Two Premise Statements

From the Champions Now! Question Outpost:

Joel Davis – Ron, if I understand the playtest document (plus everything you've said in your videos), the campaign is built around two premise statements:

  • A defining trait of superheroes, supervillains, or powers in the campaign
  • Campaign themes in a campaign location

To wrap my head around this, I thought of some actual comics and pin down those two statements.  For example, Batman:

  • Criminals are a cowardly superstitious lot
  • Crime and corruption in a gritty metropolis

Since you suggested not defining power sources, the X-men might be:

  • Heroes and villains battle to determine the fate of mankind (or mutantkind).
  • Coming of age in Westchester

However, in your San Antonio session zero, you gave the example of the Fantastic Four as "Technocosmic."  Doesn't that define types of powers and sources?   If so, would the defining power statement for the X-Men be "Mutants"?  Since these premise statements really seem to set the scope and feel of the campaign, some more advice for crafting good ones would be appreciated.  Thanks.

Ron Edwards – Hi Joel! I have yet to arrive at the perfect teaching-phrasing for this, but for the first statement, the idea is to describe any or all of "super-powers, heroes, villains," "powers as social phenomenon," or "look-and-feel." Just one will do though.

That's why "techno-cosmic" is good but "mutant" isn't. We all know what the first means, but the second will only take on meaning within this exact fiction, so it's not a reference point for getting into our fiction.

Also, it's super, super tempting, but don't use a comics title.

In your case, you were going the other way, saying, "for a comics title, what would they be," and that's OK strictly as an exercise for discussion. It's not intended to be a useful technique, believe me, I know the hard way. To do this, we need to go by year and specific creative team. In that case, "techno-cosmic" is referring very definitely to the Fantastic Four in 1966-67, when the Inhumans and Galactus and whatnot boomed, and when things got very Ragnarok-y over in Thor.

For the second statement, and if we're doing this reverse-engineering from the comics strictly as an exercise, then it's worth considering just what really happened in the comics. The New X-Men (1977) weren't coming-of-age, they were all in their twenties at least and the whole "school" thing was pretty much an anachronism at that point; also, they may have been based in Westchester, but the series itself was aggressively international, and focused strongly on a minority's place in the world, especially more and more as things went on.

I'm kind of rushed right now so this may not be the best-phrased or most pedagogical answer – let me know what helps or makes sense.

Joel Davis – Thanks for your thoughts. I knew the statements I suggested were highly debatable, but you are correct that I was doing it more as modeling exercise. Your point regarding specific titles and eras makes complete sense.

I'm still trying to wrap my head around these statements, but it sounds like they need to have a concrete (single) meaning that can be approached from multiple viewpoints as to allow a broad range of options for player applications.

alanb – I'm struggling a bit with these statements too. I've come up with some that work, but the ones that aren't quite so serious/Grimdark aren't quite coming together.

For example, the following doesn't quite work for me. I might be overthinking it, but it says nothing about who the villains are:

  • Australia's Greatest Heroes are based in… Toowoomba?
  • Classic superhero action/adventure in 'Straya, mate'. Based in (but not limited to) Toowoomba, Queensland.

This might not work for more serious minded players!

My assumption is that the players will pick up any premise and run sideways with it. I certainly hope they would. So in this case, they would decide how much is "Hometown Heroes" and how much is globetrotting internationalism.

And yes, "Hometown Heroes" is a possible premise too, especially for those of us who don't live in Big Cities.

At some point I might rant on about that: Smallviile, Happy Harbor, Westchester…

Joel Davis – Alan, I think you're right on players affecting the scope of the campaign (hometown vs. international). As for the villains, I think they will be born from the development of the player characters, and will fall under the premises specified. This is why I am giving a lot thought to these two statements. These statements are the cornerstone for the entire campaign, setting the tone and direction for player choices, and I could see the choice of statements making the difference between fizzling out after a few sessions and Strike Force.

alanb – My hesitation about the villains is that the players have to come up with them without any guidance.

Mechanically, it's about Hunteds, of course, but that's not the real problem.

