A Brief History of Game is a column that looks at the history of games, and has traditionally done so one game company at a time. However in preparing a book on the topic (which I hope to speak more about in the months to come), I’ve slowly started to get a bigger picture of the industry, and I’m going to put that to use this month in honor of RPGnet’s Supers Week.

So without further ado, the history of the industry … one genre at a time, beginning with super heroes.

This article was originally published as A Brief History of Game #15-16 on RPGnet. Its publication preceded the publication of the original Designers & Dragons (2011). As of the ’20s, this article has not been reprinted, except in the Designers & Dragons Chromatic Appendix for Patreon, but other genre histories can be found in Wyrd Science magazine: #3 contains a horror genre history for roleplaying and #5 a look at dark future RPGs.

Rough Beginnings: 1977-1980

One of the surprising stories of the industry’s beginning is how long it took superheroes to catch hold. Dungeons & Dragons was published in January, 1974, and was becoming increasingly popular within a year. There were pretty quickly games in new genres, starting with Boot Hill (western, 1975), En Garde! (swashbuckling, 1975), Starfaring (science-fiction, 1976), and Metamorphosis: Alpha (science fantasy, 1976). Yet it was still another year before the first superhero game came out.

You’ve probably never have heard of it. It was called Superhero ’44 (1977), or later Superhero: 2044 (1977). The later, more professional edition was published by Lou Zocchi, an important force throughout the history of RPGs.

Superhero: 2044 was a somewhat strange choice for a first superhero game because of the fact that it didn’t really represent comic books. Instead it was set–as the name implies–in the future. The game was never particularly well loved nor well supported, with just a single supplement ever being published, a big map by Judges Guild called Hazard (1980).

The next superhero RPG was more on target, and that was Jeff Dee and Jack Herman’s Villains and Vigilantes (1979), published by Fantasy Games Unlimited (FGU). Not only did the authors place their game in a more standard modern 4-color world, but they also did their best to adopt the conventions of that world. Characters, for example, started out as the players, then randomly gained powers thanks to accidents or mutations, just like heroes in the comic books.

V&V could have been the RPG that really broke open the superhero genre for roleplaying. Unfortunately, it had two flaws. First, the designers were young and inexperienced–as was common at FGU at the time, since owner Scott Bizar was publishing freelance submissions. Dee would later comment that he and Herman were the youngest designers in the business and that it showed in their first game. Second, at that time FGU was not supporting most of its RPGs. Bizar, with his wargaming background, felt like games should be complete as published, and not need supplements.

V&V did moderately well, and it was definitely the most popular superhero game pre-1981, but it was ultimately held back by these other issues.

Supergame (1980), another early release, mostly distinguished itself by allowing players to create their own characters from the ground up. Like V&V it was unsupplemented, and thus it wouldn’t see any real success until its second edition (1982), by which time it would be riding the coattails of the first hit superhero game, Champions.

The Birth of Champions: 1981-1985

Champions (1981) by newcomer Hero Games had several things going for it, which would ultimately make it the first hit superhero RPG in the industry.

First, it was a second-generation superhero game, ultimately derived from Superhero: 2044 which designer George MacDonald modified until it was no longer recognizable. This alone made it a modern game, but Champions also looked elsewhere for new and innovative game design ideas.

Second, and probably more important, Champions was one of the earliest games centering around point-based character creation. Herein it developed ideas originally seen in Steve Jackson’s Melee (1977), but also expanded them by, for the first time ever, supporting the idea of “flaws” which allowed players to create characters with problems, then use the points thus gained to make their characters more powerful.

The purchasing system was also very extensive, allowing you to purchase powers, then modify them in numerous ways, then describe them, which thus supported a very wide variety of comic-book-like powers–ultimately exactly what a super-hero game needed.

Hero Games released Champions with almost-guerrilla marketing at Pacific Origins 1981. The game generated huge buzz, sold well, and Hero Games immediately followed up this success with the publication of two new supplements, Enemies (1981) and The Island of Dr. Destroyer both out by the next big con, on Labor Day.

Actually supporting a superhero line was another first, and thus another factor that pushed Champions to prominence.

How much this broke the super-hero genre open is evidenced by the way in which everyone else started falling over themselves to get superhero games out.

A few older companies revived their superhero lines. FGU put out a second edition of Villains and Vigilantes (1982), then diverted from their earlier business model by heavily supporting it through much of the remaining lifetime of the company (1982-1986). Supergame put out its second edition (1982) and a few supplements (1983-1984) in the same time period.

