Monday, 28 July 2014

Batman and the Legend

Following on from observations about the Bat-Family, let’s look at the influence Batman has on the world around him.

First of all we have the likes of Nightwing and Batman Beyond - potential or actual legacy heroes.

Batman has more of these than average - he has trained various Robins and others to take his place when (not if) he dies, handed the role on the others, and when he went R.I.P. a few years back there were enough candidates for a Battle For The Cowl with more sides than Reign Of The Supermen before (a) the expected winner and emerged and (b) the original inevitably came back.

Because the idea of Batman as a legend, the hero Gotham needs, is a powerful and interesting one. We know who Batman is, but if not for wanting to keep the original around he really could be replaced if he fell, and would be.

Ersatz superhero settings like RPGs often have built-in legacy heroes. The Superman, Batman and Captain America types are gone, and a new generation of inexperienced heroes have to take up the torch and in some cases the name. The first separately published adventure for Golden Heroes was actually called Legacy Of EAGLES and gave the PCs the chance to avenge a legendary team and inherit their base.

Would you want to create and play The New X? Might be interesting to try... either with an existing X you have to follow, or a made-up X to justify your characters.

(The closest I’ve personally come was a brief Marvel Superheroes game about a new X-Men team.)

And what other effects does he have on the setting? Some have blamed him in-character for encouraging the theatrical madmen he fights. He makes most of the Gotham police, reporters and other authorities look bad.

And he gives the people hope.

(Digression: the recent trilogy made a big point of how much more good a legend could do than one man. But as heir to the Wayne fortune, Bruce Wayne could do a lot of good. But a series about a crusading philanthropist paying for charities and encouraging urban redevelopment might not be very exciting.)

Would you feel more or less safe if you saw the Bat-Signal in the sky?

Marvel Universe Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.

The TV series Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D. gets a comic... set in the main comics Marvel Universe and introducing Marvel Universe versions of the characters, not their existing Marvel Cinematic Universe versions.

Okay, you have my interest.

(It increases out chances of getting figures, to follow the newly revealed MCU Agents Coulson and Hill figures.)

It’s also a great way to avoid continuity issues with a spinoff for an ongoing series.

What would change from dropping your core cast, almost as-is, into a Slightly Different Universe, perhaps using a different system?

Sunday, 27 July 2014

Batman, Gordon, Allies and Friends

Outside of Alfred and the Bat-family, Batman doesn’t have many allies in Gotham. One key ally is Jim Gordon, who is sometimes the questgiver with the Bat-signal, sometimes the one honest cop who has to hunt Batman down, and sometimes a detective story character in his own right, complete with a family member or two of his own, one of whom might be important in some continuities.

For a crimefighter, a friend on the police force can be vital to get clues and avoid being shot by SWAT teams.

Someone with medical training to patch up your injuries with no questions asked is pretty useful too. Dr. Leslie Thompkins is less prominent than Gordon (she wasn’t around in 1966, so she missed out on day-glo TV stardom) but she also acts as a moral compass and sounding board for whether he’s gone off the deep end.

Tech support is provided by Lucius Fox, among other people. Those wonderful toys don’t come from Forbidden Planet in-universe, after all...

Crimefighters often have petty criminal contacts to shake down for information. Batman uses disguises to fill this role himself.

A plucky reporter could be handy as well. Batman never really got one of these as Superman and Lois Lane had that covered already, but Vicki Vale pops up now and then...

What else do your PCs need regularly? Who do they talk to about their adventures, seek advice from, sometimes bring along? Which contacts are strictly business, and which are friends? How do they react when someone who helps them needs help in turn? (Don’t do this too often, especially with “bought and paid for” NPCs like Allies and Contacts in The World Of Darkness - something a player has spent resources on shouldn’t be more trouble than it’s worth.)

The main difference is one side gets One True Way supporters.

Total railroading in RPGs means that the GM doesn’t care what the players do, it doesn’t matter at all.

So does total sandboxing.

