Wednesday, 9 September 2015

The Authority RPG and Resource Book: The Lore (Tabletop Roleplay Review)

So, after much talk and promise, welcome to some non-Warhammer related tabletop content. Deciding to go with something decidedly different but still extremely dark, this time we're delving into the world of superheroes, specifically this extension of the Wildstorm Universe.

One of the several universes spawned in the Dark Age of the early 90s, Wildstorm has quite an interesting publisher despite its initially sub-standard content. Founded by the famed Jim Lee, it was a part of Image Comics before later breaking off. Consisting entirely of your grimdumb, dull ultraviolence and (surprisingly) Liefeldian artwork, it wasn't anything special until two men came along. The first of these was the legendary Alan Moore, working on the WildC.A.T.s and upping the quality of that series. The second came some years later, the venerable Warren Ellis, creator of Transmetropolitan among many famous indie works. Ellis turned the failing StormWatch into a cult classic, and after that comic sadly ended sparked up what was to become its famed spiritual successor: The Authority.

The Authority is effectively what you get when you combine the Suicide Squad with the Justice League. These are powerful heroes, defenders of earth consisting of people who are determined to change the world for the better. However, they are also those who operate as a semi-covert paramilitary operation, operating on the mantra of the end justifying the means, with many haunted by dark powers or pasts. 

This is the group who almost certainly served as inspiration for the film Justice League: Gods and Monsters, and the sort of people who are simply villains trying to do the best they can to improve a dark world. The sort of people who, unlike Superman, would happily teleport into a dictator's office and snap his neck to end a bigger war. The sort of people who have seen how badly wrong humanity can go under its own steam, and can't be left to its own devices. This isn't an exaggeration either. Want to know how far this group went in the comics? They declared Tibet to be a protectorate of themselves, declared it a free state, and repeatedly annihilated China's attempts to take it back.

The reason for the group's actions are that, unlike other vigilantes, they attempted to first operate within the system as a part of StormWatch (the United Nations' metahuman taskforce). However, after corruption, red tape and interference from above hamstrung them, and the organisation was disbanded following most of its members being declared K.I.A. stopping an alien invasion, they went rogue. As a result of this, much of the lore within the book effectively comes down to recapping Ellis' initial run on the comic. It goes into great detail covering the three main arcs of home threats, alien threats and interdimensional threats. For added flavour it then goes into the Jenny Sparks: The Secret History of the Authority miniseries, with mixed results. While it gives some added details and ideas for GMs, and more narrative hooks for players to work with, but the quality is definitely less than that of the big series.

While simply listing the history and events of the comic might seem cheap, it actually works to its benefit in many regards. It gives a good impression of the sorts of scale, the exact sorts of threats the heroes and party are supposed to be fighting. There's no small scale stopping a store robbery, no immediate attempts to deal with street level crime, when the Authority gets involved it's because there is at least city scale devastation at risk. More often than not what they get involved in is usually planetary or continental actually, largely because of the collateral risk involved. Unlike Man of Steel or a few unfortunate comics of late, the Authority addresses that damage control and limiting civilian causalities is an absolute necessity, When two super-powered beings get to grips with one another, someone is almost certainly going to die in the crossfire, no matter how careful you are, and being cocky will likely just result in more deaths. It's in part for this reason that the comic goes into so much detail surrounding their initial engagement with a big threat in London, which focuses upon exactly this, and Apollo's later battle with an alien fleet. 

The book is really giving you all you can to impress the big, main ideas behind each fight, each battle and each running conflict to allow you to create your own. It even suggests a few later ones building off of prior events as possible starting points. Not just the usual sort of throwaway ideas either, but some BIG impact stuff, like the idea of StormWatch's space station crash landing in America rather than being fired into the sun, unleashing thousands of facehuggers. Another is effectively what might happen if the rapture occurred, with more atop of all of that.

While the book impresses big ideas upon the reader and builds up a few concepts, it thankfully does actually provide plenty of material for people to build their own tales. What isn't devoted to the early series is impressing upon the reader some of the big events in the universe. This covers a varied number of subjects from what led to StormWatch's creation, the politics in play, and even the interstellar war between the Kherubim and Daemonites, WildC.A.T.s' main villains. This further extends into the planet's unique events, some of the stuff focusing upon certain individual nations, before then moving onto the series' own big threats at long last. Yeah, there's a lot to work with, a lot more than what's actually in the comics. Along with all of this, if players really what to go off of the beaten track, the GM is given full profiles for just about any and every character in the comics with a name. This means the likes of Lord Windsor, a character who lasted all of four pages in the comic, now has as fully fleshed out a profile as the big players. There's plenty of material here to really mold the setting or story to however you wish, showing you the exact points on where to go and how to expand upon concepts. It's basically more Horus Heresy than it is The End Times, offering you all the background information you need to create your own story rather than saying "yeah, do something else if you want."

