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Campaign Concepts: Mutant High

July 24, 2016

High Concept: Super-powered teen drama meets early X-Men.

“Welcome to Xavier’s… Hope you survive the experience!”

In a world almost exactly like our own, a few rare children across the globe have been born with special genes. When these unfortunate souls reach puberty, strange and terrible powers manifest within their bodies. At first, these individuals were only known to the tabloids. The boy with the face of a bat. The high school track star who broke every speed record. The girl who burned down her own house – with her mind! But as reports of unusual kids piled up, along with deadly incidents that defied explanation, the whole world began to take notice. The teen who put her crush into a coma with a kiss. The kid who triggered earthquakes when he lost his temper. The bullied student who killed her tormentors just by looking at them. People began to look at their children with the fear. What if that they, too, would turn into one of these terrible “mutants”? Panic set in.

Politicians pandered. Too few pleaded for tolerance. Demagogues pounced. The situation was deteriorating, and no one had any good answers. What could the authorities do with teenagers who could level a building or read minds? How does society deal with the question of emotionally-unbalanced WMDs?

Enter Dr. Charles Xavier. An esteemed geneticist, Xavier had been at the forefront of research into the mutant genome. As the public debate worsened, he turned his home into a school and quietly began recruiting young mutants as his students. For the lucky few who get to attend, Xavier’s School for Gifted Youngsters is a safe haven from the outside world, where students can learn to control their powers and blend into human society. But even so, life there is not a paradise. The combination of awkward teens, hormones, and super-powers is a volatile one.

You are a student at Xavier’s. You could come from almost any background and nationality, be a poor or a great student or somewhere in-between, be a jock or a nerd or a rebel. Ultimately, the only things that you truly share in common with your fellow students is your mutant gene and your desire to survive, to thrive even, in a world that hates and fears you!

So a while back, there was this TV show called Smallville. I never watched it – I’m not a fan of DC comics, nor of Superman – but it ran for a long time and I’m guessing it served as a template of sorts for the current-day DC shows – Arrow, Flash, Supergirl, Legends of Tomorrow – that air on the CW network (as an aside, Arrow seasons 1 & 2 and Flash season 1 are pretty good, in my opinion, speaking as someone who is a fan of superheroes but not of DC heroes). Anyway, Smallville. Margaret Weiss Productions had published a Smallville RPG, and just before they lost the license, they had a sale on the PDFs. I liked their Marvel Heroic RPG, so I picked it up (along with Leverage, a heist RPG also licensed from a TV show). I had no intentions of running a game set in Smallville or Metropolis, but I’m always on the lookout for new ideas. And the Smallville RPG had a doozy of one: pathways.

Pathways is the system used to create individual characters as well as the setting itself. And also, the relationships between the characters and the setting elements. In the Smallville RPG, that world-building is a shared group activity that’s entirely player generated. Everyone writes their character on a big sheet of paper, and then defines their character’s path in life, step-by-step. Into what sort of life were they born. What interests did they have growing up. What were their ambitions, etc. Each step lets the player add or boost something on their character sheet, but it also calls for them to create NPCs and locations that are important to their character and write them down on the big sheet… and to link their character to those story elements. Not just the elements they created, but those created by the other players as well. In the end you have a web of characters and locations and relationships that the GM can then take and spin into plots.

What a great way to get the players invested in the setting, I thought. How do they know each other? What are their goals? Who/what is important to them? Force the players come up with all of that on their own, together, with a codified system that they can’t shirk out of! One could easily use the “web” portion of the system, which is mostly rules-neutral, with any game. It’s pretty neat.

As I said, I had no interest in Superman. What I pictured using it for was like a combo of the early days of the X-Men and the early days of the New Mutants, which was the original X-Men spinoff comic. Basically, a game with group of teen mutants, dealing with the usual teen problems on top of facing crazy discrimination and wrangling with super-powers. From the early X-Men, I wanted a world where mutants were known but still quite rare. From the New Mutants, I wanted characters with flaws and flawed powers, as well as a focus on being kids and students rather than super-heroes.

