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Friday, 7 August 2015

10th Anniversary Classic Rant: the Catch-22 of Superhero Settings

Settings: one of the critical things that constitutes yet another "damned if you do, damned if you don't" scenarios for Supers RPGs is the question of settings.

If your setting is something like the Legion (supers, but in the far future or not on earth), or the "first supers of the world", or something along those lines, then you have a built-in cop-out. But otherwise, as a supers DM you'd have three options:
1. Use an existing "comic" universe: DC, Marvel, etc.
2. Create your own generic "comic" universe, that is basically anything between inspired-by all the way to "blatant rip-off of" the DC/Marvel type universe.
3. Create your own comic universe but one that is radically different from the existing ones.

If you choose number 1; you have the problem that your heroes will always feel like second stringers compared to the big hitters (Superman, Batman, Thor, Wolverine); there's simply no way that they'll be as cool, as interesting, as central to the universe itself, because those niches are all filled. Of course, you can have your players actually get to play the setting-supers themselves, but then you get a whole other bag of worms: everything from two different players fighting over who gets to be Green Lantern, to players claiming that the stats for the heroes as you/the game presented them is wrong because there's no way that Killowog could be a better Green Lantern than Guy Gardner because episode #883 of "Green Lantern Comics" said so, to the guy playing Batman deciding that it would be "really cool" if Batman went nuts and started killing people or the guy playing Superman decides that he's going to take over the world or dump Lois Lane and start going after Black Canary because the player always thought Black Canary was totally hotter.. etc etc ad nauseum. Its a recipe for disaster.

If you choose number 2: your game world can't possibly be as cool as the DC or the Marvel Universe. Those universes have the appeal that they are the familiar worlds of the heroes we know from our infancy. A good example of this is in some of the "worlds" created for the Supers RPGs themselves; M&M's "Freedom City" for example. I've been passed a copy of the new Freedom City sourcebook, and it is intense. Its great. Its got all the classic memes of hero settings, and they did a bang up job of writing it up.
And you know what? I spent the whole fucking time reading the thing saying: "yea, that's obviously Wonder Woman, that's Green Arrow, that's the Skrull, those are the Kree, that's the X-men; they're all here, only less cool". They're cheap knock-offs. So Freedom City, for all its brilliant design, comes out to be a world of cheap knock-offs of all the heroes and themes we already know.

As for number 3: well, how far can you go from the standard themes and still really be playing a Superhero game? What's more, which of these variations can you think of that will be both cool, playable and not be done before? I mean, ripping off Watchmen, or ripping off Rising Stars, or ripping off Mohammed Ali's Anti-Tooth-Decay Champions is no better than ripping off DC or Marvel.

I don't really have a good solution to all this. My own Legion game has the advantage of being the Legion: its set IN the DC universe, tied absolutely to the DC universe, but the setting is a 1000 years divorced from most of the DC universe, so that players and the DM both have a lot more freedom without having to try to jam square pegs in round holes. I decided that the players would basically play their own interpretations of Legion characters (ie. player x is "lightning lad", with lightning lad's same powers, origins, and basic traits but the player will get to decide what LL acts like or does from then on, bound only by the conventions of the Legion Constitution and heroic memes), which is far easier to do than letting your players try to handle their own interpretations of, say, Avengers or the Justice League.

There is one thing that I could advise people if they set out to create their own "supers" universe: one of the things that is often overlooked in trying to emulate the genre is the question of consistency. Most DMs will by default try to create the most consistent world setting possible, but in Supers games this is actually counter-productive. In the universe of DC or Marvel, the world is a big sloshing mess where lots of inconsistencies, multiple origin stories, overlapping metaphysics, altered history, etc. all exist. Trying to make your setting perfectly consistent is actually going to make it feel LESS like the comics.


(Originally posted July 25, 2006)


  1. You present this as if Marvel and DC are the only super hero publishers that have ever been. Frankly they both have sucked for decades now but even when they didn't suck, I still had no interest in (1) playing homemade heroes in their settings, (2) playing DC/Marvel heroes, or (3) imitating the settings in a homemade universe. Much more interesting to take ideas from Mighty Comics, Gold Key, Harvey, Tower, et al. Take the elements you like and discard the rest. No one ever seemed to long for shitty DC and Marvel heroes and ideas. Maybe you should revisit this post after playing again without referencing DC or Marvel.

  2. It's interesting to me that the ideas for superhero universes you list as "cop-outs" (first superheroes, far future, or alien world) are clearly by far the best option for the settings. An alternate take on the "first superheroes" universe would be the "first superheroes in a long time" universe where the current group of superheroes were entering a world where there hadn't been any since World War II or the sixties or whatever, barring one or two who avoided the disaster but maybe had died of old age. Of course a couple of perfect settings for the "first heroes" version are World War II, the '60s, or the near or far future, so doing your original "cop-out" ideas would likely get a lot of use out of those settings too. Running sequential campaigns, one in WWII, one in the '60s, and one in modern day, can give your universe an organic lived in feeling that might not happen just from aping existing heroes.

