Straight-Up Premise Theft: Haven

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The Elevator Pitch

Audrey Parker is an FBI special agent sent to a small Maine town after a fugitive, but the simple assignment is much less straightforward than it seemed. Immediately, the manhunt is complicated by the insular community reticent to give up one of their own, even a criminal, and veiled allusions to “the Troubles” from a generation ago. She quickly begins to realize that this is a community covering up a history of strange supernatural events, which are now beginning to recur with life-threatening consequences.

Perhaps more importantly to Audrey, a poorly-explained newspaper picture from the last troubling time displays a woman that looks just like her, who was apparently instrumental in saving the town. Could this be the mother that gave her up for adoption, or something even stranger? Regardless of the cause, it’s clear that she’s been maneuvered into this town for reasons other than a fugitive, and she has a vital role to play in its unfolding supernatural drama.

This becomes all too clear when more and more powers break out and she appears to be largely immune to their most destructive effects: is she, herself, troubled in a way that makes her the perfect foil for other citizens of Haven that are unable to control their powers?

(This show is currently available for streaming on Netflix.)

The Premise

The nature of the setting can vary from a straight lift of the Stephen King-style small town supernatural mystery, to any kind of urban or traditional fantasy, to straight up sci-fi (nanotech gone wrong?). What’s important is that there are dangerous powers in play that need to be controlled, and what the PCs have going for them is that they’re more or less immune (probably due to some mysterious past).

This immunity is selectively total, but not a guarantee, as it only protects the body and mind of the PC, not the environment or allies. A pyrokinetic can’t set the PC on fire, but he can burn down the house she’s in. A kid that causes everyone to see their worst nightmares looks perfectly normal to the PC, but that won’t help her control the panicking bystanders. A Groundhog Day-esque encounter with a time rewinder leaves the PC able to try to end this unending day, but good luck trying to convince everyone else that she’s stuck in a time loop and not just insane.

In a setting full of things that break all the rules of the mundane world, the PCs’ advantage is that they can generally assume that these rules will at least keep applying to them. It’s an edge against powered threats, but they’ll often find themselves wishing for powers of their very own; powers that are fundamentally denied them by their own gift.

The Rationale

There are few things more empowering to players than explaining that everything is awful, all the NPCs are afflicted and terrified, but their PCs are so awesome that they’re perfectly fine and can act unimpeded by the crisis. This premise takes the standard intention of players to have their characters stay in control and unhindered by the unfolding chaos and makes it into their core PC benefit.

You don’t have to meet in a tavern, you don’t have to be gathered by a mysterious elderly person, and you don’t have to figure out how you’re friends from childhood. Unexplained and dangerous things are happening and you’re the only ones that seem to be mostly unaffected; everyone’s counting on you to save them. Go be heroes.

Straight-Up Premise Theft: Sense8

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The Elevator Pitch

Eight unrelated individuals from around the world share a dream one night: a woman commits suicide to keep herself and her friends from a creepy old man and his conspiracy. Each in the midst of his or her own problems, they begin to see and feel strange things. They find people they don’t know watching them in moments of crisis, and find themselves seeing others from across the world in their own troubling moments. Soon, they haltingly learn to do more than project as “holograms” that only the others can see, and to actually share sensory impressions and skills with one another when one member is more suited to dealing with problems. And problems they have, for these new tendencies to space out and see things begin to exacerbate their own issues, as well as putting them on the radar of the conspiracy that killed their “mother” to these strange gifts.

(This show is currently available for streaming on Netflix.)

The Premise

The reason for the powers, the setting, and the nature of problems and conspiracies can vary vastly, but the powerset is specific:

  • Player characters can project at will to experience what any other member of the group can experience (manifesting as an observer that only the others can see).
  • While projected, the character is vulnerable, but not unconscious: when you’re visiting someone else, your body continues on in an autopilot that can handle most things that don’t require a skill check (you’ll continue walking, even driving if it’s not too complicated, and space out but not immediately obviously abandon a conversation, etc.). If you’re just having a conversation with another PC, you can flip back and forth between locations, each taking turns being the one projected, with minimal loss of concentration toward what you’re doing.
  • With permission of another member, you can take over that member’s body, using your traits to handle his or her problems (you basically take over the PC using your PC’s skills; it’s up to the GM and system in question whether it makes sense to also give him or her your attributes). Any negative effects suffered while puppeting another character are suffered by the puppet.

Essentially, any PC can be present in any scene with another PC as an observer that only the other PCs can detect. If a PC doesn’t have the right skills for a problem, he or she can temporarily cede control of his or her body to another PC that does. The only limitation to the ability of a diversely skilled group is that they’re often only bringing one person to bear on a problem (albeit a person with any skills necessary for the task).

The Rationale

I’m not sure how common it is at other tables, but groups I’ve played in have never followed the “don’t split the party” mandate. A common way to run games is, in fact, for the GM to introduce everyone as unrelated characters, cut between scenes where one player character is active and the other players just watch and wait their turns, and slowly create a situation that naturally draws the characters together (but it might take several sessions). Even after meeting, the PCs might have built up unrelated sidequests and problems that don’t really demand that the group tackle them as a unit.

