"Here I come to save the day!"
Take a few rugged men and a few voluptuous women. Dress them up in tight spandex and flowing capes. Give them semi-ridiculous names like The Winter Frost Man or The Hammering Hamster and bizarre powers far beyond the reach of normal humans, like the power to shoot lightening bolts from their eyes or the ability to stack thirty seven Oreos before the tower collapses - and Walla, you have yourself a brand new Super-Heroic campaign fresh out of the box. Well, not exactly.
As the previous paragraph demonstrates, it really isn't that difficult to create a super-heroic campaign setting. However, it is extremely difficult to create a good super-heroic campaign. With so many options and so many generic conventions to be inspired by, it is easy, perhaps too easy to get lost in the thicket of your ideas, and to lose track of where you wanted to stir your campaign.
In this article I will attempt to provide an overview of some of the building blocks of a good super-heroic campaign, alongside some classic mistakes and the ways to avoid them.
However obvious this piece of advice may seem, I cannot stress it enough. Even though your campaign deals with super-powers and super-heroes, nothing could be more boring than to play characters who's powers' know no limits. Decide in advance what the general power level of the characters should be, and what this relative power-level means in the campaign world. Are normal humans like insects in comparison to the characters, or could the mightiest super-villain be subdued by a well-equipped S.W.A.T team?
As a short glance through the shelf at your neighborhood comic store will prove, super-powers can originate from a variety of different sources, from alien physiology, through genetic mutations, advanced technology, intense training or even magic. As in most genres, and perhaps even more than in other genres, the temptation to throw anything and everything into your campaign is great, but you should resist it. One or two types of powers should be enough for any reasonable campaign. Too many types of powers make the campaign setting look like a shapeless and pointless mash of elements. Even in the campaign settings where almost any plausible type of power exists, each storyline concentrates on one or two main types of powers. For example, The Marvel Universe features powers that originated from their character's alien ancestry, from genetic mutations (both born and acquired), from super-advanced technology, from magic, from intense training and even from the writer's private jokes. However, almost all the characters in the X-Titles have super-human powers due to the fact that they are mutants, whereas most of Spider-Man's foes are either equipped with extremely advanced technology or have altered their physical structure using such technology.
It is a classic mistake to think that the super-heroic genre is all about super-powers. Just like a good science fiction novel isn't all about advanced technology and a good fantasy novel isn't all about with magic, a good super-heroic campaign isn't all about super-powers - It's all about the characters. Only these specific characters have super-powers.
It is important to define what exactly the relations between the different types of powers in your campaign are, both in regard to power level and in regard to the abilities themselves. For example, in my current campaign every mutant power can be imitated by technological means, but the imitation would be less powerful than could be achieved by a mutant power. On the other hand, using a mutant power exhausts the character, whereas using a technological device would leave him as fresh as an advertisement for sugar-free chewing gum.
Moreover, you should define the relations between the characters who wield these powers - do the characters who use technological devices fear mutants for their ability to naturally do things that a normal human would need millions of dollars worth of equipment to do, or do they admire them and try to imitate them because of it? Of course the decisions you make won't force the players' characters, but you need to define the rule in order to have exceptions.
Even more important than defining the relationships between the characters who use different types of powers, is to define the attitude of the "normal" public to those characters. Are the characters perceived as heroes? As role models? Or as dangerous genetic deviants who should be hated and feared?
Note that the answers you will give to the questions presented in this paragraph will be directly influenced by the relative power of the super-powers in your campaign and by their scarcity, or lack thereof, in the general public. If there are no more than one or two super-heroes per city, the campaign's society probably wouldn't differ much from our own. However, if one of five children is born a mutant with superior strength, dexterity and constitution, it's hard to imagine that society at large won't be affected - from separate mutant sport's leagues in the more enlightened countries, establishments denying service to mutants in the less enlightened countries or even a declaration of independence by a certain group of mutants, everything goes. If X-Ray Vision a la Superman were common in the campaign setting each lawyer's practice and each government office would be lead-plated, and so on.
Another point that deserves your consideration is the way the law treats super-powers in your campaign. Does pursuing a super-heroic career require a special license (like being a detective does, for example), or does the police exhibit zero tolerance towards citizens who take the law into their own hands? Is the use of super-powers equivalent to the use of fire-arms, and is it regulated by any laws?
The thing to remember is that super-powers are not a separate issue from the design of the rest of the world, but a chief factor of it.
I'll end this article with a quote - "Good artists copy. Great artists steal". The first time I encountered this quote was in an article by Steve Jobs, but considering its contents, I wouldn't be surprised if it isn't his originally.
Our world is full of great sources of inspiration - comics, books, movies, TV series, etc. Don't be afraid of using good ideas simply because you didn't invent them.
This article first appeared in issue #10 of The Orc.