Thursday, April 3, 2014

History of Superhero RPGs (Part Nine: 2006-2007)

I’ve talked about this before but I wonder: how many gamers actually play games in published “settings.” Let’s leave aside settings presented in particular corebooks- like Earthdawn’s Barsaive, Aberrant’s Nova-filled Near Future, or Cyberpunk’s Night City. Let’s also leave out licensed world books or historical ones. I’m thinking about new settings presented for an existing system. So for example TSR’s Planescape, Pelgrane’s Bookhounds of London, or Mongoose’s Cthonian Stars. Or to more specifically to my subject- Necessary Evil for Savage Worlds, Paragons for Mutants & Masterminds, or eCollapse for Wild Talents.

I ask because I’ve always built my own supers campaign worlds. I’ve been running my hodge-podge, multi-property Firstwave: Year One campaign online for two years. It borrows from many sources but is a completely new beast. Before that I ran the NO:LA Nightwatch campaign I’ve been posting about recently. Then there was the Arkham Harbor, an all-women team in a supernatural world; Bloodlines, which offered a setting with only hereditary and genetic powers; Frontline ,which had strong government enforcement and control; Saviors which offered street level heroes in a world which had once had superbeings. I have several others, but I don’t think I’ve ever run straight from a setting sourcebook. I’ve borrowed characters and organizations, but I’ve never taken a published supers setting’s key premise.

And I don’t think I’m alone in this. Most of the superhero GMs posting online seem to build their own worlds (like Barking Alien and Armchair Gamer). Now that’s a purely anecdotal observation, but I wonder if we ways to study that. One means might be to track how many of these supplemental settings actually get solid support and expansion. The three I mentioned in the first paragraph have respectively gotten a reprint, a module, and nothing. While I’ve seen many fantasy campaign settings arrive and go nowhere, I’ve also seen several spawn rabid followings like Midnight or Forgotten Realms. I’m hard pressed to point to a superhero setting, not tied directly to a core system, which has had multiple and substantial supplements. In this case I’m particularly not talking about numerous small pdfs or villain/organization books which happen to be set in that universe. If that is true, I wonder why that happen? What actually sells for superhero games? And why do we continue to get new settings books: Are they thought experiments? Are they just house campaigns written up for vanity? Do they sell to GMs looking for source material? Or am I wrong and these settings are getting serious and consistent play?

Events: Infinite Crisis, Civil War, 52, Fallen Son: The Death of Captain America, One Year Later. Amazons Attack, World War Hulk, Countdown to Final Crisis, Sinestro Corps War, Annihilation, Annihlation: Conquest, Messiah CompleX
Television: Aquaman (Pilot), legion of Super Heroes, Heroes, Power rangers Operation Overdrive, El Tigre: The Adventures of Manny Rivera, Blood+, Painkiller Jane, Bionic Woman
Films:  Blood Rayne, Ultraviolet, V for Vendetta, X-Men: The Last Stand, Superman Returns, My Super Ex-Girlfriend (uuuuuughhhh), Ghost Rider, TMNT, Spider Man 3, Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer

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.  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 2006-2007). I've arranged these in by year and then alphabetically within that year.

1. BASH! (2006)
The original BASH- Basic Action Superheroes- is a short, quick-play system. Characters have three attributes, skills, advantages/disads, and a set of points to buy powers. The power list on offer in the first book is eclectic- and a little odd. While the whole thing feels threadbare, the resolution system's pretty easy- based on compared 2d6 (with doubles exploding). It would be easy to dismiss BASH given the layout, art, design, and general messiness. However in the years since the publisher has continued to support the line and release supplements. That includes BASH! Ultimate Edition which is about four times the length of the original. That got an ENnie Awards nomination in 2010. There's a lot to look at in the line: fantasy & sci-fi versions, modules, villain collections, and powers books. Point buy. d6 Resolution.

2. D6 Powers (2006)
I never played any of the old WEG games, not even Star Wars. I read the rules but didn’t have a chance to actually try them out. It’s a system that gets a lot of love, despite a mixed history of companies supporting it. D6 Powers covers two bases- serving as both a generic sourcebook for d6 games and a power supplement for GODSEND Agenda (discussed on the previous list). Setting specific elements are carefully marked in the text- an example of good editorial choices. It also has...wait, wait. I have to say this once again: if you're going to put a background element on your pages- watermark, illustration, cityscape outline...PLEASE MAKE IT AS SUBTLE AS POSSIBLE. Alternately, make it easy to turn off. D6 Powers isn't the worst offender in this category- but it wore on me as I went through the book. 

