I’ve got supers on my mind…

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In my years as a Game Master I’ve run a lot of campaigns, fantasy, sci-fi, modern, space opera, but no genre has proven as difficult as the superhero game. Sometimes I muse about why that is…

Superheroes are everywhere, comic books, animation, movies, heck one of the features everybody kept talking about when the iPAd came out was “you can read comics on it!” So why are superhero games not more prevalent? Sure they have been well represented in role playing games for a long time, from the Champions to licensed games like the Marvel and DC games in the 80s, to modern games like Mutants & Masterminds and Necessary Evil. It’s not my intention to discuss the features or game designs of theses games, but instead ask the larger question, why are there not MORE super hero role playing games? I have no hard data on this, but from anecdotal experience, the superhero share of the role playing market is small.

I think the reason for this may just be what I said on the first paragraph of this post. Superhero games are hard. Unlike other genres where pegging a characters to a concept may be easy, superheroes are, well unique!

“I’m a warrior! And I’m a corporate spy. Me? I’m a fire breathing shape shifting psionic knight from a distant planet…” Hear the crickets in the distance?

That may be a little facetious, but even if you break down superheroes into concepts, Brick, Sorcerer, Mutant, the sheer variety of powers makes supers games either too complex, or sometimes too simple for the taste of players.

I’ve ran games using diverse systems, some lasted only one session, others have been a pastiche of comic books series, and at least one was a  detailed alternate history game through which I inflicted WAY TOO LONG world history hand outs upon my players. Strangely the one campaign I felt was a success was a game using Palladium’s Heroes Unlimited. I can tell some of you are shaking your head in disapproval, but once upon a time I was a fan of Palladium games. I might have recognized there were some problems with the system, but it was full of great ideas and most importantly of all we enjoyed it.

Looking back the success of the campaign had little to do with the system and everything to do with the way the campaign developed. I’ll share some of what I think made the campaign work :

  1. The group was small. Originally there were only three players in the game, a really small number for my usual groups. So small in fact that, two players ran two characters each. Eventually the game grew to five players and I think it started to go downhill from there. Supers games benefit when you can devote extra attention to the characters individual plots and subplots. The melodrama of comic books is hard to get to with larger groups.
  2. The original players created their characters together. While most systems benefit from players getting together to roll up characters, I think creating superheroes that work well together, compliment each other, share goals or even have some unresolved tension amongst them, adds to the style and themes of a superhero game.
  3. The characters had a reason to be together. Too often the first sessions of a supers game is an origin story, how they met and formed the group.  But if everybody is a loner and there are no built in reasons for the superheroes to cooperate this can be endlessly frustrating. If possible, avoid the origin story altogether, jump right into the action and then go back and play or discuss how they got together after the fact!
  4. The campaign was not ambitious… That may sound strange but let me explain myself. Some GMs have read and loved comics their entire life and when they sit down to create their game they create the ULTIMATE SECRET CRISIS OF THE GODS! For this campaign my whole outline for the game was hand written in one sheet of paper. Of course I elaborated and added as the game went along but the player’s characters, their back stories and motivations shaped the campaign. Not the other way around.
  5. And last but not least, make sure you play with people who like superhero games. This may sound like commons sense, but I’ve seen people who are not “so much” into fantasy play D&D enthusiastically, and hardcore fantasy fans embrace the cybernetic mercenary character and just shoot their way across the galaxy. But these same rational players who accommodate other genres have such a strong reaction to the idea of playing supers that it becomes disruptive. More than one campaign has been ruined by the one player who wants to play the comical character who doesn’t take anything serious or the one guy whose character points out everything that doesn’t make sense in a superhero universe. I know there is a place for humor in a supers games, but sometimes it just becomes disruptive. If you as a player don’t like supers games, don’t spoil the fun for everyone else!

The advice on the list may well be good for ANY kind of game. Others might have said it before or even better, just realize it’s based on my experiences, your mileage may vary! Most importantly, enjoy the game you play. If you are not enjoying it, they why are you playing?

I’m looking forward to know what your experience with superhero role playing games has been. Please share with us your thoughts or ideas on the matter! Thanks for reading.

PS – For those of you wondering, about the first picture, that’s me as the famous Chapulín Colorado!

14 thoughts on “I’ve got supers on my mind…”

  1. I think you hit it right on the head here. I've been using the all players make their characters together now for quite a while. It just seemed to make better synergy.

