Setting Up a DC Fictional City

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One of the things that’s most distinctive between the Marvel and DC comics universes is that Marvel mostly uses real-world cities, particularly New York City, while DC tends to invent their own. Gotham is basically New York City in all ways that count. Metropolis is probably Chicago, since it’s usually not that far from Kansas. Star City is almost certainly Seattle and Central City is pretty much St. Louis. There’s some argument about exactly which city some of them are modeled on (with the argument that Metropolis is NYC in the day and Gotham is NYC at night), but, superficially, it’s unclear why not just use a fictionalized version of the real city to make it easy to map the events onto knowledge of the real world.

Meanwhile, I’ve always been much more of a Marvel reader, so when I was working on a licensed supers video game and we were talking to one of our licensing reps, I didn’t get why he was so adamant about suggesting things like making sure someone mentions Big Belly Burger if they’re going to be talking about food. I hadn’t actually been aware that DC had its own whole consistent, cross-comic infrastructure of invented businesses, other than the obvious ones like Lexcorp and Wayne Enterprises.

As I work on my own campaign set in the DC-verse, it’s suddenly apparent why all these things are such a good idea (and as true for the comics as for RPGs). Even a fictionalized version of New York City is going to be full of preconceptions. People that know a lot about the city will wonder why things were wrong, or resources were not used that would have helped with the current situation. Just think about every time a TV show or movie has been set in your home town and you’re completely baffled by how they’ve screwed up the geography. But Gotham isn’t anyone’s actual hometown. If Batman can get from the opera house to the stock market in a few panels of roof jumping, nobody can insist that it’s impossible since they’re nearly five miles apart, even as the bat flies. In Gotham, they may not be.

More important for a publishing company that can get sued for libel than for your own game, but still a consideration if you want to post your stuff online or eventually release it as a setting book: completely replacing places, companies, and people with analogues gives you a lot more freedom to use them however you need to for your work. McDonalds’ lawyers might have something to say about a storyline where a villain has been putting addictive substances in the special sauce, but O’Shaughnessy’s doesn’t have corporate representation. There’s still probably a legal curtain where it’s too obvious who or what you’re referencing, but it’s a lot easier to get away with than when you’re absolutely using real world names.

For your game, my suggestions include:

  • Figure out what the most notable things are about the city you’re converting, and convert those first. When your players are like, “we should go to X location,” it’s good to have already come up with an analogue than having to scramble and decide on the fly whether that’s different in your fictional city.
  • This is also a good time to take a page from the Fate Dresden Files game and give those location Faces, people that represent them. This can be a way into fictionalizing notable people for the real city that you want to use. Rather than just having a list of city notables, tie them into the locations that they own or influence. This gives them context and a potential location to find them if the players want to deal.
  • Think of how each location can have a plot hook into the kind of campaign you’re running. Your players are more likely to be interested in doing something with the information you’ve presented if there’s a rumor of something they can accomplish there.
  • Don’t be afraid to drastically change something to show how your city isn’t a 1:1 rename of the real world city. The goal is to keep the players from being totally complacent about geography and resources: this is your city, and things exist as they’re useful for your game, not because the players know it’s available in the real world. For example, DC seems to always add a docks area for smuggling crime, even for conversions of land-locked cities.

For example, the city of Terminus is definitely not Atlanta (it’s totally Atlanta):

The (Assault and) Battery

A few years back, the Terminus Warchanters were about to get a new baseball stadium in an inconvenient part of town, wrung from taxpayer expenses and designed to further destroy traffic at the north end of the city. A group of villains that were in town at the time decided to do something about it, and managed to completely disintegrate the nearly-finished structure. The Warchanters are still playing at the still-relatively-new Cash Field downtown. Not being able to get the money to do anything with the now-gaping-hole in the earth, but with several other buildings and parking garages near completion and still intact, the area became a fairly low-key entertainment venue around a large artificial pond. The uneasy origins and government embarrassment have, however, made it slightly dangerous rather than the theme park it was designed to be. It currently exists in an uneasy detente between upscale entertainment venue and criminal hangout, with just enough of a police presence to keep it from completely sliding into a haven of villainy.

The Big Chik ‘N’

National chicken restaurant brand Chik ‘N’ Go has its origin in one of the Terminus’ suburbs. The Catie family still privately owns the restaurant, which has a profoundly religious bent to its hours of operation and philanthropy. This has made the restaurant and its owning family the enemy of many progressives, particularly those that feel marginalized by its attitudes. Having bought out the franchise that erected the giant chicken-decorated building in northern Terminus, they use the easily-identifiable landmark as their flagship store. Many a rogue has tried to bring the place down, if only for the easily-scored notoriety, but somehow the family has enough savvy to fend off such attacks. Some worry they’re playing the long game, which includes planting addictive chemicals in their secret brining recipes.

CCN Center

The Cash family is Terminus old money, but managed to eclipse most of the other families with antebellum roots by investing heavily in media in the latter half of the 20th century, led by current family patriarch Cedric “Ced” Cash and his Hollywood-royalty bride Jen. Cash Communications is one of the dominant cable and internet providers in the region, and the family owns both the Terminus Broadcasting System and Cash Cable News cable channels. In the recent days of 24-hour-news, CCN has become the crown jewel of the family’s holdings, becoming the place most centrists get their news. Ced and Jen have several grown children that have various roles in the business, and his extremely elderly and wealthy mother still sometimes shows up to high society functions.

Crystal Plaza

Crystal Cola has been the dominant soft drink in the world for over a century, and it got its start right in Terminus. Currently the Sampson family profits most from the brand in their role as Terminus nobility, with their patriarch the international corporation’s CEO. They’d long had a museum to the history of the brand in the crime-ridden Underground Terminus, and a few years ago picked up digs and funded a much more elaborate tourist trap next to the Olympic park, the other end of the plaza anchored by a large aquarium that is a frequent villainous target for fish-based schemes (and the local rogues are tired of Aquaman being the most frequent JLA member associated with the city).

High’s Depot Stadium

One of the most popular big-box stores in the nation is headquartered in Terminus, and two of their founders, Aurelius High and August Null, have made their families rich off of the business and stayed local. The High family are noted philanthropists, supporting a diverse series of causes including various Jewish foundations and their own art museum. The Null family are more interested in extreme capitalism, and are known for their ownership of the Terminus Steelwings football team, which currently plays out of the stadium funded by the company he founded.

