Superheroes and RPGs, Two Great Tastes, et al or Why I Like Superhero RPGs

I think that superheroes as a genre work great for RPGs; I find myself coming back to it more often than not. Here’s why I think the genre is such a good fit for the typical RPG mode of play.

Superheroes often work in teams
The Avengers, the X-Men, the Justice League — the list goes on. Even ostensible “loner” heroes like Batman have extended families of related heroes (e.g., Robin, Nightwing, Batgirl, Batwoman, etc.). Obviously, this facilitates the hobby’s most common “social footprint”, i.e., a group of people looking to play an RPG together. “Let’s call ourselves the MetaFriends!”

Superheroes’ stories tend to be episodic and ongoing
Again, social footprint. Be it ongoing comic book titles, cinematic universes, or serial TV, superhero stories map pretty easily to the RPG campaign concept; sessions = issues/episodes, “events” = campaign arcs, etc.

Superheroes have kewl powerz
Super-powers make for easy character hooks, whether it’s shorthand for their role in the group (e.g., “brick”, “mentalist”), or a key to their themaitc premise — e.g., “How long before the aliens realize I have their super-armor? Will I figure out all its secrets before then?” Powers can even be interesting from a reality-simulation perspective, if that’s your thing — “Do I retain my inertia when I teleport?” And, heck, who doesn’t like the idea of having super-powers? It can fuel hours of world-building (“So what does a world where people can turn invisible or lift tanker trucks look like?).

Superheroes are (almost) always connected to other people
Unlike the aimless, responsibility-free murderhobos of many fantasy games, superheroes tend to have relationships. It could be friends and family (“Dependent NPCs” in HERO-speak), it could be a mentor (“Shazam!”), or it could be antagonists trying to hunt them down (“We’re going to retrieve Weapon X at any cost”). It may even be a combination of some or all of these. This is great fodder for both adversity (“Viper agents have captured your elderly aunt! What are you going to do?”) and complication (“Mary Jane turns away as you suit up and says ‘Fine, leave.'”)

Superheroes have origin stories
How did they get their powers? What does the source of their powers imply about the campaign world? Does their story necessitate the existence of specific organizations or people in the world? Seriously, superhero chargen inherently invests players in the campaign world and does a lot of the GM’s work for her.

Superheroes punch stuff and/or blow stuff up
Want to forget about the character stuff and just fight something? Supers can do that.

Superheroes face moral quandaries
Want to forget about the fighting and examine how your uncle’s words about responsibility impact the way you’re going to deal with your best friend turning into a power-mad villain? Supers can do that.

Superheroes are often soap operas
Will Wolfboy and Mega-Lad ever get together? Will Malia ever be able to tell her grandmother that she’s really Dynamo, the hero who accidentally got Uncle Derrick killed? Will Light-Man be able to keep his ex-wife, Dr. Death, from getting custody of their son? So much fodder, so little time.

Superheroes (generally) uphold the status quo
As a GM, coming up with fodder for a session’s activity can be trivially easy. Start the PCs in the middle of a typical day, have a villain show up and ruin everything, and you’re off to the races.

Superheroes (sometimes) fight the status quo
The flip side of the above — superheroes are an oppressed minority or mercilessly regulated — can generate situations for an entire campaign. The X-Men have been milking this for decades now.

Superheroes face a lot of the same antagonists over and over again
How many times have the X-Men fought Magneto? Or any given Marvel hero faced off with S.H.I.E.L.D.? Or Batman faced off against The Joker? Or Invincible been vexed by Angstrom Levy? Or Clark Kent dodged a nosy Lois Lane? One of the great things about superhero campaigns is the ability to re-use antagonists. Again, superheroes are very much part of the worlds they inhabit; seeing the same faces again and again is a feature in this genre, not a bug.

