nightmares of futures past – a marvel sandbox?


I was asked to run some Marvel Super Heroes for Tavis’s son and his friend, who are X-Men fanatics.  To resolve some curiosity from my own childhood, I’m breaking out MX1: Nightmares of Futures Past, which as kid utterly baffled me.  But from an OSR perspective it seems like what Steve Winter was trying to do was create a sandbox during TSR’s Silver Age (during the “Dark Age” of Marvel Comics).

Nightmares of Futures Past is based on the classic Days of Future Past storyline from Uncanny X-Men and which, of course, inspired the recent film.  Nightmares doesn’t give you the time travel aspects to leaven the grimdark horror of living through the mutant holocaust.  The module throws you into “the middle of the End” as squads of gigantic, unstoppable killer robots roam the ruins of North America seeking to capture any stray mutant or super hero they can find.  The police are searching everywhere for you, and the public at large (say it with me) hates and fears you.  


It’s grim.


The module itself doesn’t give you anything resembling a plot, or even much of a setting: each “Judge” is supposed to adapt the scenario to her own futuristic, war-ravaged Anytown, USA, in which the players represent the local Resistance.  Nightmares gives you six types of Sentinels to fight, along with some law enforcement agents and the occasional mutant; it also describes in some detail a concentration camp for mutants.  It also gives you some rules about anti-Sentinel technology (magic items, effectively) designed to keep you hidden.  But almost everything else is up to the individual Judge to custom-build: not a bad idea, since the passage of 30 years and widespread destruction permits the Judge to reshape the Marvel Universe according to her own whims.


The main driver of the action here is the Sentinels’ neverending hunt for the players.  Players must scrounge for false identification papers so that they can work normal jobs and buy food.  Raising money–to pay for bribes, weapons, or fancy inventions–is almost certainly going to involve theft, perhaps even bank robbery (inverting the archetypal “intro to super heroes” session).  Day after day, the Sentinels zero in on your location, until you’ve got to abandon HQ and move out–or engage the Sentinels in a horrifically bloody Butch-and-Sundance last stand.


In game mechanics terms, the only way you can survive in this world is through accumulating enormous amounts of Karma, the game’s reward for acting like a super hero.  The problem, of course, is that acting like a super hero is going to draw attention.  So the more Karma you earn, the more danger you’ll be in.


And “danger” doesn’t really begin to describe it.  As presented in the Future in Flames modules, the most common Sentinel robots are terrifying opponents.  To get game-mechanical for a moment, a Sentinel shows up with 290 Health points (a standard character has maybe 100), 40 points of body armor (standard characters would be lucky to even scratch them for 10 points of damage, let alone do it 29 times), and can do 50 damage in close combat or at range (a standard character would go down in 2 hits).  To make matters worse, if the fight lasts more than 3 rounds, a Sentinel’s adaptive learning program tilts the fight even further in the robot’s favor.  In short, one Sentinel is a serious threat to even a group of competent characters . . . and they normally travel in packs of 3.

Even using the weakest model of Sentinel, and a simple hack for minions, a triad absolutely tore through a small cell of mutants I created for playtest purposes.  

The moral, maybe, is that Nightmares of Futures Past isn’t so much a framework for a super hero campaign, but rather, a survival horror campaign geared for dudes who shoot lasers out of their faces or women who can walk through walls.  (I also wonder whether the module was playtested.)    


So: two questions…

  1. Has anyone run the Future in Flames modules?  What were they like?  What should we expect?
  2. The classic Marvel Universe of 1981 has been completely undone and messed up in the hellscape of 2014 America.  What’s your suggestion for the fate of your favorite super hero?


11 Responses to “nightmares of futures past – a marvel sandbox?”

  1. July 9, 2014 at 2:18 pm

    I never ran this one, but often wanted to. I was a huge X-Men fan back in the golden age of the Marvel game. I might have to revisit this!

  2. July 10, 2014 at 1:32 am

    So here’s what I remember…

    My group was running MSH with rotating GMs, of which I was one. We came up with a plot that involved Kang the Conqueror, and Dr. Doom’s Time Platform, that result in the team being tossed to a series of alternate futures. We got to incorporate the modules ‘The Gates of What If?’ and ‘Nightmares of Future Past’, as well as a visit from the original Guardians of the Galaxy.

    I’m not sure why, but I don’t recall our numbers being as low as you describe. When we played, having rolled randomly to create our characters, we had dudes with Monstrous Strength and quite a bit more hit points then you describe. Characters were built with the Advanced Player’s Book and the Ultimate Powers Book. I know at least one of us could take on Thor (though he’d likely lose). The basic, default Sentinels went down pretty quickly and easily as I recall.

  3. July 11, 2014 at 2:21 am

    Barking Alien,

    I expect Tavis’s son & friends will pick established characters like Colossus and Cyclops, so you may be right. And there are definitely more intelligent ways to fight Sentinels beyond just punching them in the face, even if that’s how the X-Men tend to solve the problem in the comics.

