Thursday, August 21, 2014

One in a Million

So this is a little rambling, but it has been on my mind for a bit now.

I've been thinking about superheroes and superhero roleplaying game campaigns, and I had this thought: how many metahumans are there in your campaign world?

A few years ago after the House of M storyline in Marvel Comics, the editorial staff decided to wipe out the powers of most of the mutants in the Marvel Universe, making them one of the rarest commodities on the planet.  For quite some time the fact that mutants went from "millions" to "hundreds" was a big plot point with lots of "we are an endangered species" comments floating about.

"Millions" of mutants?  So you're talking about something approaching 1% of the population of humanity.  That would mean thousands of mutants in the united states alone.  See, I get how big the Marvel Universe is and how many characters they have developed over the decades of its publishing existence, but I think that metahumans should be a lot more rare than what they suggest.

What if metahumans of any kind, mutant or otherwise, were just one in a million?  That would mean that there would be only 314 metahumans in the United States.  There would be roughly 6,000 in the world, which still seems like a lot.

I wanted a good picture of a bunch of metahumans and the Earth.

And from a gaming perspective, that seems a lot more interesting to me to think that the PC's are four or five or six of the roughly three hundred metahumans in the US.  Now, when they get together, it's a serious alliance.  People will take notice.   And what's more, you're not really doing anything really different in your game, since most campaigns don't feature more than a dozen or so NPC villains.  But now they are special.  In my head I'm imagining some mastermind cataloging all the metahumans and watching them on the news thinking, "Hmmm...number 132 fought 84 in downtown Central City this afternoon.  Interesting..."

Side note: by this math, China would have 1,351 metahumans, which would be kind of a major plot point too.

Now, when you go down a level, I do have to wonder about what you do with all the Batman villains.  By that I mean all the people who don't really have powers but are just kind of whackadoodle and commit (or fight) crimes wearing a mask.  You might have to drawn a line between "metahumans" and "superheroes or villains" but who knows?  I can not for the life of me figure out what makes the Penguin such a big deal anyways.

The other, downright irrational thing I've thought about along these lines is trying to stat out a huge chunk of NPC's for a supers game so I'd know who 1-100 of the US metahuman population might be.  That would also probably keep me in NPC's for the rest of my natural life.

So again, superhero RPG GM's, what do you think?


  1. You should take a look at Wild Talents from Arc Dream. Ken Hite does a whole chapter on world building that discusses the population density and distribution of metahumans. Its very interesting. And I agree, it makes for a better campaign when the number of metahumans is limited. I once itched a campaign where there were 20 metahumans in the whole world. It was cool.

  2. There was an article in Dragon Magazine, Issue #107, Ares Section, 1986 I believe, entitled 'One in a Million' that covered this exact subject. Even the large number of Chinese Supers is pointed out, although the numbers in those days were smaller (just over 1,000).

    In my own homebrew universe, which has an elaborate explanation of how Superhuman genetics work, there are indeed more Chinese Supers than any other ethnic group. However, as a side effect of reduced mixing of genes, none of the Chinese metahumans of China are especially powerful (except one or two).

    America, having a mixed genetic heritage population, sees fewer heroes but more powerful ones.

    Great article! See if you can find it. I highly recommend it to get the inspiration wheel turning.

    1. You know, I have a vague memory of this article, which probably was what germinated into this post.
      The genetics thing is interesting. It reminds me of the book Jack the Bodiless and the others in the same series, only they contended that more isolated gene pools would create superhuman mutations.

  3. I have had some thoughts like this over the years but unless it really ties into something specific in your campaign I just feel like it's an unnecessary constraint. If the US only has 300 or so special types, that really cuts down on your flexibility in adding new characters because it won't take long to define them all. Assuming you split it down the middle, that's 150 heroes and 150 villains - that's just not all that many for an ongoing campaign that's traditional comic-book style. Plus, as you mentioned, that ignores the Batman/Iron Man/Punisher/Green Arrow types completely and I'm not sure how you work them in with any kind of systematic calculation.

    If you want to make it a focal point of the campaign you could end up with a highlander-style plot where someone is confronting and killing off other supers and having a fixed number would certainly make that a little more personal and urgent. Didn't Shooting Stars cover some of that ground?

    Also, you don't have to assume an even distribution by population. Maybe above-ground atomic testing has a disproportionate effect, so the US, Japan, and some Pacific Islanders are the peak areas. Maybe it's all tied to a particular event like the Wild Card virus and only spreads slowly.

    It is an interesting thing to ponder, and there are a lot of ways you could go.

    1. I don't have a campaign (yet), this was just some ruminating. I'm not familiar with Shooting Stars. What is it?

    2. Sorry it was "Rising Stars", one of J Michael Straczynski's earlier comic works. It might give you some ideas to play with for that kind of campaign.