google-site-verification: googlee8ae134d89e446c0.html Playing Hero World: Setting up Super Hero RPGs

Wednesday, 22 April 2015

Setting up Super Hero RPGs

The second article on our "Super Hero RPGs" series, where we take a quick look on how to set up either a long campaign or a one shot adventure focusing on the very basics of the genre.

The introduction of this article can get a bit long winded, and it talks mostly about my own experience with RPGs and the Super Hero genre, even name dropping the gaming systems that worked for me when I was first starting. If you wish to just look for advice for setting up a game, perhaps jumping to the "
Super Heroes are the spice" can help.

New world of heroes and adventure
Before we begin, why not a bit of context?

Back in the 90’s a young me was trying to create a character for the following RPG

GURPS Supers

The setting featured in the book (Wildcards) was something that clicked with me in my youth for it was like a world that I would read in the cape comic books at the time, however things were weird and different. The setting was quite unique despite being clearly inspired by the Super Hero mythos.

Unfortunately GURPS “complexity” for my young mind and the deep options for character creation pushed me away from the system. It didn’t help that at the time, all my friends only wanted to play “Vampire the Masquerade” and “Advanced Dungeons & Dragons”, the biggest RPGs at the time here in sunny ol’ Brazil.

Now the year is 2007.
Up until that point I had game mastered several RPG campaigns, they were always short, confusing and walked in circles most of the time. To make matters worse, my play group was always hopeful for a plot, a long campaign that would allow their characters to grow and develop. But it never came to a pass.
It wasn’t any different when we tried our first foray into the Cape genre with Mutants & Masterminds when it got published here in Brazil.
I remember how colorful, absurd and interesting were the characters illustrated in said book and the solid character creation options made me wish to play a Super Hero campaign. But I never managed to convince the players to give me another shot at Game Mastering for them.

When 2010 came, the game “DC Adventures” was added to my collection.
I still have goosebumps whenever I see this Alex Ross cover
This is where things changed. In said book there was a game mastering section that gave several “universe examples”, different places and settings you could frame a Super Hero game. So I decided to create a “Weird World War Two” setting, using Golden Age of Super Heroes mythos, cliches and elements.
Golden Age was clearly the inspiration for that campaign
Instead of throwing the party in an aimless manner  at a generic “Metropolitan city” where they would punch their way around all troubles, the setting gave context to the action and motivation for the playing characters (‘PCs’) in it.
It’s a bit ironic that when Super Heroes were just a part of the whole instead of my sole focus was when I finally was able to craft a long, memorable and fun Super Hero campaign. Then it clicked with me… This is what Super Hero RPGs should be all about. In this post, we will explore how one sets up a Super Hero campaign, what are the newbie mistakes and some wisdom imparted from five years of constant play. Be it Icons, BASH or Mutants & Masterminds, for this advice is not system specific.

Super Heroes are the spice

Learning from the master
The book “Supergods” written by Grant Morrison it’s not just a tour around the history of the Super Hero genre with emphasis on their comic roots, but also shows the process of creating stories and characters in the genre from the point of view of several different authors (with emphasis on Morrison’s way of doing things of course), one of the points raised by the author was that “Super Heroes” are the spice of the story they are in, not the story in itself. Sounds a bit obvious right? Even the very first super hero RPG (Or perhaps it would be more accurate to call it ‘First Super Hero War game with RPG elements”?), Superhero 2044 was about “Fighting Super Crime in the future” and not only about “Super Heroes”. Sure enough, the Super Heroes were the main thing about the game, but there was a setting there as well, it made the PCs and their characters and the Super NPCs they interact the “spice” of the experience.
But what does that mean in practical terms?
For those wanting to run a Supers campaign that means creating or using a setting, as small as it can be, that justifies the Super Hero mythos (from capes, to super powers and iconic-like names).
Which means it’s about giving bigger motivations to the characters other than “Stop the bad guy and save the world”. As in:

What would the heroes do after they save the world?
How would they save a world?
What would they do before said threat happens?

