Where are all the superhero RPGs?

Given that we’re smack in the middle of a superhero golden age, where it seems like every single blockbuster movie and every TV show is based on a Marvel or DC property, I’m kind of wondering where all the supers RPGs are.

For the most part, I’m thinking about mid-to-upper-tier publishers — the indies seem to be making decent progress on this front, what with Masks, Worlds in Peril, and I suppose maybe Icons. But the only “high-profile” supers RPG I can think of that is still being printed is Mutants & Masterminds.

Yeah, HERO is still around, but I feel like it has its own, steadily dwindling fanbase, and I guess some folks use other generic systems for superhero action.

But! Where are the fancy-schmancy, take-my-money games with lavish produciton values from FFG or… uh, is there anyone else? I know WotC is all-in on D&D and nothing but D&D, so I’m not going to count them.

What am I missing?

102 thoughts on “Where are all the superhero RPGs?

  1. Yeah, Marvel Heroic did GREAT just a few years ago, but in preparation for the Disney buyout they cancelled all the licensing and that’s the end of that.

    I’m really not seeing what you’re expecting. A-line non-WOTC RPG companies, to the extent they exist at all, have always had Champions/HERO as the supers “big dog” and then a long string of licensed or minor games following along with it. I don’t see a reason that would change because of pop culture changes – I mean, Batman came out in 1989.

  2. Lengthy rant about gamers and publishers deleted, but I’ll agree that it’s odd that you can’t find a right-now iteration of Marvel, at least. Then again there weren’t any Harry Potter games either, so who knows. Might be that once those properties get mainstream-popular, the licensing is so outrageous that it prices the entire hobby/”industry” out of the business.

  3. It’s probably not economically feasible. Marvel Heroic fizzled, probably partly because the cost of the license and what they could actually make from the game didn’t make sense as a business proposition. RPG revenue is going to be a drop in the bucket compared to the movie business, and the headaches of oversight and negotiating the contracts, etc., just probably isn’t worth it to the companies that could grant the licenses.

  4. Marvel Heroic fizzled, probably partly because the cost of the license and what they could actually make from the game didn’t make sense as a business proposition. RPG revenue is going to be a drop in the bucket compared to the movie business, and the headaches of oversight and negotiating the contracts, etc., just probably isn’t worth it to the companies that could grant the licenses.]]>

  5. “Then again there weren’t any Harry Potter games either, so who knows.”

    I had heard that J. K. Rowling was explicitly opposed to the idea of an RPG license. I’m not sure if that’s any more than a rumor, though.

  6. “Then again there weren’t any Harry Potter games either, so who knows.” I had heard that J. K. Rowling was explicitly opposed to the idea of an RPG license. I’m not sure if that’s any more than a rumor, though.]]>

  7. I know this is explicitly not what you’re looking for, but I thought I’d add Michael Miller’s With Great Power: Master Edition to the list of indies who are killing it with great designs. This one takes the Descended by the Monkeydome system from Epidiah Ravachol’s Swords without Master and does wonderful things with it. It’s structured play (which I love), and self-paced (thanks to its system). And it’s structurally about the cool / fun / non-evil superhero tropes. ipressgames.com – With Great Power: Master Edition – Incarnadine Press

  8. With Great Power: Master Edition to the list of indies who are killing it with great designs. This one takes the Descended by the Monkeydome system from Epidiah Ravachol’s Swords without Master and does wonderful things with it. It’s structured play (which I love), and self-paced (thanks to its system). And it’s structurally about the cool / fun / non-evil superhero tropes. ipressgames.com – With Great Power: Master Edition – Incarnadine Press]]>

  9. It was extremely successful.

    That’s not how I remember it. It seemed to me that Cam was implying they weren’t making enough money to keep it going, not that everything was going great but the license got yanked. Do you have any sources that would clarify things for me?

  10. It was extremely successful. That’s not how I remember it. It seemed to me that Cam was implying they weren’t making enough money to keep it going, not that everything was going great but the license got yanked. Do you have any sources that would clarify things for me?]]>

  11. Call me crazy, but I suspect that the average RPG freelancer has ludicrously rose-colored expectations about the business health of the companies they work for.

