13 Things Learned About Superhero Games After Running 30 Sessions of Mutants and Masterminds

So Monday night we played the 30th session of Shock and Awesome, my formerly semi-regular and now pretty-much-weekly Mutants and Masterminds campaign. It represents about a year and a half of gaming, give or take, although I expect the 60th session will come around much faster than the 30th did.

The session saw our intrepid teen heroes caught inside a demonically-possessed virtual reality game alongside a bunch of school-mates. Eventful things happened: one hero kissed her long-term crush after months of pining and putting her foot in her mouth every time they talked; the other heroes girlfriend turned evil (again) when a dormant personality emerged alongside her massive dangerous electro-magnetic abilities. They fought a bunch of demons, too, but the relationships were the interesting things.

We’re now on a three-week hiatus while one of the players heads of the UK, but when we return we’ll pick up where we left off, trying to convince the evil girlfriend she really should turn back to normal before her unsociable behaviour loses her the journalism intern she’s been chasing for the last thirty sessions.

Since I’m still in list-mode after all the dancing monkey posts, I figure I’d switch gears from writing to gaming and, in honour of the players that make Shock & Awesome so much fun, I put together the following.

13 THINGS LEARNED ABOUT SUPERHERO RPGS AFTER RUNNING 30 SESSIONS OF MUTANTS AND MASTERMINDS

1) PITCH MATTERS

These days “Super Hero Comics” is a very broad genre to try and replicate. Even the four-colour comics that M&M is designed to replicate covers a lot of ground – there’s a vast gulf between, say, a Fantastic Four comic, a Spiderman comic, a Batman comic, and an issue of the Teen Titans. All of them are four-colour, but the *way* heroes are expected to deal with their problems is very different.

When it comes to kicking off the campaign, make sure you’ve got everyone’s expectations on the same page. Kudos if you’re smart enough to give your players a brief (“Think X-Men, except you’re being trained by a retired Batman”); real Kudos if you’re smart enough to gather your players together and let them craft a communal pitch as a group – get everyone to pitch in a bunch of things they like in comic books (or even just comics they like) and base your game about the most common elements.

Shock and Awesome is slightly gonzo ’cause that’s what the players demanded. It’s got relationship dramas ’cause that’s what the players demanded. It’s got a but-load of puns and wrestling references ’cause that’s what the players demanded. It’s got some serious elements too, cause…well, you get the picture. Our reference points we used were early Spider-Man and Kirkman’s Invincible, with a handful of other elements thrown in.

2) MINUTIA MATTERS

My friend Allan runs a killer Call of C’Thulhu game. Largely he does this by spending session after session letting the characters just exist in the world, doing day-to-day  things, with little hints of weirdness around the edges. He pays attention the regular minutia of everyday life – who you see, what you do, what’s a constant presence. It means you get to know the NPCS and the places that’ll matter down the line, so when things from beyond space and time eat the chef at the local diner, you actually give a damn ’cause you know the chef’s name and his blueberry pie is really damn good eats.

Tracking and depicting that kind of minutia isn’t my strength as a GM, but I made a conscious effort to use the technique for this campaign. Superhero comics, especially solo titles, are all about the supporting cast. Even the Avengers have Jarvis. Shock & Awesome has a steadily growing cast of extras who all serve campaign roles, from NPC foil to source of sage advice, and there are plenty of regular settings that come back again and again.

It helps. It also means the players are becoming increasingly paranoid that going to the local Java Hut franchise will result in a super-villain attack.

3) PREPERATION IS THE ENEMY OF PLAYER-DIRECTED CONFLICT

Shock & Awesome wasn’t meant to be a regular game. It was mostly a fun fill-in we played when the other players couldn’t make our regular D&D night. As a result, I put a lot less effort into preparing our earlier sessions than I normally would have. Largely I’d present a situation, run  through the fight-scene, and wait for the players to pick a direction.

