Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Things GM's Do Right: Newspapers

Okay, I'm totally poking at the "Things GM's Do Wrong" meme by instead talking about things that many GM's do (including myself on occasion) that work well and make sense.  Let's start with an easy one: newspapers.

Or television reports, or blog posts, or Newsnet feeds, or whatever your genre wants to call them.  Having a media outlet in your game is a great way to accomplish several things at once.

  1. It creates a fun "recap"of previous adventures.  My experience is that players are often fuzzy on what happened even in their own campaign.  An accounting of last session's activities helps get players, especially those who were absent last time, onto the same page without taking up game time.
  2. It provides an outsider's perspective.  Since a newspaper isn't a strict campaign chronicle, the players get a glimpse of how their activities are viewed by the outside world.  Villains & Vigilantes had a great mechanism for tracking a superhero PC's popularity with public--a major trope in comic books, and a helpful way for players to anticipate how eager the police might be to help them, for example.
  3. It can introduce storylines.  There's an exhibit of a rare diamond at the museum.  The leader of a foreign nation is coming to visit.  The new particle accelerator is coming online tomorrow.  All of these obvious "MacGuffins" can be introduced to the players without seeming heavy-handed.
  4. It is a way to work NPC's into the campaign.  J. Jonah Jameson, Perry White, Lois Lane, and Eddie Brock were all side-characters to the two biggest reporter/superheroes out there.  Like so much about Marvel and DC, the distinctions between the interactions of the side-characters and the main character reflected the ethos of the comic book publishers.  Clark Kent is a star reporter while Peter Parker peddles photographs for rent money.  Maybe the "newspaper" is a blog written by an opponent of masked vigilantes, or to flip the hackneyed plot device, a superhero groupie who enthusiasm will eventually end up placing them in harm (and if the PC's rebuff the blogger, an eventual villain ala The Incredibles).  In a superhero campaign, it can also be the background for a hero's secret identity: reporter, technician, corporate honcho, etc.
So if you're planning on running a superhero campaign (or any other kind of campaign for that matter), a media outlet can serve a lot of functions at once with little work.  You can create a fake blog using existing free blog outlets (like the one this blog is using) or simple word processing software to make up a newspaper.  You can go as complex as doing columns and photos, or just have the headlines typed up.

Easy and simple, and a good way to do something right.

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Appendix N for Superheroes: Bionic Six

I thought I'd explain some of my choices for my entries into my "Appendix N for Superhero RPG's," starting with one of my most obscure choices, the brief TV series Bionic Six.

From Wikipedia:
In the near future (some unspecified decades after 1999), Professor Dr. Amadeus Sharp Ph.D., head of the Special Projects Labs (SPL), creates a new form of technology to augment humans through bionics. His first subject was Jack Bennett, a test pilot who secretly acted as Sharp's field agent, Bionic-1. On a family ski vacation in the Himalayas, an alien spacecraft triggers an avalanche that buries the entire family, exposing them to the unusual radiation of a mysterious buried object. Jack frees himself but discovers his family in a comatose state. Theorizing that Jack's bionics protected him from the radiation, Professor Sharp implants bionic technology in the others, awakening them. Afterward, the family operates incognito as a publicly lauded team of adventuring superheroes, the Bionic Six.
The primary antagonist of the series is a mad scientist known as Doctor Scarab, along with his gang of henchmen – Glove, Madam-O, Chopper, Mechanic, and Klunk – accompanied by Scarab's legion of drone robots called Cyphrons. Ironically, Scarab is Professor Sharp's brother. Obsessed with obtaining immortality and ruling the world, Scarab believes that the key to both goals lies in the secret bionic technology invented by his brother, ever plotting to possess it
 The Bionic Six are Jack Bennett, "Bionic One," his wife Helen "Mother One," their two biological children Eric "Sport One" and Meg "Rock One," their adopted son J.D. "IQ," and their foster son Bunjiro "Karate One."  All of them seem to possess a certain baseline of superheroic abilities (strength, reflexes, and durability) with their own area of specialty.  Bionic One had optic blasts, Mother One had ESP, Sport One could reflect missile attacks with his bat, Rock One had sonic blasts and super speed, IQ was particularly strong, and Karate One had enhanced reflexes and fighting ability.

