With Civil War getting us all tingly right down to our Spiderman underoos, time to take a look at what clever little tricks went into making the series so successful as we move into the third chapter of a powerhouse franchise. Pow!
1: Have a Plan and Show Your Working
Sure, things were a little on the QT in the early days but the moment Iron Man was in the bag, we got news of the Big Picture. We got an outline of how it was going to play out – a series of stand-alone films introducing each hero, leading to an ensemble piece bringing the Avengers together. The dates were flexible but the structure and the elements were set. It was a risk that could have backfired – one flop, one contract disagreement, the slings and arrows of art and performance that no amount of lawyers, fans and money can compensate for, and Marvel would have had egg on their face. But it paid off hugely. It built in to the audience a sense of heightened expectation. They knew they were going to get more and more so each bite could be savoured as part of a banquet. That also made them more forgiving of mis-steps, more patient for developing arcs, more excited by easter eggs. They knew these things were seeds going to bear fruit, so the seeds themselves were much more exciting.
As I’ve said over and over again, metagaming is your friend. And the players can’t metagame if they don’t know the plan. Far too much is made in GMing about the importance of secrecy, of the thrill of being the audience. But one look at the MCU shows that that thrill has nothing to do with the unknown. Audiences LOVE structure. It’s why fantasy comes in trilogies so often. It makes us more likely to read. So plan your campaigns out in advance. Identify the key arcs, the season-shifts, the sweeps episodes, the cliffhanger endings. Write down who the big-bads are, the main themes and thrusts and sets. And then show your players. If they’re supposed to end up fighting dragons in series four, tell them that first up so they can write hints of that future in series one, and it will feel like awesome seeding AND also like a prologue moment (because prologues are awesome).
2: Tell Individual Stories
Patience, grasshopper, is the key. You can’t go straight from Superman to half the Justice League. It’s too much. It’s very difficult to tell a deep, engaging story with an ensemble cast who all need a backstory, a denouement and a narrative purpose. And even if you pull it off (see, say, Mystery Men), it never feels as resonant because you have so little time. Marvel was clever to make sure they did the solo films first, all free standing, so the group moments could work so much better. (Plus it helped with the structure, as mentioned.) And each individual story is really strong and vital and important; so much so that Avengers feels like a worthy sequel to at least Thor and Hulk.
RPGs are a group activity and you want to engage everyone at the table. Everyone likes to have a chance to do something each game, fight and scene. That’s why we have initiative, after all (well, one of the reasons). But you can tailor each of your sessions or scenes or stories to focus particularly around one character. I don’t mean solo-play with the GM, the others will be there as well to support the development of this story. And because you’ve told them all in advance what the plan is in step one, there are no hard feelings when one player gets the spotlight. Especially since the background players know that every tiny thing they do is laying seeds for being greatly expanded when their turn comes along. Yes, some games are better at this than others, and it may feel artificial to some keen on simulation but the truth is you’re probably doing this a lot anyway, because social adventures will naturally favour the bard and the trip to Venus is going to bring up the Venusians backstory. The vagaries of random dice rolls means you can’t always guarantee who deals the killing blows, but you can adjust for that with actual mechanics, if you want to go so far. It’s actually far more natural a story to observe and create than one trying to share everything perfectly equally down the initiative order.
3: Point Then Swivel
Since the days theatre was invented by the Ancient Greeks, there has been one big problem: big world, tiny stage. How do you fit great armies and battles and landscapes on stage? The tried and true technique of pointing off stage at something that can’t be seen. Stories that are doing seed work do this all the time. Sometimes they deliberately lay seeds that will never grow because that makes things seem ancient and mysterious, like when it was better how we never knew what the Clone Wars were. Other times they hamfistedly try to point at other things we’ve never really heard of or will hear about to show the “wider world”, like the crappy altered end to Return of the Jedi. We didn’t care about Coruscant cheering because who the hell are they?
Building a universe is a two-step process. You point, then you swivel. Point at something off stage, then in a scene/movie or two, move to that place. That one-two punch mimics the way to we discover the world in reality so it works on an instinctive level on us. It gives us the hint of the unknown and mysterious followed by the wonder of recognition and understanding. Marvel’s been really good at it, every step of the way, in big and small things. It’s weird and mysterious when Coulson brings in a guy with a bow to watch Thor’s hammer, but then at the start of the Avengers we see him in his place again and get our little nod of understanding. Full circle.
