October 2009


So discussion with the gaming group have helped solidify superhero plans a bit more.

How does one reconcile a desire for a superhero setting featuring talking apes and at the same time evoking some of the everyman with superpowers aspect of the Heroes tv show? Well, in addition to more RPG products than I should have bought in the house (hey I’ve been gaming for close to 30 years) there’s a decent collection of comic reprint books. I’ve especially enjoyed the Silver and Golden Age reprints from DC and Marvel Comics.

I gravitated towards books from the early Silver Age and made a number of interesting discoveries:

  • Not all superheroes went for the costume look. Challengers of the Unknown, Fantastic Four, and Doom Patrol all, at least in their beginning, featured protagonists who went without costumes. This appeals to looking a bit more for the Everyman feel. Some of those who did wear costumes wore ones which were more like uniforms, such as the later Fantastic Four and the original X-Men.
  • Similarly, not everyone used secret identities. The Challengers of the Unknown and Fantastic Four never tried to keep their identities secret. And the Doom Patrol would have loved to have been known by their “human” names as opposed to their heroic ones.
  • When dealing with “alien civilizations”, while the heroes might be exposed to the full scope of the civilization, most civilians see just special examples of these alien civilizations, if they see any members at all. For example, seeing Prince Namor or Gorilla Grod is far more common than visiting Atlantis or Gorilla City. That said, when the civilization does impose on boring mundane life, it tends to be very dramatic — consider for example how major the events of Atlantis invading in Fantastic Four were.

This began pointing me to a Silver Age setting. As it did so, more advantages occurred to me, most especially the technology difference. Without instant communications, the internet, etc. it is much easier to believe that strange civilizations and alien visitors can remain essentially unconfirmed as far as the layman is concerned.

Now what is the Silver Age of comics? A little googling will find a decent history. Essentially, the Silver Age was the birth of a second generation of superhero comic books. Starting with Superman in the late 1930s, the superhero was one of the most popular comic book genres. These comic book characters proved popular during World War II. However, with the end of World War II, the superhero diminished in popularity. Most characters vanished from the scene, losing their titles to make room for horror and western titles. Essentially, the only characters to survive the end of the Golden Age in the late 1940s were Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman.

In 1954 with the publication of the book Seduction of the Innocent, America became convinced that comic books were contributing to delinquency of America’s youth.  Horror comics like Tales from the Crypt were the main target, but superhero comics were also targeted. Sited was the “obvious” homosexual/pedophile relationship between Batman and Robin. Superman was “clearly” un-American and fascist. And Wonder Woman encouraged bondage. (Well, there may have been something to that last one.) Subject to congressional hearings, the comic book industry established a self-censoring Comics Code Authority to insure good, decent comic books. The requirements of it made horror comics all but impossible. By default, superheroes became the main focus. DC Comics is generally regarded with launching of the Silver Age with Showcase #4, introducing a new version of the Flash. Soon after the modern incarnation of Green Lantern was introduced. At rival Marvel Comics, Stan Lee and Jack Kirby introduced the world to the Fantastic Four and Spider-Man as well as bringing back several Golden Age characters..

These stories tended to have a fairly high science fiction component, especially when compared with their Golden Age predecessors. This was partially due to the requirements of the Comics Code Authority, which made portrayal of realistic crime and the occult very difficult. Also, this was the dawn of the Space Age.

Now I don’t feel the need to be a slave to every element of the Silver Age of comics — except for the need to have super-ape villains from time to time. But there is a lot of neat stuff to mine. In a previous post I developed some background while considering a Golden Age setting. And I think that background overall works well for what I’m looking for. The basic idea being the Tunguska Impact in Siberia before World War I is part of an asteroid that as hurtled through space from the doomed planet Xenon. This allows the world to be be sprinkled with artifacts as well as “meteor rocks”. These allow fantastic inventions and mutations. And over time it allows the birth of mutants on Earth, much like in Marvel’s X-Men. However, I’d like to introduce something of the era’s Red Scare.

