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History of Superhero RPGs (Part Two: 1986-1996)
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SUPER-TEAMS
I stuck with core books when assembled my other RPG histories. But with supers- near and dear to my heart- I couldn’t stop there. Secondary sourcebooks and setting materials define these game lines for me. Villains & Vigilantes wouldn’t be the same without Death Duel with the Destroyers. DC Heroes needs the Hardware Handbook to offer another valiant attempt at a workable gadgets system. The various supplements shift Aberrant from just odd to over-the-top crazy. My Play on Target co-host Brian Cooksey cites Marvel’s Ultimate Powers Book as crucial- a resource for any supers game. I feel the same way about Villainy Amok for Champions 5e. Early Champions, on the other hand, lives in my memory for the first two Enemies books, Monster Manuals of the superhero game. They offered weird characters who popped repeatedly over the decades in many GMs’ campaigns. The list below includes a couple of game-changer supplements, including one of the best for any supers game.

CHARACTERS & CALCULATIONS
When my friend Art Lyon returned from the service, he ran a couple of homebrew superhero campaigns for us. We had a great time playing, but the system was legitimately bonkers- in the most awesome way. He reminded me recently that he had tables for all the factors: speed, weight, time, etc. The time one went from a Planck Unit at the bottom to the age of the universe. The system he came up with had the kind of detail and system dithering he dug at that moment in his life. Now, Art said, not so much. Sometimes we don’t know exactly what we want from games. My friend Gene objects to the number of different and distinct status effects in Mutants & Masterminds: too many. At the same time he wants to retool the strength table because the math’s incorrect and cuts corners in abstraction. (Note: it is entirely possible that I’m misstating his objections here).

It’s based on anecdotal evidence, but I see more arguments discussion about complexity and math for superhero games than for other genres. Recommendation threads usually devolve into that discussion over setting, playability, or other design elements. Champions, GURPS Supers and M&M take a hit for “requiring a math degree.” Some gamers dismiss their character creation systems’ as spread-sheet based. On the other hand I’ve seen gut-level reactions to easier game engines. Fate-based superhero games generate a vigorous shaking of virtual heads from many- in Fate Core aspect-driven, ICONS, or even more detailed (Strange Fate) versions. I think many gamers want the rich detail of a massive power list, but one where every power feels unique and distinct. But that shouldn’t be overly complicated- making the character they want should be easy. That’s a common rpg trait: cake desire and consumption.

TIMELINE '86-'92
This period saw a significant shift in tone and creative direction for comics. A host of indie publishers entered the market and many died off. That brought the first serious challenges to the dominance of the big two. Many classics appeared: Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns & Batman Year One, Moore’s Watchmen, “Kraven’s Last Hunt,” Chadwick’s Concrete, Morrison’s Arkham Asylum & Sandman and Gaiman's Sandman. Marvel launched the ill-fated New Universe line; DC tried a short-lived experimental line. Most importantly Image Comics launched with Youngblood, Spawn and others. Events continued to grab center stage with the Mutant Massacre, The Evolutionary War, Inferno, Invasion! Millennium, X-Tinction Agenda, and the Infinity War.

The period began with two cinematic comic book adaptations which should have killed them off forever: Howard the Duck and Superman IV: The Quest for Peace. But soon we got some solid hero films, with Keaton in Batman and Liam Neeson in Darkman. Interesting but perhaps less striking were Batman Returns and The Rocketeer...and, of course, the first two Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles films. On television we had the syndicated Superboy show, Swamp Thing, and the could-have-been-awesome-but-sucked Flash TV show. And we saw TMNT and X-Men. But most importantly we saw the two best cartoon shows about grimdark vigilantes: Darkwing Duck and Batman the Animated Series.

COMICS CRASH-ALCADE '93-96
They say 1993 was the biggest sales year for the comics industry. An avalanche of short-lived studios entered the market while stalwarts like First and Eclipse died. That year saw Bane break Batman, Grant Morrison’s last issue on Doom Patrol, the introduction of the Vertigo line, Deadpool #1, and Infinity Crusade. The following year saw the start of the comics bubble collapse, and at least two dozen publishers vanished. Despite the turmoil a few interesting events- Zero Hour and the Phalanx Covenant- spiced things up. 1995, however, brought the gamer-changer Age of Apocalypse. That lead into 1996’s big event, the Onslaught Saga which “changed the Marvel universe forever.” On the DC side we saw The Final Night which “killed off Hal Jordan forever.” On a brighter note, Clark Ken married Lois Lane.

