Time Is Fleeting: Active Campaign Settings

Madness takes its toll … but before we launch into a chorus of “The Time Warp,” let’s talk about time as it applies to RPG campaign settings, in particular some of those published by Green Ronin.

Freedom City Second Edition!It begins a long while ago, the 1990s, to be specific. That was when I first began to experience the notion of an “activated” game setting. Shortly before I began freelancing for FASA Corporation, the publishers of BattleTech and Shadowrun made a point of making their respective gaming universes “active” ones, places where time passed. In the case of Shadowrun, the setting was 61 years in the future, and stayed that way as time went on. Time also marched on in BattleTech’s universe, although more prone to jumping ahead a generation or two after a couple of epic wars. Then came the multiversal campaign of Torg, with it’s “live” monthly newsletter updates of the Possibility Wars.

Many other RPGs adopted what came to be known as a “metaplot,” an advancing timeline where things happened in the setting whether you were actively playing in it or not. Sometimes, a setting would start out fairly static, as it was fleshed out and detailed, and would later be “activated” to launch a metaplot and moving timeline (as was the case later on with FASA’s fantasy RPG Earthdawn).

I worked on or with all of these settings in one form or another, so the notion of an activated campaign setting became pretty common for me. Along comes the d20 System, the Open Game License, and my career at Green Ronin Publishing. I was involved with two settings right out of the gate: the world of Aldea for Blue Rose and Freedom City (what would later become Earth-Prime) for Mutants & Masterminds. Both started off as static settings, “snapshots” of a moment in time of their particular worlds. Arguably, we “activated” Freedom City when Time of Crisis, its first full adventure, was published, but at the time the adventure was an “optional” event.

It was when the second edition of Mutants & Masterminds (and Freedom City) came along a couple of years later that things got more active. Given my prior experiences, it seemed like a fun idea to not only update the stats and expand on the world information in Freedom City, Second Edition, but also to have the same amount of time pass on Earth-Prime as had passed in our world. Things changed a bit: younger characters grew up, some graduated or moved on (Bowman joining the Freedom League, for example). It gave the setting a bit of life and animation.

Then, of course, it was a given. The same thing applied to Green Ronin’s Freeport setting, where prior adventures like the original trilogy were assumed to have happened in future source material, moving the timeline of the setting forward steadily. When we published a second (AGE System) edition of Blue Rose, we advanced the timeline there, too. Some things changed in the setting, most notably the fall of the Lich King Jarek and his replacement by the council of “regents” made up of his lieutenants, the Shadowed Seven.Freedom City Third Edition!

The funny thing about putting a fictional setting into motion is that you don’t always think that much about the long-view of things. Part of the reason why fictional properties like comic books tend to be a bit vague on the specifics of time is precisely because their stories and characters often last for decades. If you had told me back then that Freedom City and its characters would still be a going concern eighteen years later … well, that notion of having things happen in real time might have seemed less “fun.” We certainly wouldn’t have needed to retire or replace some characters from the original setting, or update others.

On the other hand, we would have also been denied some of the various events that changed their lives. The young members of the Atom Family grew to adulthood. Heroes like Johnny Rocket, originally the junior member of the Freedom League, became seasoned veterans. Johnny is now married and raising a daughter who’ll soon be ready for a super-powered career of her own!

So it’s probably no great surprise that when we began updating some of those forgotten characters from the earlier editions of Mutants & Masterminds products that readers would ask “But where are they now?” leading to the creation of companion pieces to our updates for the M&M Patreon that address just that question. Oftentimes, the answers are related to exactly why we didn’t include those characters in later setting updates: Because it was clear they would be retired, out of the costumed life, or just plain dead by now.

Nevertheless, those “Whatever Happened to…?” articles manage to be full of potential and interesting adventure hooks, drawing upon the idea that time has passed and things have changed for these characters. Long-time fans of the classic versions from a fifteen year-old sourcebook can speculate about what happened, while those new to Mutants & Masterminds and Earth-Prime get some story hooks rich in history and the kind of superhero legacy elements the setting was designed to support. That definitely adds some value to the updated game information we’re providing.

