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Sunday 8 July 2018

RPGPundit Reviews: Simple Superheroes

This is a review of the RPG "Simple Superheroes: The Roleplaying Game of Infinite Powers and Possibilities"; written by Joshua John Kitz, published by ComposeDreamGames.

As always I'm reviewing the print edition of the game, which is a softcover book, 118 pages long. The front cover features a fiery-caped sueprhero-type dude about to face some kind of strange crisis in the skies. The interior has sparse comic-book art, done in a combination of moderately-decent superhero-comic art, amateurish superhero-comic art, and funny-pages cartoon style humorous art.

I should also note that, I don't know if this was just my copy, and/or if this was intentional or not, but my copy came in a plastic poly bag that is highly reminiscent of comics themselves. It's even listed as "Issue #0".

I'm a very tough customer when it comes to Supers RPGs. There's basically only one I've ever really liked: ICONS.  Every other game seems to me to have failed to really effectively do emulation of genre. Simple Superheroes has a few things in common with ICONS, but also some significant differences. We'll have to see if it measures up.

The game jumps right in with character creation. How is this handled? Instead of random or point buy, you start out by selecting an "array" of abilities. That is to say, you can pick a set of numbers, one of which is standard, another is focused, the third is 'well rounded'. With these numbers, rather than attributes, you select 'talents'. The definition of 'talents' is pretty vague, but they're generally speaking powers or the different applications of powers or special techniques.
Based on these talents, the GM assigns a 'superpower finesse' rating, based on how many talents related to a particular kind of power they have. Your finesse rating affects how flexible your ability with a power is, and how far you can push it using 'strain' points (one of two health measurements, the other being 'lifepoints').

After this your character has to choose some relations (people they're connected to) and values (things they really care about), as well as a weakness.

The basic die mechanic for the game is to roll a number of d6 dice equal to the rating you have in a talent (which can range from 1 to 5). Every die rolled that equals or surpasses a difficulty number is considered a success. In other words, a dice pool system. Not my favorite.

Talents have certain descriptors that help clarify just what a power does. So for example a character could have '4-strength (mgt:f)' which means "4d super strength, might-based, functional".

The power levels of just what those 4d6 could do would depend on what tier of campaign play you are operating under. You can use "Vigilante", "Empowered", "planetary" or "cosmic" hero levels. Each of this represents a significant leap in power level from the earlier tier.

There's some guidelines for how to start playing the game, basic stuff really like figuring out a city where the PCs will be situated, etc. The game recommends playing in an episodic kind of format, with each adventure being an "issue".

There's an ample and detailed (15 page) section on task resolution, including pretty much most things you'd need to run stuff like conflict, complex challenges, extended conflicts, time, areas of effect, etc. The chapter after that deals with handling different powers, with guidelines (the designer warns to take these guidelines with a grain of salt) for different levels of ability in runinng, jumping, lifting, handling things like flight, teleportation, invisibility, mind control, technology, devices and gadgets, etc. There's a list of very basic statblocks for thugs, criminals, and police/paramilitary. Also for handling enemy groups like strike-forces.

The Gamemastering chapter starts rather badly, by talking about how an RPG is all about 'collaborating' with the players. But curiously the sections that follow are actually very traditional, for the most part. The GM is clearly marked as the judge who determines whether a talent can be used in any given situation. There is some vaguely storygamey elements like the idea that players can ask for things like "can my PC's friend be here" and the GM should then decide if they can be, but it's still clear the GM can say no. Guidelines are also provided for universe-building; including a set of questions for the GM to answer as a means to set up the world.

The following chapter is all about setting up your city and scenarios. It starts out with some pretty good questions to help flesh out the style and character of the city, including small details that help the place feel more real. Then you get a couple of sample cities to look at. You're also given the option of assigning 'traits' to cities to help quantify the state of things like institutions, socio-demographics, and industries. Then there are a few guidelines for creating scenarios. The whole idea is a bit more stratified than how I usually do things, but it's OK.

The next chapter includes a very long list of enemies and NPCs, including a group, a government organization, and lots of lone operators. This takes up the whole final section of the book, somewhere over 40 pages.

There's a long list of characters, but none of them are really all that interesting or memorable. Some are corny, others are observably inspired by known comic characters. This is a typical problem with Superhero games; the 'worlds' always feel like second-rate copies of the major Marvel/DC universes, unless they have gone radically different in style, in which case they suffer from the problem of not feeling enough like Marvel or DC.

I think cutting this last section at least in half, and including a bunch more useful adventuring material aside from NPCs could have been a good idea.

Anyways, to wrap things up: Simple Superheroes doesn't have anything terribly wrong with it. It just doesn't really do anything special either. It has mechanics that are a little different, but not really all that satisfactory in terms of dealing with the major issues of Supers RPG, of making it work so that you can have batman be as awesome as superman, and more awesome than Power Girl, while at the very same time making sure beast boy isn't nearly as awesome as Superman or Batman.

In other words, the problem that in terms of emulation of genre for mainstream supers, your power has to matter less than some kind of ephemeral protagonism.

Ultimately, Simple Supers is maybe a little closer to this than very stat-oriented rules-heavy conflict-based superhero games like Champions or Mutants & Masterminds, which always feel to me like they utterly miss the point.
But on the other hand, it's not as good as ICONS, which still comes the closest to what I would want in a supers RPG.

So should you get it? Well, maybe if for some reason ICONS doesn't do it for you, and neither do those other games, you may want to give it a look, and something about Simple Superheroes might click for you. But if you do like ICONS, you aren't too likely to like this game better.


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