More with the previous…
So for a while, I’ve been thinking about how different games model different things, as I started to delve into with yesterday’s post. Most games make combat their core mechanic, moving outward from there, as necessary. Given the early days of the hobby, as it evolved outward from tactical miniatures gaming, this only makes sense. Modern games in the Indie category have shifted to simpler mechanics that can eschew combat for the sake of their narrow focus on story or scene, but as yet they’re still a fringe aspect of the hobby. (Unless you’re talking about Fate, which has its own success story that has yet to be replicated.)
Part of my thinking stems from my continual comparison of the different iterations of the Star Wars RPG franchise, as it moved from WEG’s D6 incarnation through the different aspects of D20 into Fantasy Flight’s own redemption of the brand with Edge of the Empire and the upcoming Age of Rebellion. Each game had very different flavors, even in the shifts within D20, and while I prefer what came before and since, I can appreciate the design work that went into the game while Wizards of the Coast held the license.
More than that, however, I’ve been working over the ways different gaming companies present the superhero genre for gaming. Much of this comes from recent reading, when I got tracked over to Superworld, the superpower game put out by Chaosium in the early 1980’s with the same system as Call of Cthulhu and Runequest. Comparing that sort of system with the looser and more cinematic systems that I’ve grown accustomed to was a bit strange.
For me, the particulars of a system tell a lot about what the game is supposed to do.
In the case of Superworld, it’s built on the bones of BRP, Chaosium’s so-named ‘Basic Role Playing’ system, which was derived loosely from early Dungeons & Dragons, with a percentage skill system grafted onto it. I’ve never been a fan of percentage systems in general, as they remove much of the wonder and speculation from the experience. I find it acceptable in Call of Cthulhu, as the game’s core is esoteric and intellectual, and such systems fit that mindset. But for action-oriented games, a clinical 35% chance is far too sterile. It may have worked for George Martin’s purposes (his superhero anthology series, Wild Cards, is based from the Superworld games he used to run for his friends in Santa Fe), but these systems feel somewhat dry to me. They’re not what I would use for a high action, cinematic game, but they would serve very well for something a little more gritty, I figure. (Part of this is because it seems like the huge potential to cross over with the other BRP systems would be an interesting draw, sort of like some of the ‘What If?’ comics of the 1970’s would have suggested.)
Much like BRP, there are also GURPS versions of superhero games, which I find very interesting. GURPS is definitely its own animal in the RPG industry, as a solid and dependable system that can be adapted for pretty much every sort of game imaginable. It’s a little numbers-heavy for my tastes, but I know plenty of people that prefer it to most other games in the hobby, especially if they want a very closely defined and carefully built character for a very carefully built world. This would also work well for grittiness and multi-genre role-playing.
TSR’s ground-breaking Marvel Super Heroes also used a sort of percentage system, but it was much looser and could have just as easily substituted in a D20 mechanic for the four color chart that served as its core. MSH was simple, especially for its time, and the rules offered something of a casual, beer and pretzels sort of experience. There was a lot of detail to the power profiles for the system, but most of the system revolved around combat, as evidenced by the Feat Table itself. There were distinctions between things like Grappling, Edged Weapons and Blunt Weapons, but it was a game of knocking villains through walls and having fun, rather than considering the consequences of your actions beyond what was required for the Karma Pool. I’ve always loved the game, but it doesn’t go very far when the characters are given deeper issues to contemplate. If a problem can’t be solved by beating it into submission, it’s not going to be easily solved with this system. There’s also not a lot of room on the lower end of the power scale, as the game could model normal humans, but that was usually for mooks and bystanders, rather than lower-powered hero characters. Not much Iron Age potential there.
Its modern version, the Fate-inspired Icons, fares similarly, with the fast and loose aspects in full force. Icons lends itself to convention games and short campaigns, focusing on the Kirby Era and things like the Batman Animated genre of comics, as evidenced by the art style. Much of the game lends itself to very fast and loose games where the GM is in charge of arbitrating most of the action, but that allows it to be quickly generated and let loose on the game table. It’s not something for the serious minded gamers that require a lot of detail, though, putting itself as far as it can from games like Superworld and GURPS.
I’ve seen people talk highly of how Savage Worlds handles super hero gaming, with Necessary Evil. Given my outlook on Savage Worlds, I’ll let them have their opinions and move on. I will say that Necessary Evil is an interesting idea, but if I were to ever run it, it would be with some other system entirely.
Hero System, much like GURPS, is the game for the carefully planned game with the precisely constructed worldset. Unlike BRP and GURPS, however, it requires a lot of prep on the part of the GM, which pays off with the detail and the versatility of the available options. This would be where an Iron Age game could shine, simply because there’s all manner of possible detail that could be lent to the game. In the same breath, however, it’s not a casual game, and unless all of the players are intimately familiar with all of the aspects of the system, there’s no way that it could be a one-off fuck-all game like Icons or Marvel would lend itself to.
So, yeah. Five different games, five different systems, and you end up with five very different flavors of what you would sit down to the gaming table with. GURPS is detail-driven, and it could take you into uncounted alternate worlds with no effort at all. But it wouldn’t be nearly so high action as Marvel or Icons. And with those two, you could easily run something out of the box in minutes, where the heroes are throwing cars and sections of real estate at the villains of the scenario. But you’d be sort of stuck if the game suddenly got serious, and the characters had to rely on something other than their super powers to get through. And so on. This is just a look at one genre of games, with a narrow selection therein, and already you’ve got strong and weak points within these.
At this point in my gaming life, I’ve come to the idea that I’ll use a game for the purpose intended, rather than try to adapt it into something else. I’ve seen people try to use Dungeons & Dragons (or D20, in some cases) for all manner of different game ideas, and it’s been to varying success. I wouldn’t use D&D or Pathfinder for much beyond heroic, level-based fantasy (with all manner of tactical combat) myself, as I think some other game would probably handle it a lot better. There are enough games in the market place (and enough possibilities within my library) that I don’t have to force that sort of peg into some radically different hole.