Superhero games are hard!


If you’ve read any of my posts in the recent past you probably know I am currently running a Mutants & Masterminds 3rd edition game. After fantasy, which is my favorite RPG genre, Superheroes are my second favorite. I have started more supers campaigns that any other genre besides fantasy. Off the top of my head I can think of eight, and about two dozen more that were planned but never executed. Of those I considered one really successful, well until this one.

My current Dawn of a New Age campaign has become the favorite supers game I have run. Before that it used to be a Heroes Unlimited games that we played for a few months. I don’t recall exactly how long that other game ran (this was in 1992) but I think this one has surpassed it. Last night we played our 30th session, over seven and a half months of weekly games. I think the success is based on many factors. First and foremost a group of players interested and committed in the game.

Secondly preparation and I’m not talking about the weekly kind, but campaign prep. I did a survey to gather information on just what the players were interested and not interested in to use as a guide when preparing the campaign and possible adventures. Discussed their characters, went over expectations, so we all started knowing what to expect.

But you know what they say about best laid plans. As it is inevitable the plan has needed revisions. Players have changed characters, despite discussing expectations they were varied and sometimes contradictory and trying to mesh them all has not always been successful. Overall I think we have stuck to it and every so often there is something of interest to everyone. As will al role playing games not every session an highlight all the different plots for every character but there should be something for everyone to do.

There have been complications, not everyone understands the Mutants & Masterminds 3rd edition system. Some players like the crunch, others are lost in the options, but as a group we all pitch in and make it work. I as a GM have found the system flexible enough to allow me to improvise and guesstimate when necessary and varied enough to meet my needs when I need more detailed write ups.

As with everything different opinions on just what a “superhero” game IS, is perhaps the biggest hurdle. Some people think supers are only four-color bigger than life adventures; others prefer grittier more down to earth types of adventures. We try to meet at a happy medium most of the time, but its and ongoing struggle. I ask my players what they thought of the game every session. I have said it before, you need to steel yourself to get the good and the bad and take it in, digest it and use the comments to improve the game.

Overall what have I learned to make running a superhero game easier?

  1. Establish expectations, what will the campaign’s tone and style be like and help characters create characters accordingly.
  2. Listen to your players, they will drop plenty of ideas about where the game may go or what they expect of it just by what they say or suggest.
  3. Be willing to revise, what you might have thought would be the ideal tone or style may slowly evolve as play progresses, embrace it, discuss it with the players and adapt accordingly.
  4. Pick a system you all feel comfortable with. Endless rule arguments may take the fun away and ruin the game.

Have I applied them all? Most to a certain degree… I think number 4 may be the biggest point of contention, but we are learning and adapting. As always communication is king. Talk to your players and listen to what they have to say. After all this is a game you ALL should enjoy. Looking at that list this is advice I have gone over before and that will apply to any game, just that it may be particularly important for a successful supers game.

Will this game become my mainstay campaign? I don’t think so… As much as I love supers, my first and true love is fantasy and I can’t resist her siren call forever! I am itching to return to our Pathfinder game, this may be some months away but I am eventually running it again. Then there is the sci-fi game I keep mulling about in different posts. But I have loved this supers game and I want to publicly thank my players for sticking to it though the good and the bad.

Do you have any other advice for running a superhero game? I’d sure like to know…

4 thoughts on “Superhero games are hard!”

  1. Superhero games are the ones I want to run the most but find the most intimidating. You would think that as a life long comic book reader they’d be easy, but nope. It is really hard to come up with a compelling supers game. For some reason everything but fantasy gives me a hard time. I can throw together a fantasy game in minutes. Yet most of the time I draw a blank when it comes to supers, sci-fi, modern, etc.

    Plus it doesn’t help that I play with people who don’t want to put anything into games. They just want to show up and have me magically provide them with adventures. They even leave their character sheets with me. Hell most of the time I make their characters for them because they don’t know the rules well enough and they don’t bother learning them.
    It’s enough to make you quite gaming.

  2. Running a superhero game is a lot like eating an elephant. Take it one bite at a time, and you’ll get there in the end.

    What we did when learning M&M2e (and, to a lesser extent, 3e) was take one piece of the rules and wrap a scenario around them. For example, if you want to master the Minion rules, run a session where Crazy Doctor Crazy has used a Madness Beam to turn the entire of the city into mobs of insane rampaging Minions. By the time the superheroes are battling 120 shoppers, a city inspector (with a clipboard) & a horde of angry builders and the dice are flying, you’ll have the large scale Minion combat down to a fine art. Tell the players you want to try a particular rule out, and I’m sure they will be happy to oblige.

    Run a scenario where the heroes’ usual powers are nullified in some way, so they have to improvise. This works particularly well if the heroes have invention, gadget or weird science based advantages, but if not encourage them to use hero points to gain clever uses for their powers by creating on the fly alternate powers. Don’t sweat the points cost in-game – if the hero with Blast want to point at the floor, spend a hero point and be able to fly, let him. The one-shot scenario I ran had them facing against Reflecto (awful name, cheezy villain) who reflected any of their attacks onto one of their allies. In the end they took him down using a cunning combination of good old fashioned sand, a clever use of a AP-modified fire blast to make glass and some summoned black goo: they encased him inside a mirror. Totally golden age, and wonderful.

    Also, let the players know it’s quite ok to refine, modify and tweak their characters between sessions provided the points cost balance. Unlike the fantasy genre where characters only change at fixed level-based intervals, superheroes constantly tweak and refine their abilities. If the hero with eye beams wants to shave a point of his skills to gain a wide-angle area effect alternate power, then that’s cool. Perhaps he’s let his studies slide while he was practising in the back yard.

    This makes the characters feel more like living, breathing things, and that passes into making the campaign world feel the same. Also, as the players learn more about the rules they’re likely to find more efficient ways of making their PC closer to their character concept. If it’s a radical change in how the PC is put together (for example, moving from expensive individual powers to a cheaper array), feature the change in a session (he was hit be the Madness Beam, and it altered his superDNA!) and move on. That could also explain any new powers or abilities the player purchased with the spare points he had laying around.

    It might go against everything your instincts tell you, but don’t be afraid to split up the party in a supers game. This is a genre where heroes have access to near instantaneous travel and worldwide communicators (sometimes I give them to PCs for free) meaning it doesn’t matter if the dark gritty hero is stalking after a killer in a dark alley while the clean-cut Paragon is halfway round the world looking for a cure for a rare poison. They’re in touch just as if they are in the same room, and it keeps the players of both play-styles happy. Try to avoid having them both run into combat at the same time though – that can make your head hurt 😀

    Hope that helps!

  3. I recently ran a very successful Hero High campaign using M&M. All your points on running a supers campaign are spot on. I guess from a story perspective I’d mention taking notes from the real news and give it a spin in your world. Nothing gets players into a setting more than current events they can relate to.

  4. Thanks for the advice guys… I think I sometimes try to run adventures that are too complex and the pressure of a complex campaign and a new system can be overwhelming sometimes. Thanks again for commenting!

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