Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Superhero Studies, Part 3

Lately I’ve been mentally comparing my Superhero Studies series of blog articles to the spaghetti western “The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly.” Using that film’s title as a building point, the first two articles in this series were about the “Good”—so, gentle reader, you ought to have an idea of where this is going next!

Poor Flash...

We’ve talked about the Best, now for the Rest.

Ross Watson’s Top 10 Superhero RPG Missteps

I fully expect this blog post to be one of the more controversial ones so far—whenever you discuss “bests and worsts” there’s likely going to be a reaction. In a way, I welcome this—I usually enjoy hearing different viewpoints about a game, and from time to time, I’ve even gone back and changed my mind due to particularly insightful feedback. So, don’t hold back! Go ahead and post your reaction to this list in the comments… I promise to read all of them. :)


I do this not in anger, but in sorrow

I’m calling these books “missteps” because I do believe that to be the best description of how I feel about them… many of the products in the list below could have been great, if it were not for some pernicious setbacks and flaws.

In my very first blog post here on Rogue Warden, I made some ground rules about the content of my blog—amongst them was a rule called “No Hate.” I am firmly sticking to that policy, more so than ever when it comes to discussing products I feel that are seriously flawed. The list of books below are on the list for what I believe to be very good reasons—I don’t feel any are worthy of hate, and I would definitely encourage you, gentle reader, to consider this list more as books that did not live up to their potential rather than abject failures.

As always, this is my personal list, and I am not attempting to claim that these books are not loved by many (I am sure that some of them have lots of devoted fans, in fact). Just imagine I am writing “IMHO” at the end of every entry. :)

A bit surprisingly, I felt compelled to break the pattern from the first two posts in this series and include some base RPG systems on the list rather than skipping over them as is my usual wont. These products are in ascending order going from least disappointing to most disappointing.


Common Themes

You’ll note that a lot of the products on the list have some things in common; amongst them an inability to live up to their title and inarticulate or incomprehensible rules issues. I’ve tried to keep my criticism of “objective quality” to a minimum, but I’ll warn you ahead of time that I plan to pull no punches. It is no accident that #’s 6-10 are the ones that “almost got it,” and are actually fully functional games (with supplements!) and the upper 5 are… not so much—these are the ones with the most serious problems.

Find out the top 10 missteps after the jump!

#10: Heroes Unlimited


I don't understand how he's holding that shield...

Heroes Unlimited is a bit of a mixed bag—one of its supplements actually made it onto my top 10 Superhero RPG Products list, after all. Of all the books on this list, HU is probably the one I felt most conflicted over adding, but I do feel that it has some big issues.

First, Heroes Unlimited seems to have trouble “getting” superheroes. As part of the Palladium lineup, it has a lot in common with games like RIFTS and Ninjas & Superspies, and in places, it reads like a supplement for those games rather than its own line. The characters you create right out of the book feel anemic and more akin to superspies with extra abilities (although later supplements address this issue with “megaheroes”), and the technology presented for robots and bionics is both outdated and rarely particularly well-suited for superheroic action. The final nail in the coffin, unfortunately, is the absolute reliance on random rolls to generate your character—always a big flaw in my opinion for a superhero game. Where random rolling is forgivable in some cases (Villains & Vigilantes and the TSR Marvel Super Heroes games come to mind), here it just adds one more level of frustration.

Lastly, despite its title, Heroes Unlimited actually provides only a narrow variety of character roles for the superheroic genre.

Would I play it? Yes, absolutely. In spite of its flaws, Heroes Unlimited has a lot of potential in the right hands (see my post of the top 10 for Century Station as an example!).

For more information, follow this link to the review:

#9: Champions New Millennium


Forward... into obscurity!

I know there are at least a few readers right now who are slyly saying to themselves “I /knew/ there was going to be some Champions books on this list!” Well, you’re right. Champions is a superhero IP that has gone through some of the rockiest transitions in the RPG industry, having changed hands a number of times with almost dizzying speed.

