(This RPG has its own tagline, but it’s not as cool as this title)
A good Superhero RPG is one of my White Whales. I’ve tried it a few times, and it’s not ever really worked out the way I’ve wanted. And I’m never sure if that’s my fault, my players’ fault, the game system’s fault, or just bad timing. There’s always a lot of variables and I should probably do more science on it. While I was doing research for the Monster Hunting thing, a stray googling led me to a list of games Powered by the Apocalypse and I found that they did indeed have super heroes run by this system.
The Key Aspects of RPGs
There’s a lot of Superhero RPGS out there. (I’m going to call the SRPGs from here on out.) They all have different things that they focus on.
Wait, I’m going to have to back out further for this.
There are four key elements that make up an RPG. (I mean, there’s more to it than that, but we’ll stop at four.) There’s Mechanics, Verisimilitude, Gameplay, and Story. Any game system, consciously or unconsciously, strikes a balance between these four points. After that, every table makes choices in gameplay that tweak the balance between these even further. It’s a lot easier to run a game with high Mechanics if that’s something the system excels at doing.
Of these four, the easiest to understand is Story, because that’s what we’re used to. Story is a bit of what happens,but it’s about the connections between the characters, the heroes and villains, that make Story interesting. The choices that characters make are also part of Story. If you and your players master Story, you barely need an RPG system, as you can grow the life of characters without needing all those Mechanics.
That’s what the crunchy bits of the game are, Mechanics. We’re looking at Hit Points, Ability Scores, Skill Ranks, Armor and Weapon damage. All of the numbers. Some people hate the numbers, some people love them. They are fun to play with. I once spent three hours finding every item that had the fire tag and seeing how it interacted with my character. It was fun, although I can understand that to many, trading all that time for just a d6 of damage was not a good investment.
Between those two lies Verisimilitude. This is the parts of the game world that are depicted as simulation. Or at least, as realistically as you can manage. This is details about the world like “How many people live here” or “Does lightning conduct along water?” This can be a trap for GMs, as they want to build a complete world as realistic as they can. But it’s impossible to have a game with Verisimilitude without the GM. Their brain is what tracks the important details the players don’t know, makes answers to questions by probing this invisible world, and decides what is real and what isn’t.
Normally opposed to Verisimilitude is Gameplay. This is the acknowledgement that you CAN’T make a complete simulation world. So we cheat. Or, more accurately, we abstract. We wave our hands and combat changes from hit tables, 7 dice rolls, and the chance to instantly die from any lucky shot, to an abstract system of AC, HP, and to hit rolls. Systems that focus on gameplay make it fun to play, easy to learn, and fast to resolve.
So those are the four keys, but what do they mean? Well, for a sample, let’s ask about an important aspect of RPGs: Death. “How should Death be handed in games?”
- Mechanics says “Death happens however it’s built into the game.”
- Verisimilitude says “Death happens to everyone, make sure it’s in there.”
- Gameplay says “Guys, being dead is a lot like not playing, which sucks.”
- Story says “Death happens, but Deaths that have a purpose and point are better than Random Pointless Deaths.”
So game designers go and they build things on these specifications. And due to people placing higher priorities on different aspects of these Keys, we get a bunch of different RPGs. With me so far?
Now, Superheroes are a unique form of RPG. They’re an adaptation into a rule set, as opposed to being dramatization of the rules. On top of that, they had a 40 years of developing lore, tropes, and conventions before RPGs came around. And the fact that Batman has been the same character since his creation, the idea of “Who is Batman?” and “How do you tell a Batman story?” is different for everyone.
(You may think that D&D should have a similar issue with converting Fantasy, but it actually doesn’t. That’s because D&D was created first to satisfy Verisimilitude and Mechanics of a tabletop war simulator, and then Tolkien and other influences were added on top of that. That legacy of wargaming has been deeply ingrained into the D&D framework and it is only recently that it’s become easier to run games that break that mold without transcending the game. But that’s not this topic.)
So, what about superhero games?
Now that we’ve seen the aspects, what does that mean for SRPGs? Well, they run the gamut on what’s important as well. Here’s a few SRPGs I know well enough to scribble down their Names and Keys.
- Amber Diceless RPG: Story
- Flawed (the game I was working on): Story
- Icons: Gameplay
- Masks: Story
- Mutants and Masterminds (2e): Mechanics
- Mutant City Blues: Verisimilitude for powers, Gameplay is what GUMSHOE is about
- Phoenix (A d20 Modern add-on): Mechanics.
- Tiny d6 Supers: Gameplay
- World in Peril: Verisimilitude
There are, of course, dozens more SRPGs that I didn’t put on this list, but these are the ones that I know of and understand well enough to list.
It’s interesting that there are so few Verisimilitude games. Part of this comes from the inherent lack of sense of some superhero worlds, but also because this ends up being a setting choice, not a system choice. A GM who is concerned with Verisimilitude can impose it onto almost any game system, whereas a GM who doesn’t care about it can discard it from any system. It’s hard to write and while I would love to see more, I understand why it’s the least prominent of the Keys.
