In my last post I was talking about the lack of NPC superbeings in the setting of my current Champions campaign and how, for me, this is the exception and not the rule.
Usually my Superhero campaign worlds are practically overflowing with heroes and villains (or at least there's a lot of them).
I seem to be in the minority with this approach to Supers world building as evidenced by some of the responses to said post. It seems a more popular way to go about things, based solely on the responses I've seen, is to make the PC heroes either the only game in town, the only game at all/first game in town or the only ones who fight evil in their chosen venue (they are the Mutant team or the Street Justice team or the Space Team, etc.).
That my worlds are pretty much chock full of superhero NPCs would seem to complicate things and maybe, potentially, steal the PCs' thunder. The focus is always on the PCs I assure you, though the reason for that focus isn't always obvious.
The primary thinking behind having our Supers game universes full of heroes is, quite simply, it reflects modern comics. Both Marvel and DC (at least Pre-New 52) seem to have as many Supers per square mile as New York City has Starbucks. In an attempt to create a sense of continuity and a more unified setting, these heroes team up, join teams and generally guest star in each others book far more than ever. Certainly this trend has resulted in more year long events and crossovers then I recall seeing as a kid. This is the type of Superhero universe my players and I have become accustomed to.
The question is then, "How do you have a game setting chock full of costumed crimefighters and still have the PCs matter or stand out?".
A great question. Here are some possible answers that have worked for me...
New Jack City
The players are the newest heroes in town. Their specific niche is that the old guard is getting old and trying to assemble and train the new breed of young supers to take over for them so they can retire/move on to other projects.
Perhaps a well known psychic or sorcery based hero has foreseen the future and knows that these new heroes will be destined for greatness. This is very effective in Champions and M&M. While the PCs gain XP and become more effective and powerful, the established heroes seem to remain the same. A great in-game excuse for why the PCs improve while in most comic books superheroes don't really seem to get more powerful over time.
Filling Out The Ranks
Possibly viewed as a variant of the above, this next approach is evident in my current Champions game and my previous M&M campaign 'Dynamos Unlimited'. Here, it is assumed that while there may be superheroes more famous and powerful then the PCs at the beginning of the game, they are few and far between.
For example, as I have noted before, New York, the metahuman mecca of most Superhero Comic Book universes, has only about 1 dozen heroes in my Champions setting. New Mexico, Arizona, Texas and Wyoming share about 5-7 heroes. The state of Georgia has three or four. Only California, Illinois and New York have a decent number of heroes, with the LA Based Protectors featuring about 5 members, two or three of which are of significant power. Arkansas has one hero but he's really powerful.
The international scene is similar with the majority of European heroes living in England, Italy and Germany. Even then, Britian has about 7-9 heroes, three of which are very powerful, while the rest have 5 medium to low powered supers at best.
The resulting effect on the setting is that each individual hero feels more important. Sure, Superman may exist in your world but he lives in London and is busy fighting Fomorians when Dr. Madness attacks a small New England town in the USA looking for a lost book of Cthulhu-esque power. Now let's see, where are our heavy hitters? Hmmm...Ms. Mystical is still on the injured list, Capt. Freebird is helping Rebel Star in the South, we need Freeway (the Captain's niece) to stay at the base on monitor duty since she's the fastest and can get to a new problem in no time. That just leaves...the PCs! Good luck gang!
The Right Tool For The Job
Another variant on the above idea is to create the setting's NPC heroes after you build the PCs. So, if no one made an Ice Guy or a Telepath, the Player Characters can easily come into a world whose main team has Snowman and Mind Maiden. You feel me? There are already a number of established heroes but none of them have the PC heroes power sets. This may also may the PCs in high depend. The various Super teams could want the PCs to join them to cover areas they feel they are deficient in.
The Powers That Be
In most Supers games, the PCs start out at a medium power level roughly equivalent to the 80's-90's X-Men or the Wolfman/Perez Teen Titans. However, many games also allow the players to customize their campaign power level by playing starting characters who are slightly more or less powerful then those made by the default character creation rules.
So, start the players slightly more powerful then usual. These guys and gals aren't up and coming superheroes, these are The Avengers and the Justice League. The PCs begin the game as the currently recognized "World's Greatest Super Team". Just be sure to adjust accordingly to maintain the campaign (if long term campaigning is indeed your goal). Slightly less XP per session may prove helpful. Much bigger threats then normal are a must.
These are just a few ideas I have on the subject but I think you get the general objective. Creating a gaming universe that feels like a comic book universe can be tricky but it's not really what I would call hard and it's far from impossible to have your cake and eat it too.
More Super Stuff Coming Up, Up and Away!