Dice, Damage, and Destiny: Five Top-Notch Superhero RPGs

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Tabletop roleplaying games seem to be enjoying something of a golden age at present. So is the superhero genre—it seems impossible to channel-surf without running into some crime-fighting masked archer, gadget-wielding teen, or omnipotent extraterrestrial. It follows, therefore, that someone out there might want to cross the streams and roleplay superheroes. What superhero roleplaying games (SHRPGs) might they consider?

There are a lot of SHRPGs available. I have not played all of them, but of the ones I have sampled, here are five I would recommend, each with its own strengths and drawbacks.

 

Champions (4th edition) by George MacDonald, Steve Peterson & Rob Bell (Hero Games)

4th edition Champions is by far the most ancient of the SHRPGs mentioned here. 1st edition Champions appeared in 1981 and while it was not the first SHRPG, it is arguably the most influential SHRPG. Later SHRPGs appeared to either offer their own (more user-friendly) versions of concepts that first appeared in Champions or concepts that were reactions to those pioneered in Champions.

Eschewing random character generation, it relied on a purely points-based character design system that, thanks to an ingenious advantage- and drawback-based approach, provided sufficiently ingenious players the opportunity to build almost any character they could imagine. Champions was also the first SHRPG of which I am aware to use a logarithmic approach, which facilitated fitting mundane and godlike characters on the same scale. Finally, not only did the combat system involve rolling lots and lots and lots of dice, but it also used a rather cunning system that tracked two entirely different kinds of damage on the same dice.

Reflecting the era in which it appeared, Champions has what is to my mind an unjustified reputation for complexity. In fact, mastering Champions 4E is no more difficult than mastering calculus in Etruscan or ballet while juggling angry wildcats. That said, 1989’s 4th Edition—the one with George Pérez cover art—offered what was for me the ideal combination of arcane flexibility without quite exceeding my ability to keep track of details.

 

Mutants & Masterminds by Steve Kenson (Green Ronin)

M&M is in many ways the modern answer to Champions. Offering core mechanics derived from the D20 game system, as in Champions, characters are built using points to purchase characteristics, powers, skills, and other useful attributes. Also like Champions, one can reduce costs by selecting drawbacks. Perhaps not quite as flexible as Champions, it’s also not quite as easy to abuse as Champions. Additionally, being the product of an era when gamers had more or less rejected embracing game engines as complex as jet engines, the core mechanics are not as mathematically challenging as they are in Champions.

M&M is lavishly supported by its publisher, which GMs without the time to design their own characters, settings, or adventures will appreciate.

 

Icons by Steven Kenson (Green Ronin)

Despite sharing a designer with Mutants & Masterminds, Icons takes an entirely different approach to the genre. Icons rejects points-based purchase systems; rather, characters are randomly generated. It’s up to the players to treat the assortment of traits, powers, and skills that fate gifts them as a sort of Rorschach test in which they might see a character. This doesn’t require the same sort of ingenuity as does squeezing the greatest result from the least number of points, but it does require creativity to glimpse a character in random results.

Additionally, Icons is mechanically much more straightforward than either Champions or M&M. If you wanted to introduce newbies to superhero roleplaying games, Icons would be an excellent choice.

 

Masks by Brendan Conway (Magpie Games)

Masks focuses on a very specific kind of superhero: youngsters exploring what it means to be a superhero while wrestling with the more traditional challenges of adolescence. It is neither straightforwardly points-based nor is it random, like M&M. Rather, like the other Powered By the Apocalypse games with which it shares a lineage, players select specific templates—the Bull, the Legacy, the Nova, and others—which they then customize. While less flexible than other approaches (players with ideas for characters not covered in the templates are essentially out of luck), this does offer the advantage of being very, very quick. Like Icons, Masks is a reasonable option to offer newbie players.

In addition to its unusual approach to character design, Masks is notable for its approach to damage. Physical trauma is not the focus. Emotional trauma is. A player character would have to work pretty hard to get themselves killed (except for the Doomed template, whose whole deal is that they are, well, Doomed). Being traumatized into catatonia, on the other hand, is quite doable. Good thing the game mechanics offer coping mechanisms.

 

Destined by Mike Larrimore, Brian Pivik and Friends (The Design Mechanism)

Destined is an upcoming superhero roleplaying game from Canadian game company The Design Mechanism. A preview is available here. The core game engine is Mythras, which positions it in the line of descent leading back, way back, to Chaosium’s Basic Roleplaying (itself derived from Runequest). The challenge with BRP-based superheroes is that BRP characters tend to be fragile. Even a simple decapitation can sideline a character, provided they are not Thrud the Barbarian. Superheroes are nigh-godlike in their ability to dole out and absorb damage. The now quite venerable Superworld (which as you all know is the game that gave us the Wild Cards shared universe) managed to square this circle forty years ago. That said, the state of the art of BRP-derived rules has evolved considerably in the forty years since Superworld debuted. I anticipate solutions quite different that will be quite different from Superworld’s choices.

Design Mechanism’s Mythras was an intriguing expression of D100 modern fantasy roleplaying. The preview strongly suggests that Destined will be as well.

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These five are only the tip of the iceberg, of course. There are many SHRPGs I could have mentioned but did not. Feel free to mention your favourites in the comments.

In the words of Wikipedia editor TexasAndroid, prolific book reviewer and perennial Darwin Award nominee James Davis Nicoll is of “questionable notability.” His work has appeared in Publishers Weekly and Romantic Times as well as on his own websites, James Nicoll Reviews and the Aurora finalist Young People Read Old SFF (where he is assisted by editor Karen Lofstrom and web person Adrienne L. Travis). He is a four-time finalist for the Best Fan Writer Hugo Award, is eligible to be nominated again this year, and is surprisingly flammable.

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