Thursday, December 5, 2013

History of Superhero RPGs (Part Six 1999-2001)

Those irritated by my inclusion of borderline items on previous list installments should be relieved. This chapter increases the purity of the supers items. A strong case can be made for calling all of these books and supplements superhero games.

In my last post I offered a scheme for breaking down those games (and comics, movies, books, etc.). That divides them into three loose categories: Sci-Fi, Pulp, and Mythic. I’ll try to explain what I mean by the second of these, Pulp. On the one hand it contains most of those superhero tales which self-describe as superhero. Indiana Jones, Tarzan, and even Doc Savage are pulp, but they aren’t superhero. Instead I’m talking about “Mystery Men”- characters with masks, gimmicks, and sometimes strange powers. That includes The Shadow, The Woman in Red, The Spider, Miss Fury, early Bat-Man, The Avenger, and so on. These appear in novels, radio serials, and comics. They’re icons of justice fighting against clear adversaries, but often solving mysteries at the same time. If a pulp game allows for crimefighters like those, I include those on the list.

But beyond that Pulp includes games and settings where powers mean less. On the one hand that can focus on non-powered adventurers or vigilantes. Dark Champions, for example, emulates these kinds of games. These stories include “realism,” street level conflicts, brutalized protagonists, and conflicts with the authorities. Key storylines focus on this aspect: Batman: Year One, The Punisher, The Question, Daredevil, Moon Knight, and Kick-Ass. We can see this on television with The Cape and Arrow. But Arrow’s immediate predecessor, Smallville, began as the other strain in this category: Pulp as Human Drama. Pulp stories, as I’m defining them, concentrate on the human costs and consequences. Characters worry about their expenses, the toll on those closest to them, how to maintain their secrecy. They struggle with these issues much more than they do with villains. Campaigns built this way can be tough on players expecting power and freedom. This kind of superhero story more about the people and less about the environment (unlike the Sci-Fi superhero story). Solutions and victories are usually small-scale and temporary (unlike the Mythic supers story).

I’m stunned at how many X-books topped the sales rankings during this period: Uncanny X-Men, X-Men, X-Men Magneto War, Wolverine, Gambit, Mutant X, and so on. Marvel seems at the top of their game month after month, with the majority of the top twenty in sales consistently. Even the events all seem tied to these characters with the “Hunt for Xavier,” “The Twelve,” and the solution to the Legacy Virus problems. DC on the other hand brought some interesting books and series to the table, not least of which was the “No Man’s Land” crossover for Batman. On the other end of the spectrum lies cosmic Our Worlds at War series with cosmic level events on every page. Both publishers pull in interesting new voices like Ed Brubaker and Greg Rucka- writers who’d toiled in the indie comics scene. The movies brought us very different takes on heroes: parodies like Mystery Men and The Specials; the revisionist Unbreakable; and the conventional X-Men. Television offered more diverse options. We got several new Power Rangers series, but we also finally saw Batman Beyond. Fox Kids destroyed us with the terrible Spider Man Unlimited and Avengers: United They Stand. Smallville arrived and slightly redeemed the idea of live-action supers shows, poisoned by fare like Witchblade and Mutant X.

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 Bif! Bam! Pow!, Urge, and Four Colors al FrescoI'm sure I've left something off without adequate reason; feel free to add a comment about a line I missed (if published from 199-2001). I've arranged these in by year and then alphabetically within that year.

1. Aberrant (1999)
I bought into Aberrant late. White Wolf had begun to wind the line down by the time I started buying. The game looks and feels different from earlier superhero games, except its predecessor Trinity and maybe Underground. Compare the style and presentation of this to the big three Villains & Vigilantes, Champions, and Marvel Super Heroes. Aberrant brings the setting- deep, rich, and complicated. It tailors the superpowers to that world, leaving out anything which doesn't fit. It wants to be high-octane, furious, and over-the-top. But it may go too far in that direction. Aberrant suffers from some of the problems facing other high-powers WW products (Scion, Exalted). The mechanics spin wildly out of control when you hit higher power levels. Many people ran successful campaigns using these rules, but balance and rules density kept me away.

