Thursday, March 4, 2010

We Know Each Other

I made a comment yesterday in twitter that needs some expansion. I remarked on how "You all know each other" is a trend I have really, really enjoyed in supers stuff, both comics and games. Without an explanation, this sounds like just another version of "you all meet in a tavern" but it's actually something else entirely. It's the idea that the supers[1] are part of a community. It is not merely that the PCs all know each other, rather that they are all parts of the same community, so they know (and, importantly, are known) the whole community. A member of the group who is not a member of the community is an anomaly.

Comics have always been elevated by their relationships. These relationships keep the stories from being something more than just guys in tights fighting it out. One of the best examples of this is Doctor Doom. As a villain, he is often a template for characters that are identical in almost every way, yet fall completely flat on the page. Even Doom himself can fall flat, serving as Generic Big Bad Guy Stand In. But in the Fantastic Four, he comes to life - he's compelling and gripping. A lot of people like to attribute that to a rich backstory[2] but I think it's something much simpler.

He *really* hates Reed Richards. Not in a grand, huge, villainous laugh sort of way but in the intensely personal, mundane way that you hate that jerk from college. That hate manifests in a number of ways, some mundane, some profound, but it's always there, and it brings the character to life.

This is far form the only such example of characters in comics being brought to life by their relationships. Bruce and Clark are vasty more interesting to me than Superman and Batman ever were. Professor X and Magneto were at their most interesting as good friends with a single bright point of disagreement[3]. Lex Luthor gets better every time his gripe with superman gets more personal (and more motivated than YOU MADE ME BALD!)[4].

To some extent, this is old hat, but it's important because it's informed on the direction comics have been going. As these relationships develop, you start getting larger groups of people who are connected through their superness. Historically, the purpose of a team of superheroes was to take on threats they could not face individually, but more recent writers have been putting a lot more thought into what it means, socially, to be a part of one of these groups, especially n the face of the fact that most superheroes have pretty dysfunctional 'real' lives.

In many cases, the group has become a surrogate for the extended family. Especially groups that have had large, rotating rosters over the years (The Teen Titans and the X Men stand out in this regard). Treating them as more than members of a giant club[5] turns stories that would be banal into compelling tales. Even informal groups, like the Batman Family, or the various super heroes of Marvel's New York City can develop this kind of potency.

Unfortunately, when comics get mature enough to do this, editors usually take this as a sign that it's time for a culling. Nuanced networks of relationships don't bring in new fans, so things need to get simplified. Histories get retconned, characters get killed off[6], and the surrounding characters get rewritten or disposed of as "cheesy".

But the idea has taken root. You see it most often now in stories where supers are new to the world, maybe originated from a single source. JMS's Rising Stars and Supreme Power are great examples of this, and in RPGs, White Wolf's Abberant Setting has many elements of this too[7]. And I love it. I want to see it in more RPGs because, frankly, we can handle more nuance than comic book editors.

I've already seen this idea of membership in the extended group driven home very well in Amber, and I have also seen it brought to life in certain spins on the World of Darkness (new and old[8]). It can contextualize the world, and being stories to life by giving them faces you've seen before. It also lets the world reflect the actions of the players in a personal, recognizable way. Having peers means you can have peer recognition - that's a huge social incentive.

So, next time you're thinking about how your characters know each other, consider for a moment the possibility that they not only know each other - they know a lot of other people too, because they're all members of an extended group of some flavor[9].

1 - I say supers here because, in fiction, they're a discreet, identifiable group. A lot of these ideas could apply equally well to any other genre if the group is similarly identifiable (such as spies, criminals, members of the magical community or the like) but I use supers because they're on my mind and the examples are nicely colorful.

2 - Rich Backstories tend to be about as interesting in Comics as they are in RPGs, which is admittedly double edged. The story rarely grabs us, but the way it informs interactions can be compelling.

3 - This illustrates a kind of key point about talking about comics, which is that you are always wrong. Whatever you liked or didn't like gets sanded and revarnished over so many times that it effectively stops being relevant, and it may never be returned to. Comics can only be discussed as a series of snapshots, and you pick the snapshots you value most. When someone else picks a different set, then you might both be passionate fans who love the property but have (apparently) mutually exclusive views on it.

4 - A point that was reflected wonderfully by Rosenbaum's performance on the Lex, early seasons of Smallville.

5 - though, to be fair, The Legion of Super Heroes really _is_ a giant club, and part of why it works is because it embraces that role. Less family, more soap opera and more space awesome. Also, Karate Kid should TOTALLY fight an entire planet.

6 - The Teen Titans offer the best and the worst of it. One arc, the Technis Imperative, seems to be about an alien invasion, but is really about just how important the Titans are, as a family, to a bunch of kids who had pretty messed up childhoods, and how far they're willing to go for one of their own. Even more, it delves into the relationship with the previous generation (one of the writer's great turns is illustrating that the JLA has been an extended family too) and highlights where it is strongest and weakness, and why sometimes it needs to change. It is, to my mind, a very rewarding arc (that is, I suspect, pretty cheesy to those without any interest n the characters).

Contrast this with the events leading up to DC's latest rewrite. As fas as I can tell, DC decided that there were just too damn many titans, and had not one but two, back to back fights where the villain shows up, is badass, the titans declare that messing with one of them is messing with all of them, we get a huge splash page with lots of Titans, and then the villain proceeds to murder them. Literally. They pretty much just killed off characters left and right. It was dramatic and all, but it ultimately felt kind of tacky.

