Monday, June 18, 2012

Campaigns as Projects: Superheroes Year One (Part Two)

When I’ve assembled campaigns recently I’ve tried to approach them as projects. A campaign has a timeline (estimated vs. real), people resources, availability, objectives, tasks, complications, scope, and so on. Keeping those factors in mind can keep me on track. I’m notorious for spinning games and campaigns well beyond their original conception, sometimes for good and sometimes for ill. I've introduced sub-plots at the drop of a hat, overcomplicating chaotically. It isn’t necessarily that I ought to reduce that complexity, but the complexity should match the nature of the campaign. When I introduce new wrinkles, I ought to be able to manage and track that.

When I accepted the invitation to run a G+ Supers game, I had a number of structural considerations. I talked about the set up and options in an earlier post: Plotting the G+ Campaign: Superheroes Year One (Part One).

I expect the group size to be anywhere from 5-8; we’ve ended up with six which is about the maximum I’m comfortable with . All the players have played RPGs before; two of them played Mutants & Masterminds 2e. The rest really haven’t played too much d20. That means we’ll have to get used to the rules in the first couple of sessions. It also suggests I should avoid tweaking the system. House Rules should be kept to a minimum. For their “Year One” revisionist characters, the players chose:
  • Iron Man 
  • Mister Miracle 
  • Mr. Freeze 
  • Nightcrawler 
  • Sarge Steel 
  • Thor
A couple of the players actively follow modern comics and know the classics. The rest have a decent knowledge of them; one seems to know supers primarily from other media. The split’s 50/50 DC and Marvel, so that gives me room to introduce elements from both sides of the aisle.

Sessions will probably have around three hours of playable time. That’s just a rough estimate, given my experience with the players during their MMO sessions. I’ve set a goal of 6-8 sessions. I hope that will be enough time to set up and play out a satisfying arc. Since I don’t know how regular players will be, I will try to make sessions episodic, with elements tying to the larger plot. That small number of sessions means that I’ve want to keep my focus and story pretty directed. I’ve been bouncing ideas around with Gene; he’s offered some dynamite criticisms and suggestions. I’ll have to decide if I want to make one of those elements central to this arc or save it for a later campaign (if that happens).

This will be my first stab at playing online. That means I’ll have to get comfortable with the unfamiliar tools. It also means that I’ll have to get used to the dynamics of not being f2f and dealing with multiple voices. With those kinds of barriers to communication, I want to keep the plot, premise and details tight, at least at the start. I’ll be able to judge better after a few sessions. My goal is to focus on a single interface tool: a shared map and tokens. That map will be broken into zones rather than hexes or squares to keep movement simple. I’ll be using basic maps- ideally I don’t want to spend more than a half-hour putting those together. Players can use the die roller interface or just roll and say what they get.

I want a game that allows the players the chance to play out their interpretation of classic characters. The game world should have some resonance- hence the reliance on existing characters and properties. In other contexts that might feel a little like cheating, but I hope it works here. Ideally the tone should be emulate the Justice League or JL Unlimited cartoon. That had ongoing plots, but focused on strong single episodes. Players should feel that they are the founding superteam of this world. As a meta-goal, the game should also help teach players and GM about how these tools work. All of that has to support the key goal:

A relaxed and fun chance to play an rpg with players I wouldn’t otherwise be able to game with.

Here’s the first part of the world background I sent the group:

While it may not define the beginning of the superhero age, most associate the LexCorp Bombings of 2010, aka the July 4th Attacks with the start. In the early morning a series of coordinated and devastating attacks hit dozens of corporate sites across the globe. While the attacks struck many companies, most recall the images of explosions tearing apart LexCorp’s Metropolis facilities. Despite minimal casualties, the attacks created mass evacuations, fallout, infrastructure disruptions, and long-term clean up problems. More terrifying for the public was the revelation that terror networks possessed the necessary organization and access to carry out operations on this scale. Governments clamped down with stricter security measures and carried out lightning retaliatory operations against any and all known terror assets. A pall fell over the country and the world.

Then in mid-August the first superhero appeared and the gloom lifted.

