Civil War: Birth of the Resistance

***Spoiler Warning***

My group and I are playing through the Civil War event book for Marvel Heroic Roleplaying, from Margaret Weis Productions. While the course of play may not follow the event book – or the comic books – precisely, there’s going to be a certain amount of stuff that does conform to the adventures and comic series.

In short, if you don’t want to know what happens in Civil War, don’t read these posts. Or the comic books.

***You Have Been Warned***

One more thing…

This post is kind of long ((And it’s taken me some time to write. Long enough that Chris started whining about it on Facebook. Suck it up, Binky!)), because I talk in some detail about how I messed things up in the game, and what I learned from those mistakes. If all you’re interested in is the play report, jump on down to the Play Report heading.

Well, the last session of our Civil War campaign did not go as well as previous ones. The main problem ((From my point of view, anyway.)) was a heightened sense of adversarial relationship between me as Watcher and the players. There were a couple of moments when things were bordering on the antagonistic relationship that was such a stressful part of the Amber DRPG I ran years ago ((Maybe I’m overreacting. But I didn’t like the vibe of the game, and traced back some choices that I made that led it to where I didn’t want it to go. The fact that the game rules – specifically the Watcher constraints – would have led me to make different choices had I paid proper attention to them is interesting and worthy of examination. So, I’m gonna wonk on about it for a bit.)).

I couldn’t figure out at the time what was going wrong, why the interactions were drifting that way, and where the tension was coming from. At the end of the evening, I was tense and dissatisfied with the feel of the session and the way things had gone, so I spent a few days thinking about things to see if I cold spot the problem. And I think I finally did. Here’s what I think went wrong.

One of the first things that happened in the game was that Mega Joule decided he was going to use his contacts in the underworld and the covert agencies to help him track down one of Nick Fury’s rumoured hidden bases to replace the hide-out that S.H.I.E.L.D. had found in the previous session. The Doctor wanted to help him, providing him with essentially a mystical tracker that would help him tell which rumours were more likely true by attuning him to the essence of Nick Fury. I thought that was a cool idea, so I let The Doctor roll to create the asset ((The group generally likes rolling for assets, using the effect die for the asset die, rather than just take the free die for their specialty rating. While this generally gives them higher asset die values, it also has more potential to boost the doom pool, so I don’t mind. I always give them a choice, though, which approach they want to use.)), rolling against the doom pool.

But – and here’s where the first part of the mistake happened – I added a d12 to my dice pool, explaining that Nick Fury ((Currently on the run and doing his best to hide from, well, pretty much everyone in the world.)) would have extensive detection countermeasures. And then the roll went badly for The Doctor. He failed, and the doom pool grew. And then, to add insult to injury, I didn’t add the d12 to the doom pool for Mega Joule’s search for the hidden base, and I didn’t explain why. The reason, in my mind, was that Mega Joule wasn’t looking for Nick Fury himself, so that protection wouldn’t come into play.

Why was this a problem? Well, there are a few reasons.

  1. I had arbitrarily made a roll more difficult for the players, making it look like I was cheating.
  2. I applied the modifier unevenly, making it look like I was singling out one player for failure.
  3. I fell into the trap of trying to model the world rather than the stories, which worked at cross-purposes with what I was trying to accomplish.
  4. I had opened the game by saying that Cam Banks had given me some advice about how to toughen things up for the players, and this made it look like some of the advice was to cheat.

These things made it look like I was picking a fight – that I was setting up that very adversarial relationship that I dislike so much. And so of course the players responded to it, consciously or unconsciously. Which put me on the defensive, and causing me to be more confrontational, and so on, setting up the classic downward spiraling feedback loop.

To be clear, it didn’t lead to acrimonious shouting or life-long grudges or tears, but it created a less-than-ideal atmosphere for the game, and degraded the trust necessary between Watcher and players. It just made everything less comfortable and less fun for me ((And I’m sure for the players, as well.)).

In looking back at things, I realize that I could have avoided the whole issue by sticking with the spirit and intent of the Watcher constraints that I wrote about back here. Now, there’s nothing in that post that specifically spells out how to avoid this problem, but looking at the idea of open rolls and the doom pool, it becomes very obvious what I should have done:

  • If the heroes were rolling against another character – like Nick Fury – I should have used his stats. This would offset the appearance that I was being arbitrary about setting the difficulty and building the dice pool.
  • If the heroes were rolling against the doom pool, just use the doom pool. That’s what it’s there for. It’s open and understood that the doom pool is the way to adjudicate environmental difficulties.
  • If, for any reason, I want to add more dice to my dice pool, use an asset. Write it down on a sticky note and put it out where everyone can see. That way, it exists in the game world, I remember to use it whenever it comes up, and it becomes more obvious when it should come up.

