Gaming

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15 Things Learned About Superhero RPGs After Running 150 Sessions Of My Campaign

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.

Superhero RPGs and XP Systems

I ran session 108 of my ongoing Superhero campaign last night. That’s rather a lot, for a campaign that started while the players were in their thirties, and I finally did something I probably should have done in session one: throw out the XP system.

I’ve always hesitated to do this because XP is one of those fundamental bedrocks of RPG systems going back to Dungeons and Dragons. The theory is simple: you go out, you do things, and you get better because of it.

Pretty much every Superhero RPG system I’ve come across will have some method of doing exactly that, allowing characters to inch their way forward in incremental steps, or save up the points to make big, wholesale changes and additions to their power. And because most superhero systems view character creation as a range of options built up of points – an energy blast that will cut through a tank will cost you this much, while one that will level a building is this much more – it’s meant to keep heroes at roughly the same level in terms of power.

And from a game perspective, it’s a solid design choice. No-one feels like they’re being short-changed.

From a genre perspective, it’s bizarre.

Superheroes and their abilities evolve, yes, but it’s rarely incremental unless the storyline is young hero learns to develop their powers. Often, the powers are inherently flexible, depending on the writer and the needs of the story. The evolution and advancement of powers is almost always story based – Iron Man discovers he’s unable to work with his suit, for example, and does some combat training with Captain America. For the rest of that story, you get a whole bunch of scenes where Tony Stark nails bad guys with a punch to the jaw, but next week…he’s blasting people with repulsor rays and doing weird shit with technology.

That Captain America training isn’t going to come up again, unless some nerdy writer drags it out of mothballs and highlights again in a future story.

There’s also the complication that superheroes, as a genre, tend towards archetype and iconic. People have a core set of powers and they will alter for a time, when the narrative calls for it, but Spiderman is always going to revert back into a red-band-blue suit, even if you give him shiny armor that powers him up for a year or two or an alien symbiont that makes his life easier.

Those kinds of stories are easy to do when you’re a comic book writer, but games with XP systems that allow you to buy character advancements mean that kind of story either needs to be short-term, or initiated by the player. And player initiation is harder, when there are points and systems in place, because it means math and rebuilding character and…well, when you do revert, do you revert to your original power level? What do you do with all the XP you’ve accumulated in the mean time?

To say nothing of the final inherent problem of point buy systems and XP: for all the illusion of balance between the heroes, it’s the player who is best suited to optimizing and knowing the rules that ends up being the most powerful.

We swapped over to the Marvel Heroic RPG back a while back because it moved us away from Point Buy and towards a more narrative system. It suited the ways the players wanted to use their powers, since there’s rarely any need to calculate what a particular stunt would “cost” to add into the power set. Marvel’s character creation was pretty basic: broad strokes, narrative sense, use the comics as your guide.

Weirdly, for a game that uses massively iconic characters, it still contains a XP system and it is, perhaps, the most superfluous bit of game design I’ve seen. XP is given for playing to the character as written in the comics, and it’s spent on elements of the plot (We’ll get joined by X for this fight, or I go to Reed Richards and get him to build me a weird science thing to help), for Plot Point buying bonuses that can affect your dice rolls and do funky things with your powers, and for advancements to a character that will disappear at the end of a story arc.

And it probably works great, if you’re using the game as intended, playing Marvel heroes in a temporary storyline, but in a campaign it falls apart quickly. We’ve stuck with it for over a year, with varying degrees of success, and realistically the most optimal use of XP are advancement and session-by-session plot point bonuses.

In getting rid of the XP system I’m cutting out the middle man and just giving players the thing they buy most often: plot points.

Game balance isn’t a huge concern, since the rules are pretty much designed to let Thor and Black Widow be on the same team without either player feeling cheated or like they cannot contribute, even if their power levels are massively different. This seemed like an overstated thing when I first came across someone explaining how this works, but after forty-odd sessions using the XP system as written, the player who is best-suited to optimizing character creation and system mastery is pretty much the system equivalent of Thor and doesn’t feel like they’re dominating the fight scenes.

Similarly, I got the chance to play a session of my friend Patrick’s high-octane space-adventure Annihilation campaign a few months back, and didn’t notice the game breaking down any differently when people are throwing around fists full of D12s instead of D8s.

And if game balance isn’t a concern, what do we need incremental advancement in powers for? Can we not just do things on a storyline-by-storyline basis? If we do a big campaign arc where one player is learning greater control of her magical powers, making it the focus of her sub-plots and character motivation, does it not make more sense to just give her control of the powers when she hits a narrative milestone rather than waiting for XP to catch up? If the player with light control keeps trying to create holograms, and it’s generally agreed this would be a neat evolution for her powers, why not just add in the holograms to her abilities?

For us, getting rid of the XP rules largely eliminated a clunky part of the system that no-one was really happy about, but also a part of pretty much every superhero RPG that just never works right. Whether it’s been old DC and Marvel systems, Mutants and Masterminds, or any of the other systems I’ve come across, XP based advancement of characters is always a square peg trying to fit into a round hole in superhero games.

So yeah, last night I killed the system. This morning, I got an email from one of the players with well, I’d like to do this sort of thing with this part of my powers, which is basically a whole damn plot-line/sub-plot that explores their abilities in interesting ways that would have been missed completely if we were waiting on the XP to develop things.

I’m not 100% sure I’ve made the right call here, but I am pretty confident.

 

Some Thoughts on Disconnection and Narrative in Marvel Heroic

I’ve been running a superhero campaign for a few years now, and tonight we hit ninety-seven sessions. In contrast to our usual approach, this one was dice heavy – the heroes raided the compound of an demonic ninja cult, fighting lots of guys in black outfits along with mystically endowed sumo-wrestlers, shadow-warriors, claw-wielding pretty-boys, and evil spirits possessing the body of a stone-and-iron golem.

I spend a lot of time thinking about the system after sessions like this. We started the campaign using Mutants and Masterminds, back when the third edition was released. We shifted over to the Marvel Heroic RPG about nine months back, largely because it added a more dynamic element for folks who didn’t want to build their powers around hitting things, and it’s been…

Well.

It’s been great, and it’s been slightly nightmarish in equal measure.

