We're about halfway through the playtest period for Cinemechanix (but still accepting playtesters, if you want to join us), so now that I've gotten some feedback I'm working on the 3rd revision of the rules. I'm doing more re-writing than I thought I would be at this point, but fortunately most of it's easy stuff: minor rules tweaks, reorganizing or clarifying, adding examples, that kind of thing. Based on the feedback, most things seem to work.
The one thing that's going to need major re-working is damage. That's in part my fault because I have a really bad habit of mostly ignoring damage when I run games. In most games I'm not going to let a character die because of a shitty dice roll even if the damage rules say it happens and most damage systems don't really add anything to the story, so I usually give the players some superficial damage here and there and let them do what they want with it. Part of the trouble with damage is that I've never found a damage system I've liked. Abstract hit point systems are basically meaningless until you run out of points (and sometimes not even then) and wound track systems require a bunch of fiddly tracking and keeping up with extra rules and penalties that range from almost meaninglessly negligible to so debilitating the character is useless. So of course I tried to combine the two so I could have the worst of both worlds.
We've been throwing ideas for how to fix the damage rules around on the playtest group for a couple of days now and while I think we're moving in the right direction, a good solution hasn't completely gelled yet. It has made me think about what I want the damage system to do. For me it's mostly about pacing and storytelling, and what it needs to do kind of depends on who the characters are fighting. PCs should be able to wade through mooks with barely a scratch and bounce back quickly from fights with low-level cannon fodder, but when they fight henchmen with names/level bosses or wade thorough armies of cannon fodder, they should get hurt, possibly badly enough that retreating and regrouping is a wise choice. When characters fight Big Bads, there should be a real possibility of death and at least a chance that characters will walk away from the fight with permanent, disfiguring reminders of the battle.
On a related note, I think I also need to add a GM section about ending fight scenes without massacres. In fiction, characters rarely just keep fighting until everyone on the other side is dead. Either the bad guys run away or the heroes have more important things to do and only fight for as long as the bad guys are in the way. Since bad guys running away is the most common fight-ender, a good section of GM guidelines about making sure that NPCs' self-preservation instincts kick in should go a long way, but there also need to be some ideas for giving the PCs reasons to keep moving instead of stopping to fight every enemy they see as well as tips on giving the PCs clear openings that allow them to leave the fight without killing everything in the room. I don't think there's any rules content here, except maybe giving players Acclaim for remembering that (usually) eradicating everyone working for the bad guy isn't the goal. I'm hoping that figuring out the damage system will help a little by causing the PCs to reach a point where continuing to fight minions when they don't have to puts them at a steeper disadvantage against the real bad guy. The trick is coming up with a way to do that without a bunch of complicated or hard-to-remember rules.
As I've mentioned a few times, the Cinemechanix version of Yum Yums is a mechanic called Acclaim. The basic idea is the same: players get bennies for adding to the game and can use them to get bonuses to rolls or to subtly alter the story in their favor, but the details are a little different. In QAGS, the GM gives you candy when you do something worthwhile and you give it back to him when you want to spend it for a better die roll or to affect the scene. The nice advantage to that system is that Yum Yums rarely require breaking the storytelling for "game speak." Since there's a physical token being passed around, the GM doesn't have to tell you that you've earned Yum Yums and you usually don't need to break character to tell the GM you're spending them.
Originally I though Acclaim would work exactly like Yum Yums, but since Cinemechanix focuses heavily players as co-authors, I kind of wanted to include an official way for players to be involved in the process of handing out Acclaim. It's common for QAGS players to let the GM know when they think another player deserves Yum Yums, so I wanted to include that kind of thing as an official rule this time around. In fact, I kind of liked the idea of making Yum Yum awards a group decision, rather than an arbitrary GM decision. The problem was that turning the power to award Yum Yums over to the group basically meant voting, which kills the transparency that makes Yum Yums work so well. You don't want to stop the story to hold a straw poll.
