Genre: Supers (Superheroes, Supervillains and Supercivilians)

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.

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. Pseudonyms:
    • 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).
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. 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?

Pros

  • 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.

 

Cons

  • 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
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Genre: Cyberpunk And Friends

The best known book in the genre is probably Neuromancer by William Gibson, and barring a few glaring anachronisms (in either this book or its sequel Count Zero, someone tries to sell “three megs of hot RAM”) it still stands up as a damn good book. The roots go back much further, though, to the sci fi of the 60s and 70s, perhaps even as far back as The Stars My Destination by Alfred Bester, from 1957 (also an excellent book, if a little dated, incidentally).

Cyberpunk is a genre characterized by a dystopian society, huge wealth inequality, and large amounts of technology – usually body modification and computer technology. Protagonists tend to be outsiders, fighting the megacorporations, all-powerful AIs and corrupt law enforcement for the little guy. Often these heroes are using scrounged together tech and stolen weapons to fight overwhelming odds and somehow coming out the other side through a combination of skill, luck and panache. There is also usually a lot of neon and chrome.

This makes it a great genre for roleplaying in. Much of the genre plays it straight, varying names of megacorporations and specifics of technology available in much the same way as classic fantasy will vary the names of kings and magics available. But one of the most popular blends this with classic fantasy to create a setting where megacorporations employ elven mages to fight anarchist shamans while expert hackers go toe to toe in the matrix and orc street samurai wade into battle with a katana in one hand a and a shotgun in the other (okay, that was kinda my last character) – that game is Shadowrun. I love the setting but the system… well the system not so much. Recently, though, I played a Shadowrun Anarchy campaign which worked far better than the standard version, and the computer games, Shadowrun Returns, Shadowrun Dragonfall and Shadowrun Hong Kong capture the feel of the world rather well (well I’ve not played the third one yet, but I have a copy).

Variants

Much as the cyberpunk ethos encourages tearing technology apart to build something new, so the genre has been torn apart and rebuilt to create many variants, all helpfully identified by the suffix “-punk”. Generally they maintain a dystopian future and a punk attitude, but the nature of the technology and the emergent threats change.

Magic-punk is where technology is replaced with magic – gigantic magical machines power everything, often magic can be almost coded like a computer, and personal augmentation may be replaced by daemonic – and often demonic – summoning and possession. This hews closer to classic fantasy than Shadowrun, which is definitely a cyberpunk system despite the heavy influence of magic.

Dieselpunk is not, as you may guess, a setting in which everything is powered by Vin Diesel, but rather one where the technology being hacked is more likely to be cars and trucks and the most valuable resources are likely to be fuel and water. The most famous example is probably Mad Max.

Steampunk started out as a kind of retro-Victorian variant of the genre in which all the amazing technology was powered by that latest of inventions the steam engine. It has since taken on a  life of its own however and become genre and style involving an awful lot of brass cogs!

Transhumanism

Transhumanism is kind of a special case of a variant. While cyberpunk focuses more on the technology, transhumanism is more philosophical and asks the questions “What is human?” and “how far can we alter a person before they stop being a person and become something else?” These questions are not unique to transhumanism, of course, but it places them front and centre.

Transhumanists take ideas to their logical conclusion –  If you replace a leg or an arm then a person is still a person, but what happens if you replace more? The heart, the sensory organs, the brain? If the brain can be mapped, then can it be modelled in a powerful enough computer? If so is that computer a person? If you copy someone’s brain is the copy the same person? How about if you then download that brain into a new body? What if it’s an entirely robotic body?

These and more questions are clearly very very hard to answer and don’t obviously lend themselves to a roleplaying game so much as a discussion down the pub! So the most popular game in the genre, Eclipse Phase, hews back towards cyberpunk with powerful corporations and evil AIs to fight, and revolutionary politics to foster that conflict, but those corporations are not megacorps, they’re smaller and more agile than that, and the AIs are hyper-intelligent beyond human comprehension, and have fled for reasons unknown.

The Future

So is cyberpunk the future? I hope not – the technology is pretty cool, and the style is certainly striking, but the dystopian inequality and constant threat of violence for those on the fringes is less promising. Personally I’d like to skip past all that and just upload my mind to the internet!

