Allen Varney, Writer and Traveler



The State of the Art in Superheroics, Part 3

by Allen Varney

[Published in Dragon #172, August 1991]

I rode a silver board across a shower of comets, skimming their glowing wake--walked the deserted halls of ancient Atlantis, seeking my vanished subjects--grabbed the flame-eyed conqueror in the Pincers of Power and held him aloft, rescuing my dimension--

With a child's pure joy I gazed on a city in a bottle, a team of spectacular animals in capes and uniforms, and a newspaper reporter transformed into a giant turtle monster--chased a brilliantly evil gorilla while that alien air, the mola, hardened in crystal shells around my limbs--followed an endless trail of grinning bodies across a dark city, to track a giggling maniac--

More recently, I flexed tree-root muscles and made a mountain shake--struggled to hold to sanity while a cool crimelord bulldozed my life--rescued victims from a tenement fire with a wonderful ship, to a tune sung by Billie Holliday--raced down the 99 levels of Prometheus to beat a noon deadline that would doom the city--and ruled a new world from a palace 16 miles tall, ushering in a new Golden Age of gaudy miracles.

Miracles: The best superhero comics abound in them. I read those lavish power fantasies, grandiose beyond the hopes of Wagner, charged with melodrama that would put Harriet Beecher Stowe to shame, and I (like thousands of other readers) live those miracles. In those tales, just as in a good roleplaying adventure, we partake of the heroic.

But such moments were always rare, and rarer still today. Do young comics fans today, faced with the legions of dour avengers that dominate the market, comprehend that old magic? More to the point, do any recent superhero games and supplements help gamemasters and players to recreate it?

Only rarely. But that, of course, is the nature of miracles.


64-page Rule Book, 64-page Campaign Book, 12 cardstock sheets of characters and stand-up figures, two 21"x32" color maps, two 10-sided dice, boxed; TSR, Inc., $20

Design: Jeff Grubb

Editing: Steve Winter

Cover: Jeffrey Butler

Illustrations: Butler and the Marvel Bullpen

After seven years TSR has issued a new edition of the popular roleplaying game that lets youngsters play Marvel Comics heroes like Spider-Man, the X-Men, Captain America, and the Hulk. Designer Jeff Grubb, longtime Marvel guru at TSR, has since become guru of the Forgotten Realms and of the SPELLJAMMER campaign setting, and will no doubt achieve even greater guru-hood in the future. He's returned to his roots with this touch-up of his 1984 design.

This edition incorporates the Advanced Set's larger Universal Table, offers several other systems from the Advanced Set, and updates the mercurial biographies of 85 heroes and villains. The maps are identical to those in the previous edition, so Judges who want new banks to rob must look elsewhere.

The Marvel game targets young comics readers otherwise unfamiliar with RPGs. The game's novice-level approach reduces emphasis on creating new characters in favor of playing established heroes. It also alludes only briefly to the topics of adventure design and good roleplaying, preferring to dwell on combat tactics and Karma point awards.

This is the gravest flaw of the Marvel system and support line: its apathy about recreating the spirit of Marvel stories. In this new Basic edition and the Advanced Set (never mind the past seven years of pallid scenarios), you couldn't find a miracle if you used microscopic vision. Look at this set's few elementary mini-scenarios, all brainless fight scenes. The four-color grandeur and narrative magic in the best Marvel stories are absent. Is this a good introduction to roleplaying?

For that matter, the new text is larger and less friendly than its predecessor. I confess mild irritation at the first edition's practice of describing the rules in the heroes' own voices. But in its place we now have featureless expanses of gray type, and lots of it. The new edition's core rules are not notably shorter or (much) simpler than the core rules of Mayfair's DC HEROES, a more elegant and flexible design. The Marvel game could intimidate a newcomer, I think.

Point the beginner instead to Steve Jackson Games' TOON, The Cartoon Roleplaying Game (a personal favorite), or to West End's GHOSTBUSTERS. Both have simple rules, high action, and a gratifying accent on storytelling and adventure design. And don't forget the new edition of the DUNGEONS & DRAGONS Basic Set, especially designed to introduce beginners to roleplaying. For novice superheroic roleplaying the choices are not great, but try the BATMAN volume that Mayfair extracted from DC HEROES to capitalize on the Batmania of 1989.

