Ended up picking the Double Cross RPG – this is a Japanese rpg that hits that Shonen Manga trope of the “people get superpowers and are caught between secret organizations” genre. My anime references are older -mostly stuff like Guyver and Baoh, but newer stuff like Towanoquan or Darker than Black would also apply.
The game has a lot of neat design tricks, but it suffers from the White Wolf problem – the game advises Illusionist/Railroading play, while much of the actual game mechanics work against it.
The protagonists all get their superpowers from “The Renegade Virus”, which, can take over one’s mind, reducing one to a mindless monster bent on destruction.
The score players will track is their “Encroachment Rate” which goes up and up – 1D10 per scene you show up in, a certain amount everytime you use powers, 2D10 if you encounter immense stress. At the end of the game you get a chance to reduce it – if it’s over 100% at the end, your character is lost to the virus.
Reducing the virus requires holding onto important relationships – reasons to STAY human. Also, you get more XP the closer you were to losing your character at the end of the game – you’re rewarded for risking yourself.
Lois / Titus Characters
Each PC will have a number of relationships – Lois and Titus characters.
Lois characters are reasons to stay human – friends, family, lovers, rivals. Each Lois you have at the end of a session allows you to reduce your Encroachment by 1D10. You can have a maximum of 7 Lois relationships, but you can only carry 3 between sessions -so that means you’ll be wanting to play up the drama and connect with other characters to get those additional Lois relationships.
The randomization also means you can’t exactly game the system – you’re risking your character between the randomized gain (1D10 per scene) and randomized recovery (1D10 per Lois).
If your Lois character dies, or your PC is distraught over them (betrayed, etc.) you can change them into a Titus character. Titus relationships give you a one time bonus from a short list – but the options are really powerful – stuff like a 10 die bonus (when you’re usually rolling 3-5 dice), the ability to instantly recover from being brought to zero hitpoints, etc.
The funny thing is that this totally means characters who have a mess or shamble of life connections – tragic loss, or perhaps a frenzy of self destructiveness, will end up able to overpower a lot of things… in the short run. There’s no limit to the number of Titus relationships you can carry over session to session, so having a protagonist who leaves a trail of tragedy behind them is genre appropriate AND supported by mechanics.
You can see pretty easily how this makes for amazing relationship situations in play, but also is terrible for Illusionism.
Positive/Negative Feelings Chart
For any Lois/Titus character, you list a positive AND negative feeling about them. And you pick one that your character is actually conscious of. You might be jealous of your best friend but also admire his determination.
What’s interesting about choosing one to be conscious is that either you end up forced to face the things you don’t like about the people you care about, or find redeeming qualities in the people you hate.
Again – amazing space for things like Narrativist play, also shitty for Illusionism. What happens when you decide to acknowledge Sympathy for the villain and don’t capture/kill them? What happens when you decide your mentor has actually been just using you and you quit the secret organization?
The power design is pretty smart. All of the powers are generally designed to easily combine with other powers. There’s no “skill tree” set up – a power either directly does something, or it stacks onto another power.
While each power might have multiple levels – it only increases it’s effectiveness or number of times it can be used – it’s not like some games where a new level in the same power unlocks extra abilities. This means you don’t have to do deep planning ahead on your character builds.
Whereas a lot of game design, such as D&D 3.5 fails with their power set up – where you pick an optimal power/feat set and just do the same thing turn after turn, Double Cross has the Encroachment cost. I may have an uber-combo of 5 powers I can use together to be awesome, but maybe that pumps up my Encroachment 14 points, and I’m not sure if this encounter is worth it. So there’s an incentive to consider using less of your powers just for your own character’s sake.
There’s also the “Simple Powers” which are the non-combat powers. These are supposed to be less powerful, but… consider the basic power every PC gets: “Warding” – you can release a virus cloud that knocks out all the non-powered humans in the area. This drastically changes how you deal with investigations (“Oh, knock em out, let’s just get the keys and go through the files ourselves”) or fights (“Crap, the subway is full of helpless, unconscious bystanders… how are we going to get them out of here?”). Again, stuff that can break Illusionist plans greatly.
There’s 12 “strains” of the virus, and each PC can either have 1, 2, or 3. Each strain actually has a wide enough power set that you don’t feel cheated if you go with just one, at the same time the advantages to specializing are well balanced out with going with variety.
Outside of the Illusionism, there’s actually functional advice also in the game – stuff on how to communicate with each other and developing listening skills, the fact that “I’m not being a jerk, My Guy (TM) is being a jerk” is shitty and actually just you being a jerk, etc. It helps to remember this advice is from 2001 as well, and it’s been good progress in the last 10-12 years of overcoming dysfunctional behavior.
The game has a pretty light/sparse description for most powers, and the setting is also relatively light. If you’re already familiar with a lot of “modern powers” manga/anime, this is all going to fit perfectly for you, especially the love/hate complexity of all the characters.
The layout is… not that great. It’s not too hard to find things, but there are some rules which require bookmarking or remembering it’s mentioned in one section but not another. The worst part is the character sheets – I hope some fans put together something cleaner and easier to read.
I’m definitely looking forward to playing this, but I’m going to have to excise all the Illusionist bits.