The Pentacle

Looming near the middle of town, this too-trendy artsy neighborhood has grown up around an ill-advised five-way arrangement of streets. In addition to the traffic implications, complicating drives from all over the area, the mystic consequences are also poorly understood. Once a haven for a particularly off-putting wizard “hero,” Zachary Carstairs, who allowed the culture to grow up around his below-ground sanctum, he eventually went mad with power and had to be put down by a surprising teamup of the local crimefighters and rogues. Since then, the mystical hasn’t really flourished in Terminus, and the area has become increasingly touristy, but the core of mystic alignment theoretically still buzzes in the area, waiting for someone else to make a bid.

The Snarl

Another nationally-famous traffic pattern, this junction of interstates and major surface streets has long contributed heavily to the infamously poor Terminus commute. There’s a running bounty of respect and cash that’s been accumulating for decades to go to the rogue who can manage to smash it so thoroughly that the city has to start from scratch and maybe replace it with something less horrifying. Don Moreland, who also had a mysterious hand in one of the avenues that runs through the Pentacle, is the DoT official responsible for the traffic pattern, and even in his advanced age wields influence to keep it from being replaced. They say that his family has a long and poorly understood stranglehold on the city’s infrastructure planning.

Stagcrest Neighborhood

Terminus’ most infamous party zone, this area features most of the bars and clubs most popular with the celebrity set, including globally-known performers that live full time in the city. Because the city’s celebrities have long been focused on hip hop (with a recent influx of film), the area is famous for violent shootings as performers escalate their “beefs.” Rogues know they’ve reached a certain level of notoriety when they’re invited to go clubbing with rappers who want to associate with them for the street cred, or film stars that want to up their bad boy/girl personas for the tabloids by being seen with a villain in public.

Wolfheart-Holbrook International Airport

One of the busiest in the world, Terminus’ airport is a centerpoint of all kinds of smuggling, with most savvy rogues figuring out a way to get some leverage on the operation. Lambda Airlines owns a whole terminal, and uses the city as their international hub. The Dean family currently profits most from the airline business, with their patriarch the brand’s CEO. While the MARTHA (Metro Area Rail Transit and Helicopter Authority) subways don’t reach as many places in the area as most would like, they do conveniently start at the airport, making it easy for travelers willing to brave the trains to get to most of Terminus. The odd addition of helicopter-transit to the agency’s remit is a historical legacy of a brief villainous fad to abuse private helicopters in the 70s, resulting in the city moving them to public control.

Rogues: What Villains Want

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I watched the new Harley Quinn cartoon at about the same time recently that I finally got around to reading the now-venerable Cat Tales fanfic. Meanwhile, I am Pagliacci is an excellent ongoing fanfic that started up recently. All of that got me thinking about why there aren’t more games that focus on the villain side of things, rather than the heroes.

One of my assertions about gaming is that Superheroes and Horror are the hardest genres to run, by virtue of their protagonists generally being entirely reactive. The classic mode of tabletop games is the self-directed D&D adventuring party, and even modern module-based fantasy games generally give the PCs a lot of control over the timing of what they attempt. Running a dungeon is much more akin to committing a crime than foiling one. Similarly, Shadowrun, from a mile-high perspective, is a very similar play cadence to D&D, concerned with getting into the stronghold and acquiring the rewards from the most defended central point.

Meanwhile, games with PCs that are superheroes tend to have a much harder time not making everything a total railroad. Batman is on Joker’s timetable, most of the time. So why not just play Joker?

This post is mostly my brainstorming on the kinds of rewards and jobs that villainous PCs can pursue. With enough time and production value, the GM could make up essentially quest cards with various crime opportunities that are are upcoming, and allow research to plan the job and find out more of the particulars.

Villains Want

  • Wealth: Cash money
  • Leverage: Information or resources that can be used to extract things from others (usually through blackmail)
  • Favors: Pending payback for undertakings previously done on behalf of others
  • Brand: Success at forwarding a personal theme
  • Competence: Reputation for accomplishing what was intended
  • Fear: Reputation for causing death and pain
  • Notoriety: Reputation among civilians for being a villain
  • Honor: Reputation for keeping one’s word and avoiding universal taboos (like harming children)
  • Respect: Reputation among other criminals/villains

Potential Crimes/Undertakings Have

  • Payoff: Value of the score itself (Wealth, Leverage, or resources that can be used for a further undertaking)
  • Danger: Base danger to the villain on attempting it (from on-site defenders)
  • Emergency: Speed of response from law enforcement/super heroes
  • Collateral: Risk of harm to bystanders or unrelated infrastructure (potential loss of Honor, but increase of Fear)
  • Branding: Being on theme for one or more villains

Example Undertakings

  • Rob a bank/museum (night): High Payoff, usually moderate Danger, potentially reduced Emergency depending on how it’s handled, low Collateral
  • Rob a bank/museum (daylight): As night, except higher Emergency and very high Collateral; increased chance of gaining Notoriety and potentially lowered security measures (because things aren’t locked up for the night)
  • Rob a secure facility: Usually high Payoff and Danger, variable Emergency depending on whether the facility is legit and calls for help, usually low Collateral
  • Rob a vehicle in transit: High Payoff and often lower difficulty and Danger than robbing a building, potentially high Collateral and Emergency depending on where the vehicle is attacked
  • Rob a party: High Payoff (often easier to rob socialites wearing jewelry than hit safes), usually low Danger depending on the party, but very high chance of Collateral and Emergency in most cases
  • Break out another criminal: Low Payoff except in Favors, high Danger and Emergency, usually low Collateral; good way to increase Respect
  • Extortion: Variable Payoff depending on the target, usually low Danger but high Emergency (or vice versa if it’s the kind of person that won’t go to the law), low Collateral but good way to increase Fear
  • Kidnapping: High Payoff but extremely high Emergency and Collateral; this can go very wrong if all the variables aren’t accounted for
  • Hostages (People): This differs from Kidnapping in that the hostages are usually taken in a particular location; extremely high Emergency and Collateral, and this is rarely successful except as a delaying tactic for some other plan, as people don’t like to pay for this; can be a way to increase Honor or Fear
  • Hostages (Infrastructure): This usually involves using explosives or similar to threaten to destroy an important inanimate object/structure; often safer than taking people as hostages, as governments will often pay for this, oddly; Collateral may be lower depending on what’s rigged to blow
  • Destroy Infrastructure: Sometimes the plan is simply to destroy infrastructure for some other ongoing purpose; there’s usually no immediate Payoff (unless as part of some kind of real estate or stock shorting scheme in which case this is probably Insider Trading), high Collateral and Emergency, and various reputations can increase drastically
  • Trafficking: Gain ownership in the distribution tree for illegal goods (drugs, weapons, prostitutes, etc.); this is usually a high recurring Payoff but involves a lot of Danger to set up (or a series of other undertakings) and an ongoing chance of Emergency as the law and heroes try to break up the business
  • Smuggling: High Payoff, low Danger, variable Emergency, low Collateral; unless the smuggling is very high profile, this is often a pretty safe crime to do to build money, but doesn’t involve a lot of reputation increases because of that
  • Suborn Institution: Use blackmail, mind control, disguise, etc. to control a person or otherwise infiltrate an organization; this can have a very high Payoff, and other things are highly variable based on what’s being suborned and what methods are used
  • Assassination: Potentially high Payoff if contracted, and usually commensurately high Danger and Emergency but low Collateral in most cases; good chance of raising different reputations depending on the target
  • Insider Trading: Do a crime that will inflate the value of something already possessed; high Payoff and variable other risks depending on what’s being done
  • Crusade: Do something that only has value in forwarding a personal agenda; high Branding but low Payoff, with variable amounts of other risks

