Thanks to shows like Critical Role, The Adventure Zone, and Queens of Adventure, it’s more popular than ever to watch others play tabletop roleplaying games. DC Universe has now gotten into the game with DC Universe All Star Games, based on a classic 1980s DC RPG, and io9 spoke with Game Master Sam Witwer (Star Wars: The Clone Wars) on bringing old-school DC to the modern era.
DC Universe All Star Games is a five-part miniseries based on Witwer’s original campaign, The Breakfast League, set within the world of DC Heroes. The game features Star Wars Rebels’ Freddie Prinze Jr. (Carl), Team Unicorn founder Clare Grant (Katie), WWE star Xavier Woods (Tommy), and Harley Quinn’s Vanessa Marshall (Dina) as students attending school in a suburb outside of Gotham City. Naturally, this puts them front and center during some high-stakes adventures...if they can get their homework done on time.
We chatted with Witwer on the phone about how DC Universe All Star Games came together, the surprising request DC had, what he considers his personal GM style, and his tips on how to run roleplaying games during times of social distancing. Below is an edited, condensed version of our interview.
io9: Hi, how are you doing?
Sam Witwer: Great, how are you doing?
io9: Doing all right. I mean, I know it’s kind of a loaded question right now because we’re all in the same boat together.
Witwer: Well, thanks so much—part of why I think it’s it’s worth doing these things is because people need some distraction right now.
io9: So, let’s start by talking about DC Universe All Star Games. I know that this is something that you have created, these are characters and storylines that you have built. Can you tell me a little bit about how it came together?
Witwer: Actually, it started a while back. Jon Lee Brody found a sealed DC Heroes roleplaying game boxset from the ‘80s, still shrink-wrapped. And me and Freddie [Prinze Jr.] were very excited by that, we were like, “Cool, great!” And then eventually they came up with the idea, “Why don’t we play that?”
So, I got my hands on some of those same rules, looked them over, saw that they were very, very firmly in the ‘80s. The art style was the ‘80s, the technology that’s described—for example, Batman’s utility belt—very ‘80s. Like he had a microfilm camera and he had a micro-cassette tape recorder that could record for a long time before you had to pop open up a cassette. Things that, you know, that mean that my cell phone is a better utility belt than what Batman had in the ‘80s.
So I said to them, I’m like, “Okay, if we do this, this game has to take place in the ‘80s.” They said, “Great! What do you have in mind?” I’m like, “You’re going to have to wait, because you’re a player and I can’t tell you what I have in mind.” And I sort of started coming up with: What would be a fun thing to do, provided these rules, this ‘80s theme. What would make me laugh, what would make me smile while watching it? So I created a mashup ‘80s DC Universe world, and the idea of these characters being teenagers and making a Breakfast Club thing out of it. Sort of the John Hughes adventure.
io9: You have quite a bit of experience building and creating your own RPGs and scenarios for your players as a GM.
Witwer: [laughs] I’ve been doing this since I was a kid, yeah.
io9: Were there any unique challenges that came with this one, or was it just very familiar territory for you?
Witwer: There’s always unique challenges. The unique challenge with this was that it was always going to be on camera, so people were asking me like, “Hey, could you make things happen that provide for good cliffhangers? If we were to do 20-to-30 minute episodes...so can you do a cliffhanger every 30 minutes?” And you’re just like, “Maybe?”
Yes, I’m the writer and director and I’m the supporting cast, but I’m not the protagonist. The protagonists are these players. So things are going to go off the rails, things are going to happen that I don’t anticipate. So, I’ll do my best to make it eventful, but who knows how this is going to play out. I’m glad they gave me those guidelines, because ultimately it worked. Watching it, I’m like, “Oh my god, actually those were good notes!”
The other note that DC gave me was—you know, it kind of threw me for a loop at first. Because I had this idea of, OK, it’s going to be teenagers and it’s going to be a really small scale little adventure they’re going to go on, like very small scale. And then DC said, “Oh, and we’d also like you to use our core characters. We’d like these characters to show up in some way, shape, or form.” I was like, “What do you mean, like Batman and all them? Wonder Woman?” And they were like, “Yeah.” Okay, all right, that sort of changes the scale a little bit of what I was thinking about. In that note, that’s also a terrific gift. I didn’t think for a moment that they would want us to go and [use] their core characters.
io9: Every GM has their own personal style and way they they prefer to play. What is your personal style? How much control do you try to bring to your players, and how much do you like to sit back and let them make the world themselves?
