History of Superhero RPGs (Part Three 1997-2001)
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JOURNEY INTO MYSTERY
On a recent Play on Target podcast episode I suggested you could break superhero material into three categories: Sci-Fi, Pulp, and Fairy Tale. These represent the 'big sweep' of a game or story. Some combine them, but usually have a clear emphasis. Systems often present a setting with a particular flavor, but some take a neutral approach. Even those neutral games simulate some of these themes better than others: the crazed levels of DC Heroes handle the mythic or techno, but break down for the pulp, strictly realistic action. There’s an additional dial- the drama tag- which modifies these types, but I’ll come back to that.

What constitutes superhero as sci-fi? Most obviously games using classic sci-fi trappings: set in the future or in space. Think The Legion of Superheroes, Marvel’s 2099 series, or Strikeforce: Morituri. But some stories with those elements lean in other directions (Adam Warlock, Nexus, Batman: Beyond). Sci-fi superheroics embrace those elements and also add at least one other trapping: a unified system for explaining superpowers relying on pseudo-scientific patter; consistent world-building focused on consequences; and/or heavy reliance on technology. So Marvel’s New Universe, Warren Ellis’ Planetary, George R.R. Martin’s Wild Cards series, Grant Morrison’s run on X-Men (and the films they shaped), Judge Dredd, Bubblegum Crisis, and the Icarus Project series by Jackie Kessler and Caitlin Kittredge all fit into this category. Superhero rpgs leaning this way include Godlike, Cybergeneration, White Wolf’s AEon Trilogy, Brave New World, and Underground.

What does that mean to actual play? These games add a vocabulary for what’s possible- a certain kind of technobabble for justifying powers and events. They narrow imaginative space: demons, fairies, magic, all set aside. Unless, of course, they’re shown to actually be something else: a malice matrix, a trapped time-traveler, an alien invader. In other words, a supernatural foe from a Dr. Who episode. It often means presenting stories which seriously consider the social, mechanical, and practical impact of super-powers on the world. I think Aberrant’s probably the best example of that.

Pulp's a little more fluid. On the one hand it contains most of those superhero tales which self-describe as superhero. Indiana Jones, Tarzan, and even Doc Savage are pulp, but they aren’t superhero. Instead I’m talking about “Mystery Men”- characters with masks, gimmicks, and sometimes strange powers. That includes The Shadow, The Woman in Red, The Spider, Miss Fury, early Bat-Man, The Avenger, and so on. These appear in novels, radio serials, and comics. They’re icons of justice fighting against clear adversaries, but often solving mysteries at the same time. If a pulp game allows for crimefighters like those, I include those on the list.

But beyond that Pulp includes games and settings where powers mean less. On the one hand that can focus on non-powered adventurers or vigilantes. Dark Champions, for example, emulates these kinds of games. These stories include “realism,” street level conflicts, brutalized protagonists, and conflicts with the authorities. Key runs on some lines focus on this aspect: Batman: Year One, The Punisher, The Question, Daredevil, Moon Knight, and Kick-Ass. We can see this on television with The Cape and Arrow. But Arrow’s immediate predecessor, Smallville, began as the other strain in this category: Pulp as Human Drama. Pulp stories, as I’m defining them, concentrate on the human costs and consequences. Characters worry about their expenses, the toll on those closest to them, how to maintain their secrecy. They struggle with these issues much more than they do with villains. Campaigns built this way can be tough on players expecting power and freedom. This kind of superhero story more about the people and less about the environment (unlike the Sci-Fi superhero story). Solutions and victories are usually small-scale and temporary (unlike the Mythic supers story).

I’ll talk more about how these approaches differ and shape campaigns on a later list.

TIMELINE
1997-1998 The Onion AV Club had an interesting article on the New Universe, a experiment our group followed in the early days but dropped by this time. Marvel tried a flashback month- renumbering all issues at -1. A couple of X-events "Zero Tolerance" and the "Hunt for Xavier" rounded things out. More importantly they brought back the Avengers and FF in "Heroes Reborn." DC ends up with "Genesis" (a battle against Darkseid) and "DC One Million" which connects the 853rd century to modern heroes. DC also introduced Superman Blue/Superman Red. Looking at the sales list the X Books continues to dominate the stats. New #1 books- clearly collector grabs- dominate the year in sales. We also saw a second series of Amalgam- the DC/Marvel crossover/hybrid series. In the movies were saw some truly horrible superhero films: Batman & Robin, Spawn, and Steel. However we did get a Blade movie, one of the few truly successful outings for a B-super character. TV superhero material was pretty thin: Power Rangers: Turbo & In Space; Ninja Turtles: The Next Mutation; and Sailor Moon. We did get The New Batman/Superman Adventures which mixed repeats and new material and The Powerpuff Girls. So only a little aimed at classical superheroes.

