A League of Your Own
Designing Supers Teams
by Brian Rogers
It's time to start your new supers campaign, and it's time for you to build a team of costumed heroes. Here are some ideas on how to do that drawn directly from the source material, for you genre fiends who want your games to look exactly like the comics.
While it's a cliché to divide things into two types, in this case it's true: there are two types of supers teams. There are teams for which the heroes appeared first (and often only) in the team book, such as the X-Men. Then there are teams where the heroes also appear (or used to appear) in their own books, like the Justice League. While this distinction may seem like a small thing, it makes a big difference, and if you're aiming for the feel of one other the other you'd do well to keep it mind at the outset.
Heroes that originated in teams have specific powers. Despite the prevailing advice that supers characters should have balanced methods of offense, defense, miscellany, and movement, most team characters start with only one or two of these aspects. They're focused rather than being broadly powerful. Some are strong, close combat fighters, others use distance attacks or manipulate the environment, or are sneaky, or versatile support characters. Since no one is skilled at everything, they must rely on each other's strengths to accomplish their goals.
All of this sound familiar? It should -- they're an adventuring party! Just as a good fantasy party relies on a good mix of fighting men, sneaky types, and magic wielders, a supers party relies on a good balance of offensive, defensive, movement, and miscellaneous powers spread through the team.
If you want to design such a party of heroes, you'll have to abandon the idea that each starting character is "balanced" between offense/defense/movement/miscellaneous aspects. In fact, many party heroes start with just one of these aspects. Yes, this does make the character more focused at the outset, but a starting focus doesn't prevent him from growing later. Heroes who start with a single movement power -- say, personal teleportation -- can develop capable offenses and defenses from that power over time, or those starting with a single offensive power -- perhaps a force beam -- can stay vital without ever branching into the other aspects. The key is remembering that an experienced character still provides the party with his initial aspect over any other, just as a 12th-level fighter in a Dungeons & Dragons game still brings the same percentage of close combat muscle that he did at 1st level. Remember, the key to a party of super-heroes is that no one can do everything.
Instead of designing a character who can do a little of everything, pick one or two powers and decide which aspects those powers bring to the team. Put aside any preconceptions about what the power is supposed to do (such as "flame powers = energy projector = flight, force field, energy blast") and select which aspects you want it to provide. Most power concepts are flexible enough to work for any aspect if you tweak it a little. If you want to play someone with fire powers, but want to provide defense for the group, perhaps your only power is a flaming aura hot enough to vaporize lead? The character is well-protected against physical and temperature attacks with the potential for a potent offense if he can get close enough. A hero with Invisibility might start with just the ability to warp light around a target's head to induce blindness, making what is traditionally a defensive power an offensive one.
Ideally, power/aspect selection will occur during a group character creation session, preventing overlaps that might sideline one character in favor of another. In a party of supers, each character should bring something special to the team. While "shrinking inventor" is a great concept, having a teammate who can shape-shift to any animal (including an ant or amoebae) and another who is a genius technician makes your powers nearly irrelevant -- there are only so many times the bomb is so small only a microscopic man could disarm it. Working around balance issues in play is a roleplaying challenge, but starting together reduces the chance of problems.
One last note about party-teams: expect everything to be cheaper and faster once you abandon balanced offense and defense. The same character concept can be built more cheaply when you don't need another 20 points in an attack to penetrate modest defenses. Combat, a big part of the supers genre, speeds by with lower defenses. Fights in party-team comics are generally two-to-three hit affairs rather than the nickel and dime conflicts of aspect-balanced heroes. Mirroring this keeps you closer to your source material and gives you more time for roleplaying or investigation (or more fights, if you prefer). Be warned that attacks and defenses should be scaled so that heroes won't be killed in one shot, but one-shot-KOs are pretty common in the comics.
