Development Diary 1: Guiding Principles, Motivations and Willpower
From the start we had one major design goal: Make the game feel like a comic book. This became our guide for every other decision. Resolving actions had to be fast, allowing for degrees of success. Victory is never guaranteed and sometimes success means even greater danger. Heroes have to push themselves. They go beyond their limits to accomplish the impossible. This meant that heroes needed to be able adapt, to rise to the challenge. Heroes do things that surprise and amaze the readers. Players needed to see the character sheet as a starting place. Most importantly, we wanted the story to evolve, to grow based on the heroes. Stories needed to be personal for the heroes, with plot hooks that inspire entirely new story arcs.
This is where we began. We wanted player agency to be a factor from the inception. To do this we decided that character creation does not start with an individual character, it's starts with everyone agreeing on a shared world. Not defining every aspect of the setting, but we created a framework for collaboration on tone, themes, and the other key elements that people wanted to see in a campaign.
There's something to be said about truly gonzo games. However, we wanted the group to be able to establish a cohesive starting place. Was this going to be a game closer to the Watchmen or Teen Titans Go? By setting a foundation together everyone has a shared starting place to build their character that they understand, because they helped create it.
The next question was how to incorporate personalities and personal goals into game play. It took several iterations for the Willpower mechanic to manifest, but establishing character motivation became the next step in the creation process. Early on we envisioned a point buy character creation. This allowed players to determine their characters concepts and then build to the concept. Eventually this went by the wayside, but more on how we handle character creation later. What came out of this would become the questions that define characters.
- What is the source of your powers?
- Why are you hero?
- What pushes you beyond your limits?
- What are your powers, or other exceptional abilities?
Hardly a full-blown backstory, but let's look at a classic comic book hero through this lens to see if it fits.
- Bitten by a radioactive spider.
- A family member died due to my inaction. (Once some of the details come together cane be renamed, the death of Uncle Ben.)
- With great power comes great responsibility.
- Enhanced strength and Agility along with spider themed gadgets.
Just answering these questions we know that our character will feel the weight of responsibility, that there is a moment in their life that changed them forever, why they decided to put on a costume to make the world a better place. We can extrapolate some additional details, the character will need to know an inventor or be able to make their gadgets, making them pretty smart on top of being quick and strong.
Wanting to draw on these background elements, each answer is assigned values like Attributes or Talents. This change allowed players to draw on their backgrounds like Talents. Except, instead of coming into play based on the character's actions, backgrounds are based on the narrative. This was a good start but we wanted to do more than just have characters gain an occasional bonus.
This is where Willpower came in. Willpower allowed us to disconnect the character's actions from the character sheet. As a meta-currency, Willpower allows heroes to transcend their limits, boosting die rolls, or to use powers in unique and different ways.
The first visual that came to mind when envisioning Willpower was the Human Torch and creating a fire cage. The Human Torch has a body of fire, this allows him to fly and unleash bolts of flame. However, he's also known for imprisoning foes in flame cages. This isn't a go to move for the Human Torch. To us, that meant it wasn't something on his character sheet.
The fire cage was something his player came up with on the fly. In other words, the fire cage fits with the Human Torch's core concept so all his player needs to do is spend Willpower to make that happen, even though it's not written down anywhere. It's outside his wheelhouse, but not outside the range of possibilities.
The idea of Willpower was then directly tied to the character's motivations. The more a character was challenged on there core beliefs the greater their ability to overcome adversity. This means that the more Spider-Man sacrifices the things he wants to do, the more capacity he has to accomplish the things he has to do.
Establishing Willpower is generated by character motivations, let's return to the ideal of player agency. Motivations should be things player wants to see. Heroes are rewarded for being challenged on their ideals, so we empower the player to bring them directly into a story.
Guardian, one of our signature characters, is a hero with a motivation of Metahuman Rights. If the GM described the scene as Guardian notices a group of tough guys harassing someone, her player has ability to say I believe that the person being harassed is a mutant, and the people surrounding them are part of a mutant hate group.
This fits with the initial description. It plays to Guardians motivations. It also provides the GM additional plot hooks by establishing there is now an active anti-mutant hate group in the area. While this initial encounter might be small, thanks to Guardian's contribution it becomes a springboard for future stories. For making this contribution based on her motivations Guardian generates Willpower.
Through the interplay between motivations and Willpower players are rewarded for contributing beyond just describing actions. It also ensures that story elements important to the character are elevated by the players. Finally, players were not constrained to the character sheet, nor do they have to determine everything their hero was capable of doing during character creation.