Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Tommy's Take on the USHER Dossiers

I'm gonna put my cards on the table here.

As far as I'm concerned, and no disrespect intended to anyone else, but Vigilance Press is the best thing to happen to the ICONS game, period. It's not just the volume of support, as impressive as that is, but it is the quality of support, and they are trying to raise the bar all of the time.

A while back we got Public Enemies, which was a sneak peek at the future of their World War II universe. Now, we have The USHER Dossiers, which should truly open it up for us. The PDF is 137 pages, in color, and is fully bookmarked. It is available for $7.95 from RPG, certainly a fair price for the size of the product, and is made with ICONS in mind.

INTRODUCTION

The author notes here that this is advancing the World War II timeline up to the present, and it is apparently being left open for individual games to develop, rather than pushing a continued plot.

TIMELINE

We do hit one snafu right off, as there is a placeholder for art that was never filled...and is still sitting there calling for a black and white picture of two heroes, photo style.

We do get a heads up that the timeline is not meant to be a major history lesson, but to focus on metahuman events specifically. We also learn that the metahuman population exploded pretty dramatically from World War II on.

ERAS IN METAHUMAN HISTORY

The first such major era is the Era of the God Kings, which ran from about 5,000 BC, up through 200 CE. Metahumans were scattered among human history and were largely tied in with what we consider myths now.

The Era of the Warrior Saints also tracked the decline of Pagan religions and the rise of Christianity and other monotheistic religions, with many of those metahumans being hailed as saints.

The Era of National Heroes began around 1700, and helped lead to the metahuman-powered World War II that Vigilance Press has released so many cool supplements for.

The major Metauman events start with the birth of a man in South Africa in the year 70,000 BC, who has multiple powers, including immortality, known as the Forever Man. He was THE Major superpowered being for thousands of years.

Around 5000 BC to 2300 BC, we get a number of nods to Greek and Norse myth, such as Hercules rising up and helping to kill Zeus, and the decline of the Aesir, culminating in war between Thor and Loki.

During the Roman Empire, the Forever Man resurfaces and plays an integral role in events, though even he is unable to prevent Rome's fall.

As we get into the 1100s, some nods to the World War II era heroes begin to surface, laying the groundwork for later legacies.

The timeline runs through the late 30s, where the rise of the Eugenics Brigade occurs, and the bulk of the World War II material is set. We begin to learn the aftermath of World War II in the USHERverse, as Old Glory and Captain Amazing are given full blown military posts running USHER in its secret base under Liberty Island.

1949 sees the rise of Aegis, a NATO sponsored superhuman group, led by Big Ben (who has been in legal struggles with England since the end of the war). 1954 gives us an army of mutated ants in Brazil, whose true source isn't uncovered until 1956, and 1957 sees some of the living legends of World War II tragically killed putting an end to it.

Captain Amazing (now known as Savant), creates what will ultimately be a thorn in USHER's side when he constructs Medusa, a dangerous artificial intelligence.

2001 sees a major turning point when Scion, a member of a metahuman family originally from Earth, returns from the stars and suckers the planet, taking over as Emperor of Earth...the metahumans rise up against him and ultimately prevail, and it is in the aftermath of this that we take over the Vigilance universe in our games.

One thing I want to make clear: I did not do the history section justice at all. Not even a little bit. There are some great narratives weaved in and out of the history, and a great job is done providing a universe that has "real time" instead of the Marvel and DC "sliding time", as well as a universe that's not necessarily dark and gritty, but does have consequences (like people dying and staying dead, rather than a big Revolving Door of Life and Death).

ORGANIZATIONS

These are a number of organizations prominent in the universe, and each are given a brief overview of history and purpose, as well as a sidebar detailing any specific requirements for joining, plus suitable Qualities and Challenges for members, and relevant timeline references for each group.

The Doleman Center for Advanced Studies is kinda like Xavier's School for Gifted Youngsters...okay, not exactly, but that's what came to mind. It began as a safeguard against mutant oppression, and is a benevolent organization as written. It does currently serve to train mutants how to use their powers responsibly.

I really like The Institute, who are disabled veterans given a new lease on life through cybernetics, in order to wage a covert war against aliens. We get a "standard" operative here as well.

M.A.N is the Mutant Army of Nationalism...I don't know if I see how that exactly makes sense, but crazy extremists generally don't. These guys are the setting's Brotherhood of Evil Mutants/Mutant Liberation Front.

