Improvised Radio Theatre - With Dice

Improvised Radio Theatre - With Dice! is a podcast by Roger Bell_West and Michael Cule, in which we pontificate on role-playing games.

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The Wish-Fulfilment Oyster 01 January 2017


This month, Mike and Roger talk about why superheroes are terrible, killing Hitler, utopias, and appropriate rewards and treasures.

We mentioned

Cthulhu Britannica at the Bundle of Holding until 3 or 4 January 2017,, Age of Aquarius, the Shab-al-Hiri Roach, Nobilis, RPGNet forums, Warehouse 23 basement, and the much scarier SCP Foundation.

Music by Kevin MacLeod at, except Das M├Ądchen unter der Laterne ("Lili Marleen") recorded by Lale Andersen in 1939.

(We do get free access to the Bundle of Holding contents, but this happens whether or not we plug them.)

  1. Posted by Dr Bob at 08:24pm on 01 January 2017

    A game which sort of does the utopia thing is Sufficiently Advanced, which I have read (1st edition) but never played. There are a bunch of Civilisations which are ultra-uber-high tech and can do, have or make anything. Whether or not they are utopian/dystopian depends on you own personal view of Planet of the Uploaded Minds in Machine Bodies or Planet of Historical Re-enactment as Performance Art, etc etc.

    The PCs are agents of the Patent Office. They receive snippets of info from the future and have to go and suppress patents/destroy inventions which may cause the Downfall of Civilisation As We Know it. Or go make sure some invention is invented. Or ensure some event happens/doesn't happen. (Making sure Futuristic Hitler isn't born???)

  2. Posted by RogerBW at 08:49pm on 01 January 2017

    We talked about that back in episode 1, but I've still not actually read it. But yes, that sort of thing is definitely another option.

  3. Posted by Tim Soholt at 07:59pm on 02 January 2017

    Roger might want to consider Wild Cards for a superheroic setting. Superheroics are kind of a thing but not the only way for supers to go, with a few exceptions all powers have a common source (and most of those exceptions eventually turn out not to be), and the world is very much impacted by the presence of supers and their actions.

    Michael might want to take a look at Mutants & Masterminds for a system that straddles the line between overly complicated and simulationist quite nicely - although the game gets increasingly less simulationist and more hand-wavey from edition to edition. I find the current, third, edition to be right on the edge of being too narrativist, so Michael might prefer second edition. Ignore the fact that it's technically a d20 System game unless you like that sort of thing, in which case you should probably play first edition.

    Another option for both might be the One Roll Engine supers game Wild Talennts. There's a lot of good advice (some of it by Ken Hite!) on world-building, the system is very technical if not terribly granular or intuitive, and the world in the core book (an extension of the timeline from the WWII supers game Godlike, which I think I've heard you mention) is pretty well fleshed out and explores the implications of the setting. (Although it glosses over the idea that a delusional, emotionally-traumatized super may have subconsciously created an alien invasion - and possibly interstellar life as a whole.) I also have the Progenitor setting for Wild Talents, which is explicitly about the PCs and their peers having the power to change the world. Both the Wild Talents and Progenitor worlds put limits on what super powers are capable of (pretty high limits, but limits) without clearly defining what they are, though - some people can empower themselves through sheer will in Wild Talents, and one woman was mysteriously imbued with a poorly-understood power source that's occasionally contagious in Progenitor.

  4. Posted by RogerBW at 09:59pm on 02 January 2017

    Tim, thank you for those suggestions. I might well take a look at Wild Cards, especially since there was a GURPS 3e conversion for it which could probably be brought into 4e with only moderate screaming (assuming nobody's done it already).

    I've played ORE with Michael (specifically Reign) and I didn't have enough time to work up a probability analysis of it, without which frankly I tend to feel a bit lost. But I'm always more interested in new settings than in new rules.

  5. Posted by Jon Hancock at 12:43pm on 03 January 2017

    Another thoroughly enjoyable show, gentlemen. Regarding superhero settings, I've been reading Greg Porter's Eschaton recently ( which takes the real world as its setting, then throws in superpowers to see what happens. It's quite a bold approach, since the resulting campaign will be dramatically different from group to group. Since our world is the starting point it also means you can answer the "why the silly tights?" question: superhero comics exist, so the guy who just received amazing powers chooses to wear spandex because that's what superheroes should do as far as he's concerned.

