So You Want to Be a Game Master? Issue #5: Writing for the Super Hero RPG

My favorite genre in fiction and in roleplaying games is super heroes. I write superhero novels and almost all of my published game design work is for super heroes. There’s something about the larger than life nature, astonishing powers, and moral goodness of most super heroes that just appeals to me on a deep level. That being said, Game Mastering in this field presents many challenges that are not present in other roleplaying games. There aren’t many games that allow the players to leap tall buildings in a single bound, shrug off an atomic bomb, or manipulate matter on a subatomic level from the word go. Your characters will be able to do all this and more from your very first session.

Today I will provide some advice for writing adventures for super hero characters and some general advice for designing the super powered NPCs of your setting, be they hero or villain.

 Sometimes the GM just has to drop a city on your head.

Sometimes the GM just has to drop a city on your head.

Adventure Design: The following pieces of advice will help you when you’re laying out the mad schemes of your villains or the emotional arcs of your characters. Try to remember that you have license to explore the depths of your imagination for super hero stories. You’re not usually constrained by level limits or by 30 foot movement speeds so feel free to go bigger than you ever have before. Keep the following in mind:

Louder Isn’t Always Better: There are so many superhero stories in the genre that detail the destruction of entire cities, planets, and even universes. These epic throw downs for the fate of existence certainly have stakes but they tend to lack a relatability that a smaller story could elicit from the players. It’s important for us to be able to offer a range of adventures for many different styles of gameplay. A street-level investigation into the mayor’s kidnapped daughter (or even better a character’s daughter) can have even more tension and emotional resonance than an alien warlord trying to erase the Earth on a whim.

 You can only shoot so many blue beams in the sky before the players start to tune out

You can only shoot so many blue beams in the sky before the players start to tune out

Reactive versus Proactive: The heroes are the driving force of the drama in most roleplaying games. They’re the ones who move into an area and vow to clear the surrounding area’s dungeons and slay the dragons in exchange for gold, prestige, and magic items that will increase their personal power. Super hero games still follow the exploits of heroes, but superheroes tend to be more reactive than other kinds of heroes. In many fantasy settings, the heroes are agents of change, trying to reclaim the wilderness or topple an evil overlord. The heroes in many superhero settings (with some exceptions) are agents of order, they are members an established society with deeply entrenched norms that the heroes try to uphold.

Ordinary citizens tend to get nervous when superheroes try to impose their will on the surrounding area and increase their power. This difference tends to make superheroes reactive. A villain, disaster, or mystery will typically kickstart the action and the heroes will have to respond to that stimulus. Keep that in mind when drafting your adventure hooks and opening scenes.

The Characters Have Super Powers, Let Them Use Them: This may be the first game you’ve written for where some of your characters could juggle tanks, walk through walls, look into the past with perfect clarity, and read minds. These protagonists are unique among roleplaying game characters in that the point isn’t to gather power, its to use their immense power for good. Challenging these heroes is one of the joys and hardships of writing in this genre, but it can be done. The secret to writing engaging and exciting superhero adventures isn’t in stifling these powers but pushing them to their limits and finding threats that press the heroes in ways that their powers can’t overcome. It doesn’t matter how much a hero can lift when a villain has abducted their loved ones before the big showdown. A hero might be fast, but are they fast enough to disarm every bomb across the city it goes up in flames? Players respond well to their powers being pushed but they rail against those same powers being taken away. That being said, we do want each adventure to be challenging and encourage you to take note of the various powers that could pose a problem to your specific adventure. These notes are not designed to arbitrarily explain away certain powers, rather it provides ways for heroes to use their powers without annihilating the difficulty of a given caper.

 Why yes, I do have all of Superman's powers plus mind reading and shapeshifting? Problem?

Why yes, I do have all of Superman's powers plus mind reading and shapeshifting? Problem?

What Makes This Encounter Unique?: Scenes in superhero stories should always introduce a new and exciting element to even the most mundane story beats. Always ask yourself, “What sets this combat apart from the hundreds of superhero battles my players have seen all their lives?” Every encounter should have at least one aspect that makes it stick out in people’s minds, whether that’s in terms of the setting, the mix of combatants, the puzzle they have to solve, the clues their searching for at the crime scene, or the personalities of the perps their interrogating. A fight with five robots in an arctic wasteland is going to between vastly different from a fight with those same five robots on the ocean floor and players are going to take away different memories from those battles. The worst thing you can do in regard to tension or pace is design an encounter that feels like filler. Always be thinking of the spark you’re bringing to each scene and you’ll take these adventures to the next level.

Give the Characters Agency: Roleplaying games are a group storytelling activity. It’s easy to get caught up in adventure design and start to see a “canonical” path for the story to go. If you were writing a novel that would be perfect, but this is a roleplaying game. Players are going to react in ways that you can’t anticipate, and your going to need to think of ways to roll with the punches. Rather than just saying no, it’s important to write out the beginnings of a few alternative adventure paths for reference. For example, say you design a scene where the players have to break into a warehouse to rescue a hostage. The approach in your mind is a direct assault on front door that results in an epic battle against one of the mastermind’s toughest lieutenants and a swarm of henchmen so you stat out all of the villains, throw in some interesting environmental tools the heroes and villains can use against each other, and strategize exactly how each combatant is going to function. Great, but what if there’s a group that wants to sneak in through the sewers or what if someone wants to negotiate their way in. You can’t predict everything the characters are going to do but it’s important to at least have some idea of the major approaches to any given scenario, especially with how powerful these characters are.

