Wednesday, March 30, 2016

The Villain's Backstory

Finally got to listen to one of the villain episodes of the BAMF podcast, and this grows from that. (If you don't listen to the BAMF podcast and you're reading this without being a close friend of mine, well, why not? I think it would overlap nicely with your interests.)

One of the problems with superhero games is that you don't get the backstory of the villain, and so the player interactions with the villains tend to be, "We beat'em up," and then the result is either "We won!" and they rarely think of the villain again, or "We lost!" and the players hate the villain and want to destroy him or her or it or them.

In superhero comics, however, the villains frequently have backstory that makes them more interesting characters with more complex relationships with the characters.

How to introduce the former into your game so they can  have the latter?

Well, first of all, recognize that not all villains are memorable. Lord knows there are certainly more than enough disposable villains in comic books (I have heard rumours that Grant Morrison brought back the Eraser, and I am frankly startled, because a more stupid villain I cannot imagine). If most of your villains are forgettable, that's totally okay. We tend to remember that the Joker and Catwoman had early appearances in Batman comics, but for every pair like that, there are a dozen or two dozen villains who are forgotten. I love the Monk and Dala, who appeared in a very early Batman story, but they didn't reappear until the 1980s, about fifty years later. Hugo Strange was largely forgotten until the 1970s. So villains don't need a backstory unless they tweak the interest of your players. Heck, Magneto (as Dr. Tondro mentioned on the podcast) didn't even get a backstory until issue 150 of the X-Men.

One way to make a villain memorable and known is to give them an existence before villainy. We feel about Terra's betrayal because we spent issues and issues getting to know her before she turned on the players. I was thinking that, because so many villains are failed super-soldier experiments, you could do an adventure where the heroes are tasked with getting a set of characters to the government labs. The characters become NPCs to interact with. When they are finally given superpowers, one or two or six sessions later (it's long and involved because they have to avoid the bad guy hit squads) and some of them turn eeeevil, well, the heroes already have an investment.

Another way is to give them a flashback (as I was talking about the other day). It's probably easiest to have the villain as a pre-villainous NPC and the other characters are playing people trying to help but failing, but you can go whatever way you think your group will like.

A third way is to have a character or loved one of the players find the information out, talking to eyewitnesses. "Oh, yeah, Harlene Quinnzel, we knew she was abused but there was never any proof. We couldn't do anything about it. So sad that she died working at Arkham."

But again, you don't have to do any of this unless your players have already evinced some interest in the character.

Tuesday, March 29, 2016

Energy sources

One of my hobby horses is that people have no idea how much energy it takes to do some things. They don't realize that Superman might be affected by sunlight but there just isn't enough power in sunlight to power his, uh, powers. Even if the Flash is hungry after each use of super speed, he doesn't get enough energy from the extra food to make up for it.

These things are nods to verisimilitude, not explanations. 

As such, you can't reasonably extrapolate from them and not have the whole thing collapse as an absurdist fantasy. You end up with the Flash or Superman on a hamster wheel, powering the US, or Storm putting rain in the Sahara, or Emma Frost ruling the US by taking over the Electoral College.

However, extrapolating from them is fun, so we do it anyway.

In one Flash story, he turns on every radio in the world and tunes it to the appropriate station in a matter of femtoseconds. A femtosecond is 10 to the -15 power seconds. That's a pretty small amount of time, but hey, he's the Flash, right? (Now, I'm going off hearsay with this: I haven't read the story. I recall being told it was one femtosecond, so that's where I'll start.)

I'm doing the math on my phone and in my head, so there will be errors. I'll come back later and fix them.

The speed of light is roughly 3.0 times 10 to the 9 meters per second (3E9). In a femtosecond, light travels 3E9/1E-15 meters, or 3E-6 meters. That is, three-thousandths of a millimeter. The Flash has traveled over the entire area of the Earth in that time.

I don't even know how to figure out the distance, so instead, we'll say that he traveled the equivalent of one circumference of the Earth, about 40,000 km, or 4E7 meters. So how fast was he traveling per second? Well, 4E7/1E-15 gives us 4E22 meters per second, or about about 10E13 times faster than the speed of light.

