Thursday, November 21, 2013

History of Superhero RPGs (Part Five: 1997-1998)

On the most recent Play on Target podcast I suggested you could break superhero material into three categories: Sci-Fi, Pulp, and Fairy Tale. These represent the 'big sweep' of a game or story. Some combine them, but usually have a clear emphasis. Systems often present a setting with a particular flavor, but some take a neutral approach. Even those neutral games simulate some of these themes better than others: the crazed levels of DC Heroes handle the mythic or techno, but break down for the pulp, strictly realistic action. There’s an additional dial- the drama tag- which modifies these types, but I’ll come back to that.

What constitutes superhero as sci-fi? Most obviously games using classic sci-fi trappings: set in the future or in space. Think The Legion of Superheroes, Marvel’s 2099 series, or Strikeforce: Morituri. But some stories with those elements lean in other directions (Adam Warlock, Nexus, Batman: Beyond). Sci-fi superheroics embrace those elements and also add at least one other trapping: a unified system for explaining superpowers relying on pseudo-scientific patter; consistent world-building focused on consequences; and/or heavy reliance on technology. So Marvel’s New Universe, Warren Ellis’ Planetary, George R.R. Martin’s Wild Cards series, Grant Morrison’s run on X-Men (and the films they shaped), Judge Dredd, Bubblegum Crisis, and the Icarus Project series by Jackie Kessler and Caitlin Kittredge all fit into this category. Superhero rpgs leaning this way include Godlike, Cybergeneration, White Wolf’s AEon Trilogy, Brave New World, and Underground.

What does that mean to actual play? These games add a vocabulary for what’s possible- a certain kind of technobabble for justifying powers and events. They narrow imaginative space: demons, fairies, magic, all set aside. Unless, of course, they’re shown to actually be something else: a malice matrix, a trapped time-traveler, an alien invader. In other words, a supernatural foe from a Dr. Who episode. It often means presenting stories which rseriously consider the social, mechanical, and practical impact of super-powers on the world. I think Aberrant’s probably the best example of that. I’ll talk more about how these approaches differ and shape campaigns on a later list.

The Onion AV Club had an interesting article on the New Universe (mentioned above), an experiment our local group followed in the early days but dropped by this time. Marvel tried a flashback month- renumbering all issues at -1. A couple of X-events "Zero Tolerance" and the "Hunt for Xavier" rounded things out. More importantly they brought back the Avengers and FF in "Heroes Reborn." DC ended up with "Genesis" (a battle against Darkseid) and "DC One Million" which connected the 853rd century to modern heroes. DC also introduced Superman Blue/Superman Red and a supermullet. Looking at the sales list, the X-Books continued to dominate. New #1 books- clearly collector grabs- also topped the rankings. The years also saw a second series of Amalgam- the DC/Marvel crossover/hybrid series. In the movies we got some truly horrible superhero releases: Batman & Robin, Spawn, and Steel. However we ended up with a Blade movie, one of the few truly successful outings for a B-super character. TV superhero material was equally thin: Power Rangers: Turbo & In SpaceNinja Turtles: The Next Mutation; and Sailor Moon. On the plus side, The New Batman/Superman Adventures mixed repeats and new material and The Powerpuff Girls first appeared.

These lists cover a smaller slice of time than my past rpg lists. I hope this makes them easier to read. I include mostly core books, but also significant setting or sourcebooks. 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 from 1997-1998). I've arranged these in by year and then alphabetically within that year.

1. AEon aka Trinity (1997)
By '97 I'd stopped working at the game store and so saw the industry more through online discussions, game cons, and mass market stocking. I recall when AEon hit- and then the quick weirdness of the switch of the title to Trinity. I actually thought WW had two distinct lines. I didn't catch Trinity's premise until Aberrant came out the following year. Sci-fi didn't grab me and I didn't understand that it revolved around supers characters.

I especially like where Trinity plays with some of the classic future-supers tropes. Other games like Superhero 2044, Enforcers, and Cosmic Enforcers have just a sci-fi backdrop. They seem to be closer to the great comic touchstone of the Legion of Superheroes. Others embrace the dystopian or cyberpunk over the superhero tropes (Cybergeneration or Underground)- closer to the various Marvel 2099 series. Trinity feels to me like the LSH through a filter of realism: how could this happen? What would it mean to have metahuman space agents? It that way it anticipates some of the darker and more conspiratorial storylines of the Legion in the '90's and '00's.

There's a great deal happening in the setting and Trinity has some amazing sci-fi world-building. Where I think it fails is in offering a coherent sense of what the game's actually about. The best way to describe it would be super-powered psionic troubleshooters in space. But then there's the whole Aberrant war, the alien race explorations, and strong emphasis on sourcebooks covering Earth. That ambition and desire to cover all ends of sci-fi means that it lacks focus. That might work for another game- like Traveller or SpaceMaster- but the strong design and presentation focus of WW really click when they cover a tight idea deeply. I hope the new Trinity edition does a better job of pitching and demonstrating the core idea. 

Trinity kicked off WW's linked set of games dealing with superpowers at three eras of a shared setting. It modified the Storyteller system to that end which worked...OK. ST had some problems dealing with large-scale and powerful beings. You'd see some of the saw flaws appear in Exalted and Scion. The action handling and speed in particular remains problematic across those lines. But generally the Trinity's sound and WW supported it decently with a variety of supplements large and small. Clearly Aberrant got more attention, but Trinity remained in print for some time. They adapted it to d20 in 2004. Onyx Path publishing has announced that they will release a new edition of Trinity. I hope they take a rules light approach.Point buy. d10 resolution.

