Active from 2005 to 2007 and dedicated entirely to system-neutral GMing advice, Treasure Tables was one of the earliest RPG blogs. It was also the precursor to Gnome Stew, so we decided the best way to keep all of its content -- over 750 articles and more than 7,500 comments -- accessible to as many GMs as possible was to move it here, which we did in 2012. Comments are turned off, just they as were when Treasure Tables closed in 2007. The GMing material and discussion archived below was originally featured on TreasureTables.org. Enjoy! --Martin Ralya

This guest post by Patrick Benson (AKA VV_GM) is the second in our Genre Advice for GMs series. In this post, Patrick tackles three ways to make your supers game shine.
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Roleplaying games and comic books go together like bacon and eggs, Elvis and Cadillacs, Super Bowls and Sundays, thirty-sided dice and… Okay, for the record a thirty-sided die doesn’t go with anything, despite the best efforts of many a gaming geek.

Anyhow, a good supers RPG is one of the true delicacies of the gaming world. You can throw in an element from any other gaming genre and it will fit right in to your supers game. The PCs may fight an evil wizard, or team up with androids from the future, or even travel to a dimension where the era of the Wild West never ended.

Very few genres are as open to possibilities as the supers genre, and we wouldn’t have it any other way.

Yet running a supers game requires some unique planning for the GM to really create a memorable gaming experience. Players often have high hopes for their characters right from the beginning of the campaign. You know — defeat evil alien armadas, stop cataclysmic natural disasters and save the world from fiendish doomsday devices all before bedtime.

After all, the whole point of playing a supers campaign is to enjoy being a hero with abilities far beyond that of mortal people! You’ve got to have a game that lives up to that kind of expectation.

Well, here are three tips that will help bring that kind of a kick to your supers game without causing you too much agony as a GM! Read on, and remember to use your newfound powers for good and not evil (not too much evil at least).

1) Balance the abilities of your players’ characters. There is nothing wrong with adjusting a player’s character to better fit the rest of the team, and this especially true in a supers campaign.

If your system uses points for character generation this may not be as big a problem for your campaign, but even with a points system some players design better characters that are simply more powerful than the rest of their team. If your group plays well with this sort of setup then by all means let it ride, but often what happens is that one player becomes the focus of all of the combat and the other players get bored.

There is an easy fix for this, though, that has been used throughout comic book stories for years — make a weaker character more powerful through a character-changing event. Shrinking Girl not powerful enough compared to her teammates Astro Guy and the Fantabulous Bulge? Well, have her get stuck in a particle accelerator during one of the battles and thanks to her amazing shrinking powers not only does she survive, but she emerges with the ability to project herself at will like a shooting neutron!

Is this possible? Who cares? This is a supers game! Just make sure that your players are having fun and the rest will take care of itself.

Note that the opposite approach — making one PC significantly weaker to balance the team — rarely works. Most players feel like they have been cheated in this scenario. Surprisingly, though, it can make for an interesting session if the whole point of the adventure is to restore a PC back to full power.

2) Balance your world with the PCs’ abilities. There is only one way quicker to take the fun out of a supers game than having every villain be more powerful than the heroes combined, and that is to have a world where all of the villains combined wouldn’t stand a chance against any of the heroes.

Batman has his Joker, the X-Men their Magneto, and your PCs need their own arch-rivals. The evil counterpart to their heroic identities is a well known plot device used in many comic books, and for good reason. Nothing makes a hero rise to the occasion faster than a villain worthy of their abilities. Let’s face it, Superman would be a real boring read if he spent all day lecturing jay-walkers.

Give your players challenges that engage their PCs on both a physical and psychological level. Equals not just in might, but also in dedication to their own villainous ideals. Soon your players will look forward to the next time their characters will get a chance to match wits against such villains. You will be doing more than just playing a game, because you will also be building a mythos.

3) Use miniatures for everything when possible. The supers genre is one of the few RPG genres that is truly enhanced by miniatures. While fantasy and other genres are often complemented by miniatures, a supers game is really brought to life by the use of miniatures.

You don’t need to go crazy here and spend tons of money to create a good scene for miniature combat. Many stores have excellent sets of toy cars with small plastic props like street lights, traffic signs, oil drums, and occasionally buildings. Most HO scale model railroad buildings will also do very nicely for supers games.

With the right kind of toy you can have a great one-shot adventure, such as using a large plastic dinosaur toy to represent a rampaging monster attacking a major city. Voila! Your players now have the classic Japanese giant monster movie adventure to play, and only their brave heroes can stop this gigantic beast!

