Thursday, October 31, 2013

History of Superhero RPGs (Part Two: 1983-1985)

In '84 I walked several blocks to yet another hole-in-the-wall comic book store. It lasted less than a year. At the time I only bought big titles I followed- X-Men, The Defenders, and anything by Frank Miller. I had spare money so I went through the 25-cent bargain bin and found a couple dozen issues each of oddball books- Arion Lord of Atlantis and Swamp Thing. At home read through those haphazardly until I hit the last couple of issues of Swamp Thing…the ones with a new writer named Alan Moore. It sounds clichéd, but those books changed what I got out of comics. I’d enjoyed the solid superhero storytelling of Miller, Claremont, and Wolfman before that, but this offered something new. Gene Ha, who would later go on to work with Moore, agreed. I lent him "The Anatomy Lesson" and he went absolutely nuts. It was all he could talk about in Honors Biology for the next several days. But the rest of my gaming group went meh. They had other books they loved. 

How tightly do comic book and rpg fandom connect? How much is that affected by your location?  Comics completely passed by my Play on Target co-host Sam Dillon, a solid gamer. My Mutants & Masterminds campaign includes a player who only gets his superheros from the movies, supers novels he devours, and the occasional cartoon caught with his kids. In the 1980’s I think just about everyone in our gaming groups also bought comics. We had few 'collectors' because we never had a steady comic book shop. The half-dozen I recall opened and vanished quickly, usually under cover of darkness. The local gaming store tried out comics, but stuck to indie press materials like The Spirit, Cerberus, and R. Crumb. That lasted only a little while. But within our group everyone bought at least a few books and some- Teen Titans, X-Men, Avengers- served as shared touchstones. But everyone had a few series no one else bought. I loved the Defenders and Miller’s run on Daredevil; another really dug Nexus; another followed the Legion of Super-Heroes fanatically. I luckily had an older sister who bought lots of comics for a time and I’d raid her collection. But almost no one seriously bagged or indexed their stuff. We read comics to complement the rpg stories we told. Normal? Not normal? I’m not certain. I’m sure it would have been different had a solid comic book store been available- or a hybrid game and comic book store.

In 1983’s superhero comics saw some important shifts, including the first appearance of Jason Todd as Robin; the start of Walt Simonson’s run on Thor, and the first issue of Batman and the Outsiders. New Teen Titans and the X-Men remained strong. Alan Moore began to make his mark with Miracleman and V for Vendetta. 1984 saw the launch of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Secret Wars, West Coast Avengers, and Marvel’s new Epic lines. 1985 heralded the launch of many small, independent comics companies. Most importantly it saw the start of Crisis on Infinite Earths which changed the face of DC- ending and beginning many comic lines. At Marvel they countered with Secret Wars II. In other media, superheroes fared badly with Misfits of Science, Automan, and The Greatest American Hero on prime time TV. It was a little better with cartoons with Spider Man and His Amazing Friends, Super Friends/Super Powers, and the Incredible Hulk. Superman III, Supergirl, and The Toxic Avenger hit theaters. So while comics started to move into more experimental superhero material, other media remained stagnant. 

These lists covers a smaller slice of time than my past rpg lists. I hope this makes them easier to read. I include mostly core books, but also significant setting or sourcebooks. I list revised editions which significantly changed a line. Generally I only include published material- print or electronic. I leave out freebie or self-published games. I'm sure I've left something off without adequate reason; feel free to add a comment about a line I missed (if published from 1983-1985). I've arranged these in by year and then alphabetically within that year. 

We 'played' Car Wars in grade and middle school. In the same way I ‘played’ Star Fleet Battles, I never fully got the game mechanics but muddled through. Still I bought everything for CW because SJG offered relatively cheap supplements: Sunday DriversTruck Stop, etc. Then in 1983 Autoduel Champions dropped- a bizarre hybrid supplement combining  Champions & Car Wars. I bought it without flipping through and walked home poring over the pages. Easy to forget in these present days of plenty, but back then you treasured any non-module supplement for your game.

