A Brief History of SUPERWORLD

-the game that gave birth to Wild Cards

By Steve Perrin

Baby Steps

It started off camera, you could say, because I wasn’t present for the start. I was just starting to work full time at the Chaosium, a mid level RPG company that had published my RuneQuest game and the Stormbringer game based on Michael Moorcock’s Elric stories for content and on RuneQuest for game system that I developed with Ken St. Andre. I did these as side projects to my mundane occupations working for health insurance companies.

Greg Stafford, the creator of RuneQuest’s world of Glorantha and President and Chief Creative Officer pof the Chaosium, took the RuneQuest rules and wrote Basic Role Playing (BRP) a genre-non-specific little 16 page game meant for an introduction to the idea of role playing and, not so incidentally, an introduction to the basic game system we were using in RQ, Stormbringer, and the upcoming Call of Cthulhu.

Since BRP was supposed to be a universal system, Sherman Kahn, one of our production people who would eventually be responsible for Chaosium’s RIngworld game, and Charlie Krank, a production whiz who would eventually become president of Chaosium for several tumultuous years, sat down with a few of our regular after hours playtesting gang (I had either gone home for the day or this was just before I became a full time employee – memory falters), and everyone rolled up a BRP character and those characters got put through some ad hoc scenarios as fantasy characters, as modern adventurer characters, as science fiction characters, and as superheroes.


New Worlds

When next I arrived at the Chaosium (which at that time was a literal cottage industry – Headquartered in a cottage in the California Bay Area town of Albany) I was presented with the project of creating Worlds of Wonder, a boxed set of 16-page games that would formalize how to use BRP in various genre settings. As it happened, I had already been working on Magic World before I came to work full time for Chaosium. It is a more classic approach to sword and sorcery than RuneQuest is.

I roped in my friend Gordon Monson to help with the science fiction Future World – a world of exotic weaponry and universal matter transmission so we didn’t have to worry about spaceship rules in a 16 page rule book. And my longtime friend and co-author on RuneQuest, Steve Henderson, helped me out with playtest and concepts with Superworld.

At about the same time we started working on Worlds of Wonder, the Hero Games crew published Champions, their seminal superhero game that has been the benchmark for most superhero games since 1981. Quite frankly, several design elements of Champions snuck into Superworld, as most of my non-Chaosium game playing friends were enamored of the game, and the Hero Games guys were local friends.

The 16 page Superworld had some game balance problems, but it worked with the other games – one could imagine a resident of Wonder Town, the four page connecting booklet, going up Fantasy street one day, Future street the next, and donning cape and flying down Super street the next.

Mixing Worlds

Our favorite playtest for the game did not use the Super aspect at all. We postulated that organized crime on Future World had opened a gate leading to a fantasy world. One evening, our group of exploiters stumbled on a lonely castle belonging to the local evil Warlord and his magical minions, including the skeletons in the graveyard. In an epic battle of blaster vs wand, vibroblade vs +3 greatsword, the Mob took over the castle, intending to use it as a base for exploiting this world.

The next evening the mobsters, backed up by reinforcements and heavier weapons, suddenly found a small army of heroes and wizards and a dragon reading them the Riot Act, which in effect was a proclamation that the previous owners of the castle were Bad People and they should surrender or be annihilated by the Holy Crusade against Bad People.

The mobsters being Bad People, though not the ones being crusaded against, indicated their defiance in the time approved manner. The following struggle was also epic, and concluded with the dragon facing off against a battlesuit equipped hitman with a vibroblade. They both died.

Meshing Superworld with the other two was somewhat more problematical if only because of the vast variety of super powers and the mechanics I added to create an initiative system and an energy base for powers that needed more than the Magic Points used in Magic World. I did, however, adopt Gordon’s Future World concept of three energy types (Electromagnetic, electrical, and kinetic) for weapons and armor, which left some characters with interesting holes in their defenses.

A Bigger World

Worlds of Wonder did not catch on. It was perhaps too generic and not specific enough in any of the genres. I started work on Worlds of Wonder II, which would combine demonic magic, pulp adventure, and maybe giant robots. We’ll never know, since Greg Stafford pulled me off that project and into doing a full boxed game of Superworld.

Still enmeshed in Champions, I decided on a point buy toolbox system for creating superheroes, influenced entirely too much by the Champions system. I still think point-buy is the best general approach to super powers, but I could have developed the method of using points in a different direction that fit the basic system better.

Besides friends like Steve and Gordon, various Chaosium-employees and friends like Charlie, Sherman, Ken Kaufer, Steve Leary, Sandy Petersen, Bruce Dresselhaus, and outside testers like Wayne Shaw, John Sullivan, and Stephen R. Marsh all added to the final product – often by ruthlessly exploiting holes in the rules that needed to be hurriedly patched fixed. Some of them contributed to planned sourcebooks that were never published – but are still on my shelves.

