Fainting Goat Games have a new book on the way. Written by Jason Tondro, a designer with dozens of superhero RPG credits to this name, The Deluxe Super Villain Handbook contains all new super villains to terrorise your FATE players with as well as characters drawn from the archives of superhero history.
As a special favour for Superhero Week Mike Lafferty, supremo at Fainting Goat Games, made introductions and put us in touch with Jason. We were curious about the Golden Age heroes that might be making an appearance in the book. Jason kindly answered.
Can you tell us a bit about the Super Villain Handbook Fate edition? It is the same as the ICONS edition but with different stat blocks?
It is not! The Deluxe Super Villain Handbook is more than 200 pages of villains, heroes, and campaign ideas for your superhero campaign. The heart of the book is 44 super villain archetypes. While each does have a sample villain with a stat block, each archetype discussion is a lot more than that. The book traces the origins of these archetypes, and more importantly the kinds of stories they are used to tell. Icons and Fate are similar in many ways, but they are not the same game, so this book has all kinds of specific advice on using Fate to represent these archetypal characters. What kind of aspects, weaknesses, and stunts are common for each archetype, for example.
And because you can’t have an Evil Twin or a Nemesis without a heroic counterpart, there’s even a team of heroes in the book. And all these heroes and villains together make up a setting, the Youniverse, which you can use or steal from for your own game.
And finally, because our Kickstarter backers demanded it, we included several pages on running all-villain campaigns, from the Jailbreak or the Revenge Squad to the Heist or a Reverse Thunderbolts (that’s when the heroes all go undercover as villains to catch a bad guy, but then decide they kind of like it!).
Is it still relevant to go back to Golden Age characters and freshen them up for a re-release?
There’s actually a lot of reasons Golden Age characters make great material. The DSVH includes several golden age characters like the Black Terror and Stardust the Super-Wizard, and even older characters like Robur the Conqueror and Dracula, but most of the characters are brand new.
For one, many Golden Age characters—including all the ones in the Handbook—are public domain. That means you can do anything you want with them, without paying anyone a license fee. That’s empowered filmmakers, for example, to make short films with them, comic publishers to use them for new stories, and gamers to make them their own. If you like our version of Hugo Danner (a precursor to Superman created by Philip Wylie in the 1930 novel Gladiator), you can do anything you want with him! We put every character in the Deluxe Super Villain Handbook into the public domain, even the ones we invented ourselves.
Second, the Golden Age was a time of experimentation, of trial and—sometimes—error. 75 years later we can look back on these characters and, with the benefit of hindsight and a better understanding of what makes superheroes tick, do a better job. So that’s why our book has Amazing Woman, the successor to Amazing Man, and why one of our Women in Red (you get two!) is a Black American who’d rather carry a flashlight than a gun.
Finally, some of these characters, and their creators, are incredibly important to the superhero genre, to comics, and to American culture. And more people should know their names. Tarpé Mills, the creator of Ms. Fury (the first female superhero created by a woman), died forgotten, her contributions to comics now little more than a footnote. Chu Hing’s creation the Green Turtle may be the first Chinese-American superhero. Books like the DSVH give us a chance to shine a spotlight on these original creators and get them some of the attention and love they deserve.
How does the public domain work when it comes to heroes and villains? How do you even know if a superhero or super villain is in the public domain?
Research tells us what is public domain and what isn’t. Some of this work has been done for us. Project Superpowers (Dynamite) and Terra Obscura (America’s Best Comics) both used the Nedor characters for example, such as the Black Terror and the Woman in Red. So we see that as an invitation to do the same. The website Public Domain Super Heroes is a wonderful first step.
The idea behind public domain is simple: if you create something, it’s yours exclusively for as long as you live and for 75 years after that, so your family can get rich off of your creation. But after a while, that character you created no longer belongs to you or your family, it belongs to the world, to all of humanity. And that’s why, for example, anyone can write a novel about Sherlock Holmes or Dracula.
But practically speaking it hasn’t worked out that way. Disney successfully lobbied Congress to extend the deadline, the number of years it takes before something fell into the public domain, so that Mickey Mouse—whose first appearance in Steamboat Willie dates to 1928—would not be allowed to fall into the public domain.
Public domain super heroes, by and large, fall into three categories:
Characters from before 1923. Sherlock Holmes, Dracula, and Robur the Conqueror all appear or get name dropped in the DSVH because of this.
Characters from publishers that no longer exist. Stardust, Lightning Woman, Nightbird, and several other characters in the book were published by Golden Age companies that went bankrupt and aren’t around to defend their rights.
Characters whose copyright wasn’t correct. This is an interesting edge case. The best example is George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead. When this film was released, they didn’t properly claim their copyright, so the movie is in the public domain. Which meant we could reference the Ghoul Epidemic of 1968.
Interestingly, things are changing. Media companies have given up extending the limit for public domain in favor of just trademarking everything. So, as of January 1 of 2019, new books and characters are falling into the public domain automatically. Some of these stories and characters are really wonderful, and more characters will become public domain every year.
But many characters are still protected by trademark. So, for example, as of this year, Tarzan and the Golden Lion is now a novel in the public domain. You can read it for free. And you can even write a story using the character of Tarzan as he appears in that novel. But Tarzan is a trademark of the Edgar Rice Burroughs estate. Which means you can’t depict Tarzan on the cover of your book, or call it “A Tarzan Novel!”
Does Fainting Goat Games have a particular approach to designing or refreshing characters?
Jason Tondro, the author of the Handbook here. I can’t speak for Fainting Goat as a publisher, which has a very deep bookshelf of many diverse products. But for my part, my priority is:
Usability. Make a character people are actually going to use. This is why, while making hero books is fun, making villain books is better. Because players want to make their own heroes. What a GM needs is bad guys.
Say Something. Game design is art. And like any art, I’m trying to say something meaningful and worthwhile with these characters.
Cool Factor. You never know what a player will find cool. Often the thing you work the hardest on is a yawner for other players, who instead latch on to an idea you’re embarrassed by or found boring. But I have to keep swinging for the fences. I have to keep trying to make stuff as cool as I can, in the hope of making you, the reader, sit up and go holy crap that’s cool.
What mistakes do you think people make when putting together a super villain?
I think it’s easy to focus too much on a villain’s powers, instead of on their story. This is why the archetypes in the DSVH aren’t (usually) related to the character’s powers. The fact that Magneto controls magnetism isn’t actually all that important to his character. He could have many other powers. What’s important is that he’s a Supremacist (who believes mutants are superior to ordinary people) or an Ultimate Villain (the guy who fights all the X-Men by himself) or a Force of Nature (whose powers are so extreme you can’t really fight him, you can only mitigate the damage he does to innocent people) or even a Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing (Xorn!). It’s often important that he’s very powerful, but it’s not very important what form those powers take.
That’s what makes the Deluxe Super Villain Handbook different from other villain books and other archetype collections.
This interview appeared as part of Superhero Week. If you’re a FATE superheroes fan then we’d love to hear from you in the comments below why you use the system for your games. Alternatively, you can try this teleport link to discover another random superhero article.