Monday, June 30, 2014

History of Superhero RPGs (Part Thirteen: 2011-2012)

ORIGIN STORIES
Before I roll into this final superhero list, I have to direct you elsewhere. First, 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. Second, if you’re at all interested in early superhero games, you should be reading Christian Lindke’s blog. He’s just begun a series of in-depth reviews of these games from the beginning. These offer smart analysis and place these games in context. His first essay covers Superhero 2044. Christian loves superhero games and all his essays on them are worth reading.

ABSOLUTE POWER CORRUPTS?
As I’ve worked my way through these lists I’ve avoided defining what I mean by a “superhero” game. Instead I let my choices mark out those boundaries. I’ve been liberal in many cases (Masker Avenger Pulp, Sentai Heroes, Anime Warriors). But what what can we identify about these games. They don’t simply have players running heroes- we’ve seen some particularly dystopian games (Underground, eCollapse). Neither is it costume and appearance; superheroes in general have moved to ditch four-color garments. It can’t simply be that they feel like comic books since more and more superhero tropes pop up elsewhere. Could it be about super-powers? That’s perhaps more defining, but it excludes low-level vigilante settings and games (ala Dark Champions). So I’m going to embrace the cop-out and say it is a combination of all of these, with a smattering of self-definition. If it calls itself a superhero game, I’m inclined to accept that as the spirit.

And I’m not certain dwelling definitions helps people figure out these games. For these lists I’ve noted a systems’s character creation basis and randomizer. That’s useful for me. Another definition I haven’t considered is how these games handle powers- loosely defined to include the heightened talents of someone like Batman or Doc Savage. That’s something I want to know when I look at a game.

Most systems fall into one of three categories. Encyclopedia Games use a list of super-powers, usually with a descriptive title. These can often be tweaked and modified through advantages, frameworks, and limitations. But generally players can pull a character together easily by going through the shopping list. Villains & Vigilantes, Icons, Aberrant, Mutants & Masterminds 1/2e, Marvel Super Heroes Roleplaying, and many, many others use this approach. It’s by far the most popular, and with good reason. Powers are cool- and big books of powers are attractive. Designers can limit what appears in a setting or use the permitted powers to define what a game feels like. Mutant City Blues does this extremely well. This approach also leaves room for supplementary material- new collections of powers and abilities (like the now classic  MA3: The Ultimate Powers Book).

The other two approaches represent polar opposites. On the one hand we have Elemental Games. These allow the construction of powers based on effects and results. Champions, GURPS 4e, Base Raiders, M&M 3e, and a few others fall into this category. Everything can be boiled down to a pool of possible things which can be done in the game. These are then glued together to form a power. The fiction, descriptor, or SFX doesn’t matter. It allows for great versatility but requires more work. Players can’t simply pull from a checklist. Elemental approaches require more meta-discussions in order to tune or restrict powers to fit with a setting. These systems usually have an elegant symmetry and focus on defining exactly what a power can do.

On the other hand, Fiction Games leave that question open. A power’s simply a rationalization for actions. Powers operate as supports for arguments about what a character can do. That can be cover for a base set of simple mechanics, ala Fate. Players and GMs negotiate about when ruby-laser eyebeams can be used, what effect they have, and what consequences arise from that use. Marvel Heroic comes close to falling into this category, but still has some mechanical conceits (power sets with specific techniques). Indie Games like Psi*Run, Worlds in Peril, and With Great Power fit into this. Ironically it also applies to the first supers rpg, Superhero 2044

TIMELINE

Events: Fear Itself, Death of Spider-Man, Spider-Island, New 52, Avengers vs. X-Men, Chaos War, Age of X, Schism, Dying Wish, Marvel NOW!, Shattered Heroes, Regenesis, Flashpoint, Night of the Owls, The Culling, Rise of the Vampires, Rotworld, Rise of the Third Army, Death of the Family, Hawkman: Wanted, Throne of Atlantis, H’El on Earth
Television: The Cape, Power Rangers Samurai, Supah Ninjas, Sidekick, Alphas, Ben10 Omniverse, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Arrow
Films: Green Hornet, Thor, X-Men First Class, Green Lantern, Captain America: The First Avenger, Chronicle, Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance, The Avengers, The Amazing Spider-Man, The Dark Knight Rises, Dredd

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 2011-2012). I've arranged these by year and then alphabetically within that year.


