For those of us who are too busy, too tired, or just plain too unmotivated to try to learn and absorb the megalithic rulesets of many present-day superhero roleplaying games (yeah, Hero System and Mutants & Masterminds, I’m looking at you here), or the baroque complexities of the procedures contained in the recent crop of “storytelling” RPGs (in my opinion, Capes should be retitled WTF? Supers), there are plenty of excellent alternatives available. And, in most cases, the price is right: free or dang near so.

Nearest and dearest to my heart is the excellent Hideouts and Hoodlums, the 1930’s/1940’s pulp/comic book superhero RPG which is based on the Swords & Wizardry FRPG (which was in turn cloned from original brown box 1975 Dungeons & Dragons – as I’ve said before, H&H is what D&D would have been had Gygax and Arneson decided to create a supers RPG instead of exploring medieval fantasy).

Cover of Book One of Hideouts & Hoodlums

The basic set of Hideouts & Hoodlums rules consists of three short rulebooks; if you skip the listings for powers, spells, and hoodlums/monsters, it really consists of about two-thirds of a book of actual rules. Even when you add on two more option supplemental rules booklets, the whole magilla can be read in less than an hour, and then taught to players even faster. The first time I looked at the H&H rules I felt the same thrill I got the first time I opened the box of OD&D rules way back in 1976.

Let’s put it this way – I’ve had a copy of 2nd edition Mutants and Masterminds for over two years and I still can’t completely get my head around playing the thing. It’s too much like d20 – too many numbers to juggle around. With H&H, it’s dead easy: roll to hit and, if you’re successful, roll for damage – none of this “take a target number, add or subtract at least two modifiers, roll to beat it, then the defender gets to roll to beat another target number after diddling and massaging it with more modifiers” crap. With M&M it takes me an hour or two to stat out a villain; in H&H I can do it in five minutes. Hey, I’m fifty-one years old – I could die any minute, so if I’m going to play an RPG, I want to play the damned thing, not screw around with numbers all day long.

The thing I really love most about H&H is the “Golden Age” setting. If you’ve read this blog for more than five minutes, I don’t need to tell you of my passion for pulp novels and comic books from that era, and H&H captures that flavor perfectly. Just reading the treasure listings in Book 2 is a real blast even if you never get around to playing the game.

Best of all, you can get a taste of what H&H is all about for free. Game designer Scott Casper has early drafts of Books 1 & 2 for download on his Google site. If you like what you see (and, trust me, you will) you can buy the latest versions of all five H&H books (three core rulebooks and two supplements) for under $12 total at RPGNow. [ADDENDUM 12/27/2011: As of December 2011, I am professionally affiliated with Great Scott Games, publisher of Hideouts & Hoodlums. Another supplementary rulebook has been released since this blog post was written. All six rulebooks can currently be purchased in downloadable PDF form for a combined $15.50]

If you’d prefer a more “up to date” supers RPG, in terms of both its setting and its game mechanics, check out the latest “test” version of a game called Mystery Men.

Portion of page one of the Mystery Men RPG

Set in the modern era, this RPG appears to be the bastard lovechild of M&M and early 1980’s D&D. The combat rules seem to be a pared-down version of the M&M/d20 thing, but some of the other game mechanics are reminiscent of “old school” 1980’s RPGs. I haven’t yet had the chance to play Mystery Men (I just discovered the site two days ago, and I’m neck deep in other chess and game related projects right now), but it looks very cool. I like the idea of rolling for attributes but paying for powers – it cuts back on that “min-max munchkin” thing while still giving players a fair amount of say in what kind of characters they want to play. Mystery Men is certainly one to keep an eye on. [ADDENDUM 1/3/2012: Mystery Men is still available as a free download, and may also be purchased for a nominal cost as a printed book.]

Speaking of 1980’s supers RPGs, many many players have fond memories of TSR’s old Marvel Superheroes RPG. Although quite a few supers games were already on the market when MSH debuted in 1984 (I’d been playing supers games for about five years at that point), for many roleplaying gamers it was their first superhero roleplaying game experience.

Box cover of the 1984 Marvel Superheroes RPG

What a lot of people don’t know is that TSR actually gave the game away to the RPG community at large. In other words, you can legally download all of the rules, supplements, maps, roster books, standup figs, etc. for the Marvel Superheroes RPG, completely free of charge. Although I bought (and still own) about 40% of the stuff TSR published for the game, I went ahead and downloaded digital copies of the stuff I already had (not to mention that other 60% that I’d missed). About the only thing you can’t download are the metal miniatures TSR produced (only because of this stinking backward digital technology not allowing downloads of physical objects, otherwise I’d have a ’59 Cadillac stuck at 99% right now), but all of the paper elements are free.

