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Superhuman but not Superheroes/Supervillains


Steve
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I was reading through the new Champions supplement Lifted and started thinking about how campaign worlds might be structured without using the classic comic book superhero/supervillain tropes.

 

If superhumans don’t take part in the cosplay out of comic books, how would they engage with society? Would it be X-Men anti-mutant paranoia? Some other sort of dystopia?

 

How would governments react to suddenly having superhumans in their midst today, regular people suddenly having godlike power, without a history going back to World War II? I imagine the first instinct would be to try and control superhumans, either by force or threatening their loved ones. That likely will not go over very well.

 

What if those superhumans were pretty much immune to man-portable weapons like handgun and rifles? Would they eventually start policing each other with some sort of code of conduct?

 

Do these issues then lead back to some kind of comic book paradigm after sufficient time has passed?

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I'll recommend Marion G. Harmon's Wearing the Cape series.  The premise is that, on one day in the early to mid-2000's, the EVENT happened.  The entire world literally blacked out for 3.14159+ seconds...and everything changed.  A baggage handler at O'Hare saw a plane falling out of the sky...and flew up to help it land.  Elsewhere, those of a less altruistic bent found themselves with the means to commit mayhem...and did.  In the first days, panic rose quickly, and some seriously restrictive legislation was introduced...until an incredible speech from one of those new supers, backed by that baggage handler and a few others.  

 

Harmon has advanced degrees (his words) in Literature and History...and they're both evident.  The world building is, IMO, second to none.  The series starts about 10 years after the EVENT;  the opening scene is the lead character suddenly gaining her powers (from a car wreck...powers almost always arise from very high-stress events, and are generally connected to the event, the person's personality, and the like) and moves forward from there.  In the comics, to be sure, high-powered supers fighting leads to lots of collateral damage...and heroes generally don't die.  Harmon tosses those out.  The damage is *immense* in some cases...in one book, a villain with earth powers triggers a magnitude 9 quake in southern California...with its massive web of related faults, and very high population density.  It's incredibly ugly.  And it's not the only one.

 

The novels go into the geopolitical issues from time to time;  there's more in the WtC RPG, particularly about how those early years from the EVENT to the start of the series played out.  One of the books involves dimension hopping, including to alternate versions of the WtC universe, which lets Harmon play out other scenarios that lead to some VERY difficult situations.

 

Harmon does go into many of the questions you're asking here.  He does use the costume paradigm, for heroes...because the symbology is so known.  Superman is the Ultimate Good Guy, and using that costumed symbology helps the very scared norms accept that they have help.  Drew Hayes in Super Powereds did something very similar, where supers went public in, IIRC, the late 50s...and adapted strict standards to try to ensure public confidence.  

 

 

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The situation in White Wolf's Aberrant (part of their Trinity - Aberrant - Adventure series) is similar. You have Novas (superhumans activated by a traumatic or high-stress event) who are mercenaries, shootfighters (think professional wrestling with superpowers), superstars and just normal folks. The first known Nova is a fireman who gains the ability to control fire - and who simply stays on with the FDNY, using his powers to fight fires. There is a designated "Superhero Team" - Team Tomorrow - but they do a lot more disaster support and civilian architectural and ecological aid. But they aren't without their secrets, and their primary opponents, the Nova-supremacist Teragen, aren't really the bad guys, either. The system has problems, but the setting is great.

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14 hours ago, unclevlad said:

I'll recommend Marion G. Harmon's Wearing the Cape series.  The premise is that, on one day in the early to mid-2000's, the EVENT happened.  The entire world literally blacked out for 3.14159+ seconds...and everything changed.

 

(snip)

 

Harmon does go into many of the questions you're asking here.  He does use the costume paradigm, for heroes...because the symbology is so known.  Superman is the Ultimate Good Guy, and using that costumed symbology helps the very scared norms accept that they have help.  Drew Hayes in Super Powereds did something very similar, where supers went public in, IIRC, the late 50s...and adapted strict standards to try to ensure public confidence.

