Superheroes Tips Series Part 2: Super Tips For Beginners
From Mark L. Chance
Roleplaying Tips Newsletter #487
- Define The Genre
- Plot and Subplot
- Issues, Cut-Scenes, and Cliffhangers
- Say Yes
- Campaign Jumps Shark in Second Session
- Great Gaming Magazines
- Create A Motive
- Choose Availability and Utility
- Pay The Cost
- Determine Amount of Help
- Additional Rules
- You Write, But You’re Not THE Writer
- You Act, But You’re Not the Star
- You Are a Lot Like a Producer
- You ARE the Director
You can’t run a superhero game and not read comic books. Better yet, read comic books that feature superhero teams.
The best one to start with is DC’s Justice Society of America. This series features consistently good characterization, interesting plots, great villains, and has decades of history behind it.
Head to a comic book shop and browse around. Find an issue that grabs your attention and fits your image of what you want your game to be. Buy it and steal ideas shamelessly. If you can afford it, buy a copy for each of your players.
But what about superhero movies? Avoid most of them for game ideas. Why? Most aren’t team-focused.
Spider-Man 2 might be a great superhero movie, but a superhero RPG session? Not so much. Even the team movies aren’t all they’re cracked up to be.
Define The Genre
How do we define the superhero genre? Do we go Bronze Age? Fill our games with Silver Age camp? How about the post- modern Iron Age with ubiquitous cigar-chomping feral slashers?
Do your supers wear flashy costumes, do they kill people, and do they face real world issues with ambiguity and cynicism?
Everyone has their preferences, and its time to let mine show: superheroes don’t kill people. They can be all edgy and angst-ridden, but they don’t kill people.
Batman is a superhero. The Punisher is a murderer. Superheroes stand for Truth, Justice, and Some Sort of Ideal Way. The Avengers are superheroes. The Watchmen are not, and they deserved to be mistrusted and reviled.
I cannot emphasize this too much: set the parameters for acceptable superhero behavior before the characters ever get made.
With parameters set, do not permit into your game characters that as a rule deviate from that acceptable superhero behavior. When superheroes do deviate, ensure there are in- game consequences that fit your parameters.
Failure to get everyone on-board with how the genre is defined for your game can end the campaign. I’ve seen it happen. I played a 2nd edition DC Heroes campaign while stationed in Hawaii. It was very much a Justice League style campaign. One player just didn’t get it that lying, cheating, stealing, and ordering contract killings against bad guys was a no-no.
When his hero’s villainy was revealed, my hero thrashed him and turned him into the police. The rest of the group voted him off the team. The player got all bent out of shape, and we ended up playing something else.
The best way to stay in-genre is to get everyone to agree ahead of time what the genre is and to play accordingly.
Plot and Subplot
Good comic books are about more than just the heroes versus the villains. They’re also about the characters, both in costume and out. Include these aspects in your games.
Here’s where you get to put your players to work for you.
All superheroes must have an origin story. This origin story includes friends, family and rivals. Most superheroes also have a day job.
An integral part of the superhero genre is figuring out how to save the city, pay the bills, and make sure you don’t stand up Mary Jane yet again.
Along with the mandatory origin story, have each player provide you with one or more subplots they want to see integrated into the game. Then, integrate them. When you’re close to having used up all of the subplots, ask for more.
I recommend a 3:1 split between superhero action and superhero character exploration.
For example, I had a short-lived Mutants & Masterminds campaign in which one superhero was a misfit, rebellious late-teen girl with awesome powers. To do the hero thing, she would sneak out of the house, lie to her parents about going places, and so on. However, her parents weren’t nearly as clueless as most teenagers think their parents are.
Enter a subplot! Two of the players took on the roles of the girl’s parents. Another took on the role of a therapist. We spent about fifteen minutes of game time with an ad-libbed family intervention. Everyone still got to play, and one player got to be the center of attention.
Don’t forget your villains. They can have subplots too. One of my more memorable recurring bad guys from back in the day playing TSR’s Marvel Super Heroes was an electrical merc called Volt. No matter what, Volt honored his contracts. I knew why, even though no player ever found out.
