Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Knowing When to say "No"

This idea just isn't going to fly. Unless you're playing Rifts.

Nobody likes a buzzkill. Naysayers and wet blankets who shut down creativity and cut off a game's true potential. It's true, and I have emphasized in previous entries the importance of encouraging players with positive encouragement and building off whatever ideas they present. But just like anything else, the exceptions make the rule. Because sometimes you just need to tell your players that a particular lock can't be picked, a monster can't be bribed, or their warlock can't be armed with an arcane bazooka.

There is a time and place for saying "no."

And your players will appreciate you for it. After all, the game is meant to present them with a challenge. If any action was met with an affirmative, the game could be ended as easily as saying "I beat the bad guys, win the treasure, save the day!" The problem is not that GMs say no, it's that it is sometimes difficult to know when is the right time to say it. Unfortunately, there is no simple answer. You have to take a lot of things into consideration and use your best judgement. Fortunately, if you are focused on providing players with the means and encouragement to persevere and succeed, you can still get away with declining certain options. Keep in mind that these situations are not the ones that involve a roll. A roll of the dice means that there is a possibility. These are situations in which the answer is just a straight negative. There are a few hallmarks of a question that you might fairly answer with "No,"

If an action is logically impossible. (Jumping across a hundred foot chasm without a special power.) 

If something would create a contradiction within the rules or established fiction. (A player finding windows within the underground bunker.)

If it would hurt the entertainment value of the game. (Letting the team clown pull down the pants of the fighter's arch-nemesis during their dramatic confrontation)

Remember that enabling the players to be creative and have fun is still your top priority. That being said, the first thing they try does not have to be guaranteed to work. If everything is solved with the first idea or suggestion the players toss out, your game risks becoming too easy, and a bore. So don't be afraid to politely suggest the players try something else.

If your players get frustrated when confronted with an obstacle, there are other methods available to a wily GM. I've spoken before about the term "Yes, and..." Another useful tool in the GM's disposal is "No, but..."

Is there a door into the next chamber?

No, but there are some loose bricks in the wall nearby.

Can I sweet-talk the gnome without knowing its language?

No, but he looks like he is already very scared of you.

This technique rewards players with new information and prompting instead of simply stonewalling their forward momentum. You're giving them something for their actions, and suggesting directions for their next action without directly giving a solution. Just be sure you are not limiting your allowances strictly to the particular way you think the players should handle the situation. And don't discriminate towards the contributions of a particular player. Give every action suggested by the party a fair consideration and keep an open mind.

Odds are that the players will come up with their own solutions for a challenge before they even touch upon the ones you had thought up. Let it happen that way. And if they get stuck on a problem, be open minded to alternative solutions that could resolve the situation. This may seem anti-climactic, but if your game gets stuck in a rut, it's not going to be fun for anyone. Better to put things back on track and move on when it seems necessary.

WWE's Daniel Bryan shows us how to say it.
The players must have alternatives at their disposal.

Often these alternatives will be costly. The player might be forced to choose between two options that will each have their own consequence. This is bad for the character, but great for the game and the player! If there is never any cost, there is never any drama. No drama, no investment. No investment, no fun. So don't shy away from presenting these dynamic scenarios in which there is no 'right' answer. Let the player decide for themselves what decision is correct. Let them deal with the consequences and play out the adventure they want. Show them that obstacles are simply there to be overcome by presenting them with challenges to surmount. Total victory should be rare enough that it feels special. Often the loss of a tactical advantage, the reveal of a villain's larger plan, the fall of a useful ally can present a great jumping off point for further adventures.

Your players may press you at times to just give them what they want, but the overall enjoyment of your game for all of your players is your main priority. You won't be able to please everybody every single game, and you can cause yourself a lot of grief if you try. Hold firm to your own instincts, and make it up to the player by playing to their tastes in a future session. You don't want to be the players' adversary, but neither do you need to pander to every whim. You're there to make the game fun and challenging, and hopefully have fun in the process. And sometimes that's going to mean a little tough love. But as long as the group all knows what to expect from the kind of game you are running, the obstacles along the way will make their triumph all the sweeter!

Happy ventures!

Friday, September 25, 2015

DMscraps! Episode 4

(The "DM Scraps!" series is a collection of assorted notes from my own tabletop adventures. I am sharing them in hopes of providing some inspiration and insight into what goes on behind my DM screen. They are raw and unedited, but I will highlight details that I find interesting to look back on. Enjoy!)

