(Metagame Archive) How to Make a Vs. System Expansion in Nine Easy Steps, Part 2

By Danny Mandel

Design Bible

At this point, we’ve organized the team and decided what our goals are for our imaginary expansion. Next up is research of the IP, or “Intellectual Property.”
Part Three: IP Research
Overview

The purpose of IP research is to get as acquainted as possible with the source material of the expansion. This helps us pick out the most appropriate characters, locations, and so on. It also helps us to mesh flavor with mechanics when designing cards.

Questions on IP Research

Which members of the R&D team are going to do the research?
What methods are there to do IP research?
What are the major . . .
                     characters?
                     locations?
                     plot points?
                     story arcs?
                     weapons or other items?
What other characters, locations, and other things might we want to include if there’s room?

 
Thoughts on IP Research

It’s not necessary that every member of the team learn the source material. In fact, it’s often good for a few team members to remain unbiased as to the comic book power levels of the characters. That said, it’s most important for the lead designer of the set to have a handle on the material, as he or she will be choosing which characters (and other card types) make it into the set.
The best way to research source material is to read the relevant comics. However, since many of the characters or teams we’re going to build sets around have had hundreds of issues, it’s often too time consuming to read them all. While the lead designer should try to read as many major storylines as possible, at some point, time pressure demands other avenues of research.
Probably the next best way to research source material is via the web. There are many great websites that outline every little detail about a character or team.
A third way to learn about an IP is through the material Marvel or DC sends us. While this is often not as comprehensive as what we can find on the web, it’s still very good, and it often features the major characters that the brand is currently pushing or featuring.
 
At this point, we should have done enough research into our expansion’s IP to know all about the major and minor characters, locations, storylines, and so on.
Part Four: Team and Roster Selection
Overview

The purpose of this part is to lock down the main teams of the expansion and to fill out each team with the appropriate characters.

Questions on Team and Roster Selection

How many major teams should we include in this expansion?
What are the major teams we’re going to include?
Which characters must be included on each team?
Which characters are optional?
How many versions should we include of the major characters?
Are there appropriate “guest star” characters we should include?

Thoughts on Team and Roster Selection

Usually we include four major teams in an expansion, but there could be a reason to add an additional smaller one. For example, in Marvel Origins, we wanted to do the X-Men and their enemies, the Brotherhood, and we wanted to do the Fantastic Four and their enemy, Dr. Doom. Fortunately, we had enough room to add in the Sentinels, especially because their many Army characters meant that we could make them a full team while giving them a smaller character pool.

With our IP research finished, we should be ready to lock down the four main teams of the expansion. Our next job is to fill out the teams’ rosters. At first it’s best to go ahead and overload the teams with more characters than they’ll probably end up with. This is because we always end up trimming as we go, so it’s good to start with extra “buffer” characters.
As we fill out the rosters, we should pay attention to which characters are “must-haves” and which ones are “cuttable” if we don’t have room. We should also decide which characters are going to get multiple versions. There are four main reasons to have different versions of a character:
1. The character has lot of different powers, and we want to use different versions to showcase each one. Wolverine is a good example of this, with his 3-drop showing off his combat prowess, his 5-drop showing off his healing factor, and his 7-drop showing off his berserker rage.
2. The character has had different identities or costumes over its career. Barbara Gordon is a good example of this, as she was once Batgirl but is now Oracle.
3. The character is a superstar. Hal Jordan is a good example of this. While he has had other identities (such as Spectre or Parallax), he’s so famous that it’s worth having multiple versions of Hal as Green Lantern.
4. The team naturally has a small roster and needs to use multiple versions of characters to flesh it out. The Fantastic Four is a good example of this, with three different versions of each of the main four characters. Of course, the FF also flesh out their roster by using guest stars like the New FF and the Inhumans.
Speaking of guest stars, now is the time to decide if there are any guest stars we want to include in a team’s roster. To be clear, by “guest star” I mean a character that doesn’t really belong on a team, but is acceptable and cool if we include it there. There are three main reasons to include a guest star character on a team:
1. It’s a way to include a character “ahead of it’s time”. Putting Superman, Big Blue Boy Scout on the Gotham Knights allowed us to have one of DC’s premier characters in the Origins set instead of having to wait until the Man of Steel set.
2. The team naturally has a small roster and could use guest stars to flesh it out. The New Fantastic Four characters are a good example of this kind of guest star.
3. It would simply be cool to include the guest star on the team. An example of this would be adding Iceman and Firestar to the Spider-Friends team as an homage to the old “Spider-Man and his Amazing Friends” cartoon.
At this point, we should have our teams selected and our rosters packed with characters. Next time, we’ll go over how we handle the art in the set.
 
