Champions Now: Paying Attention to Emergent Properties

We’ve since completed Issues #4 and 5 for the Champions Now game. Discussion of the earlier session can be found here.

These sessions dealt with the fallout from the capture of the ex-Super Fuzz villains, with the big question being: where are we going to put them so they can’t break out of jail again?

For issue #4, only Doc Vanguard’s and Ghost’s players could make it. Doc took the lead on trying to deal with the villain issue and went to a meeting at the MDC in Brooklyn (where all the villains were being held in a makeshift “metahuman containment unit”). There he argued the case for allowing the Super Squad to take over these duties and promised he could build a better metahuman prison as part of Vanguard Tower. And Ghost used his invisibility and desolidification to spy on what was going on in the office of Steve Freedman, the crusading/grandstanding lawyer who had taken on the case of defending the ex-Super Fuzz villains (although he is notably not representing Noose or Detonator).

For issue #5, Doc’s player couldn’t make it, but everyone else was there. Sarge took up duty on-site at the MDC to help provide super-powered security to guard the villains. Ghost was drawn out by Vinny Misto’s crew (one of his Hunters), through their threat against Ghost’s contact on the Brooklyn PD, and during that confrontation Ghost came into conflict with Cadaver, a back-from-the-dead mobster with a grudge against his former associates and who sees himself as a righteous, avenging force. (Ghost and Cadaver’s “origin stories” are also intertwined, though, importantly, Cadaver is not part of a Hunted situation). And Force kept busy, first, trying to use his contacts in military black ops (who are part of one of his Hunted situations) to find out more about ways to help deal with metahuman containment/incarceration problems, and then later using his telepathic abilities to interrogate Talon.

Apart from straightforwardly enjoying our characters and our story, there are a couple of system-related things that came out of these sessions that have been interesting to me and which may be interesting to folks here.

First, we have seen emerging themes that were in no way anticipated or planned by me (or the players) during any of the original prep. Specifically, I noted that by the end of Issue #5 we had moved into the middle of Squadron Supreme-style ethical dilemmas about how to deal with super-powered bad guys once you’ve caught them. Should they all be drugged? Sent to some black site? Mind controlled into obedience? In retrospect, we can look back at the opening two statements (“The world is just coming to terms with the existence of super powers” and “Paranoid political thriller: history is made by bad men (or is it?) in New York City”) and say, well, of COURSE that’s exactly where we ended up. But my point is at no time during prep did I set out and say, “Let’s do The Squadron Supreme” or “I’m hoping this game drives straight towards those ethical dilemmas”. Moreover, I WOULDN’T have thought that in part because the idea of aiming, in the abstract, for those kinds of “ethical dilemmas” did not (and does not) appeal to me. On the other hand, that they are coming up in this specific way in this context with these characters makes them very engaging. 

Second, the absence and/or presence of Luck and/or Unluck has played a role in different ways. None of the player characters have any Luck or Unluck, but I have liberally spread both around through the various NPCs. (Noose’s Luck played a part in him almost escaping from Sarge during Issue #3.) For Issue #5, when I was trying to sort out the timing of “who will get the jump on who” in a scene with multiple sides racing to the same point — Ghost, a group of Vinny Misto’s thugs, the NYPD, and Cadaver (who has 2d6 Unluck) — instead of leaving it completely up to me to choreograph, I rolled Cadaver’s Unluck, coming up with a result of 2 core (“danger targets you”) which I decided meant that Cadaver would arrive just in time to be caught between a shootout between the gangsters and the police.

And we’ve had a situation where the absence of any Luck/Unluck (on either side) has been meaningful: when Ghost infiltrated the lawyer’s office in Issue #4, he had neither Luck nor Unluck, and the lawyer (who is a DNPC from a villain’s sheet) didn’t have Unluck as one of his situations. Ghost also (at the time) did not have Detective Work, so, while he was able to observe and take in what anyone who would have spent the day eavesdropping on the office could have found out (which was significant and important information), I decided that absent a successful use of Detective Work, absent any Awareness powers, and absent Luck/Unluck for any of the interested parties, Ghost would not be able to figure out (or have revealed to him) the missing piece of the puzzle he was looking for (which is, in fact, the connection between the lawyer and the villain for whom he is a DNPC).

