Tuesday, February 28, 2017

The Year in Superhero RPGs 2015

LOOKING FOR A REBOOT
This was a strangely and perhaps mercifully thin year for Superhero RPGs. Only a single completely new game released in printed form. Even that reused an earlier system. Some lines got support but generally they remained static. Compare that to 2014 where we saw a dozen new supers rpgs (Cold Steel Wardens, Valiant Comics RPG, Worlds in Peril, and many more). It also marked another year where we didn’t have licensed super RPGs from the big two in active circulation. Marvel Heroic vanished at the end of 2013 and DC Adventures continued to be sold at a deep discount during the Green Ronin Holiday sale.

But it was a decent year for supers in other media. In board games we had continued support for Hero Clix, Marvel & DC Dice Masters, Marvel Legendary, Sentinels of the Multiverse, and the DC Deckbuilding Game. We also saw a few new products- Heroes Wanted, Sentinel Tactics, the V&V Card Game, and SuperPower SmackDown!—none of which made a real splash. In video games we got Batman: Arkham Knight and Lego Batman 3 Beyond Gotham. On TV we saw Powers, Daredevil, Guardians of the Galaxy, Supergirl, and Jessica Jones. In film Avengers: Age of Ultron, Ant Man, and Fantastic Four. So a respectable year, if not flashy. Surprisingly television's the real stand out among those. 

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CANON PUNCTURE
I begin with core books here. I include Kickstarter projects if they actually released in 2015. I give pdf-only releases their own entry if they’re notable, of significant size, or come from a major publisher. I’ve consolidated a ton of material into several ”Miscellaneous” items at the end. I’m sure I missed some releases. If you spot them, leave me a note in the comments.


AMP remains one of the most interesting superhero projects out there. It began with AMP: Year One, detailing the recent appearance of amplified humans. This volume moves the story forward while adding new powers, concepts, and foes. I interviewed designer Eloy Lasanta about his work. You can see that here. Striking ly, AMP takes a "meta-plot" approach. That dropped of fashion in rpgs after the end of old World of Darkness. Lasanta handles this line smartly, keeping it limited to one product line. He’s also shown his mastery of Kickstarter projects in both delivery and conception. His backers get to see where the setting goes and absorb new ideas for their own campaigns. He’s been good about interacting with his community and taking feedback.

Besides AMPP: Year Two, Third Eye Games released several support products for the AMP line. Most important might be the various affiliation guides, describing major groups in the setting (The Changelings Affiliation Guide, TRAC Affiliation Guide). They also bundled together several pdf scenarios into one collection, AMP Adventures.

We've seen supers dystopian approaches in comics (The New Statesmen, Marshall Law), events (Age of Apocalypse, World's End) and RPGs (Underground, Brave New World). Extreme Earth returns to that territory, taking old elements and stretching them further than we've seen. Government control and public backlash usually exists as a hanging threat, a front to be be fought against (consider AMP and Aberrant). This setting makes that front and center. Those controls have already arrived.

This is a world like ours but in much worse shape. It had fewer natural resources than our own. Shortages combined with disastrous climate change has created chaos. Corporations and private military organizations have seized greater influence. All of that’s made more dangerous by Super Talents, a force every faction wants to control. These arose out of post WW2 experiments. There's echo of Garth Ennis' The Boys in tone and set up. Extreme Earth combines an Iron Age sensibility, a grounding in realism, and anti-hero revolutionaries.

The first 30+ page chapter sets up the timeline, technology, and current situation. Chapter two introduces FIST, the Department of Federal Investigations into Super Talents. Imagine a nastier SHIELD with a public version of the Suicide Squad at its disposal. Chapter three looks at who you might actually interact and what you might actually do in the setting. It has some interesting ideas and follows that up with a sample adventure. That assumes a PC group acting as black ops agents for FIST or another organization.

Extreme Earth had a successful Kickstarter; I backed the project. The designers created multiple versions of the setting. That offers one for each of most the major superhero systems: M&M, Fate Accelerated, Supers!, ICONS, Bulletproof Blues, Savage Worlds, BASH, Cold Steel Wardens, and HERO. Supers games have really embraced cross-system development in recent years. That’s awesome. I’ve looked over the M&M material and it holds together.

That being said, Extreme Earth is not my bag. I skipped out 1990's comics. My vision of "Iron Age" is more confined to Batman: Year One, The Dark Knight, and other late '80's approaches. There vigilantes struggle with moral issues, tragedies, and responsibilities. That's part of why Cold Steel Wardens appealed to me. Extreme Earth is dark, nasty, nihilistic, violent, and strapped with weapons. That's not what I enjoy. As well the setting's pretty deeply written; that makes it tough to lift material for other games. It's also weirdly unbalanced in presentation. For example, EE spends a lot of time detailing the personalities and background of super NPCs. There's six pages on a single superteam member, Nightshade. Many others get similar treatments. That feels like overkill. It's missed opportunity; piling things on rather than offering more material and ideas.