It takes infinite energy to get to that speed, but they break lightspeed all the time in comics, so clearly there's a way to do it in that cosmos. If we ignore relativity entirely and go with the old "more gas means you go faster" model, the energy is, at minimum E = mv2/2 (kinetic energy. I don't see how to insert exponents while I'm on my phone). Let's assume that the Flash weighs 80 kilograms, or 8E1 kg. That's 8E1*.5*4E22*4E22 = 4E1*16E44 = 6E46...hmm. That's kind of a big number.

Let's work backward from E=mcc rewritten as m=E/cc and figure out what equivalent mass that is to one significant digit, because this is back of the envelope stuff.

6E46/(3E9*3E9) = 6E46/9E18 = 6E28/9 = 6E27

About the mass of Saturn has to be destroyed to push the Flash that fast, even in a world without relativity. And that's just one stunt, one story. Flash has been published since the 1940s...

So my theory is that every superhero is connected to a star that powers them. Some are connected to dwarf stars, some to giants, but it's the star that powers them. And when the star goes out, the power is gone.

And if the star had an inhabited system, the hero gets the angst, too.

Sunday, March 27, 2016


I've been thinking about whether you can use flashbacks during a game. The answer should be "Yes" but how?

The big problem is that you don't want anything to actively contradict something in the present. 

There seem to me to be a couple of options that might work or not.

Most likely to work is the explanatory flashback. The players know what they want to explain ("Why Indy hates snakes") and they are playing it out, either because it's fun or because they want some details. The outcome is probably not in doubt (though you can set this up so the outcome determines something in the present) but we wonder about how.

In the flashback all of the players play younger versions of their characters, some do, or one do. The flashback might explain what happened when the team came together, how some of the team earned the enmity of their arch-foes, or why that regenerating character is so dangerous. (For my players: "I'm having a bad day!")

In a game with a retcon facility, this is almost a retcon.

You could make it a retcon--you might charge players if they contradict current continuity, and give them the cost back if they fix it. You'd charge them at the end of the scene, and be willing to pay them back if they fix things later. The character takes the place of the bad guys but uses a robot to replace themselves, for instance. 

If you don't know the point of the flashback, it's more likely to go wrong and contradict the current. Now, sometimes those contradictions can be useful--they give you a seed for a future story that explains the contradiction. 

Another option might be the alternate past. In this case, the scene is meant to be a cautionary tale so you want to use it in a case where you want to show a variety of options. 

The third one might be the Rasomon story. Maybe this is various characters memories or theories of how something went done--a kind of Justice League Rashomon--and the real answer is in the contradictions. You need a certain buy-in from the players so that various characters do similar things in line with the point-of-view character of the moment, but you migh be able to pull it off once. You wouldn't do it often.

Saturday, March 26, 2016

How tied in is too tied in?


I'm working on an adventure to be published, and one of the things I keep waffling about is making it all neat and tidy.

Let me explain.

There are two plots, and the opening incident ties into one of them. I could make it tie into both of them. Part of me likes that parsimonious approach. Everything that is, should count.

On the other hand, this isn't a short story. One of the side effects of any adventure is that it provides things to use in later adventures. Because I was thinking about them recently, here are the things you get out of a few of the ICONS adventures:
  • The Skeletron Key: An organization to steal from, and a villain.
  • The Mastermind Affair: A villain group, three masterminds, and a villain besides.
  • Danger in Dunsmouth: The existence of Lovecraftian horrors and a mechanism for them to appear.
  • Jailbreak!: A super prison and a set of supervillains.
  • Sins of the Past: Supervillains and a partial history.
Even if most GMs pick and choose from the modules, I'd like them to have stuff to pick and choose from.

As currently designed, the opening scene accomplishes a few things:
  • It provides a set of villains to beat up and for the GM to re-use; as currently set up, they are explicitly the kind of villains that exist to be an intro to something rather than a main event. Some villains are world-shakers, and others exist so that you can beat them up and feel like you've accomplished something even if the rest of the adventure is frustrating.
  • It introduces one of the two plots, which is no small potatoes.
  • It provides a low-stress way for newcomers to practice the system.
  • It can be cut in case of time constraints, which is not essential but it's worth thinking about. What if someone wanted to play this in a tournament?
Not to mention the usual assortment of villains and organizations.

However, if you make everything neat and tidy, that tidiness is also a sign to the players. The more genre-savvy ones recognize that everything is tied together, so given a set of pieces, they try fitting them together and sometimes beat you to the punch. You can't avoid that entirely, but you can provide elements for re-use that are red herrings.

