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A Remedy for Oppression: issues 1-3

Oppression makes a wise man mad.  Your fathers were wise men, and if they did not go mad, they became restive under this treatment.  They felt themselves the victims of grievous wrongs, wholly incurable in their colonial capacity.  With brave men there is always a remedy for oppression.

--Frederick Douglass, “What To the Slave is the Fourth of July?”

“I’m suspicious of what Superman thinks empathy is.”
--Fano, pre-game discussion

 

ORIENTING

Church of the Intercession, 155th and Broadway, March 14, 2020

Me and Fano have known each other for years.  Mainly hobby-friends, pre-pandemic we’d grab a beer or a pizza every couple months to talk about Life.  We’re both around 40.  We both live in New York City, we both work for not-for-profits, we both have experienced job insecurity in the last few years.  Fano’s Black, I’m White.  I grew up obsessed with superhero comics, he didn’t.

Our families are muddling through the pandemic, the recession, the police brutality, and one of the most stressful elections in my adult life.  Any time 2020 wants to take a fucking rest is all right with me.  

We’re playing a 1:1 campaign hybridizing Champions Now (character concepts, situational development, and manifesto) with Marvel Super Heroes (resolution systems).  I’ll explain why I chose these systems in a minute.

We’ve done three on-line sessions, maybe 4.5 hours of play so far.  In comics terms, I’d say we’ve told one Double-Sized Premiere Issue.

Our two statements:

  1. Superheroes serve and protect the public.
  2. The NYC 2020 Omni-Shambles.

We’re doing this because I’m angry.  Right now, at this moment, under these circumstances, I am more angry than I have ever been in my life.  It feels like my home is falling apart, and every institution is failing.  No matter how much volunteering I do, or how much I donate, or how much I spend looking after my little tribe, at the end of the day I still want to pick up a car and heave it through a building.  I want superheroes to exist because I can’t fix what’s breaking.

Prometheus, Fano’s superhero, can be found in the comments, but the basic idea is that he’s an immortal super-scientist who has gone to ground in Brooklyn, where he’s slumming as a hospital lab technician.  He’s hunted by the extra-terrestrial Greek gods for the crime of trying to technologically jumpstart the human race.

GM’ing has been deeply satisfying for three reasons.  First, translating my present-day anxieties and concerns into the idiom of supers comics.  Second, seeing how Fano--who is a very mellow guy--reacts to situations that agitate the hell out of me.  Third, I’m really, really pleased with how Champions Now works to facilitate thematic play, which had always been a frustration for me in prior supers games.

For the first two sessions, I think Fano wasn’t quite sure what was expected of him, but was cautiously enjoying paddling around in the pool.  Once we got a definitive resolution to the early situation, he got really pumped up, and he’s already trying to juggle several subplots.

THE STORY SO FAR

The main “superhero” story has been conventional but very enjoyable.  Prometheus, in his secret ID, gets invited to a protest rally by his work friends.  A far-right supervillain named Volt plows into the crowd with his electrocution force field.  

Prometheus subdues Volt and turns him over to the NYPD . . . only to discover that Volt was never arrested and there’s no paperwork.  Clearly the cops are in league with the villain.  

Hoping to stage a rematch and disable the villain’s technology, Prometheus tracks some of the cops involved to a house on Long Island and tries to ambush Volt.  Volt and the cops turn the tables, capture Prometheus, interrogate him in the cellar, and nearly kill him in a deathtrap.  Prometheus escapes by using his powers to literally bring the house down on Volt.  Having sustained serious injuries, the hero staggers onto the Long Island Railroad before more police show up.

The less conventional part has been the “friendly neighborhood genius” aspect of play.  The game’s set in Park Slope, Brooklyn, a neighborhood Fano knows well and I know a bit.  Prometheus has broken into the local post office to fix a mail sorting machine, mediated a landlord/tenant dispute, and at his workplace has contributed to the simmering origin story of a different supervillain.  

