Superheroes Tips Series, Final Part — RPT#490
Welcome to the final part of the superheroes tips series. This week features a number of individual tips from readers who write in response to a request made in Issue #472.
Prepare NPCs and Locations, Not Encounter Sequences
From: Jolle Lont
In a superhero campaign, the players have absurdly strong powers. They will use them in unpredictable ways to reach their goals. While players do unexpected stuff in any campaign, in a superhero campaign it will be worse.
This means it’s almost impossible to plan your stories in a linear or semi-linear way. Players will find ways to bypass large parts of your stories, and there will be little you can do about it. Instead, use the high power level to your advantage: the villains can have strong abilities and powers, and they should be smart enough to react to the PCs themselves.
What does this concretely mean for your GMing preparations? Don’t plan a linear set of encounters. Instead, make up a few detailed locations and NPCs. Think about how these interact and how the players can reach or contact them. When the players interact with an NPC or location, think about how this affect other NPCs.
For example, if the players find a hideout of the main villain, the villain can react to this: he will probably change locations. If there are security cameras in his hideout, he might be able to identify one of the PCs and hire an agent to spy on them.
These kinds of interactions are impossible to plan, but if you have prepared a few detailed locations and NPCs, it is much easier to deal with in-session.
In the above example, having a spy NPC and a new hideout location already worked out will help a lot. Also consider that both the spy and the new hideout can be usable in completely different situations as well.
In short: don’t plan encounter sequences, they are not versatile. Instead, prepare NPCs and locations, which are versatile. A single encounter might be versatile as well (if you can use it in a lot of different situations).
I also wish Jason good luck and a lot of fun with his campaign.
From: Laurence MacNaughton
Here’s some advice for Jason and his superhero game.
Superhero RPGs are all about the flavor, and it’s so easy to get it wrong. If possible, get your GM to check out two games: Mutants & Masterminds, and the Marvel Universe RPG. Both have excellent advice on running comic book games (not to mention being excellent games to play).
Also, for more in-depth material on plotting, tropes, super- villains and the unwritten rules of comic books, check out Writing for Comics with Peter David. The DC Comics Guide to Writing Comics is wonderful too.
But by far the best advice I can give: go to the source. Get to a book store or library and grab some paperback comic book anthologies. If possible, get one of those thick “Essential” volumes Marvel puts out; they’re black and white reprints of entire series (Spider Man, Avengers, X-Men, etc.) from the sixties to the eighties. Here’s an Amazon link to one: Essential Avengers, Vol. 6 (Marvel Essentials).
Just flipping through and looking at the art will get anyone in a comic book mood, I guarantee. Pow! Zap! Plus, there are oodles of story ideas in there. Giant robots, time travel, ancient curses, you name it.
Superhero Resource Suggestion: RPG Review #4
From: Lev Lafayette
It’s a bit of a free plug on my behalf, but could I suggest the campaign in RPG Review Issue Four as a superhero campaign.
Instead of contemporary super science, the basic premise is mythic. The PCs are the children of various gods of ancient times, across multiple pantheons (e.g., Celtic, Norse, Greek/Roman, Indian, Egyptian etc.), like in Deities & Demigods. They have banded together to transcend their particular cultural loyalties in favor of a universal good.
As the campaign progresses, however, their success starts to cause a breakdown on the prime material plane. This has an effect in the planar reality, with the gradual decay of the PCs original homes and the development of new planes of reality.
The advantage, for a newcomer’s point of view, is the game feels like a very high-level fantasy game, which it is, but it is using a superhero RPG ruleset appropriate for such a setting.
Superhero Resource Suggestion: Strike Force
From: Michael Horton
Back in my hard-core Champions/Hero Games gaming days, they published one of the finest game, genre and setting books ever created for any game. The supplement was called “Strike Force” and written by the Champions guru Aaron Allston.
This book went over role-playing in general, superhero role-playing and the overall superhero genre, while describing the characters, setting, and storyline of the author’s own campaigns. It also dealt with meta-gaming issues such as players leaving the group.
Published in 1988, I am sure it is long out of print. I still use it for inspiration, ideas, and guidance in my gaming.
