Thursday, October 16, 2014

The Initiative: Superhero RPG Appendix N Challenge

I found out about this from Age of Ravens who got it from Barking Alien, who said:

I challenge you, the Superhero RPG GM, and/or player, to list between 5 and 10 Superhero comic books, and 5 to 10 Superhero live action or animated shows or films, that typify your style of Superhero RPG campaign.

Minimum is 5. Maximum is 10. This means you have to really think about the ones that best embody the type of Supers gaming you prefer. Who's up for the challenge?

Saddle up kids, this is gonna be fun!

(My favorite moment from any of Marvel's "Initiative" Books. It seemed appropriate.)

First and foremost, Bill Willingham's Elementals: It's a comic I can't extricate from supers gaming, because I'm a weirdo who started reading comics so he could run supers games. My first supers game was Villains & Vigilantes and Willingham's Death Duel With the Destroyers was the first adventure I ever read.  Also, he was one of the first writers to really look at the "Supers Meet the Real World" idea years before Watchmen.  While I don't always run games in that style, I do have a strong need for internal consistency and well thought-out settings.

Second, Bob Haney's utterly INSANE run on The Brave and the Bold in the 1970s.  Oh. My. Zod.  This comic was utterly and completely bonkers and I mean that in the best way possible.  The tone shifts between crazy stuff (vampires, extraterrestrials) and utterly mundane threats (heroin smugglers and hippies), all featuring special guest stars who often violate established continuity (usually in wonderful ways).  For instance, at one point, Batman teams up with Wildcat, who was strictly an Earth-2 guy at the time.  NO EXPLANATION IS GIVEN.  As world-renowned Batmanologist Chris Sims put it, the whole thing seems to exist in it's own Haney-verse.

So, if I love internal consistency and well-thought out settings, what am I doing here?  Mostly, I'm reminding myself that comics are supposed to be fun and that the mad, beautiful ideas of superhero stories seldom roll out of immaculately built worlds.

Third, Kurt Busiek's amazing Astro City.  This is the book that got me back into comics when I'd given up on the medium in the 90s (yes, I was in danger of becoming the worst of all supers gamers: the one who doesn't read comics anymore).  It probably rates higher in many respects, but I'm putting it here because it's just about a perfect synthesis of the first two: a setting that manages to feel consistent, a setting with the weight of history, but a history that has to take Moon Men, Lava Kings, and life-sized sentient Barbie dolls into account.

Number four is Geoff Johns' run on JSA. Back in the day, I loved Roy Thomas' "All-Star Squadron" and "Infinity, Inc." (in fact, I've got a sketch of Liberty Belle and Firebrand from the Squadron on my wall that I commissioned from Jerry Ordway back in 1985). I loved the sense of history and legacy those comics brought to the table, and always felt they got a raw deal in the Crisis.  Over the ensuing decades, DC attempted to bring back the JSA, but never got it right. Finally, in 1999, they took one more stab with James Robinson and David Goyer at the helm that got things off to a good start.  For my money, the book really came into its own when Geoff Johns took over the helm.  I'm the first to shake my fist at his many excesses in recent years, but there is no doubt his run on the book spoke to my heart and affected me as a GM and as a writer.  In fact, my sole published adventure to date ("Sins of the Past" for ICONS, you should totally check it out) is pretty much one long love letter to Johns' JSA.

Number five is Legion of Super-Heroes.  I'm not going to confine my love here to a single run, as there is so much good throughout the history of the comic.  I loved the pre-Crisis LSH, the post-Crisis, the Reboot, the Clones, even Waid and Kitson's nutty kids.  I love big sprawling casts and cosmic scale adventures and for that, you gotta have the Legion.

(But let's be honest.  Levitz's stuff was the best.)

Six is New Teen Titans.  The first fifty issues or so, up through Donna Troy's wedding to that horrible perv.  I got into comics when NTT was about a year and a half into its run and the first issue was still affordable enough to accumulate a complete run (which I sincerely wish I hadn't sold many years ago).  "The Judas Contract" is still my gold standard for long-term plotting and payoff, and Deathstroke is still my ideal smart supervillain (the dude figured out Batman's secret ID, yo!).  I've never been able to pull off an epic reveal like Terra's heel turn, but someday, it could happen.

Hmmm...that's a lot of DC stuff.  Let me switch gears...

