Writing a Sagan City Sourcebook

I’m running a play-by post game, called Super-Sheriffs of Sagan City. I’ve been thinking about publishing the setting as a standalone thing. I want to talk about some of the challenges of doing so.

The pitch

What is the concept behind this superhero setting?

“You are the sheriffs protecting humanity’s first interstellar colony, on a planet where everything alive has super-powers.”

The game is a mashup of Wild West and post-apocalyptic elements, with a big ontological mystery (where did super-powers come from?) and a lot of smaller challenges to tackle.

A scientific basis for powers

The game assumes a basically biological nature for powers, power inheritance, and so forth. This may not work for every group, but I think I can present the setting in a way that’s generic enough to work with most groups’ sensibilities.

Many typical superhero elements, like numerous extraterrestrial lifeforms or casual access to super-technology, won’t work here.

Supporting NPCs

I want to include supporting NPCs, most of which are already active in the game. However, I would also like to provide some stats, without tying people down to a specific game rule or hack. I’m thinking of just creating characters as biographies, plus a bulleted list of powers and notes.

For example, the hero Bluescreen might have the following notes:

  1. I’m a trained astrophysicist and experienced super crime-fighter.
  2. I prefer science but am strongly motivated by a civic sense of duty, so will use my powers when needed.
  3. I believe in the law and protecting people, and will let criminals make the first move, but never when it puts innocents at risk.
  4. I can create strong, nigh unbreakable force fields of translucent blue energy.
  5. I can shape my force fields into complex shapes to protect myself or others, or to manipulate objects.
  6. My force fields are air-tight and resistant to temperature and pressure.

I don’t know whether this is adequate to create the background characters in the system of anybody’s choice, and I don’t know how motivated people are to create stats for my NPCs. My intuition is that people will want stats in some system.

Ultimately, my hope is that people mostly want to know "who beats who in a fight", so I can assign relative ratings to each character’s major powers or something similar.

Fate Core and Venture City Stories

I thought about using the Venture City power rules to create characters, since the original game uses Fate and it wouldn’t be a hard adaption. This didn’t work out for several reasons.

First, the VC power rules are extremely limited. Teleportation moves you… a few extra zones. My sample teleporter can move anywhere on the planet, and not in the destructive manner that a “collateral damage” effect requires.

Second, the choices of powers are as specific as those found in any typical point-buy game like GURPS or Champions, but without the endless customization those games offer. You’re going to have a character whose power is nailed down mechanically, but without too many stunts or quirks to differentiate him or her.

There doesn’t seem to be much room for power improvisation, other than saying “use aspects” - but I could do that anyway.

Third, it’s not just a question of customizing the power. Characters’ powers stem from mundane skills that still retain their original use. For example, the Shielding power is based on the Will skill, and it’s logical that anyone who takes this power wants to be good at it. This means the world is probably full of strong-willed force field users, whether that makes sense or not. Bluescreen is a self-defense pacifist who rejects firearms, so he has no use for guns and hence the Shoot skill, but Energy Blast uses it. So he has a choice: put skill points into something that he really shouldn’t be good at, or be bad at using his powers, which he should be good at.

Conclusion

Ultimately I have to hope that the pitch of the setting is strong enough to draw people in. Most supers worlds I’m aware of like to stick to the big populated cities, with heroes slugging it out with supervillains. I wanted to do something different, but this genre in particular often punishes radical departures from convention.

Still, I’m going to do it anyway. If there’s one common theme in the best superhero stories, it’s hope.