Wednesday, October 22, 2008

One of Us, One of Them

One of the latest ideas I've had for a roleplaying campaign was inspired by the television show "Heroes." If you've been living under a rock (or are a Slusser), "Heroes" is essentially Marvel's X-Men in plainclothes (no, not that one). In it, there is a mysterious organization called simply "The Company", which appears to have the purpose of studying, tagging, and - when necessary - eliminating super-powered individuals. While they appeared in an antagonistic capacity in the show's first season, subsequent seasons have shown things to be a little more complicated than that.

The Company's standard operating procedure is summed up with a simple phrase: "One of us, one of them." This means that when the Company's agents are sent out to perform a mission, a "normal" agent is partnered with a super-powered individual. Recent episodes of the show have begun to illustrate why this may be a good philosophy.

Aside from the fact that a non-powered Agent can benefit from having an edge against his (often empowered) opponents in the form of a Super, recent episodes have shown that super-powers tend to place certain psychological stresses on a person. Remember that all of the empowered (with the possible exception of Matt Parkman, an L.A. cop) are "normal people", not secret agents or soldiers or people who have specialized training. When normal folks develop powers, it can mess up their relationships. Accidents happen. People get hurt or killed. Sometimes, people start to think that they're superior to other human beings (the old Magneto/Brotherhood of Mutants/Teragen/etc. philosophy). Sometimes (like Gabriel/Sylar and Niki/Jessica), the power itself twists their minds, turning them into killers. Thus, the un-powered human Agent keeps them grounded and in touch with their humanity...and, if necessary, puts them down.

This simple concept (combined with the events of the last few episodes) made me think that this was an excellent basis for a Supers campaign. I'd probably choose to set the game in a different world than that of "Heroes", but I'd make it very similar. The world of "Project Phoenix", as presented in GURPS Psionics (for 3rd Edition), is a good choice (and, as it happens, I was just tinkering with that setting in my mind the other day). One player would play the Agent, and the other would play the Super. Together, they would have adventures that would be like a mix of "The X-Files" and "X-Men", hunting down dangerous mutants - er, supers. As they did so, there might be tension between them - will the Super get out of control? Can the Agent (and the Company they work for) be trusted? What happens if one of them decides to jump ship, or thinks that the work they're doing crosses too many moral lines?

But what system to use?

GURPS was the obvious answer, with its point-allocation character creation process (the Super puts character points into his power, while the Agent puts his points into attributes, skills, contacts, legal authority, etc.). Still, I'm still adjusting (very slowly) to 4th Edition, and I was curious as to what else would work. I looked at my go-to for superhero roleplaying, the old FASERIP system Marvel Super Heroes, but it's pretty skimpy on the skills side of things. I think it could still work, but I wanted a second opinion.

So I posted the question on RPGnet. One of the Old Jokes on RPGnet is that every week, a different person will ask the question, "What system should I use for a superhero game?" So I had to preface my question a little more specifically. To my delight, I immediately received a slew of thoughtful responses. Here are the results of my informal poll:

Wild Talents / NEMESIS 7
Primetime Adventures 6
Mutants & Masterminds (ideally with the Paragons supplement) 4
Cinematic Unisystem / Angel 3
GURPS 4e 3
Truth & Justice / PDQ 2
World of Darkness 1
Hero System 4e or 5e 1
Dogs in the Vineyard 1
Mutant City Blues 1
Over the Edge / WaRP 1

Discussion of how trust between the Agent and the Super were also discussed, and a few games were referred to as being notable for their trust mechanic: Panty Explosion (which sounds far smuttier a game than it actually is), Wraith, Cold City (which sounds like an awesome game anyway), and The Mountain Witch. Another person suggested that if you simply replace Fanmail in Primetime Adventures with "Trust", and rule that it couldn't be spent on the player character's own conflict, it would work well.

In any case, I own about a third of the games suggested, including Primetime Adventures. So, if I ever manage to get my group to sit down and play it, I guess that's the show I'll pitch to them. But PTA really requires the other players to not only agree to it, but be pretty interested and mentally invested in it. So maybe I'll catch them after watching a good superhero movie...


Michael Slusser said...

As you know, I am your willing thrall, and will happily obey any roleplaying commands.

And we've been watching the first season of Heroes from Netflix, so we're slowly aligning ourselves with the cool kids.

Devin said...

The one thing that might really get you in the mood for the game is to think of how many ways any particular character could use their power more creatively than they do on the show.

In the latest episode, Hiro just seemed willfully ignorant. He's starting to frustrate me.