superheroes


Brief Overview

February 25, 1865, R.M.S. Caliban, under the command of Captain Gerald Macduff, three days from reaching Brazilian port of Belém

Our heroes had taken passage on the Caliban in search of the temple near the Amazon river that Confederate explorers had found – one that seemed to have a mystical altar missing a single gemstone – one our heroes had retrieved.

However, some three days away from Belém in some foggy weather, our heroes heard a loud bump. Something had struck the ship. Looking down they saw it was the emaciated body of an African, recently dead. Several more could be seen in the water. Fairly close was a transport ship. Mbizi immediately realized immediately what was transpiring – a slave ship. He shouted for the captain to immediately overtake her. Luthor, with his Royal Navy background backed up the order. MacDuff was hesitant but there was some profit in apprehending slavers and he agreed.

Realizing they were about to be overtaken, the slavers began dumping Africans overboard, healthy or not. Mbizi summoned his ancestor spirits to man the Caliban’s boats to rescue the slaves while Larry went to fetch the recuperating John Henry below decks. Grappling the slave ship our heroes boarded her. After a tough battle – no quarter was asked or given, our heroes were victorious, though John Henry had a nasty headshot wound which had nearly finished him. The slaver captain had been trying to complete some sort of ritual and had been dumping a nasty mix of human entrails overboard. What that portended was unknown.

Session Notes

There was really only one main encounter this evening – still a little goofy I guess. That said prior to the combat encounter, there was some decent roleplaying and giving out of willpower points like candy with some debate over whether or not to get involved in chasing the slavers.

That said, with real life intruding we’ll be making some changes to the structure of the game, trying to go for more self-contained adventures as opposed to the current run of one adventure leading directly to the next – that sort of structure makes it difficult to absorb player absences and we’re all married folks with careers and many of us with kids, making getting a full house very difficult. I won’t be dropping all continuity, rather I’ll be attempting to make the adventures self-contained though also fitting together, much like early seasons of Buffy the Vampire Slayer or the linkages found in recent seasons of Doctor Who.

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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:

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,

My gaming group is currently working its way through the D&D 4e adventure Seekers of the Ashen Crown. This has given me a little bit of time to go over thoughts for our next gaming genre which looks to be supers.  I started this consideration in a previous post.

What I’ve been thinking about is a setting. I’m trying to work backwards. What I want is…

  • Something that is not too serious. While I absolutely loved Watchmen and Dark Knight Returns, my gaming group is more of the style of late 80s Justice League International.
  • At the same time, I don’t want to be a slave to Lawful Good = Stupid morality. The characters will be good guys but I imagine if they have a chance to off Doctor Apocalypse and prevent him from killing millions they’ll do it without spending too much time debating the morality. We’re not talking wholesale slaughter mind you, but I’m having a tough time picturing my group with PCs having major issues against killing baddies.
  • The characters have to have the opportunity to initiate action. A lot of RPG-ing involves the characters on a quest to do something. A lot of comics involve waiting for Captain Carnage to show up and try to destroy Megalopolis.
  • Characters of modest superpower seem the most appealing to me. People with abilities above those of normal men, but still vulnerable to a bullet in the back of the head. I really like the model of older superheroes, most of whom either had a single power or a group of tightly linked powers. Think of Hawkman with his flight and armory of weapons. Or the early X-Men and Fantastic Four.

So based on this and some conversations with members of my group… What I’m leaning towards is a Golden Age campaign set in the 1930s. I’m not too keen on running a wartime game, so I’d probably be setting it earlier than the Golden Age traditionally begins with the introduction of Superman in 1938. One thing that should be remembered is while the early characters were often willing to allow villains to fall into vats of acid (“a fitting end for his kind”). And early Superman certainly initiated lots of action – investigating mine safety on his own in one instance and stranding the mine owners in their own unsafe mine. I’d also want to take liberal doses of influence from the pulps of the time, with lost worlds, superscience, and rocket ships. And the pulps certainly can provide that level of “seriousness” I’m looking for.

So as far as background goes… What is it that gives superpowers? I want a variety of origins, from magic to superscience to mutation to aliens. But I’d also like to have an explanation as to why superheroes are something new. I don’t mind the rare instance of them in the past, but I’d like this to be the first generation of superheroes. Since I’m not ashamed to borrow liberally from classical sources… I picture the doomed planet Xenon. As its sun went nova in the Earth year 1908, a small colony of them survived on an asteroid base. They harnessed the power of their exploding sun to open an experimental hyperspace gateway to Earth, a planet they had discovered through their Tachyon Viewscopes.  However, things did not go as expected. It turns out the solar system was protected by some sort of dimensional shield. The colony was able to breach it but the asteroid was fragmented and the bulk of it burned up in the Earth’s atmosphere, though many pieces managed to land or come close to Earth before breaking up – the most notable being the Tunguska Impact in Siberia. Many others landed undetected.

