Jump to content

The art of complications

Recommended Posts

or "Supercharging your Complications"

This post is a personal opinion on how to maximise your fun from complications. It is based on my experience GMing here (and complications is the first thing I look at), my own experience of playing PC’s and various discussions with other players about how to effectively use them. 
Complications are your choice, and you can have as many or as few as you wish. I certainly have not written this to try and enforce them on people, or to cause any offence at the ones people have. However, I am aware that people often feel their complications don’t come up, and I am going to try and explain why that is and how you might be able to improve that. Any advice I give here has come from doing it "wrong" myself, and learning, slowly, how to do it better. It is but an opinion and it is for you to consider if you wish, not to follow as a requirement. 
I am going to approach this from the angle of how to have fun with complications. Used well, they can be a powerful engine to create and drive stories, and your own enjoyment. It is not written from a tactical perspective of how to get as many hero points as possible. From that perspective, the obvious thing to do is to by as many ranks of luck as you can get away with – hero points are very powerful and cheap to buy with the luck feat.
For the purposes of example I am going to fabricate some imaginary complications and use a few of my own characters. Whilst this may be self centred, I didn’t want to pass judgement on any other players characters complications. However, I can assuredly say that some complications are more juicy than others when I look at them with a GM eye, and I will try and explain why. 
The Zen of Complications
The first difficulty anybody (myself included) has with creating complications is that you are creating problems and hassles for your character. This goes against the grain for a variety of reasons. If you played (or play) Dungeons and Dragons, the mighty father to all RPGs, you will have most likely have ingrained in you a reflex to maximise or optimise your PC (I know I have, although I have given that urge a slow, painful death over many years).
Furthermore, it is impossible to deny that part of the appeal of superheroes is to soar above the complexities and worries of the world (in some cases, literally soar). Complications are a self imposed demolition of such escapist fantasies, one it is not instantly easy to go along with. 
However, drama is fed by complications. Ultimately, you may find yourself in more control of your character by relinquishing your character’s ability to control. 
The Complication List
Your complication sheet on your character is not there as a tick box list, it is there as a guide to the GM, yourself, and players, about the key complications your characters have. You can earn an HP from a complication even if it is not on the list. For instance, if you meet an NPC in an adventure, and develop a relationship with that NPC, then that NPC could be a source of complications such as being an innocent victim or bystander later on in the thread. 
Some complications, like “Don’t hurt bystanders†or even “Secret I.D†are (at least by me) taken for granted. There is no harm in putting them in your complication list, but there is probably no need to either. Personally, I usually don’t clog up my sheets with these “universal†or at least extremely common complications. 
Complications that aren’t
When I look at complication lists as GM, seeing which one I can use (For those that don’t know, I almost never have a plot idea and advertise for PCs, I grab some PCs and organise a plot around them) the major issue I come across is complications that really aren’t complications at all. They are backstory, or plot hooks. Great for coming up with said plot, not great for kicking them into the playing field during the actual story. 
Sure, they may technically, possibly, be complications, but then so could pretty much anything in your backstory and you don’t need to repeat that again in your complication list. As I said above, not having something in your complication list doesn’t mean you can’t get a complication out of it. 
I shall give some made up examples of “Complications that aren’t†to explain this:
“Enemy: Dr. Simianâ€
Having enemies on your list is probably the most common example. This is a great back story, as it gives a built in antagonist to a thread. But every thread has an antagonist. Why is the enemy here a complication over and above your regular antagonist? This is an example of a complication that isn’t. It’s a great back story, it’s a great plot hook, but it doesn’t make your life any more complicated than having any other antagonist in the book. 
Of course, with a bit of effort you can make the Enemy complication work. If your enemy knows your secret I.D, or has particular information on you to make your life miserable, that certainly will create complications over and above your regular antagonist. And you can therefore get HP as an when those complications arise. But if this is the case, spell it out explicitly in your complication list so the GM knows why this Enemy will actually cause complications.
You can also use Enemy in a broader sense, if you have a particularly bad reputation and in the course of the regular story this can create additional problems. For instance, Pitch has Enemy: Biker Gangs. Now, in a biker gang thread that is no complication at all, but say she is investigating some biker cult, and her reputation means she gets mugged instead of aided (the main antagonists being something or somebody else), you could call that an extra problem. Spiderman’s enemies being the police or J.J.Jameson are another example. Whilst he is fighting (e.g) the Rhino, he has all this bad publicity to make that fight more difficult. 
But there are other complications that are not really complications too. 
“War Veteran: Captain Example has seen too much war in his life and will become very upset if he sees war scenesâ€
Excellent story, and you can write about his past and his inner turmoil. A great character. But this is backstory, maybe even a plot hook for him to stop a war. But how does it make his life complicated? Emotional distress is not a complication, it is fuel for good writing (which is important!). You can certainly make this complication work, but as it stands it doesn’t really work well as a complication.
But it may do, with a little refinement…
Making complications work
So, how do you make a complication work? I will now make a simple and obvious statement. 
Complications cause complications. 
I know that is patronising and obvious, but it is worth reflecting on. How exactly will your complication make your characters life tangibly and materially complicated? Not emotional distress, not personality, not plot hook. How will it create a real, concrete pain in the backside for the character in the course of a thread?
The answer is to make them applicable (they will come up) and tangible (they cause a true problem). 
Applicable complications: Complications that come up.
Making complications applicable is the first thing to consider. In other words, it can crop up. 
“Dress Sense: Mr Smooth only likes to wear the latest fashions and the best stylesâ€
So, this is an example of a complication which is very weakly applicable. Of course, it could potentially come up, but how are you, or the GM going to trigger this? I am sure you could work out a scenario in your head, as with any complication. But it remains the case that this is not an easy complication. 
