How to Run a Better Superhero Game in 8 Easy Steps?
From Jack Butler
Roleplaying Tips Newsletter #484
- Read Superhero Comics
- Learn About the Comic Book Ages
- Be Aware That Superheroes Are Different
- Play Big or Go Home
- Fit The Game to The Players
- Reward Appropriate Actions
- Punish Inappropriate Actions
- The Law of Unintended Consequences
- Paizo Contest Winners
- Players Handbook 3 Twitter & Blog Contest Starts Monday
- Mobile Formatting Issues?
- Modern and Superhero Minis
- Write A Short Story
- Sci-Fi Tips Links
- A GM’s Larder: Feeding Your Crew
Read Superhero Comics
Now, I’m not saying go out and spend your life’s savings on comic books, but you should get yourself a nice selection of titles and read them over.
Find a series with characters you recognize from other media (like Batman, Superman or Spider-Man) and buy five or six consecutive issues so you get some complete stories. Do the research.
Learn About the Comic Book Ages
Traditionally, the history of comic book publishing has been divided up into several periods, called the Comic Book Ages. These ages each have a set of recognizable, consistent characteristics that mold and shape the stories published during each particular age.
For example, during the Golden Age of comics (from 1939 to about 1955), the story-lines were straightforward and (to be honest) pretty simple. Morality was black and white: either a character was evil, or a character was a good guy, and there was never any pesky shades-of-gray lurking about.
Little to no justification for a person’s super-powers were needed. They worked because they just worked.
Contrast that with the so-called Modern Age of comics (which began around 1996 and is still going strong). Stories are often complicated, and some villains not only have well- thought-out justifications for their actions, those justifications sometimes make them heroes in the eyes of certain people.
Superhuman powers often have explanations based at least on semi-plausible sounding pseudo-science. And the heroes themselves often have secrets that would diminish them in the eyes of the public were the secrets ever to get out.
The age in which your campaign is set will make a difference in the type of characters you play and the type of stories you run. Become familiar with the difference between a Bronze Age superhero and an Iron Age superhero. Even better, help your players become familiar, and they will learn to roleplay the time period appropriately.
Be Aware That Superheroes Are Different
People have been reading and writing stories about heroic action for centuries. What makes comic book superheroes different from the heroes that have gone before them is one thing: an adherence to a higher code of behavior.
The heroes of myth and legend killed without mercy, respected no law that impeded them, and had no concept of civil rights. They basically did what they wanted, when they wanted, to whom they wanted. And these were the good guys!
Modern comic book superheroes follow a moral code of conduct, and it is this that makes them true blue heroes. They are morally upright, courageous, and put the good of the many ahead of the good of the one, especially if that one is himself. They don’t use lethal force except in the direst of circumstances, and even then they beat themselves up about it afterward for months.
There are exceptions to this, of course, but the classic four color true blue hero acts this way.
Play Big or Go Home
Individual superhero stories can be small intimate things that explore the nature of the character’s relationship with others, or that look into the conflict between the character’s human nature and superhuman nature.
But a superhero campaign has to be a huge thing with an epic scope in which the heroes struggle with villains and natural disasters and alien invasions. The players will have fun finding ways of using their abilities to solve problems.
Since they are playing bigger-than-life heroes, give them bigger-than life problems to solve.
Fit The Game to The Players
A good campaign will do two things: first, it will give the players as a group something to accomplish as a team. Second, it will allow each player a chance to shine as an individual, within the confines of the group challenge.
Always remember that superhero campaigns, as with any role- playing game, are all about wish fulfillment. While in other games, the players are wishing they can cast magical spells and combat dragons and win glorious treasures.
In superhero gaming, the wish is simple: I want to be better!
The players in a superhero game need to have challenges that match their characters’ abilities. After all, where’s the fun in playing a character capable of lifting dump-trucks over his head if the GM never gives him any dump-trucks to lift?
Tailor the challenges to suit character abilities. Your players will thank you for it.
Reward Appropriate Actions
When the player characters’ act like comic book superheroes, reward them. When they don’t, do not reward them at all.
In a lot of cases, let the Rule of Cool settle whether a character can or cannot do something they want to do. If the character wants to do something that’s heroic and cool and utterly unrealistic and stupid, let it go, especially if it furthers the story or allows the player characters to be truly heroic. The players will love you for it.
