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Introducing Superhero Gaming

by Rebecca Stevenson

Some V&V resources on the web include:

Of course, my site, which demonstrates how obsessive someone can get about the game, and includes extensive rules mods amoun other things.

The official V&V site, by one of its creators, Jeff Dee.

Morpheus Unbound, with characters and mechanics mods.

Villians & Vigilantes Campaign HQ, more rules mods, adventures, and character ideas.

Most Wanted Volume 2, a villain compendium.

The WebRPG Town Hall V&V forum

"So, how would you feel about a superhero game?"

It was back in late winter of 1997 that our little gaming group formed in Boston. One of our new members had a campaign world he'd been building for years with various groups of players, and he wanted to run another campaign there in the Villains & Vigilantes system, with our characters as a newly created team of superheroes.

Now, I had taken to fantasy and science fiction games like the proverbial duck to water once introduced to the concept in college (like many women gamers, I suspect, I came to the hobby rather late in life compared to the men I know). I had been reading those genres for pretty much my entire life. My exposure to superheroes had been minimal, however. I associated the genre with improbably-breasted women, extraordinarily silly character names, and incomprehensible plots.

In short, I'd never given them so much as a second thought, and now I was supposed to play in a game set in one? I felt just a bit lost at the idea, wondering what it would be like, whether it would be any fun, how I could effectively portray a character in a genre where I didn't know any of the rules.

I never read comics.

Think about it for a second. Theme villains, origin stories, team dynamics, costume design. The fact that the bad guys get away (and come back later), and that you're not supposed to kill them. Crusading reporters and hard-boiled police. Randomly fluctuating technology levels and retroactive continuity. Death-traps, and why sidekicks aren't a good idea.

That was off the top of my head, some of the concepts that meant nothing to me, and which comics fans take for granted along with many others. A totally new genre is like a new planet; it took a long time for that lost sensation to go away, and there are still times when I find myself at sea. There were eventually five of us in the group: three long-time comics readers, myself, and another as new as I was. Being gamers, we were willing to give it a try and see what happened.

"What happened" turned out to be our group's longest-running campaign to date and the character who is probably dearest to my heart of the many I've created. Encouraged and by then something of a fan, I went on to join two more superhero campaigns run via e-mail.

Since I got into this, I've seen the topic of how to introduce non-comic fans to superhero gaming come up fairly regularly on the gaming forums I frequent. Most often it seems to be a male GM with a female friend he'd like to bring into supers gaming, but isn't sure how to introduce the genre without the stereotypical baggage. Drawing on my own experience as a relatively recent convert, therefore, I've collated some advice for GMs on how to go about introducing people who've never been a genre fan to the universes of superhero gaming.

This is intended for people hoping to get a relatively long-running game going; obviously, if all you want is a one-shot, you can more than likely wing it without anyone getting hurt. If those one-shots are going to become frequent game options, however, you might want to read on.

So there you have it: you've got your heart set on running a supers game, and you have a player or two who hasn't read a comic since Archie. They're more comfortable with D&D, but seem cautiously willing to give this a shot. Where do you start in bringing them over to your side?

Step 1: Broaching the Idea

Maybe everyone in the group is ready and willing, and all looks like clear sailing; if this is the case, you can skip this step. But if, as GM, you're facing a player who is out-and-out prejudiced against the genre, has never heard a good word about comics and secretly thinks you're a dweeb for reading them, this is your opportunity to get creative and do some evangelizing.

I, too, once turned up my nose at comic books as fit only for those enmeshed in a state of permanent adolescence, and viewed those adults who indulged in them, well, indulgently. One fine day, however, the man I eventually married induced me to read Watchmen, and the rest is history.

Here is a sample list of what worked on me, and why; you might find things that aid your own conversion strategy.

Read more about Sandman here.

Sandman. A well-honed sense of the bizarre that nevertheless manages to balance miracles with perfect internal consistency. Anything I could say about Gaiman would be damning him with faint praise. One of the many things I like is that there is an overarching story to the series; it may be my English lit background showing, but I love a metaplot, and I'd bet that others with similar backgrounds will also be swayed.

