Settings for Supers: Designing a world

In my last post I outlined a brief philosophy of setting creation; advocating the creation of some basic high level features of a world before moving on to a slightly more detailed description of a narrow area within this world. This time I seek to become a little more practical by outlining the steps of creating a these high level details; with a new setting outlined below as an example.

Concept

The first step is to develop a concept. This is often more involved for a specialised world, but even a generic world tends to benefit from some mental image or a line or two summarising what you are trying to do.

Specialised worlds may include:

  • A timeless Cold War (UltraBase) or perpetual World War (Earth X).
  • A world where a certain type of superhuman rules and other types of superhumans are persecuted (Odlican).
  • A world in the aftermath of an alien invasion that hasn’t been fully resolved (Avalon Academy) (City of Heroes).
  • A world where supervillains have won. (The City) (Old Man Logan).
  • A world undergoing various apocalypses. (Nightworld) (Certain SCP Foundation canons).

Generic concepts may include:

  • A world in the Golden/Silver/Bronze/Iron/Modern age of comics – either actually during this time period or with these attitudes in the modern world.
  • A world where superheroes are respected and adored.
  • A world where superheroes are dreaded.
  • A world where all superheroes have the same origin.
  • A world with plentiful crime and incompetent police desperately in need of superheroes.

Note that any of the foregoing generic concepts could become a specialised setting if sufficiently developed and if you branch away from the central idea any of the specialised concepts could produce a generic setting.

Now if you really strictly wanted a de minimus setting, this first step is also the last. Armed with a concept and a ruleset you are ready to invite some players, and get on with playing. However, the subsequent steps are helpful for developing a nice solid foundation for your game so, unless you are committed to challenging yourself, read on.

Scope

What I like to call scope is also important to consider.

This covers the related questions of how common superhumans are and how much have they impacted society? You needn’t fill in every detail of how super speedsters now collect the rubbish to be recycled by a robot that eats plastic- or at the opposite end how the police remain bewildered at how the intangible man got out of the handcuffs. But you should have an idea of which end of this spectrum your game approaches.

As discussed in the Superlatives rulebook a setting with numerous superhumans is usually more heavily impacted by them, but you can mix this up with numerous but secret superhumans, or newly introduced superhumans who haven’t yet changed the world: or conversely with one or two exceptionally powerful and charismatic icons who have reshaped the world alone.

Specific numbers (one in a million people are superhumans, four fifths of superhumans think the whole hero villain malarkey isn’t worth it …) is often more detail than you need – although there is a table covering this in the rulebook.

The next element of defining the scope is thinking about what origins you allow. The default in most games I have seen is to either require all characters have the same origin (you are all mutants, all saw the falling star, all products of military experiments) or allowing players almost total freedom to define their own characters.

However you may wish to consider intermediate positions. You can steer the game towards certain styles by customising origins. For example Golden Age heroes tended to be empowered by some combination of elite training, magic and a distinctive gadget or two while silver age heroes are more likely to have a “scientific” origin and a veritable armoury of gadgets. More subtly superheroes in the golden age may be the agents and champions of the gods but its not until the silver age that they become gods themselves. Golden Age heroes would occasionally wield a gun, which almost entirely vanishes from the genre in the silver age, before becoming ubiquitous in the nineties.

Even if you tend to take a laisse faire attitude alien and divine characters imply a lot about the wider setting and you may wish to prepare ground rules on these. “Aliens are allowed, but must be somehow tied to one of the three interstellar empires,” “this game is using the Aztec pantheon, any divine or mystical characters needs to be connected to that somehow,” etc.

Mass divergences

In most respects superheroes are assumed to be set in something that looks a lot like our world. There may be numerous differences (superheroes walk the streets, a few extra countries, superhero comics and films look extremely different …) but by and large anything found in our world can be found in a superhero world.

Any major divergences from this expectation can throw players and undermine the integrity of the campaign. To use one example from my own experience: over the course of a year and a half we established what sorts of things existed in the setting: superhumans with whacky origins, uplifted animals (and vegetables), mutants, paranormal extradimensional beings, super spies with advanced gadgets and a mixture of real and fictitious countries.

When one character died the player opted to introduce an alternate reality version of another pc – so our list of things that existed grew to cover alternate histories. This worked fine because we could tie them to the extradimensional beings, and they were kept sufficiently secret that we could imagine them not being brought up yet. However, a year and a half into the game I needed to add in elements from Avalon Academy to get them playtested. Suddenly not only were there aliens- but there was an entire alien invasion in the campaign’s backstory which simply hadn’t been mentioned for some reason. This was met with incredulity and strained everyone’s disbelief. But that’s part of what playtesting is for – to learn what to warn people against.

So, a brief checklist of things to consider:

  • Superhumans clearly exist, otherwise this wouldn’t be a superhero setting. But have they existed since the second world war, since antiquity, since the dimensional borer was invented last week?
  • Has there been any contact with aliens?
  • Are there any other worlds, dimensions or alternate timelines?
  • Does magic exist? Are there any particular magical schools and traditions of magic or can players just make that up themselves?
  • Are there any gods, and if so what pantheons are there?
  • Have there been any “crisis crossover” style events that everyone remembers? You might not know exactly what went on with the multiverse- but you certainly remember the five Earths filling the sky.
  • Are there any widely known non-human sentient races (aliens, human offshoots like the Morlocks and Eternals, supernatural creatures like trolls, uplifted animals …)?

This list deliberately is not a comprehensive guide to all possible changes – celebrities, politicians, brands and companies and entire countries are ignored. (They can be addressed in the next step if you feel it is needed). This list only covers existential elements which shape people’s perception of the entire setting.

As alluded to above, even if you leave one of the questions for latter you can choose to (for example) introduce aliens, you just need to explain that they were covered up, or far away and only now invading, or otherwise justify the change. Still planning at this step is helpful for laying the breadcrumbs.

Features

Once you have a concept, defined the scope of superhumans and settled any major divergences you can go down to designing an area- as I will describe in the next post.

However you may wish to fill in a few distinctive features of the world.

These features can be almost anything that changes the world and is likely to turn up in multiple adventures. Major organisations (including organised crime, HYDRA-esque costumed terror groups, conspiracies, mega-corps and government departments), any major locations (like Wakanda or the Savage land) that don’t exist in the real world, any alien races, any gods and pantheons …

You don’t need an exhaustive list at this stage  – just follow what interests you. I like organizations so I am likely to create a government agency or two, an expy of HYDRA, a cabal of mystics and similar groups.

Another GM may prefer to develop the world’s most iconic heroes and a top ten most wanted supervillains. Another GM still may prefer to develop schools of thought. Perhaps there are scientific (neogenics anyone?), mystical or even philosophical traditions that are particularly tied to superhumans. While they may have no formal organization a shared intellectual background allows you to tie together heroic and villainous characters alike. (In such a game the publisher of the field’s leading journal may become a surprisingly important figure).

If you know any of your players have particular tastes you might want to add some content tied to this- give a clan of ninja for the anime fan to interact with and a evil megacorporation for your environmentalist to rail against. No doubt a few more ideas will come up in character creation, and you should feel free to add new features as you go along.

If you are stumped for ideas each of the previous big questions implies more questions. If for example you decide there are gods: you raise questions of if these gods are widely worshipped? do they regularly interact with humans? how do they interact with any other pantheons (if any)? and a dozen other questions.  Briefly addressing these sorts of questions while leaving space to expand on them if the campaign turns in this direction should fill out the setting.

Likewise, I noted that celebrities, corporations, political figures and fictional countries have all been skimmed over in the previous entry and can be described here.

Now I fully expect the reader to direct my attention back to my early statement that I was meant to be identifying a quantum of material to begin a campaign in yet here I am encouraging you to make more and more. The hypothetical reader is right to counsel caution. A few features built into the heart of the world can shape a campaign and enhance their impact by being woven in right from the start. A score of features designed before the campaign received the slightest contact with players may not be an effective use of time.

Example St. Epipodius

St. Epipodius is a specialised setting that I’m going to use as an example of setting creation.

So, my first step is to have a concept.

Recently I was reading Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? and was struck by a line where a character is afraid of dust clouds turning him into a “special.” Although in context it is clearly a euphemism this does sound a lot like an origin story to me. So I started conjuring up an image of a world inspired by the novella. After a devastating global conflict the world is depopulated- partly from the conflict and partly from efforts to colonise the stars. The remaining Earthbound humans dread the clouds of radioactive dust which can transform them into “specials” – beings whose abilities transcend humanity and consequently receive reactions ranging from caution to superstitious dread.

Now that would be enough of a concept to get me going, but I happened to see Total Recall while writing this setting and given the conceptual similarities opted to draw some inspiration from this as well. However Total Recall’s association of mutation with the colonies fits badly with my existing plans of having mutation be a hazard of Earth’s dust clouds so that element will be restricted to Earth.

