Five Comic Book Plots for Your RPG Campaign

October 13th, 2009 by Ed Grabianowski
One of the most famous covers in comics history.

One of the most famous covers in comics history.

One of the secrets to effective and efficient GMing is the ability to incorporate elements from many different sources into a role-playing adventure or campaign. If it’s a twisting plot full of unusual characters, melodramatic surprises and high-tension action you want, you need look no further than your comic book collection (or the back issue boxes at your local comic shop).

A recent discussion on comics and RPGs got me thinking about ways to incorporate ideas and plots from classic comic book storylines into RPGs. Obviously, if you’re running a superhero RPG, these plots can be dropped in with little effort — if the game system supports it, you can even use the actual characters and run it as an homage or “What if…?” scenario. Most sci-fi RPGs could handle these stories without much drastic alternation, so in the entries below, I’ve focused on adapting the plots to a fantasy RPG.

1. Days of Future Past. This legendary X-Men story ran in 1981, in issues 141 and 142 of Uncanny X-Men. It gave the X-Men (and the readers) a brief glimpse into a terrible future, where the mutant hunting Sentinel robots interpreted their “protect all humans” programming to mean that they should exterminate all superhumans and establish absolute control over all of North America, the better to keep us safe. The story bounced back and forth from that horrible future and the attempts of the current-day X-Men to prevent a political assassination that would lead to it coming true.

One of the most difficult things in creating a stirring RPG story is raising the stakes. It can be hard to make your players feel they absolutely have to succeed at their quest for deep moral reasons. Letting them visit a bleak, wasted future and showing what will happen if they fail is a good way to pull this off. The easy way to run this scenario would be to let the players create advanced versions of their characters (perhaps with a few crippling handicaps or psychological afflictions thrown in to point up the traumas that have occurred in the intervening years). Run a few sessions in this future world, where Lord Darkthorn’s undead legions have enslaved all the sentient races, or the red dragon Fiorallog forces all the towns to pay brutal weekly tributes. If you’re feeling really ambitious, you could alternate between the bleak future and the current characters’ attempts to avoid it, much as the original comics did.

2. Batman: The Killing Joke. From the mind of Alan Moore (Watchmen, Swamp Thing) comes this tale that explores the limits of sanity and society, along with the classic Nietzschean idea of “gazing long into the abyss” (it gazes also into thee). The Joker undertakes a campaign to prove that sanity is a lie by tormenting Commissioner Gordon to the point of insanity. Along the way, he shoots Gordon’s daughter, Barbara, striking her spine and leaving her paralyzed. Kidnapped and forced to view his crippled daughter being molested (there is some suggestion of rape, though it is not made clear), Gordon encourages Batman to capture Joker and bring him in — Joker has failed, as Commissioner Gordon keeps his moral compass. Batman, however, engages in a strange conversation with Joker about the nature of hero/villain relationships. The issue ends vaguely, suggesting that heroes and villains are in some way two parts of the same creature, and the moral line between the two  is faint and ever-moving.

This is another opportunity to create a truly villainous villain that your players will not hesitate in the least to hunt and defeat. It does require some build-up of plot elements: the villain should be established early, along with the eventual victim. You can’t just bring in a new NPC from off-stage to be crippled by the villain, it has to be someone the players have known and developed some attachment to. A beloved henchman would work, although the winsome and capable daughter of the local kind-hearted burgher would mirror the original tale nicely. An attack on the unarmed victim results in a horrible, crippling injury, but the villain escapes. The kidnapping plot adds tension, but it’s most important that the villain force the characters into situations where they face morally difficult decisions. Most simply, they have to decide between killing the villain or obeying the burgher’s wishes to bring her before the magistrate (a female villain could be very powerful, in the storytelling sense, here).

3. Armor Wars. In the 1980s, writer Dave Michelinie had an amazing run on Iron Man — to this day, those books are primarily the reason Shellhead has always been my favorite comic book character. The crowning plotline of Michelinie’s run occurred in 1987, from issues 225 through 231. Tony Stark discovered that Spymaster had stolen detailed schematics for the Iron Man technology at some point in the past. Worse yet, the technology had been incorporated into the armor suits worn by a wide variety of supervillains and even other heroes. The misery and pain that had been spread using his technology weighed so heavily on Stark’s mind that he embarked on a campaign to destroy all of it. What followed was a gripping, steadily escalating series of battles that brought Stark (as Iron Man) into conflict with most of his rogue’s gallery.