The Marvel RPG has a lot of moving parts, compared to the Mutants and Masterminds system. It handles comic-style action pretty well, when everything’s working correctly, but getting it working correctly is an uphill battle. Partially this is a flaw with the layout of the book – information is spread across multiple sections and comparatively simple things like “how does the villain escape spider-man’s webs” are half-hidden in sections that don’t make instinctive sense to you’re scanning for a rule on the hop.

For instance, we’ve been using the rules for about nine months now, playing weekly, and I spent last week compiling a four thousand word document on all the things we’ve been getting wrong that have a major impact on how the game works. It becomes problematic to change things, now, because habits have become burned in and need to be relearned.

The other place the moving parts have the potential to get frustrating is in the shared understanding of a character’s powers, personality, and flaws. What’s possible and what’s impossible is largely a matter of everyone agreeing that, say,  Spiderman can do X with his spider-sense, but he can’t do Y. Earning XP is based on mimicking Spiderman’s core traits, following the kinds of sub-plots that fill your average Spiderman storyline.

Which works great, if everyone is familiar with the character and the world.

It’s less great in a game world built from scratch, when figuring out what’s “normal” is a process of negotiation until everyone involved is on the same page. There’s a lot of very straight-forward powers – Super-Strength, for example – but start reading comics and you’ll quickly find a whole bunch of power sets where what’s possible and what’s not is basically at the mercy of the narrator.

For example, Stan Lee thought it was perfectly reasonable for The Human Torch to create Fire Sonar in some of the early Fantastic Four comics. Also, creating a fire-radio to broadcast messages. Basically, if a solution was needed, make it out of fire and you’re done.

Try doing that with a similar character in a superhero RPG – particularly one that’s not designed to replicate the goofier aspects of early comics books – and there’s going to be a moment of disconnect between the way you see your powers working, and the way everyone else does.

Disconnection is the bane of your existence when running game. Disconnection is where people start feeling cheated, because their understanding of the world doesn’t mesh with what’s actually happened. Disconnection is where people find themselves frustrated, because players find themselves in a narratively weaker position than GMs when it comes to figuring out how the game world works.

Disconnection, in essence, becomes the reason games that rely heavily on “shared story” mechanics are much, much harder work than things like D&D (particularly the third edition, which went out of its way to try and empower players and eliminate hand-waved narrative reasons for things).

Marvel relies heavily on shared-story mechanics. The complexity of the moving parts also means that I’ve ended up holding far too much control over the way powers are represented on character sheets.

The sessions of the Marvel RPG I’ve enjoyed the most have been the ones with the least disconnection. Tonight…well, I don’t think it was one of those, both because I’d shifted the rules on people in an effort to get them right, and because we exposed some instances where the way I saw someone’s power working probably didn’t mesh with the players understanding of it.

Three Uses for Splash Pages in Superhero RPGs

So the last time I blogged about Supers gaming, I was in the middle of putting together a list of things I could use to streamline my preparation for games. This is still a work-in-progress – despite my efforts, I  came to our  last session with fairly minimal prep work outside of NPC stats and an overview of the plot – but even the beginnings of the process has been fairly useful. For starters, actually writing down the post-game debrief after every session, even after two or three sessions, is already starting to clarify the kinds of habits/tropes I want to make sure I hit every session.

One of those, which I’m starting to put on my session planning sheet, is the notion of an in-game splash page. It’s one of those habits I picked up somewhere along the line – if anyone can remember the RPG sourcebook that explained it, please let me know – and I’ve used it on and off for a couple of years when running superhero games. When it comes to my prep sheet, there’s now a lot more on than off, and it’s made an immediate difference in terms of me feeling better a night’s session.

In comics the splash-page is an enormously useful tool – it’s  a big, eye-catching illustration that takes up an entire page unto itself, interrupting the action and throwing the focus on a particularly epic or important scene. Historically splash pages come right at the beginning of the session, since you pack a lot of detail into that one-page scene that wouldn’t ordinarily be there when you break the page up into panels. It also lets the comic creators pack in all the credits into a single page.

Roleplaying games don’t have pages, but just as page-space is a valuable commodity in a comic book, time and GM attention are valuable commodities in game. You can create the feel of a splash page just by putting a little extra effort into your description of an action, or by doing some set-up and asking for the players to fill in the details. When you’re flying through a combat, for example, and everyone’s on top of their game in terms of figuring out what they can do, the details are usually short and perfunctory.  That means there’s a lot of power in  saying, “yeah, that’s cool, it’d probably be a full-page image that depicts your character doing this…” and going from there.

And as comic books have always taught us, with great power comes great responsibility, so I’ve been thinking about the kinds of things to look for when it comes to splash page moments. At the moment I’ve got a short-list of three things it’s useful for:
1) SCENE SETTING

It’s the primary purpose of the splash page in comic books, and it works just as well in an RPG session. A splash-page type image allows you  to start mise en scène and set  the dynamic of the session to come. The new Marvel game latched onto this perfectly and made it a core part of the approach, and I have to admit that it matched the way I like to start sessions closely enough that I’m just using the Marvel game’s suggestions as a formal approach – do the big, broad-scale outline of the scene and use the players to fill in the little details.

Usually these scene-setting shots will be focused around action. My group is geeky enough – and sufficiently fond of the conceit that we’re actually creating a comic with our campaign – that I can often do this kind of full-page image creation literally just by saying “our splash for this image depicts a chase-scene down main street as the Dragonfly tries to escape. He’s in the foreground of the shot, flying low the road, leaving a trail of wrecked cars behind him. Where are the two of you? What are you doing?”

Sometimes, though, I’ll use it entirely for creating a image for the players. For example, “your conversation takes you down the hall of your school and out onto the roof. You’re deep in conversation, discussing your plans, but then we turn the page and get splash image – the two of you, drawn very small, on the edge of the school building, looking out over the athletics track, realising for the first time that there are cybernetic dinosaurs wandering the neighborhood  In the background, beyond the limits of the school oval, there’s silhouettes of additional cyber-dinosaurs visible above the rooftops of suburban homes.”

2) MAKE PLAYER CHARACTERS SEEM AWESOME

Splash pages that set up an issue are common. Full-page panels devoted to events that take place after that set-up are relative rare. In fact, they’re generally non-existent. Page space is valuable in comics – when you’ve only got twenty-two pages or so to tell a super-hero story, devoting an entire page to a single action or exchange is a big deal. They aren’t wasted on secondary characters or minor things – when a comic-book character’s actions get  full page, it’s a big fricken deal. In fact, it’s usually a scene where the character in question is doing something unbelievably cool and bad-ass.

