Monday, September 14, 2009


Does anyone have any idea about the origin of the term "superhero" in early RPGs like OD&D and RuneQuest? I suppose it's possible that it's ultimately derived from comics and then re-purposed in fantasy gaming, but I don't get the sense that that's the case, or at least I get the sense that there's more to it than that. Mind you, that's purely a gut feeling rather than anything more substantive, so I'd love to know the truth of the matter.

Anyone out there know?


  1. I can only speculate, but I do remember that the Dungeon board game had pieces named "Hero" and "Superhero." I wonder if this came from the introduction of the "Hero" piece to proto-RPGs such as Chainmail; following that it would only be natural to call a similar piece of higher value a "Superhero." (I'm sure they were aware of the comic-book use of the term, but that's clearly not what was intended.)

  2. Well a superhero is double the power of a Hero which is equivalent to the power of four men. I.e. 8th level.

  3. Without facts to support the theory, I'm in agreement with Rob. When you name your intial better-than-grunt-soldiers "heroes," there's nowhere to go other than superheroes.

  4. To reinforce Matt's theory, the Dungeon! board game is the only place I've seen that term used in a fantasy setting other than comic book heroes. But then again, I lead a sheltered life.

    I think it was marketing language term to get kids interested in playing the game.

  5. Yep…I read somewhere that originally there were only three “levels” of character…something like grunt/peon, hero, and superhero. I’d imagine that one’s more levels and level titles were created they assigned them arbitrarily (or perhaps based on their Chainmail unit strength).

    Once OD&D introduces the idea of 9th level characters building strongholds, they add a level title above superhero (“lord” as in “lord of the castle”).

    Interesting that later editions de-emphasize the lord aspect of the fighter and increase the emphasis on the superhero aspect…

  6. Several others have said similar things, but I'll chime in anyway. This does trace back to BLACKMOOR and the 1974 OD&D rulebook. In Dave's BLACKMOOR campaign you started out as a Flunky until you had done something significant, then graduated to Hero and eventually to Super Hero. When OD&D was put together they filled in levels in between, but Hero and Super Hero stayed as fixed points. Hero was 4 men and Super Hero was 8.

  7. Re D&D Fighter-8 Super Heroes being equivalent to 8 men; in Dragon Pass (White Bear/Red Moon) the Super Heroes have CV 20, making them equivalent to 5 CV 4 - 5 CV 4 Legions of regular troops. A DP Hero was CV 4, about as tough as a legion, though harder to kill.

  8. I think Rob has it right. Superhero is a bit of word play on the earlier level title of "Hero".

  9. Superhero is the 8-hit figure in Chainmail pre-D&D, right? (Away from books tonight.) I also felt it was novel there, an obvious extension on the 4-hit Hero.

  10. It's likely comic books via movies and tv. In addition to the literary sources there's a lot of tv and movie inspiration in the game. Gary confirmed he was a big fan of monster movies.

  11. I can understand calling someone twice as powerful as a hero a superhero. What I don't get is why the next step up is "lord".

    Lord is an inherited title and a profession. It's not an indicator of martial valor.

    Calling level 9 fighters Lords was the first brick in the foundation that gave us the Companion set (where everyone is level 9 or higher at a joust!) and D&D 3.5 (where you can be a 10th level Commoner).

    In our campaign, the title for a 9th level Fighter is "warlord".

    Word verificatin: Vesca - Vecna's little sister.

  12. The word originated in comics and quickly found use outside that medium. It was a part of the American vernacular well before 1974, and was originally used to describe a very powerful hero- not just the sort who wear capes and spandex.

    So, while RPGs may not have taken the word directly from comics, it still came from comics.

  13. Sort of off-topic, the term "superhero" is actually a copyright owned jointly by Marvel and DC.

    That's why the RPG's have been named "Villains & Vigilantes" and "Mutants & Masterminds."

  14. The "Shambling Mound" was inspired by Swamp Thing, which could suggest comics played a more direct inspirational role... ;)

  15. jdh417: That is incorrect. "Super Hero" is a trademark owned by Marvel and DC; "superhero" is not.

    You actually have to pick a variation on a phrase. You can't just trademark the entire language.

    At least, right now. I'm sure there are IP lobbyists bribing congressman to allow trademarking of whatever and copyrights extended into both the future AND past (for a company that plans to act early and get "squatters rights" on Shakespeare's plays) right now.

  16. Hmmm- doing a little research on this, it seems "variations on super hero" have been trademarked, which probably includes "superhero".

    Looks like you really can trademark the entire language.

    Hold on, I'm registering my trademark of "Hamlet", "MacBeth" and "Romeo and Juliet".

    Not just the names, the entire contents of the play, in several variations, so some IP thief can't just try and change a few words around.

    Expect my lawsuit on West Side Story any day now.

  17. Chainmail list Conan as an example of a Superhero. I think is was a placeholder title for heroes of fiction and legends - King Arthur, Gilgamesh, [place any Greek Hero here], and so on. A normal "Hero" could be a strong warrior, but is not as mighty as a "Superhero" - e.g., Conan in his thieving and pirating years would make him a Hero, and Conan in his Marshal and Kingship years would make him a Superhero.

    I find the notion of "Super Hero" to be co-owned and copyrighted by DC & Marvel comics to be really stupid and annoying! I'm so glad no judge was stupid enough to give Donald Trump the rights to "you're fired!".

  18. A couple of corrections.

    Swamp Thing/Man Thing were not inspirations for the Shambling Mound. Both "things" were inspired by the 1940's comic creation The Heap.

    (Note the "trunk nose" from the cover.)

