For thirty-four years, America’s top scientists have failed to unravel the secret of this song’s incredible catchiness.
warning: 2000 words of obviousness
When I was maybe 8 or 9 years old I got a copy of the Marvel Super Heroes Role-Playing Game, loved it, but never really played it until eighteen months ago, at which point I felt confused and overwhelmed about how to run the silly thing. After a whole lot of flailing around, I think I’ve cracked it, or at least have a set of solutions which are painfully obvious in hindsight.
One of the things I love about the Moldvay and Mentzer version of Dungeons & Dragons is that the rules instruct you how to build a dungeon. The results may not be lauded genius like The Caverns of Thracia, or as atmospheric as Zak’s Library of Zorlac (tucked away in Vornheim) or minimalist masterpieces such as Antti Hulkkonen’s Den of Villainy (one of the 2010 One-Page Dungeon Contest winners) or Rob’s Vermin Hollow (ditto for 2011). But even if the rules don’t produce works of genius, if you follow them, you’ll end up with something playable. It frustrates me that there’s nothing analogous for super hero games, at least that I’m aware of.
dungeon = case
So my theory is that the super hero equivalent of a dungeon is the case. This isn’t true for all super heroes in all decades, but is broadly true for Silver Age Marvel, the main period I’m interested in. The case has a couple of basic elements:
Starts with a super-crime. A bank robbery, which is how almost all super hero one-shots start IME, is not a super-crime. A crime what is super, is defined by being either
- impossible (your classic locked-room murder mystery)
- baffling (breaking into a bank to put money into the vault)
- beyond law enforcement’s ability to handle (“Uh, sarge, how do we ticket a 40′ radioactive lobster that’s illegally parked?”)
- visually or conceptually crazy
There’s some play in here about what constitutes a “case,” depending on what matters to your super-folks. In the early days, the Fantastic Four were like, “Whoa, the Bermuda Triangle exists! Let’s check that shit out!” and the X-Men were like, “Gee willikers, another mutant hit puberty somewhere, let’s come across way too strong so they won’t want anything to do with us. Cyclops, are you wearing your hideous plaid suit? Great!” But my assumption is that we’re talking about criminal activity, just super-sized.
This super-crime is part of a plan. Someone did it for a reason, and they’re not going to be satisfied until they take it to the next stage. What does this super crime lead to? And why should the super heroes care? This last bit is important. In the occasionally awkward but still very satisfying RPG With Great Power…, figuring out what the players value, and then drawing a bullseye around that, is actually the very first step of prep–so you know that, as a GM, you want to endanger Aunt May or challenge Tony Stark’s image as a hedonist, and work up some plan that puts those aspects at risk.
A super villain has a stake in the plan, and therefore in the super-crime. Committing or planning the crime (by far the most likely), discovered it accidentally and is now exploiting it (best for weird-phenomena type cases), opportunistically using it to discredit the super heroes, whatever. If you need more than one super villain, okay, but keep it simple.
The super villain isn’t worried about law enforcement. The classic explanation is that her powers make her seemingly unstoppable (bulletproof, travels too fast to catch, teleports out of jail, mind-controls the jury, etc.), but simply paying off corrupt cops, intimidating witnesses, or having a great hiding spot are reliable standbys too. Don’t blow past this step carelessly, because you’re basically posing a puzzle to the players, and they’re going to MacGuyver up some crazy solution.
If the super villain has any sense at all, she’s anticipated the most obvious counter-moves to her cop-trumping advantages, and worked out a way to keep her ass out of jail. If the super villain is super-duper-smart, she’s also figured out a way to incorporate obvious counter-moves into the plan itself.
One thing I’m toying with, for the plan, is to steal the “countdown clock” technique from Apocalypse World. For those who don’t know it, the idea is that a threat is divided into 6 scheduled segments (0 to 3 o’clock, to 6 o’clock, to 9 o’clock, and then to 10, 11, and midnight; these times are figurative rather than literal). Once the plan hits 9 o’clock, it can no longer be prevented, you’ve just gotta brace for impact. Segments are ticked off as the plan approaches completion. (Marvel Super Heroes Advanced Set actually has some decent rules on how long it takes for people to build doomsday weapons, so that may take the place of this little clock thing.)
can we play yet?
Anyway, that’s the super-crime related stuff. Once the players get wind of the super-crime, it’s off to the races. (Actually, making the players aware of the crime is something to think about too. Many great super hero comics begin with the crime in progress, and the hero learns about it afterward, and is like, “Gee, I missed it, but I’ll look into it anyway!” This works because a comic book can switch between viewpoints, but most RPG’s don’t. So don’t waste your cool visual for the super crime if no player will be around to see it.)
So you open with the super-crime, and maybe if the heroes are on the scene there’s a fight. If the super villain is on the scene at all (maybe she’s not) then she should have some way to cope with being captured or even killed.
