Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Team Soap Opera


Once again, I'm thinking about the soap opera aspect of comics and how to represent that at the game table. I have read, and believe, that one of the great things that the 1960s Marvel brought to the genre was the soap opera aspect. While I'm not so crazy about the continuing narratives that developed, I certainly love the soap opera part, and felt when Gwen Stacy died, or that Doc Ock was dating Aunt May, or that Bruce Wayne was bereft when Dick Grayson moved out of the manor. But that's something that's hard to get across in RPGs.

See, most of that stuff happens in the solo books for a hero, and superhero RPGs rarely play that way. They emulate team books...which is totally understandable, because there are multiple players at the table, each with his or her own hero character. But team books don't have the same sort of personal dynamic.

It seems to me that team  comics come in two flavours: the anthology of characters (the Avengers or the Justice League), where popular characters from elsewhere are brought together, along with some characters who are seen only in the team book; and the collection of characters (the Fantastic Four or the Wolfman/Perez Teen Titans), where the characters may have come from elsewhere but they pretty much live in that book. (I've stolen the terminology from short story books.) The lines between them aren't clear-cut; sometimes team books are places where comics companies park intellectual properties so as not to lose them ("We're using Generic Name Guy! You can't use him!") or during the period where their own titles are under revamp, so these categorizations are poles, not boxes.

An anthology book assumes that most of the characters will have their interpersonal stuff somewhere else. We don't need to talk about Bruce Wayne's relationship woes, we can just present Bat-God as someone. The stories tend to be puzzle stories, or they have personal effects only on the book-specific characters. (There are exceptions, which are usually the result of editors and writers collaborating across titles, or where the same writer does several solo books as well as the team book.) So the New Avengers during Bendis' run dealt with Victoria Hand and with the Hood and the effect of the Skrulls on Spider-Woman, Luke Cage, and Jessica Jones, none of whom had their own series at the time. Other characters moved in and out and made quips or actions that cemented their (external) characterization. Heck, they even lampshaded it with Wolverine.

A collection book generates a lot of its soap opera from interpersonal conflict between team members. The teams tend to be smaller (though they aren't always: the total collection of X-Men would sink an aircraft carrier, but they usually focus on four to eight) and there are NPCs who deal with the whole team (your Jarvises or Victoria Hands) and NPCs who are specific to individual characters. The more interteam stuff there is, the less you need NPCs outside the team.

And none of that shows up in comic book RPGs. Oh, it can: Worlds In Peril has the Bonds mechanic, which I quite like, and lots of games have the idea of qualities or complications or disadvantages that deal with specific NPCs. The latter don't require NPCs and soap opera, however. (That's good if your players don't want to get into that stuff. I'm not writing about players like that, though.)

How do you encourage soap opera? I have no sure way. However, here are some ideas:
  • Don't travel. Yes, you just had a great idea that involves everyone being on an interdimensional road trip. Have you established what they have to lose, back in the home dimension? Will they care if they ever come back? Yeah, you can travel once you've established your turf, or let the NPCs travel with the heroes, or give them other-dimensional analogues of the NPCs with whom they can say the awful things, or who will act in exactly the ways that the heroes hope or fear the NPCs will.
  • Throw lots of NPCs at them. Some of them will stick, even if they haven't created characters with particular DNPCs. If the PCs seem interested in the NPC, bring him or her back.
  •  Encourage qualities/complications/disadvantages that use NPCs. Try to make the NPCs interesting. It's a nice idea to make the same NPC the dependent NPC of several characters, if you can. If Clara Sparrow is the wheelchair-bound sister of one hero and the boss of another hero and is dating a third hero, well, you've got three reasons to bring her in, and some opportunity for interteam conflict.
I'm happy to hear other suggestions.