One of the tougher points of transition was when Champions was acquired by Cybergames in the early 2000’s. Allen Varney has a great article on the history of Champions (which, interestingly, does not discuss Champions New Millennium) at this link, for those interested:

At any rate, Champions New Millennium was an attempt to re-launch Champions using the Fuzion system, a creation of R. Talsorian games (better known for Cyberpunk and Mekton) around the same time as that company was producing the (quite excellent) Bubblegum Crisis RPG books.

Champions New Millennium, however, failed to appeal to either audience. It was at best a clunky conversion of the normally precise Hero system into the more freeform Fuzion, and it did not really seem to know what kind of game it wanted to be in the end. Lacking any compelling setting, campaign, or NPCs, New Millennium didn’t satisfy Hero or Fuzion fans and eventually faded away. I give the creators of this game respect for trying to keep Champions alive, but the product in the end is quite a disappointment.

Would I play it? Yes… there’s enough of a game here that I would enjoy taking it for a spin.

#8: DC Heroes


Hell of a cover, though. I'd love to see how /that/ battle turned out!

I consider this entry to be possibly one of the most controversial entries on the list. Lots of people enjoy and are fans of DC Heroes. There’s no doubt that DC Heroes was successful as a Superhero RPG—it has a ton of published supplements and has been around since 1985, which is quite a pedigree. It is important to note that this was the very first superhero RPG that I personally picked up and attempted to play.

I say “attempted to play” because I found the system to be very difficult and frustrating. First, your character’s “Hero Points” are used to buy new abilities or enhance existing ones, essentially the experience points of the game. However, DC Heroes also expects the player to spend these Hero Points during play to boost your die rolls at crucial moments. I’m all for having methods of boosting effects in games (one of my favorites being the Savage Worlds “bennies”), but if doing so actually hurts my character in the long term? No thanks. Making this worse is the fact that villains and enemies also have hero points to spend against YOU, with no real penalty for doing so.

On top of that, the logarithmic nature of the system (if I have a power that is 1 AP stronger than yours, my power is twice as strong) and many aspects of superheroic roleplaying that are simply left up to the GM drains the fun right out of the game for me.

Lastly, the campaign advice given (at least in the first edition of the game) is fairly bland and uninspiring, although this may be a result of the wildly changing nature of comic books at the time of this product’s release (as Crisis on Infinite Earths had just happened in the market).

For more information, follow this link to the review:

Would I play it? Yes, but with many reservations.

#7: Godlike

Achtung! Our bullets are useless!

When I first picked up Godlike, I nearly fell in love with the book—the setting and the concept are quite excellently presented and detailed. The idea of playing with superbeings in WWII—and not in the normal “Golden Age” style, but one far more realistic and gritty—is a compelling one. In fact, although this product is on my list, I definitely recommend checking it out just for the setting and concept material alone.

However—and this is a big however—the game is seriously let down by the rules system attached. Godlike was one of the first examples of the ORE (One Roll Engine) system, and unfortunately, this attempt is deeply flawed. Numerous rules contradictions, unclear examples, and extremely unbalanced common builds makes this game an exercise in futility. The system does not lend itself towards characters feeling particularly “super” except in a few narrowly-defined ways. This particular issue refutes the game’s title—making many characters feel “somewhat special” rather than truly like the Gods.

In addition, there are an abundance of ways to “break” the system—one particularly memorable character that derailed a game I was familiar with involved a Talent (Godlike’s word for superbeings) with super-eyesight and a sniper rifle that turned every encounter into a farce.

The bottom line for Godlike is this: It was a simply suberb idea that was crippled at the starting gate by its rules.

For more information, follow this link to the review:

Would I play it? Yes, I’d give it another shot (no pun intended) but only after discussing things thoroughly with the GM.

