Lately, my podcast co-host Sean has been deep-diving into the world of Superhero roleplaying games. He has picked up and purchased a number of supers RPG both in print and PDF.
I’ve been curious to know what he thought of these games and more importantly what makes each of these superhero RPGs stand out from the rest, so back on Episode 125 of The Tabletop Bellhop Gaming Podcast: Super, Capes and Metas, I asked Sean about the supers games he’s been reading.
In this article, I will be recapping what he had to share.
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We talked all about Superhero RPGs on our Podcast
This topic is based on an Ask The Bellhop segment from episode 125 of The Tabletop Bellhop Gaming Podcast where I asked Sean to tell me all about the superhero RPGs he’s been reading.
It ends up that he’s been reading a lot more supers RPGs than I originally thought, so he decided to highlight nine of the most interesting games he’s discovered recently.
In addition, Sean also highlighted why he’s been so into superhero RPGs lately. His supers RPG love comes from a lifelong love of comic books as a medium and the types of stories that have been told in popular comics.
At one time he was part of a local comic book club hosted by the Windsor Public Library and he never really stopped reading comics, particularly enjoying superhero comics. This includes the big boys of both Marvel and DC as well as Image, Dark Horse, Valliant and more.
Sean is currently running an online Masks: A New Generation campaign but constantly seeking out, reading, and mining other superhero RPGs for ideas and inspiration for his current game. At the same time, he’s also looking for other systems to potentially try out once this Masks game is done.
When looking at supers RPGs one of the biggest struggles in managing supers at the game table is relative power. This is one of the main ways that different RPGs handle things in different ways.
We’ve found that there are three ways of handling power level in superheroic RPGs.
- Limit your scope. The game should have methods to make sure that all of the characters are all about the same strength and face foes at around the same power level. A common mechanic here will include automatic successes for things that are below the game’s current power level or for adversaries way above it.
- Cover all the bases. This is the crunchy solution where the game tries to allow for all types of characters at all power levels. This often involves charts and stats with mathematical progressions. These games are designed so that you can have a street-level character face off against a cosmic-level threat.
- Ignore power levels completely. This is a more modern, narrative-driven, approach where it doesn’t matter how characters and adversaries balance against each other. The mechanics don’t have real-world equivalencies but rather exist to guide the game and story forward.
Note: Please don’t think that we are saying that any one of these core concepts is better than the others, though different game groups may prefer different types. Personally, I’m a fan of method one, limiting your scope, whereas Sean prefers the narrative approach of powers being plot tools and complications.
During our live show, Sean told us all about nine role-playing games that stood out to him from the pile of games he’s been reading. Below I will be listing these games and summarising what makes each stand out from the rest.
A look at eight superhero RPGs and what sets them apart
This list is in no particular order.
Masks: A New Generation, from Magpie Games
This a Powered by the Apocalypse (PbtA), narrative style roleplaying game about playing teenaged superheroes and is inspired by Teen Titans, New Mutants and Young Justice. This is considered by many, Sean included, to be the best narrative style supers game out there right now.
Masks is a very flexible system with a huge range of character design potential included the wide variety of playbooks that are available. Despite its popularity, there are people out there that do not enjoy this game. Most of this is based on the fact that you are playing younger heroes and the game has a focus on adult authority, wild and shifting emotions and teenage angst. There are also a lot of people out there that do not enjoy PbtA games and due to that probably won’t enjoy Masks.
Mutants & Masterminds, from Green Ronin
This older RPG is pretty much the exact opposite of Masks. Mutants & Masterminds is a more traditional classic style of superhero RPG and it’s not afraid to show those roots even in the most recent edition. This is one of those crunchy games that try to make powers feel realistic and allows for all power levels from weak Aunt Mae all the way to cosmic Galactus.
This dated system was too much for Sean and many other people. He was stymied before even getting through character creation. M&M is a perfect example of a “crunchy” RPG that’s probably going to be too crunchy for most groups.