Punish Inappropriate Actions
This means things like denying experience points to players who don’t act in character. If the player character is supposed to be scared, and the player himself is running the character as if he doesn’t have a care in the world, then remind him of it by letting him know he’s being inappropriate. Enforce the mood of the story, and make sure the players are acting appropriately.
Lethality needs to be addressed as well. In terms of the campaign, a true-blue hero who blatantly kills criminals should be pursued by the police and imprisoned, not hailed as a hero. If the players can’t come to an understanding on this issue, perhaps superhero games are not for them.
The Law of Unintended Consequences
This tip speaks directly to the setting of the campaign. If you were running a fantasy campaign, you’d set it in a fantasy world with castles and dragons and goblins lurking in the mountains and so on. In a superhero campaign, you must also make your setting fit the genre.
There are several questions you can answer that will help you shape your superhero world.
What causes people to gain super-powers?
Are all superheroes mutants? Are they all imbued with the power of some ancient mythological god? Are they aliens? Are there a multitude of sources? The cause of super-powers will affect the choices the players make when they create their characters.
How long ago did people start gaining super-powers?
The length of time between the first appearance of super- powers and the current date of the campaign is important. If the first super-powered individual appeared recently, then the governments of the world are only beginning to react to their presence, the number of super-powered villains will be low, and the tradition of code-names and costumes might not be in existence yet.
On the other hand, if super-powers have been around for decades, then the world has adapted to their presence. People aren’t so shocked by the sudden appearance of a garishly clad, super-powered person.
How have super-powered people affected the world they live in?
The presence of people capable of lifting buildings and shooting lasers from their eyes will have a great effect on the world around them. Has a super-intelligent technological genius made a better energy source than crude oil? And if so, has this technology become widespread? If so, then cars and airplanes won’t be powered by the internal combustion engine and pollution will be lower worldwide.
Did superheroes respond to the attacks on September 11, 2001? If so, then it is possible that not as many people died, the terrorist groups behind the attacks could have been rounded up quickly and easily, and the widespread concern over security and terrorism we experience in our modern lives might never have come about. What medical advances have occurred since the advent of superhumans?
It will take some thought, but in the end the effort will be worth it.
A Brief Word from Johnn
Paizo Contest Winners
Congrats to the GMs who won the recent GM Roadblock contest:
TW Sulat (you have not replied to my email yet – please contact me to arrange for prize shipment)
Thanks to everyone who entered. I have another contest for the ezine coming up, so stay tuned.
Players Handbook 3 Twitter & Blog Contest Starts Monday
Speaking on contests, if you are on Twitter, or if you read the GM advice on my Campaign Mastery blog, Gator Games is sponsoring another online contest starting Monday. Visit me on Twitter @JohnFour or Campaign Mastery Blog after Monday for details.
Mobile Formatting Issues?
A couple of subscribers have emailed me recently letting me know the email version of the ezine does not appear well on their mobile devices. I have not changed my formatting since 2000, but it might have something to do with the way I hard- wrap lines at about 65 characters to make on-screen easier.
If you have any theories about why there might be a display issue with the ezine on mobile devices, please drop me a note. If it’s something I can change and fit easily into my publishing process, I will.
Trivia: last year I did an RPT survey and one of the questions was whether you preferred plain text or HTML for the newsletter. Results were split 50/50. As I don’t have time to do both each week, the ezine stayed as plain text. HTML would probably display better on mobile devices though, eh?
Please try to fit some gaming in this week.
Superhero Tips Series – Part 1
We do not feature superhero tips often in the ezine. I have not GMed a superhero RPG, so it’s hard for me to write advice on the topic. However, this request from Issue #472 drew a great response from your fellow RPT readers:
I am a player in a superhero campaign, and my GM is not familiar with comics or the genre. Do you have any tips for running a superhero campaign and developing adventures?
So, I’m delighted to announce a three-part superhero tips series, to be run every couple of weeks or so in RPT. Thanks to everyone who responded!
Tips From Roleplaying Tips Game Masters
Have a roleplaying tip you’d like to share? E-mail it to [email protected] – thanks!
Modern and Superhero Minis
From Laurence MacNaughton
I have a tip to share with anyone who plays RPGs in modern settings (especially superhero games). As you’ve probably discovered, it’s tough to find figures for unarmed, ordinary, innocent bystanders!
