Thursday, March 27, 2014

Campaign Frames for Marvel Super Heroes RPG

Although I spend most of my time here talking about Dungeons & Dragons and the Savage World of Krül, the game I got my start with was the Marvel Super-Heroes Role-Playing Game (otherwise known as MSHRPG), and my love for that game has never diminished. However, anyone who has played that game knows that the game definitely lacks a specific structure on how to run it without resorting to scene-based play.

The closest we get to this is in the supplement New York, New York which features a wide variety of short encounters and associated tables, but these lack the substance of larger criminal conspiracies. For that, we need to turn to supplements from the later, "boxed set" reboot of the line from the '90s, and specifically the supplements Webs and Avengers Archives. These present a different format for adventures: a timeline where scheduled events happen at different days and times. 

Now, Webs and Avengers Archives hint that players may miss some of these encounters and that they might be followed up on later. However, there is no clear method for determining whether the players will participate in any given encounter. In both of these cases we see tentative steps towards an overarching structure with no ultimate commitment by TSR towards either.


To solve this problem, I would suggest a basic framework that marries the two together, letting players alternate between patrolling and investigation. Before play begins the Judge divides the home city into different districts that function as 'police beats' for PCs to patrol. Each week the players fill out a worksheet that divides their time into 8-hour turns (or 'shifts') that they can use for one of five basic actions:

1. Work: Characters that have day jobs fill in their hours, noting what district their workplace is.

2. Rest: The character stays at home and catches up on their Zs (a character that misses more than 24 hrs of rest suffers from a -1 CS to all rolls, increasing by an additional -1 CS per additional shift without rest). Again, the players notes which district their home is in.

3. Patrol: The character wanders through one of the city's districts, looking for trouble.

4. Investigate: The character follows up on leads gathered from the news, patrolling, or their contacts.

5. Socialize: This includes the preexisting rules for appearances at charities and other photo-ops (noting the district that the event takes place), as well as spending time with their Contacts (see the contacts section below).

I never did figure out what this one was about.


Meanwhile, the Judge has filled out a schedule with two different types of events: Conspiracies and Global Events. Conspiracies are ongoing, multi-part schemes by criminal masterminds which can be as small as 'Shocker's Big Score' to as complex as the 'X-Cutioner's Saga'. The key point is that these are plots which require multiple steps to be completed and can therefore be interrupted before they come to fruition. Global events, on the other hand, are either consequences from the culmination of a Conspiracy (such as 'Inferno', where Hell comes to New York) or (rarely) a singular event that affects everyone in the city.

As the PCs go about their business, they have a chance of running into various crimes based on their activity and location:

Conspiracy: 20% chance of a Conspiracy encounter while at work (when one occurs in the same district; otherwise, no encounter).
Global: 100% chance of a Global encounter while at work.
Random: 10% chance of a random encounter (if no other encounters).

Conspiracy: 10% chance of a Conspiracy encounter.
Global: 100% chance of a Global encounter.
Random: 10% chance of a random encounter (if no other encounters).

Conspiracy: 100% chance of a Conspiracy encounter (when one occurs in the same district; otherwise, no encounter).
Global: 100% chance of a Global encounter.
Random: 50% chance of a random encounter (if no other encounters).

Conspiracy: 30% chance of a Conspiracy encounter during an investigation, unless it is related to the Conspiracy being investigated; if so, 100% chance.
Global: 100% chance of a Global encounter while investigating.
Random: 20% chance of a random encounter (if no other encounters).

Conspiracy: 30% chance of a Conspiracy encounter while socializing.
Global: 100% chance of a Global encounter while socializing.
Random: 30% chance of a random encounter (if no other encounters).

There will be, of course, be special circumstances, such as if a character's job is as a beat cop or if the conspiracy encounter is scheduled to take place where a PC is socializing; Judge's discretion should apply. 

Random Encounters

If a random encounter occurs, roll to determine the specific encounter. The chart from New York, New York should be helpful here, which divides encounters into different types based on the nature of the crime:

01-30: Daily Life: Small interactions that usually will not involve any fighting (i.e. cat in tree, traffic snarl, etc.)
31-50: Miscellaneous Crimes: Petty crime, street crime, and youth gangs. These crimes are small stuff in the nature of the universe, but important to the people involved.
51-70: Burglaries: Theft of property in which threatening lives is not a prime factor. Break-ins, thefts, and arson all fall into this general category.
71-90: Robberies: Thefts from people, in which lives may be threatened. Muggings and hostage situations for profit are included in this category.
91-110: Rampage: Widespread destruction without the motivation of profit. Rampages are often (but not always) the province of powerful villains.
111-130: Vendetta: A grudge match, the superpowered slugfest at its most basic. 
131+: Organized Crime: Can involve any of the lower crimes, with a twist; someone higher up is doing the planning.

Roll d100 and add the following modifiers:
+10 if the character has an ability of Incredible rank.
+20 if the character has an ability of Amazing rank or greater.
+10 if the character has 200+ Karma on hand.
-10 if the character has less than 20 Karma on hand.
+10 if the character lost Karma in their last encounter.
-10 if the character gained Karma in their last encounter.
+10 if more than one Hero is involved.
+20 if more than three Heroes are involved.

The Judge should build sub-charts that fit into each of these categories and roll on the appropriate one when a random encounter occurs, repopulating the tables as they are used up.


Players may decide to pursue a crime beyond simple patrols. There are three common circumstances in which this can come up:

1. News: Each week the Judge will post the news from the following week, including major crimes. If a phase of a conspiracy happens in public, this will likely be reported. Curious players may decide to see if there are any clues to be found.