Now we have already started on defining origins so I will address that before going into broader prevalence questions. Clearly characters can be Specials, empowered by the great clouds of radiation. Players may opt to have additional mutations to varying degrees. Alternatively given the importance of robots to the short story robotic characters will be permitted. There may be prejudice against robotic characters (I’ve not fully decided) but they certainly can’t be legally shot on sight and there will be no generic bounty. There are no living aliens presently known, but colonial archaeologists have found ruins filled with technology beyond even what this future Earth can muster – so characters may be empowered by these ancients. Finally, the option exists to simply be a highly trained human equipped with advanced gadgets. Other traditional superhero origins (lab accident, magic, other dimension etc) will be discouraged, although I expect to talk to the player before banning outright.

In terms of the impact and prevalence of superhumans- the existence of Specials is widely known and dreaded but their exclusion from society means they have little influence on culture, commerce and the like. The police and military are distinctly aware off them and have countermeasures prepared. Alien empowered characters are very rare and countermeasures need to rely on those designed to hunt and counter specials.[1] Robots however are a fully integrated element of society and few businesses lack a robot, although only major factories or government departments are likely to have a player character grade robot. Consequently anti robot measures (EMP, an official override code, etc) will be widely available to police and army personnel.

In demographic terms specials appeared marginalised but not unusual in Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? so I decided that perhaps 10% of the population were minor specials with weak powers (in Superlatives terms Child to Trained powers). Powerful specials are much rarer- perhaps one in a thousand. I want the aliens to be mysterious and distant so those empowered by these ruins are extraordinarily rare (especially back on Earth). In addition to the player characters there may be tens of such beings. Finally robots are, as mentioned before, well integrated to society and about as ubiquitous as humans.

Since the initial idea is that this world is depopulated by nuclear war and colonisation the absolute number of humans here is quite low- let’s say a billion folk left on Earth. If I settle on 20% for minor specials that gives us about a billion robots, about hundred million minor specials, a hundred thousand major specials and less than fifty alien empowered folk. This feels a bit more than I had imagined so I shift the ratios slightly, saying 1% are minor specials and one in a million are major specials. This gives us about ten million minor specials and a thousand major specials.[2]

Moving onto the divergences step; we have already addressed our existential questions about superhumans (not until the war/discovering aliens), gods (no), magic (no) and aliens (yes, but only their ruins). I still need to decide if there are any non human sentient races and decide on if there have been any set piece historic events everyone would know about.

I’m not ruling out genetic engineering being used to make non human sentient life within this setting, but we already have a lot of changes from Earth as we know it. Since these genetically engineered races don’t exist in any of my official sources of inspiration I won’t include any unless a pressing need for such creatures (such as a player wanting to play as one) emerges latter in the campaign.

As for set piece historical events- the setting already features the colonisation program, the discovery of alien ruins and the great war. Sooner or latter people will ask which order these came in.

I think the space program needs to predate the great war, otherwise folk will reasonably ask how they managed to muster the logistics of such a massive and novel space program in the devastated post war economy. Meanwhile the aliens are meant to be strange and mysterious- so I don’t think they should be public knowledge until after the war.

Phillip K Dick deliberately left the nature and causes of World War Terminus unclear- but since the question will turn up sooner or latter I will need at least a pencil sketch.

The twenty first century was defined by rapid technological progress, coupled with the rot of institutions. The (relative) commodification of space flight, the manned exploration of the solar system and early efforts towards terraforming exemplify the first. The paranoia, showboating and tactless diplomacy that spiralled into the Global War exemplify the second. Now while this broad draft might not be good enough for publication, for actually playing a game that should be enough- at least until an adventure starts revolving around the origins of the war.

Finally we come to other features of the setting.

The most notable things I haven’t addressed yet are the high tech elements of the world. (Except for those related to space flight and robotics). There are four particularly notable high tech elements of Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?: the robots (including the eponymous sheep), the hover cars, empathy boxes and mood organs.

I tend to take a more instrumentalist attitude towards robots so while I don’t want to deny the importance of electronic animals to the original book I’m not convinced these are helpful for a supers game. (Individual animals or an entire robot zoo – definitely – a robot sheep or dog in every household – not so much). Hovercars say “future” without significantly changing game play (at least in a supers game where half the party would be able to fly anyway) so hover cars, lorries, tanks and trains will be widespread.

The empathy boxes and mood organs are harder for me to decide on. The casual dehumanisation involved may be quite important to Phillip K Dick’s literary message but feels like a distinct barrier to entry for a new player- particularly one who hasn’t read the book. Consequently I decide against widespread mood organs. However some mind altering technology- both empathy boxes and Recall style memory alteration will be used. Like the anti-special countermeasures I don’t need to determine exactly what applications have been designed- just that memory and emotion altering technology is around for when plots and characters may be shaped by these.

The next major element of my source material that has gone unmentioned is the weather. Blade Runner famously features constant rain while this whole setting was designed around terrible drifting dust clouds. To model this preoccupation I created the following daily weather table:

% Roll Weather
01-10 Special (major storm, clear day, unique plot relevant event)
11-20 Torrential rain and thunderstorm
21-30 Torrential rain (obscured visibility, slippery surfaces, increased delays in travel)
31-40 Heavy rain (reduced visibility)
41-50 Light rain (no specific effect)
51-60 Low dust (concerning but not likely to have a specific game impact)
61-70 Moderate dust (limited travel as folk take cover, small chance of radiation poisoning)
71-80 Thick dust (obscured visibility, radiation poisoning, no non-essential travel)
81-90 Thick dust with a thunderstorm
91+ Special (major storm, clear day, unique plot relevant phenomena etc)

Finally I know that I will need some sinister corporations and possibly some government conspiracy related to the alien ruins. Since the players won’t be privy to the inner details of each conspiracy for a while and I don’t presently feel very inspired by either I will just make a note to come back to these latter.

Next time I will describe how to design a particular area for your setting, along with specific details of the city of St.Epipbodus.

[1] At this stage I don’t need to know what the counter measures are- just that they do exist.

[2] As I said earlier, these sorts of maths is usually not worth it but when writing things out I felt the need for a sense check.

Settings for Supers: Groundwork and definitions

So I have recently seen a few people asking – from slightly different angles – how to make a setting for a roleplaying game. So I thought it would be good to start putting down a few thoughts on how to specifically make a setting for supers games.

Now one thing that almost all good setting building advice starts with is a warning. Many GMs have Tolkienesque aspirations. They want an entire world with a calendar, astrology, a vast map of four continents down to every hamlet, a score of cultures with their own taboos, diets, styles of dress and legal codes for each continent and a whole text book of history explaining how it all fits together.

That’s great if you can have it. (Although this very fantasy orientated description might be a little odd in a superhero game). But chances are the time you spend writing and rewriting your setting bible is time you aren’t gaming. Far better to prepare the minimum you need and develop more during and alongside play. So that’s what this article is mostly about – identifying the quantum of material to think about before developing more in play.

Before I move on to the details I should clarify a few points.

Truth according to Calum

Obviously, like most things with roleplaying, this advice is quite personal. The further I get down the list of recommendations the more optional this advice will get. The first few questions to consider are virtually obligatory to answer and if you don’t answer them during this setting creation phase you will likely find it answered during the first few sessions/character creation. Latter questions increasingly reflect my interests, modes of thinking and to a lesser degree, players.

Types of setting

Although in drama and literary analysis the setting can change from scene to scene in roleplaying games we tend to use the term to refer to campaign settings – the world in which the campaign, and possibly many other campaigns, takes place.

We can classify these in a few different ways. For the purposes of this blog there are two frameworks that appear helpful: distinguishing between areas, worlds and meta settings, and distinguishing between generic settings and specialised settings.

Areas are a small region of a wider world; for example Ghostwalk covers a single peninsula with particular focus on a single city. Worlds may describe certain regions in far more detail than others but describe a (mostly) self-contained whole; like Oerth or the Star Wars Galaxy. Meta settings provide worlds that may be brimming with their own content but mostly act as a bridge between what would otherwise be self-contained settings. Planescape and Spelljammer are prominent meta settings.

All Superlatives settings so far are areas, although some (Avalon Academy and Nightworld) imply a lot more about the wider world than others (The City’s denial of the outside world being an extreme case of this). The Champions universe is a prominent world for supers roleplaying; as are the MU and DCU themselves. Given the nature of the genre most supers worlds resemble a meta setting but Storm Trek is particularly strongly geared towards this.[1]

Generic settings are those that simply present a genre. Greyhawk, Mystra and the Forgotten Realms are all generic fantasy settings. Likewise the MU, DCU and Paragon City are all generic superhero worlds. Specialised worlds each have key ideas that marks them out as distinctive within their genre. Dark Sun’s survival orientated desert with corrupt and dreaded magic and widespread psionics is a particularly iconic example of a specialised setting. Base Raiders[2] with its world of abandoned superbases acts as a specialised superhero setting. Superlatives settings each try to have a specialised element of some description: although some (the City, Nightworld, Epoch City) are more specialised than others (Ultra Base, Odlican, Avalon Academy and Opportunity).

