[generic] RPG a day lockdown #67 - what makes superheroes special?

Now we're cooking!

Full disclosure I love the superhero genre.I grew up on Marvel and prog, and even though I've not collected comics since my university days, may dvd collection it almost entierly superhero based, mostly animated. And don't aks my how many times I've seen Infinity War, I can't even remember myself. So I obviously feel a strong connection with the genre, I am very comfortable with its conventions and hardly objective on the subject.

At its core, the superhero genre is of course a power fantasy. However in its purest form the power fantasy is tempered by desire to use this power to protect others. It is not just about imagining how it would feel to fly or punch threw walls, the "super" part, it's more about making a difference., the "hero" part. Or in Uncle Ben's words, "with great power must come great must come great responsibility". I always found that very appealing. Then again I also prefer the classic John Ford/Howard Hawks stlye westersn to the more cynical Spaghetti westerns.

Looking specifically at gaming, and what makes superheros the best genre ever for it,
  • Strong built-in differentiation between players characters
  • Combat is colourful, rarely lethal, actually solves problems and is all done in the service of a greater good - can you say cake and eat it?
  • Supervillians
  • All the familiarity of the modern day but its still 100% escapist in tone
  • Kitchen sink cross genre provide endless adventure material
  • Supervillains
It has it's pitfalls too. Mechanically the full range of superspowers can really stretch a system. And it does not naturally do sandbox stlye play, though you take a cue from the comics and multi-thread plots you can avoid the villain of the week syndrome

Edit in bold - missed out an important couple of words.
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To me the Holy Superhero Trinity of Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman from DC Comics represent both the foundation of what started the genre in and the attributes we find re-interpreted across other superheromes from Marvel, Black Horse, Image Comics, etc.

So let us start with the defacto father of such modern heroes, Superman, and his creators Siegel and Shuster, and this stayed true into the four colour era too, before the introduction of the anti-heroes to the fold. And with Superman spandex like costumes specifically for the role.


Key Things I seek in Superheroes and their RPG modesl
*. Power, yes, an obvious super power (physical or mental ability way above the highest in nomral people)
*. Morality, basically a personal moral code or adopted ethics to protect the vulnerable (else we are dealing with super villains)
*. Humility, nobody is to know who the hero is in real life, hence, all those secret identities.
*. Courage to face the villest of villains even when the superpowers seem to fail the hero
*. Weaknesss, the best superheroes are those than be brought low once in a while to show their connection to normal humans.
*. Survivability, yes , heroes always come through in the end, no matter the odds (probably that is why they display courage)

A focus on action seems to be popular because Superman was the headliner of Action comics and set the tone.
Batman had action but less visceral, hence, headlined Detectice Comics.
Obviously, Wonder Woman is the female empowerment superhero, the first I believe, hence the Holy Trinity.

With regards to role playing games, tyring to balance the vast diversity of superpowers is truly a Herculean task. I am yet to play a superhero RPG that, for all known superhero types, can capture successfully the dynamism and immersion of the reader's mind into the story. Probably, because the hero powerlevels are so extreme. Like how do you model Superman's strength in the same universe as Batman? And then also for those heroes and villains physically stronger than Superman? Roll-over dice mechanics or escalating dice pools seem best, since they allow continous power level ups.

As an aside, there was a interesting Kickstarter where the resolution mechanics involed quick comic book panel sketches. Simon Burnley may know it. After all, he is the defaco Golden Age Heroes RPG creator, so I bet he watches the space often.

Below is that first ever iconic image of what a superhero looks like in costume and in action.

I've has an absolute blast with some superhero adjacent things - my Wild Talents setting in Ancient Greece with heroes as demigods, and the Victorian fantasy and subversion of the Kerberos Club. Urban fantasy is arguably a kissing cousin of superheroes too. Space opera can blend with it really nicely as the likes of Thor and Guardians of the Galaxy showed.

But I don't really take my superheroes straight, much as I enjoy the Marvel films.


Rune Priest
Yes, thanks. I found it too.
I ran this several times at cons during 2019. It's quite good fun once you know what you are doing. As with many games, I think the second session will be much better than the first.

I found it suffers a lot doing investigative type supers rather than straight action, as by the very nature of it the players don't really know what to draw. I also think it could do with a second edition to tidy it up and make it sparkle (confession, many of the editing problems in the existing book are my fault).
I think I know a bit about Superhero RPGS. I should. I've written enough of 'em!

That was meant to be ironic.

POLAR BLUES has the right of it above. Very cogent and succinct. I don't want to repeat what he said because I can't say it better. Let's just take it that I 100% agree with what he said.

In #TTRPG terms for me it's about leaping straight to high level without having to slog through the learning phase. (I love me some low level D&D but horses for courses.) You start off in a different league. There's none of this "if I charge that horde of gunmen, what are my survival chances?" guff. You're just "better" and people love you for it.

Life is just GOOD!

But then the consequences of being a God living in a world where the inhabitants are made of tissue paper kicks in.

(Don't say it, don!t say it, DON'T... Ah...F@CK....)

With Great Power DOES come Great Responsbility.

Sorry but that's what it's all about. There no worries, no excuses, no doubts about whether you CAN make a difference. The question becomes HOW you're going to make that difference.

They're basically just morality tales wrapped up in bright confectionary wrapping. Good vs. Bad, Right Vs. Wrong and - in that - are a great palate cleanser between other games. I've completed (or participated in the fading out of) several #TTRPG games over the decades (not as many as you might think) and I prefer the Zero to Hero fantasy campaign for a long term thing. Long running comics tend to get a bit wierd at times.....)

(Comics are also a great analogy for discussing #TTRPGS - issues as sessions, titles as campaigns, panels as rounds, pages as turns, lead and supporting characters etc etc).