This episode showcases my notes for an adventure using the excellent Star Wars based Edge of the Empire system by Fantasy Flight Games.

The adventure starts with our merry band of smugglers chasing a shipment of weapons being shipped to an Imperial base. In the following skill challenge, I use a series of asterisks to track the level of difficulty for each skill check (Difficulty is determined by adding a certain number of difficulty dice to your dice pool.)


THE JACKDAW has been waylaid by a band of spice dealing gangsters and looted for supplies. The gangsters are led by ARMIN DAX and were hired by rebel leader Captain Wyrnarn.

Catching up to the ship will allow the players to encounter ARMIN and negotiate or fight for the release of the cargo.

COERCE **** to make ARMIN give up

NEGOTIATE *** to convince ARMIN to abandon his deal

COMPUTERS ** learn who ARMIN was working for.


ARMIN may direct you to MON GAZZA for work and intel.

There is a nearby Shadowport in MON GAZZA which you could gain information about this gang and the rebel activity on Barcanis, but THRAX is searching this region for revenge and collecting the bounty on your head.  

OSKARA’S SISTER is on this planet, recently relocated from Ryloth to work as a spice miner. Her freedom could be bartered through the UNDERGROUND PODRACING CIRCUIT operating in abandoned mining tunnels. The workers often negotiate their freedom through gambling on the podraces.

In order to win the podrace, the crew should acquire a pod from a retired racer called MALKUS “GUNDARK” GRIMMORE. MALKUS retired after a racing accident that resulted in the death of a competitor. He is reluctant to race himself, but has his racer, the BURNING SHADOW is available for use if it is repaired.

Ways to  get MALKUS to provide his racer:
-Offer him a share in the stakes +2’000 credits.
-Save Malkus from the AQUALISH LOAN SHARKS who are trying to shake him down.
-Convince him to relive his glory days

After acquiring the racer it has 2 skill dice (^^) in all the following categories

A NAGAI named VERRIK is also here, making arrangements with a group of TRANDOSHANS for purchasing wookie slaves. The TRANDOSHANS have also made sales to MOFF PODRICK

VERRIK will interact with MARXIS and possibly lead the group into an ambush in the SPEEDER JUNKYARD.


MARXIS is a regular here, a bounty hunter who will probably try to take the crew in for the bounty on their heads. He’s not dumb, he will wait until the crew leaves to make his move, but in the meantime he will attempt to poison their drinks before they leave. PERCEPTION *** or SURVIVAL *** to detect the poison. RESILIENCE **** to resist its effects.

(Notes missing)

DOCTOR EVAZAN is also here, seeking help with his PROJECT STARSCREAM. He needs medical supplies for his work, and will pay handsomely in knowledge as well as credits and free MEDICAL SUPPLIES.

Looting his MEDICINE CABINET provides one STIMPACK and some AVABUSH SPICE

DR EVAZAN wants them to invade the IMPERIAL MEDICAL CENTER and steal a NERVESPLICER. 

THE SACRED HEART IMPERIAL MEDICAL CENTER is an Imperial base dedicated mainly to the rehabilitation and study of spice addicts. in actuality, the doctors here are observing the effects of various spices on the physiology of the patients and using them as test subjects. This is OPERATION: STARDUST.

The front of the center is guarded by a LOCKOUT MECHANISM and fills the room with DIOXIS GAS. A PROTOCOL DROID named TC-19 runs the front desk.
Checking yourself in as a patient will bring you to the lounge/observation where they will subject you to testing after having a discussion about your personal medical history.

Thursday, September 24, 2015

Flavorful: The Importance of Imagination

I asked fellow DM and tabletop RPG aficionado Tim Lang to share his thoughts about good game mastery, based on his many years of tabletop experience. His observations highlighted the importance of a game's flavor, the elements of imagination and creativity that mix to create a fun experience. If you want your players to really enjoy your world, this boils down to one big idea: 

You want your adventure to be memorable.

There are two terms that get thrown around in RPG design circles... fluff, representing the lore and description of the game world. And crunch, meaning the rules and game mechanics that make up the system. Both are important, and should be taken in new and exciting directions whenever you run a game. The fluff should be interesting to the players, and the crunch should be fun to engage with.

