My gaming group is currently working its way through the D&D 4e adventure Seekers of the Ashen Crown. This has given me a little bit of time to go over thoughts for our next gaming genre which looks to be supers.  I started this consideration in a previous post.

What I’ve been thinking about is a setting. I’m trying to work backwards. What I want is…

  • Something that is not too serious. While I absolutely loved Watchmen and Dark Knight Returns, my gaming group is more of the style of late 80s Justice League International.
  • At the same time, I don’t want to be a slave to Lawful Good = Stupid morality. The characters will be good guys but I imagine if they have a chance to off Doctor Apocalypse and prevent him from killing millions they’ll do it without spending too much time debating the morality. We’re not talking wholesale slaughter mind you, but I’m having a tough time picturing my group with PCs having major issues against killing baddies.
  • The characters have to have the opportunity to initiate action. A lot of RPG-ing involves the characters on a quest to do something. A lot of comics involve waiting for Captain Carnage to show up and try to destroy Megalopolis.
  • Characters of modest superpower seem the most appealing to me. People with abilities above those of normal men, but still vulnerable to a bullet in the back of the head. I really like the model of older superheroes, most of whom either had a single power or a group of tightly linked powers. Think of Hawkman with his flight and armory of weapons. Or the early X-Men and Fantastic Four.

So based on this and some conversations with members of my group… What I’m leaning towards is a Golden Age campaign set in the 1930s. I’m not too keen on running a wartime game, so I’d probably be setting it earlier than the Golden Age traditionally begins with the introduction of Superman in 1938. One thing that should be remembered is while the early characters were often willing to allow villains to fall into vats of acid (“a fitting end for his kind”). And early Superman certainly initiated lots of action – investigating mine safety on his own in one instance and stranding the mine owners in their own unsafe mine. I’d also want to take liberal doses of influence from the pulps of the time, with lost worlds, superscience, and rocket ships. And the pulps certainly can provide that level of “seriousness” I’m looking for.

So as far as background goes… What is it that gives superpowers? I want a variety of origins, from magic to superscience to mutation to aliens. But I’d also like to have an explanation as to why superheroes are something new. I don’t mind the rare instance of them in the past, but I’d like this to be the first generation of superheroes. Since I’m not ashamed to borrow liberally from classical sources… I picture the doomed planet Xenon. As its sun went nova in the Earth year 1908, a small colony of them survived on an asteroid base. They harnessed the power of their exploding sun to open an experimental hyperspace gateway to Earth, a planet they had discovered through their Tachyon Viewscopes.¬† However, things did not go as expected. It turns out the solar system was protected by some sort of dimensional shield. The colony was able to breach it but the asteroid was fragmented and the bulk of it burned up in the Earth’s atmosphere, though many pieces managed to land or come close to Earth before breaking up – the most notable being the Tunguska Impact in Siberia. Many others landed undetected.

Over the next twenty-five years the effect of the impacts was little noticed. But over time the cumulative effect, though not the cause, became noticeable. The breaking of the dimensional barrier made magic operate a lot easier than it had – something had erected it long ago to “protect” the Earth. Now Earth is open to other dimensions and magic becomes a possible power source. This also allows various “lost lands”, existing partially in other dimensions, to be more easily accessed. Many fragments of the asteroid have been imbued with a strange radiation. It has no effect on most people. But for a small fraction of the populace it can either trigger latent superpowers or modify genetic structure to allow offspring to exhibit superpowers. Some technological artifacts have survived. Some people find them and, while not understanding their manufacture, are able to use them. Others serve as inspiration to “mad scientists”. Finally it is possible that a few inhabitants of the asteroid survived in stasis chambers, allowing for the Last Son of the Planet Xenon to gain superpowers under Earth’s yellow sun. Or there could be robots.

The appeal of this origin is it meets all of my goals while also being fairly simple. And it also provides a catalyst for adventure – Soviet agents and Nazi scientists will be seeking various artifacts of the planet Xenon. Mad scientists will attempt to make dastardly weapons. The Socialist Gorilla Republic will seek a weapons to help them spread the revolution.

So in closing for now, what are some good inspirations? From comic books the obvious choices are Golden Age comics, many of them reprinted in collected editions. In addition, I really enjoyed the novel It’s Superman which revisited the origin of Superman by retelling his origin in the period he originally appeared in – the 1930s. Modern revisitations¬† are handy as well to get a lens from the modern eye on that period. Good examples of this include All-Star Squadron and Golden Age.

Outside of comic sources,  there are other inspirational sources. The Doc Savage and Shadow pulps give a good feel for the adventures possible in the age. More modern takes on this include films like Raiders of the Lost Ark and Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow.

Finally some decent non-fiction sources are handy as an inspiration for what life in the period was like. I’m not looking for rigid attention to detail, but some books on daily life and a broad view of the history are handy. Real history shouldn’t get in the way of a good story, but even better is using such history to support a good story.