I’ve posited that the Tunguska Event is largely responsible for most of the Talents in this setting. This allows the creation of a “Golden Age History”, Now what if in this history their is a Superman equivalent. But unlike Superman, he landed in  Tungunska in Russia. He is encased in a stasis chamber and only released at the first expedition to investigate in in 1921. This allows hum to mature and fight for the Motherland in World War II. Red Star sounds like a good name. Someone with the original Superman’s power set — no flying or x-ray vision, just really strong and really tough to hurt. Really, really strong. Since the Soviet Union was a US ally in World War II it seems reasonable that some of America’s Talents met him in the war. And most probably got along with him — he’s not a bad guy, just extremely devoted to the Soviet Union.

Enter the House Un-American Actives Committee (HUAC), looking out for commies everywhere.  I think we can assume when the dust settles these masked adventurers are portrayed as in league with the U.S.S.R. In its aftermath most Talents retire. The world is safe for democracy. Move to 1959. The world is in need of a new generation of heroes. What do these heroes do? Who do they fight? Off the top of my head, here are some of my ideas:

  • Aliens! It turns out the planet Xenon had enemies. Enemies who followed its fragments to Earth. And who wish to TAKE OVER THE EARTH!!!
  • Monsters! These aliens are going to need monsters to help them.
  • Supervillains. From the eastern European Doctor Doom knockoff to the wanna-be messiah like Magneto.
  • Lost Lands. Places like Atlantis, Gorilla City. Visit them. Stop them from attacking the known world.
  • Communist infiltrators. (Despite the paranoia, they do exist).
  • Wild Talents, affected by out of control mutation. (i.e. “Freak of the Week” episodes of Smallville).
  • Mad scientists.
  • Nazis who survived World War II.

A team structure like the Doom Patrol or X-Men seems a good starting point – some sort of NPC mentor who helps set the tone and gives missions. At least to start. These mentors can later suffer some sort of horrible fate, leaving the PCs on their own once the campaign has gained some momentum. As far as the tone goes, the Silver Age works pretty well for my group — we tend to have a decent amount of goofiness. That said, I don’t quite expect a bunch of people in their thirties (with me closing on 40) to have the “purity” of the period — we don’t have a Comics Code after all. So I’d expect the tone to be more in keeping with the Justice League International books of the late 80s and early 90s. Also I plan on, at least at the start of the game, keeping a lot of the action our heroes engage in as being unseen by most people — not quite to the extent of Heroes, but such that it takes time for superheroes to impact the world in a major way.

As far as inspirational sources go, there’s a variety of good references. Obviously there is the original source material as well as some later works which look back on that period. Highlights to  my mind include:

  • Doom Patrol Archives – An often overlooked gem, the early Doom Patrol were, in my opinion at least, far superior to the similar X-Men. Grant Morrison reinvented the Doom Patrol in the late 80s and early 90s in a very bizarre run.
  • X-Men Masterworks – To be honest, I find the early X-Men a little on the weak side. I think the book really began finding its footing when Roy Thomas took over right before it went on hiatus. In the 70s X-Men was reinvented with Chris Claremont’s excellent run which had the misfortune of turning the X-Men into a franchise.
  • Fantastic Four Masterworks – A good example of a closely nit team — and one that forgoes the use of secret identities. I prefer the early Fantastic Four to the Avengers; the Fantastic Four tend to have more “adventures” as opposed to lots of battles with superbaddies.
  • Green Lantern Archives – The early Green Lantern books have a nice Jet Age/Space Age feel to them, with Hal Jordan as the fearless test pilot. It also has a strong science fiction influence, with many stories involving aliens and Green Lantern visiting other planets.
  • Justice League International – Far out of period (actually an Iron Age book), the adventures tend to have a humorous tone. I expect our game will resemble this…
  • New Frontier Volumes One and Two – A recent work, revisiting the transition from the Golden to Silver Ages. Makes the assumption that each character’s adventurers began the year of their first appearance in comics. Superman has been adventuring since 1938 for example. Shows the Justice Society of America forced into retirement during the Red Scare and the emergence of a new generation of heroes in the 1950s. Deals with the racism of the day in a way that never occurred in the comics, but not a “grim and gritty book”. Probably my biggest inspiration. The animated adaptation is quite good.

