Descriptive Superheroes

“Faster than a speeding bullet, more powerful than a locomotive…”

I sometimes think comic book geekery (and I include myself in that category) does a disservice to the design of comic book RPGs, particularly in terms of the comic geek’s desire to quantify all of those “powers and abilities far beyond those of mortal men.” How far beyond? And how are we defining ‘mortal men’ in this instance? Are we looking at a national average or a racial mean over multiple generations…? Etc.

Like a great many, I thrilled to the entries in books like The Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe, where I could learn just how many pounds-per-square-inch Cyclops’ eyebeams put out, or the number of footcandles in Northstar and Aurora’s blinding flash, or the temperature of the Human Torch’s flame (and nova blast). Likewise, I spent many a productive hour figuring out algebraic ratios between power output and dice of damage (Normal and Killing, of course) in Champions.

Increasingly, I’ve found that, while those kinds of things are mildly interesting from an abstract, “thought experiment” perspective (what some might call “gear-heading”) that they have little, if any, practical relationship to superhero game play. From my perspective as both player and GM, it’s far more useful to put the capabilities of superhero characters in descriptive practical terms. For example:

  • How much can I lift? A heavy sack? A car? A bus? An aircraft carrier? Knowing a character can bench press 15,000 tons isn’t a particularly useful figure unless you’ve got a handy table of what various things weigh (or a savant-like ability to recall such figures). Knowing the character can heft a pickup truck, on the other hand, is a fairly useful comparison.
  • How much damage do I do? Knowing the power output of a hero’s attacks in PSI, joules, watts, or temperature again isn’t all that useful. More helpful to know that the character can reliably blast or punch through a sheetrock wall, a tree (or telephone pole), a car door, or an inch of armor-plate.
  • How fast can I go? Is it a matter of Mach 2.1 versus Mach 2.3 (or 120 MPH vs. 100 MPH, for that matter) or is it: as fast as a car, fast as a plane, super-sonic, and near-lightspeed?

It’s not just descriptive capabilities versus numerical or more quantified ones, either, it’s also broader or less “granular” gradations of ability versus finer and more detailed. Seems to me that beyond a certain point it hardly matters whether or not a particular character is “stronger,” at least not in a way that the dice themselves can’t settle.

This lends itself to a descriptive approach to defining character capabilities with a relatively narrow set, often along the lines of: less than average, average, above average, and the same for the “superhuman” levels: low, average, and high. Maybe thrown a “cosmic” level on top and a “truly terrible” level at the bottom, but that about covers it.