Superheroes and supervillains are experiencing a massive boom in films at the moment, so I’m sure that everyone reading this knows what they are – but knowing it and defining it are two different things.
For the sake of this post I’m going to make a list of the key features that I consider to define a supers setting. The genre, like all genres, is somewhat fluid – and as such half of these elements may be missing in something that is still recognisably a supers setting, but more than that and you’re definitely outside the genre.
- Unique Powers:
- Within a supers universe there is a tendency to have 1-3 characters with any given power set. There may be a whole species, or a large organisation, with a particular set of abilities (such as Kryptonians, Atlanteans or Green Lanterns) but if so the vast majority will either be dead or absent.
- If it is a large supers setting there may well be tens of thousands of powered individuals – but repeats will still remain rare.
- Occasionally this rule will be broken for villains (a whole army of individuals with one power set may exist) but not for heroes, and the villains who have repeated powers will generally have only 1 or 2 “face” characters among them, the rest remaining in the background as a faceless mob.
- Even super-geniuses each have a unique power – they can only occasionally understand each others tech and even if they are capable of reproducing it they never will. Some settings justify this through the mechanics of their superpowers (i.e. Parahumans with its Tinkertech that requires constant supernatural maintenance) while others handwave it with personality – in Marvel many of the supergeniuses could replicate each others work, but the heroes wouldn’t steal ideas like that, and thus only the villains of a given hero will copy that heroes work.
- Public Existence:
- Supers settings don’t have a “masquerade” as is found in Urban Fantasy – the world knows that supers exist, although some specific individuals may maintain their anonymity.
- Supers have two identities – one mundane name under which they live most of their life, and the other a “cape name” which they use when throwing around their world-shaking powers.
- Even those supers who aren’t trying to keep their real identities hidden will still have some form of pseudonym assigned, such as Aquaman, Black Panther or Professor X.
- Occasionally supers who are incapable of hiding their “secret identity” will choose only one name, and stick with it, but in such cases it is almost universally the mundane name that is dropped, and the super pseudonym that is kept (see for instance the Morlocks in Marvel)
- The separation of civilian and super identities may be deliberately declared sacrosanct (as in the Parahumans web serial) or it may function only when successfully protected (as in DC universe).
- Individuals make the world:
- Though far from unique to the supers genre, it is a definite aspect of it that powerful individuals, or small teams of up to 10 people, will save the world repeatedly.
- Outside of the largest supers universes (where remaining parallel to the real world over eight decades has taken its toll on realism) the supers generally shape the world too, making large-scale social and technological changes.
- It isn’t uncommon for supers to end up ruling regions of the world – although more traditional supers universes restrict this to either villains or, strangely, hereditary god-kings.
- Can’t Kill The Cash Cow
- Superheroes almost always have a very strong code against killing – or at least limiting in what circumstances they can kill – allowing for villains to constantly return without overworking the revolving door of the afterlife.
- Modern Day Default
- While Fantasy defaults to a medieval/renaissance mashup, Superheroes exist in the modern day.
So what are the pros and cons for Supers RPGs?
- Small groups making a big impact by punching things is perfect for adventure and/or “Monster of the Week” roleplaying stories.
- The sheer variety of character possibilities tends to mean there’s something for everyone – whether they want to gain wall-crawling abilities from their radioactive blood, be able to heal any wound in minutes, or stretch their limbs to ridiculous extents.
- Superheroes combine well with other genres: As long as you’re not in a Kitchen-Sink fantasy setting the appearance of people with unique supernatural talents is likely to shake things up in a new way – gritty war stories, fantastical space adventures, and high school drama can all be spiced up with superpowers.
- Character generation tends to get complicated when you need to be able to represent anything (whether it be a telepathic king from beneath the waves, a super-skilled martial artist with power armour, a little boy who can gain supernatural wisdom by being hit by lightning or an alien sun-god with freezing cold breath) in a single system.
- Pre-written adventure modules rarely work with custom characters, as no obstacle is guaranteed to actually be an obstacle – a mithril wall might block one group completely, be blown up by another, walked through [literally] by a member of the third, while the fourth group teleports straight into the center of the base and never sees it.
Quirks (not quite pro, or con)
- The accepted defaults of the genre – the Marvel&DC multiverses – have some absolutely massive, and well acknowledged, holes in their foundations. This makes deconstructions and reconstructions a rich vein for unusual variations – but can make it harder to play the setting straight with more cynical players.
- The secret identities of a group of heroes by default aren’t also a group of friends – limiting roleplaying of the civilian aspect of characters lives. However, this is only a default and many exceptions exist in the fiction, so having your group be an exception is easy