Find Strike Force if at all possible. Maybe a store or online shop specializing in out of print items would have it.
Superhero Resource Suggestion: Mutants & Masterminds
From: Forrest Elam
My friends and I play a superhero campaign using the Mutants and Masterminds rules by Green Ronin Publishing, but even if they are using a different system, I would suggest they pick up a copy of the M&M 2nd edition rulebook. It has excellent sections on creating adventures and world building that might help (there is even a sidebar list of 100 adventure ideas).
Their Freedom City book is a good example of a superhero setting with lots of good information. The Green Ronin website also has Mutants and Masterminds forums where you can post and get some tips.
There is a great book out there that will give you great insight into the evil mastermind super-villain titled “Soon I WILL BE Invincible” by Austin Grossman. It is a fun read and might inspire your GM as well as give him some basic superhero genre info.
Watching either of the Fantastic Four Movies might help. They have a team of superheroes in a less bloodthirsty story than the X-men movies, and would probably be more what you are hoping for in a game.
The animated series “The Justice League” and “The Justice League Unlimited” would be good to view (you might be able to rent them or check them out from your local Library if you don’t buy them). I especially recommend The Justice League Unlimited Season One.
Focus On the Big Boss Guy
From: Walter Myers
Start with where the villain wants to ultimately end up. This gives you most of the inspiration on what drives the villain’s choices and actions (what they will and will not do) in game, and drives what kinds of encounters that NEED to be created by the GM to achieve that goal.
As for filler adventures (the adventures that happen between the encounters of the Ultimate Goal) I tend to look at news sites for interesting news bits from my home country and around the world.
When something catches my eye, say an earthquake in China, I ask what if that earthquake was caused by something other than natural process? What could have caused it? Perhaps it was…. (Appropriate powered villain named ??? trying to steal the ancient widget of the ??? people) that caused it.
It also works just as well for local crimes. Instead of a local crackhead robbing the gas station, it was members of the armored tech gang, Bad Boys, trying to kidnap someone from that gas station.
You have to base the threat on the power level of the heroes. You can’t have your favorite web head face off against something that eats planets and survive, but he can face off against a bank robber in a powered suit and still go home to his cold pot of Raman noodles.
Regarding descriptions of encounter locations, abandoned or derelict buildings will have odd odors like rotten wood, mildew, mold, or dried or fresh human and animal waste. A quick look up on the internet will give your ideas of what different industrial buildings look like inside.
By laying out the ultimate goal of the Big Boss Guy (BBG) you can come up with what is needed to accomplish it, and then the encounter possibilities just pop out on their own. Before you know it you have created a story arc that can go for as long as you want.
For an example, I created a Mutants and Masterminds campaign where the BBG ultimately wanted to close off the Mediterranean Ocean and accelerate the evaporation of the sea water so that he could claim the newly “discovered” land that was outside the current international boundaries of existing countries for his own.
With the end goal in mind, I was able to make a list of what would be needed by the BBG to accomplish the goal.
List that I came up with:
1. Special-powered Flunkies that have powers and abilities the BBG does not have but are needed to accomplish the ultimate goal = Opportunities for the heroes to interact with the BBG’s lieutenants as they go about various stages of implementing the Ultimate goal.
- Breaking other flunkies out of custody.
- Stealing large items or items under extreme security or protection.
- Planting dangerous devices to help fulfill the ultimate goal.
2. Non-powered flunkies to do the grunt or little work = They may not even know that they are working for the BBG
- Terrorists to attack pumping stations on dams on the rivers that feed the Mediterranean.
- Street gang that is robbing banks and splitting the take with their unknown benefactor.
- Extra muscle used by the BBG lieutenants on their missions.
3. Money. LOTS of Money
- Opportunities for starting level or young heroes to get involved in events that extend outside of their own neighborhood or city
- Try to stop robberies and other low level things.
- Chances to get small bits and clues of the larger overall picture.
4. Technological widgets to augment the flunkies (both powered and non powered).
- Opportunities to meet and beat, or get beaten by, the lieutenants.
