If superhero roleplaying has an OD&D, it is 1978's Superhero 2044. Written by Donald Saxman and published by Gamescience (yes, that Gamescience), there's no denying that Superhero 2044 is an odd game by most measures. (It's also worth noting here, before someone comes along to correct me that this RPG is actually a revision and expansion of an earlier game, Superhero '44, published the previous year) First and most obviously, Superhero 2044 is set in the future, in the middle of the 21st century on the fictitious island nation of Inguria. Thanks to the havoc wrought by the Six-Day War earlier in the century, as well as its being home to a variety of high-tech industries (including spaceflight), Inguria is the pre-eminent world power and home to a large number of superheroes.
I have to admit I find the future history of Superhero 2044 more than a little wacky, but superheroes are themselves fairly wacky, so I don't think this is necessarily a flaw in the game. Indeed, I find something rather charming about this central conceit of the game, which, to my mind at least, hearkens back to the beginnings of comics, when superheroes patrolled the streets of imaginary locales like Gotham or Metropolis. Furthermore, by placing the game in the future, it provides a better foundation on which to construct all the super-science and aliens that most supposedly "modern day" comics have in abundance and yet never seem to change the world in any noticeable fashion. Inguria and the world it inhabits, on the other hand, are changed by the presence of these things, a fact that I think makes a setting like this a good one for a roleplaying game, even if it's not what many gamers might expect.
Character creation uses a point-buy system that was unusual for its time. 140 points are used to purchase attributes (there are seven), as modified by the character's "type." Superhero 2044 presents three types of characters: uniques ("possessing powers and abilities far beyond those of mortal men" -- think Superman), toolmasters (think Iron Man), and ubermenschen (think Tarzan). Up to 50 points may be allocated toward a character's super powers and related abilities. However, there are no rules or descriptions of super powers. This was done consciously by Donald Saxman "for copyright reasons," which is bizarre from both a legal and a game design perspective. Instead, it's left to each player, in cooperation with the referee, to model a character's super powers so that they work with the game's various systems, particularly combat.
Now, I am sure that many readers will, at this point, be shaking their heads in disbelief and that's understandable. I had the same reaction when I first read Superhero 2044. And while I can't completely defend Saxman's choice as a wholly logical one, I think it needs to be taken in context. For one, as I'll explain shortly, Superhero 2044 is a very abstract game. When I compared it to OD&D, I wasn't kidding. The game is only a couple of steps removed from a mere simulation; its explicit roleplaying elements are inchoate. For another, it was commonplace in the early days to leave many aspects of a game up to individual players and referees to design for themselves. I'll grant that a superhero game that considers super powers something best left to be designed on the fly is a bit peculiar, but I don't think it's as absurd as it appears at first blush, even if it's not an approach that I myself have much interest in.
I call Superhero 2044 "abstract," because, as written anyway, it's more about simulating the daily lives of superheroes than it is about specific adventures. Characters go "on patrol," seeking out crimes to thwart and villains to defeat. The results of a patrol depend on a number of factors, most importantly the area the player chooses for his character to investigate. There are many tables that take these factors into account to generate a situation and its results. Thus, a character might come across an attempted assassination of a public figure or an act of terrorism or even shoplifting. The choices a player makes influence the dice rolls that determine the outcome of patrols. Rules are even included for solo play, so that a player can take his hero on patrol without the need of a referee. As one might expect in a system like this, combat is similarly abstract, being mostly another factor that adds to the determination of what happens while a character is on patrol.
I think it's the abstractness of Superhero 2044 that is its biggest drawback when viewed from the present day. As I said above, the game seems more like a simulation of superheroics than a roleplaying game about superheroes. There's a decidedly wargame-y quality to it all, a quality that overwhelms its innovative and clever ideas and likely goes a long way toward explaining why, despite being the first superhero RPG, was never its most popular. In fact, I'd hazard a guess that most gamers have never even heard of Superhero 2044, let alone played it. I never heard of it myself back in the day and it was only in recent years that I saw a copy. I've never had the chance to play it and, while I find many aspects of it intriguing, I can't say that I have much desire to inflict it on my gaming group. Still, it's worth remembering this game and its contributions to the early hobby. Without it, Villains & Vigilantes and Champions (both of which, I have little doubt, were influenced by Superhero 2044's design) might have been very different, as might the entire history of superhero gaming.