It occurred to me recently that the best, most classic RPG adventures come from a small handful of genres. Fantasy has a dozens of classics, horror has even more, and even science fiction has some fantastic ones, especially if you count the Traveller and Star Wars D6 ones.
One genre that clearly does worse than the others is superheroes. I literally couldn’t think of a superhero adventure that I would think of as being “classic”, one where if you mentioned it to most other TTRPG fans, they’d go “oh yeah, THAT one is great!”
At first I figured that I must be wrong, that surely I was forgetting some classic Champions or TSR Marvel Super Heroes adventures (which is still quite possible). But then I spent a few hours searching reddit and dedicated RPG fan sites… but came up empty. When it came to superhero adventures, I found very little fans were strongly recommending. And then I recalled that years ago, when I ran a long-ish Mutants & Masterminds campaign, I also struggled finding good premade adventures, and mostly relied on my own adventures, with mixed results.
Is the genre cursed? Or, is it just hard to create an amazing superhero adventure, even in an age where we are surrounded by of 30+ Marvel films, a soon-to-be-rebooted DCU, and dozens of high-quality superhero tv shows?
Here’s the answer: creating great superhero adventures is a wicked hard problem. Why?
- Player Characters Are Wildly Different. Most superhero RPGs let players create characters with wildly different powers and abilities. This makes PCs really hard to challenge unless you know the exact composition of their abilities and weaknesses. The wrong villain can turn an entire adventure into a bloody meat grinder… or be defeated in seconds by heroes with certain power combinations. In one game I ran, a thug with a bazooka instantly annihilated someone’s gritty Bucky Barnes character concept, and the next turn the hero with mind control made a plaything out of that same thug. And I knew about these concepts in advance!
- Supervillains Need to Come Back. Key to the superhero genre is that villains are omnipresent. They are around to give villainous speeches, they square off against the heroes, and then they almost always win the first act, forcing heroes to reassemble, regroup, and win against the odds in the end. This is a really difficult narrative to pull off in an RPG. Players either go down fighting, or are too smart to give the villains a convenient escape. No player will make the mistake of not going for Thanos head! You can mitigate this a bit with plate spinning — giving the PCs so many other important objectives that they can’t prioritize the main villain — but you can only do this so many times before the players realize what’s going on.
- Super Action Set Pieces Are Complex. If you think about a typical action scene in a superhero movie, there’s a lot going on. Look at the last two Spider-Man movies — one has several Spider-Men facing off against multiple villains, a collapsing multiverse, several macguffins, and NPCs. The other one has thousands of drones, an illusion-casting villain in Mysterio, a big bridge, and more NPCs to save. That’s a lot for an adventure to set up, not mention very hard for most GMs to run.
When you read this list you start to realize that superhero adventures start to look like those epic, 20th level D&D adventures… which are also exceedingly rare for a reason.
A Bombshell of Tomorrow
This month’s adventure, A Bombshell of Tomorrow, is my first real attempt at a superhero adventure on this site. (I’m not going to count Minutes Not Hours since that mostly played out as a modern action game with some superpowered PCs.)
Nominally set in the DC universe, the heroes are charged with stopped the chronal duplicate of a time travelling Nazi scientist, who may have found the secret to triggering World War III. From a temporal invasion in the city part, to a secret Siberian prison, and then to a hidden base in the Pacific Northwest, A Bombshell of Tomorrow embraces most of those tropes I mentioned above, while trying to ease some of the issues with two philosophies:
Each encounter in the adventure is set up as a sandbox, which means that there are challenges, obstacles, enemies, and complications, but the PCs get to choose how to handle each one. In act one, for example, the PCs must stop a temporal invasion, with time traveling Nazis swarming the city park. There are tanks, bombers, infantry, etc., but the PCs only have to hold their own to win the day. When I played this, my weaker heroes were doing crowd control, saving civilians, and tracking all the German bombers, while the heavy hitters went toe-to-toe with some tanks. There was enough for everyone to do, that it worked. I took a similar approach on the next two acts — infiltrating a hidden Russian prison, and sneaking on to an island to rescue someone before the villain knew what was going on. Each scenario had multiple paths to winning — and I think this is critical to a good superhero adventure.
The Villain Has Duplicates
Okay, this one is a cheat. But I purposely chose a villain who had chronal duplicates running up and down the timestream. This guaranteed that my PCs would encounter him in each act. The first one where he is guaranteed to escape (only because the adventure starts with him mostly off the board), but leaves behind his trail of minions, the second one where the PCs have the rescue a version of him from a Russian prison, and the third one where finally confront him. This guarantees that the supervillain will always be on the player’s minds, and be (likely) impossible for them to defeat early on.
Keeping it Simpler
To make it easier to run, I kept the adventure medium power level — i.e., it’s not really designed for superheroes that can toss buildings. I figured if GMs want to run that kind of adventure, they are probably confident enough in their own ability to scale up the adventure by adding more challenges and supervillains.
Because I enjoy third-rate villains in my one-shots, the GURPS version also includes more Suicide Squad characters, including Killer Moth, Madame Crow, and Zebra-Man. Everybody always fights over Zebra-Man.
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Also, if you think I missed any classic superhero adventures, let me know in the comments below. I would love to check them out.
*By the way, if any Marvel fans ever want to help me port this adventure to the MCU, let me know. I love Marvel dearly, but am not as familiar with the universe to feel like I could get it right.
Related: A supervillain adventure