    But going with by-the-book randomly rolled characters, you’d need an attack that does more than 40 points of damage to penetrate the armor on an “Alpha Sentinel,” the most common type on patrol according to the module. The odds of scoring an Amazing rank power is 10%, and that’s assuming you’re lucky enough to roll that for an attack power. Even so, your Amazing power does 46 points of damage because you’re a newbie, so 6 points of damage make it through the armor: congratulations, one-third of the patrol now has 284 Health points. Just hit him another 48 times! (Sure, you could hope for a Stun result, but Alpha Sentinels have a Shift X rank in Endurance.)

    Obviously the trick here is to get something genuinely useful, like Magnetic Control or Robot-Hacking or whatever, but not every bunch of starting characters will have that ready at hand.

    From a design perspective, the problem here is that each member of the horde of Sentinels has a Health score figured by totalling up its Fighting + Agility + Strength + Endurance. If you try to “realistically” peg each of these values to a benchmark–“The Sentinel can lift 40 tons, so it should have Amazing (50) Strength”–then you wind up with an enormously high Health score, because, taken at face value, giant super-robots are impressive as hell.

    Except that part of the point of X-Men comic books is that the X-Men are Just. That. Good. Giant killer robot from the future? Yawn, these guys go down with a combo attack; wake me up when there are like 20 of them. If that’s what your GM did, more power to her, since it’s completely in keeping with the comics.

  4. July 11, 2014 at 2:49 pm

    OK, looking back at the rules, I notice that while Mutants initially roll on a chart that doesn’t go above Amazing, Robots and Aliens can obtain Monstrous scores, and Altered Humans may reroll one of their ability scores.

    It’s been a very long time since we played, so my memory is fuzzy on the exact team make-up, but I do recall one of the PCs being either an Inhuman or an Eternal (Alien), and at least one an Altered Human. I think I was an Armored character, akin to Iron Man, although I may have played a cyborg and used either the Altered Human or Robot classification.

    Again, we weren’t playing ‘X-Men’ through this scenario, but rather an independent team of original heroes who had come across Kang’s time spanning plot. Not sure if we were really good, or just really lucky.

  5. July 13, 2014 at 2:16 am

    I find this kind of polling on 80’s game experiences always interesting, because you seem to assume that children had this sort of commitment to the rules as written.

  6. July 13, 2014 at 7:25 pm

    Yeah well that’s the thing: when we played MSH it was like, “Yay Spider-Man wins because we say so! And he makes Rachel Summers not feel horribly depressed! He is the best hero ever!”

    But I’m assuming that I might have been a couple years on the younger side for MSH, and that there might have been older folks who actually, like, UNDERSTOOD the rules and therefore occasionally used them. We certainly did not at the time.

    I guess alternately someone from the OSR might have used this stuff, too.

  7. 7 Scott LeMien
    July 13, 2014 at 8:03 pm

    Oh we played by the mechanics of the games. We played the hell out of the Marvel game.

    But character creation? Who ever followed those rules? This was a game about cosmically powered heroes from day 1, they didn’t graduate to become them. Thor didn’t start out on Power Pack’s level of power, so why should your creations be gimped? If you lacked a few amazings, you sucked (unless you had a stellar portrait). Also, players would try to ‘story’ past bad die rolls on stat creation by making sure we mentioned comparable heroes before we picked up the dice, so we could show the GM how the dice were betraying us.

  8. 8 Naked Samurai
    July 14, 2014 at 3:17 pm

    I had the middle two modules of the four (which can be found here http://www.classicmarvelforever.com/cms/advanced-game-and-modules.html). Definitely a grim and mature environment to play in.

    It’s nearly a sandbox. At least a very open environment with major events/scenarios that can be used (or should be, according to the series). To be fair, the Sentinel you described is one of the top line; I’d assume some kind of graduation from the lower level robots to the very worst.

    I can imagine a really rich and rewarding campaign generated from this stuff, though a lot of work is involved. Early on, characters trying to hide their blossoming powers or forming alliances with non-mutants (other PCs?), gaining strength as a revolutionary cell, early episodes having to do with helping townspeople, say, who are anti-mutant, while hiding one’s powers. Then moving eventually on to some of the set-pieces the modules provide — disrupting the execution of potential allies, discovering a prototypical suit from Stark Enterprises, destroying a Sentinel factory…

    To be fully enjoyed, I’d imagine healthy knowledge of 80s-era Marvel would be key. With a lot of major superheroes already killed, there are some New Mutants (especially) popping up in the resistance. Part of its majesty is the feeling that a massive event is going on, that the heroes are not alone, that there are other squads like them struggling for survival. There’s an epic feel to it.

    An inspired Keeper could run engaged players through a version that has been beefed-up. A balance between completely weak and overpowered characters should be struck, though much of the early action may be more heavily role-playing. The Sentinels cannot be directly confronted, so what other solutions are there?

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Past Adventures of the Mule

July 2014

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