There was a “Golden Age”, and a “Silver Age”, and so forth, in mainstream American comics. I get it. I get it. You no longer need to pay homage to this concept. It’s been done to death.
The history of comics in America is closely tied to the emergence of real-world situations: the two World Wars of the 20th century, the Comics Code (a result of a fabrication to begin with), and the ongoing rivalries between comic publishers. While the comics themselves mostly took a look at the passage of time, shrugged, and went back to punching villains, many modern supers games try to fit their fictional history around some or all of these pivotal moments.
As a result, a lot of games have heroes emerge in the 30’s to 50’s, the time when comics were really getting started as a medium in reality, and will typically follow some sort of Gold/Silver/Bronze/Iron Age progression. Sometimes there’s some sort of reason for this, but often it’s just how things are, because that’s how comics work. More on this later on.
On my shelf is DC Showcase: Green Lantern, volumes 1 and 2. This hallowed work of art, from which years of ink have flowed, from which multiple feature films (animated or otherwise) have been made, has - I am not joking - a super-evolved tiger shark who can pass himself as a human being, and uses the initials “T. S.” and reminds the reader that they stand for “tiger shark”.
I get that comics were pitched to ten-year-old boys. That’s fine. Sometimes I like stuff for kids. But I’m not a fan of things that are exclusively for kids. This is why I’ll watch “Steven Universe”, or "My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic" but not “Blue’s Clues”.
Give me more stuff like the DCAU’s “Justice League”. Yes, great, there’s fights against diabolical bad guys. But then a woman comes to Batman, who’s been to the future and met her offspring. She sits down and very quietly says: “tell me about my son”. How about the fact that her now-ex-lover appears to be the father, and won’t get back together even though it looks like it’s fated, because it wouldn’t be fair to his current girlfriend? This I can understand.
When we talk about well-known comic super-teams, generally we’re talking about people who go out and beat other people up for a living. There’s not a lot of teams out there who focus on rescue, or construction, or entertainment. I am not saying they don’t exist, only that they’re the exception.
There are better lessons you can teach a child reading comics than “punching people in the face is a solution for your problem”. And it’s tragic, because supers is a genre bursting with possibilities for alternatives.
Consider a guy whose power is to control and transmute carbon. He can transform his own body into super-hard diamond, or conductive graphene, or absolutely any other allotrope of carbon. Now look what you, the writer of the comic, can do with this guy: you can teach your audience about science, in a way that will hold their interest.
This carbon guy has to be fought, after all. He’s impervious to punches and kicks, because he can become diamond. “But diamond is an excellent conductor of heat!” thinks 'Mazing-Man, the hero of our piece. "All I need is a ready source of flame!" So while he pummels the carbon-shelled villain to keep him in his armored state, the heroine Fusion uses her powers (control of plasma - another object lesson) to create great heat and subject the villain to it. Rather than cook inside his impervious shell, he surrenders. The day is saved, thanks to some quick thinking from 'Mazing-Man.
Give me an interesting solution to a tough problem. Don’t pull solutions out of your ass, no matter how tempting it might be.
It’s okay to make your stories realistic. The opposite of “goofy four-color” isn’t “grimdark tragedy”, despite what every issue of DC for the past few years tries to tell you. Nor is it necessarily a continuum, from grit to goof.
I’m a big fan of Hayao Miyazaki and Studio Ghibli. I can watch a humanoid pig fly a biplane in mid-century Italy. I can watch a girl with a mysterious past encounter a floating city. I can see a pair of kids forming a bond of friendship with furry forest spirits. In all these cases, the motives of the participants are reasonable and understandable. I can see why they’d do what they do. But nobody’s having limbs cut off, or finding loved ones stuffed into fridges.
Conversely, I can watch films from people like Ralph Bakshi, where nothing is played too seriously, but dark and twisted things are onscreen most of the time. Bleak slapstick is a thing. It’s just not necessarily my thing.
The more relatable your characters are, the more we will care about them. Write characters who are recognizably human, or tell interesting stories about characters who aren’t.
What’s that? Your supers setting has a fine upstanding team of do-gooders, led by a flying brick and his friends the brooding vigilante and one of the few female supers on the team? How original!
I get the temptation to include pastiches of iconic characters in your setting. It gives the players a sense of the familiar. And you can get a lot of mileage out of introducing 'Mazing-Man as “my universe’s Superman”, because now he comes free with borrowed characterization.
Even so, don’t do it. Write your own interesting characters. Use the comic pantheon as a starting point, then forge ahead.
It’s tempting to throw everything into the pot when you are writing a supers setting. Gods, ghosts, ancient civilizations, interstellar invaders, time travelers, whatever.
But stop, and ask yourself, “can I make this all make some sort of coherent sense?”
There’s a few potential responses to this question.
“Yes, I can.” Great - expect me to buy your book without reservation.
"Much of this is optional, the GM can take or leave any part of it." This is okay, there’s nothing wrong with presenting possibilities.