 

I read the first book of Wearing The Cape, and I found it interesting.

 

Wearing costumes to keep the norms from freaking is a reasonable justification, I suppose. What might end up happening is that only a portion of the superhuman population goes for the costumed look (heroic sorts and more publicity-minded villains), while the rest either don’t use their powers much (most people, I imagine) or commit crimes in regular clothes.

 

Passing legislation against superhumans is expected, but enforcement is still an issue. If someone is able to ignore bullets and can bash around or blast police like mooks in an action movie, you then need other superhumans to enforce those edicts.

 

There are also issues of public popularity. Will the populace always support heavy-handed actions against superhumans? They are scary and “other” so maybe?

14 hours ago, Sundog said:

The situation in White Wolf's Aberrant (part of their Trinity - Aberrant - Adventure series) is similar. You have Novas (superhumans activated by a traumatic or high-stress event) who are mercenaries, shootfighters (think professional wrestling with superpowers), superstars and just normal folks. The first known Nova is a fireman who gains the ability to control fire - and who simply stays on with the FDNY, using his powers to fight fires. There is a designated "Superhero Team" - Team Tomorrow - but they do a lot more disaster support and civilian architectural and ecological aid. But they aren't without their secrets, and their primary opponents, the Nova-supremacist Teragen, aren't really the bad guys, either. The system has problems, but the setting is great.

This seemed to be the direction Wearing The Cape chose too, that superhumans would act as disaster help and civilian aid. Crimefighting happens in the comics, but probably not as much in a world closer to real life. Aberrant is probably closer to X-Men in its take on superhumans.

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In WtC, in most of the US, heroes are in crisis response teams;  much of their work is, as noted, disaster relief and aid.  But they're also the ones to take down any powered criminals...because the cops can't.  The Sentinels, the team the main char's a member of, have multiple heavy hitters, so they get the call for big takedowns.

 

One of the aspects is also:  who has oversight?  In Drew Hayes' Super Powereds and WtC, that's a civilian function.  In WtC, the CAI teams are state militia, and there's a federal department as well.  In SP, it's all federal.  In both, you *must* be accredited to actively use powers legitimately, or at least with shielding against liability.  SP takes that to an extreme:  it's a 4 year program called the Hero Certification Program, and it's highly competitive, with (probably too) few graduates a year.  The comics allow vigilantism to run amok, and that isn't practical given the serious damage a super on super fight can cause.

 

Costumes in both also serve another purpose:  recognition.  While obviously someone can try to exploit that angle, it's still preferable to know that when that guy says "GET DOWN!!"...you really need to listen.  Both series point out the trust factor.  In the SPU, there's a second tier of supers that are purely first responders, NOT authorized to enter into super combat except in self-defense.  They're called PEERS..privately employed emergency responders.  He also set up an overarching Super Athletics Association, because supers vs. non-supers is like Georgia versus a high school JV team in football.  And both WtC and SP have supers dedicated to just cleanup operations...lots of them.

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Once you start getting away from comic book tropes, superhumans become a temptation for governments to weaponize. You see it in the comics, but it would likely happen much more often in a more realistic world.

 

Some governments might even fall quickly, if the right (or wrong?) person obtained superpowers. The temptation to march into the halls of government and forcibly redress one’s grievances would be far too tempting, especially if that person was the only one (or one of a very few) in a country to get superpowers.

 

Controlling superhumans is easier if there are many at a rough parity in power level with each other. However, it becomes far more challenging if one or a very few are at a greatly higher power level. If only one person on Earth had Kryptonian-level powers while the rest were much less powerful sorts, even sending an army of superhumans would not work, if that person refused to cooperate.

 

 

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8 hours ago, Steve said:

Once you start getting away from comic book tropes, superhumans become a temptation for governments to weaponize. You see it in the comics, but it would likely happen much more often in a more realistic world.

