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.
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!