RPGs don’t have page-counts that they need to worry about, and even the time-and-attention parallels I made above aren’t a precise match. RPG sessions are usually a few hours long and if you’re using a scene where things are quick to resolve, as we are with M&M, you’ve frequently got the time to create a couple of splash-page type moments without unduly affecting the overall schedule of your game.

These days I’m looking for the opportunity to create two additional splash-pages a session in addition to the set-up. These are all about rewarding the players for doing cool stuff in-game, or signifying big moments.

Sometimes it’s even about rewarding players for doing cool stuff that’s destined to fail or simply goes wrong ’cause of the dice. For example, in my last session, one of the player’s splash-page moments came at the defeat of the major villain (coincidentally, it was also celebrating the fact that player critted the bad guy, ’cause the dice liked us that night). The other splash-page image came when the electro-path was trying to use her powers to drain all energy out of the villain’s doomsday machine.

For various reasons this was always going to be a tough ask, and the dice didn’t favour the player when the attempt was made, but even in the heart of failure it was possible to make their attempt seem epic. This is more or less the description I used in our last session: Okay, splash page moment – we get the shot of you under the machine, just a dark silhouette against the white-hot light as you siphon out unbelievable amounts of wattage from the device, the scale of the page showing just how small you are compared to the device you’re trying to drain. Afterwards, when we turn the page, you’re on your knees, trying to recover, and wisps of smoke rise off your skin and uniform. You get the feeling you’ve stretched your powers to the limit and still there was more to siphon off – what do you want to do now…

I may have undersold the size-difference a little, but the thing I really wish is that I’d asked the group to come up with the big, dominating sound-effect that would have gone along with the mental image we were putting together. In any case, this was a failed roll, sure, but it left the character looking great and created a big, super-hero like image that highlighted exactly what they were up again. Sure, I could have picked one of the combat moves the character did throughout the session to highlight this way, but that would have been a waist – while the first PC is basically a combat-trained brick, and thus meant to be showcased in a fight, energy controllers should have a very different kind of showcase.

3) REINFORCE GENRE TROPES

M&M already has a system for rewarding players for adhering to genre tropes in the form of hero points, but they’re given out for all sorts of reasons and don’t always feel sufficient. When I look for the moments to highlight as a splash page, it’s not just about highlighting the heroes pivotal moments in the game, but also the moments that I want to encourage as being particularly appropriate as a genre.

Just as a splash-page in comics tells you that a particular scene is important in the overall arc of the comic, taking the time to highlight a particular set of actions is a subtle cue to your players that they should, maybe, do more of this kind of stuff, no?  For instance, our electropath has long-ago given up using one of her powers, since it was underpowered during the initial build and never really worked on enemies. It’s still on the character sheet, but it’s not one of the go-to options, even when it probably should be.

When we hit the “drain the doomsday device” scene I knew the odds of succeeding were going to be slim, and one of the obvious options for resolving that (ie, making the odds less-slim on the fly) wasn’t really the best fit for the session. Hence the attempt to make the player seem as cool as possible in failure, so they’re still tempted to try similar tactics in the future. ‘Cause, realistically speaking, energy controllers should be doing that sort of thing, and I’ll couple the description I used for this failure with a note to have some easier things to drain in an upcoming session, just so we cement that it’s thing the character can actually do.

I’m still working at getting all this right, but paying attention to it in recent sessions has really the games *feel* a lot more successful to me (and, hopefully, to the players). I’m already going back and looking at some of the things from previous session I wish I’d given the “full-page” treatment – first kisses between player characters and their significant others, for example, and the first appearance of some NPCs (’cause, honestly, giving an NPC a splash-page debut basically screams “big deal” or “evil”, depending on what they’re doing).

What about you guys? Anyone use something like the splash-page in their games? Any moments you wish you’d applied a little extra detail to in hindsight?

Post-Session Notes from Last Night’s Game

So we ended our Mutants and Masterminds hiatus last night, although in retrospect I wish I’d waited an extra week or two – working a whole bunch of weekends in a row means I don’t get a lot of time to prep sessions and, man, I really wish I’d had time to do a little more prep work on this one. On the other hand, while the lack of prep hurt the session, the counter-argument is that the holidays are coming and there’s usually disruptions to gaming schedules anyway. Getting back into the groove of regular gaming is probably more important than running a perfect game session at this point.

In either case, what’s done is done, and I’m sitting here doing my post-session debrief, trying to figure out what worked, what didn’t, and how the campaign world is destined to change in the coming sessions.

This is something that I’ve always done fairly informally and in a free-form kind of approach, but it occurs to me that I’ve spent much of this year adapting my writing process to the fact that I no longer have the vast expanses of free time to spend on it, but I haven’t actually done the same thing with my gaming.

I’d ordinarily make these kind of notes mentally, and over the space of a couple of days, but given that I’m now running games far more often I’m figured I might try compressing them into a short blog-post after the session finished. Primarily I’m doing this ’cause it’s part of an attempt to develop some pre- and post-game rituals that will formalize some of the processes I used to approach in a more languorous manner. I want to try and streamline the hours of prep-time that I’d put into a game (mostly in terms of long-term plotting) into something that fits my schedule and keeps the game fun for me and my players.

THE BAD

The biggest thing that bugged me about the session was how  set-up heavy it was – I introduced a whole bunch of new elements into the campaign, all of which I’m happy about, but none of them had an immediate pay-off that gave the feeling that a plot had advanced over the course of the evening. New characters were introduced (Ret-Con, a member of a time-travelling cadre, who appeared by disguising himself as *another* newly appearing character – I know what I was trying to do, but I tried to do to much of it), new storylines were sparked (the PCs world was temporarily invaded by cyber-dinosaurs from an alternate time-stream), and an old sub-plot was revisited on short notice when one player contacted an NPC to ask for help.

While this was all tenuously linked to the events of our last session, showcasing some of the consequences of what would happen if the villain succeeded in their plan, it didn’t actually advance the players towards finding said villain in any way that was based on the heroes efforts. The feeling of cause-and-effect that makes the PCs central to the story was missing a little.

