Hacking together a Batman RPG
One of the things that many of us realize after growing up playing role-playing games is this: we’ve grown up. We have job(s), obligations, bills, significant others, and so on. We get home and we’re tired, and there are dishes to do.
But we still want to play games.
For some people, keeping a role-playing group together is very much a part of their lives that they’ve made room for. My partner and I recently joined in on a friend’s Dungeons & Dragons group, and the DM explained that she was running three games because it was a form of therapy for her (which is a thing that I’d love to write about at a later date). For some people, that really works, and I love that.
The problem is that I’m not one of those people. I get home and I cook dinner and do the dishes and maybe get in some laundry if I’m lucky, and then just about all I have energy for is watching The Chase on Netflix (I don’t even have energy for new shows some days). This pattern repeats until the weekend, when we occasionally get in a game of Pathfinder, provided our group (of adults in similar situations) is available. What I want, what I feel I need, is something that scratches the tabletop itch, but that my partner and I can put together on any evening, without a lot of prep, and play just the two of us.
Trying to find a solution to this, I came across Jeff Stormer’s fantastic podcast Party of One. Stormer, also the co-host of All My Fantasy Children, is an avid role-playing game enthusiast and writer, and the Party of One podcast explores games that require only one player and one (or fewer) game runner. Together with a guest, Stormer explores games that were built for two players, or works to hack a game into a two-player setting. The show, in addition to being entertaining (and relatively short for an actual-play podcast), is an informative look at what a tabletop role-playing game actually is at its core.
For the show’s 100th episode, Jeff’s friend and “Writer of Adventure” Jared Axelrod ran a Powered by the Apocalypse hack that she’d written for the occasion. Rather than being a focus on the end times or a fantasy romp (both of which have featured prominently in older episodes with PbtA games), Jared turned the attention to Jeff’s favorite super hero: Superman.
For the two of you who might be reading this and aren’t familiar with Powered by the Apocalypse games, they are a loose family of tabletop role-playing games that share a common set of simple rules. Essentially: players have certain “moves” that only they can do. When they do them, they roll two six-sided dice (and typically add a number from their character sheet). A result of 10 or more is a success, 7 to 9 is a mixed success (you do the thing, but a thing is done to you), and a 6 or less is a failure.
And that’s pretty much it. While the rest of us might be sitting around trying to calculate a spell-save DC (or THAC0, or what have you), PbtA games offer a decently simple set of mechanical expectations. The key here is that each design has to move the story forward— failing a roll does not, and should not, equate to ceasing action.
To help foster that kind of story-first game feel, most PbtA games also contain a set of principles for the Game Runner to follow, which outline in simple terms what the person running the game should look to do. This both helps curb “evil” DMs, and encourage newer DMs to take full advantage of what their role entails. A few of my favorite principles, as an example:
- Draw maps, leave blanks
- Ask questions and use the answers
- Be a fan of the characters
That last one lends itself particularly well to a super-heroic setting, because it’s pretty likely that everyone involved is already a fan of the character. Nobody wants to see the good guy lose in the end, even if normally the DM would slaughter a full adventuring party without batting an eye. Baked into the PbtA system is not only something that is mechanically flexible, but invites everyone involved to help the character just feel plain cool.
So now my problem is that I don’t much like Superman.
By now, you’ve gone back and re-read the title and know that I’m not great at suspense. Of course we decided on making a Batman game.
Other than simply liking him the best, we picked the Dark Knight for a handful of reasons. For starters, Batman encompasses something like four separate archetypes: The brawler, the ninja, the world’s greatest detective, and the billionaire playboy. In terms of gameplay, this provides the player and narrator with a lot of unique storytelling opportunities, and can quickly vacillate between them. The fiction supports this as well, with Batman’s adventures ranging from inter-dimensional romps to corporate intrigue, and everything in-between. Rather than needing one player to play four characters (another solo adventure strategy I’ve heard of), that person’s single character can feasibly see the possibilities that would otherwise be reserved for a full party.
