Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Getting the Band Together. (Exalted Edition)

Before I get started on today's topic I want to direct your attention to Urs Reupke's new Exalted Random Android App. It's built on my random generator table posts from this blog! How neat is that eh? Here is the link:

Shortly after I posted my Exalted Players Guide I was asked the age old question. How does a Storyteller, GM, whatever get a group of powerful characters together? Which is funny because back when I use to host my Superhero Gaming Podcast (Meanwhile...The Super Gaming Podcast) this very issue came up and was a feature of one of my early episodes. I even spoke about Exalted as one of my examples due to it's power level.

Well since my podcast is now digital vapor (and a crashed harddrive) why don't I touch on the subject again in my blog for those Storytellers/GMs out there trying to deal with the issue of a band of powerful characters and why they would even get together in the first place. For my primary examples I'll use Exalted but will reference Supers games to broaden my material.

The primary issue comes up during character generation. Unless the group is doing a communal origin story (think Fantastic Four, which I'll talk about later) then odds are your characters come from half a dozen locations across the map. They all have ongoing personal back-stories tied to their intimacies and merits (or disadvantages, complications in super gaming terms). And just to add to the mess some of them at first glance would rather fight each other than work together. (The classic Necromancer meets Paladin issue.) So now what?

Primary Guideline: The party has to at least be willing to work together and the players have to put that possibility into their characters.

This is problem #1 actually. Before anyone starts putting pencil to paper or fingers to keyboard you must establish to the group where they are playing, the core focus of the game, and that each of their characters though from different backgrounds and ideologies would and can find the need to team up. This may fall under the rules of "The enemy of my enemy is my friend" to make it work with rival characters, but the players must make it happen. The Linowan and Haltan may hate each other's guts at a cultural level over their territory wars. But now that they both Exalted in the same region they are both are now targets of the Wyld Hunt. That necessitates some level of cooperation. (This is similar to the Wolverine vs Classic Cyclopes issues. But when the chips are down and people are in danger the X-men as a team are there.) If the players don't agree to this at a baseline level then stop the character generation and ask them why, because there are other issues going on then. Roleplaying is not about PVP in games like Exalted (or Supers, D&D, etc.).

With that Guideline in mind lets talk about strategies to get these characters together.

Technique #1: The Communal Origin

It's tried and true to have all the characters gain their powers at once. You may or may not have to run that first 'unpowered' session. I know a few Storytellers like offering players the Exaltation experience. But it's completely optional. Creation, like many fantasy/super settings, is a strange place. Major snarls in the Loom of Fate happen, and the players all gaining their Exaltations at the same times can be a fun and interesting ongoing plot to discover why that happened. Perhaps the Unconquered Sun consulted with the maidens and saw the need for a group of heroes to be in the right place at the right time and maybe a new dark force is rising up and they are given visions of it so they can gain in strength and discover the nightmare before it takes action. As a Storyteller you can weeve this overarching sub-plot in the ongoing adventure. Loads of foreshadowing, odd encounters, etc. Heck, you can also have some of their worst rivals and foes gain power from the same event. Wouldn't that be scary? Suddenly some of their old friends from home become Abyssals, Infernals, or Sidereals out to stop or corrupt them! (This is very common in super team books after the Fantastic Four for comics. But there are examples where one hero came out of the same origin as the group of baddies he fights. Kamen Rider and Static Shock come to mind.It's funny but the Exalted origin is very much like a Lantern Corp story. The rings of any color choose the person who has the qualities that makes them great wielders of the power and they are chosen.)

Technique #2: The Patron

There are no end to possible patrons that would bring a group powerful Exalts together. Sidereal Sifus, Lunar Elders, Powerful Gods or Elemental Lords, Deathlords, Kings and Queens, Guild Factors, and the list goes on. Each patron brings with it different obligations and offers to the group. This is the trick to using Patrons. They do not need to be more powerful than the PCs, they just need to be powerful to command respect and have something they can offer to keep the players interested. A mortal ruler may not have artifacts, manses, or training to offer Exalts. However a mortal ruler can offer a safe place for Celestial Exalts (and Abyssals, Infernals, etc) to operate with some level of openness in their kingdom. The clout to keep the Wyld Hunt at bay, or busy elsewhere, and the connections to offer them safe haves and resources to carry out their own agenda...for a price. A Sidereal Sifu might be the Professor X to a group of players but he will have rules and tasks they must accomplish while under his patronage. Just like Professor X wanted the X-men to present themselves as a force for good as mutants so the hating world would see them as heroes and not monsters. So a Gold Faction Sidereal would want the Solar/Lunar/Whatever Exalted acting as positive and helpful paragons (or close enough) so that followers would come to their banner. In comparison a Deathlord wouldn't care about celestial PR and be all about killing and taking that they want in the name of power and glory. Maybe. That's up the patron and their chose of actions.

Technique #3: In Media Res Blue Booking

Who the what now? In Media Res, in the middle of the action, and Blue Booking is an old gaming technique term of writing up back stories and downtime events on the side when not gaming. The technique is about starting a game with the group already established and having smaller away from game communal writing, or mini Storytelling session to go over how the characters met each other. The Blue Booking style depends on how your group is playing, how much down time they have when not gaming. Online games can use chat sessions with the ST, or maybe co-written in character fiction submitted for ST approval. Whatever is done make sure the characters use powers and do things in the scope of what they can already do. You can push boundaries if you want but get the ST's blessing when you do. (Or the ST/GM can be nice and offer suggestions.) As a ST/GM I'd give the players who did these backstory events or write ups bonus XP for doing them. Let them spend it right away. You can claim the new skill or talent came out of them talking about events in the past and shared flashbacks. These flashback events are GREAT ways to fill in for missing player sessions. The only catch is new powers and stats might need to be unused to simulate the older version of the character. I'm less worried about attributes and abilities (skills and stats) as I'd be over charms and spells. (Powers) It's very much like how comics do little recons via flashbacks. Wolverine meet Mystique years ago, but doesn't acknowlege it because they had a love child they both don't want to murdered for being their kid. (Or a Solar pre-exalt met their Lunar mate and they had an affair but neither new the other was anything more than mortal at the time. Years later that awkwardness comes back when they start remembering and talking about the shared past. Ya drama and romance plots.)

