T.H.E.M.

Jul. 26th, 2010 08:46 pm
robotnik2004: (Default)
[personal profile] robotnik2004

This is the Primetime Adventures game I’m running. It's called T.H.E.M. We’re coming back Friday night after a long hiatus (assuming I get my shit together), so I promised the players some detailed session recaps. This first post provides context for those of you watching at home.

The Pitch
My original pitch was “Grant Morrison’s Dr. Horrible,” which is to say, a TV show about lovelorn supervillains, with their unrequited loves and their gonzo over-the-top supervillainy getting roughly equal time. Except not a musical and not a blog. And I hadn’t actually seen Dr. Horrible when I made the pitch.

I’d say I got 75% buy-in on the premise, which is sometimes the best level of buy-in, because negotiating that final 25% will take you places you don’t expect. In this place, the players got the fractured superhero thing, but resisted playing genuine villains. I had never wanted or expected them to be genuinely evil, but I had pictured us playing around with the tropes of villainy—scenery chewing monologues, shoddy treatment of minions, gloating over elaborate schemes—a lot more than we’ve ended up doing. Instead the PCs turned out to be essentially good, but outcasts of varying stripes trying to overthrow a corrupt system. Which meant that the system and the “good guys” that rule it had to be corrupt. Ironically, the more “good” the players wanted their characters to be, the more “bad” the contrasting setting had to become. So what I’d expected to be a pretty standard comic book setting instead turned into sunlit California noir, less Dr. Horrible than Veronica Mars with superpowers.

So the setting is Miracle City—on the surface, it’s your basic superhero metropolis with a century of comic book backstory. You got your Golden Age, your Silver Age, your Polybag Variant Foil Cover Age, and so on. But something is clearly rotten in the state of California. The Big Bad of the setting—or is that the Big Good?—is the Universal Syndicate, aka Universal Supers, aka US (which is pronounced “us”, not “U.S.”). US is the giant corporation that owns all the heroes and all their merchandising rights, monetizes all the black science, gets all the contracts to repair Miracle City each time it gets clobbered by giant lizards, knows where all the bodies are buried.

The Cast

Sidney Simmons, aka the Kraken, is a nebbishy not-quite-evil genius and would-be supervillain. Sidney is the middle-aged son of an old B-list villain called Tidal Wave, who had a few moments of glory back in the Silver Age, but mostly provided somebody for Merman to beat on. Now Tidal Wave is a bitter old guy who constantly berates and belittles his son for not yet making it as a supervillain—but the two stick together, each one the only family the other has. Sidney also has some kind of rapport with his father’s nurse, but he’s never taken that anywhere.

Carol Abbott is the twentysomething daughter of what amounts to superhero royalty. Carol’s grandmother Hilde is Valkyrie, our setting’s Wonder Woman equivalent, the last of the Big Three Golden Age heroes. Carol’s mother Barbara is Foxfire, the first lady of the leading superteam of the 1970s and 80s. And Carol’s father Jack is one of the top scientists at US Labs, like Reed Richards but not stretchy. Carol is uncomfortable with US and the whole superhero thing, enough so that she’s kept her considerable superpowers secret from her mother, who would like nothing better than to push Carol into the family business. (Carol’s little sister Kelly is much less powerful, but also more obedient, and so she’s launching her own career as a superheroine.)

Karl Donovan is a henchman, plain and simple, a big, put-upon lug who does whatever his evil boss wants and doesn’t ask why. At least until, in our pilot episode, his boss injects him with a mutating nanoserum and he starts transforming into a hideous arthropod. Also, he falls in love with Carol’s sister Kelly. His issue is his growing isolation and horror at the monster he is becoming. Karl and Sidney go way back—they grew up together on the wrong side of the tracks.

And “Klaatu Dalek” (hey, I didn’t name him) is, well, an alien insect from Dimension Y, advance scout for the coming invasion of the merciless Hive. He appears in our dimension as a robotic insect and he can take over the minds of weak-willed subjects, most commonly a vagrant street preacher known to Sidney and Karl. He’s falling in love with our dimension, in particular one brilliant young scientist, and is conflicted about the slated extermination of the human race.

Producer’s Commentary
I know “a superhero setting, but dark!” is not the world’s most original idea—it is in fact a respectable contender for the world’s least. But I think in a game like PTA with a lot of narration by the players you cannot go too baroque with your setting, since everybody at the table has to feel able to add to the setting on the fly.

This does not mean that everything is up for grabs or that the world has no back story. It’s actually groaning with back story, the unfortunate side effect of me wanting to run a superhero game for ten years or so. I never bought the idea that PTA was meant to be zero prep, fully improvisational, magic “no myth” gaming--here's me making that point five years ago. (And five years later, I’m still irritated at the comment saying my problem is just “gamer baggage.” Probably I am not cut out for the internet.) I did quite a bit of prep for Dungeon Majesty, and I'm doing it for THEM too. To drop some old Ron Edwards terminology on you, you can throw narrative authority wide open without giving up content authority. I figure everything that’s happened in the past--who killed Squirrel Girl, which NPC is an alien phlegm vampire, what Miracle City looks like and what lies beneath it—is by default my prerogative as GM, while everything that happens in play is going to be subject to the very fickle whims of PTA’s conflict resolution. That for me is the compromise that lets me combine my love for democratic player-narrated free-for-alls with my equally strong love for obsessive onanistic worldbuilding. The line between back-story and story is everything.

Speaking of handing over authority to the players, what do you do when one of your players says he wants to be a mind controlling insect from another dimension? Actually this is a toned down version of his concept—John originally wanted to be a wholly noncorporeal intelligence from another dimension, one who could travel through radio waves and electrical circuitry and take over minds. Oh yeah, and also he travels through time. That did give me pause. I always thought there was just about no character concept that can “break” PTA—but John came pretty close.

One perfectly reasonable answer would have been to just say no, come up with another character concept. Another answer is to say, why yes, you can play your mind-controlling time-traveling insect with a goofy name. And then you as GM wrap your whole game around that idea, as if you love it, as if it’s the cornerstone of your setting, as if it’s actually the whole reason you came up with this idea for a game in the first place. That’s what I’ve tried to do. We’ll see how it plays out.

Next: Episode 1.1, "Won't Get Foiled Again!"
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