Tabletop Tuesday — Throwing it Together (or… “I can barely keep awake…”)

So, as I mentioned last week, I am recovering from someone pulling old metal pieces of my face out and putting in the first new metal bits into my face—an ongoing process that will end in (deep breath) August. Until then, I’m eating yoghurt, Jell-O, applesauce, scrambled eggs, rice pudding… you get the idea. At least I got past the week of “nothing hot” and I can add very soft and small pieces of pasta, so… hello Kraft Dinner, I guess?

To say I’m dragging my butt around would not be doing it justice. I’m exhausted. I know healing is like that, and I’ve been through this before, but this time I’m in my forties, rather than my thirties, and that’s been quite the difference. Also, the launch of Stuck With You (in Canada) has meant I’ve had three engagements speaking to students in various local schools, and after one of those events, I’m not just wiped, I literally need to crash out and nap. It’s honestly a little embarrassing, but it is what it is.

So, as I’m getting by doing as little as I can, it occurred to me that makes for a great topic when it comes to Tabletop Role-Playing Games: what do I do when my gas tank is empty?

Previously, on Tabletop Tuesday…

I’ve already mentioned a few things I lean on when it’s time to game and I’m just not up to starting from scratch. Pre-published adventures are perfect for this. And if I’ve got oomph, but the idea well is dry, there’s the Story Engine Deck and the Deck of Worlds. But if I don’t have a pre-published adventure handy, and it’s time for a session, what do I do?

Narrator’s Log, Supplemental

When I went through my trip of favourite gaming supplements, I mentioned the Mutants & Masterminds Deluxe Gamemaster’s Guide, and I’m going to mention it again, because the example I’ve got of the most recent time I threw together something very much on the fly was when I was introducing some friends to Mutants & Masterminds, and I got hit by a (fairly common) thing for me: a massive migraine. It erased my prep time, and while I do have pre-printed adventures for Mutants & Masterminds, it was going to be a fairly short session—sort of a session zero-point-five—and the rough ideas the players had had for their characters all lined up with a very late 80s-vibe, and as this was a one-shot for four out of five of the players, I decided the time period would be fun, and that’s what they were expecting. The fifth player was interested in an ongoing campaign, whereas the others just wanted to try the system, and I’d already decided we could also put in some sort of Captain America-esque “frozen on ice” thing to bring them to the present day if they did end up joining my other ongoing game.

Anyway. I digress. It was the day of the session. I’d spent roughly a day in pain the day before instead of planning a session, and I had a few scraps of ideas, but nothing concrete. So now what?

I cracked that Gamemaster’s Guide, and used what I already had.


Cover of the Mutants & Masterminds Deluxe Gamemaster's Guide

When it comes right down to it, all NPCs (or monsters, or creatures, or what-have-you) in Tabletop Gaming are just numbers with flavour text. That’s super over-simplifying, but I remember some advice I got when I was the DM for an ongoing Dungeons & Dragons game as a youngling, and I’d bumped into having a player who already read everything. He had the Fiend Folio memorized. Every monster stat. All their weaknesses. The thought of having to make up new things over-and-over again for him was overwhelming. But then the guy at the Comic Book store where we played took me aside and pointed out there was nothing stopping me from taking any old monster on any page, changing its name and how I described what it looked like, and running it with all the same statistics, knowing it was a balanced monster that would grant the right amount of experience points when the players defeated it. Basic changes—make it immune to cold instead of fire—could also be made easily on the fly.

That may sound like basic advice, but to kid-me it was like the angels were singing. That next session, I completely flummoxed Mr. I Know Everything About Every Monster by attacking with… gnolls and flinds. Only these weren’t hyena-like humanoids, they were completely furless, instead made up of lumpy flesh with odd mottling, and I think I made them gurgle instead of growl. The adventure didn’t take place in a desert, but a swamp. That player was convinced they might be bullwugs, or maybe they were lizardmen? Or…? Suddenly, his meta-knowledge wasn’t helpful, and honestly, I won’t lie: I enjoyed the heck out of it.

But that lesson stuck in another way. Every adventure I owned was already full of maps, creatures, and characters, and I could just… re-skin them.

Which brings me back to the Mutants & Masterminds Gamemaster’s Guide, and how I threw together a totally 80s episode on the fly.

Villains? Check. Map? Check. Motive? Ehhh….

So. I had a group of heroes arriving (er, virtually) in an hour or so, and the theme of an 80s vibe… and not much else. My post-migraine self landed on one piece of the 80s right off: neon. I decided the opening villains of the story would be “the Neon Gang,” a group of light-based villains who were doing… uh, something bad. I mentioned how much I loved “the Jobber” template from the Gamemaster’s Guide, and I decided to use it. One of the options is for “Energy Projection,” and so I created a team of four—Neon Pink, Neon Green, Neon Yellow, and Neon Orange.

Yes, because hi-lighters. Did I mention I had a migraine the day before and got, like, two hours of sleep?

