When Words Collide: Top Ten Superhero Role-Playing Games of All Time, Part 1

Mon, August 12th, 2013 at 2:58pm PDT

Comic Books
Timothy Callahan, Columnist/Reviewer

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The most recent -- and soon to be mothballed -- edition of "Dungeons & Dragons" is effectively a superhero role-playing game in a fantasy setting, with heroes who can do amazing things as soon as they start adventuring, powers for everyone, and a distinct lack of character death. But as much as I'm obsessed with any version of D&D and the various clones or spin-offs of the system -- right now "Astonishing Swordsmen & Sorcerers of Hyperborea" is getting a lot of attention in my house -- I'm here to talk actual superhero role-playing games this week. The kinds of games where you roll some dice and pretend you're a guy (or gal) in a costume who punches out anything that stands in your way. And you maybe can fly. Or shoot energy blasts. Or maybe you're a walking plant with mind powers.

You know, superheroes!

I know plenty of comic book creators who play role-playing games (and even more who wish they had more time to play, but to those folks, I say, "make time!"), but most of them play games that are less-than-superheroic. Most of the comic book people I know -- and maybe it's just reflective of the culture in general -- prefer the exploration of a dungeon crawl or the political intrigue of a city-based adventure or finding that weird corner of the wizard's secret room where he keeps impossible cloaks with endless pockets full of insanity. I like all that stuff too.

But I also like playing -- and running -- superhero games. And over the past three-and-a-half decades of gaming, we've had a whole lot of games to choose from, but not all of them have been worth your time. It's a big emotional investment to hunker down with a thick hardcover or a box filled with gaming books and try to figure out how the system works and how to create (or adapt) adventures that will keep the players interested. If a system or setting doesn't have something to hook everyone into it and keep them excited, or at least intrigued, then it just becomes empty dice rolling and the game is never played a second time.

Superhero games, like the comics that inspired them, can operate at various genre levels -- sci-fi craziness, street-level melodrama, arena-style fisticuffs, mystery, straight-out action and adventure, and more -- but what all those different approaches have in common is the need for visually evocative set pieces and a sense of danger. The best games foster that approach in the way the mechanics of the game work, and in the setting details that make the game feel like something they can't quite replicate anywhere else.

So this week and next, I'll be counting down the Top Ten Best Superhero Role-Playing Games Ever, and I'll start with numbers ten through six:

10. "Villains & Vigilantes," designed by Jeff Dee and Jack Herman

"V&V" was one of the earliest superhero roleplaying games, and while some of its gameplay is a bit clunky -- like the need to reference a chart to see what kind of attacks work best (or worst) against what type of defenses -- the revised 1982 Fantasy Games Unlimited boxed set is my preferred version. One of the unusual twists with this game is that you play yourself as a superhero. You stat yourself up with your best estimate of your strength and agility and intelligence and you roll some dice to see what kinds of powers you end up with. There's nothing to balance out the character creation and while you could end up with a near-Superman version of your less-than-superhuman self, your pal could end up with a quasi-Turtle-Man.

Some see such power disparities as a flaw in the game, but I see it as a feature. It adds character and reminds the players and the Gamemaster that it shouldn't be all about superpowers and super-slugfests and characters should get opportunities to use their unique skills at various points in the game, even if they aren't all super-duper.

Also, Bill Willingham was heavily involved in the early days of this game, spinning his "Elementals" series out of concepts he created for his "Death Duel with the Destroyers" adventure module. So it has some comic-book-history cred as well, if you're into that.

9. "Aberrant," designed by Robert Hatch and others

This 1999 White Wolf entry into the superhero genre features original art by Glenn Fabry, Guy Davis, Langdon Foss, and Phil Jimenez. It's not your typical superhero slam-bang action role-playing game.

Basically, this is "what if Howard Chaykin and Warren Ellis designed the flavor of a role-playing game based on Marvel's New Universe with a splash of ‘Stormwatch'?" In other words, in 1999 it was my favorite thing in the world.

In 2013, it seems dated and eager-to-be-cool, but it's still a solid system designed for gritty play (under the umbrella of White Wolf's Storytelling system, which comes right out and says that the players and gamemaster are working together on a cooperative story and dice rolls are basically to determine what happens next in the story). The dice-rolling is a handful of ten-sided dice, one for each point of whatever stat or power you want to roll, and you want to roll 7 or higher on each die. The more 7s or higher the better the success. That's the basics of the Storytelling system in "Aberrant" but this setting also provides powers via a "Quantum Pool," which runs out with power use, and characters develop "Taint," which provides role-playing opportunities and tragic disfigurement and weirdness that makes the game not-at-all-shiny-and-optimisitic.

If you want a game that will capture high-Wildstorm (or the "Supreme Power" of J. Michael Straczynski -- but better), this one's still worth playing. In a few more years, we might all be even more nostalgic for that late 1990s vibe.

8. "Wild Talents" (and "Godlike"), designed by Dennis Detwiller, Greg Stolze, and others

From what I understand, "Wild Talents" grew out of "Godlike," an alternate-reality World War II superhero game developed by the same designers in 2002. "Wild Talents" takes the same system of rules, using the One-Roll Engine (aka "O.R.E."), and provides a more comprehensive explanation of all the possibilities within that one roll and provides a thorough timeline of an alternate reality Earth in which superheroes started to appear right before WW II and everything changed forever.

