Don Bisdorf

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Articles in the Game Design category

Limited Series Playtest, Part 1

Mon 30 May 2022 | Game Design

As part of the Marvellous Heroes TTRPG Jam, I'm writing up a short GMless storytelling game in which the players summarize the events of several interlocking comic book series, culminating in a climactic crossover issue. I'm calling it "Limited Series" for now because I haven't worked out a better name yet. The idea is that you use a deck of standard playing cards and a series of prompt tables to randomly generate superheroes, then establish the events that occur in each issue of those superheroes' comic books. Each issue escalates some element of dramatic tension, and when you get to the final crossover issue, you resolve all of that escalated tension.

I did a solo playtest of my first draft. I'm happy with the way it's going, though it needs some polish and tuning. I'm going to recap the results of my first playtest over a series of blog posts. In this first post, I'll introduce the superheroes I randomly generated.

The random tables in the game provide lists of superheroic talents, origins, and other character elements, all associated with playing card values. My intention is that you'd draw more cards than you need and keep the ones you like, but to hurry my playtest along, I only drew as many cards as I needed. This meant that in a few cases I was stuck with some character elements I wasn't wild about, but I made it work.

Here are the four superheroes I randomly generated:

Zephyr is a fae being from a fantastic subterranean realm. Her powers of wind and air allow her to summon a gale, to cover great distances in the form of a swift breeze, and to supply herself with fresh air in hostile environments. She considers herself a protector of nature. She and Gearhead had worked together in the past, in the Under-Earth, and she's married to Storm Giant, who she met in the surface world. The public considers Zephyr to be a ghost, a frightening spectre who haunts those who spoil Nature's bounty.

Storm Giant is from an alternate Earth, where his people have the ability to grow to giant size and to call down blasts of lightning. Upon falling through a gateway to our dimension, he used his powers and his natural sense of deduction to protect the people of his new Earthly home. In his superheroic persona, he presents himself as a symbol of justice, and of the principle that the wrongdoings of the guilty will always see the light of day. He's married to Zephyr, a mentor to Salamander, and the people of his neighborhood consider him to be their local champion.

Salamander is a reptilian creature from outer space who can summon and wield fire, and can create fiery duplicates of themself. If their fire fails them, they can fall back on their long, prehensile tongue to seize and trap enemies. Though he strives to serve his new home, he struggles with his position as an alien in human society. He takes guidance from both Storm Giant and Gearhead, and the public considers him to be a fearsome monster.

Gearhead is an agent of an Under-Earth human society, sent to the surface to monitor the aboveground humans and ensure that they aren't a threat to the subterranean realms. He traveled to the surface in a bizarre steampunk burrowing tank, equipped with telescopic crane arms and precision laser blasters. He fights evil where he can, though his superiors have ordered him not to reveal his true origins to the surface world. He offers guidance to Salamander and has battled side-by-side with Zephyr in the Under-Earth. Until now he has concealed his incredible vehicle to maintain his cover, but he will soon face threats that force him to take a more public role.

Not a single contemporary Earth resident in the bunch, but that's a consequence of my random origin tables, which only give a one-in-ten chance of being an Earth human. I expect to adjust this in a future revision.

I think the most mismatched hero is Gearhead. His character elements suggested that he should be a low-profile urban legend, and yet he fights evil with a bizarre clockwork mole machine. Drawing an extra card or two and discarding the elements that didn't fit might have provided a more consistent character. But who knows -- maybe he's just strange enough to attract a diehard cult following.

In the next post I'll start telling the story that I generated for these strange heroes.

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