All-Stars offers a more comedic take on superheroes, using the QAGS (Quick Ass Game System) mechanics. QAGS is pretty light system- six stats get numbers and characters have a tag line. Powers are equally abstracted and lumped into those elements. Players test by rolling a d20 plus value against a target. Perhaps the most interesting innovation comes in the form of Yum Yums. A Yum Yum is a tasty edible marker (candy, chips, soda) which players can spend/consume for auto-successes, narrative control or the like. They're delicious Fate points.

All-Stars provides a brief but unique setting. The characters serve in Paradigm City, but they're not the "A List" heroes. They're not even B-List. They're the supers the city regretfully calls when things go terribly wrong. It harkens to Mystery MenThe Specials, or The Awesomes. Or in comic books, The Tick, Ambush Bug, The Legion of Substitute Heroes, 'Mazing Man, and so on. We've had a few other funny superhero games (Stuper Powers!Project A-KoROLF) but it’s a pretty niche genre. I'm not a big fan of comedy games, but this is fairly well done and presented. It isn't too over the top and the artwork nicely supports the concept. Point-assign. D20 Resolution.

2.  Invulnerable (2011)
In recent years we've seen more and more games do a quick turn-around for editions and versions. In this case 2011's Invulnerable has been superseded by a 2014 "Vigilante Edition" of the game. The Cosmology Engine powers this game as well as DIRGE Dark Modern Fantasy RPG and Tales of Glory and Terror Fantasy Roleplaying Game. Those, as well as the original edition of Invulnerable, seem to be unavailable. It has a middle weight system- the two page character sheet includes space for the attributes, talents, and powers- but nothing seems overly detailed. Invulnerable includes a setting which is peppered throughout but covered in the depth in the book’s last quarter. I like the conceit behind supers on this Earth-Omega where "strange particles and wave native to other dimensions, irrational matter and energy can resemble common forms of matter and energy but under certain poorly-understood circumstances, they can take on strange new properties." The game's a love letter to a broad range of superhero comics and movies. I'm intrigued and the more recent edition nearly doubles the page count. I expect that folds in the material from the pay-what-you-want rules expansion, Dauntless. Built for the earlier edition, that supplement's still up for sale on their website. Point buy. d6 Resolution.

Perhaps the most striking thing about M&M 3e is how it showcases the incremental change between M&M first and second edition. Not that there weren't significant changes. Those addressed balance problems, cleaned up mechanics, and integrated hero points more fully. But at heart M&M 2e remained a flavor of d20. You could see the original framework and mechanics. But M&M 3e goes much further. Now stats and their linked elements break away from the OGL. Powers are crafted by effects (ala Ultimate Power). The vast variety of status effects have been reconfigured to make them easier to handle. A great deal of effort has gone into creating a logical set of terminology which doesn't harken back to other d20 systems. The Atomic Think Tank forums have a decent round-up of discussions of the changes with the new edition.

So which one should you buy and play? As I've said before, I'm an M&M booster. I've been running 2e solidly for the last couple of years. I made my recent group play that edition rather than the more available 3e. Some of that came from my mastery of the system, some from simply owning most of the M&M 2e books. But we're about to wrap up that campaign...and I've finally gotten around to really looking at M&M 3e and what it has to offer. We now have the Power Profiles and Gadget Guides. There's a large body of supporting material- really interesting stuff. Plus we have all of the DC Adventures as an additional resource. I've picked up most of M&M 3 in pdf format via sales and a recent Bundle of Holding. But I haven't yet bought actual physical copies. That will be the tipping point. Point buy. D20 Resolution.

4.  Polyverse Supers (2011)
A supers system without an attached setting, Polyverse Supers leans towards Champions or GURPS Supers crunch. It offers a fairly detailed, point-based approach. It has all of the classic bits- scaling point costs, modifiers for power creation (called "Adders" and "Subtractors" here), and a detailed set of combat elements including maneuvers and called shots. On the plus side, the layout's clean and the material's generally well-organized (except for a few cart-before-the-horse moments). It has OK art.

