Review: Progenitor: Superpowers As Contagion
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I have an odd relationship with comics, especially superhero comics. I read them fairly often as a kid only to eventually lose interest. Which is like a lot of kids, really, and not odd at all. What is odd is that I love superhero roleplaying games. The lists of powers, the tweaks to iconic characters you can make, fighting side by side with the greats... I could (and do) read comic book RPGs for pleasure.
This means that I'm predisposed to like Progenitor, a campaign setting for Arc Dream well regarded superhero RPG, Wild Talents. It has the added bonus of being written by one of my very favorite RPG writers, Greg Stolze. I was not disappointed in the least. Progenitor is extremely good and one of the more enjoyable campaign books I've read in a long time.
If you're not familiar with Wild Talents, it's worth a quick overview before we proceed. Wild Talents is a superhero game which likes to toy with alternate histories. Its main claim to fame is as the main incubator for Greg Stolze's ORE (One Roll Engine) System. ORE is a pretty solid mainstream system, relying on rolling a handful of d10s and then matching like results. This gives you the width (number of like results) and height (the actual number in the pairs). So you roll four dice, get three 5s and a 2, and end up with a width of three and a height of five. There are lots of little knobs you adjust, like dice acting as wild cards, but the basic gist is the matching. It's not the simplest system invented, especially when you toss in superhero powers being player designed rather than picked from a list, but it's a good system and one which serves the comic book genre well.
For all that the system is solid, the real place where Wild Talents shines (and this holds true in all of Arc Dream's products) is the quality of the writing. They've assembled a stable of writers the peer of anyone else in the industry. In addition to the aforementioned Stolze, Arc Dream has Dennis Detwiller, Kenneth Hite, and Benjamin Baugh on the (I think I'm about to date myself) Rolodex for regular contributions. For those familiar with Delta Green, yes, there's a definite link there, with all of those authors but Baugh having worked on the classic Call of Cthulhu setting. Arc Dream honcho Shane Ivey turns these talented folks loose primarily on alternate history settings, one of the most deceptively difficult genres to write well.
Progenitor is no different. The game is about, as Stolze states, The Big Idea. How does the world change when superpowers pop up one day? Where do things like pop culture, science, and warfare go when people five times smarter than Einstein or more charismatic than JFK contribute to the discussion? There's this timeless sense in comic books. Nobody ever ages, the bad guys always come back... Progenitor takes those assumptions head on and flips the script. In this world, everything changes.
It all starts in 1967 with a very normal Kansas housewife named Amanda Sykes. She's out for a picnic one day when some cosmic force from space slams into her, giving her godlike powers. Immediately, she becomes the most powerful person on Earth by a vast margin. This is real high powered stuff... think Silver Surfer, Superman, Spectre, Galactus. She's essentially invulnerable and can create any superpower she can think of on the fly.
Being a very normal 1960s housewife, she ends up doing what she thinks she should: she heads to DC and offers her services to the US government, who promptly ship her off to Vietnam as a secret weapon for ending the war. Sykes wreaks havoc, threatening to turn the tide of the war.
Here's where the catch comes in. Anyone that Sykes uses her powers on might gain powers of their own, albeit at a slightly decreased level. Those people can pass on their powers in the same way, and then those people, and then next, and on and on until you have superheroes running around bending history. There's a cap on the number of people are infected for each generation, so there's never a risk of half the population being superheroes, which feels a little arbitrary but is necessary to prevent the setting descending into the absurd.
This does a couple of important things. First, from a strictly game mechanics perspective, it lets the gamemaster and players tailor the power level of their game to what they want to play with. Someone granted powers through contact with Amanda Sykes is on a Superman level of power, while someone well down the line is far, far less powerful; the campaign a group runs is obviously tied directly to the power level.
Second, it let's a hero create his own villain. Stolze states this up front and it's a big deal within the campaign setting. As he says, one of the most compelling things about comic books is the notion that a hero creates his own archenemy. Superman creates Lex Luthor, Batman creates The Joker, etc. Plenty of superhero RPGs have let you do this but it's always (to my knowledge) been in a very sidelines sort of way, with a throwaway line in your character's backstory. In Progenitor, you have the actual mechanics right there to handle this very important trope, though I'd maybe like to see even more mechanical support for it.