D6 Powers does exactly what it needs to. It opens with light suggestions and discussions of how players create supers characters- with decent examples and advice. Advantages & Disadvantages come next which says something about how you're supposed to think about your character. A large selection of powers follows, the gadgets rules, new combat options, and finally some templates for character types. I like the way the game inserts commentary and advice within each section. Red text covers the implications of different items and how a GM or player might manage them. This is a great sourcebook for the d6 System and a useful sourcebook for homebrewers looking for some supers rules to adapt. Point buy. d6 Pool Resolution.

3. Hearts & Souls (2006)
In the early to mid 2000's we got a slew of new amateur press rpgs with the same problem. The designers had enthusiasm, interesting new approaches, and access to new DTP tools. However they didn't have experience with those tools or with layout in general. That resulted in many, many hard to read games- with jammed & difficult to follow text design. Hearts & Souls is hard going, but it has a few interesting ideas. It makes a character's Drive central to them- giving them access to rerolls. Stress triggers offers a new approach to weaknesses. It also use a relatively simple system for tracking character stats. Other elements I'm not as sure about- especially things like the Monologue mechanics. The game has powers and attributes, but players assign qualitative values to them as they wish. There's no point or parity system in the main rules. The power list is only a little over a dozen items on a couple of pages. Most of the core book consists of general GM advice and setting pitches. The problem is that H&S doesn't make a compelling case why it should be the go-to light supers system over any others. In fact it feels more like a GM's home campaign with tacked on rules. Freeform character generation. Various dice resolution.

4. Humanydyne (2006)
A French rpg, Cubicle 7 apparently published an English softcover in 2011- but they don't have that available as a pdf. Instead you can buy the French 112 page electronic version for $20 (marked down from $40!). On the other hand, that English version may in fact be mythical. While some retailers (like Amazon) have an entry for it, others show it as a cancelled product. That's too bad as it looks like an interesting concept. Some describe it as post-apocalyptic, but it looks more dark future (ala Transmetropolitan). Players apparently take the role of agents trying to maintain some balance between humanity and superbeings. That reminds me a little of The Boys as well, but this seems more cyberpunk and less testosterone. ????

5.  Legends Walk! (2006)
A mythic superheroes game in the vein of the later Scion system and GODSEND Agenda. The characters have been chosen by a pantheon which grants them specific powers. Legends Walk! uses a simple resolution system- closer to Fate or Marvel than Champions or even V&V. While the game offers some optional complications, players will find the basic system rich enough. The core book presents a fully-fleshed out setting. It gives a near-future world which has been shaped by the emergence of the super-powered bearers of mythic force. Imagine a superhero universe where the only characters were like Wonder Woman or Thor. Players have to balance their choices with the demands and restrictions of their pantheons. Silver Branch has published several supplements with new characters and pantheons. As well they've released a version of the game using the Truth& Justice rules. List pick character creation. d6 Pool resolution.

6.  To Be A Hero (2006)
A superhero setting sourcebook for d20. It feels like a long house campaign mixed together with a splatter of new d20 mechanics. I'm not a big d20 person, but usually I can tell when some thought and care has gone into the mechanical adaptation. Those games make an effort to clarify changes, make any new sub-systems clear, and explain what the game's adding to the d20 basics. Then there's everything else which takes d20 mastery as a given and shovelwares more rules onto the page. TBaH feels like the latter. I'm also more than a little annoyed by the trace art here- clearly lifted from the Justice League cartoon. Only recommended for the most die-hard d20 fans. Level and class. Various dice resolution.

7.  Wild Talents (2006)
Wild Talents takes the superhero rules presented in Godlike and brings them into a modern setting. It further refines the One Roll Engine mechanics used in that system (and in games like Reign). Interestingly, Wild Talents was among the earliest 'crowdfunded' rpgs- resulting in a heavy hardcover edition. The game retains the complexity and depth of the original Godlike game. It is closer to Champions or GURPS Supers than Mutants & Masterminds or any flavor of Marvel. Some of that complexity comes from the granularity and some from the potential scale of the game. That's at least my impression; I've heard other opinions.

