So back in 2012 I wrote up a list of 13 things I’d learned running a Superhero RPG campaign for thirty sessions, and it quickly became one of the most read posts I’ve ever done.
Now, six years later, we’ve just played session #150 of the same campaign, which definitely makes this one of the longest RPG campaigns I’ve ever run. Over the last six years we’ve switched systems, going from 3rd Edition Mutants and Masterminds to Cortex’s Marvel Heroic RPG system, and accumulated three additional players (although session-by-session attendance varies).
In game, the duo of Shock & Awesome have grown to a full-fledged superhero team dubbed SMAX. The two original characters have gone on hiatus so the players can bring in new heroes, and the team now includes an alien circuit acrobat, a rogue winged monkey from the parasitic demi-plane known as Oz, and a Mexican speedster/shadow-sorcerer whose powers stem from a number of gods.
This post is a companion piece to my 2012 post, noting some of the ways my thinking about running superhero games have evolved or changed since the first write-up.
15 THINGS LEARNED ABOUT SUPERHERO RPGS AFTER RUNNING 150 SESSIONS OF MY CAMPAIGN
1) MOST SUPERHERO EXPERIENCE POINT SYSTEMS SCALE POORLY FOR LONG-TERM PLAY
We kicked off this campaign in session one with PL8 Mutants and Masterminds characters, placing the PCS on roughly the level of your average teen-hero comic book character. If we’d followed the original experience point rules laid out in third edition M&M for 150 sessions religiously, the PCS would now be PL 18 – roughly the equivalent of your big, world-shaking villains like Thanos or Apokolips in your average comic book universe.
The Marvel Heroic system we’re now using had its own problems if you use the Milestone XP system as written, with heroes scaling even faster if you devoted XP to purchasing power upgrades simply because the system was never meant for long-term play. It’s primary focus is getting Marvel characters moving in-and-out of teams, with every character resetting to default after an “event.” This doesn’t happen in a group where players are attached to their self-created characters, and particularly not at the pace Marvel assumes.
We used Milestones for about twenty sessions, after which one of the more mathematically inclined players had scaled his character up to a power-level equivalent of Thor through a few judicious choices. The upside of this was that the Marvel system handled that scaling well in terms of making everyone feel equal. The downside is that having a should-be-Cosmically-aware-on-Silver-Surfer-levels PC in a game that was focused on a much smaller scale wasn’t the best possible fit.
Here’s the thing, though: I doubt any XP system is going to scale well for superhero gaming. XP systems in RPG systems are usually focused on character-improvement, scaling up power levels over time and replicating the kind of learning-curve that’s often associated with the dramatic arc of fantasy characters where naive farm-boys evolve into warrior-kings and powerful sorcerers.
Superhero characters tend towards the iconic – they’re characters who, in the words of Robin Laws, “imposes order on the world by reasserting his essential selfhood.” We don’t watch superhero narratives to see how the character changes, but to see them apply their powers and their driving character conflict to the different conflicts. Changes to their powers tend to be gradual and narratively-driven (Spiderman and his villains getting slowly more powerful over the decades, as they master their abilities and one-off stunts become regular usage), or they tend to be an all-at-once shift of the status quo designed to prompt the question of “where to from here?” (Spiderman getting the venom suit, or becoming the owner of a multi-million dollar tech company with a series of advanced gadgets from his R&D).
This campaign has used a two different systems so far, and I’ve encountered a lot more in the past. Few of the XP systems I’ve come across ingrate the approaches of gaming and comics well, so we largely made the decision to get rid of them. Character change in the campaign is now either narratively driven (“It’d be interesting if Shock was no longer possessed by a ninja spirit”), or the result of logical progression (“you’ve been trying lots of thing X with your powers/skills; let’s give you an actual dice in it now”).
