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A Remedy for OppressIon: This Was America

The animal species in which . . . the practice of mutual aid has attained the greatest development . . . are invariably the most numerous, the most prosperous, and the most open to further progress. . . .  The unsociable species, on the contrary, are doomed to decay.

--Pyotr Kropotkin, “Mutual Aid: A Factor of Evolution”

“New York was always going to eat itself eventually.”
--Prometheus, issue 17
 

Fano and I finished our year-long, twenty-one session campaign of Marvel Super Heroes, heavily influenced by Champions Now.  I have mixed but mostly positive feelings about it.

THE BEST PART

We started playing this game because we were living in a city ravaged by Covid-19, while police terrorized the population, millions were out of work, and a nationwide fascist movement tried to sabotage democracy.  During all of this time we were cut off from our extended families, friends, and loved ones.

Amid that disaster, Fano and I created a little ritual of playing a game.  We helped each other survive by checking in on each other and validating our response to a full-spectrum catastrophe.  In that sense, this game was a Very Good Thing, and I needed it.

That gratitude extends, to a greater or lesser extent to everyone at Adept Play posting about Champions Now or discussing it on the Discord server.  I studied all of this, and felt a sense of shared endeavor.
 

EXPERIMENTAL RESULT #1: YEAH THIS WORKS

The three major systms I lifted from Champions Now, namely the Two Statements, the Triangle Diagram, and The Now, all fit perfectly into Marvel Super Heroes, like there was an empty space in the design all this time waiting for them.  I can't imagine playing the older game without these techniques.

One of the nicest parts of the game was how The Now contributed to the inner lives of the various ordinary NPC's.  Because we were playing a duet, we had a lot of time most sessions to pay a visit to the landlady, or some co-workers, or people in the neighborhood, and they felt well-observed, dynamic people.  When one of them died, it felt deeply personal: we'd gotten to know and like this guy, seeing his good points and his failings, and we could see how the block expressed grief, resolve, and compassion.

EXPERIMENTAL RESULT #2: WE MISSED THE TARGET

This game had an extremely grim premise.  I started out furious.  But each day led to more horror and more disappointment.  I ended up so numb that I felt I had nothing to say.  

What happened to me and Fano, and our families, wasn’t because of the pandemic, or a bunch of cops, or Donald Trump or Joe Biden or Fox News or capitalism or racism.  This happened because an overwhelming number of Americans simply don’t care if their neighbors, their families, or they themselves, live or die.  After a while I couldn’t turn it into a superhero conflict because the true villain is an inert yet unvanquishable apathy.

The game suffered as I lost my ability to engage creatively.  We still had fun.  If this were a comic book, I’d look forward to each issue.  But it failed to live up to its premise.  Instead of a story about 2020 NYC that happened to involve superheroes, we ended up with a superhero story that happened to be set in 2020 NYC.  There is probably a way to bear witness to what we were experiencing while viewing it through a superhero lens, but it became harder and harder to do that in a way that felt authentic.

EXPERIMENTAL RESULT #3: THE CONFLICTING REWARDS THAT WEREN'T

In the original post, I was looking forward to a tension in reward systems.  Marvel Super Heroes tracks not only your hero's virtuousness, but also their wealth and reputation (and, implicitly, how we feel about them as protagonists).  I was looking forward to seeing how these conflicting motives would work out in play... but it was seldom an issue, and because it was a one-player game there wasn't any instructive contrast.

For the numerically inclined: Fano gained, and spent, 880 Karma points during the course of 21 sessions.  As a general rule, he spent a little bit of Karma on most session-important rolls, spending a lot on 2-3 occasions to avoid mind-control.  (Fano did realize, in a situation where he was going to lose all of his Karma in a few rounds anyway, that he could just blow all of his Karma right now in order to murder one of his more persistent enemes.)

Resources were used three times: twice to pay for super-inventions, and once to bribe a supervillain to leave town.  But otherwise no purchases were made. 

Popularity, starting at 10, went up to 12, dropped to 0 when a raid on the supervillain's HQ got bad media attention, and ended up at 6 (on a 100 point scale).  Don't fight super-crime in secret, kids--make sure you get attribution!

EXPERIMENTAL RESULT #4: NON-CARCERAL SUPERHEROES FEEL WEIRD

Fano and I are both want to defund the NYPD; I'm not sure if Fano favors abolition but I do.  This informed our attitude toward "cops & robbers" superheroes going into the game.

