This Favored Land: A More ‘Open’ Approach to Super Powers

By Allan Goodall, (c) 2009.

Central to the premise of This Favored Land is the concept that super-powered Talents really did exist in the American Civil War, but their existence was hidden and/or buried. The result is a world where the war and Reconstruction occur as seen historically, at least on the surface. Super power use is covert. The Gift is known to only a small number of people. The most common (and, from a metagaming standpoint, the cheapest) miracles are those that do not warp or break the laws of physics.

That’s one way to play This Favored Land, but it’s not the only way. What if you want to have Captain Confederacy battle the Union Talent Terrible Swift Sword over the battlefield at Gettysburg? Chapter 7 touches on alternative play styles — a more “open” approach to 19th Century super powers — without going into a lot of detail. So lets take a closer look at the idea of wide open superheroics during the American Civil War.

What does it mean to make super powers more “open”? At its most basic, it means giving the characters access to a wide range of miracles without requiring particular flaws to protect the integrity of the universe. Going a step further, it means playing in a universe where the characters are open with their powers, where they can flaunt their Gift.

There are three important aspects to consider when making a game of This Favored Land more “open”: What, if any, limitations are placed on the choice of super powers or how they work?How will open use of powers affect North American society?How will open powers affect the course of the American Civil War (or other conflicts in the same period)?

Miracle Choice and Functionality

The choice of normal, restricted, and unavailable miracles in This Favored Land was deliberate. The list was created with the concept that The Gift was subtle enough that 21st Century readers of history never noticed it. At the same time, players like doing cool, impossible stuff when they play a super hero game. So, instead of just limiting players to mental or hard to detect abilities (which, actually, was considered early on), players can do some impossible things, they just have to pay a steep Willpower penalty for it. The truly physics-shattering stuff — like shrinking to the size of an ant, or growing into a 50 foot collossus — is in the unavailable list.

If you are running a more open game, you don’t have to restrict the players’ choice of miracles. Likewise, you don’t have to require Willpower Cost or Direct Feed on particular miracles. For that matter, you don’t have to require the use of Willpower at all. I recommend Willpower because it’s a cool mechanic, but not everyone wants to bother with the bookkeeping it requires.

The limitations, or lack thereof, that you place on miracles will have a direct effect on the next two aspects of your game.

Society’s Reaction to The Gift

This Favored Land assumes that if The Gift was ever made common knowledge, it would tear the fabric of 19th Century North American society apart. Or, rather, The Gifted believe that it would tear society apart. Whether it would or not depends a lot on your personal take on human psychology and sociology.

There’s no way to tell just what would happen, of course, but history does provide us with some clues. People of the 19th Century were caught between superstition and the popularization of science and technology. The 19th Century saw a greater pace of technological change than any other era before it. At the same time, science was still lacking in a number of key areas. Few sophisticated Americans believed illness came from demonic possession, but they didn’t know where disease did come from. It wasn’t until the late 1850s that they discovered cholera was tied to particular water sources. Germ theory was in its infancy. The best guess for Yellow Fever had it coming from “vapors” (after all, Yellow Fever struck most frequently in hot, swampy locations).

While science was on the threshold of a number of important discoveries, the people of North America were deeply spiritual. Antebellum Americans lived during the 2nd Great Awakening — a period of religious revival and evangelism that lasted from the 1790s to the 1840s. A belief in a superior being and/or the afterlife was almost universal, with athiesm confined to the intelligensia. As mentioned in This Favored Land, this was also the period that gave birth to Spiritualism.

Between religion and science lay some pretty strange, and troubling, beliefs. Astrology was largely dismissed not because it was silly or a sham, but because it was pagan. “Scientists” tried to determine a man’s character through bumps on his head or the shape of his face. Women were relegated to the status of the “fairer sex” because men were better at physical pursuits like running and lifting. And then there was the rampant, universal racism that permeated every society in the world.

How would the open use of super powers affect such a society? Fortunately, this is a game universe and not a sociology thesis. You don’t have to be “realistic”, and who can really say what’s “realistic”, anyway?

The easiest solution is to handle it the same way comic books handled it in 1960s society: just have society readily accept super powers. Oh, sure, they’re would be a period of utter shock, but eventually the sight of Captain Confederacy flying down the roads of Richmond, Virginia would elicit nothing more than a whoop of support and a “give ’em Hell, Captain” from the masses.

That’s easiest path, but maybe not the most rewarding. A more nuanced approach, though, soon leads to messy complications. Of course, complications are the backbone of engaging plot lines.

If you decide to go with something more complicated, you will have to decide how religion and racism are affected by The Gift. This is already mentioned in This Favored Land as reasons for The Gift being hidden. If you unhide The Gift, as the GM you will have to decide if The Gifted in This Favored Land “as written” were right or wrong to fear exposure.

You have a good deal of flexibility with religious attitudes toward The Gift. If the first Gifted turns New York into Dante’s Inferno, there’s a good chance Christian Americans will see The Gift as the tool of the devil. If, on the other hand, the first Gifted human stops a steamboat from exploding or reattaches the arm of a boy caught in a horrible industrial accident, it’s likely that religious Americans will assume The Gift is the work of the Lord/Yahweh/Buddha/The Great White Spirit. Eventually The Gift itself won’t be seen as “good” or “evil”, though individual Gifted probably would be seen in black and white terms. That’s not to say that the characters can’t operate in grey shades of morality. In fact, good stories can sprout from characters dealing with the clash of their perceived goodness or villainousness and the people they truly are underneath. (This is, after all, a staple of Silver Age comics.)