2) NPC VALUE IS DRIVEN BY REPETITION, ENGAGEMENT, AND INTEGRATION, NOT STATS
The villains with the most player buy-in in the campaign aren’t people who were introduced as an intentional big-bad, but the mookish folks who are easily slotting into plot-after-plot and come with specific, comprehensible goals and memorable hooks. The multi-armed Doom Squid, whose main role in the campaign is getting punked in team-fights, inevitably gets a bigger response from the players than the guy he’s working for. Even though he usually gets out little more than “I’m going to kill you!” before he’s pantsed and pummelled into submission, the players recognise him in the same way a Marvel reader recognises Dr Doom.
There’s an interesting framework for this in the Mutants and Masterminds Gamesmaster’s Guide, which lays out a four-part model for creating an in-depth and memorable villain. They come down to the level of interaction the player character’s have, allowing for the development of something more than a Me Good, You Bad relationship; the information they get about the NPC, and how well the villain integrates with the PC heroes and the setting. In this respect, Doom Squid’s recognition among the players makes perfect sense: he shows up a lot, the PCs were there at the moment he was created (and named him), and he’s got an ongoing grudge with the PC who first defeated him that defines his actions. He might not have the stats to be treated as the big-bad, but he’s one of the defining villains of the campaign in way than the actual big-bads are not.
On the other hand, it highlights one of the gaps between RPG conventions and comic conventions. In comics that process of integration, information, and repeated engagement is handled “off-stage,” via the villain-driven scenes where the primary heroes aren’t present. If you want to make villains important, you need to find new ways to build them up and generate the kind of connection that you’re looking for. This gets harder as campaigns progress and subplots iterate.
If I were starting this campaign afresh – or starting a new one – I would be kicking off with a very limited villain pallet of about 13-15 regular names, reusing them as often as possible for the first two or three years in different combinations. This would get a whole bunch of villains integrated before I started adding new names, and even then I’d do things slowly, adding new people to replace particular archetypes only when the old villain who occupied that space evolved away from it.
3) THE MINUTIA OF HEROES LIFE IS HARDER TO MANAGE AS GROUPS GROW LARGER
We had a pretty rich supporting cast in the early days of the campaign, but that was largely the product of having two central PCs whose narratives naturally intersected via location (school) and inclination. This is a lot harder to navigate in a group of five, with fewer intersections outside of their team HQ and job as superheroes. You can alternate between two personal stories in-game without leaving too much “dead space” for the other players, but alternating between five means that a number of people are going to be left twiddling their thumbs while they’re waiting for their turn “on the page.”
In Superhero gaming, the solution for this is usually something like Aaron Allston’s Blue Booking, in which personal stories are handled via written exchanges in notebooks or online tools. This is a nice innovation if you’ve got a group who are into it, but if you’re group likes to show up and game during the game and has the kind of lives that busy thirty- and forty-somethings tend to have, then it’s gets a little harder to manage.
Theoretically, our current campaign still had a central “non-hero” hub in the assumption that the heroes were attending university, but the recent introduction of two characters who don’t fit that (and a series of sessions taking place in other dimensions) means that it’s no longer serviceable. The bulk of the NPC interactions are now happening in a “professional” context, at the Team HQ and via interactions with the police or local underworld, which means I either need to flesh out those spaces or try and find other ways to unify subplots.
I’ve spent the last couple of weeks contemplating this, and doing a bunch of reading of team-based comic books to study the dynamics. Interestingly, the shift towards the professional holds true in a lot of team-based comics, where interactions with supporting casts are either brief (less than a page) or team-centric, rather than the basis of a complex personal arc. I’m not at all sure how to replicate that in-game, but it’s given me some starting points to experiment with.
4) PERIODICALLY RE-SET YOUR PITCH TO KEEP FOLKS ON THE SAME PAGE
I talked about the necessity of getting everyone on the same pitch in the first version of this article, making sure that they’re all aware of the kinds of plots and villains they should be expecting to see on an session-by-session basis. Our early sessions were largely put together based on the player’s request for something like early Spiderman on Invincible comics: lots of gonzo, lots of relationship drama, lots of newly-emerged villains and heroes-in-high school drama.
