Thursday, November 7, 2013

History of Superhero RPGs (Part Three: 1986-1992)

I stuck with core books when assembled my other RPG histories. But with supers- near and dear to my heart- I couldn’t stop there. Secondary sourcebooks and setting materials define these game lines for me. Villains & Vigilantes wouldn’t be the same without Death Duel with the Destroyers. DC Heroes needs the Hardware Handbook to offer another valiant attempt at a workable gadgets system. The various supplements shift Aberrant from just odd to over-the-top crazy. My Play on Target co-host Brian Cooksey cites Marvel’s Ultimate Powers Book as crucial- a resource for any supers game. I feel the same way about Villainy Amok for Champions 5e. Early Champions, on the other hand, lives in my memory for the first two Enemies books, Monster Manuals of the superhero game. They offered weird characters who popped repeatedly over the decades in many GMs’ campaigns. The list below includes a couple of game-changer supplements, including one of the best for any supers game.

This period saw a significant shift in tone and creative direction for comics. A host of indie publishers entered the market and many died off. That brought the first serious challenges to the dominance of the big two. Many classics appeared: Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns & Batman Year One, Moore’s Watchmen, “Kraven’s Last Hunt,” Chadwick’s Concrete, Morrison’s Arkham Asylum & Sandman and Gaiman's Sandman. Marvel launched the ill-fated New Universe line; DC tried a short-lived experimental line. Most importantly Image Comics launched with Youngblood, Spawn and others. Events continued to grab center stage with the Mutant Massacre, The Evolutionary War, Inferno, Invasion! Millennium, X-Tinction Agenda, and the Infinity War. 

The period began with two cinematic comic book adaptations which should have killed them off forever: Howard the Duck and Superman IV: The Quest for Peace. But soon we got some solid hero films, with Keaton in Batman and Liam Neeson in Darkman. Interesting but perhaps less striking were Batman Returns and The Rocketeer...and, of course, the first two Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles films. On television we had the syndicated Superboy show, Swamp Thing, and the could-have-been-awesome-but-sucked Flash TV show. And we saw TMNT and X-Men. But most importantly we saw the two best cartoon shows about grimdark vigilantes: Darkwing Duck and Batman the Animated Series.

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 1986-1992). I've arranged these in by year and then alphabetically within that year. 

The Marvel license did well enough for TSR that they decided to go back to the well. They followed the D&D/AD&D approach, creating a new version which added material but offered a stand-alone game. Unlike with D&D, this didn't split the line. All Marvel products remained compatible regardless of which level you'd entered at. Mostly I saw gamers buying both box sets- regarding the latter as a source of new ideas. MSH: Advanced improves on most of the rules...if you like more options and more complexity. Nothing here negates the original but rather it adds depth. The Players Book, for example, assumes veteran gamers. Rather than a more comic book approach it looks like a traditional rpg manual, beginning with the character creation process and working through to core mechanics. MSH: AS offers some new systems, mostly for campaign options (Contacts, Popularity, and the fuller Talents system).

Is it better? I think most would say yes. Just look at the roster on offer in this set compared to the original. This one has stats for Mephisto and Galactus. But there's some cost to that. The simplicity and goofy light-hearteded approach vanishes. Marvel does its level best to look like a serious game system-- making it less easy to throw at newbies. Different attack types get split apart on special charts and  classes of powers go all the way up to Shift Z. For an interesting assessment of the system see Justin Rio's review- A Super review! (well, maybe) and the comments afterwards. Random generation and point spend. Percentile dice.

2. Super Agents (1986)
Not a great supplement, but one which set the stage for a "Agents" campaigns. Of course now we have Agents of SHIELD on TV and we've seen Checkmate make an appearance in Smallville. But at the time an independent sourcebook covering agents in a superhero world was a novelty. The concept would appear many times over the years with volumes detailing hybrid organizations (like Hydra) and other games eventually published similar approaches (Agents of Freedom for M&M for example). But this was the first to explicitly call out the sub-genre and give resources for it. I liked the concept, but never got around to running it. Today I can imagine working in the various branches and conflicting agendas, having players deal with bureaucracy, and making them those who stand against the craziness of the super world. It could be something close to Global Frequency. As it was I only used it as a basis for a brief GI Joe hack.

3. Enforcers (1987)
I don't know if 'heartbreaker' applies here, but Enforcers is a mess. Somehow it reached a second printing, as evidenced by the errata page at the front of my copy. Like Superhero 2044 it offers a futuristic backdrop for its metahuman game, except two better. Also like S2044, it doesn't do a great job explaining that sci-fi setting or suggesting what makes this better than a contemporary one. In fact the only background given takes up two pages with a timeline that extends up to the far-future year of 2002.

