Thursday, February 10, 2011

The Complete History and Evolution of Superhero 2044

Yesterday, I wrote about the first superhero RPG, Superhero 2044. Not too long after publishing the post, the game's designer, Donald Saxman, contacted me and provided me with a short essay in which he discusses its history and evolution. He has kindly given me permission to repost it here, since I think it will be of interest to regular readers, as well as anyone else interested in the early history of the hobby. The essay was written last year to be included in a corrected version of Superhero 2044 that Lou Zocchi was planning to sell at conventions. When I have information on how copies of this version can be obtained through other means, I'll make mention of it here.

In 1972 I was a geology major at Indiana University. Things were different then; for one thing, there were no portable phones. In fact, I was twenty years old and I wouldn't own a phone of my own for another five years. Most days I walked a stack of punch cards from the geology lab to the mainframe computer center. There was no Internet, no personal computer, or even calculators for that matter. If there was sushi or Indian food it wasn't anywhere near Bloomington, Indiana. We drank our coffee in mugs and the choices were black or with cream or with sugar. We didn't have microwave ovens, or cable TV, or VCRs or digital cameras. But we did have role playing games.

It all started back in 1972, when the Indiana University Student Union refused an application to approve a new "War Game Club." After intervention by a (very) few professors and the ROTC, a new "Conflict Simulation Club" was formed. I was one of the first members. Membership seemed to overlap with the Science Fiction Club, the Society for Creative Anachronism (SCA), and ROTC. We played Diplomacy (arguably the first popular, if simplistic, role playing game) battle simulation board games, miniatures games like Fletcher Pratt's Naval War Game and Napoleonics, several American Civil War simulations, Tractics modern armored warfare, and Chainmail.

These were all role games. We would mimic a variety of funny accents when we negotiated the conquest of Europe in Diplomacy. Some really terrible French accents were used to announce movements during miniature reenactments of the Battle of Waterloo. The SCA folks especially liked to role play during Chainmail miniatures battles. We played Tractics for money, with a monetary value for each tank, cannon, or squad. Tractics was serious business and no role playing was allowed.

Sometime early in 1974, we began to see Chainmail players using mimeographed sheets with new rules. New miniatures began to appear, and they weren't the regular painted lead figures. They were Flintstone dinosaurs and Fireball XL5 aliens and farm animals from model train layouts. Some players had sets of triceratops painted red and green and blue and even one painted silver. Some Napoleonics hedgerows had eyeballs painted on. I think I personally played this version of Chainmail twice. Players were all asked what we thought and one of the ROTC guys took notes. We didn't know it at the time, but in a small way we were playtesting Dungeon and Dragons.

One student in particular played a lot more than the rest of us. This was John M. Ford. Mike (as he was known then) would be my best friend at college, the best man at my wedding, and my first Dungeonmaster. He went on to become an award-winning science fiction author, a game designer, comic book writer, and lecturer. John was the first in our core group of Science Fiction Club, SCA, Conflict Simulations Club members to actually obtain the first three volume set of Dungeons and Dragons. I bought four sets and gave them to several of our group (including Geneva Spencer, who I would eventually marry). As I understand, roughly 1,000 copies of the game were sold in the first year followed by about 4,000 in 1975. If this is true, the IU Conflict Simulations Club must have bought ten of the first run, or one percent. What was the tipping point that made the game a success? It's sobering to imagine that a few hundred more or less buyers that year facilitated the role playing game industry as we know it today.

As I said, Mike was the Dungeonmaster and he was so good it spoiled us. For the better part of a year, we played at least once a week. Players came and went, but participants nearly always included Mike, Geneva, and me, as well as the folks who would soon help me create Superhero 44. They were John Railing, Aaron Giles, Eric Brewer, Dan Fox, Guy McLimore, and Samanda Jeude.

We'd have happily kept playing D&D -- and just D&D -- for years, or at least until we graduated or dropped out. Why didn't this happen? I blame Edgar Rice Burrough’s John Carter of Mars. We read the books, debated the unworldly environment, and dreamed of the day there would be a Barsoom movie (how were we to know this day wouldn't come until 2010, and it probably won't be done right until 2011).