1999-2001: I’m stunned at how many X-books topped the sales rankings during this period: Uncanny X-Men, X-Men, X-Men Magneto War, Wolverine, Gambit, Mutant X, and so on. Marvel seems at the top of their game month after month, with the majority of the top twenty in sales consistently. Even the events all seem tied to these characters with the “Hunt for Xavier,” “The Twelve,” and the solution to the Legacy Virus problems. DC on the other hand brought some interesting books and series to the table, not least of which was the “No Man’s Land” crossover for Batman. On the other end of the spectrum lies cosmic Our Worlds at War series with cosmic level events on every page. Both publishers pull in interesting new voices like Ed Brubaker and Greg Rucka- writers who’d toiled in the indie comics scene. The movies brought us very different takes on heroes: parodies like Mystery Men and The Specials; the revisionist Unbreakable; and the conventional X-Men. Television offered more diverse options. We got several new Power Rangers series, but we also finally saw Batman Beyond. Fox Kids destroyed us with the terrible Spider Man Unlimited and Avengers: United They Stand. Smallville arrived and slightly redeemed the idea of live-action supers shows, poisoned by fare like Witchblade and Mutant X.

IN OTHER REALMS
Video games become more mainstream in this era, with the console wars heating up and a making them an accepted entertainment medium. As a result we get a number of superhero games. In Fighting and Beat 'Em Ups games we get X-Men: Mutant Academy, X-Men: Mutant Wars, Marvel vs Capcom: Clash of Superheroes, and Marvel Super Heroes vs. Street Fighter. In Action and Platformers we get Spider-Man, Batman: Vengeance, Blade, Shadow Man, and Spawn: The Eternal. Most importantly we receive the blessedly craptastic Superman. On the board game front it is equally mixed: Marvel Super Dice, Comic Crusades, Marvel Trivia Game, Batman & Robin: The Board Game, X-Men Trading Card Game, and Monopoly: Marvel Comics. At least we also got Champions: Wildstrike, right?

These lists cover a smaller slice of time than my past rpg lists. I hope this makes them easier to read. I include mostly core books, but also significant setting or sourcebooks. I list revised editions which significantly changed a line. Generally I only include published material- print or electronic. I leave out freebie or self-published games: Bif! Bam! Pow!, Urge, and Four Colors al Fresco. 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 1997-1998). 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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1. RPG Item: Trinity [Average Rating:6.72 Overall Rank:1403]
Lowell Francis
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(1997) By this point I'd stopped working at the game store and so saw things as much through online discussions, game cons, and mass market stocking. I recall when Aeon hit- and then the quick weirdness of the switch of the title to Trinity. I actually thought WW had two distinct lines. I didn't catch the game's focus until Aberrant came out the following year. Sci-fi didn't grab me and I didn't get that it revolved around superpowers characters.

Trinity kicked off WW's linked set of games dealing with superpowers at three eras of a shared setting. It modified the Storyteller system to that end which worked...OK. ST had some problems dealing with large-scale and powerful beings. You'd see some of the saw flaws appear with Exalted and Scion. the handling of actions and speed in particular remains problematic across those lines. But generally the games sound and WW supported it decently with a variety of supplements large and small. Clearly Aberrant got more attention, but Trinity remains in print for some time. They adapted it to d20 in 2004. The new Onyx Path publishing has announced that they will release a new edition of Trinity. I hope they take a rules light approach.

I especially like Trinity in that it plays with and turns around some of the classic future-supers tropes. Other games like Superhero 2044, Enforcers, and Cosmic Enforcers have just a backdrop of sci-fi. They seem to be closer to the great comic touchstone of the Legion of Superheroes. Others embrace the dystopian or cyberpunk over the superhero tropes (Cybergeneration or Bubblegum Crisis)- closer to the various Marvel 2099 series. Trinity feels to me like the LSH through a filter of realism: how could this happen? what would it mean to have metahuman space agents? It that way it anticipates some of the darker and more conspiratorial storylines of the Legion in the '90's and '00's.

There's a great deal happening in the setting and Trinity has some amazing sci-fi world-building. Where I think it fails is in offering a coherent sense of what the game's actually about. In think the best way to describe it would be super-powered psionic troubleshooters in space. But then there's the whole Aberrant war, the alien race explorations, and strong emphasis on sourcebooks covering Earth. That ambition and desire to cover all ends of sci-fi means that it lacks focus. That might work for another game- like Traveller or SpaceMaster- but the strong design and presentation focus of WW work best when they cover a tight idea deeply. I hope the new Trinity edition does a better job of pitching and demonstrating the core idea.

Point buy. d10 resolution.
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2. RPG Item: BESM (Big Eyes, Small Mouth) [Average Rating:5.84 Overall Rank:6494]
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(1997) In my various lists, I've usually avoided generic or universal games except where they have a supplement tied to the genre. BESM's my exception- because the material so overlaps with the what we might call the "anime edge" of superhero games (Super Sentai, R.O.D. TV, Sailor Moon, and so on). We've seen (and will see) several games based on properties like those. Mutants & Masterminds (Mecha & Manga) and Hero System (Kazei 5) both added supplements to incorporate those concepts.

