I’ve been a little quiet here of late, mostly due to venting my thoughts about gaming on Australian roleplaying boards in the great “system vs systemless ‘con game debate” that I seem to become enmeshed in annually. I’m not sure there’s much point in posting here about it, as I doubt folks reading this blog will care overly much about the issue.
Instead, I thought I’d document my process of setting up Reverie, a Superhero game I’ve now run a few sessions of, as an example of my current thinking about campaigns.
By way of introduction, I’ve been running superhero games on and off for a while now, but usually as short run games. My Council of Champions ‘con outings have been a lot of fun over the years – I designed a cast of powerful, famous, established superheroes with fairly complex relationships, and then let each group tackle the villanous challenge in their own ways, in as much of a sandbox style as possible. At the time these games represented what I thought were the best element of ‘con gaming. The ability to play complex characters, each with sufficient drama (incorporating both comedy and tragedy) to provide a satisfying interactions with the other PC’s and goals to drive them, as well as a powerful array of superpowers and the opportunity to devise unique and individual solutions to each challenge the game threw up.
Nowadays I see this style of character establishment as overly detailed and prescriptive – too brittle to be fit for purpose in a ‘con environment where I want to achieve 100% player activation. There is a danger the players feel they are being dictated to, and don’t ‘buy in’ sufficiently into the game space, or feel overwhelmed or confused by the complexity of the back-story. But, it was a useful exploration, and probably rates as the most consistently successful series of ‘con games I’ve run.
Next I ran ‘Potential’ a 3 part mini-series featuring a group of troubled youths who are experimented on whilst in juvenile detention, and develop superpowers. There were a lot of elements I was fairly proud of in this game, but it reinforced to me that a good origins story, which reveals meaning and purpose to seemingly random things like the development of superpowers, can really add to the depth of a game. I also borrowed an idea from Morgue, surveying the players about the kind of powers they wanted their characters to develop – without being specific – so I could reveal the powers during game-play. Ultimately, however, the anchors holding the group together were probably not sufficient to hold together the diverse and socially troubled kids the players developed meaning the 3 session limit was probably necessary without overly contriving the setup.
Then, in Australia I ran a year-long supers campaign ‘Mayhem’ using the M&M Paragons setup, with a lot of my own material. Again I surveyed for powers, but I also gave the players a second survey about the style of game they wanted to play, the level of system crunch, and a list of elements which they rated as either liking or disliking (robots, aliens, time-travel, realism etc.) This time I also designed a cohesive element to bind the players together more thoroughly, tied to the plot.
While this did prove more successful in providing a basis for the group to work together, the players (who did not really know each other before the game) designed characters whose individual plot interests often superseded the group action, meaning the characters frequently split, and gameplay suffered some pacing issues as I tried to juggle equal screen-time, and cater to individual stories. The crunch level of the system also proved challenging over a longer span game, as some players strongly engaged with the system, while others actively disliked it. I also tried casting a player as a supervillain – the idea was that the player wouldn’t go to most games but would be kept appraised of key plot elements remotely, send me what they wanted their character to do in response, and show up to key sessions for epic battles as appropriate. In practise however, the style of the game was a lot less over-the-top than I’d envisaged, and the supervillain player ended up playing most sessions, adding to the diversity of the game, but also adding to the load of individual scenes.
After Kapcon this year, and the enjoyable experience of running the 4th instalment of my Council of Champions game I thought I’d give it another shot. With Reverie I sent the two surveys I’d used previously (with some editing) and included a third to establish some basic character details which I’d use to include the initial plot.
As with Mayhem I wanted to create a sandbox experience, so the characters could choose almost any course of action, and be ready to plug an appropriate scene or encounter. But I also used the origins story to bring the group together in a way that would lead them to work together. Fortunately, this group was much more willing to embrace the group dynamic, probably due to their fairly extensive roleplaying experience. The group has also really engaged with making the characters their own – adding detail and even creating fictional Facebook accounts to interact outside the game space. I feel very privileged to have players willing to make that effort.
I've ditched M&M in favour of BASH Ultimate Edition - BASH does a good job of providing a simplified superhero system, but the math stemming from combat is still undersirable - it's probably on a par with the Difficult Check damage calculation in M&M, but I'd still like an even better fit...
In Reverie the origins story forms a major part of the plot, and I’ve tried to create something complex enough that the players will be interested to investigate and speculate about, but hopefully not so convoluted they give up (it’s a delicate balance). To do this I’ve used elements of the players own creation, balanced against a range of day-to-day concerns for the characters, and sufficient immediate danger to spur super-heroics. Because of the skill of the players, this is often more like conducting the game, than facilitating it – each instrument knows its part and adds to the overall harmony seamlessly.
What remains to be seen is how the game will evolve, because ultimately, once the detail of the origins story is laid bare, the players will need to take a more active ownership of the game. I only hope the second phase will be as enjoyable as the first phase has been.