Beyond comic books there’s some good books and videos to get the feel of the period, both in fiction and non-fiction. Some items I’ve pursued or am considering:

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So assuming the Golden Age setting as outline in the previous post what sort of game engine works best?

There’s a few  I would consider, some more likely than others. The first wave of candidates includes:

  • Wild Talents – Produced by Arc Dream using their One Roll Engine, it steers towards a grittier style of gaming like that seen in Watchmen or The Dark Knight Returns.
  • Mutants and Masterminds – From Green Ronin Games, Mutants & Masterminds uses an extremely heavily modified version of the d20 System (as seen in D&D 3rd edition and variants). That said, it has evolved into a very different game. While ability scores, feats, and skills remain, a lot of other concepts like hit points, classes, and levels are left behind. The game as a default assumes a Silver Age like setting.
  • Hero System – From Hero Games, the Hero System is an extremely crunchy game. It pretty much has rules for everything. It is a very effects-based system – the rules have tons of pages for the effects, you have to determine the trappings around it.
  • Savage Worlds – From Pinnacle Entertainment, really steers more towards a pulp-like setting, it has been used for supers in the past, though I suspect the rules would begin breaking at higher level of superpowers, though it would probably work well for the likes of Batman, the Sandman, etc.

So lets examine them. My group has had some brief experience with Wild Talents and Mutants and Masterminds so one of them is most likely – currently it looks to be Wild Talents, but there’s plenty of time to change, as our D&D 4e game will likely take us through the end of the year. So we’ll start by examining those two.

Wild Talents

Wild Talents uses a rules system that’s been gaining some traction in recent years – the One Roll Engine (ORE). It’s not quite a “mainstream” RPG but more than a typical “indie”. (That said even the most popular RPGs are at best niche games.) It shares some similarities with other dice pool games, where you use your attribute and skill (or your power) in a dice pool. However your roll determines everything about your action. For example, in combat it determines initiative, accuracy, and damage. This is done by determining the “height” and “width” of your roll. What you do is look for matches on rolling d10s. The number of duplicates is the width an the value of the duplicated die determines the height. For example rolling 6d10 and getting 1, 3, 4, 4, 4, and 7 means you have a width of 3 and a height of 4. Your width determines things like speed/initiative and damage. Your height determines your accuracy which in combat conforms to hit location with a 10 corresponding to a head hit.

Combat is fairly dangerous – a gunshot to the head, barring armor, has a good chance of killing a character right off. It is crunchy in some respects — dealing with hit locations for example. On the other hand it avoids the use of a battlegrid.

Adding a wrinkle is there are different types of dice. Standard dice are d10s, though there are also “hard” and “wiggle” dice. Hard dice are always 10. Wiggle dice can be set to any value you want. Obviously in character generation hard dice and wiggle dice are more expensive, with wiggle dice being the most expensive. Why bother with wiggle dice? Because you lack any finesse with hard dice. Two hard dice guarantee a hit in combat (barring a dodge action or something else to counteract it), but it will always be a hit to the head — i.e. very deadly. If you want to grab something from an opponent, you need to get matches in the hit location they are holding it, typically impossible to do with hard dice.

