Keith A. Garrett, who writes over at adventuresofkeithgarrett.com, just popped in from an epic Gnome/Kobold airport battle to drop off this guest article about getting a civil war type scenario going at your table. – #teamblackpanther John
Introduction (or Why a Civil War?)
A civil war between superheroes. It’s been a comic book miniseries, and a book, and now a movie. Next stop: your gaming table! Regardless of what RPG system you’re using to play your superhero game, providing a reason for your hero PCs to beat each other up isn’t very hard. (I bet some of you have the opposite problem!) But there are reasons for running such a game beyond the simple appeal of seeing Captain Do-Gooder slug Super Samaritan.
A key benefit of running such a game is fostering character development and roleplaying. We’ve seen the heroes beat bank robbers and super-terrorists into submission, but what would it take to make them use their powers against each other? Some heroes have a hair-trigger and might have a history of fighting fellow heroes already, while others would have to experience the darkest of situations to engage in violence against a teammate. What will make your heroes cross that line?
Another signature of a civil war storyline is moral ambiguity. Players in a game like this will have to make some tough decisions. How strict should they be with heroes who are on the other side of the issue? What will they do with prisoners? Will they accept the aid of villains who support their side of the civil war?
If you think these kinds of issues will appeal to your players, read on for more ideas. This article will give you some things to think about whether you’re planning a single adventure or an entire campaign centered on a major conflict between the good guys.
Pick a Conflict
It’s important to note that your adventure doesn’t have to revolve around a superhero registration act (though of course it can if that resonates with you and your group). Pick a dividing topic you think might interest your group of heroes—preferably one that they don’t all agree on. Here are a few ideas:
How do we handle a special villain? The team’s radioactive archenemy, Mister Greenjeans, has become too powerful to simply stick behind bars. Some think he should be exiled to a remote corner of the globe. Others would prefer a more permanent solution.
With great power comes great conflict. One or more heroes is granted awesome power. Might be Infinity Gems, or cosmic power, or paisley Kryptonite. The conflict in this situation could come in several ways. Maybe only one (or a few) of the heroes can receive this boon—is it distributed fairly? What if using the power has unwanted side effects? And even if it doesn’t, isn’t it possible that at least one person will use this power unwisely?
We’ve got a secret. The team uncovers a shocking secret, and not everybody agrees that it should be made public. If the Bel Air Avengers find out that most of their funding for the last year has come from a businessman who is secretly an evil mime, should they denounce Mime Man on the news and risk losing the public’s trust? Should they make like a mime and keep quiet about it? Or should they even go the other way and use as much of their pasty-faced benefactor’s money as they can squeeze out of him?
Involve Your Heroes
If your players happen to be playing actual Marvel heroes, then your work is nearly done, my friend. You can pick the conflict, draw the battle lines based on how the Marvel heroes split in the movie or the comics, and get to the fightin’! Or if you think your players will want to make this fight their own rather than echoing existing stories, you can take the more involved route listed next. (In case you’re not aware, a Marvel Civil War RPG book did see publication. It’s out of print now, but might be worth searching for if you’re a “Make Mine Marvel” kind of GM.)
If your players are controlling heroes of their own design, you’ll need to give the players a little more input and involve them in the breakdown of who is on which side of the issue at hand. Before the adventure starts—or at least before the conflict builds to a fight—have a discussion with the players about how their characters might handle such an internal conflict. If they’re excited about the idea of inter-party conflict, they will likely be willing to help you divide the heroic roster in a way that’s balanced and, more importantly, entertaining. (If the players are NOT into that idea, refer to the Player Versus Player section below.)
If your players are using other licensed heroes (I’m thinking DC here), you can use the method above OR you can run a fun parody of the Marvel version. Replace Iron Man with Superman and Captain America with Batman and you’re good to go! (Go ahead and tell me how wrong my analogies are in the comments.)
Player Versus Player: Proceed With Caution
If your storyline does involve physical combat between PC heroes, make sure to watch out for the possibility of hurt feelings when one PC defeats another. You know your players—if you detect too much disappointment from a player after a knockout, maybe remind everyone that even the best heroes (Superman) have been defeated by the less-than-best (Batman). (Again, tell me how wrong I am in the comments.) Also, a knockout should probably be the worst a PC hero experiences in a civil war game. A high-lethality game setting doesn’t pair well with a friend vs friend storyline. (Just ask Dazzler’s player after her fight with the Punisher.)
Your game’s civil war has the potential to be an important milestone in your heroes’ lives. Don’t be afraid to shake things up. In big comic events like this one some characters die, others rebrand or otherwise revamp themselves, teams change rosters, series begin or stop publication. Is one of your players getting bored with her character? Let her revamp or replace the heroine to make things fresh again. Or for a bigger change-up, your civil war can mark the end of one campaign and the beginning of another.
Have you run a civil-war-style adventure or campaign at your table? If so, how did it go? How would you make sure it resolves amicably?