Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Universal Comics Movieverse 2


2: Design Conceptual Framework

My first point from Monday was that movie super heroes are much tighter in their allowed origin stories than the comics. Let’s look at a few ways to get to that point in your game.

First is that you don’t have to start from scratch. If you’re already running a super hero game you can stop it at a certain point, look over what you’ve done so far for commonalities and then rework everything around those. In some ways this is a big boon when we get to the Easter Egg issue, and a lot of the ideas below still apply (with some modification).

I think it’s more likely, however, that you will be starting from scratch and building a comic book continuity being fitted to movie-style logic from the get go. In this case you should think about two things: Power Metaphor and Shared Origin.


I’ve written on powers as metaphors before, and the article in which I did so is still available for purchase online (link) from the lovely people at Steve Jackson games, so I’m going to make this quick. The idea is to look at what powers mean in a setting. Game mechanics are fine for what powers do or even how they do it, but the question here I what narrative do they support. For example, powers in X-Men movies are like being a persecuted minority. Having them makes you a second class citizen with limited rights if not an outright threat to be rounded up and eliminated. In the initial Superman movies Superman is a Christ figure, and having powers is like being God or an Angel.

Why do this? It makes the campaign world feel distinctive, but for our purposes here it also suggests themes for the campaign and plot hooks for individual characters. These are important for movies – really important. A good movie takes a theme and key images and hammers them home. A good theme makes good through lines, which makes for good characterization.

Here’s a quick list of metaphors for powers that you might want to consider. Having powers is like…
·   Having Parents: Cyborg’s father wanted his son to be an engineer so much he turned him into a machine; Raven is the child of an abusive spousal relationship who is told ‘her father’s evil is in her’ because her father is actually the devil.
·   Being Drafted: you’re picked somewhat at random but have to abide by new rules, hierarchies and a new social order. Your team is likely a band of brothers from all social strata.
·   Being an Immigrant: How much of your powered self/original culture can you hide/lose to fit in without losing yourself?
·   Being a Public Servant: powers people perform as perpetually on call cops, petty bureaucrats or unappreciated engineers.
·   Being a force of Civil Disorder: Nolan’s Batman movies use this, where the villains want to destroy the city and Batman admits he’s more chemotherapy than cure.
There are untold possible other ones, left for you to discover.

The metaphor doesn’t have to run across multiple films – it might be that the metaphor for one hero’s move is having powers is like being a city and for another hero it’s like having a disability. That’s fine – it’s how it works in the comics, and it can work well in the movies as long as everything in each hero’s movie ties into their personal metaphor. The now-inevitable team up film (and we are working to an inevitable team up film) becomes a place for those metaphors to clash and adapt to one another. The strength of the dialogue between Banner and Stark in the Avenger is proof of how well that can work.

Once you’ve laid out a metaphor the next thing is to select a shared origin idea. As I discussed earlier this isn’t 100% necessary but it is typical to the genre. So take a few minutes to analyze your existing campaign for its most potent elements and build from there, brainstorm with your players to see what they’re interested in. Once you’ve settled on whether it’s science or magic, human or extraterrestrial, technology or biology you’ll have narrowed your gaming world considerably. This is not a bad thing, as I’ll get to below.

What follows are two examples, both in broad scope and varied implementation:
Powers come from extraterrestrial technology:
·   ARGONAUT: The Yalta conference was actually about how to divvy up the treasures found in an alien cache found in Egypt and the effect that would have on the post war world.
·   Wymhole: Particle Physical researchers accidentally open a gate to another world and grad students absorb the genius energy symbiotes that come through.
·   Promethean Fire: a spaceship with a single, powerful alien crashes; some people get his tech, some get parts of his DNA, and they scramble to keep up with him.
Powers come from magic:
·   Scholomance: the devil’s academy has been training a dozen undead wizards a decade since the 13th century; who are they, and how do their apprentices react to the world.
·   Iliad: During the summer of love the Greek gods held revels among unwitting humans; the offspring of those unions are like unto the demi-gods of old.
·   For The Color of Your Eyes: the fay folk are trading power and artifacts for things of ‘little import’, though with whom they choose to trade is understood only by them.
I’m sure you’re clever enough to work out more on your own. These shared origins should make it easier to get the heroes to interact in the same space in the inevitable team movie.