Over the next twenty-five years the effect of the impacts was little noticed. But over time the cumulative effect, though not the cause, became noticeable. The breaking of the dimensional barrier made magic operate a lot easier than it had – something had erected it long ago to “protect” the Earth. Now Earth is open to other dimensions and magic becomes a possible power source. This also allows various “lost lands”, existing partially in other dimensions, to be more easily accessed. Many fragments of the asteroid have been imbued with a strange radiation. It has no effect on most people. But for a small fraction of the populace it can either trigger latent superpowers or modify genetic structure to allow offspring to exhibit superpowers. Some technological artifacts have survived. Some people find them and, while not understanding their manufacture, are able to use them. Others serve as inspiration to “mad scientists”. Finally it is possible that a few inhabitants of the asteroid survived in stasis chambers, allowing for the Last Son of the Planet Xenon to gain superpowers under Earth’s yellow sun. Or there could be robots.

The appeal of this origin is it meets all of my goals while also being fairly simple. And it also provides a catalyst for adventure – Soviet agents and Nazi scientists will be seeking various artifacts of the planet Xenon. Mad scientists will attempt to make dastardly weapons. The Socialist Gorilla Republic will seek a weapons to help them spread the revolution.

So in closing for now, what are some good inspirations? From comic books the obvious choices are Golden Age comics, many of them reprinted in collected editions. In addition, I really enjoyed the novel It’s Superman which revisited the origin of Superman by retelling his origin in the period he originally appeared in – the 1930s. Modern revisitations  are handy as well to get a lens from the modern eye on that period. Good examples of this include All-Star Squadron and Golden Age.

Outside of comic sources,  there are other inspirational sources. The Doc Savage and Shadow pulps give a good feel for the adventures possible in the age. More modern takes on this include films like Raiders of the Lost Ark and Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow.

Finally some decent non-fiction sources are handy as an inspiration for what life in the period was like. I’m not looking for rigid attention to detail, but some books on daily life and a broad view of the history are handy. Real history shouldn’t get in the way of a good story, but even better is using such history to support a good story.

Allan Quartermain

Allan Quartermain

In my previous post I had mentioned the possibilities of superheroes in the 1930s. I shared the posting with my group – immediately illiciting horror from my brother (who is in the group) with the message STOP CHANGING GAMES!!! Perhaps you know other GMs with short-attention spans… Be that as it may, rest assured guys I’m still pumped for our D&D 4e/Eberron game – I even splurged for shipping on the new Eberron book due out tomorrow. This is one of my outlets to explore such ideas without inflicting each of them on my group.

Some of the comments from my group were quite interesting. A player who had a modern age Wild Talents character with time control focus indicated he was rather fond of his current character – which really opened intriguing possibilities. Indeed other characters could be revisited as antecedents of their more modern characters. And more than one player noted the possibilities of being on the edge of World War II – especially interesting for a time traveler commited to preserving the timeline. Another player mentioned the possibility of making an Alan Quartermain-like character, albeit a while too late. That got me thinking of Quartermain. I’d never read the novels featuring him, but I knew the basics and knew he was a character in the League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. I’d seen enough of the League of Extraordinary Gentlemen film to know it was not my ideal kind of film – but I’d never read the graphic novels. I snagged the first volume and was immersed into the world of the League. A motley assortment of fictional characters of the Victorian Age came for a visit – the Invisible Man, Dr. Jekyll, the Invisible Man, Captain Nemo, Mina Murray, Allan Quartermain, Professor Moriarty, etc. It had never occurred to me just how many “superheroes” existed in the Victorian Age until I read this work.

So what sort of a campaign would we be looking at, hypothetically? Well, to begin with I think we are looking at “superheroes” who are not extremely super. In modern comics, think of someone like Daredevil, Golden Age Sandman, Batman, etc. People who are above and beyond the common man, but not going to destroy continents or fly through space. Some characters have no real superpowers at all but are incredibly intelligent, masters of martial arts, gadget masters, etc. Alan Moore presented Captain Nemo in this manner, using Nautilus as the team’s mobile base and Nemo having a massive harpoon  gun to repel borders.