Dresden’s Hogwarts: Politics

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(Another bit of worldbuilding to go with last week. If I’ve done the math right on my blog vs. story scheduling, everyone’s finally at Hogwarts and starting school after an eventful summer. What a great time for you to start reading.)

Imagine that soccer is the best-kept secret in the world. Some children display an inexplicable facility kicking balls, and then, by their 11th birthday, they’re tracked down and informed by FIFA that they are soccer players. They can either train in the sport, or forget that it even exists. FIFA runs elite training schools for those truly serious about it, but it’s also possible to go to smaller camps, or simply apprentice to an adult soccer player. When you become an adult yourself, you may do whatever you want with your life, but, when you’re playing soccer, you’re beholden to FIFA’s rules. Rules made by administrators in the organization, who almost entirely came from the elite schools. Most soccer players have day jobs, and use their athletic prowess to give them a bit of a leg up in life. The truly professional players and administrators exist in their own high-stakes world.

Okay, sue me, it’s a tortured metaphor because the world only has one thing that’s like magic, and that’s magic.

The best estimates I can find suggest there are 60 thousand magically talented folks in Britain, or around one for every 1,000 muggles. This isn’t a hard rule or anything, just the current demographics. Before modern medicine, the ratio was probably significantly higher for wizards, who’ve long had the magical health care necessary to live well into their second century. It probably also helps to be able to use magic to get access to food and shelter and to avoid having to die in international wars. Though wizards often had violent, secret wars of their own.

Hogwarts takes 40 students a year. Fewer than one in ten British wizards attended the school. But if you look at Ministry bureaucrats, aurors, healers at St. Mungos, and the wealthiest individuals, it seems like everyone you meet has been there. And that’s after you realize the muggleborns that make up a small but meaningful fraction of Hogwarts students aren’t represented. What I’m saying is that the core of British wizarding society is an old-wizard’s club far worse than even America’s obsession with an ivy-league education. Virtually every position of power is held in the vice grip of a conspiracy of purebloods who went to Hogwarts.

What about the other fifty-something-thousand magical individuals in the country? If you work in a big enough muggle company, you probably have at least one in your office. Does it seem like Renaissance festival folks take it way too seriously? They’re over-represented there. Carnies, artists, musicians, psychics, and other jobs where you can get away with being eccentric also feature far more magicals than one in a thousand.

Most of them aren’t very well-trained. For the vast majority, the Ministry’s satisfied if you can do enough basic spells to convince them you’re not going to do accidental magic in an emotional moment, and that you understand the world of consequences they’ll bring down on you if you break the Statute of Secrecy.

But keep in mind that well-trained is relative. Hogwarts teaches students to levitate things, start fires, make precise cuts and repairs, unlock doors, and transfigure inanimate objects in their first year. Even figuring out a handful of minor spells is a huge advantage in the muggle world. The honest go into crafting or service professions where they can do way more work than a muggle can (because muggle tools have to follow the laws of physics). The dishonest can easily become master criminals. And the Ministry doesn’t pay too much attention to crime against muggles if it wasn’t obviously caused by magic.

Ironically, the wizards that are struggling the most financially are often the purebloods raised so completely in the Hogwarts pipeline that they can’t figure out how to make a go of it in the muggle world, but who are also near the bottom of the hierarchy when it comes to cushy Ministry jobs. I love the Weasleys to death, but they baffle me.

The other irony of wizarding life is, the more powerful your magic, the harder it is to truly fit into the muggle world. Magic violates all the laws of science, and that also means that strongly magical objects, areas, and individuals cause problems with technology. Physics and chemistry develop inconsistencies in a strong magical field.

At Hogwarts and other sites of power, this field is so strong that even synthetic materials break down. Part of the reason they’ve stuck with quills is that plastic pens slowly melt into goo (though that’s no excuse to not at least use fountain pens). The process is slow enough that the muggle kids outgrowing their tennis shoes and elastic underwear probably don’t notice that much how they start to sag, but don’t bring your beloved polyester-blend t-shirts and expect them to be more than rags in a year or two.

I’ve also heard that, near the strongest fields, items that rely on precision machining start to have problems. Magic makes materials flex very slightly on a molecular level, and the more precise your machine, even if it doesn’t use electricity, the more likely it is to have problems. For example, modern guns don’t work consistently at Hogwarts, because the barrels and mechanisms are so precise, any flex at all can cause them to jam. Wizards, who still exist in a primarily hand-made materials economy, never even notice.

Electricity is a bigger problem. Changes to chemistry are slow, but changes to physics are fast. Casting a spell causes havoc in nearby sensitive electronics, and powerful enough wizards can interfere with delicate electronics simply by standing near them. Most of my pop culture knowledge of films comes from sitting safely in a theater where the projection equipment is far away, because I’ve killed every TV I’ve ever tried to watch for longer than an hour or two. That’s another reason for magicals to go into non-office jobs, particularly as they become more reliant on technology: even a weak wizard will quickly kill any computer by sitting at a desk right in front of it for eight hours a day.

What you’re left with is a three-layered society.