Selfishly, this versatility also allows me to improv a bit in our games, which I enjoy as a narrator. In Batman’s world, nothing is unheard of, and nothing is too weird. One day he can be fighting crime in Gotham, the next he’ll be a sheriff in the Old West, and the next still he’s helping take down Darkseid in another dimension. Throughout them all, he’s still Batman, and that gives us a lot of freedom here.
Once we decided that we wanted a Batman game that used the Powered by the Apocalypse engine, I started looking for a game to hack. There are stacks and stacks of PbtA games out there, at least one for each genre, and this may have been the hardest part of the process. Many of the first games I considered seemed to adhere really well to a specific part of Batman:
- Spirit of ‘77 fits the whimsy and “BAM!” “BIFF!” of Batman ‘66
- The Veil fits the sci-fi edge of Batman Beyond, or the latest Nolan films
- Masks is literally a game about superheroes
Then I read The Sprawl, which is what I’ve chosen to hack for this game. The Sprawl is, ostensibly, a game about a city: a dark, hazy, neon-lit city. Fueled by the slow oozing passage of cred, and meat, and bullets. It’s my favorite kind of cyberpunk, and with a bit of tweaking, can reflect Gotham in every period: The Art Deco, neo-Bauhaus movement of the Animated Series, the dark gritty underbelly of the Nolan trilogy, and the weird, boundless oddity of Burton and Schumacher.
The Sprawl fixes one of the conversations that I feared the most: “So which Batman do you want to play as?” And it fixes it in a wonderful and weird way: it allows me to say, “It doesn’t matter who you are, you’re in Gotham.”
Using the Sprawl as a starting place, I combined moves from a bunch of different roles and brought them together. Initially, I split them into two parts, “Batman”, and “Bruce Wayne”. The thinking there being that I wanted to explore the duality of Batman, and invite the player to use Batman moves while acting as Bruce Wayne, and vice versa. This resulted in there not being very many interesting Bruce Wayne moves, so I’ve replaced that idea with the “I’m Batman” move up top:
When donning or doffing your Batman costume, roll Cool. On a 7+, pick 1 from the list below. On a 10+, pick 1 more:
- Your costume change is concealed from those who might be watching
- Alfred has something ready for you. Gain [gear] if donning costume, gain [intel] if doffing.
- It goes quickly, and everything works as it should
- Your ride is here, sir. +1 forward to The Bat-Signal or Student of Shadows
On a miss, the Narrator may make a move. This is up to them, but can include someone noticing, advancing a clock, or taking up time.
When donning the Batsuit, gain access to the cyberware that you have added to it. When doffing then Batsuit, lose that access. This does not apply to access to vehicles like the Batmobile.
When you’re driving the Batmobile in a high-pressure situation, roll Edge. 10+: gain 3 hold, 7-9: gain 1 hold. You may spend hold one-for-one to do one of the following:
- Avoid one external danger (a rocket, a burst of gunfire, a collision, etc)
- Escape one pursuing vehicle
- Maintain control of the vehicle
- Impress, dismay or frighten someone
Nice... Jet? Plane? Boat?
You have two additional vehicles (build each using the custom vehicle rules from the Driver playbook).
To the Bat-Computer
When you gather evidence and take it to the Batcave for examination, gain [intel] and roll research with Edge instead of Mind
Eye for Detail
You are a master at tailing people and stalking out locations. When you perform surveillance on a person or a place, gain [intel] and roll assess.
On the Trail
When you want to find someone or something, name your target. When you gain [intel], you may note that it concerns your target. When you spend three such [intel], the MC will describe where your target is; you say how the clues led you to that knowledge and how you have your target or its defenses at a disadvantage.
When you attempt to infiltrate a secure area alone, roll Cool. 10+: gain 3 hold, 7-9: gain 1 hold. As the MC describes the infiltration and the security measures you must overcome, you may spend hold one-for-one to describe how you overcome the obstacle and:
- Bypass a security system or guard
- Disable a security system you have bypassed
- Disable a guard
- Escape notice
When you attempt to influence the morale of your enemies by leaving evidence of violence while remaining undetected, roll Edge.
