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How to understand the SuperHero Genre


knightwriter
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Re: How to understand the SuperHero Genre

 

I have been reading some comics and thinking' date=' that would make more sense if I knew who such and such was. Is there a primer sort of comic that delves into the history of specific characters are the Marvel/DC World? That might help with understanding the comics more.[/quote']

 

Well, there are a couple books at Borders, labeled "Marvel Encyclopedia" and "DC Encyclopedia" which might be somewhat helpful to skim the next time you're in a bookstore. The "Essential" series for Marvel books and "Showcase" for DC books collect 10-20 consecutive old issues of a title in one book.

 

In terms of understanding the genre--generally heroes have multiple motivations, particularly so when they join into a team. Some may be grim, driven crimefighters who barely take time to do anything else(although when they do it can be an interesting side-plot--Daredevil's secret ID is as a criminal defense attorney, Batman is a wealthy playboy, etc.). Some may be in it for a little publicity and money on the side(Booster Gold, for example, originally fit into this; the Heroes for Hire, too). Some may do it because they feel they have no choice(Spider-Man, the Hulk, the Thing--either the responsibility of power or the need to fit in somewhere while finding a way to get "better"). Some may simply desire to do good, to improve society without imposing their will on it(Superman).

When playing, generally a good GM will have side-plots and sub-plots which focus on some aspect of one or more PCs characters/backstory. Most supervillains won't simply show up and wait to get the crap beaten out of them. There's usually a mystery to be solved, even if it's only "where is the supervillains' hideout?" or "where and when will the villains strike next?" or "How do we stop the big bad before he tears up half the city?" Adventures can take place anywhere and anytime, including the past, future, other planets, and other dimensions. They can involve goals of any size, whether it's stopping a bank robbery or finding the cosmic thingy that will keep the universe from imploding. And the subplots can involve romance, philanthropy, science, humor and/or pathos. It's really a lot deeper than "Supervillain shows up, superhero kicks their butt and saves the day". Add about a dozen details and complications and variations to that and you get a bit closer to what a superhero RPG experience tends to be.

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Re: How to understand the SuperHero Genre

 

I will try and repeat as little as possible:

 

I find the most consistant difference between super heroes and D&D-esq fantasy adventurers is morality. In D&D-esq fantasy you kill bad guys and take their stuff; whereas in most Super Hero genres, you beat up the badguys, then fix the problem through less lethal means (jail, a moral speach, another beating).

 

Also the stuff you take tends to not work for you unless you pay CP

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Re: How to understand the SuperHero Genre

 

Also the super hero genre has changed over the years. Some of that is good, and some of it is bad. I like Astro City and Hellboy when I can find the collections, but I can't stand most modern comics.

 

In a game, you have to pick what you want to implement.

CES

I think this point can't be emphasized enough. My own comic-reading era was back in the Silver Age, and I remain an unabashed fan of those old heros, artists, tropes, and "plots". I'm willing to accept a little early Bronze Age too. I would go so far as to call the different comic book eras different genres. Actual on-camera mass murder is unheard of in the Silver Age; AFAICT it's a pretty standard once-every-couple-of-issues trope in the Iron Age. That should be a clue that lumping all those eras together with varying expectations among the players (let alone the characters) is a mistake. In the Silver Age, today's Wolverine would be considered an unforgivable homicidal psychopath, and who would have been pitched into the Phantom Zone and left for all eternity. (In the Silver Age they wouldn't lobotomize him, but in early Bronze they'd've discussed the possibility. But the PZ bit -- oh hellz yeah.)

 

My Silver Age preference is a matter of archaic personal taste, but it's clear that you need everyone involved in a superhero RPG -- GM and players -- to "buy in" on the specific genre. A Total CvK requirement for PCs when the villains don't think it's a real day's work unless they've killed scores is a recipe for dissonance that will turn off some players very quickly.

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Re: How to understand the SuperHero Genre

 

Thanks to all of you that responded. I'm starting to understand a little more about the genre, especially when it is compared to fantasy games. I was at the comic book store and was looking around, but it was a bit overwhelming to try and decided on something to read. I picked up all of the issues of "The Blackest Night," as it seemed to be an intersting story line. I am enjoying it, but it would help if I knew more about the people/heroes involved. I also picked up some Dare Devil, as that is one of the heroes I played in the Marvel Supers game. One thing that turned me off almost right away was how the writer would have Dare Devil, or someone else in the comic, speak out loud their internal thoughts. That really throws the whole comic for me right away and makes me think that the writing is cheesy. Back in the day I also read Silver Surfer and Magneto. I thought those two were pretty cool and I like their powers.

