The Needless Queers*

Why Some NPCs in Your Strixhaven Game Should Be Queer—Even If They Don’t ‘Need’ To Be

Three couples, two same-gender, and one probably different gender, dance together at a fantasy masquerade ball.
At Strixhaven, as in life, representation matters

Strixhaven: A Curriculum of Chaos for Dungeons & Dragons casts the player characters as students at a magical university and includes many of the aspects of university life, such as needing a job and forming relationships. Some of those relationships are good, others not-so-good, and still others…not so clear. Towards those ends, the book presents optional rules for things like work and extracurricular activities and building and maintaining relationships. It also includes a set of nonplayer characters (NPCs in common gaming parlance) that the player characters can get to know over their four years at Strixhaven including, potentially, as romantic interests, although the actual rules are deliberately vague in terms of what “beloved” status means in terms of a relationship, apart from the intensity of the feelings involved.

In order to maximize their “availability,” the relationship characters in Strixhaven have what I like to call “Schrödinger’s orientation.” Like the theoretical cat that is both alive and dead until you open the box to look, the NPCs are of indeterminate romantic and sexual orientation until a player character expresses an interest in them, at which point their orientation at least includes that player character. They are designed as “blank slates” the players can project their interests onto, as is often the case for “romanceable” characters in video games. While I don’t think straight and queer characters are necessarily interchangeable (we have different life experiences—although that’s a whole different essay) I do think this is a reasonable and efficient approach when having only limited space to describe potential supporting characters—short of having to detail Strixhaven’s entire diverse student body.

That said, there is a tendency in our culture, a pull towards heteronormativity, towards “default straightness.” That is to say, in much of Western culture, particularly American culture, people are assumed straight unless “proven” otherwise and an “indeterminate” orientation can sometimes be unconsciously pre-determined. If, for some reason, there are no potential non-heterosexual romances or relationships within your Strixhaven campaign, there may be a tendency to simply flip all of the remaining NPCs to that assumed “default” straight setting.

I’m going to ask you to consider not doing that, and here’s why: It’s unrealistic.

Yes, yes, I know. I’m bringing up realism in a game involving talking owl-people, spirit-possessed statues, and a magic school founded by dragons. Nevertheless, while “realism” is sometimes used as a cudgel in the RPG hobby to browbeat people with supposed notions about medieval culture or mores (usually not ones based in actual historical research) that’s not what I mean. In this case I’m talking about simple statistical realities.

Given that queer people exist in the world (and on the campus) of Strixhaven and throughout the D&D multiverse and given there are sixteen detailed nonplayer characters for the player characters to get to know over the course of their school careers, realism says that at least some of them must be queer, right? (Indeed, one of them is most definitely transgender and another nonbinary.) Even if there’s no particular chance of some of those characters having a romance with a player character, some of those NPCs must still be queer, right? So I recommend that, as your Strixhaven campaign progresses, and romantic interests and relationships start to sort themselves out, consider deliberately and overtly shifting some of the NPCs from the assumed “straight” column to openly LGBTQ+ in some fashion, whether they’re being romanced or not. Indeed, just because an NPC is involved in an opposite-sex relationship doesn’t mean they can’t also be queer: bisexual and pansexual people exist, and do not stop being who they are just because they’re in an opposite-sex relationship. Likewise, some people are polyamorous, and not just because they’re looking to stack up beloved boons.

Why? Again, because it’s realistic. The player characters in a Strixhaven campaign are going to have a diverse group of friends, acquaintances and, yes, rivals and frenemies, and some of them should be queer. Even if some of the relationships between player characters and nonplayer characters in your campaign are not heterosexual, some of the “unattached” NPCs may still be queer, because queer people also just exist, and we have queer friends, acquaintances (and, yes, rivals and frenemies) without necessarily being romantically involved with them. Indeed, some of those unattached or uninvolved NPCs might even be asexual or aromantic.

To limit the decision about which Strixhaven NPCs are queer solely to the player characters’ romantic interests is to fall back on that tired notion that LGBTQ+ characters need a “reason” for their sexual and romantic orientation or gender identity, something that “furthers the plot,” when no such demand is ever made of straight, cisgender characters. Like all of the various other qualities that describe us as individuals, gender and sexuality are not “plot” but character development and fictional queer people do not need a “reason to exist” any more than real queer people do. We simply are.

