Dec 252009

So, common gaming question: if we had superheroes in the actual world, what government agency would regulate them?  If you’re from the United States like me, your first answer is probably The Department of Homeland Security.  But that’s too pat and too boring of an answer for me.

So I’m looking to head in another direction, one based on something that I think Rob Donoghue cooked up for a supers game once (though it might have been Matt Gandy).  I don’t remember much about it, other than the idea that the folks with superpowers were regulated by (and in several cases, employed by) the Food & Drug Administration.  Now that’s something that has legs, because the FDA is a weird choice, and it forces you to sit and think about what that choice means for the nature and origin of superpowers in your setting as well as the politics of regulation and oversight that got things stashed there in the first place.

So let’s go back to my original question, and turn it on its ear: starting with a particular government agency as the body of regulation, what’s the reason superpowers exist in the world, and what form do they take?

To quickly illustrate where I’m going with this, I’m gonna pick the Federal Communications Commission, the body that controls the airwaves here in the USA, and that makes me jump right away to a setting idea I’m calling Bandwidth.  From the FCC’s website:

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) is an independent United States government agency. The FCC was established by the Communications Act of 1934 and is charged with regulating interstate and international communications by radio, television, wire, satellite and cable. The FCC’s jurisdiction covers the 50 states, the District of Columbia, and U.S. possessions.

So, if the FCC is the starting seed, then it could be that superpowers give off all kinds of radio-and-other-things interference.  That’s not bad, but I like my stuff a little trippier.  How about instead that superpowers are transmitted to the people who get them on some kind of “power frequency” — making them Receivers?

This, I like.  I can see the FCC stepping in once the power frequency band gets identified, and I can see all sorts of radio tropes getting into the mix. “Pirate station” superhumans, powers getting jammed or having fitful bursts of static (and what would that look like?), and the idea of bandwidth itself.

Some Receivers might be able to tune into multiple frequencies at once, while others have their dial stuck in one place, and a few out there only have one or two powers but can tune in which ones those are as they see fit.  Particularly common powers might have the fattest band, making them easy for a Receiver to tune: lots of folks out there have flight, and plenty dance to the beat of pyrokinetic pop.  Other, rarer powers have a weak or just plain hard-to-tune signal, so it’s an unusual Receiver who’ll pick it up. I also wonder if there’s only so much energy to go around on any given power-broadcast, making that particular power weaker the more who tune in, but as I chew on that I don’t find that I like it — doesn’t feel right, even if it’s “bandwidth”-y.  I’d rather just have the breadth of a given power’s broadcast determine how many people can tune in, period.

Big setting secrets could revolve around questions like “what’s the source of the broadcast?” (I’m thinking the planet itself, vibing on some sort of Gaia-planetary-lifeforce thing, but it could just as easily be from outer space, or the result of an actual terrestrial technology) and “what else is riding on this same signal?”  Developments could include the discovery that every receiver tends to “echo” a much lower power transmission of their own, making them traceable (or at least some of their powers identifiable) with the right equipment, but also causing resonance with similar receivers nearby: show off your telekinesis, and a latent TK receiver nearby may suddenly activate.  Or maybe your sidekick gets that much more awesome when he’s teamed up with you.  Nemeses with similar power frequencies too.

What’s your superpowered world spawned from a government agency look like?


  25 Responses to “Bandwidth”

  1. I like the bandwidth idea. The FCC should contact superheroes through the fillings in their teeth.

    An idea Earl inspired was to have superpowers be something that hierarchical organizations couldn’t deal with. Superpowers are usually Physical or Mental, but why not operating at the social level? Corporations, as a way of organizing activity, were a huge breakthrough from the previous family or small group business model, so perhaps the Future holds some method of organizing that would seem equally mysterious to us.

    It would also nicely sidestep “secret govt black ops agencies hunting supers”, a setting element I am heartily sick of by now, and calling out the army. As a bonus, groups in which some people follow the orders of others would be useless against supers, nicely justifying the rather chaotic decision-making styles of most superteams.

    I recall someone or other had a campaign in which every super being was a sovereign power, like a country to themselves, so you could declare war on them, but you couldn’t arrest them.

    Darn, thinking about this sort of thing is making me want to run supers again.
    Time to take another look at Super Bliss Force Zeta.

  2. I’ve dabbled with governments and supers before (The Front/Balance of Powers), but the FDA has got to be Rob.

    I like the idea of receivers, but I’d go a step further and have *transmitters* as well: all superpowers travel in waves, when *used*. Mind control is a different wave than the one generated by telekinesis, and maybe superspeed creates a bow wave. More for the FCC to regulate! I’m sure they consider photons to be waves, no argument. This would also give a nice in-setting explanation for how you can keep mind powers from becoming ridiculously overpowering: there’s technology to counter it, and the gubmint (at least) has it.