I will probably make it neat and tidy, but at least you know that I'm thinking about it.

Friday, March 25, 2016

Search & Destroy started

I have started reading Search & Destroy. I can immediately tell that characters from S&D are not usable as-is in your Supers! game, since it redefines some scales.

More to come.

Thursday, March 24, 2016

Beating the second act blahs


When he was editor for the Superman books, Mike Carlin used to say that comic books were all second act.

Brief summary here:  in Aristotle's Poetics, Aristotle says that a story should have a beginning (act I), a middle (act II), and an end (act III). He lays out some ground rules for what should constitute each kind of act. Act II mostly gets ignored as "not the beginning and not the end". There are also rules that are specific to the poetic performance medium he was familiar with. All kinds of rules have developed since then, like the one that says that Act II should be as long as Act I and Act III combined, but basically? Act II is the middle.

And if you think about it, that's more or less true: Many (although not all) heroes have an origin, a first act of some kind, and very few heroes have an ending, a third act. That was one of the things that was amazing about The Dark Knight Returns, that it gave us an ending to our hero. I recently saw Superman Returns referred to as the Robin and Marian of superhero movies, and that is in some ways appropriate. The bulk of their adventures is the middle.

But I've also heard that the second act is the hardest for many writers to write in books, and we're voluntarily signing up for them?

You bet.

Part of it is that there's some confusion about what the story is. Most of the fiction or screen-writing advice that I've seen treats stories as explorations of character through action: The characters learns or doesn't learn something and that knowledge or refusal to bend changes their world. Love stories are about giving something up so that you can take on something else--they're monkey-trap puzzles where the monkey realizes he has to let go of whatever's in the jar.[1]

Since those days of the 1980s, we have seen a number of third acts, of ends to the superhero story. So let's riff off some of those to figure out how we can deal with the second act blahs.

Your campaign could have a story with all 3 acts. The story could be the whole campaign, or it might be just part of a campaign. It doesn't have to be the traditional origin-middle-ending so beloved of movies; it could be like a season of a TV series, where there's an overarching villain that brings out something specific in the heroes. The villain is a personification of a problem or a set of problems, and when the villains are defeated, the problems are defeated (for these characters).

Your campaign could have a change in personnel. One character leaves because his or her story is done; another character comes in. When a player feels his or her character is done, well, the character can retire or leave or be promoted.

You don't need to change. Look, not everyone wants to tell a story of that kind. It's not necessarily about how the character changes or makes a decision. What some people want is the very clever way to solve the puzzle that the bad guy represents. That's many stories right there. Another is the ability to impose order: something has gone wrong, and the character has to fix it. Orson Scott Card has these as the I and the E in his MICE quotient. Robin Laws suggests that this kind of hero is about acting in accordance with his fundamental principles. In that case, you can see where the character has compromised in some way, whether that was growth or a mistake, and push right there. Come up with a villain and an adventure that presses right on that decision: that it was wrong, or that the hero needs to do that more often in some areas that are clearly wrong by the hero's earlier choice. Then the heroes either change (one type of story) or return to their principles (another type).

1. You bury a jar and place a piece of bait in it. The trick is that the monkey can't pull out his hand while he's holding the bait. Unwilling to let go of the bait, the monkey just stands there, entranced by what he has instead of what he could have. In the beginning, the romance character has their current life, and is metaphorically holding on to the bait. One of the primary romance stories is about changing their minds.

Monday, March 21, 2016

Time of Incontinence characters

Yes, the title is an homage to Dr. Christopher McGlothlin. Here are brief descriptions of the characters, along with some notes on how they might be implemented.


At his peak, Sundog was a vital Golden Age hero who stood for truth, justice, and all of that. He was strong and could fly, but those were his only overt superpowers. (He aged slowly, which is why he still had his faculties right to the end.) He had a tendency to hide in the sun and swoop down on his foes (hence the name). His costume was a yellow, orange, and red boiler suit with a sun on his chest. He wore a helmet and goggles.