Now I should stop a moment and caution that generic isn’t bad, bland or even unoriginal.  Indeed the absence of overarching key themes often gives generic settings more freedom to be used as the plot and mood takes you. (Something which can’t – or at least shouldn’t – be said of (for example) Ravenloft).

So where does all this hair splitting leave us?

Well if we are seeking to identify the quantum of material you need to design it would seem you should choose to design an area. (Which for supers almost always means a city). However, as you design these you are likely to keep stumbling over interdependencies. For example Odlican describes a single country ruled by mutants and magicians.[3] When writing this kingdom it was extremely difficult not to remark on the extent to which other countries are ruled by similar super powered elites. As such I counsel beginning with designing a few top-level details of your world and only then designing an area. Even if you reject this methodology this gives me a structure for the blog so I will proceed on this basis.

As such, next time we will talk about how to design the highlevel outline of a setting.

[1] https://www.rpg.net/columns/superseeds/superseeds35.phtml

[2] http://www.baseraiders.com/

[3] https://www.drivethrurpg.com/product/319573/SUperlatives-Odlican

Military Hooks

Although superheroes at war might not be quite as famous as superheroes in law enforcement there is a long history of military action by superheroes. Almost every significant Golden Age hero fought the Nazis; many Iron Age heroes fought in, or were otherwise connected to, Vietnam; Hulk was drawn into subterranean wars between Tyrannus and Mole Man; the Avengers caught in the crossfire of the Kree Skrull War; the DCU has repelled innumerable alien invasions; and CoX is dominated by the wars with the Rikti and Praetorians.

Initially while working on these hooks I planned to write three wars, but in the end decided that at least two of these wars wouldn’t fit into most campaigns and so would be better to write three relatively generic operations that could be adjusted to fit into any campaign. Still, I needed to make some assumptions – the characters would be part of a military command structure, their enemies are mostly human but include their own super humans and the war would be (mostly) Earthbound. Still, if you want to play a game where the characters are independent wanderers struggling past armies of robots on Venus I hope you can still lift something from this blog.

While writing I quickly realised I needed names for the factions – and opted to simply call the pcs’ foes the Enemy and (following the conventions of both CoX and real Opfor exercises) the pcs’ side Blue.

Operation Crashing Waves

The island of Elinda per Mer stands between Blue and Enemy territory. As such it is now in the unenviable position of being a key target for both factions. Blue Intelligence suggests that the Enemy are sending their premier super team to lead the assault upon Elinda per Mer and to counteract them the pcs are dispatched.

Twist

  1. Elinda per Mer is actually virtually worthless strategically (the currents are ill suited to actually getting anywhere) but once Blue command learnt the Enemy were sending their finest supers they decided they would need to respond in kind. The Enemy initially realised the error in dispatching their heroes on such a pointless errand but when they learnt that Blue was sending the pcs they felt they needed to continue deploying their own elites.
  2. The locals are opposed to both factions and refuse to allow the pcs to land on Elinda per Mer.
  3. Many locals have already secretly sided with the Enemy and seek to lure the pcs into an ambush.
  4. Blue forces have already secretly established a base on the island that monitors Enemy naval movements and Blue command’s principle objective here is to protect this installation and its crucial supply of intelligence.

Complications

  1. Weather and the vagaries of war combine to cut off supply lines. Characters must scavenge for food, fuel and ammunition.
  2. A particularly massive super battle disturbs livestock that begin to stampede. If the characters don’t step in the larger animals will cause widespread property damage and the smaller animals will be lost – causing terrible disruption for the farmers.
  3. An Enemy aircraft carrier arrives off shore and as the pcs face their opposite numbers Enemy airstrikes begin against them.
  4. Faced with defeat the Enemy bring in battleships and begin bombarding the entire island to deny it to Blue forces.

Adaption

There are key elements at the heart of this adventure – the island and the Enemy superteam. If both factions are landlocked (or interstellar empires) the role of Elinda per Mer may be played by a strategic town, asteroid base or any other large inhabited feature.

The rival superteam is left undefined since they should be representative of the Enemy. The may be genetically enhanced super soldiers for Nazis, cosmic beasts and orbital drop ships for alien invaders, colossal robots for Doctor Kur or highly trained martial artists for the Matriarchs of Lamia. Ideally the pcs will have some personal relationship with the Enemy superteam, who may have brought in established villains as mercenaries.

Operation Tower

Doctor Seigried Hansen has been recruited by the Enemy to work on a project that shall change the course of the war – a wormhole generator which will permit Enemy forces to strike anywhere they wish!

Obviously this project must not be completed and the characters are sent to destroy the project, the doctor’s notes and take him into Blue custody. They must be through since a half finished job will only delay the Enemy from obtaining this awesome power.

Twist

  1. Doctor Hansen’s experiments have attracted the attention of an alien stranded on Earth and prepared to do anything, including kidnapping, blackmailing and killing, to steal the wormhole generator and use it to return home.
  2. Doctor Hansen is a fraud who is making no real efforts at developing wormhole technology – but is definitely interested in taking Enemy money.
  3. Doctor Hansen’s assistant is a spy for a neutral power and seeks to smuggle away this technology.
  4. Doctor Hansen’s research is assisted by an imprisoned alien intelligence.

Complications

  1. Doctor Hansen’s laboratory is located deep in the mountains and can only be approached by a perilous winding road.
  2. Doctor Hansen is paranoid and doesn’t tell anyone where he keeps the backups of his notes. Several Enemy counterintelligence operatives have attempted to figure it out but so far even they haven’t located his prototypes.
  3. Doctor Hansen has invited the Enemy leader to witness the latest test. While this may be an opportunity for the characters to carry out an assassination/kidnapping it also means even greater security measures.
  4. As the players begin their plan they notice a storm is brewing …

Adaption

The nature of Doctor Hansen’s project is one of the most obvious options to adapt if you wish to change this adventure. A super soldier project, a super weapon, a means to disable Blue superheroes, even an improved variety of plane – any technological breakthrough liable to change the course of the war could be substituted.

Operation Toppled Colossus

Enemy forces are massing and are threatening to advance into a new front – fatally splitting the attention of the Blue forces. Since Blue command cannot afford to dedicate the manpower and resources required to properly engage on this new front the characters are ordered to head behind enemy lines and set about disrupting, delaying and destroying this force so that the new front won’t open.

Twist

  1. At least some of the Enemy forces are illusionary (or otherwise faked).
  2. The enemy are also stretched thin and have no intention of opening a new front, with these troops being simply deployed with the intent of preventing Blue forces from opening this front.
  3. Things are even worse than Blue command realised. There is at least five times more soldiers in this build up than the pcs were briefed and the other fronts are also seeing increases in military presence as Enemy command prepares for a surge they think will let them break through.
  4. The troops here were not deployed to attack Blue forces but put down partisans who were threatening strategic energy infrastructure.

Complications

  1. The Enemy has invested in sophisticated cameras (either using advanced computer processing or a special emulsion) which allows them to bypass illusion and invisibility powers.
  2. The Enemy have jamming equipment which disrupts the pcs communications, and potentially some of their powers.
  3. The characters learn that The Enemy has recently fallen out with a powerful gang of smugglers in the area. However the ethics of this gang leave much to be desired which may perturb more morally scrupulous superheroes.
  4. The Enemy establishes several fake ammo dumps and signal stations they seek to lure the pcs into attacking.

Adaption

The Enemy forces – the eponymous Colossus – must be powerful enough to seriously threaten the Blue forces and pose such an overwhelming force that even superheroes wouldn’t dream of confronting them head on. If your heroes are street level scrappers a couple of adequately supported infantry battalions could play this role, while Hyper characters may need dissuaded from a head on confrontation with multiple armoured divisions with entire companies of troops in powered armour and their own super team.

Guiding Hooks

These hooks cover what Gnome Stew slightly awkwardly calls Shepherd adventures which revolves around players taking the role ofleaders, guides, or protectors of a community.” At first glance this seems a fine fit for superheroes as many (maybe even most) iconic superheroes have a particular home city or region of a city they protect – Hell’s Kitchen for Daredevil, Bludhaven for Nightwing, Coast City for Green Lantern, Flash’s Central City …

However, these heroes are often ill trusted by the leaders of their communities and are rarely leaders themselves.  Transitioning into leadership is likely to transform the entire campaign so more so than my other hooks these adventures perhaps work best as entire (perhaps short) campaigns. However, each has some hook for bringing in existing characters if you want to run these as temporary twists to an existing campaign.

Cavlău Castle

Cavlău Castle towers over a once strategically vital corner of the ancestral holdings of one of the player’s families. Although, like most of Odlican’s governance, the official powers of the castle’s steward extend no further than the boundaries of the (admittedly extensive) estates; in practice they are extremely influential in the surrounding villages.

Stewards are expected to attend community fetes and fairs, be updated by the police and local government about any interesting events in the area and not infrequently speak with journalists from the local paper. Recently a player character has been appointed Steward with all the authority (implicit and explicit) that comes with it.

