Friday, July 6, 2018

T-E-E-N-T-I-T-A-N-S! TEEN! TI-TANS! LET'S GO!

Cover by Alan Okamoto
Yesterday, we looked at the Champions write ups for the X-Men in Different Worlds. Today, we look at Issue #30, cover date September 1983, for the magazine's second superhero issue, which gave us Steve Peterson's take on DC's New Teen Titans. Unlike Glenn Thain's previous article, this one just provides the stats. Peterson doesn't provide any explanations for how he came up with what's presented here (and in one case, I disagreed with him and made my own adjustment).

Instead of presenting transcriptions, this time I scanned the done-by-hand character sheets I made based on his write-ups, mostly because I think I got a lot of mileage off those old Mark Williams poses and it's fun to remember how much pride I took in those sheets back in the day. I've scanned them and put them up here.

So, let's look at them, shall we? Like the X-Men, all of these characters are built on 200 points + Disads. From the timing, the rules in question should be Champions, 2nd edition.

Changeling

A tough character concept to pull off until the advent of Variable Power Pools in Champions III, Gar's player would be well-served by coming up with a bunch of index cards or something with power combos on them representing different critters. He's set up to run off an Endurance Battery, which makes sense, because as-written, he's going to blow through a ton of it. His OCV and DCV are in a similar range as the X-Dudes, and his ECV is a tad higher than the average. Disads look pretty solid.

Cyborg

Whereas Wolverine's skeleton was not worthy of a Focus Limitation, pretty much everything on Cyborg seems to be. And, considering how many times he ended up in pieces at the hands of his enemies, this is probably the way to go. I note the lack of a Gadget Pool, which either reflects a strict reliance on the main rulebook or a difference of opinion here. Also, this is still the era of "Skills? What is Skills?", as Cyborg has Climbing and Computer Programming and...that's it. He's a fun Utility Player, being a capable brick as well as an energy blaster and a decent long-range scout. Physical CVs are 7s, so in that same sweet-spot. ECV is 3. With his Disads I'm a little leery in that he has a Physical Limitation on Cyborg Parts (which he already got a price break on for the Focus) and he has Unusual Looks, which makes sense. the PhysLim seems like a bit of double-dipping, but maybe that's just me.

Kid Flash

Here's where I had my biggest disagreement with the article. As published, Wally just isn't fast enough. I'd have to go back and run the math, but he was running under 100 MPH, which is not Flash material. My addition was some more "running" (actually Flight, only on a surface) that only added to his non-combat speed, which works on a multiplier and...I'm going to take my word for it that I figured out a way to boost his non-combat speed to over 37,000 mph, because I'm not sure how I derived that. To get the original version, just remove that 30 point power. The rest of Mr. West's write-up is okay. His OCV/DCV are high because his DEX is high. His ECV is down to 3 like Cyborgs. Disads look okay, but I'm not quite sure what constitutes a "Biological Attack." If I were GMing, I'd want some clear definitions of what the player had in mind. Otherwise, a punch in the face from a bare fist might be deemed "Biological."

Raven

Another really difficult one to do. Champions has never done justice to Astral Project or Planar Shifting and this write-up shows it. It's clunky and Raven-shaped, but it really doesn't quite hang together well. That said, there are some things I really like. Such as the way her Stun is purchased with a Limitation that basically triggers her Soul Self if she goes below half her starting total. It's true to the comics at the time and very flavorful. Her stats seem OK. Her lack of Skills is in keeping with the time. CVs of 6, 6, and 8 are respectable and fitting (she's not a combat monster, but she is a powerful mental force). Her lack of Ego Defense seems a glaring omission. On the Disad side, it works pretty well, but I'm kind of surprised there's no mention of her father, Trigon.

Robin

If you're unclear, this is Dick Grayson. The original, before he switched over to the Nightwing ID. This is a really terrific write-up for the Robin of that era. For once, ALL THE SKILLS are in play. Well, all the main rules Skills, anyway. I seem to have given him an additional +1 with Detective Work that makes no sense and a Combat Driving skill that wasn't in the main rules. Huh.

Building the Utility Belt as an Elemental Control is an interesting move. Now, it would be a VPP. It does a good job of representing the various Bat Gadgets of the time. I suspect Peterson had his copy of "The Untold Legend of the Batman" open to the page explaining all the contents, because they look to be here. His CVs are solid, his Disads look good (I like "Bat-Interiority Complex"). He's on a par points-wise with Raven and Starfire and he should be.