Other things I’m feeling grumpy about: my ability to set scenes and describe things was complete pants during this session; I had a serious case of cut-scene-itus (scenes where players spectate, but can’t interact); I couldn’t remember the name of an NPC fast enough to get on the same page as the player; the players came up with a cool tactic that should have been celebrated, but I didn’t give it the splash-page-treatment it should have gotten in-game.

I should stress that I’m not beating myself up about any of these things – just noting them as things to work on in the future, ’cause I’d like each session to be that little bit better than the one that the one that came before it.

THE GOOD

While I started with the bad, it wasn’t all doom, gloom, and misery (which is totally going to be the name of a villain team in the future)

There were a bunch of things I did in tonight’s game that I’m really happy about, and I’d like to remember how they worked. For me, the big winner was the Cyber-Tyrannosaurus as bad guys, primarily because they represented a huge departure from my comfort zone in terms of villains. He was a honking great over-the-players PL bad guy with crappy defenses and great saves (except, in this instance, his Will save, which proved significant – our electropath finally succeeded in using her ability to control machines offensively for the first time).

That the players succeeded in handling the T-rex relatively promptly significantly widens the scope in terms of the Power Level I’m willing to play with for the opposition. I also kind of look at it and think “yay for the villain audit,” since the decision to go cyber-T-Rex as opposed to other dinosaur types largely came down to the T-Rex being the utter antithesis of my villain trends.

Other things that worked: Seeding a future bad-guy via a brief,  foreshadowing cut scene; making a series of call-backs to key elements in our early issues (what is it with our school and dinosaurs?); having great fun babbling about time-traveler pseudo-science; players doing interesting things with their PC’s powers.

RULES REVIEW

I really need to take a close look at the grappling rules so they move a little more fluidly – both the T-Rex and one of the player characters had Improved Grab as an advantage, but I still need to reference rules in order to make them work.

I also need to get a clearer understanding of the way one PC’s Affliction power worked – its been underused, which meant we were all caught off-guard when it worked, and it also doesn’t quite match the way the player wanted the power to work now that it’s finally been used successfully.

FROM HERE

I rarely write these kinds of details down a session, although I often lie awake in bed thinking things over. Blogging about them has been kinda interesting, ’cause I’m already seeing the ways I can create a kind of pre-flight session document that’ll streamline game prep. I’m going to tinker with it a bit over the weekend (around work) and implement it next session – if it works, I’ll report back in two weeks time.

5 Tips When Returning From a Campaign Hiatus

It’s been five days since we wrapped up GenreCon and, well, I’m yet to bounce back to my normal self. Cons are mentally and physically exhausting, doubly so when you’re running them, and you always have to pay your body back for the sleep debt and three days you spend operating on adrenaline and caffeine.

Net result: another short hiatus for my Mutants and Masterminds campaign while I regroup, catch up on sleep, and rediscover the mental capacity for after-work activities that aren’t marathon games of Masters of Orion II on Shifty Silas the laptop.

All of which put me in mind of the following topic for this Friday Superhero Gaming Post:

5 TIPS WHEN RETURNING FROM A CAMPAIGN HIATUS

1) START WITH A BANG

It’s easy to lose track of things during a hiatus: hot subplots grow a little dusty, character traits get forgotten through lack of use, and long-term plots are harder to follow when you’re not engaging with them regularly. It’s easy to forget that when you’re running the game, ’cause GMs are the types who live their campaigns twenty-four-seven, constantly adding details and sparking ideas.

Players, well, players aren’t quite so involved, which is why I’m a big fan of getting the players into a fight scene as soon as possible after a hiatus, and the amount of time we spent not-playing is often directly proportional to the amount of time I leave between okay, guys, lets start the game and roll for initiative.

The logic behind this is pretty simple: fight scenes are generally the most dynamic part of any campaign system devoted to super-heroic action. Its where the players have the most control over their characters and a place where their goals are easily identifiable (beat the bad guys) and utterly unambiguous (don’t get beaten). Also, to borrow a writer aphorism, characters in motion and doing stuff are far more interesting than characters sitting around and talking.

If there’s no logical reason for the players to be in a fight based on the events of last sessions, fabricate one. Excuses I’ve used in the past include this is a flashback, this session takes place in the Series Annual so all this is out of continuity, and so you’re on patrol when you spot…

2) ADVANCE A PLOT POINT

When you’re a GM, there’s a pretty good chance you’ve got a whole bunch of plots and sub-plots set on simmer, just hanging around in the background in case you need them for a quick adventure hooks (I’m terrible at this sort of thing – I once ran a plot audit on a long-term D&D game and discovered over a hundred unresolved subplots).

Pick one, preferably one that’s been allowed to lie fallow, and find some way to advance it in a big way in your back-from-hiatus session. It gives the players something new and juicy to latch onto, which can help ease you past the inevitable what were we doing before the break? questions that crop up.

3) LISTEN TO YOUR PLAYERS

So all the advice thus far has largely been about ignoring the hell out of whatever you were doing before the hiatus.  There’s a reason for this – you’re buying some time so you can listen to the kinds of discussions your players are having during the game.

It’s a well-known fact of GMing that no plan survives contact with a player group – the flip side of that is that some of the campaign elements you’ve latched onto as important aren’t quite so memorable in the eyes of the players. If you give them a new plot thread to follow and listen, they’ll tell you which of your old plot threads they’re eager to see back in action.

Eavesdropping is a thoroughly underrated GM skill at the best of times, but it’s golden in these circumstances.

4) END ON A CLIFFHANGER WHERE POSSIBLE

I’ve seen campaign after campaign killed by a hiatus from gaming, particularly a break that goes for longer than a month. It’s often not difficult to get the first session back, since that’s the session where everyone gets a chance to catch-up with each other, but after that first session you’re fighting whatever routines people set up during the time off. While this hasn’t proven to be the case with our M&M game (small groups have their advantages), it has happened in other games I’ve run.

The goal, then, is to end the session on a cliffhanger that makes sure people want to come back. Cliffhangers are a staple of comic books, soap operas, and any other form of serial narrative. Embrace the cheese of it all and end on something big, so the players have something to look forward to when the next session starts.