I have two games with mechanics, Mutants and Masterminds and Phoenix. The cool parts about these games are making characters. Seriously, getting your hands dirty in the system and seeing what you can create is so much fun. When I played in Phoenix, I built and played 2 characters. One was basically Conan, the other was a Pokemon Trainer. Both worked inside of the rules of the game.
Mutants and Masterminds is even more crazy. My theorycrafting of characters couldn’t find a character you COULDN’T build. The game of M&M I ran had Vlad Taltos, Master Chief, Superman, and Roger Wilco (from the Spacequest series). There’s some amazing tables in there, that let you quickly determine how far the Hulk could throw a baseball. (Or rather, how far any character could throw any weight of object).
The systems with Gameplay at their core have something in common: all of them are a superhero adaptation of a different game, which means they use established mechanics to run a game, that just happens to include masks and capes.
Story is the final category. I don’t know if I ever showed Flawed to people, but it was a superhero game I was alpha testing. We ran one game and it was all character creation. There are some flaws with it, but we did create a world that I think was interesting. My PDF for it, though, started with a page of manifesto about how Story is the only conceivable way of running a superhero game.
It’s telling that the only SRPGs I would consider running are all Story based. (Not entirely true, but I’m ot running Icons until my players grok it better than my, which is the same as saying “I will never run Icons”)
What does Matt want from a superhero game?
Man, that’s the big question, isn’t it? There are different games because people want different things. So, as the section is called, what do I want?
Let’s start with some assumptions. If there’s a game going on, I’m probably running, not playing. That changes what I want out of a game. Players can spend hours tweaking their characters to perfection, but I ain’t got time for that. I need a system that let’s me improv villains with no effort. I don’t have time to point buy, to carefully balance things. I need a villain to stride through that hole in the wall 10 seconds after I come up with the idea.
In addition to having them spontaneously exist, a system that has things in place to have villains spontaneously exit would also be amazing. The idea of having a recurring villain is exciting to GMs, but the accomplishing of that is tricky. You have to have some escape root prepared, or the heroes just end up killing the villains.
The idea of a revolving door prison doesn’t fit any idea of verisimilitude.
Thinking over it, every hero game I’ve run has had a similar thing: all of the heroes that were played went every which way. This made building stories for the group really hard. Now, my first forays into M&M, I wasn’t trying to tell coherent stories, I was trying to see what the game can do (and convince other people to play this not-D&D game with me. I have a better player base now)
But, I think a SRPG should have a unifying theme. Instead of a game of “You are all superheroes,” it’s better to say “You are all super powered cops solving super crime.” This isn’t something that needs baked into the system, btws. You can have this at the GM level, but it will make your game much better to establish some facts about your universe and the story you want to tell.
And as part of that, system or not, there should be things in place that keeps things together. The heroes should be bonded together and not go haring off in different directions. A coherent group, no matter how dysfunctional.
In addition to the party, there should also be hooks to the world. There is a temptation in RPGs for the party to become detached from the world. This is a bit of where murderhobo-ism comes from. My Flawed system was built to deal with this idea, and it was all about hooking characters to the world. What happens in the world should MATTER to superheroes! And on a related note, the world should be a fan of the heroes! The party’s exploits should be the subject of break room conversation and make the news. (Assuming heroes are unique in your world. If they’re more commonplace, then getting publicity should be a milestone)
Players and Provocation
The final areas I think a SRPG should have things sorted is about the characters. I don’t care about the abilities of any individual player character, but I am a little concerned about group balance. I know that the idea of balance is a fallacy, but only as long as the characters are about equal. If the game makes it too easy to have one player out power another, or for a character to be poorly made unless they know how to weave through creation…
Look, I’m not saying minmaxing is bad, but if your system allows one player to jump through hoops and make Superman while other players can only manage Howard the Duck, there’s problems.
Also, the system should have at least considered how PvP works. Not in terms of physical combat, although that might need consideration of the bad guys get taken down in a way that makes it awkward for PvP, but Social PvP is important. Having a system that allows players to influence each other, without having to yell at each other in person, or have a single die roll cause one person to feel like the game (and party) hates them. (Totally thinking about a WIDWAD involving a pair of antlers. Might write that soon…)
The best answer for dealing with this stuff is “Have a table that trusts one another,” but I understand why that can’t always be the case 🙁
The final thing is that the game should not take a masters degree, a super computer, and a 63 page flow chart in order to play. It’s nice if you have those things, but I don’t want to play Tax Simulator 3, I want to have some fun with super heroes.
Okay, so what have we learned? Let’s build a quick chart if this sucks on mobile, I’ll make this into an image later…)
|Easy of play||~||X|
So each cell can have an X meaning there’s a lot of overlap between me and my Keys, and a ~, which indicates that it could be? And that makes Mechanics weird, because ANYTHING can be Mechanics based, if you make a mechanic for it.
Apparently, in a SRPG, I’m most interested in Gameplay, followed closely by Story. Mechanics depend on what they are, and while Verisimilitude doesn’t come up often, but when I do think about it, it matters a lot.
