The Superhero Blues

Batman is not impressed with my
genre emulation issues.
Despite my loving comic book superheroes I've had limited luck in long-term superhero RPGs. I've been thinking that a bit of late with the summer movie season in full swing with an allotment of three superhero movies (I remember a time when there would usually be none...) Sooner or later I'll want to try my luck at another one so it's with a little bit of self-interest that I give some thought as to what it is that makes superhero campaigns challenging, at least for me.

I think that genre emulation is something important to the superhero RPG, typically balanced with how it handles action. In games such as  Smallville genre emulation is the most important thing, even linked to the action. Why you are using your powers and for whom plays a huge role in how effective you are in a game of Smallville.

The game I think handled genre emulation best while keeping the action level high was TSR's Marvel Super Heroes Game (MSH). MSH wasn't a perfect - its handling of powers was far less precise than games like Champions or Mutants & Masterminds but it had several systems to handle things vital to mimicking the feel of a comic book. You had your Popularity system, measuring how well a hero or team was liked or trusted by the public at large. Some groups like the Avengers were generally well-regarded and trusted. Spider-Man did OK in the popularity department but had to walk a fine line. And then you had mutants like the X-Men, "feared and hated by the world they have sworn to protect".  But popularity wasn't an absolute. It waxed and waned based on your heroes actions or perceived actions. A great example of this is the ending to 2008's Dark Knight movie where Batman chooses to take the fall for a number of crimes committed by an insane and broken Harvey Dent to preserve his reputation. He didn't do those things but everyone thought he did.

Hit-Girl from the movie "Kick-Ass"
She just lost all her karma (again)

Also in MSH you had a Karma system. In MSH karma served as your "fate points", your ability to influence the dice. It also served as your experience system. Karma could be spent to improve your abilities and powers or gain new ones. The catch was you could gain it or lose it based on your actions. And the deliberate act of killing stripped your hero of all karma. Hope you weren't saving some to improve that Fighting score. And superhero teams could pool their karma together and the act of killing would strip the hole pool of karma. "Wolverine, I need you to put him down very gently."

Essentially in MSH you have a system that rewards and punishes players based on how well they emulate the genre. With the right group of players this works fantastic. But you might not always have the right group. And by right, I don't mean superior, I mean an appropriate match for the genre - or players who are comfortable buying into such a reward system. But that isn't everyone. Some people can't stand the genre blindness they are expected to partake in. "Why on Earth would I let the police arrest the Joker again? How many people has he killed? I'm snapping his neck." And this isn't necessarily the mark of a bad role-player - we all cheered the scene in Firefly when Mal tried to convince one of Niska's henchmen that their deal with the crimelord was off. The henchman swears he will hunt Mal down and kill him. Mal broke genre convention and kicked him into the engine...

Similarly, in the Superhero genre very often superheroes do not follow superpowers to their logical conclusion - why hasn't the US government made better use of all the super-scientists and alien technologies around?  It's a similar issue I've found in Star Trek games - characters on the television show know the transporter doesn't exist to rescue them from all dangerous situations because that would make for boring television. Star Trek GMs find themselves using an awful lot of atmospheric disturbances...

So what to do in such cases? You need to start with knowing your players - what can you expect from them? You might get this by simply asking or by just knowing them from a bunch of games with them. It gives you knowledge that lets you know what dials to fiddle with. If open-ended powers are a problem then don't have a game with open-ended powers. The World War 2 Superpower RPG Godlike is a great example of this. What Talents are and are not capable of is clearly laid out. A super-genius? His inventions are essentially a prop - they won't work for anyone else. A 98-pound strong-man? How does he have leverage to pick up a tank? Part of his powers are the violation of physics that allows someone with minimal leverage to pick up a massive object. Perhaps even more importantly, Talents vs. Talents becomes a battle of wills as their influence over reality threatens to fizzle out when faced by another Talent. This isn't the superhero universe of Marvel - heck the characters are superpowered but they are not necessarily heroes.

If one is committed to staying closer to genre it may be best to look at the variety within genre. For example, one could take the examples of the earliest comics, before even Superman, which took their nod from the pulp magazines - heroes that sometimes had some mystic powers but were little more than regular men. You've got your mystic investigator Doctor Occult, invented by Superman's creators Siegel and Shuster. The Crimson Avenger borrowed much from The Shadow.

The heroes of the Golden Age were not the genre-blind heroes they often became later. Superman was a fan of brute force, gladly breaking into the governor's mansion should he have a need to. Batman was ok letting a criminal fall to his death - "a fitting end for his kind". Plus the heroes of the Golden Age tended to have simpler powers.

The Silver Age may seem a horrible era for your typical modern gamer who may have his issues with the superhero genre. But that depends on the lens one uses. This was an era of casual racism, committees on unAmerican activities, etc. Darwyn Cooke's excellent New Frontier series injected an amount of realism into era of the 50s and early 60s.

And if one wants grim and gritty, an era of heroes blowing away their opposition, you've got your model in comics. The late 80s and most of the 90s were the era of the antihero, as superheroes added lots of belts, armor, spikes, and guns to their uniforms. Why not embrace this? Create a world where the heroes decide to be the law. This could make for an interesting Watchmen-like game. The heroes of the 90s tended to be moderately powered so they won't be able to patrol an entire city or world. What happens if the police go on strike? The people go against them? Might the nation itself become unstable as "heroes" battle over the streets of the cities?

I mentioned Godlike as a game where powers are more rigidly defined in what they can or cannot do. Also of interest in this setting is the assumption that heroes are somehow involved in World War II. It does occur to me that Godlike heroes could work in other genres (and indeed they are an option in the more open-ended sequel game, Wild Talents) - but it is worth noting the narrower focus does help define what is expected of the characters - they are to defeat the enemy. And this is war, no one wants heroes who won't take out evil Nazis. (Or go behind their lines to gather vital intelligence for an upcoming battle.) Another game which goes this route is Pelgrane Press' Mutant City Blues. Like Godlike the limits of superpowers are well defined as is the genre - while Godlike assumes a World War 2 setting, Mutant City Blues assumes the characters are superpowered police detectives - dealing with superpower-related crimes.

Hmm, to help me get my superhero fix maybe a monster or two from early Fantastic Four can show up in my DCC game. Paging the Mole Man...

Here I am!!!
Oops, wrong one...
Fear Me!!!

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