In superhero cinema the four years gave us the disappointing TNMT III, Meteor Man , The Shadow, Judge Dredd, Tank Girl, The Phantom, Darkman II & III, Barb Wire, Black Scorpion, and Batman Forever. The Crow and Guyver helped offset those, but not by much. On TV Batman the Animated Series continued, and Superman: the Animated Series began. Other animated premieres included The Tick, the US release of Sailor Moon, Freakazoid, The Incredible Hulk, and the short-lived WildC.A.T.S. & MAXX shows. Just as important, the Mighty Morphin Power Rangers made their debut. In live action we saw Lois & Clark: the New Adventures of Superman and M.A.N.T.I.S..

These lists cover a smaller slice of time than my past rpg lists. I hope this makes them easier to read. I include mostly core books, but also significant setting or sourcebooks. I list revised editions which significantly changed a line. Generally I only include published material- print or electronic. I leave out freebie or self-published games. I'm sure I've left something off without adequate reason; feel free to add a comment about a line I missed (if published from 1986-1996). I've arranged these in by year and then alphabetically within that year.

History of Superhero RPGs (Part One 1978-1985)
History of Superhero RPGs (Part Two: 1986-1996)
History of Superhero RPGs (Part Three 1997-2001)
History of Superhero RPGs (Part Four 2002-2004)
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1. RPG Item: Marvel Super Heroes Advanced Set [Average Rating:7.56 Overall Rank:238]
Lowell Francis
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(1986) The Marvel license did well enough for TSR that they decided to go back to the well. They followed the D&D/AD&D approach, creating a new version which added material but basically offered a complete stand-alone game. Unlike with D&D, this didn't create a split in the line. All Marvel products appeared generally compatible regardless of which level you'd entered at. Mostly I saw gamers buying both box sets- regarding the latter as a source of new ideas. MSH: Advanced improves on most of the rules...if you like more options and more complexity. Nothing here negates the original but rather it adds much more depth. The Players Book, for example, assumes veteran gamers. Rather than a more comic book approach it is a traditional rpg manual, beginning with the character creation process and working through to mechanics. MSH: AS offers some new systems, mostly for campaign options (ideas like Contacts, Popularity, and the fuller Talents system).

Is it better? I think most would say yes. Just look at the roster on offer in this set compared to the original (stats for Mephisto and Galactus). But there's some cost to that. The simplicity and kind of goofy light-handed approach vanishes. It looks like a serious game system which might not make it the best to throw at a newbie. Different attack types get broken up on a special chart and now the classes of powers go all the way up to Shift Z. For an interesting assessment of the system see Justin Rio's review- A Super review! (well, maybe) and the comments afterwards.
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2. RPG Item: Super Agents [Average Rating:7.00 Unranked]
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(1986) Not a great supplement, but one which set the stage for a certain kind of campaign. Of course now we have Agents of SHIELD on TV and we've seen Checkmate make an appearance in Smallville. But at the time an independent sourcebook covering agents in a superhero world was something of a novelty. We'd see more of this later with volumes detailing hybrid organizations (like Hydra). Other games would offer similar approaches (Agents of Freedom for M&M for example). But this was the first to explicitly call out the sub-genre and offer resources for it. At the time I liked the idea of it, but never really wanted to run it. Today I can imagine working in the various branches and conflicting agendas, trying to deal with bureaucracy, and being the mundanes who make a stand against the craziness of the super world. I imagine something close to Global Frequency, but at the time I only used it as a basis for a GI Joe hack of Champions.
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3. RPG Item: Enforcers [Average Rating:2.33 Unranked]
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(1987) I don't know if the term heartbreaker applies here, but Enforcers is a mess of an rpg. Somehow it reached a second printing, as evidenced by the errata page at the front on my copy. Like Superhero 2044 it offers a futuristic backdrop for its metahuman game, except 2046...so two better. Also like S2044, it doesn't do a great job explaining that setting or suggesting what makes this sci-fi setting better than a contemporary one. In fact the only background given takes up two pages with a timeline that extends up to the far-future year of 2002.