 In my various lists, I've avoided generic or universal games except where they have a genre supplement. BESM's my exception- because the material overlaps with what we might call the "anime edge" of superhero games (Super Sentai, R.O.D. TV, Sailor Moon, and so on). We've seen (and will see) several games based on properties like those. Mutants & Masterminds (Mecha & Manga) and Hero System (Kazei 5) both added supplements to incorporate those concepts.

BESM offers a solid system to power the anything-goes world of anime and manga, with a decent set of powers. GOO would go on to use much of the Tri-Stat system which powers this as the basis for their superhero game Silver Age Sentinels. BESM gives both a mechanical toolkit these campaigns, but also good material on how to actually run in the anime/manga genre. The game did well enough that it generated three later editions (2, 2.5, and 3), a d20 version, several genre books, and resource guides for some popular series. If you're interested in a light and fast system, with a decent level of detail and options, I'd recommend checking out BESM (Big Eyes, Small Mouth) third edition. Point buy. d6 Resolution.

I suspect I'm not the best person to talk about this. When it hit, I still held up Champions 4th as pretty much what I wanted out of a supers game. To combine that with Interlock seemed more gimmick than sensible decision. We'd played a lot of Cyberpunk- but no one considered that an awesome system. In fact we often commented on how the game fought more than helped us. But one player in our group followed the development of Fuzion avidly, downloading everything available online. Fuzion blazed trails; it was among the earliest games with an open license. Our group tried it but didn't care for it.

So once I finally got a look at C:tNM, I was a little surprised to see exactly what this sourcebook was. Yes- it has the Fuzion rules, but it can easily be adapted for use with the conventional Hero system. What it offers is a new "reimagined" Champions. A newer, more gritty, and shittier version. This is a game setting which buys into all of the excesses of '90's comics. The macho tone, the poses, the hypersexualization, the dark undercurrent, the complete disregard for anatomy, the idiotic belts and straps and such. It certainly takes the more classic four-color Champions Universe and transforms it into something else. From this remove some of it reads like parody, but I suspect the authors drank the kool-aid. It would make a great sourcebook for an Iron Age campaign in M&M. C: tNM generated only two supplements- Champions New Millennium: Bay City and Champions New Millennium: Alliances published the same year. Point buy. d6 Resolution.

4. Providence (1997)
So far on the list we've seen a number of sci-fi supers supplements, but few fantasy ones. Providence bucks that trend...a little. I'd argue the most influential 'fantasy' superhero games aren't this list because they don't really want to be supers games: Vampire: The MasqueradeWerewolf: The Apocalypse, and Mage: The Ascension. Beginning in the early 1990's WW shifted the direction of rpg gaming and offered dissatisfied players a new outlets. Sure- these games could be used to deal with dark stories and tragic corruption. But often the tales I heard consisted of power fantasies and teams of monsters acting like super anti-heroes and fighting big bads. Werewolf in particular sets up a pretty clear bad guy for the PCs in the fight to save the world (Sam Haight as the Thanos of the setting?). And the Hulk's pretty much just a werewolf, right? Mage has the same set of clear adversaries with the empowered PCs battling against a hidden conspiracy. Pyramid had a great article considering how you could use the background of Aberrant as a cover for an Mage revolution.

Providence, though, doesn't play fantasy with our world. Instead it offers a crazy setting. I'll quote John Karakash's review on RPGNet to sum this up:
"Providence is a hollow world meant to serve as a prison for those who rebelled against a stratified and unjust society. They fought under the banners of Gods who turned out to be merely powerful mortals and were defeated along with their false deities. Soon after their interment into a number of prison-camps, the gates that deposited them to Providence stopped working, trapping guards and prisoners alike. After a number of bloody rebellions (and a few generations), the prison system broke down and most of the cities were freed. Most of the world is unexplored jungle, containing odd creatures that were once like the PC races. And it's a world that appears to be coming to end as cataclysmic natural disasters begin to tear it apart."
The reviews and comments I've seen talk describe an interesting (if slightly incoherent) world combined with difficult mechanics. Apparently it offers superheroics in that you're fighting for good and have strange powers. I've never actually laid my hands on the game, so I can't provide an better assessment.  Point buy. Various dice.

5. StuperPowers! (1997)
The title page image of the superhero with urine-stained pants and a pee pool on the ground as villains surround him didn't give me much hope for STUPERPOWERS!. A parody rpg that aims to take the piss out of the genre, it did well enough in '97 to spawn a second edition in 2001. If you like comedy games, you will probably like this. The layout's nice, they have art, and the game feels pretty complete.

I'm not a big fan of comedy games. I enjoy when humor and parody arise from play at the table, and I dig some spare humor in a gamebook. But I'm never sure what I'm supposed to get from these kinds of in-your-face satires (I'd count HōL in this category). I'm not going to play it and I don't really laugh when I read it. There's some smart stuff in StuperPowers that made me smirk- especially the take on '90's excesses. But a good deal of it feels like weak MAD Magazine stuff. I fear that I'm a humorless grump on this; I mean the Deluxe Edition has been carefully crafted and assembled. The game looks dynamite, but I'm not the audience for it. Random generation (sort of). Various dice.