 

It's possible that the genre isn't for me no matter how much I want to like it, but I'm not about to give up yet. Again, thanks for the feedback and why this genre captivates you. I would like to hear more, if possible. I do think that reading the thoughts of others on the topic is helping me form a basis of understanding.

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Re: How to understand the SuperHero Genre

 

I find the biggest difference between most fantasy games and most superhero games boils down to the moral authority to kill. In fantasy literature, it is okay to kill the bad guys, and usually necessary. This makes the solution to many problems much cleaner and less ambiguous, and having the world laid out in black and white like that can be very appealing. Not that there can't be shades of grey, but heroes administering capital punishment isn't part of that.

 

For social and psychological reasons, most superheroes can't kill indiscriminately, even when that is the most direct "solution" to the problem at hand. This can be great for roleplaying, but it often lacks a sense of final justice and frequently takes on the air of a soap opera where the good guys can never win once and for all (is it any mystery why movie villains so frequently die at the end?).

 

So if you want to play superheroes but love the moral code of fantasy, my suggestion would be to play a game where the hero is expected to kill the bad guys. This would probably be a war-zone scenario where aliens, undead, demons, or nazis make for evil villians that always deserve the death penalty.

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Re: How to understand the SuperHero Genre

 

In fantasy if a town's population is turned into zombies the PC's usually have no choice but to kill/destroy the zombies.

 

In supers the PC's usually find a way to restore the people to normal. (Marvel's Zombi-verse being the exception to the general rule).

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Re: How to understand the SuperHero Genre

 

The primary "meta" reason for no or limited killing in comics is that it's much easier for writers to reuse and recycle memorable villains, rather than having to continually come up with new ones. A secondary reason is that heroes not killing is a good way to clearly differentiate heroes from villains. A corollary to that, for why villains don't just immediately kill any hero they knock out, is that dead hero = end of comic. You can't just have some random new guy get bitten by yet another radioactive spider, or another Kryptonian to crash-land on Earth.

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Re: How to understand the SuperHero Genre

 

If you are coming from a fantasy game background, trying to pick up a new genre is hard.

 

If it was me, I would try to model my game on something that is close to both like Percy Jackson, or Hellboy, or some of the more pulpish heroes like Doc Savage or the Shadow. That would give you a way to ease into the transition.

CES

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Re: How to understand the SuperHero Genre

 

There's tons of superheroic characters one could make with a fantasy, magical or supernatural background. Most high level D&D characters(and monsters) don't take a lot of tweaking, concept-wise, to adapt to a comic book setting. They just tend not to chop or burn things to bits, and are motivated by more than the quest for gold, magical knowledge and/or personal and temporal power.

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Re: How to understand the SuperHero Genre

 

The primary "meta" reason for no or limited killing in comics is that it's much easier for writers to reuse and recycle memorable villains' date=' rather than having to continually come up with new ones. A secondary reason is that heroes not killing is a good way to clearly differentiate heroes from villains. A corollary to that, for why villains don't just immediately kill any hero they knock out, is that dead hero = end of comic. You can't just have some random new guy get bitten by yet another radioactive spider, or another Kryptonian to crash-land on Earth.[/quote']

 

This is really a basic rule of all serial fiction. You can't kill Sherlock Holmes, James Bond, Elric or Conan in the first short story, unless you plan to bring him back later (as Comic Book Supers are killed and brought back constantly these days, to the point it becomes a running joke; as Holmes was brought back, and Remo Williams many times, and any number of others). You have a little more wiggle room with bad guys in serial fiction, as a good writing team can bring in new ones, but a really cool villain tends to come back in any long running series, or to be replaced with an almost identical clone. Only mooks really die in serial land.

 

Stories that end can kill off major characters more readily, but even then a follow up story may well bring that character back.

 

In gaming, we want the threat of death to PCs much more often than the reality. Unless you're running a game where the fun is in watching PCs die in amusing ways.

 

I think the real problem in transitioning to Heroic (Super or otherwise) play is in telling players that their choices are more limited. In a power fantasy, and gaming usually is at least in part, you don't like being told what your character wants or doesn't want to do. It's your character; you want to decide what he wants. If you've decided your character wants to cut off the head of Doctor Mayhem and sexually violate the stump, laughing and shooting cops as they try to end the horror, that's your choice. It's also a good sign that you really don't want to be playing a game with any kind of consequences for your actions, or a "Heroic" character. (It's probably a sign that you need therapy if you're over the age of 10.)

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Re: How to understand the SuperHero Genre

 

There is indeed a 'knack' to understanding the superhero genre. One of the best essays I've ever seen on it is in 'Shields of Justice', for Silver Age Sentinels, which discusses heroism from a comic book point of view.