Like "Aberrant," this game uses a handful of ten-sided dice as part of its "one roll," but in this system you're looking for "sets," which basically means you need at least a pair or three of a kind to pull off anything, the higher the number the better. Three 9s beats three 5s, if all else is equal, but two 9s might also beat three 5s, depending on whether you're going for power or speed. In addition to the variety of outcomes from a fistful of dice, the system also allows you, at character creation, to spend more to buy "hard" dice (always count as 10s) or "wiggle" dice (which you can set to any number, after you roll, like a wild card effect).

Anyway, it's a pretty cool system with a different mechanical feel than most other, more linear, dice-rolling games. But what makes it really interesting is the level of detail in the alternate-Earth setting, which outlines political and social and technological changes that stemmed from the first "Talents" (or super-powered characters) popping up in the 1930s. It's kind of like a thought experiment to explore how much the world would be different today if superpowers had existed for 80 years, but the game also encourages you to set your story at any time in history or create your own setting. It really does promote alternate history thinking, though.

It's a good game, but I haven't played it enough to become comfortable with all the variation on the One-Roll outcomes, so it still feels a bit inelegant to me. That's probably more my lack of patience for the depth of options -- so convincingly written that they seem worth investigating, even if I'd normally ignore them -- than it is a flaw in the system itself.

7. "Marvel Heroic Roleplaying," designed by Cam Banks

The most recent and shortest-lived entry on the list, Cam Banks's "Marvel Heroic Roleplaying" game from Margaret Weis Productions produced merely a basic gamebook, a "Civil War" event book, and then… the plug was pulled and the Marvel license disappeared earlier this year. A few additional books for the system were shortly available as PDFs before they were yanked from distribution, and pre-order hardcopies of those books ("Civil War" spin offs detailing, say, the Young Avengers) supposedly shipped, but I've never seen any copies.

Basically, this roleplaying game project was aborted a year after its launch.

But it's a system that has plenty of interesting features. First of all, it's firmly based on the concept of "the event." Although this game could be played with a bunch of players who want to create characters who sit around at the HQ and go on missions or stop random crime whenever it pops up, it's really not designed for that. It's designed for bigger things. For your "Civil War" or your "Annihilation" or your "Secret Invasion" or your "Age of Apocalypse" or, I suppose, your "Atlantis Attacks." Why not immerse your players in the big stuff? That's the question this game asks and answers by setting up a system where time is broken down into "Events" and "Acts" and "Scenes" and "Panels."

It's very comic-booky but it's also big-summer-event comic booky, and that makes it different than any other superhero game before or since.

The game promotes storytelling and active dice rolling, and the gamemaster plays the role of the Watcher, with a growing "Doom Pool" of dice that can lead to bad outcomes for the players. The dice-rolling for the players (and the Watcher) is more complicated than most superhero roleplaying games, with a pool of dice -- variable in terms of types of dice and quantity -- and opposition rolls. It's a system that doesn't feel like anything else (unless you've fiddled around with the Cortex Plus system, which is related to what Cam Banks is doing here), but the rules actually only take up about 1/4th of the basic gamebook and the rest is all explanations of specific powers and abilities and scenario information and character stats. So it's somewhat dense as a set of rules, with more than a few examples of the choices offered to the player before during and after the dice rolling, and that also contributes to its "hey, this is different and somewhat excitingly complex in play" feel. All roleplaying games are about competing narratives, as the players try to do things and the gamemaster sets up obstacles in their way, but "Marvel Heroic Roleplaying" makes that competition more explicitly about narrative control through dice rolling and cashing in chips, and that's a fun social and strategic way to build a game.

6. "Mutants & Masterminds," designed by Steve Kenson

A product spinning out of the Open Gaming License, which basically provides publishers a chance to use the core Dungeons & Dragons rules as part of an Open Gaming movement, as long as they don't swipe any trademarks or protected intellectual property -- I'm sure it's more legally complicated than that, but those are the shorthand basics -- "Mutants & Masterminds" is a superhero game with a D20 system at its foundation. Almost everything is resolved by rolling a 20-sided die, with bonuses and penalties added into that single roll, and damage resolved based on degrees of success (or failure.)

The system is actually quite streamlined and efficient, once you get used to the status effects that stack onto the characters once they start getting hurt, but the game doesn't necessarily promote combat over problem solving, since it is based on later editions of D&D where skills and task resolution play a major role.

Publisher Green Ronin has provided substantial support for this game, with many of the second edition books easily adaptable for the 2011 third edition rules.

The game also forms the spine of the "DC Adventures" RPG, also from Green Ronin. I think it's a bit more unwieldy once you're dealing with heroes overburdened with a list of powers and skills, so I'm not a huge fan of the licensed books in the series, but it plays just fine at the table, as long as everyone doesn't spend 10 minutes trying to find out which skill Batman's using at the moment and what the relevant bonus would be in this particular circumstance.

Still, I think you're better off just playing straight "Mutants & Masterminds" and creating your own superhero universes, where you can make things as crazy or as straightforward as you want. Last time I ran the game, everything was 1970s-Kirby-inspired and it was beautiful.

NEXT WEEK: The Top Five Superhero Roleplaying Games! What would be on YOUR list?

In addition to writing reviews and columns for COMIC BOOK RESOURCES, Timothy Callahan is the author of "Grant Morrison: The Early Years" and editor of "Teenagers from the Future: Essays on the Legion of Super-Heroes" anthology. More of his thoughts on comics can be seen regularly at the Geniusboy Firemelon blog.

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