Wednesday, 1 October 2014

Setting Give Away: Who Wants to be a Superhero

One of the issues I have with leaving gaming is that the ideas don't stop coming and I find it too easy to just whip up something for the hell of it. Ideas are easy after all, and I find myself thinking of one thing and then... it snowballs.

Sometimes I can use what I concoct, it can be turned into fiction (that's what's sort of happening with the Dream Settings stuff I posted a few months ago). On other occasions though... nah, nothing doing: the idea is stubbornly beyond my ability to convert into prose.

This is one of those...

The basic setting is a superhero world where all the powers are based on things to do with aliens, be they the result of abduction, alien heritage or anything else. Some of the science works like magic, naturally, but I wanted to keep the general sense of the powers limited to a single source.

The other thing I wanted to play around with was the idea of celebrity and, at the extreme opposite, the idea of an underground of super powered people who would be ugly and 'broken' in some respect.

I'll try to get this all up on the blog and then do a collected document that will be downloadable from my Google Drive (let me know if you like it please).

First up, the root of the idea a TV show and the team that the winners go onto.

American's Next Hero and the American Dream

America's Next Hero is a syndicated TV show dedicated to searching for a group of young heroes to be the next big thing, a superhero team that's already known as the American Dream and is sponsored by Sanderson Industries. The show goes out once a week, but there are online clips of training sessions, as well as interviews with the contestants, who hail from all across America. They know that if they win they have a slot on the team, a six figure salary and all the health insurance they could want. They know they'll need it too, being a superhero is a glamourous, but all too brief career. Even if you survive your battles, the chances are you'll be washed up in ten years’ time with little to show for your experiences apart from medical bills a mile high. That's why most heroes are media stars too, that's why they party like there's no tomorrow. That's why they launch their own training initiatives, their own diets and why they go after all the sponsorship they can. For a short window of time they can live the dream, and party like there's no tomorrow but sooner or later tomorrow's going to come a-knocking.

The show takes a standard format. Hopefuls undertake a number of tasks in safe environments, dealing with dangers that range from collapsing buildings to fighting villains and sudden death games of super dodgeball. They are trained in various techniques by retired heroes, most of whom are household names. Each week viewers get to vote on which hopefuls should stay on the show, forging a team based on popularity. After five years the format has evolved to include away missions, usually to Defiants’ Park, the headquarters of the Defiants (this world's equivalent of the Avengers), Cloud Ranch Airforce Base and Project: STAR FIELD, the NASA testing centre for exploratory technology. Filming in these locations is tricky because so much they all deal with classified and sensitive information including a few heroes who have secret identities.

The final rounds of the competition are markedly different; each season aims to provide something new. Contestants are often taken to an unknown location, a tropical island, a stretch of desert, memorably, last year's show featured an underwater base, and forced to survive.  There is always a task aspect to getting food or water and the opposing teams usually have to compete for tokens, testing their abilities in an almost real world. The challenges can take the form of races, assault courses and rescue missions. Points are assigned by the judges based on strategy, control and finesse. Sloppy performances can lead to a contestant being expelled from the show, as show when Flame burnt down half the island three years ago.

The winners go to one of two teams, American Dream and Blue Shift, long established groups that have adopted a generational aspect of the superhero business and used it to support their business models. The teams operate on different coasts, American Dream operating out of Malibu, whilst Blue Shift are based on a small, artificial island close to New York City. The teams take it in turns to recruit heroes, establishing senior and junior wings for spin off TV series and merchandising opportunities. The show has run for five years, and initially had three sponsors, American Dream, Blue Shift and the Denver Defiants. When the latter went into administration two years ago the TV executives made the decision to stick with the two teams, offering them greater control over the show.

