As I mentioned yesterday, May and June are my worst months for free time for things like games or moments alone with my thoughts. I’ve tried to read novels through these months in the past with very little success. This year, I instead turned to comic books. The short form means I can read a whole story in one sitting, and not expend too much brainpower doing it.
Immersing myself in stories of heroics reminds me of that one game I’ve been turning around in my brain for years and never actually sat down to run. It’s a comedic superhero game, a la Mystery Men, set in a posh suburb and starring the rejects of the superhero community.
In the spirit of game-ready commentary, I’ll give you a sample team at the end of the article. First, I’m going to explore some key concepts that go into such a game–concepts I hope to get some mileage out of relatively soon!
Emotional Hooks in Comedic Games
As anyone who has played Paranoia will tell you, sustaining focus and energy for less-than-serious roleplaying games takes effort. It’s easy to run these as beer and pretzels games, but for groups (like mine) that struggle to get together more than a couple times a month, it’s hard to justify squandering precious game time on frivolous material.
When imagining a comedic setting, think about elements like inspiration, anger, sorrow, and forgiveness. These are heavy topics to be sure–but they are also very humanizing, and give players “hooks” to get invested in the world rather than just laugh at it. So, instead of just having a slapstick setting with a superhero who has the power to toast bread, imagine what it means for that superhero to feel called to action, or that he has done something wrong or something that needs to be redeemed.
In other words, find a way to take your farce seriously, and make sure the players are aware of it. If you need inspiration for this, see any Terry Gilliam movie.
The games we play often focus on epic stories, and so when we tone down the volume on PC power, we can often forget to do the same for the rest of the world. If you have superheroes with limited power, you can’t put them up against Galactus or Magneto.
Commonplace events are rife with comedic opportunity. If you have players who are emotionally invested in their characters and want to use their powers, give them challenges that fall just below the radar of the police–challenges that are potentially easily solvable without powers. The fun (and funny) comes in as players try to figure out not the best way to solve the problem, but the best way to solve the problem with their unique array of superpowers.
The Third Question
You probably don’t want to invent your own system for a comedic game–but choosing the right system is key. If you want players to use their inane abilities to solve mediocre problems, you need a system that rewards creative solutions and specific actions.
FATE is probably an ideal system, but correct choices of aspects are key. In this style of game, every player should have some variation of “I must use my power” as an aspect. Consider:
- “I’m the Toastmaster. I toast stuff.”
- “I will ice-sculpt my way to Father’s acceptance.”
- “With great power tool wielding skills comes great responsibility.”
The key here is that players need some way of advancing their characters for doing the inane things that they do well. If the solution to their problems is “climb a tree, grab the kitten, and climb back down,” and they get rewarded for that solution, the game won’t be fun.
Enough tips. Here’s the background of the setting and some characters:
Paragon and Sidekicks Unlimited
The superhero known as Paragon, with the strength of a dozen men, the power of flight, and undeniable good looks, has kept West Michigan free of crime for nearly a decade. Society has responded by combining the police forces and fire departments of four counties into West Michigan Public Safety Associates, who basically exist to clean up when Paragon is done saving the day. While most superheroes with power such as Paragon’s move to New York or LA, this hometown hero and Muskegon native celebrates his roots.
Last Spring, Paragon announced he was considering retirement, and that he would be selecting two things before the year was up: first, an official Super Team to sponsor with his immense resources and access to his secret lair, and second, an official sidekick who he would train to be West Michigan’s next A-list superhero. This has lead to the formation of a half dozen groups of mildly-powered individuals, each vying for Paragon’s attention.
Paragon’s true motives, however, are focused on outlawing superhuman activities. He’s frustrated that he used to be unique, but his prestige has faded since his successes have made his field attractive to others. He’s hoping that encouraging lots of poorly-trained people with mediocre abilities to try to be heroes will have the result of enormous damage to society, and result in conservative laws that will make his profession unique again.
To encourage mistakes, Paragon has taken to the streets in a red-and-black parody of his blue and yellow costume, calling himself “The Pentagon.” Much of the work of the sidekicks will be involved in doing battle with The Pentagon.
- Identity: Perry Gordon, millionaire playboy (secret)
- Powers: Flight, super strength/ego/wealth, secret lair
- Weaknesses: Powers proportional to the number of women watching him at any given time; exceptional lack of foresight
Sidekicks Unlimited is the East Grand Rapids-based group that claims the best record in preventing crime–ignoring the fact that East Grand Rapids always had the lowest crime stats in West Michigan. A recent accident in a battle with Pentagon saw the downfall of the senior membership of this super-team when Pentagon accidentally collapsed a supermarket on the team. With the old heroes in the hospital (or worse), the time is ripe for new heroes (read: your player’s characters) to save the day. Here is the current status of the senior leadership of Sidekicks Unlimited.
- Identity: Fred Lyman (secret; MIA since recent fight with Pentagon)
- Power: Super genius-level intellect when having a near-death experience
- Weaknesses: Power only works during a near-death experience; super intelligence fades after the adrenaline dies down; Flatliner isn’t always aware when the intelligence fades
- Current Fate: After “flatlining” in a fight with Pentagon, Flatliner discovered Perry Gordon’s secrets. Pentagon seized Flatliner’s body during the fight, and has kept him in a medical coma since then, leaving Flatliner’s psyche trapped somewhere between this world and “the light.”
- Identity: Karen Maudelin (public, Sidekicks Unlimited team leader emeritus)
- Power: Cold-blooded
- Weakness: See power
- Current Fate: Komodo was trapped in the frozen foods section of the collapsed grocery store for nearly four hours. Since then, she has not been able to leave her specially-heated rock on the Sidekicks Unlimited roof for more than a half hour at a time.
The Dog Whistler
- Identity: Caesar Otero (secret, volunteer at humane society)
- Power: Super-sonic whistling that only dogs can hear
- Weakness: Severely allergic to cats
- Current Fate: Pentagon chipped one of The Dog Whistler’s teeth in the fight at the supermarket. Since then, Caesar Otero has inadvertently whistled every time he attempts to speak. Like Cyclops without a visor, The Dog Whistler’s power is now unchecked; as such, he has taken a vow of silence so his power does not become destructive.
- Identity: Eddie Baker (secret, chef at West End Pastries)
- Power: Generate temperatures exceeding 375 degrees by pressing his hands together
- Weakness: Must eat 5,000 calories for each minute his power is active
- Current Fate: Suffered a massive heart attack in the supermarket battle with Pentagon. Currently on life support. Hasn’t realized yet that the “visions” he’s having in the hospital are an attempt by Flatliner to communicate with him.
- Identity: Father Peter Ennis (secret, priest)
- Power: Absolution of sin (people who confess their misdeeds to Padre generally feel much better about themselves)
- Weakness: Too forgiving
- Current Fate: After the supermarket battle, Pentagon faced down Padre and said, “I can’t believe I blew up the supermarket. This has gone too far… I should turn myself in.” Unable to help himself, Padre said, “That’s OK. It happens.” Pentagon suddenly felt far better and flew away, leaving the destroyed market and super-team in his wake. Ironically, Padre has not been able to forgive himself for losing Pentagon, and has hung up his cape.
- Identity: Scott Sawyer (secret, handyman)
- Power: Masterful use of power tools
- Weakness: Inept at using non-powered tools
- Current Fate: The youngest of the “senior sidekicks,” Skillsaw is one of the only survivors of the supermarket attack, and now serves as the de-facto team leader for the new recruits.