Wednesday, May 21, 2014

History of Superhero RPGs (Part Eleven: 2009)

BEST AT SOMETHING...
I hate Wolverine.

Or rather I loved Wolverine but then I came to loathe what he did to superhero RPGs. 

I’m old enough to remember reading my sister’s copies of X-Men during the Dark Phoenix Saga. Wolverine took on the Hellfire Club and won. It was badass and I loved it. I religiously followed Frank Miller’s ’82 Wolverine mini-series blending ninjas and samurai honor even more deeply into his backstory. It was awesome and he was brutal, not like other wimps. 

But he was a hero with knives on the back of his hands.

It was some time before that started to seep into games. In Champions we’d almost always taken as a given that players would take “Code Against Killing” as a disadvantage. Even if they didn’t- it was understood that killing wasn’t what heroes did. We weren’t playing Murderhobos- that was for D&D and those kinds of games. Killing was bad. It crossed the line. It changed things. If it happened, it had to be a dramatic moment- a testing decision for everyone involved.

Then Dark Champions appeared and introduced a new disad- “Casual Killer.” That didn’t kick things off- no, it had already been brewing in the games. Killing had become cool in some campaigns- the easy way to settle things permanently. Not for all games, but enough that you could tell things were shifting. After all when you’re players, you’re problem-solvers. And actually putting a freeze blast in the Joker’s head pretty much solves the problem. Comics and games in the 1990’s joined forces, with the Iron Age brutality and new RPGs blending together.


While fantasy games had alignment systems, superhero games relied more on optional player-selected limits. It’s interesting to consider how superhero systems deal with morality. Do they have rules about that or is a code of conduct just assumed? What kinds of consequences exist- social, mental, character sheet, or otherwise to represent this? Does the setting have a particular moral inflection (Underground vs. Marvel Supers) or is that deliberately ambiguous (Godlike or Aberrant)? I think defining that stance is hugely important for a supers GM. Some find the idea of four-color restrictions limiting, some don’t want heroic action valued over other types, while others really need a moral compass in the game.

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TIMELINE
Events:  Dark Reign, Blackest Night, Final Crisis, Battle for the Cowl, Captain America Reborn, War of Kings, Messiah War, Utopia, Necrosha, Fall of the Hulks, The Flash Rebirth
Television: kamen Rider: Dragon Knight, Wolverine and the X-Men, Power Rangers: RPM, Noonbory and the Super Seven, Class of the Titans, Fanboy and Chum Chum,
Films: The Dark Knight, Push, Watchmen, X-Men Origins: Wolverine, Astro Boy

These lists cover a smaller slice of time than my past rpg lists. I hope this makes them easier to read. As we get closer to the present the lists expand and contract weirdly. 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 in 2009). I've arranged these by year and then alphabetically within that year.


As I said on my Victoriana list, Agents of the Crown suffers from coming out the same year as The Kerberos Club IMHO. A Victorian-era superhero supplement for Basic Roleplaying, this campaign setting borrows liberally from League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. The players serve as super-powered operatives for the British Crown. The volume's fairly light, but would be at least a good starting point for GMs thinking about supers in the period. It has the added advantage of using the BRP system which many players know through Call of Cthulhu. But it also has awful full-page grey water-markings. Reading the pdf is a chore, a problem I’ve seen with several Chaosium supplements like this. The game itself leans to low-powered heroes more in keeping with the fiction of the period. Perhaps this might be proto-pulp? Pick character creation. Various dice resolution.

On my 2004 list I missed the first edition of BASH- Basic Action Super Heroes. I don't feel so bad because BASH 2e deserves all the attention. It’s a brilliant little game with a simple and clean art style. If you make your game echo the designs of Batman TAS or Justice League Unlimited- without just tracing the characters- then I'm hardwired to like your game. BASH combines consistent visuals with effective layout and text design. It has some bells & whistles, but favors functionality over other elements.

BASH uses a simple exploding 2d6 roll multiplied by a stat or power and then tested against a difficulty number. That has a nice feeling of scale- which reminds me a little of DC Heroes or FASERIP. Characters are built on a relatively modest number of points: 40 for a world class hero (I guess that would be something like PL12 in M&M or 250 pt. in Champions). The game comes with a solid list of powers broken down into seven categories for easy reference and connection. Players can also buy advantages, but only by taking an equal number of disadvantages. The system feels fast and fun- with an emphasis on transparency on the GM's part. The combat rules still have enough crunch to offer some extra options. I also like that the vehicle and gadget system doesn't bog the game down.

