10 Elseworld Campaign Settings for Your Supers-Adjacent Games

An RPG article requested by SBG reader Loki, I just pulled it out of my RPG topics hat (don't be afraid to refill, guys). The supers genre is generally understood to take place in a contemporary urban setting, much like the majority of super-hero comics do. Sometimes, you'll get a sourcebook that details WWII or the 30th century, but usually, it's the world of Today+. With licensed comic book universes, like DC's and Marvel's, the comics themselves become a sort of sourcebook, keeping you up to date on the "meta-arc" and providing adventure ideas aplenty. You just have to make up the stats yourself. With the DC Universe (whether catered to be DC Heroes, DC Universe or the current DC Adventures), the comics can also serve as a collection of campaign settings. What continuity will insert your characters into, for example? More than that, if you'd like a change of pace from the same old four-color campaigns, DC has published a vast number of Elseworld stories, taking familiar superhero concepts and putting them through the filter of genre, era or some other conceit. These make nice self-contained "sourcebooks" for off-beat campaigns. Here then are 10 strong choices for your askew DCU campaign...

Batman: Holy Terror. It was the first book labeled as an Elseworld (though technically not the first in spirit), so let's start there. One of the difficulties in coming up with this list is that a lot of Elseworlds are character-centric. Though they make a nice spin on Batman or Superman, they don't really open a universe up to other characters. Holy Terror is an early attempt at including the entire DCU, so I find it worthy. It's really an alternate history riff, a world where Oliver Cromwell lived ten years longer than he did in our world, and America is a commonwealth nation run by a corrupt theocratic government. This puts your characters - based on DC faves or your original creations - in a position to act as rebels against the State. And it's a state always after superhuman "abominations" to dissect and purge of sin. The stakes are high, the enemy is bigger than life, and the themes possibly more adult than standard four-color fare.

Justice Riders. Another easy way to create the Elseworld feel is to take the Heroic Age to another place and time. Historical role-playing being what it is (a smaller niche even than Supers), it may be better to concentrate on genre more than era. Justice Riders is one of my favorite Elseworlds because it deftly transposes the JLA into the wild, wild West using a combination of superhero and western tropes. Indian magic, steam tech and the unabashed use of alien visitors pushes the archetypical heroism of marshals, gamblers and gunslingers up a notch. Players can take on the roles of their own extreme western types, westernized versions of their favorite DC characters, or even their favorite DC western stars, straight up.

JLA: Riddle of the Beast. Fantasy, by which I mean sword&sorcery, remains the most popular role-playing genre, so why not tap into that. DC's Elseworlds offers a number of possibilities (League of Justice, The Wild, etc.) but my favorite is Riddle of the Beast. There's just so much of it to explore (check out the map I posted this week at Your Daily Splash Page)! The book itself offers a tour of this Tolkienesque universe, but leaves a lot of background detail left to explore. Fight Starro's outlaws in the City of the Center with your winged Hawkman, or explore the dreaded Darkseid Marshes with your Kryptonian archer. Traverse the waters in the company of Aquan, score a moniker like the Fast Man, Wee Man or Green Man, or brave the haunted Gotham Crags. The entire DCU is there on a single flat map, easy to delve into.

Conjurors. Another way to do fantasy is to simply introduce magic in the recognizable world of today, which is what this mini-series did, putting DC's usually marginal magic-based characters center stage. Will you play one of DC's mystical heroes, tapping into everyday magic in an unusually powerful way? Or will you rather go against the grain and play an inventor like Ted Kord, one of the sole masters of this misunderstood thing we call science? The DCU is very much a Science Hero's realm, but what if Felix Faust worked for the president, and the top heroes were Zatanna, Deadman, Brother Power and Stanley and his Monster? The challenge might be reimagining some of those more obscure characters into a top tier operative.

Superman: Distant Fires. Postapocalyptic gamers might have fun with a destroyed DCU where practically the only survivors are superhumans. In addition to the usual scenarios concerned with survival, fighting mutated animals and people, etc., there's also a political element as you take part in building a new society. In the book, superhumans split off into Superman's camp - dedicated to finding a peaceful solution to the growing mutant problem - and Captain Marvel's - willing to kill to put a stop to mutant raids. With whom does your hero side? Will you introduce your own hero, or play an established DC character, even a former villain (we're all in this together!), instead?