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Genres: Fantasy

This month, because we’re working on all-new Setting Shards, this blog is all about genre. What we play, what we read, and what the smeg is it? [Ste Note: Appropriately enough, my brother considers Red Dwarf fantasy – rather than sci-fi. He even commissioned a Red Dwarf themed card for the fantasy Concept Cards deck…]

In one sense, genre is a fiction (see what I did there?) It’s trying to put games (or books, or films, or whatever) into categories. Creative types usually hate being pigeonholed. There are three kinds of people who like genre-lising. People trying to understand creative works – academics and critics. People who are trying to file creators – publishers who can talk about ‘fantasy authors’ or cinema owners who screen ‘arthouse films’ And people trying to sell you something similar to what you already like – “customers who bought this also looked at …”

But as with so much creative, it’s quite hard to fit things neatly into boxes. This month we’re going to try to sketch in the edges of some big genre classifications; look at games that fit, and ones that don’t quite; and talk about why using genres might actually help you play – whether it’s to help find new games, or new material for the ones you’ve already got (*cough* Shards *cough*cough*)

We figured fantasy goes first, because DnD. It’s probably the oldest RPG; certainly the most heavily marketed; and probably the widest played. Therefore DnD in all its myriad variants has come to define the industry. (I, like anyone with sense, am going to exclude Spelljammer, which is DnD In Space) So fantasy is a place to begin.

But how to define fantasy? The classic core is medieval tech level, with magic; and featuring elves and dwarves, and probably some races one could describe as ‘touched’ – beastkin, nephilim (half -angels), affriti (fire-blessed), whatever. Yet almost every example world I can think of breaks some of that, some of the time. I’m going to start by excluding the whole sub-genre of urban fantasy, because Amy wants to talk about that later. Cyber-punk-fantasy is a rule unto itself (magiopunk?) becuase you have to detail the interaction between magic and technology.

I’ve played not-medieval – the swashbuckling Lace of Steel, and both Fate and WOD adaptations in Ancient Rome. I’ve heard good things about a Norman era LRP, and hope to crew a Mag-eolithic era one (Stone Age with a few magical exceptions). I’ve played mostly-human Ars Magica. My major LRP has only two races – humans and orcs.

Whatever medium we’re looking at, it probably isn’t fantasy without magic – and yet Philip Pullman’s Dark Materials manages to have a parallel pseudo-science that fills the same narrative role. Even seemingly-middle-of-the-genre Game of Thrones has very little actual magic. Whether you consider the arts of the magisters to be magic rather depends on whether you subscribe to Clarke’s definition – ‘Magic’s just science that we don’t understand yet.’ Magisters feel like scientists, so I’m going with the theory _they_ understand what they’re doing, even if we don’t.

GoT has dragons and undead, and a few clerical healing effects – but not much in the fireball and lightning department. Much of the supernatural is attributed to Gods – but is the distinction between magic and the divine that clear cut?

On the subject of Gods, there probably are some. Rare is the fantasy world without some kind of divine influence – whether that be a paladin’s Lay On Hands; or a demigod hero. Mythology is a whole sub-genre, and contains gems such as Nephilim – lovely ideas, system is a contender for Worst Ever; In Nomine, which was apparently written in response to Jack Chick; and Mazes & Minotaurs, which I keep meaning to play, since I hear good things about it.

I think the problem I’m running into here is why do we bother? Fantasy – stripped of elves and dragons – is about people.We can look through young Garion’s eyes as a mere kitchen hand, and see a what-if world – if lifting things were just a levitate spell away, what use cranes? Why, in a world where a low-level cleric can Create Food and Water, are there still people going hungry? If you had the power to summon lightning with a few words, what would you do with that power? And our stories become about characters and their actions – so, no different to historical or scifi or romance.

Fantasy’s easier than most genres to be a Big Damn Hero in. This RealLife LRP is really hard to make any meaningful influence on – all the best plots are hoovered up by the GM’s mates. But fantasy games allow us to be the hero – warrior or wizard – because if you’ve just saved the kingdom from a dragon, the king looks a bit underwhelming. But best leave him to get on with the boring bits like feeding everyone and opening schools; you’ve got a new evil to conquer.

We might head off to space; we might spend a while being super, we might even dip a toe into eldritch horror. But we come back to fantasy because it’s heroic, it’s familiar, and it’s darned fun. Excuse me, I’m going to go dip into my bookshelves. Which, by the way, I’ve just acquired more of. What should I fill the gaps with?

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