I hadn't paid any attention to BASH prior to looking through this, but holy cow this is an excellent set of playable rules. The GM section, which takes up about half the book, is equally solid. It has a nice assortment of random tables, advice, sample adversaries, ideas for settings, and optional mechanics. Plus it has an index. I will seriously consider this for running light and fast supers games. Basic Action Games has released a number of supplements for BASH including the Awesome Powers series, Comic Character Cavalcade, and Crook Book #1. Point buy. 2d6 Resolution.

Here's an odd one, though not for the usual reasons. Comic Book Super-Heroes (second edition) is another d20 supers game built on the d20 Modern OGL. Players pick one of eight possible classes defining either origin (Gadgeteer, Magician, Alien, Artificial) or power type (Physical, Mentalist, Energy manipulator, Extraordinary). I'm used to one approach or the other, rather than mixing them. Within those classes, players get "Super Points" to buy & increase powers and improve rolls. The classes set limits, give special features, and offer a choice of vulnerabilities. The structure itself doesn't look too bad- and there's a decent list of powers. But it feels like just another d20 adaptation and approach. CBSH doesn't offer any world setting or background. d20 Gamers looking for a vanilla system may want to check it out.

The weirdness came when I tried to find out more about the game and company. The publisher, The Le Games, doesn't seem to have a website anymore. Instead their links lead back to HeroClix World. I assume the company shifted over to that at some point. They still sell a hodge-podge of d20 products through DriveThru rpg- including the Unorthodox Series series. I also found this apology from the company for posting sock-puppet reviews. I wonder if that explains the relative scarcity of reviews for this product? Level and class. Various dice resolution.

4. Corner Cases (2009)
A few items this year fall at the edge of my definition of superhero. Thrilling Tales 2e revises this classic pulp adventure rpg to Savage Worlds. There's a lot to love there and if you wanted to do a masked adventurer '30s & '40s game, you could do worse than this. Thrilling Tales offers a solid, one-volume approach. For me it’s a toss-up between this and Pulp Hero as the best resource for the genre. Another solid genre-emulation book is Green Ronin's Mecha & Manga. I've listed anime-style books on these lists before (Sailor Moon, Bubblegum Crisis). This sourcebook offers ideas for how to adapt M&M to these tropes. It doesn't add much in the way of new mechanics, but instead talks about what the games should feel like. It is ambitious and perhaps takes on too many ideas for the book’s size. One last game is an even further reach. We've seen rpgs with modern mythological heroes (ala Scion). And classical myths inform many supers (Wonder Woman, Thor). So perhaps something like the ancient heroes of Arete might be proto-supers, just like Pulp heroes? Perhaps not.

5. eCollapse (2009)
This is a crazy year for Wild Talents, with four distinct and impressive setting sourcebooks landing. That’s an interesting publishing approach. Rather than build on Wild Talents’ established setting or even the precursor Godlike material, Arc Dream chose to follow up with multiple new ways to play. The approaches read like thought-experiments and eCollapse makes that explicit in its introduction. Here Greg Stolze wants to explore choices and defining ‘good guys’ versus ‘bad guys’. You can see the seeds of his later Better Angels; he mentions wanting to do a setting based on the behavior of supervillains.

eCollapse presents a near future, post-crash society. It isn’t exactly post-apocalyptic, but more just that everything’s kind of crappy. Slackers, economic decay, erosion of liberties, environmental pollution, full-on surveillance state, etc. But on the plus side, biotech superpowers are readily available…though with some non-monetary costs. The power list is interesting, tightly defined, and full off traps for the unwary player. That’s combined with player-chosen weaknesses and ideologies (what you’re for and against). These deeply flawed characters then strive against the background of this dystopian future- trying to figure out what they stand for and what’s worth actually sacrificing for. eCollapse borrows a little from Cyberpunk, but feels closer to Underground (with less goofiness and attitude).

The rules include an alternate approach to resolution for those who don’t want to deal with the crunch of Wild Talents. Called “Smear of Destiny,” these mechanics sit just atop the main ones in the book. There’s also a substantial section at the end with a full explanation. Unlike some dual-stat books, one system doesn’t get in the way of the other. Smear of Destiny uses a deck of playing cards for competitive narrative resolution, with the red and black of the suits mirroring the question of black and white in the universe. That’s smart given the dramatic focus of eCollapse. A solid setting sourcebook for those wanting a near future and/or darker spin on supers.

