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High fantasy and superhero settings. Any real difference?

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Is there any real difference between high fantasy settings and superhero settings in terms of theme and system? It just comes to me that both genres have a similar theme: most people are generally powerless individuals while some rise to higher levels of power and a fee reach godlike levels.

 

Also both must use similar rules to cover superhuman powers and abilities. I mean a 15th level person in D&D compared to a first level human is basically like batman compared to a normal person.

 

So are the genres effectively the same with different fluff? I'm curious.

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For me the biggest difference is what most characters in each genre represent. Typically a character in fantasy, however powerful or skilled, is a human first, with all our flaws and foibles. Protagonists in a fantasy story may have noble aspirations and goals, but they're often driven by anger, fear, jealousy, ambition. Very few of them rise above being "people with power" to achieve anything close to archetypal status. There aren't many kings, for example, even in fantasy or legend, about whom you could say, "This person embodies what the word, king, makes me think of."

 

Superheroes were created to be something more than other people. Of course the best ones are fully-developed characters in their own right; but they consciously strive to be better, to stand for and live by ideals and principles. (Some recent movies notwithstanding.) ;)  And with their costumed identities and code-names they become living symbols of those ideals, that other people respond to as symbols. Bruce Wayne is essentially an exceptionally-skilled human being, but when he dons the costume he becomes the Batman, who is something much greater. Like his famous line from the Bruce Timm animated series: "I am Vengeance! I am the Night!"

 

When you mention King Arthur, or Conan, you may know who he is and what he did. When you mention Superman, or Captain America, you immediately feel what he stands for.

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Being virtuous and full of honorable ideals is an attitude now relegated to only one corner of the superhero spectrum. Thanks to more recent "ages" of comics, I'm not so sure that the old ethoi of the Gold and Silver ages of superhero comics can still be called the norm for the genre.

 

When I first played Champions (in 1983), you could easily discern the difference between High Fantasy roleplaying, as typified by its most prominent system at the time, AD&D, and superhero roleplaying. It was the difference between the murder-hobo ethos and the code-against-killing ethos that underscored the essential character of each genre, respectively. But nowadays I don't know that kids who play superheroes aren't chasing the same narcissistic power trip that kids who play high fantasy characters are, and so the thematic feel of their respective campaigns might not be noticeably different.

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Comics did go through a major "deconstruction" phase in the Nineties and early in this millennium; but from what I've seen there's been a swing back toward a stronger sense of idealism. Not exactly Gold, Silver, or even Bronze; some people call this the Steel Age, with elements of those past comics alloyed with the Iron of more real-world awareness. I would point to DC's Rebirth, which seems to be shedding a lot of the cynicism common to the New 52; as well as the strong response to comic-book movies like the last two Captain America films, the latest Spider-Man, and particularly the new Wonder Woman. They suggest a hunger among the public for superheroes who are actually heroes, who are motivated to do what they believe is right even if it's hard.

 

But I do agree with zslane that a whole generation of gamers have grown up influenced by the "kill things and take their stuff" attitudes of the likes of D&D, and other entertainments that emphasize empowering some of the darker human instincts. Nowhere do I see that more than in the Champions Online MMORPG. I've lost count of all the vampires, demons, and murderous vigilantes taken as PCs in this "superhero" game. I believe many of them don't have much first-hand familiarity with the genre and its conventions, so just try to play what they're used to. If that's the perspective they come from, then yes, there won't be much difference between how the genres play out.

 

(To be fair to the Champions Online player base, the developers of CO have chosen to place a much greater emphasis on the magical/supernatural side of the Champions Universe than our tabletop game's setting does. Many CO players more familiar with the comic-book genre have complained they feel like they're playing high fantasy with four-color capes and tights, rather than actual superheroes. In that light players could just be buying in to what they see; although the devs might be trying to give the players what they think they want. Chicken or egg. )

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I would point to DC's Rebirth, which seems to be shedding a lot of the cynicism common to the New 52; as well as the strong response to comic-book movies like the last two Captain America films, the latest Spider-Man, and particularly the new Wonder Woman. They suggest a hunger among the public for superheroes who are actually heroes, who are motivated to do what they believe is right even if it's hard.