Companies new to the superhero genre also jumped on board. Chaosium put out the brand-new Superworld (1983), based on their BRP system, but it soon faded from sight; designer Steve Perrin would later do work for Champions. A few smaller companies put out new games over the next couple of years as well, but they would ultimately be overshadowed by the aforementioned games and a few others just on the horizon.

In the meantime Hero Games continued along as the top superhero RPG producer for the next couple of years. V&V competed with them in total product publication, but ultimately not in market share. Hero continued to polish their game with a few new editions of the rules (1982, 1984) and a series of supplements for adventures, enemies, and organizations.

However by late 1985 the Hero Games staffers increasingly came to realize that they weren’t businessmen, and that the company would do much better if someone else did their marketing and publishing. In 1986 they would thus sign a deal with ICE wherein Hero Games would prepare the products and ICE would publish them, a decision that was probably helped along by the fact that the market was growing increasingly competitive, as we’ll see momentarily.

Licensed Heroes: 1984-1986

As Champions increased in popularity, another idea was starting to move through the RPG industry: licensing properties. SPI kicked it off with Dallas (1980), but it was when Chaosium put out the definitive horror license, Call of Cthulhu (1981), and ICE started putting out Middle-earth fantasy supplements (1982) that it became clear that this was an area of growing importance for the industry.

In the early 1980s, Marvel comics were hot, thanks in particular to The Uncanny X-Men by Chris Claremont and John Byrne, which was then enjoying such ground-breaking story lines as “The Dark Phoenix Saga” (1980) and “Days of Future Past” (1981). Thus it’s no surprise that a roleplaying license for the Marvel superheroes became increasingly sought after. At least four different companies were negotiating for it, including: FGU, Games Workshop, Mayfair Games, and TSR. Eventually, TSR got it.

Their release of Marvel Super Heroes (1984), by Jeff Grubb and Steve Winter, was the first attempt to create a simplified super-hero roleplaying game that would better draw in comic fans who had never played roleplaying games before. Marvel Super Heroes did this with numberless character stats and a chart-based universal task resolution table. The result generally met the goal of simplicity, though within two years TSR decided that they needed to put out a more advanced version of the game for gamers, resulting in the Marvel Super Heroes Advanced Set (1986).

Though none of the simplified super-hero systems have ever attracted a notable portion of the comic book audience, Marvel Super Heroes nonetheless did well for TSR. It was their most supported line ever, other than the D&D games, with almost fifty books published over the product line’s lifetime. It ultimately eclipsed old games like Champions and Villains and Vigilantes, but at least Champions continued to sell strongly, perhaps due to the different focuses: Champions was more about individual creativity while Marvel Super Heroes was about using the creations of a comic company.

Meanwhile, every other contender for the Marvel license did some RPG work on their own.

Mayfair was the most successful, getting the “second best” license for DC Heroes (1985). Their game wasn’t as simple as Mavel Super Heroes, but it was remarkably elegant, centering on a brilliant way to measure task difficulties: everything from character stats to weights to distances was measured in Attribute Points, or AP, which were all exactly equivalent. 14 APs of flight could fly 14 APs of distance in a phase, while 6 APs of strength could pick up a 6 AP weight. The AP scale was also exponential, allowing for dramatically different power levels. Like Marvel Super HeroesDC Heroes was well supported.

Finally, Games Workshop had acquired a game called Golden Heroes, previously published independently in Britain. They’d been hoping to publish a new edition with Marvel’s heroes, but after that fell through, they published it as was in a new edition (1984). Unfortunately it didn’t have enough to distinguish it, being neither the first mover nor a notable license in the genre. It ended publication just a year after its introduction, in 1985, as GW was slowly moving into miniatures.

FGU, the last negotiator for the Marvel license, still had their own Villains and Vigilantes line. They did manage a license a few years later for a small press comic-book called The DNAgents. They published one supplement, The DNAgents Sourcebook (1986), just before FGU closed down, making Villains and Vigilantes the first major casualty among the superhero RPGs. Legal wrangling has since kept any edition of Villains and Vigilantes off the market.

Meanwhile, by the mid-1980s another trend was sweeping the comic book world: the black and white comic invasion. Everyone suddenly started publishing their own b&w comics, and comic book stores started carrying them all, hoping for the latest hit. This whole trend was led by Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (1984), the license for which was snapped up by Palladium Games before the rest of the industry even knew who the turtles were.