Therefore, as you read Strixhaven: A Cirriculum of Chaos and prepare to run it for your players, consider adding some “needless queers” to your game’s narrative. It’s realistic, it’s inclusive, and you may find that it paints a more detailed picture for the players of a larger and more nuanced world—and isn’t that the kind of broadening experience university is all about?

(* I use the word “queer” to mean “non heterosexual and/or non cisgender” and have done so for well over 25 years now. I find it simpler and more inclusive than the LGBTQIAA+ or “QUILTBAG” abbreviation. I understand some people find “queer” a slur, or have experienced it as such (as I have), and I respect if they prefer not to claim it, but I feel it is a term we have reclaimed and made our own and use it as such.)

Hero Pack 1 Assembled

Ten years ago, Icons line artist Dan Houser released the first of a series of “Hero Packs,” character collections inspired and created by the Icons community. Now the first of these has been updated for the Assembled Edition of the game. Hero Pack 1 presents a collection of ninety diverse characters from the history of Icons Superpowered Roleplaying, created and inspired by members of the Icons community and re-envisioned by artist Dan Houser.

  • Hero, Villain, or…? Some of the characters from Hero Pack are heroes, others villains, anti-heroes, or even ambiguous figures who might be hero or villain depending on the situation.
  • Inspiration! Use the characters from Hero Pack as inspiration and a jumping-off point for creating unique characters in your own Icons games!
  • Examples: The characters in Hero Pack offer examples of power configurations, abilities, qualities, possibilities and more you can use for your own games.
  • Standees: The digital version includes an 11-page PDF of printable character standees for all of the characters in the book.

Updated with all-new art based on the original Hero Pack release, with game information updated to the Assembled Edition of Icons by designer Steve Kenson. It makes a great companion volume to villain collections like Icons Adversaries or Rogues to supplement your options for allies, adversaries, and oddities for your Icons game!

Get Hero Pack 1 Assembled now at DriveThruRPG!

D&D: Power Surges

I was filling out the D&D Classes Survey from Wizards of the Coat the other day. It is clearly aimed at looking at play experience, since it asks you which classes and subclasses you have played before unlocking the opinion questions about them. One of the things I noticed from my own experience, was that, while I have played a wide number of classes: 1) I have favorite subclasses and not as much experience outside of them, and: 2) I couldn’t offer an opinion on many of the high-level class abilities, because the characters I played never made it to those levels. I have played a lot of D&D, but few, if any, of my campaigns have made it up past 15th level. Many more haven’t even made it past 10th.

That led me to think that it’s unfortunate that many campaigns deny players a chance to experience what are supposed to be the pinnacles of their characters’ potential, which led me to consider the following option:

Power Surge

You have access to one use of a higher-level feature of your class. If this feature is ordinarily permanent or long-lasting, it lasts for a minute once it is invoked. If the feature affects or is performed in a single action or round, then it lasts for only that use. The class feature operates at the level of ability you currently possess or its minimum operational level, if your current level is insufficient, and uses traits (ability scores, bonuses, save DCs, etc.) you currently possess.

So, for examples, a lower-level barbarian might gain one use of a brutal critical or one instance of indomitable might, a fighter might gain an indomitable saving throw or use of a maneuver they don’t normally possess (perhaps even with an increased Superiority Die), a lower-level paladin might gain a minute of aura of courage, a Circle of the Moon druid one use of elemental wild shape, or a spellcaster one use of a spell higher level than they can normally cast (using their highest level spell slot to cast it).

The Cost of a Power Surge

At the end of an encounter where a character performs a power surge, that character gains 1 level of exhaustion, reflecting the strain they have exerted in extending their abilities. At the DM’s discretion, higher level power surges (or ones with a larger difference from the character’s current level) may impose multiple levels of exhaustion, although rarely more than 3.

If you want a harder power surge cost, the resulting exhaustion is half the difference between the character’s current level and the level of the power surge feature, rounded down, which effectively limits a power surge to an 11-level difference (5 levels of exhaustion) since 6 levels would kill the character (although it would be quite a way to go!).

