Friday, March 21, 2014

History of Superhero RPGs (Part Eight: 2004-2005)

REBOOT: THE NEW 15
After a couple month break, I'm back to finish out this list series. In these posts I trace the history of Superhero rpgs- one of my favorite genres. I hope to do the rest of these lists bi-weekly until I finish them out. If you're interested in other genres, I'd also covered Horror, Samurai, and Victoriana & Steampunk. The full list of lists in this superhero series can be found below. 

Usually I offer introductory comments, but I'll keep this short to move things along. I will say this is an amazing couple of years in superhero gaming. Important lines stayed strong and kept evolving, publishers released interesting and risky products, and more indie developers offered new takes on the genre.  Plus, as you'll see below, my game of choice arrived...

TIMELINE
Events: Identity Crisis (yeech), Avengers Disassembled, Infinite Crisis, House of M, Captain Atom: Armageddon.
Television: Astro Boy, Danny Phantom, The Batman, Power Rangers SPD, Justice League Unlimited, Power Rangers Dino Thunder, Venture Brothers, Super Robot Monkey Team Hyperforce Go!, Ben 10
Films:  Spider Man II, The Incredibles, Hellboy, The Punisher, Catwoman, Blade: Trinity, Batman Begins, Elektra, Constantine, The Adventures of Sharkboy and Lavagirl, Fantastic Four, Sky High (!)

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. Given the number of great things published I haven't included everything I wanted to (for example I left off Dark Champions: The Animated Series!).  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 2004-2005). I've arranged these in by year and then alphabetically within that year.


On this list you’ll see some interesting new worlds published by emerging companies or done as reskins of existing systems. The Algernon Files came out originally for M&M 1e. Like the best fantasy bestiaries, it offers enemies with a linked theme. In this case the enemies (and allies) emerge from the solid and world the designers created. That approach doesn't always work. I've read other supervillain collections based on half-baked settings. This one avoids that trap. Each character has full stats plus enough character background to make them work. It also avoids the trap of characters falling into just a few types. Blackwyrn went on to publish a version of this for HERO 5 and a revised 2.0 version for HERO and for M&M 2e. They also published a WW2-centered sourcebook in the same universe, The Fires of War: The Algernon Files Volume 2. That’s a must-have for anyone doing Golden Age games.

This is a crazy game for several reasons. If you're familiar with The Authority comic, you can see why. If not...well, that's a little hard to explain. In the late 1990's Warren Ellis spun off The Authority from his work on Stormwatch. Through these titles he helped to refocus the Wildstorm comic line. The Authority offered a "wide-screen" approach to massively powerful superbeings changing the world. It was a hit. But then things shifted with a change of writers, a shift in tone, and the events of 9/11 pushing DC to limit and censor the comic’s over the top destruction and violence. The post-Ellis books become dark, strange, and kind of awful in places. The Authority RPG only covers up to through the Ellis run. I can't even imagine how they'd deal with the later material which includes significant rape and sexual abuse.

The Authority comic’s popularity had diminished by the time this book hit the market. IIRC Guardians of Order intended this as the first of a series of games covering the Wildstorm Universe. That would have included Ellis' other big success Planetary, as well as WildCATSGen 13, and Wetworks. Guardians of Order ceased operations under a cloud in early 2006- so nothing came of the other games.

The book itself is smartly done- a full color hardback with strong layout. As with many GOO products it offers a complete game and a sourcebook for the material (up through Ellis' issues and the awful Jenny Sparks: The Secret History of the Authority mini-series). The system itself is a modified and higher powered version of the Tri-Stat rules seen in other products, especially Silver Age Sentinels. There's a nice discussion of the differences in the text- something I appreciate in games. Players can build a character or use random generation to assemble one on the fly. I've seen copies of this fairly cheap so if you like seeing interesting supers rpgs, dig The Authority, or enjoy the Tri-Stat system, you should pick it up. Point Buy. Various Dice for Resolution.

3. Necessary Evil (2004)
Early Savage Worlds took a radical approach to campaign and setting building. They blended world sourcebooks and campaigns together to craft extended "Plot Point campaigns." Like classic campaign modules or series (The Enemy WithinHorror on the Orient Express) these offer a mostly linear through-spine to the story. But PPC’s break these multiple incidents, open scenes, and optional bits. They still have a beginning, middle, and end, but give GMs more options with a minimal presentation. Necessary Evil was the first "supers" book for the Savage Worlds line. I read through it when it came out but didn't get how it worked. All I could see at the time was that it wasn't the kind of sourcebook I knew.