If you’re interested in seeing some of what we’re doing with these updated character write-ups, visit and support the Mutants & Masterminds Patreon. As we know, time is fleeting.

Mutants & Masterminds Patreon!

Don’t Touch That Dial! Into the Idiot Box is available now!

Astonishing Adventures: Into the Idiot Box!This week sees the release of Into the Idiot Box for Mutants & Masterminds, and Jason Keeley’s entry into the growing Astonishing Adventures line is a unique one, as we discussed with him on last week’s episode of Mutants & Masterminds Monday. In particular, it features the troublesome cosmic kid Quirk from Freedom City putting heroes through a series of … well, let’s say “episodes.”

Among other things, the adventure points to a big difference between superhero RPGs and many others: What Mutants & Masterminds refers to as the “Power Level X” character. Now, I’m on-record as a fan of the comic book trope I refer to as the “lateral win.” Many comic book plots feature challenges, foes, and situations where the heroes simply can’t beat the problem into submission. Instead, they have to use their wits and figure out another way to save the day. Such is definitely the case when going up against characters like Quirk, who are so omnipotent it isn’t even worth trying to define them in game terms (because, as the game-design wisdom goes: “If you give it stats, the players will fight it.”)

Into the Idiot Box is also incredibly topical, and a great M&M game for superhero fans suffering from deprivation when it comes to a weekly dose of comic book characters inserted into imaginary television show scenarios. While the adventure was written well before a certain popular streaming series premiered (great minds, right?) it plays very effectively with similar ideas, and gives you the tools to do the same in your own M&M series.

What if, in classic comic book fashion, the heroes form emotional attachments to some of the “people” they encounter in those television episodes? Will they ever see them again once Quirk has been dealt with and returned to wherever it is he comes from? Who knows? Maybe those “fictional” characters are based on real people in the heroes’ world. What happens when they meet the “real” version of the television character, but they’re a completely different person?

So if you’re looking for a fun, change-of-pace adventure that challenges the players’ roleplaying skills rather than just testing their characters’ power ranks, try sending your M&M heroes … Into the Idiot Box!

Astonishing Adventures: Into the Idiot Box is available NOW in the Green Ronin Online Store, as well as DrivethruRPG!

When the Developer Plays: Dueling Time!

Last time I told you about the Modern AGE Threefold game I don’t Game Master, but play in as Andrzej, who happens to be one of Threefold’s signature characters. Tonight, as I write this, I’m coming off another session where, as Andrzej, I fought a duel. I want to share some insights about combat using Modern AGE’s system I gleaned from that clash of imaginary swords.

First, the set-up. Why was I in a duel? As I noted last time, our Sodality Mission was on an independent Otherworld (a magic-dominated plane) to support diplomatic efforts toward an alliance with the Vitane, the peaceful democratic government of planes the Sodality supports. This plane had contact with the feudal warriors of the Nighthost in the past; their remnant needed to consent to the alliance. There were intrigue-soaked negotiations which…succeeded! They were ready to ally with us.

Threefold Nighthost

These folks need aggressive diplomacy!

Then the real Nighthost showed up: the army that had long waited on the other side of an unreliable gate between their realm and where our new friends lived. They made it through the normally closed gate…somehow (trouble with playing is I don’t know yet). The Nighthost aren’t just soldiers from Hell–they’re soldiers who rebelled against the Netherworlds, slaying demon lords and freeing the damned. They’re badasses out of a Black Metal album with a classic dueling culture, and they were about to lay siege to our allies’ outpost. So what else could I do except challenge their leader, the thane, to a duel?

I won’t leave you in suspense–I lost. I’m a 5th level character, but as our GM Steve told me, the thane was a Dire threat opponent. I think him being 7 feet tall with a crown of horns was a hint. I yielded with 3 Health left in me. Rather than go blow by blow, I’m going to list what I learned, after the thane and I put on mail, he got his sword and shield, and I brought my two-handed sword to the party.

