I have made my disdain for X-Men games well known here and I stand by what I have said. If anything my contempt for these games has grown over time. And part of my growing...
...my growing scorn originates from the fact that there are other options out there, if GMs bother to look and work at cultivating them. So today I thought I would provide aspiring GMs...or moderators...with options.
X-Men games are unique because there are potentially two aspects to them. The first is the team of active super heroes, the other students. In my experience, in the few X-Men games I have been involved in, I have seen that combining the two can be...problematic because you have some players running bad ass canon characters, others inexperienced students. Coming up with ways to have them team up on adventures without getting the latter murdered can be the sort of scenario to give any GM fits. I just think it is more prudent to keep both scenarios separate.
But when it comes to angst in general X-Men comics, movies, television series and games are not unique, and today I am going to provide GMs and moderators with options for student oriented super hero action, where all the PCs are (usually) kids rather than adults.
Released in 2005, Sky High is a Disney action comedy about a high school for teenagers with super powers. I thought the plot was a bit predictable but I really liked the characters, especially the teachers. Lynda Carter, Bruce Campbell, Dave Foley and Kevin McDonald are all fantastic in their roles.
Rather than playing the students seen in the movie, a GM/moderator could run PCs as new students in a freshman class. PCs could role play standard student problems with peer pressure, homework, budding romances and dealing with bullies. But like the movie the students could also deal with super villains out to recruit minions, or aspiring heroes could possess a thirst for adventure and decide to become secret supers. There are different options to pursue, a GM/moderator can even slip a little teenage angst into the game.
If you are wondering where the idea for Sky High came from, one major influence outside of X-Men had to be PS238. Created by Aaron Williams, the comic tells the story of elementary school students and teachers with super powers. It is a very well written and fun series and was begun back in 2002, three years before Sky High's release. One of the principle characters was a poor kid who was the son of the world's greatest heroes, devoid of super powers and forced to go to this school. Sound familiar? Part of the same plot of Sky High.
Many of the plots used in a Sky High type of game could apply to PS238, along with the added idea of having players run members of the staff as well as many of them possess super powers. A potential major stumbling block is since you are playing kids more often than not adult supers are going to constantly get in your way. This could be a serious deal breaker with players who do not want to be constantly harassed by authority figures. And if you think playing angsty teens is tough, imagine how much tougher it would be to role play grade schoolers! PS238 is potentially more fun, but at the same time it would be more challenging for players and GM alike.
Avengers Academy was the logical next step from Avengers, The Initiative. It is a Marvel comic about teen paranormals being trained by Avengers Hank Pym/Giant Man and Tigra. The plot is The Avengers raided Norman Osborn's files and discover this collection of teens possess the greatest potential to become super villains, so special attention is given to try and insure these kids stay on the straight and narrow.
If GMs/moderators do not want players running canon characters (And I always recommend GMs encourage their players to play original characters) they could easily have the game run in New York as East Coast Avengers Academy. Or Chicago, or Miami, or whatever city they are most comfortable having the game take place in. Taking place in the Marvel Universe, there are a rich landscape of stories and characters to choose from, not to mention the opportunity for GMs to create their own villains.
Toaru Kagaku no Railgun
A Certain Scientific Railgun was a Japanese manga and anime series, that as it turns out was a spin off from another series, Toaru Majutsu no Index. Both series take place in Academy City located in Western Tokyo in a world where super science and magic exist. The principle characters are super powered students, some of whom also act as auxiliary law enforcement officers (When on duty they slip on an arm band). Plenty of plot ideas here, from mundane student drama to alien invasions. It is anime, the possibilities are nigh-endless and potentially weird.
Ninja High School
Ninja High School is a comic book parody of numerous anime themes. It takes place "somewhere in the midwest" in a town called Quagmire, with the action centering around Quagmire High. The characters are all anime-inspired characters, from the space princess to the ninja, to the sorceress to a boy inventive genius to "Ramen Rider", a parody of Kamen Rider.
Tongue firmly in cheek, Ninja High School is an environment rife with possibilities. Sadly for the emo crowd, NHS is not meant for much whiny drama.
All of the above suggestions involve games that would have a school theme. But perhaps you want to play teen heroes without the school drama? Not a problem. Here are some alternatives:
Imagine you discovered your parents are super villains. What do you do? Do you join them, or do you run like hell? And after you run, what do you do then? Do you keep running, or do you decide that your parents have to be stopped? This was the premise of Runaways, an ambitious and fun series from Marvel Comics. The series' characters were not normal super heroes in any sense of the word. They did not wear costumes, not all of them adopted code names, and they were hunted as much by the authorities as they were various villains.
The good thing about the series, from a GM's point of view, is that PCs do have the option of playing original characters as well as canons. The team line up has changed over the years as members have died or moved on. And the series premise can be adapted for an original game either taking place in an established comic book universe or an original one.
Teen Titans in my opinion was the one that perfected the formula. It was very much about legacy heroes trying to make their way out of the shadows of their mentors, which provided a different sort of teen angst from the world-hates-us fare The X-Men was providing. Over time original and under utilized characters were added to to the line up, which gave us the outstanding run provided by the team of writer Marv Wolfman and artist George Perez.
Teen Titans has seen a variety of incarnations and with DC's recent creative shake up GMs have a wide variety of options. They can go with several different eras, even choosing to adopt the cartoon series. Original characters are always an option; look at the above pic and you can see there are two original characters, and others were also introduced later on in the new comic, like Bunker.
Man, how I love this series. Like the Teen Titans cartoon, I was very leery about the concept but the execution so far has been spot on. The plots are deep, the action intense, the characters outstanding.
And yes, there is always an option for players to create their own. Just because every character on the show is canon, has appeared in the comic, there is no reason why players cannot be encouraged to try their hand at making up their own. Even creating unique legacy characters (i.e. Hawk Boy, or Kid Tornado) might be fun. My advice, though, is really to wait until the series is over before starting your own.
Make Your Own
I won't lie to you, creating your own universe can be a time consuming chore and when you are done the game can still fail. I have really lucked out where my game is concerned, but even though The Vindicators has succeeded, many other spin off games have failed. Two failures were The Dynamics, which was a game about the Federal government wanting to take a hand in training the next generation of super heroes (Run some years before Avengers, The Initiative, I might add.) and The Neo Phyters, which was to me a very fun game where the teen PCs discover an old super hero base full of artifacts long left behind. The artifacts in one way or another provide the kids with super powers, with varying results. So the kids had a base of operations, some outdated gear and some sub plots in place (Not all the super powers were necessary beneficial; Beholder had blaster goggles fuzed to his face). The game petered out when it descended into me having to come up with ways to introduce new characters, leaving no room for actual plot development.
So yeah, all that work I put into those games felt a little bit like a waste of time when they folded. And I won't lie, I resented the players a bit. But no one twisted my arm to make those games. No one promised me they were going to stick it out regardless of how bored they got. And if players did get bored then it was my fault as the GM for being unable to stimulate their imaginations.
And honestly? It was fun, making those games, creating the background. And if you did make a game and it failed who is to say some of that material could not be recycled later on? Not all failures are total failures. Neo Phyters was more successful than The Dynamics because I learned a great deal from my mistakes.
And there you have it, a wide choice of alternatives to X-Men games.
I can understand how the above suggestions may not satisfy the angsty tone X-Men comics provide. and perhaps you as a GM/moderator would much prefer to have players run adult characters. In the next installment I will provide some ideas that may provide you with some viable alternatives you might find useful if you wish to run a game of adults PCs.