Designing The Multiverse : Designer's Notes For 'VERGE'

by Nic Moll

I’ve been working on Verge: The Multiverse for some time now, and its coming to close being out of formalized playtesting and into proof reading and all those other final stages of role-playing game production. Employing the system I designed for Frankenstein Atomic Frontier, Verge is a bit of a twist on the traditional roleplay game in that each player takes the role of a single character – designed by the Game Master. Much of the choice for character creation in Verge comes when the players design their own unique reality, termed an “Earth” in line with comic book Multiverse’s such as those featured in Marvel or DC. The choices the players make for their Earth sees their version of the shared character gain different skills, abilities and histories.

The key aspect I’ve been trying to keep in designing Verge and its multiverse is not to design it as such. Being a Multiverse-based Superhero game, much of Verge’s inspiration comes from the obvious Superhero comic books such as Crisis on Infinite Earths or Secret Wars. On a more subtle level, Verge also draws heavily on comic books that feature the Multiverse and alternate reality themes as a more run-of-the-mill standard feature of the setting. This list includes offerings such as Wildstorm’s The Authority and Planetary. These comics, both set within the same universe, feature the Multiverse as regularity of existence and through this trope offer a wide variety of allegorical characters. The phrase and concept itself, allegorical character, refers to the use of existing, licenced, media and franchise entities that have grown through history, the Superhero genre and marketplace importance to have resonance as figures of modern day mythology. The Authority’s Apollo and Midnighter, for instance, are quite noted allegories of Superman and Batman. In this fashion, these comics engage both the Multiverse and allegorical characters to have Batman, Superman, Spider-Man, the X-Men and countless iconic Superheroes without actually impacting on licencing. The idea is that simply these characters exist throughout the Multiverse in a variety of different forms across a variety of distinct Superhero settings. It’s that idea – that there are countless, distinct Superhero worlds or settings out there, but only a handful of characters that are truly meaningful to audiences – that is at the heart of Verge’s design. The idea that every Superhero that ever lived, even for a moment, in the pages of a comic or the imagination of a fan does exist somewhere, in some form, out there…

The emphasis within Verge is not on building a detailed map of the Multiverse that forms its setting, but rather engaging the promise of possibility – showing players the possibilities of what can be out there without producing an exhaustive and limiting list of what is. In terms of background and rules, a middle ground approach is adopted with the core book itself detailing several sample or example Earths and providing a long list of modular features and aspects of individual Earths that may be blended together to create a unique reality.

Naturally this broad scope gave Verge a staggering scope to comprehend and a setting that, on initial conception, felt somewhat unwieldy to approach. Yet, the chaos, inconsistency and confusion are not simply part of the setting in Verge, but its lump sum. Thus the atmosphere of Verge is one of extreme genre-conflict and wild what-ifs. What if Jeremy Kent, the little boy from England who found out he was destined to become the greatest Wizard of all time, was deemed a threat by the Executioner – the hard-hitting vigilante leading a one-man war on crime. Suddenly, high fantasy adventure is battling it out with gritty street vigilantism. The strangeness of the moment in which a Griffin comes swooping out of the night sky – rushing through a crowded London street and a hail of gangster’s gun fire to snatch up its prey - should be embraced. In this sense, Verge games blend genre-busting blends of distinct atmospheres - a gritty 1980s-esq world with a campy, after-school cartoon reality – along with things that defy clear classification. An Earth with the technology of a Diesel Punk setting in cities that look like 1980s dystopia, ruled by an overbearing Theocracy facing rampant problems from demons and magic could be best described as Weird Punk Deco, for instance. The common theme that runs through all Earths in the Multiverse, however, is Superheroes. The vast majority of all realities are protected by Superheroes, each one of countless Iterations and variations of the same, Archetypical, beings replicated throughout the Multiverse. And in this snese, Superheroes can be considered the one consistent thread that links all Earths in Verge’s Multiverse, no matter how extreme their variations and thus one of the two pillars of the setting.

The other pilliar of Verge’s setting is Lovecraftian Horror. Role-play games generally feature stock antagonists, designed as a clear and automatic enemy for the player characters. The iconic marauding band of Orcs and Goblins in Dungeons and Dragons, for instance. Or the Sabbat, those Vampires who decline to hide and live secret lives, for Vampire: The Masquerade. In a setting with limitless possibilities of character, the possibilities of antagonist were likewise broad and, moreover, required to be of suitably threatening challenge not one, but a veritable army of Superheroes. Lovecraftian Horror, placed on the multi-reality scale, provides a suitably large and looming threat, for the player characters of Verge.

