Ten Things You Should Know

Since Superman first put in an appearance in Action Comics #1 in 1938, the superhero genre has slowly but steadily acquired its own unique conventions and tropes. The list below is the Top Ten Things You Should Know About Superheroes. If you are a regular fan of comic books, you could probably name these without looking — and probably a dozen more as well. Even if you never read comics or graphic novels, most of these conventions will be comfortably familiar to you; these are the elements which, when you go to see a superhero movie, you expect to see. These conventions are not absolute, but they are important.

Top Ten Things You Should Know About Superheroes

1. Codenames

Superheroes do not have boring, mundane, or everyday names. Superheroes go by names such as “Defender,” “The Hellion,” “Ghost,” or “Paragon.” When the media reports on a superhero, they do not call him by his real name. When superheroes talk with one another (unless they are close friends in a private setting), they do not use each other’s real names. A codename does several things for the superhero.

First, a codename protects his/her secret identity. If a superhero has a secret identity, he/she usually fights to keep it secret. A broken secret ID can result in legal problems for the hero, increased risk to his/her family members, and loss of employment.

Second, a codename serves as a colorful “handle” for the media, other superheroes, the government, and villains to use when discussing the hero. It is rather lackluster to discuss the bank robbery that Bill Anderson foiled with his super-speed; it is more entertaining and interesting to describe how Kinetik stopped the robbery.

Finally, codenames are quick and easy to remember in combat. In the middle of a fight when every second counts, it can take too long to try and remember a person’s name, especially if you don’t know them well. It becomes far easier to remember and call out a codename such as “Prism” in the heat of combat. This practice first came into use during World War I when ground controllers used call signs to refer to pilots. A call sign proved easier to remember than a mundane name.

The above point is closely related to the fact that a codename is individualized; there may be numerous people named “James Harmon,” but only one person named “Defender.”

2. Costumes

When people talk about superheroes, they often refer to them as “capes.” Sometimes, when discussing a superhero movie, people mention the widespread use of Spandex. Costumes are a vital part of the superhero genre, and one of the most widely accepted. Nonetheless, some people complain that costumes would not be “realistic.” For example, the TV show “Heroes” did not use costumes (which made sense in the show’s context). Of course, the notion of “realism” seems foolish in a world filled with men who can fly and shoot laser beams from their eyes.

Let’s put aside the realism aspect and discuss why superheroes wear costumes.

First, a costume helps protect a superhero’s secret identity. As someone once said, “clothes make the man.” Put someone in an expensive business suit, sports jacket, and red power tie, and people think of that person a certain way. If that same man goes out in tattered jeans and a dirty t-shirt, the people who know him coincidentally probably won’t recognize him, at least not at first. A full superhero costume provides a similar effect.

Second, a superhero costume protects the wearer in small but crucial ways. Many of these costumes are, for the most part, fashioned from something known as carbon nanoweave. This miracle fiber consists of vast numbers of carbon nanotubes. These structures provide incredible strength and flexibility to the cloth, while at the same time providing some protection to the wearer. A properly made costume protects the wearer from excessive friction (especially where super-speed is involved), allows the person to perspire properly, keeps the person warm without being too warm, and offers some slight protection from impact damage.

Related to the second point, a proper superhero costume allows the wearer to use his/her powers in ways that no ordinary clothing could. Does your character burst into flame when he turns on his powers? If he wore a normal business suit, he’d burn through his wardrobe in no time. Does your character possess the ability to stretch enormous distances? Good luck stretching normal fabric like that. A superhero’s powers put tremendous stress on his clothing; ordinary fibers cannot withstand these stresses, and superheroes would end up near-naked after every heroic action, and would spend a fortune in replacement clothes.

Finally, a properly done costume is colorful and intriguing. It looks great on TV news, and adds to a superhero’s image and popularity. On the other hand, a badly done costume looks terrible on TV and can earn a hero (or villain) a lot of hurtful comments!

3. Super Powers Are Nothing New

In our mundane world, we know that people cannot fly under their own power. No one can lift a train car by hand. People cannot turn invisible at will. The GATEWAYS setting is not, however, our mundane world.

In the GATEWAYS setting, metahumans (the common term used to describe individuals with powers) are nothing new or out of the ordinary. Although there have been recorded instances of metahumans since before the time of ancient Egypt, they first began appearing relatively frequently after 1919. Given that the campaign is set in 2020, this means that people have had a little more than a century to get used to the idea.

This does not mean that superpowers are common or mundane. If an everyday citizen in the GATEWAYS version of Earth happens to see Paragon flying overhead, that is an unusual event he will probably share with his co-workers and family throughout the day. The news will cover the fly-over, even if only for a few seconds. Superheroes (and super villains) are an accepted — if not always welcomed — reality of the world.