But Polyverse Supers doesn't make any kind of case for its relevancy. What makes this system new? What makes it different? Why should gamers pick this up over the vast number of long-running supers games which have extensive support materials. Polyverse claims to be "fast-paced" but I'm not sure the rules back that up, especially in comparison to other supers games. It's especially important for a game like this to stake out territory and show why it stands out in the crowded field. Maybe it doesn't create something new but instead brings together classic ideas in a new way? Games which come with a setting can at least fall back on that as a selling point, but a generic supers system has a larger burden. Point buy. Various dice resolution. 


5. Squadron UK (2011)
In 2011, author Simon Burley worked on revising and republishing his Golden Heroes game as Squadron UK. However, shortly after he had to change his approach- something he explained in a thread on RPGNet, "Games Workshop didn't pursue me - I hassled them. I thought the rights to GH reverted after a period of time specified in the contract but I'm no lawyer and it looks like I read it wrong. I wrote to them before producing SqUK first edition. Heard nothing back. So went ahead. Then when I sought professional publication the company concerned wanted the GH names as it apparently has some cachet and wouldn't put off American players like SqUK could. So I recontacted GW and pushed and hassled for a ruling until I got this scary e-mail pointing out about the IP and saying they'd also checked my web-site and SqUK was infringing their IP and asking me to stop selling it. So I immediately pulled everything.

I don't blame GW. The employee who checked the contract is just doing his job. He probably knows nothing about GH. Given what the Americans are doing to GW I don;t blame them for being protective. I just wish they'd replied to my first letter all those years ago so I didn't splash SqUK all around.

I can't afford to buy back GH or risk a legal battle. So I'm not prepared to risk the "you can't copyright a system" argument - which I could probably have got away with if I hadn't said SqUK was an update of GH.

To "the same but different" seems the way to go. To be honest I'm enjoying it and - touch wood - things seem to be working. Even if GW suddenly gave me GH back now I'd probably update it with some of the new ideas." 
He revised and reissued Squadron UK the following year. He followed that up with a variant setting, Squadron X.

6. Corner Cases (2011-2012)
Again I wanted to cover some of the more interesting smaller or web-pub only supers rpgs. They showcase the explosion of creativity in this genre over the last several years. Codename: Spandex has a great name. It offers another retro-clone take, this time based on Golden Heroes. That's interesting in light of Squadron UK's release the same year. Codename: Spandex focuses on a narrow power-range, "classic X-men" as it describes it. It can be downloaded for free or purchased as at cost PoD through Lulu. Mystery Men! gives another retro-clone using Swords & Wizardry. It's unavailable right now due to a shift in publisher. Refuge in Audacity Core Rulebook has another winning title. It offers an extreme far-future interstellar parody game with superpowered bloodlines fighting over humanity's fate. I can only call this game gonzo for art, tone, and mechanics. First Issue experiments with rpg structure. Each player needs one of the two-page playbooks describing a superhero. Those apparently contain all the rules you need for the game, which uses a coin-flip randomizer. Sentai Spectacular!: The Ultimate Guide to Playing Sentai Superheroes! gives an adaptation of d20 Modern to Sentai. It affectionately considers how to play out these kinds of stories. I'm glad to see games embrace popular genres which are otherwise niche in rpgs. It has been further expanded by Sentai Sequel!. Finally Wicked Heroes comes from John Wick's The Big Book of Little Games. Players take up characters given a potent supernatural blessing and a curse handed down through the generations. The twist lies in the ability for these inheritors to kill and steal these gifts from one another.

