Draw Maps, Leave Blanks for Supers

Posted on Mon Dec 21 2015 -- sssc supers

This is more discussion about the Super-Sheriffs of Sagan City game, found online here.

Today I want to talk about how I applied the principle of "draw maps, leave blanks" to the superhero genre.

One of my players says this: "I was just thinking… there could be times when this super mitochondria appeared throughout the ages of human history, which could explain ancient gods or heroes or mysterious beings, etc."

I was overjoyed. I proceeded to run down some of the posts that Villains Victorious ran through last year, making the case for exactly this. I'll do one better — I'll pull the list from TV Tropes' page on the Fantasy Kitchen Sink:

  • Fairies — discussed here. An "Arcadia" or "other world" can be a shared hallucination, modulating participants' super-abilities to affect the real world in return.
  • Ghosts, Mummies, Zombies — discussed here. Zombies, skeletons, mummies, liches, and ghosts are all explicitly discussed.
  • Vampires — has a representative here.
  • Werewolves — has a representative here.
  • Sea Monsters — discussed here as a world conquest tactic.
  • Giant Worms — encountered on Gaia, here.
  • Superhuman Mutants — a core part of the setting.
  • Aliens — discussed here. The PCs of the game have actually encountered one alien race, who are just as much colonists on Gaia as the humans.
  • Time Travellers — this is the only one I missed, due to how scary it is. However, it's possible for teleporters to travel in time as well as space.
  • Espers — another core part of the setting, for some value of "esper".
  • Angels — has a representative here.
  • Demons — no characters self-identify as demons, though Father Freak is sometimes referred to as one.
  • God, Jerkass Gods, Evil Gods, Lazy Gods — no provable gods have made an appearance, though the groundwork for how they would function is given here, and it's suggested the Egyptian pantheon were supers here.
  • Eldritch Abominations
  • Precursors — a possibility for aliens as discussed here.
  • Magic — discussed here, but not conclusively demonstrated.
  • Psi — no special psychic forces exist, though gravity manipulation and other powers cover many psychic powers. Telepathy in particular is discussed here.
  • Chi — discussed here. Mr. Big concludes that "chi" as a unique force doesn't exist, but many powers attributed to chi are still possible for supers to accomplish.

What do many of these things have in common? That the setting hasn't committed to them. They're possible, but nothing in the game hinges on magic, religion, aliens, or time travel being real.

The "map" of our setting, then, is what's possible. And the "blanks" on the map — the spots that players can fill in as they wish — are what's real. If nobody's particularly interested in exploring religion, for example, then Illumina and Father Freak can remain "just supers" or mysteries. If someone wants to write an alternate history where the Illuminati is a thing and has been conserving the blood of Christ, the unified power origin is ready for that. If someone wants to play a super-vampire, I can do that today.

Why is this important to me in a superhero game? Because what you leave in, or leave out, helps define the tone of the game. Sagan City has a  sci-fi feel right now, with some personal mystical journey stuff mixed in, so I've plugged in aliens and space travel, but no magic, no religion, and no psychic powers or shared-hallucination fairies (yet). A different game, with a different tone, would plug in different Fantasy Kitchen Sink elements.