Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Raiding the Relaunch for RPG ideas: DC's New 52

So today Project Superman #1 hits the stores. That’s part of the DC Flashpoint event, which showcases an Elseworlds-like setting across many titles. At some point I’ll take a more serious look at superhero rpg settings and alternate settings. Today I want to look at what comes after Flashpoint and tie this slightly into my post from yesterday on RPG Reboots.

And I want people to go out to their local comic shops and buy a copy of Project Superman #1 (since I wrote it).

The Shiny, Candy-Like Reset Button
If you’re a comic fan, you probably already know that DC will be relaunching the DC Universe in September with some significant changes to the continuity. This isn’t going to restart everything at "Year One" or make the kinds of sweeping changes which Crisis on Infinite Earths did. Instead, they’re retooling the line, cleaning up some problematic moments, keeping what they like, trying to appeal to a target demographic, giving Batgirl back the use of her legs and so on. It will be interesting to see how this comes out of Flashpoint. I don’t think I’m giving anything away by saying that some of the FP creative didn’t know the big picture about the changes. Gene Ha’s said as much before- we knew that things would be falling out of these books, some changes and some new characters, but we weren’t told exactly how. We just had to build the best story we could within the constraints of this setting. In some ways, writing like this with a number of beats and details already set down for you is like running a game in someone else’s setting.

DC Adventures?
Yesterday I talked about reboots within RPG lines- more specifically pointing out games which had taken on relaunches or reboots (hard or soft) as a chance to change up the game. The new DC line will be coming out of the gate with 52 new #1 titles, plus the Vertigo titles and a few books which will be holding over or wrapping up (like Batman, Inc IIRC). You can find a good, full listing of those books here. As I mentioned in the list, it does make me wonder how Green Ronin plans to approach this. They did a smart thing and have suggested that there are several possible versions of the DC characters. That may allow them to adjust to everything. But DC Adventures Heroes & Villains, Vol. I will be coming out soon, just a couple of months before everything changes. Will we see a Flashpoint sourcebook? Will there be an update book for the new continuity? I can’t imagine they could even think about something like that until the books have been out and rolling for at least a year, and AKAIK those are still being written.

DC's New 52
That aside, I wanted to pull out from the new DC relaunch titles those I found interesting, less as comics, but as ideas for new or revisited directions in Superhero gaming. That’s probably my favorite genre to run in, after fantasy. So let’s take a look at a few titles and see what we can make of them.

Demon Knights
Blurb: Set in the Dark Ages of the DC Universe, a barbarian horde is massing to crush civilization. It’s fallen to Madame Xanadu and Jason Blood, the man with a monster inside him, to stand in their way...though the demon Etrigan has no interest in protecting anyone or anything other than himself! It’ll take more than their own power to stop an army fueled by bloodlust and dark sorcery, and some very surprising heroes...and villains...will have no choice but to join the fray!

Here we have a superhero comic set in the Dark Ages. DC has an interesting line up of characters from that era (Shining Knight, Klaw, Beowulf, etc) so it will be interesting to see them dip into that well. It does suggest possibilities for a pretty distinct supers campaign. On the one hand, you could do a straight supers in a Medieval (I’ll use that term generically). Of course, by supers, I don’t mean four-color characters in suits and capes. These characters would have to be distinct kinds of wizards, powerful specialty warriors, or creatures out of myth. In some ways, that’s pretty much like your classic adventuring party. I can imagine using a version of Ars Magica or Pendragon for the background. Given the limits I think you’d end up with something like a League of Extraordinary Gentlemen (or The Kerberos Club) for the period.

And I’m not sure what you’d gain in terms of play. Historical games already have a tough buy in for players, who often worry about their grasp of the period. The campaign concept would have a high-magic feel, but I wonder if that wouldn’t be better serve by just having a straight fantasy game. I have two ideas I would run. First, adapt Scion to the period. That provides a strong and coherent background for the PCs and connects to a classic logic. The players would be Children of the Gods not only having to deal with their new natures, but having to keep that hidden from superstitious outsiders. You could play off of the idea that the period marks the decline of worship for the parents of these gods (you’d probably want to stick with the Celtic, Norse, Greek and maybe Egyptian pantheons). It makes sense historically and could work. Another alternative would be a Mage the Sorcerers Crusade campaign (later than MA obviously). The PCs could act as a roving band of magical troubleshooters ala something like the X-Men. You’d put the Order of Reason in the background, making them like the various Anti-Mutant campaigners and such.