Shakespeare, by the way, is amazing at this too. He’ll have a scene where they talk about a place or a person, and then cut to that place or that person. Wind up, delivery. It’s classic technique and it works well for character as well as world building. Archer too, likes to switch on the very moment of dialogue; cutting from someone asking about Mallory to Mallory reacting as if she was there. You can snap-cut, too, but that’s hard to do on the fly. For worldbuilding, though, and narrative progress, this is your go to. Whatever small things come up in your adventure, don’t wait too long to bring them forward. As soon as possible, swivel to show them. We’re simple creatures. We like the payoff and if we wait too long we forget or get bored. Point, then swivel.
4. Teams Exist Against Outside Forces
RPGs throw four to six character together and expect us all to get to know them all at once – big mistake. The other thing they typically do wrong is expect them to glom together for no reason, or not a strong reason.
Marvel could have been lazy. It almost looked like they were going to be – that the Avengers would exist just because Stark and Cap and Thor were around and superpowered and dangerous. And having that architecture helped a lot to make the story happened. But the Avengers come together because the big bad is PC1’s brother, mind-controls PC2’s best friend and impersonates PC3’s greatest enemy (and his plan depends entirely on PC4’s energy source). And they stay together because there’s a whole goddamn scene about that which I think you remember. Fury knows in-world what Joss knows about writing: teams need a push to make them stick.
You could be lazy, but your campaign won’t be as strong if you are. Push the characters together with external enemies and hardship. Like Gaean Reach, give them a shared enemy, and make that enemy mess with them in very specific and personal ways. The enemy can even be nature, with the stranded in the wilderness trope – shared trauma is a bonding experience. Although nature can be escaped at which point bonds can fall away, which is why it’s important to choose a force that can keep being reapplied. Villains that don’t die, organizations that are like cockroaches, distant forces in play, anything that can simmer in the background so any time they start to lose their binding you can push them back together again.
Oh, and if you can’t think of something that would bind all the players together, ask them. That’s point one again. They’re there to help you. Use them.
5. Team Stories Are Interior Stories
This is such an easy mistake to make and it’s a credit to Joss’ skill that he avoided it twice. There’s a tendency among writers to use individual stories to probe into the inner mind of the character. After all, they’re centre stage so now is the time to find out what makes them tick. Then, the big ensemble pieces where you haven’t got time to probe their hearts and minds, just focus on a big complicated external problem so everyone has something to do.
It actually works much better the other way around.
Think about it. Think about say, the amazing scene in Iron Man 3 where he saves Pepper in the missile attack, and the incredible flying rescue, and the multiple unit showdown at the end – all cooler than solving the exploding city problem at the end of Age of Ultron. And where are Tony’s emotional beats? Walking through the snow was hard but it didn’t cut to his core. That moment happened in a barn with Fury in Age of Ultron. Cap met a lot of bad guys in The First Avenger, but the first person to get under his skin and show him what he really believed in and didn’t believe in was when he met Stark on the helicarrier. Thor is the exception, he had to do a lot of growing up in his debut but he left the proper yelling at his brother until Avengers.
Individual stories are best used to show what you do and how you do it, but team stories are where you poke at WHY you do it. So after laying the ground work with your one-on-ones, make sure your big team adventure is full of why moments. That may mean things get bogged down in in-player fighting which you feel is bogging down your story but that IS your story. And the plot can always wait. Remember, there’s always time to bicker.
Your players will still get to the big bad. After all, he’s put them under huge external pressure to keep them glued together, so they have to deal with him. And they’ve been aching for this through all their individual stories, all the breadcrumbs dropped through point then swivel, and since you first showed them you ten session plan with “Final Showdown” written in red under session ten. All that expectation means the plot will run itself. Better instead to focus on the character moments so the plot matters so much more. Yes you want to dazzle them with your apocalypse, but you much more want them to dazzle you with being always angry and puny god quips. They’re superheroes: their job is to entertain you.
Let them, and they will.