Saturday, February 13, 2016

Things I Learned from Champions: The Multiverse Is My (Potential) Sandbox (part 01)

Champions and the Hero System have been on my mind of late for several reasons: the Aaron Allston Strike Force Kickstarter, the DC RPG Hero Points Podcast under the Fire & Water podcast network. So when a recent talk of sandboxes and railroads slammed into the space for RPG thought, my immediate thought was: in a Supers RPG, The Multiverse Is My (Potential) Sandbox.

All my worlds, torn asunder!

What do you mean by sandbox?

You may know what a sandbox is, but my understanding may be different from yours -- so I'll expound on my particular interpretation. As I mentioned in a very old post, my understanding of a sandbox is

"...a style of play where players are dumped into a campaign setting that can be as small as a dungeon or as large as a  world map and are free to pursue whatever agendas they wish..."

Furthermore, my understanding is that sandboxes are often positioned as a diametric opposite to the railroad, wherein a gaming session / adventure must follow a rigid sequence of events, with little tolerance for deviation.

One key point about sandboxes is the implication of edges. In theory, you can do whatever you want within the borders of that sandbox, but beyond the borders -- there's nothing prepared.

But in the Superhero genre, there's a precedent for borderless adventures. Sure, Daredevil may be dealing with crime in Hell's Kitchen -- but from time to time Japanese Ninjas come 'round and kidnap him or his loved ones forcing a trip to the Land of the Rising Sun (and Sailor Moon). And occasionally, there's a team adventure in the Savage Land or some other strange corner of the universe. It's worse for characters who can travel to the other side of the world in the blink of an eye, or can sift through millions of minds in a split second, or can slide-shift into other dimensions.

In fact, that was one of the earliest things I got into when building my character -- years of frustration at not being able to move far enough or often enough in other RPGs led to a high DEX, high SPEED, high movement character build. Someone who could move across the battle mat in a single move (nothing compared to the more experienced characters who could, actually, race across the city in a single segment.

So, at power levels like this, there's no borders to where they can go during adventures, right?

No borders, no sandbox -- right?

The Invisible Borders of a Supers Sandbox

There actually are some borders in a Supers Sandbox. Some of these I've used, and others are those I've learned from my betters in Metahuman settings:

Beware: Here Be Boredom

For all the criticism of super-heroes being reactive, only waiting for crime to take place before doing anything about it, super-hero campaign players are rarely anything but reactive. Give them a mystery and they'll do anything -- even ill-considered, or downright stupid things -- to get to the bottom of it. Hit them with an attack that almost kills them, and they'll buy up a defense for it -- even if it doesn't fit their character concept.

The downside is, for those players who haven't learned yet that part of the super-hero genre involves their characters getting into progressively worse situations before getting out of them, they can start to turtle.

Ain't nothing wrong with being a turtle. As long as you're
teenaged, mutated, and ninja'd!
Rather than strike hard and fade away into the night (only old fans of TMNT know that one), they very unheroically pull into their shells and hide. They avoid encounters with the enemy, avoid following up leads on villains, avoid interactions with their NPCs or innocents in need.

This is why the view that Call of Cthulhu PCs are unheroic is flawed: there's a lack of appreciation about what true heroism is. Being powerful can mean having the fury of a millions suns coursing through your veins, but being heroic lies in using (or not using) that power even if it means that you might die.

So, the reward for repeated cowardice in my games -- beyond shame or ridicule -- is just boredom. Nothing happens to you. No one bothers you. The digits of your wall clock cycle through the seconds and minutes slowly. You overhear people talking about their work, their love lives, their cats, their trip to Japan where they watched a Go tournament. All while their teammates have the time of their lives, risking their lives and sacred fortunes to fight for what is right and true and just in the world.

No, they're not being forced to go back to the "storyline of the GM". They're just discovering that, just like in the 'real world', there are places where nothing interesting is happening right this second / minute / year / century. They have exercised their player agency to place their characters in a state of stasis.

In D&D terms, this is the equivalent of the PCs that refuse to go into any dungeon, or pursue any adventure hook or rumour that the DM dangles before them. They just get to sit in the tavern and ignore the growing table of increasingly drunk mysterious strangers in cloaks grumbling loudly about adventurers these days.

The Gravity of the Situation

Star Trek reference. My job is done here.
On the other hand, before we pull the trigger on that solution, Supers GMs often employ another technique to pull their players' PCs back into the thick of things. Perhaps they have a beloved NPC get kidnapped by the villain (a classic), or a helpless innocent is endangered, or a person / place / thing / ideal very dear to the player or the PC is threatened.

Or, out of sheer coincidence, that dame/dude picks the player's life to walk into, out of all the gin-joints in Gotham City.

These events, very much in the pulp-rooted traditions of two-fisted action and wall-to-wall suspense, will often bring the heroes -- who might be traipsing around in the backwaters of Earth-C -- back to where the action is.

The benefit of this kind of approach is that PCs are exercising a very traditional player agency ability -- the ability to get yourself into the trouble you choose! Yeah, you may not want to go into space to fight the Zekrit Warz, but you're sure down with knocking sense into fools who're trying to grab that bespectacled kid with the lisp and the adorable little chihuahua!

If you're enjoying these movie references, check out the
Film and Water podcast. It's a hoot!
One might say that these are just adventure hooks (as they would be called in the classic D&D milieus), but in a Supers campaign they do act as a sort of border -- much in the way that an event horizon acts as the edge of a black hole. No matter how far the players try to flee, these often pull them back in.

Well, most of the time. The real trick is having some kind of variety to your approaches. Sometimes it's a carrot (you'll get some information on a villain, some useful connection, some artefact of power that will help you in this adventure or in the campaign at large, a new NPC, etc.) and sometimes it's a stick (death, injury, social or financial consequences, ridicule or anger from the general populace, or other heroes hunting you down -- for a crime you didn't commit).

The Weirdness Magnet

This boardgame appeared in the pages of the comic. Fun!
I first encountered this in the Blue Devil comics, where it's posited that when the titular character -- a stuntman by trade -- gets fused into his costume by a blast of eldritch energy, he's been turned into a weirdness magnet. That is, unlike when he was a normal stuntman, he now 'coincidentally' runs into super-villain schemes, supernatural plots to destroy/transform the world, meets new and super-powered humans and aliens, and generally lives a life of constant excitement and bewilderment.

Yes, you no longer need to find trouble; trouble finds you! Constantly.

In fact, if you have to live a life of peace, you'll have to earn it -- by figuring out what the common thread of all these ninja attacks have (why do all their clan names have an appendage in them?), or by figuring out who's behind all these attacks on their loved ones (why do crooks always rob the store my mom's at?), or by determining why they're only ever safe from being bothered by homicidal maniacs and swarms of locusts when they're near holy ground or a holy symbol (I think someone done cursed you, Johnny. Now get outta my house, I gotta turtle.)!

Audience participation

What are some of the borders that you implemented (or experienced) in your super-heroic campaign? 

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That's my side of things. Let me know what you think, my friend.