BESM offers a suprisingly solid system to power the anything-goes world of anime and manga, with a decent set of powers. GOO would go on to use much of the Tri-Stat system which powers this as the basis for their superhero game Silver Age Sentinels. The system gives both a mechanial toolkit these campaigns, but also good material on how to actually run in the anime/manga genre. The game did well enough that it generated three later editions (2, 2.5, and 3), a d20 version, several genre books, and resource guides for some popular anime. If you're interested in a light and fast system, with a decent level of detail and options, I'd recommend checking out BESM (Big Eyes, Small Mouth) third edition.

Point buy. d6 Resolution.
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3. RPG Item: Champions New Millennium [Average Rating:5.68 Overall Rank:7054]
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(1997) I suspect I'm not the best person to talk about this game. When it hit, I still held up Champions 4th as pretty much what I wanted out of a supers game. To combine that with Interlock seemed more gimmick than sensible decision. We'd played a lot of Cyberpunk- but no one held that up as a good system. In fact we often commented on how the game fought us more than helped us. But one player in our group had followed the development of Fuzion avidly, downloading everything available online. Fuzion blazed trails- among the earliest games with an open license. Our group tried it but didn't care for it.

So once I finally got a look at C:tNM, I was a little surprised to see exactly what this sourcebook was. Yes- it has the Fuzion rules, but it can easily be adapted for use with the conventional Hero rules. What it offers is a new "reimagined" Champions. A newer, more gritty, and shittier version. This is a game setting which buys into all of the excesses of '90's comics. The macho tone, the poses, the hypersexualization, the dark undercurrent, the complete disregard for anatomy, the idiotic belts and straps and such. It certainly takes the more classic four-color Champions Universe and transforms it into something else. From this remove some of it reads like parody- but more seems like the authors have drunk the kool-aid. It would make a great sourcebook for an Iron Age campaign in M&M. C: tNM generated only two supplements- Champions New Millennium: Bay City and Champions New Millennium: Alliances published the same year.

Point buy. d6 Resolution.
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4. RPG Item: Providence: Main Rule Book [Average Rating:0.00 Unranked]
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(1997) So far on these lists we've seen a number of sci-fi supers supplements, but few fantasy ones. Providence bucks that trend...a little. I'd argue the most influential 'fantasy' superhero games aren't this list because they don't really want to be supers games: Vampire: The Masquerade, Werewolf: The Apocalypse, and Mage: The Ascension. Beginning in the early 1990's WW shifted the direction of rpg gaming and offered dissatisfied players a new direction. Sure- these games could be used to deal with dark stories and tragic corruption. But often the stories I hear consisted of power fantasy and teams of monsters acting like super anti-heroes and fighting big bads. Werewolf in particular sets up a pretty clear bad-guy for the groups to fight to save the world. And the Hulk's pretty much just a werewolf, right? Mage has the same set of clear adversaries with the empowered PCs battling against a hidden conspiracy. Pyramid had a great article considering how you could use the background of Aberrant as a cover for an Mage revolution.

Providence, though, doesn't play fantasy with our world. Instead it offers a really weird setting. I'm going to quote John Karakash's review on RPGNet to sum this up:
Quote:
"Providence is a hollow world meant to serve as a prison for those who rebelled against a stratified and unjust society. They fought under the banners of Gods who turned out to be merely powerful mortals and were defeated along with their false deities. Soon after their interment into a number of prison-camps, the gates that deposited them to Providence stopped working, trapping guards and prisoners alike. After a number of bloody rebellions (and a few generations), the prison system broke down and most of the cities were freed. Most of the world is unexplored jungle, containing odd creatures that were once like the PC races. And it's a world that appears to be coming to end as cataclysmic natural disasters begin to tear it apart."

The reviews and comments I've seen talk describe an interesting (if slightly incoherent) world combined with difficult mechanics. Apparently it offers superheroics in that you're fighting for good and have strange powers. I've never actually laid my hands on the game, so I can't provide an better assessment.

Point buy. Various dice.
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5. RPG Item: StuperPowers! [Average Rating:6.50 Unranked]
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(1997) The image of the superhero with urine staining his pants and pooling on the ground beneath him as he's surrounded by villains didn't give me much hope for STUPERPOWERS!. A parody rpg that aims to take the piss out of the genre, it did well enough in '97 to spawn a second edition in 2001. If you like comedy games, you will probably like this. The layouts nice, they have art, and the game feels pretty complete.

I'm not a big fan of comedy games. I enjoy when humor and parody arise from play at the table, and I some humor sparingly in a gamebook. But I'm never sure what I'm supposed to get from these kinds of in-your-face satires (I'd count HōL in this category). I'm not going to play it and I don't really laugh when I'm reading it. There's some smart stuff in STP that made be smirk- especially when it takes on some of the excesses of the 1990's. But a good deal of it feels like weak MAD Magazine stuff. I fear that I'm a humorless grump on this- because at least the Deluxe Edition has been carefully crafted and assembled. The game looks dynamite, but I'm not the audience for it.