Play so far has been about setting up the real-world environment, the people who would reasonably be there, and exploring the systemic collapse we’re all living through.  Now that we’re sufficiently grounded, I want to pivot toward the extra-terrestrial Greek god stuff, where ancient grudges collide with psychedelia.

SYSTEMS AT WORK
I want to talk about the intersection of two role-playing games.  

I’ve owned Marvel Super Heroes since I was 9 years old.  I know it like the back of my hand, but have only run it a handful of times under less-than-ideal conditions.  It’s a lightweight but very robust system, particularly when supplemented with a few rules from the Advanced game published in ‘86.  In that era of game design, scenario creation rules are non-existent, and nearly all of the published adventures are irredeemably bad.  There’s also not much about creating true protagonists.

It turns out that those design gaps are filled extremely well by Champions Now.  I realize this wasn’t Ron’s intention!  Originally I wanted to run this scenario using Champions Now, but at the time we were organizing the game, I struggled to understand some stuff, and didn’t want to “learn a new language” when there was something I urgently wanted to express.  Also, as discussed below, Marvel Supers does some stuff that’s politically salient that I really wanted to get into.  I do see an opportunity to dip into full Champions Now for a “special issue” type of thing, depending on how things go with a  possible voyage to a different plane of existence.

LET'S MEET VOLT

Here’s an example of the hybridized game at work.  

The supervillain referenced above, Volt, developed when I realized the two campaign statements implied the existence of a cop-adjacent, right-wing terrorist supervillain.  Not a Doctor Doom, not a Joker.  Just your run-of-the-mill Scorpion/Poison Ivy/Radioactive Man jobber, handled with care and attention.  

I sat down, drew a pyramid labeled with Person, Powers, and Problems.  

  • The personality was easy: I drew on a real world frenemy-of-a-friend, extending his John Birch Society style FaceBook posts to their logical end.  
  • The powers came together with the idea of “whiteness as an unmarked category,” leading to invisibility and a force field; I threw in some electricity powers for offense.  
  • For problems, the guy has some alien tech he doesn’t quite understand and can’t recharge.  He’s coping with bad PTSD from a tour in Afghanistan; a support group ended up radicalizing him.  His wife and kid don’t know he’s a murderous supervillain.  More relevantly, he’s worried that the backlash against policing will leave them hamstrung to protect Normal Americans, and thus in his own mind he’s a vigilante hero, taking care of issues the cops can’t touch for political reasons.

Having done the conceptual work, statting him up in Marvel was very simple.  Though not directly influenced by the point-builds in Champions Now, I ended up with a highly specific vision of how Volt’s powers work, how they’re activated, and how to overcome them.  

Unfortunately, this was before I’d seen Fano’s final character stats, but that’s led to an interesting dynamic!  Volt has terrific defenses, but they don’t work against Prometheus’s gravitic slam, which operates via area-of-effect rather than targeting.  Meanwhile, despite a strong offense, Prometheus is exceptionally frail for a superhero.  So the first person to land a blow is probably going to win the fight . . . and Volt is invisible.

Then working out a starting scenario, and its evolution, is just a question of playing to Volt’s mechanical incentives.

WHY THIS OLD GAME, NOW?
Ron’s comments about Marvel Super Heroes are right on the money: there’s a surprisingly rich mixture of reward systems:

  • Karma, measuring received notions of superheroics or supervillainy
  • Resources
  • Popularity

These traits are almost wholly disconnected from each other, and shift through play.

Transcending these competing value systems, there’s the question of whether we, the audience, sympathize with the character’s priorities.  Fano made a very telling comment when we were kicking ideas around: “Superman does a lot of good, but he never truly suffers.  I’m suspicious of what Superman thinks empathy really is.”  Superman would have high Karma and Popularity, but can still be a cold fish.

