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Superhero Gaming: What is hard about it? How did you fix that?

king_kaboom

Benevolent Overlord
Validated User
Hello RPG.net hivemind! I am considering pitching a superhero campaign to my group when our current D&D campaign finishes. I've run many short superhero games in the past, but I think I have blind-spots and I'd like some help filling them in.

What do you see as the primary challenges associated with running a superhero campaign?

What solutions have you found effective for managing those?

Tangentially, are there any published superhero campaigns that you would recommend using? What makes them work well?

Thanks in advance.
 

Soylent Green

Polar Blues
Validated User
Superhero campaigns are great. Super is the king of roleplaying genres. It's a marriage made in heaven.

However the start of a supers campaign can be tricky.

Basically supers are an investigation heavy kind of genre. The heroes job is to prevent bad stuff from happening. But unless your doing a villain of the week sort of game, it proper story arc can take a bit time to gain momentum and the heroes to have enough information to take the initiative. Once the campaign is in fully in progress as GM you can multi-thread story arcs, so that as story arc approaches it's conclusion, the seeds of the next story arc are already in place - this happens all the time in the comics since the days of Lee & Kirby. But on your first story arc you don't have the luxury.

On the same note, during your first adventures your character don't really have their own proper rogue gallery, so every villain to start with (unless you are playing in the Marvel/DC universe) is just a nobody as for the player are concerned. After a while, some of the villains previously introduced make a return appearance, and by then there will be a history between the villains and the heroes. There were entire years of Avengers comics that featured nothing but returning villains looking for a grudge match.

One thing you can do (I picked this idea up from ICONS) is to get each player to generate a "nemesis" for another player. That way at least the villains will have a bit of emotional impact even in their first outing.
 

Spatula

More Ideas Than Time
RPGnet Member
Validated User
I like that nemesis idea.

I would say the hardest part is naming the heroes and villains! All the good names are loooooong gone. :)

Aside from that, one challenge is the extreme open-ended nature of most superhero universes, from the gun-toting street vigilante all the way up to literal gods from mythology. I would make sure that the players are all on the same page in terms of what kind of supers campaign you're running and what kind of characters would be appropriate. If it's just anything-goes, there's a decent chance someone is going to end up resenting their choice - depending on the system. Some are better than others at handling Justice League levels of power disparity. But it's not just power level - the kinds of stories that get told for different archetypes are different, too. So I would get everyone on the same page WRT expectations in advance, well before character creation.
 

Futurella

Social Justice Witch
Validated User
Yes, supers is many, many genres. The biggest thing i have seen go wrong is that everyone thinks they are playing "supers" when they are all playing different genres.
 

Borbetomagnus

Head Redcap
RPGnet Member
Validated User
Supers is the ultimate mash-up genre so you can expect to the campaign to take on elements of fantasy (magic and sorcery), sci-fi (gadgets, time travel, aliens), horror, mystery/conspiracy, and many others like pulp, spy adventure, etc.

It's best to have a discussion with your group about the type of stories the want to create. Narrow in on the type of genres that they find interesting and focus on them to start with. One or two primary genres such as fantasy and spies, for instance. But, you'll also need to discuss the type of characters that the players want to create. If a sorcerer is in the party, then you'll need to throw in some magic things into adventures. Start small with a missing/stolen artifact and build from there. Throw in other genres as the campaign grows -- high-technology, aliens, time travel.

There are several systems that can handle the cross-genre aspects of supers, and it's a matter of preference. I recommend HERO System via Champions Complete. It handles every situation equally well.
 

