Supers RPGs and Comic Book RPGs

In game design, gaming society, mechanics, role-playing games on October 14th, 2010 at 11:09 am

WARNING: An uncharacteristic amount of namedropping occurs in the following anecdote. I’ve done my best to keep it to a minimum, but some is necessary for context.

I was fortunate enough to attend DexCon 13 in July, partially as a birthday present to myself. My first session was an experimental session of Marvel Superheroes run by With Great Power… designer Michael Miller. Darren Watts, president of Hero Games (publisher of the Champions RPG) and Indie Press Revolution (the latter newly minted at the time) was just closing up the IPR booth as we started up, and when someone mentioned we were playing MSH, Darren expressed nostalgia for the game. That inevitably led to us wheedling him into taking the last available seat for the game. Seriously, supers gaming with Michael and Darren was too good an opportunity to pass up.

As I mentioned, this was part of an experiment on Michael’s part. The objective was to run the same scenario with the same PCs under two different systems to see what the result would be. The characters are regulars in a convention campaign that Mike and (more often) his wife Katt run, so they began as WGP characters and then ported to MSH. As a warm-up and a “safe” rules tutorial (including for Michael, who hadn’t played Marvel Superheroes in many years), we began with a “danger room” PvP fight. We were split into teams and played a little capture the flag.

As it happened, the combat monsters ended up on the same side, while the other side had characters with compelling stories and themes, but they weren’t very big on Smashing Time™. The results were so lopsided that we aborted the experiment after the danger room fight and busted out some classic Marvel characters. I used Box from Alpha Flight to smash a mind controlled Hulk into the dirt, amazing everyone 🙂

During the brief intermission while Michael figured out what to do during the rest of the session everybody discussed what had just happened a little bit. I observed that Michael had created the characters for a “comic book” game – With Great Power… – while we were playing a “supers” game – Marvel Superheroes. That raised a couple of eyebrows, and I explained what I meant.

The subject came up a couple more times during the con and I’ve mentioned this dichotomy a couple times in discussions on Twitter. Most recently, I piqued the curiosity of Cam Banks, one of the lead designers of Margaret Weis Productions new Smallville RPG. Part of its design remit seems to be “don’t make another superhero RPG.” Long story short (yeah, I know, where was that ethos 250 words ago), I ended up promising him a blog post on the topic, and here we are.

In a “supers” game, the focus of the rules is on the capabilities of the superheroes. Generally, a list of powers and one or more of skills, stunts and disadvantages, define characters. Play primarily engages the rules during fights, and generating a narrative that resembles what you’d see in a comic book is mostly the result of player buy-in and GM skill. This means that, if the GM doesn’t fight the impulse, play can devolve into a series of fights with minimal connective story tissue (one of the reasons D&D4 gets compared to supers games is this shared tendency, plus it’s focus on tactical map-based combat, which is also a common thread in supers games). You may see secondary mechanics – Mutants & Masterminds’ Hero Points and Icons’ Aspects for example – which point at the story, but they often have uses focused on fight scenes, too.

In a “comic book” RPG, the rules tend to emphasize producing fictional tropes found in the type of superhero story the game is designed to emulate. Superpowers are typically more abstracted than they are in “supers” games, although some comic book games– Truth & Justice, for instance – still include catalogues of superpowers. Fights are often a specialized form of conflict, less tactical and have mechanics that feed the results of the combat back into other, story-oriented mechanics. Despite the label I’ve given, the source material doesn’t have to be comics. Smallville is, by all accounts, a “comic book” game that based on a television series.

Before a flame war starts up, I’m not saying one of these rule and the other sucks, I enjoy both supers games and comic book RPGs, and there are good and bad examples of both. My first true RPG love was Champions, the ur-supers game, and I spent endless hours making characters (and villains) for it. Heck, the MSH game that provoked all of this was a ton of fun, despite the hiccoughs. They scratch very different itches. It’s worth noting that true comic book games are a pretty new phenomenon, since they rely on game design technology that didn’t exist until sometime in the 90s.

Examples of supers games: Champions (and its progeny, like the old DC Heroes RPG and Mutants & Masterminds), Villains & Vigilantes, Marvel Superheroes, Icons

Examples of comic book games: With Great Power…, Truth & Justice and, from what I have read (I haven’t gotten to them yet) Capes and Smallville. Sage LaTorra’s Project Yellow Sun is definitely a quest for some sort of comic book game, as is my intermittent desire to hack Danger Patrol as a Brave & the Bold-inspired game.

I’m not sure this is a profound insight – it’s a false dichotomy, I know – but it’s easy to lump all superhero-related RPGs together and come to some false conclusions as a result. In particular, knowing if you want to play a supers game or a comic book game can help you avoid conflicts about what superhero RPG you should play.

  1. Well put, although I’d argue for a different phrase than “comic book” for the second category. I think there are super*powers* games and super*heroes* games. After all, the core of “superhero” is “hero,” not “super.”

    • Fair enough, Matt. It was a bit of a spur of the moment coinage, and I haven’t revised it since I first mentioned the idea.

      I like the label “supers” for the powers-focused games, though, since that’s the common label for the genre, probably since the days of Champs and V&V. Also, superheroes games implies supers games aren’t about superheroes, which I’m not comfortable doing.

      • I like “supers” for the umbrella term. You’re delineating two subsets, one focusing on powers (the character is a vehicle for the awesome powers you will most often display via combat) and one focusing on characters (the characters is a “hero” – itself an arguable term, especially for a villain-centric game – who happens to have superpowers).

        I wonder if my disagreement over “comic book” isn’t spurred by Smallville, since you haven’t read it yet and its soap-operatic take on supers fits its actual medium (TV) better than its source medium (comics). “Comic book,” to me, begins to imply certain things about dialogue and characterization that are outside the scope of the kind of game you’re describing.

        But I’m a stickler for language. Bottom line: your analysis is spot on, and a good starting place for further discussion of these sorts of games, inside and outside of the “supers” genre.

      • Yeah, Smallville was the outlier in all of this (and I don’t think it was even out yet during DexCon). If this is going to be applied outside superheroes, the terminology will have to be tweaked. I’m not sure what would be appropriate labels off the top of my head, though.

  2. Huh.

    False dichotomy or not, I think you may have provided the easiest (possibly also the clearest) delineation between what’s usually referred to as ‘trad’ and ‘indie’ games, regardless of genre. Well done.

  3. Great post! I agree, “comic book” might not be the best term, but it certainly gives you a sense of the difference of focus. I like to describe Smallville as a young adult relationship drama game with super powers attached. I hesitate to say “soap opera” but it’s probably safe to say it covers that, too.

    • Glad you liked it, Cam. It would have been a little sad if you didn’t, even if lots of other people do, since it was your prodding that got it written 🙂

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