  3. In one my more successful campaign settings, the Defense League was under the auspices of the Attorney General. The why was a bit of a campaign mystery, but the official word was that the Defense League was intended to be a proactive force for the health and well-being of the American people.

    There was also a “Project” being directed by the U.S. Military.

  4. What about the EPA? If the supers are a source of an emission… wouldn’t there be a potential issue radiation poisoning or maybe quantum neural interference? Regardless, I think that the EPA would be put in charge of supers in my world… with a joint task force with the CDC.

  5. In World of the 400 I believe NEST (Nuclear Emergency Search Teams, a real but secretive USGov agency in our world under the DoE I think) was responsible for supers, but none of the 20 superheroes in the US worked for the Govt, a source of considerable frustration for said Gov. Eventually the Feds did a work-furlough program for some imprisoned supervillains ala Suicide Squad, which worked every bit as well as you’d think it would.

    A game focused on a cleanup crew would be neat. A bit offtopic, I wanted to run a Shadowrun adventure with an Aztechnology spill team, who get sent in from HQ to clean up after local branches run amuck. I’d be tempted to adapt Dogs in the Vineyard for that now.

    In a game where every superbeing is considered a sovereign nation, supers might fall under the State Department.

    Most likely, if supers are a limited resource then they’d be fought over bitterly by every govt agency, the same way budgets are now. “Why does Dept of Interior need its own super strike force?” “To protect our national forests!” “Is anyone threatening our national forests?” “They might!”

  6. I really need to dust off my Fate superheroes notes.

  7. What about non-federal? States have their own Departments of Health and Human Services, and the laws in different states are well different.

    Also, what about a branch for each different power?

    DOT, for instance, for speedy types and FAA for flying types …

    • Yeah, the multi-branch thing makes practical sense, but I’m also fishing about for the sort of creativity that comes out of constraint: if the only regulating body is X, what does that imply about the origin and effects of superpowers?

      The non-federal idea is a fun one to play around in, that said. If supers have been “pushed off” to the states as far as regulation goes, there’s all sorts of interesting political attitudes implied there. That says to me that at the federal level, supers are seen as more of a nuisance and maintenance problem than a big deal. On the state scale, however, they’re a big deal, so I’d expect that there are few if any supers that are capable of acting in a national scope. And of course any state program for dealing with them will be strapped for cash and clamoring for federal funds that never come…

    • Yeah, should have read your post a little closer first. Well, then, going with my DHHS idea, you could reason that the powers come from a superior health, a biological origin. Or, since mental health is also involved, it could be they’ve gone all Buddhist and found the next mental state …

    • Heroes of Enlightenment is interesting stuff. I wonder if that means heroes have a shared or divergent mental state from villains…

    • Every radial transmission has a certain frequency, that means a sinusoidal wave function that gets repeated an ammount of times per second. What if supers could catch only positive or negative portions of the wave? what would that mean for the guy that can get the full wave?

      on a sidenote, taking off the aluminum hat of a weird guy could have unforeseen consequences.

    • Love the implications here!

  8. Hmmm… how about the National Science Foundation: Office of Polar Programs’ ANSMET program? Over 500 meteorites fall to Earth every year, but only about 5 or 6 are reported and recovered!

    During a particularly large, unexpected fall that occurred intermittently over three days, those who discovered and touched the meteorites found themselves imbued with strange powers… and stranger dreams…

    A large portion of these meteors fell over the Antarctic, and the Americans quickly repurposed the OPP’s ANSMET (the ANtarctic Search for METeorites) program to search for them. Unfortunately, this is quickly becoming an arms race, as a Japanese Antarctic Research Expedition, EUROMET, the Italian Programma Nazionale di Ricerche in Antartide, KOREAMET and the Antarctic Scientific Exploration of China all comb the icy plains of Antarctica to find and recover these artifacts…

    Anyone who has gained powers from the meteorites finds themselves drawn to untouched ones, and any patriotic American with powers knows it is his or her duty to join up with the NSF and ANSMET to ensure that these meteorites don’t fall into the enemy’s hands…

    Sort of a cross between Meteor Man and Whiteout… a cold war indeed!

  9. Bandwidth has a very Tesla-y feel about it.

    I’d like to see a mash-up of The Office and Heroes — playing up the comic potential of having a deeply, absurdly, dysfunctional corporate bureacracy overseeing superhumans. Sort of like if Michael Scott of Dunder Mifflin was the head of SHIELD during the Civil War storyline.

    Not sure that comedy in general and this idea in particular is really “RPG-able” though. A funny rule book doesn’t equal a funny gaming session. This is probably more suited for a short story/screen play/comedy sketch.

