Previously, I did a run down of my history of playing Super Hero roleplaying games both pre-2000 and post-2000, as a preview to doing a Full run through of my experiences running the Spectaculars RPG from Scratchpad Publishing.
*Spoiler* to cut to the chase, I think for me that Spectaculars is actually my favourite Superhero RPG of all time! Here is a quick rundown of all of the things that I dig about it:
1) The out of the box production value is really, really great
Yes, I know that there are lots of great PDFs from all sorts of RPG games both small and large which are available for next to nothing on DriveThruRPG, but there is something both lavish and appealingly retro about getting a physical RPG boxed set. It is £73, which can be a big sticker shock for some, but this is a classic example of something being expensive but great value.
You literally only need to add pencils and you can start playing straight away. You get the core rules, dice, tokens, setting book, character trays, character power, identity and team cards and four different styles of campaign/adventures to play – the box is stuffed.
There are 12 different scenarios per campaign so if you allowed 1hr per scenario then that is more than 48hrs of entertainment for your money.
Take a look at the video of the pre-production unboxing (the finished set is just as good if not better):
2) Character generation is a blast and actually supports the genre of game you are aiming to play
I know for some people that min/maxing their Champions or GURPS character for days or weeks in advance of playing a game is a fun activity, but not for me – I just find it a chore. Equally, it is intimidating and really hard work for new players to build characters with point buy systems and my general experience is that unless you give people some strict parameters to work from you can end-up with some quite unbalanced groups as characters skew heavily towards one particular area. There isn’t anything wrong with this if it is deliberate of course, but my issue that it is too easy to do by accident and this can lead to unfun balance issues.
Spectaculars side steps the points buy pitfall by making it so quick and easy to build a character. You pick a template archetype, secret identity card for your skills, 1-3 power cards and then a team roll card and you are pretty much done. There are various description prompts on your archetype sheet and identity card for you to add detail and flavour details to your character rather than having to worry about the mechanical crunch.
There are a set of basic identity (Athlete, Detective, Lawyer) and power cards (Armour, Super Strength, Flying), and then there are also genre specific ones for each of the campaigns. Streetlight Knights is a relatively low power level, street focused campaign along the lines of the Marvel Netflix shows (Daredevil, Jessica Jones, Luke Cage & Iron Fist) or the DC Green Arrow focused part of the Arrowverse. This gives you genre appropriate kitchen-sink style identities like Activists, Bartenders and Paramedics, along with powers like Combat Vehicles, Martial Arts and Utility Belts.
By contrast the Explorers of the Unknown campaign has a much more Avengers, Fantastic Four or X-men vibe with identities like Inventors, Futurists and Hackers and powers like Atomic Energy Control, Duplication and Growth.
If you love the random character generation in your SHRPG like harking back to Golden Heroes then you could choose to deal out a select set of specific cards from your genre of choice and then allow people to optionally substitute for some of the basic powers. Alternatively, throw all the cards into the mix if you want a crazy Justice League-esque gonzo mix of different character backgrounds and powers.
Don’t like random character generation? Then just let people pick what they want – there is a great sense of fun and discovery from just looking through the different cards.
Only having 1-3 power cards doesn’t sound like a lot? Well actually Spectaculars does a simple and elegant abstraction here. When you pick your character archetype it asks you to state the background/narrative reason for your character’s defensive power/ability which is mechanically expressed as a ‘Resistance’ score. Unless you are playing a ‘Brick’ type character like Hulk or Thing your Resistance will probably be a flat 100 points. For example, the source or Spider-Man’s Resistance would be his lightning reflexes, for Green Arrow it would be his martial arts training and for Iron-Man it would be his armour. Resistance means all Player Characters have some form of baseline defence power built in which puts them beyond a typical mook. Similarly, all archetypes are assumed to have some form of movement capability built in for free which helps them get around be it leaping, wall-crawling or flying, etc. Your Archetype template will also give you additional abilities which may or may not be a Power or some other buff so all in most characters will have between 3-6 powers depending on their selections. You have to remember some of these powers are exceptionally broad like the good old Utility Belt card – trying to build a similarly versatile ‘gadget’ type power in point buy systems DC Heroes or Champions would be an exercise in tedious pedantry IMHO.
