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Chop Shop

Cinematic Superheroes

by Eric Brennan
Jun 02,2003


Cinematic Superheroes

This month marks something of a new beginning for Chop Shop, or at least a return to our roots. As pretentious as that may sound after only six columns, it's meant only to signal my desire to get back to brainstorming passionately about what hoops to make our systems leap through in the pursuit of our own visions of the perfect game. This month, still reeling from the cinematic high that was X-Men 2, and girding my loins for Matrix: Reloaded, I present "Cinematic Superheroes." (Rest assured, all girding of the loins goes on behind privacy curtains.)

"Cinematic Superheroes" as a column topic is basically my attempt at getting RPGs to model the movie versions of the various superhero franchises, although some TV versions certainly fit the bill. The Daredevil, Spider-Man, X-Men, and even Matrix movies all fit within the definition of what I'm talking about.

The germ of the idea for this column comes from a discussion in the Open forum, where we discussed more cinematic superheroes. There are too many people to thank here, so I'll just point you to the thread: . I'll also point out the debt of gratitude I owe to the poster called "florin" for pitching the idea that I was basically talking about this column, and to Kevin Mowery for his discussions on how to make existing comic book heroes "cinematicised." Finally, all of this started with me musing over Aaron Allston's Champions 5th edition book, and he's the one who treaded this ground first.

Now, the obvious question is, "Why would I want to run a Cinematic Superhero game instead of one just based on the comic books?" The answer is - because the superheroes in movies are a different take, more rapid-fire and visual, less obsessed with navel-gazing and angst-filled soap-operatics. In addition, they are less focused on providing a "serial" kind of story, instead handing the audience a two-hour "punched up" plotline, perfect for individual adventures.

Finally, and most importantly, I think it's a neat idea because movie superheroes are cool. You can sell members of your gaming group on a Cinematic Superhero game far easier than a game based on some esoteric comic-book, because even the less-geeky members of the group will have seen X-Men or Spider-Man in the theater. In addition, the directors of these films have gone out of their way to take the oft-times hokey elements of the comics and make them palatable to the man on the street.

The Key Elements of Cinematic Superheroes

Keep it Visual

As GM, you have a special effects budget limited only by your own imagination. I know that's been said a million times, but in this case it's not just a truism, it's vitally important to making your game fire the imaginations of the players.

Take, for example, Mystique. In the comic books, Mystique's transformations from her normal blue-skinned form into another form take a mere panel, at best. But in the X-Men movies, her transformation is depicted as a slow melting of blue skin into her new form, taking seconds - the camera lingers on her not just because she's Rebecca Stamos, but because it's taking the time to show us how cool her powers are. The same goes for Cyclops - in the comics, his powers are a mere straight line of crimson color, but in the film they're a pulsing, rippling wave of scarlet energy, detonating anything in front of it. In the comics, Colossus just becomes metal in a single movement, but in the movie armored plates slide up his body accompanied by a clanking noise. Even the smallest power should be flashy and noticeable, with very few exceptions.

The little touches add up. It is not just that Neo flies in The Matrix, it's the way he kneels down before he takes off while the ground seems to pulse underneath him. This attention to detail isn't a new way of doing things - Superman in the comics may have just had a cityscape drawn in the background as he flew at superhuman speed, but as far back as the old black & white television show, the world seemed to blur past Superman as he flew faster than the tepid imaginations of the '50s could handle.

Even super-equipment should work like this - compare the rather mundane use of Cerebro in the comics to its use in X-Men 2. What was just a bald, wheelchair-bound psychic putting on a helmet and punching some buttons becomes a holographic representation of the world swirling around Professor X, with mutants graphically conveyed as one color and humans another. Some might argue that it was needlessly showy, but the fact is that it carried a visual punch. It meant something because we could see it on screen - they showed us how Cerebro worked instead of telling us.

In short - go for the extra mile as you envision the player's powers. If they suggest that their PC casts a emerald ray of power at her enemies, take it to the next level. Punch it up. Let the Industrial Lights & Magic in your head blow a fiscal year or two's budget making it happen.

Kinetic Energy

The advantage movies have over comics is most noticeable in the category of movement. Artists can impart their static images with the illusion of movement - I'm a huge fan of the way George Perez used to draw a hundred faint afterimages of Kid Flash as he ran, because each one was incredibly detailed. Such illusions, though, simply don't come close to the actual feeling of movement that a camera moving through a hallway or across a cityscape presents as we watch Spider-Man or one of the X-Men move. A comic panel might do a good job of capturing a few moves of a martial-arts battle, but it just can't accomplish what the Wachowski brothers accomplished in the Matrix, as each frame dazzled the audience with speed and power.

