Tuesday, July 8, 2014

The Year in Superhero RPGs 2013: Part One Action Galaxy to Man-Made Mythology

2013 was a damn fine year for superhero games. We saw some clunkers, but it also delivered an amazing assortment of new approaches and smart expansions to existing systems. We experienced an explosion of games produced via Kickstarter support: either as an individual project or as an expansion reward for one. That’s a trend I expect we’ll be seeing until the great and oft-predicted collapse of crowdfunding. I don’t have a sense if superhero games are over-represented in these fan-funded projects. That might an interesting area to study: what kinds of rpgs are pitched and which ones actually fund?

So with the main body of my History of Superhero RPGs lists complete, I turn to inventorying last year’s developments and publications. Because those lists ended up longer and more involved (i.e. I love supers so I wrote too much), we’re getting to this several months late. As I did with the Year in Horror RPGs I survey the major products and publications in the genre actually released in 2013. If a book was crowdfunded or pdf series’d, I’ve generally held it off for the year in which a printed or collected version arrived. I’m sure I’ve missed some things here- for example I’ve left off a number of worthy electronic-only small publications and strictly fan published material. For these entries, I offer comments, impressions, and some pseudo-reviews if I've read the game. After this I finish this I'll inventory Horror and Steampunk/ Victoriana rpgs for the year. 

This material is supported by a Patreon project I've established 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. 

Events: Age of Ultron, Infinity, Battle of the Atom, Requiem, Wrath of the First Lantern, Batman: Zero Year, Trinity War, Psi-War, Forever Evil, Lights Out
Television: Power Rangers Megaforce, Marvel’s Avenger’s Assemble, Beware the Batman, Axe Cop, Marvel’s Hulk and the Agents of SMASH, Marvel’s Agents of SHIELD
Film: Iron Man 3, Man of Steel, The Wolverine, Justice League: The Flashpoint Paradox, Kick Ass 2, Thor: The Dark World, Despicable Me 2

That’s a decent year for supers in general media. I don’t think anything really knocked it out of the park. Continued changes in the Spider Man comics generated the most heat; Miles Morales in the Ultimate Universe and Doc Ock’s continued possession in the main continuity sustained interest. Damien Wayne’s death sparked some reaction, but that seems to pass quickly. It felt a little inevitable. Arrow finally developed created a solid base of fans. It and Agents of SHIELD remain the only adult-oriented supers show with any legs right now. IMHO none of the tentpole supers films did more than continue established franchises without real risk. That may be the biggest lesson- the acceptance of this genre as a mainstream moneymaker may end up dulling their edge (assuming they had one to begin with…an arguable point.)

Action Galaxy revises Skortched Urf' Studios' Galaxy Command with a superheroic twist. The makers of Black Tokyo, several of their GC products are hidden by the adult filter on RPGNow. Action Galaxy doesn't appear to go that direction- in fact it explicitly references DC's Legion of Superheroes as a jumping off point. The setting takes an explicitly '70's spin on design, aesthetics, and personality. That's kind of a cool twist- harkening back to some Italian pop sci-fi, Damnation Decade and the Grell/Cockrum runs on LSH. The interior art however doesn't necessarily reflect that. Plus the structure and layout's a little wonky (no ToC for example). I goes back to the d20 OGL as a basis. The book assumes a knowledge of those rules and recommends other GC products for the game to work. It jumps into the deep end mechanics-wise, but Action Galaxy clocks in at 90 pages. It might be a useful for a GM looking for future supers ideas.

It's more than a little disappointing that Marvel Heroic Roleplaying vanished before some of the movie projects connected with it hit. For example, we never saw the Age of Apocalypse book- an event teased at the end of the most recent film. I'm sure that would have provided some kind of boost. But I also imagine the upcoming (please let it be awesome) Guardians of the Galaxy would have given some life to the Annihilation event book. For those not familiar with the arc, Annihilation is a massive, galaxy spanning, intergalactic-war filled, epic sequence for the Marvel Universe, featuring Thanos, Drax, Galactus, Super Skrull, etc. The Negative Zone invades and attempts to destroy the positive matter universe. This sweeping book includes rules for starship battles and cosmic powers. Of course it is now decidedly out of print- and never saw a physical release. Somewhere there's another Earth where MHR kept rolling and we're seeing web supplements tied into the movie, including the release of Rocket Raccoon and Groot datafiles.

