Gerald (@Linnaeus on Twitter) put together a really good post on the differences between the different games out there that purport to deal with the spandex crowd. I quote:
In a “supers” game, the focus of the rules is on the capabilities of the superheroes. Generally, a list of powers, skills, stunts, and disadvantages define the characters. Play primarily engages the rules during fights, and generating a narrative that resembles what you’d see in a comic book is mostly the result of player buy-in and GM skill. This means that, if the GM doesn’t fight the impulse, play can devolve into a series of fights with minimal connective story tissue (one of the reasons D&D4 gets compared to supers games is this shared tendency, plus it’s focus on tactical map-based combat, which is also a common thread in supers games). You may see secondary mechanics – Mutants & Masterminds’ Hero Points and Icons’ Aspects for example – which point at the story, but they often have uses focused on fight scenes, too.
In a “comic book” RPG, the rules tend to emphasize producing fictional tropes found in the type of superhero story the game is designed to emulate. Superpowers are typically more abstracted than they are in “supers” games, although some comic book games– Truth & Justice, for instance – still include catalogues of superpowers. Fights are often a specialized form of conflict, less tactical and have mechanics that feed the results of the combat back into other, story-oriented mechanics. Despite the label I’ve given, the source material doesn’t have to be comics. Smallville is, by all accounts, a “comic book” game that based on a television series.
It’s sharp, go read the whole thing.
As I said in Lin’s comments and on Twitter: I think the delineation he’s identified here actually works very well for breaking out most RPGs into categories that are more useful — more immediately grokked by someone not familiar game design jargon — than the overused, misleading, and emotionally fraught tags of “indie” and “trad”.
Linnaeus thinks that he’d need to relable the two categories in some way to apply them to non-spandex-related games, but I think if someone understood how you’re defining things, the current names work just fine.
“Supers”: the focus is on character capabilities, lists of powers, skills, et cetera. Play mostly hits the rules during fights, and making it resemble the source material mostly falls to the creative effort of the players, not the players + system. Also? It’s easy for it to just become a series of fight scenes.
“Comics”: rules focus on producing genre-reflective fiction. Powers/skills/abilities tend to be more abstracted. The conflict system is often also a bit more abstract, and used for everything from fights to arguments to searching a computer network to whatever. Results from conflicts have both mechanical impact and story-relevant heft.
And yeah the labels are possibly misleading, but no more so than the slang-analogies casually tossed around on Buffy (and usually confusing Giles).
“So what’s Fiasco about?”
“Basically a bunch of people trying to accomplish something, and how it all goes horribly horribly wrong.”
“Sounds like Paranoia.”
“Kinda. I suppose you could come up with a paranoia-like setting that would totally work for Fiasco, but Paranoia’s more “supers”, and Fiasco’s more “comic book”, you know?”
And honestly I can’t come up with anything much more useful that doesn’t sound like “trad vs. storygame”, unless I use specific genre terms. “CSI or Bones.” “Law and Order or Castle.” Can you?
Wait: maybe I can.
Maybe this is just another way of expressing the difference between Dramatic heroics and Iconic heroics — which is something I’ve thought about in the past — a difference in play styles or expectations that’s led to some frustrations at the table.