"Running sideways", as I described it, is good, but "brain freeze" isn't. New players, especially, won't be able to come up with suitable villains without prompting. In theory, of course, the villains they come up with will be things the GM would never thought of. But they still will tend to sit there and look at you unless you prompt them.

I'm tempted to mention that Ron taught at a US college/university. He knows what students do. (I've never taught, but I was one.)

Santiago Verón  – Oooo, I want to try my hand at this!

* There have been superpowered people in all cultures for the past two centuries, but superheroics is a mostly American phenomenon, like baseball, wrestling, stand up comedy and – sorry- public mass shootings.
* Superheroes and supervillains in Argentina, dating at most ten years old, some fashioned strictly in the American style and some acknowledging local, forgotten superpowered traditions.



13 responses to “Two Premise Statements”

  1. Fantastic, let’s get into this

    Before moving on, let's dial it back to the most simple level…

    • The first statement concerns any, not necessarily all, of these: powers, heroism, villainy.
      • The painful part for the first statement is that it should include no explanations or history.
    • The second statement describes any familiar sort of story-ish context, along the lines of a pitch but not restricted to standard genre phrases.
      • The painful part for the second statement is that it should include no reference to power or super-anything.
      • It is independent and can be read in isolation; it does not continue or develop the first statement.

    About 20 words each! Max! If you're explaining or narrating anything, get rid of it.

    There's a lot more to say about the internal devices or ranges for each, including player-generated material via character creation and GM-created material. However, since people are struggling with the above, so there's no point in moving on until that gets settled.

    I'll include a video once the family weekend has moved past.

  2. Giving it another shot!

    Let's try this:

    * Up until now, supervillains have been the only ones with superpowers.

    * Teen soap about political activists in La Plata highschools.


    Context for the foreigner: The last decade in my city has brought student councils to most local highschools – back when I was a student, 15 years ago, there were only three or four highschools that had them. Student councils were regarded as a University thing (that's a thing my city has plenty of, Colleges). Also, in the last decade teens were given voting rights – now you can vote if you want to, and I mean in general, real, true President-Senate-and-all elections, from 16 years old onward. (If you're over 18, voting is a mandatory civic duty, as it has always been in our elections.)

    • Perfect. Two processes emerge

      Perfect. Two processes emerge from it.

      The first has been mentioned a couple of times in the main post: that players cannot help but generate crucial setting information simply by making up their characters. We'll get a look at specific powers and learn, for instance, whether aliens exist, or demons, or whatever. Various specific "players," i.e., powerful and interesting people and institutions will appear, whether it's the State Department of Education or a globalizing international corporation or a famous Argentine supervillain.

      I should stress that it's OK for any such information to be sketchy and can be prompted player-to-GM or vice versa. "Hunted by Luz Plateada, famous supervillain," is perfect. Maybe the player has something specific in mind, maybe not. Or conversely, if the player only wants to be hunted by the premiere supervillain and asks the GM who that is, then the GM supplies the name.

      The second has a tendency to get forgotten in these indie free-form GM-ful days … that the GM is allowed to be inspired by the two statements too. Whatever gets scribbled into the notebook, or dreamed up, is available for play as well. Some of this will make its way onto players' character sheets through the kind of dialogue I just mentioned, and some will be fully GM-introduced in play.

      For instance, in the St. Louis game, Mark came up with "Hunted by Mother Necessity," so I had to make up whoever that was. Whereas I had that picture of Timekeeper lying around, so when Jay was thinking of being hunted too, I said, "Make it by Timekeeper." So now I could have two time-hopping war-fightin' agents from the two sides of the future war our two heroes came from.

      And in the San Antonio game, the players came up with almost every NPC and organzation, except for the involvement of Xe/Academi and its squad, Ghost. Those were mine.

      I'm saying, there's a fair opportunity to retain the best of so-called traditional GMing in this game. The important thing is not to treat it as setting to explain, or to shape the players' character creation with it. Go ahead and provide help or include material as described above, but as a responsive process.

  3.  May I?  

     May I?  

    • Powers exist due to incompatible (and viral) physical laws from another universe.
    • Work-life balance in Portland. 

