Friday, July 25, 2014

The Year in Superhero RPGs 2013: Part Two The Mighty Six to Triumphant!

FINAL ISSUE
We come to the last of my superhero rpg chronologies until next year. I’m still amazed at the variety of supers games out there. I never expected this many. I’m also struck by how many people feel a sense of dissatisfaction with the existing tools and turn to writing new superhero games. I would expect that with fantasy, but haven’t seen nearly the same level of creation/reinventing the wheel in Horror games, Westerns, or some of the other genres I’ve been looking at. I don’t know why that is- perhaps superhero games invoke more specific nostalgia. If players love a particular comic book, movie, or TV show and don’t get the same feeling at the table, maybe that drives them to make new art?


GAMES 616
It’s also worth looking at the expansion of superheroes in other forms of gaming over the last five years. In video games we’ve seen an explosion of striking and highly regarded licensed games. Batman gave us Arkham Asylum, Arkham City, Arkham Origins, Brave and the Bold, and LEGO Batman. No other DC character received as much attention, but we did see Injustice: Gods Among Us, DC Universe Online, Green Lantern: Rise of the Manhunters, Gotham City Imposters, and a Watchmen game. Marvel’s approach was a little more diffuse: Ultimate Alliance 2, Spider-Man: Shattered Dimensions, LEGO Marvel Heroes, Marvel Heroes 2015, Iron Man 2, and some Avengers games. Outside of the big two we got a handful of interesting properties, with the most striking being InFamous and InFamous 2. Prototype could also arguably be called a supers game. Sadly the best superhero game, City of Heroes closed down, though Champions Online continues.

On the board game front we’ve also seen an embarrassment of riches since ‘09. Marvel’s Legendary remains my favorite deck-building game. The new Legendary: Villains nicely expands that. My friend Chris bought into the new Marvel Dice-Building game and I dig it. It feels like WizKids really got how dice-building games should work. I would buy into it if it weren’t collectible. On the DC side, Batman again leads the pack with the Batman: Gotham City Strategy Game, the Batman Miniatures game, Batman: Arkham City Escape, and even Lego Batman the Board Game. More broadly DC hasn’t done as well with the DC Comics Deck-Building Game being the most notable. Outside of mainline comics we’ve seen little in the way of interesting releases. Sentinels of the Multiverse seems to the dominant game. I enjoy it and it keeps generating expansions. No other independent superhero-themed game even comes close to it in the BGG rankings. I gave up searching for another non-licensed superhero board game after six pages of listings.

Of course HeroClix continues strong, with new sets and series appearing all the time. For superhero GMs, you can’t beat these for use as the table. I still remember the old V&V metal figures and being super excited by those in the early 1980’s. I never imagined we’d have access to so many costumes and sculpts in the future.

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)

There seem to be at least two versions of this released in 2013. A web release and then a slightly larger and more polished one, with striking cover art. The Mighty Six runs on Mini Six, a variant of the Open d6 system. TM6 offers a complete system for running superheroes. Characters have four stats; skills; perks & complications; and of course powers. It uses a point-buy system to construct those powers- though most can be taken straight from the extensive list. While the basics look simple enough, The Mighty Six uses some odd terminology, at least in the preview edition. I calls things powerks instead of powers. I think that's intended to reflect the way in which the game simply makes these into heightened versions of the system's perks (aka feats, advantages, qualities). I love The Mighty Six's title and the cover suggests an interesting world. But this is primarily a generic supers game. It gives a simple adventure at the end and some sample characters, but there's little or no setting. GMs looking for campaign ideas and background material may be disappointed. Fans of the d6 system may want to look at this new implementation of the mechanics.

17. Miscellaneous: Anthology Items
I've seen a number of superhero adaptations for Fate Core (and FAE) appear online. Those accessible mechanics encourage a number of approaches to powers- making them skills, stunts, or aspects. Fate Worlds, Volume One: Worlds on Fire includes several settings for the system, including "Wild Blue," a pseudo-Western set in a fantasy realm where the players are superpowered lawkeepers heading out onto the frontier to dispense justice and maintain the peace. It’s a brilliantly crazy little piece of work. DramaSystem also produced two anthologies of settings, some of which include superheroic elements. Hillfolk has a couple. "Mad Scientists Anonymous" hints at a world of superhumans, as these former masterminds try to overcome their addiction to villainy. "Henchmen" (based on a concept by yours truly) deals with the lives of witless minions. You can see another take on that concept here. Blood on the Snow offers one more. "Mutant City: HCIU" takes the setting of Mutant City Blues and converts it into a weekly dramatic show.