Stolze uses the archenemy creation to launch an entire historical narrative filled with big personalities and real world movers. Amanda Sykes goes to Vietnam and uses her powers. One of those affected is a village woman named Nguyet Cam who becomes the smartest person in the world. Nguyet formulates a new system of government for Vietnam, passing on her powers to others in the process. Vietnam becomes a global power due to the number of superheroes living there. Sykes goes home and uses her powers on Lyndon Johnson, who becomes hyper-charismatic. Johnson passes his powers on to members of the military and J. Edgar Hoover.
On and on it goes, with Stolze meticulously sketching out the sorts of scenarios that might plausibly arise in this alternate universe, creating a spiderweb of cause and effect. The book is packed with real world details alongside the alternate history, a couple pages per year with notes pointing to the major actors in Progenitor's history. The real world details, especially the pop culture notes, serve as a cleverly done assist to the gamemaster in creating an authentic 1968 or 81 or whatever year an individual campaign year is set in. If you want to make 1987 feel authentic, pop in George Michael's “Faith”; it's right there in the sidebar as the year's number one song.
For all the setting detail in the book, there's really only one major mechanical deviation from the main system, which may be a bit of a bummer to people looking for major adjustments to either ORE or possible exports to other Wild Talent settings. For such a big book (a hefty 376 page softcover), this is a little odd compared to a lot of other games which pack their settings with mechanical tweaks. I'd only counter that I'm not sure if Wild Talents campaign settings are ever really about major mechanical deviations from the core rulebook; they're primarily about reading well-crafted alternate history and bringing it to your table.
That single big innovation is a pretty cool one though. The default assumption is that your player characters will change things. For all that Stolze details what his Progenitor looks like, he never wants you to forget that the history he's written changes drastically the second a group's PCs enter the picture. Your character is no less powerful than his and this is a game about the ways in which superheroes would actually change the world; the mere existence of even one more metahuman changes everything, so the actions of the PCs are expected to create a cascade of changes.
To this end, he created a chart with four metrics and six tones, each given a numeric value. The global situation can be mapped out according to these numbers, a sort of graph with different years occupying various points. As the PCs do things, the numbers change; maybe the group overthrows the Laotian government, causing the Warfare metric to rise. Each year you combine the numbers and roll, referring to a chart of story seeds tied to the larger geopolitical situation.
There's no obligation to do this. Progenitor is perfectly suited to a highly scripted, GM driven campaign. I think, though, that the whole campaign lends itself to on the fly creation with the players messing things up. The charts and rolls for story seeds are there to help keep things “real”. You need that verisimilitude because it's the real world with real heroes. It's never static, like so many DC or Marvel stories. The world changes, quickly and drastically, because "real" superheroes would make it change.
Still, the book runs the risk of looking like a throwback to 90s metaplot gaming, where an author's pet characters steal the spotlight, with the PCs as dutiful sidekicks never really deviating from the official story. Stolze's a deft enough writer to make sure this doesn't happen, making certain that the PCs are the real movers no matter how much page space is given to the characters he dreamed up. That's really one of the marks of a good campaign supplement: compelling, fun to read characters and events which never, no matter how good, overshadow the as yet unwritten role of the PCs. It's sometimes a very small needle to thread but Stolze masterfully does it; I never once felt as though my group would be on the sidelines watching in a Progenitor campaign.
With that as my metric of what makes a campaign book great, I absolutely recommend Progenitor as a good buy. It ranks right up there with The Grand Pendragon Campaign and The Enemy Within as my favorite campaign books of all time. I'd even go so far as to recommend it even if you have no interest in actually playing it or using Wild Talents; Stolze's a supremely gifted writer when it comes to this sort of thing and Progenitor is, above all else, a really enjoyable read as a piece of counter-factual fiction.