Saturday, 26 July 2014

The huge action scene on the poster of your game

And as a break from Batman, The Avengers: Age Of Ultron is a mere nine months away, and here’s the concept art poster showing the kind of trouble our heroes are going to be in.

I often make posters for games I want to pitch, but they’re generally more abstract as I’m not much of one for painting, and of course they can’t generally show the main characters as the players have yet to create them...

But if you could, what kind of image would a big adventure suggest? What would be the poster for the movie, or the advert for the episode, or the cover of the comic?

Or the reverse, have you seen an image that made you want to include that scene in a game?

For The Watch House I might go with the horde of regenerating vampires from season four, the dragon from season six, or DEATH from season seven...

Batman, Bat-Family and the Justice League

Batman is the big draw in the DC Universe with he and his associated characters claiming ten of the starting New 52 comics (Superman second with just four) and currently sitting at fourteen, including a weekly series, and two more on the way. Note that this is him and his associated characters - the Robins, Batgirl, Batwoman, Batwing spun off from Batman Inc., Catwoman, Harley Quinn. With the exception of the villain books (and the forthcoming teen mystery series Gotham Academy) they’re at least peripherally members of the “Bat-family” - sidekicks, counterparts and associates.

Would you want to play something like that? A central PC and associates rather than a disparate team of diverse origin and equal power? They can be compelling characters in their own right, but how they relate to the “star” PC is always a factor.

Some characters naturally attach and interconnect - a Vampire Slayer and a Watcher, for example, and even then one isn’t essential to the other. I most often see this in licensed settings where that model’s already been established. For example, the option to play a vampire and retinue of ghouls has been suggested in Vampire but I’ve never seen anyone do it, indeed I’ve only seen a single PC Kindred and PC ghoul together on a few occasions. Sometimes playing the sidekick is interesting, but I wouldn’t want to have that status by default. 

An NPC mentor is different, of course - they might bring the PCs together and be the questgiver, but as NPCs they naturally fade into the background. A PC mentor is always there... and one who is an active team leader as well could double the issue of spotlight hogging.

It’s something I’d consider... but only with certain players in the leading role, just like I wouldn’t assign the Captain’s chair randomly in Star Trek. It also suggests group character generation... which is often a good idea but does not work for everyone. In this case, player 2 might have to create a character who could conceivably work with player 1 and fit their style as well, and that puts player 1 in a powerful position.

The other mentioned option is a team of otherwise unconnected characters. This is more normal, and is the case in just about every superhero game I’ve played in, with some limitations (which one player will usually fall outside, deliberately or accidentally) in some cases. 

Somewhere in the middle, we have not-exactly-fan-favourites The Outsiders, a bunch of otherwise unconnected characters who work together with Batman as their mentor and sometime-absentee leader because... uh... is that the time I must be going. None of them count as Bat-family characters (except Katana taking the place of Robin in the recent Beware The Batman animated series, with her mystical origin nearly entirely dropped) so they don’t owe anything to Batman in style or name, just work with/for him. This is the usual way to deal with a more powerful “leader” PC (like a Vampire Slayer with a bunch of Scoobies) - it loses the branding but that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

Friday, 25 July 2014

Batman, The Joker, Archenemies

Batman has a rogue’s gallery heavy on the Dick Tracy style weirdoes, more of them to be confined to an asylum than a prison when he catches them. #1 is of course the Joker, Chaotic Evil to Batman’s Lawful Good. A great crook, a world-class murderer, and unfortunately a pretty bad comedian.

I’ve written bits here and there about building a recurring villain before, and noted that much of it is down to player reactions. Popularity will always be a factor. There’s character hate and then there’s player hate - if you get that, retire the character, at least for a while.

Like Batman himself, the Joker has risen and fallen in power, danger and Weird Level from a guy with a skin condition to a possibly-immortal avatar of chaos depending on the needs of the story. Apparently the Gotham TV series will have a different potential future Joker in every episode - which seems like a joke that will wear thin pretty quickly, but points to his mutability.

His motivation shifts around as much too, although flat-out killing Batman is rarely the issue. That’s a key part of his longevity - he plays by the same no-killing-the-enemy rule Batman sticks to, except in the most grimdark variations, despite racking up an impressive bodycount of anyone and everyone else.