Green Lantern Design Diary
Part Three: IP Research
I’ve read comics my whole life. I mean, I love comics. The sad part is that growing up, I never really got into Green Lantern. I mean, I knew of Hal, Kyle, John, and Guy. But it was more that I’d heard of them than I knew details about their lives and stories. This meant that going into my first lead design of a Vs. expansion, I really didn’t know the source material well enough. One thing I did know though: We definitely had to include Rot Lop Fan.
You see, like any discerning comic book reader, I love Alan Moore’s work. Way back when, he wrote what was essentially a one-off story about Katma Tui journeying to appoint a new Green Lantern. The problem was the race from which she would select the GL lived in total darkness. As such, they didn’t have eyes or any other sort of light receptor. Further, they had no concept of light or colors, so the concept of a “Green Lantern” was indescribable. Ultimately, she decides to improvise, giving Rot Lop Fan (the prospective GL) a power bell (instead of a ring), and bestowing upon him the title “F-Sharp Bell” (apparently F-Sharp is a pleasing sound among that race). The point is, I immediately fell in love with the character, so he became a “must-include” character in my mind.
But I digress. The point of this section is to talk about IP research, so here goes. In order to get up to speed, I bought and read pretty much every GL graphic novel I could get my hands on, which included the “Emerald” series (Dawn, Dawn II, and Twilight) and a bunch of new ones starring Kyle Rayner. Also, our in-house comic book guru, Kevin Tewart (of Kevin Tewart and the Max Weinberg Seven fame) gave me a list of must-read Green Lantern comics. (I don’t have the list in front of me, but if there’s interest, I’ll post it in a later article.)
Unfortunately, though DC had given us big booklets on Batman and Superman, they didn’t have any official source material on Green Lantern. Fortunately, as always, the web had tons of material on all the main characters and villains of the GL mythos. Hurray!
It took me about two weeks of solid reading to get up to speed enough to move on to filling out the teams’ rosters. Okay, that’s not entirely true. I was assigned as GL lead well before set creation actually began, and I used that time to start reading up in my spare time. If I had to guess, I’d say that extra time was the equivalent of a third week of solid research.
Part Four: Team and Roster Selection
We knew we were going to be doing the Green Lanterns and Emerald Enemies right from the get-go. We also felt we could get solid mileage out of a Manhunter team, and I’d been itching to give the DC brand a major Army team. This left only the fourth team to lock down. Our options were to do the Qwardians as a major team with the Crime Syndicate as a smaller, fifth team, or merge the two teams and just call them Anti-Matter. We decided to go with the latter plan because we felt that the Qwardians weren’t cool or robust enough to warrant an entire team to themselves.
As an aside, while the Crime Syndicate is more of a JLA enemy than a Green Lantern one, I definitely wanted them in Green Lantern Corps because they added some coolness to a set that was going to have tons of obscure characters, and it wasn’t like the upcoming JLA set was going to be short on content.
Once we had the teams locked down, it was time to fill out their ranks. The Emerald Enemies were the easiest to fill out, so I’ll start with them. Basically, we took all of the coolest Green Lantern villains and rolled them into a single team. This was a little complicated because the only thing the members on this team shared was that they were enemies of various Green Lanterns (unlike the Anti-Matter team, who are from the same universe, or the Green Lanterns, who are all members of the Corps or have had the mantle of Green Lantern at some point).
This led to the question of whether or not to have an Emerald Enemies Sinestro. It definitely made sense to put him on the Anti-Matter team, since it was the Qwardians who hooked him up with the ring, and it made sense to have him on the GL team, because he started out as a Lantern. We eventually decided he was famous enough that it would be fine to have him on the Emerald Enemies as well. Now the only question was, could we find an excuse to put him on the Manhunters . . .
The Anti-Matter team’s roster was pretty straightforward, especially after Kevin told me about the Qwardian Conglomerate. Suddenly the team was peopled with evil versions of the JLA, which I thought was pretty cool. We fleshed them out with various Army Qwardians and a few named ones, like my personal favorite, Yokal, the Atrocious. I wonder who would win in a fight, him or Unus . . .