7 - Thinking about Aberrant was what got this all started. Also, I'd be remiss if I didn't mention Underkoffler's "Fanfare for the Amplified Man" campaign setting in Truth and Justice, which is basically this idea in pure form.

8 - The new Hunter's rules for the scale of your organization are perfect for reflecting elements of this idea mechanically.

9 - The Century Club doesn't _really_ count in this regard because there's no incentive to flesh out any membership beyond those who are playing. It's membership is really a convenience to allow for a rotating cast. But that's not to say it couldn't be used in this way with a little spin.


  1. Re: #5 -- Salt this suggestion liberally, but take a look at RPGPundit's fairly regular LSH Campaign Character Profiles on his xanga site. He does a really good job of giving a sense of the characters' rich backstory, the social cliques and relationships in the LSH, *and* how it applies to his LSH game. (I don't think they're tagged or anything, so you'd have to google or scroll.)

    Re: #7 -- Thanks for the shout-out. As I mentioned at the Indie Roundtable, "Fanfare" gets little attention, and you did point out why: there's no "goal" or "object". It's utterly sandbox, and purely player-choice driven... and that means it just kind of sits there.

  2. So in a fantasy campaign setting it would be the role of a guild or group (Pathfinder Society for example) that constitutes this family?

  3. @cin It could, but it almost never does. Partly this is because "adventurers" are such a broad and diverse group that membership in a group that is defined as being adventurers is almost meaningless in and of itself. There's little distinction from non-group adventurers, and more importantly there's no sense of shared experience.

    To do it in an adventuring context you need a strong, specific premise for the group which cleanly limits membership and which establishes common ground with other members, such as a common experience (veterans of a gruesome battle, say) or complex group rules that reinforce group identity (think secret societies)

    The other problem is that membership merits some respect, at least from other members, and many games are utterly loathe to give players any respect at all.

  4. Rob, I have so much love for this post, I cannot express it in a comment. I'll stick to a few quick points.

    1) The next logical step for incorporating this into gaming is relationship maps. I'm hoping that's tomorrow's post.

    2) So much good genre fiction is about *building a family*, especially if you have none. Everyone in Rurouni Kenshin is an orphan, as are the characters in Firefly.

    3) I really hope you're at the table for the supers game I'm building for Fred. That's all I'll say for now.

    4) Read All-Star Superman NOW. I will be loaning it to Fred this weekend. It took me all of three hours to read, and I'm slow, so you can knock it out in an evening, but its reward is immeasurable.

  5. I have this half-serious theory that all serial fiction trends towards soap opera over time. So yeah.

    The right amount of it rules, but too much is too much... either that, or there are just many ways of doing it and at least half are wrong. Not sure which of those your Teen Titans example supports, but it feels like one of them.

  6. I've always been one to favour the rule of farce -- the more ties, preferably unknown to those that have them,* the more potential for resulting drama. Although, as in most comedy, the timing of the reveal is everything.

    Although, strangely, superheroes is the one genre where I've never felt the need to firmly embed the characters in community of some sort. Possibly because of the alienation aspects of having powers** (and the fact that they are uniques together bringing them together as a group in subtle defence), or maybe because they are the protectors (or destroyers) of the community and thus traditionally stand outside the circle. <shrug> It's interesting to examine one's own preconceptions. Thanks.

    [* To the characters. It's a lot easier if players know of them and can tease each other, I find.]

    [** Although a poster on the Cult of ORE list had an intriguing idea of one day everyone wakes up having some sort of (very minor) power. I believe about 25 points worth (which really isn't that much if you want a power actually able to do something reliably in Wild Talents). His idea was "what power would you take," but I find it an interesting exercise to consider the changes that would result in society if this was so. Both on establishment and when a later steady-state had been accomplished.]

  7. In our most recent SotC campaign, we stressed the celebrity of the group and their connectedness to high society and members of the Century Club in other cities and countries. Most Century Club members were well-to-do, at the least. When they traveled abroad, they were greeted by members of century club there, given lodgings, etc.

    The players liked playing popular people, for a change (as opposed to the sterotypical underdogs trying to triumph against great odds). Along with their popularity, there was pressure to set a good example because, "we're the good guys." It fit really well into the 1920s.

    The sense of community also made it that much cooler when one of the PCs gradually got meaner and meaner, eventually joining forces with the villain.

  8. Thank you for this. I had to read it several times to figure out why, but it's made clear to me suddenly why my online gaming (almost exclusively Amber) and my face-to-face gaming (varies, but almost never Amber) are such different experiences. (Other than the groups, of course...)

    I'm about to run Spirit of the Century for the first time in the face-to-face group, and now I'm keenly interested in seeing whether I can get the group to grasp the idea of community, or whether they're going to stay stuck in the old D&D mentality. They seemed to really enjoy creating the characters, which I'm going to take as a positive sign...

  9. @Sarah That's a big part of why SOTC chargen puts such a big emphasis on tying people's backgrounds together. The hope is that they start play feeling like old friends.

    I have my fingers crossed for your game, and I hope you'll let us know how it goes!

  10. "You know each other" is a core rule of the improv director I study with. If the location is "a doctor's office" and you're the doctor and I'm the patient, we're not JUST doctor and patient to each other. We're also close friends or relatives or sweeties.

    This provides richer relationships, which is good for the drama/comedy. It also cuts off one way we could be dicks to each other. I can't marginalize you by making you just the tailor; you can't shuck your own responsibility to the scene by doing the same. Coincidentally I was just LJing about the social value (even more than the story value) of this rule for RPGs.


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