GameNerd: Super Hero Eras

Wonder Woman’s surprisingly enjoyable movie has me thinking about an RPG for supers that spans blocks of time.

Each PC has a character for each era, and for extra fun, you could rotate GM by era. You could possibly use something like the shifting stations in Night Witches to handle era shifts.

Everyone should agree on something like 3-5 eras. The simplest way to do it would be to start in the past and roll forward to the present, but I think there would be more fun in moving back and forth, so you can have a relationship established in the present, then go back to the 80s to work out *why* those two characters hate each other.

You could do the same character for each era, if your hero is long-lived/immortal, and show how the passage of time changes them. Or the mortal who ages out of the hero game and is eventually replaced by her sidekick. Or a chosen bearer of a power amulet in each era.

You could have stuff like:

WWI: Naive Wonder Woman leaves Themiscyra to come to Man’s World and experiences culture shock. A young Jenny Sparks/Spirit of the Century type runs away from school. An aged Sherlock Holmes leaves London after faking his death again. Perhaps a flying ace with a suped up plane.

WWII: Wonder Woman decides to stay out of WWII. Why? Is she horrified by what she saw in WWI? Or did she have a deep, meaningful relationship with a Weimar era lesbian that was destroyed by the Nazi rise to power, and she is either too heart-broken or consumed with more specific revenge. Also, her player is GMing this era. Captain America and Peggy Carter could show up here, too, along with the Howling Commandos, the Invaders (especially Namor – Imperius Rex!). You could drop in Magneto. This might be the first appearance of someone wearing the mantle of Dr. Fate or Green Lantern.

Swinging 60s: A de-powered Wonder Woman works for SHIELD as Agent Diana Prince, working for a middle-aged Peggy Carter with a young Nick Fury. Captain America is on ice while his player GMs. This might be a good time to pull in Howard Stark, Hank Pym and Janet Van Dyne, plus folks like John Steed, Emma Peel, James Bond and the man from UNCLE. Spies in a world of low-key superheroes.

Radical 80s: Wonder Woman has her powers back. Batman shows up on the streets of Gotham. Nick Fury is running SHIELD as Peggy retires. Superboy flies over Metropolis is a 3/4 sleeve leather jacket and big sunglasses. Natasha Romanov leaves the USSR for SHIELD. Vietnam vet Frank Castle’s family are murdered by the mob. Janet Van Dyne has a crisis of conscience in the face of MAD and takes her scientific knowledge away from defense contracts and directs it to building a super gynoid called the Vision to fight crime.

The Present: Cap’s off-ice. Wonder Woman is a political figure, on the outs with the US government. Bruce Wayne has retired and mentors Dick Grayson in the cape and cowl. Tony Stark finds his old Dad’s secret files. Up in the sky, it’s a bird, it’s a plane, it’s…

I’d want to run this in something relatively rules-light like an Apocalypse World variant or something FATE-like. That way you don’t have to address power-creep or worry about balancing Peggy Carter with Captain Marvel (any of them). The aspects of the characters shift through the eras (look at the different versions of Atomic Robo in his FATE-based RPG) and you put a strong emphasis on relationships.

You’d need a set of unresolved time cards or something similar for questions raised – stuff like “Why does Diana hate Bruce in 1985?” so you can grab that back in 1963 and provide an answer. Some way to track the events implied by one timeline so you remember to follow up on them in another.


I just had an idea (and I can’t be the first to think of this) for a comic book or superhero RPG; The Super Journalists.

In a world with superheroes, but that more closely works like the real world, superheroes aren’t really all that necessary for fighting crime, except for brawling with super-powered villains. The problems the police have in catching criminals, especially in the developed world, is not a problem of firepower.

But what if you have a super team that devotes themselves to investigative journalism? The invulnerable man documenting atrocities in the Syrian Civil War. A photographer who can take pictures with her mind and upload them to the internet from anywhere in the solar system. A writer who can protect the identity of his source on a metaphysical level. An interviewer who can cause a red glow around her interview subjects when they lie.

I wish I was a better writer, or a better GM, because I would love to see this idea fleshed out. It’s also possible that I have been watching too much of the new Aaron Sorkin drama The Newsroom, and that it is time to re-read Transmetropolitan again.

Batman and Arrow

I discovered, this weekend, much to my surprise, that the new show Arrow is quite watchable. It’s a sort of gritty, soap-opera friendly reboot of the Green Arrow character form DC Comics. In this version, he’s a rich kid, son of a wealthy industrialist, who is lost at sea and spends five years on a south east Asian island surviving and becoming a bad-ass.

When he gets back, he embarks on a scheme of bloody revenge against the corrupt businessmen of Starling City. It’s interesting watching the show in a post-Occupy world; Oliver Queen is a scion of the 1%, going after the 1%, theoretically on behalf of the 99%. Thus far, he is only going after the illegally evil 1%ers, though, the ones who use their money to traffic in drugs, extortion and assassination. While he’s talking about stopping the powerful from abusing their influence on those who lack it, the show stops short of having him attack the system that provides the mansion he lives in and the expensive gadgets he uses to fight crime. It will be interesting to see if the show is willing to cross that line.

