Mystery Men, Dark Avengers, and Four-Color Heroes – GGG Ponders on Developing a Campaign Setting for a Superhero RPG?

SupersWhile doing some spring cleaning through my RPGs, I came across my notes for a Silver Age Sentinels campaign setting called Tremont City. As many folks know, I’m a big superhero comic fan, and I wanted my setting to feel like the DC Universe – a world that had been developed in comics over a period of years, rather than in days to weeks by me.

When I started, I developed a history and campaign bible. In it, I outlined some tricks for how I would try to create this artificial conceit of a superhero setting that had been created and developed over many years. I thought I would dust these off and share them with you, Gentle Readers. Maybe they’ll inspire you to make your own tales of heroes that can leap buildings in a single bound.

We Don’t Need Another Hero (Or Do We?)

The first thing I pondered was why people would want to read the “comic book” of the PCs’ adventures. We’e they the only heroes of this universe? I didn’t want that, because of my desire to have the universe feel “lived in” by heroes and villains, but I wanted there to be something special about these heroes.

I finally decided that this world had had various “heroic ages” over the years, but that the last one had ended some twenty years previous. I imagined that the comics company that was publishing the “comic” was launching a reboot of sorts, as if they’d just had their own Crisis on Infinite Earths, but had decided on a whole new slew of series in addition to new versions of old heroes and some returning characters. The PCs’ “comic” was the flagship of the relaunch – its Justice League, so to speak.

I came up with the Crisis event, an alien invasion that had left many heroes and villains dead, some drastically altered, and the world in something of a shambles. Because the aliens had come for a “harvest” of the super-powered community (many of whom had powers due to alien experimentation and such), many people blamed the heroes for the invasion, even though most had fought to stop it. As a result, hero and villain alike faded into the background to avoid persecution.

Now, it was a time for new supers. Yes,they would face suspicion and controversy, but they would rise above to become heroes, and, in so doing, they would inspire a new age of heroes…and villains.

I also decided that, like DC Comics, I would introduce a number of fictitious cities. I wanted to set the home base of the story in a fictionalized Boston that had usurped New York’s importance. (A little home-town pride, I’ll admit.) I did some research and discovered that Boston’s area had been referred to as Tremont due to being largely built on three “mounts”. I decided that Tremont City would be an urban sprawl that included Salem (which was now moved quite a bit closer and turned into a neighborhood steeped in the mystical). New York remained New Amsterdam, and the Empire State Building became the Bay State Building and rose over Tremont City’s skyline.

Rock of Ages

With my present setting fairly well established, I turned my eye to the past. Taking my cues from DC Comics, yet again, I decided that the heroic ages I’d already conceived of would coincide with the evolution of DC’s heroes.

Although there were heroic ages lost to time (which I would’ve fleshed out later if I felt the need), I wanted to concentrate on the 20th century, with our campaign being the first heroic age of the 21st century.

I mentally divided the 20th century into chunks. The first costumed heroes began appearing in the 1930s. They were Mystery Men, little more than ordinary people who stepped into extraordinary roles. The public romance with Masks, as they were called in my game, began with the Human Rocket, a man with an aviator helmet, shaded goggles, a bomber jacket, and a experimental prototype rocket pack. He came to prominence by saving the Lindbergh baby and was instantly acclaimed. Other heroes followed, but they remained fairly low key and low-powered—two-fisted heroes with few, if any, super-powers. They fought the Axis into the Second World War, then largely faded into obscurity.

The fifties and sixties brought a new wave of heroic activity, as a more cosmic sensibility came into play. Alien heroes, crusaders from other dimensions, and mutants born of super-science with real powers began to appear.

Through the seventies and into the eighties, things got progressively darker. In the eighties, especially, to reflect comics like Watchmen and The Dark Knight Returns, heroes became more vigilante-ish. Some began using lethal force, which would’ve been unheard of earlier in the century.

Finally, the alien invasion came, and most heroes and villains alike allied to defeat it. It left things in a bad way. Only the fact that the premier sorceress in the world predicted that a new heroic age would come, someday—that heroes would be needed again, someday—caused some to retreat and lick their wounds, hiding rather than retiring completely.

I felt like this gave a good background. It described a history of heroic action that evolved in similar fashion to what had happened in comics themselves, and it set the stage for why the PCs would be the most important heroes of the new age. It gave me material to draw from—classic heroes from my history could reappear, if needed, or new characters, following the legacy of old ones, could come along.

What a Tiwst!

Finally, to keep a feeling of “realism” to my comic book campaign, I tried to take ideas that would seem familiar to comic book readers, but to add a twist to them. For example, the “Superman” of my campaign was a woman named Gaia. She had the various Superman powers—flight, strength, speed, invulnerability—but she also had one rather different power. She could permanently turn off super-powers, if they weren’t alien in origin. This made her something of a judge over the other Masks, and no one really liked or trusted her, so she remained apart from her community.

There was a character in my storyline called Lord Fury. He was kind of an amalgam of Magneto’s general attitude, Storm’s powers, and Dr. Doom’s resources. As the lord of Malta, he had made his little island kingdom a place for Masks to live without fear of prosecution. As a mutant born with weather-control powers, he was more than capable of sinking ships and confounding anyone who wished to attack him with his diplomatic immunity.

One of my favorite creations was Dr. Chaos, a Brainiac-like AI that inhabited a robot body during the seventies, then was destroyed during the alien invasion. His consciousness had inhabited a computer system in the eighties, going to sleep to wait a chance to branch out. My intention was to have him be found by a second group of PCs that were going to be playing in the same universe. They were going to be a group of kids called the Lost Boys, sort of an X-Men or New Mutants group. He would be the computer system of the cool new base they’d found underground, only to ultimately become their nemesis.

One other character I particularly liked was the American Eagle. The original Eagle was an amalgam of Captain America and the Falcon, a patriotic hero of World War II wearing a winged flying harness. The eighties version of the Eagle was called Proud War Eagle, an embittered Native American Vietnam War veteran and vigilante who was more like the Punisher.

All of these served to offer the campaign some verisimilitude when it came to imitating a company that had been producing comics for many years and many different audiences.

In Closing

Looking to real comics gave me a lot of ideas on how to produce a campaign setting that would really capture the feel of a comic that had a lot of history behind it. Nowadays, I’d set up a wiki to help my players feel like these comics had really happened in the past. I might even consider getting an artist to draw them, or using a program like HeroMachine to produce illustrations. I suspect the more work that goes into a campaign like this, the more like an actual comic it would feel. And that is exactly what I wanted.

Your Turn

Do you think my campaign would feel more real with the work I did on it? Is trying to make a comic book game seem “real” a futile exercise? Do you have any advice of your own for superhero genre world builders? Let us all know.

About GGG

Andy/GGG is a gay geek guy for sure. He's been playing D&D since he was 10, and he equates reading Tolkien with religion to some degree. He's a writer/developer for a Live Action RPG called The Isles, and he writes a comic called Circles, a gay, furry slice-of-life piece that comes out way too infrequently.

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