What makes this especially interesting as an RPG campaign idea is not the simple “fetch-it” quests needed to recover the technology (the shards of a magical gem the party sold in the capital city, perhaps, or a book of powerful spells whose pages have been spread far and wide). Because Stark’s technology was in use by heroes and even government agents, his quest to destroy it all made Iron Man into a fugitive and put him into direct conflict with Captain America, his best friend. Eventually [SPOILER ALERT!], the U.S. government created a massive armored trooper called Firepower designed solely to  take down the renegade hero (ironically, using the very Stark tech Tony was trying to eliminate). The epic final brawl took two issues, involved low-yield nuclear weapons, and forced Tony Stark to fake his own death.

What lines will your characters have to cross as they seek to recover the gem shards, not only from clerics of Bane and heinous fiends, but also from the king’s vizier and the friendly sage they consult with before every adventure?

4. Thunderbolts. The Thunderbolts debuted in the aftermath of the Onslaught saga, which ended with the Avengers and the Fantastic Four seemingly obliterated, though they were actually warped to an alternate universe. The “hero vaccuum” was quickly filled by a new team of unknown, rookie heroes calling themselves the Thunderbolts. Their heroic deeds quickly earned them accolades — they were even given the Fantastic Four’s old headquarters. Problem was, they were actually Baron Zemo’s old Masters of Evil in disguise, earning trust and gaining access just so they could turn around and fulfill whatever villainous thing Zemo had planned. The genius of the series was that the big reveal (OMG THEY’RE BAD GUYS!) came in the very first issue. The initial 12-issue arc dealt with the former villains’ loyalties shifting as they started to realize that being a hero wasn’t all that bad, and they began to seek actual redemption rather than another epic heist.

So what happens when a new band of adventurers moves into town? They slay some dragons, clear out a dungeon, and suddenly the duke is granting them an audience and the townsfolk cheer their names when they walk the streets. Your PCs pay a visit to their headquarters, and someone discovers (with a bit of scrying or stealth) the truth: these new “heroes” are doppelgangers or ensorcelled demons or something even more insidious and alien. Now, the characters have to combat the fake heroes’ villainous plan while trying to prove to the duke that they’re truly evil. But are they?

5. Identity Crisis. This landmark DC series presented a tangled web of deceit, murder and paranoia. One one level, it’s a murder mystery, as superheroes’ loved ones are killed or threatened and everyone is left wondering who has revealed their secret identities. At the same time, it’s gradually revealed that the heroes have used certain powers to erase the memories of various villains over the years, a decision some heroes find morally objectionable. Indeed, it is eventually discovered that mind-wipes have been used on other heroes on at least one occasion.

This one is the trickiest plots to work into an RPG. Most RPG characters are wandering adventurers with few attachments, familiar or otherwise. To pull off an Identity Crisis plot, you’d have to build the campaign around it. An entire system of family is needed to establish the potential threats and give the characters reason to hide their true identities. From there, building a series of adventures in which the characters’ trust in each other is gradually broken down and replaced by paranoia and fear would be quite a challenge. This would be a seriously advanced campaign — the GM would have a lot to juggle, and blending the mystery with the intra-party tensions would require some subtle direction. Still, for long-time gamers looking for something different, Identity Crisis is a rich mine of plot twists and whodunit intrigue.

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5 Responses to “Five Comic Book Plots for Your RPG Campaign”

  1. Comment by mordicai

    #5. Identity Crisis. Forget the way all your NPCs are supposed to behave; make them act contradictorily to their alignments; then kill off a beloved NPC for shock value. Make sure to have her be raped first. Then reveal that OTHER beloved characters are secretly murderers! For no reason. Um, I mean, ’cause they are insane.

    OH BOY.

    Chip on my shoulder much?

  2. Comment by ggodo

    Everyone is bitter. I never even finished it.

  3. Comment by Ed Grabianowski

    I say “BAH” to you curmudgeons. I loved it. Sometimes the Story Is All.

  4. Comment by ggodo

    Hey, I enjoyed Civil War on those grounds when everyone was screaming character abuse, But I’m a Marvel man and even I knew that was a train-wreck.

  5. Comment by Hannigan Rex

    I totally disagree. Identity Crisis is what made me interested in the DC universe. It’s everything else that drove me away.