Thursday, May 9, 2013

Super Hero Role-Playing Games

I enjoy all sorts of role-playing games, but by far my favorite type is super hero role-playing. I have more super hero role-playing games than I can shake a stick at, including newer ones such as Marvel Heroic Roleplay and DC Adventures, but the ones I keep coming back to are the earlier models that managed to include a complete gaming system in a slim box and not too many pages. I just can't get into the sesquipedalian games produced nowadays. They take forever to get to the point, and try to jam in rules to cover every eventuality no matter how unlikely. The 6th Edition of Hero System is probably the extreme example of this trend. Call me old-fashioned, but I want to read a game's rules in one sitting and be able to understand the basics and then get right into playing.

I call my favorite old-school super hero role-playing games the Big Five: Villains and Vigilantes, Champions, Superworld, Marvel Super Heroes, and DC Heroes (in order of publication). There are older super hero role-playing games, but none appear to have been especially playable or well-distributed. Anyway, here are the Big Five and what I perceive to be their particular merits and drawbacks.

Villains and Vigilantes, 2nd Edition (1982)

Villains and Vigilantes allows one to roll up a character in mere minutes. The rules are explained in an incredibly straightforward way and are, for the most part, simple. There is a little math involved in figuring out how much your hero can lift and a few secondary characteristics, but these are calculations you make before the game ever starts and you don't have to worry about them afterwards. The main problems I have with the game are: (1) the complete and utter lack of any rules for obtaining or using skills, and (2) the bizarrely low odds of connecting in hand-to-hand combat. It's really impossible to create a hero along the lines of Batman with the rules as presented. However, Villains and Vigilantes is easy to add to if one so desires. 

Some take issue with two core concepts of character creation in Villains and Vigilantes. First, many balk at the idea that you play yourself as a super hero. Second, powers are generated randomly and many dislike that and prefer to design their ideal hero. I've always found these objections fairly silly as all one needs to do is ignore the "play yourself" aspect and then either roll up or model a character with the game master's consent. Open-ended powers such as "Body Power" and "Mutant Power" allow you to create any super power you want to (with your game master's consent) without much effort. 

A final note on Villains and Vigilantes: the art by Jeff Dee is quite fun, quirky but high quality.

 Champions, 2nd Edition (1982)

Champions is, in many ways, the opposite of Villains and Vigilantes. Players get a fixed number of "character points" with which they buy their hero's attributes and powers. Costs of powers can be modified upwards or downwards by taking advantages and limitations of the player's choice. Unfortunately, an unintended consequence of this is that players are encouraged to become rules lawyers in order to pay fewer points for greater power. Fans of the game will tell you that you can create any power you want, but they don't mention that a lot of times it requires very convoluted combinations of advantages and limitations and annoying math. Additionally, the game uses only six-sided dice, and you wind up having to roll large numbers of dice to resolve combat. Champions tends to get bogged down once fighting starts.

There are later editions of Champions, but in my opinion the problems with the system have only been exacerbated with each new edition after the 4th, which struck a nice balance.

The art in Champions is only so-so. It's a step above rank amateur, but well below the standard of a mediocre comic book from its era.

Superworld (1983)

I have never had the opportunity to play Superworld. The rules presentation is wonderfully clear, and the game uses an example of character creation to guide you through essential concepts. It all comes across quite well and is easy to understand except nowhere could I find any sort of "strength chart," i.e., something that explains how much my character can lift based on his Strength attribute. Hopefully someone reading this can explain that part to me. I was trying to model a character but gave up as a result of this apparent omission. Aside from that failing, this looks like a game I could love.

The art in Superworld is what I would call amateurish. Nothing is awful, but nothing is very good either.

 Marvel Super Heroes (1984)

Marvel Super Heroes lets Spider-Man and some of his amazing friends  explain the rules to the reader in a very clear and entertaining manner. Combat and resolution of other tasks is extremely simple, relying on one chart that can be found on the back of each booklet in the game. There are two methods presented for character creation: (1) the player describes his hero to the game master, who then assigns powers and skills, or (2) random rolls in the vein of Villains and Vigilantes, albeit with a much more rudimentary list of powers and skills.

Based on the lack of a comprehensive list of powers and skills, it does appear that the designers intend for you to play a character from Marvel Comics. However, it's really quite simple to add any power or skill you want to the game. You just describe what it does and give it a name. If I were going to try to start a new game with players who don't know any of these systems, this would be the simplest one to use.

The talent of the Marvel Bullpen ensured that the art found in this game is of the highest caliber.

DC Heroes, 1st Edition (1985)

Last but not least, DC Heroes has by far the most elegant system of all these games. To resolve an action, you roll once and compare your results to two charts. That's it. The math is incredibly simple and the only time you might want to break out your calculator is during character creation. You use character points to design your ideal hero in a fashion similar to, but far more streamlined than, Champions. It's also the only game that seems to have taken into consideration the idea that a player might want to create a hero who has no super powers but relies only on his skills or gadgets or some combination thereof. The only real glitches in the game are (1) the relative costs of the various powers and skills, a problem they fixed with the 2nd Edition a few years later, and (2) the lack of any special advantages or drawbacks to customize two characters who otherwise have similar power or skill sets, which was also fixed in the 2nd Edition. If I were going to play DC Heroes, I would definitely use the 2nd Edition.

The art throughout DC Heroes is lifted straight from comics books or else drawn by DC's top tier of talent. It's downright beautiful, though lacking some of the folksy charm of the Marvel Super Heroes game.

Each of these games has its own quirks and flavor, and I could easily be persuaded to play any or all of them. I like Villains and Vigilantes because of its quirkiness as well as the fact that I get a complete and playable game in under 48 pages with no need for any supplements. I like Champions because I can design any character I want, though I would just disregard the "character point" nonsense and build my ideal hero without worrying about the math. I like Superworld because of its presentation style and simplicity, although I still haven't figured out what a particular number really means when it comes to my hero's Strength attribute. I like Marvel Super Heroes because it's incredibly easy to jump right in and get playing, and also to customize powers without worrying about "character points." Finally, I like the elegance of DC Heroes' underlying system, but again I think I would disregard "character points" and just design a hero based on my tastes instead.

If I had to rank them based on how easy they are to learn and play:

(1) Marvel Super Heroes
(2) DC Heroes
(3) Villains and Vigilantes
(4) Superworld
(5) Champions

If I had to rank them based on how good the art is:

(1) DC Heroes
(2) Marvel Super Heroes
(3) Villains and Vigilantes
(4) Champions
(5) Superworld

If I had to rank them based on how elegant the actual game system is, regardless of how easy it is to learn:

(1) DC Heroes
(2) Marvel Super Heroes
(3) Superworld
(4) Villains and Vigilantes
(5) Champions

Finally, if I had to rank them based on which I'd like to play:

(1) Villains and Vigilantes
(2) Superworld
(3) DC Heroes
(4) Marvel Super Heroes
(5) Champions
 
In case anyone is interested in these games, be forewarned that Superworld, Marvel Super Heroes, and DC Heroes are out of print and hard to find at a decent price. Champions exists as part of the Hero System, but is around a thousand pages long nowadays and written by a lawyer whose goal appears to be to cover every possible situation, no matter how unlikely, making the rules largely unreadable. Villains and Vigilantes is still available from its original publisher, Fantasy Games Unlimited, through their web site.

By the way, if you're curious, yes, those are photos of my actual game boxes, not just images I found online!

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