Friday, January 7, 2011

Super Campaigns - Have we been doing them wrong for 30 years?

While working on the supers background and villains etc., I had a flash of insight and realized I may have been doing this wrong since the early 80's. Details:

Many many players come into RPG's through D&D. What's the modus operandi for a typical D&D campaign? Let me put a typical intro into my own words:

"You are a cut above the common man. Imbued with skills and abilities that set you apart. Instead of hiding in a town leading a mundane life you venture forth and test your abilities against the toughest of foes and if you survive you claim great rewards of treasure, fame, glory, and increased power."

So the PC's are special and they seek out trouble, defeat it, and take its stuff. I'm sure some of you can see where I'm going with this, but let's look at some more:

Shadowrun: You're special - better than almost anyone else at what you do. You work with a team and carry out dangerous assignments for rich rewards - sometimes for cash, sometimes for gear.

Star Wars: You have special talents and skills that make you stand out from the crowd. Seeing the tyranny that oppresses so many, you decide to fight against the existing social power structure. There are rewards of course, both material and not, and much of the reward you receive from each strike will be used to plan and execute the next strike, or to bolster your capabilities for those future strikes.

Vampire: You are special, different from the masses. You know that true power lies in the hands of a few individuals who largely maneuver behind the scenes - and you want that power. Or maybe you want to live a life of decadence - either way, inevitably someone like you, maybe even an old friend, will cross your path with a conflicting goal and conflict must result.

So in the implied campaign setting of all of these games you are a gifted individual who decides to take a path to power and that path often involves violently taking what you want from other people. You also tend to fight against, operate outside of, or feel apart from normal society, ignoring conventional laws or morality. Clearly we have been doing it wrong all of these years - we're not supposed to be playing Superheroes - we're supposed to be playing Supervillains!

Think about how other games work - the PC's listen for rumors, decide what they want to do, then go invade a dungeon/hit a corporate office/attack a hidden imperial base/ thrash a street gang and make off with loot, blueprints, respect on the street, etc. They don't sit around in the secret lair all day waiting for a call for help like firemen! They don't patrol a city waiting for trouble to erupt - they're the ones who go in and start the trouble!

If the police or city watch represent conventional authority, in which games are the PC's allied with them?
  • Vampire - unless they secretly control the police, most Vamps want nothing to do with them and have little to fear from them anyway
  • Star Wars - Stormtroopers are the enemy in most games, as is anything Imperial
  • Shadowrun - Lone Star is something you run from or misdirect, not something you typically see as a cohort. 
  • D&D - I can safely say that my players have spent far more time on the wrong side of most City Watches than they have spent having them as allies. Most of the time  it's a mutually uncomfortable tolerance, and I don;t think our experience is unusual.
So in none of these other games are the local authorities viewed as helpful allies. yet in most supers games the police are reinforcements, or cavalry, or helpful sources of information. They are on the players' side, which is a deviation from the normal RPG paradigm. This may be one reason supers games are less common - they feel different than most other RPG's and this is one major reason.

So what's the answer to this? Rebel anti-heroes? Nah, they're still reacting to events, they're just crankier. I suppose you could run something like the first Blade movie where he comes into town hunting vampires and is the one who initiates the action, but that's difficult to maintain over a full campaign with a limited enemy group Star Wars works because the enemy can be quite varied - Bad Jedi, Bad Droids, Bad Clones, Death Stars, etc. Maybe if you ran one campaign to establish some equally diverse organization as the main threat to peace, like say Viper in the old Champions universe. Then you could run another campaign focused on "Viper-Hunters" and it could be cool, but there's a simpler solution: just have everyone play Supervillains.

Now Necessary Evil tried this in a way (and it's great) but it still turned the villains into anti-heroes more than traditional super villains. I think we need to try a full-on Villainy Runs Amok campaign.

Some might say "but true villains would never team well enough or long enough to make that work." To this I respond that it happens all the time in the real world. There are plenty of real individuals with strong self-interest who can still see a bigger picture enough to work well with others, from corporate types to sports team owners to movie stars to just flat out wealthy individuals. Sometimes their plans work, sometimes they don't, but they keep trying.

There are other motivations as well - a common cause can bind together all kinds of strangeness. From comics you have the Brotherhood of Evil Mutants and from Star Wars you have the Rebel Alliance just for starters. If the PC's start from a common origin then that may be a really good reason for them to form a group and stick together.

OK so how would this work - what's their goal? Simple - money and power, just like D&D. Some might have more complex motivations, but if those have been good enough for a huge number of D&D campaigns then they will do for a start. If Player A wants to build a giant laser to write his name on the moon he needs equipment so he needs to steal it or steal enough money to buy it. Player B wants to steal Impervium Man's latest suit of powered armor. Player C wants to get their name on TV and become famous. They decide to break into Stane Labs one night, steal the suit, steal a bunch of other valuable technology, and then send out a broadcast with Character C as the narrator crowing about what they did. It sounds a lot like D&D, or Shadowrun, or Star Wars to me. This is also awesome as a DM as you can go with the same mindset as you would in those other games - set up some different opponents around the city (or the country) including their bases (like a dungeon), include wandering opposition (police, patrolling heroes, corporate security). Plus I can still use all those nifty villain books - after all it's not like they never fight each other. If you look at it as "the city is the mega dungeon" then you begin to see some remarkable possibilities.