Superheroes, as a genre, is deeply embedded into much of the world’s popular culture
It’s arguable that more people have a basic idea of what “superhero” means than they do “elf” or “wizard”. Plus, the baseline for any superhero world is modern reality; you’re just adding the concept of super-powered people running around. (The classic RPG Villains & Vigilantes assumed that players would play themselves, just with superpowers. We had a blast with this in junior high.)

Superheroes can be great vehicles for addressing real-world issues
Superheroes-as-commentary on issues of the day has been a common trope almost since the first day Superman appeared on the printed page. Your campaign can use this either by just having Captain Ally punch Hitler in the face, or following the MetaFriends as they take on the issues of global hunger or domestic violence.

All of the assertions above make for, IMO, very enjoyable, versatile RPG’ing. The genre facilitates improvisation for both the players and the GM (if there is a GM role), as well as supports many different agendas, from introspective character drama to rock-’em, sock-’em action. It also perfectly suits the basic social footprint assumed by most RPG design models: getting together a group of people to explore an ongoing narrative over multiple sessions — theoretically an unlimited number, given the lack of obvious “end games” in the genre, though not necessitating such (finite sessions = Hello, Watchmen).

That, or I just really, like superheroes, and this is just me geeking out.

Excelsior!

18 thoughts on “Superheroes and RPGs, Two Great Tastes, et al or Why I Like Superhero RPGs

  1. Dave Turner Sure.

    Anyone who’s circled me long enough knows that I’ve played a lot of HERO, and so HERO colors a lot of my thinking about supers RPGs. It (in the form of Champions) was the first supers RPG I ever owned and the first I ever played, not to mention the first point-buy, mechanize-non-fighty-things system I ever encountered. It hasn’t aged all that well, but I still have a lot of love for it. Hopefully Ron Edwards, MadJay Brown and I will be playing some Champs 3e via Hangouts or something soon.

    Villains & Vigilantes, however, totally eclipsed Champions while I was in junior high. The random powers and play-as-yourself made for easy one-shot play — which is mostly what did back then. And Jeff Dee’s art was the shizzle.

    Flash forward to the 21st century and it was Marvel Heroic Roleplaying that really rocked my world. The Civil War campaign was one of the best games I’ve ever GM’ed. I honestly think it’s the superhero RPG to beat these days. (Though it could maybe do the “Mary Jane is mad at you” side of things better. I need to investigate Smallville for more ideas on this in Cortex Plus.)

    I’ve played the old FASERIP Marvel Super Hero Roleplaying Game a few times, and it was okay. I inherited a bunch of supplements from a friend of mine and want to revisit it.

    I played a couple of sessions of Mutants & Masterminds back in the d20 heyday. I was kinda floored by it at first, but eventually came to realize that it’s really just HERO with less math and prettier art (which is not a bad thing, really). Part of me wants to try it again, and part of me doesn’t really care.

    I played one game of Truth & Justice at GenCon ’04 and enjoyed it quite a bit. The rulebook is a bit of a mess, though, which I find off-putting. I’d love to see a new edition.

    I could probably count Eden’s Buffy RPG in this list as well, since I consider it basically a game about superheroes. I only played it once, finding it pretty “meh” despite having fun playing around in the Buffyverse.

    Aside: I’m really looking forward to the revised edition of With Great Power that Michael Miller is working on, not to mention Ron’s Doctor Xaos.

