This is related to a previous question I had, albeit more related directly to design rather than looking for a proof of concept. I've been writing some adventures with a house-ruled version of Mutants and Masterminds 3E with the assumption that the players are playing relatively heroic supers in a four color style universe. The problem with this is that it's encouraged a reactive playstyle (supervillain acts, heroes react); the players do get to choose how to deal with the problem of the week, but, because they're "heroic", they don't get to choose which problems to tackle. "Heroic" PC's, for one, won't just up and choose to rob a bank.

I find that the games I as a player and a GM enjoy most are those where the players have the ability to be surprising and cause unexpected developments. My question is this: How do I construct a campaign or adventures where the players and their heroic PC's not only have meaningful choice in how to tackle problems; but which problems to also create (robbing a bank causes cops to show up)? What are "best practices" here?

I mention that I'm running M&M 3E, although I've already jettisoned some of the mechanics I find to be "Get back on the rails" mechanics; advice that is specifically ment for that will be helpful but isn't necessary.

  • \$\begingroup\$ If I'm reading between the lines correctly you want proactive superheroes. In comics, storylines full of proactive heroes often end up as alternate universe dystopias. More information might be needed about the campaign setting. \$\endgroup\$ Nov 6, 2015 at 21:45
  • \$\begingroup\$ @HeyICanChan You're correct in that I want proactive superheroes, at least, at first. Road to hell, good intentions, all that. I'd like adventure/campaign design that allows this sort of freedom of choice with good intentions from the start, at least, even if the campaign develops into something else further down the line. In terms of campaign setting, there's enough wrong with the world that the players have their choice of evils to tackle; given that it was created in the game Microscope though, I don't have as much control over it as I might otherwise have. \$\endgroup\$
    – user5834
    Nov 6, 2015 at 21:51
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    \$\begingroup\$ I don't want you to because I'd love here to be the best place for a question this complex (and close to my heart—the superhero comics genre is a personal favorite), but you might have to take this to a traditional forum where a back-and-forth exchange of ideas can yield better results. Would an expert's lecture on how to establish a superhero sandbox in general do any good? \$\endgroup\$ Nov 7, 2015 at 0:38
  • \$\begingroup\$ I'd certainly appreciate advice on establishing a superhero sandbox, emphasis on the hero. For a super's sandbox without intent of heroism (a more real world or morally grey sort of deal), I don't think the problem is anywhere near as bad; tell the players to come to the game with a goal, and then provide information about they many ways they can go about accomplishing said goal. \$\endgroup\$
    – user5834
    Nov 7, 2015 at 1:29

3 Answers 3


Superheroes are reactive because the default state is that they've won: at the end of each episode, they get the city back to the way they want it, and there's nothing more for them to do until something goes wrong again. To get active superheroes, you have to create a situation where the default state is the heroes are losing: something is wrong with the city and it will take the whole campaign to fix it.

You could do a war story, perhaps: our heroes have gone behind enemy lines to sabotage the enemy war effort and capture enemy superheroes. Without killing anyone, of course.

Do a crime story. The city is infested with gangs, the police aren't solving it, and now it's your job to clean it up. The Batman solution, dressing up in a costume and punching individual muggers, clearly won't work. Climbing the hierarchy and dealing with the leaders might work better. But a real solution should involve reforming the criminal justice system and addressing the socioeconomic causes of crime...

Bonus points if the crime story is actually set in Gotham City, and Batman is punching muggers in the background and wondering why it's not solving the problem.

Do an infestation story. AI (or alien parasites, or zombie virus), has infected and mind-controlled every citizen in Chicago. It's spreading, but slowly. Our heroes show up in the city and have to avoid getting infected themselves. Then they have to figure out what the infestation is doing, thwart its devious plan, figure out where it camr from, and devise a plan to cure it.

  • \$\begingroup\$ To expand on this answer, read "The Punisher", particularly Garth Ennis' run on the Marvel Knights and MAX series. Frank is the very definition of a proactive superhero. \$\endgroup\$
    – Sandalfoot
    Nov 9, 2015 at 19:23
  • \$\begingroup\$ Great general advice (The default state is the heroes aren't winning) with a bunch of good examples; this is the sort of answer I was looking for. \$\endgroup\$
    – user5834
    Nov 9, 2015 at 21:29

From my point of view as a GM, there are two options if you want players to be proactive. First, you can give them more problems to solve and let them know that they can't solve them all. Secondly, you can make suggestions of ways in which they can be proactive and reward them when they find ways to surprise you.

More Options

The simplest solution is to simply give them more problems to solve than they can solve immediately. Crises don't necessarily happen all at the same time. Sometimes, the team is investigating a series of serial murders and considering ways in which they can prepare for their upcoming audit by the government on how they're spending their grant when a bank robbery happens on the other side of town. I would personally recommend juggling multiple long-term events rather than having five banks robbed at once unless you want to follow Dan B's suggestion that they're not actually winning. Otherwise, your players can get frustrated that they never seem to be able to get all of the bad guys. On the flip side, that could lead to them getting frustrated enough to target root causes, but that's on the more advance side of things. Personally, I usually have 2-3 storylines going on. My players have learned that, if they don't jump on a plotline right away, it will generally hold for a session or so, but if they ignore it entirely, it resolves itself, not always in their favor (e.g., if they ignore the tales of homeless people disappearing the sewers, they might get blindsided when the cybernetically enhanced mole-men come out to take over).

