Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Cities of Steel: Superhero Urban Sourcebooks

In my experience, many superhero campaigns can be defined by the cities they're set in. GM's could have groups jetting across the country or world, but that presents a couple of problems. How do you establish a logical and reasonable means of travel for the PCs, besides teleporters? In the comics they usually cut between panels- and the actual time to get to a place is hand-waved away. But more importantly, how do you establish backstory for the PCs unless they live in an urban location. it may be possible, but choosing a city is easier and more dynamic. Starting in a city also allows the GM to slowly develop and expand the group's circle of influence. Perhaps they begin covering just one district, then move to the city as a whole, and then perhaps national and then international.

So I've put together a list of superhero rpg cities with individually published treatments. I focused on dedicated sourcebooks over cities presented in a corebook or as part of a supplement (in most cases). I started with an easy fifteen. 

1. Hazard IPSP / ISIS Official Map 7 
I may be stretching the definition pretty far, but this was- I believe the first city/setting/location sourcebook for a superhero rpg. Superhero 2044 may have been an unplayable game, but I think it speaks for my enthusiasm that I remember playing it with some joy (until V&V 1e came along). I picked this supplement out when it came out and remember there being a kind of high tech island city of some kind. My memory's fuzzy on that- but it was the only supplement produced for the game so I had to have it and use it. I recall trying to combine that with the urban patrol rules given in the main book.

2. Crescent City  

Brave New World remains one of those superhero rpgs that I keep meaning to pick up but I haven't. I like that it has a distinctly alternate history approach, with a more totalitarian government controlling the world. It reminds me of the most interesting 80's/90's comics experiments (like The New Statesmen) or even the more recent The Boys.

Crescent City takes an interesting tact- rather than being a real world city or a completely new one, it ties the urban location into the setting. A superhero battle in 1975 annihilated Chicago. Crescent City is the new urban center built in its place. That offers many interesting conflicts: rapid development and advanced technology, mixed with fear and wariness about the future and the role of the "Deltas" alongside humanity. We'll see that tactic- the destroyed and rebuilt city of tomorrow- in other books as well.

3. Hudson City: The Urban Abyss
In the early 1990's comics had hit the "Iron Age," or at least the start of it- with grim & gritty (tm) vigilantes and an emphasis tearing down conventional superhero tropes. That would eventually explode into excess, and even with the changing tides elements would continue to permeate modern comics. In 1993, HERO published Dark Champions which aimed to simulate that genre. Our group had been fans of The Dark Knight, Watchmen, The Question, and Miller's run on Daredevil, so the idea of a street-level supplement appealed to us.

Hudson City became the "grim city" for Dark Champions material. While it had some specific material, it was done pretty generally. The biggest problem across the books, at least the early ones, was the wildly ranging tone and power level of the bad guys. You ended up with a lot of supernatural and monstrous foes, elite bad-guys, or crime organizations with access to super-technology. I liked the premise of Hudson City, but not some of the over-the-top execution.

4. Champions New Millennium: Bay City 

Another superhero city built on the ruins of an old one. In this case, the disaster isn't total, but instead is enough to offer the authors room to write up a San Francisco sourcebook without being called to task for not capturing all of the details of the city. That's their words, not mine. It's also fun to see just how 1990's the designs are inside. Its also an artifact of that strange time when they tried to join together the Interlock and Hero systems into something new. The book itself does a decent job of mixing specific locations & story seeds with overviews of the city. I also tend to like to consider how much of the page of count of these kinds of books just presents new bad guys, in this case about 1/3 of the 144 pages. 

5. San Angelo 
Another west coast city sourcebook, this time from a third party publisher. Originally this came out for Champions, but the more recent version includes Action! and Mutants & Masterminds rules. There's a ton of information in the main book- and it comes with positive word of mouth from Kurt Busiek, creator of Astro City. San Angelo also has the advantage of having several supplemental books as well (Enemies of San Angelo, The Dragon's Gate: San Angelo's Chinatown, Denizens of San Angelo). So if you're looking for a West Coast city which can be easily adapted, this is a safe bet.