Basically, if an encounter doesn't sound interesting when you relate it as an anecdote, it should be reworked until it would make a good story.

You don't want "We fought a bugbear in a forest." You at least want "Bugbear ambush at lunchtime. He was disguised as a bush and trying to steal our food." Something people will say "Hey, remember when?" about. 

As Tim puts it, "If you're in a dungeon, you don't want it to be "that dungeon where we fought that guy." You want "the temple to the dead God with all the demonic sigils and the possession traps.Or the underground ruins of the machine city where the ground moved beneath us while we fought. If you're playing high fantasy, you shouldn't be afraid to use fantastic elements to spruce up otherwise mundane activities."

"Tolkien is actually a good reference for atmospheric locations. Just think of all the distinct places he's given us: Shelob's lair, the treetop settlement of Lothlorien, Smaug's monumental trove of treasure. Even before the movies, those were iconic and inspired tons of later fantasy writers."

Theme is the key. Each of those were pretty high concept without being simplistic. If you start throwing everything and the kitchen sink in it becomes too random, but if you just have one environmental gimmick it will be too basic.

Back to Tim: "That's where the environment needs to intersect with who or what is living there, and what the players are doing there. Smaug wouldn't work in a dark winding cave, and Shelob in a tower is likewise ineffective."

Even games based in real-world history can have these evocative qualities. Integrating well-researched history, cultures, and technologies into a game is another way to make things memorable and engaging. 

Originality isn't everything, but transform each concept into your own. 

There is nothing new under the sun, to coin a phrase. So don't worry if your idea is based off a borrowed concept or a popular trope. Just remember to make it your own. Transform the generic into the unique. Turn that magical forest into a florescent wonderland of giant mushrooms with a collective consciousness. Make the evil emperor a lich in disguise. It doesn't have to be the first time the concept has ever been thought up, as long as it is makes for a unique experience for your players. 

For each person place or thing, ask yourself: What is special or unique about this? What will make it memorable?

This whole process of building an evocative setting relates to the foundations of gaming, specifically imagery and variety. Players generally don't want the game to be a droll grind in a world of the mundane. Better to keep things fresh. Mix up a recipe of fluffy, crunchy, goodness that keeps people coming back to the table for seconds. Let the game get dramatic and silly as needed. 

This is a medium that is, at its core, a bunch of people shouting ideas around a table. That's why even at its most strictly regulated, there remains a certain sense of gonzo adventure. Embrace the dynamic nature of the tabletop! Let your imagination soar!

Happy Ventures!

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Choo-Choo, All Aboard! Running Linear Game Sessions

Working on the Railroad 

Among players and game masters, no path to adventure is as maligned as the infamous "railroad." Railroading players is defined as limiting their path to a very singular sequence of events rather than free form or branching paths to the adventure's conclusion. In most cases this can be very frustrating for players, since it removes their sense of freedom and agency and restricts the game to a predefined structure. 

For example: The town is being tormented by the machinations of an evil necromancer. In order to reach his tower, the players must pass through the dark forest, and then climb to the top. If they try to abandon the mission, the necromancer will destroy the town. There are not many ways to circumvent the overall course of their mission. It's going to be town, forest, tower.

Now at face value, this sounds like a bad idea. It locks the players in to restrictive gameplay. But there is a place and time for everything, even a linear game design. There are cases in which a linear adventure design can actually provide a more engaging experience. The trick is in execution, and allowing the players freedom to make choices within the framework of the adventure.

If you think about it, most video games contain similar restrictions. They have a series of progressive levels that you have to complete in order to proceed to the end. Even open world games have specific quest lines arranged in a particular sequence. There's nothing innately wrong with having a planned sequence of objectives. In fact, following a prepared path on the tabletop makes sure that the players will face encounters that have been designed for maximum satisfaction. A scenario the DM has planned and prepared for is usually more likely to satisfy than the one he has to invent on the fly. Of course player freedom is important. But if it will result in a dull or confusing experience, it's not worth it. 

Remember to keep your linear adventure fun for the players with these five simple rules:  

1. Don't limit yourself to the plan.

When the players make choices that don't lead them into the next scene, don't automatically fight them. Even when the game has a set arc to follow, it should still feel organic. Embrace alternatives as your players present them. If they wish to take a stagecoach instead of buying horses to arrive at the OK Corral, roll with it. As long as they hit the highlights, you should be fine. Mix improvised elements into your adventure path. Use the advice in "What's Behind That Door?" to allow you to work your planned encounters back into the adventure. You know what you want to have in the adventure, but allow your players to have their say on how it is introduced.

