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A Remedy for Oppression: issues 4-7

"There must be in-groups whom the law protects but does not bind, alongside out-groups whom the law binds but does not protect."

—Frank Wilhoit, The Travesty of Liberalism 

“Science can save them from many things, Prometheus, but it cannot save them from themselves.”

—Daedalus, supervillain, issue 7

Attempted coups, hospitals overflowing, breadlines stretching for miles.  Having nothing better to do as the world staggers on, Fano and I are still playing this silly game.  Marvel Super Heroes seasoned as heavily as possible with Champions Now techniques.  

I'll present actual play to pose a discussion question: in Champions Now and games like it, how many subplots are too many?  Or: what do you do when the “Now” gets too busy?

MAIN PLOT SUMMARY

Earlier issues established Prometheus’s status quo as a super-scientist keeping a low profile in 2020 Brooklyn.  

In issues 4-7, old enemies from Ancient Greece begin to bear down on him in a series of escalating confrontations.  The most dangerous of these old enemies is Prometheus’s first student, Daedalus.  Facing off inside Daedalus’s headquarters in issue 7, they inflict mortal wounds on each other.  Both sides barely escape with their lives.

SIDE PLOTS GALORE

Aside from the main plot, there’s a ton of little stuff going on in the background.  It’s kind of gotten out of hand.  Here’s an attempt to clean up “The Now” for human comprehension.

On the “humble lab technician Mel Abdul” side:

  • AGNESA, Prometheus’s landlord, disapproves of her nephew’s interracial relationship, and is trying to break them up.
  • KRYSZTOF, the nephew, is skimming money from his job running an illegal nightclub, and is going to get killed if nobody helps him.  He’s cheating on Zulma.
  • ZULMA, Prometheus’s neighbor, was thrown out of work in the pandemic and looking for a job; Agnes is annoyed the City won’t allow an eviction.
  • CELIA, Prometheus’s mentee, is facing a major committee meeting on her doctoral research and may end up forging data if someone doesn’t help her.
  • MANNY, Prometheus’s young ward, is a 7 year old Honduran “unaccompanied minor,” who was tortured by Daedalus and just wants to go home.

On the “enemy of the gods, champion of mankind Prometheus” side:

  • CADUCEUS, plotting to commit terrorist acts against the C-suite of a healthcare company for suing people over pandemic-related medical care.
  • DAEDALUS, trying to determine the identity of Prometheus’s student and convince her to join him instead.
  • HERACLES, looking to Prometheus to save his troubled marriage by killing a guy
  • MEDEA, plotting revenge against Daedalus who accidentally-on-purpose teleported her to Tartarus, the torture-dimension.
  • VOLT, white supremacist, stole $10 million in consumer electronics and is plotting an attack on a nuclear reactor.

TECHNIQUES

Sorcerer and Champions Now share similar GM techniques.  The most important, conceptually, is the basic cycle of play on the GM side.

  1. Populate a locale with grabby NPC’s, especially those implied by char-gen
  2. Let the players loose to pursue their agendas and collide with NPC’s
  3. Update the status and goals of each NPC, and repeat

What I’ve discovered in this experiment is that this technique works perfectly well with Marvel Super Heroes.  It’s also how I ran B/X D&D.

Speaking solely from my own experiences, this style of play is associated with:

  • Prioritizing player agency and decision making (a/k/a the fun stuff)
  • Creating a sense of place that feels lived-in, complex, and fluid
  • “Exothermic” prep: a gargantuan hump to get over, and then it’s very easy
  • Utter, total, shameless proliferation of papers, notes, browser tabs
  • Mild stress remembering who’s doing what with whom where right now
  • Using silly voices with particular characters once in a while to cut that stress
  • The “oh damn, I meant to have that guy say that line” moment afterward.

But I want to focus on the first point, emphasizing player agency, in a specific sense.  At what point does “Hey, cool, the world moves on without me” shift into analysis-paralysis over the opportunity costs?

MANAGING THE NOW

I have 1 player with 10 major NPC’s implied by backstory and immediate circumstances.  We play for at most 2 hours, every 2 weeks.  We haven’t crossed the line into opportunity costs yet, but it feels close.  Not just for Fano as a player, but for me as a GM: “It’s been a while since we’ve heard from Medea, should she step up?  Hmmm, but that means making Caduceus wait.”

