After some consideration, I’ve got to peg Marvel Super-Heroes as the pivot point from old-school superhero RPGs. Although Marvel’s game system is, in many regards, the pinnacle of achievement in superhero RPG design, other aspects of the game shifted it away from what had come before and towards what would be in the future: the licensed setting, with a greater focus on a pre-existing setting (rather than an implicit or assumed setting), greater genre enforcement (via Karma, whereas before there was no such mechanic) but, most of all, the presumption that the game, rather than the players, would provide the “heroes” of its adventures, namely the Marvel Comics characters.

Sure, there was a nod to character creation, but it’s telling that it was in the Appendix of the game, rather than right up front: the default assumption was that you would play Spider-Man and his amazing friends (so to speak), and the adventures were all written that way: for a group of pre-generated, pre-existing characters that were provided for you.

Since then, there’s been a tendency, if not an expectation, in superhero game/setting design (as the two have become strongly linked) to provide pre-existing or “signature” heroes. The Champions—in all their various Hero System and Fuzion incarnations—are a good example, as is the Guard in Silver Age Sentinels, the Justice Foundation in San Angelo, and my own Freedom League in Freedom City. Even in Champions: New Millennium, where part of the high concept is a comic-crossover style “crisis” has killed off most of the world’s superheroes, there is still an existing sample hero team!

In some regards, if I had it to do over again, I’d have ended the Freedom City timeline shortly after the Terminus Invasion and killed off all of the setting’s major heroes, leaving only the mysterious Dr. Metropolis, Foreshadow, and a handful of Claremont Academy kids, with the rest as big, gaping holes for the player characters to fill. I still would have provided background and game stats for a lot of the characters, but I’d have left it up to the GM whether or not to have any of them survive or just use them as inspiration or legacies for a new generation of heroes. I’d have turned all their secret lairs and orbiting satellites and skyscraper headquarters and whatnot into mausoleums and museums, gathering dust and waiting for new heroes to arise and take up the mantle, and I’d have villains having a field day, with a city and world crying out for heroes. (That and I might have had a “new” Freedom League actually made up of bad guys prentending to be new heroes, ala Kurt Busiek’s brilliant Thunderbolts run.)

That’s a key complaint about many pre-fab settings: they’re too tightly woven together, so complete in and of themselves there’s not a lot of room to insert new characters who are truly important and capable of great deeds. In the worst-case examples, the settings and their meta-plots become entirely about the creator(s) pet character(s), with the players (and their characters) as little more than bystanders, watching “history” unfold around them. Part of the problem is for an RPG setting to continue as a published setting (with follow-up books, etc.) this is necessary, to a degree, otherwise the setting has no continuity, no story to it. The problem is, the story in an RPG isn’t about the setting, it’s about the heroes.
My friend and fellow RPG designer [livejournal.com profile] maliszew has been ruminating a great deal lately about the roots of sci-fi and fantasy RPGs: looking at the core essential ideas that constituted the earliest expressions of those genres in roleplaying (ruminations that have borne fruit in the form of his Thousands Suns RPG and his “Pulp D&D” project). This had led me to wonder about the roots and core RPG expressions of a favorite genre of mine: superheroes.

For me that means the days when the landscape was dominated by Villains & Vigilantes and Champions. I don’t dismiss games like Superworld out hand, but I never played them back then, so from when I started gaming in 1981 or so, until the release of Marvel Super-Heroes in 1984, V&V and Champions were superhero gaming for me. What do they tell us?

Well, like games at the time, they were short: little more than booklets by today’s standards (especially the 500+ page monster Champions/Hero System has become). They differ in approach: V&V was random character generation and relatively set powers (with some variables based on ability scores) while Champions was build-to-order with one of the first real point-build and effects-based systems. What was interesting in both was how implicit the superhero genre was: neither had an established setting, indeed, V&V never had one, and it took years for Hero Games to eventually try and cobble together a coherent “Champions Universe” out of their various sourcebooks and adventures.

Adventures were, in fact, the name of the game. They were practically the sole supplements for V&V, apart from a couple licensed things like DNAgents, and made up the bulk of early Champions releases, although Hero Games did experiment with some sourcebooks as well, primarily “monster manuals” focusing on particular organizations or villains (like the Enemies series). The adventures talked fairly little about the setting or genre, they simply assumed the obvious: the player characters were members of a superhero team, they had a headquarters of some sort, and they fought evil. What else did you need to know?

And what about Marvel Super-Heroes? As I said in my essay in Hobby Games: The 100 Best, MSH is the gold-standard of superhero RPGs, the basis for my longest-running campaign, and therefore a significant part of my “gaming DNA”. It was the first licensed superhero RPG, taking the gaming genre out of the realm of the theoretical (where you assumed your superhero setting was like the comics) and into the actual, where your superhero setting was the comics. Like V&V, MSH was a random-roll creation system with fairly broad power descriptions, assuming you weren’t playing the provided Mighty Marvel characters.

Adventures were also a staple of MSH, but sourcebooks were prominent as well, since the game sought to describe as much of the existing comic book universe as possible in game terms. This may be the beginnings of the expectation of superhero RPGs having a set “world” to them (followed on by DC Heroes, and then the development of an “official” Champions Universe). By contrast, by the time you look at Champions: New Millennium in the '90s, you see a superhero RPG coupled with a pre-packaged setting and “signature” characters.

Seems like superhero RPGs have gone from relatively light and often random or vague systems with the adventure as their basic supplementary unit (much like the individual comic issue for a superhero) to more structured and detailed, with built-in setting(s) and the genre book or sourcebook as their standard supplement (like the rise in popularity of graphic novels and trade paperbacks?).

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stevekenson

July 2011

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