Studying in Super-Villainy

I recently took some time to play the 2020 version of Supervillain You, which has had several newer versions, the most recent one dating to May 2023. (I discussed whether the 2023 version was an RPG or not with the designer, and I agree with him that it isn’t.) The process of playing this game, or interacting with this object, if I were pursuing a media studies degree, shook some thoughts loose about the smeariness of figuring out “what happened?” for the events of play, within the session and between sessions. It also produced a real sense of “look at Supervillain Effy! Isn’t she neat?” after looking back through everything. I’ve added a PDF that contains a transcription of what I wrote down while playing and my thoughts and reflections from shortly afterwards, which hopefully should be helpful.

Golly gee, though, I keep stumbling right into politics when it comes to role-playing! In this case, I suppose it’s more “jumped in headfirst”, though, since it opens by requesting a specifically political statement about the world. But the particulars here, well, I suppose you could get some psychotherapeutic or psychoanalytical use out of my opening statement. There’s a fascinating vulnerability even in this single-player game in sitting down and thinking through “What do I really think is wrong in the world today?”, at least for me. And this continues on through choices of powers and dots and the costs for having those superpowers. Even with nobody watching, it’s always possible to turn to the page in question and say, staring into a mirror if needed, “Say, Effy, why did you pick ‘not alive or dead’ and ‘not biologically human’ as powers and then pick the ‘exotic, overwhelming physical appetites’ option?”

At the same time, it speaks for itself. I’m hardly an expert on superhero comics, but I know a few things about the context of The Thing’s personal romantic relationships. I’ve read God-Emperor of Dune. There’s a plain and simple resonance between physical divergence from the human body and the loss or transformation of physical pleasures on a thematic level, even as I’m holding my freak flag high and waving it back and forth like I’m an extra in the background of an American war movie. That’s a very sharp reminder, to me, of how the idiosyncracies of individual people nevertheless accumulate meaning and heft from the context of making art.

At the same time, I still made that choice, and I could have made another one. The connection I saw is meaningful because I was seeing and doodling lines in my head. This is fairly easy to schematize in my head, of course, because it’s a relatively simple distinction, but it’s also directly applicable to the more complicated and open process that happened at the end of each procedural step- the text and dice provide an output from the inputs, but that output only becomes an outcome through interpreting it and contextualizing it in light of the previous events, or existing fictional content. Reincorporation, very literally.

There was also, for me, a clear retrospective or retroactive component as I went through play, which the play notes in the file discuss. As I played through each procedural stage and worked out the outcomes, I figured out things about “Supervillain Effy”/Assimilatrix that would “have been there all along”. I’m being very finicky about the language there- there were conscious decisions and there were unconscious convictions entangled together. There’s a degree to which the process of playing Supervillain You produced something subjectively like what I would call the median introduction of a supervillain in a superhero comic book (and other genres, to be honest- you see this in quite a lot of manga).

Starting out with the introduction of the raw, partially defined character, as they appear and proceed with their plan, they’re defined and fleshed out both through changes that move forward in time and with the development retroactively of more context or backstory. Rather than emerging fully formed, they come into existence unformed and take their final shape before the reader’s eyes. And here, this happens spontaneously, though probably not unintentionally- the text itself doesn’t present this directly as “this is what play is modeled after”.

One area where I had to make a design decision because the text wasn’t explicit- do powers exhaust themselves? Can they be reused between the procedures? I think my answers of “no” and “yes” are probably roughly in line with the intent, because simply piling on the dots carries very clear consequences in each stage (including the process of choosing powers). So long as you have at least twelve dots, you can always guarantee “success”, but the consequences that come from rolling under are substantial, and if you put more than twelve dots towards a procedure, well, you’re not getting exactly what you want no matter how you roll. There’s plenty of food for thought there about what “success” and “failure” mean when you move outside the realm of simple physical operations, but it also pushes me back towards the specific fictional content.

And right from the very beginning, I set down an opening statement that implied a global scope, I selected that scope of action, and in the very first procedure, matters turned science-fictional as Supervillain Effy gathered resources in a manner that caused damage on a scale greater than that of the world. I decided that she was using uninhabited alternate timelines for extraction and manufacturing purposes and they were spilling into her home timeline. She then acquired respect and in the process created superpowered opponents out of her personal, and since I had chosen that her powers acted on their own, I decided they were contagious. So it became inevitable to me, as I prepared for her impact, that she would do the very reasonable thing of spreading her invulnerable doll/puppet body and other powers to “fix the problem” neatly by making people nearly impossible to hurt or kill. This produced backlash, but not organized backlash, and on a scale one level smaller. And the name fell right out of that development.

Or to put it another way, I left mainstream comics merrily behind at the very first moment and, waving goodbye, moved through a space ⁴ outside of the limits of conventional genre expectations altogether and found something compelling in the mix. Quite worthwhile as an ephemeral artwork, in the recorded impressions of that ephemerality, and as something to chew on and contemplate.

My only regret remains not sketching Assimilatrix, but some other time, perhaps.

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One response to “Studying in Super-Villainy”

  1. There’s not much for me to offer in return for this write-up except appreciation. A lot!

    If anyone is interested, Supervillain You is one of my little creative asides which has arisen, been applied, and more or less faded away in my comics blog from the mid-2010’s and the Patreon. It was created not as a role-playing game but as a creative exercise and jump-start for working with comics artists.

    Anyone who’s followed my comics/games crossover in the years since then has spotted that all of them are deeply politically-oriented, also in tandem with a brief comics-making fling and with developing Amerika. Hooking onto a contemporary and personal crisis about policy is basically “my thing” throughout this period of play and design, and you can see similar procedures or across all these things.

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