Thursday, November 21, 2013

History of Superhero RPGs (Part Five: 1997-1998)

On the most recent Play on Target podcast I suggested you could break superhero material into three categories: Sci-Fi, Pulp, and Fairy Tale. These represent the 'big sweep' of a game or story. Some combine them, but usually have a clear emphasis. Systems often present a setting with a particular flavor, but some take a neutral approach. Even those neutral games simulate some of these themes better than others: the crazed levels of DC Heroes handle the mythic or techno, but break down for the pulp, strictly realistic action. There’s an additional dial- the drama tag- which modifies these types, but I’ll come back to that.

What constitutes superhero as sci-fi? Most obviously games using classic sci-fi trappings: set in the future or in space. Think The Legion of Superheroes, Marvel’s 2099 series, or Strikeforce: Morituri. But some stories with those elements lean in other directions (Adam Warlock, Nexus, Batman: Beyond). Sci-fi superheroics embrace those elements and also add at least one other trapping: a unified system for explaining superpowers relying on pseudo-scientific patter; consistent world-building focused on consequences; and/or heavy reliance on technology. So Marvel’s New Universe, Warren Ellis’ Planetary, George R.R. Martin’s Wild Cards series, Grant Morrison’s run on X-Men (and the films they shaped), Judge Dredd, Bubblegum Crisis, and the Icarus Project series by Jackie Kessler and Caitlin Kittredge all fit into this category. Superhero rpgs leaning this way include Godlike, Cybergeneration, White Wolf’s AEon Trilogy, Brave New World, and Underground.

What does that mean to actual play? These games add a vocabulary for what’s possible- a certain kind of technobabble for justifying powers and events. They narrow imaginative space: demons, fairies, magic, all set aside. Unless, of course, they’re shown to actually be something else: a malice matrix, a trapped time-traveler, an alien invader. In other words, a supernatural foe from a Dr. Who episode. It often means presenting stories which rseriously consider the social, mechanical, and practical impact of super-powers on the world. I think Aberrant’s probably the best example of that. I’ll talk more about how these approaches differ and shape campaigns on a later list.

The Onion AV Club had an interesting article on the New Universe (mentioned above), an experiment our local group followed in the early days but dropped by this time. Marvel tried a flashback month- renumbering all issues at -1. A couple of X-events "Zero Tolerance" and the "Hunt for Xavier" rounded things out. More importantly they brought back the Avengers and FF in "Heroes Reborn." DC ended up with "Genesis" (a battle against Darkseid) and "DC One Million" which connected the 853rd century to modern heroes. DC also introduced Superman Blue/Superman Red and a supermullet. Looking at the sales list, the X-Books continued to dominate. New #1 books- clearly collector grabs- also topped the rankings. The years also saw a second series of Amalgam- the DC/Marvel crossover/hybrid series. In the movies we got some truly horrible superhero releases: Batman & Robin, Spawn, and Steel. However we ended up with a Blade movie, one of the few truly successful outings for a B-super character. TV superhero material was equally thin: Power Rangers: Turbo & In SpaceNinja Turtles: The Next Mutation; and Sailor Moon. On the plus side, The New Batman/Superman Adventures mixed repeats and new material and The Powerpuff Girls first appeared.

These lists cover 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 1997-1998). I've arranged these in by year and then alphabetically within that year.

1. AEon aka Trinity (1997)
By '97 I'd stopped working at the game store and so saw the industry more through online discussions, game cons, and mass market stocking. I recall when AEon hit- and then the quick weirdness of the switch of the title to Trinity. I actually thought WW had two distinct lines. I didn't catch Trinity's premise until Aberrant came out the following year. Sci-fi didn't grab me and I didn't understand that it revolved around supers characters.

I especially like where Trinity plays with some of the classic future-supers tropes. Other games like Superhero 2044, Enforcers, and Cosmic Enforcers have just a sci-fi backdrop. They seem to be closer to the great comic touchstone of the Legion of Superheroes. Others embrace the dystopian or cyberpunk over the superhero tropes (Cybergeneration or Underground)- closer to the various Marvel 2099 series. Trinity feels to me like the LSH through a filter of realism: how could this happen? What would it mean to have metahuman space agents? It that way it anticipates some of the darker and more conspiratorial storylines of the Legion in the '90's and '00's.

