Long-running games usually evolve and change over time, and the Exemplars campaign is no exception. Here's a summary of the various phases of the campaign to date.
Sessions 1 to 104 (27 January 1991 to 18 April 1993)
Game Dates January 1984 to March 1989
The first session immediately followed on from the end of Uncanny X-Men #180 (published April 1984), but the odd machine in Central Park was a trap set by Arcade for the X-Men, and not the Beyonder's portal to take the X-Men to the Secret Wars.
The early years of the campaign drew heavily on published comic storylines and concepts, often used very deliberately in new ways. For example,
We were using 4th edition Champions as the game system, so a significant number of villains from the Champions Universe were introduced into the game. The import with the greatest impact on the campaign was Mentalla from Eurostar, who became the first NPC member of the X-Men and Rogue's best friend. Aura (the "heroic" codename Mentalla changed to after joining the X-Men) is the NPC who has had the largest impact on the campaign: she has been on screen in over a third of all sessions of play, and is the reason other prominent NPCs, such as her half-brother Menton, her other half-brother Challenger, and her son Strife (who looks like Stryfe but has a very different backstory) are part of the campaign.
Sessions 105 to 210 (25 April 1993 to 18 June 1995)
Game Dates March 1989 to September 1990
In hindsight, this is one of the most innovative phases of the campaign.There were two X-Men teams, one with the PCs in New York, the other made up entirely of NPCs in San Francisco, and the players decided there should be a third team in Europe, also made up of PCs. Every player had two characters, one in New York and the other in Europe, and sessions alternated between the two teams: the New York team had the "mutants are hated and feared" storylines, while the European team had the magic-themed storylines.
I can't clearly recall why we ended this phase of the campaign, but I suspect it was linked to the turnover of players as people finished university, started work, and left Brisbane. There were six players at the beginning of 1995: twelve months later, there were four players, and two of them were new.
Sessions 211 to 255 (26 June 1995 to 12 May 1996)
Game Dates September 1990 to June 1991
This year saw a series of transitions in the campaign, break points with the past that moved the campaign's tone away from that of the X-Men comics for good. The key break points were:
From this point on in the campaign, the PCs were a legal superhero team that cooperated (to varying degrees) with the authorities, had a public base of operations, and were largely trusted by the public.
This is also the period of the campaign where I stopped assigning issue numbers and titles to sessions, as if the events of the game were continuing the publication history of the Uncanny X-Men, New Mutants, and other comic titles. The last session I did this for was session 233, which was split between Uncanny X-Men 469 ("Superbowl Party") and X-Men Annual 16 ("The Power of Love").
Sessions 256 to 309 (19 May 1996 to 14 September 1997)
Game Dates June 1991 to March 1992
During this phase of the campaign, the PCs were based in Texas at Fort Hooker, a surplus to requirements military base near Lubbock.
The longest-running player started the campaign during this phase with her longest-running character Stellar, and has played continuously ever since. Two of the original six players were still playing during this phase, which makes the combination of the longest-running player with either of them the only combination of players who have been involved in the entire campaign.
Sessions 310 to 442 (21 September 1997 to 1 October 2000)
Game Dates March 1992 to February 1993
The X-Men relocated to San Francisco and took over the defunct San Francisco X-Men team's base, beginning the campaign's lengthy association with San Francisco as the PC team's base of operations.
This phase of the game saw a heightened focus on realism in the campaign, with detailed monitor duty rosters, training regimens, armoured costumes having to be an inch thick, and so on. The X-Men incorporated in session 325, adopting a corporate leadership structure with an executive officer, a board of directors, and provisional and confirmed team membership that could be suspended for code of conduct breaches. From this point onwards, the team did not accept members who were not legal adults: Magik, who was sixteen when the team incorporated, became a provisional member who couldn't go on missions until she turned eighteen. Many of these changes were instigated by the team leader, Strike.
During this phase, I experimented with greatly slowing the passage of game time (covering less than 4 months of game time across 41 sessions in 1998) to make the PCs feel that they were very busy and getting worn down constantly dealing with emergencies and problems. I don't feel this worked for most of the players, however.
Towards the end of this phase, the NPC team based in New York disbanded, with some members joining the PC team in San Francisco at their new base, which the team used throughout the rest of their time at San Francisco. This significantly increased the number of NPCs who were part of the PC team: having more NPCs than PCs would be a defining feature of the campaign for many years to come.