I did my first pitch re-set around session 70, marking the point where the heroes graduated from high school and the scale of the series shifted. Rather than new heroes, the initial duo had become established and recognised and that changed the way they integrated with the setting. They started going to college, met some other heroes and developed a team, and then…well, things went off the rails. The pitch started to drift as we attempted to resolve certain subplots, particularly when new players came in and the subplots establishing their characters pulled us away from the central plots I had planned. I’d planned to keep things in the city, but the action kept travelling outside that boundary and the team gradually grew more and more mystically-focused as people developed new abilities. Then, just as we’d started to settle into a mystic-team-of-heroes vibe and set up some long-term plots, two of the players decided to write thei primary characters out of the series to bring in someone new.
This isn’t unexpected. Pitch-drift happens over a long-term campaign, but recognising that it’s happening and articulating the emerging vision yourself and your players is an important step.
5) IN-GAME VERISIMILITUDE IS INCREDIBLY COMPLEX IN SUPERHERO GAMES
When I first wrote about superhero gaming, I noted that it was incredibly hard compared to other forms of gaming. Particularly given:
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.
I stand by that, but I’ve come to realise that one of the biggest challenges for the superhero GM is managing the intersecting regimes of verisimilitude associated with superhero worlds, in particular when it comes to power use and storyline.
For those unfamiliar with the term, verisimilitude is the thing that gives stories the appearance of being true. In genre terms, they’re largely a set of assumptions that guide what is possible and probable within a particular text. To quote one of the best essays I’ve seen about the phenomenon, “in a vampire novel it is perfectly plausible for a character to return from the dead, and probable that he will then go on to seek out blood to drink; in a novel of literary realism neither action is plausible or probable.”
RPG games have largely handled in-game matters of verisimilitude in two ways: the first is through a process of abstraction where possibility and plausibility are delineated by rules, or through the process of a shared regime of verisimilitude where “it makes sense within the story/genre” guide what is and isn’t plausible and possible.
On the other hand, Comics have always played it fast-and-loose when it comes to matters of verisimilitude, particularly in the gold and silver age. We are, after all, talking about a medium where Stan Lee would routinely get away with things like the Human Torch creating fire sonar, or where Cyclops’s eye-blast has been used as a carrier-beam for a empathic attack on an entire alien race. Coming up with weird and unexpected stunts with a power is practically a genre trope, even if today’s writers tend to be a little more realistic about such things.
The end result is that superhero games tend to go in two directions when it comes to powers – they either go incredibly delineated about what is and isn’t plausible with a power based upon complicated power-set attributes (Mutants and Masterminds, Champions), or they assign a handful of traits and allow the results to be somewhat more freeform and narratively driven (Marvel Heroic). The former tends to rely on somewhat more complex modelling for one-off power stunts in exchange for clearer visions of what is possible/probable, while the latter allow for more free-form power use but have fewer guidelines for what is/isn’t possible.
Regardless of the rules details behind them, all power ranks/dice/scores are essentially abstractions.
At the end of the day, both will struggle with the same problem: if a player and a GM, or two different players, have even slightly differing ideas about what is possible and plausible with powers, you effectively have a situation where people are playing by different rules because what seems plausible is fundamentally different. If you cannot predict plausibility, then you cannot predict risk and make effective choices. On the flipside, if you do not know the limits of a power, figuring out how to challenge (or even when to challenge) a player’s usage and force a roll instead of saying “sure, just go for it, there’s no risk of that failing.”
Managing this is hard in established worlds like Marvel or DC, where years of continuity have resulted in some weird-ass uses of particular powers. Managing it in a self-created world, where players are responsible for articulating the limits of their powers through abstract (and, often, not-well-understood) rulesets is much, much harder.
Which brings me to my next lesson:
6) ACKNOWLEDGE YOU ARE GOING TO RUN SOME BAD SESSIONS AND ROLL WITH IT
Like, seriously bad. More than I am used to when running things like D&D. I’m talking sessions where you frustrate the fuck out of all the players, and get frustrated in return. Because verisimilitude doesn’t just affect the way powers are used, it also affects the way you expect heroes to resolve problems. In a police procedural, a murder is resolved by investigation, interrogation, and deduction based on clues; in an action movie, its resolved by a series of fight scenes; in film noir, it’s resolved by going and engaging with the underworld and being more noble than it is.