2. Fill in spaces.

Use alternate paths and new ideas presented by the players to 'fill out' their adventure. Let the players explore side-paths before you guide them back to the trail. Use honey rather than vinegar: offer enticements to draw the group back to the parts of the adventure that you have prepared in detail. Use their PC's motivations to inspire them. 

Whatever you do, don't try to force your players back onto the path. That's where the term railroading comes from. In extreme cases, address the players directly and ask them what they want out of the adventure. Sometimes they might just need you to present them with a stronger hook to make them care about the adventure at hand.

3. Include options within each scene.

"You need to rescue the princess from her cell, but that doesn't mean you have to fight your way out."

Just because the players are on a certain course to finish the adventure doesn't mean they should have no say on the inner workings of the quest. Your encounters themselves should include for multiple avenues to success (combat encounters with limited options are no fun.) Dungeons or other mapped areas to chart their own path through are the most classic. But there's also including non-combat solution to a combat encounter, a second door into the same room, a chance to choose their weapon in a gladiatorial duel. Even minor decisions like naming a flagship or choosing outfit to wear to the ball can be fun and engaging for players if presented right.

Another common trick is letting the players choose an order of events. If they have to tame three beasts before gaining audience with the beastmaster, at least they can choose which creatures they approach first, second, and third. 

Make sure you are including options within your games by tracking how often you are asking players questions. As long as you are doing this and letting their answers have effects on the game world, you avoid boxing them in.

4. Don't make it obvious.

If you use these techniques, it shouldn't be so obvious that the players are following a certain course of events. After all, they have chosen their routes, made decisions along the way, and you haven't stopped them. If they played through the adventure a second time and it turned out the same, they might feel disappointed. But that's why you only run it once after all! If your players seem happy with the game (always the number one priority) then you'll be fine. 

Remember, absolute player freedom and having an open world doesn't take priority over fun.

5. Don't make your whole campaign linear.

Mass Effect 3 had a relatively simplistic conclusion
On the flip side of that last rule, having complete control and being prepared doesn't take priority over fun. 

That's right, this is the part where I say not to do everything I just said you can do. At least not making a habit of it. This isn't a model you want to apply to more than a session. On a big picture level you will want to allow the players to chart their own course and work from there. Players having control over their adventure paths leads to your party having a greater stake in it. Unless you are running a module, don't plan out your campaign in long term, prepared detail. Let the players course develop in its own direction. Linear adventures are ideal for one-shot adventures that only last a session for this very reason. Following the principles here can make for a fun, quick game. 

At last, keep in mind that an adventure is only as good as the parts of its whole. If the singular path you have in mind is comprised of poorly designed encounters and storylines, it is time to redesign. If your players don't seem happy, give yourself a time out and reassess the situation. See what you can salvage from the material you have prepared. Don't throw everything away out of frustration. Find out what it is that's not working and then re-work it to fit your players' needs. Just don't insist on keeping everything as-is just because that's what you originally planned. Being able to adapt and improve your ideas is the key to running any adventure, and the key to good game mastery.

Happy ventures!

Friday, September 18, 2015

DM Scraps! Episode 3

(The "DM Scraps!" series is a collection of assorted notes from my own tabletop adventures. I am sharing them in hopes of providing some inspiration and insight into what goes on behind my DM screen. They are raw and unedited, but I will highlight details that I find interesting to look back on. Enjoy!)

Today I'd like to present these notes I found pertaining to the Metasprawl Campaign setting for Shadowrun. These are just the descriptions of people, places, and things found in the first couple of chapters of the adventure. Just a sampling of how I write up the concepts and descriptions of various items for my world-building toolbox. Enjoy!


ACT 1: Project Alchera

Find out more about Project Alchera, and the Animus project.
Monsanto’s Special Projects Facility in Hokkaido are concealing something. Something big. Their operation is patrolled by Shining Wolf’s Model ED-209 drones as well as Corpsec personnel. Additionally, there are a number of genetic research projects being conducted in the interior of the geodesic greenhouse area where the juiciest secrets are kept.

