I’m a big fan of the Supergirl TV show, and I’m particularly intrigued by the fact that its particular licensing limitation* implies a world where most of the superpowers are possessed by alien refugees. What follows is a setting take on how to justify this, followed by some design musings. The next part adds on an additional option for this type of campaign.
* Most of the non-alien DC characters were already in use on other shows or otherwise not available to the TV shows.
In God’s Image
A strange truism of sapient life throughout the known universe is that it seems bound to very similar forms. Through countless channels on countless worlds, evolution eventually settles on a bipedal hominid form for its pinnacle. Many look nearly identical to humans with minor cosmetic variations, the vast majority of the remainder are superficially different but structurally the same, and only the smallest fraction are truly alien in form. Nearly all of them drink water, breathe oxygen, are comfortable in a single G of gravity, and can derive nourishment from the same kind of foods.
Many religions throughout inhabited space seek to explain this truism, and the cutting edge of xenoscience can only postulate some constants of physics and chemistry that cause life to converge in this way.
Perhaps stranger, mental acuity is similarly constrained. Few sapients are much smarter than humanity, and nearly all have understandable emotions and drives. This is also true of their machine creations. There is no such thing as a true general artificial intelligence that any sapient will admit, though many races have come up with quite sophisticated virtual intelligences that lack their own motives and creativity.
All these factors mean that cosmic society plateaus technologically and culturally. The development void between 21st century humans and any given alien species is much smaller than many scientists would expect, even for civilizations much older than those on Earth. Bright humans exposed to starfaring technology can often figure out how to work it, and even partially reverse engineer it: it turns out that very little technology is sufficiently advanced to become magic. While this technological wall is no doubt depressing to futurists, it means that humanity is poised to enter intergalactic society at far less of a deficit than might otherwise be expected.
Of course, scientific competence and cosmopolitan leanings are very different things. Exposure to the vast profusion of alien culture just waiting to embrace earthling neighbors may set off many of the worst isolationist tendencies of humanity…
This uses Savage Worlds as a basis, but you could easily use your supers engine of choice (though the follow up post explains in more detail why I went with Savage Worlds).
- Use the science fiction companion to build basic alien race traits (with humans keeping the free edge as their racial advantage).
- Each race also gets a handful of power permissions from the super powers companion, and are built as supers (i.e., they don’t have to take the arcane background edge).
- Characters receive a variable number of points to purchase these powers.
All characters, even the weakest NPCs, should typically get around 10 points for buying powers, to allow certain powers to be standard for the alien race (e.g., you can always assume Kryptonians can fly a little, and are stronger and tougher than humans, but they might not all be as powerful as Supergirl). Wild Cards and other important characters should receive more, at the power band you want for your game. They’re, for whatever reason, the exemplars of their race’s powers.
In general, unless you’re using an established setting, players can essentially make superheroes as they would for any other supers game, then reverse-justify their power picks to a race of which they’re an exemplar.
- Kryptonians have the Gimmick hindrance (require regular access to sunlight from a yellow sun) and the Power Negation hindrance (Kryptonite). They gain six additional Power Points to buy super powers beyond what is standard for the campaign.
- Kryptonians are incredibly strong, and can buy Super Attribute (Strength).
- Kryptonians are incredibly hard to hurt, and can buy Toughness.
- Kryptonians have preternatural flight with no apparent means of locomotion, and can buy Flight.
- Kryptonians can fly into space and survive for short periods, so may purchase the Resistance package required to survive in space and Doesn’t Breathe (with the minor Limitation of a finite duration).
- Kryptonians can use heat vision and cold breath as expressions of Attack, Ranged.
- Kryptonians have enhanced vision and hearing, and can buy Heightened Senses.
- Martians have the Weakness (Major) hindrance (Fire) and the Racial Enemy (White Martian) racial drawback. They gain +2 ranks of Strength and +1 Toughness.
- Martians are psychic, and can buy Mind Reading and Telepathy.
- Martians are shapeshifters, and can buy Chameleon.
- Martians have preternatural flight with no apparent means of locomotion, and can buy Flight.
- Martians can alter their densities to pass through solid matter, and can buy Intangibility.
- Humans gain a bonus Edge (per the normal Savage Worlds rules).
- Humans are stubborn, and can buy Resistance (Mental). With the lack of psychics on the planet, few even realize they are so gifted. As a whole, Earth goes mostly unknown on the galactic stage because long-range psychic probes for sapience are so globally resisted.
- Humans breed faster than most other races, and form strong groups, such that many humans functionally have the Minions power. Aliens are often overwhelmed by human numbers and tendency to coordinate.
- Humans are sociable, resistant to fear, and quick to overcome hardship and shock. They can buy Super Attribute (Spirit).
- Humans tend to have an outsized share of prodigies, and can buy Super Skill (any).
Design Note: Humans needed to be designed to account for their stats being the Savage Worlds baseline, so power choices were made around things that the majority of humans could plausibly have to some extent without it being strange/noticeable.