Of course, MARVEL SUPER HEROES is the only authorized source of game statistics for Marvel characters. This leads smoothly to my next tirade.

The Uncanny X-Men Special! Campaign Set

96-page Roster Book, 64-page Campaign Book, 32-page "School's Out" Adventure Book, four 21"x32" color maps, boxed; TSR, Inc., $18

Design: Jeff Grubb

"School's Out" Adventure: Rick Swan

Cover: Jeffrey Butler

Illustrations: Butler and the Marvel Bullpen

Justice League Sourcebook

128-page softcover book; Mayfair Games Inc., $12

Design: Ray Winninger with Jack Barker

Cover: Kevin Maguire and Joe Rubinstein

Illustrations: DC staff

The New Titans Sourcebook

128-page softcover book, Mayfair Games Inc., $10

Design: John J. Terra

Cover: George Perez

Illustrations: DC staff

Swamp Thing Sourcebook

32-page sourcebook, 32-page "Racing With the Rats" solo adventure; Mayfair Games Inc., $9

Design: Ray Winninger

Cover: Paris Cullins

Illustrations: DC staff

I heard recently that you can't copyright a phone book any more. The Supreme Court ruled that to gain copyright protection, a work must involve creativity; an alphabetical list of names and their telephone numbers doesn't. Now why does that ruling spring to mind as I look at the latest pile of licensed hero-roster "sourcebooks"?

Companies pump these out like mail-order catalogues at Christmas. They must be easy, if not entertaining, to write: Read a couple hundred comics, describe all the heroes in the subject group, then their friends, major enemies, headquarters and equipment, and some back-issue history. Add a little chrome and maybe an adventure, throw in clip art from the comics, and publish. Nobody has to think hard, nor even worry about proofreading a lot of phone numbers.

(Let me immediately distinguish these churned-out lists of licensed characters from similar volumes of original villains and heroes that an author creates specifically for superhero RPGs--for instance, the Enemies books for CHAMPIONS. None of the following remarks relate to such original gaming creations.)

Gamers, or somebody, must love these huge compost-heaps of established characters. After all, how many times has TSR gotten them to buy (for instance) an X-Men roster? The latest and most exhaustive of these is The Uncanny X-Men Special! campaign set (complete with exclamation point). Half of this set, 96 pages of text, lists the abilities of over 250 mutants. Mind you, it doesn't tell much about these mutant's backgrounds, nor how to role-play them or use them in a campaign--just stats. (No phone numbers, either.)

The rest of this Special! set offers a bit more entertainment value; it doesn't sparkle, but at least here Jeff Grubb writes in paragraphs, with adverbs and stuff. The Campaign Book gives histories of two dozen mutant groups, lengthy descriptions of mutant-ridden locations, and 13 models of Sentinel mutant-hunting robots. And lo, the 12 pages of authentic campaigning advice include typical mutant-campaign premises, mutant-villain types, and a "mutant phobia" index. A full-scale adventure by the talented Rick Swan shovels an amazing number of villains into one globe-trotting plot, though player characters have little to do but fight. With these tools (and the great maps) an enterprising gamemaster could probably rig up a campaign. But I doubt it would be anything special--I mean, Special!

The other, sourcebooks at hand support DC HEROES. Do you want to know a lot about those two popular superhero groups, the Justice League and the New (formerly Teen) Titans? No, I mean do you want to know a whole lot? Do you want your brain to explode with sheer data pressure? Then The Justice League Sourcebook and The New Titans Sourcebook are for you!

The JL sourcebook comes from Ray Winninger, an experienced and prolific freelancer with many credits in the DC HEROES line; for instance, he developed the recent 2nd Edition. Here he gives us--well, you know the drill by now: histories and stats for everybody who's ever joined, almost joined, or come near the Justice League (note the numbered versions of Dr. Fate: 1, 2, and "2 1/2"); 30 pages of villains, including Killer Penguins; extensive maps for three headquarters, plus a previously unseen Saudi Arabian Embassy (winner of Mayfair's "Justice League Embassy Contest"; congratulations to designer Brian Heid); and the original JLA's charter, membership requirements, and procedures. At that point my eyes glazed over, but Winninger's text is clear, well-researched, and respectful.