5) GO EASY ON YOURSELF

If the hiatus has coincided with a break in GMing, or even gaming in general, its important to remember that your probably going to be a little rusty coming back into the game as well. If you suffer from the same kind of perfectionist-GM-syndrome that I do, it’s important to take it easy on yourself when the game starts.

As a result of this, I like to plan for a slightly shorter session as normal when coming back from a break. It gives me some time to find my feet again and remember why I really enjoy running games, plus it allows for the inevitable side-discussions that break out whenever a group of friends who haven’t seen each other for a few weeks get the chance to catch up.

‘Course, as with most things in gaming, my experiences aren’t always going to be a perfect mesh with other GMs styles and approaches. No hiatus is the same either – a six-month break is a very different experience to having two weeks off over the holidays. If anyone’s got their own tricks and tips that have helped get a campaign back on track after a break, I’d love to hear about them.

Guest Post: Get the MESSAGE with Steve D.

It’s relatively rare that I turn this blog over to someone else to make a guest post, but for the last few months my friend Steve has been putting together a thing called The MESSAGE. Given that he’s tackling one of my personal bugbears – the tendency towards misogyny among gamers – I wanted to amplify his message and asked him if he’d be interested putting together a blog post explaining things. With that, I’m going to hand things over:

The-Message-Advert-3My name’s Steve. I’m the creator and co-director of the MESSAGE. That’s an acronym that stands for Men Ending Slurs and Sexist Attitudes in the Gaming Environment. We’re a world-wide online-based campaign group dedicated to encouraging, supporting and educating men in order to make all types of gaming more welcoming to women, and other minorities. You can find us at www.gamermessage.com and follow us on Facebook and Twitter. Please do – the movement can only work with lots of support.

I decided to set up The MESSAGE earlier this year after a series of events revealed that gaming culture had become even more inveterately sexist than it once was. Along the way, the world of online gaming had removed any pretence towards civility, leading to a culture that constantly, savagely, and endemically attacked women in gaming, a larger culture that cheered it on, and an industry that profited from it.

I could point you to some links that exemplify the kind of thing I’m talking about, but they are legion and easy to find. Indeed, one reason I decided to do the MESSAGE is that everyone seemed to be reporting how bad things had gotten, but hardly anybody seemed to be doing anything to try to change things. Which is not to say that reporting the problem is worthless, especially since there were a few people out there who didn’t know how bad things had become.

If you are outside gaming and don’t know the kind of things I’m talking about, or miraculously, inside gaming and the same, find a female gamer and ask her. That’s how bad things are: you will not find a female gamer without a horror story to tell. What’s shifted in the last ten years is, aided by anonymity, the tone has become more aggressive and more sexualized.

But most people inside gaming knew there was a problem, and that there has always been a problem. Which is why almost nobody inside gaming has asked me why we need this movement. So far, almost everyone has been supportive of the idea, readily acknowledging its need and commiserating at the state of things that require it.

So nobody has asked why. But some people have asked why me.

It’s a fair question to ask, and a fair question to ponder when I’m asked to write on a blog which, to quote Peter, combines the themes of “writing, gaming and anger”, where the anger is mostly political. If you were to ask someone about me, they’d probably tell you that those three things – politics, writing and gaming – define my life pretty strongly. If I’m not asleep, chances are I’m doing one of those three things.

And – by choice and careful selection, of course, not accident – most of my gaming friends are equally political, and angry, and on the same side of the aisle, if only because the underdog and the outcast also tend to be on that side.

It’d be nice to pretend there was a great and important reason behind this. Say that perhaps board gamers are better at seeing the big picture between powerful forces or have more experience thinking in terms of campaigns and strategy. Or maybe that roleplaying games teach us empathy for other points of view, making us quicker to see the needs of minority groups and the oppressed. Heck, maybe being a social outcast for liking geek hobbies led me to support other outsiders, shifting from geek to freak.

But that’s all lies. I was a political animal before I was a gamer, although to be fair my parents were pretty keen on me being both from an early age. I remember taking part in a few peace marches as soon as I was old enough to walk – and taught to play 500 as soon as I could hold the cards. The former came from my mum, the latter from my dad, and I don’t think there was any sense from them that the two things necessarily belonged together.

If there is a link, it goes the other way. I’m not political because I’m a gamer, I’m a gamer because I’m political. Or because I refuse to sit with the status quo when it seems unfair – which is the same thing, really.

My mother taught me to question everything, and one thing I found very quickly when I went to school at the age of five was that everything needed questioning. The people I was supposed to associate with were violent thugs who were quick to despise me. The people I wasn’t supposed to associate with were polite and considerate, cerebral and creative. The former – the boys – tended to abandon imaginary games early for more physical diversions, but the girls kept their dolls and fantasies longer. The boys had trouble sitting still and staying inside, things I always preferred, but the girls were taught from a young age to be quiet and reserved. So from the earliest moments, I hung out almost exclusively with the girls, and together, we discovered games.

Certainly, having two sisters made me more comfortable around the other sex, but what was far more important was, even then, my ability to figure out what mattered, and ignore arbitrary classifications from systems I didn’t believe in. To value people for who they were, not the group in which they were placed. To refuse to believe the separations between people were worth anything at all. To ignore the authority figures and the bullies who said I should believe otherwise should be otherwise.

If I hadn’t been like that, I wouldn’t have played with the girls all those years. Being smart, I might have still hid in books, but without friends, I couldn’t have played. I would never have found anyone to sit with me in the library and play card games and board games over and over again. Without that, I might have pushed away my parents’ love of 500 and been more interested in the tool set or chemistry set they bought me. And I might not be the gaming nut I am today. I might never have become a published game writer and game designer. I might never have met my card-playing friends at university whom I still see to this day. I might never have played Bridge, or Settlers, or Talisman, or rolled a d20 to save versus dragon breath, experiences which shaped so much of my life.

Being a gamer has made me who I am. But becoming a gamer required me breaking out of the mould and seeing the world differently. It required not just being the only boy who was hiding in the library and helping the teacher. It required being the boy who played with the girls.

So when I hear of people ignoring female gamers, or driving them away with terrible behavior, or worst of all, telling them outright that they do not belong in the hobby because it is for men, and that they should get back in the kitchen where they belong – which they do say, all the damn time – I get angry.

I get very, very angry indeed.