What this means for the GM hoping to capture the feel of a cinematic superhero movie is that his description should convey movement, it should convey impact, and his scenery should move. When a PC leaps into combat with a foe, briefly describe the feel of the air rushing past them as they jump, detail the visceral thump as their boot catches their opponent on the jaw, use knockback rules (or simple description) to show the simple physics as the opponent is blown several yards backwards, at an angle, and comes to a jarring halt on the floor.

Another way to accomplish this is to write down a list of about twenty or so terms or phrases that convey impact, movement and power - thump, thud, smack, collide - leap, cavort, careen, blur - and so on. As the game goes on, throw these verbs and adjectives into your own description, because in the heat of the moment, it's easy to overuse one or two specific keywords. As your campaign progresses, keep adding to the lists, until you've got a working "action vocabulary" of several dozen words.

Martial Arts is King

Cinematic superheroes are frequently accomplished martial-artists, even when their comic-book counterparts are not. Mystique and Nightcrawler both manage to defeat several Special Forces soldiers or Secret Service agents with martial-arts in the second X-Men movie, and Spider-Man also apparently gained the proportional black belt of a radioactive spider. Why?

Because martial-arts are cool, kids. Martial-arts visually display the kinetic energy and special effects we've talked about in the last two sections. Martial-arts also give the protagonists a way to demonstrate how superior they are to the common man, establishing a character's power and puissance through the decimation of mooks, thugs, and assorted warm bodies. Characters are not superior if it takes them twenty shots to take down a normal human foe, so rely on "Extras rules" that allow a superior opponent to wade through the mundanes.

An extension of this aspect of cinematic superheroes is that characters that would normally be relegated to the "odd powers" slots - teleporters, speedsters, healers - should beef up their combat abilities with martial-arts. Instead of being "the guy who teleports," these PCs become "the guy who teleports and then beats somebody's tail." Problematic characters with odd powers now become just as effective in combat as the blasters and bricks.

Keep The Gaudiness To a Minimum

Finally, and this is a "mere" style point - keep the gaudy to a minimum. If you want to capture the essence of the cinematic superhero, kit your hero team out in leather or rubber bodysuits that look equal part wetsuit and commando gear. Allow the individual members to change their look to fit their persona, but keep that unifying feel for the team. The Vision's green bodysuit with red and yellow trim may fly in the funny papers, but it looks slightly goofy when we are imagining real people.

And imagining real people is exactly what we're trying to do. I recommend playing "Separated At Birth" with your PCs and NPCs, a title snagged from a fictional computer program in Gibson's Virtual Light, in which perp descriptions are handed to bystanders based on what famous person they look like. In this case, feel free to start slating big (or little) names for a role as your characters - saying that your PC is a rugged, handsome guy with sandy hair is far less effective than saying, "Brad Pitt as Defender."

Running the Cinematic Campaign

Now that we have some tools with which to run a cinematic superhero game, let's break down how to plan one.

Economies of Scale

The first thing to remember is - you don't have to top 50 years of existing comic book history. That means, there's no reason to save the universe when you can save the Eastern seaboard. Recent history has shown us that if you're running a game with a secret terrorist organization, even a "simple" hijacking of three planes can reap horrifying dividends.

What this means in practical terms is, unlike the more over-the-top games or comic book universes out there, you don't have to be epic to have a meaningful threat for the PCs to stop. Sometimes, the most meaningful threat is the one that's the most personal for the PCs in question. In the same manner, sometimes the best examples of heroism are folks like cops and firemen, rather than some legacy from a dead world whose powers stem from the color of the sun. For all a superhero game's brilliant special effects and breath-taking stunts, the threats and inspirations can be very everyday.

What this also means is that characters don't have to be extremely powerful. The Justice League members of the comic book world overlap their powers horrendously, blurring the lines between various characters' roles in the group and spoiling niche protection. The X-Men of the movies may underpowered compared to their comic-book counterparts, but each one has a very specific role, and is guaranteed that they're the best at what they do.

As side-effect of the above caveat concerning lower power levels is that a lot of the powers that are kind of "assumed" in the comic book world, such as the ubiquitous Flight power, are unnecessary. As long as characters can bounce, teleport, run, or fight their way across a room used as a setpiece, they've got enough travel capability. The TV show "Smallville" demonstrates very well that Superman doesn't need to fly at supersonic speeds to get to where he needs to go in a lower-powered superheroic setting - running real fast is more than enough.

