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.


kensan-oni said...

Your definition might be too broad, although I do agree with you in spirit.

One has to stop for a moment and consider that in all fiction, your heroes end up doing things that are things that normal people can not do. Only Huckleberry Finn can get away with rowing himself upriver all alone with an escaped slave. Only the Lone Ranger, with his expensive trademark, can stop the bandits from making off with the loot. Only Johnny Dollar can go and figure out the truth behind the cover up of the insurance fraud, and murder. Very Ordinary people, who become extraordinary because the story insists they need to be.

There needs to be a separation between deliberate power by plot, and power by powers sake. Aurthor and Merlin may be defined as Supers, for example. Aurthor gets a magical sword from a great spirit, and Merlin is a wizard. However, by the same comparison, Robin Hood and Little John are not supers. They are ordinary people that end up doing extraordinary things. They have no power outside what was needed by plot.

I realize that it's a thin line, and by the definition, some Batman comics would make Batman not a superhero. I'd be fine with that, though.

There just is a line between amazing and super, and I think you've blurred the line a little.

seaofstarsrpg said...

There is super, having powers far beyond the norm. Lifting a car is super, lifting a scooter is athletic. Super is power far beyond a mortal person.

And there is heroic, doing what needs to be done, even a great personal risk.

Almost all games are heroic, fewer are super.

Callin said...

While I will concede the points about Robin Hood, etc, I still say the majority of rpgs deal with super powers. Magic is beyond a mortal person, so is attacking 6 times a round, so is gaining strength from sucking blood.
In addition I do believe the use of magic items, superior items is nothing but the gadget power in disguise. Super-skills are just a power in disguise.
The key for me is, can a normal, "ordinary" person do what this person is doing? I don't mean after years of practice or years of studying with an Eastern mystic, but rather right now.

Siskoid said...

Maybe you have it backward.

It's not that every genre is a dressed up/down superhero genre. It's that the superhero genre, by its nature, is a mash-up of every other genre. It came last, is essentially what I'm saying.

Superhero comics have a kitchen sink approach where science and magic are given equal power. Superhero comics have science fiction, space opera, time travel, cyberpunk, espionnage, fantasy, ninjas, pulp heroes, mythology, cowboys, Lovecraftian monsters, gothic horror, spoof comedy, military gear... It's all there. If we were to invent a new genre today, it'd end up in the big shared superhero universes soon enough.

What does the superhero story have that other stories don't? That's what we should be asking. A sword & sorcery story features a lot of dungeon crawls, feudal politics and/or looting for treasure and magic items. Superhero stories do not. Space opera often features exploration of planets, which isn't something superheroes do a lot of. Which doesn't mean they can't, because as I said, super (or "four-color") stories absorb everything in sight, but generally, that's not what they're about.

I don't know if I make any sense to you.

Callin said...

@siskoid I understand what you are trying to say. Actually tomorrow I have an article about how the superhero genre is steeply based in fantasy tropes, which is close to what you are saying; the superhero genre is based on other rpg styles.

Today's article was about how the average rpg character has super powers beyond what could be considered the norm for that system. I will agree that the superhero genre has a certain feel and flavor to it that is different from other rpgs.