Being a Protector Rocks: +2 to attack rolls and an extra SP on Stunt Attacks with the Sodality Protector talent rocks, especially if you also double on your roll–and especially if you master Two-Handed Style.* I was lucky to get big stacks of SP a bunch of times, which I spent on Lightning Attack to get a chance to inflict damage in, along with a constellation of other stunts, including Armor Crush, which reminds me…

Armor Crush is Better Than You Think: My second, a fellow Sodality Protector named Chester, couldn’t negotiate the thane out of his armor, so we were both wearing mail (I know this is all pretty fantasy for Modern AGE but that’s life life on a magical Otherworld) and it so happens mastering Two-Handed Style and using a big sword lets you gain 2 SP toward Armor Crush. I hit the thane a few times, dropping his Speed considerably. This combines beautifully with Knock Prone. Soon enough the thane was so slow he had to waste his actions getting up (part of a minor action) and fixing his armor (a major action). The thane eventually used it on me, however, and it was way worse for me because I didn’t have Armored Combat Style, like he did. At one point, the thane hit me with multiple Armor Crush stunts and the Hamstring stunts, and  knocked me prone. I ended up with a Speed of 3, half of which I needed to use to even get up. Oh yeah:

Annoy People with Knock Prone: For 2 SP and high reliability (no opposed roll required), Knock Prone is a very useful stunt when mobility counts. If you do this after attacking their Speed with the previous tactics, there’s not much they can do except stand up and sigh…which I did.

Ready for a Duel?

Being a Protector rocks!

Pick Your Disarms Carefully: The duel featured a number of Disarm stunt attempts. One of mine and two of the thanes were successful. Choosing the direction and distance of a disarmed weapon ends up being rather a big deal, however. I knocked the thane’s sword over my shoulder so he’d have to fight me disarmed to get it. Of course, that’s when he Stunt Attacked me with the Knock Prone/Hamstring combo after I’d been Armor Crushed, so, uh, maybe that decision sucked.

Remember Your Stats: Oh, I screwed up a couple of times here. I forgot to reduce damage by Toughness, which I was allowed to do in our Pulpy Mode game. Fortunately we realized and fixed that midway through, or else I’d be toast. But the other thing I forgot is the free grapple off a missed attack for Self-Defense style, which might have been used to mess up the thane a little more before he beat me.

Boost Your Defense When You Can: Defense-boosting tactics and powers are rare in Modern AGE, so make use of them whenever the opportunity arises. The Parry stunt is useful for chopping down high Defense opponents. The thane had a frickin’ shield, and that advantage wore me down–I had my share of misses. Since Protectors get a +2 to Stunt Attack rolls, I tried stacking that with a +2 Defense Guard up a few times, since my bonus nullified the penalty. This works pretty well–unless your opponent rolls high, which the thane did with annoying regularity. Generally speaking, seeing your bonus as an opportunity to cancel out a penalty linked to some other benefit is a smart move.

Fights Should Be Meaningful: This duel was a political maneuver. I wanted to show the Nighthost thane that the people on this plane were every bit as honorable as he and his army was–they weren’t fit to be brutally conquered, but had to be approached as equals. Game designers often talk about stakes in terms of game systems.. I prefer to think in terms of the fiction–talking about the reason for the duel (to secure negotiations), the emotional components, and negotiating the terms–not to map the outcome, per se, but to write the rationale in the fiction boldly, while maintaining the possibility that anything could happen.

One of us could have cheated, or attempted some other risky move outside the confines of the duel. The rest of the Mission group were in the crowd, after all, ready to help. In the end, though, we all followed the etiquette of the situation, and the great thing is that, since we were never locked into these terms, following the gradually built trust between us and our enemies, and it felt real because of course we could have cheated at any time. So when I yielded and didn’t die, but was allowed to limp back and heal, it felt earned.

