Earlier this week I started discussing the Twilight of the Superheroes game I co-wrote and co-GM at Ambercon US 2003. We designed the game as one of the “big event” games for the con. 2-3 GMs, anywhere from 10-16 players, 2 slots (ranging from 8-12 hours). The “big event” games tend to have primo locations, such as use of the VIP Suite at whatever hotel we’re based at, and are run a bit “free form.” They aren’t LARPs in the traditional sense, and costumes are rare if ever used, but players are encouraged to move around the space, to break off into small groups, to live it up a bit, as it were. We also – assuming the space is big & primo enough – tend to designate different parts of the game room as different locales. So one year we ran a game where Rebma (the underwater reflection of Amber) was key, we used the master bedroom as Rebma, the en suite bathroom w/jacuzzi as the queen’s quarters, and the main living room as Amber, the outer hall as the sky city, etc.
By 2003, Ambercon was a place to try out new games that weren’t just Amber based (although they were almost entirely diceless). Some of the diehard Amber players (like Chris Kindred or Sol Foster, I believe, and of course Erick Wujcik who started Ambercon had a long history of games like Zelaforms and Red/Black) had already been doing this for years, but it was becoming more common to stage the “big event” game as something non-Amber. In Part 1, I said that Prestor John’s Gods Game had been a year or two previously – he actually debuted it at Ambercon North 1998, so clearly my memory is shot. The Gods Game, properly entitled “The End of Days,” featured about 15 players, 3-4 GMs, and used a game system that was a fairly extreme extension of the Amber DRPG. There were three political groups – the archangels of God, a mixed bag of gods from any (historical) pantheon, and Lucifer & his minions.
Again, using the “End of Days” as our foundation, and Alan Moore’s now-classic “Twilight…” pitch, with more than a hint of Warren Ellis’s late 90s/early 00s comic work, we set to work crafting our take on “Twilight of the Superheroes.” Leaving the game rules aside for a moment, we began by riffing on what would be core to the scenario.
As in any story, conflict is central to the game. Without conflict, you tend to have a lot of players sitting around bored or cracking jokes. Clear lines of tension are especially important to any kind of convention game, and probably 10 times as important to a large, freeform game. This is because you can spend much less time doing set-up and let people get into the action as soon as possible. Games that take too long to get the players into their characters, or ponderously explain the background of the world, can lose all momentum and grind to a halt before you even get started.
One of the great things about the Chronicles of Amber is how Zelazny created so much conflict among the royal family. Everyone wants to be king. Everyone wants to succeed at the failure of his or her siblings. Amber wants to beat Chaos. Whether it’s divided along the maternal line (splitting each of Oberon’s wives into a different political faction), such as Clarissa’s redheads vs. Rilga’s children (Caine, Julian, and Gerard); direct sibling rivalry, like Corwin and his full-brother Eric; political alliances, like Florimel keeping an eye on Corwin for Eric; or even the Princes of Amber vs. the Lords of Chaos, or whatever, the distrust and antipathy is fully present.
In convention games, if everyone is playing a child of Merlin in some far removed shadow, you don’t have as many immediate story hooks to hang on to, and a great deal of time has to be spent describing who is who and how they all feel about each other. Compare that to an “elders” Amber game where John is playing a world-weary Benedict who has the MacGuffin, Nick is playing an opportunistic Brand who wants the MacGuffin, Simone is his scheming full-sister, Fiona, willing to help him at any cost, and Joe is the Dirty Harry version of Caine, who wants to stop Brand from getting the MacGuffin at any cost, even if he has to go through Fiona and Benedict to do it. Ready-set-GO! Although the players are free to reinterpret Zelazny’s characters as best fits their goals and the scope of that individual game, everyone comes to the game with a body of knowledge, and that helps hotwire the game.
To parallel the Coles Notes or shared knowledge of Amber to our game world for “Twilight,” we wanted to draw on superhero characters that most players would be familiar with, and ideally have a strong opinion about. One of the great things about “The End of Days” was that you could play a god from pretty much any real world culture. Prestor John is fantastically knowledgeable about such things, and I’m not half-bad at recognizing mythological characters myself (though nowhere near as good as I’d like to be). But not all the players knew that Tezcatlipoca was the Aztec “smoking jaguar mirror” god, or how trickster Raven or Archangel Michael would react to him.
We also knew that another tool to creating strong story beats – the ebb and flow of the various conflicts, as it were – would be to give people allies. In some ways, by definition, everyone who wasn’t an ally was a potential enemy. Of course, then you mix *that* up by seeding some spies, double-agents, and even hidden alliances that reach across political divisions.
Characters & Houses
New states have sprung up across America, where distinct clans, or “Houses,” have divided up the landscape. Although the Houses claim to be desireless of political power, each strives to impart its view upon the world, defending its people through aggressive politics and actions.