 

Some governments might even fall quickly, if the right (or wrong?) person obtained superpowers. The temptation to march into the halls of government and forcibly redress one’s grievances would be far too tempting, especially if that person was the only one (or one of a very few) in a country to get superpowers.

 

Controlling superhumans is easier if there are many at a rough parity in power level with each other. However, it becomes far more challenging if one or a very few are at a greatly higher power level. If only one person on Earth had Kryptonian-level powers while the rest were much less powerful sorts, even sending an army of superhumans would not work, if that person refused to cooperate.

 

 

 

Any or all of the above, and a zillion other scenarios.  Some things are less likely than others, tho.

--Using supers in a military action is a severe escalation in level of force.  How severe depends on the damage potential of the super.  Not TOO powerful...might be like a controlled chemical attack.  Something like Iron Man?  Closer to using a bioweapon.  A wide-scale energy projector type?  Almost like being the first to use a nuke.  

--The scenario of a super trying to compel a government in some manner is pretty narrow.  Opposed supers would tend to intervene.  The more likely...and nastier...situation is a mind control type, IMO.  Another:  the use of supers as assassins.  Imagine desolid plus invisible, among others.

--Controlling supers is NEVER easy.  It's all too easy to paint them into a corner where they think they have little to lose.  It's fairly common in superhero lit, that if super powers are reasonably common, then most are relatively minor.  As in, shrug off a .38, but a 12 gauge slug...not so much.  Take 2-3 punches to bash a hole in a brick wall, rather than be able to run through it with ease.  And so on.  So...in your effort to control the supers you can't easily restrain...do you make things overly onerous for those who aren't a serious threat?  That's an invitation to a downward spiral that ends very, very, very badly.

--The underlying culture is huge.  Basic respect for human rights or the rule of law aren't automatic.  Racial suppression/eradication has too long a history to think it wouldn't start back up.  And imagine the different way the sudden onset of supers would affect things in 1990, say...versus just post-9/11, and worse, in the US of today.  On BOTH sides.  Anger's been building for decades, and violence has erupted at times.  Toss in an angry super.  Hope you've got enough body bags....

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Another to read

 

https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/52039930-awakening

 

It is the first in a series about Evolved Ones, people who one day develop some sort of super power.  Most are low key, but some are more obvious and so the people become the target of .... less than scrupulous entities.   In the case of the MC she's being hunted by a scientist who wants to use her for experiments to find out how EOs come about, if he can duplicate the process to create it artificially, and finally what can be spun off from the abilities (Ex. one lady can secret a substance that can render a person unconscious with NO side effects).  

 

So there is the approach that IF people can develop super powers, CAN we do it artificially, control the process, and even choose what abilities they will get.

 

A comic called Strike Force: Mortuary ended its run with a similar.  The process to get super powers would kill you after 1-2 years, but later the process was improved and that onerous SE eliminated.  Now we have a world where it is possible to buy super powers.

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Developing superpowers In statistically significant portion of the population would be bad. Western nations would lose their philosophical underpinnings with regards to equality, and would either go totalitarian, or dissolve.  Less developed nations would factionalize into might makes right situations. The unpowered would hide, and the labor market would become unstable.  Civilization would collapse, or regress into feudalism. Rule by Kryptonian level thugs or powered sociopaths would become the norm.  

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1 hour ago, Scott Ruggels said:

Developing superpowers In statistically significant portion of the population would be bad. Western nations would lose their philosophical underpinnings with regards to equality, and would either go totalitarian, or dissolve.  Less developed nations would factionalize into might makes right situations. The unpowered would hide, and the labor market would become unstable.  Civilization would collapse, or regress into feudalism. Rule by Kryptonian level thugs or powered sociopaths would become the norm.  

Numbers would likely be a large factor, also who is getting the powers.

