The author’s introduction to Halt Evil Doer, a setting book (in pdf form) for the M+M Superlink line, opens with this line:
“Whomp! Wamp! Whoomp! These three words define what I love about super hero games. The appeal of super hero games comes from a variety of things. The ability to crisscross genres in a single setting, the often mind boggling continuity that is so much fun to unravel, and archetypal characters engaged in goodness knows what sort of struggles this month.”
It’s hard not to be charmed by an RPG book that starts with that unpretentious and unabashed affirmation of the writer’s love of mainstream superheroes with their many quirks and idiosyncrasies.
Before we get started - it needs to be stated that this is a review of the original version of Halt Evil Doer. The writer, Charles Phipps, has recently (or will soon) release a revised and expanded version of HED that may well address some, all or none of any criticisms I lay out here.
I haven’t read it. So I can’t say.
Something else that needs to be noted is that the author of this review (me) is currently collaborating on a project with the author of HED (Charles Phipps.) I like Charles and I like working with him. Having said that, I’m an old newspaper hack – and I’m a bit OCD about trying to at least put in the appearance of being unbiased.
So – now you know. If either one of those things bothers you inordinately – I cordially invite you to peruse the many other (doubtless interesting) reviews, forum threads and articles to be found elsewhere.
With caveats and introductions out of the way…
Short version: I like Halt Evil Doer. Charles has a deft touch for characterization. He “gets” the four color supers genre the way that Joss Whedon “gets” female heroines and ironic humor. His character bios are a treasure trove for a GM who wants to add well-drawn, three dimensional NPCs into her supers game.
AT A GLANCE:
Halt Evil Doer (HED) is 147 pages.
Chapter One is a brief introduction to the setting.
Chapter Two provides a history of the world from creation through various possible futures.
Chapter Three describes various locations in the HED’verse and how the differ from our world as well as locations specific to a superhero universe (the hollow earth, interstellar locations, extradimensional locales)
Chapter Four is titled “New Rules for Superlink” and lays out new powers, feats, drawbacks and so on. This is a short chapter – just 6 pages.
Chapter Five is titled “Sources of Power, Laws, and Mythology in Heroic Earth” and gives background information that would probably be most useful for fleshing out a PC
Chapter Six is titled “Crime Fighter’s Guide”. It’s presented as an artifact from the HED’verse. A FAQ written and posted to the Internet by one of the flagship heroes to help newbies trying to get into the hero game. It goes a long way towards giving the reader the “feel” of this setting – and would be a useful hand-out for players.
Chapter Seven breaks down the various factions and secret societies active in the Halt Evil Doer setting.
Chapters Eight, Nine, Ten and Eleven cover (respectively) heroic, villainous neutral and alien NPCs in HED. Combined these chapters have 65 pages – just under half the book’s length. That’s as it should be. This is the meat of the book and it’s where HED really comes alive for the reader.
Chapter Twelve provides storytelling advice for running a campaign in the world of HED.
1) Halt Evil Doer is a well-written amalgam of the DC and Marvel universes with a big, twisty, complicated but coherent, and appealing backstory. That ain't something you get from the big two without squinting hard and turning your head. There’s a mother lode of story premises and adventure hooks to mine here.
It should be said that the universe of Halt Evil Doer is a dangerous place where (in Phipps’ own words) sometimes the supervllains win. This places it much closer to Marvel in terms of tone – but this is perhaps an ideal position for a gaming setting (there’s more for the PCs to do and the stakes are much higher).
2) Branching from point 1, HED works nearly as well as a work of fiction as it does a gaming resource (especially if you’re the kind of comics fan who likes to spend a few hours with the Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe or Who’s Who in the DC Universe)
A few examples:
• The Golden Age Superman analog Titanman uses his position as the premier superhero of Earth to get his contemporaries to unmask publicly for the House Committee on Un-American Acitivies. This leads to the "Unmasking Massacre" as the villains take advantage of this new information to exact payback from the heroes and their loved ones. Guilt-stricken at the consequences of his naiveté, Titanman commits suicide. This is a heart-rending coda to the upbeat Golden Age and it sets the stage for the darker events to come. The rebuilding of the superhero community from those ashes during the Silver Age establishes the themes of death and rebirth that echo throughout Halt Evil Doer.
• A Captain American analog (the Steel Commando) is disillusioned to the point of despair by the events of Vietnam and Watergate. So, in what he believes is the only way to save America, he turns villain (rebranding himself as General Venom) and founds the House of Serpents ( a secret society ala AIM, SPECTRE or THRUSH whose name is a call back to famous Revolutionary War era Gadsen flag that depicted a rattlesnake and the slogan, “Don’t Tread on Me”) devoted to overthrowing the US government that he sees as irredeemably corrupt. This characterization acknowledges the cultural divide in America in a way that works elegantly within the comicbook supers genre. The character in question is my favorite kind of villain - a Marvel-style villain with noble intentions. He truly wants to save the nation he loves and his black and white world-view allows guerrilla revolution as an acceptable (and realistically - the only) path to that goal.