Prometheus didn't arrest anybody.  He threatened to "out" a supervillain's secret identity.  He paid off a mercenary supervillain to stop tearing up Brooklyn.  He let a multiple-murderer vigilante go free because he didn't want to get invested sorting out her personal crusade.  One villain he murdered (or tried to).  He repeatedly lied to his lovelorn, supervillain ex-girlfriend to keep her out of the way.  And he finally managed to expose Daedalus's scheme to put mind-control microchips in the vaccine (see?  late stage hack work), but never, like, genuinely beat him.  

All of which sounds intellectually interesting, but in play it felt very odd.  It was essentially a Dr. Who type of thing, where you had to figure out what the monster really wanted, then persuade it to go away.  Very few threats felt decisively ended, and if we'd been inclined to play longer I would have wanted to explore that.  Violence may not solve anything, but a superhero story without it feels a little off-key.  (We did have a big old team vs. team brawl at the end, and damn, villains get so hosed on Karma in this game.)

STRAY RECOMMENDATIONS

Drill down hard on the second of the Two Statements.  Officially, mine was "The 2020 NYC Omni-Shambles," which conveyed the emotional content initially.  But the real statement was probably closer to, "The complete delegitimization of civic authority."  That's more focused, and lends itself more readily for conflicts, than "Holy fuck this is a disaster."  Figure out why the second statement freaks you out, or interests you.

Open "cool" at least as often as you open "hot."  In between sessions, I'd ask Fano what he wanted to do next, but there was seldom a concrete goal.  I'd end up leaning on the Now for prep, and as a result I played it far too hot for the most part.  Prometheus was a wealthy super-genius inventor, which means he absolutely could have cured Covid, or developed a Strong AI to run the civic government, or developed some kind of anti-racism psychic virus.  But for the most part he felt most comfortable sparring with his immortal super-nemesis from Ancient Greece, Daedalus.  Over time I managed to fold Daedalus much more closely into the NYPD, the Mayor's Office, and the Healthcare Debacle.  But the better solution would have been to play it slow until Fano realized just how much freedom he really had.

Be really careful playing through your own trauma in real-time.  Those feelings are really complicated and nuanced, and may not easily translate to a comic book idiom.  The inability to hit that note left me feeling disappointed, like we'd left something really valuable on the table.  Despite that, we did play a full campaign, got to know Prometheus and his supporting cast really well, there were some pretty good superpowered conflicts along the way, hybridized a game system, and we did it together through a pretty rough time.

Department: 
Actual Play

Comments

James_Nostack's picture

In our final session, Fano and I took a moment to talk about how well the game met with our original "dramtatizing this craziness" goal.  We both agreed things got a little off track, but that the January 6 insurrection was precisely the kind of thing we had in mind.  I suggested that after taking a few weeks to reflect, we could do a one-shot with Champions Now, since I want to play the damn thing and it deserves some attention for all the hard work it put in shaping the rest of the campaign.

We've both got vacation plans in August but hopefully we'll have it done in September.

Ron Edwards's picture

It would be much more intelligent of me to focus on the interactions among Karma, Reputation, and Wealth in Marvel Super Heroes, why Champions Now doesn’t feature those things in any similar mechanics at all, and whether this is the precise point where your synthesis of the game breaks down in function. ... “Whether,” pooh! I think that’s exactly the case.

However, rashly and probably unintelligently, I’ll focus on the piece that interests me most, since it’s composed of three disparate parts: law enforcement (“catching criminals”), ending threats (more gently, solving problems, saving people), and turning to violent solutions (or framing problems as solvable that way).

It’s hard not to go down the rabbit hole of superheroes as law enforcement. Very briefly, and as you probably know from my comics blog, I think identifying superheroes as super-cops was originally and always has been an imposed feature and a very poor fit. Looking back at the early 80s when this game was designed, the veneer of superheroes as crime-preventers and crook-arresters was particularly thin, especially as it was being re-painted over its nearly complete disappearance during the past decade. The game matches its era by kind of supporting the concept, but there are enough ways to gain Karma that one doesn’t have to go that way much if at all, so I think the way you both played, with no paricular reference to the motif of cops-and-robbers, isn’t a critical issue – although of course, it’s endlessly distracting.

The confluence of solution and violence is more powerful, and we might think hard about how it applies to superhero role-playing. Product-maintenance inertia has often worked against it in the comics, resulting in plenty of meaningless violence and endlessly not-really-solved problems. But role-playing doesn’t have to be what comics do badly; indeed, I wrote Champions Now specifically so that the comics idiom could be expressed in a medium which doesn’t have to accept those same constraints. What are decent, just, and good solutions to issues we face? Is it not naïve to assume they can be achieved without violence? Certainly the perpetrators of such issues aren’t shy or restrained about using it.