Superhero GM Advice Borrowed from Kelly Link: Fine Tune Your Subconscious

For the most part I’ve been writing about superhero gaming while my regular game was on hiatus due to a player being in the UK, but as of last night the hiatus is over. We got together despite some jetlag and played the thirty-first session of Shock and Awesome, which involved some call-backs to the very first sessions of the campaign in addition to the events of session 30. The character’s school trip to the Museum of Natural History was interrupted when Doctor Jurassic and his three Demon Dinosaurs (velociraptors with superpowers) attacked and made off with the prize of the museum’s new exhibit – fragments of the meteor that wiped out the dinosaurs several billion years ago.

It was probably the most fun I’ve had running bad guys in a long while, which is a sign that the villain audit I talked about last week is doing it’s job. I don’t think I’ve got my problems with combat licked yet, but this certainly *felt* like a very different fight compared to a lot of the other villain battles we had prior to the hiatus (admittedly, it was also marred by some abysmal die rolls for one of the players, which meant one of the dinosaur powers didn’t quite get the play it should have).

The other reason the fight was fun comes down to the choice of bad guys: Jurassic and his henchmen were geekily fun to stat up and create, largely because they appeal to the part of my brain that loves comic books.  It came about cause of a little exercise I borrowed from an SF writer named Kelly Link, which is all about connecting your conscious processes with the subconscious part of your brain that throws up ideas. In a lot of ways, this process is a spiritual successor to the Villain Audit when it comes to breaking out of a rut.

Superhero GM Advice Borrowed from Kelly Link: Fine Tune Your Subconscious

You can read about Kelly Link’s theory about collaborating with your subconscious here, but the short version goes something like this: your subconscious throws up ideas without regard to quality, providing you wish a mess of good ideas, bad ideas, and mediocre stuff. You consciously seize on certain ideas as being worthwhile, effectively training your subconscious to provide more of that type. The more you choose a particular idea, the more likely you are to see the same themes or approaches coming up over and over.

There’s no doubt that repeating myself over and over was a big problem in my campaign after looking over my villain audit, and it’s something I really wanted to do something about. Repetition should be a conscious thing used to generate effect, especially since my players aren’t the only ones who get bored by the same thing week after week – I lose interest in things as well, on some level, and that listlessness carries over to the way I prepared and ran my games. It was time to fine-tune the kind of ideas I was generating as a GM, so I borrowed one of Kelly Link’s exercises for doing so.

Link’s fine-tuning method is deceptively simple – she writes a list of the things she most likes to see in other people’s fiction, which serves as a guidepost for her subconscious. She works fast and the list covers a lot of ground, ranging from the thematic to the very general to the crazily specific, and eventually new ideas started appearing as the items she listed triggered something in her brain.

I’ve used this exercise dozens of times in writing since I first came across it a few years ago, but somehow it never actually occurred to me that it’d have a use in gaming until last week. In hindsight, it’s a near-perfect tool for GMs looking to have more fun in their games – we usually start campaigns because we’re fans of a particular genre, but how often do we sit down and work out what it is about the genre that we really like? More importantly, how often do we let the list of things we like seeing stay static, when in reality it’s constantly evolving. Go on a forty-issue Iron Man binge, for example, and you’re probably going to be a little burnt out on the Armoured Avenger and his slew of technology-based villains, but more than ready for the change of pace provided by some mystical Iron Fist action or pulp-like Hellboy horror or even some space-wahoo-craziness Green Lantern storylines.

With that in mind, I sat down and created my Things I like to see in comics list, hammering out as many things as I could in the space of twenty minutes. The result went something like this:

 

battle suits

ninjas

giant robots that aren’t goofy

interpersonal angst

Golden and silver age villains updated with a modern look

Homage’s to goofy silver-age tropes a-la early Invincible

dinosaurs

evil girlfriends who aren’t really evil

cops in trenchcoats

Kirby quartets

lame villains reclaimed for cool purposes

creator owned universes

“greatest hits” villainous team-ups (ie the Sinister Six)

telekinesis

villainous teams built as a homage to heroes and villains in another company (IE the Extremists in DC)

crazy plans

Creator owned universes

time travel

meta-text

martial arts heroes

Plans that make no sense on the surface, but perfect sense to the villains

fight scenes in dramatic locations

Masked/bizarre crime lords

retro villain concepts

weird science

evil cults

chasing people through the sewers

bitter cops who secretly like the hero

ineffectual secondary characters who are oblivious to all that’s going on under their noses

secondary characters who gets something up, but don’t drag out the investigation

inappropriate guest stars

investigation montages a-la early Power Man and Iron Fist

evil goatees

Mercenary soldiers

jobber villains – guys so low-rent and/or weird you wonder why they were created; working class crooks who are just interested in the money despite their powers.

Born losers

crazy plans that just might work

magic that doesn’t really feel like magic

rival teams

secret societies taking over the world

playing games with continuity

rewarding long-term readers by linking back to old plots without making it explicit

interesting double-teams

traps

police forces who actually realise there are super-villains and have protocols for dealing with them

enclosed spaces

ooze

lamp-shading series absurdity

Weird colours to costumes

big scenes full of people

plans that are slowly revealed and proven to be crazy ambitious

Bwah-ha-ha-ha-ha

Now I’ve got a copy of this list posted into the front of my GM folder where I can revisit it, add to it, and alter it every couple of weeks. It’s not a complete list, but it’s a pretty good one – it captures many of the things that give me a little frisson of pleasure when they’re well-handled in comic books. In essence, they’re the things that make me a comic-book fan.

A lot of these things have also been getting plenty of play in Shock and Awesome as well – secret societies, battle-suits, and mercenary soldiers have all made regular appearances, enough so that they were going stale. They’d started bringing me less pleasure than I expected, which meant they weren’t as much fun anymore.

Fortunately, the list also touched on plenty of stuff that’d fallen by the wayside – we’d had one really strong homage villain in the early days of the campaign, but that was more or less it. He overstayed his welcome a bit, but It’d been long enough that I felt like was ready for another homage – and this time it was a homage to a very different set of characters. For the last week I’d look at their character sheets and feel that little thrill of excitement that said man, I really love comics, even if that thrill would have seemed weird to anyone else (hopefully it carried through into last night’s game).

