Season 2 of Young Justice finally showed up on Netflix, and got me thinking about one of the things that DC has always done extremely well: worldbuilding through character inheritance.

The DC universe has such a robust mythology of archetypal characters, it’s easy to introduce a new character that can rely on other characters for the heavy lifting of powers and such, and provide a foil to differentiate the character. For example, you don’t have to come up with a whole new explanation for how a new speedster works; that character is tapped into the Speed Force, which provides some interesting constraints and possibilities for development. Young Justice is basically all about this: nearly all of the characters are legacy heroes based on a Justice League member. The DC Universe MMO does something similar, providing character building blocks from established characters to mix and match.

There are a couple of interesting ways to profit from this in your own supers games: top down and bottom up.

Top Down

The first method is to use an existing setting or make your own with a lot of nailed down origin concepts. The players then pick from these origin types to control what powers they can access, and what baked in story tropes they’ll be part of. Obviously, stated that broadly, it’s something that lots of supers games do: are you a magic hero, a mutant, a scientific accident, and alien, a highly trained human, etc.?

What I’m advocating drills down from those broad classifications to actually latch onto the key setting elements of the universe. Using Young Justice as an example, players might pick:

  • Alien (Kryptonian): You can take some or all of the Kryptonian powers (invulnerability, super strength, flight, x-ray vision, freeze breath, etc.). You are vulnerable to kryptonite, and draw your powers from the yellow sun of Earth. You are likely related in some way to the House of El, and inherit its enemies.
  • Alien (Martian): You can take some or all of the Martian powers (telepathy, telekinesis, shapeshifting, phasing, etc.). You are vulnerable to fire. You are among the last of your kind, and hunted by ancient enemies from your home.
  • Atlantean: You can take powers related to living undersea (water breathing, swimming, strength and durability, marine animal control, hydrokinesis, etc.). You are part of the Atlantean feudal system, and beholden to its politics.
  • Clone (Copy): You are an exact copy of an existing character, and may take that character’s powers (possibly reduced or enhanced based on that character’s backstory and limitations). You may or may not have that character’s full memories, and may have been created as a sinister replacement. You will struggle to find your own place in the world.
  • Clone (Hybrid): You are a combination of two or more characters (and can mix and match other origin types), and can take powers related to either or both. You were likely created as an experiment in improving on the original stock, and may have in-built conditioning that you must overcome. You will struggle to find your own place in the world.
  • Human (Trained): You have advanced martial training from Batman, Green Arrow, the League of Assassins, or some other skilled teacher, and should particularly focus on the martial arts favored by that group. You likely have a conflicted relationship with your mentor, and often inherit his problems and enemies, but can also rely on your adoptive family for help in a pinch.
  • Human (Magic): You were trained in magic, likely in an idiosyncratic style common to a parent or other mentor such as Zatara. You are part of the small and eclectic community of mystics, and may operate under requirements and allegiances that are extremely arcane to your team.
  • Human (Tech-Enhanced): Your powers come from cybernetics, power armor, or other high-tech devices, and you should choose which company invented them. You will be beholden to that originator for replacements and improvements to your tech, which may create trouble for you.
  • Meta (Speedster): You gained your powers from a meta event or inheritance/transfusion from another speedster. Unlike typical metas, your powers are specifically informed by the Speed Force (though you may also feel an obligation to deal with any other metas created by the same event that gave you your powers), which earns you specific enemies and allies in other speedsters.

Essentially, you can’t take powers without in some way tying the character in to the larger narrative of the setting, immediately attaching allies, enemies, and potential problems before the start of play.

Bottom Up

The opposite method is good for getting a lot of player buy-in (and getting them to help the GM worldbuild): instead of picking from a pre-defined list, each player explains how his or her powers are actually in line with a setting archetype.

For example, a player rolls up a speedster, and then works with the GM to invent the idea that speedsters are somehow apart from other characters empowered by some meta event, and actually have more in common with other speedsters. The GM and player negotiate out the idea of a Speed Force, a sense of responsibility for other meta villains created at the same time, and invent various Flash characters from history that are well-known holders of the same powers.

The key difference in any other game where you pick powers and then try to justify them is the sense of the legacy. In the example, you’re not making The Flash, a character that, as far as he knows, is the first speedster in the setting and will gradually uncover thematic ties as the GM has ideas. Instead, you’re making a character with precedents that you’re going to negotiate with the GM up front: you get a say in elements of the setting that your character will be the focus of, and you help the GM by providing a whole bunch of setting ideas that you’ll be interested in. The GM doesn’t have to throw a bunch of ideas at you to see which ones you bite on, because you’ve already indicated that you’re into the meta events, Speed Force, strange relationship to other speedsters, etc.

Obviously, this method works better for players comfortable with taking that kind of ownership of inventing setting details so they can then happily interact with them in play.