Last week I counted down numbers 10 through 6 of the best superhero role-playing games of all time. (And the forum thread related to last week’s column had a nice discussion about some other contenders, so that’s definitely worth checking out.) Now it’s time to see the Top 5! Let’s get right to it…
5. “Champions,” designed by George MacDonald and Steve Peterson
The knock against “Champions” is that you need a degree in Calculus to figure out character creation and giant Super Mario hands to hold the fistful of six-sided-dice you need to roll whenever your character uses a power.
That’s what I’d heard about the game before I played it, but when I finally got around to using this system for a Pulpy adventure game last year, I loved a lot of things about it. Sure, I’m not running a game filled with cosmic heroes with a million superpowers and that helps to keep things simple, but the character creation system is much clearer than I’d heard and it works to make a balanced group of heroes for the players to use. Essentially, the entire system runs around a model where resolutions are about rolling three six-sided dice and hoping to roll low. There are some exceptions to that (like damage, where you want to roll high, and sometimes you can get to the point where you are rolling an entire handful of dice and adding them up), but the mechanics of the game allow for a lot of options that make a lot of intuitive sense. When I run the game, I never have to look up anything, because it’s pretty logical from top to bottom, but if my players want to do something specific and unusual, they are welcome to try, and there are probably rules for anything they want to do. But the system is flexible enough that you can just quickly add a plus or minus to their 3d6 roll, and you can get a pretty clear result and figure out what’s happening next.
Over the decades, “Champions” has spawned a lot of spin-offs and sourcebooks and adventures, and even an entire line of other-genre games under the “Hero System,” but my preferred “Champions” game is the 4th edition from 1989, with a George Perez cover. It’s the perfect version of a long-lived classic.
4. “DC Heroes,” designed by Greg Gorden
I have the 2nd edition box of this Mayfair game from the 1980s sitting on my shelf, but after flipping through that edition, I was just reminded that it’s the 1985 first edition that I still love the most, with all that stock Jose Luis Garcia-Lopez art that has become inextricably linked to the heart and soul of the DCU.
Greg Gorden’s design hinges on Attribute Points (APs) and two tables: an Action Table and a Result Table. It’s a one-roll system. Roll two ten-sided dice, compare the acting value and the opposing value, and the degree of the success or failure gives you your result. It’s clean and smart and it works well at the table, and because of the way APs represent everything in the game, you can quickly see how fast Wonder Woman’s jet can fly or how much Nightwing can lift or who would win in a fight between Cyborg and Brainiac.
Except, not quite, because if you roll doubles on your dice, you get to keep rolling and adding the numbers up, which means Nightwing might be able to get a boost of adrenaline to push that car off the trapped little boy, and Cyborg might get a good roll and outsmart Brainiac this time.
The best part of the game, though, is how it details the DC characters and setting in a way that’s even more specific than “Who’s Who in the DC Universe.” This role-playing game was released just as DC was rewriting its past, present, and future in “Crisis on Infinite Earths,” so it captures a time when the company’s characters were transitioning into the modern age, and various supplements do a great job trying to keep up with all the changes. And Mayfair gave us a lot of cool supplements, like three books dedicated just to providing info on the Legion of Super-Heroes, a post-apocalyptic “Hex” adventure, a mission for the Doom Patrol, plenty of Justice League hijinks, and more. Other versions of DC role-playing games exist, but the Mayfair version remains the best.
3. “Underground,” designed by Ray Winninger
Effectively an offshoot of Greg Gorden’s DC design, this 1993 Mayfair Games release uses the same basic Attribute Point rules but de-emphasizes the rolling and the charts and ultra-emphasizes role-playing in an unusual setting. This superhero game captures the excesses of 1990s culture — not just in the comics — and filters them through Ray Winninger’s strong sense of storytelling through gameplay and we get a game that lives up to its amazing Geof Darrow cover.