So when I learned that Tactical Studies Rules, or TSR, was coming out with a "Warriors of Mars" role playing game, I beat Mike to the game/comic/toy store and got the first (and perhaps only) copy in Bloomington.TSR was notorious for trademark infringements, famously of J.R. Tolkien and also of H.P. Lovecraft, and Warriors OF Mars certainly pushed the envelope of Burrough’s estate copyrights and trademarks; sternly worded communications from the Burroughs helped end the franchise. In my personal opinion, the Burroughs lawyers were wasting their time, as there was no significant chance that Warriors of Mars would become a runaway hit like D&D. It was somewhat more of a miniatures game than a role playing game for one, partially because the authors couldn't be too specific about Barsoomian characters or themes. I used it as a basis for much more detailed house rules that combined WoM and D&D. I still have a 200 hex sheet, 5 miles per hex map of Mars around someplace. I still have the rules around someplace too, and I guess they might be worth something on eBay. What particularly annoyed me was that the publisher misspelled "Martian." Although I believe they eventually fixed this in some subsequent print runs, they spelled it "Martan," at least in the copy I possessed at the time.

As Mike and Geneva and I were sitting around complaining about that one word (and maybe about how many hit points a calot should have), I said, "I bet I could do better." Mike and Geneva agreed, and thus I started writing Superhero 44, which would later become Superhero 2044.

My first edition of the game was a black and white version with a print run of 150 copies called "Superhero 44." When Gamescience bought the rights in 1977, they added color and changed the name to the now (relatively) familiar "Superhero 2044."

The original game idea was actually very different from the final product. My first idea was to use a 1930s American Depression setting, complete with Zeppelins, Nazi supervillains, vintage aliens, and weird science. At the time I was transitioning from my "John Carter is the best" to my "Doc Savage is the best" period.

After some playtesting, I switched from the past to the future. Now the tone I was trying for was "Legion of Superheroes." In fact, in the back of my mind, I was thinking of a series of future-based role playing games, including "Ruin War 90" set in a post-nuclear war world, then "Armor 20" set thirty years later and describing a world of tank-driving heroes and villains and their demons and "Asteroid 74" set in the asteroid belt and finally "The Hundred Suns" interstellar RPG. (As a side note, "Ruinwar 90" was also purchased by Gamescience and retitled to “Nuclear Survivors.”)

It took nearly two years to design Superhero 44 and complete playtesting. Influences were most of the previously mentioned miniatures games, "En Garde" Musketeers role playing game, and of course the comic books that provided the overall setting. It was based almost entirely on DC comics (not Marvel) and pulp novels like Doc Savage, Tarzan, the Shadow, and the Skylark series. I made a conscious effort to avoid being influenced by D&D. The goal was to provide the basis for a series of miniatures battles (the handicapping scenarios) linked by role playing sequences. Unlike D&D, I wanted game time to advance in a predictable manner (perhaps even one week game time for one week real time). This would allow each campaign to advance even if an individual player was unable to participate for any given week.

Art is of critical importance to comic books and I was lucky to find several excellent artists for my project. Mike Cagle did most of the comic-style art and his creations were always superior - better than actual comic books. Vince Zahnle and Paul McCaul also contributed to both Superhero 44 and Superhero 2044. Mike Ford did a series of hilarious illustrations in what was perhaps his first professional publication. In the end, I even did some of the art (and I bet anyone can tell which illustrations are mine and which are Mike Cagel's). Electronic publishing wouldn't happen for decades, so the entire layout was typed on a real electric typewriter I borrowed from the Geology Department. The maps and diagrams were all hand created using "Press Type" patterns and lettering.

When Superhero 44 was complete, I printed 250 spiral bound copies and began to sell them at science fiction conventions, war game conventions, and even SCA meetings. I got a list of war game shops (it was a pretty short list) and sent letters asking if they'd like to buy some "wholesale." I only got stiffed once, but it was for 25 copies which was easily my largest single "sale" at the time. Eventually I sold nearly every copy and contemplated a second print run. I was also planning two more volumes: one would have much needed information on character creation, fifty detailed superhero descriptions (two of which ended up inside Superhero 2044), and fifty more short summaries, and the other would have had more information on equipment and settings, plus several "orders of battle" for face offs between heroes and villains from volume 2.