Speaking of Starfire

High characteristics, solid powers. I'd argue her BODY is a little low, but that's open to interpretation. Her Multipower is tied to an Endurance Battery, because the two powers running off it are potent and need lots of it to keep going. This allows her to fly with no worry about running out of juice. As usual, she has no real skills, though she does have Martial Arts. I'm not sure about the "No Kick" rationale, but whatever. Disads look good. CVs of 8, 8, and 5 are about what you'd expect. Easy-peasy.

I do want to note that her costume was extremely fiddly and took me a very long time to ink. I'm pretty happy with it, though.

Terra

This is Terra when she was just the newest Titan. The "Judas Contract" and the reveal of her full power potential hadn't happened yet. In fact, they didn't even present Disads for her, so what appears on the sheet there was entirely my doing. Powers-wise, she's an Elemental Control incarnate. I'm not a fan now, but they were the thing back then, so I'm okay with it. She can burn through a lot of END quickly, so a player or GM needs to keep that in mind and give her space for Recoveries. Her Characteristics are OK, and -- as usual -- no skills to speak of. No wonder these teens became superheroes; apart from Robin, they had no other marketable abilities.

Wonder Girl

Ah, Wondy. My DC Comics crush. Engaged to the Worst Dude Ever, but at least here, she got some points for the loser.

But I digress. She's a very efficient write-up here, giving maximum bang for the bucks, bearing in mind that she's kind of a weird brick variant in that she lacks any Resistant Defenses. So, a sword wound or an undeflected bullet can be seriously dangerous, especially since she takes double STUN. Granted, she's hard to hit, but players should be wary of Killing Attacks in her vicinity, because she's not immune. By this point, you're doubtlessly tired of me harping on the lack of skills, so just assume she doesn't have any (which probably explains why she married that creep).

Finally, as with the X-Men article, we get a bad guy, in the form of Deathstroke the Terminator.

Man, I love this guy. Seriously, he's one of my favorite DC villains. I don't care that he's a knock-off of the Taskmaster. He kicks ass. Dude not only beat the Titans single handed, he knows Batman's secret identity and doesn't do jack about it. At 630 points, I think Mr. Peterson captured him pretty well. Insanely good stats, appropriately-scaled weapons, high SPD (see my comments on Magneto for why this important for a major villain), low-drag on Endurance, a high enough con to take a punch and decent enough defenses to make that a last resort, he's a very complete and scary package. In the past, I've taken this write-up, changed the name and description and used him as Tempest, the greatest assassin in the world of IMPACT, and he was utterly horrifying. And so much easier to GM than an entire villain group. Seriously kids, invest in the occasional tentpole villain. Just make sure you've got his strategies worked out in advance.

So, yeah, that's the Teen Titans. This issue also gave us their stats in V&V and Superworld terms. The V&V illos by Jeff Dee are particularly tasty. Different Worlds did a third superhero issue featuring Eclipse Comics' DNAgents (who also got a V&V sourcebook). I've got that one somewhere. I suppose I can dig it out if there's a hue and cry.

Thursday, July 5, 2018

Like a Phoenix From The Ashes!

Hey, nerds! It's my first post of 2018. Lots of reasons for that, but they boil down to life being not great for many months. Anyway, this started out as something I was noodling with over on Google+, but I think it's better over here. So time to fire up the blog.

The title is a bit of an inside joke, since my plan today is to talk about a game that's coming back from beyond the grave as well as an old article that has some bearing on it. The game is Champions, in the form of the recently completed Champions Now Kickstarter. Ron Edwards got permission to put out a new version of the original, pre-HERO System version of Champions. To those of you unfamiliar with the game's history, until the 4th edition (the famous "Big Blue Book"), Hero's games ran on similar, but subtly different engines. The characteristics and the core mechanics remained the same, but Disadvantages worked differently in Champions. Magic in Fantasy Hero worked differently from Champions powers and Justice, Inc. Talents were their own thing. Fourth edition did a great job of unifying things into a single system, but I always felt it kind of watered down the flavor of the individual games, especially Champions.