Needless to say, treating conventional morality, money, fame, and sympathy as four independent variables is a really potent combination at this particular instant in American social life.  It’s why I specifically wanted to play Marvel Super Heroes, rather than straight-up Champions Now.

Getting back to Volt: as a villain, the game rewards for committing a violent crime (rampaging through the protestors).  Though Prometheus defeats him in their first encounter, he slinks away.  He’s also rewarded for looking after his personal life--so he happens to be on his way to watch a hockey game with his cop friends, just as Prometheus is bracing them for information.  Volt gets a further reward for defeating Prometheus in battle, then for subjecting him to a deathtrap and bragging about his origins.  This is all Karma-maximizing, and as a result, we had some sessions that felt very “comic-booky.”  In the long run, Volt needs to build up his villainous Popularity since his goals are mostly social… but he’ll need a bank of Karma points in order to pull off high-profile capers, and making a strong first impression gets him there.  

Meanwhile, in the “Now,” Volt has realized that his force field needs to be a lot stronger.  A little unsure of how to do that (half-understood alien tech), and eager to get out of the city, he’s planning to raid the Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory to hijack their nuclear reactor for a top-up.  His allies in the NYPD have put out an all-points bulletin on Prometheus, with orders to shoot to kill.

Fano is still very firmly in the “superheroes don’t kill” camp, so as play proceeds I’m going to be very curious how he deals with a genuinely evil, murderous enemy who can’t get arrested in this town.  That moment of realizing he might need to leave the Karma rules behind and just skrag the dude to make the world a better place is going to be fun to watch, whichever way Fano decides.

Again: Volt isn’t meant as the main antagonist; that would be Zeus.  Volt is merely a vicious son of a bitch who would logically be here.  But I’m very happy with the result both as a character in his own right, and in crafting some memorable scenes.

DO I HAVE A POINT?
Yeah, kinda.

Most relevantly: has the pandemic and its attendant social stresses affected the content of your games at all?  How?

As pure gamer talk: what other, functional ways to design super scenarios are out there?  Ron’s scenario-building advice in Champions Now travels extremely well, and I could never have done this campaign without them.  I’m wondering just how open the design space really is.

Here are the examples that have impressed me most, but feel free to discuss what’s worked well for you in other games:

  • The Champions Now approach is extremely fruitful, which essentially asks you to take an emotionally jazzed-up version of the real world, find characters that resonate on those frequencies, and just let them loose.  
  • I’ve had good experiences with the first edition of With Great Power… (2005), which operates by tagging certain superheroes’ traits as essential to a villainous plot, and then running scenes to threaten those traits.  I know this works really well for one-shots.
  • The approach in Marvel Heroic Roleplaying (2012) works for a couple of scenes at a time, but not (IME) for much longer.  Per the rules, the scenarios tend to be highly programmed, with set-piece scenes that don’t always mesh well with player-selected hardwired agendas for the heroes.  It would require a lot more customization than any of the published stuff for the game, which IMO suffered from trying to include every hero who ever existed.

As far as super comics: my favorite thing about Champions Now is its heavy emphasis on where recognizable, real-world concerns collide with super cosmic-colored smackdowns.  That must have been a major design goal for Marvel Super Heroes too, especially given the comics it relied upon.  This is a really fruitful area, creatively, and it’s something I wish would come back into fashion in modern super comics.

Department: 
Actual Play

Comments

James_Nostack's picture

The Person
Millennia old, born in the Near East, currently living in a basement apartment in Brooklyn, where he slums as a lowly lab tech at New York Presbyterian. He has money and resources, but is going incognito using the alias “Mel Abdul.”

The Powers
Genetically modified by aliens posing as the Greek gods to act as one of their technicians/servitors.  Immortality via slow-acting regeneration.  Ultra-intelligent through centuries’ exposure to alien science.  Wields a tachyon torch that distorts and warps spacetime (main application: super speed; the “special effect” of gravity manipulation got added in too).  

