Thursday, December 12, 2013

History of Superhero RPGs (Part Seven 2002-2003)

THE SUPERHERO’S JOURNEY
In the last two posts I described how I see superhero stories divided: Sci-Fi, Pulp, and Mythic. I suspect that last category, Mythic, includes more actual gaming than the other two combined. Yet it may be what gives some gamers as bad taste when they think of supers games. Mythic games can be powerful- at the very least they embrace the idea of powers. They eschew realism in favor of spectacle and cool. That has several consequences, including the hand-waving of repercussions. A battle between titans in an urban metropolis has serious and specific consequences in a Sci-Fi supers game. The decay of infrastructure, shifts in the economy, poisonous fallout. In a Pulp game it focuses on drama: the revelation of the destruction, loss of friends, reactions of horror from the general populace. In a Mythic game someone cleans up afterwards- perhaps with a small comment about rebuilding. Or the horrific destruction gets downplayed (ala Man of Steel). More rarely Mythic stories embrace that catastrophe as a message and a metaphor (ala Kid Miracleman’s assault on London or the Batman NML arc).

That leads to the next part of Mythic: symbolism. Mythic stories rely on archetypes. Characters stand for ideas and beliefs. Heroes might embrace those for a purpose, but those eventually come to define them. Some writers make a more explicit connection to mythology. Consider Grant Morrison’s JLA run or Seven Soldiers mini-series; Mark Waid’s Kingdom Come; and Alan Moore’s Promethea. All of these make heroes into figures in stories that echo Beowulf, Gilgamesh, and Ovid’s Metamorphosis. Kirby and Starlin represent the greatest of these Mythic storytellers- from Thor to the New Gods to Warlock and so on. They brought the cosmic.

That leads to worlds where magic, psychic powers, mutations, alien hybrids, and intelligent robots all exist side by side. And they exist without any attempt to rationalize and explain away how that’s actually happening. The Asgardians aren’t super-aliens- they’re gods. All powers don’t actually derive from a super-virus or a multi-dimensional rift in the Bleed. They’re crazy, mixed up and wild. Anything goes and that’s a double-edged sword. Creators, GMs, and players have all the room they want. But that can feel unreal, unmoored from any connection to the human condition. It can result in power fantasy campaigns and stories without and depth.

TIMELINE
Events: Oddly Marvel’s Infinity Abyss and DC’s Joker: Last Laugh seem to be the only big ones in this period.
Television: Power Rangers Wild Force, Teamo Supremo, ¡Mucha Lucha!, Ultraman Tiga, Ultimate Muscle, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Power Rangers: Ninja Storm, Venture Brothers, Spider Man New Animated Series, Teen Titans, Xiaolin Showdown, Jake 2.0.
Films: Blade II, Spider Man, Daredevil, X-2: X-Men United, Hulk, The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen.

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 2002-2003). I've arranged these in by year and then alphabetically within that year.


1. Champions (2002)
Hero System 5 broke me. I felt alienated by gaming's new emphasis on shifts and edition revisions. I'd gone along with Rolemaster's changes, but reworkings and new key system supplements finally wore me out. Over the next couple of years I dropped three systems we played for well over a decade in our groups: RolemasterGURPS, and Champions. Fatigue and expense killed those off. Instead for the moment I stuck with Hero 4th Edition- it worked fine. Or so I thought. I tried teaching it to some new players. They disliked it and my own desire for lighter rules didn't help matters.

That being said Hero 5e is a beast- an impressive clean-up and consolidation of the rules. You can see more about that in this RPG Geek "Share a Game Thread" and in even more detail at Ross Watson's post on the changes. Hero 5 was a huge tome and the revised version only increased its bullet-stopping size. More importantly the fifth edition generated an incredibly solid set of sub-lines (Champions, Dark Champions, Fantasy Hero, Star Hero). Each of those in turn had amazing support and great products. The product line for Champions 5 is probably the best single line of superhero supplements out there. Each covers their topics in depth, offers many new NPCs, and has a complementary Hero Designer electronic edition. The line includes my single favorite supers supplement- Villainy Amok. If you're looking inspirational products for a superhero game, start by checking out Champions 5Point buy. d6 Resolution. 

2.  Deeds Not Words (2002)
A set of rules for adapting d20 to superhero games. Offers a point-buy system for choosing powers. The game itself sticks fairly close to the original d20 material, with classes to define characters. Across the board it adds elements to emulate the genre, but tries to keep the system close to original D&D 3.0 version. In 2003 Crytosnark released an enlarged and revised 1.1 version of the rules. That version has 374 trade-sized pages, so not a small product. Deeds Not Words contains a number of interesting options. Superpowers take up about 100 pages. That's complemented by sections on Power Armor, Psionics, Mystic Skills, Super-Science, and even Super-Pets. If you like original d20, this may be the super-game for you. The layout and art's serviceable. Cryptosnark published two supplements for it: Laying the Smack Down!- with new combat options- and Bold Costumes, Black Hearts- a villain sourcebook. Level and class based. Various dice.

