January 12, 2011

How to Make the Superhero Genre More Popular

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

One of the biggest strengths and failure of a superhero system is its setting. This is where the players buy into the game. Having super powers and being cool is all well and good but without a good setting there is no where to use all your nifty powers. And this is where all the super hero games have failed so far.

Every super hero game system thus far has put out superbly written and fascinating settings that completely miss the mark of what people really want. Writers of superhero settings try real hard to capture the setting themes of comic books. M&M and Freedom City is the prime example for this. Freedom City is highly evocative of a comic book. But is that what a superhero setting really needs?

If you want to make the superhero genre more popular you need to steer clear of the tropes of the traditional superhero setting. Take the game away from spandex. Take the game away from over the top villains. Take the game away from monologues.

Ground the setting in reality. First ask yourself, what would I do if I had the superpower of being invulnerable (or flight or invisibility)? Is your first inclination to put on a special suit? I don’t believe so. So the question is, how would a real person react to finding out they had an ability not normal? Base a setting off the answers to that question.

One of the reasons why the X-Men franchise was able to do as well as it did was because the first movie was about people with powers, not about powers used by people. It humanized the genre and by extension made it cool. For the same exact reasons the Ironman movies are still going strong; they are about the man in the suit, not about the suit. The epitome of this concept can be found in the Heroes TV series (too bad the series ended after one season). It was all about ordinary people with unordinary abilities.

And this is something the standard superhero rpg tends to forget. They are all about the powers and the setting is defined by the powers to be found within the setting.

I know for some playing in an over the top superhero setting is exactly what they want. However, this type of superhero game will always be a niche of a niche. If the goal is to bring the superhero genre to the forefront of our rpg niche, make it mainstream in our rpg community, we need to actually downplay the powers (while still including them) and up-play the human interactions. Keep the setting real. We need to actually divorce the genre from its source material, the comic book.


greywulf said...

Good post.

Have you read Paragons for M&M? That's firmly grounded in just what you're saying - ordinary people given powers, and how they handle them.

For me, one of the biggest strengths of the superhero genre is that it is a very broad church. It covers everything from unpowered heroes who want to make a difference (Hit Girl, Punisher) all the way up to Superman and the like. Each step up the power ladder brings its own unique challenges and twists, and is appealing in its own way.

I agree that the powers should be secondary in importance. The characters' personality and what makes them choose the path of the hero is a far more interesting story to tell.

DeadGod said...

Aberrant, from White Wolf, took this angle. It is the near future and a tiny percent of the population are evolving into novas. The book does a good job of imagining how a modern society would react to super powers.

For instance, there is the N! TV network, which covers novas like they were celebrities. There is a nova wrestling federation, where participants make up a stage identity and fight each other for entertainment. There is a global "for charity" organization for novas that want to help. (They don't fight super villains as much as provide disaster recovery, famine relief, and such--sort of a super-powered Red Cross.) There are shady government conspiracies trying to use novas as weapons in war, and a rogue group that believes novas are better and should be ruling over humanity.

The book has enough setting material that it is worth the purchase even if you don't like the Storyteller system. It is out of print, but you can always check RPGNow for a PDF.

Tarus said...

I agree with DeadGod: Aberrant is the best setting for "realistic" super heroes games. I'm currently GMing it and the players are delighted. It's pretty intense and serious.

Hudds Magruder said...

Heroes had 4 seasons. They didn't stay as good as the first, but they are there.

Aberrant is awesome. I remember buying up all but maybe two or three books as soon as they were released. One of my favorite RPGs of all time is the prequel book, Adventure! It's pulp gaming at its finest and was only one book. No need to hunt for more. Aberrant itself was a prequel for a decent sci-fi game called Trinity.

All three make up the Aeon-verse and tell a very interesting story. With White Wolf doing the pdf thing as heavily as they are, I wouldn't be surprised if you could find them out there. I should take a look.

Craig said...

I recently picked up the superhero focused Icons and it's a lot of fun. It's fast, rules-light and character oriented. As a Fate/Fudge spin-off, non-power oriented aspects of your character are built into the system and provide both hooks for the DM and incentive for players to incorporate the aspects into the game.

The focus on powers rather than the people wielding them is seen in most games (except CoC, poor, poor, noble/stupid investigators). Why would you say it's more of a problem in the superhero genre than say, 4e? 4e in a lot of ways is a system that's focused exclusively on the powers instead of the individuals and it's arguably the most popular game on the market.

As to making the superhero genre more popular, what genre's would you say are more popular than it? Other than fantasy, would you say there are any other 'popular' genres in gaming?

I guess there's sci-fi, but other than Traveller and Star Frontiers I can't think of any real heavy hitters. Champions, the Hero System, M&M, Marvel, and a couple others have all had a strong measure of popularity.

I'll admit it's possible my love of comics has me seeing the RPG world through halftone colored glasses.