#6: The Marvel Super Heroes Adventure Game


Pay attention: this is what a great cover looks like.

Let me start out by saying I have never played this game personally. That having been said, the game’s lack of market success is enough in my eyes to label it a “misstep,” and I believe I can reasonably articulate the reasons for that.

Also known as Marvel SAGA, this game was created during the final days of TSR and attempted a rather unique innovation in game design. Marvel SAGA dispenses with dice in favor of a card-based task resolution system. However… and this is a huge however… that resolution system suffers from some extremely unclear writing. I gave up trying to understand how to play the game about halfway through, and I have yet to meet someone who can fully explain to me just how to play the game.

Now, there are great RPGs out there with some viciously unclear rules writing (TORG being the prime example I can think of), but adding that flaw onto an already unusual and niche system such as the SAGA cards firmly placed this game into the category of “too difficult to understand.”

That all being said, the production values, artwork, and overall “feel” of playing superheroes is done quite well.

Would I play it? No, unless I could find someone who really understands the system to teach it to me.

For more information, follow this link to the review:

#5: The Marvel Universe Roleplaying Game

Punisher says "Buy this book. Or else."

Much like #6, I haven’t actually attempted to play this game. Also known as the “Stones edition”, the Marvel Universe roleplaying game is unique in that it was released directly by Marvel and developed by Q.E.D. Games.

This game again is diceless, using a system of “stones” to represent a character’s abilities and to resolve tasks. In many ways, this system does have elegance to it and has some admirable qualities... unfortunately, the game also requires the GM to adjudicate far too much in any given situation. A vague and often inconsistent chart is provided, ostensibly to help dictate just how many stones are required to accomplish a given task—but leaves aside any “situational modifiers” that may apply (leaving it up to the GM).

Going diceless is already a difficult row to hoe (achieved with success only by Amber), but requiring the GM to basically sculpt each encounter from scratch is, IMHO, going too far and definitely qualifies as a “misstep.”

Lastly, the characters provided in the game have some glaring errors as to their relative power levels and are built on a wildly divergent amount of stones, resulting in some very confusing comparisons. This is particularly jarring when you consider that the game was released by Marvel themselves—one would think they would have a better handle on their own characters.

Good production values and art go a long way towards making this game more enjoyable, but in the end, it simply did not grab the attention of this gamer.

Would I play it? I’d like to try it out just to say that I have, but I must admit I wouldn’t seek it out.

For more information, follow this link to the review:

#4: Superhero 2044


Awkwardly drawn heroes to the rescue!

Published in 1977, Superhero 2044 was the first superhero RPG ever. I should probably be a bit more generous considering its age, but I do feel that this game has plenty of serious flaws that draw some deserved criticism. 

Superhero 2044 suffers a severe lack of many basic aspects of a superhero RPG. Nearly unplayable by the rules as written, the experience of Superhero 2044 is chock-full of bookkeeping and very light on fun. Underdeveloped and inconsistent rules plus the lack of a robust super power setup unfortunately resigns this book to the upper portion of the list.

One of the product’s few saving graces is that it does have some interesting and innovative rules for superhero patrols. Plus, it is very important to note that this product had significant influence on the superhero RPGs that followed it, including Golden Heroes and my own beloved Champions. It also has an interesting setting and quite a few fun ideas (particularly the weekly planning sheet of the character’s activities), but alas… not enough to save it as a game in its own right.

For more information, follow this link to the review:

Would I play it? I’d probably give it a try, but likely only as a one-shot.

#3: Heroes Forever


Look, it's... that guy. With the... thing.

A much more recent entrant into the superhero RPG oeuvre than Superhero 2044, Heroes Forever unfortunately also falls into my personal category of “objectively bad.”