- Opportunities for grudges to form between players and lieutenants.
- Chances to get bigger clues to what the big picture is.
- Chance to increase or decrease the difficulty of later encounter.
5. An area where the BBG can do a small scale test of the method that will eventually fulfill some or all of the ultimate goal.
- Opportunity to meet BBG for the first time.
- Chance to get a view of the complete picture of the Ultimate Goal.
- Opportunity to possibly stop or slow progress toward Ultimate Goal.
- Action is not opposed by heroes – set piece/ cut scene. For this campaign, the BBG caused an island to be formed off the mouth of the Mediterranean in international water, which was then turned into the BBG’s home base.
6. Friendly NPC = good placement of PC background information pieces.
- Investigative reporter. Encountered during a minor scuffle between heroes and low level thugs. Chance to pass on clues to larger view of BBG operations.
- Prisoner. Encountered in secondary type base where a Powered Lieutenant is in charge.
7. Pivotal Plot Point = Place where characters can change how the BBG accomplishes the goal or even stops the BBG from achieving the Ultimate goal.
Kill or capture Powered Minion that created or performed the small scale test.
a. Killed – BBG will not be able to raise the ocean bottom to close off the mouth of the MED – Ultimate goal now thought to be unreachable
b. Capture – BBG will personally lead an assault to get the Minion back.
i. Sub-possibility – the capture or apparent death of the BBG in the assault.
- Apparent death – A lieutenant will take over the BBG role and the Ultimate Goal is still attempted. And the initial captured minion escapes
- Capture – Remaining powered minions stage breakout attempt.
Capture/Destroy the widget used to amplify the Powered Minion that will raise the sea floor.
a. Captured – BBG will personally lead an assault to get the widget back.
i. Sub-possibility – the capture or apparent death of the BBG in the assault. – A lieutenant will take over the BBG role and the Ultimate Goal is still attempted.
b. Destroyed – BBG’s time table will be set back as he attempts to clone the Powered Minion one or more times.
Kill/Capture of Powered Minion that will accelerate the evaporation of the Mediterranean (acceleration will cause the water to be totally evaporated in under 24 hours).
a. Killed – BBG will have to rely on the boosting widget – evaporation now takes 1 year.
b. Captured – BBG leads assault to recover the Minion
i. Sub-Possibility – Same as above.
Capture/Destroy the widget used to amplify the Powered Minion that is evaporating the ocean water
a. Captured – same as the widget above.
b. Destroyed – Same as the widget above.
Thanks to everyone who wrote in with their superhero tips and articles. This genre of RPG was not covered often in the ezine before, so it deserved additional advice.
I heard Green Ronin has the DC Comic RPG license now, and are planning a 3rd edition of Mutants & Masterminds that will power the DC RPG line. It’s a great time to be a superhero GM!
A Brief Word from Johnn
Pick Pockets Contest = Win NBOS Software; Ends Soon
The contest theme is items you’d find when picking pockets. But there’s a twist: add an interesting plot or encounter hook to the pocket contents.
Thanks to new ezine sponsor NBOS, three winners will be selected at random and each gets their pick of one NBOS software title. Visit to see what GM software you can choose if you win. Perhaps Fractal Mapper will help your campaign mapping. Maybe Astrosynthesis is what you need to chart the galaxy. Have you checked out The Keep yet?
Monday, May 31. There’s not much time for this one, so get your entries in now – multiple entries are welcome.
How to Enter
Email your entries to me at [email protected]
Each entry is one pick pocket item that has an interesting hook or detail that would enhance a GM’s game.
Multiple entries are welcome.
Example Entries, Item + Hook:
A napkin with a crude map on it, and the name of the tavern where the napkin came from.
A claw from a monster the PCs are about to quest for.
A pair of ladies’ gloves with the initials A.L. on them.
A key with a symbol of Kane on it.
A rock made of some strange flecked material with the word “Barakus” written on the bottom.
Good luck! If you have any questions, drop me an email.
What’s The Real Reason You Hate Game Prep?
I just finished reading the War of Art by Steven Pressfield.