    The first comes from an idea I had once.  The laws of physics of the real world don't support a woman with wings flying around, or a guy shooting lasers out of his eyes.  So what if they came from another universe?  They're "viral" meaning that if you come into contact with them (or, perhaps unknowingly, marry and have kids with one) the other universe's physical laws start affecting you too.  This may eventually have negative effects on this universe.  (It could also be that supers are refugees from their previous universe — maybe "super physics" destroyed that one?)

    The second is one I've wanted to see for a long time.  How does your life suffer when you've just gotten home from blasting bad guys and all you want to do is toss your costume in the laundry and get a shower and a beer, but you've also got a spouse and kids that need you, and a house that needs cleaning and mowing, and a mortgage that needs paying, and so on.  

    • Good! In actual presentation

      Good! In actual presentation with players, I try to keep all musings to myself, especially about the first statement. Your follow-up paragraphs are fine for here, and it's fun to share impressions or motivations with one another, but let's say you were setting up for play – I'd be sure to scribble those things in my notebook and use them as raw material for the original content I'd be adapting to the character sheets or generating myself.

  4. Video response

    Here it is! Off the cuff and barely edited, no music intro or anything special. It's not answer so much as framing a few more concepts and opening up more conversation. Let me know whether it helps, adds confusion, or anything in between.

    Two statements chat

    • Ron, thanks for the video

      Ron, thanks for the video (and associated posts).  I'm thinking of these two statements now as a window, our first glimpse into these world that is being created.  However, it is just our first glimpse… each game session will be its own window into this world, and we may see different things than we saw at first (our two statements).  In this sense, it may be better to think about the campaign in terms of distinct, monthly adventures in comics – or episodic television – in terms of world-building, as opposed to a highly planned event or series (or the long-form storytelling we see on modern television series).

      Would you recommend for or against using the same hero/villain/power statement with two different groups, but letting those groups help fill in the second statement (like you did in the San Antonio game)?

    • Let me split this reply into

      Let me split this reply into your two paragraphs, because they're about two different things.

      For the first paragraph, all I can say is, yes, you got it. I think you’re familiar with some of my blogging about this, but maybe my criticisms of ‘Verse, as a canned and editorial product, can now be revisited for some extra punch.

      For the second, I don’t have any rules or even ideas about how many times you’d use a given statement you like, or for how many groups. It seems a matter of authenticity to me – that you only use statements that you as the game organizer really, really want to use. After that any parallel usage, or simultaneity, doesn’t automatically strike me as a problem.

  5. I’ve been thinking a bit more

    I've been thinking a bit more about the first statement.

    I'm seriously considering: "Where there are superheroes there are supervillains."

    At one level it's tautological. It's a superhero game, so naturally there are villains. But it begs a few interesting questions.

    For example:


    Is the reverse statement true?

    What are superheroes and supervillains anyway?

    and so on.

    It says nothing about powers – which leaves it open for the players. It also means that Hometown Heroes are a thing. For me that matters – my game isn't going to be set in a Big City.

    My second statement will be a bit more generic. It will be "Superheroic Action/Adventure blah blah blah". Because that's what I want to play.

    I have been thinking about what the difference between "Action" and "Adventure" actually is, especially in light of Ron's " Knowing your Unnhh from your Arrghh" post. I think Silver Age Supergirl is a good example of the difference. Her early stories combined Romance with what I would think of as Adventure, without a great deal of Action. Basically, she didn't get into fights very often. She did cool stuff, but there were no "senses-shattering slugfests". That's enough of a difference for me. So when I write Action/Adventure that's pretty much what I mean. Both things will be present.

    Of course, while I am probably going to run something pretty generic, I am capable of more High Concept stuff. One I could possible do would be what I call "Masks with a big M". Essentially, once someone puts on a Mask, they become someone different from who they were. It's about identity. A bunch of other things can flow from there. I'll have to think about how to phrase it. Maybe something as simple as: "Once you put on a mask, you become someone different". That loses the Big M concept, but I could still muck about with it with NPCs.

    It might be better than my first idea.

    • I hope you don’t mind some

      I hope you don’t mind some thoughts in response. You’re apparently working through this so productively on your own that I’m unwilling to interfere. But …

      OK – for the first pair, I’m seeing:

      • Where there are superheroes there are supervillains.
      • Action and Adventure.