“It doesn’t have to make coherent sense.” Yeah, you lost me here. I spent three months writing Villains Victorious! in an attempt to prove the opposite - that a coherent explanation for kitchen-sink elements was more interesting than simply hand-waving. And I firmly believe I succeeded.
“Who would win in a fight, Goku or Superman”?
“How much stronger is Hulk than Spider-man?”
Guys. Guys. GUYS. Stop.
Even the writers don’t care. You know, the comic writers who produced the fare that all of this is based on. The canonical answer to "Who wins, Batman vs. Superman" is "whoever’s name is on the cover of the book".
If your goal is to stay true to the source medium, then you should probably not care too much about these things. If you are more interested in delving into the specifics of super-strength, or in setting up arbitrary conflicts between arbitrary characters, write a story that convinces me to care about your angle, because right now I do not.
I get that a lot of people like the Ultimate Showdown of Ultimate Destiny. But the inevitable result is always “the good guys realize who the bad guys are and wander off to pound on them instead”.
DC has to keep selling Batman comics. That means they have to keep the reasons for those sales around. That means not killing the Joker.
Fine, story takes a back seat to economic reality. I can live with that in comic books. But games are different. You don’t need to keep selling issue after issue of your RPG. So don’t be afraid to shake up the status quo.
Interesting roleplaying games thrive on change. New things happen. Old situations disappear. Characters are introduced, have their stories told, and move on. You can do this with heroes, villains, and everyone in between. Use the strength of the medium you’re actually in to tell good stories.
Earlier I bemoaned stories that resolve by finding the right bad guy and punching him until he recants of his evil ways. This trope is an objection to all the assumptions that make that sort of story the default.
If you cast the members of well-known super-groups in any other genre, they’d be basically a group of muscular armed thugs running roughshod over local authority. They’d be a gang - maybe a particularly benevolent, socially minded gang, but a gang nevertheless.
This situation is treated as being, basically, okay. There’s very much a Wild West or wuxia mentality at play: "there’s some bad guys, the law is useless, so good guys will save the day." Instead of six-shooters or katanas, we have superpowers.
But the Wild West and the wandering Chinese knight-errant operated at a time when the law was, well, sort of useless. Most supers comics, and hence games, are set in some sort of highly populated, high-tech metropolis, places where legal authority is at its peak. Many people tackle this problem by explaining that the law sanctions certain super-teams, but it’s often hard to understand just how this holds up without falling back on a very pragmatic position: “we give heroic supers our blessing because we can’t stop them.”
I think this one pisses me off the most because it takes all the progress we’ve made as a species - rejecting slavery, imperialism, and racism, promoting social welfare, growing in our understanding of each other as people - and seems to say “none of that matters”. We can’t save ourselves, so we fall back on particularly benevolent lab accidents and orphaned aliens for protection.
One of Superman’s aliases is “The Man of Tomorrow”. Show me a tomorrow that has Superman, and values him, but doesn’t need him. Give me a world where supers aren’t the outlaw cowboys that America seems to fetishize, but are integrated into society. This doesn’t need to be “super-registration” (which seems to be everyone’s assumption about the alternative to Outlaw Cowboy).
Give me supers who don’t need to violate the letter of the law to uphold its spirits. Give me a world I can believe in.
This is the number one thing that pisses me off, and it’s the one inexcusable trope that will turn me off of your game even if everything else sounds good.
If my player character can’t do something, or my NPC villain doesn’t get to do something, and the sole reason why is “this would break the game”, then that is bullshit, plain and simple. Let me illustrate what I’m talking about with telepathy.
Imagine a villain who can read minds at a reasonable distance. Our villain can penetrate into memories, but not influence behavior. Further, this villain is motivated to take over the world, or at least some chunk of it. Not sure how he could do it? In any world with nuclear launch codes, or just the secret of how to build the Bomb, this guy is the ultimate terrorist. In any world where Swiss bank accounts require some secret knowledge to access, this guy is the richest man in the world.
Tell me what stops this guy. No, really, I’m all ears.
Tell me why Reed Richards is useless. Give me a reason to believe that the Techno Guild’s high-tech heroes haven’t cured cancer, solved hunger, or done something else that radically upsets the status quo. Give me a reason that the Pax Arcana hasn’t proven the truth of religious reality in the setting, putting an end to religious strife around the globe.
If the best you have is “that’s out of genre for comics”, no shit, that’s my point here, but tell me why in-universe it doesn’t work. Tell me that there’s a benevolent Telepaths’ Cabal that stops this. Tell me that all officials and scientists of note have mind shield implants. Tell me something on which I can hang a story, but don’t just tell me “no”.
If anything that recent gaming has taught me, it’s that just telling the players “no” is no fun. And if that’s your idea of a good game, count me out.
Thanks for reading! If you agree (or disagree), let me know! I love talking about supers, and I fully recognize that my views are in the minority. But I have reasons for my views, dammit, and I want to understand other peoples’ reasons for liking what they like.