Witwer: I like it when my players throw me off balance. I think that’s really important. You have to allow these people to do whatever it is that they want to do, to feel like they are really in a world where they can do anything. But the whole key to that is to make sure there are consequences should they do something a little bit foolish. I think that the balance between those two things—one: freedom, and two: consequence—that’s what makes the world feel real for the players. Sometimes players are given a little too much free rein kind of to do whatever they want and there are no consequences, and that just sort of makes people feel like there are no stakes and they can just get away with murder, and no one really wants to do that. They want to be challenged and they want to test the boundaries.
I remember this one game that I played where I led this super foolhardy attack on this overwhelming force, and, like, we didn’t succeed in this attack against this overwhelming force. But there was a magic item we had that just, you know, poof! Then a dragon appeared and pulled us out of it, got us away from the whole combat and got us out of danger. I remember thinking at the time, like, suddenly I was less interested in the world and it was because there were no consequences. I knew on some level I’d made dumb, dumb decision, and the GM was looking at it like, “Okay, well that’s just going to get everybody killed, I’m going to pull them out of it.” And it would have been better if something really bad had happened to me. I would have taken the game a hell of a lot more seriously if I was, you know, not punished but saw the logical consequences to such a risky maneuver.
When it comes to my style of gaming, I kind of feel like if people are playing really smart and creatively and are not being foolhardy, they should have a very good chance of survival, right? They should ever really be able to get out and survive. But if they’re being foolish, you have to remember that they’re sort of like kids who really want to be told by adults—they want discipline from the adults around them. The players will test boundaries to see how real a world is. That doesn’t mean you have to kill them, but have them lose a pinky here or there. There are other ways to have consequences.
io9: DC Universe All Star Games is in person, and a lot of roleplaying game podcasts and streamers tend to be in person because it provides that interpersonal connection. But unfortunately, that’s not something that we’re able to fully get at this time. In your experience, how do you run remote sections? What advice would you give to players to do that?
Witwer: Well, I’ve been using Roll20.net. That’s how I run games with people who are not where I live, and it works really, really well. It links up with webcams, microphones, stuff like that. You can see portraits of your friends down there [at the bottom of the screen], and it’s a pretty well-thought-out interface.
io9: And how do you as a GM work to make sure that your players are able to still fully immerse themselves in this world if you’re having that extra challenge of the distance?
Witwer: People are focused and they sit around and play Roll20 together. It can be fantastic. It can be a great experience. We’ve got some really, really, really fun sessions on something like Roll20. I think there’s something called Fantasy Grounds as well. There’s a lot of different places you can go and check this stuff out. A lot of these places have templates for various games like Dungeons and Dragons and so forth. So long as people are focused and are committed to making the game good, that’s really more important than the medium. That’s even more important than the loss of—the best obviously is face-to-face, but if you can’t have that. If people are focused and want to have a good time, they’re going to have a good time.
io9: What are you hoping audiences get out of watching DC Universe All Star Games—particularly now, when we’re kind of needing people more than ever?
Witwer: I hope that they’re entertained. I hope they laugh. Basically, that’s about as far as I’ve taken it. I hope that people are inspired to go and just grab a roleplaying game. Doesn’t even matter what it is, really. What matters is that players all get together and that every player at the table—not just the GM—is looking out for everyone else, which is a great model for how we should all be behaving with the current public health crisis that’s happening.
Generally in RPGs, the Game Master really feels a sense of responsibility to keep everyone entertained. And what I challenge my players to do is like, “Hey guys, it’s not just my responsibility to entertain everyone. It’s everyone’s responsibility to make sure that everyone is having a good time.” So you have a bunch of people, really a bunch of friends, who are looking out for everyone and really want everyone at that table to have a good time. You can’t lose.
DC Universe All-Star Games is currently available on DC Universe.
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