Arc Dreams' Wild Talents Second Edition dropped last week, and it's ten times as awesome as I'd hoped it would be. This book contains what is probably the most thorough and fascinating treatise on superhero worldbuilding I've ever read.
Wild Talents is a superhero RPG based on a game called Godlike, in which superpowered humans fight in World War II. I talked extensively about the game's mechanics when the Essential Edition came out last year, so I won't rehash that, except to say that the ORE system strives to find the balance between flexibility, speed and simplicity, and largely succeeds. But the Second Edition hardcover version has a lot of extra material in it, so this is far more than just a fancier version of the Essential Edition.
There's an immense, in-depth timeline of the Godlike world, starting with the appearance of the first "Talent" (the in-game term for a person with special powers) in 1936 and extending into the 21st century. The book actually refers to this as a "condensed" timeline, which is kind of hilarious, since it's over 100 pages long and takes up about a quarter of the book. There's a lot of detail during World War II, as nations around the world recruit or develop their own superhuman armed forces. Talents profoundly influence the course of the war, working as commandos, infiltrators, propagandists or battling on the front lines. Yet the history of the Godlike world strangely mirrors our own.
Beyond World War II, the timeline covers significant events through more than 50 years of fictional history. Again, it's sort of a funhouse mirror world, enough like our own world to feel familiar, which makes the differences seem even more bizarre. And there are some major differences, most notably our encounters with alien races. These culminate in a major war that takes place in the early years of the 21st century. Known as the Fish War, it pits humanity against an alliance of aquatic aliens.
Even more impressive than this example of world-building in action, however, is the chapter that offers a framework for your own superheroic world-building. It's a heady mix of practical advice and world-building theory. A top-down procedure is recommended - decide what kind of world you want, then create a world that works that way. So instead of saying, "Ok, superpowered communists helped the USSR conquer all of Europe in the 70s, what kind of world would that lead to?", you say, "Ok, I want a dystopic world in which a few brave heroes fight against oppressive regimes and the world is in a constant state of Cold War on the verge of boiling over." Then tailor the history to fit your grand idea.
To exert a finer degree of control over your world, Wild Talents proposes four axes of design, each of which is represented by a color. This is, of course, a reference to the four-color printing technology used to print comic books. Each axis has a scale, from one to five. Red represents historical inertia, or the ability of individuals to affect the grand sweep of history. At Red 1, a single Talent can rule a nation, change the outcome of a war, or invent a technology that impacts every human. At Red 5, social and economic forces drive change, and Talents are just as caught up in the inexorable tides of time as the normal humans. Gold represents Talent inertia: do Talents change, and more importantly, does society's perception of them change? Are all Talents superheroes and supervillains?
Blue is subtitled "The Lovely and the Pointless," a reference to an Alan Moore quote. Blueness is an indicator of how bizarre and cosmic your world is. A dozen visiting alien races? Ultra-advanced technology? Deities walking the Earth and joining its superteams? That's a high-Blue world. Finally, Black represents moral clarity. A high-Black world doesn't care about the motivations of the villains (who are easy to spot), and most problems can be solved with a knock-down-drag-out superbrawl in the middle of downtown. Low-Black worlds are a bit more Watchmen-ish - you might have trouble even telling who's good and who's evil.
Wild Talents Second Edition hits all the basic notes required of a good RPG rulebook: lists of NPCs, powers, character creation info, rules customization options, and all the rest. The one thing I'd like to see is a sample adventure for a GM to run "out of the box." Aside from that nitpick, I really like this book. Not to oversell it, but I'm deeply impressed by the world-building material. Wild Talents is a great superhero RPG, to be sure, but the world-building chapters make it valuable to anyone who is a fan of comic books or enjoys creating fictional worlds, even if they don't include superpowered people in capes.
This post originally appeared on Robot Viking.