Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Legendary Might (Part 2 of 2)

[continued from here]

No, when I talk about the "human element," I’m talking about the character’s actual humanity as expressed in the way they interact with OTHER humans…their relationships with other people, in other words. Their family, friends, and loved ones. It’s their relationships with the other people in their lives, interactions that aren’t necessarily tied to their “superhero aspects” that make them worth reading.

For example, Tony Stark becoming an alcoholic and ceasing his run as Iron Man isn’t compelling to me: there are lots of people who’ve washed out of privileged or high profile careers based on their substance abuse. To members of my generation (and younger), this is no big deal…it’s just a touch of reality in the comic book universe. What IS compelling, though is Stark’s relationships with his friends, especially James Rhodes and Bethany Cabe, and how his alcoholism (and inability to don his superhero persona) affects them. How does Peter Parker being Spiderman affect Aunt May or Mary Jane or Gwen Stacey? For that matter how does it affect his relationship with best friend/arch-enemy Harry Osborne?

I have never been much of a serial comic book collector, but there are a couple series I used to collect. One, during high school (early 90s), was the re-booted Silver Surfer. The Surfer is a humanish alien who has little in common with a real human (like myself), though he has a neat surfboard and a shit-ton of superpowers. However, what I found compelling were his romantic relationships…first with fellow alien sweetheart Shalla-Bal, then that green-skinned tree-hugging Mantis chick. These relationships were fairly central to the first dozen or so issues of the re-booted series, and it was only after both had left the picture (one due to death, the other due to voluntary celibacy) and Surfer became a simple, wandering (sometimes insane) ass-kicker that I lost interest with the comics and stopped buying them.

Yellowjacket is interesting for a number of reasons (with the exception of his lame-ass superpowers), but without his relationship to Janet Van Dyne (“The Wasp”) he loses the “compelling” aspect and just becomes a jerk…like Wolverine or something. But seeing how his relationship unfolds (or disintegrates) is GRIPPING. Part of you wants him to get his shit together…but if he does, the story will suddenly become a lot less interesting.

And while romantic relationships are by far the usual method of compulsion (good and bad: Daredevil and HIS poor taste in women is in some ways the “anti-Yellowjacket”), it doesn’t have to be. The kid sidekick (Robin, Speedy, Bucky) in many ways mimics the Father-Son dynamic (and shout out to Electra Woman and Dyna Girl for the Mother-Daughter thang); meanwhile, relationships with characters like Rick Jones or Jimmy Olson or “Aunt May” Parker or J.J. Jameson all carry their own special type of drama/baggage that help to humanize the otherwise ridiculous weirdness one finds in comics, whether you’re talking the Microverse or Cain and his House of Weirdness.

[I DO like the romantic relationships though, and many of these provide the most enrichment to otherwise “flat” comic book characters: Daredevil and Elektra, of course, but also Iron Fist and Misty Knight, Dr. Strange and Clea, and Scott Summers-Maddie Pryor-Jean Grey are all examples of romantic relationships transforming pretty darn boring, ho-hum characters…elevating them to a point of interest far more than their “super powers” might merit. Laserbeam eyes? Come on!]

Even in a  television show like Arrow, part of what makes the program so interesting is the interaction between the main character and his sister, or his mother, or his bodyguard/sidekick. Same holds true for less “conventional” superhero shows (I’m thinking of the TV show “Burn Notice” where the super-spy main character may as well be a superhero).

Legendary Might is a decent start for a supers game…it has some neat innovations using the DMI card mechanic that allows players to become more engaged with their characters while:

a)     Not requiring a lot of thought/back story
b)     Providing both description AND freedom of choice

Which is cool, especially considering some of the other neat parts (balancing PC participation without “balancing” character types; providing (I think) neat risk/reward mechanics) that DMI provides to the individual. But what it does NOT do, is it doesn’t tap into that human element.

