#RPGaDay2015: 19 – Panels

Supers is one of my favorite genres for RPGs, which is part of why Four Colors al Fresco exists. But let me tell you a little bit of where it came from—my favorite supers RPG before I created my own.

There are basically two branches of supers RPG design. The first, and older, focuses on modeling the abilities of superheroes. At first, this was done very crudely (with the likes of Superhero 2044 and Villains & Vigilantes), but it got increasingly sophisticated, reaching its pinnacle (so far) in games like Champions 6th edition, Mutants & Masterminds 3rd edition, and Wild Talents 2nd edition, each of which can let you model just about any combination of details for a superhero’s powers. 

The 2nd branch, initially driven largely be the Forge, consists of games that focus instead on the drama and character arcs of the typical superhero story. Some of these games don’t even bother trying to quantify powers at all. With Great Power… and Capes are probably the two best examples of this style, but many other games have tried a similar approach. There are also a number of games that pursue a hybrid approach, most notably Marvel Heroic Roleplaying, which has a power-building system (nowhere near the sophistication or complexity of M&MM or Champions, but philosophically on the same wavelength), but a game structure that is all about the storyline and characters. 

But that 2nd branch didn’t start with the Forge. A few story-focused supers RPGs predate the Forge-inspired games. Four Colors al Fresco is one of them, but it was in part inspired by another: Panels, a little free web-hosted RPG from the mid-’90s. [Actually, I can no longer remember whether we figured out that trying to create a consistent framework to model superhero comics, where powers and capabilities are wildly inconsistent, was the wrong tack before I discovered Panels, or Panels was the source of that epiphany.] Panels has, unfortunately, long since disappeared from the web, but the Wayback Machine still has most of it. You should check it out. It has a lot in common with With Great Power… and particularly Capes and Truth & Justice, but it also has some original ideas that I’ve not seen anywhere else, particularly the “statures”, which might be the cleverest summary of superhero “types” in an RPG.

When I discovered Panels and wrote Four Colors al Fresco, what I wanted in a supers RPG was one that didn’t involve complex math or try and fail to model superpowers as they show up in comic books. If I hadn’t written my own supers RPG, I might still be playing a variation of Panels

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