Tag Archive for Shock & Awesome

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.

 

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.

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.

13 Things Learned About Superhero Games After Running 30 Sessions of Mutants and Masterminds

So Monday night we played the 30th session of Shock and Awesome, my formerly semi-regular and now pretty-much-weekly Mutants and Masterminds campaign. It represents about a year and a half of gaming, give or take, although I expect the 60th session will come around much faster than the 30th did.

The session saw our intrepid teen heroes caught inside a demonically-possessed virtual reality game alongside a bunch of school-mates. Eventful things happened: one hero kissed her long-term crush after months of pining and putting her foot in her mouth every time they talked; the other heroes girlfriend turned evil (again) when a dormant personality emerged alongside her massive dangerous electro-magnetic abilities. They fought a bunch of demons, too, but the relationships were the interesting things.

We’re now on a three-week hiatus while one of the players heads of the UK, but when we return we’ll pick up where we left off, trying to convince the evil girlfriend she really should turn back to normal before her unsociable behaviour loses her the journalism intern she’s been chasing for the last thirty sessions.

Since I’m still in list-mode after all the dancing monkey posts, I figure I’d switch gears from writing to gaming and, in honour of the players that make Shock & Awesome so much fun, I put together the following.

13 THINGS LEARNED ABOUT SUPERHERO RPGS AFTER RUNNING 30 SESSIONS OF MUTANTS AND MASTERMINDS

1) PITCH MATTERS

These days “Super Hero Comics” is a very broad genre to try and replicate. Even the four-colour comics that M&M is designed to replicate covers a lot of ground – there’s a vast gulf between, say, a Fantastic Four comic, a Spiderman comic, a Batman comic, and an issue of the Teen Titans. All of them are four-colour, but the *way* heroes are expected to deal with their problems is very different.

When it comes to kicking off the campaign, make sure you’ve got everyone’s expectations on the same page. Kudos if you’re smart enough to give your players a brief (“Think X-Men, except you’re being trained by a retired Batman”); real Kudos if you’re smart enough to gather your players together and let them craft a communal pitch as a group – get everyone to pitch in a bunch of things they like in comic books (or even just comics they like) and base your game about the most common elements.

Shock and Awesome is slightly gonzo ’cause that’s what the players demanded. It’s got relationship dramas ’cause that’s what the players demanded. It’s got a but-load of puns and wrestling references ’cause that’s what the players demanded. It’s got some serious elements too, cause…well, you get the picture. Our reference points we used were early Spider-Man and Kirkman’s Invincible, with a handful of other elements thrown in.

2) MINUTIA MATTERS

My friend Allan runs a killer Call of C’Thulhu game. Largely he does this by spending session after session letting the characters just exist in the world, doing day-to-day  things, with little hints of weirdness around the edges. He pays attention the regular minutia of everyday life – who you see, what you do, what’s a constant presence. It means you get to know the NPCS and the places that’ll matter down the line, so when things from beyond space and time eat the chef at the local diner, you actually give a damn ’cause you know the chef’s name and his blueberry pie is really damn good eats.

Tracking and depicting that kind of minutia isn’t my strength as a GM, but I made a conscious effort to use the technique for this campaign. Superhero comics, especially solo titles, are all about the supporting cast. Even the Avengers have Jarvis. Shock & Awesome has a steadily growing cast of extras who all serve campaign roles, from NPC foil to source of sage advice, and there are plenty of regular settings that come back again and again.

It helps. It also means the players are becoming increasingly paranoid that going to the local Java Hut franchise will result in a super-villain attack.

3) PREPERATION IS THE ENEMY OF PLAYER-DIRECTED CONFLICT

Shock & Awesome wasn’t meant to be a regular game. It was mostly a fun fill-in we played when the other players couldn’t make our regular D&D night. As a result, I put a lot less effort into preparing our earlier sessions than I normally would have. Largely I’d present a situation, run  through the fight-scene, and wait for the players to pick a direction.

The results were…interesting…in terms of the things that became important. Shock became obsessed with recovering a school bag because it contained her diary. We realised Awesome was living a triple life: Super-hero, ordinary school kid, genetically-modified super-soldier working for a secret religions organisation working to prevent the apocalypse. These things got more time than I would have given them in a typical Superhero RPG, simply ’cause I wasn’t hustling things along in order to move onto the next scene in the adventure.