 

How do we know that Rebirth isn't just DC's latest attempt to throw something, anything, against the wall in the hopes that it will stick and attain some measure of enduring acceptance from the splintered readership? I'm not so sure Rebirth can (yet) be seen as a return to older values. Not until it has lasted considerably longer than a single (annual) publishing cycle.

 

As for the movies, well, I kind of think that the hunger (for more heroic heroes) among the general public is simply due to the general public not having gone through the same tonal journey that comic readers did, and never wanting the dark, cynical stuff to begin with. The "return to lighter fare" isn't so much a reflection of the changing tastes of movie audiences as it is an indictment of just how much DC misjudged that audience when they went full-steam ahead with Snyder's vision for the DCEU. I don't think it necessarily reflects the changing preferences of comic book readers (which are still a tiny subset of the general movie-going audience in any case).

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Well, I think the two genres would have to use pretty much the exact same mechanics, rules, etc.

 

 

I mean think about it. In a superhero game a science student gets bitten by a radioactive spider and gains spider related superhuman powers.

 

In a fantasy game a scholar translates an ancient scroll of a lost spider god and gains the exact same powers.

 

Now maybe the scholar has to in some way honor his new chaotic neutral deity, but that affects how he behaves. The rules for his powers are the same as the superhero's. Maybe a "radiation neutralizer field" damps out the superheroes powers and an artifact of a rival god's nullifies the spider god disciples powers. Same rules mostly. Just changes in fluff.

 

In a superhero game a particular character might be immune to most normal bullets. In a fantasy game a chasracter might be immune to arrows. Both are immune to the normal, mundane ranged weapon of their setting. Bullets, arrows, it amounts to the same thing.

 

Yes it's true that superheros are not as black and white (ironic term given the usually heavily colored comic book style) ad they used to be but then again "game of thrones" has kinda changed the old fantasy genre from what it was in "Excalibur" too.

 

So yeah I think both genres would pretty much have to use the same system and rules. As to archetypes and such, those are mostly play style. The changes in superheros from the old clear good vs evil to more ambiguous characters is closely matched by how medieval fantasy used to be heroic knights vs evil wizards and is now more like "game of thrones".

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Here is something to think about. A long time ago, in a galaxy...well this one actually, right down to this very planet, I ran a Shadowrun game for my friends. By any definition, Shadowrun is fantasy. It has goblins, elves, dragons, spells and magical treasure. It is also smashed together with some tropes and dressing from cyberpunk, but ultimately it boils down to fantasy. I would even say that it has the potential to become High Fantasy when the characters get enough XP, levels of Initiation, etc. Well in this game, campaign really, I took my players through some of the standard "murder hobo" (gods I hate that term) style adventures. As the game matured, however, they developed an arch-nemesis that could have easily been along the likes of Dr. Doom for Fantastic Four or Magneto for the X-Men. Their adventures changed from strictly "breaking into Corporate X to steal paydata for money" into something else. Sometimes they did the exact same things but their motivation for doing so changed.

 

They started fighting the Good Fight against Albatross. Where once they may have infiltrated a corporate stronghold for the express purpose of making money, now they did so with the purpose of foiling Albatross's master plan or learning about his weakness. They fought Albatross's goons and henchmen all over the place. All whilst honing their skills and acquiring power. While Real LifeTM ultimately ended the campaign before the final showdown, the characters were practically superheroes by that point. One, a shaman, had become a Grade 8 initiate. Another had his cyberware upped to all custom and yet another had taken his normal character to near human maximum potential (for the game). Their foes had similarly become more powerful, to include some henchmen that had become recurring villains. I had even set it up so that once Albatross had been beaten, there was another, greater threat beyond him.