Those three principles help make what you do as a Watcher look very fair and above-board. It prevents you from making mistakes – like I did – that can lead to a breakdown of trust, and thence ((Yeah, I said “thence.” Deal with it.)) to the adversarial relationship I was talking about above. So, I should have just pulled Nick Fury’s stats from page CW124 of the Civil War book and, if necessary, thrown down a Mystic Countermeasures d12 asset on a sticky note.

What am I really trying to say with this long, rambling discourse? Trust in the constraints of the system. They help foster the trust that makes RPGs fun. Breaking from the constraints can look like cheating, setting up a hostile game environment.

There was one other blinding failure in the way I was looking at things: I was trying to model the game world instead of the fiction being generated by play. What do I mean by that? Well, what I mean is that I should have focused more on what the story was doing than on what “made sense” ((Which is such a loaded idea in a game that I have no business even using it, really.)) in the game world. Would Nick Fury have done everything he could to hide from people, even setting up some sort of mystic countermeasures? Sure. Of course he would.


Let’s look at that moment of play. First roll of the game. It’s a support action, intended to let one hero do something cool in order to help another hero do something cool. What makes a better scene in a comic book?

  1. Mega Joule is heading into Manhattan in the GX-1. The Doctor comes up to him and says, “I tried to work a tracer spell on Nick Fury, but he must have some big mojo protecting him. Sorry I couldn’t help.” Mega Joule replies, “Well, thanks for trying,” and gets into the jet.
  2. Mega Joule is heading into Manhattan in the GX-1. The Doctor comes up and hands him a small stone with a glowing rune on it and says, “This might help. I’ve enchanted this stone to resonate with the essence of Nick Fury. It’ll get a little warmer when someone tells you something true about him.” Mega Joule replies, “That’s awesome! Thanks for the help,” and gets into the jet.

If you don’t think the second scene is more interesting, I don’t think we like the same comic books. ((This is an issue that’s related to the indie game idea of making sure that failure is interesting. If failure isn’t interesting, then it shouldn’t exist as a possibility. This doesn’t mean giving them everything; it just means that failure should be as interesting and exciting as success.))

So, what does this mean I should have done? Either pulling in Nick Fury’s stats, as stated above, or just using the doom pool without that extra d12. It’s not a game-changing roll – the pay-off isn’t going to break anything, for example – so there was no narrative reason to make it more difficult, just because it “makes sense.” Cam Banks and Fred Hicks have both talked before about modelling the fiction, not the physics, and that’s what I should have done here.

Anyway. Here’s the game report.

Play Report

I’m trying in this game ((As in a lot of my games.)) to split the difference  between player-directed play and GM-directed play. That is, I want the players to set a lot of the agenda for play, choosing which things they care about, and how they want to respond to things, but I also want to make it clear that there are consequences to the actions of the characters, and that the NPCs have their own agendas, and that events don’t just sit around waiting for the PCs to get involved. I don’t do this to be punitive, but to make sure that the choices the characters make matter to the way the story of the game unfolds.

To that end, I tried to get an idea from the players before the game via e-mail of what they intended to do this session, so that I could think about ways to make those things interesting and fun to play through. They came up with a couple of solid, short-term goals they wanted to accomplish, as well as a couple of long-term, higher-level goals to work towards over the coming sessions. Here’s the basics of what they decided on:

  • Set up an emergency fallback base on Volcano Island, home of the volcano god that Volcanic has embodied.
  • Find a good base back in NYC to use as their operational headquarters. I suggested one of Nick Fury’s caches, and they thought that was a good idea.
  • Check out Walter Declun, to see what he has to say about Nitro’s accusations.
  • Hack the S.H.I.E.L.D. systems to get a list of heroes, their locations, and whether or not they had registered. ((And boy, didn’t compiling that list eat up some prep time!))
  • Try and figure out why A.I.M. and Hydra are laying low during this, because it looks like a perfect opportunity for them to be running amok.
  • Start gathering anti-registration heroes together. This includes tracking down some specific heroes: Black Widow and Iron Man at the top of the list.
  • Establish a code of heroic conduct for the anti-registration heroes. This is a core piece of their plan to show the public that they don’t need to fear heroes.

I was very pleased to see the heroes taking the initiative is setting up the anti-registration underground. I’d always planned to have the heroes be the driving force behind whatever side ((Or sides.)) they chose, supplanting the canon heroes in those roles. After all, this is our Civil War, and the PC heroes should be the ones calling the shots and being in the middle of things.

