Monday, February 4, 2013

Heroes of the United Worlds 2

2: Design the campaign setting based on beats and themes

As discussed last time LSH plots are highly structured and rely a lot on mysteries.

Adventures have five parts: act 1 is stage setting/ introduction to the problem, acts 2-4 parts of gathering clues, failed attempts to solve the problem (which provide clues in themselves) or resolving sub problems. Finally the solution is found in act 5 and we have a quick denouement. The middle acts can be in sequence or happening concurrently with the large team split into smaller units. Defeated villains (when there are villains) are dragged off to the hoosegow and not seen again for some time.

If the middle acts provide clues the preferred method is to describe the clue in an oblique way. Then give the PCs, if necessary) rolls to see if they spot that it as significant to the mystery. 1960’s comics were big on “Brainaic 5 Spotted the Clue…DID YOU?” editorial boxes and this is the equivalent – a way to challenge the player and the character simultaneously (though if they don’t get it by act 5 you should allow rolls to piece it together).

LSH problems have absolutes– the villains have kryptonite, heightened senses that reveal invisible or shrunk people, gasses that force shape shifters back to normal form etc. – in them that force a specific correct answer. I don’t want to mimic, but adventure design should include lists of pre-designed defenses to block avenues that I want blocked, but if the players come up with something outside that they should be rewarded. Punching people is seldom a solution. If it were, the 21st c PCs would resolve the problem immediately.

Phase 2 adventures are identical but with an emotional B plot: the villain has a backstory with a hero, there’s tension between two PCs, or NPC issues unconnected with the A plot. The B plot melodramatic, a chance to look at our heroes’ psyches; it comes to a partial resolution at the session’s end. The other Phase 2 change is that villains escape or suffer mystery deaths.

In phase 3 we shake things up by braiding the plots. The core structure is unchanged but instead of the adventure being Plot 1 scene 1, P1S2, P1S3, P1S4 then P1S5 we have the session being P1S1, P1S2, P2S1, P1S3, P2S2. Still five parts, two plots moving. Next adventure is P3S1, P1S4, P2S3, P3S2, P1S5. We end the session with the conclusion of Plot 1, but plots 2 and 3 are in motion. Plot 4 will fill in the space emptied by Plot 1. In the fifth session this concludes with P4S4, P5S3, P4S5, P5S5 and then P5 S5 – this is a session with two plot conclusions and therefore a big wrap up. This might look complicated but you’re only ever maintaining 3 plots at once, and in a structured format.

For added spice there should continue to be a B plot bit of character melodrama in each session during phase 3. In fact, one of the plot/problems (I recommend either 2 or 3) could/should be an ongoing B plot that rises to sudden prominence. Maybe two of the heroes get engaged and married over the sessions, or tow start dating and then have a big break up, or one is facing disease or death could be involved in hunting for a cure. Neither one of those is villains or world shattering threats but they’re the sort of thread that works well for braided superhero stories.

Scenarios are designed by mixing one of the themes
1. Strength of character
2. Brains over Brawn
3. Personal shouldering of sacrifice
4. Loyalty to the team

Note that there isn’t a straight up ‘be willing to fight a really tough foe’ theme because that can be strength of character (I have to keep trying!) shouldering of sacrifice (I have to protect the team/those civilians!) or loyalty to the team (if I fail I will have let the others down!). Each carried a slightly different flavor in play that should influence the scenario design.

With the following tropes
1. Deception within team
2. Expulsion from the team
3. Threat from within team
4. Mystery of unknown superhuman
5. Facing people with your powers
6. Heroes imprisoned
7. Raider/Pirate invasion fleet
8. Giant/powerful monster attack
9. New, unique potentially returning villain
10-12: d8 roll twice on this chart, combine.

By heavens that looks like an adventure creation chart! And it is! Feel free to use it or not as you see fit. It’s what I’m using to design the scenarios that I’m working up below.