With all that said, let’s put all we discussed here into action following three steps:

Make a setting, no matter how small it is
Justify the Existence of the Super Hero mythos in it
Create a campaign premise out of the created setting

Let’s explain these points through examples bellow.
1. Make a setting, no matter how small it is
Inspired by Jack Kirby’s Space Odyssey-like stories, for our example let’s do something cosmic, absurd and colorful.

“The twin planetoids called Blue Rock and Red Rock co-exist next to each other bound together by a strange and massive mountain range that connects them through their orbits. The people that inhabit the planets are called ‘Rockee’. The ones that live in Blue Rock have a red pigmentation on their rock-like skin, while the ones who live in Red Rock have a blue pigmentation on their rock-like skin. Together they are known throughout the galaxy as the ‘Siamese people’. In actuality, the two Rockee groups hate each other, but put on a facade of coexistence since they get many visits from all over the galaxy since their planets really close to their ‘Siamese Planets’ there is a huge space station that gladly accepts the precious materials the Rockee people dig up. All kinds of gifted Super Heroes, terrible Super Villains and everything in between se the Blue/Red Rock as opportunity to do business, get noticed and perhaps grab some credits.
The Rockee have a tradition of taking these so called “Super” beings and make them compete in a Mega-Olympic game called “The Hundred Game”. Said game often draws the attention of the entire galaxy and it’s often live transmitted to other planets. At the end of the past Mega-Olympic game however, disaster stuck. The Blue Rock planet eclipsed the Red Rock one, denying it the light of sun. This has been a source of constant strife and the silent hate perpetuated by the people of the Siamese Planets are about to become really loud.
If someone does not save the Rockee from themselves they might destroy their planets in a bloody civil war.”

This is a “space” twist on your regular Super Hero campaign. You got yourself a backdrop of conflicting ideologies and people (the two Rockee factions) as well a great catastrophe that cannot be dealt with at first (The strange eclipse) and can be the indirect cause for conflicts among the two planets. Summing up: The two planets need heroes, or they will perish by themselves.
The Kronan from the Marvel Universe were clearly an inspiration for the 'Rockee'.

2. Justify the Existence of the Super Hero mythos in it
“Around the galaxy (and that includes Earth) there are prophets that talk about “The Heroes that transcend causality and the common sense. They live beyond their origins for they become super charged symbols of hope, despair and everything in between. Super ‘Heroes ‘and Super ‘Villains’.
In this universe there is something called the ‘heroic sparkle’ that exist in all beings in the galaxy, but only a few manage to unearth it’s secret and strange powers, usually channeling through iconography and belief. Different intergalactic societies deal with this fact in a real diverse ways, some threat these super beings as saviors, others have schools for gifted individuals, others sacrifice these powerful and dangerous beings for they are ‘aberrations’.
While being a ‘Hero’ is a concept to be shaped and discussed by each of the space societies, being a ‘Super’ means transcending your mortality in a explosion of power, to become a symbol. And that definition all of those prophets of power can agree.”

Instead of trying to be specific, since we went for a more absurd and colorful approach for the setting we also made our Super Heroes varied, vague yet all sharing the same origin. Remember to marry the justification to the setting you are trying to invoke. A grim and gritty street level group would probably have more ties to the underworld of a big metropolis and not something as goofy as a “Heroic Sparkle”. Unless that contrast is exactly what the group is trying to evoke. It’s not what you use to justify the heroes, but how you use it. 

3. Create a campaign premise out of the created setting
Using the concept for the setting it is possible to create some premises that marry into the “Planetary Crisis”, “Space Adventures” and “Prophetic Heroes” we can come up for some scenarios or ideas for super charged adventures:

- Who or what caused the planetary eclipse?
- What if a civil war was brewing and the PCs got caught right in the middle of it?
- What if the Siamese Planets were invaded by another force, trying to capitalize on their darkest hour?

Take note that with the setting in place, creating situations for the PCs is a breeze. Though these are just ideas. In our next chapter of the series of articles about playing hero in rpgs, we will delve with “adventure structures” for the Supers genre.
Most of the ideas expressed here are to be flexible. This “guide” steam from the personal experiences of the author, that tries to take what worked for him and his enthusiasm and part that knowledge to his readership.

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