For my last post of 2017, I wanted to return to talking about roleplaying games, since those have been my most popular posts throughout the year.
My series on using HeroQuest for various types of games have been well-received, and so this week I’m going to talk about an always popular genre—superheroes.
There are a lot of superhero games out there, ranging from the heavily detailed and crunchy Champions to the much lighter Icons, and everywhere in between. But aside from the amount of rules and minutia that a game system includes, one of the most important decisions about a game is based on what it emulates.
World vs. Comics
Some games attempt to emulate a real world, with the addition of superpowers. Champions is a good example of this, as is Mutants & Masterminds. While the rules often include a few nods to comic book logic or common superhero comic tropes (e.g. M&M’s hero points and minion rules), the game rules are based on the idea that the world of the game setting is a real place and that superheroes are real people.
Other games take a different approach and attempt to emulate comic books themselves. The most popular example was the Marvel Heroic Roleplaying game, which is sadly no longer being produced. MHR didn’t worry about real-world physics and how reality actually works. Instead, it attempted to emulate how a story in a comic books works. The characters inhabited a comic book universe, not a real universe that included superpowers.
This can dramatically affect how the game plays and the player expectations regarding how their heroes should act.
The HeroQuest Approach
HeroQuest is, primarily, a narrative game. It isn’t focused on simulating real-world physics. It’s about the story that is created at the table by the GM and the players, regardless of how grounded or out-there the setting is intended to be.
To this end, HeroQuest is similar to the Marvel Heroic Roleplaying game, in that it is best used to emulate comic book stories. While an enterprising GM could certainly use HQ to play a campaign that focuses on how superpowers interact with the real world, that isn’t really playing to its strengths.
Where HQ shines is in playing out the types of stories found in actual comic books.
What are Superpowers?
Superpowers are discussed starting on page 99 of the HQ2 core rules, but it is mostly a series of suggestions and options for playing superhero games. It leaves it in the hands of the GM to create the power framework for the players.
For this example, I’m going to use the published (not cinematic) Marvel Universe, as seen in the long-running Marvel comics that most people know and love. These include The Avengers, Spider-Man, the various X-Men titles, the Fantastic Four, Daredevil, etc.
Now Marvel has used many types of origins for their heroes over the decades since they began publishing comics. From magic, to super-science experiments, to aliens (from other planets, other dimensions, or other times), to mutants, to advanced technology, and others. Sometimes they’ve combined two or more of these for a particular hero (e.g. Wolverine).
This opens up the Framework so wide that there’s barely a reason to write it down. You could just as easily tell your players “any kind of superhero that you’ve seen in Marvel could be the basis for your own hero, from any origin.” The only key element you should establish is the basic “power level” of the game.
There are many ways to define the various power-levels of a superhero game, and this is just one suggestion.
Street-Level: These games are focused on heroes who tend to live in one location (e.g. New York City) and who have abilities at or near the top of human potential. Daredevil and the Punisher are good examples of street-level heroes. Enemies are commonly normal criminals or those with low levels of power themselves, and their plans are usually focused on the local scene and almost never have global impacts.
X-Men Level: I’m mostly talking about the X-Men from the 80’s and 90’s here, where individual mutants tended to have a single major power (e.g. teleportation, eye beams, or feathered wings) and they needed to work as a team to take down powerful villains. While they sometimes travelled to cosmic locations, it was more of a backdrop than a scale of power.
Avengers Level: This is a level where the heroes tend to have multiple powers, and they can wield some epic abilities. Iron Man, Captain America, Thor and Hulk all sit here. Individually, they are more than a match for any street-level villain, and could probably handle many X-Men level villains fairly easily as well. They do tend to encounter cosmic entities—though they can still be handily defeated by them if they take them on directly—but most of their focus is on global threats.
Cosmic Level: This level jumps quite a bit in power. Silver Surfer and similar heroes operate on this scale of power. Threats are huge and immensely powerful. No single hero from any of the lower scales could operate here without a team to back him or her up.
Now, many hero teams (or even individual heroes) cross over the scales. The Avengers, for example, has both Hawkeye and Thor on the same team. And Thor himself could also be considered on the cosmic scale of power (depending on whether he is operating in the Avengers title or if he is in his own book). So these are more guidelines than hard rules.