Which isn’t all that surprising when you think about it…there aren’t many (any?) superhero RPGs that do so.  One that dips a toe into the pool a bit is “With Great Power…”, an indie supers RPG that requires players to put various aspects of their characters “at jeopardy” in order to acquire enough currency to beat the bad guys. In a way, it forces you to have/use relationships in order to endanger them (or yourself)…but looked at another way it’s simply repeating the same rinse-repeat formula over-and-over again. On the other hand, Jeff Grubb’s Marvel RPG is probably the first to have tried to tap into this as an actual game mechanic (and the last to REALLY do it prior to With Great Power…no, Champions’ psychological drawbacks/flaws do not count) using the karma mechanic, but it’s just soooo half-assed – or rather, subject to GM fiat, which to me is a type of “half-assed-ness” – that I find it quite unusable outside of pre-written adventure modules: in my long running MSH game I really don’t remember using karma awards for fulfilling relationship commitments.

So, hey, I provide this info as a CAVEAT for those of you downloading Legendary Might in its current format. Yes, I like how the game design’s looking right now. Yes, it all seems to “work.” But no, it’s NOT quite finished yet…mainly because it doesn’t find a way to incorporate that human element into the game.

And the reason it doesn’t is because I hadn’t had a chance to consider all this until after our play-test. As I noted, we had three player characters in our session. They were:

-        Winsome (Wynsomn? Wind Song?) AKA “The Hat” (hero name coined by other players): a big-headed alien (like a 7’ “gray”) with psychic powers dressed in a trench coat and Cat-in-the-Hat hat. He spent a number of decades on a hippy commune in northern California.
-        Kara Ride AKA “Stout”: a personal trainer in the style of those “Biggest Loser” types that shrinks to a Puck-like (as in Alpha Flight) strongman chick with Farah Fawcett hair. She was in a relationship with another mutant/personal trainer albeit one who was NOT a vigilante superhero and is actively irritated with Kara’s nightly excursions.
-        “Dreadnought”: basically Iron Man except less rich (and if I remember correctly, he did NOT own his own company, but worked for some sort of military-industrial complex). No family/relationships that I can recall.

Now this tiny bit of background info was created on the fly by the players based on a handful of pointed questions by Yours Truly during the chargen process: each player brought their own “stuff” to the table in this regard based on the cards they were dealt and their character concepts; none of it was forced upon them. Consequently, only Stout really had anything like a “human element” (we had the impression that The Hat’s human “family” had kind of been left behind in recent years, living in a secluded commune away from the urban sprawl of Los Angeles). 

As a consequence, the game felt a little “flat” to me…like every encounter was set up simply to get to the next encounter…which is kind of the essence of a lot of “modern” RPGs (unfortunately) but the flatness is emphasized when there’s nothing “human” to grab onto…when characters are just flexing their muscles (physical or mental) to “succeed” and “win.” Sometimes just being the biggest, baddest super on the block isn’t enough.

[ugh…I’m starting to sound like I’m going down the premise-addressing narrativist road! I have nothing against indie-gaming, but that’s not my design objective with LMZ, dammit!]

Okay, okay…this post has gotten long enough (you see now why it took me awhile to get this up on the blog!). For those who want to check out Legendary Might, you can download the one-page micro-version from MediaFire here. I’m more than happy to field any questions about the game, and I’d love to hear feedback from anyone who’s willing to play-test it. I’m going to continue tinkering with it myself, trying to incorporate more of that “human element” but like I said, it’s workable right now.  Hope folks enjoy it!

And now I’ve got some D&D stuff to write…
; )


  1. Pretty much everything you've said has convinced me that I need your final game. Supers is my favorite genera of Role Playing if I were honest, and you seem to have hit the nail on the head as to what makes it so compelling.

    The human element (as you call it) can be tricky. The only game I know of that has really tried to tackle it was "Adventures In Oz: Fantasy Roleplaying Beyond The Yellow Brick Road." In AoO defining your character's friends is part of generation. In play a helping friends earns XP, and a player can "summon" their friends into the narative when they are in trouble. It's a little indie, but it's a neat mechanic.

  2. downloaded! i will use this with a group of kids at work next week.

  3. @ Shlomo and Blue:

    Right on.
    : )