I’ve got supers on my mind…

In my years as a Game Master I’ve run a lot of campaigns, fantasy, sci-fi, modern, space opera, but no genre has proven as difficult as the superhero game. Sometimes I muse about why that is…

Superheroes are everywhere, comic books, animation, movies, heck one of the features everybody kept talking about when the iPAd came out was “you can read comics on it!” So why are superhero games not more prevalent? Sure they have been well represented in role playing games for a long time, from the Champions to licensed games like the Marvel and DC games in the 80s, to modern games like Mutants & Masterminds and Necessary Evil. It’s not my intention to discuss the features or game designs of theses games, but instead ask the larger question, why are there not MORE super hero role playing games? I have no hard data on this, but from anecdotal experience, the superhero share of the role playing market is small.

I think the reason for this may just be what I said on the first paragraph of this post. Superhero games are hard. Unlike other genres where pegging a characters to a concept may be easy, superheroes are, well unique!

“I’m a warrior! And I’m a corporate spy. Me? I’m a fire breathing shape shifting psionic knight from a distant planet…” Hear the crickets in the distance?

That may be a little facetious, but even if you break down superheroes into concepts, Brick, Sorcerer, Mutant, the sheer variety of powers makes supers games either too complex, or sometimes too simple for the taste of players.

I’ve ran games using diverse systems, some lasted only one session, others have been a pastiche of comic books series, and at least one was a  detailed alternate history game through which I inflicted WAY TOO LONG world history hand outs upon my players. Strangely the one campaign I felt was a success was a game using Palladium’s Heroes Unlimited. I can tell some of you are shaking your head in disapproval, but once upon a time I was a fan of Palladium games. I might have recognized there were some problems with the system, but it was full of great ideas and most importantly of all we enjoyed it.

Looking back the success of the campaign had little to do with the system and everything to do with the way the campaign developed. I’ll share some of what I think made the campaign work :

  1. The group was small. Originally there were only three players in the game, a really small number for my usual groups. So small in fact that, two players ran two characters each. Eventually the game grew to five players and I think it started to go downhill from there. Supers games benefit when you can devote extra attention to the characters individual plots and subplots. The melodrama of comic books is hard to get to with larger groups.
  2. The original players created their characters together. While most systems benefit from players getting together to roll up characters, I think creating superheroes that work well together, compliment each other, share goals or even have some unresolved tension amongst them, adds to the style and themes of a superhero game.
  3. The characters had a reason to be together. Too often the first sessions of a supers game is an origin story, how they met and formed the group.  But if everybody is a loner and there are no built in reasons for the superheroes to cooperate this can be endlessly frustrating. If possible, avoid the origin story altogether, jump right into the action and then go back and play or discuss how they got together after the fact!
  4. The campaign was not ambitious… That may sound strange but let me explain myself. Some GMs have read and loved comics their entire life and when they sit down to create their game they create the ULTIMATE SECRET CRISIS OF THE GODS! For this campaign my whole outline for the game was hand written in one sheet of paper. Of course I elaborated and added as the game went along but the player’s characters, their back stories and motivations shaped the campaign. Not the other way around.
  5. And last but not least, make sure you play with people who like superhero games. This may sound like commons sense, but I’ve seen people who are not “so much” into fantasy play D&D enthusiastically, and hardcore fantasy fans embrace the cybernetic mercenary character and just shoot their way across the galaxy. But these same rational players who accommodate other genres have such a strong reaction to the idea of playing supers that it becomes disruptive. More than one campaign has been ruined by the one player who wants to play the comical character who doesn’t take anything serious or the one guy whose character points out everything that doesn’t make sense in a superhero universe. I know there is a place for humor in a supers games, but sometimes it just becomes disruptive. If you as a player don’t like supers games, don’t spoil the fun for everyone else!

The advice on the list may well be good for ANY kind of game. Others might have said it before or even better, just realize it’s based on my experiences, your mileage may vary! Most importantly, enjoy the game you play. If you are not enjoying it, they why are you playing?

I’m looking forward to know what your experience with superhero role playing games has been. Please share with us your thoughts or ideas on the matter! Thanks for reading.

PS – For those of you wondering, about the first picture, that’s me as the famous Chapulín Colorado!