Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Problems with Actually Running Supers Games

Looking at this post over on Barking Alien where he points out all the awesomeness of supers RPG's it made me start to think a little more about why that genre isn't more popular. I mean I have a pretty strong attatchment to it but even I haven't run an ongoing supers campaign in years. Why not? I blame the players...

1) Throw out a "Let's play supers" at a let's-play-something-session to start a new campaign and people tend to be a little fuzzy. Some start seeing Justice League, some start seeing 1980's Avengers comic books, some see the X-Men movie, and some are going to see The Tick cartoon or Mystery Men or even TMNT. Compare this to "Let's play D&D" (where the only questions are which edition and what setting) or "Let's play Star Wars" (Which era?) and you have a laser-like focus and clarity in comparison. Supers is mushy. Probably not as mushy as Science Fiction (Starships? Robots? Lasers? Cynernetics? Post-Apocalyptic? Time Travel?) but it's a suggestion that requires a fair amount of further explanation - Silver Age? Four-Color? Tights and capes or leather/goretex? Straight or ironic? Black and White or Shades of Gray? Planetary scale adventure or street level vigilantes? Cinematic or realistic? If you're lucky this discussion involves an entire group and settles on something that everyone likes pretty quickly. If you're not  lucky then everyone wants to do something different and no one can agree on enough to actually put together a campaign. I've seen the latter happen more often than the former.

2) It's goofy - tights and capes are the most common form and it takes a certain amount of security in oneself to play Captain Tremendous and especially to speak in character, and especially especially to do it in a public place. It doesn't make a whole lot of sense, but people seem to be a lot twitchier about this than they do about playing an elf or a paladin in the same sense. Maybe there's an unconscious role-playing element in many people's heads where it's OK to play yourself as a Ranger or Wizard but people feel like they have to stretch more to play Stupendous Man and they shy away from the opportunity.

3) The tremendous flexibility blows many people's minds - it is an awesomely open type of game - magic, robots, alien invasions, atlanteans, greek gods, space stations - pretty much anything is fair game for this kind of game, so people don't know what to expect. Clarification: They do know what to expect as far as their character, but they do not know what to expect that they will be doing so much ala D&D, Star Trek, and Call of Cthulu and that goes back to the lack of focus and clarity I mentioned above. People tend to like to know what they're going to play and with Supers there is more unknown than in many other types of games.

4) It's for kids - despite all the graphic novels and movies and "maturation" of the genre over the last 20-30 years a lot of people still equate superheroes with kids and kid stuff. Less so than in previous decades but it's still a factor. D&D has been around long enough and has been well-known enough, and Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter, and World of Warcraft have also helped make fantasy more mainstream. Star Trek, Star Wars and a bunch of other movies and books and shows have made science fiction pretty mainstream. Supers still lags behind.

5) It's more effort - thinking up, constructing, and then playing a superhero takes quite a bit more effort than "Roll these three dice 6 times, write it down, pick a race and a class, jot down your equipment, and then let's go" or even "pick a template" ala Shadwrun and Torg and others. Unless using a random roll system there's a lot of creative brain exercise involved in making a hero and sometimes after a day at work players would rather not invest that heavily in it. Just look at something like Champions where to build a character you need to decide on hunteds, dependent NPC's, psychological limitations, and physical vulnerabiolities and limitations - that's a darn sight more involved than "neutral good sword and board human fighter". It's a deepr level of thought than a lot of players want to put in when sitting down for a game

Now none of these are reasons not to play the game. They are just some brainstorming and reflections on why there seem to be more barriers to this sort of game. In the end I don't know why superhero games aren't more popular, but maybe if some of us consider these kinds of things when bringing them up we can find a way to push past them.


Adam Dickstein said...

Good bye Blacksteel! Me couldn't agree more with you my bad enemy. You are so right I will not put a post on Barking Alien explaining why this is all true. Hello!

Signed, Bizarro Adam #1

Kidding aside, I have found my experiences to be so opposite of what you describe here that I really feel I need to talk about it in another post.

Until very recently, the Strat Group, our little gaming club that plays at our FLGS 'The Compleat Strategist', consisted of the following campaigns (none of which were run or played in by me as my schedule has conflicted):

The 1st Saturday of Every Month - Pathfinder
The 2nd Saturday of Every Month - Mutants & Masterminds 2nd Ed.
The 3rd Saturday of Every Month - Aberrant.
The 4th Saturday of Every Month - RIFTS.

