I challenge you, the Superhero RPG GM, and/or player, to list between 5 and 10 Superhero comic books, and 5 to 10 Superhero live action or animated shows or films, that typify your style of Superhero RPG campaign.
Minimum is 5. Maximum is 10. This means you have to really think about the ones that best embody the type of Supers gaming you prefer. Who’s up for the challenge?
So, without further ado:
Astro City: The biggest influence on how I run Superhero RPGs — Astro City shows how you can create the weight of comics history without using the Marvel or DC Universe as your setting. The archetypes are recognizable, the call-backs to famous comics events are there, but it’s all in an original (yet still familiar) world. I’m especially fond of the comics-history easter eggs present in Astro City (such as the city being in the “shadow of Mount Kirby” — since we all are, after all.). I try to include similar easter eggs in my games, and have been known to give bonus experience or other nifties to players who recognize them, or even better, create some of their own.
X-Men: Bring on the soap opera! I was an avid reader of the X-Men from around 1981 until 1993 or so, and that was the golden age, in my opinion. The book gave heaping helpings of interpersonal drama alongside the fantastic superhero plots, and greatly influenced how I view characters in a Superhero RPG campaign — that there needs to be as much focus on their relationships as there are on the fights and the heroic acts. If we don’t care about the characters as people, we’re not going to care about what happens to them. That lesson was taught to me by this book (and mostly by the writer Chris Claremont).
The Defenders: I started reading the Defenders with issue 92, got hooked by the Six-Fingered Hand storyline from issues 98-100 (where a town in Florida was sucked into the Nexus of Realities, and an alliance of demons including Satan and Mephisto were trying to bring about Hell on Earth) and continued on and off until the series ended with 152. This is the book I look to for inspiration when I have a group of player-characters who don’t really fit together as a team. The answer is simply to throw plots at them that are even more bizarre than the group is. If the threats are as unique as the mix of heroes, nobody will really notice that the group is odd. Mixing this with some of the interpersonal-drama lesson of the X-Men (which was echoed in the run of Defenders that I’ve cited here), and you’ll have a group that you care about, even if they seem to be a haphazard collection of misfits.
Marvel Cosmic (Various Series, during the late-2000s cross-over events by Abnett & Lanning): I’m cheating a bit here, because it’s not just one title, but it was pretty much the work of a single writing team, Dan Abnett and Andy Lanning, so it’s kinda easy to think of it as one. I’ve always been a fan of cosmic books, from lots of different publishers. Green Lantern was my vector from Sci-Fi to comics, and I devoured Omega Men, Nexus, Legion of Superheroes, etc. But the late-2000s run of the Marvel cosmic books, via the big cross over events Annihilation: Conquest, War of Kings, Realm of Kings and Thanos Imperative — they hit the exact sweet spot for me. This was the run that produced the current incarnation of the Guardians of the Galaxy, and totally influences how I handle off-world adventures in Superhero RPGs: The universe is vast and adventures occurring within it should underline to the players the mundanity of even a superhero-populated Earth, by playing up the strange and the epic. Give ’em space stations made from the severed head of a Celestial. Give ’em Space Pirates and Warring Galactic Empires. Give ’em strange energy rifts, talking raccoons, undying villains and universe-threatening events. Big, Bigger, Biggest. They’re not in Kansas anymore.
Doctor Strange: Master of the Mystic Arts (volume 1, 1974-1987): If the Marvel Cosmic books inform how I run space adventures in Superhero RPGs, then the classic run of Doctor Strange is, without a doubt, my blueprint for running games featuring the world of the occult. The first stand-alone title featuring the good Doctor, Master of the Mystic Arts featured Strange facing off against everything from mundane super villains, to demons, Lovecraftian entities from beyond space and time, demons, devils, werewolves, and even the King of the Vampires, Dracula himself. The book ran the gamut of every occult-horror trope they could drum up — and greatly influences how I handle the topic in my superhero games. Just as I use epic scale and wild variety to play up the fish-out-of-water aspect of space adventures, I use the exact same principle when throwing characters up against Things That Go Bump in the Night. Plus, the super-sorcerer is one of my favorite superhero RPG character archetypes to play in those rare instances when I get to play, rather than run, a game — and my portrayal is always based what I learned in this book.
Watchmen: Yes, it’s a cliché — everybody knows this was an incredibly influential book, and a lot of Superhero RPG game masters cite it as an influence on how they handle realism in a superheroic setting. Actually, the biggest influence it has on me is two-fold, and neither is about realism: First, it continues the interpersonal relationship lesson that I learned from X-Men. A lot of Watchmen hinges on the relationships between the characters, and it’s one of the things that elevated the book in the eyes of a lot of mainstream critics. Second, and for me, more important, is the idea of conveying a sense of history by having a continuity of character — Comedian was a “kid sidekick” in the earlier Silver Age group, the Minutemen, along with the first versions of Silk Specter and Nite Owl. Laurie and Daniel take on the mantle of the older heroes as new versions of Silk Specter and Nite Owl. In my games, I try to the do the same thing — create campaign history by encouraging players to develop their characters as legacy heroes, or have backgrounds that connect them to earlier events. This allows me to play “flashback sessions” — useful when a regular player can’t make it to a game night — where we run a period-piece adventure, with earlier heroes (usually played by different players than the legacy versions, when possible) filling in some important bit of detail that I later try to do a call-back to at some later session of the regular, modern game.
