Thursday, June 08, 2023

Action-Heroes RPG: Ground Division


I am working on some expanded setting material for my Action-Heroes game that will end up, at the very least, in the hands of the backers of my Patreon. Ground Division is 90s-style conspiracy/espionage action inspired by movies of the era and a number of comics from that time.

In the ramp up to launching the Kickstarter for the game, I talked about a couple of the primary influences on my design choices for the game. The name Action-Heroes is an homage to a line of characters originally published by Charlton Comics, and now owned by DC Comics. Back in the late 60s and early 70s, when Charlton was at the height of its publishing (such as it was, unfortunately) they had a line of heroic fiction that was a mix of offbeat revamped costumed heroes from the mind of Steve Ditko, espionage and military comics, and a couple of martial artists that haven't aged well. But, at that time the term "super-hero" was a trademark co-owned by DC Comics and Marvel Comics. Dick Giordano, then editor at Charlton Comics, came up with the idea of calling their characters Action-Heroes (with the hyphen) instead. He felt that label fit their characters better since they weren't really mainstream super-heroes, like those published by the other comic companies.

Another influence for Action-Heroes is the early Image comics, particularly those from the studios of Jim Lee and Marc Silvestri. The books from each of their studios (which would eventually become Wildstorm and Top Cow) drew upon science fiction, weird fringe science ideas, and had a heavy espionage and military influence upon the books. There was a strong vein of 90s paranoia in many of the books, particularly the ones done by Jim Lee's studio. StormWatch was influenced by a number of 
the U.N. is out to get us" conspiracies of the time.

Back to the setting idea at hand. In the core Action-Heroes book there are already a number of threads that I want to weave into the idea of Ground Division. I talked about a couple of alien races on Earth already in the core book (The Broken and The Serafin). These two groups are only the tip of the iceberg. Ground Division has two main missions: 1) to deal with alien entities that are trying to usurp control of things on the planet, and 2) to deal with enhanced and/or beyond the curve technology that isn't sanctioned. Most of the time this means that Ground Division operatives are going to deal with would be alien conquerors and mad science types who are making tech that is dangerous for a number of reasons. That is most of the time. Sometimes, the missions undertaken by Ground Division are a little greyer. How do you handle a family of illegally immigrated aliens from deep space who just want a new life? Life in the Ground Division will likely get complicated fast.

There is also a group called The Guardians who cross paths with Ground Division at times. They are a group with vast storehouses of advanced and alien technology, along with mystical objects, that they think the world is "not ready for." This includes government organizations like Ground Division. There are also organizations like C.H.A.S.E. and Warguard out there who might not like the idea of a branch of the U.S. government going around squashing advanced technology, without informing other agencies.

Now that the introduction to Ground Division is out of the way, I want to get to the meat of this post, putting together a list of some comics that are going to inform my designs of the setting. This sort of helps me think, and also gives me a list of things to go through for background research. If there are things on this list that you haven't read, I hope this gives you the opportunity to check them out.

First up. After a very successful Kickstarter recently, Top Cow funded a gigantic omnibus edition of the first few volumes of Marc Silvestri's comic CyberForce (also sometimes spelled Cyber Force as two words). While heavily informed by his time working on The X-Men at Marvel Comics, it takes the idea of the mutant found family in a slightly different direction by having them be a paramilitary group. Spinning out of the Kickstarter is a new printing of the collection of the original CyberForce miniseries called Tin Men of War. Silvestri and crew also draw upon a lot of the jargon from his time spent working on Marvel's Punisher comics during the early 90s.

The Strike Team section of Ground Division is inspired a lot by the characters of CyberForce, along with the SHOCC Troups of their main opponent, Cyberdata, an evil 90s style corporation who wanted to turn mutants into living weapons that they could sell to the highest bidder.

Another of the inspirations for Ground Division is Jim Lee's WildCATs comics (and the universe that spun out of them). WildCATs was a pretty paranoid comic at times, and it was definitely mired in the Cold War paranoia of the times. 

The basic concept of WildCATs was right there in the title of it: Covert! Action! Teams!