Just a Little League
The other type of team is one where the heroes worked solo first. In comics, solo heroes stick to the "balanced aspect" concept. They have to -- they're on their own and must be able to handle various challenges. With a combination of potent aspects, solo heroes are stronger than party-based heroes. Many supers players like knowing their hero is able to do something in every situation, making solo heroes the RPG standard (after all, superheroes are partially about adolescent wish fulfillment). If each such hero is powerful, then a league of them . . . well, such a group can probably claim to be Earth's Mightiest Heroes. Even a small league can handle big problems.
Of course, leagues also cause big problems. League style teams tend toward a lot of ability overlap. Dee's hero, the Blur, has super-speed? Great! Of course, her teammates Omniman and Amazonia also have super-speed, and come to think of it, Jovian and Red Flame can fly pretty darn fast . . . But the Blur is also a forensic chemist and police officer? Cool! But Vigilance is the world's greatest detective, and isn't Red Flame a member of an inter-stellar police corps? But, well, Blur's faster than everyone else. Dee can take comfort in that. If everyone is balanced in every aspect, players can count on sharing powers with at least one teammate, even if it's just flight or super-strength. If one PC can do everything, expect his teammates to be the same way. This makes it harder to distinguish one character from another by their powers. And while this hyper-competence can be a boon for GMs -- who can run a plot knowing that even if half the players don't show up the remainder have the necessary abilities to meet the challenge -- it also makes truly challenging situations harder to come by.
Group character creation is as important for leagues as parties. The main rule hasn't changed: each character must provide something special. In a party, this is done by giving each character something unique. In a league, it's done giving each PC an unmatchable strength. Even if half the league has super-speed, the Blur should blow them away. While Amazonia isn't as strong as her other super-strong allies, she can speak with animals and enter the spirit realm -- powers none of her teammates possess. Overlap won' t matter if each PC has a power no one shares or no one can match.
Notes on leagues: things will be pricier and take longer. Balanced characters cost more to build since they're meant to be more capable. With strong offenses and defenses, they'll last longer in fights. This could turn fights into hours-long slugfests with slow cumulative effects, or hinge on somehow trumping the villain with a masterstroke. Leagues in comics tend towards the latter, with one or two heroes engaging in the slugfest while the others set up the coup de grace. Second, since such characters in comics originated in their own books, game approximations of league heroes should be carrying more baggage. Expect each one to have a unique origin story, a rogues gallery and personal contacts. This can be a hassle, but it also gives more room to play: expect a league to have a lot of personal enemies who will team up or go to war with each other, leaving the heroes caught in the middle.
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Some comics have teams composed of both solo heroes and team-only heroes -- the Avengers are a good example of this, with powerful headline members (Iron Man, Thor) appearing in their own books and other, focused heroes (Scarlet Witch, Hawkeye) who work just with the team. This is a good solution if you want to have heroes of differing power levels on the same team. Such power imbalances are common in comics, but anathema to some game systems. There's little advice for this, other than keeping your eye on the main rule: everyone must have one standout ability to bring to the team. If you have that, and the heroes form an interesting gestalt personality, relative power level doesn't matter.
Of course, you have to have players who won't play characters to their ultimate potential to the detriment of the game. Yes, the Blur's super-speed will get her into the enemy base unnoticed, but if her teammate Dancer focuses in invisibility and stealth she should let him take point. Of course, given the stakes that a league of heroes faces, such gracious behavior is just common sense; if the heroes mess up, things get really bad. Heroes who could possibly do something will learn quickly to cede the initiative to teammates who can probably do it if failure means a massive loss of life.
League as Troupes
If you do decide to construct a league of heroes, one common, unrecognized loss in RPGs comes from ignoring such heroes' defining characteristics: each has his own comic. There is a whole set of adventures outside the team that we, the players, never see, since the story's focus is unlikely to move to River City just to watch the Blur at work. To recapture this multiple comic feel, try borrowing a page from Ars Magica and construct your league for troupe style play.