Volt grew up in a Mafia family, and he saw too many friends and relatives gunned down by supposed allies. All the talk about loyalty was just talk, and Volt decided he’d be something else: a villain with integrity. This quirk made Volt ruthlessly efficient.
It also proved a pivotal moment in one story arc when the heroes revealed to Volt that his employer planned on betraying him. For at least that one epic battle, Volt fought with the heroes rather than against them.
Issues, Cut-Scenes, and Cliffhangers
Divide your game sessions into issues. Each issue should focus on a specific, defined story (for one session stories) or one part of a story arc (for multi-session stories).
The 5 Room Dungeon format is great for this sort of plotting. Think of each 5 Room Dungeon as a single issue. Insert subplots and cut-scenes between the “rooms” and then tack on a cliffhanger. http://www.roleplayingtips.com/articles/5_room_dungeons.html
A cut-scene is a break from the main action that advances the story. Don’t forget the “Meanwhile…” moments. Work cut-scenes into your adventures.
How about an example? I ran a Mutants & Masterminds event at a local convention a few years ago. The adventure started with a cut-scene. Each player was given an NPC scientist to roleplay during a celebration for a major research breakthrough. Time was given for some ad-libbing. Then, the villains attacked.
The players got to try out some of the combat rules, but the villains didn’t stand a chance of losing. After the last scientist was down, the cut-scene “faded to black” and the heroes arrived at the ransacked laboratory to investigate.
Later on, when those scientists turned up as mutated villains themselves, the cut-scene had already established those NPCs as integral to the story.
End every issue with a cliffhanger. This is a teaser that gets the game started fast next time. The cliffhanger can be as simple as the sudden arrival of an NPC.
I ended one game session after the heroes had discovered the villain Mindbend had telepathically learned all about their various secret identities. The cliffhanger was Mindbend calling one of the heroes and saying, “It looks like those front stairs are bothering your mother’s arthritis today.”
One of my more frustrating moments as a player in a superhero game was a GM telling me my ice generating hero couldn’t use his powers to help put out a fire because I “didn’t spend any points on a fire-effect nullification power.” Talk about breaking the genre!
Superheroes get to do amazing things. Embrace this in your game. If Ice Dude wants to use his powers to help put out a fire, let him at least try.
The fire’s going to get put out one way or another. Why not let the superheroes be, well, heroic? That’s certainly a lot more satisfying (and genre-worthy) than Ice Dude and Friends standing around while you describe how NPC fire fighters show up and deploy their hoses.
Most superhero RPGs have some sort of mechanic for doing amazing things: hero points, power stunts, karma, pushing a power. Make good use of these as a reward for genre-worthy creativity, but make sure everyone realizes there are limits.
Can Super Dude crush a piece of coal so hard it makes a diamond that he can give to his sweetheart? Sure. Can he hook chains up to Manhattan Island and haul it back into place? Well, that’s been done before, but it was really kind of silly.
A Brief Word from Johnn
Campaign Jumps Shark in Second Session
Jumping The Shark is a phrase that indicates something has gone to a goofy extreme. As an homage to that, in the second session of my new Pathfinder campaign as my group switched from D&D 4E, I ran a special encounter.
The PCs were en route to a warehouse to investigate missing beggar children. They interrupt sahuagin attacking the beggarmaster on a wharf. A difficult battle ensues, and at one point one of the sea devils summons a dire shark.
I ruled the shark had enough speed and distance to make a charge by leaping out of the water, flying through the air, and getting a vicious bite attack against the raging barbarian.
Unfortunately, I rolled a one and the shark slammed into the pier instead. Ah well. It was worth a try, right?
A funny aspect of my D&D group is we always get a tossed salad of PCs. Weird personalities plus a mix of classes, races and styles gives you only something a three-year-old armed with metallic Crayolas could conjure up.
Despite my failed attempt, I promise you, some day one of my sharks *will* jump the PCs.
Great Gaming Magazines
I mourned the loss of the print version of Dungeon and Dragon, as that format works for me and how I like to read and use game materials.