The Sense8 powerset fully enables this type of play. PCs start out unrelated, and can be distributed across the world if the GM’s got enough locations prepared, but they can each be present in one anothers’ scenes. There’s no time spent having to catch the others up when you do happen to synch back, explaining how much of what their players witnessed that you actually remember to tell them (one of the worst things in this style of play is when you, as a player, spot something that your character would want the other PC to notice or drill down on, but you can’t actually do anything about it until you get back together and hope the other player considers it relevant to mention passing on; with these powers, you can just tell the other PC to ask about it or look at it). And you can participate fully in a scene that you’re not in, even beyond being the peanut gallery: when the active PC needs to make a check that he or she isn’t great at, you can lend your skills.

Essentially, this powerset means that the party cannot be split, and the GM is free to run lots of simultaneous scenes where nobody feels like they need to sit, be quiet, and observe but not metagame.

Straight-Up Premise Theft: The Almighty Johnsons

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So you know how video game designers who blog tend to have blogs that go dark suddenly and for extensive periods when their game is about to come out? Yeah, sorry about that. It’s been a pretty attention-distracting year. But I come out of it with a bunch of new games played and media consumed that should hopefully serve as posting fodder for a while. And if you don’t notice the year tick up mysteriously on the side, going back through the archives it might only look like I missed two weeks! I’ll try to keep posting weekly, but until I get a big buffer built up I’ll play it by ear, such that missing a week won’t necessarily be a precursor to another long hiatus.

This week starts a companion series to Serial Numbers Filed Off. Instead of coming up with a setting/genre shift but keeping the plot structure intact (as with SNFO), these will be more about highlighting media that you might not have seen that I think contains a  premise that is readily translated to a campaign of your own, whether or not you keep any of the plot structure. Each of these may contain mild spoilers for the media property in question, but I’ll try to keep it to only what you learn in the first episode and/or from the promotional material unless there’s something really key to making the premise into a game that isn’t obvious until later.

The Elevator Pitch

Axl Johnson is just your average Kiwi college kid about to turn 21, the youngest of four brothers. After an ominous series of events strike Auckland on the evening before his birthday, his brothers take him out to the woods to clue him in to the family secret: the Norse gods traveled to New Zealand centuries ago as their powers started to wane and Scandinavia was no longer safe for them, they died but their mantle passed on to individuals within the family tree, and when one of those individuals turns 21, he or she comes into a godly identity and (much diminished) powers. His brothers are actually Ullr, god of games (with the ability to win any game of chance every time, and to track unerringly), Bragi, god of poetry (who can convince any mortal of pretty much anything, if given enough time to speak), and Hodr, god of the dark and cold (who hates his power to manifest and resist cold, because of the crimp it puts in his love life). His “Cousin” is actually the brothers’ grandfather, whose powers as Baldr mean he doesn’t age. And who is Axl? He is Odin, and his reappearance means the beginning of a quest to find the new incarnation of Frigg. If Odin and Frigg are reunited, the much-weakened powers of the gods will be restored, but if he dies before completing the quest, a calamity will befall New Zealand, likely killing all the currently incarnated gods.

And there’s a secretive cabal doing everything they can to prevent this from coming to pass and the gods’ powers from being restored. No pressure.

(The show is currently available for streaming on Netflix.)

The Premise

The specifics of the pantheon in question, the location, the nature of the quest and antagonists, and how things got to how they are now are fully up to the group’s own interests. But the operative premise is simple: you are thrust into being a modern incarnation of a god with a small suite of abilities based on your former portfolio. They’re enough to give you a sizable advantage over mortals, but not enough to really be what most would consider “godlike.” So you’re still going to have to work at achieving your objectives. And these diminished powers come with a whole list of godly responsibilities and enemies that are very likely to fall upon you at the worst possible moments.

This is probably best handled with a game engine where PCs are expected to be threatened by the mundane (i.e., something not level based or too high-action pulpy). The Storyteller system, Unknown Armies, Unisystem, BRP, or Savage Worlds are probably good choices for modern games, and A Song of Ice and Fire, Pendragon, The One Ring, or even Ars Magica might be good choices if you want to go fantasy. The godly powers work less like superpowers than like a mechanic where you automatically succeed at certain things if uncontested, and gain a substantial (but not insurmountable) bonus in a contest. The trick during gameplay is to figure out how to move seemingly insurmountable problems into a realm where your portfolio lets you win: when all you have is a hammer…

The Rationale

There are a number of games that have tackled the idea of modern gods, either specifically like Nobilis or Scion or indirectly like Aberrant, Godlike, and really any supers system. But those generally focus on giving you a whole raft of powers that quickly boost you above mundane problems. The Almighty Johnsons suggests a potentially new avenue where getting to that level of power is actually the central goal of the game: most of the gameplay focuses on using the remnants of your godly heritage to try to bring about a transcendence into greater power.

As a mythology wonk, it also provides a fun ability to recontextualize the pantheistic religion of your choice into a new setting, translating the characters and drama of myths and epics into a game where characters relate as individuals but also as gods. American Gods is also a good inspiration for this kind of thing.