Subtitled "Superhero Toolkit." Four Color to Fantasy offers a superhero skin for the d20 mechanics. While the cover makes it look amateurish, the interior layout and design's quite good. The designers organize the material clearly. FCtF assumes players bring significant d20 knowledge and lays out the key additions to that early on. Rather than distinct classes for archetypes, it has one class which offers powers, The Hero. Four prestige classes allow some additional focus, but the rules give freedom to the players. To make things easier the game also offers some templates of common power configurations. Had EN Publishing done more with the line we probably would have seen supplements with additional templates. The rules include both powers and super-feats, but there's no hard rule about what falls into one versus the other. Those still working with d20 3.0 may find some useful ideas here. Four Color to Fantasy includes a supers setting called “Dark Decade.” It presents a 1980's New York City with a supernatural subculture (ala World of Darkness). The superhero PCs battle against those monsters. It isn't a bad idea and would be worth seeing developed and expanded as a sourcebook. There's not nearly enough room to develop the concepts here. In 2003 EN Publishing released a revised version. Oddly though there's a link for it, RPGNow no longer has that product listed- just the earlier version. Level based. Point buy. Various dice.

A really lovely little game and sourcebook I regret not picking up when it came out. I've knocked Steve Jackson Games in the past for odd licensing choices (GURPS Planet Krishna). Hellboy's a dynamite choice. It combines action, horror, and strange powers. The game also came out a couple of years before the first film, so it had that combined with a successful comic book line. While Hellboy's both a sourcebook and an rpg, the book entangles the rules with the sourcebook material more than other similar products. That works against it more than a little. Readers looking for extensive background on the series may be put off by the stats and numbers everywhere. They have to read around the game.

GURPS Lite powers the rules. I mentioned before my dislike of GURPS’ approach to Supers. I know some gamers generated great campaigns with it, but I disliked its clunkiness. Hellboy covers a much narrower set of powers and abilities. It has interesting options, including ritual paths and psychic powers. GURPS supplements and sub-systems work when they operate in a narrower and better defined range. Hellboy doesn't have to cover everything. I'm unsure how well it did for SJG. It arrived just before they transitioned to GURPS 4e which I expect drew attention away from it. You can still find copies online for a decent price. Point-based. d6 resolution.

The second of the three (so far) Judge Dredd rpgs. Mongoose's first whack at the setting uses d20. Unlike some d20 adaptations you need  a copy of the Players Handbook to play. Players choose between Street Judges, Psi-Judges, and Citizens for class. The last choice seems to be on offer if a group wants to play a criminal game set in Mega-City One. If someone pitched me on a Dredd game where we didn't play judges, but instead the people who get killed by Judges I'm pretty sure I'd less-than-politely decline. As you can imagine there's a plethora of new feats, crunchy combat options, and lots of equipment from robots to guns. The line did well enough for Mongoose to publish many supplements, the majority in the Rookie's Guide series. They released the last books in the series in 2004; several years later they came back with a version based on Traveller.

6. Modern Knights (2002)
I've hit game fatigue. It happens when I work on these history lists. Many products offer unique and distinctive takes on the genre. They have a pitch and a striking concept—and they lead with that. It might not always be great, but they make it so I can grok the idea from the back cover, tagline, and/or publisher blurb. But I'm worn down by games that won't or can't distinguish themselves. Supers games in particular suffer from this. Both the Horror and Steampunk/Victoriana lists had some games resting on genre conventions and repeated tropes. Superhero games have a greater mechanical focus. Frankly super-powers present a huge challenge to designers: balance, cost, variety, sub-systems. So more supers games seem to be about bringing new mechanics to the table. Their pitch lines boil down to buzzwords like cinematic, simple, rich. But they don't bring much else.

When I first saw Modern Knights I assumed it offered some kind of fantasy/supers hybrid. The cover has a superhero fighting a dragon on it. But the publisher blurb doesn't support that. Instead it offers another generic superworld- with "heroic ages" and "unique mechanics." I only found a couple of online reviews- most describing it as middle of the road. The company only released a single sample character for the game. It does have a G+ Page, last updated 4/12 as of this writing. Point-based. d10 Resolution.