 

Part of understanding the superhero genre (or, indeed, any form of fiction) is 'suspension of disbelief'. If you're the type of guy that can't watch a movie or read a book without thinking of a long list of what all the characters did wrong, why none of them should be alive, quoting from the 'evil overlord' list and generally running on as to how unrealistic things were... then there is little hope you'll even really be able to stand the supers genre because it depends on that suspension more than many other genres.

 

Really, you just have to be willing to let things go and trust in the genre to inform you of it's rules as it goes along. You might not be able to. I handed 'Shields' to one player that was having a hard time with supers. He came back and said he simply couldn't conceive of a character that would behave that way. Fair enough. Some people can't watch musicals because they can't get over the mental jump of how people just suddenly break out into song and lead parades through the park without getting arrested. Some people can't play aliens, or different genders, or whatever.

 

Some more modern-view comics deal with the genre conventions in terms of 'escalation', where the heroes and villains try to on some level maintain a sense of 'rules of engagement', just as classic espionage agents do. You nab the crook getting away from jail, you beat him up and drop him off back at the copshop, not kill him. Otherwise, they kill one of ours. They capture a hero, they don't reveal his secret ID on national TV, or we do the same to one of them. No-one wants to be 'that guy' that gets to be the example.

 

Or you can just look at it from a more practical form. Good villains get reused because they are good villains, and good well-drawn characters of any stripe are hard to find. Sure, you could have Batman easily kill off the Joker, but then your editor will say something like 'Simmons, that was amazing. You'll win the next two Eisners for that story. Truly one for the ages. I cried. Now, since the Joker is now dead, you'll need to come up with a villain that's just as cool as the Joker was, and have him on my desk Monday morning.' It becomes an exercise in meta-narrative at some point, but there it is.

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Re: How to understand the SuperHero Genre

 

Is there a way to really appreciate this genre? I read comic books and I'm thinking' date=' "Man, just give the dude a sword or an AK 47 and shred this cape wearing fool." It seems like a lot of problems could be solved in these worlds if people just used lethal force. (I do understand that that is not an option for many heroic minded super heroes.)[/quote']

 

Part of it is the fantasy lethal mentality, part of it is the setting/world as noted previously.

 

A number of superheroes do/have killed. A number of Golden Age guys killed, then there's those that came up through the bronze/iron age. In some cases the killers are heroes put in bad situations, other times they're just not as bad as the villains they kill.

 

But I assume you're talking more about the ones like Daredevil, Spider-Man, Superman, etc. that tend to avoid killing. Part of it is the mindset and who they are at a basic level, raised with "thou shall not kill" as pretty basic to human interaction.

 

Another part is the society they're in, where in super fiction it's generally assumed that society functions well enough to handle criminals once they're brought in. If the government can hold Dr. Icky, let the courts and prisons handle him, up to and including the death penalty if appropriate. In most cases in fantasy worlds, you're out in the wilds beyond normal jurisdictions, dealing with threats few can actually hold, and with justice systems that tend to be quicker and more final in any case.

 

Where super worlds and stories start breaking the believability wall in respect to lethality is when the heroes play by those rules but the world doesn't. When the authorities have proven time and again that they're unable to hold the Joker or Doc Ock or whoever and they're out killing every other week then it does look foolish for the villain to just get repeatedly fed into the same failing system. That's a danger of recurring popular characters, exacerbated by how icky you make them. If Catburglerwoman keeps escaping and robs jewelry stores, well gosh darn it catch her and lock her up again and this time check the cake for files. When Psychomassmurderman keeps escaping, it's another ballgame.

 

I find that the only real fun is creating a character and then pitting them against other characters, but duking it out is only fun for so long. If there is a deeper layer to this genre, than I am missing it.

 

Does anyone else feel like this? Maybe you were of the same mind and now have come to appreciate the genre. Please tell me what changed your mind set. I really want to like this genre but it just seems to one dimensional in that characters fight and that is all there is to the genre.

 

 

For "this is a superhero, and there's more going on than just punching villains" the best thing I can think of off the top of my head is to read early Amazing Spider-Man. A lot will look pretty cheesy perhaps, but you'll have villains, family concerns, financial/school/job issues and conflicts, PR problems, problems with friends and love life, etc.

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Re: How to understand the SuperHero Genre

 

I think any genre requires a certain amount of buy-in. If you're not willing to pay that price, no worries.

