With the new “Avengers” movie in theaters, I thought it would be cool to talk about how superheroes translate into tabletop RPGs. Now, there’s actually a pretty long list of pen and paper RPGs that are intended to run superhero themed games: Wild Talents, Godlike, Mutants and Masterminds, Silver Age Sentinels, and a few licensed games such as the aptly titled Marvel Universe Roleplaying Game. I’m only going to talk about the three that I actually have experience with playing, and they are…
This seems like the best place to start given my inspiration for this article. It’s also the system I have the least experience with, having only played one session and only having read enough to make my character. With that said, that session left me with no desire to ever play or even look at the book again.
Why the hate? Well, for one, the system felt poorly designed. You see, instead of dice you had a number of “red stones” that was based on your “energy reserve” stat. When you attempted an action, you would check your skill against the difficult of the action, which would determine success or failure… wait, no, that isn’t right. It would determine if you got the opportunity to attempt the task. Then you would spend red stones from your pool against the task’s resistance and if you spent enough then you would succeed, if you didn’t spend enough then you would still lost the stones but you would not succeed. Aside from giving you the opportunity to even try, being good at something doesn’t actually make it any easier.
Oh, and you regenerate your stones based on your Endurance, which is like your health, and that regeneration is further enhanced by having a healing factor. This means that your character who’s supposed to be physically frail but crafty and sly? Well, he expended all of his energy breaking through the locked door and now he’s too worn out to bluff his way past the guards. No, we don’t care how good he is at it, or that it should be as effortless for him as walking, he’s TIRED.
I get what they were trying to do, I really do. Being diceless set them apart from other RPGs on the market and done right it could’ve added a really awesome level of strategy to the game. It could make the game more complex combat, like when Spider-Man dodges around Rhino until the big guy is worn out and then he drops the hammer. Problem is, Spider-Man is probably going to wear out before Rhino does because the big guy’s going to get his energy back faster.
To its credit, the game was bold enough to try being different. I feel like, with more refinement, it could have really gone somewhere. It got cancelled early because, even though it sold out of multiple printings, Marvel felt it was doing poorly because its sales did not compare to those of Dungeons and Dragons. Which you may recognize as an RPG so popular that it’s name is almost synonymous with the hobby.
I feel like I should compare it to “Civil War” or “One More Day” on the grounds that it made WAY more money than it probably deserved, but where those two storylines are completely irredeemable and have no positive qualities whatsoever, this RPG is really just a step below average as far as first editions of tabletop RPGS go.
Now we flip to the other end of the spectrum. DC Adventures uses the same system as Mutants and Masterminds’ third edition. While my experience with it was more limited than I would like, I did spend a lot more time reading the rule book than I did the Marvel system.
First off, it’s one of the best RPGs on the market for superhero play in my experience. I might get some flak for giving so much credit to a d20 game, but the benefit of using that rules set is that the core mechanics are tested. The abilities seemed to be fairly well balanced, although I did not subject them to particularly intense scrutiny because all of my sessions were one-shots.
The big deviation from standard d20 rules in these games is that you have build points that you spend not only on your ability scores, but also your superpowers, feats and skills. The powers are abstracted just enough to let you fit your flavor into existing mechanics. The power “ranged attack” covers heat vision, fireballs, and lightning from your fingertips in equal measure, with special properties available to customize your blasting options.
Unfortunately, there’s not much else really to say without doing a full breakdown of the game. It’s got really solid mechanics, and it plays very well in my opinion. I might do a more specific review the next time DC releases a movie worth watching, although that criteria might get me off the hook forever.
Where Mutants and Masterminds might be the best roleplaying game for superheroes, Silver Age Sentinels is probably my favorite. This game was released by a company called Guardians of Order, the same people responsible for Big Eyes Small Mouth (an anime RPG), and originally used a system called “Tri-Stat.” Tri-stat, or Tri-Stat dX as it later was called, was named for the fact that it had three basic stats: body, mind and soul. I honestly can’t say much about the tri-stat system itself, because the version of the game that I got my hands on was d20. Unlike Mutants and Masterminds, which was built as a d20 game and benefitted from using an existing rules engine to power a more creative game, Silver Age Sentinels seemed like a hastily thrown together and poorly balanced conversion. I feel like I would’ve gotten more out of the game with the Tri-stat version.
So thenwhy is it my favorite? For one, I loved the lore. Most RPGs come with some default lore to keep things interesting, and it ranges from dull to amazing, and SAS is definitely on the positive end of that spectrum. I spent a lot of time just reading through the character’s backstories and saying “Why don’t they actually put out comics of this? I’d read the hell out of it!” The most interesting hero to me was Caliburn, who was that universe’s “Badass Normal” character who was clearly meant to serve as a template for characters who wanted to play Batman. But unlike Batman, he was an interesting character who I would want to read about.
The mechanics are sloppy and not particularly balanced, and you may as well abandon the “Classes” chapter of the book completely because it’s full of dead levels. Still, if you play fast and loose (which you probably should in a superhero game), then that’s not a horrible drawback. The clownshoes levels of cheesiness that you can get away with is fine in a comic book styled game, though I suppose gritty street-level games might suffer for it.
If you play this game though, just know that the scaling is way off. It lists 150 points as the mid-level superhero power level. If you want your heroes to be challenged, and they’re built at 150 points, you’re not going to do that with criminals. Heroes like Spider-Man or Daredevil are closer to the 75 or 100 point mark, with 150 being the zone where heroes like Iron Man (in his armor) hang. This took me a LOT of getting used to when I ran my game, as the heroes sliced through challenges that were intended to be significant. So yeah, be ready for that.
Honorable Mention: Hero System
I’m only going to talk about Hero, or I guess more specifically it’s superhero supplement Champions briefly. It’s a very crunchy system and it’s core rulebook looks more like a textbook than an RPG, but with that crunch comes a comprehensive and solid ruleset. However, just as my opinion of Silver Age Sentinels is colored by a very positive experience, I had a negative experience with Hero that basically murdered my desire to ever play it again. This is no fault of the system, and I will share it with everyone when DC releases a movie again, whether it’s worth seeing or not.