In my last post, I covered Marvel Superheroes, DC Heroes, Golden Heroes and Champions (Prelude to Spectaculars RPG review – a Grognard’s recollection of old school Superhero RPGs). That pretty much covered a good chunk of my pre-2000 roleplaying experience of SHRPGs. Due to University & work I then had a gap of around 10 years before I picked-up roleplaying and hobbying in general.
I have had patchy experiences with White Wolf’s World of Darkness / Storyteller RPGs – some of the edition changes ended up altering factions or mechanics in ways I didn’t like. Similarly I have played with a real spectrum of different quality GMs which can ultimately make or break a game. Aberrant interested me because it had a very specific background and vision for why super powers existed which put it more in line with the more ‘gritty’ X-Men comics/Heroes TV show rather than the usual genre blender associated with something like say the Avengers or Justice League. As with other WoD games there was also an overarching meta-plot narrative which tied it into the 1920s Adventure! setting and the future sci-fi of Trinity settings – this collective background ultimately became known as the Aeon Universe. While this might not appeal to some these were all plus points for me!
The rules were a hack on the usual WoD d10 dice pool system with the addition of powers and ‘mega attributes’. This is where things really have the potential to go off the rails unless you are quite strict with players. For example a single dot in mega strength would give you five automatic successes on all strength based feats including inflicting additional damage in close combat. Similarly, if you let players buy up mega charisma attributes then they could pretty much talk their way out of any situation.
There were some interesting ideas around how the stronger your power generating ‘quantum node’ is then the more likely you would succumb to mutation and madness which is very White Wolf, but is quite a departure from standard superhero tropes.
From a story/plot point of view I think it ended up with perhaps one too many sub-factions. Unlike other WW RPGs where you could pitch players as working together from different factions for their own shared interests, I don’t think this concept worked too well when translated into Supers. You are either in the equivalent of the Justice League (Project Utopia), the X-men (Aberrants) or Brotherhood of Evil Mutants (Terragen) – none of these guys are likely to work together on a long-term stable basis. It is further complicated by the fact that all these groups all have their own sub-faction politics to resolve too. I’m sure that a SHRPG about gritty political intrigue is an interesting idea for a one shot or a limited run campaign, but I’m pretty sure that most people came to SHRPGs in the first place for larger than life action set pieces rather than morally grey political drama in the style of Game of Thrones.
Mutants & Masterminds
I actually ended up using some of the core Aberrant ideas as the background to a X-Men style 1st edition Mutants & Masterminds campaign. The core d20 resolution mechanics are instantly pretty familiar to anyone who has played D&D so it is relatively easy to get people into. The group I was playing with had a pretty revolving door approach to GMing and so I can’t remember doing more than a few sessions – fun, but forgettable. M&M is much less crunchy than Champions and the design of the system is much cleaner than older SRPGs, but I think this looses some of the flavour as a consequence. I’m still nostalgic about the quirky qualities of Golden Heroes for example. The M&M setting is very generic and a bit bland for my taste, but much closer to standard superhero comics than say Aberrant.
I believe Green Ronin now have the license to the DC Comics IP and so the most recent DC SHRPG is now based on this rather than the old Mayfair games system. They have also released much more setting material now for M&M with the most recent editions, but I can’t say I’m excited enough to dip into it.
Savage Worlds/Necessary Evil
Play the bad guys! It is surprising that so few games developers have taken the logical step to flip concept of SHRPGs on the head and encourage building a campaign around being the villains and that is exactly what the Savage Worlds Necessary Evil setting does with aplomb. I have always thought that Supervillains have much more agency than heroes – normally the villains have come up with the plan and the heroes are reacting to it for the most part.
In terms of system, I have to say I am quite fond of Savage Worlds. It works well for fast paced, ‘pulp’ styles of play and while the system is pretty clean and easy to get into, the use of a mixture of different polyhedral dice nicely hits my sense of gaming nostalgia. Does it scale well to cover the man in the street up to Superman? No, definitely not, but it does do a good job for low to mid-tier characters – say street level Dare Devil/Spider-man to X-Men which is generally my sweet spot power level to play at.
Necessary Evil is primarily a very specific campaign based around Villains teaming up to save the world/themselves after an alien invasion results in all of the major heroes being killed off and humanity being enslaved. The artwork and vibe leans heavily into more standard comic book tropes and the play the villain angle sets it apart from so many other SHRPGs.
I didn’t actually play the campaign as is, since I wanted to build up to the villains establishing themselves and various heroes before getting them locked away and then starting the NE meta-plot. We played 11 sessions in the end which actually makes it one of my longest RPG gaming runs due to work and family commitments.
Other honourable mentions
While I haven’t played them, I have picked up FATE Core and Masks: A New Generation from Drivethru RPG with a view to doing more modern Superhero roleplaying. Ultimately, I decided not to use them for different reasons. In both cases I think they definitely suit more modern gaming tastes with systems that are designed to be faster, looser and less crunch focused that most old school SHRPGs.
While I think there are a lot of interesting ideas in FATE Core, it does seem to require you to do quite a bit of homework up front and while there are quite a few supplements focusing on Supers they are quite specific settings.
Masks: A New Generation leaves me with mixed feelings. The powered by the apocalypse system is pretty simple to get your head around and the core templates strike a good balance between customisation and keeping players slotted into particular roles within a team which is useful mechanically. That said it seems to be very specifically focused on the inter team drama involved with being young/teenage heroes along the lines of New Mutants, Young Justice, Teen Titans or Young Justice. Nothing wrong with that and if you want to give you SHRPG a ‘Buffyesque’ vibe then it is probably the perfect system, but that isn’t really my jam!
So that leads me to the recently released Spectaculars RPG and why I think for me it is probably the best SHRPG to date – full review to follow soon!