by Karl Brown
United we stand is a setting outline for Mutants and Masterminds Third Edition (MnM) a super-hero genre rpg by Steve Kenson of Green Ronin Publishing. This is the second of two articles. Though written for MnM the approach described in this pair of articles could be used with many super hero RPGs. This article gives guidance for the referee. The only book required to use this article is the Hero’s Handbook (HH), the core book for the game. I do reference other books for the game but they are not required to use this article. Most page numbers (HH) refer to the Hero’s Handbook. All the referenced material is also within the newer Deluxe edition. Other books referenced are the Supernatural Handbook (SH), Cosmic Handbook (CH), Gamesmaster’s Guide (GG) and Threat Report (TR). These additional books are not required to use this article.
The starting conditions of the setting are incredibly detailed and yet you and your players are very familiar with most of the setting, it’s the real world. Once the alien announcement occurs though all kinds of secrets come to light. While the setting is deliberately vague so you can make it your own, I will give some advice on how to make it work at the table.
The Secret History
During character creation the backstories the players invent for the PCs will provide some ideas for the secret history of the world. It's your job to gradually invent and reveal additional details of the world's secret histories. You will probably want to invent rival hidden cults, old gods, and secret government programs to challenge the PCs. The Supernatural Handbook has a Time Periods in Horror (SH16) section that might be helpful.
Ramping up the strange
It is very important that at the start of the campaign the world is apparently exactly like the real world and then the alien transmission is received.
Once the game starts the situation on Earth deviates slowly from the real world.
At the start of the game we get the message from the invaders and we can track the flares of their drives but we know little about them:
? Hyperdrive appears to function only outside the heliopause, beyond the solar system. They probably can’t just hyper-jump into Earth orbit.
? The sublight drive or drives if not a reaction drive produces a lot of light and radiation, enough to be detected by real-world astronomy facilities.
? At current acceleration it is expected to take about 5 years before they cross Earth orbit.
? That’s it. We have no pictures of the ship, we don’t even know if it is one ship or a fleet in formation.
This early phase of the campaign is a transition from reality to comic book reality. It is characterised by a distant threat, local unrest, and crime. Unless the players have the power to travel to the far edge of the solar system and take on the aliens, they will probably begin by working to calm panic and respond to rioting and looting. This done they will encounter other groups trying to do the same thing, and still others trying to seize power during the chaos. Groups vying for control will include governments, the UN, religions, terrorist groups, and then a little later secret societies, powered megalomaniacs, awakened old gods etc. Introduce these groups in a rough order of strangeness. The idea is to introduce the differences from the real world at a pace the players can absorb them.
It is very important that by the end of this phase the player know how common Supers are and how powerful their characters are in relation to other supers, mundane governments, and other groups. I’m not going to tell you the answers to these questions, its up to you. Discuss it with your players if you like. You might make the players the top five supers on the planet with no-one else even close, they must save the world! Alternatively, for a more complex plot there are hundreds of similarly powered supers and few more powerful than the PCs. The PCs must unite a substantial fraction of the world’s supers to stop the invasion.
The player’s might wonder why the aliens revealed their intentions with a transmission. Well it might be gloating in the best comic book villain tradition or it could be that having encountered balkanised ‘primitive’ cultures before they know the chaos and panic caused by the warning will lead to infighting and reduce the ‘primitives’ ability to resist invasion.
Somewhere during this phase the players will begin to realise the implications of the power they wield. They might happily stay within the expectations gleaned from comics or they might begin to explore the implications and impact of supers. For example in the comic books powerful supers respect the authority of the government and try not to upset the world's status quo. However in your game the PCs may try to push governments around. They might water the deserts to feed Africa, stop wars (or start them), sell powerful technology to consumers etc. What will be the implications of these actions? If your player go down this road you could handle it in one of several ways; you could talk to the players out of character and suggest they get back in genre, you could use opposing supers (if there are any) to shut down such actions and limit the changes to the world, or you could run with it and roll out the permutations.
At some point, perhaps quite early on if the PCs have advanced space-travel, the PCs will try for an assault on the aliens. I’m not going to tell you what the aliens are like but you should create some ideas before even starting the campaign. The only two really important things about the first assault are:
1. The PCs are obviously outgunned and fail. Design an alien threat the PCs cannot possibly beat. Show them the threat and let them retreat perhaps after getting injured. If they persist run an exciting fight scene kill off an ally, and send clear signals that the PCs are threatened, something like “the alien beam weapon could cut through you power suit like a hot knife through butter, if it hits you you’re dead”. After that play fair but don’t hold back, be prepared to kill a PC. If you want you could adopt one or more of the high PL mega-villains from the Cosmic Handbook (CH55). Remember though the aliens do not like the conditions on the Earth, be sure to note most of the alien population requires alien conditions to thrive.
2. The aliens will not bargain, they might not even communicate with us again after the first transmission. They cannot be convinced to deviate from their plan. They are going to re-make the Earth and other planets of the Solar System as new homeworlds and in doing so make the Earth hostile to humans driving us to extinction.
These two facts establish the invaders as the ultimate threat and forms the hook the rest of the campaign hangs off. Change either of these two central ideas and the whole thing will fall apart.