But at my local model train store, I found an enormous supply of average civilians in the O-Scale section, about the same size as Hero Clix. My favorite series is Scene Masters, available at Walthers.com (or your local store). Search for these part numbers: 433-1854, 433-1855, 433-1856 and 433-1861.
Also, on a completely unrelated topic, Nebula-Award-nominated author Walter Jon Williams had some interesting things to say about games and real life crossing paths when I interviewed him about his futuristic thriller, This Is Not a Game.
If you’re interested, the interview is free at
Write A Short Story
From Ben Halom
Random thought I just had that might help someone GM: write a short story involving all the major NPCs known to be included in your next session. This will give you a feeling of their personalities better than anything but gaming could.
Sci-Fi Tips Links
From Johnn Four
A reader mentioned to me recently he subscribed to the ezine on a quest for sci-fi tips. I sent him several links to the archives, and I thought they might also be of interest to other sci-fi GMs:
A GM’s Larder: Feeding Your Crew
From John Atwell
Victuals are an integral part of any high adventure in an RPG. My crew is an adventurous lot when it comes to eating, though we usually tend toward heavy snacks rather than true meals at a gathering. I always set out a spread that easily fits into our fantasy world, and occasionally introduce additional items during the game at appropriate times.
Here are some comestibles that grace the table when I am trying to keep the game interesting and the items of feasting in character:
Boiled quail eggs
Available in ready-to-eat cans at most Asian grocery stores. Taste just like boiled chicken eggs. Open the can, place in a bowl, sprinkle with salt/pepper/other spices and you have a small mound of miniature eggs from any exotic small bird in your fantasy realm.
Sprinkle with salt, place in a bowl, and present them as items one of the players picked along the path.
Marzipan shaped into potatoes
Available in gourmet stores or stores selling a variety of European products. Present them as “sugar potatoes” collected alongside the trail.
Nuts and seeds
Readily available at most grocery stores and can be presented as items gathered or purchased by a player or NPC. Pepitas (roasted pumpkin seeds out of the shell), brazil nuts, filberts, and other less common fare help add to the adventurous nature. I usually buy them raw, often in the bulk section, and roast them right before the game.
A trail ration staple. Jerky made from buffalo, turkey, tuna, salmon, beef or whatever. Hard salamis of any variety work well.
Another trail ration staple. Blocks or hunks of any good hard cheese will do. Use your imagination (elven swiss, dwarven cheddar). My adventurers sometimes find items like this after defeating a group of villains in a hideout or some other locale that would logically have a store of food.
Flat and unleavened breads (in sheet or stick form)
Make for great elven and other fantasy breads. Available in many regular grocery stores and in most gourmet food stores. Usually come in different flavors (cheese, herb, garlic).
Popped or freeze dried fruits, grains, and vegetables.
Available at many health food and gourmet food shops.
No joke. Produced by a company in California as a “natural snack.” Search online, especially at the larger online mega-merchant sites, and you will find grubs, crickets, and other salted and flavored critters. Nothing like presenting these at the game table when the crew is camped out (and out of rations) or when they are having a meal with some exotic and foreign NPCs.
Drink is equally useful in setting the mood. Typical beverages in my sessions include:
- Meade, available at most places that sell wine.
- Lambic, available at many places that sell a wide selection of beer. Raspberry, apple, peach, currant, and other varieties of this old world beverage are surprisingly easy to find.
- Assorted ales and lagers with medieval or fantasy names, available at large beverage outlets. You would be surprised at the number of labels that sport goblins, witches, Vikings, and other useful motifs.
- Assorted soft drinks with medieval, pirate, or fantasy names, also available at large beverage outlets.
- Water or wine poured from a gourd that I dried out from our Fall/Halloween decorations.
- Large glass bottles of Italian lemonade or soda with a taped on label that I printed out from one of many websites offering fantasy script samples. These are easy to make into elven wines or other fantasy drinks for your non-drinking players. My players sometimes find these types of items as part of treasure hauls, and they make for a good mid-game refill on drinks.
Nothing compliments a meal like a good smoke, especially when you are “on the trail,” if your environment permits it. Fantasy pipes are readily available online. Nothing like presenting a bowl or jar of tobacco as “rare” leaf from some corner of the fantasy realm for all smokers at the table to enjoy in their churchwarden pipes.