The United Worlds universe is as follows: in the mid-21st century humanity had several technological breakthroughs and took to space. They conquered short range hyperspace, mastered gravity and perfected terraforming, letting them make every hunk of rock larger than 1000 km diameter in the solar system into a habitable body with 1G, plus building a couple of Earth-Sized cities floating in the clouds of the gas giants. That’s Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars, Ceres,3 world sized cities on  Jupiter, 3 on Saturn, 2 on each on Uranus  & Nepture, Pluto, Eris, Haumea and Makemake, plus 16 moons = 35 human ‘worlds’.  (The Centurions HQ is on Ganymede since Jupiter and its moons are the 31st century’s social center.)

At some time in the 25th century hyperspace inexplicably collapsed. That stopped space travel, silenced the ansible network and froze all of the zero point energy generators that made the United Worlds viable. All major planets were able to scramble to archaic fusion power but the damage was catastrophic. It was 400 years before things had recovered enough for to re-open commerce. Things have improved, but humanity is nowhere near its pre-crash peak. In hyperspace only the ansible network is operational. (Note: light speed communication delays are a pain; keep the instant communication network!)

During those 400 years the populations of many worlds either had strange mutations occur or engaged in bio-engineering to survive, so that several worlds have shared powers. A few examples:

Everyone on Venus is able to quickly grow or shed durable body armor to survive in the planet’s still-acidic atmosphere. This makes them a little bit stronger and a lot tougher than Earthlings, and they act as workmen in dangerous environments across the United Worlds. One Venusian, Miss Chrysalis, is a founding Centurion, trying to use her power to protect others, not just herself.

Deimos, a moon of mars, was a scientific research community that happened to have several fusion power plants running when the hyperspace crash hit. They were able to continue on as the worlds around them collapsed. These days the children of Deimos are scientifically brilliant but disliked as moral pariahs on other worlds. One of their most brilliant youths is a founding Centurion as Demon Boy.

This should give you an idea. Of course there are also scientific formula and radiation accidents to give people powers as well, and inexplicable pre-crash items to be used by villains. One point: world is magic-free, even if the pre-crash tech is tech to the point of magic. While the LSH has magic, I want to stay SF.

Given that I’m limiting this to the solar system, there’s no FTL travel and I have any number of worlds where people have ‘alien’ powers I hope it’s clear that I don’t intend to have much by way of ‘aliens’. But that doesn’t mean I won’t have any!  In fact I have four alien species

First are the Europans, the native race of Jupiter’s watery moon. They look like a cross between sea turtles and dolphins, only discovered the outside world when humans bore though the surface ice and need life support and mobility enhancers to survive outside of water. They are a specific shout out to Tellus, one of my favorite Legionaries.

Next are the SSSixl, a gaseous race from outside the galaxy. Their ship crash landing into Uranus is what caused the hyperspace collapse, not that anyone knows that. They are able to insinuate themselves into organics to control them, and can adopt their shape and color to appear to be human (though they are still gasses). They are the go-to race for chaos-generating aliens.

Third up are the Frail Ones. These are actually time travelers from the 41st century who are barely extant in our time due to entropy levels. Still, they can hire agents, bootstrap technology via willing scientists, plot, scheme, and so on. The Frail Ones view the Centurions as a threat to their future. If the Centurions reach the 41st century they’ll be insanely powerful, but facing a system wide technology as magic threat.

Finally we have the space dragons. Giant freakin’ space dragons. They’re not terribly bright and their migratory patterns take them through the solar system once every 2500 years. While here they will disrupt space lanes. And on planets and consume things and otherwise make big dumb, invulnerable nuisances of themselves.

People familiar with the LSH will recognize at least some of these as being reskinned LSH threats, but they’re the sort we need to make the setting feel right.

Technology is high, certainly, but I also need to emphasize that thematically it is no match for smartly wielded super-powers. Raiders and pirates are carrying ray guns that won’t hurt Miss Chrysalis, and they have to be in their space pirate ships to stand a chance against the 21st century PCs. Heroes can still be overwhelmed if attacked en mass or by surprise of course, but the point is that there isn’t a way to mass produce super power equivalent devices, especially not of the 21st century PC levels. Any villain relying on a device (other than a pre-crash hypertech item) can expect it to be broken or run out of charges after it challenges the heroes for a little while.

So how do we build a system to do that? Well, actually we’re gonna do it twice!