(This is a kinda-long AP post, but toward the end I pay my Joesky Tax by including some Civil War milestones that can be printed on Avery labels and stuck onto your character sheet.)
My first Civil War game was a one-shot conflict between the rampaging Hulk and the uncanny X-Men, played out with Tavis and his family. Owing to their schedule, a second session probably isn’t likely any time in the foreseeable future, so I put together a second group and started fresh.
Scene 1: Yet Again With the Smashing
Again: we open with the Hulk all crazy, destroying (in this instance) Peekskill, New York, opposed (this time) by Shadowcat and the Beast. After a crazy underwater battle that ended with Shadowcat psychologically shattered by the Hulk’s endless capacity for rage, the Beast (now joined by Storm) managed to barely wear down the brute, but not before the Hulk’s fury of destruction and a toxic gas cloud kill hundreds of people. Among the X-Men, Cyclops and Colossus died in a train crash.
Scene 2: Let’s Not Feel Guilty About This
Bruce Banner wakes up in a dirty alleyway, his tattered purple pants coated in filth, the air filled with the sounds of sirens and uncontrollable weeping. Must be a weekday.
Wandering amid the ruins of Peekskill and a mob of first-responders, SHIELD forensics specialists, and grandstanding super heroes, Banner is accosted by his old Defenders teammate Doctor Strange, who teleports him back to Manhattan before The Man can detect him.
While Wong escorts a battered Banner to the soothing Bathtub of Bahamut, the Master of the Mystic Arts gets an earful from his latest disciple Nico Minoru and his publicist Sara Wolfe about his inaction in the face of a horrific tragedy. When he cannot evade their criticism with a shield of Zen platitudes, Strange basically tells them to shut up.
When Banner comes downstairs, he announces there’s this weird boil on the back of his neck. Strange’s mysticism and medical know-how reveal that this was an entry-point for a xeno-borg critter curled around Banner’s amygdala–his rage center–making him even easier to infuriate than usual.
The players conclude that obviously the only man to help them is Professor X.
Scene 3: Sympathy for the Devil
So Bruce Banner goes to visit the world’s most powerful telepath before the bodies of his two students are even cold and a third is still catatonic. Chuck takes it pretty well, all things considered:
“I have pity on you, Doctor Banner. After what you did today, SHIELD will hunt you down. The Avengers will turn on you. The Sisterhood of Mutants, no friends of mine, will not stop until you are dead, for daring to kill two mutants. Ororo’s fiance, the Black Panther, perhaps the deadliest man alive, will seek revenge against the monster who hurt his beloved. But all of this is because you lack control. Because no one would help you. I will help you. You will never be angry again.“
And Professor X then does a total mind-whammy on Bruce Banner and shorts out his ability to feel anger, robbing him of his only defense against the whole goldang world.
But Dr. Strange is not simply the Sorcerer Supreme. He is the Passive-Aggressive Dick Supreme, and Professor X just intruded on his territory big time. Strange telepathically contacts Nick Fury and tells him exactly where the X-Men (who are also blamed for the rampage) are holed up.
Professor X, Storm, and the Beast take Kitty, a mostly-disassembled Cerebro, and flee in the Blackbird, and blow up the mansion before SHIELD can arrive and pore over the research.
more critiques of the civil war event book
The big problem with the Civil War Event book is that it’s . . . impersonal. By which I mean, the RPG designers give you a cast of 32 playable super heroes, many reiterated from the Basic Book. Thirty-two heroes, choose four, gives you something like 863,040 unique groups of four heroes if I’ve done the math right (no guarantees). Even if you suppose many tables will play troupe style, it’s impossible to design this thing with a particular set of characters in mind.
In that sense, the Civil War Event resembles an old-timey D&D Dungeon, which exists in a completely impersonal sort of way and doesn’t care that your first-level Fighter’s name is Executioner Tootles and he can speak Robot Latin. But it’s also very unlike a D&D Dungeon, in that the Marvel Civil War is all about personal choices, man!
You can do that personal choices and consequences type thing well with an indie game set-up (see Sorcerer, Dogs in the Vineyard), and you can do the impersonal scenario that you’re gonna have to navigate through no matter who you are really well in games like Dungeons & Dragons. But the Civil War Event is disconcertingly trying to do both at once. A key skill in running this game is figuring out how to push the characters’ buttons, even when the published material doesn’t quite get you there.
One necessary first step is to chop out everything that serves no purpose. Marvel’s Civil War unfolds like this: there’s a terrible humanitarian catastrophe, everyone is agitated and anticipates a significant governmental response, the response is to nationalize superhumans, some superhumans resist this, everybody fights, and it just gets worse and worse until one side takes things too far and loses the moral high ground.
Any scene that isn’t playing on those issues should be thrown in the garbage. Did Thor’s hammer land in Oklahoma? Who cares! Did you get invited to the Black Panther/Storm wedding? This is padding. (I always hated those comics which promised to be a tie-in to the latest cross-over, and then had almost nothing to do with it.) What’s with this whole Atlantis thing, and the Hydra stuff, both of which seem to be kind of tacked on?
The only thing that matters is that the Man is sick and tired of your super hero bullshit, and he kind of has a point. Now you’re going to toe the line or else. If your players want to pursue other goals–“Who built the alien city within Blue Area of the Moon, anyway? Let’s go live there!”–that’s awesome, because it’s directed by the players themselves. (And God help you if they choose this, because this is not the easiest game in the world to run completely on the fly.) But where your players lead you is a very different thing, creatively, than allowing the published material to waste valuable table time on stuff that doesn’t tie strongly into the premise.
(I don’t blame the RPG designers for this: they’re trying to adapt a comic book “event” which, by editorial fiat, sprawled out in all directions at once.)
In addition to ruthlessly cutting “empty” scenes, I strongly recommend that the characters in play take at least one of the Milestone included in the Event, rather than simply accepting the ones on their character sheet, because that will at least tie them in somehow to the big picture stuff going on here. You can still jaunt off to Cleveland to hang with Howard the Duck, but it won’t gain you much XP.
Here are some milestones (page one, page two) for our game, printable for Avery 5162 white labels, which you can stick directly onto your character sheet. (This isn’t every milestone in the published material, just the ones I felt best suited a Hulk-centric game.)
the other thing
The other thing that’s a little strange about the Civil War Event is that it is, and isn’t, a railroad. It’s more like these required way-stations, and how you get there is your own business. There’s going to be a Humanitarian Catastrophe. There’s going to be a Big Government Response. Etc., etc. As Greengoat sagely observed, “This stuff is all just window-dressing for the titans to hit each other over the heads. Like an animated Street Fighter backgound.” And that’s about right.
I’ve included at least one or two options for the players to completely subvert this entire thing, and will respond to innovative player-spawned plans I haven’t taken into consideration. But mainly unless they’re clever, they’ve just gotta cope with the Big Picture stuff unfolding kind of like it did in the comics, more or less. I can’t figure out if that’s an interesting design feature, or a frustrating bug.