Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Extremely Expert DM Advice #5 - Supers!

About the only other area where I feel like I might contribute something useful is with superhero games. As always, remember that a lot of online advice is useless for a specific group and that goes for super games in particular as there is so much variation in both subject matter and player expectations.Also most superhero RPG's have a pretty good section on this kind of thing. Read them, they're fun.

Setting it Up

Choice of system is pretty important when it comes to super gaming and I originally planned on running down a long list of games with comments on each. That turned into way too much to put into this but I think it will make for a nice topic down the road for a series of posts. So it's coming, but not in this post. When it comes to system my general recommendation is "pick one you know" - mechanical familiarity makes on-the-fly DMing a lot easier. If you don't already know one specifically you can still follow this guideline - play a lot of 3E/4E? Mutants and Masterminds should be an easier transition. Old school D&Der? Villains and Vigilantes or Heroes Unlimited should look somewhat familiar. Broke? Marvel Super Heroes is a full super hero line that's available free here.

Beyond system the next big thing to decide on is setting. Are you running a traditional "heroes of a particular city" campaign, maybe expanding to national and worldwide as things progress? Are you Herooooes iiiiin Spaaaace? Are you street level nobodies just trying to make a difference? If you decide to run a "magic underground" campaign then the guy making the Iron Man clone is probably not going to be happy, and if you plan on going cosmic then Kung-Fu Joe may need to allocate some points for a space suit.

Mighty Crimson Fist is happy as long as he gets to punch people

Related to the Where is the When - Contemporary is the standard and the easiest but maybe you've played a lot of modern games. How about running in the 1960's? Maybe the 80's? Then there is the oldie but goodie of World War 2, and it's grittier substitute of Vietnam. If this is a new thing I would always recommend that you start with "now" and get creative later.

In addition the the Where and the When you have the Why, also known as Tone. You can get wrapped up in the whole golden/silver/bronze/twinkie age discussion and minutiae but it really boils down to three or four approaches to the genre:

  • Heroes don't kill because that ain't what heroes do, maam. Even if a villain slipped off of a cliff the hero would try to rescue them because that is what heroes do. PC/NPC death is just not going to come up. Think Lone Ranger or classic Superman.
  • Heroes don't deliberately kill but if Dr. Devastator slips off of the Mammoth State Building then the Hero will probably watch rather than risking their own life to save them. PC/NPC death is rare and a big dramatic moment when it happens. Think Batman/Spiderman.
  • Some Heroes kill, but only those who deserve it, and this is still frowned upon. PC/NPC death is a real possibility. Think classic Wolverine and early Punisher.
  • Heroes and Villains kill a lot as it's the standard approach to problem solving. Heck, they kill mooks just to send messages to each other, setting up the big dramatic showdown where one or the other will die. This is a very modern approach but it can be a pain for the DM as your villains may only be good for a single arc or one part of a campaign, and then they die.  

Most of this is "whatever you feel like playing" but it's important to let your players know what you're thinking ahead of time. Also, find out what their "super" references are - are they coming at this from watching the live action movies of the last decade? Are they reading a bunch of golden age Superman PDF's? Have they been watching the Avengers cartoon? Adam West Batman? Reading DC's New 52? The Authority? Getting a read on the frame of reference makes a difference, and being able to say something like "I see it being like the Avengers cartoon" is very handy to set expectations - heck a lot of this stuff is on Netflix so give them some video homework and say "you're going to be the West Coast version of these guys" or pick up a copy of some recent comic book arc that you think is good and let your players flip through it. People know what a typical fantasy RPG is, but they may not know what a "typical" superhero game involves - so just focus and tell them what *your* game involves.

Iron Mom would prefer a Silver Age approach, thank you!

