Staged Heroism is a loving tribute to Venture Brothers. That perpetually canceled classic of television whose fans will continually beg you to watch it, while simultaneously knowing you won’t. It’s a show that defies expectation and explanation and means a lot to a lot of people. As one of those fans, it’s hard for me not to spend this review gushing about the show, instead of talking about the book. It is that sort of show. And if you haven’t seen it, stop reading it and go watch. Any random episode will be better than whatever you had planned today anyway. It’s the sort of show I’ve rewatched at least once a year since it premiered in 2004 and still find new elements to love. What I’m getting at is if this book is anything like the show, I’ll be totally unbiased, and won’t let it impact my opinion at all.
You wrap up a couple episodes? Good, then that’s all I’ll say about the source material. I backed the kickstarter, and got a physical and digital copy of the game, so I’ll be using them interchangeably while I write over the next few days. The PDF has all the hyperlinks and such you’d want from a modern RPG PDF, so don’t worry about that. It also came with a “HenchCon Program” an in-universe convention handout, and a fillable character sheet PDF.
Since I raved about the Venture Brothers earlier, you could be forgiven for assuming it’s a Venture Brothers RPG. It isn’t. This is a capes and capers, superhero RPG in the same line as Mutants and Masterminds, Masks, and Champions. It just so happens to shortcut the tone that most of my super RPGs end up with anyway. You don’t actually have to be a Venture fan to get into this, but you should be interested in a less than serious superhero game.
Staged Heroism opens, fittingly enough, with a chapter on failure. Specifically, the line “Staged Heroism is not just a game about failure—it’s a game
about dealing with failure”. A lot of games use the yes and approach or roll with its track. Where even your failures progress the story. Heck, that’s good GMing advice in general, but in a VB themed game, it’s going to be core. The stories in SH are of the billionaire son of Batman, whose father mysteriously died, so the Justice League expects him to solve the case. Only it turns out, you’ve been paying your friend to do your training for you, and your father was too busy chasing a clown to notice. Thats the sort of failure we are talking about in SH, and the stories we are going to tell. Those Crime Journals you were submitting to him weekly were nothing but a bunch of old cliff notes on the Hardy Boys you printed out. He clearly never read them. You don’t know the first thing about crime solving, but you’re here now. What are you going to do? That’s the story you’re going to tell.
Staged Heroism is relatively rules light. The core mechanic is simply 2d10+stat. If you get 6 or less, you fail, 7-12 partial fail, and 13+ success. The interesting part mechanically here, is that failure builds your failure bank. This generates points which you can spend later for rerolls, ensuring future success. In a game where you’re solving crimes without having a clue about how to do it, failure should be encouraged, and this seems like a good way to do it. To prevent people from hording it and never using it, like potions, the failure bank is capped at 5, and empties at the end of the session. Spend those points. Abilities are kept pretty basic. You get 5 points to spend on stats, and they max out at 5. There is Charm, Luck, Physicality, and Thinkery.
It wouldn’t be an RPG, especially a super’s RPG, without combat. SH has a durability derived stat, and a fast or slow turn system for this. A fast turn beats NPCs and gives less actions. A slow turn goes after them and gets more. All in all, it’s pretty quick at the table.
Player characters are divided into four classes. Hero, Secret Agent, Sidekick, and Villain. Your class gives you a couple of powers, and ability score increases, but is pretty broad on purpose. What stood out to me was the powers weren’t all combat. The hero, for example, gets a Flashback power to reveal prior events that may come in handy right now. The Secret Agent gets to Call it In, and get reinforcements to show up, potentially mid scene. Adding to class, a player character gets two qualities, which give unique powers or situational bonuses.
The latter half the book is comprised of various premade NPCs for your game, which normally irks me, but in this case seems really helpful. Having a stable of tonally correct super heroes and villains, with art is a big win for a supers game. Especially if you’re not using Marvel or DC. A big part of what makes these games great is a random Sargent Hatred reference offhand by a player, that can then be brought in as a random reoccurring NPC with more details fleshed out as it goes. Go watch Tag-Sale You’re It S1E10, and keep track of how many characters are introduced that go on to become major players in the larger series.
Is Staged Heroism the greatest RPG of all time? Probably not. Is it the best Supers RPG in a weirdly packed sub-genre (Supers RPGs) full of subpar games? Honestly, maybe. Is it the best Venture Brothers RPG? Absolutely. Will I play it multiple times? For sure. Is it in my rotation when I perpetually push superheroes on my group who insists we only play DAND? You know it.