 

Statistics would imply that it’s far more likely for someone poor and socially powerless to gain powers than an existing tyrant or a member of the “one percent.” So, some former nobody in North Korea suddenly has godlike power, or a middle-class farmer with a family in Kansas, or a poor widow in London terrorized by street gangs, or a refugee in Mexico. And there are another ten thousand more stories like theirs. Maybe one or two of them are already rich or socially powerful.

 

Boom, they all have superpowers, and some of them rival Superman.

 

What do they do with them? How do people react to them?

 

There’s the old saying, power corrupts. Would any people really use their powers to help others? How many of these people would feel they should eliminate the competition?

 

How many of these newly empowered people would care if normal people freak out? Would they put on a costume to make themselves seem less scary?

 

What if those chosen were people motivated to change things around them, if they only had the power?

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The manga/anime series My Hero Academia the majority of the population has super powers.  While it is a "superhero universe", I'm quite sure there is a major portion of the population which has no intrest in becoming a superhero or supervillain, and simply go to school to control their quirks (what there universe calls super powers).

 

Most everyone in the world has an extra bone in their feet(?) which indicates if they were going to develop a quirk or not.

 

...while there are the main manga and various support manga (like MHA Vigilante), there is not a manga focused on 'normal' quirk using people with no heroic or villainous aspirations...yet.

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2 hours ago, Steve said:

Numbers would likely be a large factor, also who is getting the powers.

 

Statistics would imply that it’s far more likely for someone poor and socially powerless to gain powers than an existing tyrant or a member of the “one percent.” So, some former nobody in North Korea suddenly has godlike power, or a middle-class farmer with a family in Kansas, or a poor widow in London terrorized by street gangs, or a refugee in Mexico. And there are another ten thousand more stories like theirs. Maybe one or two of them are already rich or socially powerful.

 

Boom, they all have superpowers, and some of them rival Superman.

 

What do they do with them? How do people react to them?

 

There’s the old saying, power corrupts. Would any people really use their powers to help others? How many of these people would feel they should eliminate the competition?

 

How many of these newly empowered people would care if normal people freak out? Would they put on a costume to make themselves seem less scary?

 

What if those chosen were people motivated to change things around them, if they only had the power?

 

It all depends.  There is no fixed, correct answer.  

--"Superhuman" doesn't equal "godlike"...and Superman is INSANELY powerful.  Obviously, it depends on which one you're talking about, but he's several thousand points IMO, in Hero.  (EDIT:  built a mostly reasonable version.  Characteristics and powers are coming out at about 1300 with, I think, almost all the big stuff included.)

--One of the critical, huge scenes in WtC happens very shortly after the Event.  I don't recall if it's in the first book;  it's definitely in the RPG, and I believe in one of the books eventually.  Atlas, Ajax, Touches Clouds, and the rest of those who would become the Sentinels walk into a Congressional hearing about a bill to restrict supers.  Ajax gives a speech that is awesome..."we will stop them."  And that's the start.  

--What's the draw to be a hero?  Celebrity status like nothing else.  In both Hayes' SPU and WtC, popular culture is completely swept up in hero culture...and in WtC, villain culture, but not per se of the "go out and STOMP" villain types.  Those are in super prison.  

 

Push comes to shove...if suddenly very powerful supers (I like to build SPU characters at around 600-650, with 16 DC attacks max) arise in today's polarized, nervous, and hair-trigger environment...then honestly?  I think a billion people would die inside of a couple years, and infrastructure collapse would happen in many places.  But that, in itself, could lead to a transition whereby heroes form...and knowing that the entire planet came VERY close to being obliterated, a semi-stable arrangement could be reached.  In WtC, Cuba was taken over by the Tyrant...who might well be called godlike, his powers aren't made clear.  He has absolute control...but he's not there to exploit.  It's described as a mostly free, almost libertarian state.  OTOH, there's Juarez, which is still an ongoing war zone that spills over onto both sides of the border.  

