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?

  2 comments for “Three Uses for Splash Pages in Superhero RPGs

  1. Brandon Powers
    03/06/2014 at 5:25 AM

    Nothing new on the M&M front for a long time? Your articles were really good.

    • petermball
      12/06/2014 at 11:20 PM

      Nope, although it wasn't intentional. My day-job stole a lot of my blogging time in 2013, and I'm still catching up on non-day-job writing work thus far this year. M&M posts will likely resume once I'm up-to-date with all my other projects, assuming the group decides to stick with the M&M system when we start gaming again…

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