D&D: the soap opera

As part of my job at Upper Deck I work on flavor text for several card games, including our Marvel and DC superhero fighting game, Vs, so I’ve been catching up on the Marvel Universe. Someone I know described the Marvel writing and the MU in general as a “soap opera” given all the crazy plot twists, and my readings this weekend reinforce that.

Case in point, the character Hulkling, who thought he was a normal human boy until a series of events reveal that he is half-Skrull, half-Kree (that’s two alien races for those who don’t read Marvel) and he has shapechanging powers (from his Skrull ancestry) and superstrength (from his Kree ancestry). That’s the sort of “bom bom baa!!” dramatic reveal you’d expect to find in a soap opera. “David is not your father … your father is David’s evil twin! Bom bom baa!!”

When we were working on the Forgotten Realms Campaign Setting, Rob Heinso and I talked a lot about the various weird quasi-racial feats we were working on for the book (like the one that says you’re descended from genies and have access to some genie magic, or you’re descended from yuan-ti and have goofy powers, etc.). The trick was that if you didn’t take that feat at level 1, it’s hard to justify taking it at level 3 or 6 as you’d “suddenly develop” this weird heritage. Except that we have this sort of thing all the time in soap operas, and various fantasy stories have expanded it to include other weird parenting. So we were thinking we’d have a small section about having a “soap opera reveal” for your character, as in “Castanamir, I have to tell you about our family’s secret … your great-grandfather was the efreet Zamhalam, and his fiery blood runs in your veins!” We eventually abandoned the idea and went with the (not very good game design) first-level-only restriction on a lot of those feats, but there’s no reason why you couldn’t use that idea or something like it. Perhaps the stress of your last battle activated some latent ability you didn’t know you had, or your body started kicking out new hormones in a puberty-like fashion from long-suppressed genes?

I think it would be cool for a story-oriented campaign to utilize this sort of thing. Even if a player has an extensive character history, it leaves room for the DM to meddle with it in some way, especially if the player is into roleplaying and is willing to “roll with the punches” and take advantage of the roleplaying drama that such a reveal entails.


8 thoughts on “D&D: the soap opera

  1. I had a DM do that to me a while ago. We’d always been chased by this odd group of people, and during one of the battles with them, I was critically hit by a thug and knocked unconscious… as I fell unconscious, I felt a “warmth” and after the giggling died down was told I didn’t need to stablize… as I already had. So began this weird foray into discovering my _real_ heritage. It remains one of my favorite games ever played. ^_^

  2. I’ve been experiencing that very thing in my current Eberron campaign. I’m playing an Elan Wilder.

    Ostensibly, Elans have undergone some midlife transformation and have no recollection of their human lifespans. So in our campaigns, if you choose to play an Elan, the DM secretly develops your backstory and goes from there.

    In my case, my character – Whitney – knew herself to be a Veteran of the Last war who somehow was captured and imprisoned by mysterious forces (dreaming dark agents) and recently escaped confinement. On traveling with the rest of the party she stops in a town where she is recognized and pulled in by people believing her to be a long-lost cousin.

    Strange things from her buried past have cropped up – generally these have coincided with and been thematically resonant with power choices – and are starting to reveal that she is considerably older than previously expected and apparently an ancestor of the person people assume her to be.

  3. Sounds good to me. The notion of first-level feats/Talents is interesting, but mildly restrictive. You’re correct that flavor text can explain almost anything if you work at it. It would be interesting in fact to design ability trees that are “hidden”. If you choose one ability, other options become available to you. These are kept secret by the DM until you choose. Of course, everyone would whine about this.

  4. deja vu!

    I am running a Ptolus campaign and one of the players runs an elan psion. Before the game started we talked about it and decided to play it like you describe. He said he was interested in eventually taking the pyrokineticist PRC and I ran with that. Neither the player or the character know this yet (the party is still 2nd level) but I have been dropping hints.

    His story is he was a arsonist/sorcerer for the Balacazar Crime Family who was eventually captured and handed over to the Inverted Pyramid who used him to test a “method of reform” to remove both his memory and magical abilities (and hopefully, his criminal tendencies). Of course, they didn’t succeed in removing them, only in suppressing them. His magical abilities are different (he is a psion in an otherwise nonpsionic campaign) as is his physiology (the elan).

    He started the game knowing little of his background, but having forged ID papers and a job at the House of the Sacred Heat.

    I have been enjoying it immensely and the player seems to as well.

    So, yeah I am right there with you, Sean!

  5. Aaron Allston Technique?

    This discussion reminds me very much of an old Aaron Allston in the Champions/ICE house magazine circa 1986 or so. While my memories are hazy, the gist is that Aaron would hold back some accrued experience points from his players, to then reveal new or alternative-use powers of his campaign’s characters in times of stress. One example that I thought was nifty was a teleporter who accidently landed in a wall, and discovered that instead of being hurt, he destroyed it! Nifty.

    I guess that type of game would require some GM/player trust to keep the players’ ideas about the character direction in mind, but to me it sounds really cool.

  6. I’ve used the accident/death/exposure to strange forces (ie, magic) plot twist to explain away several things for characters over the years, most notably to add sorcerer levels to characters…or strange magical abilities ( such as the recent intoduction of reserve feats…after being hit by but surviving a powerful acid spell, my archmage has discovered that he has retained a small bit of that magic that he can send back out….under the right circumstances)….

  7. Hey Sean!

    I didn’t know you had an LJ!

    It’s ArthurQ/Emancipator33/BrooklynKnight

    I added you, I don’t post much often (but i doub’t you have time to read your friends page anyway) feel free to add me in turn.

    Long time no chat!

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