If there is a problem to be cited with all of this, it's that the big characters of Apollo, Midnighter, Swift, the Engineer, Hawksmoor, the Doctor (no, not that one) and Jenny Sparks are left a little vague. Okay, most people want to create their own characters much of the time, but in the case of Apollo and the Doctor especially, what details you're given makes them seem very limited or shallow. A sad problem given that it doesn't properly reflect the greater depth the comic would later show beyond the initial run, especially with the former becoming a parent. Even when it does go into certain character ideas, it unfortunately tends to stick largely to tropes or basic concepts, such as the Aquaman archetype and the like. So, at times it really seems like the authors were seriously sticking to what they knew from the comic.

The issue of sticking purely to the comic's information is also carried over to its themes and certain subjects. While it emphasises big power, big impact and a global scale, it doesn't really do enough to build things up to that. It sticks to this scale from the very start and there's little here to ease other players into something truly massive, or how to think exactly in this way. It's hard enough to get certain people to adjust to the likes of Exalted where you're playing demigods who can leap over mountains, but being able to punch planets out of orbit? Yeah, that takes a lot of experience and a specific mindset. This can be just as bad for the GM as it is the players, and you can unfortunately all too easily find them thinking along the lines of traditional superhero antics such as stopping bank robberies or the like. As such, it's great for those who already have plenty of experience and a good understanding of this type of game, but offers little help for those trying to get there. Combined with the massive costs and some of the darker aspects, it's really not for the faint hearted.

However, above all else there is one critical problem with the RPG which was also at the core of the big series itself far too much of the time. The Authority sells itself upon the idea of changing the world for the bigger, the idea of having a big impact and being able to push for a better society and be about more than just punching people. For all of that however, there's very little here which doesn't focus purely upon fighting. This was an issue of the main comic itself, especially during the main series and always seemed secondary to the fights. For example, helping the world in the first arc came down to killing a superhuman army and crushing an empire. This wasn't really anything new, and the real changes came from quieter moments like helping with post-battle relief efforts and making contacts within certain government offices. Even the big moment there came down to basically manipulating events to ensure certain technology fell into the hands of the United Nations, but that's really about it. This is even more notable in the second arc with Sliding Albion, where liberating an entire planet boils down to killing off the core command infrastructure and that's about it.

For all the background the book offers on the universe, for all the details, information and wealth of minute facts to help GMs, there's nothing to help the core message. You're given a few general ideas at best, perhaps a few vague concepts, but there's no page which really stops to explain and give a solid bit of grounding to operate off of. It would certainly help to just have even a basic list of ideas, concepts and thoughts to work with, but so much just seems to be relying upon the GM being inventive and little else. Not a bad idea in some cases, but definitely not when it comes to the book's core theme. This is only made worse by how making the world better seems so oddly contradictory to the violent methods within the group and lack of grey morality. There's no ambiguity in the examples found here, with every villain being a full on bastard coated monstrous bastards with a bastard filling. This even extends to the army themselves, so there's never a moment where they're forced to use restraint or second guess anything. As a result of all this, it's sadly more a book which talks about its themes of changing the world while only making a few concessions towards that overall goal.

Still, as an adaptation in terms of lore and concepts, The Authority RPG and Resource Book is pretty damn good. When the main flaws stem more from the source material itself, it's hard to really mark something like this down. With its biggest sin being just sticking far too much to what was established by others, all the while offering more than enough information to people to put their own spin on things, this still remains a sold RPG. While in terms of overall lore it's one which should have GMs be very aware of its flaws and scope before starting, this is definitely pretty damn good. It might not push quite so far as Rogue Trader, but for the universe at hand and set on a single world it's hard to ask for more, really. Plus, it's easily one of the most beautiful looking RPG books about thanks to Bryan Hitch's work. I'd say more but, really, just look at a few of the images posted on here and they speak for themselves.

So, off to a flawed but good start, but how do the rules hold up? See for yourself right here.


  1. Very odd that they chose to give established characters so little backstory, maybe it's so that various GM's could take them and change little bits of their personality, or add on extra bits from events that will happen without having to worry about contradicting everything they're presented with?

    I know a few people that if they're presented with a character nobody in their group made, and that is set in stone, they'll attempt to kill off this character as quick as possible so that their own narrative can play out, and come to think of it that might be the reason so many comic book deaths happen in big events.

    1. Well, it's honestly partially down to the comic itself unfortunately. Their personality traits could be seen here and there, but rather than fitting into some exact certain traits these are presented more via how they react to various crisis more than personal moments. It's not universally true, but the comic did lack a lot of potential quieter moments. As for their backstories, that's unfortunately a little difficult in a few regards, as Apollo and Midnighter had their past identities erased, and Engineer, Hawksmoor, and Swift were fairly normal. Most actually abandoned their lives before joining StormWatch. Jenny Sparks is the only exception, and that's largely because big parts of StormWatch went into her history. I personally think that you could be right due to how it could help a lot in terms of messing things around, altering exactly how they behave and having players make a bit more impact. At the same time though, it could be at least partially down to the writers being unsure of how to exactly work with what information they have been given.