He describes a force called Resistance, with a capital R, that causes creative people to fail. Resistance creates writer’s block. It generates critics instead of creators. It creates stress, tension and dis-ease, and even relationship issues as Resistance does whatever it can to distract you from getting to work.
I read many comments from game masters who say they hate game preparation. They would rather do chores than get the next game session ready. New games are sold and bought on the basis of “no preparation required” or “prep-lite.” Articles and tips abound on prepping faster or using improvisation as a way to avoid preparation.
I’m often of the same mindset. I procrastinate. “Do tomorrow what you can do today.” I play with my software GM tools instead of filling them with content. I organize instead of create.
After reading War of Art, I’ve got a new view on this. It’s Resistance and fear that puts me off session preparation, not the act itself. Pressfield says the hardest thing a writer does is sit at the typewriter and start writing. The act of writing – the techniques – is the easy part.
Beginning the act is where most of us fail. We find excuses, even reasonable ones. And when we let the fear of creating something win, then any excuse will do, especially the reasonable ones.
I remember the best part as a kid of DMing D&D Red Book, and then Advanced D&D, was drawing maps of dungeons and stocking them with all sorts of challenges and rewards. World building was a hoot too. Creating kingdoms and wars and maps with adventure locations.
The irony is the preparation was the best part. Playing the game was awesome too, but the hours spent writing, drawing, reading and planning filled my time for many years.
So what changed? Even if you do not dungeon crawl there’s still a whole bunch of fun stuff to create. Worlds, NPCs, treasure. Stories, histories, personalities.
I recommend reading War of Art to get the full context of what I’m saying. Right now, though, you can pay attention to your inner voice, feelings and emotions as you think about the game preparation you need to do.
What are the excuses that come up? Write them down and then think about them. Is it preparation that is actually painful, or just stepping up to the act? I find, once I start, prep is a ton of fun, but it’s getting there that is the bitch.
Here is my list of excuses that tried to pull the wool over my eyes just this past week. It’s amazing how many I have!
I aim to do a bit of prep every day. It’s like building a muscle against the Resistance. As Press field says, the successful artists know that overcoming the Resistance does not get easier, but experienced creators know they’ll just get through it. They have confidence they will succeed, even though the actor pukes before each performance or the writer stares at a blank page for a while.
I *do* have the time. I *can* carve out 15 minutes a day to work on a little something. Looking at how I spend my time, I can actually carve out more. It’s just an excuse. I bet it’s the same with you. Can you spare a quarter hour daily?
We are older and as a result smarter. So they say. Dungeons with monster’s side by side in small rooms are stupid. It’s imperfect. Why even bother?
Well, it’s a game. If dungeons are dumb to you, then draw a city block and create a couple factions who hate each other so you can put the PCs in the middle. Do your best. The hard part is starting the prep – you will become a better designer over time just by doing it.
It’s not only a game, but a multi-player game of imagination. Enlist your players’ help. Past tips in the ezine advise to listen to players and steal their ideas. That’s one good way to ensure designs get more solid over time.
According to Scott MacLeod in Understanding Comics, the less detail an artist supplies the more engaging a comic is because the reader imagines the missing details himself. You don’t need 30 frames a second, just a few panels on a page. Timelines, action and stories happen perfectly fine.
Likewise, you are not responsible for every last game detail. Your players will fill it in just fine for you.
Aiming for perfection is just a trap that Resistance tries to pull so you avoid getting in front of the keyboard for another planning session.
Undefined feeling of unease
Wanna go to the coffee shop and get a tasty foam-topped brew? Now that’s a good feeling. No Resistance there. It’s immediate gratification. And easy.
Wanna sit down with your GM binder and create some NPCs for next session? Hmmmm. Not such a good feeling. But why is it when I start, the ideas flow and the writing is fun?
Maybe not every time, as I might be tired or uninspired, or another form of Resistance tries to attack, such as Perfectionism.
Most of the time though, starting is the hard part and that uneasy feeling goes away once I get into a flow. Then I have a terrific time. Creating is *fun*.