Several years after Mayfair stopped publishing DC Heroes Pulsar games decided to use that system to create a freestanding supers rpg: The Blood of Heroes. The first edition from '98 vanished quickly, replaced by a Special Edition in 2000. Pulsar Games itself has changed hands since then. But there's some suggestion that they may not actually have the rights to the system. Ray Winninger believes everything surrounding DC Heroes actually belongs to DC Comics and Mayfair never had the right to transfer that license, even to the base mechanics. 

The game itself has the strengths and weaknesses of the MEGS system, but without the charm of the DC property. Everything's here in a dense hard-to-read single volume. The book buries whatever simplicity the system once had. It also delivers some terrible, terrible art. I had to look at a few of the full-page images for several minutes to figure out what the hell's happening. If you have a copy of the Special Edition, I recommend checking out page 136. Try to use that image as a writing prompt. The Blood of Heroes Universe takes up 100+ pages of the core book. It's a kitchen-sink, weirdly '90's gritty setting and strangely incoherent. Lots of NPCs and groups but little sense of what ought to make this world compelling or distinct. Too dark and messy, it doesn't appeal to me. Point buy. 2d10 resolution.

Heroes Unlimited landed in '84 (with the revised version in '87) so that's a respectable length of time for a game to remain in print. I'm not sure I agree with Kevin Siembieda's assertion in the intro that HU is "one of a tiny handful of contemporary superhero games." I think these lists put the lie to that. Heroes Unlimited 2nd has another striking Steranko cover (which pushes Siembieda's intro into an argument with online commenters taking exception to the US-centric imagery). The art throughout the book's more solid and consistent than previous editions. Some of it's wild and oddly out-of-place, but the whole thing doesn't seem nearly as a bonkers as other Palladium books.

Changes for this edition include overall clean-up of the mechanics and changing the magic system to bring it in line with other games sharing the base system. Overall the layout's easier to work through and material's presented in a more coherent order. However some rules appear well before the cart's even been built. As well many sections still feel like essays dropped in. And there's the weird thing that each subsection has a byline, with Siembieda's name appearing every few pages. HU remains a complicated game with a lot of working parts. It has gotten some ongoing support over the years with setting books (some of which I'll mention on later lists), the Powers Unlimited series, and others.  Random generation (some picks possible). Level based. Various dice.

Someone's going to have to help me here. This is the Marvel universe done using the SAGA rules which came from the Dragonlance: Fifth Age rpg. But that's different from the WotC Star Wars: Saga Edition which came out ten years later? That's a little confusing. The SAGA version of Marvel dropped off my radar despite having many interesting supplements. I missed it completely at the time, but finally got around to looking at it.

Wow- that's a striking and brave move on TSR's part- shifting a major license like that to a non-standard system. And apparently it worked, judging by the high ratings on RPGGeek. It's hard to tell from just reading the rules how well it will play, given the card-driven nature of the system. And I'm philosophically in favor of card-based games. I had a good time going reading the corebook; it has the clean and open presentation of top-notch TSR products. I checked in with my Play on Target co-host, Andrew Goenner to get his impressions. He thinks MSHAG rocks- the card system works well and allows for fast play without getting bogged down. So I'll have to put this on my list of grail games to track down.

Here's an odd thought. Marvel has had four rpg versions and DC has had three. Each of the Marvel Universe rpgs have been experimental or at least distinctly abstract. MSH used trait descriptors, karma spends, and some diceless effects. MSHAG goes completely diceless, with a card system involving suits, trumping, and hand management. The Marvel Universe RPG goes completely diceless with a game of resource management. Finally, the short-lived Marvel Heroic highly abstracts powers and conflicts, with relationships and other traits as important as mutant abilities. On the other hand, each DC game has been crunchy, rules heavier, and more concrete. Even the lightest of them, DC Universe, gives full power breakdowns with its use of the WEG d6 system. Does that say something about the respective universes involved? About the companies? Or is that purely an accident of fate? Point-buy (sort of). Card-driven resolution.

9. Revelation (1998)
I left Buffy off this list because its doesn't position itself as a superhero concept. Arguably Angel's closer and once we get to the Buffy comic seasons then all bets are off. But usually it reads as horror, supernatural, and conventional action. Revelation describes itself as "The Modern Superheroic Horror Role-Playing Game." But it’s just another version of Buffy, in a world with Demons and Angels battling (the 'Seraphim' and the 'Shaetan'). Essentially the PCs serve as monster-hunters. There's little conventional superhero stuff here. Point buy. Various dice.

I'm not a big Sailor Moon fan; I prefer contemporaries Revolutionary Girl Utena and Blue Seed. But I appreciate what it does- combining episodic shows with a long running mythology. I've mentioned Superfriends and the 1960's Spider Man cartoons as influences, but I also loved Ultra Man and Space Giants which aired on Chicago indie station Channel 44. When I could catch it, Battle of the Planets scratched that itch for cartoon action. All of that stuff felt superhero to me: using powers to battle a big bad each week.

Sailor Moon's the clearest riff on superhero tropes- with costumes, secret identities, and a team with differing powers. Guardians of Order's The Sailor Moon Role-Playing Game and Resource Book smartly positions itself for the market outside of gaming. It uses the Tri-Stat system with surprising detail. I expected less gaming material and more discussion of the background (ala Bubblegum Crisis: Mega-Tokyo 2033). Instead it splits pretty evenly and has an extensive GM advice section. Worth tracking down for anyone interested in the magical girl genre. Point buy. d6 resolution.

