There are several sub-genres within superhero and pulp stories, and if you want to give your games a particular kind of feel, you can use one of them. They tend to match up with particular eras in comics, science fiction, and fantasy, but the actual era of the setting is entirely up to you.
Fun stories are the most commonly recognized sub-genre of superheroism. Nobody ever gets killed. Heroes and villains alike are just “knocked out” and always eventually wake up. Villains, though reviled by society, seem to go into and get out of jail without much explanation, and have a seemingly never-ending budget to build elaborate hide-outs and cartoony props. In Fun stories, the cops are never corrupt, the heroes’ vigilante behaviour is never questioned, and general tone is downright silly.
You can institute a rule that whenever someone would normally kill a character, they can instead bring that character to -1 hit points, stabilized. That way, people don’t die but they are solidly defeated. You can also make a rule that, though nobody consciously knows it, guns simply don’t hit people or do damage. People can be shot and killed in other places, foreign wars or tragic back-stories, but within the game, it just doesn’t happen. Superheroes and supervillains realize this, on some unconscious level, and that’s why they don’t bother using guns.
The most common Origins in Fun games are Supertech and Cosmic. Technology is, of course, a sign of the inevitable progress of humanity. It’s the triumph of civilization over nature, a sign of our collective sophistication. By the same token, Cosmic origins are usually related to accidents with science in which radiation energy is actually quite likely to grant powers, instead of, you know, leukaemia.
Galactic stories put heroes out in space, dealing with entities so powerful, so primal, that they might as well be gods. Galactic stories aren’t explained in terms of mysticism, and they’re assumed to be based in science of a kind, but that science is so far beyond human knowledge that the whole feel of it becomes a sci-fi form of mythology.
The violence level in Galactic stories is relatively low. When people die, they die “clean.” Their bodies are consumed in energy effects or burned up in swirling maelstroms of Cosmic forces. The weapons in Galactic stories are just as often fantasy-based―swords, axes, and such―as they are firearms, but in either case, they’re very high-concept: ray guns, blasters, laser swords, lightning whips, etc. The most common Origins in Galactic games are, like Fun games, Supertech and Cosmic.
Gritty stories are ultraviolent. Death lies around every corner, and they’re usually filled with people who have a grim enjoyment of killing. Villains are killed routinely and heroes die regularly, though they are just as often brought back as hideous cyber-creatures, or undead monsters possessed by the dark forces of Hell, or a little of both.
The most common Origins in in Gritty stories are Supertech and Mystic. Cyborgs and undead are particular favourites, but any power that takes over a hero or villain and enslaves them to a cursed existence of some kind will do th ejob. A sentient parasite that attaches itself to a player and grants vicious fighting abilities (Biological) or a weakened death god that needs a place to hide and chooses a human host (Mystic), or even both, are entirely appropriate. Guns are everywhere in Gritty stories, and they’re usually big, shiny, and highly phallic. Just go with it, if that’s what you’re into.
Pulp adventures are based on the Golden Age of American comics, the 30s and 40s. The most common Origins are Mystic and Supertech. The Mystic powers are steeped in ancient rites and usually have a culturally exotic feel. Be careful about propagating ethnic stereotypes of spiritualism in Asia, the Middle East, and among Aboriginal peoples, but also feel free to have fun with the generic types of the era: Noirish detectives, sci-fi supermen, mad scientists, and stage magicians who have realmagic. Supertech powers in Pulp games are usually based in extremely hazy pseudo-science, like harnessing the power of moonbeams. Supertech in this style appears almost identical to Mysticism, so taking Esoteric Items with Supertech Origins is quite appropriate.
The violence level of Pulp stories is actually quite high. Powers can accidentally kill people. The police shoot criminals regularly, and criminals have no qualms about shooting right back. Guns are fairly common. The “urban jungle” is a dangerous place, and Pulp stories can have a distinctly Noir and/or horror tone. Feel free to get a bit creepy.
Space Opera is science fiction where dashing heroes rescue scantily-clad women from bug-eyed monsters. There were often serious problems with how women were treated in Space Opera and with how much the bug-eyed monsters resembled the ratial other du jour. However, like Pulp, if you keep those problems in mind, you can still have great fun. Some of the best science fiction plays with those old clichés, turning the galactic princess into a gun-totting ass-kicker, for example.
Heroes and villains don’t often have powers in Space Opera. It’s a sci-fi genre, so people use technology instead. They will have a lot of Gadgets and you can build things like blasters out of the Gadget rules. A hand-held Energy Attack Gadget is basically a blaster. A Gadget loaded with Flight could be a jet-pack. Deaths of named characters are rare in Space Opera. Villains are killed at the ends of long stories, heroes just don’t die, and the nameless, faceless, bug-eyed aliens drop like flies.
Wuxia is the name of a Chinese genre of high-fantasy martial arts. It’s popular in both novels and cinema. For our purposes, we apply it (spuriously!) to all high-fantasy martial arts, including works from Korea, Thailand, Japan, etc.
Powers in Wuxia are always Mystical. They come straight out of the discipline and spiritualism of the martial arts. Having strong Kung Fu is this genre’s universal explanation for powers, including Ability Enhancement, Flight, Amazing Leap, etc. Wuxia showcases physical abilities like leaping and fighting. Flashy powers like Energy Attacks are less common.
Death is pretty common in Wuxia; it’s generally set in a version of Imperial or Ancient China in which law-enforcement is lax at best. It’s a bit like the Chinese equivalent of the Old West or barbarian Europe. None of these settings are accurate to their historical period, of course, but that doesn’t need to stop you from having fun in them. In modern Wuxia-style stories, set in big cities like Hong Kong or Kyoto, characters have to deal with legal consequences of death and killing, but those deaths will probably happen. Guns are at a real minimum in Wuxia because the whole point is to show off fancy martial arts moves. Exotic Asian weapons are entirely appropriate, of course.
Putting It All Together
These styles should, just like the descriptions of standard superheroes in Chapter 1, be taken with a handful of salt. Never forget that it’s your game, that it’s up to you to decide exactly what kind of feel you’re going for, and that you are not bound by genre. Instead, you should think of genres as opportunities, little prepared sets of storytelling conceits that you can whip out when you need to. Feel free, for example, to combine genres if you want to. A Gritty Space Opera that takes place on the Moon could be quite fun, or Wuxia Mystery Men leaping and springing around New York, or a Fun adventure that’s played at the Cosmic level, with evil demi-gods gnashing their teeth and complaining that they “would have got away with it, too, if not for you kids!”
Whatever you choose to do, though, talk to your players. Don’t just make decisions by fiat. Ask them what kind of game they want, listen to what they think will be fun, and try to amalgamate it all into one story. It’s not easy, and you can’t satisfy everyone all the time, but the more you and your players can agree one what style of gaming you’re looking for, the more fun everybody gets to have, and fun is the real point, after all.