Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Invasions: Earth! A Microscope Supers World

Here’s the real secret of why I love Microscope for building campaign worlds. I set up a session where a bunch of players get together and build me a toy. They create a timeline and then I get the absolute pleasure of puzzling it out: looking for connections, finding interesting hooks, and shaping the pieces. I love doing that. It’s one of the most fun GMing exercises ever.

On Saturday I convinced five players from RPGGeek to build me a superhero world (Andrea G, John Campbell, Andy Hauge, Kai S., and Steve Donohue). I’ve done fantasy, steampunk, and sci-fi before with Microscope, but I hadn’t done any kind of modern setting. The intent was to have fun with Microscope, but also build a setting/background for RPG Geek’s upcoming VirtuaCon. My plan is to run three sessions, all with different systems and each taking place in a different slice of the history we built. I’ll post those event descriptions this week as well. Anyway, you can see what they crafted below- I served as facilitator and only introduced a couple of things. What I have done here is add “GM Commentary” to the material as well as dates. These are marked in red.

Today we’ll be using Microscope to build a history which includes superheroes, with the goal of creating something GMs can run in. Here are some guidelines to think about- and a brief overview of the process. If you haven’t played Microscope before, it is pretty easy- and I’m using a modified and even easier approach. For the session I have a couple of structural rules:
  • We’re building a history to run games in. We’ll want to keep that front and center in our thinking. What does that mean? That we probably shouldn’t blow up the world at the end, unless we want something post-apocalyptic for some play. That at least some people should have access to super-powers. A world with animals being the only ones with powers would be cool, but less playable for my intentions.
  • We’re going to assume an alternate Earth, modified by our changes. The modern or semi-modern period should be at playable (i.e. have some kinds of supers existing then).
With that in mind, we have two things to think about- big issues that affect our history
1. How long a span of time do we wish to cover? That doesn’t necessarily mean how long supers have been around, but how we want to set the timeline. It could be centuries, decades, or a year. We’ll probably have to decide this before we begin. We selected the beginning of the 20th Century as the starting point and somewhere in the 22nd Century as the end point.

2. The source of powers. Is there one source for powers? Are there multiple sources? Are there two competing sources? Is there a single origin point for powers? (an event). The big two (Marvel & DC) go for a cornucopia of power sources, but comics and games don’t. Think about what’s most interesting to you- if you have a cool concept, we can bat that around at the start. We opted to have this emerge in play. As you’ll see we developed at least three distinct power sources, though if you look closely you’ll see a common connection. We didn’t address the question of magic- whether it exists or not is an remains open. I suspect we can only assume that if it does, it has had little impact or kept itself supremely quiet.

  1. A History of Alien Invasions
  2. Inner Solar Exploration/Moonbase
  1. No conventional Terran FTL
  2. No super-powering nanotechnology
  3. No alternate/mutidimensional stuff
  4. No extraterrestrial superheroes show up on Earth
  5. No spandex costumes for Supers
Special Note: Microscope discusses avoiding time travel. That’s a common element for supers settings. We opted to leave the question open. But we decided that at least at this point this is the timeline- and one which has a certain amount of inertia.

Round One: Focus: The Transantlantic League   Legacy: Dynamo Girl
Round Two: Focus: Moonbase   Legacy: Brakh-Tor
Round Three: Focus: The World Government   Legacy: Kansegu Contamination
Round Four: Focus: The Mutant Threat   Legacy: The Iron Gale
Round Five: Brakh-Tor   Legacy: Yogi Hari Helagard V

PERIOD ONE: The Third Kansegu Invasion: 1909-1918
At the dawn of the 20th Century the Kansegu arrive and forever change the world. (L)

Oddly no one added anything to this first period, which leaves it wide open to my interpretation. Here’s some things I’ve been thinking about. In the “Add” list, we have a history of alien invasions. I love the concept of that happening throughout the centuries. Small invasions from different alien races- each turned back by plucky humans in different parts of the world. So that probably allowed for strange advancements in science and technology, but in pockets that only slightly affected overall development. I imagine we could tell stories about Chinese Wulin warriors taking down Attack Shuttles of the Hezcari or the Aztecs being slightly better prepared for Cortez’ arrival given that a half century earlier they’d fought off a Reptoid Strike Force.

