When it comes to superheroes, gamers are spoiled for choice in the realm of roleplaying games. Dozens of games provide unique variations on the theme.
Roleplaying games, or RPGs, come in many different flavors, with wide variations in rules. Some fall under a category known as simulationist, where the rules are geared toward simulating details of the real world as closely as possible; these games tend to have rules for details like distance (“range”), how much a character can carry (“encumbrance”), and are somewhat infamous for the amount of math and tables of data for players and game masters to use as reference. Many older RPGs tend to fall under the simulationist umbrella, having taken their inspiration from the granddaddy of RPGs, Dungeons & Dragons.
Many newer RPGs have begun to gravitate toward what is known as the narrativist category, particularly in the realm of superhero RPGs. Narrativist game rules emphasize storytelling over details like encumbrance. This isn’t to say that simulationist games eschew storytelling; far from it. Narrativist games are designed to simplify rules regarding the world the story takes place in, allowing greater flexibility for players and game masters to focus on the story that the group is creating in their game sessions.
Ultimately, the decision on which type of game style, and which specific ruleset, to use is a matter of personal preference that players and game masters must settle as a group. None are necessarily better or worse, and each offers a unique set of advantages and disadvantages.
One of the oldest superhero roleplaying games on the market, Champions has seen many changes and refinements since its introduction in 1981. The first edition did not include its own unique setting until the second edition, and that was quickly populated by pastiches of familiar heroes and villains from Marvel and DC comics. The Champions system provided minute details on powers, vehicles, weapons, and more. It used multiple six-sided dice, known as d6. As new supplements and editions wer released, the rules grew more complex, resulting in the development of the “Hero System,” a universal RPG ruleset designed to handle not just superheroes, but also fantasy, science fiction, and more. The game is currently in its sixth edition, which was released in 2010, and it continues to thrive. [Amazon]
FASERIP is a retroclone of the original Marvel Super Heroes RPG from 1984. A retroclone is a new game created to emulate the game mechanics of an older game that is out of print. Taking its name from a term associated with the original game, FASERIP is an acronym drawn from the character abilities: Fighting, Agility, Strength, Endurance, Reason, Intuition, and Psyche. FASERIP is a percentile-based system, with character abilities expressed as percentages, and it uses two 10-sided dice, known collectively as d100, where one of the two d10s represents the tens digit and the second represents the ones digit; a roll of 1 and 6 would be 16, while a roll of two zeroes would be 100, rather than 0.
While not an independent game in its own right, GURPS Supers is an expansion for the GURPS RPG rules that allow for superheroic gaming. GURPS is a universal system, which means it is designed to support multiple story genres; the name itself is an acronym for Generic Universal RolePlaying System. GURPS is well-known, and in some circles infamous, for its high degree of emphasis on simulating reality through dice rolls and statistics. GURPS Supers, first published in 1989, favors lower-powered heroes over more the godlike heroes like Superman. The current version, for the Fourth Edition of GURPS, was published in 2007. [Amazon]
First released in 1984, Heroes Unlimited marked the expansion of Palladium Games into superheroes. Like all of their games, Heroes Unlimited uses the Palladium System originally developed for the fantasy game that gave the company, better known for its RIFTS line of science fiction/fantasy games, its name. Like GURPS, the Palladium system uses multiple d6s and has a high degree of simulation through dice rolls and statistics. [Amazon]
Mutants & Masterminds
Mutants & Masterminds was first released in 2002 by Green Ronin Games, and is currently on its third edition. It is based on the D20 system from Wizards of the Coast, which was originally created for Dungeons & Dragons. The D20 rules, which utilize 20-sided dice, or d20, were heavily modified for Mutants & Masterminds, eliminating character classes and encumbrance, and introducing the concepts of Hero Points and a greatly revised skill list. Many settings have been created for the game since the original Freedom City, including an adaptation for DC Comics, DC Adventures. [Amazon]
An ENnie Award nominee for best rules in 2010, BASH! (an acronym for Basic Action Super Heroes) was first published in 2005, and the second “Ultimate” edition was published in 2009. Characters are differentiated by Character Scale, which can range from a teenage hero first discovering their powers to a cosmic hero defending the universe. The game uses two six-sided dice, or 2d6, for gameplay.
Based heavily on the FATE system, ICONS uses modified d6 rolls instead of FATE dice. The game is minimalist enough that a character’s Abilities, Specialties, Powers, and Qualities can fit on a 3×5” index card. First released in 2010, the game was adjusted and a second edition, known as the “Assembled Edition,” was released in 2014. The game features a loose original universe, populated by a number of pastiches of popular Marvel and DC characters. [Amazon]
Marvel Heroic Roleplaying
Based on the Cortex Plus system, Marvel Heroic Roleplaying was the fourth RPG set in the Marvel Comics Universe, and was published in 2012 by Margaret Weis Games, but they declined to renew the license just a year later in 2013. The system was geared simply to determine the outcome of a situation, placing the focus of the game heavily on narrativism, and the game was designed to be “event driven,” with a supplement based on a major event from the comic books, Civil War. The system used multiple dice, including four (d4), six (d6), eight (d8), ten (d10), and twelve-sided (d12) dice, which formed the game’s dice pool mechanic. This was countered by a “Doom Pool” used by the game master, called a Narrator. The game won multiple ENnie and Origins Awards for 2012 and 2013, including Best Rules, Best Game, and Product of the Year. [Amazon]
Supers!, released in 2010 by Hazard Studio, with a revised edition in 2014, is a d6 based system that allows for creation of heroes ranging from low-level street heroes to high-powered heroes that deal with interplanetary threats. Rather than featuring abilities like Strength or Endurance, the game utilizes resistance ratings in Composure, Fortitude, Reaction and Will, and focuses more on aptitudes, powers, and a system of advantages and disadvantages.
Tiny Supers, released following a Kickstarter in 2019, uses the minimalist Tiny D6 system. Tiny D6 has no abilities like Strength or Agility as most other RPGs do, focusing instead on powers and skills. As a result, a character’s information can easily fit on a 3×5” index card. The game features an original setting, the Gallantverse (named for publisher Gallant Knight Games), and a tie-in comic book, Sentinel Force Prime #0, was recently released.