I also suspicious of games which start off being 'clever' and suggesting that their system's superior to unnamed other games...and then making transparent passive-aggressive comments identifying them. The opening takes a few shots at Marvel ("Ability scores represented by words like Fantastic, Amazing, Incredible, Humongous (or is it Hughmongoose?)" ugh. It also anonymously targets Champions, with a comment about systems which "...require a Ph.D. in math to understand.". That comment's ironic on a number of scores. First, Champions is clearly the illegitimate parent of Enforcers. The look of the character sheet, the handling of stats, the errata that all references to END should refer to Con. Second, this game loves math and calculations. In-effing-sane. A couple of examples. The energy cost for an attack is calculated via the following formula: EC/U= (Dam# x 3 x BCTH)/1000. Knockout percentages are based on the "Limb Strength Factor" or LSF which is the Con (Modifier) x 2 x the Weight factor. Third, the game includes the line-by-line program which gamers can enter into a Lotus Notes system in order to generate a character sheet.

The rules writing is a shambles, with confusing terminology and abbreviations. It calls some systems optional, when they're actually pretty crucial. Enforcers has look-up tables for everything and confusing cross-reference mechanics for handling combat. The art's awful. Some people enjoy his work, but Albert Deschesne doesn't do much for me. His cover's the highlight of this book. The interior art's really bad. Like Middle School bad. Point-based. Various dice.

TSR made some strange moves with their game lines over the years. The reworking of Top Secret as their 'modern' game system Top Secret/S.I. didn't do well in our area. While they had decent support for the line, including comics and CYOA gamebooks, it never moved. TS/SI may have taken off in other places but I can't remember it even popping up at conventions. The Agent 13 Sourcebook was among a couple of different settings which used the core system (others being TSAC7: F.R.E.E.America and TSAC4: F.R.E.E. Lancers). This one covered pulp action and only barely rates inclusion on the list for the discussion of mystery men and the possibility of strange powers. Ray Winninger, designer of Underground, created this. Bizarrely TSR published a set of parallel pulp novels and graphic novels in this setting, focusing on Agent 13: The Midnight Avenger. Random generation plus point spend. Various dice. 

At some point someone at TSR came up with the idea to do an encyclopedia of Marvel characters. Then, and I imagine it was a different person, someone suggested hole punching them so they could go in a binder and be updated. I like to believe that these two imaginary people received massive bonuses that year and were carried around the offices on the shoulders of those involved with the creation of Gammarauders.

These books sold like hotcakes. Like game-able hotcakes. Even if people didn't play Marvel, they bought copies. They combined the gamer's obsessive love of completeness with a focus on minutiae. The yearly updates made them even better, allowing the line to keep up with continuity in a way no other licensed supers game has. You will also note that DC Heroes’ DC's Who's Who looks suspiciously like these books- except without updates.

6. Strike Force (1988)
Now that TSR/WotC and White Wolf have issued their backlist electronically, can we get other long-running companies to do so? Because Aaron Allston's Strike Force needs to be available again. Allston's name appears again and again on these lists and with good reason. His combination of insight, inspiration, and real gaming experience raises his material up a level. A first glance Strike Force offers just another campaign book- a house campaign at that. But there's so much more here. Instead of just being a history and catalog of NPCs we get real discussion about how that campaign grew, what tools the GM used to make it work, an under-the-hood look at the mechanics of running and sustaining a long-term campaign.

Strike Force has some of the best GM advice for supers (and other games). It presents the campaign’s PCs and the NPCs, with notes on how they evolved. The smart house rules for Champions clean up many irritating problems. Strike Force also a described 'bluebooking,'  a novel technique for handling character sub-plots and stories between sessions. It may seem trite or obvious now, but that introduced a new play dimension. Within a few months of release, most groups I knew integrated these ideas. We all used them in some way or another. I can think of few other superhero supplements which had such a profound impact on games. And I'm not the only one who thinks so. Consider Jeff's Gameblog's comments or Sdonohue's review The Short Version? Buy on sight.. It’s too bad this came out so late in the life-cycle of Champions 3e. It ended up lost a little with the Hero Games' switch to the new edition the following year.

7. Vindicators (1988)
And here's where my experience and Google-fu failed me for the first time on these lists. I don't recall this game at all and I've found almost nothing about it online. A few places mention it as valuable for being hard-to-find. The back cover blurb reads: 
"NOW YOU CAN BECOME YOUR FAVORITE COMICS HERO! And not a moment too soon. Crime is running rampant. Natural disasters are on the rise. Sinister organizations are plotting the overthrow of civilization. There's no time to lose. Use the VINDICATORS game system to create your own crime-fighting hero. Pick weapons from the most basic to the most advanced. Use any of dozens of skills. Choose from over one hundred fantastic powers, including psionics, flight, energy control, and heightened senses. Build your strength, speed, and agility to superhuman levels."
RPG Geek lists the mechanics as Action Table (table determines action outcomes) Attribute/Stat Based, Dice (Various), Point Based, Random Attribute Generation, Skill Based. A supplement, Vindicators Plus, came out in 1991, but has also vanished down the memory hole.