The only thing left was to decide whether or not to put the Anti-Monitor on that team (and in the set at all). One could argue that he was really an entire-DC-Universe enemy, not just a Green Lantern one. Fortunately, no one did. The big guy was in and on the team.
There was only once issue we needed to resolve with the Manhunters: Would DC allow us to come up with names for the various Manhunter Army characters? It turned out the answer was yes, so we were pretty much off to the races.
The Green Lanterns were the toughest roster to fill out. This was because on the one hand, there were tons and tons and tons (and tons) of GLs we wanted to include, and on the other hand, there were several Lanterns that could easily warrant multiple versions based on their popularity. For example, I could see including three Hals and Kyles, and two Alan Scotts, Jades, Guy Gardners, and John Stewarts. That right there is fourteen characters.
We were in a bind. While you know the end of the story (only Hal and Kyle got multiple versions on the team, and Guy got an unaffiliated version), at this point we wanted to keep our options open, so the roster included multiples of all of the characters I mentioned in the above paragraph. This would last until it was time to do art requests.
Okay, this is the part where I explain why I didn’t put Green Arrow in the set. First of all, there were two possible ways we could include him: as a guest star on the Green Lanterns, or as an unaffiliated character. There were two reasons I didn’t want to put him on the Green Lantern team.
1. As I mentioned above, we were really crunched for space on that team. He would have taken a slot from one of the obscure Green Lantern characters, and I felt that this set should really showcase the diversity of the GL Corps. Plus we’d be doing Green Arrow in the JLA set.
2. I wanted every member on the Green Lanterns (at least in this set) to pretty much be able to fly around and make green energy constructs using a power ring. (I realize that sometimes Jade can generate the energy from inside, but sometimes she does use a ring, and either way, her power suite is pretty much the same as a regular Lantern.) While Green Arrow hangs out with Green Lanterns a lot, he doesn’t really fit in with the team.
The main reason we didn’t include him as an unaffiliated character was just because he doesn’t really feel like an unaffiliated character (I mean, there’s been a lot of discussion about him warranting an entire team to himself—not exactly typical of an unaffiliated character), and because again, we’re going to be doing him in JLA.
Okay, them’s my reasons. Feel free to send me angry emails and/or dead fish. Feel even free-er to send them to Humpherys.
Okay, that’s it for filling out the teams, though there will be a bit more on this topic next week when I talk about the wonderful world of art.
Q&A
The question for this week comes from Bizarro 98, who has expressed interest in adding a “Bizarro harangues Danny” section to my articles. I figure we’ll see how it goes. The following is actually trimmed down to cut down on word count.
As was promised, Part Zero contained some excellent candy, but the comment about the Qwardians lacking “punch” without the “evil–Justice League–doppelganger” sub-teams grabbed my attention like a jalapeño jelly bean. It reminded me of a question I’ve been wanting to ask you for a long time, but always talked myself out of because of it’s irrelevancy in these early stages of the game’s lifespan.
I don’t think anyone can deny that Vs. System is a very well designed game, though there are times when flaws in the very structure of the game itself become obvious. One such problem is the natural conflict that arises between the concept of a team and the concept of a deck.
Now, don’t get me wrong. So far, Vs. System has managed to blend the two concepts almost seamlessly. Thanks to the handling of team affiliations and team-stamping, building a deck thematically devoted to a comic book team is not only possible but encouraged. However, I worry that this is due largely in part to the fact that Vs. System has, so far, included only large and widely-represented teams in the game.
A deck, in order to function successfully within the game, needs to have a certain minimum number of characters. Therefore, a team, in order to successfully devote an entire deck to it, must have a certain minimum number of members. From the way you describe it, it sounds as though this fundamental aspect of the game is what almost kept the Qwardians from making it into the Green Lantern Corps set.