The New Titans Sourcebook offers--stop me if you've heard this before--complete membership rosters of all versions of the Teen Titans; a 16-page description of the 10-level Titan Tower, down to and including the video games in the rec room; friends and allies, including Timothy Drake, the new Robin the Boy Wonder (either #3 or #4, depending on how you score it); foes, equipment, and a lengthy timeline. Author John J. Terra, a relative newcomer with credits for TSR and FASA, gives valuable roleplaying notes and, occasionally, brash humor. ("Changeling's garish room is enough to send the bravest interior decorator into convulsions.") Miracles? Those he does not give, that I could tell. But miracles are where you find them.

I often found them in the pages of Swamp Thing, a DC horror title that was at one time--no, at two times--the best mainstream comic book published. Its classy early-'70s issues by Len Wein and Berni Wrightson, though excellent, were completely outstripped during an astounding mid-80s run written by British comics star Alan Moore. What stories! Brilliant new takes on classic horror ideas, new concepts, a breathtaking scope of learning and insight, terrific characters, world-spanning adventures, true love, true fear, madness, passion, and compassion. Miracles all! And now comes a Swamp Thing Sourcebook. What a perfect opportunity for...

--For a history of the Swamp Thing, a list of his powers, a roster of friends and foes, and a description of his "headquarters" (the Louisiana bayou town of Houma). Sigh.

Along with this bland five-finger exercise comes a solo Swamp Thing adventure, "Racing With the Rats," that is striking because (you're not going to believe this) it has nothing at all to do with the Swamp Thing. Get this: Poisoned by toxic waste, Swamp Thing experiences a four-day hallucination of suburban hell, where (as an ordinary human) he tries to hold down a job and make ends meet--Generic Superhero Hallucination Dream #542. Even if you've never heard of the Swamp Thing and haven't read the sourcebook section, you can still play this straight-line adventure perfectly well, not that I recommend you do. Really, though, you have to admire Ray Winninger's chutzpah for including it.

Evaluation: I don't really know how to review these new character compilations. Sure, I liked one of their predecessors, the new edition of Mayfair's Batman Sourcebook (see "Roleplaying Reviews" in issue #165); but that book offered real insight into an interesting subject, along with strong gaming value. And maybe if you'd told me then, "If you like this one, you'll get 20 more exactly like it," well, I might have restrained myself. Now here are these followers. I believe they're not really game products, but more like superhero Audubon guides and extended fanzine articles.

Jack Barker, DC HEROES game editor at Mayfair, disagrees. "We sell a lot to the comic-book audience, [but these books are] definitely game products," he says. "There are a million and one adventure hooks in those [character] histories, especially the villains'." Barker notes that gamers ask him more often for character stats and headquarters maps than for anything else.

Okay, fair enough. But I can't imagine how you turn these laundry lists into miracles.

In any case, the Mayfair books are good jobs, with colorful text, extensive footnotes listing sources, and indexes. TSR's Uncanny X-Men Special! campaign set also makes the grade. But the cold fact is, either you want these rosters or you don't, based on their subjects. The idea that it's "a good job" hardly enters into it.

Can there be a superhero roster that a review could recommend wholeheartedly as an authentic "good job"?


The Watchmen Sourcebook

128-page softcover book; Mayfair Games, Inc., $10

Design: Ray Winninger

Cover and illustrations: Dave Gibbons

Design layout and graphics: Mari Paz P. Cabardo

Swamp Thing writer Alan Moore reached greater heights in the graphic novel Watchmen, collaborating with British artist Dave Gibbons. Rather than discuss Watchmen here, I'll just recommend it with every fiber of my being; look for it in specialty bookstores and comics shops. Now Mayfair and the ubiquitous Ray Winninger have produced a fine companion piece, the best-presented product superhero roleplaying has ever seen.

This is not so much sourcebook as scrapbook. It pains me to quote a company press release, but I can't put it better: "The Watchmen Sourcebook is presented in the same style as the comic series, where the readers progressively piece together the story as they go along. The `scrapbook' format features newspaper articles, movie scripts, letters to and from family and friends of the Watchmen and Minutemen, and much, much more." (All press release writers recite "and much, much more" as a mantra at noon and sunset.)

