Thursday, May 26, 2016

Of Altered Humans and Hi-Tech Wonders

I've written many times over the years of my love-hate relationship with superhero RPGs. I love them because...well, because the superhero genre appeals to that same part of me that the whole "fantasy role-playing" thing does. I hate them because I've so often been frustrated with the actual products.

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?
If it isn't evident from the slant of this post, I should be clear that I am a big fan of class-based design.  It's not the ONLY way to do RPGs...and it's not the only way I design games!...but I think it's under appreciated for what it (potentially) offers. In fact, I should probably write "under appreciated, even by me" because of the three superhero RPGs currently on my design table, two do not utilize class at all, and the one that does does no more than categorize characters by types similar to MSH (normal, mutant, altered human, and non-human). For the first two (both of which are limited in terms of scope and duration), that's okay. For the third, though, I'm thinking I should really reconsider my approach to the thing.

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.


  1. Have you read Deeds Not Words by Scott Lynch?

    1. @ Blue:

      Never even heard of it till you mentioned it. As a general rule, I only buy games in hard copy. The PDFs I buy are usually either A) for games I already own or B) games I've perused on the shelf.

      However, now that you've brought it to my attention, I've done some research and read multiple reviews of it. At 370+ pages, it doesn't look like a book I'd be terribly interested in.

  2. Mystery Men of the Land of Nod fame, users a class based supers game built on an od&d chassis. Playing a scientist is different from playing the other two classes. You might like it.

    1. @ Sycarion:

      Yes, Mystery Men is one I listed above (a recent acquisition...I believe Stater's doing a new edition?). While I haven't played it, I'd presume that the scientist and sorcerer classes are more similar to each other (as they have floating pools of points). That's a start, but it's a lightweight one.

      [not saying I have a BETTER idea at the moment...just saying...]

  3. Not a fan of class based games...

    Marvel Superheroes Advanced sounds like your game engine.

    Just convert the Villains & Vigilantes characters from the Ads in Dragon Magazine.
    I remember Kali. She was a villain. Her powers: powerchuks (nunchuks charged with dark energies). Art by Jeff Dee. She looked like an evil shadowcat (kitty pride). She wears a skull pendant around her neck so maybe posessed by dark forces as an origin story.

    1. @ Sean:

      If by "advanced" you're referring to the immediate successor of Jeff Grubb's MSH...well, sure, that was my system for a number of years (certainly for my longest running supers campaign).

      If you're referring to something me more? Because Advanced MSH isn't really my flavor these days.

      BTW: I remember those old V&V ads very well. The VERY FIRST super I created using the original (Grubb) MSH campaign rules was a clone of the Magnetor character that appeared in one of those ads.

      Powerchucks...yeah, that's pretty awesome.
      : )