Propose proactive strategies to the players

This can feel a bit more like railroading, but another possibility, if you want them to be more proactive, is to suggest strategies, for example mentioning (or having an NPC say) that for all the bank robberies that they're foiling, it seems like it's not stopping the actual criminal activity. If they're not certain where they want to go with it, you might suggest that they go after the leaders of the crime cabals in town, or investigate why the criminals don't seem bothered when they're arrested (maybe there's a brilliant defense lawyer who's been getting the convictions overturned. Or the "criminals" in question are actually clones or robots who are left to occupy cells while the real mastermind takes his successes and chortles over how the prisons are so close to overflowing that soon, they'll start letting people go because they don't have a place to keep them). By suggesting to them that there are things they can do other than wait for the villain to strike, you let them know that there are other options.

Is it really a problem for the players? Or for you?

Reading through your question, I get the impression that you're the one not satisfied with the situation, not your players. Now, as a GM, it's important that you enjoy your experience, but I'd caution against making changes without first talking to your players. Do they want to be proactive? Or are they happy foiling bank robberies? I know it's one of the go-to answers here on the boards, but really, talking is one of the best ways to solve problems in the game, particularly since all sides may not agree that there is a problem.

One other thing to consider is the possibility that the current heroes might not be a match for the type of campaign you're running. If you want superpowered people who might decide to rob a bank, it's probably not going to be the four-color group you've been having foil said robberies. Maybe propose to the players trying it out for a bit, seeing if it works. If you want to avoid making new characters, just play on Anti-Earth or some other sort of mirror universe with the "evil" or at least "morally ambiguous" versions of the team. If your players don't enjoy it, well, we're back where we started, whether you want to run a campaign that they like, or one that you like. But at least you'll know.

  • \$\begingroup\$ The "More crisis than can be solved at once" is good general advice, and I could really use that. Suggesting Strategies is also a good suggestion that I think is the opposite of railroading if done right (presenting several options as opposed to just one). I admit that some of the question is me wanting a particular style for my group rather than my players demanding it, but I have noticed that the proactive style of play is most often the one that gets them invested in the outcome; they'll enjoy themselves either way, but one tends to be more... engaging? \$\endgroup\$
    – user5834
    Nov 9, 2015 at 21:20

The answer is to stop thinking of it as superhero.

Let's look at the typical 'dnd' campaign. Perhaps one published by Paizo Press. There are the following elements.

  1. A journey. The heroes traverse through various (sometimes fantastical) locations, always for reasons unrelated to simply 'traveling'.

  2. Foes. Enemies who have their own goals, such as ending the world, or calling a horror, or resurrecting their dead family. Which, for whatever reason, the heroes must stop. Often due to harm from that cause to innocents, the 'means', the 'price', whatever.

  3. Allies. Forces that wish to stop these evils, often with their own theme, help they can give the heroes, and additionally quirks or things which make it hard for the heroes to simply join their cause - the brotherhood of pelor fights Kyuss, but will not leave the riverlands to stop the ritual that will embody him - the Rohirrim will ride to Gondor, but they will not leave until the Uruk-Hai of Saruman have been defeated and Rohan is safe.

  4. Connections. Some of the enemies work together as groups, and some of the enemies are only enemies due to connections to those with reasons to actually combat the party. There are connections between the party's allies and enemies too - usually those of antipathy (hatred, enmity), but sympathy (alliance, friendship, blood relation) is not unheard of.

So what do you end up with? You end up with a spiderweb of groups, allies, enemies, single actors, double agents, etc, all interacting, and the party of adventurers smashing through them like a cannonball (or ricocheting through them like a pinball).

Do that, but instead of 'wizards' and 'fighters' have people with superpowers (and it's not like they are unlike), and make some of the allies or enemies superpowered also.

Enemies need motivations, short and long term goals, connections of various kinds, bases, resources, capabilities, ace in the holes, themes, styles, quirks, and in this setting, sweet outfits.

This is true of any story, anywhere.

Worm (caution, really long), is a good example of a superhero story with a realer world.

  • \$\begingroup\$ I don't think this would be a bad answer for another type of question, but the hero part of the superhero game for this particular campaign isn't so negotiable. The problem doesn't have to do with NPC motivations, it has to do with PC motivations and having them have several ways of creating goals for themselves and pursuing them without ceasing to be superheroes. The Worm story you list, although excellent, is pretty much at the opposite end of the spectrum from the game I'm running. \$\endgroup\$
    – user5834
    Nov 9, 2015 at 21:26

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