Number seven: Matt Fraction and Ed Brubaker's Immortal Iron Fist is a masterpiece.  It takes the craziness of superhero existence and mixes in a deep love for kung fu cinema and even fighting games.  When I play supers games, my favorite archetype is the Martial Artist, and their Danny Rand's adventures are among the most gameable I've read in comics.  It's a superhero book that didn't just impact my supers games, it carried over into other action genres as well.

Number eight:  You know who's really great at crazy comics stuff?  Grant Morrison. I know, right?  Yeah, New X-Men was effin' brilliant. For a GM, it's a great lesson in looking at this vast canvas of a setting, finding the parts you want to use, saying "screw it" to the rest, and then twisting and turning it to fit your particular vision.  Also, leather jackets look cooler than spandex.  Also, also, weird is good, in small doses.

One more, so I can say I came in under ten.  Ed Brubaker's run on Captain America.  I have a deep love for super-spy games, having run a few and aspired to even more.  Brubaker's Cap, while marred by the unfortunate events of Civil War remains a brilliant superpowered techno-thriller.  If you want to see how to take a character who is bright, shiny, and decent put into the dirt with the worst of the worst and still shine, here's your example.  It's one of those runs I go back and read over and over again.


Hoo-boy.  This is gonna be hard to pare down.

The first and obvious choice is Batman: the Animated Series.  I remember coming home from work every night and watching it on VCR.  When it moved to Saturdays, I had a reason to not sleep in.  How much influence has it had on me?  Well, I wrote a sixty page campaign guide for a city called Meridian that was completely inspired by B:tAS's Gotham.  I've written extensively about running a supers game in an "animated" style and the work of Messers Timm, Dini, and Burchett was ground zero for my love of animated supers.

Superman: the Animated Series is number two. Everyone has their definitive takes on characters.  This is my Superman.  From a gaming standpoint, it offers so many things: how to handle extremely powerful characters, how to use guest stars to build a world, and best of all, how to create epic threats and yet keep the human element relevant.  Also, when in doubt, raid Kirby.  If you're gonna swipe, swipe from the best.

Numero tres:  Justice league/Justice League Unlimited: Are you sensing a trend here?  If Superman taught me how to build the world out, JL/JLU taught me how to handle that virtual cast of thousands.  It got me off my ass in the lull after my son was born and got me running a supers game again.  It also gave me one of my best ever convention one-shots, "JLU: The Return of Lex Luthor," which I'll be running again at this year's Chupacabracon.

Fourth goes to The Specials.  Yes, really, a low-budget superhero comedy about a team of third-raters who's biggest moment is finally getting an action figure deal.  Whose leader, The Mighty Strobe is a self-righteous ass with his marriage on the rocks.  Well here's the deal, true believer.  That little low-budget superhero comedy has more heart than the entire live-action Batman franchise.  And the director/writer, some nobody named James Gunn really nails some essential truths about superheroes.  For those lessons alone, it's always part of my toolkit. Also, it's pretty hilarious and quotable.

Number five is Superman II.  I can't tell you how many hours I spent watching the fight scene in Metropolis, trying to figure out how to make my Champions battles that epic.  Sure, they were dwarfed by later mayhem (and mocked roundly in Superman Returns, much to its discredit), but at the time, that was the apogee of what a superpowered fight should look like.  Also, Christopher Reeve, dammit.

Justice League: the New Frontier is my sixth and final pick.  The comic probably could be the tenth on my list, but I knew I'd put the animated film here.  The dawn of the Silver Age, as only Mr. Cooke can bring it. It's everything I loved about the earlier animated series, combined with one of my favorite eras of comics, but with a weight and maturity I don't see in the other works. It's also basically a set-up for a fantastic world to come that we only glimpse.  If I ever run a game where the PCs are basically at the beginning of the superheroic age, I'll almost certainly build the early sessions in a similar way to the structure of this story, if not the specifics.

I could go on, but I've been working on this for nearly two hours now, and picking from the Marvel Cinematic stuff is going to be simultaneously difficult and dishonest because I really haven't run something that was influenced by them.  That said, I love them all, even Hulk.

So, if you're reading this and you're also a supers gamer, consider the gauntlet thrown.  Pick it up and share your own.


  1. I am scooping up this gauntlet with its micro-transistorized challenge-ometer.

  2. I want to live in the Haney-verse. If only his vision had prevailed over fanboys screaming for "continuity" and storytelling straitjackets.