Titans: Scissors, Paper, Stone. This Elseworlds special presents a far future (in fact, I think it was going to be a Legend of the Dead Earth) that's a great template for anime-style supers role-playing. Giant mutated monsters? Check. Spaceships? Check. Nanoteched cyberpunk? Sure. And pretty much any crazy science explanation can be used to create your characters' powers. The book only feature a few Titans, but should provide enough of a world and aesthetic to allow players to create their own Manga techno-future versions of DC characters and concepts. Imagine the Blue Beetle as a giant mechwarrior, or telepathic J'onn J'onzz as a sentient computer program patched into the Collective Internet Consciousness(TM). Sky's the limit.

Superman's Metropolis/Batman: Nosferatu/Wonder Woman: Blue Amazon. Another way Elseworlds are commonly built is by amalgamating the DCU and some other work of fiction. Batman and The Phantom of the Opera, or Superman and War of the Worlds, for example, or either in Frankenstein. Lofficier and McKeever provided an interesting take on this method in Superman's Metropolis when they redid Superman's story in Fritz Lang's Metropolis, and then went on to add to that universe with a Batman story based on The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari and Nosferatu, and then a Wonder Woman tale based on The Blue Angel. Each story took place in the vast "futurist" city of Metropolis, using the same continuity. The conceit, of course, is that each character was reimagined through the lens of a different German expressionist film, and silent cinema buffs could surely add to it. Or you could use the project as a template for your own Elseworld perhaps based on another film era or literary movement. The DCU seen through the eyes of kung fu cinema, or Borges' short stories, or 80s sf/fantasy movies like Mannequin, Ghost, Weird Science and The Last Starfighter, could all yield results!

JLA: Act of God. Here's a change of pace you could even introduce in a continuing campaign. In Act of God, a strange "event" suddenly robs all superhumans of their abilities, forever. Technology still works (guys like Metallo or Cyborg are unaffected), though more exotic weapons, like the Green Lantern rings are rendered inert. What does your character do? Retire, or continue to fight the good fight by whatever means necessary? In the book, a number of heroes did just that, turning to gear and their martial abilities. And how do even veteran non-powered heroes suddenly deal with the overflow of villains that used to be handled by Superman-class heroes? You might even start a campaign in this world, carefully creating formerly powered heroes, and how they've adapted their unique skill sets (or bounced back from losing powers they've had all their lives) to continue the war on crime.

Kingdom Come. Open up Kingdom Come and you'll find a huge variety of cool designs by Alex Ross, many of which are just begging for a story of their own. The Kingdom Come campaign comes with a classic superhero vs. anti-hero premise, but the fun will be taking (or being inspired by) a character from the book and making it one's own. You can play aging heroes, their children/legacy, or a badass 90s hero who don't care none. Obviously, you want to play it before Captain Marvel blows the whole thing, well, to the campaign setting's title (if you know what I mean). Or maybe you want to use it, run past it, and participate in the largely untold reconstruction phase of the story.

Superman & Batman: Generations. The three volumes of this John Byrne series (but the first two especially) serve as a nice sourcebook for describing the feel of each era of DC Comics, illustrating effectively the flavor of each decade from the 40s on up. Obviously, you can use it just for that, but go further and use it as a template for creating your own legacy heroes. Just imagine your favorite DC character actually started operating the year he or she was first introduced. How long has it been and how old would that character be now? If that character is long-lived enough (and considering a relative newbie like Booster Gold premiered 25 years ago, that should be nearly everyone), create a son, daughter, descendant or pupil, or perhaps even a now adult sidekick. You'll follow in your favorite character's tradition without having to advance to calendar the extra 20 years into flying car territory. Generations gives you enough of a backbone for that world to make sense, without using TOO many characters you'd like to claim as yours.

Obviously, starting an off-beat campaign is a major investment, but you could also use these Elseworlds as cross-dimensional destinations for your contemporary heroes. And if you don't use any of these ideas, it's ok. There's a version of you somewhere who will. Any other favorites?

4 comments:

Loki said...

Thanks, Siskoid. That was wonderful fun :-)

Siskoid said...

You ask, I deliver. ;)

greywulf said...

Outstanding and inspirational summary. Great stuff.

idiotbrigade said...

I prefer to use his more popular name of 'Oliver Crimewell'.

 

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