Super Heroes? Boring, stale and not for me.

Jan 28, 2010

The genre is enjoyable in various forms including film, print, etc. I even enjoy an occasional RPG session. Yet my interest is always fleeting. I cannot continually suspend my disbelief.

Super Hero movies are cool but not for the characters. I watch them with the attitude of seeing an action flick. The special effects, the crazy plots and the magic of computer generated imagery are what I’m there to see. I’m one of the poor extras in the movie — the normal folk who are just watching in awe.

I see super hero characters as reprints of the same tired origins. Sure there are twists on the origins of the power — innate mutant power, alien power in an Earth setting, or advanced technology of unbelievable power. Call it a mental block. All the powers have seemingly been used and reused. I have never come up with any concept that isn’t some variation of something already completely overused. When I do, they are always things which would be of little use in a game.

Super Hero games also always seem to use the good versus evil plot. A super villain plots some madness and the characters must go forth and defeat them to keep the world safe. I can taste the bile at the back of my throat. Even the guy who says “Screw this, I’m staying at home, powering down a bag of Cheetos and watching I Love Lucy.” ends up being forced into being a hero. All of them lack self motivation, goals, and desires. I’ve racked my brain trying to come up with any portrayal of anything other than a superficial personality. Even the internal conflicts some characters have are hard to believe because they are the singular element identified of a personality.

As I stated previously, the characters always seem stuck in time at the point of creation. What precisely do I mean? Often characters have a great history or back story. The problem is the history has no application to the future. They are stuck waiting for the next evil genius plot to take over the world until they are compelled to act yet again. Or they go seek revenge on someone due to a factoid in the background. Once that is over, what’s next? Managing a Burger King? Running a Fortune 500 company? Working as security for someone kicking the spleens out of mere mortals? I prefer games where I’m capable of building my character’s future not being held hostage by who he is.

Mortality is also an issue. Traditionally super heroes and villains rarely die. So even if you are outmatched, outclassed and outwitted, and get your ass kicked what happens? You go home, heal up (while flipping burgers) and come up with a new plan or a better group. If there is no risk of dying, the game is just dull to me. Self preservation is a fundamental element in all other RPGs. If it is missing, I get bored quickly and lose interest in the game. I’m guessing most game systems in the genre have mechanics for death so I am not bashing systems. I’m bashing the way the games I’ve played in have been run.

On the topic of game system mechanics, I will come back to the “stuck in time” comment. Character improvement seems impossible after a point. If a power comes because an alien ability like Superman, its capped at conception. Innate powers based on mutation also have an immediate cap. A mutation can only provide so much benefit before it is fully realized. Certainly discovery and learning can allow you to utilize a power better but at some point you hit the capacity of that ability based on the origin. Technology based powers are the one area I can fathom continued improvement. Sadly, my own background makes me nitpick the technology. I impose self-limitations on the capabilities because I find them absurd at the extremities. And if it isn’t human technology? Well, that’ll take years to understand to begin with yet alone improve. I don’t know how any system handles improvement because I’ve never been engaged enough to actually purchase or read the systems fully.

I’ll be the first to admit that my comments on the Super Hero genre could be applied to nearly any other genre. The genre just doesn’t spark my imagination. It has yet to immerse me so I’m standing in the shoes of my character and looking through his eyes. Instead, I always seem like a puppeteer pulling the strings to move my character around. Many others love the concept and enjoy it immensely. Good for you, go play and have a great time. I’ll wait for the movie.

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  • I’d like to thank Mark for posting this here to hopefully generate some additional discussion. This is the response he sent me via email based on the comments regarding supers games from this post:
    I intended to respond back but it fell off the radar… damn real life and it’s issues that get in the way of the real purpose of life – namely having fun. Oh well, water bridge and all that. Here goes with the response:

    1. Reprints: With regard to powers and abilities, you said that, “When I do, they are always things which would be of little use in a game.” To that I say, “Fair enough. But is that a problem with the genre or it’s manipulation in the hands of the GM?”

    2. Good vs. Evil: That’s a fair assessment of the bulk of the genre, but my response to it is tied to #1 above, is that just how it seems to have been offered to you? What would it take a GM to break this mold in a fashion you might find attractive?

