Proactive Supers?

James Mullen's picture

I've tried, many times, to create a superhero storygame that I could enjoy beyond the simple level of "Pew, pew, I smash the bad guys!", but none of my designs have quite clicked, and I've eventually come to realise that part of that is due to superheroes in fiction being largely reactive. For example:

  • In Fantasy, you get handed a quest, whereupon you devote yourself to following & resolving it.
  • In Cyberpunk, you get a job or mission (or devise your own for money/revenge/etc.), plan it & execute it.
  • In Urban Fantasy/Horror, you're fighting to protect your own life from the intervention of other forces.

Generally, most RPGs put you in a situation where your characters are personally threatened and have to find a way through, OR you have to plot & plan just to make a living, OR you walk away from your everyday lives and throw yourselves into completing a 'quest.' Superheroes just seem to wait around until they're needed, whereupon they suit up, win the day, and then go back to waiting for the next crisis.

I like superhero fiction as much as the next person, and I love a little ZZAP-WHAM-SWOOP action, but I really like the story side of RPGs a lot more than the action side: I'd rather have both in my gaming, but if I can only have one, then I'll have the story, please. This leaves me with three choices for designing a supers storygame, as I can see it:

  1. Leave it: just accept that I can't have it both ways and walk away. I can inject a little story by emphasising the mundane lives of the heroes, but that's all.
  2. Make it epic: have the PCs drop their everyday lives and commit to a 'quest', like a classic, title-spanning, multi-part comics event.
  3. Don't be heroes: this is the option I find most tempting, which is to flip it around and have the players portray the bad guys. By this, I don't mean the cackling, maniacal psychopaths, but the people who have an agenda that runs counter to what's held to be socially acceptable and the skills to do whatever they feel is necessary to carry it out. I'm thinking more 'Green Peace' or 'Anonymous', or Ghost from Ant-Man & the Wasp.

Anyway, ramble mode off and feel free to tell me what I've missed.

DeReel's picture

" I can inject a little story by emphasising the mundane lives of the heroes, but that's all."
You can go all out story on this. Superheroes are all about masks and secret IDs. You need to make getting to Aunt May's Thanksgiving dinner as vital as saving a trainload of people. But maybe that's not the Supers you have in mind : they have evolved so radically.

Now, it will still be reactive heroes : the hero is defined, its values challenged, win, reset. What's not to like ?

Aik's picture

I don't really agree with the premise here... In the long superheroes game (using a mildly hacked version of The Pool) we played, the heroes were basically reactive but there was still loads of drama. The villain of the week would rock up and invariably something the group cares about would be under threat - that could be as simple as the town we live in being threatened, but we really cared about that so it's fine.

Good recurring villains that we empathised with and developed in-character relations with were pretty important as well. A lot of them were very much aimed at a particular character's hangups and that made for great drama.

Paul T.'s picture

I think the key with a lot of superhero media is that balance and contrast between their mundane goals and the terrifying Evil Plans of the Villains.

The basic conceit which would work for this in a “typical” superhero story game might go like this:

1. The players define their Hero’s mundane, personal goals.

Maybe it’s to make sure his kid brother doesn’t join a street gang, or to keep his day job, or to make sure her marriage doesn’t fall apart or that a certain terrible person doesn’t manage to get elected Mayor of the city. Or maybe it’s to resolve an unrequited crush on another superhero who’s part of he team.

2. The GM creates some evil villain or villains whose dastardly plans put pressure on the heroes and their mundane goals.

Of course some horrible crook shows up and threatens to bomb the school where the kid brother is studying, right? But then the kid brother is so shaken that he sees joining the gang as his only way to regain a sense of control over his life, after the bomb scare: school isn’t safe anymore.

The hero tries to rescue him... but of course that’s when the villain (or a different villain!) does something which threatens even more people. What will the hero do now?

Or maybe your super crush’s ex shows up and threatens to blow up the city... and your crush is still in love with him. What will you do now?

Paul T.'s picture

Fundamentally, though, the real key is to enlist the players to form the shape of the narrative. You can draw them in at any stage, from the very beginning to later in the process.

Give them a lot of input into deciding the shape the story will take. For instance, in My Life with Master, it’s the players who create the evil Master, what he or she is like, and what kinds of terrible things they do.