Then I got the call from Gamescience and ultimately Lou Zocchi bought all rights to the game outright. I was paid what seems like a paltry sum now, but at the time it was almost 20% of the annual salary of my first job as an analytical chemist. I regretted never getting to do the second and third volumes because they would have resolved a lot of the criticism I heard about the game. But it was for the best, as Gamescience could promote and market an improved color version and without this, it’s unlikely that the few hundred copies I produced and sold would even be remembered now. Gamescience did eventually commission additional volumes and players aids and even miniatures; the best known is a Judges Guild supplement which can still occasionally be found on eBay.

So I moved on to analytical chemistry (not geology) and then technical journalism, and then was a quality control manager for the water recycling system on the International Space Station, and then a Y2K remediation project manager and now a proposal business analyst. I kept writing games along the way, like Ruin War 90/Nuclear Survivors, and a small print run of two space-based science fiction games ("Plant Polymath" and "World War IV.") I also wrote a parody game called "Night of the Boogy man" that Steve Jackson bought and published as a serious game called "Slasher Flick" (I actually got death threats from that one). I briefly operated "The Hundred Suns" as a real time Videotex game. Oh yeah, and I've written eighty-eight non-fiction science and technology books along the way.

All of that brings us to "Strange World." In the late eighties and early nineties, personal computers become common and the "on-line" world was born. The Wide World Web wasn't created yet, and the Internet was for scientists and the military only, but there were dial-up on-line bulletin boards as well as Videotex. In 1991 I took many of the concepts from Superhero 2044 and used them in an early Videotex-based online game operated by U.S. Videotel. The game was called "Strange World" and for over a year was USV's second most popular feature (after real time sports scores). Strange World was 100% text based and not real time. Eventually USV ceased operations and both Superhero 2044 and Strange World languished.

In 2007 I took a break from writing non-fiction and started a novel based on Strange World. A year later, I had two complete novels and a good start on a third. I've been polishing and shopping them for an agent ever since, in the worst climate for new fiction writers ever. My current plan is to keep trying and eventually self-publish if necessary. I am also nearly finished with a new role playing game series based on the novels, and more information on that project can be found at "These Strange Worlds" isn't based on Superhero 2044, but it does share some thematic elements and even a few of the characters used in playtesting way back in the seventies.

So that’s the complete history and evolution of Superhero 2044.

The new and improved version from Lou will include a game errata sheet and some entirely new approaches that will provide some of what might have been in volumes 2 and 3. I hope you enjoy playing and exploring Superhero 2044 as much as I enjoyed creating it.

Donald Saxman, Houston TX October 2010


  1. This is great stuff thanks to Donald and James for writing this up.

  2. Wow, it's wonderful to learn about the history of this game. I still remember the evil Dr. Ruby!

  3. A great piece of history here. Thanks for posting.

  4. Very interesting. Thanks Donald and James!

  5. James, this is one of the most fascinating posts ever. So many nuggets of early gaming history (John Ford! Guy McLimore! Videotex!) Thank you so much to Donald for taking the time to write this up, and thanks for sharing it.

  6. Well, speaking of superheros; Supercroc Warriors the science fiction graphic novel by Craig Frank Crowley has abnormal crocodiles roaming around Bangkok wearing a burqa to stalk their next victim.
    They are fighting for animal species survival, as they use their own advanced weaponry of robotic croc droids, flying drones and explosive spear tipped mini-copters to advance their cause against human domination over animal species.
    Supercroc Warriors the book trailer video has now been released on Youtube and bit torrent sites globally, , and many others.

  7. Now I wish those volumes had been written too and that I knew where my copy was to re-read the setting.

  8. As I said in the earlier blog post, Superhero 2044 was our favorite superhero game in the 80s. Thanks for your work on it!

  9. Something he didn't mention in the interview - John M. Ford also wrote almost all the supplemental material for the FASA Star Trek RPG, and was heavily involved in the main book.
    His version of Trek canon was later largely retconned, but provides some very interesting food for thought. It's also pretty clear that a lot of it was considered while making "Enterprise". The which, incidentally, always felt more like an RPG session than a TV show to me..

  10. Wow. This is an exceptional post on the genesis of Superhero 2044 and the history of its prime creator. Thanx to James for putting this up and to Donald Saxman for composing this essay and allowing its display here!

  11. Fascinating reading.
    Thank you for posting this.

  12. Very cool - thanks for making this happen.