Originally posted to Usenet in the spring of 1990. Indented text is questions from Robert Dagnall; the answers are by Chris Bertani.
I am currently forming a superhero campaign (Champions will be the system used) and I would greatly value any advice about some of the following pressing issues which I am attempting to address in the universe:
1. What groundwork needs to be laid to set up a superheroic campaign set in the present day? What needs to be considered?
Major Decisions; How long have paranormals existed - have they appeared suddenly, in the last few years (or even months?) This is the easiest to start with, but several major issues will have to be addressed - such as the legality of ego powers, how do you hold teleporters, etc. Or are you going to use a past filled with Gods, faerie, jinn, WWII paranormals, etc? This is trickier, since you have to work out what effect they have had on the world, and the further back you start changing things, the less familiar the world becomes, and the more you have to explain to your players, etc. Or you can simply assume that paranormals were an extremely well-kept secret until now, though that is straining belieavability a bit far.
Another decision; how common are paranormals? 1 in a million? Then there are about 5000 in the world, about 30 in California (half of them in the greater LA area) and your heroes will have to travel to find new villains to beat up :-) Or as many as 1 in 10,000? This means 400 in LA proper. 1.3 in the LAPD (although they'd probably recruit more) If you chose a number this high, be prepared to have lots of NPCs, and the effect of paranormals on the world will be correspondingly greater.
2. Advanced technology is a fixture of many comics, and I happen to enjoy such things myself; I wish to include elements of ultra-tech in my campaign. However, I don't think just anybody should have access to it. What are some explanations for limited distribution of such useful gadgets as blasters, powered armor, nifty aircraft that defy principles of aeronautics, costumes that don't tear, etc.? Why would individuals have access to goodies which the government, villain groups, and other sneaky people could use but do not have?
I can think of four different types of tech; No tech, supertech, placebo-tech, and black-box-tech. No tech is just that. Nothing that doesn't exist today - if you try this be careful of heroes or villains with things like transmutation powers.
Supertech is what you see in comics, and depending on costs, will spread into the whole population as fast as it can, unless you run a very realistic universe.
Placebo-tech involves gadgets that only work for one person, and it they are really foci for that person's powers. Buttons on the outside do things when Gadgetman pushes them, but if you open up the weapon, the buttons are not connected to anything! This prevents anyone else from using the gadgets, or perhaps from using them without Gadgetman's knowledge and permission.
Black-box-tech simply defies current science - anyone trying to analyze or reverse-engineer the gadget will end up frustrated and tearing their hair, because the gadget is simply beyond the understanding of whoever made it. Suspension of disbelief in this case falls off the more gadgeteers there are in the world. It works if there are only a few, though.
3. Does anybody have an explanation for costumes? They are another convention of the genre which I enjoy, yet damned if most of the ones in comics today are functional. Would you go to a free-for-all dressed in a bikini?
Re: bikini - if the person in question's skin is tough enough to bounce bullets, wearing a lot of clothes will only result in damage to those clothes. Bright, distinctive costumes also aid in recognition, the same way heraldry used to work for knights dressed in very similar suits of armour. Superhero combats, esp. Champions, go by very fast, and rapid identification speeds up reaction time. :-)
4. Are secret identities realistic? If not, how could they be made so?
A villain's secret ID goes away if he is ever captured. A hero with a secret ID will probably not be allowed to testify in court. It is very difficult to disguise your identity for long from people who are trying hard to discover it, unless you have powers like shapeshift, or wear armour. Also, if you get beat up while playing hero on the weekends, it is difficult to explain away coming in to the office every Monday morning looking like you got run over by a truck...
On the other hand, secret IDs are useful if you want to be a hero in the news but still retain some private life.
You may notice the emphasis that I place on words such as "reasonable," "realistic," and the like. I am looking for answers for these (and other queries, to be posted as they occur to me) which treat admittedly unrealistic characters and situations in a realistic way. That's my only caveat.
I think the more "realistic" the universe, the more believable it becomes, the more the players can relate to it, and the more the characters will grow and become more real.