When I began running a Villains & Vigilantes RPG campaign for my twins I had the happy idea of linking it to my solo V&V campaign from the early 1980’s. This allowed me to give instant depth to our campaign – our world immediately gained a history which stretched back a quarter century (later expanded still farther back into the past by the introduction of Golden Age hero Jack Victory).

But after an adventure or two, I decided that my world needed breadth as well as depth. I wasn’t happy with Silver City being the entirety of our campaign universe; after all, our hometown isn’t even the second largest city in Maryland, much less a major metropolis. It stands to reason that Baltimore (called Calvert in our game universe) would have its own superhero team, which I decided to make THE pre-eminent group of supers on Earth-1.

The trick to broadening a campaign world is to not spring the extra information on your players all at one time; you should instead increase their knowledge of the campaign world naturally, little by little.

In the first couple of V&V adventures I ran for the kids, they were up against garden variety drug dealers, supported by a lone metahuman female named Chickadee. After Cody’s character (Lightning Lama) lucked out by being merely grazed by a shotgun blast (instead of being cut in two), I decided to step in as the boys’ “mentor” to show them the proverbial ropes (as RPGers as well as supers) to keep another such accident from happening. Re-adopting my own V&V character Deep Freeze which I’d played actively back in the 1980’s gave the campaign some instant “historical” depth by linking our current games to those solo games I’d run decades before.

I then decided to broaden the world by creating the Justice Federation (who you’ve met during the last few weeks in this blog). As I stated previously, I used familiar comic book archetypes when creating the Federation. One would assume that the boys would have heard of these people through most of their lives, so modeling a Federation member after a familiar comic character, combination of characters, or stereotype, would provide a sort of artificial “instant familiarity”.

The first Justice Federation character to make an appearance was Bluestreak. We played an adventure in which our then-nameless group of heroes took on a pack of street thugs who were supported by Chickadee. After they were all defeated, we heard a motorcycle come roaring around a corner down the block. The driver aimed her bike at Deep Freeze and Lightning Lama and poured on the throttle, then leaped from the bike. Since I was still in full ice armor, I shoved Cody into a side alley and took the impact full-on. The motorcycle smashed into me, creating a fiery explosion. I was knocked backward (and down) but was otherwise unharmed. Sam’s character (The Wraith) apprehended the motorcyclist (Canis Major), while I picked myself up from the ground.

“You saved my character, Dad,” Cody said. “That was cool!”

But just then another character came racing at speed around the corner and up the block. The Wraith, assuming that this figure was the third in a series of “wave” attacks, surrounded the figure in a shroud of darkness. A voice then yelled “Hey, who turned out the lights??!?” from within the black blob.

“Wraith!” I yelled. “Cut it out! I know who this guy is!”

“This guy” was, of course, Bluestreak, the first of our “outside” hero contacts in the campaign. He arrived a bit too late to help us out, but was really there only to extend an offer from Calvert’s Justice Federation: if I would agree to officially train my sons as heroes and act as mentor to any other young metahumans assigned to my care, I would be made a reserve member of the Justice Federation, and our team would become an official adjunct of that organization.

This, of course, was just a fun way to introduce a broader world of heroes and villains, as well as set the stage for some bigger plans I had in mind for the boys’ later adventures. I named our group Junior Justice (a name which the boys initially hated, but later came to embrace as their own) and we were off and running. I also had a little fun with this introduction of the Justice Federation to our campaign. Cody kind of snickered at the group’s name, to which Bluestreak replied, “Yeah, I guess all the good names were taken.” (Cody later had a change of heart and designed a really cool logo for the Justice Federation, and seemed kind of proud to be connected with the group.) And I had Bluestreak ask Deep Freeze (me) for his (my) autograph, reinforcing Deep Freeze’s role as a famous 1980’s superhero who’d “retired” for two decades but had now returned.

I’d already created the core Justice Federation members before I introduced Bluestreak to the game. Later I decided to link them (at least geographically) to the Crusaders (from the commercial V&V module Crisis at Crusader Citadel), placing the Federation’s headquarters in the same building as the Crusaders’ old HQ. I also left the option open to add more Federation members later if I felt the need to do so.

Now for the practical stuff. When you’re thinking about broadening your own campaign world, there are several tips which you might consider:

Design in advance, rather than “on the fly”. If you’re going to introduce a superhero group from another city, for example, at least make a list of the team’s members (even if you don’t have time to stat them all out right away). Think about the NPC group’s backstory and their interpersonal relationships (who gets along with whom, which characters rub each other the wrong way, etc.). This will not only make the characters seem more real to you (leading to a more convincing portrayal after you introduce them to the game later), but will also help you answer “curveball” questions which the player characters might ask you (“How long have you been a member of the Freedom Legion?” “What do you guys do when you’re not saving Pittsburgh?” “What’s Fox Girl really like? Is she as giggly in real life as she is in your comic book?”). Whatever they throw at you, it’ll be far easier to make up convincing answers on the spot if you already have a working knowledge of the new NPCs and what they’re like.

Introduce elements slowly, instead of all at once. There’s a practical reason for this: it saves you a ton of work. Creating an eight-member hero team from Denver takes time. If you reveal the characters one or two at a time over the course of several adventures, you’ll make that hard work last a while. If you spring the whole team on your players all at one time, it won’t be long before you have to go back to the drawing board to come up with the four members of an antihero team of vigilante supers from Fort Collins to help keep your campaign fresh and full of surprises.