    As for the "based on comics" approach, you can probably get a little more traction with this by severely limiting the characters you use before you create similar analogues or "file off the names, serial numbers, and other identifying marks or what have you. Some good possibilities to limit yourself with to avoid the "seems like Marvel" - "seems like DC" problem would be:

    1. Only use characters who first appeared within a certain narrow range of dates as your models for your own characters: If you want to do this, you could have a "Marvel Universe analogue" where your pastiches of the Fantastic Four, Spider-Man, the Hulk, Ant-Man and maybe Thor are running around but no one else. It'd still feel like the Marvel Universe, but the lack of certain characters would likely make it seem fresher, especially once the players' characters, and your own NPC heroes, bystanders, and villains populate a sparsely populated superhero world.

  3. Continued:

    2. Bring in characters from both Marvel and DC: again, limit who you use, so you might have late sixties or early sixties cartoons form the basis of your universe, which has just the Fantastic Four, Spider-Man, and the Super Friends (Superman, Batman, Robin, Wonder Woman, and Aquaman) or again, your similar creations. Familiar, yet a different universe. Another option, first put forth by Matt Stater on his blog "THE LAND OF NOD" (in a post called the League of Groovy Gentlemen and Ladies) is to use superhero TV series as your only source of characters to ape: in the fifties (and maybe the forties if you want), Superman, in the sixties, Batman, Robin, Green Hornet, and Kato, in the seventies, you add Wonder Woman and Captain America (possibly both returning from their Nazi fighting days, or Cap as the son of said Nazi fighter), along with Spider-Man, the Hulk, and Dr. Strange. The universe is a little sparse on bad guys (except for Batman's), so you'll probably do a little work there too.

    3. Don't use Marvel or DC as your starting point. You can create your own different characters (Jeff Dee certainly did this in Villains and Vigilantes), or even just mimic a stranger source, like non Comic Hanna Barbera and Filmation Cartoon characters of the sixties and seventies. If your Superhero Universe is populated solely with Birdman, Blue Falcon and Dog Wonder (Dynomutt), Super Stretch and Micro Woman, and Manta and Moray, with Space Ghost and the Galaxy Trio as the off-world contingent, you've got a very different place than the typical superhero universe. (You could even add the created for TV Superfriends - or your recreations of them - Apache Chief, Black Vulcan, El Dorado and Samurai, if the universe feels too sparse.)

    An alternate version of this would be to use only the characters of a different (preferably defunct) comics company or two, as Matt suggests, to make the heroes more surprising. With Watchmen existing, the Charlton Heroes - which would otherwise be perfect, might seem too immediately identifiable even in disguise but using the Red Circle / Archie superheroes, Neal Adams Continuity comics from the '80s, Comico's heroes also from the '80s - setting the Justice Machine on Earth initially instead of another world, or updates from one of the many many defunct '40s era comic publishers would work great as a starting point to create characters.

    Even better than all of this is to start with some (very) limited inspiration or source material for your first NPC heroes and villains and then throw your own into the mix. It wouldn't take too many creations of your own before the universe seems like your own rather than just a copy of some existing universe.

    Also, a final idea (cribbed from the '80s Squadron Supreme limited series from Marvel): for fictional cities, Gotham or Metropolis style, don't just rename the cities, rename every freaking state. Everyone could still be an American if you want, living in the good old U.S. of A (of course there's no reason you couldn't set your campaign in any other country - real, fictional, or in-between too), but with changes in names and history that make it feel new.

  4. Sorry about the length of both posts!

    *emoticon indicating appropriate emotion*

  5. No apologies necessary, those are all worthwhile ideas.

  6. Sorry for coming in late but I think there's a difference between creating a universe (which is what GMs do) and having one emerge. No one ever consciously created the Marvel or DC universes - rather they created characters with often wildly inconsistent origins and stories and only later figured out how they fit together. They weren't designed, they evolved. So by the time all the disparate parts came together, each part had a history which made the whole work despite all the inconsistencies. If you try to build something like that from scratch it becomes blindingly obvious the parts don't fit together. We buy Batman and Superman working together because we've seen it for so long. Try to do it with pastiches and the problems become a lot more obvious. The one game system that came closest in my opinion was V&V and that was due to the random character generation system. "He's an alien plant creature sorcerer. She's a cyborg ninja with claustrophobia due to early childhood trauma. Together they fight crime as V&V heroes!" Basically, generate a lot of random characters and let apophenia do the rest.

    If on the other hand you're actually creating a universe you're better off trying to be consistent. That doesn't preclude superheroes. The Wild Cards series and Buffy/Angel tv shows both created relatively consistent and successful superhero universes. Marvel's cinematic universe is also relatively consistent - powers come from super-science, either alien or human. The Arrow/Flash universe also has a consistent background for superpowers. Bear in mind both those franchises were stuck using B-Listers, so they couldn't rely on the draw of their most iconic characters. Neither is the classic version but both have a distinct and interesting superhero vibe. The key is trying to come up with a reason for super powers and then playing with the implications. That can give you something distinctive that still has a superhero feel.