Winninger and layout artist Cabardo return us to the back pages of Watchmen, that cut-up realm of diverse sources, high believability, and telling juxtapositions. A mental hospital report, followed by a clipping with a name circled, suddenly and chillingly explains a murder reported two pages back. Incorporation papers, innocuous in themselves, stand like signposts on the path to nuclear war. Winninger's news stories, letters, college rosters, and brochures follow Alan Moore's creative lead, often showing genuine insight. And Cabardo sends everything cascading higgledy-piggledy down the page, askew, overlapping, invigorating.

DC HEROES stats? Oh yeah, it has some of those too. They mostly get in the way. For instance, when the gadgeteer Nite Owl makes long construction notes about his Owlship and various costumes, the sudden intermissions of gamespeak are jarring. It's tricky, recommending a product with so little gaming value, a kind of superhero Audubon guide or fanzine article. But this one displays creativity. Enthusiasm. Thought! More stats would dry out this book like a grape under a sunlamp, turning it into one more raisin like those discussed above. Instead Mayfair has wisely chosen to turn this book into (the reviewer pushes his metaphor and his luck) fine wine.

The Watchmen Sourcebook won't mean anything to those unfamiliar with the graphic novel, but for its fans, this book of clever and enlightening annotations should help recapture the original's miracles. Good job!

Kingdom of Champions

208-page sourcebook; Hero Games/ICE, $18

Design: Phil Masters

Editing: Rob Bell

Cover: Adam Hughes

Illustrations: Albert Deschesne, Ben Edlund, John Robinson, Pat Zircher

Oh, man, talk about miracles. Years ago Phil Masters, who had never published a word in the gaming business, proposed to Adventurers Club magazine a short article describing superheroic CHAMPIONS adventures in Great Britain. The article never saw print; instead it grew to 208 pages and stormed onto the Hero Games scene last summer as--what ho!--Kingdom of Champions.

"Written by native Britons, edited by Americans, this supplement contains all that a gamemaster needs to start running adventures in the United Kingdom." For once a product lives up to its back cover copy: This book actually does contain everything you could want for British heroics, and (what was that mantra?) much, much more.

Terrain, cities, transport, districts of London, major sites from the British Museum to Stonehenge (with maps), petrol prices, waterways, standard vehicles, postage rates, three pages of slang terms, history, race relations, six pages on "The British Character (If It Exists)," political parties, titled aristocrats, "The Troubles" in Ireland, castles and manor houses, tax rates, property market, legal system, major religions, educational system, TV channels, food and drink, holidays, soccer hooligans, the army, MI5, four pages about the police... If it only had addresses and tourist hours, you could lug along this supplement as a fair guidebook to the UK.

Guidebooks don't usually make great reading, though, and I developed info overload around page 98, where Masters details the political leanings of each of Britain's 12 daily newspapers. But after my eyes unglazed, I dove back in. A good thing too, for soon after that comes a great ten-page discussion of British magic and legends, and then the entire last half of the book gathers over 50 (!) very original British heroes and villains, plus secret super-agents, half a dozen organizations, and, as an afterthought, four different versions of the Loch Ness Monster. Three short scenarios and suggestions for a dozen more finish off the package, and probably finish the GM too!

I joke about its encyclopedic scope, but Kingdom of Champions is that rare pleasure: a labor of true love. Bolstered by the breadth of imagination here, any GM can launch a one-shot scenario or any of several complete campaigns for superheroes who cross the Atlantic. Masters' clear style and subtle wit makes this a great read (with suitable intermissions) and a snap to review. All I have to say is, "If you want to game Britain, get this book!"

This book comes closest yet to conjuring the miracles of the great superhero comics. Why? Because it has the same quality they do, the very stuff of miracles: imagination. With more works like this one, the superhero roleplaying field would be grander and more glorious, a miraculous place.

