This year I was invited to my first-ever superheroes campaign, and it immediately brought to mind how odd a genre it is for gaming.
Of all the dozens of games I’ve run and played, I’ve somehow avoided the superhero genre completely with the exception one brief Godlike game and a painfully ageist homebrew of my own design (“Silver Age” for retirement-home supers is a terrible pun however you slice it).
Of those two dips in the superpowered pool, neither was particularly ‘normal’ for the genre – Godlike being something of a gritty period piece and Silver Age being an offensive mess I’m ashamed to have wrought – so my idea of superhero games through that lens was even more off-center from what most of the major superhero gaming systems seemed to be selling.
But ever since I finally got into comics about a year ago, I’ve been more and more fascinated with the superhero genre. Admittedly, ‘superhero’ means something a little different now from what it did in the 1940s, to say nothing of the awkward 60s and 70s or the mullet and pocket-riddled 90s, so the first thing to decide on when running a supers game is the type of supers you’re going for. The major categories I’ve found are:
- Four-Color supers – Classic 40s-era heroics. Morality tends to be very black-and-white and powers work on a theme without too much thought given to the mechanics. Campy catch-phrases and classic cinema scenarios are commonplace.
Examples: Adam West’s Batman, Christopher Reeves’ Superman
- Gritty supers – Antiheroes everywhere, and villains who are less concerned with destroying worlds than they are with destroying individuals. Gritty supers campaigns tend to focus on “realism” to shave the fantasy edge off having superpowers, making them ironically the most dramatic genre.
Examples: Watchmen, AKA Jessica Jones
- Teen supers – Because puberty isn’t tough enough as-is, teen heroes toss superpowers and secret identities into the mix. Often more light-hearted, teen hero games tend to handle gray morality and complicated scenarios best of all by weaving in familiar slice-of-life elements with superhero problems. Powers tend to be more minor, come with complications, or have a chance to fail as characters haven’t finished figuring them out yet.
Examples: Ms. Marvel, Teen Titans, Young Justice
- Super as standard – Instead of superheroes being the outcasts or exemplars, super is the norm. Powers are rampant, everyone might be a metahuman and humanity is generally used to seeing folks in tights doing battle in the streets. Often similar to teen supers in terms of weaving superhero-dom with real-life situations, super-as-standard also brings in government policy or media situations only possible in a world where superheroes are already an “out” phenomenon.
Examples: Avengers, Justice League
So picking your genre and trying to get your players on the same page is a key first step, like with most games but especially with superheroes. A gritty hero next to a four-color hero next to a teen hero isn’t likely to work for long in practice.
Once you’ve decided on genre, there are a few more key questions you need to answer (or help reinforce, if the setting already has them covered):
Are all powers created equal?
One option is to balance things and have powers be powers be powers, regardless of the flavor or origin. However for a number of comic fans, the rock-paper-scissors of different power origins can be a compelling mechanic to toy with – how does magic differ from mutation differ from machinery? Do certain powers work better, worse or not at all against certain others?
Naturally, there’s also the question of how you balance a variety of types of powers (super-strength vs. super-stretchiness, for instance), but hopefully your system has that covered. Just be careful of some of the powers with surprisingly clever potential, like telepathy, teleportation and probability manipulation.
Lastly, make sure you have mechanics for how powered individuals interact with unpowered ones for when your heroes go up against a regular human army or security force. Keep these mechanics consistent with your heroes who may opt to be normal people enhanced in others way (i.e. your Black Widows and Hawkeyes).
Why don’t superheroes solve every problem?
Once you have a world with superheroes, one clear question becomes “why do we still need emergency services? We’ve got Superman!”
There can be a temptation to have superheroes occasionally act locally, saving people from a burning building or stopping a mugging. Be aware what this means for the role of law enforcement, fire rescue or other non-superhero services. Your players are likely to raise the issue at some point – it’s the go-go “why should we care?” of superhero games – so make sure you have an answer ready.
One easy solution can be to have emergency services NPCs take issue with superheroes showboating on their turf, speaking out against them. Another can be creating a tense relationship between the two – a police chief who knows about the heroes and tries to work with them to minimize collateral damage or to handle the legal after-effects of having caught the bad guy. Perhaps best of all can be to create a positive relationship with them and a clear distinction between what’s superhero work and what falls to trained professionals.
Is this all just a metaphor for X?
It’s a classic hallmark of superhero games to use super powers and how humanity handles them as allegory for some real-world prejudices, notably racism and ableism. The X-Men are the best known for this, but the concept has been used regularly in a number of super-hero worlds and has become something of an expectation of a lot of superhero fans.
The problem is that replacing racism or ableism with powersism often brushes those very-real issues under the rug in favor of unrealistic caricatures of the same. What might seem like a way to make your game compelling by weaving in social issues instead becomes a strawman parade that may be much more dangerous than just not addressing the issues at all.
If you still want to include the metaphor without the damage, be sure to also include the social issues this new prejudice is meant to mirror, and add in conversations and situations that highlight the nuance of the intersections between “you hate me because I’m a mutant” and “you hate me because I’m in a wheelchair.”
Remember that your players may be subject to some of those real-world prejudices and you don’t know it, so this is more than just responsibility to your players in terms of their future interactions. As always, if you don’t feel confident wading into those waters, it’s honestly safer to stick to shore.
Go be super!
Once you and your players have a system, a genre, and a head start on the pitfalls of the setting, you’re ready to take to the skies and be birds and/or planes! With the high quality of modern comics and a new superhero movie every other month, there’s no shortage of inspiration available and rarely been a better time to try out a superhero game and make it yours.