The current roster of American Dream is a five person team, with a support team and techs to keep them going. They operate out of the 'Crib', a house that's been featured on MTV and other channels with enough frequency that the team's handler, Abigail Sanchez, is worried about it getting old. The base looks like a large, secluded house, with a private beach, helicopter pad, sports facilities and garden on the outside. The inside is a plethora of training rooms, medical bays and strategy rooms in addition to the other more domestic parts of the house. There's a small business suite tucked away at the back of the house where Sanchez and her assistants thrash out sponsorship deals and TV spots for the five heroes. The other connotation of 'Crib' remains unspoken, around the team at least, but it’s not uncommon for them to be referred to as 'the babies' in private meetings between Sanchez and the team owner, Ian Sanderson.

The current members of the team are a group of heroes in their mid-twenties, all of them have powers that link back to aliens (more on that later) and all of them love being heroes, or at least the lifestyle that comes with it. Each of them got through the show, and remain popular with fans.

Mentat: Joshua Hannigan was hiking when he was abducted by aliens. He doesn't really remember anything from the point that the ship's beam lit up above him to when Captain Sapphire woke him amongst the burning wreckage of the downed flying saucer. A piece of alien machinery was lodged inside Josh's head and the surgery that would remove it carried substantial risks of inflicting brain damage. After a hospital stay, paid for by Sapphire, Josh was allowed to go home. Everything would be fine, the doctor's said.

They were wrong. Within days of returning home Josh started to hear 'voices', odd snippets of conversations that he could not trace. Over time the voices grew louder, until they threatened to overwhelm his thoughts and he was unable to leave the house for fear of what he would overhear. The world became overwhelming, it was only when Sapphire reappeared, drawn to an incident where Josh, in a fit of desperation had lashed out with his mind to silence the ‘voices’ that things began to turn around. With her help, he got the help he needed and his psychic gifts blossomed. Today the two are dating, something that has caused a great deal of upset, given that Sapphire is ten years Mentat's senior (this has earned her the nickname 'Captain Cougar in some circles).

Mentat's abilities include telepathy and force field creation as well as limited precognition up to approximately thirty minutes. Unlike many heroes his main sponsorship is with a research laboratory: Massachusetts Experimental Technology employs him to predict the likely outcomes of some of their more difficult experiments.

Sekhmet: The shyest member of the team Sekhmet, aka Juanita Cortez, was volunteering in Egypt when she stumbled onto an ancient tomb dedicated to the goddess Sekhmet. After a series of near disasters, which included a dropped torch, Juanita stepping on the wrong piece of floor and a near fatal tumble down a long set of stone steps. What happens next is a mystery. Juanita says she had an out of body experience, that Sekhmet chose her as her representative on Earth and rebuilt her body to make it tougher, stronger and faster. Subsequent tests have revealed that she can run as fast as a cheetah, leap vast distances and can catch bullets. She also holds a codex of ancient knowledge in her head and can fight as if she was trained by the best teachers on the planet.

When she was found, lying in the dust outside the tomb, the change was obvious. Gone was the skinny, nervous young woman, replaced by a figure who was statuesque, calm and controlled. A nervous Egyptian government insisted she return home, insisting that the old gods had no place in the modern Egypt. Returning to America, she was approached by the Foundation, a small but rich charity that employed superheroes to do disaster relief, guard aid shipments and generally do good. When the America's Next Hero show started up, one of her co-workers suggested Juanita enter, and use her profile to boost the charity's fortunes as well as her own.

Power Dude: Big, strong and dumb. Power Dude, as Mike Wyckman calls himself, was a rich Californian kid who decided he wanted super powers and was willing to pay someone to give them to him. It took a while to find someone who could do it, but eventually he found Doctor Jericho. After a short medical procedure Mike found he had the powers of his dreams, for a while anyway. He soon discovered that he needed regular top ups, and that Jericho's treatments grew ever more expensive, forcing him to enter the Super-Max Wrestling League to pay for them, and to keep a bodyguard around, after he discovered that he was so strong he could kill without meaning to. A slot on American Dream was something he couldn't turn down when it came along, but he still finds a big chunk of his salary ends up in Jericho's bank account.

He still fights on the circuit occasionally and as a result Landslide, one of the powerhouses he pipped to the post in America's Next Hero, has started to call him out for a one on one battle. 