11. San Angelo (1998)
I love city sourcebooks especially for superhero games. I've written before on that (Superhero Metroplexual: We Built this City on 250 Points). City sourcebooks have a particular challenge. Often they must set up the premises and history of the setting as a whole, as well as describing the urban environment. That’s true for San Angelo, but the sourcebook doesn’t let that weigh it down. Instead moves quickly to laying out the city section by section. San Angelo doesn’t feel unique for a supers city- but the book presents it deeply and usefully for the GM. It takes into consideration the reality of supers and works that carefully into the background.  San Angelo can be used as is, serve as a model for your own campaign city, or be cannibalized for other games. 

The original edition came out for Champions 4th, but the revised 1.5 edition covers M&M 1e and Action! System. Gold Rush Games released several supplements to expand the setting: Denizens of San Angelo,  Enemies of San Angelo, and The Dragon's Gate: San Angelo's Chinatown. When I mention SA people comment on it fondly- describing it as the only city book they used. The money quote on the cover comes from Kurt Busiek of Astro City fame; he calls it “…an intricate, involving, well-realized gaming world.” 

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Superhero RPGs: Play on Target Podcast Ep. 21

This week Play on Target takes on a topic near and dear to my heart: Superheroes. We consider the genre and what kinds of games work best with it. Once again I talk excessively...I probably owe my co-hosts an apology after this one. We talk about how rpgs work with a superhero setting. In the future we hope to hit some other genres. When we come to sci-fi, I’ll probably be the quiet one. Still I’m pretty pleased with the episode and I think we offer some decent insight into what we like about the genre and what would make a good entry point. We also raise the Math issue, though I don't talk about some of the cat-fight arguments I've seen about that online.

I’ve been slowly working my way through the History of Superhero RPGs. In some ways it has been even more daunting than the Horror RPG History. I dig the genre so I find myself bringing in more milestone and marginal products. Plus I wanted to keep the lists smaller so they end up covering fewer years.
In addition, I assembled a couple of fat resources lists over at RPGGeek for those of you who might be interested.

The first brings together all the Enemies books I could find. Supervillains Amok: Superhero RPG 'Monster Manuals'Some of these can be found pretty cheaply. I always like inspiration, even if I don’t use the stats. To complement this I also assembled a list of super sourcebooks which cover the evil and good organizations of the supers world: the Checkmates, Cobra, and SPECTRES of those settings. Bad Company: Organization Books for Super RPGs. 

I’ve written a few other posts which consider smaller bits:
I should also call out two superhero rpg experts who’ve helped and you should keep an eye on. We name check Barking Alien a couple of times in this podcast. You should check out his blog which often touches on supers rpgs, but covers many other topics. I think its hugely useful to have other voices in the conversation. Especially those who’ve had different experiences with the same games and a different family tree of play. Blue Tyson on RPGGeek also loves superhero games and he’s been hugely helpful in fleshing out those lists I began above.

While I’m not running a superhero campaign currently, we’ll be starting up the third and final arc of our M&M Year One game in January. It will be the Cosmic Conclusion. I did recently run a couple of sessions of Ross Payton’s Base Raiders which uses the same version of Fate as Kerberos Club. I ran it online with the rules as written and that went pretty well. You can watch the video below, if you’re so inclined.

But I also adapted the core concept and some of the mechanics to the card-based homebrew we play (Action Cards). I hadn’t done superheroes with that before. We did a f2f session of that. Here are some pictures from the episode. The set up's a mix of HeroClix, AT-43 tiles, Japanese scenics, and the bits I tore out from an old motherboard of a 52" LCD TV. 

So what’s happening with superhero rpgs right now? Champions seems to have lost much of its dominance. 6th Edition has some cool stuff, but output for the line diminished and then dropped off. Mutants & Masterminds shifted to 3rd edition and rather than regular support publications, Green Ronin has shifted to fewer books combined with a rich library of electronic materials. Savage Worlds and GURPS both lack a tentpole property or setting to push their supers material. Fate Core doesn’t yet have a big superhero setting and that may not be necessary given the nature of the game. Some of the most interesting work with existing games comes from Icons and Villains & Vigilantes 2.1. The former has a significant volume of third-party material coming out for it and the latter has an active fanbase for V&V as the OSR supers game.

But when I went to begin assembling my overview of new superhero stuff which hit the shelves this year I found a ton. That includes new games like Bulletproof Blues, Apex, Action Galaxy, Man-Made Mythology, MightySix, Prowlers & Paragons, and Triumphant!. Several games have a unique take on the genre like Base Raiders, Rotted Capes, and Better Angels. We also got some great new sourcebooks like Department 88 for V&V, Emerald City for M&M, and the Annihilation Essentials Event Book for Marvel Heroic (which quickly vanished). It’s been a boom year for supers. Perhaps the closure of City of Heroes and the decline in Champions Online has moved some interest back to the tabletop?

If you like RPG Gaming podcasts, I hope you'll check it out. We take a focused approach- tackling a single topic each episode. You can subscribe to the show on iTunes or follow the podcast's page at

Thursday, November 14, 2013

Cat Rambo Taught Me D&D

This week’s my sister Cat Rambo’s birthday.

Without her I probably wouldn’t be a gamer- I don’t know. I wouldn’t have seen someone fearlessly embrace what they enjoyed regardless of what other people said (relatives, peers, dumbasses). I might not have had that model to follow. She taught me how to play D&D in 1976, after she’d gotten the boxed set in Christmas of ‘75. I remember the first time we played. I wasn’t sure what we were doing, but a Giant Rat attacked. I fought and killed it and was pretty happy.