Sandman Mystery Theatre

Sandman Mystery Theatre. I don't know if no one ever TOLD me that comics could be reasonably realistic, or I just wasn't listening, or what. Perfect introductory material if you plan to emphasize the human side of heroism, or set your game in the not-too-distant past.

An introduction is available.

Beanworld. How can you not love it? Okay, it's not a superhero book, but if your friend persists in believing that all comics are a limited medium, this should help open their eyes. A bit hard to find, but also hard to beat for sheer enchanting whimsy.

Bone up!

Bone. Tailor-made to suck in those who like fantasy in general but just have a problem with the whole sixteen-page softcover thing.

More info here.

Astro City. Widely admired for presenting the genre of four-color superheroics at its best. There's a little bit of everything, and while a newbie won't get all of Busiek's references, I can attest that they're plenty enjoyable even without that. They also expose the reader to a wide variety of character archetypes and story forms in a short period of time.

Click here to see more.

Invisibles. I'm pretty sure it's not possible to run a game that would be anything like this series, but it's a good lead-in for a campaign that will be heavy on the conspiracy theory and random eccentricity. (Make sure your new player is a good sport before embarking on something like that; some people don't handle frustration well.)

What's it all about?

JLA (Justice League of America for you few non-comic fans. Ed.). If you're planning something relatively traditional and high-powered, this is a natural way of showing your new player What It's All About.

These were the books that convinced me that the entire genre shouldn't be thrown out as rubbish, partly through the skill with which they were written, partly just because they were so far away from what I had always assumed comics were. Once fear of the serial format itself had been conquered, I soon had a new appreciation for the superheroes I'd formerly dismissed as childish. (I did, also, eventually and with reluctance, read a few issues of Legion of Superheroes and related titles. And while I still think the names are silly, I have grown to appreciate the whole thing as fun rather than dopey.)

No doubt you have your own list of titles that are emblematic for you of what the genre has to offer. The main thing I want to emphasize here is that you should start them on the good stuff. Doesn't have to be superheroes to begin with, just prove that there is intelligent work out there in comic book form. Once they can recognize the good stuff, they'll not only be more open to further suggestions, but they'll be able to read the bad stuff without getting turned off the entire concept, and instead mine it for useful knowledge.

Of course, if they're left cold by the best that's out there, you may have to reconsider the whole idea. But let's assume they're not, and move on to our next area of attack.

Step 2: Establish the Campaign Setting

Once you've managed after long cajoling to convince your novice player to go along with this crazy scheme, the next thing you need to do is explain the game setting. If you're playing with the Marvel or DC system, odds are that you're going to use one of the universes those companies have spent so many years and dollars establishing--and tearing down, and re-establishing, and tearing down.... Did you know that to people who don't read comics, this looks silly?

One of the concepts I had to learn as someone new to the genre was the comic-book version of continuity, which tends to be far more flexible than that of your average fantasy world or even most television shows, partly because authors change so frequently (something I still haven't gotten used to). You need to let your player know where and when the game is going to take place, and what the general environment is going to be. Batman's Gotham, the Legionnaires, the X-Men? These words are meaningless to newcomers; you need to make sure they have enough background information that they'll be able to maneuver comfortably in your game world.

Make sure you establish the location in time and space (city or planet, real or fictional? present, past, near or far future?) and the scope (will the heroes deal with local problems, national, galactic?). How closely will you hew to reality in the details? What is their status with respect to normal authorities? How much time will they spend dealing with regular people? For that matter, how much time will they spend in costume? Are there previously established NPCs with whom they should be familiar?

Don't forget the Web as a source! There are a lot of fan sites out there, for a lot of comics; when I got involved in an e-mail game set in the Marvel universe, lacking a copy of the actual game materials I found out a lot about the place by turning to our old friend the search engine (also Kurt Busiek's outstanding Marvels, which should be on all your bookshelves anyway). Put together a list of URLs; heck, you might find some useful information yourself.

We play in a homebrewed universe, so you wouldn't think this kind of thing applied, but in actuality our GM had a huge amount of existing material for this campaign world, things which happened both before and after our own campaign's setting and with which only one of the players was acquainted. This made for a lot of note-taking during games, until finally I put the entire mess up on the Web. You might not want to go to quite the lengths we did, but if there is archival material of any sort that will help newcomers find their way around the place, share it! Even a fairly simple map can save some confusion.