The solution came when I remembered something from one of the games I rated for last year's Game Chef. I don't remember the game off the top of my head, but players had a limited range of game actions and used different hand signals to let the other players know which one they'd chosen. The basic idea is the same as crossing your arms to let other players in a Vampire LARP know you're invisible, but I haven't played a Vampire LARP since the Clinton administration, so Game Chef was fresher in my mind. Since Cinemechanix is built around a "think of your RPG as a TV series or movie" conceit, Siskel and Ebert provided the perfect answer. When somebody does something cool, a player who thinks they deserve Acclaim for it gives the thumbs up sign. Other players who agree also hold their thumbs up. If there's a majority, the GM tosses the player an Acclaim token (you can still use candy if you want). If there's a tie, the player gets Acclaim if the GM gave him a thumbs up. It's a little more involved than tossing candy around, but it's still reasonably non-intrusive.
Since there's a Thumbs Up, there's also a Thumbs Down. I probably would have needed something along those lines even if symmetry didn't demand it because I set the game up so that player decisions are never decided by dice rolls unless there's some kind of mind control thing going on. No roll can force you to play your fatal flaw. If an NPC tries to fast-talk a character, the player gets to decide whether or not the character believes him, not the dice (though the player is free to roll if he's honestly not sure whether his character would see through the deception). The Thumbs Down provides a way for other players to call bullshit on players who act in bad faith.
When I showed the Acclaim rules to the Hex crew, they brought up two possible problems, one that I'd already considered and one that hadn't occurred to me. The first one is obvious: since Acclaim is in the hands of the players, the players could "farm" for Acclaim by constantly giving each other Thumbs Up for things that don't really deserve it. That one doesn't really worry me, since I don't think many players who would do that kind of thing are going to be playing Cinemechanix in the first place. Even if they do, I have no interest in writing a game that wastes ink trying to protect the Lowest Common Denominator from themselves. If you want to game the system and stockpile Acclaim so the PCs never face any meaningful challenges you obviously don't understand how stories work, so why the hell are you playing a storytelling game? Go play Rifts or something.
The other problem was something I didn't think of, but probably should have. Josh pointed out that some people wouldn't like the Thumbs Down rule because it could be construed as confrontational. I'd forgotten that a lot of gamers are incredibly fragile, so in their minds there's really no difference between constructive criticism and a death threat. As Josh predicted, a few playtesters have expressed concern about the Thumbs Down rule, but I'm keeping it just the same. Just like it's not my job to create a game that's Munchkin-proof, it's also not my job to write a game that reinforces geek social fallacies. Besides, if your group doesn't like the Thumbs Down rule, you can always just ignore it.
The other reason for leaving the Thumbs Down rule in is that some groups, especially those who work hard to avoid any hint of conflict, really need it. As I've mentioned here before, we do a lot of convention panels and the Q&A segment of them usually turns into to a sort of gaming group counseling session. The basic story is always the same: Somebody's doing something that the other players don't like, but the other players don't want to say anything because it might hurt someone's feelings. The solution, of course, is Rule #1: Talk To One Another Like Grown-Up Primates. If you keep walking on eggshells while one player screws up the game for everyone else, the resentment builds until it boils over and things end badly. It's much better to settle problems when they occur and move on. The Thumbs Down mechanic could help some conflict-averse because the criticism is framed as a game mechanic, which may make it seem less personal. It's like taking away a paladin's powers for changing alignment.
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One of the things I'm trying to do with the Cinemechanix rules is to get rid of the things that just don't matter. A lot of RPG conventions are strategy gaming holdovers that really don't add anything to a storytelling game, and in fact often just get in the way. When working on rules, I've been asking myself how the reality of those rules would manifest in fiction. Basically, what would the author write or the director show to let you know that this is something important? If I can't think of anything, the rule probably isn't important for storytelling. Some rules are still needed to make the game framework function, but for the most part rules that wouldn't merit at least a throwaway line of dialog or description can be cut.
Here's an example that I've probably mentioned before: In most games, different weapons do different damage. In Cinemechanix, they don't. That's because in most fiction, the weapon is less important than the person wielding it. A hero with a broken beer bottle beats an extra with shotgun every time. The only exception are what I call Hero Props. Those are weapons (or other equipment) that have their own subplots or origin stories or theme music, and they give the character using them a bonus. If there's not a narrative (or sometimes literal) beam of light shining down on the thing, it's just a prop and choosing to use it is a matter of style, not function.