Some interesting things happened as a result of this: the fights gradually receded into the background while we focused more and more onto the teen drama that was important to the characters. We fretted about what they would do at uni after they finished high-school, and whether they’d go to the same university as there significant others. We had an entire scene that revolved around one character trying to explain getting to second base to the other character using wrestling belts as a metaphor.

The lesson here isn’t don’t plan – although there’s been more than a few sessions where I’ve underplanned and the players have decided the direction of the game – but I’ve certainly eased off on planning as much content as I usually do.

4) IT’S ALL ABOUT THE META-TEXT, BABY

If you’re playing a comic book RPG, you’re probably a comic book fan. Embrace that. Use it to your advantage. Refer to each game session as an Issue. If you’re truly nerdy (I am), present the players with a list of *other* comic book titles that exist in the same fictional comic-company universe, and use that to reinforce the pitch.

This has the advantage of getting players to think in terms of comic-books rather than game mechanics, but it also means they can invest in the storylines and sub-plots. In extreme cases it also means you explain away real lapses of continuity as “a new writer came on-board  guys, and the editor forgot to tell them about…”

5) IGNORE THE RULES THAT BORE YOU

The latest edition of Mutants and Masterminds has a skill challenge system for handling certain tasks like chase-scenes, escaping death traps, and other minutia that don’t really fit under the combat rules. We used them a couple of times and I’ve vowed never to do so again. Personally, I don’t mind the rules that much, but they bore one of the players silly and it quickly reduces a chase scene from “thrilling pursuit” to “dull sequence of die rolls.”

Superhero games can’t afford to be dull. A dull session or two of a D&D game won’t kill a campaign ;cause there’s still going up a level and acquiring cool new abilities on the horizon; a dull superhero session doesn’t have the same option. Superheroes tend to be fairly static in terms of power level, so the traditional RPG rewards of experience points and exponentially increasing abilities don’t really fit well with the genre.

6) TRUST MATTERS

If you’re players don’t trust you, forget about running a supers RPG. It’s just not going to work.

Of course, this is pretty much true of any roleplaying system, but there’s something about superhero RPGs that make it doubly true. Perhaps its the fact that you’re dealing with the extreme power-levels, or you’re playing games designed to replicate a genre where heroes get routinely beaten and outsmarted for an entire issue before overcoming the villain. Where most games are built around the players succeeding, superhero games are built around the players failing again and again until they accumulate the resources (in M&M,  Hero Points) that will enable them to Hulk Up and kick some serious ass.

There are a whole mess of genre conventions that don’t work if your players don’t trust you: starting an session mise-en-scène, setting up the players as you want them to be; hand-waving that crucial scene where the players are captured simply because villains capture heroes and you don’t want to trust such things to the dice; presenting a villain that seems unstoppable at the start of a session, at least until the players discover his weakness.

Basically, you can make a game that’s way more fun for everyone if the players trust you (and, for that matter, each other) to run a game that’s fun and relatively consistent in the way it presents the world.

7) YOUR MAIN JOB WHILE RUNNING THE GAME IS DENIAL

In a traditional D&D type campaign your main job is setting up the world, putting together the adventures, and generally prepping sessions as best you can. In a superhero RPG your job as the guy running the game becomes something very different – find out what the players want for the characters, then figure out how to deny them without abusing your privilege as the guy running the game. You create obstacles, lots of obstacles, from the mundane to the super-villainous, and you place them in front of the characters.

This pretty much works on every level of the game. If the hero really wants to duck off and get changed into their uniform, figure out a way to complicate that. If they want to date a girl in their class, throw romantic rivals and disproving parents and the occasional demonic possession into their path. If they seize on a particular villain as a favourite (in our case, it seems to be a chap dubbed “Doom Squid”), hold off on using them for as long as possible.

