Sunday, February 27, 2011

A Cape Too Far: Supers & World War 2

When Captain America Throws His Mighty Shield
The Captain America movie is coming out this July. Perhaps you caught the preview they ran during the Superbowl. I didn't- in fact I've kind of been avoiding it. I still have memories of the earlier motorcycle helmeted version of Cap from years back. On the other hand, having a chance to see a superhero punching Nazis kind of fills my heart with glee- at the same time as I'm disappointed that they're most assuredly not going to show Captain America with the Invaders. So no Submariner, the Whizzer or the Human Torch. But to honor that concept, I put together a Geeklist of the various World War 2 sourcebooks for superhero games. I've put them in chronological order, as I think that's a nice way to consider the development of that "genre" of superhero rpg. For this blog post, I want to spin off on to a few tangential issues about that.

Check out the list for this post:
Four-Color Furies: Supers & World War 2

All Those Who Chose to Oppose his Shield Must Yield

My first remember seeing supers and WW2 connected in to very different places. Growing up they showed Marvel Comics cartoons on Channel 44 out of Chicago. There were essentially panels and images from comics cut out, moved across a screen and topped off with voice overs and FX. It covered the early days of Iron Man, Thor, the Hulk and Captain America. In the case of Cap, we got some WW2 adventures followed by his early days with the Avengers, though the WW2 stuff might have been flashback. In any case, I loved and watched these shows religiously. Of course the other big source would be the prime-time Wonder Woman series, which had its first season set during WW2. That corresponded to the original William Moultan Marston comics. I remember reading some of those in black & white paperback reprints, complete with bondage not so sub-text.

But the question of how superheroes would have interacted with the war, rather than being on covers punching Hitler really hit me, came in two later series. Roy Thomas' Invaders for Marvel showed the characters fighting against Nazi villains in a revisionist take which brought some of the early 1970's themes to bear. On the other hand, we also got the return of the Justice Society, made up of the legacy characters, appearing in DC Comics. I loved the JSA, and followed them in issues of the JLA, various back up stories and eventually in the short-lived All-Star Comics which tried to revitalize them by adding some younger characters. That would lead to Roy Thomas, Rich Buckler and Jerry Ordway's creation of the All-Star Squadron, a modern comic set in WW2 using all of the legacy characters in their prime. I collected those comics until the Crisis on Infinite Earths completely mucked up the continuity. Probably the most interesting thing about the All-Star Squadron (I'm not going to simplify that) was the device of the Spear of Destiny a magical artifact which came into Hitler's hands and kept any superheroes from entering Axis territory (in Berlin or the Pacific). That device forced the focus of the stories onto Fifth Column, Home Front and Allied Territory stories. A goofy narrative device, it meant that the DC WW2 Stories would be necessarily different from the tales of Captain America as a solider marching with his unit across Europe.

Fifth-Column Rat Finks

That difference I think is the big question for GMs wanting to run in this period: how involved to you want the players to be in the war? Are they going to be thematically aping the idea of Golden Age stories with the heroes busting up spy rings in the states. Will they have the feel of the old Superman TV show? Certainly that's an easy approach- and one which uses the war as a backdrop rather than a centerpiece. But the GM does have to come up with the reason why such supers wouldn't head off (better use of resources, other obligations, gender, supernatural forces, etc). One thing which does strike me in some of the WW2 sourcebooks which focus on the homefront is a kind of cartoony and clean feel to the approach. I think this comes from a mistaken sense that comics before the goofy, clean and fun Silver Age had the same kind of morality and purity. However that's certainly not the case, with Batman gunning people down and heroes like the Spectre pushing people into jumping to their death. It might be interesting to do a kind of Watchmen-style dark and gritty game set in the States during WW2- and that might be closer to the comics coming out during the war.

Lifting Tanks and Punching Heads
On the other hand, GMs might want to have the players actually up in the front lines- or at least involved with resistance, sabotage or espionage operations. I think that's a tougher approach for a GM, not least in the question of how to handle the actual "warfare" in connection with the heroes. Of course, the grand-daddy of games which treat this seriously would be Godlike. That game builds a consistent set of rules about how powers works and then crashes those into a gritty and realistic approach to telling war stories. Supers are soldiers and ones with a definite and specific role in the war. Honestly, Godlike's more sci-fi than comic book to me, but it still works. Any GM wanting to deal with the real war in this kind of campaign ought to pick it up.