The harder question revolves around racism. How will a racist America handle Gifted blacks or natives? In This Favored Land Gifted minorities are treated much like minorities were treated during Reconstruction when they tried to exercise their right to vote. They are hunted down and killed, or scared into compliance. This is a likely reaction to openly Gifted minorities, only more so. The Nat Turner slave revolt had Southerners on edge for several decades. A Gifted slave could create even more oppressive conditions for slaves while at the same time fueling the flames of abolition.

Gifted slaves could polarize the nation even more than it was historically, pushing the nation into war much sooner than it did in our timeline. An earlier start to the war favors the South. The Confederacy was at a severe disadvantage in manpower. The 1850s saw a large number of immigrants arrive in the United States, the lion’s share remaining in the North. If the war starts earlier in the century, the manpower difference between the North and the South is not as great.

Gifted slaves could also unite the country against them. Whites North and South worried that armed slaves would start a slave insurrection. Imagine what they would think if a slave could fly at supersonic speeds or set things on fire with her mind? Fear of super powered blacks and natives could actually postpone the war or circumvent it entirely. In its place might be a wider, bloodier set of “Indian Wars” and anti-slave lynchings.

This assumes that blacks and natives are open in the use of their Gifts. Another option is to assume that they keep their Gifts hidden — the default view in This Favored Land &mndash; while Gifted whites openly display their Gifts. This, in turn, would play into racist attitudes of the time. You then have a way of sliding covert adventures into your “open” campaign.

No matter what you decide to do with American society, you can still keep the four organizations described in Chapter 2 of This Favored Land. The Society of the Raven would lose its mandate to hide The Gift, but it could still keep its mission to preserve it. The Knights of the Velvet Glove could perhaps operate a little more openly (in the South, at least), but for the most part they would remain clandestine. Reverend Holden might be seen for what he is more readily, or maybe his ability simply shields humanity from the knowledge that he is Gifted. The Sons of Canaan can be left unchanged.

The Course of the War

The premise of Godlike — gritty superhero roleplaying during World War II — is that Talents basically cancelled each other out. At a tactical level they changed the face of combat, but at an operational and strategic level the Second World War followed the same course it did in our timeline.

In Godlike super heroes can be as powerful as tanks, but mundane humans have access to tanks. Talents are powerful weapons, but they aren’t devastating in their own right.

There’s much less parity between mundane 19th Century weapons and super heroes. There were some powerful cannons, but they were hard to aim and slow to fire. Firearms were also relatively inaccurate and lacked penetration. Tied to the linear tactics of the day, it’s not hard to imagine the Union super hero Terrible Swift Sword cutting through whole divisions by himself. While you are quite free to hand wave this and take the Godlike stance that the war would unfold as it did historically, it’s probably more “realistic” to assume that The Gifted could have a major impact on the battlefield.

This creates a problem for the Confederacy. Given the manpower disparity between the North and the South, the Confederacy is looking at a disparity of Gifted superheroes, too. If we assume that open use of The Gift produces a “force multiplier” (to use combat theory terms), a Civil War where the Gift is openly used is more likely to go against the South, and probably sooner than it did in our timeline.

If you want to give the Confederacy a fighting chance, you need to address this disparity. The previous section gave one suggestion: start the war sooner, say in 1851 instead of 1861. The North would have access to fewer immigrants. The cotton supply in Europe could be smaller at the start of hostilities, allowing the Confederacy’s “King Cotton” strategy to actually work and bring Britain and France into the war on the side of the South.

(Historical tidbit: The Confederacy restricted the sale of cotton to Britain in the early part of the war. They hoped that a cotton shortage — and pressure from unemployed textile workers — would force Britain to end the war in favor of the South. Unfortunately, 1860 was a bumper year for the cotton crop and British warehouses were full. All “King Cotton” did was limit the purchase of Southern goods and the taxes such sales would have brought in. By the time cotton supply became an issue, Britain found new sources of cotton in Egypt and India.)

Another option is to change the source of The Gift. Instead of Edgar Allan Poe’s death and the Dream Wave, make the source of The Gift something more localized to the South.

Here’s a suggestion. Keep the Dream Wave but have it emanate from a ritual conducted by a voodoo practitioner in New Orleans. As the Wave moves out, it loses potency. The Gift is thus more prevalent in the South (and, perhaps, Mexico) than it is in the North.

If The Gifted have a major impact on the war, you might find you have quite a bit of work ahead of you. As your game timeline diverges from our real timeline, you will suddenly find you have the whole course of a war to plot out. This can be a daunting task, particularly if you don’t have a working knowledge of 19th Century operations and strategy. This will have the greatest effect if you center your game on combat operations. If your game is more about espionage or crime fighting in a major city, you won’t have to do more than specify the odd battle location and who won/lost.

If you’re into alternate history, plotting out the war could be a lot of fun. If this seems more like drudgery than fun, you might want to consider going the Godlike route after all and maintain the war’s historical timeline.

Captain Confederacy Versus Terrible Swift Sword

To what degree you worry about the course of the war or the fabric of society is up to you, the GM, based on the tastes of your gaming group. Some groups will want to explore the effect of openly visible super powers on every aspect of 19th Century life. Other groups will simply want to help Robert E. Lee win at Gettysburg or Hooker win at Chancellorsville. You might not even care about the war itself, relegating it to an interesting historical backdrop.

No matter what you want to do — fight as Captain Confederacy above Little Round Top, airlift hundreds of slaves over the Mason-Dixon line, or jump in the path of John Wilkes Booth’s bullet — hopefully this essay has inspired you with some ideas for a more “open” approach to Civil War superhero roleplaying.