Despite that I love the Aberrant's setting. It presents some of the most consistent and smart world-building. More than nearly any other supers game before, it considers the implications of powers and new technologies on the world. While Underground goes for parody through excess, Aberrant explores consequences. It makes uncannily accurate predictions about near-future tech- like streaming TV programs requiring individual purchases. It explores new areas for supers games- including religion, wrestling, and even celebritydom. However that richness actually works against Aberrant as a campaign setting. For one thing, there's a strong and heavy metaplot running through the material. In other rpg lines (like Vampire or Mage) you could easily work around that. But the smaller size of this line makes that stick out like a sore thumb. The world-building and driving story push the PCs out. I would read an Aberrant novel or comic series. Critics suggest Story Gamers are frustrated novelists and Aberrant feels like an example of that.

The density works against the game in another way: player buy-in. Players have to read all of the setting material to really get the concept and tone. There's almost too much, especially with a genre usually given over to lighter settings and themes. Aberrant's dark and paranoid- reflecting White Wolf's approach but also reflecting a shift in comic books. We'll see that pop up a couple more times in this period and later years. White Wolf published many supplements for Abberant and they were among the earliest games sold as pdf. They also released a d20 version in 2004. If you like superhero settings, you really ought to read at least the core book. You'll find many concepts and details you can lift for a modern game. Point-buy generation. d10 resolution.

2. Brave New World (1999)
Comic books got dark in the 1990's. The seeds of that lay in earlier books like Watchmen, The New Statesmen, The Dark Knight Returns, Arkham Asylum, Miracleman, The Killing Joke, and the general indie movement. Comic book creators and fans learned many lessons from those- for good and for ill. Event books moved to darker themes, more graphic violence, and criticism of "four-color" idealism. That resulted in series like Spawn, Aztek, The Authority, Rising Stars, Stormwatch, and especially Kingdom Come. I dropped books as they got darker and less hopeful. I avoided those that just laughed at the old tropes without offering anything other than ultra-violence and grade-school black humor. I gave up on the superhero anthology Wild Cards once it went down that path. Too many authors embraced dark for the sake of dark rather offering an interesting consideration of the ideas. That obscured good work being done in comics, novels, and in rpgs. I avoided Brave New World for precisely because of that.

That's a pity because Brave New World offers an interesting and challenging setting. I wish I'd come to it earlier. Like Aberrant, it presents a darker and conspiracy-rich universe. BNW's even more dystopian- with the players battling against a super-powered fascist government bent on controlling all of the "Deltas" aka the remaining metahumans. The clash comes from a McCarthy-esque superhuman registration. While it feels a little like the X-Men's Mutant Registration Act, it more closely resembles Marvel's Civil War arc. Brave New World has a metaplot, but it doesn't feel nearly as constraining as Aberrant's. Instead it lurks in the shadows. GMs don't have to know the secret and shifting that won't render sections of the supplements unplayable. Brave New World also differs in feel from Aberrant. The latter buys deeply into sci-fi with a technobabble backstory and an emphasis on societal fallout. The former feels more mythic- with magical supers, an alternate history of twisted icons, and clear sense of foes and friends. (Though the actual metastory Forbeck had planned goes in a different direction).

Brave New World has an odd publishing history. It began with Pinnacle Games. The base mechanics feel like WEG d6 or Savage Worlds with a single die type. Shortly after launch BNW mofed over the Alderac. They released a number of supplements covering the basics (players guide, volumes for different factions, a city book, and a WW2 sourcebook). However they closed down the line before design Matt Forbeck could complete his plans for it. he has published a series of novels in the setting for those who like superhero fiction. There's some awesome stuff to be found in these books and I like the basic premise of rebel heroes against a corrupt government. Point buy generation. d6 Resolution.

