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Being Superhuman

When building a superhero campaign setting for a roleplaying game, the most important question for the GM to answer is "Just what does 'superhuman' mean, anyhow?"  The line at which "normal" ends and "superhuman" begins has significant ramifications for a game world and the campaigns set within it.

The Butlerverse aims for the middle position between cinematic adventure and bald realism.  Dynamic heroes perform fantastic feats of daring do on a daily basis, influencing and even changing the course of history, and yet the common, ordinary man also has the power to change events for good or ill.  The vast majority of people on Planet Earth are not superhuman, though with dedication and effort, training and technology, they can come close to being so.

Character Building:  In most of the campaigns set in the Butlerverse, the Player Characters have been built as "Standard Superheroic Characters" for whatever rules system was in use at the time.  For the early campaigns (such as the Sentinels Campaign, which ran from 1983 to 1985), this meant a base of 100 Character Points and an additional 150 Disadvantage Points.  When Champions Fourth Edition (the "Big Blue Book" with a cover by comic book artist George Perez) came out, the Team America campaign (which ran from 1988 to 1992) used the same numbers.  Later, for the Sunshine Warriors campaign (running from 1993 to 1996) this was increased to a base of 125 Character Points and 150 points of Disadvantages for the Sunshine Warriors.

The Hero System 5th Edition (the "Green Man Book", sometimes called "FrED" after the revised edition was released) bumped up the points totals for a "Standard Superheroic Character" to a base of 200 Character Points and 150 Points of Disadvantages.  When the Butlerverse was opened up as a shared world campaign setting during the days of the Global Guardians PBEM Campaigns (which ran from 1999 to 2006), most of the various campaigns used these numbers.  The team members of the Global Guardians campaigns, however, were "High Powered Heroes" built on a base of 350 points, with 150 points of Disadvantages.

The Hyperion Academy campaign is the first campaign set after the release of Hero System 6th Edition, using the new guidelines for characters (325 base points plus 75 points of Complications).

Super-Powers and Characteristics:  The Characteristic scores of a character are a good indicator of whether or not he or she is superhuman.  Average people generally have Characteristic scores hovering around 10.  Talented characters will have characteristics ranging from 11 to 15.  Highly competent people will range from 15 to 20.  Only the most capable will have Characteristics between 20 and 25, and only the true superhuman will have Characteristics that rise above 25.

It should be noted that in the Butlerverse, a character's super-powers are generally tightly defined, and their effects on Characteristic scores has to be justified.  What this means is the maximum primary characteristic score for any normal human being is 25.  If a character has no concept-driven reason to exceed the normal limits of human ability, those limits should not be exceeded.  For example, if Hero Man is superhumanly strong and invulnerable, but has no reason to be superhumanly smart, his Intelligence score should not be higher than 25, even if his Strength score is somewhere in the sixties.

It is not required, however, that a character possess superhuman-range Characteristics in order to be considered a superhuman.  The primary marker is the possession of some superhuman ability.  A character can still fly and shoot lightning from his fingertips without having a single Characteristic score above 10.

The Source of Super-Powers:  The Butlerverse is an Unlimited Source Champions campaign setting, which means that all the usual was of getting superhuman powers -- being a part of an alien species whose natural abilities mimic super-powers, getting bitten by a radioactive weasel, building a suit of weapon-encrusted powered armor, being a mythological god, and so on -- exist and can be used as justifications for a character's superpowers.

  • Alien Species:   Characters of this type are from another planet (or perhaps even another dimension) where the dominant species is inherently superhuman when compared to common humanity.  Several alien species have contacted Earth over the last century and a half, each of whom have base abilities human beings don't (or else have the capacity, like humanity, to acquire super-powers in other ways).  Examples from the Butlerverse include the Tautiq mentalist Oracle.

  • Alien Technology:  In addition to contact with alien species, evidence has been discovered that points to Earth having been visited by aliens in the past.  These species either came and left before recorded history, or else made no formal contact with humanity.  Such creatures have left behind structures and technology (sometimes damaged) that provide a means for a person to gain superhuman abilities.  Canadian hero Rainbow Knight gained his "powered armor" in an encounter with a crashed alien probe that had been buried for centuries.

  • Empowered Family:  A character of this type belongs to a family group that has a long history of arcane or psionic power.  This could be the result of some ancient pact with the gods, complex rituals performed by an ancestor, or perhaps even a mutation that has been handed down from parent to child for generations.  Every member of the family in question will have some level of power, though generally a player character that is intended to be a superhero will have more of it.  In the Butlerverse, the crime-fighting Neuman family (all of whom are superhumanly strong and resistant to damage to some degree) and the Scions (a villain team composed of telepathic siblings) are both examples of an Empowered Family.

  • Gestalt Manifestation: Gestalt manifestations are the physical embodiments of common ideals, opinions, and viewpoints such as Justice, Loyalty, or Strength (though they could also be the embodiment of lesser common concepts, such as Guns, Rock-and-Roll, or Video Games), or are the incarnations of legendary historical, mythical, and fictional figures (or at least what the public perception of such people are like).  The King, a member of the High Rollers hero team in Las Vegas, is the Gestalt Manifestation of Elvis Presley, while Uncle Sam is the living embodiment of the Spirit of America.