This also leads to some very interesting choices while avoiding some cliches. Superhero registration act? Who cares - we aren't heroes. But wouldn't that data be valuable to some people...? A secret organization is hunting mutants? Big deal - LOTS of organizations are hunting us! Alien invasion? Now we get to the interesting part, as heroes would just automatically jump in to stop them. The bad guys might still do that (invasions are bad for business) but they also might try to make a deal,  play both sides, seize an opportunity to take out a rival, or even ignore it and go for the gusto assuming that the heroes will handle it, leaving the banks more vulnerable. There are just a lot of interesting choices that heroes may never get to make but that these guys will.

I see a lot of freedom in a campaign like this, beyond the already pretty wide open superhero campaign. Not the "freedom" of playing evil characters in D&D where the word usually meant you could use poison freely and screw over your buddies while commuting imaginary rape and murder. No, it's freedom in the sense of turning genre standards upside down and giving players a chance to make different choices while following those instincts honed by years of dungeon-looting, TIE-blasting, and corporate extractions.

Am I going to run this right away? No. One, I need more time to think about it. Two, I need to establish the universe before I can turn it upside down and I have one session so far with Atomic City. Three, I think it's better for the kids to play the good guys anyway for now. When I get the chance, I'll let my older players try out Villainy Goes Amok in a different city most likely - maybe Millennium City from Champions. Letting the two groups operate at a distance but in the same world could mean a lot of possibilities down the road, from a straight-up slugfest between the two to some side-switching between heroes and villains.

Actually I really like that idea - maybe the Thursday Night Game is West Coast Heroes while the Saturday Night Game is East Coast Villains. Running them in parallel with two groups and planning to do it that way could be really awesome in a sustained campaign. I probably can't do it in 2011 but if the new supers game goes well then that would set up beautifully for 2012.

OK, so there's the awesome idea for the week. It gives me a nice long-term angle on Atomic City that I had not previously considered and maybe someone who reads this will get a chance to pull it off before I do. If so, let me know.


sirlarkins said...

That's a great observation!

Have you seen Barking Alien's series of posts about his FIENDish henchmen campaign? Similar idea, there.

I have to say, though, that your argument about the typical structure of most conventional RPGs is so compelling, it's actually an argument (to me) in favor of running a traditional superheroes game--what could be a more refreshing change of pace than actually serving on the side of law and order (for once!).

Blacksteel said...

I'll have to look at Alien's posts - I realize probably not the first to run across this discovery.

I think it can be a good change of pace if you make sure the players see it - I don't think that many do and it may lead to a hidden "expectations" problem.

Barking Alien said...

Hi Ho!

Actually, and this may sound strange coming from me, I think you might actually be a bit off in your initial observation.

As I am coming to understand, most old school D&Ders disagree with your opening statement. The D&D PC is NOT special. He is NOT imbued with abilities above the norm. He or she is a fighter just as the baker is a baker, the thief was a street urchin, the miller runs the mill, etc.

They (tradition D&D fans) take great pride in the fact that their not so special character with the 6 Strength and 10 Dexterity somehow survived to 6th level. What skill the Player must have had to overcome these inherent weaknesses (not to mention luck since the bad and good of the game owe a lot to random chance).

That said, yes, I love your idea. Its really very cool and while I have been in Supers games where some people were heroes and some were villains, I don't remember anyone doing quite as you describe.

From day one (August 25th, 1977 baby) I played assuming I was the hero. In the 33 years since I've played with many players and groups who look at the average gamer and think, "poor sociopathic fellow. Fantasizing about killing people and taking things from them. I hope they get help."

Please check the post sirlarkin's mentions and any titled "Secret Origins". Please let me know what you think.

Chris Lutman said...

I'm just started a 4e campaign (we started at level 17) where the PCs are all servants of the Far Realm. For one reason or another, they're working to destroy the natural plane, astral plane, and the elemental chaos.

To do this, since they are only level 17, and would get flattened by any one of the gods or primordials, they're working to sew dissention into the ranks of the gods and of the primordials (they're hoping that if a civil war breaks out in 1 group, the other may take advantage of it and try to kill off their eternal enemies).

I built the campaign based on a character concept I built about a year ago, but it is also partly for the reasons you cited: it isn't normal, they're forced to sneak around to prevent being squashed (or at least hunted), and know that unless they're successful in their endevors their support won't leave the far realm. They are acting as chaotic evil, but working together to achieve a goal well beyond the scope of mere rape and/or pillage.
@barking alien:
1st and 2nd, possibly even 3rd may have had "normal PCs", but every PC in 4e is, as he said, "a cut above the rest" and by epic tier you are pretty much expected to be able to kill any of the gods if you wanted, and at the end of your quest, to ascend to godhood (or do something equivilantly epic)

Blacksteel said...

You're right about the 4e change in starting power level. I'm ok with it but it's definitely different. I like the campaign idea you're running too as a change of pace especially.

I still haven't tried my villain idea yet but with M&M 3 in my hands now I may get a chance to try it if I can get a campaign up and running and I have a pretty good system to run it with.

I had some thoughts on epic level campaigns too - check the tags on the blog and you might be able to turn some of them upside down in your game too.