I also suspicious of games which start off being 'clever' and suggesting that their system's superior to unnamed other games...and then making transparent passive-aggressive comments identifying them. So the opening takes a few shots at Marvel ("Ability scores represented by words like Fantastic, Amazing, Incredible, Humongous (or is it Hughmongoose?)" ugh. It also anonymously targets Champions, with a comment about systems which "...require a Ph.D. in math to understand."). That comments ironic on a number of scores. First, Champions is clearly the illegitimate parent of this system. The look of the character sheet, the handling of stats, the errata that all references to END should refer to Con. Second, this game is math and calculation crazy. In-effing-sane. A couple of examples. The energy cost for an attack is calculated via the following formula: EC/U= (Dam# x 3 x BCTH)/1000. Or my favorite the calculation for knockout percentages based on the "Limb Strength Factor" or LSF which is the Con (Modifier) x 2 x the Weight factor. Third, the game includes the line-by-line program which gamers can enter into a Lotus Notes system in order to generate a character sheet.

The rules writing's generally a shambles, with confusing terminology and abbreviations. Some systems are called optional, when they're actually pretty basic. There's look up tables for everything, and confusing cross-reference mechanics for handling combat. The art's awful. Some people enjoy his work, but Albert Deschesne doesn't do much for me. His cover's the highlight of this book. The interior art's really bad. Like Middle School bad.

Point-based. Various dice.
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4. RPG Item: TSAC2: Agent 13 Sourcebook [Average Rating:6.69 Overall Rank:5229]
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(1988) TSR made some strange moves with their game lines. The reworking of Top Secret as their 'modern' game system Top Secret/S.I. didn't do well in our area. While they had decent support for the line, including comics and gamebooks IIRC, it never moved. It may have take off in other places but I can't remember it even popping up at various conventions. The Agent 13 Sourcebook was among a couple of different settings which used the core system (others being TSAC7: F.R.E.E.America and TSAC4: F.R.E.E. Lancers). This one covered pulp action and only barely rates inclusion on the list for the discussion of mystery men and the possibility of strange powers. Ray Winninger, designer of Underground, created this. Bizarrely TSR published a set of parallel pulp novels and graphic novels in this setting, focusing on Agent 13: The Midnight Avenger.

Random generation plus point spend. Various dice.

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(1988) At some point someone at TSR or Marvel came up with the idea to do an encyclopedia of characters. Then, and I imagine it was a different person, someone suggested making them punched so they could go in a binder and be updated. I also like to imagine that these two imaginary people received massive bonuses that year and were carried around the offices on the shoulders of those involved with the creation of Gammarauders.

This books sold like hotcakes. Like game-able hotcakes. Even if people didn't play Marvel, they bought copies. They combined the gamer's obsessive love of completeness with an obsession with minutiae. The yearly updates made them even better, allowing the line to keep up with continuity in a way no other licensed supers game has. Well, except for Who's Who in the DC Universe which looks suspiciously like these books- except without updates.
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6. RPG Item: Aaron Allston's Strike Force [Average Rating:9.06 Overall Rank:955]
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(1988) Now that TSR/WotC and White Wolf have moved to issue their backlist electronically, can we get other long-running companies to do so as well? Because Aaron Allston's Strike Force needs to be available again. Allston's name appears again and again on these lists and with good reason. His combination of insight, inspiration, and real gaming experience raises his material up a level. A first glance Strike Force offers just another campaign book- a write up of the author's campaign at that. But there's so much more on offer. Instead of just being a history and catalog of NPCs we get real discussion about how that campaign grew, what tools the GM used to make it work, an under-the-hood look at the mechanics of sustaining and running a long-term campaign.

It has some of the best GM advice for supers (and other games). I presents the PCs and the NPCs, with notes on how they evolved. It gives house rules for the system which clean up many irritating problems. It offers a novel technique in the form of 'bluebooking' for handling character sub-plots and stories between sessions. It may seem trite now, but at the time it introduce a new play approach. Within a few months of release, most groups I knew had integrated these ideas. We all used them in some way or another. I can think of few other superhero supplements which had such a profound impact on games. And I'm not the only one who thinks so. Consider Jeff's Gameblog's comments or Sdonohue's review The Short Version? Buy on sight.. Its too bad this came out so late in the life-cycle of Champions 3e. It ended up lost a little with the Hero Games' switch to 4e the next year.
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7. RPG Item: Vindicators [Average Rating:0.00 Unranked]
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(1988) And here's where my experience and Google-fu failed me for the first time on these lists. I don't recall this game at all and I've found almost nothing about it online. A few places mention it as valuable for being hard-to-find. The back cover blurb reads:

"NOW YOU CAN BECOME YOUR FAVORITE COMICS HERO!
And not a moment too soon. Crime is running rampant. Natural disasters are on the rise. Sinister organizations are plotting the overthrow of civilization. There's no time to lose. Use the VINDICATORS game system to create your own crime-fighting hero. Pick weapons from the most basic to the most advanced. Use any of dozens of skills. Choose from over one hundred fantastic powers, including psionics, flight, energy control, and heightened senses. Build your strength, speed, and agility to superhuman levels."

