Sentinel Comics RPG
The Sentinel Comics RPG from Greater Than Good Games is a new super hero game set in the universe of their Sentinels of the Multiverse Card Game. I think I would more accurately describe it as a super-hero comics RPG rather than the less specific “super-hero game”. While the core book lacks any information regarding a specific setting there’s still plenty to love about this game.
I only backed the PDF on the kickstater so I’m not sure what the physical book is like (though I have one on order from my FLGS). It’s a pretty decent sized tome at about 450 pages, with full color artwork throughout. The art is inline with the rest of the Sentinel products and while it could be considered cartoony it provides a consistency across their products. The plentiful examples of game concepts and gameplay are done in a comic page panel layout showing a gaming group playing. I liked this probably more than I should but it did make the examples stand out more than dry text does.
The basic mechanics definitely have some common DNA with games in the Cortex Plus line and I wasn’t surprised to see Cam Banks listed as one of the system developers/designers. The core system uses a small (1-3) pool of dice of various sizes. Generally whichever die, regardless of size, rolls the median number generates the effect or how well the character does. This basic system is easy to grasp but there are ways to manipulate it based on what the character is capable of.
Characters in the game don’t have conventional attributes or skills. There’s no breaking out the calculator to figure out the point cost of a fire blast vs. metal claws. Characters are comprised of Powers (what you do), Qualities (how you do things), Abilities (how you break the rules), Principles (why you do things) and Personality (how you approach things). Powers, Qualities and current Status (see below) determine your die pool for anything you’re doing.
There is a heavy, heavy narrative focus on the game which means a lot of what the various character bits can do comes down to what the player narrates and what’s been established. You’re not going to find anything like Teleport d6=50 miles or Strength d12=100 tons. Players and GMs need to work together to set the boundaries for the game. d12 Strength in a Defenders style game might be Luke Cage, in the Avengers it might be Thor. One character with d6 Teleport might be able to take one other person with him. Another might not but be able to Teleport to a place they can’t see. Everyone at the table works together to set the tone for their game.
Twists are a key component of the game. There’s rarely outright failure but the game incorporates the idea of failing forward or “yes…but..”. Twists are divided between minor and major and provide narrative changes, additional dangers, complications and the like. Many times the choice will be on the player with a situation like “Succeed with a minor Twist” and the player can embrace the twist or choose to fail but the nice thing is that the choice is the player’s.
The downside to Twists is that this sort of success at a cost or narrative push doesn’t work for everyone. Some people see anything other than unqualified success as failing or losing, some people freeze when put on the spot of having to come up with a narrative beat, and some people will try to make the Twist positive for them. The game relies heavily on these Twists to keep things dynamic and if this style of play isn’t your thing then you’ll need to look long and hard at it.
I love the idea of Status dice. As your character gets more injured or the situation gets more dire they have access to more Abilities and depending on the character different dice. This is an amazing idea and I love that my character can’t always call on their most awesome powers but as the rounds go by they can dig down deeper and pull out the big guns.
Status is either Green, Yellow, Red or Out and is based on either the character’s personal Health or the current state of the Scene. This means that there is a finite time in a Scene because when a Scene hits “out” something bad happens. The villain escapes, the reactor explodes, the extra-dimensional rift becomes unstable. That sort of thing. A skilled GM can bridge from one scene to another with escalating threats based on success/failure.
Locations and Environments
Locations and Environments use a combination of Twists and Status to both replicate the effects that Environment cards can have in the original card game and to keep the pacing exciting and the tension high. A Twist in the Green status in Megalopolis might result in the police showing up to Hinder the villains. A Twist in the Yellow Status might result in panicked bystanders doing some minor damage to the heroes. A Twist in the Red Status might mean the Monorail is knocked off its rails and is plummeting! An exciting, dynamic environment makes combat etc. so much more than just a slugfest.