Technique #4: The Cold Start

I went over so many different names to call this: And then you wake up, Castaway, The "Lost" Effect, etc. But all these different styles all amount to the same. Some outside force draws the players together against their will and they either wake up, crash into each other, get marooned for a time, are put under the same curse, etc. The downside to this technique is it removes player agency which is a BIG thing in Exalted (or Supers) games. You have to handle this carefully. Now if I was to do it, I'd have the characters drawn together by either a common cause or new foe toying with them. Examples would be a dying Elemental altering the landscape to make one last request to the Princes of Creation. Or a Fae Lord toying with them by 'writing' them into his story and making them wake up as guests in his palace offering them prizes if they can best his challenges. Things like that. It would be the rarest of starting tools, but I wouldn't rule it out. In darker more morally challenging plot lines it would be a great way to put the players off balance at first or to bring vastly differing ethnic/moral characters together at first. (Like a Deathlord pulling them into the Underworld via powerful Necormancy to ask them to secure magical bonds that keeps his "master" from waking up! That would get a group of Exalts hopping.) Comic books use this rarely as well, but I've seen a few times be used like the recent Avengers Arena comic where Arcade captured a lot of X-men and Avenger teens and threw them into his new Murderworld to build his rep by having so-called heroes kill each other off.

Technique #5: The Call to Action

Rick Jones needs help dealing with the rampaging Hulk gets on a radio and calls for the Fantastic Four. Loki interferes with the broadcast and a group of unlikely heroes answers the call and they go on to become the Mighty Avengers...wait. The forces of Apocalypse begin an invasion of Earth and overwhelm individual heroes and the military, so a group of heroes drawn to the incursion team up to push Darkside and his forces off Earth later going on to form the Justice League...wait. The idea is the same no matter the source material. Something BIG happens and the PC's are drawn to the event. Now in terms of Exalted this would have to be something significant, like say Mask of Winters attacking Thorns big. A perfect example of this would be a Gem coming under attack and sending out calls for help against strange Locust people. Or if you want something new for 3E? How about the Niobraran League rising up from the ocean being lead by the Chosen of the Depths to attack the West? (How very Atlantis Attacks from Fantastic Four days eh?) Or perhaps a Hulk-like Exigent who has poor control of his or her powers raging in the East and Guild puts out a quiet call for aid so the Seventh Legion of Lookshy doesn't discover their illicit activities the Exigent is disrupting? Or Gethiman Exalts but comes under attack by the Wyld Hunt, Rakan Thulio makes the players believe this is a new Solar Exalted in dire need and tricks them to coming to the rescue. He just hopes their strange black and white anima banner (Confirmed from Holden) doesn't tip them off right away. The list goes on.

Technique #6: The Big Event

My last suggestion in this post combines a lot of similar reasons why Exalted (Superheroes, adventurers) meet up. A big shindig. It could be a party, a contest, a full blow tournament, or anything where you are in a large social setting that would attract the characters. Key part being attract them. The onus is partly on the Storyteller to come up with a reason why the PC's would be interested. Usually the invites to these events are tailored anyway. Perhaps a local lord is looking to curry favor from the powerful new "god bloods", or a Sidereal is manipulating the guest list to spy on the PCs by judging their reactions to the guests. Whatever the reason for the get-together there needs to be a second step to the process. A catalyst to move the PC's to act. This can be an attack on a party, being called out by a new rival, a contest of skills gone horribly wrong. The key to this Catalyst is it needs to be outside the scope of the original event and interesting enough to get the PCs to commit to the action. Again, this requires a little tailoring. Perhaps a minor local god calls them to act as Princes of Creation, or a ghost who sense their essence covertly calls them away to ask for their add to protect their family, estate, etc. Usually either someone at the party knows they are Exalted, or finds out shortly after their arrival. You can allow the PC's to discover each other, but it can be trick. Either way the reveal will be slightly awkward, but once the PC's have been pushed/asked/threatened into acting most groups gel rather quickly.

And there you go. 

Those are my top 6 ways to get a group of powerful characters to act together as a team when they normally might not. Each method has it's benefits and drawbacks and you can mix and match the above if you will. For example Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles are a communal origin with a patron/sifu in Splinter. The trick if you blend techniques is to resolve each origin/event individually while pushing the other to the background plot until you reach a stopping point or resolution on the first. As in the case of TMNT, the Turtles first resolved their patrons issues with the Foot Clan before discovering the secret of their communal origin with the TCRI Aliens and the mutagen. So taken from an Exalted poitnt of view the PC's might have exalted around a strange monument while saving the life of a Ronin Sidereal who begins teaching them about Exalted life. They help him resolve an issue with his Getimian rival before discover the nature of the monument as a Lunar Sorcerers attempt to create a mini Caul but accidentally damaging the local skein of Fate casing them all to Exalt around the same place and time. Once discovered they are pushed into a battle to repair the damage before a Fae Horde uses it as  an entry point from the Wyld.

Have fun!