West End Games filed for bankruptcy in 1998, the year before publishing DC Universe. That rpg came out from a WEG restored as "d6 Legacy," a division of French publisher Humanoids. Originally the publisher of Metal Hurlant/Heavy Metal, Humanoids evolved into one of the most important European creators of graphic novels, with DC briefly working with them to publish in the United States. This new organization published both DC Universe and The Metabarons rpg, until Eric Gibson bought WEG in 2003. So we have a high-profile US comic book license developed by a semi-bankrupt company under the auspices of a French publisher.

Despite those challenges, WEG managed to put together a strong and solid game. DC Universe uses the d6 Legacy system. That offers an interesting compromise between rules-light and granular mechanics. The character sheets, even for simple characters, pack a ton of information- lists of skills and abilities with die values. The write-ups resort to teeny-tiny font to fit everything in. Other elements make the game feel very classic and conventional. Pages have an intrusive sidebar that eat up text real estate. The designers subdivide broad areas into increasingly smaller bits in the form of specializations. These apply across skills, combat talents, and powers. That's an approach closer to the older DC Heroes than more open systems like Champions or Marvel Heroes. Despite that DC Universe isn't that heavy in play (unless you use the optional rules and countless modifier charts there). The weight of the game rests on character creation and trying to figure out exactly what you can do in play.

DC Universe did well enough that WEG published many supplements- for groups JSA Sourcebook, locations The Daily Planet Guide to Metropolis, and concepts Magic Handbook. If you like the d6 system, you should consider tracking down a copy of this (or d6 Powers). If you loved DC Comics in the 1990's, you could do worse than this as a sourcebook for the period. Point-Buy. d6 Resolution.

4. Heroes Forever (1999)
I'm not a collector of rpgs- I mean not a real collector. I buy many games and supplements, probably too many. But I'm looking for material for inspiration or ransacking. I don't hunt for items just to preserve them. So when I compile these lists I often hit things I'm unfamiliar with. That's when I turn to online resources like RPG Geek, RPGNet, blogs, online reviews, wikipedia, publisher's websites, and so on. Sometimes I'll find copies for sale- as pdf or as cheap used editions on Amazon or Noble Knight. At that point I have to decide whether or not to thrown down money just to see what's happening with a particularly obscure rpg. I've been burned by that more than once. To prevent that I've developed a set of warning signs:
  • Typos on the cover materials or promotional information.
  • An unnavigable or incomprehensible publisher site.
  • 1990's state of the art websites.
  • Bad cover artwork (or good only on core book).
  • Blurbs which don't actually say what the game's about or what makes it distinct from other games in the genre.
  • No reviews online for an older game.
Heroes Forever ticks all of those boxes. Guild of Blades publishing makes figuring out what's actually out for the game harder than it needs to be. I couldn't find any real reviews of Heroes Forever online. Usually I can find at least some nostalgic write-up on a blog talking about their fondness for something obscure. HF's generated almost nothing despite fourteen years and multiple supplements. Almost nothing- the few small comments I've found universally suggest the company could benefit from a spellchecker of any kind. I also saw the word incoherent thrown around. However once I saw the cover of the Magic Sourcebook, I decided I'd done my due diligence and wrote this. ??? Generation. d12 Resolution.

5. Century Station (2000)
While I mentioned Heroes Unlimited 2e on my previous list, I have to draw your attention to this book and its companion volume Gramercy Island. They're amazing, thick, wild, and absolutely bonkers. Bill Coffin builds a world to match the wild possibilities of HU in these two books. Century Station presents a once highly advanced city which has crashed and nearly burned. It looks most like Paragon City from City of Heroes. Anything and everything can be found here from wizards to mutants to vigilantes to cyborgs. Gramercy Island presents the adjacent super-prison (ala Stronghold or Lockdown). More than just a book of villains GI gives you the tools to run an over-the top prison-based campaign. That includes layouts, lingo, and adventure seeds.

