I have been thinking alot about Superhero RPG’s lately. I am a fan of them and I have been since the TSR Marvel Super Heroes Role Playing Game came out in the 80’s. I went on to run multiple games in multiple systems, but Champions certainly got most of my time.
I love comics…let me restate that…I LOVE COMICS!
I read a whole bunch of comics. I have been reading them pretty much since I learned how to read. Most of them were superhero stories, so enjoying superhero RPG;s ties into that. I fell off playing the superhero RPG’s about a decade ago. Over time as the design sensibilities of RPG’s moved on, but a lot of the superhero games did not follow those changes. There have been a couple of major games developed since I stopped running them, so maybe they caught up.
I recently started watching Calisto6 rpg streams. It is a superhero game set in a cyberpunk future, using the Cypher system, and involving the players from the Star Trek RPG stream, Shields of Tomorrow. They are doing a good job with the games and it has refreshed my desire to make a good superhero RPG of my own.
With that in mind, here are some design guidelines I would use and look for in a superhero RPG.
1) The system should reward heroic behavior. Advancement should depend on it.
This is not a game where the “evil pc” fits in. Morally gray, or anti-hero characters may be a part of the fiction, but name of the game is SAVING PEOPLE. Punisher is interesting for contrast with actual heroes, but he is actually more of a sympathetic villain. Wolverine may kill people, but his moral focus is always clear. He never wants to see innocents hurt, or even forced to do the terrible things he has done and seen. Most superheroes don’t kill except in extreme circumstances. If you have a game with a team full of Punishers, then you are not playing a superhero game. You are playing a different game. It might be fun game, but it is not a superhero game.
Systems should reward the behavior you want to see at the table, so XP or the equivalent should be tied to saving people or actions in keeping with that goal.
2) Benchmarks exist to establish the character limits and fiction.
There is a line of thought that says wanting to know what a character can lift as clear result of a stat is the game design equivalent of a dick measuring contest. The notion is that having those clearly defined limits are to answer the “who would win in a fight” questions. In most things, I might actually agree with this, but in a superhero game this gets muddier.
First, the range of capability is wider in comic book superheroes than it is in most fantasy. The difference between the strongest human or orc’s strength is a matter of maybe a 1000 pounds. The difference between Batman’s strength and Superman’s is much vaster. If you are playing a superhero, you want to know what fiction should apply to how you visualize what you can do. I have superhuman strength? Great, are we talking Spiderman “I can pick up a car level” or are we talking the Hulk’s “ I pick up and throw that tank” level strength. This allows the PC and the GM to have a set of expectations. The die roll can be inconsistent and vague descriptions don’t help. If I am trying to stop a runaway locomotive, I should have an understanding if it is even conceivable I could slow it by brute force or not. I need to know if I am human level dexterous, or Spiderman level.
Second, there is a long standing tradition in comics of having exactly this sort of benchmarking. The Who’s Who in the DC Universe and the Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe were lines of comics that saw long runs and are greatly loved. They gave brief bio’s of the characters and described their powers and abilities, establishing their limits. This is a big reason why a lot of superhero gamers ask for those benchmarks in the games.
I would say that the benchmarks should used to establish capabilities, but not things like combat. This will not be a definitive scale for “who would win in a fight.” You should still roll for success to see if you can stop that locomotive, but if a PC decides to Pick up a car, if the benchmark says it is well within the characters ability, then they should just be able to do it. Just like I would not make a person roll to pick up a backpack. I would make someone roll the dice to use the backpack to beat up a pack of ninjas.
3)Character creation and game play should be flexible and light.
I used to play and run Champions quite a lot. It was built as a tool box allowing you to describe the character you wanted, and it was super flexible with that purpose. Unfortunately, it was not simple. I had many friends who balked at the game because of the complexity involved. Often I would end up making the characters for them based on their description.
By contrast, Marvel Super Heroes by TSR was super simple to make characters for. It was just random tables with few choices. The system was not super flexible. The only complaint I had with a later Marvel game was it effectively didn’t have a character creation system. The game is brilliant otherwise, but limiting play to existing Marvel characters did bother me. I should add, this is a perfectly valid design decision. The game was not bad from what I got to play of it. It just didn’t match my sensibilities in this one aspect.
Finding the balance between simple and flexible in character creation is no easy task. It is a little different for the rules of the actual game play. The more complex you make it, the more situations you write rules for, the harder it is to learn. Simple is preferable, but you don’t want to make so simple as to remove tension and decisions.
4) A good superhero game needs some attached fiction or setting to give context.
The Marvel and DC superhero games have the advantage of having a preexisting world to explain how it is there are superheroes in them. Champions created a world that strongly resembled the 4 color modern, bronze or silver age comics tropes. The same is true of Mutants and Masterminds.
The reason you need that is to make sure the players have a place to start their concepts. Do they live in a mystical world and all their powers are tied to magic? Have their always been superheroes stretching back, or are they brand new to the world? Are the PC’s the first? These are questions someone making a character in a world need to know answers to.
You can make that as part of the session Zero, much as one might in a Fate game establish the setting details for your game. I certainly see that as a viable option, and if I were writing such a game I would include rules for doing that as an option. I will say I prefer an established setting detail. It certainly makes it easier for people who are not too sure what to expect in a superhero game.
The key is to give enough for the players and GM’s to have something to work with, but not so much that it inhibits them. The problem with Marvel and DC as gaming universes is they have so much canon that it can be overwhelming. A new superhero game setting should have just enough to prompt ideas, but not so much that it has already used all those ideas.
5) The players should feel awesome and powerful.
Many games start with an assumption of character competence. Superheroes are a step beyond just competent. Your average hero can win a shootout with a couple of thugs. Spiderman beats up a small army of thugs while cracking jokes.Your average tough guy can pick up a few hundred pound. The Hulk holds back collapsing mountains. A CSI with some time in the lab can find the crime solving piece of evidence. Batman can do that while fighting a room full of ninjas. The assumptions of competence for superheroes should be turned up to 11!
The really challenging parts in a superhero game should be saving cities, nations and worlds. The should also be doing that while maintaining an actual life beyond punch evil. It should be challenging to save people while aliens invade or Galactus tries to eat the world. The heroes should be able to do amazing things, but they should also be challenged at those higher levels. That does mean sometimes you should run a session where they get the easy win of stopping a bank robbery. Reinforcing the feeling they are special is part of the genre.
Wrapping up with a wish list
There are a few other things that are not vital to all superhero games, but I would want them in a game I made.
Anyone who thinks superheroes are not supposed to be political hasn’t read enough of them. Superman was a champion for the oppressed and fought corrupt senators in his early days. Captain America was punching Hitler before America officially entered the war. Wonder Woman was expressly written to be a feminist icon. So many of the famous stories in comics had a ties to real world social and political issues. I would want a superhero RPG to do that as well. I want superheroes who go after corrupt businessmen and politicians. I want them to protect people being oppressed by the various evils in society.
I want SJW superheroes. I am explicitly stating this.
I want there to be a sense of a continuing tradition of superheroes. I want there to be heroes dating back to ancient times who mysteriously appear from time to time to save the day. I want the PC’s to see the hints of that legacy and explore what that means.
I am not sure what I looking at here save that a brilliant supporting cast is necessary for any good superhero story. Part of the character creation should include creating the Aunt May, the Lois Lane, and the Alfred or Jarvis. I lean towards other players stepping into those roles when their PC is not on camera.
Those are the things I woulds make sure to have in an RPG.