An old dear friend, to whom I rarely speak
My tastes for games tend to run in rather specific directions. My adoration of Star Wars led me to cinematic games through WEG’s distillation of the genre. My introduction to horror gaming brought my nascent GM’ing skills to their logical evolution and kept me returning to the same well for further wisdom. Science fiction and fantasy formed the basis of my reading preferences, so it was logical that I would seek out the gaming analogues for such. I can point to this novel or that movie and discuss at length which game I bought as a means to translate it into being.
But for whatever reason, there’s a fairly substantial section of my library (not as an actual fraction of things, but as a measure of relative shelf space) that remains unspoken of. In all truth, the books I speak of are ones that I buy with very little intention of running, as I don’t know what sort of game I would run with them.
The genre in question is that of the Superhero game.
See, not a lot of people know it, but I love comic books. I read a number of them regularly, usually in one digital format or another, but over the years, I’ve come to realize that there are fewer and fewer that I have passing interest in, simply because a lot of the stories have already been done. And not being in my teens anymore, my own personal tastes have simply changed. As a kid, I loved Superman and the larger than life characters. In high school, I read a lot of X-Men and the slightly grittier heroes. From there, I started reading comics based on the writer instead of the character, and these days my physical collection consists mainly of Vertigo titles like Transmetropolitan, Preacher and Sandman. With the occasional Exiles book as a throwback.
Back in the day, I played a fair amount of TSR’s expansive Marvel Super Heroes game, as it appealed to my tastes at the time for high action and four color drama. It was a properly fantastic game, keeping the action high and the sense of drama at a properly secondary school level. It was fast, it was fun and looking at it now, it was a startlingly simple game. I made certain to have every relevant book for the game, including the Magic rules and the Ultimate Powers book, as I felt that without these sources, you couldn’t have access to the full breadth of the experience.
These days, I look at MSH, and I wonder what I would ever do with it. Unless you’re playing the game as written, with the entirety of the 1980’s Marvel Universe at your back, there’s an awful lot of space devoted to people you’re never going to use. Even during the era where it was our go-to, the games we ran tended to stray into alternate continuity almost immediately. These days, with the prevalence of Marvel movies based on Iron Age and Ultimate retellings of the universe, MSH is just a little too beer and pretzels to do it justice.
It’s a shame, but it’s what’s generally going to happen.
While we’re on the subject of beer and pretzels super hero gaming, it’s worth it to talk briefly about Icons. I was first introduced to Steve Kenson’s sappy little love letter to the original MSH game. Rather than re-inventing the wheel, Kenson built a similarly fast and fun super hero game from the bones of Fate and let it roll. The art style evokes the Animated DC offerings, as well as the occasional Jack Kirby reference, which is directly in line with the slightly more bubblegum aspect of the system. It’s very pretty little game, very well done, and it has the unique aspect of making it so the GM never has to roll any dice on his part. All of the rolls are taken care of by the players, which streamlines it nicely. The only downside, other than the unlikelihood of actually running a long campaign in the system, is that the only book that you need to buy is the main one. And that’s a downside to the publisher, really.
Otherwise, the super hero genre immediately gravitates towards two very specific poles, that of the Hero System and that of Mutants & Masterminds. Mutants & Masterminds is another of Steve Kenson’s efforts to make sure that his favorite genre is covered, while Hero System is the venerable ancient that dates back over 30 years. And as games go, they’re wildly different. If nothing else, one of them is still affordable these days.
Mutants & Masterminds is an everyman’s game, in a lot of ways. It was built from D20 rules in the early days of the OGL (and Green Ronin’s abuse of the license therein), using what appears to be a variant of True20. The level system of D20 is used to scale the power levels of the heroes and villains, with a mean of 10th level as a normal starting base for normal genre superheroes. With the acquisition of the DC license, they’ve put out the licensed version of the rules with Kingdom Come styled covers and a series of character books that detail the important people in the DCU. I’ll be the first to applaud them for this design, but it’s not my cup of tea. I’d rather build the game from the ground up, in much the same manner as shows like Arrow, then expect all of my players to be familiar with the same comics. To that end, I’ll stick with Mutants & Masterminds as my toolkit.
And as far as toolkits go, there aren’t many that are as huge and definitive as Hero System. The 6th Edition came out five years ago, and it was a physically intimidating product. As one of my friends would note, it’s one of the very few games that could reliably stop a bullet. And for whatever reason, it’s already extremely out of print, making these initially expensive tomes that much more expensive. Hero System is built from the original Champions rules, which makes it one of the older systems to still be used, super hero or otherwise.
The problem with Hero System, sadly, is that its age reflects the denseness of its rules. As a game that heralds from the early days of the hobby, it doesn’t pander to the audience. Most of the game is extremely front-loaded, requiring a lot of time and factoring to build a character in the first place. And this isn’t to mention the amount of time the GM has to put into building the world from these books as well. Once everything is in place, it’s a fairly simple rolling system, but it takes a bit of work to get to that point.
The truth is, much as I would love to sink into either of these games and start brainstorming, I know I’m unlikely to run either of them any time soon. I have a couple of ideas for super hero games floating around, but the genre tends to cleave much closer to pulp noir or straight action movie, making it harder to justify the time required to build the world out for a player base that I’m not sure I still have.