• The end of the Iron Age finds a cadre of ultra-violent vigilantes leading an army of super-powered thugs in a coup attempt against the US government. In a move that has strong echoes of Kingdom Come, the modern day Superman analog (Divinos) returns in the nick of time from a self-imposed exile following a period of doubt and regret to lead a force of ethical heroes into a climatic battle against the conspirators in the heart of Washington DC.
3) HED has a definite late Bronze or Neo-Silver Age feel. Perhaps a better way to say it is: you get the feeling that while writing HED, Charles Phipps’ desk was littered with copies of Kingdom Come, Astro City and various trade paperbacks of the better superhero work of Mark Waid with the occasional issue here and there by Grant Morrison and Warren Ellis. If you’re a fan of this era of comics – this is a definite plus.
4) As mentioned above, the biggest selling point for me in HED is its character bios. This is the place where the book really starts to live and breathe and you get a picture of the HED'verse as an interesting place. I would trade a lot of the other content in this book to have more character bios and to have them longer and a bit more in-depth. Even without the world history and background - HED has the most 3 dimensional NPCs of any supplement for MM that I've seen in the last year - even including releases by Green Ronin. If you're a GM who likes to put on the storyteller hat and really roleplay an NPC - I can't recommend HED enough.
1) There's not a ton of new crunch here. There a few new powers/feats that could be useful for a GM running a MM campaign though.
2) You don't get a real firm grip on the various cities and nations that make up the HED'verse.
But there are a TON of them and you’ve given enticing glimpses. For example, one city has a mob run by shape-changing aliens with an affection for the styles and pop-culture of the 20s and 30s. So – the Skrulls with a thing for jazz and fedoras. I LOVE this idea. Unfortunately, I'm not really given enough in HED to have a sure feel for how I'd use it to good effect in a game.
As it is, if I had only read the pdf, I would think Falconcrest City is an interesting stand-in for Gotham - but I wouldn't get its real flavor, and I might even decide it was Gotham with the VIN filed off - until I read some of the additional material that can be found in various forum threads.
I hope to see supplements or web expansions that go a bit more on depth on some of these burgs. I'm guessing a choice was made to cut down on the length of the book (with an eye towards a print on demand release) to give a brief overview - because over on the main MM forum - Phipps has gone into much greater detail on some of these cities. It's clear he's done the work - I just wish more of it were in this pdf.
3) As a full, encyclopedic history of a comics universe, HED is more than adequate, but again - I feel as if some of the best parts are being saved for later. The section on the Pulp Era, for instance, left me cold. But the bios of the several Pulp characters brought that era to life and gave some enticing hints of what those years were like in the world of HED. (For this reason, I have to say that it might have been a mistake to present the different eras in a separate chapter from the heroes that populated them.) I suspect that there might be a sequel or web enhancement that fills in these gaps.
4) There’s not a sample adventure included. Admittedly, that wouldn’t be a minus for many, but I personally would have liked a short scenario that served as an introduction to the HED’verse.
5) Art is a bit sparse. Given the expense of art and the limited budget of a small publisher – this isn’t surprising. The art that’s there is generally excellent (much of it by Mancerbear – a superb artist whose work is showing up more and more in Superlink products). Still – it would have been nice if there had been more.
There are a lot of well-done character write-ups and meta-plot here. I came away wanting more – I want fuller descriptions of the cities, I want to know about the Galactic Guard (the Green Lantern/Nova Corps analog), I want to know about the Celestial Congress (the council of Wizards). I very much want to see adventures written for this setting.
I would have liked to see some game fiction. I will admit this might be a personal weakness or peculiarity. I might be the only person left on the planet who likes fiction in RPGs. It seems to be roundly despised (by reviewers at least). And, in some cases, rightfully so - but I think that short bursts of well-written fiction in the right context can help convey the tone and atmosphere of a setting in a way that character bios and meta-plot can not.
But – criticisms aside - Halt Evil Doer is an enticing introduction to a richly drawn supers world that is a treasure trove of interesting NPCs for a GM running a supers campaign. HED is a world with layers of pop-culture references, a world with a more realistic take on politics than can be found in either major publisher of four colors comics and finally - and perhaps most impressively - a world with pathos, tragedy and, ultimately, humanity and triumph reminiscent of Waid’s Kingdom Come or the Moore’s Watchmen.