Apparently, I'm not the only one to think so, if what I've seen in the Kickstarter and gamer response is any indicator. Apart from the nostalgia for an "easier" version of Champions (and yes, easy is definitely a relative concept), there's a sense that we've forgotten not only how revolutionary the game was, but also what wonderful at-the-table experiences it provided. Yes, yes, I know all the horror stories: Two hours to play out twelve seconds of combat, An hour of fun in a six hour bag, you need a degree in calculus to play. And yes, it could be those things. But that two hour combat? Full of action and excitement and over-the-top heroism. That one hour of fun in a six hour bag? Probably a GM who didn't understand how to pace a game and build an adventure around plot-important conflicts. Calculus? Nah, a basic understanding of algebra is sufficient -- in fact, I credit 100% of my passing college algebra on the third try to my picking up Champions.

Amazing cover by Bill Willingham
But I digress. Already. Anyway, long story short, I've been looking at my old Champions stuff, particularly the third edition, which cleaned up a lot of the sins of the first two while still remaining its own thing. It's also the one with the great interior art by Denis Loubet and a nice, clean layout that reminds us that you don't need full-bleed color to make a pretty game book. Along with it, I've been going through my old files of game notes and character sheets and the like I've got filed in the garage. I plan to scan the character sheets at some point, but right now, I'm just having fun looking at them.

One of the things I found last night was what is probably the first published gaming adaptation of an existing comic book property. In August of 1982, Chaosium's house-organ, "Different Worlds" had a superhero issue, including an article by Glenn Thain presenting Marvel's X-Men in Champions terms. I don't own the magazine, but I do have a photocopy of the X-Men article. Last night, I noticed it's fading rather badly (unsurprising, considering its age), and I decided to transcribe the whole thing rather than scan it. This forced me to read it in detail as I went along and, unsurprisingly, I have some thoughts. I've taken the liberty of putting a PDF of my transcript online here. The words are Glenn Thain's. The original article is Chaosium's. The X-Men are Marvel's. I make no claims otherwise, and will take it down if requested.

So, let's look at this thing. First off, the article is largely written in a first-person, chatty style. This is cool, definitely in-keeping with "Different Worlds," and a lot more fun than the "technical manual" house style we see in later-era HERO products. The article is as much about presenting the stats in game terms as it is a how-to narrative. Mr. Thain wasn't inventing the process, of course (see "Giants in the Earth" in the pages of Dragon Magazine for fantasy heroes), but it was certainly a first for Champions and, to my knowledge, the first time something like that had been done for superheroes.

His thoughts along the way are as interesting as some of his mechanical decisions. I like the fact that he notes it's almost impossible to get a definitive take on a character due to the nature of the medium being adapted. Also, he mentions balancing the characters against the rest of the team. This is a necessity in gaming we don't see in the fiction. Later systems came up with ways of handling power iniquities at the table, but this was the Wild West, where points on the sheet and combat effectiveness was measured in dice. Overall, his methodology is quite sound and he does a solid job of explaining most of his rationales.

He notes that X-Men was at issue 161 as of his writing. That was a flashback issue, telling the story of Charles Xavier's and Magneto's falling out. Previous to that, the X-Men fought Dracula (yes, really), and Ilyana Rasputin (Colossus' little sister) had been kidnapped to Limbo by Belasco. Eventful times.

So, let's look at the writeups...

Sprite (Kitty Pryde)

Yes, kids, in 1982, Kitty Pryde was known as "Sprite." It was a terrible name, even acknowledged as such within the pages of the comic. Shortly after this, she took up the moniker "Ariel" for a brief time, and was generally just called Kitty in or out of costume. The much better "Shadowcat" was a few years off.

I find it amusing that Thain starts off by declaring Sprite "worthless," then qualifies this as assessing her value in a fight. Because, fact is, combat was a huge part of the game, both in terms of the genre as well as GM and player effort. Combat in Champions WAS detailed and fiddly and time-consuming. And, as I got the hang of it and became really good at running it, I used the non-trivial nature of a setpiece battle to good effect. I think we already saw the roots of it this early, though I can't say for sure as I was about eight months away from picking up the game at this point.

Anyway, he goes on to note that she makes an exceptional scout and since her phasing doesn't make her look ghostly (bought with Invisible Power Effect), she can fake opponents out into punching right through her. The Desolidification along with its reduced Endurance cost is VERY expensive (187 points on one power), but Endurance was a much more important part of combat and character design back then. This will come up a few more times in this article. The one quibble I have with Sprite's write-up is her ability to disrupt electronics. It's done as No Normal Defense attack. The problem with this is that NNDs do Stun damage only, and eletronic systems, being inanimate, don't typically have Stun scores. As a result, it's 100 points spent on a power that's very hand-wavy. Additionally, it's not purchased as "always on." There's no indication that 1982 Kitty could turn this disruption on or off.