Choosing to places the PCs in the heart of the conflict brings up other issues. For one, how much impact do you plan on letting them have. Will they be able to shape the course of the war? Will their personal knowledge get in the way? Time traveler PCs can complicate this even further. The question, as always in a supers game, is where you draw the line between realism and the fantasy of the setting. Players may want to emulate the complete wish-fulfillment of the Inglourious Basterds. There's nothing exactly wrong with that, but the GM has to be prepared. Related to that, how much of the real awfulness of the war (Concentration camps, Illness, Dresden Bombing, Japanese Occupation of China, etc) slip into the game. Such details have real power and used badly could significantly impact the tone of the game in the wrong way.

Other Superhistories
Obviously WW2 isn’t the only historical setting for Supers games. On the list I mention Adventure! as a supers game with pulp trappings (or vice versa) and the can see a number of other Pulp games which have characters with mysterious powers. Spirit of the Century, Crimefighters, and Daredevils, all for example include such things. One of the questions, I think, is where the line gets drawn between "Non-Powered Adventurers" and "Superheroes". Great characters like Doc Savage, the Shadow, the Avenger, Batman, and the Spirit sort of straddle that line. In fact until a couple of days ago, DC had a wealth of talent lined up behind their First Wave line, ready to bring those back. That, of course, got canceled. Some rpg books have covered the later part of the 20th Century, Omlevex for example is one of the few sourcebooks to deal with the Silver Age. But we also have a more serious Cold War in the Wargames setting, 1970’s in the form of Bedlam City, and a tribute to the excesses of the 1990s in the Iron Age.

There's the additional irony that some of the earliest superhero rpg books are now "historical" covering a time and place far enough removed from the modern as to seem foreign. I'd be curious how many rely on or are rendered obsolete by our present level of tech and political situation.

But we also have a number of superhero stories set in more far flung alternate times. In the comics, Marvel 1602, The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen and Elseworlds have all shown how situating superheroes in other historical times can create interesting effects. We've seen something of the same in rpgs. For example, Wild Talents has spawned several setting books. The Kereboros Club takes the LXG idea and carries it forward. On the other hand, This Favored Land uses the backdrop of the American Civil War. Basic RolePlaying has produced their own take on LXG in the form of Agents of the Crown. Blood of the Gods goes further back, using Wild Talents to do divine heroes in ancient Greece. I recall several Ken Hite columns for Suppressed Transmission also presenting alternate super histories. On the other hand, GMs may be interested in going forward in time. In own own group we spent a couple of years on a Cyberpunk/Watchmen style campaign. If GMs want a dark take on such futures they can consider eCollapse or Underground. Or they could try to unravel the continuity of something like DC's Legion of Superheroes (I can't wait until M&M 3e tackles that...)

Dissecting a Superhero RPG Line
It's worth considering as well where the "Golden Age" sourcebook fits in the continuum of the Superhero RPG line. For the typical fantasy RPG line, we can expect the main book or books, which provide the core rules. Most often, the Monster Book comes next. After that we'll see the Player's Book, a Setting Book (if there's a setting), new Class/Race Options Book, Book of Magic, Book of Items (Magic or Otherwise), and then we start moving off into the specialized aspects of the line or setting (if generic then we begin getting setting specific books and if built with a background then we get slices of that). I'm not saying that's a bad thing, just that we typically develop some expectations- and when those get broken, we get interesting things. On the other hand, there is a danger in predictability. White Wolf ran many of the product development lines in such tight parallel that they bordered on parody (splat books, city books, adversary books, mortal books, oriental books, Year of X, and so on).

So for Superhero games, we can expect main book, enemies book, another enemies book, and then probably a powers supplement. The powers book may also be a players' book. Magic's another big one, if the system/setting has it. More often those books will provide color and flavor rather than any actual rules for making the Arcane significantly different. An organizations book, villainous or otherwise, often shows up. A sourcebook for the setting, created for the game will either deal broadly with the whole universe or focus on a single campaign city. A gadgets, weapons, and/or vehicles book is an likely option. Super Agents may be done in a number of ways, usually as an organization sourcebook and a campaign frame. Gritty, street-level or Watchmen-style sourcebooks can appear. Eventually we'll get an alternate dimensions book- this usually signals the late period of a line IMHO.

