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Tips for running Superhero RPGs, Running a great supers game

My podcast co-host Sean has become a bit of a collector of Super-Hero RPGs. Not only is he picking up a mix of the old classics and the new hotness he’s taking the time to read all of them as well as running supers games online.

Below I will be sharing some of his tips for running a successful supers RPG, and what he’s learned after reading so many different superhero themed RPGs.

Disclosure: Some links in this post are affiliate links. Using these links doesn’t cost you anything extra and it helps support this blog and podcast.


Why listen to Sean about Supers RPGs?

A small selection of Seans Supers RPG collection.Back in September of 2021, we did a segment on our podcast where I asked Sean if he had any tips on running Supers RPG effectively. In this article, I sum up his suggestions.

If you have the time and/or inclination I invite you to check out that episode. It was Episode 149, Avenging Your Justice Squad, head here to check out the show notes and give it a listen, or watch the video version on YouTube.

Sean had quite a few suggestions to share and I’ve taken what he said on that show and tried to organize it a bit and put it down here in article form.

The reason I asked Sean about this is that over the last few years, he has turned into quite the Superhero RPG collector. He now has over forty-five different rulesets in his collection along with various splat books and expansions for some of those. He’s played a handful of these and has also run online games for a couple of them.

With all that background I figured he had to have learned something worth sharing from all of those books.

 

Tips for Running Super Hero RPGs

Start by getting everyone on the same page.

The new Marvel Multiverse Role-Playing GameThe most important parts of running a supers campaign, even more so than in many other settings, are done before the game actually begins. This isn’t just for narrative games, but even for crunchier or tactical ones.

The reason for this is that the concept of superheroes means so many different things to so many different people. When we say we’re going to play Superheroes it could mean we’re going to play a Batman game, form a new team of Avengers, protect the streets like Daredevil, or journey the cosmos as The Guardians of the Galaxy.

It’s more than that though. Even in these categories, there’s a ton of room for interpretation. When we say Batman we could mean a dark and gritty Dark Knight game or a campy Batman ’66 game, which would end up being two very different games.

While it is possible for the person running the game to decide exactly what type of supers game you will be playing and then just present it to the players. There is a big benefit to a group discussion, leading to an agreement among everyone, as to the tone and scope of the game. You need to determine what kind of superhero stories you want to tell.

If you’re playing a Dungeons & Dragons campaign and you know you are going to be going up against Strahd, your group has a pretty good idea of the tone of that game. That kind of expectation setting is much rarer in superheroic games. The scope is much broader. In a supers game you could be taking on thugs down at the docks in one session, and then off battling demons on a different plane the next.

All of this should be discussed with the entire group and you should be striving for enthusiastic consent from all of the players before moving on. Do you want a street level game or something spanning the multiverse? Are people interested in playing characters who are just discovering their powers or a long established hero team?

One of the best things about the superhero genre is that the possibilities here really are unlimited.

 

What type of characters will you make?

Masks is a fantastic supers story gameAnother thing that needs to be discussed, before you being playing is what characters the players will play. While pre-generated characters are a thing in other RPGs, that’s not quite the same as the difference between playing an established Marvel Hero like Spider-Man or making your own supers team. Both choices are totally valid and different players will have a preference for one or the other.

The important thing here is making sure to stick to what you, as a group, decided you want to play. Be willing to set limits. If you’ve decided on a street level game but one of your players wants to play Superman, it’s ok to say no, especially if you are someone who is less familiar with running games like these.

“Hey, I get what you’re hoping for, but I don’t think that fits in with what we’re going to be playing as a group…”

But if you do say no, you should have an option or a suggestion to help them make a character that better fits in. You don’t want to quash creativity. Perhaps they get to play Superman but he’s lost most if not all of his powers for some reason, or you ask what it is about Superman they want to experience and then pick a more appropriate character for them to play.

It’s okay to limit the power selection.

Champions is one of the longest running and most popular super hero roleplaying games.Aside from purely mechanical game balance, certain powers, or power sets, can easily throw a game off the tracks and shift things like the scope of a game to places you (and your group) didn’t intend it to go.

Knowing your players can go a long way towards helping to make these decisions. You should have an idea of how they like to play but, if you are playing with a new group, it might be best to outright ban certain powers up front to avoid issues.

Psychic powers can be especially troublesome as they can often utterly unbalance any plans you may have developed with a simple action and can easily outstretch your planned scope and power level. Time Travel is another one that can really mess with a game.

However, aside from specific issues like these, try not to be overly restrictive when letting players pick powers.

When someone asks if they can have Power X or Y, you may want to instinctively say no but, take some time and think about it. Try to work with the players so that they can play the type of characters they want to play. The joy of playing Supers really is about getting to do awesome things and you don’t want to crush that.

 

Remember that there’s almost nothing that Villains can’t counteract. Remember as the one running the game that you have the power to make this happen. Also, every good super should have a weakness that helps balance out their powers.