It occurs to that at this point that while this kind of list is useful for a GM, it’s probably one of those exercises that makes sense across the board in a gaming group. RPGs are a collaborative storytelling exercise, after all, even if the GM has the busiest job of the process. GMs and players are, in effect, co-creators who are constantly negotiating how the world works among themselves. Anything that lets a GM get a feel for what the players truly love in the genre is a useful reference point. More importantly, other people lists are likely to inspire a few additions to your own, and a group that can get a firm cross-sections of comic tropes they love is probably in a pretty good place.

So here’s your chance: there’s twenty minutes on the clock and space in the comments to post your list of things you love to see in comics. Have at it, and let me know if any cool ideals spring up as a result.

Running a Villain Audit

A lot of people have been offering advice since I admitted that the fights in my Mutants and Masterminds campaign, Shock & Awesome, haven’t exactly been up to snuff. I’m still in the process of compiling it all, since the conversation seems to have spread to multiple message-boards in addition to the blog, but it’s useful stuff (also, you guys rock). Hopefully, by the time I get around to posting the lessons I’ve learned after sixty sessions, things will have improved a whole bunch.

‘Course, given that we were on a three-week break from the game while one of the players is overseas, I’d already started tackling ways to fine-tune the campaign during the downtime. It’s one of the nice things about taking a break when you’re gaming weekly – it gives you the space to look back and reflect. In this instance I had a sneaking suspicion that my own habits were a  part of the dull-fight-scene problem, so over the last couple of weeks I’ve gathered up my campaign note and performed:

THE VILLAIN AUDIT

It’s easy to get stuck into a rut when it comes to bad guys. As GMs we have a natural inclination towards certain times of opposition, usually because they’re either statistically easy to prepare and run (in complex game systems) or the kind of antagonist who resonates with us in more traditional narratives. Either way, in the back of our brain, GMs have a short set of Ur-villain archetypes that they reach for out of habit.

So when I started looking the combat problems in my superhero games, I figured this was one of the culprits. I’ve had this problem with non-supers games in the past, especially when prep time grew short. I’d spend D&D games overusing bugbears, say, or demons, ’cause they were solid opponents, mechanically speaking, that I found easy to run. I’d frequently lean towards clerics and fighters when I added classes to bad guys  ’cause I knew those classes best and, system-wise, they made for better antagonists due to their superior hit-points.

In superhero games things are far more free-form, even in mechanically complex supers systems, largely ’cause every villain us unique (well, except for the mooks. And the duplicators). Falling into a rut is even easier when you start grabbing for familiar concepts, so during the downtime I fired up a copy of Excel and did a thorough audit of the bad guys who have appeared in the campaign so far, to see which tropes I was overusing and which needed a bit more work.

I should note that I’m not including every villain in the campaign in this list – there are some who have merely made appearances that are basically foreshadowing, or didn’t get a chance to actually engage in an action sequence due to player choices. What I’m focused on here is purely the characters involved in action sequences, whether it be a fight, a chase, or something similar.

The list of things I track in the excel document is as follows:

1) AFFILIATION

 Every villain gets labelled with one of six classifications on this front, three of which I’ve borrowed from the new Marvel Adventure Game and the other three I’ve just adapted as a means of keeping track. The labels are Solo, Buddy (for a villains who appear as pairs), Team, Mook Squad (for opposition that used M&M’s minion rules), Armed Force (for opposition that used M&M’s mass-combat rules), and Leader (for a solo villain who leads a mook squad or armed force).

Each of these approaches represents a different kind of tactical challenge, and they don’t have to be consistent across each villains appearance. I have one villain, Blackhawk, who started as a Leader in the first session he appeared and ended as a Solo when he was finally taken down several sessions later. It has very little to do with who the villain is, and everything to do with how they were used when they were actually pulled into an action sequence with the players.

The goal here is to track the basic dynamic of the fights I’m presenting to my players. If I finish the audit and notice that a whole bunch of sessions have been 2 PCs versus a Solo villain, I know it’s time to shake things up a little.

2) POWER LEVEL & ARCHETYPE

The vast majority of point-based superhero games, such as M&M, provide players with a series of common super-human archetypes that find their way into most comic books. A lot of it just seeps into your day-to-day conversation after a while – you get used to thinking of big, super-strong guys as bricks and energy controllers as blasters.

Odds are, if you’re reading this, you’ve either got (or you’re developing) your own short-hand for various archetypes based on your system of choice. I’ve included my list below (or, at least, the parts of it that have been used in the campaign thus far), which has been cobbled together from a handful of different game systems and articles about Superhero tactics over the years. Feel free to skip it if you’ve got this part down.

Battlesuit: high-tech battle-armor
Brick: big, strong, indestructible guys
Cyborg: used for cyborgs
“Energy” Controller: usually labelled alongside the power they control
Gadgeteer: high-tech power sources that aren’t armor-based
Illusionist: powers based around manipulating heroes perceptions
Martial Artist: highly-skilled combatants, usually favouring hitting over damage
Magic: powers based around spells and/or occult backgrounds
Mentalist: mind-controllers, telepaths, and telekinetics
Mook: cannon fodder whose purpose is to get beaten up
Paragon: characters who mix movement powers, ranged attacks, and strength
Shapeshifter: Powers based around changing appearances
Speedster: Primarily focused on using movement powers
Summoner: Powers based around brining in additional combatants
Soldier: trained, well-armed combatants who aren’t necessarily super-powered
Warrior: combat-focused types who rely on a more-or-less even combination of power and skill
Weapon Master: See Martial Artist, but focused on a single weapon

Again, my goal here is to look for patterns. If the players have been facing a lot of flying paragons with eye-beams of late, then another enemy with the same basic archetype probably isn’t going to excite them.

One thing I will note, though – being able to separate out particular archetypes can be enormously useful. You could make a good argument for Soldiers, Warriors, Martial Artists, and Weapon Masters being much the same thing, but the open up a variety of different tactical options for the players. For example, if you disarm a Weapon Master archetype they’re usually much less effective; disarm a warrior, however, and they’re still a major threat.

3) POWER SOURCE

I don’t need to get specific with this one – I really don’t care that Blackhawk’s powers come from an electromagicnetic harness for the purpose of this exercise. “Tech” is an easy catch-all in this instance, and one I long suspected I’d overuse (I’ve been reading a lot of old Iron Man and Captain America comics of late).

