Superheroes and RPGs

There is a difference between the stories you’ve seen and read, on the one hand, and the games that players of RPGs enjoy, on the other. The difference, generally speaking, is how the heroes win. In fiction, heroes often win by sheer luck, a hold-over from deus ex machina stories in which the protagonists prevail because they are favoured by the gods. It can be a straight-forward “magic sword” story, for example, in which the protagonist needs a particular item to defeat the villain because no other attack affects it. Alternatively, villains can lose by exceedingly poetic means. They might kills themselves using the tools of their own villainy: falling into vat of noxious poisons they’re about to dump into the city reservoir, being chewed up in their own bizarre death machines, and the like. That’s how fictional and cinematic heroes often prevail: the universe simply favours them.

RPG heroes, however, like to win through the application of their abilities  as opposed to dumb luck. They want all the work they put into making their characters to translate into clever, strategic, and heroic victories. The key, then, is to let them do so. Design your game around the PCs. Play to their strengths. Reward their cleverness and ingenuity. There’s a certain resistance to doing this among a lot of GMs because it feels like you’re holding yourself back or even coddling the players. There is certainly a time and a place for playing on the characters’ weaknesses, but the point of the game is fun (not “winning”), and as a GM, a lot of the responsibility for that fun rests with you. Give them challenges that aren’t easy, but match the PCs’ strengths. Don’t go easy on them, by any means, but dogive them something to do with all the fancy-ass abilities they gave themselves.

When you design your big fights, don’t leave only a single way to win. Don’t force your players into a particular narrative path that you like. For every challenge in the game, make sure you can think of two or three ways that the players could get around it with the skills and powers that they already have. That way, you know that they’re bound to think of their own way to do it (and the best moments for a GM are when the players think of things that are a complete surprise). If there’s only one way to win, though, they’re just playing a guessing-game with you, and that’s not very much fun, is it?


Trashing the Scenery

One of the  mostidentifiable aspects of combat in superhero comics is that stuff gets trashed.Cars are thrown back and forth. Streets are ripped to pieces. Buildings topple. That is exactly how a super fight should go. Just like a normal fight should destroy the room, a super fight should take down the neighbourhood. Wanton destruction is pretty much what we’re going for, here. Don’t underestimate just how much more exciting a fight is if you make sure to point out that you took out a phone booth with a missed kick, or that when you knocked back a villain, he went straight through a brick wall. Don’t worry too much about the exact number of HPs it might take to do these things. Sets are expendable. They exist to make the fights more fun. Even a missed attack can be exciting if it’s accompanied by a car blowing up, and missing is a lot less of a bummer if something cool happens.

This is also a great way to make your villains more threatening. Instead of “He tries to hit you with his eye-beams, but he misses,” say “He tries to hit you with his eye-beams, but you manage to dodge, and he puts a hole in the wall behind you big enough to see the hair salon inside.” More details and more destruction make it more fun and rewarding when the PCs finally kick that villain’s ass.

You can also use destruction to your advantage by having villains threaten to destroy the homes and property of innocent people, and possibly put your heroes on the defensive. You’ll want to decide on the violence level of your game to determine, for example, whether there are people on the bus that your villains use to pound the crap out of your heroes. It’s a common gag in superhero comics, for example, that buildings and cars that are destroyed in super fights are conveniently empty or abandoned, but you don’t have to follow that cliché if you don’t want to.



There is very little healing available in the modern world outside of scientific medicine. Even in a superhero world, healing powers are quite rare (only one: Healing Touch), so taking lethal damage in large amounts can be a game-ender. Although it is not required, we recommend that you use non-lethal damage in most encounters and save lethal damage for particularly dramatic or important scenes. Doing so means that your PCs can heal their non-lethal damage between scenes, but taking that damage in combat still has meaning because if they fall, they’re very vulnerable. It also means that when someone does actual lethal damage to those players, it will be all that more dramatic.

The in-game explanation for this stylistic choice is very simple; in safe, law-abiding communities, most just people don’t want to commit murder. There are exceptions, of course, but given the law-enforcement systems in place in nations such as the USA, Holland, or Japan, killing is just not very high on even a villain’s list of useful options, especially compared to a mediaeval-fantasy world. Theft and mayhem are one thing, but leaving a whole lot of dead bodies behind is not a great strategic choice, even for organised criminal syndicates .

Of course, if you choose to use lethal damage, you can just as easily rethink your game-world such that that is the most reasonable option (e.g., a veritable arms race between heroes and villains, the likes of which many comics have depicted), although in such a world, you might want to encourage players to take healing powers and/or provide NPCs who have them, otherwise you’ll have a whole lot of death, or a whole lot of down-time between games, or both. Ultimately, this stuff is always up to you. We just like to provide a few options so that you can make your own decisions.

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