RPG Geek lists the mechanics as Action Table (table determines action outcomes), Attribute/Stat Based, Dice (Various), Point Based, Random Attribute Generation, Skill Based

A supplement, Vindicators Plus, came out in 1991, but has also vanished down the memory hole.
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8. RPG Item: Champions 4th Edition [Average Rating:7.08 Overall Rank:931]
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(1989) Champions 4th edition effectively erased my memory of all the editions leading up to it. Those books went in a box and vanished. One so many levels this game worked for me. You have the awesome George Perez cover, the smart interior layout, the cleaned-up and streamlined rules, the division of the material into core & campaign elements, and heft of the product as a whole. Having art from one of our players (Barry Winston) didn't hurt. I mentioned before that with the earlier editions I just floated along. I didn't grasp how everything fit together. This edition finally opened my eyes. I don't think you can overstate how important clear, consistent, and inviting page design contributes to the impact of a game system. I have many rpg books that I'm sure offer amazing depth and a wealth of ideas, but I can't make it through them.

This edition also offered a serious competitor to GURPS with HERO system as an independent thing. We tried that for some time, but ultimately found that the two games handled different things better. GURPS worked well with the lower powered games. It created a solid and dangerous fantasy campaign with decent magical support. Horror games benefited from the quick resolution and ability to de-emphasize mechanics. HERO, on the other hand, required a number of clunky bolt-ons, especially for magic. I know some people loved Fantasy HERO but it failed for our groups. HERO worked for supers and worked well. And Champions was that supers game.

Champions 4e is simple, but not barebones. It lacks the full-bleed images, page watermarking, and text elaborations of more modern games, but it works. Proof comes in the longevity of this edition. Champions 4e remained in this version in print from 1989 to 2002. That's a huge swath of time without either major changes to the core engine or a 'revised' edition with minor adjustments. It worked and continued to work for years. All the gamers I knew put away any other supers system they'd been toying with. I stuck with it solidly. It would only be the switch to Hero System 5 that would throw me off. That finally made me start hunting for an easier and faster superhero game.

Point based. d6 resolution.
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9. RPG Item: DC Heroes Role-Playing Game (2nd Edition) [Average Rating:7.07 Overall Rank:1172]
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(1989) Mayfair supported DC Heroes first edition with nearly three dozen modules, plus eight sourcebooks. But it had a huge problem named Crisis on Infinite Earths. The approval process for licensed materials requires a huge lead time. I imagine Mayfair had products lined up and ready it didn't want to scrap. Plus it didn't know how the DC Universe would actually end up. Who would live? What would they look like? In 1989 they finally released a new edition of the game, in another boxed set. This second edition is pretty hideous. The book covers are ugly and there's a weird attempt to ape the Marvel design elements that didn't work. While the new character cards included were decent, the combat wheel felt like a step back.

While it didn't remove all of the complexity, the designers clearly hoped to clean up and simplify the material. Mayfair had released Batman Role-Playing Game to catch some of the energy from the new movie. That streamlined the "MEGS" (Mayfair Exponential Gaming System) rules. This new edition incorporated many of those innovations. More importantly, it began to pull together the threads of the new setting, with The Atlas of the DC Universe laying out where things stood. Significant sourcebooks covering Magic, The Teen Titans, Watchmen, and The Justice league rounded that out. Mayfair continued to play with layout and design. In 1993 they released a third edition done as a single volume with minor fixes to the core system.

But our group had already moved on. A few of us bought DC Heroes 2e and came away disappointed by the presentation. We bought a few sourcebooks and followed it for a little bit, but mostly it died. Improvements to the system didn't fix the core weaknesses and the new set felt cheap. The arrival of Champions 4 put a stake in the heart of this game in our area. It would continue to sell, but mostly to DC aficionados rather than gamers. Point-based. 2d10 resolution.
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10. RPG Item: GURPS Supers [Average Rating:4.93 Overall Rank:7770]
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(1989) Another game which had the misfortune to come out the same year as Champions 4th. We used GURPS for many campaigns non-superhero. When GURPS Supers arrived, several of us bought it. We read it and we even tried to play it. But...

