The Curse of the Genre Fiend

Let me share with you a story from the annals of my roleplaying game experience.  Back in 1991 or 1992, my gaming group in college purchased the first edition of a new RPG, Vampire: the Masquerade.  This was a watershed moment in a lot of ways, both for the group and the RPG community in general.  I was tasked with running the game and basically used the pre-generated community of Gary, Indiana as a core fro the campaign.  Members of the gaming group dutifully built various low-level courtiers in the vampire court, pathos-laden tragedies, etc.  Except for one player.  He built a werewolf.

There's always that guy in a gaming group.  The one who just wants to buck the system and play something so outside the concept that he'll always stand out, always have to have some plot line revolve around him.  A werewolf PC was also completely free of the three strictures places upon the other PC's: a dependence on blood, a vulnerability to daylight, and the strict social castes of the vampire community.  Meanwhile as a GM I had to figure out why on earth the NPC Vampire lords wouldn't just load up a bunch of silver weapons and place a huge bounty on this guy's head.  Thankfully the player didn't get what he wanted out of the game and dropped out.

But beyond people who intentionally work outside the boundaries of the genre, there are people who for whatever reason don't understand the usual tropes associated with that medium.  One of the most vulnerable to this intentional or unintentional "coloring outside the lines" is the superhero genre.

Over the past twenty years the superhero genre has been deconstructed ad nauseum, often within its own medium.  Sometimes it has been done very well.  Other times it has been done by self-indulgent authors looking to create violent rape fantasies to the point where I suspect they might deep down loathe superhero stories (I'm looking at you, Mark Millar).

And in one case, gloriously reconstructed...

Too bad DC Comics didn't get the message
Here's what I'm trying to say.  If you are trying to recreate the feel of a classic superhero comic book, then the participants have to accept that a person who creates gauntlets that can lift and manipulate tons of metal using "magnetic fields" is not going to use them to revolutionize the transportation industry and become a billionaire but will, in fact, use them to rob a bank where they will likely get punched repeatedly in the face by someone dressed up as a ferret.  And then do it again at the first opportunity.  Not because it is logical but because deep down superhero stories are about larger-than-life characters behaving in mythic battles of good and evil that do, in their own way, explore what it means to be a real human being even as they wield powers beyond mortal men.

You know what does a good job of explaining this?  The Valiant Universe roleplaying game.  I know I banged it around in my review, but there is a great sidebar in the rulebook called "Superheroes: Accepting the Premise."  It's not about certain genre conventions about superhero/villain identies (since Valiant is a little soft on those) but about the physics of superpowers and how that translates into game rules.
"From the moment the first superhero comic book stories began to unfold, writers had a conundrum.  They had some characters seemingly as powerful as gods fighting alongside (or against) characters with extremely limited abilities, if not downright mundane attributes.  How does a villain with only genius-level intelligence stand up to a being that can annihilate planets?" --Valiant Universe: the Roleplaying Game, pg. 43
Their answer involved an ambiguous, story-oriented system that relied less on rigidly-defined abilities and more on imagination and flexibility.  How many tons can Bloodshot lift?  As much as the story demands and the dice allow.  Why can Spider-Man lift tons but get overwhelmed by handful of regular men in the New Avengers episode "Breakout"?  Because the story.  It is why it, and other "narrative" RPG's do a better job of emulating the comic book genre rather than just creating a superhuman RPG.

Great story moment, but none of the three people pummeling Spidey have super-strength.  Also--yikes, no mask!
But beyond rules it is also about buying into the premise.  In my Marvel Heroic Roleplaying game the player who struggled with this the most was Rachel, who played Samkhara.  Samkhara didn't have a costume but wore street clothes and and wielded emotional-based powers.  Her whole idea was to have Samkhara constantly hide in crowds of onlookers and sniper villains with work-around powers.  Which is smart.  Snipers are smart, and realistic.  Camouflage is smart, and realistic.  And in so many superhero RPG's I have had players who built smart and realistic PC's because their roleplaying ethos was to build PC's that could thrive and survive and win. That's not what superheroes are about.  It might be what superhumans might do, but not superheroes.  At least not in the classical sense.

Which means explaining things and probably spending more time having a literary discussion about your game than you might in other games.  Especially if you are a "Genre Fiend" to use Aaron Allston's terminology from his Strike Force supplement and have to have the feeling just right.

Thoughts?  Comments welcome.


  1. The problem is, explaining the nature of certain genres to certain players can feel like explaining colors to the blind, or what dry is like to a sea anemone (Wait. Who could even do that? Aquaman possibly...).

    If my love of the genre in it's purest form was not so great, it probably wouldn't bother me when people don't get it. Yet it is, and it is because it is, that I want to run it and game it so badly.

    1. So the question becomes, do you forego gaming with that player, or is there a way to find a way to communicate what you are trying to do? Sort of a "Appendix N" of superhero gaming? There's a blog post idea...

    2. A brilliant blog post idea! You're a genius!


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