“There’s not enough time in the day to resolve all my subplots” is perhaps the hallmark of the comics period Champions Now celebrates.  From a storytelling point of view, which problems capture the hero’s attention, and which problems he chooses to let fester, not only serve as characterization, but also as a thematic statement.

But of course reading a comic is a passive experience: the reader doesn't have agency the same way a player does, which means the creators only have to tell one main story and (say) two subplots rather than twelve.

I've tried to deal with this the following ways:

  • Crossing: Daedalus, part of the Greek Revenge group, is now trying to track down Celia, part of the Daily Life group.  I need to do more of this.
  • Holding Pattern: in order to make room for the Greek characters, I decided Volt needs time to work on his inventions, which in this game takes many weeks.  I’ll be happy to see him again, but for now, it’s enough that he has a plausible reason to lay low.
  • Under the Rug: I still don’t have a firm sense of Medea as a character, so she hasn’t been getting as much attention, which means she’s falling further behind.  I’m hoping to figure her out and have her come roaring back, but if that doesn’t happen she’ll just become an extra.  This looks like a holding pattern in play, but it’s not fictionally justified by character motivation, I just don’t know the moves for her yet.
  • Not Yet: things need to calm down before Atalanta and Orpheus show up.

WHY AM I WRITING THIS AT ALL: I'd be interested to hear (a) if other people have this problem, and (b) if so how they address it.

BONUS 1: The Morals of Prometheus

That bit about characterization and thematic statements?  Prometheus got mad about a kidnapping, but when he realized it was all part of a long running custody battle inflamed by "pandemic tyranny" he quickly lost interest and called the cops on the guy.

Prometheus had no problem fighting off the NYPD to assist Caduceus blowing up the offices of a health insurance company.  Whether he'll assist Caduceus in committing murder is a question reserved for a later date.

Prometheus rescued an immigrant child, Manolo, from Daedalus's headquarters, but seemingly has made almost no effort to find the kid's parents.  There was even talk of making this poor, tortured kid into Prometheus's sidekick.  I think I grimaced so hard at that Fano gave up on it.  Close to a line on my part.

In terms of reward systems:

  • I've been too stingy with Karma, and need to throw some more villains at Fano.  Slice-of-life episodes are interesting but don't provide much reward.
  • Fano has not spent very much Karma, even in a serious show-down with his arch-nemesis.  He did burn a lot to avoid being mind-controlled.
  • The Resources haven't fluctuated very much.  He's slowly getting into that sub-game, but it may take a while before he catches on to how much money he actually has.
  • Popularity has remained static during these issues, in part because this was a hidden war between Ancient Greek demigods and no ordinary people were around.

BONUS 2: Artifacts of Play

The Now (warning - ugly as hell, out of date, needs to be tweaked)

Daedalus

Daedalus's Headquarters

Hylomorphic Extractor (a McGuffin)

Prometheus's Headquarters

Little Miss Mushroom (supervillain WIP)

Department: 
Actual Play

Comments

Sean_RDP's picture

I certainly have been in this position. I fondly remember a MAGE The Ascension game which rotated between GMs where there were many NPCs. When it was my turn, I introdcued a whole new villain sub-plot with several new villains and allies. It became a bit confusing.

In that case I handled it by letting the characters kill off a few enemies and send others into hiding. But the question is: which ones provide an ongoing interest and which ones can be dropped or put off for a while? Some threads are never picked up because there just is not time. And sometimes these become the seeds of new stories. In the short term if a thread can be tied up in a satisfying way, then do it. If the player has not interest in something, then let the consequences be what they are. 

Like CELIA. In your head, give it 1 or 2 sessions. If the player does not pick up that thread, the conseuqences are what they are. This lets that NPC move onto the next thread, based on the consequences of their actions.

This is not a direct answer to your question, but more like a prelude to discussion. In the Jeremey Keller game, Technoir, he codifies a method of generating a web of elements from which the session's events will arise. This is a visual technique involving a map of the elemtns and the making of connections between them. There are specific rules which govern the type and number of connections which can be made which - if violated - can represent graphically the notion I think you are describing here of too much going on to handle, but also a related problem of too many things being tied together. 

