leading letter that goes into the paragraph, includes text blocks that splash out of the page with information and more background. They also include their wonderful margin notes that tell you where to go in the book to understand more technical details. You have one hundred and fifty-eight pages of tool kit and an additional sixty-two pages of setting and adventures to use. That’s a lot of tools packed in one book.
Breaking it down by chapter, the first chapter goes into details about building a superhero. It includes a list of character concepts based on popular tropes and archetypes. One of my favorites in this chapter is the Beastmaster, because who didn’t watch or read comics and wish at times they could control animals? Of course, now I wish I could get my hands on those that come in and do all the cleaning for a song. Alternatively, the bug hero makes me think of Ant Man, who fits the character concept of Tiny Hero better. He always creeped me out as a kid. Not because of him being a bug, (I was a farmer), but the ability to shrink and get places he shouldn’t.
Each character idea listed also includes a short blurb about it, what the idea behind it could be, and then gives suggestions on what types and occasionally descriptors you could use to help develop your character sentence. Which moves us nicely to chapter two, the options. Claim the Sky gives us five new Descriptors, elven new Foci (some of them from Numenera which is AWESOME! I love almost all of the Numenera Foci). And you know how kinda lackluster the whole Howls at the Moon was? They have a new one called Takes Animal Shape which makes for an EXCELLENT replacement (so take it and drop it back in your Numenera games, GMs!), and even better and more exciting, they gave abilities for the animal form you can take. I’m super excited, because they even included a DINOSAUR!!! Can you say shades of Predation? And I don’t mean the crocodile, though that one’s there too. They included a Deinonychus as an animal form in chapter Two, and I’m all aflutter over here. Y’all want to play some fucking SUPER DINOSAURS?!?!
Chapter three segways into the power shifts and how to use them, first as a talk about the optional rule from Cypher System Rulebook then going into more detail, which is very nice for anyone who is new to this genre, or just likes a bit more in depth explanation. Towards the end of that discourse they also included GM advice for when they want to make the heroes more powerful, (Superman/Wonderwoman/Green Lantern) or less powerful, (Hawkeye, Hawkgirl,Teen Titans). In this manner, you can have a game with cosmic level powers or one that is more focused on street level powers. It returns to the concept of presenting options to the GM. Tools in your toolbox to let you build and play the kind of game that you and your table want to play.
They included a new mechanic called Power Stunts, which are defined as pushing a superhero ability beyond its normal limits or using it to do something it normally can’t do. For example, lightning going further or more powerful (Thor), or going faster than the speed of light (Flash when he goes so fast he jumps timelines or dimensions). It also has directions on how to make the Power Stunt permanent, which can make your superhero even more super.
Next come the tasks, as with a superhero you have to have a super task, you wouldn’t be anywhere with out it. So they included a section on Really Impossible Tasks, what their difficult rating could be, and the task circumstances (which in my mind is very important). We’ve already seen the impossible strength task some people can perform under adrenaline rushes, lifting cars, hoisting massive concrete floors to rescue others, to the speed swim to rescue a drowning victim. These people are also super heroes, they just need a longer recovery time. The chapter ends with a discussion on high tech gizmos and gadgets (Who here remembers the original Inspector Gadget cartoon?) They even managed to take out a lot of the complications from Numenera: Destiny by using objects we already have access to. Computers with 3-D modeling software and 3-D printers. Then, if that wasn’t enough, they included a short sentence, that I’m going to steal for my Numenera games for anyone that wants to play a Wright:
“…the crafter needing to be present for only about the first quarter of that time and the “helpers” taking care of the rest.”Claim the Sky, p. 65 (last paragraph)
That sounds to me like a great way to have crafting happening at the base while the Wright still travels to get equipment and experience.
Chapter Four is my favorite chapter, my favorite topic and my favorite thing to do: WORLD BUILDING!! It starts with the best advice: using building blocks, in this book, campaign building blocks in order to construct a game and a world. Campaign building blocks give you and your players a general idea as to what’s available in your world or campaign, and what you don’t want. Like, I’m not a big fan of Time Travel; it’s a bit cliche for me. But I love Aliens, Gods, Immortals, and Prehistoric. So those are things I’d definitely toss into my blender for my campaign world.
Next is a discussion about designing the superhero based on the flavors of: realistic, comic-book style, or far future. When you’re designing this part of the world, you also want to keep in mind either the characters made, or make sure you talk to your players. After all you don’t want to drop someone like Wonder Woman from a comic book into the Punisher’s world (he’d have nothing to do in short order, poor guy) nor do you want to take someone like Punisher into the far future. This is also true of your players and the game everyone wants. You don’t want to have people who want grim-dark Gotham and drop them into the Powerpuff Girls, or Sailor Moon. That’d be cruel and unusual punishment… for your players.
Chapter five covers Comic Book Storytelling. It gives advice on mood, feel, and pacing. Comics have been around a long time, and even they have evolved from the comics of the thirties and forties intto what comics are today. So, like most campaigns you need to flex your muscles and flow the story. For anyone knew to this genre I’d recommend reading a few comics, for anyone old hat, I still recommend reading a few comics. Mostly to get a feel for the way things change over time to make things more approachable and easier for your players, particularly your new ones.