When working with the players to develop their powers you may be able to balance out that over the top power with a fun quirk or weakness that adds a fun twist to the game or you can create a nemesis that knows exactly what to do against that hero (but may be vulnerable to someone else on the team).

Remember, as the GM, or editor, the only limits are your imagination. This is a supers game we are talking about. There isn’t much, if anything, that hasn’t already been done in one comic or another. This genre is extremely forgiving of ridiculous situations and impossible coincidences.

Safety can be important and should be discussed.

Mutants & Masterminds is another very popular Super Hero RPGThis brings us to something I can’t imagine skipping in a supers game, safety tools.

The openness of a superhero game, with its varieties of powers and tones, means that things really could go anywhere. While that is a huge strength of the genre it also means it is really easy to go down a rabbit hole in directions that might concern people.

Peril and danger are part of what makes comics fun for some people, but the adjacency to reality is much greater than when you’re playing a centaur running your sword through a slime.

People can, and often do, connect with superheroes in a very human way. That’s not to say you can’t connect with your fantasy or sci-fi characters, but superheroes are something, for many, that is more real. What this means is that your actions running the game may be able to impact your players much closer to home.

There’s a good chance that all of your players are down for whatever, and encourage you to go wild, and that’s great, but that’s why you need to discuss this as a group. You need to figure out what your group is and isn’t interested in experiencing in a game before you start.

Maybe Erin is fine with being tied up in a villain’s death trap but doesn’t want you to fridge their partner for a cheap plot point. Find out that sort of thing before you get there.

Your goal is to have everyone on the same page so that everyone is comfortable and having fun. You don’t want to have a player willing to do anything to stop the bad guys, including shooting innocents, when the rest of the team is looking for a more friendly upbeat campy style adventure. You don’t want one player thinking Richard Donner, while another is thinking Zack Snyder.

Now there are a variety of tools to facilitate this and I’m not going to get into them here. Tools we personally like are Lines and Veils, Script Change, Open Door Policy, The X Card and finishing sessions with Thorns and Roses.

 

Describing the action

I have heard very good things about Prowlers and Paragons a super hero RPGWhen running a supers RPG, describing the action, and determining the pace of the game, think back to what the game is based on: Comic Books.

Think of each turn or moment of action as its own panel. If you could see it in a single panel of a comic, it’s one action in the game. A collection of panels or actions leads to a page. Try to have a big turn at the top of each page, something that makes you want to know what’s next. Think of a game session as a single comic book issue. Toss in set pieces like full page spreads where there’s a burst of action and drama and don’t be afraid to split huge scenes across multiple issues. In comics, things rarely get wrapped up neatly.

Multiple issues make up a series. Try not to make your series too long. Short story arcs that are a few issues long are better than long drawn out plots that never reach a conclusion.

While superheroes are no longer tied purely to the paper of comic books, even the movies about them take inspiration from that source. There’s no reason you can’t add some of that cinematic flair to your game. Describe the start of a scene with an establishing shot or describe the action as a series of clips.

Try to get everyone at the table thinking and talking this way. A speedster may hit seven bad guys in a row in a single panel, while your tank stands there absorbing a wash of incoming laser fire while screaming out his catchphrase as the others prepare behind him.

To help with the roleplaying and getting everyone in character be sure to use the character’s names. Use hero names when the players are battling the villains and secret/true names when dealing with non-villain drama (and don’t forget the non-villain drama, supers games shouldn’t just be about battling baddies). Try to get your players to do this as well.

The best comics leave you aching for that next issue to come out and a good supers RPG sessions should do the same. Take hints from the comics you love and always end with the players wanting more. End things with a cliffhanger, a surprise twist, a bit of info leading them on to the next story arc, etc.

Even with a one-shot, tossing in a stinger at the end will leave players wanting more.

 

Sharing the spotlight is important.

City of Mist hits most top supers RPG chartsDon’t forget that even in a single hero comic book like Spider-man, Peter shared the pages with many other people.

With the wide variety of power levels, back stories, and relationships between characters, it can be easy to focus your game on one or two characters that stick out. Make sure you mix things up and keep everyone involved.

Now you don’t have to make sure everyone can shine every session (unless it’s a one-shot), but balance the focus over multiple issues and try to make sure everyone gets a chance to shine every story.

While session one may be pretty heavily focused on Erin, Issue 2 will be about Amy. Then issue three will call on all the heroes to work together to find a lost alien NPC. Finding that NPC ends the first story arc and we start again, but this time with Joe.

Be sure to spread the wealth. The characters are ALL heroes. You need to give them the chance to shine and show what they’re capable of.

Another aspect of this is letting people use their powers and also exploiting their weaknesses. Some powers can easily come into play every session, but other more obscure powers may be harder to work into the story. The same goes for weaknesses, there’s no point in a character having a weakness if it never comes up in play.

Keep a faster pace than usual.

Granma's Hand is an excellent example of diversity in Supers RPGsOne of the things that make comics so engaging is that the story unfolds at a rapid pace. Comic writers don’t get a lot of pages to tell a story and thus really need to cut to the chase and only highlight the important parts of the action. This should be true for your superhero RPGs as well.