As mentioned above, scenes have a status tracker to gauge how tense things are and how close to something dramatic happening the scene is getting. Having a built in (and visible to the players) tracker like this really ramps up the tension and encourages tactics and decision making unlike other narrative focused games. When you know you’ve got X time and there’s 3 different Environmental Twists, some minions, a lieutenant the main villain the players need to function as a team just as much as their characters do.
Fun Character Creation
Character creation is either Guided (pick from randomly generated choices on tables) or Created (pick freely from tables) and I have a heck of a lot of fun with the Guided option. Rather than rolling and picking that one thing the dice indicate you can pick based off a single result on any die or the sum of any two dice. When you first start, for example, you roll 2d10 for the “Background”. This is who you were before you became a super hero. If you rolled a 2 and a 9 then you choose entry 2 or 9 or 11. Each of those gives you a few things and tells you what dice to roll for the next step (and those are not all the same). For example 9 on the table is “Performer” which gives two qualities, a Responsibility Principle and a d10, d8, d6 for Power Source. If I had chosen 2 that would be a Blank Slate. Two Qualities (though from different options that Performer), an Identity Principle and 1d10, d8, d8 for Power Source.
While the creation system can seem a little daunting at first once you follow through the step by step process it becomes quite easy and the combination of narrative focus and guided method always gives you a solid, fun character even if you went in with very little concept.
Villains, Lieutenant, Minions
A hero is nothing without a good Villain and the game has a robust Villain generation system. They’re not simply reskinned Heroes, they are their own entity with their own Abilities. Creating a Villain is similar to creating a Hero, though there’s no Guided option for semi random villain generation. There’s certainly plenty of options to make a well rounded antagonist and the villains are certainly be a match for a team of heroes. That’s something that has always been an issue in many of the other super-hero games I’ve run/played.
There is also a handy Lieutenant and Minion system that works very well and allows you to quickly generate less threatening bad guys for the heroes to deal with. A word of caution though, this is not a system where a PC can ignore minions. They’re easily dispatched but they can also easily overwhelm a character and take them out if you’re not careful.
Unfortunately there are some downsides to the game and it would be remiss to not mention them.
Lack of Setting Material
The Sentinel Comics setting has been around since 2011 with the Sentinels of the Multiverse cooperative card game. There’s since been multiple expansions (six I believe) as well as a board game and video games. There is a depth to the setting in terms of canon heroes, villains, locations and events that is absolutely phenomenal in presenting a silver age comics themed setting. Sadly practically none of this is in the core book. It’s hinted at, sheets are given for Canon characters like Wraith and Tachyon and Baron Blade. Locations are done up for the Ruins of Atlantis and Wagner II Mars Base but there’s a lack of any details on huge things that happened in the card game/expansions. If you’re not already a fan of the property then you’re going to be wondering what the heck some things are. On the other hand it does leave you free to create your own setting. It’s really odd that there’s enough specific details to confuse someone unfamiliar with the setting and yet not enough for someone who’s a fan and wants to run their game in Megapolis or Rook City.
Character advancement in the conventional sense is non-existent. Characters aren’t going to get stronger or develop additional power or abilities. While this perfectly mimics the comics it’s a departure from standard RPG fare of getting XP, leveling up, getting stronger, facing stronger threats. It’s reminiscent of the system in Star Trek Adventures, characters start off competent and rarely change much.
That’s not to say that characters don’t get more powerful but the way in which they do is different and limited and for some players that may be a negative. I feel it does model comics very well as most comic book characters are stagnant and then have a huge change, which in the game is modeled by going through the character creation process and making some different choices. If you’re looking to collect XP to fighter bigger villains with more powerful abilities you’ll need to homebrew that.
Sentinel Comics RPG is a narrative focused game that gives a lot of the heavy lifting of a traditional supers RPG to the players and GM discussing how they want things to work. Some players are okay with this sort of thing but others dislike the nebulous quality and want to know that Speed d8 means 100 miles per hour and Strength d12 means I can lift an airplane. For players who like the free flow narrative aspect similar to games like Leverage or even some FATE variants, this is a worthy game to pick up for sure.