Remy Duverne, head of the Southern branch of the White Council, descendant of Jeanne Duverne, the man who killed the haitian necromancer (and servant of Kalfou) Papa Doc.

Armin Novirov: EU expatriate who heads a company of troubleshooters for the Japanese PMC Shining Wolf. Currently employed by Monsanto Industries. Is a dark elf ‘splicer’ who uses stem cell injections to adopt wolf-like DNA

Dr. Anders Bergstrom: A researcher previously employed by Monsanto, them terminated and sent to the prisons of Detroit. He was known for his controversial work on the Segher biodomes and was secretly burned by Monsanto so that his lucid dreaming research could be repurposed into a mass entertainment market. He is currently living in a penthouse in Detroit where he conducts his experiments,
Note: Why wasn’t he killed? Would have drawn too much suspicion to his work, he was paranoid and highly guarded.

Lucas Merryweather: Born into an affluent but abusive family in Europolis (Formerly Belarus) the heir to a recreational pharmaceutical company, he secretly killed his parents with psychic powers when he was young. Now he is head of Abstergo Interactive, a company that is about to acquire Monsanto’s dream research division. He is a cultist serving the illithids (ONEIROI). He previously used subliminal messaging VR programs to influence the minds of the masses. Now he has something more sinister in mind.

Hazard: Slo-Mo Chronatron chambers: Lock and slow down time for everything inside them when the alarm is tripped, allowing more time for security to arrive.
Transit Tram: An elevated tram makes a complete circuit of the primary testing facility under the geodesic dome.

Hybrid velociraptors: Bred from fossilized DNA for Jurassic Worlds

ED-209: Designed by Dynacorp for crowd control and security purposes.

Werewolf Splicers:
Entrance to Detroit can be gained from either a strategic arrest, or more wisely through The Chaperone, a street boss who started out running an industrial grade chop shop and now owns an underground transportation service.
Fleet Street Go-Gangers: Run the shawarma shop on Wabash and Lake. They are Westaku (Western Otaku)

The Dream Institute

J J Kessler: Wealthy benefactor of the Kessler Dream Institute. Has dermal gold dust over his body and wears a silver lame suit over a midnight black turtleneck. Never without his bluetooth.

“Edge” Sakaguchi: Yakuza street samurai with a bionic hand and a hyperchrome tux. Hair shaved off and uses permanent implanted mirrorshade lenses over the top of his eyeballs.

Dreamer Test Subject: Suffering the effects of sollipsia, believe that the waking world is a dream. Will often become violently dangerous.

Morpheus Flowers: These plants release an electromagnetic resonance frequency that stimulates the frontal lobe, allowing for lucid dreaming. However, they are also equipped with pollen emitters that produces mild hallucinogenic and tranquilizing effects.

Cockatrice: These are small, luxury level genetic hybrids developed by Monsanto Bioengineering as well as others. These colorful half-rooster/half-komodo dragons are equipped with acidic spit as well as sharp claws, but are only the size of a small dog.

Yakuza Switchblades: Low-level samurai with blade attachments in their wrists.

Yakuza Troopers: The mooks of the Yakuza system. They wear bright flowery shirts and bear dragon tattoos.

Geishas: Male and female, garbed only in body paint, these people also exude opiates from their skin.

Sushi K: Nip-Hop rapper and otaku. Guest of Kessler and Sakaguchi currently performing every night in Gangster’s Paradise.

Holographic Ghosts

Sewer Spirits


Thursday, September 17, 2015

Time Management and Game Mastering

Taking a Moment

When you are running a game you might feel pressure to keep everything running on time. You might feel like you have a responsibility to be fast on your feet and to keep your players' attention. It may become difficult as you find yourself trying to fill the silence with a steady stream of patter and dialogue. But you really shouldn't worry so much. 

The number one rule of time management in game running is slow down when you need to. Focus on quality, not quantity. Take a deep breath, organize your notes, break down the purest essence of what you are trying to convey. Your group will be engaged and on board as long as the material is interesting and they are making progress. You don't need to rush yourself with descriptions or adjudicating the rules. If you find yourself stammering and trying to fill space, give yourself a little time to collect your thoughts. Then present only the information that is important to your players. 