 

The superhero genre asks us to believe that we can have people capable of breaking the laws of physics all the time. They might be utterly invulnerable or strong enough to shift a tectonic plate, or able to outfit a legion of thugs with laser guns. But, basically, the world is as you and I know it. (exception, exception, yeah yeah yeah)

 

The fantasy genre asks us to believe that in a world with fireball spells and a zillion different ways to fly, people would still build castles that look pretty much like a standard European castle we could visit in our world. A lot of the genre revolves around things being more or less the way they were in Medieval Times (both the era and the establishment). Why are there farmers when the same people could become clerics and make food and drink for the city every day? Why are there inky shadows for the thieves to hide in when permanent light spells should have the city blazing like Las Vegas?

 

The space opera genre asks us to believe that combat in space is pretty much like combat on the high seas. They even talk about "ships" and "torpedoes" and "marines" and all that nonsense...

 

You can see where I'm going with this, so I'll leave it.

 

Almost.

 

I think I really ought to point out one more thing: if you don't like the tropes of a given genre, you can change them. Everything you like about fantasy roleplaying can be done with superheroes. It'll take a little fiddling. But it's doable.

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Re: How to understand the SuperHero Genre

 

I would quote some of the posts but it would be like using a highlighter to highlight all the good parts. The whole page would be highlighted. I'm starting to understand more of the genre and I'm hoping that with more reading of comics I will be better able to shine the proper light on the supers genre. Does anyone have a homebrew supers adventure that they would be willing to share? I think that possibly seeing how an adventure shakes out might help with my perspective on roleplaying a supers game.

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Re: How to understand the SuperHero Genre

 

Does anyone have a homebrew supers adventure that they would be willing to share? I think that possibly seeing how an adventure shakes out might help with my perspective on roleplaying a supers game.

 

For what kind of PCs? (Number, power level, attitude...)

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Re: How to understand the SuperHero Genre

 

I had a supers game where most of the players were aliens and demons. The city is taken over by octopus men infiltrating the city, setting up force walls and rounding up the people to use for dinner.

 

Most of the heroes set up ambushes and generally made themselves nuisances.

 

One hero knocked out the force wall from the inside.

 

The army started a counterinvasion.

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Re: How to understand the SuperHero Genre

 

When I first picked up Champions (back in 3rd Edition), I hadn't read comics in close to a decade. I was enthralled by the flexible character creation process, though, and really interested to see how these characters would do against each other in a fight. Once I got past the fight-of-the-week phase, I had a lot of trouble shifting from the standard fantasy plots (treasure hunt, old wizard sends you on a quest for some old magical junk, etc) and trying to figure out how to make a super campaign work. It's all about the characters. Rather than bringing in some new, random rich merchant who needs his daughter saved from the boglins (heh...this started as a typo, but I like the way it sounds), it's somebody they know or at least a friend of a friend that's been kidnapped by the villainous agents. It's not some new, random necromancer causing problems in the village, it's an old enemy. It's not some generic castle getting torn down by the dragon, it's the home team's stadium or the monument to the local war heroes being trashed by the giant alien. Make everything personal. And I know a lot of people do this these days, even in their D&D games or D&D inspired games, but it's doubly important to the super genre, IMO. There are a lot of characters in the official Champions universe, and a lot more from older editions that didn't make the cut, but I'd recommend you pick a small handful of useful allies and several recurring villains (whichever ones match or contrast most interestingly with the PCs), and use the rest of them sparingly.

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Re: How to understand the SuperHero Genre

 

Haven't seen Mega-Mind yet but I agree that the other 2 are must see. The new animated Avengers is a pretty good show being aired now as well.

 

Batman Begins, Dark Knight Returns, Superman 1 & 2, Darkman, Spiderman 1 & 2, Arahan, Vampire Cop Ricky, The Heroic Trio, etc, etc. There's plenty of good Superhero stuff outside of comics, any of which can make for great gaming.

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Re: How to understand the SuperHero Genre

 

Batman Begins' date=' Dark Knight Returns, Superman 1 & 2, Darkman, Spiderman 1 & 2, Arahan, Vampire Cop Ricky, The Heroic Trio, etc, etc. There's plenty of good Superhero stuff outside of comics, any of which can make for great gaming.[/quote']

 

What no TMNT?

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Re: How to understand the SuperHero Genre

 

As much as I liked Howard the Duck I realize what they did to the comic was very bad. I heard that Howard is currently living in Malibu or Image under an assumed name. The Duck on Earth 616 being a corporate shill who assumed his name years ago.

 

Actually, I liked Howard the Duck as well. It wasn't the comic book character at all, but it had a Silver Age whimsy to it that worked for what it was. It died because fans didn't recognize the character and wider audiences weren't willing to go with the joke.

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