Following the theme of talking about different genres (and probably the last genre question for now), this week I want you to take a moment to think about the supers genre, particularly as it relates to roleplaying games.
What makes something part of the supers genre? Clearly the genre has a history that traces back strongly to comic books as a medium, but there are supers settings that have other origins–the Wildcards setting comes to mind. But outside of comics, what is the supers genre? How does not being in a comic book change the assumptions of the genre (or does it change the assumptions at all)? What do you have to change about the supers genre before it's not really that genre anymore? The Birthright setting is a fantasy world where the PCs are all mystically-empowered individuals, head and shoulders over the common man, with super powers handed down (indirectly) by gods. Does that make it a supers game?
How much to “supers” is the trappings, how much is mood/tone/theme and how much relates back to comics?
So now that you've given it some thought: What aspects of a supers scenario differentiate it from any other type of scenario?
What typical roleplaying game features or aspects are problematic in a supers scenario?
What do you as a player, given your personal play style preferences, like or dislike about supers scenarios?
The trappings are important for supers. Costumes and masks, powers that are sometimes more flashy than practical, weird origins and colorful nemeses, etc. I think moods/tones/themes can be varied slightly, depending on whether it is a grittier street-level game (e.g. Batman or Daredevil) or more four-color game (e.g. Golden Age stuff). Some themes like not-killing-enemies and protecting-your-secret-identity are carried between these variations though. A lot of the plots, themes, and trappings come from the comics that defined the setting. Any supers character you make probably has a lot in common with a character somewhere in comics. Often when brainstorming characters, things are said comparing to these characters, (“gadgets like Batman” or “luck manipulation like Longshot”).
I think powers and the mechanical trappings differentiate it from other types of scenarios. There is often a huge range of abilities that can be hard to play in the same setting. The old Marvel games had to make a general system that worked with characters from Squirrelgirl (talks to squirrels) to Sentry (power of a million exploding suns) to Eternity (cosmic entity representing the totality of space and time). Usually, the campaign determines the relative power of characters, but there are extremes (super-strength, unkillable) that have to be factored in.
Villains constantly escaping is a major trope of such games, but it does sometimes make it seem like nothing gets solved. Long Supers campaigns could be problematic since the game will feel repetitive after a time. The powers are new and cool for a few sessions, and then the awesome power becomes less interesting. The main plots in a supers game are “stop the criminal.” Stop the criminal from taking over the world, busting out of prison, stealing powers, robbing a bank, kidnapping family members, and so on. They are very reactive storylines. I think Supers has less variety of plot than many other settings.
I like supers for one-shots or short campaigns (at most 4 to 6 sessions). I would call them the amuse-bouche of rpg settings. They can be a nice break from darker campaigns like World of Darkness. I think they feel too repetitive for longer campaigns.
Surprising no one, I have a lot of thoughts on this.
I agree that the comic-book trappings are an important part of the supers genre, but I feel like the crazy nature of comic book worlds and plotlines poses a LOT of difficulty in adapting to a tabletop scenario. The sheer volume of characters, powers, and “stuff” in a comic book world's continuity (what I referred to in the fantasy discussion as “high blueness”, sensu Hite) makes combining Squirrel Girl and Eternity in the same plot line difficult in the comics and basically impossible in a tabletop game. Yes, Squirrel Girl defeated Doctor Doom once and it was fun, but doing stuff like that requires a suspension of disbelief that goes way beyond what's expected in any other genre.
Is that a problem? No. But it creates tonal dissonance if players aren't 100% on board with the nature of the setting. Because of the “high blueness” of many comic book worlds, I've seen a tendency for GMs and players to assume that supers of all tones and power levels will be able to play nice together, because it happens in comic books with crossover events all the time. But those events are carefully curated by writers and usually propped up by the same level of suspension of disbelief as the above example. There is no reason Batman should ever, under any circumstances, survive getting punched by Darkseid, but that happens all the time in the Justice League stories. That sort of situation can only translate to tabletop if everyone agrees that we're playing Four-Color Supers, which Batman sometimes is and sometimes isn't. Four-Color Supers, like High Fantasy and Space Opera, is only one flavor of the genre and characters and themes from Four Colors mesh about as well with other supers sub-genres as a typical 3.5e D&D character does with Warhammer Fantasy. Which is to say, everything looks more or less fine on the surface, but expectations and abilities are way out of whack.