There’s not much to say about Heroes Forever besides that it does have some great ideas—essentially an alternate universe with lots of nations shifting around, Greek Gods, and  so forth—that read a lot like a cool fusion of RIFTS and Heroes Unlimited. Alas, these great ideas are utterly betrayed by a terrible presentation, confusing and arbitrary ruleset, bad production quality, embarrassing typos, and questionable taste… for example, one book has stats for Jesus, Mosses (sic), and Lucifer.

Would I play it? Not very likely. A few beers might get me to reconsider.

#2: European Enemies

Aha! One of the few covers where Seeker isn't getting his butt kicked!

One of the few products on the list that is not intended as a system, European Enemies is a supervillain sourcebook for Champions 4th edition. It’s tough to explain how painful it is to write about a book like this when one is such an enormous fan of 4th edition Champions like myself.
It must be said that European Enemies definitely deserves its spot on this list—I consider it to be definitely objectively bad in quality and a great example of how not to write a supervillain book. 

Ostensibly, European Enemies is intended to provide bad guys to challenge a superhero team from across the ocean. What you get, however, is a confused mess of highly stereotypical (at times, offensively so) characters with little that is interesting or unique about them and quite a few of whom are written up in ways that simply do not work in the Champions system. According to the rules, some of the characters in this book kill themselves within seconds of activating their own powers, whilst others simply make no sense with their abilities. 

One sterling example is Godfather (naturally, the Italian supervillain is a mafia boss…), who—despite his public identity and reputation as a Mafia Don—has somehow been appointed a diplomat to France and granted diplomatic immunity. And that’s just scratching the surface.

Ultimately, the verdict on European Enemies is that it not only fails to achieve its stated goal, it actively hurts the product line as a whole… quite a dubious achievement.

My friend (and Champions Guru) Michael Surbrook has made an attempt to fix the various entries on his site, located here:

#1: The Foundation


A world in black and white, with a color strip in the middle apparently.

My friend Derrick Thomas did the cover art for this product, which is one of the only reasons I’m aware it exists. The other reason is the sheer amount of bad reviews this product has received. The Foundation is held by many to be objectively bad. I happen to agree, which is why it holds the #1 spot on this list.

Like Heroes Forever, there’s not much to say about the Foundation; it is obviously a rushed product in every way, and contains very little of merit. There are no guidelines on character creation and very little overall effort to model the superheroic genre. It features as “vital statistics” the measurements of its superheroines.

Overall, the Foundation is underdeveloped and devotes much of its content towards an underwhelming and bland setting. I unhesitatingly recommend skipping this product and leaving it off your shelf.

I wish there was something here to offset all the negative comments, but there really isn’t anything I would feel comfortable endorsing. Sometimes, a book is just bad, and in this case… it’s the Foundation.

For more information, follow this link to the review:


  1. Well, I really like Godlike- so I might disagree with you a bit on that one. The sniper with super eye sight issue IMHO could be resolved by a GM who could say the fact that he has super eye sight means using optics (like a scope) would actually be a penalty (ever tried putting on someone's mega perscription glasses with excellent eye sight and then try walk or run?). Then again, I'm a horrible Godlike fan boy... :-)

    The problem with all RPGs to a greater or lesser degree is the fact that the rules are more guidelines and people will always game the system- meaning a GM has to adjudicate how those rules are interperated.... which is why RPGs are so cool as opposed to card games or board games (generally).

    In regards to the rest of the list- can't disagree. The Mayfair DC Heroes, the Stones Marvel U and the SAGA Marvel stuff was so massively disappointing. The WEG version of DC Heroes wasn't an improvement either.

    Villians and Vigilantes was also one of my least favorites (outside of the Jeff Dee artwork) and so typical of the old FGU product line- added complexity and gobblety-gook for the sake of complexity and realism. I felt like I had to complete my high school Algebra class to roll up a character with that system.

  2. I actually liked the AP system in DC Heroes for several reasons that I shan't go into here. No need to convert someone who obviously knows his own taste.

    Good list! Thought-provoking!

  3. Heh. Showing off more of your collection. I approve. :-)

    I pretty much agree with your assessment of some of your entries. I'll add my own comments.