In ICONS, he might be something like this at his peak:
PRW: 5 CRD: 4 STR: 7 INT: 3 AWR: 5 WIL: 5 Det: 3 Sta: 12
Specialties Power (Flight); Wrestling
Powers Flight 6; Damage Resistance 1
Qualities Simple moral code, and does what is right!; Sets an example; Too humble

In SUPERS! you might try something more like this:
Composure: 3D Fortitude: 4D Reaction: 1D Will: 2D
Athleticism 3D, Awareness 3D, Fighting 2D, Presence 2D
Flight 6D, Invulnerability 1D, Super-Strength 2D
Competency Dice: 4D
Disadvantages: Duty, Mental Hindrance (Honour Bound), Secret (ID)

Defeating the bad guys through interpretive dance and music, Apocalypso was a Caribbean-American musician who was granted these powers by the Muses, and it was filtered through the calypso background. Powers were largely musical, but the area effects were generally triggered by specific dance moves.

Sound like a stupid idea? That's what the bad guys thought, but they kept falling to Apocalypso.

At the peak, in ICONS:
PRW: 3 CRD: 5 STR: 4 INT: 4 AWR: 5 WIL: 4 Det: 1 Sta: 8
Specialties Performance [musician] Expert
Powers Blast 6 Extra: Area Limit: Preparation (dance moves), Force Field 4, Paralysis 5
Qualities Music hath charms!; I know you're laughing at me; Gossip

In SUPERS! maybe like this:
Composure: 3D Fortitude: 2D Reaction: 4D Will: 3D
Athleticism 2D, Performance 3D, Presence 2D
Blast 5D Boost Area 1D Complication Conditional (need area for dance moves); Force Field 3D; Mental Paralysis 3D Boost Area 1D
Competency Dice: 1D
Disadvantages: Duty, Low Self Esteem; Secret (ID)


Not a person without good qualities, but a supervillain. When you have the ability to cause cancer-like invasions in other people, you either embrace it or suppress it. And Melanoma didn't see a way to make it pay as a hero. So supervillain it was. At first, Melanoma was careful about hurting people but it became second nature, and went through henchmen at a tremendous rate, to the point that Melanoma had to be the first to offer benefits like dental and life insurance.

At the peak, in ICONS:
PRW: 5 CRD: 3 STR: 4 INT: 6 AWR: 3 WIL: 5 Sta: 9
Specialties Business, Tactics
Powers Affliction 7, Extra: Aura, Extra: Remove at will, Regeneration 3
Qualities It's a business; Careless about killing; Just until I can retire

In SUPERS! maybe like this:
Composure: 3D Fortitude: 2D Reaction: 3D Will: 4D
Athleticism 2D, Business 3D, Presence 3D
Vampirism 5D Boost  Persistant 1D Complication Touch Only;  Mental Paralysis 3D
Competency Dice: 4D
Disadvantages: Careless about killing

Sunday, March 20, 2016

Time of Incontinence

Remember a while ago, when I posted that I wanted pictures of the same character in different eras?

I figured out how to do it in an adventure.

The short form is, "What if the Cosmic Cube fell into a metahuman retirement home?"

The basic premise is that some wild reality-altering thing (possibly a reality-altering gem, maybe a mischevious imp like Bat-Mite or Mr. Mxyzptlk) comes into the Golden Age, a retirement home for metahumans. I had originally thought of a gem or cube, but I rather like the idea of it being an n-dimensional imp who has only their best interests at heart and a warped idea of morality. (We'll call him/her/it Imp Audible until a better name comes to mind: he's the genii who can only be heard. ))

The overt plot is tracking down a particular villain who has been running a group that steals, modifies, and sells high tech. This group has lots of mooks.

As the imp moves from resident to resident, the world of the heroes changes: for the ancient golden age hero, the world becomes as he or she remembers it.  

The PCs  are dealing with a bank robbery. Suddenly...

The PCs become Golden Age versions of themselves. The mooks become Nazis. Anything that happens during this "translation" is real--it's just the format, so to speak, that is different.

Everything goes back to normal, leaving the heroes confused. There is a clue that they decipher, giving a date two days hence and a place.

The next day, the hero's death is in the news. The Star-Spangled Sundog is dead. 

It happens again, a day later. This time the Silver Age, the criminals become Communists. And the heroes are at a lab, preventing a theft of an item that is for sale. The buyer never showed. 

Clever heroes will realize that the bank robbery was to pay for the tech. The communications the lab had with the buyer's organization gives them the clues they need. 

The next day, word on the grapevine is that the silver age hero (call him or her Apocalypso) has died. The same clever heroes will suspect that the old heroes have something to do with the reality shifts.