The House of the Gods
Dominating Middle America, down to the Gulf Coast, the House of the Gods looms large over the entire world. The new Fortress of Solitude, as it is sometimes called, lies in the heart of Kansas. It is home to the mightiest of Earth’s defenders: Superman, Wonder Woman, Thor, Supergirl, Namor, and the Phoenix. Yet they are often paralyzed by their potential influence, and the ripples that echo from every movement. Humanity has pulled back from them, however, for they are almost too awesome to behold. As such, they choose to only maintain their central fiefdom, keeping it stable, but hardly leading towards a brighter future. The rest of the world watches the House of the Gods intently, desperately, waiting for sign that is not forthcoming.
- Superman – Clark Kent, Kal-El, the man of steel. Superman is the last surviving son of Krypton, who gains tremendous powers from Earth’s yellow sun. He is married to Wonder Woman. They have a son.
- Wonder Woman – is also Diana, Princess of the Amazons (of Themyscira). She was given special powers by each of the Olympian gods, she is both warrior and an ambassador of peace. Wonder Woman and Superman have shared a bond for many years, culminating in marriage, and a son.
- Thor – is the son of Odin, and the god of Thunder; raised alongside Odin’s adopted son, Loki, Thor was heir apparent to the Norse gods. Thor wields the mystic Uru hammer, Mjolnir. Thor gave up his mortal guise, reckoning that now more than every people need divine inspiration.
- Supergirl – Linda Danvers was a normal girl who was merged with the spirit of Superman’s cousin, Kara Zor-El. Not a true blood relative of Superman, he has adopted her all the same.
- Namor – former Prince of Atlantis, Namor McKenzie has been both hero and villain to the people of Earth. With Atlantis destroyed, he too became a man without a home, and fell into solitude with Superman.
- Phoenix – once a “mere” mutant, Jean Grey has for many years been a conduit for the life and death entity known as the Phoenix. While she is firmly in control of the cosmic forces, it has caused her to drift apart from her former teammates.
The House of Youth
When yesterdays defenders retreated to their private sanctums and personal fiefdoms, a vacuum was created along the Eastern seaboard. The sidekicks, students, and novices grew up fast, taking over New York City for themselves, and to protect the greatest population center of the former United States. Some were lost without their mentors until they found common cause, now they are duly sworn to restore their teachers’ abandoned values. The House of Youth is made up of Robin, Superboy, Shadowcat, Impulse, Batgirl, and Nightcrawler. They have the greatest chance of seeing a brighter tomorrow, but are just as likely to continue the cycle of violence.
- Robin – once Batman’s protégé, Robin has come into his (her?) own. One of the youngest of this house, yet possibly the most determined, focused … and dark. Batman’s shadow continues to fall upon Robin.
- Superboy – the offspring of Superman and Wonder Woman, Superboy felt cloistered and shut-in in Kansas. He left to make a name for himself; an action that was not met with much support.
- Shadowcat – Kitty Pryde, once of the X-men, with their dissolution she found herself drawn to the dynamic activities of Robin, Superboy, and Impulse. She is one of the most mature of the group, yet still a child in the eyes of the rest of the supers.
- Impulse – Bart Allen, grandson of Barry Allen, child of the future. Impulse was born in 2980, but returned to the present to learn from the Flash how to use the speed force. Impulse, once the hyperkinetic ADD posterchild is now grown up.
- Batgirl – Barbara Gordon, once Batgirl, then crippled by the Joker she became the master hacker Oracle. In the past years she has found a way to return to the streets, for she realized these children needed a leader. She has more experience than Robin, although Robin is the team’s heart.
- Nightcrawler – Kurt Wagner, once of the X-men, found a place with these up-and-coming dark avengers. He is there to watch out for Kitty Pryde, and to lighten up the night with witty banter. A master fencer, and teleporter (bamf!).
The House of One
What happens when you were a symbol, the best, perhaps, at what you did, and your world turns upside down? The loners become outcasts, thrown violently from their cultures into the cold night. The outcasts nurse their wounds, and are slowly drawn to the few others who understand – thus was formed the House of One. Wolverine, Rogue, Storm, the Martian Manhunter, the Green Lantern, and Captain America. They found a quiet place to call their own, not unlike the Gods, but on a human scale. Their bunkers are in the Prairies of Canada, a peaceful land for a people that degenerate civilization would sooner forget.
- Wolverine – Logan, James Howlett, whatever you want to call him, he’s the meanest hombre around, with adamantium claws, heightened senses, and an amazing healing factor.
- Rogue – a southern belle with the power to absorb memories, powers, and personalities through physical contact, Rogue has long fought to be the one thing she cannot – herself. Once an X-man, when the team separated she went her own way for a time.
- Storm – Ororo Munroe is descended from a line of African priestesses, a weather witch, and goddess of tempests, Ororo took the disintegration of the X-men to heart. Only recently has she come down from the mountain, to see what is left of the world.
- Martian Manhunter – J’onn J’onzz is the last survivor of Mars (or perhaps not). He came to Earth as a refugee, and was once among her greatest defenders. His alien nature eventually caused many of Earth’s people to turn against him in the last riots.