Interestingly, this is probably the one point of the audit where I actually want to see consistent patterns. There’s a tendency in superhero comics for heroes to face villains that are either dark reflections of themselves or extreme opposites. Iron Man faces technological villains, Captain America faces would-by patriots, mutants face other mutants. If I’m doing my job right in Shock and Awesome, this list should be full of Military/Tech types (one character is a super-soldier), Occult/Magic types (the super-soldier was made to hunt demons), and mutant types (one character is a mutant electropath).

When I break from that pattern, it should either be a big thing or a minor villain.

4) PRIMARY TACTIC

This is the real meat of the exercise – narrowing down every combatant the characters have faced to their core tactic, whether it’s firing from a distance (Blaster), hitting people hard and absorbing lots of damage (heavy-hitters), hit-and-run tactics (Skirmisher), going hand-to-hand with enemies (Brawler), manipulating the terrain to their advantage or hindering opponents (Terrain Controller), treating other people as their puppets (Mental Controller),  or simply altering perspective, using misdirection, of being irritating as hell for their opponents (Trickster).

I’ve thrown in Mooks as well, for those folks whose sole purpose is getting the hell kicked out of them with no real hope of hurting the heroes, and Negotiation for the villains who weren’t really looking for a fight and weren’t forced into it by the heroes.

This isn’t comprehensive – there should probably be a Finesse category, for example, but I haven’t used anyone whose modus operandi is being exceptionally skilled in combat but relatively light on damage (Trading damage for attack bonus, in M&M terms). Anything that doesn’t fit, I’ll usually improvise a listing that makes sense to me or put them in as a hybrid.

POST-AUDIT ANALYSIS

I’ve uploaded a PDF copy of the villain audit for anyone who wants to follow this next bit, although the details probably aren’t interesting to anyone who isn’t part of my campaign. What’s useful about the Audit is the ability to look at the campaigns patters in a single glance and spot the absences and repetitions. If I’m overusing a particular tactic or power-set, it shows up pretty quickly when I glance down the list.

I start off focusing on the Tactics column, ’cause that’s the place that’s going to have the most direct bearing on my problems with combat. I’ve been very heavy on the Brawlers (the focus of 18 session entries) and Blasters (13 session entries), followed by skirmishers (6 entries) and heavy-hitters (4 entries). The others tactical approaches are bringing up the rear with a handful of entries each.  More importantly, when I have included some variance, it’s inevitably been in situations where there’s an entire team of opponents.

Most of this ties back to the reasons I mentioned in the introduction – I’ve avoided terrain controllers ’cause the M&M Affliction system which handles such things was a big shift from the 2E rules I’m more familiar with. Every time I’ve used a terrain controller, I’ve found the game slowing down as I had to look up the effects, which means I’ve shied away from them rather than using them more often and getting familiar with those rules.

Fortunately, that’s a relatively easy fix – I’ll make a note to use more Afflictions and I’ll just copy the details I need directly onto the villain’s character sheets and keep doing that until I combat flows smoothly and I’ve got the details memorised.

Similarly, I’ve shied away from using Skirmishers ’cause the chase rules which inevitably become part of their appearance bored one of the players. This, too, can be navigated around by finding alternate approaches to a chase (personally, I’m just grabbing the 2E rules and using them; they’ll have a higher learning curve, but I think the dynamic will suit the players better).

Finally, as a note, I’ve avoided using a lot of mentalist types ’cause of the PC builds – one of the players didn’t buy up any mental defense so he’s wide open to things like Mental Control. I didn’t particularly feel like spamming the duo with mental attacks ’cause it’d seem like a punishment; I’d rather hit him with one mind-controller to expose the weakness, then let him buy up some mental defenses before hitting him with another one.

This is actually one of the few things I’m really happy with in terms of the Audit, although I’m making a note that I should probably hit the group with another mental effect in the next session or three to keep that particular weakness on the player’s radar. I don’t necessarily wanting him spending his power-points on that to the exclusion of everything else, but having it slowly improve widens the scope of villain types I can use without totally ruining his night.

The next columns I’m paying attention to is the Power Level and Affiliation sections. Again, I’m remarkably heavy on Solo villains and Leaders with squads of mooks – thus far we’ve only had two teams, one of which was a rival hero team that didn’t get much of a look-in during the fight they had. Power Levels have frequently been in relative parity with the player characters as well.

In part I can justify this by the fact that we’re a small group with only two PCs, but it also means that there’s rarely a sense that the PCs are going to need to overcome superior odds. Overcoming more powerful opponents is one of those things superheroes are meant to do – there’s a reason a new villain usually debuts by kicking the heroes butts, setting up the expectation that they’re unstoppable.

Next step – power source and archetype. Fortunately I’m pretty happy with the spread here. There may be a preponderance of tech-powers, mutants, and supernatural but that’s in keeping with the campaigns characters (a mutant and a super-soldier trained to hunt demons.

Finally, charting this by session lets me roughly gauge when and why our most successful fights have been. The Triceratops fight in issue 2 (a PL 10 Solo Brick vs two PL 8 heroes) is probably the most fondly-remembered of the campaign, followed by the sequence between sessions 14-16 where there was the most tactical variance in their opponents and significant storyline depth associated with the fights. At least one of the players reads this blog, so it’s possible he’ll weigh in and let me know whether my memory of notable campaign battles matches up with his.

The least successful fight, in my eyes at least, took place in session 20 when I introduced the first NPC heroes into the setting; what could have been an interesting fight-scene failed utterly due to some poor set-up on my part.

All of which tells me some important things – we pick up the campaign again next week, and my original plan had been to run yet another Leader villain with mooks at his beck and call. My initial sketch for the session had the leader as a Brick/Blaster combo, with the mooks all Brawlers. I’m now thinking I might shelve that plan for a couple of sessions, and see if I can think up something with a little more spice.

This kind of variety isn’t necessarily going to fix our problems with less-than-exciting combat all on its own, but it’s a good first step and it gives me a template to work off. I’ve made a note in my GM diary to update the Audit file every five or six sessions from this point on, which means I’ll spot any trends as they emerge instead of looking back on them with the benefit of hindsight as I’m doing here.

Campaign Resource Round-Up

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.