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


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


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)


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


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


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

enclosed spaces


lamp-shading series absurdity

Weird colours to costumes

big scenes full of people

plans that are slowly revealed and proven to be crazy ambitious


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.

  3 comments for “Superhero GM Advice Borrowed from Kelly Link: Fine Tune Your Subconscious

  1. Alan Kellogg
    26/10/2012 at 8:14 PM

    Here's some advice…

    Just because you can knock down walls doesn't mean you have to.

  2. 26/10/2012 at 11:58 PM

    That's such a wonderful list.

    Especially chases through sewers…

  3. 27/10/2012 at 5:15 AM

    I love these lists – they're a great way to reconnect with a genre.

    Xanatos gambits

    Gambit pileups

    Hero/villain team-ups against a third enemy

    Three-way battles

    Domino masks (love/hate, really)

    Fine upstanding cops who still hate the heroes (for real reasons)

    Antagonists who don't (always) lose (see John Rogers' "Sterling. Always. Wins."; Bester from Babylon 5)

    Something I'm going to call the phoenix gambit (superhealer gets "killed" so they can infiltrate enemy base)

    Calm, hyperefficient men in suits, secretly badass (Agent Coulson, Ianto, Alfred Pennyworth)

    Friends/family who discover Hero's secret identity, protect it, but keep pretending to be duped

    Gorilla-men in suits and bowler hats. Preferably with gatling guns.


    Teammates who are dicks to each other in a mostly-friendly way (see: the entire dynamic of Nextwave)

    Villains (or heroes!) in loving relationships destroying stuff together

    Pranking buddies (eg Blue Beetle + Booster Gold)

    Villains who are secretly heroic

    "Shallow" love interest is competent and level-headed in a crisis

    Sympathetic villain goals (eg Mr Freeze and his wife)

    Superpowered flatmate issues

    Villains who love their job

    Second-string rogues gallery team-ups that are surprisingly effective

    Lean, lightweight speedster types who have to rely on cunning

    Old allies turned enemies (eg Xavier and Magneto)

    Kids of villains turning hero and dealing with mistrust (eg Runaways; similar-ish situation with kid!Loki at the moment)

    A metatextual fondness for "the classics" of heroing/villainy (eg Señor Senior, Senior)

    BWA-HA-H-oh shi

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