I would argue that while every game faces significant challenges in balancing simulation vs. playability, superhero roleplaying games face the largest challenge. This is largely because a superhero rpg must be able to handle almost any possibility in order to simulate its source material. Almost anything can happen in a comic book and that can be difficult to simulate.
The first superhero roleplaying game was Superhero 2044, and it was inspirational on many levels. It was also unplayable as written. Donald Saxman did a yeoman's job of simulating certain aspects of comic books -- superhero "patrols" for example -- but the combat system and character creation systems need additional tweaking to work. Many of the concepts of 2044 made their way into the CHAMPIONS roleplaying game, via heavy house rulings by Wayne Shaw. You can see 2044's influence in both the "point based" character creation system and in the CHAMPIONS combat system (click the link above to see the similarities in the combat system).
The first playable superhero roleplaying game was Villains & Vigilantes. The first edition of the game is playable, but has some very cloogy bits -- like the "to hit" matrix which makes the 2nd edition matrix look like child's play. The second edition was an improvement in every way over the first edition and is still a game I very much enjoy reading and playing. I recently had my regular gaming group roll up some V&V characters and look forward to a full fledged adventure in the near future. It's a fun system that falls heavily into the "abstractionist" rather than "simulationist" camp, but some of its design choices simulate comic book action better than others. To highlight this conflict, I'd like to examine how two powers are mechanically represented in the game: Force Field and Telekinesis. These are two of the three powers in the game I would need if I wanted to make Sue Storm Richards -- The Invisible Woman as a character. I understand that she she doesn't "technically" have telekinesis as a power, but she uses her force fields to mimic the effects of a traditional TK character.
In fact, let's stat up Sue Richards in the process.
In V&V, like in many super hero game systems, a character's primary statistics can affect how individual powers work. V&V uses the classic D&D system of 3 to 18 as the range of "normal human" statistics, and has five main statistics: Strength, Endurance, Agility, Intelligence, and Charisma. Most of these are self-explanatory. Only Charisma doesn't follow the normal definition. It measures not only what we would normally call Charisma, but also includes what degree the character falls on the side of good or evil. So a "very heroic" good hero might have an 18, as would a "very evil" villain.
In Sue's case, I believe all of her basic attributes fall within the normal range. If they didn't, we'd have to decide what her stats were before exposure to Cosmic Rays and deconstruct what her "initial" statistics were and how they are different from her "super heroic" statistics so we could know what attribute related superpower -- like "Enhanced Agility" -- we would need to give her. To limit debate -- though not eliminate it -- I'll be using the "Classic Marvel Forever" stats for the old TSR Marvel Game as a baseline. Since "weight" also matters in V&V, I'll also use the Marvel.com bio which tells us that Sue is 5"6" and weighs 120 lbs.
Below, I'll include her Classic Marvel Forever stat and follow it with my V&V translation. For Charisma, we'll assume that she isn't currently under the influence of the Fear Monger and give her a high Charisma.
For the sake of argument, we'll make her a 7th level character. This will matter as things progress, and we'll also assume that her 6 level advancements have not been added to the stats above.
Attribute Classic Marvel V&V Strength Typical 10 Endurance Remarkable 18 Agility Excellent 16 Intelligence Good 14 Charisma N/A 16
Now...let's have a look at those powers and see how they simulate various effects from the comic books.
The Force Field power is pretty interesting and actually covers most of what Sue Storm Richards does with her Force Fields in the comics. It creates barriers that can comprise of x number of 1 inch "square planes" where x is the player's current number of power points (1 inch is the equivalent of approximately 5 feet). In the case of Sue Storm she has 58 power (starting power equals the sum of all stats except Charisma), so she is capable of making a pretty big force field -- Fifty-Two five foot "square planes" is a lot of surface area.
Force Field provides "Force Field defense," which in Villains & Vigilantes means that the player is very difficult to hit. Most powers need to roll a 0 or less on a d20 to hit someone in a Force Field. While that might seem impossible, players do get to add modifiers to that base number of 0 or less based on powers, stats, and level. The Force Field power also lets our Invisible Woman attach opponents doing damage equivalent to her "basic HTH damage." As you will see when you look at the character sheet below, this isn't very much. In fact, it's only 1d4.
There are a couple of interesting things to look at here.
First, it costs a number of Power Points to keep up a Force Screen equal to 1/2 the number of points of damage repulsed which originated from a list of powers. This is interesting because there is not a rule anywhere in the game for determining whether damage is repulsed or not. One might assume that "damage repulsed" is damage from an attack that would have hit the defender, but for the fact the defender was protected by Force Field. I think this is a reasonable interpretation. Let's see how this ruling would work -- notice that we are already having to make a ruling to interpret the use of a power.