All these approaches are leading to the same result – resolving the murder – but the way you’re expected to get there is different. Genre expectations shape plausibility as often as everything else.
And here’s the thing: Comic books aren’t a genre, they’re a medium. There’s a big difference between a batman comic which is “police procedural with superpowers,” and a Batman comic that’s “action movies with superpowers.”
Some games make this easy, because the default “how to solve things” is always in place. In D&D you go out and beat up monsters with magic weapons and spells. Players have reasonable expectations about what they’re meant to be doing to solve a plot problem, you have reasonable expectations of how they’re going to go about it.
You are going to run some bad sessions. It’s just a given. Particularly In superhero games, and especially in long-term games where heroes start turning over and new abilities/paradigms find their way in (and therefore get coupled with the problems of verisimilitude in point 5). Teams who had previously relied upon technology or magic get a guy with underworld contacts in the mix, and start hitting the streets to gather intel. The PC who has been habitually hacking everything disappears, or changes their power set, and you suddenly have to start predicting unknown methods of getting information.
Such paradigm shifts happen, sometimes, simply because you’re drawing inspiration from a different genre or improperly predicted how to keep a search for a bad guy interesting, and you’ll spend a whole session trying to get your vision and the players vision of the game into the same place.
7) VILLAIN TEAMS TRUMP SOLO VILLAINS IN TERMS OF THREAT LEVEL
Teams of supervillains are relatively rare in most superhero comics, compared to the solitary Masterminds who are usually behind most problems. This is partially a function of solo-hero titles being extraordinarily prevalent in superhero narratives, where the villain team-up into a Masters of Evil/Injustice League type thing therefore becomes a narrative drawcard.
This assumption tends to carry through into the design of most superhero settings for RPG games, where established villain teams tend to represent a comparatively small number of threats compared to a settings’ dedicated Top Leve Threats and large assortment of random crooks and thugs.
The problem with unguarded master villains in a superhero campaign is pretty simple: players have more actions than the villain in most systems, and they will basically concentrate all fire on that Super Star Destroyer until it’s on fire and ready to explode. The villain may have a devastating attack, possibly even one that will affect every player in the action sequence, but if they only get one attack per round then it’s easy for a bad roll to turn Major Threat into Major Let Down.
Villains need to have flunkies in RPG games, if only to provide extra actions and extra targets, or they need to have the kind of toughness that is incredibly daunting (and frankly, frustrating) to overcome. Get into the habit of building up teams, even if they’re unofficial.
8) REWARD PLAYERS FOR FOLLOWING GENRE CONVENTIONS
I’ll admit – I’ve fucked this up over the last year. When we started with Mutants and Masterminds their hero point system did a great job of this, but Marvel Heroic pushed the bulk of the “genre convention” rewards into their XP system which we ditched early on as PCs were either advancing ridiculously fast or simply buying 4 extra plot points per session. While some of the slack was meant to be picked up by Cortex’s limit system, when we ditched XP we simply started everyone with 5 PP (as that’s where their XP was going), so there wasn’t much call to do things to replicate genre except in extraordinary circumstances.
I’m looking at this system over again and trying to remember the core premise: hero points/plot points should be treated like reward candy, a systemic way of saying “bravo, you’ve done something comic-book-like that disadvantages you,” while simultaneously allowing the players to continue doing advantageous things with their powers and abilities later in the story. Keeping these bonuses as a thing players earn is important, as it puts the impetus for setting up the challenges associated with “keeping a secret identity” or “dealing with the conflict between hero work and school work” on them when scenes are being set up. One of the things I’ve definitely noticed since shifting away is the tendency to rely on me to set up such conflicts in a scene, which often means they’re falling by the wayside.
9) KEEP BETTER SESSION NOTES THAN YOU THINK YOU’LL NEED
I started this campaign keeping okay notes, but the habit fell by the wayside around session 70 and became increasingly intermittent from there (particularly when one of the players started recording their own session notes in an available format).
