Many of us here at Critical Hits enjoy comics, especially of the superhero variety. So it’s natural to try and combine our love of roleplaying games with our love of superheroes into one solid package.
Primarily, our experience with superhero games was in GURPS Supers. GURPS is a system we developed a fair amount of experience with, so it seemed natural to build on our previous low point powers and crank up the character points to make ourselves some superheroes. The system also afforded enough flexibility to cover a wide range of characters that we wanted to play, from a super-fast speedster (named, guess what, Speedster) to a powerful hulking brute (The Uncrushable Gronk.) The only concept that GURPS was completely ill-equipped to handle was the Green Lantern archetype. Other than that, our group experimented with a wide range of classic character types, enabled not just by the Supers rules, but any other GURPS books that we needed to fill it out.
Unfortunately, there always seemed to be a wall that our campaigns hit, and has made us reluctant to pick up another superhero game in many years. While discussing the issue and attempting to settle on a new system, The Main Event and I hit on the core of our problem, and we dubbed it “The Professor X Paradox.”
You see, take a typical party. You’re likely to have a wide range of different kinds of heroes in your group. To take some iconic examples, let’s say your party has the Incredible Hulk, Cyclops, and Professor X. Now let’s say, as what often happens in an RPG and in superhero stories, the party gets into a fight. You want to have a challenge for the party members, so you have a brute ala Abomination. Now, for the Hulk, this is an interesting fight. And Cyclops might be able to help out too. But for Professor X, either he’s going to completely take over the Abomination with mind powers and have him pose no threat, or he’s going to get obliterated by one punch from Abomination. Basically, the Hulk’s scale of toughness is so beyond a normal human’s that if you ever have a normal human in the fray, he’s likely to be killed if he happens to get involved in the fray.
Essentially, you’re looking at a rock/paper/scissors situation with most credible threats that you encounter. Yes, this can be mitigated somewhat by having intended opponents square off, but PCs are much less likely to obey narrative causality than try to minmax a fight.
We even have one real example in a game we played in that we like to reference for the problem. It was a superhero game, but with some post-apocalyptic/demonic elements to it. I was the aforementioned Speedster, a super-fast runner who could dodge just about anything thrown at him (except on a critical failure.) Bartoneus was a heavily armored mech pilot (with a talent for traffic analysis.)
Since the mech’s armor was so tough, most threats didn’t stand a chance of harming his character, so the GM started to introduce threats specifically to attack him. One particularly laughable example involved demons with rocket launchers. However, the one that really illustrates the example involves a gaggle of creatures who could accelerate themselves to near light speeds and explode upon impact. The force was enough to be able to blow a hole in the mech’s armor.
That’s not what happened, however. One of them launched itself at Speedster. All I needed to do was dodge, and roll anything but an 18 on 3d6.
Guess what I rolled. Speedster of course didn’t have any kind of armor, toughness, or serious HP, so he was super-fast chunks of goo in no time.
Thus, we’ve encountered the example enough to know that it stymies any attempt to get a superhero game off the ground. We experimented with more flexible and recommended systems like Champions, but it ended up being too complex to get more players onboard. We’ve investigated some other systems that try to address the problem in other ways, like the indie game Truth & Justice. I’ve heard many good things about Mutants & Masterminds, but found myself totally unimpressed with the first edition that I read.
Until we find a system that is simple enough yet addresses “The Professor X Paradox”, the superhero game will remain one of our holy grail campaigns…