And this...well, I don't think I ever used anything from it. It offered odd rules for bringing superheroes into  Car Wars. On the flip side it presented more complicated systems for handling vehicles in Champions and running CW-style games in several settings. The game connection made sense. Both offered point-build core options and time/speed/actions mechanics. But Autoduel Champions did nothing for me and I never heard other gamers incorporating the concepts. Most people ended up buying it just for the long-awaited Helicopter a rules for Car Wars. SJG would try again later to connect the CW universe to rpgs 
with GURPS Autoduel which also fizzled.

2.  Super Squadron (1983)
I saw Super Squadron on the store shelf for a couple of years. In the early days our FLGS did a good job ordering anything new- but many things simply sat there. At the time I didn't even realize this game came from Australia. Adventure Simulations published two supplements for the boxed set, but the designer seems to have not done anything after this. I found a quote from him about the game here: "It was published in 1984, being the first Australian RPG and the third Superhero RPG. The first two were, Superhero 2044 & Villains and Vigilante. I was an avid AD&D players but wanted an SH RPG to play. The other two were "not very good" so I wrote one....Although the game was well received both here and in the USA, sales mysteriously slowed in the USA for no reason. In late 1986 at Origin, I discovered that a rival company, trying to survive with a low grade SH RPG spread rumors that we were being sued for breach of copyright and would likewise be sued if they sold our products. By the time we had a chance to dispel these rumours, the loss of sales made continuing publication very risky."

Super Squadron seems to take a classic approach- with randomly generated stats and powers. The character record's interesting though. It includes sections for calculating your character's salary and weekly expenses. It also has has a table to track week’s schedule day-by-day broken down by rest, work, training, patrols, romance, and other. The game includes rules for balancing marriage, your love life, and being a crime-fighter. Ideas like that- Superhero 2044's patrols and solo adventure system- have dropped out of most modern supers rpgs. But I love the concept of running these games as almost a Sim-style life emulator. Edit: Interesting detail I saw mentioned on the Monkeyhouse Game forums- apparently this game is pretty blatant rip-off of V&V. I'll check to see if I can find out more about that. Random generation. Point-spend development. Various dice
3. Champions Third Edition (1984)
Another edition appeared between this and the first, but with mostly minor clean up and changes. Champions 3rd aimed to smooth things out and bring together some of the new ideas presented by Champions II!. IIRC Champions III: Another Super Supplement came out the same year, but this edition didn't incorporate those concepts. Champions 3e added new powers, but spent more time fixing problems and making the elements more consistent. More importantly it changed up the look of the book- making more polished and up to date. Mark Williams' again provided most of the artwork, the house style for early Hero Games. The colorful presentation and boxed set brought in many new players. I know some who'd avoided Champions before this but took the jump with this edition. I bought and played it of course, but I started to have some reservations.

More than most rpgs Champions rewarded gamers who figured out the system. They could min/max, identify key picks, and never waste a point. GMs who had that skill used it for good. Players might not. A skill player and less compentant fellow players or GM could make for a miserable time. Players I knew split developed between those who absorbed the mechanics and those who just played. I numbered among the latter. I'd get my ass kicked in PvP open combats, ended up rarely effective in fights, and had my bad guys chewed up and spit out when I ran. There had to be a better way. Point-based. d6-based.

4. Golden Heroes (1984)
Technically Golden Heroes actually appears earlier in 1981, but in a self-published version. In 1984 GW gave it the full treatment, apparently as a response to TSR getting the Marvel license. Even gamers among my group who got into WH40K with Rogue Trader forget GW's time as an rpg company. Games Workshop published unique editions of many US games. For years I had a lovely color hardcover of Call of Cthulhu from them. With Golden Heroes they tried to strike out on their own. However they quickly dumped the line- publishing a few supplements and moving on to other games. I remember the box briefly on the shelf, but I didn't buy it. I did see the supplements floating around used bins for the next decade, especially Legacy of Eagles.

