Monday, June 20, 2011

Superhero stuff part II

This is a follow-up to my previous post (ignore the rant about I began to wonder why I've never been satisfied with superhero rpgs, as a whole, compared to something like D&D. D&D itself really doesn't simulate Conan or Tolkein very well (if at all), but it can simulate the feeling of utter futility found within those works. A major trope of fantasy gaming is the notion that player characters are small potatoes in the grand scheme of things. This is sometimes subverted and the PCs made primary focus, but generally, there are all sorts of insanely power beings duking it out with the characters playing a minor role. Old School gaming in particular is more about looting dead lizardmen, killed in random scuffles while searching ancient tombs than it is about saving the world. I've seen the term "fantasy Vietnam" a few times when referring to D&D, and it fits. Of course, you can certainly play a different style, but the mechanics of D&D are better geared for this sort of stuff. Killing monsters and taking their stuff is D&D.

Different mechanics suit different gaming styles, so when I want a dungeon crawl I'll use D&D (wow, what a great leap in logic, right?). When I want a superhero game I'll this is the issue I've run into. What system would I use? The previous systems I outlined before all lack something, but I couldn't quite figure out what. In an effort to fully understand what the comics are all about, I undertook a massive research effort these past few days. What follows are few things I discovered. (I do realize these are obvious; sue me)

1) I played Champions Online (it's free now, if you're interested) quite a bit. MMORPGs and superheroes, yeah well, good luck with that. It was fun for a while but devolved into yet another carrot-n-stick game. A major, major discovery though: being able to detail the physical appearance of a comicbook hero is paramount to true enjoyment of the genre. When I play D&D, I generally really don't care what my character looks like, other than the basics. In fact, most of the time I don't even bother to describe them. But superheroes...looking good while kicking ass is half the fun. In fact, it might be the most important part. As comics are an extremely visual medium, this makes perfect sense. I suppose I never completely rationalized this concept fully until I literally spent an hour perfecting my hero's costume in the character designer portion of CO, even though I had no real plans to play very much. After getting to level 5, I deleted that same character and made another due to not liking a particular physical attribute. Not even kidding. I'm not exactly hung up on aesthetics, but for a superhero, it's ridiculously important.

2) I read around 30 issues of Marvel comics, mostly Captain America and Spiderman, and watched the first two seasons of Justice League. First of all, the Justice League cartoon is definitely geared more for adults than kids. It also follows the continuity of the comics pretty closely from what I could tell; I looked up some of the plots afterward and they were almost all contained within previous books or alluded to those books. Anyway, it's pretty good, worth watching for sure. The primary discovery here: heroes regularly get beat-down. Constantly. It is rare for heroes to win any battles and in fact, they regularly lose until the very end when they finally overcome the villain or situation. But the heroes don't run away, either. They take their beatings and keep coming back for more, even against hopeless odds. Their powers are generally ineffectual against whatever challenge they face and they have to come up with alternative means of fighting.

3) Superhero teams are often comprised of heroes who have disparate levels of power. How do you rationalize Batman's utter lack of superpowers compared to Superman? Well, Batman is the most intimidating guy in the universe (seriously...) and pretty much by force of will gets shit done. To use a similar example, Robin/Nightwing is head of the Teen Titans/New Titans yet possesses no superpowers. Starfire is stronger, faster, can fly and is arguably a superior hand-to-hand combatant, yet Nightwing is still in charge. Batman and Nightwing are insanely popular characters, much more than Martian Manhunter who basically has every power there is. Comics are less about "power level" and more about being a hero. It could be argued that Batman's competence in battling ridiculously powerful villains while utterly lacking in those abilities himself makes him that much more compelling.

4) I pulled out all the superhero rpgs I own and re-read most of them, or at least gave them a cursory glance. All the games fail on some level, some much less than others. I culled a few ideas:

  • Point-buy systems allow for customization, but random system are closer to the medium. Spiderman didn't choose to be bitten, nor did he choose all the ridiculous complications in his life. Nearly every single hero has powers by circumstance, not choice. Still, if you want to play the Hulk but get stuck with Emma Frost, as a player, you might be a little disappointed. There has to be a way to combine these two.

  • Simplicity in play leads to faster battles which leads to more battles. This is important, as there are usually no less than three encounters between the primary villain (or his minions) and the heroes before the heroes win. Conversely, having a wide variety of options available during those combats is just as important because it differentiates the characters. Whereas Superman or Hulk simply throw punches, Captain America and Batman are much more tactially inclined. Speed vs. options.

  • Going back to point 3 above, power level is arbitrary. Why is super strength almost always overpriced compared to something like force of personality? Neither is more or less useful in the comics, but fully dependent upon application. The usefulness of abilities and powers should depend upon the competency of the player and their aptitude for using them in-game.

  • Hero points or similar mechanisms for altering die rolls seem to be a meta-tool that allows a player to dictate an outcome. I'm on the fence about this one. I like the concept but do not like how they can be used whenever a player wants. Act III vs. Lex Luthor, yes, Superman can overcome the kryptonite ray by spending a ton of hero points. But in Act I, no, Superman becomes a crumbled heap and Lex gets away. How can this be rectified?

It should become apparent I'm seeking a panacea that probably doesn't, and cannot, exist. Just like games based on novels really don't capture the essence of the story, comics might be impossible to represent in a gaming medium without making concessions. Still, I have a few ideas, which will be in yet another post.

It's entirely possible I wouldn't be too dissatisfied with playing Emma Frost, now that I think about it...


  1. Brad, have you ever played the cross-genre boardgame/minis mashup Heroscape? Hasbro came out with a Marvel set HS that had four superheroes and four supervillains, and that game's mechanic of attack and defense dice combined with the special abilities described on each figure's army card could simulate the comic-book battles in a way true to the genre. There's even a fan community that has created mods for the game emcompassing additional Marvel and DC characters (using Heroclix figures).

  2. I own it and have played it a few times, too bad they never expanded the game. Stop getting ahead of me! I was thinking about that already.