In the center is a strange core of pureblood-centric elites who almost entirely eschew muggle society for various reasons, not least of which is that their eccentricities and effect on technology make them inherently dangerous to the Statue of Secrecy. They “govern” the other layers insofar as they have a chokehold on power and are generally better educated in magic, so can win in a conflict even against superior numbers.

The next layer are strong but were either not trained to the same level or were, but were muggleborns who couldn’t fit into the core society. They are smeared in a gradient between non-elite jobs in wizarding society and jobs in muggle society where one can avoid technology and get away with being unusual.

Finally, the weakest and worst-trained almost entirely live in the muggle world, indistinguishable from muggles with an obscure hobby or religion. With even a few magical talents, they tend to be successful beyond what their station in life would otherwise suggest, and mostly just ignore the magical government until they can’t avoid it.

Honestly, when there’s not a dark wizard throwing around spells that only the best-trained have any hope of protecting themselves against, the current standard of living in muggle society means that the people that purebloods most look down on probably have it way better than those with superior magic.

Dresden’s Hogwarts: Magic

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Part of the reason for my months-long hiatus from blogging was that I finally read enough Harry Potter fanfic that I went from “I could do this” to “I have to do this.” If you’d like to see more of my writing, on a more regular basis, the first book of a Dresden Files/Harry Potter crossover is now getting posted twice a week on fanfiction.net. Dresden winds up going to Hogwarts after his mentor’s death, instead of a farm in the Ozarks. Shenanigans ensue.

The interesting thing about crossover fanfic is using one work’s worldbuilding to shore up the other’s, and this is potentially useful for designing games as well. My goal for the series was to make as much of the magic style from Dresden Files be true as possible without explicitly contradicting the worldbuilding in Harry Potter. Since the worldbuilding in Harry Potter is diaphanous enough to ride an elephant through in a lot of places, this had the interesting result of shoring up the whole into what feels to me like a much more reasonable structure. So this could probably be a good way to round out a setting you’re running a game in, if the supporting fiction is too thin: find a somewhat compatible property and use it for inspiration to round out your world.

Interestingly, in creating a hybrid magic system, I also came across a potential way to wrap my head around how the traditions work together with incompatible paradigms in Mage: the Ascension.

Without further ado…

This is the summary of how magic works as Justin taught it to me and I explained it to the kids who came to my enchanting tutorials. Hogwarts doesn’t explain most of this unless you take arithmancy, and even then, some of the theory is lost in the practice.

Magic is, quite simply, imposing your wishes on reality. Those with access to the gift can want something impossible to happen badly enough that it happens. When a wizard is young, this “accidental magic” is the only way he knows to enact his gift. When a wizard is old and powerful, he can, likewise, merely think magic into being. In the middle, wizards are taught complicated practices to organize this into spells that they’ll eventually try to abandon. The difference between the untrained child and the ancient master is control over these wishes. Accidental magic doesn’t do exactly what you expect to happen when you want it, but a master can create magic, when needed, every single time.

The first question you need to ask to understand how the process of magical training works is: why are most spells in Latin?

The reason is because it keeps the magic separated from your speech. If magic spells were in English (or whatever modern language you speak), you’d risk accidentally casting them in normal conversation. The pathways of your brain that control the instinct to create the magic get trained by the wording of the spell. Hogwarts professors probably don’t work hard enough to get kids out of the habit of referring to spells by their incantation rather than their English name. One day, some kid is going to talk about the fire-making charm as “incendio” and accidentally set a friend of fire.

As I understand it, every culture with magic similarly uses a language that’s not frequently used for conversation as their language of incantations. The Romans used ancient Greek, Aramaic, or Etruscan. Non-Western wizards use outdated forms of their own local languages.

Of course, you can’t just say the Latin word for something and consider that a spell. The use of a meaningful word in Latin is useful, but that’s because even if you don’t really speak it, it does have a meaning that you can latch onto. “Incendio” is a word that more or less means “I set on fire.” You could probably make the magic work with a different series of sounds, but it would be harder to remember.

The most important thing is that “incendio” is four syllables, and arithmantically adds up to a 5-4-4-6 structure (i is the 9th letter plus n is the 14th, which adds up to 23 which combines down to 5). There’s no way I could effectively summarize the exact practicals of how that number adding works or why 5-4-4-6 is a similar numerical array to related spells. You’re either just going to have to take my word for it or commit to five years of arithmancy class. Essentially, any word that was close enough to a 5-4-4-6 cadence could be used as the incantation for the fire-making spell. Why are some incantations really bad Latin? Because the more correct Latin didn’t fit the arithmancy.

There’s a ton of math in figuring out an incantation, and that’s just half of a spell. The other half comes in using your focus.

At the simplest level, the foci that I use for my magic (staff, blasting rod, etc.) are limited to particular types of spell. Spells that create or change motion are fundamentally similar in their arithmancy, so I was able to fit a bunch of them into my staff, and I have to differentiate between them by the different incantations. Also, turning the staff into different types of gestures improves the spell (but I can get a weaker version by just holding it and yelling). I’ve embedded a spell matrix into the staff, which is a three-dimensional (some say a four-dimensional) shape that also defines its parameters. The arithmancy of the incantation hooks into the arithmancy of the matrix to basically create a momentary bubble of possibility for the wizard’s thoughts to fill with the magic.

It’s all extremely technical, which is why any Hogwarts student that skips arithmancy and ancient runes has pretty much no idea how it works. They’re training engineers, not scientists. Most wizards never need to know how their tools work.

A wand is the most complicated piece of technology that wizards have come up with. If my staff is an abacus, a wand is a mainframe computer. Both can help you add numbers, but the computer can do so much more but is so much harder to understand. In a tiny, concealable form factor, wandmakers create a focus that can allow you to perform any spell, theoretically up to the maximum possible power possible.

The first drawback is the finesse issue. For whatever reason, I and a lot of other wizards have a really hard time using wands. It’s some combination of conceptual and down to sheer manual dexterity (I have really long arms and that messes up the precise spell gestures). There are probably a ton of great wizards who leave wand-focused schools thinking they’re bad at it, because they just can’t figure out the only technology those schools teach.

The second drawback is compatibility. While every focus has some degree of resonance with the aura of its user, wands are 100% locked into it. I picked the materials for my staff because they worked for me, but it’s still extremely effective in any wizard’s hands. A wand that’s a poor match, however, may barely work at all.