The trick to making the whole denial thing work? Timing and a sense of scale. Small wants (“I need to get changed into my costume”) need short-term denial. Major complications require multiple sessions. Hold out too long and things will just get dull, at best, and irritating at worst. This is another one of those situations where the meta-text of the game can be useful – comic books have all sorts of “anniversary issue” thresholds that can serve as the catalyst for a big change.  I’ve tried to set a routine where the players *know* that their characters are going to see a major change in their characters around issue 12 (one year), 24 (two years), and 30 (’cause we were about to go on hiatus). Any major acts of denial that get started in the next couple of sessions are likely to carry us through ’til our 50th session.

8) HERO POINTS ARE LIKE CANDY

Hero Points are M&M’s way of saying “bravo, you’ve done something comic-book-like,” while simultaneously allowing the players to continue doing comic book like things with their powers and abilities. It’s win-win. Give those suckers out like candy. Remind the players that only the first hit is free, but the rest are going to cost ’em.

9) THERE IS NO PROBLEM SO BAD THAT A HERO CANNOT MAKE IT WORSE

Seriously. It’s, like, a rule.

Sometimes it’s intentional. The players in Shock & Awesome will gleefully walk into situations that make life difficult for their characters, and they’ll do it with a smile on their face. They may know that Professor Nix is secretly a super-villain and that any minute now there will be a super-hero slugfest, but part of the fun is getting their characters into deeper trouble before that moment comes. It’s one of the great joys of the M&M system – it rewards you for going along with certain genre conventions, even if you know better.

Other times, well, lets just say it’s always entertaining to see how quickly a situation deteriorates.

10) CARTOONS ARE YOUR FRIEND

For all that Superhero RPGs are meant to replicate comic books, comics are a pretty fricken’ terrible narrative form these days, especially in the field of superheroes. Story arcs are extended across multiple issues, cross-overs are becoming increasingly common, and the backstory…oh god, let’s not talk about the ungodly amount of baggage your standard superhero comes with these days. All in all, it can be a horrible medium to try and replicate when it comes to pacing an RPG session.

There are, however, some pretty sweet cartoon adaptations of the superhero genre that will rock your damn socks off, and the plot of a half-hour kids cartoon is actually pretty-well paced if you need to rip of a plot that will fit into a gaming session of two or three hours (My personal recommendations are Avengers: Earth’s Mightiest Heroes and Justice League Unlimited, but the classic Batman: The Animated Series cartoon from the nineties still rocks the Kasbah).

11) FIGHTS ARE FAST

Such an important part of the comics themselves, but we do so little of it in the campaign. Or, rather, it takes up so much less time compared to other RPGs. If you’re used to the D&D gaming paradigm where you can fit, more or less, one fight-scene per hour into a session, Mutants and Masterminds streamlines the art of the smackdown. This is a huge conceptual leap to overcome when you make the shift from running D&D to Supers, since it means you need to start adapting to a game-style where a fight against the epic big-bad will be over inside of half an hour.

12) FIGHTS ARE ALSO KINDA DULL

There is an art to running an engaging superhero battle. Personally, I’ve not learnt it yet, although I’m slowly getting better. My approach to running combat has been increasingly dominated by years of playing D&D, which has been escalating the level of tactical complexity in recent editions. Comparatively speaking, M&M combat is much simpler, especially in one-on-one confrontations – the players will pretty much adopt the same tactic every fight and whittle away the bad guys defenses.

I’ve got this flagged as one of the things to try and fix when we resume playing in a couple of weeks. In some respects its my fault – a lot of the bad guys are just as stand-there-and-slug-it-out as the players, so it’s not like there’s a lot of incentive to get creative with the battle rules.

13) SUPERS  GAMES ARE HARD WORK

I work harder to make a typical M&M game work than pretty much any other set of RPG rules I’ve ever run, although it’s probably on par with running Feng Shui. It requires a big change of mindset, a lot more cooperation with the players in terms of the games narrative approach, and the tendency to veer off-course or have the players pull an unexpected solution out of a hat (or, for that matter, a mutation granting electromagnetic powers) increases exponentially.

The other thing I’ve noticed: there’s not a lot of advice out there for people who run superhero campaigns. The internet is full of advice for people interested in running fantasy or SF games, but the vast majority of the advice I’ve seen regarding Superhero games is largely drawn from the rulebooks of superhero games and the occasional forum thread on places like enworld, rpg.net, and the mutants and masterminds forum.