Jump to content
tripthicket

Superhero vs Fantasy

Recommended Posts

Being more a fan of the superhero genre, I've often wondered at the general (roleplaying) public's seeming preference for the sword & sorcery genre. I base my theory on the huge amount of fantasy rpgs out there, although superheroes have quite a few. I also look at the number of superhero MMOs as opposed to fantasy-based games. I have a working theory, which I'd like to open up for discussion.

 

Superheroes are about Protecting the Status Quo, Upholding The Law, Opposing Evil, Black & White (all of this is of course my opinion, and is way simplified as well). All of this is done in a world close to our own.

 

Fantasy is about Adventuring, and all that might entail, in a world different from our own. The magic, the monsters, the treasure. Arguably more of an escape. Some of it might have to do with D&D being the most popular game, as well as arguably (I keep using that word--I hope I know what it means) the first roleplaying game.

 

I could just be talking out of my hat, but it occurs to me that superheroes are 'obligated' to keep Things As They Are afloat, while players in a fantasy game venture out and do almost anything they like in a world full of mystery.

 

Why do you think that fantasy is a more popular genre?

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

D&D as the first rpg set the trend, and had first mover advantage plus hit on the zeitgeist of its times.

 

In the 60's, early 70's Tolkein's books entered the public domain in the US on accident due to a bizarre clause in the US copyright laws regarding import of books from other countries. Ace published a bunch of royalty free copies at a reduced cost compared to other books of the time. The themes of the books in regards to "back to nature" / anti-technology and an overall anti-war sentiment meshed well with the counterculture movement of the day (what we think of as hippies these days), and the idea that the "pipeweed" hobbits made and smoked was marijuana found favor with the same group as well (Tolkein himself stated it was just a kind of tobacco). Consequently, Tolkein-isms and similar derivatives became a cultural phenomenon of the era, and you end up with wizards painted on the sides of panel vans and rock ballads such as The Battle of Evermore and so on. It resonated with a lot of people who did not conform to the mainstream norms of their day, particularly creatives. In the downstream ripple of that, we get D&D and other vaguely Tolkein-esque content including some early video games made mostly at colleges by young techies who were hip to the youth culture of their day. 

 

Superheroes on the other hand had their original heyday in the 1940's and then again later in the 80's. For a very long time, they were seen as being strictly for kids. This began to change in the 80's and 90's, and of course the last decade has been insanely big for superheroes. 

 

Unfortunately, most people only know DC and Marvel characters from the movies and TV shows, and for whatever reason both Marvel and DC have never really been able to get their act together when it comes to RPG's and videogames. There's been a lot of good rpgs published. I myself enjoyed Marvel FASERIP from TSR in the 80's, Marvel SAGA (the card one, which was actually pretty fun if you gave it a chance), and Marvel Cortex+ (which was a GREAT game). But either they don't catch on, or they are not supported and die off, or the license lapses. 

 

I think that perhaps part of the problem with getting more people hooked on superhero rpgs is that fantasy stories are mostly literary; you read them and imagine them in your minds eye. They attract readers who are good at imagining things in their minds eye. This is the very same skill one needs to get into and enjoy roleplaying games. Superhero stories are mostly comic books / graphic novels or now movies and tv shows; you experience these stories mostly by looking at pictures or cinematic representations. You don't have to imagine anything in your mind's eye...what is happening has been drawn or acted out for you to look at. It is a visual medium, and it draws people who appreciate a visual medium and want to be SHOWN what it is vs imagine it for themselves. There is some overlap; some people enjoy both traditional textbased books and graphical books, but a lot of comic book fans are not big readers in the general sense.

 

 

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

I also think it is easier for teenage boys to step into the role of your typical murderhobo adventurer out to kill monsters and take their stuff, getting more powerful along the way, than it is for them to step into the role of your typical superhero with a substantially more mature moral compass and a driving need to selflessly help others. Of course, there are characters in both genres that subvert these norms, but the general perception of these genres is largely shaped by those two archetypes (the murderhobo and the do-gooder).

