Roleplaying games are games where the players take the roles of fictional characters in a story. Usually one player takes the role of gamemaster and creates a loose plotline or storyline, setting up the situation and conflicts. Each player usually controls one character, except the gamemaster, who plays the roles of everyone else in the fictional setting. A superhero roleplaying game is a specific genre which recreates traditional comic book superhero tropes, characters, and plotlines.
This website concerns itself mostly with traditional tabletop superhero roleplaying games like Champions and Mutants and Masterminds. Computer superhero roleplaying games (like City of Heroes) also exist, but they’re beyond the scope of this website.
The best known setting for roleplaying games is the traditional fantasy hero type roleplaying game, and the best known game set in that genre is Dungeons and Dragons. Superhero roleplaying games are similar to Dungeons and Dragons, only set in a comic book superhero fictional universe.
Superhero Roleplaying Game Systems
The game system is the set of rules that governs the action in a superhero roleplaying game. Characters in roleplaying games are made up of statistics which determine what the character can do in the story. These statistics also determine how well the character can achieve these things. A superhero character in a superhero roleplaying game with the “flying” superpower will have some kind of rank or score in that power which determines how fast she flies compared to another superhero with the same power.
Superhero Roleplaying Games Overview
The first superhero roleplaying game was called Superhero 2044 and was published by Gamescience in 1977. The game was published as a 36 page, 8 1/2X11 book. Donald Saxman authored Superhero 2044. The game included a futuristic post-war setting that included superheroes. Superhero 2044 only saw one published supplement, Hazard, which was little more than a map published by Judges Guild. The game saw little success and disappeared from the market quickly.
Villains and Vigilantes
The first superhero roleplaying game to see a large audience was Villains and Vigilantes. Jack Herman and Jeff Dee authored Villains and Vigilantes, which saw its first printing in 1979. The authors released a 2nd edition of the game in 1982. Villains and Vigilantes was published by Fantasy Games Unlimited and saw several published adventures and supplements. The game remained in print until 1987, and adventures for the game are still available at the publisher’s website.
In 2010, Jack Herman and Jeff Dee launched a new company, Monkey House Games, and began publishing a new edition of Villains & Vigilantes. The trademark for the game was held by Fantasy Games Unlimited, a company owed by Scott Bizar, but when that company ceased to exist in 1991, the rights to V&V reverted to the authors. It turns out that they didn’t even know that the company had gone under, as Bizar had apparently launched another company with a very similar name, and FGU apparently also continues to publish material for Villains & Vigilantes.
As far as I know, there’s a trademark case pending over who actually owns the rights to sell and publish Villains & Vigilantes and its supplements.
Hero Games published Champions in 1981, and for years, it was the most popular superhero roleplaying game in existence. Champions is still in print and is now in its sixth edition. Champions was one of the first roleplaying games to allow players to create their characters with a point-buying system instead of using a random character generation system.
A sixth edition of the game was released, but the name of the game was changed to Hero System Sixth Edition. The Champions trademark became the brand name for the intellectual property in the setting, and most of these changes came about because of the new Champions Online MMORPG.
Mutants and Masterminds
Mutants and Masterminds is probably tied with Champions for being the most successful superhero RPG that’s not tied to a specific comic book setting. And much of the philosophy behind the rules reflects Steve Kenson’s love of Champions. He managed to create an innovative new RPG system using a variation of the D20 rules from Dungeons & Dragons. The game is in its third edition, and it’s also the basis for the most recent iteration of a roleplaying game set in the DC Comics universe.
Marvel Super Heroes
TSR published Marvel Super Heroes in 1984. The game was written and designed by Jeff Grubb and gave players the opportunity to play characters from the Marvel Comics universe. Two other games featuring characters from the Marvel universe included the SAGA system, which was also published by TSR, and the Marvel Universe Roleplaying Game, which was one of the first diceless superhero roleplaying games.
The most recent game set in the Marvel Comics universe is called Marvel Heroic Roleplaying. It was published in 2012 and uses the Cortex System, which also powers Smallville and Leverage, among other games from Margaret Weiss Productions.
Mayfair Games published DC Heroes in 1985 as a superhero roleplaying game set in the DC universe. Players could play specific comic book characters like Superman and Batman or create their own character which also inhabited the DC universe. 2nd edition was released in 1989, and a 3rd edition was released in 1993. The rules system is now featured in a non-setting-specific game called Blood of Heroes.
Another RPG set in the DC Comics universe was called, appropriately enough, DC Universe, and it used the D6 System that was so popular with West End Games. The game didn’t catch on though.
The most recent entry into superhero roleplaying games set in the DC Universe is DC Adventures, which uses a modified set of the Mutants & Masterminds rules.
Steve Kenson and Adamant Entertainment surprised everyone in the industry a couple of years ago when they announced that Kenson was designing a new superhero RPG. After all, he already masterminds both Mutants & Masterminds and DC Adventures for Green Ronin, but apparently that didn’t cause a problem for either company. Icons is a retro-throwback game with a lot of similarities to the original Marvel Super Heroes game, although the rules are lighter and reflect a more modern approach to design. The designer and the publisher did a nice job of creating a new supehero RPG with a distinctly different feel from the other popular RPGs in the niche that are on the market now.