This wasn’t a problem early on, where the focus was tight, but as new players joined the group and there was less time to devote to subplots every session, it meant that we’d lost track of what had been done and what hadn’t. Things I’d been keeping a careful watch on for a few sessions weren’t so closely monitored, and at least one subplot has been rewritten when it became apparent a player and I had different memories of how things had been investigated.
My primary gaming goal for 2018 is to keep much, much better session-by-session notes for myself, alongside better planning of arcs. More importantly, I want to keep a better track of when places and people have appeared in the game, so that I can integrate the lessons mentioned in point 2 and establish a few more recurring villains at various threat-levels.
10) DON’T BE AFRIAD TO FINISH A SESSION A LITTLE EARLY IF IT GETS YOU A REVELATION FINISH TO A SESSION
We ended session 150 at the gates of a small orphanage where one of the characters got their start, preparing to break into the underground complex where a rogue Vatican faction dubbed The Grail was training a squad of super-soldiers to combat the inevitable Apocalypse. Now it’s home to a pair of their earliest villains, who have presumably set up camp there to use the advanced technology and mystic warding.
We probably could have taken an extra half-hour and done the big donnybrook that will inevitably take place when the players break in and trash the villains, but relatively few comic books finish on a big fight. The convention of the medium is finishing on the revelation of new information, or a new threat, or a new looming problem that the heroes will need to resolve. Basically, the big full-page reveal that’s designed to get you hooked into the next issue
This means, in an effort to keep things comic book-like, I will often look for an ending to a session that will make it clear what’s about to happen next time. The question of what’s the biggest reveal I can make this session is usually a guiding light – in this instance, where the villains are is a significantly bigger reveal than who they are, because the PCs were already tracking specific people and the location is attached to a PC backstory.
11) THE PROCESS OF ADDING A NEW PLAYER IS A BLESSING, BUT ALSO A CURSE
We’ve added three new players over the last 120 sessions, often at different times. In many respects, new players have a renewing effect on the campaign – they bring in a new perspective and a new character for everyone to bounce off, and they shift the dynamic between the players and the PCs. They meet the villains anew, finding their own dynamics, and open up new narrative possibilities.
On the other hand, they also represent a problem when they’re coming in mid-campaign, because you’ve got a bunch of established plots and subplots that they’re not connected too and they come with their own sub-plots that need to be established. The first time we added a new player was right as we did the first re-pitch of the campaign, which was a natural moment to pause and integrate, but the next two happened with a more haphazard approach.
New PCs also tend to disrupt team dynamics, especially when they start overlapping with someone who has a fairly well-established niche in terms of power set or skills, which means that the generic assumptions about how things get resolved tend to be naturally disrupted.
12) YOUR MAIN JOB IS DENIAL, BUT HOLDING OUT TOO LONG WILL KILL A SUBPLOT
The last version of this post mentioned that the primary job of a superhero GM is denial: you 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, from “getting changed into my costume” through to “getting a date” and “stopping a villain.” But the trick of making denial work is 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.
But when you’re talking long-term gaming – and regardless of your definition of that, 150 sessions and seven years of gaming certainly qualifies for me – there’s going to be a slow accumulation of unresolved plot points. Some of them, despite your best efforts, are going to be stuff that feels major and long-term. This means they start taking on significance you hadn’t expected when you first set them up, and it’s easy to start finding yourself second-guessing and rewriting (or, worse, deferring) when players try something unexpected to resolve it.
This is the nature of serialised storytelling – it happens in comics all the time, in things like X-Forces “X-ternals” subtplot where Cannonball was immortal, or Spiderman’s “Who is the Hobgoblin?” arc – but it tends to be a little harder to navigate in a game where your audience is about four or five people. The subplots that matter to one person matter to approximately ¼ of your games audience, and you can’t do what comics do when they shrug and change the writer to get away from the problem.
13) THE CAMPAIGN WORLD MEANS LESS THAN YOU’D THINK
You may have a detailed, intriguing campaign world in which the campaign takes place but the reality is that Player are only going to experience the stuff that comes up in-play. I can tell you a bunch of interesting things about the non-PC heroes in my campaign world, but the only person who tends to see 90% of it is me. Like villains, campaign element are reinforced by recurrence, interaction, and integration and even over 150 sessions the list of things you can meaningfully engage with is incredibly low.
