I absolutely LOVE super hero RPGs. Some of my favorite games and campaigns have all been super hero based. Heck, you may have picked up this fact from some of my previous posts. From my introduction to Champions back in 1989 to my very first GMing attempt with a Mutants and Masterminds campaign, super hero RPGs have helped define who I am as a gamer.
I also love attending gaming conventions, so you’d think it would be a given that I’d jump into as many super hero games as I can find at a con. Unfortunately there’s a weird disconnect that makes finding a good super hero game at a convention very hit or miss. When it comes down to it, some super hero GMs are awful.
This subject came up this past weekend when I ran a last-minute one-shot supers game for some friends. As happens with adult gamers, life got in the way of our scheduled plan. With careers and families and other responsibilities, sometimes this happens and it’s just a fact of life we gamers need to understand and adapt to. In this situation, the GM who was supposed to run his World of Darkness Vampire game had been too swamped all week to be in any state of mind to run his game. So, I put on my cape and came to the rescue.
Because I needed to come up with something quick, I decided to use the Marvel Super Heroes Adventure Game, a TSR game from the late 1990’s. Most people know it as Marvel SAGA since it was designed using the SAGA system that was originally developed for a Dragonlance game. I was introduced to it about a decade ago and it’s become my favorite go-to system for quick super hero games. Character creation is fairly easy and instead of using dice, it uses a deck of cards designed for the game. I find it to be a really flexible system that lets everyone have a chance to shine. (It’s obviously quite out of print now, but if you know where to look, it’s not too hard to find PDFs of the cards and the core book. Mint condition decks of cards can be found occasionally, but they’re usually incredibly expensive.)
The setting I gave the players was described as more ‘Heroes‘ than ‘Avengers‘, and since I am going to be leaving for GenCon today, I told them their characters were all in Indianapolis during the middle of August. Maybe not a particularly original idea, but I was looking for something easy and fun. We started off coming up with reasons why they were all there individually and let them explore a bit, settling into their characters. Eventually, they stumbled into the plot and got into the fight scene portion of the ‘comic book’. In the end, they prevented a mutant terrorist group from detonating a human bomb beneath the Colts stadium.
As we wrapped up, the players all said they had a great time and even the one who didn’t really have any comic book experience said she was surprised at how much she had enjoyed the game. One of the players then mentioned that he had actually played the game before, back around the time it first came out, but it wasn’t nearly as fun back then. His GM ran the game more like a D&D game, losing the feel of a comic book, which is what he had really wanted.
That got us all talking. All of us, other than the player who wasn’t familiar with comic books, had war stories of bad super hero games, or bad GMs running super hero games. I could also recount stories from a number of friends that also enjoy super hero games and had run into bad games at cons.
So why is there a concentration of bad games and bad GMs among super hero RPGs? At conventions, with any genre you run the risk of playing with a GM who may not be that great, but it feels like it really is an all or nothing situation with super hero RPGs. Why is that?
I think, besides rotten luck and poor GM skills, the primary answer is ‘different expectations’.
The best comic books have a mix of great characters and fantastic action, but individual tastes may lean more towards one than the other. I love the adventure and action in comics, but it’s the characters that make me keep reading. I follow Spiderman because of his snark and his compelling back story. I adore Nightcrawler’s sense of humor and determined empathy in the face of unreasoning hate. From the movies, I rooted for Black Widow because of her glimmer of conscience amidst her pragmatic ruthlessness. Someone else may rank the action higher than character and follow the stories for Spiderman webbing up Doc Ock, or Nightcrawler bamfing his swashbuckling way through a room full of goons, or Black Widow holding her (badass) own with the likes of Iron Man and Captain America.
Too many of the bad super hero games I’ve played are the result of a GM focusing only on the action. The game turns into a slug fest and it really doesn’t matter who the character you’re playing really is. The GM may not even be a bad with another system, but if they can’t see beyond the action to the characters, I’m not going to be having much fun.
Of course, your mileage may vary. I’ve enjoyed my low-power, more-realistic super hero settings, but I know some people want a full-on four-color opportunity to chew scenery and smash buildings. Ultimately, I’m going to keep running super hero games and keep looking for the GMs that bring the story with the action.