Short and Sweet

TOME OF MAGIC, by Cook, Findley, Herring, Kubasik, Sargent, and Swan. TSR, Inc., $20. As my fellow reviewer Ken Rolston would say, "Awright!" In this new AD&D hardcover I count 86 new wizard spells (plus neat rules for "wild mages"), 170 priest spells (plus eight new spheres), and 92 new magical items, all meant to fill minor gaps in the extant spell lists. Spellcasters will zoom in on heavy artillery like acid storm (W 7) and spiritual wrath (P 7; minimum damage 16d6). The wise DM, though, should prefer the many spells that don't cause damage, but instead enable good stories. Spells like thought capture (P 1) and the many communication spells let you convey information more easily; others, like breath of death (P 7) and most of the quest spells, are story hooks. Have fun seeing quantum physics applied to magic in spells like spacewarp (P 7) and there/not there (W 4). This product needs its hardcover package; you'll use it a lot.

THE COMPLETE GUIDE TO ROLEPLAYING GAMES, by Rick Swan. St. Martin's Press, $12.95. This was a surprise gift on the bookshelves last Christmas. In this thick volume Rick Swan, gifted author of many TSR products (such as the recent FA2, Nightmare Keep, and the DLA trilogy of DRAGONLANCE adventures), reviews over 150 roleplaying games, good and bad, famous and completely obscure, with no punches pulled and seemingly no game missed. "If I found it for sale as of spring 1990 in a hobby shop or a dealer's booth at a game convention, it's reviewed here," says Swan, and he also gives informed commentary on each game's support line. You start thinking, "Is there anything he hasn't read?" If so, I haven't found it, and I've read every fascinating review. There's lots of historical perspective, amusing rules bloopers, and maybe even room for argument, but overall I enthusiastically recommend Swan's book. So when's the next edition? [1999 UPDATE: There never was a second edition, sad to say.]

ANGUS McBRIDE'S CHARACTERS OF MIDDLE-EARTH. Iron Crown Enterprises, $14.95. South African artist Angus McBride, my favorite of the legions of illustrators of J.R.R. Tolkien's works, has blessed many an otherwise dreary MIDDLE-EARTH ROLEPLAYING supplement. He captures the high-fantasy majesty that most MERP products seem bent on expunging. Now ICE has managed to wrap its MERP gaming license around this softcover collection of 29 lovely McBride paintings, by adding a page of feeble gaming filler facing each painting. Skip the game junk and frame these vivid visualizations of Gandalf, Treebeard, Galadriel, and dozens of other figures of Middle-earth. Too bad so few of those figures actually come from Tolkien; ICE instead has chosen covers from all those supplements about Near Harad, Far Harad, Really Far Boring Harad, and other backwaters that barely rate footnotes in The Lord of the Rings. This points up a failing of the whole MERP game line: its dawdling pace in describing Mordor, Barad-Dur, and other places that gamers really want to know about. Meantime, though, let's thank ICE for offering this pristine book of McBride's fine art.

OGRE/G.E.V., by Steve Jackson. Steve Jackson Games, $9.95. Released for the first time together in one package, these two simulation boardgames of armored combat on a future battlefield are among the best the field has ever seen, fast, elegant, and endlessly replayable. Steve Jackson's first design, the action-packed OGRE, pulled me into this hobby back in 1977, and since then I wish I'd held up as well as it has. Its sequel, G.E.V. (ground effect vehicle), adds new units and new rules that give its hovercraft and power-armor infantry a better chance to stop the unstoppable intelligent cybertank called the Ogre. With great maps, new two-color counters, and a new (if rather flimsy) box, these twin classics shouldn't be missed.

IN HOT PURSUIT, by Terra, Pecsenyicki, Franks, and Tracy. Mayfair Games, $8. Mayfair has devised several fresh ideas to support DC HEROES, and here's another: an anthology of four short adventures, each for gamemaster and one player, each starring a different hero. The tones and topics run from slambang super-slugfest action (starring Superman) to light comedy (the Atom) to gritty gang warfare (the Huntress) to suspense and mistrust in a deserted villain base (Manhunter). These straightforward and effective mini-scenarios can fill an evening (or two) on their own, or an hour while you're waiting for more players to show up. Too bad the back cover gives away every surprise in every adventure! Maybe if we forgive them, Mayfair's copywriters will restrain themselves next time--and I hope there is a next time. [1999 UPDATE: There wasn't.]

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