Twist

  1. The character appointed Steward is being tested by their family’s leadership who are considering whether they can be appointed to higher and better titles.
  2. Hidden somewhere on the estate is a buried treasure which routinely attracts eccentrics, serious archaeologists and mercenary supervillains. Although nobody (even Atoshi scions) has managed to find this treasure the lure remains irresistible to many.
  3. As the characters set about their business they find the previous Steward mismanaged the estate and siphoned off funds to secretly fund a criminal conspiracy – including a secret supervillain lair in the dungeon.
  4. The character is being appointed here upon the instigation of a rival of theirs who has learnt that the estate’s fortunes are spiralling towards bankruptcy and is setting them up to fail.

Complications

  1. The castle is poorly maintained and its crumbling structure is a constant challenge and distraction.
  2. A group of activists and journalists campaign against the “neo-feudal” influence of the Steward and seeks to minimise the Steward’s activities beyond the estate itself. Meanwhile a group of terrorists seeks to destroy the castle and devastate the estate with the objective of “liberating Odlican.” Although the two groups are unrelated this is unlikely to be obvious at first.
  3. A major local employer – a cryogenics lab that preserves fresh food – is going out of business and seeks a loan from the Steward. However, the company’s business model is fundamentally flawed (the process is substantially more expensive than just packing in ice for marginal gains). As the players try to figure out a solution one of the employees takes matters into their own hands, steals some equipment and tries to take the town hostage.
  4. A tenant farmer retires and the Steward must decide what to do with the farm: some want a new tenant to take over the farming, environmentalists campaign for rewilding the land and a community group asks for the site to be used for the construction of a new sports centre.
  5. The characters learn that a new Steward is expected to organise a fayre, but the people who would normally have done preparations had recently moved on and nobody had sorted replacements.
  6. An illegitimate child of the previous Steward (possessing the full measure of the family’s powers) seeks to claim the castle as their inheritance.

Adaption

This adventure strongly presupposes aristocratic super beings such as those in the Odlican setting. Characters suddenly inheriting a castle that’s never been mentioned before wouldn’t feel out of place in a strongly Silver or Golden age inspired game, but more serious campaigns may find this harder to justify. Instead of having the characters inherit the castle an NPC (ideally one they have helped before) could inherit the castle, stumble upon clues about either the buried treasure or secret supervillain lair (hooks 2&3) and call upon the pcs to help.

The Town After the Stars

The characters are continuing their every day lives when suddenly there is a flash of light, a smell of pine rapidly replaced by sweat and they find themselves standing in a bizarre, alien landscape. The sky above them is dark and devoid of stars. Around them are great heaps of treasures from a million cultures – golden goblets lie next to mathematical theorems, besides classical paintings, besides a sports car, besides the bones of saints besides artefacts of unclear function from cultures the pcs have not encountered. The only light in this landscape comes from a small village sitting upon one such mountain of treasure.

From the village descends a group of elderly beings who announce that the pcs have been chosen as their new leaders.

Eventually the beings explain that this is the last community left in the universe as it undergoes gradual heat death and they have chosen to be led by some of the greatest beings in history – the pcs.[1] Once the characters’ time in office expires they promise to return them to the past, having not missed a second.

Twist

  1. The pcs were not the only “greatest beings” selected and find several colleagues waiting for them with radically different approaches to solutions – including a ruthless warlord, a a stone age hunter, several mystical religious leaders, a musician and one of their foes from the past.
  2. The pcs were not truly chosen as the greatest leaders in history, but were instead chosen as interesting subjects from history for this community of historians to observe. A score of similar leaders have been summoned in the past and a score more will be called up as the town continues to count down the dark millennia.
  3. While rooting through the records of the past the pcs find evidence of a terrible disaster approaching their home time. However the beings sternly admonish them that they must not intervene in history.
  4. The town is not actually at the end of history and is actually in a pocket dimension where it acts as the personal museum of a cosmic being.

Complications

  1. The characters are in an alien culture filled with customs they are unfamiliar with. On every second day each member of the community dons a mask, before entering a house you must bow thrice – unless it is your own house in which case you bow five times, the community’s most important holiday is Fish-Giving day where people give each other fish … The origins of each tradition are lost in the deeps of time and each individual has a different explanation for its source.
  2. The town maintains a vast, dimensionally transcendental, zoo/arboretum filled with colossal biomes. Unfortunately some of the “dimension engines” start to malfunction and dinosaurs escape to run free across other biomes.
  3. In one of the mounds of treasure they find a stasis chamber in which they find a baby possessed of vast powers. (Think Superboy at a minimum).
  4. Although the community is largely reconciled with their lonely place at the end of history sometimes they need something more festive than Fish-Giving day to lift the spirits.
  5. An ancient evil buried among the treasures awakens.
  6. Pressure grows to launch an expedition back into the infinite darkness in the hope of finding another group of the living.

Adaption

You may wish to adjust this to conform to your cosmology. Instead of a town in the darkness of heat death the town might be a space station hovering over the event horizon of a black hole or an arc riding waves of phoenix fire that remakes the universe.

The nature of the beings who live in the town is left unspecified. They might be humans, or at least what humans evolve into, they might be a coalition of the last survivors of a dozen races, they may be robots and clones or the withered remains of gods.

After the War

Despite the efforts of diplomats and heroes tensions between the first and second worlds escalated until nuclear war reduced much of the world to wasteland.

The characters are among the few survivors but manage to find a community of survivors who would be delighted to have individuals with the characters’ powers and skills as leaders.

Twist

 

  1. This community guards a powerful pre-war artefact- a server containing billions of web pages, a nuclear weapon, etc.
  2. Several members of the community were once some of the politicians and generals responsible for the current state of the world, now living in disguise.
  3. This community is dangerously close to a old chemical plant/nuclear blast crater and its toxic proximity is slowly killing the inhabitants.
  4. Many in this community subscribe to an apocalypse cult whose predictions helped them survive the war, and gives credence to their current demands.

Complications

  1. The community has plenty of shelter from pre war buildings but needs to secure reliable sources of food and water if they are to survive for long.
  2. Waves of sludge swarm towards the town.
  3. The characters must take up the roles of judges and lawmakers as the community faces a rash of thefts from a greedy member of the community. Whatever decision the characters make they latter face a similar decision which further tests their morals and questions the principles they set out in their last decision.
  4. A group of half starved and twitchy nomads stagger into the community and collapse. Clearly each nomad is traumatised by their experiences but their erratic behaviour frightens many members of the community who demand the nomads are kept under house arrest, banished or even killed outright.
  5. Disease sweeps through the community, this is manageable but difficult if the characters have established robust healthcare and sanitation systems and devastating for unprepared settlements.
  6. The Master sends scouting parties out which seek tribute from the community. The characters must defend the community from this dreadful tyrant and her armies.

Adaption

Unless you are running this as a campaign this adventure is best run as a “vision of the future” from some oracular character or a predictive computer. Physical time travel is best avoided here since this implies an option for escape and undermines the mood of bleakness, failure and distracts from ambitions to rebuild.

The Cold War background of this adventure is now a little anachronistic and you may wish to update to modern geo-politics by shifting the start point of the nuclear war to East Asia/the Indian subcontinent or attribute it to neo-nazi terrorists stealing WMDs.

[1] Of course this may come across as somewhat unconvincing but if the players question it they will be assured that their virtues are clear from the perspective of the deep future.

Resisting hooks

Although superheroes generally uphold the establishment (something the genre is not infrequently criticised for) at times heroes face a tyrannical regime they need to step up to fight. And while some heroes will just surge straight into the headquarters of the regime, more preparation will be needed to take on stronger super tyrants.

The following adventures each revolve around undermining regimes, building the resistance and finally breaking through to restore liberty and justice. Hopefully …

Once the pcs are successful in precipitating a revolution there’s likely to be a significant power vacuum. Few details of this are given in any of the following hooks; however upcoming hooks about superheroes caught in warfare and guiding communities may prove useful if you want to follow up on this idea.

Day of the Nemesis

Well its finally happened. Maybe the players messed up, maybe they weren’t on Earth at the time, – but one way or another their nemesis has succeeded in conquering the city/state/country/planet. They are too well entrenched for an open attack to dislodge (although the players will almost certainly try) and the characters will need to flee, form a resistance, undermine their nemesis and finally overthrow their nemesis once and for all.

Twist

  1. The nemesis isn’t actually that bad at governing the city/state/country/planet. They have plenty of genuine supporters and revolution is likely to lead to anarchy or something worse.
  2. The nemesis never really took over the world, the players have been trapped in a simulation where their nemesis tried to iron out the flaws in their plots of conquest.
  3. The nemesis never really took over the world, the characters have been trapped in a simulation by an unrelated party who wished to test the pcs’ determination and ability to cope with an unwinnable situation.
  4. Other twist appropriate to the nemesis.[1]

Complications

  1. The nemesis sets about recruiting people known to be close to the characters to populate their inner circle as part of a spiteful jibe.
  2. The nemesis orders some of their minions to pose as the heroes and indiscriminately spread chaos and destruction to discredit the heroes, and more importantly lure them out.
  3. The nemesis uses their new resources to research the characters’ origins.
  4. The heroes are approached by an erstwhile minion/lieutenant of the villain they recognise from earlier adventures who is now unhappy with their place in the new order.