The results were…interesting…in terms of the things that became important. Shock became obsessed with recovering a school bag because it contained her diary. We realised Awesome was living a triple life: Super-hero, ordinary school kid, genetically-modified super-soldier working for a secret religions organisation working to prevent the apocalypse. These things got more time than I would have given them in a typical Superhero RPG, simply ’cause I wasn’t hustling things along in order to move onto the next scene in the adventure.

Some interesting things happened as a result of this: the fights gradually receded into the background while we focused more and more onto the teen drama that was important to the characters. We fretted about what they would do at uni after they finished high-school, and whether they’d go to the same university as there significant others. We had an entire scene that revolved around one character trying to explain getting to second base to the other character using wrestling belts as a metaphor.

The lesson here isn’t don’t plan – although there’s been more than a few sessions where I’ve underplanned and the players have decided the direction of the game – but I’ve certainly eased off on planning as much content as I usually do.

4) IT’S ALL ABOUT THE META-TEXT, BABY

If you’re playing a comic book RPG, you’re probably a comic book fan. Embrace that. Use it to your advantage. Refer to each game session as an Issue. If you’re truly nerdy (I am), present the players with a list of *other* comic book titles that exist in the same fictional comic-company universe, and use that to reinforce the pitch.

This has the advantage of getting players to think in terms of comic-books rather than game mechanics, but it also means they can invest in the storylines and sub-plots. In extreme cases it also means you explain away real lapses of continuity as “a new writer came on-board  guys, and the editor forgot to tell them about…”

5) IGNORE THE RULES THAT BORE YOU

The latest edition of Mutants and Masterminds has a skill challenge system for handling certain tasks like chase-scenes, escaping death traps, and other minutia that don’t really fit under the combat rules. We used them a couple of times and I’ve vowed never to do so again. Personally, I don’t mind the rules that much, but they bore one of the players silly and it quickly reduces a chase scene from “thrilling pursuit” to “dull sequence of die rolls.”

Superhero games can’t afford to be dull. A dull session or two of a D&D game won’t kill a campaign ;cause there’s still going up a level and acquiring cool new abilities on the horizon; a dull superhero session doesn’t have the same option. Superheroes tend to be fairly static in terms of power level, so the traditional RPG rewards of experience points and exponentially increasing abilities don’t really fit well with the genre.

6) TRUST MATTERS

If you’re players don’t trust you, forget about running a supers RPG. It’s just not going to work.

Of course, this is pretty much true of any roleplaying system, but there’s something about superhero RPGs that make it doubly true. Perhaps its the fact that you’re dealing with the extreme power-levels, or you’re playing games designed to replicate a genre where heroes get routinely beaten and outsmarted for an entire issue before overcoming the villain. Where most games are built around the players succeeding, superhero games are built around the players failing again and again until they accumulate the resources (in M&M,  Hero Points) that will enable them to Hulk Up and kick some serious ass.

There are a whole mess of genre conventions that don’t work if your players don’t trust you: starting an session mise-en-scène, setting up the players as you want them to be; hand-waving that crucial scene where the players are captured simply because villains capture heroes and you don’t want to trust such things to the dice; presenting a villain that seems unstoppable at the start of a session, at least until the players discover his weakness.

Basically, you can make a game that’s way more fun for everyone if the players trust you (and, for that matter, each other) to run a game that’s fun and relatively consistent in the way it presents the world.

7) YOUR MAIN JOB WHILE RUNNING THE GAME IS DENIAL

In a traditional D&D type campaign your main job is setting up the world, putting together the adventures, and generally prepping sessions as best you can. In a superhero RPG your job as the guy running the game becomes something very different – find out what the players want for the characters, then figure out how to deny them without abusing your privilege as the guy running the game. You create obstacles, lots of obstacles, from the mundane to the super-villainous, and you place them in front of the characters.

