Monday, May 7, 2012

An Abundance of Heroes

In my last post I was talking about the lack of NPC superbeings in the setting of my current Champions campaign and how, for me, this is the exception and not the rule.

Usually my Superhero campaign worlds are practically overflowing with heroes and villains (or at least there's a lot of them).

I seem to be in the minority with this approach to Supers world building as evidenced by some of the responses to said post. It seems a more popular way to go about things, based solely on the responses I've seen, is to make the PC heroes either the only game in town, the only game at all/first game in town or the only ones who fight evil in their chosen venue (they are the Mutant team or the Street Justice team or the Space Team, etc.).

That my worlds are pretty much chock full of superhero NPCs would seem to complicate things and maybe, potentially, steal the PCs' thunder. The focus is always on the PCs I assure you, though the reason for that focus isn't always obvious.

The primary thinking behind having our Supers
game universes full of heroes is, quite simply, it reflects modern comics. Both Marvel and DC (at least Pre-New 52) seem to have as many Supers per square mile as New York City has Starbucks. In an attempt to create a sense of continuity and a more unified setting, these heroes team up, join teams and generally guest star in each others book far more than ever. Certainly this trend has resulted in more year long events and crossovers then I recall seeing as a kid. This is the type of Superhero universe my players and I have become accustomed to.

The question is then, "How do you have a game setting chock full of costumed crimefighters and still have the PCs matter or stand out?".

A great question. Here are some possible answers that have worked for me...

New Jack City

The players are the newest heroes in town. Their specific niche is that the old guard is getting old and trying to assemble and train the new breed of young supers to take over for them so they can retire/move on to other projects.

Perhaps a well known psychic or sorcery based hero has foreseen the future and knows that these new heroes will be destined for greatness. This is very effective in Champions and M&M. While the PCs gain XP and become more effective and powerful, the established heroes seem to remain the same. A great in-game excuse for why the PCs improve while in most comic books superheroes don't really seem to get more powerful over time.

Filling Out The Ranks

Possibly viewed as a variant of the above, this next approach is evident in my current Champions game and my previous M&M campaign 'Dynamos Unlimited'. Here, it is assumed that while there may be superheroes more famous and powerful then the PCs at the beginning of the game, they are few and far between.

For example, as I have noted before, New York, the metahuman mecca of most Superhero Comic Book universes, has only about 1 dozen heroes in my Champions setting. New Mexico, Arizona, Texas and Wyoming share about 5-7 heroes. The state of Georgia has three or four. Only California, Illinois and New York have a decent number of heroes, with the LA Based Protectors featuring about 5 members, two or three of which are of significant power. Arkansas has one hero but he's really powerful.

The international scene is similar with the majority of European heroes living in England, Italy and Germany. Even then, Britian has about 7-9 heroes, three of which are very powerful, while the rest have 5 medium to low powered supers at best.

The resulting effect on the setting is that each individual hero feels more important. Sure, Superman may exist in your world but he lives in London and is busy fighting Fomorians when Dr. Madness attacks a small New England town in the USA looking for a lost book of Cthulhu-esque power. Now let's see, where are our heavy hitters? Hmmm...Ms. Mystical is still on the injured list, Capt. Freebird is helping Rebel Star in the South, we need Freeway (the Captain's niece) to stay at the base on monitor duty since she's the fastest and can get to a new problem in no time. That just leaves...the PCs! Good luck gang!

The Right Tool For The Job

Another variant on the above idea is to create the setting's NPC heroes after you build the PCs. So, if no one made an Ice Guy or a Telepath, the Player Characters can easily come into a world whose main team has Snowman and Mind Maiden. You feel me? There are already a number of established heroes but none of them have the PC heroes power sets. This may also may the PCs in high depend. The various Super teams could want the PCs to join them to cover areas they feel they are deficient in.

The Powers That Be

In most Supers games, the PCs start out at a medium power level roughly equivalent to the 80's-90's X-Men or the Wolfman/Perez Teen Titans. However, many games also allow the players to customize their campaign power level by playing starting characters who are slightly more or less powerful then those made by the default character creation rules.

So, start the players slightly more powerful then usual. These guys and gals aren't up and coming superheroes, these are The Avengers and the Justice League. The PCs begin the game as the currently recognized "World's Greatest Super Team". Just be sure to adjust accordingly to maintain the campaign (if long term campaigning is indeed your goal). Slightly less XP per session may prove helpful. Much bigger threats then normal are a must.

These are just a few ideas I have on the subject but I think you get the general objective. Creating a gaming universe that feels like a comic book universe can be tricky but it's not really what I would call hard and it's far from impossible to have your cake and eat it too.

More Super Stuff Coming Up, Up and Away!

Barking Alien


  1. Versatility Pays Off

    Many comic book heroes have one narrow ability. Cyclops can shoot energy out of his eyes. Beyond that, he's just a well trained person. Hawkman, the Flash, Atom, Hawkeye, Black Panther, Shadowcat, Green Arrow, Black Canary, Beast, Angel. These guys have their schtick, and rely on teammates, gadgets and the fact that the writers want to keep getting their paychecks in order to do anything else. Most RPG characters that I've seen tend to have schticks broad enough to cover a range of powers. (especially in M&M with cheap alternate powers). If most of your NPC's are focused, then it leaves lots of room for the PC's to shine.

    Hero Transit Authority

    If the PC's have a good strategic movement ability, then they could be the only people able to get there in time. Teleportation is of course the ultimate expression of this, but powers that can fly the whole party are also useful. This also opens itself up to crossovers when other heroes need a lift.