    As far as Superhero Trademark, a good explanation comes here

  19. I believe Delta has it right; the Superhero is the 8-hit figure in Chainmail.

  20. Yeah, quote from Chainmail p. 30: "SUPER HEROES: Few and far between, these fellows are one-man armies! (Particularly when armed with magical weaponry.) They act as Hero-types in all cases, except they are about twice as powerful. When a Super-hero approaches
    within his charge movement of the enemy, all such units must check morale as if they had taken excess casualties."

  21. @John: That's very interesting! :)
    (although Man Thing's nose is more similar to the illustration in the MM)

    Either way there was some comics influence on early D&D.

  22. Allow me to rephrase the question: OD&D's (and Chainmail and RuneQuest's) use of the term "superhero" is unusual, given its popular meaning. Is there any precedent for using it in the fashion OD&D did? By the early 70s, the comic book-derived meaning was well established, so calling a character like Conan a "superhero" strikes me as rather peculiar.

  23. I wonder if it might be related to the publication of Marvel's "Conan" series in 1970? Perhaps some of the advertising copy referred to Conan as a superhero, which Arneson, Gygax et al might have found humorous.

    Just a thought...

  24. If you are making a figure for Chainmail that double the power of a hero what do you call it?

    Superhero is perfectly plausible in that scenario.

    Don: Hey I think a Hero is a bit on the wimpy side for somebody like Conan.

    Gary: Well what about doubling the strength and make cost this much.

    Don: Looks good what we will call it.

    Gary: A superhero?

    Don: Sure sounds good to me.

  25. I doubt it. I don't know about Arneson or the rest of the gang but Gygax never really read a lot of Marvel comics, he was familiar with DC heroes and loved EC comics in the 50's. I personally thing Super Hero was actually just an adjective unrelated to comics.

    As an aside, speaking of Superheroes, here's one good quote from Gary based on correspondence.

    ME: Thanks for the scoop on the ToEE! (Oh, and don't be hatin' comic books--Wizards and Clerics could probably take out some superheroes--don't think Spider-Man would last long against Mordenkainen or Tenser. ;) )

    EGG: Spider man is not a first-rate superhero ;-}>

  26. "Is there any precedent for using it in the fashion OD&D did?"

    I'm guessing not; it feels freshly-made in the Chainmail usage.

  27. The old Runequest board game had superhero characters in it, able to fight off entire armies pretty much by themselves. "White Bear Red Moon", or somesuch, and it was a precursor to Divine Right.

  28. Arguing against my Conan theory above is the fact that Gygax claims (in that the hero/superhero terminology was already used in the first version of Chainmail, some years before the Conan comic was published. Interestingly, in another interview ( he seems to say that the term "superhero" was used independently in both Chainmail and Dave Megary's original Dungeon! boardgame. That suggests either a) It was already in use in both the Twin Cities and Wisconsin wargaming communities, b) Arneson and Gygax adopted the use from Megary or c)both games took it from an as-yet unknown source (the Q gospel of gaming, presumably.)

  29. Having thought about it further, "epic hero" is a commonly-used phrase that feels much more setting appropriate and is the most prevalent term for the likes of Achilles, Conan, etc. So why "super hero" over "epic hero"?

  30. One thing to consider...

    Was "super" used more colloquially back then. After all, we are dealing with the late 60s/early 70s, and terms like Groovy and Mellow have been replaced with Rad and Gnarly and then Whack and Slamming and now Sick.

    Maybe Super was more used back then as a general term.

  31. Assorted searches for "superhero etymology", "superhero first attested" and the like on Google and Google Books yielded this (a compilation of Internet-researched data and my own inferences, so caveat lector): "Superhero" is supposedly first attested 1917, although I can't find the actual attestation. It seems to have been part of a gradual trend of "super" nouns such as "superstar" (1925) and "supermarket" (1933), probably kicked off by G.B. Shaw's 1903 coinage of "superman" to translate the German "ubermensch". I can't find anything on whether or not the lit-crit use of "superhero" to designate supernatural or quasi-supernatural heroes like Hercules predates familiarization of the term through comic books.

  32. Swamp Thing/Man Thing were not inspirations for the Shambling Mound. Both "things" were inspired by the 1940's comic creation The Heap.

    More than this the characters debuted almost on the same time. And the two comic writers lived on the same house!!!

    And even better Len wein, creator of the Swamp Thing wrote the second story of the man thing!!!

    here you have a good source

  33. In Runequest the term originated in the boardgame White Bear, Red Moon (which later became Dragon Pass when released by Avalon Hill). It represented a special type of personality counter (the others were generally called Heroes) of great power and with special rules pertaining to their abilities. In other words they were "Superheroes" because they were better than "Heroes".

    The fact that these characters had acquired godly levels of power (in one case by actually killing a god and wearing its skin), would have actually made them superheroes compared to the typical adventurer/player character in Runequest. At best, a player might aspire to become a Hero (although this would have to wait until 1978 when the rules for Heroquest eventually would be published*).

    [* They never were. This was supposed to be the next level of the game, where players adventured on Heroquests (possible on the Hero Plane**) to gain great powers. But it seems that Greg Stafford was never really very happy with the "mythic resonance" any of the various systems (an example of early attempts can be found in Steve Marsh's articles in The Wild Hunt).]

    [** Early Runequest made a distinction between the Hero Plane and the God Plane, so, given their abilities and histories, presumable Superheroes would have been characters that had made it to adventure on the God Plane. Needless to say, these ideas have since been "Gregged" (the term coined by Runequest fans to representing retconning performed on Glorantha by Greg Stafford. Even if something is down in official print, doesn't mean that it will stay that way...]