Superheroes in Dungeons

Dungeons & Dragons is the uncommonly spry grandparent of the hobby: old-fashioned, a little goofy, but fun to spend time with if you can put up with the odd bit of yesteryear nonsense. For all my love of impeccable, focused independent game designs, I still find myself rubbing elbows with the same six ability scores and crowing over rolls of 20 three games out of four. It’s not that it’s the only game in town, but everyone knows it so well that random samples come up full of it.

I haven’t yet run (“DMed,” c’mon, precision of language) the latest edition of the game, though. What might I do with it, had I the opportunity? Those who’ve played with me know I can’t help but author little deconstructions of the venerable property. Even as I praised Fourth Edition‘s bold focus on tactical board-game battles, I gleefully hacked it to reward players for inventing setting elements and plot twists. I’d be shy of trying to live up to the sprawling fun that hack produced, not least because of the spectacular way the game finally imploded, but I do daydream about the next great wrench to throw.

Jettison the genocidal bullshit. I have no patience anymore with stories of “evil races” needing to be put in their place by shiny colonial saviors. And D&Desque fantasy species in general–why do we still call them “races” in 2016, anyway?–range from trite through cringeworthy to entirely pointless. I find myself pulled in two directions: (a) run a game where the only sapient species are humans, ala the original Final Fantasy Tactics or the majority of Game of Thrones; or (b) run a gonzo-cosmopolitan setting like Planescape with the “give everyone personhood” principle from Dungeon World’s Planarch Codex. There are no monsters, only people who look different from you, trying to get by!

Superheroes in dungeons. Somebody I know tends to grump about how the current game isn’t lethal enough, what with people bouncing back from near death after just a night’s rest. I have no trouble with that, personally; it’s Dungeons & Dragons, not Cowards & Convalescents. But it does make me wonder about the setting implications of the player characters’ resilience. What if we acknowledged that there’s something kinda weird and awe-inspiring about how bloody hard it is to kill even a second-level wizard these days? I picture a D&D gone all X-Men, with governments trying to exert control via “hero registration” and a populace by turns afraid and worshipful. Under the right regime, I could see old-school elements like titles by level, and having to pass tests to attain them, making sense…

Chuubo’s Marvelous Dungeon-Crawling Posse. Alternate experience rewards are all but necessary if you want to hack D&D‘s play priorities. When the only way to advance in the game is by killing things and taking their stuff, by God, there will be a lot of killing things and taking their stuff. One of the cleverest things in Chuubo’s Marvelous Wish-Granting Engine is the Quest advancement system. You pick out cards for your character that represent a part of their life: a project they’re undertaking, a problem they’re working through, a mystery they face. Each card has a list of key events and roleplay behaviors that, when you make them happen in pursuit of the quest, earn you points toward advancement. I think that could port nicely to D&D! Written well, they could turn arbitrarily restrictive “alignment” and easily forgotten “character traits” into something players would enjoy engaging with.

Add all three musings together, and you get… something. Stay tuned?

See What Sticks

I praise the Flag Framing approach to GM prep from Deeper in the Game every chance I get. It works! Some of the best game sessions I’ve been part of have owed their oomph to those techniques.

Unfortunately, I don’t always manage to pull it off. Sometimes the game doesn’t provide good flags and I’m short on time to do detective work. Sometimes the players’ interests are more scenery-chewing things they want to gawk at in the setting than flags I can challenge them on. Sometimes I look at legit flags and draw a complete blank on how I can stress or foreground them.

In these situations, it helps to have a fallback strategy. Something that’s maybe not the ideal solution, but which can fill in the gaps if you’re failing too hard that day to be optimal.

My fallback lately: throw it out there, see what sticks. Instead of prepping NPCs designed to push players’ and player characters’ buttons, have a grab bag of characters and situations that you draw from when you need a fresh scene–and discard if they prove not to catch players’ attention. All the advice about maintaining energy and pacing from “Flag Framing” applies. We simply replace the up-front flag querying and planning part with a process of experimentation.

You start a scene. You introduce a character from your list. She’s got eyes of night and falling stars, and she’s talking about turning people into clockwork mecha! Weird! Are the players intrigued? Reveal a plot seed you’ve got. The deviant scientist trying to reanimate the dead? Starry Night’s heard a rumor about it and is planning to investigate! Is it something the players feel like getting into? If not, move on to something new!

The players will ignore some things. They’ll find some NPCs annoying or uninteresting. Never bring those up again! But far more often, they will find certain NPCs fascinating, or cook up some theory about the way NPC A relates to plot hook or rumor B. Riff on those! Jot little notes about what made your players’ eyes light up, and use those notes as the basis for your second session. As you go, you’ll start spending more time reincorporating than spitballing, playing your NPCs just like advised in Flag Framing. It’s whenever you’ve got a void of energy or inspiration that you look to your bag of hooks.

This approach works particularly well with games that

  • feature lots of unique off-the-shelf NPCs and story seeds; and
  • don’t require meticulous balancing of challenge levels or encounters.

I’m currently doing this with Chuubo’s Marvelous Wish-Granting Engine. I could see using it with the third edition of Exalted. Fifth Edition Dungeons and Dragons would work, if you’ve got one of the better setting books from any edition (Planescape?) involved. Dungeon World… you might want something like The Perilous Wilds to help you generate on-the-fly hazards, but the random NPC tables are often intriguing enough to use in this style until you can build a proper Front.

Note that I’m not even considering the old illusions-and-railroads method of plotting stories out, trailing breadcrumbs for the PCs to follow, and yanking them along if they don’t catch on. That just sucks. Never go there.

Is this something you do? Do you have a way to make a Flag Framing approach work even when the material at hand isn’t clicking for it? Let me have it in the comments!