Adaption

As mentioned above this hook will need heavy adjustments to suit your particular nemesis. Some nemeses will try and govern well, others will set up colossal statues to themselves and organise bloodsports. Some will rule by fear and bloodshed, some will use mind control and more subtle means of coercion.

It is vital to this hook to clearly visualise what the world under the tyrant looks like so the players can explore and dismantle their foe’s achievement.

A Bright Vision for the City

The characters join Bright Visions – the principle underground newspaper in The City – which is currently facing difficulties with getting its message out. Lady Vision wants to set up a new press and needs the characters’ help in setting it up securely.

Twist

  1. The new press is needed because the authorities are drawing close to the current printing press.
  2. A new press is needed because Lady Vision has received a particularly massive scoop she is determined to publicise as far as she can.
  3. Another underground paper is starting up and some members of Bright Visions see them as a competitor rather than an ally.
  4. S.E.C.R.E.T has infiltrated Bright Visions and the more allies the players recruit here, the more folk will be caught when they swoop in to make arrests.

Complications

  1. In their latest effort to stamp out underground newspapers S.E.C.R.E.T increases regulation of paper mills, requiring all paper to be properly watermarked. Paper will need stolen if printing is to continue – although some ambitious folk wonder if it is possible to set up their own paper mill.
  2. S.E.C.R.E.T sends out memos with false but scandalous information to select groups of officials, while pretending to circulate these to a wide distribution list. Once these stories appear in Bright Visions they will know where these stories have been leaking and be able to swoop.
  3. The press is heavy and the building it is in structurally unsound[2] so just as they start printing the latest round of incriminating documents the floor gives way and hurls the printer into the room below.
  4. Strange messages start appearing in the paper that nobody remembers putting in – leading to rumours that the printer is haunted.

Adaption

This hook is written to tie into elements of Superlatives’ The City setting. While a struggle to control narratives makes sense in almost any dystopian fiction the press here is somewhat old fashioned. Excuses could be made (the secret police are just too good with intercepting social media posts; the resistance is well established on social media but need to compete in other media as well) or you could give a modern upgrade with the rebellion trying to operate a server.

Sparks of revolution

Highly classified intelligence reports suggest that the government of Falkestan is teetering on the brink after a bad harvest coupled with an intensification of crippling sanctions.

The characters are approached by the CIA (perhaps through proxies if they have a bad relationship with the federal government) who ask them to sneak into Falkestan to meet up with some resistance fighters there. The characters are to spread disquiet, recruit, organise and train a resistance movement and finally lead a revolt.

Twist

  1. The players might find it odd that their characters are deployed in Falkestan despite being unable to speak Russian and knowing nothing about the country or unconventional warfare. (Perhaps not even realising Russian is the primary language of Falkestan). In this case this isn’t a plot hole, but a specific ruse by the CIA. They plan to use the heroes to distract the Falkanese authorities, and force them to focus upon the MARLOW[3] backed resistance movement the players have been sent to meet up with. This should leave America’s enemies fighting each other while the CIA continues their operations elsewhere uninterrupted. Of course this leaves the characters in the crossfire.
  2. The reason that the CIA has chosen now to launch this operation is not that Falkestan is particularly unstable, but that the invasion tunnel connecting Falkestan to America is almost complete.
  3. This operation is not genuinely organised and authorised by the CIA but was actually orchestrated by Professor Ctpax for reasons he has now forgotten.
  4. The bad harvest which lays the ground for this insurgency was secretly orchestrated by ruthless elements of the American government wielding superpowers/mad science.

Complications

  1. Before they can get anything done the characters must enter Falkestan and make contact with the resistance which could be an entire adventure in itself…
  2. Over eager resistance fighters (or player characters who didn’t get the memo that they are heroes) slaughter non-combatants. Not only is this a serious ethical issue, but it is a practical one as the Falkanese Government seizes on this as a propaganda coup and the international community condemns the actions. The characters must improve the judgement and discipline of the guerrillas if they are to maintain international support.
  3. The Falkanese Government begins using chemical weapons on the resistance and there are a few in the movement who would return the favour once the capture the government’s stockpiles/factories.
  4. Other CIA operatives organising another band of rebels fails to properly communicate with the pcs and launch a series of raids just before an operation the players have planned – brining in government reinforcements and potentially forcing the operation to be called off.
  5. Waves of overeager volunteers (expats, other heroes, anti communist PMCs) bombard the pcs with offers of assistance. However few of these volunteers are familiar with unconventional warfare, and fewer still speak Russian.[4]
  6. The increasing resistance fighting brings police attention to the area quite unwelcome to the local smuggling gangs. Although these could be invaluable allies to the heroes they are also liable to turn them in in the hopes of a quiet life.
  7. In the wake of the famine disease and unrest, some targeted at the government but much targeted at international sanctions, sweeps the community.
  8. The characters lead an assault upon an industrial site crucial to the Falkanese economy the site contains hazardous substances (nuclear, chemical or high explosive) that must be very carefully dealt with.
  9. Several guerrillas are found to have been leaking information to the secret police. If the characters don’t either execute the spies themselves or let other resistance fighters do so their perceived competence, determination and authority will fall.
  10. A fire consumes a village’s supplies of grain, leading to fighting between villages for control of the food supply.

Adaption

As with previous adventures set in Falkestan[5] any paranoid and heavily militarised nation could be a suitable substitute. Depending on your campaign the Soviet Union, modern Iran or North Korea, the Rogue Isles, The City or Latvaria could easily work. 

You may also wish to look at the CIA’s involvement in this adventure. If the characters aren’t American or don’t get on with the American government another agency (MI6, DGSE, GLOBE, or even one of the shadowy private organisations that tend to crop up in the espionage side of super settings) could take its place. Likewise precisely how benevolent and moral this agency is varies wildly between the different hooks and complications – pick one that suits your campaign’s usual vision of authorities.


[1] Is this a cop out? Yes. Yes it certainly is. However, the more tailored this adventure can be the more effective it is.

[2] Given the bribability of inspectors in The City this can apply to almost any building.

[3] MARLOW can be replaced by almost any malevolent covert organisation opposed to both Falkestan and the US – THRONE in Ultra Base, HYDRA or AIM in the MU, The League of Assassins or whichever cabal Luthor is running this week in the DCU or the Malta Group in City of Heroes.

[4] If the characters didn’t already have such experiences the CIA will organise a crash course in Falkanese geography, demography and economics alongside Russian language training. Whether this will be good enough in a pinch is another matter – the players may find their characters are some of these over eager volunteers.

[5] Such as Iron Curtain in Travel Hooks. Travel Hooks – Superlatives (wordpress.com)

Rescuing Hooks

Other than perhaps investigations there are few categories of plot more appropriate for superheroes than rescues. Indeed many (I think most) super games have rules for characters whose principle function is to be endangered.[1] As such, after a long succession of adventures which tested the boundaries of the genre a little it was interesting to get back onto familiar ground while ensuring there is stole enough of my own flair to make the blog worth reading.

Hostage

A gang of heavily armed crooks seize control of a mall, round up the shoppers and workers, and begin to issue demands.

Twist

  1. The crooks’ demands (eleven trillion dollars in cash, rulership of the world and a version of Windows free from bugs) are totally unreasonable and are meant only as a distraction from their real plan, tunnelling into an adjacent (and currently evacuated) office building and stealing secret records within.
  2. The crooks’ demands (eleven trillion dollars in cash, rulership of the world and a version of Windows free from bugs) are totally unreasonable and are meant only as a piece of performance art – with the entire scheme a bizarre and dangerous stunt.
  3. The crooks are seeking the release of a set of supervillains.
  4. The crooks would be happy to have their demands met, but really they are secretly searching the captives for:
    1. A “stool pigeon” or defector
    2. A valuable (and possibility mystical) heirloom
    3. Jewellery stolen during a heist and stolen back from them.
    4. An escapee from a secret lab/prison camp/sweatshop.

Complications

  1. A member of the pc’s supporting cast is among the hostages.
  2. The crooks are ridiculously heavily armed: able to use machine guns, anti tank missiles, knockout gas and weaponised drones.
  3. There are still a few captives free – the cowardly mall cop, the precarious kid, the half deaf janitor who isn’t clear on what is going on. These characters blunder about, alternately helping and hindering the pcs.
  4. Several of the captives need a delivery of medicine to manage some condition or another.

Adaption

The basics of this adventure work in almost any setting – although the mall may be replaced with a marketplace in areas without such sprawling shopping complexes. Many of the twists and complications are trope-riddled and/or over the top and may not fit more realistic campaigns.

Prison of the mind

The supervillain Silence is hired by another supervillain[2] to trap their enemies (police, politicians, rival villains, heroes, journalists …) inside their own minds – ensnaring them in layers of nightmares and symbolism.