7. Settings (2011-2012)
These years saw several awesome new setting sourcebooks worth looking at. City book Iron Bay two urban centers for the "Adventures Have Consequences" setting from AHC Studios. They've released a several supplements for that in M&M 3e and Icons flavors. I like the idea of two neighboring and contrasting cities. The WatchGuard Sourcebook (3E) offers a sketchy world background, originally for M&M 2e and then released for 3e. The book has a short overview of a campaign city followed by several dozen character write ups and a number of scenarios. Watch Guard has a strong Valiant vibe to it, but you have to piece the world together from the various entries. A solid and useful resource for any supers GM. The first of two character sourcebooks, Evil, Inc. Sourcebook Vol. 1: Heroes and Villains doesn't actually have mechanics. Instead it offers generic materials showing characters from the popular superhero webcomic. A massive sourcebook for ChampionsBook of the Empress details a massive intergalactic empire useful as a source of villains and opposition in a supers campaign. Think the Shi'ar Empire from X-Men, but more consistently evil. BotE is one of the last Champions products Hero Games published. Fiasco's Heroes of Pinnacle City presents a world of poor impulse control and death-ray eyebeams. I imagine something like Brat Pack or The Specials.

Capes, Cowls, and Villains Foul has interesting selling points. It stresses that as in the comics, unbalanced characters (i.e. Green Arrow versus Darkseid) can impact battles. I like that focus on abstractions and relative power balance. CC&VF does this in part with a resource-spend system. Characters have traits which they add to rolls. Multiple linked traits can be used on the same test. However once you use a trait, you mark it off for the scene. That's an great concept- making resource management a central part of the game. You have to carefully choose what you want to use in a scene and what you want to refresh. It reminds me of the more granular mechanics of Mutant City Blues.

The game itself looks nice- with generally decent art and effective layout. CCVF definitely focuses on simulating the feel of a comic book, both in presentation and in system mechanics. For example Hero Points are called "editorial control." That emulation’s to be expected from the same company and designers which brought us genre buy-in games like The Big CrimeCartoon Action Hour, and Slasher Flick. This is a smart and well-designed supers game which I'm surprised hasn't gotten more attention and love. Point buy. d12 Resolution.


9. Future Heroes (2012)
Future Heroes is an odd supers game with a far future backdrop. It is set in Starbright Illustrations’ Extreme Future setting, which has been pumped out in four editions in a handful of years. The actual sales blurb doesn't mention that; I had to discover that in the book's intro. FH/EF gives a kitchen-sink sci-fi universe, closer to Traveller than Star Wars. Most of the background material offered in the book feels like a restatement from a sci-fi game. In a few places it deals with the implications of supers within the setting, but hey seem like an afterthought.

The game mixes crunch and vague narrative elements. You begin by picking out bits for your character's origin story (power source, alignment, theme, resources, hook, etc.). Some of these are purely fiction while others have a vaguely defined play effect. Future Heroes has defined stats and make-your-own skills, both given percentages. Characters choose an "ability type" which is really just a fiction to contain their four powers (movement, attack, defense, and extra). The powers themselves mostly offer a simple effect, modifying other game percentages in most cases. Resolution has players adding 60 to their relevant skill or ability and then rolling under that on percentiles...I think. The game mechanics feel like a first draft pass, with much left unexplained. You have to make a test and then go to a table to check the effect results, most of which require another roll. Future Heroes has three types of damage to track (disadvantage, wound, and death). Characteristics are described as having effects, but how do those numbers fit in? Since most of those are rated at 60+ at the start, that means 120% chance? That clearly isn't what's going on, but the material feels deliberately sketchy. That strange and unfinished feeling carries throughout the book.

Starbright Illustrations has turned out several dozen rpgs and supplements in the last few years. In particular they've taken advantage of the Fate Core OGL to repackage most of their games. That includes a Fate version of Future Heroes. The reaction to those has been pretty mixed- with the term "shovelware" thrown around. Point and pick character creation. Various dice resolution.


10. Godlike (2012)
This is and isn't a new edition of the classic '01 game. Godlike spawned a host of great supplements- both for the original game (Will to PowerCombat Orders No. 2: Saipan) and for the more generic version, Wild Talents (see the many cool sourcebooks from the last two lists). But Arc Dream also consistently tweaked and developed the base Godlike game. They released a series of pdf supplements, expansions, and rules changes. This revision incorporates those, makes serious shifts to character advancement, adds many optional rules, and cleans up the layout. Its striking that this "1.5" version was produced via a Kickstarter campaign. That's an early KS rpg project (mid 2011)- and its levels pale in comparison to later games. But it’s important to consider the strength of interest that shows especially not for a whole new game or overhauled edition. Instead people wanted the classic game but brought up to date.