The game used random generation for stats and powers with a twist. To keep them players had to come up with an origin story which tied together those powers. It also had some really interesting ideas about how to track and manage the world itself. The RPG Outsider blog has an extensive and detailed review of the game here- well worth reading. The artwork's great- featuring many of the best 2000 AD artists of the time (including Brian Bolland). Co-designer Simon Burley returned many years later with a revision of Golden Heroes called Squadron UK, which we'll return to on a later list. Random generation. Various dice.

5. Heroes Unlimited (1984)
Palladium first hit the shelves with the massive Palladium Fantasy RPG. I'd first seen Siembieda's work earlier in The Mechanoid InvasionHeroes Unlimited came out a couple of years later, the second big line from the company. Palladium books had tons of ideas- more unusual concepts and random tables than nearly any other game. However I found them difficult going. They took a patch work approach with rules jumbled together and few signposts about how to actually play. Sometimes they felt like a series of articles more than a system. I assume that changed in later years, but the early books can be a mess, albeit a rich one. Heroes Unlimited uses randomly generated stats, powers, and archetypes The sub-systems for these archetypes vary wildly, but generally PCs have a single power set and magic's completely ignored in the rules.

In 1987, Palladium released Heroes Unlimited Revised. This added magic, multiple powers, fixed some rules, took animal mutations & vehicle rules (and illustrations) from the TMNT game, and threw in more options. There's an oddly defensive intro to the revision, including a discussion of the Big Two's apparent ownership of the term superhero. The game's stronger, but the organization remains odd. Palladium published a few supplements for both of these first editions of HU over the next decade: the unique The Justice Machine sourcebook ('85), Ninjas & Superspies ('88), Villains Unlimited ('92), and Aliens Unlimited ('94). Random generation. Level-based. Various dice.

6. Justice, Inc. (1984)
I still dig this supplement. In some ways, it is the first genre/setting book for Champions. Like Espionage! it has stand-alone rules, but it feels closer to the original game. Justice, Inc offers a modified form of powers- with Talents, Psychic Powers, and Gadget mechanics. The boxed set came with two booklets- one with an awesome cover. There's a ton of source material presented here- more than the earlier Daredevils game. Aaron Allston, Steve Peterson, and Michael Stackpole wrote the game. The incomparable Allston also wrote two modules for it: Lands of Mystery and The Trail of the Gold Spike. I love that those offered stats several different games including Call of CthulhuChillMercenaries, Spies & Private Eyes; and Daredevils. I also love the detail that game borrows its name from The Avenger with a logo design which riffs on Doc Savage. I think this game fits with a brief Pulp Heroes renaissance in the late 1970s and early 1980s- with Farmer's Greatheart Silver stories, the Doc Savage novels, The Shadow comic books, and most importantly Byron Priess' amazing (and forgotten) Weird Heroes anthology series. Point-based. d6 based.

TSR kicked superhero gaming into overdrive with the release of Marvel Super Heroes in '84. MSH remained strong until the mid-1990s at our local store. The modules often sat on the shelves for years, but any sourcebook or group supplement sold again and again. When I work as a manager we had steady reorders on those products. MSHRPG also offered a new approach to game and box design. It moved away from conventional rules layout to a conversational approach: examples of play, comic book illustrations, an introductory prologues. We'd see this again in other striking TSR products of the same era- The Adventures of Indiana Jones and Bullwinkle and Rocky Role Playing Party Game. More importantly it broke through the barrier of emulation and actually offered a real universe from the comics.

I bought it...and I just didn't get it. It seemed so thin, especially for a group invested in Champions. We thought ourselves sophisticated and FASERIP* seemed like Baby's First RPG. Nine pages for character generation? Names instead of numbers for things? Zone movement? Inconceivable. Where was the crunch and detail? And thus for us Marvel became a non-contender. I couldn't even see the interesting bits which could be stolen for other games, like the rules for criminal trials. So it is with a twinge of jealousy that I hear about other gamer's great experiences with the system: amazing campaigns, the joy of the big supplements and handbooks, the pleasure of tooling the rules to do many genres, the ability to handle cosmic-level adventures. I was having good times with supers in the same years, but with more time spent calculating out the characters’ OCV, ED, and REC. Better? Worse? Who can say? Random Generation. Point  Spend Development. Percentile dice.