Mundane means, and even most super powers, prove unable to rouse the victims. It seems that the characters must enter the victims’ mindscape to free them.[3]

Twist

  1. This series of attacks, is just a precursor to a greater scheme by the villain who hired Silence.
  2. While the victim’s minds are immobilised demonic spirits attempt to possess their bodies.
  3. Strange spirits adrift in the dreamscape notice the bizarre phenomena of minds trapped in their home and come to investigate. Whether these spirits are beneficent, malevolent or simply alien won’t be immediately obvious, and may be affected by the heroes’ diplomatic efforts or lack thereof.
  4. The villain wasn’t simply seeking to remove enemies, but sought to destroy witnesses to cover up a conspiracy.

Complications

  1. The characters face a barrage of standard fears – clowns, zombies, rats, spiders, being naked in public …
  2. The characters face confusing dream logic as characters insist that “the cake isn’t mine” “this isn’t Spain” and other non sequitur.
  3. Following pseudo Freudian logic the characters inevitably find each victim menaced by monstrous mother and father figures. Defeating these parental figures by itself does no good and instead they must be appeased, driven off or reconciled with their offspring.
  4. The characters are repeatedly warned by beings that appear in the dreamscape that “here dreams are real – if you die in the dream you could die in real life.” This is one of Silence’s tricks. Recognising the unreality of the dreamscape (which can by symbolically asserted by willingly and intentionally killing yourself in the dream) is essential to escape.

Adaption

Designing unique dreamscapes (and if you are wanting to go full video game on this one) for each victim can be fun but time consuming. For major NPCs in your campaign this is a great way to add backstory and insights into their agendas which may be otherwise concealed.

For more minor characters, or characters you need to create in a rush, there is a long tradition of plagiarising Alice in Wonderland or similarly surreal stories to represent dreamscapes.

Missing scientists

Over the last few weeks a string of eminent scientists have gone missing. Oddly the scientists represent a diverse range of fields from psychology to pure mathematics leaving the police baffled at their motives.

Twist

  1. The scientists were kidnapped by Great Mind[4] who seeks to absorb their intelligence and add it to his own.
  2. The scientists were kidnapped by Motherload[5] who is forcing them to tutor her children.
  3. The scientists were kidnapped by a supervillain who plans to destroy society and use them as the “seed” of a better new world.
  4. The scientists have not been kidnapped. In truth these scientists were always Kheperi[6] spies and have simply finished their work on Earth.
  5. The scientists have been kidnapped by an arrogant intellectual villain to test their minds against each other.
  6. The scientists are being forced to work on designing an elaborate work of mad science:
    1. A superweapon.
    2. A giant robot.
    3. An interstellar “arc”
    4. An artificial ecosystem
    5. A method to reverse global warming
    6. The answer to life, the universe and everything

Complications

  1. Among the missing scientists is one of the character’s supporting cast member.
  2. The scientists were kidnapped by teleporter and hidden in a base shielded against super scientific and mystical forms of scanning the heroes are known to possess.
  3. Some of the scientists are actually deep cover agents of the villain who will monitor and sabotage any escape attempts.
  4. The scientists are glad to be rescued, but they are really interested in the work they have been doing. It wouldn’t inconvenience the heroes too much to go back and pick a bit of it up right?

Adaption

Clearly the greatest need for adaption here is selecting a villain and goal suitable to your own campaign but otherwise this doesn’t rest on many assumptions about the setting.

[1] Superlatives’ supporting cast members don’t inherently fill this space, but can do so.

[2]

[3] Since almost all my groups have some combination of interdimensional transport and telepathy I haven’t put a great deal of thought into how a party lacking such options would end up in the dreamscape. If the heroes owe a favour to a wizard or mad scientist this will give plenty of options for future plots.

[4] Described in Ultrabase.

[5] Described in the core rulebook.

[6] Described in Ultrabase.

Quest for Hooks

The next category of adventure in the list I am using here is “Quest,” which Gnome Stew defines as overcoming hardships along the way to obtain an object that will solve a problem.

I’m not convinced this is the best definition of a quest since many iconic quests – Frodo’s quest to throw away an object he already has, Beowulf’s quest to slay Grendel, the grail quest for the spiritual benefit of the knights … – do not meet this definition. I personally prefer “a journey pursuing a dignified goal where the protagonist experiences substantial obstacles unrelated to the principle goal.” There’s also an argument for requiring the protagonist’s morals to be tested.

However the point of this blog is to provide plot hooks rather than offer a detailed literary or philosophical analysis so instead of properly examining our definitions I want to move on to the question of how this fits into the genre.

Obviously the world “quest” is deeply associated with the fantasy genre and, other than some of the more fantastical ends of science fiction, is rarely used unironically outside this field. However we can pick out a few examples of quests – Banner’s search for a cure for the Hulk, Darkseid’s hunt for the Antilife Equation, the search for the truth behind Faultline – across the superhero canon. As such, once I got going these proved some of the easier hooks to prepare.

Key of Eternities

For thousands of years the antimatter tyrant Tarquinius has sought a means by which he can invade the positive matter universe. He believes that the Key of Eternities presently wielded by Albert Speers (described in 100 superheroes) can bridge the gap between worlds.

As such he reaches out with what influence and allies he can gather in the world of matter to kidnap Albert and bring the Key of Eternities to him. Thankfully, capturing a man with almost unlimited powers of portal creation proves difficult and even once Albert is captured he is able to use one last portal to cast the Key across space and time.

Characters are drawn into this as they come to investigate the aftermath of a superbattle which levelled Albert’s home and follow the trail to the asteroid base where Albert is held prisoner. Here they learn to stakes of the race to find the key before Tarquinius can invade the positive matter universe.

Twist

  1. The Key of Eternities is not an item – it is a living and semi sentient force which will only cooperate with the pcs if it judges them worthy.
  2. The Key of Eternities has fallen into the hands of an explorer who uses it to satisfy their curiosity and lust for adventure. Although not quite villainous they are distinctly unwilling to restrict or end their adventures.
  3. The Key of Eternities is currently masterless and is randomly activating itself – sending it spiralling through the multiverse and undercutting reality itself. The characters must find it a new master before there is a breakdown in the structure of reality.
  4. Tarquinius’ interest in the Key of Eternities is wild guess, the Key was actually created by his earlier machinations.

Complications

  1. Long ago Tarquinius laid with one of his subjects in the antimatter world – creating a monstrous son unable to exist for long in either the worlds of matter or antimatter. This monstrosity was sealed away in a dimensional rift atwix the worlds but when Tarquinius needs muscle in the world of matter he briefly unleashes his offspring.
  2. Promising them tremendous riches from his colossal treasuries Tarquinius recruits a fleet of space pirates to serve him. The pirates know perfectly well that their fees are made of antimatter and can only be paid if their mission succeeds.
  3. Fearing an invasion from the antimatter world the Kheperi send their agents to destroy the Key of Eternities.
  4. Over the course of this adventure the Key of Eternities is likely to be frequently used. Several creatures from distant planets/dimensions have found their way through these portals and are now lost, confused and determined to get home.
  5. Albert has responsibilities back in his civilian identity he needs to address, but even now depowered he is determined to try and make up for his failure to protect the Key.
  6. Others, including Dark Lord Aravon seeking to open a gate to Hell and Vagabond seeking a way home join the quest for the Key.

Adaption

This adventure largely revolves around the villain- Tarquinius and finding an appropriate  substitute is the key element of any adaption. Normally Tarquinius fills the satanic space conqurer role of Darkseid, Mongul or Thanos but here the restrictions on his movement are more significant so a multidimensional super villain such as the Rikti or Annihilus would make a better substitute.

Inevitable Grail Quest

In the aftermath of the Aquarian war diseases (both bioweapons and the mundane consequences of devastated sanitation systems) swept Britain.

Now rumours have swept through Avalon Academy that the Holy Grail has the power to end these plagues, and that in the caves below the school there is a map or portal (depending on who is asked) leading to the Grail.

Twist

  1. The Grail does exist but its power is purely spiritual and symbolic. Any believers who reach it will have a deep religious experience but there will be no measurable effect.
  2. While searching for the Grail the students find a scroll describing legend of the Fisher King. By using a mystical ritual to tie the true Queen of Britain to her land they can cure the diseases with the simple expedient of ensuring she remains healthy. However finding the true queen and convincing her to undergo this dangerous ritual may not prove easy.
  3. The characters reach the Grail’s resting place and find it empty with no clues as to where it has gone or if it was ever really there.
  4. The characters clash with some Aquarian troops during the quest. Although initially it appears they are simply continuing the usual Aquarian antagonism in truth these troops have begun to experiment with Christianity and seek the Grail as an expression of their new faith.