Final Thoughts
Interestingly enough, though I've played a lot of supers and in many unusual campaigns, I don't think I've ever played a straight WW2 game. I've used it as a backdrop in other campaigns. In our Watchmen-style campaign supers had existed in WW2 but vanished, inspiring modern vigilante characters. I played a DC Heroes campaign which took places close to WW2, and a V&V game set firmly in the late 1950's. The closest I've come has been the most recent supers campaign, in which time travelers had upset the balance of things, leading to a German victory. One of the PCs was also from the future and our group had to set things right. Of course, some of us had become Supers due to the war so the victory and timeline reversion was an even greater sacrifice. I think a WW2 game would be an interesting challenge, but the question for me would be what I'd gain for the narrative at the cost of sacrificing some player familiarity with the world?


  1. I never played a WW2 supers game, either despite playing a whole lot of them. I suspect its because, for those of us weened on the late Bronze/early Modern Ages, WW2 was ever "backdrop."

    Another interesting era--only recently to have some exposure--is the time between the two great heroic ages (Gold and Silver). Robinson's Golden Age limited covered the beginning of this era, while New Frontier looks at the end of it. No game supplements I'm aware of have dealt with this time period.

  2. My supers game for the last decade have all been set in the Silver Age/1960s. For us, the loss of familiarity has been worth it for the genre buy in. But the value of the trade off will depend on what your players want out of a supers game.

  3. DC Universe Role-Playing Game produced by D6 Legend/West End Games touched on playing in WWII in their JSA Sourcebook.

  4. One problem with any historical or sourced game is balancing between the popular conception and the actual story. I loved your Star Wars Gordian solution in making everything outside the movies apocrypha. You'd have to make a similar declaration for a WWII campaign. What's canon and what's not?

  5. @Trey: When we did our 1950's game it was early days in gaming, mid to late 1980s, before Robinson or Cooke's projects. Pretty much we had leftover WW2 villains and the backdrop of McCarthyism, but pretty cartoony.

    @seaofstarsrpg: I'd be curious about how much your period games ape the goofy conventions of the actual comics of that period (with DC certainly goofier than Marvel). I think Alan Moore did a good job of taking on some of those conventions in his Supreme and 1963 series. Are your campaigns more realistic takes on the period or more genre emulating?

    @mlevance: Thanks- I wasn't aware of that sourcebook. I'll have to add that to the list.

    @Gene: What you'd really need is an accessible and agree upon "Ur" text to define that for the players. I'm not sure how you'd do that for a historical-- that's worth thinking about, hmmm...

  6. Very cool post.

    I am an avid Supers RPG player and although the history and heroes of WW 2 have effected many a tale in my games, I've yet to actually run a Golden Age game. I will be doing just that soon, some notes on which are posted on my blog.

    I've run Supers games set in the future, on alien worlds, in medieval times, in the mid-to-late sixties and the Victorian 1800's. I can't wait to tackle 'The Big One'.

  7. Great post! I am thinking about a WW 2 game as well, though more of a supernatural/weird war than supers. I am having trouble figuring out how exactly to pitch the weirdness -- is it all covert, with the players slowing uncovering ways in which the game diverges from actual history, or am I more up-front with the differences?

  8. For the question of familiarity for a WWII campaign, perhaps a short player document (a single page?) that distills the history leading up to the war, popular songs of the era, maybe a few slang terms, etc.

    The least painful way might be the Star Wars solution. Find a movie that best represents the intended feel of the campaign and get the group together for a movie night before the game. If the superheroes will be fighting behind enemy lines during WWII for example, then maybe one of the "guys on a mission" films like The Dirty Dozen or The Guns of Navarone. This could work for any historical era, using sight and sound to engage the players and letting their subconscious fill in the gaps.

  9. @Professor Pope: I hadn't thought about that- but in some ways that parallels the way some films and movies with "Alt" paths work. We go along for a while assuming everything's pretty close to our own and then the curtain's pulled back. Of course that works better as outside viewers.

    I do think a WW2 game has to embrace an image of the war as Kaiju suggests, resembling but with enough fiddle room. I think the most important thing is that while players are at the table, they aren't worrying about getting something right or wrong.

  10. Two of my favorite movies deeply mangle WWII history, and would make great alt-history WWII campaigns. I love the idea of an un-historical movie to set the tone.

    Raiders of the Lost Ark has Egypt and the Mediterranean comfortably controlled by Germany. This never happened. Germany never took over the Nile and its cities during the back and forth battles with Britain.

    Oddly, the same goes for a movie made during WWII. The Germans didn't have troops in Vichy Casablanca. It was French forces that resisted the American invasion of Casablanca for several days. They considered themselves sovereign territory, and at no point would German troops have been able to arrest French officials there without invading first.

    Egypt, nominally independent, was swarming with British military and spies. Vichy Morocco, nominally independent and did not allow German forces to march around openly.