And of course, he has a great shtick. Clowns Are Scary is one of the classics. (I just Googled Clowns Are and it suggested Scary first.) And as Tim Burton noted in 1989, ironic considering the hero dresses up as a bat to try and scare people.

So where does this leave us? A variety of stories the villain can be used on, playing by the same rules to prevent complaints about unkillability, and a shtick. Sounds easy... but there are plenty of unsuccessful villains that prove it takes luck too.

Thursday, 24 July 2014

Batman, Gotham, and Bad Cities

Following on from Batman Day, what else does this 75-year legend have to offer gaming?

It seems sensible to start with Gotham, the city that defines him, so much so that the show about adolescent Bruce Wayne coming soon is to be named after it...

Batman was originally based in New York, then moved to a fictional city to take more artistic liberties and “because we wanted anybody in any city to identify with it” as its creator Bill Finger explained. It was officially mapped in 1999, and the cartographer Elliot Brown explained that creating a fictional city “is about allowing the writers to have their freedom”.

Over the intervening decades Gotham has become a Bad City, an urban hellhole teeming with crime and corruption and scary architecture. Batman editor Denny O’Neil described it as like “eight million people living in a Gothic cathedral”.

Like Lankhmar, Port Blacksand, Mos Eisley and almost everywhere in the classic World Of Darkness, it’s the perfect place to get in trouble. It was designed so that Batman always has something to do when he goes on patrol.

Gangsters, street gangs, crooked cops, civil unrest, alligators in the sewers, an insane asylum with a staggeringly bad security record - every issue with city living and ever bad urban legend can happen here.

This can tip over into absurdity when placed in a modern integrated setting (I would say it does in The Dark Knight Rises when the government fails to intervene with Bane’s reign of terror for six months after one attempt) but in smaller doses it can be very effective. I wouldn’t want to visit as a tourist (despite its many excellent galleries and museums) but I would as an adventurer.

Many settings have a city (or in space opera style SF an entire planet!) like this. And if the PCs don’t have to live there, they will probably end up visiting it at some point as part of a quest.

Wednesday, 23 July 2014

Batman Day - And Week

A celebration of Batman for his 75th anniversary, coming some months after the actual 75th anniversary, just to confuse matters. (And surely it should be Batman Night?)

But for me, it will be BATMAN WEEK.

Since his first appearance in 1939 he’s been through a lot of variations and adaptations and there’s always space for more - since I wrote that he was on the big screen this year as a terrible boyfriend made of Lego.

He even got his own roleplaying game! A cutdown version of Mayfair’s DC Heroes, a system designed to have Jimmy Olsen and Superman playable together by having stats rise exponentially from the human average of 2 to the human maximum of 4 to Superman being able to move planets with Strength 50, which gets really grainy and odd at the human-plus-a-power-or-two level Batman usually works in.

I will say I liked the introductory adventure, though - the Joker puts Batman on trial for apparently accidentally killing an innocent bystander in one of their fights.

Batman is, like Wolverine in the Marvel universe, an archetype for a “lone wolf” character who keeps working with partners and teams - which is one key bit that players of long wolf PCs often miss in their keenness to be the solitary hero at the table while four other players are also sitting there.

He’s got the classic angry orphan background too. DARKNESS! NO PARENTS! Replace criminals with orcs and you have approximately 40% of fantasy PCs, especially those played by players who don’t want social ties.

There are Batman expies in pretty much every superhero universe including RPG settings, and quite a few other settings as well. Westeros has Darkstar for the style, and arguably Arya for the development. And Batman is something of a Zorro expy with a chunk of movie serial The Bat himself.

Does your game have one, and is it one of the PCs?

Tuesday, 22 July 2014

Face Off makeup/costume/monsters

This show has been running for six semi-annual series so far, and has given us lots of cool practical monsters. Some Buffyish, Whovian, some Star-Wars-y, some horrible. And those are just one set of picks, other sites have them all. Go find uses for them!