Wild Talents also builds on Godlike's setting. It offers a campaign frame which details the history from post-WW2 to the present day. The coolest tool allows GMs to define worlds on several axes: Morality, Super Being Influence on History, and Weirdness. That's a neat way to break down settings. It makes it easy to look at later Wild Talents setting supplements and get a feel for the play. Later Arc Dream would revise Wild Talents with an Essential Edition covering just the key rules and a full 2nd Edition which includes the setting material. Point Buy. d10 Pool Resolution.

8. Pulp (2006-2007)
As with some of the other lists in this series, I've consolidated the corner-case Pulp Hero games into one entry. Pulp Era: Cinematic Adventures in the Yesteryear! is a revision of a much earlier free rpg product, heavily expanded. It definitely covers the domino-mask wearing crimefighter. It seems to have had a wide distribution as a trade paperback. The blurb line describes it as a game that covers that territory, but with a Tarrantino twist. Not sure what that means. Better known is Spirit of the Century which IIRC offers the first approach to the modern FATE system. Definitely more light and cinematic, SotC gives plenty of options for science heroes and vigilantes. Evil Hat has since played up this universe with other games. Two-Fisted Tales Revised took home an Ennie nomination for best writing in 2008. The original appeared in 2003, but this revision knocks it out of the park. It offers a great overview of the genre, a solid bibliography, and uses public domain art of the era appropriately. The game has some crunch, but isn't especially difficult. Characters can have powers or power-like effects through mystical training, gadgets, or actual spells. That can be tuned by the GM to create distinct genre types. Definitely a useful resource for any GM wanting to run a pulp game.

9. 4C System (2007)
One of the first old-school superhero clones and another early crowdfunded product. The 4C System offers a basic engine for play, but encourages other publishers to build on it. Basically, 4C rebuilds the FASERIP mechanics from Marvel Super Heroes. This core engine can then be used to play out many different games. 4C includes significant material on superpowers as you might imagine. But the whole thing only comes in at 32 pages and can be downloaded for free. If you liked FASERIP and want to give it another spin, you can't go wrong with this. Given the price of Marvel Supers old stuff (especially MA3: The Ultimate Powers Book) 4C is a better option. If you don't know the original game, you still might look at it as a quick and simple superhero game with options for integrating personality and play. Random generation. Percentile resolution.

Designer Scott Bennnie has done a ton of amazing work. He's made solid contributions to superhero gaming across several systems. I think some people assume 'superhero' as an rpg genre doesn't have the dynamism of something like fantasy or sci-fi. But setting books like this, Underground, and Aberrant prove that wrong. They put a new spin on the genre- sometimes with massive changes and sometimes with simple shifts to the initial premise. Often it begins with the question of origin.

In this huge world book superbeings are literally archetypes. Called Gestalts, they represent a key concept, ideal, or symbol. In most cases a person becomes bonded to a concept and gains powers- for better or worse. The world book presents these ideas and the setting arising from it in over 300 pages of detail. It’s pretty massive and thorough. Gestalt aims for a more serious approach, but not necessarily a dark one. It reminds me a little of the early days of Marvel's Ultimate lines. GtHW presents many ideas and characters, but these are often deeply embedded in the background and setting. GM's looking for a complete new setting may be interested in it as well as those who like to strip-mine background books. It exists in several versions including ones for HERO system and Mutants & Masterminds 2e.

Earlier on these lists I mentioned my group’s reaction to GURPS Supers. We loved and played GURPS but really disliked early attempts at modelling superheroes. Several times we came back and looked at it but gave up. By the time this edition of GURPS Supers came out, we'd migrated completely away from GURPS. I read through it and the earlier GURPS PowersPowers covers more of the rules and mechanics for handling superpowers. On the other hand like other genre-focused supplements for the new GURPS 4e line, GURPS Supers offers more of sourcebook for running these campaigns. It gives some new mechanics (new powers, other approaches to character builds) but last third of the book discusses campaigns, superhero universes, and modelling these elements in GURPS. The books still has a lot of rules, so GMs looking for a more open or generic sourcebook may be disappointed.  Point buy. d6 Resolution. 

