Boston Supers Game Design Diary

by Brendan Mahan

Geek Force Five is about the things we’re geeking out about, right?  It’s focus also includes story and creativity.  To that end, I’ve decided to share with you my latest creative enterprise over which I have been geeking out for quite some time.  See, I’m a gamer and I’m starting a new campaign.  It involves superheroes.  Yeah, double geek!

I’ve been running and playing in roleplaying games since 1996; mostly D&D and mostly as the story-teller/GM.  I ran the same homebrewed gameworld for about a decade, in the form of three separate games.  The most recent of which ended when I took a hiatus in November of last year due to the impending birth of my twin sons who showed up this past January. 

Last Sunday, the hiatus ended.  For the foreseeable future, I will be running a GURPS superhero game based in modern day Boston.  This is a considerable divergence from the D&D games I’ve spent most of my time running—new system, new genre, new setting.  Due to the twins, my job and a very engaging karate hobby, I’ll also be limited by time.  We’ll only be running once a month, as opposed to the weekly or every other week sessions I’m used to.  It’s a challenge I’m pretty jazzed about.

Before the game started, I found myself facing a few questions that needed answering:

In Terms of Running the Game:

How would I establish the world of the game so it felt compelling and real and carried the vibe of the superhero genre?

How would I address the limited time issue?

What options are presented to me in a modern game based in the real world that I didn’t have in my medieval fantasy based D&D games?

In Terms of Story:

How did the superheroes come about?

How is the world changed due to the presence of superheroes?

What does society think of the superheroes?

What will the government’s view of superheroes be?

How will I make use of Boston as the setting?

What themes do I want to address?

I’ll address them briefly now, and discuss them in more depth in later articles.

How would I establish the world of the game so it felt compelling and real and carried the vibe of the superhero genre?

I decided the best way to do this was to create an imaginary comic publisher, Excelsior Comics, and develop a publishing list for my players to read.  I leaned heavily on Marvel and DC for both inspiration and archetypes.  Being able to say “Nightwind is this world’s Batman with a twist and Lady Quiver is sort of a female Green Arrow/Daredevil hybrid gave me the shorthand I need to make populating the game with background heroes much easier.  I will address this “publishing list” in a later article.

How would I address the limited time issue?

The time issue is two fold.  Firstly, games will be less frequent, once a month as opposed to 2-4 times a month.  Secondly, they will be a little longer, 5-6 hours as opposed to 3-4.  In response to the first, I realized I had to figure out a way to get my story information out in a faster, easier to remember manner.  In response to the second, I realized I had to change my pacing.  I would have to approach the game with new eyes. 

The first choice I made in order to facilitate the story-telling on a limited time budget was to begin the story in the middle with the players having a considerable back story as a team.  Setting up a solid backstory has given me elements to play with before the game even starts.  As a result, I could hit the ground running with minimal in-game info dumping.  Following with the Excelsior Comics theme mentioned above, I wrote out a three year comic series for the team, complete with annuals and first appearances in other books.  Like the “publishing list,” I will address this “comic series” in a later article.

Another choice I made was to use technology to help tell my story.  This has streamlined my story-telling considerably and given me tools to help my players remember the events from month to month more easily.

What options are presented to me in a modern game based in the real world that I didn’t have in my medieval fantasy based D&D games?

The most obvious option I have been presented with in running a modern game is the ability to use modern technology to tell my story.  As I mentioned above, it has helped me address the time issue as well.  I am incredibly proud of the ways I have planned to apply this to the game, and look forward to fully addressing what I’ve done in an upcoming article.

So, that leaves the story questions, each of which will also get its own article. 

How did the superheroes come about?

I decided to go with the classic: WWII.  Generally speaking, the arms race started in WWII wasn’t just nuclear, it was also biological.  The development of supersoldiers led wizards and witches to step out of the shadows and display their talents for the world, observing correctly that if the modern world could handle super-strong, super-fast humans, they could likely also handle a bit of magic.  The acceptance of the amazing that this lead to also allowed research into psychic powers to be far more productive in the game world than in ours.

How is the world changed due to the presence of superheroes?

I admit it, I’m not a big fan of massive world changing what ifs.  As a result, I intend to keep the world pretty much the same.  Super-powered people exist, but it hasn’t caused any massive changes…  Yet.

What does society think of the superheroes?

Just what you’d expect.  Some people love them, some hate them.  I’m going to play with the idea of superheroes being worshipped and have some cults form around them, but I’ve also got a group called Humanity First that exists to rid the world of superbeings.  It’s a mixed bag. 

What will the government’s view of superheroes be?

Conflicted.  They’re responsible for the super-powers that have come about in the game world, so they don’t feel right rounding up those who have them.  At the same time, super battles wreak havoc with infrastructure and endanger the populace.  What to do, what to do? 

(As a side note, my solution to the collateral damage is another fun little element of the world that I’ll share now.  Wizarding Guilds exist for the sole purpose of repairing damaged buildings.  They come in, hop on their flying carpets and float up the buildings repairing any damage that may have been done.  Most major cities have a contract with at least one guild, and Boston is no different, much to the annoyance of the local labor unions.  But that’s another tale altogether.)

How will I make use of Boston as the setting?

Boston has a rich history and fun geography that I fully intend to play with.  The team’s origin involves them battling “The Menace of the Molasses Monster.”  Seems the Big Dig woke up the spirits of those who died during the Great Molasses Flood of 1919 and they attacked the city as a burning hot mass of vengeance seeking molasses.

What themes do I want to address?

Power, for one.  What defines power, and does it really come down to who can beat up who?  Freedom for another.  How can I not when it’s based in Boston?  Possibly the role of government, it’s hard for someone with my small “L” libertarian leanings to ignore.

Anyway, that’s all I’ve got for now.  Let me know what you think, and if you’re interested in hearing more.