“Do you want to search the rat for treasure?” she asked. 


“You cut it open.”

I cut open the rat and found silver pieces and a dagger. 

I remember her letting me tag along when she went down to the Griffon to play. I remember rolling up a butcher in Tekumel. I remember getting to sit in on a session of DUEL for V&V when the horrible seed invaders attacked and someone polymorphed a kid into clay to stop it. I remember her running The Thieves of Fortress Badabaskor and the floating logs which turned out to be crocodiles.

She played in the early days of rpgs and gaming around here, often the lone female gamer in these groups. I saw the shit she went through. She would tell stories about the funny stuff, but I knew there was a lot more she didn’t talk about. I saw some of it. The misogyny, the jokes about characters getting raped, the fans of John Norman’s Gor, the condescension, and even divisiveness among the few female gamers. If I can claim any right to be called a Feminist, claim any enlightenment about women’s issues and especially their struggles in hobby circles- that comes from my sister. She enjoyed fantasy & sci-fi, loved games, and she kept going regardless of the asshatery around her.

One year for my birthday party she did a magic show that I stupidly ruined at the end. She put on a freaking magic show for her stupid little brother’s snot-nosed friends. She built a command console and flip-around transporter for my Mego Star Trek figures. She ran an amazing D&D game for another one of my birthday parties with a map she’d created and carefully revealed as we played. This was in the 70’s and she did all this by hand with scraps and markers. Honestly, that’s when I knew I wanted to GM- that session. She showed me that it could be a greater experience than just walking through a list and rolling dice.

She introduced me to the gaming group which would be the foundations of the people I play with today. I even play with one of those guys, Alan, to this day, 30some years later. She ran a Call of Cthulhu campaign that showed me what that was like- even though I was too young to get it. She let me sit in a couple of times with her Rolemaster group and see how elaborate a created game world could be. Most importantly she let me run things for her friends once I started to GM. She gave me the confidence to try and fail.

I followed her in fandom…

…she collected different comics- not just the Giant-Sized Batman and Superman books I bought. I read her issues of Miller’s run on Daredevil, Byrne & Claremont on X-Men, Moore’s original Marvelman in Warrior, Grell’s Warlord, The Defenders, and many more.

…I came to Dr. Who not through the TV series, but through the books. She had all of the Pinnacle edition American novelizations and I loved them. Only after reading those did I actually watch the show.

…I love board games and she showed me more existed beyond Clue. We played Cosmic Encounter, The Sorcerer’s Cave, Talisman, Darkover, Quirks, and others.

…I came to reading sci-fi and fantasy through her collection which I pilfered: Roger Zelazny, Andre Norton, Steven Brust, Marion Zimmer Bradley, Piers Anthony, Tanith Lee, Jo Clayton, and more.

Maybe I would have found my way there, but she guided me from the margins of same-old stuff to more wild and interesting stuff.

We fought, we argued, all of that stuff that brothers & sisters do.

Some of my proudest moments have been when she’s complimented me on my taste- when I found a book series that she hadn’t heard of or a comic book line she dug but hadn’t bought. I remember when she walked away from a session I’d run and talked about the things she wanted her character to do.

I love gaming and all of this stuff- all the fantasy, sci-fi, imaginative space, metafiction, thinking about stories, considering how to be inclusive, creating a great experience for players, all of that. Cat led me there. She showed me how cool it could be. And she showed me how to get past people who try to make it uncool in a thousand ways.

My sister's a fucking trailblazer. 

Make good art.

My sister writes and she was nominated for the Nebula. You should buy and read her books.

Happy Birthday Cat. 

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

History of Superhero RPGs (Part Four: 1993-1996)

When my friend Art Lyon returned from the service, he ran a couple of homebrew superhero campaigns for us. We had a great time playing, but the system was legitimately bonkers- in the most awesome way. He reminded me recently that he had tables for all the factors: speed, weight, time, etc. The time one went from a Planck Unit at the bottom to the age of the universe. The system he came up with had the kind of detail and system dithering he dug at that moment in his life. Now, Art said, not so much. Sometimes we don’t know exactly what we want from games. My friend Gene objects to the number of different and distinct status effects in Mutants & Masterminds: too many. At the same time he wants to retool the strength table because the math’s incorrect and cuts corners in abstraction. (Note: it is entirely possible that I’m misstating his objections here).

It’s based on anecdotal evidence, but I see more arguments discussion about complexity and math for superhero games than for other genres. Recommendation threads usually devolve into that discussion over setting, playability, or other design elements. Champions, GURPS Supers and M&M take a hit for “requiring a math degree.” Some gamers dismiss their character creation systems’ as spread-sheet based. On the other hand I’ve seen gut-level reactions to easier game engines. Fate-based superhero games generate a vigorous shaking of virtual heads from many- in Fate Core aspect-driven, ICONS, or even more detailed (Strange Fate) versions. I think many gamers want the rich detail of a massive power list, but one where every power feels unique and distinct. But that shouldn’t be overly complicated- making the character they want should be easy. That’s a common rpg trait: cake desire and consumption. 