However, Derek Carmichael recently wrote me with this short tip:
While not a free resource, every issue of Knights of the Dinner Table magazine has a section titled ‘Bait and Tackle’ which generally has 4-7 encounter ideas.
Great callout, Derek. I have had a subscription to Knights of the Dinner Table since March and love it. I devour the comics and then the game master content.
I also get Kobold Quarterly magazine. It has articles and content I find useful every issue, and I’ve been a subscriber for over a year now.
So, if you are like me and at a bit of a loss since the two mainstays of the hobby have gone digital, you have two great options I heartily recommend.
A System for Handling Allies and Contacts
From Loz Newman
To simplify the running of Allies and Contacts, I’ve evolved a simple system to let players know what a new Ally/Contact might cost their player character to acquire for a given investment of experience points.
This system also ensures the players don’t write back- stories full of high-powered NPCs who will fly to their help at the drop of a hat, or start badgering NPCs into giving more help than their in-game efforts merit.
The system does encourage them, however, to roleplay with NPCs to gain their aid on a regular basis.
Create A Motive
First, players furnish a reason the NPC is so impressed or obligated that he becomes a constant source of aid.
This can be as simple as a player asking, “Can I take NPC X as a Contact, since I got on with him so well?” at the end of a gaming session, provided they maintain the good relations with the NPC.
Note that repaying favors is just a one-off affair, and costs the PC nothing except the in-game effort of acquiring the favor owed.
NPCs might have reasons to refuse being exploited by the PCs, unless persuaded by logical arguments that have strong links to the NPC’s motivations. A strong, but irrelevant, argument will at best have little result except the deadly question, “Why are you wasting my time?” This motivation will probably need to be burnished at intervals.
Choose Availability and Utility
Next, players invest experience points (or whatever they are called in your game: karma, progress points, budget points, character points) to pay for the NPC becoming an advantage to their player character.
PCs get to invest these points (subject to GM approval) into two criteria: Utility and Availability.
These two criteria are reciprocal, and allow either:
- A high-powered NPC only very rarely available, or
- A low-powered NPC (typically just an information source) frequently available, or
- Some combination of intermediate values of the two criteria
Note that under the Utility grouping, highly important information = high-powered combat help. The basic question is “How useful is this going to be?” The type of help is not relevant at this stage.
Pay The Cost
- Minor = 1pt
- Moderate = 2pts
- Major = 4pts
- Rare = 0pts
- Moderate = 2pts
- Often = 3pts
- Every scenario = 4pts
For 1pt you could get minor help at long intervals. For 4pts you could have Major aid at long intervals or Moderate aid once in a while, or Minor help often.
If the player character invests more points, they can boost one or the other criteria.
Determine Amount of Help
I also use a third criteria: Number.
1 person at a time (even if not the same person) = 0pts.
Each +1pt = x2 the number of NPCs that appear.
You can decide if it’s a single NPC who appears “every scenario” or if it’s the number of times per scenario the NPC can be useful.
Example: multiple sources of information that appear often but only one at a time. Utility: 1pt, Availability: 3pts, Number: 0pts (since only *one* of them is useful at a time). Total cost = 4pts.
Sometimes there are strange cases. When this happens, I attribute an overall cost based on the anticipated average values of the criteria.
If a Contact/Ally (or group thereof) becomes unavailable (e.g. is destroyed), I allow players to either recycle the points into other aspects of the player characters, or acquire new allies and contacts of the same overall value (via a bit of in-game effort to furnish the in-game rationale).
Translate the point cost depends for your game system. 1 experience point in Amber is a highly precious commodity. 1 XP in Dungeons and Dragons just drowns in a sea of XP. So the costs above should be adjusted to match.
Detail-oriented GMs may also may wish to raise or lower costs for some type of Utility to encourage or discourage the purchases of some types of Ally/Contact in the current campaign.
- Information Supply
- Combat Support
- Diplomatic Aid
- Social Arranger
Do this to:
- Reflect the difficulty of obtaining such help, or
- Help PC obtain needed help, or
- Discourage them from unbalancing the game by gaining over-powered help (something you can veto)
Hopefully this system helps you game Allies and Contacts.