Random generation (sort of). Various dice.
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6. RPG Item: The Blood of Heroes [Average Rating:0.00 Unranked]
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(1998) Several years after Mayfair stopped publishing DC Heroes, Pulsar games decided to take that system and create a freestanding supers rpg: The Blood of Heroes. The first edition from '98 vanished quickly, replaced by a Special Edition in 2000. Pulsar Games itself has changed hands since then. But there's some suggestion that they may not actually have the rights to the system. Ray Winninger has suggested that everything surrounding DC Heroes actually belongs to DC Comics and that Mayfair never had the right to transfer that license, even to the basic system.

The game itself has the strengths and weaknesses of the MEGS system, but without the charm of the DC property. Everything's here in a dense single volume which is slow going. The book buries whatever simplicity the system once had. It also has some terrible, terrible art. I had to look at some of the full page images for several minutes to figure out what the hell's happening. If you have a copy of the Special Edition, I recommend checking out page 136. Try to use that image as a writing prompt. The Blood of Heroes Universe takes up 100+ pages of the core book. Its a kitchen-sink, weirdly '90's gritty setting-- which feels strangely incoherent. Lots of NPCs and groups but little sense of what ought to make this world compelling or distinct. Too dark and messy, it doesn't appeal to me at all.

Point buy. d10 Resolution.
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7. RPG Item: Heroes Unlimited (Second Edition) [Average Rating:6.40 Overall Rank:5942]
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(1998) Heroes Unlimited landed in '84 (with the revised version in '87) so that's a respectable amount of time for a game to remain in print and available. I'm not sure I agree with Kevin Siembieda's assertion in the intro that HU is "one of a tiny handful of contemporary superhero games." I think these lists put the lie to that. HU 2 has another striking Steranko cover (which KS has to mention in the intro and argue with online persons who took exception to the US-centric imagery). The art throughout the book's more solid and consistent than previous editions. Some of its wild and oddly out-of-place, but the whole thing doesn't seem nearly as a bonkers as other Palladium books.

Changes for this edition include overall clean up of the mechanics and changing the magic system to bring it in line with other games sharing the base system. Overall the layout's easier to work through and material's presented in a more coherent order. However some rules appear well before the cart has even been built. As well many sections still feel like essays dropped in. And there's the weird thing that each subsection has to have a byline to it, with Siembieda's name appearing every few pages. HU remains a complicated game with a lot of working parts. It has gotten some ongoing support over the years with setting books (some of which I'll mention later), the Powers Unlimited series, and others.

Random generation (some picks possible). Level based. Various dice.
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8. RPG Item: Marvel Super Heroes Adventure Game [Average Rating:7.27 Overall Rank:1314]
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(1998) So someone's going to have to help me here. This is Marvel done using the SAGA rules which came from the Dragonlance: Fifth Age rpg. But that's different from the WotC Star Wars: Saga Edition which came out ten years later. That's a little confusing. The SAGA version of Marvel dropped off my radar, despite having a number of interesting supplements. I missed it completely, but finally got around to looking at it.

Wow- that's a pretty striking and brave move on TSR's part- shifting a major license like that to a non-standard system. And apparently it worked, judging by the high ratings on RPGGeek. Its hard to tell from just reading the rules how well it will play, given the card-driven nature of the system. And I'm philosophically in favor of card-based games. I had a good time going reading the corebook; it has the clean and open presentation of top-notch TSR products. I checked in with my Play on Target co-host, Andrew Goenner to see what he thought of it. He thinks MSHAG rocks- the card system works well and allows for fast play without getting bogged down. So I'll have to put this on my list of grail games to track down.

Here's an odd thought. Marvel has had four rpg versions and DC has had three. Each of the Marvel Universe rpgs have been fairly experimental or at least distinctly abstract. MSH used trait descriptors, karma spends, and some diceless effects. MSHAG goes completely diceless, with a card system using suits, trumping, and hand management. The Marvel Universe RPG goes completely diceless with a game more about resource management. Finally, the short-lived marvel Heroic highly abstracts powers and conflicts, with relationships and other traits as important as powers. On the other hand, each of the three DC games have been pretty crunchy, rules heavier, and concrete. Even the lightest of them, DC Universe, has full power breakdowns with its use of the WEG d6 system. Does that say something about the respective universes involved? About the companies? Or is that purely an accident of fate?