Differences from a Typical D&D Game

  • Characters: You can run with fewer players than D&D. I usually prefer to have at least two but I have run with one and I know other people do too. The characters tend to be more capable and more resilient and the game is usually less deadly than your typical D&D game.
  • Multiple PC's: Multiple characters per player in a campaign has worked fine for me but multiple characters in a session usually is a bad idea. Tell your players to focus on one character this time and they can play the other one next time. If you want to experiment, split the action and let the players run multiple characters, as long as they are in multiple locations. Comics do this at times and Star Trek does it a ton - there's a problem on the ground AND there's a problem on the ship in orbit and we switch back and forth until we resolve both! Multiple characters is also handy for another scenario: character A is doing his thing but then he gets captured - enter character B who will now be trying to track down character A.
  • Scope: A D&D type game usually starts pretty small and slowly expands, perhaps eventually traveling to other planes. One published "early-career" M&M adventure starts with the destruction of reality and missions to parallel dimensions to try and fix it! The scope can be very different and no one should get bored. You may discover that one of your players dislikes some aspect of your adventure - for example I have one that hates time travel. Whether it's an RPG or an episode of Star Trek, he really doesn't like it. I've tried (when it comes up) to make it a personality trait for his characters as well. The goal is to have some fun with it in-game - think Bones and transporters or B.A. and air travel. 
  • Progression: Very few supers games have levels. Progression is entirely different. This is a feature, not a bug, as we're not playing a zero-to-hero journey in most super campaigns. Mechanical advancement is typically slow. Beyond that type of progression there are other rewards - creating the team's first base, getting the key to the city, appearing on national media, meeting the president - all of these in-game events can show progression apart from mechanical advancement. If you're playing in an existing universe then having a PC invited to join the Avengers is a pretty big signpost, kind of like hitting name level in AD&D. Give the players a path to do that and it should help handle any lingering leveling issues.
  • Adventures: Typical D&D adventures involve breaking into a location, defeating the guards, and looting the place, then living it up until the money runs out or the next rumor of loot rolls in. Superhero adventures are typically the opposite of this. Supers are so ingrained in most of us that I don't really see this as a problem but it is quite different when it comes to running things. That whole stocking-a-keyed-map-then-planting-some-rumors approach you've developed over the years? Yeah, that's not going to be much help most of the time. You're going to have to get comfortable with plots, where the badguys initiate the action and your PC's react to them. Timelines can be handy, possibly even flowcharts if you're envisioning something complicated and want it to make sense. Other times you just wing it and if it makes sense to you right now, well, it probably makes sense to the villain too.

Tips on Actually Running Games
  1. Know your chosen system. Alright I already gave you that one but it does make things flow easier. Get a DM screen that has all of those nifty charts in one place. use sticky notes or tabs to mark certain pages. This can also be artificially accomplished by choosing a simpler game (ICONS, BASH, Savage Worlds) and you may not miss the complexity at all.
  2. Pre-generated resources are a godsend to the supers DM. Any modern game should give you stats for some basic thugs, robots, ninjas, soldiers, cops, and some animals. It should also give you mechanics for common hazards - fire, lightning, drowning, radiation, etc. Add in a few vehicles(cars, buses, fighter planes) and some common household objects (mailboxes, lamp posts, brick walls) and you have some building blocks no matter what your players do, and they will go off-track at some point. When Grog decides to throw a flaming building at that alien spacefighter, a good game will cover how to handle that in the core book.
  3. Be ready to improvise. They will come up with things you were not expecting. Use your knowledge of the system and your prebuilt parts to roll with it - that's why they are there, that's why you presumably paid money for them - to make things easier. A little bit of preparation can make the improvisation more coherent too - if your villain's plan to rob the bank to get the money to buy parts for the Megabot is thwarted, what is his alternate plan? You don't need a massive backup scheme, just a note that if it fails he's going to kidnap a wealthy heiress (DNPC?) and use her money to do it instead. Once you have the framework you can hang all kinds of stuff on it, for hours at a time.
This should be your last resort
I'm about out of things to say here but let me make one last point: In a superhero game your players' characters are supposed to be powerful, awesome, and fun. They should win a lot, mowing down mooks, putting villains in jail, and saving the world. That's part of the genre so go with it, don't stand in the way. If any style of game follows the "Say Yes to Your Players" approach it's Supers. Remember that and everyone should have a good time.

No comments: