For the past couple of years, my posts here have primarily been scenes I’ve written for my longstanding Pathfinder campaign. Because of some dynamics within the gaming group, we’re taking an extended break. Being a Game Master of a deep and complex story has been soaking up my creative energy for almost three years now, and I suddenly find myself with time and space for something new. I’ve learned over the years that a) I only have room in my brain for one creative project at a time, and b) there must always be a project.
What to do with this fresh, blank canvas? Normally I would turn to superhero fiction, either character sketches in preparation for something ambitious or short, contained stories. But I’ve been loving this tabletop role-playing renaissance in my life, and I’m not ready to fully replace my TTRPG creative space with something entirely non-TTRPG related. The switch from traditional fantasy to superheroes is an easy one, but my grip on my dice bag is white-knuckled and fierce.
Alrighty then. It’s time to turn this blog into a blog.
Superhero Tabletop Role-Playing Games
For as long as I’ve played fantasy TTRPGs – which for me started in middle school back in the 1980s – I’ve played superhero TTRPGs. I’m a lifelong comic book reader, and the opportunity to live those stories was and continues to be a siren’s call.
The first superhero tabletop game, Superhero 2044, followed the more popular Dungeons & Dragons by a mere three years (1977 vs 1974). Since then, for forty-five friggin’ years and counting, a handful of superhero games have continued to regularly pepper the broader role-playing game landscape, nowhere close in popularity but ever-present.
The lack of popularity, by the way, confuses me. Even in our modern age of the Marvel Cinematic Universe dominating cinema and television, superhero games take a backseat to elves and dragons, steampunk industrial fantasy, horror, and futuristic sci-fi. I mean, look at the top graphic from this 2021 analysis, where a superhero game doesn’t even crack the top fourteen Google searches (unless you count small slivers of the Powered By The Apocalypse or Blades in the Dark systems). That same article says that the superhero genre makes up a measly 6% of the broader TTRPG market.
Maybe it’s that simulating superhero action – where traditionally anything can and does happen, full of characters with wildly different power levels – is more difficult than other fantasy genres. Maybe it’s that people want to watch adults dress in spandex, imagine it, but ultimately get embarrassed actively pretending it with friends. I don’t know. For now, the important point here is that, okay, these games aren’t incredibly popular with most people.
To me, though, they’re THE BEST.
Indeed, I have a full cabinet full of superhero TTRPGs I’ve collected over the years. Many I’ve played with friends over the decades, but just as many I’ve only made some characters and wished that I had a gaming group eager to tell superhero stories with me instead of sword-and-sorcery ones. It’s fair to say at this point that I’ll probably never play all the comic book-inspired games that I own.
At some point in the last year, the collector in me started getting curious as to what percentage of the entire superhero TTRPG market I knew, and if there were any new or major publications I’d missed over the decades.
(This sort of side quest, the need to generate a list or framework, is common for me. Heck, two years ago I started compiling a “Favorite 300 Albums” spreadsheet and hope to finish it before Christmas. My brain is a demanding, dissatisfied master.)
The result of my curiosity is this list. Or perhaps I should say THE LIST. It is beautiful and daunting and full of masks… every superhero role-playing game ever published. I’m not saying it’s perfectly comprehensive because every time I dig through the internet, I miraculously find little gems I never knew existed. But I am saying that this list is the most complete list of superhero TTRPGs around.
Basking in Superheroic Glory: A Blog Pivot
Now that I have this wonderous, sparkling list, what do I do with it?!? On its own, it’s cool but not particularly useful. At one point I fantasized about launching a podcast where I walked through each game, systematically looking at what made it special or fun and taking it for a test spin. But the technical start-up costs of a podcast are daunting and not something I’m particularly excited to take on right now.
But you know what I am excited to do right now? Write, baby.
Welcome to my new creative project. I’m going to take some time to explore these superhero role-playing games, one by one. I’m not going to march in order down the list, because wow does that sound like grappling with a lot of archaic, bad games early on. Instead, my intention is to cherry-pick games I either love or that intrigue me, and just generally see where this series goes. Maybe I’ll only write about a small handful of games and feel ready to jump into more fiction writing. Or maybe this list will be satisfying enough to keep going. I’m excited to find out.
We’ll begin next time with a low-key favorite game of mine from high school, often overlooked but utterly delightful. Here’s a hint: I probably should have said “low-key favourite game.”