2. Encounters: Villains escape, loose threads are left dangling - whatever the circumstance, players will want to make sure everything is resolved following an encounter.

3. Contacts: When a Conspiracy encounter happens involving the interests of a player's contact, there is a 25% chance that they will get wind of it, and a 50% / 50% chance they will hear of it either before or after the actual encounter occurs. These provide opportunities for players to 'get the jump' on brewing situations before they occur or to catch on to problems they may have missed.


It is suggested that a number of potential contacts are developed by the Judge before the game begins, with only a handful falling into each broad category. When players roll for contacts, they are assigned these pre-existing supporting characters as friends that they can call upon. Unlike in the regular game, however, the Contacts expect some reciprocity: the players' time. Each time a contact is called upon for a favor, they expect the PC to socialize with them in the near future. Until a shift is spent socializing with the contact in question, all future favors are at a -1 CS to the Popularity roll, with an additional -1 CS each time a favor is asked (whether granted or not). These penalties disappear once the PC and the contact socialize again (unless they are interrupted). These 'social encounters' don't have to be played out to any great extent.

If the PC asks the Contact for a major favor (Judge's discretion), it may take more to get back in their 'good graces'. The Judge secretly rolls percentile dice, with a 25% chance that the Contact will have a problem of their own that they need help with (Judges should prepare a table with such problems). If the PC ignores their request, the Contact will be lost to the player unless they make extraordinary reparations (Judge's discretion).

Okay, that's enough for today. In future posts I'll discuss some additional rules tweaks to fit this frame as well as additional frames for higher-level play.

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Campaign Frames

I've been doing some thinking about what makes D&D, and more specifically B/X, great and why they've endured for so long. Critics of the game will claim that it was just 'the first', and any other game (and they mean my superior game of choice), had they beaten TSR to the punch, would have been similarly successful.

This logic falls down to me because we know of several examples of roleplaying pre-D&D (in particular the Braunstein and Tony Bath's Hyboria), but these were restricted only to a handful of hardcore wargamers. Why did D&D spread so wildly? Was it just the first commercially-packaged game of its sort? Anyone who has looked at OD&D knows that it is in no ways newbie friendly, so that doesn't hold water. In fact, many early games were direct reactions to OD&D's "incoherence" (with the most notable example being T&T).

What, then, did D&D do differently? I think the answer can be seen in why Basic and Expert have become enduring classics while the later books in the Mentzer series have been largely forgotten. Basic not only teaches you the basics of roleplaying and how to create characters, but it specifically focuses on the procedure of building and running dungeons. Likewise, Expert expands not only character rules but details the hexcrawl for wilderness campaigns.

The dungeon and the hexcrawl are perhaps the greatest examples of what I call "campaign frames". They provide a structure for building and running a game, a framework for an experience which can be replicated by any number of DMs. Moreover, both have robust rules to allow the DM to adjudicate situations that may arise and (when well designed) give the players not only a variety of choices but clear choices to make. Should we open the door on the left or explore the hallway ahead? Do we take the road leading into the valley or the mountain trail? These are meaningful decision points rather than being so wide open as to be paralyzing.

Beyond the two examples laid down in B/X there are few great examples of 'campaign frames' to be found, although it is clear that a number of games early in roleplaying history struggled to do so. Examples include Traveller, En GardeGangbusters, and the Boot Hill module Ballots & Bullets.

This all changed with the introduction of the 'scene structure' of module design. Scene structure was not only flexible in terms of what it could 'do' (since it can be used with any system or theme) but also required the least amount of 'heavy lifting' when it comes to design by eliminating player choice. I suspect this becomes increasingly important as a new generation of game designers emerge from the D&D audience that do not come from a board game/war game background, and therefore are not exposed to a variety of games with very different 'frames'. Instead of having to reinvent the wheel with each new game, companies can just put out game after game with the 'scene structure' as the framework.

Which brings us back to D&D. Why did CMI fail? A lot of people have speculated that this is because few players reached those levels, and while that is at least partially true, I think the larger problem is that the frames were a lot less robust. While kingdom building is covered in Companion, I don't know anyone talking about using those rules for the 'domain game'. Likewise, the distinctive lack of chatter about planar scenarios indicate that the directions for building these were unclear at best.

Things have been quiet in the blogosphere as of late. There have been a number of assertions that the OSR has "won" and there is nothing left to do; I disagree. We have largely relied on the preexisting frames that were passed down to us by Gygax & Arneson rather than stepping boldly forward and inventing our own. So, here is my challenge to you OSR bloggers:

Build a campaign frame, large or small. A set of rules that provide:

A. Clear choices for the players to engage in, while still allowing maximum flexibility.
B. A model for the DM which guides them through the process of building this aspect of their campaign.
C. Rules for interacting with the frame in a meaningful way, from arbitration on the DM end (examples include: reaction rolls, wandering monsters, etc) to procedures on the player end (movement speeds, listening at doors, etc).

Alternately, look at the few new campaign frames that have begun to be sketched here or here, or even highlight preexisting ones outside of D&D (like those from the games mentioned above) with an eye towards adapting them. D&D is a big tent game, let's go ahead and put up a few new tentpoles!

Oh, and if you're looking for ideas for frames, here are a few I'd love to see:

* Gladiatorial Games
* Warbands
* Naval / pirates
* Planar adventures
* Kingdom building
* Urban crime / highwaymen
* Trade routes
Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...