Palladium was just then publishing a new superhero RPG called Heroes Unlimited (1984). It was based on the Palladium Role-Playing System–as all the Palladium games increasingly were–but like Golden Heroes it was another game released without a real audience.

Contrariwise the compatible game Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (1985) did an excellent job of selling to the new TMNT audience by accurately detailing the Turtles’ world and providing rules for mutation, psionics, and other systems necessary to play out the universe of the comics. It quickly caught on and was one of Palladium’s most popular games over the next several years.

Thus by 1986, the superhero scene had entirely changed from its state just a few years before. Where once there was a booming collection of independent superhero games, now only Champions survived, with licensed giants Marvel Super Heroes and DC Heroes taking up most of the field. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles was also a big hit, but as would increasingly be the case for Palladium, it was a hit for a somewhat younger demographic than the rest of the RPG industry.

Coasting Toward Oblivion: 1987-1996

After a decade of innovation and fighting for control of the superhero niche, it’s somewhat surprising that the second decade of superhero RPGs was mainly a tail of downturn and “coasting”.

This is even more surprising because the comic industry itself was undergoing notable expansion and upheaval during these years. Staring with the publication of The Dark Knight (1986) and Watchmen (1987) the industry moved into a darker, grittier and (sometimes) more realistic stage of publication. This was assisted by Sandman (1989), which marked the rise of new, more mature comics.

Then, starting in 1991-1992, there was considerable growth in the entire comics industry thanks mainly to a collector driven mania not unlike that which had driven the black & white comic boom (and bust) just a few years earlier. Among other things, this led to the creation of Image Comics.

Remarkably, no major RPG publisher took advantage of any of this. Though a few supplements looked at the darker, grittier take on superheroes, including some Dark Champions books from Hero Games (1993-1994), they were infrequent; most superhero RPGs continued with their very bright 4-color look at superheroes … which might be part of what led to their eventual declines.

The only notable exception to this was a new small-press superhero RPG called Heroes & Heroines (1993) which licensed a number of indie comic properties including Image’s The Maxx, some of Dark Horse’s grittier comics, and even the now venerable Ex-Mutants. Unfortunately the designer was new to the field; both the production values of the game and its design were derided, and what could have been a trendy growth instead quickly disappeared.

Meanwhile, the major licensed properties were having problems of their own.

Though blessed with lucrative licenses, DC Heroes and Marvel Super Heroes were both cursed with the flip-side of the same which typically involved high royalties and (for DC Heroes in particular) the occasional problems that arise when approval is required on products. Combined with other factors, these would doubtless be factors in these two games’ downturns.

By 1992 TSR was pushing more of their outlying games toward their second edition AD&D system and turning away from their simple chart-based mechanics–which had infiltrated many of their lines for a while. Marvel Super Heroes thus ended production in 1992, though as we’ll see TSR would revisit the license a few years later.

Meanwhile Mayfair was starting to have financial problems that would ultimately result in the company’s downfall. They ceased the publication of new supplements for DC Heroes in 1994, and DC pulled their license entirely in 1996.

At the same time Palladium faced another problem that comes about from licensing properties: Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles was a fad, and when the fad faded, the game did too. TMNT ended publication in 1990, though their older Heroes Unlimited game enjoys the occasional small-scale revival.

That left Champions as the last line standing of the four major systems that had entered the second decade of superhero RPGs. However, it had faced both highs and lows during that second decade, and was now somewhat the worse for wear.

To start off with, the deal between ICE and Hero Games had never worked as the participants had hoped. The founders of Hero Games had all left for full-time jobs soon after the ICE deal, and the maintenance of the game line thus had been left to freelancers and interns. One of them, Rob Bell stepped up and became ICE’s first in-house developer for Hero. He published a fourth edition (1989) of the rules which took the first step in turning Champions into a full-fledged multi-genre Hero System, following in the footsteps of GURPS (1987).

(There had actually been considerable cross-fertilization between the two game systems for their entire lifetime. Champions had inherited ideas about point-based character creation from Steve Jackson’s first RPG, The Fantasy Trip. Then in the mid-1980s it had expanded into a multi-genre house system, which Steve Jackson used ideas from for his own GURPS (1987). Now with the fourth edition of the game, the wheel had turned again.)