Frankenstein, Agent of SHADE
Blurb: It’s Frankenstein as you’ve never seen him before, in a dark new series from acclaimed writer Jeff Lemire (SWEET TOOTH) and artist Alberto Ponticelli (UNKNOWN SOLDIER)! Frankenstein is part of a network of strange beings who work for an even stranger government organization: The Super Human Advanced Defense Executive! But can he protect the world from threats even more horrifying than himself? And since he’s vilified for who and what he is, will he even want to take on this mission?

OK, so your immediate reaction may be- "I read that before when it was called Hellboy." However this version of Frankenstein comes out of a Grant Morrison mini-series originally, which was filled with high weirdness. If they can keep that up- maintain the strangeness of Morrison’s Doom Patrol or The Invisibles in this book, then it might work. If they just make it a Hellboy clone, it will be less interesting. The one thing they do have going for them is that this takes place within a superhero universe. Why do they rely on these characters over conventional heroes? Why would they avoid the sight of mainstream supers? Those questions could provide the seed for some cool stories.

How would that work for a superhero campaign? Perhaps there’s some kind of corruption or bleed tied up with the supernatural monsters? Perhaps it is like an Esoterrorists campaign where the bad guys want more attention and stories to come out of the events. In that case, they’d want standard supers to steer clear of things, to avoid them mucking things up or spreading taint. I can imagine a Booster Gold-like figure who keeps getting in the PC’s way. The player characters would be oddball, monstrous or actively supernatural heroes. They’d be expendable and secret. On the other hand, you could also just run this as a straight Hellboy campaign. There’s already a sourcebook out there for it and the concepts could easily be adapted over to any flexible system (Savage Worlds, Mutants and Masterminds). Rippers already does something pretty close to this.

Justice League Dark
Blurb: The witch known as The Enchantress has gone mad, unleashing forces that not even the combined powers of Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman and Cyborg can stop. And if those heroes can’t handle the job, who will stand against this mystical madness? Shade the Changing Man, Madame Xanadu, Deadman, Zatanna and John Constantine may be our only hope...but how can we put our trust in beings whose very presence makes ordinary people break out in a cold sweat?

So you may notice a trend for the oddball and supernatural in these items. This book appeals to me because it just seems so bizarre. Peter Milligan’s writing it, and I loved X-Statix. Plus it seems to have some really nice ties to the Flashpoint: Secret Seven. For a campaign, you could simply use what I mentioned above- a team dedicated to keeping regular supers away from incidents they couldn’t handle or which would corrupt them.

But another thing does suggest itself, a superhero world where all super powers derive from magic. We’ve certainly seen the opposite case: Paragons, for example, sets things up to have a more natural explanation (though you could have magic there).Wild Cards has a purely scientific explanation. I’ve run a couple of campaigns where all powers came from genetic or technological sources. Even where there was "magic" it had an alternate explanation based in reality manipulation and super-science. The Wildstorm Universe takes this approach (especially when Warren Ellis writes it). But imagine a world where every superhero or villain had a magical origin?

They wouldn’t have to be from the same tradition, you could have children of the gods, weird Unknown Armies-style denial magic, a guy wielding a magic ring, a cursed undying person, and a Voudun Priest in the same group. It would take some thought to really get that mish-mash to fit together, but if you think about DC or Marvel they both have that kind of strange amalgam, but they also have non-magic supers. Another alternative, and I think I have to credit Ken Hite with this one, would be a Mage the Ascension campaign, where the players’ magical talents manifested as superpowers. They could be actively be subverting the Technocracy’s paradigm through the belief in superheroes, perhaps setting up an "Event" to explain their creation. On the other hand, they might instead be PC unaware of the nature of their abilities as magic, uncovering that only later. In that case, you’d probably want to dial back the paradox rules.