I'm better...I think… about being a gaming snob. Or maybe I'm just fooling myself. I didn't buying into d20 and so I skipped on M&M when it came out. Then someone calmly and politely told me why I should pick it up. I was running demos for the City of Heroes rpg at Origins. The Sunday morning session ended up with only two players. One took off and I spoke with the other about his experiences at the con and what he liked in superhero games. He talked about how much he enjoyed Mutants & Masterminds, how it echoed elements from other supers rpgs, and what new things it brought to the table. He didn't dismiss other systems. Instead he focused of what this game did that he liked: customizable powers without complexity, solid balance, fast combat, and a novel damage system that felt right for the genre. I wish I'd gotten that guy's name. He pointed me towards a system which I've loved running. More than that he showed me how to be a fan advocate - speak to strengths, don't fear making connections to other systems, cite distinctions, and don't attack other games.

I tested M&M first with a group of novices. None of the players knew d20 or followed comics. They enjoyed it. The combats sped by and yet everyone contributed to the results. I ran a second campaign with a group of Champions-loving veterans. They enjoyed the game and liked the system, though they longed for the expertise they had with Hero System. They'd play it if I ran it. And I would. The mechanics made sense to me and within a few sessions I could improvise encounters and introduce new elements without stopping to check everything. The smart and clean organization of the book made it easy when I did have to hunt through. In short, M&M converted me quickly- and changed my tune on d20 adaptations. I bought all of the first party supplements for the game and many Superlink products including LPJ's various pdf books of archetypes and new powers. The changeover to second edition bothered me since I'd been happy with the original. Eventually I tried it out...but that comes later in this story. Point buy. d20 Resolution.

8. Pulp
I've consolidated Pulp games into a single entry. Each offers a dash of masked vigilante action in with their Pulpy goodness. 
  • Danger Quest (2002) My friend Art gave me this. The subtitle doesn't do justice to how bonkers it is: "Pulp Adventures in the 23rd Century."Buck Rogers, right? Nope, instead you get a future world which contains all of the classic pulp tropes done as a simulation: G-Men, Zeppelins, Mad Scientists. Double mumbo-jumbo. 
  • Pulp Zombies (2003) The Pulp supplement for All Flesh Must Be Eaten. The game adds a few power elements- like gadgets, mentalism, danger sense. The deadworld "Zombies, Inc" centers on masked adventurers. 
  • Dime Heroes (2003) The 1PG system's take on pulp. It focuses on radio serial heroes like The Shadow
  • Pulp Adventure (First Edition) (2003) A very indie and homebrew take on pulp adventures. The author has put out a couple of supplements and at least two significant revisions. He successfully kickstarted a Pulp Adventure Companion in 2013.

The third big supers launch of 2002. Our group ended up with copies when my late friend Barry Winston did art for the book. At the time SAS didn’t grab me. In fact I had little memory of it, beyond it having interesting supplements and a connection to BESM. Looking at it again, I'm amazed at the production values here. Guardians of Order's full-color version has great layout, clean art, and a ton of material. While the world background on offer is pretty conventional and unsurprising, the presentation's awesome. Everything looks good. So what turned me off?

At the time I still liked Champions- despite the move to 5th edition. Silver Age Sentinels struck me as trying to do the same thing as Champions. If I wanted that level of granularity and asymmetrical powers, why not stick with with that? Without an advocate or a teacher in our group, SAS just withered. That's too bad as I've heard stories from a number of folks who liked the game. Some of the supplements, especially Criminal Intent, have more interesting concepts than the core book. On the other hand, GOO crashed and burned later with their problematic business dealings and screwing over freelancers.

I did notice one detail when I re-examined the core book. SAS opens by answering the why this game will succeed while others have failed. It offers two reasons. The first is that previous superhero games had mechanics too closely tied to the world setting. I've reread this a couple of times and it still doesn't make much sense to me. A few games of the era do this- Underground, Aberrant, Cybergeneration. But in each case that's because they have a strong and specific setting rather than offering a general supers game. But the big two supers competitors- the elephants in the room- Champions and V&V don't. More supers games aim for generic over specific. SAS offers a second reason: it is heroic where others aren't. I think that's a fairer reading. SAS comes out after a series of games which embrace darker themes: Champions: New Millennium, Brave New World, Dark Champions. But by and large I'd say more superhero games up to this point emulate a Silver Age morality and mentality by default.

I don't include it on the list, but in 2003 GOO released a d20 version: Silver Age Sentinels: The Ultimate d20 Superhero Role-Playing Game. Point-based. d6 Resolution.

Like Deeds, Not Words, Vigilance offers a d20 supers game which sticks closely to the source mechanics. Superheroes have origins which function as races and classes which define some base abilities and feats (Detective, Gangster, Brick, Projector). It brings new feats and skills to the table, but the big addition is the power rules. These function like feats for the most part, a common approach for extras in various flavors of d20. The book includes its own world history and background but focuses on the new rules and options.