From out of the New York skies, Ms. Marvel swept down to catch a plummeting news copter. Answering no questions, she shot away at an astounding speed. Shocked witnesses could only describe her as a “blonde bombshell.” Over the next several weeks she would be seen across the city: foiling robberies, rescuing citizens from burning buildings, and tearing open wrecks to reach accident survivors. Ms. Marvel became an immediate sensation, something out of independent comic books.

But soon others would join her, not only in New York, but scattered across the globe. The floodgates had opened, and new heroes with flashy powers and wild costumes took to the streets. Nightshade and Wonder Man patrolled Los Angeles; Adam Smasher and the Blue Beetle protected Chicago; and Jack of Hearts and Nighthawk covered Metropolis. Gotham, long haunted by rumors of vigilantes and monsters, would gain its own unique hero Nightwing who used more terror than awe to stop crime. Internationally cities large and small across found themselves dealing with new costumed heroes and vigilantes. Though small in number, these heroes drew the lion’s share of public fascination and attention.

While the public generally loves the new supers, they remain fickle. Those who take the time to make themselves known and possess media savvy have become superstars. On the other hand, those shunning the spotlight or utilizing darker personas are regarded with suspicion. Heroes have emerged from many origins: self-trained experts; savants with mastery over secret arts; bizarre accident survivors; super-tech saviors. The world suddenly appeared full of more mysteries and possibilities than any could imagine. Scientists, inventors, and corporations rushed to unlock the secrets of these powers.

But not everyone embraced these new heroes. Government agencies, security specialists, and local police still regard them with suspicion. More recently two strains of anti-super sentiment have gained traction. Anti-Mutant prejudice has emerged alongside revelations about their existence. The explosion in those gifted with genetic powers has created fear and panic among conservatives and reactionaries. Parents fear what their children may become, and a desperate search for answers has gripped many. How has this happened?-- Environmental factors? Radiation? A deliberate plot? Infection? Divine Will? Many reject the idea of mutations as a natural event. An even more fringe reaction comes from those convinced that these so-called superheroes are aliens, harbingers of a secret invasion. The revelation that we are not alone in the universe upended beliefs and created panic. Heroes who claim alien ties or heritage (Ms. Martian, Nova) have been subjected to intense scrutiny.

More problematic has been the parallel rise of the “super-villain,”-- Mysterio, The Penguin, Black Knight. They arrived as well- some say in greater numbers- though little hard data exists. Some took up flashy costumes, while others opted to use their powers behind the scenes. Police and Federal Agencies have been caught off guard. Do super-heroes aid or disrupt the process of justice? Beyond the question of how to apprehend these criminals, how should they be incarcerated? What additional charges should they face? Some have suggested utilizing anti-terror legislation against them, but the push-back against that has been strong. These issues- security, weapon ownership, self-protection, citizen’s arrest, personal responsibility- have made strange bedfellows among political groups.

Many major cities have quietly established bureaus concerned with “Heightened Crime.” In some cases these police divisions have actively recruited metahumans. That represents the forward edge of thinking. Most governments and citizens have only begun to wrestle with the complex issues raised by superbeings. Questions about discrimination, insurance rates, privacy, and vigilantism are projected to become dividing lines in the next decade. As more people witness or have their lives touched- for good or ill- by superpowers the complexities can only increase.

Strangely, a positive result of their arrival has been the general upsurge in optimism. Pew Research results suggest more people, over a wider range of socioeconomic groups, feel better about the future than any time in the last several decades. The celebrity culture surrounding these figures set fire to many industries. TV shows, magazines, video games, toys, and other media devoted to them appeared overnight. From the fringe, webcircles devoted to the idea that superbeings have always secretly been among us, to the mainstream, with Booster Gold guest hosting The Today Show, supers are everywhere. Perhaps most strikingly comic books have returned to the idea of superheroes. A mainstay of comics from the 1940’s through the early 1960’s, those concepts moved aside in favor of romance, mystery, science-fiction, and dramatic comics in that decade. Since then superheroes have only been the material of independent publishers like Fantagraphics and Oni Press.


  1. Interesting. Let us know how it goes, please.

  2. I approve of this.

    *geeking out* more, please!

  3. I had a chance last night to play around with the Tabletop Forge tools a little bit more. They should be able to do what I'm hoping they will. I'll have more background and thoughts up later this week.