We've played role-playing games in which we were post-apocalyptic mutants, Cold War secret agents, ghosts, medieval mice, and even, you know, wizards and stuff. But we haven't played a superhero RPG since ancient Champions times—so we're excited to have Jon Leitheusser as a special guest at Slog Game Night this Friday at Raygun Lounge.
Something we’d love your take on is how the evolution of comics have influenced RPG design since the first-gen superhero games in the '80s, like Villains and Vigilantes. Were there parallels with the dark/gritty/testosterone-damaged comics of the '90s, for example? And what comics writers/titles are you drawing inspiration from now, beyond just settings and characters?
As comics have changed, so have super-hero RPGs. Both are reflections of the culture as a whole, so when comics went the grim-and-gritty route, so did super-hero RPGs. In the early days, when Villains & Vigilantes was the only supers RPG around, it was strongly influenced by Silver Age and Bronze Age comics. The same is true of the old Marvel Super-Heroes RPG, but that was much more solidly based in the Bronze Age, with its focus on Marvel characters like the '80s X-Men.
When comics moved into the Iron Age (or Dark Age, depending on who you ask), Champions led the way with Dark Champions, which focused on gun-toting vigilantes. Since its debut, Mutants & Masterminds has drawn more inspiration from books like Kurt Busiek's Astro City, with its slightly retro style and desire to evoke a sense of wonder. Within that sort of setting, we're able to tell stories from any of the various Ages of comics.
M&M uses a version of the d20 System. Where do you guys see it fitting into super-RPG history (obviously, other than it being the acme)? Was it designed to correct or improve on its forebears/competitors?
M&M actually grew out of the Freedom City setting. Steve Kenson, the designer of M&M, had originally pitched and written Freedom City as a supplement for Hero Games' Champions roleplaying game. For whatever reason, the publisher had to back out and Steve went to Chris Pramas, the owner of Green Ronin, to see if he wanted to publish it. Chris said, basically, if you can design me a super-hero game that uses the Open Gaming License, then we'll talk. Steve was skeptical such a thing was possible, but he tinkered for a while, then came back to Chris with what became Mutants & Masterminds.
As for improving on its forebears, that's subjective, but we think it works pretty well because it combines solid, crunchy rules with good character-focused stories with a lot of action.
Do you find most of your fans coming from comics, RPGs, or both?
That's a good question. I don't really know the answer, but my guess is that you have to be a fan of both. There are some people who love comics, but don't "get" roleplaying games. And there are some people who love RPGs, but don't like comics for whatever reason. However, I think both groups would enjoy M&M if they gave it a try. The rules will be familiar to most gamers, while the characters and concepts will be familiar to most comics fans—except this time they get to create their own heroes and have their own adventures.
M&M has a cool point system, with the GM basically level-setting the heroes and villains for a wide variety of campaign flavors. Was there a particular design philosophy behind that? Do you see a lot of different power levels in fan campaigns, or are there favorite sorts of ways to play?
Because of the wide, wide range of power levels in comics, Steve wanted to set a standard by which characters could be judged against one another. That way when you start a game, the GM can set a power level and despite how different the characters might be, they're all roughly comparable in terms of ability. Most previous super-hero RPGs didn't use this sort of structure, so characters built on the same number of points could be wildly differing in power. We wanted to address that imbalance and the power level mechanic is how we do it.
We see our fans run games that run from relatively low power all the way up to cosmic-level games. We love to see that sort of diversity and are happy everyone is able to find a style of play they like within the rules. There's a very different feel to a power level 6 game than a power level 12 and some people like to experiment with that at their game table. That said, I think most games out there start at the "normal" power level 10 and progress from there.
You guys have done a lot of web-based supplements. How do those relate to your paper-based products? Are they for different audiences, and/or is it just providing more ways into the game? What's most popular, and where do you think RPGs in general are headed, between books, PDFs, etc.?
The Threat Reports, Power Profiles, and Gadget Guides of the last few years, along with the Atlas of Earth-Prime, which we're doing this year allowed us to do a number of things. First, when the third edition of M&M came out, we wanted to supply GMs with villains they could use in their games, so we started releasing a new villain in PDF form every week for a year. The following couple of years, we wanted to delve into the mechanics of creating characters and give players more information on how to build powers and gadgets. This year, with the Atlas of Earth-Prime, we wanted to move beyond the United States and tour the rest of the world. In all these cases we're able to get new product out to people on a regular basis for relatively little money (each PDF only costs a dollar or two) and then at the end of the series, we collect all the entries into a book that comes out the following year. So far this approach has worked well. That said, we re-evaluate it every year to make sure people are still responding well to the PDFs and that they're worth the time and effort. As long as we can keep coming up with good ideas for these series, we'll keep doing them, but that doesn't mean we'll do them every year no matter what. We want to make sure there's demand for whatever we produce.
Can you tell us about Emerald City and Earth Prime, and how it fits into the current game? Is it a good place to start for people new to the game?
Emerald City was designed to be a setting into which you and your friends could create characters to be the heroes of the city. Unlike New York City or Freedom City, it isn't the home base for a passel of heroes. Instead, it didn't really have any heroes, but it also didn't really need them until recently when the Silver Storm tore through downtown and randomly transformed people into super-powered powerhouses! When that happened, a whole new crop of villains and heroes appeared on the scene and caused some big changes to the city. Now, Emerald City is recovering from the Silver Storm disaster and desperately in need of heroes to stand up to bad guys who seem to be crawling out of the woodwork.
Earth-Prime is the setting for both Emerald City and Freedom City. It's the world in which all the stories take place. It's like the real world except for the presence of super-powered people who dress up in tights, aliens, dimensional wanderers, avatars of the gods, and just about any other bit of weirdness you might encounter in a comic book. Sounds kind of perfect to me!
The Stranger Testing Department is Rob Lightner, Paul Hughes, and Mary Traverse.