6. Millennium City 

Hey, they blew up another city! This time Detroit gets the chop from Dr. Destroyer. Of course, they rebuilt it with a gleaming and shining new bastion dedicated to technology and progress. Because, you know, apparently that would work. Now it is a place of vast luxury, plentiful jobs and rich corporate patrons. Incidentally, I think this is the first zone players start out at in the Champions Online MMO. I can see a certain advantage in wiping everything out while claiming the identity of a previous city, but I'm not sure Detroit's the best pick for that. The presentation also seems to avoid some of the more radical implications of those events. Plus, the only superteam to successfully operate out of Detroit was the Justice League IIRC. 

7. Vibora Bay
Sometimes I have trouble taking products seriously based on the cover art. This is one of those times. Really? That's what you're wearing to the battle? Boob window plus bare midriff plus sleeve & pant holes? I suppose for a fictional city set in Florida, you probably want a lighter-weight outfit...but then why the long and heavy gloves?

Vibora Bay does stand out as one of the few urban sourcebooks for this part of the country.
Miami Sourcebook and Miami being the others I can think of. We get a little more supernatural, plus a chunk of history. A good chunk of the books given over to characters, though spread throughout so it is hard to give an actual page count. I'd guess probably half. It offers a section of GM comments and ideas in the back linked up to early pages; that's a decent device. But overall it feels pretty generic with a few details throw in to match the setting, rather than capturing the feel of a Florida city.

8. The Daily Planet Guide to Gotham City 

There have been several Gotham City supplements (Gotham City Sourcebook, Gotham Gazette). I'd say it is the most iconic of the DC Universe cities. My favorite exploration of the city itself comes from the series Gotham Central, about the police department and how everyday cops deal with superpowered crime. Their complicated relationship with Batman also provides drama. Different authors and media have taken vastly different approaches to the city. Consider what it looks like in Batman: Arkham City vs. what it looked like in Batman: Year One or even the No Man's Land event series. Gotham looks vastly different in the two most recent films- from a "comic book come alive" approach in the first, to a starkly real world treatment in the second.

In some ways the actual legend of the city, with its menagerie and details actually make it difficult to run a game in. At least players have a higher barrier to making their own name and legend here.

9. Metropolis Sourcebook 
...actually, thinking about it they probably have a higher barrier if they'd try to set up shop in Metropolis. Who would? Can you imagine telling your group that you want to run a supers game in that city? You could obviously do a "Death of Superman" thing and have them taking his place afterwards, but I'd have to wonder what that would gain you. especially after DC's Rise of the Supermen arc, wouldn't the players be expecting him to return? I do love how iconic Metropolis is and the need to have a sourcebook covering that location. I can't imagine we'd ever see a Central City, Opal City, Keystone City or the like.

10. Deluxe City Campaign Set (Marvel’s New York) 

Ah, I love the flip side, the Marvel Universe where pretty much everyone lives and fights crime in New York. This particular box set covers that city in modest detail, but does include a number of maps which make it useful for any city supers campaign. MSH had a couple of other bokos which focused on the city in general (MHAC6: New York, New York and MHAC7: Concrete Jungle). Of course for the later The Marvel Universe Roleplaying Game there's also Spider-Man's Guide to New York.

  11. Freedom City 
For me, Freedom City is the ultimate and archetypal superhero RPG city. It's a fake city, it is huge, you move from gleaming heights to dingy underbelly, it has everything and a superpowered kitchen sink. It has been built to encompass most kinds of supers games, which also means that it lacks distinct character. It wants to be Astro City- but Astro City has a distinct flavor as a town hugely impacted by the presence of superbeings, a place filled to overflowing with them. Astro City's what New York might actually be if it had the kind of metahuman density of the Marvel comics.

Freedom City also ties pretty solidly into the background and history built in
Mutants & Masterminds 2e. So we have a number of legacy heroes and villains. There's some good material here- but much of it tied into the specifics of the city, making it a little harder to steal for elsewhere. A little over a quarter of the book is NPC villains and character stats, IIRC.