 

I would argue that my more traditional "dungeon delving" fantasy game had morphed into a superhero game. The same exact rules were used, but it was the player character motivations and GM presentation that had changed. Along the way, each character made sacrifices and choices that would easily fit into the backstory of any seasoned superhero. In effect, the entire campaign was an origin story for a superhero team.

 

Take from that tale what you will. I would say that you are spot on with your comparison of the rules. I would also say that rules, ultimately, are just an artifice used to drive the story. Where that story takes you is really between the GM and the Players.

 

(Now onto another point; I have always claimed that I never ran a superhero game. This little epiphany has made me realize that I have, indeed, ran a superhero game. It just wasn't using Champions/Hero. Who would have thunk it?)

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Is there any real difference between high fantasy settings and superhero settings in terms of theme and system? It just comes to me that both genres have a similar theme: most people are generally powerless individuals while some rise to higher levels of power and a fee reach godlike levels.

 

Also both must use similar rules to cover superhuman powers and abilities. I mean a 15th level person in D&D compared to a first level human is basically like batman compared to a normal person.

 

So are the genres effectively the same with different fluff? I'm curious.

 

 

Let me just say this.  It would be really weird to start a superhero game with "You are all at the bar when a guy comes in offering to sell you a map to the entrance to the local VIPER nest.  

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Let me just say this. It would be really weird to start a superhero game with "You are all at the bar when a guy comes in offering to sell you a map to the entrance to the local VIPER nest.

And yet, that is essentially what happened in Daredevil Season 2 to get Nelson and Murdoch onto the Punisher case. Weird.

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Let me just say this.  It would be really weird to start a superhero game with "You are all at the bar when a guy comes in offering to sell you a map to the entrance to the local VIPER nest.

 

Not so weird. Some viper member decides it's in his best interest to quit so her decides to fund his retirement by selling the information to some heroes. Plus if they round up the other members it reduces their ability to come after him.

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It helps if everyone is on a superhero team with its own base. It isn't hard to imagine/explain that everyone is at the base (or easily reached from it) when "X happens".

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Not so weird. Some viper member decides it's in his best interest to quit so her decides to fund his retirement by selling the information to some heroes. Plus if they round up the other members it reduces their ability to come after him.

BTW a reeeaaalllly evil twist here is for the aspiring ex viper member to have secretly rigged the base to explode in some way maybe on a remote signal and wait till the heroes attack. This way it looks like the base was destroyed by the hero attack (you know how touchy those experimental doomsday machines can be...) and everyone inside was blown to bits. So our disillusioned viper agent walks away safely "dead", the heroes are considered the cause and he also pockets a wad of cash. Hmmm, maybe viper should've promoted that guy...

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Yeah, I knew a Champions player whose character had an unearned reputation for killing villains and thugs in much the manner you describe (i.e., purely coincidental, circumstantial, and mostly unintentional). By the time I joined the group, all the local players were afraid of this character because most of them didn't know the real facts either. It got so bad that this guy had to retire the character. Of course, he just changed the character's name and costume and few players were the wiser.

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Champions is primarily about seeking criminals and protecting others, and epic fantasy is primarily about grand sweeping plotlines and major world events, typically involving royalty and nations.

Champions will usually seek to incarcerate or convert enemies, while fantasy seeks to destroy and kill them

Champions tends to be more local and city oriented, and epic fantasy spans continents.

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Is there any real difference between high fantasy settings and superhero settings in terms of theme and system? It just comes to me that both genres have a similar theme: most people are generally powerless individuals while some rise to higher levels of power and a fee reach godlike levels.

 

Also both must use similar rules to cover superhuman powers and abilities. I mean a 15th level person in D&D compared to a first level human is basically like batman compared to a normal person.

 

So are the genres effectively the same with different fluff? I'm curious.

When I think "high fantasy" I think of the Hobbit and Lord of the Rings.

Bilbo and Frodo were hardly "superhuman." Then again, neither were they powerless. Rather than the "theme" you propose - that some people make a difference and most people don't - the theme could be seen as, even an ordinary person may turn out to have a world shaking role to play. Even Samwise, more ordinary than even Frodo by an order of magnitude, turned out to be vital - Middle Earth would literally have fallen without him.