There's a great deal happening in the setting and Trinity has some amazing sci-fi world-building. Where I think it fails is in offering a coherent sense of what the game's actually about. The best way to describe it would be super-powered psionic troubleshooters in space. But then there's the whole Aberrant war, the alien race explorations, and strong emphasis on sourcebooks covering Earth. That ambition and desire to cover all ends of sci-fi means that it lacks focus. That might work for another game- like Traveller or SpaceMaster- but the strong design and presentation focus of WW really click when they cover a tight idea deeply. I hope the new Trinity edition does a better job of pitching and demonstrating the core idea. 

Trinity kicked off WW's linked set of games dealing with superpowers at three eras of a shared setting. It modified the Storyteller system to that end which worked...OK. ST had some problems dealing with large-scale and powerful beings. You'd see some of the saw flaws appear in Exalted and Scion. The action handling and speed in particular remains problematic across those lines. But generally the Trinity's sound and WW supported it decently with a variety of supplements large and small. Clearly Aberrant got more attention, but Trinity remained in print for some time. They adapted it to d20 in 2004. Onyx Path publishing has announced that they will release a new edition of Trinity. I hope they take a rules light approach.Point buy. d10 resolution.

 In my various lists, I've avoided generic or universal games except where they have a genre supplement. BESM's my exception- because the material overlaps with what we might call the "anime edge" of superhero games (Super Sentai, R.O.D. TV, Sailor Moon, and so on). We've seen (and will see) several games based on properties like those. Mutants & Masterminds (Mecha & Manga) and Hero System (Kazei 5) both added supplements to incorporate those concepts.

BESM offers a solid system to power the anything-goes world of anime and manga, with a decent set of powers. GOO would go on to use much of the Tri-Stat system which powers this as the basis for their superhero game Silver Age Sentinels. BESM gives both a mechanical toolkit these campaigns, but also good material on how to actually run in the anime/manga genre. The game did well enough that it generated three later editions (2, 2.5, and 3), a d20 version, several genre books, and resource guides for some popular series. If you're interested in a light and fast system, with a decent level of detail and options, I'd recommend checking out BESM (Big Eyes, Small Mouth) third edition. Point buy. d6 Resolution.

I suspect I'm not the best person to talk about this. When it hit, I still held up Champions 4th as pretty much what I wanted out of a supers game. To combine that with Interlock seemed more gimmick than sensible decision. We'd played a lot of Cyberpunk- but no one considered that an awesome system. In fact we often commented on how the game fought more than helped us. But one player in our group followed the development of Fuzion avidly, downloading everything available online. Fuzion blazed trails; it was among the earliest games with an open license. Our group tried it but didn't care for it.

So once I finally got a look at C:tNM, I was a little surprised to see exactly what this sourcebook was. Yes- it has the Fuzion rules, but it can easily be adapted for use with the conventional Hero system. What it offers is a new "reimagined" Champions. A newer, more gritty, and shittier version. This is a game setting which buys into all of the excesses of '90's comics. The macho tone, the poses, the hypersexualization, the dark undercurrent, the complete disregard for anatomy, the idiotic belts and straps and such. It certainly takes the more classic four-color Champions Universe and transforms it into something else. From this remove some of it reads like parody, but I suspect the authors drank the kool-aid. It would make a great sourcebook for an Iron Age campaign in M&M. C: tNM generated only two supplements- Champions New Millennium: Bay City and Champions New Millennium: Alliances published the same year. Point buy. d6 Resolution.

4. Providence (1997)
So far on the list we've seen a number of sci-fi supers supplements, but few fantasy ones. Providence bucks that trend...a little. I'd argue the most influential 'fantasy' superhero games aren't this list because they don't really want to be supers games: Vampire: The MasqueradeWerewolf: The Apocalypse, and Mage: The Ascension. Beginning in the early 1990's WW shifted the direction of rpg gaming and offered dissatisfied players a new outlets. Sure- these games could be used to deal with dark stories and tragic corruption. But often the tales I heard consisted of power fantasies and teams of monsters acting like super anti-heroes and fighting big bads. Werewolf in particular sets up a pretty clear bad guy for the PCs in the fight to save the world (Sam Haight as the Thanos of the setting?). And the Hulk's pretty much just a werewolf, right? Mage has the same set of clear adversaries with the empowered PCs battling against a hidden conspiracy. Pyramid had a great article considering how you could use the background of Aberrant as a cover for an Mage revolution.