Don't be afraid of silence. It may go quiet as you shuffle through your notes, but that's okay. As long as you maintain your confidence and positivity there is nothing wrong with a lull at your table. You can even let the players know they may converse among themselves during such a moment if you need some more time. If you are talking because you feel pressure to talk, you will not be at your best. Only speak when you feel ready and composed to deliver a new piece of information to your players. Even video games have "loading screens" between levels, your players won't mind the pause if it means you can bring high quality game mastering.

This technique will also save you from second guessing yourself or making mistakes you have to correct later. Think for a moment about what you really want to do in the scene. Make your words count. Focus on economy of speech, that is using less words to convey more. Sure, you can always throw in some flowery vocabulary and fancy imagery, but let every word count. Try to minimize speech crutches such as "like..." or "Umm." Do your best to always say only what you intend. It sometimes helps to develop a special speaking voice for game mastering, adopting a unique tone and meter that will help you maintain a steady rhythm in your speech.

Running on Time
Art by DC Comics
It is useful to keep a timer or clock within view as you run your games. Your time measurements don't have to be exact, but you should have a general impression of how long certain parts of the game should run. This isn't to rush your game mastering, but to control the duration of particular scenes and portions of the game. If you find your group is spending an hour or more on a simple encounter, you may need to take action to correct that. There are a number of ways to end an encounter early that can be implemented in order to speed things along. Keep an eye out for player fatigue and remember that it's okay to use an 'out' to keep things rolling. This is especially useful if you ever end up running games at conventions or public events. 

Then you will also need to budget slightly longer breaks to consult your notes, take a breather, and assess the current situation. You might want to use timer set for of a couple of minutes for giving yourself a break to organize your notes. 

Referencing the book should be a rarity and, if possible, avoided entirely. Nothing bogs things down like flipping through a book for a particular reference. Better to adjudicate your own call on the rules and resolve to look it up later. If you do this, let the players know that you are using a stop-gap measure to keep the game running. As long as you let the players know that you will correct the rules later, it shouldn't be a problem to implement a temporary solution and move on. Keeping some more common rules references on hand or recorded on a GM screen is one way to cut down on this problem. Once again, this principle is essential during convention gaming and public events.

For longer running games, the mid-session intermission is also important. It gives players a chance to visit the bathroom, as well as stretching their legs. Hours of play without a break of at least five to ten minutes can leave groups burnt out and creatively exhausted. It is usually beneficial to declare a break about midway through the session, preferably after a significant milestone or just before a climactic scene. This gives players something to think about and plan for, building anticipation for the game's second half and giving you time to relax and get your affairs in order. My games often run three to four hours, with a break at the two hour mark.

If you can put these basic principles into use, you will be able to run a relaxed and ultimately enjoyable game. Just as with most endeavors, it is better to be efficient than fast. Remember to make sure your players are comfortable with the pace of the game and adjust it accordingly by simplifying or expanding certain scenes. Figure out how much time you need to keep things running smoothly and allow for it. And above all, have a fun and enjoyable time as you share the experience with your gaming group.

Happy ventures!

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Adventure Force! A Campaign Setting for Mutants and Masterminds

Childhood artwork of the Adventure Force against the monstrous Moleculus

The M&M System

Mutants and Masterminds is my favorite system for running superheroic adventures. Its versatility in adding and customizing powers allows for the creation of just about any kind of character you might imagine. And the system does a good job of using trade-offs between accuracy and power to include a multitude of archetypes without upsetting the balance of gameplay. A gadgeteer can face off against a powerhouse without being completely overwhelmed, and vice versa. The fact that the system eschews hit points in favor of an increasingly difficult series of fortitude saves means that it does a fair job of replicating superhero battles, in which the characters exchange brutal strikes leading up to the knock out blow. This also means that that gadgeteer can dodge, weave, and wear down his enemy, but a solid hit from a powerhouse can still send him through a wall. Fun stuff!

The latest edition, the third of the series, has evolved greatly from its D20 roots. It no longer feels like a re-fluffed Dungeons and Dragons. It is now a highly modular system with character creation than some ways resembles a very simple computer programming language on pen and paper. The one downside being that the game mechanics are somewhat mathematically intensive and I recommend a quality GM screen in order to run it smoothly. I use a customized screen with the most useful tables and formulas available for reference and the game became much easier to run.

The Setting

M&M is an ideal system to use for a homebrew setting, as the core books are not oriented toward any particular setting. It's a blank slate to work from, and superhero settings are relatively easy to build once  you have decided on what comics you will draw inspiration from and have designed a few of the characters that live in it. What follows is a basic description of my setting, to give you an idea of how a simple homebrew looks in M&M.