Eric Aldrich has an excellent review of this supplement, Breaking the system. He uses the phrase "unwieldy" to describe the game. That's certainly how we found it. In some ways it has exactly the opposite problem of DC Heroes MEGS mechanic. In that game, a 2 is an average ability, with 4 being excellent human level...but then the numbers climb upwards with a doubling. So a stat of 4 is four times better than a two. That craziness means all low-level characters look the same. GURPS suffers from not having a great structure of cases well above the human normal. The points, calculations, and effects get weird and hard to follow quickly. People call Champions complicated, but at heart it has a simple elemental pattern. GURPS Supers lacks that elegance and felt tacked on. We dropped it after the first edition. It is notable for offering the first adaptation of George R.R. Martin's anthology series, Wild Cards. GURPS Supers Wild Cards and GURPS Wild Cards Aces Abroad offered great sourcebooks for the setting with terrible art. Steve Jackson revised GURPS Supers just two years later in 1991 but by that time we'd moved on.

Point based. d6 Resolution.
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11. RPG Item: Marvel Super Heroes Basic Set [Average Rating:7.18 Overall Rank:1038]
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(1991) The MSH Advanced set offered an entry point for experienced gamers and did well for TSR. But they also wanted an even easier entry point than the original yellow box. The designers wanted something more up to date (since seven years of comics events had happened). This version takes an even more stripped down approach and cuts out much of the campaign information. Instead there's a book of rules and a book with character descriptions. The company seems want a true game for neophytes with an explicit shift to the Advanced set later. I should also note the drop in the quality of artwork. The interior illos are even more basic than Al Milgrom's orignal material. The cover...well, the cover's just weird and creepy. Like maybe something somebody would get paid to airbrush on the side of a comics fan's van.

Random and point based. Percentiles.
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12. RPG Item: Cybergeneration [Average Rating:7.38 Overall Rank:1779]
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(1993) I forgot this until remind by a post comment. Cybergeneration acts as an antidote to the nihilism of Cyberpunk. The players take the role of youths infected with a nano-virus which gives them remarkable powers. They use these to fight against both the corruption of the corporations and the jaded hopelessness of Edgerunners and their ilk. I love the blurb on the back cover "My Parents Became Cyberpunks and All They left me Was This Dark Future." Imagine a more political version of the X-Men (like an X-Men 2099) or near future version of Local. It uses CP's base system but adds interesting abilities- with some hitches. IIRC the Lifepaths in here are even more insane. This is one cyberpunk game I could imagine running. R. Tal supported the line lightly with the Documents of the Revolution series. Some of the Cyberpunk modules could be adapted over as well. In 1995 they released a second edition of the corebook- expanded by about 20%. In 2004 Firestorm Ink released a couple of supplements, including one (Generation Gap) to mix old and new PCs. However FI apparently no longer has the license. Will Hutton has a nice look back at this game which deserves an update.

Random generation and point buy. d10 resolution.
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13. RPG Item: Dark Champions:Heroes of Vengeance (First Edition) [Average Rating:7.88 Overall Rank:3068]
Lowell Francis
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South Bend
Indiana
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(1993) By this time, I'd moved solidly into Champions 4e as my supers system of choice. I still dug heavy chrome and crunch with my games- though often in actual play I streamlined things heavily. Rolemaster and GURPS handled everything non-supers. Dark Champions really confimed that selection for me and many others in our group. Frank Millers work on low-level heroes had established that as a genre for us. Combining that with Moore's Watchmen, Chaykin's Shadow, Veitch's Brat Pack, O'Neil's run on The Question, Baron's Badger, and Wagner's Grendel resulted in a long-running street-level campaign we called Saviors. My sister Cat Rambo originally ran it and then I moved into first chair. That lasted for several years, finishing with a dark ending that saw the players betraying their core beliefs. A couple of years later I ran a sequel campaign that added some proto-Cyberpunk elements and dealt more with tech-fallout.

For all its inspiration, Dark Champions itself felt like a mixed bag. It had some interesting crunchy bits, in particular the weapons section and the variations on disads and skills. But much of the mechanical material dealt with things well off my radar. It offered rich and heavy source material. For the first time Champions presented more "realistic" discussions of crime and criminal organizations, police procedures, and the implications of vigilantism. Most of that material seemed more applicable to a Punisher style and tone game than a Batman Animated one. The characters presented also felt bizarre. The intent of the game seemed to be low-level and low power, but many NPCs including the signature vigilante ended up high-point monsters. It felt like Hero Games wasn't entirely sure what they actually wanted from the product. Still it established street-level campaigns as a thing to be discussed and spun off.