Providence, though, doesn't play fantasy with our world. Instead it offers a crazy setting. I'll quote John Karakash's review on RPGNet to sum this up:
"Providence is a hollow world meant to serve as a prison for those who rebelled against a stratified and unjust society. They fought under the banners of Gods who turned out to be merely powerful mortals and were defeated along with their false deities. Soon after their interment into a number of prison-camps, the gates that deposited them to Providence stopped working, trapping guards and prisoners alike. After a number of bloody rebellions (and a few generations), the prison system broke down and most of the cities were freed. Most of the world is unexplored jungle, containing odd creatures that were once like the PC races. And it's a world that appears to be coming to end as cataclysmic natural disasters begin to tear it apart."
The reviews and comments I've seen talk describe an interesting (if slightly incoherent) world combined with difficult mechanics. Apparently it offers superheroics in that you're fighting for good and have strange powers. I've never actually laid my hands on the game, so I can't provide an better assessment.  Point buy. Various dice.

5. StuperPowers! (1997)
The title page image of the superhero with urine-stained pants and a pee pool on the ground as villains surround him didn't give me much hope for STUPERPOWERS!. A parody rpg that aims to take the piss out of the genre, it did well enough in '97 to spawn a second edition in 2001. If you like comedy games, you will probably like this. The layout's nice, they have art, and the game feels pretty complete.

I'm not a big fan of comedy games. I enjoy when humor and parody arise from play at the table, and I dig some spare humor in a gamebook. But I'm never sure what I'm supposed to get from these kinds of in-your-face satires (I'd count HōL in this category). I'm not going to play it and I don't really laugh when I read it. There's some smart stuff in StuperPowers that made me smirk- especially the take on '90's excesses. But a good deal of it feels like weak MAD Magazine stuff. I fear that I'm a humorless grump on this; I mean the Deluxe Edition has been carefully crafted and assembled. The game looks dynamite, but I'm not the audience for it. Random generation (sort of). Various dice.

Several years after Mayfair stopped publishing DC Heroes Pulsar games decided to use that system to create a freestanding supers rpg: The Blood of Heroes. The first edition from '98 vanished quickly, replaced by a Special Edition in 2000. Pulsar Games itself has changed hands since then. But there's some suggestion that they may not actually have the rights to the system. Ray Winninger believes everything surrounding DC Heroes actually belongs to DC Comics and Mayfair never had the right to transfer that license, even to the base mechanics. 

The game itself has the strengths and weaknesses of the MEGS system, but without the charm of the DC property. Everything's here in a dense hard-to-read single volume. The book buries whatever simplicity the system once had. It also delivers some terrible, terrible art. I had to look at a few of the full-page images for several minutes to figure out what the hell's happening. If you have a copy of the Special Edition, I recommend checking out page 136. Try to use that image as a writing prompt. The Blood of Heroes Universe takes up 100+ pages of the core book. It's a kitchen-sink, weirdly '90's gritty setting and strangely incoherent. Lots of NPCs and groups but little sense of what ought to make this world compelling or distinct. Too dark and messy, it doesn't appeal to me. Point buy. 2d10 resolution.

Heroes Unlimited landed in '84 (with the revised version in '87) so that's a respectable length of time for a game to remain in print. I'm not sure I agree with Kevin Siembieda's assertion in the intro that HU is "one of a tiny handful of contemporary superhero games." I think these lists put the lie to that. Heroes Unlimited 2nd has another striking Steranko cover (which pushes Siembieda's intro into an argument with online commenters taking exception to the US-centric imagery). The art throughout the book's more solid and consistent than previous editions. Some of it's wild and oddly out-of-place, but the whole thing doesn't seem nearly as a bonkers as other Palladium books.

Changes for this edition include overall clean-up of the mechanics and changing the magic system to bring it in line with other games sharing the base system. Overall the layout's easier to work through and material's presented in a more coherent order. However some rules appear well before the cart's even been built. As well many sections still feel like essays dropped in. And there's the weird thing that each subsection has a byline, with Siembieda's name appearing every few pages. HU remains a complicated game with a lot of working parts. It has gotten some ongoing support over the years with setting books (some of which I'll mention on later lists), the Powers Unlimited series, and others.  Random generation (some picks possible). Level based. Various dice.

