Is it a Bird? Is it a Plane?
Wargaming with Superheroes
by John Wilson
Superheroes in wargames? Isn't that going a bit too far, even for Ragnarok and the SFSFW? Actually, no. Many fantasy and science-fiction garners border on the realms of the superheroic in their battles. Wizards who are able to cast spells and ensorcel an army are definitely superbeings, while powered armour troopers and mecha are long-time staples of the four-colour comics. So, why not go the whole hog and include the "long underwear" brigade?
While many gamers will accept the traditional battles between criminals and heroes, wargamers seem to shy away from including them in their tabletop battles. War stories have been, and still are, popular themes in superhero comics. Captain America has fought in conflicts since World War II and an entire subset of the DC continuity was based in an alternative world where Batman fought Axis agents on the streets of Gotham.
The information in this article is not rules specific. Instead, it is intended to encourage the reader to incorporate superheroes into their favourite rules and to inspire ideas. Just imagine the fun when the Desert Fox meets Major Glory and the Justice Friends.
Superheroes and Supervillains:
Superheroes and supervillains (or "supers") come in a number of distinct types. Depending on the setting, only certain types of super may be appropriate. Magic users are obviously appropriate for use in fantasy games, while gadgeteers and super-soldiers are perfect for science-fiction games. However, in order to decide what supers will appear in your battle, you need to know what is out there.
Supers come in a number of varieties, the most common of which are: bricks, energy projectors, speedsters, gadgeteers, super-soldiers and magic users.
Bricks are supers who rely on brute strength and incredible resistance to damage. Because of the generic (and useful) nature of this type of super, bricks are acceptable in virtually any setting. Energy projectors, on the other hand, cause damage at range using laser bolts, bio-energy blasts and other assorted fantastic means. Magic users, although similar to energy projectors, are much more versatile.
Speedsters are supers who have incredible powers of movement and are able to fly faster than a speeding copyright injunction or just run very quickly. Gadgeteers have access to incredible arsenals of weaponry and super vehicles. Finally, super-soldiers are individuals who, either through experiments, training or natural ability, are physically perfect specimens of humanity.
Any type of super can be created using these categories. Some supers combine more than one category in their makeup. Captain America is most definitely a super-soldier, but Batman is a combination super-soldier/gadgeteer.
As mentioned earlier, some types of super may be inappropriate to your setting. For example, gadgeteers may not be used in a fantasy setting. Even so, for that true superhero feel, the general rule is that anything goes.
Powers Beyond Belief
The only rules I have encountered that allow inclusion of supers in battles are Animouch and Kawaii 5-0. Warhammer 40K (first edition) can be tweaked slightly if you have a superhero RPG handy. Supers can be included in battles which use other rules. It only requires thought on the integration of superpowers into the rules you use.
As far as the average wargamer is concerned, there are four types of power on the battlefield. These are: offensive, defensive, movement and sensory. Virtually any set of rules can cope with powers in these categories.
Offensive powers are self-explanatory. If a power causes damage it is an offensive power. Defensive powers are those powers which prevent a super from taking damage. The obvious example is armour, but invisibility and superhuman reflexes also fit into this category. Movement powers are another easily defined category. Sensory powers are those powers that allow a super to perceive things that a normal human would not.
Some superhero RPGs add a fifth category: alteration powers. These are powers which alter the environment around the super. In my opinion, the addition of this category only confuses garners and if a power cannot be fitted into one of the other four categories, then it has no place on the battlefield.
When quantifying a power's effects, it should always be done in the simplest terms possible. So what if one super breathes fire while his opponent has laser vision? They are both offensive powers that do damage. Always think in terms of the effects of the power, not in terms of how those effects are achieved.
Another factor which may bear considering is the origin of the supers and their powers. After all, they have to come from somewhere, don't they? For example, if one power has developed a super-soldier serum, their enemies might also have developed it. Or, if an artifact is known to give powers to anyone who has it, that may be a major objective of a campaign.
Supers on the Battlefield:
The type of supers used depends on the level of game that you play. Skirmish-level gaming, such as WH40K or SGII, is the obvious (and best) choice if supers are being used. In skirmish gaming, individuals do make a difference. After all, a super is only an extreme individual. At the skirmish level, the supers used should not be too powerful. Captain America and Batman are ideal for skirmish gaming. Superman is not.
At company level, eg, DSII or Hellfire, the standard super will not make much of a difference. The main effect will be on the morale of troops. High-powered supers can be used without affecting game balance too much. Caution should still be exercised, however, to ensure that matters do not get out of hand. If Dr Manhattan can clear an entire battlefield with one wave of his hand, why bother playing?
Above company level, there is very little point in using individual supers. More likely are units made up entirely of supers. The advantages possessed by a super unit would depend on the mechanics of the game system used.
If you are going to put supers into your games. then you need appropriate scenarios to use them in. Wargaming scenarios should be spectacular and have heroic potential, not run-of-the-mill patrol actions. Hopefully the examples given below should provide some inspiration.
A heavily defended landing beach is posing a threat to the success of an "island-hopping" assault. By placing a squad of supers in the next attack, the generals hope they can crack the problem and inspire their men. Besides, what better morale booster than to show your country's favourite hero raising the standard above the defeated enemy?
Very Special Forces:
Kaptain Krieg and Overlord have fought on many occasions. They have even disobeyed their commanders just so they can fight. Now, because of the importance of the next battle, Overlord has been attached to your command. But, intelligence reports that Kaptain Krieg has been spotted in the area. Can the two supers resist the temptation to settle old scores?
The Dunkirk Spirit:
The front has collapsed and the enemy are pouring through. As a small attack force makes its way to the objective they are confronted by a lone figure in an outlandish costume. This should be no contest...
Do not feel limited to using supers in modern conflict. Any period is fair game. An issue of Excalibur featured alternate Captain Britains from over a thousand different dimensions. All you need is a good imagination and a sense of humour.
Sources and Inspiration:
These are the sources that I found most useful in compiling this article. While they may not be to everyone's taste, I love them.
- The Agent
- Graphic novel from Marvel/Epic. So - just how do modern intelligence agencies deal with the problems of supers?
- DC Heroes RPG
- From Mayfair Games. Has an interesting essay on the use of supers in conflicts in the DC continuity. Currently Out of print.
- Golden Age of RPG
- supplement for Champions v4, dealing specifically with WWII Champions and supers.
- Marshal Law
- Pat Mills and Kevin 0' Neill are definitely not Approved by the CCA. Extreme violence and satire.
- Marvel Compendium
- For TSR's Marvel Superheroes game. Every superbeing you could imagine. And a few more that you will never believe. Currently out of print.
- Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons. Read it.
- Wild Cards
- Novels and GURPS books. Various authors. An interesting background, which the GURPS books expand upon.
- Grant Morrisson's tale of modern day supers, as printed in 2000AD.
Ed Note: Obtaining figures to play games with Supers is not as hard as you may think. Even if you can't get hold of the old RPG white metal figures, a visit to a toy shop will provide many useful products. Microverse produce a number of sets which include 2Omm scale Batman and Superman characters and can be used alongside conventional wargames figures and Matchbox cars. Two companies (one of whom is ERTL) do diecast Batman characters which are about 54mm scale, whilst almost everybody does larger figures that are invariably in sales for under 5 each of a plethora of Super characters. The only problem is holding onto your Batman figures, when your three year old son (now well into Batman: The Animated Series), takes a fancy to them!
- Previous article: Raven: Fast Play
- Next article: An Interview With... Jon Tuffley
- Index of all articles in Ragnarok 30
- Index of all articles by John Wilson
- Other > Superheroes