So this is a heads up for the non-gamer folks – I’m dedicating my Friday blog post to the topics of Superhero RPGs for the next forseeable while, largely ’cause I’m a big ol’ gamer nerd who enjoys writing about games (and, lets be honest, I don’t have the time to spend on gaming messageboards that I once did). What this means, if you’re not a gamer, is pretty much this: I’m about to spend Fridays talking about things that’ll seem a little…well, esoteric. The rest of the week, on the other hand, will be my usual mix of ranting and writer-geekery.
CAMPAIGN RESOURCE ROUND-UP
I’m fairly system agnostic when it comes to superhero RPGs. I’ve run a lot of them, accumulated the rules for a whole bunch more, and while I’ve finally settled on a system that works for me in Mutants and Masterminds 3E, I’m always interested in seeing how new superhero systems work. This means that my campaigns tend to have a weird little grab-bag of influences from other systems, just ’cause solid advice for Superhero gaming tends to be that little harder to come by than it is for systems like D&D.
As a follow up last weeks list of 13 lessons, I figured I’d spend some time looking at some of the essential campaign advice/resources I’ve accumulated over the years. The following are the five of the most commonly-referenced Superhero books in my collection (plus one I expect I’ll be using fairly often in the future), and together they make for a pretty kick-ass primer on how to run a superhero campaign that lasts longer than 5 or 6 sessions.
Where I can, I’ve tried to explain the reason I recommend a book – some are chock-full of great stuff, some have a handful of pages that were a revelation to me when I first read them.
1) STRIKE FORCE by Aaron Allston (Hero Games, 1988)
Reason to track it down: It’s damn brilliant.
So sometime back in 1988 Hero Games dedicated an entire sourcebook to writing up Aaron Allston’s home campaign. In the hands of most gamers this’d probably make for a pretty dry read, but the Strike Force sourcebook is notable for being on the earliest (and best) breakdowns of the types of players who get involved in superhero campaigns that I’ve come across. Better yet, it charts the kind of issues that Allston came across as his campaign grew and evolved, and the advice offered made it a whole lot easier to run a successful superhero campaign after I read the book.
‘Course, being over a decade old and long out of print, it’s going to be damn hard to track copies of this down. I picked mine up on ebay about…well, eight or nine years ago, I guess. A lot of the advice has filtered down into other supplements since the eighties, but I’m still a big fan of the Strike Force package, which blends the savvy advice with the kind of enjoyable gamer-voyeurism that comes from getting a sneak-peak at a well-run campaign. It’s still the book I break out and re-read before I start running a new campaign.
2) CHAMPIONS SUPERPOWERED ROLEPLAYING by Aaron Allston (Hero Games, 2002)
Reason to track it down: Advice for constructing campaign worlds and running campaigns
In a lot of ways the advice offered in the 2002 edition of Champions is the logical progression of Allston’s advice in Strike Force fourteen years earlier. There’s a lot of useful stuff in the Champions genre book for Hero 5th ed, even if you’re not entirely conversant with the Hero System (I’m not, which is odd, given my tendency to accumulate Hero sourcebooks). The guidelines for dealing with power creation and system balance may be Champions specific, but the general gist of it is still usable if you’re using a similarly gear-headed power creation system (and many superhero RPG systems do).
The most useful part of the Champions book for non-Champion’s GMs is the chapters devoted to thinking out your campaign world and maintaining the course during a long-term campaign. Such things aren’t a big deal if you’re primarily interested in running a game in an established comic-book universe, such as those that have been licensed from Marvel and DC over the years, but most Supers GMs I’ve come across tend to build their own worlds and Champions has decades spent doing just that.
3) DC HEROES: THE RULES MANUAL (Mayfair Games, 1989)
Reason to track it down: Subplot Guidelines
This was part of a boxed set of the DC Heroes rules (I think, perhaps, the second edition), which I loved for all sorts of reasons that had nothing at all to do with it being an RPG system. That said, there’s eight pages towards the back of the red DC Heroes Rules Manual that I routinely photocopy and slip into my campaign folder, ’cause the DC Heroes write-up on establishing and running subplots throughout the campaign is great stuff. I mean, 8 pages is a lot of real-estate in an RPG rule book, particularly one that fits all the rules of the game into 72 pages.