    Stephen Fry tackled the issue of what would happen if Hitler was eliminated in his novel "Making History," which is superb reading. And should you care to combine superheroics with the ethical dilemmas of changing history, try the Champions adventure "Wings of the Valkyrie," infamous for putting the PCs in the position of trying not to stop the holocaust.

  6. Posted by RogerBW at 03:42pm on 03 January 2017

    Charlie Stross did that "people choose to wear spandex" in The Annihilation Score, and I must admit it didn't entirely convince me (litotes): what about all the people who think they're becoming saints, or angels, or magicians?

    But I've been a fan of Greg Porter ever since 3G - you may look surprised now - and I'll certainly give it a look some time.

  7. Posted by Michael Cule at 06:00pm on 03 January 2017

    Ye Gods and Little fishes!

    I went and had a look at ESCHCATION and downloaded the free 25 page sample

    I was enjoying the intro very much even if the setting is a lot darker than I would go for myself...

    And then I got to the character sheet on the last few pages. And I repeat:

    Ye Gods And Little Fishes!

    Do they actually need all that? I felt any urge to buy the thing wither at the sight.

  8. Posted by Phil Masters at 12:44am on 04 January 2017

    For me personally, back in the '70s and early '80s, the best Marvel Comics hit a kind of sweet spot, depicting superheroes as people living in a universe with rubbery but not totally incoherent physics which permitted some of them powers, who put on spandex outfits because, well, that was what they did, don't sweat the details. This universe had a kind of internal consistency, and it was possible for Champions to simulate it (and the conventions of comics - basically, your Speed attribute was "how many frames out of twelve over a few pages of the comic your character got to act in during a fight scene"), producing an enjoyable if mechanics-heavy game which also permitted roleplaying the kind of broad soap opera that Marvel also did quite well.

    However, over time, grossly powerful characters like Superman regained their popular credibility, and these days, the most thoughtful/pretentious comics writers seem to reckon that they're creating modern myths, in which the characters are inevitably rather godlike (but in a modern rather than a Bronze Age way). I'm in two minds about how well that ever works, and I can't say how well any RPG represents it.

    So for me, things like Watchmen and Wild Cards aren't superhero stories so much as they're rather prosaic deconstructions of the superhero myth. Sometimes they work rather well, but building a superhero RPG on that sort of basis feels like missing the point by a wide margin. Equally, RPG rulesets which simulate prosaic reality well, such as GURPS, seem grossly inappropriate for "real" superhero games; one can fudge GURPS towards something more appropriate, but in that case I'd cut out the messing about and just dig out my copies of Champions.

    And I rather enjoy the better current superhero movies because modern special effects allow them to create convincing superhero action scenes, while the need to keep live-action actors looking convincing and useful enforces a little groundedness and soap opera, and permits the odd whimsical quip. I guess that they quite resemble '70s Marvel as a result, but with not-actually-skintight costumes. Likewise, the one current superhero print comic I'm actually reading is Ms. Marvel, which brilliantly reinvents the conventions of 60s/70s Marvel for the 21st century. ("What would Peter Parker be like if he was a 16-year-old Pakistani-American girl?" Answer: Much the same, but with more Urdu), but which may now be suffering from too many crossovers and guest appearances as a consequence of its well-earned success.

    Oh, and to answer Mike's question; Captain America: Civil War reduced the comics' sprawling mess of a framework of conflict within a huge superhero community down to a relatively brief internal squabble within the Avengers. (The Super Registration Act became an international treaty putting the Avengers under UN control.) However, on its own terms, it worked rather well; I enjoyed it.

  9. Posted by Jon Hancock at 07:51am on 04 January 2017

    The people who think they're angels, or Nazi supermen or Merlin reborn can act on that in Eschaton; there doesn't seem to be a comicbook default to the setting. In some ways it's more of a thought exercise.