On the other hand if you're looking for a generally well-written and excellently illustrated dystopian supers setting, Extreme Earth could fit the bill. It's certainly more adaptable than other parallel products. Who knows, I may swing back to this if I need a quick alternate world for a supers campaign.

A French supers RPG aimed at younger players, specifically 6 to 12 years old. The characters are supers defending the titular city of Hyperville. Resolution uses just a d6. The descriptions I read make it seem like it actually has a lot of details. Translated from le Grog, "A hero is defined by six qualities: strength, mind, energy, speed, intellect / instinct and aura (values ranging from -2 to 4), characteristics that are calculated from qualities (number of actions per turn, Speed of movement, reflexes, invention, deduction, super, popularity, lifting, leap, physical, energetic and mental fighting capacities, with the corresponding resistances. These heroes have powers, divided into three categories: energetic, and strange."

But it’s also describe as narratively focused, so I’m not certain. Regardless I'm glad to see something like this. We have many fantasy games aimed at children, but fewer super ones. That’s a missed opportunity. Given the popularity of superhero films and more importantly younger-skewed superhero animated series, game companies are leaving money on the table.

4. Mutants & Masterminds
Green Ronin's had just a single major release for M&M: the Cosmic Handbook. Not collected from earlier pdf releases, this offers new game material. It operates like their other genre books. The Cosmic Handbook has the twin task of doing both space supers (Green Lantern Corps, Guardians of the Galaxy) and future heroes (Marvel 2099, Legion of Superheroes). The first chapter lays out and goes over the genre conventions. That's most useful for someone coming in cold or GMs without a clear sense of what their campaign. Chapter two looks at common powers and offers some builds. It also has useful PC templates. Chapter three's focused on the GM, with advice on what players actually "do" in a cosmic series. It also has example villains, minions, and pets. Chapter four and five lay out expansions of the house "Freedom City" setting. The first covers space in the contemporary era and the second covers the setting in the year 2525.

The company also continued their pdf series, each intended for a future collected edition. Rogues Gallery offers adversaries; that has not yet been released in a single book. On the other hand the second series, the Atlas of Earth Prime, got bundled in 2016. That has brief pieces on just about everywhere in the Freedom City universe.

Subtitle: “Victorian Role Playing Adventure in the Age of Supermankind.” This is, I believe, the third Victorian supers game I’ve seen (after Agents of the Crown and The Kerberos Club). Victorious comes from Troll Lord Games and uses the SIEGE Engine. That modified d20 system also powers Amazing Adventures, Castles & Crusades, and StarSIEGE. Victorious infuses a classic Victorian setting with literary characters (Sherlock Holmes, Captain Nemo) and vigilantes using "phastasmagoria" to battle injustice. It leans into the early LXG.

This is a relatively slim core book, with a system d20 aficionados may find easy and light. It includes seven base classes: Contrapionist, Hypnotist, Inquiry Agent, Paragon, Radiant, Strongman, and Vigilante. Character creation’s dispensed with in a little over twenty pages. The actual resolution mechanics (attacks, saves, experience, etc) is dealt with even more quickly. Most of the rest of the book, just under 100 pages, treats the setting. That has notes on travel, organizations, the Victorian era, and Bestiary. The last chapter-- "The Supermankind"-- covers a host of topics including GM advice. Incidentally, the GM is the Genteel Magistrate making it the 145th unique name I’ve found for this role.

"Super-powers" as such come to characters as they increase levels in their class. That's a bolt on to the SIEGE mechanics. In other words, Victorious is very much a Steampunk game first and a supers game second. The publishers have supported the line-- with many supplements coming out of a highly successful Kickstarter. If you're interested I recommend checking out sharp-minded Timothy Brannan’s The Other Side Blog, which has a solid look at it. As of the writing, Victorious has a relatively high price point ($21 for a 144 page pdf) that's kept me from picking up a copy.