The great thing about the Jobber template is I could absolutely stop right there with the villains and have functional villains, so I quickly put together a single version of one of the gang, then literally cut-and-pasted it three times for the rest of the team. If I had time, I’d customize them more than their names, but I did take a moment to decide their powers came from the suits they wore, and they basically looked like a Tron wannabes of their various colour.

For a location, I went with the Amusement Park (page 242), mostly because that also felt kind of 80s to me, but also because the thought of multiple energy-zapping/shape-creating villains running around an Amusement Park seemed like a great way to throw curveballs at the players, with lots of opportunities to have to rescue citizens from ferris wheels or other damaged rides. But how would I get the heroes there?

Well, one of the heroes was a tech-type, so I decided that character’s alter-ego was using the amusement park for a corporate event (which would add a lot of people said hero cared about), and also unveiling some of his latest tech, which gave the Neon Gang something to try and steal. There. That would do.

Why did they want it? Uh… it’s valuable? Whatever. It was a theft, it was tech, and they were tech-based heroes, so… good enough.

Not wanting to let myself lose speed, I pulled up the map, jotted notes for each of the rides, and quickly skimmed the Guide for example challenges that made sense for potentially damaged rides (mostly just picking Difficulty Challenge numbers and making notes like “Ferris Wheel gets damaged and stuck, fixing it is this difficult, getting people down is this difficult, and if things are going too well, maybe add in a slow bending/break that’s going to topple the whole thing over if they don’t hurry.”

No but really, why were they doing this?

By the time the players were logging in, I had a map, scenario, had skimmed the Guide for Civilian NPCs who’d do various things like get in the way, need rescuing, and even potentially help out in some ways (EMTs, park security), and had spent a few minutes making each of the Neon gang slightly different from each other. Specifically, I took away their 10 points of immunity and gave them each one a different power. One could fly, one could teleport, one could move fast, and one was strong, but since I only had 10 power points to play with, it wasn’t much work and easy enough to figure out quickly. Still, it meant Neon Pink was different than Neon Blue, at least from the player’s point of view. They didn’t need to know otherwise they were identical.

The game started, I had the players have a bit of fun, asked them if they brought anyone to the park that day—all but one brought someone special, so that really upgraded my ability to place important citizens in danger, which was nice—and it also added the complication for two of them needing a moment to “change” into their superhero counterpart, without their niece and nephew or significant other spotting them doing so.

The Neon Gang made their arrival in spectacular (and neon bright) fashion, the heroes had to scramble a bit to catch up, no lives were lost, and while the Neon Gang did get away with one or two examples of the technology the tech hero had brought, the players did what heroes do: they kept their main focus on making sure no one got hurt, and saved the day. That was awesome.

Then one of the heroes said, “There’s no way those four were clever enough to come up with this on their own. Someone must be bankrolling them.”

I grinned on my end of the screen, and on their end of the screen, the players congratulated themselves on seeing through my plot, and applauded how the way I’d played the four members of the Neon Gang as kind of not-so-bright-but-brightly-glowing punks was a great tip-off this couldn’t have been a simple robbery.

Players. They come up with the best plot points, don’t they?

Yes, Yes that was always the plan.

I always try to bring the attitude of “yes, and…” when I’m narrating a gaming session, but this time, I completely leaned into it for the rest of the scenario. Instead of tracking the Neon Gang down to their headquarters (I was going to use the abandoned subway on page 254) they instead started coming up with theories in between finding ways for their heroes to slip away from loved ones again to get back on the trail.

Ultimately, the players realized (read: I listened to their ideas and chose the theory that sounded coolest) that another tech dude supplied the Neon Gang with their power suits to steal some of the tech-hero’s new tech, likely for the profits for his own company if he reverse engineered it. So, they tracked the stolen tech down to a penthouse apartment (thank you Guide again, page 258, Skyscraper Penthouse), got past the basic security (Minions, pages 142-157) and had it out with the gang for a second time, alongside the CEO of said rival tech company, and his right-hand-man.

Having no stats ready for said CEO or the right-hand-man, I jumped to page 89 for the CEO—the Crime Lord template—and the right hand man became a highly trained assassin (page 78), and the more significant threat in the room. Ultimately the tech was recovered, the fight did a lot of damage to the CEO’s penthouse, but the CEO made it to his barricaded elevator to escape, and his lawyers spun it around that he was the second victim of the Neon Gang, and that the heroes had valiantly saved him—they hated that, but it felt very 80s to have media spin from a slick CEO get himself out of trouble—but all the players had fun and we had a solid adventure and a great time.

And unless they’re reading this now, they have no idea they basically wrote the adventure for me, and that I’d had almost no planning done beforehand.

Bless you, Deluxe Gamemaster’s Guide.

2 thoughts on “Tabletop Tuesday — Throwing it Together (or… “I can barely keep awake…”)

  1. Hope you feel better soon! I feel your pain, I had a lot of oral surgery when I was a kid so I know how it goes! (Good thing; laid-up in the hospital in St. Louis, Missouri for a couple of weeks I watched “The Addams Family” every afternoon and I fell in love with Morticia! I think I was nine…)


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