So these characters have advantages over “normal” men, but not much of one. I picture superpowers being available but they are limited superpowers. A character can be a successful adventurer without them – just like Batman is in modern comics. Here’s some sample ideas that come to mind, some pulled straight from period tales:

  • Super-strength, obtained from a potion bringing out the dark side of the persona.
  • Precognitive powers, but difficult to translate from the myriad of possible futures. However does make it easy to avoid getting hurt in a fight.
  • Flight from a special lighter than air metal – not incredibly fast flight mind you…
  • A ritualist magician member of the Golden Dawn.
  • A native studying forbidden lore of his people to fight the Imperialists.
  • An extremely competent adventurer with a big gun.
  • A cocaine-using consulting detective.
  • A monster hunter. No special powers per se, but a ton of handy knowledge and variety of tools for use against monsters.

I rather like the idea of using the Wild Talents engine. Though I’m planning on dialing back the “super” part of powers – I view these characters as having access to something that makes them special, whether it be training, research, dark secrets, etc. This seems less an era where a radioactive spider will bite a hero as one where a “mad” scientist researches into the nature of spiders to gain those powers – only to have it not quite work out.

Why adventure in this period? What about the idea of the 1930s? Well either will work to be honest. A lot of it has to do with feel. But especially appealing about dialing back even further is the even greater limits placed on technology. While the telephone existed, it was even more primitive than it was in the 1930s. Radio is still in the extreme experimental stages. There is a cheerful Imperialism in this era, something I certainly do not approve of (Leopold’s Congo just leaps to mind as a brutal example of this) but someing that makes for excellent adventuring opportunity. Depending on how scientifically accurate one wants to be there can be ships in the ether or invasion of Martian tripods. Characters can go exploring in unknown lands, seek out Shangri La, go under the sea, visit the deserts of Mars and jungles of Venus (which will have, of course, dinosaurs). One advantage of the late Victorian/early Edwardian period is much of the well known European fiction has occurred, giving a wide menagerie of foes and adventures to mine. Also it makes the oncoming Great War something to keep in mind.

If we do go into this era, there are a variety of gaming sources to mine. The obvious ones are:

  • Castle Falkenstein,  published by R. Talsorian games. A physically gorgeous game, it takes place in an alternate Victorian Age where fictional characters interact with their creators. Dwarves, dragons, and faerie (not the Disney kind) are part of society. Great steam devices have been created. Adventure is dialed up to 11. The rules system is quite different from most other games, being card based and descriptive. It foreshadowed game engines such as FATE and PDQ. To be honest, if I were to go for a non-Wild Talents game this would be it. And for some reason there is an inland sea over much of Belgium. I guess this is good news for the Congo…
  • Space: 1889, originally published by the late Game Designers Workshop. The license reverted to its creator Frank Chadwick. Heliograph is reprinting the original game and Pinnacle Entertainment Group will be producing a Savage Worlds adaptation. Space: 1889 is less wahoo than Castle Falkenstein, positing the existence of ether that allows interplanetary space travel to the jungles of Venus and deserts of Mars.  The Great Game of Empires takes place across the solar system as well as on the continents of the Earth. I can definitely see interplanetary journeys in my game, though I’m not sure I’d keep the ether.
  • GURPS: Steampunk. While my group isn’t too fond of GURPS, this is a first rate sourcebook just begging to be exploited.
  • Savage Worlds: Rippers. This is a Savage Worlds game which cheerfully makes use of ideas from the movie Van Helsing. Even if I were not to use the Savage Worlds game engine (which I think would work well should I choose to dial back the superpowers a bit) there is a lot from this game to borrow.
  • Victoriana. I’m still working my way through a pdf of this game. It takes place far earlier than I plan on running a game, but it is all nice and moody and atmospheric. If I had more time for gaming – and it paid an awesome salary…

As far as literary and other inspirations, the possibilities are quite wide.

  • The works of Jules Verne. Verne had an amazing imagination. Captain Nemo is the perfect anti-hero – reminds me in many ways of Marvel’s Sub-Mariner. My more “serious” blog just discussed him in the post Jules Verne: Good Parts Version, with an emphasis towards the better translations.
  • War of the Worlds, H.G. Wells. At some point a team has to stop an alien invasion.
  • The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, Alan Moore. Of course this work must be referenced as a prime inspiration.
  • Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Robert Louis Stevenson. A classic story of science gone wrong, useful for both insipiration of a hero (the Hulk?) of a villain. The Invisible Man by H.G. Wells would work in a similar manner.
  • Dracula, Bram Stoker. One of my favorite novels, the opening scenes are incredibly moody and atmospheric and the brides of Dracula creep me out.
  • The Proud Tower, Barbara Tuchman. A work of non-fiction, gives an excellent view of European society in the period between the Franco-Prussian Wars and World War I.
  • The Vertigo Years: Europe 1900-1914, Philipp Blom. Another non-fiction work from the period.

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.