So 2 out of 4 RPG campaigns at our FLGS are Supers related. I am running Champions with a seperate group. The first long term campaign I ran at the Compleat Strategist was M&M 2nd Ed. One of the players in that game usually can't make it to the Strat on Saturdays anymore because he's in a game in Queens (one of New York's outer boroughs) of Heroes Unlimited.

Supers is THE genre other than Fantasy being played in NYC as far as I can tell. Certainly there are more Supers gamers than Traveller or Gamma World gamers.

The factors you describe are legitimite and I am not saying they don't exist and aren't hurdles. What I am surprised about is that these hurdles have more pull or impact then all the advantages of gaming in a Supers universe.

For example, you note that 'hunteds, dependent NPCs, psychological limitations, and physical vulnerabilities and limitations - that's a darn sight more involved than "neutral good sword and board human fighter". Is it? Is it really? I've never spoken to anyone about what a given alignment means and had two people give me the same answer. Meanwhile, that guy there stole the Hope Diamond. He's a 'Bad Guy'. I aim to stop him and return it. I'm a 'Good Guy'. Too complex?

Also, that's Champions. When I think medieval fantasy I could always imagine Rolemaster or Chivalry & Sorcery but I don't. I imagine the one that works for me (My homebrew D&D-But-Not, Ars Magica or Faery's Tale Deluxe usually). Do the same for Supers. While not my thing, the Marvel FASERIP RPG had none of that. Neither did Villains & Vigilantes.

Bottom line, if you don't have a Supers oriented crew of players, Supers ain't gonna work. 'Nuff Said. But if they're willing to give it a shot you can easily build the Supers game that works for them. Check my site for the notes on FIENDish and THE BIG ONE. Both were designed for my NJ group, who don't read Superhero comics.

Blacksteel said...

Hey BA, remember I don't necessarily think this way, this is stuff I've heard in person or seen in some online discussions that I wanted to ponder a bit.

Plus this is all your fault - you asked in one of your comments why people didn't play/run them more, and my little brain ran off down that track to try and find some answers.

The alignment thing - no, people don't always agree on the details but it's a convenient shorthand - pick one of these 9 labels and that's kind of how you act and helps determine who hates you -it's pretty much picking a team and that's about it in a lot of ways. Champs disads are a cluster of unrelated decisions. FASERIP had the Karma thing which was much easier for players to grasp, V&V had alignments or sides or something IIRC, and M&M 3 moves away from this too, but even these systems require some thought. About the only time this kind of thing came up in most old D&D games was when the Paladin came close to an alignment violation - no one else typically cared.

Like I said I tried to push a Supers game for years with the previous incarnation of my main group and could never close the deal. After the group "reorganized" the first thing we started playing was Necessary Evil, and I was very happy.

Adam Dickstein said...

I want you to know I am on your side. I am just surprised by the lack of Supers love you and many others seem to experience. Frankly, I'm just as surprised that Fantasy gets so much attention but that's just me.

I think that with many games and genres outside of D&D and fantasy, there is a perception of them being too deep or complicated that is largely unfair (and again I am not saying you personally see it that way but a large group of gamers seem to see it that way). Any genre can be made as simple or complex as need be. You can play Supers with RISUS. You can play Fantasy with RISUS. It's not all that different.

I do find it interesting to note that you said Champions Disads are a cluster of unrelated decisions. That's odd to me. I see them as a cluster of highly related discussions. Unlike random rolls or picking which feat gives you the best chances in a fight, you actually need an overall idea of the character you want to create in Champions so that they are effective AND make sense. That's just IMO of course.

An interesting discussion to be sure.

Blacksteel said...

You're not hurting my feelings man. This kind of talky thing is why I do this some days.

The disads are unrelated in the sense that they are not mechanically tied together like say, alignment & class or rolling a random bad nutation in Gamma World. Ideally they are tied into a concept, but a new player sitting down to pick them can pick a DNPC because he likes that idea, pick a psych limit because he likes the point values for it ("I get points for code of honor?"), then take a susceptibility to green space rocks as an homage - there's nothing forcing them down a certain path or guiding them in any particular way outside of their own wishes. An open sandbox or a blank piece of paper is intimidating to people sometimes. One of D&D's strengths is the "guided" character generation. This can become quite limiting if you do walk in the door with a particular concept, but when you have no idea it's good to have something to fall back on. Most Supers type games do not have this although M&M does have its Archetypes which are quite handy.