- Green Lantern – Kyle Rayner was given a ring of power by a little blue man in a red dress. With the Green Lantern ring, he became one of the world’s defenders. However, in the riots the people turned against Green Lantern as well, knowing that his abilities came form alien powers.
- Captain America – Steve Rogers, the supersoldier of what was once America. When the United States came apart, so too did he, for a time, crushed by the collapse of his namesake. Since then he has found common cause with these folk, doing small parts to make the world better.
The House of Secrets
The House of Secrets is a rough conglomerate of survivors, rebels, and iconoclasts – once known as supervillains. The House of Secrets is an enormous palace set in the heart of Las Vegas, known as the Mystery Casino. From there, they hold dominion over the southwest. This rogues gallery managed to escape the heroes, the vigilantes, and the war, and has banded together to support and protect its own trade and grey market. The House of Secrets consists of Lex Luthor, Doctor Doom, Magneto, the Kingpin, the Juggernaught, and Catwoman. The House defends itself and its people, but nominally keeps to itself, realizing that a policy of non-interference is perhaps the best chance of survival.
- Lex Luthor – once Superman’s greatest friend, for as long as anyone can remember he has been the man of steel’s greatest foe. Luthor is a brilliant scientist and once one of the richest men in the world. With Superman withdrawn, however, Luthor is at a loss. Until then, he lives in opulent Vegas.
- Doctor Doom – Victor von Doom, former monarch of Latveria; when his tiny country was absorbed in the European Wars, Doom sought refuge in the lawless Americas. He is a master scientist, armed with invincible battle armor, and knowledge of the occult.
- Magneto – Erik Lensherr Magnus, the master of magnetism, Magneto has been the X-men’s greatest foe. In the last upheaval he sought security with his ilk, and they welcomed him with open arms, knowing how tremendous a weapon he can be.
- Kingpin – the self-styled kingpin of crime, when New York fell, so did much of Wilson Fisk’s empire. The Kingpin helped Luthor rebuild Las Vegas in their own image, and they have been content to rule there ever since.
- Juggernaut – Cain Marko was transformed by the red ruby of Cyttorak into the Juggernaut, one of the strongest, most invincible beings on the planet. His allies in the House of Secrets treasure his abilities, regarding him as the ultimate footsoldier.
- Catwoman – Selina Kyle, infrequent heroine, most often self-centered entrepreneur. She has joined the House of Secrets because there are no better offers in town, and her wit and feminine (feline?) grace add a touch of class to the operation.
The House of Justice
Some refer to this House as that of Vengeance, but never in the presence of their members. They have all tasted bitter tragedy in recent years, most often burned in the last riots. They slowly migrated, one by one, to New Orleans and Miami, and have created a web of influence amongst the swamplands and keys. The House of Justice is Batman, Spiderman, Daredevil, Hulk, Iron Man, and Elektra. The House of Justice is the most informal, but the most proactive, governing their people with fear, protecting them with anger, and defending them with spite. They are heroes who have stepped off the path.
- Batman – Bruce Wayne has seen his parents fall, his wards killed or maimed, and his best friend walk away. When Alfred passed, he collected a few things from Gotham, then burned the rest. He tends to be the unnamed leader of the House.
- Spiderman – Peter Parker could stand the mistreatment and misunderstandings as long as he had his true love. When MaryJane was killed he left the neighborhood, becoming only the spider for a long period of time.
- Daredevil – Matt Murdock left New York to help his friend Spiderman, and his former lover, Elektra, find a new place in the world. This House is his quest, penance, and hell, all in one, for he knows too well the temptations and rages his allies struggle against.
- Hulk – Bruce Banner, green skinned monstrosity, has found acceptance in the House of pain and anguish. Everyone here is a monster, inside, at least in the small hours of the night. Everyone here is fighting to find their humanity.
- Iron Man – Tony Stark, alcoholic, mechanical engineering prodigy. Many of his weapons were used in the last riots, against his own kind, and for that he has exiled himself. He toils with the lost in hopes of finding his own redemption.
- Elektra – Elektra Natchios was emotionally shattered when her father was killed; she traveled, studied, and became a master assassin. Since then, she has been loved, murdered, and finally resurrected. Still looking for her soul, she accepted when her former lover, Daredevil, invited her to this House.
House of Twilight
The House of Twilight is a hidden House, known only to operate somewhere along the northwest coast. It is a House of occultists, mystics, magicians, and interlopers. They have, as a rule, rebuffed every other House at one time or another. Their entire membership is unknown, however, their known members include: Dr. Strange, Dr. Fate, Tim Hunter, and the Scarlet Witch.
- Dr. Strange – Stephen Strange, a shattered neurosurgeon found new life in the arcane arts.
- Dr. Fate – Kent Nelson, possessor of the Helm of Nabu, a lord of Order.
- Tim Hunter – possibly the greatest magician of the next age.
- Scarlet Witch – Wanda Maximoff, daughter of Magneto, both heroine and villain, the Scarlet Witch can naturally tap into magical energies to create hexes.