You’re then left with something resembling a police procedural. The super heroes investigate the super-crime, looking for clues as to the villainous plan, how to prevent it, and how to capture the super villain. On TV and in real life, this involves interviewing witnesses, interrogating suspects, painstaking examination of physical evidence, stake-outs, undercover work, shadowing people, and so on. In a police procedural on TV, the investigators are gonna get the necessary clues; the only question is how the search leads to other dilemmas and sub-plots.
In an RPG session, this is probably going to involve skill checks or similar mechanics.
- If the players succeed, hey, great, give them a clue. You should have lots of clues, and they should be legitimate. Giving players a fake-ass clue is sadistic, because studies have repeatedly shown that the act of sitting down at a table to play RPG’s lowers people’s IQ by 50 points. Your players are spastic lunatics with 7-second attention spans. If you give them a fake clue, they will forget the 120 other real clues and drill down on that fake one, and it will be aggravating for them because nothing makes sense and aggravating for you because they’ll just sit around arguing (more so).
- If the player fails the skill check, consider giving them the clue anyway at a price. I’m stealing this idea from Mouse Guard, where the heroes can succeed at the cost of being made Hungry, Tired, Angry, Sick, or Injured, each of which is debilitating and difficult to remedy. In Marvel Super Heroes, the likely targets would be a hero’s Health, Karma, Resources, or Popularity: present the player with a situation where they can get the clue but at a risk to one or more of those values. So, for example, this witness will talk–but only if the super hero looks the other way regarding his gambling (failing to arrest someone means loss of Karma). The condition ought to make dramatic sense in the fictional situation.
- Alternately, if the players fail the skill check, not only do they fail to gather a clue, the situation gets dramatically worse via a twist. (Again: stolen from Mouse Guard.) Naturally, you should only use these if they’re appropriate to the fictional circumstances–which means keeping an eye out for these opportunities during prep. Here are some classic twists:
- God damn it, Human Torch, this is our case! Leave us alone! Some idiot super hero decides to tackle this case himself, which by the laws of super heroics means fighting you for it. This gets old after a while, so you probably want to keep an eye out for really short-tempered super-types who don’t always see reason–unless nobody knows each other yet.
- Freeze! You’re under arrest! The police somehow get their signals crossed and think that the super heroes are to blame.
- Uh… why are you wearing that costume? Somehow, a super hero’s secret identity (or some other sensitive bit of information) is at risk. This doesn’t have to be widespread knowledge or wind up in a villain’s hands – sometimes it’s enough of a twist for your wife to find out what you’ve been doing at night when you said you were working.
- They struck again! While the heroes were screwing up with this clue, the super villain or her minions went out and did it again. This enables the plan to ratchet forward another step along the “countdown clock.”
- It’s a trap! Oh no, what looked like a clue was actually a fiendish death trap. I guess that means I have to figure out death traps in a later post.
- Let’s fight! The super villain gets tired of the super heroes’ interference, and so sends a gang of goons, or a trusted lieutenant, or something, to fight them.
- Chase Scene! Man, somebody’s getting away, time to bust out the vehicle rules and give them a work-out.
if i break your wrists, james, will you please stop typing?
At some point the players will get tired of fishing for clues, and decide to make a run on the super villain, and/or wait around at a likely target to intercept her. Remember that the super villain has probably anticipated the most likely responses, so the players might need to first call in a few favors, or build a special gadget, and that process may cause the plan to ratchet forth another step toward midnight.
- You’ll need a map of a villain’s lair – the Marvel Advanced Set has some stuff on building a super heroic headquarters that would work for lairs as well – or the scene of the next crime. Make sure this place is just bursting with “interactivity”–ropes to swing on, exploding barrels, clueless civilians milling about with no clue of the danger that’s about to go down, trapped tunnels, nuclear reactors about to go critical, escape subs, and so on.
- You should also think about what the super villain wants to accomplish. Fights are boring when all that one side wants to do is clobber the other side. Does the super villain want to delay the heroes long enough for the final countdown to go off or reinforcements to arrive? Maybe imprison and brainwash them? Make it look like they committed a murder? Seize and hold territory?
- If a super villain takes some pretty serious licks (in Marvel, health is reduced to Endurance rank value or less), she’s gonna bolt, fake her own death, or give up with the knowledge she can easily escape. Preferably, the plan keeps marching along.
Important point: do not cheat to keep the super villains or their plans going. If the players get lucky, or play very well, totally let them enjoy their accomplishment. You’ve got new super villains every month, some of whom will try to learn from the failures of their peers. In comic books, the status quo never changes very much, because of publishing demands. This is deadly for RPG’s. Keep things unstable and moving along.
Anyway, that’s my current thought on this thing. It’s all incredibly obvious in hindsight but I had to clear some mental blocks first.