There was an idea that I had for a game some years back, set in a world of high adventure and super powers, that I never got around to actually implementing. Part of the problem was that I couldn’t find a system that fit the ideas I was trying to get to paper at the time. As I’ve noted, I played plenty of Marvel Super Heroes back in the day, and there were a number of problems with the way the system worked as a dramatic vehicle.
For the moment, let’s consider the baseline setting idea that I had in mind.
The characters were low level heroes in a weirdly bleak alternate history America. Weather patterns had skewed pretty badly due to some environmental catastrophe, and some parts of the country were deluged with constant rain while others suffered dramatic heat. Somewhere along the way, super powers had started to manifest, but they were fairly haphazard and unpredictable. (In a lot of ways, very similar to many of the themes in early Marvel, where it was difficult to replicate any sort of power.)
Most of the game was set in a noir-based Iron Age game, with the characters as unappreciated vigilantes who had come to see their intervention as the only thing that was keeping the fractured society from falling apart completely.
As a quick aside, the term Iron Age refers to the way comics shifted into more bleak and existential themes around the 1990’s, with more flawed heroes that relied on armor and weaponry rather than inexplicable super powers and heroic virtues. Much of the shift owed to comics like Watchmen and Dark Knight Returns as the first wave of the movement, and a good portion of the Image titles of the time reinforced the basic sentiments. Low-powered vigilantes carried guns, wrestled with the morality of their cause, and were prone to crossing into anti-hero territory.
This sort of set-up makes it very difficult to build a game around. MSH was a great game, and it carried a solid system for the Karma of the heroes, who were questioning their cause, but the random character generation made it particularly unwieldy to build out to a power level. This is not to mention that its four color origins suggested something a little less grim in tone. This is much the same reason I didn’t bother to consider using Icons, either.
The old, original DC Heroes RPG by Mayfair (later rebuilt without copyrighted material as the Blood of Heroes game by Pulsar) was a potential candidate, given the slightly grittier rules, but inevitably the exponential scale of things limited a certain amount of variability in character creation. It’s a great system for being able to model characters at the different end of the power scale, but in the game I was looking to run, most of the characters fell on the lower end of the scale. This was the main problem with Torg as well, being that its mechanics based on a logarithmic scale, as the actual variance between characters was often rather minimal. It didn’t help that I have spent very little time with DC Heroes as a system, which helped knock it out of the running.
So much for games built in the 1980’s and since out of print.
On the more modern scale (accepting that two of these games are out of print, and one of them is ticking up in price accordingly), there are a pretty good selection of potential games. From Margaret Weis Productions, there are the Smallville and Marvel Heroic games, both of which use the Cortex Plus rules. My lack of experience with the system aside, neither one precisely fit, as Smallville is billed as being a proper coming-of-age aspected game and MHR is built to adapt existing characters from the comics more than work on character creation.
Despite its cost, I managed to lay hands on a set of Hero System 6th, which offers a massive toolkit to work out from. Hero has a specific advantage in having a lot of supplemental material to work from, and despite its origins from the original Champions, it’s a fairly world-agnostic set. The drawbacks come with the rules complexity and the sheer weight of the books in question. Without someone to teach the rules, it’s a serious commitment of time to wade through the several hundred pages of rules to get an idea of how to build what I want. But it’s still a contender.
The other game is Green Ronin’s Mutants & Masterminds, which distinguishes itself on the basis of having both easier rules (I know D20 from my years with D&D 3.5 and Pathfinder) and the fact that it delves heavily into the genres of super hero roleplaying. The power levels as depicted in the game would allow for the variance that I need, with enough differentiation within those scales.
The main tweak that I would foresee within the framework of the game would be to alter the way experience was used in order to uphold the narrative. One of the main problems with most super hero game systems is they have to try to bridge the gap between comics and RPG’s, and as such, they end up having to compromise. RPG’s require a reward system to mark advancement. Heroes in comics almost never advance in any meaningful way. Spiderman never really advances his life or his powers beyond basic increments. Yeah, he graduated high school at one point and went to college, but if you were to document his every appearance in various titles, he’d be simply awash in unspent experience points. In some ways, it’s a bit weird on both sides of the equation.
And this is much of the basis for the game I have in mind, with specific upgrades at specific times.
A bit more on the idea I’d been working on… As I noted, it would be low power. The characters would be built on the Mystery Men or Noir power scale, where each character would have one single ability or gadget that set them apart. (I would reference the Archie Comics super heroes, like the Web, the Fly and the Jaguar, but this is so esoteric as to be silly.) The opening adventures would have the characters caught up in street-level intrigues, leading to some sort of eventual conspiracy along the lines of the main plot of the Watchmen.
The conspiracy would involve super hero augmentation, which would allow the established characters to boost themselves in power in one singular instant. And since there were villains behind the augmentation program in the first place, that would allow adversaries of similar level to deal with. The game would continue in this vein for a while until another conspiracy opened up, where it was discovered that the powers that the different characters were using had extremely strange limitations to them. Characters that relied on powered armor found that no one else was able to make use of it. Other powered characters would realize that there were strange ‘dead zones’ where no one’s powers were able to function, and so on. All of this would be revealed during some strange crisis that would again boost the power level of different heroes and villains.
The eventual final reveal would be that there was an outside force that was wholly responsible for the weather flux and the powers that drove the heroes, and it would be a final choice of whether to fight back against this manipulation or continue on as they had, possessed of super powers but acting as pawns. It would go back to a common theme of exactly what the price of freedom was worth.
As a final aside, it’s interesting to note that each of the main comics companies have been the subject of several different iterations of licensing, moving between various companies and systems.
Marvel was originally developed by TSR with the MSH rules. Later, during the final years of TSR as a company, it was moved to SAGA rules, which had originally been developed to revitalize the Dragonlance brand for the company. Marvel Comics themselves attempted an in-house RPG that apparently sold very well, but since it didn’t compare to either actual comic sales or the figures for Dungeons & Dragons, it withered away fairly quickly. After that, it was picked up by Margaret Weis Productions, who produced a couple of books before letting the license lapse in light of the Disney acquisition of the properties.
In the mean time, DC Comics started off with Mayfair Games (who has since moved primarily into boardgames, since there tends to be better money there) who built an impressive range of supplements and adventures. At one point, it was picked up by the weird French iteration of West End Games, who re-jiggered D6 rules to a heroic ruleset. The books were a mess in terms of layout, but the rules were solid enough to inspire Jerry Grayson’s Godsend Agenda, which further developed the Heroic D6 rules. From there, the properties sort of split, with Margaret Weis developing the Smallville game based on the TV show, and Green Ronin adapting the Mutants & Masterminds rules into the current DC Adventures game. (It’s interesting to note that, for a brief period, Margaret Weis Productions was publishing both major comic RPG’s under one roof.)