Sunday, March 7, 2010

Superhero RPGs

I was watching one of the more recent animated Justice League movies tonight. Whenever I watched animated DC stuff, I always get the urge to play Champions 4th edition, even though I don't particularly like the system. Champions 4th was the first, and presently only, superhero games I've ever played....and boy, did we play the hell out of it in junior high and high school. I rarely ran the game, preferring mostly to play it, but I recall the system made me fairly miserable and character creation was mostly an arms race. Still, we did have fun with it for the most part....and the parts that weren't fun still make damn funny stories.

The truth is, I have never been satisfied with a superhero role-playing system, though I must admit I have had relatively limited experience with them. Besides Champions 4th and HERO 5th, I tried to design a supers game using FUDGE, though I never finished it. I own the revised version of Mutants & Masterminds, though I could never really get into it. I have the PDF of Necessarily Evil (a super setting for Savage Worlds) but I seem to put off reading PDFs for months or years at a time. Oh, I almost forgot... I have a boxed set of the DC Heroes game from WEG that I picked up at a 50% off sale two summers ago.

I have heard of a number of other superhero systems, but truth be told, I've sort of given up on looking for a decent system. I think that superhero gaming is one of those problematic genres that just don't "game well" (another genre I don't think games well is mecha, but that is another post for another day.)

I suppose one of the problems facing superhero games is the sheer disparity of power levels between heroes, often in the same universe: Jubilee can shoot pretty sparks that seem to be capable of little more than stunning foes, while Magneto seems to pretty much have any capability that can be loosely tied to the concepts of magnetism. The Green Arrow is a skilled archer and martial artist, but Superman can withstand tank shells and hang out in space without protective gear. Meanwhile, Aquaman talks to fish.

I think my desire to have a supers system I'm satisfied with stems from my need to have a "go-to" rpg for every genre. Once again, I recall the maxim that there is a fine line between hobby and mental illness.


  1. I was with you until you said...

    "I have heard of a number of other superhero systems, but truth be told, I've sort of given up on looking for a decent system. I think that superhero gaming is one of those problematic genres that just don't "game well" (another genre I don't think games well is mecha, but that is another post for another day.)"

    Wow. Really? Because the longest running single game I've every participated in as a player (I've GMed for about 90-95% of my 30+ years in the hobby) was a Champions campaign that started in 1981 and ended sometime in the mid-to-late 90's. I was part of the campaign from 86 to 91.

    I've run more superhero games (mostly Champions, M&M and Villains & Vigilantes) than I have Dungeons & Dragons, since I'm not much of a medieval fantasy fan.

    Not sure why you had difficulties with Champions 4th although I'll admit it is a somewhat complex, easily abused system in the wrong hands. M&M is much simplier although somewhat more limiting in its abilities to reflect comic book superhero abilities and can be just as abused if the GM and players don't share the same mind set.

    I also love mecha games and have rocked several long term ones.

    Honestly, I can't figure out how people can play D&D so much.

    Too each their own.

  2. Ryan, if you like the OS ethics of gaming philosophy, you really owe it to yourself to give 2nd Edition (the current version, still published by FGU, and in .pdf format at DriveThruRPG) a try.
    --It completely requires the GM stay on top of things, adjudicate and interpret the rules and powers, and is suitably arcane (and yet, once decoded, dead simple: roll d20) for tinkering.
    ---It really is so incredibly versatile that it could be a Universal (but not generic) system.

    Turnagev's The V&V Emporium is top notch, and really showcases just how adaptable the game is:

    If you trust my words at all, please give the site a thorough look, and consider purchasing the .pdf.

    > stoked <

  3. Power levels between the "sheer disparity of power levels between heroes"? Well, I suppose this is no more of a problem that other RPG's in other genres. I mean, compare a 3rd level party of characters compared to a 20th level party in AD&D. In a campaign setting with established NPC's you could get different characters 'rubbing' shoulders but only if you wished. I expect it's the same thing in a Supers game.

    I've tried a couple of systems and one I've finally gotten around to trying which I found that I liked is the new version of BASH (the Ultimate Edition... the previous one can be skipped).

    There are plenty of other favorites though for a variety of reasons...

  4. @Barking Alien- Champions, to me, is dreadfully tedious. I don't like having to roll huge fistfuls of dice and calculate two types of damage, then figure out knockback, then roll for knockback damage... frequently our poor GM would design his adventures around a single combat, because that combat would consume the better part of the afternoon.
    Mecha gaming will be addressed in another post.

    @TS- I'll have to give it a look. I've heard of V&V but never seen it, nor (until now) been acquainted with anyone who had.
    You should know by now how much I love to look at new systems.

    @Pat- To use my examples, Superman and Aquaman are on the same team, which, to me, translates into being in the same party in gaming terms. In AD&D, you would not find the 3rd and 20th level characters entering a dungeon together. One of my biggest problems with supers gaming is that you often have to cater to the specific abilities of characters who tend to be a lot more specialized than, say, D&D characters... if Aquaman is in the party, the GM has to put a puddle of water in every adventure or Aquaman isn't going to have a whole lot to do.

  5. I had a little experience with DC Heroes as a player (not GM), but I seem to recall its exponential resolution system to quite elegantly solve the power disparity problem.

  6. I will second Telecanter's proposal.

    MDCH can lose a bit of (looks to see if Paladin is around) 'granularity' in between each of the number values, especially at the higher end, but it is easy enough for a GM to 'fill-in-the-blanks'.

    For a while, were were using MDCH for several different genres.

  7. I definitely agree that (played straight) the Champions system can feel a big cumbersome and crunchy. Believe me when I say I prefer much simpler games on average (Star Wars D6 by WEG, Faery's Tale Deluxe, Star Trek by Last Unicorn, InSpectres) but the darn thing just works.

    If calculating two types of damage is no fun, only worry about Stun unless someone specifically uses an attack that does 'Killing Damage'. If there is nothing behind a character when they're knocked back don't worry about knockback.

    On the subject of power level disparity there are two things to keep in mind when playing Superheroes. First, Aquaman and Superman ARE on the same team. So are Robin and Wondergirl. So why does it work? Well in M&M or Champions both are built using the same number of points. So Batman is 250 points of cool gadgets, awesome skills and intelligence where as Superman is most physical abilities, flight and one distance attack (Heat Vision). If you're a comic fan you know that the Justice League needs Supes to beat down the enemy but Batman to figure out how to do it.

    Second, not everyone's favorite guy is Superman. In my old group I played a guy who was Green Lantern-ish and another guy was Flash-ish (we each odd very different origins and effects). Was the Flash-guy upset that he couldn't fly through space? No - he wanted to be the Flash guy.

    I could kick ass with Aquaman. If anyone thinks all he does is talk to fish, they got another thing comin'.

    Now, having said that, V&V definitely has the old school vibe and is one of the first games I played outside of D&D and Gamma World. While a little clunky, Deeds Not Words is a cool D20/3.0 Supers game that's worth a look if you can still find it on the net (PDF form most likely).

    Man there are so many. I must own at least 5 or 6 Supers games with M&M and Champions seeing the most use. I also recommend checking out John Kim's Free RPG Blog and lists. Lots of Supers game links to be found.


  8. BASH UE is perfect for what you want, specifically since it addresses the power disparity issue quite elegantly :)

  9. @Aslan- I'll have to look into it. I have heard of BASH, but aside from the name I know nothing about it.