Comic Book Superheroesby RJ Grady
Comic Book Superheroesby RJ Grady
IN GENRE: Comic Book Superheroes
by RJ Grady
What Genre Are We In?
This article concerns role-playing games that emulate the comic book superhero genre. Comic books features superheroes, super science, super magic, super evil, super good, super everything -- even super butlers and super rhubarb pies. The genre originates in the comic book format, although full-length graphical novels, movies, radio shows, television shows, and spin-off novels are also important. To kick things off, some definitions:
A genre is a category, in this case a broad one.
Comic book superheroes are characters with extraordinary abilities, frequently dressed in flamboyant costumes, who use their powers to aid others (or in the case supervillains, to harm others).
The word "hero" is of Greek origin; it refers to someone of a scale greater than ordinary men, often of divine parentage, whose adventures, passions, strengths, and failures are of a grand scale. In its modern sense, it implies moral fortitude, compassion, and other virtues.
The word "super" means above; it is the root of the word "superior." A "superman" is an over-man (an ubermensch). In a colloquial sense, "super" means something that is overwhelmingly good, something that is cool. The "super" part is integral to the genre.
There are basically three eras of comic book history. The Golden Age includes the war years and the early Atomic Age, the first superheroes apeparing in 1939 with the debut of Superman in Action Comics. A stranded alien with super-human powers, Superman was not a bug-eyed invader but a very human-like champion of good in a weird costume. Batman followed with the sensibilities and weird villains of the pulp crime stories, but dressed in a cape and mask like a modern-day Zorro. Comics like these borrowed heavily from detective stories, weird science and horror tales, and the science fiction of time. Most Golden Age heroes were also notable for a gimmick, such as the Phantom Lady's "black light" ray, the Flash's super speed, or the Green Lantern's mystic ring. One late development was the supervillain, someone with the same abilities as a superhero but who used them for evil purposes, and could provide a challenge no ordinary criminal could.
The Silver Age begins essentially with the Comics Code. Some moral crusaders deemed comic books to be junk entertainment full of violence, supernaturalism, sexual suggestiveness, and other questionable themes. The result was the Code, a voluntary policy adopted by the major comic book publishers to head off legal censorship. While horror comics got hit the hardest, superheroes also had to change to adapt. Superheroes could not take life, and had to behave in a morally straight fashion. The result were the "do-gooder" ethics parodied by the classic "Batman" TV show starring Adam West. Villains also had to be milder, and were sometimes quite silly. The Silver Age was characterized by light-heartedness, strong morality, and fanciful, often humorous, adventures. But at the same time, Marvel Comics was experimenting with more flawed, human characters.
The Bronze Age begins where the Silver Age ends. Exploration of socially conscious themes (like poverty, drugs, and racism) enter the picture early on. DC Comics revamped their comic book likes to fit into one coherent universe rather than a half dozen parallel Earths. Marvel raised the moral sophistication of their books with characters like the lethal Wolverine and the sympathetic, but villainous, Magneto. Frank Miller's masterpiece "The Dark Knight Returns" restored Batman's pre-Code grimness and brought satire to the main-stream, and Alan Moore's "Watchmen" introduced a rather unheroic group of heroes. Marvel and DC had long ruled the comic book industry, dominating the few other, smaller comic book lines. Image Comics changed that picture. Unfettered by a previous comic book continuity, the creator-owned Image comics typified a younger, fresher approach, often an angsty, anti-heroic one. The modern comic book store shelves everything from "gee whiz" Superman stories to the grim social-engineering of the godlike Authority to the silly self-satire of The Tick. Companies are always re-inventing their comic book lines to catch up with now-current sensibilities, technology, and aesthetics.
Building a Superhero Game
Before you can even begin to construct a superhero game, you have to figure out what you're trying to emulate. You need to decide what sub-genre(s) you are drawing from, such as Silver Age, Bronze Age, or Japanese superheroes. Your universe, like many DC and Marvel comics, may include a blend of characteristics from many sub-genres. If you are the GM, you have the choice to model the world closely after your own tastes, whether tropes of the comics (like Marvel's mutant bigotry) or your own personal touches (such as a particular superheroic origin specific to your campaign).
In a story, the writer can arrange events as he chooses. If he wants Batman to beat Superman, Batman will beat Superman, somehow. Characters will fall in love on cue, and villains will escape as the situation demands. There is a difference between gaming and telling a story. You can cleave to the dramatic flow of the comic books, or you can let things take their natural course. If you want to have adventures just like the comic books, you will probably want to start with a game that supports that kind of action mechanically. For instance, DC Heroes by Mayfair games has Hero Points and a combat system that make it easy to "stack the deck" in such a way that the heroes win, just like in the comics. Conversely, using GURPS for superheroes results in a very different kind of game. Success or failure can hinge on a die roll, and the combat system as written doesn't emulate the flamboyant action of the comics, even in its most cinematic form.
