Marvelous Superheroes: Why It Haunts Me

After my post yesterday, I got into a comic book vibe and spent a number of hours poking at my ever-evolving superhero game, Marvelous Superheroes. I just put up a zip file of the 0.2 version on the “Free Stuff” page, in case you want to take a look at it. I realized that, as more and more people start expressing interest in the game, I should sit down and spell out my design goals. Plus, since not everyone was reading my LiveJournal when I put up the original draft, I thought I should go over some of the game’s history. So this is, collectively, a discussion of why this game haunts me.

This is copied and pasted from my current draft on the eventual 0.3 release, thus allowing me to make a blog post without actually spending any time writing it. That’s efficiency, that is.

Introduction

I’ve been a fan of various superhero game systems for over twenty years, but none of them quite worked the way I wanted them to. I was familiar with Fudge for over a decade and liked the idea of it (especially the open source ethos), but it also had some weirdly complex areas that seemed unnecessary and kept me from really trying out the system. Meanwhile, a public domain game called 4C was released. It was a more streamlined version of my favorite superhero system, but it went in a different direction than I would have gone in.

One day, in thinking over some house rules for a superhero campaign I wanted to run, I considered converting 4C and Fudge into a new game, so I would have more flexibility in terms of rules hacking down the road. I found a great article by Steve Kenson on the “Superlative System,” and that started me on the road to what eventually became Marvelous Superheroes.

This document is rewritten from the Fudge and 4C SRD documents for use in my personal games, and released under the OGL (see the Appendix for more information). In the spirit of open source gaming, I’ve also used examples and characters from various public domain and open source resources. The goal is to keep the focus off of intellectual property snarls and back where it should be – on creating awesome games at the table.

Design Goals

Marvelous Superheroes was originally designed as a “rosetta stone” between my favorite old-school superhero game and Fudge. However, as I’ve worked on it, it’s evolved into something more specific, a collection of ideas and opinions on what I think is cool about superhero games. Since that’s not necessarily what other people find cool or fun, I decided to spell it out right here at the start, so you know what you’re getting into.

The main design tactic I took was to discard the notion that I could enshrine everything into mechanics. The superhero genre is just so full of ideas, powers, concepts, and aspects of play that it’s not possible to cram it all into one product. Further, I think that some elements of so-called “game balance” in superhero games largely depend on the nature of the group playing.

As such, much of Marvelous Superheroes is meant to be a toolbox of systems and ideas, a framework between the players and the Publisher rather than an iron-clad set of rules that must be adhered to. That was part of the reason for writing it using the Fudge engine – there’s a lot of material already available that can help you to hack this game into exactly the shape you want, and I didn’t want to cram anyone’s game ideas (especially my own) into a smaller box than they wanted to be in. This is also why the powers are a weird blend of generic and specific – I wanted to give some flavorful ideas to work from, but they can and should be wildly rewritten to fit concepts, not the other way around.

Further, I hate spending hours making NPCs, so I wanted a system that would make that quick. The idea is that if I have an idea for a villain, I can pick a couple of key powers, assign some trait levels that look good, and throw him into play. NPCs are also easy to make on the fly this way – if the PCs start talking to, say, a cab driver, I can decide that his Coordination is Good and he has a Driving skill that bumps it to Great. I don’t need to roll a lot of dice or balance a ton of number to get things back on track. Having everything funnel into one core system also helps – if I haven’t written a rule yet or if I just need to resolve something, I can eyeball a difficulty level, let the player come up with an appropriate ability or power to use, and see what happens. No muss, no fuss.

I fully expect that this game isn’t going to be everyone’s cup of tea, and that’s cool – that’s why I’m keeping it open source. It was never meant to be all things to all people, and I could have just as easily called it “Eddy’s Opinions on Superhero Games” and not changed a word. But I think that there might be a few other people out there who have similar notions to gaming that I do, and who might be creative (or crazy) enough to take this framework and make something even more mad and beautiful out of it.

Anyhow, short version: This game is meant to be the start of the conversation, not the end. If the end result is fun, it doesn’t matter what shape the game is in to get you there.

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