How to Build a Superhero

Front_cover,_-Wow_Comics-_no._38_(art_by_Jack_Binder)How to build a super hero

Super heroes are having a moment. DC is finally stepping up their movie game (even as DC properties dominate TV this fall), while Marvel is answering many a fan girls prayers by launching the Agent Carter series this winter (and of course there’s the rumor that the Civil War story will come to the big screen… still before a Black Widow movie). Here on Fandible, we just finished posting our latest Rotted Capes adventure, and that game is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to superheroic role playing games.

Playing a super hero is very different from watching one on TV. Below are my top three tips for building your own super hero character.

1. As a group, agree on the power level.

Billy and I are on record in favor of playing the lowest powered heroes possible.That’s why in Rotted Capes, his powers are capped without his twin sister around and I went out of my way to create a non-powered hero. But power level isn’t only about what your character can do physically, it’s about what stories can be told in this universe.

Look at the wide variety of Batman movies, from Adam West to George Clooney to Christian Bale. All of those men have played Batman, and his abilities have even stayed consistent over the decades. What has changed is the scope of the stories, the power level of Gotham City itself. It used to take four campy villains in bad makeup to challenge spandex-clad Batman. 40 years later, Batman has years of martial arts training and is wearing body armor to fight a shrink with some bad drugs. Same character, different power level.

2. Your super identity isn’t your only identity

Defining super powers is super fun, I won’t lie. But for some of the most memorable heroes, it’s only when we know the person behind the mask that the story starts getting good. Spider-Man’s wit is more endearing when we know about the troubles Peter Parker has making rent. Kamala Khan’s self-insert fan fic keeps her relatable to us normal folk even after she becomes Ms. Marvel. And would Mr. Incredible have stayed so incredible if he hadn’t been family man Bob Parr for so long? All of these details make these larger-than-life characters relatable with a without cosmic powers. Even if your superhero RPG is going to focus on caped crusading, the some time to sketch out an outline of what your character does (or did) when the mask comes off, so you always have an easy, relatable, human detail to draw upon for plot hooks and role playing needs.

3. Weaknesses don’t make you weak

I don’t necessarily mean something as character- nerfing as kryptonite, the most famous superhero weakness, here. A (not-so) rare element that completely neutralizes you isn’t a weakness so much as a potential GM fiat for removing you from play when your powers may destroy the plot. Weaknesses don’t have to make you physically less powerful; instead they should be another layer in developing your super identity. From the obvious compulsions of addiction to the terrible forced love triangle that has burdened any filmed scene between Wolverine and Jean Grey, a weakness or personality flaw is another way to inject humanity into a character who is, almost by definition, larger than life.

And a special bonus tip to consider when designing your superhero character:

4. Costuming

No Capes

(I couldn’t resist!)

While I consider these important character definition tips, they’re certainly not the only way to build a superhero. What your #1 tip for creating a superhero?


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About the Author
A city girl with midwestern roots, Angela has been on the internet for far too long. A geek of many stripes, when Angela isn't pretending to be a different person every weekend she can be found reading, writing (that novel will come out some day!), or preparing for her eventual life as a crazy cat woman. Angela also blogs about gaming at the blog Gaming as Women http:///www.gamingaswomen.com

9 comments on “How to Build a Superhero

  1. Arlene M says:

    No loners! Even Batman works as part of a team in many titles. In a game, unless it’s a one-player game, loners don’t work. Secretive? Fine. Mysterious? Sure. Laconic? No problem.
    Won’t work with others? That’s a problem.

  2. Jamie Searle says:

    6. Give some thought as to the source of your powers. Even whilst JJJ was doing his best to destroy Spidermans reputation Peter didn’t suffer from the public hatred that mutants do. Superman never gets deactivated like The Vision does, even though they both spend most of their time flying around being strong (OK, I get they bothe do more than that). It’s not the be all and end all however, Iron Man, Batman and Green Arrow are all really similar at a base level, but what they do with their ‘powers’ takes them in pretty different directions.

    Great article, thanks.

  3. Brian says:

    There is a RPG I think is cool called BASH! which has a mechanic that lets characters of different power levels work on the same team. It’s similar to the thing in the old Buffy game where the low powered characters would get points where they could fudge die rolls and affect the plot.

  4. Hopeless says:

    How about;
    7) If you’re already part of a team how do you relate to each other, what are your eccentricities such as do you occasionally get mistaken for another PC’s girl/boyfriend/partner?