Medusa is the agency that has been built on the back the Medusa super computer created by The Savant. They are not EXACTLY bad guys...but they are not EXACTLY good guys, either. A generic operative stat block is provided here as well.

The Old Guard are a bunch of racist toe rags. Luckily, they tend to fight M.A.N. as much as, or more than, anything else...leading to bad dudes fighting each other. A White Knight of the Old Guard is provided.

The Omega Syndicate are an organization of assassins, all of whom wear the same "face". He can be everywhere, and if he dies...well...it never lasts, because there's someone else to wear the mask. A generic "Omega" is provided.

The Pawn Broker provides supervillains with henchmen (Pawns and Knights), as well as equipment and the like. A sample Pawn is provided, as is a Knight. I can't help but think the pictures here are mixed up, as the Knights are carrying guns (with no skill), and have a much higher Strength than the Pawn, who is built like a typical brick.

TEA is the Time Enforcement Agency, a group of Time Cops. USHER still treats them with suspicion, as they have yet to figure out their true agenda.

USHER is the main metahuman peacekeeping organization, and their write-up includes a sample agent.

Four subdivisions are provided as well: The Atlas Battalion, The Blue Knights, the Nighthawks and the Pegasus Squadron.

KNOWN ALTERNATE TIMELINES

Pretty standard trope for comics stuff. This is set up with an in character interview with Chronicle (of TEA).

Dark Future is a the world that spawned The Black Knight, the leader of The Old Guard. In addition to a breakdown of the timeline, we get a list of the notable refugees from Dark Future (and there are a few).

Hell is the name given to the reality that helped "make" Walter Frazier, a psychotic time traveler who first appeared in Public Enemies.

Post-Apocalyptia is a very bleak place with a bright  ray of hope...and some unusual healing properties, apparently.

Reverse World is a complete flip flop. Heroes are villains and vice versa.

The Thousand Year Reich is a reality in which a powerful Thule sorcerer tipped the scales for the Axis powers, winning them World War II, and putting them in control of pretty much everything.

METAHUMANS

Ironically, the first NPC listed doesn't appear to be a Metahuman. The Benefactor is a United States senator who offers heroes extra goodies and information, but hides his identity.

Black Knight comes from a future where USHER has gone bad...and he's here, having taken over the Old Guard and using them to continue his mutant hating agenda.

Chronicle is an immortal time traveler and the founder of TEA. In theory, he's a good guy...USHER suspects he has an agenda.

Exclusive is a superpowered journalist that no one really likes.

Forever Man has been around...pretty much forever.

Minute Man is a patriotic time manipulator.

Old Glory is a bonafide living legend, and the leader of USHER.

Professor and Moll are kinda creepy. A drug pusher and his superstrong (female) henchman...with a twist.

Savant would be Captain Amazing, aged and ravaged by cancer.

Last is Scion, the now imprisoned former Emperor of Earth.

THOUGHTS

I've made no bones about being a fan of the Vigilance Universe and the World War II releases. Some great work was done in creating a setting with actual time progression, and the idea of playing in World War II and then zooming ahead to the here and now to see how it all turned out is pretty cool.

As is common with the Vigilance stuff, there are a lot of people, places and things that are clearly inspired by existing comic source material, but nothing that feels overtly ripped off, and that's a good thing. For better or for worse, depending on your point of view, there is still room for expansion as some noted characters, like Crusher (leader of MAN) are never really expanded upon (and there is no mention of him no longer being in power).

The worst part, unfortunately, is the editing. I mentioned what appeared to be a picture swap between Knights and Pawns, and the missing picture at the beginning of the book...but typos abound. Not just inside the text, but in headers as well (such as the Post-Apocalyptia timeline). These issues are common enough and large enough that it drags the overall presentation of the book down, unfortunately. Extra time or an additional editor probably would have made a world of difference.

It is also worth noting that the book lacks both a table of contents and an index. Personally, I don't think that's a huge deal in a bookmarked PDF (though a couple of those are out of place), if this were to be released as a print product, that is basically unforgivable for a book that is larger than 100 pages, in my opinion.

Technical issues aside, it is still a very good product that manages to have its own feel, rather than just a Marvel/DC mash-up or the like. If you have liked the previous Vigilance Press releases, you will probably find a lot to like here.