Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Inventory: Supers RPG Settings

I really enjoy superhero games- after fantasy, they’re probably my second favorite to run. Over the years I’ve seen a lot of games systems come and go. Personally, I’ve settled on Mutants and Masterminds 2e as my go to system- but among our group there’s still a strong contingent holding out for Champions. I’ve been interested in the ways supers as a concept gets applied to gaming. Certainly the earliest games had some interesting tensions between the desire to be able to emulate existing comics and the desire to write their own stories. If you look at the covers and art to some of those books you can see a number of palette-swapped versions of classic characters.

The result has been the development of a lot of different superhero settings. On the one hand you have superhero universes created by game companies to support their line. They have to- that’s a bread and butter staple for those game lines. On the other hand, you have the adaptation of existing properties. That gives the company a huge and ready market. It also means that they could coast on the content already created in developing product. On the other, other hand, you have settings which spin out and away from the usual superhero concepts. These take the idea of supers and usually move them to another context. That’s easiest when moving them over to another sci-fi setting, given that some versions of supers are simply SF. But these ideas can be moved further afield...

So here's a starter, a partial inventory of superhero rpg settings-

1. DC Universe
DC Heroes was the first licensed superhero game I seriously bought into. I picked up Marvel but never liked the system- it felt too loose and thin, even with the later power sets. DC Heroes OOH had strange crunch and bizarre math calculations. It also had a hugely problematic system for tracking damage. Having three kinds of damage sounds cool in principle, but it created all kinds problem for the GM with some powers being auto KO and damage effects not stacking.

But the DC Universe remains my favorite- if I’m going to borrow supers elements, it will usually be characters from here borrowed over into another setting (especially my favorite characters like The Question and Batman). But being a DC fan can also be a profoundly unrewarding activity, especially with the reboots and global changes which happen from time to time. I’ll be curious to see how Green Ronin rolls with the upcoming 52 relaunch- something I’ve mentioned before. I recall playing DC Heroes when Crisis on Infinite Earths rolled out- changing up the setting and background, forcing books to have pre and post-Crisis stats. Then we got the era of events with Invasion, Millennium, and then a host of others.

The DCU poses a tough question for GMs- what do you gain by using this universe at the table? Is there a resonance that adds something? How do you capture that? And how do you handle changes to the ongoing universe in your own play?

2. Marvel Universe
I’ve talked up the DCU, but I love Marvel as well. I grew up on those old cartoons, especially the 1960’s Spider Man shown in reruns. Those BTW don’t hold up as well watching them now. But I’ve never really thought of marvel as the universe I’d want to run a campaign in. There’s something about the complexity and continuity there that throws me off- or perhaps it is the angle more towards a kind of grittiness? The DCU seems more mythic, while the Marvel Universe feels more real. I think if I were to run something in this world, I’d have to do an "Ultimate" version (though not like the crappy later Ultimates and Ultimate Let’s Kill Everyone series).

I am excited by the possibilities of the new MSHU rpg coming out from Margaret Weis. I don’t care so much about the system- I need to have someone sell my on Cortex, but I am excited by the approach they’re taking. Doing up event books for some of the classic and iconic episodes in the setting (Age of Apocalypse, Infinity Gauntlet, etc) seems like a great plan- making sourcebooks gamers and non-gamers might want to read. I’m looking forward to seeing that they do.

3. World War 2
In an earlier post I talked about World War Two as a superhero setting. Certainly the new Captain America movie sold me at least a little on the concept. I was actually a little disappointed that it had to end with him coming forward into the future. I would have loved to see an Invaders film, or at least just another Cap in WW2 movie. Interestingly the new DC "relaunch" seems to be jettisoning the supers in WW2 concept. There apparently won’t be a Justice Society of American, which has major ramifications for characters who are "legacy" heroes, most notably Starman whose entire cool run builds on those ideas.

But then again, WW2 ended almost seventy years ago. Drawing from that well does get old- especially the further away in time we move. So assuming that WW2 is off the table, what other war periods serve the same kind of purpose? Korea? Vietnam? Iraq? Each of those carries with it social and political baggage, and so are so close in time as to make things really odd. Watchmen dealt with the idea of "heroes" in that war, but what if supers arose in that period- if we move that trope to there. Certainly Iron Man’s origin has been successfully moved from war to war over the years. Can that work for other heroes? What does a supers campaign look like where the first heroes were forged in the crucible of Vietnam?