Fans of the game will point out that once you’re through character creation the game plays and runs really smoothly, but we have our doubts. While Sean has no plans to get M&M to the table any time soon, if at all, he has noted that it may be worth checking out some actual plays to get over the steep learning curve here.
Worlds in Peril, from Samjoko Publishing
With Worlds in Peril, we get back to the PbtA system. This narrative based superhero RPG from Kyle Simons is considered by many to be the follow up to Masks. The major difference here is that you play as established adult superheroes instead of teens.
There are some interesting improvements to be found in Worlds in Peril, including a mix and match playbook style for way more flexibility than the static playbooks of Masks, but overall the system fell a bit short for Sean.
His main complaint with this system is its implementation of Influence, known in Worlds in Peril as Bonds. In Masks, if you have influence over someone you are important to them. It’s marked on your sheet, and it can impact your rolls involving that person as they are more likely to trust your word. In Worlds in Peril, you have Bonds, which describe the strength of your relationship with others. However to use your Bonds during play you need to burn them, which impacts how that person feels about you going forward. So you are essentially telling someone else they don’t like you (as much) anymore due to your actions.
Interestingly after the podcast version of this topic went live we got into a lengthy discussion on Bonds on our Patreon only Discord server with one of our awesome Patreon patrons, Jeff. He pointed out that burning a bond represents a change in attitude due to your actions that could come into effect at a later time. So Spider-Man could burn a bond with Mary Jane while fighting the Scorpion and you wouldn’t need to determine what that meant at that moment but rather work it into the story later. Perhaps while fighting Scorpion Spidey damaged the watch he was going to give MJ for her birthday and now doesn’t have enough time to buy a new gift.
What this did point out to us is that the rulebook for Worlds in Peril simply didn’t do a very good job explaining the Bonds mechanic or how it is to be used.
Hearts & Souls, from Silver Lion Studios
The indie superhero RPG Hearts & Souls is a modern narrative game that doesn’t use the Apocalypse Engine, which is nice to see nowadays. This game uses a full set of RPG dice and is a nice blend of narrative and traditional RPG.
Hearts & Souls uses a simple dice pool mechanic where players are trying to get at least one hit by rolling the target number or higher on one of the dice. Where it gets interesting is that the Size of die you use is based on your power level (Human, Super, or Cosmic), and the number of dice you roll of that size is your strength within that level. For example, on a task with a difficulty of 3 a Human might be rolling 3d4, a Super 4d8, and a Cosmic character may have 3d12 to roll and any of these characters who roll 3 or higher on a single die succeed.
We both thought this was a straightforward and effective solution to varying power levels, one that allows for even a Human level character to succeed with a lucky die roll but gives the higher power levels a much higher chance at success.
BASH!, from Basic Action Games
This is a modern but slightly older superhero RPG from Chris Rutkowsky, which is part of the Basic Action series of games all sharing the same mechanics. In this case, BASH! stands for Basic Action Super Heroes.
BASH! is a relatively simple three stat system that uses 2d6 dice pools which explode on doubles. The most unique thing here is that you multiply the results of this roll by your appropriate stat or power.
Both stats and powers are based on a scale of one to five, with one being human and five being superhuman. Overall this is a light, simple and fun system, but potentially a bit too light.
While Sean has decided that he may never actually run BASH! straight up, he did love reading the book and has gone on to buy more BASH! products beyond the core book, including the BASH! Magazine, to use for inspiration and for improving his existing Masks games.
Save the Day, from Okumarts Games
Save the Day comes from fellow Canadian, David Okum, who is probably better known for his fantastic artwork and paper miniatures.
This superhero RPG clearly shows off David’s love for the use of miniatures at the table in his gaming. Save the Day is very much a tabletop miniature game with some RPG rules added in. Here you will find things like area affect templates, detailed rules for ranges and line of sight, and charts galore.