  • Godly Origin, Ancestry or Bestowal:  Characters of this type are either mythological gods themselves, are a descendant of a mythological god, or have somehow been gifted with power from a mythological god.  In the Butlerverse, the Russian hero Byelebog and the Indian hero Ganesha (both members of their respective nations' official hero teams) are actual gods from mythology.  Mexican hero Macahuitl is the son of Quetzalcoatl.  The evil sorcerer Dagon is the product of the fusing of a primordial deity and a human being, while the Global Guardian known as Arachne gained her powers from the goddess Athena.

  • High Technology:  Not possessing super-powers of their own, characters in this type use gadgets and devices to compete in the superhuman world.  The character himself might be a highly capable scientist and engineer who designs their own gear, or perhaps the character is using equipment designed and built by someone else (perhaps the character was hired as a "lab rat" to test the gear in the field as a superhero).  The character may have one specific powerful device, or might be able to create new technology as needed on the fly, or might be the pilot of a suit of powered armor.  The Lasher is a good example of a villain who wields a single powerful weapon, while the Evil Mastermind (self-proclaimed "Warlord of New York City", though no one takes this claim seriously) is a good example of a technology oriented villain who can create technology on the fly.  Gunmetal of the Global Guardians and Doctor Tomorrowland, leader of Disney's own hero team Imagination are both good examples of powered armor wearers.

  • Mutation: Mutants are a staple of comic book worlds, and the Butlerverse is no different.  Specifically, in the Butlerverse, all mutants are born with the metagene (which is actually a sequence of genes, rather than just one) that allows them later to generate superpowers.  The anti-mutant angst present in Marvel Comics is not present in the Butlerverse (though a general anti-superhuman angst is present).  Such mutations tend to become inheritably traits if the mutant has children (meaning that the mutant's children will tend to inherit his parent's powers; interestingly, the children of mutants do not "detect" as mutants and are not generally thought of as such).  Bungie and Los Hermanos of the Global Guardians are both mutants, as are the criminal masterminds Lord Doom and Doctor Simian.

  • Mystic Artifact:  Like the wielder of high technology, a character whose powers come from a mystic artifact generally began as a normal human being.  The character's acquisition and use of an item of magical power has put them on the same power level as the children of gods and mutants, allowing them to become superheroes.  While it is possible that the character created the object themselves, its much more likely that they discovered the item somewhere.  In the Butlerverse, the Magician of TAROT's Major Arcana has little actual mystic power himself, but is a skilled enough wielder of multiple mystic artifacts to have held his own within that organization for almost twenty years.  British hero Galahad gains his powers from the enchanted suit of knightly armor he wears, while famous "mystic detective" Pamela Odd gains her abilities from an enchanted fedora.

  • Mystic Race:  Beings of this type have stepped right out of fairy tales and myths.  The abilities they possess are traditional for creatures of their sort.  This can sometimes be a weakness if the type of creature (and thus it's weaknesses) are well known.  The Black Rose, a member of the lethal villain group All Hallow's Eve, is one of the Svartalfar, or Norse black elves, while the child-snatching villain Black Annis is one of the Fae.

  • Mystic Training:  Through long, hard study and meditation, these characters have learned to harness the power of magic for their own ends.  Most learn to cast arcane spells that allow them to accomplish remarkable things.  Others learn to channel their mystic power into specific areas.  The Warlock, mystic defender of the Earth and generally considered the most powerful wizard on the planet, is said to have studied magic for two centuries before ascending to his position.  On the other hand, the Native American hero Brightfeather (member of the High Rollers alongside the already-mentioned King) channels his mystic energy into making him stronger and faster than normal.

  • Physical and Mental Training:  This category includes almost every martial arts- and athletics-related characters in the Butlerverse.  Such characters have practices their crafts and honed their bodies until they are at the peak of human capability.  Usually, their "powers" are such that anyone with enough drive and determination could acquire them through hard work and effort.  Laughing Dragon of San Francisco and the Quarterback of New York are both examples of superheroes who have trained their bodies to their peak performances.

  • Radiation Accident:  The "radiation accident" is the most common origin for super-powers in comic books.  Characters who gain their powers this way have had some sort of mishap that has exposed them to some form of energy (most commonly some unusual form of radiation) or a strange chemical, and rather than dying horribly (as would happen in the real world), the character gains powers and abilities far beyond those of mortal men.  Perhaps the character was bitten by a radioactive racoon, or was hit in the head by a glowing meteor fragment, was busily experimenting with a strange isotope when something went drastically wrong, caught a strange and exotic disease while exploring the jungle, accidentally drank toxic waste, or even was hit by lightning.  Nordkapp Man of the Global Guardians and Assault, leader of the villain group Anarchy, are both good examples of this type of character.