Another intriguing aspect of Smallville is that the group isn’t a tightly-knit band that implicitly trusts each other. It’s a soap opera, and the main characters will ally with and oppose one another, with their loyalties shifting as events change and secrets come to light. The example character creation in the rule book, for example, features a group that includes both Clark Kent and Zod. More than other games, Smallville puts an emphasis on how the PCs’ goals and personalities might be at odds. That sounds cool to me, but might be a challenge for certain groups. While poking around online, I found this blog that has a whole Xavier’s/Smallville mini-campaign mapped out, using established characters instead of new ones (and here’s another one using Smallville for an X-game that I found – I guess my great campaign idea wasn’t so unique!). Apparently the GM had to bring that game to a halt because the players were taking their characters’ conflicts personally. I have a feeling that my players would have trouble with that part of the game, as well.

The biggest stumbling block for running this campaign, though, is me. I have a particular type of mutant in mind for the PCs, and I don’t know if I could communicate that well enough to get the players all on the same page. In the original New Mutants book, most every character had a drawback or disadvantage that kept them from using their powers to the fullest. To wit:

  • Cannonball could only fly in a straight line at top speed, zooming until he hit something or turned his ability off
  • Sunspot was super-strong but no tougher than a normal human, and could run out of juice
  • Karma could only possess one person at a time, and couldn’t control her own body while using her power, and had a lot of trauma related to her past and her manifestation of her powers
  • Psyche/Mirage’s powers would often activate by accident, pulling personal nightmares out of anyone nearby and putting them on display for all to see
  • Wolfsbane had a lot of fear that she would lose her humanity in her wolf form

Several of the X-Men also fit this template, such as Cyclops or Rogue. But I foresaw my players making wish-fulfillment characters rather than angsty teens struggling with powers they can barely control, and dreaded trying to steer them away from the characters they created for ones that fit my idea of the campaign. And in the end, while a story of flawed characters dealing with bigotry and their barely-constrained emotions/destructive nature sounds really awesome to me, maybe such a story is more interesting to read than to act out.

This concept has always been more of a vague idea in the back of my mind, so it’s not as fleshed out as some of my other ideas, like the Goblin Campaign.

  1. Pinkius permalink

    Our group has a rocky history of angsty characters. In our games at least they’ve always come across… poorly, as disruptive, or secluded. Mechanically it only matters as far as the players let it matter, which i think might just be the system, pathfinder isn’t really designed with drama less than mortal peril in mind.
    Or to throw out an example the player complains that nobody talks to their ninja who sits on rooftops and doesn’t approach anyone unless they’re in combat.
    I suppose that’s something for the player and the gm to iron out before bringing such a character on right?

    • Hah, yeah. I’m writing a character arc for my PC in my head, but the “supporting cast” (i.e. the other players) are completely oblivious about their role in my story… This is probably a common mistake for some folks in moving from single-vision works like books, film, etc. to a collaborative effort like RPGs. It can be tricky to manage everyone’s personal narrative. I do think, as you say, it’s largely a matter of communication. But also, some narratives probably aren’t worth the trouble, like a character who wants to be drawn out of their shell but also resists it by trying to push people away. That shows up a fair amount in fiction, but at the table it probably just comes off like being a jerk, even when everyone involved knows what’s going on.

      • Pinkius permalink

        At the same time, if you plan out your character’s arc too thoroughly, what’s the difference between doing it in a ttrpg or a book? The ability to have your characters fail is a fundamental part of most ttrpgs, it’s not a matter of HOW the characters will win, but IF they will win. Although the how is sometimes amusing as well.

      • Yeah, definitely. Are you playing out a script, or doing something more akin to improv? Or maybe there’s some room for both – for example, my character arc is mostly what I thought it would be, even if it didn’t play out exactly as I envisioned it, while the overall plot was largely unscripted.

      • Pinkius permalink

        Improv definitely, make up character concepts, personalities run them past the gm and toss them in the blender that is the AP. Although, sometimes the AP aren’t very flexible, if you’ve taken a look at Reign of Winter for example.
        You get a lot of encounters that are solved mainly by slaying the monster in question.

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