After this 1989 revival Champions enjoyed a series of regular in-house editors who helped to keep the game alive, but it depended upon freelance contributions and never developed an entirely coherent gameworld as a result. Then in 1995 ICE started putting all of their resources into the CCG market, which resulted in the Hero Games principals finally terminating their agreement with ICE. They quickly signed a new deal with R. Talsorian Games, but as we’ll see their fourth edition Hero System got tabled in the process.

Meanwhile there was just one new contender in the superhero genre, the aforementioned GURPS. One of their early genre books, GURPS Supers (1989), was supported by almost a dozen supplements (1989-1991), most notably including GURPS Wild Cards (1989), another license. But then Steve Jackson largely got out of the adventure business, and instead started putting out standalone sourcebooks. GURPS Supers thus faded away almost as quickly as it had appeared.

In 1996 every major super-hero line was essentially dead. Even Hero Games, now under the R. Talsorian umbrella, was closing down Hero Fourth Edition support, in planning for a new game system called Fuzion.

Perhaps it would help revitalize a genre which had grown moribund …

Return of the Classics: 1997-2003

Unfortunately the new Champions was not to be the hoped for Holy Grail for the superheroes genre. It was released as Champions: New Millennium (1997). The underlying Fuzion system was a clever combination of the Hero System and R. Talsorian’s Interlok system and was yet another attempt to produce a simpler superhero RPG that might attract new comic book readers to games. Unfortunately it left old Hero System gamers feeling utterly abandoned, since old Champions support continued only through (some of the first) PDFs and licensed products.

Then Mike Pondsmith of R. Talsorian Games announced that he was exiting the industry in 1998, also leaving Hero Games high and dry. They would flounder for the next four years through another unsuccessful attempt at going it on their own, then a disastrous alliance with an online company called Cybergames. Champions would all but die until 2002.

Meanwhile the DC Heroes game made an unexpected return as Blood of Heroes (1998), published by Pulsar Games who had acquired the license to the “Mayfair Exponential Game System” just as the company was going down for the last time. The DC superheroes were swapped out for generic new heroes created by Pulsar, but other than some polishing, the new game was just about identical to the previous editions by Mayfair. Pulsar would publish a few supplements over the next years until the d20 crash took them down with it in 2003. Though the company now has new owners, they’ve done nothing with the game, and indeed haven’t updated their web site for years.

It wasn’t just old game systems that were returning in the late 1990s, but old licenses too, suggesting a general rebirth of the whole superhero roleplaying genre which had sputtered out over the last few years.

TSR first made use of their Marvel license with the publication of Marvel Super Dice (1997), a new game based on their Dragon Dice. However the company’s downfall and purchase by Wizards of the Coast led to that line’s quick cancellation.

However, the new Wizards-owned TSR soon followed with a new RPG too, Marvel Super Heroes Adventure Game (1998), which was based on their innovative SAGA game design, which replaced dice rolling with resource management and centered the games on stories rather than just conflicts. Unfortunately Marvel SAGA would prove another d20 casualty when Wizards of the Coast started closing up their non-D&D lines in 1999 in advance of the release of their new d20 system.

Finally the DC heroes saw new life with the publication of DC Universe (1999) by West End Games, using the “Legend” variant of their classic d6 system. The game was not terribly well received, and West End Games was unfortunately in a vulnerable state at the time, owned as they then were by a French company called Humanoids Publishing which had bailed them out of bankruptcy. By 2001 Humanoids had decided that the roleplaying business wasn’t really for them, and production of the line quietly ended.

It’s somewhat odd that all of these classic lines and licenses both rose and fell in such a quick period, with Champions: New Millennium running 1997-2000, Blood of Heroes running 1998-2003, Marvel SAGA running 1998-1999, and DC Universe running 1999-2001.

Fortunately, totally new games were rising as well.

Innovative Settings: 1999-2000

The wide disconnect between the comic book industry and the superhero RPG industry is somewhat startling. Clearly the licensed RPGs provided some connections, and there were even some RPG-based comics from Eclipse Comics for Villains and Vigilantes (1986) and Champions (1986-1987), but beyond that the RPG industry stayed remarkably clear of the comic industry’s trends. It took until 1999 for the publication of RPGs that mirrored the more evocative and grittier comics that began in the mid-to-late 1980s.

The first of these was White Wolf’s Aberrant (1999), part of their pulp-inspired “Trinity” series of games. It was another futuristic game, like Superhero: 2044, which had gotten everything started. However Aberrant enjoyed twenty years of game design advances, and thus was a better system (based on White Wolf’s Storyteller games) and likewise featured a much richer background setting. It also featured gritty ideas such as social unrest and power usage eventually leading to “taint” for the user.