    Working Class Heroes

    If there are lots of superbeings, why not organize them? This can be a government job or a private firm. If the PC's are the night shift responsible for patrolling the South Side, then you have a built in hook. Plus it leads to a lot of scenes dealing with the bureaucracy around their jobs. Top 10 is a good source for ideas.

    School Days

    The PC's are students. They aren't the big hitters, but they need to get experience. Going on missions is part of their education. PS238, Sky High, and several x-titles all feature this.
    The Sixth or Seventh Best Superhero Team in the World.

    The PC's aren't the best superheroes in the world. But there are enough threats that a lesser team gets their share of action too. A good base for a lower-power humorous campaign. Think Great Lakes Avengers. The name above comes from the Specials, a low-budget comedy movie. It's a little different in that it focuses on the day-to-day life and doesn't feature any superbattles. Worth checking out.

  2. These are great, one and all.

    I've run the students concept, a variation on it I'd call the 'sidekick' concept (less Sky High and more Teen Titans/Young Justice) and to some extent the sixth or seventh best superteam in the world (though more Legion of Substitute Heroes or Mystery Men in concept).

    Yeah, I am a fan of The Specials.

    "No one wants to hear your f*%$ing origin story!" lol

  3. This isn't always something I nail down before I start the game. As I've gotten older I've done a let less pre-hame world-building and a lot more focusing in on the immediate situation and the first adventure. Once the characters (and the players and the DM) have a little experience in the world and the system then you can make some calls that may be a little more organic to the party.

    In the few super-games of mine that have lasted long enough to be called campaigns I've usually taken the lazy way out and gone with other heroes being around and seen on TV and such but rarely showing up and taking a hand in the situation. I think too much of that ends up feeling like the DM is just showing off and spotlighting his awesome creations at the expense of the player characters, so I try to stay away from it.

    I've had two notable exceptions to this approach:

    First, I started off a short-lived campaign with the heroes awakening from what they thought was suspended animation (heh) in the basement of a research lab and discovering the world had been destroyed and they were part of a failsafe cloning program that they themselves had set up as the ultimate backup for their Avengers-style team. They had no memories (archvillain had erased their memory tapes) so we defined the characters as the first session went along. So technically, they were the only supers in the world, as far as they could tell. This was by far the most specific concept campaign I have ever attempted and it had mixed results but it let the players have a lot of say in what the "normal" world looked like as they went along discovering their own phobias and "remembering" their hunteds and rivals and dependent NPC's. I' like to try it again but I'm not sure that will happen anytime soon.

    The other is with the old and the new Marvel games - we play in the full-on Marvel universe so it's absolutely crammed full of supers. It seems to fit.

    For Atomic City I'm leaning towards a theme of the old guard passing the torch in a somewhat indirect way to a new group of heroes through a combination of noble sacrifice and distant mentoring. That should give them some in-game history to play off of if they want, but it's not stealing their thunder if they don't.

    With the Apprentices they don't worry about other heroes so much - outside of Marvel where they know most of the players - but in ICONS and M&M they tend to assume they are the only heroes, or at least the only ones that matter, so I tend to leave NPCs in the background if they come up at all.

    Ideally I'd like the other heroes who populate the campaign city to be player-created rather than DM-created as this would give the players more options when starting an adventure and it would give them a more personal stake in the world. I don;t mind tossing in a few but I'm already creating all the villains pretty much - I'm fine handing off the heroes to the people who might need to call them for help.

  4. I am finding all of this extremely interesting. Having run and played a lot of Supers campaigns over the years, I am intrigued to encounter such vastly different approaches to what I am used to and to what I do myself. It all makes sense to me but it is very different.

    I guess I shouldn't be surprised. My D&D approach is different so why should I expect my Supers approach to be the norm.

    I guess a bit part of it extends from the fact that before I was a gamer I was a comic book fan. I created numerous Superheroes and Supervillains of my own design before I ever played a Superhero RPG.

    While this gives me dozens of pre-designed and thought out characters before I begin a campaign (they just need statting up), it also makes me extra cognizant of the fact that I can't let these characters out shine the PCs. I often make my own characters need the PCs for one reason or another. As stated above, maybe no one can do that one particular thing that will let us win. Maybe the NPC hero has a weakness that the villains can greatly exploit and only the PC hero can reach the evil doer at this point.

    There are literally millions of ways to pull it off but the truth is, it's all in the presentation. My players don't feel over shadowed by the NPC heroes because they (the PCs) have gotten to shine and shine brightly. So far they've defeated and put away a number of the settings major bad guys and over a dozen minor ones.

  5. Yeah there's no lack of characters here - I have a ridiculous number of City of Heroes characters (with unique names, powers, and costumes and a paragraph or two of backstory at the least)which makes it easy to run a screen print and throw some stats together on the fly and have a coherent NPC ready to go, and that's just one source. The Apprentices recognize them immediately so it's an easy way to pull in some "known" comrades in a pinch.

    In my head I kind of assume all of my COH characters, my old Champions and MSH characters, and a lot of those of my friends exist somewhere in the gameworld, I just don't pin it down until I need them for something. When pressed for an instant side plot I can often fall back on something from an old comic book and sub in one of my 'homage' characters as the connection to it. These other characters can be in the background and on the news but I make a deliberate choice not to have them join the party unless it makes a lot of sense in the context of the adventure.

    In contrast, I'm all for any number of player-created heroes - stat 'em up, tell me all about them, and we will find them a place in the world. No reason we can't play the not-Avengers one week, the not-X-Men another, and the not-Fantastic Four another.