What is that feeling? Fear? Worry? Beats me, but it goes way each time if I can just get started. So I say ignore the stupid feeling. I get great results whether the feeling was there at the beginning or not, anyway, so why listen to the feeling at all?
Crunch is boring and tough
If you play a complex game, then it is going to take some time and knowledge of the rules to build your game constructs, such as NPCs, foes, traps, and so on. This stuff might be painful for you.
The good news is many games have communities with fan- created content you can use instead of having to make it yourself. Some games sell products filled with crunch. You can avoid a ton of work this way.
This is a legitimate excuse. Some GMs love to create this stuff, but others hate it. If you dislike it, then yeah, let it stop your game prep. Let it also stop you from GMing. And let it stop you from gaming all together. An excuse is just that. Even if reasonable, do not let it beat you.
If switching to a simpler game is not an option, and you do not want to use content others have created for you, and you do not want to use software that might be available to speed things up for you, then I guess you’re screwed. Next hobby please.
But if you’re like me, it’s just an excuse. Resistance is trying to pull a fast one over you. Do not succumb. Get solution-oriented. Get active.
It could be. But what is actually difficult? ‘Cause, when I get into full swing after beating away all the excuses, I start having fun. Difficult often *is* fun.
If you are looking for easy and fast and a get-prepped-quick scheme, what is it you’re actually trying to avoid? I think it’s Resistance trying to stop you from starting. You’re avoiding the start, not the work itself.
Waiting for inspiration
In War of Art, Pressfield tells this story:
Someone once asked Somerset Maugham if he wrote on a schedule or only when struck by inspiration. “I write only when inspiration strikes,” he replied. “Fortunately, it strikes me every morning at nine o’clock sharp.”
I might feel uninspired before starting game planning, but once I get going the ideas come fast and furious. It’s fun. And when that does not happen, I use random generators like those at Chaotic Shiny or I head over to ENWorld to read story hours or posts in the plots forum.
Game preparation sucks. Until I start doing it. And then it’s a lot of fun, even after all these years. I think War of Art explains this trap.
So now when I hear my inner voice starting to make excuses, and it says I have no time, it’s difficult, it’s boring, and I might create crap, I know it’s just Resistance trying to get me to procrastinate for another day.
I suspect it’s the same for a lot of you. Maybe not everyone. But for those who just have fears and worries, it would be a shame if you let Resistance win. Think of all the gaming lost due to the simple failure of letting excuses get in the way of game preparation.
Press field says most creatives are people like him with regards to Resistance. Even after completing several books, writing best-sellers, getting famous for at least one title going to Hollywood, he still fights every day to just sit down at the typewriter and write. If it’s like that for him, it could be like that for you.
The answer he offers is to force yourself to get started every day. Once you get past that hurdle of starting, the act of creating comes easy and joyfully. You might consider setting a schedule so that inspiration strikes at 10 p.m. for 30 minutes every day. Regardless of your tactic, get past the starting phase each day, knowing it will be difficult again tomorrow, but it’s not the game prep that’s the issue, it’s just Resistance trying to drag you down.
Traveling Peddlers Around the Realms
From: Tim Riley
The life of a traveling peddler could be as light and care- free as any minstrel, or as much about drudgery as any miser depending on the outlook and area traveled by them.
Peddlers traded in small, usable, everyday objects that would be needed in the markets in their traveling area; around six to twelve miles for the various market days. A full purse from a market could make the traveling a light hearted affair, moving from inn to inn with a private room and bath to celebrate the arrival of the fair, but wrong purchases or a heavy-handed tax man could take the peddler back to the alewives common room.
Market days were lucky if were they compensated by the local lord. Foreign traders were required to change money into local coins, and sometimes were delayed by law up to two hours before they could enter the fair so as to let the locals get first crack at items. Also, tax collectors could remove items from tables as part of the lords’ tax. So, as a means to grant favors to kinsmen, lords could grant a fair untaxed for one of their vassals so they curry favor with the merchant class.
Records show that 2400 market days were held within a given year. This did not account for annual trade fairs, which highlighted the locally produced goods. These produced revenues in the form of taxes and fines and rents. Cost of transporting goods to a market was calculated at 1.4 to 3 percent of the cost of the goods, depending if the goods are transported by water or land.
