Saturday, June 6, 2015

Superheroes: Year One

Despite my posts about the end of the world, I've actually been running FASERIP/Marvel Superheroes for a few weeks now.  I've been missing making hexmaps and figuring out what ruins go where and whatever, which is why I was thinking about those other ideas, but I'm having a lot of fun running a supers game.  This is the first time I've ever been able to get one to go for more than one session, mostly because my players seem into it.  I'm still trying to find my sea legs with it, but I think it's going well.

I originally wanted it to be kind of a sandbox-y affair but that ended up being untenable in part because of the nature of the genre and in part because my players wanted to start sooner than I could get one prepped.  What we've been doing instead is a thing that I think is a fairly common practice on G+ where I throw out somewhere around three different hooks and they pick one to pursue.  Most of the first few sessions were them trailing after Mysterio (report on that shortly), but the other threads were open if they wanted them.

This pitch is not based on what I am running.  Instead it's based on something that came up in a conversation I had with Cole.  The premise is that it is the first year that anyone in the world has been a superhero, your PCs are those first superheroes, and you are in the most crime ridden city in the US.  For this idea to work, you probably need something within the power-scale of Robert's Marvel '78 houserules.  My gut says that you should try to stick to "basically a tough human but with fancy gadgets," but seeing the players try to figure out how to turn any situation into one where their powers are useful is part of the fun of the game.*

However it's not really who the characters are that makes this idea interesting but the structure.  It is, to borrow Zak's parlance, an anti-sandbox.  The city needs to be so crime ridden that the upright heroes are fighting an uphill battle.  The cops either "don't go" into certain districts or are so corrupt that they implicitly or actively support the criminal activities of the various crime lords.  Crime lords that, at the start, are of the more mundane variety.

I hope to be able to go into this more at length in a future post, but here are the basics of how you set up your anti-sandbox:  First you divide the city into districts and give each one (or groups of them) to various crime lords.  You don't want too many that the prep becomes overwhelming but you also don't want to have all the power in the hands of a single figure.  Even Kingpin had to tangle with the Maggia.  Next you create some rackets the crime lords are running.  In the end you're going to want the rackets to be in a kind of onion-skin pattern, with hints in each leading to some deeper secret, but all you really need to design at the beginning are the outer layers for each crook.

PCs get hints about these rackets from their contacts, friends, or just from beating up some thug they know to be associated with the appropriate gang.  As they bust up the various rackets eventually one or more of the crime lords will collapse.  That's when the game enters Year Two.  The costumed antics of the PCs inspire villainous NPCs who become supervillains, replacing the structured organized crime of the crime lords with madness and pumpkin bombs.  Eventually the threats might become even greater - requiring the PCs to enter Subterranea or travel to the Savage Land or to outer space or whatever.

This structure has some quirks to it.  The main one is that it turns from an anti-sandbox where the players are making their decisions to a more typical supers game where the heroes are reacting to crimes.  This might be a bad thing or it might not be depending on what you think of typical supers games.  Layered within that is a more positive element, I think, which is that the game has a more obvious sense of advancement.  You have kinda three tiers - crime lords, supervillains, cosmic threats - and advancing through them is not something one normally sees in a supers game.

The biggest negative I can see is that it's hard to integrate pre-existing heroes into this scheme.  For one thing, I can't really think of a Year One type thing that involves a team.  I guess you can do the Bat Family, but even then Robin and Bat Girl are pretty clearly aspects of a post-Year One Batman. Some of you may not see a problem here, but I've found running a game for people playing pre-existing heroes extremely fun, in no small part because they roleplay more than I've ever seen in any other game.**  Also, superheroes are kind of silly.  I think they're silly in a wonderful way, but making something intentionally silly is a good way to tell your players "this setting doesn't matter."  Picking Moon Knight or whoever alleviates this somewhat because the character is taken seriously in the comics even if the things he's doing are inherently silly in a real world context.  

A smaller negative would be the lack of enemy variety within a tier.  You'd spend a good chunk of your early career not fighting a guy in a costume.  That's kinda lame.  However, I think the progression from tier to tier will help alleviate that somewhat.  Plus, Marvel Characters don't swing as wildly in power over time as D&D ones due, so you can always try to punch above or below your weight class.

* That is a post all on its own I plan to do semi-soon.
**Post on this coming later too.


  1. If you can tie the characters' origins together -- as in the Fantastic Four or X-Men, for example -- then that would make a Year One approach easier.

    1. That's absolutely true if you're using characters made by your players. It's also true for pre-made characters; however, the Fantastic Four and the X-Men are a bit high powered to be punching out regular mobsters. I suppose one could use a similar set up for the X-Men if you put it in Days of Future Past though.

  2. Well, I'm not thinking of the FF or X-Men themselves but more offering them up as an example of joined origins that could be applied to your street level heroes.

    So you could have four street level heroes who all get their abilities from one source -- the Ninja Turtles are perhaps a better example than the FF -- or you could have four street level heroes who have different origins but are brought together by a Xavier-like figure to clean up the neighbourhood, sort of like the Heroes for Hire.

  3. They could punch out regular super agent type mobsters, though, your hydras and intergangs and Vipers and such.

  4. If I’m reading this right, your two maybe-problems are 1. after year one it stops being a sandbox and 2. not enough super villains during year one.

    What if the crime lords are hiring masked assassins and whatnot? It makes sense for hit men to want to hide their identity, but at the same time do so in a unique (costumey) way that creates a brand. Maybe most of them are just really skilled like Bullseye but one or two have minor powers?

    Then, when year two starts and the crime lords have all been dethroned, the vacuum at the top of the underworld is filled by super villains. They hire brute force thugs like Rhino for security but the ones at the top have manipulative powers like empathy or illusion. If the supers run things mostly the same way the crime lords did, it’s still the same kind of anti-sandbox.