The main rulebook — super heavy with glossy high-bond paper — is laid out less like a typical role-playing game guide and more like a thick magazine found after the fall of society. It has insert ads for handguns and photographs of found documents and what looks like textbook excerpts. It’s a world dominated by gangs and corporate raiders (who actually perform raids, not metaphorically) and super-tech and jacked up injected superpowers. Every August 11th is known as Chuck D-Day, in honor of the great rapper’s (fictional) death, and the poverty-stricken streets are laced with “Estro-Gin” addicts. Characters are named things like White Devil and Daddy Warcrimes and Scavenger Jack.
I don’t think the game sold very well and few supplements were ever released (and most of those have some ungodly production design and impossible-to-read text over unreasonably sloppy graphic elements), but it’s probably the best role-playing game you’ve never heard of. Unless you’ve heard of it, in which case you already enjoy life more than most.
2. “Necessary Evil,” designed by Clint Black, Shane Lacy Hensley, and Scott Pyle
Shane Lacy Hensley designed the Savage Worlds role-playing game and that machinery powers this setting, a unique approach to superhero gaming in which the Earth has already been invaded by aliens and all the heroes have been rounded up and killed off before the game even begins.
The only super-powered humans left on Earth are the supervillains, and the alien V’sori aren’t too keen on paranormals running around.
As a player, you create one of the last remaining supervillains on the planet, and try to set aside your inherent villainy to repel the alien invaders. Or cause trouble. Or commit crimes. Or do whatever you want. It’s your game. (Though the supervillains-fighting-against-the-aliens-and-their-sympathizers is kind of the key conceit of “Necessary Evil.”)
What makes it so cool, besides its distinctive setting, is the explosive fun of the Savage Worlds rules, which uses playing cards to determine initiative in combat (a really sleek feature that works amazingly well at the table and gives the system a bit of a gambling feel), an escalating scale of various dice, “Aces” which let you keep rolling and generating big numbers, and “bennies” which are chips you can cash in to stay alive a bit longer or re-roll another time.
It’s definitely a cinematic game system, and this setting built on top of it allows for some Michael Bay meets Guillermo del Toro meets Joss Whedon meets James Cameron levels of action and humor and things-blowing-up.
1. “Marvel Super Heroes,” designed by Jeff Grubb
The 1986 “Advanced” edition from TSR is the best incarnation of any Marvel role-playing game, and, in many ways, it perfectly captures the essence of the Marvel Universe during the Jim Shooter era just like the Mayfair DC game captures the DC Universe during the Jenette Kahn era. Like the DC game, Jeff Grubb’s “Marvel Super Heroes” design — which was released, in a basic set, a year before Greg Gorden’s design — uses two ten-sided dice and a reference chart, but in this game, the dice are used to get percentile results and the stats aren’t based on super-detailed number differentials. Instead, stats are labeled “Good” or “Remarkable” or “Amazing” or “Unearthly,” etc. with a range of ability or power levels falling into those categories. And if you look at the chart that comes with any of the rule books, you’ll see that there’s not a huge degree of difference between, say “Incredible” and “Amazing,” but just enough difference to give the Amazing Fighting ability guy an advantage over someone who’s just Incredible at it.
The use of Marvel-ish adjectives is one of the great appeals to the game, and to this day, I still think of physical and mental abilities in those terms, so make sure you know what you’re talking about when you tell me that you had an “amazing day.” Because that’s a lot different than a day that was simply “excellent.”
While TSR still had the Marvel license, they released a bunch of good stuff, but beyond the game itself, the crown jewel of the “Marvel Super-Heroes” system is David E. Martin’s “Ultimate Powers Book,” the definitive roll-dice-and-create-something-awesome character generation handbook. Oh, look at that, I just rolled up a normal human who self-achieved Remarkable Fighting ability and experimented upon himself to develop the ability to shoot fire out of his hands and project force fields, and I still have 5 power slots left to randomly determine what else this guy can do. Oh man, he goes into Berserker rage too? Genius.
In addition to writing reviews and columns for COMIC BOOK RESOURCES, Timothy Callahan is the author of “Grant Morrison: The Early Years” and editor of “Teenagers from the Future: Essays on the Legion of Super-Heroes” anthology. More of his thoughts on comics can be seen regularly at the Geniusboy Firemelon blog.