Her Disads seem pretty solid. I have no complaints there.

Storm

In the notes, Thain shows his chops as a Champions player by noting that all of Storm's various weather-based attacks are just special effects. Dude knew what he was talking about. Later on, she might get saddled with the Variable Effects Advantage, but this was 1982 and we didn't need that nonsense. He also wisely defines her "gliding" as Flight in game terms, because what Storm does isn't Gliding in Champions terms. It's a great example of separating game terminology from the special effect.

Storm's powers are built with an old-school Elemental Control. I don't think any other piece of character creation went through so much evolution from edition to edition. The first edition EC was particularly weird, being listed as a Power (as was Multipower). The idea behind an Elemental Control is to give the player a price break for coming up with a unified set of powers, a reward for a good character concept. Unfortunately, ECs were probably the most abused thing in the game and, to quote the late Aaron Allston, "Having a good character concept is the basic requirement for playing in my game." Later editions did things to try and address ECs and 6e finally disposed of them entirely. But this was 1982, so Storm has one. It's fairly difficult to decipher the math on her write-up without sitting down with my first edition rulebook, but there are a couple of odd things at work here. It appears all of her powers are bought with 1/2 Endurance cost, but this isn't noted anywhere. As a result, it's hard to tell whether or not she's priced out correctly. If I have the time to research this further, I'll make a note in the comments.

I also take issue with her Berserk Disadvantage, especially as Thain says she relies on her Code Against Killing to counter it. To me, a Berserk mostly overrides Psychlims, though I can see where her Code might allow her a recovery roll. It still seems a rather risky proposition. I'm also not keen on "Hesitant" as a Psychlim, though we're already seeing defining character traits as Disads (see Sprite's "Novice Superhero."

I have no idea what Thain meant by "(gross)" after Kitty's name in the DNPC entry. I also don't approve of superpowered DNPCs. So points off.

Colossus

A nice, straightforward adaptation. I find it interesting that Thain included Density Increase in C's armored form on the grounds that he was a heavier. This was the de facto simulationist approach to character creation in Champions/HERO until sometime very late in fourth, or more likely early fifth edition, where the important thing became the game effect. If your armored form just made you heavier, then that became a special effect. If you were just naturally big, then you shouldn't have Growth, always on, etc. Honestly, this philosophy bugs the hell out of me. Yes, you have to jump through a couple of hoops, mechanically-speaking, but those hoops come pre-equipped with mechanically-supported game effects.

I'd note that Colossus has no reduced Endurance on his Strength, so he can only deliver a few full-force (14 END) punches before tapping out. With his Recovery of 20 in armored form, he can sustain it a bit, but he's going to wear out if he's not careful. Like most of the team, he has a Speed of 5, which was, in my experience, pretty normal for a non-speedster Champions character. These days, I tend to cap everyone at 4, having come to the conclusion that Speed should reflect spotlight time rather than physical swiftness, but I was years away from reaching that conclusion, so I considered him a bit fast for a brick.

Nightcrawler

This is a really well-done take on my favorite X-Man (and favorite Marvel character and favorite superhero). Thain does a great job of showing his work in the notes. The one thing I'm a little quibbly on is Kurt having both Stealth on a 17- AND Invisiblity in Darkness (that apparently has no Endurance Cost). Personally, I think for all the "He's almost invisible in the shadows" narrative, Kurt just has a really high Stealth roll. Since the Invisibility doesn't seem to be against anything except normal vision, it's functionally identical to the Stealth roll, for two extra points. So, I don't like it.

Otherwise, he's great. The teleports really work as advertised, and I love the Psychlim "Swashbuckler," not because I think it's a particularly great psychological limitation but because it's saying, "I got 20 points for this Disadvantage. It's a huge part of my personality and want it used against me a lot." It totally makes up for the bogus Invisibility.

Cyclops

So MUCH discussion of Endurance here. Cyke's powers are pretty straightforward here, but the Endurance stuff is crazy fiddly and not spelled out well, in my opinion. But, Endurance Batteries/Reserves are another thing that changes with every edition. I like the fact that he's got a high INT and PRE. These are appropriate for a long-time team leader. Not sure about the Acrobatics with Endurance to explain why he seldom uses it, but it's a perfect example of how important END was to the game economy at this point. If everything costs END, you're going to be more careful with it.

