Collateral Damage #0: The Making of a New (Marvel RPG) Series

I have a gaming group that meets monthly on Sundays. It is composed of my close friends Yan, Franky, (Ubisoft) Alex and PM.

Not too long ago, they approached me to let me know they wanted to go back to classic campaigns. We  spent most of the last 2 years playing one-shots of  mini-campaigns of various game systems.  When I asked what game they’d like to tackle, the answer was unequivocal:  Marvel Heroic Roleplaying. They wanted to play with heroes they’d make  from scratch and participate in home brewed adventures.

This request brought quite an interesting challenge for em. You see, the Marvel game is principally presented to play out specific events set in the Marvel Universe using pre-established heroes. These events will be based on published plot arcs like the upcoming Civil War or Age of Apocalypse. The events will mix events that occurred in the official storyline with “what if” elements where players make decisions that may send the story in directions not covered by the original stories.

Thus, what my players requested was not something that I felt entirely comfortable doing right off the bat. Thankfully, I wasn’t without options. The basic rules provide plenty of guidance to make/adapt characters and create your own adventures. But I wasn’t sure I could pull off what they expected: a structured campaign based on my own ideas and my (still) limited knowledge of the Marvel Universe.

(Game designer aside: With over 70 years of history and 9000 characters, I’m not ever going to be a Marvel expert. I joined the team as a Game Designer and as the token “13 y.o boy who played FASERIP“)

Then it dawned on me, I have  the tools I need. All those different game systems I’ve been playing these last 2 years give me a lot of options. much like the stuff that Dave and I blogged about here. The Marvel system itself doesn’t inhibit telling my own stories.

Thus I hatched the following strategy to prepare my first RPG campaign in over year.

Character Generation

First, we’d take a whole session making characters. The game provides clear guidelines to create/adapt your own hero  but they do require a certain level of rules mastery to get exactly what you want.  We spent a few hours individually then together at the table picking Distinctions (personality traits and catchphrases players), Specialties (skills), Power Sets and, more importantly, Special Effects (ways to use powers that bend the rules of the game, like Captain America’s area attack). Getting special effects right was what took us the longest as we wanted to go beyond those found in the book and tweak/create effects that went perfectly well with each hero’s powerset.

We ended up with the following four characters:

Nightcrawler (Franky): Using the available rules, we were able to create a faithful rendition of our favourite swashbuckling mutant  teleporter.  We established that the character was not being held to canon unless Franky felt it was fun and didn’t constrain his creativity.

The One Man Army (Yan): Inspired by Multiple Man, the self-duplicating mutant seen in X-Men 3 (and X-Factor), He’s a wisecracking troublemaking ex-con who’s idea of problem solving is throwing more manpower at it until the problem vanished under a pile of clones.

The Great Gregory (PM): Inspired by Nick Cage’s character in Next, Gregory is a jaded low-end stage magician and casino cheat with the ability to see one minute into his future.  I must say that making a precognitive character was quite a challenge but as you’ll see in Issue #1, the game’s engine can support it much better than I expected.

Tsunami (Alex): A water elemental-like creature that looks like a Japanese idoru. Ami Tsun used to be a physicist who got caught in the Fukushima nuclear reactor in last year’s catastrophe. She got caught in one of the flooded reactors and developped Water Controlling powers.

Player Generated Setting Elements

In order to have something upon which to build our campaign world, I suggested an overarching setting based on the Marvel Universe. Using  my recent research for the upcoming Civil War event books, I proposed that the players could be one of the federally-backed supers teams assigned to a specific American state (very loosely based on Marvel’s Fifty State Initiative). They agreed and we chose California.

Borrowing from my own “party generation template” and Dave’s excellent Gammarizer, I asked each player to come up with one setting element (places, recent events and minor characters) linking their character to the setting. Here’s what we came up with.

Sharon S.: S.H.I.E.L.D. agent and former actress. She was to act as the team’s liaison to her organization.

Tow-Wing’s Garage and Halal Fried Noodles: The One Man Army’s work place. I apologize if you find the name culturally offensive, but Yan’s PC is named “Mohammed Chang” a Muslim born from a Sino-Arab union. We all assumed that the business was named by a socially incompetent person… Which kinda fits TOMA to a T.

Hiroito Takashima: A crackpot scientist conspiracy theorist (or is it terrorist?) obsessed with the origins and powers of Tsunami. He has been diverting his own research grants into tracking her to America.