To design a troupe, each player makes up a league hero. In addition to archetype and power concept, define the feel of his home city and solo adventures. Then everyone makes up a less powerful character to connect with every other league hero. These are sidekicks, contacts or friendly adversaries that form the supporting cast for a hero's solo title, even if they seldom appear in the league's comic. Such supporting cast members should be significantly weaker than the solo hero, and should fit the solo hero's idiom.
For example, lets take a group of 5 gamers: Asha, Bob, Chip, Dee and Eugene.
Asha is playing Amazonia, the spiritual warrior. She normally operates from Palette, a desert city known for its arts scene but steeped in ancient mysteries. Asha's looking for her character to be a butt-kicker in a magical environment. With this in mind, Bob makes Deacon Frost, Christian bookstore owner, low-end magician and possible romantic interest; Chip builds Tunnel Rat, a mostly reformed were-rat who shares Amazonia's enemies and hunting ground if not her raw power; Dee decides to play Plucky Orphan Sara, the quintessential curious teen detective weirdness magnet; Eugene settles on Coyote, a shamanistic trickster and Palette's other public hero.
Bob is Omniman, the innocent über-hero. Operating from Spire City, home of vast skyscrapers, with a love of the grand and new. Bob wants Omniman to be the childlike heart of this metropolis, with whimsy and big threats going hand in hand. Asha decides to make Capt. Lisa Quincy, head of Spire City's SWAT team and fully grounded in reality. Chip questions Bob on Omniman's origin, learning that he was irradiated by a meteorite before his family moved from the farm to Spire City. That gets a riff going, where Chip makes Omnipup, Omniman's irradiated dog with a fraction of his powers, and Dee makes Omnilass, Omniman's precocious eight-year-old sister, also with the same power set. Eugene toys with the idea of playing Omnihorse, but settles on Dr. Bertram Bueaford Blast, absent minded scientist with a flare for irreproducible accidents.
Chip is Vigilance, the aggressive detective. His home, Bridgeport, is steeped in crime and corruption, and Vigilance is the last bastion of law within a community whose police are rotten to the core. Knowing that Chip is pushing the dark detective motif to its limits, Asha goes for Holly Heart, madam with tantric super-strength and no love for the current regime; Bob builds ORWELL, the AI that helps Vigilance track events in Bridgeport; Dee makes Shadow, Vigilance's kid sidekick, a weaker version of his mentor with a tragic past but hope for the future; finally, Eugene makes Detective Mark Janus, who plays the 'one good cop' in Bridgeport, but may have just hitched his wagon to Vigilance's star to get a shot at taking over.
And so on.
Notice that each supporting cast acts as a complement to the hero. Each city and cast emphasize core concepts: Amazonia's share her mystical bent. Players can build what would normally be NPCs -- like straight men (Captain Quincy) or romantic contacts (Deacon Frost) -- to play with genre tropes. They can focus on favorite clichés by bringing a version of it into each city (just as Dee made everybody a kid sidekick). The unique power rule gets waived for supporting cast (Omnilass doesn't have any powers her brother isn't better at), but such supporting cast members stand out on personality in their limited appearances (Omniman seldom goes "Wheeeeeee!" or plays dolls with the giant robots). Character concepts too silly (Omnipup) or too limiting (ORWELL) for long-term PCs make strong supporting cast members. Finally, the supporting cast makes the hero look heroic and important, demonstrating why he rates membership in the league.
Troupes have other advantages. Group creation of supporting casts spreads the creative burden. Different cities make the world feel lived in, and give places to tell smaller stories than those normally facing the league. The cities, with their personal connection to the league heroes, make excellent places for alien armadas or cosmic entities to threaten.
The divisions between solo heroes banding together, teams that begin together, and the mix of the two are fairly consistent in the comics. The team's origins showcase how heroes develop and work together, and provide a better framework for those people who want their game to feel like the adventures of their favorite heroes. Supers games are incredibly flexible, so they should be able to accommodate the unwritten rules of their source material -- even ones driven solely by the marketplace.
Article publication date: June 6, 2003
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