So basically, I'm trying to cut out the stuff that's unimportant. My original assumption for NPCs was that they would work just like QAGS and most other games: they would be described using the same stats as PCs. When I actually started writing NPCs, it was obvious that using PC stats meant wasting time and electrons on a whole lot of stuff that just doesn't matter. I should have realized that earlier; if you look at some of the NPCs in QAGS supplements, you'll find some with Words (often Weaknesses) that are never going to get used in the game but are there because they're part of the character format. PCs need detailed stats because they're all beautiful gritty loner dual-scimitar-wielding drow explosives expert snowflakes, but NPCs are supporting cast, so we don't need to know as much about them. A random ninja isn't going to tell the PCs about his struggles with alcoholism or show off his computer hacking skills, he's going to do (as Leslie Jones put it in a recent SNL sketch) ninja stuff. And even when it comes to ninja stuff, we don't really care if he's better at some ninja stuff than other ninja stuff. In fiction, NPC ninjas are either good at ninja stuff or bad at ninja stuff. The author's not going to waste ink letting us know that this particular ninja was the best in his class at stealth but had to retake the throwing star final. Because nobody cares.
So, instead of going through the motions of figuring out Fatal Flaws and Trademarks and other things that just aren't important, I decided that NPCs just get the stats they actually need. They all have a Role, Hero Factor, and Stamina (though since standard characters have a Stamina of Hero Factor x 5, you could easily leave it out, especially for friendly NPCs who probably won't end up in combat). Named NPCs (especially recurring characters) will probably need WWPHITM?. Anything else you need falls under "Traits," which is a list of noteworthy information or things that need special rules.
In addition to all the other things it's used for, Hero Factor tells the GM how many dice the NPC rolls when doing Role-related things. On the off chance the NPC needs to roll for something unrelated to his Role, the NPC only gets the default die.
Here's a sample generic Crossroads Demon using the abbreviated stats:
- Wish Granting: The limits of this ability are left to the GM, and may vary from one crossroads demon to the next.
- Damage Resistance: Crossroads Demons soak double their Hero Factor when they take damage.
- Fast Healing: Demons recover double Stamina during a Recovery Round and recover from Wounds at twice the rate of humans.
- Disguise: A crossroads demon can take on the physical appearance of anyone he’s made a deal with. If someone knows the person well, they are permitted a Contested Roll against the demon to notice something amiss.
- Limited Possession: A Crossroads demon can possess a willing human. This will allow him to travel more than 5 miles from his crossroads.
- Travel Restrictions: Crossroads Demons can only come to earth when on official business unless they bury a mojo bag (which can potentially be used against them) at their crossroads. Additionally, they must stay within 5 miles of the crossroads they were summoned to (or buried their mojo bag at).
- More or Less Immortal: If a crossroads demon’s earthly body dies, it returns to Hell immediately, loses its connection to its mojo bag(s), and cannot be summoned for 11 years. It can, however, return to earth to see to existing deals.
And if your random crossroads demon hangs around to become a recurring villain, you can always turn him into a regular character:
Role: Boisterous Crossroads Demon
Backstory: Long-time Nashville native
Fatal Flaw: Sadistic: Graves takes great glee in watching people suffer, and sometimes gets carried away when he’s tormenting people.
Hooks: Always Wears A Stetson, Doesn’t Need An Appointment, Makes Very Polite Threats
Tag Line: “Sold American!”
WWPHITM? Don Johnson
Trademarks: Deal-Making (3 Dice), Gambling (2 Dice), Torture (1 Die)
Hero Factor: 6
Special Effects: Doc Graves has all of the standard crossroads demon abilities.
Trivia: Not a doctor.
Converting an NPC over into a full-blown character changes a few rolls: if we assume that Deal-Making, Gambling, and Torture are all "Crossroads Demon Stuff," Doc Graves gains a die in deal-making, loses 1 in torture, and rolls the same 4 as a generic crossroads demon for gambling (Base Die + Concept Bonus Die + 2 Trademark Dice). For other crossroads demon stuff, he only gets 2 dice (Base Die + Concept Bonus Die), so he's a little worse at those than a generic demon. With the "roll a dice pool, pick the best" system these variations aren't going to create a noticeable pattern change in the demon's abilities, so they fall firmly into the "things that don't matter" category. Besides, if your players are bored enough that they're noticing subtle variations in a minor bad guy's rolls, your game has bigger problems.