    Champions: NM, and to a greater extent the Fuzion system itself, was actually the result of an experimental merger between Champions and R. Talsorian's Interlock system. The problems came about from the inevitable "square block into round hole" incompatibiltiies and a distressing amount of hand-waving for handling certain elements (for example, powered suits).

    I never got the chance to try out the Mayfair DC Heroes game, so I can't speak for any technical issues. I do know the core system has lived on beyond the DC license as Blood of Heroes, so I'm guessing it still has its fanbase out there.

    Count me as another fan of Godlike. While I do admit there are ways to break the game using the rules, that's a charge you can give pretty much any game out there. And I challenge you to find any other RPG that provides as much detail about the war as this game and its sourcebooks provide. It might help if you see the RPG as a WWII game with superpowers, as opposed to a superhero RPG set in WWII.

    Calling Superhero 2044 a RPG is, IMO, stretching the definition a bit. There really are no actual rules for creating characters (beyond some vague guidelines). It's more of a setting book with rules for managing random patrol encounters. And in case it needs to be said, I own a first edition copy of the game. :-)

    In fact, of the list, there are only two books I don't own or have owned in the past, and one of them (The Foundation) was by conscious choice. Even my superhero RPG fanboyishness could not overcome the awfulness that was that book. ;-)

    1. It's also important to point out that CNM was the book that introduced the Fuzion system to everyone.

      Two problems that people had with the book
      1) The Powers list was VERY incomplete. It had less powers than 1st/2nd Edition Champions. So it was very hard to create anything but fairly basic characters. Also, the "Hits" system of taking lethal damage was fairly clunky. It probably should have been playtested more and refined better. The game became much better after the 2 supplements shipped and completed the Superhero Plugin for Fuzion.

      BTW if you want to talk about bad Supers RPGs Try "Guardians RPG". Silly and unplayable. Underground was also kind of a mess. IIRC both can be found on Drivethru RPG.

      2) No Hero System writeups of the characters. This left the fans of the Hero System with 2 choices. Either use Fuzion Superpowers (which was incomplete when CNM shipped) or do a clunky conversion that took a lot of work. Only after Hero got a ton of negative backlash did they make Hero System Writeups of the Characters in CNM.

      I will point out that CNM did well enough to spawn 2 supplements (Bay City and Alliances) with a third (Champions Worldwide) in production. When the IP changed hands again.

  4. Yeah, The Foundation remains the worst RPG product I've ever spent money on. There's so much concentrated bad in there. Most sourcebooks, I can mine for something, but that one just failed on all fronts.

    One that I'd throw in (interestingly enough, from the same folks who brought us The Foundation) was UNSanctioned, a dystopian late-90s supers game. It used some sort of house system that had originally been designed for fantasy, ported over to supers with disastrous results. Characters were wildly unbalanced, example characters couldn't be reproduced using the rules as written, and the rules...they were horribly vague in many places, and ridiculously contradictory in others. I remember writing the publisher a lengthy list of questions (because I was actually into dystopian supers at the time and wanted to make it work) and got back...well, gibberish would be kind. It was pretty clear he didn't know the system either.

    I actually like the Champions: the New Millenium SETTING quite a bit. Despite the terrible Image-y art, it was a really solid late-Bronze Age setting. I've used it (with some personal tweaks) for a couple of campaigns over the years. And GUARD is a far better name for a SHIELD analog than UNTIL.

    1. Thanks for chiming in, Theron! Good point about UNSanctioned--that one completely slipped under my radar!

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  6. I know a guy who SWEARS by the Marvel SAGA system. He's had the same campaign going since the game came out.

    I sat in once or twice, but could never wrap my brain around the rules.

  7. gotta disagree on DC Heroes, it was/is quite elegant and intuitive, and the resolution system is a dream. There's a reason M&M stole so much from MEGS.