The Analog Gamer: Supergenre Part I
While Dungeons & Dragons may dominate the history of tabletop RPGs in the USA there is another game that has been around almost as long and has had almost as much impact on gamers. I think back to my first games in the early 1980′s and I realize that it wasn’t swords & sorcery that grabbed my interest and pulled my to the game table, it was my love of comic books and super heroes.
The first RPG I played was a nondescript blue book with two titanic heroes clashing on its cover. The rules were confusing for a group of 3rd graders to grasp but it didn’t matter, we just rolled the dice and as I found happening for the next 7 years, it always degenerated into a fight in the park. The epic clash of super powered characters didn’t have grand story at first – like many of the comics we were reading they were simple morality plays locked up under the sanitary seal of the comics code authority.
While Champions was the early leader in the market other games like Superworld and Villains & Vigilantes offered different takes and options for those who were unhappy or uncomfortable with the system behind Champions. These systems all offered a different mechanic but the core concepts were similar, all of them focused on costumed heroes with amazing powers fighting to save the world from dastardly villains.
My group of players didn’t stick with Champions long before we discovered the officially licensed Marvel Super Heroes game. Not only did the TSR produced Marvel comics game feature our favorite supers, but the system was as simple as you could imagine. The characters were described with adjectives instead of cryptic math values, powers and abilities used the same scale and actions were resolved on the colorful Universal results table. The system got an upgrade a few years later that greatly expanded the system and introduced the Ultimate Powers Book, a character generation system I still sometimes pull out and spend hours rolling up the oddest random characters and powers imaginable.
DC Comics also got into the desktop game and offered a complex and detailed conversion of their universe thanks to publisher Mayfair Games. The DC game suffered from scale issues that TSR avoided because of the core differences in the heroes of the Marvel universe. How does one model a system that has to adapt from Batman’s normal human abilities to Superman’s godlike power? Those too young to remember the DC comics of the 80′s might not realize that before the original Crisis on the Infinite Earths many of the DC heroes were nearly unstoppable powerhouses with few weaknesses, unlike Marvel’s flawed characters. The issue of scale is one that plagued many super hero systems over the years.
Other super games hit the markets, many like Heroes Unlimited or GURPS Supers/Wild Cards ran on generic systems that allowed cross pollination of Sci-fi, horror or fantasy easily into the superhero world. These systems seemed to scale well because of the generic nature of their rules but didn’t always capture the feel of a supers game.
The history of super hero computer games is pretty sorrid and uneven. Until recent years most superhero games were not worth the time to play them and few offered the ability to make your own hero. Champions, based on the tabletop game is still regarded as one of the biggest vaporware titles of the 90′s and rivals Duke Nuke’em Forever in its popularity as a game that was highly desired but never produced.
Now that Ken Levine has become a big name with Bioshock, many gamers might not even realize that Levine was the driving force behind Irrational Game’s earlier super hero epics: Freedom Force and Freedom Force vs. The Third Reich. Freedom Force was one of the best games in the genre and told a very traditional tale of silver-age heroes fighting off an alien menace. The game was both an RPG and a strategy game and allowed players to customize and generate their own costumed crusaders.
Champions Online, Cryptic’s latest game will harken back to the original tabletop game when it launches in the future but until then what if you want to make your own world of cosmic powered baddies and mutant heroes? What systems are out there and what does it take to make a game “super”?
Next week we’ll talk about hot to run superhero adventures and I’ll even throw in a few links to games with a super hero focus both digital and analog.