4. Super-Science Is Everywhere

The GATEWAYS setting is home to amazing technology. Superheroes wear clothing made out of carbon nanotubes. Government agents carry energy beam weapons and (on occasion) jetpacks. Thanks to technology, the world is home to wondrous inventions — inventions and accomplishments that are only dreamed of in the mundane world, or downright impossible.

For example, Captain America carries his iconic shield, a shield fashioned from vibranium. This rare metal is virtually indestructible, absorbs energy and dissipates it quickly, and yet is relatively light. Another metal, adamantium, is ever rarer and yet even harder to damage or even knick. Thanks to technology, corporations and organizations have constructed underwater bases, enormous flying vessels, vast skyscrapers, super-computers with artificial intelligence, and so forth.

5. Death Is Not Necessarily Permanent

In the GATEWAYS setting, death remains a serious impediment to getting anything done. It is not, however, unheard of for a superhero or villain to come back from the dead. Metahumans survive incredible events, and even when they die, there is always the chance they come back. Thanks to the existence of magic as well as super science, it is sometimes possible to return the dead to full life (and we’re not just talking zombification, either).

All that being said, no superhero or villain should assume he is coming back after death. Hundreds of metahumans have died and never returned. Death may not be as undefeatable as she once was, but she should never be treated with a cavalier attitude.

6. Soliloquies Take No Time

In the comic books, villains (and sometimes heroes) deliver their big monologue in the middle of a pitched battle. A villain’s monologue can go on for what seems forever while he boasts of his prowess and explains all the details of his latest scheme. In real life, anyone who tried this would get the living shit beat out of them after two seconds. As has been pointed out, however, this is NOT real life.

In the HERO System, a soliloquy is a No Phase action; this means a character can deliver one even when it is not his turn, and it takes no time to do so. Even a normal conversation may be a Zero Phase Action — must be performed on a character’s time, but takes no real time to perform. This is a crucial genre convention.

In most cases, your hero won’t be able to do what has become de rigueur in action movies: blow away the bad guy in the middle of his soliloquy (followed by a bad pun or terrible joke, delivered deadpan). Likewise, most of the time a villain won’t simply attack your hero in the midst of his speech. Realistic? No, but again, this we’re not hear to play the Game of Realism.

7. Your Hero WILL Be Captured

Players universally hate it when their characters are knocked unconscious and taken captive. They HATE it, and with a passion. Players will do anything, try anything, including character suicide, to prevent capture. In the typical player’s mind, surrender or capture = defeat.

My piece of advice: GET OVER IT.

Superhero captures are a major genre convention. Superheroes get captured often, and then they escape often. Since this is a superhero genre game, expect your character to suffer capture on rare occasion. This gives you a chance to use your endless creativity to win your character’s escape, which makes bragging rights all the better.

Character captures will not be frequent — this won’t be like the old Adam West “Batman” series where he and Robin were captured every single episode. Even so, they will happen. On occasion, if your character is defeated in combat, the GM may tell you that you do not get to Recover and rejoin the fight. (See Rule #1 in House Rules for more information on the overall concept here, i.e., Story Trumps Rules.)

8. If It Is Good, Consider It Borrowed

The superhero genre is a wonderful chaotic mish-mash of other genres. Where else can you fly through the sky, throw a bus against a giant robot, fight zombies, encounter demons from other dimensions, time travel, visit a space station, fend of an alien invasion, explore the center of the Earth, and get shrunk down to microbe-size? This genre gleefully and shamelessly borrows (steals) from every source of inspiration imaginable. That is one of the things that makes this such a fun and chaotic playground.

In the spirit of this truth, you will see elements lifted, borrowed, stolen, and adapted from many other sources — movies, books, comic books, computer games, and so forth. In the GATEWAYS setting, you may run into Wolverine, Captain America, or Spider-Man (Marvel Comics). You may end up fighting the villainous arcane cult known as the Circle of Thorns (City of Heroes). I borrow/steal these things because I appreciate them and like them, and have a place for them in my setting. Keep in mind, these elements are likely different than their original source versions — borrowing does not preclude changing (sometimes a lot of it). Put another way, if you possess encyclopedic knowledge of Spider-Man, that won’t necessarily be all that valuable here.

At the same time, do NOT assume that if you see a recognizable element that it was necessarily borrowed from the latest movie or computer game that is out and popular. If your characters visit a secret underwater villain’s base, don’t assume I just watched a James Bond movie the other night. If some popular science fiction movie features an alien weapon that controls brain waves, be careful in assuming something similar in game was inspired by that source. Put another way, ALL fiction shares a deep well of resources; poets, playwrights, and novelists have borrowed from each other for thousands of years, and that will only continue forward. (This gets mentioned again on the House Rules page, simply because it is important.