SHRPGs are best run as limited issue mini-series.

Also, because they've had to publish multiple issues per week for nearly a century (name me any other entertainment medium with an output that even comes close) they've explored and exhausted every possible twist and storyline many times over. Crossovers et al are inevitable necessities. So you have permission to do whatever you want because - good and bad - it's all there in the source material (somewhere).

And just because I happen to favour four colour morality tale comics code stuff doesn't mean you can't have your dark vigilante anti-heroes or your (oh-so-funny) spoof Superhero stuff. It's literally all there and legitimate for you to play.

(Just accept they're sh!t. Never has the phrase "it's the exception that proves the rule" been more apposite. Watchmen, Deadpool.)

Honestly, though I still try to take it with good grace, I'm beginning to get a bit tired of introducing players of other TTRPGs to SHRPGs and still watching the inevitable, it seems, trail of genocide and destruction that occurs when you put powerful characters in their hands. Even after 10 years of the MCU. Just because you CAN do something doesn't mean you HAVE to. (I guess people will never change.)

I have to respectfully disagree with negromaestro - comics were diving into a black hole until the 1960's. They were kids books getting more and more childish resulting in the Batman TV series. That's where your. "Big three " we're heading until the more "realistic" (hah! I KNOW!) Marvel approach came along to Con people that they were legitimate entertainment and, even, later, an art form. (You DO know that Alan Moore maintain comics were created as a cover for moving prohibition booze, don't you?)

I'm rambling and off thread. I can also go on for ages about why SHRPGs and a pretty awful idea for #TTRPGS. I'll stop here but reserve the right to dib back in later.
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Ah! I was sat on a Con panel about #TTRPG design and the first thing I said was "Buy a good cover. People do judge a book by its cover." And saw a figure on the back row scribbling into his notebook, I've been aware of Chris Deane ever since. Watched and interacted with his career several times. (Did he follow my advice do you think?)

I used to joke that he was my RPG design godson, but now the student has surpassed the master in so many ways. (Running Kickstarters etc.)

The idea of drawing panels to express action is one that could pretty much only have evolved out of comics. But, just like my own The Comics Code, Chris accidentally wrote a generic game system. It can be used to play in just about any genre. Hence the Spaceships.

Strangely it isn't the game it appears to be. It isn't Pictionary the RPG. It's actually a very subtle, thoughtful and tactical game that's worth playing at least once. A little TOO tactical for my personal tastes.
(Comics are also a great analogy for discussing #TTRPGS - issues as sessions, titles as campaigns, panels as rounds, pages as turns, lead and supporting characters etc etc).
I love this. I started reading comic books before I even heard of role playing games.

The closest I had early on was those 'Choose Your Own Adventures Stories" (cue, war against the evil power master).

And with regards to sketches, my best find and I would draw quick panel combat when we got bored in class, since most schools teach one syllabus and if you are faster Thad n other kids, you might as well use the extra time doodling (by the way, my mom saved one complete comic book I drew those ages past).

And I too agree that the god-like power levels are difficult to handle in RPGs, which is why even for traditional D&D, I stop somewhere just below or after 10th level. Adventures in Middle-earth for D&D 5e gets this too.
I'm a big fan of superhero comics and good spin-offs in other media (eg animation). The spectacle, the ideas, the iconic characters.

But it's nowhere near the best genre for gaming. To make it work well, you need a group who are superhero fans enough to get the conventions of the genre, and you need to find and agree on a *sub*-genre that you're happy with. It's particularly vulnerable to individuals derailing the experience.

It's also the case that a lot of superhero games have been racing to build a better combat simulator, and no more than that, which leaves you with a cardboard cut-out experience.

Edit: let me add, I'll happily play a good superhero combat simulator for an hour or two. Getting that right is in itself an art. But it's not an rpg.

Also edit: if a superhero rpg has no way for personality traits to influence play, walk away.
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It's also the case that a lot of superhero games have been racing to build a better combat simulator, and no more than that, which leaves you with a cardboard cut-out experience.
A wise and insightful comment. However, I’d prefer a change in tense. It’s one of the big mistakes designers USED to make.

This is, of course, what led to multi-hour combats masquerading as “RPG” sessions whenever you played Superheroes - and one of the things which drove me away.

Things are a lot better now.


The Guvnor
Staff member
I want to like super hero RPGs.
One of my first GM roles was running V&V for a one off.
I have bought quite a few, but my biggest problem has been getting people to want to play.
For my circles it seems to have been too American, too niche, too silly, too geeky. And my circles are made up of nerds.
I enjoy playing them, I am happy to play all the "Ages", most power levels.
@Tim Gray is right, it's such a huge field that actually includes all genres and typed, that Session 0 must be so important.
What would I like to run on my shelf? M&M or DCU, the Green Ronin books. Happily have a go at Cortex Marvel Superheroes.
I'd like to try ICONS and MASKS.
Quite like to try HERO/Champions again.
Given how much I like Savage World's speed maybe the Necessary Evil super hero campaign.

First Age

D&D h@ck3r and Hopepunk
Staff member
Depending on how they are defined, I can't remember ever knowingly running or buying one. Of all genres, this is one that I get the least.

However, I really enjoyed Dom's game of Masks, so perhaps all is not lost.
@Guvnor The new hotness seems to be the Sentinels of the Multiverse rpg, and I'd like to have a go at that. I played one game locally - not sure whether that was a test stage or finished - and it did interesting things with the combat simulator side. A development of Cortex. My long-term favourite is still Truth & Justice, though I've mostly forgotten it.
I’m not that into superheroes as such do like pulp heroes with mystical powers. however, I’ve not found a system that really works fir me yet - though I’ve not played a lot of them.