*It wasn't until a few years ago I heard Marvel called FASERIP, after the names of the attribute levels. It was more months before I actually figured out what those bloggers were talking about.

DC Heroes showcases some of my own gaming hypocrisy. The year before I'd dismissed Marvel as too light and unworthy of usurping the rich crunch of Champions. But a year later I grabbed up this game as an alternative. Champions’ new edition had fixed some things, but added many new options. The split in player skill I mentioned above had gotten worse. I wanted a game which would level the playing field. And frankly, I loved DC more than Marvel. I remained a DC fanboy until the coming of the New 52 which cured me of that.

Mayfair's game smartly put DC's most appealing property, The New Teen Titans, front and center. It also managed to look like Champions, with point-based stat and power purchases, while remaining more abstract. Champions offers an atomic-level approach, while DC Heroes offers a molecular one, with bits assembled into pre-made sets. It had several other innovations: the AP rating system with a sliding scale allowing cosmic level abilities; the breakdown of stats into opposition/strength/resistance; spending Hero Points for resolution benefits; and team-based combat maneuvers. We played and enjoyed it for years. The layout made sense and you could find rules easily. I think because we'd come from Champions we could overlook some of the oddness and complexity of the system. We knew it handled low-level characters terribly- making them all pretty much the same bland set of single digits. But it handled epic-scale play well. Some people disliked investigations rules with the gathering of clue points, but we ignored those. Yet over time we discovered cracks and gaps in the rules- balance issues, hyper-effective combat tactics, and fundamental problems with the division of the three effect types. Still we stuck with it for a long, long time through several campaigns. Point-based. 2d10 dice. 

An interesting third-party supplement for Champions. The short-lived Firebird Ltd. produced this and another multi-system supplement every Champions and James Bond group loved: The Armory Volume One. GAoC arrived and set the stage for a common supers supplement, the WW2 hero game. Most pulp rpgs followed Raiders  and had you fighting Nazi's pre-WW2, but these books put you on the homefront or battlefront. I've written about these supplements before: A Cape Too Far. That lists about a dozen such products. Designer Chris Cloutier also wrote the later 4th Edition version, Golden Age Champions.

These books take as their lead comics like The InvadersJustice Society, and All-Star Squadron- in both their original Golden Age forms and later reworkings. The first season of TV’s Wonder Woman used the original WW2 setting, but ditched that later. The recent Captain America film's notable for embracing the period flavor. But comic books sources slowly moved away from this. Cap will always remain a WW2 veteran because of the frozen in ice device, but the rest of the continuity shifts. Marvel's always played loose with that timeline, but for years DC pegged things tightly with legacy heroes of the Justice Society and the existence of characters who fought in the war (aided by various forms of life-extending magics). DC's New 52 completely ditches that concept, even in their reworking of Earth-2. It makes a certain amount of sense, but means they have to discard years of established goodwill. The concept can't really be shifted to a more modern conflict (Korea? Vietnam? Iraq?) without mangling the vibe.

This may be a reach, but Judge Dredd has always skirted around the edges of being a comic book superhero. Depending on the era and the writer he's been more or less a four-color lawman. At times he's an instrument of gory violence and at others a figure for striking satire. I caught on to Dredd when the comic offered a smarter take on issues of violence, punishment, and consumerism. Many striking talents cut their teeth working on 2000AD. I've read a little too much later material that just embraces ass-kicking. Still he can be reasonable placed in the canon of superheroes. Plus he's teamed up with both Batman and Lobo.

The Judge Dredd rpgs generally take ideas at face value. This version came out during the 1980's when Games Workshop hadn't yet figured out exactly what kind of game company they wanted to be. I picked up a copy and made up characters, but never ran it. Instead I went for the easier Judge Dredd board game. The rpg itself feels like an old school hodge-podge: random characteristics with weirdly different value ranges, rules oddly organized, and highly detailed character sheets with tracking for each bullet. But if you like Dredd then the game's pretty fun to read with tons of art from the comics, reference details, and cross-section diagrams. It borrows some concepts from other games, including a speed and action chart which looks suspiciously like ChampionsRandom generation. Point-spend development. Various dice.