Personally, I love using maps and minis for my games, but Sean not so much. He much prefers theatre of the mind and abstract systems, so he found that Save the Day wasn’t really to his tastes. Though he did note that the artwork is a true delight, offering a bunch of Silver and Golden Age style characters featuring Okum’s unique thick black outline style.
My Superhero Life!, from The_Anselmo
Over on itch.io there was a Game Jam called Beyond The Super Game. My Superhero Life! was created by Rui Anselmo specifically for this Jam and stuck out as something truly unique being done with the superhero genre.
My Superhero Life! takes your standard superheroic story and twists it into a reality TV show, where the Host (the GM), is working with a new team of supers who are part of a TV series and who have camera drones following them at all times. Another unique twist to this superheroic RPG is that there’s a winner declared at the end.
At the end of a season of My Superhero Life!, the player who has earned the most popularity gets a contract, an action figure made of their hero and millions of dollars! All in game, of course. In reality, the player will most likely just get dirty looks from the other players.
Both Sean and I thought that this superhero RPG sounds fantastic as a one shot convention game. While players will need to work together to defeat the villains and accomplish their goals, there’s always the fact that there is really a competition at play in the background. That said, the game is actually designed for campaign play with players playing through multiple episodes per season. Sean also pointed out that this would also be a great RPG for online play, as not all players are required to be present for each episode.
This system also has a mechanic that Sean had never seen before. In My Superhero Life!, the Host rolls for any opposition the characters face and this roll uses a dice pool. That dice pool gets built up over time, adding different dice sizes to the pool based on the threats present in each encounter.
To me, this sounds a lot like the threat pool from Marvel Heroic Roleplaying, my personal favourite supers RPG.
Spectaculars, from Scratchpad Publishing
The last superhero RPG we are going to talk about is the one that Sean thought the most unique, Spectaculars.
This supers RPG is dice and card driven and features a number of board game-like elements. This game almost feels like a deck builder with all of the stuff that comes in the box. You’ve got two hundred and ninety cards, twenty-two dice, and sixty tokens, as well as plastic Game Trayz branded character organization trays for each player.
In addition to this, Spectaculars also features a number of tear-off pads, similar to score pads from various other games. One set of these is used by each player as their character sheet and a pad is also used for each published scenarios, which they refer to as a series.
Now another board game-like aspect of this system is that every time you sit down, you can swap players, characters, and even the narrator role. The reason you can swap who is running the game is that there is no hidden information, all of the players are working to create stories together.
In addition to the rule book, Spectaculars comes with a setting book. This is used before and during play to help you build the world as a group. The scenario book is really a series of questions for the group to answer and prompts for scenes to play out. It’s through this book that the group narratively defines their own unique world through play.
Interestingly, different groups of heroes can play through the same series with each team, impacting the other teams through collaborative world building. In essence, each box of Spectaculars is a shared universe of stories, like the Marvel, or DC Universe.
One of the highlights for Sean was the character creation system. As already mentioned, your main character sheet comes from a tear off pad, which tracks things like your name, advancements and some narrative aspects of the character. The rest of your character is built through the use of cards, randomly drawn and organized in a tableau in front of you. Note there are rules for less random character creation, if that’s something your group would prefer.
One concern for any game with a pre-printed pad in it is the fear of running out, but don’t worry Scratchpad Publishing has you covered with printable versions of everything, plus extra pads available for sale and even a digital creator pack for building your own series.
Personally, I’ve got to say that this does sound like the most interesting game of the bunch for running supers and it’s the one I’m most curious to hear an actual play report on.
Now that we know what superhero RPGs Sean’s been reading, what I would love to discover next is what your favourite superheroic roleplaying game is. Tell me all about it in the comments below!