Strike's player left the campaign after session 442, leaving behind as his legacy a corporate team structure that would still be in place when the campaign finally left San Francisco.
Sessions 443 to 626 (8 October 2000 to 9 January 2005)
Game Dates February 1993 to February 1995
To help make the PCs important during sessions and reduce the number of NPCs accompanying them on missions, the X-Men formed sub-units for field missions. Initially there were two field teams, the White Team (PCs plus one or two NPCs) and the Blue Team (all NPCs): over time, the X-Men gained a Red Team and a Support Team (the NPCs who didn't go on missions), and then a Green Team.
Both of the two remaining original players left the campaign during this phase:
This phase also saw the first changes to the game system, starting with the transition from 4th edition Hero System to 5th edition in May 2002. Significant changes followed, including removing Speed and giving everyone one action a round (August 2002), changing the resolution mechanic so that high rolls were always good (December 2002), and replacing the Hero System combat system with the d20 combat system (March 2004) so that we had zone of control mechanics and no longer had to worry about facing. These changes didn't initially reduce the battleboarding aspect of combats, but those aspects were increasingly de-emphasised over time as the focus in combats shifted from tactical play to narrative events.
Sessions 627 to 776 (23 January 2005 to 29 December 2008)
Game Dates February 1995 to December 1996
During this phase, we went back to having multiple X-Men teams (now called franchises) in separate bases connected by teleporter platforms. The first franchise was in New York, later joined in September 1995 (session 683) by a third franchise in New Orleans, resulting in 4 PCs being teammates of 28 NPCs.
The imbalance between PCs and NPCs was exacerbated by the lowest number of active players in the campaign's history: there were only two players for all of 2007 and the first three months of 2008. Those two players were active throughout this phase of the campaign, with other players coming and going. Their main characters during this phase were Southern Cross (who joined the team in session 658) and Stellar, who finally left the team in session 710 after 442 sessions and a record-setting 9 years and 10 months of continuous play.
Towards the end of this phase in April 2008, we introduced our first explicitly narrative game mechanics, with players (and the GM) getting cards that they could use for narrative or mechanical effects.
Sessions 777 to 920 (6 January 2009 to 6 May 2012)
Game Dates January 1997 to February 1999
This phase began with the three franchises combining back into a single team, based at San Francisco, and with a significant reduction in the number of NPCs in the team. This was achieved, in part, by Rogue leading a team of X-Men to travel between dimensions in search of their missing teammate Guardian, who had become "unhinged from time" and was now with the Exiles. This ended Rogue's association with the PC team: in her subsequent appearances on Genosha, her X-Men team was in competition with the PC team for "naming rights".
In response, the PC's team held a series of votes, culminating in a decision to change their name (session 874). They announced their new team name, the Exemplars, on 11 June 1998 (session 877). From this point onwards, being a "mutant team" was less and less important to the team's identity: NPC team members included the former Avengers Hawkeye and Hercules, and Spiderwoman was one of the most important PCs. Vitality's player also joined the campaign in session 813, and would play him with very few interruptions for 358 sessions.
There were major additions to the house rules during this period, including changes to Characteristic values, replacing "game inches" with metres, renaming Disadvantages as Complications, and removing Elemental Controls. The transition to 6th edition Hero System in April 2012 was straightforward enough, but the house rules were now extensive. This may have been an impediment to recruiting new players if they were interested in the Hero System, but by this point in time new players were interested in the setting, not the rules system.
During this phase, the first part-time players joined (or re-joined, in one case) the campaign. One of the original players rejoined on a fortnightly basis, while Fold's player joined in session 880 and has played on a fortnightly basis ever since, making Fold one of the longest-running characters in terms of time played. Fold will overtake Stellar as the longest-running character if still being played in July 2021.
Sessions 921 to 1090 (13 May 2012 to 6 December 2015)
Game Dates March 1999 to September 2001
This phase started with the transition of two of the full-time players to new characters. Spiderwoman's wedding and departure from the team was in session 918, and Southern Cross left the team to take up his responsibilities as Defender of the Pacific in session 920. Their replacement characters, Songbird and Crucible, would be important team members and drive storylines throughout this phase and the next phase.
The house rules were further modified during this period, with modifications to derived characteristics, attacks of opportunity and skill checks in September 2012, followed by new rules for calculating damage and knocked from the attack roll in February 2013.