3. Apex
This is an interesting supplement- and one of the few to adapt D&D 4e to superheroes. Of course it isn't a straight 4e adaptation. Instead it builds on Dias Ex Machina Games' Ultramodern4 system. There's also a slight connection with the company's Amethyst fantasy setting. Apex offers mostly rules, with a light wrapper of setting. It assumes a modern game, with characters who received strange new powers. Apex can be handled as a more classic game or something like Gen13. There's a great line in the book stating that, "Apex makes no attempt whatsoever to adhere to principles of game balance." That's an interesting tact, especially given how much 4e has been built on balance and parity. The game has the crunch of that system with ladders replacing classes and 400+ feats. Apex requires buy in to a bunch of other gaming materials, but if you're already working with those and want to do supers, it might be worth checking out.

A pulp-era sourcebook for Basic Roleplaying, you can see it as a genre sourcebook ala Pulp Hero or GURPS Cliffhangers. It covers a wide range of Pulp material, including Masked Adventurers (which brings it under my wide definition). Basically if you put a character in a domino mask on your cover, I'll probably lump it in here. It's a thin supplement, but if you want something simple to reflect the era, Astounding Adventures might be a decent choice. The book itself splits pretty neatly between character options/GM resources and three pre-made adventures. There's a little oddness there since they're intended as episodes or introduction for three different pulp frameworks. That means they're a little mutually exclusive. For these kinds of books I'm always more interested in general GM material and ideas (hooks, quick campaign frames, etc) than fully-fleshed adventures. However each could be used straight or modified for a night-cloaked vigilante game.

I've had some time to think about this game since I read it, ran it, and reviewed it. The concept has stuck with me. On the one level, I love the idea of embracing an apocalypse of superheroes. Nearly all supers- heroes or villains- have vanished in Base Raiders' setting. The world's carefully established balance has been thrown out of whack. Any heroes left behind have to recognize their own weakness. Everyone's suddenly in the wreckage of what the metahumans have done to the place. On the next level, I love the building concept of BR and the frantic tensions going on. These supers left behind their stuff: weapons of infinite destruction, self-replicating robots, bizarre alien menageries, and most importantly the bases. Players might be hunting for answers but they might also be seeking ways to empower themselves. That backdrop- of vast numbers of people in a "mad science" scramble akin to a gold rush- clicks for me. It suggests all kinds of plots, characters, and interesting non-combat stories. Finally on the root level, presenting superbases as dungeons honestly never occurred to me. I mean we had games and sessions where the team had to fight their way through or explore them (Death Duel with the DestroyersIsland of Dr.Destroyer) but that acted as backdrop. It wasn't a real dungeon crawl- with the place itself as a tangible obstacle, the need to track resources & the possibility of turning back, and the actual accumulation of loot. That's sharp and Base Raiders does it well. While I'm not entirely sold on the implementation of Fate given here, author Ross Payton has published conversion rules for M&M, Wild Talents, and Savage Worlds.

On previous lists I've mentioned Greg Stolze's other setting experiments with Wild Talents (ProgenitoreCollapseGrim War). Each of these asks a conceptual question about superhero games and uses a setting to explore it. Better Angels considers the nature and purpose of supervillains. Demons come to those near death and make them an offer: they can live, but only through possession. From that they gain great powers- but must commit evils to appease those forces. The game explores the tensions in maintaining a balance: being just wicked enough to calm the demon without giving in to total corruption and loss of autonomy. The trick- reminiscent of early Wraith: The Oblivion- comes from how your demon's managed. It is created and run by another player at the table. That's a nice gimmick and works for me better than some other multi-player cc implementations I've seen.

OOH my experience with villain/bad guy games has been bad. Over the years I've seen them attempted with different groups. The half-dozen tries I've seen have crashed and burned. They usually end up with hurt feelings and recriminations, whether they're fantasy, sci-fi, or supers. The occasional exception has been games like Vampire which provide a pressure valve against total evil: the need to maintain some kind of humanity. Better Angels works with that and makes it the fulcrum of the game. Supervillains end up comic book-y because they need to entertain. In order to survive they have to hatch elaborate plots with loopholes. That's clever and makes for a challenging take at the table. Better Angels is a complete game, using the ORE of Godlike and Wild Talents, but it has been more tailored to fit this setting.

This appears to be a second revised edition of Bulletproof Blues, though I can't find much info on the earlier 2010 version. I suspect that may have been a limited release. BB uses the fiction of an established comic line, Kalos Comics, which has evolved and grown (much like the DC or Marvel Universe has). It's a kitchen-sink setting with legacy heroes, super-science, and Lemuria. In other words the kind of overlaid and accumulated universe which comes from too many years of continuity. In a reflection of the way comic companies work, the introduction mentions a recent crisis event which has "changed everything." The rulebook doesn't delve too far into that or the setting generally. Most of the information comes from the 14 pages of world background. Instead Bulletproof Blues is a semi-generic supers game, with a setting tacked on to give it some dimension.

