Wednesday, May 7, 2014

History of Superhero RPGs (Part Ten: 2008)

PATREON: NOT A SUPERVILLAIN
I enjoy these History of RPGs lists- and I hope readers find them useful and entertaining. They're the most labor-intensive of my posts, but I learn something new every time I do one. To help support and develop this part of the blog, I've set up a Patreon project just for these lists. I hope you'll check that out and spread the word. If you've enjoyed the work so far, consider becoming a patron. 

BINDERS OF VILLAINS
I chose to run my Year One Superheroes campaign because I’m a big cheater. I wanted the campaign to be easy to manage- especially since it would be my first time running anything online for more than a session or two. And so I had the players pick existing characters to reboot…which in turn I gave me more villains than I knew what to do with. And not just any villains, but characters with a history and resonance for the players. So when they fought the Trapster some of them called him 'Paste Pot Pete.' When they took on Bane, they brought their wrestling lore to the stage. When they heard rumors of something called Starro, they became appropriately nervous.

If villain are the Monsters of superhero gaming, then I'd fallen back to the old classics: orcs, wolves, bugbears, dragons, etc. As cheap as it is, it has many benefits. These characters come with built-in lore. The players know their quirks and personalities and can play off of them. More importantly, it offers a shorthand for explaining what the enemies do. When they see Magneto on the board, most know he’s a dangerous master of magnetism. I cut down on the “Who is that and what can they do?” moments which can slow supers games- especially when you’re playing online. I reserve this for VoiP games- when I run f2f I don’t use villains from the comics…but I will gladly steal or riff on those from published gaming supplements.

In ’81 I bought the Enemies book for Champions. That hooked me on supers more than anything else. I loved the world-building through NPCs. I got the motivations and abilities of the foes here better than the ecologies of monsters other games offered. When stories and characters appeared across books, I followed those avidly. Of course sometimes they ended up going down a rabbit hole with those narratives or focused on characters I didn’t care for (like Foxbat).

The best villain collections don’t just offer stats and background. I prefer those which present plots hooks and story ideas tied to the characters. Some of the my favorites have organizational tools- tying characters to different kinds of plots. Solid collections offer a diversity of villain types or have a unique theme (and make that clear up front). Nothing turns me off a book more than hitting the third Supernatural/Super-Genius Serial Killer or Nazi/KKK-Inspired Villain. And I’ll admit that great art helps. I can ignore lackluster images in a core book, but a collection of baddies needs to pop. Smart villain book designs present multiple power levels for the characters. Sometimes they offer options on how to adapt the villain: using them outside the game lines continuity, making them more ambiguous. For reference I’ve put together as complete a list as possibleof super-villain books elsewhere (annotated in great part by the amazing Tom Tyson.)

TIMELINE
Events: Secret Invasion, Final Crisis, Ultimatum, Project Superpowers, Trinity, Batman RIP, Annihilation: Conquest, Messiah CompleX, Dark Reign
Television: Captain Flamingo, Power Rangers: Jungle Fury, The Spectacular Spider-Man, Ben 10: Alien Force, Monster Buster Club, Batman: The Brave and the Bold
Films: Jumper, Superhero Movie, Iron Man, The Incredible Hulk, Wanted, Hancock, Hellboy II: The Golden Army, The Dark Knight, Superior Ultraman 8 Brothers, Punisher War Zone, The Spirit

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 from 2008). I've arranged these in by year and then alphabetically within that year.


I've written before about my fanboy love for Ken Hite's work. His voice comes through smart and sharp. It burns bright in the midst of anthologies and makes everything else appear pale. So putting Hite together with superheroes ought to be a slam dunk. And it is- but at the same time I can see why Adventures into Darkness didn't take the world by storm. And when you read the stated premise, you may also understand: "an RPG sourcebook from an alternate history, one where H.P. Lovecraft somehow survived long enough to write comic-book superheroes for Nedor Comics." Yup- and it is pretty much exactly as described.