6. Grim War (2009)
I have, perhaps, written before of my love for all game things penned or co-penned by Ken Hite. This Wild Talents setting sourcebook combines his talents with that of the excellent Greg Stolze. And it is insane. Not necessarily in an awesome way, though it will be for some, but in a gonzo crazy “is this really an rpg product?” kind of way.

In Grim War you have your usual superpowered mutants, but you also have sorcerers. That’s cool- and common in supers settings avoiding a fully sci-fi approach. The Marvel and DC Universes have that going on. But this isn’t a case of having power blast and slapping a magic descriptor or FX on it. No. You have a whole section on invoking spirits and demons (which players can chose to call upon, control, or actually play). Then there are the spells- each of which has an incredibly specific and colorful requirement like crawling in a straight line non-stop for a day and moving aside carefully any living thing which crosses your path. There are mechanics for building new spells as well, with guidelines on how make them just as over the top.

Add to that the use of the Company-rules from Reign, with the idea of players managing and battling other factions. The non-mechanical sections of the book cover multifarious cabals, orders & societies; a wide range of potent NPCs; and plot hooks for actually putting all of this into play. I think this can best be described as Unknown Armies meets Aberrant. If you’re looking for a complex supers plus Delta Green or secret world gone mad game, consider checking this out.

If you're selling me a supers setting book you probably have two approaches. On the one hand, you can hook with me with your cool and distinct twist (Bedlam City's Iron Age sensibilities, Adventures Into Darkness's Lovecraft-inspired weirdness). On the other you can offer me a plethora of supervillains and characters (Century Station). If you can do both, so much the better. But half-measures don't interest me as much. Halt Evil Doer 2.0 positions itself primarily as a campaign setting with a supers history stretching back to the Victorian era. I don't think that's a great stand-alone pitch. If a fantasy setting simply sold itself on having a long timeline, it wouldn’t grab my attention. The back cover of the HED has the following contradictory blurbs: "A World of Heroic Adventure" and "A World Where Sometimes the Villains Win." I'm not sure what we're supposed to take away from this- is it a darker and grittier setting or a more pulpy world?

But all is not lost. HED 2.0 offers up of about 60+ pages of history, world presentation, and backstory; that’s stuff I’ll probably skip. But that's followed by about 150 pages of heroes, organizations, and villains. Some of them are pretty embedded in the setting, but they’re still useful. I always love more ideas for bad guys.

8. Judge Dredd (2009)
Here’s the third and final (for now) version of Judge Dredd done for rpgs. It comes from Mongoose Games who also did the previous d20 version. This time they opt to repurpose their particular flavor of the Traveller engine to suit the game. Traveller's fairly lethal, which might change the feel of play. There's some weirdness with this game- as Mongoose’s own web site doesn't do a very good job of making clear what's available for it versus the d20 version. The latter is OOP but still available as a pdf, but the former is buried among the Traveller products. This version of Dredd also requires the Traveller base book, though apparently you can get by with the digest version.

I'm assuming that Mongoose has reworked the Dredd-verse material from the earlier edition and added on to with this. They're been pretty good about that in the past (witness the reuse of material from Runequest to Runequest II to Legend). In any case, gamers interested in Judge Dredd will find this the most available version right now. Though not greatly supported, I imagine Mongoose will keep it kicking around for some times. Plus MGP has doubled-down on the property with Judge Dredd Miniatures Game. That's nice since it offers additional figures and resources for play. Pick and random character creation. d6 Resolution.

Another supplement I already covered on my Victoriana lists and one I really love. The Kerberos Club presents incredibly well thought out Victorian superheroes. The set-up has an internal consistency missing from other games. The Kerberos Club of the title is a patron group which brings together people with unique talents and abilities. They stand outside society, protecting it. There's a nice dynamic of cooperation and opposition between the club and the powers-that-be. The book offers ideas and background for running a campaign in the early, middle, or late Victorian era.

As a supers book I love it because it bravely doesn't go the route of quiet, low-powered beings in a Victorian setting (ala League of Extraordinary Gentlemen). Instead we get full-on earth-shattering superbeings changing history and wreaking havoc. Add to that a supernaturally-empowered Queen Victorian and you have a recipe for awesomeness. If you have players reluctant to do Victoriana because of the restraints of conventions, consider this game filled with collateral damage of the physical and social kind.

I highly recommend this as a game and a readable resource on the era. It may not be as detailed as some others, but it is a pleasure to work through. The world-building on display here is excellent and wrestles with some of the implications of having women, non-humans, and "ethnics" with powers operating in this culture. The FATE version of this is especially good (and complete), but there's also a Wild Talents and a Savage Worlds version you can buy. You can read more of my thoughts on this here. Variable- multiple systems.