As to the general interest level I am not totally sure. D&D is still the gateway for a lot of people and I have had players in my group who were not keen on playing anything besides D&D. That's a problem and after running for her a few years I kind of took it as an insult - don't you trust me to run something fun after all this time? On the other side of the spectrum I think a certain percentage of the old Vampire crowd just isn't ever going to take it seriously (and they need it to be serious) so you're losing whatever percentage that is of the second biggest player origin story. For the Rifts crowd we don't have enough pictures of guns, for the GURPS crowd our rules are too simple, for the FUDGE crowd our rules are too complicated, and for the die-hard Trek fans we spend too much time focusing on combat ; )

neonecromancer said...

I have a very hard time getting anyone to play anything other than fantasy. The only other thing that I can get people to play is a zombie apocalypse and the occasional pulp game.
People just seem to have this idea that supers, sci-fi and even modern games are just too difficult. I'm not sure why but it's like pulling teeth to get players to get out of the comfort zone of sword and sorcery. Add to that I can barely get any group I've played with over the past decade to leave the d20 system and it just compounds the problem.

Blacksteel said...

I've seen that too - anything outside of D&D was a tough sell for some members of my group, and anything not d20 was a tough sell to another subset. I thought M&M might solve that problem, but even it was too different to break through. The best I could do was a 6 month run with Shadowrun, and only because I promised in advance to restart a prior D&D campaign after the 6-month run. It was cool (and my die-hard D&Der had a blast) but it didn't seem to have any permanent effect ad far as breaking the D&D/D20 hold on them.

Adam Dickstein said...

Different experiences.

When I started, D&D didn't quite have the stranglehold on the hobby it has had for so long. Also, while some of us were definitely fans of fantasy and a lot of us were science fiction fans, almost everyone I knew read comic books.

Star Trek and Superheroes were an easier sell in those days as their wasn't much fantasy stuff on TV or in the movies compared to the other two genres.

Theron said...

As a long-time supers GM (20+ years of Champions campaigns), I do feel that supers requires a higher level of buy-in from players and GMs than other genres, if only to get on the same page stylistically.

Some years ago, I played in an awesome Champions campaign that lasted for several years. Everyone was what Aaron Allston called "Genre Fiends," and we all shared a pretty common frame of reference when it came to comics and our tastes in same. When that group ran into some problems and the campaign ended, I tried to put a new one together, recruiting some of my old group and adding in some new folks I'd created online.

It was a disaster. And in looking back, I came to the realization that a lot of the blame fell on me as the GM for wrongly assuming the new group would have the same levels of buy-in and genre understanding my previous group had. As a result, I had a player who really couldn't understand that something from a video game called Solid Snake wasn't really a superhero, and I got blank stares from half the table (and knowing grins from the other half) when I described something as "A Thor's hammer pendant designed by Jack Kirby."

I had a similarly bad experience when I joined a game with a guy who claimed to be running 4-color supers but was really playing "Cybergeneration" with Champions rules. The rest of his group knew what he was going for, and I just couldn't get past the cognitive dissonance.

I've run and played in plenty of successful supers games over the years. It just takes a bit more care and groundwork in setting things up from the outset.

Theron said...

"...and adding in some new folks I'd created online."

I can't believe I typed that. I meant encountered online. Clearly, I need more caffeine this morning.

Blacksteel said...

I can see the awesomeness of having a group that's really into comics ready to play a Champions campaign. I can also see the crushing disappointment with that next (and far more common IME) group. I suppose player buy-in can be an issue with almost any genre, really. Especially if you're dealing with a group that mainly plays one thing or one particular game ONLY.

"Cybergeneration with Champions rules" - LOL, that's a weird way to go. Did he just like d6's more than d10's?

Theron said...

Re: Cybergeneration with Champions rules:

I don't know. Honestly, he fell into the trap I've seen a lot of older supers gamers succumb to: neither the GM nor any of the regular players (my wife and I were both new to the established group) had actually read a superhero comic in years. Or watched an episode of Batman: the Animated Series, Superman, or Justice League. They might have seen the X-Men and Spider-Man movies. Maybe.

Basically, they had allowed themselves to get so far from the source material, they were no longer playing superhero games, but what a friend of mine referred to as "superhero-shaped games." On the surface, Cybergeneration is about teenagers with cool powers. By some metrics (not mine) that makes it a supers game.

At least, that's the best I could figure out. It remains the only campaign I ever bowed out of in mid-session.

Blacksteel said...

I'd say it's not that uncommon. I think one could make the case that what a lot of us really mean is a comic-book style game, not just a "Supers" game which is probably a broader type than we really think it is. I bet at least 10X more people saw Captain America this weekend than have read a Captain America Comic book in the last 5 years, adults OR kids. The cartoons do make a difference (Mighty Avengers is very cool, Justice League was very cool too) but the big movies tend to have a different flavor than comics or cartoons and can lead to broken expectations.