(was: "I will never run your superhero game" - changed to improve the tone)
I think the idea of running a superhero game could be fun, especially a year one style game
I do not care for what I consider classic, superhero comic books
Lowell, Steve, and myself have been tossing around ideas based on running a year one super hero campaign for the past few years. As far as I know, Lowell is the only one who had done anything with the ideas. He is currently gearing up to run the third season of his Mutants & Masterminds online game. The premise of the game is the players chose different superheroes from various sources and have re-invented them in a “year one” style game. They were allowed to change up the characters as they are known and go their own way. Hey, they do it in the movies, why not at the game table?
I have played three superhero roleplaying games: Superworld from Chaosium, Champions from Hero Games, and Mutants & Masterminds from Green Ronin. By all accounts, I had fun with all three. Mind you, I was in grade school with the first one. I stepped in to the second one to help cover while another player had to take a break. I ended up staying for most, if not all of, the rest of the campaign. It has been awhile and I apologize for not remembering. The third was the most recent and not a painful experience. The players were a disparate group that surprisingly gelled, in my opinion, to form a supergroup. It was a limited run campaign, going for less than 20 sessions.
I have not read and enjoyed a classic superhero comic book since the 1990s, outside of several Batman graphic novels and a single Superman graphic novel. I have read Punisher MAX, Nocturnals, Gotham Central and enjoyed them. I have read various Conan series and liked them. Punisher remains my favorite character and has been a constant favorite since watching him go toe to toe with the likes of Captain American and Spider Man. When I was still in school, my father bought my brother and I a comic a week (or thereabouts). We would also save up our money to buy other comics, quite often from the $0.25/5 for $1 bin. Looking back, I remember reading a lot of Transformers, Power Man and Iron Fist, Captain Carrot and the Amazing Zoo Crew (I was old enough to get the jokes and my brother was old enough to like anthropomorphic animals), GI Joe, Master of Kung Fu, Aliens, Spider Man (not Peter Parker, not Spidey and His Amazing Friends), The Teen Titans, and spatterings of The Brave and the Bold.
The blog Ask Chris provides some elements of why I may or may not have liked different comic book styles over the years with an article on DC, Marvel, and “The Problem”. Reading this article is not imperative to my own post here, but it suggests a few things that make sense to me, now. I am not certain his thoughts are correct, so I will let you read the article and make your own decisions later.
My father wrote comics. My friend Lowell writes comics.
So, how do I make this work?
In the Play on Target podcast discussing superhero roleplaying games, they make one thing abundantly clear – if you don’t like superhero comics, don’t run a superhero roleplaying game. That is a pretty bold statement. However, I think it is spot on. I have run games I don’t enjoy running, most game masters have. There’s nothing worse than dreading an upcoming event that happens on a regular schedule. So, why do it? If you cannot find a way to enjoy a hobby, it’s not worth doing.
Yet, I liked playing in the superhero roleplaying games. I like elements of the genre. I’d like to be able to run something like a year one game in the future.
No, really, how do I make this work?
I have to break my mind and reform my thoughts around what a “superhero” roleplaying game is about. I need to remove any elements I do not enjoy and boil the rest of them down into a nice hero reduction sauce. So, what are the elements I enjoyed from those roleplaying games, the few comics I recall enjoying, and the movies I have enjoyed that fit this genre?
Heroes don’t have to have classic superpowers. They don’t need the ability to move faster than a speeding bullet, flame on, or hulk out. Heroes can have a high level of agility and acrobatics. They can be very smart crime fighters. They can bring the fury of two-fisted justice to criminals. They can cast spells. They can move things with their minds. Yet, they can also be a speedster, meat-shield, or robot.
Being a hero is often about saving the day and making the world a better place. They stop criminals, expose the truth, and bringing evil doers to justice. They can fight mobsters, aliens, mad scientists, or super powered criminals. They do not only fight the latter.
I think this leads to an easy set up for a year one game where the power level is local, not global, not epic. The rules system for said game would need to support this ideal. I should be able to do it with Gumshoe system’s Mutant City Blues and work in elements from Kerebos Club and Night’s Black Agents, Unisystem (especially if Beyond Human ever sees the light of day), or even one of the World of Darkness flavors.
Could I use Superworld? Probably, but I doubt it as I have no interest in it. Could I use Mutants & Masterminds? Absolutely, but it tempts for a higher power range than I currently think I want. Could I use Champions? No, no I could not. I am not running a game which requires as much detail as Champions.
I see two options for a world wherein to run a superhero roleplaying game. The first option is to take an existing comic universe and drop the game into it. This could be the world of DC, Marvel, or even a television series like Heroes. The other option is to put it in our known world and sprinkle in a few heroes. The idea of building a whole world from scratch is a bad one to me. It takes up too much time and offers too many possibilities of jacking something up. However, if you are like me and love the sandbox approach, you can still develop a grand world in which to set the game.
Start local, think global. By using the real world, a lot of the basics are complete. You have street names, maps, and events you can tie into the game. By starting “locally,” you can keep it under control without the lid blowing up. Local can be a street, a neighborhood, or a town. This also allows you to build up and out as the game goes on.
