Sunday, June 12, 2011

This Is Why I Shouldn't Go To The Movies

So, last night, my wife and I went to see "X-Men: First Class." I'd heard it was good, but man, it totally rocked me.  Of course, this is a blog for gaming, not movie reviews, so I'm not going into details.  Besides, I'm really mentioning this because this awesome superhero movie was, in some respects, the last thing I should have seen.


Because of Gamer ADD, that's why.  OK, in all probability it's just normal Adult Attention Deficit Disorder, but I've never pursued a formal diagnosis and it mostly manifests in my gaming, causing me to flit around from one bright and shiny object to another.  The good news in this case is that I'm more keyed up to run Champions again than I was before.

The bad news is, I'm now torn between resurrecting two of my old settings.  Meridian, I fear, isn't the only one of my campaign worlds that got put out to pasture before it could flourish.  If only that were the case, things would be a lot easier.  Honestly, I've probably got a half-dosen superhero settings laying around in various stages of development.  Most never made it to the play stage, but Meridian did, as did IMPACT.

IMPACT stands for the Inquiry on Metahuman and Paranormal Abilities, Capabilities, and Technologies.  It's a super-spies campaign.  Sort of.  Actually, the original elevator pitch was "WildCATs meets The Six Million Dollar Man to watch the X-Files."  While I lifted scads of villains wholesale from the Champions Universe, the setting itself was a substantial departure.  Set in the Cold War 80s, the world of IMPACT was one of superpowered government agents, terrorists, and mercenaries, a techno-thriller with superpowers.  It was the first game I tried to run when I moved to Houston.  Unfortunately, it didn't work out very well.

The very first player I recruited (apart from my wife), was an utter disaster.  He brought some great players with him, but it only took one bad apple to throw this game off.  I was so desperate to run my game that I didn't really vet the PCs the way I should, which led to one that blatantly broke the rules (the aforementioned disaster player) coupled with a number of characters that would have been fine conventional superheroes, but who were ill-suited for the setting.  After a few frustrating sessions, I put it aside for a more traditional four-color game, which lasted for a couple of years.  We shed the disaster player, recruited some others (including Justin of A Field Guide to Doomsday), and had a good time.

But IMPACT remains one of my "if only" games, the sort that I know would have been awesome if things had only been just a little different.  And "X-Men: First Class" is exactly the kind of story IMPACT was designed to tell. 

So yeah, right now, I'm more amped to play than I've been in ages.  But which of my "children" to choose?

Tuesday, June 7, 2011


Turns out the goblin forces actually WON.  They continued the game for an hour or two after I left and Ryan wanted to continue on Sunday, a decision that spelled disaster for the forces of Weal, who lost three commanders in the ensuing turns and fled the field in disarray.


Just a night out in Meridian
This is a first, quick post about Meridian, the city I plan to use for the theoretical Champions game.  Like most of my gaming ideas these days, I'm recycling something from my past.  Back in 1995, I'd been in Houston for about a year and a half when I got laid off from the job that brought me here.  While I was out of work (six months), I decided to start on a new and different superhero setting.  I wanted to do something inspired by "Batman: the Animated Series" and the Fleischer Brothers' Superman short films, something more iconic than your typical bloated 90s supers.

(It's worth remembering that the state of comics c. 1995 was pretty appalling.  Lots of shoulder-pads, pouches, thighs bigger around than your head, and lots of explosions and killing.  Pretty much everything I hated about the genre, really, so it's no surprise I wanted to do something different.)

What came from that initial desire was "Meridian by Moonlight," which remains the largest single campaign guide I've ever written.  Meridian, a fictional Great Lakes city was heavily inspired by the animated Gotham, with a cast of supervillains wholly of my own concoction.  It was an epic, sweeping...

Moderate success.

The problem was, I spent so much time preparing for it and writing in background details that it was too personal, too perfectly suited to my tastes and therefore, not really that great a place to run a sustained campaign.  Yes, I learned the hard way that if the PCs are messing up your setting, you probably shouldn't be using it for a game.

Ultimately, I think the game really died because I'd spent lots of time imagining the cool stuff and not enough time doing things like developing my villains beyond a name and brief description.  Pro-Tip:  Champions works better when your villains have actual character sheets.

Anyway, there was a lot of cool stuff in Meridian, stuff that's too cool to leave fallow.  When I was writing "Sins of the Past" for ICONS, I envisioned the story as taking place in Meridian.  There's nothing specific that puts it there, but it helped keep me focused on the feel I wanted for the adventure.  So, for the upcoming game, I'm going to haul the old girl out, keep the Art Deco facade, but play mix and match with the innards to turn it into a better, more useable campaign setting.

Next Time: What that actually entails.

Sunday, June 5, 2011

A Short Side Trip

I still plan on writing up Meridian and my thoughts on super-powered cities, but I think I should first report on yesterday's gaming experience.  My friend Allen was in town from Austin, and staying with his friend Kerry.  Both of them are long-time gamers; in fact both were members of Aaron Allston's original Strike Force Champions campaign back in the day.  Kerry is mostly into miniatures battles now (and Middle Earth) and wrote his own set of rules for minis combat set in Tolkien's world.  Yesterday, they had me over to help stage the Battle of Dol Guldur.