It comes down to the secret technology of how they fit all those spell matrices into one focus. My suspicion is that the wand bonds to the wizard to basically turn his whole body into a completion of the matrix. A poorly-matched wand means all your matrices are malformed before you even start casting.

The third drawback is the gestures. Most of the matrix for a spell is in my staff so I can get away with just pointing. But a wand has to fit every possible spell in, which means it can only carry the most common arithmantic elements of all spells, and algorithms for transforming wand motion into the rest of the spell matrix. Why do you have to swish-and-flick to levitate something with a wand when I just have to gesture with my staff? That precise motion is finishing the matrix for the spell, which I’ve already fully encoded into my staff. Wand users have to get very good at training their muscle memory.

Ultimately, advanced users tend to start getting into magic without words or foci. Without the words, you have to create the spell in your head without the mnemonic aid triggering your brain. Without the focus, you have to fully visualize the matrix. Without either, you’re basically relying on your imagination to fully generate an extremely complex mental construct with no aids other than your own brainpower. You quickly find that using words and tools to train your unconscious mind to do the heavy lifting makes a big difference.

And, when it comes down to it, all of this is training your brain. Arithmantic correspondences and spell matrixes aren’t real. Non-Western traditions use completely different methods of structuring their magic. Western wizards use the structures they do because they’ve been codified and imbued with meaning, so it’s something your brain can latch onto. I’ve heard some people suggest that part of it is also a “universal unconscious” thing: if enough people with the power to make their wishes reality think that the letter A is equal to 1, then that becomes true. I’ll leave that up to the Department of Mysteries to weigh in on. All I know is that every bit of it is a mental construct.

You are a wizard. Your thoughts and desires can make impossible things happen. Every bit of magical praxis you’ve been taught is simply about making it easier to do what you want and harder to have accidents. It all comes down to: if you wish hard enough, you can change the world. Magic is just a set of tools to help you make the best wishes you can.

Oaths of the Sidhe

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This is worldbuilding for my Beyond the Wall game, but since it was most of the way to compatible with D&D 5e anyway, I went ahead and made the tweaks. My players have gotten really into hanging out with the fae at the regular seasonal markets, and are drifting pretty close to just signing up. This was a way to systematize that process.

Also, check out Brandes’ recent post about fae contracts for some largely compatible ideas.

The Bane of Iron

Most fae are weak to iron, the punishment of the Sun for interlopers from the shadow planes. This is not an inherent weakness of Sidhe, except insofar as most are fae. It is said that sometimes mortals that become full Sidhe essentially become adopted by a shadow plane, effectively becoming fae.

Oaths of the Sidhe

Each rank of the court allows another oath to be taken, and each oath taken cements that rank in the court. Most serious Sidhe courtiers have taken all of the oaths: it is the requirement to be considered full Sidhe and to truly engage in Sidhe politics. However, those who have taken any oaths are part of the hierarchy, and have enforced respect over those that bow to Sidhe sovereignty, particularly in Sidhe lands.

Oaths broken tend to result in grievous wounds, commensurate with the wrong committed.

Oathkeeping (Wisdom)

The most common oath is for the keeping of oaths themselves. This is the oath responsible for the famous Sidhe inability to lie.

My words will be my oath. What I say is true. What I commit to, I will perform.

Drawback: You cannot tell an outright falsehood (but can mislead through technically true statements). Your promises always count as an Oath.

Benefit: Gain Advantage on Wisdom checks to determine if someone is deceiving you. Make a Charisma (Intimidation) check when calling a promise due to force even a non-Sidhe to keep an oath to you (or accept commensurate consequences), DC equal to the target’s own Charisma score.

Hospitality (Constitution)

Another common oath, this is the one that protects others from the Sidhe as a guest. It is the only reason Sidhe politics can continue at the most cutthroat times.

While I share bread and drink with my hosts, I am their guest and they are mine. I shall respect their homes, and expect the same. Should they withhold their threat from me, so I shall withhold mine from them, until the guesting is through.

Drawback: You may not directly harm or even work strongly against guests and hosts after accepting/granting hospitality (but can politic towards eventual harm after guesting is over).

Benefit: Gain resistance to all damage dealt by someone who is part of a pact of hospitality to you (and this waives your need to avoid harming the aggressor). Gain Advantage on Constitution saves and checks made when you have guest right (e.g., against toxins or other poor conditions). Roll Charisma (Intimidation) against the target’s Charisma score when you are a host to force violators or those who will not swear from your home.

Demesne (Strength)

This is the oath that allows the Sidhe to build nations and employ diplomats. It is usually sworn after Hospitality, for it is that oath writ to a grander scale. It is the reason Sidhe can be driven off of even mortal lands, due to the respect of authority.

I shall respect territory, as I expect my own to be respected. Should I remain in land where I am unwanted, then this shall be war.

Drawback: You must leave an area when ordered by a rightful authority unless on a mission of declared hostility (and, unfortunately, church bells usually count unless you are expressly welcome, due to the general hostility of the church and their authority over mortal lands).

Benefit: Gain Advantage on Strength checks or similar rolls to erect fortifications or bar portals in your own lands. You, your mount, and your immediate retinue move 50% faster when moving in your lands to intercept invaders. You may automatically sense the strength and potential flaws of fortifications and other defensive measures nearby.

Gifts (Intelligence)

All fae have picked up the gift-giving system from the Sidhe, mostly because an upper class with very specific views on exchange of property quickly creates a culture of it. This oath ultimately serves to formalize ownership and prevent corruption through bribes.

I shall accept nothing that I am not owed. I shall give nothing without an expectation of a return in kind. My value comes from my deeds, not from the whims of others.

Drawback: You cannot accept a gift of item or service without providing something of similar value (owing a favor if you cannot immediately reciprocate); if you have provided services without a formalized gifting/quest structure, you can accept a gift as a way to settle this debt.

Benefit: You gain Advantage on Intelligence checks to appraise the value of items or services, and automatically succeed when they are offered to you as gift or for trade, allowing you to flawlessly detect counterfeits or other items with inflated values. Gain double XP for conspicuous consumption*. Spend Inspiration to have fate help track items that were stolen from you or to see that fortune returns them to your hands.

* In my campaign, the PCs earn XP based on spending cash on goods and services that make their characters happy but have no significant rules effect.

Craft (Dexterity)

Sidhe also have a propensity for games, riddles, and art competitions, as a way to establish dominance without bloodshed. This oath speaks to the cleverness required for true nobility, and is often one of the last oaths sworn by those fae that do not trust in their own intelligence.

