January 10, 2011

All RPGs are Superhero Games

This is the first of three stream-of-thought articles on the nature of the superhero genre of rpgs.

I have long had this theory that all rpg games are in fact nothing but dressed up superhero games. I would first ask, what is a superhero game? My first definition is one wherein the characters have powers and abilities beyond the “normal” person; something that sets them apart.

This definition of normal person is relative to the system.
In the typical superhero campaign this is fairly obvious. The characters can shoot laser beams from their eyes whereas the “normal” person can not.

In a fantasy setting this is also obvious with the ability to cast spells. However, it also applies to the basic fighter classes as well. Even in the early editions of fantasy based games the fighter would eventually be able to swing his weapon more often. He has access to better gear than the “normal” person. Not to mention, magic items that are roughly the equivalent of gadgets from the superhero genre.

If the setting is in the modern world, with no superpowers, then the characters become “super” by virtue of the fact they can do things the “normal” person can not. This is usually based on a skill or attribute. Maybe they can shoot a gun faster or more accurately than a “normal” person. Maybe they are more athletic. Maybe they have access to items and weaponry that the “normal” person does not, such as a pen that shoots bullets. This is again similar to the gadgets of a superhero.

The thought first popped into my head back when the original Vampire game came out. Within the book there was a list of powers each character had access to. It was a list of powers very similar to a list of powers to be found in a superhero book. However, the powers were masked by bloodlines and vampire angst. Vampire the game provided a “rational” explanation of where these powers came from whereas superhero games have a wide variety of explanations and by virtue of that they seem less “real”. Also the comparison is masked because vampires do run around in spandex (hmmm, a new Malkavian NPC just popped into mind).

An argument can be made that there are certain games where the characters could be considered “normal”, something like Traveller or Call of Cthulu. At first glance they appear to embrace the concept of ordinary people caught up in situations beyond the normal. However, most of these systems allow for characters to have extraordinary abilities (such as psionics) or access to unnormal information (ancient tomes). However, even stripping away these extra “abilities” there is a second component to a super hero game that they still fall into.

The second half of this concept rests in the fact that the characters engage in activities beyond “the normal”. Even if you made a case that a character is something like a “normal” people, the simple fact that they engage in extraordinary situations sets them apart from a “normal” person. Normal people do not kill werewolves; they do not stop an alien invasion by boarding the mothership.

Take away the spandex suits and all rpg characters are superheroes and all rpg games are superhero games, just dressed up differently. Instead of spandex the game wears vampire angst or laser guns.
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