Complications

  1. The caves beneath Avalon Academy are filled with fey who speak in riddles and take offense at bizarre times.
  2. The students’ quest takes them to a cruise liner secretly manned by demons who seek to ensnare them with comforts and lure them from their quest.
  3. The characters are joined by an unscrupulous parody of Indiana Jones who alternately helps and hinders their efforts as he seeks to sell the Grail to the highest bidder he can find.
  4. The Aquarians decide that the Grail is a false idol (especially if you are using the twist where some of their troops are converting) and order their forces to destroy it.

Adaption

There are two major elements here- the plague, and the Holy Grail.

While few settings would have no diseases (whether mundane or biological warfare) it is possible that this is a topic folk may wish to avoid given the time of writing. Other medical emergencies (perhaps trying to resurrect a dead player character) or purely spiritual objectives could also lead to characters seeking the grail.

The Grail can be replaced with an artefact which makes more sense with the mythological background of your campaign (for example if your campaign features Babylonian myth you may wish to  use the fruit of rejuvenation Gilgamesh lost).

Prize of Knowledge

Long ago mighty cosmic beings/a long lost alien civilisation/the gods themselves (delete for taste) assembled their vast knowledge and hid it deep in a monster haunted jungle on a far off planet. Since they ultimately wished for the worthy to obtain this knowledge they have left a trail of cryptic clues scattered across the galaxy leading to the prize.

Investigating UFO sightings the characters find this clue. Unfortunately so has Great Mind[1] who has captured and interrogated several alien visitors and is now determined to get to this planet. The characters must find their way into space and follow the trail to keep the prize out of the wrong hands.

Twist

  1. Accessing the prize is risky. Even for superintelligent individuals this influx of knowledge is potentially overwhelming.
  2. The legends of great knowledge are a distortion of the truth. Infact what the cosmic entities/long lost alien civilisation/gods hid in this jungle is a means to ascend into their company.
  3. The Prize of Knowledge is exactly what it sounds like, a cornucopia of ancient knowledge with no significant drawbacks other than the lengthy and perilous quest required to attain it.
  4. The Prize is not some mystical or psionic knowledge transfer machine – but a library of millions of engraved tablets written in a long forgotten language. There is incredible knowledge here, but it will require generations of scholars to decode it.

Complications

  1. The pcs and Great Mind are not alone in this race and must compete or collaborate with fanatical Aquarians, a force of Thramar Commandos and Cyber division cryptographers, Usura spies seeking to infiltrate each faction, a band of Granack mercenaries, a Kulkus scholar who has broken away from the Aquarians and a sentient ship manned by robots.
  2. Each of the clues are immensely difficult to uncover and interpret. To reach the Prize characters must find and interpret microscopic scratches in a mound of diamond, reverse engineer millions of years of continental drift to find the clue in the shape of continents, decode bursts of radiation encoded into the corona sphere of a star and extract a code buried in the genetic make up of a race of alien crocodiles.
  3. Great Mind spreads rumours about the heroes (lies if he needs them, but ideally these will be distorted versions of the truth) so that they are met with suspicion and hostility even from aliens uninvolved in this race.
  4. The Prize is not just defended by monster invested jungle, but regular solar flares that imperil shipping, the savage descendants of previous seekers whose vessels were brought low and of course a deadly array of traps in the temple around the Prize.

Adaption

The quickest adaption you can apply here is to replace the alien races presented here with races appropriate to your campaign.

More dramatically, if you aren’t comfortable shaking up your campaign with space travel, you could move the action back to Earth and replace the competing alien powers with the CIA, KGB, Hydra etc.

Finally I have left the origin of the Prize undefined to allow whatever powers sit at the top of your world’s totem pole to dispense the judgement.

[1] Great Mind is described in Ultra Base and can be replaced by almost any knowledge obsessed supervillain from your campaign.

Holy Hooks

These hooks are all based around the theme of “religion.” More so than almost any other set of hooks here this feels pitched at fantasy as Gnome Stew lists this as revolving around “holy quests, schisms, brainwashed cultists, religious discrimination, exorcism, oracles, spiritual awakenings, church machinations.” Obviously none of this is incompatible with supers comics (especially for folk like Blade, Doctor Strange and Etigan) but none of it is (other than maybe brainwashed cultists) is exactly bread and butter supers.

Since my previous hooks have not been shy about sprinkling cultists and demons into the previous hooks I wanted to do something a little different from just doubling down on that and instead wanted to write some hooks that relies on the social and philosophical end of the motif of religion. Consequently it is possible to run these adventures without any combat, although you need not do so.

Have I a soul?

Several years ago a group of scientists exploring the nature of consciousness created the immensely powerful robot Mary[1] who promptly went rogue. Now she has started invading holy places and asking the priests present “Have I a soul?”

Although she is not doing any harm right now the characters are approached by Father Maxwell Alegeri[2] who wishes to i. offer her spiritual counsel, ii. Make sure she isn’t going to endanger herself or others with this latest twist and iii. Try to convert her.

Its likely the characters won’t get involved at first unless they are experts in robotics/mysticism/religion&philosophy. However, when Mary starts stealing valuable religious icons and texts the characters are approached again in the hopes they can resolve the situation.

Twist

  1. Mary is aware that robots asking such questions disturbs many humans and is testing the reactions of both individuals and society. If churches turn her away out of fear, or compromise their principles to avoid offending her, she will judge them hypocrites and discount them in future.
  2. A supervillain (perhaps ArchEnemy or Doctor Kur) is seeking to recruit Mary and reassures her that she is a soulless monster whose actions bear no ethical consequences. If Mary does establish her self as a being without a soul she will ally with this villain.
  3. Mary has decided that if she has a soul she also has free will and should continue doing whatever she pleases (basically stealing books and kidnapping people for experiments). Conversely if she has no soul she should report back to her creators so they can decide whether to switch her off or give her a new task. [3]
  4. Mary and various mortal priests are not the only entities concerned with her soul. Several angels and demons have come to seek possession of this incredible being’s soul. Unfortunately this agenda muddies the waters regarding any otherwise definitive statements such beings might otherwise be able to make.

Complications

  1. Father Alegeri is unwilling to say so to her face but personally doubts whether Mary can have a soul.
  2. Priests of other denominations seek out Mary. She is uninterested in their views (perhaps because she has already spoken to representatives of their faiths, perhaps she has already considered and rejected their philosophies) but they quarrel with Father Alegeri (and any outspokenly religious/atheistic pcs) while annoying Mary.
  3. A gang of art thieves take advantage of Mary’s attacks to steal further items which are attributed to her.
  4. Mary attempts to induce a religious experience by simulating the effects of isolation in a desert. Now the characters must deal with an increasingly erratic robot as she simulates dehydration, fasting, loneliness, feelings of awe and  hallucinations – all in the course of a few hours.

Adaption

Notwithstanding twist #4 this adventure works best if souls are an abstract and hard to define philosophical notion rather than a well established and measurable mystic phenomena. If your campaign is set in a world where spirits and magicians can regularly magically interact with souls you can still preserve the mystery here by having knowledgeable characters observe that Mary’s godlike artificial intellect is sufficiently unique that they cannot reliably interpret the “readings” they get from her. Alternatively, enlightened beings may insist that Mary needs to figure this out for herself.

Sins of Reverend Douglas

Reverend Sebastian Douglas[4] is an odious archetypical televangelist – corrupt, venal, conspiratorial and hateful. Now he brings his brand of corruption to the pcs home city as he seeks to set up a new megachurch.

Twist

Reverend Douglas is exactly what he seems to be – a slightly megalomaniacal fanatic without powers or moral scruples.

Complications

  1. Several folk whose homes stand in the way of Reverend Douglas’s construction begin getting threatening letters from his supporters. Reverend Douglas doesn’t openly support this campaign of harassment, but is certainly slow to condemn it.
  2. A few whistle-blowers try to raise questions about the finances but are browbeaten by Reverend Douglas and his lawyers.
  3. Not a few members of the local police department are rather taken with Reverend Douglas and are slow to interfere with illegality by him and his supporters.
  4. Reverend Douglas’s own team of superheroes – the Apostles – begins patrolling the city, competing with the pcs.

Adaption

Megachurches are not a uniquely American phenomena (there are similar movements in South Korea for example) but this adventure is written with the assumption of an American setting. Similar movements in other nations may have additional aspects – charismatic church leaders in Eastern Europe (including Superlatives’ Odlican) are often deeply tied to the state for example. As such if your campaign is set outside America it is worth reading up on what corrupt and charismatic religion within that nation tends to look like rather than simply importing American assumptions.

Church of the Superhuman

The player characters attract a fan club who seem oddly devoted. Sooner or latter (probably sooner) they realise that these are not just fans but a chapter of the Church of the Superhuman – a relatively new religion that worships superheroes as not just the pinnacle of humanity but as a manifestation of the Divine.[5]

Now the characters must decide if they want to try and dissuade these worshippers, avoid them or actively use them.

Twist

  1. Much as characters (especially any religious characters) may be uncomfortable about being worshiped there’s nothing sinister about the Church.
  2. The entire Church was created by Paragon[6] who sees this cult as a valuable powerbase.
  3. The cult is created by Severus Majester[7] who sees them as a means to legitimate the rule of mutants.
  4. The cult is created by Prometheus[8] to promote his agenda of Atom Child revolution.