* NOTE: In the upcoming Modern AGE Mastery Guide Stunt Attack now provides a base of 2 stunt points, increasing the Sodality Protector benefit to 3 SP in a stunt attack. We use this rule in our game.

 

Danger Zones: When the Mundane Goes Weird

Danger Zones: Convention Center is available now!

A lot of our Danger Zones offerings have been the kinds of locations you expect for superhero slugfests: the tottering Bridge , open Streets , the iconic Bank  for robberies, and Amusement Parks—both operating and abandoned—but there are a few offerings that don’t immediately spring to mind when you decide to plot of thrilling, comic-book action. A Fast Food Restaurant doesn’t seem like the best place to start hurling fireballs, and this week’s offering—the Convention Center—seems like a better place to buy comic books than reproduce their fight scenes.

But superhero adventures aren’t all about the expected. They’re about characters and where they get caught with their pants down. And superheroes spend as much time shoving burgers in their face or waiting to meet their favorite Star Battles actors as they do banking—especially in the 21st century. Danger Zones is about giving you interesting locations, not just expected ones. The convention center and the restaurant are both great locations for characters to be caught in their secret identities when things go south. But how do things go south in such mundane locations? Here are 20 random seeds for trouble breaking out when things seem calm:

  • A young superbeing’s powers manifest out of control.
  • A supervillain is there in their civilian guise and can’t stand a mild insult.
  • An AEGIS courier stops by and their magical artifact or alien tech goes haywire.
  • A criminal running from the authorities barricades themselves inside and takes hostages.
  • A wannabe superhero arrives to show off.
  • A fire or other disaster breaks out.
  • One of the heroes starts hearing a cry for help no one else can hear.
  • An accident disturbs a forgotten spirit, who starts causing trouble.
  • A mundane crime takes place and one or more heroes is blamed.
  • The heroes get caught in a time loop.
  • A truck careens out of control, spilling strange fluids into the scene.
  • The heroes run into a family member and discover they’re dating one of their supervillains.
  • An unexpected event shrinks the heroes to a half-inch in size.
  • A hero’s powers start activating at random.
  • An internet prankster sets someone up for laughs and things spin out of control.
  • A time traveler arrives and tries to make contact with a hero in their civilian identity.
  • A magical being starts granting the wishes of random bystanders.
  • A completely different superhero’s fight crashes into the scene as their villain starts gaining the upper hand.
  • A villain believes they have deduced the hero’s identity and threatens them in their secret identity to prove their theory.
  • Everyone else in the scene is actually a robot doppelganger.

Danger Zones: The Convention Center is available today in the Green Ronin Online Store, and on DrivethruRPG!

When the Developer Plays: Threefold

Threefold for Modern AGEThere’s a stereotype among game designers and developers that you eventually get so swamped with work you don’t play. I must admit there’s a challenge, but in many cases it’s more that, if you work in games, you love games. You want to have some time in popular games, pick them apart, and see what you can use or devise in reaction to them. It sometimes makes it hard to concentrate. Plus, my working schedule tends to be chaotic. Between all that and some persistent minor but annoying health stuff, I haven’t been as diligent at getting to my weekly game as I would like. Fortunately, I’ve pushed past the fog of it all a bit and am back to my Modern AGE game in the Threefold setting—one which I play in, instead of GMing. This of course speaks to another stereotype: Designers run their games instead of playing characters. This was my situation too, but over the past year I have stuck to playing.

Modern AGE Andrzej

Andrzej, a Sodality protector and nerdy swordsman

Where Have I Seen That Sword Dad Before?

What’s it like to play the game you developed, with the setting you developed? I recommend it to anyone who makes games if you approach it with the right attitude. My group plays on Discord most Sundays, with people I played with in person back in pre-COVID times. I’ve known most of them for over 20 years, and it makes for a comfortable environment, as well as a testament to games’ ability to create and maintain friendships.