The success of Dark Champions led to many sourcebooks aimed at that market: An Eye for an Eye, Hudson City Blues, Justice, Not Law, Murderers' Row, and more. Some materials tried to bridge the gap with standard Champions resulting in weird power levels and tonal shifts. Classic mafia-level characters would be weirdly cartoony and conventional thugs could be bizarrely powerful. You can see how the shifts in comics through the 1990's impacted this material in stories and visuals. The rise of grimdark and amoral characters like Spawn and the belt & bandoleer-based aesthetics of Leifield and co appear more and more. There's a weird fallback to the serial killer with a knife or scalpel as a villain type. Some enemy archetypes could be great to throw into a campaign once in a while, but the Dark Champions universe seemed filled with insanely competent psychos. Hero returned to Dark Champions with 5th edition- giving it an independent line and more fully fleshed setting of Hudson City. However they haven't yet done anything with it for Hero 6.
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14. RPG Item: Heroes & Heroines Rules Guide [Average Rating:4.00 Unranked]
Lowell Francis
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South Bend
Indiana
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(1993) For me, true heartbreaker games appear as a meteor burning through the atmosphere- a phosphorescent display of poor design choices, incandescent creator rage, and a brilliant ignorance of other games. It crashes into the gaming landscape with an explosion of wtf. On the other hand Heroes & Heroines simply falls leaden to the ground. It isn't very good, but it does that in the most conventional way possible. The layout's weak even for an early '90's product, the art's bad but mostly looks traced, and the mechanics clearly come from someone who sort of knows what an rpg looks like. 71 of the book's 116 pages cover powers; one page vaguely describes weaknesses with no guide on how many points these ought to be worth or even how they get played. The whole things weirdly flat, with the exception of one of the five stats being Bench Press Weight which makes me giggle a little.

As weird as it sounds, it almost feels like a cash grab. And that would be weird given the state of the gaming market. But the back cover and interior advert pages make a big deal about this game being the first superhero game to have licenses but not be shackled to a single comic publisher (ignoring things like The Justice Machine and DNAgents Sourcebook). The name of the publisher, Excel Marketing, and that the game clearly went through comic distribution and advertising channels points in that direction. And to be fair they did manage to publish supplements for Image's The Maxx, Continuity's DeathWatch 2000, and Dark Horse with Comic's Greatest World (but not Malibu's Protectors & Ex-Mutants as suggested in the back of the book).

Point-buy. Level-based. Various dice.
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15. RPG Item: HeroMaker Software [Average Rating:10.00 Unranked]
Lowell Francis
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Indiana
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(1993) I've mentioned HeroMaker Software before when talking about Champions meant for me. It isn't the earliest big game piece of software- that honor probably belongs to the Dungeon Master's Assistant. But HM changed the way games played. It streamlined the character creation process and allowed for quick checks. Champions character creation could be involved and this took the edge off of that. It allowed gamers to share characters, online groups to convert existing NPCs, and GMs to quickly generate opponents. When I ran my last big Champions campaigns in the mid-1990's I relied on it heavily. Hero Games brilliantly distributed the software bundled with an edition of Champions 4th. Of course it was MS-DOS so it could be a pain to work with and get running, but it generally ran well. The additional tools- like being able to generate speed charts based on the characters made it even more useful. When Hero Games switched over to 5th edition, they made a concerted effort to push and support HERO Designer. Most supplements have HD character packs available with the details for the various NPCs presented.
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16. RPG Item: Superbabes: The Femforce Role-Playing Game [Average Rating:6.33 Unranked]
Lowell Francis
United States
South Bend
Indiana
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(1993) I swear to god I thought this was a joke. For the longest time I thought Superbabes was something that appeared in a list of imaginary parody RPG titles (like Accountants & Actuaries or Whinging of the Lame Princeless). Nope. Real game from a real series of comics (apparently), with a number of supplements. I don't know what to make of it. It is as implicitly advertised, with phrases like comics with "an eye for what men like to see," the use of Bimbo Points, a random event table with a 20% chance of body image issues, and lots of poses straight out of Escher Girls. So for some I'm sure this is awesome, but it comes off a little creepy to me. I think primarily because of the fringe gamers we used to have at the edges of the gaming group who also hung around comic shops. The ones who would argue about the sophistication of modern comics and then pay an artist to draw an erotic bondage sketch of Dawnstar at a convention. It's subjective- one person's harmless fun is another persons indictment of the problem of the male gaze. This game hits me as the latter, which I'll admit makes it more difficult for me to pull out what good stuff there might be here.

