RPGaDay 2015: Day 19

August 19th.

Favorite Supers RPG

Yesterday, in discussion of his favorite Sci-Fi RPG, Runeslinger made mention of the fact that he “wasn’t sure that RPGs were all that well-suited to the genre.” I often feel this way about superhero RPGs. I didn’t always, but it has been a growing suspicion of mine over the last few years.

It seems that the requirements of the superhero genre need a different mindset than most players bring to an RPG table and that the attempts by various games over the years to work through and around these efforts are largely unsatisfying (at least for me).

When I was younger I bought, read, and played a lot of the supers games then available. I played several editions of the Mayfair Games DC Heroes RPG, played good old Marvel FASERIP, messed around with Champions and V&V. Heck, I carried around the slimmed down version of DC Heroes that was the Batman RPG almost exclusively for several months in 1989/1990. I created a whole superhero setting with GURPS Supers. All the way up to Marvel Saga System in 1998, I would say I was pretty hooked on superhero gaming – at least in theory – as I certainly wasn’t running or playing them much.

Somewhere in there I found the time to run a DC game that lasted about three months, a Marvel Saga game that lasted about a year, a couple attempts at Aberrant (which I got to play in a decently long game of and it was fun), and even a little bit of Champions. But overall, we always found our play experience lacking.

At one point, fascinated by the Green Lantern, it became my test of a supers game to see how well I could get it to model a Green Lantern ring (pre-Geoff Johns rebirth/war of light shenanigans). As far as that test goes, no game has ever done it better than Mutants and Masterminds, First Edition. Speaking of… I played a decent amount of M&M First and Second edition. They also failed to scratch the superhero itch, despite their comprehensive-yet-streamlined power building system. It was also the first game which actually handled both Batman and Superman ends of the superhero spectrum reasonably well. Not actually well, but as well as I’d seen it done so far.

At some point during all this I ended up giving up on supers RPGs. Strangely, this abandonment of supers gaming corresponded with a point in my life when I was actively getting back into superhero comics after a long hiatus.

But ultimately, what it came down to was that supers gaming just didn’t grok for me.

Here’s a few thoughts on why, from personal experience.

  1. I have a hard time selling players on the idea that in ACKS they might not always be the same level as the other characters. In a superhero RPG, the swing-factor in power level is vast, even in games like M&M where everyone starts with the same “points/PL.”
  2. That swing-factor also makes it difficult to fulfill the desires of the players from a “gamey” perspective. I have yet to sit down to a character creation session for a supers game and see players actually come away happy with their PC.
  3. Worse, superhero stories, more than most others, do not benefit from the typical “start low, build up” your character ideal of RPG play. Most superheroes spring into their comics (at least in the modern day) full-formed and rarely change much over the course of their existence. There are exceptions, but these are usually full-on makeovers rather than incremental improvements.
  4. Finally, most RPG players I know are like dogs with a bone. You put a bad guy in front of them and they will bend over backwards, tear out walls, and watch the world burn before they are willing to let that bad guy get away. I don’t know what to blame for this attitude (videogames seem too easy a culprit) but bad guys are “sacks of hp and xp” to most players and it’s tough to convince them otherwise. A writer can tell his hero to let the villain go… a GM cannot tell his players that.

Now, there are whole crops of “modern” super RPGs, from SUPERS to Icons and from yet another edition of M&M to Venture City Stories (based on FATE) to yet another Marvel RPG. And many of these games attempt, in some fashion or another, to legislate/modify player behavior through GM intrusions which are then rewarded. I struggle mightily with these as a player and GM. I don’t think they are good solutions to the problem but I’ll admit that I don’t, at this time, have a better answer to offer.

I like SUPERS – its reliance on dice pools and its allowance to use any trait on your sheet to act/react as long as you can narrate it is very clever. And I like Icons. It gives me a lot of what I want from more “in-depth” supers RPGs but in a streamlined, self-aware, even campy package. There’s a lot to love there.

But I’m not sure, at the end of the day, if I ever want to attempt to run a supers RPG again. I’d certainly try playing in one again, but I don’t know that I’d ever run one again. They just don’t gel for me. I think I want something out of the play experience that I can’t quite name but never seem to find.

Do I have a favorite? Sure, I do. If pressed. If I was going to go back and run a super game again, ever, I’d use the old Marvel Saga System. This game was ahead of its time, very well written, exciting to play, and with enough randomness at character creation that most folks were able to embrace the challenge rather than agonize over their math and how to squeeze out one last power point.

If someone starts a game, let me know.

As always, thanks for reading.

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