If you end up with a hero that looks like she doesn’t fit the shared origin concept you should use that as a clue, take a further step back and see if you can find a way to fit her. Maybe the others origin concept is just a facet of her origin’s broader penumbra, or there’s a slantwise interpretation that can tie them together. Of you could do what Sam Rami did and just ditch the idea, either for her or in general, though I still think you’re well served having the origin being consistent within each hero’s own movies for the same reasons that you want the thematic unity of the power metaphor – to keep everything moving in the same direction.

I want to restate my goal here: designing a gaming framework to make supers games feel like supers movies. We’re going to start with an example of a single film for a ‘solo’ hero, then how to turn that film into a series, then how to make other connected series, then how to link them together in an inevitable crossover.

In comic books teams come in two types – teams whose characters were created to be part of a team (Fantastic Four, X-Men) and teams whose core characters have their own comics and adventures before joining the team (Avengers, JLA). Heroes follow different rules based on that distinction. Solo heroes have to have a balance of offense and defense (to be able to fight crime) movement (to be able to reach crime) and sensory (to be able to find crime) attributes. In their own books they have a supporting cast that provides emotional, logistical & technical support to fill any gaps in their skill set.

Team heroes, on the other hand can have only one or two of those attributes because their teammates cover for them – the Thing doesn’t need to have sensory attributes because Mr. Fantastic has tons of super science skills to find and analyze problems. He doesn’t have to have movement powers because Human Torch has those, and Thing can also borrow the team fantasticar. The rest of the team covers for him. This is similar to the supporting cast in a solo book, but there is no titular, more powerful spotlight character.

Team heroes can work great in an RPG environment because they have a lot of room for niche protection and spotlight time. Solo heroes who team up are harder because everyone has some aspect of those four key attributes and we either have to find smaller niches to protect or make sure spotlight time is broadly shared. Teamed-Up heroes also have a support structure as they do in their solo series, but it is made up either of secondary heroes (who, like built-for-team heroes, lack broad power bases) or are key members of individual heroes supporting cast.

The goal in this experiment is to build 3-4 heroes of a comics line (which we’ll name Universal Comics), set up individual movies for each (all open ended enough for trilogies) and then arrange a team up of those core heroes and key parts of their support staff as a big blockbuster movie. Obviously that means we’re building from the solo hero concept, which we’re actually going to do a couple of times before we get to the ‘just like you screen the big screen’ adventures. And if you thought my Legion tribute was weird, you ain’t seen nothing yet.

So finishing up on today, I need to design the Power Metaphor and Shared Origin Type for the Universal Comics Movies.

Having powers is like… Being Nostalgic. I know that sounds strange but bear with me. Here are a handful of interpretations:
·   The character is from a dystopian future and is nostalgic for our present.
·   The character is from a lost golden age (Camelot, Atlantis, etc.) and strives to recreate it.
·   The character has inherited powers from a deceased (?) family member/mentor whom he wishes would return.
·   The character’s powers tore his family apart, and he now pines for that lost time
·   The character’s powers come or typify an aspect of culture that is now lost or abandoned.
The general sense of all of these stories, as heroes, should be the wish to create/preserve the best parts of our history without any of the bad stuff that nostalgia washes out (or, for the villains, the opposite). This can be personal or cultural, but it must be there.

The shared origin story is parallel dimensions: everyone gets their powers from contact with other dimensions or differing timelines. Time Travel is a big part of this, but we also have magic and demons as shifts between dimensions. I’m also picturing something of an onionskin of alternate history events as the series goes on – people think the parallel timelines started in, say, 1930 but they actually began in the 1880s, or in an antediluvian golden age or even further back than that. I’m going to try to work some version of that idea into the backstories of our heroes as we design them.

Bear with me. This is gonna get strange.