On my side, the biggest challenge is learning to relax into my role. By weird coincidence, I randomly created a character who happens to fit the abilities one of Threefold’s iconic characters, Andrzej, perfectly. Andrzej was, incidentally, created as a heroic parody of yours truly by writer H.D. Ingham. After some laughter at the coincidence, I just went with it. Thus, I’m playing Andrzej, a Sodality protector and nerdy swordsman.

Seeing What Works

I know Threefold extremely well, since I invented it, though the writers who worked on it gave it a life beyond anything I could have imagined. That’s the same creative expansion I enjoy coming from my GM, Steve (not Steve Kenson, a different cool Steve) and there’s been nothing so pleasurable and useful from a design perspective as playing Andrzej and exploring worlds Steve expanded and invented based on cues from the Threefold setting. I can see which parts of the setting are the most accessible, and which are a little more challenging to use, and these tend to be a lot different from what you might get out of just reading the book.

As Andrzej, I belong to a Sodality mission with some Aethon adjuncts that specialize in rough and tumble approaches to problems. One of the challenges here is that the Sodality and Aethon are designed to support traditional party play, but that tends to bring a lot of the baggage related to wandering “adventurers” with it. But being a Sodalt means having ideals—they represent mostly legitimate good guys, since they’re part of a multi-planar magical utopian federation of states—and as a group it’s taken time to get there, but we’re starting to lean into it. When it’s time to expand the Sodality, I’ll have to keep this indoctrination aspect in mind.

Right now, we’re engaged in diplomatic negotiations and some quiet investigations on an independent plane that has some relationship with the Nighthost, and who broke off contact with the Vitane (the aforementioned magical federation) because of the Crimson Trident incident, when a branch of the Sodality (the Vitane’s exploratory arm) went rogue. I find it interesting Steve grabbed inspiration from that part of the setting’s history, which Jaym Gates created to give the good guys a spicier backstory. Well, Jaym, it worked—we’re playing with the results. We haven’t met anyone from the Nighthost yet, but we’re dealing with rival diplomats from the alternate earth of Al-Hadiqa. In Threefold, our world, the “primeline,” claims to be the true Earth, and prevents other Earths from accessing other plans as much as it can, but Al-Hadiqa (a plane invented by the late and sorely missed Alejandro Melchor) won’t be limited by the primeline and its enforcers, Aethon. They want a political arrangement with this new plane that shuts us out. Normally, this wouldn’t be particularly alarming for us, but we’ve just come off some operations tracking down a family of soul smugglers who we strongly suspect are allied with this Al-Hadiqa faction. The role of souls in the game, and their role as illicit trade goods, was developed by Neall Raemonn Price, and coincidentally, his adventure for Five and Infinity, The Soul Trade, had some strong similarities to what Steve independently devised. That tells me this is one of the more accessible concepts in the setting and might merit further exploration.

Threefold through the dimensions

Learning What You Don’t Know

Now, I am pretty much the boss of Threefold. I invented the setting and plot its course. What does that mean when I’m playing a character in the setting? Well, I try to keep my mouth shut, and I’m mostly successful. My participation is about having fun through my character, and I also get to enjoy insights about how people use the setting, but Steve is going to have different ideas about what’s happening behind the scenes and how to interpret things—and he’s right. So far where I’ve mostly stumbled is in maintaining a separation between player and character knowledge. Last week Steve said, “Roll to see if you really know that” and he was right to do so. This is a common enough problem for anyone, especially in lore-heavy settings (Threefold is dense with information—you want to give it a few reads because I designed it as if it was already, say, 20 years old, on purpose), but it also tells me it might be a good idea to explicitly describe the knowledge base possessed by members of various factions.

Next Session

Are we on for this Sunday? I hope so. The plane we’re exploring is fascinating. It’s a low-gravity world with mile-high buildings and a floating continent that whips around the primary supercontinent at high speeds. The floating land has a gate that intermittently opens, letting visitors from the Nighthost through. We’ve only heard rumors, and I’m eager to figure out the truth.

A free quickstart PDF is available in our Online Store, and on DrivethruRPG!