I’m very excited to bring you this review today for a game that I love very, very much. While I’ve actually never played the Sentinel Comics deck-building game, I’ve always heard really good things… Plus the company is in my city so there’s some civic pride there. When I saw the Sentinel Comics RPG come up on Kickstarter, though, I eagerly joined on and… Let me just cut to the chase and say I have a new favorite superhero RPG.
I love superhero stories and the recent spate of MCU movies and shows has only fueled that. I’ve had some fun games of Wild Talents (in the best one I became a supervillain!) and the settings of Godlike and Progenitor are pretty much my benchmark for a supers setting. It’s fun and very crunchy but also can be a little opaque and creating the powers (rather than using templates) has such a steep learning curve. Masks is, of course, an amazing game that has received a lot of well-deserved attention for its straightforward system and evocative themes. It also is pretty locked into the teen drama, though, and if you have a desire for crunch then you might be disappointed. The Marvel Heroic Roleplaying game is a great game crunch-wise (Cortex system is so good) but it’s all about the Marvel universe and there’s no mechanism for making new characters. I’ve played others but the balance between crunchiness, flexibility, tone, storytelling… it’s never been 100% right for me.
Enter Sentinel Comics RPG.
Crunchiness: Mechanics With Levers
The base mechanics of the game is straightforward and very similar to the Cortex system that I complimented above. You make a pool of three dice whose sizes reflect your skills and abilities, then the middle result becomes your effect die. Every action in the game gets classified as an Attack, a Boost, a Hinder, an Overcome, a Defend, or a Recover. Your effect die might decide a direct value (its your damage in Attack, your damage reduction in Defend, or your restored hit points in Recover), it might refer to a chart that determines the result (Boost or Hinder gives a bonus or penalty respectively between +/- 1 and +/- 4), or it might provide a narrative cue (Overcome can succeed, fail, or give a mixed result).
This simple system gets complicated with all the different power options that you create with your character. You pick your different powers (superhero stuff), qualities (skills, knowledges, and other stuff that are pretty open-ended), and status (how beaten up you are: some heroes are best when they’re fresh and others are most potent when their back is to the wall). You also get abilities which are “cheats” that let you alter the basic mechanic discussed above. Some might let you make two types of actions as once (Attack and Hinder or Boost and Recover), others might let you use your highest roll of the three dice instead of the middle one. You might attack multiple targets, give yourself a boost that lasts the whole scene, damage enemies attacking you, or any number of other things.
I don’t want to get too grandiose about this but hopefully the shape of this game is clear. It’s got a simple core that you could learn very quickly (seriously that first paragraph above it most of it) but it’s got all these gizmos and gadgets that you can attach to customize it as you like. There are simpler options if you aren’t into those gadgets but if you want to puzzle through a great build then it’s all right there. It’s a little hard sometimes to make a character who is already detailed and you want to fit into the system (like creating a Sentinel Comics Wolverine or Batman; the actual Sentinel Comics heroes are already written for you) but if you have a vague to moderate idea then you’ll find the system unfolds for you like a maze that you’re building as you walk it.
Flexibility: Lifepath Character Creation
So how do you make a character in Sentinel Comics RPG? That’s where we start to see how flexible the system is and the wide range of powers and character types that it can accommodate. One of the things I love about Marvel Heroic Roleplaying is that you can have a cosmic hero like Captain Marvel with energy bolts and wild technology alongside a street level hero like Daredevil or Hawkeye. In a lot of systems these characters would be horribly matched (this is the case in my experience for Wild Talents which does best with similarly-situated heroes) but in MHRPG they have the same mechanical assets so gameplay feels the same for superheroes with narratively different powers.
This is the case with Sentinel Comics RPG as well and the process of creation in which you combine different parts of a character adds to that. Whether you’re the lost prince of a stellar empire or a hardscrabble youth with a mean right hook, there are lots of great story elements baked in that let everyone feel like they’re an important part of the story. The first part to making a hero is establishing their Background and there are twenty different options: Upper Class, Blank Slate (amnesiac), Struggling (living on the streets), Adventurer, Unremarkable, Law Enforcement, Academic, Tragic (some horrible event), Performer, Military, Retired (but coming back!), Criminal, Medical, Anachronistic (a time traveler), Exile (from space or Atlantis or something), Former Villain, Interstellar, Dynasty (inheriting a superhero alias), Otherworldly (magical or transdimensional), and Created (robot, golem, etc). These get you started with a few skills or knowledges.
You can pick the Background you want, of course, but you can also randomly determine them by rolling two d10s. When you do, you can pick either of the die results or their sum which means two important things. Firstly, you’ve got three different choices to pick from so there’s a random element to challenge you but it doesn’t feel as rigid for those who aren’t fans of lifepath approaches. Secondly, the probability curve of the results is not flat like a d20 but peaked in the middle. So there are a few options at the start or end of the list (like Blank Slate or Created) that are a lot less likely to roll than the stuff in the middle (like Military, Retired, or Criminal). That removes the problem that sometimes arises where, through no one’s fault, you end up with three robotic heroes since that’s an extremely unlikely result (literally one in a million). It also compounds as we’ll see.