Why do I love these two books? They're bursting at the seams with ideas. Many elicit a wtf, but that can inspire twists and turns to use at the table. If you're looking for something to kickstart your supers campaign grab one or both of these supplements.

I'm not sure what to make of this one for several reasons. On the one hand the game seems to have an introduction by Paul Dini. On the other I'm unsure of Paul Dini's gaming bona fides. On the one hand the game calls itself 'superpunk' which sounds intriguing. On the other the cover blurb does nothing to explain what that means. The Amazon reviews seem positive, perhaps overly so given how fast this fell off the radar.

I'll simply quote the author's LinkedIn profile verbatim:
"In 2000 Nemesis: A perfect world would be published. This Superhero role-playing game would canonize the term “Superpunk” and be the inspiration for many comics and games including City of Heroes, NBC’s Heroes and others. Though applauded world wide Nemesis: A perfect world would not become a hit in the United States and would fall into obscurity when publisher Maximum CNG fiscal problems would prevent it from publishing expansions or follow-ups."
Point-Buy Generation. d6 Resolution.

7. Sketch! (2000)
I might not like full comedy rpgs, but I do appreciate some humor. Sketch! offers a goofy planet of good and evil locked in a constant four-color battle. Or perhaps a greyscale world, depending on what you're using to draw your characters. Each player sketches their PC as well or as badly as they want. Then the group votes on stats with the average vote becoming the ability's value. Most tests pit that against a 2d6 roll. This simplicity and unique device lends itself to one-shot games, however Sketch! includes rules for longer campaigns, with a mechanic for gaining and keeping fame (and infamy) for the PCs. Sketch! also wins for the best supplement- the Sketch Character Generator. Unusual Generation. 2d6 resolution.

8. Superheroes INC. (2000)
A Spanish RPG, this is actually the second edition of the game. The first edition published by Ediciones Cronópolis in '95 had a couple of supplements, but the company folded. A new publisher- La Caja de Pandora (Pandora's Box)- decided to revise and reissue the game in striking way. They published a separate basic manuals for each of the six character types: Inhumans, Vigilantes, Magic, Mutants, Gods, and Tech. That's neat concept except that each had different bits necessary to play the game. A later revised edition put everything together into one version. The game itself apparently leans heavily on Basic Role-Playing (BRP). Point-Buy and Random Generation. Percentile resolution.

UNSanctioned presents another dark and paranoid world of supers battling a corrupt government. The players can be rebels (the "un-sanctioned" of the title) or Peacekeepers. It offers a complete set of rules. Nightshift calls that the "Paradigm System" but I'm unsure if they've used that for other games. Reviews online are mixed. Writers on RPGNet heavily critique the game for reused text & art, weak & undeveloped mechanics, and editing problems. On the other hand, a DriveThru reviewer calls it "clever, creative and utterly distinctive." That points out the problem with online reviews more than it gives me a sense of what UNSanctioned's like. When in doubt I tend to go with the reviewer who gives me more supporting evidence and explanation. In this case that's the former. Nightshift published one supplement, Peacekeepers Illustrated. That contains additional material for running a government-centered campaign. Point-Buy Generation. d20/2d10 resolution.

10. Adventure! (2001)
Adventure! finishes the AEon trilogy with a bang. It offers the cleanest, smartest, and most complete iteration of the system and setting. The layout and presentation's clear and easy to get at. Where the other two rpgs in the series erected a barrier of background material, Adventure! blends that with the rules seamlessly. You can find what you're looking for. That makes the game easier to teach and offer to new players. The Storyteller mechanics also simply click with this genre and setting. Of all the implementations of that core system, I think Adventure! best balances power and options. It still has some of the base flaws of the revised Storyteller engine, but the rules mesh with what players do and how they play in the setting. Despite that it didn't make a splash and White Wolf published no supplements for this pulp action game.

