Thursday, May 16, 2013

Four Colors, Hold the Capes

I've had fun running superhero roleplaying games in the past, and from time to time I'm tempted to try it again. But one thing has been bugging me about the superhero genre: the costumes. It strains my suspension of disbelief to tell a story about people who put on tights and masks before they go out and save the world.

I know that this may seem to be a minor quibble, when we're talking about a genre with world-threatening supervillains and alien invasions every other week, but it bugs me nevertheless. As a thought experiment, I've been wondering if I can take the costumes out of a superhero game and wind up with something that still appeals to me.

I expect I need to enumerate the elements that do appeal to me in a superhero game, so here goes:
  • The setting should include a little (or a lot) of everything, for no good reason other than it's cool. A superhero setting should include elements of science and magic, future and past. There should be no reason not to have an adventure that includes aliens, or gorillas, or time travel, or pirates, or even alien gorilla time-travelling pirates. Ridiculous and impossible plot elements should be status quo.
  • The heroes (and their enemies) should have amazing abilities. I wasn't sure whether to include this one. Is it really necessary for the main characters to have anything more than good training and equipment? Probably not, but I think you lose a lot of the comic-book feel if you take out the amazing abilities. The heroes have to be more than just the best of the best; they have to be unique somehow. And when they go into action, it has to be more than firefights and car chases; there must be spectacular feats of skill and power. But again, without the capes, you have to think a little harder about just what kind of abilities the heroes can really have, and how they get them. My first requirement (the "everything goes" setting) helps a lot here. You can't shoot energy blasts from your hands just because you're a superhero, but maybe you can because you're an ancient Greek sorceror, or you come from Alpha Centauri, or you invented some nifty cybernetic implants, or you're the result of a secret bioengineering program.
  • The main characters must use their own resources and their own methods to stop threats that no one else can. I think the phrase "their own resources and their own methods" is key here. I think a superhero game is more interesting to play when the heroes aren't working as part of a government agency or greater authority. They can cooperate with the police and the military and so forth, but they shouldn't be subservient to those organizations. This one is more challenging to do without the capes. When we label a group of heroes as "superheroes" and give them flashy costumes, we seem to automatically assign them a special role in the game world without looking for justification. Why, exactly, would the mayor or the President or anyone else come to these people for help? Why is it okay for them to rampage around the city and defy all laws concerning search and seizure and due process and such? If you take away the capes, you force the group to really think about why their group of heroes has this special role, and I think it would make for a more interesting story in the bargain.
It almost sounds like I'm describing a game that's just "superheroes in plain clothes", but that's not what I'm going for. It's not just the costumes that bother me (though it's mostly the costumes); it's the story shorthand that the costumes represent. If you want the main characters to do all things I've described above, in the world I've described, then you really need to ask: why are they doing these things? Why are they risking their lives to save the world? What gives them the moral authority to take the law into their own hands? Why are they allowed to run around the world meddling in people's affairs? The answer needs to be more than "because they're superheroes".

The masks are hiding more than the faces of the heroes; they're hiding story development that might make for a more interesting and unusual game.