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Gaming for Grown-Ups

Not just cape and cowl

by Tim Kirk
Jan 22,2004

 

Not just cape and cowl.

The first question, someone inevitably asks when I talk about the games I like is

"Why superheroes?"

It comes unrelenting like the tide.

"What is it with superheroes?"

Is what they are really asking-and many, but not all, see the gaudy costumes, the funny names, the powers, and think it's all about that-about grandstanding, about "Kewl powerz."

Yet this is not what I see, this is not my ideal, all those oddball tropes of comic books are fun to me, neat, but that isn't why I play superheroes. I'll give you a hint, it's the second part of the word that most draws me in-heroes. Other games, they let you play those too, but many of them also let you play protagonists whose moral, or ethical stances are just this side of dressing in their own funny, bright orange costume and going by an equally silly name that of "inmate."

It isn't about black and white morals. It isn't about something so simple as clear-cut good or evil. Many people look at comic books, see good guys bashing bad guys, and don't look past the surface. ALL they choose to perceive is the obviously simplistic moral tone that many comics seem to possess---they see it in games too. But this isn't why I like superheroes. I like superheroes; because at their heart they are morally gray, at their core they are mired in human complexities, yet shine because amidst that gray, some few rise out shining, triumphant iconic beyond the dimness that surrounds them.

Let us examine them and their supposedly black and white morality-let me perhaps show you the gray. Let us begin simply:

I'll tell you a story of a man bitten by a radioactive arachnid who dons a costume, and goes out to make himself wealthy, famous--by wrestling not with evil, but with other wrestlers for a shot at a purse. Moral? Just? You tell me are fame and fortune ever the virtuous path?

"But that isn't how it happened!" "He just did that once!" Yes you are correct, the fun of superheroes is that he didn't remain a wrestler, something happened, and he rose up beyond his own dreams of glory, wealth, he moved past them in order to be a superhero.

This is the why of superheroes-the why of super-heroic gaming, because fundamentally its about hope.

Someone on a mailing list I frequent touted the joys of simply killing monsters and taking there stuff, it was half a joke, yes, but at its core this is what gaming is for many people-power, prestige, reward. Our little wrestler friend saw that goal, had that desire, but not for long. He realized that sometimes there are things greater than reward, greater than prestige, and yes, greater than power itself-he saw the responsibility such gifts required.

Some people look at super heroic gaming as beneath them, as silly or childish. To that I say, "What's so childish about being a hero?" or better yet "Why aren't you daydreaming of Heroes?" You see, children of certain ages are selfish, they don't understand how to share, or how to give-adults are the ones who teach them the importance of such things. Superheroes are just the opposite of childish-they are fundamentally about the very adult ability to share, to give, without expectation of return. They are about accepting responsibility for oneself, and the world we live in.

One can blame the government, one can blame the world at large for how "horrible" or unfair it is-but until /one/ does something about it; the only one that should be blames is oneself. This is why I like super-heroes, because they aren't whining about the world being the way it is, usually, they're doing something about it.

It is that element, hope, and most people overlook. Good guys fight bad guys-yes, simple morality that. But look again-many heroes have criminal pasts, were criminals, some are still criminals in the legal sense of the word-but they still put their lives on the line to protect those around them. Childish? You mean like police officers, or firemen? Oh, admittedly there are some things in comics and superhero games, which are meant to appeal to children, or at least the "kid" in all of us-costumes, and silly code-names. Looking at just the outside one might presume the whole thing is childish because of those trapping, but isn't one of the lessons we learn one of the factors of being adults is knowing that thing aren't always what they appear? We learn to look deeper and this is where to me superheroes get interesting.

The words I could associate with superheroes are many: redemption, sacrifice, and mythology. Yet, overall, it is exploring those themes that thrill me, examining in games the choices one makes, not how good a combatant a hero is, but why he chooses to fight seemingly unbeatable odds, and sometimes why they succeed. Superhero stories are about why choose to fight, to challenge, to sacrifice even though their task seems hopeless.

I play superhero rpg's because I can't put on a costume in real life and go out and do good, I'd get locked up for sure. I can in life subtly do good, spread hope as best I can. I won't ever be a super-hero, or even what our real world calls heroes, and that's ok. I do what I can to make the world better, and in between, I dream, and play at being a super-hero.

Now the why of superheroes is out of the way -- lets look at the games themselves.

I'm an advocate of what I call FIFO gaming that is "Fast in, Fast out" as I use the term. It applies to wanting games that require little mechanical preparation, and whose rules return results rapidly without lots of calculation, or look up during play. I choose games based almost entirely based on three factors:

1) How does it handle the genre?

2) Can it do all the characters I can imagine

3) How does it produce results?

Those three things combined with "FIFO" standards are how I choose a game.

For the record FIFO isn't about how many rules a game has, or even how complex the game is, but it does include those elements in relation to speed of use, and returning the best results.

Genre Handling

Any game I choose for superheroes has to approach the material from a decidedly comic book angle. It should allow me to pick a page at random from a comic book, and play out any situations going on in that page. If it can't do so, then in all likelihood the gaming is going in the skip it pile. There are exceptions for particularly well visualized variations who have there own settings, that aren't exactly derived from comic books, but if the game is meant to be generic, or at least do "generic" supers-its got to do them right for me.