In 2003 Designer Charles Rice reworked this as Blood and Vigilance a superhero set which used d20 Modern as the basis rather than the standard d20 SRD. Both handle supers with origins and classes. Unlike the earlier version, B&V covers narrower range of superheroes. In this case those with innate powers like mutants, cybernetically enhanced, or accidents of science. About a third of the 72-page books given over to powers, a third to classes, and a third to gamemastering. Rice apparently only published one specific addition to the line: Blood & Vigilance: Mystic Arts. That's a small 16-page booklet. I suspect the other "Blood &..." books from RPGObjects could also be used. Class and level based. Various dice.

11.  Cartoon Action Hour (2003)
A corner case supers rpg. I grew up loving TV’s Spider Man, the Super Friends, and the 1960's Marvel Cartoons. In my mind they had the same kinds of powers and duties as Atom Ant, Hong-Kong Phooey, or the HerculoidsCaroon Action Hour aims to emulate the shows of the 1980's including Turbo Teen, Thundercats, Silverhawks, MASK, and the Inhumanoids- all of which could be read as superhero stories. The system takes an open-ended approach to special abilities and powers. A simple four-step process allows players to define anything. It reminds me quite a bit of Big Eyes, Small Mouth but even easier to use. CAH feels complete. It has tons of advice for handling a wide variety of situations. It is rules light but not rules thin. Nearly half the original book’s given over to series pitches and campaign ideas. CAH did well enough to spawn two more editions: Cartoon Action Hour: Season Two and this year's Cartoon Action Hour: Season 3. It also has sourcebooks covering anime (Going Japanese), "not" Transformers (Metal Wars), and space (Star Warriors). Point buy. d12 resolution.

Deep7's 1PG system offers a series of extremely rules-light games across many genres. Their foray into supers comes in at a whopping 13 pages. The cover has a retro Silver Age vibe to it. Unlike many games in this series, the company published an expansion- Hero Force: Giant Size Super Special- which presents almost thirty pages of additional material. Random and point-buy. 1d6 resolution.

I’ve circled back to writing up MURG several times now. It is a strange beast. On the one hand, I admire the way it breaks the mold and aims for another play style. On the other, in doing so it embraces some things I hate at the table. The Marvel Universe Roleplaying Game comes from Marvel Entertainment itself, not from a gaming company. I believe that’s a first for a licensed product. Of the three designers, only one has any rpg credits before or since. Daniel Seth Gelber’s listed as a contributor to a half-dozen Paranoia products from 1984 to 2009. MURG feels like a game designed by people with limited rpg experience or who deliberately avoided looking at other games. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. That can generate new forms and ideas. But it can also mean throwing away useful ideas and approaches.

The Marvel Universe Roleplaying Game goes diceless. It isn’t the first supers game to do that; both previous Marvel games had some diceless elements. But MURG shifts the central game mechanic from randomization to resource management. Players track and control damage, effort, and abilities through tokens. They move these tokens around on their character sheet. Players have full control and information. They make decisions about costs and future actions. It that regard MURG feels like a board game. I’m intrigued by the concept, but as a rule I dislike that kind of tracking. Players have to keep their sheet on the table in front of them and move things around on it. That eats up table space and adds a whole layer of fiddly-ness. Games like Fireborn and Weapons of the Gods required players do this but with dice. I’m not a fan of that.

Beyond that MURG also suffers from a dense rulebook. The rules themselves aren’t difficult but the organization and layout makes things harder than they have to be. Jake Baker’s smart review on RPGNet nails down one of the other problems. The designers want a simple system yet have the most insane modifier list I’ve seen. The Difficult/Resistance chart presents an impenetrable mess. Despite this the game did well as an rpg and delivered three supplements. But rpg sales don’t come close to matching comic sales and that pushed Marvel to shut down the line within a year. Point buy. No randomizer.

14. Squadron UK (2003)
Simon Burley co-designed Golden Heroes in the 1980's. Games Workshop had originally intended it as the Marvel Supers game, but ended up losing the license to TSR. They only published the core rules and a couple of decent supplements before it vanished from the shelves. In 2003 Burley relaunched the game as Squadron UK. While not exactly Golden Heroes, it shares many elements. For several years he added several supplements to the line: Balance of PowerHuntersTerror Firma, and more. However after ignoring Burley's inquiries about the IP and rights reversion for some time GW finally got back to him. They asked him to cease and desist. The rights had not reverted and his product remained too close to the original. Burley revised and re-released Squadron UK at the end of 2012. Random Generation. Various Dice.

15. Supermegatopia (2003)
When I first saw this I simply assumed Team Frog had developed an anthropomorphic supers setting (ala Furry Pirates). But Supermegatopia is a complex and long running adult comic and webcomic. TV Tropes offers a decent overview of it here. The book's rather small for a setting with a rich history, coming in at only 51 pages. It uses the "Paradigm System" which powered the earlier game UNSanctioned (on my previous list). Most of the reviews and comments express disappointment at the wasted potential. Point buy. d10/d20 resolution.