Both heroes were at the Golden Age, a retirement and full-care facility for supers. If they investigate, the two heroes were both old and spent a lot of time playing cards with Melanoma, an Iron Age villain with Alzheimer's disease. It turned out they had a mutual interest in a three-handed card game of your choice. Melanoma's spouse is still alive, but had Melanoma was committed when he or she needed care, because Melanoma has a damage aura. (People who touch skin to skin get cancer of some kind. It used to be something that Melanoma could turn off, but now it's permanent.) The spouse hasn't divorced Melanoma (they're both in their fifties) but he or she finds it very difficult to visit. (The fact that Melanoma's spouse knows mostly supers is a way to introduce him or her back into another adventure.)

Melanoma was a criminal mastermind type. The ability is useful as a last-ditch thing, but it's not really useful against a master of fighting or someone who can take Melanoma down from a distance. (Powers: currently, Melanoma has the damage ICONS terms, it would probably be an incurable affliction...and the mental illness grants some degree of mental resistance. Physical stats are twos or threes. In Supers!, we're talking a Vampirism aura, maybe Persistent, and possibly a tied-in Physical Paralysis, and 1D or 2D resistances.)

But there's not really anything  else unusual--the funeral for the Star-Spangled Sundog is set for today, so many of the staff are off-duty for the funeral--it's a sign of respect. One of the substitute nurses was on over the last couple of days, and she did hear voices from the respective rooms after lights out. That's not totally unusual, because sometimes criminals or dark avengers of the night visit after hours.

It's at the funeral service that some one mentions Imp Audible as one of Sundog's old foes, the one who challenged him so he could be better.

If the heroes don't go to the funeral, well, perhaps there are other clues.

The heroes are at the Golden Age because they've connected Imp Audible and the reality shifts, but getting the information from Melanoma is going to be difficult...and that's when the bad guys they've been dealing with all along attack. Because the heroes have interfered twice now and won't be allowed to interfere a third time.

And that's when it becomes an Iron Age world. 

Imp Audible is there but only visible to special senses. The bad guys are there, armed with high-tech equipment. And he heroes are caught in the middle. Will they get help from the aged heroes and villains? Are there villains who prefer the Iron Age world of bleak moral relativity? If the heroes get to Imp Audible, he explains that he has given the Sundog and his friends one wish each, which lasts until they die or ask that it be stopped.  Can they get Melanoma to ask that it be stopped? Because the Alzheimer's is bad, but Melanoma might last for another five years, though with diminished mental capacities.

Monday, March 14, 2016

Romp adventures

I was thinking about adventures and the tendency for me is to find the nugget of decision that the characters have to make. Two choices, each of which has good points and bad points. The adventure becomes the story of the decision.

But. That isn't the only type of adventure, and it behooves me to remember that.

There's the milieu adventure, where the players take their characters to a new place, and sometimes mess up, because it's not like home. This fish-out-water story doesn't have to be another dimension or country. It could be going into board rooms instead of back alleys.

There's the adventure where they have to right a wrong. It might be as simple as stopping the ransom of all the fish in the sea, or getting the impenetrable dome off the White House. That's actually the most common superhero story.

There's the one where a character has to return to their core values. The character has to recognize there's a problem, usually by having some opponent or ally actually embody what they used to embody, and then there's opposition where the character can do either what he or she would have done before or continue the current behavior. Either way, the character loses something and gains something.

Closely related is the tough choice story, where both decisions are reasonable and rational, but one fits the morals of half the group, and the other fits the morals of the remainder. Decisions and consequences follow.

But the one I don't see mentioned often is the romp.

Generally, a romp is outrageous. It pushes things in a different direction...having Batman chase a pig and then ending with him singing is a kind of a romp. Stories with the Impossible Man tend to be romps, though you could make them dark and pregnant with meaning. Stories with Ambush Bug pretty much had to be romps.

And there's a place for the romp. It's an afternoon at the circus, eating cotton candy. It's a palate cleanser after dealing with the intergalactic overlord. It's an entire adventure with the heroes as hostages in their secret IDs and contriving to "accidentally" have the bank robbers and kidnappers keep falling unconscious. (There would be something to "The Ransom of Red Chief" with the superheroes being the kidnapped ones...they keep leaving and coming back, and the kidnappers wonder why there's no response to the ransom...)

Let's have a few more romps.