10. Lucha Libre Hero (2009)
We lived in Mexico City when I was very young. I don't remember much & I've lost all the Spanish I once knew. But I have strong memories of black & white TV shows and Luchadores. I flashed back to those later the few times they showed the Santo films on the low-budget Channel 44 out of Chicago. I love the idea of the masked wrestler - heroic and weirdly worldly, hiding behind the guise of simple sports. I never got into Pro Wrestling as entertainment, but I loved when I saw characters like Rey Mysterioso. I cheered at Angel's The Cautionary Tale of Numero Cinco episode and ¡Mucha Lucha! on the KidsWB. Is it superheroes? It is for me: stories of masked characters fighting villains. Mind you those villains are more like bad monster movie foes, but it works for me. It’s garish, weird, and inconsistent and I love it.

The authors of Lucha Libre Hero love it as well. They've created a game and a sourcebook covering the whole Mexican masked wrestler genre. Like PS238, LLH comes with a complete and streamlined version of the Hero System. That takes up about 40% of the book. Another 20% presents one of the craziest and most in-depth approaches to niche martial arts I've ever seen. I've always enjoyed MA in Hero System and this section goes absolutely crazy with 150+ maneuvers (Anaconda Vice to Frankenstein Death Swing to El Tornillo). Add to that the awesome "Stunt" options like 'Evil...I Can Smell It,' 'Don't Touch That,' 'Terror of the Underworld,' and many more. This is an amazing and detailed approach to a fairly cinematic genre. If you like crunch you'll find it here. On the other hand even rules-light folks (like myself) will discover rich ideas to lift and adapt.

The remainder of the book gives a guide for running Luchadore campaigns: the history of the genre, bibliography, ideas for tone. There's an impressive section of NPCs and a whole campaign outline with an adventure and a brief take on weird Mexico City. I love the way the game mixes classic wrestling rivals, supernatural foes, and mad science. The art's great and fits the material. Perhaps the only drawback lies in your players' knowledge of the setting. I was a little surprised when I talked about Luchadors with my group and only one or two of them knew what I was talking about. I should also mention another Luchador game which also came out in ‘09, Luchador: Way of the Mask. It seems a little more focused on the wrestling life, but the line has gotten some support (Luchador: Painted Honor, Luchador: Disciples of the North, etc). Point buy. d6 Resolution.

11. Super Crusaders (2009)
This game is a moving target. This first edition arrived to some pretty bad reviews based on system, layout, and editing. The following year Super Crusaders II popped up, replacing the two-book version with a single volume. That completely changed major elements of the game. Then in 2013 designer Lee Walser released another version, Super Crusaders III with still more changes. You have to admire the work there- continually revising and redeveloping a small game like this. For purposes of this blurb, I'm going to focus on the most recent version since the others have vanished down the memory hole.

Super Crusaders offers a stand-alone supers game, without a specific universe. I've read through the rules a couple of times and I still don't get exactly how things work. Character creation is very loose- with players simply picking some powers. Origin affects this a little. There's a strangely board-gamey feel to how actions are presented, with classes of things broken into Arm, Eye, Leg, and Mind. The basic mechanic is a variable number of d6 rolled against a target number. SC does offer a powers list along with ideas on how to tailor them. It has a few interesting mechanics (certain powers can only be taken by NPCs), but overall I'm not sure what new ideas it brings to the table. The art and graphic presentation undercut the game as well, with weak MS Paint-esque graphics combined with clip-art icons.

I had heard that Super Crusaders had a strong religious element. That's true, but it isn't overwhelming. I do like that we get another perspective on the tropes. The designer dislikes/disputes the idea of superheroes as science-fiction. That's not a position I've seen taken up in other supers rpgs. His faith comes through in places, particularly in his discussion of heroic tropes and his own campaign world's history. In a couple of places it is fairly explicit, "The superhero genre is about the struggle between good and evil. It deals with the mysterious and miraculous in a symbolic way. Anyone who doesn't realize that superheroes are really about religion, just isn't paying attention." Your reaction may vary. Super Crusaders does have some supporting materials, including Knights of Saint George, Minions & Monsters, and The Equipment Book. Open pick generation. d6 Resolution.

