Friday, November 24, 2017

Ask Barking Alien - Nigh Invulnerable

My friend Mark Orr asks, "What do you consider the weakness[es] of Supers games?"

What a question! Wow, huh? 

"What's the meaning of life?" too easy for for? Geez.

OK, I had to clarify the question with Mark to make sure I was interpreting it correctly. As it turns out, my understanding of the question was spot on. What is really being asked here is, "What are the difficulties in running a Superhero RPG game", or "What makes it harder to run a Superhero game than say, a D&D game"?

Well...first off, I don't normally find Supers games hard to run, and I don't feel like the genre itself has a ton of weak points that prevent it from being enjoyable in RPG form. That said, there are a few obstacles to Supers games that can be tricky to get through.

Let's look at a two of the biggest...

If You're Not On the Same Page, It's Not Going To Work

More than any other single genre I can think of, the genre of comic book Superheroes has splintered to the point where it seems harder than it should be to find a group where all the members have the same view of Superheroes.

This is do to the various 'Ages' of comics, the deconstruction of Superheroes and Superhero comic book tropes in the late 80s and early 90s, and the exposure people have had to these characters. Some folks have been reading comics since they were kids, others only know them from modern movies, and tv shows, and still others have only a passing knowledge of what Superheroes are.

I've played in a few games now with players who are all gung-ho to play Supers, but having only read manga, or Vertigo comics. They end up playing teen age kids with no costumes and try to kill their enemies.

That's fine if you are all in synch to play that kind of game. If you're not, it can be problematic.

For a Superhero campaign to work the participants must share the same collective consciousness when it comes to what Superheroes are, why they do what they do, and how it all works. You don't just need 'buy-in', you need roughly the same buy-in. 

On a related note:

While discussing this very question, a friend remarked that in his view Superman's origin, and his weakness of Kryptonite, didn't make sense. If he were creating a Superhero universe of his own, he would 'fix' origins like Superman's. In what way? Well first, according to my friend, "Planet's do not just explode, so..."

It was at that point I tuned out.

You see, in my view, if Superman doesn't work as a character, then no Superhero character works. Kal-El being rocketed from his exploding homeworld makes no more or less sense than a kid being bitten by a radioactive spider, a pilot being given an alien ring of power, a quartet being bombarded by cosmic radiation...none of it results in super powered heroes. Most of it would result in dead people if the events could occur at all. None it makes sense. It's all thoroughly ridiculous.  


Unless you accept that you are talking about a Superhero universe, and the laws of such a universe make these things possible.

Character Power Levels Can Seem Disproportionate

One of the biggest issues when playing a Superhero RPG is handling the massive differences in scale that the genre accommodates, often seemingly without effort. Applied to the Player Characters, this means someone could end up playing Robin, and someone could end up as the Hulk. In comics this is nothing unusual, and teams often feature characters with abilities at different ends of the power scale. In the Avengers films for example Black Widow and Hawkeye are considered key team members as much as Iron Man and Thor are, but there is no way Hawkeye is ever going to contribute as much to a battle to save the world as Iron Man is. Right?

For many, this dynamic is not easy to replicate, or deal with in an RPG. If one player's starting PC can lift and throw a tank, fly at the speed of sound, and shoot energy beams from her eyes, how can the next player's PC be a martial art with Human strength, and a katana. Where's the game balance? How do you make it fair?

Some systems use very abstract mechanics to make this work, sacrificing detail, and genre tropes to maintain game balance. Others deal with it by giving the players points to spend, and saying the a 250 point Superman simply spends his points differently than a 250 point Batman. Clark has flight, invulnerability, and phenomenal strength, while Bruce has a car, a plane, a base, skills up the wing-wang, and wealth.

I'm a much bigger fan of the latter. If I want to play a skilled character with gadgets, if that's what I really want to play, then I'm not going to complain that I can't do what the flying brick can do. I could have chosen that kind of character. I didn't. No sour grapes from me.

I hope that answered the question and didn't veer to far off course.

Looking to move on to December to be honest. A lot of other ideas have been bubbling up.

Up, up, and away...

Barking Alien


  1. Both points are master advice, but the first one is really where every group should start. When you use well known characters, however, people seem to accept everything more smoothly.

    1. Usually yes.

      As a matter of fact, if that doesn't happen it's probably best not to run Supers with that person, or group. Go with a genre you all comprehend more, or less equally and save yourself the headaches.

  2. The highest hurdle in Supers game for me has been the massive amount of front loading on the players. This time we are gradually building our lore for the characters.

    Current game -
    System: DC Heroes (megs)
    Setting: DC's "Invasion!"
    Description to the players: "JLA animated series meets Star Wars. No killing combat." That description got everyone on the same page.

    1st issue: They wake up on a Khund starship in cryo-tubes. The ship is under massive attack. With help, they escape to somewhere in the DC extended universe. They have few memories. They have half-second flashes of their past at random. The powers are new.
    They have to find home (Earth).
    Their big question: Was there an alien invasion or were we just abducted?
    Why I'm doing it this way:
    As we learn the game system, we are boosting the characters by a lot of points. I allow rearranging of the characters too.

    The memory loss allows them to build the characters background as we play and feel more comfortable with setting, system and style.

    Its been a lot of fun and a huge success so far.

    In Superhero games I keep in mind: "Always find a way to say "yes", they are Super Heroes."

    1. I like the sound of this. It's an interesting way to merge 'Well Known Setting', with 'Original Content', that doesn't mess with either too much and potential enabling the two elements to add to each other.

      Very cool Teresa!

  3. YES! These are the exact issues I kept running into when trying to play/run Superhero games back in High School and College. We, unfortunately, never took the time to figure out why our super hero games did not work, since we typically just moved onto something else, but this explains a lot of the issues we had.

    The power level issues were definitely a result of the game system we used (Palladium's Heroes Unlimited) but I think not being on the same page with the type of super heroes we would play was probably the biggest issue. Two of my friends, one of whom grew up on DC comics and the other who grew up on Saturday morning cartoons, worked just fine in a group but my other friends who grew up on Image comics, JRPGs, and video games had very different expectations.