They say 1993 was the biggest sales year for the comics industry. An avalanche of short-lived studios entered the market while stalwarts like First and Eclipse died. That year saw Bane break Batman, Grant Morrison’s last issue on Doom Patrol, the introduction of the Vertigo line, Deadpool #1, and Infinity Crusade. The following year saw the start of the comics bubble collapse, and at least two dozen publishers vanished. Despite the turmoil a few interesting events- Zero Hour and the Phalanx Covenant- spiced things up. 1995, however, brought the gamer-changer Age of Apocalypse. That lead into 1996’s big event, the Onslaught Saga which “changed the Marvel universe forever.” On the DC side we saw The Final Night which “killed off Hal Jordan forever.” On a brighter note, Clark Ken married Lois Lane.

In superhero cinema the four years gave us the disappointing TNMT III, Meteor Man , The Shadow, Judge Dredd, Tank Girl, The Phantom, Darkman II & III, Barb Wire, Black Scorpion, and Batman Forever. The Crow and Guyver helped offset those, but not by much. On TV Batman the Animated Series continued, and Superman: the Animated Series began. Other animated premieres included The Tick, the US release of Sailor Moon, Freakazoid, The Incredible Hulk, and the short-lived WildC.A.T.S. & MAXX shows. Just as important, the Mighty Morphin Power Rangers made their debut. In live action we saw Lois & Clark: the New Adventures of Superman and M.A.N.T.I.S..

These lists cover a smaller slice of time than my past rpg lists. I hope this makes them easier to read. I include mostly core books, but also significant setting or sourcebooks. 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 (like The Taint:A Game of Unwilling Heroes). I'm sure I've left something off without adequate reason; feel free to add a comment about a line I missed (if published from 1993-1996). I've arranged these in by year and then alphabetically within that year. 

0. Cybergeneration (1993)
I forgot this until a comment by Kelvin Green reminded me. Cybergeneration acts as an antidote to the nihilism of Cyberpunk. The players take the role of youths infected with a nano-virus which gives them remarkable powers. They use these to fight against both the corruption of the corporations and the jaded hopelessness of Edgerunners and their ilk. I love the blurb on the back cover "My Parents Became Cyberpunks and All They left me Was This Dark Future." Imagine a more political version of the X-Men (like an X-Men 2099) or near future version of Local. It uses CP's base system but adds interesting abilities- with some hitches. IIRC the Lifepaths in here are even more insane. This is one cyberpunk game I could imagine running. R. Tal supported the line lightly with the Documents of the Revolution series. Some of the Cyberpunk modules could be adapted over as well. In 1995 they released a second edition of the corebook- expanded by about 20%. In 2004 Firestorm Ink released a couple of supplements, including one (Generation Gap) to mix old and new PCs. However FI apparently no longer has the license. Will Hutton has a nice look back at this game which deserves an update. Random generation and point buy. d10 resolution.

1.  Dark Champions  (1993)
By this time, I'd moved solidly into Champions 4e as my supers system of choice. I dug heavy chrome and crunch with my games- though in play I streamlined things. Rolemaster and GURPS handled everything non-supers. Dark Champions confirmed my supers choice. Frank Miller’s work on low-level heroes had established that as a genre for our group. Combining that with Moore's Watchmen, Chaykin's Shadow, Veitch's Brat Pack, O'Neil's run on The Question, Baron's Badger, and Wagner's Grendel resulted in a long-running street-level campaign we called Saviors. My sister Cat Rambo ran it originally, but eventually I moved into first chair. That lasted for several years, finishing with a dark ending that saw the players betraying their core beliefs. A couple of years later I ran a sequel campaign that added proto-Cyberpunk elements and dealt more with tech-fallout.

For all its inspiration Dark Champions was a mixed bag. It had interesting crunchy bits in particular the weapons section and the variations on disads &skills. But much of the mechanical material dealt with things well off my radar. It did offer rich and heavy source material. For the first time Champions presented "realistic" discussions of crime & criminal organizations, police procedures, and the implications of vigilantism. Most of that felt more applicable to a Punisher style and tone game than Batman Animated. The characters presented also felt bizarre. The game seemed aimed at low-level and low power, but many NPCs- including the signature vigilante- ended up high-point monsters. It felt like Hero Games wasn't sure what they wanted. Still it established street-level campaigns as a concept to be discussed and spun off.

The success of Dark Champions led to many related sourcebooks: An Eye for an EyeHudson City BluesJustice, Not LawMurderers' Row, and more. Some materials tried to bridge the gap with standard Champions resulting in weird power levels and tonal shifts. Classic mafia-level characters would be weirdly cartoony and conventional thugs could be bizarrely powerful. You can see how the shifts in comics through the 1990's impacted this material in stories and visuals. The rise of grimdark and amoral characters like Spawn and the belt-n-bandoleer-based aesthetics of Leifield & Co. appear more and more. There's a weird fallback serial killers with a knives (or scalpels) as the villain type. Shocking enemy can be great once in a while, but theDark Champions universe seemed filled with insanely competent psychos. Hero returned to Dark Champions with 5th edition- giving it an independent line and more fully fleshed setting of Hudson City. However they haven't yet done anything with it for Hero 6.

True heartbreaker games appear as a meteor burning through the atmosphere- a phosphorescent display of poor design choices, incandescent creator rage, and a brilliant ignorance of other games. They crash into the gaming landscape with an explosion of wtf. But Heroes & Heroines simply falls leaden to the ground. It isn't very good, but in the most conventional way possible. The layout's weak even for an early '90's product, the art's bad but mostly looks traced, and the mechanics clearly come from someone who sort of knows what an rpg looks like. 71 of the book's 116 pages cover powers; one page vaguely describes weaknesses with no guide on how many points these ought to be worth or even how to play them. The whole thing’s weirdly flat, with the exception of one of the five stats being Bench Press Weight (yes, really).