Acquiring a Power Surge

Characters acquire the ability to perform a power surge as a boon granted by the DM, similar in some regards to a charm (see Supernatural Gifts in the Dungeon Master’s Guide). This may come from an in-game agency like a deity, powerful creature, wise mentor, spirit guide, or the like, or simply occur as a story-related event, much like Inspiration. Indeed, a power surge can be thought of as an “advanced” use of Inspiration for giving a particular character a “spotlight moment.”

When a surge is granted, the DM specifies what class feature it grants, or may offer a choice of class features; the surge is not good for whatever higher-level feature the player wants! The feature may be negotiable, based on player input, but the DM has the final say in the matter, taking campaign considerations into account (see Power Surge Considerations, following).

Power Surge Considerations

Naturally, power surges are things the Dungeon Master should permit carefully and sparingly, with an eye towards not disrupting the flow of the game too much. Some higher-level class features may be too powerful as power surges, depending on the current level of the character and the overall conditions of the campaign and adventure.

At least, a power surge should be a rare event, something that doesn’t happen more than once per character level (at most) and probably less often than that. It shouldn’t necessarily be something players can plan around or expect, but that shows up at moments of dramatic importance in the campaign. It’s also an opportunity the DM should spread out amongst the player characters—with no one character getting two or more power surges in a row before the other characters in the party have gotten an opportunity.

The availability of a power surge may require some adjustment to the challenge level of certain encounters, but then a power surge is supposed to be impressive, so it is all right if it happens to make a difficult encounter easier than it would otherwise be. Just be prepared to adjust things behind the scenes if necessary, should a power surge come off as anticlimatic rather than an epic peak or finish to an encounter.

Icons Print-on-Demand Price Increase

As you may have heard, changes in print-on-demand services over at DriveThruRPG will mean an increase in the cost of the “premium color” option for printed books, starting in July, roughly a 30–40% increase in cost. This is due to the arrangement between DriveThru and their printer, and not something publishers can control, apart from lowering already tight profit margins on print-on-demand titles.

I’ll be looking into some additional print-on-demand options for Icons titles, including the “standard color” option and possibly even lower-cost black-and-white versions for some titles. However, implementing these options may require a significant investment of time, and my priority is on providing monthly content for the Icons Patreon, along with updating some of the classic adventures and Dan’s Hero Pack products, so new POD options may be slow in coming. I appreciate the patience of all current and prospective Icons fans, since Ad Infinitum Adventures is pretty much a one-person production shop (me) with Dan providing artwork and some writing as well.

So, if you have been holding-off on picking up that printed Icons title, now is the time, before prices go up!

Annual Icons Patreon Memberships

Thanks to Patreon, you can now choose an annual membership tier to support the Icons Patreon and get 10% off in the bargain! You’ll be charged for the full year up-front, minus the 10% discount, and then your membership is good for the whole year.

What You Get

This is a great time to consider subscribing to the Patreon: patrons have been enjoying monthly Icons PDFs since the start of 2021 and your patronage at the Sidekick tier or greater gets you access to all of those products. The Super and Hero tiers also get to vote on upcoming projects, monthly personal updates from me, and occasional bonus content. In two weeks, I’ll be releasing “Even More Trouble,” a deeper look at the trouble mechanics in Icons, at the Patreon’s June product.

Don’t Miss Out on the Bundles of Holding

Also, if you haven’t already, don’t forget to check out the fantastic Icons PDFs deals from Bundle of Holding: the 2016 Icons Bundle (updated with Adversaries and the new version of The Skeletron Key) along with the new Icons Universe Bundle. They’re only on-offer until the end of May and who knows when (or if) they will be offered again?

An Icons Two-in-One Bundle!

It’s an exciting opportunity for Icons Superpowered Roleplaying! Over at Bundle of Holding, you can get the revival of the 2016 Icons bundle, including the all-new Icons Adversaries and an updated version of the adventure The Skeletron Key. Plus, you can get an all-new Icons bundle, featuring eleven titles added since the 2016 offer, such as Icons Presents, Rogues, and Menagerie, along with a half-dozen more adventures.

