Superhero Lessons for Fantasy Games

October 27th, 2008

Even if you don’t play a superhero game, this month’s RPG blog carnival on superheroes needn’t be a wasted month for you.  There are qualities of a superhero game that can be adapted to enliven your new fantasy campaign — or to revitalize an old one with a change of direction.  Consider some of the lessons of a superhero campaign:

Symbols (and Names) Matter

When you think of Superman, you probably think of the big red S on his chest.  It’s a distinctive sigil.  When you think of Batman, you probably picture his scalloped cloak, which resembles the wings of a bat.  When those two get together with a couple more of their friends, it’s not just any gathering — it’s the Justice League.

This is directly relevant to a fantasy game.  Who’s more memorable, Jorrik the Barbarian, or Jorrik, the White Wolf, who dresses in hide armor made from the skins of dire winter wolves he hunted himself?  Arik the Wizard, or Arik the Unbalanced, who tattoos the sigils of the ancient Iludari sorcerer-kings into his own flesh because he believes they enhance his arcane prowess?  It’s not a bad thing for every character to have a symbol, sigil, coat of arms, or nickname.

They don’t have to start out with one, of course.  They can pick them up during play.  If they save a village from a band of marauding ogres, and one or more of the villagers observes the party’s ranger strike the decisive blow against the ogre chief, the stories they tell might end up earning that ranger a nickname, whether as straightforward as Ogrebane or as poetic as Stormhand.  A great hero might be known by dozens of such titles.

Don’t forget the adventuring company either.  Maybe they’re an organized band such as a military unit, and already have a name; otherwise, they might gain one through charter or through their exploits.  Does each member of the Black Hawk Company wear a tabard or a pendant bearing the stylized likeness of such a creature?  (You could even add some minor magical effect, so that the PCs want to retain and display such an item, and work its presence into their play.)  Maybe their role in wiping out the gnoll tribe that massacred the village of Tharneholm earns them renown as the Justice of Tharne?

Giving the group a name or a symbol gives them an identity beyond a collection of individuals.  It can cement bonds between player characters and cause them to grow closer as a group.

Money Isn’t Everything

For whatever reason, fantasy roleplaying games seem particularly prone to the “kill things and take their stuff” approach to gaming.  Monetary reward is a motivating factor for many fantasy characters in a way that it’s not for, say, science-fiction characters… or superheroes.  To some extent, this reflects source material:  Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser weren’t exactly altruists, and neither was Conan.  But what if you’re playing high fantasy, rather than low or swords-and-sorcery?  The Knights of the Round Table and the Fellowship of the Ring (notice the group names?) weren’t motivated by money…

Well, what rewards are there for superheroes?  The plain satisfaction of doing good is a big motivator for most of them, but that’s pretty obvious, and it’s not really an in-game reward to the character.

The biggest rewards for a superhero are probably contacts and reputation.  A superhero earns the gratitude of the common folk and the fear of the criminal element.  The more high-profile the hero, the greater his or her influence grows.  There may continue to be those who oppose them, but even in a case where that opposition is itself popular and influential (such as J. Jonah Jameson and his Daily Bugle‘s anti-Spider-Man stance), it won’t completely erase the inroads the character’s made.  The hero will have certain doors opened for him; he’ll have skilled experts he can turn to for help and advice; and he’ll have a greater voice in, for example, political affairs, should he choose to become involved in such matters.

(This isn’t universally true, of course.  Certain comics, such as X-Men and Doom Patrol, tend to focus on the hero as outcast.  These books are more analogous to the lower-fantasy settings.)

Likewise, fantasy characters who save a village should expect to receive a hero’s welcome from that village when they next pass through, even if there might be a few malcontents who still mistrust them.  They might get favorable reactions from the neighboring villages, too.  And it should play in their favor on occasion even when they’re nowhere near the village — maybe the clerk in the king’s court originally hailed from that village, and still has family there, or the first mate of the ship they charter a few years down the road is the boy whose life they saved.  This kind of acknowledgement reminds the characters of their role in the fantasy world — they’re not just wandering adventurers, they’re heroes.

