I’m not always a fan of the Fantasy Kitchen Sink, but when the conflicts inherent in it are resolved (or at least minimized), it’s amazing to see where players can go with something you hand them.
In a game where my mad scientist/mage trainee character met a back-to-nature mentor and learned runes from him, he was able to construct a circuit that would instantly create a runic configuration by channeling magical energy through a series of switches and pathways. He had the circuit tattooed onto his hand using non-reactive conductive materials, allowing him to create a variety of spell effects on the fly.
That’s not the sort of thing you normally see in “pure” fantasy or science fiction, but in supers you can get exactly that sort of interesting conceptual crossover.
A modern Exalted campaign I ran (not strictly “superheroes” by comic-book terms, but functionally one nonetheless) had the Mad Machine God take over Earth’s nuclear arsenal, and launch every single warhead - about ten thousand in total - at the player characters’ home base.
They mobilized everyone. They had a flying golden city, dozens of Celestial Exalted and a whole clan of Terrestrials, plus a few visiting characters from old campaigns who showed up to help. People were parrying nukes with hand weapons, and it was gloriously over the top.
But the end result? A world free of nuclear weapons, for the first time since they’d been invented. A world free of fear, because those same heroes then led the nations of the world in a unified counter-attack on the Mad Machine God. Their bravery was still being commemorated and appreciated a millennium later, because they left the Earth in capable hands.
Supers can do more than just react to threats, or stop bank robberies. They can tackle hard issues, and not just Authority style. All-Star Superman covers a lot of this sort of ground, but you can tell stories like this all the time, if you want.
With great power comes great responsibility. Whatever the excuse, supers puts a lot of great story elements onto the table: what it means to be a hero, the price of heroism, the nature of duty, and so forth. There are very few murderhobo characters in supers comics.
Some characters are born into their super-heritage. Others are granted their powers by accident, by design, or just by some mysterious quality of the universe. The heroes are the ones who do good with what they’re given, but anyone has a chance to step forward and try their best.
The genre has to walk a fine line on this: if anyone could choose to gain powers, or anyone could receive them at some low cost, then there’s a reason why the world isn’t already swimming in supers. Maybe it is - Top 10 gets a lot of mileage out of this premise - but for the most part, “everyone has powers” is reserved for emergencies, like fighting Mageddon or something.
So, you can bring in characters with a legacy of heroism, an ordinary high school student, a weird alien, or whatever, and tell the story about that character.
Arrow is dark, gritty melodrama, but its spinoff series The Flash has demonstrated that television supers can be bright and colorful and still work amazingly well. And both tones can be carried in their respective shows, while still letting characters cross over and meet each other.
Take a look at the Masks Kickstarter page, and count the smiles. Yeah, those kids can have a rough time of it. But they wouldn’t trade this life for anything.
The world isn’t always optimistic. But even when it’s not, your heroes can be a point of light in the darkness.
There’s some part of us that resists the murderhobo tendencies from other games. There’s some part of us that likes a good punch-up, where the bad guy is defeated but nobody dies.
A lot of people cheered when the Ninth Doctor joyfully announced "just this once… everybody lives!". When things finally go right, when the heroes can pull a happy ending out of a hopeless situation and it feels right, and you can’t see the story going any other way, that can be an amazing feeling.
Sure, there can be threats to the city, or the world. Sure, bad things happen. But unlike fantasy, where the adventurers are generally out in neutral or enemy territory doing their thing, or science fiction, where the stakes can feel more arbitrary and abstract, supers are standing up for what they believe in, right in their own home turf. You can see the things that make them tick, the people they like, every day.
I appreciate many giant-robot shows for the same reason. They bring the essence of military science fiction - war, honor, duty, sacrifice, and so forth - and concentrate it into the giant robot pilots. The robot is a stand-in for a company, platoon, or some other large force, but with fewer human characters on screen, we can sympathize with those we have a lot more.
Comics have been going for decades. The stories told in comics can have a similarly broad scope. There’s something that appeals to me about a game where years upon years of history can be explored, looked back upon, or mined for future stories.
Legacy characters can be brought in to replace retiring heroes. Legacy villains, with their own reasons to take up a mantle, can pose new challenges for heroes accustomed to the old bad guy. A sense of history, properly developed, can permeate and enhance current events in a game, in a way that nothing else can.
The superhero genre is the rock on which countless game systems have dashed themselves. Finding a satisfying model for, well, everything, has proven difficult. But some amazing game design has come out of it. Games like Champions, Marvel, Mutants and Masterminds, and Masks are taking on the juggernaut genre, putting their own spin on it, and in the process inventing or re-inventing what it means to have fun in an RPG.
Supers is sort of the holy grail, because once you crack supers, you’ve cracked a lot of other genres as well. As long as people keep trying to make supers work in their games, everyone else benefits.
More than anything else, supers makes a world where it’s possible to say "yes" to whatever the players bring. A lot of character concepts can work. A lot of plots can work. Unique enemies and situations can be introduced. The price for all this flexibility is that it’s really hard to make a world that makes sense, and all too often this is a goal that’s thrown out.
But if the players are passionate about a particular idea, very often they’ll find a way to make it work, if you set expectations that things should make sense. And nothing gets a table going more than an idea that people are excited about.