Monday, January 17, 2011

The Game's The Thing: The Best of the Marvel Universe

So Terry’s going to be kicking around an Aberrant Campaign. He wasn’t sure at first if he was going to run a straight Aberrant campaign, use one of the stock ‘super universes’ (DC or Marvel), or go with something in between.

Now, if it’s one setting I love in comics, it’s the Marvel Universe. Yes, it’s ridiculous and stupid sometimes, but it’s not as abstract as the DC Universe. That is, cataclysmic, world-destroying events don’t happen every week. For the most part, it’s a normal world where normal things happen and the biggest, strangest things are usually confined to the superhuman community. While there are a few crossovers in Marvel that involve the entirety of Earth (Secret Invasion, Infinity Gauntlet), most don’t (Onslaught/Heroes Reborn, Secret Wars, Civil War, Dark Reign). As widespread as House of M was, I don’t think the rank and file citizen of Earth really even noticed anything happened. And while Ultimate Galactus managed to create cults all over the world and even (if I remember correctly) have a certain level of psychic presence as it approached, the 616 Galactus was just another giant guy with a giant, world-destroying machine. Unless he had destroyed the world, no one would’ve cared.

I like the Marvel Universe, because it seems more like the universe I’m familiar with and the heroes in it are essentially struggling to get by in the same world I am.

Departures from the Norm
That said, there are certainly elements of the Marvel Universe that separate it from the world I know in a way that could make it a great place to run a superheroes game in. Consider Genoshya under Magneto and Providence under Cable. Both fascinating places that make great points of interest for a campaign while legitimizing the public’s fear of mutants as the next step of humanity. Krakoa is a great boogeyman, since it’s killed more X-Men than Mr. Sinister. Wakanda is a technological wonderland in the middle of the world’s most backwards regions. You could probably make a whole RPG about international goings on between Wakanda and Latveria.

Marvel has great terrorist organizations as well. Terrorists make great villains, not only because they’re extremists that you can kill them without too many moral or legal repercussions, but because they can support investigations, espionage, and even morally-based stories for your characters (note I said can kill them, not necessarily would). AIM and HYDRA both have a lot of history behind them and are great elements to have on hand.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention S.H.I.E.L.D.. While S.H.I.E.L.D.’s characterization has varied over the years and through various media, I like it better as a covert espionage arm, akin to Aberrant’s Directive, though without the anti-superhuman bent. S.H.I.E.L.D. does what it has to do and the superhuman distinction just doesn’t apply. They’re a great story device which allows you to provide exposition, give clues to the heroes, and even provide support to either side of a conflict in keeping with their obfuscated goals.

Space and Beyond
The various alien races also make great additions. While I whine about space travel and technology levels of the Skrulls, Kree, Shi’ar, Inhumans, Galactus(& Friends), Warworld, and the Phalanx, the Marvel Universe has a very well-established collection of aliens that can be used to support a variety of stories. It even has S.W.O.R.D., which manages Earth’s relations with these races and the X-Men who manage Earth’s relations with these races.

That’s before you get to the gods. I’m not talking exclusively about Asgard and Yggdrasil. While the Norse gods are playing a larger role lately than they have before, they’re still part of a pantheon of gods who are real and hang out around Earth(see the current Chaos War story arc). Ares was even part of The Avengers until Sentry tore him in two like a particularly large piece of rude, hairy taffy.

Even the Negative Zone and the magical realms explored by Doctor Strange are fascinating new areas that, by dint of only being used in a handful of books, are (relatively) cohesively defined and still open for exploration.

Old New York
By default, New York is the center of most of what happens in the Marvel Universe. That’s one of the hurdles of the setting, but it’s a tiny one. Just give Daredevil Chicago. Put the Fantastic Four in Silicon Valley, the Negative Zone, or even Houston. You could even move Spider-Man down to a smaller city to emphasize his diminutive stature in the superhero community. Not Scotsdale or anything, but maybe Jersey, Pittsburgh, or Boston. Make the Avengers and East/West coast organization again (D.C./L.A.?).

Let the X-Men franchise. There are things to like about Westchester, San Francisco, and Providence, but the X-Men also have adventures in Japan, Madripoor, and just about everywhere else. Since there’s no shortage of X-Men (dead or alive), why not simply keep the school in Westchester, but have satellite schools/embassies across the world?

The Initiative is another good idea. Yeah, not every state needs their own superhuman protectors, but having trained, C-list reserves on call to help out in a pinch is a fine element for a roleplaying universe and gives a nod to the fact that superhumans are rare, but not all that rare—there’s a great, untapped power out there just waiting for the right catastrophe to take to the skies, reinforce the heroes, and demonstrate that the stakes just got higher. In the meantime, you get to see super-people take on emergencies that don’t happen in New York City (the locals will thank you).

Hot New Tech
While the organizations and places of the setting are important, the technology and 'props' offered by the Marvel Universe are also promising. While the Marvel Universe does not technologically surpass the modern world as much as the DCU, thanks to a number of highly-unique minds, it does boast a few isolated areas of unbelievable scientific progress. The developments of Tony Stark, Doctor Doom, Mr. (Dr.?) Fantastic, and Bruce Banner (to name only a few) don't necessarily need to be made public, but even pieces of their inventions can have an effect on everyday life in the world.

Cloning. Cloning deserves special mention because it happens a lot in the Marvel Universe. While I can believe that the militaries of the world aren't interested in a sixty-pound gun the size of a motorcycle that doesn't even kill its targets, in the Marvel Universe, cloning is such a ubiquitous and well-tested technology. Even if it's the subject of which countries ban it and to what degree, cloning is by far the most prominent advanced technology of the setting.

Venom Symbiotes. I don't envision any alien technology of sufficient import to go without a race to back it up (Mandarin). Biological entities are a simple exception to this (any advanced technology worth having probably belongs to a spacefaring civilization on par with the Kree, Skrulls, etc., while biological samples could come from just about any unexplored planet. The venom Symbiotes don't have more than a vague canon origin, but I'm not sure if they need one, exactly.

Alright, in the interest of keeping it short, I'll stop it here. Did I miss any cool places or personalities from Marvel(or even DC), no matter how short-lived? I may seriously consider running a campaign in this world and love some ideas for kickin’ around.

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