9. Killing Has Consequences

This is an interesting conundrum, and one of those times where the superhero genre bears some resemblance to the mundane world. In the Real World, killing another person is illegal and often punished harshly by the authorities. Murder is considered one of the worst crimes a person can commit. If a person commits murder, he or she is likely to spend time in prison; in some places, a murder conviction may carry a death sentence as the punishment.

There are a few instances where killing another human being is accepted, and is not referred to as murder. First, during wartime. When a soldier kills the enemy, he is obeying orders and doing the “right” thing. Killing the enemy is not considered murder. Unless a soldier kills under the wrong circumstance (e.g., shooting a surrendering prisoner), any killing he performs is part of his job. Even in cases of unjustified killings (such as shooting a surrendering prisoner), circumstances often permit the soldier to escape conviction. War is like that; normal mores do not always apply.

The second instance involves self defense. If a person kills to protect his life, the lives of his family, or his property, he stands a chance of avoiding a criminal conviction. Contrary to public opinion, however, the self defense defense is not a guarantee; courts and judges take into account the circumstances involved and the level of force needed in the situation. If someone breaks into your car to steal it and you blow them away with your shotgun, you are likely to end up with a manslaughter conviction (or, at the very least, an indictment).

In the GATEWAYS setting, superheroes are held to similar standards. Under most circumstances, it is agains the law for them to kill, even in apprehending a criminal or stopping a crime. The law expects people to use the minimum level of force necessary to protect lives and property. If a superhero, even one duly authorized by a legal entity, starts killing crooks, he risks lawsuits and criminal convictions. Put simply, killing another human being carries potential consequences.

In comic books, superheroes generally try to avoid killing when possible. For example, if you ever read Batman comics, or watched some of the Batman movies, consider the Joker. The Joker killed one version of Robin (not the original). He has killed countless policemen and other individuals. He has used poison gas, acid, and other lethal attacks. Every time Batman captures him, he ends up in Arkham Asylum, only to escape shortly thereafter. Despite this, Batman does not kill the Joker (with only a few exceptions here and there in comic history). He beats the Joker to a pulp and has him locked away, but he does not kill. If Batman — a fairly vengeance-driven and single-minded character — refuses to kill the Joker — a remorseless, lethal, and depraved villain if ever there was one — then that should give you an idea of how important this convention is to the genre.

If you create a superhero that goes around killing other people frequently, even if he reserves his killing to villains, he will suffer consequences one way or another. If your character plans on taking a life, make sure you understand the potential risks and downsides.

Of course, in the starkly violent world of superheroes, death is commonplace. There are simply times where mooks, thugs, and minions die. Not every single death will come back to haunt a character. This genre convention is primarily for instances where a character knowingly, ruthlessly, and needlessly kills someone. Those VIPER agents can be knocked unconscious and sent to police custody. That supervillain can be pummeled and thrashed and then turned over to the authorities.

10. Superheroes Live Complicated Lives

You can’t get much more of a troubled character than poor old Peter Parker, aka, Spider-Man. Let’s look at his life. First, Spider-Man is widely distrusted, thanks to the vendetta that J. Jonah Jameson has (a vendetta he carries out in the pages of the Daily Bugle newspaper). Second, Peter Parker has to carefully safeguard his secret identity. He cannot afford to let anyone know that he is, in fact, Spider-Man. Third, he must constantly protect and worry over his sickly Aunt May, a woman who has come close to death more times than almost any other character in the Marvel universe. Fourth, Peter is poor and often under- or unemployed. He has to scrounge for change to get on the subway. He has to sell photos to pay for web fluid. Paying his rent is a monthly challenge. Finally, he must observe a code of honor that he has set for himself. He won’t kill, and he always tries to protect innocent bystanders, even at grave risk to his personal health.

Superheroes lead complicated lives. They have dependent family and friends. They have secret or public identities. They must worry about money. They may have numerous hang-ups. They have to worry about bad guys hunting them down. They have vulnerabilities and weaknesses that bad guys can exploit.

When you make your superhero, he/she will select a number of “Complications” to simulate the difficulties of his lifestyle. Since every character will have his or her own complications, you can imagine that a large portion of adventures will revolve around these problems and challenges. That is what makes a superhero a hero — overcoming adversity and fighting past obstacles. If you want to make a carefree, worry-free superhero, you are in the wrong genre and the wrong campaign. (Heck, even multi-billionaire Tony Stark had an alcoholism problem and several people hunting him!)


Ten Things You Should Know

Gateways MarkDMHart