We as roleplayers and DMs love to make references to other forms of media in our RPGs. This monk has a magically-expanding staff and a tail! That rabbit has huge, sharp, pointy teeth! But we usually stop there. We take and apply inspiration at a very surface level, and don’t often enough look to WHY the things we reference are so enjoyable in the first place. In this series, we take apart the things we love, look at the spinning, shiny bits, and try to apply it at the table.
The new Avengers movie lands soon, and it looks to be a juggernaut just like the first two. These are characters and storylines that have been done in print for ages, and yet on the big screen, they still manage to shine. What can we learn from the arguably huge body of work that is the MCU?
Every Character is Still Treated as a Main Character
Most of the Avengers (the ones with powers or at least a flying metal suit) each come from their own movies, in which they are Main Characters. They each are a force of personality, because if they were not, then they would not be interesting enough to justify having a film of their own. Adventuring parties are much the same; they are made up of players, at the helm of Characters. With very few exceptions, most players see their PCs as a Main Character; they have created a being with its own story and its own motivations, the entirety of which will never be available to the rest of the table but will still be omnipresent within their own minds. They have formed a narrative in their minds, and it persists.
For all intents and purposes, an adventuring party is a group of Main Characters. Now if you’ve played at a table with players who have particularly strong personalities, (and I’m guessing most readers have,) you know that this can make the game very weighted in the direction of those very players. They tend to dominate discussion, drive party decisions, and leave little room for others in the absence of being in initiative. This sometimes works for the table dynamic, but often it is a problem, whether or not that particular elephant in the room is ever addressed. The players who have been reduced involuntarily begin to voluntarily pull back even further out of a sense of inevitability or induced ambivalence. Certain characters feel less important, and therefore become more two-dimensional. You end up with one or two main characters, and the other PCs become somewhat-interactive set dressing.
Yet the Avengers movies do not have this problem. Each character is expressive, involved, and full of personality and nuance. None of them, even Agent Coulson, feel unimportant. What does The Avengers do to make that work?
Most notably, it goes out of its way to make sure every character is equally present. There are no secondary characters. Every character in a scene takes an active part in it. Every character has a key role in the plot as well as battle. Every character has a backstory that is visited in some fashion. Every character shows more than one emotion.
Now obviously, some of this is on players, and some players will need to step up and assert themselves more at the table. But we as DMs can do things to help. If you’ve got a player that you know is a bit more meek, make their backstory the first one that gets visited. Diplomatically take the opportunity to ask the aggressive players to back down and ask the quieter players what they would like to do. Find ways to elicit more than one emotion from your players; many DMs (myself included) have a tendency to try and push players towards one emotion, so go out of your way to try and induce the other. Joy is an emotion that many DMs ignore!
Take a Good Long Time to Build Up Your Big Reveals
The MCU, realizing early on that it would in fact be a Cinematic Universe, started dropping hints for its future. Many of those items were obvious references to those of us who are familiar with the comics, but from the perspective of an adventuring party, who would not have the knowledge to call out obvious references, this wouldn’t make any difference, would it?
Look at some of the references that Marvel movies have dropped over the years: lots of mentions of Stark Industries in The Incredible Hulk, Cap’s shield in Iron Man 1, Mjolnir in Iron Man 2, the Infinity Gauntlet in Thor, mentions of vibranium throughout the whole MCU, even the reveal of Thanos at the end of Avengers 1… Casual references like these can be casually replicated in a campaign. An emblem on the wall of a shop or tavern, NPCs asking for help preparing for an upcoming event that sounds too crazy to be true, an artifact on display in some noble’s foyer without him knowing what it truly is, a shopkeep raising his prices on certain items due to economic/political changes in other lands… The list goes on. All of this helps to create an immersive world with more things happening in it, engaging the players and encouraging them to take note of the world around them.
That being said, don’t feel obligated to turn your game into a mystery. Just because you’re dropping hints doesn’t mean The Game is Afoot, Watson. The reveal of Thanos wasn’t exactly the start of an Agatha Christie novel; it simply stated “here’s a guy who’s going to be influencing a lot of the things going forward”. The most mysterious thing about him (to non-comics people) was his motivation, but the things he was doing and the impact he was having upon the galaxy were very much apparent.
Encourage Inter-player Dynamics
One of the most entertaining aspects of the Avengers movies and the MCU is how they balance drama and comedy; these movies excel when the balance is even and the banter is strong. It makes the viewer feel like these are real people engaging with real people as they react to everything and everyone around them in a candid manner. However, not every player at the table will feel equipped to do this. Some will be shy, some will be absorbed in their character (or in their electronic devices), or maybe they’re just not on their game.
The best way to encourage players to engage with each other is, frankly, to remind them to do it. If a PC does or says something that you suspect should get a reaction, turn to the next player and ask them, “Hey Ragnar, Toomak the Wise just agreed with the barkeep that all half-orcs are stupid, what do you think about that?” If a player attacks or kills an NPC and another player seemed conflicted about it, ask them what they do about it. Even if they tell you “I do nothing”, then that is at least a conscious decision. What’s more, it might encourage other players to react. “You’re not doing anything?! But why?!” It doesn’t have to be witty to be banter, but if your players are in the right mood, it’ll come out anyway.
Let Player Choices Drive the Plot Too
As DMs we often have our stories to tell, and we adhere to them to varying degrees. This is good, and I’m not saying anything you probably haven’t heard from umpteen other blogs, but don’t be afraid to adjust your story path on the fly as the characters take action. In Iron Man, Tony’s invention of the Arc Reactor for his escape suit is what drives the final conflict. In Ant-Man, Scott’s choices to commit burglary set him on the path to meet Hank Pym. In Age of Ultron, Tony’s experimentation with Loki’s scepter causes, well, the whole damn movie.
Even if a player makes a choice that pushes the game off the path, come up with a way to have the path come to them. While you’re doing it, don’t ever tell them that they ever veered off the path; make it look like this was the path the whole time, and you just anticipated their every move.
Do After-Credits Scenes!
Marvel movies helped to bring back the old Hollywood tradition of mid-credits and post-credits scenes, and frankly, audiences tend to love them, as they give a peek into what’s to come or at the rest of the MCU.
So try this at your table: Wrap up the game for the night. Start packing up your dice. The players will start to pick up and talk about what just happened. But your voice picks up, as you declare, “But before we completely wrap up, there’s one more thing you should know.” (Chances are good your players will suddenly have their full attention on you, especially if you commit a certain amount of dramatic flair to your declaration.) At this point, narrate a scene in an unfamiliar place, with an unfamiliar face. Describe to them something that their characters could never know is happening right now. A thief attempting to liberate a priceless necklace and barely making it out alive (that thief then bumps into them later and plants the necklace in the party’s bags). A pair of guards discussing the latest regime change before one of them is slain by the other, as the surviving guard takes her helmet off and is revealed to be the helpless maiden rescued in their very first dungeon. A town in flames as a flight of evil, winged creatures departs their successful raid, and are seen heading towards the very city the party is currently in.
Sure, their characters won’t know any of this is going on, but the players will know, and they will be chomping at the bit to find out what happens next, in the next game session!