Sessions 1091 to 1181 (13 December 2015 to 25 February 2018)
Game Dates September 2001 to March 2003
This phase began with the campaign's substitute for the 911 terrorist attacks (which still took place, but were caused by pro-human terrorists from the future trying to stop mutants taking over the world, and were mostly stopped by superheroes). In order to have something take place that would have the same world-changing impact as the 911 attacks in the real world, in the campaign the bottled city of Naldor was reset to full size, making an alien city appear in rural Oklahoma.
The appearance of technologically superior Malvan aliens in the American mid-west on 9 September 2001 - undeniable proof of the existence of aliens - changed the world forever. Anti-alien hysteria replaced anti-mutant hysteria as a campaign theme. Instead of the War on Terror, there was the War on Aliens, with the authorities searching for undocumented aliens in case they were plotting to conquer the world.
In early 2017, we started discussing whether we wanted to play through the Bush presidency. It had been a long time since the campaign had emphasised irrational public hostility, and it was proving to be a major tone shift that wasn't very fun in play. The campaign had drifted out to being 15 years behind the real date, making it harder to remember the details of what was happening at the time of the game date. The PC team had been based in San Francisco for almost 20 years of play, and the "leaner" team still had 5 PCs and 13 NPCs.
I also wanted to have a game system that provided more support for narrative play than the Hero System. The final updates to the Hero System house rules took place in April 2017.
Sessions 1182 to 1193 (4 March to 3 June 2018)
Game Dates March 2003 to February 2008
In my opinion, the most innovative phase of the campaign to date. The 5 PCs and 2 NPCs (one of whom was going to leave the team early in the story arc) were sent through a space warp to a distant galaxy, and were to make their way back to Earth over a year of travel only to discover five years had passed. In addition to having an overarching story arc and being conceptualised as something like a season of a television show, each session for this season was a self-contained adventure on a different planet with a different theme and genre.
Finally, we trialled using a different game system, Supers (Revised edition), that had a much stronger narrative focus than the Hero System.
Vitality's player replaced him with a new character at the start of the story arc, Crucible's player left the campaign during the story arc, and Songbird's player introduced her new character at the end of the story arc.
Sessions 1194 to 1219 (17 June 2018 to 3 February 2019)
Game Dates February 2008 to October 2008
The Exemplars came back to a world that had gone through the major events of the Bush presidency and out the other side. Major events from the War on Terror were replaced with campaign analogues for major comic story arcs, such as the Fifty State Initiative, the Skrull Secret Invasion, and World War Hulk, in part to incorporate into the campaign more recent comic book content that potential new players may be familiar with.
The lean new team of 4 PCs and 1 NPC (later joined by a second NPC - my planned maximum number of NPC team members) were placed in a new city, Boston, and given a new supporting cast and opponents. We stayed with the new game system, which allowed me to draw on new character designs published on the Supers forums. In combination with the five year gap, the changes resulted in a level of world building activity not seen since the early years of the team being based in San Francisco.
This phase of the campaign didn't have as strong a story arc as the previous phase. Instead, there were two recurring themes running through the story arcs for the season, aliens and the 2008 Presidential election, which culminated in Obama and Biden beating McCain and Donald Sutherland Junior, the Senator and former superhero (and suspected supervillian) Invictus.
Sessions 1220 to 1265 (10 February 2019 to 23 February 2020)
Game Dates November 2008 to November 2009
As a counterpoint to the previous season's themes of aliens and science, the theme for this season was magic and the supernatural. There were magic villains, magic guest stars, and the supporting cast expanded to include Elsa Bloodstone and the Monster Hunters.
At the same time, thematic elements from the previous phases of the campaign continued throughout this phase. Strife joined Hound as the second NPC in the team, and the Invictus storyline wrapped up with Ember discovering he really was a supervillain (not that anyone could prove anything) and leaving the team to join her relatives in the Fantastic Family.
Sessions 1266 onwards (22 March 2020)
Game Dates November 2009 onwards
The plan is to have self-contained adventures set in various locations around the world, and try to emulate some of the distinctive aspects of the Lost in Space season. Each of the players has also been asked to develop a story arc for their character for the season.
The phase of the game has to date been played entirely on Discord because of the Coronavirus lockdown and ongoing physical and social distancing requirements.