One of my favorite parts of comics and long-form supers stories (e.g., TV series) is the ability to spend a lot of time focused on the personal lives of superheroes, particularly out of costume. This tends to be completely lost in video games, and is hard to include in tabletop RPGs. It’s difficult to lavish a lot of spotlight on the detailed NPC interactions of one member of the team.

I think that a lot of the latest crop of supers media, particularly the Defenders-verse, points at a way to dig into this style of play a little more. You just need your players to be comfortable:

  • Having multiple PCs, most of whom are supporting cast for other players’ superhero PCs
  • Switching characters frequently between scenes (in the style of Fiasco or similar story games)

The possible benefits of this style include:

  • The GM can include plotlines where PCs aren’t just reactive to the problem of the week: investigations and personal life can be much more player-directed
  • Players are much more likely to have a PC they can bring into a scene, even if it’s not their main
  • There’s a much finer-grained level of risk than normal supers plots: it’s much easier to threaten and even kill supporting cast PCs without taking the player out of the game

Practically, this style of play means:

  • Each player has a main (superhero) PC with a full character sheet, and at least one secondary PC for each other player. The secondary characters likely have slimmed down character sheets (either just by virtue of not having powers, or actually stripped down to just their most salient traits for ease of reference; for speed of play, they might even start with just a few salient traits and gradually build to full sheets as they’re played).
  • The secondary PCs are fixtures in their associated main PC’s life. Some of them may know about the character’s heroics. Some may have reasons to be in her life due to strong secret identity ties. All of them are important enough to the main PC to want them around in many circumstances, but who should not just be totally on board with all the hero’s decisions (i.e., there should be tensions to play for conflict, but the secondary PCs will almost always stand by their main PC when it’s important).
  • The GM should switch viewpoints between main PCs living their lives apart from the other main PCs. Each switch to another main PC should be aggressively framed to draw in secondary PCs (e.g., “you’re just getting home from the fight and your wife is waiting up…”). The overall scene framing should probably try to balance out player screen time (e.g., if the first scene is Hero A and her wife, the next scene should be some combination of the players that weren’t playing Hero A or her wife).
  • As in most round-robin style play, I suggest having a strong social contract about metagaming, but allowing everyone to be present to watch scenes where none of their PCs are present (with an eye to letting them jump in if suddenly one of their PCs is relevant).
  • A session’s plots should probably be thematically linked to one another even when they don’t connect, and often should serve to draw the main PCs together (e.g., Hero A and Hero B were working the same case all along). Sessions, or at least story arcs, build up to team-ups of the full super group. Even when just a pair of heroes meet, they could include members of their supporting cast played by the other players.

For character generation:

  • Create a bunch of cards with common relationship tropes (suggestions below).
  • While making characters, have each player take turns to claim a relationship card from the pile for a type of relationship that makes sense for that hero PC (e.g., “I want my hero to have a sibling, a significant other, a police contact, and a mentor”).
  • Put the hero’s name on the card, and slightly customize the role (e.g., Player A takes the “SO” card and labels it “Hero A’s Girlfriend”).
  • Haggle with the other players to see who’s interested in playing which of your roles. Ultimately, each other player should have at least one of your supporting characters. (If you have a strong gender imbalance at your table, try not to force the one guy/girl to play everyone else’s SOs: that’s not cool.)
  • Work out some high level details about the secondary character between the hero player and the holding player so both players are happy with the potential interactions.
  • If it makes sense to all players involved, a player might combine two secondary character cards into one PC (e.g., Player B decides Hero A’s girlfriend doesn’t know about her lover’s alter ego, but is actually Hero C’s spy contact, and it will be a surprise to everyone once those connections and secret jobs come out).
  • Once all relationships are settled, come up with stats for the secondary PCs using whatever method the GM has set up.

Suggested relationship types include:

  • Parental Figure: A parent or guardian makes an excellent foil/support.
  • Dependent: If you have a child or ward, it’s likely a teen old enough to actually be meaningfully onscreen.
  • Sibling: Your brothers and sisters are going to find out you’re a superhero.
  • Crush: This is not someone that doesn’t even know you exist, probably, because the tension is hanging out with feelings left unspoken.
  • SO: Many heroes have the tension of whether they can ever have a committed relationship in the business.
  • Spouse: You’re married, but does your spouse know you’re a hero?
  • Ex-SO: You still interact regularly, so why did you break up and why are you still on good enough terms for screen time?
  • Best Friend: Have you told your best friend? If not, is she really your best friend?
  • Confidant: This may not actually be a good friend, but it’s someone who knows your secret and is, thus, involved.
  • Enabler: This is someone who knows your secret enough to cover for you while you’re heroing.
  • Work Partner: This is either a business partner, police partner, or someone that’s otherwise so close to you at work that your absences definitely affect her.
  • Employee: This may be your personal assistant who’s totally clued in, or one of your many employees that’s closest to you and may know your secret.
  • Boss: Your boss should probably have a little more relevance in your life than work, unless most of your secondary characters and secret identity plots are work-related.
  • The Help: Are you rich enough to have a butler or man/girl Friday? Is that nice?
  • Sidekick: You can certainly have a sidekick, as long as the relationship is such that she doesn’t come along on your big team-up missions for some reason.
  • Mentor: This is likely the retired hero that got you into the business, but may be a more mundane mentor figure that’s not a boss or parent.
  • Friendly Rival: This town may be big enough for another super that you encounter frequently, who you’re grudgingly friendly with and team up with sometimes, but who has no interest in participating in your big team-ups.
  • Tech/Gear Provider: Do you have a costume guy? Do you have a gadget lady? You should get at least one of those. They’re great.
  • Hacker/Operator: For many heroes, it’s useful to have a computer-savvy person in the chair/van that can hack things, research for you, and otherwise provide remote tech support.
  • Handler: If you’re heroing for a (quasi-)government agency or mega-corp, you probably have a handler/liaison.
  • Spy Contact: This friend probably shouldn’t be operating on domestic soil… unless at least one of you isn’t on domestic soil, and you’re friends anyway.
  • Law Enforcement Contact: Every good hero has a friend in the police/FBI to go to for procedural help and the occasional backup.
  • Criminal Contact: Some heroes cultivate a CI or are just bent enough to not mind the small crimes, and that kind of contact can get you useful illicit information, substances, or documentation.
  • Lawyer: Particularly on the street level and/or with a public identity, it’s important to be on good terms with your lawyer.
  • Medical Worker: You really want to be friends with some kind of plucky EMT or doctor that makes house calls and can fight a ninja or two in a pinch.
  • Investigator: If your own skills don’t bend toward investigation, a friendly gumshoe is a great help in finding information.
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