    3. Stuck in Time: Man, I’m going to start to sound like a broken record in a second… so I’ll refrain from repeating myself (though I’ll admit I could – see #1 and #2 above.) Instead I’ll offer that most rpgs I know you do have an interest in can easily be played without any advancement with you at the table. And yet that same complaint seems distant with regard to them.

    4. Death is the final arbiter: I think you hit the nail on the head here. No arguments. Even superheroes die. See:

    Finally, I’ll offer a variant of the Supers game that might interest you, let me know what you would think of the following…

    For starters, the characters aren’t the best/brightest/uber heroes they purport in the comics. They’re only slightly better than the norm. They have real lives that matter because being a hero doesn’t really pay – unless you take advantage of the situation. They need to protect their secret identities because they aren’t really considered heroes by the institutions they protect, rather they’re considered vigilanties. Nobody hails them as heroes, most in power consider them a nuiscance; some consider them enemies of the greater good; and some even consider them as bad as the criminals they keep in check. They can’t expect to be bailed out by uber powers and skills so death lingers often at their door. Finally, stopping criminals isn’t pretty, hard decisions have to be made for the greater good. Casualties abound on either side – both in those involved, and bystanders.

    How’s that for a supers game you might play? In the end I’ll offer that what I take from your post isn’t an issue with the genre, rather with the “ramping it up to 11” that seems prevalent in the genre. A grittier, lower key, version of the Supers game might interest you better than the Double-uber-supers version that most seem to fall into.

  • See, the problem with your broken record is exactly why I despise the genre. I’ve had lousy GM’s. No disagreement there but I’ve had several, including you. Does that mean everyone sucks? I doubt that. You’ve said nothing to refute my statements other than to say the GM is the blame. The GM’s I’ve had ran pretty good games with a few exceptions. Are they partly to blame? Sure. Are they solely the cause? No.

    As for your variant, aren’t you just handicapping the players at the expense of the genre to appease me? That doesn’t work either. I’m just a single player. You are dumbing down something that others like to play, which will not work. They want to be the heroes. I do not.

    There are genre’s that capture our imagination. For me, this one just flat out will not work. You can spin it, twist it, blend it but in the end it just won’t work for me. You cannot fix it. I’ve never had a real interest in it, the games failed me. No one is to blame. My imagination doesn’t flow in this realm.

    There’s no reason to play down to someone who doesn’t have an interest.

  • Hmm, I’m not sure I intended to refute your claims. They’re all personal opinions, so refutation seemed a waste of effort. I was trying to point out that if a game sucks, it probably has much more to do with your lack of immersion than anything. And I think your final “does this capture my imagination” point substantiates my claim. But I’m still curious where the tripwire of “this is a supers game and therefore sucks in my mind” trips. Hence my attempt to gauge your receptiveness of a more toned-down version of the genre.

    Re Am I handicapping? I say no. Superhero games don’t have to be literally Earth-shattering scenarios with God-like powers striding the Universe in a struggle against the foes of such immense power as to boggle the sensibilities of imagination. We don’t have to all try to figure how to defeat the Beyonder.

    In the beginnings of some well beloved supers personalities lie exactly the setup I offered. The original Batman for example has 2 real skills he brings to bear: 1. Lots of cash, and 2. He’s purportedly the greatest detective mind since Sherlock Holmes. Does that make him less of a “super” superhero? You decide.

    Shall we look at the greatest enemy of Superman… Luthor isn’t a supervillain wih powers other than being “the greatest criminal mastermind mankind has ever known.” Does that remove him from supervillain status? Your call, but I tend to think not.

    Re To appease you? Isn’t that the point of the game? Shouldn’t the GM try to cater to the desires/whims/loves of the players? Even a little? Heck, I have a blog post stating that catering to the players is exactly what we should all be doing more, not less. I guess I fail to see where this is an actual issue. Does the genre fall outside the realm of itself if we tone it down a bit? If you answer yes, then re-read the previous 2 paragraphs.

    But if you’re sure you won’t have fun in a supers game, then by all means, that’s a resonable stance. I can respect your position, but it won’t prevent me from trying to continue the discussion.