“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.
Sorcerer and Champions Now share similar GM techniques. The most important, conceptually, is the basic cycle of play on the GM side.
- Populate a locale with grabby NPC’s, especially those implied by char-gen
- Let the players loose to pursue their agendas and collide with NPC’s
- 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)
Hylomorphic Extractor (a McGuffin)
Little Miss Mushroom (supervillain WIP)