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
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:
- Superheroes serve and protect the public.
- 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
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?
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.