Hint, namedrop, then reveal. I’d hinted at the existence of metahumans in other parts of the world before I introduced the Justice Federation into our campaign. And in my players’ first conversation with Bluestreak, he “name checked” a couple of the other Federation members: “It’s like Halcon was saying the other day…”, “Yeah, Ruby was laughing about that the other night when we were watching TV…”, etc. I’ve even done that kind of hinting in this blog; Dr. Toshiro Akida of the Banzai Institute was mentioned a time or two here on the Big Blog o’Fun (but I never got the chance to introduce him in my campaign, although I’m pretty sure Doc Falcon mentioned him to Junior Justice in passing at least once).

Crib from existing pop culture and incorporate elements of it into your campaign. In the Silver City campaign on Earth-1, The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai isn’t science fiction, it’s a docudrama. The Banzai Institute for Biomedical Engineering and Strategic Information has laboratories and headquarters in most major American cities, including Calvert. And while I wouldn’t be bold enough to include Dr. Banzai or any of the original Hong Kong Cavaliers as NPCs in my campaign, I’m more than happy to include some of their organization’s other key figures (who I dream up, of course) when I need a scientific “mcguffin” to jazz up a campaign. Check out these two paragraphs and postscript from the blog post which introduced the aforementioned Dr. Akida:

Last, but not least, I offer the final nail in this story’s coffin: everybody knows that real time travelers use ear bugs that generate their own infrasonic* carrier waves which travel on an extradimensional plane, not anything remotely as bulky and primitive as blackberries or cell phones which depend on battery power and cellular towers. (For the doubters or those who are just uninformed, this fact has been independently confirmed in two separate [terrestrial] telephone calls I made tonight to Drs. Everett Falcone [Justice Federation] and Toshiro Akida [The Banzai Institute], both of Calvert, Maryland.)

(*The term “infrasonic” is used here in a relative sense when compared to the regular microwave band; the actual frequencies used are on the “dividing line” between FM/TV communications and microwaves. This is actually a moot point when one remembers that future communication devices open an “electronic wormhole” [known as a “workhole”] directly from caller to recipient, relieving the normally-encountered bandwidth overcrowding issues through the use of point-to-point extradimensional transfer. Dr. Akida’s web page offers more details, and cites the well-known “subspace radio” of TV’s Star Trek as a rather crudely presented example of the technique.)

Special thanks to Dr. Akida and Doc Falcon for their help with this post.

I pulled all of that completely out of my butt in about ten minutes the night I wrote that post (and I’m still kind of bitter that nobody played along by submitting comments to argue against or support my pseudo-science behind infrasonic carrier waves). I do this kind of thing all the time when I run RPGs, dropping references to “Miskatonic University” or “The Banzai Institute” to add verisimilitude to my nurglings. Even if it doesn’t advance the plot, it makes your players feel like they’re involved in a very real, and much larger, world, and they tend to love these little “easter eggs” regardless.

Use archetypes to create a sense of familiarity. There’s nothing worse than introducing a “world famous” NPC only to hear a player say “How come I’ve never heard of him?” My Justice Federation characters aren’t direct ripoffs of known comic characters, but they’re similar enough to a character (or an amalgamation of them, such as Halcon who seems to be a cross between Hawkman and Superman, or Revenant who is a sort of combination Batman/Shadow/Avenger) that my players have an instant “feel” for who they are in our campaign world. If you need to introduce a “famous billionaire business magnate” to your campaign, you need to say more than that one simple phrase if you want your players to know who he is in your game world. If he’s supposed to be a cool, jet-setting playboy type, the phrase “billionaire business magnate” could conjure all kinds of wrong images, from Bill Gates to Warren Buffett. Instead you need to describe him, possibly as “a billionaire business magnate; he’s blonde, British, with a van dyke beard and a penchant for aeronautics”. BOOM! Instantly they should get the right image of a cool, famous jet-setter, because they’re likely thinking of Richard Branson (and if Branson isn’t secretly Green Arrow, by the way, I’ll eat my hat).

Don’t be afraid to play solo games with your NPCs. The world doesn’t stop when your players aren’t around. Big-time high-level superheroes need to stay that way, and it sucks when your PCs level up past the big guns of your campaign world. When you have some time to solo RPG, break out your NPC heroes and run an adventure to give them a chance to do what they’re good at: saving the world (and copping some experience points in the process). In fall 2008 I ran a solo game in which Deep Freeze teamed up with Bluestreak to foil a kidnap plot (the basis of the now-famous “Fire and Ice” story in Justice Federation Files #48, Dec. 2008). (See what I just did there?) It was a lot of fun to play; I wrote up a bunch of the dialogue as I was playing it and wound up thinking “If this was a real comic, I’d read this”. And I also gained some extra experience points for Deep Freeze, keeping me ahead of the kids’ characters; since my character only actively participates in about a quarter of the Junior Justice adventures, the twins were fast gaining on me. Another benefit to these “side games” is that you can reference them in the main campaign game you run for your players: “Last week, while the Freedom Legion was busy fighting off that alien invasion, garden variety criminals decided to have a wild holiday – armed robberies are up 200%. While on patrol, you see some suspicious activity around an armored car parked in front of the First Federal Savings and Loan…”

By the way, it’s fun to sometimes run games from the villains’ standpoint. Plan out the job and run it, making the timing of law enforcement’s arrival (be they police or heroes) a matter for random dice rolls. You could even randomize the choice of NPC heroes who show up, just to make things interesting. You might plan the job for a certain neighborhood which is normally patrolled by the non-powered Raccoon Boy, but then realize your villains are in deep doo-doo when Wrecking Ball and The X-Ray unexpectedly get back from rescuing a plummeting satellite just in time to interrupt your holdup of the corner bodega

Have fun! – Steve

Copyright 2011, Steven A. Lopez. All rights reserved.