a battery of canon

Last night we continued our on-going With Great Power . . . game set in the Silver Age of Marvel Comics. Like every other session of this campaign, we have blown the fucking doors off. It is so insanely good. I want to talk about why. (This does tie into Old School topics, but it will take me a little while to get there.)

My comics-geekiness makes me sick. Literally: when I reflect on how much time I’ve spent reading Marvel Comics, I get physically nauseous. From age 7 to age 14, I soaked up Marvel nonsense like a sponge. I owned, and practically memorized, every issue of the Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe, Deluxe Edition, which was nearly twelve hundred pages of encyclopedia entries about super heroes, printed on what seemed like tissue paper where the ink would flake off in your hands and you could see the grains of wood pulp. This includes the Book of the Dead: 250 pages of dead super villains, which even prompted twelve-year-old me to think, “Why am I reading this?”

(Tavis, here’s a parenting tip: your son is about the age where his brain will store material that will stay with him for the rest of his life. Find more edifying material for his brain than my parents did.)

Anyway, after years of dreaming about it, I finally found Adrian and Josh, who are almost as insane as I am on this topic. Though I’ve always been curious about the old Marvel Super Heroes game, I had a good experience using With Great Power… at a NerdNYC Recess and decided to go for the glory.

With the exception of a Dictionary of Mu game a few years ago, this has been the most fun I’ve ever had running a game. First and foremost, Josh and Adrian are a lot of fun to play with. Adrian does an awesome J. Jonah Jameson voice and is always thinking of little details to add into every scene. Josh, I think, was born to play the Thing: everything he says and does is so wonderfully in-character. And With Great Power… is just a terrific system to use with this material.

But the other players at the table are the spirits of Stan Lee, Steve Ditko, and Jack Kirby. We spend a noticeable chunk of each evening laughing at how lovably goofy Silver Age comics are—last night, we were all deeply in love with Ulik, chief warrior of the rock trolls of Asgard, he of the “universally-dreaded body-crushing blow!” It’s a joy to take my geek-corset off and just let it all hang out with people who appreciate King Cadaver as much as I do. We had an “impersonate Cobra” contest a couple weeks ago, and if you don’t know why that’s funny I feel kinda sad for you.

As alluded to in my post following a nice-but-disquieting Dungeons & Dragons 0e game, one of the things I most enjoy about campaign-style play is an attachment to the world and the characters in it. Our group knows the Marvel Universe very well indeed. Our imaginations have been steeped in it for thirty years. It’s a beautiful thing to have everyone at the table be totally into what we’re doing. It’s not so much immersion, whatever that may mean, but absurd levels of imaginative commitment. Buy-in is 100%. Creative agenda is go. Prepare to thrash.

This is degree of emotional investment can only* come from decades of beloved canon material. This is why people don’t care so much about your homebrew rules about which Elven dynasty slew the Dwarf King 439 years ago. It’s not that it’s boring: most of The Lord of the Rings is boring to a sane person. But if you’re a huge Tolkien nerd, the history of the Ring of Erech matters to you because you’ve invested a ton of time to learn such nonsense. Your homebrew didn’t entertain your players for years or decades (yet).

It’s also why official “campaign setting” products are sort of a waste of time and money: the premise of these settings is usually solid gold, but somehow they’ve got to fill 250 pages with details for nerds to memorize, and most of the time the presentation isn’t entertaining enough to make the effort. I sometimes get irritated that the Star*Drive Campaign Setting tells me what level the bartender is on some backwater planet my character will likely never go to. But damn, I get genuinely mad that Jeff Grubb statted Quicksilver out with an Unearthly rank in Agility when he was writing Avengers Assembled for the old Marvel Super Heroes game.**

Another way of saying this: in response to Jeff Rients’s pop quiz, trademarks matter, because you come to form attachments with what’s familiar to you. And what that means for Old School games is that the true pleasure of campaign play is having an emotional stake in the growth of the campaign. This is something that the Old School community needs to ponder—how do you increase player investment in a homebrew setting with vastly unequal degrees of authorship?

* Well: emotional investment can also come from committed, empowered authorship. But very few older role-playing games distribute authorship evenly around the table. Usually you’ve got the Game Master who is madly in love with a homebrew campaign he’s developed over 100 hours or more. And he’s got five players who have spent 20 minutes each creating characters, and who can’t really be bothered to figure out the sub-plots or which supporting cast member is which.

** Quicksilver’s great at dodging things, but he’s not especially great at ranged combat, so it would probably work better as a Danger Sense power, at least practically speaking.  I am sorry for the bad things I mutter about you sometimes Jeff Grubb!  I am sure you are Incredibly nice and awesome.

4 Responses to “a battery of canon”

  1. October 6, 2009 at 2:08 pm

    “This is something that the Old School community needs to ponder—how do you increase player investment in a homebrew setting with vastly unequal degrees of authorship?”

    One quick way is to equalize the degrees of authorship. Players should, with the DM’s encouragement, design elements of the campaign world outside of their own characters. In the Glantri game, no one gives a damn about any of the deities except for the Boss, whose cultish reverence among the *players* stems from the fact that they’re the ones who created him. In the last session of Tavis’ White Box game, I invented a dwarven outpost out of whole cloth, and now that Tavis has integrated the place into his setting you can be damn sure that I’m going to go there at the first opportunity.

  2. 2 tavisallison
    October 7, 2009 at 3:03 pm

    I’m looking forward to developing Drum Coggo further and was pleased when you took the reins of authorship! I haven’t explicitly encouraged such creation because I fear putting players on the spot will cause creative paralysis, but hopefully the invitation during character-creation to make up your own race, class, and special power does seed the idea that I’m open to making room for whatever inventions folks come up with.

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Past Adventures of the Mule

October 2009

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