Godlike remains a striking game- a serious consideration of the role and utility of supers in wartime. While GMs can play with some of the dials, it remains a crunchy and realistic take on the genre. It is a far cry from Marvel (MT1: All This and World War II) or DC (The World at War. Consider how far Godlike’s away from the source material in decades. In the comics DC’s move away from a WW2 basis and legacy heroes makes sense. That's 70+ years ago. Still Godlike's an amazing game- and one which fully embraces its niche genre. Point buy. D10 Pool Resolution.


11. Heroes Wear Masks (2012)
Heroes Wear Masks is an adaptation of Pathfinder to superheroes. The industry has been relatively restrained in adapting PF to other genres. I have to wonder if that reflects lessons lesson from the d20 explosion or the difficulty of adapting PF and keeping the feel. I lean towards the latter. I'm not a Pathfinder player, but it seems particularly tuned to high fantasy. Heroes Wear Masks isn't standalone, it requires the core PF book. In covering supers, HWM takes a conventional approach. Origins are effectively races. Characters are built from somewhat directed classes which mix power type and approach (Energy Projectors, Detective, Combat Expert, etc). These have unique features (like the Brick's Basher and Power Stomp). Characters gain levels in a classic way and can multi-class. Powers have ranks representing effectiveness. It feels like a pretty straight adaptation. As such it seems like a supers game for groups that love Pathfinder. YRMV for other groups; reviews I've seen have been highly varied. Avalon has supported the line with a variety of pdf micro-supplements. Level and class build. Various dice resolution.

I've mentioned it before, but it’s amazing how distinctive and even revolutionary the various Marvel RPGs have been. Each has broken away from accepted approaches and gone for something novel (open and narrative driven Marvel Super Heroes, diceless The Marvel Universe Roleplaying Game, and card-based Marvel Super Heroes Adventure Game). In contrast DC adaptations have been more conventional. Marvel Heroic continues the trend, despite being an retooling of the previously used Cortex engine (which we just saw in Smallville). As I mentioned in the header, some supers rpg use highly abstract powers- making them roughly equivalent. For these a power operates as a narrative justification for an action. Marvel Heroic is probably the only major release superhero system which embraces that approach to power (if you consider Smallville only an also ran).

Marvel Heroic uses a dice pool system. For any action players build a set of dice based on several sources (affiliations, distinctions, power sets, etc). The game records these as a particular die type (d4, d8, d12, etc). Players roll the pool and generally add the two highest values rolled to get a rating. The highest die type remaining becomes the effect level. MHR has a few additional complications (ways to change the dice added, ones go to the GM, and other tricks) but that's basically it. The vast majority of powers and skills and such are simply written as an abstract term and a die type. (Iron Man's "Missiles d6," "Repulsors d8," Business Master d10," "Science Expert d8"). Some powers and other elements have SFX and/or Limits which allow an additional effect based on spends or circumstances. But generally everything's abstracted- and your choice of dice/elements is primarily restricted by your ability to weave it into the action description.

When MHR first hit, we saw a wave of game advocacy. I wasn't sure about it...I've still got Champions in my DNA. But my friend Nick ran a session at a local game day and I really enjoyed it. There's an embrace of the Marvel Universe I dig. The game's built around playing those characters. It includes rules for making up your own datafiles, but these are particularly loose. MHR doesn't strive for balance. It recognizes the inherently unbalanced nature of the setting and lets it go. There's parity in play and the mechanics keep it from feeling too out of whack. Combine that with systems for players building off each other, challenging milestones for development, and simple mechanisms to sacrifice for gain and you have a cool system. It also has a novel and workable rule for building up challenge over time.

Marvel Heroic grabbed everyone's attention when it hit. It took a novel approach by presenting several versions of the core book. Gamers could by it on its own, or they could buy it in combination with an event book- in this case the Civil War Premium Event Book. An Annihilation Premium Event Book was also promised, but apparently only came out in pdf form. By 2013, despite several products in the pipeline (including an Age of Apocalypse supplement) Margaret Weis pulled the plug. That seemed an unusual move- we've more often seen licenses run out or be yanked. It’s really too bad- MHR is pretty awesome and I'm not sure it would work nearly as well for a generic supers game. A good portion of the cool here comes from the setting and the way the system combines with that. Abstracted character creation. Various dice.


