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Thoughts on superhero games

Zeea

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I've been looking at a lot of superhero RPGs lately, and I remembered that I tried Supers! Revised Edition for a particular campaign and thought it sucked, then tried it for something else and thought it worked great. I've the same experience with Mutants & Masterminds and several other systems. And I just figured out why.

Every superhero game acknowledges that there's a lot of superheroic subgenres, and some focus on some over others. But the thing I think I've concluded is that superhero subgenres are often further apart than other entire genres. I mean, you see a lot of RPGs that try to be the Marvel Comics RPG, but how many other games really try that? I've never seen anything that tried to be the end-all, be-all fantasy RPG or sci-fi RPG. There are universal systems, but those are specifically avoiding genres.

Spider-Man and Daredevil are similar in power level, base of operations, and general superhero metaphysics. They even fight each others' villains fairly often. But Spider-Man comics as a whole are so different than Daredevil comics as a whole that they'd probably have entirely different licensed RPGs if they were any other genre. Maybe it'd be like World of Darkness, with Spider-Man and Daredevil and Jessica Jones and Punisher as different game lines within it. But putting it all in one RPG would come across as a bit broad. You might have an underlying system with different power sets and subsystems added on, like Vampire and Werewolf have.

Guardians of the Galaxy, Silver Surfer, and Thor? In another genre, nobody would probably even consider putting them in the same game as Spider-Man and Daredevil and Jessica Jones, because they're so totally different. And Dr. Strange would be different from those. And X-Men. And that's just Marvel (though I think that could encompass mainstream DC as well). When you get into the weirder concepts like The Authority, or the Reckoners novels (which I recently heard about), or Conan comics, there's even more differences.

But most superhero RPGs have to try to cover them all, because comics established the concept of the crossover and shared world as a central facet. And I understand why people make superhero RPGs that can handle a wide range of genres. But even really flexible rules and genre sourcebooks can generally only go so far to diversify what the game can cover. When it comes down to it, most published superhero RPGs can emulate the style of one or two particular comic book lines really well and then have progressively more difficulty as character concepts get away from that.

So, I finally understand why I can never find a "superheroes" game that routinely works for me. Because that's like looking for a "speculative fiction" game when I'm specifically wanting D&D-style fantasy, or non-D&D style fantasy, or space opera, or whatever. I should be looking for an "X-Men" game or a "Spider-Man" game or a "Wonder Woman" game or whatever. I mean, I always knew that there were lots of subgenres and that some games focused on very specific subgenres, but I don't think I ever really grasped that the different subgenres were just so extremely different compared to a lot of other things.

(And I am aware that there are already some highly specialized games out there, and I think that's a good approach. It's just unfortunate that a lot of them focus on emulating superhero subgenres that aren't really my thing, like teen supers and whatnot.)
 

Elvish Lore

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It's a good way of looking at it. To Kill a Mockingbird with superpowers (which feels like it would heavily focus on interpersonal mechanics) is going to be pretty damn different than Guardians of the Galaxy (which feels very pulpy and high action) which will be very different from Taken with mutant abilities (which might be very skill-focused and grounded).
 

Zeea

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One thing I'm wondering is whether supers might actually work well as supplements for games for other genres. Like, D&D with a fantasy superheroes supplement, D6 Space with a cosmic superheroes supplement, Batman-esque as a supplement for a pulp game, etc. Wonder Woman and Marvel's Thor certainly would work fine in D&D, Batman would probably work okay in Adventure!
 

Kevin Mowery

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The best supers games I've found that allow for a wildly varying mix of power levels are Marvel Heroic Roleplaying and Masks: A New Generation. MHR is still focused mainly on powers, but the dice are less about how powerful the character is in the world, and more about how important these things are to the character. Masks has powers, but in a lot of cases they're almost an afterthought because the real focus of the game is on the characters' relationships with each other and NPCs and how they come to define themselves.

And, yes, Masks is about teen heroes, but I'd say that it would work well for any supers game where you want the focus to be on those things rather than rigidly defining powers. I'd use it for a game where new heroes rise up in the MCU after Infinity War, or to emulate the new She-Ra cartoon.
 

Strange Visitor

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Just as a side note, I've certainly seen games that do, indeed, seem to think they're good for any fantasy or any SF setting. You can make an argument they're deluded, but its a thing.
 

Sleeper

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I'd go further. The genre shift doesn't just happen between characters, or titles. It varies by storyline and the character's role in a title; and it often involves huge changes in power and fallibility. For instance, Thor. In the classic runs of his own comic, he regularly took on staggering threats, got lots of maturation/dad development, and lived in a world of magic and whimsy. But in the Avengers, he was mostly just the amiable bloke they occasionally (rarely) remembered was a god, and while still capable was treated as vastly less powerful (so he didn't completely outshine his peers). This also happens between storylines, particularly when the author changes, and they decide to focus on some different aspect of the character. Batman is one of the best examples, because his character, genre, and power level has changed so much over the years, from campy to grimdark, to noir detective stories and cosmic heroism, to the guy who struggles to beat up a crowd of thugs and the uber-planner Batgod.
 