  2. I have found that some players have a difficult time coming up with a character concept for a superhero that doesn't come off as a direct take-off on a published hero. There is such a vast number of superheroes that it becomes daunting to come up with a character that seems remotely original.

    Your point #5 is very accurate, in my experience. I have found some players cannot get past what they see as the "inherent silliness" of supers. They may balk at the idea of costumes, or hero names, or the like. What is ironic is that these same players see no "inherent silliness" in, for example, a fantasy game. They have no problem accepting a halfling ninja riding on a flying carpet while fleeing from a dragon.

    I think it can be hard for some people to play supers without hamming it up and going the whole Adam West/Batman route (or worse, The Tick). They just can't be serious.

  3. Wally, I think it works wonderfully well. I once started a campaign where the players were part of a superhero training program and the game started in the Australian training facility with some field combat, of course soon after the main group was taken out of the picture when their orbital headquarters disappeared and suddenly the guys in training had to graduate to the big leagues in a hurry. That was the alternate history campaign, it was good but too much hinged on the differences between real world history and alternate world history and some of the players were just not interested (or didn’t really know enough about world history.)

    Mark, Adam West’s Batman had some profound effect of the psyche of our generation. I think about 90% of the people I know who vehemently despise the superhero genre mention that series as evidence of what they dislike about comics. Mind you there are other culprits, like Fantastic Four (sorry fans, but I can’t stand either movie). The Tick hasn’t been such a big problem. I love The Tick, and I guess in supers games it takes the place of Holy Grail for humorous comments.

    Dr. Rotwang, all I have to say is: “Y ahora, ¿quien podrá defendernos?” “¡YO!” “¡El Chapulín Colorado!”

    (That’s the way to call el Chapulín Colorado to help you… The translation would be: “And now, who will help us?” “Me!” “The Red Grasshopper!”)

  4. Hey Bob,

    Always wanted to say that.

    I guess everyone wants to be the hero. To be able to assume this role on an rpg, you must be ready to be (guess what?)',heroic'…the path of the hero is one that every "persona" have to travel on his/her own…..but at the same time it is impossible to do it alone.

    Some other archetypes grow together with the hero,furthermore, these other types are an integral part of every hero s journey and viceversa.

    On the otherhand the journey of the superhero is that of apotheosis…..the superhero is the vulgar form of the true ubermensch. With many heroic qualities this character has many of the flaws of the hero, but he/she is also equipped with an inventory of crazy and sometimes illogical super powers….everything about the super hero is bigger than life, but his/her own personality.

    The fireman may be able to surpass supermans heroics by just risking his life as a regular joe…..and then the flu kills him.

    What makes a super hero a super hero? what makes a hero a hero? And what makes a hero a super hero?

    Everyone knows now that with more power comes greater responsabilities. But no one reads fierefighting commics…..so when it comes to the super hero rpg we are confronted as gammers with a whole new pletora problems. I don t have to be as careful, but what about the innocent bystanders etc etc.

    It s really up to the storyteller and players to live their games up to the expectations of a bigger than life concept .

    Having varying degrees of superpowers available ,as well as normal types on your cast of character is so important….a superhero is 1 in a million, how can we explain a Universe full of heroes…tricky huh.

    We had our share of experiments with super heroics on our rpg sessions, but at the end the sheer pwer of every character became too demanding , unbalancing the game out of control. Thats why varying degrees of super powers between character and including regular characters on a crew is an asset.

  5. Superhero gaming is my group's first, last and sometimes only love. Given they choice they would wear their underpants over their clothes all the time. And I don't just mean in-game.

    I think the reason why is that, more than any other genre, Superheroes are about the Human Condition. What makes a hero? What define good and evil? With the power to lift continents, would it be the right thing to do?

    Superhero gaming lets you take the safety catch off. There's no such thing as "you can't", only "how much". The PCs are veritable demigods walking the earth, so what stops them from squashing the puny humans? The villains in the campaign act as a counterpoint, an example of what the PCs could so easily become.

    So in many ways, superhero gaming is all about exploring what it is that makes us human.

    Try doing all that when you're an elf, dwarf or halfling.
    .-= greywulf´s last blog ..I got nuthin’ today. Back tomorrow! Tal… =-.

  6. I agree that Superheroic games require player buy in more than some other genres. I think that is because superheroes, by their nature, are larger than life and proud of it. Superheroes proclaim they are superheroes by their nature (and flashy costumes). A lot of gamers are not that . . . forward even in their alter-egos.