There’s a mess of websites from which you can download all of the original TSR stuff, but the best “central” collection I’ve found is located at Classic Marvel Forever. Click the “Other Stuff” menu and go to the “Downloads” section. You can download the original 1984 Basic Game, the 1986 Advanced version, and the 1990 “new” Basic Version (which was a kind of synthesis of the two), along with the scores of modules and supplements. There are also two newer versions of the game which were created by the online MSH community: the Expert version and Skycutter’s version. (My recommendation if you’ve never played MSH, by the way, is to start with the “yellow box” 1984 Basic version just to learn how the game mechanics work. If you decide you like the game, you can easily graduate to the more advanced versions – probably the 1990 “new” Basic set would be your next stop.)

A really cheap game (it cost $1 before it was yanked from RPGNow) is the late lamented Super Crusaders.

Super Crusaders RPG

The Super Crusaders rules were abysmally badly written (consequently there was a little bit of a learning curve involved) but the game had a distinct Eighties “old-school” feel to it with some really cool new ideas thrown into the mix. For example, SC’s experience levels were a tried-and-true old-school game mechanic, but when a character was about to “level up” to Level 5, 10, 15, etc. (multiples of five) he or she had to complete a special “Arch Enemy” mission: the character had to defeat their designated arch enemy in a solo mission (no help from the other player characters) before advancing to that next level. In my opinion, that mechanic alone (with its additional parameters which I’ve not mentioned here) was worth the buck the game cost, as that mechanic can easily be adapted to nearly any other superhero RPG you’d care to play.

Lee Walser, designer of Super Crusaders, has been MIA for nearly a year now. Last spring he said he was working on a new second edition of the game. Since then…nada. Lee appears to have fallen off the face of the earth. While Super Crusaders was in development, Lee offered three playtest versions on his site. Because the game’s final first edition is presently completely unavailable, you should try Lee’s URL in archive.org’s Wayback Machine to see if you can scare up one of the playtest versions (I recommend the Paladin Edition, which was the final free version [if you don’t count the 36 or so hours that Lee offered the actual final version of the game for free before it went “pay” at RPGNow]). The Wayback has been down for the last several days, so I’ve not been able to successfully check for the availability of the playtest PDFs. Maybe you’ll have better luck. [ADDENDUM 12/27/2011: My comments above apply primarily to the last free playtest version, the Paladin Edition. Super Crusaders Second Edition is available for free at RPGNow, but bears little to no resemblance to the First Edition; each time the game has been released, in playtest or in “final” versions, it’s been for all intents and purposes a completely different game from its predecessors, and that trend continues to apply.]

Finally, if you don’t mind gakking up five bucks for a commercial “print and play” RPG book, I recommend Supers:

Supers comic book superhero RPG

While the layout of Supers is almost identical to that of the overpriced and overrated Icons (right down to the typeface and art style), don’t be fooled; Supers is (in my opinion) the better game. While Icons is a poorly-conceived mashup of elements drawn from MSH & M&M, Supers has a much smoother (albeit no less derivative) system based on the old d6 system pioneered by West End Games in the original Star Wars RPG from the mid-1980’s. As with the other games mentioned in this post, it’s another old-school influenced game which works well. The mechanics are so simple that you probably don’t need to print much more than the combat rules (ten pages of fairly large print), if you’re willing to go through the character creation process by referencing the rules on your computer monitor. In fact, after a game or three, you probably won’t need the rulebook at all except as an occasional reference.

Supers also encourages gamemasters to “think outside the box”: not all superhero RPG adventures need to center around apprehending villains. Supers devotes a chapter to rules and suggestions for running games with natural disasters as an adventure catalyst.

While Supers isn’t the best choice for a long-term RPG campaign, it’s a cool little system for short campaigns or an occasional one-shot “beer and pretzels” superhero skirmish (perfect for the weeks when a couple of your players can’t make it to the scheduled play session). [ADDENDUM 12/27/2011: Supers is still available for $5 at RPGNow]

You might be wondering why I’m not recommending Villains & Vigilantes in this post. V&V is in a state of flux right now. Two separate companies are publishing the game. Fantasy Games Unlimited is publishing the classic 1982 Second Edition, while Monkey House Games (run by the game designers themselves) is offering a minimally “updated” (and somewhat disappointing) version 2.1. Monkey House is promising an all-new Third Edition sometime this year, but advance word seems to indicate that it will resemble “old school” V&V in name only; a few of the designers’ comments imply that it will contain some level of d20 influence to an unknown extent (for example, the mechanic of using skill rolls for task resolution has been mentioned). Meanwhile FGU is also promising an update of their own: a separate book of optional rules for v2, keeping the core “old school” rules of the Second Edition but “layering on” some additional material. So, until we see how this particular RPG girlfight plays out, I’m not making a strong recommendation either way (although I’ve provided links for the curious). I’ll just keep playing V&V 2e with the kids, while sporadically running my solo Hideouts & Hoodlums campaign for my own amusement along with an occasional 1940’s Liberty League skirmish using the old TSR Marvel Superheroes rules.

Have fun! – Steve

Copyright 2011, Steven A. Lopez. All rights reserved.

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