      Everything I was saying above about not talking it through any further applies in spades, especially for these two. Not that anything you were saying was bad, far from it, but that’s the stuff to keep in your notes for your work and further prep. The huge curse with this technique, especially the first phrase, is launching into clarifications and explanations. Let it be.

      For the second one, I edited it slightly, first to remove the term “superheroic.” That’s more of a big deal than it looks, for a couple reasons. The second editing is to get rid of “blah blah blah,” regardless of whether you meant to include it literally or as a placeholder for things you figured were obvious. I think it’s perfectly good as it stands. The final edit I made was to replace the slash with the “and,” because that’s all you need for that clarification you provided, that you consider them different things. Again, since you shouldn’t explain that, just separating them grammatically gets that point across and allows players to find their own distinction.

      Oh yeah, it needs a location in that second statement too. Then I think the two would be absolutely spot-on.

      For the second pair … wait, is there a pair of statements, or just a candidate for the second one? I think it’s just a candidate for the second one, and I don’t know if it’s to be paired with the first statement from above, or with some other first statement. Either way would be OK of course.

      Since this is a conversation and you’re sharing how you’re processing the topic, I hope you’ll see I’m not criticizing you by saying, “Too much explanation again.” You probably already knew that you wouldn’t be providing that whole thing. As a statement in isolation, I think that

      • Masks with a big M

      … is perfect (with a location added). The other people are at least as good at running with it as you might be, so see what they do. And whatever you’re 100% hoping they’d do with it, why, that’s what you get to do.

      All this is totally different from the two main pre-play prep recommendations I’ve seen the most frequently over the years, especially for games with a lot of player choice in character-building. Those are:

      • Talk it over, talk everything over, listen, communicate, arrive at agreement, clarify misunderstandings, reroute miscommunications, go around again, make sure each person is listening to each other person, get everyone's opinion on anything everyone else proposes, talk it over some more …
      • Get on the same page. Tell them how it is. Write it out in detail, perhaps fill in this handy sheet and checklist, mark which powers are aren’t allowed. Possibly provide an extensive setting history and specifications so they know exactly what you mean. Make sure they understand, follow every choice as they make up characters, correct as needed, get on the same page …

      You’ll find these scattered all through RPG books over and over, and you know what? They’re fucking horrible. What I’m talking about is more like an offering, and as I tried to say in the video, a way simultaneously to focus and also to permit a diverse response. The goal is end up with something we all participate in, but which each person actually wants to do, without smashing each one into an artificial “we,” and without subordinating each one to the privileged “me.”

  6. My “Masks with a big M” idea

    My "Masks with a big M" idea was intended to give a completely different first statement.

    That would be either "Once you put on a mask, you become someone different" or "When you put on a mask, you become someone different".

    The semantic difference between "once" and "when" here is subtle, but it's there, I think. I'm not sure which I would prefer, or of course whether anyone else would notice the difference. To me, "when" suggests a greater degree of reversibility than "once" – you can take them mask off in the "when" case and return to who you originally were, which isn't implied by "once".

    I think I might go with "once". Nobody is likely to notice the implication, but they might.

    Of my two potential first statements, I think "Where there are superheroes there are supervillains" would be easier to play with, but "Once you put on a mask, you become someone different" has deeper and richer implications. Obviously I will have to try the latter.

    Now I will have to think about my second statement…

  7. Pub Champions

    Of course I forgot the best version of the game.

    Having superpowers is awesome. Unfortunately other people with superpowers are ****s.

    Punching Nazis and getting on with your life, based in Toowoomba, Queensland, Australia.

    "Based in Toowoomba etc" is an artefact of where I live and where I am likely to recruit my players from.

    "Based in" is an intentional term. "Set in" is a bit too much Hometown Heroes – it implies that the PCs are stuck in a fairly mediocre provincial city. "Starting in" implies that the PCs will leave and never come back. "Based in" suggests that the action can be anywhere in the world, but there are still reasons to come home. At least that's my intention. The players can sort this out for themselves.

    Everyone gets the idea of punching Nazis. They don't have to be literal Nazis. The idea is there.

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