Pandemonium: Coming Together to Fall Apart

After we ended our Ashen Stars one-shot, our group decided to try out a Marvel Heroic Roleplaying campaign. The proposed frame was a street-level campaign set in Gotham City. Upon discussion, it seemed we had a big enough diversity of views on what that meant that I felt it would be a good idea to have a game-building session to make sure we were all on the same page.

Hot on the success of the game-building session for Sundog Millionaires, I decided to use the exact same set-up: start with a Want/Do Not Want list, come up with the elevator pitch for the game, then use the Fate Core game-building method to flesh things out. It’s not a perfect fit, simply because, with Fate Core, you come up with aspects, and there are no aspects in MHRPG. But there are distinctions, which are close enough ((Both functionally and philosophically.)) to substitute.

When we got together a couple of weeks ago, we ran through things. We wound up with a street-level game, but less focused on the common gangs, organized crime, and low-level villains. One of the players really wanted a kind of interdimensional city ((Inspired by the city of Cynosure in the Grimjack comics.)), so we talked things out, and decided that our Gotham City wasn’t the DC Gotham City. We’re still using the Gotham City map I found online, and the name of the city, and the gothic comic book feeling. But no Batman, no Commissioner Gordon, no Joker, etc.

The main threats in our Gotham are the rampant corruption ((Similar to the Gotham of the early Batman days.)) and two linked threats: dimensional incursions, and a turf war between the native Gotham gangs and some extra-dimensional terrorists. Our heroes are among the first people in the world to develop powers, and there is no superhero culture as is usually found in most comic book universes. While the concept of superheroes exists in our Gotham, they are relegated to comic books and cartoon shows. No one actually uses the word to describe themselves in real life, no matter what their powers may be.

While we don’t have the whole setting nailed down, here’s a link to the current version of our setting bible, for the curious.

The next week, we got together again to do character creation. I had asked all the players to come with a solid idea for a character – background, powers, concept, etc. – but not to worry about any of the stats and numbers until we got together. There was a lot of talk early on that MHRPG didn’t have a character generation system. This is not true, but the system is a lot less structured than most people are used to ((Especially from a superhero game.)). Creating a character is more art than science, because there are no real constraints on the process beyond, “Do what’s right for the character.”

This is because most game systems put the mechanics for game balance in at the character generation stage – everyone gets the same number of points, everyone gets to choose one races and one class, everyone gets to pick X items from a list, etc. This gives everyone a character that ((Ideally, if the game design assumptions are solid.)) has equivalent mechanical weight and strength. This mechanical equivalency is then assumed to grant each character equal chances for coolness during play ((Which is really the only reasonable measure of game balance that I ascribe to.)).

In MHRPG, balance happens in the mechanics for taking action. It allows each character opportunity to shine, to do things their way, and show off what they’re best at. It allows Thor to share the stage with Daredevil, and for each to have their own cool moments. They will be very different moments, but they will be equally cool – and the type of cool will be dictated by the type of coolness you decided to build into the character.

What this amounts to is that character creation is mostly about eyeballing a concept, and pulling in the numbers and mechanics that you think best. The section about it in the main rulebook focuses on the idea of modelling an existing character from comic books, but it can easily be used to create an original character. The key, as the rulebook says, is to know as much about the character as possible. For existing characters, that means knowing their books. For original characters, that means a solid character concept.

The lack of a more traditional structure for character creation, and the more-art-than-science nature of it, meant that I really wanted to do things as a group. We started by talking out the concepts, and then walking through the assigning of affiliation dice and picking distinctions. Moving on to the power sets and power traits, I had imposed a few constraints.

One of the challenges I had in running my Civil War mini campaign was that it was difficult to come up with serious challenges for the heroes without either cheating or using so many villains that it becomes far too cumbersome to run. Faced with that, I wanted to limit the overall power of the characters ((This also helped reinforce the idea of the street-level power level of the game.)). I restricted the number of power sets for the characters to two and, within each power set, I set a limit of one d10 power trait ((I wound up saying that the character who was taking a single power set could have two d10 traits. Why? Because, even though I consciously know that balance happens in play rather than in character generation, I and my players still have the knee-jerk reflex that we need to impose fairness at chargen.)), and no d12 traits.

Once we had the basics roughed in, and had talked about SFX, Limits, and Milestones, things were at the point where one-on-one time with each player was necessary to flesh out and finish the characters, so we stopped there for the evening. Now, we’re filling in the rest of the characters via e-mail and, once we get those sorted, we’ll start play.

And here’s our roster of characters for this game:

  • Warlock, a student of the mystic arts who has found a set of magical armour that boosts his power. Unfortunately, when his mind occupies the armour, his body lies helpless and unconscious.
  • Escher, a new psychic suffering from PTSD, torn between caring for those whose minds have been damaged by encounters with the dimensional incursions and punishing those who would prey on the weak and damaged.
  • Artemis, an expert in finding things, with contacts in both this world and the extra dimensional marketplace of the Bizarre.
  • Inquisitor, an extradimensional cop from the Enclave, hunting down Whisper and the rest of the Chant, incursive terrorists from his home.

Stay tuned for more information once play begins.

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