For his Disads, I'm iffy on the Berserk, again. I also dislike the fact that there's no "Moping Over Jean" psychlim. I'd have taken that over the Berserk.

Wolverine

For the record, Wolverine was the first X-Man I attempted to adapt to Champions. I went with the Inobvious Inaccessible Focus on his skeleton and was very offended by Thain's approach. I was also Wrongitty Wrongerson, Mayor of Wrongtown, Population Me. A high CON and defenses was absolutely the way to go and it works quite well. I like the fact that he's among the most skilled X-Men, if not the most skilled, and he has Stealth and Acrobatics. That's it. There weren't a lot of skills in play in first edition and even second and third, unless you used the new ones from the Champions II supplement (which I did - I like Skill Monkeys).

A very strange thing I copied directly from the original write-up is the END cost for Ultrasonic Hearing, Discriminatory Taste, and Lack of Weakness. I'm fairly certain these are errors, but I need to check my old rulebook.

Logan's Disads are appropriate, including the Berserk, for a change. I approve.

After Wolverine's write-up, Thain gives some more general guidelines for converting characters. Again, he stresses looking out for one-off oddities. He also emphasizes getting other eyes on the character and playtesting it out and balance with the other characters on the team. It's solid advice, still applicable today.

Finally, we get the bad guy, in the form of Magneto.

Hoo-boy!  One thousand, five hundred points. Speed 9. A potential 20d6 Energy Blast. High defenses.  All in all, a very solid write-up. His high Speed is a good example of a difficult lesson many novice GMs have to figure out the hard way: a solo villain simply won't hold up on his own if you stat him up in a "realistic" manner. Is Magneto actually that fast? No. But with a SPD of 9, he can devote every third action to a defensive action or a Recovery to keep himself up. If he just goes attack-attack-attack, he'll burn out, but if he were a SPD 6 or less, a group of PCs could quickly overwhelm him by forcing him to abort to defensive actions. With his Force Wall, he can deny parts of the battlefield to his opposition and channel their attacks. And, well, his attacks themselves, are potentially devastating, capable of one-shotting the toughest opposition.

I love the 200 points for Installations/Bases. In later supplements, this would become the Mastermind pool. It's a great example of how a GM could just assign a point value to something not covered by the rules and roll with it.

One more thing that just occurred to me: Combat Values (OCV/DCV) range from a 6 (Sprite) to a couple of 9s (Nightcrawler, Wolverine), with most in the 7 or 8 range. ECVs range from 3 to 6 for the X-Men (with Cyclops taking top honors) while Magneto has a 9. Notably, at this time, the whole psychic interference helmet wasn't a thing yet, so he just had a massive EGO of 26.

So, that's the article. And my thoughts. Overall, it was a pretty ground-breaking piece of work.

Sunday, December 24, 2017

12 for 12 #12

Whoo-hoo! The finish line! And I only had to play catch-up once.



Name an RPG, setting, or adventure you haven’t run or played before, but really want to try out in 2018. What particularly appeals about it?

I've got a trio of possibilities here and don't feel like picking just one. Deal with it.

Blue Rose couples a setting I really like (but never got to play in) with a system I've played a few times and really enjoyed. Green Ronin's AGE System is terrific for fast, cinematic style play. The Blue Rose setting is, to my eyes, the Star Trek of fantasy, namely one where the ostensible good guys are fairly enlightened and noble in intentions, but still flawed. Plus, it seems really suitable for swashbuckling intrigue in a fantasy millieu.

Godbound is basically OSR Exalted. I've always been fascinated by the themes of the latter game and setting, but really hated the game system and the directions the official world-building went in later editions. Godbound provides a much simpler (though to me an actually more evocative) system and a world that's painted in broad strokes, with plenty of room for the PCs to put their mark upon it. My one concern about GMing it is that the game is really set up to be run sandbox style, with a host of (magnificent) tools to assist in the process. Even so, I've never been comfortable with sandbox play. But maybe I just need the right sandbox.