The Problems
Tortured by the “gods” for eons after he rebelled and spread their tech on earth.  He’s gone into hiding, but is pursued by bounty hunters.  His goal is to keep spreading the science by mentoring geniuses: lately, an Afro-Carribean med student at the hospital who is routinely overlooked and sidelined by misogynoir.  He is also trying to look after his bitter old landlady, even though she’s racist and annoying.

Ron Edwards's picture

I'd really like to see his starting values for Karma and Popularity ... even, as long as I'm asking for things, a little chart to show the changes in their values at the start of each session.

Ooh! Also, the same for Volt!

And, and, and may I please have a pony.

James_Nostack's picture

(This is an attempt to reply to Ron; I seem to be having trouble threading properly.)

Prometheus's Starting Attributes

Health: 26, Karma: 60, Resources: 30, Popularity: 10 (superhero), 6 (secret ID)

For those unfamiliar with this system, that Health score is dangerously low for a solo super hero--bordering on Professor X / Aunt May territory--but reflects that Prometheus is dealing with physical disabilities after being torttured.  He's got very respectable Resources due to long-term investments and a magical 3D printer stolen from Olympus, now perched on his countertop disguised as a kitchen gadget.

Session 1: +30 Karma (rescued a patient from medical-insurance bureaucracy), no change to Popularity

Session 2: +105 Karma (defeated Volt, saved lives, fixed the post office), +2  Popularity (public victory)

Session 3: +10 Karma (beaten by Volt, wrecked some property, defeated Volt), +0  Popularity (wasn't in public)

Volt's Starting Attributes

Health: 66, Karma: 36, Resources: 10, Popularity: -20

Session 1: (didn't show up yet)

Session 2: -20 Karma (violent rampage, defeated), -15 Popularity (public defeat)

Session 3: +75 Karma (defeat hero, deathtrap, monologue, socialize with friends, got beaten), +0 Popularity (not in public)

Ron Edwards's picture

Thanks! A lot of interesting things pop out even from these few sessions, and it makes me want to play the game quite hard for a long time, on the basis of getting more data alone.

What I'm not seeing, which I'm not demanding considering that you probably can't just keep data-mining for me on spec, is what's happened to Prometheus' Karma. He's gained a lot of it, so one may ask, how much is used in each session to alter resolution, how much is used for character improvement, and how much is left unused.

I'm also thinking about that in terms of HeroQuest and other games which erase all unused points of this kind at the end of each session. If you have any left over at that point, and you don't use them for improvement, they're gone. (In these games, "cost" isn't not so much the issue, as each point can be used for improvement of some kind; basically, there's no excuse not to use them for improvement at the end.) What this means is that you can't bank up resolution-altering goodness from session to session, which is a "win spiral" problem we see in many games which permit the banking, especially DC Heroes.

This is premature relative to my hypothetical "play the hell out of this again" plan, but very speculatively, I think I'd consider requiring excess Karma over a certain point, say in units of 10, to be automatically used for improvement at the end of a session. So if you want to beef up your rolls in a given session, you have to root for Karma right away and most vigorously. This strikes me as a similar dynamic to the comics I'm most interested in for inspiration, in which the heroes definitely do their best when at their most authentic and most heroic, but they also do not retain any kind of plot protection from having done that last time.

James_Nostack's picture

I haven't been keeping track of how much Karma has been spent so far, but it's been surprisingly low, maybe 40 or 50 points total across five sessions of play. 

There's a mathematical reason for this.  Prometheus's attributes are very low, but his spacetime distortion super-power is very powerful.  So when he fails a roll, he will either fail by a whole lot, or by a very tiny bit.  

There's also a play-style reason: this game has featured a lot of neighborhood drama--a messy divorce, frustrations at work, landlord/tenant issues--and while Fano's enjoying the soap opera, he's mostly comfortable leaving those outcomes to chance.  He's not shy about spending on super-fights, and last session ended on a cliffhanger battle with Heracles, Medea, an expy of Cardiac (a 90's Spider-Man vigilante), and a SWAT team, so he'll probably burn a lot there.

