- Gnome Stew - https://gnomestew.com -

Super Heroes: the Most Narrative Genre?

151947_3953 [1]The supers genre seems fairly straightforward. Discussions of themes and ages aside, most supers games and campaigns follow a fairly standardized set of plot structures. Oddly though, in the unassuming supers game lies some potent forms of player narrative control. Chief among these is the PC origin story.

In the supers origin story, the player generally gets to dictate the way in which the PC gained or discovered their exceptional abilities. More so than any other standard genre, supers origins allow players to completely ignore or shape world cannon. If a player declares that they are a jungle prince from some time lost Pacific isle, it can be assumed there is at least one such place in the world. If the PC is an alien from another planet, obviously such aliens exist. Similarly, a PC that is a sorcerer or is from a benighted demon realm, says volumes about the nature of magic and the cosmology of your campaign.

While it’s completely within the GMs right to nix any potential problem causing origin story: “Sorry, no aliens/magic/demons/whatever in my world buddy!”, in my experience this is rarely done. In cases where the GM finds origin stories difficult to integrate or distasteful they are simply ignored and play continues as normal. Much like the comics never really explore the ramifications of Gamma Radiation (which is used in diagnostic medicine) causing the hulk, you can have a long lasting fun supers game ignoring the interstellar war that spawned one of your player’s PCs.

However, in my mind, this is a mistake. Sure, taking your players’ origin stories and running with them may give your campaign an odd and busy cosmology, but it also gives your game lots of exciting hooks for stories, plot arcs, NPC heroes and villains, and interesting locations and phenomena.

Origin stories and the ramifications thereof are less common in other genres specifically because of this “melting pot cosmology” they imply. In general other campaigns are more closely tied to a concrete setting that doesn’t have the the same kind of flexibility and freedom of suspension of disbelief that supers enjoys, but that doesn’t mean that they can’t exist in other genres on a much smaller scale, or even the same scale if you’re feeling particularly brave.

5 Comments (Open | Close)

5 Comments To "Super Heroes: the Most Narrative Genre?"

#1 Comment By Erpegis On March 16, 2011 @ 2:03 am

There’s nothing that could stop a player from describing “home village” or “home planet”. Heck, given the sheer number of D&D races, classes and other options, even a choice of a class by the hero could mean “this race/class exists in the setting, so do its enemies and allies”.

#2 Comment By Matthew J. Neagley On March 16, 2011 @ 8:47 am

What you say is definitely the case. But in my experience, in fantasy such concerns tend to be handled before character creation, and players who deviate from agreed upon options are either told “not this time”, viewed as troublemakers, or unusual choices face social consequences in the game world, whereas in supers no such strictures are usually in place.

#3 Comment By Roxysteve On March 16, 2011 @ 11:34 am

I think the GM nixing thing is down to the fact that a Supers game tends to be quite local in nature, and adding another dimension, planet or lost island paradise doesn’t seem to “derail” the campaign in the same way adding details of your own to someone else’s finely crafted fantasy world might.

There’s also the “foot in the door” effect – “well, if I let the player invent this huge backstory into my world, what’s to prevent him/her adding so much stuff that it takes over my continent/island/world?”

And there’s always the fact that with Supers the backstory is an established canonical fact of life – all supers have some sort of backstory that matters, or will matter one day.

Your average Ranger’s backstory is either four lines long and regarded as four minutes the player will never get back, or four pages of closely spaced type which no-one but the writer would ever have the stamina to read. Even Aragorn could get on with ferrying Frodo et al around Middle Earth without 90% of his backstory (which was relegated to Appendix A).

#4 Comment By Knight of Roses On March 16, 2011 @ 1:16 pm

Supers in certainly the most all-encompassing genre: wizards, mutants, time-travelers, dimension traveler, martial artists, aliens and on and on. And it generally can be stretched to add in new things almost at will.

IO-9 has a good article on supers:

#5 Comment By Matthew J. Neagley On March 17, 2011 @ 1:54 am

[3] – And I think the concept of the “finely crafted fantasy world” is partially to blame for this. Why do we think we’re crafting some sort of literary masterpiece (which for the record, no one in our group is likely to ever give a shit about) when we “craft” a fantasy world, yet “It’s earth except some stuff is different” is fine for many other genres?