Is it superheroes? Yes- more than most pulp games. As I mentioned above, I include those games if they offer masked vigilantes or other proto-superhero elements. Adventure! ties into the "Quantum" origin of powers connecting the three rpgs together. That reality shifting mechanic allows for a world filled with strange wonders while still keeping a coherent pseudo-science premise. That's a neat trick and I'm surprised at how well it works. GMs can embrace or ignore that facet of the background. That origin story also allows for a wide variety of interesting low-level powers. Most pulp games have these either as a rare option or a specific class track. Adventure! embraces them and offers talents to even apparently non-powered heroes. Death Defiance may be the best of these; characters can return from the dead if they managed to expire but no one saw their body. Adventure! consistently offers what I look for in a pulp game. If you want to run a 1930's or '40's masked adventurer game, I highly recommend this. Point-Buy Generation. d10 resolution.

11. Godlike (2001)
The Saving Private Ryan of Superhero games. Godlike's a bold rpg, too easily dismissed as just WWII supers. Several systems had published sourcebooks for the war- All This and World War II, The World at War. I considered the sub-genre in earlier posts "A Cape too Far" & "Four-Color Furies." No other game approaches the concept like Godlike. It is a World War II rpg that happens to have supers. The ideas, implications, and hellishness of that conflict come first. The game considers the what happens when you throw metahumans into a situation like that. How do people react? How do the institutions respond? What difference can one superbeing actually make on the battlefield?

Godlike brings the darkness, but that comes from a real place. Everything fits with that: Dennis Detwiller's creepy cover, the slightly distorted interior photos, the system's hefty crunch, the deep timeline of the war. Godlike's the first implementation of Greg Stoleze's ORE (One Roll Engine) which would go on to power several rpgs. The game manages to wring detail out of that fairly abstract dice mechanic (a pool roll read in two dimensions). Godlike balances concepts carefully. You have superpowers which can be finely tuned matched with highly granular weapons and equipment sets. Few other superhero games manage to tie their mechanics so tightly to the world they present. Godlike's done well enough over the years to launch several supplements, another more open version supers game (Wild Talents), and a second edition in 2012. Those looking for a game which smartly connects setting & system should check this out. Point Buy. d10 Pool Resolution.

The 21st century leaves behind some of the excesses of 1990s comic books, but picks up a new set of rpg excesses. d20 adaptations spring like weeds across all genres. I'm torn about this. On the one hand I like new source materials, especially those I can quickly understand. On the other I dislike supplements with more space for mechanics and stat blocks than new ideas. Plus my current favorite supers system, Mutants & Masterminds 2e, offers a d20 version though far from the source. Some gamers dismiss Fate, Savage Worlds, or (Insert System) implementations out of hand. I've been guilty of that with d20 systems in the past. But I have some reason. Many supplements seem slapped together. They take advantage of the potential audience without really tuning the system to their story.

This book may fall into that slap-dash category. The Foundation's the first d20 superhero supplement but not the last. Rather than a generic supers game, it draws from an author's short stories. Eric Metcalf published these online, but I haven't been able to track them down. The mechanics directly port from d20. Archetypes (Brick, Gadgeteer, etc) act as classes. But the book doesn't offer much more in the way of system. It leaves GMs to work out most of the problems and figure out character creation. Most of the book actually presents Metcalf's world. That includes the 'vital stats' of the busty female characters to quote the RPGNet review...shades of Superbabes. Interestingly Paul Lidberg's listed as the designer for this and UNSanctioned mentioned above. Pretty universally panned in the reviews. Mixed generation. Various dice.


  1. Can't spell is definitely a good warning sign. if somewhat prevalent.

  2. I understand the superhero RPG collector thing -- I used to be the same, until the sheer monetary weight (and difficulty in actually finding the damn things) just made me cut back.