7+: your enemies are impressed and overly cautious, scare and demoralized, or angry and careless (MC’s choice).
10+: You choose.
You have an intuitive sense of how to blend in with the rhythms of a secure area and can take actions that make its security forces feel at ease. When you assess while undetected and roll a 12+, you may spend one hold to lower the Action Clock by one segment.
Student of Shadows
When shit hits the fan and you have to get out, name your escape route and roll Cool.
10+: Sweet, you’re gone
7-9: You can go or stay, but if you go it costs you: leave something behind, or take something with you; in either case, the MC will tell you what
6-: You’re caught in a vulnerable position, half in and half out. The MC will make a move
The Dark Knight
When you enter a charged situation, roll Style. 10+: gain 2 hold, 7-9: gain 1 hold. Spend hold one-for-one to make eye contact with an NPC present, who freezes or flinches and can’t act until you break it off. Roll 6-: your enemies identify you immediately as their foremost threat.
When you evaluate a person, vehicle, drone or gang, roll Cool.
7+: ask the target “How are you vulnerable to me?” Take +1 forward when acting on the answer
10+: gain 1 ongoing when acting against that target
The Brave and the Bold
Once per mission you may introduce a new Contact. Name the contact, say what they do, then roll Style.
10+: You’ve worked with the contact before; they have what you need. Write them down as a Contact.
7-9: You’ve never met them before, they’re an unknown quantity.
6-: You know them all right. Tell the MC why they dislike you.
After you’ve rolled, describe how you contact them. The MC will ask some questions.
World’s Greatest Detective
You’re a master of making connections between seemingly unrelated events. At the start of a mission, roll Edge.
10+: gain 3 hold
7-9: gain 1 hold
As you put everything together during the mission, spend 1 hold at any time to ask a question from the research list.
You specialize in infiltrating by appearing to belong in places you do not, hiding in plain sight. During your infiltration, you will have opportunity to see or overhear information which might be relevant later. After you have spent all your covert entry hold infiltrating a secure area through charm and social graces, gain [intel].
When you research a corporation, you may always ask a follow up question. On a 10+, take an additional [intel].
When you’re about to be caught somewhere you shouldn’t be, but look and act like you belong there, roll Cool.
10+: no one thinks twice about your presence until you do something to attract attention
7-9: you’ll be fine as long as you leave right now, but if you do anything else, your presence will arouse suspicion
What’s your superpower, again?
You’re rich. Choose another piece of cyberware to add to your Batsuit at character creation or downtime.
Rules-wise this works very similarly to the book, but rather than cyberware being built into the person themselves, it’s built into the bat-suit. As such, this means that you can’t use it without the suit.
Choose one to start with:
- Cyber ears
- Augmented Strength
- Armor plating
Like the best boy scout, Batman always comes prepared with some gear:
- Batarangs (2 damage hand +numerous +quick)
- Smoke bombs (s-harm near area reload gas)
- Batsuit (2-armor upgradeable)
I’ve also opted to make minor changes to Basic Moves that don’t quite fit in the Batman world. For example, “Getting the job.” Batman doesn’t get jobs, even mild-mannered Bruce Wayne doesn’t get jobs. Batman gets called in:
When called into action, roll Edge. 10+: choose 3 from the list below. 7-9: choose 2 from the list below.
- Something else alerts you to the situation, gain [intel]
- Instinctively grab the right tools and gain [gear]
- You arrive just in time
- The villain is identifiable
- You arrive without attracting attention
I want to write a Batman version of the “Getting the job” move’s counterpart “Getting paid”, but I can’t find a decent way to make it work yet. It may just be something that has to come out in play, which is fine.
How do these changes look to you? Would you do anything better/differently? Let me know! We'll be recording a podcast mini-series soon with a couple one-off adventures, as a way to playtest this and play around in The Sprawl's version of Gotham city. Stay tuned!