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.)
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.