History of Superhero RPGs (Part Three 1997-2001)
- Lowell Francis(edige23)United States
Indianaexplanation does not equal excuse
On a recent Play on Target podcast episode I suggested you could break superhero material into three categories: Sci-Fi, Pulp, and Fairy Tale. These represent the 'big sweep' of a game or story. Some combine them, but usually have a clear emphasis. Systems often present a setting with a particular flavor, but some take a neutral approach. Even those neutral games simulate some of these themes better than others: the crazed levels of DC Heroes handle the mythic or techno, but break down for the pulp, strictly realistic action. There’s an additional dial- the drama tag- which modifies these types, but I’ll come back to that.
What constitutes superhero as sci-fi? Most obviously games using classic sci-fi trappings: set in the future or in space. Think The Legion of Superheroes, Marvel’s 2099 series, or Strikeforce: Morituri. But some stories with those elements lean in other directions (Adam Warlock, Nexus, Batman: Beyond). Sci-fi superheroics embrace those elements and also add at least one other trapping: a unified system for explaining superpowers relying on pseudo-scientific patter; consistent world-building focused on consequences; and/or heavy reliance on technology. So Marvel’s New Universe, Warren Ellis’ Planetary, George R.R. Martin’s Wild Cards series, Grant Morrison’s run on X-Men (and the films they shaped), Judge Dredd, Bubblegum Crisis, and the Icarus Project series by Jackie Kessler and Caitlin Kittredge all fit into this category. Superhero rpgs leaning this way include Godlike, Cybergeneration, White Wolf’s AEon Trilogy, Brave New World, and Underground.
What does that mean to actual play? These games add a vocabulary for what’s possible- a certain kind of technobabble for justifying powers and events. They narrow imaginative space: demons, fairies, magic, all set aside. Unless, of course, they’re shown to actually be something else: a malice matrix, a trapped time-traveler, an alien invader. In other words, a supernatural foe from a Dr. Who episode. It often means presenting stories which seriously consider the social, mechanical, and practical impact of super-powers on the world. I think Aberrant’s probably the best example of that.
Pulp's a little more fluid. On the one hand it contains most of those superhero tales which self-describe as superhero. Indiana Jones, Tarzan, and even Doc Savage are pulp, but they aren’t superhero. Instead I’m talking about “Mystery Men”- characters with masks, gimmicks, and sometimes strange powers. That includes The Shadow, The Woman in Red, The Spider, Miss Fury, early Bat-Man, The Avenger, and so on. These appear in novels, radio serials, and comics. They’re icons of justice fighting against clear adversaries, but often solving mysteries at the same time. If a pulp game allows for crimefighters like those, I include those on the list.
But beyond that Pulp includes games and settings where powers mean less. On the one hand that can focus on non-powered adventurers or vigilantes. Dark Champions, for example, emulates these kinds of games. These stories include “realism,” street level conflicts, brutalized protagonists, and conflicts with the authorities. Key runs on some lines focus on this aspect: Batman: Year One, The Punisher, The Question, Daredevil, Moon Knight, and Kick-Ass. We can see this on television with The Cape and Arrow. But Arrow’s immediate predecessor, Smallville, began as the other strain in this category: Pulp as Human Drama. Pulp stories, as I’m defining them, concentrate on the human costs and consequences. Characters worry about their expenses, the toll on those closest to them, how to maintain their secrecy. They struggle with these issues much more than they do with villains. Campaigns built this way can be tough on players expecting power and freedom. This kind of superhero story more about the people and less about the environment (unlike the Sci-Fi superhero story). Solutions and victories are usually small-scale and temporary (unlike the Mythic supers story).
I’ll talk more about how these approaches differ and shape campaigns on a later list.
1997-1998 The Onion AV Club had an interesting article on the New Universe, a experiment our group followed in the early days but dropped by this time. Marvel tried a flashback month- renumbering all issues at -1. A couple of X-events "Zero Tolerance" and the "Hunt for Xavier" rounded things out. More importantly they brought back the Avengers and FF in "Heroes Reborn." DC ends up with "Genesis" (a battle against Darkseid) and "DC One Million" which connects the 853rd century to modern heroes. DC also introduced Superman Blue/Superman Red. Looking at the sales list the X Books continues to dominate the stats. New #1 books- clearly collector grabs- dominate the year in sales. We also saw a second series of Amalgam- the DC/Marvel crossover/hybrid series. In the movies were saw some truly horrible superhero films: Batman & Robin, Spawn, and Steel. However we did get a Blade movie, one of the few truly successful outings for a B-super character. TV superhero material was pretty thin: Power Rangers: Turbo & In Space; Ninja Turtles: The Next Mutation; and Sailor Moon. We did get The New Batman/Superman Adventures which mixed repeats and new material and The Powerpuff Girls. So only a little aimed at classical superheroes.
1999-2001: I’m stunned at how many X-books topped the sales rankings during this period: Uncanny X-Men, X-Men, X-Men Magneto War, Wolverine, Gambit, Mutant X, and so on. Marvel seems at the top of their game month after month, with the majority of the top twenty in sales consistently. Even the events all seem tied to these characters with the “Hunt for Xavier,” “The Twelve,” and the solution to the Legacy Virus problems. DC on the other hand brought some interesting books and series to the table, not least of which was the “No Man’s Land” crossover for Batman. On the other end of the spectrum lies cosmic Our Worlds at War series with cosmic level events on every page. Both publishers pull in interesting new voices like Ed Brubaker and Greg Rucka- writers who’d toiled in the indie comics scene. The movies brought us very different takes on heroes: parodies like Mystery Men and The Specials; the revisionist Unbreakable; and the conventional X-Men. Television offered more diverse options. We got several new Power Rangers series, but we also finally saw Batman Beyond. Fox Kids destroyed us with the terrible Spider Man Unlimited and Avengers: United They Stand. Smallville arrived and slightly redeemed the idea of live-action supers shows, poisoned by fare like Witchblade and Mutant X.
IN OTHER REALMS
Video games become more mainstream in this era, with the console wars heating up and a making them an accepted entertainment medium. As a result we get a number of superhero games. In Fighting and Beat 'Em Ups games we get X-Men: Mutant Academy, X-Men: Mutant Wars, Marvel vs Capcom: Clash of Superheroes, and Marvel Super Heroes vs. Street Fighter. In Action and Platformers we get Spider-Man, Batman: Vengeance, Blade, Shadow Man, and Spawn: The Eternal. Most importantly we receive the blessedly craptastic Superman. On the board game front it is equally mixed: Marvel Super Dice, Comic Crusades, Marvel Trivia Game, Batman & Robin: The Board Game, X-Men Trading Card Game, and Monopoly: Marvel Comics. At least we also got Champions: Wildstrike, right?
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: Bif! Bam! Pow!, Urge, and Four Colors al Fresco. 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 1997-1998). 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)
- [+] Dice rolls