Monday, July 25, 2011

The Essential Elements

Yesterday's post got me thinking about the things I see as being necessary to a good superheroic setting.  Obviously, the specifics will change depending on the tone of the campaign and the stories I'm trying to tell, but I think there are some hard and fast elements that need to be in place for the setting to work.

A Clear Niche For The Heroes:  Somewhere out there, I'm sure there are gamers who enjoy the thought of a superhero team getting together in a rundown apartment around a card table, scrabble for bus fare to get to the scene of the crime, and pull themselves up by their bootstraps from obscurity to World's Finest.  That having been said, I've never met them.  Frankly, I don't think I want to.  That's just not my style.  Likewise, I don't like it when a campaign already has a Justice League or Avengers equivalent and the PCs are going to be the other team in town.  From day one, I want the PCs to be the focus of the campaign, and it doesn't do to have them overshadowed by another group of heroes.  I'm not saying there shouldn't be other superhero teams out there, just that their focus, power level, or geographic location should be such that the PCs aren't rendered second fiddles by the mere existence of a group of NPCs.

A Safe Place:  Typically, this is the team headquarters.  Depending on the setting and campaign style, it can be anything from a secret school for superpowered kids to the disembodied head of a space god floating on the edge of creation.  Regardless, it should be a place where the characters can take a breath.  The Safe Place is by no means sacrosanct: one of the most powerful stories a GM can use is to have the base invaded or taken over by bad guys, but it shouldn't be subject to a full-time siege and it shouldn't be taken away from the PCs without deep and long-lasting story ramifications.

The Pros From Dover:  These are a resource the PCs can access, typically via NPC relationships or favors.  Depending on the needs of the campaign, they may be an independent high-tech laboratory or a cabal of ancient wizards.  Most campaign settings can use more than one such group, so that the PCs have plenty of resources available.  Whatever their focus, the Pros From Dover should never usurp the PCs.  They exist to provide clues, analyze alien wreckage, translate lost scrolls, and have their reality-threatening experiments stolen by the bad guys.  Used properly, they can advance a story or be the impetus for an entire campaign arc.  Just don't let them overshadow the heroes.

A Villainous Eco-System:  Crime doesn't occur in a vacuum.  There are whys and wherefores, and the criminal world is very much a predatory ecosystem.  The weak end up subservient to the strong, and the strong battle over lucrative territories and resources.  And so it should be for the world of supervillainy.  There's a limit to the number of prospective world-beaters a campaign setting can sustain.  I can't point to a hard and fast number, but I know it by feel.  Ideally, a campaign setting should have a handful of "Apex Predators," with successively more villains filling out the lesser tiers, along with specialists and oddities off in their own little evolutionary dead-ends.  The same is true with criminal organizations: it's OK to have a couple of different sets of guys running around in green uniforms with blasters, just as long as each group has its own particular niche in the supercriminal ecosystem.  If there are two that are very close in focus and purpose, then they're as likely to come into conflict with one another for dominance as they are to run afoul of the PCs.  Unless this is an intentional plot element, the focus of the campaign should be on the heroes, not the background details.

The Support Staff:  Typically, this isn't the butler, though that's certainly a viable character for this pool of NPCs.  These should be the regular guest stars.  Generally speaking, I prefer to keep these characters firmly in the normal range.  In Champions some of them would be DNPCs, but others would be contacts, friends, or just interesting characters.  Many years ago, HERO published a book for Champions called Normals Unbound.  It consisted of nothing but normal (or near-normal) NPCs with back-stories appropriate for a superheroic setting.  Better yet, many of them had connections to other NPCs in the book, allowing a GM to populate the setting with a real sense of place.

In-Setting Mysteries:  I mentioned this in my previous post.  One of the things I love about comics is the sense of discovery, the feeling of seeing something new and wonderful.  Unfortunately, this is almost always where published superhero settings fall down on the job, because by their very nature, they have to define the setting (often to the Nth degree) lest the buying public feel they were somehow short-changed.  A variation on this actually ties into #1 above, when all of the really cool stuff about the world and the awesome storylines are all part of the background history.  My bible for superhero gaming is Aaron Allston's Strikeforce supplement for Champions.  It's a fantastic guide on how to run a campaign.  But the Strike Force setting, as described in the book drives me nuts.  Why?  Because at the time it was written, virtually all of the major plotlines in the setting, plotlines that had generated years of gaming for Aaron and his crew, were resolve and tied up in a neat little bundle.  By the same token, all of the cool hidden elements in the Champions Universe and the World of Freedom City were discovered decades ago by NPCs.  To combat this, if I use a canned setting, I inevitably play with the timeline so that cool things like the Blue Area of the Moon remain hidden until the PCs trip over them (unless they're outside the scope of the campaign, in which case I probably ignore them completely).

I'll probably supplement this list at a later date, but these are the big pieces that came to mind.  What do you consider important/essential in your settings (superheroic or otherwise)?


  1. It's funny -- I'm writing a piece for ICONS TEAM-UP about doing Ars Magica-esque "troupe-style play", where the players come up with multiple characters, so that every game night can be a different "title" depending on who's there (with different characters appearing in different titles, etc) -- and a lot of these elements are going into the "universe creation" part of it.

  2. Excellent post. Easily applicable to something like the Keep on the Borderlands or sandbox play in general. Mind you, in my experience sandbox and supers go together about as well as sand and sandwiches. But, still.

  3. @drcheckmate: Yeah, the superheroic genre (with very few exceptions) is mostly reactive. The world happens to the heroes. Sandbox games are all about the heroes happening to the world.