Origin stories, where they came from, and then how the team is created is an important aspect of the world building. Your players can’t be “genetic mutations from military testing” if your military isn’t testing. Where are they located, how do they get around, and what are their secret identities. Then you bring in a Nemesis, guest stars, and cross overs for characters. Pacing for the campaign or one shot is also important. One shot means the players win in the end, where as with a campaign it’s always temporary wins, issues appear, vanish and then appear at other times. You’ll have cliffhangers and leaping into action to guide your story. You can also have changes and change backs. A good example of this from comics was Superman and his telephone booth. Another example would be from Unmasked, first you’ve got a normal person, then you put on a mask and you’re a super. You also want to keep your story moving and growing more interesting.
It also covers things like special GM considerations, balance of powers, player contributions, how PCs should get to be powerful and building the Mastermind Villains. It also talks about avoiding tropes of other genres. What it means by that is that you’re not exploring room by room searching for treasure, nor are you looting dead people for their stuff. Instead you’re going straight for the bad guy, so detailed super important maps for that part aren’t needed. Unless you’re hunting for the doomsday device that will go off if you don’t find it and stop it.
The final page of Chapter five covers death, specifically the whole coming back from the dead. This is the standard trope or MO, most often found with Superman or Phoenix (Jean Grey) from X-Men. This page gives reasonable logical reasons the player’s character didn’t die. (Although, pulling an Invisible Sun superhero version of the Pale would be kind of cool… ideas, percolating… thinking… FUN!). Chapter six covers Superhero Stories. This chapter actually contains various seed ideas you can use to get started with, which makes it a lot easier and more fun than, “Villain is robbing the base of shiny gizmo. Or Villain has a doomsday device that will turn all the men into monkeys.” (Yes, I’m looking at you, Kim Possible)
Chapter seven covers all the bases… well, superhero bases at least. First is the modest base, behind the laundromat, above the bowling alley, back room of a cinema. Most of these places are known but not acknowledged as important and are easy places for a hero to mingle and vanish into. Grungy old apartment buildings count here too. These are places that Spiderman and the Punisher lived. Impressive bases are next; things like the top floors of a skyscraper, manors, or even compounds. Here, we’re looking at Tony Stark, Bruce Wayne, X-Men, Teen Titans, and the not so Fantastic Four. (I personally find Reed Richards a douche canoe, Sue Richards, a whiny brat and Ben Grimm needing psychological help to let go of his issues. The only one honest to himself and others was Johnny and he was an asshole). Amazing Bases, the final category, covers things like an Orbital Satellite or a spaceship. (Justice League) These are all bases that are perfectly acceptable for your players to have at certain times. Even Superman ended up with the Fortress of Solitude.
Heroes, Villains and other NPCs, chapter eight, has a tabled list of twenty-five heroes and twenty- five villains with their levels. This is followed by a short character ‘card’ that includes the name of the villain or hero, the level and difficulty rating, any special abilities, and then various information such as where or when they came from, along with a picture. They remind me in a lot of ways of the Numenera monster deck, or the monster cards you can get in Dungeons and Dragons. For someone like me this is an invaluable thing, allowing me to print out their specific page and add it to my gm screen or print them on card stock and create my own set of cards. (They’re not as nice as the professional cards done by MCG but they work well for my table).
Now we’re to Josh’s favorite, well one of them anyway: Cyphers and Artifacts. There aren’t as many new cyphers and artifacts as would be hoped for, only three of each. However, between those three, and the Cypher Revised Rulebook there are plenty of cyphers to go around. Plus I know it’s kind of hard to keep coming up with new cyphers and what they do. I tend to use their stuff as more examples or ideas on how to create cyphers for my own personal games, cyphers that will either elevate the players to greatness or provide the ‘oh no’ that all good stories have.
Like all the other tool kits this book contains a setting and a few adventures to help a GM and players get into the superhero genre. Part Two, starting with chapter ten, introduces “Boundless [a setting that] is intended to evoke (but not replicate) the superhero settings from comics and movies that we all love. Boundless is Earth as we know it, but wondrous powers, aliens, high technology, and magic all exist. Heroes here deal not just with criminals, but with megalomaniacal conquerors and terrorists, as well as threats and challenges from other planets, from mystic realms, or even from beyond time.” (Claim the Sky, p. 160).
This section is broken into chapters, and each chapter covers information about this setting, starting with the aliens that colonized earth before humans, then details about how to create a PC in the Boundless setting. It’s followed by a history of this world, starting with prehistory and extending all the way to the future. Chapter twelve covers a Superpowered Survey, important locations of the Boundless setting and how they pertain to superhumans and related phenomena. Wonderfully they have also included not just a blurb about a city, but also corporations and specific locations inside the city to provide the PCs places to find trouble on every continent. Chapter thirteen, fourteen and fifteen are all small adventures for you to run as a GM. Neatly laid out with a synopsis, then broken into mini-sections the adventures read well and are easy to run. And, spoiler alert, contain the flare and pizzazz that we have come to expect from MCG products.
So, I really liked this book a lot. There were very few technical issues that I could see, but if I’m honest my brain doesn’t see grammatical errors and often skims over spelling errors. Josh would have to be the one to look more for those. The only dislike I had is, like a greedy toddler wanting seconds at dessert, more is always desired. At least until the stomach hurts and I’ve had too much and pout about that too. My kudos to the Trouble Trio of Temptation for producing and providing another excellent fun book for Angel’s Citadel to review. (Note that I’m not saying this book is perfect, just that I did not see anything to critique). If you’re interested in running a Superheroes game, and you enjoy playing using the Cypher System, go and order Claim the Sky now. You won’t regret it!
From our Citadel to yours, Happy Gaming!
- Joann Walles