This morning, I had a revelation. I finally broke the enigma of the superhero RPG. I think I can run a fine superhero campaign. I'll talk about it more later, in case my players are reading this...but I'm pretty sure I just stumbled across an idea that's going to be really awesome. And it solves both of my problems with the superhero genre and RPGs.
You see, I have always tended to avoid the superhero RPG. I felt like truly capturing the spirit of one would be difficult, for two reasons. One, my favorite superheroes...Batman, Superman, Spiderman...all work alone. Yes, they have more than their share of affiliations and team-ups, but the fundamental, defining image of these heroes are as outsiders, those who work alone against armies of villians and their henchmen. For me, this is hard to emulate with a group of players, all of whom should ideally be sharing the spotlight together.
The other problem I always run into when thinking about a superhero RPG are the villians. In the comics, a villian serves as the mirror to the hero, more often than not just as complex and formidable a character as their hero arch-nemesis. The Joker. Lex Luthor. Doctor Octopus. Many villians, such as Magneto, are so three-dimensional they even cross the normally-uncrossable lines of good versus evil and can become anti-heroes. This is seldom the case in my role-playing games. In most of my RPGs, the villians are little more than living obstacles the heroes must overcome to succeed at the mission. In my games, usually the prime reason to build a villian up is so that their inevitable defeat at the hands of my players is more gratifying.
I think, in my own heavily-biased opinion, this is why so many superhero RPGs are all about the four-color, "Silver Age" of comic books. Things were simpler then. Heroes were all around good people who worked together with others to beat villians who were all around bad people (or not human at all!) That era of comics gels well with role-playing games. The modern era, with heroes like Spawn and Witchblade and Deadpool, does not work as well. Even the most iconic superheroes that I mentioned above have developed in a different way now, and seeing them getting together with other superheroes to foil some ridiculous, dastardly plot seems anachronistic.I am a fan of the modern comic. I never really cared much for the Golden/Silver/pulpy age of superhero. I like the darkness. I like the moral ambiguity. When asked about their favorite comic, the "gateway" comic that started their love, many comicbook fans will talk about their first time as a kid picking up an old Spiderman or Superman comic. Me? My first real "holy shit this is AWESOME!" moment was when I was about 27 years old. I spent an entire day in Hastings, reading Watchmen. THAT is the comic I think of when I think of comics. THAT is the game I want to run.
And, pretty soon, I may just get that chance...