Finally, I’m getting used to the way that the Situations for given villains and DNPCs can really drive prep, both in terms of direct inspiration and productive constraints. When prepping for sessions 4-5, my original idea with regard to what the ex-Super Fuzz villains would do when captured was that they would at first give their lawyer a chance to wage a kind of civil rights/public relations campaign, and wait on breaking out only if it looked like they were definitely going to be transferred to some kind of super powered black site/prison. However, looking over the situations for the villains, Domino has a physical situation related to dependence on cocaine, and so I decided that to play this character fairly meant that he was going to try to use his teleportation powers to get out on his own, leaving his team behind. Domino did manage to escape, and now the Now is more interesting than it would have been if I had just stuck to “my idea” and not looked to things already established (in this case, established as in written down on a Villain sheet).

All of three of these features of the system point towards the way that Champions Now requires and rewards giving up completely on the idea that the way to an engaging story is for someone at the table to grab control of it and take it “where they want it to go”. 


11 responses to “Champions Now: Paying Attention to Emergent Properties”

  1. Three for three!

    I don't have much else to say, because I worked pretty hard so that people who wanted to play this way, could do it.

    I'm interested in the heroes as expressions (that word again) of the players, or rather, the players' sense of knowing them and being ready to play them come what may.

    Specifically, now that Ghost has been played through these experiences, who "is" he, "what" is he in terms of an enjoyable fictional presence?

    • As I mentioned, I was wary of

      As I mentioned, I was wary of the way Ghost's player conceived this character at first; a little worried that he was built defensively both in terms of powers (desolid, invisible, would-be invincible ninja) and in backstory (very byzantine and busy but with no obvious human connections). In play, I have been pleasantly surprised by how things have turned out, although Ghost remains the least vivid of the four characters in some ways.

      First the stuff that is working:

      Of the four player characters, Ghost is the most straightforwardly heroic and least compromised by his past; he's pragmatic without being ruthless, which sets him off nicely from Doc and Force, who are more Machiavellian, and Sarge, who is heroic but reckless. Ghost has also been unwilling to step up to a leadership role, even though in some ways he would be the most competent at it — and that has lead to some interesting in fiction tension. 

      Issue #5 has been a major turning point: up until here, Ghost had been very successful in using his ninja/stealth skills to always stay one-up on his opponents, leading to him being instrumental in the overall success the team has had so far. But in the 4-way confrontation among the gangsters, the police, Cadaver, and Ghost, his attempt to deal with things through subterfuge/stealth failed — leading to the death of an innocent (or at least as innocent as they get in a James Ellroy-inspired world) and, more importantly, leading to a revelation that trying to control every situation to minimize risk isn't always going to be an effective strategy. Similarly, while he was able to defeat Cadaver during the fight, he realized afterwards that he didn't have a good idea about what to do with Cadaver once he was defeated (as waiting around for the police would have led to Ghost having to answer some difficult questions) — and so ended up having to let him go.

      Having said that, Ghost's personal, everyday life stuff has been very weak (the other three characters are much richer in this regard, with a good balance so far between what we've seen of them being super and what we've seen of them dealing with their personal lives). The personal corner of the triangle was underdeveloped to begin with, and what was there was very "gamery", and, since we've started playing, I haven't been able to bring any of it out in an interesting way. Ghost's relationships with the NPCs who act as the "support" members of the super hero team have to a certain degree filled that void. This has been ok so far, and maybe even could end up being compelling (the idea that Ghost is the guy who is all about his job, versus the other characters who are trying to balance powers and personal stuff). However, it has led to a lack of a certain vividness or presentness in Ghost's characterization when compared to the other characters: we haven't seen the equivalent of Doc having to choose between dealing with super villain issues and going to take his daughter on a tour of the private school he's been trying to get her into, or Sarge trying to dodge calls from his ex-wife about child support.

    • A very late response to this

      A very late response to this – 

      I really enjoyed reading the story of Revenant, and I agree that there's a connection with Ghost. Ghost's ongoing relationship with Cadaver is becoming more interesting than his relationships with the NPCs directly built off of his sheet.

  2. The next few sessions

    I've been remiss in updating what's been going on with the game. We've played 3 more sessions:

    Issue #6 involved Gus Harbor aka The Sponge showing up and trying to sneak into Super Squad headquarters in order to ambush Doc Vanguard. The Sponge is Doc's Hunted siutation: an ex-Marine who Doc experimented on when he worked in a secret government program to develop metahuman soldiers. But the Sponge failed his stealth roll, was discovered by the security team, and then chased down by Doc and Sarge (Force wasn't present initially but was able to arrive on the scene for the second round of the fight). As it turns out (and as Ron suggested might be the case), the three heroes completely dominated the Sponge, giving him no opportunity to display even a single power. (A function of me still needing to get the hang of building effective villains AND a three-on-one fight being a major advantage given the ways heroes can strategize with each other).