We also know this was the third Kansegu invasion, suggesting two earlier attempts. In this case I picture the human-like Kansegu playing things more carefully. Their earlier arrivals would likely have faded into myth somewhat. So- per a suggestion by Steve Donohue- this time they arrive slightly disguised, offering gifts, and pitting nations against one another. Most importantly they take advantage of the Great War to finally carry out their attacks.

PERIOD TWO: The World Unites: 1919-1925 
World governments come together as they realize no single power can resist the Kansegu. (L)

It is notable in this history that superbeings seem to have existed earlier. Or at least no one added a “first appearance of superbeings” point. So I’m going to assume they existed before this, with perhaps the Great War being a crucible for them ala Godlike. We also don’t have a specific “origin” for Superbeings (as opposed to Mutants which we’ll see a little later in the history). So I’m going to set that there’s some debate, but that it might connect up to one of the earlier alien incursions. Perhaps some kind of viral weapon gone awry, genetic experimentation, or latent cross-time energies.

Event: The Transatlantic League is Formed: A team of superpowered individuals from both hemispheres forms to repel the Kansegu. (L)
  • Question: Why did Dynamo Girl refuse to join the League? Answer: Dynamo Girl refused to join the League because her powers were “a gift” from the Kansegu.  (D)
Event: The Transpacific League is formed and immediately become rivals with the Transatlantic League.  They are mostly heroes from Asia and the Pacific Islands. They pursue the same goals, but are offended by the western politics of Transatlantic League. (L) This is especially interesting given the geopolitical situation of the 1920’s. It also allows me to imagine a very different roll out to colonial ambitions in China and the whole of Asia. Of course there’s still Japanese aggression to consider.

Event: End of the 3rd Kansegu Invasion. Facing attacks on two fronts, the Kansegu retreat to the stars leaving behind Kansegu wreckage. (L)

Event: The Starfaring Interdiction:  After abandoning their plans to expand to Earth, the Kansegu tell other star-faring races that the primitive earthlings can’t handle their presence and will mutate rapidly in the presence of advanced energy sources (L)This suggests that either the Kansegu used this as a ploy or they weren’t certain about the source of Superbeings.

Event: Doctor Helagard’s Discovery: Helagard manages to salvage enough Kansegu technology to create a viable spacecraft in 1921. (L)

Event: While trying to eliminate the strange Kansegu energy remaining on earth, Nikola Tesla finds a way to harness and cast it into space. The energy travels faster than light, it in fact appears before it left earth, but has changed and somehow become a new life form, the Brakh-Tor. There is still Kansegu energy on earth. (D) So here’s a time-travel bit within the history which will come back to shape the timeline, since the Brakh-Tor emerge as a foe to the Kansegu later.

PERIOD THREE: The Mutations Begin: 1926-1953
Ambient energy from the Kansegu invasion gradually manifests as bizarre powers in select individuals (D)

Here’s a great moment to think about- and I wish I also had a version of this history in the order elements were added. But we already have Superbeings with amazing powers. Now we have Mutants, also with powers. Given people’s reaction, they’re clearly distinct and for the most part people can tell the difference between them. We didn’t define this, so I’m going to fill in the blanks here.

Mutants have strong physical changes: size, skin color, growths, etc. Some might remain hidden by having non-visible physical transformations: two hearts, empowered brain tumors, eight toes, etc. The ambient energy of Kansegu somehow interacts with their genetics and causes the Mutant transformations. Given that the one mutant we see mentioned gains powers appropriate to their background, we can assume that this holds true across the group. So Mutations happen later in life- often post puberty; they almost always create visible physical transformations; and they gift bearers with powers related to their experience, interests or personality.

Event: Tesla Joins the League: Nikola Tesla, exhibiting electro-generating mutations, joins the Transatlantic League (L)
  • Question: Who was most vehemently opposed to the addition of a mutant to the League’s roster? Answer: Thomas Alva Edison, who thought Tesla stole his ideas. (L)
  • Question: What did Edison do that will start the Supers War? Answer: Thomas Alva Edison hired The Blue Shadow to murder Nikola Tesla, but was caught in the act and subsequently rose to power in the Anti-Mutant League. (D) This is interesting in that it is a question about a question- and in looking back I might have suggested the author move that to an event, since it suggests a concrete occurrence. It also slightly contradicts an event in the later period- I will figure out how both these can be true.
Event: Dynamo Girl protests at the UN and gives a speech famously saying “We’re all mutants.” (L) We can assume this comes at the tail end of this period, following some version of World War Two and the founding of the UN.

