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Old Games: Superhero Genre

PostPosted: 25 Sep 2010, 13:30
by Griswald
Superhero Role Playing Games

In my previous post I explained that I would be exploring the games of the past by genre to pull out the best and worst of the game and to invite any opinions and experiences on the matter. I have decided to start with superheroes as it seemed to me that this was always the hardest thing to both run and play. Remember, these are just the games that I personally played so if there are others that match the genre and I have not mentioned them please feel free to add them and your opinion on them.

This was the first superhero RP I really tried to get into. It was made by TSR who made D&D and Star Frontiers. The most fun players seemed to have with this game was making a character, a common problem with many RPGs. The system itself was a tiered chart with 4 outcomes per column. It was really simplistic. In its defense, most of the comic books at the time consisted of beating the crap out of each other so there wasn’t much more than that to running the game with an attempted plot twist that could always be undone by brute force. We actually tried to play this game a lot, but trying to install a ’campaign’ into this game just didn’t click for me. This was basically a one evening game to do something other than swing swords and cast spells and achieve over-the-top destruction in the name of good vs. evil with some familiar comic book heroes making cameos or helping out. My best game of this that I ran came from a module. The presets and story were much easier to deal with than trying to invent villains and then draw them all. Let’s face it, superhero games need visuals.
The Good: Players need to blow off steam and controlling a super powered being every now and again is a good way to do it. You can always wade your way through a mess of goblins but coming to blows and hurling powers that cause extensive property damage and makes mere mortals run for cover can be pretty satisfying and most people know some comic heroes from one source of media or another.
The Bad: These games tend to be one hit wonders and get boring to both run and play really quickly. Gaining experience and power in Marvel RP was rather long and painful and you were generally always going to have the character you first roled up. They tried to fix this issue with the “Ultimate Powers” expansion book but that ended up with a bunch of over-powered Thor wanna-bes and at that point it became more ridiculous than usual.

This game was a near miss for me. I actually really liked it when someone else ran it, but the calculation system for powers and point expenditure took away from the fun for me. I understood the intention of the creators of the game and I think they did a pretty good job, but my character was more a smattering of numbers and stats with a little picture in the corner of what my character looked like (my same issue with Role Master). One thing I really liked about it over Marvel was that lower powered guys were still contenders in a game. I liked that aspect as it fit into the concept of a super powered bad-guy looking at Batman and thinking “no, I don’t think I wanna mess with him”. This game was short lived in our group though and we played it maybe 5 times.
The Good: Better tuned system than Marvel, good variety in powers.
The Bad: Way to many numbers, no real structured genre to pull from, and character concepts did not transfer over very well. Number crunchers and the “min max” players were able to make very powerful characters that were less concept and costume and more of the multi-player online head to head kill your friends repeatedly routine.

Heroes Unlimited
I think Palladium made this game. Our introduction to it was actually from playing Robotech and a lot of Teanage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Structural Damage Capacity was always a pain in the butt to deal with but it transferred surprisingly well over to a superhero system and since most of us had already played TMNT we had a feel for the game’s rules and what it felt like to play a powerful character. This game never really got off the ground in my group due to the fact that it was a “Palladium” game and most if not all of my friends didn’t like the system and had their fill with it in TMNT and the occasional Robotech game. I for one thought it was a good system and I was able to easily adapt heroes from DC and Marvel with little problem.
The Good: A somewhat unstable system in other games kind of came into its own with superheroes. Powers were plentiful and easily mutated to fit the character. TMNT characters transferred over with no problem.
The Bad: Poor timing which is not the games fault, but there you have it. As with other superhero games it strongly needed visual aids which took a while to make. Character development was somewhat lengthy and the system was Palladium, again not the games fault but the timing on its arrival into our gaming group cut its life short.

Marvel CCG RPG
I’m not sure if it was a “collectible” card game but this version of Marvel removed the dice and replaced it with playing cards. The cards had different values and functions and this was a surprisingly good system. Combat was tight and was based more on how you played your hand than lucky rolls. We played the intro module which wasn’t bad except the NPC’s were surprisingly tough to beat and the game is definitely a bit more geared to the GM’s favor, but that’s mostly to balance out that the player can stomp you with a good hand. Unfortunately this game too came too late as our interests were CCG’s at the time and role playing had taken root in Role Master or AD&D.
The Good: Surprisingly tight system using cards. The concept impressed me and had a lot of potential with additional card sets.
The Bad: Late bloomer. Also with limited cards in a deck it became a bit redundant.