Push the Fantasy: It’s tempting in super hero games to set every story in a specific urban center, similar to our own world. That can be fine, there are plenty of problems that can befall a city, but don’t feel anchored to that location. There are so many amazing opportunities for you to send the characters to hidden cities (ala Atlantis), into the depths of space, or even through time or across dimensions. Let your imagination run wild as you design these unique facets of your setting. Maybe a golden city ruled by gods lies in a pocket dimension that can be accessed from the remote mountainous regions of the world. I myself have a place called Club Tartarus in my Titan City universe. It’s an area that can be accessed from anytime on Earth if you know the right place to go, and is a place where heroes can rub elbows with amazing artifacts and historical figures. Think more fantastic, but make sure to imbue these areas with that human touch.

 Steve Ditko casually sending the reader on an acid trip

Steve Ditko casually sending the reader on an acid trip

NPCs: Your players are going to encounter all sorts of plucky supporting characters, wise old mentors, or heinous villains in the course of their adventures. There are somethings you’ll want to keep in mind as you design the denizens of your super hero world:

Don’t be Afraid of Tropes: The modern superhero genre has existed for over 80 years and thousands of characters have colored that canvas. New ideas are few and far between and that is okay. Lean into the tropes of the genre and find your own way to put a spin on them. It’s perfectly fine for a character your designing to be the lone survivor of a doomed world who has decided to use their alien powers to defend the Earth from a similar fate, but tap into what about this character’s personality, backstory, and powers sets them apart from that iconic character. Maybe he was royalty on that doomed world and now he has to adapt as a nameless stranger in a strange land. Maybe she was found by criminals and used as a tool for thieves until she was old enough to break away and forge her own path into an uncertain adulthood. Readers will recognize the trope, but as long as you put your stamp on that trope it won’t be called a cliché.

What’s My Motivation?: More than anything, it’s important to consider exactly why a hero or villain has decided to pursue a life of crime or heroics. This underlying drive will lead to greater stories and better roleplaying. Fancy powers and interesting personalities will only get a character so far, but if you can really dive into the why you’ll be in great shape. Giving the villain a motivation beyond “evil for the sake of evil” will let you know how this person reacts to setbacks, to success, to threats, and many more factors. Adding this layer to a character instantly pushes it to the next level.

 Mr. Freeze, the ultimate motivation makeover.

Mr. Freeze, the ultimate motivation makeover.

The Numbers Don’t Make the Character: We are writing for a game with complex stats and numbers but never feel beholden to those numbers. Don’t feel like you have to optimize all of a character’s abilities. Say you’re writing a scenario for Mutants & Masterminds and you want a PL 10 Powerhouse villain who has a formidable Fortitude of 14 but who’s particularly weak-willed, don’t feel like you have to make his Will a 6 just because you have 20 as a Power Level limit. Making his Will a 4 may not be completely optimized but it could make sense for this character. These numbers define how the character interacts with the game world, but they do not define the character themselves. Make the numbers fit the character’s personality, history, powers, and motivation, not the other way around.

Don’t Be Afraid to Specialize: There’s nothing wrong with writing a hero or villain who is good at one specific thing (Stealth, Strength, Telepathy, etc.) There is an urge as Gamemasters to want to maximize the usefulness of any given character who might come up against the heroes; don’t be scared to stifle that voice. A villain or hero who has limited scope is one who is forced to be clever in their approach towards plans and combat. Also, unlike player character heroes, villains can be far more limited in terms of their overall role and capabilities. “One trick ponies” are fine for villains sometimes. Those limitations are gold mines of drama and “Aha” moments, especially when a clever villain scheme lands the protagonists smack in the middle of her area of expertise. There are certainly villains in the genre who are masters of everything and there’s nothing wrong with designing characters like that, but you might surprise yourself if you impose a few restrictions.

 Firestorm can transmute matter, hurl fireballs, and fly? I'm going to choke him.

Firestorm can transmute matter, hurl fireballs, and fly? I'm going to choke him.

Step Out of Your Comfort Zone: There is something to be said for writing what you know, but super hero games generally takes place in a modern or near- modern setting. If your super powers come from a wide variety of sources, it would stand to reason that people and creatures from all walks of life should be featured as villains and heroes. There is a limitless world of possibilities for the characters you create and there is no need to stick to one lane so to speak. Feel free to experiment with powers, creeds, races, genders, and sexualities other than your own. If you usually write alien overlords, try your hand at a sorcerer for a change. If you’re drawn to hard-boiled mobsters, bring that frame of reference to a fantasy monster and his underlings. Stretch your creative muscles and design people you might not normally associate with the powers in your imagination. Just remember that these nefarious villains and mighty heroes are just that, people, and you won’t go wrong.

In closing, super hero roleplaying games are some of the most challenging games to write, but it’s not impossible. Pulling it off is one of the most fulfilling feelings as a Game Master. You get to encourage your players  to tap into their heroic side and overcome astonishing odds. Doing this right will lead to stories that your friends will tell for years to come.

Thank you so much for reading and may all your hits be crits.