Try not to get too bogged down. Always be sure to focus on the goal of any scene, regardless of what that is. What is the group of supers there to do?

Just as your dungeon party can spend sessions wandering around a city or in a tavern and may need some push to get them into doing something, the same can, and will, happen in your supers games. You want to nip this in the bud.

Playing teen supers just discovering their powers? One of the character’s significant other calls and breaks up with them while giving no reason at all. Running a big beat ’em up game where your players love to compare power levels? Next time they stop for a moment, BOOM a huge explosion rocks the city. Is it a new threat or an old nemesis? The lights go dark, power is cut to the whole city. Is that a blimp you hear?

 

That said, it doesn’t have to be action all of the time. There’s a lot more to a good supers story than non-stop action. Give the players some downtime. Let them interact with friends and family. Use those secret identities and contacts, and pull at their heartstrings.

Drama and melodrama are good, trying to decide what colour to re-paint the danger room, or doing the math to figure out the cost of replacing all the tools in your utility belt, is not.

Don’t overthink it or over plan it.

My personal favourite Super Hero Roleplaying Game - Sentinel ComicsSupers stories have a tendency to go off the rails very quickly. Due to the variety of character types and powers, it’s not as easy as picking a Challenge Rating and grabbing the Monster Manual when trying to set up a challenging encounter for the players.

Have a plan going in, and a few contingencies ready but for the most part rely on your group for inspiration and where to lead the game. Superhero RPGs really are better played as games where you all play to find out what happens next.

Come up with a story idea but don’t write in the ending. Let things flow and go where they want to go and don’t fight it. Plan out your overall game one story at a time and don’t plan too far ahead.

Did you pick a villain that was too easily defeated? Great! It’s time to let the players shine, since it ends up that villain was just a lackey for the true bad guy. Did you make things too rough for the characters? This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, as sometimes the heroes have to be defeated for their later victories to be meaningful. Did the players fail to stop the heist? Well, what exactly was the evil genius going to do with that flux capacitor? The stakes just got raised!

Don’t be afraid to source the table.

Spectaculars is the Supers RPG I'm most interested in trying. If you and a group of players are sitting down to play a supers game, you are probably all fans of comic books in general. Even if you may have different ideas of what makes for a good supers story you all know the tropes of the genre. Don’t be afraid to tap into this knowledge, even if you aren’t playing a narrative style game where this kind of interaction is built in mechanically.

Source the table to help build the world around the characters. This helps not only reduce the burden on the one running the game but also gives the players more agency over that world and often leads to them caring more about it than they would with a setting that was just presented to them.

A few simple questions which can come up during the game or before play can give you more plot material than you can likely use in a reasonable time. If you continue to source the table, more things will be revealed and relationships will evolve.

Now that the battle is over, who do you return home to? You want to find someone who can hook you up with a telestatic receiver, who’s your most techy contact? The area of the city that has been targeted is where someone important to you lives, who is it?

Note some players aren’t as good at coming up with things like this on the spot so make sure your group is on board before it comes up in the middle of play. Some players are more comfortable writing up things like backstories between sessions which is something you can ask them to do if you have an idea of where you expect the plot to go next.

 

Let your supers be super – you don’t have to roll for everything!

Superheros Powered by the Apocalypse. Don’t roll the dice unless there’s a very good reason.

This is something universal for all RPGs that both of us are still learning to do better and something that many, many, players struggle with. Do not roll for everything!

Remember that you are playing superheroes, and take that seriously. These characters are SUPER. At that level, there are many things that you can simply do. Most mundane things just come naturally and what you are good at you are really good at.

If a character can lift a city bus, don’t make them roll to knock down a door. If they can fly, they’re not going to fall into that pit trap the villain has set. Don’t make the best detective in the world roll to spot a key clue.

You should only roll the dice when all of the potential outcomes are interesting and each of them moves the story in a different way. Sure it might be funny to watch the arrogant speedster trip when they fail a roll, but if they succeed do they just keep running? That’s not interesting.


Overall, make sure everyone is playing in the same comic book. 

My first ever TTRPG was TSR Marvel Super HeroesThat’s it for the tips Sean shared during Episode 149 of The Tabletop Bellhop Gaming Podcast, with a few of my thoughts mixed in. 

The one recurring theme, and the thing that I think is the most important takeaway from the entire conversation, was that for a successful supers RPG session, you really need everyone on the same page. You need buy-in from everyone at the table in regard to what kind of game you are all trying to play together. 

This starts before the game even begins by setting the tone, scope, specific genre, and boundaries. It then continues during play and is the responsibility of everyone at the table, not just the person running the game. 

While different people want and expect different things from superhero stories, for a good supers game you all need everyone to be playing within the same comic book, creating a new unique story that everyone at the table will enjoy.


There you have some of our tips for running a better superhero RPG session, starting before the game and moving on to during play.

I hope this helps you get more out of your superheroic game nights.

If you have any addition tips on handling the superhero genre at the game table we would love to hear them in the comments below!


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