So, what defines supers in my mind? A supers setting is about people with abilities that are BOTH exceptional for their world AND not available to everyone with hard work, and a central focus must be on their freedom to choose what to do with those abilities.
A 20th level D&D wizard has amazing powers that everyone in their world would consider exceptional, but theoretically anyone who puts in the time at wizard school and then blows up enough orcs could get to that level. Many World of Darkness games (Werewolf and Changeling, especially) involve people with exceptional inborn abilities, but the focus of these stories is constructed to be on the horror of an unwinnable struggle that all player characters are, in some sense, obliged to take part in. You can't be a Werewolf without fighting the Wyrm or spending your life running from having to fight the Wyrm, you can't be a Changeling without struggling against Banality. The focus is not on these characters' moral freedom to do as they see fit with their abilities.
The setting is often 20th or 21st century Earth, but that's by no means necessary. Even setting aside deliberately time-shifted stories like Marvel's 1602, there are plenty of supers stories in what might otherwise be called “fantasy” settings. I'm of the opinion that Brandon Sanderson's Mistborn, often billed as fantasy, is actually a supers series. Mistborn spend their time flying around the city in their special Mistcloaks, occasionally descending to single-handedly wipe out an army or something. The central focus on the books is on what the Mistborn and Mistings choose to do with their exceptional inborn abilities in this situation or that one.
Anyway, as I mentioned earlier, supers has several sub-genres, and in my experience characters, concepts, and stories do not mesh well between them in a tabletop setting. They can do okay in comic book crossovers because writers are enforcing the expectations of the “host” genre. A few sub-genres that leap to mind are:
Four-Color: Lots of zany weirdness, focus is on flashy fights and amazing powers. This is what most people think of when they think supers, and it requires heavy enforcement of suspension of disbelief. It also requires not thinking about things too much, period, end of sentence. If there is one thing I have known to kill the mood in a Four-Color supers game, it's planning. Four-Color heroes seldom bother to plan, trusting to their powers to see them though, and in fact typically go about things in a manner that most experienced tabletop roleplayers would consider “suboptimal.” Superheroes like Batman in Four-Color who are supposed to be hyper-prepared master tacticians generally work best with abstracted abilities that let them declare bonuses and gadgets on the fly, rationalizing them with “I totally prepared this beforehand” so everyone can be amazed and the player doesn't need to bother with all that actual planning while the guy playing The Flash considers three million creative ways to die from boredom.
Street-level: “Street-level” supers stories have a lot more to do with believable moral and ethical quandaries (as opposed to “oh no Doctor Doom is threatening the Puppy Orphanage, what will I do?” which is the sort that Four-Color heroes usually contend with - no less important to the genre, but a lot less “meaty”) and the people who must make them. Powers can still be exceptional but should generally not be cosmically awesome, Spider-Man and Batman both switch between this genre and Four-Color fairly regularly. Street-level stories incorporate a bit more realism in their adjudication that Four-Color games tend to ignore but are still fairly cinematic.
Hidden Powers: This for stuff like NBC's Heroes and certain periods/plotlines of X-Men. People with superpowers may be powerful, but they are still merely human and may have much to fear from society at large. Focus on these stories tends to be on balancing the desire to use powers (for good OR ill) with the desire to avoid backlash from “normal” people.
I can enjoy any or all of these settings, but as discussed, I think it's especially important for the GM and players to be on the same page with regards to sub-genre and tone in supers, because I think they are more often carelessly mixed and matched in this genre than in others.