    As for the character sheet... daunting, isn't it? Powers need additional rules and details, of course, but if you look at the free EABA quickstart you'll see that the character sheet there is relatively simple and toggles between two levels of detail. Depending on your PDF software, much of the calculating is automatic, which helps; indeed, the whole system is designed with PDFs in mind. I'm generally more at home with a Risus or Tunnels and Trolls level of complexity, but EABA appears to offer enough of a return on the rules investment that I keep coming back to tinker with it.

  10. Posted by Michael Cule at 12:26pm on 04 January 2017

    I think the problem I have with Supers is that I find the need for greater mechanical support than is given in more narrativist systems while recognising that GURPS is really only good for low-level 'persons-with-powers' like Roger's psionics game. I keep hoping to find a happy medium between the two: WILD TALENTS might be it but I suspect that there is too little support for the soap-opera bits of the genre in it.

    Hum. What I want, clearly, is something that does as good a job of balancing powers against personality as the BUFFY RPG did. It's a pity I find its core system rather lacking...

    And it's probably only my aging paranoia that finds political/cultural/memetic significance in the fact that the 'Civil War' story turned from Captain America (symbol of apple pie and goodness that he is) fighting against the oppressive government that wanted to keep lists of people with powers and lock up the uncooperative to Cap fighting the oppressive government who wanted to co-operate with other countries over control of super-powers. The change in the core issue might say much about the current cultural temperature of America.

  11. Posted by Phil Masters at 11:35am on 05 January 2017

    Mike - have you played Champions? I honestly found its mechanical simulation of (late-'70s-ish) superhero comics quite serviceable.

    The movie Civil War was really just looking for a vaguely coherent set of tags for the two sides in its conflict. And although Cap was nominally opposing an international agreement, it somehow managed to be authoritarian (but not blatantly tyrannical) American government actions that he ended up fighting. Most of them powered by Tony Stark's sudden but intense and convincing attack of conscience (which was probably better handled than in the comics).

    The real weirdness was that (a) the Nigerian government was never that I saw shown to be objecting to the extra-legal, extraterritorial actions on its soil that killed people and kicked off the whole mess (thanks to something that both Cap and Tony had clearly signed off, in their American arrogance), and (b) the Scarlet Witch was presented as quite so conscienceless and self-centered, showing less guilt than Stark over more direct failings.

    But then, the movie chucked in Black Panther, who went through the whole thing acting something like an adult, albeit a very angry one. (Though the makers weirdly cut a scene where he out-psychologised Black Widow, which I thought was a shame after I found it on the DVD.) I'm quite looking forward to his movie.

  12. Posted by Robert Wolfe at 09:20pm on 05 January 2017

    Good listening material for the new year. Thank you both.

    The bulk of successful superhero gaming I have participated in has used Champions as a framework for adventures similar to Chris Claremont era X-Men and Iron Fist comics as Phil Masters has stated above. The single largest mechanical issue we ran into with Champions was each campaign bogging down during a mastermind fight. Sessions became considerably less interesting for example when the assembled heroes fought Magneto. Lots of actions to little effect and far too much dice rolling.

    On the Wild Talents front, I think that the four axis world design in the book is a useful framework for discussions of superheroic settings. The setting in Wild Talents did not inspire me. I find system confusing at higher levels and in power vs power interaction.

    Progenitor has a compelling set of dials for measuring how PCS impact the world around them. I found the timeline it laid out more compelling than the one built into Wild Talents.

    I have used Godlike successfully for one-shots but it functions best at a limited power level. The will vs will competition mechanic I found good for the setting but not something I'd want in every supers game. I have used Godlike both for homefront and battlefield supers and it handled both well but I have treated it more as a game about a different view of an era rather than a game about comic book heroes. Full disclosure I used the very handy Champions Golden Age sourcebook for additional research.

    On the topic of player goodies, I have had some luck in tying abilities to character levels in D&D and to skill levels in GURPS. For example a sword in D&D that as the character leveled additional runes activated. I think I first saw this idea in the Elves of Evermeet book. In GURPS it was a power stone that as the character researched certain spells to the exclusion of others developed additional benefits. On the D&D side it gave some time to tailor the item benefit and on the GURPS side it added a collaborative bit between the player and GM.