12. Emerald City 

I have to admit that I haven't gotten into the new third edition of M&M. I liked 2e enough that I'm pretty satisfied with the rules as they are. Emerald City is apparently the new default campaign city for M&M, a West Coast version of Freedom City. Rather than publish a core campaign book for it, they apparently discuss it in the main book and then have spread the details out over a series of modules, Emerald City Knights

13. Century Station 
I'm not sure I can do justice to this supplement. I understand that Palladium has a reputation for taking everything to 11+, and their superhero system Heroes Unlimited is no exception to that. Century Station clearly approaches its design with that philosophy firmly in mind. It is jam packed with crazy ideas, wild powers, bizarre incidents, and insane concepts. It is far and away the densest city sourcebook both in terms of material and layout. We have an island-city which a massive high-tech history which has suffered several major incidents at the hands of metahumans. There's a neighborhood & district for every theme and genre here. it's the equivalent of Paragon City from City of Heroes for trying to jam everything possible together.

That isn't to say that it is bad. Author Bill Coffin just keeps throwing ideas at the reader. I would have a hard time actually running a game in this setting- and there's little to distinguish the tone of the place other than extreme- but GM's will find many cool characters, places and ideas to lift for their own campaign. I'd love to see a version with better text design and more emphasis on story ideas. I'd say roughly half of the page count is given over to NPC and equipment write ups.

14. Nocturnals: A Midnight Companion (Pacific City)  

Mutants & Mastermind's switch from first to second edition unfortunately left some products in the dust (Noir and Gimmick's Guide To Gadgets for example). Nocturnals is a sourcebook based on Dan Brereton's supernatural hero series. It is a pretty awesome sourcebook- with tons of amazing art, new game options, character write-ups, and a look at the world of the comic series as a whole. It also includes a lengthy write-up of Pacific City, the strange urban setting for the stories. If you're looking for a lower-powerful supers community, blending weird magic and the strange with street-level noir, then this is the book for you. 

15. Streets Tell Stories (Future Los Angeles)  
Underground's a weird beast, and I'm not sure if it was ahead of its time or just too strange to really find a market. Despite having a set of amazingly presented sourcebooks, I don't recall the game actually catching on at all around our area. Yet when it came out, superheroes and cyberpunk were all the rage among our groups. Of course Underground more than a little steals from Marshall Law and indie comics of the time, creating a weird mish-mash of techno-nihilism, parody, gun-fetishism, and antiheroism. It owes a huge debt also to everything ever published by 2000AD.

And it recognized the importance of cities in the setting, offering three sourcebooks, each covering radically different locations. Streets Tell Stories is a boxed set presenting a dystopian LA, the default setting for the game. But GMs could also go with a more political game set in Washington DC, covered in
Ways and Means. Or for a more dangerous location, the campaign could be set in the former penal colony turned tourist destination on the Moon, Steel Deep: The Luna Sourcebook. If you're looking for dark cyberpunk-supers city sourcebooks, then look no further.

Follow up post: Superhero Metroplexual: We Built this City on 250 Points


  1. Love some of the cover art on display - cool post :)

  2. Great post! I hadn't heard of some of these!

    But what about Bay City for the Fuzion-powered CHAMPIONS: The New Millenium?

  3. I'm pretty sure bay City is the same as #4 on the list, but it may have been done for a couple of different systems. I found a few other city sourcebooks for other supers rpgs, but most of them were smaller or more self-published game lines.

  4. Underground didn't catch on here either. Even though with the types of players we had one would think it should have been huge. The general complaints I heard about it was mainly the system and the overall look of the corebook as a second runner up. Being a huge Marshal Law fan at the time I bought it but never even attempted to run it... ah well.

    Then again I've never ran a successful supers game at all.

  5. One thing to consider is how super rpgs responded to changes in comics in the 1980's/90's. We ended up with sourcebooks for MSH and DC Heroes that were pretty up to date. At the same time TMNT caught that this was a popular setting, Mayfair produced Underground in response to new kinds of comics, and Dark Champions responded to the grittier and more street level ideas being published. We see less of that now- certain DC Adventures ended up not reflecting currently DC continuity. And the new Marvel Stuff seems to be focused on events and stories from at least five years ago, longer in many cases. The forthcoming Atomic Robo RPG strikes me as the only recent superhero rpg responding to a series. And many superhero comics are caught in old conventions, so they're not generating new concepts and ideas.

  6. The DCA books are interesting...and again they got stuck in the whole New 52 thing...but the approach of presenting 'classic state' characters in a limited line is sensible I think.

    An Alex Ross approach to match the covers.

    Also my DCU...the end, I guess, so perhaps biased that way personally.

  7. Check out the reviews and testimonials on and see how this company holds up for events.
    reviews on miamisuperhero