Adventure Force is a campaign setting that was born as an amalgamation of two stories I devised when I was just a kid, Adventure Force and Herowatch. Both contained themes of superhumans existing in a world of futuristic technology and global intrigue. As the name suggests, it is fairly light-hearted, reminiscent of comics from the Silver Age or some of the more high spirited comics of the last ten years.

The Adventure Force is the name for the primary team of superheroes, comparable to The Avengers or the Justice League. They are brought together to share resources and better direct their abilities, like a gentlemen's club. But several of the members also report to other factions, so there is shared oversight and possibly even some dramatic tension between members. Their friendship and loyalty keeps the team together, and the shared goal of rising to action for the greater good.

Members of the Adventure Force include, but are not limited to, these characters...
  • Particle Man, a gadgeteer superhero with a high-tech suit of gear.
  • Lightning Man, an electrical mutant wielding sword and armor.
  • Panther Man, a cat-like vigilante with super-strength and agility.
  • Velocity, a CIA agent who can add or subtract kinetic energy to herself or anything she touches.
  • The Wind Man, a weather controlling variant of the wizard Merlin.
  • Guardian Angel, another tech-based character. A computer hacker turned super.
  • Lunar Man, a gravity controlling commando from another planet.
Particle Man (center) facing villains Centipede, Nanite, Plattius, and Cybernet.

They are opposed by a number of dangerous foes and villains, including:
  • Mister Richman, a wealthy crime lord
  • Dr. Plattius, a mad scientist with nanobot-injecting metal claws.
  • The Red Knight, a demon from the age of Camelot.
  • Bright Eyes, a laser-eyed criminal from another world.
  • Mortis, an ancient sorcerer who spreads clouds of decay.
  • Jaguar, the evil counterpart of Panther Man.

Several non-superhuman factions are important to the setting's global political climate. The group Genius Engineers International, or GENI (Pronounced 'genie') is a UN-backed research and development task force that also prioritizes peacekeeping and defense from interplanetary threats.

Section 42 AKA The Agency is a shadowy secret organization tasked with monitoring and deterring the dangers of aliens and superhumans, a byproduct of a fearful society.

Finally, there are a number of sinister superpowered soldiers who have leveraged their abilities into becoming specialized private military contractors. These characters can show up as recurring threats, and it provides a lot of flexibility in designing adventures. Whoever the main Big Bad Evil Guy might be, he can draw from some of these independent mercenaries to round out his own henchman task force.

Two Eras, Two Styles

When I run an Adventure Force game, I always allow players to choose between two different eras of gameplay, which serve as sub-settings of their own. The Challenger Era is set in the period of tribulation and discovery as superhumans become a major force in world events for the first time. Fear and suspicion of these new entities is a common response. Heroes and villains are often treated to equal criticism, and good guys may expect to be viewed as dangerous vigilantes. Technology and history have advanced only slightly more than the real world and the fearful nations of the world operate covert agencies, engaging in a secretive arms race of technology and super-powers.

Panther Man in action

On the other hand, the Paragon Era is set much later in the setting's history, as super-powers and fantastic technological innovations become widespread. Humanity makes contact with extraterrestrial civilizations and alternate dimensions, leading to the necessity for greater international cooperation.  The threats of this era are often more cosmic in nature, the products of a world that is become increasingly bizarre and unified.

By offering these two variants, the players are allowed a say in which themes and challenges will be prevalent in their own adventure. Each one sets a slightly different tone and suggests what kind of stories might be told. For instance, the Challenger Era might feature the Shadownauts, Adventure Force's sub-group of super-powered spies who are trying to prevent an Eastern European crime ring from stealing a nuclear weapon. The Paragon Era might see Doctor Plattius infect a GENI robotics expo with nano-machines and cause chaos with a mechanized army. Different strokes for different folks, it all depends on what your players are up for.

Superhero stories lend themselves to an episodic format, so they make good one shot games or short campaigns. You can keep a couple of plot threads going from session to session, but it is best to keep things self-contained, with beginning and end, like issues of a comic or episodes of a cartoon. The setting itself is what defines the continuity of your campaign, common thread of each adventure. I hope this brief overview of a sample setting has given you some ideas and material for your own superheroic undertakings. Happy ventures!