Friday, February 1, 2013

Heroes of the United Worlds 1

The second campaign is a Legion of Super-Heroes pastiche containing a large team with heroes of varying power levels dealing with science-fiction style problems

1: analyze the source material for theme and beats

For those not familiar, the LSH started as a club of super-powered teenagers in the 30th century who take as their inspiration Superman and use their access to time travel technology to recruit the teenage Superboy (and later Supergirl). Superboy then repeatedly travels to the 30th century for adventures with his chums. The 30th century has plenty of threats in form of alien armies, pirates, evil geniuses and the like and it also has planet-wide populations with single powers. Cosmic Boy has magnetic powers because everyone on Brall has magnetic powers. That means there are a lot of people with powers: it turns out that when everyone is super, some people are HEROES.

The LSH first appeared in 1958. For many years it was a plot gimmick in Superboy or Supergirl stories until it got a regular gig in 1962. It continued an unbroken and well maintained continuity until 1989 when a new creative team took the book nowhere I wish to follow.

I find the LSH fascinating evidencef the transitions in comics. The original adventures are very 1950’s: high on whimsy, with a fusillade of ideas but stiff plots, centering on a problem that isn’t resolved until the 3rd or 4th attempt. To their credit these stories, outside the usual DC continuity, could have things change: heroes died, left the team, fell in love (or just necked). Even if they must remain best friends to keep it the DC style the relationships here were a foundation for the series.

Villains were a problem. In the first 30+ appearances there are only 3 named, returning villains (three Legion of Supervillains members) two of whom share powers with the founders! Otherwise it’s a cavalcade of shape-shifting/telepathic aliens to impersonate/mind control Legion members so the team can fight itself, play tricks on itself or accuse one another. In the 30th through 60th appearances we do see three more big villains but usually the style required that everything be wrapped up every issue. The team just couldn’t get a rogue’s gallery going.

This doesn’t indicate a lack of creativity, as the Legion gained new members and had Legion rejects who either turned into Substitute Heroes, became that issue’s villain or vanished to be picked up in later years. The vibe was super powered people are plentiful but few are menaces. Threats were large groups such as pirates, raiders or spies, or as non-human alien races trying neutralize the LSH. It was a world of technological peace under threat from aliens and raiders.

Then came the Jim Shooter era: the 14 year old comic book wunderkind wrote LSH during high school, left for a while and came back for more, churning out brilliant ideas: villains tumbled onto the page and Marvel style silver age plotting and melodrama took over the book. The alien threats became fleshed out – Khunds and Dominators and the Dark Circle rather than generic raiders, aliens and spies. Villains escaped and returned, plotted and planned. The romances and relationships became more real.

There’s a long period for which I don’t have issues, as I entered LSH fandom in the Paul Levitz era. Levitz freely admitted that he was bad at making up villains, but he had 22 years of LSH history and he mined it like crazy. He found new ways to use old threats and kept relationships center stage. Levitz braided his plots, so that a subplot appearing in issue #1 is completely resolved in a climactic fashion in issue 35 – during that arc a “masked mystery Legionnaire” plot starts in issue 14 and resolves in issue 27, and during _those_ fourteen issues there are seven other major threats or plotlines, two of which tie back to the 35 issue subplot. Levitz wasn’t ‘writing for the trades’, he was writing for the long haul.

Structurally the LSH is ‘just’ a club but it’s a highly with a variety of by-laws to force people out. Some of these are obvious super-hero stuff – Legionaries can’t kill anyone – but others are there to enforce the exclusivity – each member must have one unique power (waived for the Kryptonians), powers can’t rely on devices, powers must be reliable and under control. Finally there are the rules that are clearly plot devices (Legionnaires can’t be married, they can’t level false accusations against team members and a myriad of others) that fuel plots where someone is kicked out of the club for reasons noble or nefarious.

Power wise members of the LSH fall into three tiers: the big guns (Superboy, Supergirl, Mon-el, Ultra Boy) with the Flight / Invulnerability / Strength / Speed / Vision powers paradigm, people with single powers that are potent or versatile (Lightning Lad, Cosmic Boy, Saturn Girl, Sun Boy, etc.) who make up the core of the team and people with powers that aren’t immediately powerful (Triplicate Girl, Bouncing Boy, Matter-Eater-Lad, Shrinking Violet, etc.) but who always show heroism and prove their worth. “Strength of character is more important than strength of power” is a big theme.