A Spanish-language supers rpg. I want to track down a copy of this. It appears to be a lengthy full-color production. The system draws at least a little from Fate according to the translated web blurb. Here's a bit of that, run through Google and cleaned up, "Betlam is a sick city, beset by corruption, crime and crazy costumes. For good people, living there be a nightmare, an ongoing dance with despair, danger and death ... But, for decades, someone ensures the safety of the innocent, fighting evil in everywhere in the city and keeping alive the citizens' hope for a better future. Because Betlam is under the gaze of the Sentinel.

Join Team Sentinel: don costumes and fight crime on the streets or stay at the base and become an expert who supports the guard so they can succeed in their mission. Or live in the world of Sentinel as another masked crusader, an honest cop trying to make a difference or an insane villain henchman falling into a self-destructive spiral. In the book you will find lots of pre-generated characters to get you playing right away and rules to incorporate your character in the story." Point buy. d10 Resolution


14.  Psi*Run (2012)
I might be stretching definitions to include Psi*Run here, but it’s a good game and worthy of attention. Players take the role of "Runners" who have psychic powers and amnesia. They’re pursued by former captors called “Chasers.” It reminds me of Runaways, the pre-New52 version of Gen13, and Breathtaker. There's also a little vibe of Brian Wood's Demo and old school gamers hear an echo of Psi World. But Psi*Run offers a more human and character driven game. Players develop their Runner by ;listing qualities and coming up with a power. The game plays out in scenes detailing the pursuit of the PCs by the Chasers. The players have two goals- get several locales ahead of pursuit and piece together their past. The game play is simple and elegant. It lends itself to creative play, with the group collaborating to build the story. Psi*Run offers a goal-oriented super-esque game for players not familiar with supers. A great one-shot engine.  Descriptive character creation. d6 Resolution.

15. Supers Unleashed (2012)
I'm lost about what to say on this game. It feels more like an outline for a supers rpg than an actual game. It has a deceptively attractive cover, followed 30 clean but oddly laid-out pages. A small suggestion- if you're doing the game pdf-only, you can afford to run a few more pages. You don't have to run everything out to the gutters. That creates weird contradiction when you glance through the book- at first is seems filled with detail, but when you look closely you see how empty it is.

Players have 100 character points which they assign to powers. Supers Unleashed advertises itself as having 171 Super Powers. That seems like a rich array until you realize a complete power description is "Arsenal: A character with Arsenal can change his hands and arms into any weapon imaginable allowing him to deal with any threat with lethal force." Essentially every power is just a narrative description. The same thing happens for the lists of technology, archetypes, limitations, and power sources. It feels disingenuous to pitch the game based on large game element lists when those amount to "make up whatever." Task resolution uses a d20 roll plus the level of the relevant power against a target number. In combat that's against an opponent's roll plus their defensive power. That's a simple mechanic, but seems problematic given the open-ended build. The GM section's equally vague, with a list of short-sentence adventure hooks, hero tropes, villain tropes, and character roll calls. Point buy. d20 resolution. 


16. Threshold (2012)
Originally I planned to lump this into the corner case listing, but Threshold’s oddness warrants an individual entry. For one thing the designer presents it in html format. That means when you extract the files you’er bounced around between them rather than getting a whole book. It’s also completely Creative Commons licensed. Threshold takes place in a near-future corporate controlled dystopia-light. Citizens serve at the behest and whim of these corporations. The PCs are experimental subjects who've gained powers from a corporation. But they're also terminally ill. To add to that the substance giving them their powers is finite and has to be replenished. It also builds up to toxic levels in their system. All of that plays into the dramatic nature of the game where players attempt to deal with their "Regret" and find peace. Powers and other elements are freeform, with little in the way of complex mechanics. Games consist of the PCs carrying out missions for their corporate masters and at the same time trying to come to terms with their emotion baggage. Threshold has an interesting premise, but feels underdeveloped. I'd be curious to see some actual play with it. On the one hand my instinct is that a light system (Apocalypse World or Fate) might give it some shape, but I'm not sure if that would act against the core premise.