This is not to say that you shouldn’t develop your campaign world – odds are, if you’re running a superheo campaign, it’s because you’re a comic book fan and part of the fun is figuring out what your world looks like and feels like. It is, however, a bad idea to spend time stating out or detailing such things if they don’t serve a meaningful purpose for the sessions you’re planning to run. Comic books worlds are interesting because there are multiple points of engagement, setting up contrast between different titles. RPG worlds are filtered through a very specific set of experiences.
The flipside of this is that campaign details are only meaningful if you make them meaningful. It doesn’t matter if you have an NPC team with a rich, detailed history if the players never encounter it, and it doesn’t matter if your players are the hot, new heroes in the setting if there’s never any mention of it or situations where their status is contrasted with others.
14) CREATE CHEAT-SHEETS FOR RECURRING FACTIONS/CONTEXTS/LOCATIONS
You accumulate a lot of NPCs over 150 sessions, and most of them aren’t showing up every session. Even the most recurring of recurring NPCS in our game will disappear for five or six sessions at a time, and they’re the equivalent of people who live in the same HQ as the heroes and interact with them daily.
I can usually remember broad strokes for NPCS – I know how many staff are involved at the local Meta Humans crime office, and what each of them do – but the number of times I’ll try to remember a first name and fail, or forget a hook associated with an NPC, is considerable. Even though I have a list of NPCs details in my campaign Onenote, it’s just too long for a quick scan to find the details I really need and even search isn’t the help I’d like it to be.
So, on a practical level, I’ve started breaking those lists down and creating “Cheat Sheets” for various factions and contexts within the game. One will involve the PCs involved in the team’s headquarters, including their boss and the support staff. Another is a list of everyone involved with the local cops, and another for the campaigns SHEILD equivalent.
Working from broad tags to specific NPCs is considerably easier than looking for a single NPCs details on their own, and it means that the details are grouped together if the players return to a faction/place/context unexpectedly or if I need to attach a name to a plotline.
15) FINDING THE SYSTEM THAT SUITS YOUR STYLE MATTERS HELPS A WHOLE LOT
Back in 2012 I mentioned two things about Superhero gaming that surprised me – that the fights were faster than I was used to in other games, and they were usually slightly duller. In Mutants and Masterminds, people tended to blast away at each other with their most powerful ability until someone fell over, and the tactical decisions were minimal.
This was particularly noticeable once we introduced our third player, who came in as a speedster who wanted to do speedster-type thing, but mostly just ended up delivering the same handful of bonus to the other player.
We swapped to Marvel Heroic because some friends of mine recommended it, and kicked it off with a test-drive using actual Marvel characters. It…didn’t go well. At all. To the point where I was almost tempted to just set the game aside and stick with M&M for good.
One of the players encouraged me to test-drive Marvel Heroic with their regular characters to see how it worked, and the results were immediately better. The speedster could suddenly make big, meaningful changes with her speedster tricks; the noble Captain America type could talk villains down as effectively as he could punch them in the face. We ran into the problems of verisimilitude and power-sets a lot more often, but it also opened up multiple solutions instead of optimizing the system for punch-blast-zap-ouch.
I enjoyed M&M – and would use it again for a different group or style of game – but I don’t think I could have run 150 sessions with it. If nothing else, it encouraged getting bogged down in the minutia of what was possible with NPC powers, even if I didn’t do outright point-buy stating. Cortex Plus made creating NPCs considerably faster and more streamlined, which means I could prep games faster. This hasn’t always involved using the extra time to prep games better, given other things that have gone on in my life, but it’s getting there.
More importantly, even though actions scenes in Cortex Plus may feel similar mechanically, they play out very differently in terms of what the characters do and support quick switches in tactics if the heroes find themselves in a situation where throwing a punch is ineffective. There will still be bad sessions, but having a system you feel like you’re working with makes a big difference.