Gremliny Stuff

Oct 12, 2011

The Trouble I Have With Supers RPGs

Despite my better judgment, I find a certain attraction to playing RPGs where I can make superheroic characters. It’s probably another case of my childhood obsessions bleeding over into my adult life (much like my habit of collecting cute plushies).

But I really used to love the old 4-color comic world as a kid. I remember reading classic Spidey, Iron Man, and X-Men, with the occasional forays into Superman and Batman, as well as reading some of my mom’s old comics (Cosmo the Merry Martian, anyone?). As I got older, my tastes did mature (or they just got darker), as I collected more Punisher, Wolverine, and Ghost Rider titles, and more recently Hellboy and B.P.R.D. But my original love of justice, heroics, and derring-do still remains, though it is typically fulfilled with my manga and anime…which at least when it comes to continuity and consistency, hit the mark much better.

But that aside, as much as I like the idea of playing superheroes in a RPG, it has always been difficult to accomplish. Until recently, I have collected most of the major titles (and some unknown ones, as well) of RPGs that deal with superheroes. They range from the minimalistic, to heavy number-crunching, to immersive, to somewhat meta-gamey. I’ve even cobbled together a few of my own systems from pieces that I’ve liked from other supers games (though with little real success). But in the end, none of them have really satisfied me. For example:

Heroes Unlimited
Takes too long to make a character, takes to long to update a character after leveling, and an overall broken system that encourages power-gaming (well, it IS Palladium, after all). But it was one of the few systems that made your day-job and education an important part of making your character, and it offered a lot of flavor and character creation differences between different origins.
…and there’s something quaint about getting and spending a budget on cybernetics, bionics, robotics, super-cars, and experimental weaponry, no matter how unrealistic the prices are compared to reality. You want crunch? You got it, Cap’n.

Marvel Super Heroes
(original TSR)
A deceptively simple-looking system that, in the end, required rules explanations that were far too complex in reality. Skills didn’t really help characters that much…and there was no social attribute!!! Seriously?! What if you wanted to make a charming, persuasive hero? Well, better build up your Popularity score, ‘cuz that was the only way to really influence people, except through superpowers. Otherwise, though, MSH was one of my old-school faves, back in the day. And its rules for stunts and karma are actually pretty good, even to this day.

Marvel Super Heroes
(SAGA edition)
This really was a super-simplified version of the original MSH, and ALMOST worked for what I wanted…except for the cards. I mean, it kept limitations and stunts, had a wide selection of powers, and made skills actually matter. But even though the cards added an interesting element with the trumps and how they affected durations…it made it too unwieldy, IMHO. Dice always seem to be easier to carry around, and you don’t have to worry so much about playing 52-card pickup. Plus, succeeding was either too easy or too hard, and rarely moderately difficult. There seemed to be no middle ground.

Hero System
I’ve read through at least four different editions of the Hero System…and no matter how they always say they’re simplifying the rules and making it easier to make a character…its WAY too much number-crunching. I’ve never been able to finish a character to my satisfaction within a reasonable amount of time (I remember taking at least three hours at one point, after which I basically thought, “Why bother?”).

Silver Age Sentinels
For a while, I had seriously thought this was going to be the perfect supers game. And then I got to playing it. For the most part, it worked…but it had this weird disparity between the simple ideas of the original Tri-Stat system, and the fiddly details of the superpowers. And some of the power progression kind of…became too powerful too quickly (a minor psychic was able to send a luxury yacht into orbit, and heavy firearms were no match against a hero with even a tiny bit of natural armor). In the end, it got a bit tedious.

DC Universe
(West End Games version)
I will admit, the D6 base system has been one of my favorites in my gaming career. I got hooked with the old D6 Star Wars, and had been a fan ever since, despite the woes and cruel fate of WEG. So when they got the license for DC superheroes years ago, I had jumped on the bandwagon (even though I’ve never been a big fan of DC until they started doing cartoons). The base mechanics I’m fine with. But all the powers, while you could customize them fairly easily, were very much stuck in the “this is the way these powers work, as represented by DC comics, and shall not stray from the DC comics standard, no matter how much cooler your ideas may be.” It also didn’t help that my friend CF, who was trying to run a campaign with these rules, basically shot my character idea down because even though I described the practical effect of his power being limited Telekinesis and Teleportation, my description of it in the fiction (essentially quantum manipulation of distances) required the power Dimension Control according to him, which was much more expensive…and didn’t do what I was wanting to do. Seriously, WTF. And, I really can’t take a game seriously that has “Catch” as an individual skill. Even GURPS doesn’t do that. How the hell does anyone, superhero or not, learn to catch as an individual skill? I’d group it with throwing, since they are related physical actions…but no, they feel they have to have a separate skill for it (and again, CF being the deranged fan-boy as he is, argued that it made sense).
Sorry, I got a bit ranty there.

