Monday, October 22, 2012

Malign Universal: A DramaSystem Series Pitch

As I mentioned in my review of Hillfolk, I like that game’s ability to set up everything for a campaign in the form of a Series Pitch. These pitches are 2K words or shorter and have everything you need to run. The GM only has to fix a few points and choose establishing questions to put to the players. You can see a short example of one here: “Greasepaint” by Robin Laws. When Gene Ha brainstormed with me about different series pitches I drafted a quick half-dozen. Gene ultimately picked Witless Minions from that list. But I have a couple others from there I’ll eventually draft into pitches because they’re pretty interesting; at least one of them I took off the table because there was already a pitch using talking animals. I hope that once Hillfolk comes out, Pelgrane will do a contest as they did with the Vampire Conspiracies for Night’s Black Agents. Perhaps I’ll save those ideas until then. In any case, here’s an example I put together. I had to get this down on paper and fleshed out because I want to run it. This pitch is based on an approach to the Witless Minions concept which wasn’t used- almost The Office by way of Lost. Gene’s excellent approach goes in a strong and different direction (and will be illustrated!).


Malign Universal Unlimited has served the needs of masterminds, villains, and conspiracies for decades. But its labyrinthine HQ conceals the company’s own plots and secret operations. When the leader of MUU dies, minions and staff face mysteries and a power vacuum. Now they must scramble for position, security, and power even as they fend off rival organizations, dissatisfied supervillains, and diehard investigators. 

This particular set up can head in different directions. This means the GM has some decisions to make ahead of time or at least be ready to consult the players. The setting focuses on minions, a large & complex base, and a sudden power vacuum. The framework works as much as anything as a workplace drama, with the characters involved in a strange and dangerous profession. GMs will want to consider the tone of the campaign: drama vs. dramedy. The latter’s easy to fall into given the genre- but Malign Unlimited works as well with a real sense of danger and tension, counterbalanced with the absurdity of the situation.  

Three Considerations
1. The world itself is open- with the basis that large, nefarious organizations exist and have some commerce between them. Are these simply superspy groups, with plots for world conquest (like Cobra, THRUSH, Spectre; something closer to the Spycraft setting Shadowforce Archer)? Or are there perhaps weird and specialized groups in the mix as well (Spectra from Battle of the Planets, or VENOM from MASK)? What about supervillains who recruit mooks (like the Joker or the Penguin)? Are there full scale supervillain organizations which include all levels of high weirdness (Hydra, AIM, SHIELD, The Guild of Calamitous Intent; Super-Agents from Champions or Agents of Freedom from M&M)? That can directly impact the kind of characters players will choose.

2. Malign Unlimited starts with the death of The Boss- appropriately named to reflect the world chosen. Knowledge of his demise should be a dangerous thing- if it leaks without an appropriate replacement ready, more nefarious groups may swoop in for a bloody purge. That should be a looming threat and source of tension. Ideally the players should be the ones to discover the Boss’ death and choose how to deal with it. Do they keep the secret among their group and work to manipulate the company? Or do they reveal it within MUU and try to get everyone onboard for a general cover up? Another option would be to have a reluctant heir, either from among the group or as a recurring character with the dramatic struggle being about influencing them. If the Boss died violently, then the question of “Who Shot the Boss?” can linger in the background of the season. The death works as an opener, perhaps with flashbacks, or as an inevitable session closer for the first episode. 

3. Though I’ll talk more about the setting below, two main features for the story are scope and isolation. The hidden base is big enough that no one’s quite sure of the size. Sections have dropped off the maps. Rival divisions have their own physical space. Secrets have been concealed over the years. More importantly there’s a degree of isolation. That can be about the base’s location, but not necessarily. All new hires for Malign Unlimited Universal undergo the Damocles Protocol. This is a super-science treatment which essentially means if they leave the base without authorization, they will die. That can be removed or modified…by The Boss. Who is dead. At present the system can authorize leaves of only 100 hours. If the subject hasn’t returned by then, they die horribly. The time limit offers an interesting pressure for off-site episodes. The Damocles Protocol should be a carrot and a stick for the story arc- useful and dangerous to the players. The Protocol itself could be anything from a nanovirus to Rovers. If you want to emphasize this element, then the story borrows from Lost or The Prisoner. Players have a goal of figuring out a means to escape, and then deciding if they actually want to. 

The Minion genre lends itself to an absurdist approach, but it can also be serious and darker. Consider the dynamics of the TV shows MI5, Nikita, Alias, and The Prisoner. The recent film Operation: Endgame is good dark dramatic model, edged with some humor. The set up presented here- with characters isolated, perhaps looking for a way out. and seeking the secrets behind the situation owes more than a little to Lost. The organization behind the scenes in Cabin in the Woods, Syndrome’s base from The Incredibles, the facility from Lem’s Memoirs Found in a Bathtub, and the SRISW of Monday Begins on Saturday could all serve as useful inspirations. For lighter examples, consider Austin Powers, Archer, Warehouse 13, and The Venture Brothers. One of the best examples is the short film Expendable. Since the setting echoes distinct workplace dramas consider shows like ER, Chicago Hope, China Beach, and Homicide. 

