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Superhero Role-Playing Games

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Fantasy role-playing games—mostly tabletop wargame-variants in which three or more players take on the personalities of characters they have developed for use in fantasy combat or treasure-hunting situations—can trace their origins to the advent of Dungeons and Dragons (1974, TSR Games). An individual Dungeons and Dragons (D&D) game session, generally a part of a larger game cycle known as a campaign, is moderated by a dungeonmaster (or gamemaster), who designs the game milieu—the castle to be stormed, the dragon's hoard to be raided, and the monsters to be fought. The players bring into the game characters whose basic abilities (numerically quantifiable traits such as strength, intelligence, wisdom, dexterity, constitution, and charisma) are determined by means of random die throws. Polyhedral dice, whose sides can number anywhere from 4 to 20, generate the random numbers that govern the outcome of the game's many variables, including the number of points of damage sustained or inflicted during combat, the efficacy of magic spell-casting or weaponry, the chance that a character's actions will attract an enemy or activate a booby trap, and even character mortality.


Building on the fantasy worlds of J. R. R. Tolkien and others, D&D spawned a vast role-playing game (RPG) industry, which supports many competing gaming systems. Some RPGs have complex rule systems that emphasize realism and control nearly every conceivable game variable, while others place a higher premium on ease of play, storytelling values, and character evolution. During the 1970s and 1980s, RPGs were devised for a wide variety of story backdrops and storytelling genres, including space-opera science fiction, postapocalyptic science fiction, international espionage, Lovecraftian horror, the Western—and comic-book superheroes.


During the early 1980s, three RPGs came to dominate the superhero gaming audience: Champions (Hero Games; Gold Rush Games), Superworld (Chaosium), and Villains and Vigilantes (Fantasy Games Unlimited). Not surprisingly, each game system had its own distinctive approach to superhero gaming, with unique strengths and weaknesses.


Designed to closely simulate the world of a mainstream, four-color superhero universe, Champions boasted a flexible character-generation system that allowed players to build their superheroes' abilities around a theme (say, insect powers) rather than forcing them to rely too heavily on the random results of die-rolls. Combat was typically kinder and gentler than in D&D; though characters were often knocked unconscious during the game's combat simulations, death was an uncommon occurrence, reflecting the superhero comics of the time. The Superworld RPG was written as part of a short-lived multigenre gaming system called Worlds of Wonder, whose rules encompassed not only superheroes but also Tolkienesque fantasy and spaceborne science fiction; Superworld's game mechanics worked particularly well for simulating the established heroes of the Marvel and DC universes. Another popular early 1980s game, Villains and Vigilantes, also had an authentically comic-booky feel, thanks in large part to the interior artwork of Jeff Dee; some players have observed, however, that V&V's character-generation rules were more dice-based—and therefore less flexible—than the other systems. Because of the game's reliance on die-generated character traits, it was far too easy to create groups of characters whose power levels weren't a good fit (imagine the difficulties inherent in forcing DC's Batgirl and Marvel's world-devouring Galactus to share an adventure). The game was also plagued by large numbers of rules errata, which the publisher corrected by inserting update sheets into the rulebooks. Bits and pieces of the worlds and rules of Superworld, Champions, and Villains and Vigilantes made their way into a successor game titled Havoc (1984, Reality Storm: When Worlds Collide), a superhero RPG that remains in print today.


It was only a matter of time before superhero RPGs, which owed their existence to superhero comics, begat some comics of their own. Champions' signature superteam (the Guardians) became the basis for two Champions comics series (Eclipse, 1986–1987; Hero, 1987–1989). Two Villains and Vigilantes game modules (game scenarios published for use by gamemasters in RPG play) by Bill Willingham inspired the artist's compelling superhero team comics series, The Elementals (Comico, 1984–1989; 1989–1994; 1995), which borrowed the villainous Destroyers directly from the game. Eclipse Comics also produced a four-issue miniseries (1986–1987) based upon a V&V game module titled Crisis at Crusaders Citadel, created by the game's originators writer Jack Herman and illustrator Jeff Dee. Several of the superheroes developed by award-winning science-fiction writer George R. R. Martin and others for the Wild Cards paperback fiction anthologies (some of which Marvel began adapting into comics in 1990) grew out of campaigns played within these three game systems. Clearly, the superheroes of the games and those of comics and prose literature have had powerful mutual influences.