Point-buy (sort of). Card-driven resolution.
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9. RPG Item: Revelation [Average Rating:0.00 Unranked]
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(1998) I left Buffy off this list because its doesn't really position itself as a superhero concept. Arguably Angel's closer and once we get to the Buffy comic seasons then all bets are off. But generally that's horror, supernatural, and more conventional action. Revelation describes itself as "The Modern Superheroic Horror Role-Playing Game." But its really just another version of Buffy, in a world with Demons and Angels battling (the Seraphim and the Shaetan). Essentially the PCs become monster-hunters in this setting. There's little conventional superhero stuff here.

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10. RPG Item: The Sailor Moon Roleplaying Game and Resource Book [Average Rating:6.00 Overall Rank:6779]
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(1998) I'm not a big Sailor Moon fan (I preferred Revolutionary Girl Utena and Blue Seed). But I appreciate what the show does- combining episodic shows with a long running mythology. I've mentioned Superfriends and 60's Spider Man cartoon as an influence, but I also loved Ultra Man and Space Giants which aired on indie station Ch 44 out of Chicago. When I could catch it, Battle of the Planets fell into that category. All of that stuff felt superhero to me: using powers to battle a big bad each week.

Sailor Moon's the clearest riff on superhero tropes- with costumes, secret identities, and a team with differing powers. Guardians of Order's The Sailor Moon Role-Playing Game and Resource Book smartly positions itself for the market outside of gaming. The actual game uses the Tri-Stat system, and is surprisingly detailed. I expected less gaming material and more discussion of the background (ala Bubblegum Crisis: Mega-Tokyo 2033). Instead it splits pretty evenly- and has an extensive GM advice section. Worth tracking down for anyone interested in the magical girl genre.

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11. RPG Item: San Angelo [Average Rating:9.50 Unranked]
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(1998) I love city sourcebooks, and especially those for superhero games. I've written before on that love, Superhero Metroplexual: We Built this City on 250 Points. City sourcebooks have a particular challenge. Often they don't simply have the weight of describing just the urban environment, but also setting up the premises and history of the setting as a whole. That’s true for San Angelo, but the sourcebook doesn’t let that weight it down too much. Instead it gets through that quickly and moves to laying out the city section by section. San Angelo doesn’t feel unique for a supers city- but it is deeply and usefully described for the GM. It takes into consideration the reality of supers and works that into the background well. It can be used as it, serve as a model to build your own campaign city, or be cannibalized for other games.
The original edition came out for Champions 4th, but the revised 1.5 edition covers M&M 1e and Action! System. Gold Rush Games released several supplements to expand the setting: list. When I’ve mentioned SA people have always commented on it fondly- describing it as the only city book they used. The hit for me is the quote from Kurt Busiek of Astro City fame, who calls it “…an intricate, involving, well-realized gaming world.”
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12. RPG Item: Aberrant [Average Rating:6.94 Overall Rank:815]
Lowell Francis
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(1999) I bought into Aberrant late. White Wolf had begun to wind the line down by the time I started buying. The game looks and feels different from earlier superhero games, except its predecessor Trinity and maybe Underground. Compare the style and presentation of this to the big three Villains & Vigilantes, Champions, and Marvel Super Heroes. Aberrant brings the setting- deep, rich, and complicated. It tailors the superpowers to that world, leaving out anything which doesn't fit. It wants to be high-octane, furious, and over-the-top. But it may go too far in that direction. Aberrant suffers from some of the problems facing other high-powers WW products (Scion, Exalted). The mechanics spin wildly out of control when you hit higher powers levels. Many people ran successful campaigns using these rules, but balance and rules density kept me away.

Despite that I love the Aberrant's setting. It presents some of the most consistent and smart world-building. More than nearly any other supers game before, it considers the implications of powers and new technologies on the world. While Underground goes for parody through excess, Aberrant explores consequences. It makes uncannily accurate predictions about near-future tech- like streaming TV programs requiring individual purchases. It explores new areas for supers games- including religion, wrestling, and even celebritydom. However that richness actually works against Aberrant as a game. For one thing, there's a strong and heavy metaplot running through the material. In other rpg lines (like Vampire or Mage) you could easily work around that. But the smaller size of this line makes that stick out like a sore thumb. The world building and the driving story push the PCs out. I'd read an Aberrant novel or comic series. Critics suggest Story Gamers are frustrated novelists and Aberrant feels like an example of that.

The density works against the game in another way: player buy-in. Players have to read all of the setting material to really get the concept and tone. There's almost too much, especially with a genre usually given over to lighter settings and themes. Aberrant's dark and paranoid- reflecting White Wolf's approach but also reflecting a shift in comic books. We'll see that pop up a couple more times in this period and later years. White Wolf published many supplements for Abberant and they were among the earliest games sold as pdf. They also released a d20 version in 2004. If you like superhero settings, you really ought to read at least the core book. You'll find many concepts and details you can lift for a modern game.

