History of Superhero RPGs (Part One 1978-1985)
- Lowell Francis(edige23)United States
Indianaexplanation does not equal excuse
Over the decades I’ve run serious and extended campaigns in a half-dozen superhero systems. This weekend I pulled together all of the core books I had for different superhero games. I ended up with twenty-eight: from Aberrant to Wild Talents. And that’s just hard copies- I have many more in electronic format. And that’s just core books not the secondary material: citybooks, villain books, modules, alternate settings, WW2 books, power guides, and so on. Honestly if you told me I couldn’t run Fantasy games anymore, I’d turn to superheroes. I’ve done some of my favorite work in that genre- exploring themes and ideas more concretely than in many other games.
Yet superhero games still feel like more work to me. I’m a fairly improvisational GM, sketching perhaps a few pages of notes for a session and spinning off previous work for many sessions. When I run a supers game, on the other hand, I dig in. I feel obligated to generate the news, to come up with colorful secondary characters ahead of time, and to develop fully-fleshed mysteries. I don’t want a supers game to be just about the fights- I want something more. But I want spectacle. At heart I’m still a kid getting up early Saturday morning to watch the Superfriends despite having seen the episode many times.
COMIC BOOK GAMERS
In '84 I walked several blocks to yet another hole-in-the-wall comic book store. It lasted less than a year. At the time I only bought big titles I followed- X-Men, The Defenders, and anything by Frank Miller. I had spare money so I went through the 25-cent bargain bin and found a couple dozen issues each of oddball books- Arion Lord of Atlantis and Swamp Thing. At home read through those haphazardly until I hit the last couple of issues of Swamp Thing…the ones with a new writer named Alan Moore. It sounds clichéd, but those books changed what I got out of comics. I’d enjoyed the solid superhero storytelling of Miller, Claremont, and Wolfman before that, but this offered something new. Gene Ha, who would later go on to work with Moore, agreed. I lent him "The Anatomy Lesson" and he went absolutely nuts. It was all he could talk about in Honors Biology for the next several days. But the rest of my gaming group went meh. They had other books they loved.
How tightly do comic book and rpg fandom connect? How much is that affected by your location? Comics completely passed by my Play on Target co-host Sam Dillon, a solid gamer. My Mutants & Masterminds campaign includes a player who only gets his superheros from the movies, supers novels he devours, and the occasional cartoon caught with his kids. In the 1980’s I think just about everyone in our gaming groups also bought comics. We had few 'collectors' because we never had a steady comic book shop. The half-dozen I recall opened and vanished quickly, usually under cover of darkness. The local gaming store tried out comics, but stuck to indie press materials like The Spirit, Cerberus, and R. Crumb. That lasted only a little while. But within our group everyone bought at least a few books and some- Teen Titans, X-Men, Avengers- served as shared touchstones. But everyone had a few series no one else bought. I loved the Defenders and Miller’s run on Daredevil; another really dug Nexus; another followed the Legion of Super-Heroes fanatically. I luckily had an older sister who bought lots of comics for a time and I’d raid her collection. But almost no one seriously bagged or indexed their stuff. We read comics to complement the rpg stories we told. Normal? Not normal? I’m not certain. I’m sure it would have been different had a solid comic book store been available- or a hybrid game and comic book store.
LINES OF THE TIMES
I’ll Try to provide some context for the superhero material happening in popular culture at the same time. For this first list I had a hard time finding official stats for which comics had dominance. It does include Byrne and Clarmont’s run on X-Men and Miller on Daredevil. This period does include the release of Superman I &II, Swamp Thing, and Condorman. On TV we had Spiderman and His Amazing Friends, the Dr. Strange movie, and The Incredible Hulk.
In 1983’s superhero comics saw some important shifts, including the first appearance of Jason Todd as Robin; the start of Walt Simonson’s run on Thor, and the first issue of Batman and the Outsiders. New Teen Titans and the X-Men remained strong. Alan Moore began to make his mark with Miracleman and V for Vendetta. 1984 saw the launch of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Secret Wars, West Coast Avengers, and Marvel’s new Epic lines. 1985 heralded the launch of many small, independent comics companies. Most importantly it saw the start of Crisis on Infinite Earths which changed the face of DC- ending and beginning many comic lines. At Marvel they countered with Secret Wars II. In other media, superheroes fared badly with Misfits of Science, Automan, and The Greatest American Hero on prime time TV. It was a little better with cartoons with Spider Man and His Amazing Friends, Super Friends/Super Powers, and the Incredible Hulk. Superman III, Supergirl, and The Toxic Avenger hit theaters. So while comics started to move into more experimental superhero material, other media remained stagnant.
Each list will cover a small slice of time, beginning at the dawn of supers gaming. In past lists, I’ve focused solely on core books and covered each game with a single edition. This time for most of the game lines I’m mentioning each of the major revisions and editions. Hopefully I’ll provide some sense of what shifted between them. I’ve also decided to cover some distinct supplements- third party material and campaign books which offer a striking set of new options or ideas. Generally I’m only including published material- print or otherwise. I’ve left off freebie or self-published games unless I think they’re really important.
I'm sure I've left something off without adequate reason; feel free to add a comment about a line I missed (if published from 1978-1985). I've arranged these in by year and then alphabetically within that year.
History of Superhero RPGs (Part One 1978-1985)
History of Superhero RPGs (Part Two: 1986-1996)
History of Superhero RPGs (Part Three 1997-2001)
History of Superhero RPGs (Part Four 2002-2004)
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