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Before I get into the blog, a couple of notes. First off, we just released a new QAGS sourcebook called And One For All by Ian Engle. As you can probably guess from the title, it's a Three Musketeers sourcebook. Also, round 2 of the Thought Eater contest at Playing D&D With Porn Stars has begun. I can't tell you which essay is mine, or even whether mine has been posted yet, but I encourage you to give them a read and vote for the ones you like.
Since I like to focus on storytelling and character development in RPGs, the thing I like most about dice is their ability to send the story off into unexpected directions. I've always liked critical hits and fumbles, wild dice in the d6 version of Star Wars, and other rules where the die roll can result in more than just a number to compare to a stat or difficulty number. In QAGS, which as you probably know is a roll-under system, we have Lucky Breaks (critical successes, when you roll your target number exactly) and Bad Breaks (critical failures, when you roll a natural 20), and Quirky Successes (weird things that happen when you roll a "1").
Naturally, I wanted the same kind of thing in Cinemechanix. Since Cinemechanix is a roll-high rather than roll-under system, the good thing was that I could use the more traditional "1 bad, 20 good" standard, which just feels better. The tricky thing is the fact that Cinemechanix is a dice pool system where you use the best die from the pool for your roll. The "20 is good" part works fine, since you're always going to pick the 20, but unless you're only rolling 1 Die (PCs tend to have at least 2 for most rolls), you're never going to choose the 1. If you're left with a 1 and a 17 in your dice pool, you're going to take the 17 and probably succeed at whatever you were doing. One option would be to make a Bad Break happen when you roll mostly 1s or nothing but 1s, but that means critical successes and critical failures have different rules, and I want to keep exceptions to minimum.
The solution was ultimately to do something I'd already mostly done in the descriptions: divorce the Lucky Break or Bad Break from the action being attempted. Instead of the character succeeding really well or failing really hard at whatever he was trying to do, a Lucky or Bad break just means something good or bad happens to the character. It can be related to the action the roll was for (you roll a 20 on an attack roll and get an instant kill), it can be tangentially related (you take the 17 and chop the bad guy, but your axe breaks because of the 1), or unrelated (You roll a 20 and do regular damage, but the bad guy you hit flies into the wall and hits the trigger that opens the door to the secret treasure room).
So, if any 1 or 20 in the remaining dice pool causes a special effect, what if you get a mixture of 1s and 20s? Since the "1 bad, 20 good" scale doesn't leave room for the QAGS quirky success, let's put it there. A dice pool with a 20 and 1 means you get a Fluke, something weird and unexpected happens: innocent bystanders wander into the fight, a freak tornado hits the battlefield, whatever; the odder the better. Multiple 1/20 pairs means multiple Flukes, and any leftover 1s or 20s are Bad or Lucky Breaks. If your dice pool comes up 20,20,20,1,1, you get a Lucky Break and 2 Flukes.
But why stop the fun at just the Bad Breaks, Lucky Breaks, and Flukes? With dice pools, you can add all sorts of special effects. As the title of this blog suggests, in Cinemechanix they're called "Dice Effects," and the GM and players come up with them when they put the game together. You can have universal Dice Effects that apply to all rolls, Dice Effects that only apply to certain types of rolls or situations, or even Dice Effects for a particular character, monster, spell, ability, or whatever. Here are a few examples that I gave in the book or have used in the sample game set-ups I've written:
- If you're playing a Lovecraftian horror game (or any game with dark magic), rolling three 6's when using magic means you inadvertently unleash Dark Forces Beyond Your Control.
- When you're rolling to see how well your rock band performs, each "11" gives you a +1 bonus to the Effect.
- When The Human Lava Lamp rolls doubles on a superpower roll, his skin changes color.
- Discordian Saints are allowed to re-roll 5s, but aren't required to do so.
- If I was running a Scooby Doo game, Velma would have a character-specific Dice Effect (double 13s, maybe) that causes her to lose her glasses.
- In the Team Force Alpha 37 Dark Age Supers game, whenever a player rolls triples, his character is involved in a crossover with another comic between issues and begins the next session with some kind of baggage from the crossover. Some of the characters also have special Dice Effects for their powers. For example, when A.X.X.E. rolls doubles on a roll for his mech suit, the suit malfunctions and has to be rebooted.
