Yet the list of supers games I've purchased over the years has continued to expand. I've owned the first two editions of Mutants & Masterminds, as well as Green Ronin's DC Adventures. I've re-purchased Heroes Unlimited Revised and picked up Ninjas and Super-Spies as well. And in edition to the hardcopy of Supers! and Supers! Revised Edition, I've picked up a number of PDFs: Champions for 5th edition HERO, Hero High for M&M, Bulletproof Blues, John Stater's Mystery Men, Barak Blackburn's Capes, Cowls, and Villains Foul...even tracked down copy of Dragon 47 for Dave Cook's Crimefighters game. This in addition to fat hardcovers of Wild Talents, Mutant City Blues, Champions 4E, and all the many other books I mentioned back in 2010. Oh, yeah, and some other random ones like the original Villains & Vigilantes and "for free" stuff pulled off the internet (one was a 286 page book that's still not worth mentioning by name).
All of which, BTW, are nothing but a small handful of all the superhero RPGs (and material) that have been released over the years. Lowell Francis over at Age of Ravens has a great series of posts reviewing all the superhero RPGs published from 1978-2014 (presumably, his review of 2015 games will come out sometime this year). Certainly recommended reading for anyone interested in the genre (either as a player or designer)...but there's a LOT of ground to cover.
However, most of the ground covered is pretty similar. Aside from the specific settings some of them have, most supers RPGs come in a fairly general package. Characters show up as a set of human-ish attributes (abilities, skills, whatnot), and then have powers added (from a provided list), with an attached system for modeling the kind of comic book antics one expects from a superhero RPG. Similar to the superhero genre of film, character is the main facet/draw of the game (exploration of what the character can do in relationship to the adventure/scenario/story the GM crafts)...however, the amount of character development that occurs varies wildly from game to game, from glacially slow (Marvel Superheroes) to ridiculously fast (Mutants & Masterminds).
That being said, of the variations that do help to distinguish RPGs from system to system, the one that most interests me is the one least often seen within the genre: class-based archetypes. Most supers RPGs eschew any type of D&D-style class system (even the D20-derived M&M) in favor of an open-ended system of character creation. I'm not exactly sure why this is, though I know that a lot of the genre's fans also happen to be folks who HATE class-based systems in RPG design (Barking Alien, I'm looking at you!). Maybe it's because so many (comic book) heroes over the years have defied being pigeon-holed by type? Maybe because there IS only "one type" of superhero: the kind that resolves conflict with (super powered) violence?
[to the fighter class, every problem that arises looks like a combat encounter, yeah?]
Honestly, I don't know. I suppose (putting on My Designer Hat for the moment) that having character classes in an RPG helps distinguish one player's imaginary avatar from another...and such is unnecessary when characters are readily distinct based on their various power suites. That being said, it's certainly possible to categorize power suites by archetype, and certain games have done this...City of Heroes (yes, there was a tabletop RPG based on the MMORPG) and Capes incorporate such categories explicitly in their design, while Mutants & Masterminds did it by way of sample, playable archetypes.
These particular categorizations, however...and simpler categorizations like the original Marvel Super Heroes RPG's "origins" (Altered Human, Mutant, Alien, Robot, and Hi-Tech Wonder)...ignores one of the best benefits of class-based RPG play: variation in play style. Consider D&D as a well-known example: playing a fighter is very much different from playing a magic-user and both are very different from playing a thief or cleric. Each class emphasizes different game systems, requiring different sets of rule mastery AND providing different play experiences. Play in MSH doesn't differ from character to character (you are taking an ability or power, rolling on a chart, and trying to get a good "color" result...probably using your best trait, i.e. "the one that will do the most damage" and/or "has the best probability of a good color result"). Capes (as another example) is even more pronounced in its lack of distinction...the systems function exactly the same for each character (regardless of whether or not you are a Brick or a Shooter or an "Animal Avatar"), only the narration differs. The game (like many story-first games) is about how you use the system; the system doesn't offer any variation in form/style of play.
Of the superhero RPGs I've seen, the only one that comes close to delivering class-based play variation on the same level as D&D (or Gamma World or Adventure! or Vampire: The Masquerade or...) is Kevin Simebieda's Heroes Unlimited. And, no, I don't think this is due to any particular forethought or genius of design; instead, it is almost certainly due to the haphazard fashion in which he throws the thing together, marrying different systems that model various comic book tropes while lacking any coherent, unified vision (other than the system for combat). Regardless, the variations in class allow for widely different styles of play...even wildly different styles of chargen!...possibly explaining the longevity of a system that has taken a beating from so many critics of games and design over the years.
|Accidental genius? Does it matter?|
Anyway, I am (as usual) running long on word count and short on time, so I'm going to have to cut off here. However, I do want to leave you with one last thought from my head (which I hope to come back to...perhaps tomorrow). Consider for a moment how the Marvel Cinematic Universe does not own the rights to the X-Men and their associated characters, and how this has influenced the way characters in the MCU are portrayed: there are no mutants. Comic book mutants are a long-running staple of the superhero RPG genre (some RPGs feature them as the ONLY type of character one may play...see Aberrant, Wild Talents, etc.). Do they need to be? Are they necessary for a decent "superhero" RPG? Was it necessary to make the Maximoffs mutants in the latest Avengers film? Do the MCU films suffer for a lack of mutation or "mutant menace?"
But more on that later.