Needs More KAPOW!: My Unsolicited Thoughts on Superhero RPGs

I’ve not been blogging much recently. Partly that’s because I’ve been busy, but also it’s been due to a lack of inspiration. Ideas of what to blog about haven’t sprung to mind as readily.

Here’s the thing though – I’ve been thinking about RPGs A LOT. Even more so than usual. Besides my ongoing campaigns, my plans for future campaigns, keeping an eye on new releases, Kickstarters, the Origins awards, other people’s blogs etc… I’ve also been thinking about game systems of my own creation. And my friends have been helping me with them.

I’ve not posted anything about my own games before, because it feels pointless to be talking about an unfinished project. Hacks, sure, but I can present them as complete (or mostly complete) packages. I don’t have to worry about the unbearable shame of talking about a game I never actually finish.

But hell, this is my blog to talk about my gaming thoughts, this is what I’m thinking about right now, and it’s not like I’m posting anything else. Plus, maybe putting pen to paper will help motivate me to actually produce the damn thing, or get even more useful feedback from gamers out on the intehwebz.

So let’s talk about superheroes.

I KNOW WHAT I HATE

I’ve never really played or read a superheroes RPG I’ve liked. Marvel Heroic Roleplaying, Necessary Evil, Wild Talents, my own (shitty) hacks of Fate and Apocalypse World, or my own (even shittier) homebrew systems… all have dissatisfied me in one way or another. Four things are guaranteed to disappoint me in a superhero system, and inevitably they’re things I keep seeing crop up in the games I play:

  1. A system that requires characters to spend points from a limited reserve for the activation of all their superpowers. This is probably my least favourite trend, because I’ve never watched a Justice League cartoon where Superman ran out of Flight points and accidentally fell out the sky.
  2. A system that treats superpowers as something to tag onto an existing “mundane” framework as an extra, rather than the fundamental part of the game. In a superheroes game, no-one cares how good you are at animal taming, or crafting, or driving a car. You want to use your superpowers for EVERYTHING.
  3. Any system which over-defines the specific actions you can take in combat. You know the kind of game I mean. The kind which interrupts a player saying “I carry Zod into a space and punch him back to Earth!” with a buzzkill response of “a turn is only six seconds, the rulebook says Superman can only fly 1000m in that time, also moving that far would use up your attack action…”
  4. Any system which takes the focus away from the fighting, which (like it or loathe it), has always been the focus of superhero fiction. Nothing wrong with, say, Smallville having a focus on dramatic interaction, but that’s not successfully emulating the style of superhero fiction in the Marvel Cinematic Universe sense of the word. (In the case of Smallville, that’s obviously a feature not a bug; it’s the tale of Superman-as-seen-in-Smallville, not Superman-as-seen-in-Man-of-Steel.)

(I’ve actually found it extremely rare to encounter an RPG which defies points 3 and 4, even outside the superhero genre. There seems to be an ingrained belief that an abstract combat system means one without strategy, with a shorter run time, and a focus on other aspects of the setting. I’ve no idea why abstract and tactical are viewed as incompatible.)

So, given my position as outlined above, he’s my own idea for a superhero game.

I DON’T HATE THIS 

First let’s define heroes as characters who have each sworn to uphold four vows:

  1. Vanquish Evildoers (beat up bad guys)
  2. Continue The Fight (don’t die)
  3. Defend The Innocent (keep civilians safe)
  4. Minimise Property Damage (…yeah, this is typically the lowest priority of the four)

Each of those four vows are then turned into tracks – and on each of those tracks, the goodies and baddies play a game of tug of war.  One side is trying to increase the danger level, the other side is pulling the other way to decrease it.  At either end is a good or bad outcome, and when one of those extremes is triggered, the fight is over.

Rounds of combat are resolved, not by moving around your character’s position on a map, but by determining which track you’ll be focussing your efforts on. Something like, you get two dice; you roll them, choose where you want those dice to go (on the same track or on different tracks), and at the end of the turn add up the value of all the goody dice and all the baddy dice to determine who pulls the track in their direction. And you also get Super dice on top of your standard two, which are a different colour, because they come with special bonuses or penalties depending on the character you’re playing. Maybe they can only be used on certain tracks, or only on tracks where you’ve played mundane dice, or cause problems when you roll a certain value.

Does reducing all combat actions to a tug of war contest sound boring? Maybe. But consider that most RPG fight scenes essentially play out in the same way, but with just the top two tracks – that’s what hit points are. “Make the enemy run out of hit points before we all run out of hit points” is the essential summary of physical conflicts 9 times out of 10.

I like this concept for a few reasons:

  1. It’s extremely abstract, which gives enormous freedom for players to describe whatever exciting four-colour action they like, so long as it still falls within the remit of “Vanquish Evildoers”.
  2. It has the potential to introduce interesting strategic choices, mostly around choosing where you want to succeed and where you want to fail, which can only be coordinated effectively by working as a team.
  3. It allows fight scenes to end in ways other than one side being wiped out wholesale, which is desperately important if you want recurring villains (a staple of the genre).
  4. It’s a game designed specifically for superheroes that you couldn’t imagine being used for anything else.

Right now, this is a system that’s both dry and lacking in detail. I needed to work qualitative description back in to the rules somehow (probably stealing aspects from Fate, or something similar) and provide examples of how superpowers work. It also doesn’t have any rules for task resolution outside of combat. Marvel Heroic literally calls these “Transition Scenes”, which I think is great as a statement of priorities. It also inspires to handle non-combat scenes in a very similar way to combat scenes, just with vows that pan out over a longer period of time: Watch Out For Villainy, Take Care of Yourself, Earn Public Trust, Avert Natural Catastrophe. Let’s see if any more inspiration strikes.

4 thoughts on “Needs More KAPOW!: My Unsolicited Thoughts on Superhero RPGs

  1. really like a lot of this and would be very interested in giving it a go.

    I think I’d also be interested in some kind of mechanic by which “emotional importance” could be attached to your various actions – taking the truism that the base form of the superhero is a soap opera with the sex scenes replaced by punching, in theory, fights should only occur when there’s catharsis to be had for someone in the scene, and I think a system that’s specifically for superheroes ought to represent that in some way. My initial thought might be something like “identify the track that’s important to your character during this fight – if the fight ends because of that track, mark XP”…

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  2. Cool ideas and I’ll discuss it more with you later. In the meantime, I’m curious about some of the prior experiences you’ve had with supers games. Fate doesn’t do any of the four things you hate, but you still said you’d tried it and it didn’t work. What was it in that case that you didn’t like? Goodnight.

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