  2. < ![CDATA[Dave Turner Sure. Anyone who's circled me long enough knows that I've played a lot of HERO, and so HERO colors a lot of my thinking about supers RPGs. It (in the form of Champions) was the first supers RPG I ever owned and the first I ever played, not to mention the first point-buy, mechanize-non-fighty-things system I ever encountered. It hasn’t aged all that well, but I still have a lot of love for it. Hopefully Ron Edwards, MadJay Brown and I will be playing some Champs 3e via Hangouts or something soon.
    Villains & Vigilantes, however, totally eclipsed Champions while I was in junior high. The random powers and play-as-yourself made for easy one-shot play — which is mostly what did back then. And Jeff Dee’s art was the shizzle.
    Flash forward to the 21st century and it was Marvel Heroic Roleplaying that really rocked my world. The Civil War campaign was one of the best games I’ve ever GM’ed. I honestly think it’s the superhero RPG to beat these days. (Though it could maybe do the “Mary Jane is mad at you” side of things better. I need to investigate Smallville for more ideas on this in Cortex Plus.)
    I’ve played the old FASERIP Marvel Super Hero Roleplaying Game a few times, and it was okay. I inherited a bunch of supplements from a friend of mine and want to revisit it.
    I played a couple of sessions of Mutants & Masterminds back in the d20 heyday. I was kinda floored by it at first, but eventually came to realize that it’s really just HERO with less math and prettier art (which is not a bad thing, really). Part of me wants to try it again, and part of me doesn’t really care.
    I played one game of Truth & Justice at GenCon ’04 and enjoyed it quite a bit. The rulebook is a bit of a mess, though, which I find off-putting. I’d love to see a new edition.
    I could probably count Eden’s Buffy RPG in this list as well, since I consider it basically a game about superheroes. I only played it once, finding it pretty “meh” despite having fun playing around in the Buffyverse.
    Aside: I’m really looking forward to the revised edition of With Great Power that Michael Miller is working on, not to mention Ron’s Doctor Xaos.]]>

  3. Only now do I realize how much overlap we have with superhero RPGs. I cut my teeth on FASERIP, playing the entire X-Men or Avengers team while my buddy GMed. Once we found Champions, however, it took over. We played back in the Chapions I, II, and III days. Strike Force rocked our home game. 

    I agree with you that Mutants & Masterminds is a stripped-down Champions. That’s why I like it. I don’t think I’d have it in me to go back to Champions’ 12-phase Speed chart! Like you, I’m also a fan of Marvel Heroic Roleplaying. The system has so many interesting nooks and crannies. I never played a full campaign with it, but I’d like to try it someday.

  4. < ![CDATA[Only now do I realize how much overlap we have with superhero RPGs. I cut my teeth on FASERIP, playing the entire X-Men or Avengers team while my buddy GMed. Once we found Champions, however, it took over. We played back in the Chapions I, II, and III days. Strike Force rocked our home game. 
    I agree with you that Mutants & Masterminds is a stripped-down Champions. That’s why I like it. I don’t think I’d have it in me to go back to Champions’ 12-phase Speed chart! Like you, I’m also a fan of Marvel Heroic Roleplaying. The system has so many interesting nooks and crannies. I never played a full campaign with it, but I’d like to try it someday.]]>

  5. I guess I see M&M as so similar to HERO that I figure, why not just play HERO? I realize this is sort of irrational, as M&M is, from what I remember, largely an improvement on HERO, at least for supers.

    And I like the Speed Chart!

  6. < ![CDATA[I guess I see M&M as so similar to HERO that I figure, why not just play HERO? I realize this is sort of irrational, as M&M is, from what I remember, largely an improvement on HERO, at least for supers. And I like the Speed Chart!]]>

  7. Dave Turner IIRC, it started as Kenson’s Freedom City setting, which was a HERO book, and then Pramas was all like, “Yo, dawg, you wanna d20 this shizz?” (Paraphrased.)

    There are some state-of-the-90s bits of the game that put me off a bit — as opposed to HERO’s shameless state-of-the-80s bits. I also played two demos with Kenson (one for 1e, one for 2e) that both ended up being “You were in the danger room the whole time!” scenarios, which was sort of bogus.

  8. < ![CDATA[Dave Turner IIRC, it started as Kenson's Freedom City setting, which was a HERO book, and then Pramas was all like, “Yo, dawg, you wanna d20 this shizz?” (Paraphrased.)
    There are some state-of-the-90s bits of the game that put me off a bit — as opposed to HERO’s shameless state-of-the-80s bits. I also played two demos with Kenson (one for 1e, one for 2e) that both ended up being “You were in the danger room the whole time!” scenarios, which was sort of bogus.]]>