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
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.
Post-Script: Want to see how my thinking on Superhero RPGs have changed? I’ve written a companion piece to this entry detailing 15 Things I’ve Learned About Superhero RPGS After Running 150 Sessions Of My Campaign.