It’s getting tiresome to see people criticize ‘crunching games. ‘M&M’ isn’t even that crunchy and honestly allows for far more variation and character options than any of the other games mentioned. Narrative systems often encounter a lot of problems, as they generally require a lot of on the spot rulings and can easily lead to disagreements because they leave so much vague. Honestly they’ve always felt like lazy design work to me. As an acting coach, I also find the statement that narrative games encourage roleplaying more than crunchy games completely false. Whether you focus on the rolE playing aspect or not depends entirely on the way the GM handles the storytelling and on how everyone plays their characters. Also the disdain for crunchier games has you leave out HERO System/Champions (the best of them all, i.m.o.), GURPS Supers and even older games such as Marvel FASERIP, DC Heroes, Golden Heroes, Heroes Unlimited, Wild Cards, Godlike, etc. And why not also mention Better Angels, Icons, etc.?
It was not our intention to criticize crunchier games or to put narrative games on a pedestal in this article. This was a very subjective piece that was me sharing my co-hosts thoughts on games he’s read recently. While it’s clear Sean prefers narrative-style games over more traditional games, that wasn’t meant to imply that one type of game is better than the other, just that one type is better for Sean.
We didn’t leave out any games in this list. This is a list of games Sean read recently. It just didn’t happen to include games like Champions, GURPS, and the other systems you mention. The couple of more traditional games he did read we left in and he admitted that he didn’t really like what he found. While yes, he could go back through the history of superhero RPGs and check them out, that wasn’t what this was about.
Personally, I prefer crunchier games. TSR Marvel Super Heroes was the game that introduced me to the wonderful world of RPGs in the first place and I’ve always had a love for games like Rolemaster and MERP.
As always, not every game is for everyone, and that’s amazing!
Thanks for the comment,
Interesting answer. It sounds like Sean doesn’t like rules in general. Rules light narrative games can be fun, but as the commenter said, run into a plethora of problems when players are left to compare values. More to the point, since you said this article was merely your partner’s tastes, it might have been nice to present a balanced article.
Where does Sean stand on the classics for example? Maybe write a sequel:)
Your article’s headline is misleading at best when your viewers/listeners probably haven’t even heard of most of these titles.
But in the end, I am sure their publishers should thank you for the advertising.
Thanks for checking out the article and I’m sorry if you found it misleading. The title fits as it’s talk about eight different games and what makes each of them stand out from the rest and other games in the same genre. We didn’t say they were the best games, or even good games for that matter.
As for a balanced article, I don’t see the point in that. There are plenty of lists out there of super hero RPGs that people can go look for. To me it’s much more interesting to find out what one super hero RPG fan thought about some games rather than just create a bland list. Maybe you would have prefered Sean’s favourite supers RPG, but that would be even more subjective than this.
Thanks for the comment,
I’ll toss your comment over to Sean on our next podcast to see what he has to say as well, since it’s basically his article and his opinoins.
That should have read ‘crunchier’ games (sorry, Dutch spellchecker)
I suspect Guardians of Order decided to go with d20 for Silver Age Sentinels because at the time, d20 was the biggest part of the market. It’s basically built on the same chassis they used for BESM d20, which got ported for much the same reason.
Also, regarding ‘Canadian creators’, Mark MacKinnon is Canadian.
I’m going to pick up Masks, it’s on my radar. Honestly I have two favorites: Prowlers and Paragons and Cortex Prime. (which you touched upon by mentioning Marvel Heroic Roleplaying). I’m more a fan of the cinematic story telling. Prowlers and Paragons have mastered the mix of crunch/cinematic.
I had a lot of fun with Masks and I know Sean has been digging it as well.
Thanks for the comment!
Hey Moe! It is likely that I will be playing a supers game in the coming few weeks so it was good to take a look at what is out there. Honestly, my favourite Supers game is an Australian game right out of the 80’s. It is the first game I ever bought for $12 in its boxed set form. It is Super Squadron. It is super random, has a lot of different systems at play. But it is slick and offers great variability in characters. I have never come across a game that gives the breadth of play that it does. Mind you, playing it as written might mean you come out with a character with one power which is enhanced charisma, where another player might randomly roll Superman like powers. But I like games like that. I will give you that Spectaculars intrigues me and to be hones, so does Mutants and Masterminds – so thanks for the post!
