Wednesday, November 13, 2013

History of Superhero RPGs (Part Four: 1993-1996)

When my friend Art Lyon returned from the service, he ran a couple of homebrew superhero campaigns for us. We had a great time playing, but the system was legitimately bonkers- in the most awesome way. He reminded me recently that he had tables for all the factors: speed, weight, time, etc. The time one went from a Planck Unit at the bottom to the age of the universe. The system he came up with had the kind of detail and system dithering he dug at that moment in his life. Now, Art said, not so much. Sometimes we don’t know exactly what we want from games. My friend Gene objects to the number of different and distinct status effects in Mutants & Masterminds: too many. At the same time he wants to retool the strength table because the math’s incorrect and cuts corners in abstraction. (Note: it is entirely possible that I’m misstating his objections here).

It’s based on anecdotal evidence, but I see more arguments discussion about complexity and math for superhero games than for other genres. Recommendation threads usually devolve into that discussion over setting, playability, or other design elements. Champions, GURPS Supers and M&M take a hit for “requiring a math degree.” Some gamers dismiss their character creation systems’ as spread-sheet based. On the other hand I’ve seen gut-level reactions to easier game engines. Fate-based superhero games generate a vigorous shaking of virtual heads from many- in Fate Core aspect-driven, ICONS, or even more detailed (Strange Fate) versions. I think many gamers want the rich detail of a massive power list, but one where every power feels unique and distinct. But that shouldn’t be overly complicated- making the character they want should be easy. That’s a common rpg trait: cake desire and consumption. 

They say 1993 was the biggest sales year for the comics industry. An avalanche of short-lived studios entered the market while stalwarts like First and Eclipse died. That year saw Bane break Batman, Grant Morrison’s last issue on Doom Patrol, the introduction of the Vertigo line, Deadpool #1, and Infinity Crusade. The following year saw the start of the comics bubble collapse, and at least two dozen publishers vanished. Despite the turmoil a few interesting events- Zero Hour and the Phalanx Covenant- spiced things up. 1995, however, brought the gamer-changer Age of Apocalypse. That lead into 1996’s big event, the Onslaught Saga which “changed the Marvel universe forever.” On the DC side we saw The Final Night which “killed off Hal Jordan forever.” On a brighter note, Clark Ken married Lois Lane.

In superhero cinema the four years gave us the disappointing TNMT III, Meteor Man , The Shadow, Judge Dredd, Tank Girl, The Phantom, Darkman II & III, Barb Wire, Black Scorpion, and Batman Forever. The Crow and Guyver helped offset those, but not by much. On TV Batman the Animated Series continued, and Superman: the Animated Series began. Other animated premieres included The Tick, the US release of Sailor Moon, Freakazoid, The Incredible Hulk, and the short-lived WildC.A.T.S. & MAXX shows. Just as important, the Mighty Morphin Power Rangers made their debut. In live action we saw Lois & Clark: the New Adventures of Superman and M.A.N.T.I.S..

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 (like The Taint:A Game of Unwilling Heroes). 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 1993-1996). I've arranged these in by year and then alphabetically within that year. 

0. Cybergeneration (1993)
I forgot this until a comment by Kelvin Green reminded me. Cybergeneration acts as an antidote to the nihilism of Cyberpunk. The players take the role of youths infected with a nano-virus which gives them remarkable powers. They use these to fight against both the corruption of the corporations and the jaded hopelessness of Edgerunners and their ilk. I love the blurb on the back cover "My Parents Became Cyberpunks and All They left me Was This Dark Future." Imagine a more political version of the X-Men (like an X-Men 2099) or near future version of Local. It uses CP's base system but adds interesting abilities- with some hitches. IIRC the Lifepaths in here are even more insane. This is one cyberpunk game I could imagine running. R. Tal supported the line lightly with the Documents of the Revolution series. Some of the Cyberpunk modules could be adapted over as well. In 1995 they released a second edition of the corebook- expanded by about 20%. In 2004 Firestorm Ink released a couple of supplements, including one (Generation Gap) to mix old and new PCs. However FI apparently no longer has the license. Will Hutton has a nice look back at this game which deserves an update. Random generation and point buy. d10 resolution.