Advancement in Marvel Super Heroes is a fool's hope.  It can cost thousands of Karma points to upgrade an attribute. and despite this game being 35 years old, I've never heard of it happening in play.  Under the official rules, when you receive Karma, you're supposed to allocate some of it to an "advancement fund," but I've established that Karma only counts for advancement once it's spent.  (This doesn't avoid the problem you're discussing, which I agree is worth thinking about.)

James_Nostack's picture

In the post, I wrote, "That moment [of Fano having to decide whether it's okay to kill a super villain or not] is going to be fun to watch," and it occurred to me that I should update that, to clarify that I wasn't steering toward such a moment, but that the moral question was strongly implied:

I drafted this post a few weeks ago, and we've played two sessions since.

Although a big "OMG do I kill him or not" thing would be the kind of thing that I might do as a player, Fano is less inclined to chew the scenery.  He spent part of last session messing with the game's Inventing Stuff rules, to put together a device that will neutralize Volt's tech long enough to knock him out and take it away.  So, you'd be left with a racist, fascist guy with murderous inclinations but no ability to do superhuman amounts of harm.  

The dice haven't cooperated so far, but it's a perfectly fair approach to the fictional problem in terms of genre, mechanics, and the player's preferences.  If it works, hey, it works!

(Curiously, in that same session Fano cheerfully attempted vehicular homicide against a Greek demigoddess, but perhaps their shared immortality encourages a bit more murderousness.)

Ron Edwards's picture

I'm presenting this here because trying to discuss rules through Discord is impossible for me.

As written, almost all Powers which roll for effect use the rolled Core, without reference to the "total" pips count. The exceptions are:

  • Blast, which includes the pips total for Knockout in addition to the Core value for Body
  • Drain, which ignores the Core and uses the pips total for the amount of Endurance lost
  • Regeneration, which uses the pips total for recovered Body, but the Core total to recover Body lost to the Destruction Advantage

Given all that, here are the rules as published for Lethal, Piercing, and Severe:

  • Lethal: this is applied to an attack which ordinarily does no Body damage, giving it the additional capacity to do Body damage. The new/additional damage is stopped by the defense which ordinarily applies to this power, whatever it might be. (Note that it is nonsensical/impossible to make Blast Lethal, because it already does Body damage.)
  • Piercing: this is applied to an attack which does Body damage, i.e., either Blast or another attack which has been modified with Lethal. The Body damage bypasses non-resistant Defense.
  • Severe: this is applied to an attack which ordinarily does Knockout damage, which is actually just one, Blast. The Knockout Damage bypasses Defense.

These are independent of one another, with interactions indicatd as above. You can have any one, two, or all three of these for extremely different rules results.

Please note the terror of Lethal as applied to Ego-based effects. It is one of my favorites.

Severe is not complete in the text. Its final rules did not make it into the version that went to the printer. As intended, it should read like this, with two options.

  • Option 1 is exactly as in the text and as summarized above, i.e., as it applies to Blast.
  • Option 2 is to modify a non-Blast attack which does not do any Knockout damage, to apply the pips total as Knockout damage (it is reduced by Defense). This does not duplicate any of the rules summarized above and may be combined with any of them.

Note as well that if you modify a power with option 2 for Severe, then you may modify it with option 1 as well if you like.

(If I were to present the rule fully as intended, then the order would be reversed, but that is not relevant here.)

I hope this works better for you than the attempted explanation at Discord.

James_Nostack's picture

It does, thanks!  One of the things that's very interesting about Champions Now is that there's two forms of hurting someone, and two degreees of defensive protection, with the ability to really fine-tune what you're doing.  