 

But some of what you're thinking...it's self-correcting to a degree.  Mind...it's bloody UGLY.  I kinda think that's why Harmon skipped 10 years forward.  In Hayes' SPU, where powers became public and more common in the late 50's, there was an extensive stretch where hero vs. villain battles were VERY frequent, and VERY bloody.

 

Another interesting series is Drew Hayes' Villain's Code.  In SPU, heroes are heavily restricted and seriously trained.  In VC...they're not.  In some ways, it's like The Boys...and yes, there's more problems.  But one of the subthemes in VC is that a chaotic situation where people run wild, at some point *some* form of control will develop.  

 

  

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Another thing to consider is if the appearance of superhumans is a one-time matter or recurring.

 

It would be one thing if ten thousand supers suddenly appeared today spread all over the planet, but it would be different if a hundred new ones appeared each week. A sudden, one-time appearance is hugely destabilizing to society, but a steady influx in smaller numbers might be more manageable.

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On 9/21/2022 at 10:01 AM, Steve said:

I was reading through the new Champions supplement Lifted and started thinking about how campaign worlds might be structured without using the classic comic book superhero/supervillain tropes.

 

If superhumans don’t take part in the cosplay out of comic books, how would they engage with society? Would it be X-Men anti-mutant paranoia? Some other sort of dystopia?

 

How would governments react to suddenly having superhumans in their midst today, regular people suddenly having godlike power, without a history going back to World War II? I imagine the first instinct would be to try and control superhumans, either by force or threatening their loved ones. That likely will not go over very well.

 

What if those superhumans were pretty much immune to man-portable weapons like handgun and rifles? Would they eventually start policing each other with some sort of code of conduct?

 

Do these issues then lead back to some kind of comic book paradigm after sufficient time has passed?

 

If the world has a cultural history of comic book superheroes, if supers appear they're most likely going to adopt whatever paradigm the supers in the comics do.  

 

Costumes, masks, and code names go back hundreds of years if not more.  Masks and code names derive most directly from the pulp stories that predated comic books, and those derived from masked criminals and highwaymen.  The Scarlet Pimpernel, arguably the first masked and costumed hero, was published in 1904; Robin Hood and his compatriots go back hundreds of years or more.  

 

Colorful costumes derive most immediately from professional wrestling, which dates back to the early 20th century in something resembling its current form.  The idea of emblems or devices representing individuals or groups goes all the way back through the jousting knights era back to ancient Egypt.  (History of Heraldry)

 

People conceal their identities when they're afraid their actions, or even their existence, will cause trouble for themselves or their families, and the sudden appearance of supers would seem to be a good reason for those supers to conceal their identities.  Even if they don't actually do anything with their powers, it's likely someone else will either want them to or will want to capture them to experiment on them to find out where their abilities come from.  And there's zero chance that no super ever publicly demonstrates their abilities.  

 

That said, just because you have a world with supers in it, and just because they engage in comic book cosplay, doesn't mean their world is going to end up resembling anything out of the comics, and it doesn't have to mean the world is going to resemble any particular "age".  The Wild Cards series was mentioned; in that world, every petty criminal in New York, wild carder or not, adopts a code name and often a mask.  I don't see why that wouldn't happen in another universe where supers suddenly appear.  

 

Regarding weapons and policing: the history of development of weapons and armor has been a literal arms race.  One side develops a better weapon, the other side tries to develop an even better weapon or better armor.  Repeat.  What would probably happen in the event of supers is that whatever civilian agency is tasked with regulating them will bring as much offensive firepower as necessary.  It's very possible that someone, a person or group in some secret government agency somewhere, will be working on coming up with Batman-style contingencies for every known super.  Tasers, gases, nets, and bigger and bigger bullets as necessary.  Obvious weaknesses; water cannons against fire users, for instance.  If there are supers that can create repeatable high technology items, police and military will try to be first in line.  The overall tech level of the setting will increase as a result.  

