Monday, February 22, 2021

Superhero Concepts

Superhero characters in rpgs that feel like characters from comics (and now probably film) can be tough for players, in my experience. Most supers rpgs try to make this easier by suggesting archetypes, but these archetypes are typically based on power types (blaster, elementalist) or role (brick). 

I think the best way to construct authentic feeling superhero characters (This is always assuming emulating comics in this fashion is the goal. If you want to just play people with powers, well that's cool. too.) is to construct them from parts of familiar characters. Here's a couple of examples:

The Atom: This character was part of a series where I imagined how Stan Lee and 60s Marvel staff would have revamped DC's Golden Age characters, like a Mighty Marvel version of DC's Silver Age. This Atom was a socially awkward, 98-lbs. weakling (Peter Parker like), who got transformed in an experiment into a green monster at first (like the Hulk) but later was able to contain his power is a special suit and control it (Captain Atom and Solar have had this aspect at times).

Damselfly: Is half of an alien cop duo who came to Earth chasing a criminal (like the Silver Age Hawkman and Hawkgirl/woman). She broke with her partner and has a power set more like the Wasp. She has an African American appearing civilian identity and is a empowered female character in the 70s mold (both aspects of Bronze Age social relevance.) 

So for both of these Power, Origin, Motivation/Background come from different places. Many of these traits could be genericized, to be sure: "accident" is the origin of Spider-Man, the Hulk, Captain Atom, and Solar, for instance. But I think pulling details and instances from actual characters provides a richer substrata perhaps than reductive llists.

But what if someone isn't a comics reader? Well, in 2020, more people have probably developed an interest in superheroes and superhero gaming through movies. I don't think this sort of "cannibalizing for parts" is limited to comics--or even necessarily superhero media.


JB said...

I grew up reading comics (like any red blooded American boy) but these days most of my supers input is via the film/TV medium. And despite the various crossovers one finds in the "Marvel Universe" I've found that both mediums (film and TV) have limitations that prevent shows from having a true "comic book" feel, despite attempts at being "true" to the characters and recycled story lines.

For both mediums, it is required that the film or series has a single distinct story with a beginning, middle, and end that (despite subplots and dangling teasers/loose ends) is more or less wrapped up by the end of the show/season. While comic books have, of course, created single story issues or 4 issue "special mini-series" I would argue that it is not those types of products that made specific titles/characters popular in the first place. What created (and embedded) lasting, endearing characters in hearts and minds were the following of long-form, serial soap operas, allowing depth and characterization to play out over long periods of time (and devoted reading).

[certainly you need good artists and writers to sustain interest, but my point is that there's little substitute for longevity when it comes to creating an ICON...whether you're talking Superman, Spider-Man, or whatever]

We haven't really seen those types of serials in the live-action television/film medium since the 1970s (animation is, perhaps, a different thing). Maybe the CW shows ("the Arrowverse") could count, but (to me) it all seems linked and limited to very specific DC storylines (especially the Flash stuff). Admittedly I don't watch much CW (haven't watched any in the last 3-5 years) so perhaps I'm missing what's going on there, but the Marvel stuff on Netflix (and, more recently, the Disney+) simply feel like looooong movies cut into individual episodes, rather than true serials in the style of comic books.

Which is fine and fun in its own way, but not the same as waiting on the next issue to come out "back in the day." And I believe that it is far more possible for RPGs to emulate the comic book medium because of its serial nature (waiting between sessions). The only thing that's required is longevity and investment by the folks at the table...not the need for importing recognizable tropes.

Well, other than the most famous of hero tropes: death immunity. Hard to have investment when the characters are getting gakked in a hail of bullets every other session (sorry Heroes Unlimited)!

[I would also add that I don't think it's all that necessary to even have an excellent writer...i.e. GM...for such an undertaking. As with all RPGs, the fun and power of the game is in its EXPERIENTIAL nature, much more so than a carefully crafted story. It becomes less imperative to have "relatable" characters when a player is squarely in the driver seat of the protagonist]

Dennis Laffey said...

Following on from what JB said, I think there's really too much reverence for Joseph Campbell's Hero's Journey in Hollywood (thanks to George Lucas's success with Star Wars) that leads to the need for a superhero story on film to be just that sort of self-contained arc, rather than the episodic and soap operatic long form story of the original comics.

I don't think this is a bad thing. They're different media, they have different demands. While it's fine to keep Peter Parker and Mary Jane on the "will they/won't they" question for years in comics, and once every dozen or so issues have the Green Goblin return to battle Spidey one more time, in film people want a satisfying ending after their 2 hours invested (or 10 to 20 odd hours of a TV season).

And it's not always practical to keep A-list, or even B-list, stars on contract to return as a villain again and again and again, especially when you have a huge rogue's gallery to choose from after decades of comics runs.

RPGs, however, are exactly the sort of medium in which it makes sense to have things play out in soap operatic format instead of Campbellian hero journey format.

Trey said...

Interesting (if tangential to the post :)) thoughts, guys!

WQRobb said...

I frequently create an "Appendix N" for superhero RPG campaigns, just because not only are there some who don't read comics, but the genre itself is so wide and diverse.

JB said...

@ WQRobb:

That's actually a pretty awesome idea that I've (stupidly) never thought of.