Villains and Vigilantes
This is by far and still remains my favorite superhero RPG. This was one of the few superhero games that had campaign and replay quality. Making characters was fun and leveling actually meant something. Plots and adventures fit in well and unlike other superhero RPG’s having a mix of different character types was not a bad thing. The V & V system also had a chart that I really liked that showed greater or lesser than results when certain powers were used against others. While this existed in other games it actually worked pretty well with this system. Powers were a bit limited but in no way did the system hamper you from making your own power sets and as long as you kept within the basic rules of the game there was no problem. They also had a good “sub” set of powers under the main power allowing you to focus and differentiate your character a bit more. I always liked that about the “power stunt” rule in Marvel, but V&V did it better. Unlike other superhero games I ran or played, V&V seemed to bring out more of the levity that we come to expect from comic book banter. I believe this was mostly due to the fact that the game itself was fun to play.
The Good: Good system all around. Fun character creation. Raising levels actually counted for something. Heroes and Villains were powerful but not invincible, stupid actions still got you pounded. Easy to put games together. Honestly, with some rules upgrades and added material to reflect the times I would like to run this game again.
The Bad: I don’t really have anything bad to say about this game. It’s only fault was that we all eventually go back to ‘fantasy’ setting games and the other genres get shelved. It’s just easier for the average joe to think about whacking something with a sword than using tech and modern/future settings.

This is my extent of the superhero genre RPG’s that I have played and experienced. My opinions are based purely on personal experience. What I have learned from this genre of RPGs is that players do like being uber powerful on occasion, hence why playing a superhero game didn't last but was good for burning off a bit of steam after a lengthy dungeon crawl. The question now is how do I put this into 1 mainstay game without tipping the balance or ruining it with D&D style Monty Hall stuff. What I would like to do is detail some of the more powerful NPC's in my world, rulers and such, and every now and again hand them over to the players for an evening. This isn't as random as it sounds. I figure once you get a set of gamers who actually care what's going on in your game setting other than grabbing the next bag of coins they will be more inclined to make better use of their time with the NPC. This also allows the players to tune into my world a bit more and rather than having their characters hear a town crier yell out some law in the middle of town by some lord somewhere they might actually be the ones who made the decision. This will definitely involve a much more "open" GM style and world as I will have to adapt to other peoples actions for influential characters, but I also see it as a way to allow me to play around in my own world. Let's face it, when a GM creates a world to play in it generally reflects the GM's tastes and what they see themselves playing in while inviting you along for the ride. I'm doing the same thing I just want to give the players the chance to sometimes drive the car.

Re: Old Games: Superhero Genre

PostPosted: 25 Sep 2010, 14:31
by The Keeper
Allowing others to run your NPCs is a good concept Griswald. I don't think too, that the players will overreach or abuse the NPCs. What happens if a player does that and the next player to run the NPC then has to clean up the mess that the first player made? Peer pressure at the very least will limit this.

You can also limit overpowerfullness by making the player who runs the NPC responsible. Nothing happens in a vacuum and the actions of the powerful NPC have repercussions. If the NPC is responsible for people underneath him or certain important duties that only his powerfulness can handle then either not attending to those duties or abusing the power(s) can result in problems. Superheroes tend to be shunned when their incredible capabilities hurt rather than help people.

With absolute power comes absolute responsibility!

Re: Old Games: Superhero Genre

PostPosted: 25 Sep 2010, 17:08
by Griswald
Nothing happens in a vacuum. That's a good point. European history can prove that as well. It's just developing the main power players now, which I fortunately already have. I just have to decide on what they are class-wise and in what situations to put them in as it will need to have all players involved. I might even hand one off to Odos Sr. and get him to email me responses. He doesn't play anymore but he likes that level of involvement.

Re: Old Games: Superhero Genre

PostPosted: 25 Sep 2010, 19:06
by The Keeper
Well, sounds good. Making the players responsible for their actions leads to thought before action. It prevents the "I can do anything I want to complex" and limits Monty Haul. Every action has a consequence so generally acting in moderation tends to be the best course.

Glad it's coming together!