Friday, May 10, 2013

Universal Comics Movieverse 6

4: First Sample PC, part 2

Back to Captain Nostalgia, and today we’re going to be looking at some conceptual mechanics and work out the supporting cast in his movie.


When people design powers for RPGs they do so on axes I’ll call Potency and Versatility. The most potent a power is the more impressive its effects: how much can you lift, how much does the power blast go kaboom, how fast can you fly and so on.  The more versatile the power is the more different ways the hero can use it: can his gravity control just let him pin people to the floor or does it double as telekinesis, clinging, flight, force field, life support and heavens know what else? A power with a low potency but a high versatility can have a lot of impact on play but it will never let the hero penetrate the villain’s mega-armor, while a power with a high potency but low versatility is a one trick pony with a very impressive trick. Various game engines formalize this in different ways, but it’s the standard template.

Unfortunately it’s not quite enough for what we’re attempting here – we need a third axis to describe not just how the character may change over time but also how they change when working with other powerful heroes. That axis is Frequency, and it is used to track how often the hero meaningfully uses the power and how close it is to the top of their metaphorical tool box. I rate these as follows:

·   Primary: this is the character’s go-to ability, the one they use as a first response to most situations.
·   Secondary: this is the back up ability, which characters use either after the prmary ability has failed or it has exhausted its immediate usefulness.
·   Tertiary: These abilities are the ones the hero falls back on either after the secondary abilities have failed or exhausted its usefulness or when the character is in situations outside if their norm. tertiary abilities are probably tapped only once a session, and since the character likely has more than one it might be several sessions before they are meaningfully used.
·   Rare: these abilities are the ones that the character has, everyone knows it, but they seldom are used in a meaningful fashion. Rare abilities are tapped about once every three sessions.
There are no game mechanics around this. Frequency is not the equivalent of an activation roll or a limited number of charges. It’s a social contract between one player and the rest of the table.

So why does this matter? At this stage it is mostly a mechanic for showing how the core hero changed over the course of his career, but it also signals to the other players, who will be the supporting cast in the core hero’s movie, what niches the core heroes’ player most wants to protect.

Let’s look at Captain Nostalgia over time.
In his initial comic strip appearances he is portrayed as a detective assisted by Scientifiction fans. His superior physical traits, jetpack and raygun confirm an advantage in the occasional fisticuffs, and his time travel device and historian skills exist as framing devices. He looks like
·   Uberjager Detective - Primary
·   Ad Astra Society - Secondary
·   Eugenically Bred Human – Tertiary
·   Gravity Gear – Tertiary
·   Historian – Rare
·   Time Travel Device – Rare

The radio show follows a similar structure, but Nostalgia’s history knowledge is given much more play over his Gravity Gear, which sounded silly on the radio.
·   Uberjager Detective - Primary
·   Ad Astra Society - Secondary
·   Eugenically Bred Human – Tertiary
·   Historian – Tertiary
·   Gravity Gear – Rare
·   Time Travel Device – Rare

In any even in both of these cases you can’t imagine a Captain Nostalgia story in which he doesn’t resolve a mystery with the aid of the Ad Astrans. In the comic book that ran parallel to these, however, Captain Nostalgia’s flashier aspects and his Nazi enemies took precedence
·   Gravity Gear – Primary
·   Eugenically Bred Human – Secondary
·   Ad Astra Society – Tertiary
·   Uberjager Detective - Tertiary
·   Historian – Rare
·   Time Travel Device – Rare
In this version we could have issues in which no detective work was done, or if it was done it was quick with an obvious clue or Ad Astra tip leading to the bad guy. 

By the time he reaches the second season of his TV show Nostalgia looks like
·   Ad Astra Society – Primary
·   Uberjager Detective - Secondary
·   Eugenically Bred Human – Tertiary
·   Gravity Gear – Tertiary
·   Historian – Rare
·   Time Travel Device – Rare
With 6E being considered a member of the Ad Astras

His 1980’s comic book, on the other hand, focused almost entirely on his time travel capabilities and his sprawling supporting cast.
·   Time Travel Device – Primary
·   Ad Astra Society – Secondary
·   Gravity Gear – Tertiary
·   Eugenically Bred Human – Tertiary
·   Uberjager Detective - Rare
·   Historian – Rare

In all of these versions the character is identical vis a vis his abilities, but each carries a different feel and would necessitate a different supporting cast. When it comes to the film version captain Nostalgia presents a problem as he has 3 different modes: A 1930’s Nazi-fighting detective, a 1980’s scientific problem solver and an 1990’s agency-leading time traveler. Here’s where we take a step away and look at the supporting cast: Captain Nostalgia’s Player should be interested in any of these settings as their creator so now the other players weigh in on what they’d like to see and do.