Be sure that the players know that you’re quite happy to run an apocalyptic game where the aliens win and begin changing the world and exterminating all Earth-life, or even one where only a handful of humanity survive a very fast transformation of the Earth by escaping into space. Don’t just feed the characters this information, tell the players out of character in no uncertain terms that you are ready to go down this route.
“Ok, so now your heroes know the stakes, here’s the thing. You can win but you can also loose. Out of character I am telling you now failure is an option. I am prepared to run adventures where you have failed, pretty much everything your character cares about is destroyed, and you have to survive the aftermath of the apocalypse if you can. The gloves are off people.”
The Cosmic Handbook contains additional rules that are useful in outer space including: Surviving in space (CH17), quantifying interplanetary distances, masses, and damage levels in game terms (CH20, 25), and optional rules for sensors and communications in space (CH24-27).
A horror tone?
The Supernatural Handbook (SH) has a lot of advice that might be helpful across this campaign. There is definitely room for a horror mood to some of the sessions, increasing so at later stages. In this first stage a "Touch of Horror"(SH7) could work quite well. On the other hand too much of a focus on horror will dilute out the daring-do of comic book super heroes. A horror tone is especially appropriate if the PCs fail to prevent the invasion and transformation of the Earth.
What if the heroes win?
If you don’t design a sufficient threat, perhaps you are new to MnM or your players are smarter then you, don’t cheat them of their victory. Keep playing fair let them win if that’s what the dice god decrees. Then think about your objective here. The article is written as an aid to building your group a super’s world to play in. You could easily skip to the Denouement phase described below and use the action so far as the foundation of your world. However, maybe you want to mix up and flesh out the world a bit more. Maybe you just really wanted to run the invasion campaign. Well you could ‘reveal’ this first threat was just an ‘advance pacification fleet’ and the bulk of the alien population will arrive from interstellar space soon! Done right, this can seem like a consistent ramping up of the threat. Just don’t try this twice, it will really feel like railroading if you do. The new arrivals will probably expect to find a pacified Earth and humanity extinct. They could be more numerous than the first fleet but consist of planet-reformers and colonists as well as security forces.
What if they bug out?
Supers with interstellar or dimensional travel when faced with a superior alien threat might cut and run leaving the Earth to defend itself. Fine, let them run the cowards. Run a couple of outer-space/dimensional adventures then lead them back to Earth to let them see the destruction they let happen. See The Invasion below for some ideas but this campaign might end up being slightly different. Supers in space with the destruction of Earth a painful memory. Alternatively, perhaps Earth is not the only world threatened!
United we Stand
It is very important after the initial phase of the campaign that multiple groups are competing for control of the Earth, that the players realise that the aliens are not going to stop and cannot be stopped unless an alliance of Earths powered heroes and even maybe villains joins forces. Using a combination of force and diplomacy the PCs must unite the Earth. If they are the only supers they need the backing and resources of the world’s governments to overcome the threat you designed earlier. If there are other Supers the PCs must form alliances to gather together enough power to defeat the aliens.
This process should not be easy, some governments will continue with futile attempts at appeasing the invaders, fundamentalist terrorist groups will unleash their own supers, rogue governments will take advantage of the chaos, super villains will try to conquer the world to save it. As the PCs overcome these threats and conduct diplomacy they gain experience and grow in power. Both power growth of PCs and alliances are factors needed to overcome the alien threat that was originally designed to defeat them.
Eventually, the PCs and their allies take the fight to the aliens or perhaps defend the Earth when the aliens arrive. Either way be sure to make this an epic battle. You have been building this up since the beginning so holding back will only disappoint. Be sure to signal again to the PCs and the players that failure can happen with terrible consequences. Kill off a few high-powered allies early on to let the players know the safety net has been taken away. Don’t be afraid to kill PCs, I recommend you play hard and fair so the players feel they are at risk and can die just as easily as succeed. Be sure to ‘flag’ threats fairly so anyone killed does not feel cheated and be sure the threats you flag have the game-rule punch to be as dangerous as they appear. Ideally, each of the aliens’ elite should be powerful individuals that alone are a match for several PCs or allied NPCs.
From the D-Day stage of the campaign onwards the section on Allegorical Horror (SH58) is very appropriate.
Assuming the PCs beat back the invaders, take a final session to wind things up. Be sure to feature funerals and speeches around those who gave their last to defend the Earth. Spend a little time to describe who is running the world now and reflect how everyday life changed since the campaign start now that supers are unleashed on the world and an alien invasion has been stopped.
This is normally where the game ends but if everyone is keen to continue your group now has a comic-book reality you are all familiar with to play in.
What if the aliens are not stopped? What exactly will the aliens do to the Earth (and other worlds of our solar system)? Well that’s up to you. Perhaps they will make the world freezing cold or molten hot, poison the atmosphere, irradiate the rock, transform the world into toxic ‘unobtanium’ or any combination of these and anything else you think up. The important thing is they can’t be bargained with and if they win it is the end of our world. The effect on the Earth could be fast acting resulting in the PCs and other survivors cast out into outer space. Alternatively the transformation of the Earth takes a little time giving the PCs a chance to limit the damage after the invasion.
The Supernatural Handbook has some rules useful for a transformed Earth. The game becomes a Post-apocalyptic/ Armageddon one (SH9,21) with the remains of humanity and supers targeted for extermination or enslaved (SH14). The toxicity rules could also be useful (SH68).