Point-buy generation. d10 resolution.
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13. RPG Item: Brave New World [Average Rating:6.19 Overall Rank:5778]
Lowell Francis
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Indiana
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(1999) Comic books got dark in the 1990's. The seeds of that lay in earlier books like Watchmen, The New Statesmen, The Dark Knight Returns, Arkham Asylum, Miracleman, The Killing Joke, and the general indie movement. Comic book creators and fans learned many lessons from those books- for good and for ill. Event books moved to darker themes, more graphic violence, and criticism of "four-color" idealism. That resulted in comics like Spawn, Aztek, The Authority, Rising Stars, Stormwatch, and especially Kingdom Come. I dropped series as they got darker and less hopeful. I avoided books that just laughed at the old tropes without offering anything other than ultra-violence and grade-school black humor. I gave up on one the superhero anthology Wild Cards when it went down that path. Too many books embraced dark for the sake of dark rather offering an interesting consideration of the ideas. That obscured good work being done in comics, novels, and in rpgs. I avoided Brave New World for precisely because of that.

That's a pity because BNW offers an interesting and challenging setting. I wish I'd come to it earlier. Like Aberrant, it offers a darker and conspiracy-rich setting. Brave new World's even more dystopian- with the players battling against a a super-powered fascist government bent on controlling all of the "Delta" as the remaining metahumans are known. The clash comes from a McCarthy-esque superhuman registration. While it feels a little like the X-Men's Mutant Registration Act, it more closely resembles Marvel's Civil War arc. Brave New World has a metaplot, but it doesn't feel nearly as constraining as Aberrant's. Instead it lurks in the shadows. GMs don't have to know the secret and shifting that won't render sections of the supplements unplayable. Brave New World also differs in feel from Abberant. The latter buys deeply into sci-fi with a technobabble backstory and an emphasis on societal fallout. The former feels more mythic- with magical supers, an alternate history of twisted icons, and clear sense of foes and friends. (Though the actual metastory Forbeck had planned goes in a different direction).

Brave New World has an odd publishing history. It began with Pinnacle Games. The base mechanics feel like WEG d6 or Savage Worlds with a single die type. Shortly after launch BNW mofed over the Alderac. They released a number of supplements covering the basics (players guide, volumes for different factions, a city book, and a WW2 sourcebook). However they closed down the line before design Matt Forbeck could complete his plans for it. he has published a series of novels in the setting for those who like superhero fiction. There's some good stuff to be found in these books- and I like the basic premise of rebel heroes against a corrupt government.

Point buy generation. d6 Resolution.
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14. RPG Item: DC Universe Roleplaying Game [Average Rating:6.38 Overall Rank:2815]
Lowell Francis
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(1999) West End Games filed for bankruptcy in 1998, the year before publishing DC Universe. That rpg came out from a WEG restored as "d6 Legacy" a division of French publisher Humanoids. Originally the publisher of Metal Hurlant/Heavy Metal, Humanoids evolved into one of the most important European publishers of graphic novels, with DC briefly working with them to publish in the United States. This new organization published both DC Universe and The Metabarons rpg, until Eric Gibson bought WEG in 2003. So we have a high-profile US comic book license developed by a semi-bankrupt company under the auspices of a French publisher.

Despite those challenges, WEG managed to put together a strong and solid game. DC Universe uses the d6 Legacy system. That offers an interesting compromise between rules-light and granular mechanics. The character sheets, even for simple characters, pack a ton of information- lists of skills and abilities with die values. The write ups resort to teeny-tiny font to fit everything in. Other elements make the game feel very classic and conventional. Pages have an intrusive sidebar that eat up page real estate. The designers subdivide broad areas into increasingly smaller bits in the form of specializations. These apply across skills, combat talents, and powers. That's an approach closer to the older DC Heroes than more open systems like Champions or Marvel Heroes. Despite that DC Universe isn't that heavy in play (unless you use the optional rules and numberless modifier charts there). The weight of the character rests on character creation and trying to figure out exactly what you can do in play.

DC Universe did well enough that WEG published many supplements- for groups JSA Sourcebook (2001), locations The Daily Planet Guide to Metropolis, and concepts Magic Handbook. If you like the d6 system, you should consider tracking down a copy of this (or d6 Powers). If you loved DC Comics in the 1990's, you could do worse than this as a sourcebook for the period.

Point-Buy. d6 Resolution.
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15. RPG Item: Heroes Forever [Average Rating:3.00 Unranked]
Lowell Francis
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Indiana
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(1999) I'm not a collector of rpgs- I mean not a real collector. I buy many games and supplements, probably too many. But I'm looking for material for inspiration or ransacking. I don't hunt for items just to preserve them. So when I compile these lists I often hit things I'm unfamiliar with. That's when I turn to online resources RPG Geek, RPGNet, blogs, online reviews, wikipedia, publisher's websites, and so on. Sometimes I'll find copies for sale- as pdf or as cheap used copies on Amazon or Noble Knight. At that point I have to decide whether or not to thrown down money just to see what's happening with a particularly obscure rpg. I've been burned by that more than once.