18. Miscellaneous: PDF Character Books
We also saw a number of interesting pdf-only character books appear this year. ScottComics Character Roster Book presents the stats and background for a comic line I'd never heard of. You can check out what those series (such as "Our Super Mom") at the publisher's site here. It gives M&M 3e stats. The Delucci Family (M&M) is another M&M book, this time detailing a classic crime dynasty. It runs down a Mafia organization within the "Actions Have Consequences" setting. Basic Action Games released Comic Character Cavalcade #1 for BASH! As with the Icons supplement mentioned in Part One, this one's made up of fan-created characters. Great Bridge 2 is a second-volume of Japanese enemies for Villains & Vigilantes. We also saw the second system-generic volume of Evil, Inc. Sourcebook Vol. 2: Villains and More Villains come out. I usually avoid mentioning pdf series until they've been assembled, but the “Acts of Villainy” series is worth checking out. It has three distinct series covering solomastermind, and team villains for M&M 3e.

19. Miscellaneous: Setting/Game Material
Several companies established or expanded their superhero settings with pdf material. I can't cover everything released, but here are some which caught my eye. PRIME - Heroes of Galaxia presents a city-sized future city (ala LSH) but where everyone's memories have been erased (ala Big O). Department 88 is a companion to the V&V enemies book mentioned above. It covers the major Japanese law enforcement agency dealing with superbeings. That's a great campaign hook or background element. The Iron Gauntlet for Supers! includes new adversaries as well as rules expansions. It lays the groundwork for the world and sets the stage for a new series of supplements. World Watch presents an organization for the "Actions Have Consequences" setting. This details the characters and history of the World Watch team. Nova Roma is a city sourcebook for Heroes Wear Masks (a Pathfinder-based supers adaptation). Described as a "darkly absurdist superhero setting," it presents a more venal and corrupt background. Avalon has supported this with several supplements. fingerprints is a complete game focused on storytelling. This GM-less game aims to emulate "post-superhero" comics like WatchmenThe New Statesmen, and The Authority. Finally The Great Game supports cosmic-level games. I'd hoped this would be more a sourcebook and toolkit for running these campaigns. Instead it gives a fairly conventional set of adversaries, groups, and galactic factions. Written for Icons, it has good art and some ideas which raise above being just another character book.

A substantial Swedish supehero rpg. Here's an abridged version of the game's blurb (run through Google and cleaned up):
What would you have do if you had a super power? Would you use it to fight crime, or commit them? …Who would you tell? How would it change your life to have a super power?
For me, this is the interesting part of the very idea of superheroes. They are reflections of ourselves that we wish we were. Ideal Images, now critically examined. I would argue that many of them no longer really be called 'superheroes'. The word "hero" suggests that there is an objective right and objective wrong. The hero is the one who stands on the side of Good against Evil.
I prefer to see superheroes as people. People who for some reason have incredible powers. Forces beyond what you, I or any other mere mortal can handle. It is said that power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. To some extent we are all broken people; we have our secret thoughts and urges, things we do not want anyone to know but that drives much of our behavior. Who do you know who you would trust enough to give them super powers? Who will not abuse them?This is what More than Human is all about. Not whether Superman can defeat the Hulk, but about people with super powers, and how they choose to use them. What would you do?
Green Ronin continued to support and expand Mutants & Masterminds in 2013, though not at the same pace as the previous edition. They released the Mutants and Masterminds Deluxe Heroes Handbook. This added 80+ pages to the original version, including a quick character generator, additional setting material, and sample adventures. I assume they also fixed errata. Green Ronin kept up the release of pdf material supporting the line. They published an assembled Power Profiles book. Unlike the earlier Ultimate Power book, this volume looks at classic power types (electrical, luck, weather) and considers how you can buy, present, and manipulate them. It reminds me a little of Hero Games' books like The Ultimate Martial Artist. I like the approach which helps players (and GMs) figure out how to model and play cool things. Surprisingly Green Ronin released no other printed material for the line in 2013. Some electronic material, such as the Emerald City guide saw release the following year. Some series, such as the Gadget Guides will clearly see an eventual collection, while I’m guessing others like the Wild Cards SCARE Sheet won’t.