Also, what was to be paid to the workers that helped with portages and tax collection points were worked out by a right of trade agreement set by the merchants and the local lords. The choice made by the worker was for either a cloak, gloves or food. Plus, a cash payment to the toll collector based upon number of items or type going up river or down.
Gold was rarely seen by a peddler as the people used mostly copper and silver pennies minted by the government. Gold was used by the government itself for large purchases of land and ships. Then those were usually transferred with purchase agreements signed by the parties involved.
Banking could exist in a fantasy setting by the use of a series of money lenders and guild exchange houses that have given their members a set rate for funds deposited with others in lieu of hard cash. Trade bars are used by merchants where they are minted, but are usually given reduced value the further away they are traveling from their origin point. Peddlers could also exchange money from the local fixed merchants at a higher rate, as they are returning to the trade bars’ point of origin, so that the local’s blacksmith and tavern can take these forms of currency
Peddlers travel only short distances for their markets – an average of around 8 miles. The farther the distance the greater the increase in the cost of the items. Areas with several villages would have several traveling peddlers. A small, isolated town may only receive peddlers who have the place as a turning point. Those who make it a destination may arrive with wagon loads of goods to service the populace. Groups of peddlers could work the same circuit at alternating times of the year to take advantage of seasonal needs or desires of the locals. After all, if there is no money or barter items available, then the trip is wasted time and distance.
Other merchants or traders would buy and sell as they went along to a targeted destination. This was done by the Polo’s as they ventured east; Glass and Venetian trade goods to the Holy Land, then Holy Oil to Christian enclaves east on the silk road, then on to China.
In your game, mercers could be sending agents/buyers along trade routes to find new suppliers of raw or finished goods to bring back to their locations to sell. These agents may be able to act directly for the merchant, or they may have some instant way of direct communication via magic. These agents and mercers are looking to go the quickest way to the most profit, and are looking to cut corners on travel and time spent on the road, cheap animals, and way station points to resupply and rest.
Merchants are more generalized in their business pattern, such as taking a wagon north to the dwarves mines and selling pots and pans on the way to the villages. When they arrive at the mine they can convert all the unsold pots and pans into pig iron and anvils. They then return back to the south, selling the pig iron and anvils to all the smithies along the way, and picking up fancy, worked iron from the smiths to sell in the city when they return, setting the cycle to repeat.
Mercers have a general location they are buying and transporting to, to sell in their home towns or trying to open a new market for any overflow goods from their main market location. Sometimes, they are attempting to be rid of older and damaged goods by selling out in the sticks. Beware, this is what set Washington against his British trading partners. Also, the city that I have lived in and done business in for the last twenty-two years was founded by a man who wanted to unload water damaged calico from the Erie canal. So the mercer could be the buyer from the above Iron merchant.
Some enterprises required that shares be sold to see the risk spread. Amounts several individuals and profits shared by those who risked more in the beginning. Ships are a major example, with them costing in game terms tens of thousands of gold shares being bought and resold as people’s fortunes ebbed and flowed. Shares in a boat being built could be considered better collateral then one at sea. After all, in the Middle Ages four out of ten ships did not return to their home port, and in certain times it was as high as seven out of ten due to pirates and weather. But years until a merchant man’s return was also not that uncommon, leading to the old saying, when my ship comes in, I can redeem my shares. This could also lead to new treasure possibilities for your game; a chest filled with various ship shares that have yet to return.
Merchant guilds exist to help run the mercantile life of the city. Some of them go as far as to say who can sell what where and when. In London, for example, fish caught above a certain stream could only be sold up to a certain bridge and never below it. Produce could only be held in one square and butchery was to take place along the route to the river. The merchant’s guild could also work towards better trade rights with the other guild and city rulers, and better city fines and fees.
Tradesman or craft guilds exist to help buy in bulk and with apprenticing rights and services. Fathers could place a son with the guild for a certain fee, paid to the guild in either money or property. The sons would then begin their servitude with the guild until they were given journeyman status. They could then travel freely to establish themselves.