As weird as it sounds, it almost feels like a cash grab. And that would be weird given the state of the gaming market. But the back cover and interior advert pages make a big deal about H&H being the first superhero game with licenses not shackled to a single comic publisher (ignoring things like The Justice Machine and DNAgents Sourcebook). The name of the publisher, Excel Marketing, and that the game clearly went through comic distribution and advertising channels supports that. To be fair they did manage to publish supplements for Image's The Maxx, Continuity's DeathWatch 2000, and Dark Horse with Comic's Greatest World (but not Malibu's Protectors & Ex-Mutants as suggested in the back of the book). Point-buy. Level-based. Various dice. 

3.  HeroMaker Software (1993)
I've mentioned HeroMaker Software before when talking about Champions. It isn't the earliest big-game piece of software- that honor probably belongs to the Dungeon Master's Assistant. But HM changed the way games played. It streamlined the character creation process and allowed for quick confirmations. Champions character creation could be involved and HM took the edge off. It allowed gamers to share characters, online groups to convert existing NPCs, and GMs to quickly generate opponents. When I ran my last big Champions campaigns in the mid-1990's I relied on it. Hero Games brilliantly distributed the software bundled with an edition of Champions 4th. Of course it was MS-DOS so it could be a pain to work with and get running, but it generally ran well. The additional tools- like being able to generate speed charts made it even more useful. When Hero Games switched over to 5th edition, they made a concerted effort to push and support HERO Designer. Most supplements have HD character packs available with the details for the various NPCs presented.

I swear to god I thought this was a joke. For the longest time I thought Superbabes was an imaginary parody RPG title (like Accountants & Actuaries or Whinging of the Lame Princeless). Nope. Real game from a real series of comics (apparently), with a number of supplements. I don't know what to make of it. It is as implicitly advertised, with phrases like comics with "an eye for what men like to see," the use of Bimbo Points, a random event table with a 20% chance of body image issues, and lots of poses straight out of Escher Girls. I'm sure this is awesome for some, but it comes off a little creepy to me. We had fringe gamers at the edge of the gaming group who also hung around comic shops. They who would argue about the sophistication of modern comics and then pay an artist to draw an erotic bondage sketch of Dawnstar at a convention. It's subjective- one person's harmless fun is another person’s indictment of the problem of the male gaze. This game hits me as the latter, which I'll admit makes it more difficult for me to pull out what good stuff there might be here.

The game itself seems to fall between Champions and V&V for difficulty. It has endurance tracking, but a more flexible action system. There's some elements that seem exploitable (especially Moves as a key stat). Combat requires a look up of level vs. Hittability. The powers fall closer to V&V, with more abstract mechanics. Superbabes breaks skills into general areas and then specific types a little arbitrarily. Despite that I appreciate the simplicity to the names. The layout obscures some of what might be good here. I'll point to sdonohue's aptly titled review of the game here:The Short Version? You only need this if you love Femforce, Superhero games,Sexism, or some combination of those three.. Though I never saw the game in our FLGS (and they carried Macho Women with Guns, the game apparently did well enough to spawn nearly a dozen supplements. So there must have been a loyal audience for it. Point buy. Level based. Various Dice.

5. Underground (1993)
Marshal Law. There- I'll go ahead and say what everyone's thinking. Underground looks like the rpg version of that: from premise to art design. Yet in a recent overview with Ray Winninger’s insights, he never mentions it. Instead he cites the desire to create a political rpg, with superheroes as the skin. So maybe the truth's more mixed- and maybe Underground's unfairly labeled. Even if it isn't a direct lift, Marshal Law serves as a touchstone for what's actually a pretty incredible game. In some ways, Underground's closer to Gibson's vision of the world from Neuromancer than Cyberpunk is. Instead of fetishishing tech, chrome, and guns, this game offers a compelling dystopian world painted in bright colors. It is simultaneously truly funny and truly eff'd up.

There's much to like here. The art's striking and consistent- from a Geoff Darrow cover and interior bits to stuff that looks like Charles Burns doing superhero propaganda. Everything deserves a second look. Underground has a simple system, with some striking concepts- especially the way they handle scale and time. The powers section really sells the tone of the game. Yes, you can have cool powers but they wear the characters down and each has a fairly horrible limitation. Make no mistake, Underground's a dark comedy of horrifically powerful beings hobbled by those powers and a society which doesn't know what to do with them. I don't know if I could run a campaign this dark. It feels like Paul Verhoeven at his most satirical. You should read the rules for the political and cultural commentary. Where other satirical games devolve into stupidity (HōL) sustains itself pretty smartly.

It's also a strikingly well-produced rpg, taking what Mayfair had learned from DC Heroes and advancing several steps. Text design and iconography make this stand out from every other game. The Notebook's an ambitious project, designed to be expanded by later supplements. Underground supplied a mix of books and box sets designed to appeal to gamers who loved cool stuff. For years after the line ceased active production you could find bundled sets of the various products for cheap all over the place. I bought a full set which vape'd in the house fire. These days Underground’s harder to find, but I managed to track down a used copy of the core book. For some interesting discussion of it and ideas on how to adapt it, see Phil Vecchione's articles here. Point buy. 2d10 resolution.

