Wednesday, 19 August 2015

#RPGaDay 2015: Day 19 - You'll Believe a Man Can Fly

Prompt: Favourite supers game
Oh, man; old White Wolf straplines. That was some
pretentious shit.

I've not played many superhero games, so while Marvel Heroic Roleplaying is almost certainly better, I'm going to pick out White Wolf's Aberrant - the second game of the Trinity Universe, set in the unimaginably far flung future Libertarian paradise of 2008 - as my favourite of those I have played.

Aberrant's advantage is not really its setting, which like all old White Wolf games is pinioned by the weight of a sacred metaplot, although there are aspects of that which I quite like. The basic spiel is that a disaster in an orbital space station bathes the world in phlebotinum radiation and superheroes are born when ordinary humans spontaneously manifest a nugget in their brains that allows them to control quantum energies and do stuff. What they can do varies massively, from 'supernormals' who are simply extraordinarily good at mundane skills, to Superman-style flying bricks, elemental manipulators, teleporters, speedsters, telepaths and everything in between. The in-all-other-games-largely-benevolent Aeon Society establishes itself as a registration agency for 'novas' and uses this to keep Earth's superhumans controlled, occupied and chemically sterilised.

What Abberant did pretty well was allow different power levels of Nova to play in the same ball park, although at the top end there wasn't much you could do about canon characters like Caestus Pax (black, officially sponsored Superman) or Divis Mal (godlike continuity-wide antagonist who might in fact have been able to just create his own world and fuck off into it if he got bored.) The only time you got to do anything involving them was in the canon campaign where you could watch Mal hand Pax his ass (oh, White Wolf.) But yeah; overall there was equal play in being a badass supernormal or the human bunsen burner, although the former tended to require a little more effort from the player*.


Scale is difficult in superhero games, and the reason for this is simple. Batman. As Captain Atom once pointed out, on the basis of his abilities, Batman is a comically underpowered C-lister. In universe he walks among the gods of the DCU because of his intelligence, tactical ability and the liberal application of headology (he can fight alongside the likes of Superman because he fights alongside the likes of Superman,) while in 'real' terms he does it because, well... he's Batman, and while most people accept that he's a bit of a cock, that doesn't stop them enjoying seeing him punch an uppity metahuman or alien god in the face***. If it wasn't for Batman, martial arts detectives would probably stay happily in their own genre, karate kicking mafiosi in the throat. Not even Frank Miller would envisage a scenario in which the Green Hornet and Kato went toe-to-toe with Superman.

But Batman is a superhero, and that makes things complicated****, because narrativism be damned, all RPGs contain an element of simulationism and superhero games in particular really like to define power sets, and that means you need a mechanic in which Batman doesn't just spend all his time in traction. Many approaches have been tried, from fate point-based meta-mechanics to the 'ah, fuck it' approach of early supers games, which just didn't try to balance. One I haven't seen yet - although Marvel Heroic Roleplaying's affiliations are similar - would be to link characters and stories to themes or genres, giving different characters an edge when a particular story is clearly taking place 'in their book'.

Advancement is also difficult. Most superheroes plateau fairly quickly, as the alternative is the kind of power creep that results in super-ventriloquism, whereas RPGs thrive on steady progression. D20 supers games are among the worst for this, since D20 assumes a protracted mook-punching phase in your career path, where most superhero narratives require a much quicker escalation (unless you're playing something more like Smallville, in which case you probably want the Smallville RPG,) and a system which requires you to jump over 10 levels of power progression to play what you want to play is the wrong system.

I guess what I'm saying is that superheroic roleplaying is hard because the mechanical side of RPGs entails the kind of specific analysis that superheroic fiction was never intended to weather. Superhero stories thrive on the willing suspension of disbelief, the acceptance that a man can fly. As soon as you start talking about the physics of it - well, once you get past the whole 'but science says a bumblebee can't fly'***** business - you're no longer willing that suspension, you are asking to be convinced, not just that Superman can fly, but that Batman, an ordinary human of extraordinary skill, could evade Darkseid's inescapable Omega Beams. Despite the massive crossover in fanbase, the gamer instinct to dissect and model is almost completely opposed to the comic reader instinct to accept and marvel; it's a curious phenomenon.

Come back tomorrow, when I think we're talking about horror. In the meantime, do look out the hashtag and in particular, while I've not seen it yet, I would be very surprised if James Holloway's video for today didn't have some interesting things to say, because the man knows his comics.

* One of the PC in my old campaign was a tactical genius, but the player never talked to me as the ST about what might be a genius tactic in a given situation, nor listened when I said something might not be**, thus never gained any advantage from the ability.
** Seriously; there is a particular class of player who ignore GM cautions and seem to believe that the world that the GM has created and the situations that they have crafted will somehow prove the GM wrong. This is not the same as coming up with solutions that the GM didn't think of, which is awesome. It's as if you were doing the Monty Hall problem, but instead of Monty revealing one of the doors you didn't choose had a goat behind it, he opened the door where the car was and you still chose a different door.
*** The Golden and Silver Age mash-up series The New Frontier had my favourite take on the Batman vs. Superman fight ever; I won't spoil it for you if you've not read it.
**** Starting with screwing up the definition of superhero.
***** It says no such thing. What it used to say was that it didn't understand how a bumblebee could fly and wouldn't it be nice to have faster cameras so we could work it out.