To prevent that I've developed a set of warning signs:
1. Typos on the cover materials or promotional information.
2. An unnavigable or incomprehensible publisher website.
3. 1990's state of the art websites.
4. Horrible cover artwork.
5. Blurbs which don't actually say what the game's about or what makes it distinct from other games in the same genre.
6. No reviews online for an older game.

Heroes Forever ticks all of those boxes. Guild of Blades publishing makes figuring out what's actually out for the game harder than it needs to be. I couldn't find any real reviews of the game online. Usually I can find at least some nostalgic write-up on a blog talking about their fondness for something obscure. HF's generated almost nothing despite fourteen years and multiple supplements. Almost nothing- the few small comments I've found universally suggest the company could benefit from a spellchecker of any kind. I also saw the word incoherent thrown around. Once I saw the cover of the Magic Sourcebook, I decided I'd done my due diligence and wrote this.

??? Generation. d12 Resolution.
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16. RPG Item: Century Station [Average Rating:6.67 Unranked]
Lowell Francis
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Indiana
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(2000) While I mentioned Heroes Unlimited 2e on my previous list, I have to draw your attention to this book and its companion volume Gramercy Island. They're amazing, thick, wild, and absolutely bonkers. Bill Coffin builds a world to match the wild possibilities of HU in these two books. Century Station presents once highly advanced city which has crashed and nearly burned. It looks most like Paragon City from City of Heroes. Anything and everything can be found here from wizards to mutants to vigilantes to cyborgs. Gramercy Island presents the adjacent super-prison (ala Stronghold or SPA4-02: Lockdown). More than just a book of villains GI gives you the tools to run an over-the top prison-based campaign. That includes layouts, lingo, and adventure seeds.

Why do I love these two books? They're bursting at the seams with ideas. Many elicit a wtf response, but that can inspire twists and turns to use at the table. If you're looking for something to kickstart your supers campaign grab one or both of these supplements.
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17. RPG Item: Nemesis: A Perfect World [Average Rating:4.00 Unranked]
Lowell Francis
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(2000) I'm not sure what to make of this one for several reasons. On the one hand the game seems to have an introduction by Paul Dini. On the other I'm sure sure what about Paul Dini's gaming bona fides. On the one hand the game calls itself 'superpunk' which sounds intriguing. On the other the cover blurb does nothing to explain what that means. The Amazon reviews seem positive, perhaps overly so given how fast this fell off the radar.

I'll simply quote the author's LinkedIn profile: "In 2000 Nemesis: A perfect world would be published. This Superhero role-playing game would canonize the term “Superpunk” and be the inspiration for many comics and games including City of Heroes, NBC’s Heroes and others. Though applauded world wide Nemesis: A perfect world would not become a hit in the United States and would fall into obscurity when publisher Maximum CNG fiscal problems would prevent it from publishing expansions or follow-ups."

Point-Buy Generation. d6 Resolution.
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18. RPG Item: Sketch! [Average Rating:5.33 Unranked]
Lowell Francis
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Indiana
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(2000) I might not like full comedy rpgs, but I do appreciate some humor. Sketch! offers a goofy planet of good and evil locked in a constant four-color battle of good vs. bad. Or perhaps a greyscale world, depending on what you're using to draw your characters. Each player sketches their PC as well or as badly as they want. Then the group votes on stats with the average vote becoming the ability's value. Most tests pit that value against a 2d6 roll. That simplicity and unique device lends itself to one-shot games, however it also includes rules for longer campaigns. That adds a mechanic for gaining and keeping fame (and infamy) for the PCs. Sketch! also wins for the best supplement- the Sketch Character Generator.

Unusual Generation. 2d6 resolution.
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19. RPG Item: Superheroes INC. Arcanos [Average Rating:0.00 Unranked]
Lowell Francis
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(2000) A Spanish RPG, this is actually the second edition of the game. The first edition published Ediciones Cronópolis in '95 had a couple of supplements, but the company folded. A new publisher- La Caja de Pandora (Pandora's Box)- decided to revise and reissue the game in striking way. The published a separate basic manual for each of the six character types: Inhumans, Vigilantes, Magic, Mutants, Gods, and Tech. That's neat concept except that each manual had different bits necessary to play the game. A later revised edition put everything together into one version. The game itself apparently leans heavily on Basic Role-Playing (BRP).

Point-buy and random. Percentile resolution.
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20. RPG Item: UNSanctioned: The Dream Corrupted [Average Rating:6.00 Unranked]
Lowell Francis
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(2000) UNSanctioned also presents a dark and paranoid world of supers battling a corrupt government. The players can be rebels (the "un-sanctioned" of the title) or Peacekeepers. It offers a complete set of rules. Nightshift calls that the "Paradigm System" but I'm unsure if they've used that for other games. Reviews online are mixed. Writers on RPGNet heavily critique the game for reused text & art, weak & undeveloped mechanics, and editing problems. On the other hand, a DriveThru reviewer calls it "clever, creative and utterly distinctive." That points out the problem with online reviews more than it gives me a sense of what UNSanctioned's like. When in doubt I tend to go with the reviewer who gives me more supporting evidence and explanation. In this case that's the former. Nightshift published one supplement for UNSanctioned, Peacekeepers Illustrated. That contains additional material for running a government-centered campaign.