The premise is a solid one. The PCs are supervillains and the last line of resistance against an alien invasion. The invaders have killed nearly all the superheroes. That's a neat twist- and one which gives players a different set of motivations and conflicts. I've always found bad guy games tough- even when the PCs have a shared goal or motivation. Every time I've seen them blow up due to interparty conflict and recrimination. Necessary Evil doesn't offer much advice on that point, a major weakness. When it came out it was the only source of superpower rules for Savage Worlds, but new products cover that for the present edition. Pinnacle published a version of this for Explorers Edition as well as the useful Necessary Evil Figure FlatsPoint Buy. Various Dice for Resolution.

I've knocked companies for licensing niche or obscure series (GURPS Humanx springs to mind). When this came out I had no idea who the Nocturnals were. Only a couple of people in our area had heard or even read the series. And yet Green Ronin went with a massive, full-color hardback sourcebook. What was the deal? The deal is that the Nocturnals are awesome- a creative mix of noir, monster hunting, supernatural conspiracy, soap opera, and weird fantasy. I love Daniel Brereton's art and reading through this book made me fall in love with the setting and characters. Like the best core licensed products, this is as much a series fanbook as a game product. The art is lavish, there's an original story, and tons of background material and secrets.

Game utility's another question. It was written for Mutants & Masterminds 1e. Later M&M editions took radically different approaches to some of the core mechanics. The additional rules presented here feel more like a d20 throwback. The later M&M supplement Noir has the same problem). It goes for crunchier, street-level options fitting the setting. That would require some serious retooling for other games and editions. That aside the Nocturnals offers an excellent resource for series fans and supers gamers who enjoy things like HellboyBuffy, or Mr. Monster. Worth picking up if you can find a copy. That used to be easy, but they're a little rarer now.

5. Omlevex (2004)
Omlevex is the greatest Silver-Age comic series never written. This book presents the imaginary characters and stories of that line- featuring Drake Einstein, The American Gargoyle, Freedom's Trio and others. It writing manages to capture the feel of the era without being completely derivative. You can see some of the inspirations, but they live on their own. The book's a super-fun read, but perhaps most useful for GMs running a lighter or more retro game. The coherence of the material means that it could be an awesome alternate dimension to play with. Omlevex came with stats for HERO 5, Silver Age Sentinels, and M&M 1e. Z-Man gave up on rpgs and this ended up in bargain bins for years. There were rumors that Omlevex would reappear as a new stand-alone supers rpg, but nothing has come of that.

6. Power Grrrl (2004)
Like OmlevexPower Grrrl offers a setting sourcebook for an made-up line of comic books (not to be confused with the webcomic Grrl Power). The only sourcebook for the POW! generic system it presents a very, very 1980's style comic book world. The always excellent Shanya Almafeta has a solid review of Power Grrrl posted on RPG.Net. I think that says just about everything you need to know. Point buy. d6 Pool Resolution.

This is another odd one from Green Ronin. Like The Nocturnals, I'd never heard of the Red Star comic series. Strangely this product isn’t a supplement for Mutants & Masterminds, but instead for d20 Modern. Green Ronin once again gives us a beautiful product; the hardcover's well-laid out and presented. Red Star offers a science fantasy spin on the Soviet Union. It seems almost more anime- a combination of shamanistic magic, high-tech suits & armor, and characters as singular heroes. It might be considered a corner case superhero product, but the character design and story arc of the original material seem closer to that than anything else. The unique setting works for and against it. If you're looking for a mythotechnic Soviet campaign frame or love the original comics, then this is for you. Otherwise it is so tied into that material GMs will have a hard time digging out useful bits. Class and Level based. Various dice for Resolution.

8. Capes (2005)
2005- What a great year for new approaches to superhero games! Capes is a GM-less player-driven supers game. The shared narration gets passed around, with players trying to twist and tweak their compatriots’ stories. Those tales go around with freeform play until there's a conflict, at which point it shifts to the rules for arbitration. It also has a token-based resource system, used as a currency for buying control. Capes focuses on a particular supers question: "Power is fun, but do you deserve it?." To play off that, characters accumulate Debt, which measures the difference between how much they've proved their worth and how much they've actually done so. As loose as that may feel, the game actually offers an interesting character creation system. Players select a Power Set and a Persona. These cleverly fit together with the player making a few additional selections, resulting in a final set of stats. If you're a fan of supers and like indie or GM-less games, you should pick up a copy of this. Having gone back through it again, I realize I really need run a Play-by-VoiP session of this. Set-Pick Character Creation. d6 Resolution.