Stormwatch
Blurb: They are Stormwatch, a dangerous super human police force whose existence is kept secret from the world Directly following the ominous events of SUPERMAN #1, Adam One leads half the Stormwatch team to recover something (or someone) from deep in the Himalayas. Meanwhile, Jack Hawksmoor and the rest of the Stormwatch crew look to recruit two of the deadliest super humans on the planet: Midnighter and Apollo! And if they say no? Perhaps the Martian Manhunter can change their minds...

Stormwatch comes out of the Wildstorm universe which is being folded into this one. There’s some debate about how well that will work (Links). In the original books, Stormwatch started as a kind of Justice League, then became a global police force, then turned evil and blew up, and then got reworked as a kind of police to superheroes. I enjoyed several of those versions. This new one has some appeal- the concept of a secret group policing the superhuman community has a good deal of appeal. Some of the other new books coming out share that premise a little. Suicide Squad, O.M.A.C., and Grifter all echo that. I’ve always pictured Grifter as the guy who keeps other super-creep in check, but I’ll admit to not following him that well. He falls into that category of super-competent killers that I find annoying (Punisher, Deathstroke, even Wolverine).

So the two main premises, secrecy and super-policing can be done separately or together in a campaign. A game where the group has to keep their existence secret could have some really interesting implications. Perhaps they’re part of a Conspiracy X, MiB, or Delta Green style group that has to operate below the radar to avoid general panic. Or perhaps they have major enemies who would squash them if they ever popped up visibly, like The Runaways. To go back to the classics, a Watchmen-style game where superhero-dom is illegal could give rise to a great and tense street-level campaign. Especially in our modern surveillance society- how would you keep your activities secret, how could you avoid being tracked and spotted?

Super-policing, on the other hand, requires an established setting. The players need to have a buy in to get a handle on what’s going on. So I’d run something like that in an established setting (the DC or Marvel Universe) or else in a setting I’ve already established in a campaign. For example, a couple of years ago I ran my Bloodlines campaign, a short series showcasing the setting. I’d love to go back and revisit that, perhaps with a PC group tasked with keeping rogue or outlaw superheroes off the reservation. It would not be as dark as The Boys, but would have the PCs digging into the secrets of villains and heroes. I should say that Mutant City Blues gets around the need for an established setting to work from. The Quade Diagram of MCB gives players an easy and tangible way to picture the superpowers. Combine that with the easy buy-in of a straight police game and it works.

SHORT THOUGHTS

All-Star Western: I like the Wild West heroes of the DC Universe (Jonah Hex, Batlash, Vigilante, Diablo, Scalphunter, etc). I just watched a Justice League Unlimited episode which used several of them. having a group of highly trained and masked vigilantes could be a really great approach to a Wild West game. Otherwise the genre leaves me cold. I want to check out the setting material from This Favored Land, which does Wild WestW with actual superpowers.

Legion Lost: Time-traveling superheroes from the future get trapped in our present. They have to figure out what went wrong. I like that concept. I don’t know how you’d translate that to a campaign. Kenny pulled an interesting version of this a bit ago when he ran a WW2 Supers campaign. However the WW2 setting was vastly different, with the Axis having won. One of the PCs was a time-traveler from the future who had come back to put right the changes. In fixing the situation, the rest of the party undid their own history. In some cases, they would never have become heroes...great stuff at the table.

Legion of Super-Heroes/Green Lantern Corps: These are both classic titles just getting reset to #1. In the Legion, they’re focusing on the Legion Academy which seems like a good choice. School-based games work well. But generally thinking about these makes me realize that I’ve never been able to wrap my head around a future, sci-fi, or space based supers campaign. I’ve made a couple of passes at that with mixed success. The best I ever managed was a near-future cyberpunk campaign with superheroes.

Batman, Inc: This isn’t getting relaunched, as I understand it, but will wrap up its twelve issue arc naturally. Essentially, Batman has recruited heroes in various nations as the "batman" of their respective area. I like the idea of franchised heroes, especially with a character as iconic as Batman. That could serve as nice origin/background for a PC. I did a version of the franchised superteam in a short campaign in which the PCs were recruited by a city as the local supergroup after the previous one vanished mysteriously. They had to balance crime-fighting, publicity and local events. And, of course, they had to figure out what happened to the other group...