This pretty much works on every level of the game. If the hero really wants to duck off and get changed into their uniform, figure out a way to complicate that. If they want to date a girl in their class, throw romantic rivals and disproving parents and the occasional demonic possession into their path. If they seize on a particular villain as a favourite (in our case, it seems to be a chap dubbed “Doom Squid”), hold off on using them for as long as possible.

The trick to making the whole denial thing work? Timing and a sense of scale. Small wants (“I need to get changed into my costume”) need short-term denial. Major complications require multiple sessions. Hold out too long and things will just get dull, at best, and irritating at worst. This is another one of those situations where the meta-text of the game can be useful – comic books have all sorts of “anniversary issue” thresholds that can serve as the catalyst for a big change.  I’ve tried to set a routine where the players *know* that their characters are going to see a major change in their characters around issue 12 (one year), 24 (two years), and 30 (’cause we were about to go on hiatus). Any major acts of denial that get started in the next couple of sessions are likely to carry us through ’til our 50th session.

8) HERO POINTS ARE LIKE CANDY

Hero Points are M&M’s way of saying “bravo, you’ve done something comic-book-like,” while simultaneously allowing the players to continue doing comic book like things with their powers and abilities. It’s win-win. Give those suckers out like candy. Remind the players that only the first hit is free, but the rest are going to cost ’em.

9) THERE IS NO PROBLEM SO BAD THAT A HERO CANNOT MAKE IT WORSE

Seriously. It’s, like, a rule.

Sometimes it’s intentional. The players in Shock & Awesome will gleefully walk into situations that make life difficult for their characters, and they’ll do it with a smile on their face. They may know that Professor Nix is secretly a super-villain and that any minute now there will be a super-hero slugfest, but part of the fun is getting their characters into deeper trouble before that moment comes. It’s one of the great joys of the M&M system – it rewards you for going along with certain genre conventions, even if you know better.

Other times, well, lets just say it’s always entertaining to see how quickly a situation deteriorates.

10) CARTOONS ARE YOUR FRIEND

For all that Superhero RPGs are meant to replicate comic books, comics are a pretty fricken’ terrible narrative form these days, especially in the field of superheroes. Story arcs are extended across multiple issues, cross-overs are becoming increasingly common, and the backstory…oh god, let’s not talk about the ungodly amount of baggage your standard superhero comes with these days. All in all, it can be a horrible medium to try and replicate when it comes to pacing an RPG session.

There are, however, some pretty sweet cartoon adaptations of the superhero genre that will rock your damn socks off, and the plot of a half-hour kids cartoon is actually pretty-well paced if you need to rip of a plot that will fit into a gaming session of two or three hours (My personal recommendations are Avengers: Earth’s Mightiest Heroes and Justice League Unlimited, but the classic Batman: The Animated Series cartoon from the nineties still rocks the Kasbah).

11) FIGHTS ARE FAST

Such an important part of the comics themselves, but we do so little of it in the campaign. Or, rather, it takes up so much less time compared to other RPGs. If you’re used to the D&D gaming paradigm where you can fit, more or less, one fight-scene per hour into a session, Mutants and Masterminds streamlines the art of the smackdown. This is a huge conceptual leap to overcome when you make the shift from running D&D to Supers, since it means you need to start adapting to a game-style where a fight against the epic big-bad will be over inside of half an hour.

12) FIGHTS ARE ALSO KINDA DULL

There is an art to running an engaging superhero battle. Personally, I’ve not learnt it yet, although I’m slowly getting better. My approach to running combat has been increasingly dominated by years of playing D&D, which has been escalating the level of tactical complexity in recent editions. Comparatively speaking, M&M combat is much simpler, especially in one-on-one confrontations – the players will pretty much adopt the same tactic every fight and whittle away the bad guys defenses.

I’ve got this flagged as one of the things to try and fix when we resume playing in a couple of weeks. In some respects its my fault – a lot of the bad guys are just as stand-there-and-slug-it-out as the players, so it’s not like there’s a lot of incentive to get creative with the battle rules.