1.  Dark Champions  (1993)
By this time, I'd moved solidly into Champions 4e as my supers system of choice. I dug heavy chrome and crunch with my games- though in play I streamlined things. Rolemaster and GURPS handled everything non-supers. Dark Champions confirmed my supers choice. Frank Miller’s work on low-level heroes had established that as a genre for our group. Combining that with Moore's Watchmen, Chaykin's Shadow, Veitch's Brat Pack, O'Neil's run on The Question, Baron's Badger, and Wagner's Grendel resulted in a long-running street-level campaign we called Saviors. My sister Cat Rambo ran it originally, but eventually I moved into first chair. That lasted for several years, finishing with a dark ending that saw the players betraying their core beliefs. A couple of years later I ran a sequel campaign that added proto-Cyberpunk elements and dealt more with tech-fallout.

For all its inspiration Dark Champions was a mixed bag. It had interesting crunchy bits in particular the weapons section and the variations on disads &skills. But much of the mechanical material dealt with things well off my radar. It did offer rich and heavy source material. For the first time Champions presented "realistic" discussions of crime & criminal organizations, police procedures, and the implications of vigilantism. Most of that felt more applicable to a Punisher style and tone game than Batman Animated. The characters presented also felt bizarre. The game seemed aimed at low-level and low power, but many NPCs- including the signature vigilante- ended up high-point monsters. It felt like Hero Games wasn't sure what they wanted. Still it established street-level campaigns as a concept to be discussed and spun off.

The success of Dark Champions led to many related sourcebooks: An Eye for an EyeHudson City BluesJustice, Not LawMurderers' Row, and more. Some materials tried to bridge the gap with standard Champions resulting in weird power levels and tonal shifts. Classic mafia-level characters would be weirdly cartoony and conventional thugs could be bizarrely powerful. You can see how the shifts in comics through the 1990's impacted this material in stories and visuals. The rise of grimdark and amoral characters like Spawn and the belt-n-bandoleer-based aesthetics of Leifield & Co. appear more and more. There's a weird fallback serial killers with a knives (or scalpels) as the villain type. Shocking enemy can be great once in a while, but theDark Champions universe seemed filled with insanely competent psychos. Hero returned to Dark Champions with 5th edition- giving it an independent line and more fully fleshed setting of Hudson City. However they haven't yet done anything with it for Hero 6.

True heartbreaker games appear as a meteor burning through the atmosphere- a phosphorescent display of poor design choices, incandescent creator rage, and a brilliant ignorance of other games. They crash into the gaming landscape with an explosion of wtf. But Heroes & Heroines simply falls leaden to the ground. It isn't very good, but in the most conventional way possible. The layout's weak even for an early '90's product, the art's bad but mostly looks traced, and the mechanics clearly come from someone who sort of knows what an rpg looks like. 71 of the book's 116 pages cover powers; one page vaguely describes weaknesses with no guide on how many points these ought to be worth or even how to play them. The whole thing’s weirdly flat, with the exception of one of the five stats being Bench Press Weight (yes, really).

As weird as it sounds, it almost feels like a cash grab. And that would be weird given the state of the gaming market. But the back cover and interior advert pages make a big deal about H&H being the first superhero game with licenses not shackled to a single comic publisher (ignoring things like The Justice Machine and DNAgents Sourcebook). The name of the publisher, Excel Marketing, and that the game clearly went through comic distribution and advertising channels supports that. To be fair they did manage to publish supplements for Image's The Maxx, Continuity's DeathWatch 2000, and Dark Horse with Comic's Greatest World (but not Malibu's Protectors & Ex-Mutants as suggested in the back of the book). Point-buy. Level-based. Various dice. 

3.  HeroMaker Software (1993)
I've mentioned HeroMaker Software before when talking about Champions. It isn't the earliest big-game piece of software- that honor probably belongs to the Dungeon Master's Assistant. But HM changed the way games played. It streamlined the character creation process and allowed for quick confirmations. Champions character creation could be involved and HM took the edge off. It allowed gamers to share characters, online groups to convert existing NPCs, and GMs to quickly generate opponents. When I ran my last big Champions campaigns in the mid-1990's I relied on it. Hero Games brilliantly distributed the software bundled with an edition of Champions 4th. Of course it was MS-DOS so it could be a pain to work with and get running, but it generally ran well. The additional tools- like being able to generate speed charts made it even more useful. When Hero Games switched over to 5th edition, they made a concerted effort to push and support HERO Designer. Most supplements have HD character packs available with the details for the various NPCs presented.