IanWatson

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One thing I'm wondering is whether supers might actually work well as supplements for games for other genres. Like, D&D with a fantasy superheroes supplement, D6 Space with a cosmic superheroes supplement, Batman-esque as a supplement for a pulp game, etc. Wonder Woman and Marvel's Thor certainly would work fine in D&D, Batman would probably work okay in Adventure!
If you mean as an Adventure! daredevil, yeah, probably. Daredevils are in the new Trinity Continuum core as "Talents," and the new Aeon/Aberrant/Adventure! are being built with the expectation that some people will want to play Talents over playing psions or novas. So if you want to play Hawkeye or Black Widow amidst a team of other Avengers, cool. Daredevil's enhanced senses are kind of an edge case, but Spider-Man's definitely on the nova side of things.

Batman himself has had a lot of different interpretations and styles over the years, so depending on how you're doing him, he could theoretically also be done as a low-powered nova with a bunch of Mega-Intellect, Mega-Cunning, or Mega-Resolve to represent his high willpower and status as World's Greatest Detective.

I don't think we'll hit every subgenre with the new Aberrant, but I think we've hit a fair number, and I hope you find it useful, Zeea.
 

Trireme

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You've also put your finger on why the ceaseless attempts by some fans to derive "objective" match-ups and comparisons of those characters, based on "power levels", "feats" and other after-the-fact contrivances, always turn into unintended comedy.

Looking at the stories themselves, it's easy to see it: how can scrappy, put-upon Spider-Man win against the Unstoppable Juggernaut? Because a few folks wrote and drew a story where that happened once, and it was a fun and memorable one with a concept that worked for both characters as established and said a little something about each of them as characters, not as nonexistent stat blocs. There's no good way to quantify a match-up between a sorcery-powered human tank and a sci-fi-spawned wall-climbing kickboxer, because numbers are not at all what that story's about... numbers other than sales numbers, that is.
 

Trireme

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I'd go further. The genre shift doesn't just happen between characters, or titles. It varies by storyline and the character's role in a title; and it often involves huge changes in power and fallibility. For instance, Thor. In the classic runs of his own comic, he regularly took on staggering threats, got lots of maturation/dad development, and lived in a world of magic and whimsy. But in the Avengers, he was mostly just the amiable bloke they occasionally (rarely) remembered was a god, and while still capable was treated as vastly less powerful (so he didn't completely outshine his peers). This also happens between storylines, particularly when the author changes, and they decide to focus on some different aspect of the character. Batman is one of the best examples, because his character, genre, and power level has changed so much over the years, from campy to grimdark, to noir detective stories and cosmic heroism, to the guy who struggles to beat up a crowd of thugs and the uber-planner Batgod.
Absolutely true, and another reason why the relatively huge (bafflingly huge for such a small audience for a medium overall) contingent of comic book fans who try to objectively measure these characters against each other, a group of mostly grown adults at this point in history, should know better. These characters can't even be compared reliably with themselves, let alone each other, and often their stories are the better for it.

The only part that genuinely irks me about it is that those people tend to be the sort of hype-train early adopters that have a disproportionate influence on how an IP is shaped and marketed, because while they may be a vanishingly small number of people compared to, say, a potential Hollywood movie audience, they are also the folks who will keep the social media churn up for a newly-announced movie featuring a character or concept few others have heard about. Concern for their opinions helps make things that could be better into things that are worse.

For that matter, catering to those folks became de rigeur for certain writers long before Marvel Studios became the Hollywood model for blockbusters. It was always a little disappointing when I was reading a writer who was at least capable of knowing what mattered and what didn't, someone like Peter David, only to run across them wasting pages of the script explaining why such-and-such an outcome or event from a story years ago, under a different writer, was "really" an illusion or a fraud, usually with no impact on anything at all in the story being told now. Then I'd know that old story had been "controversial" among the worst kinds of fan, and I'd know what I was reading was going to walk on eggshells for them.
 

Sleeper

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Absolutely true, and another reason why the relatively huge (bafflingly huge for such a small audience for a medium overall) contingent of comic book fans who try to objectively measure these characters against each other, a group of mostly grown adults at this point in history, should know better. These characters can't even be compared reliably with themselves, let alone each other, and often their stories are the better for it.
I'd argue the opposite -- complete inconsistency and power levels varying by the need of the immediate of the plot tend to make stories much, much worse. It's okay to change a character over time through plot developments, and it's also fine to shift genres or even power levels periodically because you want to explore another aspect of a character (though there should be a clear break or a smooth transition). But when things just happen because the author wants something to happen, ignoring all past history, that's terrible storytelling. That kind of inconsistency means there's nothing for readers to get a handle on, which prevents the audience from engaging with the story.
 
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