13) SUPERS  GAMES ARE HARD WORK

I work harder to make a typical M&M game work than pretty much any other set of RPG rules I’ve ever run, although it’s probably on par with running Feng Shui. It requires a big change of mindset, a lot more cooperation with the players in terms of the games narrative approach, and the tendency to veer off-course or have the players pull an unexpected solution out of a hat (or, for that matter, a mutation granting electromagnetic powers) increases exponentially.

The other thing I’ve noticed: there’s not a lot of advice out there for people who run superhero campaigns. The internet is full of advice for people interested in running fantasy or SF games, but the vast majority of the advice I’ve seen regarding Superhero games is largely drawn from the rulebooks of superhero games and the occasional forum thread on places like enworld, rpg.net, and the mutants and masterminds forum.

  13 comments for “13 Things Learned About Superhero Games After Running 30 Sessions of Mutants and Masterminds

  1. 05/10/2012 at 9:38 PM

    I was wondering, after reading some of the comments above, if you had ever had the chance to look at Spirit of The Century (pulp setting) a FATE system that seems to support narrative play and interwoven backstories.

  2. 05/10/2012 at 10:08 PM

    I know a bunch of people who are fairly evangelical about the system, but it's not something I've ever played (and it came out well after my period of buying every RPG that sounds vaguely interesting).

    I'm really hit-and-miss on strongly narrative games though – I tend to rock them for short-term stuff and one-off sessions, but they rarely hold my interest for a long-term campaign. Storytelling is important, but I like a level of system mastery involved over a year+ campaign (otherwise it feels like writing work, rather than gaming).

  3. 06/10/2012 at 9:29 AM

    I have a pdf of the Spirit of the Century handbook if you'd like a look (was part of an online rpg group that died a fizzling death before we got beyond the character/world creation stage). It is structured as a pick-up game, but there's some advice for long-term play as well.

  4. Tim K.
    10/10/2012 at 7:44 PM

    On the Pitch: Very wise and important point you make. Getting the pitch right, and getting the players involved, are key to any superhero game.

    One suggestion to deal with the "same tactic" issue is to remember this: villains cheat.

    They will use robots that look like them, holograms, teleporters, and a variety of other things to change the battlefield in their favor.

    They will learn from their foes, and if a tactic is used too often, they will use that knowledge to counter that action.

    Pitch is an element I strongly encourage in bo

  5. 10/10/2012 at 9:59 PM

    Good advice on the villains, although I'll probably need to tweak it a little to fit the game. None of the villains we've used thus far have come back for a second appearance yet, and the overall tone of the game is currently a bit low-powered for things like robot doubles.

    That sort of thing will largely need to be accomplished with smoke bombs and net-launchers for the moment.

  6. Jefferson Watson
    10/10/2012 at 10:35 PM

    On the Fights Are Kinda Dull point, avoid fights that are just fights. Complicate matters. Give the heroes people to rescue, bombs to disarm, plots to thwart, etc while they are busy fighting the villain. If you set up the confrontation so that all they need to do is kick the villain's butt to win then you have set up the confrontation wrong.

    The only exception to this is when they are simply incapable of kicking the villain's butt without first solving some sort of puzzle. Even in those cases it still best to complicate things further. Let them figure out Dr. Dreadful's weakness while rescuing the opera goers from his Dreadful robots and trying to avoid letting the doctor stomp them into cape wearing blood stains.

  7. Pingback: 6 Sources of Great Superhero RPG Advice | PeterMBall.com
  8. Mich
    02/02/2015 at 8:46 AM

    High Peter, I know this is a bit late in commenting, but I read your blog after playing my first game in 3ed (with Pack-Rat) and then onto the beginning of the Knights campaign. I was wondering what I'm doing wrong running this as fights take ages, far longer than D&D. You hit, they get 1 bruise. You hit again and they get maybe a condition, and a bruise. You miss…etc. etc. If conditions were cumulative, that would be great, but they disappear after one round (and do little to impact the bruising negatives that you need). When it is one hero against one villain, my god it takes 20 rounds before you finally get their bruise (or yours) with enough negatives that you can get 4 degrees of success. I'm likely missing something from the rules, but it seems you need 6 heroes to hit one villain each round to hope to get enough bruises to allow a 4th tier incapacitation.

