Thursday, April 1, 2021

Thinking Out Loud

Another Thursday, another D&D session on the horizon. The kids are anxious to get back to their characters, lost in the dark though they are.  Little do they know they're about to run into the mutants ("orcs") that make their home in the tunnels the party are traversing.

But that's all for this afternoon. Right now, I'm thinking about game design. My son is writing his own RPG at the moment (a Star Wars game) that he...amusingly...calls "D&D 5" (all my kids' game designs seem to be "D&D" with an added version number), and while it would mostly seem to be emulating the old D20 Star Wars system, I am pleased with his work on the project (and also that he's drummed up some enthusiasm for it with kids at his school) 

But that's a digression. I mean, I am thinking about Diego's design (at least as much as I'm thinking of the RBI he got in last night's baseball, it's good to have sports back!), but mainly I'm focused on the superhero thing I'm putting together, my semi-knockoff of MSH (should I call it MSH Dos? Maybe as a working title) and how I can do it different. That is, different from other RPG systems of the genre. 

NOT, by the way, because I want to "stand out from the crowd." Fact is, my stuff is so low budget that any grandiose plans for publication are far more likely to fail than the newest version of...well, of whatever's the "established brand of the day" (probably M&M4?). No, I want it to be different...specifically, different in focus...because so many of these games fail to work

At least, they fail for me. I'm not as pig-headed stubborn as some GMs when it comes to the hero thing. I was never a HUGE comic book collector, even as a kid (maybe a couple dozen issues - not titles! - PER YEAR, at my height). I liked to read comics (usually those of my collector friends), but I just didn't have the money to spend on comics, nor the easy access to a solid comic book shop; consequently, I don't have the depth and breadth of comic book knowledge that some GMs possess. In my experience, the folks who can run a system like Heroes Unlimited or DC Heroes or Mutants & Masterminds over the long term is a person who has been steeped in hundreds upon hundreds of superhero comics.

That's not me. And it's not really my kids, either (for whom this game would be written) or even a LOT of folks these days who might be fans of the super genre. They read a couple titles, perhaps, but their main exposure to the genre is through the screen medium: film and television (and maybe video games). That's a tough thing to emulate in an RPG, and I don't really want to try.

What I want to try is bringing the screen medium's sensibility (with regard to genre) to the experiential nature of the RPG medium.  Can that be done?

My question of the day.

Clearly, the drive behind the supers thang is different from my usual brand of Dungeons & Dragons; in D&D characters have impetus be proactive. Go out and get that treasure! Level up! Become powerful! Tackle bigger challenges! The superhero genre isn't that at all, and approaching the genre with a "D&D mindset" will quickly turn the PCs into something a far cry from "heroism" (celebrity attention seekers at best; super powered villains at worst).

Leaving aside origin stories and one-off adventures (we're interested in long-term campaign play hereabouts), what exactly is it that motivates the heroic persona to become a costumed adventurer? What gets them out of bed every evening, donning cape and cowl to brave the terror of the night? Just spitballing, I can come up with a few different categories of hero fiction:
  • The Sad Sack: this is the dude who doesn't have a choice in the matter, whether due to psychological or actual pressure. I'd put both Spider-Man ("if I shirk my responsibility, people die") and the Hulk (constantly hunted by the U.S. military) in this category. These are mostly solo adventurers; they often bemoan the fact that they are super-powered at all, and constantly struggle to achieve a normal life. Whether or not they ever achieve that happy ending they want varies based on the popularity of the character (whether or not their series is going to get cancelled). 
  • The Fanatic: this one is pretty close to the Sad Sack but they're driven to become vigilantes because they have an issue with the normal criminal justice system. Lots of these: Batman, Daredevil, Green Arrow, Punisher. These guys (they're mostly guys) have serious trust issues (duh) which leads them to working solo, as much as their understanding that they are criminals themselves and really taking action that's both unnecessary and extralegal. 
Neither of these types of story are good models to emulate in the RPG medium in part because they're not very conducive to group play (due to their focus on a single, spotlight character). Oh, you could have the occasional "dynamic duo:" Cloak & Dagger fit as a Sad Sack couple, and I'd throw Misty Knight & Colleen Wing (during their Daughters of the Dragon title) as part of the Fanatic group. But more than that, I dislike the motivations presented in these two tropes: in both cases, the characters are driven by negativity. That can make for a good, fun series to read (or watch) but it's not a great one to get players up and moving.