    The fallout was pretty interesting though: Doc brought the Sponge back to his newly built metahuman containment unit in Vanguard Tower, where he is keeping him locked up –completely illegally: the battle happened so fast that no one really noticed that that's what Doc was doing. Doc and Force have teamed up and are using Sponge as a test subject for Force's burgeoning telepathic abilities. Not exactly textbook heroism, but definitely fitting the vibe, and, continuing to create a divide between Doc/Force who are more like villains pretending to be heroes and Sarge/Ghost, who are genuinely trying to be heroes, despite their individual flaws.

    Another plot thread involved Sarge realizing someone was trying to frame him as having been a dirty cop who had been in the pay of the Odessa Mafia, and having to deal with the fallout of this planted evidence making its way to the police.

    Issue #7 featured the return of Cadaver and a complicated multi-sided situation, where the player characters ended up trying to secretly help Cadaver escape from an anti-metahuman taskforce put together by DynCorp (working with the NYPD). The Super Squad has been butting heads with DynCorp (part of Sarge's Hunted situation) since Issue #1, so this action was much more about them trying to make DynCorp look bad than it was trying to help Cadaver in his war on organized crime. It ended up being a very tense situation: not so much a question of whether they could help him get away, but if they could do it without anyone knowing they had helped. Force needed to use all of his Endurance (and then some) to keep up a "clouding the minds of men" (invisibility) power going long enough to give Sarge a chance to rescue Cadaver and Doc a chance to use a gagdet from his "utility belt" to shut down the DynCorp goons.

    On the personal front, Sarge also learned that his ex-wife was involved in filming a reality show ("I Fell in Love with a Super-Hero") and that she was trying to arrange for a "dramatic" scene between them. At first, he balked, but then changed his mind when he realized that working together, and providing drama, they may be able to squeeze more money out of the deal.

    And another subplot involved Force being told by his black-ops handlers (one of his Hunted situations) that he needs to try to break the Noose and the Detonator out of jail.

    Issue #8 was our most recent session: it was mostly "connective tissue". DynCorp having been shown to be incompetent, the FBI turned to the Super Squad to help them with their task of putting an end to the organized crime-related metahuman activity now running rampant in Brooklyn, meaning both Cadaver's crusade and a superhuman strongman brought in by the Odessa Mafia to take advantage of the chaos Cadaver was causing and muscle their way into new territory. The catch is that the FBI taskforce is being led by another of Ghost's Hunted situations, a corrupt agent named Earl Grimes, who is actually a "Hunter" of Ghost's secret ID, without having knowledge that he's actually hunting Ghost (I think I mentioned Ghost has a byzantine backstory).

    This last session wasn't very satisfying: this was the first time I've gone into a session being under-prepped. I had introduced a new villain into the mix, but had not done the work of actually statting him out (had just done his three corners), because I didn't think we'd get to the point of needing the actual stats — and that was a mistake because it meant that I was assuming that things would be paced in a certain way, but, of course, the players have as much control over the pacing of things as I do (maybe more so). Having said that, it wasn't a huge mistake, because it just meant I called the session a little earlier than we would have liked (my preference was to stop short and then take the time to do real prep rather than try to pull something together on the fly).

    I did get comments/feedback from Ghost's player that he felt that the situations were getting repetitive. It's a hinderance that we play late at night (for me, at least), so that by the time we're done, I don't really have it in me to engage in a debriefing, and, so, I didn't have much to say to his comments at the time, although, in retrospect, it seems like a lot of the sameness has to do with Ghost's player approaching everything solely in terms of the tactical challenge, and ignoring other angles. And I think he is also equating the characters being given an in-fiction mission as me telling them (implicitly) that I (as GM) want them to carry out the mission (as if it were a video game). I've explicitly said that that isn't the case, and I think the players, in general, embrace that freedom… sometimes. (Like with Doc and Force running their own illegal metahuman prison, which is completely at odds with what they're being told to do by the powers that be to whom they are nominally beholden). This may be a trap built into the way we set up the game: the "official" team format made it easy to get everyone together and it worked as a good starting, organizing principle, but now it may be too constraining. I don't want to undermine their successes so far by "blowing up" the team in some way — after all, when it has counted, they have managed to get ahead of the competition (i.e., DynCorp) in most ways that has counted — but I do want to shake things up to get away from the "mission of the week" problem.