I mention this one because I'm glad to see companies releasing supplements for multiple systems. Peacekeepers can be purchased for Icons or for Savage Worlds. The book itself presents a sketchy campaign background. The world lies in ruins following the defeat of a massive alien invasion. Now the superheroes have to pick up the pieces and put things back together. It details the state of the world, significant factions, and key characters. Both versions also include some new optional rules for the system (wealth mechanics, new powers). It also includes random event generators, including one for 'out of costume' incidents. Peacekeepers feels a little like the start of a Savage Worlds plot point campaign, but not fully fleshed. It does include a couple of sample adventures. The publisher, Gramel, works primarily with Polish rpgs- so I assume this is translated. That's interesting and I'd like to see more products like that. Supers can be a little America-centric, even when a line produces international supplements. I'd like to see more perspectives.

Here's an oddball game which mixes narrative challenges and board gaming. I didn't recognize it at first, but then I realized I'd seen it originally when it has been called Skulduggery. They changed the name in mid-Kickstarter at the request of Pelgrane (who publish Skulduggery). In Power Play players take the role of supervillains in competitive story-telling. Stories, locations, and events are constructed through traits and negotiation. The game includes trait cards which cover the basics (and seem ripe for expansion). The mechanics focus on putting elements together and making declarations about the world. These are resolved through a mix of voting and die-rolling, depending on the situation. The game's competitive in that each player establishes a secret objective, but generally the play is more narrative-oriented. So while it has some of the trappings of a board game or party game, it seems closer to FiascoThe Extraordinary Adventures of Baron Munchausen, or The Committee for the Exploration of Mysteries. You can see a couple of quite solid and extensive reviews over at Board Game Geek here

A complete supers rpg, Prowlers & Paragons sells itself as a "narration-driven, rules-light" game. I like to see companies putting their selling point forward like that. With so many options available, as a consumer I want to know what a new game actually brings to the table. Prowlers & Paragons’ narrative-focus comes from an explicit discussion of player input and improvisation. But it keeps the classic relation of GM to player. The introduction says "Both the players and the GM take turns narrating events in the game world." I assumed that meant a more formally structured shared narration (ala DramaSystem or Durance). But instead they’re more focused on players describing their actions and effects, with the GM giving them more leeway on that description. The game also suggests players narrate individual character scenes. These would likely be about the trials and tribulations of their characters’ lives. It doesn't dramatically shift the focus- as Capes or With Great Power does. But it’s nice to see these kinds of player-driven elements explicitly discussed in the game.

Despite being light, P&P's resolution mechanics feel robust. Players roll d6s as a pool, with even numbers being successes and a 6 allowing a reroll. Players can opt to simply declare two dice as a single success to speed things along. As well the game provides a detailed list of super traits and perks. These can be modified by "Pros & Cons." The rules present these elements smartly. Where they're obvious and can be easily adjudicated the rules write ups are brief. Where there's more question or options (like Shrinking or Mind Control) the game isn't afraid to spend some time. While Prowlers & Paragons is a generic supers game, it does offer a sample adventure. That's useful as GMs can see the level of detail expected in planning.

If this sounds interesting, the main pdf is only $5 right now or you can check out the Prowlers & Paragons Quickstart Issue for free. You can also find many free quickstart heroes posted. I should note that Lakeside Games included a printer-friendly version with the pdf. More companies need to do that.