I swear to god I thought this was a joke. For the longest time I thought Superbabes was an imaginary parody RPG title (like Accountants & Actuaries or Whinging of the Lame Princeless). Nope. Real game from a real series of comics (apparently), with a number of supplements. I don't know what to make of it. It is as implicitly advertised, with phrases like comics with "an eye for what men like to see," the use of Bimbo Points, a random event table with a 20% chance of body image issues, and lots of poses straight out of Escher Girls. I'm sure this is awesome for some, but it comes off a little creepy to me. We had fringe gamers at the edge of the gaming group who also hung around comic shops. They who would argue about the sophistication of modern comics and then pay an artist to draw an erotic bondage sketch of Dawnstar at a convention. It's subjective- one person's harmless fun is another person’s indictment of the problem of the male gaze. This game hits me as the latter, which I'll admit makes it more difficult for me to pull out what good stuff there might be here.

The game itself seems to fall between Champions and V&V for difficulty. It has endurance tracking, but a more flexible action system. There's some elements that seem exploitable (especially Moves as a key stat). Combat requires a look up of level vs. Hittability. The powers fall closer to V&V, with more abstract mechanics. Superbabes breaks skills into general areas and then specific types a little arbitrarily. Despite that I appreciate the simplicity to the names. The layout obscures some of what might be good here. I'll point to sdonohue's aptly titled review of the game here:The Short Version? You only need this if you love Femforce, Superhero games,Sexism, or some combination of those three.. Though I never saw the game in our FLGS (and they carried Macho Women with Guns, the game apparently did well enough to spawn nearly a dozen supplements. So there must have been a loyal audience for it. Point buy. Level based. Various Dice.

5. Underground (1993)
Marshal Law. There- I'll go ahead and say what everyone's thinking. Underground looks like the rpg version of that: from premise to art design. Yet in a recent overview with Ray Winninger’s insights, he never mentions it. Instead he cites the desire to create a political rpg, with superheroes as the skin. So maybe the truth's more mixed- and maybe Underground's unfairly labeled. Even if it isn't a direct lift, Marshal Law serves as a touchstone for what's actually a pretty incredible game. In some ways, Underground's closer to Gibson's vision of the world from Neuromancer than Cyberpunk is. Instead of fetishishing tech, chrome, and guns, this game offers a compelling dystopian world painted in bright colors. It is simultaneously truly funny and truly eff'd up.

There's much to like here. The art's striking and consistent- from a Geoff Darrow cover and interior bits to stuff that looks like Charles Burns doing superhero propaganda. Everything deserves a second look. Underground has a simple system, with some striking concepts- especially the way they handle scale and time. The powers section really sells the tone of the game. Yes, you can have cool powers but they wear the characters down and each has a fairly horrible limitation. Make no mistake, Underground's a dark comedy of horrifically powerful beings hobbled by those powers and a society which doesn't know what to do with them. I don't know if I could run a campaign this dark. It feels like Paul Verhoeven at his most satirical. You should read the rules for the political and cultural commentary. Where other satirical games devolve into stupidity (HōL) sustains itself pretty smartly.

It's also a strikingly well-produced rpg, taking what Mayfair had learned from DC Heroes and advancing several steps. Text design and iconography make this stand out from every other game. The Notebook's an ambitious project, designed to be expanded by later supplements. Underground supplied a mix of books and box sets designed to appeal to gamers who loved cool stuff. For years after the line ceased active production you could find bundled sets of the various products for cheap all over the place. I bought a full set which vape'd in the house fire. These days Underground’s harder to find, but I managed to track down a used copy of the core book. For some interesting discussion of it and ideas on how to adapt it, see Phil Vecchione's articles here. Point buy. 2d10 resolution.

6. Legione (1994)
An Italian supers rpg which seems to translate as "Legion: The Power in Your Hands." I haven't found out much about it, except that it seems to have some nostalgic favor among Italian gamers. They also cite another Italian superhero rpg, Supers- which due to the generic name and the language barrier I haven't found out much about. Legion came in a boxed set and had a single supplement. A weak translation of the back cover would be, "Crime and evil continue their advance; now more than ever help is needed. You can create a new champion of good or recreate your favorite comic book hero and enter the fray! In Legion we await action and adventure. Do not hesitate: we need new heroes!" Point-buy (?). Various dice.

7. Cosmic Enforcers (1995)
A sci-fi superhero rpg from Myrmidon Press who delivered us Manhunter, and the first editions of Armageddon and WitchCraft. The players take the role of super-powered space cops at the behest of the Galactic Alliance fighting against interstellar threats in the far-future year of 2025. The game has everything: psionics, magic, cybernetics, power armor, etc. While it spawned a supplement, Villains & Foes it seems to have largely vanished without much splash. Level-based. Various dice.