B:tAS LogoI cannot help but contrast Arrow with a couple versions of Batman. My favourite version of Batman is, I think, the 90s Batman: the Animated Series. Like a lot of TV of that era (I’m thinking of Babylon 5, here), it had a lot of cheese, but also enough brilliant moments that I remember those more clearly than the cheese. Animated Bats is notable for the way the villains are written – most of the bad guys have a strong motivation, some past wrong that drove them to become criminals. In some cases, the show looks into the grey area between what Batman does (justice?) and what the bad guys do (vengeance?). In practice, though, what it boils down to is that most often, some evil rich guy screws over some poor schmuck, who cracks and puts on a costume to extract revenge, and Batman stops the villain while the rich guy walks away. The difference, when it is highlighted, between Batman and the bad guy, is that Bats isn’t willing to kill or endanger innocents. Arrow, on the CW show, is essentially a Batman: the Animated Series villain. Interesting contrast.

Christian Bale as BatmanThe more obvious and timely comparison, of course, is to the Batman of the Christopher Nolan movies. Both take a classic comic character and deliver a dark, gritty version. I think the Nolan Batman is a relatively subtle deconstruction of the idea of Batman. The Dark Knight Rises comes right out, several times, challenging the right of Bruce Wayne, child of privilege, to be the person meting out justice on his own terms. The three movies raise the question of whether or not Batman is inherently fascist, particularly using a traditional platform of inherited wealth to fund his battle. I think the biggest twist that Nolan brings to Batman, though, is making him a Dramatic Hero rather than an Iconic Hero. To paraphrase Robin D. Laws, an Iconic Hero encounters challenges, and by staying true to his Iconic Nature, defeats them while remaining unchanged. The Dramatic Hero, by contrast, is a character in a state of conflict. He encounters challenges, and is either changed by them or destroyed by them, even when he triumphs. Every Batman before has been, essentially, Iconic – even the classic Knightfall story line in the comics where Batman’s back is broken is essentially a premise threat story, where the drama is provided by putting Batman’s Iconic nature at risk before restoring it. Nolan makes Bruce Wayne into a person whose nature is changed by his experiences. The tension between his private war and the desire to move beyond the trauma of his youth define his personality, and ultimately rip Batman apart. I think Tim Burton’s Batman flirted with similar themes, but ultimately felt the need to cling to the idea of Batman.

I suspect Arrow’s Oliver Queen will prove to be Iconic as the show goes on – it’s too hard to maintain a Dramatic Hero’s arc on a show like Arrow without losing track of everything entirely. Which highlights another thing I liked about the Nolan Batman – it had a solid ending. It left things open for all sorts of followups, but really, Nolan wrapped up all of his threads. Arrow, being an episodic soap opera type TV show, will shoot for infinity, and try to find as many ways as possible to play with the premise without losing it.

Superhero Re-imagining – Rise of the Expies

I have been thinking about superheroes again.

I blame the Avengers. And the book Seven Wonders. And Mark Waid. And Cirque du Soleil, oddly enough. Cirque are the word leaders in good looking spandex outfits right now – they made the most recent Spiderman costume. They’re also the world leader in people doing amazingly athletic things in spandex (you may argue the Olympics have them beat – I disagree).

The recent-ish trend in comics is to acknowledge that, after 80 odd years of superheroes, there really aren’t any interesting new ideas left for superheroes. You really can’t come up with a new set of superpowers that hasn’t been done before. So the new approach is deconstruction and The Expy (warning! Tv Tropes link!). Alan Moore started the thing with Watchmen. Mark Waid did it recently with Irredeemable (Superman) and Insufferable (Batman). There are plenty of examples in between.

The deconstructed expy approach had some definite advantages. It lets the writer play with the tropes of the original, all the raw material of underwear pervert comics, without having to deal with the sacred cows of the original’s iconic stuff. As one reviewer of the Avengers noted, the original material suffers from time-shifting – characters from the 30s, or even the 60s, are overwhelmingly white, and there aren’t a lot of good roles for women. DC spent a lot of time trying to fix that (go Gail Simone!), then more recently decided to give up on diversity and double-down on the straight white male demographic. But you can only do so much with the originals – Batman will always be a rich white guy with emotional problems. Superman will always be a Christian white guy with traditional values. Captain America, symbol of the nation, will always be a white guy. Wonder Woman will always be a white woman who fights crime with a bathing suit and bondage gear. You can’t change the iconic elements of the character too far before the pop culture zeitgeist pushes back. The expy lets you change things in ways the originals can’t be changed, to tell new, interesting stories.

That’s the background I’m coming from right now.

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