Hite twists existing public domain characters (also used by Alan Moore for Terra Obscura and Alex Ross for Project: Superpowers). Stark City Games and DM Studios have also both published game sourcebooks based on them. But AiD gives us a weird world of the Cthulhu Mythos as seen through the tropes of early comic book stories. What results makes perfect sense. In some ways it offers the logical end-point for the "Pulp" approach to Lovecraftian gaming. It embraces the absurdity that some gamers see when players say they successfully battled the horrors of the Elder Gods.

The book itself has appeared in several different versions (M&M, HERO, and Truth & Justice). You can see my full review of it here. Since I wrote that assessment I've used elements of AiD to color an ongoing supers campaign. The sourcebook originally seemed to be weak because it described such an oddball and complete world. I wasn't sure you could easily borrow from it. But I managed to and it resulted in a great campaign arc, with a version of Cthulhu by way of DC's Starro.

While I'm not sure I'd ever use it in full, I admire the Bedlam City campaign setting. It embraces grit, darkness, and the Justice League Detroit era. Many superhero cities end up flavorless. For example while I think Freedom City's a smart and well-presented central setting for Mutants & Masterminds, I'm hard pressed to identify what makes it stand out. I've written about superhero citybooks before, and I think the most interesting give you a city you can pitch in a phrase or two. Bedlam's a broken-down urban center desperately in need of heroes. Like M&M's Iron Age supplement, it goes with the tone of late '80's and '90's comics. But where that supplement presents it a fixture of the past, Bedlam City embraces it.

While what you'll get out of this depends on how grimy you like your super setting, there's a ton of material here. The M&M version comes in at about 400 pages. Unlike many citybooks, the majority of that is actually discussion of the city, including ideas about plots, the law and important locations. NPCs- heroes and otherwise- make up about a quarter of the book. These characters may be the weakest part (Stabbo the Clown for example). There's a decent section discussing GM secrets and a short adventure. Reasonably priced as a pdf, any GM should be able to find some inspiration here. However it does mean slogging through some of my least favorite layout choices: thick designed borders, obscuring background elements on every page, and hodge-podge four-color font headers. Plain Brown Wrapper games has released several supplements to support the setting, including a version for Savage Worlds, multiple music tracks, Straight Out of BedlamCitizens of Bedlam, and more.

This game flew in under my radar- and then back out again. It is based, apparently, on the Chimaera Universe of comic books...but I have a hard time telling, especially from the publisher's website (last updated in 2010). It looks like they only released a couple of titles in each line? Perhaps they hoped to make a splash across multiple media? My favorite bit from the site is this line "The world of Chimaera...populated by the most diverse characters in the history of Comic Books!" which sits under a banner featuring five white dude heroes, an armor dude, and another dude in faux Egyptian garb. So yeah, diversity.

As for the game itself, that's harder to judge. I think it is set in a version of Earth, but I'm not sure. Mongoose released the hardcover and a supplement Hellhounds Companion Book, but they've clearly dropped support for the line. The system is percentile-based and unique to the game. While I had a hard time finding formal reviews of the game, the comments on various threads suggest this is a superhero heartbreaker: a game system someone loved which spun out of control and out of touch with other game design ideas. As always, the RPGNet threads are particularly entertaining here and here
??? Character Creation. Percentile resolution. 

While 4C System is probably the first supers retroclone, Hideouts & Hoodlums is likely the first OSR supers game. H&H retools the Swords & Wizardry rules, which is itself a reworking of the old D&D white box set. It sticks with the set up and the joke by dividing the rules into three volumes: Book I: Men and Supermen, Book II: Mobsters and Trophies, and Book III: Underworld and Metropolis Adventures. Great Scott! Games has also released several supplements, paralleling the OSR and expanding the rules.