“Darkness Phobiaâ€
Is much more realistic, a complication a GM can say “ah yes! Now this is something I can trigger!â€
If you look at Rene’s sheet, I will give a good example and a bad example:
“Give me Liberty! Passionate - too passionate, about life, liberty, and politics. He will not be diplomatic or measured in his defence of these things, and will anger at any oppression.â€
As you can see this is rather vague. It is hard to trigger. So possibly he might anger or insult somebody, and fail any attempt at diplomacy. I keep it in as I think it may come up, and its an important part of his personality flaw not covered elsewhere, but I am fully aware that this a meagre meal for a GM. Of all his complications this is the one that is probably never going to come up. 
There are a lot of complications with such level of vagueness. Most often they are about a characters personality, such as impulsive, easily angered, and so on. Good descriptions of personality are vital for good writing and character, but not easy to actually put into play without diligence and effort. And impulsive and easily angered are the two best ones. Something like “shy†in is going to be really hard work to make a real tangible complication. My advice is if you are going to put in a character / personality flaw as a complication, try to spruce it up a bit with concrete examples and real problems. 
Onto a complication that is something that can easily come up:
“Beware the Id! Rene’s connection to the dreamworld is not entirely conscious. The powers in his dream array may fail or work unexpectedly due to the essentially unconscious nature of dreaming – particularly if he conflicted about, or repressing something.â€
This complication, however, gives very wide scope to the GM. All sorts of failings and unconscious problems can be thrashed out with the GM to cause some of his key powers to work in unexpected and unreliable ways. It is easy to get this into a thread, if wanted. 
It is worth trawling through your complication list to really look at if these complications have ever come up, and if not, could they ever realistically come up. If the answer is no, or probably not, I would suggest deleting them or refining them to be more of a pain in the backside for you!
Bring the pain: Making the complication hurt. 
The other quality a complication needs, other than just cropping up, is to be something that really does distress, hurt, or screw up the character. 
And by this I don’t mean “causes emotional painâ€. Emotional pain is just your characters response to something, it’s a not a complication in itself (although it could lead to a complication). If you want to go for emotional pain triggered by certain events, then it is probably worth being specific about what actually happens. 
Let us return to the fear of darkness example above. A complication that can easily come up. 
If your fear of darkness is “Reminds [x] of his bad childhood, and causes his anxiety, making him on edge†you have not made the complication (practically) hurt. You have just described an emotional response. Now, that emotional response may then lead to complications, such as snapping at the police officer beside you, who decides you are too unstable to lead the investigation, or scaring the child you are escorting out of the sewer – who decides to bolt away from you. But just being anxious and on edge is not, in itself, going to be a complication. Again. It’s great backstory, it will be good writing, but it because the effect of the fear is not specific, and unlikely to materially hurt, it is not a powerful complication to drive story or earn HP. 
You could however, make this fear of darkness more specific. He will flee, or refuse to enter. He may lose the focus necessary for his powers. Or you could hash things out saying that in darkness he will always fail his will saves, earning a HP for every deliberate fail (getting the worse effect) until he comes to some inner resolution. By hashing out this, you can create real problems for your character rather than just emotional distress. Again, complications need to hurt and create real problems. 
So, I will give an example of a very concrete, specific complication of Rene:
The Ink well is dry His magic paintbrush needs magic ink, which takes time to make. His brush is good for several applications of magical effects, but is not inexhaustible.
This is not the best complication to drive a story by any means, but it gives an example of a real concrete effect. At a crucial moment, to make the story neat, he runs out of ink, and bam, we have a real difficulty. 
Just as a said it is worth examining your complications to see if they will crop up, it is worth examining to see if they will actually cause some tangible problem. To go back to my initial comment: Complications cause complications. 
Finally: Supercharged Complications for fun. 
To end, let us step away from the whole issue of making your complications come up and count.
To make complications really sing and be enjoyable, I have noticed as both a player and a GM that some complication’s are simply stand out awesome. Not because they are particularly applicable, or cause tangible problems, but because they immediately scream at a reader “storyâ€. 
These complications are few and far between, but if you ever GM, your eyes will pop at seeing them. You will immediately go “YES!†and realise that is a complication you and your player can have great fun with. It will power a story, over and above being a simple plot hook. 
As I said I won’t use other players complications, I will stick to that, although I know I have my favourite complications from other players. 
So I will give, and pardon my self congratulation, the best example from my own characters. Now, bear in mind this is my seventh PC on the board, so getting to this stage of complication took several attempts and a lot of learning. 
The example I will give is Pitch’s (what I think is) best complication. 
Twisted Tounges: Tazel, her pet demon, whilst technically fanatical (and who must obey her) actually hates her and would do anything to get her into trouble. He is bound to tell the truth, but of course he may tell it selectively or get her into all sorts of trouble by doing so, using deceit and manipulation. Given he is the source of her comprehend power, that would be one way of doing so (giving interpretations that are correct but misleading).
For those of you unaware of Pitch’s history, I will not bore. In a nutshell she has a demon bound to her bloodline, Tazel, that lives inside her and can power up her physical strength. Whilst he mechanically is built as a summon / alt form array, he is in fact open to all sort of deceit, misinformation, and generally making Pitch’s life well…hell. Of course, she can order him to shut up (and give her some respite), but where’s the fun in that? Even when this complication is not actually generating HP’s, it has proven very good at powering a thread with truths, half truths, and lies.
So that’s it. I hope this was at least interesting to read and reflect on, even if you don’t agree with it (which you certainly don’t have to). I for one feel complications are the main power house of the M&M system, not unique to it, but important all the same. Getting the most out of your complications is both difficult but highly rewarding. Using them is always a challenge for a player and a GM, but you can, by refining them, make that challenge  easier. 
Link to comment
  • 2 years later...