Someone's going to have to help me here. This is the Marvel universe done using the SAGA rules which came from the Dragonlance: Fifth Age rpg. But that's different from the WotC Star Wars: Saga Edition which came out ten years later? That's a little confusing. The SAGA version of Marvel dropped off my radar despite having many interesting supplements. I missed it completely at the time, but finally got around to looking at it.

Wow- that's a striking and brave move on TSR's part- shifting a major license like that to a non-standard system. And apparently it worked, judging by the high ratings on RPGGeek. It's hard to tell from just reading the rules how well it will play, given the card-driven nature of the system. And I'm philosophically in favor of card-based games. I had a good time going reading the corebook; it has the clean and open presentation of top-notch TSR products. I checked in with my Play on Target co-host, Andrew Goenner to get his impressions. He thinks MSHAG rocks- the card system works well and allows for fast play without getting bogged down. So I'll have to put this on my list of grail games to track down.

Here's an odd thought. Marvel has had four rpg versions and DC has had three. Each of the Marvel Universe rpgs have been experimental or at least distinctly abstract. MSH used trait descriptors, karma spends, and some diceless effects. MSHAG goes completely diceless, with a card system involving suits, trumping, and hand management. The Marvel Universe RPG goes completely diceless with a game of resource management. Finally, the short-lived Marvel Heroic highly abstracts powers and conflicts, with relationships and other traits as important as mutant abilities. On the other hand, each DC game has been crunchy, rules heavier, and more concrete. Even the lightest of them, DC Universe, gives full power breakdowns with its use of the WEG d6 system. Does that say something about the respective universes involved? About the companies? Or is that purely an accident of fate? Point-buy (sort of). Card-driven resolution.

9. Revelation (1998)
I left Buffy off this list because its doesn't position itself as a superhero concept. Arguably Angel's closer and once we get to the Buffy comic seasons then all bets are off. But usually it reads as horror, supernatural, and conventional action. Revelation describes itself as "The Modern Superheroic Horror Role-Playing Game." But it’s just another version of Buffy, in a world with Demons and Angels battling (the 'Seraphim' and the 'Shaetan'). Essentially the PCs serve as monster-hunters. There's little conventional superhero stuff here. Point buy. Various dice.

I'm not a big Sailor Moon fan; I prefer contemporaries Revolutionary Girl Utena and Blue Seed. But I appreciate what it does- combining episodic shows with a long running mythology. I've mentioned Superfriends and the 1960's Spider Man cartoons as influences, but I also loved Ultra Man and Space Giants which aired on Chicago indie station Channel 44. When I could catch it, Battle of the Planets scratched that itch for cartoon action. All of that stuff felt superhero to me: using powers to battle a big bad each week.

Sailor Moon's the clearest riff on superhero tropes- with costumes, secret identities, and a team with differing powers. Guardians of Order's The Sailor Moon Role-Playing Game and Resource Book smartly positions itself for the market outside of gaming. It uses the Tri-Stat system with surprising detail. I expected less gaming material and more discussion of the background (ala Bubblegum Crisis: Mega-Tokyo 2033). Instead it splits pretty evenly and has an extensive GM advice section. Worth tracking down for anyone interested in the magical girl genre. Point buy. d6 resolution.

11. San Angelo (1998)
I love city sourcebooks especially for superhero games. I've written before on that (Superhero Metroplexual: We Built this City on 250 Points). City sourcebooks have a particular challenge. Often they must set up the premises and history of the setting as a whole, as well as describing the urban environment. That’s true for San Angelo, but the sourcebook doesn’t let that weigh it down. Instead moves quickly to laying out the city section by section. San Angelo doesn’t feel unique for a supers city- but the book presents it deeply and usefully for the GM. It takes into consideration the reality of supers and works that carefully into the background.  San Angelo can be used as is, serve as a model for your own campaign city, or be cannibalized for other games. 

The original edition came out for Champions 4th, but the revised 1.5 edition covers M&M 1e and Action! System. Gold Rush Games released several supplements to expand the setting: Denizens of San Angelo,  Enemies of San Angelo, and The Dragon's Gate: San Angelo's Chinatown. When I mention SA people comment on it fondly- describing it as the only city book they used. The money quote on the cover comes from Kurt Busiek of Astro City fame; he calls it “…an intricate, involving, well-realized gaming world.”