Silver Star: Charming to a fault, Silver Star, Orin Lasseter, is perhaps the only unpowered hero on the team, relying on an alien battle suit he found that grants him flight, mildly enhanced strength and an energy blast.

Or at least that's his story. In reality the young man is a space pirate, hiding from the intergalactic bounty hunters the Blood Hounds and posing as a hero to get support (as well as the chance to live like a prince). Orin, or rather, Oram Lassar to give him his true name, crashed on the planet five years ago and saw a chance to make good, preferably in a way that would fill his pockets, get him allies and make him very popular. Then once the unpleasantness with the Blood Hounds was over, he could blast off into space in the Silver Nova and go back to his old ways.

So far the plan seems to be working, if only he wasn't enjoying being a hero quite so much...

Flexibelle: A party girl, a fashion model and the face of SuperFashions, Flexibelle, also known as Roxy, is living life to the full, even more so than the party hard Power Dude. She has lucrative contracts, six million dollars in her bank account and a celebrity boyfriend (Dan Schumacher the teen racing driver). She regularly goes back to Savannah to see her family and speak at local schools.

The problem is, it’s a lie, even more so than most of her 'history'. The public knows she hails from Savannah and that she was a normal girl until a high school lab accident gave her the power to alter her body however she wanted. It’s a pretty story, but about as far from the truth as you can get. In reality Roxy doesn't know where she's from and isn't sure if she even attended high school. Her powers are fun... apart the fact that she loses all cohesion when she falls asleep, transforming into a puddle of liquid. Ever the optimist, she remains determined to 'fake it until she makes it', an attitude that seems to be paying off, even if most of the school talks she gives are as Flxibelle rather than the person she claims to be, and the people she stays with in Savannah are simply the couple who took her in rather than her parents.

In truth Roxy's past is rather more complicated than she would like, if she knew about it. Created by the cabal of criminal masterminds called the Symposium, she was designed to be a living assassin, dependent on them for key elements to maintain her shape and, eventually, her cellular cohesion. It is not known how she escaped, but the clock is ticking: Roxy has only a handful of years before she breaks down completely into an inert liquid.

The team is supported by a number of staff, including Bullwhip, a retired hero who has taken a job as their personal trainer/professional sadist. His powers are related to the energy whips he can summon. A former member of the Defiants, America's official team, who was invalided out after he was grievously wounded. Bullwhip resents his new status as a 'support member' and pushes the team harder than need be, sometimes causing injuries through his dogmatic approach.

Sanderson Industries is keen to make the team as profitable as possible. The sad fact is that superheroes are expensive, training and maintenance costs a lot; and the fallout of battles and even disaster relief can be too.  The team also needs to be kept in the public eye as much as possible, through TV spots, advertising, and merchandise and newspaper interviews. The problem is that these methods are all very nice but the public wants their heroes to be... super, and that means battles, danger and action. Part of Abigail's job is to find battles and to get the team there faster than any other team on the west coast and she has a target of at least one big fight every week. She arranges local patrols for the team but low level muggings don't really do much for sales or for the team's profile outside the local area. This leads to a problem, in a world where having powers is a route to stardom and celebrity, only the most stupid become villains of the traditional, comic book type. It is far more lucrative to earn honest pay as a bodyguard or sportsman than as a crook. Whilst a few inventors turn to crime to steal components for inventions, villains tend to be motivated by ideology and politics rather than economic need; falling into a 'super powered terrorist' category rather than one of ’bank robber with fancy technology'.  As a result genuine threats can thin on the ground, creating more pressure on Abigail to produce results. Unknown to anyone, except Mr Sanderson, she has been known to employ stuntmen and mercenary squads to provide a 'threat' for the team to take care of in the hope that the revenue it generates from the mop up, sponsorship deals and so on outweighs the cost of hiring a cybernetically enhanced mercenary group like the Free Radicals, a religiously inspired group of cyborgs who use their profits to fund research into the creation of ‘the Machine God’, the first fully functioning A.I.. So far the strategy seems to be working, but the stress of it all keeps her up at night.