 

If supers appear, even if it's only a few, even if it's only one time, the world will very quickly stop looking the same as it does now.  Never mind that the world doesn't look the same now as it did in 1922 or even 1982.  Even mundane technologies change the world; iron, firearms, the printing press, steam power, internal combustion, mass production, railroads, telegraph, telephone, air travel, and the Internet were each major paradigm shifts, and that's ignoring things like improved sanitation, health care, farming methods, and food preservation.  It doesn't take supers to make the world unrecognizable, but you can bet they will.

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1 hour ago, Steve said:

Another thing to consider is if the appearance of superhumans is a one-time matter or recurring.

 

It would be one thing if ten thousand supers suddenly appeared today spread all over the planet, but it would be different if a hundred new ones appeared each week. A sudden, one-time appearance is hugely destabilizing to society, but a steady influx in smaller numbers might be more manageable.

 

Super Powereds:  powers are effectively mutations...you're born with them, or you're not.  There are occasional tech geniuses, so an Iron Man is another option.  Supers overall number in the millions, it's believed, but the vast majority aren't that powerful, and many are not combat-effective.  A side comment about one character's kid was, she was a super with the power to alter the taste of food.  Awesome for dieting and nutrition.  In Corpies, a side book to the series, one of the principal characters is a 12 or so on an athletic scale of 1  to 10, where 10 is Olympic caliber.  Great for rescue work, nowhere close to adequate for engaging villains.

 

Villains Code:  very similar to Wild Cards.  The trigger event happened, IIRC, in 1947 with a physics experiment that created elements in the hypothetically stable zone, with element numbers > 300.  That led to people with powers, and changed reality.  Supers pop up occasionally...many of them minor.  But there are also events called Confluences, where side effects of the original accident somehow coalesce.  Many more, and on average more powerful, supers are created.  Power types and levels are literally anything imaginable...and some are seriously wild.

 

WtC:  the Event in the early 2000's was singular.  Ever since, tho, individuals gain powers, generally in VERY high stress conditions.  Many fall into trope patterns...and some become the pattern that others follow, as belief systems matter greatly.  There's magical types...but everyone knows D&D magic is fantasy, so most magical types follow more rooted traditions.  (And it's also a justification for making things like demonic summonings harder, IMO.)  Vampires and fey exist...and follow the classic tropes, by and large.  Some people would probably become like Jedi...that's a firmly established, if relatively recent, archetype.  I think Harmon just didn't want to rile Disney up.  Breakthroughs are shaped largely by the person and the circumstances.  Sometimes they'll become wish-fulfilling...I wanna be a vampire, I wanna be super strong and tough...and others go in different ways altogether.

 

A one-time, never-repeated influx *might* arguably be the worst case.  That feels to me the most likely to create an undamped race to the top.  Once people get there, little can threaten them.  Conversely, if supers perhaps start with a large surge, but there's new ones regularly, there's at least a chance for banding together to quash the worst of the worst, and build to a new stable paradigm.

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An interesting game world I came across was Eschaton by BTRC on DriveThruRpg. The world there had a single mass empowerment event a year before the game campaign should begin, complete with a timeline of what happened pre-campaign in that year. Whatever it was that granted those powers to people chose those who wanted to make a change in the world. For better or worse.

 

Ninety percent of world leaders and countless legislators were assassinated in the first three days. The remaining ten percent survived only because someone with powers supported them or managed to get them away to somewhere safe.

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Vigilantes is a manga set in the BNHA world of Japan, but it follows the activities of some powered and unpowered vigilantes who fight crime despite having no license. (Japan in the BNHA world requires strict licensing for paranormals to operate as superheroes, as they are required to be first responders and operate with the support of the government) Vigilante activity is of course, illegal, so the main characters fight not only criminals but struggle to stay one step ahead of the heroes and government as well.

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