Thomas Redgrave: A Paranoid Casino Security Consultant who once caught Gregory slipping from his usually disciplined casino cheating routine (win slowly and quit before being noticed). He lost many jobs in various Las Vegas casinos trying to convince people of Gregory’s threat. The man is on a vendetta.

Father O’Reilly: Kurt’s Irish confessor and local community leader. Recovered alcoholic,  of course.

Le Cirque: A seedy ripoff of Le Cirque du Soleil featuring a pool and scantily clad acrobats. Tsunami works the show’s controls and mechanical sharks. Yes, you read that right.

The Circus Act: Nightcrawler makes occasional guest appearances at the circus in a cheap Houdini act featuring an iron coffin covered in chains, dunked in a pool and stabbed by sword-wielding acrobats.  Of course, when that happens, Kurt is safely reading magazines in his dressing room.

Your Mutant Past Will Bite/Help You Someday: In TOMA’s recent past, he dealt with Magneto and Mystique in some undefined way. There’s a good chance they’ll be back to follow up on that.

This setting element brought another one that Franky didn’t want to assume initially but he chose to go with Canon.

Nightcrawler’s Parents: As established, Kurt was born of Mystique and Azazel.

That’s so much material to pick from to create a game.

Milestones

The last element that we needed to establish before the game started was to give  character milestones (the game’s experience system based on rewarding specific actions). According to the game, players get to choose 2 from an established list of event or character specific milestones. We took the time to generate one character-specific milestone per hero, agreeing to  make setting specific ones in later sessions. I won’t go into specifics as they”ll likely change with time but here’s a summary of each.

TOMA: Dealing with his criminal past. Bring criminals to justice and get his record clean.

Nightcrawler: Being a devout catholic. Putting himself at great risk or even exposing himself in order to save ordinary people. Possibly becoming a priest even.

The Great Gregory: Deal with his boredom by choosing ways of putting his allies in trouble and letting villains escape for a later confrontation. Might even go as far as putting a friend or himself in mortal danger.

Tsunami (To be further defined): Retain her link to humanity or chose to forgo humanity altogether.

Armed with all these, I was totally ready to  start a campaign. And let me tell you, it started with a BANG!

Up Next, Issue #1: Electric Ninja Boogaloo!

 

Comments

  1. What do you mean Up Next? I wanna know what’s coming next now… oh wait, I do… and I do. :)

  2. What I like with superheroes rpg is that it is easy to come up with ideas. You can grab any comics and built a small plot from it. The rest is just impro and it is easy in this “real” world. We still play monthly the Classic Marvel rpg (TSR) because it is the best system to date. Easy to teach in less than 15 minutes.

  3. @PM: I won’t answer since you knwo what I’m going to say. ;P

    @Eric: I agree with you, it has always been at the top of my favorite RPG genres with Fantasy. I was a huge fan of the original Yellow Box game. We hope this new version will capture the imagination of many!

  4. Very interesting write up and it gives me a lot of hope for the game. I have been speculating and writing about it coming out this week, and it is great to see how much potential it has. Thanks for the write up. I look forward to reading more.

  5. You could give Franky a little breathing room by breaking canon just a bit and make him Nightcrawler’s twin. They went to different monasteries. Let’s him have all the bamfing fun, lets Nightcrawler stay Nightcrawler, lets him not worry so much about canon, and gives you some mistaken identity fun.

    Just a thought.

  6. This looks great. I enjoyed my FASERIP days and starting a new campaign is always sooooo exciting. Can’t wait to see the follow ups.

  7. Paul Pinkosh says:

    Sounds like fun. Just want to tell you not to be too worried about the name of TOMA’s workplace. There are Chinese Muslims–my roommate in college was a nice Chinese Muslim kid. There was a enclave of them in my hometown (Honolulu). They had arabic first names and Chinese family names. Their families had been Muslim for centuries.

    Islam is not strictly Arabic–I am now Muslim and I am a Polish American. I know several Muslims who are Mexican-American. As far as “halal” goes, that just means “allowed” as in you can eat it. It’s pretty much kosher, and there are many kosher Chinese eateries in the eastern US. So, that is exactly the sort of place I would head for when hungry. There is a “Halal Burrito” place in Berkeley, CA, and my wife recently ordered some Islamic books on line–the box they came in was address-labelled “Halalco Books and Halal Meat Company” which is a real business in the Philadelphia area.