Thanks for the comment. I’ve never heard of Super Squadron myself. It sounds quite fund and very much a product of it’s time.
The elephant in the room for me reading this is “what about Champions/Hero System?”, the crunchiest of them all. The game has mostly died aside from old fans but it was a dominate force in superhero games for decades, and, if you can handle the crunch, still holds up better than most games that saw their origin in the late seventies.
I also noticed there was no review or mention of the Marvel Universe RPG, which I would have liked. Did that one fade away?
After being a Champions/Hero System GM for decades I’m very interested in a suitable replacement my players will enjoy. So far, at least in my gaming circle, Mutants & Masterminds seems to be dominate with Masks a distant second. I’m not sure why but the PBtA games have not gone over well in my circle and other groups I know of. I’m not criticizing them; they just didn’t seem to inspire the players for follow up games.
Thanks for the article and thank you fellow posters.
This post was inspired by eight Superhero RPGs that Sean had recently read. It’s not supposed to be a list of the best Superhero RPGs or the most interesting, or anything else like that. Instead it’s short reviews of the RPGs we’ve checked out the most recently.
At some point we probably should do a best Supers RPGs or or our favourite Supers RPGs, but that’s not what this is at all.
If you check our our most recent podcast episode we review the new Marvel Multiverse RPG which may have some of the crunch your group is looking for!
Thanks for the comment,
You might check out the Wearing the Cape RPG. While it’s based on Fate there are some elements of crunch for those who like that. Power building is flexible but there are established archetypes to make it easier for people who don’t want to design a power set from scratch. It’s biggest strength is that the rich setting is based on a series of books by the same name so there’s plenty of inspiration to work with. The author has also written Super Powered Fate, which decouples the power building mechanics from the setting for use with Fate Condensed.
If you prefer mechanics closer to Fate Core, there’s the Venture City sourcebook by Evil Hat but the world building is pretty weak. The setting is what I might call Superpunk but the material is easily adapted to other settings.
Thanks for he suggestion. I’m going to pass that onto Sean. I wouldn’t be surprised if he doesn’t already own it, and if he doesn’t I’m sure this will tempt him to pick it up!
The one I run the most is Champions except I ask people to build characters with a certain level of effect and calculate the point cost afterward, then use that as the basis of creating the opposition. It makes it less a game of forensic accounting. Some other favourites are Wild Talents, especially in regard with some of the settings produced for it, such as Progenitor. It also has a great discussion on superhero world-building. Unfortunately I find the ORE to require too much manipulation, which breaks immersion for me (running or playing). There are a lot of great ORE superhero games, from the original Godlike (superheroes in WW2), Kerberos Club (Victorian superheroes), and Better Angels (where the superheroes are supervillains who don’t want the real supervillains to get the powers that the actual demons that provide them to get). [But is even more manipulative since attribute slide during play in the same manner as A Dirty City and the player to your left also plays your demon.] But I started out with the original Superhero 2044 and played in lots of fun Villains & Vigilantes and Super Squadron campaigns (and tend to use their adventures as source material). So many new ones, so little time.
I personally have experience with Keberos Club but not from the original game but through Base Raiders, which is a very unique take on supers.
I’ll be bringing this up on our next show and finding out if Sean already has these in his collection or not.
Thanks for the comment,
Saw this one, couldn’t just pass it by. Some time back I did up a catalog of those superhero games on my shelves (or in bags near them because the shelves won’t hold any more), and there are a few more to consider, old and new alike. Now, Champions already got mentioned, but I have to add it’s capable of a lot more than superhero action, and given that it’s had literal decades of being tested by munchkins of every stripe, its latest incarnation (sixth edition, and don’t get me started on the ironically named “Champions Complete”) is practically bulletproof—and I’m not just talking the thickness of the books. As I’ve said on another occasion, about half of Hero 6e’s Volume 1 is power descriptions and special cases, and if you have a character that needs all of those at the same time, I want to see that build!