I really don't know what to say about this game. Designed by Erick Wujcik, it is less disorganized than many other Palladium Games of the same period. It builds on the Palladium engine, and the result is a game which feels incomplete- with much left to the GM to fill in. In short it feels very old school. Right out of the gate it offers ideas about a larger world outside the TMNT universe: a place of strangeness and anthropomorphic animals (which would be built on for the various supplements). Perhaps most strikingly, this game came out before TMNT became a thing...two years before Eastman and Laird agreed to license the concepts for toys, which led to the cartoon, which led to the movies and so on. Here we have a game built on the original incredibly dark stories- which had just begun to movie beyond being parodies of Frank Miller and David Sims. 

And it is crazy wonderful, filled with new art and bizarre tables. Everything’s built on randomess, with a let's-see-what-you-get approach. The game has multiple sub-systems with tons of crunchy bits and modifiers, from skills to Animal Powers to Psionics to equipment. Surprisingly there's few detailed rules for handling martial arts. It includes an new TMNT story as well as a retelling of the origin. If you like the Turtles, you ought to track down a copy of this. It went through multiple printings and at least one significant revision. Copies always sold at the store up to the end of the license in 2000. Palladium supported the line with many unique books, some offering anthropomorphic new worlds independent of the TMNT setting: Transdimensional Teenage Mutant Ninja TurtlesAfter the BombRoad HogsMutants of the YucatanMutants Down UnderMutants in Avalon, and many others. Random Generation. Level-based. Various dice.

History of Superhero RPGs (Part One: 1978-1982)


  1. Great list, including a few I've never heard of or seen.

  2. It's funny that you refer to Marvel as "Baby's First RPG" because that's exactly what it was for me. In that capacity, it worked pretty damn well. The map and tokens helped bridge the gap between boardgame and RPG for a kid that was shaky on the concept. It did take a while, however, for us to realize that we could play games that didn't take place on that map.

  3. Justice Inc. wasn't really a supplement, though, was it? It was a stand alone game that had (almost) the same ruleset as Champions. You didn't need to buy Champions to play it, with the two books that came in the boxed set...

    1. True- I should have clarified. We always treated it as a supplement and it felt like one to us.

    2. It was my real gateway drug into the Pulp genre; I didn't even know there was a name for all these things I was into from my Dad's books and the movies I caught in the Philippines as a kid...

      Looking forward to the rest of the series!

  4. Fantastic list. I played them all and owned most of them.

    I too was a huge fan of the DC Heroes game and a long time DC fanboy.

    I can tell you the sad tale of one of my campaigns, which was so good, I submitted it to DC as a pitch for a book when my Mom had a connection that got my foot in the door (or manuscript on a table I guess).

    Jenette Kahn, then publisher of DC, personally wrote me back a letter saying she loved the story and the characters and had sent it to the two editors who needed to approve it to make it a go. Maybe not as its own series, but she thought it would work as an annual or back up story.

    Long story short, one editor liked it, one wouldn't give me the time of day. I honestly don't know if he even read it. After a few attempts to breath life into my chances at DC stardom I gave up, largely disheartened.

    I made several more attempts to submit stuff but nothing. No ill feelings or grudges toward anyone involved or DC in general. The new52 did that.

  5. I woukd have loved to have hsd a group that wanted to play MSH back in its heyday. As a big Marvel fan, I probably would have loved it. As it is, I never got into it, never really got a proper introduction to it.

    1. MSH is pretty easy, so nothing to stop you playing one now. :)

  6. Spider-Man explaining a game to kids is pretty clever, anyway, I thought.

  7. MSH is a great way to get into roleplaying. So easy to learn and understand. Stick to the original set, though, as the "advanced" version lacks the charm and simplicity. I intend to use MSH to introduce my kids to RPGs when they're a little older.

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