8. Champions (1989)
Champions 4th edition effectively erased my memory of all the editions leading up to it. Those books went in a box and vanished. This game worked for me on many levels. You have the awesome George Perez cover, the smart interior layout, the cleaned-up and streamlined rules, the division of the material into core & campaign elements, and heft of the product as a whole. Having art from one of our players (Barry Winston) didn't hurt. I mentioned before that I floated along in play with Champions in my early years. I didn't grasp how everything fit together. This book finally opened my eyes. I don't think you can overstate how important clear, consistent, and inviting page design contributes to the impact of a game system. I have many rpg books that I'm sure offer amazing depth and a wealth of ideas, but I can't make it through them.

This edition also offered a serious competitor to GURPS with HERO system as an independent entity. We tried HERO for a couple of campaigns, but ultimately found that the two games mastered different areas. GURPS worked well with lower power games. It created a solid and dangerous fantasy campaign with decent magical support. Horror games benefited from quick resolution and ability to de-emphasize mechanics. HERO, on the other hand, required a number of clunky bolt-ons, especially for magic. I know some people loved Fantasy HERO but it failed for our groups. HERO worked for supers. And Champions was that supers game.

Champions 4e is simple, but not barebones. It lacks the full-bleed images, page watermarking, and text elaborations of more modern games, but it works. Proof comes in the longevity of this edition. Champions 4e remained in this version in print from 1989 to 2002. That's a huge swath of time without either major changes to the core engine or a 'revised' edition with minor adjustments. When this hit everyone I knew put away any other supers system they'd been toying with. I stuck with it solidly. Only the switch to Hero System 5 would finally throw me off. That made me start hunting for an easier and faster superhero game. Point based. d6 resolution.

Mayfair supported DC Heroes first edition with nearly three dozen modules and eight sourcebooks. But it had a huge problem named Crisis on Infinite Earths. The approval process for licensed materials requires a huge lead time. I imagine Mayfair had products lined up and ready it didn't want to scrap. Plus it didn't know how the DC Universe would actually end up. Who would live? What would they look like? Even after the DC Universe shifted they kept publishing old setting material or added in some corrections. In 1989 they finally released a new boxed set edition of the game. This second edition is pretty hideous. The book covers are ugly and there's a weird attempt to ape the Marvel design elements that doesn't work. While the new character cards included were decent, the combat wheel felt like a step back.

DC Heroes 2e  didn't remove all of the complexity, but the designers clearly hoped to clean up and simplify the material. Mayfair had released Batman Role-Playing Game to catch some of the energy from the new movie. That streamlined the "MEGS" (Mayfair Exponential Gaming System) rules. This new edition incorporated many of those innovations. More importantly, it pulled together the threads of the new setting, with The Atlas of the DC Universe laying out where things stood. Significant sourcebooks covering MagicThe Teen TitansWatchmen, and The Justice League rounded that out. Mayfair continued to play with layout and design. In 1993 they released a third edition done as a single volume with minor fixes to the core system.

...But our group had already moved on. A few of us bought the new DC Heroes and came away disappointed by the presentation. We bought a few sourcebooks and followed it for a little bit, but mostly it died. Improvements to the system didn't fix the core weaknesses and the new set felt cheap. The arrival of Champions 4 put a stake in the heart of this game around here. It would continue to sell, but mostly to DC aficionados rather than gamers. Point-based. 2d10 resolution.

10. GURPS Supers (1989)
Another game which had the misfortune to come out the same year as Champions 4th. We used GURPS for many non-superhero campaigns. When GURPS Supers arrived, several of us bought it. We read it and we even tried to play it. But...

Eric Aldrich has an excellent review of this supplement, Breaking the system. He uses the phrase "unwieldy" to describe it. That's certainly how we found it. In some ways it has exactly the opposite problem of DC Heroes' MEGS mechanic. In that game, a 2 is an average ability, with 4 being excellent human level...but then the numbers climb upwards with a doubling. So a stat of 4 is four times better than a two. That craziness means all low-level characters look the same. GURPS suffers from not having a great structure of cases well above the human normal. The points, calculations, and effects get weird and hard to follow quickly. People call Champions complicated, but at heart it has a simple elemental pattern. GURPS Supers lacks that elegance and feels tacked on. We dropped it after the first edition. It is notable for offering the first adaptation of George R.R. Martin's anthology series, Wild CardsGURPS Supers Wild Cards and GURPS Wild Cards Aces Abroad gave great sourcebooks for the setting with terrible art. Steve Jackson revised GURPS Supers just two years later in 1991 but by that time we'd moved on. Point based. d6 Resolution.

The MSH Advanced Set offered an entry point for experienced gamers and did well for TSR. But they also wanted an even easier entry point than the original yellow box. The designers wanted something more up to date (since seven years of comics events had happened). This version takes an even more stripped-down approach and cuts out much of the campaign information. Instead there's a book of rules and a book with character descriptions. The company seems want a true game for neophytes with an explicit shift to the Advanced set later. I should also note the drop in the quality of artwork. The interior illos are even more basic than Al Milgrom's orignal material. The cover...well, the cover's just weird and creepy. Like maybe something somebody would get paid to airbrush on the side of a comics fan's van. Random generation and point spend. Percentiles.