The game offers a couple of refreshing comments early it. For one it cites Planetary and a desire to do more serious superhero fiction. I'm not sure the background material entirely supports that- but neither does it indulge in grimdark or Silver Age goofiness. More importantly Bulletproof Blues forthrightly mentions many competing games and acknowledges their strengths. They didn't offer exactly what the designers wanted from a supers game, but BB does. However they don't then spell out what that really means- that's a major missed opportunity. If you felt strongly enough about the elements to create a new game, tell us what distinguishes your game upfront and what makes it distinct.

Bulletproof Blues builds on a simple 2d6 resolution system. But that's tied to a benchmark system with shifting levels. I'm never sure what the solution is when dealing with benchmarks in supers games. My friend Gene hates them when they don't follow a mathematical rule. For my part I usually handwave this things- I just want a rough guide. The game's laid out well- with frequent stop-off to consider how to deal with problem gamers and abusers. Character creation's relatively simple- stats, advantages, skills, powers- nothing too elaborate. The game has mechanics for complications, drama points, and non-combat elements. The power descriptions are well written, but do require individual mechanics and rules for handling each one. Finally there's an excellent section of reprinted advice from Greg Stoltze on GMing. Generally this is a solid product, not revolutionary, but well done. GMs dissatisfied with other offerings, as the authors were, might check it out.

I think I could probably push the envelope by suggesting that Transformers is superheroes. They come close, but I suspect they're more like GI Joe- a strange cartoony war-story mixed with sci-fi elements. On the other hand another cartoon stable, He Man, is definitely a superhero. The backdrop may be science-fantasy, but he has a secret identity, wears a costume, and battles against colorful supervillains. So once again I include Cartoon Action Hour in my list of superhero games. This new edition of a classic but under-appreciated game cleans up and simplifies some elements while adding new options and rules. Some of the seeds presented offer 'superheroic' takes in the loosest sense. For example "S.L.A.M." sketches a world of secret agent wrestlers battling against the Extreme Wrestling Federation which conceals a sinister cabal of villainy. Of course many of the examples draw from a Masters of the Universe style world, so there's that kind of superheroics as well.

A massive campaign sourcebook for Godlike which covers urban warfare on the Italian campaign. While not connected, this complements the earlier Black Devils Brigade, another sourcebook and campaign covering the Italian war. Courtyard of Hell seems narrower; BDB aimed at allowing GMs to run the whole of the march through Italy. This book focuses on specific battles and how to manage house to house fighting, combat in dense locations, and the dangers of a siege-like situation. CoH includes some new mechanics and options including a quicker-resolution system for cityfights. The supplement includes pre-gens, which suggests the authors have aimed to a ready-to-play setting to introduce new players. That's not a bad approach given the detail of Godlike- both in history and mechanics.

In this modern age of Batman v. Superman, we forget that tension between shiny, bright goodness and dark avenger stretch back to the pulp era with these characters (though Superman was pretty brutal back then). Among strictly pulp heroes that tension's best represented by The Shadow vs. Doc Savage. On the one hand, a relentless figure of the night who gunned down his enemies. On the other, a master of science who focused on rehabilitation and philanthropy. Ironically Lester Dent, author of Doc Savage, actually wrote some Shadow novels. They're strangely discordant in tone to the rest of the series, with the character more a brawny superspy who comes out in the light of day.

Two products from Scaldcrow Games explicitly reference this tension: Davey Beauchamp's Amazing Pulp Adventures-Role Playing Game and Rotwang City: City of Shadows Role Playing Game. Both books include complete rules for a simple 2d6-based pulp system called Bare Bone Beyond. DBAPARPG presents Sapphire City, the city of tomorrow. The cover features classic costumed heroes. The setting suggests a place built on progressive science and golden age tropes. On the other hand, Rotwang City offers a darker take on things. It's a corrupt place, gritty and overrun by crime. Here heroes become vigilantes as they fight and kill to stop the forces of evil. I like the pairing and these look like interesting products I'll be checking out more fully in the future.

I'm not an art guy. I can't draw. I barely manage to put together decent maps. But at the same time I appreciate good game art- and recognize the importance of cover artwork. The cover for Deus ex Historica looks...weird...to me. YRMV. There's something about the armless torsos and strange flattened perspective that throws me off. The bits of the interior artwork I've seen look better, but the cover stuck with me. Inside you get a nearly 400-page character sourcebook for Mutants & Masterminds 3e. The framework has a future historian looking back at these heroes and villains to examine their stories. So characters are drawn from across the different eras: Golden Age, Bronze Age, Iron Age, etc. That's a nice conceit. It uses the tales of these several dozen supers to tell the story of the world setting. If it's compelling, that can make for a great read (see The Algernon Files or Omlevex). On the other hand drawing across different eras does potentially make some characters less useful- depending on the kind of campaign you're running. DexH came out through a modest Kickstarter project and apparently had a series of free preview pdfs.