I am wit, poise, and guile given form. Should one seek to test me in the domains I have claimed talent, and be it no true hardship, I shall prove my skills or acknowledge my superior.

Drawback: You cannot refuse a challenge to a competition over one of your proficient Skills or Tools unless it is obviously, actively dangerous to you (e.g., a distraction from a fight) or you admit that the challenger is better (you cede the advantage for winning to them).

Benefit: If you win a competition where you were challenged, you are owed by the loser similar to them promising you a favor (with the strength of the favor based on how much effort was required for the competition; a quick riddle game is not the same as a challenge to see who can topple an empire). You owe this in turn if you cede a competition to the challenger without competing, but not if you simply lose after giving it your try (in this case, the favor is minor because the stakes were small). You may learn to work dross and other ephemeral qualities into your crafts (essentially, crafting magic items).

Identity (Charisma)

Not all fae are vulnerable to use of their true names, but this is the oath that ensures it. It is often the final oath, as it is the ultimate claim of identity that allows full nobility.

My name is my own, though I may keep it safe. By my sigil, my will. By my name, my pledge. By my existence, my guarantee. There is none other like me.

Drawback: Statement of your True Name by an antagonist weakens* any of your mystical protections, as well as your mystical attacks against the target (and “statement” may be broad enough to include working your name into bindings or other magics). It also unmasks you of any magical or physical disguise.

* GM’s discretion, usually advantage/disadvantage or the equivalent for effects that don’t involve a roll.

Benefit: Attempts to impersonate you, even with strong magic, automatically fail against anyone that has met you. You automatically succeed on saves to resist being transformed without your consent, unless the aggressor has some kind of authority or broken oath to hold against you. Similarly, you stand strong athwart time and reality, and can ignore changes to the flow of time, causality, and local reality if you so desire (e.g., immune to magic like Slow, Time Stop, and other plot-related weirdness).

Borrowing from Video Games: Pathfinder Kingmaker’s Plotline Knitting

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It took me a long time to finally get around to playing the video game version of Pathfinder: Kingmaker. I ran the adventure path all the way through a few years ago, so I felt like I’d be totally spoiled for the game (on top of other reasons, like not having the time for a hundred-hour mega adventure; seriously, how did they get this much content into a Kickstarter-funded game?).

I was right that I’m pretty spoiled on the plot beats, since it sticks close to the original adventure path for overall structure. But the interesting thing is watching how the writers of the video game wove the plot of the AP into a more coherent narrative. This pleasure is almost certainly enhanced for people that already played or ran the tabletop version, and know how it went originally.

The nature of Paizo’s writing pipeline is that each adventure path is given to six (or more) different writers to generate. In order to give each writer as much time as possible, the broad outline of the campaign is given to everyone to work on basically simultaneously, rather than, say, the writer of module 4 only starting once modules 1-3 are available to reference. Everyone knows the beats mandated in the outline, and I assume there’s some kind of during-writing conversations and then a development pass to further build everything into a whole. But it’s fair to say that individual modules don’t feel intricately linked with those around them.

Even within the same module, time crunch and trying to fill pages seems to result in elements that aren’t linked as well as they could be. In particular, I’ve long been annoyed when I find a half-page writeup on the backstory of an NPC antagonist that is just waiting in a dungeon room for the PCs to kick in the door and kill in a couple of rounds. The color is probably useful if the players actually decide to be social/take prisoners, but a lot of it is wasted prose for most tables, with no suggested way for the players to even realize there’s more information to be had.

This is not meant to especially pick on Pathfinder APs. They’re just the ones I have the most experience with. I assume other publishers often have the same issues, and if you’re running modules that aren’t linked into an AP, you have zero official connection between adventures.

The video game version fixes a lot of these problems. The central antagonist is introduced very early (and is obviously behind most of the other major problems), and secondary antagonists get similar treatment. Characters that were kick-in-the-door speedbumps before get linked in so you actually know who you’re fighting (in particular, a weird one-off evil kobold from the first module becomes a recurring foil who also introduces the enemy kingdom from module 5). The barbarian tribe that shows up out of nowhere in the book for module 4 is foreshadowed early in the video game and is heavily involved in the resolution of the previous major arc before you have to take them on. It’s clever.

Obviously, in a perfect world when you spend over a $100 on a campaign, it will do all of this heavy lifting for you. But here are some methods you can use to better link together modules you’ve purchased (or even a campaign you’ve written yourself).

Meet Your Antagonists

It’s really easy to make your players hate an NPC (it’s much harder to make them like an NPC). The bad guy just needs to show up and be mean to/betray the PCs. Bonus vengeance for slightly inconveniencing them in getting something they want.

The more and earlier the villains can be on screen, actually interacting with the PCs, the better. Text props and under bosses referring to the villain are better than nothing, but aren’t the same as getting to be snide to each other.

Most late-campaign boss enemies will have some kind of powers to justify getting to talk to the PCs and escape (dream projection, illusion projection, contingency teleportation, hospitality, etc.). It’s often a bigger trick to explain why the boss doesn’t pick off the PCs while they’re low-level.

If you can show enough of the villain’s backstory in these conversations to make the players think of them as fully developed characters rather than just obstacles, so much the better.

Conservation of Characters

There are really only so many kinds of NPCs. In the broadest sense, you can probably think of them as enemies, foils, bystanders, and allies. Each module is going to invent a lot of NPCs. They don’t know your table, so even if they had the earlier modules done to reference, the writer of the module will often invent a new NPC rather than risking that you’ve already killed off an earlier one.

You can merge these characters.

Go through and find characters that perform similar roles for the PCs (or even different roles: evolve a module 1 bystander into a module 2 helper who betrays them by module 4 to become a foil or enemy). It’s especially good if there are a couple of things you like about the NPCs but otherwise you’re not excited about them: shove all the character bits you liked from each of them into one significantly more interesting character.

Obviously don’t give the NPC so many threads that they’re going to feel too important/actually be too important for the PCs to kill off, because the players aren’t going to like being overshadowed. But if you do it right, you’ll have more fun playing the NPC and the players will get a recurring character to interact with.

Personal Rather than Generic

Since the Kingmaker video game was filling out your party with pre-written characters (rather than all player-written PCs), it could do something that published module series without pregens can’t do: make the plot hooks personal for the protagonists. It’s not just a barbarian tribe, it’s a tribe that the barbarian PC was exiled from. It’s not just an ancient artifact, it’s an artifact that a PC is searching for. It’s not just a dwarven fortress, it’s a fortress that the dwarf PC has a conflicted relationship with.