    But certainly Marvel needs a license to make sense to them from a business standpoint before engaging in a transaction. Calling that “unrealistically high expectations for D&D-like sales” or whatever may be a distinction without a difference — the money they’d need to get and the money anyone can get from a Marvel RPG don’t match so the deal doesn’t happen.

  12. Right. Marvel even cancelled their own, internal RPG in the early 2000s and fired everyone. They reported they were told they needed to compete with/beat D&D. And that’s a no-license-necessary thing!

  13. Also, superhero RPGs have always been a hard sell to gamers, by and large. There have always been (and will likely always be) Champions fans. Many of them want more Champions, not the next Champions.

    Has there ever been a case where something being successful in popular media actually filters back to boost smaller media? Superhero movies do not meaningfully boost comic book sales, after all.

  14. next Champions. Has there ever been a case where something being successful in popular media actually filters back to boost smaller media? Superhero movies do not meaningfully boost comic book sales, after all.]]>

  15. Some of those smaller media would not exist without the big popular media, so I’m not sure if that’s boosting so much as “making possible.” I’m thinking of, like, the extended Star Wars non-videogame media (books, comics), all the Star Trek spinoff books, etc.

  16. Well, but in terms of pop culture, the heyday/big sales days of the biggest Star Wars RPG was in the days after Jedi but before the prequels. The time when the original property was at it’s weakest.

  17. I don’t know that we should get too hung up on licenses, e.g., M&M exploded without any licenses and before the big supers movie boom.

    I.e., I get that licenses are expensive, so it doesn’t necessarily surprise me that there is no official DC or Marvel game. Granted, it’s kind of weird that there isn’t, given how much mindshare they have now, as compared to when they did have games.

    EDIT: Granted, I won’t discount M&M being buoyed​ by the d20 boom, either.

  18. Michael Miller people don’t need to go to things like comics and RPGs to get their superhero fix

    This seems weird to me, as I’d think general interest in a subject would drive interest in RPGs about said subject. I mean, Gary didn’t write the Fantasy Supplement because people weren’t interested in hobbits and Conan, right?

  19. people don’t need to go to things like comics and RPGs to get their superhero fix This seems weird to me, as I’d think general interest in a subject would drive interest in RPGs about said subject. I mean, Gary didn’t write the Fantasy Supplement because people weren’t interested in hobbits and Conan, right?]]>

  20. It might just be the case that superhero RPGs work better in theory than in practice. Personally I thought there was a lot of great stuff in Marvel Heroic’s design (but the “event” product strategy was dodgy and I found a lot of the art choices pretty disappointing, and it was all over-priced), but it didn’t really map to the traditional RPG pattern. And the traditional RPG pattern may highlight some problems with superheroes (e.g. power level problems make both “balanced fight” style RPGs and old-school “realistic problem-solving” RPGs tough, and if you go for different approaches you probably end up in indie-land) that are easier to work around in the traditional RPG milieus.

  21. Marvel Heroic’s design (but the “event” product strategy was dodgy and I found a lot of the art choices pretty disappointing, and it was all over-priced), but it didn’t really map to the traditional RPG pattern. And the traditional RPG pattern may highlight some problems with superheroes (e.g. power level problems make both “balanced fight” style RPGs and old-school “realistic problem-solving” RPGs tough, and if you go for different approaches you probably end up in indie-land) that are easier to work around in the traditional RPG milieus.]]>

  22. Dan Maruschak I made a post a while back where I made the case that, IMO, supers RPGs are easier to run in practice than, say, D&D.

    Honestly, the other day I was thinking about Fronts in PbtA games, and I realized that Fronts are basically how most of the supers RPGs I’ve run or played have always worked.

  23. I think it cuts both ways. The modern setting makes for an easily relatable fantasy​, more so than trying to remember if dwarves have Scottish or German accents. I think players can more easily envision at least 80% of what you’re laying down in a supers game (the remaining 20 is the really trippy shit, which you aren’t forgetting to put in, right?)