  • Scientific Experimentation:  Characters of this type gained their powers intentionally due to some scientific process.  Their powers might not have been exactly what were predicted, but the fact that they gained powers was expected.  In most cases, the character volunteered for the process, but its just as likely that the character was an unwilling guinea pig captured by an evil scientist and used as a test animal in some dastardly experiment.  Whatever the reason for the experiment, the results of it was a superhuman individual.  Ultra-Man of the Global Guardians and Halftrack of the Fatal Four are both the results of experimentation.

In many cases, a specific character will gain their powers from a combination of sources.  For example, a typical "super-archer" often combines Physical Training and High Technology.  They train their bodies to peak perfectioin and practice archery until they can pass an arrow through spaces a half-inch wide, and are armed with trick arrows that make use of the latest in miniaturization and weapons technology.

Superhuman Demographics:  Scholars in the Butlerverse believe the Age of the Superman (as the present period is called) began in 1929 with the appearance of The Cobra, a masked "Man of Mystery" who fought to bring down Al Capone alongside Elliot Ness and the Untouchables.  The truth, of course, is something very different.  While isolated individuals with strange powers and abilities have always existed on Earth, they were always isolated, had short-lived careers, and didn't have the influence later superhumans would have.

In 1908, something exploded in the sky above the Tunguska River in Siberia.  The resultant wave of radiation (undetectable by the technology of the time) bathed the earth and seeped into the very being of everything living on Earth.  It was as if a floodgate had opened up.  Because of this explosion, accidents that normally would have killed or maimed people gave them powers instead.  So-called "mystics" who had previously struggled even to make accurate predictions with a Tarot deck were suddenly finding themselves of casting true spells, and so on.  At first, the numbers of super-powered individuals was low, and the powers they had were unimpressive when compared to the abilities of modern heroes.  But as time passed, more and more superhumans appeared, and their abilities gained strength as well.  As of 2009, there is roughly one person who can be considered truly "superhuman" per million people who aren't -- or roughly 7000 superhumans worldwide, give or take a few hundred.

Note that this figure does not include individuals who gain their "super-powers" from technology or physical training; nor does it include aliens and other inherently "super-powered" non-humans.  Current estimates number such beings at around 900, bringing the total number of superhumans to 7900, give or take.

Distribution of Superhumans Worldwide:  It should be noted that the "one in a million" ratio is not exact and should not be applied to every region of the globe country.  Superhumans are not spread evenly about the globe according to the population of the area they are in.  In other words, predicting how many superhumans come from a certain region or country, based simply on the applicable population figures, is impossible.  For example, the Republic of Ireland, with a population of 4.2 million people, would be expected to only have "produced" four superhumans (both heroes and villains) and Khazakstan, on the other hand, with a population of 15.3 million people, would be expected to have produced fifteen superhumans.  In reality, there are at least a dozen known Irish superhumans active in the Butlerverse, while as of 2009, Khazakstani has yet to produce any superhumans at all.

The simple fact is that more superhumans have appeared in the United States, England, France, Germany, Japan, India, and China than the rest of the world combined (this is even true of mystically powered superhumans, despite the fact that mysticism is more prevalent in Third World nations than in the listed countries).  No one knows why this is, though several people have tried to promote various theories.  None have reached widespread acceptance, much less consensus.

Complicating the issue is the fact that in many cases, the area in which a superhuman is active is not the area in which they originated.  A certain percentage of the superhumans active in the United States, England, and Germany, for example, were actually born in the Third World but used their powers to emigrate to "where the action was".  Some estimates rank this percentage as high as 25%.

Superhuman Power Levels:  Of the estimated 7000 truly super-powered people world-wide (not including the super-athletes and aliens), it is believed that only 40% (or 2800 individuals, give or take a few) possess the power and the drive to become a superhero or villain.  The other 5250 superhumans either don't even consider themselves superhuman at all (because their "superpowers" include such mundane talents as never getting sick, or having slightly quicker-than-normal resources, or having a perfect memory), consider themselves to be superhuman, but know that their abilities are woefully inadequate to act as a superhero (such as David "Mister Rainbow" Dunkirk, who was a fixture on the Tonight Show during the 1970s; he could turn his skin the seven colors of the spectrum, but that was all).

Lastly, it should be noted that just because a person has the power to become a superhero does not guarantee they will be.  Some simply lack the interest or the drive.  For example, popular televangelist Sister Ruth Greene admitted in an interview with People magazine that she has certain powers other than her healing touch that might make her an effective superhero, but feels her work saving souls is more important than fighting crime.  Likewise, California vintner Charles Dubray is superhumanly strong and nearly invulnerable... two powers which are useless in his work as a wine producer.

Heroes and Villains:  Scholars who study such phenomena have determined that there is a rough 1:3 ratio between the numbers of heroes and villains in the world (where "hero" is defined as a superhuman who for the most part uses his powers and abilities for the public good, and "villain" is defined as a superhuman who for the most part uses their powers and abilities for selfish reasons).