The more you learn about your PCs, the more you can do the same thing. Don’t be afraid to steal plot hooks from the NPCs and give them to your PCs.

Is there an NPC looking to find another NPC? Could that missing NPC be a PC’s connection instead? In my Rise of the Runelords campaign, Shalelu the NPC ranger got every bit of her plots carved off and handed to the PC ranger.

Is there a cool magic item that shows up later? Can you plant rumors about it early so one of the PCs is looking for it and really excited to find it? In my Jade Regent campaign, an evil artifact that’s, by the book, just a curiosity dropped by the module 1 mini-boss became something the party cleric needed to destroy (at a location they’d be going to in module 3 anyway).

Is there an interesting group/location? Can a PC be connected to it? This one often requires the most negotiation with a player to get right, since you don’t want to just have them stumble into a village and be like, “oh, hey, by the way, this is your village.” If the player wrote an extensive backstory, you can probably rewrite something in the module until it fits while still fulfilling its story goal.

If you know what you’re doing and can work with the player early on, you can help the player expand on ideas (“You know, if you’re on the run, do you think maybe you’ve been dodging Red Mantis assassins?”). Most players are going to be happy working with you on something they know is going to be paid off later somehow. Though others may have had bad experiences, and worry that backstory spotlight is negative spotlight (e.g., “I stopped writing relatives into my backstory because GMs kept killing them off for cheap pathos or threatening them to make me do what they wanted.”).

Everything is Connected

While there’s a risk of making the world feel too small by making everything connected, there are still fun links you could make that the writers didn’t think of. One little addition for the Kingmaker video game is that the first bandit mini-boss was changed to be the estranged sister of a friendly NPC, who could explain more of the mini-boss’ backstory.

This can particularly allow you some opportunities to foreshadow things that can’t be directly tied to the PCs or shown on screen. One friendly NPC always wanted to see a legendary item. Another is worried about a relative that joined an evil cult, and can hand out rumors about that group which otherwise doesn’t show up until a later module. This incidental magic item can be identified to have a connection to a person or group that shows up later.

Ultimately, the point of this whole system is making connections, because reinforcement makes it a lot easier for your players to pick up on things. Deep linkages and recurrences are how you turn a generic published campaign from “a bunch of stuff happened, one thing after another” into a memorable story.

D&D: Political Alignments

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One of the many weird things about D&D alignments is that Law vs. Chaos tends to do double duty indicating whether you’re an orderly-minded person and whether you prefer a large, law-bound society or a loose, small-group affiliation. When elves tend chaotic, it’s because of their hippie-style small family groups based on respect rather than a deep legal system. Similarly, orcs tend chaotic because they form tribal warbands where there are no rules beyond those imposed through fear of the chief. So I got to thinking about ways to pull that political component out completely from whether or not you’re inclined to do whatever random thing jumps into your head.

Is a political alignment system actually useful? I dunno. Is the current alignment system all that useful?

Empire vs. Tribe

Individuals that favor organizing people into as large a social structure as possible have an Imperial alignment. Those with a benevolent outlook feel that wars and injustice would end if everyone in the world was bound by the same leaders and justice system. Those with less noble aims still prefer a world where you only have to learn and follow one creed and culture to get along anywhere.

Those that instead favor building society through direct ties of blood and respect have a Tribal alignment. They believe that society begins to collapse the moment justice must be administered by someone that doesn’t have personal knowledge of those being judged. “Impartial” is just another word for “uninformed,” and they’d rather stick with tight-knit groups of no more than a few hundred people with loose ties to their neighboring groups.

In between these two, some split the difference and consider themselves of the National alignment. They reject that you must have a personal relationship with your leaders and judges, but still feel that broader ties of race, religion, and culture can only stretch so far. At a certain point, a society would get too large for everyone to have the same aims and willingly agree to the same structures. They think empires fall not because of communication, but because of an unsolvable difference in subject peoples.

Obviously, all three types tend to have drawbacks.

Those that favor Empires, even without the ultimate goal of subjugating the entire world for their emperor, tend to ignore the personal in the legal. They’ll try to make rules apply when they’re clearly wrong for the situation, or to write laws so broad and well-meaning that they’re useless in practice. They tend to be blind to dramatic cultural differences in needs from the law.

Those that favor Nations can become the worst sort of racists: folk that are too different are seen as basically alien. Even the benevolent among them see many outsiders as unable to be integrated into society, and can easily ignore ghettos and similar injustices because they think “those people” deserve their own laws, even as an island in another nation. The worst among them regularly start genocidal wars with their country’s neighbors.

Those that favor Tribes are not just limited to the wilderness: organized crime, guilds, military units, nobility, and law enforcement can easily inculcate a belief that laws should apply differently within the familial organization than in the society at large. They all can grow to feel that the laws of the larger culture don’t apply to them, and only their personal rules should matter. Even in the wilderness, justice based on bias can easily become extremely unfair when elders are weak to favoritism or cupidity.

Republic vs. Monarchy

It’s really hard to get a democratic regime off the ground, but those that favor it have a Republican alignment. They feel that every person in a society should have input into its laws and governance. Annoyingly, many tend to draw a circle around “persons” that doesn’t include all individuals in the society, but they still prefer a broader base of power than in other forms.

Conversely, the most common beliefs in support of a single strong leader have a Monarchist alignment. For those that have actually thought about it, they think that a single decider is more effective than many special interests all pulling in different directions. Particularly in war, even a tyrant is better than confusion.

There are relatively few in the middle of the two extremes, and they can be considered Oligarchists for lack of a better term. They agree with the monarchists that the masses cannot be trusted with control of society, but they think the risk of a single bad leader is too great. They prefer a small group of powerful and wise leaders that are few enough to get things done but numerous enough to check weakness or madness in one of their own.

These beliefs can reach across all sizes of government.

Those that favor Republics expect rule by the many to apply in an empire as easily as in a tribe. Obviously a tribal republic can easily be a direct democracy, where all individuals in the group offer their input toward rulings. As the society becomes larger, republican sentiment requires more layers of coordination. True republicans are always wary of the representatives they’ve elected as proxies for a democratic nation or empire becoming oligarchs.