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

This is a good question. I am old enough to have experienced the presence of real hippies, and disliked them. My tastes in RPG tended towards SF,  and modern combat, but I came at this hobby from war gaming. 

 

I think the attraction to fantasy is mostly the escapism, and to be someone else, if not heroic, but capable. Part of it is playing by their own rules, rather than society’s. Fantasy also has the advantage of attracting more women to the game table than superheroes. Overthrowing and abusive local tyrant, is something you do in fantasy, there is that hint of revolutionary romanticism nfor some, that in a Superhero environment would spark a diplomatic incident, or worse, look like domestic terrorism. So yes Superheroes wield great power, but do stand to uphold the status quo, and bourgeois values. Superheroes also are mostly analogies to modern society, whereas Fantasy is more mythic, and open to different interpretations. Superheroes are Civic minded. Fantasy is tribal. 

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites
17 hours ago, tripthicket said:

Why do you think that fantasy is a more popular genre?

 

Superheroes as they exist in the public consciousness come from comic books, primarily Marvel and DC.

 

Comic books were crippled by the Comics Code Authority from the 1950's through the 1960's (and partially crippled even after that). DC bent over backwards to make their superhero comics geared toward boys (rather than girls, teens or adults) until the late 1970's. So for people who are in their 40's, 50's, or 60's, "comic books are for children". And the overly campy Batman TV show of the 1960's, while fun, didn't exactly convince people that comics were a serious form of entertainment.

 

Under the original CCA, writers couldn't mention werewolves, zombies, or vampires. Government officials, policemen, and judges couldn't be referenced as being anything less than paragons of virtue. Seduction couldn't be shown as well as sexual "perversion" and sexual "abnormalities" (I'll leave it to your imagination what they considered perverse or abnormal back in the 1950's when the code was written). Criminals and crime could never be portrayed as glamorous. And quoting, "In every instance good shall triumph over evil and the criminal punished for his misdeeds."

 

I wouldn't even touch DC stories in the 1970's or earlier because they were so bad (in my opinion). The first time I got into a DC storyline was the Legion of Superheroes. Bouncing Boy was walking down a hall going to a team meeting. He was repeatedly flipping his flight ring up in the air and catching it while he was thinking about retiring because of the teammates he had seen killed. Then when he made it into the meeting room, two of his teammates were trying to rip each others' heads off. And I thought that this might finally be the kind of DC book that I could be interested in. That was not long before The Great Darkness Saga (1982) so it was probably right at the beginning of Paul Levitz's second run on the LSH (and I eventually picked up the back issues of his first run on the book).

 

Anyway, fantasy was never gimped by government interference with the content which was provided to the reader or roleplayer so it has never had that same level of stigma to overcome in public opinion.

 

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites
15 hours ago, archer said:

 

 

Under the original CCA, writers couldn't mention werewolves, zombies, or vampires. Government officials, policemen, and judges couldn't be referenced as being anything less than paragons of virtue. Seduction couldn't be shown as well as sexual "perversion" and sexual "abnormalities" (I'll leave it to your imagination what they considered perverse or abnormal back in the 1950's when the code was written). Criminals and crime could never be portrayed as glamorous. And quoting, "In every instance good shall triumph over evil and the criminal punished for his misdeeds."

 

Generally, your history is correct but for a few items you may have overlooked. Comic books started in the 30’s as collections of reprints of newspaper comic strips. Superman was unique in that he wasn’t a comedy, or A pulpy adventure strip. There is a famous photograph of a G.I. sitting on a Sherman tank reading a copy of Captain America. Comics were popular with the GIs as they were light and portable and disposable. Frankly any sort of reading material was Coveted by GIs, and shared amongst the unit. After the wartime paper restrictions were removed, the number of genres exploded in comics and superheroes were just one. True Crime, Westerns and horror eclipsed Superheroes after the war, and even Romance comics sold in the tens of millions. It was against the horror and true crime, that Dr Wertham’s crusade focused on. It was only after the CCA was enacted that the silver age began.