Dagor

Registered User
Validated User
One pretty basic but potentially rather significant difference between superheroes and most fantasy lies in where the action usually takes place. Fantasy (especially of the D&D type) is frequently exploratory in that the protagonists leave their familiar civilization behind and go out into the wilderness or set sail to visit ports in distant exotic lands and then find their adventures there. Superheroes on the other hand are at least by default far more urban -- a hero or team of heroes will typically have staked out some city or other (or at least part of it if the overall city is big enough) as "their" main patrol area and base of operations and that's consequently right where they run into many of their opponents. This directly means that they (a) have many of their adventures in far more familiar territory and (b) are for better or worse part of their local community, not just random implausibly high-powered drifters breezing through town. Murderhoboing and similar practices simply do not work here, at least not unless one is willing to quickly cross the line and become a supervillain instead.

This one, at least, should ideally just be a matter of talking to one's players and making sure everyone's actually thought it through and is on about the same page expectation-wise. Which, as has already been pointed out earlier, is just a good idea in general and perhaps for the supers genre in particular since it covers such a lot of ground; having an idealistic four-color hero type complete with cape and all wind up in the same group as a 90s-era antihero with more edginess than guns (not that they won't have plenty of those, too!) is likely a recipe for disaster unless the players can find a mutually agreeable dynamic between the two that's not going to go straight out the window during session #2 at the latest.
 

Yellow Signatory

Formerly 'Lord Stilt-Man'
Validated User
One thing you can do (I picked this idea up from ICONS) is to get each player to generate a "nemesis" for another player. That way at least the villains will have a bit of emotional impact even in their first outing.
Just wanted tio note I love this idea.

Yes, supers is many, many genres. The biggest thing i have seen go wrong is that everyone thinks they are playing "supers" when they are all playing different genres.
This has been the cause of my signing up for then quickly walking away from many PBP supers games, which has sadly likely given me a reputation as someone not to recruit. But what would generally happen was I'd for example make an incredibly astute, tenaciously two fisted detective, but the rest of the group with a combination of better system skills and differing expectations could crack the cases with their Super Senses and Super IQ while still juggling tanks. Both perfectly legit approaches to supers, but when they're all discussing their base in the animatter Universe you start wondering what the Muckraker is doing there.

Honestly I don't know of a solution to this in OC games since people seem to have differing ideas of what absolutely any power level means. Which is fine and understandable, but makes shorthand unworkable.
 
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Skywalker

Back Off the Buddha!
Validated User
My biggest issue is that superhero stories are heavily based on a number of dramatic based conceits. These need to either be understood and agreed to by all the players or reinforced by the system for a superhero RPG to work. I found the former to be difficult to achieve, so my solution was to focus on the latter with the likes of Masks.

Another alternative would be to embrace the lack of such conceits in a more "real world" supers setting such as AMP Year One. Doing this fails to scratch the itch of most superhero stories but, if that is understood and agreed, can work just fine.
 
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TheMouse

garmonbozia
Validated User
My biggest issue with supers games is to reconcile the reactive, "We need to save the civilians from these aliens that just showed up!" style of story so many supers players seem to enjoy with my own desire to have play primarily driven by the desires and actions of the PCs.

Sadly, mostly this means not playing supers games with players who like reactive superheroes. Because I know that they'll end up just as frustrated with me as I am with them.
 

Funkadelic

The Enemy of All That Rocks
RPGnet Member
Validated User
My biggest issue with superhero games has been (and has been mentioned in this thread) getting everybody on the same page with what exactly that means. With superheroes being a giant genre grab-bag, it's important to make sure everyone is on the same page regarding things like appropriate use of force, realism, power level, etc. It's just really easy for people to come to the table with different ideas. Just think of all the different Batman interpretations.

For other mentioned issues, I always have my players make three villains (A thematic opposite, Their evil opposite, and their out of context problem) and three people they interact with more of less peacefully. That was you get a pool of villains that are already connected to the hero, and NPCs to interact with that the PC should care about. But I like fairly social supers games. It's probably also a good idea to talk about how active vs reactive the game should be.

I think it also helps to have the group start out as a team and have the players work together on why the team was formed and what their purpose for existing is.

Basically the name of the game is synchronizing expectations.
 
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