Ice Powers are on the list of powers that take energy to defend against using Force Field. Ice Power hits a character protected by Force Field on a 0 or less. A character with no defenses that work against Ice Power would be hit on a 14 or less (a 70% chance). Let's say that Blizzard is attacking Sue Storm. Normally, he would hit her on a 14 or less, but she has her Force Field up. He rolls to hit as normal and rolls a 13 and would normally hit Sue except for the Force Field, so he misses. With other defenses, this would be the end of the result. Because Force Field has a power cost related to "repulsed" damage, we now need Blizzard to determine how much damage he would have done and we subtract 1/2 that amount from Sue's current power score. If Sue were protecting someone else and the attack got past the Force Field, which in Blizzard's case would only be possible with modifiers from stats or level, she would lose power equal to the full amount of damage done. At least that's what I think would happen.
Let me just say, that if my interpretation is correct it seems like a pretty good simulation of how Force Fields work in the comics. We often see Force Field users straining to maintain the Field under pressure of attacks. How this power would work from devices, like Iron Man's suit for example, is another matter entirely as suits don't have "Power Ratings" and instead have a number of "Uses." This only adds to the number of rulings we must make to fill in cracks in the rules.
The second interesting thing here is that the Force Field's damage is based on the character's normal ability to damage someone when punching them. I don't know about you, but I think most Force Field attackers -- like say Hal Jordan or Sue Storm -- have this kind of attack because their hand to hand attack isn't very "superheroic." This aspect of the power doesn't seem very realistic as a simulation. I would recommend using a fix that I am going to be making for Telekinesis in a moment, and that is to use an alternate means of calculating base damage for this power. A normal HTH attack is based on a character's strength and weight. Force Field powers should have their "HTH Damage" based on an attribute that best simulates how the Force Field works. For Sue Storm, I would argue that the HTH damage should be based on her "Endurance" instead of Strength. This would still only give "Level 1" Sue Storm 1d6 damage, and isn't something that breaks the system. I would also argue that Hal Jordan's should be based on his Charisma score.
I think we should use an alternate means of Capacity Calculation. Normal carrying capacity is calculated as follows:
One thing that is possible in V&V is for a character to have a power "selected" multiple times. The recommendation V&V gives is to increase the effectiveness of the power if it has been "rolled" more than once. I would argue that Sue Storm rolled TK at least twice and would have that increase the multiple of x20lbs to x40lbs giving her a 1st level TK of 720lbs and 1d8 damage. That's all I need for her starting out.
One of the things that V&V allows characters to do is increase basic statistics with level increases. For the sake of argument, let's assume that modern Invisible Woman is 7th level and that she has put all of her advancements into Endurance.
Using our updated equations 7th level Invisible Woman would have a Force Field Capacity of 973lbs doing 1d10 damage. This is right in the sweet spot of between 1d10 and 1d12 plus stat bonuses damage (+1 in Sue's case). Her TK would be 6720lbs which does 2d8 damage. Given that this hits like a HTH attack, and HTH attacks are the least accurate in the game hitting on only a 5 or less, I think this is right in the sweet spot and puts her in line with most of V&V's "Bricks."
Notice that what constitutes a massively strong character in V&V is 3 tons, significantly less than the Hulk's 100 ton lift capacity. That would do somewhere in the range of 6d10 damage, a figure not likely to be "survivable" by most characters.
Just looking at these two powers it seems that V&V is a very good simulator of Comic Book style action, but that it still has a few cracks to fill in. Some are easy to fill in, like changing the TK equation or even I imagine coming up with a new Carrying Capacity to Basic HTH Damage chart (something I would recommend doing). Others are a little more difficult, like figuring out what is meant by "Damage Repulsed." The game was the first truly viable superhero role playing game. It is a fun game, but it does show some fraying around the edges of the rules. Some of these are legacies of being a kind of D&D derivative in combat, others are due to insufficient play testing.
None of them are game killers though, and all of them make for interesting combinations about how V&V tackles the problem of Simulation vs. Playability. With the exception of some of the equations required, and the clunkiness of the combat system, it's pretty clear that a lot of effort went into playability instead of simulation and where the designers focused too much on simulation -- the system's attack power vs. defense power attack chart comes to mind -- you end up with some of the more clunky aspects of the game.
I hope that