Things at the session started out with some more discussion of their aims and goals, and then Mega Joule took off for Manhattan to do his hunting for a Nick Fury safe-house. Volcanic and Jumpstart set up a geothermal power system on Volcano Island to run the computers and communications they had salvaged from their old hideout, and then hacked into S.H.I.E.L.D. through a S.H.I.E.L.D. System Back Door d12 that Jumpstart had set up previously. I warned them that using this asset like this was probably going to use it up ((Why would I take it away from them? Because no asset lasts forever. Why hadn’t I done it previously? Because I wanted them to get some use out of it equivalent to the effort they put in creating it. They’ve done that, now, so I have no problem taking it away.)), despite them having paid plot points to make it persistent, but they rolled so well that I really couldn’t justify taking it away from them.

They got the list of heroes they were after, and succeeded so well that they had another effect die they could spend on something, so they asked for a NOC list – a list of S.H.I.E.L.D. plants in the anti-registration movement. I hadn’t bothered even thinking about that in advance, so I had to take several minutes to go through the list and decide on a few plants.

Meanwhile, in Manhattan, Mega Joule managed to track down some promising rumours about a secret Nick Fury hideout. He called back to the island, and the gang pooled their resources and knowledge to successfully track down a hiding spot. They rolled well, everyone co-operating, and I let them pick the site. They chose underneath Battery Park. I also let them pick three distinctions for the base, because of the way I had so callously snatched away their old headquarters.

Now that they had a new home, they started moving in. And they started planning how to take the next steps in their long- and short-term agendas. They decided that the first thing they wanted to do was start gathering heroes, building alliances, and disseminating their code of conduct. And they decided that the perfect first recruit to their side would be Spider-Man.

Well, that didn’t go all that well. Spidey met them, and spoke with them, but wouldn’t commit to taking their side, despite the fact that he hadn’t registered. They argument they hit him with ((“Registration is an absolute wrong, and making people register is an absolute wrong, and we have to take a stand against the wrongness.” There was more to it, but it kind of got lost in the pulpit-pounding, and Spidey didn’t pick up on it.)) didn’t sit well with him, and he questioned the absolutist stance they were taking. Now, there are other heroes that the argument would have been perfect for, but not Spider-Man, and the fact that none of the Guardians had a tight connection with him meant that he wasn’t quick to trust them.

It ended with Volcanic visibly angry ((Of course, when Volcanic is angry, it’s always visible. Sometimes from orbit.)) at Spider-Man’s lack of commitment, and The Doctor doing his best to try and keep the channels of communication open. Spidey said he was available to help if the Guardians got into trouble, but he wasn’t going to sign on with the cause, and The Doctor gave Spidey a talisman to break if Spider-Man needed the Guardians’ help. With that less-than-ideal outcome, the gang decided to turn their attention to Walter Declun.

Our heroes tracked Declun to his Manhattan home – a high-rise apartment with lots of glass and fancy furniture and all the other lovely bits that a wealthy sociopath might accumulate. They spied on him for a time, hoping that he’d reveal something damning, and started to wonder what they were going to do about it if he did. This led to a lengthy discussion and debate on the morals and ethics of costumed heroes, especially absent even tacit approval by the authorities – the kind of questions that I think make Civil War such an interesting event.

In the end, they decided to table that problem until they were sure that the information they’d received from Nitro was good. So, The Doctor magicked himself a truth detection spell, and went to beard the CEO in his den ((Or at least his foyer.)). He asked Declun point-blank if the CEO had given MGH to Nitro and other villains, and Declun lied through his teeth, claiming innocence.

And that’s the point at which the Cape-Killers, who had been staking out Declun since S.H.I.E.L.D. had got the same confession from Nitro that the characters did, came smashing through the glass walls, pointing guns and screaming for everyone to get down.


So, yeah, we’re starting up the next session with the fracas in Declun’s apartment. I’m mapping out a few more scenes to have in my pocket for the next game, as well, though again it’s going to be mainly up to the players what happens. I just like having some contingencies covered, and a couple of surprises I can drop on them if things start to slow down.

Our next game is this coming Friday, and I’m looking forward to seeing what happens with it. Act Two of Civil War is where the real roleplaying meat of the event lives, and I get a real charge out of watching the players deal with the many questions and quandaries posed. I’ve got a great group of players in the game, and they seem to like sinking their teeth into the bigger questions of the game, and that’s awesome.

So. More awesome on Friday.


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One Response to Civil War: Birth of the Resistance

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