 

But honestly, unless I know what you mean by "high fantasy settings" and "superhero settings" and perhaps above all by "fluff," I'm not sure I can address the question sensibly.

 

Lucius Alexander

 

And an ordinary palindromedary. Or is that an oxymoron?

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OK. I see some confusion. Let me eliminate it. When I said "high" fantasy I mean high power levels, like say normal D&D where magic users and other characters can rise to like level 15+ and magic items are for sale in shops in addition to being found left a and right.

 

"'Allo, farmer Brown! How are ye gettin' on?"

 

"Bloody awful, blacksmith Jacob. I need ye to fix the blade on me plow again. I was getting me field ready fer this year's corn crop an' me plow blade hit another buried magic sword. Bedamned thing cut it right thru proper!"

 

" 'ell's teeth! Yer the third farmer ta come ta me with that' same problem this season! I'll squeeze ye in when I can."

 

See, that is high fantasy, where a high level wizard can level a village with fireballs in minutes and a high level paladin can defeat 100 orcs in open battle. High power fantasy.

 

I consider LotR to be "Epic" fantasy. The power levels were subtle and not all that great. A 10th level D&D wizard was likely more powerful that gandalf, and as for "the one true ring" being so awesome, Hal Jordan would have defeated Saron's armies, leveled mount doom and threw his ring into the sun with his power ring. The power levels aren't that high really. But it is an epic scale fantasy.

 

So hopefully that clears up the definitions.

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The two main differences I see:

 

1. Special effects

2. Special effects

 

These will vary according to the setting, but broadly speaking, High Fantasy settings have a distinct lack of tech, mutants, radiation, and aliens.  There may be more of an emphasis on traveling and less on Secret IDs, but not necessarily.

 

Thought experiment: Consider a campaign where the PCs are WW, Aquaman, Doctor Strange, and Thor.

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Well, you could have alchemists, or possibly "steam punk" in a fantasy setting. But yes you're right. Two people could have the same powers in a comic setting and a High fantasy setting with different explanations.

 

To take the anology further the original green lantern, the guy with the red shirt and cape, had a power ring based on flat out magic. The mainstream green lantern's ring is a product of "super science".

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When Old Man refers to "Special Effects," that has a particular emphasis for Hero gamers. SFX is how we distinguish what a Power "is," versus the system mechanics that describes what it does. At its basic level it's how you distinguish a Blast as being a fireball or lightning bolt, for example. But it goes well beyond the explanation for a particular super power or spell. SFX have their own distinctive appearance and "flavor" that make different manifestations of a power feel different from each other, and which can make them better suit a particular genre or style of play.

 

As one example, an official Champions villain, Brangomar the Shadow Queen (Champions Villains Vol. 1) is essentially a fairy-tale evil queen. She commands formidable magic, but Limited to the Special Effect of, "Fairy-Tale Magic." She might conjure up a wall of thorny brambles to bar someone's path, or summon a swarm of ravens to attack someone. That's very different feel-wise from a D&D wizard's Prismatic Spray, let alone Green Lantern's power-ring constructs; even if they end up being built with the same game-mechanic Powers.

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Special Effects also tie directly into the game mechanics. Limitations are often based on the SFX of powers. "Only vs. Divine Magic" (-1) might be one example. It then becomes crucial to know whether or not your opponent's lightning attack is Gurtmond's Donder und Blizten (Sorcery) or Zeus's Retribution (Divine). A pulp character wearing an Ætheric Nullification Jacket might only be protected from energy attacks defined with the SFX "Ætheric Discharge", and therefore be completely useless against attacks defined as Sorcery or Divine. In contrast, the same exact amount of ED bought as Shard of Ægis would protect against Zeus's Retribution but not sorcerous lightning or ætheric lightning.

 

I realize that this is something everyone knows, but I think it sometimes gets lost when we start to think of SFX as merely the campaign-oriented window dressing for the game's powers.

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