Finally, keep in mind that if you're using existing heroes as a basis for your campaign, either by using them as the actual PCs or as inspirations, keep things self-contained. You don't have to address all of the background the comic-book character has accrued, because as Kevin Mowery put it in the thread quoted above, movies are self-contained. The world may have other heroes, but the PCs are the most important heroes in the story and the only ones deserving of real "screen" time. When it comes down to it, the PC heroes are the only ones who matter. To make this more apparent, one might want to just decree that the PCs are the only heroes in the game world, at least in the beginning of the campaign.


Finally, we come to the issue of pacing. Comic books are a serial format - plots can be built up over a dozen issues, the action can span multiple months, subplots can disappear and reappear over a period of years. Movies are different. The plot has to catch your attention within twenty minutes or so, the exposition has to be fast, and the climax and denouement have to be reached in two hours, unless you're Peter Jackson or the Wachowski brothers, and then you get a trilogy.

What that means is that although the action of a cinematic superhero game may actually be resolved over several nights, we're talking about a concept and story that can be resolved in two hours of screen-time. To actually accomplish this, we have to turn to the three-act format.

The three-act format has been talked about a bit in a lot of RPGs, and I'm going to put my own spin on it for cinematic superheroes. What a three-act format means for us is that when you break down the adventure, each act should have a climax which is a setpiece, with maybe a few setpieces in between present in order to let the players stretch their muscles. By "setpiece" I mean a chance for the players to stretch their muscles emotionally or as far as action goes - a fight scene or a chance to ham it up. My advice is to brainstorm out the setpieces in advance on an index card, listing which PCs will probably be involved, and then work them into the game in your customary manner.

Insofar as the three acts are concerned, it's simple - Act One is exposition, and sets up the main conflict of the story. By the end of Act One, the PCs should be in the thick of things, and if you're anything like me, they should have gotten roughed up quite a bit. Act Two sets up the climax - PCs work through clues and deal with subplots, working their way toward Act Three. Act Three is the climax and resolution of the plot.

If we look at our cinematic superhero movies, The Matrix is in Act One until Neo gets out of the Matrix - the basic parameters of what we need to know have been laid out. Act Two sets up the action in the climax by showing us how the Matrix works, letting us see the Oracle (who sets up the final choices made by Neo) and by illustrating Cypher's duplicity. Act Two ends when Neo and Trinity decide to enter the Matrix to rescue Morpheus, and runs smoothly into Act Three, where we have our climax, both action-wise and character-wise. The setpieces are all of the cool fight scenes that make up the various acts.

By that same token, the first X-Men movie is in Act One until Wolverine and Rogue get to the mansion, at which point events (Kelly's escape, the kidnapping of Rogue and its attendant showdown with Johnny Law) set up Act Three - the final showdown with Magneto on the Statue of Liberty. This is, of course, an obscenely abbreviated version of the three-act format, stretched to the breaking point to meet our needs when looking at cinematic superheroes. For more info, ask on the forum.

What Games Do We Use?

The final question we ask is: "What games are best for a cinematic superheroes game?" The answer is - whichever one you like best. Unlike a lot of other subjects we'll talk about in Chop Shop, very few games are inappropriate for this kind of thing, and most can be made to work with minimal rules-tweaking. Just about every superhero game released in the last few years has rules for wading through mooks, for martial arts, and much of the description you'll be using is something a GM and players will agree to bring to the table beforehand, not something that a ruleset can do for you. That means that whatever you choose - Champions, Silver Age Sentinels, Blood of Heroes, Mutants & Masterminds, etc. - will be suitable with a few minor changes. The only problem you might have is with older superhero games, and if you can think of those problems, feel free to ask around in the forum about how to deal with them. (I suspect that the old TSR Marvel Super Heroes game doesn't handle martial-arts in a way that promotes what we're talking about, but it can surely be modified to do it.)

Yeah, I know, a Chop Shop where we admit that we don't need to tweak the rules much seems kind of odd. I know, it upsets me too - I went into this column expecting to be able to use this as a vehicle for dissecting the most recent superhero RPGs, but after heavy reading, I found that most of them didn't need it - the tweaks in this column are all about style, not hard rules.


That should about cover the topic of cinematic superheroes. Those of you who have questions or want more detail should press me to write more about the topic in the forums, or to write a follow-up column if this is too brief.

This is the new format for Chop Shop - I pitch an idea, I go over what key elements are needed to facilitate it and run it, and then we discuss suitable games and changes that might be made to them. I hope you like it, and as always, comments are appreciated, and appropriate attention is paid to them. See you in thirty, where we'll discuss an idea that's been brewing in the back of my head: Bamboopunk, or "Silk and Pearls," alternate reality roleplay in worlds where Byzantium and China reign supreme.

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