Disclaimer: I was sort of involved with this game at a distance. I had a friend who worked for Eden Studios when they got the City of Heroes license. That made sense as the zombie baddies in the game took their name from one of the AFMBE creators. CoH seemed like a smart fit as the MMO had broken the mold and grabbed players’ attention. My friend asked me to sit on a couple of play sessions to get ready for con demonstrations. The game worked OK- in part because we only worked with the end results: character sheets with clear power explanations. We'd also played a chunk of Unisystem and so got the basics quickly. When we looked at the demo module- included in the quick-start pack- we decided it wouldn't work well for conventions. So I came up with a new concept built on a fight-investigation-death trap-final fight structure. I wrote that up, he massaged it, and Eden used it at Origins, GenCon, and other conventions.

Mind you, I had never played the City of Heroes MMO when I wrote the adventure. Plus we didn't have access to a version of the final rpg rules. Still things went off well. But the full game never appeared. All we got was a demo pack some time later. Again, the excellent Shanya Almafeta has a really spot-on review of it you can read here: City of Heroes: A Compare-And-Contrast Review. Eventually I did see a nearly finished version of the CoH tabletop rules. These were faithful to a fault- an incredibly literal and mechanical translation of the computer game's mechanics to Unisystem. I wouldn't have been my supers game of choice, but it never saw full publication. Another piece of Eden Studios vaporware, Beyond Human, originally seemed to be the supers sourcebook for Unisystem. However while it covered parahuman powers, it wasn’t a superhero game. Instead the settings and details offered went in completely different directions. Beyond Human still hasn't been published, but the nearly complete version I saw years ago was an interesting and worthwhile addition to Unisystem...and nothing like City of Heroes. Various dice resolution.

10. GODSEND Agenda (2005)
GODSEND Agenda doesn't do the greatest job of selling its unique setting. Check the publisher website and RPGNow blurbs yields only part of the story- a supers game with some mystical characters perhaps? BTW there will be some modest spoilers in this overview. The secrets of the setting may be why Khepera Publishing doesn't go into too much details. They want GMs to have the chance to slowly reveal the metaplot. In GSA modern super battles reflect an age-old battle between aliens and heroes with ancient historical links and legacies (think Nephilim or Fireborn). The history and background is crazy wild- and as one RPG Net review points out, can be used in any time period. If you're looking for a complete supers setting with a heavy weird mystical bent, GODSEND's a pretty good choice.

The game itself uses the D6 system (of D6 Powers and Star Wars (WEG 2nd Edition)). If you're comfortable with those mechanics, you may like this game. It ends up a reasonably light game, probably closest to Savage Worlds. Khepera also published a GODSEND Agenda Superlink Conversion and GODSEND Agenda d20 Modern Conversion, so if you're intrigued by the setting but not the system, you have some options. There's also a Quick Start version of the rules you can download. Point buy. d6 Pool Resolution.

11. Living Legends (2005)
Despite Fantasy Games Unlimited folding in 1991, Villains & Vigilantes managed to retain a significant following among superhero gamers. In the 1990’s I knew of several groups who had stuck with the system, sometimes returning to it after trying Champions. V&V co-creator (and legendary rpg artist) Jeff Dee took his experiences with that system and created Living Legends. It borrows some concepts from the earlier system, but elaborates on key mechanics including resolution, the power lists, and effect measures. Living Legends provides mechanics for point-buy character generation as well as random. Early editions of LL had some problems, but the most recent (v1.2) seems cleaned up. The publisher, Monkey House Games, would later issue a revised version of V&V. They’ve worked hard to make support products compatible between both games. As a result, Living Legends has a deep backlist of modules and organization books. Point buy or random character generation. Various dice for resolution.