Conversely, you can treat a role-playing game as a chance to adventure in a comic book universe, but without the dramatic pre-sets of the literature. The Joker may kill the Batman, but if the Batman wins, it will be through the cleverness and luck of his player. At the extreme end, you can turn the genre on its head, playing a satire or thought-study, such as Godlike's lethal WWII-era game of superpowers and combat fatigue, or Aberrant's satirical, near-future setting of super-powered celebrities, conspiracy, and moral ambivalence.
Emulating the comic books will require a high degree of cooperation between the Game Master and players. The players have to agree to play by the rules of the setting, and they have to trust the GM to pull the plot together. In a Silver Age setting, players should not have their characters perform lethal attacks, and the GM should give them the opportunity to escape from death traps when captured. Conversely, in a dark world of conspiracy, the players have to take interest in strange mysteries and should not behave recklessly unless they want to end up dead or worse. Whereas in an "anything goes" campaign, imagination is the only limit. What if Superman decided to seize control of the UN? What if Magneto killed Iron Man? Is it always so easy to tell who the bad guys are?
Action in superhero games should emphasize the grand heroic scale of the comics. Four-color adventures should be bold and fun, while a dystopian science-fiction fantasy focuses on the burden, and dehumanization, of god-like power. But equally important is the human side. Even Superman thinks about dating and love from time to time, while the Night Owl of the grim "Watchmen" series genuinely enjoys putting on a mask and battling crime. Many superheroes have secret identities. As a superhero, they engage in terrific adventures, wield great powers, and enjoy celebrity (or infamy). But underneath it all, they're someone like you or me, with hopes, desires, dreams, and fears.
Optimistic treatments of the genre emphasize the idea that courage is not the absence of fear but action despite fear, that self-sacrifice leads to a better world, and that although heroes may tread close, they don't cross the line into arrogance and evil. Their principles guide them, protect, and set them apart. In pessimistic ones, superheroes are human, frail, zealous, and conflicted. In both, the hero's sense of personal responsibility is important, especially in stories without a clear sense of right and wrong. Most comic book series include a variety of characters, ranging from the redoubtable to the pitiable. One common trope is the angsty loner who doesn't quite fit in with the group but remains because of personal loyalty. No character should be a forgettable knockoff, but conversely, it's easy to over-think a superhero character, so think broadly and go with what feels right
Character creation should involve a lot of discussion, both between the player and the GM and the player and other players. Even more than in most games, characters can have unacceptably incompatible abilities or motivations with others in the group.
For instance, a skilled martial artist and a skilled martial artist with super-strength should not usually be in the same superhero team, at least not without distinguishing their respective roles. Besides the thematic overlap, it can also be difficult to balance encounters for such a group. If one player intends to be a lethal vigilante, he needs to work out with the GM and the other players how he is going to interact with more traditional, humanistic crimefighters. If one character is an anti-heroic vampire and another is a Silver Age do-gooder who gains Solar Strength and laser vision from the sun, there are going to be problems. Different motivations can distinguish characters with similar abilities, whereas common motivations can bring together characters with very different powers and backgrounds.
Every character should have an important role; there are no unimportant superheroes. That role can be a combat one, a social one, or just a stylistic one. The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles are a good example of a superhero group here the characters have similar abilities, but different personalities and different secondary abilities. The Justice League of America is a good example of a group with wildly different abilities who share the common goal of defending the Earth from the greatest threats. The X-Men are a group of unique and varied individuals who complement each other in abilities and personality.
There are many possibilities for superhero crossovers. Costumed crime-fighters and super-spies can work alongside. Some comic books are set in the far future or in alien galaxies, making them superheroic space opera. Some superheroes have magical origins that lead them on occult adventures. You can also play variant settings, like powerful demi-gods in Ancient Greece or espers in the Wild West. And of course, superheroes can have any number of origins. Who is to say that an elvish wizard or a a far future traveler couldn't appear on our Earth and take up the cause?
Plotting the Superhero Game
One aspect of comic books that translates well into game-form is the episodic nature of the stories. Most stories wrap up in one to four issues. Similarly, every game night can be an entire story, or part of a mini-series. However, some players may become impatient with the reactive nature of comic book heroics. A detailed base of operations will allow the characters to leave their headquarters and interact with the world. You can even let the players take on the role of supervillains; whether they can win or not is up to the GM.
The traditional superhero story revolves around some crisis. Usually it's something like a natural disaster, an attack by a powerful villain or monster, a crime war, or a mystery. It could be something personal, like an infirm relative, complications with a hero's powers, or romantic difficulties. In either case, the expectation is that a superhero will tenaciously attack the problem. Sometimes players will need prodding. Minions, minor disasters, press conferences, and pleas for help can all serve to move the adventure along. While the game should not devolve into a series of meaningless slugfests, combat is central to the genre; generally there should be a significant fight no less than every other session. When done in the comic book style, with pompous challenges, hostage situations, and massive property damage, these battles serve as the meat and potatoes of your game, the central spectacle of the superheroic myth. Even in more realistic games, players will likely get frustrated if they have great powers but never get to use them.