  10. I have this image now of the first instance of a receiver being some dorky guy with an iPod ala Great American Hero. Receiving without a device came later!

  11. Fish and Wildlife: a milder version of a Shadowrun-style “awakening” (or a Technomancer-style “trinity storm,” or both) means shamans can suddenly propitiate totem animals for power, in exchange for actions in the service of those species. Hijinx! Overlap with the DoJ (are shamans domestic enemies by definition?), the State Department (are animal spirits sovereign nations with which we have diplomatic relations?), and every social hotbutton there is (Religion! Race! Globalisation!).

    A constraint on the exercise I didn’t see at first was the requirement that, regardless of the form the “white event” takes, it can’t change things so much that there would be no unified government to even have a department of managing anything. It’s interesting, because I’m not usually so merciful in my fictional universes: my every “folks with powers” idea turns either into Kowloon, Mogadishu or Mad Max.

    • Rather than Fish and Wildlife, wouldn’t most of that fall under Bureau of Indian Affairs ( Or are you using “shaman” in a broader, non-cultural context?

      I can’t come up with an Education department justification. But, suppose that superpowers really did come from nuclear accidents. Suppose that we had a distribution closer to “Wild Cards,” with most people just dying from radiation exposure, a few people manifesting either neutral (e.g., “I can change the color of my hair at will!”) or deleterious (e.g., “I bleed constantly from every pore in my skin!”) powers, and a few real outliers who get more typical superpowers. Now, suppose that the vast majority of these people are really just collecting disability and/or death benefits under OSHA-style regulations. But, the government can’t cleanly separate radiation sickness from harmful mutation from harmless mutation from superpower. So, it lumps them all together.

      It might just create a special office under the Dept of Labor. Say, an Ombudsman for the Energy Employees Occupational Illness Compensation Program ( This guy mostly just investigates disability claims and pays out on them. But, he’s also responsible for the various duties surrounding tracking, evaluating, and controlling supers.

      Yup, being a super is classified as a disability by our government.

    • Yeah, as in Shadowrun, I was envisioning a process that works for anyone who tries it, and wasn’t exclusive to any particular ethnicity.

      As far as the Education, maybe only children have powers, whether because they lose the magic as they age, or because they inevitably die. Like Monsters and Other Childish Things, or maybe Alien 9.

  12. We talked earlier about some more ideas for a radio-powered supers game and I couldn’t help but think about it some more. If you recall, we talked about incorporating a bit of HAM radio jargon. Specifically “5 by 5,” meaning that a radio signal has perfect signal strength (“5”) and perfect signal clarity(“5”).

    The natural systemic representation for this would be a 2d6 system, wherein one die represents signal strength and the other signal clarity. “6” results would be special cases, representing some kind of critical-something-or-other.

    I woke up with further thoughts on how to express this as a superpower. Of course, these re-tread some other ideas I’ve used in Do and Happy Birthday Robot, but I beg indulgence one more time. 😛

    My one dread of designing supers games is writing a list of powers and balancing them all together in a cohesive whole infrastructure. I kind of like the wild free-wheeling nature of old-school Mage: the Ascension a bit, so that’s where my head’s at right now. Basically, I’m imagining Receivers as radio-powered analogues to the Marauders. Swirling balls of reality-bending chaos that must be contained or destroyed for the sake of universal coherence.

    So here’s my idea for how to handle radio-powers:

    Step 1: Roll

    On your turn, if you choose to use a radio power, first roll two six-sided dice. One die represents signal strength. One die represents signal clarity. Those designations are decided at the beginning of the game.

    Step 2: Strength

    You may describe some amazing feat of radio-powered reality-bending, but your description is limited. You may only describe this event in a number of words equal to your Strength die result, to a maximum of 5. (Results of “6” are discussed after these steps.)

    You always have the word “I” as a free word, though. Saying “I,” in your description does not count against this word limit.

    For example: You rolled a “3” on your strength die. That means you could say something like the following sentences:

    “I turn into fire.”
    “I blow freezing wind.”
    “I jam the signal.”

    Step 3: Clarity

    Here’s where things get tricky. Now your description will be modified based on the result on your Clarity die.


    Oh wait, I just realized a problem here. My original idea was to make each player take turns changing one word in the description. The number of turns would be determined by the Clarity die. So if you rolled a 4, then four players would each take a turn changing one word of your description.

    The idea was that radio powers are unpredictable and dangerous, sometimes causing unintended events.

    But that doesn’t fit the “5 by 5” theme if a higher number is supposed to be a clearer signal. Oh well, you see where I was going with it. 😛

  13. […] My original Bandwidth post […]

Sorry, the comment form is closed at this time.