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.
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