 

My father had a huge comic collection spanning from August of 1944, until his little sister went to high school in 1955. Grandma kept them in stacks in Dads old room, and we would read through them every summer. They were mostly Walt Disney Comics & Stories, but there were a few war comics, and westerns. Grandma, being a sensible,church going sort, normally could never abide throwing out reading material, did end up pruning all Superheroes and crime comics from the stacks though, mostly Superman comics. My brother packed up and sold the comics for a good profit. 

 

In short, before the CCA, comics were more a medium, than a genre. 

 

Quote

 

I wouldn't even touch DC stories in the 1970's or earlier because they were so bad (in my opinion). The first time I got into a DC storyline was the Legion of Superheroes. Bouncing Boy was walking down a hall going to a team meeting. He was repeatedly flipping his flight ring up in the air and catching it while he was thinking about retiring because of the teammates he had seen killed. Then when he made it into the meeting room, two of his teammates were trying to rip each others' heads off. And I thought that this might finally be the kind of DC book that I could be interested in. That was not long before The Great Darkness Saga (1982) so it was probably right at the beginning of Paul Levitz's second run on the LSH (and I eventually picked up the back issues of his first run on the book).

 

The only thing fromDC in the early 70’s worth reading were their war comics, like G.I Combat, Weird War, and Sgt. Rock. Us cynical lads thought that the 1966 Batman ruined DC. Wayne Boring’s Superman stories didn’t help. Spiderman and the Fantastic Four were good in the late 70’s and the comics explosion in the 80’s returned comics to a medium again. 

 

Quote

 

Anyway, fantasy was never gimped by government interference with the content which was provided to the reader or roleplayer so it has never had that same level of stigma to overcome in public opinion.

 

 

After the CCA, EC Comics, became a magazine publisher and made their top selling title Mad, into the legend we see today. Other genres followed with the True Crime, becoming “Men’s Magazines”, and Westerns following suit for a time. The Savage Sword of Conan was also a magazine featuring art that, while not obscene, was too much for the comics code. 

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

Fantasy RPG is easier to conceive of and run, because society and technology haven't advanced as far.  You might argue that magic complicates things, but really magic is handy for anything you need to do or explain away because you can just fall back on the plot contrivance "it's magic".

 

Superhero stories (and Sci-Fi too) require a lot more thought and imagination on the part of the GM and players to envision a more complex world and tell stories about it that don't have plot holes.  And while magic might exist in a superhero story, the interaction with modern society is a lot more complicated.

 

Also, as noted above, Fantasy is easier because it is much more black and white.  Rescue the princess, kill the evil wizard.  Superheroes can't kill with abandon, and morality tends to be more nuanced, which again makes it harder to play.  More rewarding perhaps, but harder.

 

Which is not to say Fantasy can't be nuanced and complicated too, but generally speaking it isn't.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

In my observations, fantasy is more "black and white". It is easy to say, "Orcs are evil", and then you proceed to slaughter the entire tribe, no moral, ethical, or any type of, quandary or fallout. Fantasy also carries the old medieval romanticism of the "shining knight" and the "damsel in distress". Admittedly, fantasy is "fantastic", with wonder and discovery aplenty.

 

 

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

Excellent replies! I've been especially pleased with the reviews of history. Although I knew some snippets of some of it, it's great to hear expanded versions. Learning is fun!

 

I'm scratching my head a little at the assertions that fantasy is more black and white than superheroes. Superheroes=good/white, and supervillains=bad/black. The exact same can be said about the fantasy genre: our heroes (the adventurers) = good/white, while monsters/enemies = bad/black. It seems like a subjective thing.

 

I do NOT want to drag this discussion towards politics, but is it possible, keeping the history from above replies in mind, that superheroes are leaning (in general) more towards upholding authority (not authoritarianism, if the two subjects can be split), whereas adventuring in a fantasy world is more 'go your own way, do whatever you like.'