Whether you’re looking to round-out your Icons collection or start one, don’t miss out on this opportunity! A portion of proceeds from the Icons bundles goes to support the Transgender Law Center, where heroes are made. Both Icons bundles are available for 21 days, until May 31st, so don’t wait to claim yours!

Marvel’s Next Generation of Heroes

Now entering Phase 4 with the release of Disney+ series like WandaVision and The Falcon and the Winter Soldier and films like Black Widow, the Marvel Cinematic Universe is also looking well past its current huge slate of movies and television series. Longtime Marvel readers are seeing a number of pieces moving into place suggesting Marvel is setting up for the “next generation” of heroes, and some familiar names and personalities have already cropped up. Here’s a look at who’s who and what might be coming.

The Next Generation

When we talk about the “next generation” heroes, we’re basically talking about the teenagers (and maybe twentysomethings?) who are members of the Young Avengers, the Champions, and maybe the Runaways. The latter were already the subject of a television series, but it remains unclear if that series is MCU canon (probably not) or if anything from it will be incorporated into the MCU. Given what we know about the Young Avengers and Champions characters, what signs of their appearance have we seen?

Ms. Marvel

The definite next-generation hero we know to expect is Kamala Khan, Ms. Marvel, a Pakistani-American teen from New Jersey who is a shape-shifting Inhuman and a big fan of Carol Danvers (Captain Marvel). Kamala gets her own Disney+ series and is supposed to appear in The Marvels (Captain Marvel 2).

Stature

Cassie Lang, Ant-Man’s daughter, uses some stolen Pym particle tech to adopt the size-changing identity of Stature in Young Avengers. Cassie has already appeared in the Ant-Man films and, thanks to the Blip, is now a teenager. Her set-up might be in the forthcoming Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania. Interesting intersection: The time-traveling Kang the Conqueror is the announced antagonist for Quantumania, and Stature and a teenaged variant of Kang dated in Young Avengers!

Wiccan & Speed

Two of the Young Avengers, Billy Kaplan (Wiccan) and Tommy Shepherd (Speed) are long-lost twin brothers with the powers of probability-altering magic and super-speed. They later discover they are the time-lost twins of Wanda Maximoff, the Scarlet Witch. Viewers of WandaVision already know about Billy and Tommy, their potential powers, and that they may still exist somewhere out in the multiverse. The ending of WandaVision makes it likely Billy and Tommy’s future may come up in the forthcoming Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness.

Of big interest to fans is that, in the comics, Billy is gay and Tommy is bisexual and both of them are currently in relationships with men: Wiccan is married to fellow Young Avenger Hulkling (Teddy Altman) and Speed is dating mutant and X-Factor member Prodigy, who was briefly a Young Avenger, although Tommy and Kate Bishop (see Hawkeye) were also an item for like a hot minute. Given how Marvel Studios and Disney have shied away from LGBTQ representation in their media, it will be interesting to see how they handle a generation of out-and-proud new heroes.

America Chavez

Speaking of The Multiverse of Madness, we know from casting that America Chavez, another Young Avenger, appears in the film. America is the daughter of two prominent heroes from another timeline in the multiverse, and her mothers send her to the mainline Marvel Universe to save America from the destruction of her home timeline. Miss America is a super-strong Latina lesbian who can literally kick holes in reality, another big addition to the diversity of the next-generation heroes.

Ironheart

Young inventor Riri Williams develops an Iron Man-style suit of armor to become Ironheart, later a member of the Champions. Marvel Studios has already announced an Ironheart series for Disney+. Riri joins the ranks of young black women of genius in the MCU along with Princess Shuri of Wakanda. Chances are good she might also be involved in the forthcoming Armor Wars series on Disney+ involving the legacy of Tony Stark’s technology.

