11 August 2015

Amp: Year One

AMP: Year One, by +Eloy Lasanta of Third Eye Games, is a lower-powered supers game which evokes many of the best parts of the X-Men and Aberrant.

The world of AMP is our own world, next Sunday. Those with powers, called AMPs (Accelerated Mutant Potential), have only started to emerge and characters are on the ground floor of this brave new world, for better or worse. This is rather novel, since the vast majority of supers games with settings present an established world, full of heroes and villains already. It serves to emphasize the street-level feeling which permeates the book - everyone is still trying to figure things out.

A backstory as to the why and how of AMPs is clearly laid out in the text, but shrouded in secrecy to the populace at large. It involves a secret multi-national project to create super soldiers. Which is fairly pedestrian, however it has some twists which set it apart and is quite effectively told in general. Without giving any of the secrets away, things go catastrophically wrong and the project is ultimately labeled a failure. The subjects are set loose back in the wild, but the scientists involved quietly keep tabs on them. Fast forward a few generations and it turns out the project was more successful than anyone could have hoped. The variety of powers and possible combinations (and limits therein) are due to the various ways the serums were combined.

A timeline of 2015 is presented in AMP as the primary setting material. In Year One it has the introduction of AMPs and the various reactions to their appearance, and closes out the timeline with a bang at the beginning of 2016. Here, it draws heavy inspiration from X-Men and Aberrant (as mentioned above) with the mixed opinions on their existence and what they represent. It contains a variety of events from around the world which showcase the gradual emergence and acknowledgment of AMPs in the world. They range from mysterious hints of why is potentially yet to come, particularly the "conspiracy" sidebars, to major events which significantly shape public opinion. One of these events even appears as a playable scenario in AMP Adventures, "Attack of the Buzz". Even at their most ostentatious (the Battle of Reno comes to mind), the events presented are a much more restrained take than the inspirations, as befitting the personal and low-key scope of the game. 

The supplement, Year Two, takes the timeline further and it gets quite dark. Without giving too much away, the final events presented in Year One have a significant impact on what transpires in 2016, which is also referred to as the year of fear. With good reason. It also includes more setting information, such as how the world as a whole is dealing with the emergence of AMPs and some more details on the ramifications on various events in the timeline.

AMP has some small nods to comic books, such as the trade size and "Law of Attraction" which causes many AMPs to fight when they first meet (see pretty much any cross-over, ever), but on the whole it has a self-awareness of the tropes and meets them in a way entirely consistent with how you would expect people to react. There is a criminal organization, but the leadership is quite secretive and their long-term goals seem to be about securing a place for AMPs in the world at any cost. As well, there is a school for the "gifted", which many parents use as a place to dump the children which they can no longer understand.

The mechanics serve to reinforce the personal nature of the game by asking: what is important to you? This is done by giving some points to assign to various loyalties, each of which provides a small, but meaningful bonus. There is even the loyalty of "perfection" for those who are really in it for the power. As well, each character can have an affiliation to a particular group. Each group provides a bonus which reflects the nature of the group. For example, the Seekers of Enlightenment (they run the school) get a bonus to resist the Law of Attraction.

For any supers game, powers and how they are handed is probably the biggest deal. Good news: AMP handles them quite well for the power level at which it is operating.

The basic system for AMP uses a D20 and adds two skills to the result based on what you are accomplishing. When using a power, it is one of the two skills. This gives a simple, unified resolution mechanic with a surprising amount of nuance by modifying the typical attribute + skill. To be perfectly honest, over the past 15 years, using a single D20 for resolution has become almost groan-worthy; I fully admit I may very well be alone in this. However, this is one of the few games to which it doesn't bother me at all. It could be the simple addition of gaining Juice on a 1 or 20 makes it interesting, though the frequent additional effects for every 5 over the difficulty certainly doesn't hurt.

Which brings me to the beginning of powers in AMP - they are not things which can generally be used all of the time. They cost Juice, of which you have a small supply, but is really gained when your adrenaline starts pumping. In those dangerous, high stress times is when you start to have a ready supply. Even then, it can be quite draining to just cut loose. There is some resource management to the usage of powers, which again reinforces the lower power and street level natures of the game.

Powers are separated into groups called Strains, which are mostly relevant when it comes time to spend XP. Each character can have up to three powers; a primary, secondary, and tertiary. Your strain is determined by your primary power. The other two can come from any strain, but are cheaper to improve if they come from the same strain as you. Each power has a basic function, but allows for various modifiers to be purchased which start to significantly enhance what your power can do. Each power has a limit to how high it can be improved - primary up to 10, secondary to 7, and tertiary to 4.

This can make for some difficult decisions, especially since there are so many great powers available; it is like visiting a candy store. There is a wide variety of powers available and nearly all of them are interesting and can do awesome things - those omitted by the "nearly" are powers I'm not inclined to like in the first place, such as plant powers, but I know people who would strongly disagree with me on this point. Which is to say the problem is with me, not the power. An example is the Darkness power from the Shaper strain. One of the things you can learn to do is form a blade of darkness. Which was exactly the first thing I wanted to know if I could do when I read the name.

It is worth mentioning Year Two brings some new mechanics to the table. This includes some new affiliations which appeared over the year, Saps as characters (non-AMPs), and new powers. The most notable of the powers is Gadgeteer, which is available to anyone, including Saps. AMP Adventures also introduces a number of new extras for existing powers, in addition to having some solid adventures for a genre which is notoriously difficult.

These details in powers tie into the backstory of how powers came to be. Each AMP is the result of a particular serum cocktail, with primary and potentially secondary and tertiary effects. While not particularly important in the grand scheme of things, it does lend itself to the feeling of a coherent vision for the setting and how the various parts fit together.

In the end, AMP: Year One is easily one of my favorite supers games out there for both the new take on a familiar and comfortable setting, and the elegant simplicity of the mechanics. There are numbers to play with and crunch, but they are simple and straight forward - there is nothing daunting about the mechanics of the powers or how they interact. If you are interested in playing street-level supers, this is, imho, the best game on the market for such an endeavor even if you don't use the metaplot. Though the metaplot is interesting and unobtrusive enough to make it worth using for most games.