    8) Background for example do you have a mentor or embarrassing secrets like being related to the mob (original Huntress not Bruce Wayne’s daughter), failed sports star (Booster Gold) and how does that relate to the campaign or game (Huntress being street level and Booster… being Booster!)

    9) One actual play podcast talked about one player not wanting to give his gm anything that could be used against his character whilst another who did so and it came into effect (Ghosts of Reignsborough actual play) when the fearful player pointed out why he did that the other player mentioned it was also why he provided those details!
    Wouldn’t you rather have something for your character to relate to rather than being some generic crime fighter?

    Great article!

  5. Chuck says:

    I love superhero RPG play. I always try to keep in mind the hero part of that, heroes overcome. They may not always win, but they will overcome something, a bad day, an evil mentor, the old girlfriend, the crashing space station. They have something heroic outside of their powers.

    Embrace the tropes, squeeze them till they shatter and warp. Yes, even the occasional cape and outside underwear.

  6. Thelastarchitect says:

    I’ve played a lot of Superhero RPGs, I mean a /lot/, to the level of Billy’s OWoD Vampire knowledge, and I have to say the avenues to make fun super heroes are nearly limitless. Two things I think can help though are ‘Try to be a part of the World’ and ‘Don’t be afraid to steal’.

    I formerly ran, for several campaigns, a Superhero setting via PBP games where several games took place in the same setting concurrently. Many players interconnected backstories across games leading to cross game team ups on rare occasions but also making the world seem more ‘solid.’ A super hero setting can often feel like a amorphous ‘all in’ type world but by linking backstories or using elements already extant in your setting you can really make the universe feel unique and fleshed out while also giving the GM a lot of great story opportunities.

    Another note is that a player shouldn’t be afraid to feel like they’re ‘stealing’ the concept of an existing hero. With the thousands of powered peoples published in just Marvel and DC alone most concepts have been through the ringer and enjoyment should always be a more important target than originally. The important point is to tilt the concept enough that the character has a space for you to make it your own. Also some really interesting stories can be told by just shifting a popular concept a little to see it in a new light.

  7. Nate says:

    I agree with Arlene – no Lone Wolves!

    Also, and maybe this is just my style, but embrace everything that comic book superheroics offers. Whether you’re playing it straight, subverting Moore-style, or kind of doing both a la Morrison, use it all. There is a wealth of pathos, gonzo silliness, social commentary, etc. etc. etc. that you can mine from the superhero mythos.

    The one thing I’ve had trouble with (apart from actually getting a game going, lately!) is getting people to put aside the “gamey” objectives (beat the bad guys, level up) and embrace the “comic booky” staples (loved ones getting captured, the hero getting captured, the bad guy escaping at the end.) Surely there’s a middle ground, I guess.

  8. Syren says:

    Down at the Syren online land of roleplays we feel it is vital on all roleplaying games to do this, but it has a special place in Superhero games.

    Figure out your tone. There is a degree of acceptable bleedover that you can get between the ages of comic books, but at a certain point if one of them happens to overpower the others things can be bad for anyone who isn’t a part of that group. As a child of the 90’s I am fond of my anti-heroes and moral uncertainty, and if you are the ONLY morally unstable person in a bunch of goody two shoes golden age pulpsters you may find yourself only a few steps off from the antagonist at some point.

    And if unlike me you can’t make that fun, then even worse. Being the one person with moral fibre in a group can also be pretty horrifying the first time team pragmatism does what they had to do for the greater good. Figuring out where the tonal balances come from can be incredibly vital since super heroes mean so many things to so many people. A total motley crew or a unified attitude is usually required.

    Tone of the setting is also pretty notable, you can be the campy sort of pulp that always has the bad guy being just kinda…strange. Where Nazi’s are bad mostly because we say they are, and many of the nameless mooks you punch out go to jail.

    Or you can force your characters to feel bad for every single NPC they find as they learn the greater tragic details behind every crime they stop, or delve into the horrors of monsterousness that hits a bit close to home. People want different things from their roleplays and because of how diverse the genre is superheroes can tackle so damn much.

    So yeah. Tonetonetone.

  9. Lucek says:

    A lot of super heroes (and heroes in fiction in general) forget why you wear a cape/cloak. It’s not there to go woosh while you run. People wore them for reasons. It hides the lines of your figure, it hides your hands, it is easy to twist of throw to cape for a faint, and it is warm. In short a cape is a useful piece of kit for someone skulking around in the cold looking for a fight.

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