Friday, September 19, 2014

The Only Exception

Yesterday, I wrote about "The Imaginary Ceiling:" The totally-created-by-me phenomenon wherein an RPG group realizes that nothing it does in a franchise-based campaign (Star Wars, Game of Thrones, etc.) will ever eclipse the original source material, because the source material only exists because of the stories from which it originated.

It was brought to my attention shortly after that there is one fantastic little exception: Marvel Superheroic Role-playing.

In Marvel, you are meant to take on the role of existing Marvel universe superheroes to play the game. At first, because of my belief in the Imaginary Ceiling, I chafed under this idea; I even blasted the book for it in a previous blog entry. But looking back, I see that there is a certain sense to the idea. You see, superheroes aren't just characters. They're icons. Spider-man isn't just Peter Parker, who got bit by a radioactive spider; he's the icon of a working-class, all-American, wise-cracking hero. Batman isn't just Bruce Wayne, trained by the League of Shadows who got his back broken once by Bane; he's the icon of vigilante justice, a person who's entire life is devoted to making crime pay. When it comes to superheroes, the faces behind the masks are only half the equation. Superman isn't just Superman because of the storylines he's been in; he's Superman because he represents something. Because of that, it is possible for a player to step into that role, make it his or her own, and not have it infringe on the source material.

Afterall, the comics themselves do it all the time, right? There are one-offs, non-canon stories, "reboots" that radically recast the characters; it's a tradition in comic books to periodically jump off the main storylines and explore radical tangents. Your table, your players, and your role-playing game can be one such tangent. Therefore, in theory at least, there is no Imaginary Ceiling in superhero role-playing. Every story is valid, because the medium itself is composed of multiple realities.

I'm a little more into DC than Marvel (Batman fanboy), so I can speak more specifically on how well DC comics does this. DC has comic book lines devoted not only to its main superheroes, but non-canonical tangents away from their main storylines. Batman, for example, has a separate comic book line for the Arkham videogames. The entire DC universe has a separate comic line for its MMO, DC Universe Online. So just with one single superhero (or group thereof), DC explores multiple realities simultaneously, all of which can be considered "for real" to one group or another. The same can be said of its tabletop role-playing game, made by Green Ronin Publishing: the stories players create in its game are just as valid as the stories told in its videogames, its TV shows, its movies.

I daresay that perhaps one reason why superhero RPGs are so damn popular are because of their ability to shatter the Imaginary Ceiling. Even in a world where Superman, Batman, and the X-Men didn't exist, there would still be superheroes, and they would inevitably consist of superhuman(alien) protectors of earth; troubled vigilantes with an eternal thirst for serving justice; and mutants with superpowers who try and protect a world that fears and hates them. Comic books are considered modern mythology to some, and just like I wouldn't fear an Imaginary Ceiling in a mythology RPG, I fear no Imaginary Ceiling in a superhero RPG.

1 comment:

  1. I always look at the characters in the games I have run as something a little special, even in settings where they are supposed to be average. The imaginary ceiling for me is where your players characters end up playing second fiddle to other goings on.

    This is difficult to avoid in epic fantasy like Lord of the Rings as you will always be in the wings unable to directly save the world. Saving a village from goblins won't cut it when your players know that someone else is already halfway up Mount Doom and about to save the world.


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