Among the many genre elements for superheroes I specifically look for is how well it handles heroic efforts, and heroic feats. Superheroes in general have few limits, the limits they do have are often things they run up against, and challenge them so any game which is meant to do superheroes has got to allow for a hero pushing slightly beyond their ordinary levels of effort, or performing feats or stunts with their capabilities on the fly.

The game should encourage super heroic behavior, either by having an inherent advantage or reward system for those performing hero-like tasks, or it should squelch un-hero-like behavior. Such support should be arranged so it can be removed if necessary for other gaming directions, but the default for a superhero game should be this option turned on.

One of the chief genre things I look for is how well it handles variation of power between heroes-since many heroic teams have members which possess vastly different capabilities, either in scope of flexibility or in scale of power. An ideal game system would allow two heroes of vastly different scope and scale to work together and each shine in the spotlight when doing their thing, without unduly handicapping the other heroes.

Characters

Now those things alone are not all I look for, any superhero game should be capable of simulating any character I imagine. This usually means it should have a power construction system, or at least make the format for adding new powers easy enough so that even beginning GM's have no problem. I vastly prefer a system that allows plain English implementation of powers. That is specifically I describe what a power does then add simple terms for how well it works/how powerful it is. A system of checks and balances need not apply. Comic book creators don't need a system for building powers, there criteria is typically how does it look, and is it cool. Those aren't exactly ideal for gaming, but getting close to that feel is what I'm after.

I like games which understand that I'm not into rehashing cliches every game session, I may like archetypes as a starting point but I want to deviate as I choose, so the system for characters should allow significant tailoring. Some games give no guidelines at all for how to build a superhero team-on how to split up spotlight time, and this is a grave error. In a team-based superhero environment heroes shouldn't be built in a vacuum, but built in cooperation with others-a system that encourages that team building is a feature I desire in superhero games.

As mentioned in the genre section, I want a game that allows disparate power levels, so if I play sidekick to another hero, I too get to have some fun being a hero. Systems often look at balancing heroes against each other by making them equal, but the best systems I've seen for handling such variations in power levels intentionally make the characters unequal-but provide a boon or benefit that the other character doesn't receive-this has worked quite well.

I love psionic, psychic, and mentalist heroes, their powers should be on par with any other heroes and not handicapped by using entirely distinct modes of power or limits on that power. There are a few games that do this, and I feel that in doing so they are in error. Mentalist heroes seem every bit as capable in most comics as the more physical powered heroes, sure some of them have physical limits, that there powers allow them to get around, but this should be a players choice. Not an inherent system design element.

Results

When choosing a game, the final element I look at is how it manages my FIFO ideal, as well as how it produces results. Ideally, I want a system that takes little time to use, and gets out of my way for gaming. If the system is constantly in the way, constantly in need of GM attention it's diverting him from playing the NPC's, and plotting the adventure.

When I choose a system, I tend to want it to be easy to learn, since I'm the only one in most groups I've been in who tries new games, and adopts new systems for use. I'm also quite good at convincing people outside my groups to try the games as well. So if a game manages to do most of the above and give me unique features or ways of handling things that I can tout to others.

I do not choose a game based on its base mechanics-if it uses dice, cards, pools of points, stones, chips, chits, or other system that doesn't matter-as long as its easy to teach others, and doesn't detract from the in character time.

I also want the games returned results to be comic book like; combat should result in people being knocked around, without a lot of serious long-term injury. Characters should run out of power/energy or be fatigued rarely and should still be able to struggle out and perform actions even tired.

Characters should also be challenges regularly but also get results that makes sense from the challenges-fighting a squad of thugs should be typically easy.

Now the games I've chosen to use (and will again)-

Mutants and Masterminds: Green Ronin Games The mechanical structure of the game is D20, and I'm not much a fan of the "D20/OGL" systems, but M&M does a superb job of taking that core and doing new, unique things and actually managing to fit most of my criteria. It lacks team support, and it forces all heroes to the same power level (with the option of allowing different levels of power)-but it handles most everything it does well.

Villains and Vigilantes: Fantasy Games Unlimited This games was the first I'd owned but not the first I played, its got some really strong places, including its "define your power" powers, but it also has some hiccups that seem overly complex (Jumping rules for example), it still has a lot of life in its small tightly packed and detailed rules.

Marvel Superheroes Adventure Game (Saga): TSR Out of Print This game is the closest anything professionally produced has come to my ideal. It lacks some things like team support as mentioned, and while its default handles different power levels it doesn't do the best job of supporting them, that being said, it's a fast playable superhero game, that has seen the most use by me and my groups.

Marvel Super Heroes, Advanced Set (MSH): TSR Out of Print Strangely this was the first superhero game I played, but the second I owned (V&V having been purchased previously), it was the default engine for me and my players until Saga (above) was released, its FIFOness, sheer flexibility, and style still remain one of my favorites. It is slightly less 4 color in tone than Saga, and so gets used by me still for any original superhero settings that deviate from 4-color feel. It doesn't fit all my criteria as well as I'd like but it still has a lot of power in its engine, and fond nostalgia to boot.

Now you may ask which of these is my primary system currently for my favorite genre. None -- after play-testing another companies superhero game, I became frustrated with the similarities that these things tend to all have as of late, and decided to work on my own. So far, it too fits most of my criteria, but not all, more work it seem to be done. Maybe some company will surprise all one day and make the truly "ideal" supers game for everyone. We can dream at least.

Peace and Good Gaming.

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