I tend to find the subplot guidelines particularly useful for the third edition of Mutants and Masterminds because it’ gives a framework for addressing Complications in play. I can say many positive things about the Complication mechanic, but among them is the fact that players get to foreground the kind of subplots they want their characters to be involved in. Aside from the handful that are based off powers, almost all Complications make for a story element that can be carried over through multiple sessions and evolved as the campaign goes on.
4) AVENGERS:EMH BLOG SERIES by Steve Kenson (Online)
Reason to track it down: Lots of interesting thought about how games can replicate superhero tropes
Between Icons, three editions of Mutants and Masterminds, and work on a handful of other systems, it’s a safe bet that Steve Kenson’s credentials as a game designer with a love of superhero games is fairly well established. What makes really interesting reading on his blog, however, is the series he’s done about the Avengers: Earth’s Mightiest Heroes cartoon where he goes through the series, episode by episode, and asks what can be learned about game mastering and game design from the show. He’s finished the entire first season, which starts here, and he’s now started on the Justice League cartoon.
Turns out, there’s a whole damn lot that can be learned, and it also provides a convenient excuse to rewatch a particularly excellent superhero cartoon in the name campaign research. Printed the entire series out for future reference.
5) MARVEL HEROIC ROLEPLAYING BASIC GAME (Margaret Weiss Productions, 2012)
Reason to track it down: Event-Based approach, Initiative System
One of the new kids on the block when it comes to superhero RPGs, and one that I’ve only recently acquired at that. I picked it up off the recommendation of Patrick O’Duffy, who (quite rightly) pointed out that the system disrupts the basic paradigm of superhero gaming. As he put it in a recent blog post:
This (the game) is a huge departure from the traditional campaign models of pretty much every superhero RPG, or indeed every gaming group, which have been solidly emulating Claremont’s X-Men for something like 30 years – a broth of long-term plots, multi-session plots and character-focused subplots that move in and out of focus as part of an indefinitely-ongoing game with a high degree of player-PC identification and the GM solidly in the driver’s seat. Once again the focus is on the setting rather than specific heroes, and the play of events that are bigger than they are (one of the things that tends to distinguish from DC, where heroes are often bigger than events). The subtext is that exploring the setting and the Event is where the fun is, for both GM and players, rather than tying yourself to a single character or coming up with your own story scenes.
I’m not sure that the MHRBG is the first time this event-based approach has been attempted – I’ve got a copy of the old Marvel FASERIP module for Secret Wars II and it did something very similar (albeit poorly) – but they’ve certainly streamlined the approach and made it workable.
It’s interesting enough that I’m eager to test the system out properly, assuming I can find some willing players, but I’m far more interested in the bits of the Event-Based approach that can be borrowed and adapted. ‘Cause, honestly, I kinda like the Claremont approach to campaigns.
The other thing to take a look at – and this part I plan on stealing ASAP – is their initiative system. It rather elegantly discards the usual RPG approach of randomizing the action order and replaces it with the simple expedient of picking someone to go first, then allowing them to choose who goes next. For systems that require a high level of trust like superheroes, giving that kind of control to the players strikes me as a great way to create the right atmosphere.
6) ALAN MOORE’S WRITING FOR COMICS by Alan Moore
Reason to track it down: Really, it’s Alan Moore explaining how comic narratives work
This one isn’t exactly a game supplement, but when it comes to understanding how comics do what they do, my go-to recommendations are Moore’s short guide and Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics. Both treat comics like the unique storytelling medium they are, but Moore spends a lot of time explaining how *story* works (and character, and plot, really). Plus, come one, it’s Alan Freakin’ Moore explaining how comic books work. When you plans for a session come into contact with the player group and fall apart, leaving you to improvise a session based on the fumes coming from the burn wreckage of your plans, having an instinct for the way comic book stories unfold is useful.
And that’s my list. Some of these are out of print, but if you’re lucky you can pick them up by scouring ebay or looking for a PDF version (I know the DC book still exists as Blood of Heroes, but I don’t know if it still contains the Subplot advice). I’m always looking for new books on the subject, so if anyone’s got any recommendations, let me know.
I’ve left of a handful of obvious choices – the M&M rulebook is pretty much a given for me, given that it’s my system of choice (although I do wish it had a more expansive book on running campaigns). Also absent are the various messageboards associated with a particular game system, which are often packed to the gills with GMs who are willing to offer advice. Being part of an engaged community of gamers that talks about their campaigns is actually a pretty awesome way of picking up some neat campaign tricks, so it’s worth checking to see if your system of choice has one.