Your Background will list a set of three dice to roll for the next step, your Power Source. There are twenty of these as well: Accident, Training, Genetic, Experimentation, Mystical, Nature, Relic, Powered Suit, Radiation, Tech Upgrades (cyborg implants or high tech toys), Supernatural, Artificial Being, Cursed, Alien, Genius, Cosmos, Extradimensional, Unknown, Higher Power, and The Multiverse (some incredible force like Silver Surfer). The dice pools your roll for Power Source are all over the place but statistically they have the same bell curve so again the stranger options are at the extremes and the easier stuff is in the middle so it’s almost impossible to get a group who all have powers from the Multiverse by chance. That same set of dice, though, also go into the powers that you get from them so the first stage will shape the second.
For example, the Military hero will roll 1d10, 1d8, and 1d8 to determine their Power Source and they can pick any of the results, the some of any pair, or the sum of all three. A nice range of options but it also means when they make their superpowers they’ll have three at fairly even levels. The Otherworldly already has some scene-stealing skill and knowledge options so they get 1d10, 1d6, and 1d6 for their powers: a little less power to accommodate. The Retired is the most extreme with 1d12 and two d6s so they have very lopsided powers which works for a geezer putting on the mask again.
The process repeats with two or three dice from Power Source that you roll to randomly determine your Archetype, which is the big picture mold that the hero fits into: Speedster, Shadow, Marksman, Blaster, Close Quarters Combat, Armored, Flyer, Elemental Manipulator, Robot/Cyborg, Sorcerer, Psychic, Transporter, Minion-Maker, Wild Card, Form-Changer, Gadgeteer, Reality Shaper, Divided, and Modular. Same probability spread to avoid repeats of weird things (“Oops, all speedsters!”) and the dice double as your power dice so something really wild from last time (like “Extradimensional”) will self-correct at this stage.
After this you roll two d10s with the same rules to get your Personality (things like “Natural Leader” or “Naive” or “Sarcastic”) which determines your status dice (more on those later) and then you choose (never roll) two Red Abilities which are your big guns and last-ditch options all rolled together (more on that later too). To finish up you have a chance to Retcon things (choosing from some options to make the character more to your liking) and then calculate your Health.
I hope it’s clear that I love making characters in this system and have happily rolled up about a dozen just to see them work. Two things that I’ve come to especially appreciate are when there are obvious match-ups and when there are strange combinations. For instance, if you get Interstellar for your Background then getting Alien for your Power Source might feel like overkill. But these two steps give you very different mechanics so it doesn’t feel like repeating at all, then you add in an Archetype and suddenly if feels like a many-forking path all over again. In the other direction, if you get Created for Background then it seems like this pairs well with the Tech Upgrades Power Source and the Robot/Cyborg Archetype… And those all work perfectly well, of course. But what if you pair Created with Genetic? Now you have to think hard… maybe a clone from a lab? Or a resequencing later in life? Suppose you end up with Otherworldly and Robot/Cyborg? Now you’re a magical golem or maybe a tech robot but animated by a fairy? Now that’s a story!
Tone: Principles and Scenes
Like I said above, you don’t need to have superheroes who all come from the same theme to make a good story. Sometimes it’s a nice bond like all the mutants in the X-Men or the branching legacy of Batman and his team. Other times, though, you have wildly varied hero origins and it works great like the Teen Titans, the Avengers, or the Justice League. The thing that makes those stories work, though, is the tone and even characters who seem like they would work great on paper clash in tone when they start to play. The Justice League include an ageless Greek warrior, a shapeshifting alien, and a rich guy with a grappling hook but they’re all very serious and have the fate of the world on their minds. If you added a new character who’s after celebrity and another recruit who is focused on the magical underpinnings of the universe… Now that seems like a recipe for jumbled storytelling.
This is a perpetual RPG thorn, as is the problem of GM tone and player tone. I’ve had my share of dark and foreboding plots that wound up with a group of players with a slapstick bunch of goofs, and vice versa too. This is probably the number one reason to have a Session Zero but there are other ways of making sure this works out and Sentinel Comics RPG has two baked right in. The first is on the player’s side with Principles. This is a part of the character creation process that I skipped over before but you can think of them as sorta-kinda alignment for your character. They’re what’s important to your character, what they stand for (or don’t stand for) and they come with roleplaying tips and a bonus power to add. Not all of them are big and weighty principles either, in addition to Destiny and Justice there’s also Gearhead and Family. The book has 64 different options split into five different categories: Exoteric, Expertise, Ideals, Identity, and Responsibility.