    • I really appreciate your

      I really appreciate your continued posting about this game! Also, if you want, please feel free to start new posts when the first one falls off the current page. This isn't a hard and fast rule, but it might provide a useful guide. Also, I tend to comment on my posts for updates rather than make new posts only because I'm playing so many games so often, so don't use me as the model.

      So … I do have some advice, but I'm also pretty into boundaries these days, especially when a third party is included. Would you permit me to suggest some things?

    • Advice would be welcome –

      Advice would be welcome – thanks for asking.

      Something else struck me while listening to the 2nd Night Waves consulting session this morning: with the other players, when I've brought in characters and situations from their sheets, they've said "oh cool!" and run with it. But when I do that with Ghost, he tries as quickly as possible to shut it down, avoid it, etc. He is engaging with material that I've invented (i.e., Cadaver, who was inspired by Ghost's sheet but was my idea), but he's not "playing ball" with the material he provided for himself. That's part of my frustration – I want him to say "oh cool", or, if he doesn't think it's cool, then at least to develop some insight that he has some responsibility to make it cool, too. Also, to be clear, I do not think I can force him to get that insight by doing something "in game". I do, wonder, though, if given his biases, changing the frame of how these situations are presented in game might be helpful so that they aren't as much of a trap for his approach/habits.

    • Well … that’s kind of the

      Well … that's kind of the direction I don't want to go. I don't want to talk about the person playing Ghost; I want to talk about you. Here are the things to consider and then I'll just leave you to it, to decide whatever you want back at the table.

      • Playing hot vs. cool. You've been playing really hot for eight sessions, even if you consider ordinary/acquaintance NPCs rather than villainous assaults. The option simply to say, well, whatcha gonna do today, is explicit in the rules for a reason. That doesn't mean you don't have NPCs, villains, whoever, doing things, but the nemesis is not crashing through the window, you don't have a boss saying "go on this mission and get the thing done," and someone's girlfriend's aunt's brother-in-law is not showing up on the doorstep on the same day the hero was supposed to go to his funeral.
      • The Now. Are you updating it every session? If so, also consider expanding things in it. Do some research about the location in the real world, learn more about its politics, or about the real-world agencies who would be interested in the one that manages the heroes. Learn about the geography, energy policy, and demography of the city you're playing in. And from a different angle, think about villains or heroes who might be found in some part of the world you're interested in, far away.
      • Your own NPCs. Consider anything that any one of them (or each) would change his or her mind about, given the events of the past few sessions, and bring this thing up while playing cool, i.e., not as a BANG HE SAID THIS OMG moment, but rather, hey, ordinary dialogue in a casual setting or interaction. See what the hero in question says in response, and develop it as further responses. Get into the NPCs' skins more, not as plot strikes.

      I think some attention to these things will result in a general difference in how you're bringing conflict into situations, or responding to heroes' actions, which is hard to describe simply. But it's a good thing.

    • Thanks! That all makes a lot

      Thanks! That all makes a lot of sense. I definitely have not been playing things very cool, and though I have been updating the Now, I haven't necessarily been making enough screen time to have scenes with NPCs that give them opportunit to express opinions in a non-charged way. I'll take that into account for my prep for the next session.

    • I was thinking that we’d tied

      I was thinking that we'd tied up the topic, then, reviewing it, I decided to be just a bit more complete about my goals or hopes about what I said.

      At least based on my experiences, which may or may not apply, playing cool like this pretty much puts the issue on the table: do you want to play personally/proactively or not?

      It doesn't guarantee or "solve" anything. The answer may simply be "no," if the player is fine with merely being handed stuff to do, then doing it, avoiding it, subverting it, or whatever. Or maybe there's a big "yes" waiting there which you'd otherwise never see, or in some cases, which even the player had no idea was there.

      The key is not to succumb to the overwhelming temptation, during play, to heat it up again because nothing seems to be happening. The only reason to get hot again is if specific inactions would necessarily trigger or passively permit "X," i.e., something already present and busy in your documented Now, to occur. Otherwise, nope, we'll just see what it looks like while cool, with all expectations or standards for what a session would or should or could have in it laid aside.

    • We just finished the next

      We just finished the next session and I wanted to drop a quick thanks for the advice! I played it very cool, took time to have some non-pointed scenes with NPCs and let them develop naturally rather than presenting them as a problem to deal with, gave very little for the players to "react" to and rather put them in the position of being as proactive as they chose to. I don't have time to go into details now, but it went great! We paid a lot of attention to the characters' thoughts and feelings about the situations that came up, which really served to ground the super/crime/genre elements.


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