In our group, we had some troubles with hard dice – they are sometimes a bit tough to grasp mentally. Assuming we play Wild Talents again I’d do some tweaking. First off, we’d need to make certain we all agree just what the hard dice mean, especially in combat — does it mean a shot to the head? Some other form of knockout — for example Captain Kirk’s infamous shoulder chop or Mr. Spock’s Vulcan nerve pinch as a bunch of stunning hard dice? At character generation I’d also give the option to preset the hard dice to a different location — most likely a chest shot (though one could see Jedi Knights being rather fond of presetting hard dice as limb shots…)

A place where Wild Talents both shines and causes some difficulty is in “miracle creation” — i.e. the manufacture of superpowers. It gives you the ability to create any superpower you could want. This requires quite a bit of care however, as the game is not built to protect you from “breaking it”. For example, it is perfectly possible for a character to master the ability to suppress nuclear fusion to the extent where he can turn off the sun. The idea behind the game is you aren’t trying to break things. Making things a bit easier is a collection of premade miracles, the miracle cafeteria, which gives you a decent set of sample powers — including the most common powers you’ll find in comic books.

As far as tone of the game goes, one thing I’ve noticed is while the game works perfectly well for a “generic” superhero game, especially one based on more modern comics (i.e. the Iron Age or modern comics), Arc Dream has chosen to devote a lot of resources to considering alternate settings. Their first setting, This Favored Land, covers superheroes (“Talents”) in the American Civil War. The Kerboros Club also takes place in the 19th century, covering Talents in a very odd Victorian Age. Grim War is a little more standard, taking place in modern day and covering mutants and mystics grouping themselves into various factions.

In play I found the game easy to grasp and the players in my group grasped the basics very quickly. Like I said earlier, hard dice were a bit tough to absorb for some players, something I’ll need to keep in mind. Also, I found defensive powers can make it east to make characters extremely difficult to hit and/or damage. These are all workable items, but they are things I think we’d need to agree on before play starts. Our previous try of the game was brief but useful, allowing us to see what areas of play we need to be aware of.

Mutants and Masterminds

This is probably the most popular superhero game currently being made. It has much going for it. It is based on the d20 System, the same rules used for Dungeons and Dragons (especially as seen in the 3rd edition of that game). At first glance, a class and level based game which centers around “killing monsters and taking their stuff” seems an awful starting point for a game centered around superheroes. However Steve Kenson did a masterful job of keeping what works in d20 for supers and building a unique game with that as its foundation. While anyone familiar with the d20 System will find much familiar, much too has changed. Classes are gone. Characters are built with a certain number of power points which can be used to buy attributes, skills, superpowers, feats, attack bonuses, etc. The game is designed to be built over a tunable power level. This defaults at 10 for building characters like those found in X-Men or JLA. This is used to determine both caps for various ways you purchase abilities and to set the number of power points you get. As you gain more power points through adventuring it is up to the GM as to whether the power level increases or stays the same.

The basic game engine is quite similar to that of D&D, though like Wild Talents it is far less tactical than D&D. It also eschews the use of hit points to track damage, instead introducing a Toughness saving throw. The game has an extensive list of superpowers as well as various frameworks one can use to combine and modify powers. The book Ultimate Power breaks down powers further allowing for quite a bit of tinkering (though not quite as open as Wild Talents). The game is quite a bit less deadly than Wild Talents – no such thing as hit locations for example, removing those regrettable shots to the head. It is a bit more structured than Wild Talents – powers are a bit more defined as are what happens in a combat round.

The sourcebooks for Mutants and Masterminds are first rate. They are heavily into simulating various genres of comic books — books for the Golden Age of comics, superspies (like S.H.I.E.L.D), Iron Age comics, mystical heroes, etc. They all show a great love for the genre as well — even if I don’t use the game the sourcebooks will come in handy.

Compare and Contrast

For now I’m planning on focusing on the two rules engines specified above — if neither proves satisfactory, I may wind up expanding to the others I’ve listed. I’ve played short campaigns in both of them so I know either will work well. It will probably come down to what the group is more in for. I think we’re more likely looking at a Wild Talents game, but we will need to work out some issues with die rolling to make sure everyone is comfortable using them or coming out with tweaks to the rules,