I came to M&M 1e late in the product cycle. When I did, I picked up everything for it and ran two different campaigns. M&M wasn't perfect, but it did what I wanted and you could find a decent Excel-based character generator for it. Then Green Ronin published the second edition...not too long after releasing a major sourcebook for 1e- Gimmick's Guide To Gadgets- which the new rules completely invalidated. I was a little irritated. I'd invested in the whole line and M&M Superlink pdf products as well. That put me off buying into the 2e for a little while. But I wanted to see what changes they'd made and I eventually broke down. So yeah, I liked it. In fact I kind of loved it. M&M 2e cleaned up the mechanics and moved it further away from the original d20 sources. Now it felt like a game which stood on its own.

Not that it doesn't have problems. Some powers don’t match cost to actual power at the table (some Immunities, Possession, Obscure). My friend Gene objects to the Strength table values and the sheer number of possible conditions. The time/distance system can be wonky and using it with a tactical map often doesn't work. But despite that creakiness, I like the way it plays. I like the looseness and balance. Overall I like the feel and speed. I talk more extensively about that in this post from a couple years back. M&M 2e remains my go-to superhero game- just so you know my bias in these lists. I'm currently running a Roll 20 online campaign with it. I did buy a copy of the 3rd edition and I traded it away...but that's a story for a later list. Point buy with level limits. d20 Resolution.

13. Truth & Justice (2005)
Truth & Justice uses the PDQ or Prose Descriptive Qualities system. I've written about other games with those mechanics: Zorcerer of Zo and Swashbucklers of the 7 Skies. The simple system lends itself to a story focus and T&J game plays on that. The core book begins with an extensive discussion of the tone, scale, and style of supers campaigns. It's a useful discussion- but veteran supers GMs may find themselves skimming through.

The game uses a pick system with players choosing character elements including powers. Most of these connect to a Quality which has a value added to die roll checks. T&J includes a list of superpowers, nicely done and open-ended. The power rules straddle the middle ground between restrictive and completely abstract. The system also uses a Hero Points mechanic- with connections to successful heroic actions and playing out character conflicts. Overall gamers will find a light approach to superheroes. I'd say Truth & Justice is closest to the difficulty of any of the Marvel Supers systems. The core book includes a number of interesting campaign frames as well. Truth & Justice has gotten decent support, with a couple of supplemental books (Truth & Justice: More PowerDial S for Superhumans). As well other companies have published T&J versions of existing supers products- Legends Walk! (Truth & Justice Edition) and Adventures into Darkness (Truth & Justice / PDQ)

14. Villainy Amok (2005)
It may be just another supplement for Champions 5, but I have to call out Villainy Amok on this list. If you run superhero campaigns, you ought to buy a copy of this. VA is a sourcebook for crimes, capers, adventures, and campaigns. Each of the early chapters takes a classic supers trope (Natural Disasters, Superhero Wedding, Shrunken Characters) and examines how to run them, offers twists & turns, and shows how to link to other stories. While sometimes it goes off into dense Hero system mechanics, the base ideas are system agnostic enough to make it hugely useful. The end chapters give  lists of hooks and ways to muck around with the PCs' limitations and disadvantages. I'd like to see more books like this for supers and other genres. I've seen a few fantasy supplements covering narrow topics, but those more often end up offering specific adventures rather than a toolbox for gamemasters. I think a modern or sci-fi book of classic plots re-examined would work. I've written a little more extensively about Villainy Amok in this post.

With Great Power... describes itself as a melodramatic superhero game. WGP focuses on bringing a character's issues to bear and exploring those. The game plays out through Conflict scenes- where multiple characters face off in attempt to drive the story and Enrichment scenes- where a players look at character aspects and examines how the situation and challenges have affected them. The game uses standard playing cards for resolution, with the players sharing a common hero deck. The rules also encourage players to verbalize what their character is thinking- suggesting the use of a thought balloon prop to reflect this. It seems gimmicky, but I can imagine that being fun. That's a light contrast to the heavier discussion of dramatic situations and play given throughout the core book. 
Characters begin by defining a key character conflict (authority vs. freedom; justice vs. vengeance, etc). Players then explain what they excel in (which can include powers); define their character's motive; and sketch out their relationships. These make up aspects which serve as the basis of Enrichment scenes. A series of additional questions fleshes out the characters’ background and focus. The system's loose and highly narrative. For all that, I wouldn't call this a light system. It offers some challenging structures- both in terms of rules systems and play structures. If you're interested in unusual storytelling games or want to see an unusual drama focused superhero game, you should check this one out. Question-based character generation. Card-based resolution.

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