6. Miscellaneous: PDF Only
Electronic-only products deserving a call-out
  • Comic Book Adventures is an adaptation of Heroes Wear Masks, which in turn is adapted from Pathfinder. Here's the game’s pitch, "Want to play a super hero RPG, but have no one around to game with, well Avalon is here to save you from your boredom. Yep its here at lasts, a solo system for playing a comic book super hero RPG." CBA handles this in two ways. The core rules include a modest random generator (The Patrol Chart) and Avalon Games has released several solo modules. These present a series of incidents rather than CYOA menu.
  • FASERIP wears it's origin on its front cover. The many other TSR Marvel clones have been more coy. Still this is the cleanest of those retro-clones. It has crisp layout, smart organization, and a decent choice of stock art. FASERIP even has a complete index. I have only one quibble. It uses a weird colored and shadowed font for some terms in the text. That’s hard to read and a weak design choice affecting usability.
  • Sentinels of Echo City calls itself a love letter to '84, it "answers the question, "what if the designers of FASERIP used the B/X system instead?"." So if you were wondering that, here you go. The designer has released several supplements, including Absolute Power which adds new character options. If you want an OSR approach to supers, this has it for you. One warning: the art's a little weak.
7. Miscellaneous: Supplements
  • Black Operators: This offers a revamp for the Psi-Watch setting. That's a d20 Modern adaptation presenting a world of hidden mentalists combining espionage and supers. I missed it on earlier lists. That's a cool concept and another one we haven't seen used much.
  • ICONS A to Z: A pdf series covering various topics in the ICONS universe (i.e. Aliens, Battles, Demons).
  • The Enlightened Man: A Renaissance supers setting for use with Spark! and Fate Core. That's a great concept and one I haven't seen before on these lists.
  • The Powers Companion: A super-powers supplement for the Victory system, a multiversal game. Plus "The Victory System is 100% backwards-compatible with the Inverted 20 System used in Hot Chicks. You can use any of the 100+ Hot Chicks: the RPG products with the Victory System." So there's that going for it...
  • Strangers: Les Empires Galactiques: A supplement for the French supers rpg Hexagon. This details the greater galaxy, ala The Cosmic Handbook mentioned above.
  • Superstring Multiverse Worldbooks 1 & 2: Expansions for the Superstring campaign framework. These offer new dimensions to explore in the multiverse. Volume one has a world of supergods and one of chaotic energies. Volume two has both a ‘Golden Age’ setting and a grim & gritty world for contrast.
  • Thrilling Powers: A collection of powers and concepts for Worlds in Peril. Super useful for GMs and players. Worlds in Peril has an open approach to powers which can be daunting. This offers a better sense of the boundaries.
8. Miscellaneous: Campaigns
I wanted to call out three major campaign modules/settings:
  • Necessary Evil 2:Breakout: Returns to the “Villains Resist an Alien Invasion” world of Necessary Evil. This is actually a prequel. In it, lower-level villains and other superbeings attempt to survive in the new created prison that is New York. It stands on its own and has a complete campaign, with the players trying to form gangs and build a resistance.
  • No Soul Left Behind is an amazing supers campaign for Better Angels. In that rpg you play villains trying to contain their own demonic nature. NSLB is a teen campaign set in an experimental charter academy. It's a brilliant set up for those who like tightly plotted adventures. More than anything, No Soul Left Behind presents a great starting point for new Better Angels campaigns. That same strength makes it less useful for other kinds of campaigns. I backed it hoping I might be able to borrow ideas. There's great stuff here but it would need a lot of reworking.
  • Next provides a campaign and toolkit for the Italian rpg #urbanheroes. That's a dark, Iron Age-esque rpg with some satirical content. The translated blurb reads, "If you liked this Marshall Law, America's Got Powers, Top Ten and if you think it to be a HERO you don’t just fight crime in the streets, NEXT is the adventure for you!" Looks like it has setting material for NYC, a host of NPCs, as well as a multi-part linked adventure.
9. Miscellaneous: Modules
Boiling Point is a lengthy scenario for Base Raiders. BR remains one of my favorite supers concepts and I backed the BP Kickstarter. The designer has released adaptation notes for several systems, including M&M. It does a great job of showcasing what a "base delve" looks like. This adventure splits into investigation and discovery, followed by breaking into the facility itself, located underwater. I love that detail and it elevates the whole thing.

Improbable Tales released several adventures more in this series, including Belly of the Beast and Eaters of Steel. These have three distinct versions: ICONS, SUPRS!, and Savage Worlds. Ad Infitium dropped more adventures for ICONS: Urban Jungle and Devil's Night. As well, Blessed machine released Evilution Unchained for the system. Several SUPERS! modules arrived: Havoc on Halloween, Scene Stealers 2: Bad Moon Rising, and The Heist. Centerville: City Under Siege came out for Villains & Vigilantes. That has players dealing with a whole city held hostage. Both Comic Book Adventures & Sentinels of Echo City mentioned above released adventures and NPC/scenario hook supplements. Finally To Stand Together is an intro adventure for the BASH system.

10. Miscellaneous: PDF Character Book Series
  • Acts of Heroism: Heroic characters and teams. (M&M 3e)
  • Algernon Files: Blackwyrm had been releasing additions to this M&M 3e series and collecting them in larger volumes. That project seems to have stalled with the last, Carapace, appearing in 2015.
  • Capes, Cowls and Villains Foul: Quick Bio – Cliffhanger: Dedicated to the late, great artist Herb Trimble. This takes the character he illustrated from the earlier Omlevex supplement and presents it with Capes, Cowls, and Villains Foul stats.
  • Enemy Strike Files: Villainous threats. (ICONS, M&M 3e, SUPERS!)
  • Injustice for All: Supervillain characters and organizations. (SUPERS!)
  • Jacob Blackmon’s Iconic Legends: Written by the titular Jacob Blackmon. (ICONS)
  • Space Supers: Characters from the universe of The Great Game. (ICONS, SUPERS!)
  • The Super Villain Handbook: Not a series, but a large collection. Released in 2015 for Fate Core and SUPERS!, the following year would see a “Deluxe” edition for ICONS.
History of Steampunk & Victoriana RPGs