The game itself seems to fall between Champions and V&V for difficulty. Like them it has endurance tracking, but a more flexible action system. There's some elements that seem exploitable (especially Moves as a key stat). Combat requires a look up of level vs. Hittability. The powers fall closer to V&V, with more abstract mechanics. Skills break into general area and then specific types which feels a little arbitrary. I appreciate the simplicity to the names. The layout obscures some of what might be good here. I'll point to sdonohue's aptly titled review of the game here: Superbabes: The Femforce Role-Playing Game? You only need it if you love Femforce, Superhero games, Sexism, or some combination of those three.. Though I never saw the game in our FLGS (and they carried Macho Women with Guns, the game apparently did well enough to spawn nearly a dozen supplements. So there must have been a loyal audience for it.

Point buy. Level based. Various Dice.
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17. RPG Item: Underground [Average Rating:6.81 Overall Rank:2683]
Lowell Francis
United States
South Bend
Indiana
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(1993) Marshal Law. There- I'll go ahead and say what everyone's thinking. Underground looks like the rpg version that: from premise to art design. Yet in a recent overview which included interview bits from Ray Winninger, he never mentions it. Instead he cites the desire to create a political rpg, with superheroes as the skin. So maybe the truth's more mixed- and maybe Underground's unfairly labeled on that score. Even if it isn't a direct lift, it serves as a touchstone for what's actually a pretty incredible game. In some ways, Underground's closer to Gibson's vision of the world from Neuromancer than Cyberpunk is. Instead of fetishishing tech, chrome, and guns, this game offers a compelling dystopian world painted in bright colors. It is simultaneously truly funny and truly eff'd up.

There's much to like here. The art's striking and consistent- from a Geoff Darrow cover and interior bits to stuff that looks like Charles Burns doing superhero propaganda. Everything deserves a second look. Underground has a simple system, with some striking concepts- especially the way they handle scale and time. The powers section really sells the tone of the game. Yes, you can have cool powers but they wear you down and each has a fairly horrible limitation. Make no mistake, Underground's a dark comedy of horrifically powerful beings hobbled by those powers and a society which doesn't know what to do with them. I don't know if I could actually run a campaing this dark. It feels like Paul Verhoeven at his most satirical. You should read the rules for the political and cultural commentary. Where other satirical games devolve into stupidity (HōL) sustains itself pretty smartly.

It's also a strikingly well-produced rpg, taking what Mayfair had learned from DC Heroes and advancing several steps. Text design and iconography make this stand out from every other game. The Notebook's an ambitious project, designed to be expanded by later supplements. The game supplied a mix of books and box sets designed to appeal to gamers who loved cool stuff. For years after Underground ceased active production you could find bundled sets of the various products for cheap all over the place. I bought a full set which vape'd in the house fire. These days they're harder to find, but I managed to track down a used copy of the core book. For some interesting discussion of it and ideas on how to adapt it, see Phil Vecchione's articles here.

Point buy. 2d10 resolution.
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18. RPG Item: Legione [Average Rating:0.00 Unranked]
Lowell Francis
United States
South Bend
Indiana
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(1994) An Italian supers rpg which seems to translate as "Legion: The Power in Your Hands." I haven't found out much about it, except that it seems to have some nostalgic favor among Italian gamers. They also cite another Italian superhero rpg, Supers- which due to the generic name and the language barrier I haven't found out much about. Legion came in a boxed set and had a single supplement. A weak translation of the back cover would be, "Crime and evil continue their advance; now more than ever help is needed. You can create a new champion of good or recreate your favorite comic book hero and enter the fray! In Legion we await action and adventure. Do not hesitate: we need new heroes!"

Point-buy (?). Various dice.
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19. RPG Item: Cosmic Enforcers [Average Rating:0.00 Unranked]
Lowell Francis
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South Bend
Indiana
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(1995) A sci-fi superhero rpg from Myrmidon Press who delivered us Manhunter, and the first editions of Armageddon and WitchCraft. the players take the role of super-powered space cops at the behest of the Galactic Alliance fighting against interstellar threats in the far-future year of 2025. The game has everything: psionics, magic, cybernetics, power armor, etc. While it spawned a supplement, Villains & Foes it seems to have largely vanished without much splash.