While it has gotten better in recent years, I loathe CG artwork in rpgs. Many, many games throw you into the Uncanny Canyon. I dread some publishers because of this. I'm not saying every piece of art in GUII is bad, but there's some serious nightmare fuel. Combine that with thick watermarked gutters, dense text design, and tomato red callout boxes and you have a book which you have to slog through. Guardian Universe II weirdly assumes players know the world of the previous Guardian Universe game, and then completely blows that away. From there it doesn't do much to tell you what you're actually doing in the game or how it differs from other supers rpgs. Clearly there's an interstellar feel- but you have to get far into the book before you have any sense of what's going on. Character generation is random for the most part. Beyond that, the organization of the book makes the rules hard to follow. It does have an index, but that's small comfort. Random generation. Percentile and d10 based (I think).

13. Paragons (2007)
Mutants & Masterminds 2e came with a built-in setting, the world of Freedom City. This echoed Champions' approach with 4e and beyond. Interestingly the M&M world shifted between 1e and 2e, with certain characters and elements excised out. I think this has to do with the original developer group leaving or being removed from the project. That's too bad as that cut some cool ideas. But Paragons is a completely new setting. It aims for two design goals. On the one hand it wants to be flexible for GMs. On the other it wants a "realistic" approach which places superbeings in a real world setting. On those Paragons has mixed success.

Don't get me wrong- this is a dynamite book. I'd recommend it to anyone interested in supers gaming. It has great resources in the form of characters, story seeds, and GM techniques. However it doesn't have quite as many dials as it could. The GM can tune the source of power outbreaks, specifics of the initial events, and some other details. But the book takes as given much more- societal impacts, organizations, and what the power structures look like. I wish Paragons had more wide-ranging options in the chapters, but I wonder if that wouldn't be an entirely different book. The "realistic" approach it goes for, on the other hand, doesn't work. It feels like most other superhero settings: lots of paranormals, weird organizations, superbeing bars, etc. It has all of those trappings. It certainly isn't a Year One setting book. While it does address some of the implications of supers to the real world, it doesn't feel any more realistic than the backdrop of Aberrant or the Champions Universe. I think that's more a question of a book which tries to offer something for every GM. Paragons may not do exactly what it sets out to, but it remains a highly recommended supers supplement.

On the flip side of "realism", I also point to another Green Ronin supplement from this period: Iron Age. That tries to emulate the feel of comics from the mid-80's to mid-90's when men had pouches, spines arched, muscles bulged, and no one had feet. That's a fun read and also worth picking up.

14. Scion aka Hero (2007)
Some might consider this a corner case, but it really feels like a superhero game to me. You have a modern setting, characters who discover they have special powers, and battles against the forces of evil. Sure you have all the mythic trappings and details, but we see the same thing in characters like Hercules and Zauriel. This first book feels the most superheroic. Eventually the Scion game line moves from high powered adventure to earth-shaking struggles, but if you've read any of Jack Kirby's work or even Grant Morrison's various heroes as new gods stuff, then you know the template.

The first book of the Scion line, Hero is pretty awesome. It sets up the concept well and offers lots of choices for the players. It borrows the base system from Exalted 2e- complete with the battle wheel. That makes sense and the games feel close. The way the system handles Epics attributes (borrowed a little from Aberrant) works decently. The system does have couple of problems. Some effects and aspects are simply much more powerful than others. In particular, speed is the end all and be all of the system. Beyond that the combat can be slow, with significant downtime for players. Most importantly, once you get to the highest power rank of the Hero book things get crazy. The sheer numbers of dice, the necessary level of the opposition, what the characters can do to normal humans are all crazy. And that's just the first of several arcs- with later books getting even more potent.

Still I'd recommend the first book (as well as portions of the Scion Companion). The ideas and details there could easily be adapted to your supers system of choice. The concept of Fatebinding, where NPCs who interact with the PCs get knotted up in their stories is worth stealing. Really, really worth stealing.  Point and pick character generation. d10 pool resolution.

15. The Supercrew (2007)
A light-hearted supers game presented in a comic book format. Originally from Sweden, it received a later English-language version. In the game players play themselves. In the middle of a game session, they're called away to assume their secret identities as heroes. Supercrew uses a hyper-simple stat and resolution system. Overall it looks light a fun and light-hearted superhero game with unique art. Random generation. d6 Resolution.