The other darker game of the time period was Godlike (2000) by Dennis Detwiller and Greg Stolze, eventually published by Arc Dream Publishing. Godlike used a unique dice pool system where matching numbers were combined into sets, but its main appeal was–as with Aberrant–in its gritty setting, here an alternate version of World War II. Godlike has since inspired a follow-up game Wild Talents (2006).

The Rise of d20: 2000-Present

Meanwhile we hit the event that caused the quick death of all those classic game lines that launched in the late 1990s. Even the innovative new settings didn’t do that well. White Wolf’s Aberrant came to a close in 2002, while Godlike only survived because it was being put out by a small press who was publishing only occasionally.

The reason for the big upheaval in superhero games was d20. Wizard of the Coast’s release of their new open-source gaming system caused changes throughout the roleplaying distribution system. Suddenly it became a lot harder to get non-d20 games into stores. Every superhero system suffered, resulting in the cancellations that we’ve already seen.

On the other hand a new series of d20-based superhero games appeared, showing how far Wizard’s new system could be stretched. There were two almost simultaneous releases.

Silver Age Sentinels (2002) was put out by Guardians of Order using first their own Tri-Stat System, then a few months later using the d20 system. It was a very traditional 4-color superhero gaming system that was well-liked and survived for a few years, but has since disappeared entirely–along with Guardians of Order due to various financial problems.

Mutants & Masterminds (2002), written by Steve Kenson and published by Green Ronin has done much better due to some combination of better design, better marketing, and better support. Most notably Green Ronin decided to give Mutants & Masterminds its own open-source license which they call “M&M Superlink”. This has resulted in supplements published by at least a dozen different companies–most of them small PDF publishers–between 2003 and the present, generally adding to the interest in the game (which continues to be supported to this day).

A bit later another notable d20 release appeared, a new d20 version of Aberrant (2004).

Remarkably, despite the influx of d20 and despite the general downturn of superhero RPGs since their height in the 1980s, two non-d20 systems have also managed to get a foothold in recent years.

The first was the long-awaited fifth edition of the Hero System (2002), published by a new Hero Games which had bought out the Hero System from Cybergames in 2001. The new Hero System was truly generic–which it hadn’t been to date–but a new version of Champions (2002) was offered as its first genre book. The new Hero Games has since largely maintained a once a month publication schedule, with at least half of those books compatible with Champions, making it the best supported version of the game since at least when ICE was publishing, and perhaps ever.

The second new game was another licensed Marvel game, this one called The Marvel Universe Roleplaying Game (2003). It was another resource-management game, like SAGA had been, and was generally considered an interesting and innovative game system. It also included ideas about how to make use of flashbacks and other comic book tropes. Unfortunately Marvel expected it to not only reach the success level of Dungeons & Dragons, but also to do so very quickly. When it failed to do so after just a half-dozen publications, they canceled the line.

A few smaller scale games that have appeared in the last few years include: The Authority (2004), another Tri-Stat game by Guardians of Order that went down with the company; and Living Legends (2005), a new game by Jeff Dee, the designer of that first modern superhero RPG, Villains & Vigilantes. Other small publications such as Truth & Justice (2005), With Great Power … (2005), and the aforementioned Wild Talents (2006) suggest that we may be in a superhero roleplaying Renaissance.

Generally the superhero industry seems to have undergone three booms. The first began with the publications of Champions in 1981, ran through the early indie games and the licensed publications of the 1980s, and died out in the early 1990s. The second boom began in 1997 as multiple new superhero games went to market, and lasted until the d20 boom killed it.

Now, however, we seem to be in a new golden age. Old hero Champions is back in fighting form, complemented by the d20 superhero game Mutants & Masterminds and multiple small press release, the most notable of which is the Godlike line. Current rumor also says that the DC license is now held by Games Workshop–who failed to get that Marvel license 25 years ago–and that they’re planning a new superhero game through their Black Industries imprint. If this sees print soon, it might be like the 1980s all over again.

This column is partially based on my histories of TSR, FGU, Games Workshop, and Hero Games (which haven’t seen print yet), my history of Pagan Publishing (which has), and the notes I’ve been collecting on Mayfair, West End Games, Green Ronin, and others. Discussions of the latter companies may not be quite as accurate as the earlier ones, since my research is incomplete. 

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