Level-based. Various dice.
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20. RPG Item: Project A-Ko [Average Rating:5.00 Unranked]
Lowell Francis
United States
South Bend
Indiana
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(1995) Project A-ko was the first anime I rented and I didn't really get it, in part because I only knew a little bit about the anime conventions. But I liked it- the cartoony fun and parody of the movie. It also served as a necessary antidote when I hit other, darker anime. Is it superhero? Probably only by my loose definitions. The characters clearly possess superpowers, they battle foes, there's a nod to Superman in the show suggesting its an explicit but Japanese take on the genre. Superhero often transform, depending on the cultural ideas. Consider the craziness of Turkish superhero movies, Italy's Diabolik, or even the Japanese versions of Spider-Man and Batman. So I'm willing to consider this as the furthest border case in my definition.

I want to include it as well because its just a really well-designed game. Dream Pod 9/Ianus did a brilliant job bringing over the tone of the anime without going over-the-top silly. It offers a great sourcebook and takes 'seriously' the rules of the universe presented. But the game's straightforward and simple. The skill list is fluid and descriptive- with examples like Shoot really big guns, Speeding with inline skates, Forge parents' signatures. Aspect-like mechanics help players define their character further. Powers are handled through a list of talents, written fairly broadly. These are complemented by Crosses (aka disadvantages) equally open-ended. The mechanics take up only the first third of the book, with the rest given over to setting material, scenarios, example NPCs, and a card game.

Point-buy. d6s for Resolution.

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21. RPG Item: TWERPS Campaign Book #05: TWERPS Super Dudes [Average Rating:9.00 Unranked]
Lowell Francis
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Indiana
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(1995) Among Jeff Dee's other great rpgs stands TWERPS. A light parody of other rpgs, it fit on the shelves with Metagaming, Steve Jackson, and Task Force Games' products and had a pretty solid fanbase. I don't recall anyone actually playing it, but the core rules and setting supplements consistently sold. You could easily collect and get a laugh out of the products- featuring one stat and one profession. In the 1990's Gamescience/Reindeer began to published new supplements by authors other than Dee. TWERPS Super Dudes is exactly as advertised. Three dozen plus powers and a mini-adventure allow you to run comic-book TWERPS madness.

Random generation plus point buy. d6 Resolution.
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22. RPG Item: Advanced Defensores de Tóquio [Average Rating:6.00 Unranked]
Lowell Francis
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(1996) A Brazilian rpg, and actually the second edition of it. I consider super sentai and some anime characters in the superhero genre, certainly the sci-fi edge of it. This one's more of a parody of the genre, but counts by my reckoning. According to Wikipedia, "The name of the game is a pun on the famous Dungeons & Dragons or "D&D"; the original version of the game – Defensores de Tóquio ("Defenders of Tokyo") – was a satire of tokusatsu, fighting games, and anime series. It was created by Marcelo Cassaro and published by Trama Editorial, later known as Editora Talismã. It spawned "AD&T" - as implied by the name, an "advanced" edition (and a pun on AD&D). Finally, "3D&T" means "Defenders of Tokyo 3rd edition". The major change on the 3rd edition was that it was turned into a generic game, dropping its satire roots. It was a huge success, becoming as popular as Dungeons & Dragons and Vampire: The Masquerade among Brazilian roleplayers."

Point-based. d6 resolution.
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23. RPG Item: Bubblegum Crisis: Mega-Tokyo 2033 [Average Rating:6.22 Overall Rank:4794]
Lowell Francis
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(1996) We had some people in our group who loved Bubblegum Crisis. As can happen, their overweening enthusiasm drove me off. So a good deal of this RPG is lost on me. The superhero angle comes from the Knight Sabers; armored vigilantes and private eyes battling against a conspiracy of mad robots and cyborgs (called Boomers). The game itself is a love-letter to the series with tons of illustrations, plot speculation, background, gear write ups, and NPCs to satisfy any fan. This material begins on page 51 and runs through the rest of the 168-page volume. We have drawings of every vehicle, robot, gun, suits, and tech-y thing from the series. Its a little overwhelming for someone coming in from the outside. Still I appreciate the new take on near-future superheroes: more Spider-Man 2099 than Legion of Superheroes.

I sometimes get R Talsorian and Dream Pod 9 mixed up in my head. They both worked heavily with anime or anime-influenced material. DP9 also produced supplements for R Tal's Cyberpunk. But R Tal has a distinct style in these anime games: dense, boxy, and full of crunch. BC uses Fuzion- an engine closer to the abstraction of Savage Worlds than the tighter balance of Hero or even GURPS. For as crunchy as this system can be; it is densely and quickly presented. The headings make it easy to find things and the order's logical, but the text size and design makes it harder to read. GMs can choose to run this as a conventional sci-fi game or as a more superheroic one, giving players access to the powered armor suits of the Saber Knights.

Point build. d6 & d10 resolution options.


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