I've never really been much of a minis gamer.  For the most part, minis are props, or in the case of HeroClix or Battletech (which I haven't played in probably twenty years), something to be moved around on a board with demarcated spaces.  This, on the other hand, was classic tabletop minis, with lots of 15mm scale figures, tape measures, and Styrofoam terrain.  I think the last time I played a game like that was 1984, which means not in the entire lifetime of Ryan, Allen's son-in-law and our fourth player.

Allen and Ryan played an army consisting mostly of dwarves and elves, with some human mercenaries, ents, and Beornlings.  Kerry and I were the goblins, who had sheer numbers and a few trolls going for them.  I picked the goblin warg cavalry and let Kerry take the foot. Because of how the other side chose, this matched me up against Ryan, who was equally new to this, and let the two veterans face off.

My side of the battlefield.  My warg cavalary was arrayed opposite dwarven pony-riders, elven charioteers, a unit of hippogriff riders, and in the back, human heavy cav.

The next four or five hours were fun, but very slow fun.  The game isn't particularly difficult, but there are a lot of steps in each turn, which often led to a lot of discussion and clarification along the way.  The command and control rules were especially troublesome, so mostly, I just suggested courses of action my units could theoretically pursue and waited until Kerry nodded.

Mostly, I got my butt kicked, but I kind of expected that.  My little green dudes managed to put some hurt on the elves, but they were mostly there to die hideously and did so in droves.  I wasn't able to stay all the way through to the conclusion, but just before I left, our trolls managed to kill one of the dwarf captains, which was going to cause serious command and control issues for the good guys, so the battle was far from settled.  I guess I should drop Allen a line to ask how it turned out.

Anyway, it was an interesting window on an aspect of the hobby that I rarely if ever partake from.  And a good time hanging out with fellow nerds.

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Building A Supers Campaign

Since it seems my idea to run Champions again is picking up some traction, I thought I'd share the process I go through in putting a supers campaign together, hopefully in a coherent fashion.

The Basics:
The first step is figuring out the scope of the campaign.  Is it a wide-open, four-color world, or is it going to focus on street-level heroes, fighting it out the shadows of the inner city?  Am I looking for high-tech heroes,  mystic masters, or oppressed mutant freedom fighters?  It all comes down to the sort of campaign I want to run.  In the past, I've had specific stories and setting elements I wanted to explore, but in this case, it pretty much boils down to "I want to run Champions." Furthermore, I don't have the sort of time to spend on campaign-building I did in my youth, so I'm looking to use as much published material as I can.  So I'm going to use the published Champions Universe setting as a starting point.  It's got the advantage of well-developed source material, over 300 published bad guys, and a common point of reference for most folks who've played the game (in D&D, if you put a Beholder mini on the table, the players generally know what to expect; it's the same for, say, Foxbat in Champions).

Also, I recently realized that the CU is pretty much a "toolkit" superhero setting.  While used as-is, it makes for a satisfying Four Color setting, it's remarkably easy to drill down and ignore or remove the parts you don't need and focus on the stuff you do.  High-tech heroes? Use Interface and Mechanon as your big bads, and throw in a host of high-tech enemies.  Is mystical stuff more your thing?  Takofanes the Undying, the Crowns of Krim, and Tyrannon the Conqueror are your guys.  Paramilitary stuff?  Try the Warlord and the War Machine.  And those are just the top tier baddies.  There's plenty of lesser lights in each category.

So, I'm using the CU and looking to start things off as a fairly standard superhero campaign.  But the CU is a big place, so where I set the campaign is just as important as the theme of game.  In fact, it's an integral part of the game's theme.  In my experience, a superheroic city has to have a personality of its own, something to set it apart from other locales.  Metropolis and Gotham are both portraits of New York, but take their inspiration from different aspects of the city.

The Champions Universe offers us two fully-fleshed out cities (three if you count Hudson City of Dark Champions, but it's really it's own thing, so we'll leave it off the list).  Millennium City, built on the ruins of Detroit, is a metropolis of gleaming skyscrapers, with self-driving cars, elevated pedestrian walkways, and a sentient gorilla scientist.  Vibora Bay, located on the edge of the Everglades, is smaller, more urban, and with a distinctly mystical vibe.  Both have plenty to recommend them, but neither quite strikes my fancy.  Millennium City always feels a little contrived to me, and it's also home of the titular Champions, the world's foremost superheroes.  And while it's easy enough to write them out of the setting, it's hard to do without tragedy, and I don't feel like doing tragedy right out of the box for this game.  Vibora Bay feels more organic and is less top-heavy with superheroes, but it feels too far out of the way for my tastes.  Also, it's role as a mystical crossroads means that any game I run is going to end up veering into the magic stuff.  In and of itself, that's not a bad thing, but I have no idea what the players are going to want to do, and I don't really want to start this game off by restricting choices.

So, in this case, I'm going to use a setting of my own creation, an old one I originally came up with back in '95 or so (albeit updated to suit my current needs), a city called Meridian.

(Next time, revising and updating Meridian, with musings on the things a superhero setting needs.)