I found it to be quite useful to help clarify and transform the inner conversation of the GM during whatever method they use for preparation into a procedure which can help a person bypass situations like this which seem fine on the surface but in play prove to raise questions or concerns. 

Technoir

James_Nostack's picture

Thanks for the recommendation, I'm checking it out now!

noah_t's picture

This game continues to sound incredible, James! I really dig the naming conventions and aesthetic—you're offering such a generous world to your fellow player to interact with and explore.

“There’s not enough time in the day to resolve all my subplots” is perhaps the hallmark of the comics period Champions Now celebrates.  From a storytelling point of view, which problems capture the hero’s attention, and which problems he chooses to let fester, not only serve as characterization, but also as a thematic statement.

I think my duet buddy and I are going to run into a similar challenge with our Runequest: Roleplaying in Glorantha game. (I almost wrote "problem" but realized it's ridiculous to call having too much engaging material a "problem").

I haven't played a game with specific procedures for handling this, but your question made me consider some positive behaviors I noticed while playing Imp of the Perverse that might be helpful for our Glorantha and Prometheus's Brooklyn.

In Imp, every Chapter is a self-contained adventure. You dream up a Monster, then place it in the center of a relationship map called the Monster's Web—the Monster must be connected, directly or indirectly, to one or more of the Protagonist's NPC relationships.

We played the game over numerous sessions and started to see significant overlaps between Chapters. Familiar NPCs, shifting relationships, repeated locations, etc. Sometimes, my buddy would actively pull an NPC from a previous Chapter into the Web, either for help or to seek emotional closure. Sometimes, their actions would require dreaming up a new NPC for the Web on the spot.

It very well could have gotten confusing, but the practice or writing a new R-map from scratch for each Chapter, with a different Monster as the focus kept it manageable. 'Secondary' NPCs could certainly steal the spotlight. Sometimes, the hunt for the Monster played second fiddle to a blossoming romantic relationship, etc. But if I needed to understand the social/emotional landscape of the situation, I always had a map at hand.

I intend to use a similar practice for the already-ballooning fiction of our RQ game: Selecting a 'focus' question/character/peril, either that the PC is already actively engaging or with or that I think will engage my fellow player. Building a map of the elements that directly relate to the focus. Then using that map as the lens for everything else. 

(And I think it's important that the Web is just a GM-facing tool....the player is not required to 'follow' or interact with it in any way. Indeed, the GM draws the Web in two dimensions, and it's the action of the players that gives it mass and volume).

It occurred to me also, reading your post, that I don't think Champions Now explicitly states you have to know what every entity in the Now is doing at each moment. You could let most of the elements of your Now 'rest' for a few sessions, push 2-3 of the elements that Fano responds to really hard, then come back and retroactively decide what the other entities were up to, what the fallout from the recent sessions means for them, etc. If he proactively pursues a 'resting' element, that might be the perfect opportunity for a Cross with an 'active' element—and the Cross will be a surprise for both of you.

James_Nostack's picture

Noah, thank you for recommending Imp of the Perverse!  I'll check it out.  I agree that letting characters rest is a good thing; part of the issue is that there are a bunch of guys running around and so even with some resting, there's a lot going on.  But I think I need to step back a bit and give Fano some more room to maneuver.

Ron Edwards's picture

If you haven't seen it, I think my discussion with Jon in Paying attention to emergent properties may be relevant, possibly helpful. I delved pretty hard into many details of his game and also received permission before offering my advice, and since that doesn't apply here, I am not offering the same point here with anything like the force I stated it to him there.

Whether that helps or not, I also want to know if you are OK with me pressing harder regarding your game to understand how you're peceiving and carrying out the Now.

James_Nostack's picture

Sure, with the understanding that if I'm slow to respond, that's due to my schedule rather than taking offense.  I know you put a lot of thought into these comments, and I always want to reply with equal thoughtfulness, but sometimes it takes a while.

James_Nostack's picture

To provide some orientation, let me dip a little deeper into the session dynamics.  

From a pretty early conceptual conversation, maybe early August (not actual quotes, but fairly close):

"Okay, Fano, so Prometheus is hiding in Brooklyn.  What's he doing?"

"He's mentoring some young genius.  He realizes he can't overthrow the gods directly, all he can do is counteract their influence by furthering Progress."