How GMing Relates to Four of the Most Important Positions On a Movie Set
From Jared Hunt
If you’re like me, you chose to GM because you want to tell good stories. On some level, almost all GMs want to imitate their favorite movies and novels. I’m convinced, however, this natural urge to pre construct great stories can actually be our downfall.
Perhaps because of my background, I can’t help but use movies as a metaphor for, well, everything. With that in mind, allow me to show you how the GM’s job relates to four of the most important positions on a movie set.
You Write, But You’re Not THE Writer
In movie terms, the writer is the one person who begins with nothing and creates something. The producer, director, stars, photographers and the hundreds of support staff involved in the movie process take the writer’s idea (expressed as a screenplay) and make it their own.
This is exactly like an RPG campaign. As a GM, you start with a blank page and conjure up entire worlds, but for the game to work, the players have to make it their own.
There is a huge contrast, however, between the writer of a screenplay and a GM. A writer tells a story by dictating the actions of the main characters. A classic definition of a story (from John Truby’s book, Anatomy of Story) is: “A speaker tells a listener what someone did to get what they wanted and why.”
Classic storytelling, then, could be defined as telling the audience what the main character in the story does. Roleplaying games turn classic storytelling on its head. As a GM, the one thing you have absolutely no control over is what the main characters will do.
This means that, while you may do a lot of writing for your game, you’re not the writer. In fact, using the classic definition, the players are the ones that do all the important writing in a campaign.
You Act, But You’re Not the Star
This one might seem pretty obvious, but it bears thinking about. As a GM you’ll likely play hundreds of characters over the course of a campaign. No matter how Oscar-worthy your performance is, however, none of those NPCs is remotely as important as the player characters. The PCs are the stars and the best campaigns are built and executed with that in mind.
You Are a Lot Like a Producer
The producer of a movie is responsible for everything that has to happen off of the movie set. The producer brings together the writer, director, actors, photographers, location scouts and all the other people necessary for the movie to work. The producer wields a great deal of power over how a movie gets made. To paraphrase Dustin Hoffman’s character in Wag the Dog, “if there’s no producer, there’s no movie.”
This role has clear similarities to being a GM. As a GM, you are usually responsible for bringing all the parts of the game together and, with few exceptions, if there is no GM, there is no campaign.
Thinking of yourself as the producer of your campaign is a great mindset, especially between sessions. As a GM you might be responsible for coordinating the players, arranging for a place to play, and choosing a game system.
Remember that, like a producer, you might be responsible for many parts of the game but you can’t do it all by yourself. A great producer is a great delegator and the same thing applies to us as GMs.
You ARE the Director
If there is a single role on a movie set that most perfectly mirrors the job of a GM, it’s the director.
A director has to be a good negotiator. The writer definitely had a vision, but the exact details of that vision may or may not actually make the best movie. A good director is able to preserve the vision of the writer without sacrificing the film as a whole.
Similarly, actors tend to develop strong visions for their characters. A great director allows the actors to delve into their characters and give the best possible performances, but he does it without allowing them to have a negative impact on other characters or on the rest of the story.
Like writers and actors, players have strong opinions on how the world should react to their characters. Sometimes this is expressed by min/maxing. Sometimes it is expressed by trying to monopolize the GM’s attention. Other players attempt to mold the game world by arguing the minutiae of how rules should be applied.
None of these tendencies are innately bad. Each tells you the players are committed to the game and their characters.
Thinking of yourself as the director of your campaign is a fantastic mindset, especially during sessions. Directorial responsibilities you might have as a GM include:
- How each decision affects the campaign as a whole.
- How the rules are applied to each game situation.
- Managing relationships between the PCs.
- Managing relationships between the players.
- Ensuring the story the group is telling will be entertaining to the audience, where the audience is you and the players.
Like a director, a GM can’t control exactly how the main characters will play their parts; but he can and should make suggestions and reward actions that improve the story. Now, if only RPGs allowed room for an editor.