So what else do we have?
  • Defenders of Earth: this one works for folks from the Justice League to Doctor Strange. The hero(es) are tasked with the job of handling extraterrestrial (and extradimensional) threats that Earth, being what it is, simply isn't capable of handling itself. Some might complain these are pretty "reactive" stories (and they are), rather than proactive, but when we tune into a Green Lantern comic (for example) we're expecting something to happen. We figure that MOST (not all!) of the "downtime stuff" will be ignored in favor of the Big Conflict that the comic (or show) will showcase. The stories we are viewing are only the "interesting events" that occur in the life(s) of the character(s). They can dip into a bit of the resignation thing, however (if we don't save the Earth, no one else will). A smaller version of this might be Black Panther ("Defender of Wakanda") or Sunfire ("Defender of Japan").
  • Powered Task Force: the Avengers might be "Earth's mightiest heroes" but they're generally tasked with Earthly missions: taking down super bad guys and terrorist organizations. While the Avengers films include bouts with the occasional intergalactic threat, it is made clear that they spend a lot of time on active duty acting as a kind of extra-governmental global law enforcement. Motivation is some form of "duty" - they're pseudo-military after all - with a heaping helping of "for my teammates" (fellow soldier). This category can also apply to strictly national teams (The West Coast Avengers, X-Caliber, etc.).
  • School for the Gifted: this covers everything from the X-Men to the Teen Titans to Sky High to the Umbrella Academy, all stories about youngsters learning about their powers (as a group) and finding their way in the world (as a team) while developing into adulthood. Motivation is the usual teen peer pressure, wanting to look good / not stupid thing, as well as pleasing parents (probably), and possibly school pride. 
  • Super Families: here we have your Fantastic Four and (for the younger generation) The Incredibles, the latter of which is interesting because it deals with the legacy of the parents and their mistakes. Generally, though, I'd prefer to stay away from a set-up that pits PCs in a parent-child dynamic, at least one involving BOTH parents (too much authority); single parent might be okay (Batman feels okay with both Robin and Batgirl in the mix). Siblings are better: the FF, Power Pack, or the Shazam! family being good examples. Motivation is, of course, family (also sibling rivalries), which makes even downtime activity interesting between monster-of-the-week activities.
  • Superheroes for Hire: the mercenary route isn't a great one for the supers genre because "making money" and "heroism" don't really go hand-in-hand. That being said, for a more light-hearted (i.e. humorous) series (like Damage Control, Ghostbusters, or the original Heroes for Hire), I think it might work. Luke Cage and Iron Fist are a pretty good example: despite doing hero work for pay, it's not like they ever get rich...too many widows and orphans can't afford to pay. And anyway Fist IS rich (amusingly) but simply doesn't care about money. In the end, the motivation is still adventure (and buddy/friendship) with the "professional" title being a justification for hanging out and socking people.
Looking over these categories, I think the ones that would work best for the RPG medium are the Task Force or the School, both of which could include Family dynamics under their umbrella (both military units and school peers being something like "second families," right?). Both these categories of "super" series provide a number of features:
  • Provides a reason for multiple player characters of different types to participate.
  • Provides group dynamics that function outside of adventures.
  • Provides justifications for adventures ("missions" and "exams," respectively).
  • Provides reasons for new characters to arrive (new hires, transfer students, etc.)'s hard bringing a new sibling into a super family!
  • Provides a motivation for hero participation (duty/job or responsibility/grades).
  • Gives leeway for NPC dynamics OUTSIDE the team (soldiers and students both have non-powered family members, friends, neighbors, etc.). Such NPCs may be privy to the characters' job/school or may be completely in the dark about what they do.
  • For characters whose identities are secret, they don't have to worry about supporting themselves as "full-time heroes" (they're paid a stipend or receive a "scholarship" to their fancy school).
  • Players/characters can leave at any time without disrupting the campaign.
Fortunately, in my current design I already stumbled on a way to scale the game to "younger" heroes...I was thinking of the New Mutants at the time and how the system might develop teenagers and their powers. However, the main issue I have with a school is that it's a little tougher to work with the non-powered kid (the inventor or special forces-type hero) least, not in a campaign (mostly) devoid of humor, and I have not been known for running "funny" campaigns. 

[not in the conventional comedic sense; cackling at my players' expense doesn't count]

Still, the rules should work for both, and SOMEone might want to run the game with a bit more ridiculousness than myself; look at the popularity of Teeny Titans! Anyway...

Okay, that's enough musing. I've got a host of errands to run before today's D&D game. Totally welcome any thoughts, critiques, suggestions, and whatnot in the comments section...your input in my brainstorm is greatly appreciated!
: )

Typical paramilitary task force 
with extra-national jurisdiction.


  1. What about something like Guardians of the Galaxy (I'm really only familiar with the film version here)? They straddle the line between "defenders" and "heroes for hire" types. Or maybe they're just a "task force"? Anyway, I do think that sort of play may make for a good proactive RPG setting. There could be rumors of problems on different planets/systems/space empires, and they could then choose where to go and who to help.

    Anyway, I think you're on the right track by limiting the genre tropes that would work best in a cooperative RPG.

    1. If you go back and read my review of GoG, I think I wrote something like "it's the best Star Wars movie since Star Wars." Despite being in the Marvel universe, it's not really fit into the superhero genre (for that matter, neither does Jessica Jones nor Agent Carter).

      Which doesn't mean I object to their appearance in the Avengers films or anything. Heck, those X-Men movies could benefit from an appearance by Corsair and the Starjammers (or an invasion by the Brood or Dire Wraiths; must it always be mutant-on-mutant bloodshed?).

      But for a long-term campaign, GoG is definitely in the space opera genre...flying around the galaxy, interacting with alien races, getting in trouble. "Star Lord" (as he appears in the film) isn't all that different from Buck Rogers or Flash Gordon as far as the concept of "Earthman in Spaaaace," you know? IMO, that's a different RPG from your standard supers fare.