Game Dunk: MCU and Tabletop

Ram-raiding the tools of empire for indie use? Why not?! Featured here is 30-minute lecture on how to adapt the MCU for multiple-GM campaigns in your tabletop sessions.

(Full transcript, after introductions:)

I’ll open with a hot-take across the bow: the Marvel Cinematic Universe has been a gift to multi-GM tabletop roleplay. Not literally: Disney is an evil corporation rooted in Heteronormia. It is a servant of the Wyrm. It’s Strahd’s propaganda pulpit. However you want to take that tea: Disney bad. Now that I’ve done my queer villainess duties, the MCU is a gift to streamed actual-play content with different GMs. 

Games Workshop could have had the title, but they screwed the pooch in typical Gee-Dubs fashion. Marvel gives us a working template to draw from; Gee-Dubs gives us an example of what not to do.

For the MCU, there is a consistent theme and broad story. Basically, every story from Phase 1 to Phase 3 pulls together in one direction. This is the buildup to the Infinity Wars two-parter. Every single character, set piece, plot point, lighting element and MacGuffin sets up the Big Moment™ of, “Avengers, assemble!” Iron Man introduces SHIELD, Thor introduces the cosmology, Captain America brings the Infinity Stones, and Hulk establishes how outclassed humans are. Every film ties back to each other, introducing a fresh element until a big finale: Avengers.

Once we’re at the finale, the next films capitalise on the finale. It evolves in themes and sometimes direction: Iron Man deals with PTSD in an action thriller, Captain America discusses fascist infiltration in a technothriller, Thor explores ancient grudges in an adventure film, Ant-Man silhouettes civil ethics via heist film, and Guardians of the Galaxy looks at the concept of found family in a space opera. Lather, rinse, repeat into Avengers: Age of Ultron.

Same with phase 3 up to Infinity War, and phase 4 is shaping into the same beast.

Games Workshop… doesn’t do this. Every piece of fiction is a subgenre of war fiction, and various authors often cannot agree on what is canon or sensible. This is even lampooned in the Ciaphas Cain book series via character footnotes. Credit where it’s due, a galaxy soup is harder to manage than a more localised backdrop. Credit also taken back: the fantasy series has more breadth than war stories and the occasional political thriller. So… what?

What I’m driving at is there’s a right and a wrong way to do this. Say you and a couple of other Forever GMs are looking to spin some stories. Players rotate in and out of the GM hotseat and tell different stories within a loose continuity. You settle on a rules system, maybe a setting with interchanging rulesets. Problem solved, right?

Well, no. Because you might end up with the same problem that Gee-Dubs has: a glut of fiction that all reads the same. Really, after a while, you lose count of how many Severuses and Ajaxes there are. And most of them are testosterone-poisoned macho men with arrested development.

Remember the examples in MCU? Iron Man is a Tom Clancey puff piece trying to be a superhero movie. Misses the mark on both accounts, but it’s distinct. Doctor Strange is a wuxia, setting it apart from war flick Captain America.

1: Get the right director for the job. Disney has gone on record to say that this is their approach. Director Peyton Reed and writers Adam McKay, Joe Cornish and Edgar Wright all have credits in family comedy. Cornish’s Attack the Block is a science-fiction, Wright worked on Hot Fuzz and Shaun of the Dead, and McKay’s earlier work includes The Dictator and The Other Guys. Translating skills, you have a team with experience in household drama, slapstick comedy, sci-fi with a contained cast, and anything involving law. Bung it in a blender and you have Ant-Man.

With The First Avenger, director Joe Johnston has worked on science-fiction and war-themed works before Captain America. These include little known films like The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi. This experience grounds the film. It is a superhero movie with a sci-fi mouthfeel while still being a period piece.

Both movies sell the idea of being in a wider world. Captain America is visually distinct, even if nobody remembers the cheesy fonduing joke. Ant-Man has relevance as a heist movie, even outside of the MCU label. Its continuity from big point to big point that ties everything together.

Back to your hypothetical tabletop multiverse, same principles apply: big point to big point. I’m using LightfootRogue’s Twitch channel since that was a proving ground. Nich’s first run on the Missing is a pretty conventional Vampire: The Masquerade story — baby vampires trying to survive in a world going to hell. This hell being climate change, and later Nazis. New Kids On the Block, the prequel, is a surreal-horror drama: things going weird before it goes to hell. The fae intervene, some of the plots in Missing were engineered, and lynch pinned with the idea that nobody remembers the 90s. When I stepped in with one-shot Jörmungandr, it was themed in a detective fiction light: solve the mystery, catch a culprit. Set between the two times of New Kids and Missing, it was to draw attention to things chipping away at the peace.

Build the wider world, in a storytelling method I was strong in, and build to the Big Event: things go wrong when the Nazis come back. The difference in storytelling genres is to keep things fresh. The human mind loves fresh things, not… the 400th serving of Severus revving his chainsword to smite the foul xenos.

2: Tailor the actor to the action. Seems like a gimme, but you’d be surprised how many people whiff this. It’s one thing to imagine Temuera Morrison as your badass bounty hunter… it’s another for you to perform that character. Factor that by 5 and you have a table of protagonists.

We have another name for that: table chemistry. Everyone is a fine balance. I’m the player who will go do, more than anything else: I will take facts as given and go do something with it. That player, for you thespians and simulationists. This player~ for you shy cats and improvisors.

