Mashing genres can be a fun way to put a fresh spin on a new campaign. It allows you to to draw upon tropes and plots from one genre and give them a new “desktop theme.” When I started this series of articles I planned on keeping to the hypothetical, but as it turns out I began a new campaign last weekend that is a genre mash-up.
At the risk of Kurt accusing me of “let me tell you about my campaign,” well…let me tell you about my campaign.
A decade ago, I ran a game of WitchCraft (check it out, it’s free!). My group instantly fell in love with the premise of characters with metaphysical powers in a modern setting (especially since my players were watching Angel, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and Charmed at the time; two of which were converted into compatible mechanics) .
That first campaign was about a group of college students at the Jersey Shore (a bit south of the one you’re thinking of ) discovering that they were “gifted” and that there was a dangerous, supernatural world lurking in dark corners all around them.
In the years since, I’ve revisited the campaign world a few times and tried to give each campaign a unique spin. I won’t bore you with the details of each, but as time went on I started running out of ideas. By the last campaign, I was recycling plots wholesale. I needed to try something different.
As I’d recently taken a few freelance gigs for DC Adventures, ICONS, and Mutants & Masterminds, I decided to look at the superhero genre. I had plenty of places to look for inspiration. The Wild Cards novel series presented a superhero world with a sci-fi spin (and comes in two RPG flavors, GURPS and M & M). The Smallville (itself now an RPG) TV series mashed teen angst with superpowers (and no costumes…at least not initially). The Birds of Prey TV series cast superbeings in a world where no one wore costumes anymore. Watchmen presented a world of costumes and only one true superbeing (or two, depending how you categorize Ozymandius). The Heroes TV series (I only watched Season One and and a handful of Season Two) looked at how people would really react if they woke up with superpowers.
I was helped along by my wife, who reminded me that my WitchCraft adventures essentially were superhero adventures, just with a different coat of paint. I was also encouraged by the new series The Cape which, although a bit rough around the edges, is an example of how to do a superhero series that contains all the tropes while still keeping things close to realistic (more pulpish acrobatic two-fisted action, less energy beams and super flight).
The first thing I needed to do was examine typical superhero tropes and see how well I could meld them with my WitchCraft universe.
An Urban Setting
Most superheroes generally limit their actions to a city, either real or fictional. In my WC universe, I’d created a small fictional county along the Jersey shore where the resort island on which the first and last campaigns took place in was located. This county also had a city just to the north that I’d never really fleshed out (ironically, this is roughly the location of Champions‘ Hudson City, Mutants & Masterminds‘ Freedom City, and, according to The Atlas of the DC Universe, Gotham City).
I decided to touch up my fictional city and make it a decaying urban blight whose peak years were twenty-thirty years ago. Drawing from real life, I decided that the city had only just started revitalization efforts when the funding was cut due to New Jersey’s recent cost-cutting measures. The police are not only overworked, but forced to drop a third of their officers in order to come under budget.
As far as WC was concerned, this worked. In previous campaigns my PCs never bothered to go there much; now we know why.
This was a biggie. Do I stick with the WC system or do I port the campaign to a different game system? After a little thought, I decided that I wanted to keep the “feel” of WC. Heroes and villains would be standard WC characters with a supers gloss.
For example, I have a vigilante that wears a mask and uses Tao-Chi powers (metaphysical martial arts), a zombie hit man with a skull-like face, and a psychiatrist that uses his psychic powers to hypnotise people.
Two sub-tropes required further thought: super-science and power economy.
I decided that I’d limit super-science to Atlantean arcana; a magical science known only to Atlantean immortals. At least one Atlantean is willing to sell such items on the black market.
Power economy refers to the fact that many superheroes only have one or two powers, as opposed to a whole suite. Using WC as my guide, I decided that it wasn’t necessary to limit PCs and NPCs as such, as long as each was built around a core concept. Most magic-using characters would have spells like “shield,” “symbols of protection,” and “warding” anyway, which eats up points but are ubiquitous in the setting.
Also, I had another convenient excuse for one-off powers, as in the last mega-adventure the PCs banished a mad god (think “Cthulhu”) but some of the “taint” (chaos strands) floated down on my city. This gives me an in-game reason to have mutants sprouting up now and again.
This was another biggie. Why would my WC characters start wearing spandex or molded body suits? The simple answer is that they wouldn’t. I decided instead that costumes would be designed to do two things: hide identities (for those that cared about such things) and give each character a standard “look.”
One benefit to this is that it’s easier to describe without a lot of props. It’s far easier to describe the Green Hornet or Zatanna than Superman or Captain America (assuming that your players don’t know who they are).
Codenames were a must, especially now that the magical world was getting a tad more public. Codenames are either created by a character that wants to hide her identity or present a certain image, or they’re bestowed on the character as a convenient nickname because the bestower needs one (e.g. a blogger or youtube uploader).
Why are vigilantes and villains popping up? Keeping with the WC motif part of this is due to those chaos strands I mentioned earlier. The major occult groups in the WC setting are staying away from the city due to the chaos influence and are more than content to let the PCs (who are fairly powerful) to clean the city up for them.
This chaos influence is also letting “powered” PCs get just a little bolder, leading to the rise of eccentrically-dressed criminals and vigilantes.
Also, with the city in decline and a cash-strapped (and largely corrupt) police force, there is a dire need for vigilantes. The situation also enables criminals to act more publicly without fear of the police bearing down on them too quickly.
For example, a local mob boss is known as “the Albino” because, you guessed it, he actually is an albino. “Skullface” is the zombie hitman whose face has deteriorated into a skull. “The Avenger” wants to hide her identity as she skulks around at night fighting crime.
Fitting in the PCs
I have three PCs in the game. Two of them are from my first WC campaign and are now 10 years older, with families and regular jobs. One is a new character and is a police detective. The new character transferred to the city because, as an “inspired” (he gets his powers as miracles from the Divine), he had a calling.
The other two are a medium and a psychic who’ve worked with the police captain before (when he was a police detective). It was a no-brainer that, once the weird stuff began, he asked his new detective to consult with occult experts he’d dealt with as a detective.
I’ve decided not to push the codenames/costumes concept onto the PCs themselves. If they decide to go that route then great, but I’m also willing to let them play this out the way they’ve always had, albeit in a more colorful universe this time.
Well, I’ve waxed philosophical on here long enough. Hopefully, I’ve demonstrated how a GM can go about weaving two different genres together to create something unique but with the flavors of both. If there’s enough interest, I’ll follow this up later with how this particular mash-up campaign has been progressing and what adjustments I’ve needed to make along the way.
I’d also love to here from you and your thought processes on how you mashed together two genres for a campaign. How well did it work? Did you ultimately find yourself favoring one genre over another?