[Wincing at the mention of Progress, making a note about it] "Okay, so how's he mentoring them?  Like in concrete terms.  Is he taking them on a tour of the cosmos like in Dr. Who?  Is he running crazy experiments like in Fantastic Four?"  

"Well, no--I'm thinking more of a 'teach a man to fish' kind of thing.  Besides, if he gets too actively involved, the Olympians will come looking for him.  So it's more like, he arranges for the bread to get moldy and the scientist discovers penicillin."

[Note: ....breadmold = Progress??]

"And these guys who are after him--any thoughts on them?  Has he been fighting them?  What's the deal?"

"They're bounty hunters, I guess?  Maybe Greek, maybe other mythologies, maybe something different.  He fought them a long time ago, but lost, and now is just trying to stay out of the way."

At the time, I didn't press harder, but I probably should have: if we were playing Sorcerer, Prometheus urgently needs a kicker.

So as a result I've ended up creating perils on a couple of different fronts: the Greek backstory (Daedalus & Co.), the general street chaos going on right now (Volt), social justice issues involving healthcare (Caduceus), and assorted social dysfunction. 

All of which is presented as stuff Fano can dig into if he wants, but he kinda talks himself out of things sometimes and I'm back to playing hot again.

I'll add a post describing the recent sessions in slightly more detail, but I wanted to get the general dynamic in place.

James_Nostack's picture

So, looking over it, I think I've been playing it very hot overall, and I realize I need to check in with Fano on something.  

Here's the most recent issue, #10, briefly summarized:

(1) We open with Prometheus working on his Olympian Neutralizer device, which has been a long-term project running in the background and one of Fano's persistent priorities.  (Marvel Super Heroes has a little sub-system for inventions as an alternate form of advancement, but I'm not sure it adds a whole lot.)  Issues 4-7, described in this post, ultimately sprang from the Neutralizer project.

(2) We had some low-key interaction with his ward Manolo (who's an affectionate little kid but has been through a lot), with the neighbor Zulma (worried about her boyfriend's absence), and with Agnesa (showing off the upstairs apartment, asks Prometheus to check out some guys surveilling the building).  

(3) Prometheus, in his secret identity, goes to talk to the guys surveilling the building, and realizes they're cops on a stake-out.  This builds on previous sessions establishing that Prometheus's friend Krysztof is a small-time gangster who's involved in something way over his head.

(4) Prometheus talks to his protege Celia, about how to finish her "regeneration implant" project--another instance of the invention rules.  The project needs a special ingredient, and I present three options.  Fano, though tempted to hang out with some Mayan backstory-characters he'd suggested in an earlier session, instead suggests raiding Daedalus's headquarters for the equipment Celia might need.  Cool, we can make either of these ideas work!

(5) After ten minutes of internal deliberation, there's still no signal on the "visit the Mayan gods versus raid the enemy's HQ" decision.  Fano clearly wanted to raid the enemy's HQ, but kept talking himself out of it, even when I kept saying, "That is a cool thing to do and easy for me to run with."  I didn't feel I could just take that choice from him, but also we've got 45 minutes left in play. 

(6) Fuck it, a minor supervillain goes on a rampage.  This is according to the Now: Prometheus had let an extremely unscrupulous person off rather lightly back in Issue #4, and according to my notes, around this week in the fiction, that guy would end up hiring a supervillain to do some dirty work. 

In my notes, this wasn't so much, "Hey let's stomp on Fano's decision-making process," so much as, "In this world, there are supervillains for hire and this is exactly the type of job they'd do."  But as applied, I'm sure I felt like including some superhero filler material, in part just for a change of pace action scene, and maybe so that Fano could use the inter-session to make up his mind about the stuff that matters.

(Marvel Supers explicitly considers that players might decide to ignore villanous rampages to focus on their personal lives.  "I just don't have time for Electro today" is plainly meant to be a thing that happens sometimes, even if it costs you a little Karma.  Those moments are really solid characterization, with a long tradition in Spider-Man comics especially.  If that had happened in our session, I would have been delighted to see a moment like that, even if it left me spinning my wheels a bit.)

(7) Fano charged off to fight the supervillain.  I'm not sure whether he was doing that because he felt it was the "plot of the week" or because he felt like fighting something after checking up on all of his subplots, or because he was playing for time on the bigger decisions.

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