The reason miniatures work so well with supers games is because they inspire the players to try different things. Without miniatures your typical strong guy type character might only attack with his fists, but it sure is tempting to pick up a mailbox to clobber the bad guys with when one is sitting nearby.

Maybe Lady Winter will suddenly have a flash of inspiration in the middle of combat if her controlling player sees a miniature fire hydrant full of water to freeze right there on the game mat. Supers genre games tend to be combat heavy, so don’t fight it but instead encourage it through inventive miniatures play. Your players will soon begin playing at a whole new level.

So whether you have been running a supers game for years or are just thinking of starting one up, remember to keep balance not only amongst your players’ characters but also between the PCs and the villains that they face. This combined with a good battle scene spiced up with simple miniatures can really make the difference between a good supers game and an amazing one!
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I’ve played my share of supers games, but never run one before. Considering Patrick’s tips from the other side of the screen, though, I can see why they would work very well. Thanks, Patrick!

What do you do differently when running a supers game? What are your favorite sources of alternate supers minis? Have you ever balanced a character with a particularly cool in-game event?

About  Martin Ralya (TT)

"Martin Ralya (TT)" is two people: Martin Ralya, the administrator of and a contributor to Gnome Stew, and a time traveler from the years 2005-2007, when he published the Treasure Tables GMing blog (TT). Treasure Tables got started in the early days of RPG blogging, and when Martin burned out trying to run it solo he shut it down, recruited a team of authors, and started Gnome Stew in its place. We moved all TT posts and comments to Gnome Stew in 2012.



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4 Responses to Three Tips for Running Memorable Supers Games

  1. Wow, I’d never have considered miniatures important to Supers games… but if they have the effect you’re mentioning (encouraging use of terrain and props), it sounds like something I should investigate.

    What do you do about the impact of super powers existance on a world? Do you hand wave it in general (like, the cool robot PC’s capabilities are way beyond today’s mainframes, but no one else has super-smart super small technology)? Or do you try to ripple the effect– so the robot PC implies there are companies, and cell phones are powerful enough to hack the pentagon?

  2. Like I said in the post, start off using toy car sets that you can find in most stores. I personally like the Kid’s Connection line at WalMart. The sets usually include small figures (perfect for civilians and minor crooks), various vehicles, assorted props (street lights, signs, etc.), and maybe a simple structure/building all for about $10 or less. Of course the model railroad buildings are much better, but they are much more expensive as well for what you get, although occasionally you can get a great deal on them.

    As for the impact of super powers on the world’s existence, well that is the same as the topic of magic’s impact on the world’s existence (check out the 9/5/2006 post “Making Magic in Fantasy RPGs” by tsuyoshikentsu).
    If you are emulating your favorite comic book universe then that will decide how pervasive super powers are into everyday life. You can have the middle ground which is similar to what the DC and Marvel universes are like. The technology that you describe is not common in those universes, but from a universe viewpoint the same technology is not impossible nor is it undiscovered.

    Then you can have the two extremes, both represented very well in Allen Moore’s modern classics Watchmen and Top Ten.
    In Watchmen, there is only one being who actually has super powers and all of the other heroes/villains are actually mortal human beings. There the appearance of this one super person changed everything, including technology and global politics.

    In Top Ten, everyone has either super powers or highly advanced technology and the cops at precinct 10 have to deal with all of the headaches that come with that sort of population. Yes, the police also have super powers and highly advanced technology, but they are still “everyday” people when off duty.

    So as the Gm you should decide at the beginning just how “super” those powers really are. Does the local police department have a special unit dedicated to enforcing the law amongst the Supers population? Or do they cringe in fear when one of those god-like beings strolls into town? Both of these situations are totally your call.

    In the end, my only advice on this matter is to do what feels right with your particular style of GMing but to be consistent with that decision. If the local grocery store has a robot serving the customers, don’t say that the Army is years away from developing laser rifles. If every town has a super hero, don’t have everyday citizens suffer a nervous breakdown when one of your PCs flies by. Get a good rhythm going with the game and don’t change it unless it is part of the story.

  3. Walt C

    One thing that sets a typical Supers game apart is the use of colorful costumes. Unfortunately, unless you are using established heroes and villains (or no costumes), it can be problematic to describe outfits to the players.

    Toward that end, I use the HeroMachine a lot to generate costumed heroes and villains. You can get the 1.0 version free, but I’d recommend purchasing 2.0.

    For secret identities and non-super NPCs I cast real actors and actresses in the roles (something I prattled on about in a previous post).

  4. Supers games are great fun. In the one I played we used lego people as regular people in the city, a carboard construction paper set of a cityscape, and paper cutouts of heromachine characters for the superheroes.

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