 

One flavor of superhero worlds is that superheroes almost get locked into an obligation to use their powers to help people, kinda like a full-time, 'round-the-clock, never-ending treadmill of a job. ("Where were you when my house was burning down?"/"Why didn't you stop that runaway train?"/"What good are you when my neighborhood is still full of drugs?") Who wants that kind of negative consequence when they're tryna play a game and escape from their lives for a bit? Of course, no game has to go that way, but I offer this as one possible reason why folks might pick fantasy over superheroes.

 

Then there's the ability to change the world, or at least their little slice of it. Fantasy adventurers seem to do this on the regular, although I'm speaking as a person on the outside of that. Superheroes, again, are about maintaining the status quo. Despite all the fantastic powers, machines, etc., our world doesn't really change. So...it's almost down to the superpowered fight, with big, splashy, showy powers making an awesome visual (kudos to Killer Shrike pointing out the differences between novel and comic book readers--fascinating viewpoint), and everything else is maybe kinda bolted on (romance, sleuthing, etc.).

 

Again, I'm loving what you all have to say, but it may come down to 'that's the way it is' with no forecast for that ever really changing. This was all predicated by my contemplating the beginning of more concrete construction for a gameworld I've been thinking about. Spending a goodly amount of time to craft an online world for others to play in, with one flavor attracting maybe hundreds of players, and another maybe attracting only a couple dozen players...yeesh. Goes back to my motivation, and what I think I really want to do. In the end, that's the most important thing, even if I turn out to have 'wasted my time'--it's what I will have wanted to do.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

We love what we love, but games are an escape. The majority of folks want that epic adventure, to win the prize, to defeat their enemies; overcome challenges, and find the treasure. Superheroes, unfortunately, have to return the treasure to the rightful owners. Lots of people likes superheroes, but there is a certain selflessness needed to be one, and escapism is an inherently selfish activity.  Players want to keep the treasure, even if it’s just a score keeping tool. In short, you will probably get more players with fantasy; than superheroes, because their are fewer rules and tropes to get i the way of their score keeping. 

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites
14 hours ago, tripthicket said:

Superheroes, again, are about maintaining the status quo.

 

Yeah, that is a traditional aspect of the superhero genre, for sure. But it is also present in a lot of fantasy. After all, the progenitor of all modern high fantasy literature, The Lord of the Rings, was all about fighting back a supervillain bent on world domination and returning the embattled land to its peaceful status quo. The only reason that template didn't become the template for FRPGs was because D&D was originally a form of wargaming and not a storytelling vehicle. Dungeon crawling (and its attendant goals of wealth and gear acquisition) became the predominant template for FRPG play, rather than following a carefully crafted literary narrative where restoring the status quo, War of the Ring style, was the recurring theme of a campaign.

 

To my mind this difference in emergent values between the two RPG genres is a by-product of how the RPGs for each genre came to be, rather than a by-product of any intrinsic differences between the two genres as literary sources.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites
49 minutes ago, zslane said:

 

 

To my mind this difference in emergent values between the two RPG genres is a by-product of how the RPGs for each genre came to be, rather than a by-product of any intrinsic differences between the two genres as literary sources.

 

THe literary sources are radically different. Comics are far more accessible to the public than prose "literature".  Because of this accessibility, and more mass appeal, this is why comics were regulated so heavily during the war, when  "The Office of War Information"< the american propaganda organization, just about dictated subjects to the comic publishers at the time. The enforcement of the Status quo came early and officially, and Dr. Wertham's  efforts just shoved comics back into it's wartime box, for a while. "Literature", has been a class distinction as well, and comics have been decidedly working class. "He's not interested in books, unless they have pictures in them." has been a classic insult to those with limited education or social standing. 

