The League of Extraordinary Roleplayers: From Swamps To Superheroes

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This post is going to be a touch unique, because I want to share an idea for a tabletop RPG campaign that I’ve had bouncing around in my head, and maybe try to figure out exactly what about it I find so interesting.

The origin of the idea comes from a concept called the West Marches, a game run and then detailed by designer Ben Robbins. His detailed (and very good) writeup can be found here, but the summary of it is that the West Marches was a campaign designed to be extremely resilient to group volatility: that is, the availability of the players and the GM(s). The West Marches followed a cast of characters exploring and venturing out into the eponymous Marches, a hostile, dangerous region at the edge of the civilized world. Players explored, mapped out, and became familiar with this one, well-defined region, which would change and grow and respond to the player’s actions over time.

The benefits of such a campaign were many. Since there was no real overarching plot, simply exploration-focused ventures out into the wilderness, players could opt in and out of sessions as their schedule permitted, without worry of disrupting the story. Constant retreading of similar in-game ground not only helped players feel like real explorers, as their discoveries were constant, and provided information that could be reused as parties explored familiar ground, but also eased the work of the GM, as prep done for a given area could be reused, or grown upon, as players return to the same area over and over. Having this single, constant environment grow and evolve in response to the players, and having players develop a familiarity with the environment and how it works, ended up creating a real living, breathing, world.

So, this was rolling around in the back of my head, about a month ago I was on the RPG subreddit when I happened across this post, in which a GM was getting public opinion about what they should run that would be resilient towards a setting in which players would drop-in and drop-out at random intervals. In the top comment was a single line which suddenly sparked a wave of creativity in my head:

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What a good goddamn idea, I thought.

And thus, the gears started spinning. Almost all superhero media, from comics to TV series all the way up to the Marvel Cinematic Universe are episodic in one way or another: while elements from previous stories might be worked in to new stories as payoff for long-time fans, almost every piece of media is either self-contained or inside of a small arc, making the format a natural fit. Each session could be a self-contained story in which a subset of this larger superhero team takes on the villain of the week. Villains could pop up repeatedly, establishing themselves as central figures in the world, and allowing them to develop relationships with certain player characters (similar to the way Batman and the Joker, and Superman and Lex Luthor, have special relationships, despite the fact that Batman and Superman face other villains, and the Joker and Lex other heroes). Setting the game in one metropolitan area allows players to develop familiarity with the setting, and for the setting to respond to player actions (read: destruction).

The benefit a superhero game has over a fantasy game such as West Marches, I think, is that the genre allows room for a disparity of both tone and scale. Say, for example, I’m running Marvel Cinematic Universe: the Campaign for my group. If, one day, I have my Daredevil, Luke Cage, and Captain America players as a party, I have a chance to tell a much more down-to-Earth, street-level story in which my party is dealing with thugs, criminals, and gangsters in the grittiest parts of the city, and to tell really human stories about real people dealing with real problems: addiction, corruption, and community become themes within striking distance.

Say next week rolls around, and while last week’s party find themselves busy, this week I have a new crop of players, playing Doctor Strange, Thor, and Hulk. Well, now, within the same setting, I can now tell a story on a grand scale, of gods and magic and parallel worlds and of cataclysmic stakes. This game is now dealing with battles for the fate of all humanity, and themes of the needs of the many outweighing the needs of the few, of courage in the face of impossible odds and of dealing with the unknown. This is the same game in the same world as last week, just on a much larger scale. Much like the real world, such a game setting operates on a multitude of scales, each one having its own serious threats that, to people operating on that scale, seem earth-shatteringly important.

This is, of course, a bit of a double-edged sword for the GM. While such a game does open up room to tell all sorts of stories and to have all sorts of different kinds of adventures, it means you have to have prep ready to run a game on any part of the spectrum  of scale, so as to be prepared for any type of group to show up. Also, you need to be prepared for if, say, Daredevil, Luke Cage, Doctor Strange, and Thor all show up to the same session. You need to be ready to present something challenging enough that your stronger characters don’t plow right through it, but easy enough that your lower-power characters don’t feel impotent.

I think the solution to this, however, ties back to the strength of a campaign set up in this manner: player and character connection to the setting and the NPCs within it. In such a game, players will come to recognize and ultimately identify with parts of the city that they like. They’ll have NPCs that they come back to again and again for help, which they eventually will develop affinity for, and particularly nasty villains that come back again and again will be the subject of hatred and ire. As your players become more and more engrossed in this world, it will be easier to develop stories that can engage the entire group no matter the power level.

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Think of Captain America: Civil War, for example. That movie contained a pretty massive ensemble cast of characters, from characters like Vision and Scarlet Witch, who are honest-to-god superheroes with seemingly unbounded potential, to Hawkeye and Falcon, who are…some dudes in suits. There was potential for a few characters to seemingly dominate the story through sheer power, but this was ultimately mitigated by weaving the central conflict in with the interpersonal drama already established within the “campaign”.

By drawing on the relationships the characters had with one another, the stronger characters had greater incentive to “tone it down”, while the weaker characters had the intimate knowledge of their foes that allowed them to go toe-to-toe. Furthermore, the central conflict of Civil War played out on a few levels of scale, such that characters tended to square off against their closest equals instead of preying on the weaker or getting stomped by the stronger.

While my current Edge of the Empire group is still going very strong, I’m definitely going to keep this superhero idea on the backburner. I think as I grow older, and my responsibilities greater, the idea of having such a game that is so responsive to real-world schedules, while still remaining so potentially meaningful and offering such a variety of stories to tell, will only become more and more enticing.

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