History of Supers RPGs

Just wanted to toss this up somewhere, so I can refer to it when it’s relevant. The main reason is to provide a little context on the origins of Four Colors al Fresco.

Supers RPGs That Existed in 1999

These are RPGs that were already in print—or, in a lot of cases, already out of print—when we were originally developing Four Colors al Fresco.

(In roughly-chronological order: ) Superhero 2044, Villains & Vigilantes (2 editions), Supergame (2 editions), The Official Superhero Adventure Game, Champions (4 editions, plus Champions: New Millenium), Supervillains, Super-Sentinels, Superworld, Powers and Perils, Super Squadron, Marvel Superheroes & Advanced Marvel Superheroes, Heroes Unlimited, Golden Heroes, DC Heroes (3 editions, plus Blood of Heroes), TWERPS Superdudes, Batman RPG (2 editions), GURPS: Supers (2 editions), Guardians, Superbabes, Underground, Heroes & Heroines, Stuperpowers!, Providence, Marvel Superheroes Adventure Game [SAGA], Panels.

Almost all of these are very “traditional” RPGs, attempting to blend Gamist & Simulationist priorities in order to both provide a fair balance, and emulate the world of superhero comicbooks. In fact, of those I’m familiar with, only Panels is willing to let go of the Gamist goals, in order to move in a different direction. A few others decided to incorporate more Dramatist-leaning elements, but even then they often did them in a very Gamist manner (such as how Karma worked in MSH).

So, this is what we were reacting to initially when creating Four Colors al Fresco. I forget now whether we came to the same conclusions as Panels on “how to do supers right” independently, or as a result of me discovering it. I think the former, and then discovering Panels refined and reinforced some of our ideas. In any case, given the many supers RPGs already out there, we saw them as all failing in the same way: superhero comics simply aren’t consistent, and there’s no such thing as balance in the power levels of superheroes. Instead, they are driven by narrative necessity and an internal logic that is more about exceptions than repeatability. So, trying to be true to that nature, while imposing gamelike “balance” is an impossible task. Or, at least, so long as the things the game tries to balance are power levels and the like.

Supers RPGs Published Between 1999 and 2003

The turn of the millenium saw a [perhaps non-coincidental] surge in supers RPGs. Nearly 2 dozen new supers RPGs or editions were published from 1999 to 2003, compared with just shy of 4 dozen in the previous 20 years, and most of those clustered in the 80s.

(Again, in roughly-chronological order: ) Stuperpowers! (2nd edition), Living Legends, Heroic Do-Gooders and Dastardly Deed-Doers, DC Universe, Brave New World (2 editions), Abberant, UNSanctioned, Sketch!, Heroes Unlimited (2nd edition), Champions: New Millenium (2nd edition), Providence (2nd edition), Godsend Agenda, Chosen, Hero System/Champions (5th edition), Silver Age Sentinels, Mutants & Masterminds, Legends Walk!, Heroic Visions, Godlike, Deeds Not Words, Marvel Universe

These are RPGs that are roughly contemporaneous with the development of Four Colors al Fresco. The bulk of the mechanics work was done in the ’99-’00 timeframe, and perhaps a little after that timeframe. There was exactly one nagging issue was only resolved in ’04—it required an epiphany inspired by The Matrix Games, though, to this day, I couldn’t reconstruct exactly how we got from A to B.

During this time period, in addition to a surge in supers RPGs, we saw the birth of the Forge—IIRC, it started in 2002. Which means that most or all of these RPGs were developed before the Forge really had much influence. And it shows: several of them are new editions of older games, or evolutions of old games, but most are still the same sort of mechanical mix as supers RPGs from before ’99. Sketch! is the only of them that is of a different mechanical pedigree.

This period is also when we first start seeing supers RPGs that deviate significantly from the “standard” comicbook setting. [Well, with the exception of Providence, which was in ’98.] In fact, nearly a third of the RPGs in this period focus on a novel setting or interpretation of superheroes—almost as if acknowledging that the previous development model had reached its limit. And, with DC Heroes 3rd edition, Champions 4th edition, and then Mutants & Masterminds, I’d say the pinnacles of the mechanical codification of superhero “reality” had, indeed, been achieved. Since then, the Gamist/Simulationist style of supers RPG has seen mostly refinements, rather than huge leaps forward.

Supers RPGs Published Since 2003

I.e., supers RPGs published since we stopped active development on the rules of Four Colors al Fresco.

(Still in roughly-chronological order: ) Necessary Evil (Savage Worlds) (2 editions), With Great Power…, Truth & Justice, Godsend Agenda (D6 edition), Capes, BASH!, Wild Talents (2 editions), Legends Walk! (original and T&J editions), Hearts & Souls, Big Bang Comics Roleplaying Game, GURPS Powers, Comicbook Super-Heroes (2 editions), D6 Powers (2 editions), Resolute: The Superhero RPG (2 editions), Mutants & Masterminds (3 editions), Mutant City Blues, Hero System/Champions (6th edition), Bold & Brave, Supers!, DC Adventures, Icons, Marvel Heroic Roleplaying, Smallville, Capes, Cowls, and Villains Fowl, Better Angels, Amp, Bulletproof Blues (2 editions), Valiant Universe RPG, Worlds in Peril, Comic Book Adventures, 

This is also the timespan that includes games that could have been developed with influence from The Forge. While there have been several “traditional” supers RPGs in this timespan, it’s easy to see the influence the Forge has had on matters. When we published the Four Colors al Fresco beta, Panels was, as far as I know, the only other RPG that eschewed a Gamist emphasis to the superheroes genre. But with The Forge initially championing what has come to be called Story Now gaming, a lot of other people started to tackle the issue of superhero roleplaying in ways other than trying to mechanically emulate the reality of the comicbook world while balancing the power levels of the heroes. Nonetheless, we’re still seeing a continuation of that style of RPG, including new editions of the already-very-refined Hero System, and thus Champions, and Mutants & Masterminds.

Interestingly, in addition to the crop of Story Now supers RPGs (not all of which came strictly from The Forge), and the continuing Gamist/Simulationist supers RPGs, and the occasional Dramatist/Simulationist supers RPG (like Four Colors al Fresco), we’ve recently seen the first RPG to take a very different tack on the fundamental story of the superhero: Mutant City Blues is a superpowered police procedural, moving the heroes explicitly into law enforcement, and echoing their dawn in Detective Comics. And, presumably, given both the rules and the setting, largely replacing fights with deductions. Which strikes me as almost as fundamental change to the nature of the superhero RPG as the mechanical changes found in Panels, With Great Power…, or Capes.

[Updated 8/21/15]

2 comments on “History of Supers RPGs

  1. […] antedates al Fresco). This was a deliberate response to RPGs of the day, just about all of which (particularly superhero games) tried to solve the problem of modeling superhero comics by creating a complex system of rules to […]

  2. […] are basically two branches of supers RPG design. The first, and older, focuses on modeling the abilities of superheroes. At first, this was done […]

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