I’m actually hoping the breadth of people in the Cauldron means we get to have a broader discussion than just “Masks” here.
I’ll kind of approach your questions back to front because that’s how the causality works for me, I hope it helps
what features would you want in a “good” superhero TTRP?
I think superheroes exist in their own world. I don’t think I want to see Superheroes in the current world. Like, honestly, I want superhero stories to be elevated, theatrical. In fact I think “theatre” is a great way to think of it, because of the long history between “representation” vs “presentation” as a goal. There has always been space in theatre for things to be “unreal” in a way that comments on reality in a satisfying way, and I think this is what superhero stories need for me. Masks is actually really good at this, because it uses teenage melodrama to elevate. So I’m more interested in Superheroes by way of Pasión de las Pasiones than I am for superheroes by way of, say, Night Witches or The One Ring. I want a system that understands it’s play, and leans into it. I think Kieron Gillian’s DIE RPG has a cool methodology for creating presentational stories as well. Maybe something like the Kids on Bikes system’s phasing?
My point is that, overall, I want the stakes of Superhero stories to be a representation of internal conflict, right? The question isn’t “can our heroes stop the dam from exploding and flooding their hometown”, it’s actually more about “what is our hero’s place in the world and can they move forward while tethered to the past”. Games that carry good B-stories are great for this. Basically I want my superhero stories to be a good procedural. How do you do that? Shiiiiiiit if you figure it out let me know.
What do those games have in common with OSR ? (Or what do they * not have in common?)
Making change. Player characters in OSR games are incredibly empowered. They are put into situations where they can make impact. That’s the story of Superheroes. The question is never about can they, but about should they, or what does it cost. OSR characters are often put into situations where there’s great risk to themselves, where the question is rarely “can these characters reach the shrine of occult nastiness?” but more “will someone die” or “can they do it before X”. Even funnels, the deadliest of OSR flowcharts, are designed to be pushed to a conclusion of achievement. Rarely is the TPK a goal of OSR story design. That’s really similar to Superhero stories
OSR does want to threaten death though. Death is rarely a staple of superhero stories, or at least not for important characters. An explosion in the puppy factory doesn’t kill the patron, instead it covers them in fur and turns them into the Fluffinator, next season’s enemy. You can’t do a good superhero story with Harm or HP or Death as your stakes of every combat (well, never say never, I’m sure someone is doing it real well!). But without that, clashes between heroes actually feel a bit wet-noodle (this is, IMO, Masks’ biggest problem insofar as the actual clashes between Titans feels…empty?). So somewhere in there you need meat.
What Superhero RPGs do you like?
How much experience do you have playing or GMing those games?
Masks is great. Powered by the Apocalypse, focus on teenage supers. Much more the teenage than the supers. Played it a few times, GM’d once. Did an episode of a podcast on two of the characters.
DIE, as mentioned before is a really interesting take on the structure, and I’d love to see it unfold more. Have never played it though.
Cortex Prime is a solid choice. It uses stunting systems. Overall it needs more growth and development in the system. As in, there’s very little to direct players, like gold or XP in D&D, to push the characters toward adventure and develop change afterward. Very procedural too, in terms of assembling pools and rolling. I wish it were smoother.
World Wide Wrestling is, obviously, not a superhero game. But it is a GREAT example of changing the stakes from the immediate to the presentation. Kayfabe/phases, all that stuff is an awesome game for players to play. Imagine a version of WWW where the “in ring” stuff was Superman, and the Behind the Scenes is Clark Kent. Shit, even better, a Peter Parker/Spiderman one.
Psi*Run is a roll-and-allocate Superhero game. It’s really good at what it does, and I just want to see it developed on more. Like, it’s so perfect for the session it offers, but it doesn’t offer anything outside of it’s proposed session. It’s so great for what it is, though. I’m Abed screaming “SIX SEASONS AND A MOVIE” because I just want more.
Age of Sigmar: Soulbound is a great trad superpowered experience. Like Deathwatch before it, games in Warhammer universes tend to have the ridiculous upward scaling that makes for good superhero stories. Haven’t played Soulbound itself, but I’m also well-read enough to know what it is.
Strike! is what I want superheroes to be if you are doing the combat fight thing. It’s dynamic, it’s interesting. It’s all the tactical combat of 4th edition with a LOT of updating in terms of the out-of-combat RP. It draws hard lines between the two, which bothers me not even the slightest. I really like it, and I’d play the SHIT out of a super story in something like that. it’s a shame that it’s about 6 years old and isn’t being updated to a published product at this stage. It really suffers the results of the heartbreakers.
I feel like some White Wolf stuff would fit in here too, but I honestly don’t have the experience with them to comment.