Finally, encourage people to ask questions. All of the comics fans I know are more than willing to talk (indeed, lecture) on the subject at the drop of a hat, and I learned that a newcomer can pick up a lot from listening to a bunch of comics fans chatter amongst themselves. Just try to change the subject once in a while so they don't feel too left out (if their eyes actually start to glaze over, that's probably a good time). They'll start to pick up things about the genre history, subgenres, the important names and events, and the seminal titles, without even realizing they're doing so.

Step 3: Establish the Tone

Once you know the campaign location, look around your collection and see what you can recommend and hopefully lend your novice that is in a similar vein to the campaign you're planning. If you're playing in an established universe, naturally you'll want to point out locations and characters that might appear in the campaign. Even if you're not playing in a pre-existing universe, loan away, but in this case what you mainly want them to look for is tone.

I cannot overemphasize for GMs and players both how important it is for you to be on the same page when it comes to the overall tone of the game. Gaming is a group effort, and the majority of problems I hear about in game groups happen because no one ever talked about what they wanted the game to be like (you may, of course, have group members who refuse on principle to cooperate in this sort of endeavor, but that's a whole other problem). If you are planning a light-hearted smash-em-up, your player prefers something introspective and intrigue-laden, and neither of you mentions your hopes for the game, odds are that neither of you will be happy with the results. Honesty is the best policy by far.

To this end, if your player is not familiar with the various comic worlds and genres out there, I suggest that you also recommend examples of things that your campaign is NOT going to be. Because one of our players didn't quite grasp the breadth of what had gone before in the world of comics, and hence didn't understand our GM's motives and intentions, we ended up with a death-dealing psycho as part of our otherwise upstanding hero group, which made for some interesting and rather tricky situations.

Now, having said that, a death-dealing psycho as part of a light-hearted game, or a prankster in a no-holds-barred battle against merciless foes, CAN work and provide rewarding role-play--it made for some absolutely unforgettable moments in our campaign--but it might also be more than you and your player want to deal with as their first outing in the world of superhero gaming. And even if they have their heart set on bucking the general trend of the group, you can always point out that knowing the ground rules will make them more comfortable and their character more effective--there's no point in rebelling unless you know what you're rebelling against.

If time, money or other resources for research are lacking, one way of working around a player's ignorance of genre convention is to have them create a character who for one reason or another is naive or a misfit--perhaps a time traveler or an alien--the possibilities are close to endless.

If your patient friend has gone this far, has read the suggested comics, and still finds him or herself saying, "This does NOT look fun," it's possible that supers gaming is not going to happen. Ask them questions. Try to pinpoint what it is they don't like about what they've been reading (are you sensing a theme here? good), and try to be open-minded; maybe a compromise can be reached.

Step 4: Making the Character

Obviously, character creation systems differ vastly from one game system to another so there's not much to be said here. Be prepared to give newbies a lot of help. Not only is it probably a new game system, but when you don't know the genre well, it can be surprisingly difficult to come up with a character concept that will work in the heroic environment and as part of a team; they don't know the clichés, might have a hard time coming up with a suitable secret identity, and won't know what powers fit together well into a concept. If they still seem dubious about this whole thing, you might want to remind them that supers systems generally provide means of support for magicians and high-technology heroes as well as the Fantastic Four, and have them play a character that could have moved in from the SF universe next door.

Now all your group needs is some Spandex(tm) and you're ready to go.

Speaking of which, if your newbie refuses to countenance the idea of a garish skin-tight costume for their very first freshly minted superhero, I advise you to let them come up with an outfit they're comfortable with. They'll get over it as they get deeper into the genre. (I did, anyway.)

Happy gaming!

Rebecca is in her late twenties and a Gemini. She has lived in Boston for six years where she works as a technical writer and freelance Web type. She thinks computers are pretty neat, is owned by two long-haired cats (Amber-she likes to sit on her lap while she works and hinder her typing-and Cicero-who talks a lot). She refuses to abide by her market segment.

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