Non-long-winded version: given power, what do you do to solve anything? It’s an important question to me, and you can see this in a lot of my games. I feel a great fulfillment to frame it in superhero terms in this one, considering I probably learned this question from the interesting era of comics I grew up in.

But I’m also not surprised to see people struggle with it in role-playing. Uncertain expectations and thorny procedural questions crop up fast.

Speaking as a player, what is my hero “supposed to do?” Am I limited to the kinds of activities I think are characterized by the comics? [wrongly, in many cases, but never mind that, it’s a good question] Do I accept the problems tossed to me, do my best, and hand the outcomes and implications back to the GM to decide?

Speaking as a GM, what “fix this!” situations am I tossing to the players, much in the unpleasant sense that someone throws something at you and shouts “Think fast!” If I address or express real-life crisis, but (understandably) can’t conceive it to have a fight-scene based solution, is that screwing the players? Am I supposed to keep solutions or a solution-friendly context in mind?

It seems to me that if one wants to address this three-part topic honestly and well, then play must absolutely embrace wide-open outcomes in terms of effectiveness, themes, and events. And that’s hard for people to do – or rather, until you learn that it’s easy, it seems insurmountable.

James_Nostack's picture

Problem-Solving, as such

Speaking as a player, what is my hero “supposed to do?” Am I limited to the kinds of activities I think are characterized by the comics? [wrongly, in many cases, but never mind that, it’s a good question] Do I accept the problems tossed to me, do my best, and hand the outcomes and implications back to the GM to decide?

This was probably the major miscommunication during the campaign.  Here's an example from play:

At the end of issue #7, Prometheus rescued Manolo Maza, an 8 year old Honduran immigrant child from ICE & Daedalus's psychic torture devices.  (The detention of immigrant children isn't a particularly New York thing, but God damn it it's messed up and it's still going on.)  

Fano several times said that he wanted to find Manny's parents and send him home.  Despite the complete lack of records and every conceivable bureaucratic snafu, this was absolutely achievable: Prometheus is a Tony Stark-level super genius with millions of dollars.  There are at least four immediate ways to solve this problem: as a Reason roll (deductive super-intelligence), a Resources roll (throwing money at the problem), or an Invention sub-game (designing, I don't know, a swarm of robo-mosquitioes to collect DNA and GPS coordinates); a Popularity roll (he has a super-ally who's desperately fighting this and it would be a good team-up); maybe a magic spell if he knew any sorcerers.  There's also the option of raiding the Bergen County ICE facility and smashing the place up until you find some answers.  I prepped some of these options and felt reasonably comfortable winging the others.

Marvel Super Heroes is a game where you can pretty much propose any agenda, and the only question is how hard you're willing to hustle for it.  Finding Manolo's family isn't the same thing as ending the detention crisis, but that larger problem could be addressed with equal freedom.  

There's a GM-side constraint: whatever happens on the roll should have meaningful consequences.  Maybe the super-ally gets into a Misunderstanding Fight, or we get drawn briefly into global humantarian crises, etc.  But it's a pretty open-ended game in theory.

In play Fano would say, "Hey, next time I wanna help Manny get home."  And we'd open up, and I'd set a scene with Manny, and... we got some characterization, but Prometheus didn't do anything concrete.  After feeling like the scene had played itself out, I'd glance at The Now and see who was getting itchy . . . and then Fano would chase after whatever the new thing was.  Granted, the new thing was more conventionally super heroic.

So for 14 sessions, this poor fuckin' kid is left traumatized, hanging around in Prometheus's basement apartment, alternately distraught and adorable--but, effectively, kidnapped just as bad as his earlier predicament.  I have no clue if Fano was doing that deliberately, as some kind of insanely dark commentary on American liberalism or what.  I'd like to think so, because otherwise, Christ, it's fucked up.

(Prometheus did, after some time, invent a Psychic Security Blanket to help Manny cope with his trauma.  In the final session, this Security Blanket acted to defeat Zeus, King of the Gods, who was trying to possess the boy.  So those efforts had a major effect at the climax.)

But it's an example of a genuine problem, one that violence can't easily solve . . . but it was sort of off-genre.  In hindsight I should have paused the game after the 3rd or 4th moment like this and said, "Look, how are you hoping to do this?  Let's play that out."  I'm used to that from other players, but Fano was a little more laid back.  On at least two occasions I tried to stress that the game does allow you a ton of freedom to do stuff, but I figured after the second reminder, whatever happened was just how Fano wanted to play it and I'd key off that.