Mutants & Masterminds
So far, this has been the one system that has been my fave, despite its reliance on the D20 system. Though, to be fair, it isn’t exactly like D&D, and has a lot of neat ideas. I liked the damage system in the first two editions, and like the conditions they had in the 3rd edition (though they really needed to simplify them and make a logical step-progression in condition severity). They allow for the most customization of powers with (comparatively) minimal tinkering, and made skills matter. Still, combat could be pretty slow (curse of the D20 system), GMs had a lot of stuff to keep track of, and in the hands of the min-maxing evildoers, could be broken fairly easily. And they forgot about knockback rules (until the GMs guide, at least).

Godlike/Wild Talents
I was initially very excited about Godlike, back in the day. They had a very specific setting and way of doing powers, but were otherwise very open to imaginative ideas. And I liked how powers were boiled down to either attacks, defenses, super attributes, utilities, or a combination thereof, which made applying them to your character actions very easy. Wild Talents continued with this, but its system for making and customizing powers was, like many supers systems, too clunky to be understood easily. I had to read through a few times before I really groked the powers, and even then, still had some trouble with transformation powers and a few other supers concepts. However, I did have a problem with the One-Roll Engine, which I know a lot of people seem to like…I just can’t quite deal with it. Personal failing, I guess.

While not technically a superhero game per se, it is the closest White Wolf has come to a superhero game since Trinity/Aeon/whateverthehellitwascalled. Like every other White Wolf title, it has doom, gloom, esoteric abilities that you have to write notes down about in order to remember what they all do, monsters, and the end of the world. BUT it offers one of the few die-rolling systems (at least as far as die pool systems are concerned) that made me FEEL heroic. The use of Epic Attributes or Skills to give automatic successes, in addition to the dice you roll, made me feel my character COULD do superhuman feats, without the concern of really bad rolls. It was kinda nice. Still, in the end, there was a lot more of having to deal with god-like angst and worrying about what you DON’T know about mythologies than there was with superhuman ass-kicking.

And there are so many others that I’ve read over the years: Chaosium’s SuperWorld, GURPS Supers, Capes, ICONS, Cartoon Action Hour, Stuperpowers, etc. They all offered their own, individual insights into the superhero genre of games, but none of them really hit the mark for me.

So, I figured, I’d brainstorm a bit online about what I really want to see in a superhero RPG, where perhaps someone with better ideas might hit me over the head with the golden hammer of inspiration through comments or whatever.

Characters would have, I think, four base Traits, that are more of a thematic reflection of actions in superhero comics, as opposed to specific abilities. I’m thinking Effort (exertion, aggression, resistance, intimidation), Action (speed, flair, alertness, excitement), Spirit (ambition, charisma, conviction), and Reason (sensibility, knowledge, authority). Scores would be 1=low, 2=average, 3=good, 4=great, 5=amazing.

These would be more specific than Traits, but still fairly broad, possibly defined in terms of occupation, like Police, Cook, Teacher, etc. Scores would be 1=basic training, 2=well-trained, 3=experienced, 4=expert, 5=mastery.

I’m thinking that, like Godlike, these will be fairly free-form, where how it is used and how powerful it is, is more important than how powerful it sounds. Effects would be divided into attacks (hitting something, doing damage), defenses (avoiding attacks, absorbing damage), recoveries (healing yourself or someone else), utilities (performing tasks with your powers, like picking things up with telekinesis, listening to radio broadcasts with sensitive hearing, etc.), boosts (superattributes, which would only cover specific applications of Traits), and movements (different ways to transport yourself, whether flight, superspeed, teleportation, etc.). Scoring would be similar to Traits.

Characters may or may not have Limits, special weaknesses that will make actions more difficult. They don’t provide any advantage when making the character, however, but instead would offer a way for the player to enhance the story, and thus earn rewards during game-play. Not sure what experience/advancement would look like, just yet.

So far, this is what I’m thinking for mechanics.
Roll one white D6 per point of applicable Trait, plus one per point of applicable Skill. If you suffer from a particular Limit, roll yellow D6s instead. If you have any boosts that would apply, add one blue D6 per point. If you have suffered a negative condition that would affect your action (a broken leg, fear, etc.), roll a number of red D6s equal to the condition score.
Every roll of a yellow 1, white 1-2, and blue 1-4, counts as a success. Every roll of a red 1-3 takes away a success. This is compared to a similar roll from the opposition/GM.

This is, however, just initial brainstorming, and probably not something that I’ll tackle in any great detail for a while. Besides, I have other things I really should be working on.
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