Lovecraftian Horror is a style or subgenre of horror that emphasizes cosmic terror in the form of, alternatingly, the unknown and the unknowable. Attributed to 1920s United States author H.P. Lovecraft and his distinctive writing style and tropes, Lovecraftian horror deemphasizes gore and shock for notions of lurching, lingering dread and looming treats. Because of this, Lovecraftian Horror often errs towards the fantastic and the uncanny aspects of the horror genre than say Gothic, Slasher, or Undead. And I have often found that the atmospheric aspects of Lovecraftian Horror tend to make for a more distinct blend of themes and challenges when engaged in Superheroic settings than other forms of the genre. The Marvel comic book Blade, for instance, engages themes of Vampirism akin to Dracula, with the protagonist Blade making his way through the world as a cursed, half-human, half-vampire hunter of the undead. But while Blade draws heavily on Gothic Horror, Blade’s vampiric abilities and arsenal of weaponry amounts to a flashy superpower as the protagonist slashes, stakes and shoots his way through every problem and situation. Compared to the (also) Marvel series Darkhold: Pages from the Book of Sins, wherein random pages from a cursed book – in the vein of Lovecraft’s Necronomicon - are mailed to unsuspecting victims turn into a mountain of worms or be devoured by dogs (who are themselves devoured by the book), Blade’s problems are remarkably simple. Likewise, DC Comic’s Swamp Thing might present Alec Holand, aka the Swamp Thing, with a life overflowing with monsters and puppet mastered through strange otherworldly forces. But through Avatar’s and Parliaments who speak for these forces, they become personable. Compared to the abstract, unspeaking entity that is the Source in New Frontier – a biological entity that has the body somewhat describable as a giant, blazing, flying island on an unspoken mission to exterminate humanity – Swamp Thing’s Green becomes relatable.

Like most roleplay games, Verge has multiple traits representing distinct spheres of activity – such as those governing physical and mental capacities as well as social interaction and world understanding. On that level, Lovecraftian Horror provides challenges to the player characters that require more approaches than simply kicking, punching or blasting ones way through a series of combat encounters. That isn’t to say Verge lacks combat. It is a Superhero game, after all. But rather that the central problem of the setting’s stock antagonism cannot be resolved through combat exclusively. The assertion of problems and antagonism that cannot simply be punched through is particularly apt concerning the central features of Lovecraft’s own setting (collectively referred to as the Mythos) – the Great Old Ones. For Lovecraft, the Great Old Ones were a loose collection of ancient, powerful cosmic, interdimensional, magical or alien entities that, at various points in history, ruled, existed on, became imprison or simply touched earth but had since fallen into a death-like form of hibernation. Simply beyond comprehension, these entities could not be understood much less combatted through conventional means. Though it was not originally in Lovecraft’s own work, later utilizers of Lovercraft’s Mythos configured the Great Old Ones as cosmic sources of evil.

In the face of multiple sources interpretations and takes on Lovecraftion Horror, for Verge, we adopted a middle-ground approach. The Irresolute Idols, as we call our “Great Old Ones”, are entities from outside reality. And being unreal entities, the Idols have no purpose, no true form as natives of conventional reality would understand them, nor do they possess desires or needs. But being unreal things, the Irresolute Idols eat reality, absorbing it simply by touching it, and thus slowly are devouring the Multiverse. While not evil per say, the Irresolute Idols do corrupt by proximity and thus are followed or unconsciously create monstrous and wicked things in their wake. The Irresolute Idols thus provide Verge with a threat that operates on a Multiversal, all of reality, scale. In terms of challenging player character groups, the Idols themselves are presented in terms of statistics more akin to a hurricane or earthquake than they are to a player character. And in that vein, player characters cannot simply punch, kick or blast the Irresolute Idols themselves into submission. Rather they must actively track, interrogate and confront the mixture of cults, Super-villain’s, monsters and occult artefacts spawned by the Idols which have given them a presence on any given Earth.

In addition to Superheroes, Lovecraftian Horror forms the second consistent pillar linking each individual setting in Verge. With these two features in mind, Verge offers players and Game Masters not so much a consistent, word-of-god, doctrine for its setting, but a loose thread to weave into countless and varied stories and setting. As the final stages of the core book start to come together, I’m in the stage now of looking hard at the final portions of the book – the last chapter and a long list of appendixes where a lot of the tools, templates and variant rules are dwelling. Rules for playing unique Superheroes on a individual Earth, for playing Villains, a “core Earth” stock setting in the vain of existing Superhero universes (Marvel, DC, Valiant, Wild Cards, and so forth) and countless other bits and pieces. On one hand, I look at these rules and understand that they are not part of the core game unless a particular Game Master wants them to be. On the other hand, they are part of the broader patchwork of possibilities that Verge implies.