Point buy. d20/2d10 resolution.
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21. RPG Item: Adventure! [Average Rating:6.97 Overall Rank:1270]
Lowell Francis
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(2001) Adventure! finishes the AEon trilogy with a bang. It offers the cleanest, smartest, and most complete iteration of the system and setting. The layout and presentation's clear and easy to get at. Where the other two erected a barrier of background material, Adventure blends that with the rules seamlessly. You can find what you're looking for. That makes the game easier to teach and offer to new players. The Storyteller mechanics also simply click here with this genre and setting. of all the implementations of that core system, I think Adventure! best balances power and options. It still has some of the base flaws of the revised engine, but the rules mesh with what players do and how they play in the setting. Despite that it didn't make a splash and White Wolf published no supplements for this pulp action game.

Is it superheroes? Yes- more than most Pulp Action games. I include games of that genre if they offer masked vigilantes and other proto-superhero elements. Adventure! ties into the "Quantum" origin of powers connecting the three rpgs together. That reality shifting mechanic allows for a world filled with strange wonders- while still keeping a coherent pseudo-science premise. That's a neat trick and I'm surprised at how well it works. GMs can embrace or ignore that facet of the background. That origin story also allows for a wide variety of interesting low-level powers. Most pulp games have these either as a rare option or a specific class track. Adventure! embraces these and offers even apparently non-powered heroes talents. Death Defiance may be the best of these where characters can return from the dead if they managed to expire but no one saw their body. Adventure! consistently offers what I want from a pulp game. If you want to run a 1930's or '40's masked adventurer game, I highly recommend this.

Point-buy. d10 resolution.
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22. RPG Item: Godlike [Average Rating:7.53 Overall Rank:399]
Lowell Francis
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(2001) The Saving Private Ryan of Superhero games. Godlike's a bold game, too easily dismissed as just WWII supers. Several systems had published sourcebooks for the war- MT1: All This and World War II, The World at War. I considered the sub-genre in earlier posts "A Cape too Far" & "Four-Color Furies." No other game approaches the concept like Godlike. It is a World War II rpg that happens to have supers. The ideas, implications, and hellishness of that conflict come first. The the game considers the what really happens when you throw metahumans into a situation like that. How do people react? How do the institutions respond? What difference can one superbeing actually make on the battlefield?

Godlike brings the darkness, but that comes from a real place. Everything fits with that: Dennis Detwiller's creepy cover, the slightly distorted interior photos, the system's hefty crunch, the deep timeline of the war. Godlike's the first implementation of Greg Stoleze's ORE (One Roll Engine) which would power several other games. The game manages to wring detail out of that fairly abstract dice mechanic (a pool roll read in two dimensions). Godlike balances concepts carefully. You have superpowers which can be finely tuned matched with highly granular weapons and equipment sets. Few other superhero games manage to tie their mechanics so tightly to the world they present. Godlike's done well enough over the years to launch several supplements, another more open version supers game (Wild talents), and a second edition in 2012. Those looking for a game which smartly connects setting & system should check this out.

Point Buy. d10 Pool Resolution.

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23. RPG Item: The Foundation: A World in Black & White [Average Rating:5.00 Unranked]
Lowell Francis
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(2001) The 21st century leaves behind some of the excesses of 1990s comic books, but picks up a new set of rpg excesses. d20 adaptations spring up like weeds across all genres. I'm torn about this. On the one hand I like new source materials, especially those I can quickly understand. On the other I dislike supplements with more space for mechanics and stat blocks than new ideas. My current favorite supers system, Mutants & Masterminds 2e, offers a d20 version far away from the source. Some gamers dismiss Fate, Savage Worlds, or (Insert System) implementations out of hand. I've been guilty of that with d20 systems in the past. But I have some reason for that. Many of these new supplements seem slapped together. They're trying to take advantage of the potential audience without really tuning the system to their story.

This book may fall into that slap-dash category. The Foundation's the first d20 (but not the last) superhero supplement. Rather than a generic supers game, it draws from the author's short stories. Eric Metcalf published these online, but I haven't been able to track them down. The mechanics aim for a direct port from d20. Archetypes (Brick, Gadgeteer, etc) act as classes. But the book doesn't offer much more in the way of mechnaics. It leaves GMs to work out most of the problems and figure out even character creation. Most of the book presents this Metcalf's world. That includes the 'vital stats' of the busty female characters to quote the RPGNet review...shades of Superbabes. Interestingly Paul Lidberg's listed as the designer for this and UNSanctioned mentioned above. Pretty universally panned in the reviews.

Mixed generation. Various dice.

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