Hawkeye

Kate Bishop is cast to appear as Clint Barton’s protege in the upcoming Hawkeye series on Disney+ and will likely take over the Hawkeye mantle from him. Kate is a founding member of the Young Avengers and notable for being one of its only members without any super-powers, along with…

Patriot

Eli Bradley, the grandson of super-soldier Isaiah Bradley, joins the Young Avengers as Patriot. Eli and Isaiah have already appeared in The Falcon and the Winter Soldier, and his grandfather’s legacy and Sam Wilson becoming Captain America may well inspire Eli to adopt his own heroic identity. In the comics, Eli doesn’t have any powers, and takes to using strength-enhancing drugs for a time to fake being a super-soldier (which causes him some problems). We don’t yet know the future of the MCU version of Eli.

Waiting in the Wings?

So who haven’t we seen from the next generation of Marvel heroes to be on the lookout for?

The big missing hero is Teddy Altman, Hulkling, Wiccan’s future boyfriend and husband. Despite his name, Hulkling isn’t related to the Hulk, apart from being green and muscled. Instead, he is a Kree-Skrull hybrid. In the comics, he is the son of Mar-Vell (the original Captain Marvel) and the Skrull Princess Anelle. In the MCU, Mar-Vell is a woman, Carol Danvers’ Kree mentor. Captain Marvel established the Skrulls have had contact with Earth long enough for a half-Skrull foundling to have been raised here for the last 16-20 years. The forthcoming Secret Invasion series on Disney+ is likely to focus on the Skrulls, and it and The Marvels (Captain Marvel 2) might set up Teddy’s backstory.

Related to the Kree is Noh-Varr, Marvel Boy, a “Utopian Kree” from another timeline. Marvel Boy has access to advanced Kree technology and is gene-spliced with insectoid DNA, giving him certain enhanced powers. There’s no indication of plans for him to show up as yet, but he is a member of the Young Avengers for a time, before going on to join the Guardians of the Galaxy.

Speaking of alternate timelines, there was a young alternate timeline Kid Loki who belonged to the Young Avengers for a time. With the new Loki series on Disney+ exploring alternate timelines, it’s possible Loki might meet up with a younger variant of himself who could end up in the mainline MCU.

We could speculate further about other Champions characters like Viv Vision, the Vision’s synthezoid daughter (created along with other “family” members to try and recapture idyllic suburban life), Nova, Snowguard, or Brawn. Of all of them, the only hints we have are that Xandar (the home of the Nova Corps) appeared in Guardians of the Galaxy, and Dr. Helen Cho (sister of Amadeus Cho, alias Brawn) appeared in Avengers: Age of Ultron.

Whichever phase brings us the next generation of Marvel Cinematic Universe heroes, it’s clear we have a lot to look forward to!

Icons Assembler v.1.2 update

Inkwell Ideas, the producers of the Icons Assembler character creation and management app, have announced a version 1.2 update of the software, available from DriveThruRPG. Purchasers of Icons Assembler can download the updated files for free from their DriveThruRPG account.

The 1.2 update includes bug fixes and the addition of options from the popular Icons Origins sourcebook, including additional specialties and the option of creating a form-fillable space on the character sheet for adding knacks, an option introduced in Icons A to Z and expanded upon in Origins.

Icons Assembler steps the user through an automated version of random hero creation in Icons and also offers the means to manually create and save characters and tools for character management during play. For more, visit Icons Assembler on DriveThruRPG.

GridShock 20XX

Icons Superpowered Roleplaying is published under the Open Game License and, as you may know, offers its own Icons Compatibility license. This has allowed third-party publishers like Fainting Goat Games and Rogue Genius Games to produce—to name two examples—to produce some great third-party content for Icons.

Now Paul Vermeren, academic librarian and amateur game designer, has joined their ranks, launching a Kickstarter for GridShock 20XX, “a superhero world where something went very wrong in 1986. Reality was warped, civilization collapsed, and the world as we knew it was turned upside down. Now the bad guys are in charge of what’s left – but a new breed of superhumans called Vectors strive to restore freedom to their ravaged world. Like the heroes of the past, Vectors use their powers to address injustice directly, and with style: by punching it in the face, or blasting it with laser eyes. And with a totalitarian state called the Supremacy in control, there are a whole lot of things in need of punching and blasting.”

Paul plans to present the GridShock setting in a set of four 32-page ‘zines for ZineQuest. You can find out more, and support the project, at its Kickstarter page!