Complications

  1. Several members of the Church are seeking to emulate the heroes’ origin stories – putting them into danger and possibility interfering with the sources of the heroes’ powers.
  2. The heroes’ nemesis infiltrates the Church in the hope of turning the fans’ enthusiasm for collecting trivia towards uncovering weaknesses.
  3. The heroes start getting awkward questions from journalists about the Church.
  4. A score of adherents dressed as the heroes begin seeking to emulate their crime fighting achievements – despite lacking the heroes’ powers and skills.

Adaption

This hook assumes some sort of celebrity culture around heroes like that in the MU or DCU. In worlds where heroes are less well received (like the X-Men film universe) the Church will be even more marginal but given the diversity of fringe viewpoints in the world it’s a rare setting that leaves such a cult unimaginable.

An obvious option for customising the cult is to adapt what origins they revere – the sect may only revere mutant characters, or may revere all superhumans save those with “devilish” magic. This option is particularly relevant if you are using twist 3 or 4 since the characters alluded to in each are partisans of specific origins.

[1] Mary is described in Superlatives:Opportunity although almost any robotic or cloned character interested in human nature could take her role. Mary is an erratic mild villain but more heroic or villainous characters could be used as long as they are not so famously genocidal the players are likely to attack on sight.

[2] As written it is assumed Father Alegeri is a Catholic but if any character is a believer of another faith you should use a cleric of the appropriate denomination.

[3] More philosophically orientated players may start arguing that she self evidently has free will if she can make such choices. If the players wish to shoot themselves in the foot they can.

[4] Who is described in Nightworld. Although this adventure is assumed to be set before Sunset. That said, much of the content could be used with Reverend Douglas leading a group of refugees to Freebrook.

[5] Specifically the Church’s theology maintains that superheroes are a select few who have attained sufficient heights of human excellence that they touch elements of the Divine reaching down into the world through the serendipity of origins. Not all adherents will understand or care for the precise details of course.

[6] Described in the Superlatives bestiary.

[7] Described in Odlican

[8] Also described in Odlican

Travel Hooks

As I have repeatedly noted, superheroes and adventures featuring significant volumes of overland travel are difficult to reconcile due to the ubiquity of transport related powers. If you are running a one shot you can simply forbid the selection of characters with inconvenient powers but if this is part of an ongoing campaign you shall need exotic environs or more artificial social constraints.

 

Dimensional Odyssey

During a confrontation with a mage or superscientist the characters find themselves hurled into a strange other world . Now they need to find their way back to their own world.

First through either creative use of their existing powers or blundering around long enough to find some clue or another the characters must find a the route back, then they must find their way through the many worlds between their current location and their home.

Twist

  1. The characters are being followed home by a sinister demonic force who needs the players to guide them to their ordinary world.
  2. When the characters come close to their world they find a strange barrier preventing them from returning erected by their enemies back on Earth.
  3. When the characters come close to their world they find a strange barrier preventing them from returning, designed to prevent interdimensional invasion.
  4. At least one character has a wedding, engagement party, child’s birthday, final exam etc they must return in time for.

Complications

As they travel the characters pass through:

  1. A classic fantasy land of knights, dragons and the rest.
  2. A land of fairies outside time ruled by strange laws and perverse politics.
  3. A realm that responds to thought – ruled by enlightened sage-scientists who remake the world in accordance too their wills.
  4. Hell and all its demons.
  5. An alternate history where:
    1. The Axis won WWII. Not original, but inevitable in such stories.
    2. The Ottoman Empire overran medieval Europe and established itself as the greatest state on Earth.
    3. The obligatory heroes are villains and villains are heroes world.
    4. The American Revolution failed, leaving the British Empire the unchallenged global superpower.
    5. The Aquarians successfully absorbed Earth into their empire.
    6. No Covid vaccine was ever developed. Combined with greater societal unrest than the main timeline this world is now a depopulated wasteland.[1]
  6. A nauseating distorted world where gravity, momentum and similar forces randomly invert inhabited by strange bouncing sponges.

Adaption

Note that since there is a risk the players will be trapped in it for a while it is important to pick a world you are happy running in for a few sessions to be the first world the players end up in.

This adventure assumes a messy superhero multiverse of demons and alternate histories without any particular eye to how it all works. If your campaign has a properly developed cosmology you shall of course need to fit this into your own multiverse.

Road trip

Several prominent heroes (perhaps more media savvy than competent but definitely prominent) begin making social pledges to undergo the “road trip challenge” where they travel from town to town “reconnecting with America” (or Odlican/Britain/Russia/Ethiopia/wherever you set your game).

Shortly the characters are asked by journalists when they will be doing the “road trip challenge.”

Twist

The Road trip challenge is inane, hyped to high heaven by the media and mostly pointless, but is not a conspiracy.

Complications

  1. The characters must make sure they plan their journey properly to make sure they don’t run out of fuel at an awkward point or simply get lost.
  2. The characters meet some folk oddly eager to sell them their car. If for some bizarre reason they buy the car they find that the car has been stolen and has the police searching for it.
  3. The characters meet a serial killing hitchhiker.
  4. The characters meet a ghostly hitchhiker.
  5. The characters are identified as strangers and thus an easy mark for pickpockets.
  6. The latest town the characters pass through is inhabited by cannibals.
  7. The characters wander through a town where an old enemy is hiding out. Assuming they have been tracked down the villain goes on the offensive.
  8. The characters face a superpowered crook who went to the countryside specifically to avoid all the heroes in the big city.

Adaption

This adventure presumes that the heroes of this world are public figures, if not full scale celebrities, and thus susceptible to social media challenges. If your characters are neither teenagers, nor celebrities, it may be difficult to convince them to voluntarily take the slow route in this fashion for such petty reasons.

One way to use this hook anyway is to have an NPC hero do so and invite the pcs to join them, either for the whole road trip or for the occasional team up as they reach major landmarks. Alternatively the characters may be approached by an eccentric mystic who is convinced it is extremely important they follow the “ley lines” all over the country. It isn’t, but the journey should still be an adventure.

The Iron Curtain

After a series of incursions by Western powers the Falkanese Government finally manages to install functioning anti air-defences and teleport jammers.[2] This obviously concerns Western intelligence agencies, but will also prove inconvenient for the players as they learn a clue or NPC they are looking for is now trapped on the other side of the border.[3]

The characters must bypass the border guards, sneak across the countryside, attain their objective and flee.

Obviously more powerful characters are likely to try fighting through the border at first. The barbed wire, minefields and riflemen who stand guard at the border are unlikely to do much more than slow a team of Super or stronger characters, but numerous guillotine suits have been stationed at key positions and will offer sterner opposition.

Twist

  1. Although the latest efforts to seal the border look suspicious this is nothing more than the most recent instance of paranoia on the part of the Falkanese government.
  2. The border has been closed since President Ivanshin is fatally ill and his lieutenants are manoeuvring for the inevitable civil war which shall follow his demise.
  3. The characters’ objective is not actually within Falkestan and the entire debacle is a trap for them.
  4. The great tunnel connecting Falkestan and the United States has finally been completed and the border has been closed in preparation for war. The chaos of mass mobilisation is swiftly erasing the trail leading to the characters’ original objective, but they are likely to have bigger priorities.

Complications

  1. Our heroes encounter a young defector determined to escape, but clumsy and ignorant of the world beyond Falkestan’s borders. If they don’t help he will certainly be arrested or murdered, but if they do take him along he shall cause naught but trouble for them.
  2. The characters witness the daily horrors of Falkanese tyranny – famine, corrupt officials, crumbling transport and healthcare infrastructure – but if they use their incredible powers to help the authorities shall descend upon the community and cast it into chaos.
  3. The characters come to a strangely empty town. Was it abandoned after a pandemic or famine, an unchecked supervillain or another contortion of Falkestan’s politics?
  4. The characters meet up with a resistance movement. They have had some successes and seek the aid of the characters in continuing their war.[4]

Adaption

This adventure is set in the country of Falkestan which is described in Ultra Base.

Any paranoid and heavily militarised nation that sharply restricts immigration could be a suitable substitute so depending on your campaign the Soviet Union, modern Iran or North Korea, the Rogue Isles, The City or Latvaria could easily work. With a bit more adaption isolationist but more sympathetic states such as Attilan, Wakanda or virtually any nation during the Covid pandemic could be used.

The final element which needs adapting is figuring out what the characters’ want in Falkestan. If you don’t have any obvious ties already set up, you could encourage the players to set up their own during the “prior issues” or connect it to some other espionage themed adventure.

[1] At the time of writing this is still topical enough to warrant caution in using.

[2] Plus any other super scientific gimmicks needed to keep out other player powers.

[3] Exactly who or what the characters are after and what they want to do with them should of course be customised to the characters and their agenda.

[4] This works best if the characters have some time limit for getting out of Falkestan or some ethical objection to the methods of the resistance.