    The baggage of many years of campy and just plain bad superheroics on TV (Superfriends, I am looking at you) and in movies is only now being overcome.
    .-= Sean Holland´s last blog ..What Character Archetypes do you enjoy Playing? =-.

  7. Ake, profound… Although I think not everybody wants to go through the journey in a supers game. Some people just want to have big fights. Back in the 80’s and 90’s it seemed everybody wanted to play the X-Men now a days I feel like the expect the Justice League, Avengers or The Authority. Also, while it’s fun to have heroes of varying powers, Batman with Superman or Captain America and Thor BUT the system needs to support this. I played a manipulative detective, a behind the scenes wheeler and dealer in a Mutant’s and Masterminds game. I was aware I would not be in every combat, but I had great fun. He ended up as president of the US by campaigns end!

    Greywulf, thanks for the comment as well. I wish I had played more supers, although I’m usually a fantasy kind of guy. I’m curious, are all of you comic fans? What system(s) do you use?

    I think a last piece of advice I should have included is, establish expectations. If one player expects a gritty street level vigilante game, another expects the angst of the mutant books, and a third one expects cosmic level adventures, well the game can really disappoint. Not saying you can’t touch upon all those styles, but I think it’s better to set the tone beforehand.

  8. I agree, setting expectations is important – if only so that people sit up and take notice when you deviate from it 😀 I put a clan of ninja rabbits in our gritty street-level campaign for a while, just to lighten the mood. That was fun.

    We play Mutants & Masterminds in a long-term campaign that's travelled through more rule-systems than I care to count. It began in Marvel RPG, then to Golden Heroes, Heroes Unlimited, V&V, DC Heroes, HERO/Champions and more – same setting, different system. In that time we must have racked up hundreds of PC and thousands (literally!) of NPCs and villains. It helps that we all take turns in GMing and have multiple characters spread across many groups and nations.

    Yes, it's that big.

    We find M&M to be the best superhero rpg around. It scales beautifully, from the gritty PL3 of our meta-human police squad to our PL16 Solar Prime team, and everything in-between. Our "usual" group (when I GM) is PL12 now, having started at PL8 many moons ago. The newbies grew up. Bless.

    I'm really looking forward to ICONS though – an easy-play superhero game with random character generation? Yes please!
    .-= greywulf´s last blog ..I got nuthin’ today. Back tomorrow! Tal… =-.

  9. Greywulf, I’m envious (in a good way) of such a long and rich superhero campaign. I guess the supers milieu is ideally suited for multiple GMs cooperating, that is so much like writers and artists working together in a shared comic book universe.

    I played some of those games you mentioned, others I have NO idea (Golden Heroes, got to google that). Mutants & Masterminds I really like, I’ve only played the game, not game mastered it. I did see a problem when one of the players is just a wiz with the numbers and can really abuse the character creation and try to make a character that can do just about everything. But that is a broader problem of the GM keeping such players in check and making sure they create characters that fit with the supers game mentality (and I guess we’ve all gone through that no matter the game). Don’t know if I’m making myself clear…

    I’m also looking forward to Icons. Not such a big fan or random generation but I definitely will give it a try!

  10. While I agree with all the advice you've given, I don't buy your premise that there are somehow "fewer" Supers RPGs. Well, obviously there are fewer than, say, fantasy or sci-fi games, but since those must create entire worlds, it's more a question of the games detailing those worlds.

    Supers games tend to take place in our own, so they become more a question of system – how do we simulate superheroes of all stripes in the same game? And supers games with their own "settings" (i.e. their own set of superheroes not based on comics) are notoriously bad sellers. No one cares about the GURPS, Champions or Blood of Heroes version of the Justice League or whatnot. And yet there are those settings that ARE very different, taking supers in other directions, like Aberrant and Underground and Necessary Evil.

    But there seems to be less viable territory for more settings, so we're mostly left with more systems. And how many systems can actually compete in the same marketplace?

    I dare say there are still more superhero games than there are cyberpunk or oriental fantasy games.
    .-= Siskoid´s last blog ..Brightest Day… Oh, You're Being IRONIC! =-.

  11. Siskoid I agree. My assumption was purely anecdotal. And you have a great point. The lasting super hero game usually spend more time detailing powers and systems and genres, with the exception of the licensed games that can actually explore the series and groups they have published. Excellent analysis of how the supers games have fared… Your comment actually gave an idea! Mmm… THANKS!

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