One of HQ’s strengths, though, is that it is actually fairly easy to have a team like the Avengers, where heroes like Hawkeye and Black Widow are able to contribute alongside heroes like Iron Man and Thor. Because, as has been noted before, ability ratings are not about absolute power. They reflect how good the hero is at using the ability to affect the world and solve problems.
Free-Form or Detailed?
One element that could cause issues at the table is in the definition of the powers and what they can do. It is important to note some basic details of a hero so that everyone is on the same page regarding what is a reasonable use of their abilities, what is a stretch, and what is simply not possible.
In a regular game, this is easier. If you’re running a cold war espionage campaign, you don’t have to note down that regular people are not bulletproof, because that would be ridiculous. But in a superhero campaign, many heroes are too tough to be harmed by small arms fire (e.g. Luke Cage).
So each hero should have a basic description of the kinds of things they can do normally, and perhaps where the hard limits to their abilities sit. In comic books, limits are often flexible. Can Captain America pick up a motorcycle? Sure. Can he flip a car? Maybe, if he really needs to do it to save someone’s life. Can he pick up a bus? Not a chance.
For example, here is a possible description of Cyclops from the X-Men that illustrates what I mean:
Cyclops is a normal human being in most respects, though he is very physically fit and has had martial arts training.
His eye blasts can kill normal beings (and throw them backwards), can hurt beings stronger than peak humans (and knock them down), and can rarely do damage to beings of great strength (and can only slow down their advance). They can burn through any material known on earth, except for adamantium, which they cannot affect at all. His eye beams can reach targets about a football field away from his position.
This descriptions gives the GM and players a good idea of how Cyclops’ eye beams will interact with beings and surroundings that the character will encounter in the game. If the GM throws a Hulk-like creature at the group, the player knows that he might be able to slow the creature’s advance, but will face a very high Resistance if he simply tries to blast it to inflict damage.
One of the most common mistakes made by a GM with HQ is to use Resistances to reflect how difficult things might be in the real world. So the smooth glass of a skyscraper would automatically be harder to climb than a brick wall, for example. But this doesn’t reflect the fact that abilities are not rated on a scale that has anything to do with the real world, but on how they are used to solve problems.
And this comes down to how the GM is framing the contests.
If Black Widow is scaling the outside of a skyscraper, it’s because she’s trying to get somewhere and the normal way of getting there (i.e. the elevator inside the building) is unavailable to her as an option. Perhaps she could fight her way in, but the entire building would be on alert and the person she’s trying to catch would get away in the helicopter that is on the roof. Or perhaps she wants to hack into a secure computer terminal and download information without anyone in the building ever realizing she’s there.
So, the climb up the side of the building is not the conflict. One can assume that Black Widow will always manage to climb up the side of a building, because it’s what happens afterward that is interesting and worth playing through.
It can be difficult sometimes for a GM to remember this, but it becomes vital when running a superhero game. This is because heroes will face all kinds of powerful obstacles, and it will seem obvious that a super-strong adversary should automatically result in a high Resistance if it comes down to a fight.
But this is where it becomes valuable to note down some details about the things the heroes might face in an adventure.
For example, suppose the heroes are trying to fight off an invasion by aliens who want to destroy New York City. It would be worth it to outline a couple of adversaries the heroes might engage.
Significant Abilities: Energy Blaster, Agile Dodge
Exceptional Abilities: Infrared Tracking
Note: The energy blasters used by the aliens are about as powerful as a typical round from an assault rifle. The infrared tracking ability allows them to see heat signatures through any barriers (except anything that generates cold) up to about 100 yards away.
In the adventure, you would determine the Resistance as you normally would (using the Base Resistance for the characters—modified by any lingering bonuses or penalties—or the Resistance as determined by the Pass/Fail Cycle, if you are using that optional method). If the characters were engaged in a shooting battle with some aliens, you would the normal Resistance. If they were trying to hide in order to set up an ambush, you would use the next higher Resistance, because the characters would be pitting themselves against the aliens’ exceptional ability to track them via heat signatures.
HQ is ideal for superhero campaigns that are based on how stories play out in the comic books. Next week, I will talk a bit more about using HQ for superhero games, including some examples of play and some character write-ups.