You pick one from Background and one from Power Source and usually you’re prompted to pick from a certain category each time, though there’s a range within these and you can easily house rule a non-standard choice if you like. In fact, picking the Principles that are just right for you is fantastic since this lets you signal exactly what you want to see to the GM. When the GM has plans for a world-shattering conspiracy and he gets a bunch of folks who have never left their corner of the city, she might feel at a loss. Looking over the Principles, though, she can see that this one has a Principle of Equality and Honor, that one has Principles of Flora and Lab (as in research), this other hero has Peace and Family. This is starting to come together: she can guide them towards the conspiracy by making it poison the environment at home and ruin the neighborhoods of the downtrodden, maybe affect someone’s family. The players have given her everything she needs and it’s a simple part of their character creation.
Principles also provide Twists for the character and that’s a way for the GM to give feedback to the players. When a roll goes badly (or they need to sacrifice to scrape out a success) then the GM throws a twist their way. When a roadblock comes up in a game it can feel like “oh, fine” or it might feel like a petty annoyance. Instead, these twists become roleplaying gifts as the GM says “ok, something goes wrong and it’s exactly related to what you’ve chosen as your core character values.” Fantastic.
Of course twists come from other directions too and here’s where we get the GM’s major tone tool: Scenes. A scene in Sentinel Comics RPG is a living thing with abilities and mechanics of its own, twists and mechanics options. There might be a team of heroes, a villain, and some minions but there are also scene mechanics that tell players what levers are going to help them the most. From experience, scenes can feel like a pain to construct (I already have NPCs and now I need the street too?) but as soon as you see it in action you’ll be glad you took the time. First of all it adds some color to your game (the difference between a scene in a bank and a scene in a subway station is much more than just the decor) and second of all it tells the players what you want the scene to be.
If you want the interrupted parade to be about taking the villain down a peg then the scene mechanics will be all about engaging with them. If you want it to be about helping bystanders then that’s where the rewards will be. If you want it to be a mix well then the mechanics will be mixed. It’s a clear and concise way for you to place rewards along a specific narrative path that makes players feel successful for following the story.
Storytelling: Zones and NPCs
The last bit of praise that I heaped on Sentinel Comics RPG was it’s ability to help with storytelling. The major innovation that I am just in love with is the game’s Zones. These are abstractly how controlled or dire the situation is. When your character is at full health they are in the Green Zone and have access to just a portion of their abilities. When they get to three-quarters health or so they’re in the Yellow Zone and get access to a lot more abilities (plus they can use their Green ones still). When they get to about two-fifths health then they’re in the Red Zone and they get access to their most powerful abilities. The process of calculating is the only truly clunky thing in the game and you just have to consult a table to figure out your zone ranges, but it doesn’t change so once you figure it out then you’re set for that character’s existence.
I like this because it means that the story naturally follows the sorts of scene arcs you see in comic books and movies. Things start off easily, trading punches and throwing the odd energy bolt, then they escalate to serious power usage. When the heroes have their backs against the wall, costume torn and face twisted with rage, then they unleash their powers in a truly incredible way. This moves from “cool” to “genius,” though, when we factor in that scenes have their own zones. Round by round a combat scene will shift from green to yellow to red (you decide the split when you plan the scene) and character’s powers become available when either they or the scene reaches that level. So you don’t have to get knocked to the ground to get your Red Zone abilities; you’ll get them at the climax of the scene anyways. Scene twists also get more intense as the scene’s zone escalates so the whole situation gets more tense.
Not only is the genre enhanced by the rules in this case but it also helps with plot management. Dramatic scenes stay dramatic because everyone’s powers are constantly increasing while those who push the limits will also see an increase in drama (though they may burn brighter and faster). It’s just the kind of mechanic I like, rather than saying that scenes should ramp up in action to finish with a bang the mechanics do the work for you while you and the players work on having fun and telling a good story.
Mechanics are also crunchy for NPCs but the crunch is in direct proportion to how important the NPCs are. Minions that are meant to be taken down quickly are represented by a single die and maybe an extra rule or two. When they roll, it’s the result of that die and nothing else. Lieutenants have a full three dice and definitely at least a few extra rules. They have a few chances to roll well and do some cool stuff but they aren’t that hard to run. At the maximum are full-on villains who are the bosses of the adversaries and are almost as involved as the PCs. They are created in a similar manner (you have eighteen approaches that give some stats and fourteen archetypes that give more stats, smash together and go) and they get special abilities that are as cool as the heroes’ (though they don’t get as many). To make them harder for a given adventure or to make sure the party doesn’t take them down by ganging up then you can add upgrades like having a squad of minions always present or a brainwashing zone around them. The GM can build out their cast of villains and their goons and the process for doing so has you think about their story role from the start and uses mechanics to make it all happen.
I think this game is excellent and while it comes with the basic frameworks of a setting (the world of Sentinel Comics) it’s really an open-ended sandbox for you to build whatever you want. It comes with a dozen pregenerated characters (including Legacy, Wraith, Bunker, Tachyon, and Absolute Zero from the deck-building game), twenty-four boss-level villains, and dozens of minions and lieutenants, not to mention two full introductory adventures.
Truly this is an amazing superhero RPG and if you enjoy the genre, have been looking for the ultimate option, or just want to check out what I consider the leader in this part of roleplaying games then I suggest you pick it up today. When you do, let me know what amazing heroes you make in the comments!