4. The Kerberos Club
Back in that blessed time between the publication of Alan Moore’s League of Extraordinary Gentlemen comic and the release of the film "based" on that property, a friend and I tried to interest Eden in a game setting using Unisystem to do a kind of super-powered Victoriana game. They weren’t too interested, and then the movie put a bullet in the head of anything like that. I am glad to see that the concept has been picked up by others, with the Kerberos Club being the most visible and interesting of those. I’m a little surprised that we haven’t seen a Victorian HERO sourcebook- or even a GURPS one. There’s a BRP take on it, Agents of the Crown. But Kerberos Club really seems to have come into its own, with a hefty sourcebook for two systems (Wild Talents and Savage Worlds) and now a recent stand alone version using FATE.

5. This Favored Land
Superheroes in the American Civil War and Wild West- why not? We’ve seen undead and werewolves in the setting, so it only makes sense. Ken Hite’s Suppressed Transmission articles had a number of variations on that theme. But This Favored Land takes that fairly seriously. In some ways it sounds a little more like an X-Men, Heroes or even Psi World kind of campaign set up. The characters have to remain hidden and underground or face local superstition. But what if you actually did it over the top? What would that look like? Would it be too goofy, or would you have the probably of presenting a four-color setting against the awfulness of the racial injustice and suffering of the period?

6. Blood of the Gods
Then we have the classic supers as demi-gods. The recent Clash of the Titans movie could easily be read as a superhero film. Blood of the Gods offers a frame for Wild Talents with the PCs acting as divine heroes in the ancient world. The Hellboy/LXG/Ancient Rome mash-up I really want to do will have the same kind of vibe to it- or it would if I ever got around to writing it up. Of course, the blood of the gods thing doesn’t have to be limited to the ancient world. Take Nephilim or Scion for example. I believe that The GODSEND Agenda’s also built on this premise.

7. Paragons
Green Ronin has their own "universe" established by this point, META-4. It is interesting to look at the differences between the material in 1e and 2e of Mutants and Masterminds- where a split between the developers meant a number of things fading out.

But I think more interesting is something like Paragons, a sourcebook for a world where superpowers have only recently arrived in a global event. The book offers the GM a number of ways to build and play out that event. It also presents options and implications depending on the nature of that event (magical, chemical, mutation) etc. In a sense this is a toolbox for GMs to build a new campaign. That sounds like a great idea- but it is actually caught between two poles. One the one hand, it provides enough structure that GMs looking to build their own world may reject it and not pick it up. They may not realize what kind of tools it offers- and certainly at first flip-through that may not be readily apparent. On the other hand, as a product, it represents something of a dead-line for production. If you want to publish further material in that setting, you have to take into consideration that every version of the setting run by GMs will operate under different assumptions. You have to offer a supplement which doesn't negate any of those...

8. Champions Universe
It isn't the first, but it is one of the most comprehensive rpg-spawned supers universes. I like how the setting has evolved- first hinted at in the various Eenmies books (Enemies, Enemies II) those characters and the universe of the setting have evolved into something fairly coherent, spread across a huge number of sourcebooks- revisited in each edition. For me it was the revised Champions: The Super Role-Playing Game 4th edition that really settled down to doing some universe building. You had the Champions team detailed in that core book, and then they were used as touchstones for the later products. Champions Universe, Champions of the North, Kingdom of Champions, Neutral Ground and such really set the tone and established the characters for the setting. It tries to be a setting which can encompass anything- magic, super-science, legacy heroes, magic. It reminds me the most of Astro City.

But despite Champions being the go-to system for many years, I don't recall anyone ever really using the setting as it stood. GMs would use the enemies and organizations, but the setting as a whole (or even significant part) never got used. Still, based on sheer lasting power, you have to admire this.

9. Hudson City
As a kind of side note, spun out of the Champions Universe, you have the Dark Champions/Hudson City setting. This aimed to be a gritty, dark and violent supers setting with the idea of low-powered and street-level vigilantes. It drew inspiration from sources like The Question, Watchmen, Brat Pack, and Batman Year One. At best it offered an interesting approach to superheroes- one which raised questions and provided challenges to the players. At worst it had just awful psychotic and stupid villains- including some much more appropriate for high level campaigns. Dark Champions as a thematic setting profoundly affected a number of our local campaigns. I used it for several street-level games as did others. I've been thinking about how games like these would look today- in an era of things like Kick Ass, Defendor, and Super vs. The Dark Knight.