12. Supers Inc. (2009)
A densely-presented supers sourcebook for the Iridium System. It presents a near-future setting of 2033 where corporations have developed genetic modifications to create superbeings. The game sets itself up to be a battle between those corporations and the PCs, but with conflicting agendas and political views. There's more than a little feeling of Strikeforce Mortui here- with the PCs accepting powers in exchange for submission. While the premise is interesting, the game book does a terrible job of presenting it to the readers. There's so much information here, but Supers Inc doesn't stop to really explain what the game's actually going to be like: what do you do in this setting? what does a campaign look like? Again, I understand the impulse to present a sandbox, but some callout material, early on, talking about what the game can be would really help.

Supers, Inc has some neat concepts and gamers considering a slightly dystopian supers game might want to look at it for ideas. In 54 pages we get background and characters (14 pages), mechanics and stats (22 pages), an adventure (12 pages), and cover and fluff (6 pages). The book includes a highly compressed version of the Iridium Core Lite rules. Players spend points to buy stats, skills, and powers. Resolution works by rolling a d20 under their relevant skill+ bonus number. I think Supers, INC could easily be expanded- both in material and page count to give this game room to breathe. As it is, despite the density it doesn't feel like there's enough here to power a compelling campaign. Point buy. Various dice resolution.

13. Supers20 (2009)
Modern20 is RPGObjects reworking of the d20 Modern system to support a faster and more cinematic game. It streamlines some systems and ties advancement to achieving story goals. Supers20 takes and reworks the concepts from '02's Vigilance: Absolute Power (mentioned on the earlier list). It does away with several elements including power points and stunts. Supers20 builds on the Modern20 framework, using the occupations from those and adding some new ones. I especially like the idea of the "Super Team" class. Your characters has been raised in and trained with the idea of working with an established group (think Fantastic Four, or perhaps Astra from Astro City). Powers are represented by feats, which can be modified by use of the Power Control skill. At only 56-pages, Supers20 packs things in. Most of that covers the powers, but the last third offers advice on genres and campaigns. Useful for d20 aficionados. Various generation options, class and level advancement. Various dice resolution.

14. This Favored Land (2009)
The last of the Wild Talents settings on this list, This Favored Land offers secret superheroes during the American Civil War. In the same way that Godlike considers the implications wartime supers, TFL puts them in the context of this period. In this world a simultaneous and unexplained vision appears to people across the land. Later these same people become possessed of strange powers. The books offers an interesting framework, but leaves enough room for the GM to shift and develop their explanation. There’s even some discussion of how to connect this with Godlike to form a continuous narrative. Enthusiasts of Wild Talents will find some interesting mechanics (about as much as eCollapse, but less than Grim War) which might make it worth picking up.

The designers present solid and rich material, worth reading for anyone interested in running a game in this era. The game takes place solidly during and around the Civil War, unlike most Westerns. It has a ton of material on the conduct of that war, the timeline of the era, and the general society. There’s a modest presentation of different campaign settings and ideas on how to handle historical change. It also has a decent introductory scenario. Like everything I've seen from Arc Dream, you can dive into this book and mine all kinds of ideas. Recommended for Wild Talents experimenters, ACW gamers, and GMs who want to look at the presentation of a novel supers concept.

15. Wargames (2009)
This very cool superhero setting began with Wargames 1: Superhuman Threats of the Cold War, a 111-page M&M 2e sourcebook for Cold War superheroes. That contains about ten pages of concept followed by two dozen pages of timeline and background. The remainder showcases villains and organizations with a classic feel. Doing historical supers can be a hard sell- so why a Cold War version? The introduction has several explanations, but this pitch line caught my attention:
This is what I wish the 80s and 90s had been like for flag heroes in superhero comics. This is the Iron Age that never was. This was a time in comics when Captain America, Union Jack and Captain Britain were side-by-side facing down their spandex-clad Soviet opposite numbers across the Berlin Wall and engaging in a shadow war of a super-powered covert adventures.
For me it’s a campaign that could only be drawn by Jim Steranko . The Wargames series includes some single, Cobra-like foes (General Venom) and two other major releases. Wargames 2: Superspies and Commandoes of the Cold War covers has agents and organizations, some of which resemble Saturday Morning freedom fighters. Wargames 3: Sentinels of Berlin presents a superhuman militarized Berlin and the cast of characters struggling for hearts and minds there. In 2011, Vigiliance Press revised some of the material in a version for Icons (Wargames 1: Superhero Roleplaying in the Last Days of the Cold War). Wargames is a neat and ambitious setting- and I can easily imagine using this as an alternate dimension in an existing campaign.