If Fano's into it, I'd like to use Champions Now for a spin-off or series.  One option involves the voyage of the Argo, which is looking like a big event in the backstory.  I'd have to find some way of fitting in modern-day, real-world slice of life stuff into it, though, because I think that's the secret sauce in CN.

Ron Edwards's picture

I don't think it's a secret, but yes.

noah_t's picture

Damn, James. It sounds like you are bringing the fire to this game.

It was eye-opening for me to see Frederick Douglass's sentences right next to your Two Statements. I often play to escape anger—to feel wonder, or terror, or immersion in an intensely imagined world. To stop feeling angry and helpless and sick at the new American excesses and American complacence each day brings. Your post was a good reminder that roleplaying (like any art) can be a vehicle to move deeper into anger, rather than a mere escape.

I'm curious: how much of this have you explicitly discussed with your duet partner Fano? Did you both come in intending to channel anger into this game? I can feel your emtion at work in the character of Volt (I was grinding my teeth while reading his description!). Has Fano channeled similar emotions through Prometheus, or has he brought a different emotional texture that's changed how you play? What's the call-and-response of your duet been like?  

Ron Edwards's picture

This is near to my heart, as I hope is evident throughout many of the videos I've posted here. As a side to to the discussion, and not to detract from James' thoughts and responses, see my post Is your hate pure? from June 2017.

noah_t's picture

Hi Ron! I am also not intending to derail the thread from James's reply. Just wanted to say that your other posts make it clear that this is a preoccupation in your play and thought.

My background is mainly in 'literary' genres. However, over the past couple of years I've been exploring beyond those narrow boundaries. More comics, more sci-fi, more fantasy. It's struck me how preoccupied literary fiction is with ambiguity: What do you do about injustice when you can't do anything about it? It seems like comics and a lot of sci-fi and fantasy are willing to ask a much scarier question: What if I do have the power to change things? What do I do about injustice, then? (Your post on vigilantes is  diving much deeper into that question)

Roleplaying seems like an incredible—perhaps even the perfect—medium to wrestle with these questions. 

James_Nostack's picture

Noah, thank you for the compliment!  Often I'll play to detach myself from personal stress.  But this stress isn't personal, it's collective.  Tackling it head-on is cathartic, because no one in political or social authority can afford to talk honestly about what's happening.

Prior to creating characters, Fano and I talked for an hour or two about super hero media.  We wanted to work out a model of superheroics that wasn't based on police work, though we weren't totally sure what that would look like.  (So far, a bit like The New Gods.)

In long-term rhythms of play, Fano's been mostly reactive as I've introduced various aspects of the setting: the hospital, the police, the apartment building, the non-Greek supers, and finally the Greek mythology.  I'm FINALLY finished with that, and look forward to passing the reins.

In sessions, Fano alternates between two modes: (1) de-escalating conflicts, and (2) smashing things, and I never quite know which way he'll play it.  From a "conversational" standpoint, it's like he's saying, "THIS stuff doesn't agitate me so much, I think I can live with it.  But THAT stuff, I'm sick of it."

noah_t's picture

Hi James, thank you for providing additional detail about you and Fano's conversations around the game. It is really cool to see two players intentionally building a super who isn't just another cop in a cape. I'm really excited, too, by the idea of putting deeply weird elements (like aliens and ancient gods) right next to pressing political questions.

I'll be really curious to hear (hopefully you get the chance to post about the game further) how the transition from you introducing the world to Fano "taking the reins" goes. I hadn't really thought about this dynamic before, but it occurs to me that this moment is really key. I think a lot of games I've played have foundered at this point, where a player has to jump from mostly-listener to soloist.

In terms of system, has Marvel Super Heroes offered Fano a way to use the dice to deescalate situations, or do you mainly engage the mechanics when it's time for Prometheus to smash things? It occurred to me that a player might be able to sculpt their Powers toward nonviolent solutions to conflict in Champions Now. Do you think there's this kind of possibility in Marvel Super Heroes?

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