I think my approach would the city setting would be to give the players options I think I could work with. For me, that is likely to be NYC (classic home of so many comic books), Chicago, Miami, New Orleans, or Seattle. All of these cities are large enough and have enough elements that I think I could place a modern game in them.
My Superheroes are Supernatural
The second part of the setting deals with the supers and the how/why they exist. I think this is the area where my world breaks from the superhero genre and runs away screaming. The sources of power in my game will be supernatural and/or super-science based. Genre characters like Dr. Strange, Blade, and Swamp Thing come to mind. However, the tropes of television shows like Buffy, Angel, and Supernatural also would work here. There is a good blog series of posts called Strange Squad starting up. It looks at taking supernatural elements and using them to make a world of crime fighters with the game Mutant City Blues. Strange Squad is about supernatural criminals in a Ryker’s Island style jail who are given the option to help hunt down other bad guys. While this setting is a bit darker than I want to run, I think it proves the idea of a supernatural based, superhero style, roleplaying game can be done.
Okay, so I have potential rules systems, a city setting to use and the start of the sources of power. The latter will need to coalesce with more setting details. I also need to decide where the world sits when it comes to viewing these supers. The important thing is that the supers are out and known. They may not be wanted, acknowledged or have voting rights, but they are known. I have run two games in the past where superheroes/supernaturals were hidden in the background and soon to come out to the forefront. The lead up time involved with such a game is not worth it. It needs to be put on the table at the start. It is the subject of the game, do not hide it. The lead up is great in a form of singular experience like a book, comic, tv show, or movie. It is not all that great at the table. I think letting the mystery be the crimes to be solved and experiencing different powers with various setups is a better way to handle the game.
The next step for the players is to decide if they want to have powers or to be the humans dealing with the supers. Do they want to run around chasing down bad guys ala Gotham Central, do they want to be more like Angel or Scooby Do, investigating supernatural crimes, or are they interested in being the local superpowers who are on the side of the good guys, or functioning as freelancers for the local Major Crimes Unit/FBI special agent in charge? I think all of these work and depending on
I will need a list of potential character types for the players. I will also need something akin to the Mutant City Blues Quaide Diagram for both the players and myself. The players will need it for the supernatural character types, so they know what builds they can put together. I will need it for the core clues and bad guys. Whether I share it out with the players or not, does not matter. I still need to know how things will work together. I think the he old game Psi-Wars had a similar structure to it.
Floating back to the setting, I will need to design the power structure for each of the supernatural groupings and individuals within the setting. Vampires could form families around similar ancestors within the bitten blood line. They may or may not have different powers based upon siring. The werewolf pack unit can be based around family. Is there a werewolf gene, is it due to bite, or to curse? Is there a mad scientist working for the mob, supplying them with versions of Adam Frankenstein? Do chantries styled after games like Ars Magica exist? Are there cultists like those found within the pages of Unknown Armies or the books of HP Lovecraft? Witches lurk about town in their shops forming loose-knit covens. Demons flit in and out of the world, as summoned by magic users. Psychics move about the city trying to find each other and figure out why they have these migraines and nose bleeds. Scoobies exist the world over, trying to make sense of it all.
Which superheroes and super-villains currently exist? Can I or the players take existing comic book characters and rework them for this type of setting? Does the Daredevil have a magical ability to see granted by a demon? Is the Punisher actually a cursed knight named Frank Castle who was charged to defend the innocent? Could Doctor Octopus actually be a leader within the Cult of Cthulhu with tentacles for arms? Green Arrow could become a super-scientist with various bows and arrows which produce different effects. What if the reason Doctor Banner “hulks out” is due to being a descendant of Doctor Jekyll (or Dr. Hekyll and Mr. Jive for those of you old enough to remember the song). Like I mentioned earlier, characters such as Blade and Dr. Strange already fit the setting.
How is this different than running a World of Darkness or Unknown Armies game? For some of you, it may not be any different. For me, it would mean not leaping down the monsters we are, lest monsters we become rabbit hole. While that can be an element within the game, it should be limited to one particular NPC. It also means the game is not about world domination through the occult underground. I know many people have run WoD and UA which have more in common with superheroes than with the horror elements of those games. I have done it myself. It can work, but that is not the purpose of those games, as written.
If this game sounds like something more akin to the television shows Buffy or Supernatural than to Birds of Prey, it should. Superheroes don’t need giant letters on their chest. In my opinion, they simply have an important decision to make: the decision to do good. Some, like John Constantine, do it reluctantly. Others, like Cordelia, grow into their role.
At the end of the day, there are many questions that need answering.
1. Which city do the players want to explore?
2. Do the players want to be humans or supers?
3. What level of involvement with the law do the players want?
4. What is the structure for the different supernatural creatures and powers?
5. Are there lone practitioners with powers or abilities not displayed in others?
6. What is the purpose and drive of the supers in the city?
7. What is their place in the world?
8. How are the non-supers dealing with those just coming out of the superhero/villain closet?
9. What are the super-villain/criminal types up to?
10. What are superheroes/vigilante types up to?
11. What place does super science have in the world?
12. Which normal superhero stories do you take and twist into a supernatural story about spooky types?
13. What is the story I want to tell?
I think if I took the time to answer these questions (or work with the players to answer these questions), I could build out a game of superhero horror or supernatural heroes.