Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Character Improvement In A Comic Book World

What I am about to say would seem to go against the accumulated genius of two of Superhero gaming's brightest and most experienced minds. I could be looked at as a fool, a heretic or simply a madman. This is nothing new for me. I disagree with genius all the time. Just ask Zak.

Today is different though, for today I openly disagree with not just Genius but Super-Genius! And not just one Super-Genius mind you but two Super-Geniuses!

Steve Kenson is, for all intents and purposes, a living legend in the RPG industry and a master of the Superhero RPG in particular. At 43 (as of this writing - the same age as yours truly), he was worked on nearly every major Superhero game system out there including Aberrant, Champions, Marvel Super Heroes and Silver Age Sentinels. He is the creator of both Mutants & Masterminds for Green Ronin and ICONS for Adamant Entertainment.

Cam Banks is the Creative Director for Margaret Weis Productions and the creator of the innovative and awesome Marvel Heroic Role Playing Game, which uses a version of MWP's Cortex System.

I want to begin by saying both of these men are brilliant. These guys have talent up the yin yang and I love their work.

Deep breath now...

Both have noted, at one time or another in the recent past, that in the Superhero genre...actually...specifically in comic books, Superheroes rarely increase in power or improve in the way most role playing game players expect. That is, unlike a typical D&D character who gains more hit points, new abilities and better skills as they raise in level, the comic book Superhero really doesn't change that much over time.

Oh sure, they may dramatically change for a short period of time, such as gaining a new costume or receiving an alternate set of powers because of the current storyline but generally speaking, character improvement of the type we gamers come to expect is rare. Characters seem to change horizontally but they don't often climb vertically.

This is reflected in ICONS to some extent but much more so in Marvel Heroic. There really aren't major rules for improvement of a character's abilities, although there is definitely experience point awards as obtained through personal or plot generated 'Milestones'. These can be used to buy new powers sets (swapping out an old one for a new, alternative one) or make certain minor improvements.

After all, Spider Man, Superman and Iron Man haven't really changed since their first appearances.

Spider Man always spun webs, had spider sense and was pretty bright.

Superman always flew, had super strength and heat vision.

Iron Man's armor hasn't really improved or changed in capacity in the last 45+ years.



Spider Man failed to save Gwen Stacy when she fell from the George Washington Bridge because the way in which he attempted to catch her (webbing her leg) was insufficient to prevent her neck from snapping at the height and speed she fell from.

These days, we've seen Spidey (numerous times recently) spin massive web 'nets' and catch literally tons of falling debris to prevent it from crushing the citizens below. It would seem he has become more adept at the use of his webbing. He is more experienced and skillful.


Initially, Superman couldn't fly. Rather, he leaped tall buildings in a single bound. His massive jumps were pseudo-scientifically explained as similar to a Grasshopper or other insect leaping many time it's height do to his vast strength and gravitational differences between Earth and Krypton.

Created in 1938, Superman would not have heat vision until 1949. His X-Ray vision was used in one story to melt ice. By 1951 he gained heat rays from his eyes dubbed heat vision that were clearly separate from his X-Ray vision.

Super Breath, Ice Breath, Super Hypnosis, Super Ventriloquism - For a time it seemed like Superman had a new power every issue. When I one brought this up to my friend and Champions mentor Will he explained it quite simply, "He was saving up his XP. Then he started spending it and he bought new powers."


Iron Man's current armor has a force field. I have been an Iron Man fan since the David Michelinie/Bob Layton days (beginning 1978) and when I saw this recently I was like, "Wow." His armor was also unaffected by the magnetic powers of Magneto in their recent tussle in Avengers Vs. X-Men. I remember them meeting in the past and Magneto messing up the Golden Avenger.


These aren't just isolated examples. While some characters might stretch the point more than others, I think it's both apparent and relevant to say that there is considerable evidence within comics to show that Superheroes do indeed improve. Therefore, a desire and need for them to improve in a role playing game is not outside of the genre as it is presented in its source medium.

I would also point out that we are not creating comics, we are running games. Gamers, more often than not, like to see rewards for their efforts. The feel and atmosphere for a Supers game should definitely reflect what you get from your favorite comic books but in the end it is an RPG. The PCs don't often get paid, they don't kill Capt. Cold and steal his Ice Ray Pistol or anything like you'd expect to get points, magic or specialty items or similar rewards for. Experience points are pretty much the one and only key way of saying, "Thank you Super Person! Job well done."

Barking Alien


  1. While I understand where you're coming from (and may offer a different tack by the end of this comment), I have to largely disagree with your points. (Oh no!)

    The examples you give are good ones, but the improvements made to the characters occured on an extremely slow scale RPGs just don't operate under (Iron Man being the fastest grower, but that's really part of his concept as an avatar of progress). And your theory doesn't take into account when some of these characters were actually set back (Superman in the 70s, for example, had his powers scaled back sans reboot).

    Not to say they don't improve in ability and circumstance (the latter is a big part of Supers stories that shouldn't be ignored... Spider-Man today is working for Horizon Labs, a huge step up from being JJJ's cabin boy), but when they do so, it's a STORY LINE and not strictly a measure of experience. The next story may well have them crash and burn and drop even lower. If you're attempting to simulate superhero comics (the source material), then you have to take these things into account.

