Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Designing Backgrounds for Super Teams

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Back in the day I played the crap out of some superhero games. While the majority of it was with the classic Marvel Superheroes RPG from TSR, I did dabble in Champions. While I liked Champions for the fun of the build, I found it cumbersome and so usually went back to Marvel Superheroes, even when not playing in the Marvel Universe. I did also give Palladium's Heroes Unlimited a chance but found that, like many of Palladium's games it was a cumbersome process of character generation and a clunky 1st generation rules system not well suited to the superhero genre.

One of the most fun elements of the genre was coming up with interesting origins for characters and even the teams they were in. The origin of the team is often them ore difficult concept of a superhero RPG and can depend, to a great degree upon the style of play you want and the types of characters people are willing to play. Some origins can also be more limiting than others and can constrain the sorts of heroes a players can easily use with the team. Fortunately, comic book universes are full of good templates to borrow from as well as excuses for exceptions. A lot of good stuff has been written on how to build teams, but here are some of my thoughts on the topic.

Take, for example, and all mutant team where all the characters are supposed to be heroes born with their abilities as part of an emerging new species of man. Easy enough to fit any concept into as the general theme is pretty narrow, but what if you have that one player who really wants an Iron Man sort of character or wants to play an alien, god, or other sort of non-mutant hero? Fortunately, comic books have given us all sorts of creative and convenient outs for this sort of mishmash. Perhaps our power armor wearing hero is actually a mutant with the ability to control machines, talk to them or with a simple superheroic gift for knowledge that allows him to build the super tech needed for his suit (likely other things the team needs too). Our alien may not be an ordinary member of his species and therefore a mutant in his own right. Perhaps our god-like character only seems like a mutant because he has been banished to Earth or has been sent on some sort of quest of self-realization to join his heavenly brethren. He might pretend to be a mutant, be indistinguishable from one, or not even know. Even if the character is originally built as a mutant, crazy comic book plots can reveal this to be untrue later on in the story. "Razor Boy, you're a what?"

Of course comic books also provide us with really EASY team setups - the mixed super team. Just like the Avengers or the Justice League, these teams are made up of a wild blend of heroes from all sorts of origins. Usually such teams are brought together by either a single individual with an idea or an idea itself. Fitting your hero into such a team is then more a matter of figuring out how you came to be in this paragon team. Were you recruited? Were you drawn to their heroic calling? Was it a chance for glory? Perhaps your hero was brought into the fold after a chance encounter with another member. Whatever the case, it is in these teams that gods, robots, super soldiers, witches, mutants and monsters rub elbows freely and nobody seems to worry about the complex dynamic. Another variation of this sort of team is to have a large roster of heroes allowing the players to switch characters as the mission dictates. This is a model used, once again, by the Avengers and Justice League.

What you really need, in any case, is a hook. What is it that draws the heroes together and provides the glue to keep them together? Whatever you choose should be something powerful enough to give good cause to maintain a team through countless adventures but loose enough to allow characters to be created that suit the players desires and to allow for a wide variety of stories to keep things fresh. You can even take individual player style and availability into consideration when doing so. Once again, comic books provide the answer.

The Sometimes Player
If you have players who only like certain types of adventures or who are not readily available or who must take breaks between adventures, then you can simply use the old TEAM-UP approach. Using this method, the occasional player is a hero who is associated with the team in a looser fashion than the others. Perhaps this character is another local hero who gets around and occasionally adventures with the team. Whether he is on call or just happens to swing into the thick of things from time to time (Spiderman, Wolverine), he now has a reason to be there sometimes and not others.

The sometimes character may have his own agenda or responsibilities that require him to be elsewhere sometimes. When this character is not involved in the adventure he could be following this other agenda or responding to the call of duty, (Green Lantern and Thor). It could also be that this character has not made up his mind about the regular group or is somehow prevented from full time membership due to some other issues he might have - "I'm just not ready yet".

One option for the sometimes player is for him to play the true TEAM-UP heroes. These are one-off sorts of characters that can add spice to the game and are really well-suited for the player who likes to play sometimes but isn't really interested in experience, campaigns, and/or deeper stories. These sorts of players are often very frenetic and come to the GM with character idea after character idea, never seeming to settle on a single character. So you can let them and still have it be fun - "Alpha Team meets Super Dynabug" "Alpha Team Double-Sized Special Featuring Solar Condor".

Think Like Comic Company Not a Comic Writer
Whatever your solution to the team-origin issue, make sure that you find a way for all players to contribute to the team and for their individual origins and backgrounds to be accommodated by the story at large. This isn't too hard to do in comic books as long as you remember to think like a comics company and not a writer.

Writers make stories and are often not concerned with the big picture like companies are. Even though an individual writer may not ever write about a particular hero the company certainly keeps an eye on him and his stories. Nothing is too out there for a comic book company. They will always find a writer for the stories they want to have happen and they will always find a way to make it happen. Come backs, revivals, fake origins, clones, robots, alternate universes, time travel, alien doppelgangers, whatever it takes to move a story and make a character fit is what they will do it.

The same thing goes for team dynamics. There is no reason to not allow good characters to interact and the superhero genre really gives you such a wide array of possibilities to make this happen. So if your players really can't settle on a solid concept for their team, then you just go ahead and make it work for them. Perhaps that is part of the team - the fractured team. Write it into the story. Maybe there used to be a more cohesive team and things fell apart. Perhaps the team is rebuilding after some big crisis plot line and that i where the action begins, with the leftovers of what had been.

When it comes down to it, if you have even the most basic understanding of comic books, even just the cliches and stereotypes, you can find a way to make any sort o team work.

Thanks for reading,



  1. I was always a loner sort of guy and didn't like teams except for X-men but that's only because of Wolverine! My guys were Batman, The Punisher, Wolverine but not the goody two shoes of DareDevil and Spiderman!

  2. Villains and Vigilantes was our Super RPG of choice. t one point I had most of the High School football team playing

  3. We played a lot of Champions in the day but looking back I shudder at the laborious character generation and five-hour dice bucket battles. The original Marvel RPG was a blast but I tell ya, the new has blown me away, it's my favorite RPG right now and it's just getting started.

    As for backgrounds, I always liked the shared/forced background like the Fantastic Four, they've got the best type of team hook. Of course "super-teams" are always good as well. Although I always liked the X-Men, I never liked the "mutants stick together" mindset for a team, unless you count X-Factor at issue #71, which was a government sanctioned team, which is another good hook.

  4. I have always liked the cosmic characters but they are hard to play with other players who do not like those sorts of stories and characters. I often played the outsider character, myself. So I have given a lot of thought to how to keep these characters involved on both Earthly and Cosmic fronts.

    I also liked playing the under-powered underdog characters. Which often meant playing a character that was outclassed by the others and many of the villains.

  5. I always liked mentalists or blasters and some form of supersonic travel and insubstantial.

  6. Superheroes are the in thing today. I guess people need them psychologically with all the horrid things happening around.

    Cool blog. More power to you!


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