10. Wild Cards
Strangely enough, of all the settings on the list, this is the only one I've played or run in "as is." A number of people in the group loved the books- although I only made it up to volume six before I quit. Of course this setting came out of a supers rpg campaign (using Superworld IIRC), then became a book series, then became a campaign again. The first adaptation GURPS Supers Wild Cards was OK- but really marred by bad art, bad layout and a terrible base system. (There- I said it, I hate GURPS Supers). The more recent version for M&M 2e is amazing- with loads of detail, great art and a dynamite approach to presenting the setting. It is too bad that the shift to the new edition renders this problematic (the same thing Green Ronin did to the awesome Nocturnals: A Midnight Companion sourcebook in the move from 1e to 2e).

We played this using Champions, which wasn't a great fit but everyone knew it. We had a nice mixed group of Jokers and Aces- including one amazing character without any powers. Despite only having been a handful of sessions, just about everyone remembers the game because of the amazing players we had. I'd love to give this a try again some time, but I think only a couple of people in the group actually know the books.

11. Brave New World
I've seen copies of this on discount racks for years, but I've never picked up any of these. Wikipedia describes it as:
"The game is an alternate history superhero game set in a fascist United States of America living in a perpetual state of martial law since the 1960s. Inspired by the Kingdom Come and Batman: The Dark Knight Returns comic storylines, X-Men, Nineteen Eighty-Four, and the political and social upheavals of the 1990s, the game depicts renegade superheroes fighting a corrupt and evil government."

That's a pretty dark vision. The setting has a lot of supplements out for it. From what I can tell it takes a singular source approach to powers- with things that look like magic actually being powers (perhaps something like the way Planetary describes things). It also reminds me a little of the later Savage Worlds setting, Necessary Evil.

12. Superhero 2044
The earliest superhero RPG I played. It took use a long time to realize that there wasn't actually a game engine to the game. More importantly when I was a kid I almost missed the part that it was a superhero game set in the future on an island. It was a very strange set of choices- but we muddled along with it. For being one of the earliest superhero rpgs, it managed to come up with a bizarre setting- almost like they didn't want people to think of it like a comic game. Still it did recognize the importance of a "city" to establishing a setting- even if it didn't offer much in the way of details. When Villains and Vigilantes 1st Edition came out, we went over to that.

13. Underground
This is one of those "How did they actually publish that?" games. Not only did Mayfair publish this, but they produced a number of amazing full-color supplements for it. This is a dark, dark setting with a near future dystopia where the PCs have all been given super-powers to fight in various wars and then head back and try to reintegrate with society. It is a mean, gruesome, black-humored love-child of cyberpunk and superherodom. The obvious godfather of it, in background, tone and art style is Pat Mills and Kevin O'Neill's Marshall Law. It seems strange that a comic with so few issues could be that influential.

Underground came out in the early 1990's when cyberpunk in games was really hitting its stride. As well comics themselves had started to take a darker turn- with the advent of the "Iron Age" of comics.

14. Trinity
There's a trend in these last five settings on the list (from BNW on). That's a move to science fiction or at least near future. Of course the classic comic version of this would be the Legion of Superheroes. Trinity comes the closest to emulating that, but it is still vastly different in tone and focus. Here's we have a world of supers (read super-psychics) organized into military units to battle against alien forces and a rampaging group of metahumans who departed Earth generations ago but now may be returning. That's fairly dark, with all of the grit, conspiracies and betrayal you imagine in a White Wolf game.

There's some interesting stuff here, but even having read it a couple of times, I have a hard time picturing how I'd want to use this frame. I do like that the setting here ties into their Aberrant game- that being a historical precursor. It also has an interesting take on the duties and lives of superheroes. In both cases, I think the setting has concepts and details I might borrow for a campaign, but as a whole I have a hard time buying in.

15. eCollapse
Lastly, another near future dystopian supers setting, this time using the Wild Talents system. As the publisher describes this:

Welcome to the future. The economy’s in a coma, civil order runs on inertia, and biotech "superpowers" are so cheap that bus station schizophrenics are getting them. Huge storms ravage the coasts and the U.S. is under martial law. Even the Internet is unreliable.

What do you do? How do you fight for your beliefs? Riot? Sacrifice? March on Washington?

Maybe put on a mask and cape"
It is interesting to see how the focus has shifted from big guns and the military-industrial complex focus of something like Underground to information age disasters, ecological collapse, financial catastrophes, and vanishing privacy. There's seventeen years between those two games. I'll admit I'm curious about this setting- I've picked up another WT sourcebook (Grim War) and there's yet another available, Progenitor.