 

Tolkein may have been a large influence on RPG's, but not the only one, and not the first.  If one reads through Appendix N, Gygax's own list of sources and inspiration, you find early fantasy by Lord Dunsany, and other authors, but probably the most influential, was Robert E. Howard's Conan the Barbarian, documenting the career, of Fantasy's number one "Murder Hobo".  Conan I believe was far more influential for those that were not part of "The counterculture", and as such had a broader influence on the original RPG authors, than Tolkein.  Fritz Leiber's,  "Fafhrd & The Gray Mouser" stories are more prototypically  D&D, than Tolkein, but the game mechanics of D&D's spell casters was lifted from  Jack Vance's works.

 

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

I was really only speaking to the simplifying characterization that superheroing is all about maintaining or restoring the status quo while high fantasy is not. In both cases I would argue that the most influential sources for the two genres are the same in this one respect. So that can't really be at the root of why the two genres have such drastically different popularity quotients.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites
5 minutes ago, zslane said:

I was really only speaking to the simplifying characterization that superheroing is all about maintaining or restoring the status quo while high fantasy is not. In both cases I would argue that the most influential sources for the two genres are the same in this one respect. So that can't really be at the root of why the two genres have such drastically different popularity quotients.

 

Well I guess if we simplify it.  Superheroes are "square", and Fantasy is "Metal".

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

Wow, loving this thread. Pardon, I feel like all the good comments have been made. 

 

I have thought of running a super game with GRAB as sort of a Franchise with a Robin Hood/Leverage sort of feel just to see if my players would like it. They've been more in a fantasy mood lately, possibly for reasons mentioned above about 'protecting the status quo' trap Superheroes often fall into. Which is on me as a Game Master, I know. :(

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

I think a major reason why the fantasy genre has more appeal is because it is already the biggest genre for gaming (by dint of having been the first genre used for gaming) and being the  biggest genre has it's own rewards:

 

For new and potential gamers it's the one they think of when they think gaming.

It's the genre most gamers get the most opportunity to play.

It gets the most media attention.

 

To put it more generally: Fantasy gaming has built up its own cultural momentum and thanks to that it draws more and more to itself, continuing to build more momentum. Simulataneously starving other genres of potential recruits.


As to in game universe status quo: yeah I think there is a good point to be had that Supers characters support the status quo. But fantasy characters aren't usually trying to overturn it.

Murder hoboing aside, where "let's burn the tavern down because we don't want to pay our bar bill" is frighteningly common, most characters are rescuing royalty. Overthrowing usurpers. Soldiers/spies/wizards for the crown. Being pillars of the Church of Goodness. Stopping the uprising of an evil cult and it's associated evil god. Fighting off those damn pesky orc raiders. All status quo keeping activities.

 

From my own personal observations I would say that most fantasy campaign expectations are that the PCs will be good, which is usually interpreted as supporting the established social order. Yes there are exceptions. There are occasional adventures where the heroes are meant to overthrow a legitimate authority, but they are quite rare. As a sample: there are 24 official Pathfinder adventure paths. AKAIK only 1 of those, Hell's Rebels, has the PCs attempting to overthrow a legitimate authority. That's a pretty small %. It would seem that when heroing in fantasy land you are mostly protecting the status quo.

 

Most supers campaigns have the heroes doing much the same thing as their fantasy counterparts. Yes, maintaining the status quo is backed up by being the usual thing in the non-gaming examples of the genre. But, just as with the fantasy genre,  there's no reason a campaign has to do this. Maybe Reed Richards isn't actually useless and all those inventions of his are bringing food the starving, medicine to the sick, opening up travel to the stars, etc. Maybe the heroes will overthrow a legitimate but evil government. It's choice for the campaign.

 

I think that protecting the status quo is a genre expectation of both supers and fantasy. So there is no significant difference in this genre expectation that might lead to players preferencing fantasy over other supers.

 

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

I've asked a similar question but about sci-fi instead of superheroes. The reasons already given are good, but I'd like to add one from my own experience.