    • petermball
      02/02/2015 at 7:51 PM

      Hi Mitch,

      This could be any number of things, so I'll look at them step by step.

      Part One: Make You're Doing Damage Saves Right

      This is just to double-check, 'cause it's not clear from your description, but you are letting the bruises accumulate from round to round, right? The other conditions are only applicable for one round, but the -1 to damage save from bruises accumulates, and that tends to be the big difference maker in M&M fights.

      It might also help to review the Staggered condition from the three degrees of failure. The game specifies that the two degree drawback – stunned – lasts until the end of the next turn, but it doesn't say the same about Staggered. Once you've failed a three-degree damage save, you're only permitted a single action every round for the rest of the fight, and if you accumulate another three-degree failure, it's the equivalent of being knocked out/incapacitated.

      (I only mention this cause 20 rounds of combat with a six hero team seems totally excessive in my experience, and there the two minutia about damage that it's easy to overlook when you're starting out)

      Part Two: Number of Opponents

      From memory, the Knights campaign is heavy on big team battles and light on situations where the players get to outnumber the bad guy. Big group fights are always going to take longer than a bunch of heroes versus a single powerful big bad, simply because you've got a lot more characters rolling attacks and your more genre-friendly players will generally try to spread their attacks around 'cause that how it works in comics (those focused on the rules will just focus all their attacks on a single guy, put him down, then move on, 'cause that's the most efficient way of taking people out in both M&M and D&D).

      Since I was usually running with 2-3 people, on average, we didn't get into many big team-vs-team brawls. This tends to give the heroes a big advnantage – for instance, if you're in a situation where you've got six heroes ganging up against a single villain, they should easily be knocking a cumulative -2 off the villains damage save every round if they're playing smart and your dice aren't running hot against them.

      By contrast, your villain – even a big bad – is probably only inflicting a -1 penalty to one or two heroes every other round.

      Basically, if you want to speed up combat, use fewer villains. I usually up their defenses a little to compensate for the increased pounding they're going to take – enough to raise them by a power level or two – but leave their attacks lower.

      Part Three: System Mastery

      M&M has a short learning curve associated with it when it comes to combat, so it may be a matter of getting your players more familiar with the system. For instance, in a team of six heroes, *someone* should probably be using Teamwork with the team brick, allowing them go with a full power attack; whoever is doing the hyper agile dodge monkey archetype should probably have Acrobatic Feint (which lets you get the enemy flat-footed, halving their active defence) and the Set-Up advantage (allowing them to transfer that benefit to their teammate), which again allows everyone to dog-pile on the big-bad and use things like power attack to their benefit.

      Third…at some point your players are going to discover the power of the Improved Critical advantage. Even one or two ranks of this dramatically increases the odds of a fast KO when they use the "add 5 to your damage" option, particularly when it's coupled with the advantages above (It's one of the few things in any RPG – ever – that I had to house rule, since one player was basically looking to take 5 ranks and crit on any die roll of 15 or above).

      Keep in mind we played M&M for about three years straight, so it took time for the players to figure all this out, but once they did…well, fights were short. The players knew their strengths and played to them, which meant they could mow through some pretty powerful opposition in short order.

      Hope that helps.

  9. Mich
    02/02/2015 at 8:47 AM

    Sorry, hit enter after someone distracted me:/

  10. Anonymous
    24/04/2016 at 2:14 AM

    Thanks for the advice, stumbled across it doing research for running a Superworld game.

  11. 10/02/2017 at 12:26 AM

    Thanks for the advice. Been hankering to run a Champions campaign again and doing research on how to speed up combat. This information is good all around advice for making the game clip right along.

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