Saturday, April 4, 2009

[RPGs] Campaign idea: The Alliance

My big white whale of RPGs--the thing I think I'm least likely to get to do, anyway--is a superhero game. I think superhero games are especially dependent upon a gaming group's experience with and ideas about the genre. I mean, if five people sit down to play a game, variously expecting it to be like The Tick cartoon, 1980s X-Men comics, Warren Ellis' run on The Authority, the Watchmen movie, and the TV show Heroes, there is going to be some cognitive dissonance. Getting everybody on the same page would be a project in and of itself, and might not even be possible if there isn't enough common ground in the group's experience. My own group ain't really filled with people who read superhero comics, so I'm not sure I'll ever get to do this. But I do like to dream.

This is what I've been dreaming about lately.

The Alliance
The Alliance isn't so much a static superhero team as a loose network of associated superheroes who can contact each other, share resources and information, and work together as circumstances require and their schedules permit. When a case or mission comes up, a team is assembled from the available Alliance members and pointed at the problem.

The gimmick here, game-wise, is that the Alliance is a pool of characters that all the players can pull from on a session-by-session basis. No character belongs to any one player; they're all shared equally. So, of course, the characters would all have to be created cooperatively by the players. And that's where the character creation sheet at the right comes in.

Actually, though, I'd start by discussing with my players what kind of tone and tropes they're interested in for the game. We'd try to establish a target seriousness level, and come up with some example media. Then we'd talk over the setting a bit, see what kinds of components people are cool with (magic? aliens? time travel?) and just how "superhero-ish" characters should get (costumes? spandex? masks? code names? secret identities?).

...And then I'd hand out the character creation sheets, two to a player with a pile of extras. I'd explain all the different bits: "Purpose" could be something along the lines of "glory hound" or "With great power comes great responsibility." "Relationship" could mean a romance or rivalry with another Alliance member, or it could be a civilian NPC friend or family member, or even a recurring arch enemy. "Weakness" might be something like "poisoned by kryptonite," but it could just as easily be "hardened alcoholic" or "dangerously short temper".

Anyway, the deal with the character creation sheets is that each player would write something on their sheets, and then pass them off to other players to write some more stuff on, with everybody freely sharing ideas and talking openly about what they're doing. Hopefully, at the end of the session, we'd have at least two filled sheets for each player, and everybody should have some idea about the whole array of characters they'd outlined.

Then, I'd before the next session, I'd do the actual game mechanics side of building all the characters. I'd almost certainly use Mutants & Masterminds, in spite of the mention of "aspects" on the character creation sheets. I just really dig aspects, and think they can be imported from Fate into almost any RPG system. Also, I think they could be employed here to encourage the kind of ensemble-cast soap opera effect that tends to arise in long-running superhero team comics.

Part of what I'd be hoping to achieve with this kind of character generation is a player mindset that doesn't regard the PCs as representations of the players so much as shared game pieces. As such, they should be easier to sacrifice. Dramatic PC deaths would be a really cool and genre-appropriate thing to work into the game. I'd even like to incorporate some variant of Ryan Stoughton's death flag mechanic to encourage it. (CliffsNotes version: Normally, no PC dies. But you can trade this plot immunity for a temporary powerup, thus very possibly going out in a blaze of glory.)

Will I ever actually get to run this game? Dunno. Might not work too well with my local crew, but I'm edging closer and closer to running a Skype game of some kind, and I know I could find the perfect crew for this game once geography isn't a factor. So maybe. Some day.


Metz said...


This has a strong "Freedom Force" vibe to it, especially with the idea of characters being swapped out session by session to fit the needs of the current story.

Bear with me for a moment.

In the FF series, there's an associated cost to recruiting heroes, depending on their spread of abilities. What if the party was given a budget to spend on hero selection, with higher powered characters costing more of that budget?

This could be balanced out with the (god forgive me)spider-man effect, where lower power characters have a greater appeal to the common man... sort of like a contacts resource that people who play lesser powers could spend in game for certain effects?

Just a thought. The character sheets you've got suggest a pretty crunch-lite system, so I don't know how well it'll mesh with your concepts.

Matt Sheridan said...

Oh, dude, Freedom Force. That game was awesome. The character customization it had was exactly my kind of thing. Man, I've got half a mind to reinstall it, now. I did some seriously crazy skins for that thing, back in the day. Probably lost all the files, since...

Anyway, this whole Alliance thing is intended for a pretty crunchy system: Mutants & Masterminds.

I was actually considering implementing different power levels, like making tiers of "A-listers", "B-listers", etc., or something like that. I'm not sure it's really necessary with M&M, though. The system is actually really good at balancing Superman and Batman on the same team. Maybe not so good at balancing Superman and Wildcat, though, so there still might be a place for a tier system. It all depends on whether people would want to play characters at different power levels, I think.