Other repeated themes use of deception rather than force, the personal shouldering of sacrifice (especially to save loved ones) and loyalty to the team.  The book also had regular tropes:  Deception within team, Expulsion from the team, Threat from within team, Mystery of unknown superhuman, Facing people with your powers, Heroes imprisoned Raider/Pirate invasion fleet,  Giant/powerful monster attack and finally New or returning villain.

These get mixed and matched to for a variety of plots. The LSH’s first appearance is a combination of deception and strength of character as Superboy is tested to see if he can join the club founded in his honor – he fails only to learn that the LSH rigged the tests and the real test was of his character. (The LSH does this so often you might think they’re jerks, but I guess it’s acceptable in the 30th century.)  There’s a surprising number of methods for internal threats: deceptions on other enemies, tricks to test new members, Red Kryptonite affected members, people suffering from amnesia/hypnosis or a villain joining the club to force it to disband. If a hero learns teammates are in future danger it is expected they will try to take that fate themself or to trick teammates into avoiding the threat (possibly via expulsion).

Later periods have new themes. Specifically, the LSH becomes a power unto itself in the United Planets. As such there’s a strong ‘responsibility of power’, a moderate ‘returning threats’ and a small ‘goals and leadership conflicts’ (leaders are sometimes glued to the monitor board playing logistics and worrying about the troops in the field). The shift to interwoven plotting means that we also have personal subplot arising and resolving constantly through this period.

In order to catch the right vibe here’s what I have in mind:

The first round of PCs are 21st century people pulled through time into the 31st century. While they are ordinary in the present they are super human in the future since their bodies have 1000 years less entropy. (Yes, this is ludicrous.) All gain the classic Strength, Invulnerability, High-Speed Flight combination plus a unique power.  The PCs are much surprised by this turn of events.

Members future teen-age super-hero organization, the Centurions, developed this time ray to snag the great heroes of the 21st century to help hold back a pirate fleet. The PCs are fortunately now powerful enough to fulfill the role. Once they finish the time ray wears off and they’re back in the 21st century until the next time the wavelength returns them to the future. These PCs fill the LSH’s Big Guns roles.

The erratic time ray also means that some 21stC PCs can be in the future while others remain behind. The players can create secondary PCs as Weak or Core level Centurions. I’ll create 5 Core-Weak NPCs as the Centurion’s founders, players can make up one Core and Weak centurion each so each player has 3 PCs. In the early episodic phases I’ll give an adventure teaser and let players choose which Pcs are on the mission; I’ll include one of my Founder NPCs to have a GM mouthpiece to explain backstory. As the campaign goes on it switches to an interwoven style with 2-3 plots running at once – players can decide on the fly which of their PCs are in which plots.

I am hoping that many of the player-PCs will phase out in favor of the more differentiated future heroes. Having the similar initial heroes lets the older players guide the younger ones on genre rules and the like and then for the people who like rolling up new PCs to enjoy that aspect while people who like sticking with a single hero can do that as well, though this might lead to a loss of spotlight time in the interwoven campaign as they don’t have Pcs to join some plots.

I’m looking at three distinct phases to an 10 session campaign.

Phase 1: three sessions of two short adventures each. The threats in these adventures are ‘human’ raiders or pirates or thieves, reversed or trick playing team members or alien shape shifters/mind controllers. These episodes all have to include at least one of the 21st century player-PCs and can be spaced far apart time wise to get the feel that the solar system is seldom in crisis.

Phase 2: the Solar System is suddenly always in crisis. This is one-two sessions of super villains either lone, in groups or teamed up with established raiders. Again these are long sessions so I intend to do two ‘plots’ per post, though some of them will be two-parters.  These episodes don’t have to have any 21st century PCs – the 31st century group is established enough to handle things on their own.

Phase 3: five sessions that are two to three plots each, but designed so that two different strands of threats converge into one big endgame in the 10th session. Again there need not be any of the 21st century heroes there, but the team will likely need the firepower at the end.

What to expect for the next month: I’m not designing a set of game mechanics for this one. There are multiple super hero games on the market with their own strengths and weaknesses. I’ll be using lightly modified version of V&V for this myself, and will work out how modifications to DC Heroes RPG/Mayfair Exponential Game System. Next post  is working out the genre rules for mysteries, rotating casts, variable power levels and other things, then two posts of mechanics options and then go on to 10 posts of adventures. There will be some weeks with bonus posts outside the regular MWF structure.

Feel free to stick around.