Zombie survival meets superheroes pretty much sums this up. Rotted Capes offers a stand-alone system and setting. We've seen several versions of the zombies meet capes story (Marvel Zombies for example), but Rotted Capes seems closest to the ideas of Peter Clines' Ex-Heroes series. The game has some interesting concepts- a focus on scavenging and tension maintained by having the PCs be ‘B-List’ heroes. Rotted Capes' mechanics feel pretty straightforward. Characters begin by choosing a power source and an archetype. These modify the player point spends for attributes, skills, advantages, and powers. The game has a lot of calculations and exceptions (requirements for purchases, calculated stats, modifications from archetypes). The power list's a mix of specific and effect types. Combat uses an initiative clock for each character with different actions having different time costs. It isn't exactly the same as Scion, so I'd be curious if it has the same limitation. In Scion speed kills- simply put anything which reduces your action time cost makes you significantly more effective. I've read through Rotted Capes and I'm not sure how to judge it. It feels more complex than Mutants & Masterminds. I really need to watch or read about an actual play. The mechanics make up a little more than half of the core book, the rest covers the world, history, and GMing. Gamers looking at doing a superhero zombie game will find a wealth of ideas here. Beyond that it is a pretty awesome looking book- with gruesome and evocative art.

When designer Simon Burley received word from Games Workshop that he should cease his republication of Golden Heroes as Squadron UK, he talked about new directions for his game. Eventually he retooled the system and released a new version of Squadron UK. But he also built an entirely new campaign frame called Squadron X. This takes a more supernatural approach to superheroes. Players are pulled into the battle against the forces of darkness and slowly gain in power. That darkness can be magical (werewolves, etc) or more alien (pod people, etc). It has an X-Files vibe or perhaps even Delta Green with metahumans. I like the idea of players developing their characters from co-opted innocents to potent agents. The book offers a complete system, compatible with Squadron UK. This year Burley released another complete supers rpg, The Comics Code. I haven't been able to check that out or see any reviews, so I'm not sure how it connects to Squadron UK.

I've questioned the utility of superhero city books before. I love city books as resources for fantasy and sci-fi games, but given that most superhero campaigns visit only a single city, I always want to craft that myself. On the other hand some city sourcebooks lends themselves better than others for GM "theft" and repurposing. Stark City leans towards that for me. It has a lot of nice ideas, places, and details easy to break off and use elsewhere. Since it is written for Icons, the mechanical material's relatively thin. Instead it focuses on ideas, plots, and descriptions. In particular the discussion on how to build and managed an "iconic" setting is solid and useful. That being said, I wish there was more emphasis on the "city-building" toolset mentioned in the title. I'm also not a fan of the page background and framing. It really need a clean display version. Most of Stark City follows the standard citybook conventions: neighborhoods, places, and people. There are a few adventure outlines at the back. The publisher has supported this line quite well with Sentinels of Stark City and Defy the Prophecy coming out the same year.

Jess Nevins has exploring fantastic fiction for many years. He assembled several volumes of annotations to The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, The Encyclopedia of Fantastic & Victoriana, and The Encyclopedia of Golden Age Heroes. He's one of my inspirations in putting this list together. Strange Tales of the Century is a massive Fate Core supplement which is about one-quarter mechanics and three quarters pulp sourcebook. It manages to be at once stripped down and incredibly rich. There's a ton of background, but everything's presented in a way to make it easy to bring to the table. For example the extensive section on archetypes hints at new stories and deepens the history even as it suggests aspects and skills for the characters. A useful resource for Pulp gaming and fans of Fate.

A complete free supers rpg, author Lee Walser has retooled the game extensively for each edition. 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 how things work. Character creation is loose- with players simply picking some powers. Character origin affects this, but only a little. There's a strange board-gamey feel to actions, with those 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 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.

A generic superhero system, intended as a toolkit for building a supers campaign. Triumphant! uses a die-step system; as traits and powers get stronger, you use a larger die type. Players can point build or roll for characters. The game aims for quick and easy resolution. Powers are described briefly. Overall it feels a little rough- like a draft version: odd layout and font, drop-in stock art, two full pages of key terms. It does include a brief setting write-up, Sovereign City. Designer Simon Washbourne also created the SUPERS! Comic Book Role Playing GameTriumphant! feels more like a set of beta-rules. I'll be curious to see what a second and more developed edition look like.

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)