    I do think the traditional GM tools of describing the physical world and perceptions of the characters are better at constraining characters fruitfully in a dungeon crawl or horror investigation though. Remember when Magneto was a telepath for some reason? Any stupid thing is possible in a supers world, making a traditional GM methodology more challenging. Marvel Heroic solved this with a panel-style action structure, Marvel Universe solved it with open resource management, Champions solves it with an excruciating point buy system, Masks solves it by very diligently pitching the world in response to player action, but even in the widest open D&D sandbox there isn’t nearly the conceptual freedom of a supers RPG.

  24. “The modern setting makes for an easily relatable fantasy​”

    But it might also expose you to uncanny valley effects for suspension of disbelief, e.g. “If he can do that why is he wasting time robbing banks?” or “If I can do this why am I trying to stop crooks from robbing banks rather than fixing real problems?” type issues.

  25. “The modern setting makes for an easily relatable fantasy​” But it might also expose you to uncanny valley effects for suspension of disbelief, e.g. “If he can do that why is he wasting time robbing banks?” or “If I can do this why am I trying to stop crooks from robbing banks rather than fixing real problems?” type issues.]]>

  26. Jason Corley I think that:

    1) The tropes of superhero-dom are probably more familiar to the average Jane than those of fantasy — caped crusaders have been in mainstream media far longer than, say, hobbits;

    2) From the GM perspective, supers adventures tend to be about defending the status quo — somebody robs a bank, threatens the mayor, attempts to eat the planet — so you just throw threats at the players and they can react; I think this is a lot easier than building a dungeon and stating up the nearby keep.

    I.e., I think the whole issue of creative constraints is a non-issue.

    I dunno that its a big leap to go from “Your aunt is coming over, but your apartment is a mess” to “”Your aunt is coming over, but Doc Croc just irradiated you with Unobtanium.”

  27. The upshot here, folks, is that I don’t think supers, as a genre, is any more difficult for people to wrap their heads around than fantasy, horror, or SF.

    Shit, if people can make the conceptual mess that is Shadowrun into a hobby staple, I think people can handle Superman.

  28. Mark Delsing I definitely think it’s easy to understand the situation, but the typical traditional GM tools are focused on creating physical challenges. Thinking “I should have his aunt come over now” is a different type of decision than “I should have the bad guy rob a bank right now”

  29. Dan Maruschak I think people are fine with the tropes of superhero-dom and my evidence is the overwhelming success of fairly shallow versions of superhero properties at the box office. So people don’t normally ask stuff like “why doesn’t Dr. Dino use his genetic knowledge to cure cancer or something”; they get that that’s not what’s on the table usually.

  30. “So people don’t normally ask stuff like “why doesn’t Dr. Dino use his genetic knowledge to cure cancer or something”; they get that that’s not what’s on the table usually.”

    But what’s “on the table” in terms of a fantasy RPG is generally pretty different than what’s “on the table” for fantasy literature or fantasy films. Why should superheroes be different?

  31. “So people don’t normally ask stuff like “why doesn’t Dr. Dino use his genetic knowledge to cure cancer or something”; they get that that’s not what’s on the table usually.” But what’s “on the table” in terms of a fantasy RPG is generally pretty different than what’s “on the table” for fantasy literature or fantasy films. Why should superheroes be different?]]>

  32. Marvel Heroic was extremely successful… for an RPG company that wasn’t Wizards. And not enough for the licensing folks after year one.

    Sentinel Comics RPG is coming out soon: Starter Kit this year, core next. Based on Sentinels of the Universe. A great alternative and character creation is a major element.

  33. I wonder if M&M was more successful simply because it’s not a licensed supers setting. Licensed supers settings tend to have a defined canon for every character–whereas a property like Star Wars has a hilariously huge amount of room to play around in the sandbox with. Gotta go to work, but I think I could expound on this supposition later.

  34. Andy Hauge I think M&M succeeded because it’s a good game, because it had good marketing, and because it struck while the d20 iron was hot. It also was an order of magnitude prettier than any supers RPG I’d ever seen, which I honestly think is important for the genre.

    I agree with Jason Corley that licensing is not necessarily a draw. Honestly, until MHR, I was always put off by licensed supers games.