Designing the Supporting Cast

Before we go any further we have to talk about how this will play out around the game table. The idea is to borrow the Ars Magica concept of troupe play. In Ars Magica the PCs are a wizards college where each player builds not just a highly powerful wizard but a slightly less powerful non-wizard companion and several men at arms, or Grogs. In any particular adventure one or more players might send their Wizards, others would send companions and the remainder would play several Grogs, who were much more likely to suffer the horrid fates normally reserved for NPCs. Once that adventure concludes a different set of college members would deal with the next issue, giving each player a chance to play really powerful, heroic and average PCs over the campaign. Our structure is similar, with each player having a Core Hero for their own movies and supporting cast in the other player’s movies. In the sequels a supporting cast member upgrades to secondary hero, who joins the inevitable team. Spotlight time is equalized over the course of the campaign.

This of course means there has to be enough for the supporting cast to do in the movie – it can be fun to ham it up in a supporting role, chew the scenery, or plot for your own PCs ironic/horrific/motivating death, but it’s not fun to sit around and watch someone be a spotlight hog. While the supporting cast helps the hero in his through line they need to have through lines as well: otherwise you end up with a posse of Magical Negros & Manic Pixie Dream Girls who exist solely to help the white guy grow into his new responsibilities and I don’t know many players whose boat those would float.

TV shows are a little more fertile in useful sporting cat options than movies as their support team has to be viable week after week while the movies it’s just 90-130 minutes. The exact mix varies based on the core hero’s attributes and their frequency – Tertiary or rare attributes might be places where supporting characters could excel without overshadowing the hero. Some ideas are:
·   Mentor: the cast member has many of the same abilities as the hero with the frequencies reversed – the hero might have a primary combat or magical ability that their mentor has mastered but now no longer uses for physical or philosophical reasons. Mentors often die at the end of the first movie.
·   Love interest/best friend: they provide the hero with something to strive for, defend and someone from whom they can draw moral support, and someone to play off of for screwball comedy or witty banter.
·   Tech Support: keeps the gear operational, builds the new specialized weapon and keeps the car running, metaphorically or literally as the driver/chauffer.
·   Researcher: hitting the books, be they tomes of magic or pixels on the screen this person digs up the critical data and assists with the deductions that find the bad guy.
·   Bruiser: provides key additional combat oomph to deal with henchmen, train the hero in combat and to prove what things don’t work against the big bad.
·   Connected: the person who knows people everywhere, greases wheels and gets the hero either key tech parts or entre into the places he needs to be.
·   Law: a member of the legitimate law enforcement he provides the hero with legal cover and police powers.
·   Military: similar to law enforcement and Bruiser, but the supporting cast member has more fire power and less police power to call on.
·   Sneak: core heroes are often bad at stealth while this supporting cast member excels at it, securing some spotlight time skulking about and shutting off defenses.
·   Driver: if the tech guy isn’t the chauffer then a wheel man or pilot can be a big help; the inside of a tricked out vehicle is one of the few places to be tactically relevant in a fight between super humans.
·   Villain: the supporting cast member can be a wolf in the fold, either the mastermind a lesser bad guy looking for the right time to betray everyone.

Much of this design requires that everyone at the table be comfortable with having time out of the action during the movies that aren’t there – it is the structure of these movies that the hero often has to go it alone, with at most one of their supporting cast as ‘flip the switch now!’ level backup. This doesn’t mean everyone has to be removed from the big action scenes (and let me state now something I’ll stress later: the big action scenes have to be SHORT. Way shorter than they are in your average RPG), or worse only involved in their one scene and then gone. Here are ways to get people more ways to be in more scenes.
·   Advice only: the cast member could be on the radio or be intangibly present (maybe only heard by the hero) so they can chatter, bicker or otherwise communicate even in a fight scene without being in danger.
·   Local Support: the player controls several supporting cast members that are separated by distance and so only show up one at a time. This lets the a player who likes designing different characters fill different niches and always have someone relevant on the spot.
·   Multiple hats: the supporting cast member might provide both emotional and technical support.
·   Sacrifice: No problem with being there in the big fight scene if you’re not expected to love through it. You might ask ‘why would you choose to do this’ but to a player interested in dramatic moments it’s a no brainer.
·   Villain: as above, a member of the supporting cast could be the twist bad guy, meaning you will doubtlessly be on the scene during the big final fight.
One of my favorite odd ideas is that if the player wants his core hero to be an iron man type but doesn’t like the game mechanics needed for that complexity one supporting cast member could be the armor’s AI played by someone who likes system crunch In addition to being able to make snarky comments all game the armor’s configured on the fly weapon systems come on line as soon as the AI’s player finished the math on the variable Power Pool! That might just be me, however.

More on this and other things next time.

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