And like Temuera Morrison playing the Fetts, or Chris Evans’ sculpted bod playing Captain America, player chemistry affects the wider scope. Simply put, the actor informs the scene more than the opposite. Example: replace Robert Downey Jr. with Tom Hiddleston, and see how Tony and Loki play differently. Loki becomes less tragic and more arrogant, and Tony becomes more manically depressed than bipolar. Actor informing the fiction, rather than the other way around.

Back to the Twitch channel, this principle is paramount with a limited number of players. Inez666 is a good example of what I’m talking about. In Missing, she plays social media star, Laetitia. In New Kids, she plays a reclusive forest witch, Diana. In Jörmungandr, she plays prettyboy hacker, Felix. What carries between these characters is that they’re outcasts: Laetitia is a very public vampire. Diana is half-feral and wants to be left alone. Felix is a Gangrel hacker.

In terms of player chemistry, you can rely on Inèz to be a wildcard. Her characters do things on their terms. They’re guarded in different ways, but always betray a greater character. Another player, TheOnlyZiggyRichards, you can rely on to play a larger-than-life character: a transgender anarchist, a mafia mother, a religious assassin. (I want to extol everyone, but time constraints. Lub youse all!) With this consistent chemistry, you can focus on the session rather than putting out interpersonal fires.

Occasionally, it’s desired, like Tony and Steve’s clashing egos and ideals. The key is to know what you’re dealing with. Know the chemistry.

Point 3: There’s no defined ending yet. For you theatre kids, this is a gimme: basically a Yes, And… clause in medias res.

It wouldn’t be a queer talk without invoking Taika Watiti, and this is basically what happened with Thor: Ragnarok, and later Love and Thunder. “Yes, Thor is a powerful god with a protector complex and tends to thump his way through problems. And he’s a disaster bisexual trying to make sense of a world of cardboard.”

Applying it to the wider plot, “Yes, Odin’s Tesseract is a powerful relic. And it happens to house an Infinity Stone.” Or, “Yes, Vision is permadead. And Wanda is not coping with his death at all.” The ending is not set in stone. As long as there is wriggle room, there is a place to go.

In Nich’s vampire continuity, this would be, “Yes, there is an Indigenous-represented sect called the Board. And they sponsor particular leaders.” “Yes, this terrible thing did happen. And these conspiracy groups exist because of that thing.” “Yes, this professional-wrestler baron with hot-pink tassels on his chaps hires out his security. And they’re all vampire war veterans from every major conflict in the last 300 years.” “Yes, this bartender has seen a LOT of things. And he became a mage because of it.” 

Every single one of those yes-ands is a recorded vignette on Nich’s channel, whether YouTube or Twitch. This is all in a big document of shotpoints where the Storytellers can get the canon straight. The First Nations Board of Kindred is established at a certain point; it’s solidified. One character, a fleshsculpting gender therapist, has years of when her patients transitioned. “Yes, And…” can open a variety of doors. I promise, what you don’t see as a good direction… a sleep-deprived Subway worker will think it is an absolute banger and run riot with it.

Finally, 4: tiny lives in epic histories. If you’re running the bigger IP like DnD or Pathfinder, this is a given. Duskvol is more self-contained, but has enough space to run concurrent games. Even Ten Candles can have that continuity, with each session describing a new aspect of The End.

In the MCU, Peter Parker’s misadventures in Homecoming have little to no bearing on Asgard or Wakanda. It is, however, contingent on the first Avengers ensemble. Vulture is only a villain because of those events: Tony Stark sacking him from his superhero-cleanup business. The screenwriting team has chops in Bones, Cop Car, and Freaks and Geeks — so police procedurals, thriller and teen drama — “Yes, And-ing” their way after Avengers and Civil War.

Applying it to a garden-variety tabletop setting, even Strahd is a tiny blip on an otherwise giant radar. The corporations in Shadowrun are all things we can see in our lifetimes. (Even if Goblinisation is a few years late.) Taken in scale, the Horus Heresy is another localised event compared to everything else. The Imperium is too self-centred to think outside its own borders.

In context of the example campaign, the 2010-11 Brisbane Floods, Princess Diana’s car crash, and the government backdoors in cybersecurity all inform plot points. Regardless of how powerful Caine and the Antediluvians are, most vampires are small fish in a big pond. Real life informs the struggles of the Kindred. This is why the Second Inquisition is a thing in the metaplot.

What matters is the precedence they set in the relevant context. Y comes after K, both share the Alphabet with A, and they come together to form “yak.” Change A to 2 and you have a digital apocalypse. Even history isn’t immune to this. Thanks to the Second World War, we went from biplanes and bakelite to plastics and ramjet engines. At scale, if not for the Berserker of Stamford Bridge, Harold Godwinson might have won Hastings. We might have seen a totally different world if so. That said, the Berserker didn’t affect anything at Sekigahara or the Fatimid Caliphate. Precedence and context.

These are your four principles. It’s up to you to figure out how to execute this best. The Big DM Notes document works the example campaign. It might not work for your GURPS setting; it might be paramount to your Thirsty Sword Lesbians cosmology. You’ll figure that out based on your questions: Is it non-linear? Are there defined things that must happen? Is Causality so wobbly one knock could change everything, or is it resilient enough that it will course-correct?

If you take nothing else away from this talk, just take away good communication. That’s it, that’s the tweet. This kind of undertaking, if it’s for your Actual Play series, is contingent on it. Do it right, and you’ll find your campaigns telling stories beyond your own limits. Thank you.

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