PERIOD FOUR: The Supers Wars: 1954-1965
“Mutants” and superpowered individuals fight each other for supremacy. (D)

Event:  The blast heard ‘round the world.  The Blue Shadow, a hero who is actually a policeman, is killed by a mutant when he tries to break up the first ever bank robbery by mutants.  Other superheroes react violently and the war begins. (D)

Event: Robberies with Brains. The Iron Gale steals Nikola Tesla’s brain. (L)

Event:  Chancellor Grundig of the World Government is revealed to be a “mutant” and is accused of using his powers to direct the World Government. (D) So at some point, the UN switches from a general body to a World Government. We can assume that’s an outgrowth of reconstruction following WW2, perhaps an unmentioned alien invasion, more sophisticated technologies arising from repeated alien contact, and the rise of Mutants and Superbeings.
  • Question: Why did Chancellor Grundig strike a deal with Kansegu sleeper agents? Answer: Chancellor Grundig felt that the mutants were outgunned and hoped that the sleeper agents would be able to gift some of his selected cronies with powers in the same way they had gifted Dynamo Girl with hers. (D)
Event: Kansegu sleeper agents accelerate mutations in large population centers. (D)
The existence of Kansegu sleepers is what makes me think that they’re either reasonably humanoid or have some methods for passing as humans.

Event:  The world government, fearing the outcome of the Supers Wars, accelerates plans to create a colony on the moon where neither mutants nor supers are allowed. (L)
  • Question: How do they keep the supers out? Answer: With the help of Aura reading. (D) This offers an interesting hook- we know that Mutants arise from the effects of Kansegu energies. Perhaps there’s some energy field associated with Superbeings. I think this Aura device must do most than just read auras. It must be able to affect or manipulate them.
Event:  Former Secret Police officer Vladimir P. Uvolnikov stages a coup d’etat and ousts the rightful World Government in 1961. (D)
  • Question: What happened to the members of the rightful government after they were imprisoned on the moonbase?  Answer: A public trial was held with a pre-determined verdict of guilty.  The members of the rightful government were sentenced to death.  (D)
PERIOD FIVE: Solar Expansion: 1966-1980
Earth starts establishing space stations in the solar system. (L)

This is a short period (with only one event), but I love it. I love the idea of Earth colonies and exploration in the near solar system- all with a 1970’s vibe.

Event: Mutant Space Pirates start raiding the Space Stations located in the Solar System. Their powers allow them to travel space without ships and make them almost untraceable. (D)
  • Question: Why did the Mutant Space Pirates draw the attention of the Brakh-Tor? Answer: The Kansegu managed to find the hidden bases of the Mutant Space Pirates and destroyed almost all of them. The Mutant Space Pirates needed help and enlisted the help of the sworn blood enemies of the Kansegu: the dreaded Brakh-Tor! (DUN-DUN-DUNNNNNNH) (L)
PERIOD SIX: The “Mutant” Purge: 1981-1992
“Mutants” are suppressed by the world governments, hunted down and put into “ghettos”. (D)

Event: War: The Transatlantic League stop all but one of the nuclear missiles released by the Iron Gale.  (D)
  • Question: What was the Iron Gale’s true intent?  Answer: To assess and track the ability of superbeings to respond to a threat quickly. She compiled data on response times that served her well over the next decade for crimes and thefts. (D)
Event: The Purity Act: The World Congress passes the Purity Act to restrict the rights of “Mutants” while simultaneously revoking the status of League Members. (D)
  • Question: Why is the Earth now considered the “ghettos” by the world government? Answer: it is the only place in the Solar System that is contaminated by the Kansegu’s presence. (D) Which suggests extra-planetary bases and locations for the rich and elite, ala Elysium.
Event: Establishment of the Earth Armored Forces. Fearing retaliation the superpowered community establishes the EAF to police the world’s mutants. The main relay is controlled by the humanity coalition on the moon. (D) I added the definite article to clear that up, but I may be misreading the intent of the sentence.
  • Question: How did the EAF accidentally draw the attention of the Brakh-Tor? By putting nuclear fission engine on the moon it was a beacon to other space faring alien races. (D)
Event: Destruction of the World Government. In the wake of the Mutant Purges, a massive bombing caused by the superpowered people kills all members of the World Government and Congress while in session. (L)
  • Question: How did the superpowered people manage to bypass all security systems protecting the government? Answer: Partially, it was a matter of using their powers, but mostly it was accomplished through social means -- guards were paid not to look at monitors, scanning equipment was sabotaged, etc.  Not everyone was happy with the Mutant Purge and enough blamed the World Congress that they were vulnerable to a coordinated attack.  (L)