Got all that? Good. Let me return to the topic of the title and explain why Masks is the best SRPG I’ve found (for what I want out of a game).
Masks: A New Generation (See? My title was better…)
I’ve been reading a lot of Powered by the Apocalypse games recently (although not the original yet. I should fix that). It’s an interesting system, or set of systems, as it does some things very differently than other games.
Characters make Moves to do things. These do not take actions (there aren’t actions in PbtA). The player then rolls 2d6 and either gets a success (or hit), a partial success, or gets a fail or a miss. Continue reading the move to learn what happens when you get one of those three. That’s the core of the game. The exact moves, what they can do, how they affect or are affected by your “ability scores” if those are things in the game, what happens to your hit points if those are a thing in the game, and what it means in terms of other game mechanics, whatever they may be. The ideas behind the game are more varied than anything else I have seen.
Synopsis of the Premise
Masks is a game that focuses on teen heroes. Less about Spiderman coming into powers alone, but on groups like Young Justice, Young Avengers, Teen Titans, the X-Men, where you have heroes who are still learning, but are in a team and probably have some influential mentor figures who can give advice. But that advice comes with forcing labels and pressure on the young heroes.
Labels are what they use as Ability scores. They define how the hero sees themselves, which is how they interact with the world. If they see themselves as more Savior than Freak, it’s easier to save people, but it’s harder to do crazy power feats. Powers are performed through a Move called “Unleashing your Powers” which has a lot of potential side effects as your powers aren’t perfected yet.
Influence is a big part of the game. They give you some control over other characters, and allow you to apply Conditions to them. Conditions are used something like hit point and status effects. Collect the whole set and you’re out of the fight, whether that means you fall unconscious, run away, or whatever. Villains also have conditions as their hit points. Weaker villains have just a few conditions, give them a good scare and they might just run away.
Character creation is a snap. Take a playbook, make some choices, make up details, and make bonds with players and NPCs and you’re good to go. Notice how I haven’t said much about powers? Story trumps mechanics. Masks don’t care how much your character can lift, Unleash whatever powers you possess and the car will be flung (if that makes sense for your story).
Parts 1 and 2 together
I hope you were paying attention and looking for my desired elements as I gave the overview. As you can see, there are a lot of shared beats.
Now, this could just be a form of Selection Bias. I wrote my list of desired aspects after I had read Masks and as I was listing my wants, how they did it in masks kept coming to the fore. That’s why the first part is so huge, me trying to be scientific and analytical about it to eliminate the bias. But it’s still going to be there.
It does give me a place to stand as I try to analyze other SRPGs in the future. I’ll reference and add to this list when thinking about it in the future. A couple sessions of Masks will show me some weak spots.
Some I can tell you right now? I don’t like how this book is written. Like, the rules are good, but PbtA has this thing they do where they take an informal attitude to explaining things. Kinda like I do here, using words like “kinda” in the same sections where I mention using a scientific attitude to remove Selection Bias. I don’t mind the informal, but there’s something off about how it’s done in Masks. The GM example in the actual play stuff doesn’t sound like real things. They’re heavy handed.
Now, granted, if you’re new to GMing and the only session you’ve played had a strict and somber GM, well, I can see it. It’s like when you first learn a rule, then spend a long time practicing, until it’s not effort and is instead mindless habit. Like those first few weeks driving, when you know, technically, what you’re doing, but don’t have the innate ability to drive yet. So the book could be leaning into the teaching.
While I say that, there feels like there is a fixation on telling GMs not do a few specific things. A lot more words than I felt was necessary on the topic. That topic being “GMs deciding the Story.” I’ve heard some horror stories about GMs deciding things for players. In fact, Adam’s Purple Worm or “How our Drow Campaign Ended Because the Party Didn’t Have a PvP Wipe,” is an example of when my agency as a player was taken away, ruining an amazing story. So I get that this is a good lesson for GMs, but I feel the way it’s presented limits GMs. For instance, I’ve known for a week that Terry would find the map to Khrundukar, I’ve known for 2 weeks that Next Wednesday, Aimee will have a dream. I knew the J-Team could not get off the Rose Bridge in time, unless they did something so surprising that I was forced to skip my detour.
That’s the thing about PbtA. I get where it’s coming from, trying to be all player focused, but as a GM, I build dungeons and NPCs precisely BECAUSE I have no control over the players actions. I understand the Lazy DM model, but I believe a prepared game you’re ready to discard is better than a game you’re going into cold, if only because of confidence. It’s not just confidence. Foreshadowing is a great tool that takes genius or preparation, and pre-answering questions keeps the game flowing even if those specific questions roll up.
I had a point somewhere, where was… Oh!
So as I read the Masks book, I kinda skimmed the examples and the GM advice. I’ll give it a deeper read over and see what’s really there. But I don’t know if I can advise it for learning how to GM.
The art in it is good. I had to stop after a bit and confirm, but the webcomic Supernormal Step was written/drawn by this artist. It was a good comic.
(Did I psyche anyone out with the fake Skraz?)
As RPGs go, I’m excited to try out Masks. I think it will be a good data point on the genre, if nothing else. And who can ask for more than that?
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