Friday, June 24, 2022

Power Scale in Superhero Comics

 Superhero rpgs often wrestle with the scale of super-power characters. This typically manifests itself in attribute benchmarks like in FASERIP-derived games or Mayfair's DC Heroes, but some games like Mutants & Masterminds have "levels" or even a separate scale trait. In all cases, it's some means of separating the capabilities of more normal heroes from cosmic or godlike ones.

There's another factor that could be called scale that is observable in superhero comics. It is not an "in-world" element; the characters aren't aware it exists, but its existence presents a barrier to superhero rpgs being able to emulate the comics (if that's something you care about), and I think its existence is just sort of an interesting observation about superhero universe comics storytelling in general.

It's pretty noticeable when you look at Batman.

In Batman's solo stories he is often given a hard time or gotten the better of by his rogue's gallery (most of whom are not superhuman and seldom as proficient in combat as him) or street thugs and the like. In Batman's team-up appearances or in his appearances as a member of the Justice League, he is far more formidable. He holds his own or triumphs against very powerful foes. Batman in his solo stories is almost a costumed, pulp vigilante in the vein of the Shadow or the Spider, but Batman in the Justice League is a superhero.

Spider-Man is sort of like this, too. The Enforcers given him a hard time in his own comic, but then in Secret Wars #2 he makes the X-Men look like amateurs, at least briefly.

Superman and Supergirl (and I think Thor and Iron Man) work in the opposite way. In Bronze and Silver Age comics, a Kryptonian can do almost anything the plot requires. Supergirl kicks the moon out of orbit in Superman Family #204...

...but she seldom seems that powerful in team-ups or crossovers.

The narrative reasons for these shifts, I think, are pretty clear. If Superman can solve any problem himself, what does the Justice League do? The type of stories that are classically told with Batman or Spider-Man as solo characters require them to be more vulnerable.

I'm not sure these sorts of "scales" in portrayal exist for all characters but they are certainly pretty common.

Could something approaching this be implemented in a supers game? Sure, in some sorts of rpgs. Marvel Heroic already has "Affiliation" (Solo, Buddy, Team) which doesn't do the same thing, but it could. Still, unless a campaign was going to include a lot solo character adventures as well as team adventures, I don't know that it would be particular necessary.

Still, I think it's interesting.


Dick McGee said...

So many thoughts. Let's start with the observation that sufficiently established villains experience a similar effect. The Joker barely loses to Batman solo, and sometimes even ekes out a temporary win. When he shows up a baddy in JLA he's suddenly capable of giving powerhouses like Superman and Green Lantern problems and Bats usually has to use his greater experience to manage a save. In Kingdom Come's timeline he killed Superman's entire supporting cast - despite the fact that main-timeline vanilla no-weird powers Jimmy Olsen once gut-punched him so hard his liver probably ruptured and I'm pretty sure Lois Lane kicked his ass a time or two as well. And he's just one example.

So however you model the "Variable effectiveness" effect in game, it needs to work for villains too.

Trey said...

You make a good point, though I wonder with villains if the variable isn't what book they are appearing in but rather a trait I might call Menace. Popular villains have more Menace, so they are scalable. The Joker is a good example. Villains that creators are trying to position as "more dangerous than you thought" have more Menace and suddenly do things they never did before like kill off C-list heroes or otherwise operate in a more "realisitc" (i.e. deadly) fashion than previously.

JB said...

I agree that it's interesting...and find it absolutely maddening when trying to model with an RPG.

It's really, REALLY hard for an RPG to do both granular, "street level" games AND model the cosmic power at the opposite end of the spectrum. Take a granular game like Heroes Unlimited (which does street VERY well) and you'll end up needing to create whole new classes of hero even more powerful than the "Mega-hero" [perhaps something in combination with Rifts].

The best of the bunch, I think, give up modeling any sort of granularity and (instead) focus on mechanics that model story importance. You see this with the MSH RPG where a character like Hawkeye, for example, can spend karma points to achieve a yellow or red success that might disable a more powerful foe. Supers! might be the best as it simply assigns a number of dice to abilities and powers based on their "importance" to the story (thus influencing their effectiveness in play).

However, for folks who like a bit more simulation in their RPG (like me)'s rough. But, then, comic books aren't really about simulating reality are they? Kicking the moon out of orbit? Sheesh!

bombasticus said...

Epochal. At first I was just here for the frankly bizarre Flaming Carrot style grunts in the Batman panel but you take this somewhere extremely interesting by the time we get to Supergirl. I wonder if unusually powerful characters tend to overcorrect when among the delicate, fragile, plucky street level types so something like a point averaging system would come into play whenever you join an affiliation. This would make affiliations a very big deal and also create fun at the table in terms of splitting up Gardner Fox style . . . if you pick the right squad, Supergirl can cut loose a little more smashing asteroids.

I guess this also solves the "omnipotent batman" Justice League problem . . . on his own he's just a well trained billionaire but the affiliation actually averages his point buy UP, enables him to be better to the exact degree to which Zatanna becomes useless.

Trey said...

if you pick the right squad, Supergirl can cut loose a little more smashing asteroids.

That's a very good point and one demonstrated to a degree in the comics. DC Comics Presents wherein Superman and Supergirl fight Mongul, shows them pretty much as powerful as in their solo appearances (Supergirl flies so fast she punches through Warworld and out of the universe), which is not the case when Superman teams up with Firestorm or Supergirl lets Batman help in Brave and the Bold.

jdh417 said...

I've also seen Spider-Man take out Firelord, herald of Galactus, by himself. That was an epic two-issue fight. If you're going to have heroes punch above their weight class, you've got to make it memorable.