- Hobo superstition has several lucky and unlucky numbers, but I decided to just use two of them (33 and 9) for Dice Effects in the Hobomancer write-up. 33 is a lucky number, so a dice pool with double 3s means a Lucky Break. 9 is unlucky, so if the dice pool has a third 3, you get a Bad Break (regular 9s don't have a special effect).
In the last one, I chose to use triple 3s for a Bad Break instead of 9s to keep the dice effect from happening too often, and also because I like the idea of using the same roll for both the good and bad effect. You can key Dice Effects to any number or combination of numbers and kind of use the number of dice required to control how common or uncommon the effects are, both because of the probability math and because of how the system works. Everybody gets 1 die for anything that's at least theoretically possible, so a Dice Effect that happens on a single number will come up most frequently. Most PCs will get a Concept bonus for the majority of things they do during a game, so Dice Effects that require 2 dice are possible for most rolls. For effects that require 3 or more dice, a character will need either appropriate Trademarks or a situation that grants him Bonus Dice. The more dice required, the rarer the effect will be and the fewer characters will even have a chance of rolling it.
That does it for this week. If you want to check out the full Cinemechanix rules and get a chance to earn or win fabulous prizes and bragging rights as a playtester, join the playtest group.
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Last week I describe the broad categories of character traits for Cinemechanix. This weeks I'm going to talk about the individual words in each of the 3 main sections of the character sheet.
Character Concept Traits
The Character Concept defines who the character is and what he can do. Character concept traits are less about how well a character does something than what the character can do. They're more about deciding whether a character needs to or can roll for an action than adding or subtracting dice from that roll. A character who's blind can't read a billboard no matter how well he rolls, and in most games characters can't fly unless they've got a special ability or gadget that gives them flight abilities, for example. Concept traits may also allow players to do things without rolling (a super strong character doesn't have to roll to pick up a couch) or require them to roll for actions that that would usually succeed automatically (Captain America may need to roll to see if he knows who shot Reagan, since he's was frozen in a block of ice during the 80s). When it comes to actual rolls, a player can get up to 1 Bonus Die and 1 Penalty Die for Concept traits, no matter how may concept traits potentially apply. If you have a Role of "Cop" and a Backstory of "Former Track Star," you still only get 1 Bonus Die for concept when you roll to chase down a bad guy. If you want more, you'll have to put some Trademark Dice into running fast.
Character Name, Tag Line, and Who Would Play Him/Her In The Movie? are identical to the QAGS Words of the same name and rarely affect game mechanics, so I'm going to assume they don't need any explanation.
Role is similar to Job in QAGS, but Cinemechanix Roles should give some insight into the character's personality as well as his abilities, resources, and other stuff covered by a QAGS Job. So where a QAGS character would have a Job of "Private Detective," a Cinemechanix character should have a Role of "Hard-Boiled Private Detective" or "Meticulous Private Detective" or "Perpetually Stoned Private Detective."
Backstory isn't a completely character background, just a short (1 or 2 sentence) description of where the character came from and (if necessary) how he got wherever he is at the beginning of the story. Examples include things like "Convicted felon who just got out of jail" and "last son of a dying planet rocketed to earth and raised by kindly farmers."
Fatal Flaw is sort of similar to Weakness in QAGS, but a lot more specific. Not just any disadvantage can be a Fatal Flaw. A Fatal Flaw is specifically a character failing. Any of the Deadly Sins, addiction, obsession, and pretty much anything that causes the character to habitually do things that aren't in his best interest can work. Unlike Weaknesses in QAGS, Fatal Flaws are governed by role-playing, not die rolls. It's always up to the player to decide whether or not the character gives in to his Fatal Flaw. Players who role-play their Fatal Flaw well can earn Acclaim and those who blatantly ignore their Fatal Flaw when it really should cause problems can lose Acclaim, but otherwise it's up to the player to decide how much control the Fatal Flaw has over the character's life.
Game-Specific Traits are additional concept traits specific to the game you're playing. For example, a game set at Hogwarts might have "House" as a Game-Specific Trait, a super-hero game might have a "Secret Identity" trait, etc.
