History of Superhero RPGs (Part Two: 1986-1996)
- Lowell Francis(edige23)United States
Indianaexplanation does not equal excuse
I stuck with core books when assembled my other RPG histories. But with supers- near and dear to my heart- I couldn’t stop there. Secondary sourcebooks and setting materials define these game lines for me. Villains & Vigilantes wouldn’t be the same without Death Duel with the Destroyers. DC Heroes needs the Hardware Handbook to offer another valiant attempt at a workable gadgets system. The various supplements shift Aberrant from just odd to over-the-top crazy. My Play on Target co-host Brian Cooksey cites Marvel’s Ultimate Powers Book as crucial- a resource for any supers game. I feel the same way about Villainy Amok for Champions 5e. Early Champions, on the other hand, lives in my memory for the first two Enemies books, Monster Manuals of the superhero game. They offered weird characters who popped repeatedly over the decades in many GMs’ campaigns. The list below includes a couple of game-changer supplements, including one of the best for any supers game.
CHARACTERS & CALCULATIONS
When my friend Art Lyon returned from the service, he ran a couple of homebrew superhero campaigns for us. We had a great time playing, but the system was legitimately bonkers- in the most awesome way. He reminded me recently that he had tables for all the factors: speed, weight, time, etc. The time one went from a Planck Unit at the bottom to the age of the universe. The system he came up with had the kind of detail and system dithering he dug at that moment in his life. Now, Art said, not so much. Sometimes we don’t know exactly what we want from games. My friend Gene objects to the number of different and distinct status effects in Mutants & Masterminds: too many. At the same time he wants to retool the strength table because the math’s incorrect and cuts corners in abstraction. (Note: it is entirely possible that I’m misstating his objections here).
It’s based on anecdotal evidence, but I see more
argumentsdiscussion about complexity and math for superhero games than for other genres. Recommendation threads usually devolve into that discussion over setting, playability, or other design elements. Champions, GURPS Supers and M&M take a hit for “requiring a math degree.” Some gamers dismiss their character creation systems’ as spread-sheet based. On the other hand I’ve seen gut-level reactions to easier game engines. Fate-based superhero games generate a vigorous shaking of virtual heads from many- in Fate Core aspect-driven, ICONS, or even more detailed (Strange Fate) versions. I think many gamers want the rich detail of a massive power list, but one where every power feels unique and distinct. But that shouldn’t be overly complicated- making the character they want should be easy. That’s a common rpg trait: cake desire and consumption.
This period saw a significant shift in tone and creative direction for comics. A host of indie publishers entered the market and many died off. That brought the first serious challenges to the dominance of the big two. Many classics appeared: Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns & Batman Year One, Moore’s Watchmen, “Kraven’s Last Hunt,” Chadwick’s Concrete, Morrison’s Arkham Asylum & Sandman and Gaiman's Sandman. Marvel launched the ill-fated New Universe line; DC tried a short-lived experimental line. Most importantly Image Comics launched with Youngblood, Spawn and others. Events continued to grab center stage with the Mutant Massacre, The Evolutionary War, Inferno, Invasion! Millennium, X-Tinction Agenda, and the Infinity War.
The period began with two cinematic comic book adaptations which should have killed them off forever: Howard the Duck and Superman IV: The Quest for Peace. But soon we got some solid hero films, with Keaton in Batman and Liam Neeson in Darkman. Interesting but perhaps less striking were Batman Returns and The Rocketeer...and, of course, the first two Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles films. On television we had the syndicated Superboy show, Swamp Thing, and the could-have-been-awesome-but-sucked Flash TV show. And we saw TMNT and X-Men. But most importantly we saw the two best cartoon shows about grimdark vigilantes: Darkwing Duck and Batman the Animated Series.
COMICS CRASH-ALCADE '93-96
They say 1993 was the biggest sales year for the comics industry. An avalanche of short-lived studios entered the market while stalwarts like First and Eclipse died. That year saw Bane break Batman, Grant Morrison’s last issue on Doom Patrol, the introduction of the Vertigo line, Deadpool #1, and Infinity Crusade. The following year saw the start of the comics bubble collapse, and at least two dozen publishers vanished. Despite the turmoil a few interesting events- Zero Hour and the Phalanx Covenant- spiced things up. 1995, however, brought the gamer-changer Age of Apocalypse. That lead into 1996’s big event, the Onslaught Saga which “changed the Marvel universe forever.” On the DC side we saw The Final Night which “killed off Hal Jordan forever.” On a brighter note, Clark Ken married Lois Lane.
In superhero cinema the four years gave us the disappointing TNMT III, Meteor Man , The Shadow, Judge Dredd, Tank Girl, The Phantom, Darkman II & III, Barb Wire, Black Scorpion, and Batman Forever. The Crow and Guyver helped offset those, but not by much. On TV Batman the Animated Series continued, and Superman: the Animated Series began. Other animated premieres included The Tick, the US release of Sailor Moon, Freakazoid, The Incredible Hulk, and the short-lived WildC.A.T.S. & MAXX shows. Just as important, the Mighty Morphin Power Rangers made their debut. In live action we saw Lois & Clark: the New Adventures of Superman and M.A.N.T.I.S..
These lists cover a smaller slice of time than my past rpg lists. I hope this makes them easier to read. I include mostly core books, but also significant setting or sourcebooks. I list revised editions which significantly changed a line. Generally I only include published material- print or electronic. I leave out freebie or self-published games. I'm sure I've left something off without adequate reason; feel free to add a comment about a line I missed (if published from 1986-1996). I've arranged these in by year and then alphabetically within that year.
History of Superhero RPGs (Part One 1978-1985)
History of Superhero RPGs (Part Two: 1986-1996)
History of Superhero RPGs (Part Three 1997-2001)
History of Superhero RPGs (Part Four 2002-2004)
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