    So it’s all good! Generally anything that is not flippant or insulting to God, Muhammed the Prophet, the Q’uran, or the faith itself is not all that offensive. I’m just thrilled that Islam is even a feature of your background.

  8. @Evan:I perused your articles, very interesting. I hope the game meets your approval when it comes out next week!

    @Dean: I’ll forward the suggestion to him. But knowing how much he loves stories and such, I sense he’ll want to keep playing Kurt but keep an oversight on what applies and what doesn’t to him.

    @Quirky: I loved FASERIP to death. I played that game a LOT when I was a teenager and I have many fond memories (and many WTF moments). We know that our main competitor will be the game’s legacy. But I’m very confidant!

    @Paul: Okay, I’m glad we actually managed to do something that is genuinely funny across cultures. Our combined knowledge of Asian and Islamic culture isin’t so bad. Stay tuned!

  9. I really like the setup we made and the way this game put each characters on the hot seat.

    @Dean: I’m a big fan of Michael Moorcock Multiverse, and I found in my research on Marvel Lore, that they use that kind of reality in their story, so don’t worry about me. I’ll manage the canon of Nightcrawler at my will. I’ll take what I want and throw the rest. Consider my Nightcrawler as a version from an alternative universe.

  10. @Paul: I’m glad you appreciate.

    In my understanding (what I understood from my Muslims colleague’s explanation at work) Halal is mostly for meat(excluding fish) if I remember correctly the animal must be prepared in a specific way.

    The idea for the Muslim background came up as I was making some research on the world’s most common first and family name. I mean the guy can clone himself at will so it kind of made sense to give him the most common name I could find. Both Mohammed and Chang came up on top of my research. Said to myself “why not. This probably mean that his parent are Muslims and that he’s the first born boy.” and voilà extra flavor.

    That being said, I don’t intend to play TOMA as a devout Muslim the little he does, he does from habit, like not drinking alcohol and he most certainly will not do the Ramadan. The guy is not the serious I assume my responsibility kind of guy. Really he’s an egocentric, smart ass that just doesn’t know when to stop.

    Bottom line though, playing TOMA was a blast. I had a truck load of fun in this first session expect to see more of this character.

  11. I see what you did there Yan. :)

    @Franky: This was an awesome session… and we only played one scene! I’m writing it right now.

  12. Thanks for checking out my bloggings. I will be writing more and will definitely linking to your article since it answers many of my questions. Today was a bear, so no post, but perhaps tomorrow. I will be a little behind the curve in picking up my copy of the game since I will get it when I attend a demo early next month that Dave Chalker and Rob Donoghue are running at Labyrinth Games in DC. It should be a great hands on test drive and between that and your articles I should have a good grasp of the game going forward.

    With luck a campaign might be in the offing, though I don’t know with life the way it seems unrelentingly busy7

    I’ll be watching your corner of Critical Hits for sure.

  13. I will confess the notion of running games where the players play “specific events set in the Marvel Universe using pre-established heroes” is not something I was interested in. I have hard time seeing how that would be interesting. Playing around those events, sure, but I would not want to play captain america in the Civil War story line, nor would I expect my players to want too. Am I missing some aspect there? It sounds like something where there would be zero player or GM investment, but maybe it is something where I am not seeing the whole picture.

    I very pleased to hear, however, there was also some thought put into making your own campaigns and characters. It sound like the investment of narrative style games is there, as well, which I like. I am a little confused by the purpose of milestones. I am interested in your next chapter.

  14. The One Man Army is my favorite of the 4.
    Throwing more manpower at a problem is excellent problem solving.

  15. This sounds awesome! I hope your campaign goes well!

    Jeremiah: From the perspective of a traditional roleplayer it’s an alien idea. But for a lot of people, there’s nowhere to start. I got into roleplaying late, and part of the strain of getting into the hobby was the strangeness.

    Think of it as a stepping stone. First, you play characters you know through a storyline you know, doing things your own way this time (MHR is best when you take license and play the event how you want it to go.) Then, you play those same characters in new stories. Finally, you play new characters in new stories, possibly building off the roots of the Marvel events you started out with.

    MWP isn’t publishing new events right now, but there’s guidelines for creating your own events and there’s nothing that says you can’t go off on your own tangents. The support for event play is there because that’s where support is needed. It’s hard to play Civil War right out of the book if there’s no Civil War book. But if the GM’s making things up anyway, why does he need a book for that?

    Granted, i would like a little more support for homebrew creations, but I think complete campaigns are doable with just the freeform character and event design guidelines from the basic game.

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