6. Legione (1994)
An Italian supers rpg which seems to translate as "Legion: The Power in Your Hands." I haven't found out much about it, except that it seems to have some nostalgic favor among Italian gamers. They also cite another Italian superhero rpg, Supers- which due to the generic name and the language barrier I haven't found out much about. Legion came in a boxed set and had a single supplement. A weak translation of the back cover would be, "Crime and evil continue their advance; now more than ever help is needed. You can create a new champion of good or recreate your favorite comic book hero and enter the fray! In Legion we await action and adventure. Do not hesitate: we need new heroes!" Point-buy (?). Various dice.

7. Cosmic Enforcers (1995)
A sci-fi superhero rpg from Myrmidon Press who delivered us Manhunter, and the first editions of Armageddon and WitchCraft. The players take the role of super-powered space cops at the behest of the Galactic Alliance fighting against interstellar threats in the far-future year of 2025. The game has everything: psionics, magic, cybernetics, power armor, etc. While it spawned a supplement, Villains & Foes it seems to have largely vanished without much splash. Level-based. Various dice.

8. Project A-Ko (1995)
Project A-ko was the first anime I rented and I didn't get it, in part because I only knew a little bit about the anime conventions. But I liked it- the cartoony fun and parody of the movie. It also served as a necessary antidote when I hit other, darker anime. Is it superhero? Probably only by my loose definition. The characters clearly possess superpowers, they battle foes, and there's a nod to Superman in the show suggesting it’s an explicit Japanese take on the genre. Superhero themes often transform, depending on the cultural ideas. Consider the craziness of Turkish superhero movies, Italy's Diabolik, or even the Japanese versions of Spider-Man and Batman. So I'm willing to consider this as the furthest border case in my definition.

I want to include it as well because it’s just a well-designed game. Dream Pod 9/Ianus did a brilliant job consolidating the tone of the anime without going over-the-top silly. It offers a great sourcebook and takes 'seriously' the rules of the universe presented. But the game's straightforward and simple. The skill list is fluid and descriptive- with examples like Shoot really big guns, Speeding with inline skates, Forge parents' signatures. Aspect-like mechanics help players define their character further. Powers are handled through a list of Talents, written fairly broadly. These are complemented by Crosses (aka disadvantages) equally open-ended. The mechanics take up only the first third of the book, with the rest given over to setting material, scenarios, example NPCs, and a card game. Point-buy. d6s for Resolution.

Among V&V co-creator Jeff Dee's other great rpgs stands TWERPS. A light parody of other rpgs, it fit on the shelves with Metagaming, Steve Jackson, and Task Force Games' products and had a pretty solid fanbase. I don't recall anyone actually playing it, but the core rules and setting supplements consistently sold. You could easily collect and get a laugh out of the products- featuring one stat and one profession. In the 1990's Gamescience/Reindeer began to publish new supplements by authors other than Dee. TWERPS Super Dudes is exactly as advertised. Three dozen plus powers and a mini-adventure allow you to run comic-book TWERPS madness. Random generation plus point buy. d6 Resolution.

A Brazilian rpg, and actually the second edition of it. Super sentai and some anime fit in the superhero genre, certainly the sci-fi edge of it. This one's more of a parody of the genre, but counts by my reckoning. According to Wikipedia, "The name of the game is a pun on the famous Dungeons & Dragons or "D&D"; the original version of the game – Defensores de Tóquio ("Defenders of Tokyo") – was a satire of tokusatsu, fighting games, and anime series. It was created by Marcelo Cassaro and published by Trama Editorial, later known as Editora Talismã. It spawned "AD&T" - as implied by the name, an "advanced" edition (and a pun on AD&D). Finally, "3D&T" means "Defenders of Tokyo 3rd edition". The major change on the 3rd edition was that it was turned into a generic game, dropping its satire roots. It was a huge success, becoming as popular as Dungeons & Dragons and Vampire: The Masquerade among Brazilian roleplayers." Point-based. d6 resolution.

We had some people in our group who loved Bubblegum Crisis. As can happen, their overweening enthusiasm drove me off. So a good deal of this RPG is lost on me. The superhero angle comes from the Knight Sabers; armored vigilantes and private eyes battling against a conspiracy of mad robots and cyborgs (called Boomers). The game itself is a love-letter to the series with tons of illustrations, plot speculation, background, gear write ups, and NPCs to satisfy any fan. This material begins on page 51 and runs through the rest of the 168-page volume. We have drawings of every vehicle, robot, gun, suits, and tech-y thing from the series. It’s a little overwhelming for someone coming in from the outside. Still I appreciate the new take on near-future superheroes: more Spider-Man 2099 than Legion of Superheroes

I sometimes get R Talsorian and Dream Pod 9 mixed up. They both worked heavily with anime or anime-influenced material. DP9 also produced supplements for R Tal's Cyberpunk. But R Tal has a distinct style in these anime games: dense, boxy, and full of crunch. BC uses Fuzion- an engine closer to the abstraction of Savage Worlds than the tighter balance of Hero or even GURPS. For as crunchy as this system can be; it is densely and quickly presented. The headings make it easy to find things and the order's logical, but the text size and design makes it harder to read. GMs can choose to run this as a conventional sci-fi game or as a more superheroic one, giving players access to the powered armor suits of the Saber Knights.
Point build. d6 & d10 resolution options.