H&H is modestly done- with simple layout and public domain images drawn from Golden Age comics. That simplicity helps and makes the books easy to work with. It focuses on campaigns drawn from that era- a pulpy approach to superheroics and vigilantes. Players can be Fighters (ala Doc Savage, The Phantom); Magic-Users (ala Zatara, Mandrake); or Superheroes (ala The Human Torch, Stardust the Space Wizard). I like the brief riff on races the game offers as well. The Powers list for supers- describing feats they can do (like Raise Car, Get Even Tougher, Push Ocean Liner) is smart and fits the period well. Overall old-school players looking for something new with familiar mechanics will find much to love here. Hideouts & Hoodlums is clever and simple, with significant supporting material. Random generation plus class/level system. Various dice resolution.

In some ways, this game is review proof. If you don't like it, well you're a prude or humorless. I realized that after I watched Yahtzee at The Escapist try to review South Park: The Stick of Truth. How do you comment on something that so desperately wants to be edgy? And why include it on this list of superhero games? Hot Chicks is certainly a corner case. But it does included costumed characters fighting against threats, as well as a substantial superpowers section. So it mostly fits...despite the stated premise. What's the hook? Bad Dudes (demons, evil corporations, super-villains, monsters, etc) are conducting a secret war on our world. And what they want is Hot Chicks (always capitalized). Why? Because humans produce energy and chemicals when scared or tortured- but the terror and suffering of women is of a higher value.

Sidebar: Have I stated my dislike for CG artwork enough? When you combine that with Good Girl, T&A, and Hentai-esque subject matter, there's no uncanny valley deep enough to bury myself. 

The game itself has a kitchen-sink background to support that plot and allow most kinds of exploitative gaming. Characters roll up stats, spend points on merits & take flaws (Danger's Bitch, A Whore in the Kitchen, Very Fertile), and buy skills. Weirdly all of the advanced options- superpowers, psionics, cyberware, martial arts, etc. cost money rather than points. The game uses d20 resolution with some crunchy bits, especially for combat. As you'd expect there's a ton of 'machine love' as well in the book with extensive weapons, gadgets, and vehicle lists. Hot Chicks is a grab-bag mess that recycles other ideas and material for a T&A extravaganza. If it seems like I'm exaggerating, please look at the support products available for the game line here. Note that you'll have to log in and enable the adult material viewer to see many of the products. Clearly the authors of Hot Chicks have found a niche. Judging by the sheer number of products they must do well. It isn't my bag though- the humor isn't particularly funny and the material is entirely built on the male gaze. Not recommended for supers GMs. Mixed random and point buy character creation. d20 resolution.

6. Mutant City Blues (2008) 
Mutant City Blues is superpowers by way of the Gumshoe system. You have to admire the approach Pelgrane has taken with this system. They could have fallen back to a fairly generic setting, with the typical elements thrown in. But instead we get the wild space troubleshooters of Ashen Stars and Spies versus Vampires of Night's Black Agents. MCB likewise jumps off the map. It presents a single-origin superhero setting with the players as powered cops trying to rein in "Heightened Crimes" (one of my favorite terms ever). The two simple twists in this setting change the feel of play. While some other superhero games have the PCs as members of an organization (ala SHIELD), none of them essentially made the players cops- with all of the baggage of that. That's a challenging role for normally anti-authoritarian players. In other games the PCs may reflect the values and codes of the society, but still have great room for personal choice and rebellion. The unified origin for powers has important consequences in the fiction and mechanics. Powers follow patterns which can be tracked. MCB represents that through the Quade Diagram. It acts as an additional source of information- if evidence of X power shows up, it points to other related powers. Laws' choice here is an interesting work-around for the "anything goes" nature of a superhero world.

All of that makes Mutant City Blues an awesome resource for any GM looking for new ways to approach their setting. Whether it will work for you as a full game will depend on your group's expectations. MCB plays with the powers: arranging them with a particular logic and severely limiting the available options (relative to other supers games). The structure also makes it difficult to expand the power selections. I've talked before about my players' love/hate relationship with the Gumshoe mechanics. The system supports and focuses the game on a certain kind of play- and you need a group who fully invests in it. This is a long way from four-color.