Account Rep
Agent a Few Days Away from Retirement
All Knowing Secretary
Betting Pool Sensei
Bioweapons Expert
Corporate Mole
Computer AI Wrangler
Crazed Weapons Developer
Depowered Supervillain (hero)
Disillusioned Field Op
Electronic Surveillance Savant
Extraterrestrial Mind Control Dupe
Frazzled Auditor
HR Enforcer
Infected Employee
Innocent Heir Apparent
Intelligence Analyst
IT Support/Help Desk
Living Computer
Luckiest Guard
Maintenance Man
Master/Mistress of Seduction
Minion Trauma Specialist
New Recruit
Old Hand Slacker
Personal Attaché
PR Flack
Reluctant Assassin
Senile Master of Disguise
Social Engineer
Special Weapons Test Pilot
Team Leader
Test Subject
Undercover Investigator
Underqualified Faker
Unflappable Foreman
Union Rep
Unlicensed Doctor
Villain Negotiator
Weapons and Tactics Trainer 

The story takes place primarily in the secret base- a facility large enough that no one person can be certain of the layout. It is a micro-city with shops, rec areas, living quarters, and atomic incinerators. The Boss kept everything compartmentalized and separated- administratively and physically. The physical space that the story plays out in will be what players know and work in, the Central Hub. Other departments and divisions neighbor that- acting as rivals for power, resources, and office space. The nature of the base and its isolation means that everyone lives on site. Think ER, Better Off Ted, or Black Mesa from Half-Life for ideas about enclosed office environment stories.

Where the base is hidden can affect the character of the campaign- secret Arizona, the Arctic Tundra, undersea, beneath a small town. With a loose application of the Damocles Protocol, players might be able to go out and interact with environments outside. Beyond the central setting of the base is a world riven by conspiracies and fought over by masterminds. Supervillains have turned to Malign Universal Unlimited for support, equipment, and recruitment over the years. In turn, MUU has gathered secrets any one of them would kill for. Black corporate wars can be as big a threat as being hunted down by law enforcement and government super-agents. 

The players will be building the details from this basic structure. Here are some important questions the GM may want to get in front of the group early.
How does the facility maintain its isolation and security? Where is it located?
Who was The Boss?
How many departments are in the hub, the players’ section of the facility?
What neighboring divisions surround the hub?
How are those departments run? Who is in charge? What is the reporting line?
Why are those neighboring departments ‘gawdawful bastards’?
When people need to unwind, where do they go?
What big operations and projects are currently underway?
How do people get promoted? What are the reporting lines? 

The starting theme for the series is Panic. The Boss has died. That information- if and how they release it and how they spin it- will shape the story.
A New Vision
Ancient History
Blood in the Boardroom
Changed Allegiances
Cleaning Crew
Dealing with Madmen
Drumming Up Business
Earnings Statements
Employee Policies
Fly on the Wall
Keep Your Head Down
Keeping Things Quiet
Making a Living
Man vs. Machine
New Hires
Overlooked and Underestimated
Project Planning
Same as the Old Boss
Shark Tanks
Team Building
This Is Your Life

The question of control and charting the course for MUU should occupy the players significantly, regardless of which approach they’ve chosen regarding the Boss’ demise. That gives the players internal problems to deal with as well as rivalries from neighboring divisions. There’s also the question of “escape” if that’s a significant goal for some of the characters. Client demands can serve as session catalysts (see below).

But if you want a big shake up to move the plot forward, offering unexpected problems or present an “act change” consider the following: 

Episode Crisis:
  • Big and Dangerous Operation Comes Down the Pipeline
  • Bills Come Due
  • Imprisoned Superspy Escapes
  • Insane Supervillain Discovers Boss’ Death
  • Secret Security Protocols Activate
Season Threat:
  • Authorities Closing In
  • False Death of the Fearless Leader
  • Hostile Takeover
  • One of the Players Murdered the Boss
  • System Failure 

Azio Gubaidulina
Chance Abejo
Diana Nancarrow
Elijah Theodorakis
Foreman Black
Gara Yun
Hesker Smalls
Hormoz Orbón
Locksmith Mike
Maddy Serocki
Ms. White
Number D
Rodion Globokar
Rosalina Vogt
Sheridan Maw
Sofia Shinohara
The Last Magician
The Operator
Toru St. James
Wojciech Frackenpohl 

Different workplace dramas bring the problems of “clients” to the front or the back. Often a client’s request simply sets off a chain of responses or reactions within the business. “X needs Y” will end up requiring negotiations with different people. Customers may simply be difficult to deal with. Or they may have a personal connection with characters. The specifics and nature of those demands is less important that the pressure they put on the cast (Better Off Ted, ER). Other stories put those client issues at the front- driving the procedural and dramatic elements of the story (House, Mad Men). 

Client issues work best as kickers- to change up the dynamics, especially to elevate the confrontations and tensions between groups. If the players are playing smoothly and reveling in the facility’s Machiavellian intrigues, then keep the client issues to the sidelines. Off-stage cast can deal with customers. On occasion client requests can also be an excuse for introducing a new recurring character who is expert in that field. On the other hand, if players need a sharp and painful crisis, the insane demand of a powerful client can make them jump to. They have to figure out how to deal with it or who to toss under the bus. Specific client missions might require players to go off base to deal with an issue- making them race against the clock to do well and get back before their heads explode.

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