Saturday, October 6, 2012

How To Make A Superhero

When I am writing up the FBI Guide entries, I have a process that makes the whole thing go by more quickly. As I noted in the comments to the entry on Rainbow, my process is basically to roll up the stats, pick a set of powers that fits the character role in my head, roll the values of the powers, and figure out the rest per the V&V rules. It's amazing how quickly that goes, actually. The thing is, though, that there is more to the process than the simple mechanics of making a character. Each one has to fit into the world that exists (primarily) in my head.

The first thing I do, actually, is make a list of names, basic power outlines, and so on. I try to alternate male and female characters (and if I can't for whatever reason, I work hard to make it up in subsequent entries). Sometimes, the name will inspire the powers, sometimes it is the power group that occasions the name. A few of the characters are inspired by specific photos, by characters from comics or movies, from other games, or even a few taken from V&V materials directly (I probably won't be posting those here, though, since I doubt that it's legit to simply take the already published stats and republish them here; the names are in the first FBI Guide entry, though). Occasionally, I delete one or more if I come to think that they won't fit the tone of the world. For instance, I recently removed one Davy Jones from the list because I didn't want to deal with the implications of more than one death-bringer (spoiler!) If I haven't based the character on a picture, then this is the point where I hunt around to find one. Google's image search is the most important tool here.

Have you noticed what's missing yet? The detailed background of the character is, to my way of thinking, one of the least important elements in a superhero setting. The characters are, more than in most settings, symbols. As a result, there may be some broad aspects of their backgrounds that are important (but not necessarily!), but the details can be filled in almost at whim. So, the last step is to write up some kind of history for the character. This may also include figuring out the mundane name of the character, since that is usually not nearly as important as the code name given by the FBI Guide writers.

So, what I'm saying is that superpowered characters are more like metaphors, and this is reflected in the way that I create them and integrate them into the setting.


  1. "...superpowered characters are more like metaphors..."

    Well said!

    This line reminds me of why I think it's best to play superhero games with people who really love, understand and accept the genre.

    1. Seriously! It's also why deconstructions, no matter how good, should only be read or seen by the same sorts of people. I love Watchmen, for instance, but I see people who think that the deconstruction of the symbols into semi-realistic characters is the way that superheroes should be approached normally, that it's a "better" way of approaching the material, instead of seeing it as a way of critiquing and illuminating the nature (and problematic aspects) of superhero comics through contrast. I'm glad that Alan Moore chose to engage with the symbols more directly, in the League of Extraordinary Gentlemen series.

  2. "The detailed background of the character of the least important elements in a superhero setting."

    Absolutely. The key word here is "detailed." Backgrounds get supplemented, tweaked, nuanced, retooled, retconned, and relaunched -- not always for the better.

    Speaking of Alan Moore, I particularly enjoyed the 'retro-texture' he created for Tom Strong and Promethea.

    1. Exactly so. Example: Batman has a few elements in his background that can't be changed without changing the character. However, whether the bat that inspires him to build a bat theme into his costume happens while he's musing and a little bat flitters down from the attic, or the apocalyptic bat of The Dark Knight Returns, or the movie version where he is exposed to his fears of bats under the influence of an hallucinogenic drug, or whichever else version is used doesn't matter. What matters are: he is born to wealth and privilege; his parents are killed by a thug in front of him, almost always in an alley after they go to some entertainment (frequently, but not always, a swashbuckling film, particularly Zorro); he is inspired by a bat or flock of bats to take the costume and identity in order to strike fear into the hearts of criminals; he ends up fighting the Joker. Everything else is negotiable, including the details of those elements. But that's about as integral to a superhero character as background gets. Most don't even have those loose elements. Superman has only the fact that he's sent from Krypton, that he has a love interest with the initials LL, and that he ends up fighting Lex Luthor. Even landing in Smallville has been altered for some versions.

    2. Crap, hit enter too soon.

      Even less so, Charles Xavier, to choose another example, has even fewer integral background elements than Superman. Pretty much, he just has to lose use of his legs at some point in his life.

  3. Many years ago, a friend sent me a list of character design requirements for a supers game.

    1. Have a way to get to the fight.
    2. Have a way to be useful in the fight.
    3. Have a way to survive the fight.

    I expanded on this list and made it a little more generic ('action' rather than 'fight', and expanded on what it means to 'get to', 'be useful in', and 'survive') at