A Japanese supers game translated into English. I bought a copy based on an interesting reading review I saw. Double Cross is a trade paperback thick enough to stun an ox. And man is it dense and complicated...or maybe it isn’t. I’ve had really hard time making my way into the game. Each time I try I’m thrown by the terminology, rash of stats, and weird organization. That’s too bad- apparently it and the rest of the FEAR line is huge in Japan, part of a creatively evolving line of games.

Some of what I know comes from the blog posts which convinced me to buy and some from looking through the book. It has an anime vibe, with youths granted strange powers they can barely control. These powers divide them into various types or "syndromes" (Orcus, Stoker, Halo). They battle to protect those they love, defeat others who would use their powers for wrong ends, and to conquer their own demons. As characters use their powers they run the risk of becoming more corrupted and monstrous. I'm reminded of Code:Breaker and several other anime series. The system includes significant mechanics for relationships and social networks. Juggling those is key to survival. But the game also includes a ton of powers and abilities. It feels chaotic, but I suspect that’s simply because I haven’t managed to find the hook to pull me through reading the rules. I feel like I’m back in the ‘80’s trying to figure out Living Steel. Check out the sample character sheet here.

I’m glad to see more games translated from other languages, especially non-Western ones. Ver. Blue Entertainment has produced a striking product. They’re also released the Double Cross Roleplaying Game Advanced Rulebook and Public Enemy. If Double Cross sounds at all interesting I encourage you to to check out the online reviews.

13.  ICONS
ICONS had a dynamite year in 2013. Funded by a Kickstarter project, Great Power expanded the power choices for the system, as well as adding some new discussion of how these could be used. I love power books- and this is a particularly readable one. Simple, clean layout and great spot illustrations make this pretty awesome. A must buy for the first edition of the game. While GP expands the powers, ICONS Hero Pack presents new options for just about everything else in the game. It covers mechanics for such classic elements as sidekicks, headquarters, and strange environments. I love that the book opens with an iCONS FAQ- declaring its intent to be useful and practical. Again, the book design serves the material really well. Finally ICONS Team-UP series has continued on. These offer simple fan-designed character collections. That may be the most brilliant marketing tool I've seen for a game like this. Of course 2014 would see the release of a new Assembled Edition- integrating many of the new rules and ideas from these supplements and others. 

I'm a big fan of Blackwyrm Publishing- they produce some of the most entertaining supers products out there. I also like that they release supplements across game lines. Imaginary Friends is a 200-page campaign supplement for Champions 6 and Savage Worlds. Rather than present a straight point-to-point campaign, it offers backgrounds, events, and choices than can be used to build a bigger picture. As the PCs investigate and pull together the threads they uncover the pattern. Of course you'll probably want to avoid them seeing the sourcebook cover itself. The adventure offers a twist on the classic "child bring things to life with his mind" trope seen in Twilight Zone and Justice League Unlimited. I like the idea of supers sourcebooks that manage to mix world building and interesting plots. More and more modern supers adventure design has opened up (with the MHR event books as a throwback exception). But that can be tough to manage- especially with supers where different groups may bring vastly different powers and resources to bear.

MMM takes another bite at the d20/OGL apple for supers. It does so in a massive, 400+ page core book which includes complete rules and some background material. In this kitchen-sink setting supers are called "Mythics." While the game includes this framework, it's primarily intended as a general supers rulebook. As with M&M and Wild Talents, the mechanics are the focus, rather than the backdrop. And there's a ton of mechanics. This is a huge book, but the text is dense and small. I mean super, holy-cow dense. Combine that with a large pool of technical terms and abbreviations and you have a game truly built for d20 grognards.

Man Made Mythology takes a conventional approach to the d20 system. Players select a races (humans, synthetics, Valkyries, etc) and a class to customize their character. Classes help define specialties and focus abilities: Gadgeteers, Martial Artists, Invokers, and seven others. Powers are built around linked sets of abilities. These have ten tiers of talents each with a new benefit. For for example Superhuman Constitution at Tier 1 grants Increased Constitution (Rank 1); at Tier 4 it gives Shrug it Off; at Tier 8 they get Strong Willed. MMM comes with 50 powrer sets described; at a glance it seems like these could easily be expanded with a supplement. Beyond that it includes all of the supers game basics: equipment, sample villains, vehicles & bases. The game setting's built into the mechanics and dealt with in passing, but there's no large section explicitly laying that out. MMM should appeal to people who enjoy d20 games and perhaps disliked M&M's move to simplicity and away from the basic structures of the system.

Next time- Mighty Six to Triumphant!

This material is supported by a Patreon project I've established 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. 

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

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