There are several games on the market that can emulate the genre of superheroes and supervillains; they range from the crunch-heavy HERO System where building a character may potentially involved advanced mathematics (but you can build a character to do exactly what you want) to the relative freeform of Mutants and Masterminds or the looseness of a superhero-modified Cypher System. Why would you want to play such a game?
Emulating comic books can be fun
Let’s face it, most of us at some point wanted to be Batman, Spiderman, Black Widow, Wonder Woman, or the like when we were growing up. People in the modern world with powers well beyond the normal are just cool – and these games give us the chance to emulate that and build our own stories that can match the drama and glory of the comic books – only without the certainty that everything will work out in the end, because the story gets written as we play it.
For some, the thrill will come from rebuilding the heroes they love from comics – building Hulk or Supergirl in the system’s format and enacting their adventures with familiar foes and friends. Others will want to make it completely their own, building characters that let them do what they always wished they could growing up.
The power dial has a much finer value
In most fantasy games, the power dials starts low and gets cranked up hard as a game progresses; you go from essentially a farm boy to a demigod if you follow the full progression. It can be drawn out, amped up, or adjusted, but the baseline value always goes the same way. Sci-fi tends to either be over-the-top all the way through (space opera) or solidly realistic and low-power, without too much flux between the two. Either way, the dial tends to stay put in that genre most of the time.
Superhero games can be set anywhere from street-level, where you’re essentially a skilled normal person out fighting (or causing) crimes with your wits and maybe one or two low-grade special tricks, all the way up to cosmic-level superpowers where the the fate of entire star systems hinges on the outcome of phenomenal struggles between near-gods – and it has settings at every point between the two, from wise-cracking experts with a limited power set to Superman and his equally outrageously powerful foes.
It comes in a wide range of flavors, all with ample source material
Want to play a bunch of over-the-top heroes having wacky misadventures? You can pick up any Silver Age comic book and see adventure and character seeds strewn through the pages. Grim vigilantes fighting crime because the cops are corrupt and the nights are blacker than black? Iron Age comics with plenty of black leather and chains to inspire you. Mature themes rich in nuance but still able to face the world with a grin? Most modern-day comics will give you a good source to work from.
You can go from being as silly and outrageous as you like to the darkest and most grim of plots, all within the same system and sometimes even with the same characters, just tweaked by the progress of time. Compare the Adam West Batman and the Nolan Batman to see just how far apart the exact same character can be without ever changing the functional concept of the character.
From beer and pretzels to deep intrigue on a dime
Just like you can dial the power level and the flavor of the game much more handily in this genre than in most others, it also lends itself to everything from light-hearted beer-and-pretzels gameplay (I don’t recommend HERO for this) to the most intrigue-laden roleplay-heavy campaign you can cook up. Superhero stories thrive on mixing up the intense action that most people think of when they hear about comics with light-hearted comedy and well-built emotional scenes, often within a single monthly issue.
Built to be modular
Most game systems make it tricky to tell stories that are either episodic, since most characters require a lot of forethought and work to build and don’t really change quickly, or truly long-term, since really long-term plots require a commitment from players and GM alike that they might not be able to sustain. The superhero genre works well for either of these extremes, though, with episodic games matching up well with the frantic pacing of a comic, and the long-term able to be handled even as players drop out due to life or new people join. The original heroes retire, new ones join the team, and if someone comes back then the retired hero makes a comeback or has a protege who steps in to fill their place.
This post was originally slated to come out on Friday.