Those that favor Oligarchies tend to be happier with the reality on the ground in empires and nations. In a monarchy, the reality of governance falls to important courtiers, and in a republic, elected officials inevitably draw power. Oligarchists just wish these systems could go ahead and abolish the weak link at the top of the monarchy, or the confused desires of the masses of the republic. In a tribe, they tend to favor a collection of elders or deacons rather than a single strong leader, but may be happy with a much smaller number of oligarchs than they would need in a large society.

Those that favor Monarchies are often happiest in a tribal setting, where they can personally know their chieftain. The larger the society they prefer, the more their personal relationship with their monarch is necessarily abstract. Monarchic imperialists often see a narrow difference between emperor and deity: who could truly make laws for the entire world other than someone so abstracted as to have become divine?

D&D Premise: Lord of the Flies

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Where do goblins come from?

While only the most skeptical of city-dwellers, insulated from the terrors of the wilderness, would opine that there are no such things as goblins, those that have encountered them are largely at a loss to explain their origin. Though many a hero for law and goodness has worried about the ethical conundrum that would entail from finding innocents of the species, none know of such a thing ever happening. Occasionally, a nest or warren of them is found that, if squinted at, seems like a cruel mockery of a town, but there is no real evidence of a greater culture or interaction with other goblin groups. Most religions write them off as merely the sins of the kith personified, to be killed on sight.

They’re not far wrong.

Another great mystery of the world is the nature of heroism. If a city gets large enough, it begins to train advanced techniques in the pursuit of battle, craft, and magic. Those that spend years and years training at colleges and gaining experience in the world can become extremely competent. Most humans and similarly-lived kith may master complex techniques equivalent to the third circle of magic before they enter their dotage, but it takes the lifespan of the elves to truly master such techniques. Still, only the most ancient of the elves, sequestered deep in their lands, profess to understand magics of the ninth circle.

Yet, there are constant tales of small groups of adventuring heroes that seem to have mastered skills while still young that rival the eldest scholars of the land. They don’t like to speak of what makes them different, if they understand at all.

There is a theory called spontaneous generation. While learned sages with an interest in experimentation are convinced that flies work much like moths, laying eggs that grow into maggots as a larval form before eating enough offal to become flies themselves, most common folk do not have access to this science. As far as they know, maggots and flies are spontaneously generated from rotting meat. When they leave meat to rot, maggots appear as if from nowhere, and flies thereafter.

They think the same thing about goblins, and they’re missing the point in exactly the same way.

Goblin hierarchies don’t make much sense. If they didn’t look similar in general shape and work with one another when no one else will, none would believe that the cowardly goblin, organized hobgoblin, and bestial bugbear were of one race. Were any hero to ever find evidence of a goblin civilization, it would have to explain much about the processes that could result in such differentiation in both size and temperament. Why are there no cowardly hobgoblins or organized bugbears? Does growing past a certain size change their entire mental state?

It all comes down to the flies.

Goblin flies are distinctive, if you look closely enough: greenish and with a goblinish cast to their features. Few have made a study of the differences, because they come in a swarm unaware on small villages far from scientists, and few kith tend to survive to spread the tale. First, they bite the livestock and small animals they can catch. The beasts get sick, and many of them die from the strange pox. If you don’t burn the bodies quickly enough, the larval goblins within manage to eat enough to burst free, fully formed. Their first task is to try to add more offal to the piles of their nascent siblings, creating enough rotting meat to build a whole goblin. Some say, in the death throes of the illness, the smallest animals are driven to seek out piles of other dead to add their own meat to the stores. Deep in the woods, sometimes a big predator falls ill. While prey and vermin universally produce the small goblins, a big enough predator can result in a bugbear. Those that named it must have known better than any ever guessed what was going on.

Kith are harder to bite, and tend to resist the illness better, in the early days. But as the goblins kill the livestock, foul the fields and the water, and wear down the town’s guards with their attempts at incursions, it becomes harder and harder to stay healthy. Once the disease takes, the people fall just as ill as the livestock. There’s something about the minds of the kith that speaks to the growing goblin, and so the hobgoblins that burst forth from kith corpses share the kith tendency towards organization and structure that their brethren born of beasts lack. Never think of them as your loved ones turned into hobgoblins: that’s not your friend, it’s what ate her from within. Any similarities are just echoes of her mind that the larvae picked up.

Sometimes, though, an infection gets resisted. The healthy, or just the lucky, overcome the disease, purging it from their systems. But something of the magic remains. Perhaps it was the soul triumphing over the evil of the goblin plague, or the strange effects of magical fever dreams, but the survivors gain powers. For kith, this is one way that an adventurer is born: somehow, it’s much easier and faster to pick up the skills of battle, craft, and magic than for others. For beasts, this is often how the stranger magical creatures arise.

Adventurers don’t like to talk about it, because for many of them their first adventure was using their newfound strengths to purge the goblin infestation from what was once their idyllic village home. Often there’s not much left. They adventure because everything they know is gone and, if they’re honest, they’re seeking an answer to what happened to their families.

It’s clear that the goblin flies aren’t natural. They choose their targets. They come when those villages are least able to defend them. Somewhere, there’s a malevolent intelligence directing these swarms to bring ruin upon the lives of well-meaning settlers and peasants:

A lord of the flies.

Troupe-Style Secret Identity Supers

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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.

Serial Numbers Filed Off: Streaming Sci-Fi

Comments Off on Serial Numbers Filed Off: Streaming Sci-Fi

Exalted Clay

(D&D, Scion, Nobilis, etc.)

The gods do not like to speak of the real reason for the punishment of Prometheus. “Giving fire to mankind” was the metaphor for his crime: teaching a collection of demigods and mortals the skills to make themselves a threat to the divine themselves, and selling them on the idea that for mankind to be free, there could be no immortal tyrants upon the mountaintop. The uprising was narrowly defeated, Prometheus bound, and the souls of his Dragon’s Teeth locked away in Tartarus for all eternity.

Or until today.

Someone nearly succeeded in murdering Zeus. He awoke, battered and bloody washed ashore of the river Lethe. He’d lost days of memory. But he was certain that the only explanation was that another god had tried to kill him.

His only choice was to free a handful of Dragon’s Teeth to attempt to solve the crime, with freedom their reward for success. After all, who else could he trust to be impartial, to hunt a murderous god, other than those who were formerly bent upon destroying all of the gods?

And will this hamartia of hubris finally bring low mighty Zeus, as it has so many patriarchs of the past?

 

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