There are other influences, of course — to be honest, I’m hard-pressed to think of any book that has been good enough to make me a regular reader that doesn’t in some way lend me some idea for use in a game — but I’ve got 6 here, the 6 big ones, and I should move on to the next category.
TV & FILMS
Superman: The Movie: “You Will Believe A Man Can Fly.” That was the marketing slogan, and yes, yes I did. Christopher Reeve was my Superman. This was the first big-budget superhero live-action film, and it hit me at the right time — I was 9 years old, and it was the year after Star Wars changed my life. So how did Superman: The Movie influence how I run Superhero RPG campaigns? It taught me that despite the fact that most Superhero RPGs seem to spend a lot of attention on Hero vs Villain fights, a big part of what makes a Superhero is actually demonstrated in the time spent saving people. It’s something that even a lot of comic books have moved away from, in favor of conflict. The film doesn’t have a super-fight in it (they saved that for Superman II) — they instead show him rescuing people, collaring mundane criminals for the cops, and trying to counter the disaster created by Lex Luthor. The lesson it taught me is that I should try to include more of that sort of thing into my games, alongside the super-fights. (This lesson was reinforced by the Air Force One rescue scene in Iron Man 3 — I found the sequence of Tony Stark saving the falling people more thrilling than any of the big fights in any of the previous Iron Man movies).
Heroes: After so many good examples, I was surprised to find myself coming up with this one: A show which influenced me by being bad. The first season of the show was pretty good — I was hooked. It set up a lot of cool mysteries and time-travel paradoxes, and the introduction of super powered people into a mundane world was really well done. It was also one of the first transmedia properties to really hit the ground running, mixing online content and comics with what was being shown on the TV. But the show went off the rails in Season 2, and Season 3 was even worse, so I gave up. Never even watched Season 4. Too many mysteries, too much stuff that didn’t get resolved, or got resolved poorly. It’s supposedly coming back in 2015, but at this point, I’m past caring. So what do I mean when I say it was an influence on how I run Superhero RPGs? Simply this: Don’t overthink it. Do not inundate the players with metaplots and mysteries, because A) that runs the risk of being overwhelming, and harder and harder for them to give a damn about; and B) it increases the likelihood of you leaving plot threads dangling, and unresolved threads, again, make it harder for players to care about what’s going on. Metaplots and mysteries in my games are almost always player-generated — I will present elements, and the players themselves connect the dots (like players do). Rather than driving them towards something which I’ve already determined, I instead listen to their discussions, and I improvise based on what they are coming up with. It’s more fun for me, and it’s cool for them as well… and, most importantly, we don’t make the same mistakes that Heroes made.
The DC Animated Universe (especially what I consider the “core shows”– Batman: The Animated Series, Superman: The Animated Series, Justice League, and Justice League Unlimited): I’m cheating a bit here, and putting my third, fourth, fifth and sixth TV & Film influences into a single entry — but really, given the creative team behind all of them, it’s easy to think of them as a single influence, even though each influenced how I run Superhero RPGs in a different way. Batman: The Animated Series showed me how to make the city as much an ongoing character as any of the heroes rolled up by the players. Superman: The Animated Series showed me how to handle a supporting cast of NPCs, and how to keep things interesting when you have high-powered heroes. Justice League and Justice League Unlimited (which I tend to think of as a single show) showed me how to create plots that have something for all players to do, and how to build out the larger campaign world with a wide array of other heroes — and also gave me the idea of guest stars in my RPG sessions, giving the players an opportunity to play a different character, or an opportunity for an occasional player to drop in for a single session.
Avengers: Earth’s Mightiest Heroes: This one is a bit different — I actually am influenced by the show only in a secondary fashion. The primary influence is actually a blog series by the best superhero game designer I have ever seen — Steve Kenson. Steve started a series on his blog called “Re: Animated”, where he looks at episodes of an animated superhero show, and provides Superhero RPG advice based on that episode. He began the series with the the first of the web episodes of Avengers: Earth’s Mightiest Heroes, and continued with every episode of the season. Has since moved on to cover every episode of season one of Justice League, and recently began covering season one of Young Justice. All of them can be found on his blog under the Re: Animated category. Seriously — what are you waiting for? It’s a chance to take a Master Class in Superhero Gaming from Steve Kenson. Why are you still even reading this blog entry?
Anyway — there ya go. My top influences on how I run (and design) superhero RPGs. What are yours? Take the challenge, and hit me with a link to your blog entry!