I have always been a big comic book geek. When I was a kid, my godfather would take me to the store to buy comics. I initially bought them for the obvious story reasons, but I eventually became highly invested in the idea of comics as collectibles. I’d read the comic once, and then I’d store it away with the hope that I would eventually have a complete story arc or comic series that I could someday sell to a rabid collector. That being said, I didn’t have the opportunity to play a superhero role-playing game until a small convention in Plymouth, NH at Plymouth State University now called Game-on-Icon. The game was Aberrant, and as it was a one-shot game we were encouraged to make outrageously powerful and odd Novas. My character was from the “Luckiest Town in the Mid-West.” Two people had won the lottery in town, business was booming in an economically depressed region, and the town was renowned for great things happening to it. All of this was due to my character, who didn’t realize he was super powered. He had the ability to impart luck (both good and bad) upon those around him. He was traveling in New York and saw a group of Novas fighting one another. Not really understanding who was who, he went back and forth imparting luck upon one side or the other. I loved the character and the short game was incredibly fun. That was a strange way to play a Super-Hero game, but what follows are a few other great ways to play Supers’ games in a lot of awesome and various systems.
First though, I want to give a shout-out to games in this genre that I recommend checking out. First is Aberrant: this game is a part of the Trinity Continuum and was originally published by White Wolf games and uses a variation of their rules’ system. Aberrant is a customizable super-hero game that features Novas (basically mutants) and allows for a lot of variation and story-centered gaming. Trinity is a group of three games, future sci-fi horror (Trinity Aeon), gritty realistic modern Super-Hero (Aberrant), and pulp action turn of the 20th century (Adventure). Onyx Path Publishing is currently in the process of reviving this wonderful universe and I really recommend checking out the original version of the game which is available on Drive Thru RPG. Also, keep an eye on the new edition that is being developed. I’m super* excited for this to be coming out in the somewhat near future.
Mutants and Masterminds: this game was created and developed by Steve Kenson. Kenson had previously worked on Aberrant and you can see some of the influence of that game on M&M. M&M is a D-20 based game but allows for a seriously awesome amount of customization. The world created to support M&M is amazing and if you are looking for a game that is pretty quick to jump into, Mutants and Masterminds is a pretty great option.
These are the two games in the genre I’ve played the most, but there are some classics and new options out there as well that I’m going to list for people that are interested to check out. Marvel Super-Heroes was published by TSR in the 80’s; newer versions of FASERIP are still being published and if you are interested in that system I suggest doing a quick Google search. Savage Worlds has a Supers’ setting and there is a lot of support for this gaming system at the moment. Monte Cook recently published the Cypher system which is a customizable setting that includes Super-Hero options. There is also Godlike, Scion, DC Heroes, DC Adventures, and many more that I don’t have time or the memory to list. If you like Super-Heroes, there are seriously a ton of options.
Now, onto the list of style options:
The four-color term comes from the older style of coloring that comics had during the Golden Age of comics. This term derives from a form of coloring the page using four color dots. When talking about genre, four-color refers to the over-the-top style of some early comics. These sorts of games might include scenes where a hero turns back time by spinning the Earth backward or where a character hurls an island at another character with no consequences from such a world splitting action. Four-color games can be a lot of fun and they often resemble the discussions people have about which superhero can beat up another. I’ve played a few games that were pretty close to four-color, one thing I’ve noticed is that the technical aspects of the role-playing system tend to come up a lot more frequently, so running a game like this might work best with Mutants and Masterminds or one of the other more mechanically focused systems I mentioned above.
2) GRITTY, DARK, SUPER - MEETS THE WORST OF HUMANITY
Imagine Watchmen or Preacher, or any of the other comics produced by Vertigo over the years. These are the type of games I’m thinking of here. These are games that examine the intersection of super-power and the darkness inherent in humanity. There are cross-overs between concepts like the World of Darkness, but instead of being monsters the characters are usually humans with slightly extra-human abilities. These games are often the polar opposite of the Four-Color campaign and though rules and mechanics are important to any good game, they sometimes take a back-stage to the personal investigation into the psyche of the characters. Aberrant is a great world for these games in some ways, but Mutants and Masterminds and even DC adventures can be used if you really want to use those rule systems.
3) THE LOW POWERED BUMBLING HERO LEAGUE
The 1999 movie Mystery Men is a great example of this type of game. The players make characters that are very low powered ‘super-heroes’. These types of games are much more focused around the idea that humanity can make changes in the world, even if they are not incredibly powerful. I’ve found the times I’ve played this style of game that it is great to juxtapose the player characters with a more powerful group of more traditional heroes. The players might feel inadequate but this is a good opportunity for them to realize that they might be better people, or more capable of doing and going places the more well-known supers are unable to venture. I’ve yet to see a system that this type of game can’t work well with.
4) HUMANITY IS FLAWED, BUT THERE IS HOPE
This type of game is somewhere in between all of the other styles presented above. Imagine Spider-Man, or most of the modern Marvel movies. The world has dark influences and powers that work against humanities best interests. At the same time, there are heroes that are truly trying to do their best to not only save people, but also make the world a better place for everyone. Players are often mid-strength supers, but you can play anywhere from mildly powerful to Hulk level in these games and give your players a lot to work with. You can mix and match some world smashing action with more gritty and real stories at the same time. This is usually where I like to play and when the new Aberrant rules come out I’ll be looking to get a crew together to play once more. Heck… I might not wait that long, the game still holds-up with its 90’s era rules pretty well to this day.
I sometimes get the sense that people don’t see Super-Hero RPGs as great options for role-playing, but I honestly have loved them. Like comics, they can have as much or as little depth as the writers (players) want them to have. Check out the game lines I suggested above, with the popularity of the Marvel movies right now… I’m kind of surprised that RPG companies aren’t jumping on the marketing bandwagon a bit more for their games.
With 17 years of playing rpgs, Josh started with Mind's Eye Theater LARPs and loves the World of Darkness. Josh is the administrator of the Inclusive Gaming Network on Facebook. He’s a player in Underground Theatre’s and One World By Nights Vampire LARPs and is running both a Mage game and a Dark Ages: Vampire game at the moment. He’s a serious advocate for inclusive gaming spaces, a father, and a recent graduate from the International Peace and Conflict Resolution graduate program at American University in Washington, D.C.
(*I see what you did there. – VP Quinn)
I am become death, destroyer of worlds.