They did the whole ring-to-bracelet thing when they changed into costumes.

The Bennetts were sort of saccharine-sweet when it came to their personalities, possess an almost Brady Bunch-like quality of sibling squabbles, etc.  As such, they tended to be boring.  The plots almost always seemed to hang off the villains: Doctor Scarab and his cronies.  Frank Welker's talents, best known as Freddy and Scooby from Scooby Doo, can't be underestimated here (he did no less than three of the villains in the show), although Jim MacGeorge doing a a George C. Scott impersonation for Doctor Scarab was also a great touch.  While the Bionic Six always got along, the villains hated each other and were perpetually scheming to get the upper hand.  As such, they remain more memorable and interesting then the eponymous heroes.

The only downside to these guys is their lamentable names, which are vaguely reminiscent of what players name their PC's. 
Which brings me to an interesting thought about superhero RPG's: unlike its source material, very little "screen time" is spent on the villains in a superhero campaign.  While comic books frequently have the "Meanwhile, at Doctor Death's secret lair..." moments, villains usually only come into the scene with their plots fully hatched (or hatching) and little opportunity for inter-villain byplay.

But I think great superhero stories rely not just on great heroes, but possibly more on great villains.  Trying to find ways to make sure that villains get their moment, whether than is by "monologing" or getting in a few hard hits beforehand, would be critical in a genre where villains need to be more than just the BBEG at the end of the dungeon.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

The Initivative: Superhero RPG Appendix N Blog Challenge

Spawned from an off-handed comment I made in my own blog, Barking Alien has kicked off The Initiative: Superhero RPG Appendix N Blog Challenge.

And since it was my idea, I accept.

Background: "Appendix N" is the list of recommended source material from 1st Edition AD&D.  It contained a bunch of fantasy and sci-fi novels that influence the creators of the game and included people like Clark Ashton Smith and Jack Vance.

In BA's original post and follow-up challenge, the issue was how to inform potential players about your own style of GMing when it comes to superhero RPG's.  Are they gritty or light-hearted?  Realistic or fantastic?

You need five to ten comic books, and five to ten other sources (movies, TV, video games, etc.)

Now the real challenge is that BA is my RPG brother from another mother, so it would be easy to just copy his list whole, but what's the fun of that.  I will say that there are a lot of crossovers.

Comic books
The Avengers (esp. the 1970's Avengers and the Busiek/Perez era up to Avengers: Disassembled)
The Justice League (esp. the late 70's to early 80's "satellite years")
The New Teen Titans
The X-Men (the Wein/Cockrum and Byrne/Claremont era of 1975-late 1980's,  Feel free to stop when the X-Books exploded everywhere)
The Crusaders (The Red Circle comics relaunch that was too, too brief)
The Outsiders (vol. 2)
The Legion of Super Heroes (as BA said, the Levitz era is the best)

Non-comic book medium source material
Batman: The Animated Series
Superman: The Animated Series
Justice League/Justice League Unlimited
Young Justice (TV series--surprised BA didn't have this one)
The Incredibles
Galaxy Rangers
Bionic Six

What didn't make the list?

  • Most of the 1990's.  That includes the "Iron Age" stuff that I read extensively but has aged so badly and the post-modern comic book movement that just doesn't suit me for the RPG medium.
  • The early DC-comics based TV shows (aka "The Superfriends") which I liked as a kid and the most recent DC-comics based TV shows (aka "Arrow") that I like as an adult.
  • The Marvel Studios movies, which I enjoy a great deal but apart from the Avengers don't reflect the team dynamic.  I considered putting in the Avengers movie but it's kind of a mess, plot-wise.
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