PERIOD SEVEN: Useful Freaks: 1993-2026
“Mutants” can regain the rights to live in society by fighting against the Kansegu. (L)

So here we probably have an unmentioned fourth Kansegu invasion or assault. Given that humanity’s spread out in the solar system (complete with space pirates) I like to imagine the Kansegu operating more like Zoltar and Spectra from Battle of the Planets. Note the word "can" in the description, which suggests military service in exchange for citizenship. 

Event: Moonbase Abandoned: After serving as the staging ground for the final battle against the Brakh-Tor Invasion Fleet, the moonbase is abandoned after taking heavy damage. (D)
  • Question: How was the Moonbase used as a weapon by the invaders against Earth forces? Answer: The Moonbase had the central relay station for the Earth Power-Armored Forces. The Brakh-Tor seized the base briefly and used them against the Earth’s heroes.
PERIOD EIGHT:  Peace and Prosperity: 2027-2112
With the differences between the supers, humans, and mutants temporarily worked out, the world becomes a very “Star Trek” sort of place. (L)

Event: Superpowers for all! Yogi Hari Helagard V learns the secret science of the Brakh-tor and teaches the masses to achieve super powers through inner enlightenment. (L)
  • Question: How did Hari learn the secret science of the Brakh-Tor?  Answer: When the Brakh-Tor left the moon, they took a few humans with them.  Hari Helegard’s mother was among them and he was raised in Brakh-Tor society.  (L) As you’ll see this is a pivotal shift in the history. It also introduces a third set of people with super-powers- some kind of mental training to manipulate energies. We can call these Chi or Inner-Psychic Powers.
Event: Agents of the long-defunct World Congress seek to disrupt trade lines between the Earth and its near space colonies.  They are successful enough to be a nuisance. (D)

Event: While the people of Earth enjoy their peace, prosperity, and replicator machines, the Brakh-Tor realize that the Kansegu have transformed the earthling from easy pickings to a difficult target.  Thinking they have done it deliberately, they launch a massive invasion destroying most of the Kansegu. (L) Which is ironic given that the Brakh-Tor themselves were created from Kansegu energy fired back in time by Tesla. It sounds goofy, but this part is particularly horrible as the Kansegu essentially created a weapon which ended up destroying their own people.

ERA NINE: The Kansegu Exodus: 2112 onwards
Earth must deal with the Kansegu survivors’ arrival at the end of the 22nd Century. (D)

Event: Preparation: Sleeper agents around the Earth have their Kansegu “gifts” When the awakened in preparation for the survivors’ arrival. (D)
  • Question: How do they destabilize the Earth’s defenses? Answer: Lord Vrosk, Leader of the Kansegu sleeper agents, develops the power to cause tectonic shifts and knocks earth off of it's axis. The satellite based early warning system spins out into orbit, so they have no notice of the oncoming attack and the damage takes the attention of superpowered individuals.
Event: Puppet Government: Kansegu agents seize control of the World Government by installing one of their own, Yogi Hari Helagard V, as Chancellor. (D)

Event: The Kansegu Make Landfall: The Kansegu colonization ships make landfall en masse. (D)

Event: Suck it up! Yogi Hari Helagard V comes up with a way to use the Brakh-Tor, beings made of pure energy, as new energy sources. Problem is, it sucks them dry completely. (L)

Event: Police State: Yogi Hari Helagard V establishes a police state for the “protection” of the people and re-enacts the Purity Act with Kansegu-friendly clauses. (D) Which seems like a great place to have a campaign- with a group of Legion of Superhero-like youths trying to find a way to fight back against the Dictator Helagard and his personal guard of loyal Chi-Powered Supers.