8. Project A-Ko (1995)
Project A-ko was the first anime I rented and I didn't get it, in part because I only knew a little bit about the anime conventions. But I liked it- the cartoony fun and parody of the movie. It also served as a necessary antidote when I hit other, darker anime. Is it superhero? Probably only by my loose definition. The characters clearly possess superpowers, they battle foes, and there's a nod to Superman in the show suggesting it’s an explicit Japanese take on the genre. Superhero themes often transform, depending on the cultural ideas. Consider the craziness of Turkish superhero movies, Italy's Diabolik, or even the Japanese versions of Spider-Man and Batman. So I'm willing to consider this as the furthest border case in my definition.

I want to include it as well because it’s just a well-designed game. Dream Pod 9/Ianus did a brilliant job consolidating the tone of the anime without going over-the-top silly. It offers a great sourcebook and takes 'seriously' the rules of the universe presented. But the game's straightforward and simple. The skill list is fluid and descriptive- with examples like Shoot really big guns, Speeding with inline skates, Forge parents' signatures. Aspect-like mechanics help players define their character further. Powers are handled through a list of Talents, written fairly broadly. These are complemented by Crosses (aka disadvantages) equally open-ended. The mechanics take up only the first third of the book, with the rest given over to setting material, scenarios, example NPCs, and a card game. Point-buy. d6s for Resolution.

Among V&V co-creator Jeff Dee's other great rpgs stands TWERPS. A light parody of other rpgs, it fit on the shelves with Metagaming, Steve Jackson, and Task Force Games' products and had a pretty solid fanbase. I don't recall anyone actually playing it, but the core rules and setting supplements consistently sold. You could easily collect and get a laugh out of the products- featuring one stat and one profession. In the 1990's Gamescience/Reindeer began to publish new supplements by authors other than Dee. TWERPS Super Dudes is exactly as advertised. Three dozen plus powers and a mini-adventure allow you to run comic-book TWERPS madness. Random generation plus point buy. d6 Resolution.

A Brazilian rpg, and actually the second edition of it. Super sentai and some anime fit in the superhero genre, certainly the sci-fi edge of it. This one's more of a parody of the genre, but counts by my reckoning. According to Wikipedia, "The name of the game is a pun on the famous Dungeons & Dragons or "D&D"; the original version of the game – Defensores de Tóquio ("Defenders of Tokyo") – was a satire of tokusatsu, fighting games, and anime series. It was created by Marcelo Cassaro and published by Trama Editorial, later known as Editora Talismã. It spawned "AD&T" - as implied by the name, an "advanced" edition (and a pun on AD&D). Finally, "3D&T" means "Defenders of Tokyo 3rd edition". The major change on the 3rd edition was that it was turned into a generic game, dropping its satire roots. It was a huge success, becoming as popular as Dungeons & Dragons and Vampire: The Masquerade among Brazilian roleplayers." Point-based. d6 resolution.

We had some people in our group who loved Bubblegum Crisis. As can happen, their overweening enthusiasm drove me off. So a good deal of this RPG is lost on me. The superhero angle comes from the Knight Sabers; armored vigilantes and private eyes battling against a conspiracy of mad robots and cyborgs (called Boomers). The game itself is a love-letter to the series with tons of illustrations, plot speculation, background, gear write ups, and NPCs to satisfy any fan. This material begins on page 51 and runs through the rest of the 168-page volume. We have drawings of every vehicle, robot, gun, suits, and tech-y thing from the series. It’s a little overwhelming for someone coming in from the outside. Still I appreciate the new take on near-future superheroes: more Spider-Man 2099 than Legion of Superheroes

I sometimes get R Talsorian and Dream Pod 9 mixed up. They both worked heavily with anime or anime-influenced material. DP9 also produced supplements for R Tal's Cyberpunk. But R Tal has a distinct style in these anime games: dense, boxy, and full of crunch. BC uses Fuzion- an engine closer to the abstraction of Savage Worlds than the tighter balance of Hero or even GURPS. For as crunchy as this system can be; it is densely and quickly presented. The headings make it easy to find things and the order's logical, but the text size and design makes it harder to read. GMs can choose to run this as a conventional sci-fi game or as a more superheroic one, giving players access to the powered armor suits of the Saber Knights.
Point build. d6 & d10 resolution options.