As the networks of comics-oriented and gaming-oriented specialty shops expanded throughout the 1980s, several more superhero-oriented RPGs followed the original three, including Palladium Games' Heroes Unlimited, which debuted in 1984 for use with the generic (and still extant) RIFTS fantasy gaming system; a version of Heroes Unlimited remains in print today. Palladium followed this with an RPG based upon Kevin Eastman's and Peter Laird's popular and durable superhero/martial arts parody comic book, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Following on the heels of these successful games were several also-rans, such as Justifiers and Guardians (StarChilde Publications), both of which were plagued by confusing rules, a flaw mitigated somewhat by the games' cheap purchase prices and their comic-book format presentation.


By the late 1980s, the major comics publishers had taken note of the burgeoning superhero RPG market; to satisfy the rising demand for game systems based upon their characters, Marvel Comics and DC Comics sold RPG licenses, each of which resulted in well-crafted, slickly-produced, and generally well-received game rulebooks and modules. By the end of the decade, Mayfair Games was publishing the DC Heroes Role-Playing Game and the Batman Role-Playing Game, while TSR (of D&D fame) was producing Marvel Super Heroes as well as a line of small lead figures intended for use as game tokens (? la the war games that preceded the emergence of the first true RPG). Both of these gaming systems were widely praised for their well-described, carefully quantified characters, their ease of play, and their usefulness as reference tools for the comic books themselves.


As is true in the comics industry, the RPG market is a volatile one; publishers come and go, or end up mergered out of existence. Specific RPG properties either vanish forever, or evolve into something new. Despite a surfeit of competing modern pastimes—i.e., electronic media such as the Gameboy, the X-Box, or MMORPGs (Massive Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Games, campaigns conducted over the Internet by dozens or hundreds of players)—a small but enthusiastic audience for traditional tabletop pencil-and-paper superhero RPGs still existed in the late 1990s and persists today. Steve Jackson Games' GURPS (General Universal Role-Playing System) Supers appeared in the early 1990s and remains in print. This game system's emphasis on combat realism—inasmuch as the concept makes sense in a superhero milieu—places players' characters at considerable risk of injury or death. 1995 saw the release of Cosmic Enforcers (Myrmidon Press), an RPG in which superhumans protect the Earth from invading arachnoid aliens. A revised, simplified version of Champions—including much improved interior artwork—appeared in 1998, and remains in print today; some of the changes made to the game proved unpopular, thus prompting a re-release of the original rulebook. Also in 1998, Mayfair lost the license to produce DC Heroes, which moved to Task Force Games. At roughly the same time, UNI Games issued Living Legends, a superhero RPG based upon the venerable Villains and Vigilantes game.


While few of the many superhero RPGs introduced over the past three decades have proved as durable as the mass-marketed Dungeons and Dragons—which is still going strong today as both Dungeons and Dragons and Advanced Dungeons and Dragons, both under the aegis of Wizards of the Coast—several still have substantial followings today. The recent profusion of superhero RPGs, most of which are available only through specialty vendors, includes such attractively-packaged entries as: the light-hearted Superbabes (1997, TriCity Games), which emphasizes the pulchritudinous powerhouses of Bill Black's AC Comics line; Nemesis: A Perfect World (2001, Maximum CNG), which blends superheroics with postapocalyptic science fiction; Mutants and Masterminds (2002, Green Ronin Publishing) a game system set in the appropriately heroic-sounding Freedom City; Silver Age Sentinels: The Ultimate Superhero RPG (2002, Guardians of Order, Inc.), a game supported by a line of miniature tabletop figurines and whose slick, detailed rulebook is reminiscent of that of Advanced D&D; Godlike (2002, Hobgoblynn Press), which chronicles the clash between the superheroes of the Allies and the Axis in an alternate World War II; Heroes by Gaslight (2002, Web of Horrors/Web of Heroes), which places superheroes in the Victorian Age; Judge Dredd (2002, Mongoose Publishing), a game centered on Britain's over-the-top protector of Megacity One; Cartoon Action Hour (2003, Z-Man Games, Inc.), which delivers superheroic action in the mold of such 1980s animated kid-vid as G.I. Joe, Thundercats, Transformers, and Masters of the Universe; the DC Universe Roleplaying Game (1999, 2002, West End Games); and the Marvel Universe RPG (Marvel Comics, 2003). This abundance suggests that the market for superhero RPGs is as healthy today as it has ever been. —MAM

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