So our 4e D&D game is going pretty well. The characters have all reached the point of leveling up, though there is one more big encounter in the dungeon they are currently in. I’m planning on continuing this game but as I’ve mentioned in the past I like churning my thoughts about campaign ideas. Sometimes they just serve as fun exercises, sometimes they can lead to actual campaigns. (For instance, I’d bet against me doing a Trek game in the near future).

The systems junkie of my gaming group mentioned that he absolutely loves the Wild Talents rules that we tried out for a few games back in the early spring time. Wild Talents is a superhero roleplayng game using the One Roll Engine (ORE). This system handles resolution by all participants in an action (whether social, mental, physical, etc.) by rolling their dice pools simultaneously. The results of these rolls determines everything to do with the action – how effective it was, how fast it was performed, etc. In combat you don’t roll for initiative or damage, these are all included in that roll. Superpowers are purchased based on effects, a bit like the Hero System, though nowhere near as complicated. Very few things are… (I say this as one fond of the Hero System).

ORE first appeared in the gritty World War II supers game called Godlike. It has since been exported to other genres such as the Calvin & Hobbes meets Call of Cthulhu game called Monsters and Other Childish Things. Wild Talents grew out of Godlike, basically serving as a generic supers rules set. Arc Dream, the manufacturer of Wild Talents, is producing several genre supplements for Wild Talents. Their first supplement, This Favored Land, takes the nontraditional approach of having supers in the American Civil War. It seemed an odd concept but I checked it out and it is spectacularly well done. The sourcebook just fills me with ideas for a Civil War era supers game.

That said, I’d probably be inclined to shy away from that period at this time but it did get my mind jogging on ideas for games set in other time periods beyond the modern day. And it also got me thinking a bit more about the structure of a superhero game. I think superhero campaigns often run into conventions of the superhero genre which run counter to  conventions of gaming. These include:

  • The fact that characters in superhero comics tends to be reactive. The baddies are up to some plot that is in progress when the came begins
  • The fact that almost all superheroes are motivated, for various reasons, to do good.

Compare these with the most popular RPG, Dungeons & Dragons. In it the characters do not react, rather they explore a sandbox, the dungeon. True it is a limited sandbox and the characters are often pushed or prodded to go on expeditions, but in many ways the PCs initiate the events. Also in D&D, the motivation to do good is not required. In mos groups I’ve DMed for or participated in as a player some of the characters are motivated by altruism, others motivated by profit, but they find reason to work together.

So how would I structure a new supers game with these concepts in mind?

First of all, I’d look to a different time period for setting. I don’t want a “D&D in tights” game but the idea of exploring the unknown appeals to me and seems difficult to capture in the modern world, with GPS, wireless internet, overnight shipping, etc. For more unknown one could look to the future (i.e. Legion of Superheroes) or the past. I lean toward the past – the past is known and therefore is available. It requires research, but I’m a history geek.

I lean towards the 1930s as a time period, though I’d also consider American Civil War era games or even Colonial America games. But I think the 1930s works well. First of all, it is the period in which the superhero began appearing in comic books. Though players might not care about that, it has a certain appeal to me. And more importantly from a player perspective, the world still seems to have its unknown corners. The wilds of Borneo, lost tombs in Egypt, ruins in South America, rumors of a hollow Earth. It is probably the last period where there seems to be unknown corners on the map. And as a time period it is an exciting time. The rise of Nazism. The Great Depression – something unfortunately easy for my group to relate to – of the five of us in the group, two of us are dealing with reduced salary or hours and two of us are currently unemployed.

How to allow the characters to be the initiators of action? I thought of the old Marvel comic Heroes For Hire. Mercenary supers. It seems like something that would likely happen. I’m not thinking so much rough and tumble mercs, but rather people who make their talents available for a price. And who might refuse the job should it interfere with their ethics. But this avoids the problem of the characters employed by the government or a benefactor – I’ve found groups tend to not be too fond of a chain of command in their gaming (as I discussed in my Star Trek musings). It provides the reason to go on adventures but puts things in the players’ hands. Now if the game is about finding a temple the “dungeon” may actually be an encounter map of ways to find the temple. And of course there would need to be super powered opposition, ranging from rivals (Avengers vs. Defenders battles of the 70s come to midn) to enemies (super-Nazis).

During this thought process I also wondered what sort of power level I’m thinking. I still want a supers game, not a pulp one. But it seems clear we are not talking characters with powers you’ll find in the Justice League or Avengers. We’re looking at characters with traditional Golden Age power levels – essentially human, but with one superpower or a narrow suite of powers. When Superman first started he was pretty limited – he was basically super-tough and that was about it. His toughness gave him protection, allowed him to leap, and made him strong. To be honest I find that power level for Superman more appealing than the modern Superman.

Despite a Golden Age power level, I would certainly go with modern sensibilities. I know my group well enough to know they really wouldn’t embrace the innocence of the original comics. This isn’t all that uncommon an approach. Consider modern comics that take place in the 30s through 50s – they often abandon conventions of the genre that existed at the time – Watchmen, New Frontier, Golden Age, etc.

In closing, I’ll throw off a few sources of inspiration:

  • It’s Superman, novel by Tom De Haven. Revisits Superman by telling a coming of age story for Clark Kent. Returns Superman to his 1930s origins. Very well told period tale. You have no doubt it takes place in the 1930s.
  • Mutants & Maserminds Golden Age Sourcebook. Though I plan on using Wild Talents, this provides a good overview of the Golden Age of comics.
  • The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Klay, novel by Michael Chabon. A love letter to comic books, covers a pair of Jewish kids who create their own version of Superman. Starts in the 1930s, works its way to the 50s.