As they grow more prominent, their fame should spread.  Saving the whole kingdom will bring much greater fame than saving a village.  Saving the world is greater yet.  If they’re battling the primal forces of evil alongside the gods themselves, their names are probably a household word across much of the world, and even kings will make time for an audience with them if the heroes require it.  Not every adventure will reward fame, of course — there’s also great fun to be had in the “the world will never know what we’ve done here today” vein.  But for the most part, if they’re acting like heroes, acknowledge it — that’s a wonderful reward.

Some games, including both third- and fourth-edition Dungeons & Dragons, depend on characters acquiring a certain amount of loot for balance purposes.  If you intend to run a relatively loot-less game, you may need to look into an alternative in order to keep the fighters on par with the wizards.  I’ll address that further in a future post.

Relationships Mean Conflict

This isn’t particular to superheroes, but it’s often common in superheroic games yet rare in fantasy games:  the characters’ relationships are called into play.  Superheroes have parents and other relatives, close friends, significant others, roommates, employers, co-workers, and others with whom they interact frequently.  They have responsibilities toward these people.  And inevitably, some responsibility will conflict with their heroic duties.  This may be as simple as a secret identity to be closely guarded, lest it endanger to character’s family, or it could be a more active conflict, such as Tony Stark needing to see to some function for his company, while Iron Man simultaneously needs to battle some villain.  And of course, a villain who endangers one of these NPCs instantly attracts more attention than one who only takes generic hostages.  Spider-Man may be duty-bound to rescue John Q. Public, but more personal feelings get involved when it’s Mary Jane in trouble.

Fantasy characters often tend to wander a lot, but if your characters have a base of operations — their own manor or keep and associated lands — then there’s plenty of opportunity to introduce personal ties.  Even if they’re itinerant adventurers, there are still associations that can be brought into play.  Remember that boy they saved?  Give him a name and a personality, and keep him ready to reintroduce if a new evil rises in the area… or if he moves to the big city to make his fortune.  Or maybe he’s herostruck and tries to tag along with the party.

Or perhaps you feel more comfortable using an animal.  I find that many players who are otherwise aloof and self-sufficient will jump at the chance to raise that wolf cub or hippogryph chick, and the party often develops a bond toward their new companion that matches anything they’d feel toward a humanoid NPC.  If you think Jorrik the White Wolf is a badass, just wait till you see him go after the thug who kicked his pet wolf cub — that’s a barbarian rage, right there.

Timing is Everything

For the most part, every major plot point in a superhero comic happens at one of two times:  Just In Time, or Too Late.  This is for dramatic purposes, of course.  The hero rarely arrives to stop the bomb three hours before it would go off — he arrives when there’s a minute or less on the timer, or else he arrives after his super-hearing picked up a loud “boom” from the vicinity.

Although I have my own method for creating dramatic timing, it’s also perfectly appropriate to just lift this timing method from comics (and I’ll often do that, too).  If the heroes need to stop a sacrifice, and they do their best to hurry toward it, they arrive just as the ceremony is commencing.  If they dawdle, they might just get there too late.  Once in a while, if the characters do some great investigation work, they do get there early, just to shake things up — then they have the chance to lie in wait and surprise the cultists.  But using Just In Time, as arbitrary as it may seem, works very well in game:  it creates the kind of dramatic tension you’re looking for, and I find the players rarely question such fortunate timing.  The only caveat is that you have to be willing for them to arrive too late, at times — otherwise, they’ll eventually cease suspension of disbelief, as they realize that they’re always on time and start taking it for granted.

(Edit: Chatty has some interesting thoughts on the subject — check out his article.)

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  1. Pingback: » Afterschool Trope Post: Holy Super Heroic Fantasy Batman! on Monday, October 27, 2008
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4 Comments

  1. greywulf, Oct. 27, 2008, 10:39 am:

    Amen to all that. Great post!

  2. Wyatt, Oct. 27, 2008, 11:03 am:

    Pretty interesting post.

  3. Scott, Oct. 27, 2008, 6:25 pm:

    Thanks.

  4. Maestro, Oct. 28, 2008, 6:07 am:

    awesome post. I’ll be bookmarking this to read again and again in the future. Very interesting take on everything.

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