After many months of development, and constant playtests, Superworld made its debut. During the testplay process, many little quirks showed up and some improbable characters made auspicious, and inauspicious, debuts.

World Beater Characters

One such character was developed by the aforementioned Charlie Krank. Fusion Flea would have been right at home in an episode of Captain Carrot and his Amazing Zoo Crew, but an actual flea with fusion powers in a normal superhero setting has logical problems. I figure such a character would spend its time reducing the population of domestic dogs in the United States. Not exactly Truth, Justice, and the American Way. It would admittedly make an interesting one-off supervillain.

This makes me wonder if the Wild Card virus would affect other primates. I imagine the Takisians  were good enough genetic engineers to limit the virus to a human vector, but what if they had no nonhuman primates on Takis? I’d be really nervous if a bunch of chimpanzee aces suddenly came busting out of Africa.

My friend Steve Henderson came up with a villain group that gave a lot of playtesters fits. They were called Spectrum and each one had a motif based on a common color reference. The leader was Red Devil, who had demonic powers with a firecracker theme. Others included Blue Streak (speedster), Orange Ogre (nasty strongman), White Death (woman with ice powers), etc. Particularly notable was Purple Passion, a villainess whose costume consisted of a pair of purple yoga pants. Based somewhat on the concept of Modesty Blaise’s “Nailer” maneuver, she combined definite physical charms with mental control over human males. Her job was to take one male superhero out of a fight. It worked, too.

For a followup Superworld scenario book, Cry Havoc, Chuck Huber provided a very neat three way battle between heroes, criminals, and Soviet super soldiers. They were all attempting to control an alien spaceship that was melting out of the Antarctic Ice. As an Easter Egg of sorts, he carefully detailed the 8 person crew of the ship with many subtle hints that they were alien versions, the Dvorn, of the crew of the Minnow. Unfortunately, the editorial crew at Chaosium decided that all the careful detailing of the crew was really irrelevant to the actual scenario, so we cut down the crew to 2 (essentially the Skipper and the Professor) and eliminated much of the subtle descriptions. It’s not that the Chaosium didn’t like Easter Eggs and subtlety, but none of us had ever watched Gilligan’s Island.

This book was unique in that it featured write-ups of the characters in Superworld, Champions, and Villains and Vigilantes formats. I think this was the first time this was attempted, and it was one of the more successful attempts.

Lamentably, Superworld had an early popularity, but the Chaosium did not have the staff to support it as well as its major hits like RuneQuest, Stormbringer, Call of Cthulhu, and the official Elfquest game that I was given to write right after Superworld made its debut. The flood of supplements to Champions and Villains and Vigilantes soon overwhelmed Superworld and despite some plans for a second edition (which it needed to concentrate the various changes and additions that took up sections of two different supplements – including the above-mentioned Cry Havoc) the Chaosium ran into money problems and had to cut back drastically, which included letting several employees, including me, go. Since I was the only developer with a real interest in superheroes and comic book heroics, this stopped any further development of Superworld products.

A Blast from the Past

Before this happened, however, I received a letter. It started “Do you realize you’ve owed me a letter for 17 years?” George R.R. Martin and I had been correspondents back in the early days of comics fandom while we were both teenagers and I had let my college work and involvement with more face to face fandom (parties!) and helping start the Society for Creative Anachronism (and resulting love and marriage) overwhelm my moral obligation to answer all correspondence.

George went on to explain that he had been given a copy of Superworld as a birthday present and had spent the last year and a half running a Superworld campaign. As he has described in his own blog, this occupied all of his creative time – nothing that paid money was getting written. Now he was considering just what he could do with this experience in the way of a writing product that he could actually get paid for. We started negotiations for a campaign book. Frankly, I doubt Chaosium could have offered enough money to make it worth his while to do much work on such a book, but I was angling to get the rights to the campaign and do all the scut work myself. But then the axe fell.

Unable to create a new career for himself as a game supplement writer, George was forced back on his own resources to come up with a way to monetize his Superworld experience. Thus was Wild Cards born.

Heroes Reborn?

In the last four years or so, the Chaosium has undergone a Renaissance. Some products like Stormbringer and Pendragon have been passed on to other, dedicated, publishers. Others, like the official Elfquest game, lived out their licenses and disappeared from the shelves.

A whole new management crew made up of long time enthusiasts is in charge, with assistance from originals like Greg Stafford and Sandy Petersen and, to some extent, me. Besides my contributions to the new edition of RuneQuest, I am occasionally discussing a new edition of Superworld with creative director Jeff Richard. We are looking at ways of combining superheroes with the “superheroics” of a HeroQuest. So a new Superworld may yet be revealed for future and faithful caped crusaders.