I know I’m supposed to be working on builds for pathfinder, and that is nearly done. In the meantime, I had this idea for a M&M campaign. I suppose it could be used in any super hero RPG, but M&M is my favourite. I decided to share it.
Imagine this: As usual in super hero universes, the first super heroes showed up during world war 2. Ever since, the super hero identity was secretly passed from generation to generation, under the supervision of a supervisory organization. Now it’s the year 2014, and it is about the 6th or 7th generation of each superheroic identity. And then suddenly the current super heroes went missing.
The supervisory organization wants to keep the illusion of undefeatable and immortal heroes protecting the earth going strong, so they promote up from within their own ranks. The players are the agents, technicians, test pilots, arcane researchers, etc. They are the people in the organization who work behind the scenes, and because of their familiarity with magic, superscience, advanced trainings, etc. The players are some of the few people in the world who have an idea how to operate the old power armor collecting dust, or commune with the spirit inside the magic sword, or keep the nuclear powered gadgets working within safe parameters, etc.
Major Choice to Make: What is the supervisory organization?
The GM’s choice about what kind of organization the supervisory organization will significantly change the flavour of the setting. Compare the differences: the organization is a branch of the US Military, or the organization is a charitable organization dedicated to social justice. Both could easily start out with an ideological branch opposed to fascism, then have reasons to oppose organized crime and communists (I personally have nothing against communists, but fighting communism is a part of the super hero genre). However, if the superheroes are all military agents the story has to deal with nationalism, and will make the US a bit of a police state. If they are all members of some non-government organization, then it becomes highly objectionable that they would use violence to meet their goals. No matter who the organization is, there are reasons to object to them being in charge of superheroes. The nature of the objection will highly flavour the story, provide obvious themes, and create clear moral tension that the GM and players can use.
1. It is very easy to make a clear conflict between the Superheroic Identity and the Normal Identity, because the superheroic identity is something that the hero has been given (not something they created). The psychological and social tension between these roles is often key in superhero stories. To capitalize on this, the kind of personality the Superhero is intended to portray should be significantly different than the one held by the normal person.
2. Each superhero, their backstory, and their impact on the setting can evolve over time through the interaction of the GM and Players at the gaming table. At the beginning of the story, one player makes a hero who has a hypnosis gun and calls the hero Mindslinger. Mindslinger first used the gun to fight nazi spies. The GM could later introduce that the 2nd generation of Mindslinger had strongly pacifist tendencies, and refuse to kill. It makes sense because it would be very easy to subdue people without harming them when using a hypnosis gun. A different player might think mind control is creepy, and might improvise some historical justification for this during an in-character argument. Maybe the 3rd generation of Mindslinger developed some kind of megalomaniacal tendencies, went rogue, and had to be secretly “put down” prior to the organization passing the torch to the fourth generation. This kind of interactive character development and story telling is part of what makes table top games more fun than CRPGs or writing a short-story.
2. The setting is set up so that being a super hero requires the support of society in some way. This means that advanced technology does not exist in a vacuum; it requires a society capable of supporting it. This can be applied to magic and training for special agents also. To keep superheroes rare we’ll say that creating a superhero requires an investment similar to what it takes to build an atomic bomb. A huge team of scientists and technicians are necessary to build it, a huge amount of labour goes into getting the raw materials, a huge amount of administrators are required to bring everything together, and someone has to fund this operation. No more stupid gadgeteers building world altering devices in their basement and then not capitalizing on the opportunities created by the revolutionary device. Heck, perhaps the organization the PCs work for is an engineering firm that uses superheroes mostly to advertise their new products.
I consider this a pro because I tend to dislike how superheroes are often so disjointed from the rest of the world. It also helps move the setting in a more creative direction, giving the GM more license to alter the world in response to the players’ actions. Sometimes super hero stories seem to require that the world remain unchanged from the real world. If aliens visit earth, no one cares and nothign changes. This tendency is dumb. Subverting this trend moves the super hero genre into the very “soft” end of Sci-Fi, but will allow the setting to become more reactive and vibrant. An example of this in comic books is how the X-Men exist because there is a school dedicated to helping people born with mutant powers, and there is an accompanying societal response to the existence of the mutants. This is minimal, but it ends up tying the X-Men to society in a way that Spider-Man (for example) is not. Stark Enterprises occasionally will also do things that alter the setting, and iron-man stories will frequently include business-themed societal impacts and implications. Contrast this with Reid Richards’ inventions.
3. Serious topics can be used without being “darker and edgier.” Because the setting’s society responds to the players actions, a detailed but relatively light treatment of these topics becomes possible in game. This could be anything from notions of corporate responsibility or corruption, to questions about how to handle crime caused by rampant drug addiction in a community. These topics, when treated in media, are often bleak and depressing. This setting and story could use these topics, treat them with the complexity they deserve, and remain light-hearted, all at the same time.
1. The superheroes kind of start the game as unassuming nerds. This fits the genre perfectly, but it also means that they won’t have a lot of useful skills for beating the tar out of their enemies. This could impact how enjoyable the characters are to play during fights. It is an encounter design problem for the GM to overcome. This problem will also challenge everyone’s creativity: the player will probably want to come up with creative ways to use their knowledge of chemistry (for example) in a fight with street thugs until they level up their martial arts skills, and the GM will need to be able to improvise a fair and fun way to handle these unforeseen ideas.
2. The superheroes don’t exist in a vacuum. Many people like super-hero stories because the heroes ability comes from nowhere and requires nothing. It is a simple and enjoyable fantasy. Peter Parker gets powers on a field trip and can make webbing in his bedroom, then uses these powers and becomes an important person (albeit only when he is wearing his mask). Some people like this aspect of super heroes.
I feel, however, that these heroes very rarely actually live in a vacuum. Spider-man stories are mostly about conflicting obligations between family, friends, work, school, and society as a whole. What stops spider-man from having an extensive impact on society is that he is a teenager who would rather get a date for friday night. Changing the world is not a priority for him. Given the nature of the conflict, the broader ramifications of his actions are better expressed through his friends and family; not an impact on broader society. And, if a player wants to have a story that focuses on one’s obligations to family and friends, they can do that under this setting easily. They used to have a normal job, after all, and suddenly being thrust into the superheroic identity could have serious rammifications on a person’s ability to (for example) be a good parent.
That being said, some heroes do live in a vacuum. If you genuinely like those heroes more, then this campaign is no good for you.