As characters become more well-developed, adventures can become part of a greater storyline. It is important not to bog the game down too much with grand storytelling. Let the story build slowly, one issue at a time. Some villains have been recurring in the comics for literally decades; you should be in no hurry to orchestrate your own maxi-crossover double-sized epics. In designing epic campaigns for superheroes, there are several dangers.
First, you may overshadow the characters with the scale of events. For instance, if the entire team of player characters is incapable of taking out a single alien starship, they may feel totally helpless in the face of an armada. This can serve a story purpose, but make sure the player characters are truly involved and not just bystanders in colored tights.
Second, if the event is too grand in scale, it will change the world the superheroes live in. You might want that, but you run the risk of losing a comic book superhero flavor if the world becomes too un-Earthly. For instance, if the world gets conquered by aliens and then rescued, Earth will be a changed place, in wreckage and with alien technology everywhere.
Third, if the game centers too much on philosophical musing, conversations with deific entities, and repeated clashes with the same minions over and over, you may lose the dynamism of the comics. In the comic books, a superhero might visit a hidden city of super-apes in one issue, battle vampires the next, and in the third be shrunk by a villain's weird ray gun. In my opinion, epic campaigns should exist in the background. When the time is right, let the heroes engage in epic battle or plead for the fate of the world. But in between, let them bust a few heads and save a few school buses.
I have created a list of what I feel to be representative and (generally) above-average games. Rather then review them all exhaustively, I have picked a few to say a few things about.
DC Heroes (Mayfair Games)
Champions/Hero System (Hero Games/DOJ)
Silver Age Sentinels: Tri-Stat D10 (Guardians of Order)
GURPS Supers (Steve Jackson Games)
Aberrant (White Wolf)
Adventure! (White Wolf)
Torg: The Nile Empire and Terra (WEG)
Mutants & Masterminds (Green Ronin)
Villains & Vigilantes
Marvel Super-Heroes (TSR)
The world of comic books is too vast to exhaustively list the must-reads, and I encourage you to sample a variety. Again, I have aimed for the representative. Classic DC heroes include Superman, Captain Marvel, Batman, Wonder Woman, the Green Lantern, the Flash, and the Spectre. Marvel icons include the Hulk, Spider-Man, Daredevil, Captain America, the Fantastic Four, Iron Man, Professor X, Nightcrawler, Wolverine, Shadowcat, Doctor Strange, and the Punisher. I offer a list of a few landmark books, as well as some worthwhile oddities.
"Crisis on Infinite Earths" (1985)
"Batman: The Dark Knight Returns" (1986)
"The Watchmen" (1986)
"Astro City" (1995)
"Kingdom Come" (1996)
"Marvel Universe" (1996)
"Batman: The Movie" (1966)
"The Rocketeer" (1991)
"Batman: Mask of the Phantasm" (1993)
"The Shadow" (1994)
"Mighty Morphin Power Rangers: The Movie" (1995)
"Mystery Men" (1999)
"The Specials" (2000)
"Misfits of Science" (1985)
"The Flash" (1996)
The Bits Box
Tights and capes, weird radiation, mind control, millionaire playboys, eccentric inventors, alien armadas, criminal psychologists, corrupt police officers, sidekicks, unlimited transportation, self-made millionaire inventors, crime bosses, superhero fortresses, supervillain syndicates, blackmail attempts, secret identities, pompous names and titles, nanotechnology, secrets of kung fu, ancient magicians and wise men, lost cities, weird alloys and elements, dying or injured relatives, love triangles, brash teenagers, nemeses, losing your powers for an issue and getting them back, world mythology, cyborgs, killer robots, giant monsters, mistaken identities and set-ups, museums of captured weapons, death traps, nosy friends, lost advanced civilizations, god-like alien beings, cooperative police authorities, heroes afraid of becoming the very evils they face, sexual dimorphism, loyal servants, ethnic and national stereotypes, dream sequences, adopting the legacy of a previous hero of the same name, revolutionary gadgets that don't cause technological revolutions, mysterious seers and harbingers, villainous relatives, energy blasts, dimensional travel, blocking bullets, magical words of power, cosmically powerful artifacts, emergency signals, fighting with other heroes before discovering they are on the same side, reluctant heroes who would give up their powers gladly for a normal life, alternative universes and time lines, apes, trophy rooms, indestructible robot bodies, robot toys, fictional terrorist states, taunting clues, tigers, flying cars, domino masks, cavalier boots, meteorites, living planets, living machines that hate organic life forms, gypsies, orphanages, slums, physical trainers, danger rooms, alien technology used to create one-of-a-kind devices, mysterious lands hidden underground or surrounded by inhospitable terrain, weird chemical compounds, venoms, alien symbiotes, time travel, What If's, battle cries, national superheroes under the thumb of political hard-liners, pocket dimensions, mutant prejudice, Nazi breeding programs, heroes addressing the UN, bank robberies, villains who pretend to reform as part of a scam, hostages, and galactic border patrols.