The Team role card is also a great innovation. It defines a character’s role within the group (along with the mechanical benefits) and can be mixed up between the sessions. If you were playing an investigative scenario then maybe the Batman style character gets to assume the Leader role; when you are playing a more galactic-style space adventure then perhaps that Leader role goes to Superman instead and Bats could then fall into the Tactician or Support role?
3) The system really leans into the idea that you are playing a game in the style of a comic book narrative rather than just trying to simulate playing a superhero
For all of the strengths and flaws of all of the old school SHRPGs I have played, none of them really lean into the core idea that you are playing within a comic book series like Spectaculars does. The setting book is designed to give you a series of leading questions which you should discuss and agree with your players in order to define key background elements. This could be done as part of a ‘Session 0’ or you could do it on the fly during play depending on how much prep you like to do and how freeform your play style is.
Player Characters can earn ‘Continuity Points’ for resolving their narrative Aspirations and Turmoils which have been defined during Character generation and play. These points can be spent in introducing back issues and retcons into the game.
With a back issue the player can introduce a reference to a previous event in another comic which their character starred in and establish some aspect which will effect the current scene in the adventure. For example, the Steel Scarab previously fought Dr. Devolution back in Steel Scarab #10 and so she already will know some basic facts about the nefarious Dr. and his modus operandi.
With a retcon the player establishes a new fact about the setting. For example, Steel Scarab’s player could decide that Dr. Devolution’s power is based on atomic energy and so will be more vulnerable to the Scarab’s atomic energy blasts. Or that the NPC which they are trying to get information from is actually a huge fangirl collector of Steel Scarab memorabilia and so will bend over backwards to be helpful, etc.
The combination of this ‘build a bear’ approach to setting and Continuity points system really helps you work collaboratively with your players to build a shared background which everyone buys into. To me this opens the door to interesting meta-GMing options like having a rotating GM chair or building a shared world between different RPG groups.
4) Don’t worry about mechanical power balance – lean into narrative equivalence of character ability and role
On paper it makes no sense that Hawkeye is part of the same Avengers team as Ironman, Hulk or Thor. From a power point of view if you built the characters in a system like GURPS or Champions it would only probably mechanically only make sense if he was built on half the points or less compared with these big hitters.
Spectaculars side steps these kind of power level issues by allowing you to focus on the narrative role of your character. Hawkeye is an important part of the Avengers because of his role in the team – he is the more human and relate-able character. He is the one that is dealing with the mook henchmen, rescuing civilians and grabbing the McGuffin artifact from the rubble while the big hitters are slugging it out with the Big Bad flying around high above. He has narrative equivalence even if he doesn’t strictly have power equivalence.
So in the name of balance are there any downsides to Spectaculars?
For the style of comic book SHRPG narrative I want to play then simply no IMHO.
However, I can quality this. I don’t think Spectaculars is a good fit if you are aiming to play ‘realistic’ heroes in a ‘real world’ setting. If you wanted to run something along the lines of the Heroes, The 4400 or Watchmen TV shows then I would probably pick a different rules system entirely. Similarly, if everyone is playing a variant on the Punisher then most likely a system without a default assumption of competence and a more brutal approach to violence would probably be a better fit – perhaps something like the Basic Roleplaying System.
For playing more purely ‘cosmic level’ escapades where all of the players are Superman+ power levels then again, I don’t think Spectaculars would necessarily be optimal. A completely diceless system along the lines of Amber is probably a better fit for that style of game.
In conclusion, Spectaculars is definitely the sweet-spot solution for me to run games around the Spider-Man/X-men power level. Heroes with flawed personal lives and social issues which need addressing as part of the game.
That is all from me for now – I’m off to get my tights on . . .