Have you considered…
••• Sentinel Comics, the RPG based on the Sentinels of the Multiverse card game, which has a fun character creation system and an innovative tension mechanic…
••• Mutant City Blues, the “superhero investigator” from Pelgrane Press, which has a very simple combat system and a lot of mechanics and insight around finding clues…
••• Champions Now! …yes, I know I’d said I wouldn’t have to mention Champions, but this is the Ron Edwards take on Champions pulled from the much older editions. It’s a lot less crunchy than its namesake…
••• Wild Talents, the One-Roll Engine superhero game from the same people who brought you Monsters and Other Childish Things. It doesn’t get a lot of love, but gosh-darn it, it’s innovative in character creation and action alike…
••• Mighty Protectors, which might not sound familiar until I tell you it’s essentially the much-awaited third edition of Villains & Vigilantes. It’s another game that “pre-loads” the crunch, piling it more into character creation to make play go easier….
••• Ascendant, which I haven’t had much time to play with but it’s like someone looked at Champions and thought, “this needs more math.”…
••• Galaxies in Peril, which is sort of a sequel to Worlds in Perl from the same people. Rather than PbtA, though GiP is FitD (Rather than Powered by the Apocalypse, Galaxies in Peril is Forged in the Dark—the system it’s based on is Blades in the Dark.)…
••• Capes, Cowls, and Villains Foul, from the same people who brought you Cartoon Action Hour. It’s a d12-based system that seeks to emulate comic book action down to an Editorial Control system that allows the action to be rewritten at certain times…
••• #URBANHEROES, which was originally an Italian superhero RPG in a crapsack world (think Ray Winninger’s Underground, only not played for laughs). The system is mechanically simple, but its take on powers and powering those powers up is worth a look…
Get list of games. When this was written Sean had backed Galaxies in Peril but it was still live on Kickstarter. He’s got it now and shared some thoughts on it on the show. Sentinel Comics I love, it’s a fantastic system with just enough crunch for me. The others I will pass on I know some of these Sean owns though I’m not sure he’s read them all.
Thanks for the list. There are some that I will indeed take a look at. Your take on Champions is quite true, and perhaps I should return to it.
Glad we could point you towards some new games!
Thanks for the comment,
I would heartily recommend Prowlers & Paragons Ultimate Edition by Evil Beagle Games (which has recently reorganized as Mobius Worlds Publishing). It’s a system that is both easy to grasp and flexible in its use.
Thanks for the game suggestion, I’ll be sure to pass it over to Sean on our next podcast recording!
The only quibble I have is saying that Mutants and Masterminds is going to be “too crunchy for most groups” – after character creation, it’s just d20+modifier rolls; less crunchy than Dungeons and Dragons, the world’s most popular roleplaying game.
Character creation in M&M is crunchy thought and that’s the first step, you have to get past that to get to the actual game playing which may be simpler. Personally I think “most” groups is probably too strong, it should probably be some groups.
I’ll be passing this over to Sean to answer on our next podcast.
Thanks for the comment,
I, for one, appreciate hearing about new games. Many of these I haven’t heard of and it’s a nice change from the usual M&M, Champions and FASERIP etc. that you hear about all the day. In particular, Save the Day sounds fun. Just a minor note, being Canadian is, in itself, a superpower and includes a 50% resistance to cold.
It’s so great to get some positive feedback on this topic. Pretty much every comment we get here, on the podcast or on YouTube is someone insulted that we didn’t include their favourite system. Which has nothing to do with what the post is actually about. We were just talking about what Sean’s been reading not his favourite games or the best supers games. We were just trying to bring attention to some supers games people may not have heard of and I’m happy to hear someone got that and appreciates it.
Moe T, The Tabletop Bellhop