 

Basically, it's because there's a thing called "generic fantasy setting" and there isn't one for sci-fi or superheroes. The settings are almost always described as something along the lines of "it's like [intellectual property here] but ...."  and those that don't have a big info dump that may turn players off. OTOH everyone knows what to expect from a fantasy setting, forest elves, mining dwarves, dragons with a preference for sexually inexperienced females, etc. When describing a fantasy campaign on Roll20 or something you focus on what makes it unique. For other campaigns you have to explain more. Like "are there aliens?" "what superhero origins are not available?" "what is the tech level?" So in the end, a fantasy campaign is easier to set up.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites
45 minutes ago, Alverant said:

I've asked a similar question but about sci-fi instead of superheroes. The reasons already given are good, but I'd like to add one from my own experience.

 

Basically, it's because there's a thing called "generic fantasy setting" and there isn't one for sci-fi or superheroes. The settings are almost always described as something along the lines of "it's like [intellectual property here] but ...."  and those that don't have a big info dump that may turn players off. OTOH everyone knows what to expect from a fantasy setting, forest elves, mining dwarves, dragons with a preference for sexually inexperienced females, etc. When describing a fantasy campaign on Roll20 or something you focus on what makes it unique. For other campaigns you have to explain more. Like "are there aliens?" "what superhero origins are not available?" "what is the tech level?" So in the end, a fantasy campaign is easier to set up.

 

So then, it's easier to set up, because of a much larger amount of commonly shared assumptions and understood tropes? sounds reasonable

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

Being the first and largest genre of the roleplaying world, being easier to set up (as stated above--I like that factor, which hadn't been proposed before, and yet makes sense), and something that only just occurred to me (but which may not be a factor) -- there's the stigma of comic books and superheroes still being something 'for kids' and perhaps looked down upon. Sure, you've got the superhero movies of the last several years that increased superhero popularity and visibility, but there's still decades of that other perception to overcome. Despite their rise in popular culture, there are still large swaths of the population that look down on superheroes (and yet don't mind fantasy?).

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

But fantasy RPGs were highly stigmatized, too. I can recall frequent concern raised by parents in the '70s and '80s, that D&D was prompting their children to demonic worship. Even today RPGs are still widely seen as the province of "nerds." And outside of the Tolkien film franchise there are very few fantasy-based movies which were critically respected, or even financially successful.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites
18 hours ago, Lord Liaden said:

But fantasy RPGs were highly stigmatized, too. I can recall frequent concern raised by parents in the '70s and '80s, that D&D was prompting their children to demonic worship. Even today RPGs are still widely seen as the province of "nerds." And outside of the Tolkien film franchise there are very few fantasy-based movies which were critically respected, or even financially successful.

 

Agreed.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

Well, yes  The whole "University Steam Tunnels" incident, and the 700 Club tirades, which forced a change in content within the second edition  Dungeons and Dragons rules (Good ol' AD&D). Sure,  that was a thing, but it's all part of the geek hierarchy, where literature and books are seen above mere "Funny books", and comic fans haven't been media darlings like authors are. So it may be two things. one Fantasy was here first, and two, Fantasy is more higher brow, than comics. Maybe?

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

So many theories; so little energy.

 

First and foremost, superheroes-- not withstanding their traditional role as "kids stuff" are, above all else, about championing the status quo: maintaining all that is right and just, and obeying the speed limit.

 

Fantasy is not.  Traditional fantasy stories can be boiled down to "let's tear this apart and make it the way we want," regardless of what they may be:

 

Fantasy is more about indulging yourself.  Superheroes are more about indulging others.

 

Fantasy is more about taking what you want to take.  Superheroes are about protecting the weak from those who would take.

 

While they're not exactly polar opposites, they have very radical deviations in their core themes.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

Create an account or sign in to comment

You need to be a member in order to leave a comment

Create an account

Sign up for a new account in our community. It's easy!

Register a new account

Sign in

Already have an account? Sign in here.

Sign In Now

  • Recently Browsing   0 members

    No registered users viewing this page.

×