Dungeon Fantasy (Powered by GURPS) may seem like an odd choice. I've certainly played GURPS before (though not since second edition), but DF is enough of a departure from what I played in the past that I'm counting it as something different. As to why I want to play it, I've always liked seeing when a third or later generation games (per my definitions here) shoehorn themselves into earlier styles of play. Part of this fascination is in seeing how designers play with the mechanics of their tried-and-true systems in order to fit the tropes of dungeon-crawling, and some of it is to see how the dungeon-crawling experience looks through their eyes. Also, I really like the idea of coupling a gritty tactical game system like DF to the dungeon-crawling experience. It means a very different style of resource management and encounter creation.

So, there you have it. Twelve questions, twelve answers. Thanks, Paul! I enjoyed it.

Friday, December 22, 2017

12 for 12 #11

Talk about a particular stand-out positive experience of playing (rather than running) an RPG in 2017. What was it? What was so good about it?

As I think I mentioned before, I can pretty much count the number of game sessions I played in during 2017 on one hand. So, there's not a lot to pick from. That said, I think the stand-out has to be a Savage Worlds dungeon crawl GMed by Shane Hensley at OwlCon last year. Shane and I have known each other for many years. In fact, he was the very first person to look at something I wrote and say, "Hey, this is great. Can I put it up on our website?" So he's my "first publisher." Despite our long association, we'd never had a chance to actually sit down and play a game, so when the chance came up at OwlCon, I jumped on it.

The game was a playtest of an adventure Shane's been working on to dispute the assertion that Savage Worlds isn't suitable for dungeon crawls. I played a warrior priestess and the adventure involved sea caves, fish men, and pirates. Apart from the general enjoyment of finally gaming with an old friend and the thrill of playing a game with its designer (always a hoot), there was one other rather memorable incident.

During a break in the game, I asked Shane to sign my copy of Savage Worlds Deluxe, and he happily did so, only to get a really distraught look on his face. He'd misspelled my name. And it's an out of print book that he doesn't even have extra copies of. He was embarrassed, I was amused (I'm used to people getting my name wrong). To make it up to me, he let me draw a magic item from his deck of stuff (one of his dungeon crawl mods to SW is a random deck of magic items, it's a pretty neat idea). As I was drawing, he casually mentioned there was one item in the deck he'd meant to leave out because it could seriously mess with the finale of the adventure, but it was too late now.

Guess what I drew?

It was basically a necklace of grenades.Little ceramic balls that explode on contact. It said to roll 1d4 for quantity. Four.

Sure enough, in the finale, they were super-useful, attacking the big bad and his wizard, and forcing them out of cover. And when my priestess found herself surrounded by said big bad and his minions, I waited for my turn, and then mimicked throwing the last two straight down at my feet.

The ensuing double explosion was noteworthy. And adventure-ending (and not just for my character). It seemed an appropriate punishment for getting my name wrong. :)

Wednesday, December 20, 2017

12 for 12 #10



Mobile phones and the internet in an RPG setting in the modern day world (perhaps with fantastic elements): discuss. What possibilities do they open up? What, if any, issues come with them when it comes to RPG scenarios?

The most obvious possibility is keeping the party in touch when they split up to do things, though to be honest, I've tended to use something like the magic earpieces from "Leverage" in order to keep people in touch anyway, so that really isn't much of a change-up. While it might seem counter-intuitive, the ability to stay constantly in communication can actually create tension under the right circumstances, particularly when it's suddenly cut off.

Facetime and other video chat programs are great for researchers, because the person who can actually read that weird inscription doesn't have to be present, so long as you can connect to them. Ditto copying obscure texts, etc., with your camera phone. Not to mention the amount one can look up with a smartphone and an internet connection.

Imagine a modern wizard, who keeps all of his grimoires on his iPad, accessing them through Good Reader.

Of course, the challenge to the GM is to make sure this technology doesn't turn into an "We Win!" button for the PCs. Any old hack can come up with ways to stymie technology. The trick is to do it so it seems logical and works with the story, rather than just being a petty "Rocks fall, everybody dies" moment. And this means that the GM is going to have to let the PCs have some wins with their tech, even times when it would be convenient to drop an EMP on them and fry their devices or have the 911 switchboard down.

I think the best way to handle it is to plan your adventures with the expectation that the heroes will have phones, etc. Either that, or set up some ground rules from the outset that make it difficult (like how in the Dresden Files, wizards fry any electronics more advanced than light switch. Make it so they lean into their tech so much that they have to scramble when it fails on them. Let the bad guys rely on it just as much as the heroes. Then, when they come up with ways to circumvent the bad guys' tech, take notes and use the same trick against them at a later stage.