    I do love information as a reward but my problem is I've tempted the players to the table with setting information, I enjoy the looks of surprise and engagement, therefore I don't make them work hard enough, and I wind up using three sessions of notes in one session. I suspect I need more discipline for investigative gaming.

  13. Posted by Tim Soholt at 04:14am on 19 January 2017

    Wild Talents does support the soap opera a little bit by tying Willpower to specific Loyalties and Passions, but it's not much.

    One interesting approach to treasure is Earthdawn, where you get a magic item and then have to research its legend and recreate parts of it to unlock each of its powers. A GM could in theory give out the treasure and then work out what it does and what the owner needs to do to unlock it as the PCs go up in level.

  14. Posted by Shimmin at 07:59pm on 27 January 2017

    I feel like there's a couple of things you can do in utopias, the issue is finding a set of challenges which feel meaningful and which players are interested in biting on. Maybe part of it is a need to reconsider which genres to explore? Sadly I'm still not sure how you'd game romance, which seems an obvious challenge to persist into any utopia.

    I think if you can find interest in relatively domestic-scale challenges, those may still be replicable in a utopian setting: people still have social interactions, seek meaning in the way they spend their time, and so on. We could argue that humanity would artificially restrict itself out of the psychological need for structure and a feeling of accomplishment. Not quite sure how this would work, but it would probably be more like the fluffier end of White Wolf and the thinkier bits of post-apocalyptic in terms of focus. Roger might recognise potential inspirations like Devil is a Part-Timer (the daily life bits) or even Hidamari Sketch? This kind of thing is perhaps tricky to mechanise though.

    You can potentially go with the Stainless Steel Rat route, and have the utopia leave a handful of people unable to adjust, so they go ahead and do pure hijinks crimes for the thrill of it, in the knowledge that getting caught will likely mean a personality readjustment.

    I've looked at and generated characters for Wild Talents, but the campaign folded before starting for various reasons. Personally I found it very hard to get my head around, though GURPS is probably a good background for it. It sort of felt like I was coding up my abilities in an unfamiliar language and with no real idea of the likely inputs. I think a related issue with that kind of system is it lacks inherent flavour, which is one of the great strengths of pre-built stuff; and you can also end up without a firm idea of how 'balanced' your character is because it's so bespoke. Will this combination of combinations of abilities be a solid contributor to group up, largely ineffectual, or accidentally completely OP?

  15. Posted by RogerBW at 10:38pm on 27 January 2017

    Robert - I've heard this suggestion of a magic item that gets more powerful as the character does in a few places recently, often in the context of avoiding the "golf bag full of swords" effect.

    Since this episode went out, the other Whartson Hall gamers have been pestering me to run a superhero game, and I just might.

    We'll come back to the idea of the players exploring the GM's mind in the next episode.

    Tim - interesting idea on the unlockable item, and I could see that as a way to invest character points (loosely defined) - spend them on more levels of sword skill, or spend them on library time finding out more about your sword, which translates into new powers for it. (In GURPS terms this would effectively mean buying new powers for your character, with gadget limitations meaning they aren't available except through the sword.) I may steal that.

    Shimmin - we've tried to deal with romance in games before, in episode 33. This has not led to me running any games actually using the system I was suggesting.

    Doing "domestic scale" suggests to me something soap-operatic, and I wonder whether Dramasystem might be usefully applied to the "you can have anything you want" sort of utopia. (I still haven't played it. I'd like to try it some time, though I fear it may be too narrativist for me.)

    Ah, the Devil and the Hero! I could have done with another series of that.

  16. Posted by Michael Cule at 10:53pm on 27 January 2017

    Shimmin, I have to say that I have some of the same problems with WILD TALENTS as you do and that's coming at it after using REIGN, another ORE game.

    It's nothing like the problems I had when I tried to run MARVEL HEROIC ROLE-PLAYING but I suspect if I ever do run WILD TALENTS I'm going to be doing most of the work to begin with as I don't know if my players would...

    (Has moment of sudden clarity of thought.)

    I could ask them to try it couldn't I? The more rule orientated ones would lap up the challenge of trying to crack and abuse a system... How to set up the parameters...

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