This article guides fairly well, introducing the meat of the subject, but then kind-of showcasing it as opposed to inviting the readers to actually taste the meat. The best glimpse was with Spiderman.
.....What we are really talking about here, is how can the player empower the GM to create the background of the current story in which the character's life is going wrong in every way? I think, as with Supercape's Spiderman example, we should have several people bring up their favorite graphic or in-print stories, and show the difference between background parts, plot-hooks, drawbacks, and complications.

.....I would like to start with a book by Lois McMasters Bujold = The Warrior's Apprentice. The book itself was captivating. I understood, empathized with, and was swept into the main character's world by the third page. I have tried to analyze the book, but each time I read it I get swept up into the story again.
...Long Nutshell = Normal-ish kid with physical and emotional problems fails an intense test, which makes his life into a tragedy. As his bones 'recover' he manages to exit his Father's world where all of his hopes and dreams are based, to zombie-vacation in the world where his Mother was raised (showing us the differences between the two worlds). Circumstances come up which empower/ require the kid to display how much of a genius, con-man, and fool he is (simultaneously),, and leave him with some friends in a starship managing a cargo. It turns out they got conned, and sloppy space-mercenaries take them over. The kid's genius and experience with military minds comes to center-stage as he escapes the control of the mercs, counter-takes them over and convinces them that they have been recruited by a much more powerful and effective mercenary outfit. The reader becomes intensely aware that this kid was never normal, he just felt about his life the way that most humans do. The kid leap-frog--bootstraps his way into taking over all of the ships of that force, creating the regulations of the fictional space mercenaries, and training the people he trusts to maintain and continue the con. Skipping a couple of adventures, he makes it back to his Father's world, where his Father has been accused of treason by sending him out to acquire a space-force. While the confusion is cleared up, his Father uses the opportunity to convince the Emperor and other powers that his son is "too dangerous to be allowed to run around without being controlled", so they forcibly put him into the Imperial army officer's academy, which was the aim of the original test! The book finishes up demonstrating the kid using his intelligence and forethought to survive and conquer tests and convert potential enemies into allies.

....The kid was raised in a society where any physical deformity was castigated and persecuted when possible, mostly focused on mutations. That's background. The kid has a physical problem that makes it seem like he is a mutant. That's a bunch of plot-hooks, but not always a complication, or at least, not by itself. The kid and most of his family are intensely focused on him becoming an Imperial officer like his Father and Grandfather before him. Good basis of drama = background. The kid often makes hurried or foolish decisions. Drawback. Except these three things, background, plot-hook, and Drawback can combine into an instance of a complication. The kid is taking a test and makes a foolish decision, in a hurry, egged-on by a fellow test-taker who is 'persecuting the mutant' and acting as an enemy. This results in him shattering his leg-bones, failing the test, and having to go to a hospital. It is this complication which precipitates the whole story. How would I phrase it? "Auto-fails Wisdom-checks when mocked." Most of the time, such a failure would not result in any story-drama. It would be up to the GM to arrange the background-experience (test, culture of mocking) to make that complication work. to get a story going.
...There are similar combinations between the kid's sense of honor, need to deceive others, intense desire to be excellent at war, and extremely (to the kid) new and different background cultures that he must survive and adapt-to as he passes through them. In the world of his Father, sense of honor and rituals of honor are common, so having a sense of honor is no complication or plot=hook. But when the kid moves into other cultures, it becomes rare, and when it drives the story, it acts as a complication. How to predict that it could or will drive the story is difficult to see.

Edited by Ra-endome
Link to comment

Create an account or sign in to comment

You need to be a member in order to leave a comment

Create an account

Sign up for a new account in our community. It's easy!

Register a new account

Sign in

Already have an account? Sign in here.

Sign In Now
  • Create New...