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August 07, 2005

Conflict resolution in superhero RPGs

Mash is not impressed with the state of superhero RPG systems: "Combats drag on, and on, and on, without resolution. It's hard to maintain enthusiasm for a fight between two characters which lasts more than, say, half a dozen exchanges. Supers games seem to have about a dozen exchanges and often with no noticeable outcome due to damage soaking."

Good call Mash. It's been twenty years since Watchmen; does anybody really still think the superhero genre is about the fighting? Look at a modern superhero comic like Powers, or even the venerable Astro City: how many pages are devoted to fight sequences? Fights are a necessary part of the superhero genre, but they're a means to a storytelling end; when the fight takes over from the story, something's gone wrong.

By a strange coincidence, an idea for a short superhero campaign popped into my head this morning. It would be a campaign in which the characters' superheroic exploits -- and their success or failure -- would be pivotal; but because of their consequences and side-effects, not because of the means by which that success or failure came about. A detailed, "combat-style" system like Champions or Golden Heroes would have been complete overkill. We'd have spent 2 hours and 55 minutes of every session on slugfesting, and had only five minutes left for the actual content.

By another strange coincidence, I was lucky enough to snag a slot yesterday in Mike Sands' Confusion game, 'Hostile Waters.' Mike's system, The Devil & The Deep, abandons traditional task resolution for "scene level" resolution of conflict. It's conceptually similar to what he and Luke patiently explain to me here, here and here, in the context of Vincent Baker's Dogs in the Vineyard, but fixes the bugs in that system and is consequently much cleaner, clearer and more plausible in narrative terms.

Seems to me that something like Mike's system, mutatis mutandis, is absolutely spot-on for superhero conflict. The heroes and villains get to show off their powers as they see fit, and to take whatever risks they are willing to take. Plenty of flavour, plenty of action, plenty of uncertainty. Maybe the heroes win, maybe they have a nasty setback. Maybe, in order to stop the villains, they injure or kill an innocent. Maybe -- heaven forbid -- they mess up so badly that the villains are actually able to carry out their plan. In a Sandsian system, all the narrative, all the colour, leads up to a quick, efficient scene-as-a-whole resolution, instead of occupying half the gametime on details of "your energy blast misses the villain by (roll roll roll) 2.8 centimetres and badly singes Mrs Kowalski's (roll roll roll) left hand curtain." We can then get on to dealing with the interesting bit, namely the consequences of the conflict for the superheroes themselves.

I think this would work really well. The whole "abilities and powers" thing remains really important and gives a whole load of flavour to the narrative, but it frees up a whole lot of playing time from mechanical dice-rolling, enabling games to focus on character development, sophisticated plot, or theme development without getting bogged down.

August 7, 2005 in Games | Permalink


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:) I've spent most of my GMing time for the past couple of years thinking about Pulp-action adventure style games. Superheroes are just "better" pulp heroes in my mind, and that's probably at least partially due to the available systems being so mechanics heavy.

I'm fishing around for a game to play in at the moment. I can't do Wednesday nights or Sunday afternoons, but am otherwise pretty flexible. :)

Posted by: Alasdair at Aug 7, 2005 7:58:15 PM

Also tied up on Fridays, come to think of it. :)

Posted by: Alasdair at Aug 8, 2005 9:05:17 AM

Came in a bit late on this, but what the hell.

I've been let down by nearly every superhero game I've ever been in. I've always expected an opportunity to explore the more complex issues (particularly identity) in the superhero genre. However, the games have always ended up either being a slugfest or - in one very bad case - a halfhearted attempt by a none-to-bright GM to run an angst filled Marvel universe game. And when I say very bad, I mean embarrassingly so, despite the efforts of some of the players. I was very proud of the character I'd come up with, despite the fact he was based on a random generation system, but I rarely got to play him without being immensely frustrated with the game.

Ho hum.

Posted by: John K at Sep 7, 2005 8:12:21 PM