Thankfully, certain teams have ways to get around this problem, like the aforementioned sub-teams in Anti-Matter and first-issue martyrs in X-Statix, but when you look at the comic book superhero industry in it’s entirety, you see that that the vast majority of teams out there have never had memberships that exceed the single digits through even the most generous stretch of the imagination.

And it’s not just traditional teams, either. Often times, a hero will have several allies or sidekicks that, thematically, would warrant their own affiliation, but not enough to meet the minimum quota required to build a deck around. Even more tragic is when a hero has a fleshed-out cadre of villains that could easily be made into an affiliation, but no superhero allies with which to construct an opposing team from.

It is my hope that by writing this email, I have given you the opportunity to put my troubled mind to rest by letting me know how Upper Deck plans to deal with this problem in the long-term future.
Okay, maybe it wasn’t trimmed that much. Here’s the answer I gave Bizarro, also trimmed down a bit. I did tell him that I was going to expand on my answer in this article, but reading it over, I’m pretty happy with it.
One, even if in the end we felt that the Qwardians alone weren’t large or cool enough to warrant an entire affiliation, we totally would have done a few on their own (probably like the current status of the Skrulls). And, of course, at least some of them would be Army so players could build real (if not good) decks. And actually, for those guys, volume of characters wasn’t the problem. It was just an overall fear that they would be an obscure faction in our most obscure expansion to date.
 
Two, as for your question about how we’d handle a really small team . . . here are a few approaches.
 
1. We can just double or triple up on versions. As you know, while this is workable, it’s not really ideal if there aren’t good thematic reasons to do different versions of the same character.
 
2. We can just make their character suites small and narrow, like the Fearsome Five. Now it’s true that DC’s FF isn’t currently fleshed-out as a full team, though giving them a few more characters and 7–10 non-characters would go along way (even though they weren’t designed to be super-cohesive the way “normal teams” are).
 
3. Guest stars. For example, we added Superman to the Gotham Knights because Bats and Supes sometimes hang out. Just the same we could have (and possibly should have) added Oliver Queen to the GLC (though I had my reasons, I swear!). So yeah, if we do a GA team and are strapped for content, we might want to add in Hal.
 
4. Some combination of the above. Double up on versions a few times to bring the roster up to ten or so, throw in a few Army characters if it would make sense, and give them a healthy number of non-characters (ten or more).
 
5. There’s also something new we’re working on that helps with this issue, but I would be killed if I spilled.
 
One thing you’ve probably noticed is that there’s really just a threshold where a team has enough characters to build a deck. Having many more characters than what’s required by that threshold usually just means the team has some redundancy available or it has some off the wall characters that require their own strange deck type. (Phantasm and Intergang are good examples of outlandish characters that aren’t really competing for a normal slot in a deck.)
 
My point is, in general I don’t think it’s too difficult to achieve that threshold, though it’s way better if there’s enough flavor content to add more characters on top.
A note to the other players who sent me emails: I will be answering all of them either in future articles or personally (or both). I’m only doing one question today because I’m a little tight on time and space.
Okay, that’s all for now. Tune in next week for an artful look at Vs.
Send questions or comments to dmandel@metagame.com.
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