But if you really want to consider a street-level campaign take a look at Mutant City Blues. Get this if you want ideas on how the police would deal with powered criminals, what it would mean for detectives to have superpowers, and their impact on investigations and forensics. Many of the concepts could be ported over to other systems. Pelgrane has supported this line with two awesome adventure collections- Hard Helix and Brief CasesYou can see my earlier review of MCB hereMixed Point Buy. Single d6 Resolution. 

This list surprised me with the gap between school-based superhero supplements. The first is arguably GURPS Supers School of Hard Knocks in 1989. Later we saw hints of superpowers & schools with products like TFOS and GURPS IOU. But  '08 saw the arrival of the first stand-alone game: PS238. Of course it came hot on the heels of Hero High for Mutants & Masterminds. The latter had several supplements (mostly character based)- Hero High YearbookHero High Villains, etc. The former, unfortunately, didn't lead to more books. The PS238 comic continues- smart and well-drawn.

PS238, unlike many schools featured in comic books, aims for a younger student body. Usually we see high school kids- with all of the tensions and drama inherent in that. The closest analog I can think of would be the JL8 webcomic by Yale Stewart. But PS238 offers a mix of comedy and seriousness, with the teachers and staff as important as the kids. About half of the book covers the background, including classes, maps, and characters. The other half presents a complete but streamlined version of Champions for use with the setting. It covers all the basics- stats, skills, talents, gadgets, and powers. But many of those are offered in packages which can then be tuned. Steven Long does a great job reducing the system to manageable components.

I love school-based campaigns; I've posted before on the striking opportunities they offer GMs. Oddly I've never run one in a supers setting. The choice of a super-elementary is unique and might be an excellent introduction for younger players. I can imagine expanding the idea and running a campaign which spans multiple years with the characters and NPCs evolving. Given the popularity of school tropes in manga (Pantheon High, Psychic Academy), the super school in video (Sky High, Video Game High School), and interesting things done with younger characters (RunawaysYoung Justice) I wouldn't be surprised if we saw more settings/frames like these for superhero rpgs. Point buy character generation. d6 resolution.

8. Wild Cards (2008)
I have to confess I dropped out of the Wild Cards series of novels at about the halfway mark, close to the time Steve Jackson released GURPS Wild Cards. I'd skipped around and skimmed- but the GURPS book actually "wikipedia'd" me...spoiling bits and pieces so that I didn't need to read the actual book. But that was only half of the equation. the other half was that I got tired of seeing characters I liked get their lives relentlessly destroyed. Its the cost of an ongoing series. I remember hitting that point when Alan Moore left Swamp Thing...I just got off the ride. I liked these characters and these stories and I knew that for drama's sake they'd have to suffer more. There wouldn't be an end- except perhaps a lame walk towards cancellation combined with stunt events.

I'm spoiled, I think, by role-playing games. In a game you have agency in the story. Bad things happen but you can strive and push to make things better. I have a harder time with passive media these days- movies, books, TV shows. I don't necessarily need to play those characters in a game, but I like to know I can have and shape a world where they have decent lives...

Green Ronin's Wild Cards supplement offers that in spades. It is not only a great adaptation of the mechanics, it is simply a brilliant presentation of the ideas and stories. It helps that the author, John Jos. Miller, is deeply immersed in the setting. Miller wrote stories in the Wild Cards universe, as well as the earlier GURPS sourcebook. This is a dense book, but highly usable. Green Ronin supported the setting with two more books- Wild Cards: All-In and Wild Cards: Aces & Jokers. All licensed supplements should be as good as this one. The only drawback it has these days is that it is written for the previous edition. To offset that Green Ronin published a series of character supplements using 3rd edition Mutants & MastermindsWild Cards SCARE Sheet. Highly recommended to fans of the series or GMs looking for ideas about superhero world-building.