Ron Edwards's picture

I'd like to separate the two things: (1) problems and solutions, or even better, "what do I do," "what can I do;" vs. (2) superheroes, powers, genres, comics, tropes, and anything related to them. I want to focus on the first, not as a superhero issue at all, but as a play-as-such issue.

You've probably noticed that I use the term "rules" differently from most RPG discourse. It certainly applies to things like "roll percentile dice and check the Universal Table to see if you hit," but it also applies to things like "this guy says where we are and what it looks like," and even less visibly, to things like "I get to say things like 'I hit him' only after this guy asks what I do, not before." I maintain that the latter are so much rules that if you want to get your teeth rattled, try going against the way they're constructed at any table some time, anywhere, playing with anyone.

I am speaking generally here because I wasn't at the table with you and Fano. I maintain that I'm standing on solid ground as far as generalizing is concerned, but I don't know how much it applies directly to you. So you (and he if he's reading, if so, hi Fano!) can judge that as you see it.

If we think of any act taken by a player-character in this game, specifically Marvel Super Heroes, as an interface between elements and details of "the world" as provided by the GM + quantified and quantified statements by the player, then I submit the game is silent - as are most - about how much and in what sequence the two "sides" of the interface are extended, before they turn into acknowledged in-fiction activity.

H'm - stupid infographic brain activates: two guys seated facing one another, with some empty space in between them, each holding a comb. One extends his comb toward the other, and there's some particular distance or range at which the other realizes they're supposed to extend theirs toward it.

  • The relative distances (A towards B vs. B towards A) might not be the same.
  • The combs might differ very greatly in terms of what "fiction bits" they actually do or affect.
  • Sometimes, only one of the people is allowed to move first. The other can twitch or indicate or kind of imply what they might want them to move about, but not move their comb.
  • Who talks or interprets or does things after the combs have interlocked may be A or B, depending on the precise fictional activity perhaps, or maybe it's always one of them and not the other.

Maybe when Fano said "I'd like to help the kid reunite with the family," that was like raising his comb and reaching toward you a little. But the rule in his head was that you were the one who was supposed to respond by moving that comb of yours nice and close before he could merge the tines of the two, whereas the rule in yours was that he could get that comb nice and close up in your face. You were all set for when the two combs met; you were not set for his indication that you were supposed to go pretty far in providing potential actions.

Less diagrammatically, I have often found that people need scaffolding to learn how the other person wants to play. That means I will make more suggestions and rules references early in play, as they get familiar with them and with how I will be talking, than I do later. It doesn't look like the two of you gave each other any scaffolding about those very important but always unstated rules.

Presumptuous of me to say you did this and he did that? Sure, although I point to my "apply as you see fit" above. And something is up here, whatever it may be. I mean ... twenty-one sessions? And he said "I'd like to get Manny to his family" at least four times? As you describe it, you played to allow him all the room the world to do that, including running some rules ideas in your head about how he might, and he didn't, so, okay. But he'd say it again, and the same thing, repeat. But that's over with person B's concept of the rules. Over in person A's concept, it may have been more like, "I keep saying what I want to do, and he keeps blocking me with these go-nowhere scenes that give me nothing to do it with."

James_Nostack's picture

I think that comb analogy is 100% right.  

The crazy thing about it is that Fano & I go back a ways--we've been players together in a D&D 5e game from 2014-2018, and continued to meet up from time to time.  This is the first time we were on opposite sides of the "GM screen."

And yeah, it's a weird communication issue.  Sometimes Fano would be like, "Okay, I want to build a neutralizer to use on Daedalus's Olympian tech," and we'd play that out.  (The invention process is a little slow and other things would occur too.)  And once that device was built, he logically announced, "Next time I'm going after Daedalus in his headquarters."  And so we launched into that.  It ended up being a pretty consequential session - the "Norman Osborn at Thanksgiving Dinner" moment.  So we were able to do it sometimes, at least.

I'd argue that the comb (or gears or whatever) analogy also works when we're having fun doing nothing in particular on purpose.  Issue 18 was one of those comics where it's just characters talking - Prometheus temporarily captured by his ex-girlfriend Pandora, who was making her debut.  Fano and I both enjoyed improvising this relationship into existence.  It was another very meaningful session, that resulted in Prometheus revealing his secret identity to his human friends, which was probably overdue.

So sometimes it worked and sometimes it didn't.  Or, maybe some of those problems ended up being more urgent or more interesting and each of us ended up prioritizing and then played out the areas of overlap.

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