    I've personally run more supers sessions than I can count, with different groups and players, and the lack of traditional advancement (read: Leveling) was never a problem. When a player wanted to make a change in his or her core concept, we started to ramp up some subplot that would act as a quest for new powers, new status quo, etc. which would be balanced by the use of Hero Points (or whatever XP mechanic was in the game). Most players would simply enjoy their core concept and simply use the XP as story points (whatever mechanic allowed points expenditure to temporarily boost abilities during a session). The better games for me were the ones that allowed heroes to push their limits, create happy accidents, etc. as in the comics. These are rewards, just not necessarily permanent rewards.

    Mutants & Masterminds (slash DC Adventures) has enough abilities that act as "moves" that it does allow for improvement without changing the core concept of a character (i.e. changing its powers too dramatically). It makes complete sense to me that a player could spend XP to gain new move (the hero learns a feint, a pinpoint attack, a power stunt he can add to his array) where there is really no need to find a story reason for the new ability. They really are a measure of "experience", because they are new things that can be done with the same core abilities.

    One thing I've tried as well to mark the passage of time and the rise in reputation is the idea of giving characters qualifiers and nicknames (AMAZING Spider-Man or Superman the MAN OF STEEL) deriving bonuses for them. I've posted the full system here.

  2. Oops I thought that link would work. Here's the address:

  3. I've been thinking about this same topic as I've been reading old Champions supplements,running some ICONS, and planning some M&M. Now I'm clearly going to have to post about it as my brain has been working on it all afternoon.

    As a prelude to that I will say I agree with you. In my walkthru of the first year of Iron Man he is constantly worried about running out of power and there's a scene where he plugs into a wall outlet at least once an issue. I haven't seen that in a long time. Also, every time he gets a new suit of armor he notes how it's stronger, faster, more protective, and has shoots harder. There's clearly some change over time in the direction of "better", both observable and stated, so there is support for your position.

    There is also the question of "medium" as yes comics are where it started but we also have live action TV, animated TV, animated movies, and live action movies. I'd be willing to bet more kids have watched the animated "Avengers EMH" in the last year than have read the comic. I'm pretty sure more people have seen a superhero movie in the last few years than have read a superhero comic too. I think the movie/TV medium shows changes to characters at a faster rate than the books do much of the time, which may be more relevant to running a game than the comic history to this point.

  4. In our Champions games, our main concern is character concept and staying true to it. It's primarily the concern of the player (with GM fiat) to determine if there's a rapid rise in power, or just a spending of points to broaden the character(some characters are polymaths in specific skills, spending most points in Professional and Scientific Skills -- and some have Bases and Followers).

  5. Thanks to all responders!

    Siskoid, I not only appreciate the difference of opinion, I encourage its discussion.

    I don't deny that there is truism to the idea that Superheroes don't really improve with experience so much as change to fit a plot line or are changed by them. Certainly I do that in my games from time to time.

    Likewise, as Alexander Osias noted, character concept is key and we (my players and I) don't abide The Crimson Cloak suddenly tacking on a psychic attack when all his abilities are skill, martial arts and Batman-gadget based just so he can be more effective in combat. Unless there is a damn good in-game reason you suddenly have mental powers, you don't suddenly have mental powers.

    But the reality of gaming with a lot of the players I play with now (and many I've played with in the past) is that they come from a D&D, RIFTS or similar backgrounds. There are comic books fans who game and gamers who read comics and they are not always the same thing.

    The argument for non-traditional, RPG reward/advancement seems easier to sell to those who are not used to the way most games go. Even MMOs use XP to increase your character's skills, gain new abilities, etc. Most of the players I run for now want to see their characters get better. It's a game thing not a comic thing as it were.

    What I am saying in this post is that it's not like traditional advancement is all that alien to the medium of comic books. I used the three examples of Spiderman, Superman and Iron Man but Batman is well known to have advanced over the years. Forgetting about the early years of his comic for a moment, I think most comic fans will recall the release of "Batman: Year One". Green Lantern was once hindered by the color yellow but it has now been explained that only Green Lantern Corps rookies suffer from this, with more experienced GLC members having overcome that issue. I guess the player bought off that Limitation and then came up with a plausible story based excused.

    I highly recommend a plot, subplot or story driven reason coincide with the improvements in a character. All I am saying is that many characters do, from time to time, improve in some way and IMHO the genre supports this idea if not reinforcing it overly much.

    A little side note:

    In the case of Dave's Champions character Night Knight, his super soldier abilities and attributes come from a variant super soldier serum secretly administered to him as part of a goverment project. His particular variation on the Captain America theme is designed to give groups of people with the serum the ability to work together in a perfectly synchronized harmony. The result is almost hivemind percision.

    If however, there is only one member of these super "Killer Bee" soldiers around, the individual begins to improve and adapt at a accelerated rate to make up for his/her missing teammates.

    This is the in-game explanation for the ability increases, power improvments as well as new skills and abilities that Night Knight gets through spending XP.

  6. An in-game explanation like that is an excellent move. If my players were into advancement this much (and face it, MMOs like City of Heroes haven't exactly done GMs who want to go another way any favors), I would use the lesson learned here: Include advancement as part of their core concepts. Hyper humans who are constantly learning and training, tech heroes who are always adding to their armory, heroes with powers that are always growing and don't know where it will stop. It's good advice.

    Of course, I've been blessed with players who put ROLE before PLAYING, if you get my meaning. A lot of players I created myself (no experience) or who predate MMOs and such. Most have an improv background, which is rules lite to say the least, so it's not so much about min maxing, boosting abilities, etc. We've of course played games where advancement played a big part, but for Supers, I've usually gone for what I described above.