All of that is at the heart of Ground Division. They're a covert organization sanctioned by the U.S. government to kick ass and take names. The "wild" part of their name came from the fact that the protagonists of the book were a rogue team, unsanctioned by anyone. They were sort of an opposite to CyberForce above, because the WildCATs team in the book was actually funded by a corporation.

Being corporate sponsored makes sense, when you realize how many of the WildCATs characters were screwed over by the U.S. government. The character of Grifter was even experimented upon, and exposed to alien DNA that altered him and gave him some supernormal abilities. The contemporary version of the WildCATs team is still sponsored by a corporation, but with the zeitgeist of 2023, the corporation is up to some shady crap. What we're paranoid about changes with our lived experiences.

I don't think that there is anything more exemplar of Cold War paranoia than the Nick Fury Vs. SHIELD miniseries that Marvel Comics put out in the late 80s. This book seeded a lot of Marvel's espionage stories for decades following it, and inspired SHIELD-related plot elements in the MCU.

Nick Fury has lost control of the organization that he founded. It has been infiltrated by a conspiracy that has also worked its way into other organizations like Hydra, or the villainous corporation Roxxon Oil. I mean, they're an oil company. The evil is right there on the tin.

Nick finds out that something is wrong, and the only way to solve it is for him to go rogue. By the end of this series both SHIELD and Hydra are decimated, and SHIELD itself is no more. Nick goes away to think about how all of this happened NEVER TO BE A SPY AGAIN. The basics of Nick Fury Vs. SHIELD will be something that gets replayed a few times in various Marvel comics, because the creators at Marvel can't stay away from a concept like SHIELD. The upcoming Secret Invasion miniseries on Disney+ will likely dip into this well, too.

But the idea of trusting no one is central to espionage stories, and there will be an element of that to Ground Division as well. Like the old Bob Dylan quote that was used in so much advertising for the Watchmen comic: "To live outside the law, you must be honest." Is Ground Division honest?

Finally, although there are probably many other comics that I can talk about, is one of my favorite espionage-centric story arcs in comics: The Janus Directive. This story wove through a number of books published by DC Comics and ran throughout the Spring/Summer of 1989. 

During the 80s, a lot of government sponsored heroes and teams popped up in various DC Comics. Bringing all of the Action-Heroes influences full circle, three of the characters originally published by Charlton Comics (Sarge Steel, Captain Atom and The Peacemaker) would figure heavily into the Janus Directive story.

The basics of the plot were simple. Espionage agencies are by their own nature paranoid. They deal in secrets, and they work to keep secrets from others most of the time. This could be easily manipulated by a rogue force trying to destabilize the various operatives and organizations could play them against each other. Then they could deal with whoever survived. If they survived.

False information was planted where various operatives could find it, spelling out that there was someone in the U.S. Intelligence Community that had gone rogue and was setting up a power play to take the other organizations down. Everyone assumed it was Amanda Waller, because, well, it was Amanda Waller and that wasn't entirely implausible.

Of course, the various groups finally come together and realize that they're being manipulated, and track down the real culprit. Even though it wasn't Amanda Waller. There are a lot of fatalities, mostly among The Force of July, but no one liked them much anyway. The downfall of The Force of July would lead to weirder espionage stories with Father Time and SHADE (but that's a story for another blog post).

Most of these descriptions are very broad because if you haven't read them yet, I think that you should and I wouldn't want to ruin someone's first experience with any of these stories.

Despite there being people in costumes in a number of these stories, none of them are really super-hero stories, just like Action-Heroes isn't just a super-hero role-playing game. All of these comics can inspire your own Action-Heroes games. I have a rough idea of where I am going to go with Ground Division, but those of you with your own games can take these same inspirations and spin them into something different. That's a big part of what makes role-playing games cool, we can all spin stories from the same source material and have them look different from each other.

Footnote: Yes, I understand that saying DC Comics is like saying Detective Comics Comics, but it is what it is and you'll have to deal with it. It isn't like I've been using ATM machine repeatedly in this post.