No reason you couldn’t do that for a superhero game! Have them create the villain and her terrible plan, then try to thwart it as they play. There are lots of ways to create the game so that the players have lots of input into what the ultimate story looks like.

Having said all that:

I really like your idea of flipping the script and making the players people who are either directly or orthogonally opposed to the superheroes, putting them into an active role. I think that has lots of potential!

nickwedig's picture

Early superheroes often were proactive. They'd find a problem in the world and work to fix it, rather than just reacting to villain plots. Superman was tearing down slums and building better homes for poor people, while Captain America punched Hitler int he face before the US was at war with Germany.

I think it's totally possible to make a proactive superhero game. Even if the inspired fiction doesn't usually have that... well, aren't you playing RPGs to create your own fiction? Superhero narratives traditionally revert to the status quo for reasons based on their publishing structure (owned by large corporations) and canon continuity reasons (changing the world in one comic affects people reading other comics). Neither of those incentives to keep the status quo apply to your home RPG campaign.

A proactive superhero story would look like this: you've been given tremendous, unusual powers. You and your friends have decided to use these powers to make the world a better place. That means taking on actual injustices in a largely static world. Then the GM creates villains and antagonists who are invested in the way the world is now. They don't like some upstart superheroes trying to solve climate change or world hunger or whatever. So they send hired supervillains to try to stop the PCs. But ultimately that's based on shared objectives created by the players, that the PCs are actively pursuing.

Other games do this often. Misspent Youth, Unknown Armies 3rd ed and Nobilis are all structurally pretty similar to that. And you could do the same with superheroes as a genre, overlaid onto that sort of narrative structure.

Corvinity's picture

This may be a controversial statement to some, but to my mind the superhero genre has traditionally expressed a fundamentally conservative ethos. By this I mean that the world is basically alright, or at least would be if people played by existing rules. Superheroes put on costumes to fight those who break the rules or threaten to destroy what already exists. Of course there have been many superhero stories that challenge things about the status quo, but I think the genre is built on the foundation of "fighting crime" and defending "truth, justice, and the American way."

So how do you overcome this basic reactive character of superhero stories? Well, first you make sure the setting has clear problems that need to be fixed. If your players think the world as it is has a lot of problems to fix, then maybe you don't need to change it much, but make sure to play up those problems in the game text. But you could go full dystopian if you want, or just a somewhat grim cyberpunk setting that extends and exaggerates the problems and contradictions of present-day society.

Second, make it clear that the kind of characters the game is about are ones who want to change the world in some way. And then put it on the character sheet. Each character, or maybe the party as a whole, has a big hairy audacious goal, not just for themselves but for the world, that suddenly didn't seem so unrealistic when they got superpowers.

Third, have a system for achieving these goals. As nickwedig mentions in the previous comment, Unknown Armies 3rd Edition has a system like this for Objectives. The group has an objective which has a percentage associated with it. There are rules as to when you can roll dice and add the results to the percentage, and when it reaches 100% the Objective is attained.

But as you point out in the OP, this runs counter to a lot of superhero fiction, so you're going to have to put a lot of effort into making it really clear that the superheroes in this game aren't the "fight crime, try to live a normal life, and occasionally save the world" supers people are used to. These are dreamers, willing to put their lives on the line to leave the world better than they found it, and if that means leaving a little rubble behind, so be it.

I for one would love to pay a game like this, so let me know if you make it.

Tod's picture

Thinking along the lines @corvinity has suggested, it seems to me the creation of the world is every bit as important as the supers themselves. Perhaps you play your supers rules "on top of" a dramatic world generated by play, like (first example that comes to my mind): A game of "Microscope" with super sessions taking the place of played scenes.

James Mullen's picture

I'm noodling around with this concept, after reading contributions here and discussing the concept in Discord: the consensus (including me) seems to be that a) the supers need their own agendas baked in, to give them something other than "act heroically" as a motivation and b) the State (however that is represented) needs to be against the PCs, so they are more like classic vigilantes than heroes.

I've salvaged some scraps from a previous supers PbtA design, without just trying to re-create it, and begun to rough out some surprising rules and playbooks; this project might morph again, with less emphasis on super powers and more on the mundane advantages of the characters involved in a conspiracy to over throw a semi-fascist administration, each with their own reasons for opposing the State.