  1. Excellent list!

    I always thought it was a clever idea for WW to link Adventure! > Aberrant > Trinity/Aeon together in the same shared universe. Too bad that it didn't catch on.

  2. There are quite a few these days. More that I would have thought in fact. Thanks for your work in drawing them together.

    I will stick with my 1960s campaign currently using M&M 3rd edition (but also having runs the setting using Champions 3, M&M2 and ICONS). Because the Silver Age is where it is at.

  3. I played Marvel and DCU while I lived in Memphis for a year. I much preferred the DCU over the Marvel system. Side note - I see the DCU as more realistic and Marvel as more fantastical. However, I agree with your statement about the DCU being more "mythic."

    I own Superworlds, it was actually the 2nd rpg I ever played (first was Red Box D&D). I remember stumbling through it and hating it. Oh, and I was in 4th or 5th grade.

    Mutants & Masterminds was fun. I enjoyed the game you ran and I think the system did a good job emulating the game you wanted to run. In additional hindsight, I think given 2+ years of playing it, I could make it jump and shout like I can Unisystem. I like that much of it feels simple, even if there is some depth to it.

    Oh, yeah, Unisystem. Go CoH and BH. /me sarcastic

    I think you could do a lot with This Favored Land, but I've never read it or even looked at it. However, I'm a fan of the Wild, Wild West tv show, Brisco County, Jr. tv show, and Westerns in general, so I may be biased. I'll have to look the game up some time and see what they do with it. I'm thinking adding Victorian era American Big City elements may help.

    I've been thinking of running a very low level superheroes game, would Hudson City be worth picking up to read or am I already beyond it?

    Aeon/Trinity was an interesting read. I think it is very much a product of the time it was produced. I see elements of X-Files in it, as well as the dark sci-fi element that was in many movies of the era. I think they packaged it up for people like myself that were interested in something that brought an obvious dark element to a weird, futuristic, sci-fi setting. Dark Heresy kicks its ass, though.

    If you are serious about Brave New World, make sure you check out the hidden truths about the setting before you go picking up the books. IIRC, this was based on Matt's personal superhero game that he ran.

    I played in Ferm's Champions game. Outside of the math and never really grokking the rules, it was fun and I think I was okay with the rules...or the fact that I didn't grok them.

    Wild Talents is an interest, but not the WW2 aspect of it. If I'm going to do WW2, I'd want a game that used Savage Worlds for the rules set. I seem to have it in my head that Shane's game is the quintessential WW2 rpg. I don't know why, I just do.

  4. You left out M&M's Freedom City, the single coolest rip-that's-not-a-rip of the "Big Two" ever. I was actually surprised you thought Champions' background is similar to Astro City when for my money Freedom City is so much more obviously inspired by it. At least IMHO.

  5. @Derek: Good points- I still want to see what Wild talents looks like in play. It seems a little too counter-intuitive to me, but that's purely from the reading of it.

    @Barking Alien: I think Champions' setting, like most of the mainline publishers settings tries to do the same thing Astro City does- be everything, contain everything, have room for everything. Freedom City really feels fairly "the same" to me. The META4 setting has a few nice touches, but like the other house settings, it wants to offer the players/GMs the most encompassing environment, which I think comes at the cost of some spark and novelty.

  6. Now (though not then) you can add Stark City to the list, which is an official (semi-official?) background/universe for ICONS. And ICONS Team-Up, also recently released, has some cool ideas about joint universe building by the players ("Universe-style play").

  7. Is Stark City any good in that sense? I have to say I pretty much ignored it as yet another USA sounding deal...no shortage of those.

    1. I'm going to have to say no. It doesn't deliver on its promises. I offers only a few pages on general city building, which you could get from any Fate product. A few other sidebars complement that throughout the book. I'd really hoped for the promised toolkit, but it just isn't there. It is a conventional superhero city sourcebook with a few funny bits. It feels like any other citybook (Freedom City, Vibora Bay). I'm really disappointed with it for that. I'm sure it is excellent as a resource for Icons, but it doesn't break any new ground. Someone needs to create those kinds of tools. It also desperately needs a printer-friendly version.

  8. Thanks for that. It looks like my opinion was correct, then, unfortunately.

    Fractal Superhero Universe Creation Sourcebook?

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