Hooks is a catch-all category for any other traits that make you different or special. You don't need to worry about Hooks that are already implicit in other concept traits, just the thing that make you unusual. If you're a Hobbit, we already know you're short. You only need a "Short" Hook if you're a human of Dinklagian proportions. You also don't have to worry about Hooks that are implicit in the game premise (if the game is about outlaws, everybody's already wanted by the authorities--not having a price on your head would be the Hook). Common Hook types include:
- Unusual physical traits (missing an eye, covered in tattoos, has devil horns)
- Special powers or abilities (psychic, invulnerable, amphibious)
- Curses or unusual vulnerabilities (lycanthropy, Kryptonite allergy, magically compelled to always speak truth)
- Unusual or uncharacteristic resources or connections (wealthy family, childhood friend of the Mayor, has his own crime cave)
- Story hooks or plot complications that are relevant to the game (wanted by the police, homeless, out for revenge)
- Role-playing/characterization hooks (code of honor, hates elves, chain smoker, gravelly voice)
Tropes are things the character is known for or does on a regular basis. Actions the character is good at are called Trademarks. Things the character is bad at are called Drawbacks. Characters start with a number of Trademark Dice equal to their Hero Factor and can put multiple dice into a single Trademark. For each dice of Drawbacks a character takes, he gets an extra Trademark Die to assign. Unlike Concept Dice, Trope Dice stack, so if you've got 1 Die in "Puzzle Solving" and 2 Dice in "History," you get 3 Bonus Dice when you roll to solve a historical puzzle.
Trademarks are things the character is good at doing and does regularly to resolve plot points. As I said last week, it's important to remember that the character isn't an inventory, so we're not interested in a character's skill in areas that are unlikely to come up in the game. If the game takes place on a deserted island, your character's hacking abilities are irrelevant. Trademarks are somewhat aspirational: by taking a Trademark in something, you're letting the GM know that you want your character to regularly get to do it during the game.
Drawbacks are things the character is bad at doing: Bad Liar, Hard of Hearing, 90-pound Weakling, etc. It's important to understand that drawbacks are areas where the character lacks ability, not just unfortunate situations or disadvantages. Drawbacks penalize the character when he tries to make a specific kind of roll. If you can't clearly define what sorts of rolls are affected, the trait probably works better as a Hook. Character don't have to take any Drawbacks, and many characters in fiction don't have any. In most books and TV shows, Drawbacks are the kind of things that show up as running gags.
Stats are traits that only exist to make the game mechanics work.
Hero Factor is sort of like level and abstractly defines how badass the character is. Most characters start the game with a Hero Factor in the 3-5 range. Characters add Hero Factor to all rolls and it's used in numerous other ways.
Acclaim works more or less like Yum Yums in QAGS. The main difference is that it's awarded by group consensus (by means of a thumbs up or thumbs down) rather than GM fiat (though the GM's vote is always the tiebreaker).
Stamina starts out equal to Hero Factor x 5 and gets reduced when characters take damage. If a character reaches 0 Stamina he takes a Wound (which represents a significant injury). Characters can regain Stamina by taking a Recovery Round, which they're allowed to do a number of times per Scene equal to their Hero Factor. The character usually returns to full Stamina at the end of a Scene. Wounds take a lot longer to get rid of.
Special Effects are rules for any character traits (usually concept traits) that require them. For example, a character with the Hook of "Werewolf" might need rules for transforming, stats when in wolf form, and taking damage from silver weapons, each race in a fantasy setting might have its own static list of Special Effects, or a wizard character may need spell points or a list effects for the spells he knows.
I already discussed the last two items on the character sheet (Plot Developments and Trivia) last week. One thing that's come up in playtesting is confusion about which traits should be Tropes, which should be Trademarks, and which are just Trivia. In some cases it depends on he ability (something that's constant and never requires a roll shouldn't be a Trademark) and even more often it's a matter of player preference and game context, but here's an example that might help, using the "Comic Book Fan" trait:
- For Seeley Booth in Bones, it's trivia. The scene where he's reading Green Lantern in the bathtub with a beer helmet is amusing, but comic book fandom isn't a major facet of the character.
- For Xander in Buffy, it's probably a "Comic Book Geek" Hook. It's very unlikely to be relevant to any plot point that comes up, but it's important for characterization since it tell the player he should make lots of comic references.
- If you're playing a game where the PCs get transported from our world to Gotham City, "Comic Book Fan" would be a Trademark because it's an area of character knowledge that's likely to become relevant to the plot of the story.
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